After Eshrat Khanum left our house for good, my auntie, always well-informed about the gossip and the past history of everyone in our lane, told me all about this woman’s life.
One summer’s day, as we sat in the shade of the kharposhteh in downtown Tehran, she began to tell me the story of Eshrat Khanum’s life before she appeared in our lives.
“Did you know that Eshrat Khanum, when young, worked as a cleaner in a small, rural, health service clinic?”
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
“When, one day, the idle son of the bankrupt feudal lord visited the clinic, he was struck by the beauty of the young Eshrat Khanum. From that day on he used dodgy excuses to visit the clinic in order to flirt with her. He soon began to make advances, using flattering words, saying how beautiful she was. Being of marriageable age, lonely, and not happy about the way her parents bullied her, it didn’t take her long to fall into the web the young deceiver had woven for her. After promising her that he would marry her and bring here in Tehran for a glittering life, he took full advantage of her. Every Friday, on the pretext of going to see her friends in the neighbouring hamlet, she would meet him in the meadows outside the village. He would spread a rug under a tree away from the prying eyes of the peasants in the fields, put an old cassette on a tape-recorder, drink arrack, and make love to her, whispering sweet nothings in her ear, full of promises of marriage.”
“I suppose she was easily taken in by those empty promises,” I said, gazing at the shimmering rooftops.
“Sure she was,” said my auntie. “I nearly did the same when I lived in our village. When you’re young, bored, bossed around by your parents, and in need of a man, you’ll do anything to spice up your life a bit.”
“So, what happened then?” I asked, surprised that my auntie, who was a practicing Muslim, could think of men in that way.
“Well, after a few weeks, our Eshrat Khanum was in for a big surprise,” she continued. “One fine morning, the prince charming tells Eshrat Khanum that he is off to Tehran to sort out a few business affairs and will be back in a few days. That was the last time she saw her alleged future husband.”
“I bet she was devastated,” I said.
“What do you expect?”
“What did she do after this?”
“Her troubles had just begun.”
“To add insult to injury, she soon found out that a baby was sprouting in her belly.”
“That’s right,” said my auntie. “That is very bad news for a young woman in a remote village whose family are fanatical Muslims. She lived in mortal fear for her life in case her parents found out.
“Thinking that he could perhaps get rid of the baby before it was too late, Eshrat Khanum confided in the only doctor, who was doing his two-year military service there in the clinic.”
“Did he help her?”
“Yes, he did. Otherwise the villagers, pious Muslims, if they found out about the born-out-of-wedlock baby, would have killed the poor girl by clubbing and stoning her to death for dishonouring their community.”
“And then what happened?”
“The doctor, who had become fond of her for some time, found the whole affair a godsend. He chivalrously stepped in and asked her parents’ permission to marry her.”
“I bet they agreed quickly.”
“Agreed!” said my auntie, laughing. “They must’ve been over the moon to have a doctor as a son-in-law.”
“So she had a lucky escape …”
“And a happy life for two years in the village with her doctor husband.” My auntie sighed.
“How about the baby?”
“As happened to many women in the village,” said my auntie, “she had a miscarriage.”
“That must’ve been good news for the doctor. No one really wants to have the bastard child of a sonofabitch womanizer.”
“I suppose you have a point,” said my auntie. “Anyway, the young village women, always on the lookout for a good catch, were jealous of her, cursing her for having found such a nice young doctor husband who would take her to the capital and give her a good life.”
“I expect she had a happy life in Tehran, being the wife of a doctor.”
“She had the best years of her life living here in the city,” said my auntie, “until this cursed Revolution changed everything.”
“Hmm, the Revolution!” said I. “It changed everybody’s life.
“Yes, Eshrat Khanum was one of the unlucky ones.” My auntie gazed at the smoggy horizon. “The doctor, who was a staunch royalist, like thousands of other professionals, made up his mind to escape before they could arrest and execute him, as they had executed some of his close friends.”
“I suppose, like many others, he fled with Eshrat Khanum to America.”
“Only after staying a while in Germany, where he had done his medical studies.”
“So, how did Eshrat Khanum end up back here in Tehran?”
“Once they settled down in America, the still-young doctor could not resist the gorgeous doctors and nurses who worked in the same hospital as him. Like so many Iranian men, he soon started to have liaisons with those American beauties. Eshrat Khanum, being still quite illiterate and struggling to cope with the demands of everyday life, but soon became suspicious of her husband’s late-night shifts. It didn’t take her long before she found out about his affairs, while he soon realised he could no longer live with this woman who had remained a country bumpkin. Being entangled with an American woman who satisfied all his carnal needs, he decided to divorce Eshrat Khanum. Having no children and friends, she had no choice but to return to Iran, which was not a right place for a lone woman to live in just after the Revolution.”
“I clearly remember those days,” I said. “They were not at all good for women. Do you remember how they were forced to wear the Islamic hijab, and if they refused they were attacked, beaten up, spat on, and carried off like animals to the Monkaraat Unit to be further insulted?”
“That’s right,” said my auntie. “Poor Eshrat Khanum found herself smack in the middle of that bedlam. Once her measly funds from her divorce settlement ran out, she had to find a decent job to support herself.”
“Did she ever think of going back to her native village?” I asked
“That was out of the question.”
“Primo, her parents thought she was living a happy life in America. Secondo, being a childless and divorced woman, the villagers would treat her as a whore.”
“What did she do then?”
“All she could do was to go back to her old job – cleaning in offices, hospitals, and schools.”
“Did she marry at all?”
That surprised me. “What do you mean, ‘several times’?”
“She became siegheh to many men so that she could have a roof over her head and some protection, even if for a short time.”
“And none of those men became her permanent husband?”
“Why should they commit themselves to one woman for life in the new siegheh market?
Legitimised, Islamic prostitution soon replaced Shahr-e No. With the old brothel bulldozed, throngs of desperate men roamed the streets and the holy shrines to find lonely and helpless women, most of them the widows of soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war, to make them their siegheh.
“As always happens to professional siegheh workers, once they begin to lose their fresh looks, their hitherto devoted clients abandon them, going after the fresh blood that is brought daily into the market. Eshrat Khanum, who was by then getting on in years, realised that men were no longer interested in her. Every Friday she prepared her bundle of bread and cheese, put on her black chador, and took the bus to the shrine of Shah Abdolazim, where she loitered hopelessly around the holy shrine to see if a fledgling mollah or some other man would ask her to become his siegheh, even if on a short-term contract. But she found herself no match for younger, more attractive women who had become very crafty in enticing the men.”
“She must have become very dispirited,” I said.
“She’d certainly had enough,” my auntie agreed. “After many years of serving all types of filthy whoremongers only after quick pleasure, she became, at long last, so sick and tired of men that she made up her mind to work as a live-in domestic in a house somewhere in this city so that she could take a rest from those sexual predators.”
“That was when she became our servant.”
“That’s right. After your mother passed away, all of you needed someone to look after you as your father was unwilling to have another wife. A friend of his, who worked in the Bazaar, recommended Eshrat Khanum to him.”
Our house was located in a traditional district near the Bazaar. When our father told us that we were going to have a maidservant who was going to live in the basement room and do all the jobs that our mother did, we did not know what to make of it. Having a live-in servant was something of a novelty for us as no one in our district ever had a servant. The women in our lane not only did their own chores, but also helped the other neighbours out in times of need. Our mother single-handedly did all the cleaning, washing and cooking in the house. Sometimes we ran errands such as buying bread from the baker’s or fruit and vegetables.
After the death of our mother our lives had become chaotic, none of us following any rules. As soon as our father left home for his work in the Bazaar each morning, we would each wake up at a different time of the day. We would have our breakfast, lunch and supper whenever we liked. Every day we would leave home and return at different hours, depending on our age and interests. If there was a day job for me somewhere I would do it, otherwise I would spend hours in the teahouse round the corner, chatting to my mates. My middle brother Ja`far, who was seventeen, would roam the streets, selling dodgy second-hand goods whenever he managed to get hold of some, and my youngest brother would join his playmates in the lane, kicking a ball around till it was dark.
At the start, Eshrat Khanum appeared docile and a gentle woman. She dutifully washed, cleaned, ironed, cooked, and even did most of the errands. But as the time wore on our chaotic way of life started to get on her nerves. She found it impossible to prepare and cook for four different people at four different times and we gradually noticed a change in her behaviour. She prepared the breakfast at eight in the morning and left the house to do some shopping. She then put the lunch on the sofreh and disappeared into the courtyard, doing either the washing in the hauz or hanging it on the lines. If we did not wake up at the right time, or sit down at the right hour to have our lunch or supper, she would take the food to the kitchen and shove it back in the pots. When we were late, demanding our meals, she would mutter a few curses, shrug her shoulders, and tell us she had a pile of household tasks to do and couldn’t be waiting on us like a maidservant in a frigging palace.
“I don’t get this, Ja’far,” I said to my middle brother, “Eshrat Khanum is a servant, isn’t she?”
“She sure is.” Ja`far nodded.
“And she’s supposed to do as she’s told?
“As far as I know, that’s what servants do.”
“But she’s not doing that.”
“No, she isn’t,” Ja`far agreed.
“She doesn’t even give a damn about our father’s simple needs.”
“And she’s becoming more and more disrespectful to him.”
“Truth be told,” said I, “I think she’s weird.”
“You’re right,” said Ja`far. “She’s definitely sort of creepy.”
“I don’t like the way things are going,” I said.
“Me, too,” said Ja`far, looking over his shoulder to make sure she was not lurking around.
As there was no woman in the house to stand up for us boys, as women did for their men in our lane, Eshrat Khanum began, by and by, to stamp her mark on the house and rule the roost. Every morning she would storm into our room where we slept, wake us up by shrieking that if we did not get up, there would be no breakfast. At first, we did not take her seriously and slept on. After a few weeks of drinking cold tea and eating stale bread for breakfast, we capitulated. The same thing happened with lunch and supper. If we came home late, there would be no hot meal and we had to content ourselves with cold food or mere bread and cheese. As time wore on, she overstepped the mark and trampled upon our freedoms. Finally, she turned into a domestic tyrant.
“We have no say in anything now,” Ja`far said one summer afternoon when we were all sitting in the doorway of the house.
“We can’t even have our favourite food whenever we want,” I said.
“She just cooks whatever she fancies,” Ja`far muttered.
“And I can’t stay out late in the lane to play games with my mates as I used to do,” my younger brother, Gholaam, said grumpily.
“I still couldn’t believe my eyes when she chucked babaa’s tea saucer out of the window the other day, screeching at him to use the ashtray instead,” I said.
“All that frightful outburst just because he flicked his cigarette ashes in the saucer,” Ja`far agreed.
“That scared the hell out of me,” Gholaam said.
“I still remember your face. You turned as pale as a corpse!” I told him.
“I thought you’d pissed in your pants the way you sat so stiff,” Ja`far said, slapping the back of Gholaam’s head.
“I nearly did,” Gholaam muttered.
“Why did our father just sit there and do nothing about it?” Ja`far asked.
“What could he do?” said I. “Beat her up?”
“No,” said Gholaam. “Get rid of her and find another servant.”
“You see, Gholaam,” I said gently, “our babaa is not that kind of man. He’s too kind and patient with women.”
“With a woman like that, he shouldn’t be,” said Gholaam, evidently not yet familiar with the way of the world.
Slowly but surely, Eshrat Khanum turned into an ill-tempered woman, just like one of those madaams in the old Shahr-e No, with whom no one would dare argue. With her chador wrapped around her body and tied in a large knot at her back and with, most of the time, a cauldron or a kitchen knife in her hand, none of us would dare to reason with her for fear of being thumped on the head or even stabbed. Our house soon became something like a military barrack. Every morning, early, we jumped out of our beds, hastily splashed some cold water on our faces, ate our breakfast before eight o’clock in absolute silence and left the house, to return home at fixed times, slipping through the doors as silently as mice. We ate our lunch and supper like mutes and, after watching a bit of telly, retired to our bedroom.
Whenever we complained to our father about this state of affairs, he only nodded his head, muttering, “Man is his worst enemy.” Early in the morning, he would have his breakfast like a polite little boy, leave the house quietly, and return late afternoon.
One day around dusk, as my father and I were squatting beside the hauz chatting, I, after casting glances around to make sure that Eshrat Khanum was not hanging around anywhere close to us, I foolishly started to talk about her.
“We cannot go on like this, babaa,” I said.
“Like what, babaa jaan?” my father asked.
“I mean Eshrat Khanum treating us the same way a commissioned officer bullies a bunch of soldiers under his command.”
My father suddenly fell silent, looking over my head as if he had seen a jinni. I heard the thumping of heavy steps accompanied by a loud growling behind me. A dreadful shriek made me freeze like a chick that sees the shadow of a hawk flying over its head. I knew instinctively that Eshrat Khanum was close behind me. How did she appear like that from nowhere?
“You must be ashamed of yourself, talking about me like that,” she screeched. “I work like a donkey in this cursed house from dawn to dusk, and this is what I get.”
Dumbstruck, my father sat there, gazing at the surface of the water in the hauz. Ignoring her, I stood up and went to my room. Eshrat Khanum, however, carried on doing her chores as usual, grumbling all the time and muttering to herself about the ungratefulness of men.
As time passed, I felt sorrier than ever for my father, who was reduced to a timid man.
One late afternoon, after returning home, he appeared unusually cheerful. He said a kind word to each one of us. We looked at one another, not knowing the reason. When we went to our room that evening, we heard someone crying loudly in the sitting room.
“Do you hear that, Ja`far?” I whispered. “I think that’s a woman who is crying.”
“A woman?” Ja`far said. “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” said I. “A man doesn’t cry like that.”
“Do you think our babaa has brought a woman to the house?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “He’s not that sort of man who would find a siegheh somewhere and bring her here where his sons are living.”
We sat on our bed and listened. The weeping became louder, drowning out the consoling voice of my father. Fortunately, Gholaam had zonked out, mumbling some vague words about kicking a ball or something. If he was awake he would ask too many awkward questions. Some time passed. I heard the door of the sitting room open and shut with a bang. Someone walked out onto the terrace.
We stood up and walked to the window. I pulled the curtain a little aside, and peered into the half-dark courtyard, where I saw the silhouette of Eshrat Khanum standing near the hauz. She was wiping her tears with the corner of her chador.
The following morning she had become, as if by some miracle, the kind woman she used to be. She carried on with her chores as usual, quietly and dutifully, without shrieking or bossing us around.
“What do you think has happened to Eshrat Khanum, Borzoo?” Ja`far asked me that evening.
“Not a clue.”
Over supper, our father looked thoughtful, nibbling at his bread. We ate in silence, casting furtive glances at each other and waiting for him to say something.
“Eshrat Khanum was very kind to me today, babaa.” Gholaam spoke first.
“She’s a good woman at heart, babaa jaan,” my father said.
“She was good to us, too.” Ja`far added, looking at me. “Wasn’t she, Borzoo?”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “I wonder why she has changed so quickly.”
“It’s because she’s leaving us,” my father said at last.
“Leaving!” we all cried in unison.
“Yes, leaving,” my father said.
“But why?” I asked.
“I think it is best for all of us,” my father said.
“Where’s she going then?” I asked, trying to suppress my joy.
“I’ve asked a friend who works in the Behzisti centre to find a place for her,” my father said. “She’ll be leaving us first thing in the morning. She’ll be all right there. It’s not far from here and she’ll soon find some friends and will not feel lonely.”
“How’s she going to survive there without much money?” Ja`far asked.
“I’ll give her some money to keep her going for a while,” my father said. “They might find a job for her somewhere later.”
We looked at each other, not knowing what to make of this dramatic change in our lives.
In our room, we talked for a long time about Eshrat Khanum’s leaving us. When I put my head on the pillow, only then did I have some mixed feelings about her departure. What would happen to us once she left? Would we have another woman in the house? If so, would she end up becoming like Eshrat Khanum?
Early next day, I woke up and walked to the window to breathe in some fresh air. I pulled the curtain aside and looked at the courtyard which was bathed in the milky-blue light after daybreak. Then I saw Eshrat Khanum climb up the steps of the basement, walk to the washing lines and take down the clothes that belonged to her, leaving the rest on the lines to flap in the gentle morning breeze. She then carried the pile down to her room in the basement. After a short while she emerged with a bulky cloth bundle that she put down near the steps behind the door of the courtyard before squatting beside the hauz, staring at the murky water.
I walked back to the bed to wake my brothers up.
“Ja`far, Ja`far,” I whispered, “wake up.”
“What’s it?” he mumbled sleepily.
“I think Eshrat Khanum is getting ready to leave.”
“What?” Ja`far asked. “So early?”
“I think babaa is going to drop her off in Behzisti before he goes to the Bazaar.”
I shook Gholaam vigorously. He opened his eyes, then looked around dazed, with a broad smile on his face. When I asked him why he was smiling like a fool, he said he was having a lovely dream about the daughter of our next-door neighbour, whom he had been fancying for a while. After splashing handfuls of water on our faces we dressed and stepped out onto the terrace. The golden rays of the sun were now shining on top of the walls and the air was fresh. The familiar, cheerful morning sounds of the neighbours beginning their day filled the courtyards. My father was standing beside Eshrat Khanum, talking to her quietly. She was wiping her eyes with her chador.
We walked up to her. She gave all of us a hug, just like a mother, weeping silently. I carried her bundle to a car that was waiting outside the lane. After greeting the driver, my father asked Eshrat Khanum to sit in the back seat. He then sat beside the driver, who drove off.
Eshrat Khanum gone, we returned home. We sat on the steps leading to the terrace. We were all quiet, not knowing what to say. I looked around the courtyard. I listened to the usual sounds of the neighbours and the street hawkers. The washing on the lines was flapping in the morning breeze in just the same way. It was as if nothing had changed.
We visited Eshrat Khanum a few times in Behzisti. She always sat on a bench in the small yard, staring vacantly at the flowerbeds, quietly talking to herself while waving her hands about as if trying to shoo off persistent gadflies. Upon seeing us, she would peer into our faces as if she had something to say to us that she had forgotten. As she had started to smoke, we would give her packets of cigarettes. She would light up, take a hard drag, and sink into her thoughts. At moments like this, how I wished to know what was going on in her head. But she never spoke to us, keeping her thoughts locked up.
Whenever we left her I could feel her fixed, hard stare following us out of the yard.
arrack: a distilled alcoholic drink
Babaa: affectionate term for ‘father’
Babaa jaan: jaan means ‘dear’. Babaa jaan is an endearment meaning ‘dear to babaa’.
Behzisti: social welfare
chador: literally means ‘tent’. An open black cloak or veil that covers the head and the entire body.
hauz: an ornamental pond in the middle of the courtyard in traditional Persian houses used for washing, floating fruits and ablutions.
Khanum: honorific used for women; can be used either before a given name or surname, after a given name, or alone as a form of address. It is also a euphemistic term when addressing a prostitute.
kharposhteh: a small attic-like room that opens out on to a roof
Madaam: the woman who is in charge of the prostitutes in a brothel. A female boss.
Monkaraat: The Vice Squad implementing Sharia Law. Established after the Islamic Republic.
Shahr-e No: literally ‘The Citadel of the New City’. It was the largest brothel in Iran, situated in Tehran and enclosed by a wall.
siegheh: under Shiite Law a man may have a maximum of four wives. In addition, he’s allowed an unlimited number of temporary wives, who make a marriage contract for a period ranging anywhere from one hour to ninety-nine years. These siegheh wives have no inheritance rights and are not officially registered with the city or the mosque.
sofreh: a special cloth that is spread on the floor and upon which various food items are laid; floor cloth.
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