In Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde’s What We Owe, translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Jane Clark Wessel and forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a fifty-year-old Iranian refugee living in Sweden revisits the choices of her past after discovering she has only six months to live.
The day I was born, I was a disappointment. I was the sixth girl in a family with no sons. I was not what my parents had hoped for. But I wasn’t the biggest disappointment. When Noora was born six years later, we were all deflated. I don’t really know why they wanted boys. In more conservative families, a boy meant getting a breadwinner. A girl just cost money. But that wasn’t the case with us. When I was born, Maryam was already twenty years old and a teacher. She moved out to the provinces, to the villages that needed teachers. She lived on her own and earned money. Money she brought home to us.
Soon all my older sisters worked. As teachers and research assistants. Their money was our money, and we lived in a cocoon of sisterhood and pride. My mother brought customers to our home. She cut and dyed their hair. She plucked and threaded their faces. I learned how early on, and I helped her. The women lay on a mattress, and I leaned over them with my back curved and a thread between my chubby baby fingers. I don’t like to tell these things to people here in Sweden. It goes against the way they look at life here. My poor sisters, who worked hard and had to give their money to their mother. Noora and I, who swept up hair, threaded brows, and worked for the family. No real autonomy for them, no real childhood for us. One might say. But I think our lives were wonderful. My sisters, imagine the freedom they had. And me, with all these women, with the promise of femininity and self-sufficiency. All at the same time.
* * *
When I was young I was a person with great potential. I was intelligent. Ambitious. Hardworking. Words you’d think mean something. Lead to something.
I got into medical school. You can’t imagine what an accomplishment that was. It was like a dream. The dream. My mother, my sisters. They were so proud they cried and cried for days after the notice of admission was published in the newspaper.
Toward the end of the summer my sisters invited our neighbors to a party, in celebration. My mother didn’t like that. She didn’t think you should advertise good news. The evil eye was what she feared the most. That some begrudging person would look at us with envy, and their evil eye would destroy our world. But she helped us prepare anyway. We were eight women in a steamy kitchen. Mama and her seven daughters. It sounds like a fairy tale when you say it like that. I suppose it was.
Maryam, the sweat glistening on her forehead while she fried eggplant and cooked pot after pot of meat. Mahvash, Gita, Shoohreh, and Shabnam in their miniskirts and bleached-blond blowouts. Four independent working women who looked like dolls. I was the one who cut and blow-dried their Farrah Fawcett hairstyles. That was the kind of world we pined for. Charlie’s Angels and The Godfather. Strong and brittle. To save and be saved. Things that don’t really exist in any reality. They sat on the floor with their legs stretched out and cleaned vegetables and Mama glared at those long bare legs and eventually hid them with a blanket. She didn’t want us to show skin. Show off. She didn’t want us to provoke.
And then Noora. Our baby, just turned twelve. She ran between us with her braids bouncing in the air and talked. Boy, how she prattled on.
“I don’t understand why we can’t invite agha Hossein and his boys?”
“We can’t, Noora,” our mother replied.
“But I don’t understand why? We’ve known them all our lives. Won’t they be offended?”
“They don’t want to come, Noora.”
“But how do we know, did we ask?”
Maryam stepped in during those situations, when she sensed our mother’s energy was flagging. That was always her role. Deflect, protect, take over.
“Noora, they don’t want to come because they’re ashamed to come.”
“But why are they ashamed?”
“Because Mustafa was here and asked for Nahid’s hand and she said no, remember? That kind of thing is not easy for a man, Noora.”
“But that only shows that he likes her, so it’s obvious he wants to be here and celebrate.”
“No, Noora. It’s not obvious.”
Me, I was the opposite of Maryam. Short and hard, no interest in protecting anyone.
“It’s just the opposite. He’s a man and his pride is all he has. Do you think he can handle the girl who said no to him making something of herself? Becoming a doctor? When no one in his family, not one of six healthy boys and men, has gone to university? Half didn’t even finish high school. They don’t want to celebrate us! They’re probably sitting around calling us witches and whores.”
I lowered my head and fell silent. Maryam rarely spoke sharply.
“Witches and whores!” Noora laughed delightedly and danced across the kitchen floor. “Witches and whores,” she sang, and Mahvash and Gita sang along.
Noora lifted the blanket Mama had placed over them. With a coquettish wink she threw it over her head like a chador.
“Witches and whores, they said of Dr. Nahid, witches and whores, that’s what we are.”
I met Maryam’s eyes and we both started laughing. Soon we were all on our feet, someone had put on a vinyl record, and we sang and danced with lettuce and meat cleavers in our hands. Witches and whores gave way to Hayedeh, a pop icon.
I remember years later. Long after we fled. Long after Hayedeh fled. When the news of her death reached us, Masood barely looked up from his newspaper. Just said three words:
“One less whore.”
* * *
When I remember that party, the feeling of loss cuts even deeper. It was so perfect. My sisters and mother cooked for days. Our uncle hung lanterns across the yard. He invited some musician friends, too. A singer with a silky voice, an elderly man on a tombak and his son on sitar. Neighbors and relatives flowed through the garden gate. They whistled and cheered, excited about the future. Even agha Hossein came by. He stopped at the door and held his hat to his chest and waited. After I cautiously approached him he cleared his throat.
“Congratulations,” he said, handing over a small gift.
I rushed to kiss him on the cheek. It was as if his presence confirmed my every hope for the life that awaited me. Everything would turn out fine, and nothing was as bad as I feared. He turned and left without saying more, but it didn’t matter. I followed his back with my eyes until he disappeared through his own door, and then I ran over to my sisters again. Ran like a child.
The musicians sang and played everything we asked them to, and we took turns running to them with expectant eyes and a request for the next song. We danced. I don’t even think any of us ate any of the food. We danced and we sang. There were no nuances. No shadows. Only joy. My mother was sending a daughter to medical school. The sole provider to seven girls. She stayed away, but finally Noora ran into the kitchen and pulled her out. We grabbed her by the arms and pushed her and she laughed and stepped into our ring and threw the dishtowel over her shoulder and danced. She danced and sang, and when the song was over, she came up to me and took my face between her rough hands, angular and callused from all those years in the salon. She kissed my forehead. Long and hard. Noora whistled, and I closed my eyes to hide the tears welling up. Then she left and stayed inside for the rest of the evening, but it didn’t matter. I knew I’d given her something meaningful.
He was there that night. We had never met him before. The Soltani family brought him along. He’d just moved to the city to study at the university. They thought it was fitting. Thought he’d like meeting other students. I didn’t notice him at first—what I noticed was that Noora was talking to someone for a long time. Someone who was laughing at her jokes and listening to her bubbling thoughts and observations. It was only later in the evening, when I sat on the steps with my platform shoes next to me, rubbing my sore feet, that she pulled him over. That I saw him.
“Nahid. Nahid, this is Masood! He’s going to be studying agriculture. His father is a farmer! What is it he raises? Oh yeah, worms! Silkworms! And they spin threads and the threads make carpets and . . . It’s very important work! The pride of Iran. Can you imagine!”
Masood laughed. A warm, chuckling laugh. Not self-conscious, or formed in the mouth, but a real laugh, the kind that comes from deep in the belly.
“For my father, it’s very important, but the pride of Iran it is not. I don’t know if we have any pride left.”
Those words made me look up. When I met his eyes they were both inviting and defiant.
“I thought we were the pride of Iran. Its beautiful women.”
I said the words as if it were natural for me to say such things. To flirt. It was not. I’d never done it before. I remember hoping Noora wouldn’t make fun of me, hoping she’d let me get away with it.
He sat down on the steps next to me. Smiled so all his teeth were exposed.
“You’re not our pride, you’re our heart.”
“Don Juan. Warning: Don Juan!”
Then she ran away and we stayed sitting there. I had no idea I had so much to talk about. Had so much going on in my head. But he seemed to know, know exactly.
We talked, Masood and me. We talked as the music fell silent and the lamps went out. We talked as friends and neighbors came up and kissed my cheeks, congratulating me one last time. We sat on the steps and talked all that first night. Maryam peered out between the curtains from time to time, watching over us.
He had ideas, more radical than any I’d ever heard. Ideas about tearing down all the old structures that locked us into our destinies. He talked about the people, about the people’s right to bread. He spoke of justice as if it were a party, as if it were our job to arrange it. Send out the invitations. As the sun rose, he leaned back and rested on his arms with eyes closed. His fair hair curled at his forehead and gleamed like gold in the morning light. I looked at him, not the least bit tired. I remember that feeling so well. The feeling of having been awake all night, of having danced until my feet ached, having sung and talked until my throat was crackling dry, but still not being satisfied. On the contrary, I wanted more. That hunger.
I think that’s what life is. Being hungry. I’m trying to think of anything now that would be worth staying awake all night for. Nothing comes to me, not a solitary thought. Am I full now, I wonder. Maybe that is why the cancer came to me.
Excerpted from What We Owe, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2017 by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde. Translation copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Jane Clark Wessel. By arrangement with the publisher.