In Isfahan, the back of the bus is for women. On a hot summer day in 2010, I stepped into a wave of heat rising from the plastic seats and the metal body of the bus that had been moving in the sun all day. I uttered a vague sound in exhaustion and approached the first available seat. When I grabbed the hot metal pole to balance my swing into the seat, my eyes landed on a woman sitting by the window behind me. Her forehead against the heated window, she was quietly sobbing. When she saw me, she grabbed a corner of her black Chador and wiped her tears. I moved a way from the seat I had chosen and sat in front of her.
The idling bus was waiting to be filled up with passengers, but most of the seats were already taken. Other women were quietly watching her cry, but the seats around her were empty. I reached into my purse and took out a tissue and handed it to her. I put my other hand on her knee and gently caressed it. Her Chador was warm from the direct sunlight, but it had made the coarse, heavy fabric feel soft. I felt her bony knee. A sudden fear that I’m making her feel uncomfortable took over me and I abruptly lifted my hand. It surprised me that I felt that way, a mere American reaction. In Iran, touching people to comfort them, greet them or even joke with them never has the connotations it might have in American culture.
What’s wrong, I asked. Are you alright?
“Hicchi” she said, shaking her head in refusal. Tears still dropping from her eyes, she repeated “nothing” again.
She played with the tissue and wiped her eyes. Her beauty that was crushed under what seemed to be early aging stunned me. Her bright honey colored eyes enveloped with wrinkled eyelids and dark circles were wet with tears, but shined innocently. The bus was filled with rows of women and young girls standing above me; All staring at us. More eyes were fixed on me; Looks of why-do-you-even-care that I’ve been getting a lot since I have arrived in the Spring. Other looks were more of “fozoolooli“–a great Farsi word that roughly translates as meddling–I didn’t know what else to say to her, so I looked away.
I could feel the weight of their looks on me from the corner of my eye. Since I moved back home after seven years of living in America, I have been puzzled to find out people are not concerned for one another well-being anymore. When I was growing up in Iran, if a woman was crying on the bus, almost the entire women’s section would ask questions or try to find a solution if not just comfort the troubled person. But now, I only saw curious eyes and heard silence.
I thought she looked Afghani, so I wanted to tell her I too am in exile if it would make her feel better. I wondered if she’s lost someone, so I should have said I too recently lost my mother. She looked poor. Why didn’t I offer her any money? Do you miss anyone? I could have asked and if she had said yes, I had plenty of people both in Iran and in America that I miss all the time. Could she be in pain? I could foolishly give her my father’s office address. If I had not looked away, would she have told me what was wrong? Did I act “American?” I should have been nosy and persistent like most Iranians and made her say it, but I “respected her privacy” American style!
Now, I want to say she was one of the many Iranian women facing domestic violence, poverty, unemployment, or even disease and loss, but it bothers me to package every crying woman I encounter in Iran into a whole “troubled” mass. I don’t want to be the “foreigner” who pass judgements on the “subjects” of her studies. Maybe she was just having a bad day and she’ll go home to her wonderful husband who sees into her worries and makes them go away. Maybe it really was not any of my business.
When I got off the bus she looked me in the eyes and said “merci.” she lifted the–now–wet and crumbled tissue, pointed to it with her head and said “”Thank you very much.” she was smiling.