Ali Salami

The Disgrace of Poverty by Iraj Pezeshkzad

Abolfath Khan, a friend of ours, bought a house for eighty-five thousand tomans. While this amount may seem trivial today, his friends and family considered it significant enough to warrant a celebration. However, Abolfath Khan opted for a modest gathering and invited ten to fifteen close and distant friends for tea and sweets to celebrate the occasion. I was also among the invitees.

As the event was in honor of the new house, conversation naturally turned to it. The guests were shown around and Abolfath Khan and his wife Shams al-Molouk repeatedly emphasized the need for the purchase, although they felt a six or seven-bedroom house was too small for their needs. They mentioned a missed opportunity to buy a larger house for one hundred and forty thousand tomans, which was sold just one day before they could act.

During the meeting, Abolfath Khan’s daughter whispered something to her mother that hinted at unforeseen trouble. The quiet exchange led to the hosts and her sister-in-law apologizing, their sudden pallor betraying apprehension. Sensing that something was amiss, I approached Abolfath Khan’s son, who confided in me that his parents had misled their guests about the purchase price of the house, which was actually lower than stated. This secret was in danger of being exposed by an unsuspecting aunt who had been present at the sale and was now on her way to the meeting.

Before we could think about a solution, the door opened to reveal a feisty, elderly woman whose arrival was unannounced but whose presence was unmistakable. She mingled with the guests, her complaints about not being formally invited mingling with the sounds of her enjoying the refreshments. Shams al-Molouk’s expression turned an eerie white as she watched the scene, a sign that her carefully constructed façade was threatening to crumble.

Auntie remarked: “You should have invited me earlier, because I was there when the deed was registered…” Shams al-Molouk and her sister quickly interrupted her and urged: “Aunty, why don’t you try some sweets?” The sisters were visibly concerned and watched Aunty carefully, knowing that any conversation could inadvertently lead back to a discussion about the price of the house. At one point, Auntie casually said over dinner, “This house for such a price…” In her panic and perplexity, Shams al-Molouk’s sister began clapping and singing “Congratulations, God willing”,” whereupon the aunt inquired curiously about the singing. Shams al-Molouk and her sister exchanged a look before Shams al-Molouk diverted the conversation: “Auntie, haven’t you heard about the betrothal of Abol’s daughter?”

This temporary distraction from the price of the house gave the hosts a brief respite, although they remained preoccupied with keeping Aunty from bringing up the subject again. Despite their efforts, Aunty occasionally mentioned the price of the house. Finally, after a whispered consultation, Shams al-Molouk suggested: “By the way, Aunty, you still need to see our bathroom…” Auntie inquired: “Oh, does it have a bathtub? Is the floor heated?” Shams al-Molouk assured her: “Yes, it’s already warm. You are welcome to use it if you like.”

After some persuasion, they managed to accompany Auntie into the bathroom, much to the relief of everyone present, so that the meeting could resume as usual. I was deep in thought.

This problem is not limited to Abolfath Khan and his family. The cause is a deep-seated aversion to poverty, a stigma that seems to be more pronounced here than elsewhere. People view poverty as such a disgrace that they would endure countless hardships to avoid being perceived as impoverished. Conversely, those who are rich flaunt it as if they have made a groundbreaking discovery. I remember a friend who became visibly embarrassed in the presence of others and admonished me for “hurting my dignity” by revealing my financial situation.

This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed someone inflating the price of a purchase when talking about it with others. Recently, I had to intervene when a father reprimanded his son. The boy had made the mistake of admitting in front of others that his lunch consisted of “rice pudding” Another acquaintance, fearful of his child’s candor, has taken to referring to all of his three-year-old’s modest meals as “chicken” to ensure that the child responds with “chicken” when asked about his meals.

The same child was once sternly reprimanded by his father for mentioning to guests that they “dipped bread in the chicken” at a meal that was supposedly always “chicken” My reverie was interrupted by Aunty’s distant request for someone to scrub her back. Shortly afterwards, under strict and covert instructions, Shams al-Molouk’s sister left the house to help Aunty bathe, thus prolonging her stay. Thirty minutes later, as Abolfath Khan and his wife continued their boasting, Aunty reappeared, red-faced. They indicated that it was time for them to leave and Abolfath Khan hurried to call a cab. In his absence, his wife and sister-in-law bombarded Auntie with various trivial stories to keep her from mentioning the price of the house. When the cab arrived, they sent Auntie away with good wishes and sighs of relief. Abolfath Khan wiped his forehead in relief.

A few moments later, the aunt called for Shams al-Molouk from the courtyard. Shams al-Molouk answered from the window and heard Auntie announce: “By the way, dear, the pumice stone is in the drain of the bath. You don’t need to look for it, just have it removed and cover the hole with a wire mesh.” “ “Yes, Auntie, I’ll take care of it tomorrow,” replied Shams al-Molouk. The aunt added: “Yes, dear, wire mesh is cheap. After spending fifty-seven thousand tomans on this house, what’s three or four tomans more?”


© Ali Salami 2024


About the Writer

Iraj Pezeshkzad, a renowned Iranian author, playwright and humorist, has left a lasting impression with “My Uncle Napoleon”,” a hallmark of Iranian satirical literature. Pezeshkzad was born into a cultured family in Tehran in 1928 and lived in an intellectually stimulating environment from an early age. His father was a doctor and his mother, a member of the royal family, was a teacher. His maternal grandfather, a playwright and newspaper owner during the constitutional revolution, and his uncle, a pioneer of modern theater in Iran, had a great influence on his early years.

Pezeshkzad studied law in both Iran and France and began his career as a law clerk before moving to the Foreign Ministry to break away from work in the judiciary.

His writing career began in the 1950s with short stories, which he published under the pseudonym E.P. Ashna. He also translated the works of important French playwrights such as Molière and Voltaire into Persian. While working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he wrote a popular column in the magazine Ferdowsi, which led to the publication of “My Uncle Napoleon” due to its popularity.

After the Iranian Revolution, Pezeshkzad moved to France, where he continued his journalistic endeavors and established a close relationship with Shapour Bakhtiar, who were linked by their shared appreciation of Hafez.

Pezeshkzad’s life ended on January 12, 2022 in Los Angeles, where he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 94, leaving behind his son Bahman.

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