His love gained was my love lost
Kolsom Ahmady lives in a village on the Iran-Iraq border. As a young girl, 40 years ago, she had chosen her intended. Then her elder brother eloped – and she found herself paying for his happiness with her own freedom
Interview by Kameel Ahmady
First published by The Guardian on Mon 1 Oct 2007
I have never told anyone this story in its entirety before. My name is Kolsom Ahmady. I don’t know how old I am because I never went to school and have lived most my life in a village in Iran called Gardashewan. But I suppose I must be over 50. I was born into a poor family. My father died when I was five, leaving behind four girls and two boys, and we were brought up under the close supervision of our uncles and other family elders.
When I was about 10, Uncle Abdoulla (then the head of the entire Ahmady family) ordered my mother to move to his home; he felt that a widow living alone with her children might bring into question the honour of the whole family. Our new life in the town of Nagheda was great; it was a different world: new things, new clothes – and electricity.
Although there were six families living together and we were under the constant observation of the male elders and our young male cousins, there was always a chance to go outside to fetch drinking water from the nearby pump. That’s when we used to flirt with boys, who would wait for us in the evenings. There was no exchange of words but we found other ways to communicate: you could choose your intended by accepting the small bottles of perfume they would offer, or sometimes a carefully waxed apple. They would wax them so that they shined, and this fruit had such a fragrance. We called them shemama.
Life went on this way until we realised that Karim, our oldest brother, was spending more and more time in a village about six or seven hours away, buying livestock to sell on at a profit in the large cities such as Tehran. It was on these trips that Karim fell in love, and asked my uncles to send a messenger to the girl’s family to request permission for a marriage.
But each time we tried we were turned down – perhaps because they didn’t want their daughter to live so far away from them.
After all these negotiations, life returned to normal, until late one evening Karim returned after a few days’ absence; however, he was not alone. I would guess the young girl with him, Amina, was around my own age. She looked tired, was soaked through from the rain, and covered all over in thick mud. My mother shouted in happiness, saying: “Karim Jani helgertoa!” (“Karim my son, you have lifted a woman!”) – a phrase commonly used when a young man convinces a girl to elope with him. Days passed and many messengers, elders and clergymen were sent to the young bride’s house, in order to reach a deal after this small scandal, but her father wanted only one thing: a woman in return for the loss of his daughter – one from our family to marry his eldest son.
In those days, I didn’t have a care in the world. I believed in love, but what did I know? I was in love with a boy from the neighbourhood, and all day I would wait for the moment each evening when, with the other girls, I would fetch water from the pump. Once there, I used to see him, waiting for me with a smile, playing with a nicely waxed shemama in his hands. He would follow me almost all the way home – but not getting too close in case my cousins or uncle noticed.
One night, not too long after my brother had brought Amina home, my eldest uncle’s wife called to see me. “Amina’s family has asked for you,” she said. “They want you to marry their eldest son, Qadir.” I was shocked, and certainly I didn’t want to marry a boy I had no feelings for, someone I didn’t even know. I cried for days, but the decision had been made. I didn’t dare tell my uncle Abdoulla that I didn’t want to marry this man, that I rejected his decision.
I tried speaking to his wife, to my mother and all the other female elders, but all knew there was no way around it, however much they might have sympathised with my sadness. The family’s “honour” was at stake and a way had to be found to solve this dispute that my brother Karim’s elopement had caused.
He had found love and happiness, but it appeared that I must sacrifice my own for that. In order to make the marriage halal, I must give up my freedom and my chance for love.
I wasn’t in a position to speak to Karim; he was as young as I was and, to be fair, he didn’t have much power over the elders’ decisions. Finally facing the reality of my situation, I asked Amina how Qadir looked, how old he was, trying to get a picture of the man I would have to spend the rest of my life with.
She told me he was much older than me, but she had a thought – her other Brother Ali was more handsome and younger. Having no chance to be really free, I sent a message to the male elders that I would only be willing to reconcile the dispute by marrying Ali, and not Qadir. The reply came back: it was their family tradition, the eldest son was to be wed before other sons. Qadir it would be.
No one could help me and I was too terrified to run away with the man I loved, though I thought about it. I sent my younger sister to tell him what was happening. Although I knew he couldn’t help me, he returned the message by saying he hoped one day we would be together. (I didn’t see him for many years until I met him by chance in a textile store: I walked in, and it turned out he was the owner, but neither of us had anything to say.) There were so many considerations. My mother was stuck between her love for two of her children, and both our futures were at stake.
A few days later, two cars came to the house, bringing Amina’s father and a clergyman, and there they married me to Qadir in an Islamic ceremony, with my uncle as my representative and Amina’s father as Qadir’s. Neither I nor Qadir were present. Half an hour later I was on my way to my new home in the village of Gardashewan.
The first time I met Qadir was later that same day, my wedding night. I was so angry, scared and embarrassed that I hardly looked at him.
Well, my life began there. A new life – cleaning up after the animals each morning before the sun rose, and milking large numbers of livestock twice a day. I was supposed to bake bread, clean the house, and make blocks of fuel from the animal waste. These were my routines now.
The most difficult part of the year was when some of us used to go to the mountains and live in tents for four or five months to graze the livestock in summer pastures, although nowadays I find this a relative freedom from the dull village atmosphere, and the air is fresh. I can relax a bit.
My first child was born a year after my so-called marriage began. I named her Zolegha, and she was followed by another five boys and girls. I watched Zolegha growing up, and every now and then I used to tell her stories from my past, the sweet days back in the town. I knew she had fallen in love with a young man, Ahmet, from the village.
But Ahmet had only a mother to speak for him and my husband’s family did not approve. In some ways, it was just like it had been for my mother’s family after my father died; without a man as a family head, we had no say over our own futures.
Thinking back about what I went through and how I was forced to marry someone I had never met and didn’t feel any love for, I couldn’t allow the same thing to happen to my daughter some 20 years later. One evening, I asked Zolegha’s boyfriend to meet me in a hidden spot outside the village. Zolegha and I went to see him, and I told him there and then that I gave them my blessing. I did this at great risk, but I did not want my daughter to live a loveless life.
The three of us knew that Zolegha would not, after that moment, enjoy any support from her family, and that is the decision she made. My only valuable possession was a pair of earrings, which I gave to her that night. Then I sent them off, with my tears flowing down my face. After a few years, I pushed for a reconciliation between our family and Ahmet’s; it began with us, the women, who would try to socialise. Eventually, my husband came to accept his daughter again.
Maybe what I did wasn’t something women do, or at least not those from the Kurdish tradition in those days. I knew that I would be looked down upon by other families because our girl had run away. I knew it would be hard to take all this tension within the family itself, where men are quick to blame mothers for not raising their daughters “properly”. But how could I allow my little girl to suffer in the way I did for so many years?
Looking back on those days, who should we blame for this? My uncles? My brother Karim? Amina? Or the tradition and religion I come from? For so many years I have lived with this man and looked after him, and he looks after me. We are like one unit now. I know how much anger I stored within me for much of that time. But now my oldest uncle has passed away, and recently Amina died of a brain haemorrhage. Having somehow, after all this time, got used to my husband, I guess I found a way to forgive them all.