I have a feeling that it is a mistake to go to the party at Mr. M.’s, especially under the circumstances. Things have tightened up once more. Again scarves have to be pulled down all the way to the eyebrows and legs covered in thick, black stockings. Again the loose-fitting, ankle-length smocks have to be worn. They are once again slashing women’s bare legs with razors and shaving the heads of young boys or publicly flogging them in city squares. And yet no one is really scared or chastised into full conformity. To hang out, harangue, eat, and drink are requisite conditions of survival, something the desperate have to do, since for them the world is on its last leg, about to collapse in a day or two. So, let’s live to the fullest, they say. The less fatalistic ones, on the other hand, take cover underground, listen to foreign radio broadcasts, and await the triumphant return of the young king from abroad.
Mr. M. is an old hand at politics and has a gut feeling that the past is gone, buried in the dust-laden pages of history, and if there is any reversal of the status quo, it won’t be in his lifetime. So he lives his life the best he can. He eats well, exercises regularly, reads copiously, takes regular naps, watches foreign broadcasts on his satellite TV, and makes sure that he has an invitation to a party every night. He has connections with the local committee agents and frequently greases their palms. There are regular deliveries of good-quality homemade wine and vodka at his home through an Armenian intermediary, and although he himself does not smoke, he knows people that supply him with high-grade opium—much appreciated by addicts among his acquaintances.
I am a friend of Mrs. M. and a regular guest at her frequent parties. Of course there is always some element of risk in attending noisy, splashy weddings and receptions. All of us are aware of the danger but willing to take the risk. Even if there is a raid staged by Revolutionary Guards, it is possible to negotiate, with money changing hands, especially dollars, trading at a thousand tomans apiece. Occasionally things don’t quite work out and that was the case last week involving a raid on a huge wedding party when the groom was whipped right there in the garden, and the young men in attendance had their heads shaved, and this in spite of the fact that the father of the groom had made all the necessary “arrangements” with the local committee. Such news circulates all over town and yet there are more and more noisy, boisterous weddings, and young men with shoulder-length hair are seen accompanying girls with bare legs and revealing tank tops in public gardens, city parks, and cafés—all this in vindication of the old adage: the sterner the inhibitions the stronger the desire to flout them. That is why it is so exhilarating to indulge in forbidden foods, drink a glass of wine, read a banned book, or wear colorful, flashy clothes. Even going to a party can be an exciting adventure.
There is always an incongruous assortment of people at Mr. and Mrs. M’s parties: adolescent boys and girls, middle-aged women with bare arms and plunging décolletage, retired generals, nouveau-riche businessmen, established artists (writers and poets mostly, unemployed, penniless, alcoholic, and deep into drugs), musicians, painters, film directors, and even some political activists and radicals fraught with neurosis, spouting rage and esoteric theories. And to top it all off, excellent wine and delicious roast lamb served on rice from the hands of a professional chef.
I have some apprehension about being at this one. The music is excessively loud and the sounds of merry-making reverberate throughout the neighborhood. A disgruntled neighbor might alert the authorities that someone is trouncing the Islamic code of conduct. Instinctively I know that I am in jeopardy and should quietly skip out. Perhaps others are thinking the same, but no one makes a move, hoping against their better judgment that once again they might get away with it. To retreat is the gateway to desolation and submission to entropy.
We’ve just been seated for dinner when the Guards appear on the scene, suddenly and unannounced. No one knows how they got in. All guests had been instructed to use a code when ringing the doorbell-two short rings followed by a long one. It turns out later that the Afghani houseboy had gone out to leave a garbage bag at the curbside and had been accosted by the Guards. They had wrestled the house key from him and stuffed him, an illegal alien, in the paddy wagon for deportation to Afghanistan, where he would most likely be skinned alive.
I begin to think of ways to extricate myself from the situation immediately. Is there a guardian angel up there watching out for me? Not likely. So I contemplate possible escape routes: over the roof, a window in the basement, the second-floor balcony. I can count four Guards, stubble-faced and in ill-fitting fatigues. They move through the crowd with a certain élan, as if they are invited guests, no fuss, no yelling, no reaching for their sidearms. Unhurried and relaxed, they survey the scene, taking notes, one of them videotaping the liquor bottles on the sideboard. We are all in a daze, not grasping the severity of what has just happened. I can’t believe I am actually standing in such close proximity to a Revolutionary Guard!
All of a sudden a woman lets out a shrill scream, dropping her dinner plate and spilling her wine. This is like an alarm, scattering the crowd, sending people running for cover. There is instant pandemonium. The hostess gives a frightened yelp, takes a few steps backward, and falls into a chair, swooning. The host, Mr. M., all color drained from his face, tries to appear unfazed. Women are desperate for head covers, some using the white dinner napkins for scarves, some crawling under tables, others hiding behind dining room drapes.
How can I get away? There has to be a miracle, like a power outage (something that happens frequently, though it would miraculous if it happens now), or an earthquake, or the structural collapse of the roof, or a bomb blast. My heart is racing, threatening a stroke. I remember my pending return to Europe and I am seized with the fear of having my passport confiscated. A young man next to me appears strangely detached and serene. “Don’t worry,” he whispers in my ear, noticing my trembling hands. “Money’s all they’re after. The same thing happened at another party last night. I am used to it.”
But I am not used to this and I am in the firm grip of an anxiety attack. Words echo in my head and a silent scream is caught in my throat.
The host is still trying to get a grip on the situation. He swallows hard and makes welcoming gestures to the Guards. “I have permission from the Committee,” he mutters. “But you gentlemen don’t look familiar to me.”
“They are from another committee,” the young man mutters ominously. “Things may get complicated.”
This is not news to me. I know there are rivalries among committees, considering the amount of money involved. They watch one another and raid one another’s territories.
Mr. M. diplomatically invites the Guards to go to another room for “discussions,” meaning of course the money settlement. But this time things are different. The men look grim and resolute. They may be fanatical Hezbollah operatives. One of them, rudely pushing Mr. M. aside, yells, “Men on one side, women on the other.” Another, who appears to be in charge, places a call to headquarters, requisitioning two buses, one for men, one for women. The young man next to me remains unfazed. “This is all a show,” he says. “Money will change hands at the Committee. This is just to raise the ante.”
Soon scarves and other forms of headgear such as tablecloths and towels are distributed among women. Some of them are pleading, whimpering, begging for mercy. The Guards are adamant. Your own fault, I can hear them thinking, you should have stayed home as befits virtuous Muslim women, saying prayers, reciting the Koran. What’s wrong with going to the mosque for diversion, listening to the recitations of the laments, shedding some tears to cleanse your souls?
Mr. M. is not giving up. He resorts to namedropping, casually mentioning a well-known businessman of his acquaintance, suggests he call an attorney influential with the authorities. But he is ignored and not allowed to place the call. His offer of dinner is declined forthwith. After all, for the intruders the food here is not lawfully clean. It is impossible to tell what goes on in their heads. Are they sincere? Or is the whole thing a show to squeeze more money out of the company?
The buses arrive. There are two Sisters of Zeynab1 to marshal the many women caught in the raid. The Guards are still scouring the house for opium and drug paraphernalia, videotaping and confiscating everything, including liquor bottles, which they pack and seal in plastic garbage bags. In addition, there are many picture frames, some displaying women not in proper Islamic cover. They are also collected as evidence of moral turpitude. Fervent explanations of the host that they are pictures of his wife, sisters, and daughters go unheeded.
The “Sisters” order the women to wipe off all traces of makeup from their faces. They have come well-equipped; they have vials of nail-polish remover and small scissors to clip long, manicured nails.
I am still in denial. Ultimately, I assure myself, some money will be paid and we will be let go. Perhaps it is the committee chairman who must negotiate the deal. These are all theatrics, I keep thinking. For us to be whipped is unthinkable. It is true that such incidents are common, but they happen to others; they simply can’t happen to us.
Mr. M. is now a bundle of nerves, writhing with anxiety and frustration. Once more he asks the man in charge to step aside for further discussions and once again he is spurned. Desperate, he throws up his hands, and in a voice audible all around, doubles his original offer, but this has no effect on the men. They go about their business undeterred, clearly getting great satisfaction from our distress.
In due course, men and women are stuffed in separate busses. Some women have children in tow, adding to the level of confusion and turmoil. One of them, pressing an infant to her bosom, collars a Sister and tearfully implores her for special consideration. The Sister, obviously a veteran of many such roundups, is unmoved. “You should have stayed home caring for your child,” she says sanctimoniously.
“You have no decency? I am old enough to be your mother,” admonishes the woman with the infant. The Sister looks at her contemptuously. “Don’t tell me about decency,” she retorts. “You have alcohol on your breath, flirting with men all night. How dare you teach me moral lessons?”
Younger girls are much more strident and belligerent in their protests. “You will see who will win at the end,” one of them yells at the top of her voice. “The future is ours. We’ll show you one of these days!”
The more mature women try to cool down the girls, advising them not to be confrontational and wait until the canonical judge makes his ruling. But it is no use. The girls continue their noisy protest.
My situation is critical: I am due to travel abroad soon and cannot afford to miss my flight since there are no openings for the next month or so. I am hoping that I can simply buy out the flogging decree meted out by the judge and be allowed to leave. The official rate for a decree of thirty strokes of the whip is about one hundred and fifty thousand tomans, but it is negotiable depending on the officials involved and the circumstances.
We arrive at the committee headquarters at last and are lined up, like thieves and crooks, to be booked. The men, having arrived earlier, are already processed. We can hear them in the adjoining detention hall but have no way of contacting them. A young woman lights up a cigarette and takes a deep draw, swallowing the smoke. This catches the attention of one of the Sisters who rushes at her, slaps her hard on the back of her hand, knocks the cigarette out of her mouth and grinds it underfoot.
The detention area for the women is one floor below where we have to await the verdict and possible flogging. Some of the younger women, perhaps having had this experience before, lead the way. An elderly woman trips and falls on her way down, slumping at the foot of the stairs. The Sisters are ill-tempered and impatient. “She’s had too much to drink,” one of them tells another. “Stick a finger down her throat and make her throw up.”
There is no washroom facility anywhere. When asked where one may be found, a Sister looks at us and growls, disdainfully, “This is not a public toilet. So keep on holding it.”
Some of the detainees lift the old woman off the floor and drag her inside the room. A low-wattage naked bulb sheds a dismal light on the scene. In the far corner a few other women, hookers and drug addicts from the looks of it, are sprawled on the damp floor, oblivious to us. We are all standing, huddle together in fear and anxiety. An hour passes. Some of us crumple to the ground, exhausted and despondent, some dozing off, some talking in whispers. The teenagers though are awake and alert, animatedly discussing new restaurants, entertainment venues, and recent foreign films. They appear unconcerned, as if the whole routine is yet another diversion.
There is a tint of unreality and fantasy to everything around me. Who are we? Who are these people? What is the language they speak? There is a vast chasm separating us in this room from those a few inches away on the other side of the wall, under bright lights, festooned with rifles. It is as if we are from different galaxies. We don’t seem to belong to the same region, or species, for that matter.
As we lean against the wall, exhausted and stressed out, the door swings opens and one of the Sisters makes an announcement. “You have fifteen minutes to use the washroom,” she proclaims. “Be quiet and orderly.”
“Hey, Lady,” yells one of the younger women. “That’s less than a minute a person. This is ridiculous. What do you think we are? Pissing champions?” Surprisingly, the Sister chortles with amusement. But she controls herself and responds primly: “You must address me as ‘Sister.’ Such nonsense as ‘lady’ is from the old regime. That is all you have: fifteen minutes. So get a move on.”
I forego the bathroom break. My feet are hurting so badly I can’t move. Some of the older women take their turns in pairs, waddling to the facility. Some of us ask for water but that is too much to expect.
In the gloomy light of the corridor I cannot see clearly the face of the attending Sister. She appears less pompous than the others—and friendlier to the hookers. She seems to know them. I start thinking that she may be more approachable, likely to help us out of this predicament, at least give some consideration to the woman with the infant. Perhaps she could be bought with the promise of money. She is talking to the women returning from the bathroom. My eyes are closed when I hear her laugh and the ring of this familiar, repulsive laughter, like a gust of wind, stirs layers of dormant memories. She suddenly turns and her face is momentarily visible under the ceiling light. I know this woman and her name, like an open sore, sits at the tip of my tongue.
My heart sinks and I break out in a cold sweat. No mistake. That is she herself, the same full lips, ample bosom, firm body. The puffiness under the eyes, the ravages of time on her face, and the veneer of fatigue and aging could not camouflage that familiar look. We make eye contact but I avert my face, pulling down the headscarf over my forehead and eyebrows, hoping not to be recognized. Shall I tell her who I am? Shall I ask for help? But she is my sworn enemy and will surely seek revenge for the past. But what is she doing here? Why is she involved with the Committee? Is it economic necessity? When I knew her, she had nothing to do with religion and piety. She drank, smoked, and slept around.
Suddenly the shriek of a woman rends the relative quiet of the cellblock. A street woman sitting near me jumps to her feet. “It’s Pretty Zari. They got her again,” she announces to no one in particular. She then walks to the front of the cell, grabs the bars. “Is that all you can do? Beat up a poor woman? Let her go!” she shouts at the top of her voice.
All this piques the interest of the young girls who want to know who Pretty Zari is. She is a street walker who also deals drugs. Everybody knows her. She is incorrigible. She gets caught, serves time, puts up a show of piety, and is back on the streets with her old cronies selling opium. When she is returned to the cell, her face is scratched and bloody. Other street women surround her. Some hug and kiss her. Delbar hands her a glass of water and appears to tease her, as if she knows her personally. When she passes by me, a whiff of Delbar’s body odor hits my nose. It is the smell of flesh and the armpits, the smell of the past, the smell of the day she entered my life.
All of sudden the awareness of the present—the party, the holding tank, the cellmates, everything—is whisked away from my mind, and Delbar, like a dragon besieging the gate of a city, blocks my mind. In minute detail I recall that rainy Friday, the day I tore up her employment contract and slammed the door on her, with my one-year-old son, Little Chimp (the name Delbar had given him had stuck), tugging at my skirt with his tiny hands. I had made up my mind to get her out of my life and away from my son. She had begged, yelled, cursed, and threatened. But my decision was made and I was sticking to it. She had turned and cast a last glance at me, full of chagrin and venom. “We’ll meet another day,” she had hissed. “You’ll see.”
Now after twenty-two years we had come together again, our roles reversed, as she had averred. Throughout these years I have often thought about my relationship with Delbar and questioned my motives in the way I treated her. I have always had an urge to recount our story to someone, or go over in detail with myself, hoping for a clarification, a justification. It seems I now have the chance to do just that in this cell, waiting for a verdict that won’t come until morning.
I can’t think of the exact date, but it was two or three years before the Revolution2 that I started looking for a reliable nanny for my infant son. The labor market had shifted tremendously and the shortage of domestic help was critical. Housemaids were “housekeepers” and nannies “governesses,” with concomitant augmentation in pay. Even so, they were hard to come by. Within a very short time there was a procession of several in our household. It began with a Russian émigrée who claimed blood ties with Tsar Alexander. Although she was elderly, perhaps in her early nineties, she had a drinking problem and an explosive temper when drunk. She was followed by a quiet, middle-aged woman, who turned out to be an opium addict. She nearly killed the baby by dissolving small doses of opium in his milk to knock him out so he wouldn’t disturb her in the middle of the night. The third one was an Amazon of a woman, with a thick neck, a mustache, and a booming voice. She laid claim to all aspects of raising the child and even set a schedule for “parental visitation.” The fourth was a young girl as thin as a rail with a penchant for poetry. She was in the habit of staring out of the window and heaving deep sighs. She would plagiarize poems and insist on reading them to me as her own.
Finally, in despair, I turned to classified ads. I saw a notice from an employment agency, oddly called “White Angels Employment Agency,” promising all sorts of well-qualified domestic staff for placement in suitable households. These agencies did not have a good reputation. They were known for misrepresenting their workers and charging exorbitant finder’s fees. Yet, against my better judgment, I decided to give this one a try. The man that answered the phone sounded sleepy or drunk and kept asking who I was and what I wanted. I hung up and tried again. This time another man picked up and told me to hold to talk to the “manager.” Finally, when I got the manger on the line, he promised he would soon find me the right person. A few days later he called and announced his success with much enthusiasm. He sounded too ebullient and solicitous to be sincere. “You are in luck,” he ejaculated. “I have a reliable, well-educated lady here who can take care of children, cook, sew. . .”
“How old is she?” I interrupted.
“Forty-two, give or take,” he replied, “but the important thing is that she is healthy and robust and mature. Exactly what you want. You should see her with your own eyes.”
I had a sense that he was prevaricating. Nevertheless I pursued the matter further. “Is she married? Does she have children?” I asked. No, he assured me. She was unattached and completely at my disposal. We agreed that I should interview her before I made a decision.
The White Angels Employment Agency was a dismal two-room suite on the third floor of an ancient dilapidated building in the central part of Tehran. Three men were lounging around a table in the outer office sipping tea. One of them, wearing an old wrinkled tie and a threadbare coat, was evidently “the manager.” He had an unhealthy complexion and dark blue lips. At a little distance from them a woman was leaning against the wall thumbing through the pages of a magazine. She cast a casual glace at me and turned back to her reading. I fervently hoped she wouldn’t be the applicant. The manager, apparently surprised by my prompt arrival, gulped down the tea and jumped to his feet. Reflexively he touched his tie, buttoned up his coat, and made cursory gestures of welcome. “We have selected this lady for the job,” he said, pointing to the woman at the far end of the room, who by this time had thrown the magazine on the table and was watching me. The manager must have noted the signs of displeasure on my face. He began reciting a long list of her virtues and domestic skills. To this day I don’t know why I did not say what I thought, that she did not look anything like a maid or nurse, that she looked dowdy and unkempt. I don’t know why I did not turn around and leave. I watched her as she glanced at her watch, stifled a yawn, spat out the gum in the garbage can, slouched to a desk nearby, and picked the phone to dial a number. The manager looked at me sheepishly and quickly snatched the receiver from her and replaced it on the phone. Perhaps she was a streetwalker, in that tight, short-sleeved jersey, wearing flip-flops, her hair dyed chestnut with blond highlights and more than an inch of black roots showing. Although in those days there was no Islamic dress code for women, most applicants for domestic jobs dressed modestly and some even wore the traditional head cover.
“Do you have references?” I asked. She made no haste to respond.
Nonchalantly she produced a crumpled cigarette from a pocket of her skirt, broke it in two, and put both ends back in another pocket.
“She has worked for the best households in town,” the manager interjected. “Mostly from the military, colonels, generals . . .”
The woman grinned dismissively, displaying a row of large white teeth. She looked robust and healthy. Despite large breasts and a flabby midriff, she looked fit, suggesting that with the right training, she could become a satisfactory nursemaid. So, I asked if she had any identification.
The manager tried to make light of the fact that she did not. “I am personally her guarantor,” he said emphatically. “That is more important than any ID you can imagine.” The woman grinned again, ignoring the manager. “No, I have no ID,” she addressed me for the first time. “I am what I am. What you see is what you get. Take it or leave it. And my official name is something else. I call myself Delbar because I like it.”
She sounded arrogant and abrasive, as if she did not care if she was hired or not. Deep down, I resented her attitude. I was thinking I could humiliate her and put her in her place by firing her after two days.
Finally, the papers were signed and payments made. Delbar did not have much by way of luggage, a small suitcase and a plastic bag full of stuff. I hailed a cab and when I gave the driver the address, Delbar whistled loudly. “So you live in a posh neighborhood,” she said. “I know the area.”
I did not say anything but thought the comment cheeky. I should teach her a lesson or two, I thought.
“What am I supposed to do? Housework? Cooking? Childcare? What?” she asked.
“Childcare and housecleaning,” I said curtly.
“I can’t do both. Children take a lot of time. Make up your mind,” she retorted.
“Childcare comes first,” I said, trying to sound authoritative.
“How many kids?”
“Just one. A one-year-old boy.”
She looked away as if displeased. I noticed the cab driver was watching her in the rear-view mirror. I tapped him on the shoulder: “Watch where you’re going.”
“Look here,” I hissed at her. “If you don’t like my boy, you just leave, you understand?”
“I’d never hurt a child,” she protested. “I have been in scuffles with grownups but I’ve never hurt those smaller than me, especially a year-old kid.”
Once in the house, Delbar looked around and asked, “Isn’t there a man in the house?”
I ignored her.
“That’s better. To hell with them all,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
My little boy, standing in his playpen, delighted to see me, shrieked joyously. The young girl who was babysitting him gave Delbar a nod and left after she got paid.
I brought out the washed and starched pink coverall I had got for the Russian housekeeper and handed it to Delbar, saying that before she picked up the child she should take a shower and put on the frock. She looked at it for a moment and tossed it on the back of a chair. “I only wear new outfits,” she said disdainfully. “I won’t ever touch hand-me-downs, especially this one. Looks like a smock for housemaids.” She then looked at me superciliously, letting me know that she was her own boss whether I liked it or not.
I suppressed the rising wave of anger and decided to assert my authority at a more opportune moment.
My son, just beginning to talk, called me from the nursery. Delbar followed me there. She looked at the boy and clucked her tongue. “What an ugly baby!” she exclaimed. “You’re so ugly, you little chimp.”
“Little Chimp” simply stuck despite my consternation. Even I began to call him Little Chimp after that, and for as long as Delbar was with us. At the time he had large brown eyes and two prominent front teeth, giving him the look of a playful rabbit. He was good-tempered and—for his age—companionable and friendly. On first seeing Delbar, he gave a shriek of delight, stretching out his arms in her direction. Delbar made a funny face at him, which brought out a peel of laughter from him as he attempted an imitation.
“What a forward baby!” said Delabr, tickling his tummy playfully and patting him on the head. But abruptly, as if bored with the whole thing, she looked at her watch and said she had to make a phone call.
“Maybe later,” I said, trying to insinuate an air of authority into my voice. “Right now, just watch the baby.” Delbar frowned but said nothing. Almost immediately, I had a sense that I had said the wrong thing—my perpetual ineptitude with the exertion of authority—and pointed to a telephone in the hallway. “You may make your call there, but don’t be too long,” I said, in an attempt to save face. “Is there a phone in the bedroom?” she asked. Taking my silence (rather, my astonishment) as a sign of consent, she strode into my bedroom and closed the door behind her. I did not like the idea of strangers in my bedroom, especially newly hired household help. I called her name but she did not answer. In an explosive burst I called her again. The vehemence in my voice scared the baby, who began to cry. “This is not going to work out,” I thought to myself. “I need to get someone else.”
I opened my bedroom door only to see Delbar lounging on the bed looking at a magazine. “There was no answer,” she said. “I’ll call later.” She then threw the magazine on the bedside table and strode out nonchalantly. I had an urge to protest but somehow could not find the resolve for a confrontation.
I took a week off work to stay home for Delbar’s orientation and to observe her treatment of my son. It was obvious she did not much care for him. She displayed no outward affection toward him. She did not cuddle him, as other nurses did in my presence. But she was not vicious or abusive either. She simply took care of him in a way that I found efficient and professional. In her spare time, she carried a little transistor radio wherever she went, mostly listening to popular music. She took a long time for grocery shopping and was soon on a first-name basis with the local butcher, greengrocer, and baker, as well as the neighbor’s manservant. She was at ease and jovial with men folk. It was easy to imagine her intimate with a boyfriend, drinking, singing, dancing. She also loved car rides. Every time I took my son out for a drive, she insisted on accompanying us. She just hated to be left at home alone.
A couple of months went by without any incidents or problems. Delbar would take days off on a weekly basis. Curiously, on her days off, I could not find my sunglasses, or one of my dresses went missing. But I learned to live with the situation since everything would reappear when she returned. Once I found a jackknife in the pocket of one of my jackets. Another time she returned home with scratches on her neck and face. She mumbled something about her family living in a dangerous neighborhood and needing a knife to fight off muggers from time to time.
Despite everything, we had learned to put up with each other. I was satisfied as long as she performed her chores and took care of the baby adequately.
Later, I had cause to wish things had stayed that way.
Delbar’s attitude toward Little Chimp changed after the events of a certain night.
My son’s bed was in my bedroom, a little away from my own. Delbar slept in the adjoining room. An influenza epidemic was making the rounds in the city and, despite all precautions, I was inflicted with a particularly virulent strain and came down with severe symptoms. To avoid infecting the baby, I moved his bed into Delbar’s room. She was not pleased since she was very particular about her rest and did not appreciate the possibility of any disturbance. But she did not openly object. The next night, in the firm grip of influenza, I was awakened by the sound of Little Chimp crying. I jumped out of bed and opened the door to Delbar’s room. I saw her holding the baby in her arms, rocking him back and forth. I touched his forehead. It was hot and his breathing was labored. With eyes moist and half-open, he was looking at Delbar. This was the first time he was so sick, and I lost my nerve.
“We must give him a cold bath,” Delbar suggested.
“No way. He’ll get pneumonia.” I replied.
“I’ve seen it work before,” she insisted.
I was in a quandary and in a state of neurosis. I rummaged through the medicine cabinet for some medication. But with my eyes burning and head pounding, I could not read the labels or understand what they meant. In despair I called the number of our pediatrician and a gruff voice yelled back at me and hung up. I tried again. This time there was no answer.
“We must take him to the emergency ward,” I said and took the baby from her. “Hurry up, get dressed.” The child was almost unconscious, his head lolling back and forth. That was a bad sign, perhaps of viral meningitis. I was now disoriented and out of control, running this way and that, crashing into things. Delbar, however, was uncannily calm. “Give me Little Chimp,” she said firmly, and snatched him out of my arms.
“You’d better calm down, lady,” she ordered. “Go to your room and try to sleep. Trust me.”
I was in a daze. Her commanding tone had stripped me of my nominal authority. She went into the bathroom with the baby in her arms. I followed wordlessly. She undressed the boy and was about to hold him under the streaming cold shower when I gave a loud yell. She was trying to kill him. I was convinced of that. Now all the problems with her ID card, the jackknife, the scratches on her hands and face crowded my mind. The high fever was distorting everything in my sight. I lunged for the baby, but Delbar held me off with one hand, pushing me out of the bathroom. She then locked the door. I banged on the door as hard as I could. “Open the damn door. Please open the door,” I begged to no avail. I rushed out of the apartment to get help from the neighbors. But I remembered the whole family was out of town. I moved back inside, in the full grip of hallucination. But now the bathroom door opened and I saw Delbar walking out carrying the baby wrapped in a towel.
“Get me his clothes,” she ordered.
Clothes? What clothes? My mind was racing. Delbar moved toward me and touched my neck and face. “You are really sick.” She moved into the bedroom and I followed.
“You go to bed,” she said, “and I’ll stay up with him.”
She then brought me a glass of water and almost forced a couple of aspirins in my mouth. I could now hear the baby breathing comfortably. I did not want him to stay with Delbar, but I could not put up a struggle. I slumped on the bed and passed out.
Early morning I was awakened by the soft sounds coming from the next room. I crawled to the door and saw Delbar on the floor leaning against the wall. My son was peacefully asleep on her legs with his head on a pillow. Delbar was whispering a lullaby. This scenario was repeated for a few more nights as both my son and I were recuperating. Every time the baby cried or moaned, Delbar would soothe him and whisper comfortingly in his ear.
“Thanks very much, Miss,” I told her on a day when I felt both the baby and I were sufficiently improved. “The baby is moving back into my bedroom.”
“But he’s still coughing. I’ll just go on looking after him,” she said, bringing the subject to a close. It took another week before I could muster the resolve to get the baby back in my bedroom. Delbar sulked all day and would occasionally peep through the door to check on him. The next day I woke up fairly early and found the baby missing from his crib. Alarmed, I rushed into Delbar’s room. There he was fast asleep in her arms. This was upsetting, and I stepped up to the bed to pull him out of her arms. But I was transfixed by the sight of the two of them, sleeping side by side, so peacefully, so deeply, that they did not even hear the slamming of the door.
A bonding had taken place between my son and Delbar in the course of that illness. She had established possession over him, perhaps because she believed she had saved him from the jaws of death. At first I found this reassuring; it meant that my son would be in good hands when I was away from home. But I began to find some later developments very disturbing and threatening to my relationship with my son. At times I was positively jealous and filled with chagrin at my own helplessness and gradual dissociation from the daily life of my child.
For example, one night I returned home very late and found Little Chimp wide awake, playing in the middle of the living room. Delbar was watching him as she talked on the phone. She simply shrugged when I objected that it was too late for the baby to be awake. “You can’t force him to sleep, can you?” she retorted. I also found that on her days off, my son was cool and distant, refusing to respond to my demands, incessantly pouting and whimpering, obviously missing Delbar. When I complained about this behavior, suggesting that she had spoiled him, she said she would not take any more time off. “I have no relatives of my own, any way,” she said, “I just visit some friends.” She dismissed my insistence that the contract required that she take her days off.
Another time, without asking me, Delbar dressed up the child to take him out for a stroll. “No! I am taking him to see his grandmother,” I said, just to be contrary. “I’m going with you,” she said, continuing to tie his shoelaces.” No, you’re doing no such thing,” I replied testily. “You’re staying behind and cleaning house,” I said, as I took the boy’s arm and pulled him toward me. He yelled in protest, pushed me away, and ran after Delbar toward the kitchen. But he tripped and fell, scratching his forehead against a chair. Instantly, Delbar picked him up and looked at his forehead, then turned to me, glaring. “Now look what you’ve done,” she said, sibilant with rage. “What the hell do you want from us?”
From us? That was my son she was talking about.
I was about to explode. I reached out and grabbed the boy by the hand. But he screamed, pulled his hand out of mine, rushing to Delbar. I felt defeated and hopeless but restrained myself and let it pass.
On another occasion, when I came home, I was furious to see Delbar had dressed up Little Chimp like a girl, with rouge and lipstick and a red ribbon in his scant tuft of hair. I objected vociferously and wanted to know where the dress had come from. “I bought it with my own money,” she said defensively. “I didn’t steal it or anything.” Then, ignoring my agitation, she simply noted how pretty he looked. “I wish he were a girl,” she said dreamily. I gathered him up in my arms, roughly pulling the dress off and wiping the make-up off his face as he screamed at the top of his voice, reaching out for the discarded dress. Delbar picked it up, handing it back to him. “What’s wrong with being a girl?” she said defiantly. “I think I can make him into a beautiful one.” I was speechless with the illogic of the whole situation.
Events such as these had become almost routine in our household, with the emotional tie between Delbar and my son getting stronger and me feeling increasingly left out of the equation.
The clincher came one night when I got home after dark. I had called earlier to let Delbar know that I would be late and gave explicit instructions that she should feed Little Chimp and put him to bed. When I got home it was past eight and the whole apartment was dark and silent. I assumed that they were both asleep. I peeped into my bedroom to find the baby’s bed empty. She must have taken him to bed with her, I thought with ire. I opened the door to her room. It was dark with the curtains drawn. It took a few moments for my eyes to get adjusted to the dark. My heart sank when I saw no sign of them in bed or anywhere in the room. “She’s kidnapped the baby,” was the first thought that came to me. The idea was too horrible. A string of other possibilities raced through my mind—perhaps visiting the grandma, her own relatives, my ex-husband (but he was abroad). In a fit of anxiety I rushed out of the apartment and knocked hard on the neighbor’s door, which the maid flung open, flustered.
“Is Delabar here, with my son?” I asked, hoping for a positive answer.
“No,” she said, visibly concerned. “What’s wrong? Maybe she’s gone shopping?”
Yes! I thought. Shopping! Delbar often did that, taking the boy with her. I stumbled down the stairs and looked up and down the street. No sign of them. I rushed back into the apartment and dialed my mother’s number. When she answered, I said nothing about the disappearance, and hung up after a cursory, pointless chat. Should I call the police? Or my ex-husband, who wasn’t even in the country? What shall I tell them, any way? By now I was panting, with my heart almost bursting out of my chest. And suddenly I heard the apartment door opening and the sound of voices. The sound of Delbar’s laughter intermingled with the cheery voice of Little Chimp. The world which had sunk into a deadly dark silence came suddenly to life. I became aware of other sounds, the dripping faucet, the night owl outside the window, the myriad sounds of happy, ordinary, life. A warm feeling of assurance ran into my limbs, and once again I had my feet on solid ground. Then a wave of hostility and resentment began to rise in my breast. That stupid woman taking out my child against my express wish, keeping him up past his bedtime, causing me unbearable distress! A string of obscenities formed in my head as I raced into the hall ready to fire them at her.
“It was such nice weather we went to the Royal Park for a stroll,” she said as soon as she saw me, slipping into her room, closing the door behind her. That took the wind out of my sails. I felt pre-empted, upstaged. Anything I could say then would sound hysterical, overblown, vindictive, and motivated by mere jealousy. I was envious of Delbar having such a primal happiness with my son, two of them together, excluding me like an unnecessary, superfluous entity.
It was at that very moment that I felt a lump of resolve hardening in my heart, the resolve to fire Delbar, to get her out of my life and the life of my child. She instinctively knew it the next day when I told her that she had to leave. At first she tried to rationalize what she had done. The boy needs a man around him. That’s why she had taken him out in Hussein Agha’s car. He could be the missing father figure for the little boy. (Who the hell is Hussein Agha, anyway? Boyfriend? Common-law husband?) She would work for no pay, she offered.
She wouldn’t leave.
—Have pity on me.
She stayed the rest of the week and left without saying good-bye or getting the balance of her wages. She left some of her belongings behind—perhaps as an excuse to come back to get them. But she did not return for a long time, and when she did I had difficulty recognizing her. She looked strikingly older, with tufts of gray hair under a scarf. She said she had gone to Mashhad on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Reza, so that he would relieve her of the love she bears for this child. All to no avail, she told me. But I remained firm. We had plans to travel abroad and, besides, we’d already hired a replacement and there was no need for her services, I told her, smugly. She looked wan and crestfallen, no trace of her former superciliousness in sight.
Could she have a picture of the boy? No problem.
Could she have his old shirt and a pair of his socks? No problem.
Could she see him for the last time and give him a hug? No way!
By now Little Chimp, restricted to his playpen in my bedroom, had heard Delbar’s voice and was whimpering to join us. I stood my ground and asked her to leave. When I finally closed the door on her, I heaved a sigh of relief. “Anyone else would have done the same,” I assured myself, running back to the bedroom to rejoin Little Chimp. He was upset and uncooperative, flailing his arms and calling for Delbar. I tried to placate him with chocolate and bananas. But he was inconsolable and kept saying he wanted Delbar. I lifted him up to look out of the window at the people and passing cars and trucks. I saw that she was still standing at the end of the alley, looking longingly, despondently, at our building. She then turned around slowly and trudged away, disappearing around the bend. Thereafter, I spotted her a couple of times in the neighborhood and felt inexplicable pangs of conscience. I could not understand why. Had I not made a decision commensurate with the dictates of reason? Why the guilty feeling?
When the revolution came, Delbar disappeared altogether. So did any vestiges of orderliness and routine from my life. The university had closed, leaving me jobless and alone, in constant fear of abduction, incarceration, even execution. After all, I was guilty of being comfortably off. So, before the borders were closed, I packed up what I could, took my son in tow, and left for Paris, the city of my dreams, where I was sure finding a nursemaid would not be a problem.
The sojourn in Paris—originally planned not to last more than a year since I figured it would take that long for things to return to the way they were—lasted for many years. How could I return? The war with Iraq was getting worse and young boys were being sent to the front. Soon Little Chimp was in school, developing friendships and emotional bonds in his new country and becoming distant from his native land. Tehran was no more than a destination beyond the borders, thousands of miles away, where we went for short visits once a year.
Tonight is one night in the course of one of those annual visits. I get drowsy and doze off only to wake up, taking a moment or two to realize where I am and what is happening to me. I can see Delbar strutting up and down the corridor, now talking to the hookers, now cajoling the young girls, now comforting the elderly. By now she has created the image of being more humane than the other Sisters. I have withdrawn to the dark recesses of the holding cell, trying to remain inconspicuous, but I am sure she has already spotted me in that brief moment of eye contact. She blushed and her jaw dropped, before turning her glance away. Now my fate is in her hands. The thought chokes me and I feel nauseated thinking of the strokes of the whip awaiting me.
It is early dawn when they call us all up. No trace of men. Mrs. M., pale and trembling, is raising a racket, asking for her husband. “They have taken them to Evin,”3 she was yelling. “God knows what they’re going to do to them.”
The girls surround her solicitously, trying to calm her down with sweetened tea. Her blood pressure is dropping, one girl warns. A couple more of the old women are also on the verge of losing consciousness.
Soon, two additional Sisters arrive, ominously clad in funereal black. The word gets out that the men have been moved to another court and the women will be exempt from whipping in lieu of heavy fines.
By now parents and relatives have been tipped off and are crowding the front yard carrying deeds of trust and titles to all kinds of property as collateral. Some have sent in messages that they are willing to be whipped in place of their loved ones. Financial restitution is not enough, rules the committee chief. The miscreants must sign affidavits and declarations of penitence never to engage in impious behavior and flout God’s law again. The young girls are seething with rage, about to explode. Two of the more vociferous ones are summarily sentenced to prison terms and hefty fines. My case is not yet adjudicated.
Everybody is gone except me and it is noon and time for midday prayers. I don’t know the ritual and cannot fake it. Something tells me that my sentence will be harsher because of this. I am starving and dying for a cup of tea, but the wait is hurting me more. Now that the prayer is over, the officials return and call me before the committee chief. “We have concluded our investigation into your affairs,” he says pompously. “You have a long list of priors. You are conducting an illicit affair with a married man at this time. You reside in a foreign country. There is no reason why you should be visiting this country regularly . . . unless you are a foreign spy.”
As false as these charges are, they are dangerous. I can see Delbar’s hand in all this. I know there is no legal recourse, but I feel the need to challenge the accusations.
“According to the Constitution and Islamic Juridical Code,” I announce, more in despair than expectation of a remedy, “I have the right to defend myself in a court of law.” I can see Delbar leaning against a doorjamb pretending to be absorbed in something she is reading. She’s the one that knows the details of my private life. The battle between us is now in full swing.
“What have I done,” I hear myself screaming, “except attend a party? What is wrong with that?”
A Revolutionary Guard conscript standing by the door gazes at me in disgust. The Committee chief, fuming, slaps his pen on the desk before him.
I am surprised by my newfound nerve. Just a few minutes ago I was overwhelmed with fear, ready for any concession to get out of my predicament. Perhaps it is seeing Delbar that has provoked me, made me want to stand up for what is left of my dignity and put up a fight against the agony of defeat. As she stands by the door, the trace of a smirk is visible on her lips.
I can hear some woman being whipped upstairs.
“Are you pregnant?” a Sister asks. “Any heart condition? Liver disease?” I remain mum.
It is now obvious that Delbar is in charge of administering the whipping. She leads the way upstairs, neither of us acknowledging the other. The staircase is narrow and stuffy. The walls are of a faint pinkish color with a chandelier at the landing. Obviously the building used to be an opulent private residence, expropriated from some rich supporter of the former regime and now fallen into disrepair. Upstairs, the room is dominated by a huge ornate sideboard, crammed full of dossiers and file folders.
“Now you will take ablutions and pray,” orders the Sister who has accompanied us upstairs.
“I don’t know how to,” I retort, “and I don’t care.”
“To hell with you,” she says as she storms out of the room. Delbar and I are now alone together. There is a sort of a backless bench or narrow bedstead near the wall. That is where you lie, face down, to be whipped. The whipping is done over the clothing, but the shoes must come off. Another Sister comes in to prepare me for the procedure.
“This wretch is about to pass out,” she tells Delbar, seeing my quivering lips. “She can’t take thirty strokes.” I wait for some kind of response from Delbar, but she says nothing.
“Here, take this,” says the Sister, handing Delbar a Koran. “Hold it under your arm.”
I had heard that sometimes the executors of the whipping got so excited in the performance of their tasks that they raised their arms too high and inflicted more pain than prescribed. Hence the Koran under the arm.
I feel nauseated again, a composite of shame, rage, fear, and humiliation. My mouth is dry and I am gasping for breath.
“Relax and think of God,” says the attending Sister, as she prepares to leave the room. “Ask Ali4 for mercy.”
Delbar is now standing close behind me. I have to suppress the urge to break the silence, to laugh, to take her hand and ask her how she’s been, to tell her about Little Chimp. But I remain prostrate on the bedstead. Under me there is a filthy bed sheet, smelling of sweat, the sweat from countless bodies that have suffered the whippings and have left behind the stench of hatred, misery, and rage.
Delbar is taking her time. I can hear water being poured from a jug into a glass and I am reminded of my thirst. She is intentionally prolonging my agony.
I now can sense her presence in the vicinity of my body, standing by the bed. She passes her hand over my back. I shudder uncontrollably. Then I feel a hand on my calf muscles. I am about to shout with distress. I wish she would get on with it. It’s so much harder to suffer the expectation of torture than the torture itself. A spate of memories, haphazard recollections, floods my brain—the days when she was with us, with me and my son, our car rides, sight-seeing excursions, Delbar’s affectionate whispers in Little Chimp’s ear, the overwhelming desire to stop the car and kick her out but letting circumspection get the better of me. Even more distant memories assail my consciousness, the childish jealousy of my brother for getting more attention from my mother, getting preferential treatment from everyone, because he was younger. That old, forgotten rage that I have nursed silently and patiently is now fresh at the forefront of my mind. Now is the time to confront it all.
And then there is the first stroke of the whip.
But not on my back. It is on the sole of my foot, not hard but gentle, almost soothing. I can hear the strands of the whip hitting the edge of the iron bed. Is she testing them for strength? I now feel her hand on the back of my neck, moving down to tug at my earlobe. My neck muscles contract, lifting my head straight up. Ahead of me I see the filthy wall with wide cracks, decorated with faded snapshots of martyrs, newspaper clippings, a light switch, and a framed picture of the Supreme Leader. An unfamiliar, unpleasant odor reaches my nostrils. It is wafting from a pair of old military boots slumped at the foot of the bed. I can hear a closet door open and close. Somebody coughs. I can hear whispers. There is a third person in the room. My backbone is in a painful spasm in anticipation of the whipping, but nothing happens. This is unbearable. This is inhuman. I must rise and object. Go ahead and take your revenge, I must demand of Delbar. How long can we keep up this pretense? I begin to count. I count up to one hundred and then I sit up and rise to my feet.
“Go ahead! Do your worst and leave me alone!” I yell with all the fierceness I can muster.
My voice echoes in the empty room. I am flustered, puzzled, disoriented. Minutes pass, each as long as an eternity.
Then the door flings open and the other Sister walks in. “Come on, get dressed,” she commands.
“But I am supposed to be whipped,” I protest.
“Weren’t you?” she asks. I shake my head.
“None of my business,” she says, with a shrug of her shoulders. “Sister Ghorbani was in charge.”
“Why didn’t she do it,” I want to know.
“Oh, come on. Don’t argue. Get out of here,” she snaps. “Do you want to call someone to come and get you? Do you want a cab?” she asks, with some mildness creeping into her voice.
It’s all over! It occurs to me.
I accept the glass of water the Sister has brought me, put on my socks and shoes. My body feels like it is coming out of anesthesia. Am I waking up from a dream? Things look unreal. There is a fantasy-like quality to everything—the glass of water in my hand, the woman standing next to me, the stinking boots on the floor, the pictures on the wall. Even the noises from outside—cars honking in the street, a siren wailing in the distance, people talking downstairs—all are in a dream.
I stumble down the stairs, with my hand on the wall to steady myself. A man standing at the foot of the stairs averts his eyes in a gesture of piety. “Pull down your scarf,” he says. I open the door to a room next to the staircase. It is empty. The door next to it is locked. “Who are you looking for?” the man asks.
“The Sister who whipped me,” I answer. “Sister Ghorbani.” He offers no response. A youngish Sister, sitting behind a desk at the far end of the lobby, beckons to me. When I walk over to her, she places my handbag and earrings on the desk. “Count your money,” she advises. “So you don’t say later that there was any pilfering.”
Everything is in order. I put on my sunglasses and head for the exit. The guard at the gate looks at me, disapprovingly. “Take off those shades,” he barks. “It is forbidden here.” I ignore him and walk out.
My son is waiting for me on the sidewalk. He had been asleep until around noon, and that is when he heard about the incident. When I see him, I wish Delbar were there. An indescribable pain fills my chest. He is agitated and upset, his brown eyes tearful. I assure him that nothing has happened to me. A taxicab is waiting at the curb. We get in. Everywhere I look I see flashes of Delbar’s face with doleful eyes—and that ever-familiar smirk on her lips.
1. As part of its campaign to enforce standards of Islamic conduct for women, the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Guidance had recruited large numbers of women from lower classes, former prostitutes, according to some reports, organized in “Zeynab’s Sisters” squads, putatively associated with a female member of the Prophet’s immediate family and a Shiite saint, the paragon of chastity and virtue.↩
2. The installation of the so-called Islamic Republic in 1979.↩
3. An infamous prison originally built by the former regime but later used by the Islamic rulers as a detention center for dissidents and political opponents.↩
4. The first Imam and close relative and associate of the Prophet, traditionally known among the Shiites as the patron saint of the unfortunate.↩