You’re in school six days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or later, and afterward, you have hours of homework every night. The only time you’re on your own and without a task to perform is on the walk to school and back, and sometimes in the middle of the night, when you wake up and go to the edge of the third-floor terrace of the house where you live, look over the 10-foot, golden-brick wall into the street immersed in moonlight and watch the cars speed through the red light at the intersection.
You’ll often think of this — the sky of Tehran in winter, the glassy liquid quality of the light, the blue of the mountains in the North. You don’t know yet, but this is how you will remember the city of your childhood, how you’ll hold on to it even after it’s lost, how you’ll make your peace with the memories.
At home, you head directly up to the second-floor dining room, drop your books on the heavy, wooden table, and go to work without changing out of your uniform or taking a break until dinner. You sit cross-legged on the floor, on top of a red-and-blue Persian rug — a rose garden afloat in a sea of indigo — raise yourself up on your elbows and read the lines of whatever poem or prayer you’ve been ordered to memorize that night. It’s an essential part of your education, this process of training your mind to retain all the words and numbers thrown at it every day, but it comes easily to you, because of the girl who sits across from you on the other side of the rug and listens to you recite the lines.
She’s always there, this girl who must be about your age — 5 years old, in first grade — but who has the earnest look and the concentration of a much older child. She wears a short, flared skirt over a pair of baggy pants and ties a white scarf around her face and neck. She crouches on the reverse side of a horizontal loom, staked to the ground and onto which a multitude of thick, woolen threads are tied from end to end in both directions. She has a soft, round mouth and dark eyes and the physical tension of a small creature that can bear a weight many times its own. The room behind her is sparse and poorly lit. There are other people — younger children, old women — in the background, but the girl never turns around to look at them. Nor does she seem aware of you or your siblings who live on the other side of this net that divides you. Her mind is entirely focused, and her hands are lightning fast as she ties one minuscule knot of dyed thread after another onto the rows of colorless wool thread. She’s weaving the rug you’ll one day sit on, and though you’ll never know her name or hear her voice, she’ll put into it enough of herself — of her youth and health and quiet, lasting talent — to give it, if not herself, near-eternal life.
No matter how late you go to bed or how early you wake up, the girl is awake and at work. The only time she leaves the loom is when the indigo is in bloom. Then she goes into the fields with an army of other girls, picks off the leaves to bring home to her mother to boil. This is how they obtain the dye for the many shades of blue they use on the rugs. Persian indigo, it’s called, but you don’t know this yet.
The knots she makes are so small, you cannot imagine them ever coming together to form a shape. You cannot fathom the kind of patience, the constancy and meticulousness this girl has to exert to make certain every knot is the right size and in the right place — that months or years later, when the rug is finally finished, every line is perfectly straight and every dome and paisley and petal in the right place. Yet she’s indispensable to the job, a requisite for the finest and most complicated of designs, because the smaller the finger, the more minute each knot will be. She’s going to grow up on this loom, you know, raise it from the ground one twist of a colored thread at a time, knowing all the while that the moment she’s finished — the moment she’s done with this picture that will not be erased by light or force or time — it’s going to be taken away from her and sent to places she’ll never be.
Years later, away from that house and the girl on the loom, you’re reminded of this every time you step on a rug for the first time or drive by the window of a new store in Paris and New York, Berlin and Los Angeles. What did she get, you wonder, in the bargain for her skill and artistry? What did she trade for her childhood, give up school and sleep, the chance to run instead of sit?
You’ll rue the injustice of a system that robs the creator of her creation, that pays with tin and sells for gold, puts on display in magisterial halls and exalted museums the works of nameless girls in unnamed villages, who start to apprentice around the time that you started school, grow up and grow old in the same mud hut on the slopes of the same blue mountain, become hunchbacked and tubercular and blind before they are forced to stop. The spine curve from being bent forward for countless hours a day, every day of the week. Wool particles destroy the lungs. Bad lighting and the smallness of each knot ruin the eyes.
How is it, you wonder, that so many Persian poets are enshrined and lionized, musicians and miniaturists are recognized and celebrated, while these other artists, no less worthy, live and die in obscurity? How is it that they can leave no trace, claim no ownership, on a canopy of colors that will not fade?
Until one day you learn that this isn’t entirely true — there being no trace of the weaver in the work: Your untrained eye will never notice, you learn, but no Persian rug is ever truly perfect. Somewhere in the web of interconnected or geometric patterns, in the rose garden or on the hunting ground, every master signs her rug with a single, purposeful mistake.
It’s an enchanting secret — this affirmation on the part of the artist that only God is capable of perfection, that true, enduring beauty is achieved only in the pairing of good and bad, faultlessness and flaws. But to you, and perhaps, you hope, to the artist, it will be more than that: It will be a small measure of fairness, a quiet act of defiance, an invisible fingerprint that cannot be removed except by unraveling every thread and opening every knot — a shadow of the master in an ocean of blue light.
Gina Nahai left Iran in 1974. She is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.
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