“Perhaps no action in life stings more than betrayal.” Gina Scott
I recall my first bee sting. We were camping upstream, on a flattened section of land by Tidal River in Wilsons Promontory National Park. My uncle discovered a beehive in a scarred tree. Some native bees don’t sting, the majority do. He cautiously extracted a piece of honeycomb, dripping with honey. The honey was a dark colour, like that of the water in the river. As I dipped my finger in the honey, a disgruntled bee crawled up my shoe and stung me on the ankle. The unexpected suddenness of the pain caused me to tense my body. It hurt.
Betrayal can be defined as a violation of a person’s trust or confidence. To feel betrayed, you must trust someone enough to be hurt by their unexpected actions.
The Stationary Shop of Tehran by Marjan Kamali, is a beautifully fashioned story of love and loss. Within this construct, is a sinister thread of betrayal. We witness the psychological effects of betrayal and discover their potential to damage lives.
Roya is a 17-year-old young woman, completing her final year at high school. She is drawn to the local stationary shop run by Mr. Fahkri. It is a haven, a place where she can relax, ruminate and engage her interests. She enjoys touching the fountain pens and the shiny ink bottles, but it is the books of Persian poetry as well as translations of literature from all over the world that captures her attention and fires her imagination.
Roya’s life is turned upside down when she meets Bahman in the Stationary Shop. He is a handsome young man who shares her love of poetry. Bahman is a political activist and is a passionate supporter of Prime Minister Mosaddegh. Bahman comes from a wealthier family than Roya. Despite their differences, they fall in love and begin to plan their future.
When the political unrest escalates, Bahman unexpectedly disappears. Roya gets a few letters from him. They agree to meet at the town square so they can get married sooner. As Roya makes her way along the busy streets, violence erupts. She finds herself buffeted about and fears for her safety. Despite the risk, Roya continues her search for Bahman. But he never shows up.
Roya has good reason to feel betrayed, but many years pass before she learns the truth. Her marriage plans were thwarted, not because of Bahman but because of an earlier betrayal, a betrayal involving his mother, Badri. Roya remembers speaking to her on one occasion. Her comments were disturbing, designed to quell Roya’s hopes.
‘You just wait, my girl,’ said Mrs. Aslan. ‘Life will slap you down too. It’ll push you down when you least expect it. You’ll see. This world lacks justice. Did you know babies die?’
Bahman’s mother was 15 years old when she aborted her first baby. The father was a young man called Ali Fahkri, who would one day own a stationary shop. He was infatuated but was unable or unwilling to offer her a future. His family dismissed the relationship as temporary, a passing affair. After all, she was the daughter of a stall holder, well below their social standing.
Badri experienced feelings of abandonment, grieving the loss of intimacy, the loss of trust. The range of emotions – anger, fear, shame, guilt – could not be contained nor denied. She believed her only option was to abort the baby. The consequences proved far reaching. The betrayal, coupled with the abortion, damaged her – physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Betrayal is one of the most painful human experiences. Writing in the Behaviour Research and Therapy Journal Stanley Rackman M.A., Ph.D. says,
‘Betrayal can be traumatic and cause considerable distress. The effects of betrayal include shock, loss and grief, morbid pre-occupation, damaged self-esteem, self-doubting, anger. Not infrequently they produce life-altering changes.’
Badri eventually married and had three children. Tragically, they all died. Bahman was the fifth child his mother gave birth to, the only one who lived. When Bahman became aware of the heartbreak and loss, he was better able to understand why his mother acted the way she did. He says,
‘I now slowly came to realise, I was the one into whom she poured the hopes and dreams she’d had for all the others.’
Badri is a damaged person. She has been deeply wounded. She lives with unresolved emotional damage and it affects her thinking. It is a daily struggle. Her mental fragility is described as this ‘mood monster that takes her over.’
Badri has plans for her son and they don’t include Roya. It is she who has Mr. Fahkri alter Bahman’s letter to Roya, providing a different meeting location.
Such is her determination to have her son marry the young woman of her choice, Shahla, that she attempts to end her life. Bahman comprehends the seriousness of her intent and begrudgingly complies with her wishes.
Unable to resolve the mystery of Bahman’s rejection, Roya seeks another life. She and her sister Zari travel to the United States. While studying chemistry, Roya meets Walter, tall, dependable, unflappable Walter. They marry and have a daughter Marigold, ‘unannounced and unexpected but oh so welcome when she arrived.’
‘Marigold broke through every single glacial wall Roya had built up and melted it with her toothless smile. For twelve months, Roya, exhausted and exhilarated, was purely herself. Even the romance of her youth fizzled in comparison; nothing had ever meant everything to her the way this baby did.’
Then tragedy strikes. Marigold develops a fever. They rush her to hospital. Forty-three-minutes later she is pronounced dead. Roya’s worst fears are realised. The words of Bahman’s bitter mother ring in her ears. ‘Did you know babies die?’ She wonders why these words impose themselves on her. Is it a curse?
‘But babies could not die. They could not disappear and just leave their belongings behind. Her baby wasn’t dead. At the hospital, they’d wanted her to believe that a one-year-old child could die when minutes ago it had been breathing in her arms. Marigold wasn’t just with her every day and night; Marigold was a part of her. She carried her daughter with her at all times. Babies do not leave you.’
The grieving is relentless. But Roya has Walter for support. He will never abandon her or trifle with her sorrow.
‘For every ounce of grief that she had, Walter had the same. He had laboured with her in this grief, felt his way through the darkness and the depth of it, and all the time as the world carried on, he was there by her side.’
Roya and Walter have another baby, a boy, Kyle. And yet Roya’s past won’t let her go. The words of Bahman’s mother weigh heavily upon her. She fears for her son’s safety.
‘Each year when Kyle blew out the candles on his birthday cake, Roya’s mingled relief and anxiety wafted in the wisps of smoke that rose. They nestled into the baseboard molding of the dining room. They landed in every strand of their hair. Another year. Another year, and he was here.’
Betrayal is not new. We have all felt its sting. But there is a way forward and it involves love and forgiveness and acceptance. If we are to find release from the tentacles of betrayal, we need to acknowledge that we are both – the betrayer and the betrayed.
As the betrayer, we recognise our culpability in reneging on our commitments; walking away from our promises; and denouncing those we have previously supported. The betrayer is an expert manipulator, intent on self-advancement.
And as the betrayed, we confess to having difficulties with intimacy, struggling with trust and constructing emotional walls around ourselves to limit the chances of being hurt. The betrayed feel violated, used and damaged. They question reality and are confused as to their own place in the world.
In owning who we are, we are less likely to be arrogant and judgmental; committed to understanding the back story; determined to know what motivates people to act the way they do.
Over half a century later Roya finds Bahman in an aged care facility. Roya is hesitant, wondering whether there is anything to be gained by digging up the past. But it does provide an opportunity for clarity. Bahman is dying but wants to see her. He is determined to correct the tainted narrative. He loved Roya and wanted to marry her. His mother had his letter altered so they were taken to different parts of the city. His mother’s mental illness caused her to act erratically, placing constant pressure on their family life. Through her cajoling she was able to successfully manipulate his affections and thwart his hopes and dreams.
Roya is grateful that she has known Bahman, grateful that once, when she was young, she had experienced a love so strong it did not go away, that decades and distance and miles and children and lies and letters could never make it disappear. She learns that love is not diminished by circumstance.
Roya is grateful for love. It is a self-sacrificing love that breaks the chains and brings release. Roya senses that she is free at last.