“Your hand belongs right here—in mine—not over your heart.”
Like the uncovered dark hair that tumbled to her shoulders, the power of Mina’s handshake surprised me, although less than the fact that she had given me her hand. I told her that in two full weeks, not a single Arab woman had volunteered to touch me until now, when I still worried about repercussions from my mistake of the previous day. Putting my mouth by the ear of a Jordanian teacher named Alya to ask for directions in a corridor echoing with schoolboys’ shouts, I had placed my hand softly on her shoulder to steady myself, in order not to get too near. She recoiled from my touch as if from an electric shock.
“Now you’re afraid her husband and father will demand your blood,” Mina said, laughing.
“Even worse, I touched her with my left hand.”
“Then say your prayers quickly!”
She made a theatrical Sign of the Cross and again her full-throated laugh caromed down the hallway through our neighbors’ flimsy doors.
“But please don’t call me an Arab; I’m Iranian.”
We walked the few steps from the trash chute, where we’d met, to my apartment so I could introduce her to my wife. But she had fallen asleep. I closed the bedroom door and started boiling water for two cups of tea instead of three.
“You have no furniture!”
“We never will. We just moved here from a hotel ten days ago, but tomorrow we fly back to California because we can’t agree on contract terms with our school.”
Mina conformed her willowy frame to the right angle made by floor and wall.
“This is good for me. Have you at least taken a taxi to Dubai one or two times?”
“Last Friday and also today, when I met a very intelligent, very devout Egyptian woman. She told me there are no angels in Dubai. But I only wanted shorts for swimming, and I found those.”
She had made herself very comfortable. “Yes, Dubai is much better for swimsuits than for angels. And where did the Egyptian woman tell you to look for angels?”
Though she was teasing me, I decided to treat her question seriously. “I think she believes I would have pretty good luck in Egypt. Do you feel the same about your own country?”
She waved off my apology for the black tea, assuring me that she preferred it that way. “Iran is and isn’t my country. I don’t know it well enough any more to say about the angels.”
Wincing from the taste of the tea, she continued. “Here is better for me and Algeria is better for my daughter, who is in the university there. Where we are, nobody forces us to cover our hair, like in Iran.”
I added this new piece to my jigsaw puzzle of knowledge about the Middle East, still an archipelago of small islands drowning in endless sea. I would need to put down many more pieces to bridge the distance from the Emirates to Algeria.
“Why doesn’t your daughter go to university here?”
“Here the police will not beat you or arrest you if you don’t cover, but there is great social pressure on Muslim women.” She shrugged. “Unlike me, Simin is not experienced in doing what is unpopular.”
I sat stiffly against the wall opposite her. The anticipation of climbing out of bed even before the pre-dawn call to prayer and then sitting through a sixteen-hour flight to San Francisco had started to lock up my back.
“You’re a teacher of English and French with liberal views. That’s why you left Iran?”
“When I was a teenager, my parents sent me away to keep me safe from the war with Iraq. A missile hit the apartment building next to ours and they decided that they didn’t want to lose their only child.”
She paused to offer me her blue pack of Gitanes Brunes—I turned down a cigarette for the second time during the day—and to light up without asking for permission. She blew a balletic cloud into the emptiness of the living room. Taking advantage of the open window, the wind that howled at us from the desert stretching clear to Abu Dhabi urged her smoke toward the kitchen.
“You know, the war was almost over then, and no more missiles hit our neighborhood. But Paris was always a better place for a girl who didn’t want the same Iran that the mullahs did.”
Mina lowered her voice slightly. “My parents didn’t expect me to marry an unfaithful Frenchman. The cochon walked out as soon as he knew I was pregnant with Simin. What do you think: maybe I should never have told him I was pregnant?”
She released a convulsive burst of laughter—which would have awakened a lighter sleeper than my wife—and then laughed again at my attempt to give my back some relief by stretching out on the floor.
“You have such perfect manners—like me!”
Taking a deep drag on her cigarette, she went on: “My parents try to look on the good side now. But I think they still believe that a Muslim man wouldn’t have abandoned me. I’m not sure they are wrong.”
She had gone quiet again. “Of course, ever since the Revolution, my parents have often wondered if they should also have left. The Jews fled, including my mother’s best friend her whole life, who moved to America.”
Lying down helped. I realized that, suddenly, I had to fight to keep my eyes open. A long silence followed.
“Yet your daughter is in Algeria instead of France.”
I heard her voice coming from the door, which she had already opened. “She wants to live where not covering is her own choice, not forced on her by stares and curses. Living with other Muslims is best for her.”
Mina waited for me to say something, but I’d come within an inch of sleep.
“Good night, Don. It was a pleasure talking to you and I’m sorry I didn’t meet your wife. I wish for both of you a safe trip to California.”
Before she could shut the door I summoned my last reserves of strength: “Wait! Is your daughter named after you? Is Simin another version of Mina?”
She came in again and knelt over me. “My daughter is named after Simin Khalili, Iran’s greatest living poet. Let me put you to sleep with a poem that she wrote in tribute to her own mother. ‘Gracefully she approached,’ it’s called.”
My wife sometimes reads to me late at night from the thirteenth-century Persian poet, Rumi, so this felt soothingly familiar. I tried to remember our favorite, “This Marriage”:
May these vows and this marriage be blessed. May it be sweet milk, this marriage, like wine and halvah. May this marriage offer fruit and shade like the date palm. May this marriage be full of laughter, our every day a day in paradise. May this marriage be a sign of compassion, a seal of happiness here and hereafter. May this marriage have a fair face and a good name, an omen as welcome as the moon in a clear blue sky. I am out of words to describe how spirit mingles in this marriage.
As for Mina’s poem, I don’t know whether she recited it for me because I only heard the title. After I returned to California, I looked it up:
Gracefully she approached,
in a dress of bright blue silk;
With an olive branch in her hand,
and many tales of sorrows in her eyes.
Running to her, I greeted her,
and took her hand in mine:
Pulses could still be felt in her veins;
warm was still her body with life.
“But you are dead, mother,” I said;
“Oh, many years ago you died!”
Neither of embalmment she smelled,
Nor in a shroud was she wrapped.
I gave a glance at the olive branch;
she held it out to me,
And said with a smile,
“It is the sign of peace; take it.”
I took it from her and said,
“Yes, it is the sign of. . . ,” when
My voice and peace were broken
by the violent arrival of a horseman.
He carried a dagger under his tunic
with which he shaped the olive branch
Into a rod and looking at it
he said to himself:
“Not too bad a cane
for punishing the sinners!”
A real image of a hellish pain!
Then, to hide the rod,
He opened his saddlebag.
in there, O God!
I saw a dead dove, with a string tied
round its broken neck.
My mother walked away with anger and sorrow;
my eyes followed her;
Like the mourners she wore
a dress of black silk.