“Everything in Goli Taraghi’s story is connected to everything else, each element establishes a layer that gives the story added weight and heft, until it adds up to something dense and more communicative than what a less gifted writer could possibly have compressed into so few pages.”—Francine Prose
Author's note: I left Iran in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution, and settled in Paris with my two small children. I was naïve enough to think that the chaotic upheaval of the beginning eventually would settle into normal life, and I could return. The increased hostility of the government toward the intellectuals and the war with Iraq, which lasted eight years, forced me to stay longer than I had imagined. I was educated in America and did not speak French. I had to start from zero. Fear of an uncertain future, financial worries, being lost and homesick, and many other problems, conscious and unconscious, all contributed to my nervous breakdown. I believed I could fight back personally. I underestimated the destructive force of the enemy. After a year of suffering, I was finally hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic. Taking the right medication restored my mental stability and helped me to overcome my dreadful anxieties, but what came to my rescue and pulled me out of the dark well of depression was the magical force of literature.
Psychiatric Clinic of Ville d'Avray. Outskirts of Paris
I am sick and I don't know the exact name of this sickness. I am not myself anymore, the one I used to be, like all the untroubled people who laugh, who enjoy eating a piece of cake, who sleep well through the night and wake up reposed and relaxed, without dreading the approach of the day. My thoughts, like the fleeting circles on the surface of water, are unstable and short-lived. I feel empty inside and have no precise desire—nothing. I cannot even think normally. What has happened to me? Maybe I am just homesick and cannot cope with my life in exile? I have endured, with strength and sturdiness, the turmoil of the revolution, the confiscation of my property, and the nightly bombardments of Tehran. And, now, a simple domestic problem frightens me. No, this trembling, panic-stricken woman is not me. An evil eye has poisoned my soul and an alien spirit has put a spell on me. I visited different doctors who seemed to know the exact nature of my illness and stuffed me with all sort of medicines. I felt worse. I tried meditation, vacation, yoga, acupuncture, hypnosis, group therapy, laugh therapy, music therapy—all in vain. I cannot even explain my fears and agonies to those close to me. They tried to help me and each one of them had his own method of treatment. They took me for long, breathtaking walks, they dragged me to gymnastic clubs, to swimming pools, to conferences and lectures on how to attain inner peace and eternal happiness. They wisely advised me to look at the misery of the poor women in Africa and be grateful for having a roof over my head and two healthy, wonderful children. Their rationality torments me. All I want is to stay in my room, pull the curtains, close the door to the outside world, and retreat to the safe citadel of the past. There exists, in the universe of my memories, another world that is much more real and secure than my actual life in Paris. All day, unable to face the reality of present time and uncertainties of a dark future, I stay in bed and dream of summertime in Tehran, of the Friday festivities in our house, of parties and picnics, of religious ceremonies and family dinners, and of myself, a carefree, happy child, playing with a multitude of cousins—boys and girls of different ages, in the green alleys of our neighborhood. It is not a sweet remembrance of the past, but a dreadful effort to recreate a world that does not exist anymore.
My Iranian friend is alarmed. He forces me to see a new doctor. It is a short, quick visit. The doctor does not hesitate. He tells my friend that I must be hospitalized as soon as possible. My heart throbs. I refuse vehemently. I cry. I get up to leave, to run away, and finally realizing that I have no other choice, I surrender in despair.
Everything is arranged quickly. I should present myself to the psychiatric clinic of Ville d'Avray on August 24. I mark the date in my notebook with a red pen—The First Day. The night before departure, I have a strange dream: I was in a city in ancient times. Perhaps it was Egypt in the era of the Pharaohs. Father was sitting on a luxurious throne, his eyes fixed on a faraway point. A golden plaque, like the sun, was shining on his forehead. I passed in front of him, surrounded by white pigeons. Mother, dressed in a long black dress, was walking behind me.
I wake up thinking about him. I hear his voice in the back of my ear: "I am made of steel and steel never rusts."
I believe him. No one has ever seen him sick. He is iron-willed, with nerves of steel. I cling to his image and reach for his invisible hand.
Voices from outside bring me to myself and remind me of time and the gloomy day ahead. My friend is coming to take me to the clinic. I have left my children with his mother. I keep telling myself that I have to get up and get ready, but my body feels numb and my eyes are full of sleep. I sit motionless on the edge of the bed, unable to decide what to do, what to take with me, how to pack. I cannot even reach to pick up my shoes.
My friend has already arrived, he has the key to the apartment. He helps me get dressed, packs my small suitcase, and we leave late in the morning. Where am I going? I lie down in the back of the car, half asleep. My friend drives slowly in silence, looking terribly sad. He makes a short stop to buy a pack of cigarettes for himself and a bottle of water for me. There is a school nearby and small laughing students are getting on a school bus. I remember myself when I was ten, waiting for the Shemiran bus, at an intersection near school. I can hear the groan of the approaching bus. It flashes its headlights and my heart jumps. I am in love with Aziz-Agha, the driver, and I have decided to marry him when I grow up. When I get on the bus, he smiles and winks at me. My friends are afraid of his thick black eyebrows and bloodshot eyes. He has a bushy mustache that covers his mouth, and his hands and upper chest are covered with tattoos. I always take the seat directly behind him. He often looks at me in the mirror and makes faces, puffing out his cheeks and crossing his eyes. Sometimes he has a packet of dried cherries for me, which he drops in my lap. He is the kindest monster in the world. I wish he would open his mouth and show me his gold teeth. But he laughs with his mouth closed and his lips tightly sealed. It is a treasure that he would not show to anyone, even to me. Once, when it was snowing and I was trembling with cold, he took off his jacket and spread it on my knees. I still remember the touch and smell of this jacket. It made me shiver. My intestines gurgled with pleasure and my stomach felt hot. Sometimes, taking a bus or a subway jammed with people, I sense a nostalgic smell, a mixture of sweat and vodka.
It seems to me that we have been on the road for hours. I have no notion of time. I hear a church bell tolling morosely in the distance. I look around and my heart throbs. A gray gloomy city, empty narrow streets, dark moving shadows. My friend parks the car in front of the clinic, and helps me to get out. I am so weak that I can hardly walk.
The iron gate is half open. We go inside. "Maybe there is still time to turn back," I tell myself. I am horrified.
"You are not going to leave me here for good?" I ask him. "Are you?"
He tries to smile. He seems so sad. So desperate. He takes my hand.
A man in a white uniform asks our names. My name. He tells us to wait. Silent immobile people, with cardboard faces and empty eyes, are sitting next to each other on wooden benches. They stare at me.
"Do I look like these people?" I ask my friend.
He shakes his head. "You will be fine. Believe me."
A nurse comes to greet us, a young blonde. She puts her hand on my shoulder. She tells us to follow her. Like sleepwalkers, we follow her and pass through a big hall. A young boy is standing in front of a mural mirror, making faces. He looks at me and puts his finger to his lips. The lady doctor, in her small office, greets us. She smiles and looks at me with her big blue eyes. She asks my name. She is holding a red pen in her hand. She fills out the registration form.
My friend replies in my behalf.
"Place of birth?"
I hear the deafening noise of an ambulance entering the courtyard.
A male nurse takes my arm. He lifts me up. Time to say good-bye to my friend. He looks down in grief.
The doctor walks in front of me. Once or twice, she turns her face, looks at me and smiles. There is a maternal tenderness in her eyes. I trust her.
White walls. White doors. White curtains. We are in a frozen purgatory. I will never see my children again. Ever. The nurses talk to me. I don't understand what they say and they don't understand my language. How could I tell them that all I want is to sleep, to plunge into the pleasant ocean of oblivion. We go into an empty room. The nurses force me down on the bed. I want my children. I yell. I beg. The doctor holds my hand. She tells me that all will be fine. You have to think of yourself.
Myself! I search for this fugitive self whose memory lingers in my mind like an image in a half-forgotten dream. Parts of me are floating in different places, in different times—the old me, the child me, the unicellular me, the absent me. I wander in the mist of lost yesterdays and a multitude of present moments that blend together and dissolve.
"You will be fine," she says again. "Believe me. I am here to help you."
The sharp tip of a needle pierces my arm. I open my mouth to shout but no sound comes out. It is a silent scream that swerves inside my mind but doesn't leave my throat. A nurse holds my hand. She lowers my head to the pillow. My eyelids feel heavy. My body fades away. . . . Tomorrow is a holiday and I can sleep as late in the morning as I want. We are having lunch in the garden by the stream. Hassan Agha, the old cook, spreads the carpets on the ground and places the cushions under the trees. Mother is wearing her new pink dress and looks like a star in an American film. Aunt Azar despises the sun. She wears long white gloves and covers her head and face with a fine transparent gauze like a mosquito net. Our family is like a big tribe and my father is regarded as the chief. In summer time, the entire family dines in our house on Fridays and Mother keeps half of the guests overnight. We all sleep in a row on the terrace, with children of all ages side by side. Grandmother sleeps nearby to keep an eye on us. She leaves a large glass of ice water next to each bed and a fistful of jasmine petals under each pillow. At bedtime, she takes a head count to make sure that everyone is present and accounted for. I love the living hush and murmur of the summer nights. I can hear the throbbing of ripe fruits and the light breathing of young shoots. Little Uncle snores mightily, enough to get a response from the stray dogs in the neighboring empty lot; Mother talks in her sleep, and Bibi Jan scratches herself till morning. Eventually, sleep, accompanied by the buzz of mosquitoes and twinkling of the stars, shuts every eye. Some nights there is a sprinkling of rain. Grandmother has a large sheet of plastic ready at hand, which she spreads over us. Under the cover, my cousins and I hug each other, and like ants under the ground, listen to the drops of rain as they hit the thick plastic cover over our heads.
I am happy and scared of being so happy. I hope nothing horrible happens. What if Father becomes ill and dies?
I feel a hand on my shoulder. The hand shakes me. I hear a voice whispering into my ears. The voice wants me to sit up. To open my eyes. To look. A shadow opens the window, pulls the curtain away. A yellow light pushes its way into my half-open eyes. Who are they? Half of me is awake. They push away my warm sheet. These shadows. They pull off my shirt, my pants. They force me out of bed and put me under a cold shower. Nothing is harder for me than the simple acts of brushing my teeth, combing my hair, or buttoning my dress.
Every morning when I wake up a voice tells me the days of the week. The doctor orders my chair to be placed by the window. She has a good face and I trust her. Nobody comes to see me. I cry all day. Long melancholic days. I have no appetite and cannot force myself to eat. I long for my children. The doctor reassures me that they are well, and are staying with my friend.
New orders. I must take a walk every morning in the small garden of the clinic. I obey with absolute indifference. I should eat with other patients in the dining room. I refuse. A young nurse brings me a few magazines to look at, and a daily newspaper to read. I lie down in complete inertia, staring at the ceiling. I am exiled to an unknown planet in another galaxy. The blue-eyed doctor talks to me every day. She brings me a batch of paper and a box of sharpened pencils to make some drawing or write whatever comes to my mind. I keep staring at the white paper in front of me and a light excitement runs in my body. I see my father sitting in front of his desk, writing. He puts his pen in a small bowl full of black liquid. Then, with the tip of his pen, he draws a lot of little butterflies with dotted wings. I am five years old and I haven't learned to read and write yet. But I know that all the stories that Father writes, and all those that Mother tells me at night, and all the stories I want to write when I grow up are hidden in that magic bowl. I put my fingers, one by one, into the bowl and then, with the euphoria of a real writer, rub my ink-stained fingers on the white papers, on my dress, on my face. I am beside myself with joy when I hear the angry cry of Mother, and feel the grip of her hand on the back of my collar.
I have forgotten that I have written several books. I pick up a pencil and force its sharp head into the palm of my hand. The whiteness of the papers seduces me. I feel invisible words whispering into my ears. They pinch me, tickle me, slide down my tongue and put sweet innocent kisses on my lips. I start to write, slowly, with pain and hesitation. I write whatever comes to my mind—short sentences, long incoherent phrases, two or three paragraphs, even a page. I have my ups and downs and my moods change. There are the days that I am mentally paralyzed again. I sit motionless, staring at the white paper, overcome by a sense of loss and deep sorrow. The doctor watches me. She reads what I have written and comes to visit me more often. She brings me two or three books. I leaf through the pages, read a few sentences here and there and, suddenly, a poetic expression or a strong well-written sentence fires my imagination and the urge to write overwhelms me. A thousand invisible words whisper to me from the depth of the paper. Impatient letters, like freed prisoners, run through the corridors of my brain.
I decide to write about my father and our house in Shemiran, about my pretty modern mother who loved to travel in Europe and wear French dresses, about my paternal aunts, who covered their heads, prayed five times a day, and despised Mother and her Western manners. The sounds of the past, the smells, the colors, the startled days filled with pleasure, the sweet physical pulses, the lies, the shame and feeling of guilt, everything, once again, comes back to me and invites me to a grand celebration of words, memories, and stories.
I make a rope of words, and slowly pull myself up from the depth of darkness, from the bottom of the well.
One night, I dream of Aziz Agha, the driver of the Shemiran bus. I am wearing his smelly jacket. He looks at me and smiles. His lips part and there, in the dark cavity of his mouth, I see a golden tooth that shines like a magic lamp. I know that he has come to reclaim his part in my book of memories. I start with him.
The doctor is satisfied. She orders a nurse to place a telephone in my room. I call my children. The outside world.
"Mummy," they cry. "When are you coming home?"
I had forgotten that there is a home. A home not in the past, but here, in actual time, in Paris. I cling to their voices, to the miracle of their existence.
From Two Worlds (Tehran: Niloofar); also published as La Maison de Shemiran (Paris: Actes-Sud, 2003). Copyright Goli Taraghi. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.