“The desire to write gnaws at me on the inside. Words won’t leave me alone. They come after me in dreams, like an army of ants, crawling on my lips and eyelids.”
So writes Iranian short story author Goli Taraghi on her impulse to write.
The translation presented for your reading pleasure here today is Taraghi’s 2002 short story “The First Day,” in which she gives us a thinly-veiled autobiographical account of her experiences as an Iranian immigrant admitted to a psychiatric ward outside Paris. Using the technique of stream of consciousness, Taraghi weaves a complex tapestry in time and space as the narrator drifts in and out of past and present, desperately trying to restore her mental health by writing down the memories which seem to dominate her thoughts. Shifting tones reflect the age of the narrator, which varies according to scene. Taraghi alternates between long, romantic, flowery sentences and terse description in order to heighten the separation between past and present, which is only indicated in the original by a large space between paragraphs (indicated in translation by italics).
Since leaving Iran in 1979, Taraghi has been living in Paris, and as a result her work has turned increasingly towards the themes of exile, homeland, and memory. In the following story, nostalgia is presented as a comforting, yet possibly lethal, response to the struggles of living in exile. It could be the narrator’s salvation or the force which entices her to retreat ever further into the recesses of her own mind at the expense of the present moment and her own sanity.
With special thanks to my editors, Larsy, Mahmoud, and Victoria.
The First Day
by Goli Taraghi
August 1988. Ville d’Avray Psychiatric Clinic. Outskirts of Paris.
What am I doing here?
Cardboard people with crumpled faces and closed eyes sit beside each other on benches of wood. Withered people with ancient hands.
I’m terrified of the blond nurses all in white, the strangely silent garden, the mourning trees with their somber gray shadows, the ordered ranks of boxwood trees — all the same size and shape, standing shoulder to shoulder, like soldiers ready for battle.
I think of our garden in Shemiran: the poplar trees (my playmates), the plaster statues, and the chubby nymph who stands at the pond’s edge. I see my father sitting on his lawn chair by the stream under the sycamores. His long shadow stretches across the entire garden.
“I want a big house with a garden and a pond and stone statues around the flowerbeds,” he says. “A house with sunlit rooms, a cool basement for hot days, and a wide veranda for sleeping under the clearest sky in the world.”
Last night I dreamt of him. We were in a city in ancient Egypt. A golden star shone on his forehead, like a little piece of the sun, and his piercing eyes were fixed on a distant point on the horizon. Maybe he was looking at his children’s destinies, at the remnants of the Shemiran garden, at his kith and kin scattered all over the world, or at me, trapped with these strange people.
His voice rang in my ears: “I am steel and steel never rusts.”
I cling to his image and magical power, to the force of this iron man, vanquisher of illness and enemy of the weak.
“I’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late. Right now,” I tell myself.
My feet are glued to the floor and my body doesn’t respond. My thoughts are scattered and words flee my mind. Everything is amplified inside my head: shapes, numbers, voices, wrinkled sheets, ticking clocks. Faces pass by me, overlap, change shape, and disappear. I alternate between past and present, unable to linger on any particular moment.
Doctor Khanum is walking in the garden. She approaches and lays her hand on my shoulder. Her cold, foreign hand. It’s my first day at the clinic. She takes down my name.
“Nationality?” she asks.
“Place of birth?”
The sweet hum of the city churns familiarly in my mind and the Shemiran garden, like a green dream, settles in my mind behind closed eyes.
Tehran, with that playful letter “r” that rolls off the tongue, and that long, drawn-out “a,” like the tantalizing mouth of a colorful bazaar, draws me inwards. Someone calls me from afar, someone from the mountains and the sea. The little neighbor boy is standing at the end of the alley and waves to me. I love this boy but don’t know his name. He puts something sticky in his hair so it sits on top of his head like a melon. His face is full of red pimples and he lets his shirt hang open to his waist. I tell myself that I will love this boy for eternity, for as long as I live. Two days later I’ve forgotten him.
The church bell, together with the distressing ambulance siren, only amplifies the strangeness of my surroundings. Where am I?
A young man, thin as a stick, is staring at me with a pale face and large black eyes. I don’t like the way he’s looking at me. He talks to himself loudly and laughs. He puts his finger to his lips and lets me know I should be quiet with a wink and a nod.
“No, I’m nothing like these people. No way,” I think. “I need to talk to Doctor Khanum. I have to explain that there’s a reason for my agitated state of mind, a perfectly rational explanation.”
An old woman comes towards me. She wants to touch my hair. She has a metal comb in her hand. I step aside, back away slowly, and sit down on the first open bench. But she won’t leave me alone. She runs her fingers through my hair. Her clothes smell like olive-scented soap, like freshly washed sheets, like the bedcovers of my childhood.
The laundry rack is on the roof. I hide behind the sheets. They keep calling for me but I don’t answer. They’re looking for me, even raking through the water in the shallow pool. They’re in the alley. Their voices are coming from the depths of the garden. I like it when grown-ups are worried. I know that a grown-up punishment is waiting for me. So I don’t answer. I’m afraid and fall asleep out of fear.
A nurse lifts me up by the arms. She leads me to a cement building. I tremble, and anxiety races through my body like a physical pain. We go slowly up the stairs, the interminable stairs. We enter a half-dark, half-empty room—a thin white bed, blue curtains, a small desk and one chair.
“I’m going to die here — windows closed, rain outside.”
I scream, one of those soundless cries that stays stuck in your throat. It’s like I’m dreaming, running but stuck in place. They take off my clothes and put a big, wide gown on me. I lie down on the bed. A hand draws back the curtains and caresses my forehead. Somebody with a strange voice says something to me. I feel a needle going into the flesh of my arm. Doctor Khanum takes my pulse. My eyes, ever so slowly, become heavy, and a good, lazy feeling courses through my veins.
My pillow is full of the sound of chirping sparrows from the Shemiran garden. In the morning I can sleep until whenever I want. Tomorrow is a holiday and we’re going to eat lunch in the garden near the stream. Hassan Aqa spreads some rugs on the ground and props some pillows on the tree trunks. Khaleh Azar is always thinking about the beauty, color, and loveliness of her skin. She avoids sunlight and puts a white silk veil over her face like a mosquito net so her skin won’t get blotchy. Every time she comes inside, she cuts a watermelon down the middle, carves out the inside and puts half of it on her face to make her skin clear and smooth. She says she learned the trick from the beauty queens of America and read about it in a French magazine. When she laughs she purses her lips so she won’t have wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. At night she clips a clothespin onto the end of her nose to make it small and perky. She says she learned that from the American beauty queens too.
Every morning when I open my eyes, a voice beside me tells me what day of the week it is. The voice talks to me and comes in and out like an old radio. The voice tells me I must get up, take a shower, change my clothes and eat breakfast at the table.
I roll over and sleep facing the wall.
The voice asks me things and tells me I’ve been in bed for two weeks straight.
Doctor Khanum orders them to put my chair by the window. Nobody wants anything to do with me and no one is permitted to visit.
A new order: I must go for a walk every morning in the garden and eat my lunch at the table with the others. I say no and pull the sheets over my head. The nurses get me out of bed, with kindness and encouragement at first, then by force. They help me change my clothes, put on my shoes, and wash my face. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t move a muscle. Sleep, escape, and forgetfulness are the only things I want. I’m afraid of the bright day. I wish it were eternal night.
“Wait until tomorrow,” I beg them. “A few more days.”
It’s no use. They’ve heard it all many times before. We go into the hallway. They prop me up, holding me under my arms. My body is hollow and empty. They let me go; I fall. I grasp the handrail beside the stairs. When we reach the garden, they leave me alone. I sit down on a wooden bench away from the others. The old woman with the metal comb spots me and comes over. She stands behind me. She wants to comb my hair. I don’t move. I’ve surrendered. She pulls the pins out, plays with my hair, combs and braids it.
How wonderful it is when a kind person braids your hair, buttons up your headscarf, and puts a jelly sandwich in your knapsack. In elementary school they called me Firouz Kouhi. I’m in a rush. Mother braids my hair, makes me swallow a spoonful of fish oil, and stuffs a handful of candies into my pocket to take the edge off that horrible taste. She polishes my glossy shoes. My stiff uniform smells like starch. My bag is full of new notebooks and colored pencils. We all line up and Mrs. Nazem checks our hands and fingernails. The dirty kids are slapped on the back of the neck and stand at the end of the line. The ones who have filthy collars or didn’t bring their notebooks, on top of having dirty hands, have to stand in the corner of the schoolyard on one foot with both hands in the air. If you cry, you get trapped in the dark basement. Mrs. Nazem asks me my name, but I’ve shoved a few sweets in my mouth. My cheeks are stuffed full of candy and I can’t answer.
“Open your mouth,” she orders me.
I shake my head, forcing myself to swallow the candies whole. Mrs. Nazem is red with anger. She forces her fingers into my mouth. The candies slide into the back of my throat. I almost choke and start coughing violently. This means I’m going to have to go to the dungeon. I’m chewing my candies and crying. The thought of the darkness in the basement makes my hair stand on end. I run away and start weaving in and out of the water tanks. A school guard comes after me and grabs my collar.
“Stupid kid,” he says, “Be quiet or they’ll squeeze pencils between your fingers.”
I bite his hand and kick him in the ankle. The older girls, teacher’s pets, grab me by the shoulders and drag me down the stairs kicking and screaming. They have the key to the dungeon. They open the door and shove me in. They give me a nice little kick in the pants and lock the door. I’m afraid so I start yelling. There’s another girl like me in the prison. She laughs at me. She has a flashlight and shines it in my face. Her face is obscured by darkness. She’s not afraid of the basement spiders and cockroaches. How did she get hold of that flashlight, and how’d she keep it hidden away from the prying eyes of Mrs. Nazem? I take a step closer. Her mouth is full of food too. She bites off a chunk of lavash bread and gives me half. I sit down beside her and my fear melts away. My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness and I see her face by the light of the flashlight. She has short hair and looks like a boy. I tell myself, “This girl — with her eyes gleaming like a cat’s in the dark and her lack of fear of the basement creatures –will be my best friend.” Together, right there, we make a sisterly pact and divvy up our candies. We talk and laugh, and I’m glad we’ve been imprisoned together and don’t have to go to class. Mrs. Nazem doesn’t know I’m the happiest student in the school, and my heart pounds with happiness like a person in love. Right before classes let out, we’re released. I take my little friend’s hand and my fear of school and lessons slips away.
Doctor Khanum mostly asks me about my romantic experiences.
I think of my little friend, of that eternal pact we made. My liar of a friend. My heart, after all these years, is overwhelmed by love and the tears flow easily.
I don’t remember. When, where? Dozens of images, like overlapping photographs, flash before my eyes: boys of the Mahmudiyeh district, bus drivers, father’s old bald friends, filmmakers, strange people passing by in the alleyway, imaginary beings, writers whose pictures are in the newspaper. Every day of the week I am in love and God knows with who. It makes no difference. Mr. Saqi, Baqi, Hesami? I’ve forgotten his name. Whoever he is, he’s one of uncle’s friends. When we have guests, they let him know so he can sing and play santur. He looks like a dead man. His hair has fallen out and there are dark circles beneath his eyes. His complexion is yellow. Yellow like turmeric. He’s like the consumptive protagonist of the last novel I read. When I look at him I blush and my heart pounds. I watch him from afar and sigh. I’m sure he’ll die soon and it brings tears to my eyes. He’s an opium addict. He stuffs it in his cheek and chews it like candy (I know, I heard it from the grown-ups). When he performs, he sweats profusely from his forehead and the smell of his body pervades the room. Mother holds her nose and frowns while I watch from the door, not allowed to enter. I tell myself that this sorrowful singer, this opium-addict musician will be the love of my life. Later, I hear that he’s hanged himself in the corner of the room. I pity him and wipe clean the last memory of him from my mind.
Doctor Khanum insists that I eat with the other patients in the lunchroom, that I socialize and chat, that I look and understand who and where I am. I must distance myself from the past and return to the present. I must recognize my current self and solidify this real existence in tomorrow and the future. But I can’t. I’m terrified of the future and “today” is empty, suspended in time, unconnected to any physical place. Only the past is real, and it draws me in and shelters me like Mother’s flowery skirt.
The lunchroom is huge and blinding. Glaring lamps, hanging from the ceiling, intensify the bitter wrinkles on peoples’ faces. It’s like an interrogation room, or a torture chamber. Or at least it seems that way to me. I don’t trust my own perception and I know the outside world isn’t really how I see it.
Silent, stunned ghosts are sitting around the lunch table. They all stare right at me. One of them stands up and offers me his spoon. Several others follow suit. A bunch of hands with spoons, forks, and plates are stretched out towards me.
A nurse rushes to help me and takes hold of my arms. It’s like I’m a retarded creature they have to teach how to sit and to eat all over again. I sit down on the bench, ready to run. A man is sitting next me, eyes glued to his plate of food. He’s in a stupor, his mind clearly elsewhere.
The nurse claps her hands together. “Attention everyone!” she calls. “I have good news for all of you. Sunday we’re having a celebration.”
Everyone but me claps and cheers. They clink their spoons on their glasses and laugh.
On holidays, we usually have a small celebration, either in the garden or in the inner hall. Once in a while, a musician who used to be a patient here comes to see his old friends and plays piano or violin for them. His visits are a source of hope. He gives people heart. Before the celebration starts, I make it clear to the nurses that I’m not participating in the festivities. It’s impossible. Doctor Khanum, who recognizes I’m in a bad mood, tells them to leave me be.
Today’s celebration is in the garden. I watch from the window. It’s a party of spirits, wandering, vagrant spirits that twirl around one another remembering old loves and hopes that have gone with the wind. Two women grab onto each others’ waists and stumble around. Their eyes are closed, their heads nod to the beat of the music, and they smile from time to time. It’s like they’re asleep, having a pleasant dream. A young man — the one who’d always talk to himself and make faces at me — is mingling amongst the people talking quickly. He says he is a poet and has published two books.
Some nights we go to Cafe Naderi and Aunt Azar dances with her husband. They both go to European-style dance classes and dance so well that people clap for them. Mother’s cousins, Nirvana and Minerva, are playing accordion and piano, and everyone has to dance. Mother is embarrassed. She doesn’t know how to dance so she steps aside.
Yazdan, Minerva’s son, is crazy. He climbs the walls. Ten times now he’s either broken his hand, leg, or split open his head. He has a slingshot and is a master at killing sparrows. His parents tie him to a chair with rope whenever they leave so he doesn’t hurt himself or burn the house down. When they come to our house, they tie him to a tree. Sometimes he gets hungry or thirsty and starts screaming. Nirvana dangles an ear of corn in front of him and he bites at it. Mother thinks it’s cruel, so she tells them to untie him. But the boy, now free, runs like an arrow loosed from a bow; he jumps, crashing into the samovar and knocking it over. He swipes the dishes and plates of fruit off the table and they smash onto the ground. Mother screams and grabs him. She reties him to the tree with the rope. Tighter this time.
Father doesn’t have the patience for these kinds of parties. He stays in his room and works. Every time I peek in at him from the door, I see him busy writing. I love his work room. It’s full of books and newspapers and his desk is as big as my bed. I wrote my first story at that desk. How old was I? I was so small that with a little effort, my head just barely reached the edge of desk. I know that Father is a writer and I shouldn’t bother him. Slowly, without a sound, I walk into the room and stand behind him. I crane my neck to see. His pen glides over the white paper. His head nods back and forth and his tongue is always licking his lower lip. Tiny black creatures pour out of his pen, like a thousand little ants crawling onto the page. He knows I’m next to him and he calls me over. I ask him to write something for me. He dips his pen in the inkwell and says, “Look, this is your name.” He dips his pen in again and puts the paper under my nose saying: “This is a cream puff.”
A cream puff! My stomach starts growling and my resolve weakens. He dips his pen in the inkwell a couple of more times and draws me a picture of a butterfly, a ball, and a cucumber. Whatever’s in that inkwell is magical. It’s full of food and toys. There are cream puffs in there too. It’s filled with stories that Father explains words I’d love to invent. In the afternoon, when Father is asleep, I sneak up to the desk. I can’t find his pen, so I stick my finger in the inkwell and rub it on the paper. The smell of ink swirls in my head and I swoon. I rub my ink-stained hands on my clothes and put my fingers in the inkwell one by one . I bump it and knock it over. My hands, head, face and clothes are all covered with ink stains. How wonderful! If they leave me alone in the house, I’m going to draw all over the white walls too. I want to have a hundred inkwells and a hundred pens and a hundred fingers and a room full of white paper. I’m just like Father. I’m a writer. I want to write a story to show everyone, when a hand grabs my collar and I hear my mother’s angry voice: “Filthy girl, look what you’ve done to your clothes!”
They put me in a hot shower and wash my clothes. I scream and try to get back to my story. A story the water has stolen. Maybe this is why I write and am never satisfied. It’s as though, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m searching for that same first story, that one good, perfect story.
Doctor Khanum knows about my love of writing. She brings me a bunch of white paper and a few sharp-tipped pencils. I sit at the desk bewildered. What do I write? How? Where do I start? I squeeze a pencil between my fingers and chew the eraser on the end. I press the white sheet of paper to my face and lick its sharp edge. My heart beats fast. I close my eyes and stay like that for a long time.
Doctor Khanum comes to help me. “Miss Writer,” she tells me, “Write down your dreams. You’re always talking about the past — you should write down your memories.”
I write. I cross out. I’m looking for a word. My thoughts are disordered and my sentences jumbled. I’m like a lazy, struggling student who’s forgotten all his spelling and grammar. My room is now full of crumpled pieces of paper and I’ve sharpened my pencils ten times. I split the erasers into little pieces with my teeth, chew them and eat them. I write and I cross out. Memories, colorless and scattered, swarm into my mind, spin and disappear like swirling eddies on the water.
Some days, despondent, I pull back from writing and once again wallow in a great nothingness. I can’t get up in the mornings and I sleep all day. But the desire to write gnaws at me on the inside. Words won’t leave me alone. They come after me in dreams, like an army of ants, crawling on my lips and eyelids. For several weeks I go silent, but then I bring out the paper again. My mental turmoil has lessened and I’m starting to get better. I can stroll alone in the garden and read one or two pages of the morning paper. Writing a few short sentences or explaining a simple incident gives me fresh strength. A romantic impulse has taken over my heart, and after a while a sweet and playful feeling tempts me.
“If I can write I’ll get better,” I tell myself. And I want to get better. I won’t allow myself to be this way, feeble and ill. I know this stranger who has taken up residence in my soul is a strange and unwanted guest and her presence is only temporary.
I write down everything that passes through my head. It doesn’t matter if it’s garbled and scrambled. It doesn’t matter if it’s out of order. This is just the beginning. My mental health depends on writing my thoughts, feelings, and memories. I must weave a sturdy rope of words, letters, and dots to come out of this dark well, this well of sleep and silence. Words, like moons freed from Earth’s gravity, float in space and revolve around me. Whenever one comes close, I snatch it and stick it on the page. I have invented a mysterious, symbolic language, like an ancient inscription whose meaning must be deciphered.
Doctor Khanum believes in my work and encourages me. The nurses have left me alone. They permit me to stroll amongst words, to stroke their heads and ears, to embrace them, to love them, or the opposite: to beat them, to rip them to shreds, to tie their hands and feet together with rope. With the colorful threads of words I weave a flying carpet and travel to the most distant lands of my past, to my first memories. We’re in Uncle Sarhang’s car. Mother and Uncle’s wife are sitting in the front and I’m standing in the back. There’s a lot of space between my head and the roof of the car. Mother and Uncle’s wife are wearing dresses with puffy sleeves, like they’ve stuffed bags into them. Whatever it is, it blocks my view. We’re headed down a dark street with no lights. It’s strangely deserted. Mother is afraid of this street.
“We shouldn’t have come this way,” she says. “Karaj River is a place for vandals and thugs.”
Uncle’s wife heard that two people were killed on this street. Uncle laughs at this kind of talk. He’s a military officer and thugs respect him. I’ve seen his sword. It’s hanging on his wall in his room. His shoulder is covered with metal stars and gold stripes. The stars wink like they’re making faces. They annoy me. They sit on Uncle’s shoulder and show off for me. Stupid phony stars. I pinch one between my fingers but it won’t come off. Uncle brushes my hand away with a shrug of the shoulder.
“Hey kid, what’re you doing? Sit back down,” he says.
“Don’t play with the lighter,” says Mother.
I play with it. I press down on the lighter and a minute later, a flame jumps out. It’s hot and red. The stars on Uncle’s shoulder are looking at me. Like they’re afraid. I hold the flame up to Uncle’s shoulder, right between two stars. Something makes a noise and it goes out. A delicate smoke streams out. I know I’m doing the worst thing in the world. I wish someone would grab my hand and say, “Don’t.”
Uncle smells it. Sniff, sniff. Mother whirls around and looks at me. She looks like a wolf. Uncle’s wife turns to look too, mouth agape. Her boar tusks have grown. My scream is louder than Mother’s and Uncle’s. My head goes dark, like a lamp suddenly extinguished. I pass out.
The first stories I write are just sketched-out, incomplete outlines. But ever so slowly, like budding plants, they scale the walls of my mind and fill every nook and cranny of my brain. Every time I rewrite a story, it gets better and more complete, and I take a step forward. I have found a reason to get out of bed in the depressing vacuum of morning. A little lamp grows slowly brighter.
Doctor Khanum takes the appearance of the lamp as a good omen and tells me something good is about to happen to me. I have found Aladdin’s magic lamp and I want it to help me write again.
In less than a month, I’ve written four stories. Most times, I stay up late into the night and see a familiar face that’s come to visit me from the depths of my distant memories. Sometimes it’s so real and alive I feel the touch of fingertips on my face. Last night, Aziz Agha, the driver of the Shemiran bus, came to visit me in the form of an imaginary ghost. He looked at me and let me know with his tired, puffy eyes that he hadn’t forgotten me, that the pact we made still stood. After each memory, another appears. Mr. Ghazni, the English teacher, Ms. Giti, the bad neighbor’s wife, uncles, happy and healthy people, sad and broken people — they all come to me in memories so they can take up their rightful place in my writings.
I close my eyes and see the Shemiran bus pulling up from far away. The driver flashes his lights for me and my heart leaps.
“I will get on no bus except Aziz Agha’s,” I tell myself.
Doctor Khanum brings the last medicine of the night for me. I want to read her the sequel to a story I’ve written. She turns off the lights and says, “Save the rest of it for later. For tomorrow.”