Evil eye in Esfahan
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