Ali Salami

Jalal Al-e Ahmad: The Life Which Fled [Zendegi ke Gorikht]

Jalal Al-e Ahmad: The Life Which Fled [Zendegi ke Gorikht]

The sun’s heat tormented the mind and deserted the road along the riverbank. Coming and going was impeded, as if it had paused. On the other side of the river, amidst the palm groves, a mist seemed to dance — a mist interwoven with dust. A large ship anchored in front of the customs office let out a whistle. A short sound that was lost in the sultry afternoon air of Khorramshahr, as if its tail had been cut off.

A large sailing boat was being loaded. Porters carried sacks of rice on their shoulders and crossed a makeshift bridge of planks that had been laid from the edge of the dock to the side of the boat to stack the sacks at the stern of the boat. The river water had receded, making the makeshift bridge steep and narrow.

Five workers were on the job. Two others on the jetty loaded the rice sacks onto their backs. Two more inside the boat took the sacks and arranged them neatly in a corner. They worked quickly, a mountain of work lay ahead of them. It could take until dusk.

Another, not particularly youthful porter came along. His sling hung limply across his back and drooped over his waist as he approached with a loose, weary stride. A wide-brimmed hat adorned his head, under which an unshaven beard could be seen. He had one hand tucked into his pocket while the other held the strap on his shoulder. No objections were raised. After a brief exchange of words, it was agreed that he would help us. He put his belt aside, pulled his hat down a little, slipped the strap over his back and bent under the weight of the two on top of the load. His eyes sparkled with determination.

The sacks made no difference. One was placed on his shoulder. The moment he bent down to pick up the load, his mind was free of thoughts. The work had found him, and that was the most important thing.

He took a few normal steps, but before he reached the middle of the road, his knees suddenly buckled. He paused for a few seconds, then picked up his pace with steady steps. As long as he walked normally, it made no difference to him. The steps would pick themselves up and land. But with the bag on his shoulder, the dynamic changed. As soon as his foot lifted, he looked for a new foothold and shook with every attempt to find stability. At first he didn’t take it seriously, but the pattern persisted. He couldn’t control it. Despite his efforts, his legs trembled. For a moment, he toyed with the idea that he might not be able to bear the weight, but he quickly dismissed such thoughts. He was sure that his knees would not buckle from behind. He just had to make sure that he didn’t lean forward and drop the load.

The weight of the rice sack was unknown to him. The others carried theirs with ease and moved swiftly, but his legs trembled. But that didn’t matter. He could try not to let his knees buckle. Still, his legs shook, and even his ankles trembled. He closed his eyes for a moment and convinced himself. He imagined falling to the ground, then quickly opened his eyes. He had no choice but to reach the riverbank. The distance from the base of the hill to the riverbank was perhaps forty paces. The loads were stacked against the wall on the opposite sidewalk. He was now in the middle of the road. Fortunately, no vehicles were driving past, the street was deserted.

The others were absorbed in their work, some already in front of him. He was just about to cross the road and tried to pick up his pace. It was impossible. He concentrated fully on making sure his legs didn’t shake. He wasn’t interested in reaching the riverbank quickly, crossing the narrow bridge or dropping the load in the boat. That was the goal of those who strode greedily. His only concern was to keep his legs steady and his knees from bending. The load was not allowed to fall to the ground.

He had reached the riverbank and was drenched in sweat. His hat felt tight, as if his head had gotten bigger, and his brain throbbed with pain. Sweat poured from the opening of his shirt and he felt like he was melting away. The shirt under his belt stuck to his skin and was completely soaked. His legs continued to tremble. Maybe it had been two days since he had last lifted a heavy load. But the load wasn’t heavy; he simply hadn’t found any work for two days. But that didn’t matter. Surely the seven were watching him closely now, probably having abandoned their tasks to watch him and exchange knowing glances. Surely three of them were once again walking past him to pick up another load. He was sure, however, that they were all standing in a corner, watching him and winking at each other.

The load must not fall. He had to deliver it no matter what. What was he missing compared to the others? He didn’t even dare lift his head for fear. His forehead was wet with sweat; the others hadn’t sweated like this. He didn’t want them to laugh at him and wink at him. He wanted to do his job, make sure the load didn’t fall, keep his legs from shaking, but they were shaking anyway. He stood by the river for a moment, his legs still shaking. He was on the verge of making his shaking legs drop the load into the river. He quickly stepped aside and paused again. Two more passed him in turn, placing their sure and measured steps on the planks and stepping off one by one. The plank swayed under their weight, but they walked on unconcerned.

He had to go too. What could possibly happen? When he had regained his composure, he took a step forward and put his first foot on the plank. But then he was suddenly seized by panic. He looked down. His knees were shaking violently, he didn’t feel it, but his eyes saw it. It seemed as if even his ankles were trembling. He was overcome with terror. He was about to buckle his knees and drop the load into the river. He hesitated, undecided, unsure of what to do. He wanted to lift his second foot and step forward, was even prepared to take a small step to throw his second foot forward. But he couldn’t. He tried, but he knew that if he lifted the second foot off the ground for even a moment, the other would shake even more, his knees would buckle, he would fall and the bag of rice would sink into the river. He decided to give up his indecision, pulled his foot back hastily and stepped aside.

The others continued their steady pace, unfazed and confident as they navigated the narrow plank swaying under their feet, lowering and raising with their weight, throwing the loads into the boat and returning. It seemed routine to them. They didn’t speak a single word. He couldn’t estimate how long he had hesitated with his foot on the plank, but he had the feeling that the people in the boat and behind him on the road were waiting for him to pass so they could move on. He was sure, however, that they were all standing there, putting aside their work to mock him and exchange glances. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve as it drenched him. He lifted his head and looked into the distance between the palm trees on the other side of the river, his eyes no longer sparkling. The gleam in her eyes also seemed to be lost in the palm groves, his head felt heavy and sank again. Perhaps a minute passed. His legs were still shaking. He turned around.

The others were still moving briskly back and forth. He gathered his strength and quickened his pace to walk the few steps to the riverbank. His legs were still shaking, but that no longer mattered. He had convinced himself that his knees would not give way. He approached the plank at the same speed, almost closing his eyes. Not completely, but he didn’t want to see where he was stepping. He took three steps forward. His legs began to tremble again, this time violently. It was as if the temporary bridge itself was trembling beneath him. Sweat trickled down his forehead again. Suddenly he was overcome with panic. He feared his knees would buckle, his feet would slip off the plank and the sack of rice would plunge into the river. It seemed like an immediate reality. He didn’t know what to do.

Also by Jalal Al-e Ahmad: Someone Else’s Child

They waited on either side of the plank, silent. The pressure of his hands clasped over his stomach made his knuckles ache. Sweat dripped from his chin and the opening of his shirt, spreading as he hit the plank. The plank seemed to sway under the combined weight of him and his heavy load. That’s how it felt. He was almost tipped over from his right side into the river. He hastily crossed his arms and struggled to keep his balance. The length of the plank was more than seven steps. He couldn’t just stand there; they were too late. No doubt they had laughed at him many times. All his stamina had dissolved into sweat running down the cursed plank. But how could he turn back? The laughter that threatened him was unimaginable. Who would hire him then, after two days without work?

It seemed as if even the makeshift bridge was beginning to sway and slip from under his feet. He felt like he was dying, his breath caught in his chest, his head hung low. His eyes, dilated with fear and exhaustion, seemed to jump out of their sockets and fall into the river or splash onto the cursed bridge, like the sweat dripping from his chest. Overwhelmed with fear, he closed his eyes for a moment, his head spinning, the darkness behind his eyelids red and on the verge of collapse. He quickly opened his eyes again and opened them wide.

He couldn’t keep everyone waiting like this. What would they say to him? But why didn’t anyone say anything? Surely they were standing by, smoking and laughing at him! Then why couldn’t he hear their laughter? Curse them! He struggled to keep his balance and crossed his arms twice under his stomach. He pushed off and walked back the few steps he had taken on the plank until he finally set foot on the solid ground of the riverbank. Then he felt his legs trembling. He was also trembling inside. Even his guts felt like they were shaking. He couldn’t put the weight down. Slowly, he made his way to the foot of the rice sack mound. Sweat dripped from the opening of his shirt and the lump under his neck and sank into the hot earth beside the river.

The rice sack was gently lifted from his back. It remained bent over, folded almost in half. It was as if, with the last drop of sweat dripping from the opening of his shirt onto the ground and seeping into the earth, his strength also dried up, absorbed by the hot earth of the riverbank. The end of a ship’s short and blunt whistle was flicked out of the air. A motorboat stopped below the customs dock, gasping for air. Across the river, amid the palm groves, a mist mixed with dust swirled up. The glimmer of a life on the run flickered in it, lost among the palm trees.


© Ali Salami 2012

About Jalal Al-e Ahmad

Jalal Al-e-Ahmad was born in the Seyyed Nosrat-edin neighborhood, one of the old districts of Tehran, and grew up in a clerical family originally from Taleghan. His father and uncle were well-known religious figures at the time and his father, due to his beliefs and the integration of religion into all aspects of family life, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become a rightful successor. He therefore sent Jalal Al-e-Ahmad to Najaf to continue his studies in religious studies. However, Jalal, who was not particularly interested in religious studies and religion, refused to continue his education in Najaf. Despite his father’s strong resistance and despair, he continued his studies in evening classes at Darolfonoon High School and graduated from the Teacher Training College in Tehran in 1943 with a degree in Persian language and literature.

In the last years of his studies, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad became acquainted with the works of Ahmad Kasravi and Mohammad Hassan Sharif Sanjelaji, joined the Tudeh Party and therefore dropped out of his doctoral studies in Persian language and literature halfway through. However, he left the Tudeh Party in 1948 and wrote his first story, “Visit and Visit”.

In 1948, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad met and married Simin Daneshvar, Iran’s first female writer, after standing up to his family’s opposition. Together they entered the turbulent social arena of the time and combined literature and politics. With his second work, “Of Our Suffering”,” he depicted the dire situation of political prisoners of the time and became a representative of the people affected by the social problems of the time.

The Iranian writer and translator not only wrote numerous stories, but also social articles, travelogues and anthropological studies and translated several famous works from all over the world into Persian.

After the August 28 coup, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad was not very active politically and occasionally wrote a socio-political article in magazines or independently, but was still under the pressure and surveillance of SAVAK. Consequently, in 1969, after being dismissed from his teaching post by the SAVAK, he went to Asalem in Gilan to go into exile and died there under somewhat suspicious circumstances. According to his sister Shams Al-e-Ahmad, Jalal did not die of natural causes and was probably murdered by the SAVAK, but his wife Simin disagrees.


The best books by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad

Jalal Al-e-Ahmad’s stories are full of everyday slang mixed with folk literature. His prose was concise and sharp and he did not make much use of the usual rules of Persian language and literature of the time, which distinguished his prose from that of other contemporary writers. Below we will discuss some of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad’s best books that show his political and social approach in addition to captivating narratives:

The book “Of Our Suffering”: This is the second work and one of the most important works of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad. It is essentially an autobiography and a description of the inner changes he underwent after his expulsion from the Tudeh Party in 1947. In this book, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad writes about the dire situation of political prisoners and the events that befell him and his fellow prisoners in Pahlavi Prison.

The book “Se-Tar”: This book, which consists of several short stories, takes a detailed and scrutinizing look at the issue of poverty and its effects on society, questioning a superstitious society with extreme beliefs. The stories in this collection are similar in language and structure to the folk tales you hear from people in the streets and markets.

The book “The Superfulous Woman”: In the works of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, the woman is a character who lives in a patriarchal environment, usually has no control over herself and is harassed by men. The book “The Extra Woman” tells the story of one of these unfortunate women who have no independent identity and live in an environment where freedom and equality have no meaning for them.

Also by Jalal Ale- Ahmad: The Superfluous Woman

The book “The Headmistress”: Perhaps the most famous and important work of Jalal Al-e-Ahmad is the book “The Headmistress”,” which was inspired by the writer’s personal life and profession. The story examines the problems and issues of the country’s education system. “The Headmaster” tells the story of a teacher who is tired of teaching and turns to school management for comfort and to earn more money.

The book “A Stone on the Grave”: Like other works by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, this book is also influenced by his personal life and his individual experiences. “A Stone on the Grave” consists of six chapters that deal with the events and happenings surrounding Jalal and Simin’s childlessness. With its charming narrative style, it tells of the problems in Jalal Al-e-Ahmad’s married life and their impact on his relationship with his wife Simin.

It is worth mentioning that Jalal Al-e-Ahmad was not only a writer, but also a capable and skillful translator who translated many works of world literature into Persian, including works such as “The Fruits of the Earth” by André Gide, “Rhinoceros” by Eugène Ionesco and “The Misunderstanding” and “The Stranger” by Albert Camus.

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