Everyone has experienced Blue Car Syndrome before in some form or another. You buy a blue car, now you can’t stop seeing them. I’ve taken that one step farther and described what I call ‘Linguistic Blue Car Syndrome,’ where, as a language learner, you learn a word or phrase, and suddenly can’t stop hearing it. You hear it so much you start to wonder how you ever got along without that word before.
Well, this time I think I may have experienced something else – Literary Blue Car Syndrome.
As part of the UT Austin Persian Online class this spring, we spent one week looking at the work of short-story superstar Moniro Ravanipour. The instructor asked if we had any preferences for one of Ravanipour’s stories. I dimly recalled an unpublished story I had heard read aloud on the now-defunct (but wonderful) Radio College Park Persian-language podcast. This, mind you, was at least 8 years ago. I had listened to it time and again walking around Hyde Park in Chicago, but only understood enough Persian to get the basic point. I wanted to suggest it for the class – the story was powerful enough that I still remembered it after that long – but unfortunately without knowing the title, all leads went cold.
Then, by some cosmic coincidence, the instructor picked that exact story, “Tehran, 2006,” for our class with zero prompting from me. It is not as though this is a famous story of Ravanipour’s. Her fame rests mainly on her short story collections and novels published in the 1980s and 90s. Moreover, Ravanipur is a very prolific writer. She claims to have thousands of unpublished pages of work as well. It is not as though there were only 15 stories to choose from.
So, the extreme coincidence by which this story was brought to my attention again, and my own personal connection to it in the past, has convinced me it is a worthy object for translation on this blog. The story is 9 pages in sum, a bit too long for a blog post I’m afraid, so I’ve decided to excerpt it and summarize the missing pieces. I think this will be a nice compromise so that the reader can still get an idea of this moving story. The audio from 2008 (!) can be found here for Persian speakers.
This story, written in second person from the point of view an older woman who calls herself ‘Barrel’ as a joke, relates the narrator’s visit back to Iran after many years in exile. It highlights the contrasts and continuities between her experiences as a young woman during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and as a middle-aged woman revisiting the city of her youth. And so, to the opening:
Is this the same street? The same street that was called Mosaddegh? And these shops, with their decorated window displays and red linoleum, are they the same shops that you passed by every morning with a bunch of flyers in hand to put one up, fast as lightning, next to each closed door?
Was this the same place you yelled, “Bakhtiar, henchman you are!”or was it beside this corner store where you heard people shouting as they came down the hill, “Down with the Shah! No nation of the Shah’s!”? You still haven’t forgotten this corner. Look, see? Fists in the air, mouths open, they stomp their feet and come: “Banisadr, all the way!” Stunned, you watched as the wave passed by.
Wave after wave has passed and now you are standing here, in front of this huge store’s window display. Look, without fear or terror. On this street, nobody, nobody knows you anymore.
After exploring her old stomping grounds, entering a few shops and pretending to be an interested buyer, the narrator leaves Mosaddegh street and walks to a nearby park. A young man starts harassing her:
The man is still motioning to your clothes, your handbag, and your body, nodding his head with pleasure. You smile, and surely you’re blushing which is why your face feels so flushed. You turn your head. A woman is sitting on the nearest bench — a beautiful, well-dressed woman who is smiling at you. At you or at your predicament?
“I have no idea what this guy is saying!” she says.
You hide your pleasure at these words of hers. You sit down on the bench. The woman has a pure and lovely smile.
“Be careful, ma’am, these guys are gangsters.”
A pink silk veil frames her attractive face. She nods her head gravely.
After threatening to call the police, the man finally leaves, much to the narrator’s relief. The narrator wants to light up a cigarette, but nobody has a lighter. She heads to the other end of the park to buy one.
There’s a stand at the end of the park, right in front of you. You have to go about 100 meters with these slow, tired steps.
Right there in front of the stand, in the middle of all the men customers, you light up your cigarette, ignoring the stares. Slowly but surely you continue on until you reach the woman who is sitting calmly on a bench and looking at you with her sweet smile.
You sit down, take a deep drag, finishing off your cigarette and go to light another. Irritated with the air and all the noise, you say, “How much it’s all changed!”
“Change happens every second,” the woman replies.
“Those days the streets were lined with bushes and trees.”
“No trees left now,” she says. “Just cement, cars and mobsters as far as the eye can see.”
You look at the street choked with cars. Back then people crowded the streets. ِYou say to yourself, you’re no barrel, you’re a ladder, a ladder that loads of people climb up to get to a large, chic shop, to a sturdy, round chair, to a well-stocked bank account.
“Do you always smoke this much?” she asks.
“Only when I’m thinking about the past.”
The women talk about their differing memories of the city. The younger woman tells the narrator about how she grew up during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). She moves on to more recent memories:
The woman’s voice is calm and pleasing, and you listen to the stories she has about the city. To stories about women who were robbed, to the fates of children who were kidnapped, to the stories of young people addicted to drugs…
You’re thirsty, so very thirsty. You want to jump in a pool of ice water and splash around until this merciless heat will leave you alone. You get up, your hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“I’m really thirsty. Do you want anything?”
The woman, with her lovely high cheek bones, raises her head. “Nothing for me, thanks, I–”
You silence her with a squeeze of your hand and set out. Little by little, the woman’s smile begins to replace the noise and the cars. You think to yourself, “See, Barrel, the world’s not so bad after all. You can still sit next to someone and chat. You can still enjoy sipping your drink and looking into someone’s smiling eyes.”
The narrator returns with drinks for both of them and they chat some more. They decide to meet in a restaurant later for dinner and exchange phone numbers.
You exchange numbers, entering her home and mobile number into your cell phone. You should celebrate, celebrate the beginning of a friendship. You’ll start with two cold drinks, then half an hour later when the weather cools off, you’ll head to a restaurant and finally to the woman’s house.
You’re waiting in front of the stand. Five minutes pass until it’s your turn. You get two cold drinks and turn back. You’re walking quickly but even from far away you see that nobody’s on the bench. You come closer, two drinks in hand, and sit down, waiting. You crane your neck, look around — there’s nobody, nobody at all. You open your purse to pull out your phone and call the woman.
Your phone’s gone.
Your money’s gone.
Your ID’s gone.
You’ve been robbed.
Translated by Michelle Quay.