Gholamhossein Sa’edi, a talented short story writer, has presented all the issues presented in this school in the form of the character of the great lady in the story “The Beggar”.
Gholamhossein 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 Beggar is translated by Ali Salami. Gholamhossein Sa’edi’s “The Beggar” can be analysed in the light of Existentialism.
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, Gholamhossein 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.
Gholamhossein Sa’edi: The Beggar
A mere month had passed since my third journey to Qom, yet it was during that specific expedition that an ominous feeling clung to me like an unwavering shadow. Unfazed by this inescapable omen, I set out in the darkness of night in a dilapidated vehicle careening along the winding roads until I reached the threshold of Seyyed Asadullah, never once encountering the vibrant light of day.
I rapped on the door, the sound reverberating through the silence, and it was Aziz Khanum who answered the door, her face a striking combination of shock and despair. Stepping aside, she let out a bewildered inquiry, “Madam, did you not already leave?” And thus, I found myself hurled into a tempestuous maelstrom of enigmatic significance, forced to contemplate the incomprehensible implications of my unexpected arrival.
With a casual air, I uttered a brief salutation and proceeded to cross the threshold, traversing the vestibule and emerging into the courtyard beyond. There, a gaggle of rambunctious children, freshly roused from slumber, cavorted about a nearby pool, their youthful exuberance manifesting in splashes and giggles. Taking my seat beside the wall, I deposited my meager bundle at my side and stayed there.
Aziz Khanum, in her unparalleled manner, posed the question once more: “Pray tell, my dear Khanum, did you not already depart?”
“Well, my dear ma’am,” I replied, “I did indeed leave, but now I have returned.” However, Khanum was not too pleased with my response. “If you yearned to return so ardently, why did you trifle about and leave in the first place? You ought to have stayed and eased my mind.”
I chuckled, saying, “Oh now, Khanum, I have returned to put your worries to rest. But let it be known, I did not return for mere amusement. I have returned to fulfill an obligation, a duty that is mine to perform.”
The young ones were playing and making merry, yet Aziz Khanum’s demeanor grew more solemn with each passing moment as she inquired, “What sort of duty are you referring to?”
“My return was motivated by a desire to acquire a plot of land for my grave. I had a vision that my days were numbered,” I disclosed.
Aziz Khanum, understandably dubious, questioned, “And how, pray tell, do you expect to purchase land when you are but penniless?”
“I managed to scrounge up the funds,” I said, gesturing towards the bundle in my possession.
Aziz Khanum grew infuriated and exclaimed, “So now that you have some money, why must you come here and badger Seyyed for more? The poor man toils day in and day out like a beast of burden, struggling to feed his children. And yet you persist in harassing him, always returning for more.”
Her piercing gaze bore into me, demanding a response, but my pride was wounded, and I remained silent. With a persistent nagging, Aziz Khanum ascended the stairs, her children scurrying after her as if I posed a threat to their safety. I stood motionless beside the wall, bewildered by how I managed to slumber.
As I drifted into a peaceful slumber, a vivid dream swept over me. In it, Seyyed arrived after running his errands and engaged in a heated conversation with Aziza under the ominous shade of the tree. Her demeanor was menacing, her words laced with hostility as she spewed out threats and demanded that Seyyed remove me from the premises, lest she take matters into her own hands. Suddenly, I was jolted awake, only to find Seyyed conversing with his wife in the vestibule.
Seyyed let out a frustrated sigh, “Goddammit, what the hell can I do? I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. Can you help me find a way out of this mess?” Aziz Khanum shook her head, her face etched with worry. “I’m clueless, Seyyed. She’s looking to buy her own land, maybe Wadi al-Salam doesn’t cut it anymore. She wants to live in paradise, but with all that cash she’s raked in, why the hell is she still clinging on to you?”
Aziz Khanum’s voice seethed with contempt as she unleashed a torrent of vitriol. “Why does she cling to you like a parasite, Seyyed? Could it be because you are the most imbecilic and destitute of all her offspring? What of Seyyed Abdullah, Seyyed Morteza, Javad Agha, Seyyed Ali, Safiya, Horiya Amina Agha, and all her sons-in-law? Why did she fixate on you, of all people?”
Seyyed’s voice trailed off as he lapsed into a pensive silence, the weight of his despair permeating the air. “I’m rendered speechless and powerless,” he finally croaked, his heart heavy with emotion. “Proceed with whatever course of action you deem fit, but I implore you to refrain from any deed that might incur the wrath of the Almighty. Remember, she is my mother we’re talking about here.”
As they emerged from the vestibule, I closed my eyes and feigned sleep. Seyyed ascended the stairs and, after a brief pause, descended and left the house, his footsteps receding into the night.
I yanked out a hunk of bread from my bundle and devoured it with a ferocity borne out of exhaustion. The car ride had left me reeling and unable to stand on my own two feet. As I emerged from my slumber, the room was shrouded in darkness, save for a single light casting an eerie glow. My throat rattled with a fit of coughing before I stumbled outside to the pond. But my surprise knew no bounds when I saw it – bone-dry and lifeless.
Dragging myself back up the stairs, I stumbled into a scene that made my heart sing: Aziza and the kids huddled around the table, chowing down on a delicious spread.
Seyyed had not yet arrived, so I waited in the hall. When dinner was over, I poked my head in and said, “Aziz Khanum, Aziz Khanum Jun.” Mahrokh, Asadullah’s eldest daughter, leaped up and shrieked, causing everyone to rise to their feet. Aziz Khanum, perturbed, adjusted the lamp wick and scolded me, “What in the blazes are you doing, old hag? Do you want to frighten my children to death?”
Feeling chagrined, I retreated and explained that I was just checking if Seyyed had arrived.
Aziz Khanum scolded me, “Are you blind as a bat? Can you not see that he failed to come? He won’t return home tonight.”
I questioned, “Where has he gone off to?”
She flailed her limbs and exclaimed, “I’m clueless as to which godforsaken place he’s gone!”
I inquired, “Then where shall I rest my head?”
She replied, “Rest it on my wretched noggin! I’m in the dark about where you can doze off. Feel free to sleep anywhere, just leave my children alone.”
I lay stretched out on the hallway floor, and as the sun began to rise, I realized that Aziza didn’t take kindly to my being there. After completing my prayers, I left her dwelling and headed to the first shrine of Hazrat Masoumeh. There, I settled down outside the entrance, my legs crossed, my face hidden, and my hand extended for alms from those who came to pay their respects. The searing sun beat down on me, but I collected my meager earnings and bundled them up before hitting the road once again.
By noon, I found myself back at Seyyed Asadullah’s place, armed with rooster chewing gums and sohan for the little ones. I knocked on the door, and Mahrokh peeked out, only to shut it tight the moment he saw me. I tried knocking again, but this time, a strange woman answered and said, “Seyyed Asadullah hasn’t been here for three long months.”
“What do you mean?” I retorted, “He was here with me only last night!”
“I have no idea where he went,” replied the woman, her voice tinged with uncertainty. “I don’t know where he went.”
With a slam of the door, she left me there, but I could tell she was fibbing. Undeterred, I settled myself by the threshold, keeping vigil until nightfall, hoping Seyyed Asadullah would make an appearance. As dusk settled in and there was still no sign of him, I rose to my feet and began to wander. It occurred to me to check his store, hoping to find some trace of him there. But no matter where I went, no one seemed to know of Seyyed Asadullah the mirror-worker.
As I passed the masonry, I noticed a man in a turban and robe sitting beside a mirror-worker’s booth.
I couldn’t help but notice that Seyyed never wore a turban, which added to my growing sense of confusion. Frustrated, I wandered aimlessly, and when the call to prayer echoed through the air, I headed to the shrine to collect alms. Afterward, I scoured the market, going from door to door, searching for any sign of Seyyed Asadullah, much like when he was a young boy and would wander off, causing me to frantically search for him.
As I pondered, a thought crossed my mind: I must return to his humble abode. But alas, fear crept in. Fear of Aziza, fear of her offspring, fear of all who may cross my path. By Allah, I was even seized by dread at the mere sight of the sacred shrine of my dear Lady Masoumeh.
As I ambled past the parked cars, I saw Seyyed Asadullah strolling along the sidewalk, his hands full of who knows what.
With a sudden burst of courage, I called out to Seyyed Asadullah and he halted in his tracks. Hastily, I scurried towards him, grasping his hand in mine, and beseeched him with all my heart. His tongue was tied, he could not speak; he was a mere shell of his former self.
“My dear son,” I spoke gently, “fear not. I have no intention of visiting your household, for I know full well your wife cannot bear the sight of me. I merely wished to see you once more, to catch up on old times.”
But his words cut like a sharp knife, “Oh, mother, you have left me with no shred of dignity.” He recounted the time when he saw me, his own mother, begging at the shrine. He had turned away in shame, unable to face me. “What in the world are you up to now that you have one foot in the grave?” he asked with a grave tone.
I remained silent, unable to answer. Seyyed broke the silence, “Have you at least secured a piece of land for yourself?”
“Don’t waste your pity on me,” I responded, my voice laced with frustration. “No corpse has ever been left unburied. They’ll find a way to bury it somehow.”
But in that moment, my anger boiled over and I couldn’t hold back my tears. He looked at me quizzically and asked, “What are you crying for?”
Through my sobs, I managed to choke out my response: “I’m crying for the eighth Imam.”
As Seyyed dug deep into his pockets, his fingers fished out a solitary coin, which he then flipped my way.
“Listen, my dear Mother,” he began, his voice carrying a hint of impatience. “Lurking around here isn’t going to do you any good. You gotta get back to Seyyed Abdullah, and quick. I ain’t no genie, I can’t fix all your problems. Plus, if you keep begging like this, someone’s gonna spot you sooner or later. Once they realize that the widow of Haj Seyyed Razi is reduced to begging, my old man’s bones will dance a jig in his grave, and our family’s honor will crumble. No, no, better you head to Abdullah’s. His lady’s got more sense than that tramp Aziza. She knows the meaning of pity.”
As we made our way to the cars, Seyyed motioned to one of the drivers and barked out some orders. “Take this poor old lady and drop her off in Shush neighborhood. You’ll be doing God’s work, my friend.”
And just like that, without so much as a backward glance, he vanished from my sight, leaving me to ponder my fate. As much as it pained me, I knew better than to call after him. Seyyed didn’t want anyone to know I was his flesh and blood.
I sauntered into Seyyed Abdullah’s crib, and wouldn’t you know it, they had missed me. Seyyed and his brood had bounced, leaving the house in the hands of the little ones. The big sis, with eyes like a damn mole, sat in the middle of the porch, click-clacking away at her knitting. But when she heard my voice, she lit up like a goddamn Christmas tree. The nippers were all fired up too, chasing each other around the yard like a pack of wild dogs. They pestered and prodded and wanted to know what the hell was in my bundle. Just like their elders, always prying and poking their noses where they don’t belong. Rakhshandeh’s sis, with her locks as wild as a damn lion’s mane, hopped in on the interrogation, “Yo grandma, what’s in the bag? Got any grub in there?”
I said, “By the gods, it ain’t no vittles. What’s victuals doing’ in my kit anyway?”
When I stepped outside, the young’uns wanted to tag along. But I bamboozled them and made my way out solo. The street was like a fork in the road, see? It was pitch-black and nearly deserted. I set up shop there, begging for a pittance, but I did it for the principle of the thing.
When I came back, Raskshandeh’s sis said to me, “Where’d you scarper off to, Granny? Did you go see your old man?” And then all the young’uns swarmed me, each with their own question, and I couldn’t help but cackle. We were all chortling so hard we shook the darn house.
Raskshandeh’s sister had a kind heart, she did. She took a liking to me, and wanted to do something special for me. So, I asked her to make me a bag. When she was done, she said it was a good omen, a sign of good things to come. And she was right, by God she was. The very next day, before the sun had a chance to set, Abdullah and Rakhshandeh came back from their little trip to the village. Rakhshandeh was all scrunched up in the face when she saw me, but Abdullah, he was something else. He had put on weight, turned white as a ghost, and had grown a bushy beard. He looked at me with impatience and ignored me like I was a stray dog.
In a hushed voice, I muttered to myself, “It’s time for me to go. My presence is no longer welcomed, and my very existence brings misfortune to those around me. I have no reason to stay any longer.”
Gone were the days when I could frolic and chuckle with the children. Even Rakhshandeh’s sister had fallen quiet in my company. Seyyed Abdallah, lost in contemplation, peered at me with concern and queried, “Mother, why do you doubt yourself so?”
I retorted, “I just want to depart.”
His countenance brightened with relief, “If that’s your heart’s desire, then come along. The car that brought us here can take you back.”
The children offered me bread and cheese, and I collected the garments my sister had tailored for me. I grasped the stick that Seyyed Awaz had gifted me instead of a cane and proclaimed, “I have naught else to say. I’m leaving now.”
As I stepped out of the car, the children gathered around me, their innocent faces filled with concern. I kissed them goodbye and climbed into the vehicle, ready to leave. The car ride was bumpy and uncomfortable, and when we arrived at our destination, I was in pain all over.
They led me to a small crypt with only four doors. It was bleak and unwelcoming, and I felt a pang of fear in my heart. As the night fell, they brought me a meager meal of bread and broth, which I ate hungrily. After dinner, I got up to pray and opened the door of the crypt. The moon was high in the sky, casting a milky glow over the valley before me. In the distance, the howling of a wolf could be heard.
Out of nowhere, a piercing voice erupted from behind the house, “He’s coming for you now! Wolves love to prey on old women!”
It was as though his chompers were grinning right at me, flashing in the moonlight like a row of glinting knives. A hen cackled and clucked atop the roof, sending shivers down my spine. “Lord above, please spare me from losing my grip on reality,” I murmured, feeling a wave of unease wash over me. I scurried back indoors, realizing that from now on I’d need to stay cooped up, away from the outside world with its valleys and moons.
The crypt of my mind had become a gloomy and desolate place, shrouded in melancholy. I couldn’t fathom how I had ended up in this pit of despair, but tears streamed down my face all the same. I cried for the martyrs of Karbala and the enigmatic figure of Imam Reza. And, oh, how I longed for Safiya! But fear gnawed at me, fear of her husband even though I knew he had no idea of my whereabouts. I was a bundle of nerves, my mind in a state of delirium.
In the village, everything was running smoothly, as it always had. But I couldn’t bring myself to venture out and collect charity like I usually did. Instead, I’d spend my evenings sitting in the small square, brooding and lost in my own thoughts. I had no connection to anyone there, and no one had any connection to me. I was a solitary figure, adrift in my own private world of woe.
Somewhere along the way, my shoes had gone missing, leaving me to trudge along the dusty roads barefoot. I held out hope that someone would stumble upon me and, God willing, offer me a pair of footwear. But I was too timid to ask anyone for help, for fear that Seyyed – that hot-headed fool – would find out and unleash his fury upon me. My health was deteriorating, and I had begun to soil myself at night. I was growing filthier by the day, and I had no one to care for me.
Then, one blessed day, an old dervish arrived in our humble village. He was peddling a magnificent icon, which I couldn’t resist purchasing. For the next two nights, I sat before the icon and prayed fervently. It was a soothing balm for my weary soul, and I felt a newfound happiness deep within. Suddenly, begging didn’t seem so daunting anymore – in fact, it felt like a much more rewarding path to take.
One night, my mind was troubled and I found myself lost in a daydream. Suddenly, a voice called out to me, faintly echoing from a distance. I opened the door to listen more closely, straining my ears to catch the words. The voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Yet, all my fears evaporated in an instant.
Without a second thought, I gathered my belongings and set out on a journey. The roads stretched out before me, long and winding, the desert sands shimmering in the moonlight. But the journey didn’t tire me, for my heart was filled with a divine blessing. I was buoyed by the kind attention of the wise men who watched over me.
As I left the village behind and sat down to rest on the ground, a man with three camels appeared before me. At first, he was wary of me, but soon took pity on my situation and offered to give me a ride. I mounted one of the camels while he rode another, and the third trudged along behind us. My heart was heavy with sorrow, and memories of strangers in Karbala flooded my mind. Tears flowed down my cheeks, slow and steady.
I had to apprise Javad Agha of my intent to venture out and scrounge for sustenance, for even mere bread would suffice to sustain a solitary belly. And if I were to solicit alms, it was not solely for pecuniary gain, but for the delectable fragrance of freshly-baked bread that I could procure through such means.
I endeavored to elucidate to him that my decision was not meant to offend, and suggested that we each pay our debits on the day of judgement. But Javad Agha was obstinate in his refusal to grant me entry into his abode. He slammed the door shut, leaving me outside, while Safiya listened behind the door, her heart shattered at Javad Agha’s denial of my entry. She wailed in inconsolable agony, while Javad Agha attempted to mollify her by swaying the cradle of their infant.
Undaunted, I bided my time in the alleyway, certain that Javad Agha would depart for the bazaar ere long. An hour later, I returned to his doorstep and knocked, prompting him to bark gruffly, “Well?”
So I said nothing and kept on walking. Javad Agha stared at me so hard that I just had to leave the alley. I took out the icon from my pack and started singing praises to Imam Ali, the pious Lord. Out of nowhere, this skinny woman appeared and gave me some money, and asked, “Old lady, where are you from and where are you going?”
“From the desert,” I said, “looking for work.”
She said, “At your age, can you do any work?”
“With the power of God and Imam Ali, I can do anything,” I said.
“Can you wash clothes?” she asked.
“Imam Ali will give me strength,” I replied.
“Then follow me,” she said.
I followed the woman through the silent alley, my footsteps echoing off the walls like the beat of a distant drum. At last, we arrived at a grand abode with a diminutive porch, surrounded by an expanse of land that boasted a vast pond with an endless expanse of water at its center. On the platform beside the pond, several women sat, their arms crossed and mouths moving as if to endlessly consume something. When they caught sight of me, their laughter and chatter filled the air, and they remarked that I was unfit to launder their garments and should hide behind the door.
And so, I sat there, behind the door, clutching my icon and bundle, as the slender woman instructed me that any who knocked and sought Robabeh should be granted entry. For hours, no one came, and I passed the time in prayer and supplication to my God. It was a warm corner, and I harbored no fear of the encroaching darkness. The sounds emanating from the yard were numerous, but their cause eluded me. The woman cautioned me to concern myself only with my own matters, and so I occupied myself with my musings.
All at once, a knock resounded through the door. “Who is it?” I inquired. The voice from beyond replied, “I seek Robabeh.”
As I unlatched the door, a stringbean man stumbled past me and made his way directly to the yard. The laughter of the women within gradually faded to silence, and I felt myself slipping into slumber. In my dreams, I returned to Safiya’s abode, and my knuckles rapped against the door. Javad Agha opened the portal, querying, “What is it?” I offered no reply, and he promptly darted forward, brandishing a whip. I fled in terror, his footsteps in hot pursuit.
Abruptly, a rapping at the door jolted me from my nightmare. “Who’s there?” I called out.
“Open up, Javad Agha!” barked the voice on the other side.
I inquired, “Who do you seek?”
“Robabeh,” he demanded.
“She’s not present,” I informed him.
“Open the door, you harlot!” he seethed.
And then he began to pound on the door with greater force. The slender woman, who had earlier accompanied me, arrived and inquired, “What’s amiss?”
“My Lord! I beg of you! I would lay down my life for you! Do not unlock the entrance!” I fervently implored.
“Why not?” she queried.
I replied, “No, no, no. Can’t let that door swing open, or he’ll think I’m here to sponge off you.”
“And who’s causing all this grief?” he asked.
“Javad, my son-in-law,” I answered.
“Slip away into the shadows,” he whispered.
I hastily dashed into the darkness, trying to catch the sound of the lock clicking and the woman’s footsteps fading into the courtyard. Laughter and glee reverberated off the walls before the silence returned. I slunk back to the door, shielding my face from the sun with my sack, and muttered, “O Qamar Bani Hashem, you’ll bear witness to the suffering I’m about to face.” Then I gathered my courage and stepped out into the unknown.
That evening, I didn’t go out to collect alms. I had some meager bread, a cane, an icon, and a bag under my chador. I waited patiently. Soon, a black car arrived and picked me up. We left the city behind and eventually, the driver dropped me off in a narrow and dark alley.
At the end of the alley, I was relieved to find a dim light that marked my destination. When I arrived at the door, it was opened for me and I stepped inside. The garden was vast and ancient, with old trees whose branches rustled together and the sound of water could be heard from every direction. An old, bright lamp hung from a willow branch, casting light over the area where I sat.
Soon, Qamar, Fatemeh, and Mahpareh arrived. We cried together, releasing our sorrow and pain, before sitting down to listen to each other’s stories of suffering. Though Qamar had remained plump and fat, the rotundity of her stomach had disappeared. Fatemeh had melted away, with nothing left of her except for her laughter and eventual tears.
Mahpareh’s face was creased with hunger, her fingers gnawing at her nails. I could tell she was famished. Without a word, I reached into my bag and tossed a few crumbs of bread in her direction. She pounced on them, chewing and swallowing in a frenzied manner, as if she had forgotten how to eat.
We settled down to talk, and the three of them questioned why I hadn’t come to see them sooner. I swore that I had been busy collecting alms, but they believed me nonetheless. Our conversation turned to the subject of begging, and I prodded Fatima to tell us about her own experiences, but she remained tight-lipped.
Eventually, we made our way to the pond, and I regaled them with stories of my adventures on the streets. When I finished, Fatima implored me to recite a tragic tale by Qasim. I obliged, and as I recited, Fatima first laughed and then burst into tears. We all wept with her, and it seemed as though even the trees in the garden were mourning with us.
After the Ashura prayer had ended, my mind turned to thoughts of home and the life I had left behind. I had gathered all my belongings and entrusted them to the care of Amina Khanum. As the evening drew near, I made my way to her house and knocked on the door. To my relief, she answered the door herself and greeted me as though I had risen from the dead. I remained silent as her grandchildren gathered around us, and I noticed that her daughter was not present, but I did not inquire about her whereabouts, knowing that she had likely gone to the bath as was her habit.
Amina spoke up, breaking the silence between us. “Seyyed Khanum, where have you been?” she asked.
I replied, “I have been under your shadow.”
Amina then inquired, “And what brings you here today?”
I replied simply, “To take a look at my belongings.”
Amina led me down to the basement where she had kept my belongings safe. She told me that Seyyed Morteza, Javad Agha, and Horiya had come by a couple of times, but she had refused to let them touch anything. “I told them that you were alive and well,” she said. “Whenever you put your head on the ground, I have nothing to say. You can come and take what you inherit. Take it all.”
As I looked around the damp and musty basement, the smell of pickles, cedar, and mold filled my nose. Carpets had been piled up in a corner, and heating pipes, large samovars, and tin cans had been stacked up haphazardly. There was something yellow and cauliflower-like sitting on top of them, and a strange smell permeated the air. Three chairs had been placed next to each other, with three small bowls in the center. Three little goats, no bigger than cats, were munching on hay. And in the middle of them all was my own strange animal, with a long tail and a rectangular head, furiously licking the ground and eating dirt.
Amina asked me, “What did you do with the money, Seyyed Khanum?”
I replied, “What money?”
She reminded me, “You wrote that you went to Qom to buy a tomb for yourself.”
I scoffed at the notion. “Did you believe that too?” I asked.
Amina shook her head. “I was the only one who couldn’t believe it,” she said. “But ah, these people and their tall tales.”
I cautioned her, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Finally, she asked me, “Where are you going, and what are you doing?”
“I go wherever my feet take me,” I replied. “I visit cemeteries, pray, and have taken up the profession of eulogizing.”
Amina’s children started to sneer at me, but I didn’t mind. Instead, I showed them a picture that made them scared and they quickly left the room.
Amina asked me, “Are you alright now? Did you see that your belongings are in their place?”
I sighed and responded, “May God forgive your children! May God bless me with just one of them! Give me one of my bundles so I can cover my icon.”
Amina hesitated and said, “It’s not possible. Your children will not be happy about it. They will come and fight with me.”
“Alright, if they are not satisfied, then I give up the idea,” I said before leaving the room. As I walked outside, I remembered that it is better for the image of the Holy Imam not to have a veil because the dust of the graveyards is enough to keep the impure eyes away from his blessed beauty.
As I continued to walk, people started to watch me. I was lamenting and crying, and for some reason, people began to laugh.
Left with naught to occupy me and bereft of aid, I wandered aimlessly through lanes and thoroughfares, trailed by ragamuffins. My voice, hoarse with ailment, croaked out the Rawda, while I vended holy water from a paltry vessel. My legs throbbed with injury, my toenails wrenched out, and my throat blocked, stifling my utterances. Drained, I slumbered in a graveyard, where the dust shrouded the icon, obscuring the visage of the Holy Imam.
Despite my woeful state, hunger no longer beset me, and my sustenance was water alone. On occasion, I even harbored the yen to consume dirt, akin to the wee creature in the midst of the goats, ceaselessly lapping at the soil.
A mighty wound the size of a platter had formed in my mouth, spouting blood like a river. I ceased my supplications for alms, and in the throngs, I would catch glimpses of my offspring, who skittered away at the sight of me. On a Friday eve, I found myself within a graveyard, and I knelt behind the quarters of the corpse-washer, imploring the heavens above. That’s when Seyyed Morteza’s firstborn and Mr. Mojtaba stumbled upon me and demanded I come along. I had no desire to comply, but they forced me into an automobile and brought me to a grand estate. They sat me beneath a bough, and then they disappeared into a radiant chamber. Moments later, they emerged with a stout gentleman and watched me with hawkish eyes. Seyyed Morteza’s son and Agha Mojtaba then vanished into the shadows of the trees, and two other blokes hauled me to a dim passageway and hurled me into a stygian room, where slumber quickly overtook me.
The next morning, the cell teemed with mendicants, who beseeched me for sustenance. I then recited the Rawda of Abul Fazl for them, and they were much obliged. A cart arrived bearing broth, which we all trudged to the gardens to imbibe, yet my swollen gash made swallowing impossible. None among the destitute throng accepted my venerated icon. Nightmares of Safiya and Horiya, Seyyed Abdullah’s brood, and even the Holy Imam, tormented me. I was vexed beyond measure, akin to the possessed, with folk cursing and deriding me from every angle. Departure was all I desired.
There was this little old man, a dwarf by the looks of him, perched up by the front door. Every time I got close, he’d start waving his stick and hollering “Kish Kish!” like it was some kind of magic word.
One day, Safiya’s boy Kamal came up to me, tears streaming down his face. He told me they all knew I was stuck in the poorhouse, and his ma had sent some boiled rice, bread, and onions for me. But then he let slip a secret: there was a way out through the waterway.
That little Kamal boy sure had a kind heart. He offered me his own shoes to help me escape, but he was scared his parents would start fighting him over it. And me? Well, I was scared of just about everything. Javad Agha, Seyyed Morteza, the world outside those walls, and even the cramped confines of that room had me shaking in my boots.
But I made a promise to Kamal all the same: “If it’s the Lord’s will, I’ll find a way out of here.”
So off he went, and that old man at the door took half of my meager meal, leaving me with just enough to survive. But I was determined to escape that place, come hell or high water.
As the night deepened, I slinked out into the woods and lay in wait for the opportune moment. And when the light changed to a ghostly white, I seized my chance, clutching my bundle tightly as I wriggled like a serpent through the watery mire, feeling the mud squishing between my fingers and toes.
At last, I emerged into a world beyond those walls, and the houses around me seemed to be aflame, burning with the vivid hues of a new dawn. But I was heedless of all that – all I cared about was my freedom, and that was all that mattered.
From that moment forward, I was never quite right again. The wound inside my mouth had grown, and it felt as though it was dangling inside my stomach. I stumbled along, my hand pressed against the wall for support. A strange sound, like the clanging of a tin can, echoed in my head, and the ring of a distant well seemed to speak to me from the depths of the earth. The icon on the wall seemed to come alive, and the imam of the strangers and my lady Ma’suma spoke to me as well. And then, one day, I saw Seyyed Abdullah’s children, who told me that their aunt had passed away. I knew it already. I knew everything.
On another occasion, I paid an unexpected visit to Amina’s house. The door was ajar, so I slipped inside. As I made my way to the yard, I found everyone gathered there, with Seyyed Asadullah and Aziza having come from Qom to divide my possessions among themselves. They were all bickering and quarreling, cursing and jumping at each other’s throats. Javad Agha and Seyyed Abdullah even got into a tussle over the carpets, while poor Amina wept bitterly, having worked so hard yet getting nothing in return.
As I stood there, I heard Fatima’s voice coming from the basement, and for a moment, Kamal caught sight of me and let out a loud cry. All heads turned to look at me, and they slowly closed in around me, their expressions tense and wary.
Javad Agha’s eyes were brimming with tears, and he cried out, “Do you see what you’re doing?!” I tried to speak, but the words caught in my throat. So instead, I pressed my face against the wall, and they all turned to look at me, then at the icon.
“Open your bundle,” Javad Agha demanded, his voice shaking with emotion. “I need to know what’s in there.”
And Amina chimed in, her voice pleading, “Please, Seyyed Khanum, open your bundle and put their minds at ease.”
“You’ve been deceiving us for your whole life,” Javad Agha continued, growing more agitated. “Come on, open your bundle. Quick!”
So I opened up my bundle, and the dry, stale bread crumbs spilled out onto the floor in front of the icon. And then, with a heavy heart, I revealed the shroud to them. They took one brief glance at it, then turned away their eyes, unable to bear the sight. And on the other side of the yard, poor Kamal, Safiya’s son, let out a wail that echoed through the air.
© 2023 Ali Salami
 “Sohan” is a traditional Persian sweet that is made with saffron, rosewater, and almonds. It is usually served during special occasions and celebrations such as weddings and Eid. Sohan is a brittle candy that has a unique texture and a sweet, floral flavor. It is often garnished with pistachios or other nuts, and it can be found in different variations throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
 Rawda Khwani is a public lamentation held to commemorate the death of Hussain ibn Ali and his followers, who suffered during the Battle of Karbala, particularly by Iranian Shia Muslims. The Battle of Karbala occurred in 680 CE when Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph. Hussain and his followers were subsequently surrounded and killed by Yazid’s army in Karbala, a city in modern-day Iraq. Rawda Khwani is a traditional form of mourning that dates back to the early days of Shia Islam. It involves reciting elegiac poetry, performing lamentations, and expressing grief over the tragedy of Karbala. The practice is typically held during the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, and is considered a solemn occasion for Shia Muslims.