“We need a bride, we need a bride,” shouted my best friend’s mother from the living room. She paused after receiving no answer and fixed her eyes on me. I Iooked at my best friend who was standing next to a big blue Coleman cooler in the kitchen. With a sympathetic look she said “you don’t have to it.”
But I wanted to. I raised my hand and walked to Maryam’s mother. Her face brightened and a wide smile displayed her white artificial teeth. She grabbed my arm and said “come azizam.” We made our way through a sea of women sitting crossed legged on the floor. She was overjoyed, but I was slightly embarrassment or maybe it was just the usual Iranian shyness I was taught to carry with me as any proper khanoom–lady would.
She sat me down on the only chair in the room where I was about to share a chair with Agha for a brief moment of my performance.
It was a hot summer afternoon and I was in a Mouloodi, a female-only religious gathering in birthday celebration of Mahdi, the twelfth absent Imam of the Shias.
Agha, a female religious singer who depending on the occasion sings sad or happy religious songs sits in a chair while a crowd of women circle her on the floor. If the occasion is a joyous commemoration of a Shia Imam, she would sing joyful praising songs while the audience clap or sing along. On the other hand, if the occasion is a sad one–often anniversary of a martyrdom, she would sing mournful devastating songs while the audience would cry and beat their chests.
When I sat next to her she was about to sing a sad song which would lead to happy ending to further emphasize the exultation of Mahdi’s birthday.
When Agha moved to the side to make space for me, Maryam’s mother whispered in her ear that I am a “dam e bakht.” A very common Persian expression for young single women, which literarily means close to happiness or fortune, is used to refer to some one who has reached the age of marriage and often unfortunately suffers from lack of any suitors.
Agha nodded and pointed to the chair. “Sit, sit my child! may Fatemeh herself grant you a happy marriage.” Then she hurried to give me directions. “Just when I elbow you, collapse and stay dead on the floor till I kick you with my foot.”
I, always an-actress-wanna-be who never missed a chance to perform or entertain a crowd, agreed to the plot and patiently awaited my signals.
She began reading from a white warn out notebook: a story written in poetry about the Quraishi tribe who harassed prophet’s family by inviting his daughter, Fatimah to a wedding while she was mourning the death of her father. As she sang with a fake tearful voice, faces of the audience turned sour. Some even wiped their wet eyes or made some sniffling sound. She sang about the pain of Fatimah after seeing the joyous guests dancing in their colorful clothes to the loathsome music.
Then she raised her voice and sang that the bride lifted her veil and saw the face of Fatimah. “Her beauty so stunning,” she elbowed me “blinded her and killed the bride on the spot”
I moaned, threw my arms in the air and fell off the chair.
Underneath the light pink floral chador I was wearing as a bridal veil, I saw that the mournful crowd could not help laughing from the feminine sound of dying I made.
Agha raised her voice even higher to bring the crowd back to her story. She went on for two more minutes singing about the cheerful crowd whose wedding had just turned into a funeral.
Then came the kick. I slowly got up, gracefully lifted the veil, and paced the room with my astonished eyes as if I was an alien in disbelief of what I was witnessing; a miracle, another birth granted by the daughter of the Prophet.
The crowd cheered and uncovered their heads (Part of the Agha’s plot who had ordered the crowd to cover up as a symbol of honoring the harassed Fatimah.) Younger women in their heavy make-ups and revealing clothes clapped or whistled. Older women said Maashallah!
Agha raised her voice again and waved her hand in the air to get the attention of the women away from my brilliant performance and to the final part of her song.
The crowed calmed down and listened as she sang about the immense generosity of the Masooms or the fourteen infallible Shia figures.
When she finished, she announced to the crowd that I am single and for the sake of the amazing performance I gave for Fatimah they should pray for me to find a good husband.
Like a champion who makes her way back to the locker room, I walked out, thanking, smiling and nodding to the women on my way.
I stopped in front of Maryam’s cousin, a PhD student, fluent in two different languages, smart and beautiful, to ask her opinion about my performance. She could not stop laughing.
I went back to the kitchen where my friend, Maryam was filling up glasses of homemade lemonade to feed the thirsty crowd nearly toasted inside the living room. Even though the cooler was running on high speed, the crowded room was simply hot.
Some women had brought paper fans and were escaping the heat that way. Others were frantically fanning themselves with their hands or their head scarfs.
“I am so sorry,” Maryam said in a genuine tone. “I can’t believe how my mother could humiliate you like that.”
Maryam is different from her mother. There is a wide gap between their generations. She is a college educated woman with liberal views on religion and marriage. That day she was hiding in the kitchen to serve her mother’s guests as an act of respect. To her, the superstitious behavior her mother is so fond of is meaningless.
“Don’t be azizam,” I told her and added that “I did it for laughter any ways.”
Yet, Maryam didn’t look convinced. She looked down on the lemonade glasses and repeated to herself. “She actually told her that you need a husband.”
“How do you expect a 60 year old woman who has spent all her life marrying girls off, to stop her practices?” I wanted to tell her but I knew she was aware of it. Both of us knew we were pretending to believe in power of Moloodi, Fatimah or the karma of being a part of a good deed–for her to serve lemonade and for me to perform. We both were aware of the distance between ours and our mothers’ generations.
Maryam married despite her mother’s consent to a non-religious, liberal man. She chose to live in the capital with him instead of living in a small province. I left my conventional lifestyle and set off for an independent life in the west. But why were we serving the wishes of the generation before us? Could it be that we regretted defying the wishes of our elders? or we were there to just make fun of the women we considered naive? Was this our way of fighting back the traditions?
At the end of the day, I stood by the door next to Maryam who was holding a basket of mini sandwiches. The original Mouloodi gatherings I had gone to as a child served a blessed token often bread and goat cheese with fresh basil and mint. But things have changed. Sausage sandwiches have replaced the old fashioned bread and cheese now.
Modernization in the heart of tradition!
As Maryam handed the sausages inside French rolls, wrapped in floral tin foils, tied with colorful and curled ribbons, I watched the women leave the house. The smell of burned Esfand seeds–to get rid of any evil eye that may have been cast on the house or on the guests–bid them farewell.
Women who had heavy Isfahani accents and wore cheap clothes were from the lower class. They thanked the host they didn’t know and had landed in her house just through the word of mouth often heard at the mosque.
The upper-class guests wore flashy clothes with lots of sequences and had kilos of gold hanging from their necks. They sat at the far end of the room and since they were the relatives of the host they were granted a part of the room where they could sit on the floor leaning against the wall.
I watched how the poor and the rich left together and took the sausage sandwiches with them. They prayed for the wishes of the host to come true and asked the host to pray for them in return.
Maryam and I knew that our mothers have been living lives of superstitious and tradition, but the beauty of our relationship has been in our coexistence.
The reality of the Mouloodi that day was that from the heart of tradition, we have come to think differently: Adamant but not insurgent!
Like other Iranian women we have learned to dance around the cliches, regulations and limitations posed on us. From time to time, the educated generation of Iranian women might play the role of Quraishi bride or participate in an occasional Mouloodi, but they do no longer await granting of happiness through prayers or husbands.
Later, in the US, someone scuffed at the idea that I attended a Mouloodi in Iran. She thought that a Western educated woman should have known better to avoid “ignorance.” But I believe that the presence of women like Maryam, her cousin or even mine was a proof that tradition and modernity are coexisting in Iran. Soon, however, one will overshadow the other. Which one, I worry sometimes, but that is up to Iranian society to chose.