In year thirty, the snow did swell,
To column’s height, as elders tell.
With flakes that fell both day and night,
The sight became a sheer delight,
A tale of winter’s spell they’d often retell.
The winter of 1928 in Shiraz was particularly harsh and unrelenting. The cold was so intense that it seemed to seep into the very marrow of the bones. An unprecedented snowfall covered the city, reminiscent of the tales from the time of Saheb-Ekhtiar:
Saheb-Ekhtiar, a notable figure in the history of Fars, was remembered for his reign that left a mixed legacy. Among his achievements was the construction of several stone pillars, strong and imposing. These pillars, called “mil” by the locals,” were neither esthetic nor inviting and earned them a bad reputation among the people of Shiraz. They jokingly called these structures “Daughters of Saheb-Ekhtiar”,” a joke that served as a subtle criticism of both the columns and their creator. This nickname was also used metaphorically to refer to these unattractive monuments to unwelcome visitors who wanted to take advantage of Shiraz’s beauty.
I remember the arrival of a newcomer named Bahman in Shiraz. He was eager to make contact with the city’s glittering personalities, but his persistence soon exceeded the bounds of propriety. His requests, considered inappropriate by the locals, were met with a clever ruse. A witty Shirazi took the opportunity to extol the virtues of Saheb-Ekhtiar’s “daughters”,” which piqued Bahman’s interest to the point of obsession. Eventually, Bahman’s persistence led to a scheduled meeting with these so-called daughters, only to be confronted with the grim reality of the stone pillars. His reaction bordered on scandalous, much to the amusement of the locals.
Aside from their role in local humor, these pillars also served practical purposes, serving as benchmarks for height and size and even as units of measurement in tales of the town’s past. During particularly heavy snowfalls, for example, people used the pillars to illustrate the height of the snow and write verses to commemorate the event:
In the year thirty, oh what a sight,
Snow fell so deep, by day and by night.
An elder swore by the column’s height,
It reached the top, to his delight,
A wintery tale, that gave us all a fright!
The 1928 snowfall in Shiraz was not only a climatic event, but also a biting reminder of the city’s historical record, including the legacy of Saheb-Ekhtiar and its infamous columns. This winter, the snow was so deep that it reached up to the knees, turning the ancient, winding alleyways of Shiraz into treacherous paths of mud and slush. The cobbled streets, once bustling with activity, were now slippery hazards where even the most careful pedestrian could unexpectedly find themselves in a quagmire.
The cold was not the only challenge. A biting wind swept through the city, cutting its way through layers of clothing to chill the bones of the inhabitants. I vividly remember that year when I was still at school and the harsh weather took its toll on my physical well-being. The backs of my hands bore the brunt of the harsh cold, becoming swollen and cracked, a painful reminder of the brutality of the season.
Against the backdrop of these climatic adversities, our family faced its own storm of hardship. Even before the cold of winter made itself felt, we were beset by financial problems. My father, once a wealthy merchant, fell foul of the new trading regulations. His refusal to adapt led to a rapid decline in our fortunes and turned our once vibrant home into a shadow of its former self.
The descent into poverty was swift and arduous. Our household goods, from furniture to personal belongings, were sold off piece by piece in a desperate attempt to keep us afloat. My father’s prized possessions, including his hunting rifle and English boots, were not spared. As our material wealth dwindled, so did our social standing, underlining the inescapable visibility of poverty.
As a child, the effects of our financial decline were palpable. My clothes, patched and worn, stood in stark contrast to those of my peers. The lack of pocket money and the obvious wear and tear on my shoes were constant reminders of our dire circumstances. The cold of winter exacerbated my discomfort as I did not have adequate clothing to protect me from the cold.
The issue of obtaining warm coats for us children was a major problem in our household. As it was not financially possible to buy new clothes, my mother came up with an inventive solution: she turned my father’s old camel hair coat into coats for us. This coat, once a proud piece of my father’s wardrobe, had seen better days. Its transformation into children’s coats was a testament to our family’s resilience in the face of adversity, albeit a bittersweet one. The faded color and worn fabric of the coats were a far cry from their original state, but they represented the tenacious spirit of our family coping with harsh poverty.
When the seamstress, armed with nothing more than a dried pomegranate stalk as a measuring tape, promised two coats within three days, there was a glimmer of hope. But the end result was far from what could have been expected. The coats that came out were not a testament to the skill of the tailor, but to the plight we were in. They were shapeless, with hems as inconsistent as the scales of justice themselves, sleeves of varying lengths and collars that gaped like the mouths of the deceased. These garments defied any conventional description. They straddled the line between a traditional coat, a redingote and a cloak, resembling a hastily repaired sack rather than something meant to be worn.
The absurdity of the coats was clear even to me, although my mother, ever the optimist, tried to see the merits of the craftsmanship to spare my feelings. In those days, the harsh winter made considerations of style and beauty a luxury we could not afford. I would have gladly accepted any form of warmth, no matter how tattered or humble. My older brother, however, did not shy away from such considerations. He refused as firmly as he was quick to wear such a garment, leaving me, the younger one, to bear the brunt of this unfortunate addition to the wardrobe.
As is often the fate of the youngest, I had to carry other burdens besides the ill-fitting coat. From running errands to bearing my siblings’ discarded coats, my role was clear and unenviable. Both coats were worn by me by default, a constant reminder of our circumstances.
The first day I ventured out into the street with the coat was a study in the art of concealment. Despite its many flaws, the coat failed in even its most basic function of providing warmth. I tried to age it prematurely, hoping to blend its new stitching into everyday life, to hide its obvious newness behind a veneer of wear and tear. At school, I followed the tactics of a smuggler and hid the coat at the first opportunity, a strategy that served me well until an inevitable mishap exposed my secret.
This coat, a symbol of our family’s resilience in the face of adversity, was also a constant reminder of the challenges we faced. It was a burden I carried, not only by the weight of the fabric, but also by the gravity of our situation, a tangible representation of the trials of youth and the harsh realities of poverty.
During the break, I made my way to the school’s water fountain to chat with Hussein, my classmate and valued friend. But before we could even exchange a greeting, another student approached us with an alarming message: “Why are you lurking around here? Asadollah Khan has put on your coat and is now prancing around in front of the other children mocking and imitating Sheikh San’an.”
When I heard this, I felt a wave of anger and disbelief. My pulse raced as outrage flooded through me. Without another thought, I rushed towards the classroom, driven by a sense of betrayal and violation that can only be likened to an act of infidelity.
Asadollah Khan, the swashbuckling descendant of the Chief Executioner, was known for his impeccable attire and penchant for mahout coats. He exerted his influence on our class not through merit but by securing the favor of the principal and teachers through gifts of nuts. Unbeknownst to me, he had discovered the hiding place of my unfortunate coat in my desk. During my absence, he took the opportunity to mockingly adorn himself with my coat. When I suddenly returned, I saw him making fun of Sheikh San’an and jokingly reciting a verse:
I shave my beard in spots so queer,
With cuts all ‘round, from ear to ear.
In patches here and there, I mow,
A jigsaw face, set to show,
A laugh, a grin, from all who peer!
The humiliation cut through me like a knife through flesh, the pain was unbearably sharp and deep. Overwhelmed by a flood of emotions, I lunged at Asadollah, driven by an instinctive need to defend my dignity. The force of my counter-punch took us both by surprise and in no time he was unconscious on the floor while I was mercilessly beaten under the principal’s feet. He beat me with sticks and canes, behaving more like a brutal circus ringmaster than an educator. His beatings were not driven by justice, but by the corrupt bond he shared with the head of the execution, sealed over drinks together.
The ordeal seemed endless, and the next thing I knew, the janitors were taking me to the school’s detention room. The blows to my head had taken their toll, leaving me dazed and briefly unconscious. When I regained consciousness, the sting of injustice was compounded by the sight of the principal coddling Asadollah, showering him with apologies and loudly vowing to rid the school of me, whom he referred to as a “wild animal”
His next actions were as cruel as they were humiliating. With a shrill cry, he summoned Agha Mohammad, the janitor, and ordered him to equip me with a broom and a dustpan, demoting me to a mere cleaner, and then expel me from the school premises. Shortly after, the door to the detention room swung open and there stood Agha Mohammad, holding out my coat and books to me with a shove that sent me staggering out of the school.
The coat, once a symbol of my identity, became a sign of shame. I could no longer bear to wear it. Instead, I rolled it up and carried it under my arm, a grim reminder of the day’s events. Even as I walked away from the school, the principal’s sneer echoed in my ears, a cruel farewell for someone who had already been so deeply hurt:
“Go back to the stables! You don’t belong here.”
© Ali Salami 2024