Ali Salami

Who Should I Greet Now? By Simin Daneshvar

Who should I greet now? The lady principal has left us, Haj Ismail has disappeared without a trace and my precious daughter has become the prey of wolves in the wilderness… The cat has breathed its last, the tongs fell on the spider and sealed its fate. And now the snow envelops everything in its silent embrace. Every flake that falls seems to weigh heavily on my heart and awakens a restlessness that makes me want to bang my head against the wall in despair. The insurance doctor once advised me, “When grief overwhelms you, go out into the open. When loneliness gnaws at you and there is no one you can confide in, speak your thoughts aloud to the wind. Let your own soul be the unwavering listener to the murmurings. Venture into the wilderness and scream into the void, curse the shadows if it will ease your heart.” The snow that once danced in the air now falls gently, a relentless whisper that promises no respite. So it has been since the deep winter cold set in…

The snow of the past few days has turned to ice on the ground, and where else could people dispose of the snow from their roofs but in the narrow alleyways and backyards? Clearing the paths became the task of heroes, young athletes and schoolchildren whose schools were closed by the vagaries of the weather. In the absence of snow, the threat of creeping inflation and the specter of famine loomed, the whispers of water and electricity rationing grew louder. And when the snow falls, life and learning come to a standstill. Last night, the lights went out on Alaee Street, and Kokab Sultan remained sitting under the warmth of the traditional korsi , staring into the darkness, until a sudden unease seized her, a turmoil so strong it felt like her heart was being scrubbed. She thought the madness would catch up with her if she remained in the darkness. So she rose, stumbled in the semi-darkness and stood outside her door in the midst of cold and darkness. The cold was biting, and a neighbor’s child was crying in the night. Her water pipe had burst the night before and no one had cleared away her garbage for three days.

Kokab Sultan, a retired employee of the Ministry of Education, had hardly any garbage left to dispose of. The burst water pipe did not damage her belongings. Her room was upstairs, in the neighborhood of Mr. Panirpour, who lived in a flat consisting of two large rooms, a kitchen and a toilet and had three daughters of marriageable age and a scatterbrained wife. The neighborhood had nicknamed him Mr. Panirpour because he sold dairy products on Jaleh Street and did not give credit to anyone, not even to you, although his real name was Mr. Shariatpour Yazdani. Kokab Sultan went downstairs to perform ablutions and do other necessities. She fetched water from the tap in the kitchen and rarely cooked as her teeth kept biting her gums and tongue. Her room was little more than a small room, with no furnishings to speak of. She had sent all her belongings to her son-in-law’s house as a dowry.

Kokab Sultan rose from the warm korsi and stood at the window to watch the snow. The roofs had quickly turned white and the neighbor’s pine trees were covered with snow. The icicles dangling from the opposite roof had been there yesterday, the day before yesterday and since the beginning of December. Her heart ached with longing, her thoughts had been intertwined with Hajj Ismail since last night.

“What a love we shared, what a pity that it passed so quickly. In the summer, when the director went to Evin, Hajj Ismail warmed up the bathhouse in Sorkhaneh. I went there to bathe and wash off the dirt thoroughly. He scrubbed me down with a loofah, tickled me until we both laughed heartily, and showered each other with caresses and recited poems and verses to each other. And now all it takes is a needle to remove a thorn from my flesh.”

On the divan in the lady director’s courtyard we laid out a carpet and sat together, inhaling opium and drinking arak together until we were completely intoxicated, then we tangled ourselves up in the director’s mosquito net and slept in each other’s embrace. She taught me how to read. I read “Amir Arsalan” to her, which we went through five times, “Shams-e-Qahqahah” three times and “The Virgin’s Kiss” twice. The director had an extensive collection of books. We picked them up and always returned them to their rightful place. Hajj Ismail was the school janitor and I served the principal at home. She was unassuming. I picked pomegranates and brought them to school by ten of the clock, and if there were no pomegranates, I brought sorbet. I cooked lunch, but she never ate dinner, she just had a glass of milk before bed. Oh, the escapades we had in this city, the countless visits to theaters and cinemas where we saw “The Thief of Bagdad”, “One Thousand and One Nights”, “The Mysteries of New York” and “Arshin Mal Alan” four or five times. We seemed to be blessed with money. The director gave me a scholarship and Haj Ismail received a salary from the ministry.

The insurance doctor himself said, “Talk to yourself, pour out everything that brings you joy or sorrow. Do not hold it in your heart.”

We went to Karbala, repented and prayed to Imam Hussein for a child, and God granted us Robabeh. The following year, Hajj Ismail went to work in the morning and did not return. The man disappeared without a trace. The director, the social security, police, everyone was looking for Hajj Ismail. I took Robabeh in my arms and walked from one office to another as if Hajj Ismail had never existed, had vanished into thin air. I fell asleep with Robabeh and sat alone smoking opium. I had gotten the director’s cat addicted to opium. As soon as she smelled the opium, she sat with me, closed her eyes and purred contentedly. I blew the smoke in her direction and she twisted and turned with pleasure. The cat died a natural death. Then I smoked out the spider. It had spun its web in a corner of the room. Whenever the smell of opium was in the air, it came down and stood motionless next to the brazier. The tongs fell on it and the spider died too.

The principal made a request that changed the course of my life and appointed me as janitor in place of the venerable Haj Ismail. In the sanctuary of her house, she took me in until her untimely demise.

“Your burden has doubled,” she often said with a mixture of sternness and care in her voice, “but is there a better way to endure this long, friendless existence than to throw yourself into endless labor?” Her contempt for my opium consumption was unmistakable. Her words finally washed over me, clearing my vision of their haze, aided in no small part by the relentless demands of my duties. My days fluctuated between domestic errands in the principal’s household and meticulous upkeep of the school grounds. I washed the doormats, delivered report cards to the young girls and received thank-you gifts ranging from a modest two to a generous ten tomans. For seasonal festivals, I tended pots of fragrant flowers and sprouting grains of wheat and lentils, which I donated to the cozy chambers of the principal and the homes of our esteemed teachers.

All this, a silent pact to ensure the undisturbed tranquility of my daughter Robabeh’s life. I adorned her with the attire befitting the daughters of nobility and ensured that her path to the academy, which she pursued until her graduation, was not blocked. Had the lady Director been spared the cruel hands of fate, I am afraid I would never have given my daughter in marriage. Her death left me in the lurch, and after eighteen years of service, I was deemed useless and cast out of the only home I knew. Desperation drove me to make a difficult decision: I betrothed my daughter to a man of dubious virtue, a lowly clerk in Mr. Lachini’s office, a man not subject to divine will.

By the Same Author: Ask the Migratory Bird

“What choice did I have?” I ponder, for her upbringing and genteel dress no longer matched our modest existence, supported only by a meager pension and the confines of a rented room. The doors of the college remained closed to her.

The insurance doctor’s words ring in my ears, a license to vent my frustration on the world, for my heart knows no other solace than the bitter refuge of curses. “God knows I once loved the simple pleasures of life – the babbling brooks, the stoic trees, the silent watch of the moon in the night sky. But the rituals of faith were foreign to my tongue. In Karbala, I mimicked the prayers of Haj Ismail, his voice ringing out in the open and mine a faint echo. The embrace of Tehran made me forget those prayers, but taught me the language of contempt directed at the cowardly and the worthless, the men who turned their backs on honor, and those who remained steadfast only to be forgotten or erased from memory. May God grant peace to the departed! The lady Principal lamented, “Our tragedy is that we reduce people to less than they are, that we suck the lifeblood from their veins, that we are robbed and they are less than human beings.”

Agha Reza’s presence at the gathering, amidst the elites and dignitaries, became something of a spectacle. ‘Salute me’, they asked him, to which he innocently asked: ‘But who should I salute?”

I rise from the depths of my musings and consider whether I should set off to get some milk for a delicious rice pudding. No, perhaps a cozy bowl of Ferni would be more appropriate. But how to brave this biting frost? The newly acquired American “Bella” boots are unfortunately hanging loosely on my feet. My teeth chatter in protest, a shrill pain radiates through my throat and right ear, my right knee throbs with an unyielding ache, a constant reminder of Haj Ismail since last night, my head buzzes with an unrelenting roar. Still, I must venture out, for the loneliness within these walls leads to a mad discourse with my own thoughts, an inner turmoil that French fries away at my peace.

I wrap my feet in newspaper, a makeshift insulation, and put on the woolen socks I knitted with my own hands, which fit snugly around my boots. The art of knitting has served me well in these difficult times, a comfort that untangles the web of my worries. I have knitted ten delicate woolen garments for Mansour and Masoud, each stitch a testament to my affection, only to be met with polite refusals for further gifts. And so I keep knitting and knitting, with no thought of a recipient or financial gain, in a world where everything has a high price, except the human soul, which is getting cheaper by the day.

I have declared this child my only treasure in this vast world from day one. It is a cruel twist of fate to be separated from his flesh and blood, but this conniving man was out for trouble from the start. Why else would he choose a residence in the distant Saba Gardens, if not to distance himself from us? A single word of truth and he grabbed my arm and drove me out of my child’s house. I am determined to say Mrs. Panirpour’s scandalous prayer, pants on my head, cursing my son-in-law from the roof of the privy in the scorching sun. Mrs. Panirpour, who knows all kinds of prayers, once advised on her own roof. On Thursday evenings, Mr. Rashed’s laments echo through her house, a beacon for all the neighbors. My heart yearns for the melodious sounds of Qamar-al-Molouk Vaziri, her voice is like the call of a nightingale. The collection of Qamar-al-Molouk’s records by the late Mrs. Director, whose fate is now unknown, was a summer solace in Evin-Darakeh, where the school lay dormant. We watered the courtyard and our home-grown petunias, sought shade under the trellis and blasted the gramophone with the melodies of Qamar-al-Molouk, Zelli and Iqbal-al-Sultan. I prepared a lemon sorbet for Haj Ismail and offered it to him with a hearty “Enjoy it, may it refresh your being”,” to which he insisted: “You first…”

How my heart would soar when Robabeh, with Mansour and Masoud in tow, graced us with her presence. To Masoud’s joke, “May the mice feast on you”,” I replied, “And you are their feast!” I asked him for a simple kiss, but he mockingly pressed his face close to mine. The scandalous prayer must be said on the roof of the privy under the blazing sun, followed by curses on Yazid and Muawiyah, as taught by Mrs. Panirpour. One fall day, she was basking in the sun on the roof while cleaning herbs, and I, spreading laundry and driven by a deep-seated loneliness, approached her. That day we exchanged heartfelt stories; I told of my life’s journey, of all the roles I’ve played. When she spoke about my son-in-law’s betrayal, she advised me: “Pray for his shame before God.” Since then, her attitude towards me has cooled. Our paths cross, but she acts as if I am a stranger. Nevertheless, I am determined to learn the scandal prayer from her. If only the sun would shine and melt the snow covering the toilet on the roof. It’s as if God has shaken his torn quilt and scattered the absorbent cotton far and wide so that more will fall. Forgive me, it is the folly of my spirit. How could I be anything but a woman who is chastened by her own blasphemies and thus brings misfortune upon herself?

I said suddenly, “Do they call you a man, a mere ghost? You and your monstrous brothers have killed my child. There she stands now, your pregnant wife, month after month heavy, holding the child’s pot in one hand and gripping the hand of Masoud, that ungrateful cur, with the other. She works hard, washes her clothes, irons them with an iron, cooks her meals, morning and evening. Your mother just sits there, praying and giving orders, while your brothers pretend to have ensnared a maid. And you, returning from your errands, oblivious to the death that overshadows you, my child would warm water for your feet and scrub your calloused heels. With these eyes, though blinded by tears, I have seen….

Each visit to her house weighed heavily on me, I returned with a hundredfold burden. His stern look, his mother’s constant scolding, the endless taunts of the brothers, it was enough to exhaust the soul. My visits were rare, but one evening I went to my child’s nursery. There was Robabeh, one hand burdened with the child’s pot and her groceries, the other holding Masoud’s hand – a heavily pregnant woman slipping on the snow while Masoud pleaded: “Take me in your arms, mother, take me in your arms.” I took the child in my arms and went to her house in Akbari. He lay stretched out under the warmth of the korsi, idly cracking seeds. His mother was sitting in a corner, absorbed in prayer. His brothers had not yet returned. “Are you really a man?” I reproached him. “Can’t you get your own child out of the nursery?” My words just bubbled out of him. He was stunned and fell silent. He stood up from under the korsi, dragged me out and threw me out of the house, calling me a ‘desert monster’, a ‘petty woman’ and a ‘sorceress’! He threw such words.

And not only is he verbally abusive, he also hits my daughter. The neighbors whisper, I hear them say, “Didn’t your mother raise you on the earnings of her hard work?” I heard rumors that my daughter gave birth to Mansour unassisted, and by now he must be talking. I heard his mother scoffing at why a second child was necessary, so I adopted the child myself. And the neighbors helped. Unable to bear these stories, I bought a bag of oranges and went to see my daughter. She was as pale as turmeric, could barely sit up in bed and begged me to leave, take the oranges and go, lest he find out and beat her before she could even get up. The room was littered with unwashed clothes. Anger rose up in me, “Robabeh, may your mother die before you! This is not a life, this is just an existence. Your father, God rest his soul, and I, we enjoyed life. Why must you endure and suffer? Life is not given twice. Your father cradled you, sang you lullabies, bathed you and took you for walks.” She replied, “Mother, I have two children, I can’t divorce him. Besides, he’s not always cruel to me.” I replied: “Was your whole upbringing intended for servitude?”

“Oh Robabeh, are you kidding yourself? What else does he have to do to you?” He forbade me to attend Masoud’s school. I visit the butcher shop, the grocery store and the dairy near her house, hoping to see my child or hear the barking of the vile dog. I hear Robabeh wears glasses now because my child is learning so much. Oh, the naive heart! Maybe it’s because of the blows to my child’s head that he needs glasses. I hear that he hit my child and broke his head; I hear that he hit Masoud and sucked the blood out of his ear; I hear…. I curse my son-in-law with such fervor that it would be enough for seventy generations if he were caught, but it seems that the oppressor always wins.

“Oh Robabeh, your father and I have indulged in every pleasure this world has to offer, and I have never withheld anything from you. I told you, ‘As long as you live under my roof, you will want for nothing; trouble will come as soon as you are in your husband’s house,’ but I never thought it would come to this. When his unseemly sisters fall ill, they come to your mother’s house as if it were an inn. ‘Dear mother, make us some meatballs, dear mother, cook us a stew!’ ‘Robabeh, quick, bring some juice; quick, cook some chicken soup; quick, buy some milk, heat it up, let us have a feast!’ The late principal used to say, ‘You do not allow even a single wave to disturb the peace in this child’s heart. You make sure she concentrates on her studies and try to raise Robabeh above her station without considering that a woman by nature belongs to the working class.’ God bless you, woman, how wise you were!

I should get up and buy milk and cook rice pudding, no, I will cook pudding instead. This damn toothache is relentless. The insurance doctor said, ‘If the loneliness gets the better of you, go outside…’

She stood in front of the mirror and realized that the roots of her hair had turned white, fading into red, while the tips were as black as a raven’s feather. It was no wonder her son-in-law had called her a ‘witch of the wild’; she had not realized that people sighed and white hair sprang from their hearts. When Robabeh was nine months pregnant, she felt an itch at the top of her heart, and the rector had said, ‘The child is sprouting hair.’ She used to say: ‘The child’s hair sprouts from the mother’s heart. She concluded by saying: ‘Whichever way you look at it, in today’s situation, a woman really belongs to the working class.”

She pushed aside the corner of the korsi and pulled out a toman hidden under the carpet. She regretted that the fine Kurdish rugs she had prepared as a dowry were now in such an unworthy household. She threw her prayer shawl over her head, took her pomegranate-colored umbrella and stepped out into the courtyard. She walked carefully, brushing her hand against the walls, the iron drainpipes and the neighbors’ windows, hesitant to show her toothless, wrinkled visage to the world. She had to cross the entire length of Alai Street and then pass behind the planning organization to reach Shahabad Street, bustling with all kinds of stores. She could bypass the police station, walk down Jaleh Street and buy milk from Mr. Panirpour’s dairy.

But the milk was gone, not a drop in bottles, cartons or anywhere else. “Cursed be you, Tehran, may you fall on the heads of the worthless, the cowardly, the castrated, with your harsh winters, dry, scorching summers. No rivers, no trees, no streams; as the rector said, like a blob of ink on blotting paper, spreading everywhere, a city of crab and frost ruins!”

Next she visited the butcher’s shop. Mrs. Panirpour was there buying meat as she had ordered a leg. Jafar, the butcher, was busy chopping the meat and splitting the bones with his ax. The meat, fresh and unfrozen, came from an Iranian sheep. “Two kilos and seven hundred grams,” he announced. “No wonder people here do not get fat and neckless.” Mrs. Panirpour, who was wrapped in a woolen scarf, wearing gloves on her hands and a fur over her coat and skirt, pulled out a fifty-toman bill and handed it to Jafar, whose hand was bandaged and the cloth bloodied.

She waited until Mrs. Panirpour had left, then handed Jafar her toman. He scooped some fat, skin, some meat and a frozen bone from the counter and threw them on the scales. Kokab Sultan complained: “Jafar, do not give me meat that is only fit to be buried under a tree as fertilizer, from God knows which graveyard.” Jafar scoffed: “What do you expect for a toman, a prime rib?” He wrapped the leftovers in newspaper and handed them to the Kokab Sultan… Would he dare to be so impudent if Haj Ismail were still alive?

The grip of fear had Kokab Sultan in its grip, a disease in itself. She feared that she would spend her days in loneliness, that her son-in-law would never reconcile with her and that she would never see her daughter again. Near the gas station, she slipped and almost fell. The sidewalk had turned to glass under the ice, which was now covered by falling snow. Another of her fears was the snow itself. She was afraid of a snowfall so heavy that she would be trapped in the house that she would not be able to visit Saba’s garden that she would not be able to go to the dairy, the butcher shop and the grocery store near her daughter’s neighborhood to catch up on the news. She feared that the snowfall would seal the doors and force people to walk across the rooftops, while she would be trapped in her room with all the slanted roofs of her neighbors, possibly succumbing to the disease they say is from Japan and dehydrating to death alone and unkempt in her room.

But death itself did not scare her. Can you really fear death out of love? She feared the snow, the sickness, the loneliness, the closed doors, the estrangement from her son-in-law, and not death, provided it came painlessly, without knowing it, in the transition from sleep to eternal rest. Unlike Mrs. Panirpour, she had no fear of judgment in the hereafter, nor did she believe in such things.

She needed to find a task to distract herself from the fear of loneliness, for she was tired of the endless cycle of knitting, unknitting and knitting again. She wondered whether she should make a patchwork quilt and rummaged through her bundles for scraps and snippets to put one together. But for whom? Her daughter was afraid to accept anything from her. Who would she sew for then? Why was she still alive at all? Who should she greet? Who was left to greet her with a simple hello?

The alley was suddenly full of children, as if they had risen from the depths of an invisible abyss. Their laughter pierced the cold air as they played in the snow, their feet slipping on the ice below, turning the passageway into a treacherous playground. A stray snowball hit her umbrella with a dull thud, causing her to close it and turn around, ready to scold. But the sight of their flushed, joyful faces sliding and frolicking in innocent delight left her speechless. Hadn’t she once been so young and carefree, enjoying the countless pleasures of life and basking in the warmth of youthful fire? At the end of the street, the children had erected a towering snowman, a one-eyed guard dressed in black with a piece of cloth tied over his other eye and a dark turban perched on his head, as if they were venting their youthful anger in this frosty effigy and pelting their own creation with snowballs. The exertion had reddened their cheeks and their eyes sparkled with mischief and joy. One, in his exuberance, slid towards Kokab Sultan, who was approaching their dwelling. The boy came closer, lost his footing on the slippery ground and collided with her, causing them to fall to the ground together. The boy was quick on his feet and dashed away. Kokab Sultan remained on the ground, her umbrella discarded and the scraps of meat she had scavenged – hardly worthy to be called meat – scattered across the ice.

Kokab Sultan lay there with an overwhelming sense of abandonment, as if she were stranded in a desolate icy wasteland. On the advice of her doctor, she began to scream, her voice cutting through the clear air: “You little fiends, scoundrels, bastards! Have the schools been closed just so you can torment the souls of passers-by? From what cursed graveyard did you spring? Guys, come to my aid, this cursed spawn has thrown me to the ground and escaped. Perhaps I have broken a limb. Won’t one of you come and free me from this cold embrace? You can only brag about your wealth and pull fifty toman bills out of your pocket to buy your meat by the kilogram. Have you ever thought of sharing a simple favor, like a bowl of yogurt, with your neighbor? May the pain of your loss haunt your mothers, may the news of your demise reach me, may you walk while your oppressors ride in comfort! Robabeh, where are you to see your mother’s humiliation? Haj Ismail, where are you now? Once I smiled and laughed, but now look at my condition. May no one dear to me ever have to endure such disgrace. You vile, dishonorable children who are quick to find a thousand excuses when you are called to account, where are your excuses now?”

Several passers-by approached her, including a young man with a black beard and glasses, who bent down to take Kokab Sultan’s hand and help her to her feet. He picked up her prayer shawl from the ground, shook off the snow and gently placed it over her head. A kind woman without a headscarf collected the discarded scraps of meat and wrapped them in newspaper before handing them back to Kokab Sultan.

Kokab Sultan’s heart was racing, her mouth bitter with despair. Nevertheless, she managed a smile for the woman. At that moment, she imagined the young man as the son-in-law she had always wanted but never got, and the woman as her own daughter. The thought that all the inhabitants of the town were her relatives, her people, briefly filled her heart with joy. She greeted everyone around her, but then suddenly the tears began to flow as if Haj Ismail had been lost only yesterday.

© Ali Salami 2020

About Simin Daneshvar

Simin Daneshvar (April 28, 1921 – March 8, 2012) was an Iranian academic, novelist, fiction writer and translator. She is considered the first great Iranian woman writer. Her books dealt with the lives of ordinary Iranians, particularly women, and with recent political and social events in Iran at the time. Daneshvar had a number of firsts; in 1948 her collection of Persian short stories was the first to be published by an Iranian woman. The first novel by an Iranian woman was Savushun (“Mourners of Siavush”, also known as “A Persian Requiem”, (1966), which became a bestseller. Daneshvar’s Playhouse, a collection of five stories and two autobiographical pieces, is the first volume of translated stories by an Iranian author. As the wife of the famous Iranian writer Jalal al-Ahmad, she had a great influence on his writing and wrote the book “The Dawn of Jalal” in memory of her husband. Daneshvar was also a renowned translator, including “The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov and “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some of her stories have been translated into English by Iranian scholar Ali Salami.

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