By Mehri Yalfani
She called me “Adam,” as if I didn’t have any name. Yes, I’m a human being, but each human has a name. Even a pet dog or cat that we keep, we call them with a name. She may not know that name is part of our identity, and our history, and part of our family’s history as well. Well, how should she know? Her father, according to other people who knew him, and also herself, as she called him, “a rich idiot”.
That’s it. She didn’t say more: nothing about her father or her mother, nor her sisters or her brothers, if she has any. She might not consider me someone worth talking about her life.. I can say for sure that she hates her father. Why? I couldn’t figure out. How can I? I know the things that I’ve heard from her she had uttered unintentionally. She always complained about her life, her mother and her father and everything. I guess she hates her father because of the name he gave her, which she hates. She didn’t tell me her name.. She provoked anger in me, not kindness. She considered me inferior to herself.
I’d like to have told her, Ms. Such and Such, because of your rich idiot father you’re living such a luxurious life and I have to work for you and you call me your Adam. I didn’t know why she used this word. It’s degrading to me. Or it might be my perception. I didn’t feel any insult in her behavior, but she was careless. I even felt jealousy in her words; yes, there was a mixture of contrary feelings, exactly like her own character – sometimes kind and nice, and sometimes arrogant and pretentious. She might have heard something about dealing with people who come to her house to clean and she knows that she has to treat them respectfully – like human beings – and hasn’t the right to insult or degrade them. She might know that this country has rules and laws.
One day she was talking on the phone to one of her friends, who might be someone like herself. I heard her saying, “Yes, today I have Adam, the one who comes once a week to clean my house.” If her friend wasn’t like her, she would have asked, “This Adam doesn’t have a name?”
Another time, I heard her say to one of her friends, “Her name is Setareh,” and laughed mockingly.
The first day I came to her house, she asked me, “Your name?”
I said, “Setareh.”(2).
She seemed she didn’t believe that a woman coming to her place to clean could have a nice name like Setareh. I didn’t understand why my name was a problem to her. I don’t know what she expected my name to be. She probably thought Setareh was more suitable for people who live a luxurious life like hers, not someone like me with a father who was a teacher and wasn’t rich. My father’s treasure was books and words. For our birthdays, instead of giving us golden necklaces or rings or expensive dresses, he recited a poem and included our names in it, and when he read it to us, it was as if we were part of the poem and could register in the words forever.
I could feel that she was envious of my name. And what was her own name?
Do you think I could figure out what her name was? No, she didn’t tell me. My friend introduced her to me with her family name: Mrs. Mostashari. But I’d like to know her first name – the name her parents had given her and her sisters and brothers called her. But she didn’t tell me her name. When she heard mine, for a while, she looked at me in amazement. Her tattooed eyebrows went up. With a gesture of surprise, she said, “Setareh?” I thought she would say, “What a beautiful name.” But she didn’t. Staring at me, she brought down her eyebrows. Her lined lips opened with a humiliating smile and said, “Setareh?” As if she was saying this beautiful name doesn’t suit you, you are just a cleaning lady.
Weeks later, when we got to know each other better, she never called me by my first name. She tried not to call my name at all, as if I didn’t have one. But once, yes, just once, she said, “I can’t believe that you have such a name. Our generation didn’t have names like yours. We had old-fashioned names.”
Proudly, I told her, “My father was a man of poetry and literature. He chose beautiful names for all of his children. For me, Setareh, and for my sister, Mahtab(3).”
She asked, “What about your brothers, do they have…”
I didn’t let her finish. I said, “Arman and Kamran(4).”
My answer made her more curious, she asked, “And in your birth certificate?”
With the same pride I continued, “In our birth certificates, too. All of us have only one name.”
She heard me but she still called me Adam, not Setareh, nor Ms. Paknejad. As if she couldn’t believe that my name is Setareh. But when she was talking on the phone, which happened very often when I was in her house – she spent half of the day on the phone. She didn’t care how I worked. She lied on a sofa or the bed in her bedroom with the telephone in her hand and talked. Sometimes I heard her say, “Today I have Adam, the one who comes to clean my house.”
I never saw her wear proper clothing at home; she was always in a long flowered robe that touched the floor and hid her robust body. The first day she looked me up and down as if I were for sale and she was a buyer. I had to work one or two days a week, from nine to four or five, a heavy-duty job. I’d lost all the fat on my body since I started this job. If I lay on a sofa all day long and someone else did the cleaning of my house, I would have been overweight, too. She might have envied my body as well. I’d like very much to have talked to her to know about her life, but she hadn’t told me a thing. I didn’t like to ask my friend who introduced me to her. I didn’t want to show that I’m curious about her private life. To tell the truth, sometimes I felt sorry for her. As she walked with her long robe in the house and lay down on a sofa, as if she wanted to tell me that she was carefree and happy, but there was some hidden sadness, jealousy or maybe stupidity in her face.
Once when she was talking on the phone, I heard her drop her voice and say, “Setareh,”| and then she laughed, but in her laughter was some kind of envy and jealousy. She pursed her lips, which, without lipstick, seemed lined, and said, “That Ms. Setareh.”
To tell the truth, if I did not know this lady, I wouldn’t think about people’s names and how they can be so important. When I was in school, some girls changed their names to something that they liked more. Their families mostly accepted the new names, and the old names existed just in their birth certificates. When they were called they did not have to be upset by the names they didn’t like. I imagined this dislike of your name was a problem of the young. When you are older, you won’t bother with unimportant things. When we’re mature, It makes no difference what your name is. Your children don’t call you by your first name and your family and friends are used to your name.
But when you immigrate to another country where everybody is called by her or his first name, and you make new friends and you have to introduce yourself anywhere you go, and they pronounce your name in a different way, things are different. It is too embarrassing if you have to repeat your name often, especially the name you never liked.
I think this woman envied my name, but not my life. I went to clean her house once or twice a week. She looked down on me. She never chatted with me. When she let me take a break, as she knew she had to, because of the law in this country, she hid herself in her bedroom. That way she didn’t have a conversation with me so that I could tell her that I was somebody in my own country as well. I had a place of my own. I worked in a bank. I was the head of a department. I don’t want to say I was a very important person, but I wasn’t nobody. I raised two children and because of my children I uprooted myself from my homeland and immigrated to this country. Well, normally among Iranian families children are the first priority, and I don’t regret immigrating. So I don’t talk about it.
Here, I did my best to find a job to match my education and experience, but no success. Well, sometimes it doesn’t. I mean, for me it didn’t. I couldn’t take courses and start studying again. It was too expensive and I had to make money. Yes, one of my friends found this job for me. She had the same job –working for another rich woman. She was an accountant, too. She wasn’t able to find a job in her field, either. When she found out that I was looking for a job, she introduced me to an agency. I worked for a while for that company. They sent me to people’s houses, people who had high jobs and good incomes. They didn’t have the time or energy to clean their houses. None of these people called me Adam. Yes, they pronounced my name in a different way but it didn’t bother me. I, too, might have pronounced their names in a different way.
For a while I didn’t tell anyone – I mean my close Iranian friends – what I was doing. Not because I was ashamed, no. Even if I had told them, I wouldn’t feel ashamed. But I would be troubled if they looked down on me. And because of that I didn’t tell anyone.
I don’t know why one day I told Parvin, my very close friend. She is a very understanding person. When she heard about my job, her behavior didn’t change. I noticed sympathy and surprise in her eyes. As if she was saying, good for you. Why not? You need to make a living.
Farhad was able to find a job in his field, I mean accounting, but his income wasn’t enough. Paying rent and all the other expenses for a family with two teenage boys can’t be done with one income. And because of that I found this cleaning job. It’s hard but it brings in money.
When Parvin heard that I worked for an agency and they took part of my income – I mean, a considerable part of it – she found this job for me, that is, cleaning this woman’s house. She said she knows her, that my employer was one of those Iranians who were extremely rich and also very generous.
Yes, true, she was generous. Sometimes she paid me more than my wage. Sometimes she sent me home earlier. It happened once or twice that she wanted to give me the leftover foods from that day or the previous day to take home, but I didn’t accept. No, I couldn’t accept any food. You might say it’s a meaningless pride. I know that many people, perhaps half of the world’s population don’t have access to such food, or perhaps many people in this country and if it was offered to them, they would accept it with pleasure. But not me, I didn’t want it. As our great poet Saadi Shriazi says, and my father always used to read from his book to us, “Oh, the stubborn stomach, be happy with a piece of bread. Don’t bow to anyone else than yourself!”
Yes, I had bent my back but only to earn a piece of bread. I mean, the minimum in this country, which is not the minimum Saadi means. The minimum in this country is much higher. But I don’t want to talk about logic.
I told you this lady’s behavior hurt me. I didn’t say anything about it to Farhad and my children. I was sure if I told them, they would have said, “Quit your job. Don’t let her insult you.” Farhad used to be a supporter of the working class. He still is, but he doesn’t know exactly how to define the working class in this country.
Yes, if I tell Farhad that this woman’s behavior hurts me, I know he’d start to talk about the bourgeoisie and their characteristics, that all of them are arrogant and exploit the working class. If I asked him what should I do so that she wouldn’t call me Adam, he would probably say, “Haven’t you a name? She has no right to insult you. She has to respect your human dignity.”
I should ask him, “Is it an insult if she calls me Adam?”
No, I didn’t say anything to Farhad about my problem at work. I know he would make it worse. I had to think about it myself and found a way. What if I looked straight in her eyes and told her, “Dear lady, I have a name; my name is Setareh. Do you have a problem with my name?”
I don’t know what her reaction would be. She might feel ashamed and apologize to me. Or she might scream and say, “Hey, leave my house right away. I can’t stand people who are rude and want to bully me. I don’t want you to work here. Keep your name for yourself and hang it on your neck like an insignia.”
To tell the truth, the sensitivity with my name started when I got to know this woman; otherwise, I wouldn’t brag about my name or would be proud of it. But the thing that she wouldn’t call me by my name and instead called me Adam made me so frustrated.
The fact is that she didn’t call me dog or cat, she called me Adam. Her tone was humiliating, as if she was scratching my soul with a sharp knife or a broken glass. Because of her behavior, whenever I hear the phone ring, or whenever she went to her bedroom and closed the door, I imagined her lying on her bed, stretching her long, flowered robe over her body and calling this or that, to talk about me. I mean, I’m just guessing she was talking about me. That’s why I was tempted to lift the receiver and listen to her gossip about people I didn’t know, or talk about her trip all around the world, which made me angrier. To tell the truth, I was ashamed to listen in on her phone calls. But whenever I heard her say, “Today, I have Adam; I can’t leave my house…” I felt hot and hung up soundlessly. I couldn’t continue to overhear her. I feared hearing more bad things about me and worried that I would get so angry that I couldn’t control myself, would go to her bedroom, screamed at her and tell her whatever came to my mouth.
Yes, I wish I’d gone to her bedroom and screamed at her, “Good woman, Ms. Such and Such or any fucking name that you have, I have a name. My name is Setareh. Do you understand, Setareh?” But I didn’t dare to do such a thing. Well, it was clear. I was afraid to lose my job.
I talked about this only to Parvin. I felt hot in my face. Sometimes with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I asked my friend, “Why does she call me Adam? Don’t have I a name?”
With a serene and soothing face, Parvin said, “Don’t take it hard. Adam is not a bad name. You are an Adam, aren’t you?”
I say, “Yes, I’m an Adam, but I have a name. She calls me Adam as if she’s humiliating me, as if I’m an illiterate, rural maid.”
With the blame in her eyes, Parvin said, “Ms. Setareh, these words you used, I mean illiterate and rural maid, are negative. Maid is a person who works in other people’s houses.
I said, “So, I’m no better than Mrs. Mostashari?”
Parivn looked at me and said nothing. But in her eyes there was confirmation.
Yes, I’m the same prejudiced person. Nonetheless, all these facts plus Parvin’s opinion of me won’t lessen the pain of being called Adam.
Parvin said, “If you really are hurt by this word, don’t go to her place anymore.”
“I can’t leave my job.”
“I need money, and sometimes I feel pity for her.”
In fact, my pity for Mrs. Mostashari exceeds my need for money. I can make money, working at other places, but I feel Mrs. Mostashari is a very lonely, very miserable, and very depressed woman. As if she has no one to talk to. Yes, very often she throws a party and fills her house with Adams. Not the Adam she calls me but the Adams, as she calls them, respectable and important Adams.
Yes, she used to say,” All of them were well known and were somebody in their own country and are in this country too..”
No, she didn’t tell this to me. She was talking to a friend on the phone, and I sneaked into her room and heard it. She talked about her trip to Europe, the U.S., Mexico or other resorts. Her husband has a foot here and one in another part of the world. Whenever I asked her about him, she said, “He’s on a trip.”
It’s none of my business that she is very wealthy and at the same time very stupid. I worked for her and she gave me my wages. Yes, sometimes she paid more. Sometimes twice my rate. And sometimes on the weekend, when I went to help her with a party she hosted, and I stayed until late at night, and she sent me home with a taxi, and paid me double or even more. She always put the money in an envelope. It never happened that she put it in my hand. No, I’m not complaining about her. Only when she called me Adam instead of Setareh, , I wanted to scream, “Mrs. Mostashari, I’m not an Adam. I have a name. My name is Setareh.” But I didn’t dare. I mean, whenever I wanted to do that, I was afraid of losing my job.
It only happened once, when I was very upset. By that time, I had been working for her for more than a year and had mentioned several times that my name was Setareh. She had said, “Yes, I know. You’ve told me before.” Or she just said nothing as if she hadn’t heard me. But that particular day I was angry and upset. I mean, the whole day she had hidden herself in her room and spent her time talking on the phone or watching Turkish TV shows in Farsi on her big TV screen. I opened the door to her bedroom several times to tell her that I had finished my job and wanted to go home, but she ignored me. She was completely absorbed in the show. So I left without saying goodbye to her. At night I told everything to Farhad. Farhad still has the same ideology he had ten, twenty years ago and he considers me a part of the working class. Yes, I belong to the working class, Even though I don’t belong to a union and can’t go on strike. When Farhad heard my story, he was so angry that his neck veins swelled up. In a broken voice, he said, “This lady is one of those fanatic bourgeois. But whoever she is, she has no right to insult you.”
I said, “She didn’t insult me; she doesn’t call me by my name. And today she hid herself in her bedroom the whole day, busy with talking on the phone or watching TV, as if I didn’t exist, or I was a machine working for her.”
Farhad said, “You shouldn’t go to her place anymore. We’ll file a complaint against her.”
I said, “A complaint?”
“Yes, a complaint. There are rules and laws in this country. All people are equal in the face of the law.”
“But this is a capitalist country.”
“That’s not important. We have to file a complaint and take her to court.”
“Where will we get the money to hire a lawyer?”
“We’ll think about it.”
We didn’t file a complaint. What complaint? Parvin said, “Don’t make trouble for yourself.”
But I quit my job and didn’t go to her place anymore. Parvin brought me my last day’s wages.
Now, I’m back to my old job, working for an agency. Instead of one or two days per week, I have to work three or four days or sometimes five or six and still make less money than I made in that woman’s house. I see the owners of the houses only in the morning when I go there. No one in these houses calls me Adam. The whole day it’s just me and I feel dead tired from the hard work of cleaning. Sometimes I feel I want to cry, not from fatigue but, ironically, because of my destiny and because of thinking of Mrs. Mostashari, whose first name I’ve never learned. I mean the name her parents had given her and called her with. Neither did I learn whether she was happy with her immense wealth and all those trips that she went and came back?
But my guess is that she wasn’t happy, not because of her wealth, or her husband and children whom I never met. I’m not even sure if she had so many friends and acquaintances, even though she spent a lot of time talking on the phone when she wasn’t watching those Turkish TV shows. In spite of all these things, I sometimes feel pity for her and sometimes I miss her.
When I talk about this to Farhad, he says, “That fanatic bourgeois? Don’t think about her. Now you have your dignity, you have a name, an identity.”
Yes, I have my dignity, but I don’t like my job.
(1) Adam in Farsi means “human being” but it is also sometimes used for an employee by an employer who doesn’t want to use the individual’s name.
(2) Setareh means star.
(3) Mahtab means moonlight.
(4) Arman, means ideal and Kamran means happy and successful.
Mehri Yalfani was born in Hamadan, Iran. After she finished high school, she moved to Tehran and graduated from the University of Tehran with a degree of electrical engineering and worked as an engineer for twenty years. She immigrated to Canada in 1987 with her family and has been writing and publishing since then. She has published six novels and three collections of short stories in Farsi and two novels and three collections of short stories in English. Her new collection of short stories, “A Fall Afternoon in the Park” is going to be published in 2022 by Inanna Publications.