January 15, 2020

“Hair Leprosy” by Saeide Mirzaei

When I was eleven, my uncle told me my hair had “leprosy.” He thought it was because I wore headscarves all the time. I couldn’t wait to grow up and move to a country where my hair could get some sunlight and be cured of leprosy.

“I bet American girls don’t get hair leprosy,” I told my uncle when he prescribed sitting bareheaded under the sun, for at least an hour a day, in the privacy of our yard. Of course our yard, much like most other Iranian yards, was safely enclosed within four sturdy, tall walls.

“Walls have eyes and ears,” my father said. He had discovered me marching tirelessly and in aimless circles around our yard, wearing no head covers. Some buildings around ours were taller and had windows with prime views of our yard. People could be watching from their windows and rooftops. What would people think? What would they say?

With sun therapy off the table, I sought other sorts of remedies. I tried snake oil, based on a tip my mom received from a cousin’s sister-in-law whose great grandfather had had an apothecary store before he had mysteriously disappeared just a day after the birth of his children, the twins. It stank, and I was sent back home from school to “clean up.”

I spent hours and hours cutting off the forked hair ends with “sterilized scissors.” An aunt had recommended constant pruning of the ailed strands to prevent the disease from spreading to the neighboring healthy hair. Sterilized scissors were to ensure better confinement of the microscopic germs whose sole existential purpose was to slash hair strands into pitifully thin halves.

After weeks of carrying around eyebrow scissors, dipped in industrial alcohol from our first aid cabinet, I learned from a friend’s mom that hair leprosy was like acne. It “spreads faster if you don’t leave it alone.” She told me, “Don’t think about it, don’t touch it, don’t cut it, don’t do nothing, and it will go away. Just ignore it, like you’d ignore a wart between your toes.”

“As a matter of fact, the only cure is either shaving your head till it shines, or cutting your hair boy-short,” said my grandma after she saw me wearing white gloves to remind myself of the no-touching rule. By “boy-short” hair she meant a buzz cut.

“But I’m a girl!” I objected quickly, throwing my gloved hands up in the air.

“So? No one’s gonna see your head. Except us, of course! No one sees your hair when you go to school, when you go shopping, when you leave home. No one will know you have boy-short hair,” she responded before returning to her rosary prayers.

Normally, I was mesmerized by the slow and constant movement of the round green beads of her rosary. She always hung the rosary string from her index finger and used her thumb to propel forth each bead from the “unsaid” side to the “said” side. The “unsaid” beads hung from the palm side of her hand and were not yet used to say a short prayer, and the “said” beads were blessed with grandma’s prayer words.

But this was no time for enthrallment. I looked at my mom pleadingly and moaned, “But I’ll know! Mom!”

Mom rose from her chair, lifted the round stainless steel tea tray she was using to sort split peas, headed for the kitchen, and groaned, “A lot of girls have hair leprosy. You just need to learn to live with it.”

I knew she was leaving the room just to avoid siding with either of us. She hadn’t finished sorting the peas. Half of the peas were on one side of the tray—the side closer to her pregnant belly, but the unsorted half were sitting uneasily on the opposite side, waiting for their turn to be vetted and then divided into wanted and unwanted piles.

Whenever mom sorted peas, beans, rice, or other grains, she made three piles on her tray: the sorted pile for grains whose adequacy was established upon careful inspection; the unsorted pile for grains whose destiny and destination were yet to be determined; and the foreign objects pile reserved for the undesirables like small rocks, plant parts, and clumps of dry mud. As the unsorted pile diminished gradually, the other two grew large. By the time sorting was over, only two piles remained: the good pile and the bad one. The bad pile was naturally headed for the garbage can, and the good pile was rinsed and soaked in water for a day before getting dumped in a pot and boiled for a mixed rice dish, stew, or soup. On mom’s sorting tray, that particular day, there were still three piles.

The “boy-short” hair turned out to be a temporary fix. By the time I had shoulder-length hair, the leprosy was back. I was then convinced that I was going to lose all my hair before I was old enough to get married. No man would want a bald bride. I would never find love as a hairless, old maid. At nights, I waited for my parents and brothers to fall asleep, then I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, examining my temples to see how thin the hair was getting, and cried silently, mourning my dying hair and my bleak, loveless future.

Hair leprosy, I believed, worked by bisecting each strand of hair into two thinner and weaker half-strands, both of which were eventually to fall off because they weren’t strong enough to hold on to my scalp. Divide and conquer.

If only I could fuse them back together. “You know, like welders do,” I explained to my friend at a school lunch hour. We were sitting on the staircase that led to the rooftop. I was biting into a piece of home-made sour cherry and plum fruit bar that I had exchanged for half of my saffron rice cake. She asked if she could get a sip of my basil seeds drink and commented, “That’d melt your head, you moron.”

If only I could keep my hair strands from succumbing to this sick division that, contrary to my grandpa’s declarations, was everything but natural. “It’s just what it is. It happens. It’s even normal. You are just obsessed, child,” he insisted every time he saw me fumbling through my hair, feeling with my fingertips for the thinner strands.

“But it’s leprosy! My hair is sick, grandpa,” I whined, fishing for at least some sympathy.

“Do you even know what leprosy means? It’s an actual disease. There’s this bacteria that eats your skin and flesh. That’s leprosy!” he explained, plunging our good kitchen knife into the red belly of a watermelon. The round fruit, despite its stubborn integrity, yielded to grandpa’s knife-wielding skills and snapped open grudgingly. Each jolly half, dancing in delicious confusion caused by a sudden release from wholeness, fell on a different side of mom’s grain-sorting tray. A few minutes ago, I had heard grandpa ask mom, “Where’s my watermelon-breaking tray? You know, the round steel one with no handles.”

I knew that. I knew what leprosy was. I had very recently learned about it from a frustrated teacher. She had asked me, over and over, to “stop playing” with my hair. I had apologized and made solemn promises each time, but she had caught me doing it again, and yet again. What she didn’t understand was that I didn’t do it to vex or spite her. It was automatic. One moment I was writing in my notebook, copying down what she wrote on the board, and the next, I was sticking my pencil, from the tip end, not the eraser end, under my scarf, fishing out locks of hair from under the black fabric, and then separating the strands with my fingertips to examine them, with my eyeballs bulging out for better vision and my irises zoomed in on the hair ends. For as long as no one yelled at me to stop, I kept searching for the leprosy-stricken ends and used my nails to cut them off in a snap-and-yank motion.

One day, the teacher had had enough. She stopped the lesson and warned me, “I will have you cut your hair this short if I ever see you play with your hair again.” From behind the tresses of hair that were covering my face, I got a glimpse of her fingertips separated by a half-inch volume of air. Then quickly and clumsily, I tucked the hair back under the headscarf and said in a martyr-like tone, “Sorry, mam. Yes, mam. It won’t happen again. It’s the hair leprosy. It makes me do it.”

I thought I saw a movement in her lips. A thwarted smile. She told us about leprosy, the flesh-eating highly contagious disease. Then she turned to me and clarified, “What you have is dry hair. You just need to take better care of your hair. Moisturize it more often.” Before I had a chance to talk, a classmate raised her hand and asked, “Is dry hair contagious too?”

This time, teacher laughed whole-heartedly and then replied, “Negative. No. It’s not.” Then she turned back to me and added, “And, by the way, Miss, it doesn’t control your mind. It doesn’t make you do things.” The lesson was then resumed.

As soon as the bell rang, I rushed to the school library and looked up “khoreh” in every dictionary and encyclopedia that I could find–“khoreh” being the Farsi word for “leprosy.” I learned that the word actually meant “something that eats and/or consumes.” Was something consuming my hair?

“It’s eating my hair up. I will be bald soon,” I told my uncle, handing him a plate of beef cutlets, garnished with French fries, fresh olives, home-made pickled cucumber, and parsley from mom’s herb garden.

He thrusted his fork down into a top-sitting cutlet, piercing through it to reach and hook the thicker cutlet that was underneath. Then he placed his fork, now loaded with two cutlets, on his plate of buttery rice, grilled tomatoes, and raw onion rings sprayed with salted lemon juice. He passed the plate of cutlets to my brother who received it with one hand and used his other hand to capture a falling olive mid-air.

“Good catch!” my uncle congratulated him and then turned to me to say, “Like I said, your hair needs direct sunlight.”

“Then I was born in the wrong country,” I thought to myself, but knew better than expressing that thought in front of my parents and grandparents who were enjoying their meal in “peace and quiet.”

Just the other day, my uncle had received a good tongue-lashing both from my father and grandpa. He had joined the dinner table right after reading the news, taken his seat by my side, and made some comment on the “shamefully corrupt conservative right.” Although I had no clue what he was talking about, I knew, from an earlier eavesdropping session, that my parents were worried about my uncle’s “leftist politics” that were “bound to cost him his life sooner or later, and get us all in trouble too.” Before my uncle could finish his fiery speech, he was silenced by his fearful dad and my bothered father. If he couldn’t talk about “the left” and “the right,” then I could certainly not talk about this country being the wrong one for sick hair.

Baldness was imminent, and relocation appeared to be the only cure. But I knew that I had to wait until I was older, a lot older, to get my hair the sunlight it so badly needed. All I could do was to pray: “Please, God! Please! Don’t let me go bald until I’m old enough to go to America. Command my hair to stick to my head, and I’ll get sunlight when I’m in America.” I made a deal with God: “I will never ask for anything else if you grant me this wish.” I prayed day after day, holding on to my dear hair, and I renewed my vows every night before bed and every morning after I woke up.

God must have heard me. By the time I went to college, I had a head full of hair but also full of dreams of direct sunlight. By then, it had become clear to me that I wasn’t going to lose my hair. But out of mere habit. I still irritated people by yanking at my hair to cut off the damaged ends. I still got headaches because I strained my eyes, searching for the sick ends and vetting them, on a strand by strand basis, for the potential threat that they posed to the well-being of my hair-land. But I knew I wasn’t going bald. I just had sick hair, and I was sick of having sick hair. I needed to leave for a land that promised direct sunlight for my poor and tired hair, for the huddled masses of hair pressed flat under my scarf, yearning to breathe free. A land where no hair problem existed.

Location being the only thing standing between me and happy hair, relocation seemed to be the only remedy. 12,000 miles seemed far enough for my sun-starved hair. After all, American women never got hair leprosy.

Now, nine years have passed since my hair and I arrived in America. I still have it. Back home, we called it “hair leprosy.” Here, it’s “split ends.”

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About the Author: Saeide was born in a small, conservative town near the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. Soon after she finished her Master’s degree in English at the University of Tehran, she moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she joined the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama. She is currently a fifth-year PhD candidate in English at the University of Minnesota, working on her interdisciplinary dissertation that combines knowledge and methodology from law, policy studies, history, cultural studies, literary studies, and linguistics. Her creative work has appeared both in print and online, and she writes to understand what it means to be human.

Saeide Mirzaei Author Photo

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