Extracted from Words, Not Swords: Iran Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement (Syracuse University Press, 2011).
As I put pen to paper to jot down my recollections of the fourteen months I spent in Europe, I feel a bit apprehensive. I have to rely solely on what I can remember, and I confess I am rather weak when it comes to remembering. Or perhaps the problem is that I suspect my memories are not sharp enough, not strong enough to shake off the dust of oblivion that invariably covers the past.
Unfortunately, the notes I wrote on this trip are no longer at my disposal and I have little hope of recovering them. This is not surprising, since a person who cannot rely on her memory, can hardly be expected to remember where she left her notes or to whom she should refer to find them! But in spite of this, I believe the experience of others could be a model for my own. I do not consider my life in Europe to have been very different from that of other peoples’; everyone lives in much the same way there. In fact, nothing that has happened to me in life has been either unique or particularity extraordinary. What we call reality is ultimately universal to us all, a constant we share even though its impact on each of us is specific and depends on disposition and temperament, on levels of expectation and hope, on the breadth and range of our horizons. For instance, something that brings me joy can provoke indifference in someone else whose tastes are other than mine, whose feelings are different, who has a dissimilar mind. In either case, the event is common to us:—it is only our reactions which alter it. And that, I believe, is the reason why we can talk to each other and share a common understanding.
But perhaps I should just stick to the subject of my trip to Europe even though it is difficult to do so. Perhaps I should simply begin from the beginning. I promise to be honest and to tell the truth.
What encouraged me to leave and live in a distant land was not the desire to see new things or to experience a more exciting life; I did not go in search of pleasure. At that time, I felt as if I were living in a bottomless pit; I had lost my path; I saw no way to reach the light. My soul was prey to dark despondency and distress. When I reached out I felt emptiness around me. There was no one there to hold my hand, no hope to fill the cup of my heart, no knowledge to quench the thirst of my soul.
The pressures of my life, the stress of my environment, and the chains that bound me, hand and foot, were killing. I spent my time fighting them just to survive. I wanted to be a “woman,” which is to say, I wanted to be a “human being.” I wanted my rights; I wanted to be allowed to breathe, to scream if necessary! But others wanted to silence me, to stifle my voice. And they had potent weapons to do so. I could not shrug them off lightly, not any longer; I could not laugh at them any more. And it was not because I had run out of laughter. Oh, no! I had simply run out of energy, from all the fighting. So in order to find new energy and the strength to laugh again, I decided, quite abruptly, to leave Iran.
In those days, I would never have imagined that this trip could have such a profound impact on my spirit or that it could restore my health, and give me back my peace of mind. But as I write these lines, I have to confess that I have never felt as calm and strong and hopeful as I do now. Nor have I ever been as committed to my goals or as dedicated to what constitutes the true “life” of my life. In those days, I was like a bird that had started to fly in the dark and found itself confined in a terrible void. I wanted to soar to new heights, to fly towards the source of light and life, and I found myself, instead, caught in the fog, buffeted by the wind and mired down by the pelting rain. All I could do was to beat my wings. And I kept beating them and beating them, going nowhere. And when my wings grew weary, I collapsed, I gave up; I drowned myself in sleep in order to forget the terror and exhaustion of being awake. But even in my stupor I kept dreaming of flight. Now that I have awakened from that dream life, my wings have been freed at last. Although I know there will be tempests and storm clouds ahead, I am no longer suffering from pain and exhaustion and my heart is filled with hope. My sights have been fixed on the far horizon, on that luminous path ahead that is leading to the sun of serenity, of happiness, and true freedom. In stark contrast to that earlier time when it seemed that everything was conspiring against me, even though there was no reason for it – I do not believe I ever hurt anyone; I do not recall harming anybody on purpose – now it seems that everyone is treating me more kindly.
I believe it was on the fifteenth of “Tir” [July] of last year 1335 , when I first left Iran. The exact date eludes me. I was a bit melancholy that day. I sat on in my bed for a while and looked around me. I thought about my imminent separation from my room, my books, about this long journey away from my brothers, my sisters and my parents, all of whom I dearly loved. Around noon, I left the house to visit my son. I was in despair not to find him and at the same time dreaded the prospect of saying goodbye. On my return home, however, I found him, quite unexpectedly, sitting at the dining room table, eating a meal with my parents. He seemed so small and pale to me at that moment, so vulnerable. When he reached out his little hand and stroked my cheek, my heart melted within me. I sat next to him, literally torn apart. I could not eat. My hands were freezing. When I thought of how I would not be able to touch his hands, his face, his sweet brow for all this length of time, a wild unbridled pain ravaged my whole body. After lunch, we laid down on a bed together, as was our custom. As usual, I told him stories. And all the while, I thought – who would comb his hair when I was gone? Who would sew him beautiful clothes? Who would draw elephants, trains, and tricycles for him? Who would love him as much as I did?
I knew that my thoughts and emotions at that moment were totally irrelevant to him. I was already out of his life. Still, I was obsessed by these thoughts. Around two in the afternoon, the friend arrived who was going to drive me to the airport. I said good bye to my father feeling deeply indebted to his kindness. I have never been good at expressing my emotions and so my feelings of gratitude to him had remained painfully knotted in my heart all these years. Now I wanted to express them, to reach out and thank him, but instead I just stood there, cold and tongue-tied. A voice was screaming in my head, two hands were stretched out inside me but instead of speaking, instead of embracing, we just stood there, facing each other, like two lifeless statues. I could see from my father’s tears that he was in a similar state of mind and heart, but that love within us lacked the strength to break through; we were each locked inside our shells, imprisoned behind the walls of our inner selves.
Then there was my son. I had to say goodbye to him too, but without letting him know that I was going to be away for so long. I had bought him a little toy car which I wound up and set in motion for him on the pavement. I kissed him so much that he became confused and I had to bite my lips then, to silence the sobs that rose in my throat. It was mid-summer and the tar of the pavement was melting under the blazing sun. The shopkeepers in the neighborhood watched me with the same burning curiosity. My son was making a lot of noise in his excitement, his childish voice ringing out. And then he was separated from me. Like a leaf detached from its branch, he crawled away on the pavement, his voice growing fainter, like a little shadow, until he was finally lost from sight. At that moment, I was utterly bereft of all joy.
At the airport, my friends were chatting away and so I hardly had a chance to think about what lay ahead. I was going to be traveling on a cargo plane owned by Pars Company. This had been the source of jokes and endless banter among my friends for some days but when one of them heard how I was planning to leave, he dallied for a while and did not confirm that he would come to see me off. I later heard why he eventually excused himself. “I’d be embarrassed to say goodbye to a passenger who was flying freight,” he had told to the others. I was happy I learn of his real feelings. I realized then that I was dealing with a brainless human being prone to ostentation.
From childhood, my father had accustomed us to the so-called “hardships of life.” We slept in soldiers’ blankets even though we had excellent, soft quilts and covers at home. My father had a particular method for raising his children and wanted to show us that there was nothing shameful in a tough life and hard work. I recall when I was in elementary school my brothers and I spent all summer stuck at home, turning useless old books and newspapers into bags. After we made them, a servant would take these paper bags to stores and sell them for us. We were then allowed to spend this business money for ourselves, in addition to the pocket-money our father always gave us. He wanted to teach us that a person who could earn her livelihood by the sweat of her brow could be proud of herself and could hold her head high.
In fact, none of us actually needed to work. My father had always provided for our comforts and our education in a very commendable manner. If I appear to be self-reliant and resilient now, it is just because of the kind of upbringing my father gave me. So though some people did not want to be seen saying good bye to a piece of air-freight, traveling in a cargo plane was actually a pleasure for me. I have always avoided pretentiousness and it would never have occurred to me to measure the importance of my journey according to the price of the ticket or the glamour of the plane. At the airport, we talked together a great deal about this issue. My mother was convinced that cargo planes were uniformly decrepit and believed they had been relegated to this role because they were falling apart; she was sure that there was a good chance I might never make it to my destination. But the last thing on my mind at that moment was the condition of the plane.
We were supposed to depart at 3:30 in the afternoon, but were delayed until about 6:30pm. Some people, who could not bear the burning sun on their heads for so long, said their farewells and left. When the plane’s departure was finally announced, there were just my mother, my sisters, and a few friends left to wave me off. And my younger brothers too, who made me promise to send them clothes that would make them look like European movie actors. I wanted to weep, but had no tears left. I felt their arms around my neck; I felt their tears on my cheeks. And after a last few painful words, I turned away from them and finally found myself in the customs office.
There, my suitcases were inspected and I met my fellow travelers: two marine biology students on their way to Germany; an old German lady who looked so weak and wan I was afraid she might break into pieces at any moment; and an American man who was apparently working for the Point Four Program. These were all the passengers there were, the whole roster of us. We were delayed for quite a while in the customs office. The American became restless. He sat at the edge of the bench that served as an inspection table for the luggage and began to swing his feet, like a child. Even I grew anxious, and was about to start complaining too, despite my usual tolerance for discomfort. But beneath the whining and superficial irritation, my mind was utterly elsewhere. I was thinking about my journey.
Eventually, the inspection ended, and I found myself approaching the plane. I said goodbye to the last friend who had accompanied me there, dreading the thought of turning round to bid a final farewell to my family, but when I did so, I suddenly recognized the slender bodies of my brothers in the large crowd of people gathered in the departure lounge. They had climbed up on some kind of ledge and I could see them waving at me. A bunch of waving hands, like the branches of a tree in the wind, and a cluster of colorful handkerchiefs fluttering back and forth in the air. I heard my name called out from afar. “Forugh, Forugh” someone shouted. When I realized it was the voice of my youngest brother, my lips began to tremble. That was the moment when the penny finally dropped that I was going away. That was when I understood for the first time that I was leaving all my loved ones, all my attachments behind me.
My friend squeezed my hand one last time, and then I turned away and I climbed the ladder leading up to the door of the plane. My eyes were burning, burning, and I was ashamed to look back again, afraid to show my tears. So I stepped through the door without further delay, and took my seat.
My fellow travelers had all sat down before me. There were no more than five passenger seats anyway: two doubles, and one single. A pile of crates had been stacked up on the other side of the plane, one on top of another; they could have been filled with tripe for all I knew or cared. My seat happened to be next to the American. After another quarter of an hour passed, the door of the aircraft was closed, and we were instructed to fasten our seatbelts. The plane jolted forward and took off soon after. When I saw the hands still waving from afar, the handkerchiefs still fluttering, I laid my head against the window and began to weep.
The American, a man in his fifties, observed my display of tears with philosophical detachment. It was only when I pressed my face as close as I could to the window to escape his pity and possibly his scorn that I realized the plane was no longer on the ground. I wiped my tears away then with a handkerchief and began to look out through the window. We were climbing higher and higher, and down below, far away, lay the outline of Tehran, its mud houses and shimmering orchards vanishing rapidly into the dusty sunset. From up there, the plains looked like pieces of colored paper, and the trees blots of ink that had dripped onto a sheet of paper from the tip of a pen. We were flying into the light, but my heart was filled with darkness.
Every now and then, we passed through patches of cloud, which fanned open and dissolved around the plane. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if I could stretch my hand out of that window, and re-design those clouds into new shapes. But I felt too empty, too lonely at that moment to do more than lean against the glass. Down below, everything grew further away, and was bereft of color. The evening light deepened and raven black wings began to thicken the night. Although it was summer, it felt very cold outside. The tip of my nose was freezing against the windowpane. So I turned away from it at last and began to inspect my surroundings more carefully.
The old German woman was dozing off. The two Persian students who were sitting next to each other just stared before them, saying nothing, and the American man was searching in his bag for something to occupy him, I suppose. Our plane did not have a flight attendant. The captain himself came out and, indicating a box behind all the rows of seats, told us we could serve ourselves from it if we wanted to have anything to eat or drink. It was filled with packets of cookies and some chocolates, as well as fizzy drinks, like Pepsi-Cola and lemonade, packed round with ice. The American man and the old German woman were overjoyed. The American took two drinks and gave me one. When I thanked him in Persian, he stared at me with colorless eyes. I was happy that he did not know a word of Persian. I did not even attempt to retrieve the few “English” words I had learned in school to help me thank him because I much preferred him not to talk to me. I wanted to think in silence.
But, he was smarter than I realized and more observant than I wished.
“We can use this book to talk to each other, if you like,” he said, pointing to my handbag.
And I realized, in dismay, that a corner of the Teach Yourself English book I had brought with me was sticking out of my overflowing bag. Both of us began to laugh then. I had no alternative but to pull out the book and open it on my lap.
The old German lady had already begun to gobble up a packet of cookies from the box, and was not paying any attention to her surroundings. Her eyes, I noticed, were shut behind her glasses, even as she chewed.
“When we get old,” confided my fellow passenger with a mocking glance in her direction, “you and I will be like her too.”
I ignored the unpleasant comment. But he just laughed.
“The only pleasures left to the old people are eating and sleeping,” he said.
I had no desire to talk about pleasure with this man. Instead of replying, I focused my attention on the wrinkles under his eyes; I scrutinized his graying hair, studied the golden rims of his glasses, pointedly. Luckily, he was not very talkative. After another remark or two, he lapsed into silence.
Half an hour later, I noticed the old woman hovering around the provision box again. Taking the lid off was not easy for her, I realized, and scrambled up to help. She chose two packets of cookies, and cradling two more bottles of fizzy drink in her arms, crawled back to her seat again, maintaining her balance with difficulty.
The Iranian students were sitting on the crates and gazing through the windows of the plane at the darkness outside. I was bored, and pulled out a book from my handbag. But I could not read. I was still hearing those voices crying out my name: “Forugh, Forugh,” even as I was flying further and further away from them. I was still seeing the hands waving, the handkerchiefs fluttering in the air in my mind’s eye. All I could think about were our parting words, our goodbye kisses, that last squeeze of the hands…
I did not know that I had been doodling on the pages of my book until the American nudged me. Lost in dark thoughts, I barely recognized him at first; all I registered was that lined face, those colorless eyes, and a twisted smile in which kindness and pity were combined. It disturbed me. I shivered. It was nine o’clock in the evening by now and cold even inside the plane. Naturally I had brought no blanket with me. Everyone else was wrapped in theirs and dozing off in their seats. So I stood up and went to look for the pilot to whom I had been introduced at the airport.
He was a kindly man, and immediately found a spare blanket for me. I could not think of a better place for a nap than on top of the crates. It took me a while to make myself comfortable there. My fellow travelers, who had woken up to my every move, seemed to find the whole affair very amusing. I could feel them looking at me, scandalized, as I tossed and turned about; I am sure they thought me very odd for having chosen to the crates for such activities. But as far as I was concerned lying down to sleep was very normal and quite pleasant in the circumstances. I pulled the blanket over my head, closed my eyes and was asleep within seconds. I don’t remember my dreams, or I would have described them, but I have never in my life had such a sweet and calm sleep. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was exhausted. Perhaps the motion of the plane resembled the rocking of a cradle. Perhaps the sense of my mother’s hand rocking that cradle made my sleep deeper and sweeter than usual.
I woke up to find myself lying beneath a haze of smoke. Several passengers were puffing on cigarettes as they peered out the windows above my head. For a moment, I panicked, recalling my mother’s words when she said: “I am afraid you might never make it to your destination.” The fear, however, was temporary and as superficial as the smoke.
When I looked out the window, I saw a blaze of lights below me. We were flying over Beirut and the city seemed almost to be on fire, it was so bright. Its lights glimmered in the darkness of the surrounding desert like the eyes of a thousand wolves. Once again, we were advised to fasten our seatbelts this time for the plane to land. Once again I had to return to my seat. I greatly resented it, but despite the fact that I was forced to lose sight of the dazzling wonders below, I did as I was told.
I do not know why, but the minute I set foot in Beirut airport, I was reminded of the years we lived in the city of Khuzestan. The air was cool but also humid and sticky, just as I remembered it there. My feet were swollen and uncomfortable, so turning away from the others, I slipped off my shoes. The girl who was walking us into the terminal building noticed me putting them under my arms. What she said I did not hear and why she laughed I did not care to understand for I was wholly taken up at that moment with the pleasure of feeling the cool and humid earth beneath my feet.
All my life, I have loved to walk barefoot. When I was a child, I never wore shoes at home. If I had been free to do as I wished, I would have gone into the streets barefoot too. At that moment, stepping onto the soil of Lebanon, I was overwhelmed with a sense of pleasure, but the feeling evaporated as soon as we reached the terminal, where I had to put my shoes on again. The wait at the airport was not long, which was just as well because the older German woman was about to collapse with exhaustion. After our passports were inspected, we got on an airport bus and headed into the city which seemed very beautiful to me, in the darkness. Occasionally, my attention was caught by the shadow of a tree cast across the pavement and I stuck my head out of the window to see it better. But though I would have loved to know its name, the bus soon started up again and the shadowy trees which had branched out towards me a few moments ago dissolved before my eyes as we lunged ahead.
Finally, we reached the end of the long street that connected the airport to the city, and found ourselves in front of the luxurious Hotel Residence. As we spilled out of the bus my heart sank; I could not bear the thought of spending the night in such a bourgeois place. I would have preferred to go down to the sea and to sleep on the sand. There, at least, I could be free. There, I could shout and sing and run about. There would be no one to spy on me there, to judge my actions according to the silly yardstick of social etiquette. But in this cushy place, I would have a warm, soft and enormous bed to sleep in, I would have a bell to summon the attendant for my every need, however insignificant. And I would have to sit at a table groaning under the weight of at least twenty-two different kinds of plates, and knives, and forks, most of which I would have a hard time deciding how and when to use! But I did not want to eat without appetite, to speak without meaning, to curb my laughter, control my hands – in short, conform to the rules of decorum. To have to stay in an ostentatious palace like this, even for a short while, would be like entering a prison, I thought.
We were immediately welcomed by attendants who accompanied us up the grand stone steps adorned with flowerpots on each side and ushered us into the hotel lobby. There, I parted from my fellow travelers, because my room was on the fourth floor, and the rest had been assigned to the first. I took the elevator without further delay and once inside my room had eyes only for the window. I do not know why, but the mere sight of a window opening out towards the Mediterranean Sea revived me immediately and filled my heart with joy.
Windows give us the horizon. Windows connect us to the world beyond. They are the fourth wall to all contingencies of time and place and self. One only needs a single window to be open to the light, to respond to beauty and delight. If there were no windows in our lives, how could we endure the darkness of daily existence? If they did not exist, how could we escape, how could we know the sun?
And my room had a window facing the Mediterranean! There was also a door beside it, opening to a poetic little balcony, with walls covered in vines, the sweet scent of whose young leaves permeated my room. When I opened the door, it was as if the vines greeted me and I touched their leaves with the tips of my fingers in response. The air was clear and bright, and I could see the beach lights glimmering far off below. They looked like pearls sown by an invisible hands on the velvet mantle of the night.
I collapsed on an easy chair and just sat there for a while. It took that long to notice my reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall. I was appalled at the sight of myself. I looked filthy dirty and smudgy round the edges. My hair was disheveled, my lips colorless. So this was the result of sleeping on crates filled with God knows what! I thought wryly. The phone rang. I was informed that dinner was being served. But I preferred to take a bath rather than eat at that moment. When I finally went down to the dining hall, the food was all gone, as expected, but my fellow travelers were still sitting around a table on the balcony with after dinner drinks and coffee. So I joined them and read their coffee cups. Even though I had no expertise in this area and just made things up as I went along, the American was quite taken by everything I said. He and insisted that I explain his future to him in greater detail. So we decided to walk on the beach in order to continue the conversation.
One of the employees of the hotel, whose shift had ended for the evening, agreed to be our guide, but by the time I had put on more comfortable shoes and joined my companions, our number had dwindled by half. The German lady and one of the Iranian students were both too tired and had returned to their rooms to sleep.
My hair was still wet as we set out, and I derived much pleasure from the fact. Whenever the breeze passed over me, it felt as though a hand was gently caressing and softly ruffling through my curls. We walked along winding, narrow streets, surrounded on both sides by rows of houses, with colorful walls, sweet smelling gardens, and low fences. Sometimes, the road went up, at other times it went down. We still had quite a way to go to reach the beach when the second student excused himself and left us.
Now there were only three of us, and the two remaining people were way ahead of me. I dawdled behind them along the empty streets, at my own leisurely pace, fascinated by the way the shadows alternated between us, sometimes lengthening, sometimes shortening in contrasting directions. The asphalt on the ground gleamed with sea mist, the air was heavy with humidity. It made me giddy, almost drunk. That night I played with my shadow as I walked along. I invented wild shapes with my hands and feet, and I laughed aloud at how my shadow self mimicked all my moves.
Finally, as the plash and murmur of waves grew nearer, I suddenly realized that what lay before my eyes, glimmering and shifting and stretching all the way out to the far horizon, was the sea itself. I immediately sat down on the sand and played with the waves. I dipped my feet in the water and gazed out at that vast expanse of darkness rolling out in front of me. There was no end to it. But our guide was eager to go home. After jotting down the address of the hotel on a piece of paper and telling us how to get back, he said goodbye and left.
The American was also half-asleep by then, but his damned etiquette clearly did not allow him to leave me in such a place all by myself. I assured him that being alone was absolutely no problem for me. Furthermore, I said, I probably knew my way back better than he did. He was immensely relieved to hear it, as if he had been waiting for me to give him permission to go, and after bestowing a beaming smile on me, he bid me goodnight and turned away too.
I watched him disappearing into the dark, his shoulders bowed, his hands moving mechanically at his sides, and felt sorry for him. He did not look back even once. He was hurrying to bed, and with good reason. Hadn’t he told me himself that eating and sleeping were the only pleasures left to old people? So there he was rushing off to the most important pleasures of his life. Beauty has always been more important for me, but sleep was evidently a priority for this old man.
I was finally alone. I played in the sand for a while, sweeping it up into different shapes with my fingers. The night was as heavy as dew on my head and I could feel my eyes shining in the darkness. The moon in the distant sky looked like a white lily growing in the middle of a swamp. The waves rolled in, one after the other; I could hear a mysterious sound rising from their foam and reaching a climax in the spray of salt on my lips. I felt very close to the sea and for a moment could almost sense the ceaseless movement of its waves in my heart. So I lay down flat on the sand, and became one with the sea.
The stars seemed so near. If I raised my hands, I could practically touch their brightness, feel their warmth; I had the impression they were actually hurtling towards me. They looked like fireworks in the night sky, shooting up suddenly and bursting into clusters of sparkling gold only to fall back in delicate showers afterwards, fall down to the dark ground. It reminded me of my childhood when I used to become absorbed watching fireworks in the night sky. Filled with awe, I just lay there on the sand between heaven and earth, utterly bewitched by the sky above and the sea below.
There was a ship anchored on a pier. After a while I noticed a woman dancing on deck, her body undulating among other shadows and spirits, so it seemed to me. I decided to walk along the narrow alley that skirted the shoreline and approach the lights to see her more clearly. The ship, I discovered, had been turned into a seaside cabaret. As I drew near, I could distinguish the movements of the woman dancer who seemed to me to be a professional. Her way of dancing reminded me of all the movies I had seen of Samiyeh Jamal.
For a while, I sat outside the circle of light, staring at her sinuous movements. But I had to admit that I was very tired and soon despised the puerile curiosity that had attracted me to that place. My entire shirt was drenched with perspiration by now. I had quite lost my senses in the darkness and had forgotten the necessity of returning to the hotel. It was time to go back. So I looked for the path I had taken to reach the beach, and slowly made my way to where I had begun.
That first night away from Iran was like a dream I wished would never end. I could have spend the rest of my life on that beach; I wanted to turn into a pebble just to stay in that spot forever. I do not know how long I spent there, but by the time I finally got back to the hotel, I was so deeply tired that I could not sleep. For a while, I occupied myself with pen and paper but due to fatigue, my efforts came to nothing. And so I finally turned off the light, with a lump in my throat, and burying my face in the pillows, cried myself to sleep like a child.
The ringing of the phone woke me in the morning. I was so disoriented that my conversation with the person on the other end was rather ridiculous. I could not understand a word he said, and he could not fathom any of my attempts to reply. After listening more carefully and speaking more slowly, I understood that he was asking why I had not come down for breakfast. We were scheduled to leave at eight o’clock. It was time to go. But before doing anything else, I had to look outside, so I ran to the window as soon as I got out of bed. And there it was! The sea was a dazzling blue, and stretched out before me, shimmering in the pearly dawn light of the new day. Somewhere below, a group of drunk American soldiers were returning from their night revels but there were no other signs of life in the streets.
I dressed hurriedly and went downstairs. My traveling companions were waiting for me; I was too late for breakfast. After saying goodbye to the hotel management, we climbed into the same bus in which we had arrived and returned to the airport. Now, because of the daylight, we could see everything. Beirut is no doubt, one of the loveliest cities in the world. It is filled with beauty and colour under the bright skies of the Mediterranean. The trees reminded me of Raphael’s paintings; the scenery was like the poetry of Lamartine. I pressed my face against the windowpane, looking at the streets in delight as we passed by. But the bus was going all over the place, bumping up on the pavement, thudding back onto the road and swaying from side to side. The driver was playing around with the steering wheel. I thought he must either be very happy, or else rather daring to be dancing and wavering about like this in all directions. But the old woman was very frightened and objected strongly to his driving methods. It took a while but we finally reached the airport intact. After going through the preliminary boarding procedures, the plane took off on schedule at eight o’clock and we flew over the Mediterranean Sea just as the sun rose.
The whole sky was the color of molten gold by then and beneath us, the sea looked like another heaven. Occasionally, we moved through clouds that were rimmed with gold and white as childhood dreams. I was not going to change my seat with anybody. I settled myself back on top of the crates mesmerized by the world beyond my reach and thought about God. I do not know why. Perhaps it was because we were flying so high just then; perhaps it was because I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of that world above the clouds. When they parted, I saw the sea gaping below, a blue eternity in the making. Its brilliance was like a thousand glittering diamond crystals. At times, it would turn azure, and at others, it would pale away under the bright light of the sun. We flew over the Mediterranean for many hours.
Parcels of land seemed small and puny from up there, their diversity reduced to uniformity, their colorful variety rendered indistinguishable. Our destination was Brendizi, a small port in southeast Italy and this was where I would part from my fellow travelers for good. The American man, who refused to leave me alone, came and sat beside me on the crates. I think he told me his whole life story, though I cannot remember anything he said. Once in a while, the meaning of his words would echo in my ears but my mind was elsewhere. In fact I was not actually listening even if I could have understood him, but I always nodded my approval to everything he said. At times, he looked a little disconcerted and gazed at me in evident doubt that I was listening, but he would pick up and proceed with his story before long. Unlike the day before, he was much more talkative. Perhaps he was bored and had nothing to do; perhaps he half expected me to entertain him. Though I am sure he soon guessed that I was not listening, he continued to talk non-stop, without respite.
Many people have this need. As long as there is someone near them, they talk. It does not matter whether the person is a stranger or a friend: s/he is only a means to an end for them, which is to talk. They would not even care if the listener were deaf, because all they would want to do is to keep on talking. Even if something might be wrong, they would not admit it but would just go on and on talking. The American man talked to me for two hours on end. I think what he was trying to tell me was that he was going to America to see his daughter, and that he had divorced his wife, and that he preferred living alone. He also talked about Iranian women for a while, and then about his work in Iran, and then about conditions in America, and then a thousand and one other things, none of which I recall anymore. Eventually, he gave me one of his cards and invited me to come and see him when we were both back in Iran. Indeed, he could not have found someone more meek or more willing to listen to his nonsense!
Although I was annoyed by his importunities, I did my very best to smile shyly and look pleased when he offered me his card. As for him, he seemed quite miserable and helpless at that moment, especially when he pulled out a bunch of papers from his bag, and showed them to me in great detail. Having not followed what he had said to me all along, I could not make head nor tail of them and had no idea what they were supposed to prove. I was tired of being forced into the listener’s role by then. He fetched a bottle of Coke from the box to refresh himself. I on the other hand was obliged to abandon my place on the crate and return to my seat. I took out a book after that, and busied myself with the pretence of reading.
At about eleven o’clock that morning, we began our descent toward Brendizi. The realization that my trip was over for a while saddened me a little. I gathered my belongings together in preparation for landing and watched the rippling of the waves beneath us as we came down. The closer we came the earth, the more we sensed the vastness and majesty of the sea. But the nearer we drew to the ground, the further we left the sea behind, until it finally disappeared into on the horizon. We fastened our seatbelts and waited. As the plane slowly descended, I found myself growing increasingly worried. The moment of separation would soon be upon me. We found the weather particularly hot when we finally landed at Brendizi Airport. We waited in front of the terminal for a long time until someone finally showed up to help us.
From the moment I set foot on Italian land, I recognized an affinity of spirit and similarity of temperament between Iranians and Italians. There is a certain lethargy, an easygoing laziness that we both share which was noticeable even from the way the airline officials walked about and talked in the airport. They preferred to spend their time joking and bantering and whenever they actually had to do serious work, they frowned and tossed their heads in annoyance. I was extremely tired by then, and did not appreciate the lack of organization.
The pilot introduced me to one of the airport personnel who it was decided would arrange my trip to Rome, and assist me with my other needs. He was a young man, short, and comic in his anxiety to be helpful, and was in a frightful hurry the whole time. He looked me over, up and down, inquisitively and installed me in a chair in the airport café before rushing away. My body was heavy, my mind fatigued; my eyelids drooped with sleep and I was longing to rest. After about an hour, the rest of the travelers in our group bid me farewell; it was time for them to go. The plane was already roaring and ready to move as one by one, they climbed up the rickety steps and disappeared through the small door of the aircraft.
My eyes filled. I knew no one there and was completely alone now. The porters, who had been assessing the weight of my luggage, noticed my tears and gathered around me. They began to bombard me with questions in Italian, which I could neither understand nor had any desire to answer. This did not, however, stop them for a moment.
Generally speaking, Italians are generally speaking. They are a curious people by nature and if they happened to be from the lower classes, this curiosity tends towards inquisitiveness which can become troublesome and intrusive, especially at such times. The porters’ voices were loud, their laughter even louder, and the hubbub they created round me was at odds with my melancholy mood. In fact their light-hearted insouciance bothered me so much that I finally fled their importunities, and sat on the stairs. I wanted to savour my sadness in solitude while I waited for my new acquaintance to return.
Everything around me was strange and unfamiliar. I realized that I did not even know the name of this new escort who was supposed to take me into town. When he did at last arrive the porters were finally able to make themselves useful, picking up my luggage and taking it to his car, with noisy gesticulation. Instead of conversing with their mouths, they used their hands, moving them about ceaselessly. This is the habit of the Italians, so I have been told, particularly those who come from Naples. According to them, the constant gesticulation of the Neapolitans gives motion and life to their language. However, this continuous waving about of hands really irritated me at that moment, I do not know why. Perhaps it was because I was unfamiliar with it, despite the other similarities between these people and my own.
Finally, we were ready to drive into the city. The car of the airport official who had kindly taken me under his wing was a small Fiat; in fact it was so small that he and I and the suitcases could hardly fit in it together. He talked throughout the ride. He asked me whether all Iranian women dressed the same way. And when I answered in the affirmative, he gave me the same hurried glance that characterized all his other gestures and tapped his fingers tightly on his cheek a couple of times. Afterwards I learned that this gesture means “Wow! How wonderful!” among Italians. He then proceeded to ask me about conditions in Iran and I tried to answer his questions to the best of my ability. When I could not find the right words, I used a pencil to draw a picture of what I was trying to say. All in all, we understood each other pretty well using these methods, and managed to tell each other what we meant.
Fields of golden wheat rolled away on both sides of the road as we drove alone, glinting of faraway places. Women with shining black hair and faces burned brown by the sun stepped out from behind the bushes, waving their hands. After about an hour, we arrived in town and I struck by the charm of it from the very start. The delicate beauty and style of the city’s architecture filled me with wonder. It looked like a Japanese town to me. I do not know why but the paint on the old houses made them seem alive; they looked like old men dressed up for a dance. Anyone raised in Tehran with its flat houses and walls of sun-baked mud would find it intoxicating to see such a city agog with bright colors. It is mesmerizing.
The streets here all seemed to run parallel. Children wearing wooden clogs and straw hats ran around on the wet pavement, the tap tap of their shoes mingling with the murmur of waves along the seashore. I sat glued to the window of the car looking at everything around me with wondering eyes. In fact, I was awestruck.
First we went to the bank, where I converted some money to Italian liras. Then, my host took me to the railway station and bought me tickets for Rome. He suggested I leave my suitcases in his the office where he worked in the afternoon so that I could stroll around the town with greater freedom. We went to his office then. It was an old, dark house with many rooms. In each room, there were several desks, but in accordance to the national disinclination to work, there appeared to be no one behind any of them. I sat in one of these rooms for a while until a woman arrived sometime, later. It turned out that she was the fiancée of the young Italian who had driven me in from the airport. She recommended that I be very careful with my money and my valuables and after giving me a knowing smile said goodbye. I was to return at seven thirty so that they could take me to the railway station.
After I stepping into the streets again, I felt truly lonely for the first time during this trip. I decided not to move too far away from the office building in case I lost my way back and kept to the road that was parallel to the sea. The sun was scorching as I strolled along the street, with my handbag on my shoulder. The ships were being loaded with cargo and porters were singing as they carried heavy crates on their shoulders across the gangplanks. There was a lot of commotion in that area but beyond all this, the waves rose and fell ceaselessly. Everything appeared bright and beautiful against the blue background of the sea.
I suddenly realized that I was extremely hungry. So finding a small bench in a park beside the sea, I fished inside my handbag for biscuits and a few sandwiches. I had barely settled down to eat before I was surrounded by a crowd of kids. I offered them some biscuits from the box and we quickly made friends. Though we could not understand a word we said to one another, I convinced them with my eyes that I loved them. They sat on the bench beside me and gazed up at me intently through startling blue eyes; they watched my every move with sun-burned little faces turned towards me. Every time I touched my handbag, they grew still and fixed their eager attention on my hands. But I felt happy in their company, and calm. In fact, throughout my stay in Europe, little children always proved to be my best friends. I loved them and enjoyed their purity and generosity of spirit. I spent some time with my little Italian friends until their mothers called them away and they left me alone.
I wondered what to do with the rest of my time until seven-thirty. There were many sights to see in this beautiful city, I knew, but I was a stranger here. I would have to forego the pleasure of sight-seeing since I did not know my way around. How could I solve this problem? I asked myself, and began to think about alternatives. Just at that moment, a youth of about thirteen or fourteen called out to me:
He was sitting on bench nearby, and was wearing a white sailor hat.
“Signorita, Signorita!” he said again, softly, as I raised my head in response.
I tried to tell him, with my hands, that I did not know any Italian. He bent his head and thought for a while and then, with considerable effort asked me in broken English if I could speak English.
I, too, thought for a while. It was not easy. “Yes,” I replied with great difficulty, in English that was just as broken as his, “I can speak as well as you!”
He laughed softly. He seemed very shy and looked like a student. Once again he bent his head with the effort I guessed was required to construct another English sentence. After some mutual exertion, I finally realized what he was trying to say.
“If you pay me,” he was telling me, “I’ll take you for a tour and show you the places to see in town.”
I was delighted and immediately accepted the offer. We went towards sea where he told me we could catch a ferry that would take us to the main part of town on the other side of the straits. As we sat on a rock to wait for it, some more youths, a little older than the previous bunch, surrounded us again. They were about twelve or thirteen years old and were looking for cigarettes. In spite of my protestations and denials, they plunged their hands in my handbag. When they realized, disappointed, that I did not have any cigarettes after all, they pulled a small blue box out of my bag together with some paper and asked me to draw a picture for them. I drew the portrait of one and handed it to him. His hair was the color of hay. He looked at what I had drawn for a few minutes and then turned on his heels and sprinted over to a house nearby. It must have been his own for soon after, he returned with a big bundle of notebooks and large-sized papers in his hands. Then, he stood respectfully in front of me and adopting the demeanor of an old and very dignified gentleman, extended his hand in my direction.
“My name is Tolito,” he pronounced.
It was quite amusing. A few minutes before, he had been hanging over me with all the rest, and now there he was standing in front of me with all due respect and formally introducing himself. It’s a bit late for such a performance, I thought to myself, trying to control my laughter. But nevertheless, we shook hands officially, as artists, and then he sat next to me on the rock and began to talk to me avidly, opening all his notebooks and papers at my feet. I could not understand a word that he was saying.
“Because you drew his portrait,” explained my tour guide, “he has brought his paintings so you can choose the one you like.”
As I leafed through his pictures, Tolito stood apart and watched bashfully, and with mounting trepidation. I finally chose the caricature of their city’s football team which I told him was very interesting. He wrote a few words on it, as a souvenir of the moment, and handed me the drawing, which I still have to this day. He was a nice kid —or so I thought until that moment — calm and quiet as long as we were looking at his paintings. But the minute that was over, everything changed.
All the boys suddenly began to play and tease me after that. It is often the case that adolescent boys like to do daring things to show off in front of each other when they first meet a girl or a woman. It is their way, I suppose, to cover up for their embarrassment and hide the strange sensations that they feel at such moments. These kids started pushing each other into the sea. As one of the boys fell off a rock, he grabbed the handbag hanging from my shoulder. Since I did not let it go, I was pulled towards him and we fell into the sea together.
I managed to struggle out of the water with great difficulty. But I was no longer calm and certainly not happy. I was furious with them all. Water was dripping from my hair and from my skirt and I had no change of clothes. I sat on a rock and glared at the boys who gathered round, taunting me, laughing at me. Their mockery did not stop for a second. I had no idea how I could get out of this mess. In the end when my fury became evident to the boy who was acting as my tour guide, he took me to his house which turned out to be close by. And all along the way, the other boys ran after me and bothered me like flies. My tour guide picked a fight with them a few times and I thanked him for his chivalry repeatedly.
There was an older woman in the house who was apparently his mother. She brought me something to wear and when I put it on and looked in the mirror, I could hardly recognize myself. I was utterly lost in this new outfit. I sat down while the woman pressed my clothes dry. She was very kind and brought me a towel and a comb for my hair. After I dried my hands and face and was ready to leave, I offered her money as a token of my appreciation. She refused to accept it, no matter how hard I tried to press it on her. I still vividly recall her generous face, her magnanimous smile, the way her hands pushed the money away over and over again. When we returned to the seashore, the sun had set and there was no sign of the naughty boys. We boarded the ferry then and finally crossed the strait to the other side where I started running through the streets behind the young boy.
One of the interesting sights we saw was a tower, about one hundred and fifty meters high, which Mussolini had built as a memorial. The spiral staircase inside the tower led to the very top. We stood up there for a moment and watched the city disappearing in the twilight. “Brendizi” is a small port, and has no historical buildings or monuments dating from ancient times. At least I saw none. It was about six thirty by the time we finally left the tower. Once again we took the ferry and returned to our starting point.
It was beginning to get dark by then and I asked the young boy to take me to the place where we had met. We crossed the streets hurriedly; the hubbub of the day was over and the roads were slowly emptying. When we reached the park at last, the boy bid me farewell and I gave him 200 Italian liras. He was very happy and thanked me.
After parting from him, I took up my handbag and walked along the street towards the office of my Italian host. It did not take me long to get lost because I neither knew the name of the street I was looking for nor the office I needed to go to. I started running in all directions in my panic, and was even tempted a few times to ask police officers for help. Finally, exhausted I stood in a corner, waiting to see what would happen next.
People gradually began to gather around me. They knew nothing but Italian and confused me with incessant questions. I leaned back against the wall and stared at their faces in a daze. Most of them seemed like the kind of people who worked at the port. They wore their striped Tshirts and short pants, and circled around me, talking loudly, moving their hands in the air. The word “Signorita, Signorita” pounded like a hammer in my head. I had no place to escape to and was extremely upset at having put myself in this ridiculous position. I looked at my watch. It was a quarter past seven. I had no idea that time had passed so quickly. I realized that I might have to forget all about my trip to Rome and began to wonder where I could spend the night.
Eventually, such a large crowd gathered around me that the police were obliged to intervene. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, I tried to hide in a corner, but these curious Italians would not disperse. Suddenly, a car stopped by and a man stepped down on the pavement and came towards me. When he was two or three paces away, I recognized him in the darkness. It was the Italian I had been waiting for and I sighed with relief as I answered his greetings. I expected him to reprimand me for not coming back to our designated meeting place. Instead, he calmly took a key out of his pocket and opened a door just close to where I had been standing. He motioned for me to enter and I saw to my astonishment that I was standing at the exact spot I had been looking for. I was furious with myself for being so forgetful and could not stop laughing at the same time. I picked up my suitcase and got into the car in haste while people pointed at me and whispered to each other. We left for the railway station, where the porters rushed in my direction as soon as he made ready to drop me off. He cautioned me to be careful with my suitcase and my money. I responded with voluble expressions of gratitude. And after exchanging further niceties, he got back in his car and left.
The porters had already started fighting over my suitcase. One of them, however, managed to outmaneuver all the others and placing my suitcase on his trolley moved hurriedly towards the train, leaving the others still busy fighting behind him. Since I did not know any Italian, I gave him money to buy bread and fruit for me and take his own wages. He left and naturally never returned! I was still expecting him to come back right up to the moment the train began to move but the last whistle finally disabused me of my hopes. So I moved towards my assigned seat, blaming myself, as usual, for my excessive simple-mindedness.
As the train left for Rome and I began to study the faces of my fellow-travelers. They were all dozing off. A fat, young girl who sat in the opposite seat was gazing at me with wide and round eyes. Occasionally, she would smile bashfully; she seemed to be looking for someone to talk to. But I was exhausted and laid my head against the headrest wishing to fall asleep as soon as I could. For a while, I thought about all the money I had lost and the reason for losing it. The money itself was not important; what mattered was my careless simple-mindedness. It was clear to me that I should not do this again. I realized that my excessive optimism and trust in others had led to undesirable events before. I remembered the words of one of my friends who used to say, “I distrust everyone and everything unless there’s reason to do otherwise.” In the past, I had not been in favor of extending this point of view beyond Iran, because I used to believe that it was only there that one needed to be on one’s guard against such things. But at that moment, it seemed to me that human beings could be dangerous anywhere and anytime and that even the most extreme of pessimism could not counteract its impact on our lives.
Obviously, I do not mean the word “dangerous” here to be a reference to the poor porter himself. If someone were to abscond with one’s money, it would better that it were a miserable porter rather than a pot-bellied businessman whose only purpose in life is to accumulate all he has “earned”. Such a stupid oaf is like a loathsome viper coiled on a pile of priceless treasure. But what really matters is not the material aspect of it all. There is always time to compensate for material losses. Sometimes, however, because of one’s naïve optimism, one loses things that cannot be replaced, things that are essential to one’s life. Whenever I do this, I remember what my friend said and try to free myself from these limitations.
That night I thought a lot about this subject. I thought about difficulties that have risen for me in the past and those that would inevitably arise in the future. I thought about whether others thought about me the way I thought about them when they first met me. If this was true, then there would be nothing to worry about. But eyes can equivocate. Eyes can lie, with frightening speed and ease, and the truth must be looked for in different mirror.
I sat in my seat, looking out through the window, immersed in my thoughts. I was thinking of the past, a past in which there was nothing but deceit, a past that had passed away like a bubble. Faces rose before my eyes. I remembered words I had heard, hands I had shaken with kindness and in all candor, roads I had traveled along in hope and along which I had returned in despair. I remembered all I had given away and all that I had received. And there was nothing but an emptiness there, the kind of void whose nothingness filled the human heart with a deep resentment and sorrow, a nothingness that was at once painful and poisonous. In order to reach my goals instead of failing them, I realized I had to change my ways and my morale. I had to become more like others.
I thought about the land I was so far from, that land where one could not be as one is. It was a land filled with weak and ludicrous creatures who bowed and scraped before the idols they themselves had created. It was a land in which people knew very well these idols were false but lacked all courage to break them, to free themselves of this ridiculous, revolting world they had created. I thought of the people there who were engaged in a struggle with each other, who were trying to destroy each other, who wanted to annihilate others just so they could have more room for their own filthy existences. I thought of the women of that land, sunk under the heavy weight of their crinkling bouffon petticoats, their expensive fur capes, with their high-heeled shoes from Paris; I thought of them standing behind their podiums to defend the rights of women while in fact their main aim was to buy a more luxurious car or a more ostentatious villa. And whenever they met a woman who said the same things as they did, who had spent her life in the pursuit of these goals, but whose real aims were different from theirs, then they would look askance and say, with a narrowed eyes, that she had lowered the place of women in society. I love my country, but I detest what my countrymen do to deplete me.
The night seemed long and endless. What would I confront tomorrow? Would it be like my past experiences or would I enter a new universe? I had beautiful, colorful images of Rome in my mind; the name had a pleasant echo in my ears, and conjured a past civilization with its brilliant mythologies. I imagined that I would see a grandeur there that would consume my soul and free me of my inner emptiness for a while. I was happy that I was going be a stranger amongst these people. It would help me know them better because as a rule familiarity leads to formality and acts as a barrier between people, preventing real encounters. I have always tried to judge people quickly, spontaneously, without premeditation. Up until then, I had considered all human beings to be the same; I believed they were basically identical, had the same greeds, the same needs, the same weaknesses, the same feelings of rejection and despair, but they each manifested these in different ways. When we look at people with detachment, we see that they are all equal and at the same level. Similarly as a foreigner, one has the benefit of distance and detachment as compared with others. And thus one not only gets to know people better, but to know oneself more truly.
The train was clattering along the rails. Women workers were dozing off in the corridors, sitting on the crates, their heads swaying back and forth with the movement. The speed of the train gave me a sense of comfort and security. I don’t know whether speed has this kind of impact on me alone, or affects others in similar ways. I did not want to slow down; I wanted to keep going. But where was I headed? It wasn’t just the speed itself that counted, I realized; it was as though the speed freed one from thinking about one’s destination. And so speed became a solace for my state of mind, a response to my inner terror. When I speed, I don’t think and that, I now realize, is what I like so much about it. It is as though a heavy burden of responsibility were lifted from my shoulders. I let myself go and immerse myself in this hurtling forward, this reckless movement. It feels to me like breathing fresh air.
The next morning, the train stopped in the central station of Rome. Once again I found myself facing the usual mundane problems of a city, the hustle and bustle of the newspaper sellers, the bickering and barking of the porters, and the cry of women selling flowers. I don’t know why, but nothing seemed new to me, nothing attracted the interest of my eyes. I stepped down from the train and looked about me with cold indifference, without desire. I did not feel as if I had entered a new world at all, although I had been thinking about this throughout the trip. The porter who took my luggage to the taxi stand complained bitterly about the tip I gave him but eventually left when I refused to budge. I started looking for a policeman.
The first one I met checked the address of the friend I was to meet in Rome with utter disinterest and then walked me, apathetically, in the direction of a bus. I was under the impression that European policemen could never make mistakes, but it was soon clear that this one was even more scatter-brained than our own policemen in Iran. After that he carelessly indicated a tram that had stopped near to where we were standing and then with a nonchalant motion of his hand, saluted me, turned round, and abruptly left. The perfect indifference with which he treated me convinced me not to ask for help from any other policeman again. I decided to rely on myself from that time on.
I stood waiting on the pavement for a while. Rome’s modern train station glittered under the sun. To the east of the building and in the square in front stood a long, old, and ruined wall. Constructed of massive blocks of stone, it bore no relation to the modern building of the train station. Nevertheless, it was evident that much care had been given to the preservation of the wall. I don’t know why but I realized at that moment that one could have it all: faithfulness to the past could be a guarantee for the preservation of the future. In Rome one is constantly faced with this reality. All evidence of the ancient history is treated by people with a great deal of value and respect. When I refer to “people,” I naturally mean those who understand about such things, not those who don’t.
Often, in the vast and modern streets of Rome, I saw uneven, cobbled sections of the road fenced off by iron railings. In the uniform context of the asphalt streets, this seemed, at first sight, to be an unbecoming blemish, a troubling patchwork. My friends there occasionally objected to these pretensions of antiquity, claiming that it was all a gimmick to attract the foreign tourists. As far as I was concerned, however, it was the cobblestones which mattered. In spite of their unassuming ordinariness, they seemed to conjure up a world of their own. I found myself inspired to move beyond their cold, rough surfaces to a world of beauty that shone through the grey fog of Rome. Perhaps the reason for my love for these stones was excessive daydreaming. My friends praised the Italians for their historical and artistic monuments, but objected to these excesses, considering the cobblestones behind their railings to be a form of cheating. I could never convince myself that they were right, however, or justified in their criticism.
Although I have past the age of childhood and even youth (at least psychologically) and though I have been shorn of the kind of sentiments that people associate with immaturity and childhood, nevertheless there are many things that in spite of their seeming insignificance still greatly perturb me. Even today, when my mother pulls out her children’s old winter clothes from the trunk at the beginning of autumn, in order to “give them the sun,” as it is called, the sight creates the strangest sensation in me. When I search in the pockets of my old clothes, to which my mother is greatly attached, and find a chick pea or a rotten raisin at the bottom, I suddenly become a child again, small, innocent, and carefree. A few grains of wheat, a handful of hemp seeds mixed with the fluff at the bottom of a pocket, are enough take me to my distant past and awaken in me the most tender and joyous sentiments of childhood.
I have still kept my homework notebooks from the second and third grades of grammar school. In fact, my entire fortune consists of old papers – sketch pads on which my friends have at one time or another made a design, made a line, or a drawing – that I have collected throughout the years and have taken with me wherever I go. Seeing each of these scraps of paper reminds me of the days gone by; it is as if everything comes back to me from that time.
Naturally, with a temperament like this, I find it hard to accept my friends’ criticism, even though they might be right to some extent. My values are obviously different from those of the whole Iranian nation, but because of my attachments to the smallest and least significant things of the past, I have exonerated the Italians and inwardly praise them for their way of doing things.
I have strayed far from my main topic, or so it would appear. Indeed, it might not be such a bad idea to change course occasionally. Sometimes one needs to digress and there are occasions when digression opens up great opportunities for it is precisely when we wander off the main topic that we notice more important matters. So, here’s my complaint about Mr. Proofreader who, incidentally, has no connections with either Italy nor my travelogue. Yet when I really think about it, I realize that he is not altogether unrelated to them and that, in fact, he plays a very important role in this whole matter.
From the first installment, this gentleman began to fiddle around with my text and his role has assumed more importance than mine ever since. He has changed the meanings of sentences in such a way that even I, the author, have begun to doubt the veracity of the original version and am now more and more convinced that I am the one who is wrong. The reason I am forced to raise this issue at this point, is that I received a letter from the city of Khoramshahr a few weeks ago. The author of the letter focuses on one of the sentences, corrected by Mr. Proofreader, and attacks me harshly for it. I recall that in the first installment, I had written:
“What encouraged me to leave and live in a distant land was not the desire to see new things or to experience a more exciting life; I did not go in search of pleasure.”
He took it upon himself to correct this in the following manner:
“What encouraged me to leave and live in a distant land was the desire to see new things or to experience a more exciting life; I went in search of pleasure.”
The gentleman who had written the letter had put his finger precisely on the word “was,” announcing that “indeed, the only true thing you’ve said was this statement. Even if you had not clearly written it we could have guessed it. It was clear from the beginning.”
One of the other masterpieces of Mr. Proofreader was to replace the word “Signorina,” which is Italian, with “Segnorita,” which is Spanish. As a result another gentleman called me to say, “How could you, and how do you feel justified to write about Italians when you do not even know that they call girls Signora and not Segnorita?”
Indeed. There are many other such feats achieved by Mr. Proofreader which I will refrain to discuss at this time. But frankly, how am I to handle this? If my words are to be changed, I should undertake the metamorphosis myself so that it can accomplished in a more respectable manner. Anyway, let it pass for now, though in conclusion I would like to remind the gentleman from Khoramshahr that his reasoning powers should not depend solely on the evidence of his eyes. Let him not, from far away Khoramshahr, pass rash judgments on those who since they have the misfortune of living in Tehran, have never had the honour of his acquaintance.
I guess it is now time to return from our wanderings. See, where the mere sight of an old wall took me that was still standing next to the modern building of the central train station in Rome! But I don’t think there is much cause for complaint and consider myself innocent of any wrongdoings because we Iranians are used to digress. I believe Mr. Proofreader should know by now whatever he needed to know and so I can breathe a sigh of relief and go on.[i]
From the day I set foot in Rome, I stepped into an atmosphere of frightening calm and cold. I guessed it as soon as I saw the heedlessness of the policeman in front of the train station. Although half of the revenue of Italy comes from tourism, nevertheless foreigners are treated with indifference or at least that is how they treated me. Perhaps it was because I did not have much money to spend there. All my friends who have visited Italy or have lived there for a while agree that Italians are extremely materialistic and love money. Considering the fact that there is such extreme poverty throughout Italy, this may be justified to a certain extent.
When I was living in Rome, I used to think at times that I was still in Iran, in our own Tehran. Everything there reminded me of my own country. As a general rule, countries in the south of Europe do not enjoy the kind of freedom and civilization that comes to mind when we hear the word. If we put aside the brilliant history of Italian art and civilization and distinguish these from what exists today then not much is left. I had imagined that I was traveling to a European country, but once there I faced the same pressures and suffocation that exists in Iran; the same superstitions, in their most crass and crude forms reign supreme among Italian people. In Iran, we have always made fun of old fashioned women who go to traditional healers, who seek for remedies to incurable diseases in old wives’ tales, but, here in Rome, I met young people who sought solace for all their pains in a little night cap that the Pope was said to have worn thus making it sacred. The only difference, however, is that the Iranian women who seek out these healers are illiterate and their environment has never allowed them to grow intellectually while the young Italians who have recourse in the sacred night cap are often students of the university of Rome.
Now, let us return to the main topic. Finally, after about five hours of looking around and asking people, I found my friend’s house. There, I was warmly welcomed with genuine affection that was more endearing and valuable to me than anything else. We ate together and then we begun to think about finding a place for me. My friend was a student of painting in the Art Academy and since she worked with paints and brushes and often splashed paint on people’s walls, landlords were not favorably disposed towards her. After many phone calls, she finally managed to find me a room in her own neighbourhood. It was early evening when I gathered together my belongings and went to see the new place.
An older woman who was very fat and coarse showed me to my room where I met another Iranian woman. It was a great blessing for me to see her because the old woman was talking nonstop and I could not understand a word of what she was saying. The young Iranian woman explained to me that she was laying out the conditions for living in this house.
I said, “What are they?”
Laughing rather scornfully, she answered: “Not much. You do not have the right to open the door of the refrigerator more than twice a day–once in the morning, once at night. You must launder your clothes outside the house. If you wish to cook you have to pay extra money. You also have to pay extra money for the telephone, for electricity, for a shower, for the use of the iron, and so on.”
From that first day, I realized that I had to do my best to keep out of sight of that woman whose name was Signora Felache. I was afraid she would corner me one day and take advantage of my meekness with even more stipulations, saying for example that I would have to pay her for every cubic centimeter of air I breathed! From that first day, my friends cultivated in me a sense of distrust towards Italians, and particularly towards landlords. And so it was that I began my life in the city of Rome with a negative attitude.
I spent the first week sightseeing. After fifteen days I knew the city fairly well because I had been lost so often and had run in so many directions in search of my home that there was hardly a street that I did not know. Rome, to me, seemed one of the most beautiful, or perhaps even the most beautiful, city in the world.
Historical grandeur and poetic sensibilities have conjoined to create Rome. Under bridges each of which is a masterpiece of architecture in its own right flows the River Tiber. The sun that rises from behind the Mount Mario hills is reflected in its milky waters, which resembles molten glass in the light of the day. In the older neighborhoods, everything speaks of the past. The walls of ancient houses facing one another are no more than one and half meters apart and are dark with the extreme humidity. When one glances up from these streets, one sees discolored windowpanes, geranium vases, colourful washed clothes, and the blue, bright sky above. Occasionally, a woman with black hair and a sun-burned face sticks her head out of one of these windows to talk to, or commiserate with, another woman sitting in a window opposite. Cages of pretty little birds that flutter about hang occasionally from these walls. Children in their wooden clogs chase one another down these narrow alleys, singing all along. I became quite attached to these neighborhoods and to the people who lived there. I preferred spending my time with them and watching their lives instead of going to museums or visiting historical monuments. Actually, it was in these neighborhoods that one could come into close contact with the real lives of the Italian people.
In many ways Italian society is similar to ours. There, too, are discernable wide class divisions and the life of aristocracy is far removed from the life of the masses. There, too, I often met young people who did not have the education of a ten-year-old and hardly knew anything much, but the minute you began to argue with them, they would brag about their genealogy and discuss the rank of their fathers, the wealth of their grandfathers, the titles of their ancestors. If you took their ties and suits and starched collars and cuffs away from them, they were nothing; like cats without whiskers, they would not even be able to walk straight along a path.
Italian aristocrats, too, like our own, are shallow and pretentious and rest on the laurels that others, in ancient times, have achieved; they want to continue reaping the privileges of their ancestors’ labour. It was for this reason that while living among Italians, I took refuge among people whom I thought and still think to be healthier and more genuine. In “Piazza Espagnia,” one of the oldest squares in town and a place of gathering for people of the middle classes, I met Rome’s existentialists (or at least those who claimed to be existentialist) who, far from the watchful eyes of the police, experimented with heroine. A few streets further down, in “Via Marketo,” the neighborhood where Rome’s artists gather, I saw faces stranger than I could have ever dreamed. There were painters who wore false breasts made of fabric on their chests, used makeup on their faces, and had bleached their hair. One could not at first sight determine whether they were men at all.
In the Vatican, the sight of the Pope sitting on his bejeweled chair and surrounded by his special guards and followers made me feel very insignificant; I sensed my own inferiority for a moment in the face of such grandeur and splendor. Further down, in the Vatican Museum, the sight of mummified Egyptian Pharoahs in their glass boxes, deep in their eternal slumber with the last vestiges of joy and pride etched on their lips, revived in me a bitter, painful taste of the transience of things, the mortality of human beings, and the decay of lives. In “Villa Borghes,” on benches hidden in the shadow of big trees, I saw young girls and boys embracing one another far from the watchful gaze of the police; they were so closely intertwined that I, with fear and trembling, stood on guard nearby so that if the light of a flashlight burst the night’s darkness or the screech of a whistle disturbed the silence, I could warn them. And in the house, that fat coarse woman, the same Signora Felache, would harshly beat her twelve year old daughter for having talked to the ten year old neighbor’s son. She would beat the child so harshly that I would weep, remembering the whipping I had received at the hands of my mother in childhood.
In the streets, older women with strange hats and thick makeup and misshapen bodies would stand for hours in front of the display windows of stores selling cosmetics, bickering about the price of a new “rouge” or a new flower for their hats. Behind a small forest located in the southern part of Foro Mussolini, people lived in dreadful conditions, in houses made of straw. Women would wash their children in barrels of water, early in the morning, using brushes with long handles. Meanwhile, in the streets of central Rome, glamorous countesses strutted about like antediluvian gazelles, surrounded by a bevy of small, hairy poodles, each matching the colour of their mistresses’ clothes. They sat about the Cafes and in the “Popolu” square, tossing winks and invitations at young girls. All of these events, all of these contradictions in a city of bright sky and limitless skies, immersed in the silent murmur of the Tiber, changed the meaning of Rome for me forever.
My friend told me that soon after her arrival in Rome, a man tried to harass her in the street. She complained to a policeman, who was a tall and handsome man. Having disposed of the harasser, the policeman proceeded to invite my friend to dinner.
Being in the streets of Rome after seven o’clock can be difficult and dangerous for a woman. Italian men are similar to our own, as far as psychological and moral issues are concerned. What happens to a woman or a girl alone in Roman streets is quite similar to what we face on a daily basis in the streets of Tehran: the cars that stop next to a woman at every step; the catcalls and loud whistles that harass her from the road side; the young men in cinemas who totally ignore what is happening on the screen if their seats happen to be next to a woman. The heat of the sun and the religious mores in the Italian society, both of which limit relationships between boys and girls, have given it a similar colour to ours. “Drinking in secret” is common here and young girls who are beaten by their parents at home for having talked to a boy in the neighborhood take refuge under the shadow of the giant, intertwined trees in the “Stia” forest near Rome or on the benches at “Villa Borgese” or in other public parks and gardens. There they begin to experiment with their most recent discoveries in sexual matters. Repression and restriction in such affairs can only produce the kinds of results that we have already seen. Nature cannot be condemned or overcome. This is the source of all the corruption and misery and perversion in our society. This is the knot that has remained with us for centuries. It is also the main reason or at least one of them for the underdevelopment and chaos in all backward societies. I will have to leave the discussion of this topic as it require the exploration of actual facts and interesting incidents which I will address another time.
On the second day, I went to watch an opera. One of my Iranian friends accompanied me. The summer opera in Rome is one of the most interesting things I experienced during my whole stay in Italy. We passed the beautiful and shady streets of a big garden on each side of which the ruins of ancient buildings could be seen. My friend explained to me that these buildings belong to the time of the power and dominion of Caracula, the great Emporor of ancient Rome, and that for this reason they werre called “Taram Caracala.” The buildings were the remnants of the big bathhouses used by the Romans. A large crowd was waiting in front of the box office of the Opera. That night’s program was Verdi’s Rigoletto and it was with some difficulty that we procured tickets. When finally we sat on our seats I could look around me more carefully. Of course, since our seats were cheap, they were quite far from the stage. Nevertheless, from where we were sitting we could see quite a lot. The stage was erected between giant mud-coloured walls towering into the sky on either side, which seemed very mysterious in the darkness of the night. A vast expanse of space in front of the stage had been set aside for the audience. The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle on a wooden scaffolding elevated highly from the ground. The closer one was to the stage, the lower the height of the chairs. When the curtains opened on stage, they seemed, from where we were sitting, far off, like the curtains of a tiny cinema screen. Nevertheless, what swept us away with pleasure was the sound of the music. With its shocking power and beauty it soared into the dark and caused the air to quiver as far as where we were sitting.
In Teheran, I had often heard this opera on records and had enjoyed it each time I did so, but when I saw the opera on stage, I don’t know why but I did not like it much. For a long time after that, I would close my eyes and only listen when we went to an opera. This way I found I could enjoy the experience more. The actors’ movements and the banal words they half-shouted to the accompaniment of music were a source of discomfort to my ears and eyes. They seemed unnatural and comical to me. Eventually, I began to get used to it and then the problem was solved and I could appreciate and sense the beauty of the opera as a whole. When I saw “Fidelio” by Beethoven for the first time in Munich, I compared my enamored and mesmerized state then with the surprised and negative reaction I had during my first opera in Rome. I was happy that I was not like some of my countrymen who refuse to change their opinions because of dogmatic and prejudicial attitudes, both rooted in ignorance.
In our country or maybe all over the world there are people who are extremely attached to their customs and have been brainwashed to think a certain way. Only that which is familiar has a real existence for them. Only those designs or topics which fit their aesthetic definitions are truly beautiful. And only that which their mind can accept as correct is acceptable. They strongly oppose anything new, any new idea, any new concept in life, work, love, poetry, music, painting, etc. They adamentaly refuse to take a step in the direction of appreciating or understanding what they do not know.
A few days ago, I was talking to a man who is one of our family acquaintances. I don’t know how our conversation turned to poets and poetry. He said he was opposed to the New Poetry because he did not understand anything from it.
“When I read the poetry of every Tom, Dick and Harry (the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker,/Shater Abbas-e Sabuhi) – let alone the poetry of Hafez and Sa’di! – their words are immediately recognizable to me. I can identify with the beauty, the pain. But, how can you say, for example, that this Nima… ?
I interrupted and asked: Excuse me, but have you ever read any poems by Nima?
He mumbled a moment and finally said: “No. But I have read others.”
I then named a few other poets with none of which he was familiar. And if he did know their names, he had not read any of their works. So I fetched Nima’s Maneli which had only recently been published and asked him to please read it before passing judgment.
But he retorted, “Poetry is only poetry when even the grocer on the street corner can understand it.”
I was by then beginning to regret that I had given him the book and tried turning the conversation in such a round in order to take it back.
At which point, he said, “Whether I read the book or not my opinion remains the same: the New poetry is essentially nonsense.”
A short stanza from this same Maneli collection spontaneously came to my mind:
Let this suffice and be enough for you:
that not every body knows your grief.
I made no further effort to convince the gentleman.
As a general rule, the root of prejudice is ignorance. Were this not the case, we would never limit our tastes or imprison our minds in outdated definition of truth and beauty. It is impossible to do this in a world where nothing remains constant, everything evolves, and horizons expand daily before our very eyes. Would I have been justified to say that opera was rubbish simply because there are no operas in Iran, simply because I knew nothing of this art and was not cognizant of its intricacies and in spite of the fact that many people continue to go to the opera and enjoy it throughout the world.
During the first days of my sightseeing in Rome, I did not benefit from it much because I could not speak the language. But gradually, things began to take some order. I was rapidly learning Italian at home and in a school especially for foreigners. Listening to the radio program, talking to people in public parks, going to the movies, and most importantly, being motivated to learn the language all helped me. I was able to learn enough to meet my needs sooner than I had imagined. After that, my life took an entirely different course. Gradually, the discomfort and sorrow that arose from being away from my family and the familiar environment in which I had been raised began to dissipate and I was able to habituate myself to my life in this new environment.
The day when I went to visit the museum and the church of the Vatican, I was amazed by the grandeur and beauty I encountered. It was there that I was convinced of the eternity of art. In the “Cistene Chapel” one is humbled before the wondrous power animating the hands of Michael Angelo and the enormity of his talent in creating such a unique work of art. Surely, no one can walk into the nave of this Chapel and leave it easily. When the guards tap their fingers on one’s back to say the visit is over, one is left feeling sadness and regret, unable to detach one’s eyes from what lies before them. Despite this, there is no choice but to depart. It is only after seeing the work of Michael Angelo that one can truly come to appreciate the pain and suffering that he shouldered throughout his artistic life in order to create works of such value.
In other galleries, one is faced with the remarkable and awe-inspiring works of still more Italian painters and sculptors. Beauty surrounds one from every corner and, no doubt, to truly appreciate its value one or two days or even one or two years would still not be sufficient. The works of the famous Italian painter, Leonardo DaVinci, the creations of Rafael and Caravajo, the huge marble statues that seem alive and might at any moment begin to move, the sculptures of Jesus, the Pieta, of Moses, and even the stony Popes and Cardinals along the walls, seem in their quiet and mysterious silences, to be smiling at those who gaze at them.
In the Egyptian Art museum one sinks deep into a world of mystery. There, in front of the statuettes of gods and goddesses with their frightening faces, one’s feet automatically slow down. These deities, worshiped by Egyptians in the past, are all placed next to one another, with hands resting on their knees, with the two ends of their thick horse tails of hair resting on their shoulders, with the curved lines of eyebrow and eyelid, with the arrogance of their smiles, and with bodies often constructed from black granite, these gods and goddesses are familiar forms. They seem to stare down in anger and condescension at those who have dragged them off their godly thrones and imprisoned them in this place called a Museum. In large glass boxes, one can see the withered, blackened faces of Egypts long gone lords of power and glory. In other showcases, one can also see mummified birds and cats, old pieces of brocade, colourful pictures, pages of books adorned with amazing scripts and illustrations, ancient Egyptian womens’ jewelry and even the mirrors which they used to look at their faces.
In one of the boxes, a woman is sound sleep. Her hair still maintains its reddish hue and when one gazes at her hands which are folded on top of one another on her chest, one is overwhelmed with sadness because there is still the remains of the paint she had obviously used as a cosmetic on her fingernails. Her dried body has taken on the colour of coal. One has the impression that all one needs to do it to touch it lightly with the tip of the finger, and she would crumble. Next to her lies a necklace and precious stones and brightly coloured threads and all kinds of cosmetics; when one looks at her face one’s heart is shaken by an ominous sense of mortality which instinctively pulls one back towards life.
Earthenware, small mud statues, pieces of fabric adorned with the patterns of women’s feet, covered with bright colours and straight lines of green and yellow and red, caskets and chests on the cover of which are carved the bodies and faces of amazing gods and goddesses, all these introduce one to the unfamiliar world of ancient Egypt.
Nothing was more interesting and enticing for me in the Vatican Museum than the hall that housed artistic and historical works of Egypt. I visited this hall several times and spent countless days standing silently beside the mummified bodies. The mystery and ambiguity that exuded from the four walls of this hall endlessly fascinated me.
There is so much to see in the Vatican Museum and such grandeur and artistic majesty hidden away here that my pen has neither the power nor expertise to adequately describe them all. One must just go there, look, learn, and then seal one’s lips; instead of talking nonsense one must sit in silence and forego the hope of imitation because what exists there is art at its most perfect. If one can imagine a limit to the world of art then this is surely the limit. Nothing more beautiful, perfect, or awe-inspiring can ever be created. How wonderful it would be if some of the artists in our country whose highly-valued works adorn the covers of weekly magazine would go and see and understand that the road on which they have only recently embarked had already reached its perfection many years, even many centuries ago and that their efforts and their pride deserves nothing but laughter.
Vol 9, Nos 313 to 3209
Tir 1336 to Bahman 1336
[i] Translators’ Note: The response to these remarks was the following statement published with the next installment of the travelogue:
“Miss Forugh Farrokzad, you have unjustly and unduly attacked me in this issue and blamed me for everything, neglecting the fact that all the employees at the printing house are my witness that some of your words and sentences cannot be read by anyone. And yet, as it is well known, these employees, like pharmacists, are experts in reading bad handwriting. In any event, I am willing to put your handwriting to a test. If anyone can read it without an error, then you are justified in your criticism. Sincerely yours, the magazine’s proofreader.