“Amina’s Great Journey” powerfully illustrates the impossibilities and challenges of being on the margins of society, lacking resources and opportunities, yet with dreams for the future and a longing to survive.
I left Iran when I was 26 years old and arrived in the Netherlands in 1988. As a refugee, I faced countless moments of existential insecurity and fear. Thirty years later, as an established professor, I had forgotten what it means to feel these profound moments of impossibility. I had forgotten what it means to lack the means to do anything to rectify the situation. This powerful story punched me right in the face, challenging me to examine my own privilege to claim space and agency, and reminding me that our choices are less free than we dare to imagine. Our choices are always situated within the structures in which we are positioned.
There was also another level of connection I felt as I read this story. In 1989, I began my academic career in the Netherlands as a student of cultural anthropology. Now, 30 years later, as a scholar, I am swamped with texts I must both read and write in Dutch and English. This caused me to lose my connection to the literature of my mother tongue (Persian). This project gave me back the pleasure of reading a literary piece in Persian once again.
It was not that difficult for me to choose to read one of the short stories of the celebrated Iranian female writer Goli Taraghi. I chose the story “Amina’s Great Journey” because it illuminates layers of resilience and powerlessness as they are connected to themes of poverty, migration, domestic work, the suppression/agency of women and exile. The author narrates the pain of caged potentials resulting from the absolute lack of resources Amina has as a woman on the intersection of poverty, gender, and migration. The story strongly shows the contrast between dependency on her violent and abusive husband and the unsettling sense of freedom she has after her divorce. When, after a long period of uncertainty, Amina finally divorces, she is confronted with an unfamiliar self and a naked freedom which scare her. She finds herself fully responsible for her own choices, which is a rather familiar and often discussed burden of freedom. She runs, falls down, and stands up again, She is faced with walls impossible to break, feels lonely and afraid, yet is stronger than ever. “Her feet were on the ground” (free translation of page 116 of the Persian version). Reading the story made me a co-traveler on Amina’s journey.
Amina’s dream was that her daughter would become a doctor. That could only happen because there were people who respected her dream and had the connected capacity to invest in uncaging her potential. This story is about connecting worlds. Not worlds that are geographically far apart, but distant in our imaginations.
After years of researching diversity issues, I know the importance and the urgency of connecting worlds. I see time and again the lack of capacity people in positions of power (policymakers, organizations, universities) have to grasp the complexity of the lives of people on the margins of society. Without a robust investment in understanding the lifeworlds of people with limited resources, it is not possible to create new routes towards change that would touch their lives in a positive sense, allowing them to come closer to fulfilling their dreams.
 I would like to thank Mansoureh Shojaee for her advisory role in this process.
prof. dr. Halleh Ghorashi
Full Professor of Diversity and Integration / Head of the Department of Sociology
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Photo: Yvonne Compier
Amina’s Great Journey (2013)
Before the Islamic Revolution, having a foreign maid—whether Filipino, Indian, Afghani, or European—was a new phenomenon that was inconsistent with our old customs and traditions. It was a change that both pleased and perplexed us.
Amina was from southern Bangladesh. With her long black hair, white teeth, and dreamy eyes, she looked like the actresses in popular Indian movies. She knew that people’s eyes followed her and their gaze lingered on her eighteen-year-old body clad in those colorful saris—yellow or lime green chiffon with tiny gold flowers. She had been in Tehran for two years and spoke Farsi fluently. She was happy and comfortable in our house. When left alone, she either slept or dove deep into her world of fantasies. Her husband, Mr. Raja, was thirty years older than her and had another wife and two grownup sons. According to Amina, their house had eight rooms and all the carpets in the rooms belonged to the first wife. The pots and pans, curtains, and velvet cushions also belonged to the first wife, as did the skinny, dark-skinned Mr. Raja with greasy hair and dark lips.
Amina showed me a photograph of her daughter. Six or seven years old, scrawny, with disheveled hair, a thin neck, a wide mouth, and dazed eyes. Her name was Shalima. She looked like an Indian child beggar; barefoot and hungry.
Amina loved to sleep, ten-hour-long coma-like slumbers. In the morning, she always woke up dazed and disoriented, as if returning from another world. She would drag her sluggish body from room to room and it took hours for her to organize her wandering thoughts. We had to get her busy doing something tangible, such as hanging the laundry out to dry or sweeping the carpets, so that she would find herself in a real place at a real time and remember who and where she was. She had a few movie magazines filled with pictures of Indian actors and singers. She used to sit in the garden, in the shade of a tree, and stare at the pictures in utter fascination. She wouldn’t hear us if we called her and she wouldn’t notice the comings and goings around her. She was somewhere else, somewhere beyond the reach of Mr. Raja, the beggar Shalima, and us.
Amina the dreamer, barefoot and sleepy, is sitting on the lawn, in the shade of a weeping willow tree. A green rhinestone shines on the side of her nose like a crystalline mole and her young arms are laden with colorful glass bangles. She hasn’t washed the lunch dishes and she hasn’t taken down the clothes from the clothesline. Her gaze is fixed on the pictures in a magazine, photo shots of a sentimental film, a love story full of tear-jerking scenes and edifying adventures.
She has forgotten that she has to sweep the rooms and put the children to bed. She has forgotten that she is a foreign maid and on the first of every month she has to send her pay to her husband, Mr. Raja. She has even forgotten scrawny Shalima. In her fantasy world, Amina is an actress. Her picture is in the magazines. She is standing with her back to Mr. Raja and her beggar father and dark-skinned Shalima.
Whenever I unexpectedly opened the door to her room, I would see her standing in front of the mirror talking to herself. Coquetting, acting, laughing. Or I would find her sitting on the floor rubbing coconut oil in her hair and putting nail polish on her tiny fingernails and toenails. The neighbor’s servant was an Afghan man and he was friends with an Indian woman. On Amina’s days off, they would come to our house and sit in Amina’s small room. They would play music and sing and Amina would dance for them. But for Amina, there was no escape from Mr. Raja. His invisible presence weighed on her chest and his far-reaching shadow hovered over her head.
“Amina,” I said, “why don’t you keep your money for yourself?”
“Why” was one of those strange words that had no place in Amina’s world. Mr. Raja determined the whys and devised the answers.
“Missus, my husband tricked me,” she said. And she said it as though it was only natural for a husband to trick his wife. There was no anger in her voice, nor was there any surprise or regret.
“He had a wife and kids—two grown boys. I didn’t know and I hadn’t asked around. He said he was Muslim, that a Muslim man’s heart and words are pure, that he doesn’t lie, and if he does, it is only out of kindness. I was Hindu. He said I had to convert to Islam. I agreed. By the time I found out he had another wife, it was too late. He beat me. He said a wife doesn’t need to know everything. A good wife closes her eyes and ears. His first wife was fat and lazy. She lived in the rooms upstairs and I lived in a small room at the end of the courtyard. His first wife was in charge. She ordered me around and pulled my hair. My husband said, ‘Amina, you have to work and give me your pay.’ He said, ‘I’m the master. I’m everything.’ He sent me to Jeddah and I worked there for two years. My Arab boss sent my salary to my husband. Shalima was two months old. My Arab boss wanted to marry me and asked my husband to divorce me, but Mr. Raja didn’t agree. He said, ‘Amina has to work and send me her pay.’ The Arab boss wanted to get back at him and didn’t pay me for six months. He had four wives; they were all old and couldn’t stand the sight of me. They decided to do me in and constantly put poison in my food and tarantulas and scorpions in my bed. Whenever the Arab boss went on a trip, they locked me in the cellar and gave me only stale bread to eat. When the boss found out, he took pity on me. He was a good man and he was afraid his jealous wives would kill me. He gave me a gold bangle and a few dresses and sent me back to Bangladesh. My husband’s first wife took them from me. She was rich. She had a house and property, but she was stingy and wouldn’t give Mr. Raja even a rupee. She ate and slept and wallowed in sorrow because she was away from her parents. She would sit on the veranda and weep like a lost child. She didn’t like Mr. Raja. Her sons were addicts and gamblers. They used to beat her and take her jewelry. From the moment she opened her eyes in the morning until she went to bed at night, all she did was eat. Bowl after bowl of rice and curry, lamb’s meat and bread. She would eat so much that her stomach would bulge and then she’d start moaning. She was getting fatter by the day. She would sit in front of the mirror and put kohl on her eyes, paint her eyebrows black, put a mole on her face, and curl her hair. Then she’d see that she was still old and fat and she’d start screaming. She would beat herself and claw at her face and throw the mirror at the wall and break it. I was thin and young and this made her sick. She was scared that she would die before Mr. Raja and me. Her father used to visit her once a month and she would put her head on his knees and weep like a child, like Shalima.”
Amina knew that Mr. Raja had cheated and double-crossed her. She knew that he used her and took her money. She knew that he beat Shalima. But this knowledge prompted no reaction in her. Mr. Raja was the absolute master and the reality of his existence—with all his faults—was as natural as the monsoon rains and the flood that had washed away her mother and brothers. And life went on.
“Missus,” she said, “my husband heard that Iranians are rich. An Indian lady was coming to Bangladesh and recruiting maids to bring them to Iran. Mr. Raja arranged my papers and handed me over to her. I left Shalima with my father. He was happy. He said a beggar makes more money when he has a child with him. Mr. Raja’s first wife was jealous, despite all her comfort. She said, ‘You’re free and I’m captive.’ She used to get sick the minute she smelled Mr. Raja’s scent. I felt sorry for her. My husband said, ‘Amina, Tehrani men are corrupt. They don’t pray. If I find out they’ve so much as looked at you, I’ll skin you alive.’ He was lying. I’m comfortable here. I wish Shalima were here, too.”
Shalima occasionally sent two-sentence letters to her mother and signed her name and her grandfather’s name under them.
“My father isn’t one of those disreputable beggars,” Amina said. “His vocation is begging. He has a permit. After he dies, his permit will go either to me or to Shalima. His workplace is three streets and a square. Just like Mr. Engineer who has an office. My father has lice in his hair. If the lice die, Shalima will borrow some from the other beggars and she’ll put them in his hair. A beggar without lice is like a king without a crown. I’m a maid. Being a maid is worse than being a beggar. A maid lives in other people’s homes.”
“Does your father have a home?” I asked.
“Yes. A cardboard shack. Cardboard and tin. That’s what the beggars’ homes are like. But whatever it is, it’s a private home.”
As a child, Amina lived in a village. Her mother baked bread and her brothers worked in the field. In the evening, they would sit together and eat and then, with their stomachs full and their fingers greasy, they would sleep happy and satisfied. But the monsoon season came and the rain didn’t stop. The fields lay underwater. There was no rice left and nothing to eat. Her father found an unripe watermelon and divided it among the children. Her mother gave her share to Amina. Her brothers ate what was left of the weeds and tree leaves. Then came the big flood that swept away her mother and brothers, their mud-brick home, their cow, and their goat. Everything they had. Her father carried Amina in his arms and tied her to a tree. Her head was underwater and her mouth was full of mud. She knew she was dying, but she wasn’t afraid. In a way, death was like sleeping and Amina loved to sleep. Her body went numb and her brain no longer functioned. She shivered under the water and entrusted her freezing body to the law of the sea.
Amina is still underwater and she likes it. She is still unable to think and part of her mind is still numb.
“Amina, keep your money for yourself,” I said. “Save it for your daughter.”
She gaped at me. She didn’t understand. Or if she did, she found it unbelievable.
“Missus, Mr. Raja keeps my money. He buys me gold and saves it for me.”
There was no arguing with her. Her husband was the master and her father a beggar. Her mother had been swept away by a flood and Shalima had no one else. Amina was condemned to working in other people’s homes, condemned to scrubbing floors, doing laundry, and washing dishes. For the rest of her life, she had to go from one town to another and send her money to her husband. That’s the way it was. Even if she were to be born a hundred times, everything would always be the same. But perhaps something could be done for Shalima. Perhaps.
“Missus, help me bring Shalima to live with me,” she pleaded. “She won’t bother you. I will put her in school and I will pay for her food and clothes. She will sleep in my room. In a house this big, she won’t bother anyone.”
I had no objections, but we had to convince Mr. Raja. Amina wrote to him and the man replied that Shalima would stay right where she was. We wrote longer letters and explained that I wanted to increase Amina’s salary and that the master would have more money, more than little Shalima was making as a beggar. Finally, the Indian louse agreed. Of course, he let it be known that he was in complete control and that he could change his mind at any time.
Amina couldn’t believe it. She cried. She quickly stuffed the movie magazines under her mattress and with the little money she had saved she bought clothes and shoes for Shalima. And then she packed her bags and rushed off.
It was the early days of the Islamic revolution. There was chaos in the city. Arrests and imprisonments. Martial law. The Shah left. The Imam came. All foreigners had to leave the country. The Filipino, Afghan, and Indian maids quickly left. There was a shortage of gas and the price of meat soared. And amid all that turmoil, Amina and Shalima vanished from our thoughts.
Three years went by. Many people died, many fell into misery, many others stomped their feet and clapped their hands and their lives improved. I ended up in Paris, all alone with two frustrated children who climbed the walls and couldn’t understand why they were sent into exile, from that big house to this small apartment.
Hiring a French maid was impossible. They were too expensive. The Filipino maids were bad-tempered and beat the children. I decided I didn’t need anyone. I had forgotten all about Amina. But Mr. Raja hadn’t forgotten about me. He found my address and sent me a groveling letter replete with empty compliments, feigned expressions of friendship, and fake cordiality. Three pages, back and front, and written in poor English. In short: Amina is out of work, she misses you and your dear children, and she dreams of coming to Paris to kiss your hand, your mother’s hand, your late father’s hand, and the hand of your uncles and aunts and the neighbors to the left and the neighbors to the right and Mr. Mitran, and, and, and.
Amina in Paris? With her getup, those sheer Indian saris? Never.
I didn’t write back.
The second letter arrived. Again the same supplications. But this time, Mr. Raja had added that he, Amina’s sacrificing husband, would pay for the round-trip airfare, that there was nothing he wouldn’t do for the Tehrani lady, that it couldn’t be any better or easier than this, and that if by some impossible chance I were dissatisfied, which I certainly wouldn’t be, I could put Amina on a plane and send her back. And then he had written two pages saying that Amina was half-foreign, half-Western, spoke Farsi, knew me well, was trustworthy and kind, had a thousand and one merits, and, and, and.
I didn’t write back. But I hesitated. I argued with myself. I was half-convinced.
The third letter was from Amina herself. She had written in English. In fluent and correct English. She had asked someone to write it for her, but the words were hers—sweet, simple, and familiar. Her sleepy eyes and velvety voice (when she sang under the trees) and the coconut scent of her hair oozed from between the lines. Her warm body appeared before me and I was duped.
I knew Mr. Raja was plotting to take advantage of the situation and that Amina was his cash machine. Consequently, I offered a low salary. Mr. Raja haggled. He filled three pages listing Amina’s virtues and capabilities—cooking, sewing, housekeeping, carpet weaving . . . Talent simply dripped from her fingertips. Lie after lie. I knew Amina and I remembered that she was lazy and good at nothing. Her only merits were her kindness and simplicity, her beauty and her sweet laughter. I knew she was mild-mannered and wouldn’t mistreat the children. But I had to set Mr. Raja straight from the start. He was a con man and a cheat. I told myself I would open a bank account for Amina and I wouldn’t let her send a single dollar to him.
Mr. Raja asked for four hundred dollars a month.
I wrote back, “Two hundred.”
He wrote that he would settle for three hundred fifty.
I wrote, “Two hundred.” End of story.
He wouldn’t give up. He begged and pleaded, “Three hundred.”
“Two hundred.” Shut up! It’s this or nothing.
He groused and griped. He wrote that Amina was a gem, that she was worth more than a thousand dollars, that he wouldn’t send her. Fine. Goodbye. Don’t send her. The hell with you. Again, another letter. More bickering. Finally, he agreed. We wrote up a contract.
The month and day of Amina’s arrival was determined—December 17. Two in the afternoon. Air France.
The children were happy. Someone new was entering their life, someone who used to live with them, who used to sleep at the foot of their bed.
They used to constantly ask me, “Who is going to take care of us if you die?”
Now I could answer, Beautiful Amina with black eyes, luxuriant hair, and colorful clothes. In my absence, eternal absence, she will take you to Bangladesh and she will get a begging permit for you.
December 17 was a cold and rainy day. All the passengers were wearing coats and scarves, and carrying umbrellas. Everyone except half-naked Amina, who entered Paris wearing strappy sandals and an old, lime green sari. Her shirt was skintight and short-sleeved and her midriff was bare. Looking lost and shaken, she was clasping her bag to her chest and looking around for me. She wasn’t the old Amina. She seemed broken, crushed. She had lost her youthfulness. She was dragging her feet and her gaze was filled with fear and reticence. She was a stranger. I suddenly felt sad and my instincts warned me that I had been too hasty. Still, I tried not to let doubt into my heart. I waved at her. She didn’t see me. As usual, her mind was wandering and she was aimlessly following other people around.
I realized Amina was a different person in Paris. She had no razzle-dazzle. Here, she was a third-rate actress in a shoddy movie. There were many like her and they weren’t in demand. In Tehran she was somebody. She turned heads. Now, she looked like she hadn’t slept all night and Shalima’s absence was written all over her face.
“My dear Amina,” I said, “this isn’t India or Saudi Arabia. It’s bitter cold outside.” And I draped my coat over her shoulders. She didn’t have a suitcase, just an old bag filled with red pepper and other dizzyingly hot spices.
She cowered in the corner of the taxi like an orphan. Her eyes were brimming with tears and her nostrils were trembling. I took her hand and said, “Wait until we get home. The kids are waiting for you. Think about it. You’re in Paris. Few people have such good fortune.”
She said nothing. I asked about Shalima. She lifted her head and perked her ears. Shalima was in her eyes.
“I wanted to bring her with me,” she said, “but Mr. Raja wouldn’t let me. I have a two-year-old son, too. His name is Mohsen.” She laughed. Her face blossomed and her eyes gleamed. “Mohsen is playful. He eats a lot and he’s chubby.” She puffed out her cheeks, shook her head, and giggled.
“He has just started to talk,” she said, and she mimicked him. For a moment, she forgot where she was. Then, she looked around and wiped the foggy car window with the back of her hand and grew quiet.
Amina wanted her children. Her heart was with Mohsen and Shalima. It didn’t even take a day—the moment she laid eyes on my children, her tears started to flow. She sat on the kitchen floor, put her head on her knees, and wept.
“I miss Mohsen so very much,” she said. “What should I do?”
What a mistake. I was fooled by that Indian scoundrel’s sweet talk. Stupid, gullible me. Greedy for porridge, I fell into the pot.
The children watched her with sorrow and surprise.
She took my daughter in her arms and kissed her all over the face. She was kissing Shalima.
“Shalima is taller, but she’s as skinny as a corpse,” she said. “Mohsen is a good eater. He’s chubby. They’re with my father. They go out and beg with him.”
If I were to let her be, she would talk about her kids until dawn. Shalima, Mohsen, Mohsen, Shalima.
I knew I had made a mistake. Amina didn’t belong in Paris. She would die of a broken heart. I told myself, Thank God she has a return ticket, I have to let her go immediately. It’s not worth the trouble. I’ll put her on a plane tomorrow and send her back. But Amina wasn’t thinking of leaving. She had other plans.
“Missus, help me,” she said. “You have children, too. You understand. Mohsen is only two. He is used to sleeping in my arms every night. I was still breast-feeding him. Help me bring Mohsen and Shalima to be with me.”
Mohsen? Shalima? In Paris? That’s all I needed.
“The first wife is my children’s enemy. When she found out Mr. Raja was sending me to Paris, she went crazy. She screamed and yelled and threw herself on the ground. She said, ‘You’re a maid but you’re free. I’m in a cage, in prison.’ She hit me. She hit Shalima. She went around screaming for her father. The upstairs rooms are hers, the carpets are hers, but all she does is cry. She sits in the dark or sleeps and pulls the sheet up over her face. She doesn’t want anyone to see the wrinkles on her face. She wanted to throw boiling oil on my face. I’m scared she’ll hurt my children.”
“Amina, my life is different now,” I explained. “Paris isn’t like Tehran. It’s me and two children in a small apartment. There is hardly room even for you. You have to sleep in the living room. And you want to bring your kids?”
She was clever. She had her answers ready.
“I’ll rent a room somewhere,” she said. “Shalima is ten and she’ll go to school and I will work for you during the day.” You see? It’s that simple.
“What room? Where? Do you think you’re in Bangladesh? Do you want to build a cardboard shack on the side of the street?”
“I’ll work and pay the rent.”
“First, you have to get a residence permit and for that you need a sponsor. And to get a room, you have to pay two months’ rent up front. It’s not a joke.”
She stuck to her words. Shalima, Mohsen, Mohsen, Shalima.
“No!” I shouted. And I checked her airline ticket. I wanted to put her on the first flight out. Her place wasn’t in Europe. Mr. Raja had to make other plans for his wife.
Amina’s ticket was one-way. Bangladesh-Paris. No return. I had been hoodwinked.
I held the ticket in front of her. I was shaking with anger.
“Didn’t your husband say he was buying a round-trip ticket?”
“Yes, that’s what he said.”
“Then where is it?”
She shook her head and looked down.
“Your husband promised. He put it in writing. What happened?”
She repeated the lines Mr. Raja had taught her. It was obvious. Two days before she left Bangladesh, a big fire burned down half the town (which town?). Mr. Raja’s house was destroyed and he lost all his worldly belongings. The first wife and the elder sons had been homeless ever since. The fortunate Mr. Raja had become quite unfortunate (who cares?). The dear missus, the Tehrani lady, being a generous angel (thank you), would help them. Despite being burdened with debts and misery, the bankrupt Mr. Raja had managed to buy a ticket for Amina so that he could keep his promise to the Tehrani lady. The kind Mr. Raja spent every waking and sleeping moment thinking about the Tehrani lady and her children. Despite all the ills that had befallen him, he had kept his word. The Tehrani lady, the munificent lady, would pay for Amina’s ticket and everyone would live happily ever after.
As simple as that!
Amina knew there was no hint of emotion or sincerity in her voice. She had memorized the lines and repeated them like a parrot. She was a terrible actress. She tried hard to bring tears to her eyes, but she couldn’t. She had promised Mr. Raja to convince the Tehrani lady and she kept repeating the story like a sleep-talker. There was a fire, the entire town burned down, Mr. Raja and his wife were burned (I think Amina added this herself. It was the only sentence that came from her heart). The Tehrani lady was an angel. She would help.
I screamed that the Tehrani lady was no angel, that she was a wolf, and she was going to show them.
Again, she said, “The Tehrani lady can understand.”
I had really fallen into a trap.
Amina was asking for the money for her plane ticket, but her tone was cold and indifferent. She was listless. She was reaching out to Mohsen. Her yearning for her children wasn’t an act.
“For now, go and sleep,” I said. “We will talk about it tomorrow.”
I wanted time to think. I had no doubt that Amina had to go back and she had to go back soon. But who was going to pay for her ticket? A thousand dollars. She didn’t have it, neither did I, nor did that bankrupt swindler Mr. Raja.
Early the next morning, I sat across from a drowsy Amina and told her that bringing her children to Paris was out of the question. There was no room in my apartment. If she wanted to leave and not work for me, then farewell. But, getting back to the issue of the airline ticket, I bluntly told her that I didn’t believe a word she had said and that I knew the story about the fire was a ridiculous lie from beginning to end.
Amina blushed and started to laugh sheepishly.
“If you want to go back, then go back,” I said. “But I don’t have the money to pay for your ticket. Ask Mr. Raja to send it to you.”
My words were stern. Amina grew quiet. She had played her game and now she quickly confessed that Mr. Raja had ordered her to tell all those lies.
“Now, what do you want to do?” I asked.
She thought for a moment and then she said, “I’ll stay.”
“Without the kids?”
She said nothing.
And so, Amina stayed. Her salary was three hundred dollars a month. I told her she shouldn’t send all her money to her husband and that I would keep and save one hundred dollars a month for her.
“Oh, missus!” she said. “If he finds out, he will kill me. He will kill Shalima.”
“He wouldn’t dare. Write to him that the Tehrani lady only pays you two hundred dollars a month. If he has the guts, he can come and deal with me himself.”
Amina was afraid. Mr. Raja was a dangerous man. He could come to Paris and kill the Tehrani lady. He could abuse her children. He could burn her father’s begging permit. He could turn the town upside down. Mr. Raja could go up against the entire world. She wanted to go on, but I stopped her.
“When? Where? Hold it! Nothing bad is going to happen. The hell with him. He wouldn’t dare.”
I had to make Amina understand that Mr. Raja was not the almighty, but getting this into her dense head wasn’t easy.
“My dear, open your ears and listen to me. Lesson one: You work and your salary is yours. It belongs to you.”
“Yours” was a word that had an unfamiliar ring to it. She looked at me. There was primal fear in her eyes.
“He will come and kill me.”
“No he wouldn’t. If he so much as raises a hand to you, you will call the police. They will deal with him really well and then they will kick him out of the country.”
Call the police? Ha! Amina calling the police to report Mr. Raja? Amina the maid filing a complaint against the almighty master? The Tehrani lady had lost her mind. She was talking nonsense. Lesson one was complicated, it was difficult to grasp, and Amina was a slow student. Still, she didn’t mind listening to the strange things I said. There was a childlike glint in her eyes, the glint of a sweet dread. She stared at the wall (God knows what was going through her mind) and then, with cautious pleasure, she smiled—a strange smile induced by fear.
She had barely stopped grinning when again she felt heartsick for her children. It was a constant longing; silent, but present and palpable every minute of the day.
Through Amina’s sad eyes, Shalima and Mohsen quietly entered our lives and found a permanent place among the people and objects around us. Every time Amina looked at a youngster or jumped at the sound of a child out on the street, every time she had tears in her eyes, every time she received a letter from her father, every time she curled up in a corner or lay down facing the wall and muttered to herself, every time she sat in front of the mirror and hummed a heartrending song, Shalima and Mohsen would appear next to us, sitting in front of the television, or at the foot of the bed, or on the bench in the park.
We often found them in the silent moments between our talks, in the layers of our dreams, in seeing a child beggar on a street corner, in the news about wars and floods and earthquakes, in the scent of the spicy foods Amina cooked, and in the pleasing melody of an Indian sitar. Often when we were warm and cozy and happy, Shalima and Mohsen’s sad eyes would peer out from the dark and impose a sense of guilt on us. I would see the barefoot Shalima begging on the street and searching for a few large lice to put in her grandfather’s hair. She was responsible for sweeping and washing the floors and caring for her young brother. I knew how much she missed her mother and how lonely and tired she felt. In Amina’s silent angst, I saw that Mohsen was sick, that he had a cold, that he had a fever and coughed. When Amina looked in the mirror and sang while combing her hair, I knew that the danger had passed, that little Mohsen had recovered.
Amina never left the apartment. She was afraid. It was too cold outside, or she wanted to sleep. If we let her, she would sleep all day. And when she was awake, she wasn’t alert or quite present. We had to push her, nudge her, and tug at her hair for her to come to life and to put the small mirror or the movie magazine under her pillow and to get up, to briefly hide the fantasy of her children under her eyelids, and to stumble through dusting and cleaning the apartment.
One day, I finally dragged Amina out of the apartment and showed her the way to the children’s school. The next morning, I sent her out with the kids, but she hurried back only moments later. The following day, she pretended to be sick and stayed in bed. The third day, she said she wouldn’t go out and she pleaded and cried. On the fifth day, we got into a fight and argued. On the sixth day, she gave in and went out. And on the days that followed, she learned her way around the nearby streets. Then she walked to the end of the main avenue and, afraid of getting lost, she ran back. Gradually, she found her way around the neighborhood and discovered the square behind the park, the local movie theater, and the less expensive shops. She even learned that bus 87 goes all the way to the Eiffel Tower, and that did her in. It did us in, too.
She was nowhere to be found. The moment I turned my head, she would skip out of the apartment with no notice or explanation. She had gotten over her fear and just like a cat that has discovered the way out, it was difficult to keep her at home. She would take the bus and only God knows where she went. She had made friends with a few Moroccan and Tunisian maids. They were all about the same age as she, but they were savvy and semi-Western in their attitudes. They were obedient but also bold and brassy, housewives and housemaids aware of their limits and their rights. Amina’s new teachers.
Sundays were Amina’s days off. At first she just stayed home, but didn’t work. She slept, read magazines, wrote letters, and dreamt of her children. Or out of sheer loneliness, although she was a Hindu she went to the church across the street. There was a small park in front of our apartment building and once in a while she would go there and feed the pigeons. It was during these outings that she met Jamila, the Tunisian woman who worked as a janitor in the building next door. She communicated with her with the few French words and Arabic phrases she had learned. With every day that passed, a more savvy and hungry Amina—hungry to see and to learn—passed before us, with her curious gaze dashing ahead of her.
Jamila was her teacher. She took Amina around the neighborhood and taught her the ins and outs of living in Paris. Little by little, I started getting worried about Amina. I had to rein her in. Mr. Raja appeared to be concerned, too, and wanted to know what Amina was up to and why she was getting paid so little money. It seemed he had gotten wise to the fact that Amina was keeping part of her salary for herself. He wrote a letter to me in poor, muddled English to inquire about Amina. He threatened that if he found out Amina was cheating him, he would skin her alive. I didn’t write back.
Not long after, an excited Amina told me that her dear husband missed her terribly and wanted to come to Paris to see her. It was the first time Mr. Raja had expressed any love for her and Amina was thirsty for affection. She jumped to the conclusion that Mr. Raja had given up his first wife and had rediscovered Amina’s youth and beauty. He was going to bring Shalima and Mohsen and he was going to rent a small room, a real room, where they would all live together. Who knows, perhaps her beggar father would join them, too, and he would apply for an official beggar’s permit from the French government. And a thousand other hopes and maybes.
No matter what Jamila and I said, it was all useless. Amina’s eyes had still not opened and Mr. Raja’s magic remained more potent than our rational advice. The Indian louse’s chicanery and deceit was obvious, but Amina either didn’t see it or didn’t want to see it. All of a sudden and for no apparent reason, Mr. Raja had fallen in love with his young wife and he was suffering in her absence! Amina believed in miracles and the almighty master’s expressions of love were proof. Letter after letter. Lie after lie. In short, to get a visa, the besotted Mr. Raja needed a formal invitation letter and, with great humility and in a roundabout way, he was asking Amina to send one to him and to pay for his airline ticket as well. In return for all this kindness, Mr. Raja would bring his beautiful wife a gold bangle and ruby earrings, as well as a basketful of love, a crateful of caresses, a world of sincere intention, and of course he would bring the children. He would even pay for their tickets.
“Amina,” I shouted, “don’t be a fool!”
“Missus, one’s husband is one’s master,” she said. “He’s the master. He promised me. He wouldn’t lie.”
I thought I had misheard. “He wouldn’t lie?” I snapped.
She looked down. She couldn’t look into my eyes.
“He’ll bring Mohsen,” she said. “I don’t want a gold bangle. He promised he’ll bring Mohsen.”
The hell with it; people deserve what they get, I told myself.
I GAVE HER the money I had been saving for her. One thousand twenty-five dollars. As quick as the wind, she bought a ticket and sent it to her master, along with the invitation letter, which she asked Jamila to write.
Two months later, Mr. Raja arrived—empty-handed, without the gold bangle and the basketful of love and, of course, without the children. Without Mohsen. Without Shalima.
It was the first time I was seeing him. He was more wretched and more vile and slimy than I had imagined. He was sallow, short and skinny, with thick lips, rotten teeth, and a lecherous look in his eyes. He spoke English and constantly wagged his head and licked his dark lips. Barely having arrived, he set out to establish his social rank and class lest I think Amina’s husband was a beggar like her father. He was arrogant.
“Tehrani lady, I’m rich,” he said. “I have a large house and I’ve rented out eight of the rooms.”
I wanted to snap at him, but I held my tongue. Amina offered him tea. She looked cross. She knew she had been duped, but she didn’t say anything.
“If you’re rich, then why does your wife have to work as a maid?” I said. “And why didn’t you pay for your own ticket?”
He laughed and pretended he hadn’t understood me. He was sitting with his legs crossed and he was smoking and playing with his gold ring.
“How much does Amina earn every month?” he asked.
“Two hundred dollars,” I lied. I wasn’t going to give Amina’s salary to him.
His eyes narrowed and he looked at Amina. She turned away. Her mind was in turmoil. She had realized that all his promises were lies. Exasperated and humiliated, she just stared at the floor.
She deserved it. I was angry at her for being so stupid and I didn’t mind her being punished. In any case, there was nothing I could do. Changing Amina would take a long time, perhaps longer than my life would permit.
Mr. Raja’s arrival disrupted our lives. The man of authority immediately rented a room in Paris’s twentieth arrondissement, where mostly Arab and Indian families lived. Amina was to spend the nights with her husband, spend the days working, and at the end of the month give him all her salary. As simple as that!
It was important for me to have someone stay with the children at night and Amina’s leaving was contrary to our agreement. The contract I had signed with Mr. Raja stated that she would be my full-time, live-in employee. I showed her the contract. She looked down and said nothing. There was nothing she could do. Her life was in the hands of the master. He made the rules.
I thought the master had come for a short visit and would soon leave. But no, he had come to have a good time and to beat Amina. He had no intention of leaving.
Amina forgot about the gold bangle and gave up on her salary, but she couldn’t forget her children. She had lost her money for the love of Mohsen and Shalima, and this time, Mr. Raja’s scam was too big for her to swallow.
“Missus, I will go and bring the children myself,” she said.
She sounded determined. I was taken aback. A stranger was speaking to me; an angry woman seething with primal instinct and ready to defend her children like a wildcat.
“I won’t let Shalima turn into a beggar,” she said. “I won’t allow Mohsen to sleep on the street. I will go and bring them.”
“How? With what money?”
“I will find a way. The first wife stole my money. I will take it back from her. She owes me. I will file a complaint against her. I will burn down her house. I will steal her rugs.”
“Without Mr. Raja’s permission?”
She was confused. Something had shifted in her mind. She had learned to look and to see. I was worried about her and I was terrified of the Indian louse’s reaction. Rightfully so. Learning that his wife wanted to go bring the children without asking for his permission, Mr. Raja turned red and then black. He locked up Amina in their room, with no food and no water, and he threatened to skin her alive.
The day I saw Amina with bruises on her face, I lost my temper. Her lips were swollen and her arm ached.
She said, “Missus, my husband mocks me. He says, ‘Now you’ve turned into Madame Amina for me?’”
Her eyes were brimming with tears, but she chuckled like a child and said, “My husband told me that every day I have to leave my money on the table for him, that I have to ask the Tehrani lady for more salary, and that if you don’t agree, I’ll have to go work for a French lady.”
“Amina, what do you want?” I asked.
She stared at me with a blank look in her eyes. “You” was an absent audience, a fictional character in a movie, in a dream. What was important was what Mr. Raja said.
“Missus, I can’t say no to him.”
But in this last sentence, in “I can’t say no,” I sensed a halting agitation. She had doubts, half of her being was restless, weighing, evaluating. Her protesting half wanted a better life for her children.
“I’ll go and bring the kids,” she said. “If they stay there, they will end up as beggars. I want Shalima to study, just like your children.”
With this hope and this intent, Amina left us. For three months, I had no news of her. And then she showed up—sick, frail, and depressed. She looked pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. She didn’t want to talk. Her silence was weightier than her sorrow. I thought something had happened to Shalima. She shook her head. She was writhing with agony. Finally, she opened up and told me what had happened to her. All these months, she had been in Paris, working. She was too embarrassed to come and see me. She got pregnant, but Mr. Raja didn’t want the child. He kicked her in the stomach. Now, she had been bleeding for three days and she was in terrible pain.
“Missus, I know the child in my stomach is dead.”
“You have to see a doctor,” I said. “Let’s go to the hospital.”
She threw herself at my feet. She was afraid. Mr. Raja wouldn’t allow it. He had told her he would kill her if she told a doctor what has happened to her.
“You have to report it to the police,” I said.
She shook her head.
“Amina, the law will protect you. You have rights.”
Amina had no notion of the law and her rights. What rights? This was the way the world worked. It was the law of nature.
I dragged Amina to the hospital. Two days later, she lost her child. I told the lady doctor what had happened. She was devastated. She immediately called the authorities and made an appointment with a social worker. I kept Amina at my apartment.
Mr. Raja showed up at my door, subservient and scared. He wanted to take Amina with him. I didn’t let him in. I had locked the door to Amina’s room. He threatened me. I called the police and he ran off as fast as he had come.
The social worker, Jamila, and I spent the entire week talking to Amina. She seemed to have come to her senses, but I didn’t trust her. She vacillated between certainty and doubt. She was angry, fraught, thrashing about.
Her eyes had opened and she had discovered rage.
Mr. Raja didn’t give up. He knew that if he ended up in the hands of the police his circumstances would be precarious. He was looking for a solution. The Tehrani lady was dangerous. She was brainwashing Amina. At the end of the week, looking meek and remorseful, he again came to see Amina. He had brought her a pair of leather shoes and a length of fabric, along with his tearful eyes and yellow teeth.
He said he wanted to return to Bangladesh. Of course, with Amina. He didn’t want her to work anymore. A woman’s place was next to her husband and he would support Amina and her beggar father. Amina liked the lies, the sweet lies, the easy lies laced with kindness.
The master knew Amina’s weak spots. He promised to give her one of the upstairs rooms, to make her the first wife, and to send Shalima to school. Amina’s face blossomed like a flower. It was easy to fool her. The moment he mentioned her children, she turned into putty and forgot that tiny seed of sense that we had planted in her head.
“Missus, I’m dying to see my kids,” she said. “I have to go. Shalima is all alone. Mohsen cries. I can’t stand being away from them anymore.”
We were back to square one.
It was raining the day she left. It was exactly nine months from the day she arrived. She had a one-year residence permit.
“Amina,” I said. “You have three months. You can come back. The social worker and I will help you.”
“If one day I decide to come back,” she said. “I will bring my children with me. I won’t be separated from them again.”
Amina left. I was all by myself, but I decided not to hire another maid. I was happy that I never had to look at Mr. Raja’s face again.
Once in a while, Jamila would receive news of Amina and she would share it with me. The first wife had kicked her out of the house and Mr. Raja had rented out the room at the end of the courtyard. Amina and her children were living with her beggar father in his cardboard shack. Under the incessant rain. Under water.
And then, I lost her. Amina was easy to lose. She would suddenly disappear and then she would unexpectedly show up again.
TWO YEARS WENT BY. It was Labor Day. I was getting ready to take the children to the park when the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone. I opened the door and saw Amina standing there with a dark-skinned girl and a chubby boy. I couldn’t believe it. She laughed. Her eyes were gleaming. She had gained weight, but she had the pleasant plumpness of happy mothers.
Shalima was shy and reserved. Just as I had imagined her. Mohsen was fat and had a big appetite. He was eyeing his surroundings with his bright black eyes. Barely having arrived, he took a banana and started to eat. He wiped his sticky fingers on his mother’s skirt, laughed with his mouth full, and took another banana. Shalima shook her head. She didn’t want to eat anything.
Amina’s eyes were gleaming with joy. She wanted to talk—in that sweet and proper Farsi she had learned and still remembered—but she didn’t know where to start.
She started from the very beginning. As soon as they arrived back in Bangladesh, her husband reneged on his promises. The first wife was sick. She was itching. She was scratching herself, rubbing her body against the rattan rug and the bricks in the yard, and she was hitting her head against the walls. At night, they had to tie her hands and feet and lock her up in a dark room. Mr. Raja took to drinking and bringing prostitutes to the house. The elder sons were out of work. They constantly asked Mr. Raja for money and sold the household furnishings. Again, Mr. Raja sent Amina away to work as a maid. This time to Jordan, to the house of a British diplomat. After her contract ended, the diplomat applied for a visa for Amina and took her with him back to England. Then he helped her bring her children, too. Amina was looking at her children and talking fast. Her chest was heaving. Her large breasts looked like the breasts of a pregnant woman, pregnant with the joy of maternal instinct.
“Missus, can you believe it!” she said. “I finally brought my children.”
“The English lady was a good woman,” she said, “but she had no patience for children. She was right. They didn’t have any kids and their life was as organized as a bouquet of flowers. Shalima was quiet, but Mohsen was always at the refrigerator. The English lady would give him three bananas a day, but this greedy kid’s eyes were after the box of chocolates. No matter where they hid it, he would find it and eat all the chocolates. The English lady got tired.”
Amina looked at her son and laughed from the depths of the happiest nook in her heart.
“My husband wrote that I should ask my English master to apply for a visa for him, too,” she said. “He wanted to trick me again. He wrote a letter to the Embassy of Bangladesh and claimed that I had kidnapped his children. He told a thousand lies.”
“Oh, so Mr. Raja told lies?”
Amina blushed. She stroked Shalima’s cheek and sat on the floor and pulled her children to her side.
“The English lady was very generous,” she said. “She paid me three months’ salary and asked if I wanted to come to Paris, to the Tehrani lady.”
This Amina wasn’t the clumsy and meek Amina I knew. The fate of her children was in her hands and she was fighting for them. She knew that raising her children in the West would not be easy, but she had made up her mind. Her eyes were open and her ears could hear. Opinions took shape in her mind, and her thoughts and feelings were real. She still dreamt, she still imagined herself starring in a make-believe movie, but she was the one writing the scenario and producing the film. A film created in partnership with her children.
She was my guest for a week and then she rented a room. During the day, she worked as a maid for a French family—clandestinely, without a work permit. Her income was enough to cover their expenses. She enrolled Shalima in the local school and Mohsen in the kindergarten. Mademoiselle Shalima and Monsieur Mohsen. At night she slept between her children and knew that the monsoon season was over.
On Sundays, Amina would rest during the day and come with her children to visit me in the evening. The scrawny Shalima had gained a little weight and was starting to look healthier. She looked people in the eye, greeted them, and answered simple questions. And all this time, Mr. Raja followed Amina like a shadow and wouldn’t leave her alone.
“Amina, be careful,” I said. “I’m afraid the master’s love for you will rekindle again and drive him crazy.”
“Missus, there is no way I would allow Shalima to become a beggar,” she said. “I want her to study. I want her to become a doctor. I want Mohsen to work, to go to the university. I will go to the embassy and ask for help. I will do whatever I can.”
Her words were the words of a rebel. I had never seen Amina so determined and strong, so awake and alert. She no longer dragged her feet or stumbled around. Her eyes were full of questions and her ears chased after every sound.
Mr. Raja was searching for Amina through me and I was throwing his letters in the trash can without reading them. I had no idea that he had packed his bags and would soon show up. Amina didn’t know either. She was busy with work and her new life. Shalima was struggling with the difficulties of living in a new country, but she had seen the ups and downs of life and knew how to get by. Every day, she walked her young brother to kindergarten and back, and in her mother’s absence she took care of the housework.
Life was peaceful. Their worries belonged to the past.
I WAS HOME. There was a knock at the door—tap, tap, tap—and then a long doorbell ring. I opened the door and my breath froze in my chest. I wasn’t expecting an Indian guest, especially one that looked like that. The pungent and dizzying smell of cologne had flooded the hallway and Mr. Raja’s uneven breaths wafted at me from the bottom of a pot of Indian spices. With feigned humility, he said hello. His teeth were yellower than before and his tongue was stained red. He was wearing a tie, a black jacket, and new sneakers, which had undoubtedly been purchased that same day from the shoe store at the corner.
The start of trouble.
I didn’t invite him in. Standing in the doorway, he said his greetings and asked where Amina was. I told him I didn’t know, I excused him, and closed the door. He wouldn’t give up. He knocked again—tap, tap, tap—and then he rang the doorbell. From behind the closed door, I told him that he was intruding and that I was going to call the police immediately. The Indian louse had a particular fear of the police and became flustered the moment he heard the sound of p and the hiss of c. He tucked his tail between his legs and scurried away.
Sunday came. I was waiting for Amina so that I could tell her about her husband’s arrival. It was dusk when she arrived, unawares and cheerful, with Shalima and Mohsen at her side. She was eyeing her surroundings with pride and coquetry. She wanted people to notice her. She had discovered herself and, alert and content, was carrying herself like a precious asset. She was a mother with gentle lines on her face, a sweet double chin, and a few strands of white in her lustrous hair. A new feeling of self-respect gave her energy and made her breathing more intense. She hungered for a thousand things and there were a thousand things she feared.
“Amina, beware,” I said. “Your husband is here.”
She froze. She grabbed Shalima’s hand and stared at her son. She wanted to run away. She was shaking.
“I’ll go see the social worker right away,” she said. “And I know a lawyer. He has come to take my children away. What should I do?”
Shalima was quiet. She couldn’t understand a word of Farsi, but she knew that her mother was suddenly upset and she was certain it had something to do with Mr. Raja. Even Mohsen had sensed that a hidden danger was threatening them and the last bite of banana remained bulging in his cheek.
We were thinking of a solution when the doorbell rang. I heard a rasping cough and knew it was Master Raja. I decided to open the door and let him in so that Amina would once and for all tell him to get lost. I believed she was now ready to do it.
Amina ran and stood behind me and Shalima and Mohsen clung to their mother. I could hear Amina’s heart beating. Mohsen had a lump in his throat and Shalima was staring at the floor.
A smiling Mr. Raja, with yellow teeth and white sneakers, walked in and tossed his cigarette butt in the flower pot next to the door. Then he coughed and spat his mucus into a grimy handkerchief. He had brought a box of pastries for me. He took two pieces of candy out of his pocket and gave them to Mohsen. Amina leapt in front of him and glared into his eyes.
Mr. Raja had brought a gold bangle for Amina—the same one that his first wife had taken from her by force. Amina recognized it and started to talk—quietly at first and then louder and louder. God knows what she was ranting about. I didn’t understand their language, but from the way she was shaking her head and flailing her arms it was all obvious. Mohsen burst into tears and Shalima ran off and locked herself in the kitchen.
I stepped in. I calmed Amina and told Mr. Raja to stop harassing her. He started his usual “dear missus, dear missus.” Then he swallowed his anger, took on the look of a devoted father and husband, and spoke to Amina in a gentle tone. He acted meek, hung his head down, and let out a heartrending sigh. Then he said goodbye and left.
“Amina,” I said, “don’t you for one second believe his lies.” She was rattled. Looking nervous, she took her children by the hand and left.
A month passed. I had no news of Amina. I guessed she had again fallen in the clutches of her husband and was too ashamed to come and see me. I had no idea what had become of her, until the day I ran into Jamila on the street. She had heard from Amina. She was still working and, as usual, she was leaving her salary on the table for her husband. Mr. Raja was working in an Indian restaurant and he had rented a room, bought a TV, and was having a good time.
“Does he have a work permit?” I asked.
No. He didn’t. Thank God. I thought, if he was working illegally, he was in for a load of trouble. The authorities could grab him by the scruff of the neck and toss him out with a kick in the rear end. But it all depended on Amina, and Amina, despite her anger, her plans, and her children, was still weak when it came to her husband’s power and authority. I wasn’t sure whether she had the strength to go up against him.
Jamila believed that Amina was furious inside and that one of these days her rage would erupt. And that is exactly what happened. The dormant volcano started to rumble.
Jamila told me about Amina’s eruption.
ONE NIGHT MR. RAJA came home drunk, wasted, singing loudly. Their room was in the attic, on the sixth floor. He plodded his way up the stairs and now and then sat down to rest. One of their neighbors opened the door and yelled at him. Mr. Raja quieted down. Amina heard his footsteps. His shoes had metal heel protectors that clinked as he walked. He took off his shoes, but she could hear him panting on the third floor. The door to their room was ajar. The lightbulb in the hallway had burnt out. The staggering Mr. Raja felt his way in, but the master stumbled over a suitcase and fell on top of Shalima. Thinking he was a burglar, the girl screamed and grabbed the water pitcher next to her bed and smashed it on Mr. Raja’s head. Amina rushed to her daughter’s aid and the husband and wife got into a scuffle. Mr. Raja clawed at Amina’s hair, Mohsen bit his father’s leg, and Amina started screaming for help. She opened the door and ran barefoot into the hallway and down the stairs. Mr. Raja chased after her, and the children, wielding a broom and a metal spatula, chased after Mr. Raja. The neighbors poured out of their rooms. Mr. Raja caught up with Amina and she started clawing at his face. Mr. Raja grabbed the metal spatula from Shalima and beat Amina with its edge. With gashes on her head and face and drenched in blood, Amina fainted on the stairs.
The neighbors called the police, but Mr. Raja disappeared before they arrived.
Amina came with her children to see me.
“Missus,” she said, “I want to file a complaint against him. Tell me how. Who do I have to call?”
I sighed with satisfaction and said, “You have to call the police, my dear.” I felt as if a heavy burden had lifted from my shoulders. We had taken a few steps forward—a few large and fateful steps.
“This man has been cruel to me and my children,” Amina said. “I want to divorce him. Should I talk to the police about that, too?”
For the first time, Amina was experiencing remonstration, the law, and the police, and she no longer felt alone in the world.
“Wait,” I said. “First, you have to file a complaint. Then we will see about a divorce.”
She had no patience. She wanted a divorce, that day, that minute.
Jamila was familiar with social services and the laws that pertained to foreigners. She took Amina to the local town hall and retained a pro bono attorney for her. First, Amina had to renew her residency permit, and to do so she had to prove she could financially support herself and her children. Jamila, the French lady Amina was working for, and I deposited some money in her bank account. It was understood that she would later reimburse us. Fortunately, the leftists were in power and the immigration laws had become less stringent. The authorities renewed Amina’s residency permit for another five years.
Mr. Raja was in hiding for a while and had stopped going to work. He was waiting for things to calm down and for Amina to come to her senses. He was counting on her limited common sense and her ability to quickly forget. He was sure he could win her over again with a string of deceitful words and colorful promises. He sent her a letter moaning and groaning about being separated from his children, being lonely, and suffering a sad life in a foreign land.
Amina showed me his letter and said that the man’s promises were all lies and that she would not rest until she was divorced from him. To be on the safe side, she rented a different room and didn’t give anyone her new address.
Mr. Raja took Amina’s silence as a sign of submission, and hoping to take her money—two months’ salary—he went to the children’s school. Shalima spotted him from a distance and hid among the other students and her half-drunk father didn’t see her. But Mohsen got caught—fooled by a handful of candy and a banana—and hand in hand with Mr. Raja he went home. Again, the Indian oaf settled down in Amina’s room. But Amina had a plan. She was hoping Mr. Raja would again beat her so that she could inform the police. The neighbors all knew about her plan and had promised to help.
One evening, Mr. Raja went home happy. Amina let him in, kept her eyes down, and didn’t speak a word. Mr. Raja was delighted to find her so modest and obedient. He nodded in approval and immediately asked for food and drink. Amina didn’t move, so he repeated his request in a louder voice. Amina still didn’t react. Mr. Raja was puzzled. He wasn’t used to this kind of behavior. He flared his nostrils and beat his fist on the table. Amina ignored him. Mr. Raja leapt up, grabbed her braid, and kicked her in the side. Terrified, the children ran out into the hallway and started to scream for help.
Mr. Raja was hungry. The master wanted his food and drink and he was deaf to the commotion of the neighbors pouring out of their rooms and blind to the appearance of two policemen at the door. They walked in and asked for Madam Amina. Mr. Raja sensed danger. He tried to leave, but they blocked his way and asked to see his papers, his passport, his residency and work permits. He didn’t have them. He was in big trouble; bigger than he could imagine. He was trapped and he had no way to escape.
Mr. Raja was given one week to leave France. Amina took care of everything else. Together with her lawyer, she went to the Embassy of Bangladesh and filed for a divorce. The neighbors testified in her defense and the embassy took her side.
Broken and defeated, Mr. Raja came to see me before he left the country. He had transformed into a whimpering weakling and pretended to cry. Or perhaps he really did cry. He said Amina had brought him shame, that she had a lover, that she was pregnant, that as a Muslim man he had the right to behead his adulterous wife. But because he was a kindhearted man, he was willing to forgive her if she agreed to repent, to be obedient, and to return to Bangladesh with him.
I kept silent. I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt sorry for him. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to witness his humiliation.
“My first wife was taken to the hospital,” he said. “They say she was bitten by a rabid dog and is incurable. She has gone mad. Amina has gone mad, too. She’s become rabid. God has turned his wrath on me. All the women in my life have gone insane. Tehrani lady, what am I to do?”
He was sitting there with no intention of leaving. He was distraught and incapable of analyzing the chain of events.
“Missus,” he said. “My father had three wives and he beat them all, but they didn’t become rabid. It was customary. Everyone accepted the fact that the man is the master. It’s the law of nature. A wife who calls the police on her husband isn’t a wife. The West has ruined Amina. It’s my own fault. I sent her here. She was a good girl when she was in Iran. She was decent. And when she went to Saudi Arabia, she remained obedient. She didn’t become rabid. The West changed her. It ruined her.”
THE INDIAN LOUSE doesn’t understand that Amina has discovered new values. His first wife is from a wealthy family. Her father is a fabric merchant. So the rooms upstairs belong to her. It is her right. Amina is a Hindu. Her father is a beggar. Her heart isn’t Muslim. So her place is downstairs. It’s only natural. Everything is based on ancient laws and wisdoms. It is Amina who has raised havoc and stepped beyond her limits. She must be beaten. She must be punished. She must be reined in and tied up. Mr. Raja has acted according to the laws of his tribe, the laws of his ancestors. He doesn’t see why he should be held guilty. He complains about the French police, but he is powerless. If only he had not sent Amina to the West. If only.
AMINA HAS HER divorce. She looks around her, she looks at people. She is overwhelmed. She is a stranger to her new self and she is frightened by the naked freedom that now surrounds her. Endless roads and opportunities lie ahead. Which should she choose? From now on, she is responsible for her own and her children’s destiny. There is no Mr. Raja to bully her and dictate what her life should be. She runs. She twirls. She knocks into doors and walls and she falls. She is scared. She is alone. Still, she is standing on firm ground and on this firm ground she will build her children’s future. She has nailed down her place at the center of this ground. This is where she wants to start, from this stable point and special moment.
Shalima must become a doctor. Mohsen must work and earn his banana money. Amina wants a real house. A house made of stone and cement that can withstand floods and storms.
She comes to see me. She is breathless.
“Missus, I’m very busy,” she says. “I have to get a work permit. I have to make money. I have to raise my children. I have to think about getting permanent residency. I have to think about my future.”
My future! The phrase sounds strange coming from Amina. She and I always talked about the past, about Tehran and the days when she lived with us. That was the only real world we knew. And now, with one leap, Amina has overtaken me and she has discovered a new dimension of time—tomorrow. She imagines herself and her children in better times and she is running towards it. She has grabbed my hand and she is dragging me with her.
AMINA LEFT. As always, she disappeared. I often thought of her, but I wasn’t worried. I knew that she was somewhere busy with life, work, and her children. I ran into Jamila on the street. The last news she had of Amina was from a year ago. She said Amina had left Paris and was living in a different city.
At last, she called. Two years had passed. She was living in a town in southern France.
She sounded warm and cheerful. It was as if she had only left us yesterday. She couldn’t grasp the fact that two years (two long years) had passed and much had happened. For those of us who counted the days and took measure of every small joy, two years was as long as Noah’s life. But Amina was setting her watch based on a different logic. Her notion of time stemmed from ancient knowledge, from the million-year-long sleep of mythical gods.
“Amina, where have you been all this time?” I asked.
“All this time?”
“Two years is a lifetime. I’ve grown old.”
She laughed. She sounded like her old self when she used to wander under the trees in our garden in Tehran and dream golden dreams.
“Missus, I’m married,” she said. “My husband is young. He’s a custodian at a park. We live in the park. We have two rooms behind the guard’s office. It’s as if the park is ours. I wish you would come and join us. God has given me the biggest garden in the world. There is room for you and your children. Missus, I have two more children. Twins. Shalima is in school and she speaks French. Mademoiselle Shalima. That poor Raja has become a beggar. His first wife is in a madhouse. My father gave Mr. Raja his beggar’s permit before he died. He gave him his begging territory, too. After all, Mr. Raja was his son-in-law, he is Shalima’s father. I want to go back for a visit. Half my heart is still there. The bigger half.”
The line was disconnected. I waited. I thought she would call back. She didn’t.
TEN YEARS HAVE passed since I last saw Amina. The doorbell rings. It isn’t the children’s restless and persistent ringing. It is a stranger’s hesitant finger on the doorbell. Someone who thinks he or she might be at the wrong address.
“Who is it?”
I stand behind the door. In the old days, when someone knocked, I would open the door without fear and without asking who it was (as was our tradition). It took a long time for me to get used to questions and cautions, to latching the door chain, to looking through the peephole.
“Who is it?” I ask again.
An unfamiliar voice says, “It’s me.”
Whoever “me” is, she has a delicate and shy voice. I think she has come to the wrong apartment. I open the door slightly. A dark-skinned girl, with large, timid eyes, long braided her, and strappy sandals on her feet, is standing in front of me. She is wearing a sari—a pistachio green sari.
She says hello in fluent French and without a foreign accent. Her name is Shalima. She is looking down and fidgeting.
When I take her in my arms, I smell her mother’s scent. But she doesn’t have her mother’s beauty. She says she is in her last year of medical school. She wants to become a pediatrician. She laughs. She has her mother’s white teeth. She says Mohsen is in high school. She shows me a photograph of him. He is wearing sneakers and he’s still a little chubby. They have French passports, and a brother and sister, eleven years old. Her stepfather is a good man. He pays for their expenses. She has a scholarship and works in an English bookstore three days a week.
I want her to tell me about Amina, about their home in the park, and about her own plans for the future. She is silent. She looks down and a gentle sorrow settles over her face. My heart sinks.
Shalima’s silence is timid and comforting. She opens her handbag and takes out a yellow envelope. “My mother wanted me to give you this photograph,” she says. “She wanted me to thank you. She was very ill. We took her to the hospital. She passed away six weeks ago. She twice opened her eyes and spoke your name. I will finish my studies this year. Then I’m going back to Bangladesh. My father is ill. He has lost his eyesight. I have to take care of him.”
She talks of her mother’s death so serenely that I, too, simply accept this implausible event. I take the photograph out of the envelope. It is a color photograph. Amina is standing in the middle, with her husband and her children around her. She is smiling. She knows that her illness is incurable and that she will soon die, but she doesn’t look troubled. Her hair has turned gray and there are beautiful wrinkles under her eyes. She is wearing a white sari; it is wrapped around her thin figure like delicate ivy. All these changes have enhanced her beauty—the beauty of a bird that has given wing to her chicks and is now ready to fly to faraway lands. The twins look like their father—blonde and blue-eyed. But they have their mother’s smile and playful eyes. Half-French, half-Bangladeshi. Madam Amina’s children.
“What about Mohsen?” I ask. “Will he stay or go back?”
Shalima’s answer is vague. Perhaps.
“This boy has taken after my mother,” she says. “He can’t sit still. He wants to work. He has no patience for studying. All he thinks about is traveling. But I’m not worried about him. I know my mother’s spirit is watching over him.”
Ms. Shalima, the pediatrician, shakes my hand, says goodbye, and leaves. Her gait resembles her mother’s saunter when in her fantasies she saw herself starring in a sad, romantic film, or when she hummed and danced in front of the mirror.
Amina’s photo sits in front of me like the last chapter of an enchanting book. Her face is alive and her expression changes from one moment to the next. Amina appears before my eyes. She is young, she is beautiful, and then she fades away only to reappear, submerged in muddy waters and thrashing about. The flood has swept away her home, her mother, and her brothers. They pull Amina out of the water. She is alive. She breathes. Her children’s destiny is in her womb, in the depths of her soul; an ancient mother worrying for her offspring. Her journey has no end, and her heart, beyond unfamiliar horizons, beats for her children, for her grandsons and granddaughters, for those who will be born in another time, in the never-ending cycle of births and rebirths.
translation by Sara Khalili
“Amina’s Great Journey” from THE POMEGRANATE LADY AND HER SONS: SELECTED STORIES by Goli Taraghi, translated by Sara Khalili.
Copyright © 2013 by Goli Taraghi. Translation copyright © 2013 by Sara Khalili. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Goli Taraghi (born 1939) is an Iranian author whose literary works are available in Persian, English and French. Her popularity in Iran never succumbed in the face of revolution and war. Through the English translations of her work, Taraghi’s authorship was exposed to international audiences. The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (2013), in which “Amina’s Great Journey” is collected, covers the contemporary themes in Iran with the universality of hope.