I’m almost ten years old and in fourth grade. I walk to and from school with my best friend, Soraya. Our school is tucked in the back of an alley adjacent to the Big Bazaar in downtown Tehran. The school is for girls only. To get there, Soraya and I walk along the Bouzarjomehri Avenue, weave through the street vendors who loudly announce their goods, pass all the shops, go down a set of long but gently-sloped stone stairs, follow a narrow tunnel-like path with bales of cotton piled up high on each side, go through a huge wooden gate, and voila, our school is on the right hand side. This is our shortcut.
The covered bazaar is a thrilling labyrinth branching in many different directions. It is the center of wholesale shopping. Each section offers a particular merchandize: rugs and floor coverings, spices, gold jewelry and gems, copper and brass products, garments and accessories, china and housewares, you name it. Our shortcut is through the cotton wholesalers section. Sometimes, as we walk through the narrow walkway, we see a tiny cut in a cotton bale, poke our fingers in, and get out a piece of white fluffy cotton. Soraya and I giggle and take the cotton to school to show other girls. We are used to the crowd and all the noise around us. We pay no attention to the loud sound of hammers banging on the copper plates or the chatter of the workers.
Since we pass through the business section every day, my mother charges me with an important task. I am to give a relatively large sum to a gentleman, the owner of a cosmetics and hosiery store where mother shops frequently. She puts the money in my school bag with the instructions that on the way back I must stop at the store and pay her debt.
During recess, while sitting at my desk next to Soraya, I open my bag. Discreetly I nudge at her elbow to call her attention to my open school bag. With our heads touching, we both hover over my bag to look at the large bill. The fact that I’m entrusted with such a large sum is a matter of pride. It makes me feel grownup and reliable.
After school, we both walk together and make a stop at the designated store. Proud that I’m doing an errand for my mother, I open my bag. But the money isn’t there! The bill has vanished. Soraya and I search high and low. The store owner looks at us with a smile but doesn’t say anything. I empty the entire content of my bag on the counter – no money.
Feelings of fright, embarrassment, bewilderment, and sadness put my stomach in a knot. Whatever happened to the money? I can’t figure it out – it was there a few hours ago. We walk home in utter silence. Soraya is pensive and I’m frightened. How am I to face my mother? All I can think of is my own failure in completing one task she asked me to do. I’m so disappointed in myself.
My lips quiver, and I try to hold back the tears as I tell my mother I lost the bill. Her first reaction is a quick whack on the side of my head. She looks at me indignantly and asks, “How could you do that?”
I cannot hold back the tears any longer. The knot in the stomach moves up to my throat and releases itself through tears. I cry not because she hits me, but because I feel terribly stupid, incapable of carrying a task. But she calms down quickly when my father whispers something in her ears. The matter is dropped and never mentioned again.
Two years pass, and I am about to graduate from elementary school. My parents have bought a house in a different part of town and we are moving out of the Big Bazaar neighborhood. On the last day of school, all the girls hug and wish each other well in the upcoming seventh grade. Soraya and I will be going to different secondary schools in opposite sides of Tehran.
Suddenly a girl who has been in my class all along approaches me. She is a plain-looking quiet sort who has never been in our circle of friends. Actually I don’t recall if she has ever talked to me.
I smile at her, but she doesn’t look at me.
With downcast eyes and trembling voice she says she is the one who took the money out of my school bag two years ago. “I’m asking for forgiveness.”
I look at her with mouth agape and wide eyes. Why is she confessing after all this time? I really have nothing to say – I have forgotten the incident.
She continues, “My mother forced me to come and tell you, so the money would not be Haram –unlawful.” She hastily adds that at the time her father was out of work and the family needed the money.
A tingling starts in my stomach, finds its way all the way up to my face and I flash a broad friendly smile at the girl. It had never ever occurred to me that someone might have taken the money. I can hardly wait to report to my mother that I was not clumsy; I was robbed.
As gentle as a twelve-year-old can be, I assure her that has nothing to worry about. The money is Halal – lawful.
She is forgiven.