Ali Salami

Seeking Redemption [Talab-e Amorzesh] By Sadeq Hedayat

Amidst the sweltering winds that whipped up the hot dust and sand and slapped the travelers in the face, the unyielding sun scorched and melted everything in its path. The monotonous clanging of iron and brass bells could be heard, synchronized with the camels’ steps. Their drooping necks and sullen, slack expressions signaled their dissatisfaction with their fate.

The caravan moved slowly through the dusty haze and disappeared into the gray, dusty road in the distance. The landscape around the desert was a gray, barren expanse of sand that undulated as far as the eye could see, occasionally interrupted by small hills on either side of the continuous path. Mile after mile passed without a single date palm to change the scenery, only occasionally was there a standing waterhole around which a family could gather. The air was scorching hot, the breaths felt like entering the corridors of Hell itself. For thirty-six days the caravan moved on, with parched mouths, tired bodies and empty pockets. The travelers’ money evaporated like snow under the glaring Arabian sun.

But today, as the head of the muleteers climbed the “Hill of Greeting[1]“ and received alms from the pilgrims, golden minarets came into view and all the travelers sent out their prayers. It was as if new life was breathed into their exhausted bodies. Khanum Galin and Aziz Agha, covered in their dusty beige abayas from Qazvin, crowded into their palanquin. Every day felt like a year to them, and Aziz Agha was tired and exhausted, but consoled herself with the thought, “It’s good, because I am on a pilgrimage.”

The barefoot Arab with the swarthy complexion, fierce eyes and shark-like beard swung a heavy iron chain, which he whipped against the sore flanks of the mules, and occasionally turned to scrutinize the faces of the women, one by one. Mashdi Ramazan Ali, the patriarch, shared the palanquin with Hussein Agha, Aziz Agha’s stepson, and meticulously counted his money.

Khanum Galin, with a pale face, pulled aside the curtain that separated their palanquins, shook her head and said to Aziz Agha, who was sitting in the other compartment, “When I saw the minaret from afar, my soul rose. Poor Shabaji, it was not her destiny to see it.”

Aziz Agha, who was fanning herself with a tattooed hand, replied, “God have mercy on her soul, she was always virtuous. But how could she become paralyzed?”

“She quarreled with her husband, there was a divorce and arguments. Then she ate pickled onions and in the morning she was paralyzed from the waist down. No treatment could cure her. I brought her here in the hope of being healed by the saint.”

“The strain of the journey must have been too much for her.”

“But her soul has ascended to heaven. A pilgrim is forgiven the moment he sets out on his pilgrimage, even if death follows.”

“Every time I see these coffins, I shudder. No, I want to enter the shrine, pour out my heart to the saint, buy a shroud for myself and then die.”

“I dreamt about Shabaji last night. You were there too. We were walking through a huge green garden. A radiant Seyyed in green – a green shawl, cloak, turban, robe and sandals – stepped in front of us. ‘Welcome, you bring joy,’ he said. Then he pointed to a large green house and told us: ‘Go and rest there Then I woke up.”

“Blessed be their happiness!”

The caravan began to move. The leader of the chant went ahead and sang, “Whoever longs for Karbala, in God’s name, come out; whoever wants to join our journey, in God’s name, come out.”

Another replied, “Whoever longs for Karbala, be happy”

The first leader sang again, “What is Karbala, where you come to your senses and still hear the groans of Zainab in your ears.”

The second replied, “What a Karbala, may the Beloved of God grant us happiness! May God sacrifice me for the sake of the estranged martyr!”

The first chorister waved his banner and shouted loudly, “May the tongue that does not speak these words be cut off! Blessed be the Beloved of God, the Seal of the Prophets, and the eleven sons of Ali ibn Abi Talib! Blessed be each and every one of them!” and at the end of each verse, all the pilgrims together uttered a loud blessing.

A magnificent golden dome with beautiful minarets emerged, and a counterpart, a blue dome, appeared, awkwardly inserted between the mud houses. As dusk fell, the caravan came to a street flanked by dilapidated walls and small stores. There was a great confusion here: disheveled Arabs, foolish faces with headscarves, bearded and hennaed men with shaved heads, spinning their rosaries and walking around in their sandals, robes and underpants. They spoke Persian, garbled Turkish or Arabic that seemed to come from deep in their throats and guts, filling the air with a hum. Arab women with tattooed dirty faces, burnt-out eyes and nose rings let one of them breastfeed her dirty child, the dark nipple half in the child’s mouth.

The crowd was a colorful bunch, each trying to attract customers in their own way: some recited elegies, others beat their breasts in mourning, some sold holy seals, rosaries and blessed shrouds, others claimed to catch spirits, some wrote prayers and still others rented out rooms. The long-robed Jews bought gold and jewels from the travelers.

An Arab sat in front of a coffee house, picking his nose with one hand while picking the dirt from between his toes with the other, his face covered in flies and lice crawling through his hair. When the caravan stopped, Mashdi Ramazan and Hussein Agha rushed to aid and helped Khanum-e Galin and Aziz Agha down from their palanquin. A large crowd of people crowded around the travelers, each grabbing a piece of their belongings and inviting them into their homes. In the midst of this chaos, Aziz Agha disappeared. Although they searched everywhere and asked everyone, they could not find him.

After Khanum Galin, Hussein Agha and Mashdi Ramazan finally rented a dirty mud room for the night for seven rupees, they continued their search for Aziz Agha. They combed the entire town, asking shoemakers and readers of the Ziyaratnama for a sign of him, but to no avail. When evening came and the court calmed down, Khanum Galin entered the shrine for the ninth time and saw a group of women and clerics gathered around a woman who was clinging to the lock of the shrine, kissing it and shouting, “O Imam Hussein, save me! When the graves open on the day of fifty thousand years and all eyes roll back in their heads, what will I have above my head? Hear my plea! Forgive me, I repent, I have done wrong!”

Although she was repeatedly asked what had happened, she would not say anything. After much urging, she finally confessed, “I have done something and I fear that the Lord of Martyrs will not forgive me.”

Also by the Same Author: Abji Khanum, The Spinster

She repeated this sentence over and over again, tears streaming down her face. Khanum Galin recognized Aziz Agha’s voice, approached him and, with Hussein Agha’s help, led him into the courtyard. They took him home where everyone gathered around him. After giving him two sweet teas and preparing a hookah for him, Aziz Agha insisted that Hussein Agha leave the room before telling his story. After Hussein Agha left, Aziz Agha pulled the hookah closer and began:

“My dear Khanum Galin, you know when I went to the house of Geda Ali, God rest his soul, we lived the way Sekineh Sultan used to oppress Geda Ali, her husband. Geda Ali adored me and treated me with great respect. But during this time I did not get pregnant and my husband, God forbid, desperately longed for a child. Every night he sighed, ‘What am I going to do with this misery? My hearth is cold[2].’ I tried every means and every prayer, but I could not conceive until Geda Ali called to me one night and said, ‘If you agree, I will take a temporary wife to run the household, and when she has given birth to a child, I will divorce her and you can raise the child as your own.’ Foolishly, I believed him and said, ‘Why not! I will take on this responsibility’ The next day I veiled myself, went out and proposed to Khadija, the daughter of Hasan the milkman, who was ugly, dark and pockmarked. When Khadija entered our house, you could pour barley on her without her reaching the ground, and if you pinched her nose, she almost died. Well, I was the lady of the house and Khadija worked and cooked stews, and ma’am, within a month she got fatter, her bones filled out and her belly grew with new flesh. Then she became pregnant. It was clear that Khadija had settled in. My husband was completely focused on her. If she craved cherries in the middle of winter, Geda Ali would find them, even if he had to dig under stones. I became the unhappiest, the darkest of days! Every evening when Geda Ali came home, he brought his perfumed handkerchief into Khadija’s room and I lived off his handouts. Khadija, Hasan, the milkman’s daughter, who entered our house mourning with one shoe and beating her chest with the other, now treated me with contempt. Then I realized what a grave mistake I had made.”

“Madam, for nine long months I have borne the burden of silent agony, feigning joy with rosy cheeks at our door and to our neighbors. But during my husband’s absence, I took my anger out on Khadija. I sowed the seeds of doubt, whispered vile untruths to him, accused her of folly and betrayal, and claimed that her child was not his, but conceived by someone else. Khadija in turn besmirched my name in front of Geda Ali and wove her own web of deceit. Our house was a battlefield of endless arguments, a source of torment for our neighbors. My heart boiled with fear at the thought that the child could be a boy. I searched for omens and spells, but none could penetrate Khadija’s mysterious shield. The months passed and she grew more and more powerful until, exactly nine months, nine days, nine hours and nine minutes later, she gave birth to a son.

In my husband’s house, I became worthless, trumped by Khadija, whose origins I had plucked from the humblest of backgrounds. In front of my husband, she dared to give me orders, which sparked an anger in me that led to a barrage of accusations against her and her child. I asked for a divorce, but my husband, may he rest in peace, only wanted to comfort me because he feared the child might turn away from me. He promised to take my wishes into consideration as soon as the child had grown a little. But haunted by my own thoughts, I found neither sleep nor nourishment. In a moment of vicious determination, when Khadija was bathing and the house was silent, I approached the cradle. With a pin pulled from under my throat, I turned and plunged it deep into the infant’s soft flesh. As I fled the room, I was tormented by the child’s cries, which tore at my heart. Despite prayers and remedies, the child’s fate was sealed and it died on the second day.

Khadija and my husband were indeed weeping for the child and mourning deeply, but for me it was as if a cool wave had soothed my scorched soul. I thought they would at least be haunted by the unfulfilled longing for a son. Two months passed and Khadija was pregnant again. This time I was at a loss and so desperate that I was bedridden for two agonizing months. After nine months, Khadija gave birth to another boy and regained her cherished status. Geda Ali cared for the child like a precious gem. His joy was evident as he looked at his son, who was wrapped tightly in diapers, as if he were admiring a rare treasure.

The cycle repeated itself, the same agony, the same agony. Unable to bear the sight of Khadija and her child, I once again found myself driven to a dark deed when Khadija was preoccupied with herself. I seized the moment, pulled the needle from under my throat and aimed it at the child’s tender flesh. The child died a day later, and once again our house was haunted by wailing and despair. This time, however, my feelings were a storm of disappointment. On the one hand, I felt a perverse sense of satisfaction because I had embedded the pain of another lost son in Khadija’s heart. On the other hand, the guilt of the blood on my hands weighed heavily on me. I wept not for the child, but for my own tortured soul, fearing the judgment that awaited me after this life.

My husband lamented in his resignation that perhaps it was not our destiny to have children, as ours did not survive. But hope or folly led Khadija to conceive once more, and my husband, desperately hoping that the child would thrive, made a vow, promising offerings and pilgrimages to the Divine if the child lived. When Khadija gave birth to a third son, she clung to him as if guided by a newfound determination, and I was torn between my dark urges and the thought of severing the root of my anguish by freeing us from Khadija herself.

As Khadija once again assumed her role as queen of our household, commanding with an authority that left no room for resistance, I found myself in a nightly battle with my conscience, contemplating the fate of the innocent child. After a heated argument with Khadija, I decided to end it all. I waited for my moment and seized the opportunity when Khadija stepped out of the house. I took the child, determined to fulfill my cruel task, but when I was about to strike the blow, the child woke up and smiled at me instead of crying. In that moment, my resolve shattered. How was I to proceed, even with a heart of stone? I put the child back in its cradle and left the room, haunted by the thought, “What is the child’s fault?” The true source of my anguish was Khadija herself. She was the one I had to take care of so that peace could reign. But as I tell this story, my body trembles. But what choice did I have when I was driven to the brink by a husband who left me at the mercy of a cunning rival?

I secretly procured a lock of Khadija’s hair and took it to Mulla Ibrahim, the well-known Jewish magician in the Rah-Chaman quarter, to cast a spell. I put a horseshoe in the fire, and Mulla Ibrahim demanded three tomans for his services and promised Khadija’s demise within a week. But contrary to his promises, a month passed and Khadija only seemed to thrive, growing stronger by the day and shaking my faith in sorcery and magic. At the beginning of winter, Geda Ali fell so seriously ill that he had to make his will twice and received the treatment with the sacred earth three times. One night, when Geda Ali was very ill, I bought a deadly potion from the apothecary. I discreetly mixed it into the stew and let it boil, taking care to prepare a separate, safe meal for myself. After secretly satisfying my hunger, I went to Geda Ali. Khadija, unaware of my deed, suggested that it was time for dinner. I feigned a headache and refused the meal, preferring the emptiness of my stomach to the guilt of what I had done.

Madam, Khadija ate her last meal and retired for the night. I lingered behind the door and listened to her labored breaths. The cold, closed night shielded her agony from the outside world. I spent the night at Geda Ali’s side, playing the dutiful nurse. As dawn broke, I was overcome with fear again and crept back, only to be greeted by the cries of the infant. Fear prevented me from opening the door. Instead, I returned to Geda Ali, my heart beating like a storm of emotion.

The next morning, when the household awoke, I ventured into Khadija’s chamber. She lay there, ashen as coal, her struggle evident in the disarray of her bedding. I laid her on the mattress and covered her with a quilt while the cries of her child broke the gloomy silence. I stepped out, washed my hands at the sink and, with tears and feigned shock, broke the terrible news of Khadija’s passing to Geda Ali.

To anyone who asked, I explained that Khadija’s death was due to her recent ailments and excessive weight and that she may have suffered a stroke. No one suspected me, but I was plagued by guilt and questioned my own humanity in the mirror. Life became unbearable. I sought solace in prayer, charity and tears, but peace eluded me. The thought of the Day of Judgement, the confinement of the tomb and the inquisition of Munkar and Nakir[3] filled me with terror.

Then I had the idea of seeking refuge in Karbala, especially as Geda Ali had sworn to take his son there. Although he showed interest at first, he kept finding excuses and postponed the pilgrimage until his time was up too. This year I was determined to sell all of Geda Ali’s possessions, as he had instructed in his will, and convert everything into cash for the trip. Then we set off from Qazvin, you, Mousavi Ramadan and I, together with the young man who knows me as his grandmother – the very same Hussein Agha, son of Khadija. I made him leave the room so that he would not hear my story.

Everyone listened attentively to Aziz Agha’s harrowing tale, and as she closed, tears welled up in her eyes. She wondered aloud if God would forgive her for her sins or if she would find an intercessor on the Day of Judgment. “Madam, for years I have longed to pour out my heart to someone. Now that I have done it, it feels like water has been poured over the fire. But the thought of Judgment Day…”

Mashdi Ramadan Ali, shaking the ashes out of his pipe, interjected, “May God have mercy on your father! Then what brings us here? Three years ago, I was a coachman on the road to Khorasan. I had two wealthy passengers. When the carriage broke down, one died and I strangled the other and took fifteen hundred tomans from his pocket. Now, in my old age, I have realized that the money was spoiled. Today I purified myself in Karbala and donated the money to a scholar who absolved me. In no more than two hours, this money became purer for me than my mother’s milk.”

Khanum Galin took the hookah from Aziz Agha, drew a thick cloud of smoke and, after a pause, told her own story. “The same Shabaj who traveled with us, I knew the journey would be hard for her. I even looked for omens that were unfavorable, but I still took her with me. She was my sister-in-law whose husband had fallen in love with me, which made me her rival. I tortured her so much at home that she was paralyzed, and then I took her life on the trip to prevent her from inheriting my father’s fortune.”

Aziz Agha exclaimed through tears and laughter, “So… You too…”

As Khanum Galin took another puff from her hookah, she remarked, “Didn’t you hear it during the sermon? The moment a pilgrim declares his intention and sets out on his journey, he is cleansed and purified, even if his sins are as numerous as the leaves on a tree.”


© Ali Salami 2010

[1] The Hill of Greeting, also known as Jabal Rahmah, is a small hill located approximately 20 kilometers east of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is considered a significant religious site in Islam and holds great importance for Muslim pilgrims.

[2] I am barren.

[3] In Islamic eschatology, Munkar and Nakir (English translation: “The Denied and The Denier”) are angels who test the faith of the dead in their graves.

About the Author

Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian author whose contributions to Persian fiction mark a clear departure from the traditional literary style. Hedayat is considered one of the most successful Iranian writers of the 20th century and was a pioneer of modernism, which continues to influence contemporary Persian literature to this day.

Hedayat was born into a prestigious family and received his early education in Tehran. He later studied dentistry and engineering in France and Belgium, where he came into contact with prominent European intellectuals. This contact prompted Hedayat to abandon his scientific ambitions in favor of a career in literature. Sadeq Hedayat is known for a large number of short stories that have been widely read by Iranian readers. Some of these stories are: Dash Akol, The Stray Dog (Sag-e Velgard), Three Drops of Blood (Se Qatr-e Khun), The Whirlpool (Gerdab), Seeking Redemption (Talab-e Amorzesh), The Doll Behind the Curtain (Arusak-e Posht-e Pardeh), The Claws (Changal).

All of his stories have been translated into English by the Iranian scholar Ali Salami.

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