Type
Article
Category
Culture
Long read
Memory

The trace of the place

For many of us our sense of identity is shaped by our childhood homes. Where we eat our meals, where we sleep night after night, the rituals of food preparation, religious and family events, all sketch the first map of our self. For me, having experienced imprisonment and having been forced to leave my native country as a political refugee, the concept of home is more about how I have obtained my sense of self by examining my experiences and writing about them.

My childhood home was too small for a family of five children, so I didn’t have my own room. Instead, I had a small cabinet of my own that my parents bought for me when I started primary school. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space, ‘wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life.’ I imagined this wooden wardrobe as my spaceship. Anytime I needed to be alone, away from my noisy brothers and sister, I would sit on my pile of clothes and travel around the world and the universe in my mind. I travelled to faraway lands, passed over oceans, and across mountains. I took risks and indulged my sense of adventure by imagining what I could do from my castle of power.

It was in the security of my home that I learnt that whenever I felt or imagined I was in danger; safety was just a wooden door away.

*

My childhood and teenage years were full of security and happiness; I was sheltered due to the effort of two wonderful parents. At that time, I really didn’t know what was going on outside of my home. It was university life that expanded my understanding of the outside world. I learnt to do things on my own, buy the food I wanted and wear the clothes I chose. My classmates were no longer just our next-door neighbours’ children. As part of our art and cultural history subjects, we took excursions around the country’s cultural, architectural and historical sites, such as Ghavam Ol-doleh’s House, the the House of Dr Hesabi in Tehran, or Boroujerdi-ha house in Kashan. During those visits, I learnt about the traditional Iranian residential homes and the binary division of andaruni and biruni.

Biruni was the public space where social interactions happened. It was traditionally regarded mainly as a masculine space but not in today’s modern urban life. Andaruni, by contrast, used to be more enclosed and part of the feminine domain.

My childhood home wasn’t a traditional building with andaruni and biruni areas. It was in a suburb of Tehran called Yousef Abad and had been transformed a few times. By the time I entered the university, the buildings were completely modernized. The only spaces that could be considered private were bedrooms. My wardrobe was located in the wide hallway between bedrooms and the main living room.

One day after class, a group of girls and I decided to go to a local café for ice-cream. Two girls from small provincial cities said that they were not allowed to go anywhere after class. I learnt that those small, friendly and innocent gatherings after our classes were seen by some families as a danger zone where their girls would be corrupted morally. The gatherings were banned because they occurred outside their homes, which in their parents’ traditional views considered as a male space and hence made it dangerous for the girls. Later on, I was invited to one of these classmates’ home to study for our final exams. Her home was in the South of Tehran and the building a traditional residential one with andaruni and biruni sections. Bachelard writes about outside and inside being the source of a division and a stimulator for dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything.

I didn’t know about this division at that time – partly due to ignorance of the traditional residential architecture and partly because of my own lack of experience living in one of these divided houses. The houses in Yousef Abad, where I lived as child and as a teenager, didn’t have that traditional residential structure because they were part of a new development in what was the main residential area for migrants from other states of Iran. My family came from Azerbaijan as did our many other neighbours.

*

My first home in Sydney, when I arrived in 1988 with my husband and my two-year-old son, was in a Villawood hostel, which these days accommodates the notorious Detention Centre. The immigration bus drove us from the airport through a highway to the remote area in Western Sydney. I looked at strange houses, the single-storeyed weatherboard houses; people with singlets, shorts and thongs made the area looked more like something temporary and unstable, a scene of a holiday.

The buildings in the hostel all looked the same; all were cladded in prefabricated weatherboard. This sense of a holiday ambience increased each time the train stopped or started at the nearby Villawood train station. The sound of trains arriving and departing reminded us that this new life, too, was a stopover, a station between our past and our future. Now, in this immigration bus, all of us, all refugees from every corner of the troubled planet, were looking at this strange landscape without having any memory of it. We were not a group, just individuals who belonged to nothing now except our past. The landscape in front of my eyes – I had no memory with which to define it with. Instead, I remembered those things that I now had lost, the home landscape, the streets of Yousef Abad with chains of girls lined up to hop, boys kicking a plastic ball, the squeaky wheels of bicycles.

We sat until the immigration officer – an old woman with thick glasses – came to call our names. It took a while for each name to be called, all mispronounced. When my name came, or what I thought was my name, I felt as if there was another version of me there, something outside of me, a biruni of self, and a new self which this strange woman could see. Who is that? I thought to myself. Who is this person in the outside space? Then those words came, which I didn’t understand: instructions about the roles and regulations on how to live in this new place. Now I was in the language wardrobe, but if they even shout their whisper to my ears, I wouldn’t know their secrets. This outside world, this new biruni, frightened me. I took refuge in the andaruni of my own language, hiding myself behind words that could protect me – ‘Be patient, be patient for your child.’ It felt more like a prayer. Does Australia have the same protector as I had at home?

I couldn’t ignore that inner voice inside me saying that this massive country perhaps is another version of captivity. I could see and feel this vast space as another prison. Thirty years later, I look at myself in the mirror; I have lost all my ground, my home, my extended family, my country, my language and my culture just to survive. In spite of all the kindness I have received in my new country, for many years I had tried not to think about the past with the fear of seeing the limitation of my freedom.

*

One of my memories of my two years of imprisonment is of the special festival night in the Persian calendar called ‘Shabeh Yalda’. On this night, Iranians celebrate the longest and darkest night of the year. I was born on one of these nights.

I had just returned to my cell after my monthly family visit with my mother. I took off my blindfold and sat in a corner, remembering our conversation. My mother told me that my youngest brother had been sent to the front and there had been no news of him for weeks now. My brother was almost seventeen and it was my twenty-fourth birthday. Sitting in my cell, I watched the snowflakes descending through a small square of my window. That slice of sky triggered my imagination, conjuring celebrations we had on the other years, before war. Gathering the family together, we eat, drink and read poetry – especially Hafez – until past midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons, which are symbolic for their red colour, representing the crimson hues of dawn and the glow of life.

Our eating routine in prison was breakfast at 6 in the morning, lunch from noon to 1 pm and dinner from 5 to 6 pm. During our weekly exercise time in the small prison-yard, we used to talk about those festival nights together. The prisoner always is hungry and sees the outside in her dreams. Now we all were individuals, with some shared customs, folklore and language – but prison exacerbated our difference.

The hostel’s setting, with its similar rooms, army-style bedding, carpet-less floors – the opposite of Persian flooring – communal eating area and guards at the gate resembled not only prison, but a ‘placesless place’. Australia was a utopia, a promise of safety and quiet life. But it was also an absence, the lack of memory and experience. Moreover, I lived in a darkened mirror of language, my name mispronounced on another’s tongue but still the name of the person/prisoner I was in the process of becoming.

Standing at the corner of our room, I listened to the outside. Where had sound gone? Where had taste gone? What can the blindfolded prisoner see, wardrobes, visible darkness, brothers at the front, and the synaesthesia of home?

This immigration hostel has a poor reputation due to being a detention centre for refugees. We were divided and separated from the rest of the society by this title, ‘refugees’. There wasn’t a lock on the doors but invisible barriers. We had to show our immigration ID coming and leaving the hostel. Our food and rent and use of social benefit money were decided by those in charge. They deducted the rent and food. With the small money left, we could buy bus or train tickets or have small meals outside the hostel – mainly treats for children, or fast food. I am uncertain as to what the authorities thought we would frivolously waste our money on. I am guessing cigarette, alcohol, gambling, perhaps pistachios or shirini.

The detention centre served mainly cold food_ sliced cold ham, chicken and roast beef, potato salad, cordial and white slices of toast bread, set in same-sized, disposable plates. A bell would summon all residents to the kitchen for each meal. We sat next to those who came from our own countries; probably because of their fear of us being misunderstood or of causing offence, like asking for a second serve, or complaining about the coldness of the ham or the paucity and blandness of the potato salad. We sat and looked at each other in silence, not seeing each other, not knowing anything about each other, not knowing anything around us in the present or for the future, the past. We were all blindfolded, left alone to deal with our own anxiety.

There were events organised by the immigration centre to introduce us to the culture and way of life of Australia. Those events were facilitated by and with our English teacher, who once took us for an excursion to Bondi Beach. We went by train. The salty air was soaked with the odour of McDonald’s, sausages, donuts; foods and smells all unknown to us. Our teacher constantly encouraged us to talk to each other, herself and the vendors in English. But we were mute, looking around this beautiful, vast beach and its half-naked people. People smelt of coconut oil and Aerogard. The landscape was like a gigantic hammock that swayed on the breath of the beach wind.

For the next few months, I heard sounds and voices but no words. Our beings are so closely knitted to language; our sense of being, desire, security and intelligence all comes from our native words. Language felt like a root carved out from me. I had lost irony, humour, satire. How could I open the door to capture poetic expression and subtlety in this new language? I was mute. I stopped talking, reading and writing for a while. I had to go inside myself to be able to find a door to the outside and my other self, my writing self, my intellectual self. Having a limited space would help me to find a new imagination for writing again.

I didn’t know much about Australia. Through our English class and our excursions to different areas in Sydney, I learned that the oldest civilisation belonged to this land. They came more than forty thousand years ago. But when we travelled by bus or train around this big city, what I saw through the window didn’t suggest ancient-ness. Where are the ruins? I asked myself. Where are the old times? Everything looked new, relaxed. Too relaxed.

It was a quiet, relaxed society. It was gentle, green and clean and yet confronting. Can I make a home here? We were driving, passing peacefully from one street to another, from one area to another, from one suburb to another. We reached the suburb of Manly; I separated myself from the group and sit at the shore. It wasn’t as busy as the other beach. My ears which had the sensitivity of a small wardrobe traveller were not accustomed to the sound of sea waves and strange bird sounds, not singing but crying. In the Farsi language, a bird singing is always associated with poetry, the songs of behesht; but kookaburra singing was like a riot, the songs of jahanam.

*

Inside my wardrobe, not only I could smell the freshness of azure soaked linen, but also the smell of the day. At midday, my grandparents would have a second breakfast of oven-baked lavash bread with freshly-brewed black tea. My mother and my aunt would go on with the preparation of lunch and dinner. I remembr the smell of freshly chopped herbs – chives and parcel in summer, shallots and oregano in winter – and then the smell of frying onion, eggplants and zucchini. What remained with me from those intimate moments I had experienced in the wardrobe was the psychological pattern of aromas, especially the smell of food and sweets.

In the Villawood kitchen. with its odourless foods, nothing smelled of home. At home we had revolution and war, political persecution and a blurred future, but we also had our family and friends and shared our meals with them. Every special moment in our calendar was a ritual, such as the Persian New Year on twenty-first of March. Saffron rice with herbs and fish is a common food or the fire festival a week before New Year’s Day, when fried almond, hazelnut and pistachio are served with crystal sugar-sweetened black tea. On the religious festival of sacrifice, or Gorbani, a sheep would be slaughtered and the meat shared in the neighbourhood. The smell of sweets and foods such as shirin polo, sweet rice with chicken and saffron, scented the neighbourhood on wedding nights. While spaces have physical presence to revisit, the volatile memory of smell and sound are more difficult to remember.

*

A prisoner sitting in her cell can’t see the world as before, but she can smell and hear the seasonal changes. The flowers, Gole Yakh, the wind Saba, sparrows singing, the far away hums of cars and bus noises of her city. Inside the cell, the prisoner is always thinking about the outside; the body inside, the mind outside. In some moments. the sweet smell and sound of outside becomes unbearable. When outside becomes a prison in her mind, she closes her window, wishing she didn’t have even this small access to the outside world.

Sitting in my prison cell, blindfolded, smelling prison detergent on my blanket, I imagined my wooden wardrobe. Memory became painful. All the sense of familiarity which we once associated with everyday life had evaporated. We didn’t talk, not even with those who were sitting next to us and spoke our language. Staring at each other, we ate our cold and generic food. We were not connected to one another as a group, or community, or even families; we were there just eating (or not) to survive. Inside our room at the hostel, the bed sheets smelled of the same detergent as in prison – a mixture of artificial jasmine and chlorine. Here, I was free from prison, out of my country, free in this new country, new home, and inside this new home, new room, the smell haunted me; as if it had followed me all the way from the other side of the globe.

When we lose touch with the past, when we are trespassing time, imagination helps to resuscitate it for a moment. Even the saddest memory carries with it an ounce of happiness and the happiest memory is clouded with sadness. The vibration of these moments fades away soon. No matter how hard we try, how many traces we keep with a hope to use in the future, or for future generations, there still will be some broken points in the thread. That is the nature of time – which is memory.

 *

I am writing today in present time, mapping the identity of a migrant, tracing the past from a fragile shore of safety, mediating in a foreign language, recording experiences of living in a distant home. I spent two years of my life in prison from 1982-1984 because of my political beliefs. In Australia, through years of living far from my home-country I lost interest in politics. My passion took another direction in writing and literature. But a person’s past continues to follow to the present and the future. This elongation of time requires a new vision about life.

Now, after thirty years, I look in the mirror and what I see is the life of a woman similar to me. I look at myself. Is this a new self or I have been lured to the witch’s house with the smell of gingerbread? Did the self I know ever come out of the wardrobe? Or is the wardrobe lost in the universe of displacement and exile?

In Australia, I took off my blindfold and landed in the other corner of the globe; I was still mute for a long time. The strange words came out of my mouth in strange sounds. Australia gave me freedom; freedom and safety. But I wasn’t sure that the machinery of freedom was engineered to give birth to my happiness or contentedness. Those I still had to obtain from something or somewhere else.

I started my life in Sydney in present abeyance, breathing the air of an outsider. Now I have all the freedom to live in the solitude of my family. I belong to nowhere – hence this new country remains an elsewhere to me after all these years.

 

Image by Marcin Czerniawski

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Nasrin Mahoutchi is a writer and art practitioner. Nasrin writes in Farsi (Persian) and English languages. Her short stories have been published in anthologies such as HEAT, Southerly, and Meanjin. Her works has been broadcast on ABC Radio, Radio Eye, and on Persian Radio. She has a doctorate of creative art (DCA) degree. Her creative component is a novel based in Iran and her exegesis is a series of essays covering topics of exile and displacement, writing in English as a second language, private and public, and the meaning of home. Her short story, ‘Standing in the cold’, was selected for Best Australian Stories 2016.

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Comments

  1. Evocative and haunting, this story touches so many nerves, and as a migrant woman myself, I share her sense of ‘andaruni’ an interior space that one keeps hidden but visits occasionally when thirsty for connections to a lost past.

  2. This article gave me insight into the experience, fearfully unwelcoming, of refugees with their incredible experiences, who should be celebrated as heroes not regarded under suspicious gazes as practically felons, into this ‘relaxed’ country. It is an important perspective, thank you.

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