Four hours before sunset, Pas Qaleh appeared abandoned in the mountains. There were glasses of yogurt drink and syrup and colorful glasses on a table in front of a picturesque coffee house. On a nearby pedestal stood an old gramophone playing heart-rending records. The coffee house owner stirred the brass samovar with his sleeves rolled up, disposed of the spent tea leaves and then made his way to the river with an empty gas can modified with a wire handle.
The sun cast a warm light and the constant sound of the water at the bottom of the river gave the air a breath of freshness and humidity. A man leaned on one of the benches in front of the coffee house, a damp cloth pulled over his face, his knees drawn to one side. On the opposite bench, sheltered under the canopy of a mulberry tree, two people sat engrossed in a cordial conversation, their informality suggesting a long-standing acquaintance.
Mashhadi Shahbaz, a slender figure armed with a rifle, distinguished by a thick mustache and knitted eyebrows, sat in the corner of the bench. He waved his henna-stained hand and said: “Yesterday I visited the Morgh Qaleh at my cousin’s place, where he has a garden. Last year he made thirty tomans from the sale of yellow plums alone. But this year’s frost was merciless and robbed the trees of their fruit, plunging him into despair. To make matters worse, his wife has been confined to bed since the holy month of Ramadan, adding to the financial burden.
Amirza Yadollah adjusted his glasses, puffed comfortably on his pipe, scratched his wheat-colored beard and lamented: “Truly, the blessing has disappeared from everything.” Shahbaz nodded somberly in agreement and added, “You’re right. It feels like the day of resurrection. The norms of time have been reversed. May God give you this chance too! I was in Khorasan twenty-five years ago. Back then, a ‘mann’ of oil cost only two ‘abbasis’, and you could get ten eggs for only a hundred dinars. We bought a ‘sangak’ bread that could feed a person for days. Who worried about being destitute back then? God have mercy on my father, he had bought a bandari donkey. We would both ride it. I was twenty and still playing marbles with the neighborhood kids on the street. Nowadays, youth is losing its spirit and withering like dried raisins, but still I hold on to our time. As the saying goes, ‘Even if I’m old and rickety, I’m worth a hundred young men’.”
Yadollah took another puff from his pipe and remarked: “Every year is worse than the last!” Shahbaz sighed, “May God grant all his servants a good end.” Yadollah continued with a serious expression: “Honestly, there was a time when we had thirty mouths to feed in our household. Now I worry every day about where I can find a rial for my tobacco and tea. Two years ago, I was teaching in three places and earning eight tomans a month. Just recently, during Eid, I visited the house of one of the dignitaries where I used to teach. They asked me to say a prayer for the sheep. The ruthless butcher picked up the dumb animal and slammed it on the ground. As he sharpened his knife, the sheep broke free from his grip. I’m not sure what it stepped on, but I saw its eye burst and blood gush out. My heart was pounding in my throat and I excused myself with a headache. The sight of the bloody sheep’s head haunted me all night. I unintentionally uttered blasphemies, harbored blasphemous thoughts… God forbid, there is no doubt about God’s benevolence, but these dumb creatures are innocent. God, O Lord, You are all-knowing, after all, people are prone to forgetfulness.”
After a short pause, Amirza Yadollah continued: “Yes, if only I could express everything that weighs on my heart…! But not everything can be said out loud. God forgive me, I do not have the words.” Shahbaz became impatient and interjected: “Concentrate on the essentials, the watermelon is just water.” Mirza Yadollah hesitantly admitted: “Indeed, what else can we do? It’s been like this since the beginning of time.” Shahbaz pondered, “We are remnants of a bygone age, our ‘pot has tipped over’, as they say We only exist now, without shrouds. The gambits we played in this humble world… I once owned a grocery store in Tehran and managed to save six qirans a day from my expenses.”
Mirza Yadollah interjected, “You were a grocer? I’ve never been a friend of grocers.”
“Why not?” Inquired Shahbaz.
“That’s a long-winded story. Finish your story first.”
Shahbaz’s story continued, “Yes, I had a grocery store. Life went its way and little by little we built a life. But why should we dwell on the hardships? Everything fell apart because of one little bottle. For five years, my wife has dragged my name through the mud. She wasn’t just any woman, she was the storm incarnate. Just when I had managed to get our affairs in order, she turned everything upside down. To make matters worse, one evening, after returning from a sermon, she announced, ‘The Holy One has called me; I must go and unburden my bones.’ The misery she brought upon me was unimaginable… And I, enchanted by this woman, lost all reason! We all make mistakes; I was the man who once bled from his mustaches. A woman robbed me of my sanity… God save any man from the grip of a woman. That very night she declared, ‘I can bear this no longer, my dowry is lawful, my mind is unbound. I have my own bracelet and necklace; I will sell them and disappear… I even sought the advice of Istikhara, and the signs were favorable. Either you grant me a divorce or I will end your child’s life by the lamp.’ What was I supposed to do about such a threat? She ignored me for two weeks, nagging incessantly, until I broke everything up, turned it all into cash, gave it to her and then she took our two-year-old son and disappeared ‘to a land where no Arab has laid a reed.’ Five years have passed and her whereabouts remain a mystery.”
Mirza Yadollah solemnly remarked: “May God protect her from the dangers of the Arabs.”
“Exactly, in the midst of these barefoot, unsuspecting Arabs – in the well of hell under the blazing sun! She has disappeared without a trace. Not a single letter from her. It is as they say, a woman is incomplete.”
Mirza Yadollah interjected, “It is the fault of men that they bring them up in such a way that they do not allow them to see or hear the world.”
Engrossed in his narrative, Shahbaz continued, “The strange thing is that this woman has gone completely mad out of the blue. I don’t know how, but she became erratic, sometimes cried in solitude and mourned her first husband…”
Mirza Yadollah inquired, “She was your second wife?”
“Yes, where was I? Your question made me lose my train of thought.”
“You were talking about her first husband.”
“Right, at first I thought she was mourning her first husband… But no matter how gently I tried to talk to her, it was as if she was talking to stone, as if death had hit her from behind. I do not even want to think about what has become of my son. Will I ever be able to look into his eyes again? The son I was blessed with after so much prayer and longing.” Mirza Yadollah reflected: “Every face you see carries its own sorrow. The heart of the matter is that people need to evolve, to be enlightened. As long as ignorance prevails, they will remain oppressed. There was a time when I too proclaimed from the pulpit: ‘Those who make a pilgrimage to the holy places will find salvation and a place in paradise’.”
Shahbaz asked: “You weren’t part of the clergy, were you?”
“This story is twelve years old. I no longer wear a turban. Now I am everything and yet nothing.”
Mirza Yadollah licked his lips and said dejectedly, “A woman ruined my life too.”
Shahbaz exclaimed, “Damn women!”
“No, it’s not about blaming the women. I brought this misfortune on myself. If you had been in Tehran, you would certainly have heard about my father. We didn’t just appear out of nowhere. My father was a man of such stature that his sandals were spread out in front of him. When his name was mentioned, one word led to a hundred more. When he ascended the pulpit, there was no room to even throw a pin. All the influential people held him in high esteem. I don’t want to boast, but everything my father achieved, he did on his own:
‘Even if your father was a sage, what good is his wisdom to you?’
After my father passed away, I took his place and inherited not only his role, but also a house and some wealth. As a religious student, I received a stipend of four tomans and five heads of wheat every month. During Muharram and Safar, we were particularly wealthy. Our lifestyle was somewhat luxurious due to my late father’s reputation. One night, while praying for a sick person, I noticed a young girl, about eight or nine years old, among them. My heart was inexplicably drawn to her, such are the vagaries of youth…
I had two temporary marriages before her, both of which were consummated, but this one felt different. They say, ‘To see Layli, you have to look through the eyes of Majnun’ Two days later, I sent her a handkerchief filled with nuts, a wrench and three tomans in cash to propose to her. When she was brought to me, she was so petite that she had to be carried. I was ashamed of myself. The girl trembled at the sight of me, like a frightened chick. And there I was, a thirty-year-old playing dumb. Then what is it with these seventy-year-olds who marry girls as young as nine despite their infirmities?”
“What does a child know about marriage? She dreams of putting on a sequined chador, wearing new clothes and believing that her husband will treat her with love and kindness, unlike in her father’s house where she was treated harshly. She has no idea that there are no sweet pleasures waiting for her in her husband’s house.”
I endeavored to allay her fears. The first night she was very frightened and cried. I tried to comfort her by calling out to her, ‘For your honor’s sake, don’t disgrace us, you sleep upstairs, I’ll sleep downstairs,’ because my heart went out to her. I exercised great restraint and was careful not to force myself on her, as I was already satisfied and experienced in such matters. She listened to my advice.
The first night I told her a story until she fell asleep.
On the second night, I started another story and left it unfinished for the next night.
The third night I kept quiet until she inquired, ‘You stopped at King Jamshid’s hunting trip, why do not you continue tonight?’ My heart leapt with joy at her commitment. I feigned a headache and said, ‘My voice is weak, may I come closer to continue?’ Gradually, I came closer until she got used to my presence.”
Shahbaz chuckled, but held back from commenting further when he noticed the serious expression and tear-filled eyes behind Mirza Yadollah’s glasses.
Mirza Yadollah recounted with fervor: “This story happened twelve long years ago. You can not imagine what kind of woman she was — so caring, so attentive to my needs. Oh, when I remember… she was always clutching the corner of her prayer veil between her teeth. She washed our laundry with her delicate hands and hung it on the line. She darned my shirts and socks, cooked stews and took care of my sister with so much tenderness and affection! She won everyone’s hearts with her grace. And her intellect! I taught her to read and write, and within two months she could recite the Koran. She memorized passages from the Sheikh. The three years we spent together were the highlight of my life. But then, as luck would have it, I became legal counsel to a wealthy widow who was not without her charms. I considered taking her as my second wife. Unfortunately, my first wife also found out. As naïve and simple-minded as she was, I had no idea that she would be jealous. No amount of coaxing could appease her. Although I was entitled to a substantial fee from this widow, I gave up the case and our relationship deteriorated. The torment she inflicted on me for a month was unimaginable!”
“Perhaps she has lost her mind, perhaps she has been bewitched. She has changed completely. With her hands on her hips, she uttered a torrent of expletives so vile that they are not to be found in any apothecary’s inventory. She cursed: ‘May your glasses rest on your dead body, may your deceitful turban strangle you. I knew you were unworthy from the start. Cursed be the soul of my crooked father who betrothed me to you. When I woke up one day, I was caught in your clutches. For three years I endured your miserable existence. Is this my reward? Heaven forbid that anyone should suffer such shamelessness. I am breaking away from you, there’s no commitment, right? I can no longer bear you. Consider my dowry abandoned, my spirit liberated. I am drawn to the light… I am leaving you forever. Right this very moment. Immediately.”
He spoke with such fervor that I was speechless and my vision clouded. In a fit of rage during dinner, I grabbed the dishes and hurled them into the yard. That evening we were in Sheikh Mehdi’s quarters, where I pronounced my divorce from my wife three times in his presence while he rhythmically slapped one hand against the other. I was overcome with remorse the very next day, but it was too late; it was now irrevocably forbidden to me. I wandered the streets in a daze, barely acknowledging the greetings of my acquaintances. From that day on, I was denied happiness. Her image haunted me incessantly, sleep and appetite were alien to me. Our house became a prison, its walls an echo of condemnation. I was ill for two months, her name a constant whisper on my feverish lips. When I finally regained some strength, I knew I could easily find another woman, but none could compare to her. In my desperation to recapture her, I set out on a relentless search. After her waiting period had passed, I knocked on every door, sold everything I owned, including worn-out books and household items, and thus collected eighteen Tomans. My only way out was to find a ‘muhallil’ – a temporary husband for her, who would then divorce her so that I could remarry her after another waiting period of three months and ten days.
I approached a disheveled, pockmarked grocer from our neighborhood, a man so stingy that he would fight over the smallest trifle. After long negotiations, he agreed to marry Rubabeh and then divorce her if he paid all the associated costs plus a sum of five tomans. Appearances can be deceptive; this man, this pockmarked grocer…
Shahbaz, ashen and desperate, covered his face with his hands and asked, “A grocer, you said? What is his name? From which region? No… It can not be.”
But Mirza Yadollah, engrossed in his story, paid no attention to him and continued, “This grocer, the man who made my wife his own, has caused an indescribable turmoil in me. The thought that she, who had belonged to me for three years and whom I had defended at the mere mention of her name, was now at the mercy of someone like him. It dawned on me that perhaps this was retribution for the hearts I had broken before. The next morning I stood outside the grocer’s door and had to wait for him for an hour. Upon his arrival, I pleaded with him, ‘Fulfill your end of the bargain, Divorce Rubabeh, you have received five tomans from me.’ His mocking grin is etched in my memory; he replied with a laugh: ‘She is my wife now. Not for a thousand tomans would I part with a single hair of her head.’ Anger came over me like a flash of lightning.”
Shahbaz exclaimed trembling: “No, it can not be. Please, tell me it’s not true… Oh…”
Mirza Yadollah replied, “Do you understand now? Do you understand now why I despise the grocer so much? When he said he wouldn’t give one of her hairs for a thousand tomans, I knew he was after more money. But who had the time to haggle? You can’t comprehend the fire that rages inside a person. The smoke seemed to pour out of my skull. I was so agitated, so disillusioned with life, that I couldn’t even muster a reply. I just gave him a look that was more scathing than any curse, then turned on my heel and went straight to the pawnbroker. I sold my cloak and robe, bought a short coat, put on a felt hat, took off my leather shoes and set off. Since then, I have wandered from town to town, from village to village. For twelve years I have been restless, sometimes telling stories, sometimes teaching, writing letters for others, reciting from the Shahnameh in coffee houses and playing the flute. I have found joy in wandering, in observing humanity. That’s how I want to spend my days. You accumulate so much knowledge, but unfortunately we age. We erect monuments to the deceased and move between two worlds. It is unfortunate that the lessons we have learned have little value in today’s world. The poet put it well:
‘A wise man skilled in many arts,
Should have two lives to live in this wide world:
One to gather wisdom through experience,
And the other to apply the knowledge acquired.”
When Mirza Yadollah came to the end, fatigue overcame him, the toll of his narrated travels made itself felt physically, for he had immersed himself more deeply in thought and words than he was used to. He lit his pipe, his gaze wandering absently to the river as his ears caught the faint echo of a voice from beyond the mountain.
Shahbaz lifted his face from his hands and let out a heavy sigh: “There are no two without three.”
Mirza Yadollah was confused and did not understand what he meant.
Shahbaz raised his voice and added, “Another man who has become homeless.”
Yadollah, now wide awake, asked, “Who?”
“That very Rubabeh who went up in flames.”
Mirza Yadollah’s eyes widened in alarm: “What are you implying?”
Mashhadi Shahbaz gave a forced smile: “Indeed, time is reshaping us all. Faces become wrinkled, hair becomes whiter, teeth looser. The voices change so that neither you nor I can recognize you.”
Mirza Yadollah, seeking clarification, asked: “How so?”
“Didn’t Rubabeh have pockmarks? Weren’t her eyes slightly crossed?”
Mirza Yadollah, puzzled, asked, “Who informed you?”
Mashhadi Shahbaz laughingly revealed, “Aren’t you Sheikh Yadollah, the descendant of the late Sheikh Rasul from Marmar Bath Alley, who used to stroll past my store every morning? I am the ‘muhallil’, the real one.”
Mirza Yadollah leaned forward, his voice barely more than a whisper: “Are you the shahbaz, the grocer who led me to this day twelve years ago? If you had once been at my mercy here on this ridge, we would have settled our old scores. But fate, it seems, has bound us and left our hands tied.”
Then he added under his breath, almost as if in a frenzy: “May God have mercy on Rubabeh, she has taken revenge on me in her own way. She too has suffered a terrible fate.” A moment later, his voice fell silent, leaving behind a smile tinged with sorrow.
The person who had been dozing on the opposite bench stirred, sat upright with a yawn and rubbed his eyes, oblivious to the tension hanging in the air.
Mashhadi Shahbaz and Mirza Yadollah exchanged furtive glances, each wary of the other’s gaze – two lost enemies whose days of love and rivalry were long behind them. At that moment, they should have been contemplating their own mortality, but the past still echoed between them.
Shahbaz broke the awkward silence and called out to the tea seller: “Akbar, please bring us two cups of tea with some sugar on the side.”
© Ali Salami 2024
About the Author
Sadeq Hedayat remains a towering figure in Iranian literature, whose works continue to captivate readers across generations. Despite evolving literary tastes, his stories and novels retain a timeless appeal, drawing in new admirers with each passing year.
Hedayat was born into an aristocratic and cultured family in Tehran on February 17, 1903. As he matured, he found himself increasingly at odds with his privileged background. After completing his education at Dar ul-Funun, albeit with some delay, Hedayat moved to France with the intention of studying dentistry, a field he quickly abandoned due to a lack of interest.
He then shifted his academic focus to engineering in Belgium, but it was during this time that he became deeply absorbed in European literature. Hedayat was profoundly influenced by authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and Franz Kafka, among others. Recognizing the importance of these works, he took it upon himself to translate them into Persian, enriching Iranian literature with foreign masterpieces such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Sartre’s “The Wall.”
Hedayat’s first suicide attempt occurred in 1928, following the publication of several of his books. While living in Paris, he attempted to drown himself in the Marne River but was rescued by unsuspecting boatmen. This incident, which Hedayat later described as madness in a letter to his brother, marked a turning point in his life, leading him to focus intensely on his writing.
Upon returning to Iran, Hedayat quickly made his mark with the publication of his first story collection, “Buried Alive,” followed by a series of influential works such as “Parvin, the Sassanid Girl”, “The Stray Dog“, “Abji Khanum, the Spinster” and “Three Drops of Blood.” He became a central figure in the Rabe’a Group, alongside contemporaries like Bozorg Alavi, influencing the direction of modern Iranian literature by incorporating contemporary storytelling techniques into the Persian literary tradition.
Hedayat’s interest in the Sassanian empire and the Pahlavi language informed much of his later work, imbuing his stories with historical depth and a distinctive use of language. His journey to India to study ancient Iranian culture among the Zoroastrians further deepened his connection to Iran’s past, culminating in the translation of “Zand-i- Wahman yasn,” an ancient prophecy from the Sassanian era.
Hedayat’s legacy is not just in his literary contributions but also in his pioneering role in blending modern narrative styles with traditional Persian storytelling, leaving an indelible mark on Iranian literature that continues to inspire and intrigue readers and scholars alike.