A room of her own

I began to write when I was in high school, in the 1960s, in Ahvaz, an oil town in Southwest Iran. I still can vividly see the room in which I wrote. It was one of a row of bedrooms, on the second floor of our two-story house with a wrap-around balcony. I had furnished my room sparsely -- a wooden desk and chair, an iron bed covered by a quilt my grandmother made, a rust colored Persian rug on the floor. But the room had a window overlooking Pahlavi Square, full of discordant color.

Beyond the tall palm trees redolent with dates, I could see vendors with their carts, displaying all sorts of merchandise, from dried whitefish to American imported handbags to dates and coconuts. Within my view were also the bright turquoise and gold minaret of the Friday Mosque, and the canopy of the Sahra Cinema, where American movies were shown. I could hear the muezzin calling people to prayers, Allah o Akbar, as well as the soundtrack of the movies, combined with the vendors hawking their merchandise.

The juxtaposition of the mosque and the cinema captured the character of Ahvaz. Iranians, Americans employed in oil refineries and Iraqi Arab immigrants all intermingled. Their clashing beliefs and mores, their unequal levels of wealth and education, were a constant source of conflict, eventually leading to the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the shah.


My desire to write was embedded in all the tension, not just from that uneasy amalgam outside but also within my home. When I was an infant, I was adopted by my aunt and then, when I was 9, my father forcefully took me back from her to live with my birth-family.

This change was traumatic. I had been totally attached to my aunt and viewed her as my mother. I viewed my parents as distant relatives whom I saw only occasionally. My aunt had no other children, and her husband had died. I was the focus of her attention. At my birth-family’s home, I had to share my parents with six other siblings. My aunt, though an orthodox Muslim, was completely lenient with me. My parents, were modernized Muslims but in inconsistent ways. My father ruled with an iron hand.

I was drawn to books, hoping to find answers to what I could not make sense of. The desire to read led to a desire to write. I found that writing, giving shape to what seemed chaotic and incomprehensible, made me feel peaceful, even happy. As soon as I came home from high school, I went to my room, changed from my gray uniform to a skirt and blouse, and began to write.

Among the sketches I wrote, one was about our servant, Ali. He was half-blind with trachoma, and illiterate. He occupied a room on the first floor of the house; during his free time he sat in the courtyard and threw seeds on the ground for pigeons who would soon gather around them and peck.

Ali asked me if I would read to him from an adventure book he had, and I agreed. He would come to my room one or two evenings a week and bring his book. He sat cross-legged on the rug, and I on the chair. When the book was finished, he asked me to begin again.

As the end of high school approached, after a long battle, I convinced my parents to send me to America to study. Writing had become an ingrained habit and need in me. At some point, I translated that sketch about Ali, and it became my first publication in a literary magazine in America.

Here is a fragment of the sketch:

. . . Ali would sit before me with his head bent, his back hunched, while I read from Amir-Al-Salaam, a long, heroic tale of a brave man in pursuit of his beloved. The book was very old and had been bound several times. As I read Ali would gasp or thrust his body forward at the hero’s mishaps or would smile triumphantly, revealing his crooked teeth, at the hero’s good fortune. Because he had a very small stature, sometimes I would imagine him to be a child and myself his mother. He would never tire of my reading and when I put the book aside he would thank me profusely and shake his head up and down, still tantalized by the book’s flowery language and Amir’s adventures. Then he would take the book from me very gently and mark the page with a pigeon feather. On a warm starry night I was sitting on the porch watching the green frogs jumping in and out of the round pool in the courtyard, the bats traveling back and forth in straight lines under a canopy and I suddenly became aware of Ali standing inside of his room near the doorway. In the light of a kerosene lamp in his room I could see him bending and straightening up, his hands gesticulating widely. Then I saw the glimmer of a knife he was holding. I got up and walked towards his room. I coughed and made noise with my wooden slippers but he didn’t seem to hear me. He threw the knife on the floor with an elan uncharacteristic of him and knelt before an imaginary figure. “I’m Amir, Amir the fearless, the brave,” he chanted. “I’m here to free you.” I walked away, wary of being seen by him. After that night, he did not ask me to read to him. I had glimpses of him while he washed clothes in a pail or prepared meals. His face was tense with thoughts, his gestures had acquired grandeur. He never was aware of anyone even when they came near him and he often whispered unintelligible words. . . .

Rachlin’s publications include a memoir, “Persian Girls”; the novels “Jumping Over Fire,” “Foreigner,” “Married to a Stranger” and “The Heart’s Desire”; and a collection of short stories, “Veils.”