All of us-myself, my children, and the friends who now and then drop to see us-are scared stiff of our neighbor on the floor below. Our life as expatriates in Paris is full of hidden anxieties and emotions. There is, first of all, a feeling of guilt for having come as strangers from across the border to encroach upon the rights of the native inhabitants. Underneath this guilty feeling lurks a silent, seething rage that must be suppressed, and a nagging sense of humiliation waiting for revenge. And finally there is that millennia-old pride that makes us, the descendants of Cyrus the Great, look down upon modern civilization with a skeptical sneer, convinced that even defeated and miserable and downtrodden, we remain (God knows why) superior to the rest of the world; and that anyhow, if we have lost the glory and splendor that were once ours, you are to blame, you deluded Western exploiters.
Though this may be a false accusation, one thing is certainly true: my present miseries are entirely due to the lady downstairs, who constantly haunts our disrupted and chaotic existence like an evil spirit. We dare not talk or laugh or walk, and having but recently arrived and not yet learned the ins and outs of life in Europe-having, moreover, left a spacious house with a garden full of flowers and trees, as well as our family and friends, to find ourselves in this different world-we move around in circles wondering how to live here without being in each other's way or disturbing the neighbors. The children have gone completely wild. One is five and the other is four. They are overexcited and confused and express their anxiety by letting out earsplitting shrieks and kicking and banging their fists at everything in sight. My son hits my daughter, I hit my son, and the neighbor bangs at our door. Sometimes she knocks at her ceiling with a broomstick, sometimes she shouts at us out of her window, and sometimes she yells and screams on the telephone, raising such a hullabaloo that I can hear her voice not only through the receiver, but also from the end of the corridor; in short her frequent angry outbursts seem to reach me from all four cardinal points and, like the trumpet announcing the Last Judgment, they make me shudder inside and blow my plain, unsophisticated logic to the four winds.
When I open the door to her, my timid glance that remains glued to the floor, my unsteady voice that stammers a few words, my hand that has frozen in mid-air, my foot that is ready to beat a retreat, and my whole body that is rooted to the spot, helpless and terror-stricken, all express utter submission and acknowledgement of my guilt. I promise my neighbor that these inhuman noises will never be heard again, that the children, though they have not yet had their dinner (who cares?), will immediately be put to bed, even if that means beating the daylights out of them, and that I myself will keep my feet off the floor and fly to the end of the corridor like a weightless mosquito and stay under the mattress or, if necessary, under the bed for three days and three nights in deathlike silence, and do my best to obey the laws of the land and bow to the principles established by the inhabitants of this city.
Madame Downstairs doesn't believe a word of it. She bristles again, she raises her voice again, she stares into my eyes again, she makes her nostrils quiver again, and punctuates her oh! so long sentences with huffs and puffs and poohs and pahs, giving me to understand, with all these utterances that she pours down on me like a violent rainstorm
Our tiny, modest apartment, which even the donkey man of Mahmoudieh would have considered too cramped a living space, is wildly expensive because it is situated in the heart of Paris and has a corridor and some built-in closets. We live on the fifth floor of a building facing a church, and the fact that the churchyard has a few trees with three or four sparrows flitting about, and that there are some fat pigeons living under the eaves, is a constant delight, reminding the children and myself of Tehran and our garden of Shemiran. Another advantage of this mousehole of ours is that the living room is graced with two square meters of balcony, a welcome space for receiving guests or resting or taking the air. We managed to adorn this blessing of a balcony with as many pots of geraniums and petunias as it can possibly hold, and in the evenings, weather permitting, we spend some carefree moments among the little greenery and the scentless flowers, eating those overripe cucumbers and tasteless peaches grown in an alien land. And if friends happen to arrive, we bid them to join us in this tiny space to share this happy hour with us and forget their homesickness. The lady downstairs, or as the children call her, the Bogeywoman, does not approve of our use of the balcony and manifests her disapproval at short intervals. "Quiet!" she screams, and this command sounds so final and categorical that it breaks our vocal cords and freezes the smiles on our faces. We abandon our garden parties. I quickly shut the window and tell myself that one should be patient, one mustn't talk back. We foreigners, especially I myself with a passport issued by the Islamic Republic and a temporary residence permit, have no right to protest. In this city people just don't sit on balconies, they don't talk nonsense and laugh aloud, they don't waste their precious time on idle gossip. If they want to see a friend, no doubt to discuss politics and philosophy and world literature, they ask him to a caf\u00e9 and rapidly settle the matter over a cup of a strong coffee. These words are convincing enough for myself, but they hardly have any effect on the children. Cuddled on the laps of grandmothers and aunts and accustomed to an inexhaustible store of love and affection, they consider their exile in this cold, joyless and unfeeling climate as an incomprehensible injustice. The doorbell and the telephone are a source of joy to them, and they even prefer the visits of the Bogeywoman to the silence and solitude of our new dwelling.
The French do not open their doors very willingly. They first look through the peephole to make sure who it is. They then ask whom the visitor wants to see and for what purpose. When they feel quite safe, they undo the chain on the door, and then unlock the first and the second lock, which gives them time to have another look and ask another question, upon which they decide to half-open the door. If it is simply an unannounced visitor, they send him packing there and then. If the caller has something important to communicate, they let him have his say at the door and settle the matter without asking him in. The door to our apartment has none of these special locks or chains, nor does it have a peephole. We open it immediately, without asking any questions, and are overjoyed to have unexpected visitors. The children ask everybody in, even the Bogeywoman, and I quickly put the kettle on and welcome the caller with a smile. I don't like to talk to people in the corridor, I prefer to sit down with them and discuss even complaints and misunderstandings in a leisurely fashion over a cup of tea. The lady downstairs has no time for that, however. She comes up, she knocks at the door, she yells at us and leaves. It is the same with the concierge. She comes, she knocks at the door, she
brings me the mail, and leaves. The same again with the man who reads the electricity counter. He comes, he knocks, he notes, and he leaves. Greeting people and enquiring after their health are things that are not done. Our next-door neighbor is a middle-aged woman. She is not bad-tempered. She does not complain about us. She does not knock at our door. But she might as well not be there, it's as though we don't exist for her nor she for us. Sometimes I meet her on the landing and we take the lift together. Neither of us speak. If I greet her she greets me back. If I don't, she doesn't say a word. She goes out early in the morning and comes back in the evening, exhausted. Her solitude worries me and I shudder at the idea that someone living in her own city can be so lonely. The lady downstairs is alive. She is mad, we fight, and that in itself is a kind of relationship. Not a moment goes by without our being aware of her existence, and nothing we do or say is free of her awareness.
I have entered the children in the local kindergarten and am glad that they keep them there all day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. My main reason for being glad is that this will please the Bogeywoman, and I even wish they could keep the school open until late at night, and on Sundays as well. Taking the children to school is not easy. They don't like to go, and they are horrified of the teachers who, of course, don't speak their language. It is dark in the morning and it often rains. We have no car and have to walk three blocks down the avenue. Both of them cry. When we reach the second block, my son starts having his usual stomachache. The pain makes him writhe and clutch at my legs, insisting that we should go back. I feel sorry for him, but the thought of going home conjures up the face of our neighbor and suppresses my maternal instincts. My daughter is sleepy and dazed and doesn't wake up until we reach the school. She sits down on the steps in front of every single building on our way and starts yawning. If I would leave her, she would fall asleep right there. I can only make her go on by giving her sweets and chocolates. The moment she sits down, I tempt her with the colored wrappings. She jumps up and runs a few yards for these goodies, but having eaten them, she sits down again and dozes. I have to grab her by the neck and drag her all the way to the kindergarten. The rain is also a big nuisance. I can't decide which child to shelter under the umbrella. I know they will start sneezing and coughing and running a temperature in the evening, and these sounds will reach the sensitive ears of our neighbor through the chinks in the windows. Were it not for the war, I would have gone back home. Were it not for the fear of bombs and missiles, nothing would have kept me here for a single day. But in fact, the battlefield is right here, and the real enemy is lying in ambush on the floor below. If we had stayed at home, chances are that we could have escaped the bombs and missiles, while here we spend every moment confronting an invisible machine gun specially aimed at us. Saddam Hussein was across the border, while the Bogeywoman is only one floor below us. Like prisoners of war, we are holding our hands on our heads and surrendering without putting up a resistance. The reason for our defeat and the gist of our shortcomings is not speaking and understanding the language. No weapon is sharper than words, and our mouths remain shut, while the enemy's victory lies in her command of words.
A new idea has occurred to our neighbor. She has sent us a long, official letter resembling a legal reprimand and issuing a number of regulations. First of all, we are immediately to cover the wooden floors in our rooms with thick wall-to-wall carpets to deaden the noise of our footsteps. We are not to wear any shoes (especially with high heels) or any slippers with wooden soles or heels. We are not to sit on the balcony. We are not to talk in the
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