In 2007, she was amongst the cofounders of "The International Solidarity Network backing Feminists in Iran". From 2010 to 2014, she was a member of "Simone de Beauvoir Jury for Women's Liberties" (prixsimonedebeauvoir.blogspot.com). She writes in Persian and French, and she published a novel in French, Demande au mirror ("Ask the Mirror") in September 2015.
Sima Sharifi was born in Iran and came to Canada in 1986 as a political refugee. She holds a BA and MA in Linguistics from SFU, Burnaby, British Columbia where she also taught linguistics; currently she is pursuing a PhD in Translation Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. She is the cofounder of the Arctic Inspiration Prize. She has two passions: translating literature and the deep-rooted, unshakable belief in the freedom of press. Her academic background is in linguistics and translation studies. Her youth was-- and she is still-- immersed in political activism for democracy in which she was engaged while in Iran and for which she was imprisoned. With this background, she is always looking to translate Persian stories into English that are banned in Iran. Shahla Shafiq's "The Woman and the Young Man" is one of those stories.
The train corridor was full of passengers moving about, each looking for their own compartment; Nora was late and so she hurriedly jumped into the first one she laid an eye on.
"Excuse me, ma'am!" said a well-built male passenger with a suitcase in hand. He was walking toward Nora. She tried to clear a path for him.
Her head banged sharply into the metal partition of the passageway. But she first heard the sound of the impact before feeling the pain. Then she heard another voice coming from somewhere nearby.
"Oh la la la la!" said a sympathetic, gentle and slightly trembling male voice.
In an automatic reaction to the blow, the woman shut her eyes, and as she was following the path of pain in her head, she tried to pull herself together.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the large blue eyes of a young man staring at her with attentive compassion. The guy with the suitcase had disappeared.
"Does it hurt a lot?" said the blue-eyed man. A slight foreign accent added to the gentleness of his voice.
The woman thought he must be German. Her sister married a German man and Nora would often go to visit them in Berlin. As Nora got to know the brother-in-law and his German friends better, she came to the conclusion that the painful experience of German society with Fascism and the need to condemn it must have rendered intellectual German men less inclined to be domineering toward women. She was used to scrutinizing people's speech and conduct and to theorizing about their motivations and the consequences thereof. Her friends and extended family told her that instead of becoming an anesthesiologist she should have become a psychologist. This was not an unfounded insight; Nora had become a specialist in anesthesiology for a specific reason that she was afraid to voice for fear of being ridiculed.
At the time, she was interested in people's state of mind as they crossed from the unconscious to consciousness. She found herself fascinated by listening to people talk while still unconscious and free from the usual constraints of dialogue. But very soon, after only one year of working as anesthesiologist, the job had become boring and listening to the patients' incoherent and repetitive babble, which often signified nothing new or special, gradually lost its charm. The only thing that remained imprinted in her memory from that time was the image of a train—an image that was often and repeatedly spoken of by women who had undergone caesarean sections or abortions with anesthesia. When Nora's head banged into the metal partition of the train and her eyes were shut, the face of one of her past patients, a young woman, emerged in her mind; in the process of coming out of her unconscious daze, the woman had repeatedly asked, "Why doesn't the train stop?"
"How do you feel?" the young man asked while bending to pick up Nora's suitcase. He offered his arm to lean on and suggested they go to the train's coffee shop so that she could drink something. She silently agreed and went with him to the café.
The passengers had settled in their compartments. The café was quiet. The man escorted her to the bench by the window and then went to the bar. Nora looked at the happy smile of the young female bartender welcoming him; she said to herself, it's natural to be attracted by the freshness of the young man.
She repeated "freshness" and thought this word described quite rightly the feelings the young man had aroused in her. Or perhaps it was caused by the touch of his cool arm; she felt feverish. She closed her eyes and examined her head to look for the trace of the impact. As her finger came into contact with a large bulge at the point of the blow, pain shot inside her head. She closed her eyes and leaned against the back seat of the bench.
"Do you feel better?" asked the man. Nora opened her eyes. He was standing in front of her while holding a glass of water. The reflection of the red light at sunset covered the tall figure, clad in white, with a rainbow-coloured halo and a purple ray cast over his blond hair. She thought of the young man as a beautiful statue. This image however disappeared from her imagination once he sat on the bench beside her.
He asked again, "Do you feel better?" as he was handing her the water, and after a short pause he said, "How about asking the conductor to find a doctor from among the passengers?" Nora took the glass of water and thanked him, and then briefly explained that she herself was a doctor and did not feel so bad and certainly after a short rest, she would feel much better. With a gentle smile, the young man accepted her answer and did not say anything more. Nora was slowly drinking her water; he was watching the landscape through the window.
The red and orange colours of the houses' roofs along with the green, yellow, and amber colours of the trees mingled with the rapid motion of the train, all of which were in harmony with the scent of grapefruit oozing out from the man's body. These had a calming effect on Nora. With the last sip of water, she recovered her strength. She warmly thanked the man for his cordial company, and with that same gentle smile he offered her his arm and said that he would escort her to her compartment.
As she sensed the movement of the young man's muscles under her fingers, while he was walking at slow but deliberate pace, she said to herself, he can't be more than 21 years old. The only thing that made her doubt this assessment was the young man's graceful demeanour that was very different from the selfish negligence of youth these days that she found tedious. She decided to ask him about his age before saying goodbye. But upon reaching the compartment, which was vacant, the young man lightheartedly asked if he could also move into that same compartment. After she consented, he went to his compartment to bring his suitcase. As soon as she was alone, she regretted her response. Since her divorce seven years ago, she had discovered the joy of traveling alone. In her solitude she liked to watch the landscape that would appear and disappear with the passage of the train, as well as the stopping in stations and resuming of motion. The sound of the train's whistle would echo in the station and gradually fade in the fanfare of the wheels on the track; this to her ears was like a musical melody coming from afar, following and preceding the train all at the same time. She liked to let this feeling that was fusing the past and the future conquer her so that the present would fade.
Whenever she could, she traveled on the night train so this wonderful sense of melody accompanying her sleep would persist.
She thought, he may get off at the next stop. She inspected her face in the mirror above the chair. The smooth lines in her face and the slightly puffy eyelids looked as if she had woken up from a restful sleep. She poured out her medical and vanity bag from her suitcase, sedated herself with a pill, with disposable cleansing pads rubbed her hands, then massaged them with cream and perfumed her neck and back of her ears.
"Oh! The pleasant scent of roses!" said the young man as he entered.
Nora thought that a strong sense of smell was a sign of sexual potency; the arrival of such a thought slightly tormented her. The attraction of men toward young girls who could be their daughters had always baffled her. She recalled a conversation with a colleague a few months ago during a medical conference. At the dinner reception, a professor had come with his young female assistant. Nora was sitting next to a colleague who by pointing to the flirtatious professor with his young lover, had asked her why it is that men, more often than women, get involved in this kind of relationship. Nora responded that young men do not turn her on because their inexperience implied a lack of libido. Her colleague had replied that such a view is unique to women as they equate the young man with the child; it harks back to the fear of incest, because a woman considers herself a mother first and foremost.
Nora found her coworker's view to be inconsistent with her own personality. She never wanted to have children because, for her, motherhood was not a burning desire. Each time she had returned from visiting her sister and her sister's children, she told herself that being an aunt was quite sufficient. Her German brother-in-law had learned Persian because he found it a rich and beautiful language; he encouraged the children to do the same. Nora's visit made him happy because her presence provided an occasion for the whole family to speak Persian. And he tried to perform his best hospitality etiquette, which he had learned from the Iranians, or so he had said. But Nora felt stranger than ever in that large house whose every corner was furnished with some Iranian artifacts. The Berlin-Paris train felt like a bridge that took her from an alien world to her intimate universe.
"For me, the smell of the roses was always reminiscent of the East," the young man continued with an apologetic smile. "I know I said something cliché, but I wanted to say that your fragrance is in harmony with your beautiful accent. You must be from the East." And with his large blue eyes staring at Nora asked, "The Middle East?"
Nora wanted to turn this tedious question, which was often asked of her in every new encounter, into a little game, so she asked, "Which country in the Middle East?"
The young man with a serious tone exclaimed, "The land of the prophet!"
Nora said to herself, oh, here is another one who assumes I have Jewish roots!
While frequenting Germany, she reached the conclusion that every ordinary German would consider those with dark hair, pale skin, and a nose with a rounded tip as Jewish. And every time her theory was proven right, her belief in the salience of people's prejudice grew. But at this moment, the young man's words stirred in her a vague bitterness. She was wondering if his compassionate behaviour might not be the product of the emotions of the moment, but historical guilt instead.
The curious look of his blue eyes was now making her angry. She was looking for a cheeky riposte. But before she opened her mouth, the young man sprang up and declaimed with aplomb:
"A Human is a closed stanza between an animal and a super human, a stanza above the abyss. / It is beyond dangerous; on the path—hazardous being; a hazardous retrospection; hazardous shivering and delaying. / That which is great in humans is that they are a bridge not destination. / That which is pleasant in humans is that they can go below and beyond themselves."
The young man stopped, and for a moment stood silently. Then he sat down; he resumed his playfulness and called out, "Thus said Zoroaster!"
Nora's annoyance had dissolved; she asked, "Do you study theatre?"
"How I would have wished! But no! My grandmother didn't let me, so I went to philosophy. Now I am a third year philosophy student and my master's thesis is this book of Nietzsche."
The woman calculated his age by adding three university years to the end of high school age at 18, and concluded that her guess was correct—that he must be 21 years old.
With a contented smile, the young man added, "To tell you the truth, instead of going directly to philosophy, I wandered from one topic to another, and now at 25, I've just reached the end of my adolescent crisis, and I am where I want to be!"
Nora thought, he could have been the child I aborted 25 years ago!
Thanks to the pills that facilitated abortion, she hadn't needed surgery. She spent an entire summer morning in the dim-lit room of a hospital, enduring the painful contractions under her belly until a piece of a red slippery meat, resembling a strange kernel, was discharged out of her. She looked on as it was turning around under the siphon's pressure, and disappeared. And afterwards, she had imagined its slow dissipation through the long and twisted passage of the sewer system. Each time she thought about it, this scene—without any feelings of regret—had emerged in her mind. Sometimes she amused herself by the speculation about the kind of face or body that red mass could have become. But now, comparing the young man with the unknown child provoked unpleasant feelings.
The young man pensively and formally asked, "It's strange, it seems like I have known you for years," and with a mysterious smile, he continued, "actually you are my birthday gift!"
Nora was overwhelmed by contradictory emotions; she repeated automatically, "Your birthday?"
The young man said, "I was going to the bar to celebrate my coming into the world when I saw you, precisely in that moment when you closed your eyes without any cry. The man who caused the collision didn't realize what happened. But I saw your face and how can I put it—in that moment I saw the passage of emotions in your face that dazzled me, something like…"
Nora cut him off, "Yes! In that moment, obviously, you saw in my face the transmission of pain!" and she thought, this young man has a tendency to look for a mysterious dimension in every incident.
The young man shook his head, "It was not a mere pain; it was some kind of astonishment."
Nora recalled the scene that had filled her mind, at the time when she had closed her eyes, and she described it to the young man who was listening to her with great interest. At the end, as if talking to herself, she asked, "But why did this image come to mind at that moment?" and she recounted the answer that had come to her at the same time as the question, "I felt the world turn dark in front of my eyes. With every jerk of the train, pain was spreading in my head and the sound of the wheels was blowing in my ears. I was filled with a strange anxiety, as if in the darkness I was moving to an unspecified destination; I wanted the train to stop and to get off. These emotions brought the image of that woman who kept asking why the train doesn't stop."
"Perhaps, unlike you, that woman had wanted to remain in the unknown world where she had been, she had imagined that the train was bringing her out of that world and wanted to stop it so the awakening might not come, so the dream might continue!"
The young man paused; then giddy with excitement he added, "Yes, I got it! This was the reason for your bewildered face! The standoff with two conflicting desires, your desire to leave the unknown world and the woman's desire to remain in it!"
With a smile, Nora said, "Anyway, your voice brought me back to the known world," and then in order to put a stop to a conversation that, in her opinion, had become excessively psychological said, "At any rate, I hope I didn't ruin your birthday. To make sure of this, I would like to invite you for dinner in the train restaurant."
"I gladly accept," added the young man happily, "this way the celebration will continue!"
The waiter with a black suit and white shirt politely offered them the menu. Nora was looking around. The green tablecloths and the long candles lit in the bronze candelabra had given the restaurant a romantic mood. She said to the young man who was carefully studying the menu, "I have never before come for dinner to this restaurant."
"It is my second time. Last time I came with my grandmother", he said, lifted his eyes from the menu, and lightheartedly announced, "I would start with foie gras salad and then order fish filet and finally chocolate for dessert."
Nora said, "You can order the same for me too, the choice of wine is also yours!"
The young man called for the waiter and ordered a bottle of white wine. After the waiter left, he leaned towards her and quietly said, "You must've guessed that financially I cannot afford being in a first class train car and dine in a relatively expensive restaurant. Last time I was my grandmother's guest. This time, as a gift for my birthday, she gave me a return ticket to Paris in a first class car; she knows how I love spending the night in trains!"
"To explain the reason, you should hear my life story, are you up for it?"
Without waiting for Nora's answer, he pleaded, "Please say yes, because I would really like to tell you my story!"
So, as they were having dinner, Nora listened to the story of the young man's life.
He was born from an unknown mother in Berlin and at the age of seven months, a couple who had lost their child in a car accident adopted him. The accident had occurred on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The young couple, along with their child, had gone on an outing. Along a country road, the man was driving slowly and memorizing his lines for a play that was supposed to open the night after. The woman was listening to him while breastfeeding the baby. They both worked in the theatre, an occupation that was a job as well as their passion. Three months before the baby's birth, she had quit her job so that when the child became one year, in five months, she would go back to work. The impact of the accident was so severe that it had torn the child from his mother's arms and hurled him out of the open window. The child died, but the mother survived with a broken arm and a deep wound above her right eyebrow, a wound whose trace had snatched, forever, the happiness from her cheerful face. The husband was not hurt.
After the death of her child, the woman suffered from a severe depression and to get rid of it, she decided to adopt a child of the same age as her lost baby. The husband did not agree, but for the sake of the wife and to save their relationship he consented. So they adopted a seven-month-old child who had been abandoned in a railway station. After he was taken to a nursery, nobody had come for him. But adopting the child, whose name was Andreas, did not cure her depression. And to escape grief, she immersed herself in her work. The wife and husband had spent most of their time at the theatre and left the child under the care of the grandmother who, after separating from her husband years ago, had raised her daughter, her only child, all on her own. In the absence of the couple, the grandma had happily undertaken the parenting duties of her daughter's son. So, when the couple decided to immigrate to France for a possible change of circumstances, Andreas, who was then three years old, stayed with the grandmother.
In the years that followed, the grandmother had often taken him to his adoptive parents during the school holidays. As an adolescent, he occasionally had gone to see his adoptive parents who, in the meantime, had two new daughters.
After narrating the story, the young man leaned forward and with a cheerful tone said to Nora, "As the true child of the railway station, this year I decided to celebrate my birthday on the train."
Nora said, "Knowing one's parents doesn't really entail not feeling like an orphan." After a short pause, she continued, "Twenty-three years ago when the Islamists in Iran shut down the universities for their cultural revolution, I fled Iran. To tell you the truth, it was the day when a fourteen- to fifteen-year-old boy with a Kalashnikov stopped me in the street and asked, 'Where is your veil?' I felt I was becoming a prisoner. My parents said, 'Get married, then leave the country with your spouse.' They were always worried that I might get too old and not find a husband. Finally, I convinced them and left the country unmarried. From far away, they were still permanently concerned with my settling down, but when they found out I wanted to marry a black man, they sulked for a while. Even my husband's status as a medical doctor was not a consolation to them. Later, we reconciled, but as time went on, I became increasingly distant from all members of my family whose words and beliefs more than ever became foreign and increasingly bizarre to me. Now I only have a close relationship with my sister who lives in Germany."
After a long pause, she added meditatively, "I think the main reason why we are still in touch is because her German husband is making an effort to maintain our relationship. Besides, I am pretty sure that this German man, by falling in love with my sister and having a family with her, has somehow resolved the painful knot of his German roots! His parents were members of the Nazi youth and this troubles him deeply."
She sighed lamentably, "Until the end of his life, he will carry the cross of his parents' crime! If he didn't know them, he would've been much better off."
The young man picked and ate the last crumbs of the chocolate cake and looked through the window.
In the middle of the dark blue sky, the almost full moon was glimmering. The images of the trees and houses blended into figures from the speeding motion of the train; the bright moon floated these figures in its silvery light.
The young man looked away from the window and spoke in a deliberate manner.
"In the middle of the night, I wake up and look at the sky through the window. The train passes by, but the moon is still there. We carry on, but the moon remains there and shines to perfection. In this very second, we live the whole of the present moment! As if I grip time in my hand for a little while. Then I open my hand, time flows again and takes me away with it."
Nora countered, "I yield to the lullaby of the train, it passes by and reads in my ear that we are passing! That it is possible to pass! To pass by the past and pass!"
The young man smiled. "Tonight I will try not to make the slightest noise so that I won't disturb the music of passing!" he informed her.
After returning to the compartment, the young man prepared his sleeping berth. Then he pulled out a white robe from his suitcase and laid it on the pillow. He fitted the toothbrush, soap and a comb into the little leather pouch attached to his belt. He told Nora that he would be going out for an excursion and that it may take a while; he would try not to disturb her sleep when he comes back.
After the young man left, Nora prepared her own berth. Then, she opened the window to perform her usual exercise. Every night, before going to bed, she stands in front of an open window, focusing entirely on her body, deeply inhaling and exhaling to discharge the work-related fatigue and stress. In those moments, as she breaths in the fresh air, she enjoys the gradual loosening of her contracted muscles, and before long she finds herself sound asleep.
She was standing in front of the window, her ears filled with the sound of the wheels on the rails and as she intensely inhaled the scent of the summer night, an unusual feeling unfurled through her body—a caressing wave accompanied by a slight tremor. Suddenly, she felt like entrusting her body to water by taking a shower. She had always avoided the train's bathroom as she was skeptical of its hygiene. But this time, she had such an intense desire to put her body in touch with the water that she hurried toward the bath with no sense of apprehension whatsoever. For several long minutes, she let the lukewarm water caress her body. After returning to the compartment, she switched off the light and slowly and gently massaged her body with a scented lotion. Then she put on her pyjamas and before slipping under the bed sheet, she perfumed herself. Soon after, she dived into a deep sleep.
Around midnight, the quiet opening of the compartment door woke her up. She opened her eyes. The young man had come back from his excursion. In order not to make him uncomfortable, the woman stayed in bed motionless. Wrapped in scented linen, as if woken up from a long and restful sleep, she had a sensation of ecstatic calmness. As he tried not to make noise, the young man slowly took off his clothes. Under the silvery light of the moon that shone through the window, his calm and harmonious movements looked like a fantastic dance in the interrupted music of the wheels' motion. He got naked and leisurely put on his white robe, then went to the half-open window. For a while he stayed there motionless. Then, he slowly returned to his bed and sat on its edge, with an upright back, elongated neck and closed eyes, opposite Nora's bed.
She looked at the pale and motionless lines of his face, as if he were a statue. With his eyes shut, the young man remained at the edge of his bed. Then he opened his eyes, stared at Nora, but he was still motionless. Nora extended her arm towards him. The young man slowly got up and came towards her. She opened a space in the bed for him. The young man gently slipped under the linen and into her arms. While deeply breathing, he pressed himself onto her breasts. His body was cold. Nora searched for his lips. His mouth smelled of grapefruit.
After a long impassioned kiss, the young man murmured, "How delightful!"
A torrent of passionate yearning flooded her body. She folded him in her arms with ardour, then gently straightened her torso and unbuttoned her dress till she was naked. She pulled off the man's robe and pressed her nude body against his.
He whispered in her ear, "I am unable! I cannot make love to women. I…I am gay."
The young man went quiet. He was breathing rapidly and hid his head in Nora's breasts. Then, he resumed his whisper, "But how delightful!"
"A pure pleasure," Nora elaborated. And as she pleasantly and joyfully pressed the man's head against her breasts, she breathed a deep sigh. "I wish the train would never stop."