Sunday, September 16, 2007
It took me a while to warm to Najmeh Najafi's 1958 book, "Reveille For a Persian Village". The prose is sometimes overfurnished and the sentiments are at times a bit misty-eyed. But as I continued to read I gradually realized this is the story of a remarkable woman. After going to college in California, Najafi returned to her native Iran. There she settled in a small village, gradually winning the hearts of her neighbors as she provides them with medical care, teaches their children and helps the villagers begin to work together. She's a devout woman and she shows a keen sensitivity to the traditional ways of the village. Her depiction of village life underscores just how little its changed in hundreds of years.
At one point in the book, Najafi describes an unexpected visitor who came to her home in the village. The visitor had heard of the author's success in teaching and treating people:
"Her bony feet were naked...her dress was worn, her eyes were weary, but there was that about the way she held her head that made be think the one word, "Queen."
"Lady Najafi?" she asked.
"I am of the village of Shel-shach-meh. I have come to invite you to my village."
She stayed with us for a day and I showed her the clinic, the washhouse for the dead, my chicken house, the village center, the schools where in the winter the girls and boys learned to read and write and figure, the work-study room. I had her rest on a bed which I put up in our general room and bathed her tired eyes with warm water. The next day...I had Ashghar bring a rented donkey and we three, the old lady, Ashghar and I started for the village.
"Why did not some man, perhaps the kadkhoda, come to me? I asked.
"I am the head of the village."
This village was the first matriarchate I had heard of in Iran.
"All the people of the village are my children, their children, their children."
At last we came into the little village. She called everyone to come visit with me and one of her grandsons brought a rug for me to sit upon - the only rug in the village. Nearly every child in the village had trachoma, scald head, other illnesses. And there was such poverty!
To say poverty in a country like America means very little. It is not until you have seen children actually cry for a spoonful of rice when the mother has none to give that you realize poverty means the pangs of hunger, the warping of little bodies...Poverty means not enough coverings at night to sleep through from dusk to dawn in comfort, not enough clothing to keep the body warmth next to the body, not even a pair of shoes to cover cracked, bleeding, purple-blue feet.
These things I saw in this little village. I can never be really lighthearted again.