from The Arab
PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. For the next few weeks, we’ll feature excerpts from the winning projects introduced by the translators themselves. The fund awards grants of $2,000–$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.
Today we feature an excerpt from Kira Josefsson’s grant-winning translation from the Swedish of The Arab by Pooneh Rohi, a novel that offers a compassionate portrait of the isolation and humiliations suffered by a former civil engineer in Iran as he builds up a life in his new country.
Josefsson writes: The first time I picked up Pooneh Rohi’s Araben, I was floored. It was 2014, and the Swedish cultural climate was (as it still is) marked by upheaval and identity crisis after a neofascist party had been elected to parliament, seemingly out of nowhere. A country that’s been branded as a global role model for equality and liberal modernity today sees its second-generation immigrants growing up to realize that the nation-building promises don’t apply to them. Rohi is part of a slowly growing group of writers who tackle the pain and confusion of the current historical moment, but Swedish fiction about the immigrant experience is still not too common, and certainly wasn’t in 2014. Rohi’s portrayal of broken ideologies and filial love and guilt, sketched in a rich, elegiac language and structurally interesting narrative, is so cutting that I cried twice while reading it.
Araben weaves together two stories. One is that of the titular “Arab,” a disillusioned former revolutionary who made the decision to bring his family to Sweden when his political past made it too hard for him to keep a job. Far from the utopia it was made out to be, the new country doesn’t accept his Iranian degree, and he’s forced to return to school while working part-time in elderly care. The struggle is emasculating, and after his wife divorces him he cuts ties with his family. By the time we meet him, he’s a lonely shard of his former principled self. His daughter, however, is an immigrant success story, appearing to be fully assimilated. Yet, she knows that she can only be accepted as Swedish if she excises her Iranian background from her identity, and it is becoming increasingly unclear to her if she wants to belong to a country whose welcoming is so conditional.
I quickly knew that I wanted to translate this novel. The dilemmas it presents of belonging and not belonging are at once quintessentially Swedish—but show a version of the country that’s different from the one most commonly known to the rest of the world—and universal, as questions related to migration and in-betweenness become ever-more urgent everywhere.
“Peter’s not coming?” Mom asks. Her head is poking out from the kitchen to the hall where I am sitting, pulling my boots off. The entire stairwell smells of saffron and rice, of lamb and fried eggplant.
“He’ll come with his parents, since they don’t know the way.”
She nods and checks the time. I go into the kitchen where the oven is on and all four burners are in use.
“Oh Mom, I’ve told you not to make so much food.” I look at her. Her hair is wrapped in a towel.
“Not so much,” she says and stirs the rice without looking me in the eye.
“But what’s this?” I lift the lid off one of the pots.
“That’s khoreshte bademjan and khoreshte gerdoo, and I have gigo in oven. That’s all!”
“And saffron rice.”
“Yes.” She looks at me innocently.
“With raisins, or zereshk?”
“I think they like raisins, or what do you think, deter?”
“Sure,” I reply and kiss her on the cheek.
“You think they like it?” She quickly glances at me.
“Are you kidding? But I’ve told you to make only one stew. They’re Swedes, you know. They’re not used to cooking more than you can eat.”
She stirs the eggplant stew and bends down to check on the lamb in the oven. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her—she’s simply incapable of cooking just a few things when she has visitors. Every time I had friends or a boyfriend over, there were at least three pots on the stove. Even when I was little, she always had to feed the neighbors’ kids before they went back home. Saffron chicken and kuku sabzi, made with dried herbs she’d stuffed into large suitcases on her most recent trip to Iran. I’ve never told her that whenever I was at a friend’s house around dinnertime I was always left to play by myself in the bedroom, sitting alone on the floor while Ludde’s, Therese’s, or Lina’s parents fetched only their own children to go eat in the kitchen.
“Secret here,” Mom says and looks at me, “is lots of zafaron. Night before, you carefully rub meat with zafaron and salt and pepper, and before you put in oven, take garlic and cut small holes in meat with knife.” She looks at me. “Just small, small holes so garlic fits. So easy. And then in oven with low heat.” Her hand is facing the ceiling. She has long, thin hands with nails that are hard and pointy. The thumb is folded in toward her palm, almost as though she’s in a ballet pose.
“For how long?”
“Between three and four hours, so meat gets very, how do you call? Tender. But you need special pot like this one, it’s best,” she says knowingly. “We must buy for you, when the department store has sale.”
I look at her.
“But Mom, why did you make so much food?”
My mother wipes off the counter with a rag. Puts a spoon in the sink.
“Have you heard what this Reinfeldt, the prime minister, has said now? When he defend Swedish arms industry? Chi goft? ‘You won’t ever make my shirt cuffs tremble,’ chichi?” she says, asking me to explain the Swedish expression.
I sit down on a stool by the wall.
“How do you know about that? That was a while ago now.”
She opens the fridge and takes out the yoghurt.
“That’s what they said at Hambastegi,” she says. “Chichi, deter?”
She furrows her brow. “Shirt cuff, chie?”
“It’s the hem of a man’s shirt sleeves, you know?” I gesture at my wrist. She looks at me questioningly with one eyebrow raised. “If your shirt cuffs tremble, that’s an expression that sort of means you’re nervous or intimidated, that you’re backing down. So he’s saying that he won’t back down on this issue, like, nobody can intimidate him when it comes to the Swedish arms industry, because it creates jobs.”
She’s quiet, looking down while she empties the yoghurt into a bowl of thawed spinach. Her brow is furrowed in a way I know means she’s thinking. She turns toward me, her eyes clear.
“If that’s not fascism, then what is?” she asks in Persian, her chin out. She shakes her head and turns around to get salt and pepper from the other counter. “For a handful of money,” she says, holding out a cupped hand. “Yek mosht pol,” she repeats in a low voice. It makes me think of Marge’s speech at the end of Fargo. She’s frowning in a way that makes her ugly. A bubble pops in one of the pots and she moves to stir the walnut stew.
“You need lots of saffron for this one too,” she says, still in Persian, facing me. “Lots of saffron and lots of onion. And you need pomegranate juice. I can give you some if you don’t have any at home.”
I smile at the assumption that I might have pomegranate juice at home.
“This, too, is very easy to make,” she continues. That innocent face again, arched eyebrows. “Kari nadare.”
I nod. “At least he’s honest,” I say, and she sighs.
“Are you under the impression that democracies can’t be fascist?” she asks with intensity in her eyes. “When you live off of mutilating people? I mean, what else do you think they use those weapons for?” She raises the ladle. “How many Swedish guns have been sold to the Iranian regime? Even the nightsticks police use to beat our students are from here!”
A drop of brown sauce falls onto the kitchen mat. I stand up to get the rag from the sink. While I clean the floor, she heads to the living room to put the last touches to the table setting.
“Can I do anything?” I call to her.
“You could get me five glasses, get the nice blue ones.”
Everything is already set in the living room.
“Mom, how long have you been preparing? I’ve told you not to put this much effort into it.” I try to catch her gaze. “You don’t need to cook for 20 when you’re getting three guests.”
“But we are not Swedes,” she says, looking up into my eyes. “This is our way of doing it. This is our tradition.” Her voice is calm and clear. She doesn’t blink.
I stop, one blue glass in my hand. She passes me as she returns to the kitchen. The rice, which is now beginning to cook, smells of salt, and the scent of saffron from the lamb fills the room. When the food is served, these smells will be joined by that of raisins fried in butter to decorate the saffron rice. I watch my mother’s back as she moves in the kitchen. There’s a line drawn here, I think. This is where it ends. Right here, this is where it ends. Steam from the rice wafts over the stove. Mom picks up the Teflon pan and pours the water through a sieve. There’s a line, drawn right here, across the floor. How many generations of mothers have taught their daughters to cook aash? To make a simple kuku bademjan with lots of turmeric or let an abgoosht cook on the stove all day while they are busy with other things? To wash the sabzi when they have time to spare, pick it over sitting on the floor in the company of friends, always in the company of sisters, sisters-in-law, cousins, friends? They have learned to chop the stems into small pieces and to present them in different combinations: sabzi for kuku, ghormeh sabzi, sabzi khordan. They might dry them on a large sheet in a separate room—in that big room, reserved for special occasions, where sheets cover the furniture and where children are not allowed to play. For generations upon generations, mothers have taught their daughters to take their time whisking the eggs when they make kuku in order to mitigate the smell. To remove the onions from the stew as soon as the lamb is ready, so it doesn’t smell of meat. Not to turn the lamb in the stew, but to bake it so it takes on that nice golden brown color. But right here, I think, right in front of my toes, runs an invisible line. It runs right in front of my toes, where rug turns to tassel. This is where it ends.