Ali Salami

The Gilak Man (Gilehmard): A Short Story by Bozorg Alavi

A relentless rain poured down from the sky, and the winds were so violent that they seemed to shake the earth to its foundations. Old trees lay in a melancholy embrace, their branches swaying in the storm. In the distance, the plaintive cries of a woman pierced the air, carried by the raging storm that tore the forest apart. The once tranquil silence was broken and replaced by the overwhelming sound of nature’s wrath. Raindrops fell like a deluge, connecting the dark sky with the sodden earth below. Rivers burst their banks and their raging waters poured indiscriminately in all directions. In the midst of this turmoil, two officers, armed and vigilant, accompanied the Gilak man to Fouman, a path fraught with danger and uncertainty.

The Gilak man, wrapped in a gray blanket that hung from his neck, remained fixed on the wild, unruly forest. He was indifferent to the whistling wind and the relentless rain, as well as the officer’s rifle and the looming presence of death. His bare feet splashed gently in the water, each step deliberate and measured. His left arm, a heavy burden, dangled at his side, his gaze alternating between the officer at his side and the small stream of water dripping from his cupped hand, rhythmically tapping against his dry skin. His half-soaked shirt clung to his body and the wet fabric slid over his exposed flesh. Occasionally, the Gilak man let go of the blanket to wring out the knotted handkerchief in his other hand and squeeze the water out of his sleeve. With a gesture that resembled a holy cleansing, he stroked his face with his hand and wiped away the last traces of moisture. Only in the faint light of a dim lamp casting a subdued glow on his broad, bony face did the fear in his features become visible, the large white eyes and broken nose standing out clearly against the shadowy background.

Officer Mohammad Wali Vakil Bashi, who harbored a deep-seated animosity towards the prisoner, gave him no peace. He bombarded the man from Gilak with biting remarks and cursed him for all the hardships they encountered on their journey, from the relentless rain to the biting cold of the fall nights. “You’re an adventurer, a stranger! What more could you have wished for? Were you looking for chaos and turmoil? Do you think your country lacks a ruler?” he sneered.

Mohammad Wali had adopted the terms “adventurer” and “xenophobe” from the commander, who had used these words himself on national radio and in the press. “For half a year, the government has been imploring: ‘Come out and pay the Lord’s debts! No, they continue their parasitic activities. The time of chaos and turmoil is over! How is the lord to survive? How is he to meet his tax obligations? What can be done when the government lacks the means? It is your actions that have caused the government to delay our salaries by four months. But now the government has joined forces. The game has changed. The Bolshevik game is over. I’ve been a regular at the coffee house for a month now. I travel from village to village, urging people to fulfill their obligations to their master. I carry the government’s decree with me, pin it to the walls and proclaim its message to anyone who will listen. If the people do not pay their lord’s debts, they will have to answer to the officer… the commander of the barracks… and their taxes will be collected and forwarded by the security officers.”

With his hands pressed firmly against the wall, the Gilak man stood motionless, his senses acutely attuned to the slightest movement, like the gentle swaying of a parcel of garlic in the breeze. His sweaty shirt clung to his skin, while the revolver in his pocket constantly reminded him of the impending danger.

Sometimes the Gilak man would hold his breath for a whole minute, straining to hear Mohammad Wali’s footsteps coming up the wooden stairs. Occasionally the howling wind calmed down or the rain subsided, changing the steady cadence of the water in the gutter. But in this chaotic sound of nature, not a single footstep could be heard.

Then suddenly a loud shout from the Baloch officer broke the silence: “Hey Muhammad Wali? Hey, Mohammad Wali!” The Gilak man breathed a sigh of relief; at last there was a change in the rhythm of the night.

The Gilak man had sharpened his hearing to a razor-sharp blade. At the slightest creak on the stairs, he was ready and waiting for the moment when the Baloch officer would give way to Mohammad Wali. With his ears pricked, he was prepared to intercept their conversation and every subtle movement, ready to act immediately.

Should the footsteps fail to materialize, he remained vigilant, his hand resting on the revolver in his pocket. It was as if an invisible voice from below was repeating the song of the Baluchis, urging him ever closer to his fate.

The man from Gilak longed for a brief moment of peace – a respite from the relentless rain, the howling wind and the raging floods. In these fleeting intervals, his entire existence was suspended in anticipation. If only he could stop the tiny stream flowing down the gutter in those brief moments, his heightened senses would detect even the slightest rustle. And in that moment, his agony could finally be silenced.

He imagined taking his child from Marjan with the same rifle he had once ventured into the forest with, back when he carried Vakil Bashi’s rifle. He knew what had to be done. Down below, the only sounds were the howling wind, the rushing water and the rustling of branches – no other orientation in the darkness.

“Stop and press your hand against the wall,” the man ordered, shaking his coat vigorously. The unfortunate soul bent down and tried to understand the words. The man murmured sadly: “Listen and bear witness to what I have to say.” But his pleas fell on deaf ears. He thought he might have better luck if he switched to the Gilaki dialect. “Hey, brother, you’re driving me crazy. I jumped out of my skin with fear when I saw her.” But Baloch did not seem to notice his words. The sound of boots on the creaking stairs sent a shiver down his spine, but he recognized the voice – unmistakably Mohammad Wali.

In a moment of determination, the Gilak man pulled his revolver from his pocket, not to shoot, but to be prepared for a sudden threat from the Baluch agent. He wanted to cock the breech and prepare for a possible attack. He familiarized himself with the weight of the revolver to gain confidence. Then he was torn from his concentration by the sound of a match. The first match failed to light, and he heard the man in the room say that the rain might have wet the matches. The Gilak man knew he had to act quickly to defend himself. He put the revolver back in his pocket, draped the blanket over his shoulder like a cloak and huddled in the corner of the room. When the Baluch agent asked for the lamp, the Gilak man quickly replied: “Bring me the lamp, will you? The match is soaked through.”

“Is he still here? Has he not left?” Mohammad Wali inquired anxiously.

“Where else could he go? Wake him up, call him here.” He turned to the Gilak man: “Hey, are you awake or asleep?” A match flared up and cast a warm yellow light on their faces. Mohammad Wali’s elongated forehead and cap were highlighted in the flickering light as he lit a cigarette. “It looks like he’s ready for a trip to Kandahar with this blanket. When did you eat the fish head, oh fish head eater? Maybe you should go to Tehran for a while to get some of Gol Giveh’s soup. Can’t you sleep?” Mohammad Wali continued, wavering between wakefulness and an opium-induced haze. “How have you been? What about Laver? Have you been a lover or not? I bet my pups in the field did it to you, did not they? Hahaha… No answer, huh?”

The man’s heart yearned for something more – something louder, livelier, more vibrant. He longed to draw his revolver, to aim at the faint glow of Mohammad Wali’s cigarette, to feel the weight of his revolver and the adrenaline rush. Just a few weeks ago, he had boasted about his training and claimed that they had their own constable and did not need any outside help. But now, as he looked at the burnt remains of his village, he wondered if his confidence had been a mistake.

He raged at the memory of the pigs that other villagers had locked in a house and set on fire – a despicable act of cowardice that fueled his anger. Had the Major not intervened, he would have rejoiced in a bloodbath of retribution, revolver in hand. He felt a grim satisfaction at having sent this despicable lover to hell.

He turned to me with glowing eyes and wanted to know if I had been there too. He scolded the braggarts with their boastful tongues who were now conspicuously absent from the village in its hour of need.

“Your entire generation has been wiped out in Tehran,” he muttered bitterly.

“No one dares to challenge us anymore. Did they long for the Bolsheviks? Their wives! What about these women? The same ones who forbade us to shoot. How could they become cowards who hide? If it were up to me… But why did they tell me to hand you over unharmed? You must be important to them. This morning, when I saw you for the first time, I wanted to hit you on the head in front of your wife… Hey, what are you doing? Don’t move or I’ll hit you!”

The click of a cocked gun startled the Gilak man out of his carelessness and his hand instinctively reached for his revolver. The woman who was shot months ago in the incident in Tolum and later died of her wounds was his wife Soghra, the mother of his six-month-old child, who now lives alone in his hut. The future of this child weighed heavily on him. Marjan was not a caregiver for a child, not a role that suited her. Who else would think of his child? The Gilak man often found himself ignoring the village lawyer’s words because his mind was preoccupied with other thoughts.

“What if the gun is actually unloaded? What if the Baluchis and the village lawyer conspired to give him a gun without bullets? But why would they allow themselves such a joke? It seemed unlikely. But for the sake of his child, he must return to Tolum occasionally. He checked the weight of the revolver in his hand and held it in his pocket as if he could tell by its weight whether it was loaded. This action caught Mohammad Wali’s eye and prompted him to aim the barrel of his gun at him. If the bayonet had been closer than a meter away, he would have knocked him to the ground and disarmed him. ‘Hey, brother, are you asleep or awake? Tell me. Maybe they’re sending you to Fouman because you are connected to Agha Lolumani?’ He hurled a few insults at him. ‘You’ve been depriving us of sleep for a week. In broad daylight, in the middle of the road, and you denuded a car. They’ll catch him too and smoke out his mustache. He will get his turn. Tell me, is it true that the woman who was shot in Tolum was his daughter?”

“Sometimes the intensity of the storm even drowned out Mohammad Wali’s clear, echoing voice, escaping the attention of the Gilak man. This was exactly the information he needed, and from the lawyer’s words he deduced the reason for his transportation to Fouman. The authorities, or at least the person who had ordered his arrest, must have known of his previous connection to Agha, and that some relationship still existed. The Gilak man realized that the constable had betrayed him. He had often warned his father-in-law not to trust the constable, for he suspected that without this betrayal, the incident in Tolum mentioned by Mohammad Wali might never have happened, that Soghra might still be alive, and that Agha might not have had to flee into the forest. None of these tragic events would have happened and his life would not be at stake now. A strong gust shook the hut, as if an old tree had fallen nearby and caused the building to tremble.”

Mohammad Wali continued to speak incessantly, laughing arrogantly, uttering threats and indulging in his insults. He admired the figure of the constable who had plundered the people for years and collected bribes in his old age. To get rid of him, they appointed him constable. In the period before the war, the landowners in Tehran had complete control and blocked the authorities’ access to their lands, especially Kiab’s fields. It was Agha, Mohammad Wali’s father-in-law, who had arranged for Vishka Suqai to be appointed constable, who then only plundered the properties of his rivals.

Mohammad Wali lit another cigarette and held the match up briefly to light the Gilak man’s face. The purple smoke stung his nose. “…Listen to what I’m saying. Why don’t you answer me? You were the same man who, when we set up the post in Tolum, told the sergeant we had paid our share and made big speeches. Why are you silent now?”

He remembered exactly. Mohammadvali spoke the truth: when the villagers mentioned having a constable, he had said, “Go and choose your representatives. I want to talk to them.” He was among those representatives. The constable had asked if they had paid this year’s tribute. They all answered in the affirmative. The constable then asked if they had paid both before and after the constable’s appointment, to which the villagers replied in the affirmative. The sergeant turned to the Gilak man and asked, “For example, what did you pay?” He enumerated his contributions: “Silk, rice, eggs, garlic, sour grapes, sour pomegranates, onions, brooms, raw rice, straws, rice flour, I gave everything.” When asked about the taxes for the current year, the Gilak man replied: “This year I have given silk, and I will also give rice.” Suddenly the constable demanded, “Get your receipts and bring them here.”

Poor old Lotfali protested: “You are not the landlord’s representative!” As he began to speak, the constable slapped him next to the ear. The villagers then left the room and it is unclear who sounded the horn, which set off several thousand peasants who surrounded the house. In the ensuing chaos, shots were fired. One bullet hit Soghra in the side and Lotfali was killed instantly.

The villagers had gathered that night, and the same constable had suggested burning down the house. Had it not been for the arrival of another troop of soldiers, there would have been nothing left of them… Mohammad Wali smoked quietly. The Gilak man realized that this was an opportune moment to disarm him, and his whole body trembled. The haunting memory of Soghra’s death had paralyzed his ability to act. He could not tell whether he was shaking with cold or with overwhelming despair.

But Mohammad Wali was relentless in his mockery: “You’re quite an expert, one of the experienced ones. You are taciturn, aren’t you? Are you afraid to reveal yourself?”

“Tell me, who of those who spoke to the sergeant was Agha? I fear no one. I want to face Agha, the infidel, myself. I hope he falls into my hands. Who was he? The one standing next to your head, right? Why don’t you answer? Are you asleep or awake?”

The roaring wind carried eerie sounds from the depths of the forest into the hut: the scream of a woman, the bellowing of a cow, moans and cries of protest. The more attentively the Gilak man listened, the more he seemed to hear, as if the agonizing screams of Soghra when she was shot were also mixed into this chaos. But it was the incessant rushing of the water in the gutter that tortured the Gilak man’s heart the most, as if someone were ripping open a wound with a fingernail. His teeth chattered in time with the steadily flowing water, and he became increasingly restless. The unusual silence in the room seemed to have made both Mohammad Wali and the lawyer suspicious. They were curious as to whether the Gilak man had fallen asleep.

“Why don’t you answer? You are enemies of God and the Prophet. It is a sacred duty to eliminate all of you. I heard Agha say that he is ready to surrender if his daughter’s murderer is executed. Yes, really, I don’t care if the woman who was hit by my bullet that day was his daughter or not. What the hell do I care? I have fulfilled my religious duty. I declare Agha an enemy of God, and his death is a necessity, you hear? I fear no one. I have killed, let him do what he can…”

“Put the gun down. One move and you’re done for…”

The Gilak man spoke these words in a muffled and hoarse voice. The lawyer lighting a match was the cue he needed. In a flash, he pulled the revolver from his pocket, and as the room lit up with the yellow glow and the faint purple smoke of sulfur, he managed to cock the revolver and aim it at Mohammad Wali. Mohammad Wali had placed the butt of the gun on the ground and clamped the barrel between his arms while lighting the match. When he stretched out his hand with the match, the bayonet lay under his left arm.

In the flickering light of the match, the barrel of the revolver and a white eye of the Gilak man were visible. The lawyer, confused, felt the match sear his hand, and his arm, seemingly lifeless, dropped and struck his thigh. “Put the gun on the ground! One move and you’re dead!” The barrel of the revolver pressed against the lawyer’s temple. The Gilak man grabbed him by the neck and dragged him back into the room. “Wait, I’ll give you your reward now. Recite your battle songs. Do you recognize me? Why aren’t you looking?”

The rain continued to fall, but the horizon brightened as the dark clouds slowly cleared. “You said you weren’t afraid of anyone! Don’t worry, I am not going to kill you yet. I’m going to strangle you with my bare hands. Soghra was my wife, you scoundrel. You killed her and left my child motherless. I will erase your lineage and make you suffer endlessly. I am Agha. Don’t be afraid of him. Hey, why don’t you move?”

He snatched the gun from his hand. The lawyer slumped down, limp as a soaked cloth. The Gilak man propped the gun against the wall. “You said you weren’t afraid of Agha. Well, I am Agha. Poor Agha Lolumani has died, heartbroken over his daughter. I have declared that I will surrender if they hand over Soghra’s murderer. But it is not Agha who will surrender. It was me who attacked the bus on the road. Those who were with me are now all homeless, displaced from their water sources and their land. I am telling you this so you will know, even in death. I put my revolver back in my pocket. I don’t want to shoot you, I want to strangle you with my hands. I am Agha. As I speak, my anger is cooling…”

He was seething with cruelty, did not know how to take revenge and became more and more desperate. In the light of dawn, the battered figure of the lawyer gradually became recognizable.

“Yes, I was the landlord and I am also educated. I’ve learned a lot in the last five years. You say the country is not in chaos? Then what is the chaos? They have plundered us, driven us out of our homes and our lives. We have nothing left, we are no longer farmers. How many times have you tortured me yourself? If I had known that you were the murderer of Soghra, would you still be alive and wearing seven shrouds? Who is the infidel here? You, who swore on the Qur’an a thousand times only to break your promises? Didn’t you come and swear that everyone is safe now? Then why do you arrest people for no reason? Why do you kill for no reason? Who is the thief here? My ancestors have lived on this land for generations. Which of the landowners was even in Gilan fifty years ago?”

His words just bubbled out of him, some slurred in his haste. The lawyer, lying on his knees, pressed his forehead against the wooden floor, his hands protecting his neck.

His hat lay on the floor. “Don’t worry, I am not going to kill you just like that. Get up, I want to drink your blood. It would be a waste to fire a bullet at you. What are you worth that I should waste one of my bullets? Get up!”

The lawyer remained motionless. Even a kick from the Gilak man against his right leg only caused his face to be pressed harder against the ground; his muscles and bones lacked the strength to react. The Gilak man grabbed the collar of his raincoat and looked down at his face. In the dim, rain-soaked morning light, the frightened face of Mohammad Wali became recognizable. Sweat was pouring down his face, his eyes were rolled back and showed signs of lifelessness. Foam gushed from his mouth as he struggled for breath. When he met the fiery gaze of the Gilak man, Mohammad Wali’s tongue loosened in desperation: “Don’t kill me, please spare me! I have five children. Have mercy on them. I will do anything you ask. Forgive my youthful folly. I have lied. I did not kill them. Soghra was not killed by me. She shot herself. The machine gun was not in my hand…” His words broke into sobs. The officer’s pleading and helplessness were like water on the fire, quenching the Gilak man’s rage. He felt reminded of his own five children. ‘What if he is telling the truth?’ he thought, thinking of his own child playing in the corner of their hut. When the rain stopped, the calm and clarity of the morning made Mohammad Wali’s cowardice and weakness even more apparent and aroused the Gilak man’s disgust. The dawning daylight urged him to act.

The Gilak man spat out. Within minutes he had removed the lawyer’s raincoat, taken the cartridge belt from his waist and wrapped his own blanket around the lawyer’s head and neck. He put on the lawyer’s hat and raincoat and then left the room. The tortured screams of a tormented woman could still be heard in the forest. Suddenly a shot rang out and a bullet pierced the Gilak man’s right arm. Before he could react, another bullet pierced his chest and sent him tumbling off the porch.

The Baluch agent had completed his mission.


© Ali Salami 2024

[1] This is a derogatory term used for the Gilaki people.


© Ali Salami 2024

About the Writer

Bozorg Alavi, a prominent Iranian writer and activist, was born into an educated and respected family in Tehran on February 2, 1904. His early exposure to Persian literature in conjunction with his family’s intellectual environment strongly influenced his path into literature and social activism. Alavi’s educational path led him to the College of Munich in Germany, where he studied education and psychology. This period was crucial for his development as a storyteller and marked the beginning of his significant contributions to Persian literature.

Alavi is often mentioned in the same breath as literary greats such as Sadegh Hedayat and Sadegh Chubak, as he is a key figure in the modernization of Iranian storytelling. His works, which are deeply interwoven with the socio-political issues of his time, often led to his imprisonment due to his political beliefs. After his return from Germany, Alavi taught in Tehran and Shiraz and worked as a journalist. He was also a co-founder of the literary group Rab’e with well-known personalities such as Sadegh Hedayat, which played a decisive role in the development of a new narrative style in Persian literature.

In 1937, Alavi was arrested for his communist views and spent about seven years in prison. His experiences during this time inspired him to write works such as “Fifty-Three People” and “Prison Papers”,” which reflect his commitment to the plight of the marginalized and his resistance to oppression. “Fifty-Three People” deals with the era of Reza Shah’s dictatorship and mixes literature and politics to capture the repressive environment of the time. With this work, Alavi wanted to depict the social conditions in Iran and draw parallels between the experiences of the “Fifty-Three People” and Iranian society in general.

“Prison Papers” offers a personal insight into Alavi’s time in prison and the socio-political atmosphere of the time, with writings on unconventional materials such as cigarette paper. As an early Iranian intellectual with a good knowledge of German, Alavi also translated numerous international works into Persian and introduced his readers to German literature and other international works.

After his release, Alavi spent some time in Europe and taught at Humboldt College in Germany until he returned to Iran in the 1970s. Eventually, however, he moved back to Germany, where he continued his literary work until his death from a heart attack in Berlin on February 18, 1997.

Bozorg Alavi’s legacy as one of the founders of modern Persian literature continues to be celebrated. His unique contributions and enduring works are still studied and admired today.

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