Ali Salami

The Superfluous Woman By Jalal Al-e Ahmad

How could I stay in my father’s house? It felt like the walls were squeezing my heart. This all started the day before yesterday. But could I have stayed there for even a moment in the last two nights? Sleep eluded me completely. I tossed and turned restlessly, my thoughts racing incessantly. It was as if I was no longer lying in the familiar comfort of my own bed, but rather in a grave. Despair spread through me as I wrestled with my thoughts until dawn, besieged by a flood of unsettling thoughts. But physically, nothing had changed. The bed, the house with its kitchen where I cooked every day, the garden where I planted tulips every spring, the pond where I washed dishes countless times — I knew every nook and cranny, every quirk. But I felt crushed, as if everything had changed for me in essence.

In the last two days, I couldn’t even take a sip of water. My mother’s worry might just paralyze her, while my father, maintaining his routine, went to Qom as he always does when a calamity strikes. My brother, consumed with anger, kept silent and took out his frustration on me, his wife and my mother. Someone’s presence can indeed become a source of deep distress, an unwelcome excess in one’s home. How could I not notice this?

Unable to bear it any longer, this morning, after the others had had their tea and my brother had left, I put on my chador and went out aimlessly to escape the agonizing past two days. I walked aimlessly past my aunt’s house and Seyyed Esmaeil, as I had no desire to visit either of them. What relief could they offer? Instead, I strolled into the bazaar, where the lively chaos brought me back down to earth for a moment and made me think. The more I thought about it, the clearer it became: I could not return to my father’s house, not with the burden of such disgrace. After living under his roof for thirty-four years, it seemed unthinkable to simply leave. And yet I was lost in thought, thinking about the extremes people go to when they are overcome with despair. God forbid, but the suffocation of those two nights was unbearable and drove me to seek shelter in the courtyard or on the roof, where only God knows the extent of my tears. But no amount of crying could alleviate my agony. To whom could I entrust such anguish? Unspoken, it felt as if my heart would break under the burden. How could one endure such a drastic change after thirty-four years in a family setting, only to be ostracized and become the object of ridicule in a mere forty days? Why should I keep quiet now that the rumors are circulating? Especially when, by God, I am not to blame. What was my sin? I never asked for so much as a pair of socks.

He was profoundly ignorant in divine matters and yet seemed to know every detail about me. My age was no secret to him because he had seen me once— – which my father thought was permissible. Even the details of my hair were known to him. And who was he? A gaunt, unattractive man who hid behind thick, metal-rimmed glasses and whose large nose dominated his face. I beg you, God, if you find it in your grace to forgive him, know that I cannot. I had not resigned myself to such a fate. He was privy to everything that concerned me, so why unleash this turmoil on me? Why should I be the author of such shame? I implore you, God, withhold your forgiveness.

This man, this scourge, has approached my father four times, on each visit with a single, unyielding purpose. May those be cursed who paved the way for this mischief. He became aware of me through conversations with my brother at his workplace and took it upon himself to orchestrate this ordeal. His visits to our home became a Friday ritual, culminating in the agreement that he would specifically visit me the following Friday. I stand before you, God, as my witness! Just the memory of that moment, of that one hour, sends a shiver down my spine. The image of him climbing the stairs, his uneven gait, the tapping of his cane on the brickwork, like a hammer blow to my heart, sticks in my mind.

The agony I endured cannot be put into words. He went straight to the room designated for him — our brother’s room, which also served as a guest room. After a brief conversation with my brother, I was asked to serve water when my brother excused himself on the pretext of wanting to buy cigarettes. I had already prepared the sorbet and was ready to serve it. Wrapped in my chador, I approached the guest room, gripped by a paralyzing fear. It was only four steps, and yet it felt like an insurmountable journey. My father was absent; my brother had gone down to his wife on the pretext of fetching cigarettes, leaving my mother at the door, whose encouraging whisper barely reached my ears: “Go on, dear! Go on, God willing.”

But could my feet carry me forward? As I approached the door, my patience was exhausted. The tray trembled in my grip, the shower threatened to spill over. I was undecided: go back to clean up the spillage, or continue in my current state? Sweat drenched my hair, my body was an iceberg and my heart felt like it was being torn apart. If he had remained silent, what would have become of me? It was his voice that broke the silence, his cursed figure emerged and offered me: “Madame! Should your shyness prevail, may I approach you?”

By God, the moment his words died away, the insistent sound of his uneven footsteps on the carpet approached, and the door swung open. He grabbed my hand with a deceptive gentleness and pulled me into the room. The wrist he had clasped still throbbed in my memory as if it were enveloped in flames. He led me in, took the tray from me, led me to a seat and sat down opposite me. A fleeting thought crossed my mind — would he dare to take my chador off? But no, his audacity had limits. Still, God, withhold your forgiveness from him. I adjusted my chador, but my face, neck and the front of my robe remained exposed, my cheeks burning. His voice pierced the air again, proclaiming, “Madame! This encounter is divinely sanctioned.”

Then he stood up, circled my chair and sat down again. Understanding his intention, I felt even more embarrassed and struggled for words to stop him from thinking I was mute. But despite my best efforts, I could not think of anything. How was I, a woman who had lived in her father’s house for thirty-four years, who had had no dealings with any man other than my brother, who avoided everyone else and only spoke to strange women in baths or at markets, supposed to keep my composure in front of a strange man? I was not like the modern, educated girls who are used to numerous strangers. Especially when a man proposed to me, I was speechless. In my desperation, providence intervened. Staring at the table, the sorbet caught my eye and I blurted out, “The sorbet will be warm!”

My attempt to say “sir” faltered, my voice breaking mid-sentence. However, as he reached for the soda, I plucked up a spark of courage and said, “Would you like a cigarette?”

I fled the room, overwhelmed by my feelings. If my brother had not been there, would I have been expected to serve the cigarette too? Fortunately, my dear brother, a blessing in his youth, was there. I would have been lost without him. My panic was obvious as I walked down the stairs, prompting him to ask, “Sister, what’s wrong? Isn’t marriage a normal part of life?”

He took it upon himself to get the cigarette and that was the end of it. It was our first meeting and amidst the tension, my only concern was whether he noticed my wig. Speaking was almost impossible for me; even uttering a single word felt like torture. Later, when I had calmed down, I confided in my mother, who reassured me and said, “Don’t worry, dear. Your brother will be fine.”

Nevertheless, clarity was important to me from the outset. As his future wife, the truth about my wig had to come out. Hiding it seemed hopeless at first, as a discovery in his house could lead to my swift departure. Despite the current situation and my desire to resolve this issue, I harbored resentment. What had I done to deserve such treatment? I was willing to put up with serving his family if necessary, but he lacked patience. The prospect of returning to my father’s house being gossiped about was unbearable. Although I harbored no affection for him, his banal conversations and his limp, I believed in the possibility of change. Who knows what might have been possible in another year, because God’s greatness knows no bounds.

I agreed to all of this just to escape the confines of my father’s house. For thirty-four years, I woke up in the same place, surrounded by the same unchanging walls. Our house, stagnant and uneventful, saw no new faces, celebrated no weddings and mourned no losses. The only semblance of change came after my brother’s wedding, which briefly injected some life into our routine, punctuated only by occasional late-night arguments over water usage.

But even these arguments were rare and hardly disturbed the monotony. Our alley was so quiet that not even the sound of a plate breaking echoed through it. Perhaps you can’t grasp the full implications of my words. I don’t want to badmouth my father’s house, quite the opposite. My heart aches for my poor father. But the truth remains: I was suffocating. I longed to be the master of my own domain, to have a space where I was in charge. But in his house, it was his mother and sister who were in charge.

I was prepared to serve them, to wait for a year if I had to. But he didn’t have the patience. Now I realize the reason for the substantial cash dowry. Of the agreed seven hundred and fifty tomans, he paid five hundred in advance. We put that money into our household, while my mother contributed a few things for the dowry. The remaining two hundred and fifty tomans were promised after the waiting period, but instead I found myself in my father’s house thinking about my naivety.

Had we ever had a meaningful conversation, disagreement or exchanged harsh words to justify such a fate? Not at all. Not once in those forty days did we raise our voices in anger, neither mine nor his vile mother’s. But from the moment I realized that I would be living with my mother-in-law, a sense of foreboding set in. Perhaps my intuition warned me of the brewing storm, and out of sheer necessity I became overly accommodating.

I was treated with less respect than an unwanted penny, with a disdain not even reserved for servants. After thirty-four years of respect and dignity in my father’s house, I was demoted to a mere water fetcher for my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. But I harbored no resentment, I remained willing.

Their absence at our wedding — his mother and sister — spoke volumes. We invited them, but they did not come, casting a shadow over our union. My husband took it upon himself to sort everything out, claiming that his mother and sister had no place in his life. But that was a lie. How could it be any different? A mother invests her life in her child; her influence is undeniable.

Ultimately, and God is my witness, it was his mother and sister who turned him against me.

Our wedding was a simple affair, with the ceremony and reception combined into one modest event. My brother had taken care of the transportation of my belongings and dowry and had furnished our modest house with two rooms in advance. One of the rooms was furnished with my dowry and after a quiet dinner, the official handover took place. I do not want to think back to that evening; the memory of that fleeting joy is too painful. I remember clearly that after the exchange of vows, he leaned in to kiss me. Through the mirror, I saw his bespectacled face approaching mine.

He whispered: “I have arranged a beautiful wig for you under your scarf, my love

His words should have comforted me, because he acknowledged my condition without judging me and accepted me as I was. But they hit me like a blow and ignited a fierce anger in me. At that moment, I wished I could take his glasses off and confront him directly. Why did he choose our wedding, of all things, to remind me of my misery in the midst of all the want and need? His thoughtlessness robbed me of all appetite and filled me with rage.

But then, as we walked down the alley to his house, he whispered something that changed everything: “Let’s keep the wig a secret from my mother and sister. You understand why, do not you?” Suddenly the anger in me subsided and was replaced by an unexpected affection. His words, with which he wanted to protect me from further investigation, touched my heart and dissolved all my bitterness. But now I see how easily I was swayed by that moment of perceived kindness.

The next morning, however, the true nature of my new family was revealed. On his instructions, I approached his mother to subtly question her absence at the wedding. Her response, given without an ounce of remorse in front of her son and me, the bride, was chilling: ‘I have no interest in seeing a bride from a wedding I was not at. Make sure she never enters my room again, whether you marry her or not.”

So may he experience his downfall in the most ironic of ways. Chaos reigned on the very first night. Cursed be the old man! But his kindness and loving nature wiped away my sorrow for a moment. Somehow we survived that night, and many others followed us. But it was the day that tested my stamina, the hours I spent without my husband in the company of these two tormentors.

He worked in a notary’s office, leaving at dawn and not returning until midday and then again at dusk. During his absence, I was trapped in a domestic purgatory. I gave her apartment a wide berth and immersed myself in solitary tasks to make myself invisible in my own home. I took care of our modest apartment, cleaned the garden and dealt with the never-ending pile of dishes. He had set a boundary for our house, which I had foolishly accepted.

His persistence bore fruit, however, and he agreed to biweekly visits to my father’s house on Friday evenings. These brief escapes became a balm, and soon I negotiated that they became a weekly respite. But even with this small freedom, I remained a prisoner during the day, my world confined to the walls of our house, apart from the essential weekly visits to the bathhouse.

Every morning he would get the essentials and make sure we wanted for nothing before he set off. Our household expenses were carefully divided — separate supplies for us and separate ones for his mother and sister. He left the goods behind and set off, which gave me some small comfort that he would not return empty-handed.

But in the evenings, the true dynamic in our household became apparent. On his return, he would first visit his mother and sister, keep them company and perhaps have a cup of tea before coming to see me. The stark reality was that they owned the house and their influence was inescapable. By the second week, they forced me to take on even more chores, such as washing their dishes — a task I accepted without protest, despite the one-sidedness of the arrangement.

However, their criticism knew no bounds. In my husband’s absence, their harsh words penetrated the thin veil of peace I had woven around myself. They mocked my appearance, my age and the necessity of my wig with unrelenting cruelty. But what did they see in their own son that they did not recognize in me?

The situation escalated because of my wig, a secret I hoped to hide from them. Despite my precautions, which included discreet visits to the local bathhouse, their curiosity and malice found a way. Under the guise of anonymity, his mother cunningly elicited information from the bathhouse attendant, feigning pity for her son while denigrating me. The betrayal hurt deeply, as the lifeguard, under the influence of only five qirans, revealed my private habits with contempt.

What wrong had I done to them to deserve such treatment? How had my unfortunate circumstances or my marriage to their kin so disrupted their lives that they could envy me so? The lifeguard, who delighted in gossip, told me the details of their conversation and even mimicked how I cared for my wig.

I swore I would never go to that bathhouse again, but I kept quiet. I resorted to washing myself at home and avoiding the place that had become a source of shame. The secret was out and my peace was shattered. In the days that followed, my husband spent more and more time in their company. One evening he had dinner with them and returned to me without a word. I bore this change in silence and blamed myself, as if I were the guilty party, as if the wig was a deception I had invented.

I continued to withdraw and never once expressed my displeasure. And then he decided that our expenses should be pooled. Meals were eaten in her presence, each bite a battle against the lump in my throat. I berated myself for keeping quiet, for not demanding a life apart from his family. Even a modest stable would have been enough if it had meant independence.

The blame, I realized, lay with me. Years wasted in my father’s house, where my world was confined to the kitchen and the bathroom, where I had never taken the opportunity to learn a skill, to gain some autonomy over my life. I could have followed in Aunt Betul Qazi’s footsteps, saved up for a sewing machine and built an existence stitch by stitch. Others around me were turning their skills into dowries to secure their future, while I paid no heed to my brother’s attempts to educate me.

The last few days were full of such reflections, a stream of regret over the years I had spent in the shadow of my perceived inadequacies. I wondered why I allowed myself to be belittled by their disdain, why I didn’t assert my worth beyond my appearance or the hair I lacked. The realization hit me hard: I had allowed her words to destroy my husband’s affection for me.

And so it came to an abrupt end. That last night, he appeared at the door, his demeanor unchanged, his question breaking the silence: “Don’t you want to go to your father?”

Suddenly my heart beat faster. Just two nights before, on a seemingly ordinary Friday, we had visited my father’s house for dinner. At that moment, amidst the familiarity of my childhood home, a nagging intuition came over me. Despite his suggestion, I could only produce a passive “As you wish”,” my voice barely a whisper amidst the rising doubts.

Silently, I continued my work, mending his socks and clinging to a fragile thread of hope that perhaps my fears were unfounded. When he asked us to leave to “check on everyone’s wellbeing”,” part of me wanted to believe in his harmless intention. With a heavy heart, I packed up my belongings, put on my chador and followed him into the still night, in which our journey was characterized by an oppressive silence.

We had left our meal untouched, the pot still simmering on the stove, a clear reminder of the domestic life from which I was suddenly torn. With every step I took towards my father’s house, my anxiety grew, a silent prelude to the disaster to come.

As we approached my family’s doorstep, a sense of déjà vu came over me, mirroring the nervous anticipation of our first meeting. My hands were shaking, my heart was racing, but I hid my excitement with a semblance of calm.

My brother’s greeting at the door eased my worries for a moment, his familiar presence a balm to my frazzled nerves. But as we walked through the house, the reality of the situation slowly dawned on me. In the courtyard, surrounded by my family, his explanation shattered the fleeting peace: “Here is your Fatemeh Khanum. I left her with you. Don’t let her come back.”

His words, icy and final, sent a shiver down my spine. In a desperate attempt to gain a spark of agency, I protested vehemently: “Why? I am not staying. You can’t do this to me so easily.”

He hurried away, his unsteady gait echoing through the corridor as he slammed the front door behind him. My protests dissolved into desperate cries: “I won’t stay. You can’t make me.”

The tears were inevitable, a release from the tumultuous emotions boiling inside me. My dear mother, always so concerned, rushed to my side and led me upstairs with urgent questions, “What happened?”

How was I supposed to convey to her that there had been no argument, no bitter exchange of words, no discernible reason? As my sobs subsided, I made up a story about a heated argument, about curses I hurled at him and his family — a complete lie. The truth was much simpler and more painful: he had just as casually thrown me back into my father’s care as he had claimed me as his bride. But by then he was gone.

The next day, in my brother’s office, he coldly finalized our separation, promised me the rest of my dowry at the end of the waiting period and instructed us to pick up my belongings. My mother, who knew intuitively that the reason for our problems lay with his family, was beside herself. But the prospect of staying in my childhood home, once a haven, now felt like being condemned to a stuffy cell. Every moment reminded me of my plight, the pitying looks of my brother’s wife were a constant humiliation.

The familiar walls of our home that once comforted me now seemed to close in around me, the ceiling pressing down with the weight of my despair. I couldn’t bring myself to eat or drink; the very act felt like a betrayal of the turmoil I was feeling. My mother’s silent suffering was palpable, her resilience hanging by a thread. And my brother, torn between family duty and the harsh reality of our situation, felt powerless against the man who had ensnared us all with his knowledge of legal loopholes.

Who can say how many others have suffered the same fate at his hands? But in my heart, I can’t help feeling that no soul could be more unhappy or hapless than me. His mother and sister, with their insidious memories of the “better” games they supposedly gave up for me! What human being would willingly get involved with such malevolent spirits if not me, the epitome of unhappiness? Me, who passively watched as they dismantled the remains of my existence piece by piece?

© Ali Salami 2024

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