Big Laleh, Little Laleh—memoir by Shokouh Moghimi

15 July, 2022,
Noor Bahjat, “Balance Game,”110x160cm, acrylic on canvas, 2019 & “Don’t Overwhelm the Scale,” 115x146cm, acrylic on canvas, 2021 (courtesy Noor Bahjat).


Shokouh Moghimi

translated from the Persian by Salar Abdoh


Everyone thought Laleh was majnoona — crazy, mad, not quite right in the head. Everyone, that is, except our father, Baba, and me. They wondered why my older sister always carried a book in her hand and would never quit reading. “Why is she always alone?” they’d ask. “Why is she always muttering things to herself and to the walls?”

I was five when Laleh’s “madness” started to cause tensions in the house. She was a decade older, and it seemed liked besides Baba, the whole world wanted to convince me to steer clear of Laleh or else her spirit of strangeness would enter my body too. But how could I stay away when in our household everyone was already calling me “Little Laleh”? We looked too much alike.

I loved it when “Big Laleh” would read from her books of poetry to me, even if I understood almost nothing of what she read. Other times, when she strolled by herself in the dark maze of our basement and held conversations with invisible beings, I would quietly follow and watch her. I was completely fascinated by Big Laleh.

The neighborhood had its share of the mad. Often they’d hide behind the ubiquitous myrtus trees and suddenly jump at you making faces, or they’d find the fattest lizards they could find in our boiling hot southern province and throw them at passing cars. Whenever our mothers were fed up with us, they’d threaten to hand us over to someone like Reza Salaki or Crazy Ferdows. But Laleh, my Laleh, was not like any of these people. She was quiet. So what if she gazed at the sky rather than watch where she was going when she walked. She wasn’t bothering anybody.

Mama would say, “Laleh’s strangeness comes from her childhood fevers when Saddam was bombing the city.” Whenever I heard her say this, I wanted to experience Laleh’s fevers. Apparently I’d had a lot of fevers too at some point. I always imagined a black-clad woman associated with those fevers. Fevers made me happy, because I could then pretend I was becoming more and more like Big Laleh.

Our grandmother who hailed from Bushehr, a city even further south on the Gulf, was certain that the jinns had made a nest in Laleh’s mind and body. “The mad see the devil,” she’d say, “the majnoon see the jinns. Laleh talks to the jinns because the jinns want a sacrifice from us. We have to take this girl to Mamazar, the exorcist.”

Remarks like this turned Laleh more and more solitary and inward. Her only friends remained Baba and me. Baba couldn’t always be around though. He worked for the National Oil Company and was often gone on assignment. When he was around, that was the best of times for me, because then I could ride on the back of Laleh’s bicycle without anyone giving me a hard time. We’d ride by the Karun, the beloved river that split our city, Ahvaz, in half, and I would wave at the water buffaloes wading about on the other side. Laleh and I had another name for the river too; we called it Naneh, a more rustic word for Mother. Laleh would always say, “If it wasn’t for Naneh, Ahvaz would have been done for during the war. Naneh washed all the filth of the war away. That’s why we can still breathe here.” When she said these things, I’d let go of her on the back of the bicycle and breathe as deeply as I could. The river was life. She’d add, “Do you know why people throw themselves off the White Bridge into Naneh’s waters? Because they know there’s nowhere safer than her embrace.”

One day I found a bloody shawl among Laleh’s things. It was the first year I was going to school and I was more curious about my older sister than ever. I’d search through her stuff all the time. The site of that blood terrified me. But I kept my mouth shut, even when I finally realized she’d tried to cut her wrist. Months later, Laleh was caught having poured gasoline all over her clothes. Our mother would not stop crying while Laleh kept asking for forgiveness. This episode caused the jinns to retreat for a while and there was some calm for a change.

Then one day leading up to the Persian new year, our mother took us girls shopping for new fabric at the bazaar so she could sew us dresses from the designs periodically sent her from Kuwait. I loved listening for the different accents in our melting pot of a city and whisper folks’ origins back to Laleh — “The fava bean merchant is from Dezful, the incense seller is Arab, the flower guy is Persian, the one hawking dates is from Behbahan, and the Samanu dealer has to be a Lor. Am I right?”

We had just passed through the section mostly run by ancient Arab women who sold bras and women’s underwear. Inside the fabric shop our mother began picking out cloth and haggling in her broken Arabic with “Uncle Adel.” Laleh stood apart, her usual disconnected self, while my other sister and I remained mesmerized by all that sequined fabric with the gold threads lining them. Mama’s sudden screams made me jump. Laleh was disappearing in the throng outside. “Grab her. She’s unwell. Don’t let her get away!” Laleh was running and Mama was running after her. Mayhem ensued, and all I heard inside the shop was Uncle Adel repeating “Majnoona, majnoona” under his breath.

After that episode, the jinns seemed to come at our house with a vengeance. All of Laleh’s books and cassette tapes were confiscated and she no longer was allowed out on the street. Soon she stopped going to school altogether. The only thing I could do was watch her walk barefoot day and night on the steaming hot mosaic of the courtyard without ever exchanging two words with anyone.

On the morning of my tenth birthday the jinns finally broke us. A loud thud made me jump. Our father went to the window and then immediately ran outside. Mama and my brother followed. There she was, Laleh’s broken body on that same courtyard mosaic. They tried keeping me from seeing what was going on, but I saw it all — Laleh with cotton balls stuffed in her nose and ears, a piece of cloth also shoved into her mouth. She had done all that to herself and then taken the jump from our rooftop. Was it possible the jinns had really done this to her, as our grandmother always said they would? My eyes automatically went for the rooftop. There was no one there.

It was a Friday when this happened. My other sister and I stayed home. I had a lump in my throat, but I was also angry. Mama had promised to bake me a birthday cake. Now my birthday was forgotten. What a birthday gift Laleh had given me! I was resentful. The only good thing that came out of it was that our father stayed put and didn’t go on one of his usual assignments for the oil company. I kept thinking: Dad will be back from the hospital and everything will be alright.

There were no cellphones back then. We kept waiting for someone to call. No one did. In the afternoon our brother finally showed up. “She’s paralyzed.”

It took a moment and then I started to laugh and I couldn’t stop laughing. From that day on every time I heard horrible news I would start laughing uncontrollably. In truth, after that day every one of us became majnoon in their own way. It was the madness that turned Baba’s hair and Mama’s hair utterly gray in no time, and the madness of the silence that blanketed that house so that I could virtually see the jinns of silence, but not of calm, dancing forever after on our walls and ceilings and making faces at me.  

Yet it was Laleh’s own silence that was more spine-chilling than anything. Her only refrain: “Don’t be upset. Before you know it, I’ll be up and running again.” She had become the very symbol of jonoon, madness, for me. Why did she have to reduce the day of my birth into ashes?

They ended up keeping her in the hospital for three weeks. During that time I barely saw our parents. Once in a while Mama would call and say, “You didn’t tell anyone at school about this, did you?” A lot of this had to do with saving face. One’s child doesn’t just go and throw themselves off a roof. I would come home from school and food would be ready, but no Mama or Baba. They’d leave us dinner and lunch and hurry back to the hospital. Maybe they didn’t like me anymore! Maybe all this was because it had happened on my birthday. I wanted them to hug me and tell me it would be alright, but they weren’t around.

I withdrew into myself.

Baba sounded like the saddest man on earth when he finally asked me to come with him for a visit at the hospital. At first I wanted to show my bitterness and not go. But I didn’t have the heart for it. Laleh’s eyes shone when she saw me. She apologized and said a belated happy birthday. I forgave her, but not completely. Not deep down anyway. Slowly though, once she had returned home, I came to love her as I had before.

Not so, however, with my other sister and my brother. It was as if everything Laleh did, or mostly didn’t do, was a bother to them. My brother was convinced no one in the city of Ahvaz would have him for a husband after what had happened in our household, and my sister kept saying that our connections with the larger family were permanently destroyed because of Laleh.

The scolding and rebukes were endless. Every other day my brother would threaten to send Laleh to the asylum if she didn’t stop pissing and shitting on herself. Laleh would quietly weep and say nothing. I had no other weapon but to laugh. In the midst of those sick laughters I would try to remind everybody that Laleh’s spine had been severed. “You’d piss on yourself too if your spine was gone.” I wanted to help her, but didn’t know what to do. Her eternal friends, Baba and I, went back to buying her all the books and cassette tapes we could find so she’d have something to do. I’d sit next to her and ask her to read to me for long hours. “Flower of suffering, read! Read to me.”

Meanwhile, Mama had become addicted to medical news. Every day at 9 AM and 7:30 PM she’d sit listening to the news and get old. She was waiting for the day the news would tell us they’d found a way to put spines back together. She’d say, “That none of our neighbors heard or saw what happened is a miracle in itself. Now there’s sure to be a second miracle and my dear daughter will walk again.”

After a few months Laleh was able to gain control of her bladder and bowel movement. Mama and Baba seemed to grow wings from happiness. Was the miracle really happening? Hope returned to the house. A pair of young doctors came by and made a cast of her feet to make braces. One of the doctors had the strangest last name we’d ever heard, “Birds of Flight.” Dr. Birds of Flight! Laleh and I could not stop laughing afterwards. Some weeks later Doctor Birds of Flight and the other doctor returned with their gadget. The first time they stood her up it seemed truly like a miracle. But Laleh got tired quickly and begged them to leave her alone. After a while the contraption disappeared.

On my eleventh birthday we all were out of sorts. An entire year had passed since the tragedy. A year during which we hid Laleh from everyone. No one among friends or family had a clue what had happened to Laleh. We’d say things like, “She’s shy. She won’t leave the house or even her room.”

This secret life was hardly easy in a midsize city like Ahvaz. Our years slowly turned into one long bout of concealment. I could no longer bring friends to the house. Friendships began and ended at school. And at school there were lies after lies that I had to tell my classmates about what a happy family we were. Every time some new pain visited Laleh, we’d spend days at the hospital where I learned to occupy myself in its busy corridors. At least the hospital visits brought Laleh out of the house and I too could escape that afflicted place for a while.

At some point I mustered enough courage to go up that roof. I would take my homework and sit there watching the tall palms and the jujube trees. The trees had been the last witnesses to Laleh’s decision. I’d gaze at what I imagined was what Laleh saw before jumping. The roof was now my refuge. The final place that Laleh actually climbed to on her own two feet. Every day I would imagine Laleh leaping off that roof. I’d imagine invisible hands pushing her off, those jinns. Pushing her and laughing with their hideous opened maws bigger than the roof of the house she fell from.

Then Mama slowly gave up hope. My two other siblings wouldn’t be found dead walking past Laleh’s room. As for Baba, the oil company would not stop sending him on assignments around the country. None of us talked about Laleh. Meanwhile, besides the walls and her jinns, the only other entity Laleh would talk to was me. As soon as I’d get home from school I’d go to her room and make her do stretches so she wouldn’t get bedsores. She got bedsores anyway. Her room smelled terrible. But I pretended nothing was wrong and we’d talk about our river. “Naneh has been asking for you. The migrant birds have arrived too, you know. They fly all over Naneh. I told her you’d be coming to see her on your own two legs any time now.”

Laleh listened intently. I told her of the happenings at the bazaar — what the Dezful merchants were up to, what the Arab folk were doing, the scent of incense and the Ameri neighborhood with its brickwork that must have been taken right out of the pages of the Thousand and One Nights. We’d imagine that one day we’d go to Baghdad together and walk through the city gates with the words our Arab neighbor had taught us, “Iftah ya simsim!” I’d describe the majnoon guy who suddenly showed up one day in Kianpars not long after Laleh’s fall. People said he’d been a masseur for the national football team before the revolution. He would put henna to his hair and wore mismatched sandals and carried with him a plastic tarp with an assortment of useless knickknacks in it. He spoke to the grass while opening his legs wide as if he were about to start doing warmups. I’d wave at him each time under the bridge and he’d just laugh hysterically and make faces.

My stories made Laleh laugh. She’d say, “You know, every person is majnoon in their own way. I guess the masseur too must have fallen off a bridge.” But was the former masseur a jinn or a majnoon? I’d wonder. How could he so easily relax by our river without a care in the world when Laleh had to stay here like this?

By the time I turned fourteen, Laleh’s behavior had taken a turn for the worse. She would spend hours staring at the flower patterns on the carpet. Her face changed expressions constantly and she was always mumbling under her breath. I’d find torn up pieces of paper scattered around her mattress. I wasn’t sure if she was writing things and then destroying what she’d written. I never asked about it. The same way I never asked her, “Why did you kill yourself, Laleh? Why did you allow those jinns inside you when Little Laleh loved and cared for you so much?”

Soon her behavior toward me too turned odd. One day she’d be kind, the next day she wouldn’t want to even look at me. She’d withdraw and I could tell she was frustrated and tired. She’d go days without eating. She stopped reading and at some point she destroyed all her cassettes. In retaliation they took her room from her. Now she had to live and sleep in the hall because they wanted to keep an eye on her at all times. What they really wanted was to be able to upbraid her at every turn.

“That bedroom is yours now,” they said. “Take it.”

“I don’t want the bedroom,” I’d answer. “I prefer the hall. I’m more comfortable here.”

“Take the bedroom!” they commanded.

Home had finally turned into hell. The only escape was to stick to school as much as possible. When classmates encouraged me to reach for the stars because I had perfect grades, I wanted to pull them aside one by one and tell them, “Listen, my sister committed suicide.”

I’d sit in that hall and read in front of Laleh. I’d turn the music up loud to get some kind of reaction out of her. Nothing. The storyteller Laleh of yesterdays had gone mute. She’d turn to the wall and suddenly scream at nothing and no one. Her body was declining fast. Her kidneys were failing. Some days she’d piss on herself on purpose. It was as if she hungered for the constant condemnations from the rest of the family. Laleh was ending and I could do nothing about it.

It was on the fifth anniversary of Laleh’s fateful decision that my relationship to her finally snapped. I had just come home from school carrying the little gifts my classmates had given me for my birthday. Laleh sat on her wheelchair behind the window. Seeing me, her face turned full of longing, then sadness. That look was a kick in the stomach. Suddenly I could no longer stand her. I could not stand that she was regretting what she’d done five years ago. Until then, I’d respected her choice, because she’d believed in what she was doing. But that look of regret seemed to end whatever reserve of forgiveness I’d ever had for her. Instead there was anger and resentment for seeing five years of my childhood scorched in the bonfire of grief over what she had done to herself and to us. I stopped speaking to her.

Laleh died. Apparently it was hepatitis that killed her. One winter night she wailed and groaned till morning like a wounded animal. The next afternoon when I came back from school no one was home. They’d taken her to the hospital. In the evening Baba called.

“Why aren’t you sleeping, little one?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Give the phone to your brother please.”

After talking to Baba, my brother came and stood over me. “Doctors say Laleh won’t last the night. She’s been asking for you.”

“I’m not going to the hospital. I want to sleep.”

Sleep never came.

At dawn my sister came into my room. “Laleh’s dead.”

I pulled the blanket over my head. “Leave me alone. I want to sleep.”

The jinns finally had extracted their sacrifice from us. Laleh was dead. But why? Was it because I’d stopped talking to her? But I loved her ….

We went to the cemetery. I couldn’t cry. I saw her stretched out on the surface of the platform where they washed the bodies. She seemed no different than years ago. Just her legs had shrunken unto themselves. Otherwise it was the same Laleh who was always looking up at the sky rather than in front of her. I was speechless, but wore that same dumb smile as always. When they lowered her into the grave I started laughing maniacally. Then: “Leave me alone. I want to get back to school. I don’t want to get an absence mark.”

Now I had two roles to play in our house; I had to be Little Laleh, and also Big Laleh but without her craziness. When Mama kissed me, I wasn’t sure if it was me she was kissing or Big Laleh. Whenever I looked up while watching TV or reading a book, I’d catch Baba looking intently at me with tears in his eyes. I hated mirrors, hated anything that hinted at our resemblance. In the mornings when I woke up and saw that the books on which I’d fallen asleep had been removed, I didn’t complain. Often they were books Laleh had read at one time. I knew what was happening. They all were worried for me. My brother and sister would suddenly barge into the room and ask if I was all right. I’d say nothing. Sometimes I’d talk to a neighborhood cat that I imagined carried Laleh’s soul inside her. It was a game of push and pull between me and the family to make sure I hadn’t gone over the edge, and one of my daily routines was to prove to everybody that no, the jinns had not yet taken over my body like they did Laleh’s.

One day when we all were pretending nothing was amiss and ours was not a house of hurt, Baba called from across the room, “Laleh dear, come let’s play a game of backgammon.” He hadn’t meant anything by it. People called me Laleh by mistake nearly all of the time. But that day my patience finally gave and all the jinns inside me came screaming out. I demanded to have my books back, and all of Laleh’s too that they had hidden from me. I didn’t want to be Laleh anymore. I’d been nothing else since my tenth birthday. I was sick of it. I hit the streets. Not just that day, but all the time from then on. In the fabric sellers’ market where I’d seen Laleh on her own legs for the last time in an outside setting, I found a little bookstore. The bookstore carried most of the banned books in the country. The owner allowed me to come every day, sit in a corner and read to my heart’s content. I devoured those books, mostly because I didn’t want grief to sink me. At nights I’d return to the jinn-stricken silence of our house and sleep without saying a word to anyone. And when my schooling was finished in Ahvaz, I made a beeline to the capital, Tehran, the huge metropolis that could, and can, take in all the crazies of the world — a city where you wouldn’t have to make yourself and others suffer for five years and then regret your act of jumping off a balcony because, well, you really needed to make that jump.

I hung out in parks with strangers in Tehran. Whenever someone asked about the dark circles under my eyes, I’d give them one of my stock lies — my twin sister had just died…I had cancer…my mother was in jail…

Other times I’d tell people I only had one brother and one sister. I hid Laleh from the world and tried purging her jinns.

But the jinns do return, at least once a year on my birthday. Birthdays for me will never not be a funeral, while for those jinns they’ll always be a feast on madness.


Shokouh Moghimi is a poet, journalist and documentarian. She has written and created videos for several newspapers and journals in Iran and also Lebanon. Her first collection of poetry won a number of Iran’s prestigious literary awards, including Best First Book award.


Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist, essayist and translator, who divides his time between New York and Tehran. He is the author of the novels Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran at Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020) and the editor of the short story collection Tehran Noir (2014). His latest novel, A Nearby Country Called Love, published last year by Viking, was described by the New York Times as “a complex portrait of interpersonal relationships in contemporary Iran.” Salar Abdoh also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York.

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