The Neighbor

All of us-myself, my children, and the friends who now and then drop to see us-are scared stiff of our neighbor on the floor below. Our life as expatriates in Paris is full of hidden anxieties and emotions. There is, first of all, a feeling of guilt for having come as strangers from across the border to encroach upon the rights of the native inhabitants. Underneath this guilty feeling lurks a silent, seething rage that must be suppressed, and a nagging sense of humiliation waiting for revenge. And finally there is that millennia-old pride that makes us, the descendants of Cyrus the Great, look down upon modern civilization with a skeptical sneer, convinced that even defeated and miserable and downtrodden, we remain (God knows why) superior to the rest of the world; and that anyhow, if we have lost the glory and splendor that were once ours, you are to blame, you deluded Western exploiters.

Though this may be a false accusation, one thing is certainly true: my present miseries are entirely due to the lady downstairs, who constantly haunts our disrupted and chaotic existence like an evil spirit. We dare not talk or laugh or walk, and having but recently arrived and not yet learned the ins and outs of life in Europe-having, moreover, left a spacious house with a garden full of flowers and trees, as well as our family and friends, to find ourselves in this different world-we move around in circles wondering how to live here without being in each other's way or disturbing the neighbors. The children have gone completely wild. One is five and the other is four. They are overexcited and confused and express their anxiety by letting out earsplitting shrieks and kicking and banging their fists at everything in sight. My son hits my daughter, I hit my son, and the neighbor bangs at our door. Sometimes she knocks at her ceiling with a broomstick, sometimes she shouts at us out of her window, and sometimes she yells and screams on the telephone, raising such a hullabaloo that I can hear her voice not only through the receiver, but also from the end of the corridor; in short her frequent angry outbursts seem to reach me from all four cardinal points and, like the trumpet announcing the Last Judgment, they make me shudder inside and blow my plain, unsophisticated logic to the four winds.

When I open the door to her, my timid glance that remains glued to the floor, my unsteady voice that stammers a few words, my hand that has frozen in mid-air, my foot that is ready to beat a retreat, and my whole body that is rooted to the spot, helpless and terror-stricken, all express utter submission and acknowledgement of my guilt. I promise my neighbor that these inhuman noises will never be heard again, that the children, though they have not yet had their dinner (who cares?), will immediately be put to bed, even if that means beating the daylights out of them, and that I myself will keep my feet off the floor and fly to the end of the corridor like a weightless mosquito and stay under the mattress or, if necessary, under the bed for three days and three nights in deathlike silence, and do my best to obey the laws of the land and bow to the principles established by the inhabitants of this city.

Madame Downstairs doesn't believe a word of it. She bristles again, she raises her voice again, she stares into my eyes again, she makes her nostrils quiver again, and punctuates her oh! so long sentences with huffs and puffs and poohs and pahs, giving me to understand, with all these utterances that she pours down on me like a violent rainstorm and strike me like a thunderbolt, that the situation couldn't be worse and that the war continues.

Our tiny, modest apartment, which even the donkey man of Mahmoudieh would have considered too cramped a living space, is wildly expensive because it is situated in the heart of Paris and has a corridor and some built-in closets. We live on the fifth floor of a building facing a church, and the fact that the churchyard has a few trees with three or four sparrows flitting about, and that there are some fat pigeons living under the eaves, is a constant delight, reminding the children and myself of Tehran and our garden of Shemiran. Another advantage of this mousehole of ours is that the living room is graced with two square meters of balcony, a welcome space for receiving guests or resting or taking the air. We managed to adorn this blessing of a balcony with as many pots of geraniums and petunias as it can possibly hold, and in the evenings, weather permitting, we spend some carefree moments among the little greenery and the scentless flowers, eating those overripe cucumbers and tasteless peaches grown in an alien land. And if friends happen to arrive, we bid them to join us in this tiny space to share this happy hour with us and forget their homesickness. The lady downstairs, or as the children call her, the Bogeywoman, does not approve of our use of the balcony and manifests her disapproval at short intervals. "Quiet!" she screams, and this command sounds so final and categorical that it breaks our vocal cords and freezes the smiles on our faces. We abandon our garden parties. I quickly shut the window and tell myself that one should be patient, one mustn't talk back. We foreigners, especially I myself with a passport issued by the Islamic Republic and a temporary residence permit, have no right to protest. In this city people just don't sit on balconies, they don't talk nonsense and laugh aloud, they don't waste their precious time on idle gossip. If they want to see a friend, no doubt to discuss politics and philosophy and world literature, they ask him to a café and rapidly settle the matter over a cup of a strong coffee. These words are convincing enough for myself, but they hardly have any effect on the children. Cuddled on the laps of grandmothers and aunts and accustomed to an inexhaustible store of love and affection, they consider their exile in this cold, joyless and unfeeling climate as an incomprehensible injustice. The doorbell and the telephone are a source of joy to them, and they even prefer the visits of the Bogeywoman to the silence and solitude of our new dwelling.

The French do not open their doors very willingly. They first look through the peephole to make sure who it is. They then ask whom the visitor wants to see and for what purpose. When they feel quite safe, they undo the chain on the door, and then unlock the first and the second lock, which gives them time to have another look and ask another question, upon which they decide to half-open the door. If it is simply an unannounced visitor, they send him packing there and then. If the caller has something important to communicate, they let him have his say at the door and settle the matter without asking him in. The door to our apartment has none of these special locks or chains, nor does it have a peephole. We open it immediately, without asking any questions, and are overjoyed to have unexpected visitors. The children ask everybody in, even the Bogeywoman, and I quickly put the kettle on and welcome the caller with a smile. I don't like to talk to people in the corridor, I prefer to sit down with them and discuss even complaints and misunderstandings in a leisurely fashion over a cup of tea. The lady downstairs has no time for that, however. She comes up, she knocks at the door, she yells at us and leaves. It is the same with the concierge. She comes, she knocks at the door, she brings me the mail, and leaves. The same again with the man who reads the electricity counter. He comes, he knocks, he notes, and he leaves. Greeting people and enquiring after their health are things that are not done. Our next-door neighbor is a middle-aged woman. She is not bad-tempered. She does not complain about us. She does not knock at our door. But she might as well not be there, it's as though we don't exist for her nor she for us. Sometimes I meet her on the landing and we take the lift together. Neither of us speak. If I greet her she greets me back. If I don't, she doesn't say a word. She goes out early in the morning and comes back in the evening, exhausted. Her solitude worries me and I shudder at the idea that someone living in her own city can be so lonely. The lady downstairs is alive. She is mad, we fight, and that in itself is a kind of relationship. Not a moment goes by without our being aware of her existence, and nothing we do or say is free of her awareness.

I have entered the children in the local kindergarten and am glad that they keep them there all day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. My main reason for being glad is that this will please the Bogeywoman, and I even wish they could keep the school open until late at night, and on Sundays as well. Taking the children to school is not easy. They don't like to go, and they are horrified of the teachers who, of course, don't speak their language. It is dark in the morning and it often rains. We have no car and have to walk three blocks down the avenue. Both of them cry. When we reach the second block, my son starts having his usual stomachache. The pain makes him writhe and clutch at my legs, insisting that we should go back. I feel sorry for him, but the thought of going home conjures up the face of our neighbor and suppresses my maternal instincts. My daughter is sleepy and dazed and doesn't wake up until we reach the school. She sits down on the steps in front of every single building on our way and starts yawning. If I would leave her, she would fall asleep right there. I can only make her go on by giving her sweets and chocolates. The moment she sits down, I tempt her with the colored wrappings. She jumps up and runs a few yards for these goodies, but having eaten them, she sits down again and dozes. I have to grab her by the neck and drag her all the way to the kindergarten. The rain is also a big nuisance. I can't decide which child to shelter under the umbrella. I know they will start sneezing and coughing and running a temperature in the evening, and these sounds will reach the sensitive ears of our neighbor through the chinks in the windows. Were it not for the war, I would have gone back home. Were it not for the fear of bombs and missiles, nothing would have kept me here for a single day. But in fact, the battlefield is right here, and the real enemy is lying in ambush on the floor below. If we had stayed at home, chances are that we could have escaped the bombs and missiles, while here we spend every moment confronting an invisible machine gun specially aimed at us. Saddam Hussein was across the border, while the Bogeywoman is only one floor below us. Like prisoners of war, we are holding our hands on our heads and surrendering without putting up a resistance. The reason for our defeat and the gist of our shortcomings is not speaking and understanding the language. No weapon is sharper than words, and our mouths remain shut, while the enemy's victory lies in her command of words.

A new idea has occurred to our neighbor. She has sent us a long, official letter resembling a legal reprimand and issuing a number of regulations. First of all, we are immediately to cover the wooden floors in our rooms with thick wall-to-wall carpets to deaden the noise of our footsteps. We are not to wear any shoes (especially with high heels) or any slippers with wooden soles or heels. We are not to sit on the balcony. We are not to talk in the bathroom and kitchen, because the ventilators conduct the noise. We are not to take a bath or flush the toilet early in the morning or after nine o'clock in the evening. We are not to slam the doors of the closets or make any loud noises such as laughing, sneezing, or coughing. The last regulation is underlined in red and prescribes that we are to stay at home as little as possible, and that we should try to spend most of our time outside.

We have no choice but to obey. We promptly cover the floors with thick fitted carpets lined with sponge-rubber. We walk barefoot and whisper in each other's ears. When friends drop in to see us, they take off their shoes at the door. Our fear has infected them, too. We have agreed to be careful and silent and to suppress our impulses. We have gradually forgotten that we, too, are human and that each person is free within his own four walls. Automatically and without arguing, we are obeying all the orders and bowing to the tyranny of the Bogeywoman. We are not used to standing up for our own rights, and we don't even know what rights we have in this world. Nor did we know them in the past, because everything was given to us free, and we never had to fight for our ancestral rights. The Bogeywoman is aware of her supremacy over us and makes us feel it more and more. Of all the commands she has issued, the hardest to obey is the last one, "You are to spend most of your time outside." Where are we to go? Most of my friends are artists and writers. They are unmarried and have no children. They are not rich; they live in small apartments and can't receive guests. Each of them lives in a small studio full of books and papers or paints and easels; they have no room for children. Even those who have families have their hands full with their own children and cannot cope with any additional ones. The only solution is to resort to the parks. Opposite to our building, there is a measly park which is frequented by the old women of the neighborhood and by Arab charwomen. Late in the evening it turns into a meeting-place for tramps, who sit there and divide up their money. I loathe this park and find it most depressing. The only thing the children can do there is play in the sandbox and go up and down a shabby slide. The Luxembourg Garden is pretty, but it is too far and therefore too risky, considering the unsettled weather in Paris. Before we get there, it usually starts raining, and as we are not used to umbrellas and hats, we are exposed and defenseless and have to stand under a shelter for hours on end and then go home, wet and frustrated. As luck will have it, it always rains on Sundays, so we are condemned to stay at home. We used to resort to our little balcony, but the neighbor's objection has deprived us of this last recourse.

The best hour of the day is when the children are asleep and the lights on the floor below are out and a few letters have arrived from friends and relatives scattered all over the world. I don't read the letters immediately. I keep them to read in bed at night over a cup of hot coffee and a good cigarette. The first letter is from Leily, who lives in Tehran and is happy and content. Her children go to school and have lots of friends with whom they play in the garden or walk about in the neighborhood streets without worrying about war and bombs. She herself is working and does not too much mind wearing the Islamic veil. She goes to a party every evening or hosts dozens of guests herself. The second letter is from Dariush A. It is so sad and bitter that it makes me weep. He is unemployed and penniless. His son has escaped. His friends have disappeared, and his prospects for the future are so dismal that they frighten me. The third letter is from Mr. K. It is a succinct and concise report of all the bad news: his nephew was executed and his mother twice has tried to kill herself. Prices are soaring and soon everybody will starve. The foreign workers raid people's houses every night and cut off the heads of women and children and people of all ages. The Russians and Americans are hand in glove and the partition of Iran is an absolute certainty. The sons of Mashdi-Akbar the gardener have joined the Revolutionary Committee and are planning to confiscate all his property. The last letter is from my mother. There are many pages of it and it reads like a Persian film script. It is full of ups and downs, full of contradictions. The people she mentions are extremely happy, and at the same time desperately unhappy. There is no end of parties and outings and fun and games. People get together and eat and drink and praise the Islamic Republic. Then all of a sudden she sings a different tune. The lines that follow speak of shortages. There is no electric current, there is no water. You can't find any meat. There is a cholera epidemic. There are no doctors, there is no medicine. There is no security. There are no policemen, no traffic wardens. Inflation is skyrocketing and food is short. There are two meters of snow on the ground. There is no fuel. It is freezing cold, and worst of all, she is lonely and misses the children. And toward the end of the letter she abuses Europe and Paris and says that at home she has everything she needs and can live a good life without having to be at the mercy of foreigners, and all those who left the country were ill advised. Then she writes again about parties and meals and having fun and suddenly announces that she has decided to sell her house and all her belongings and buy herself a little hole abroad so that she can at least spend what is left of her life in peace.

It is late and I can't sleep. My daughter has come down with chicken pox and has a high temperature. I am worried and don't know whom to turn to for help. I want to write but my brain isn't functioning. I pick up a book and try to read. I read one page and realize that I haven't registered a single word of it. It has been raining steadily for two days. I wish someone would come and visit me. Tehran is sunny in spite of the cold, and Leily mentioned that she goes for long hikes every Friday morning. They all take off for the mountains and have breakfast at a roadside inn. Dariush A. laughs about such things and says that even the mountains are in mourning and the sky pours black snow over people's heads. The children are asleep. They are both feverish. I am anxious. I tell myself I'll go back home. At home I at least have aunts and uncles and my mother to whom I can turn for help. There would be no one living above or below me. I wouldn't be afraid of the neighbors and could scream in my own house. I would be able to jump around, laugh, cry, dance. Yes, I'll go back tomorrow. Dariush A. is the only person who encourages me to stay. My dear, he says, who tells you you're free in your own house? You're not even allowed to breathe against the regulations, let alone talk or think or dress or eat. Even going to the toilet has its rules and regulations. Mating, making love, even dying is not free, and all the minute details and moments of your existence have been prescribed in advance. So what shall I do? Stay or go back?

There's a knock at the door. I listen. I am startled. Who can it be? The doorbell does not function. Someone is banging at the door. My heart is beating. I'm sure there's bad news. Something must have happened to my mother. They must have arrested my brother. It must be the police, or a friend in trouble. The book drops from my hand. My foot gets entangled in the wire of my bedside lamp. I hurriedly put on a dress over my nightgown. Who can it be? I'm coming. I say it in Persian and French. Coming. I open the door. Whom do I see? It's the lady downstairs. This is most unexpected, since she is usually asleep at this hour of the night, and besides, she hasn't got any reason to come up. I am stunned and feel I am going pale. My heart beats faster and I am upset about my awkward movements and my halting speech. As soon as the Bogeywoman hears me stammer and sees me in this nervous state, she bristles. Raising her voice, she asks, "What's going on? What are you doing?"

"Who?"

She asks where all this noise is coming from.

"What noise?" I reply.

I am so used to thinking that she is right that I imagine the children must have got up and are romping about. I take a few hurried steps toward their room. I stop and listen. Absolute silence. She is talking nonsense and had no reason to come here. This time I'm in my rights. It's quite obvious. It doesn't require knowledge of French or of Western culture. It's plain human logic. There is no noise in the apartment and the downstairs lady is wrong. This time I won't submit to her aggressive behavior, because I am right. And this "being right" is a great asset that makes me strong and bold. I raise my head. I find my voice. I ask, "What noise?"

Madame's mumbling makes me more daring. A long stifled rage that had been gnawing at my vitals suddenly erupts and inflames my whole being like a fever. I get worked up, I sweat and yell. The neighbor is taken aback by my outburst. This increases my vehemence. I hear my intestines rumbling. I advance a step. Now I look the Bogeywoman straight in the eye and see her for the first time as she really is. I had a different image of her. I had always thought she was old and ugly and it wouldn't have surprised me if she had horns and a beard and hooves. In my mind's eye she sometimes resembled Dracula and had long, protruding front teeth. But there is nothing of that. She is about my age and has more or less the same figure that I have. Her short brown hair is greasy and straight, she is dressed without the studied elegance of most French women and wears no makeup. Two deep lines on either side of her mouth make her look bitter. She is tired and nervous. She is pregnant. She looks like all those other sad women who go to work early in the morning and come home in the evening, exhausted and depressed, to collapse in front of their TV set.

I explain to her in my broken French that the children are asleep and that I myself was in bed, and then it suddenly occurs to me that I might as well talk to her in my own language or in English, which I speak fluently. The French are in awe of the English language and resist learning it with a kind of childish pride and reactionary stubbornness, but this aversion is merely for show, and deep down they have a particular admiration for the United States and the Americans.

I have regained the power of speech. It's as though I had grown wings. No one can stand in my way any longer. I warble like a songbird and swim in an ocean of words. My thoughts and my speech are in perfect harmony. No longer do I have to chop up my sentences to make them short and simple. I feel like an orator intoxicated by the impact of his own voice. With this language, which I have at my command, I can heap insult upon injury, and that's exactly what I do. I don't know if the Bogeywoman understands the meaning of my words, but that's unimportant. The tone of my voice, the look in my eyes and the fierceness of my gestures tell her that she must clear off, and if she's ever seen here again, she'll be torn to pieces, wretched, impudent, revolting creature that she is! I yell at her. I gesticulate with my hands and even raise a foot, threatening to kick her out. The more I work myself up, the smaller the Bogeywoman becomes. She looks like a lamb on the way to be slaughtered, while I grow taller and taller. I have the impression that my front teeth are beginning to protrude like Dracula's, that I'm growing horns and a beard, that I've turned into a dragon, and I'm madly enjoying it all. I'm quite ready to devour the poor Bogeywoman. Ha ha! I leap about. Ha ha ha! I charge. Madame lets out a little shriek and rushes to the lift. I can't stop myself. I go on yelling heaven knows what. Drunk with my show of strength, I feel like going upstairs, knocking at all the doors and accusing everybody, telling them they have no right to talk or walk, and clawing at their faces.

The moment the lift door opens, the Downstairs Lady rushes in and disappears, breathing heavily. She literally disappears. We won't see her the next day or nay following day of the month or nay day of many subsequent months. Had she melted, or had the ground swallowed her up? A long time later, when I happened to run into her at the entrance of the building, we both looked away and quickly ran off in opposite directions. All I remember noticing was her big belly and her tired eyes. She must have been at the very end of her pregnancy.

The prolonged absence of the Bogeywoman gradually lends our life a more normal aspect. We walk about with our shoes on, we walk fearlessly whenever we want to, and when the sun is shining, we even sit on the balcony and laugh without any anxiety. The children are much calmer, now that the shadow of Dracula no longer looms before them. We go out when we wish, but no longer feel compelled to stay out. At the beginning of the summer, just before daybreak, I suddenly wake up hearing the monotonous wails of a baby. As I listen carefully, I realize that they come from the floor below, and I chuckle.

Years pass. The war with Iraq is still going on and we are still waiting for the departure of mullahs. The children have grown older and no longer complain about going to school. They can walk there and back from their own. They are less nervous and have quite forgotten their fear of the Downstairs Lady.

Autumn has now started, and it is one of those gloomy Sundays. The sky is covered and a penetrating cold wind is blowing. The children are at home and we are expecting guests this evening. I am on my way to a grocery run by an Arab who keeps his shop open even on holidays. I go past the park where the tramps usually hang out. I suddenly discover the Bogeywoman on a bench, looking at a point in a distance. She is cold and is sitting there with hunched shoulders and with her collar up. She has a half-open book on her lap. A half-lit cigarette rests between her fingers, and her hair is greasy and unkempt as usual. Her right leg is stretched out with its ankle bent, and her shoe has slipped off. Her child is playing in the sandbox. She looks so sad and forlorn that I feel sorry for her. I wonder why she is sitting in this miserable park when it's so cold and windy, and then I suddenly remember her letter. No doubt a neighbor has complained and ordered her to keep her baby outside. I see that another Bogeywoman has bared her teeth to her and this depresses me. In this peaceful building facing a park and a church, ten lambs in wolves' clothing are lying in ambush for one another and blaming each other for their misfortunes. Tired, frustrated wolves with petty desires and trivial aspirations, hoping for better days!

I ask myself, "Could it be otherwise? Could it?" A few raindrops fall on my face. I walk faster. The Downstairs Lady is still sitting there, helpless and dazed. Under the trees lies a drunken beggar, unconscious or perhaps dead. No one looks at him. I hurry on. I am thinking that my guests will arrive any minute, and in my haste to get the shopping done I forget the question I asked myself.

Translation copyright © 2006 by Goli Taraghi. Published by arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.