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Notion Press Singapore Short Story Contest 2017

The Sofreh Cleaner

By Mahya Abolmasoomi in General Literary

Sofreh (Farsi) – A large piece of cloth that is laid on the floor to serve food on. Guests will sit around it on the floor during meal times. The sofreh can also be found in plastic or disposable paper forms.

Nooshe jan (Farsi) – Bon appetit, usually a reply to “daste shoma dard nakoneh” (thank you for your effort) which guests would say to the host after a meal.

The Sofreh Cleaner

The meal was slowly coming to an end as the women shifted uneasily on the floor to stabilize their tummies and the men melted into the Persian rug in lazy satisfaction. Everyone at the sofreh expressed their gratitude and compliments to the chef more out of obligation rather than appreciation. As the guests echoed their thanks the host would in turn reply nooshe jan, glad that she managed to feed everyone, and that there would be leftovers which mean she did not have to cook for at least two days. One by one the guests get up from the sofreh and immediately proceed with collecting the dishes. After every meal in an Iranian household, the womenfolk swirl into a frenzy of cleaning and tidying, regardless of their status in the house, host or guest, while the men folk await their tea in the living room, nursing their inflated bellies. It is fascinating to see how the women seem to draw energy from the heavy meal while the men succumb to its after effects.

In the kitchen the women fight for the tasks that need to be done, the grand prize being to wash the dirty dishes. The most daring of the group approaches the sink containing a mountain of greasy plate despite protests from the host. Host and guest engage in a showy tango until finally one gives in and lets the other pull up her sleeves to begin scrubbing. The other wins the consolation prize of rinsing. Once that has been settled the rest of the work is silently delegated to the remaining women. One clears the scraps off the plates, another packs the remaining food, while another arranges what needs to be washed, pots and plates that seem to be spilling from the sink to the floor. Nothing a small but motivated army of women can’t take care of. The least glamorous task of all is cleaning the sofreh which would usually be given to the younger ones of the group for they have not yet developed the tummy or the bosoms to hinder them from bending down to clean the long piece of cloth stretched out on the carpet. The rest of the company has moved in front of the TV and don’t take notice of the young one.

She sits cross-legged in front of the sofreh, evaluating what need to be done and then sets about her duty, cleaning and folding, cleaning and folding, the way her grandmother taught her. Her grandmother used to say “No one cleans the sofreh like my Mahtaab,” which was a big deal considering her grandmother being an undiagnosed obsessive compulsive cleaner. As she cleaned, her mind would wander to a distant homeland she would visit every few years. It didn’t feel much different here. Iranians have a gift for encapsulating their homeland in a portable bubble outside of Iran. The young one wasn’t quite blessed with this gift, having grown up in another country. She was in a bubble of her own and its presence was never more felt than when she was in a crowd of Iranians; like now. Her bubble had magical qualities of its own; It made her almost invisible to groups of people but allowed their voices to pass through.

The sofreh was strategically laid out in between the kitchen and the living room with conversation flowing from both sides. The young one’s ears perked up as the men were talking about interpretations of Quranic verses and how modern science has been able to shed a new light on religious texts and their meanings. This piqued her interest as she remembered a course she took in university taught her there are many different approaches that can be utilized in studying religious texts and that in a tech-driven world, we can no longer solely rely on traditional methods. Their exchanges went on for a while but then someone turns the TV on and the topic quickly switched to sports. The young one lost interest in their conversation and tuned her ears to dialogues pouring out from the kitchen.

The host was complaining to her guests about her PhD supervisor who was giving her a hard time. She has been working close to 5 years on a project on cervical cancer and a few locally grown herbs that could potentially be used as treatment. She was upset about some unavoidable circumstances which were hindering her progress. The rest of the group also shared stories of their theses, projects and supervisors in solidarity. The young one was thankful that her thesis was almost done and that everyone she encountered on her journey to its completion was very helpful. Her attention strayed for a bit and snapped back when one of the women asked the host where she got a particular kitchen gadget. The host beamed with pride as she shared the name of the store in which she discovered her treasure while another tried to top her mentioning another store which was supposedly better with cheaper-priced items. The young one was almost done cleaning the sofreh. She enjoyed this mindless task that gave her the privilege of observation. But she knew she couldn’t clean the sofreh forever. She took her time folding the rest of the sofreh and collecting the rags she used to clean it because she knew what was coming next. She glanced at the kitchen to see if she could silently escape but was frozen in place by the host’s glare. She did not have to utter the command for what needed to be done next. It was time for someone to serve the tea.

Copyright Mahya Abolmasoomi
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