Translation by Salar Abdoh
“Haj khanum says your windows are naked. She has grown boys—she says it’s not proper going without curtains.”
My building’s manager tells me this over the phone and I’m sure he uses the word “naked” on purpose. I’m confused. And angry. In Iran, when you refer to someone as a Haj khanum (the combination of the words Haj and Madam), you are implicitly saying that the woman is religious and has a certain traditional way of looking at the world and, obviously, at my windows.
I live on the third floor of an apartment building in the heart of the city. My windows face north and south: the north side offers a view of Jami Street, and the south overlooks a backyard. The windows facing Jami have curtains. In Tehran, all windows have curtains—firmly drawn curtains. Haj khanum’s issue is with my south-facing, curtainless windows.
Years ago, when my then-somewhat-hippie dad was told at his office to cut his hair, he countered that his paycheck was not enough to cover a haircut. It seems like a good time to use my father’s riposte. I tell the building manager, “Please tell Haj khanum I can’t afford curtains.”
A few days later, on the way out of the house, I run into the building manager and a woman who could be 50 or 60. She wears a tightly wound black chador covering her entire head and body. In her hand she holds a plastic bag, and as I quietly make for the door, she offers the bag and says, “Please take this. A gift from me. Neighbors should help each other out. You’re like my daughter.”
I glance inside the bag without touching it; a thick layer of brownish cloth is in there. I’m stumped and look askance at the building manager.
“This is,” he explains, gesturing awkwardly, “Haj khanum.”
I smile. I know this exchange would not be taking place if I were a man. “Haj khanum,” I say, “when my cousin and I were kids, we used to keep a close eye on our neighbor’s house. But our mother never went over to the neighbor to tell her she needs to put up curtains. Instead, she taught us not to nose into other folks’ homes. And from what I understand, your sons are not so little anymore. They should know better.”
I can tell this is the absolute last thing either of them had expected to hear. A few days later, the building manager will call to inform me that Haj khanum feels insulted. Her husband holds some position in the government, and they plan to bring an official complaint against me.
“Good,” I tell the manager, “because now you’ll have two complaints. I plan to do exactly the same. Obviously Haj khanum’s boys have nothing better to do than to stalk other people’s homes.”
The apartment that my cousin and I couldn’t keep our eyes off of when we were kids was one of those rare homes where the curtains stayed open. We would grab my grandfather’s hunting binoculars and go up to the roof to watch the lady across the street with the colorful night dresses. Contrary to what I’d told Haj khanum and the building manager, no one ever caught us. We just got bored with the whole thing after a while and went on to other games.
In Tehran, the only time you can thoroughly look inside other people’s windows is during the weeks right before Nowruz, the Persian New Year. That’s when everything in each home comes down for a deep cleaning, including the curtains. It’s a window of time, literally, when you can see people as themselves, with their pajamas and hair rollers and sleeveless shirts going about the business of starting the new year and the first day of spring with sparkling, see-through windows. Glimpse the man of the house precariously up a ladder dusting a light fixture, behold the posters in the children’s bedrooms, the kettles and their brightly colored teapots and their half-burnt holders, flower pots, bookshelves, pickle jars, trays lined in a row waiting in the back of the kitchen sink.
A city that stays hidden the rest of the year keeps guests at bay during the deep cleaning of pre-Nowruz. Guests only return once the curtains are back in their places. The black-market alcohol from neighboring countries, the homemade arak, the dancing till the wee hours of the morning, the flirtations and domestic fights and the long prayers and the marathon parties all come back once the windows are blinded again. Tehran is a city of secrets par excellence. The interiors don’t advertise themselves.
That day, after leaving Haj khanum and the building manager, I came out onto Jami Street and immediately spotted a neighbor’s daughter across the street. She waves at me. Some years ago, her mother had entreated me to teach her girl English. Back then, she was a headstrong, playful adolescent who could barely focus for half a minute on the English grammar. Now she must be 16 or 17 and considers me a “close friend” on Instagram. Just yesterday, she posted herself singing the song “Zombie” by the Cranberries, accompanied by a thin young man who is shown playing all the backup instruments. I sent her a message suggesting that she should make the song her own rather than trying to sound exactly like Dolores O’Riordan. She immediately put a “like” next to my suggestion.
I turn onto Sheikh Hadi Street from Jami. These old streets and neighborhoods are the heart and soul of Tehran. Life seldom stops here. The narrow, bustling street—alive with fruit and vegetable stores and bakeries, and a host of shops of every size and shape—takes its name from Hadi Najmabadi, an eminent constitutionalist from the early years of the twentieth century whose mausoleum is inside an elegant old building of the same era. As I head north, a woman with honey-colored hair sticks her head out of a window and screams at a woman getting into her car: “Madam, you left your cell phone behind.” Heads turn toward the window. It is the window of a private hairdresser who does hair inside her home. The sidewalk chatter starts right away. The window has momentarily exposed itself, and the street reacts. As I pass by a pair of young bodybuilders leaning against their motorbikes, one says to the other, “Did you see her? I know for a fact she’s single. The devil says I should try my luck with her one of these days.”
Sheikh Hadi ends at one of Tehran’s major boulevards, Jomhouri, where I always buy my coffee. To get to the coffee seller, you have to negotiate a sea of humanity that usually lasts as long as there’s sunlight. Street merchants with every knick-knack imaginable vie for space with pedestrians shouldering past each other in front of gleaming electronics stores and guitar shops. Decaying old brick façades of buildings that were once the cream of what was considered the capital’s fashionable quarter can still be found here and there on Jomhouri. The Great Game, the struggle for mastery in Asia between Czarist Russia and Great Britain at the zenith of the colonial age, played itself out a few blocks from here. The twin embassies, sprawling and abounding with two centuries of secrets, sit almost shoulder to shoulder.
Beneath the always-open but curtained second-floor window of one of these decaying fronts where music never stops and is never less than half a century old, often sits a sidewalk seller of spices, a woman of at least 70 with pale skin and rare blue eyes. Her speech is that of someone who has known better days, someone educated and probably reduced to this portion of Jomhouri and underneath the singing window because of poor luck and the 10,000 things that can derail a life when you live in a place such as ours. I’d like to think that the window is hers, and all she has to do is come down the few flights of steps each morning. She’s not adverse to giving me pointers about how to use what spice in which dish. Mango powder and its manifestations are something I first learned from her. I worry for her, and I never pass by without buying something, anything. We are two women, decades apart, who (I want to imagine) have built something of a serene bond on one of the busiest thoroughfares of the city.
My attention turns to a slim young woman with long golden hair in a ponytail. She’s not wearing a hijab, and I wonder for a minute if she’s the type of woman you see more of these days in Tehran, who simply refuses to wear any head covering at all. When she stops in front of a shoe and leather goods store, I finally realize I’m looking at a man. Delicate and beautiful. One of those guys you often see around College or Valiasr Squares. He has on makeup and biting red lipstick. The merchant in the shoe store stands by the door, staring hard at the young man who pays him absolutely no mind, or at least pretends not to.
I stop just past the British embassy at Istanbul Square. In my younger days, the now disappeared Plasco building was our go-to spot to find foreign jeans, T-shirts and sneakers we couldn’t afford in the more high-end malls uptown. All that’s vanished now, and even the Friday Bazaar across the street has disappeared. Gone are its Afghan rug dealers and Turkoman jewelry merchants and used-item traders who sold everything from faded coins of previous dynasties to scratched vinyls of Frank Sinatra and Dusty Springfield.
The scent of coffee often permeates the four corners of Istanbul Square. Lately, however, the sublime fragrance is mixed in my mind with the phantasmagoric scenes of the 17-story building’s ruin and the footage of a firefighter nodding at the cameras one last time as he prepares to enter the inferno through a window.
Coffee in hand, I make my way back through Avenue Nofel Loshato on the north side of the British and the south side of the Russian grounds, a quieter, pine tree-lined street parallel to Jomhouri Boulevard, where France, Italy and the Vatican also have their embassies.
As a kid, I collected pinecones off the ground and placed them in a row by my window before the thickly draped green and blue 1960s curtains that my mother was fond of. Sometimes when I pass by Zoroaster Street, I peek inside the dozen or so drapery shops with their bulky displays and wonder who would still want such volumes and layers upon layers of fabric over their windows. My mom, I’m sure. My job was always to pull those curtains aside, open the windows and set bowls of milk for the assortment of cats that made their home on our terraces and balconies.
The coffee I have bought was for a friend, another translator like myself. She has stopped by my apartment to talk about her recent book contract. The house already smells like Istanbul Square, with its powerful scent of recently ground coffee. Yet Haj khanum will not quite leave my mind, especially after the guest arrives and the windows remain un-curtained and open. The entire time we sit sipping our coffee, I imagine Haj khanum somewhere out there, perhaps on her balcony, watching us with a pair of binoculars. After a while the talk comes around to some of the books by male authors that I have translated over the years: Murakami, Mishima, John Berger, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, William Trevor’s Elizabeth Alone. The guest wants to know why I translated these men. Why? Because I like their work, or at least specific books by them. Then, I confess to my guest that often I have thought of the act of translation as a drawing of a curtain wide open in order to see into someone else’s house. In turn, my guest recalls a translator who died some years ago; it is said he threw himself out a window. Was it suicide? We both wonder. I glance for a moment toward the terrace and worry that in her eagerness to catch me in an act unworthy of a lady, Haj khanum might overextend herself and fall off the balcony or wherever she happens to be performing her act of shadowing her neighbors. I’m genuinely concerned for a minute.
Haj khanum’s official complaint never arrives. And the young girl across the street whom I used to reluctantly tutor soon comes out with a new video singing Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. She’s done a better job of it this time and truly made the song her own. In the video, she has drawn a generous dab of eyeliner, à la Winehouse, and wears a lace blouse under which her black bra is plainly visible.
Farnaz Haeri has translated the books of Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, John Berger and William Trevor into Persian. Currently, she is at work on Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. She lives, paints and teaches in Tehran.