So­phy Downes

Evil eye in Es­fa­han

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Let me tell your for­tune,’ Nazanin says, un­ex­pect­edly. We are sit­ting in a room in eastern Es­fa­han, among the para­pher­na­lia of Ira­nian subur­ban life: car­pets, dainty ta­bles, minia­ture tea-glasses, and a huge satel­lite tele­vi­sion screen. Nazanin is the zan­barâ­dar, the wife of the brother – Farsi is pre­cise about fam­ily re­la­tion­ships – of my in­de­fati­ga­ble lan­guage teacher, Maryam. I am here to spend the evening in the house where Maryam’s par­ents live with their sons, their sons’ wives, and their sons’ chil­dren – each fam­ily on a dif­fer­ent floor, like so many chick­ens in a well-ap­pointed hen coup.

For­tune telling is ubiq­ui­tous in Iran. The night I flew into Tehran we stopped at traf­fic lights at 4 am., and in­stead of hawk­ing tis­sues or try­ing to clean the wind­screen, a va­grant sold me, for 10,000 rial, a thin, green, printed en­ve­lope. In­side was a verse of Hafez – the four­teenth-century mys­ti­cal poet – like a pearl hid­ing in an oyster’s mouth at the bot­tom of the green sea. It is called fal-e Hafez: you ask a ques­tion and then open the en­ve­lope. You can have your for­tune picked out by para­keets in gar­den tea houses or find it sim­ply by open­ing a vol­ume of Hafez in a book shop. All Ira­nian house­holds, cer­tainly, as well as the Qu’ran, own a copy of Hafez which they con­sult in mo­ments of cri­sis. But the div­ina­tion is done through the po­etry – it is un­usual for peo­ple to of­fer to make pre­dic­tions them­selves.

I met Nazanin half an hour ago. Dressed in a pink jer­sey track­suit, she is short and plump, with huge fem­i­nine eyes. She is to­tally un­like me. She has just turned twenty and al­ready has three chil­dren – not un­com­mon in a coun­try where twenty-five per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are under fif­teen. She asks me if I have chil­dren my­self and if I am mar­ried. ‘ No,’ I say, and she com­mis­er­ates with me: ‘ Why not? You

have such pale skin.’ I’ve only been here five weeks, but I am used to this in­tru­sive cat­e­chism and the du­bi­ous ac­com­pa­ny­ing com­pli­ment. ‘ Well,’ I say du­plic­i­tously, ‘ I have a boyfriend, but we can’t af­ford to marry yet. He had to stay in Lon­don to

work.’ This is not true. I do not have a boyfriend, but I have dis­cov­ered that this an­swer meets with ap­proval and that the con­cept of need­ing money is un­der­stood ev­ery­where. Nazanin nods. She passes me a wrig­gling tod­dler and seems to lose in­ter­est.

Now, she takes my hand. ‘ Well,’ she says, ‘you will have a long life. But your boyfriend – right now he is meet­ing with a woman, a girl with black eyes and long black hair, taller than you and more beau­ti­ful. He is no good for you.’ She folds my palm over in her soft hands and gives it back to me.

For a mo­ment I am out­raged at this be­trayal from my hard-work­ing boyfriend. I feel a fris­son of home­sick­ness for dis­tant Lon­don be­fore I re­mem­ber that he does not ex­ist. I give Nazanin a weak smile, but I’m struck by the mal­ice of her pre­dic­tion. My cu­rios­ity flares, and with it an im­me­di­ate sense of con­nec­tion. Sud­denly, I want re­venge. ‘ Now I’ll tell

your for­tune,’ I say, snatch­ing her hand. I know noth­ing about palm­istry, but that does not de­ter me. ‘ In xeili bad ast,’ I im­pro­vise. ‘ This is very bad. So bad I

will not tell you what I see.’ My Farsi is gar­bled, but the in­tent is clear. To my an­noy­ance, Nazanin looks back placidly at me. But my teacher, Maryam, laughs, and then starts to cor­rect my gram­mar.

Sup­per is fe­s­en­jan – chicken sticky with wal­nuts and pome­gran­ate – herbs, and rice, the crispy tahdig crust from the bot­tom of the pan served au­to­mat­i­cally to me, as the hon­oured guest. We sit on the floor. I eye Nazanin war­ily over the spread cloth, but there is no in­di­ca­tion that she is think­ing about me at all. Why would she make such a bitchy comment? Jeal­ousy? Pity? Dis­ap­proval? I try to see my­self through her eyes: blonde, ec­cen­tric, old, anoma­lous, wealthy, free? Does she iden­tify with this myth­i­cal black-eyed girl? Maybe she really is psy­chic, or thinks she is. None of my Hafez for­tunes so far have been par­tic­u­larly ac­cu­rate, but then none of them have had this per­sonal an­i­mos­ity.

The evening ends early, and we go our sep­a­rate ways. I re­turn to my uni­ver­sity hos­tel and, even­tu­ally, back to Lon­don, where I en­counter no more preda­tory black-eyed women than usual. But among the many friendly and eru­dite con­ver­sa­tions I had in Iran, this ex­change stands out. When I think of Nazanin, it is with an emo­tion that is cu­ri­ously af­fec­tion­ate, re­mind­ing me that dis­like is an­other form of hu­man in­ti­macy.

She asks me if I have chil­dren my­self and if I am mar­ried. ‘No,’ I say, and she com­mis­er­ates with me: ‘Why not? You have such pale skin.’ I’ve only been here five weeks, but I am used to this in­tru­sive cat­e­chism and the du­bi­ous ac­com­pa­ny­ing com­pli­ment

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