Ali Salami

The Darkroom By Sadeq Hedayat

During our moonlit journey through Khonsar, we were joined by a man wrapped in his dark raincoat with his wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his forehead, apparently to shield himself from the outside world and avoid conversation with his fellow travelers. He had a parcel tucked under his arm and carried it with him throughout the journey. He remained silent throughout the thirty-minute journey, speaking neither to the driver nor to the other passengers and radiating a stern and imposing aura. Every time the car’s headlights or another light from outside briefly illuminated the interior, I secretly observed his facial features: His face was pale with fatigue, framed by drooping eyelids, a petite, pointed nose and pronounced lines around his mouth that emphasized his determination and steadfastness and gave the impression that his face was carved in stone. At intervals, he moistened his lips with his tongue and withdrew into his contemplations.

When we arrived at the “Madani” garage in Khonsar, where we had originally planned to spend the night, both the driver and all the passengers got out. I looked at the garage and the adjoining café, which did not look very inviting, and approached the vehicle to discuss our overnight plans with the driver. He confirmed our departure at dawn with a positive reply.

At that moment, the man in the raincoat stepped forward. In a calm, subdued tone, he offered to let me spend the night at his place if I had no local contacts or could not make arrangements. His direct and serious demeanor was striking and hinted at his extraordinary nature. Compelled by his openness, I accepted his invitation and followed him. He led the way with a flashlight, its bright beam piercing the darkness ahead of us. We wound our way through various alleyways with mud-brick walls and plunged into a deep silence that seemed to permeate us.

The atmosphere was filled with the sound of water and a gentle breeze that moved the trees and caressed our faces. Dim lights twinkled in the distance. We walked on in silence for a while until I tried to start a conversation by mentioning the hidden charms of the city.

My sudden remark seemed to catch him off guard, but after a brief pause, he responded in a measured tone. He shared with me his affection for Khonsar, not because of its agricultural wealth or picturesque landscapes, but because the city retains the ambience of a bygone era and is welcoming. He lamented the intrusion of modernity — newspapers, cars, planes and trains— – and particularly criticized the fact that cars bring the restless energy of youth to even the most remote villages. He lamented the loss of purity in places like Khonsar, which are now tainted by new ideas, twisted tastes and thoughtless imitation that erode the soul of such places.

As we drove on, the flashlight beam danced across the windows of the houses, and he spoke warmly of Khonsar’s enduring originality amidst modern encroachments. He reminisced about the pristine, simpler life that still pervades the city, offering a respite from the inexorable march of technology and foreign influences.

When we arrived at his home, a modest house near the mountains and surrounded by a garden, we stepped into a plainly furnished room. He promptly changed into more relaxed clothes and softened the atmosphere of the room with the warm glow of a red lampshade. Despite the strange situation I found myself in, his calm demeanor and the quiet surroundings calmed my initial unease.

He led me into his personal chamber, an oval room draped in crimson velvet with no direct windows to the outside, giving it a unique, almost otherworldly atmosphere. The intense fragrance and distinctive design stood out and created an almost dreamlike atmosphere. It offered refreshments with a nonchalance that contrasted sharply with the dramatic surroundings of the room, transporting me to a realm far removed from the ordinary.

After some initial suspicion, the simplicity of his hospitality and the tranquil surroundings gradually lessened my unease and piqued my curiosity about this mysterious person and his atypical whereabouts.

He pressed the jug and glass into my hand. Despite my reluctance, I filled the glass with milk and drank it, albeit hesitantly. Then he slowly drank the rest of the milk, savoring every sip and gently running his tongue over his lips. His lips shimmered in the faint red light and his heavy eyelids seemed to wallow in memories. The young man’s pale complexion, short straight nose and full lips looked even more sensual in the crimson light. A blue vein stood out on his high forehead and his chestnut hair cascaded over his shoulders. As if speaking to himself, he thought: “I have never shared in the joys of others; a sense of hardship or unhappiness has always held me back. The torments of life, the trials of existence overshadow everything. But beyond these hardships, the real challenge lies in dealing with people, in dealing with the viciousness of a corrupt society and with the trivialities of food and clothing, all of which prevent the revelation of our true selves. There was a time when I dwelled on this and tried to mock others, only to realize that I was mocking myself. I indulged in what they found pleasurable, only to find that their pleasures did not align with me. I always felt like an outsider, unable to connect or immerse myself in the lives of others. I kept telling myself that one day I would break away from society and seek refuge in a village or a secluded place. But I never wanted my solitude to become a spectacle or a means of livelihood. I refused to conform to the views of others or to imitate anyone. I finally decided to create a space that reflected my personal tastes, a sanctuary where I could truly be myself, where my thoughts could flourish undisturbed.”

He continued: “I was born to be lazy. Toil and effort are the occupations of those who are hollow inside and seek to fill their emptiness, fit for the impoverished who emerge from beneath the foliage. Yet my ancestors, though empty, toiled, endured, contemplated, saw and enjoyed moments of leisure. They filled their emptiness and left me this legacy of indolence. I have no respect for my ancestors, especially in a country where, unlike other countries, social classes are nebulous. If you research the history of states and empires, you find that ancestors a few generations back were brigands, jugglers and traders, eventually reaching back to primates. But I am not cut out for the job. Those who have newly appeared on the scene thrive in this milieu they have created according to their whims, greed and desire, and impose their capricious norms and duties on us – a bitter brew to swallow! They call this servitude ‘work’ and demand that we beg for our existential rights from them! In this realm, only the brazen and impudent claim the right to exist and brand the upright as unfit to live! They are unaware of my inherited torments, of the yoke of my ancestors that bowed me down. The weariness of my forefathers lingers in me and longs for times gone by.

“I strove to enclose myself like the hibernating fauna, to explore the darkness and ascend from within. Much like a painting on glass is created in a darkroom, the intricate, hidden aspects within us that are smothered by the tumult and brightness of life only reveal themselves in shadow and silence. This darkness inherent in me was insurmountable; I only regret my earlier folly of adaptation. Now I realize that my essence lies in this silence, this darkness. This darkness resides in every being, it manifests itself in solitude and introspection when we detach ourselves from the external. And yet humanity shuns this shadow and isolation, becoming deaf to the whispers of mortality and dissolving its identity in the cacophony of life! In contrast to the Sufi yearning for the “enlightenment of truth”, I wait for Ahriman’s descent to manifest my true self. The polished, meaningless maxims of the enlighteners repel me; I refuse to forfeit my identity for the sordid necessities of this existence orchestrated by the whims of criminals, merchants and crass materialists.”

“In this chamber alone I find the space to dwell within myself without wasting my life force. The darkness and the crimson light are my sanctuaries; a room with a window at my back disturbs my concentration and scatters my thoughts to the winds. Even the essence of light displeases me. Under the gaze of the sun, everything becomes banal and lackluster. It is only in fear and shadow that true beauty is revealed: a cat that is banal in daylight is transformed at night into a mysterious creature whose eyes shine, whose fur glistens and whose movements are enigmatic. A shrub that is wilted and matted by day takes on a deep meaning at night. The light makes all living creatures exposed and suspicious, but in the veil of night and shadow, every living creature, every everyday object takes on a mysterious hue and lost fears resurface. In the darkness you not only hear, but also dream; only then do you really come to life. Freed from the trivial demands of existence, you pass through spiritual levels and discover insights that you had not previously perceived.”

His fervent monolog broke off abruptly, as if these words only served to rationalize his existence. Was he just a soul exhausted by the hardships of life or plagued by an unusual ailment? His thoughts drifted away from the mundane. Perplexed, I watched his expression change; the crease next to his lip deepened, a vein on his forehead bulged conspicuously. When he spoke, his nostrils flared, his pale face beneath the red tint looked tired and gloomy, like a waxwork cabinet, a stark contrast to the figure I had seen in the car. When he lowered his eyes, a fleeting smile played around his lips. Then he looked at me with a penetrating, joking gaze that was unfathomable to me and remarked: “There you are, a weary traveler, and yet I take up the conversation with my business!”

“Every man’s utterances spring from his own nature. The only truth that each person carries within themselves is their own self; even when we talk about external things, we unintentionally channel our own feelings and perceptions through the stories of others. The greatest challenge is to articulate one’s true self.

I regretted my earlier response and realized its triviality, irrelevance and lack of proportionality. It was unclear what I was trying to say, and it seemed I was only subtly praising my host. But without paying any attention to my remarks, he gave me a brief, melancholy glance, then lowered his eyes again. He moistened his lips absently and seemed to lose himself in a world other than my own. He said: “I always wanted to create a place that suited my tastes and desires. The environments created by others never appealed to me. I longed to live in my realm, to stay true to who I am, and so I turned my fortune into cash. I ventured here to furnish this space to my liking and brought these velvet curtains with me. I meticulously worked out every facet of this room. The only oversight was the red lampshade, which was commissioned and made in Tehran and only arrived today. Outside of this sanctuary, I have no desire to venture out or mingle with the people. My diet consists only of milk, which I can take either lying down or sitting up without having to prepare a meal. Nevertheless, I have sworn to myself that I will end my existence when my financial resources are exhausted or I become dependent on someone else. Tonight is initiation night at my sanctuary. I am satisfied because I have achieved my goal. It’s hard to imagine the happiness that was unimaginable for me before, but now I am satisfied.”

The silence returned, and in an effort to dispel the uncomfortable stillness, I ventured, “The serenity you seek is akin to the existence of a fetus in the womb, free from strife, contention, or insincerity, nestled in the warm, soft crimson of the womb, serenely absorbing nourishment from its mother, with all its needs and desires innately met. Could this be a longing for a primordial Eden deeply embedded in every soul, a life lived from within, like a chosen end of existence?”

He replied with an ironic look, as if the intrusion into his soliloquy had been unexpected, and remarked:

“You’re tired from your travels, you’d better rest.”

He picked up the lamp and led me back across the threshold of the hallway to the room we had originally entered. It was already past midnight, and as I stepped out into the night air, I felt a wave of relief, as if I had left a realm of restlessness. The stars shimmered above me and made me wonder: had I just met a deluded zealot or had I stumbled upon something truly extraordinary?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The next day I awoke from my sleep at ten O’clock. With the reverence of a man treading on holy ground, I cautiously approached the door of the hallway to bid farewell to my host and knocked lightly. The corridor was shrouded in darkness and silence. As I ventured into the special chamber, the lamp on the table continued to glow. There lay my host, dressed in the same botanical pajamas, hands folded in front of his face, knees drawn up to his torso, on the bed like an infant in its mother’s lap. I approached him and nudged him on the shoulder, but he remained unyielding and stayed in his position. I quickly left the room and made my way to the garage so as not to miss my ride. Had his financial reserves dwindled, as he had predicted? Or had his vaunted solitude instilled fear in him and made him want company in his final hours? Perhaps, in truth, he had reached his zenith of bliss and was striving to maintain that contentment, and this sanctuary was indeed his quintessence!

@ Ali Salami 2024

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