from The Arab
by Pooneh Rohi
introduced and translated by Kira Josefsson
Pooneh Rohi’s Araben was published in 2014, in a Swedish cultural climate marked by a national identity crisis. A country that has been branded as a global role model for equality and liberal modernity at least since the 1960s today sees its second-generation immigrants growing up to realize that these nation-building promises don’t always apply to them.
Rohi was born in Iran and grew up in Sweden. With Araben, her debut, she joined a fray of new voices who chronicle the experience of trying to fit in in a country that fundamentally appears to reject you, despite the lip service it pays to the contrary. A special 2019 issue in Words Without Borders showcased a number of Swedish-language authors whose work questions who gets to be heard in the welfare state, and I have written an essay on the theme for Triple Canopy, which accompanied an enactment by Kaneza Schaal of my translation of a radio play by Rohi.
In Araben, Rohi interweaves two stories. One is that of a man, ‘the Arab’, who is making his way through a cold, snowy Stockholm as he recalls the events that brought him to Sweden. In Iran he was an earnest revolutionary who forsook a seat at a prestigious medical school in order not to perpetuate the capitalist class system. Political activities led to his arrest, and following release from prison, he had difficulty getting and retaining a job. The move to Sweden, one of the world’s most modern countries, seemed like a sensible solution: a chance to begin a new life.
But the adopted homeland doesn’t give him the warm welcome he had expected. Potential employers don’t accept his Iranian engineering degree, so he has to get a new one at Stockholm University while working as a caretaker for the elderly to support himself. The struggle is emasculating for this proud person, and after his wife divorces him he cuts all family ties. It’s a stopgap measure, he thinks, and once he’s gotten to the point where his two children will be able to look at him with pride he plans to get back in touch with them. But that day never comes, and by the time we meet him he’s a shard of his former principled self. Heart-achingly lonely, he counts each slow second and attempts to fill his days with rigidly structured, insignificant activities in the hopes that it will all soon come to an end.
The second storyline follows a young woman who we come to understand is his daughter. She’s a ‘model immigrant’ who is pursuing a PhD and speaks Swedish without an accent. Yet, a sense of guilt and dissatisfaction gnaws at her. She knows there’s no room for her Iranian background in her Swedish identity, and carries a deep grief over abandoning the culture and language of her parents. This initially vague feeling has come into focus now that she’s turned thirty and Peter, her almost infuriatingly sweet and supportive boyfriend, is getting tired of waiting for kids. She knows he would be a wonderful father but she can’t picture their child. She can’t imagine a toddler born of her and this man who’s never seen the streams and orange blossoms of the country that holds her family history. A Swedish child would make it painfully obvious that she’s lost her connection to Iran. Yet she doesn’t feel fully at home in the adopted country where she’s lived almost all her life.
In the most recent, still ongoing, refugee crisis, Sweden took in more refugees per capita than any other European country—a continuation of a humanitarian policy initiated in the latter part the 20th century. (Compared to the neighbors of war-torn and disaster-ridden regions, those numbers are still minuscule.) In the late 70s and early 80s, many of the arrivals came fleeing unrest in Iran, but like Araben’s titular character they often found that the new country’s altruistic welcome had important caveats. An accent, a foreign degree, a way of praying, a name—‘No, you can’t spell it like that in this country,’ my Stockholm preschool teacher Dagmar made clear to a classmate named Kzrystina.
In January of this year, a passenger plane en route to Ukraine was shot down soon after takeoff from Tehran. Everyone on board died. Swedish newspapers reported that seventeen of them were on their way back home to Sweden after visiting family and friends in Iran. News of the tragedy hardly broken, representatives of the neo-fascist Sweden Democrats, in a June 2020 polling the third-largest in an eight-party system, mocked the idea that these people, whose homes were both in the Scandinavian north and the lands of Persia, could really be Swedish.
They’re wrong, of course. Voices like Rohi’s are evidence of an increasingly heterogeneous, many-storied nation. Araben’s negotiations around dilemmas of belonging, filial love, and ancestral trauma take to task a culture which, like many others fostered from the mid-century golden age of the nation-state and onwards, has been blind to the brutality inherent in its imagined homogeneity. America was never great; we might be well-served to consider that the same applies to Sweden. As violently exclusionary movements across the world rage to uphold a fake concept of nation, stories like the one you’re about to read poke holes in their fantasies. Sweden as it is, not as it is often alleged to be, is both far richer and far more compromised than they can imagine.
from The Arab
The Arab, who is probably in fact a Turk or a Kurd or an Iranian, might best be compared with a waste product. He’s the error margin the estimates account for, like the lemons included in the budget of a car plant. A requirement for profit, or, if you will, for the continued existence of humanity. The epiphany comes to him on the train. The Arab is a spillage, a loss, a byproduct. He’s a failure, something that never was. An error, God’s mistake. Perhaps that’s ultimately the point of it all—for him to be the inevitable blunder in mankind’s evolution. The thought makes him smile. He’s never seen it that way before.
He’s finding it slightly easier to breathe this morning. There was a smidgeon of optimism lying on the bedside table when he woke up. His legs swung easily out of bed. And though he’s a staunch atheist, he can’t help but think as he looks out the window of the commuter train that there’s a role and a purpose for each and every one of us. Some of us make up the motor, others the steering wheel. Some the pedal, others the seat. Some poor guy might be the exhaust tube. And then of course there are those you wouldn’t necessarily notice, that small percentage that is nevertheless folded into the accounts. The wastage that is a regrettable but necessary part of any production process. It is in some ways at the core of the method, essential to it—a tiny but crucial step in the steady march of evolution and advancement. Some must be sacrificed for the rest to prosper; if some are Mercedes-Benz cabriolets, others have got to be waste products.
The Arab sits deep in thought across from a Lisa Persson. His hook nose, his bushy eyebrows, and the curls peeking out underneath the arm of his sweater contrast starkly against her neat short hair, dyed in a brown hue which—certainly not by coincidence—matches her brown top and the wool skirt that peeks out beneath her coat. The train keeps rolling, time keeps passing. Outside, the landscape swishes by. Swish, swish, a house here, another house there; a window onto a life in loneliness, another onto an alcoholic visited by a social worker. A stay-at-home dad heads out the door pushing a stroller, an old lady takes a walk with her dog. The Arab sits on his train.
He’s gotten out of bed and this morning he did so with more ease than many other mornings. He’s eaten his breakfast wearing his bathrobe, as he does every morning; he’s dressed by carefully selecting the garments from each drawer where they are logically organized according to category such that the pieces worn on the lower parts of the body are placed in the bottom drawer, and arbitrarily, though systematically, such that the colors fade in strength in the drawers’ rightward direction. He’s performed a few additional necessary tasks: shining his shoes, folding his night clothes, and washing the plate, glass, and cutlery from the previous night, before leaving for this errand which he makes every Tuesday at noon. It is of utmost importance to maintain order and a schedule, not to stray from what has been planned. Just like the other Tuesdays, he fastidiously folded the scarf, of a green color which does not match anything else he’s wearing, around his neck in order to avoid catching a cold, or, at least so that in the event he were to catch a cold he would at minimum protect his throat from being struck by the type of cough that tends to persist no matter how determinedly you coax it with hot soups or stubborn gurgling of lukewarm salt water.
This Lisa Persson peers at him across her newspaper: he, potential domestic abuser and rapist who might also be a library loud talker. He, who is likely to bring his own food to a commercial food establishment and who, moreover, could very well be a parasite on the welfare system. This man sits still with his legs laboriously crossed, looking at nothing. She raises her newspaper and keeps reading.
The commuter train swishes ahead. Outside the snow lies thick, insulating the soil. It’s been many years since there’s been enough of it to blanket the city, but now it’s been snowing heavily all night. One by one, the flakes fell to the ground, settling on roofs and benches and branches and roads. Fluffy and icy-warm, the snow laid claim to the city, occupied it, took over. Each and every nook and cranny open to the sky is now lined by white, thick snow. The roads are flooded, sunken.
The city smells of ice. The roofs and the streets where people walk are white. Great sheets of snow hang from the eaves. The mass and whiteness of the snow that fell delighted and surprised the people. It reminds them of childhoods with sledding and snowmen and early morning shoveling. On this morning the children played all the way to school and they spent the first period looking out the window as the teacher read to them. Over coffee, parents discussed moving out to the country. Plows were called in and weather reports were given extra screen time as smiling forecasters proclaimed that indeed winter did come this year, despite it all.
Yellow signs alert pedestrians to the risk of falling icicles. The streets are plowed, the sidewalks sanded; the city is ready for its office workers. Thick, the snow that fell last night. It came down in hefty white flakes, falling shamelessly and without restraint as though it was free to choose to just show up in this way, lay claim to the streets of the city, unappreciative of the land it now covers and possesses. And the land, it welcomed the snow like its own wayward child. A Swedish child returning to Swedish land.
A few seats at an angle behind the Arab is a drunk who looks like he’s seen better days. A bag from the liquor store is tucked under his seat. He’s asleep. In front of him sits an older couple, neither of them speaking, both looking out the window, focal points merging. Days, weeks, years together with the same rooms, the same couch, the only new element the newspaper in the mailbox each morning. They’re dressed in matching beige outfits. Out the window they share the view, this white country.
There’s another curly-haired person directly behind him, dressed in the transit agency’s uniform though he does not appear to be the ticket controller on this ride. There are no other passengers: it’s lunchtime on a Tuesday and people are at their jobs, not in public transit. People are doing their best to meet their performance goals or pay their taxes or save up for a trip to Mallorca or Cape Town; whatever their habit or preference, they’re not on a train. None but students, retirees, addicts, and welfare parasites possess the time that gives them the privilege to loaf around and travel back and forth. On the train, seconds pass, minutes pass, thick and unnoticed. The space between the time markers is compact, compressed and impenetrable. The Arab looks out the window, thinking that the seconds go by to never again return.
The Persian radio channel is taking calls about the demonstrations. Mom sits cross-legged on the kitchen floor, staring at the old black plastic radio on the kitchen counter. A woman has called in from Iran. She sounds young, around my age. She talks about her brother. Says he was a wrestler who weighed 200 pounds before the police arrested him following one of the biggest demonstrations.
‘When they dragged him out of the house in the middle of the night they had to do it three of them together,’ she says, her voice low. ‘Now he’s been released, five months later. He’s 100 pounds and does nothing but sit on the floor in a corner of the kitchen. He sleeps there too. He hasn’t said a word since he came home.’ Her voice breaks when she says that their mom has to spoon feed him there on the kitchen floor, every day.
I swallow, feeling my stomach contract. Mom’s eyebrows are two slanting lines.
‘Ob azashon beshe inshalla!’ Mom stands up and puts on the water for more tea. The wind is picking up outside, branches dancing in the wind. ‘Have you heard what happened to young and beautiful woman Taraneh?’ she says, facing me. ‘Again and again, by many men!’
I nod and try not to think about the sentence that I read somewhere: ‘torn vagina and anus’. Mom looks away again and shakes her head.
‘Her face, mesle mah!’ she says. ‘And young! Young!’
She hands me an empty glass. Her nightgown drapes over her thin legs and bent back. Her hair is in wispy knots. Outside the window the light is thin, yellow. It filters through the clouds that move swiftly across the sky, morphing and separating. It looks like the wind has really picked up.
Another caller comes on, also speaking from Iran. An older man.
‘Give us weapons,’ he says. ‘We want to defend ourselves when they come for our children at night. Our beloved children. These children, born and brought up by their families. Two thousand students are still missing. Last night they murdered twenty student activists over alleged narcotics crimes.’
Mom scoffs. ‘Kasafatha!’ Her forehead is furrowed. She pours me some tea from the pot, filling my glass. Some of it splashes onto the table.
I can tell she’s cold by the way she pulls her shoulders up toward her ears. She’s so thin in relief against the cloudy backdrop. Lonely and small where she stands in the middle of the room. I get up, leave my glass on the counter, and walk to the closet in the hall. The light from the lamp is weak when I turn it on, but it slowly grows stronger. I feel the antique fibers of her kilim rug with my toes as I look for a cardigan.
‘Put this on,’ I tell her, back in the kitchen.
She barely looks at me. ‘Merci.’ Her eyes flicker from one point to another. She takes out bread and goat cheese and butter and puts it all on the counter next to a couple of plates from the cabinet. Then she steps out on the balcony and digs around in the basket she keeps out there on the concrete floor. I know it’s where she keeps the last potato harvest from her rented garden plot out in Vårby Gård. She returns with tomato and cucumber and sabzi. The daughter of feudal landlords, paying for a small parcel of land out in the suburbs—her ancestors must be turning over in their graves.
I breathe in the scent of basil, mint, coriander and a few other green stalks I don’t know the names for. It’s the smell of Iran; those mornings around the breakfast table. Always with fresh, fragrant sabzi. I blow on my steaming tea. On the radio a new caller reads a communist announcement. The man has called in from Sweden and speaks in a slow, formal voice. The radio host thanks him politely and asks no questions. The man clears his throat, says thanks and goodbye, and hangs up. Mom walks into her bedroom. Music fills the kitchen. I drink my tea and eat a bit of sabzi, looking out the window, at the pale light. Mom returns, now wearing sweatpants. Thin legs, small body. Her feet in heeled sandals.
‘Bokhor, bokhor! Eat!’
I get up and move the bread to the table.
‘Did you bake it?’ I ask. She doesn’t answer. I look around the dark kitchen and picture her here, wandering through the rooms alone both day and night. With the radio as her only company as the light fades and gives way to evening. As time keeps ticking, morphing into memories; a short story told again and again. It makes my chest tighten to think of her skinny body between these walls. But she would never let on being lonely. Then I notice her steaming glass on the kitchen counter. It’s got old lipstick marks all along the top. I stare at her with big eyes, pouring the tea out so I can wash the cup.
‘Chi?’ She looks, confused, at my hand. ‘Fine, fine,’ she nods, her hands turned up. Her hair stands out in every direction.
‘Aren’t you going to brush your hair?’ I say and point at her head.
‘Yes, yes, I must get haircut actually.’ She pulls her long nails through her hair. The light falls on the wrinkles in her face. She grabs a piece of bread and puts a big chunk of goat cheese and a few leaves of sabzi on it, then puts it in her mouth. She turns down the volume on the radio and gets down on the floor between the stove and the window. The dexterity of her cross-legged seat is impressive. ‘How are you, deter?’ she asks slowly, looking at me.
‘Fine,’ I say and look down at my glass. Suddenly I feel eager to leave.
‘How is school?’
She nods. Her eyes dart around the kitchen. She’s so small. She always was. Her hair is thin, almost straight. Mine is coarse and kinky. Her shade of black shifts into red while my curls shift into blue.
‘And you apply for post-doc?’
‘No, I’m still working on the application. It’s not due before the end of January.’ I know I sound a bit annoyed. She’s always so confused, repeating the same questions again and again.
‘Sit down and write, properly. Write really well. This is actually when it matters.’ She looks at me with a knowing face. Then she tilts her head down so she faces the rug. ‘Really well,’ she mumbles again.
She looks worried. How many times have I regretted telling her about the position. I should have held off until there was something concrete to say. At least until I’d applied. I don’t remember what the context was when I mentioned it. I have another sip of tea.
‘Yes mom, I’m writing well,’ I say after a while, smiling at her.
She sighs. Gets up. Takes out sugar from the cabinet. She hesitates in the middle of the kitchen, then she returns to the same spot.
‘Your brother no talk to me, he just go to his room. Come home from job, eat, go to his room. Go to gym come home eat go to room. Sit in front of computer all night.’ She starts moving the rag across the counter. ‘If I say something he get angry.’ She puts the sugar on the table.
‘You’ll just have to talk to him about it. You’ll just have to talk to him, no?’ I try.
‘Sure, sure.’ She sighs. ‘Impossible.’
I look away. The wind is really picking up outside. The trees bend and the branches quiver. Behind the clouds the sun is still struggling to get through. The streets are void of people. It’s already quite late in the day, I should go. I never manage to leave early when I sleep here. I eat another piece of bread, pour some more tea.
‘This bread is delicious,’ I say, my mouth full.
‘Your brother made,’ she says and smiles at me.
The talk show is back again. Mom turns up the sound. Another communist is calling in this time, talking about today’s demonstration. 5 PM at Sergels Torg in the city center. Mom listens attentively.
‘Carl Bildt, foreign minister, send his people to Iran for business meeting! Now! In last week, can you imagine?’ She scoffs and puts a pot in a cupboard.
‘Are you going?’ I ask.
Mom nods. ‘They kill our youth, how can I sit and watch?’ She fiddles around in the kitchen, pulling a rag across the stove, putting a few plates in the sink. ‘It came out now, they rape the students. Many men come into cell. Both the girls and the boys. Both here and there.’ The last part she whispers, her eyes open wide and her hands tense like arrows on each side of her body. ‘Kesafatha!’ She stays like that, unmoving, for a moment. ‘The boys too! For twenty years they imprison people! And before that, the fucking Shah. How much more oil can there be in our soil?’ Her hands are facing the ceiling in supplication. ‘Khak bar sare amrika o oropa!’
I furrow my brow. ‘Be careful. Promise you wear a hat and sunglasses.’ I try to catch her eye, without success.
‘How long they get to keep raping our kids? It’s enough when? And Carl Bildt go down and sit at table with this here government, drink tea and make business. When two thousand students are gone. Kesafat! And tomorrow we go out to Ericsson in Kista to demonstrate.’ She picks something up from the sink and puts it back again.
‘Be careful.’ I look at her but she doesn’t return my gaze. No answer. ‘Mom?’
‘Yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes.’ She goes out to the bedroom. The radio starts playing an old classic, a crackling female voice.
‘Is there usually a big crowd?’ I ask.
‘Yes, they come out. Maybe five hundred. I don’t know. Depend on weather.’
I drink up my tea and wash the mug. Mom comes back into the kitchen.
‘Let go, let go, let go, let go, let go! Go to school now!’ She bumps me with her hip. I bump back.
I can picture the demonstration. A group of Iranians waving their red flags. No Swedes among them except for a Left Party member there to give a speech. One Iranian speaker after the other, all speaking in Persian. Stalinists and Trotskyites of varying factions, mortal enemies who’ve agreed to unite at Sergels Torg for the sake of the students. The red fabric flaps in the cold wind. Underfoot, the town square’s black and white tiles, dirty with soot and dried black chewing gums. The Swedes hurry by, hands heavy with bags. A few of them throw a quick glance at the crowd, the hammer and sickle flags. This past summer when the demonstrations were at their biggest, I noticed a man with a hat and a big black bag standing upstairs at the square’s rotunda, looking down at the demonstration. Something about the way he held his bag was off. Then I realized he was secretly videotaping the meeting. Cheers erupted between the speeches: Marg bar amrika! Marg bar djomhorie eslamie iran! It’s a catchy phrase, and it’s on loop in my head as I do the dishes. Marg bar amrika! Marg bar amrika! Pulsing rhythmically inside my ribcage.
I look at my mom. Neither of us say anything. I wish she wouldn’t go to the demonstration today. When I told her about the man with the bag she just shrugged. Said they’re always there, filming. Said she is careful, that she always wears a hat and sunglasses. I rinse the soap off the plate, watching its iridescent green color disappear down the drain. Steam is coming off the water. I put the plate and the glass next to the sink and dry my hands on the towel to the right.
‘I have to go,’ I say. ‘Be careful, ok?’
‘Wear your hat.’ I do my best to give her a stern look.
‘Go, go, go.’ She flaps her hand to move me from the sink. ‘Write. Write a good application.’
I put my shoes on, then I retrieve my coat from the hook. I bend to bridge the head’s length that separates us in height, and I kiss her on both cheeks.
‘Deter?’ she asks between two kisses. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to send you the money now?’
‘No, we can do that later. We’re just looking still.’
‘But the bank no want to see you have money?’
‘No, no, we’ll deal with that later.’
‘Ok. Say hi to Peter,’ she says. ‘And soon come back and see me, deter.’
I smile and nod. She stands at the open door and watches me walk down the stairs. Her eyebrows are curved in two arches, her face lined by wrinkles. Though she looks at me her expression is so intense I get the sense she’s not actually seeing me.
Outside it’s freezing and the wind blows straight through me. The street has been shoveled all the way down to the stairs. I pull my scarf tighter to cover all of my neck. A gust makes me shiver. The sand makes a crackling noise as my steps push it deeper into the snow. The sun sets later today. I look up at the sky, unaccustomed to it. After so much darkness it’s almost blinding. The trees stand bare and black underneath the snow layered on top of them. I’m late. Looking up I can’t locate the sun, there’s just a big sheet of clouds, white on white on white. The light is reflected in the glass of my mom’s window, but I still see her small black head of wispy hair behind the reflection. I lift my hand and wave at her.
Ordfront förlag, 2014
Rights: the author
We are grateful to the author for permission to publish this translated excerpt.
Araben is reviewed in SBR 2020:1-2.
Pooneh Rohi was born in Iran in 1982 and grew up in Stockholm. She researches linguistics at Stockholm University. Araben (The Arab) is her debut novel. She has published a novella, Kräftfångst (Catching Crayfish), Novellix, 2019, and a short story for radio, ‘Segraren’ (The Champion), broadcast by Sveriges Radio in 2016.
Kira Josefsson’s translation of Araben was awarded a PEN/Heim 2017 Translation Fund Grant and an excerpt has appeared in Granta. Her work can be also be found in The Nation, Words Without Borders, Tupelo Quarterly, and more. She is Assistant Translations Editor for Anomaly, and on the editorial board for Glänta, a Swedish journal of arts and philosophy.