Translated from the Persian by Siavash Saadlou
Once death takes root in you, stretch your legs out.—Bedil Dehlavī
It was a month since Mr. Fahim had become a regular at the café where I’d been working for years. He would come in with his gorgeous and agreeable wife, sitting at a table in the corner, where the two of them would busy themselves reading a book or a magazine. Whenever I got the chance, I would introduce to them some of the latest books I had begun to like. One day in early winter, Mr. Fahim handed me a letter as soon as I served some hot coffee to their table.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Read it later,” said Ms. Fahim.
I smiled, retreating to the back of the café.
After careful consideration, we’ve decided to ask you to be the mother of our child, read the beautiful handwriting on a pristine piece of paper—so forthright and yet so vague. I was baffled, having no idea what to make of the sentence. I figured they probably had a child that needed a godmother or something like that. But why me? Maybe it was all just a prank, I thought. When I returned to their table, they looked visibly anxious.
“Honestly, I don’t understand what you mean by this,” I smiled.
“We want your eggs. Let’s just pretend we’ve put forth our request quite adorably now.”
Now, put yourself in my shoes. How terrifying is it to be asked for your eggs when you are at a loss about your very own identity? The idea unsettled the mind, so much so that I was appalled at the power my gender possessed. I quickly explained my set of circumstances: my loneliness; my being an immigrant; my origins; my child; my husband…I can’t recall the exact tone in which I blathered on about all these things, but I must have been wearing a smile on my face because Mr. Fahim replied, “We have carefully considered every last detail. So long as we can have a daughter with your level of energy, your intelligence, and your zest, we’ll be thrilled.”
It was all foolish, but I ended up having many more conversations with the Fahims following the first one. The problem with their married life was something I knew an awful lot about: loneliness. And yet their loneliness was nothing compared to the sorrow I was feeling deep within me. I had a hard time convincing them that loneliness had no cure, that even if they were to have a child, human beings are essentially lonely. All the same, they made every effort to drive home to me that they loved my boldness and that my genetic codes would impart all the “good stuff” to their child. What genetic codes? I thought. The genetic codes of a woman who had heard people call her Afghani (1) her entire life? Even for people like me, though, sometimes life gifts us the entire deck of cards exactly the moment when we are at our lowest of ebbs. For me, it wasn’t until I laid eyes on the sonogram image and saw this stain—a derivative of myself—that I realized I was holding all the cards.
Days went by debating and discussing the issue with the Fahims. Their loneliness was different from mine. Before meeting the Fahims, I used to believe I had accepted my loneliness from the inside and out on the account of being an outlander, but here I was, facing people who had come to me in search of a healthy child because I was an outlander in Iran, because the odds of my having genetic diseases were next to none, because they had read my books—the same books that had always harped on about being an outlander—and, lastly, because I was in reasonably good shape and able to deliver a healthy child.
I don’t know how exactly I managed to gradually overcome the first mental block in my head. I was awash with a feeling telling me that perhaps this was my divine calling and that it was happening for a reason. I had always seen myself as the loneliest of all, and now I was in a situation that allowed me to chase loneliness out of another family’s life, even though I didn’t believe in this being possible. I spent every single day trying to come up with all sorts of excuses to back out.
It was like I had accepted an important mission. In my imagination, I was seeing myself as something akin to a hero, the savior of a family, which would then graduate to the savior of the world, an ambition that was alien to me. “All these things are signs,” Ms. Fahim always said. And finally came the day I laid down on the ultrasound table, with Ms. Fahim firmly holding my hand. The two of us squinted at the monitor. While Ms. Fahim was growing restive, the doctor proceeded patiently. He froze the image for a moment and announced gleefully: “Here are the retainable eggs that will most likely be fertile within the next three days and ready to be used—healthy and huge.”
I was staring at the stain on the screen. Ms. Fahim excitedly pressed my hand, and I swear I’d never been in a situation so bizarre as this one. The stain wasn’t telling me anything, but it seemed like an inexplicably interesting sight. My stain was able to make this family happy, and once again I began to think about what exactly they were going to tell the stain later in life. Will they call it Iranian? I wondered. Will the stain know whose genetic codes it had inherited?
For me, taking these steps was like walking through a portico of fire. I felt like Abraham braving a burdensome trial. We agreed that the eggs be combined with Mr. Fahim’s sperm, and the fetus be placed inside Ms. Fahim’s uterus for her to carry and become the mother.
When I got off the ultrasound table, I had to fill out a form declaring that I had knowledge of the potential damage the egg retrieval procedure might wreak on my health while hospitalized. Mr. Fahim was standing in the hallway, shooting us two women a smile. All was fine except me and the picture of that stain.
I shoved the paper into my purse and said goodbye. That afternoon, as I was placing an ashtray on a customer’s table, I received a text from Mr. Fahim: “We are waiting for your final decision because, according to the doctor, there is only a three-day window for the egg retrieval to be carried out.”
The world was pitilessly playing around with my solitude. I didn’t reply to Mr. Fahim’s message because I didn’t know what to say. The stain in the picture, with the nimbus clouds surrounding it, contained my genetic codes, and, the more I looked at it, the more I became secure in the belief that it wouldn’t be capable of healing the loneliness of few or even one person all on its own, because the stain itself was alone, so alone that it probably had no interest in ever becoming part of a household built on a lie. Even though the stain stemmed from me, we were each a stranded soul after all.
I scanned the crowded café—three or four people sitting in circles at every table, chattering and laughing without a care in the world—and decided to block Mr. Fahim’s number. It was as though imagining the stain inside my ovary had been the final nail in my soul’s coffin, a stain that could have departed my body to enter someone else’s uterus and nine months later become a human being who would, after a certain point in life, start looking for ways to rein in their own loneliness. How painful would it be for the stain to find out that I was the one who happened to be its biological mother? I couldn’t bring myself to lie to the curled-up eggs on the sonogram. How could I explain to the stain where it was that I had come from? How could I tell the stain about what I’d witnessed in Zahedan? The stain would have never given me the opportunity to explain. Instead, the city would only have been imprinted in its genetic memory.
In 1990s Zahedan (2) everyone knew the name Hojat Badaghi. He hailed from Rasht (3) and used to bring Indian movies to our town. Hojat was the most well-known movie buff in all of Baluchestan. But his claim to fame didn’t end with him being from Rasht or being a movie freak. He would go door to door to visit his clients at their homes and watch every movie with them, like a screening if you will. This is how I came to see him for the first time as a nine-year-old. My dad used to keep a VCR in secret, and Hojat Bedaghi visited us every weekend, bringing an Indian movie with him.
The first movie that has stayed with me from those days is Akhree Raasta (The Last Option), starring Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi. In the movie, Amitabh Bachchan circled around a tree and Sridevi placed her head on his chest, climbing the tree in one brisk bounce, then shedding tears from up there with her big black eyes, the tears landing on Bachchan’s cheek. Bachchan then gingerly picked up the tears, wrapped them inside a handkerchief, and took them to a place that resembled a steel factory. There, he unwrapped the handkerchief and upon seeing the tears—they were still as fresh and alive as minutes prior—resumed singing. The reason why I remember the name of the movie is because Hojat Bedaghi always wrote down the title on a piece of paper and placed it next to the TV before playing. He adhered to a set of rituals, so to speak.
Traveling to Lahore was no picnic back then. Hojat would go to Pakistan once a year in early spring and bring with him a year’s worth of Indian movies. He didn’t have the luxury of owning too many movies like people do today—that is why he bided his time prudently planning his weekly visits so that he could keep his clients happy for an entire year. For a few weeks in a row, Hojat played Akhree Raasta, and, when the time to play the next movie came around, Dad had begun to look into purchasing a video projector.
Hojat came to us with Sholay this time, and we christened the new video projector to play it. He had written down the name of the film on a piece of cardboard, taping it to the wall in the living room; neither we nor Hojat himself knew how the video projector worked. He started fiddling with the device, all the while harping on about Sholay, this masterpiece of an Indian movie. Dad had snugly settled on the sofa, and I was seated at his feet on the ground. I can’t remember much about everyone else because this, to me, was my and my dad’s story. The initial images of the movie elude me now, but I can recall the scene where Malini spread her hair from one end of the screen onto our wall, and Amitabh Bachchan picked it up on the other end before sniffing it. Then, outraged, Dharmendra set a fire above our heads on the wall in the living room. Hema Malini ran for the mountains and Bachchan turned his head—the pictures projected somewhere on the wall adjacent to our kitchen—and we swirled around ourselves to see where his hand was. We were yet to figure out our video-play system and so the images jumped about on the walls like roving lights, to the point that when it came to the more poignant scenes, with the camera swiftly revolving around the lovey-dovey couple, half of the images split onto the living room walls, and we had to spin around ourselves, as if on a spool.
Halfway through the movie, I grew oblivious to the yellow, green, and red lights on the walls because my eyes had landed on my dad’s, noticing the tears beginning to well in them. I gently leaned back against his dangling legs, hoping that he would stop crying. He placed a hand on my shoulder, picked me up from the floor in one quick move and made room for me next to himself on the sofa. I guess he must have been holding me in his arms because when Hema Malini had cut her own hand with a thorn, I didn’t see the blood gushing out. I just remember half our living room walls turning red and the echo of my dad’s voice blurting out the word “ouch” sotto voce into my ear.
Ever since that movie, Hojat Bedaghi became an important person in our lives because the weeks and months that followed were spent remodeling the living room for our so-called movie theater—setting up the white curtains, fixing the projector lens, and adjusting the light. Every year we were looking forward to seeing Hojat Bedaghi leave for Lahore, a city that we, too, had visited twice, the first time to obtain Pakistani citizenship and later to seek asylum from some European country, coming back empty-handed on both occasions. But in those same years that we used to binge on Indian movies in Zahedan, Hojat Bedaghi, who had connections anywhere you could imagine, offered to help us obtain Iranian citizenship. My dad was a highly educated man who worked at the University of Zahedan, and Hojat was a well-meaning fellow who had married into a Zahedani family. He had a brother-in-law in high places at the Civil Registration Office in Zahedan, who expedited our case. When visiting him at his office with my dad, I was cold with fear and had a hard time understanding the kind of Persian the staff members spoke. I recall one of them telling my dad, “You’ve come here with this kid, and you’re telling me she’s your child. How the heck should I know that that’s true? Where’s your proof?”
My dad said something about the bombardment of the hospital where I was born, about the absence of a birth certificate and that it was business as usual for many of us not having one. He told them all about my birth and my mom until he burst into tears. The spectacle resembled a scene from an Indian movie—what’s there to say about a man impelled to stand in the middle of a public office to prove that the child he had picked up by the scruff of the neck was really his, that he had worked so hard to raise her to be nine? Everything was exactly like in the Indian movies that used to project onto the walls in our home. My eyes remained fixed on the clerk’s mouth to see if he would pronounce me as my dad’s legitimate child. He handed the case files back to my dad.
“You’ll need a witness,” he said. “They won’t issue an ID for a case like this.”
The fear of not knowing whose child I really was began there. I held onto my dad’s hand and clung to his feet. At the grand bazaar, he bought me a doll that would cry as soon as you removed the pacifier. Every time the doll cried, I cried with it. Eventually, some folks showed up at the Registration Office and testified to help resolve my situation.
I did receive my identification documents. Still, I didn’t feel like other kids my age. I was a stain who had been cut off from my mother, a stain that had managed to prove she had a father, only thanks to the thirty people who had testified for me. Most of my peers would read children’s books when I was in first grade. But what I had was a treasure trove of books bearing a red label in Russian—books I couldn’t make head or tail of—as well as a sizeable archive of Indian movies, an attempt on the part of Hojat Bedaghi to make us feel we belonged where we were. I was a stain born out of a combination of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, now, Iran. Perhaps it is the destiny of all stains to think back to their very beginnings at some point. My beginning was somewhere along the border lines, a place that bore no significance to me but proved to be consequential in the ultimate fate of a stain in the political sphere.
First, they poured some slaked lime, then they built seams upon it, then they set up a firm concrete infrastructure at the end of those seams, and exactly eleven months after the electric fences had started working, they set up the borders. We had no clue what was happening, but that’s how we ended up on one side of the border and many other houses on the other. Among us, it was only Salimeh who was caught right in the middle.
Salimeh was a lanky woman with very little grace, and whenever she took the sheep to pasture, she would let her hair down. People said that she did this to draw attention to herself. In my eyes, though, Salimeh personified the charm of the desert. I didn’t know her all that much, until she asked me to help sort out her sheep pen because I happened to know Colonel Shakoori who worked with the South Khorasan border police.
I had left the hurly-burly of city life to work on my newest book back then, and when I realized that this tenacious woman wouldn’t stop visiting me every day about what she should do with her sheep, I finally gave in and decided to go see what the whole deal was with Salimeh or, more precisely, with Salimeh’s sheep. Yes, her house happened to be caught exactly in the middle of where the fences had been built, and the part of the yard dedicated to her sheep pen was left on the other side of the border. Every day when crossing through the fences, half her sheep would get wounded or receive electric shock, and, as usual, no one was being held accountable.
“Four men came here and used some strange gizmo to create this line,” said Salimeh. “I didn’t know what to do. I called Colonel Shakoori. He told me to move my life to the village and take all my sheep with me. He asked why I insisted on staying here. I told him that this is my home.”
My last correspondence with Colonel Shakoori went like this: The sheep can’t distinguish being Iranian from being Afghan—it just consigns itself to death.
Eventually, Colonel Shakoori showed up one day. He knew my family but had no idea I owned a collection of Russian books with cloth-wrapped jackets bearing the flag of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. When Salimeh was forcibly removed from her home and complained about the sheep not having enough grazing land, I was reminded of the books I had stashed away as a child, the illustrated books I couldn’t read but that housed beautiful paintings of little blond girls who worked at a factory or picked potatoes from the field or wore uniform-looking attires sitting in class—on the cover of every one of these books was the flag of People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
In my mind, the books were a shapeless mass with their red label being the only thing that caught the eye. The person who had brought me the books as a souvenir was killed years ago, and my dad had decided to keep the books, like everything else he had kept obsessively ever since my childhood for some special day. That special day never came, and the faintest interest in learning Russian was never conceived in me because of how strongly I loathed that language.
“Salimeh, you can shred these books and give them to your sheep,” I joked.
“If my sheep feed on books, they will get sick,” she said cluelessly.
“They won’t get sick,” I laughed. “They’ll just become communists.”
Colonel Shakoori laughed with me while picking up one of the books.
“Which flag is this?” he asked. “Isn’t it the Soviet Union’s?”
“No, that is the flag of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan,” I said. “There are a few others. One for the Mujahedin, one for the Taliban, one for the current Republic and…flags are a dime a dozen in Afghanistan.”
“What about your flag?” he asks.
I didn’t have one, and now it was time for yet another journey. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and now? Now it was France’s turn.
I go to Paris. Holding the immigration paperwork in my hand, I stand in the office for asylum seekers. My attorney says that the quickest way to receive asylum status is through this very interview. The asylum officer is a black man who asks me some routine questions up until the point he stands up. “How do you feel about the Muslim violence in your country?” he says.
Once again, my broken French fails me.
“The same way you feel about the violence of Christians,” I shout in English.
My case gets tossed out. My attorney runs after me along the street where the sight of the asylum office’s distant, fluttering white flag begins to make me feel nauseous. That white flag is no sign of peace but a colorless sign devoid of identity. I keep running and finally stop in the middle of the city square by the Seine. “What the hell do I do now? Who am I?” I shout at the top of my lungs. A few passersby walk past me, indifferent to this woman who could be an Arab, Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, Iraqi, or Afghan.
When my eyes survey the stain on the sonogram image, I don’t know the latest about Salimeh’s sheep, about the books, about the flag, about the IDs, and about my citizenships. But I know all too well that the stain can’t make up for anyone’s loneliness. I couldn’t explain all of this to the Fahims, just like I never could to my own family.
These are my words, with me being unaware of the enormity of their sorrow. I imagine it is but a tragedy in such dark times for this land to be once again leaving behind a thousand lost stains—a land I wish, as Bedil Dehlavī writes in one of his poems, could be “the soil on which you can stretch your legs out when your time comes and forever rest in peace.”
(1) A racial epithet used in Iran for people of Afghan origin. [Back to essay]
(2) Zahedan is a city in, and the capital of, the Central District of Zahedan County, Sistan and Baluchestan province, Iran, and serves as capital of both the county and of the province of Sistan and Baluchestan. [Back to essay]
(3) A city in the north of Iran. [Back to essay]
ALIYEH ATAEI is an Iranian-Afghan author whose books in Persian have won major literary awards in Iran, including Mehregan-e-Adab for Best Novel. The English translations of her work have appeared in Kenyon Review, Guernica, Words Without Borders, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. Ataei’s collection of personal essays, titled Kursorkhi in Persian, is set to be published in French by Éditions Gallimard in 2023. She holds a graduate degree in Dramatic Writing from Tehran University of Art.
SIAVASH SAADLOU is a writer and literary translator whose short stories and essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthology. His poetry has been anthologized in Odes to Our Undoing: Writers Reflecting on Crisis (Risk Press) and Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press). Saadlou is the winner of the 55 the Cole Swensen Prize for Translation. He is currently an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia.