It was around noon. The school bus stopped at the usual spot by the side of the dirt road 200 meters from our house and I got off, carrying my overflowing backpack filled with books and notebooks. The wind was dancing with my headscarf that was part of our school uniform and I had to hold it down so it wouldn’t blow away. I was parched and getting irritated. My lips were so dry they were stuck together. I quickened my pace to reach home faster. I announced my arrival by throwing my backpack toward the TV stand and running into the kitchen to urge my mum to prepare the food now. She made me a plate of macaroni. I sat right in the middle of the kitchen and started eating so fast that the noodles were sticking out both sides of my mouth. As I was stuffing the noodles into my mouth I got reminded of the dormitory’s food. Even imagining it was enough to make me sick again. I contorted my face and pressed my lips together. It was gross. I looked at my plate again. A plate of mum’s macaroni and kept eating again. This was the best meal I had ever had. Now that my belly was full the only thing I needed to wash away the dorm’s grind was a short nap. I took a black and white floral chador and found a quiet corner and a soft pillow and lay down. I was barely asleep when I heard my dad’s voice, “Zahra, come here, I need to talk to you.” I got up feeling disoriented and tired and was thinking to myself, what’s happened now? What does he want to say? Can’t he see that I have just gotten back from the dorms. Can’t he see that I am sleeping?
He took a long look at me and said: “Have you made up your mind?” My eyes grew wide with shock and anger. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that issue had been over for a long time and that nobody would ever bring it up again. But it seemed like it was more serious than I thought. It was no joke. I was internally struggling, not sure what to say, but he continued. “We’re not going to force you on this, but it’s expected of you.” I was frowning but also had a sarcastic smile. Without uttering a word, I went back to my fort, the safe corner in the back of the room under the black and white chador and I wept silently.
I was sitting on the floor in a corner, rocking my outstretched legs gently back and forth. I think I was singing a lullaby for the invisible doll on my lap and rocking it to sleep. I am not quite sure but I think I was 6 or 7. On the other end of the room, I could see two bowls with pink and red flowers each filled with ghovatoo*. One was filled with chickpea ghovatoo and one was 40 herbs ghovatoo. My aunt filled a spoon with the sweet powder and emptied it into her mouth. Next to her the woman on the floor was nursing her newborn baby. She hadn’t quite swallowed the ghovatoo when she turned to the woman and told her, “Your first born was a girl but you promised her to someone else and not my son. This one’s a girl too. She’s mine. Don’t give her away to anyone else.” The woman looked down at her baby who was sucking milk from her breast and said, “Don’t worry. She’s yours.” The two women looked at one another and laughed out loud. I was still rocking my invisible doll back and forth on my legs and I thought, “That’s normal. I must be someone else’s too.”
I’m still crying in the corner of the room hunched under my chador. Us girls are born brides. Everything is decided for us since birth. All we do is grow up and wait for them to put that white dress on us. We don’t know the darkness that is waiting for us behind that white dress. We are allowed to grow into our dress and no more.
It’s finally Saturday** and I’m going back to the dorms. I can finally escape this house and the looks that are trying to get me to comply. Even though the food at the dorms is terrible, but this short-lived freedom is worth it.
I sat in class and rested my head on the desk and started chewing on the end of a pen. She suddenly burst into the room and yelled, “Zahra, it’s recess. Why aren’t you in the yard playing like everyone else?” “Lovers’ quarrel?” she said sarcastically. “Either he will come or he’ll send a letter.” She continued. I looked up at her and frowned. She was holding a cheese sandwich and bits of soft cheese were dangling from the corner of her mouth. I got up, balled up my fists and walked over to her. She choked on her bite. I stood in front of her and yelled, “No way! No way I will let this happen. You understand me? There is NO WAY!” Even the school was no longer safe. I was fed up with my friends and their stupid comments. I wish I could escape school too. I wish I could go someplace where no one would talk to me about this. Someplace where someone saw my point of view. But where?
I had lost my appetite. I was playing with my food, making sticky balls out of the overcooked rice on my plate. I had lost weight. My legs were weak, but I had hope. I tried to busy myself with schoolwork.
“Hello hello children! I hope you are doing well.” I was standing in front of the dirty mirror in my room and holding my fist in front of my mouth like a microphone. There was going to be a big celebration at the school and as always, the principal had asked me to host. I loved to be on stage. To perform. I was talented too. “So as you know children, we have a big celebration today and we have planned a lot of…” I was in the middle of my speech when my mum opened the door of my room and walked in, “Can’t you hear me? Have you gone deaf? And stop this nonsense. You’re going to be a bride soon, so grow up and act like a woman.” I crossed my arms. “What’s that got to do with anything?” I asked angrily. “You bring this bride business up every time I do anything. I’m not going to be a bride. I have told you this a hundred…” I hadn’t finished my sentence when she slammed her palm against the window. The sound of breaking glass echoed throughout the house. My mum’s hand was drenched in blood and bits of broken glass were everywhere. I could hear my brother’s footsteps rushing to my bedroom. I couldn’t move. Was he coming to save me? Something like hope was bubbling in the pit of my stomach. My brother got to the room. When he saw the blood, he started yelling, “Screw what you want. This is not up to you to decide!”
Back to my corner, sobbing quietly under my chador. This time the whole household was trying to get me wedded.
Our house was right next to my uncle’s house buffered by a small shed covered in date palm leaves. They told me my cousin (the future groom) is waiting for me by the shed. He wants to talk to me. I couldn’t decide. I didn’t want to talk to him but that wasn’t my choice either. A thousand butterflies were flapping their wings wildly in my stomach. But I had to tell him. He had to hear what I had to say. He had curly hair and dark skin. He was wearing a blue shirt and baggy Kurdish pants. He was waiting for me and as soon as I arrived, he asked, “So why don’t you want to marry me?” I suddenly felt sorry for him. I tried my best to respond nicely and calmly. “You’re a good man and I like you like a cousin, but I can’t see you any other way.” “Bachi?” (Why not?) he asked. Every time I explained, he kept coming back with one word “Bachi?” (Why not?). I explained again and again he asked Bachi? I explained it any which way I could think of and in response he kept asking Bachi? Bachi? Bachi. It was driving me crazy. I wanted to go back home. I started moving backwards toward the house as if I was running away from him. As I was walking toward the house, I shouted, “I don’t want to marry you. Bye.”
A few months later, I don’t know how many, when I returned from the dorms, I saw a pink card on the mantle. It was a wedding invitation. I was excited. An evening of dancing and celebration was just what I needed. I opened the card. It was an invitation to his wedding, my cousin’s wedding. I couldn’t believe it. My eyes grew wide with excitement. I started laughing and dancing in my school uniform right in the middle of the house. As I was dancing, I kept telling myself. It’s over, Zahra. It’s truly over. You’re no longer one of those girls who is born a bride. You have plenty of time to grow up. There are no limits.
* A sweet traditional energy snack, a natural blend of seeds, plants, and powders used for its anti-anxiety and analgesic properties, traditionally given to women after giving birth.
** First day of the week in the Persian calendar.
2 December, 2022