Ali Salami

Gholamhossein Sa’edi: The Game is Over [English Translation]

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi was a celebrated Iranian writer who made a significant contribution to the country’s literature and cinema. Born on January 15, 1936, in Tabriz, he went on to become one of the most prolific writers of his time, publishing over forty books across a wide range of genres. The Game is Over is translated by Ali Salami.

Sa’edi’s fiction works included dramas, novels, screenplays, and short stories. He also delved into non-fiction genres such as cultural criticism, travel literature, and ethnography. His talents were widely recognized, and he was regarded as one of the most important literary figures of his generation.

Sa’edi was born into a middle-class family and raised in the city of Tabriz, where he commenced his literary career while pursuing his education. He received a medical degree from Tabriz University in 1961. During his final year of high school, he authored a short story entitled “Morḡ-e anjir” (The fig hen, 1956), which was published in Soḵan, a prestigious literary publication in Tehran. Subsequently, he published two novellas in Tabriz titled “Pygmalion” (1956) and “Ḵānahā-ye šahr-e Ray” (The houses of Ray City, 1957). Sa’edi later relocated to the capital, Tehran, where he completed his mandatory military service and embarked on a five-year internship specializing in psychiatry at Ruzbeh Hospital in the fall of 1963. During this period, he and his brother, who was also a physician, ran a clinic in a working-class neighborhood in South Tehran, offering free or affordable medical services to patients.

Sa’edi garnered critical acclaim during these years through his publication of short fiction and dramatic sketches. He released a collection of twelve interconnected short stories titled “Šabnešini-e bāšokuh” (The grand soirée, 1960), which exposed the frustrations of educated urban civil servants and the middle class with a blend of humor and tragedy.

Sa’edi’s screenplay for the movie Gav (“The Cow“), directed by Dariush Mehrjui, is often regarded as his magnum opus. The film was part of the New Wave Iranian cinema movement and played a crucial role in shaping the direction of Iranian cinema in the years to come.

Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and his subsequent exile, Sa’edi remained a vital figure in Persian literature, even though he was unwillingly forced to leave his home country. Despite living in Paris, he continued to produce literature that resonated with Iranian audiences and captivated readers worldwide.

Tragically, Sa’edi struggled with depression and alcoholism, which eventually led to his untimely death in Paris on November 23, 1985. Despite his passing, he remained a beloved figure in the world of Iranian literature and cinema, leaving behind a rich legacy that continues to inspire generations of writers and filmmakers in Iran and beyond.

The game is over by Gholamhossein Saedi

Hasani approached me and said, “Let’s go there tonight.” I had never been to his house before, and he had never ventured into mine either. To be honest, I was afraid of what my father would do if I invited him over, and Hasani felt the same way about his own father. But something was different that night. I couldn’t escape it – Hasani was angry with me, saying that I didn’t like him or consider him a friend anymore. So I went along, and it was the first time I got to see his humble abode. We always ran into each other outside. In the morning, I would pass by his little hut and whistle as loud as a bulbul, with the sweet tune he had taught me. And so it was like I was whistling: “Hello Hasani, it’s time for you to get going.”

Hasani, he grabbed a can and off he went. Instead of the usual greeting, we exchanged a few punches – powerful punches, mind you, but still respectful. We agreed – every time we met, every time we parted, we would box a little. Unless we were angry or one of us had betrayed the other. Then we’d make our way past all the shacks until we reached Body Washer’s Hollow, the dump for the city’s garbage trucks. There we would rummage through the garbage. One day I picked up some tin and Hasani found a piece of glass. The next day it was the other way around. Every now and then we would find something better – an empty oil can, a baby bottle, a broken doll, a strange shoe, a sugar bowl with a handle missing or a plastic jug. Once I even found a golden talisman engraved with a verse from the Koran that you would hang around a baby’s neck. And Hasani, well, he once found an unopened pack of imported cigarettes.

Down on the terrace there were huge fountains every few steps – not just a few or three, mind you, but fountain after fountain. Once I got it into my head to count them in pairs; when we got to fifty, we got tired of it and gave up. Whenever we came across a well, we played games to pass the time. We’d stretch and crawl until our chests were dangling over the well, and then we’d make all sorts of scary noises. The sounds twisted and turned inside the well and then reappeared. Each well reacted in its own way, you know. Most of the time we just giggled into the well, but instead of laughter, the echo was that of tears. And then the fear took hold of us and pulled us tighter. Hasani and I were mostly alone; other children hardly dared to go into the cave – their mummies wouldn’t let them because they were afraid they might fall into the well or suffer some other misfortune. But Hasani and I had grown up, and as we always came home with a full sack, our mummies no longer bothered us and didn’t say a peep.

That very afternoon, the day before the fateful night, I visited Hasani. He came out of his den with a desperate expression. His forehead was furrowed with worry lines and his eyes showed signs of heavy crying. He was in no mood for anything and his spirits were low. When we stepped out into the hollow, he was wandering around listlessly, poking the garbage with his stick and swearing softly at his father. I knew what had happened. Hasani’s old man had come home from work that lunchtime in a rage after arguing with his supervisor and losing his job. And when he arrived home, he pounced on Hasani and rained blows on him as if there was no tomorrow.

We had heard Hasani’s agonized cries, and my mother had cursed his father and shouted, “Why are you beating an innocent child like this?” I witnessed the strap marks on Hasani’s shoulders and the swelling that had formed under one of his eyes, turning it a ghastly black and blue. Every evening Hasani’s father came home, still in his work clothes, with a dirty face and dirty hands. Inevitably, he began to beat Hasani with his belt and beat him up until it was time for dinner. He insulted Hasani and beat him until he cried out in pain and his screams echoed throughout the neighborhood.

The neighbors came running and begged him to release Hasani: “We swear on our lives, you must release him!” Hasani’s father beat him every night, but my father only beat Ahmad and me once or twice a week, usually when he was in a bad mood or his business had gone wrong. He’d beat me until it was time for dinner and my mother would cry and scream, “You monster, why do you have to hurt my children? When are you going to be satisfied with mutilating them?” Then my father turned on her and hit her, and she screamed, “Children, run! Run!” By the time we had fled, he had calmed down again and was sitting quietly in a corner, nibbling on his mustache and saying, “Get the little ones, let’s eat something.”

Hasani’s father wasn’t one to lay a hand on the other boys, no sir, he had it in for poor Hasani and beat him up badly. His mother, bless her heart, wouldn’t lift a finger to stop him either. Hasani was trapped and couldn’t escape the punches and kicks, his head kept banging against the wall.

The beatings started early that day, as early as midday. Hasani was pretty down, so I thought I’d try to lift his spirits. “Let’s go upstairs,” I said, and we made our way out of the hollow and up to the terrace by the fountain. But no matter what I did, Hasani just sat there tapping his foot on his stick.

I even stuck my head in the well and made all sorts of noises like a cow or a puppy, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, I asked him straight out, “Hasani, what’s wrong with you?” and whistled like a nightingale, hoping to break his gloomy mood.

Hasani didn’t seem to be in the mood for conversation, and my attempts to lift his spirits didn’t get us very far. Finally, he turned to me and mumbled, “What?”

“Why the long face, Hasani?” I asked, hoping to snap him out of his bad mood.

“I don’t need a reason,” he grumbled.

“Well, for crying out loud, you can’t always frown like that. What’s the matter with you?”

“I wasn’t frowning on purpose. How can I just stop?”

I stood up and tried to shake him off. “Come on, let’s do something. Maybe that’ll cheer you up.”

Hasani, still drumming his foot on his stick, grunted, “Do what?”

I thought for a moment, but couldn’t think of anything. “How about we go to the road and count the hearses, like we did the other day? Then we can see how many pass by in an hour.”

“What’s the point?” he asked.

“Well, it’s a good activity, isn’t it? Or we could go to Hajj Timur’s kiln and throw stones. What do you think of that?”

Hasani didn’t seem to want to do anything to dispel his bad mood. “If you want to throw stones, don’t force yourself,” he said with a sigh.

I plopped down on a pile of garbage and tried to think of something new. “How about we go to the square? There’s always something going on there. We can look at the movie posters and watch Sagdast the dervish do his magic tricks behind the stonemason’s square.”

“What’s the point?” Hasani asked, clearly not impressed.

“We’ll take the bus,” I said.

“With what money?” he asked angrily.

“I’ve twelve rials,” I replied.

“Keep it for yourself.”

“Okay, how about we go for a bite to eat?”

“There’s no point,” he snorted.

I was already running out of ideas, but then my eyes fell on Shokrai’s garden. “Hey, Hasani, want to go steal some walnuts?”

“Sure, why not?” he replied with a hint of sarcasm. “As if I haven’t taken enough of a beating today. Come on, let’s get caught by the gardener.”

We sat in silence for a while, watching two men come out from behind the ovens. They stopped for a moment and watched us before jumping over the wall into Shokrai’s garden. Shouts and laughter could be heard from inside.

“Why are you angry with me?” I asked Hasani.

“I’m not angry with you,” he replied with a shrug.

We fell silent again, the only sound was the tapping of Hasani’s stick on the dusty floor. I said, “Stop that nonsense. Are you crazy or what?”

Hasani stopped tapping his toes and replied, “I’m fine. Nothing hurts me.”

“Well, tell me then. What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing. I’ve nothing to say,” he replied.

I lost my patience and barked, “You’re getting on my nerves, partner. Get up, let’s move on.”

We both got up and began to walk. As we passed the fountain, I turned to Hasani and said, “Hello, Hasani.”

“What?” he asked.

“Spit it out, whatever’s on your mind. I’m all ears.”

“I want to give my good-for-nothing father a beating,” he said with a low growl.

“As you wish. Go ahead,” I replied, not exactly thrilled at the idea of messing with his old man.

“Aren’t you going to help me?” Hasani asked, stopping in his tracks.

I thought about it for a while. Hasani’s father was a grumpy guy, a real snake in the grass. My father always said he was completely crazy and not quite right in the head. I didn’t like the idea of running into him. But if I didn’t help Hasani, he’d be madder than a wet hen. I didn’t want to upset him. Just as I was thinking about it, Hasani spoke up.

“Aren’t you going to give him what he deserves?” he asked with a disappointed undertone in his voice.

“Yes, I want to give him a rebuff. I want that more than anything,” I replied with conviction.

“Then why didn’t you say something earlier?” Hasani asked, raising an eyebrow.

“What are you suggesting?” I inquired.

“Come to my house tonight. We’ll hide in the shadows and if he comes after me, we’ll pounce on him and knock him down. That will teach him a lesson,” Hasani explained, his eyes shining with excitement.

“And then what?” I asked, not exactly thrilled at the idea of getting into trouble.

“And then nothing. We’ll be satisfied when we know he’s gotten what he deserves,” Hasani replied firmly.

“All right,” I agreed, my resolve growing stronger.

As dusk fell, we made our way to Hasani’s apartment. His father wasn’t there yet, so we waited nervously. Hasani’s mother asked us to fetch water and as we stood at the tap, we saw his father coming towards us in the distance. Hasani whispered, “The son of a gun is coming.”

We hurried back and took a shortcut to his hut. Outside, Hasani’s mother was cooking tomatoes on a stove while his little brother cried in her arms. We put down the jug of water and crept into the dark room. Hasani’s mother called out, “Hey, Hasani, turn on the lamp.” The room lit up and we saw his little sister sleeping in the corner. I whispered: “What should we do now?”

“Nothing. Just sit by the door and let everything come to you,” Hasani replied in a low voice.

Hasani’s father came into the room, still shouting and swearing. He didn’t even notice us at first, he was so overwhelmed by his anger. He continued his tirade: “You useless cow, what are you looking at? And you, boy, what are you staring at?” He finally noticed us and his face twisted into a grin. “What are you two doing here?”

Hasani stood up and said, “I’m here to give you what you deserve, you son of a bitch.”

I was shaking with fear, but I stood up too. Hasani’s father laughed: “You want to beat me up? You two bastards?”

Hasani lunged at him and punched him in the face. I grabbed his leg, just as we had planned. Hasani’s father fell to the ground and was stunned. Hasani hit him with full force. I felt a wave of fear and adrenaline and started kicking him too.

After a few moments, Hasani’s father managed to get back on his feet and staggered out of the room. We could hear him cursing and screaming as he ran away.

We stood there panting and sweating. Hasani grinned at me: “We did it! We kicked his ass!”

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction too. Hasani’s father had gotten what he deserved. But then a thought occurred to me: “What if he comes back?”

Hasani shrugged his shoulders: “Let him come back. We’ll be prepared for him.”

He started coughing, spasming from cough to cough, spitting up phlegm like a cat coughing up a hairball. He let out a few curses before grabbing the jug of water, rinsing out his mouth, taking several gulps and trudging towards the room. He took off his shoes and my heart skipped a beat.

When his old man entered the room, Hasani looked like a scaredy-cat, half-crouched against the wall. His father gritted his teeth and let out a low growl. Hasani asked in a trembling voice: “What are you up to?”

His old man sneered: “Nothing with you, you snotty brat. What can you do?” But then he caught sight of me and looked me up and down like a bull at a matador. I was so startled that I retreated, still sitting down.

He grinned again and said: “What’s that fat baboon doing here?”

“He’s my friend, the son of Abdul Agha,” Hasani said.

“And what is he doing in my house?” asked his old man.

“I told him to come,” said Hasani.

“You mean the unfortunate ones don’t have their own hut to hide in?” said his old man, grinning again.

“Then how did he end up here?”

He turned to me and shouted: “Get up, get out, go to your own hut!”

As I carefully stood up, he yelled, “Yallah! Move your feet!” But Hasani stood firm and said, “He’s not going anywhere. He stays where he’s.”

Hasani’s old man turned his fury on him, his fists clenched and his arms outstretched like wings. He snarled: “You son of a whore, you’re getting so insolent that you’re standing up like your own father?”

Hasani’s little sister startled and ran out of the room, crying and full of fear. Hasani’s old man came closer and closer, his fists ready to strike, when Hasani suddenly shouted, “Let’s go!” And just like that, we rushed forward.

As Hasani’s old man pointed his fists downwards, Hasani jumped out of the way and they crashed into the wall. I lunged forward and grabbed his leg. Hasani slipped out of his father’s grip and grabbed the other leg. Together we pulled, and the older man fell on top of us, hitting us with blows to the skull.

We wriggled and managed to free ourselves from under him. Hasani cursed quietly to himself and kicked his father hard in the flank. Then we both stormed out of the door and the man’s roaring voice echoed behind us: “Now I’m going to get you good-for-nothings. You couldn’t get enough and now you’re sending your hired killer to finish me off?”

He chased after us while Hasani’s mother stood by the lamppost, crying and not knowing what to do. We ran past her and took off like lightning down a side road towards the hollow. We heard the voice of Hasani’s old man yelling, “Catch them! Catch them!”

He ran after us for a while, then stopped and started cursing and swearing’. Night had fallen – no one was following us and no one wanted to catch us. We jumped into the cave, gasping for air, holding hands and waiting to see if Hasani’s old man or some other soul would show up to catch us. I said to Hasani: “We managed to escape him well.”

“Too bad we couldn’t give him a good smashing.”

“When do you want to go home again?”

“Back home? No way! God, he’s just waiting for me to come back so he can lay his hands on me and torture me.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“Nothing.”

“Where are you going to sleep tonight?”

“Nowhere. I’ve nowhere to go.”

“Why don’t you come with us?”

“Yes, exactly, and you’ll walk straight into your father’s trap. All villains are cut from the same cloth, they don’t have an ounce of kindness in them.”

“If you don’t go back tonight, what’s the plan for tomorrow? And for the day after? You’ll have to go back at some point.”

“I’m not so sure about that. One day you’ll see me and I’ll be gone, somewhere else.”

“And where to?”

“Wherever.”

“To do what?”

“How am I supposed to know what I’m going to do? Maybe I’ll be an apprentice, maybe I’ll run errands, maybe I’ll carry sacks.”

“You’re too small. No one will hire you.”

“Why not?”

“Why not!”

“Well, my goodness! It seems to me that you don’t have any skills worth mentioning,” I said to my friend.

“I may not have a profession, but I can certainly sweep and wash in front of the stores,” he replied.

“But, my dear boy, you’re too small for a real job. They won’t take you in,” I argued.

“Well, I can still collect garbage and sell it,” he replied.

“But where are you going to lie down at night?” I asked anxiously.

“In the ruins,” he replied.

“You can’t do that, son. You’ll starve to death or worse,” I warned him.

“No, I’m not going to die. I’ll beg and survive somehow,” he said defiantly.

“Fine, but that’s just wishful thinking,” I sighed. “Maybe it’s better if you go home.”

We both fell silent, and I noticed that the moon was out, illuminating most of the area, but not the dark wells. Lanterns flickered in the huts around us.

“There’s no turning back now, he’d skin me alive,” my friend muttered.

He listened to the crickets for a while, then suddenly jumped up and said: “Listen, I’ve a plan. You run to the houses and start shouting and screaming that Hasani has fallen down a well.”

My heart skipped a beat, “So you want to throw yourself down a well?”

“What? No, I’m not that stupid. You just say I’ve fallen and watch my father faint. Then I’ll disappear somewhere,” he explained.

“But won’t they look for you in the wells?” I asked.

“They can’t search them all. They’ll get tired and assume I’ve died. Then they’ll gather to cry and read the Koran. My people will bang their heads and say nice things about me,” he said.

I shook my head: “That’s a terrible plan, my friend. You’ll only cause your family grief.”

He shrugged his shoulders: “Better than starving on the streets.”

And with that, we parted ways, not knowing what the future had in store for us.

“Well, well, well,” I said, scratching my head, “this’s a very strange plan you’ve got there, Hasani. Are you sure it’s wise to pretend you fell down a well just to escape your father’s beatings?”

Hasani looked at me like I was a fool and said, “Why not? It’s a foolproof plan. My parents will fight for a while, then they’ll be so happy when they find out I’m still alive. And maybe my dad will even stop beating me, who knows?”

I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical. “But what if something goes wrong? What if your father or mother really dies from the shock?”

Hasani just rolled her eyes. “You worry too much. They’re not that fragile. And besides, they’ll be begging me to come back home when they’re done tearing themselves apart.”

I had to admit that the plan had a certain twisted logic to it. But then again, I was afraid of Hasani’s father, who was known as a mean old cad.

“What if your father comes after me for helping you with this plan?” I asked nervously.

Hasani just scoffed. “Don’t make a fool of yourself. All you have to do is run to the houses and shout that I’ve fallen down a well. Then pretend nothing happened. And don’t forget to bring me some bread and water in the morning.”

With a heavy heart, I set off to fulfill Hasani’s mission. It was a dark and silent night and I couldn’t help feeling that I had done something terribly wrong. But I had promised my friend that I’d help him and I wasn’t going to back out now.

I think I put on quite a show, sprinting and shouting like a madman as I ran past the fountains towards the huts. A pack of dogs ran off like the devil was after them when they spotted me. My throat was dry and encrusted with dust, so I took a sip from the tap to moisten my pipe. Then I remembered that I really needed to let off steam and make a scene, so I took off like a bullet towards our group of huts. A crowd had already gathered and I couldn’t make sense of what was going on. The way I was behaving, you’d think Hasani had actually fallen down the well. I started crying and screaming like a banshee and the crowd surged forward. I saw my dad and Hasani’s dad, both of whom seemed to be rushing towards me. I yelled in a sobbing voice, “Hasani, Hasani!” Hasani’s dad, with a club in his hand, asked, “What happened to Hasani? Huh? What happened?”

“He fell, he fell, he fell!”

And I burst into tears and cried my eyes out. Hasani’s dad shouted: “Where did he fall? Tell me, where did Hasani fall?”

I yelled, “Into the well, he fell into the well!” Everything was quiet for a moment, then a strange murmur went through the crowd. A cacophony of voices rang out from all directions, shouting: “Hasani has fallen down the well, Hasani has fallen down the well!”

People were panicking, I can tell you. They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, not knowing which way to turn. Some were holding lanterns, others were just running blindly, all towards the top of the hollow. I was just lying on the ground, crying my eyes out, when my dad came to me, took me by the hand and said, “Get up, boy, let’s find out which well he fell into.”

So off we ran, with a whole bunch of men hot on our heels, shouting, “Which well, which well did he fall into?” We walked past the depression and up to the terrace of the well, where the moon shone down on us and made the dark, deep holes look even more sinister. Hasani’s father was there, looking like a sapling in a storm, holding me tightly and shaking me vigorously, wanting to know which well his boy had fallen into.

Before I could answer, he threw himself on a pile of garbage and started bawling like a baby. Abbas Charkhi tried to calm him down and said they’d get Hasani out in no time, but the murmurs of worry and fear grew louder by the minute. At that moment, the women emerged, crying and moaning, especially Hasani’s mother, who scratched her face and cried, “My Hasani, my Hasani, my little boy!”

She said other things too, but no one could make sense of them. Abbas Charkhi came to me and said, “Listen, boy, tell us which well he fell into.” And I said, “I don’t know.” That set Hasani’s father off again, he called me names and so on, but my father intervened and said: “Tell us what happened, boy, hurry up!”

And that’s when I told him that Hasani’s dad had caught us and threatened to beat us up. Hasani’s dad was still shouting that we should tell him where his boy was, but at least now we had something to go on. Whether we’d manage to free Hasani in time, however, was a completely different question.

“Let the man finish, people. How did it come to this?” said Abbas Charkhi.

“Well, we were out running through the fields. Hasani was way ahead of me and was running like the devil himself was after him. He was scared to death that his old man would catch him. I turned around and saw that he wasn’t coming and no one else was there either. I called out to him: ‘Hold on, Hasani!’ but he didn’t listen. Suddenly he let out a bloodcurdling scream and toppled over.”

Hasani’s father shouted: “Where did he fall?”

“I suspect he simply vanished into thin air. I called and called, but he didn’t answer. I looked everywhere, but he was nowhere to be found.”

“Which well did he fall into?” asked the father.

Abbas Charkhi growled menacingly: “How would he know which one? Let’s look for him ourselves.”

Then he turned to the other men and ordered: “Let’s set off! Get on and watch your step!”

As they marched forward, they fell silent. No one cried or shouted. Only Hasani’s mother let out a pitiful moan, while the other women tried to comfort her: “Be calm, sister. Don’t worry about him. They’ll find him and bring him back safe and sound.” Some of them shook her off as if Hasani was only asleep and could wake up at any moment.

They passed several wells and Hasani’s father bellowed like a cow, “Hasani, Hasani.” He was so angry and cruel that if Hasani had actually fallen into a well and climbed out, he’d have punched and kicked him even more.

Abbas Charkhi interjected, “Take it easy, man. Sit down and let us do our work.”

Suddenly a voice spoke up from the darkness: “We need a rope and lanterns. We can’t go into these wells empty-handed.”

And so they made their way to the nearest well, with Mosayyeb in the lead, stretching his lithe body out flat as he held the lantern aloft and called out in a voice as flexible as a snake oil salesman’s, “Where are you, child, where are you?”

But unfortunately there was no answer. Undeterred, they moved on to the third well, then the fourth, then the fifth and sixth. They split up into groups and went even further, but their efforts were in vain. As the search dragged on without Hasani turning up, tempers flared and voices became loud and argumentative.

But then there was a glimmer of hope: Abbas Agha’s excitement alerted them that Hasani might be nearby. Holding their breath, they listened carefully, and sure enough, it sounded like someone was shouting from the depths of the well. They rushed there and brought extra lanterns and ropes to help with the rescue.

As they worked feverishly to save the child, a few brave souls stretched out and listened intently, their prayer beads pressed against the stone walls of the well. And finally they heard the sound they had been hoping for: “Yes. That’s it.”

Hasani’s dad was transfixed and shouted, “Quick, quick, get my boy out of there, get my boy out of there!”

Mosayyeb spoke up: “Who’s going down there?”

Ghader, who is a cautious person, warned: “The well is old, it could collapse on you.”

But Hasani’s father didn’t accept this. “By God, it won’t collapse. Go in, go in and get it out.”

Well, that put everyone in a bind. They looked around, each hoping that someone else would step in. But then Abbas Charkhi spoke up: “No one is man enough? Then I’ll go myself. Give me the rope, let’s see what we can do.”

Abbas’ wife, bless her heart, wasn’t impressed. She let out a cry from the women: “Not you, not you! You can’t do this, you don’t know how!”

Abbas was furious: “What’s it to you, you old witch? Shut your mouth! I can’t just let the poor boy die down there!”

His wife pushed everyone aside, stormed upstairs, clung to Abbas Agha and shouted: “Don’t go in, don’t go in, by God, don’t go in!”

Abbas slapped his wife hard in the face and said, “Go away, you’re being unreasonable.”

Then he shouted resolutely: “Rope!” They fetched the rope and tied it around Abbas’ middle. Then they checked the knots, one by one. Abbas Agha said: “Be careful. Don’t let go of me on the way down!”

Several people said, “Don’t worry. We’ll be careful.”

Abbas got ready; he grabbed one of the lanterns, bent down and peered into the well, then handed the lantern to someone and shouted “Bismillah” loudly. Then everyone prayed. Hasani’s father raised his hands to the sky and said, “O Most Merciful of the Merciful, O Grandfather of Hosenin the Oppressed, O Grandfather of Fatemeh the Pure, O Grandfather of Khadijah the Magnificent, bring my child back alive, bring Hasani back alive!”

Abbas dangled in the well, holding on tightly and shouting: “Keep an eye on the rope, and if I pull on it, pull me up!” Meanwhile, his wife was bawling her eyes out and my mother was trying to comfort her. The boys held on to the rope as if it were a life raft and gradually let it go. I could hear them mumbling to each other, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And Hasani’s father was just running in circles and shouting to the heavens.

I forgot that Hasani was still stuck in the oven and thought to myself, “If only the boy was in the well and Abbas could pull him out safe and sound.” And then my father, who was holding the rope, shouted, “Pull him up, boys! Pull it up!”

Rahmat spoke up: “Pull it up? What the hell is that for?”

Everyone fell silent as they began to pull up the rope. Hasani’s father looked anxiously over the heads of the others and waited for Abbas Agha to appear. Then Abbas grabbed the edge of the well with both hands and pulled himself up like a soaked cat looking for dry ground. He flung himself over the ground and gasped for air. Ghader, who had been biting his nails in anticipation, asked, “Wasn’t he in there? Wasn’t he in there?” Hasani’s father began to wail and cry, beating his chest like a man possessed. Abbas Agha turned around, sat up and said: “I choked”

Ghader said, “That’s it? That’s all that was in there?”

“All that was in there was the carcass of a fat dog,” Abbas replied.

Mosayyeb asked: “Are you sure?”

Abbas snorted angrily. “Do you think I can’t tell Hasani from a dead dog?”

He stood up and untied the rope from his waist. The group reassembled and walked to a row of fountains, split up and split up again, each time falling to their knees and calling for Hasani. I took the opportunity to sneak through the shadows and alleyways to avoid being spotted. Thirsty, I paused at a tap to drink some water before sneaking behind a tin wall and into my own apartment, which was thankfully deserted. With a loaf of flatbread and a jug without a handle, I scurried back out and filled the jug at the tap. I walked past the cave, turned off to the side of the road and came to Hajj Timur’s oven, where Hasani was hiding in a niche. I peeked inside and whispered his name, but got no answer. I tried again and called for him louder, but he still did not answer. My nerves began to flutter – what if he had mistaken me for someone else? In a moment of inspiration, I started whistling the sweet tune of a bull bull and beckoned Hasani, saying, “Come, Hasani, it’s time to go.” Suddenly, I heard a whistle in response, which sounded above my head. I looked up and saw Hasani lying on a platform, watching me intently. “Hey, Hasani!” I called out to him. “Come up carefully,” he replied.

“Come up carefully,” he said. I handed him the jug, held on to the bricks and slowly climbed up. Once at the top, we scrambled forward and settled down at the foot of the stove chimney. I spoke up: “Did not we agree that you would stay down there?”

“I climbed up to see what was going on,” he replied.

“Do you know what would happen if they saw you?” I asked.

“Absolutely not. No one will see me,” he chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” I inquired.

“I am laughing at my old man, at all of them. Look at them, how would they know?” He pointed to the terrace of fountains, where some people were scurrying around with lanterns, while others stood rooted to the spot.

“We have done something terrible, Hasani,” I complained.

“Why?” he asked.

“Your father is killing himself, you do not know what state he’s in.”

“Do not worry, he’s not going to kill himself. What’s my mother up to?” he inquired.

“She’s beating her chest and moaning,” I replied.

“Let her,” he replied.

“You do not understand. Abbas Agha went down a well looking for you, but instead of finding you, he found a bloated dog corpse down there,” I explained.

“He found the body of his father,” he concluded.

We both laughed and I brought the bread, which we shared. I did not feel thirsty, but Hasani gulped down some water. “Shouldn’t we get down to meet them?” I asked.

“For what purpose?” he replied.

“To put an end to the whole thing. They can not search all the wells individually.”

“It’s still far too early. Let them try.”

“What if some of them fall into a well and die?”

“Do not worry about that. They live like dogs and nothing bad will happen to them”

“This is a terrible deed we have done.”

He turned to me, looked me up and down and then spoke like this: “Is not it just as terrible what they do when they come and go and beat us up before we even have a chance to eat?”

“Enough, Hasani. Let us go back.”

“I can not do that.”

“Why not, after all?”

“I will return, but what can I say?”

“Tell them you went to Shokrai’s orchard to eat some walnuts.”

“Then they will discover that you have deceived them.”

“I will say that I did not know where you went and thought you might have fallen into a well.”

“No, the secret will be exposed and we will be in big trouble.”

“Then so be it. Come with me.”

“I can not. I am not in a position to do this.”

“In that case, I will go and tell them that Hasani did not fall into a well and that you are staying in Hajj Timur’s oven.”

He turned around, his eyes glowing with anger, and shouted, “Fine. Go and tell them. From this day on, we will have nothing more to do with each other. You will only see me when you see your backside.”

“And when do you plan to return home?” I asked.

“On the day of mourning, when they recite the Qur’an for me. Suddenly I will appear. Oh, it will feel so wonderful,” he replied.

“Do not talk nonsense. What’s so wonderful about it?” I scoffed.

“That’s quite clear. While everyone is moaning and beating their chests, I will simply casually walk in and say ‘Salaam’ At first everyone will be frightened, they will cower in fear, the women will scream, the children will run away and think I have returned from the other world. Then when they realize that it is me, alive and well, laughing, moving my hands and feet, they will all be overjoyed. They will jump in the air, fall on the floor, hug me and kiss my face. Don’t you think that will be fun? Really?” he explained excitedly.

I looked back at the people walking around the fountains with their lanterns and heard the occasional shouts of men and women. “I think I should make my way back now,” I said.

“Go, but do not tell them where I am,” he warned.

I climbed out of the alcove on all fours, looked at my surroundings and jumped to the ground. I ran along the street, fell into a hollow and climbed out of it. A group of people had formed a circle around one of the fountains. I hurried towards them. I saw my mother banging her head and shouting. The men had lowered a rope into the well. I slipped through the crowd and reached the edge of the well. I heard Abbas Agha say to the other men, “Pull up, pull up.”

Ghader asked, “For what reason?”

“Are you blind or what? Can not you see it’s shaking?” Replied Abbas Agha.

Everyone fell silent and pulled on the rope with one accord. Hasani’s father, who was standing behind me, beat his chest in a steady rhythm and shouted, “O great Khadijah! O Prophet Mostafa! O stranger of strangers! O Lord of the martyrs!” Then I saw my dad leaning his elbows on the edge of the well and dragging himself upwards. He was pitch black from top to bottom and gasping for breath. Abbas Agha instructed him: “Lie down, stretch and catch your breath.” Some men held my father under his arms and laid him next to the well. The next morning, no one went to work, everyone returned to their huts exhausted. Hasani was not found. Abbas Charkhi remarked: “It’s useless, no one can inspect all the wells.”

They had only been in the deeper wells, which were connected to each other and served as sewers. They had seen eerie things in the abysses. Usta Habib had come across an animal the size of a cow that had four tails and held the head of a dead man between its teeth, moving randomly in all directions. The Sayyed had come across a group of naked people wrapped in wool clinging to the walls of the well; when they saw him, they jumped into the sewer and disappeared. Mir Jalal himself had seen huge, black wings floating around by themselves.

From the depths of the earth came strange and eerie sounds that pierced the veil of night. The howling of cats mixed with the shrill laughter of invisible women echoed through the air. And in the midst of it all, the plaintive sounds of cymbals and trumpets, as played by Ashura during the day, filled the air as if mourning a great loss.

Abbas Agha shook his head, knowing that their search for Hasani was in vain. The game was over, the trail had gone cold. And so, tired and discouraged, they made their way home and collapsed from exhaustion.

But Hasani’s father could not rest. He wandered between the huts, plagued by grief and despair. His eyes darted back and forth, searching for a sign of his lost son. His hands clapped together in pain as he cried out, “Did you see what happened? Did you see how death took my child from me?”

He no longer wept or wailed. Instead, he fixated on the most mundane objects. The roofs of houses, the dark openings of graves, the stains on jute sacks – they all became objects of his obsession. He bent down to pick up bits of tin, broken glass cups and worn-out shoes, only to throw them away and continue his futile search.

For he knew in his heart that Hasani was lost forever, swallowed up by the darkness that lurked in the shadows. And so he wandered around, muttering to himself: “They are eating him now, it’s over. My Hasani is gone, and all I have left is my grief.”

I circled him like a bird of prey stalking its prey, but he did not notice my presence. I tried to catch his eye, to draw his attention to me, but it was all in vain. He was lost in his own world, indifferent to the outside world.

After a few moments of this fruitless dance, I remembered my duty to Hasani. He would be waiting for me, hungry and alone. I made my way to our agreed meeting place, but all was still and silent. The others were asleep, lost in their own dreams and worries.

My dad snored loudly, his muddy feet peeking out from under the blankets. I took what I needed, a loaf of bread and a handful of sugar, and slipped back out into the world.

The sun had risen and bathed everything in a gloomy and dull light. I saw Hasani’s father standing behind a house, scratching the rough surface of the wall with his fingernail. He looked lost and desperate, a shell of the man he once was.

I made my way to the tap and took a quick gulp of water before diving into the hollow. Beyond the top, I reached Hajj Timur’s stove, and there, in the alcove, I found Hasani.

He was asleep, his eyes sunken and his hands trembling. When I called his name, he woke up and screamed in fear.

“Who is it? Who is it?”

I reassured him that it was me, and he calmed down. But his appearance had changed, his spirit had been broken by the harshness of his life.

I asked him if anything new had happened and he told me about a dream in which he had fallen into a well and could not free himself.

“It’s your own fault,” I said, harsh but true. “You wanted to keep playing this game, and now look where it’s gotten you. Your father has lost his mind and you are living in fear and poverty. Is it worth it?”

He did not say a word, but withdrew from the vicinity. We both basked in the rays of the sun. I handed him the bread and a handful of coarse sugar cubes. His water remained unfinished. He reached for the jug, took a sip and let some of it dribble down his face. When he had regained his composure, he asked, “How’s it going?”

“They are convinced of your demise now.”

“What have you done about it?”

“I did not do anything. I kept silent.”

“What is your intention now?”

“They have not passed judgment yet.”

“Are not they going to recite the Koran for me?”

“I do not know, I have not received any news.”

“I suspect they will be doing the recitation tonight.”

“On what do you base that assumption?”

“Do you remember when Bibi’s grandson left this world? The Koran was recited the day after.”

“If that’s the case, then this is the day you have to answer for.”

“Yes, may God allow it to be so. I can not stand this any longer.”

“God willing, let this be the day.”

“You will not forget to let me know, will you?”

“No, why would I forget? Anyway, get ready for a brutal beating.”

“Not a chance. I will do my best to appease her.”

“Believe what you want. You will see.”

“Shall we make a bet?”

“What are the terms?”

“If they get angry and attack me and ask why I am alive and not dead, you win, and if they are satisfied, I win and you get a beating.”

“Excellent – I have suffered a lot for you, and now you want to beat me in return?”

He chuckled and added: “I am joking. I will get an ice cream for you.”

“Agreed. The bet’s on.”

He tore off a piece of bread and stuffed it in his mouth. “What should we do now?” he asked.

“Nothing. You must stay in this crevice, and I will go to the residences and observe the events”

“Will you let me know when the performance is tonight?”

“Certainly.”

The recitation, the reading of Hasani, was scheduled for the same afternoon in front of the dwellings. Abbas Agha had taken a piece of black cloth and impaled it on a stick, then thrust the stick into the ground at the head of the square. All those present had gathered outside, the women on one side and the men on the other. The news had spread to the outlying regions, and groups of people from Yusof, the tenements of Sarpich, the kilns of Shamsabad, the huts of Shotor Khun and Mulla Ahmad Hollow arrived in droves, all strangers dressed in robes of various colors. As they approached the square, the women rushed to Hasani’s mother, who was sitting in front of her house with a torn and bloody face, without shedding a tear, hitting her on the head and occasionally slapping her chest. The women cried as they approached her, slapping themselves in the face and saying, “Oh, dear sister, dear sister, what has happened to you, what has happened to you?”

Hasani’s father was stationed in front of our house, not sitting up straight, but stretched out on the ground, staring blankly in front of him. Anyone who recognized the deceased boy’s father went up to him and greeted him. When he received no reply, he moved on to find a seat. Abbas Agha, who was standing, shouted: “Fatihah!”

The men began to recite the Fatihah, the opening of the Koran. Usta Habib strolled through the gathering, providing water to those with parched throats. Two elderly gentlemen from the Ghoriba Hollow with a pouch of tobacco skillfully rolled cigarettes in newspaper and placed them on a tray. Bibi’s eldest son, Ramazan, dutifully distributed the tray to those present. Everyone smoked and drank, except Hasani’s father, who abstained, occasionally licking his lips and spitting on the floor.

After an hour had passed, a group of people were seen hurrying from the street. The sudden appearance of the group caught everyone’s attention. Abbas Agha called out, “The gypsies of the Black Tents from the Elders’ Cave are approaching. Let us go and greet them.” Several people made their way to meet them.

The gypsies, gasping for breath, hurried on with numerous banners in tow. Several old men in shabby clothes led the attack, beating their chests in pain. In their midst stood a slender Akhond with a long neck and a small turban. The women ran behind, all barefoot and dusty. As they reached the tiny square, the sounds of prayers echoed through the air. The men and women separated, the women screeching as they rushed to Hasani’s ma, while the old man greeted his papa, who did not respond. The Akhond sat down on the steps of our house. Ismail Agha shouted: “Say prayers! Say them out loud!”

Everyone offered their prayers. The Akhond asked in a harsh and nasal tone, “Sit down everyone, sit down so that we can weep and tell the tragic story of Ghasem, the son of Hasan, how he was martyred in Karbala in memory of this other unfortunate boy.” He began with a peculiar prayer and then recited the heart-rending story. The tears and sobs broke out spontaneously.

Everyone was crying. The men, the women, their children and even I cried. Only Hasani’s father wandered around aimlessly, licking his dry lips without shedding a single tear. The crying got louder and louder. The gypsies stood up and bared their chests. The Akhond also stood up, bared his chest and proclaimed in a loud voice: “Now let us sacrifice our breasts to honor the Lord of Martyrs and the dear unfortunate.” He began to recite plaintive songs. The gypsies beat their breasts, while the other men stood up and also beat their breasts to mourn. The women stood arm in arm and cried louder and louder. Suddenly I remembered: “Now is the time. I must go and inform Hasani.”

No one paid any attention to me. Nobody paid any attention to the others either. I slipped away quietly, first backwards, then I turned around and ran away. I wiped my tears and reached the tap, where I drank some water before diving into the corpse washer’s cave and climbing out. There was no one to be seen. I started to run. I ran like the wind, circled the fountains and kept going. My heart was pounding and sweat was pouring down my face when I reached Hajj Timur’s kiln. I circled it and emerged in front of Hasani’s hiding place. Hasani was lying on the platform, but when he saw me, he got up, walked out and asked, “What’s going on?”

“They are mourning you,” I replied.

“What are they doing?” he asked.

“People are coming from everywhere and beating their chests for you.”

He stared at me for a moment and asked, “Why were you crying?”

“What a fool you are! You knew I was alive and you did not tell anyone!”

“It’s all the fault of the Akhond, the one the gypsies brought with them. He made everyone cry.”

He clapped his hands together in feverish joy and shouted: “So it’s time, is it?”

“Right,” I said, my voice trembling with anticipation.

“Let’s see who comes out on top in the end,” he said with a mischievous grin on his face.

“May the Almighty bless you with victory,” I said, trying to hide my nervousness.

He chortled and yelled, “On your mark, get set, go!”

In a flash, he charged forward like a cheetah, leaving me in his dust. I tried my best to keep up with him, but Hasani was a miracle of movement, his legs pumping like the pistons of an engine. I called his name several times, but he only replied with a triumphant “Hoo! Hoo!”

But then, like a bolt from the blue, disaster struck. Hasani’s foot caught on a pile of rubble and he stumbled headlong into a huge well, bigger than anything I had ever seen. I was paralyzed with shock and horror, my tongue was tied in a knot. It was as if the earth had opened up and swallowed it whole. I was sitting on a pile of garbage, clutching myself and gasping for air. I couldn’t even bring myself to scream his name.

Finally I rose up, propelled by an invisible force, and began to run as fast as I could. My heart was pounding in my chest and my mind was a whirlwind of fear and confusion. I wished I could switch places with him so I could plunge into this terrible abyss instead.

As I reached the tap, my breath catching and my legs burning with exhaustion, my voice finally returned to me. “Hasani! Hasani! Hasani!” I shouted desperately, my words echoing off the walls of the surrounding buildings. But there was no answer, just an icy silence that seemed to go on forever.

When I entered the square, there was a solemn atmosphere in the air, for the after-effects of the blows to the chest had put everyone in a state of somber contemplation. Ramazan was handing out cigarettes to the men and Usta Habib was busy carrying a jug of water back and forth. And then I let out a piercing scream that shattered the silence like a pane of glass. “Hasani! Hasani! Hasani!” I howled, my voice cracking with grief. I hit my head with my fists and writhed on the ground like a wounded animal.

In an instant, everyone was on their feet and gathered around me. Abbas Agha, who was the first to reach me, held my flailing arms to prevent me from hurting myself even more. “What has happened? What happened?” he asked, his face contorted with worry.

Through my tears, I managed to gasp, “Hasani! Hasani has fallen down the well!”

I rolled over onto my stomach and gritted my teeth into the dirt, my body wracked with sobs. A low murmur swelled into a babble of voices as everyone tried to soothe me with comforting words. “Don’t hurt yourself anymore, calm down, may God have mercy on him,” they murmured.

But I could no longer be calmed or comforted. “He just fell, just now. Hasani fell into the well,” I moaned, my words muffled by the earth in my mouth.

My father made his way through the crowd, his face etched with worry lines. “Shut up now, child. Don’t make it worse for his parents,” he said in a deep, stern voice.

He fell, he fell down the well, right in front of me. But when I opened my mouth to scream for help, this stubborn man told me to shut up, to be quiet, to stop acting like a little donkey. And then he slapped me hard across the face, just like that.

But Ismail Agha wouldn’t take it lying down. He grabbed my dad and shouted: “Don’t you dare hit that boy, you son of a bitch! Can’t you see that he’s lost his mind, that he’s completely confused?” And then he picked me up, held me tight and told me to calm down and stifle my screams.

But I didn’t listen. I was still screaming, still shouting for someone to save my friend Hasani. Ismail Agha poured water over my face, but it didn’t help. I struggled and fought, but it was like trying to free myself from the grip of a bear.

Eventually they dragged me into our own house, where I was still crying and screaming for Hasani. But when we passed his father, I saw that he didn’t even look at me. He just stared in front of him as if he was in a daze.

Once we were inside, Ismail Agha tried to calm me down. “Child, everyone knows that Hasani was your friend. You liked each other very much. But that was the will of fate, there was nothing we could do.”

But I didn’t want to listen. I kept shouting: “He just fell, he just fell!” My father didn’t know what to do with me, but Ismail Agha just held me and whispered: “Be quiet, child. Be quiet.”

Ismail Agha said I had gone mad and it was best to tie my hands and feet. So they tied me up and I started howling and screaming like a wildcat. My father didn’t know what to do with me, so he said, “We’ll gag him. That will keep him quiet.” And before I knew it, they had stuffed a rag in my mouth and thrown me into a dark corner like a sack of potatoes.

My father was beside himself with worry. He rubbed his hands together and muttered to himself: “What am I going to do, my God, my God? If he stays like this, what am I going to do?”

But Ismail Agha, he was the voice of reason. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll ask the Akhond of the Gypsies to write a talisman for him. That will get him back on his feet.”

And Usta Habib added: “And if that doesn’t work, we’ll take him to the shrine of Shah Abdul Azim.”

But my father continued to moan and groan, running in circles and shouting: “O Imam of the age, O Imam of the age, O Imam of the age!”

Ismail Agha had finally had enough. “We should leave him alone,” he said. “Maybe he’ll come to on his own.” And with that, they all went out and locked the door behind them.

As they left, I heard the prayers of those gathered grow louder again and the hoarse, nasal voice of the gypsy achond read out the eulogy. It was enough to give a body goosebumps, I can tell you.

 

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