Bibi Djan, the Rug Weaver
Introduction Grandma Helen (Heghineh) Davidian spent early mornings at her writing desk. She didn’t sleep as much as the rest of her family, and the extra time was invested in telling stories about the lives of young Persian women in the early 1900s. Here is the story in its entirety.
Part 1 Bibi Djan finished her housework and watered the flowers around the pool in the yard. As she stepped down into the kitchen to start a fire for the samovar, she heard a knock at the street door. It could not be her husband, for it was too early for him to come home from work.
She climbed the kitchen steps and called, “Who is there?”__then covering her face carefully and gathering her long chador nemaz around her waist, opened the door slightly and peeped out.
Two Persons were standing outside the door. They seemed like women, but they wore hats. One had beady blue eyes and blond hair, the other had dark eyes and jet-black curly, hair.
“They must be men,” she thought. She had never seen women in the street without a veil. But the strangers greeted her in soft tones and when they smiled she said to herself,”They are both women,”she uncovered her face and led them into the living room.
Part 2 She invited them to sit down on the carpet, as she sat cross-legged, facing them. When they had removed their hats she saw that they did not have long tresses as she had, but wore their hair combed backward and gathered up behind.
When the girl with the blue eyes began to talk, Bibi Djan listened carefully but could only make out a few Persian words.
“How old were you when you started to work at the rug factory?”
With some efforts Bibi Djan caught the meaning. She thought, “How do they know I have been a rug weaver? Must I answer them? But really, how old was I when I started to work? And how old am I now? Wouldn’t it be a shame if I told them I did not know my own age? ”
Never before had she thought of her age. She remembered when she as a child in the dark, damp cellar of the rug factory. A row of small children like herself sat upon narrow benches before the large looms, with their little hands moving with mechanical speed among the large balls of colored yarn hanging before them. The master, design in hand, read out the colors in sing-song fashion, “One green, one red…two blue…Have you got them? Now two rows of blue and then a row of red.”
Part 3 She could not remember her father, who died when she was a baby. Her mother died soon after Bibi Djan went into the rug factory. Thus orphaned, Bibi Djan took the few furnishings of her home–a black earthen pot, a tin samovar, a teapot, a water jug, a broken heater, a tattered quilt, an old carpet–and moved into a corner of the single room occupied by the doorkeeper of the factory. Now she had been a rug weaver for many years, under the same master. Every one in the factory liked her and she was the best rug weaver in the town.
She had always thought that she must look like the girl who sat next to her on the loom, whose upper lip was cleft and her face pockmarked. But one day a girl gave Bibi Djan a piece of mirror and for the first time in her life she saw her own image. Her eyes were big, with long black lashes and thick brows, her small white teeth glistened and her oval face was pale. She was glad she looked pretty. But she was worried because she was very short for her age. None of the girls in the factory were taller than 4 feet, but Bibi Djan was the shortest of them all. “It must be my kismet (fate),” she thought.
Part 4 Habib, the man who brought the yarn to the girls’ looms each day, was scarcely taller than she. All the girls seemed to like him. The time came when he fell in love with Bibi Djan. He offered her presents, which she refused at first, but soon she came to like him, and they were quietly married.
Bibi Djan was happy. Habib loved her very much. He would put his money in her hand every time he was paid, and she would never have to repeat any request except one. He smoked opium and would not give it up. The smell of opium upset Bibi Djan’s heart. Everything in the house, the beds, the curtains, even the clothes in the chest, smelled of opium. Sometimes he would promise to stop smoking because she thought it would be harmful to the baby who was to be born, but as soon as his smoking hour came he forgot his vow.
Seven months had now passed since their marriage. Bibi Djan sat before the two strangers, gazing at their faces trying to figure out her own age. When the woman with dark hair, smiling broadly, repeated the question, Bibi Djan understood her much better and replied.
Part 5 “Khanoom, I think I must have been 10 or 12 years old when I first entered the factory. I pulled out my first tooth there. I remember one day when that tooth was loose I pulled it out with a string and the blood stained the rug and the master was very angry and did not pay me for that day. ” The women laughed. “How lovely the blond woman looks when she laughs,” thought Bibi Djan.
“How long have you been married? asked the woman with dark hair.
“Since last spring, on the first Thursday of our New Year. Perhaps it is ten or eleven months ago,” said Bibi Djan, wrapping her chadour so the visitors could not see her shape.
“Bibi Djan,” said the girl with blonde hair, “we are midwife nurses. We have a mothers’ Society here in Kerman, and we want you to join it. It will be very helpful to you, and we shall be glad to help at the time when your baby is born. We give special lectures for women rug weavers and we want you to attend them. Do you know why all the rug weavers do not get tall and have small waists and are so pale and skinny? It is because they pass their lives in the dark, damp cellars of the rug factory. Bibi Djan, you started to work when you were only five or six years of age. Now you may be sixteen or seventeen, perhaps even younger.”
Part 6 Bibi Djan gazed at her and could not understand her, as the woman pronounced g instead of gh, and h instead of kh.
“What is the khanoom saying?” she asked the other woman.“You must excuse me, but I don’t know what she is saying. God forbid, khanoom, who says I am short because I have worked in the rug factory? It is my kismet.Inshallah, may God grant me tall and healthy children.”
“If you want your children to be born healthy you should do as we say.”
“Upon my eye, khanoom, I am your maid-servant.”
“Now, listen, Every Thursday, you must come to our home for the meeting. And you must let us know the day you expect the baby.”
“No, thank you, thank you very much. You need not bother. The doorkeepers mother at the factory is a very good midwife. I must call her, and if I do not, she will be offended, for she had brought me up as her own child.”
“No, Bibi Djan, you cannot bear your child easily. You must go to the hospital. There is a good man doctor there. You…”
At the word hospital, Bibi Djan’s heart leapt, and she cried out. She had heard about the hospital. That was the place where those who went never came back. “No, no, I would not go to the hospital. I would never step out of this house to go to the hospital, even if you cut my head off!” she said.
Part 7 The nurse went on patiently. “We have come here all the way from England to help rug weavers like you in childbirth. The services at the hospital are free. If you stay at home, the midwife may not be able to help you, and you may die.”
“If it is my kismet to die at childbirth, let it be so,” said Bibi Djan, smiling. “Even if you gave me a sack of gold, I would not go to the hospital.”
The nurses were puzzled and decided to talk about the matter with her husband, and asked for his name and the place she worked. They were ready to go but she asked them to stay a little longer for tea. She brought a boiling samovar and served them with small glasses of tea. They admired her cleanliness and neatness. The yellow samovar sparkled like gold, the glasses were crystal clear, the towel was white like snow, the white cloths in the niches were spotless and everything in the room was in order.
When the women rose to go, Bibi Djan gave each of the women a flower from the yard and they thanked her and went away.
Part 8 Bibi Djan did not tell her husband about the visit. “They may persuade him easily,” she thought, “and he may send me to the hospital.” But she did not believe that the nurses, being women, would have the courage to talk to a man about such a matter as childbirth. Bibi Djan wished for a boy and she prepared everything for a boy. For charms against evil eye she attached a blue bead to each of the baby garments and to the cradle. As days passed she kept the house in order and steadily finished her sewing and mended all her husband’s clothes and stockings. “Who knows?” she thought, “I may die at childbirth, I do not want my successor to speak ill of me, and curse my bones.”
One morning about the end of autumn when her husband had his sack upon his shoulder, ready to go to work, she asked her to send to her the doorkeepers mother, the midwife.
“Why?” asked Habib, “Has the day come?”
Part 9 She blushed and nodded. He put his sack down and sat upon the kitchen steps. “Bibi Djan,” he said in a soft voice, as if speaking to a child. She had never heard him speak like that. It is true that that he never flung orders and curses at her like other men do, but he had never spoken so softly. “I am going to tell you something; he went on. “Come, sit by me and listen!” She gathered her chadoor around her waist and with some effort sat down by her husband upon the kitchen steps. “Bibi Djan,” he said, “you are not going to call the doorkeeper’s mother for a midwife. You must go to the hospital. The English nurses…”
Her blood turned to water, and her heart pounded with anger. “I must go to the hospital?” she cried. She beat her knees and cried,”Let the dust fall upon my head, my husband wants to kill me, he wants to bury me alive! Aye, aye, what shall I do? Those infidels, those daughters of dogs! When did they come and rob you of your senses? Who said you can send me to the hospital? What am I to do?”
Part 10 Habib was puzzled. “Very well, very well, don’t go to the hospital. But choke your voice! The neighbors may think Habib is beating his wife. I will call the doorkeeper’s mother. I will call her. Let it be as you wish.”
Bibi Djan was in labor for two days while with trembling hands the doorkeeper’s mother tried everything she could do. She appealed to the prophets, and she had a Koran brought from the mosque and tied to Bibi Djan‘s waist. She got some fragrant herbs from the dervishes (holy men) and made Bibi Djan chew them, hoping to ease her pangs. But all was in vain.
At last she became hopeless and told Habib that she could not help any further and she would not be responsible.
Habib had not left the house for these two days, but now he kicked the door open and in one breath ran to the house of the English nurses. There he found the nurse with black hair. She looked at the small man closely and recognized him. “What is it? I know, you are here about Bibi Djan. When did her labors begin?”
“Early this morning, very early,” replied Habib, dropping his head.
Part 11 “You say her labors started very early this morning, and you have come to call us at this late hour of sunset! Have you called any of the local midwives?”
“No, khanoom, no. I would not permit such a blunder.”
“Very well, then. Wait till I get ready, and I will go with you,” said the nurse.
When Habib returned with the nurse Bibi Djan was moaning and weeping. Many women and children gathered in the yard and inside the house. The nurse glanced about until her eyes rested upon an old women in the corner of the room, talking to a neighbor. She recognized her at once as the local midwife, whom she had met before.
“How do you feel, Bibi Djan?” asked the English woman gently.
“Aye, khanoom, let me be your sacrifice. I have been suffering for the past two days. I don’t know what evil eye struck me! My baby will not come. Someone must have cursed me. Poor Naneh Taghi did everything in her power, but she could not help me.”
“No, no, I did nothing,” cried the stooping old woman. “God knows I did nothing harmful.”
“Don’t be afraid, Bibi Djan. Get ready. We shall take you to the hospital at once,” said the nurse.
Part 12 “Let Allah make me go blind!” cried Bibi Djan. “Do you think I would uncover my face in the presence of a man doctor? I would rather die in my own house.”
“Don’t you go to the hospital, girl!” advised a woman neighbor, who had brought her water pipe with her and was smoking it unceasingly. “Don’t listen to them. They took the daughter of my sister-in-law to the hospital and killed her with an operating knife.”
“Bibi Djan, my soul, do not refuse,” pleaded Habib.
“Choke yourself, you son of a dog! I know you want me to die so you can take another wife!”
The nurse tried to put the crowd out of the room, but no sooner had she chased them out of one door than they rushed back in through another door like a swarm of flies.
She went to Habib and whispered something into his ears. He ran out. In a short while he returned, panting. “The carriage is ready khanoom.” The nurse again whispered something into his ear.
“Do as you please, khanoom,” he said, “I am your sacrifice. I will kiss your feet, khanoom. Please save Bibi Djan.”
Bibi Djan, her elbows resting on the edge of a niche, was moaning and weeping. The nurse asked Bibi Djan to lie down on the bed that was spread out on the floor. The old woman with the water-pipe cried out, “Let the dust fall upon my head! Don’t lie down! Whoever saw a child-bearing woman lie down? What crazy notions these English midwives have in their heads!”
Part 13 The nurse seized the old woman by the arm, and led her out of the room. Then with Habib’s help she sent out all the other women and children and latched the doors, although they crowded at the window and tried to peep in.
At last Bibi Djan lay down and the nurse held the chloroform to her nose. When Bibi Djan was unconscious, the woman bent and lifted her gently in her arms and carried her out. Habib picked up the bundles, chased everyone out of the yard, and locked the street door.
Alone in the waiting room of the hospital, Habib paced the floor, rubbing his hands together nervously. He tried to sit down a moment, but he could not. Then he went and stood by the window.
The day was almost gone. In the garden below, the pomegranate trees bent under the burden of their cracked fruit.
But Habib saw nothing. He stood, motionless, staring. “Why did I bring her to the hospital against her will?” he thought “If she dies, how am I to account for her on the Day of Judgment? But no, they told me she would not die. They have saved many lives.”
He went and sat on a and pulled his knees to his chest and rested his head upon them. In his heart he made promises to God and the prophets. He pledged a part of his belongings to the poor. He vowed to go upon a pilgrimage to the holy city of Meshed.
Part 14 A thousand other vows flashed through his mind, but when he felt that none of them was enough, he lifted his arms over his head and muttered: “Allah, if you spare Bibi Djan, I will give up smoking opium. I promise, and this time I will make my promise good–if only my wife lives.”
At that moment the door opened and a nurse came in. Habib sprang to his feet, his fingers clutching at his heart.
“Are you the husband of the patient under operation?” asked the nurse. “Give me an ear. The doctor says you must decide quickly. Which would you want us to save–your child or your wife? We may have to sacrifice one to save the other–or else both may die.”
Habib stared at the nurse, his eyes wide. A chill had suddenly fallen upon his emotions. What would he do with a motherless child? He stroked his beard and beat his forehead. How could he sacrifice hid child, a part of his own flesh and blood? How could he tear out one of his eyes? But could he ever find himself a wife as faithful and thrifty as Bibi Djan? How could he give verdict against his own soul?
Part 15 His head dropped and the tears rolled down his cheeks into his beard, while the nurse stood silently watching the tragedy of the little man, and waiting for an answer.
Then he lifted his head heavily and said in a quivering whisper, “Save my child!”
His knees sagged and he slumped on the bench. After a few moments he made a great effort to rise, but he could not. He wanted to run after the nurse and tell her that he had made a terrible mistake, that he had not meant what he said. But the woman in white seemed to be running across a desert, and running after her a long distance, he came to Bibi Djan.
She wore a green velvet coat and her head was covered with a pink chadour. It was her wedding dress. He remembered her on their wedding day, sitting beside him in front of a large mirror and she had smiled. Now, too, she was staring at him, but she was not smiling.
She seemed to say: “Go away Habib, I am disgusted with you. You must have smoked too much opium today.”
And he replied, “I will smoke no more. I vow it by your life, and by my own life. I will break my pipe to bits. You must believe me, Bibi Djan. Now let us go home. We have a long way to walk. Why don’t you answer me. . . Don’t run away. Wait, dearest to my soul. . .wait!” cried Habib, and was startled to hear his own voice.
Part 16 He felt the light touch of a hand on his shoulder and he opened his eyes. The room was dark. He heard a whisper in his ear.
“Get up, Habib. God has given you a fine little boy. And He has saved Bibi Djan’s life, too. Come and see them.”
Habib rubbed his eyes and sprang to his feet, and saw the Armenian nurse standing at his side in the dark waiting room, holding in her hand a small kerosene lamp, her face beaming in its flickering light.
Postscript: It’s very likely that the Armenian nurse mentioned here was Helen Davidian’s sister. It’s also likely that this story was based on events many women experienced, and may still experience even today. Finally, consider the fine oriental rug you may enjoy, especially those made some time ago. Consider the small hands that tied those knots, and what may have happened to them over the years. Thank you for reading.