June 2000

The Road Less Traveled

By Maria Bauer

Bebachshit, dashui kojast? (Excuse me, where is the washroom?)

Dar Anjoman Irano-Emrika’st. (It is in the Iran-American Society.)

We, a small group of Foreign Service Officers’ wives recently arrived in Tehran, were dutifully repeating the sentences of the Persian lessons which the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute had devised. That we were not bored to tears was entirely due to Najmeh Ashgar, our teacher, who held our complete attention. With her large black eyes and jet black hair contrasting with her porcelain-white skin, she had the characteristic features of a beautiful young Persian woman. There was a glow about her, an animation and enthusiasm that completely captivated us. She obviously enjoyed teaching us and somehow managed to enliven these idiotic dialogues with amusing, typically Persian idioms in order to convey to us the special flavor of her language.

“May your shadow never grow less” (may you remain healthy) and “May your nose grow fat” (may you become prosperous), she wished us when our four weeks’ course came to an end. I had barely learned a few sentences and was eager to continue studying. Najmeh was delighted with my decision and agreed to give me private lessons.

This was in 1958, still under the Shah, when the mountains surrounding Tehran had not yet disappeared behind a veil of pollution; when bicycles, donkey carts, sheep and turkeys still competed with cars on the dusty streets, and the city was not yet overrun by foreigners as it would be later in the years preceding the Islamic Revolution.

Three times a week I would go to Najmeh’s house on Naderi Street where, like a child, I started filling the lines of a notebook with the letters of the Persian alphabet. I had always admired that beautiful script, but ever since our arrival, a one-word sign in beautiful calligraphy had particularly intrigued me. It appeared everywhere– over food stores or coffee shops, painted on trees and even in huge white letters on the rock of a far-away mountain. It was a tremendous feeling of triumph when, after a few lessons, I was able to decipher it. It said: Coca Cola.

We worked with great concentration during these lessons for which Najmeh refused to be paid. “But, Maria,” she said. “How can I charge for something I enjoy doing?” Later I often wondered whether she realized that these lessons and our hours of conversation by far transcended the language – that they became my key to an understanding of her country and a growing fondness for it at a time when I was still acutely suffering from culture shock.

Soon my interest shifted from the language to Najmeh herself, who kept revealing new, entirely unexpected facets of her personality. I was struck by her independence, quite unusual for an Iranian woman at that time. When she was not busy giving classes to Americans, she kept inviting illiterate workers or garbage collectors to her house where she taught them to read and write despite her husband’s vigorous protests.

“Reza,” I once heard her say to him, “how can I, in good conscience, teach foreigners our language when so many of our own people are still illiterate?”

Najmeh never allowed any interruptions during classes but when Leila, her five-year old daughter, burst into the room, her interest in the lesson immediately vanished. Leila, with her black curls and glowing eyes peering out of her tiny round face, was devoid of any shyness and could be quite a nuisance, but Najmeh seemed helpless as she watched her child’s every move with infinite affection.

After our lessons Najmeh always served Turkish coffee and when we finished drinking it, she made me hold my tiny cup upside down on the saucer for a while and then she would read my fortune from the design the grounds made on the bottom of my cup. Her predictions and her characterizations of me were amazing. Najmeh’s antennae were so sensitive that she would be aware of things I had on my mind without my ever having mentioned them. And soon after we drank our cups of coffee, she would reveal to me, little by little in her fluent and melodious English, her thoughts and her agonizing aspirations and frustrations.

In the beginning, her intense personality and her totally different background were so alien to me that I was reluctant to walk into the intimacy of her private life. But she eagerly reached out and opened up to me without the slightest inhibition, as though she wanted to test her anxieties and intuitions on someone who was a complete outsider in her culture.

“All my life I’ve had to fight for or against something,” she once told me when she reminisced about her girlhood. “I wanted to go to school with girls of my own age, but no, I had to stay home and take lessons with an old mullah. And when I knew how to read and write, instead of being taught the subjects I was interested in, I had to memorize parts of the Koran because that was as far as the mullah’s knowledge went. Then I had to fight to go to high school and to stay until graduation because my parents felt that this was all the education I would need, since I would soon be married anyway. And when I was married, I had to fight Reza for so many things…”

Reza, an engineer in his mid-thirties who was only a few years older than Najmeh, was a nice-looking, rather meek man who continually seemed torn between anger and admiration for his wife’s unorthodox behavior. Although the marriage had been arranged, Najmeh was now obviously in love with him, but she stuck to her convictions even though they were quite contrary to his conservative opinions. After her marriage she took English and education courses at Tehran University to prepare for a teaching career. Insisting that she and Reza move into a home of their own, she managed to free herself from the influence of her mother-in-law. That alone was a revolutionary attitude in a tribal society. And she never gave up rebelling against the fact that Reza had a mistress on the side, a custom few wives at the time thought of fighting. After all, in that Moslem world a man was still entitled to four wives, and although in those days few educated Iranian men took advantage of that tradition, taking a singhe (concubine) was still generally accepted. But the greatest crisis arose when Najmeh converted to Catholicism and insisted on having Leila baptized too, so that she would not have to suffer the humiliations of a Moslem woman. From then on, Najmeh was completely shunned by Reza’s family and friends.

“Wasn’t it a difficult decision to break with Islam?” I asked her.

“Of course; it was awful. I used to be a very good Moslem child, or rather a very religious child. I was always interested in other religions and couldn’t quite see why there was such a fuss about what kind of religion people had as long as they believed in one God. Christianity attracted me – or perhaps it was the mystical atmosphere of the Catholic churches. I loved to read about saints and their miracles. But, since I happened to have been born a Moslem, I accepted that Mohammed was the greatest of the prophets and that Islam was the only true faith.”

“What made you change your mind? Was it before or after your marriage?”

“Oh, long before. It all started after an experience…but never mind, it happened a long time ago.’

"You’d rather not talk about it?”

There was a moment of silence as Najmeh stared into the distance and then, suddenly, she threw her head back and laughed. “Well, all right, I’ll tell you. It’s a terrible story, but it will help you understand…

"I must have been about 12 years old when Father took me, during the Moharram holidays, on a pilgrimage to Meshed. On the way he told me all the details about the martyrdom of Hussein and Ali, how they shed their blood for their faith, and about the sufferings of their followers. In Meshed we spent hours circling the Holy Shrine, squeezed among crowds of men who were crying and beating themselves with chains until blood was running down their backs and chests. There was something catching about that despair and the rhythm of their flagellations, so I too started to beat my chest with my fists; but Father stopped me, saying that girls were not supposed to do that. Then we prayed at the tomb of Iman and I cried and cried – the whole thing was a tremendously emotional experience.

"When we finally got to the hotel where we were to spend the night, I was filled with religious fervor but totally exhausted and hysterical from all that crying. In my room I felt faint; my knees were trembling and my thighs were moist. Having no idea of the facts of life, I was startled to see blood dripping down my legs – deep red blood like that shed by Ali and Hussein and by all those men at the shrine – and yet there was no wound and no pain at all. I was convinced that this was a miracle. I was bleeding for the martyrs – the proof that I was a Moslem and that Islam was the true faith.”

“Did you tell your father?”

“No, but back home the next day I told Mother. She explained that ‘miracle’ to me, probably in more detail than I was prepared to hear. And then she told me about the pain of conceiving and childbearing, about the duty of total submission to all of one’s husband’s wishes. That, according to Allah and his Prophet, is the one role of a good Moslem woman. Now that I had become a woman, she said, I would have to wear thechador and soon she and Father would start looking for a proper husband for me.

"I was appalled, and so disillusioned. This was when the worst fighting with my parents started. I refused to wear the veil. I refused the many matches my parents were trying to arrange for me. I still believed in Islam but I felt that Mohammed’s teachings had been in some ways misunderstood and misinterpreted. Later I was convinced that we, the modern educated generation, would be able to change people’s attitudes. But that, of course, was an illusion, because the power and influence of the mullahs is still too strong. Even now I believe that Mohammed would have understood the necessity for change; but the mullahs don’t.”

“So your conversion was really a rebellion against Islam?”

“Oh, no, that alone would not have decided me. I had the same conflict so many of our modern women have these days: on the one hand they want independence and a good education, and on the other hand they want to be good Moslems. And apparently you cannot have both, at least not yet. So those who choose equality and freedom will go after it and not take Islam very seriously anymore. But I had to know more, more about what was right and what the meaning of it all was, and I kept searching, and all that time I was drawn more and more towards Catholicism by so many signs. The revelations I found in scriptures, the deep faith that overwhelmed me in church, holding me warm and secure – all that convinced me that Catholicism would give me the answer or peace of mind or whatever it is one calls ‘grace.’”

Najmeh was not always in a mood for philosophical discussions; sometimes she displayed a wonderful enjoyment of life while involving herself almost childishly in material concerns. There were days when we explored the city together, going on shopping expeditions where she would spend extravagant amounts of money on make-up, clothes and trinkets. Both of us loved to lose ourselves in the labyrinth of oriental confusion by driving – amid the deafening noise of cars and trucks blowing their horns at flocks of scared sheep, donkeys and excitable pedestrians, past rows of old, sad-looking suits hanging for sale in long rows along the sidewalk – to the main bazaar.

The bazaar was covered by the old vaulted stone ceiling which kept it delightfully cool. Round and cross-shaped openings allowed the sun to shine through and cast strange patterns of light and shadows into the crowded lanes. (In the never-ending efforts at modernization, the stone ceiling was replaced a year later by a glass roof which made the bazaar unbearably hot and deprived it of all its charm.)

Whenever we entered the bazaar, I would follow Najmeh past what seemed to be miles of shoe stalls, kitchen utensils, silver items and textiles. We always ended up in her favorite place: the rug bazaar – a whole village of rug-covered lanes stretching out endlessly in all directions. By that time, exhausted, we would end up sitting on a pile of rugs, drinking tea and eating delicious, tiny cucumbers with the merchants whom Najmeh charmed into showing us their choice collections.

Still, despite the impact Najmeh had on those who knew her, she had no close friends except for Maryna, an Armenian dressmaker. Often after our lessons, Najmeh wanted us to walk over to the decaying tenement where Maryna had worked and lived with her two small children ever since her husband had left her years ago. Her one-room apartment, though crowded with shabby furniture and lined with her customers’ clothes suspended on wire hangers from nails all along the walls, was neat and well-organized. Whenever we came, she seemed delighted and quickly moved her ancient sewing machine and materials from her table to the bed so she could serve us coffee. Najmeh always wanted her grounds read by Maryna, since Najmeh could not predict her own future.

“I don’t understand,” I once said to Najmeh when she again eagerly handed her empty cup to Maryna. “How can you, with your intelligence and progressive ideas, be so superstitious?”

“But this has nothing to do with superstition,” she said rather impatiently. “You can find truths in prophecies just as there are truths in dreams and fantasies.”

“Why are you always so concerned with the future instead of living in the present and accepting what comes?” Maryna asked. “Don’t you believe in destiny?”

“Of course I believe in destiny, ” Najmeh answered. “I have always felt that I am driven to do whatever I do by some force, not by my free will. I am always trying to understand that force. Sometimes I think I am on the way to an understanding: there seem to be hints and signs everywhere – in literature, in art, in dreams, yes, even in coffee grounds – which point to what I am looking for; and then again it evades me as though I had lost my way. I am afraid that time is slipping by without my ever getting anywhere….”

“But, Najmeh, you found your faith,” said Maryna. “You are a Catholic–”

“But that’s just it,” Najmeh interrupted her. “Doubts keep coming up and sometimes I feel as though the faith I have rejected is keeping me from getting complete satisfaction from my adopted one. Maybe we who have lost the faith in which we grew up are forever haunted by doubts…. I thought I was doing what I had to do, but what if I misread the signs? I mean, imagine if I were wrong….”

Maryna glanced at me as though urging me to say or do something to relieve the burden of guilt which weighed on Najmeh, but I could think of nothing to say. After a long silence, Najmeh shook her head as though forcefully dismissing her somber thoughts, smiled, and brought up an entirely different subject.

A few days later, when I came for my lesson, the smile with which Najmeh greeted me seemed artificial.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, yesterday Reza and I had a dreadful fight. Now he doesn’t want Leila to go to the kindergarten of the French Catholic School where she was registered, and as we argued Reza suddenly told me all resentments he has against me because of my attitude. Then he left home and he still has not come back.”

Now Najmeh’s doubts surfaced again. She wondered whether she had any strength left to fight her environment. And did she have a right to fight it? Could she dare to rebel against her fate? She told me that she had been to her church that morning, praying for guidance and strength, but there was no response. It was as though the saints over the altar were watching her coolly and saying, “You don’t belong here. Look for solace among your own prophets.”

She had to find out. She would return to the holy city of Meshed where she had gone with her father almost 18 years ago. She urged me to go with her. I agreed, although I knew that I would not be able to visit the famous mosque or even the bazaar area which surrounds it, because it is positively dangerous for a non-believer – man or woman – to be seen in the part of town adjoining the Holy Shrine.

The DC-3 flew for three hours over barren desert, but as we approached Meshed at sundown the golden dome of the Shrine of Iman and the many-colored tiles of the Gauhar Mosque emerged sparkling out of the drab city. The next morning Najmeh donned a black chador over her fashionable white suit, practiced for a while in front of a mirror the traditional way of clutching it under the eyes, then left for the Shrine.

She returned sooner than I expected, bursting into the room and throwing herself on the bed. I stood staring at her. Her face was smudged, her suit dirty, her stockings torn. She told me what had happened.

“It was so beautiful in the Mosque. When I knelt before the Kabah (the Islamic altar facing Mecca), and as ‘Allah AlAkhbar’ (God is the greatest) sounded all around me, slowly the words and movements of prayer came back to me and I started to recite the surahs I had memorized in my childhood. It all came back to me so easily, and although tears were running down my cheeks, a sensation of tremendous strength and well-being filled me. As I repeated my prayers more and more fervently, I had a sensation of floating in wonderful harmony, and Allah was all around me.

"Then, faintly, as if from far away, I heard rumbling and voices, but nothing could enter the blissful circle which had enclosed me – until I felt myself grabbed, lifted into the air, carried out of the mosque and harshly dropped on the cobblestones of the courtyard. More and more people gathered around me, angry faces shouting, ‘haram, haram,’ (shame, shame). Someone threw my chador in my face and two men started to beat and kick me. It was so awful I wanted to die. And then, over the roar of the mob and the pounding of my heart, I heard a man’s voice, loud and scolding. All became quiet; the men stepped aside and I saw an old bearded mullah bending over me. He helped me up, handed me my chador and told me to leave quickly. I hurriedly wrapped the chador around me and tried to run – it was so painful at first –but I ran as fast as I could, out of the courtyard and along the street until a taxi came along. And only then did I realize what had happened. When I was praying so ardently, lowering and lifting my chest in the rhythm of the prayer, that chador was in my way. I am not used to it anymore and, without thinking, I laid it aside so that I could more easily give in to the movements of the prayers. And all these pious men, in the midst of their worship, were shocked to see a woman’s head shamelessly uncovered in the holiest of the Houses of God.”

Najmeh was exhausted but not wounded. When she came out of the bathroom, after cleaning her bruises and showering, she seemed her old self again. Laughing, she said, “At least I have it now, the final proof that I am a Moslem no longer. I am no longer capable of wearing a chador when I pray to Allah.”

When we returned to Tehran, Najmeh found Reza at home, and soon everything seemed to be going well again. As usual, Najmeh had won her argument and Reza had given in: Leila would be going to Jeanne d’Arc school.

At that time my life in Tehran became very busy so that I had to reduce my Persian lessons to once a week. Najmeh and I still did errands together or visited Maryna, but there were fewer occasions for our long talks. I did notice, however, that Najmeh was growing increasingly tense and restless. Every time I came to her house there was a change. She was trading her living room rug for a new one; she bought a new chair; she kept moving the furniture around, never satisfied that the house looked as she wanted it to. But in those days I was so preoccupied with other concerns that I did not pay much attention to it.

Later, whenever I thought of Najmeh, I tried to remember at what point I became apprehensive, as though suddenly seized by an intangible premonition of tragedy. It must have been in the late summer of 1960 that I began noticing that Najmeh was in perpetual motion, feverishly driven to undertake new tasks she kept imposing on herself. She took on more and more students among the garbage collectors. She worked on a Persian reader for illiterate adults. And she became overly anxious about Leila, insisting on taking her to and from school instead of letting her ride the school bus with the other children.

One day when I came to her house I noticed that she had dark rings under her eyes, and I asked her what was wrong.

“I hardly slept last night,” she said. “I tried to clean out my desk. All my things are in such disorder.”

“You work too hard – you are completely exhausted,” I said. “Why do you have to do everything at once?”

“Because there are so many things I must do,” she answered, “and there is so little time to do them.”

I laughed. “What’s the hurry? You are only twenty-nine years old.”

“Almost thirty,” she answered with the same forced smile that now often made me uneasy.

A week later, when we had planned to go to the bazaar after my lesson, she said, “Not today, Maria, I am too busy,” and she showed me some fabric laid out on her dining room table. “That’s for Leila. I am making her four new dresses for school.”

“Why does she need four dresses now?” I asked. “She has so many clothes.”

“I have already cut the material so I must finish them today. Tomorrow morning early I want to dry-clean my draperies and the upholstery of my living room furniture. Look, they have already delivered the benzene I ordered; it’s the finest on the market.” She pointed to a metal drum standing in the courtyard. “I have so much work to do – and so little time….”

She must have noticed that I was disappointed and uneasy. “Never mind, Maria. I should be finished by ten or eleven, so why don’t you come back around this time tomorrow? This was not a good lesson anyway, I was absentminded….”

That night, worrying about Najmeh kept me awake. Since she had stopped talking to me about her feelings of guilt and dependency, there was no way I could help her. I decided not to return to her for a few days; maybe she needed some time alone to do all the things she so obsessively felt she now had to do. But the next morning my apprehension was so gnawing that I had to see her.

Driving down Naderi Street, I was stopped by the police. The block around Najmeh’s house was closed off and there was a dense crowd on the sidewalk. All I could see were fire engines and police cars and, above, a dark cloud of smoke. “A fire at the Ashgars, ” a bystander told me, but no one seemed to know any details. I made my way to Maryna’s.

“It was the benzene,” she sobbed. “I had just left my house when I heard the explosion. I must have known what had happened because I started running, running toward Najmeh’s house. When I got there flames were shooting out of her living room windows. The police and fire engines came immediately. The flames had not reached Leila’s room, so they were able to save her. Reza was not there – apparently he had not come home last night.” And, shuddering, she added in a barely audible voice, “I saw Najmeh. I stood right there as they carried her out. There was hardly anything left of her. She looked so tiny under the blanket.”

The next day a Mass was said for Najmeh at her church. Very few people were there. Reza, leaning against the wall, was weeping loudly. When I walked over to him and took his hand, he stared at me distractedly and whispered, “My family would not come, not even to say goodbye to Najmeh. Mother said that Allah has punished her for having become an infidel.”

I never went near Najmeh’s house again. Maryna told me that everything that had belonged to her had burned – her desk, her papers, her living room furniture, her clothes, and her rugs. The furniture in the other rooms as well as Reza’s and Leila’s clothes were untouched by the fire.

“Everything Najmeh worked for is destroyed,” Maryna said. “Now Reza’s mother will raise Leila as a good Moslem girl.”

I asked for a picture of Najmeh. There was none.

© 1990 by Maria Bauer. All rights reserved.

Maria Bauer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1919. She graduated from the French Lycee in Prague. Her studies at Charles University were interrupted by the German invasion in l939. She fled to France and, at the beginning of World War II, participated in anti-Nazi broadcasts emanating from Fëcamp, Normandy. Arriving in the United States in 1940, she lived in Cincinnati, New York City and Washington, DC until her husband joined the Foreign Service. She spent l5 years serving with him in Iran, France, Egypt and India.

After her return to the USA, she wrote a book entitled Beyond the Chestnut Trees, a memoir that became an alternate selection of the Literary Guild. Several of her articles have been published (in the Foreign Service Journal, Opera News and in several anthologies.)

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