Sheep was her parents sobriquet for me.
I think I used the word sobriquet here hoping that a sheep would not use that word to say nickname.
The idea makes no sense, I know. The word sobriquet can be used by the meek and the brazen alike.
Their daughter was a medical student. All set to become a gynaecologist.
A brilliant mind I must say. Far smarter than her parents. Much more enterprising as well. Almost as proud and almost as stubborn. Not as traumatized.
From the moment we started dating her mother said: ‘We will never accept him.’
As someone who wrote I was per definition a drug addict.
As a teacher I didn’t make enough money.
I can’t say being a highschool teacher was a position exclusively looked down upon by Iranians. My fellow Belgians sometimes reacted in horror: ‘You’re not a highschool teacher I hope! With all those brats on your back all day!’
Their daughter had to date another physician. Possibly a lawyer or a hot shot engineer or architect. At the very least.
Her mother said: ‘You don’t exist to live your dreams, you are here to fulfill my dreams.’
She was Iranian, so I read a bunch of books on Iranian culture. I learned some Farsi.
Her mother would make fun of the way I pronounced ‘salam’.
I learned about tarof.
If they offer you food refuse at least three times before accepting.
A bit tricky because my previous girlfriend’s parents had just taught me to accept offers of food and drinks. To them THAT was a sign of friendliness and acceptance and feeling comfortable around someone.
I learned how the first born child is more important than the others.
I discovered Iranians abroad are deeply paranoid about meeting other Iranians. My enthusiatic ‘Hi, I have an Iranian colleague!’ was met with disgust.
I discovered that Iranian protesters are raped in prison by hired Arabs. ‘Because Persians don’t do that to each other.’
Persian logic requires a bit of creativity.
I learned that very central to Iranian shiites is the celebration of defeat way, way back at the battle of Kerbala. Building national or regional pride out of defeat is more common than you think. The Serbs do the same. Some in the southern United States do it as well.
One of the books I read on Iran was titled: ‘Behind closed doors everything is possible.’
That pretty much summed it up.
I read ‘Reading Lolita in Teheran.’
Beautiful book, but I don’t think it helped my situation.
I learned that Persians don’t take Islam too seriously.
Veiled young ladies have porn on their phone. And they are not too ashamed to show you.
Iranian women drive and are highly educated.
Yet their brother can snap their neck if they get a divorce.
To get off with a prostitute you have to marry her first. There is the option for a quick marriage that lasts less than an hour or so.
I learned how Iranian parents expect a future son in law to do all kinds of tasks for them.
I had to translate all kinds of texts about the breeding of fish from English to Dutch. Her father was an expert in fish. He had fled Iran after he had got a scholarship to study in the west. He could have gone back. His knowledge would have come in handy near the Caspian sea.
The man never smiled. He had found the bodies of his parents in the rubble after an earthquake.
I learned that trauma was central to the Iranian experience. Scars from the bloodiest conventional war since World War II. Those eight years Iraq and Iran had a good go at each other.
I went to interview an Iraqi cardiologist.
He blamed it all on the Iranians. Claimed the Iraqis had won. The reality was different. It was more like a stalemate and if you ask me today I say Iraq started the whole thing. With covert support and tacit approval of the west.
Her father had served in the navy at the time. I don’t think the navy saw much action.
Her aunt came over to Belgium while we were dating. Her brother had tried to kill her when she had got a divorce. Fleeing meant giving up her child. If I remember correctly her ex was addicted to opium.
It took me some time to realize that in Iranian culture appearances matter very much. So does money, because money is power. And Iranians feel threatened and want to feel powerful. Who’s more powerful than a physician or a surgeon? Life and death at your fingertips.
I learned that I am more the ‘kill you with kindness’ kind of person and that Iranians are more like ‘pretend to be vicious lion’ sort of people.
My girlfriend told me that in Arab culture the folk stories say that a daughter will choose her family over the bad boyfriend, but that in Iranian folk stories the daughter chooses the bad boyfriend over the family.
And so she did.
Two weeks after we had started dating I gave her a key to my tiny appartment. About two months later she moved in. Because they had kicked her out of the house. Her father made sure to pop round to say my house was unworthy of his daughter.
Sometimes he and her mother came back to try and kidnap her.
I discovered that if I got a bit angry and firm they backed down immediately.
One time her father came to yell at her from across the river in front of our besieged castle. Call it a moat. Add an imaginary draw bridge to make the picture complete. It’s how it felt.
Sometimes there was a thawing period and the mother would cook for us.
My physician-to-be studied a lot. I still remember bits and pieces of anatomy courses. Side effects of certain drugs. I cooked and fetched the groceries. Taught classes. Wrote a lot. Usually at night. Most of it went nowhere. Which was very humiliating on top of everything else. From time to time I sold a script for a theatre play on demand for 500 euro. Sometimes more. Acted for money a bit. 50 euro per performance or something like that. Crumbs for stuff that nobody remembers now.
We went to Palestine together. She assisted doctors on the West Bank, I interviewed patients. I heard a lot of every day horror stories. There was the vague promise of a publishing house that they wanted me to write a book about the experience. When I came back I thought there were already so many good books about the situation there that I didn’t feel like I had the right of adding any of my own. Sheep mentality? Sometimes the urge to go back there and stay longer catches hold of me again. All the Palestinians I met were very welcome. One man who took me to a refugee camp (25,000 people on one square kilometer) said: ‘You’re like one of us.’ Apparently I can pass more easily for Arab than for Persian. Or maybe not. We will get to that.
Spending a month in what’s still basically a war zone and having a whole family trying to drive you apart drives you closer together. More external pressure, more internal cohesion.
That’s on the surface.
All the while you are suppressing the little voice listing purely rational strategic options.
If you have a child the mother will kidnap it and take it to Iran.
When she finally starts making money she will ditch you.
She will become so focussed on her work she won’t have time for you anymore.
She will inevitably meet some fancy surgeon who will snatch her away.
Then came the death threats.
Her mother started a bombardment.
Not with scud rockets.
Those never hit anything.
Not Fajr-5 rockets either.
With text messages.
‘It would be sad if your mother would lose her only son.’
‘Your mother is only a cleaning lady.’
‘Your mother can’t write correctly in her own language’
‘Leave my daughter alone and do self-nursing.’
Self-nursing being her word for masturbation.
‘You’re not good enough for her.’
‘My husband has hired an Antillean gang to kill you.’
This may sound strange but as bad as all this sounds she was still not fully aiming for the jugular. She could have said even more insulting things.
Call me a sheep but even in a situation like that I have some empathy left.
I never responded, but once I finally lost it and called her. Yelled at her. By that point I dreamt of torturing her worse than the Gestapo would have.
She laughed a sharp phony laugh and hung up.
Insults are insidious. There is always a danger that you start believing them.
I told a friend they called me lazy.
He was shocked.
‘You’re the last person I would call lazy.’
Oh great, her parents hate me and now my friends don’t even know me.
I didn’t believe in. What he said made no sense.
In the end I gave up and put 1,200 kilometers between me and my girlfriend. To get some space to look at things more objectively. Find someone new. Someone whose mother would not try to kidnap my future child.
There are some who will say that love conquers all, but it doesn’t.
She was a wonderfully sweet girl. Very knowledgeable. Fairly well read. A bit of a movie lover. Excellent driver. Very do now, think later. More afraid of bees and wasps than of blood or Israeli sound bombs going off around us while staying in a former prison converted to a summer camp for children. Very supportive of my writing aspirations, no matter how bleak. Quite poetic in her own writing.
Not concerned with doing any household chores. Which back then I saw as a sign of refinement.
I have always attracted women from the medical field. Not sure why it so often makes for easy conversations. I never paid much attention during biology or chemistry classes. Maybe it’s the drive, the giant memory, the closeness to death and therefore also Eros, their dominant nature am attracted to. Maybe they appreciate I only appear to be a sheep. She certainly didn’t think I was a nice person. Her parents did. So I was liked by she who thought I wasn’t nice and disliked by those who thought I was too nice. This has been a pattern in my life.
I do not miss her.
I regret the times I treated her badly.
Though these days I am ready to say I left her better than I found her.
I sort of regret passing on several opportunities for the sake of staying with her.
I don’t regret the time we spent together.
We had great conversations, but eventually you can find those with other people if you just go your own way.
Though not all of them will give you a very graphic description of the sex change operation they have observed in the morning while also groping your body to point out where what kind of cut was made.
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
Rumi, Persian mystic.
One day her mum locked her daughter up in her room.
She was there for hours. No chance to get out.
I went to the police.
I myself found that a sheep like thing to do.
Something like running to the teacher when you can’t handle the school bully on the playground anymore.
They called her. She freely admitted she had sent all those threats.
I think they sent a police car just to pass by the house.
She never texted me again.
I think they even relaxed a bit about letting her see me.
By then I had pretty much had it.
From time to time her mother would bite her. In the arm for example. When she left the house to come and see me.
I got a compliment once.
Her father commented on my blog posts about Palestine.
The comment read: ‘Better than expected.’
When I got a short story published in a magazine for the first time I gave him a copy. He was not impressed and stiffly wished me success.
Maybe in the end we invite people into our lives who throw the labels at us we ourselves have been thinking about ourselves all along.
I do believe Freud got something right when he claimed humans do something called ‘trauma repetition.’
Almost two years ago I fell head over heels in love with a Lebanese woman who could have been a younger sister or at least a cousin of my Iranian girlfriend.
The prophecy of the Arab folk tales turned out to be true after about six months of classic courtship. Arab girls choose their parents over the bad boyfriend.
She said everything was fine until she imagined how her father would react. The end. Jella jella. The show must go on.
When someone feels the need to point out the very obvious fact that the book and series Normal People is also about the influence of class differences on a romantic relationship all this comes back to me.
There are nicer pictures of us, but I chose the one at the top of the article because it gives a sense of the quiet bewilderment that was a near permanent state back then.
You can read a much older post about this relationship that focuses more on the nice aspects here.
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