Ajam Media Collective and Elsewhere Lit are bringing you #Banned Literature, featuring stories, essays and poems from Trump’s seven banned countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. If you are interested, see our call for submissions and guidelines here.
Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran, grew up in Seattle, and lives in San Francisco. He has published in Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, Kenyon Review Online, and several other journals. His collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
***When they were new to America, Goli Rad attended beauty school while her husband Vahid worked behind the counter at his uncle’s corner store. In the evening as they ate dinner, she would tell him about what she had learned that day.
“I don’t know,” he would say. “I don’t know if these people can be made beautiful.”
He was joking, but the joke would find its way to a story of a customer who had been rude or demanding or hadn’t known how to make conversation with him when he’d given them the chance.
“Well,” she would say. “I have to try. We’re here now, so I have to try.”
One evening when he had had a particularly difficult day, her husband said, “Even the way they want to become beautiful is wrong. They want to become more shiny and more fake.”
“I can help them,” Goli said. “I can help them become more beautiful as they are.”
“Can you help them to be more friendly when they come into the store?”
“Can you tell them it is impossible to be beautiful if you are talking on your phone at the same time that you are buying something?”
“Now you are being unfair. There were people in Iran who would do that too.”
“In Iran they would be embarrassed to do it. Here they are not embarrassed. They do not believe in being embarrassed.”
They went like that for a while, Goli concerned with Americans’ beauty in the day and listening to her husband talk of Americans’ ugliness at night. One night she told her husband that she couldn’t hear it any more.
“I cannot help a woman become more beautiful if I do not believe she can be beautiful,” she said.
“I understand that,” Vahid said. “But when I am at the store, it is nice to know that I can come home and tell you about the people there.”
“But you only tell me about the bad things.”
“There are more of the bad things.”
“It would be good if you could tell me more of the good things. There is the park by the store. There are the children who come in after school. I can go to school and learn the techniques, but if I am going to be good at it, I have to care about the women becoming more beautiful. We are here now. These are the people we have.”
“We have my uncle and his family.”
“Well, we cannot talk about them every night.”
The next day at work Vahid walked to the park for his lunch instead of eating in the back room. He watched some young men playing basketball. He watched the mothers with their children in the playground. It was a nice enough country, he thought.
But when he got home, what stuck in his memory from the day was a man who had thrown a handful of pennies carelessly on the counter and walked out.
“Can I tell you about one ugly thing that happened today?” he said.
After he told her, Goli did not feel any less belief in her work. She thought of the wife of the man who had done that, or the wife of some man who threw a handful of pennies on the counter. She thought that she ought to look nice as she tried to soften that man, as she tried to have him slow down, so that when it came time for him to pay for something at a corner store, he would do it like a gentleman.
“Tell me about one beautiful thing that happened today,” she said.
Her husband told her about going to the park for his lunch and everybody he had seen there.
After that her husband told Goli one ugly thing for every one beautiful thing from his day, and vice versa. She could take the beautiful thing with her to the school to think about making Americans beautiful, and she could take the ugly thing with her too to think about the need for making them beautiful. It was as though she couldn’t lose.
It was a way she had not had to be in Iran. Back home she and Vahid could talk about anything they wanted, and when they went outside, they already knew they were a part of both, the ugliness and the beauty. She supposed that the ugliness had outweighed the beauty, and that was why they had finally decided to leave. But in America they had to be a little more even about it. They had to be a little more purposeful about it. It had to do with more than the beauty school. The America they made talking together at night was the America they would take with them tomorrow.
One night Vahid said, “We are getting old. This is how old people talk, as though there has to be a balance in everything.”
That night in bed, Goli thought, we are old. We lived a whole life before we even came here. I feel old compared to the other girls at the school. But I would not want to be young the way they are young.
Anyway, she thought, there is a balance in everything. There has to be a balance when you have a home where you know everybody and come to a place where you can breathe a little but you are alone.
She wondered if she was asking too much of her husband. It really did help her at the school to look for the beauty in Americans, to look for the beauty in their stories and lives. But her husband’s job did not have that kind of purpose to it.
The next morning she said, “You are right. Everything does not have to have a balance to it. We do not have to talk like we are old.”
“It is all right,” Vahid said. “I am old.”
Goli felt sad for her husband all day for the way he had called himself old. He was twenty-six years old, two years older than she was.
When they were having dinner that night, Goli said, “I was thinking that there should be one night a week that we just make fun of Americans.”
Vahid’s eyes lit up. “What about the beauty school?”
“It is more important that we laugh.”
“That would be very nice,” Vahid said. “But I don’t want to be the only one.”
Goli looked down. “I don’t know how much I can do it.”
Vahid looked at his wife. “If you had gone to beauty school in Iran, do you think you would be able to joke about the people with me at night and then go to school the next day to learn how to make them beautiful?”
“Yes. But that is Iran. I already know them there. I know how joking about them and learning to make them beautiful are part of the same thing.”
“It is the same thing here. We have to make it the same thing here. That is what it means to come to a new place. They may not look at us and think that it is the same thing here for us, but we have to show them that it is.”
“You are braver than I am.”
“Maybe it is brave or maybe it is crazy. Either way I think we can do it. But I think you have the right idea: We should start slowly. One night a week, just like you said.”
“Okay,” Goli said.
“And it has to be both of us.”
“But there might be some nights when I do a little more making fun of Americans than you.”
Goli laughed. “That’s all right,” she said to her husband.
“Only a little,” he said. “Because I don’t know if you have seen this thing they do when they are telling someone about something that happened to them, and they suddenly forget the word for the feeling they are describing. So they say, ‘I was like..’ and instead of saying ‘angry,’ they make their face like this:” He made an angry face.
“Yes,” Goli said, laughing. “I have seen it. ‘I was like..’,” and she made a shocked face.
It was a Thursday night, so Vahid said, “I think Thursday nights should be the night that we make fun of Americans.”
“Good. I am like,” and he made a happy face.
“I am like that too,” Goli said.