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Robina Hood of Teheran


FORUM invited the Iranian journalist and author Parvin Ardalan to write a chronicle of her daily life in Teheran. This is her very personal account of two days in the life of a woman in contemporary Iran.

FORUM/Teheran March 15, 2000. My room faces the street, and although my window is closed the familiar morning sounds filter in: cars driving by, drivers of shared taxies shouting out their destinations to attract passengers, and my neighbour's shrill voice piercing the thin walls and entering my room without knocking. She is scolding her 12-year-old son: "Have you wet your bed again?" I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling, imagining the boy running around with his mother charging after him. I close my eyes to avoid the sight of his mother's open hand smacking his cheek.

In the evenings another hand does the hitting, and this time it is the woman who is on the receiving end. Time and again I make up my mind to ask her why she puts up with her husband's beatings, but she always speaks of her 'master' in such a gentle and loving way that I hesitate to ask.

I also hear birds singing; they are my mother's birds. We live together in a three-room flat in a two-storey building. It is a 25-year-old building situated in east Teheran. The flat and neighbourhood are all that interests my mother. She spends her days queuing for subsidized milk, chatting to the other women, or popping by the state collective store, which sells groceries at low prices. Occasionally she embarks on a day-long pilgrimage to one of the great saints' graves in Quom or Mashad in order to sit and weep with the other women. She loves it, and always feels deeply satisfied after one of her excursions.

"You didn't get to bed until three in the morning, and you are up already?" my mother chides me at the breakfast table. "Shouldn't you sleep a little longer?" But I have so much work to do. Three days a week I work as a journalist and editor of social issues at the women's magazine Zanan (Women), which is published once a month. And three days a week I work freelance. Today I have stayed at home to take stock of all of my appointments, and I have promised myself to write this article for KVINFO's web magazine FORUM for gender and culture. I'm leaving for Europe in ten days and I have yet to write a sentence.

Are all days alike, I ask myself. I write a little, stare into space, glance at the papers on my desk and the books I have not yet had time to read. Oh, and I forgot to call my dentist again. I can just imagine one of my colleagues in front of me: "Thank goodness that my sister hasn't seen you like this. She would be so shocked. What's the matter? I know you are frustrated and have too much work to do, but dear Parvin, you've got to relax instead of rushing about like this!"

I write that to be a woman journalist, you need to love the reality that surrounds you. Then the phone rings, and it is the secretary at Zanan (Women): "Could you come over? I can't find one of the pictures." I say no, as I do not know where the picture is either. She tells me that a woman called to criticize an article in the magazine. Could I call her back? I ask her for the woman's phone number, so I can call her tomorrow. I have barely put the receiver down when the phone rings again. A woman I have interviewed for the magazine The Second Sex wants to go over the text for a third time because she is worried. "You needn't worry," I tell her. "All texts have to be sent to the Ministry for Islamic Guidance for approval. They'll make any necessary changes."

Now the doorbell rings and my mother shouts, "It's for you!" It is one of my old classmates. She left school to get married and now she has three children. She lives nearby, and we have not seen each other for a long time, but she knows I work for Zanan. She throws herself into my arms and sobs, and the heavy stench of sweat and cooking is overpowering. "He got married to another woman two years ago, and I only just discovered it now! She is 15 years older than him. I just couldn't believe it, but I followed him and saw them together with my own eyes. What shall I do? If I tell him that I have found him out, he might divorce me. For God's sake, help me!"

I look at her and my heart sinks. My mother comes in and joins in the sobbing with a now-don't-you-disappoint-her look in her eyes. That is how it is: people think that journalists are like Robin Hood and can solve all their problems for them. "You have so many connections," they say to us. I give her the address of Zanan. "Come on Sunday, then perhaps our lawyer can help you. But you will have to pull yourself together. Have you had a look at yourself in the mirror? You're spending your whole life in the kitchen, no wonder it's taken you two years to discover it ..."

After she has left, my mother dries her tears and curses all men, calling on God to punish them. Then she looks at me. "You yourself should look in the mirror before you advise others to do so! How are you living your life? That poor woman has three children, but what have you got?"

I go to my room. The phone rings and my mother shouts, "For once you are home, and then you just sit there and write, or you're on the phone. Is this really my own sweet daughter? And don't tell me you have forgotten that we are going to the tailor's!" Oh no, why did she not remind me? The phone rings, it is Parto, one of my good friends. He always turns up when things are most hectic. "How are you?" I ask. "Terrible. My mother died yesterday ..." he replies in a whisper. I feel hot all over, my heart is thumping, and I stare at the carpet.

Suddenly one of the roses detaches from the pattern. He once told me that his mother loved roses, and I told him that I would come and visit her. Now that day will never come, the roses will wither, the petals fall off. Alzheimer has taken its toll. "Why haven't you called earlier?" I ask. "I knew you were busy. We only called a few people. It was a private funeral," he answers. "I'll come over," I said, wondering how I am going to fit it in. "I know you are busy with your article for Denmark. Call me when you are done, then I will translate it into English for you."

Once again I feel hot all over. He is always so helpful and generous. I wipe the tears off my cheek and tell my mother that it is not too late to go to the tailor's. Good-natured as she is, she says, "I know you have a lot of work to do. I'll go on my own." I tell her it is also important to go to the tailor. Her face lights up. "Shall we go to Sharhvan?" she asks. She loves shopping in department stores. We depart. Three shared taxies, a tram, and a bus later we get back home. It is nine o'clock.

The phone rings. It is my friend Sima, who is my contact person at the publisher that has asked me to rewrite a book. "When will you be done?" I look at the manuscript. I am not even halfway. "The day after tomorrow," I answer. "But you need the money for your trip, don't you?" Well, yes, actually I do, and since the publisher is paying two months' salary, I will be able to pay my phone bill and buy presents to take on my trip.

I open the book by the famous satirical poet, Obeid Zakani, who lived in the 14th Century. Many of his poems are erotic, singing the praises of young men's beauty. A number of his funny - but lewd - stories are still circulating in Iran today, without people realizing that he is the originator. The text is very old, and I have to use my dictionary to rewrite it in modern Farsi. In my mind's eye I see the author sitting naked on his book. He is laughing at me. "Did you really think it would be easy?" he says. "You poor soul," I answer. "You're going to the censors now, and parts of your book will be removed. You're lucky you're dead, or you would have been branded as immoral!" His smile fades. "You just be glad that we can print anything you wrote at all," I tell him. I switch off my mobile phone and tell my mother to say I am not at home, no matter who calls. At three in the morning I cannot keep my eyes open any longer.

I leap out of bed. It is eight o'clock and I have an appointment at nine. I skip breakfast, quickly put on a shirt, trousers, coat, and scarf and fly out the door, my mother scolding me. The bus stop is close by, and I arrive at the same time as the bus. The men get on in front and the women in back. There are twice as many seats in the men's half than in the women's. In the mornings there are usually fewer women than men on the bus. I have to take four different buses to work. The pollution is terrible and many people wear face masks. A woman on the bus says, "Oh, I have such a terrible headache, I haven't slept a wink all night." Another woman says, "This morning my daughter was coughing like this." Everyone is tense. In Teheran everyone rushes about in a great hurry, not because they are workaholics, but because if you want to earn enough to live an ordinary life, you have to take on 2-3 different jobs.

I get to Zanan at nine-thirty. Luckily my visitor has not yet arrived. The editor-in-chief and I take turns being in the office. She is a fantastic person, and she knows all of her employees well. She knows that I love my job, but that I hate being bound to an office, so she never meddles in when I come and go, as long as I do my job well. I tell her about my article for Denmark. "Two days of my life." She laughs. "You should write about how you write your articles."

The newspapers have arrived. Usually they are brought by an old man, whom we all love, but today a young man arrives with them instead. "What happened to the old man?" the secretary asks. "He has had a heart attack and is bedridden," the young man answers. Shocked by the news, we all jump to our feet. "Luckily it didn't happen while he was riding his motorcycle," the young man adds for comfort. One of the staff picks up a newspaper with an article about the parliamentary candidates who were deemed unfit by the Council of Guardians and were refused permission to stand for election. Immediately we forget all about the poor, old newspaper man. We look for names of women candidates. "We need an interview and story for the front page," the editor-in-chief says.

The news editor, Parastu, phones her contacts in the Ministry of the Interior to get a complete list of rejected candidates, but they have not got one. We call the daily newspapers, but they only know of the rejected candidates who have phoned to announce the news themselves. One of the candidates is well known, and we call her for the lack of better alternatives.

There is also a news item about another newspaper being closed down by the authorities. I think of my friend whose husband worked for that newspaper and who now is unemployed. How will they cope now?

At five in the afternoon I still have not started writing. People have come and gone. The editorial office is housed in a four-room flat. All the doors are open and we are 3-4 people in each room. The phone has been ringing all day. Someone came to ask for work as a journalist, another wanted to check her article. The editor-in-chief has been looking for a flat for four months now. There is a great housing shortage in Teheran, and she talks to one real estate agency after another. "We could turn Zanan into a real estate agency," I say as a joke, for everyone knows women are not allowed to own real estate agencies in Iran. "You ought to write an article about that," the editor-in-chief says. "It's an important issue."

Her mobile phone rings and it is her daughter. "My darling, I have a lot of work to do. There is food in the refrigerator, you just have to heat it. I'll be home as soon as I'm done. Daddy is on his way." Her phone rings again and this time it is her husband. "You and the children will have to have dinner without me. If they don't like the food, fry a few eggs for them."

At nine in the evening I take a taxi home. I did not get to finish. My mobile phone rings and it is Nushine. As I have finished editing her article, I have a clear conscience. "I was at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance today. Your article has been approved by the censors, but it will be published while you are travelling."

At home my mother has not eaten yet. She asks her eternal question: "Shouldn't you be getting to bed in good time tonight?" There is an Iranian film on TV, and all scenes with actresses are shown in black and white. My mother is worried. "I think there is something wrong with our TV." I cannot help laughing. "The aerial is probably all knotted up, and do you know why? Because the actresses are wearing make-up!"

I sit down at my desk. There are half-read books on one side and the half-written manuscript for Zakani's book on the other side. Worst of all is the nearly blank sheet of paper with only the headline "Two days in the life of Parvin Ardalan" on it. The phone rings and it is my friend Zohra. "Haven't you written that article yet? Wasn't I supposed to translate it tonight? I'm sitting here waiting for you!" I curse, she is right, we had an agreement. "I haven't written a single sentence," I say and start to cry.

She insists that I go to her tonight, as she has not got the time tomorrow. I apologize. My mother says she is a sweet friend. Then Parto calls. "Are you done?" he asks. "No, I can't write it," I answer. "Of course you can't write it when you work all night and get no sleep," he says. "Yes, but how can I live on a monthly salary of 50,000 toman? You have several jobs yourself." I hang up. I am in a foul mood. That dumb poet, he is sitting on his book laughing at me, and I have toothache.

Translation from the Danish: Britt Keson

Parvin Ardalan is a journalist and author and lives in Teheran. She writes about women's issues and has written articles for a number of newspapers in Iran. She has recently travelled to Europe, where she stayed in Denmark for four weeks as contributing journalist to the newspaper Aktuelt.

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