Women Without Men: A Novellaby Shahrnush Parsipur
Five women set out to escape the oppressive restrictions of family and social life in contemporary Iran. A prostitute, a wealthy, middle-aged housewife, two desperate maids, and a woman
Women Without Men is a novella of interwoven stories. Through an intricate, multivoice narrative, Shahrnush Parsipur portrays women and gender relations in a challenging subtext.
Five women set out to escape the oppressive restrictions of family and social life in contemporary Iran. A prostitute, a wealthy, middle-aged housewife, two desperate maids, and a woman whose career ended after her boss asked her out share a common quest for independence that may be fulfilled in a garden villa. Through murder, suicide, and even rape, as well as love, contemplation, and spiritual transformation, these women escape the narrow confines of family and society, only to face new challenges.
Parsipur's wry and sensitive narrative portrays each woman's struggle to articulate her needs and desires. She combines the Persian, Islamic, and mystical significance of the garden with the complex, evolving heritage of women's literature.
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The deep green garden, its walls plastered with mud and hay, faced the river, with the village behind it. The side by the river had no wall; the river was the border. It was a garden of sour and sweet cherries. In the garden was a house, half village house, half city house, with three rooms and a pool in front that was full of scum and frogs. The area around the pool was paved with pebbles, with a few willows nearby. In the afternoon, the light green reflection of the willows was in a silent battle with the dark green of the pool. This always troubled Mahdokht, for she could not tolerate any conflict. She was a simple woman, and wished that everyone could get along, even the myriad greens of the world.
"Such a tranquil color, but still ...," she thought.
A long bench sat under one of the trees at the edge of the pool. Because of the slime, there was always the possibility that it would slide and fall completely into the pool. On this bench Mahdokht would sit and watch the conflicts among the water and the willow's reflection, and the blue of the sky, which in the afternoon more than at any other time imposed itself on this gathering of shades of green, and which seemed to Mahdokht to be the divine judge between them.
In the winter, Mahdokht knit or thought about studying French or taking a trip, because in the winter one could breathe the clear, chill air, whereas in the summer, everything seemed to be finished. For summer was full of smoke and swirling clouds of dust from passing cars and pedestrians, and thesadness of windows in the burning sun.
"Damn these people, why don't they understand that the windows can't cure the pain of this country," she thought.
She had been forced to accept her older brother Hoshang's invitation to come to the garden and endure the noise of the children, who shouted and ate cherries all day, and then had the runs and ate yoghurt all night.
"The yoghurt is from the village."
"Yes, it's excellent."
The children were always cold and pale, even though they ate more than they needed, so that they could sprout up, as their mother would say.
Before, when she was a teacher, Mr. Ehteshami would say, "Miss Parhani, please put this notebook over there ... Miss Parhani, ring the bell ... Miss Parhani, say something to this Soghra, I have no idea what she wants ..." Mr. Ehteshami liked for her to be the disciplinarian. It wasn't so bad. But one day Mr. Ehteshami said, "Miss Parhani, would you like to go to the movies with me tonight? There's a good movie showing."
Mahdokht turned pale. She did not know how to respond to this insult. What was this guy thinking? Who did he think she was? What did he really want? Now she understood why the other female teachers would stop smiling when Mr. Ehteshami spoke to her. They were assuming something, but they were wrong to think anything. Now she would show them all who she was. Mahdokht didn't go to school. The following year, when she heard that Mr. Ehteshami had married Miss Ata'i, the history teacher, she felt her heart contract.
"The problem is that dear father has left a lot of money."
That's the way it was. The following year, she spent the whole winter knitting. She knitted for Hoshang's first two children, who had just begun to walk. Ten years later, she was knitting for five children. "It's not clear why they have so many kids."
Hoshang would say, "It's out of my control. I like children, what can I do."
"Well, what can he do, really," she thought.
She had recently seen a movie with Julie Andrews. Her fiancé was an Austrian with seven children that he sent running this way and that with his whistle. In the end he married Julie. Of course, at first, Julie was going to go home and become a nun, but then she decided to marry the Austrian, since she was carrying his eighth child. That seemed like the best thing to do, especially because the Germans were coming and everything was happening fast.
"I am just like Julie," she thought.
She was right. She was like Julie. If she saw an ant with a broken leg, she would cry her eyes out. She had fed the starving stray dogs four times, and had given her new overcoat to the school custodian. When she was a teacher, she had participated in a charitable program by bringing several kilos of sweets to an orphanage.
"Such nice children," she thought.
She wouldn't have minded having some of them as her own. What was wrong with that? They would always have clean clothes to wear, and the snot would not run down their faces, and they would never pronounce the word "toilet" in such a crude way.
"What would become of them?"
Her question was a hard one. The government would sometimes announce on the radio or on television that something must be done about the orphans.
Both the government and Mahdokht were worried about the children. If only Mahdokht had a thousand hands and could knit five hundred sweaters a week. Every two hands could knit one sweater, so that would make five hundred sweaters.
But a person cannot have a thousand hands, especially Mahdokht, who liked the winter and liked to go for walks in the afternoon. Besides, it would take at least five hours just to put a thousand gloves on.
"No, with five hundred of my hands I could put gloves on the other five hundred. Three minutes at the most."
These are not the problems. They will eventually be solved. It's the government's responsibility, they should open a factory to knit sweaters.
Mahdokht wiggled her feet in the water of the pool.
The first day that she came to the garden she went to the riverbank and stood in the water. The icy water froze her feet so that she had to step out quickly. She could have caught cold. After she put her shoes back on, she went over to the greenhouse. The door to the greenhouse was open, and the humid air inside was warmer than summer air. Years ago Mr. Ehteshami had said that breathing the humid air of the greenhouse during the day was the best thing you could do, because all the flowers produce oxygen. He said this even though at that time they had taken all the flowers from the greenhouse and put them in the garden. Mahdokht walked along the narrow aisle in the greenhouse looking at the dusty windows. She heard the sound of breathing and struggling, something burning and hot, the smell of bodies.
Mahdokht's heart stopped. The girl, Fatemeh, at fifteen like a worldly woman, was at the end of the greenhouse with Yadallah, the gardener. With his bald head and oozing eyes, it was difficult to look at him.
The world around her went dark, and her legs began to tremble. She involuntarily clutched the edge of a table. But she could not take her eyes off them. She looked and looked until they saw her. The guy had begun to whimper. He wanted to escape but he couldn't. He was mindlessly beating the girl. The girl extended her hand toward Mahdokht. Mahdokht ran out of the greenhouse. She didn't know what to do. She headed for the pool in a daze, and wanted to throw up. She washed her hands and sat on the bench.
"What can I do?"
She thought about going to Hoshang and his wife and telling all. The girl was under their supervision.
"A little girl of fifteenhow awful ..."
Hoshang would certainly give the girl a severe beating. Then they would let her go. Fatemeh's brothers would surely kill her.
"What can I do?"
She would quickly pack her bags and return to Tehran. At least that would be better than this anxiety.
"So what to do?"
She was paralyzed, but she felt compelled to return fearfully to the greenhouse. The girl stumbled out with her chador on inside out. Her face was red and scratched.
"Madam," she said, throwing herself at Mahdokht's feet.
"She is whimpering like a dog," Mahdokht thought.
"Go away, you filthy thing."
"No, madam, in the name of God, may I die for you. May I be your sacrifice."
"Shut up, step aside."
"In the name of God, may I be your sacrifice. If you tell my mother she'll kill me."
"Who said I wanted to tell?"
"By God, he wants to marry me. Tomorrow he's supposed to tell the master."
Mahdokht had to promise not to tell just to get the girl to leave her alone. When the girl's hands touched Mahdokht's feet, she felt disgusted. The girl walked back to the greenhouse, crestfallen. Mahdokht drew a deep breath. She felt an urge to cry.
Now three months had passed and the summer would be over in a few days. That day they would all go back to the city and no one would ever find out why Yadallah the gardener left so abruptly. Hoshang said, "It's strange, he himself said a hundred times that he wouldn't leave."
They had to hire another caretaker for the garden so that it wouldn't be vandalized during the winter. Without a caretaker, anyone could put four benches by the river and rent them out for thirty tomans a clay to groups of men who wanted to hang out. Hoshang said this and everyone believed him.
The sound of Fatemeh's shrill laughter came from the end of the garden. She had taken the children out to play, and God only knew what kind of games she was teaching them. Mahdokht paced back and forth in her room, beating the door and walls with her fists. She was worried about the children.
"I hope she's pregnant so that they kill her," she thought.
It would be good if she were pregnant. All her brothers would descend on her and beat her to death. How good that would be. Then the children would not be corrupted.
"My virginity is like a tree," she thought suddenly.
She had to look in a mirror. She had to see her face.
"Maybe that's why I am green."
Her face was yellowish green. There were shadows under her eyes and the veins showed on her forehead.
Mr. Ehteshami had said, "How cold you are, like ice."
Now she thought, "Not like ice. I am a tree."
She could plant herself in the ground.
"I'm not a seed, I'm a tree. I must plant myself."
How could she tell this to Hoshang? She wanted to say, dear brother, let's sit down and have a friendly talk. As you know, the factories knit sweaters. But if she said this, she would have to explain about the thousand hands. She couldn't explain about the hands. It was impossible for Hoshang to understand this. How could she say, when thousands of factories knit sweaters, there was no need for her to knit.
Well, there was no alternative. Mahdokht decided to stay in the garden and plant herself at the beginning of winter. She had to ask the gardeners what was the best time for planting. She didn't know, but it wasn't important. She would stay and plant herself. Perhaps she would turn into a tree. She wanted to grow on the riverbank with leaves greener than the slime, and fight the battle of shades of green in the pool. If she became a tree, she would sprout new leaves. She would be covered with new leaves. She would give her new leaves to the wind, a garden full of Mahdokhts. They would have to cut down all the sour and sweet cherry trees so that Mahdokht could grow. Mahdokht would grow.
She would become thousands and thousands of branches. She would cover the entire world. Americans would buy her shoots and take them to California. They would call the forest of Mahdokht the forest of Mahdekat. Gradually they would pronounce her name so many times until it would become Maduk in some places and Maaduk in others. Then four hundred years later the linguists, with their veins standing out in their foreheads like twigs, would debate over her and prove that the two words come from the root Madeek which is of African origin. Then the biologists would object that a tree that grows in cold climates could not grow in Africa.
Mahdokht banged her head on the wall again and again until she broke into tears. Between sobs she thought that this year she would definitely take a trip to Africa. She would go to Africa so that she could grow. She wanted to be a tree in a warm climate. She wanted to, and it is always desire that drives one to madness.
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