Extract from La muette by Chahdortt Djavann
© Flammarion, 2008 Translated by Lesley Lawn
In September a letter arrived at my home. It was from Iran. I did not know anyone in that country and I thought it must be a mistake, but it was clearly my name on the envelope. On the back there was an address written in Persian script. The ink, although blue, was not exactly the same on both sides of the envelope. Each address had been written by a different person with a different pen. I am now convinced that it is important to publish this letter as a preface to this story:
I am a journalist in Iran. I have sent you a parcel via the diplomatic bag that you will receive in ten days or so. It contains two manuscripts: the first, the original in Persian, and the second the translation. The story is a true account, written by a young woman, fifteen years old, in prison. By some miraculous chance this manuscript came into my hands. I worked on the translation with an Iranian writer, a specialist in Western literature. He wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons. At the end of the story, I have taken the liberty of adding several lines to explain the circumstances by which this manuscript came into my possession. I thought you would be interested in seeing it published. I hope I am not mistaken.
I was intrigued by this letter. Two weeks later, I received the parcel. It did indeed contain a printed manuscript and a notebook crammed full with tortuous handwriting, tiny and cramped with no margins, no paragraphs. These pages, blackened with foreign words completely unknown to me, filled me with a strange, oppressive feeling. On the last pages the writing became even smaller and more cramped — the author clearly only had this one notebook, I thought to myself. I read the translation in one go, and then took up the notebook. I went through it page by page, without being able to read it. My chest was tight, I had a lump in my throat, I had the feeling that I was beginning to understand a little of the Persian version, or at least its author’s determination and the suffering that was expressed in this writing that came from so far away. I would not have believed such a story to be true if I had not held that notebook in my hand. There was no hesitation. I would publish it.
To my guard M.A.F.
I am fifteen years old. My name is Fatima, but I don’t like this name. In our neighbourhood, everyone had a nickname; mine was “the mute woman’s niece.” The “mute woman” was my aunt, my father’s sister. I shall call her M. Soon I am going to be hanged. My mother called me Fatima because I was born on Mahomet’s birthday, and as I was a girl, she named me after the Prophet’s daughter. She didn’t think that one day I would be hanged, nor did I. I begged the young prison guard to bring me some paper and a pen. He took pity on me and granted a condemned woman her last wish. I don’t know where to begin. Often I had read a little dictionary that had been left in the room where I lived for over a year. I liked to learn what the words meant, but I don’t remember all of them or their meaning. I have never written anything before, except a few poems, twenty or so, but nobody ever read them. At school, I was a good student but I had to leave when I was thirteen. I would have loved to stay on and go to university. No one in my family, no one in the neighborhood for that matter, had ever even set foot in a university. Where I grew up, there was only poverty and drugs. Everyone’s fate was one of inescapable hardship. In our world, men and women were crushed by poverty, making them wretched, mean, ugly. Too much misery and people lose the ability to dream. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was funny, handsome, a drug addict. He was twenty-two and was still able to dream, a bit too much perhaps. M was beautiful too. She had big eyes that sparkled and a reassuring face, for someone who didn’t speak. I am not beautiful, but I’m not ugly either, except that now in this cell, I must be. The first three days of interrogation were the longest in the history of humanity, being beaten for seventy-two sleepless hours. Indescribable pain. I have several broken teeth, my face is swollen, some of my ribs broken, my body hurts every time I breathe. It is only dawning on me now that I am going to be hanged. Day and night waiting for death in this narrow, totally empty cell, it’s more than I can bear. Thinking of her, imagining her by my side stops me going mad, helps me cope with the pain and the fear. I am writing so that someone will remember her, my silent aunt, and remember me, because I am terrified of dying just like that, leaving nothing. Perhaps someone will read this notebook. Perhaps someone someday will understand. I am not seeking approval. I just want to be understood.
The guard must be terrified by the way I look, and also by my cries of pain, since at times it is intolerable. Today he slipped me a little paper handkerchief. At first I thought it was so that I could blow my nose. It was a kind thought and I thanked him. Then I realized that it was just half of a crumpled tissue, a bit grubby. I felt something very small, miniscule, inside the tissue. It was a tiny piece of opium. I put it into my mouth at once. The guard does not look as though he is from around here. He must be from a big city, to try something that bold. I’m feeling quite strange, like I have never felt before.
During my interrogation, I didn’t say a word; I took the blows without a sound. I too was mute. Those three days made me understand the obstinate silence into which my aunt had taken refuge. The way she presented a total wall of silence made others respect her, and sometimes made them afraid of her. Remaining silent was a way of not betraying the truth. People started calling her “the mute woman.” Was she really? Nobody knew, because she had not always been like that. Up until the age of ten she could speak. Later on, she made her silence speak in ways that no one else could. Joy, sadness, hatred, love, tenderness, rage, indignation, hope and despair were all expressed in her eyes, in every part of her face, in her way of getting up and leaving or staying, listening and caressing you with her eyes. Even the most ignorant and illiterate person could read in her face what she was saying without words. I miss her, my silent aunt. She may have stopped speaking, but she had not closed her heart. She had made silence into a way of life. As for me, since I have come this far, I have a duty to tell her story. I need to tell her story.
She was not deaf, she could hear and understand everything people said; she was not mad, although her behaviour was often surprising, out of the ordinary.
Although she had given up speech forever, she was not unfeeling. In spite of her silence, she knew how to grasp those rare moments of beauty in life. She knew how to be there when she was needed, how to be caring.
The first day of my interrogation my period came on early, probably because of the shock of the violence I was subjected to. When one of my torturers realised, he shouted, “ Look at her, the whore, she’s pissing blood. Now, I’ll show you how to really piss blood.” He beat me savagely, I thought he’d rip me open with his boots, crush my vile stomach as if I had defied him somehow with my menstrual blood. I always knew that my periods would only ever bring trouble: I was little more than twelve years old, and I was coming home from school. On the way, I felt a sudden discomfort, a sort of pain low down in my stomach; my pants were wet and the inside of my thighs all damp. I hurried home and as soon as I got in I rushed into the toilet. There was blood running down my legs. I had heard that women had bleeding from time to time, but talking about it with girlfriends at school was quite different from actually experiencing it. I was terrified, I couldn’t say exactly why, but I felt guilty, unclean. This was goodbye to childhood, or at least what remained of it, and where we lived it was nothing to rejoice about. I stayed in the toilet for a long time, then I had to come out because my brother was knocking on the door. I stood there. My mother was washing clothes. Seeing her scrubbing one of my father’s collars made me feel even more guilty about my underwear soaked in blood. I didn’t dare say anything to her, although she had never been violent towards me, she had never hit me, but I always felt there was a distance between us. I didn’t want to be like her ever, not remotely. I didn’t want her to see me as one of her own kind, as another one of the women in our neighbourhood. I believed I was destined for other things. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking all that at that particular moment, but I was feeling a sort of grief, the misery of being a woman. I was still standing by the toilet door, with my legs squeezed tight together. M got up and came towards me and handed me a sanitary towel. I took it, we looked into each other’s eyes; mine were full of gratitude and hers full of tenderness and understanding. She placed her hand on my cheek. That brief moment of contact gave me a strength and calm that dispelled my feelings of anguish. Today I am pissing blood and she is long gone. All sorts of images rush into my head and plunge me into a state of confusion, but I must carry on. God in heaven, give me the strength to finish this story before I lose my mind.
I asked the guard if he had any more of his little bits of tissue, he said he’d bring me some in the afternoon. He has remarkably beautiful eyes, the colour of honey.
My father was not a drug addict, nor was he violent; he was a man who had endured poverty and helplessness. He had the coarseness of a working man, but on rare occasions, he could be tender, in his own way. He told me once that in some ways I was like her, M, that I had her bad temper, and that like me she used to be good at her schoolwork. I knew that from the age of fourteen after their mother had died, he had looked after his sister by working on building sites. I asked him several times about his sister, but every time he dodged the issue. On the twentieth anniversary of my grandmother’s death we went to the cemetery, as we did every year. M stayed at home. She never went out, not even to visit her mother’s grave. When we got back, my father went to sit in the small yard that backed on to the single room that we all lived in. Every spring, my mother tried desperately to grow some herbs there, but they always failed. My father told her that she didn’t have green fingers and that annoyed her. I watched my father as he sat smoking, deep in thought. I sat beside him and he took a drag on his cigarette like a long sigh. I asked him why my aunt had become mute. That day he told me that their father was a drug addict like most of the men in the neighborhood. He beat them regularly, and when he needed a fix he could be very violent. Twenty years ago to the day he came home late and began shouting. My father, who was in his teens at the time, got up and left the house so that he did not have to hear all the swearing and the insults. When he came back in the early hours of the morning, he found his mother at death’s door, and his sister half paralysed in a corner. At the police station, his father denied having beaten them. The policeman questioned his sister, then ten years old, and she looked at her father, but did not say a word. Their mother died of an internal haemorrhage. After three months in prison, my grandfather was released, but then six months later he was dead, of an overdose. My father looked after his sister; he even took her to some medical specialists who diagnosed her as suffering from trauma. She had refused to testify against her father and since then she had never spoken again. My father hoped she would get better. Weeks, then months, then years passed and still my aunt did not speak. He tried to teach her sign language, but M would not give in, she was determined to remain silent. My father felt guilty, he said that if he had not left his sister and his mother alone, none of it would have happened. He could have intervened and stopped his father from beating up his mother. What struck me most of all that day, more than the story itself, was my father’s impassive tone. There was no emotion in his voice. He spoke as though violence was after all something banal and ordinary, the everyday lot of people who are born and die in misery. My mother often repeated a saying that used to irritate me back then: No one can fight his own destiny; every one has to accept the lot that falls to him, that’s just how life is.
That night I remember it was a full moon and I could not get to sleep. On the rectangular patterns of the curtain that my mother had put up to divide the room, I saw the scene that my aunt must have witnessed when she was ten years old, the murder that took away her voice forever. She was lying beside me, and like me, she was awake. The pictures I saw on the curtain disappeared suddenly with the sound of my father panting and my mother attempting to stifle her cries of pleasure. M and I listened to their duet from the other side of the curtain.
The young guard, my guardian angel, gave me my ration of opium.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m not allowed to talk to you.”
“And are you allowed to give me this?” I said, taking the crumpled piece of tissue.
M was not like other people; she never did anything in the usual way. People thought her mad because of her unconventional and uninhibited behaviour. She could not care less about things that were forbidden. It was only much later that I understood why she was so different. She never covered her head, even when she opened the door on to the street, whereas no other woman around here, even if she was bald, mad, blind, or mute would never appear on the doorstep with her head uncovered for fear of being seen by a passerby. In our neighborhood there were only men, the women never went out and like my mother, even in the house they wore a headscarf. M always dressed in a long coloured dress, always barefoot and always with two long plaits that draped over her breasts. She had the freedom of a man, a woman’s attention to detail. Sometimes she would spend ages painting our toenails, or making up her eyes in front of the mirror. And she smoked. She would stick a cigarette in the corner of her mouth or between her teeth while she washed the clothes or the dishes, then she would take long drag, like the poker players in those American films. I loved to watch her. Everything about her fascinated me. After what she had been through at the age of ten she was no longer afraid of anything, she did as she pleased. Sometimes she fell into a profound sadness, as dark as the deepest ocean, then she would shut herself off and no one could get near her. Other times, she was bright and happy, like a little girl who knew nothing of life; then she would lavish her joy on us all. The fact that she was mute gave her a freedom that she certainly would not have had if she could speak. Being mute meant she was not like other people, and her silence aroused their suspicion. She was scandalously different and had a knack of making enemies. She was the accursed, the evil and untamed woman. The gossips in the neighborhood said that we were harbouring a she-devil, a witch who cast spells on all those around her.
Today, with my ration of opium, the guard gave me a sweet. Mint-flavoured. I left it under my tongue without sucking it so that the pleasure would last as long as possible. In a gloomy cell, a sweet is a reminder of life.
One freezing cold day in December, my uncle came home from his military service. We weren’t expecting him. It was the afternoon and I was sweeping the bedroom, as for several months I had been doing all the housework. M had confined herself to her mattress on the floor. She only got up to go to the toilet. She had turned her back on life. My parents, especially my father, were worried about her. Seeing her moldering in her corner was terrifying for us all. One day, at lunchtime I brought her plate of food. She looked at me straight in the eyes as if she was begging me. I could not bear that dark look that went right through my heart. I put down the plate and looked down, her face expressed a mixture of terror and sadness, something not too far from madness. It was the first and only time that I felt afraid of her, afraid to be alone with her. […]
M had changed. It was as though some metamorphosis had taken place. She no longer listened when we spoke to her, as if she did not understand, she no longer combed my hair, cooked, did anything in the house, she did not sew any more. She didn’t move any more, she no longer saw us. She spent the day sitting on the kilim in the corner of the room and when she’d had enough, she lay down in the same place. The medicine that the doctor had prescribed made her sleep a lot, but sometimes in the middle of the night she would sit up and stare through the window into the yard. I was constantly on the alert, I waited for any sign, any gesture, but every day she became more distant, her gaze was empty, her silence oppressive. Time seemed to stagnate around her, an aura of mystery, of death emanated from her. I could see it as almost tangible. I felt as though the weight of her silence built up over the years was crushing her, dragging her into madness. I watched her, followed her gaze, but it never settled on anything, and seemed distant. I watched her face for minutes at a time and thought I could feel her loneliness, see the depth of the abyss that was engulfing her, a well of nothingness, dark and unfathomable. It seemed as though she was no longer among us and I cried and prayed to God to bring my silent aunt back to life. And it was not God, but my uncle who brought her back to life; it was her love for my uncle.
“They say you are going to be hanged,” my guard says, as he passes me my meal and the scrap of tissue.
“Aren’t you frightened?”
“I don’t know.”
He must be about twenty; I am fifteen, but I am old as eternity. How many days and nights before they hang me, I have no idea. It hardly matters. I will just carry on and hope that I have enough time to finish this story. Soon I will have left this world. I have no idea what death will be like. At times I feel I have no strength left, but I would like the story that I am telling in this notebook to survive me. Writing makes me feel alive, even though death is waiting behind the door of this cell.
My uncle lived at the end of the street with my grandfather who was quite ill. He mocked and sneered at everything, smoked a lot of hashish and looked like a film star—very handsome. He came by our house almost every day on his way home. One evening, he was telling us a funny story when he was doing his military service. He was imitating the Azeri accent of one of his fellow soldiers. M was sitting in her corner as usual. I got the impression she was listening and I saw the glimmer of a smile on her face, which had remained impassive since her illness. She was listening to my uncle, although for months she had not heard us at all. Her eyes were shining.
The next day she got up, washed, changed. Every evening, my uncle’s brief visits, his voice, his presence, brought her back to life. From the afternoon onwards she began to pace round the room or the yard, impatient, her face became so expressive that you could almost believe she was about to speak, say something. As soon as the bell rang, she calmed down, and all the time my uncle was there with his tea, telling us jokes, she sat still, listening attentively. One evening, long after he had gone, late in the night when we were sleeping, the doorbell rang. M opened the door. It was my uncle again. My mother rushed up to her brother. He told her that their father had just died. It was not bad news as such, since my grandfather was an invalid and a heavy burden on the family, especially for my mother and my uncle because they looked after him. It was even a relief in some ways. I was surprised when my mother collapsed to the ground in tears. My uncle too was embarrassed by her exaggerated behaviour, the more so because he expressed no sadness, shed no tears. His calm was disconcerting. He had seen enough young men die in the war not to lose his cool over the death of a sick old man, even his own father. As for my own father, he was a bit shaken and he told my mother, rather clumsily, not to worry. There was something comical about my father’s naïveté that made me laugh. I went and hid in the yard so that my mother wouldn’t see me. The next day my father and my uncle buried my grandfather in the poorest part of the cemetery — even underground there was a hierarchy for different degrees of poverty. Every Friday my mother went to pray at her father’s grave, a simple mound of earth. She would have like to buy a headstone, but that cost too much. She used to take me with her, which I was not happy about because I didn’t like the cemetery. My uncle came with us, just to please his eldest sister. She would bring some bottles of water to pour over my grandfather’s grave. Once my uncle said to her, “I don’t want to disappoint you, but you know your father isn’t going to start growing.” My mother started crying even louder, castigating her brother, “You should be ashamed of yourself, making jokes and your father only just buried.” She said a bit of water quenched the thirst of the dead. My uncle and myself tried not to laugh. My mother was devoutly religious. She was also quite stupid, it hurts me to say it, but then it also hurt me to have her as a mother, her stupidity cost us all dear. After the death of my grandfather, my uncle came more often. He had his lunch and dinner with us. My aunt got better and better, her health had returned and she had never been so lively, her eyes shone like rays of sunlight. She started planting herbs and flowers in the yard; she tended them every day, watered them, pulled out the weeds… My mother said, “ I’ve tried dozens of times, nothing ever grows, there must be something wrong with the soil.” But that year, the plants grew. Radishes, basil, roses. And it made my mother jealous.
One evening my uncle arrived in a hurry, he dropped off his dirty washing and rushed off again. As soon as he had gone, my aunt slipped out quietly. As she was a long time coming back in, I went out into the yard. She was standing in the corner with her face to the wall, as if she was hiding. I went closer to see what she was up to in the shadows. She was burying her face in my uncle’s shirt, taking in his smell. At the time I took it as some sort of game, but even then I was afraid that my parents would see her.
Everything is silent in this cell and all I can hear is the beating of my own heart, the demons of the past jump out at me, I am afraid, I am suffocating, I don’t want to die with this piercing hatred that consumes me. I don’t want to be hanged with this suffering that I have had to bear in secret. I don’t want to take it with me to the grave. I want to die in peace, free of it all. I have to use up all my suffering in this cell. I must record my hatred in this notebook.
Whenever I think of my childhood, I always see M. She used to spend ages combing my hair, then would put it into long plaits, like her own. She made me say my homework out loud and then clap loudly and hug me in her arms. Sometimes she held me so tight that I didn’t know where my body ended and where hers began. There was a bond of love between us, in me she saw the little girl that she had once been. Her personality, her life, her way of living in silence had all left its mark on me. Her existence, her story were part of my destiny, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just let her go on combing my hair — I loved that. With her, I felt protected. There was a sort of collusion between us, a chemistry without words. It was she who had brought me up, as my mother went to work every morning and came back in the evening, exhausted. When we were alone, she would ask me to read out loud from A Thousand and One Nights, a book that my father had given her. I liked being Scheherazade.
In spite of my fever, my memories are very precise. I can remember quite clearly when I started to be suspicious about M and my uncle. I was coming back from school and I bumped into my uncle. M was alone in the house, and was looking particularly radiant. The smell of the potato cakes that she had made for lunch made me feel really hungry. I quickly went about setting the table. My brother and sister were also starving hungry and were getting impatient. We waited for her to bring in the potato cakes and dish them up, but she made us wait. I went into the kitchen and asked her reproachfully what she was waiting for. She grabbed me by the shoulder and pushed me out of the room. It was the first time she had ever been rough with me. I went to sulk in a corner; I knew then that something was going on. After a long wait, my uncle came in and M finally brought in the potato cakes. She didn’t eat anything, but instead devoured my uncle with her eyes, her cheeks burning. She was twenty-nine, a virgin and in love, and her heart was fit to burst. She radiated passion. For a woman, she displayed too much emotion, her eyes expressed an unbridled desire, and they fixed on my uncle who, at twenty-one, understood nothing about women. He carried on eating mouthfuls of potato cakes and remained completely indifferent to her, perhaps because she was mute, perhaps because she was eight years older than him. From that day onward, coming home from school I kept a look out for my uncle in the street where he often hung around with a bunch of local youths with nothing better to do. If ever I saw him I would say, “Come on, come home, we’re going to eat.”
“What are you writing in your notebook?”
“It would take too long to tell you.”
I was allowed another sweet today. Last rites from my guard.
We weren’t able to afford a funeral for my grandfather. The neighbours said we buried him like a dog. To put an end to the gossip, and to gain a bit of respectability, my mother asked the mullah from the local mosque to come to the house every Friday morning and say the prayers for the deceased. My father and uncle didn’t like the idea of a mullah coming into the house and said it would bring bad luck, but my mother protested, insisting that she would pay for it out of her own wages, and that it was for the reputation of her dead father. So, every Friday at ten, the mullah rang at the door. He would stay ten minutes; long enough to recite some Quranic verses in Arabic and drink some tea before pocketing his fee. My mother gave me the task of keeping an eye on my aunt during the ten minutes of prayer, so that she did not appear in front of the mullah with her head uncovered. We would wait for him to go, either in the yard or behind the curtain in the other half of the room. One morning, I was changing my little sister when she escaped my grasp, and ran bare bottomed in front of the mullah. Offended by my little sister’s bare backside, he reprimanded my mother saying that little girls should taught modesty from the day they were born. My mother apologised and got up to catch my sister who was running and skipping around the room laughing. Suddenly, the outraged mullah raised his voice, saying that this was not a respectable household. M was standing there in front of him, with her head uncovered. My little sister ran into her arms.
“That is my husband’s sister, she is not quite all there, she’s deaf and dumb and understands nothing, forgive her. I keep her here with us out of charity, otherwise she would be out on the street.”
I could not believe my ears hearing my mother pleading with the mullah like this.
M shot a harsh look at my mother, then turned her back on her and went into the yard carrying my sister with her. After that, every Friday during the mullah’s ten-minute visit, my mother locked the door and made us stay out in the yard. My father always left the house before the mullah arrived.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s better that you don’t know.”
“Are you frightened I’ll betray you to my torturers?” I said as I took my meal from him.
I would not have remembered the incident with the mullah, or the Fridays when he came to say the prayers for the deceased, even though every evening my uncle did impressions of the mullah and teased my mother about her superstitions. No, I wouldn’t have remembered those Friday mornings if they had not changed our lives forever. Both my aunt’s and mine. My mother cried blasphemy at my uncle’s jokes and as for us, M, my sister and myself, we stayed in the yard and it suited us perfectly not to have to see or hear the mullah. One morning he was late. My uncle had come by. He was going to have lunch with us. Around midday the doorbell rang, I went towards the door but my mother shouted, “Give me your chador and go in the yard, all of you!” My uncle came too so as not to have to meet what he called the faith merchant. Every Friday, my aunt and I played at cat’s cradle, just to pass the time. I got out my length of string, but she shook her head as if to say no. She only had eyes for my uncle, and really she would have preferred me not to be there at all, so that she could be alone with him. My uncle started to smoke a cigarette, and M went and stood beside him. I had never seen her look so alluring. I know I was only twelve and knew nothing about love, but in that case there was nothing to know, it was just obvious. She looked my uncle straight in the eye and took the cigarette from him, placing it between her own lips. I was hypnotised by the scene. I remember I thought at the time that my aunt was going a bit far and I felt a sort of jealousy that I would find hard to explain. I had long understood that my aunt was attracted to my uncle, I wasn’t that naïve, but the way she oozed sensuality, the erotic way she behaved, the way she went up to him, looked him in the eye, took the cigarette from his mouth with her delicate fingers and put it into her own mouth, this was something else. It was like in the films, to the extent that in my head I imagined the scene going even further; dozens of times I had imagined that after one puff of the cigarette, my uncle would take my aunt in his arms and kiss her amorously as they do in films. I felt such emotion; it could not have been more powerful if it had been me that was in love. In reality, there was no kiss. Perhaps if I hadn’t been in the yard, something might have happened, but my uncle was clearly embarrassed by my presence because he said, “Here, keep that one, I’ll light another,” and moved away from my aunt and towards me. I couldn’t help thinking, “What an idiot!”
Every day I wait for my guard to come by. His brief visits punctuate my solitude. He looks kind. He must be doing his military service. But today he looks serious. He gave me my ration without saying a word.
I don’t think I have ever loved my mother, but when I was little, as a child I never dared to admit it. Sometimes I felt guilty about loving my aunt more than her, as if I was betraying her. After what happened, I realised that I had never loved her. She had never loved me either. She had decided to be in mourning until the New Year. She wanted to buy a new bound copy of the Quran, because the one she had inherited from my grandfather was very old. My uncle said, the older it is, the more precious it is. In the West people prefer old things, even if they are bad condition. My mother replied that the Quran was not an object, but a holy book, and that anyway Westerners didn’t understand anything about the Quran whether it was old or new. My uncle retorted, “And of course, you know all about the Quran…can you even read it?” […]
I’m happy. The guard came today. I got my dose, but no sweet and not a word from him.
From time to time my mother would get together with the other women to peel aubergines or wash vegetables while they chatted. Mostly, their discussions involved saying bad things about other women in the neighbourhood. It kept them busy and gave them the illusion of having a social life. These gatherings always happened at our house, we only had the one room, and two of the women whose husbands were in prison would often stay until evening. I didn’t like our neighbours, they always looked suspiciously at my aunt, and I felt they had a bad influence on my mother. Sometimes I complained “Why do they always come here, why don’t you go to their houses?” I couldn’t concentrate on my homework. My mother scolded me and proclaimed that, if I was really keen on concentrating on my studies, I wouldn’t hear anything, even a thunderstorm. So I tried to get on with my homework, but their noise and their presence were a real nuisance, especially when they all talked at the same time, which made a deafening racket. M never joined them, she always stayed in the little kitchen, made tea for them, cooked or looked after the flowers and herbs that she had grown in the yard. One day I was doing my homework and among the other words that filled the air I heard them say “the mute” several times. I was curious and listened to try and grasp what they could be saying about my aunt. I heard one of the neighbors talking in a low voice to my mother. She was a bigoted woman who went to the mosque every Friday, but who was famous for her spiteful tongue. “You know it’s not right, your brother coming round every evening when your sister-in-law lives with you and she doesn’t even cover her head. People are talking—they’re saying things. You should never give people a reason to talk, after all she may be mute, but she’s still a woman.”
“What can I do? I can’t stop my own brother from coming to see me. He’s on his own and hasn’t got anyone else. As for my sister-in-law, I’ve had to put up with her since I got married. I can’t ask my husband to throw her out on the street. They are never alone together anyway, and my brother only calls for a few minutes on his way home.”
“Of course they are alone together. Several times I’ve seen him with my own eyes going in for lunch when you are still at work and your husband’s away.”
“But she’s always there,” protested my mother, looking pointedly in my direction, and anyway, why would you think my young and handsome brother could be interested in a dumb spinster eight years older than him?”
Listening to her I was incensed, but I kept my head down and pretended to do my homework. Suddenly they all went quiet — my aunt was in the room with a tray of tea. She put it on the ground beside my mother, nodded to them and went out into the yard. All the women, including my mother, watched her as she went out.
“Anyway I’m only saying what I’ve heard. You know she has a bad reputation, and it’s true when you see her, you think people must be right. After all, men are men, they can’t control themselves, and if a pretty woman makes advances and goes around without covering her head…”
“But what can I do?” wailed my mother.
“You can marry her off, that way you’d be rid of her forever.”
“Who would want to marry a mute?”
“There’s always someone, you know, after all a mute is better than a woman who nags all day long, and she’s not bad looking. OK, she’s not young, she’s already twenty-nine. Now I come to think of it, there is someone who might be interested.”
The women looked at one another. I thought then that they weren’t as nasty as I had thought, because naturally I imagined they were thinking of my uncle.
“Can’t you guess?”
“ I told you, I don’t know…”
I was so engrossed in their conversation that my mouth was wide open and was about to reply in my mother’s place, when she turned and told me to go and fetch another tray from the kitchen. Each woman was holding an aubergine and a knife.
“So are you going to tell me who wants to marry my sister-in-law?”
In the kitchen, I heard the bigot woman say the name of the mullah. The tray I was carrying fell to the ground with a huge clatter.
“What are you doing in there?” shouted my mother.
“Nothing,” I said, picking up the tray from the floor. I put it down next to my mother and went back to my place to carry on with my homework.
“The mullah? The one who comes here and says prayers?” said my mother, astonished.
“Obviously, there isn’t another.”
“But how do you know?’
“ I know. They say his last wife couldn’t have children and he wants to take a new wife.”
“But he’d never want to marry a woman who was mute.”
“Listen, if I’m telling you it’s because I heard that he saw her once when he came for the Friday prayer, and it seems he is interested. And as he’s already got a wife about the same age, it could be an advantage that she’s a mute, at least the two of them won’t argue.”
“I’ve nothing against it after all, he’s got a good position, but my husband will have to agree.”
“I don’t see what he could have against it. After all, it’s not everyday you find a husband for a mute sister who’s going on thirty.”
I didn’t know what to do, keep it to myself, go and warn my aunt, or tell my father about my mother’s Machiavellian plan. In the end I decided to wait, not to throw my aunt into a panic and to speak to my father as soon as possible.
My mother didn’t lose any time, got there before me and had told my father. That evening before going to bed, she had done her very best to soften him up. I thought he would be furious at the very idea of marrying his sister off to the mullah, but that was not the case. The next evening after dinner my father took his sister by the hand and led her out into the yard. I looked at my mother who was anxiously watching my father. I realised that she had got to him. I couldn’t hear them, but I sat by the glass door so that I could see them. My father was still holding his sister’s hand and talking. She was listening and attempting to understand what her brother was trying to say. My mother came up and stood next to me to see what was going on. I noticed that as my father went on, my aunt’s face gradually hardened. She shook her head as if to say no, withdrew her hand and shot a fierce look at my mother standing by the window, then rushed off to the other side of the yard and huddled in the corner. My father went over to her and tried to reason with her but she got up, looked him hard in the eye and moved away. My father came back into the room and said to my mother,
“It’s no good.”
“What do you mean? You’re the one who decides, not her, you’re her guardian, and she’s your responsibility.”
“You don’t want me to force my own sister to get married, do you?”
“Force. There’s no force about it. Once she’s married, she’ll realise that it was for her own good. What does she know about marriage anyway? It’s not right keeping an old sp…” — she was going to say spinster but corrected herself — “a girl of her age shut up in the house. Don’t you realise this is perhaps the only chance she’ll get to have a husband, have children and a family?”
“What do you want me to do?” said my poor father.
“You can go and see the mullah and give him your consent,” bullied my mother. “He’s the one who draws up all the marriage contracts, he can do one for himself.”
“You talk as though we were trying to sell something.”
“Listen, your sister is twenty-nine years old, she’s mute, she frightens all the neighbours, and remember when she was ill and you thought she was going mad. Marriage is the best thing for her.”
“But I can’t marry her against her will, to someone she can’t stand.”
“Can you see any others queuing up to marry her? And how do you know she can’t stand him, she doesn’t even know him. She’s just afraid to leave the house, it’s not good, her staying here, clinging to you like this. You’re her brother, not her husband.”
My father cut her short. “Listen, you are in mourning for your father until the end of the year. We’ll see about all this in the New Year.”
M was in the corner of the yard, smoking a cigarette. I wanted to go and comfort her and tell her what I had heard the night before, but I didn’t dare. She looked very miserable. I watched her from the window and then took a decision.
The next Friday when the mullah came for the prayer, I didn’t go into the yard with my aunt, but stayed in the kitchen and offered to make tea. In truth it was so I could spy on them. I knotted my headscarf tightly round my head and went up to the mullah with the tray in my hand. I caught him looking at me over his glasses. He had almost certainly thought that it would be my aunt who served him tea. I bent over and held the tray in front of him so that he could take a cup, but I had overfilled it and some had spilled into the saucer “How many times have I told you not to overfill the cups.” My mother was scolding me for my clumsiness. My hands were shaking, so was the tray and the cups with it. “No harm done,” said the mullah, taking his cup. I looked up and caught him piercing me with his eyes. I don’t know why, at that moment, I had a dreadful feeling of foreboding. I went back to the kitchen, watching them all the while. After the prayer, he spoke with my mother by the front door. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, he was speaking in such a low voice. I was sure my mother was cooking up something and I decided to thwart her plans.
“Why are you condemned to hang? What did you do?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Is that what you are writing about?”
“More or less.”
We were doing a big spring clean after the New Year. My father was away and my mother was at work. I was helping M to clean the windows. It was a fine sunny day and there was a nip in the air, real spring weather. I was holding the hosepipe and was rinsing the glass door. My uncle appeared on the doorstep, he had just been shopping. He put the shopping in the kitchen and came back into the yard. He said he hadn’t been able to get any bread because there had been a fight at the baker’s; as usual, someone had cheated and pushed his way into the long queue. After lots of swearing and protests, it had come to blows and one man had brought out a knife and had stabbed another in the stomach. “What a country! People are ready to kill each other for a piece of bread,” he said, lighting up a cigarette.
Scenes like this were not unusual in our neighbourhood. It seemed to me that for men who are poor, gratuitous violence is the only way they can prove their virility.
M was paying no attention to my uncle and carried on cleaning the window. My uncle went up to her and offered her a cigarette. Without looking at him, she came over, took the hosepipe from me and squirted it at my uncle. He yelled, “Are you crazy? What the hell’s got into you?” There was nothing playful in my aunt’s behaviour, it was rage. Soaking wet, my uncle threw away his damp cigarette and grabbed the hose from her, they were standing pressed one against the other, she resisted, but he was stronger. He turned the hose on her. She was soaked and very beautiful with her long wet dress clinging to her body. Watching them I was convinced that my plan was a good one. It was easy really. I must go to my uncle and open his eyes, make him see. I had rehearsed several times what I was going to say. I mustn’t make him pity my aunt; she wouldn’t forgive me for that. I had to tell him about my mother and the mullah’s plans, about M’s despair, her love for him. I thought to cast him in the role of a hero. The only one who could save her. That evening he didn’t come to eat with us. My mother was in a bad mood and M was a world of her own. She was looking pensive. I did the washing up and we went to bed quite early. Lying there on the mattress with M beside me, I thought about my plan and could already imagine her in a wedding dress, on my uncle’s arm. I fell asleep full of hope. My mother woke me at dawn. She was all agitated. I got up, she kept saying, “Where’s your aunt?”
Still sleepy, I noticed that my aunt’s side of the mattress was empty. “How should I know? She must be in the toilet.”
“I’ve just come out of there.”
The door to the yard was shut, so she couldn’t be outside, but I still turned on the outside light to see. I looked in the kitchen.
“If I’m asking you, it’s because I’ve already checked everywhere, she’s not in the house or in the street,” said my mother in a panic.
I didn’t know where she could have gone, especially at this time of day, but suddenly I had an intuition.
“ If you know something, you have to tell me.”
“I don’t know anything, how should I know where she’s disappeared to?”
“Your father will be home this afternoon, we have to find her before that, otherwise he’ll think that…”
“Perhaps she’s run away, so that she won’t be forced to marry the mullah.”
“My God, when people get to hear this, there’ll be a scandal…” my mother kept saying.
She put on her chador and told me to go and wake up my brother so he could go and look for M. Hearing this I said, “It’s too early, you go to work, and I’ll go and tell my uncle.” But she already had the door open and was almost in the street. I ran after her pulling at her chador. “ I’ll go, you go, you’ll be late for work.” She turned round and I saw in her eyes that she was suspected something. I put my headscarf on and ran after her in my bare feet. “It’s too early to wake him up, go to work, I’ll go.” She turned round again and slapped me hard. I kept running after her. There were two men in the street watching us. She opened the door to my uncle’s house. I went in with her. In our haste we left the front door open. On discovering the scene before us, my mother stood paralysed for several seconds. M and my uncle were naked, asleep in each other’s arms. I was speechless too. I couldn’t say anything. It was so beautiful, these two bodies intertwined. So perilously beautiful.
My mother came to and started screeching, crying foul. They woke up with a start and tried to pull up the sheet to cover their nakedness. My mother pretended to faint. The two men from the street were standing at the doorway. I shut the door on them. With the sheet wrapped around him, my uncle kept saying “I’ll marry her, I’ll marry her, don’t worry.”
M picked up her dress and went into the bathroom to get dressed.
My mother kept saying, “It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
I said to her, “Why is it a disaster? He’s going to marry her…”
She threw one of my uncle’s shoes at me. I didn’t have time to duck and it hit me right in the chest. That was it. I’d had quite enough of her nonsense now.
“ So you’d rather marry her off to the mullah, is that it? And now your little plan is ruined.”
She told me I was just a cheap whore like my aunt, that I must have known what was going on and that’s why I wanted to stop her coming here.
“How long has this been going on? People were right when they said my father’s house was turning into a brothel…” she wailed, beating her forehead. I told her that for someone who was supposed to have just fainted, she was overdoing it a bit. M reappeared. She looked calm, relaxed and her hair was loose. My uncle tried to reason with his sister and finally after an hour or so she calmed down and went off to work. My aunt and I went back home. In the street, there were groups of people standing outside my uncle’s house, and ours too. They watched us go by. Hugging the walls, trying to go unnoticed, we hurried back to the safety of the house.
“It’s strange, you being a prison guard.”
“I didn’t choose to.”
“Are you doing your military service?”
“I’m not allowed to talk to you.”
M was certainly not lacking in determination. Only people of limited intelligence like my mother would underestimate her stubborn perseverance. After all, she had persisted in remaining silent for years! She had decided to put an end to this plan of marrying her off to the mullah. And she’d done it in the most radical way possible. She had given herself to the man she loved, without asking for anything in exchange. For a woman, it was much more than an act of rebellion, a revolutionary act, not only in our situation, but in this country where love was always a question of honour for brothers and fathers, a matter of business, an arranged contract, a deal. A country where love was forbidden.
She had changed somehow — I don’t know exactly how, but I saw M in a different way. And that day when we were alone together in the house as we had been thousands of time before, it was unlike any other day. I wanted to talk to her, but I didn’t know what to say and I felt uneasy. I felt she was extremely embarrassed to have been caught naked in my uncle’s arms, but at the same time there was a serenity about her. She was happy, in love and it was as plain as day. She had prepared breakfast for us. “Go on, sit down — I’ll do it,” I said clumsily. She looked at me affectionately, with a glimmer of a smile. I plucked up my courage and said,
“You did what you had to do. Now no one will stand in your way. Now you must get on and make your wedding dress. I’m so happy for you.”
And then I felt sad because I was going to lose her, she would not be mine any more, she would belong to my uncle.
“Can I come and see you both every day?”
I had tears running down my face. “It’s all the emotion,” I said She took me in her arms and hugged me really tight. The same arms that had embraced my uncle. I don’t know why but my tears kept coming, even though I felt extraordinarily happy and safe.
Around three in the afternoon someone rang the doorbell. I thought it was my father so I ran to open the door. It was two men from the Committee, carrying Kalashnikovs. They came in and pushed me out their way. One of them grabbed M violently by the arm. “Get me a chador,” he shouted to me. I obeyed. My knees were trembling. M looked terrified. They put the chador on her head, then pushed her out of the house and made her get in their car. I pinched myself, I slapped myself, but this was no dream, the nightmare was real. Their intrusion had been so abrupt, so brutal, that I only realised what had happened once the car had disappeared at the end of the street. I ran to my uncle to warn him. I rang the bell, knocked on the door. One of the neighbours said that they had come and taken him to the Committee.
I didn’t have the strength walk the fifty meters that lay between me and home. I just collapsed sobbing on the ground in front of my uncle’s house.
My father came home early in the evening. I told him what had happened that afternoon but didn’t dare tell him about the incident at my uncle’s house. My poor father, he was stunned. He ran straight to the Committee headquarters. After he had gone I thought I should have told him everything, so that he didn’t have to hear it from the men in the Committee. When my mother came home she found me pacing round the room. “Get me a glass of water” she said, exhausted.
I brought it to her, without saying anything.
“Where is your aunt? I hope she hasn’t gone off to find her lover again,” she said in between gulps of water.
“You just can’t bear it, can you? That she is happy for once. You are so mean you can’t even be happy for her and your brother.”
“I can see she had a really good influence over you. You even defend her after the shame she has brought on us.”
“What shame is there in their love, and what business is it of yours?”
I was crying again, sobbing. I hated my mother. I detested her.
“Where is your aunt? Answer me.”
“You can be happy. They’ve taken her off to the Committee.”
“Who do you think? The men from the Committee. They turned up here. If you hadn’t made kicked up such a fuss and woken up all the neighbours, nothing would have happened.”
“What about your uncle?”
“They took him as well.”
She put her chador back on to go to the Committee. I told her my father was there already. As far as she was concerned, there was only one guilty party, my aunt. To my mind, it was all my mother’s fault.
My father came home alone.
“They are keeping them. The mullah wasn’t there. I’ll go back there in the morning.”
He was shattered.
That was the first night I had ever spent without my silent aunt laying beside me.
In the mullah’s opinion, M had committed adultery. She wasn’t officially his wife, but he had asked for her hand in marriage and my mother had told him that my father had given his consent. Without knowing it, my aunt had been promised to the mullah. Even almighty God can do nothing against to stop the vengeance of a mullah betrayed by his future wife, a religious poser whose honour and pious vanity had been wounded to the core. Now M was going to be stoned to death. Even today, as I languish in this prison waiting to be hanged, and having experienced so many horrors, I cannot describe the state we were in, my father and I, when this sentence was announced. There are no words to describe such barbarity. Just imagining my aunt, mute, buried up to the shoulders and a human horde throwing stones at her to kill her — the image filled us with horror, and also with a burning anger that could set the whole town ablaze. I would have been capable of killing the mullah and the rest of the neighbours singlehanded. I kept breaking down in tears, begging my father to do something. Like most girls of thirteen, I still thought of my father as all-powerful. I had never seen him cry, but since we had learnt that M was to be stoned to death, he had been crying his heart out. Seeing that he was helpless, I prayed to God for there to be an earthquake, or bombs, a war that would destroy the whole town, the whole country, so that my aunt would not be stoned. I was incapable of expressing the hatred I felt for my mother, her stupidity, her ignorance and her spitefulness. How did my father manage to cope with her? In his place, I would have beaten her. She kept repeating that it was not her fault, that she had been right to say that M should not be allowed to visit my uncle. Sometimes I wanted to strangle her to make her shut up. I was tortured by my own imagination; I could see the stoning happening again and again in my head. I could see M, my aunt who had loved me, held me in her arms, brought me up, the woman who had been my sanctuary was to be stoned to death. No one deserves such a horrific death, not even the hardest criminal, and certainly not my wonderful silent aunt whose only crime had been to dare to love. Sometimes I prayed to God, sometimes I threatened him; God, I swear I will kill you with my own bare hands if you let her be stoned.
My father went to plead with the mullah. He threw himself at his feet and told him how she had been an orphan at the age of ten, how he had raised her in miserable poverty. He begged for mercy. The mullah promised that M would not be stoned, she would only be hanged, but in exchange he asked for my hand. In his grief, my father consented. When he came home, he was like a wounded bird that can no longer fly and drags around on one leg. As soon as he came through the door, I ran to him. “She won’t be stoned, she is going to hang,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. He crumpled and fell to the ground, gaunt, the light gone from his eyes. The news had chased the images of stoning from my mind. My father had saved her. Hanging is a dignified and merciful death, compared with stoning.
Chahdortt Djavann, La muette © Flammarion, 2008 Translated by Lesley Lawn