I step out through the restaurant’s rear door into the small alley. The daylight is already gone.
Next to the overflowing trash dumpsters, he is leaning against the wall and is smoking a cigarette. His face is illuminated by the light of his mobile phone on which his eyes are fixed.
I wait there in silence until he raises his head and looks at me. He cannot see my face but only my body in silhouette, lighted up by the light from the inside of the restaurant. Yet it is enough for him to recognize me and before lowering his eyes back to his phone, he says: “No job tomorrow. Maybe in the weekend…. I call you.”
“But you told me I could work the whole week,” I say, and regret it immediately. Without looking at me, he says, “I said, I call you!”
When we first met the day before yesterday, he told me that there were many like me: “I ask for one, hundred persons show up.” Anyway, he then smiled and said that I would be paid as much as others. But he lied. I realized it this morning when I was taking dirty tablecloths to the basement where two other workers were chatting about their wages. I could see the disgust in his eyes when I asked why I was paid less than others. “When you have no papers, you have a red sale sticker on you. Fifty per cent off,” he said and pointed to his forehead.
I know he won’t call me. Why would he? There are many like me in this city, with a sale sticker across their face.
When I turn left onto the main street, I take a cigarette from the packet. It is a breezy evening. I look up. The London sky seems shorter than ever. I cup my hands to light my cigarette, but the wind blows the flame out. I go closer to the side to shelter it from the wind. When I raise my head, while taking a deep puff, I find myself in front of a rug hanging in a store window. Its pattern is divided by panels, like a chessboard. In elegant red color, it is divided into symmetric squares, decorated with animal or plant motifs, with cypresses, flowering shrubs, and horses all over it. I know every corner of it. I grew up on one of them.
The thought that it could be woven in my village brings a smile to my face. I feel warmer and hold my head up straight to see it better. The rug seems aged. I think that the young girls who wove it are now old women or maybe even dead. On the right side, a little over an image of a partridge, a hang tag is attached with a thread through a hole on it. The tag reads the name of my region: Bakhtiari. My eyes move to the price. More zeros than I could ever earn, in God knows how many years, if I bear the sale sticker on my forehead.
The mighty red color of the rug passes through the double glass and with its details shows off its elegant beauty. On the glass window there is also me, reflected. Blurry and vague — just a silhouette of a body, of a face. We had a rug like this one in our home. Who could have imagined that such a rug would become so precious here?
Long tedious afternoons were spent on the rug. I played with matchboxes and drove them as if they were cars on the contours of the squares as roads. Along the roads, I placed pens one after another as if they were the huge overland pipeline that passed close to our village carrying oil northbound. My younger sister, leaning over her schoolbooks, did homework on the other corner of the rug. One day, she spilled ink on it and made a small stain. Her fearful eyes asked for help. To remove the stain with a wet cloth was a silly idea. It just became bigger; a big black stain which covered part of a cypress and the head of a horse. When my mother lifted her arm, I did not say it was not me. I did not move. Soon, I did not count anymore how many times she lifted her arm. For days to come, the bruises on my face were not less inky than the stain on the carpet. I move a little bit and try to remember which one of the cypresses my sister’s ink blackened.
Where is she now?
So far from home, we two Bakhtiaris. Between us a double-paned glass window, to keep the inside intact from the undesirable outside. While my eyes move from top to bottom, I ponder that at least one of us has a paper to say where it comes from — a tag. It is proudly hanging there in its whole length. No trace of shame and no need to explain its presence.
I do not like rugs. They recall bleeding fingers. My sister, like other girls, worked on rug looms in small and dark chambers, tying knots for long hours. They continued for days on end until the last knot was tied. Then, the owner of the looms came to take the rug to the town. Knotting scared the smooth skin of young girls and caused it to bleed. Blood blended with the red color derived from pomegranates and made it persuasively redder. Who else than me in this city can see traces of blood behind cypresses and shrubs?
I am still imagining the fingers, moving yarns to loop around and make a knot, when suddenly I feel the presence of someone behind me. A middle-age couple — one on each side of me and a step back. I can see them reflected on the glass window.
The woman says: “There it is! Look yourself!”
The man says nothing. He lifts his glasses and bends his head forward to see better. His head now almost touches my shoulder. I am not sure if the couple even see me. They both look at the rug in silence for a while.
The man says: “It is a piece of art.”
Then, they go inside. The man inside the store who has been observing us for a while approaches them smilingly. The door is closing behind them slowly. I cannot resist, and step in. My entrance goes unnoticed.
The couple are carefully listening to the man who is passionately speaking. From time to time, their eyes turn to the rug. I look around. I can’t see any other rug from Bakhtiari. Between the window where the rug is hanging and the door there is a large poster on the walls. It shows a young Bakhtiari woman in a colorful long skirt with many layers and a long scarf with ornaments and decorations of faux coins sewn in. Her dark black eyes on a sunburnt face look back into the camera. Under the photo it reads: Bakhtiaris, a forgotten people.
Those rare afternoons when my mother came back from the farm early, we ate dinner together and she told us stories. She used to tell stories about the people who had been coming to make holes in the earth. I look at the poster and remember how my mother used to raise her arms to the sky and wished that the hole-makers would forget us. But they did not.
Her stories were detailed. She told and told back again the same stories, about how the hole-makers measured every inch of our land, how they turned every stone to find something to unearth. Every time they returned, more holes were drilled. My mother used to talk as if she was talking to herself, her eyes taking on a distant look:
“There is no oak tree left to sit under when the sun is scorching. No graves of ancestors left to visit. Without the graves where can we find relief? When hole-makers come not even the dead are left alone. When earth was drawn from under our feet we got into darkness, like inside the holes. Empty. They kept perforating until the land became like a strainer.”
Reaching this part of the story, my mother would stretch her hands forward, showing her chapped palms with fingers apart, as her hands resembled a strainer, and said life itself ran through the holes until nothing was left. She could not have imagined that the holes would take me and even this rug to the land of the hole makers.
Where is she?
I go towards the large window and wonder if by any chance there would still be some soil from Bakhtiari stuck between the knots. Suddenly I notice that the couple and the dealer are looking at me. Did they hear me saying something? Did they say something to me? They come towards us, me and the rug. I step back to avoid being in their way. Between me and the rug there are people who desire it. It is welcomed in any home here. The couple are discussing where in their house they should have it — library or dining room?
I open the door and go out. Did they notice? Outside a cold breeze makes me to sink into my jacket. At the first intersection, waiting for the green light. I take out my right hand from the pocket, open it and look at the tag. Next to the logo of the rug store there is the name of the rug, where it is from and below that there is the price.
And next to it there is a hole. ■