My Persian Grandmother: Haj Khanom
I am not very close to my family and I am not someone who values family highly. I don’t have children, my closest relatives all live on the other side of the world and the only person I sometimes still talk to is my mother. And I am not much bothered by it all. With the trauma in my past, being in close touch with them would most likely be too triggering to me. But there are three people in my family that I admire and that I still think fondly of: my German maternal grandparents and my Persian paternal grandmother.
My Maternal Grandparents
My German grandparents had been through so much in their lives. My grandfather was forced against to fight in World War II when he was 14 years old, lost one his legs when he was hit by splinters of a grenade and was a prisoner of war for years in France. And my grandmother was very young when the war started, she had to take care of her 13 siblings, and lost four of them in bombings.
My grandparents lived together in deep poverty for many years, but they worked hard and eventually got some stability in their lives. My grandfather died in the early 1990s, my grandmother only four years ago. Their hard work and their attitude towards life have always been inspiring to me. I miss them dearly. They were good people that were forced into a terrible situation, and they were able to turn life around and just carry on.
My Persian grandmother lived a very different life. And it is her I want to dedicate this post to. I only met her once in my life, but those weeks spent with her left a deep impression on me. The kind of person she was, this warm and caring woman, was a crude contrast to the son she raised, my father. She knew that he wasn’t a good person, and she even apologized for not being able to raise the evil out of him. It felt so validating when she said to a 9 year old me.
We called her Haj Khanom, which means lovely woman who has traveled to Mecca. Let me tell you her life’s story. She was born in the late 1910s. I never got to know which year exactly. She was born in the city of Shiraz, in Iran, the city of poetry, as it is called. When she was 11 years old, she was married against her will to a man who was 40 years older than her. He was a middle class merchant who had a lot of respect in the community, she came from an artist family with not a lot of money. So for them, it seemed like a good transaction: they got paid to give their daughter to this man, and they made sure that she was taken care of financially.
At 11 years old, she moved in with this man who she didn’t know. And he was not a nice man. He was violent, he thought he owned the world. She was forced to take care of the household, but also got homeschooled. She was very unhappy. And she couldn’t be around girls her own age. She was supposed to dress up every day, to cook, to keep the house clean and she had nowhere to go.
She tried to run away several times, the first time a few days after the wedding, the last time before she was of child-bearing age. But each time, she was picked up by the authorities and brought back to her husband. As you can imagine, back in the day in Iran, it was quite hard to be a woman. It is not easy now either, but there were about 15 years of freedom up until the late 1970s/early 1980s when it turned into an Islamic Republic and the Shah had to leave. Ah, enough history lessons.
Her husband was not only well-respected, but also feared. No one dared to speak up against him. He was the kind of Pasha you’d imagine if you think of negative Persian stereotypes. I have never met him, but from what she told me, and both my parents told me, he was a horrible man. My own father ran away from home many times as a child because he got constantly beaten up.
My grandmother eventually had no choice but to stay. She convinced her husband that she gets classes in piano playing, in painting, in poetry writing. So she took care of the household, and learnt the arts. She had three sons which meant that she had done her job as a wife. But as a mother, most of her time was spent protecting her children from her violent husband. She had many broken bones and black eyes and there are pictures of her from the 1950s, on crutches and covering her whole face with a hijab to hide bruises.
But she didn’t give up. She focused on her faith and her art. She went to Mecca and trusted that Allah would help her. Her faith was very strong, but she never tried to convince anyone that it was the one true faith. It was very personal to her, not something she felt others needed to share with her. She started writing more poetry, she wrote a daily journal and she created a lot of stunning paintings (we had one of them hanging in our living room when I grew up). And she played music. She said that art cleared her mind, while her faith gave power to her heart.
In 1979, almost 90 years old, her husband died. And that is when she started living. The company was now taken care of by her two other sons (the ones who had stayed in Iran, not my father), and she could focus on the beautiful things in life. She created art, she wrote, she even wrote her own songs. She got live another 15 years.
I remember clearly when I first met her. She had come from Iran to Germany while my sister and I were out on a trip with the scouts. My mum fetched us from the train station and when we drove up to our house, Haj Khanom was sitting on the stairs in front of our house. She was a short woman, wearing black and a dark blue head scarf. And when we got out of the car, she hugged us, kissed us, and cried of happiness. I felt an affinity to her right away. She was warm, caring and she smelled of herbs.
The next few months, I spent every minute with her. I even slept in her bed. And I watched her dry herbs and pickle veggies the Persian way. I listened to her sing. And I watched her pray. I brushed her wonderful long silver hair. And I listened to her stories. I could understand Farsi back then, although speaking it was more difficult for me. I loved that woman. She was short, she was wrinkled, but she was very beautiful. I learnt how to prepare some Persian food, I learnt a lot about Islam, hut most of all, I learnt from the stories she told me.
I watched her cry when she talked about getting married at such a young age. And I hugged her when she apologized for my father being evil. I nodded when she told me to create, to listen to my inner voice and to never lose my curiosity. That’s something that has stayed with me forever.
My Haj Khanom is someone I really admired. She came from a different time and a different place, and she was forced to live a life she would have never chosen for herself. But she made the best of it and was still able to become the artist she knew she had within herself. I really wish I could have spent more time with her, but I am grateful for the weeks that I had with her.