A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed
Mahvash Mossaed — leaves on white

When I was a Young Girl

July 26, 2020
Mahvash Mossaed — leaves on white
Courtesy of Unsplash

My mother, my father, and my two sisters — we all lived in a city near the desert, with rows and rows of palm trees and arched buildings. Our house was at the end of the street and had a large yard. Like every other house, it had a brick wall around it. In the middle of the house was a paved brick courtyard with fountains and a blue-tiled pool.

In our city, the date-bearing palm trees were covering two sides of all the streets. Their main job was to create the much needed shade and to produce and supply sweet dates in the summer, when it was most humid and hot. The architecture was influenced by Middle Eastern culture. Everything was built in an arched form, which was also really meant to protect people from the naked, burning sun. Everywhere you would glance at was dry and shamefully bare of any greenery. In our city, we only had one movie theater, which showed the really popular, latest movies, like Cleopatra, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. We did not have any department stores or boutiques. We had to go to the best fabric stores in town; estimate exactly how many meters would be needed for our dresses to be made; buy the fabric; take the fabric to the town’s tailor; sit in his shop and look through the latest fashion magazines. One magazine that I remember particularly well was called BURDA Moden, which would even offer assorted patterns for different designs and styles of dresses. This was perfect in case you had a sewing machine at home and you knew how to sew — you could make your own clothes, like many women in our town did.

My childhood happened before this high advance of technology. In those times, no one in our city had a television in their household. We had a telephone though, black and bulky, with rotary dials in front of it with nine large finger holes. The telephone was a much respected object in the house. It was assigned to the most important room, and the household had to use it with a lot of caution. We listened to the radio. Specifically, the story time on the radio was very popular with us. The play, with characters played by different voice actors, came on every night, exactly at the same hour, and lasted for thirty minutes. We would wait patiently, then all gather around the radio, making ourselves comfortable just to hear the rest of the story, which was unfinished from the night before. 

We liked stories. We liked using our imagination. Starting from a very young age, my two sisters and I read a lot of books. Reading books was like a virus that was transferred to us by my father. My father had caught it from my uncle, and my uncle had caught it from my grandfather. In fact, it seemed like everyone we knew had the virus, for all the relatives and friends who came to our house read a lot of books. So books were important, and actually, you could say that our whole house was infested with them. They were everywhere: on shelves along the walls, in closets, on desks, on table tops, and sometimes even behind furniture. In fact, everyone in our family was a writer, and most of the friends who came to our house were poets and writers too. We even expressed our love and hurt and anger with poetry. We celebrated every occasion with books and poetry— like many people celebrate with food and music. My father would teach us how to read a poem and encourage us to memorize it. Once we did, he would reward us for it. Once a month, when he gathered all his writer and poet friends at our house for a reading, he would call his three young daughters — his children — so they could read the poems they had memorized and amaze and challenge his guests. 

Poetry is a very important part of Iranians’ lives and culture. For years, this has been their way of passing on messages of hope and wisdom to one another. For years, this has been their way of communicating: through these classic lines that everyone knows by heart. You would even see these poems written in public places like buses, taxis, and marketplaces.

In our city, we did not have a water purification system, so every family had to install their own filter machine, which was not really efficient. I am not sure if it did do a good job of filtering the household’s water, for a lot of people would get sick, with typhoid and other similar diseases. None of the houses in our city had a shower or a bath tub, so my mother had to take us to the female public bath in our neighborhood, where we would rent a shower room, and one of the female washers who worked there would come in to wash us all. I was particularly afraid of her, for after shampooing my hair, she would use buckets and buckets of water, one after another, to pour over my head mercilessly. That would give me a fright that I would definitely not come out of this horrid flow of water over my head alive. To me, it was a life and death experience equal to drowning. In the end, when my two sisters and I, accompanied by my mother, would leave the public bath house, we were squeaky clean, with our faces flushed red from hours of being in the high level heat of these shower rooms. These bath houses scared me, mainly because of the stories I had heard about them as a small child. For example, legend has it that at night, when everyone had already left the building, the werewolves would come to occupy the building. I was told the werewolves were awfully vicious. Thus, whenever we passed by these bathhouses during the day while being driven to school by our driver, I would check out the building from the corner of my eyes with fear, curiosity, and caution. All I could see, however, was some colorful towels being dried on a rope in the sun on the rooftop of the building. I would also notice women covering themselves tight in their chādors walking in front, towards the entrance of the bath house, while a female helper would be walking in the back carrying their baggage of their bath essentials. I had heard that older women who’s sons are in a marrying age, particularly, would visit these bath houses often to find a beautiful suitable wife for their sons. There, they could check out the girls of their choice in their birthday suits and make certain they look fit and healthy enough to make a wife and bear children! 

Our city was half populated by Arabs, who came in from the surrounding Arab populated cites looking for work and had created their own slums in the suburb of the city.  Their accommodations consisted of mud houses, which they would build with their own hands. Their women worked really hard — I would see them carrying a few large pots of milk, one on top of another, going door-to-door to sell them. They would wear their black abayas, a special black garment which they all uniformly wore, covering them from head to toe.  I would always hear them complaining that it was the worse heat ever this summer, but that it was the right season for ripening of the dates. These women were strong, tough and tall, with very straight backs. Their skin was browned, thickened, cracked with a lot of deep lines from the constant exposure to the burning desert sun. Their life was most amazing to me. They lived on the other side of the river, on skid row, in their mud huts. They carried the heavy burden of life and family all on their own shoulders, while the Arab men had a much easier life. The men wore thobes, their long, white, cotton gowns, which were open and airy and cool, versus their women wearing all black. Arab men appeared lazy — all they did was lie down under the shade of the palm trees all day long and let the women do the heavy lifting,  but still they had the last word in the household.

What else can I tell you about living in the desert? That we had too many skin color lizards running around. They were everywhere. They were not shy to enter any house uninvited. We would find them resting in all the cool places, like in our bathroom and our closets. So many times, after washing my face, I would pick up my towel and find a lizard sticking to it. Still, this was not the worse thing about living in the desert. I think the most unpleasant aspect of living in our city was the sand storms, which would take us by fright and surprise every time. Suddenly, in the middle of the day, the sky would turn into a murky orange color, and then it would turn into a blood red color just before the sand storm happens. This was followed by an attack of the desert locusts. They were savage, like an organized army conquering the whole city. They were everywhere — they would darken the sky and stick themselves to all the windows of our house, just like in Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds,” except in this case it was the locusts which were there to get you. There was a saying: that the Arabs from the other side of the river would take these locusts’ heads off and actually eat them uncooked, just as a delicacy. But I did not really believe it, for I never really saw it with my own eyes.

The spring was beautiful, as it should be. We actually had great weather. Multicolored flowers bloomed in our garden. We could hear the birds singing amongst the branches of the trees. The winter was always mild and pleasant — long hours of tired, pale sun and a cold breeze in the evenings. As soon as the summer arrived, however, we had to deal with mornings, which, upon opening our eyes, we would find our nightgowns heavy and moist with humidity sticking to our bodies. The air would be stale, hot, and wet. We would wash the courtyard down with water to help cool the air, and it would immediately turn to steam!  But at sunset, after exhausting everyone and being exhausted itself, the heat would step back and start to fade. The cool desert breeze would start blowing through the town, and the frogs would come out from their hiding places and sing. Everyone would sit around the pool in summer chairs. Tea would be brewing in the tea pot on the top of the silver samovar. In the middle of the courtyard, there would be a table filled with trays of fruits and little homemade cookies. You could hear the faint music coming from one of the rooms upstairs. 

My sisters and I, as young girls, would sit on the summer chairs by the pool and play with our rag dolls, which our mother had made for us. She used a spoon covered with plain white fabric for their faces and painted heavy eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and small red lips for them.  The rag dolls did not read the paper, they did not have bank accounts, they would not argue with you — they were just there to be happy and pretty. They reminded me of some of my mother’s friends who, like my rag dolls, were made up and looked very happy and content.  They came with their husbands to visit,  wearing their gold jewelry and flower-patterned dresses. They all used the same neighborhood dressmaker, hairdresser, and jeweler, so they all looked alike and even smelled of the same perfume! They gossiped amongst themselves and lived in a world of their own.  The husbands, in their three-piece suits, talked about politics, work, and business. They all laughed too loud and ate too much. They were all older and uglier than their wives. 

In the afternoons, all the offices, stores, and schools in town would close for a few hours and everyone would rush home to have lunch and take an afternoon nap.  The whole town would be as quiet as a ghost town, except for the man who sold ice from his donkey‘s saddle. He announced his arrival by shouting, ”Ice! Ice! Ice!” My sisters and I would be wide awake in our room, waiting for the right moment to sneak into the courtyard and jump into the blue-tiled pool. We would run around the pool, trying to throw buckets of water on one another. Then we would rush to get our kites, which we had spent long hours making from pieces of newspaper, brown bags, and pages torn from our school notebooks. We would run with them to the rooftop. We would wait for a good wind, take a position, and then fly our kites high up — really high.

On summer evenings we would sometimes go by the river to buy vanilla ice cream, which came sandwiched in the middle of plain round wafers. We bought corn on the cob, barbecued and dipped in salt water, and walnuts, which had been soaked in water overnight and peeled. The city lights would be coming on, and the sky would be gray with spots of red and orange floating in it. The sun, already burned red and tired, would be sinking somewhere at the very end of the sky. We would watch the fishermen rowing their canoes and singing sad songs.

As children, all day, we looked for evening to come, for the vanilla ice cream, corn and walnuts, for running after the frogs with a dried out twig, for walking along the river and looking at the city lights. But most of all, we looked forward to going to the roof again, not to fly our kite — this time to sleep. There, we each had a wooden bed with a futon mattress, with crisp white sheets and comforters made of bright colored satins. The whole family slept at the same time and in the same area of the roof. My bed and my two sisters’ beds were next to each other. I would fall sleep every night already dreaming. In the middle of the night, I would sometimes wake up and look at the stars, which seemed very far away, and at the yellow moon. I would look at our neighbors sleeping all around us, all on their own roofs, watching their own stars and moon and dreaming their own dreams.

My two sisters and I went to the only elementary school and then high school in our town. It was an all-girls school. We wore a uniform with a white collar, which was not attached so we could wash and iron it almost daily. At school, we only had one day off in a week — Friday. In school, we had a girl squad, which, to join, we had to make a promise to stick with and for one another. In our break hours, we would be holding hands with our best friends from our girl squad and telling each other our hidden secrets — which we would never reveal to anybody else except our besties — while biting on our six-inch mortadella sandwiches, which smelled of garlic with heavy pickles and tomatoes, bought from the food stand on the grounds of the school yard. When our high school was over for the day at three in the afternoon, girls who were best friends and in the same squad held hands together while walking the streets towards their homes. They had boys from the all-boys high school waiting for them in deserted corners of little alleys, who would shove love notes in girls’ hands. Girls from the all-girls high school would blush and receive the notes, saving them in between the pages of their geometry or history books. Later on, they would add a dried flower or a piece of peacock’s feather next to the love notes and hide them carefully with all their might somewhere safe, away from everyone — of course, everyone except their trusted best friend in high school.

Some people are proud to be ahead of their time, but I admit that I am way behind my time. Sometimes I think I really belong to the eighteenth century era. I could have been the friend of Elizabeth Bennet, the character from the book “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. I visualize myself sitting by the fire place next to Elizabeth, reading a book or just doing my tedious needlework, ever so patiently, in a very contemplative silence, letting Elizabeth open up to me about her love for Mr. Darcy. I could see myself going places in a carriage and dancing in my best ball gown, all the while having my eyes open for a possible suitor, whom I could romance, but only in my thoughts. I am behind my time. I like life to be a whisper but not a scream. Too much overwhelms me. I avoid the department stores, which offer too many varieties of merchandise to their customers. I feel lost in the presence of their fluorescent lights and in the presence of plentiful things to buy and too many choices. I feel afraid of the possibility of getting lost in this bountifulness and that I may disappear, and that the small, insignificant me may never be found again.

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