WORDS BY ARMEGHAN TAHERI
ILLUSTRATION BY RACHEL COOL
CHAPTER I: MY FATHER
When my father drives around in his cab he speaks in his broken German. He smiles at his customers as he opens the door for them. The busy people in suits, the late night drunks from the clubs, the families in their fashionable clothes, Italian leather shoes. Mostly people who teach their children that they can achieve anything they want. Freedom is to step into this cab, into the world and be able to go places, let someone drive them to places, be places, rule their own lives. Their lives are valuable, precious, never to be interrupted or determined by someone else. Those are the people my father drives around.
For him, freedom is driving this cab. You see, for us, for us, freedom is a little different. We sit by your bedside and wait for the little crumbs your freedom is willing to give us.
My father always makes a point to have a newspaper in his cab. He places it almost calculated so that the people he drives around see it. He wants to make sure that they see him for who he is; an educated man, a man who knows about politics and has an understanding of what is going on in the world. Proud of who he once was. A revolutionary, a thinker, a warrior of change.
One morning he drives a tall man in a suit to the airport. The man makes small talk and tells my father to what university his daughter goes. My father says “oh my daughter goes to the same university and she studies the same! She is in her first year and was just in New York for an internship at the United Nations.” The tall man laughs loud and says: ”yeah right..that can’t be true. I don’t believe you.”
My father looks into the back mirror to the tall man; humiliated he fakes a laugh, because, you know, tips and word of mouth are important in the cab business. So, he decided to not say anything, to stay silent.
CHAPTER II: MY MOTHER
It takes a total of 30 seconds. It starts with the sound of the key quickly putting the lock. I remember it takes two turns. One turn, two turns. Every turn of the key is accompanied with a clicking sound. Then, as the door opens the sound of the rubber of the door seal slowly separating from the metal door fills the silent house. I will never forget.
The sound of shoes being untied. I am counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. Footsteps on the wooden stairs. Each step making a sound as his feet meets the hollow stairs. I am counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11. The air was filled with fear before he came, now its terror. Everyone is breathing slower, sense became sharper, brains were on high alert, fully conscious on every single motion like an animal that is being hunted.
He comes home with his anger. He comes home with the degradation he has to endure from the people who sit in his cab. He comes home from the despair. He comes home defeated from this national war that turned into his own war. He comes home from war to war.
The night my mother called domestic violence services she had one hour left before the key would turn in the lock. As the person at the shelter picked the phone up on the other end my mother started speaking to her in German. My mother has an accent and the woman’s tone of voice changed. She became impatient and angry. My mother hung up and said I will never ever call again. I rather die here in this house.
CHAPTER III: THE PROGRESSIVES
On the weekends when the whole family gathers together eating the food the women have prepared for hours in the kitchen, politics is the favorite topic. In those conversations, certain selected privileged women have a place at the table, because you see, my family is very progressive. And yes, you are welcome to sit. In fact, smart, outspoken women is who our fathers intended to raise. Our tongues are praised for our brilliant minds if we say the right things, have an opinion on the right thing, stay silent on the right things. Such as discussing the current government situation in Afghanistan. Oh what do you think about the current elites governing?
What they are very suspicious of are women like me. Women who are fearless. Women who have a sharp tongue. What makes them uncomfortable is when I ask questions. What makes them uncomfortable is who they raised to be critical thinkers will start using their critical minds against them.
Pretending like you don’t know is an unspoken cultural convention in my community, an unspoken cultural rule that women have to pay the highest price for. The rule of silence. Pretending you don’t see, you don’t hear, you don’t know – as a courtesy to the men.
So I saw them and I knew who they are by looking at them and I was not going to pretend like I didn’t know. I was not going to not fight. What is worse than a woman who cannot be controlled? What is worse than a woman who is not scared enough? What is worse than a smart woman seeing you? When you know someone saw into the deepest and most darkest part of your soul, you want them gone because their mere presence reminds you of who you are or who you are afraid of being. You want them silenced.
CHAPTER IV: THEM
I was 13 and on a class trip when a boy called me a slut. I turned to my teacher for help and she taught me my first lesson about the value of my body.
"Well it was certainly not ok for him to call you a slut, but look at yourself when you wear those tops. You just look different than the German girls..it looks classy on them, but you..well you know it just has a different association, you know..it just isn’t the same. You look kind of like a..hmm..I do not want to say it but you know what I mean right?”
I learned the first lesson on the inferiority of my body from an institutional authority – a teacher. I felt blood rushing to my head and as the boy has a grin on his face, I grab my sweater to wear, feeling ashamed.
My body was standing in opposition to the body of white women – the body is more valued, the body that has been historically – also quite problematically – protected or at least granted heightened state and institutional safeguard and societal respect.
I was confused, who was I? Whore or prude, slut or terrorist, exotic sex fantasy or un-feminist oppressed Taliban daughter? One thing I learned is that I would not turn to my teacher or any institutional authority for help, so I decided to stay silent when I turned 16 and a bigger more serious lesson would hunt me about my body.
CHAPTER V: HIM
My brother is 15 years old. His body resembles the same pictures we see everyday in the newspaper, he has the same skin, the same religion, the same black hair as those we are conditioned to believe are aggressors, as perpetrators, as dangerous. And as I sit here, I wonder, who will he be to you if you met him on the street after you heard our stories?
As he walks the hallway of his school, young boys follow him around and call him Taliban, Taliban, Taliban. When he turns around finally given in to the suppressed anger, confusion and sadness, which results into a fight, the teachers tells us that he was showing clear and disturbing signs of aggression.
Angry brown men. Angry aggressive brown men. Next time he knows better. Next time maybe, he knows that he should abide by the rule of silence.
CHAPTER IV: MY TONGUE
You have a sharp tongue you know, he said. He held a knife in his hand. One of these days when you tongue gets too sharp, I might cut it. He makes a notion with the knife showing me how he would cut my tongue out.
After that night I started collecting all the tools that could be used as a weapon. Slowly and strategically preparing myself for this war. If one of us has to die, then it won’t be me, it won’t be me and it won’t be the people that I love in this house. And I have been sharpening my tongue ever since like the blade of the knife he held in his hand. I have been sharpening my senses, I have been sharpening my brain. Collecting all the weapons to ensure that I can’t be defeated. And I have been at war ever since.
He told me that I will remember who I am and what I am. Nothing but a girl with a sharp tongue, nothing but a piece of shit, nothing but dumb, stupid, incapable, ugly and weak. I have been at war with these words ever since. I have been at war with my body which has become a battleground. I have been at war with him. I have been at war with the world. But above all I have been at war with myself. Sometimes I forget, sometimes I remember. Sometimes I want to burn this house that lives inside of me to the ground and sometimes I want to hold it softly and tell her she is power, she is survival, she is love and warmth, beautiful and smart. But that the thing in this world, war is never over until it’s over.