Late February always brought panic into our household. With less than a month to go before the Persian New Year, there was never enough time to get everything done. My mother wrote endless lists on torn pages from our school notebooks, on the margins of old newspapers, anywhere. These were scattered all over the house; tucked under the telephone, stuffed in-between her powder boxes on her make-up table or left among the breakfast plates. The first entry on all these lists was a visit to the tailor cousins better known as Aki and Mali.
This duo were our tailors for many years, from pleated skirt with matching hair bands to later years of flared trousers with appliqué lady birds, their handy work was always present in our wardrobes. Aki was tall, thin and wore her hair very short. In all the years we knew her, we never saw her legs bare. She was dressed in men’s trousers and plastic slippers all year round. Mali on the other hand was plump and prone to fits of giggles no matter how slight the humour. Our visits to their workshop, which was part of their house, could last all afternoon, sometimes longer. My sister and I would sit and go through the large stack of foreign magazines – some dating back to before my birth – which were kept on a round metal table in the corner of the room. We had looked at them many times before and we each had old favourites among the photos. Mine were a tall blond man in a tweed suit holding a pipe in-between his teeth while cutting wood and a red haired lady fully made up, complete with high heeled shoes and red nail varnish, doing the washing-up. The kids’ clothing magazines had mysteries of their own. They were full of chubby kids dressed in matching hats and jumpers frozen in an act, whether sliding down something which looked like snow or running after butterflies holding a net in their plump, white hands. They looked so different and wonderful to us that we wanted to live their lives, so if we couldn’t have a butterfly net or slide down fake snow, we could at least have the same clothes as them.
I was always first. I never said a word to her for fear of her choking on the pins while trying to talk back. Her thin hands, which smelled of cigarettes, would measure my arms and legs, my narrow waist and flat chest.
It was always the same, so while Mali would sit and talk to our mother, Aki, with a long measuring tape around her neck and a bunch of pins stuffed in the corner of her mouth, would measure us for our New Year outfits. I was always first. I never said a word to her for fear of her choking on the pins while trying to talk back. Her thin hands, which smelled of cigarettes, would measure my arms and legs, my narrow waist and flat chest. “Feed her a bit, my dear lady, this one is all skin and bones!” she would shout to my mum while the bunch of pins would quiver on the side of her mouth. My mother would nod and Mali, in-between a series of giggles, would call back to me: “Don’t listen to what she says; it’s fashionable to be thin. All the magazines are packed with skinny models like you.” Next it was my sister’s turn. She would stand in front of Aki self-consciously, in her white vest, her arms crossed over her newly sprouted breasts and her thin legs, clad in blue tights, squeezed together. My sister liked Aki and didn’t mind her talking with her mouth full of pins. They would discuss the kids from her class and their orders for new clothes. She would tease my sister about the boys in her school and would laugh when my sister blushed. My mother was last. After a lengthy discussion about the style, the length and the fabric, she would stand happily and confidently in front of Aki, while this time Mali, with an extra pencil tucked behind her ears, in-between sips of tea, would jot down my mother’s measurements on a long strip of brown paper. At some point during my mother’s many fittings (she always had something on the go with Aki and Mali) I would lose interest in the ancient magazines, unable yet again to find anyone looking remotely like myself, and would spend the rest of the time going around with a large horseshoe magnet picking up all the pins scattered on the floor of the workshop, probably from Aki’s mouth, I thought.
The relationship between the cousins or “second cousins”, as my mother always corrected everyone, was the subject of many discussions at parties in our town. All the men would love to hear from their wives about the tailor cousins. “So, what are those naughty girls are up to these days?” my father’s friend uncle Abbas would ask with a wink each time my mother appeared with yet another new outfit at a party, which was often. My sister and I would also discuss Aki’s and Mali’s life, usually in the run-ups to the arrival of one of the new outfits. We would sit up in our beds and talk about how we were going to look in our new choices, such as a red velvet dress for me or a brown corduroy trouser suit for my sister – the result of strong persuasion by Aki. We liked to imagine what went on in their household. My sister was sure that Aki did all the housework, while Mali sat on a couch sipping tea and looking at magazines. I wasn’t so sure but I could see Aki dressed in check pyjamas, like the ones my dad wore, her mouth still stuffed with pins, doing the crossword in the evening paper, with Mali, wearing a large apron over one of her customary tight dresses, doing the washing-up and singing along to a song on the radio.
Unfortunately for both of us, we never found out about the domestic life of Aki and Mali. Years later when I heard of Aki’s death, my first question was: “Did she choke on the pins?”
Afsoon is an Iranian artist. After spending her childhood in Iran and late teens and early twenties in San Francisco, she settled in London. Her nomadic life is reflected in her work where East merges with West and the result is at once familiar and foreign. There are several layers in her work and at times she combines text with images. She also combines different techniques such as linocusts, photography, collage and etching. The result is a rich yet often playful and humorous tableau in which the audience is able to engage and interpret in its own way.
In January 2008 the British Museum purchased two series of her work for its contemporary Middle Eastern collection.