I sit at my spot on the sidewalk across from the hotel. Its name, Hafiz, in neon above the door, is glowing against the semi-darkness of dawn. People, young and old, male and female, come out of the hotel and rush in different directions. Oh, they must have so much to do, urgent matters, important tasks. None of them are going to the mosque at the mouth of the street to pray. Most of them come from faraway countries. I like foreign tourists. For one thing they have more money to spare. Some days my bowl gets filled up. Occasionally I find dollar bills in it. That’s the best; the dollar goes such a long way exchanged for toomans.
Then who do I see coming out? The manager, Lynn. She is holding a plate. “Salaam khanoom joon,” she says in Farsi, in which she is fluent. She is also wearing a head scarf and a manteau like Iranian women, of course being forced into it.
“I brought you pastry.” Her tone is respectful, not rude or pitying.
“You’re so kind.”
“You can use the basement bathroom any time.” She looks up and down the street. No one is passing by now. She leans over and says, “Will you do me a favor, keep your eyes open for anyone suspicious looking coming into the hotel or anything strange happening.”
“I will, Madam.”
“You’ll get a reward.” She looks at me with sympathy and says, “I certainly understand pain.” Then she walks back inside.
One of the chambermaids, Mehri, told me Lynn’s story. Lynn came to Tehran on a short visit many years ago, married an Iranian man, and stayed on. Then her husband got killed. She is still waiting, after all these years, to find out what happened, who did it. Why doesn’t Lynn make me a chambermaid? Because I don’t want that and she senses it. Something in my brain has been destroyed since the fall. I still can read and write—I finished high school—but there is a lot that I can’t perform. This is my story. It all happened when I ran away from home, not wanting to marry the man my father selected for me. I took a bus from Ghom to Tehran. When I got here, as I was looking for a cheap place to live, I fell and hit my head on the hard ground. I blacked out. When I came to myself in a clinic, the doctor said, “Something happened when you fell but it isn’t clear what.” Then, as if getting pleasure out of being blunt, he added, “A part of your brain doesn’t function well, not all the time.” From the day of the fall, I’ve never been the same. I keep falling and blacking out, unless I take my medicine.
I eat the pastry and keep an eye on everyone going in or out of the hotel. The day is getting on but I haven’t yet seen anyone doing anything strange. I take out the money from the bowl and put it in the pouch which I then save in my large canvas bag. I go to Motaveli Avenue to take a bus. The traffic is racing crazily. A motor scooter swerves into the sidewalk and its rider almost hits me. Then he swears at me, “Get lost, you scum.”
Finally the bus comes and I get in, go to the back, the section for women. Some of the women stare at me in a way that says, “What’s she doing on this bus?” I get out by the Hejabi Mosque and go in, not to pray but to get something to eat again. I am still hungry. My stomach is in a knot.
Inside I go to KITCHEN and a woman there hands me a package of food. Then I sit on a bench in the little garden stretching behind KITCHEN and eat—an apple, a kebab wrapped up in plastic, rice in a container. There are a few other women sitting on another bench but I don’t mingle with them. I have nothing to say to them.
After I’m finished eating I leave and walk on the streets around Shemiran Square, the modern part of this vast city, where rich people live, and look in garbage cans, hoping to find a coat. I spend all the money people put in my bowl on medicine, going to public baths, the cubicle I stay in, food when I don’t find enough in garbage cans or given to me free.
I find a pair of leather gloves, not in a garbage can, but on the sidewalk. They are new and a pretty blue color. Someone must have dropped them. I don’t find a coat or anything else for that matter. It is getting dark and I start walking more speedily to the shelter. I used to sleep in doorways but police always picked me up and took me to their station and questioned me.
The woman sitting behind a desk in the shelter’s lobby gives me my key and I go to the cubicle that’s my room. I don’t like to stay in the common room. The sight of the other unfortunate women like myself only depresses me. I sit on my cot and take an inventory of what I have in my canvas bag. First I take out the pouch and count the money in it. I have earned more than usual today because one of the hotel’s guests put a five-dollar bill in the bowl. The pouch was absolutely empty this morning and now there’s plenty of money in it. Lucky, at least for one day.
Then I empty out the bag. Out come the blue gloves, and what was there already: four pairs of underpants, bobby pins, a shiny green piece of glass that I like to hold against the light. I put the pouch back in the bag though I do worry about carrying all my money around. But banks can’t be trusted. They are thieves.
I skip breakfast though it is included in the fee I pay for staying in the cubicle rather than the common room, which is free. I have a terrible toothache and I don’t like the dingy dining room here. I make my way to the free Red Crescent clinic. Oh, the terrible toothache, the long wait. I have to sit on a bench along with others. No one looks at me. Just as well. A nurse keeps coming out and calling people inside. Everyone except me. I know if I wait long enough I will be called in. So I keep sitting here. But everything is so slow and the medicinal smell, the sight of people taken around in wheelchairs or cots, are unbearable. Finally I can’t bear sitting here any longer. I leave and go to the drug store next to the clinic and straight to the man behind the counter. “Can I have some aspirins.”
The druggist says in a contemptuous voice, “Aspirins aren’t free. We sell them.” He turns to another customer.
I interrupt, “Can you spare me a few?” I always try to get my medicine free, if I can. Charity is a cardinal rule of Islam, isn’t it?
Now he looks at me with real disgust. He puts a few aspirins on the counter, even though I have my hand raised before him. “Take it,” he says. “And leave now.” He points to the door.
I leave and pause by the joob. I fill one hand with water, put two aspirins in my mouth, and drink the water. The water is clear today for a change. I see a reflection of myself, my face all puffed up, my hair, what shows of it at the edges of my head scarf, frazzled. I can see all that. I’m not stupid.
I go to the park and sit on a bench to rest. It’s sunny and not so cold today. Families are wandering around. They buy balloons and cotton candies for their children the way my dear mother used to for me. A boy and girl are sitting on a bench behind a clump of trees and kissing. They pull apart suddenly as they notice me, probably afraid I will report them to the moral police. The girl pulls her chador over her face, so I barely see what she looks like. I know about love, romance, what is forbidden to us. But now all I think about is when I will have my next meal, will I have money for medicine. I leave the park and go through the little bazaar instead of walking on the traffic-filled avenue. The rich and poor mingle here in the bazaar with its variety of shops. My dear mother used to take me to a bazaar similar to this. Yes, I was once a beloved child to a mother. She bought me beautiful jewelry, which I sold to pay for my expenses when I arrived in Tehran. I used to be pretty like my mother. Same hazel-green eyes, curly brown hair. But she couldn’t protect me against my father’s will. They must be searching for me but of course they won’t succeed. I don’t even go by my real name.
I come out of the bazaar onto a quiet, residential avenue. I look inside the large tin box behind a tea house where old leftover food is dumped. I reach into the box and find a whole loaf of bread among the rubbish. I wipe the bread on my skirt and then take huge bites of it. I reach inside of the box again and find a piece of fish and a whole potato. I eat it all. I begin to feel better. My toothache is gone too, thanks to whoever invented this miracle medicine, aspirin. Once my dream was to become a doctor. How strange that now I am roaming the streets every day with no job, no family, no home.
As I walk on I come across a woman, rummaging through the trash cans. Her face is covered by soot. I pass her rapidly and go to the other side of the avenue. Her sooty face frightens me. I keep myself clean. I go to the public baths at least once every two weeks, why can’t she? In a trash can I find a little book, a pen, a baby blanket. The sight of the baby blanket makes me very sad. I put it, along with the other items, in my canvas bag anyway.
I am finally sitting in my spot across from Hotel Hafiz, with my bronze bowl on the ground in front of me. I take out the little book I found. It is filled with poems. I read one of them a few times. It is a message to me; someone must have put the book in that garbage can for me. It says:
I knocked on the door.
A voice said, Who is it?
I said, Don’t you know? Your daughter.
The voice said, Go away and come back some other time.
I went there again. She opened the door and said, Oh, my dear daughter.
Does the poem mean I will see my dear mother again?
The whole day is slow. Few people pass by. I get little money. I am frantic. I need a coat badly. I don’t want to spend my own money. As I rise up from a garbage can I see a man standing on the sidewalk watching me. His shirt has paisley designs. The blouse I’m wearing under my chador, what I wear now on top of the head scarf and a manteau, because it keeps me a little warmer, has the same paisley designs as his shirt. How strange. Things are beginning to get connected in this chaotic city. We look into each other’s eyes and both burst into laughter. Then I pick up my bag and run away from him.
I am hungry. I think of another place to have a free meal, St. Atteh Armenian Church. I like churches better than mosques. In churches everyone eats at a dining table rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor. At my home we ate at a table too. My father, though strict and dictatorial, was modern in some ways. He worked in an office for a building construction company.
At the church’s dining hall I take some beans, chicken, potatoes, from the buffet table and sit by a window to eat. On the other side of the room a group of women, who seem to be employees of the church, have gathered in front of a television. I look out the window and watch people hurrying by, talking, laughing. I fall into a reverie about my mother. How different my life would have been if I only had her and not my father. She put love before her principles. She would have let me marry Kian, the neighborhood boy I had a crush on and who had a crush on me too. He whispered to me he wanted to marry me and then he sent his mother over to ask for my hand. But my father practically threw him out of the house. “They have no money and aren’t respected in the community,” he said. My mother pleading with him that Kian was a nice boy and had a college education didn’t help. He said, “It’s the family that counts.”
Someone is tapping me on my shoulder. I turn around. A young woman is standing in front of me. “Can I sit with you?” she asks.
“I have to leave.” I get up and run out.
I sit across from Hafiz Hotel and look at people going by very, very carefully, hoping to be able to report something to Lynn. I see a policeman approaching and I nervously pull the chador more tightly around me. It is the one with missing teeth and bulging eyes.
“Get up and go away,” he orders. I see his legs in front of me.
I dig out the pouch from my bag, take out the money, and give it to him. He walks away to his car. Imagine, I had to give him all my money to be left alone.
Then a thin, tall, furtive looking man comes out of the second hotel door that leads to the basement and he goes towards the avenue. I have seen him standing in doorways, behind lamp posts or trees, lining this street and staring at the hotel. What does he want? Is he foreign or Iranian, it’s hard to tell. Then I realize he’s the same man with the paisley design shirt. He could be planning to bomb the hotel. Should I go and tell Lynn? But I know today is her day off. Anyway the man is already out of my sight.
I start reading my book. When I look up next, a dress, folded up neatly, is on the ground in front of me. Who put it there, so quietly, without me noticing it? Maybe that man? I pick it up and look at it. It is too big for me but it is beautiful, yellow with blue stripes. I put it in my bag and get up. I go to the thrift shop next to the Hejabi Mosque and try to sell the dress. A fat woman is standing behind the counter with a stack of clothes on it. She is picking up each item and folding them. “What do you want?” she asks curtly.
I hold the dress before her. “I want to sell this.”
She glances at it. “We don’t buy things here.”
I spread the dress on an empty corner of the counter.
She seems dazzled by it. “What do you want for it?”
“Anything you give me.”
She takes out a few coins from a drawer in front of her and throws it on the counter. I pick them up and leave.
At last I find a coat in a trash can and immediately put it on, on top of my chador.
“Are you so cold? We’re having a warm autumn, don’t you feel it?” a man passing me by asks. Everyone minds every one’s business. Doesn’t he see the snow on the Alborz Mountains? Doesn’t he see people’s faces turned red from the cold?
“Bears wear their coats every day,” I respond. That shuts him up and I turn into another street. I wonder if that was the same man. Could have been. I didn’t really look at him. I walk and walk, looking for soap. I keep thinking if I look in every trash can the odds are I will find soap, the kind that has a pretty color and a good scent. Five blocks, nothing. Six blocks, seven… Then I become aware that the man, the same one I have been seeing everywhere, is following me. How did he find me? As soon as I look in his direction he hides behind a tree. I walk on, not knowing what else to do. Things are getting more and more connected.
My God, what do I see in a garbage can? A human finger. It has red polish on its nails. My vision becomes blurred, my legs numb. I remember that terrible incident. One night when I was sleeping in the hallway of an abandoned building a man came to me, held a knife to my throat and forced me to undress. When he got what he wanted he left. A man like that could have cut off that finger.
I keep looking for soap in different cans anyway. I don’t want to give up. Then I spot a shop, its window stacked with bars of soap wrapped in paper with pictures of a rose, a bird, a tree branch on them. Another connection. I’m looking for soap and here is a shop full of it. I push the door open and step inside. It is pleasantly fragrant. The pictures and the scent remind me of my dear mother. That man, the one who has a scheme for the hotel, must have a mother too. Or had one. Is he the same man that I see everywhere I go? As I stand here among the soaps I remember the blue wall paper with tiny white flowers in my childhood room. Then I remember myself in a pink dress and a mother-of-pearl necklace, a pink ribbon in my hair, walking along with my mother to go and visit Uncle Mahmood. I must have been only five or six years old because I wasn’t forced to cover up. I was glowing like a lit candle that day, all dressed up and proud, walking with my dear mother who loved me.
“How did you get in here?” the salesman asks with a stunned look on his face.
“The door was open.”
“Get out of here. Get lost. ”
I continue standing. He rummages through a drawer, takes out a bar of soap and throws it to me. It falls on the floor. I pick it up. It is unwrapped and I can see a rose carved on it. I hold it tightly in my hand and leave. He doesn’t know how smart I am, that once I had a home, a mother, that I wanted to become a doctor. Why should I care?
I am in my spot across the hotel again. Dusk is approaching. I get up and go to the basement from the second door, the one the man came out from. I go into the bathroom and latch the door from the inside, undress, and wash myself with the soap and the water from the sink. I make a mess. But at least I am clean and I don’t have to spend my money going to the public baths. I dry myself with a towel I keep in my bag, put my clothes back on, and start to leave. I hear strange noises from the other side of the basement, furtive footsteps, a door opening and shutting. Someone is running out, it seems. What do I care? Unless… it’s the man, coming here to do something, plant the bomb maybe, and then getting scared when he heard noises, the ones I made.
I must tell Lynn. I go into the lobby but she isn’t there. The man sitting behind the counter looks at me and asks gruffly, “What do you want?”
I just leave. I don’t see anyone on the street, running or anything. It’s very cold and I’m still a little damp, making it worse. I take out the gloves from the bottom of my bag and put them on. They have a rose smell from the soap that was lying next to them. Oh, I remember I left the soap in the bathroom. I must go and get it. I go to the door but it is locked now. Who locked it? Why?
I resume sitting across the hotel. Then I wrap myself tightly in the coat and lie down with the canvas bag under my head. I keep my eyes open. But I don’t see anyone doing anything strange. I must have fallen asleep. I wake to the voice of the muezzin calling people to evening prayers. I go to a stall on the avenue and buy tea and bread. I sit on the sidewalk, lean against the wall, and eat. Then I notice a crowd on the other side of the avenue. They are holding banners but I can’t read the words on them from this distance. Then the crowd begins to shout, We want the Americans back. We want reform, empower the reformists. Too many crimes are committed in the name of religion.
How right they are. I would join that crowd but I don’t count.
Policemen suddenly arrive and spray water on them. They stop shouting and begin to run in different directions.
I sit in my spot. I have two bars of soap now, one blue and one yellow. Three, counting the pink one that I went and got back from the hotel’s basement bathroom. The other two I found, not in a trash can or anything, but on the sidewalk, where they stood next to each other like twins. The color is already gone from the pink soap after one wash. Good thing I didn’t pay for it. I line them up in front of me behind the bronze bowl and I hold the little book in my hand and read a poem.
I become stiff as I see a policeman, different from the one I gave money to, coming towards me. He stands in front of me and asks, “Were you here, in this spot, during the night?”
“I don’t remember.” That is the truth.
“Are you an idiot? How can you not remember?” he says gruffly.
I don’t have much money to bribe him.
“Did you see anyone going into the basement from that door?”
I shake my head no.
“Are you sure?”
I shake my head again.
“There’s danger to the hotel.”
“Oh, yes, yes, a man has been prowling around here.”
“Can you identify him, we’ve arrested someone. I have to take you to the police station.”
“Excuse me I must go to the bathroom.” I am telling the truth.
But he says, “We have to go to the station as soon as possible. Get up, don’t make me force you.”
I follow him a block to his car. “Get in,” he orders, opening the back door.
I fall asleep in the car and wake feeling my underpants being all wet. Luckily nothing is leaking out. I was dreaming before I woke. In the dream a row of cats were moving across a wide, lit street. They had long yellow hair and white whiskers. Somewhere in the center of the street they went up a flight of steps and disappeared into a doorway. I looked inside. It led into a hall, beyond which was a garden. I could smell a mixed scent of flowers coming from the garden. I was about to go in when the door shut in my face.
In the station the policeman lets me use the bathroom. I don’t really have to go now, but I pretend I do. When I come out another policeman takes me into a room and asks me to look at a few photographs. Lo and behold there is the man among them. “That’s him.”
I must have shouted because he says, “Quiet please.”
“That’s him,” I whisper.
He takes out another picture from a drawer. “Who is this?”
“The same man,” I shout again. I can’t keep my voice down.
“He was caught running out of the basement into the lobby. He’s a dangerous man.”
So he was the one who was making those noises in the basement. He heard me coming in and ran up into the lobby. He was caught because of my going into the basement. Things are connecting once again. If I hadn’t gotten that soap I wouldn’t have gone into the basement to wash. If I hadn’t been dirty I wouldn’t want to wash. If I wasn’t watching the hotel for Lynn I wouldn’t have noticed the man. I wouldn’t be watching the hotel if Lynn hadn’t given me pastry and said she understood pain.
I say to the policeman, “It’s all for the best.”
“For the best.”
He exchanges a look with another policeman who has come in.
“She needs treatment,” the other policeman says. “She’s loony.” It is as if I am not standing right there and hearing him.
I say, “No sirs, I’m not loony. You see my father threatened me so much that I ran away. Then I hit my head on the ground. I got an injury to my brain.”
“What did you do wrong that your father threatened you?” the first policeman says in a menacing tone.
“I was minding my own business.”
The one who called me loony has a grin on as he says, “All right, lady, leave now. We’ll find you again when we need you.”
At least he called me a lady. Then he startles me by reaching into his pocket, taking out some money, and giving it to me. “Get yourself something to eat.”
Suddenly it is dusk and I am far away from the police station and in an area of the city where I have never been before. I find a hallway to sleep in instead of going to the shelter. I wake in the middle of the night wanting to pee badly. I think I have a kidney disease, it takes a long time for my pee to come out. I pick up my bag and start walking, looking for a public toilet. The night is very quiet and cold, and unusually bright with numerous stars and a round moon against the sky. The maddening traffic roar has subsided and the cicadas have stopped jeering. As I turn to a curb I see a cat scratching the ground.
“Get lost, you dirty pest,” I yell at him.
He ignores me and I go my way.
In the morning I must go to Lynn and talk to her about the man and the police questioning me. I’ll tell her, because of my identifying him to the police, he is most likely behind bars and the hotel isn’t in immediate danger. Then I’ll ask her if in return she will let me sleep in the basement for the rest of the winter. I know she will say yes.
Photo By: Mohammadali F.