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.

 

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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 and essayist who divides much of 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 and translator of the anthology Tehran Noir (2014). He also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York. Abdoh seeks to help Iran re-engage with the Arab world and convey more of Iranian culture to the west. He is a TMR contributing editor. Salar Abdoh at Goodreads.

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