Ali Salami

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi: The Garbage Dump [Ashghaldouni]

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi: The Garbage Dump [Ashghaldouni]

When we turned into the next alley, I was completely irritated and angry. My anger at my father had reached boiling point and I was itching to provoke him, to make him angry and shake him to his foundations. My father was stubborn, unfair, never showed consideration for others and always thought only of himself. He preferred to walk as much as possible, loved the remote alleys, knocked on the doors of empty houses, feared the crowded streets and avoided the tourist spots because he believed that compassion and kindness could only be found in ruins. When he got tired, he’d sit in the worst possible places — under the sun, in the middle of an alley, on a lamppost, next to a pile of garbage — places where not a soul passed by, no living creature walked around and the stench was suffocating.

He refused to budge, sulked for hours without moving, constantly complaining about why no one came by, why no one came to help us, then he fell asleep. And when he slept, he’d make strange noises and curl up into himself. When he woke up, he’d scold me for waking him up, why he was in pain again, why he was sometimes cold, then hot again, why he had stomach problems. And I, I never said anything. I didn’t say I didn’t do anything, it wasn’t my fault. For a week we had walked all over the place and hadn’t found anywhere to rest. If we ever got our hands on a scrap of food, my father would gulp most of it down and then vomit it up, cursing me and the world for why he vomited, why nothing remained in his stomach, as if it was all my fault or the world’s fault. If a passerby, an old woman, or even a child gave me or us a few coins, he’d take them from me and spend them on cigarettes, mints, or candy for himself, using it all up and sharing nothing with me. At night he made me sit next to his head until he fell asleep, and in the morning he woke me up with a kick. So I was fed up and wanted to take revenge, hurt him, provoke him, and shake him to his core. But I couldn’t hit my father or call him names; I couldn’t moan, snore, talk in my sleep, sit in the middle of the street, throw up; I didn’t have money to buy candy or breath mints and not give them to him, and I didn’t know how to make him angry. At first, I whistled quietly a few times, but my dad didn’t say anything. I whistled louder, but he still didn’t say anything. I kept going and increased the volume, but he didn’t respond. Then I started singing, counting my steps, not really singing, just counting my steps, “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, oh God, Zahra isn’t our companion. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, oh God, Zahra isn’t our companion”

My father grumbled and shouted, “What are you talking about, you son of a bitch?”

And I shouted even louder, “Oh God, Zahra isn’t our companion, oh God, Zahra isn’t our companion.”

As I increased my pace to get away from him, because I knew he was limping a little and his right shoulder was sagging so he couldn’t catch up with me, I sang with malice, “Sixteen, seventeen, twenty, oh father, Zahra isn’t our mate.”

My father shouted, “Why are you making such a fuss and rejoicing, you donkey’s offspring?”

I replied simply, “Oh mom, Zahra is not our companion.”

My father was furious, “Shut up, pretend to be sensible, what are you dancing around for?”

I said, “How am I supposed to shut up? We haven’t been given anything to eat, we have nowhere to sleep at night, how can I not sing?”

My father said, “If singing fills your stomach, let me know…”

Suddenly his voice faltered, and he turned to two veiled women walking past us and murmured in a weak voice, “By the truth of the martyr Hussein, have mercy on me, a sick man; have mercy on this boy.” The women looked and walked on, and my father sighed deeply and said, “O Most Merciful of the merciful.” I too sighed and said, “Zahra is not our ally.”

Driven to madness, my father shouted, “Cursed wretch, damned dog!” The alley was over and we had reached a street where the shadows of dusk filled the trees and empty corners. The bustle of people and vehicles caused a considerable commotion. As we got closer, my father grabbed my arm and pleaded, “Let’s go back!” To which I replied, “I’m not turning back.”

Desperate, he asked, “What’s got into you? Why won’t you listen to me?” Then my eyes fell on a tall man leaning against a tree at the side of the road with his legs apart, his hands clasped behind him and a belt that was supposed to replace a rosary twisted between his fingers. I pointed him out to my father, “There he is.”

“Who is he?” my father inquired.

“Go and talk to him, maybe he can give you something,” I suggested.

My father hesitated and was torn as to whether he should go towards the man or stay put until I nudged him again and said, “Go on, keep walking.”

My father kept walking and held out his hand, his large palm open, pleading, “Lord, I am an old, sick man stranded in a foreign land, and I am humble. If it is possible for you, please help me so that Abolfazl Abbas can reward you in the hereafter.” When the man turned to us, a shiver ran down my spine. He had a long face with a pointed chin, bulging eyes and two rows of large, bald teeth, as if he had no lips, and held a long, unlit cigarette between them. He glanced at my father and then stared intently at me, standing a little further back. My father withdrew his hand and waited while the man’s gaze remained fixed on me, whereupon my father turned and looked at me. Then he remarked in a thin, uncharacteristic voice, “Aren’t you ashamed to beg?” My father complained, “What choice do we have, sir? If we had one, we wouldn’t shake hands with anyone.”

The man twirled his cigarette stub between his teeth, turned his eyes back to me and asked, “Who is this boy?”

“My servant,” my father replied.

“Why don’t you send him to work? Do you want to thicken his neck with the bread of begging?” the man asked. My desperate father replied, “Oh Lord, where is there work? If you agree, he can come to your big house and serve your children.”

I backed away so as not to give away the stranger’s intentions. What should I do if he suddenly reached out his hand, grabbed me and decided, “Well, come with me,” and dragged me into his big house? What kind of place was his big house? A mansion in the wilderness with numerous courtyards and dark cellars, children of all sizes, all thin and tall, resembling him with big eyes and cigarettes between their teeth, calling me with feminine voices from the depths of the secluded rooms and demanding that I serve them all?

But the stranger wasn’t thinking about that, his mind seemed to be somewhere else entirely. He turned away and stared at the sidewalk across from us. I tapped my father on the arm to signal that we were leaving. My father nodded slightly and winked at me as if to say, “Wait, let’s see what happens.” Suddenly, the tall man shouted, “Abbas! Abbas!”

From the opposite sidewalk, a limping man jumped into the street and shouted, “At your service, Agha Gilani!” He carefully dodged between the cars and came towards us. He had a round face with a bushy mustache, and part of his forehead was scarred by a burn that had also taken half his eyebrow. As he approached the stranger, he grinned and bared his teeth, whereupon the stranger pinched his upturned nose between two fingers and asked, “Where have you been, mustache?” Abbas replied, “And where have you been, Agha Gilani?”

“I’ve been waiting for you here for more than half an hour, son of the dead mother,” replied Agha Gilani.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” said Abbas.

I clung to my father’s arm and was about to leave when Agha Gilani, without turning to us, said, “Wait a moment!”

My father stopped and I was relieved that the stranger had not hatched any sinister plans for us. But my father was not deterred by such concerns and stood patiently, even if it meant enduring a barrage of insults instead of a handful of coins.

Agha Gilani then asked Abbas, “How many have you gathered?”

Abbas replied, “Twenty-seven or twenty-eight.”

“Will they be ready by six o’clock?” Gilani inquired.

“Right at the crossroads, on time,” Abbas confirmed.

Then the man rummaged in his pocket and took out a handful of money. He selected one and handed it to Abbas, who accepted it with a “Ya Ali” and left. Gilani turned to us and announced, “Tomorrow twenty-seven or twenty-eight people will become rich”

My father began his plea anew, “I beg you, Lord, give us the opportunity to become wealthy too. By the grace of God, we deserve it more than these twenty-seven or twenty-eight.” Gilani took the cigarette butt from between his teeth, spat it on the road, put it back and ordered, “Be at the junction by six in the morning.” He gestured down the street and put a few coins in my father’s hand.

As he turned around, he shouted, “Jahangir! Jahangir!” As we walked away, fear gripped me, and my father, whether from fear or excitement, lost his composure so much that he didn’t even say a prayer of thanks. A few steps later, I looked back and saw another burly man without a mustache standing opposite Gilani and having a conversation. My father suggested, “Let’s get something to eat.” Hungry and weakened, I hurried ahead and we turned into a small market. As we passed a soup vendor, my father stopped and ordered, “Two bowls of soup.”

I felt discouraged because I had hoped for something more substantial. The vendor filled two bowls and handed us sandwiches. I remarked, “Soup again?”

“Eat it, it’s warm,” my father urged.

We sat down opposite each other against a wall and shared the bread. My father placed his portion on his knee and took a big bite, followed by a generous spoonful of soup.

“Are we really going tomorrow?” I asked

“Of course we’re going,” he replied.

“I don’t want to go,” I protested.

My father gave me a stern look and asked, “Why not?”

“Haven’t you seen what he looks like? His eyes? His teeth?” I urged.

While he continued to savor his soup, my father said, “What do you care about his eyes or teeth? If they make us rich, we’d be fools not to go there.”

Lost in thought, I played with my soup. My father snapped, “Eat it or it’ll get cold.”

I started to eat, but I wasn’t fully focused. Dazed and distracted, my mind was on the man who was still standing there, rolling his cigarette stub, talking to Jahangir and then reaching into his pocket to pull out a wad of cash and pull out a bill for Jahangir. And just as we were about to leave, he called out, “Wait a minute!” And so we waited.

Also by Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi: The Beggar [Geda]: A Short Story

Jahangir shouted “Ya Ali” and disappeared, while the man turned to us, put the cigarette stub between his teeth and addressed my father, “Will you put your son at the service of my child? In return, I’ll make you rich.”

Suddenly he grabbed my hand and pulled me into a dark alley. Behind us, my father complained, “Where are you taking him? Where are you taking him?” The man, who had his long arm around my neck, led me with long strides to his apartment and kept asking, “Do you want to get rich?” until my father’s voice brought me back to reality and asked, “Lost in thought again?”

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“Eat your soup,” urged my father.

The soup had an unpleasant smell when I took a sip.

“If you don’t like it, don’t waste it. Give it to me,” my father said.

He took my bowl and devoured its contents. We stood up, gave the bowls back and went on our way. I asked, “Where are we going?”

“To the crossroads,” he replied.

“That fast?” I asked.

“What difference does it make if we have to sleep on the side of the road anyway? Let’s sleep at the crossroads,” he reasoned.

“Won’t he come after us in the middle of the night?” I was worried.

“You’ve lost your mind, you’ve really gone mad,” he said. When we reached the crossroads, my father was leaning against a wall, his hand on his heart. “Not that again?” I sighed.

Under his breath, he cursed, “Damn dog! Damn dog!” Then he suddenly collapsed against the wall, groaning. Passers-by turned towards us and a veiled woman asked me, “Is this an attack?”

My father gasped for breath and sat next to me while I begged him to throw up.

Angrily, he replied, “What am I supposed to vomit? Raise what little money we have?” He always despised wasting everything he consumed and it always annoyed me, so I said, “Fine, then suffer.”

He curled up, put his head on his knees, groaned and shifted position. Despite his attempts, he couldn’t relieve himself until he was muttering curses under his breath. I started to rub his shoulders when he suddenly shoved a finger down his throat and the soup he had just consumed gushed out. After cleaning his mouth, he took a deep breath, calmed down and complained of cold, which made him shiver.

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Find somewhere warm to hide,” he suggested.

Not knowing where to find warmth, I noticed a boy coming out of a phone booth. “Do you want to sleep in there?” I suggested to my father. Shivering, he entered the cell and warned, “Stay here!”

I sat down next to the booth, my legs over the gutter. The street was busy, cars came and went, the surrounding area was shrouded in darkness. To ease my fear, I mumbled, “Oh God, Zahra isn’t with us, oh father, Zahra isn’t with us.”

My father opened the cabin door, crawled in and asked, “Have you had enough, you dog? Have you peed yourself?”

“I’m not bothering you,” I replied.

Frustrated, he shouted, “Should I starve, suffer pain or endure your horrible singing?”

“You only hear me and not the cars or people? Why do you only swear at me?” I asked.

He growled, slammed the door and left me in silence. A few moments later, through the glass, I saw my father crouching inside, knees pressed to his chest as if watching his own heart, eyes tightly closed to hold back the tears. As I turned away, I noticed the man across the street watching us. I lay down next to the booth, curled up, closed my eyes and time passed until my fears overwhelmed me and I imagined the man standing over me, waiting for me to open my eyes to sort things out. So I fell asleep until my father shook me awake at dawn with a kick and called me a donkey.

When I got up, the sky was gloomy, dawn hadn’t yet broken and a group had gathered around a car at the crossroads. “That’s them,” my father said.

My fear dissipated and we approached the car where Abbas was sitting on the bumper eating bread and eggs, his burn scars growing with each bite. When he spotted us, he asked, “Are you the working people?” My father humbly replied, “God bless you, Lord.”

“Get in,” Abbas ordered.

We went to the back of the car, where the top was up and a dozen people were sitting. My father snapped, “Why are you standing? Get in!”

I held on to the edge of the car and heaved myself up. The passengers watched me in silence as my father shouted from below, “Take my hand!”

I grabbed his hand and urged, “Come up.”

But he replied with bitter resignation, “I can’t, I can’t. You’ll have to pull me up.” Someone from below lifted my father up by the legs and I heaved him into the truck. He looked around at the astonished faces, then remembered his manners and greeted everyone loudly. Only a few mumbled a reply. We settled down next to each other. An old man sat opposite us with his head bowed, smoking a cigarette. Next to the old man, two young men were whispering to each other, one of whom was noticeably pale. A young woman with a small child on her lap occasionally looked around, her baby was making noises but not crying. Everyone seemed to be lost in thought or dozing, except for a thin man with glasses who was reading a book indifferently. My father whispered to me, “Ask where they’re taking us.”

I shrugged my shoulders and he mumbled something under his breath and clicked his tongue in annoyance. Not knowing who to ask and doubting that anyone knew our destination, the old man across from us lifted his head, intoned “La ilaha illallah” and looked at me and then at my father with seemingly bottomless eyes. My father nudged me to signal that it was time to ask. Just as I was about to say something, the old man lowered his eyes again and the young men stopped whispering. A man next to my father, who appeared to be asleep, asked without opening his eyes, “What time is it?”

The man with the book looked at his watch and announced, “They should start now.” My father blessed them, perhaps unnecessarily, “May God grant them long life and increase their honor.” Some turned to him, the baby whimpered, and outside someone announced loudly, “The ride is here.”

Several people hurriedly got in and made room for three people, while the rest remained seated on the floor of the truck. Through the rear window of the truck, I saw the driver, who was wearing a military cap, take a seat behind the wheel. Abbas joined him on the passenger side, followed by another slim man, also wearing a military cap. One of the new arrivals complained, “That bastard always keeps us waiting for an hour.” Another added, “He only turns up when he’s got his head and collar.” The old man next to my father cursed, “May he choke on it, God willing.”

When the engine started, everything began to shake; the engine roared like a boiling pot. Abbas lit a cigarette and began to comb his hair. My father, who was now wide awake, leaned towards me and whispered, “Everything seems to be going smoothly.”

“What things?” I asked.

“Just be patient,” he snapped, nudging me with his elbow.

The truck jerked forwards and backwards to break away and then suddenly drove on. In the blink of an eye, we had passed several intersections, rounded a large square and entered a long street. In the faint light of dawn, I saw trees standing still and quiet, their branches adorned with something soft and white. The road was quiet, with only the occasional cyclist passing by, whom we quickly overtook and lost in the distance. The next road was narrow and dark, as if the night was still clinging to it. The man with the book closed it because he couldn’t read any further in the heavy atmosphere.

The man in front of him raised his head and grumbled, “Will the damn sun ever rise?” My father sighed, “Oh, the most merciful of the merciful.” The two young men exchanged a joke and laughed quietly. The truck turned into a busier street, still lit by streetlights, and the sound of a distant man singing reached us. We passed a bakery whose lights looked inviting. By the time we reached the next street, day had broken and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the truck slowed down. We all looked out; even my father looked around. A luxurious car honked as it passed us and we turned into an alley and stopped a few steps later. Everyone stood up and jumped down one by one. My father needed help to get out, so the man with the book and I helped him. Tall buildings lined both sides of the alley. Everyone went in through a narrow door; we followed and climbed the stairs. However, everyone went through a shorter door below the stairs, and we did the same.

We entered a narrow, long corridor lit by a few lights, with benches on either side. At the end of the hallway, behind a large wooden table, sat Gilani, fresh and cheerful, eyes alert, rolling an unlit cigarette butt between his cheeks. No one greeted him except my father. Everyone turned to him but didn’t answer. The young woman and the old man sat down on the first bench, my father and I sat down next to them. The others sat on the benches, some crouched against the wall, and the two young men stood on either side of the entrance. Everyone was quiet and sleepy. A few were smoking, and the man with the book opened it again to read. Gilani grinned at him, and the others looked over at him. The door opened and a slender man waving a rosary peered in, surveyed the room and was about to leave when Gilani called out from behind the desk, “Come in!”

“It’s too crowded,” the man protested.

Mr. Gilani said, “Come back in an hour.”

His companion replied, “Do you want me to starve for another hour?”

Mr. Gilani replied, “You’ve endured a lifetime of hunger, so one more hour won’t matter.”

The attendant closed the door and left Mr. Gilani alone with his laughter, which he didn’t finish. He took his cigarette from the table, put it back between his lips and asked, “Is everyone else hungry?”

A few nodded, while a young woman’s baby began to cry. Mr. Gilani barked, “Shut that child up!” The woman moved, covered the baby with her shawl and nursed it at her breast. The baby calmed down until suddenly the far door of the room swung open and a man came in with his coat. Gilani casually placed a twenty-toman bill on the table; the man put on his coat, pocketed the money and left.

Mr. Gilani turned to the young woman and ordered, “Go inside.” As she let go of the baby, its whimpers filled the room. “Don’t let it cry,” he ordered sternly. The woman tried desperately to calm the child and didn’t know who to give it to as everyone’s heads were down. “Give it to the old man,” Gilani instructed her, and she handed the baby to an elderly man sitting nearby and then disappeared behind a door. The baby cried even louder, wriggling and stretching as if trying to reach for something invisible. Gilani snapped, “Shut that mutt up!”

The old man rocked the baby, and Gilani shouted, “I told you to shut it up!”

“What do you want me to do?” the old man muttered. A man engrossed in a book suggested, “It’s hungry and needs milk.” The old man replied, “And where can we get milk here?”

Frustrated, Gilani slammed his cigarette on the table, “Put some in his mouth.” The old man looked around desperately until he agreed to offer his little finger, which the baby began to suck on and calm down. A reader giggled without taking his eyes off his book, prompting Gilani to inquire about the joke. The reader replied dismissively, “You don’t get it; just stick to your thing.”

Perturbed, Gilani asked, “Lost in thought again?” and murmured a prayer for divine assistance.

The young woman reappeared, pale and weak, and dropped onto a bench. Gilani remarked unimpressed, “Don’t let us faint now, we’ve run out of patience.” He placed another twenty-toman bill on the table and said to the old man, “Your turn.”

The old man protested, “Let someone else go.” Gilani pointed at me, and when I stood up, my father joined me. “One at a time,” Gilani emphasized. “We’re father and son,” my father explained.

We pushed our way through the door into a large basement flanked by large refrigerators. Some areas were dark and possibly led to other underground rooms. Glass bottles were stacked in the corners, and at opposite ends were two beds, each with a tripod and a blood-stained bucket. A glass table on wheels was laden with needles, knives and strange tools. The indistinct figures, all dressed in white, moved in and out of the shadows.

One approached, dabbed our fingers with absorbent cotton and then pricked mine to draw blood and smear it on a slide. My father protested loudly when it was his turn. “You’re taking my blood? I can barely keep myself alive.”

“What’s wrong with you?” the figure inquired.

“Constant pain, nothing stays down, I vomit blood a lot,” my father confessed.

Then the figure turned to me, “And you?”

“He’s fine, he’s eating like a horse,” my father assured me.

The figure disappeared into the shadows and my father lit a cigarette and commented on the friendliness of these mysterious people. A tall, thin man with dark glasses emerged from the darkness and collected bloody glasses in a box, while another, humming a tune, picked up a small pair of scissors and disappeared. “They work so hard,” my father whispered.

Then the first man came up to me with an empty glass and instructed me, “Lie down.”

Mr. Gilani pointed to one of the beds. I stood up, took off my coat and stretched out on the bed. The orderly wheeled a stool over, rolled up my sleeve and dabbed my arm with absorbent cotton. He sniffed and told me, “Close your eyes.” I obeyed and suddenly it felt as if a bee had stung my hand.

“Hold still,” he murmured and held my hand tightly to prevent any movement. Curiosity almost got the better of me, but his stern command to keep my eyes closed kept me in check. I felt comfortable in the warmth of the underground. I had almost fallen asleep and wished I’d never get up again and not open my eyes. The murmur of his voice reached me, telling my father, “You’re in a bad way, old man. You need the hospital.”

My father’s weak reply, “I don’t see how,” was followed by a reassuring, “I’ll take care of your needs”

Blessings were whispered and I lay still, hearing the clink of glass and a deep voice from the shadows warning me, “Rahman, don’t make any mistakes!”

Another voice assured me, “Everything is fine,” and then silence fell. A whistle broke the silence, followed by a distant laugh, and a breath brushed my face. When I opened my eyes, I saw a big-nosed man staring at me with a disturbing laugh. I closed my eyes fearfully as the deep voice from afar asked, “What’s for lunch?” A chorus of voices chimed in, “We’ve got everything.”

Also by Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi: The Game is Over [Bazi Tamoumeh]

A hand on my arm brought the sting back and the man whispered, “Get up.” I stood up and saw that the glass on the chair was filled with blood. The man untied the tube and threw it into a bucket full of blood-stained tubes writhing like worms. The drops of blood mingled with others and occasionally pulsated.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said. My father and I climbed up from the cellar. The man following us opened the door and informed Mr. Gilani, “Just one.”

Mr. Gilani placed a twenty-toman bill on the table, which I took. We made our way through the crowd and arrived outside. My father asked about my pain, which I denied. Suddenly he snatched the bill from me and demanded it back. He pocketed the twenty toman bill and announced at the end of the alley, “Now you have to take me to the hospital.”

He showed me a piece of paper he was holding in his hand. I protested, “I’m starving and about to faint.”

My father complained, “May misfortune befall you! Do you care more about yourself than your father?”

It was midday when we arrived at the hospital. The doors were closed and people were standing behind the gates, pleading. The porter, who had pulled down his cap, was scolding those on the other side. As we got closer, my father asked for divine intervention. The gatekeeper replied that visiting hours were over, but that didn’t help.

“We’ve only just arrived,” my father said.

“Worse for you,” replied the gatekeeper.

I stepped forward and mentioned that we had a letter waiting for someone inside. I handed the letter to the gatekeeper, who looked at it briefly and asked if Mr. Gilani had sent us.

“Yes, and he sends his regards to you all,” said my father.

The doorman partially opened the door and caused a rush. He only let us through and closed the door behind us. We entered a huge garden flanked by flower beds and towering trees, behind which stood white buildings. My father asked which way we should go and the gatekeeper pointed to the first building. We wound our way through the trees to the large glass doors.

As we were about to enter, a disheveled man blocked our way and inquired about our request. Before my father could answer, I interjected, “Our boss sent us.”

The man looked at us with a distorted face, but we pushed our way through the door. A young woman intercepted us. I pointed to my father and explained that he was unwell.

“Too late, we’re closed,” she said.

“My boss sent us and he insisted that we come,” my father added.

With an impatient sigh, she stepped aside and we entered. A man in white, who was rearranging goods among the tins, looked up and asked, “Yes?” The woman told him that the manager had requested an examination for my father.

The doctor looked at me questioningly and asked if I was in. I opened the door and stepped into the empty corridor, where quiet laughter and chatter drifted down from upstairs. I wandered around, looking at the pictures hanging here and there, until I heard a woman singing from a slightly ajar door. I peeked in on tiptoe and found a plump woman on the bed, pulling up her skirt and tugging at the hair around her knees with a pair of tweezers. When she caught sight of me, she asked with a giggle, “What do you want?”

I backed away, but she called out, “Boy, hey boy!” I approached the door where she was sitting rubbing her knee and asked, “Why are you leaving?”

“I’m not going,” I replied.

“What brings you here?” she inquired.

“I came with my father.”

She stood up, looked me over from head to toe and remarked, “Thank God, you brought your father? Where is he?”

She pointed to the room where my father was and said, “Good, then let him stay there.”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me in, whereupon I followed her. “What’s wrong with your father?” she asked.

“He’s ill and not in good shape,” I explained.

“And you? Are you all right? Are you happy?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Why don’t you know? You must be happy. How old are you?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You’re trying too shy, clearly around seventeen or eighteen, your mustache is starting to show. Have you become a man? It seems like you’re.” She grabbed a lemon, laughing, and spun around to face me and herself, as if contemplating an action but unable to decide. “Are you going to bring your father back here?”

“I don’t know.”

“If not him, then come alone. Say you’re here to see Zahra, okay?”

“All right.”

She bent down, took a few apples from under the bed and handed them to me, saying, “Eat, they’re good.”

At that moment, my father’s voice rang out from the hallway, “Where are you, you mutt?” I hurried out and Zahra followed me. My father, standing at the door, was shaking, “There’s no cure for me, we have to go somewhere else.”

“Where to?” Zahra asked.

“My dear, I don’t know,” my father replied, showing her the paper he was holding.

“Wait,” Zahra said, pushing through the door. My father muttered something about the futility of it all, but Zahra came back and said, “Let’s go.”

We walked back into the garden, Zahra leading the way, my father and I following. Panting, Zahra assured us, “Your father is in a bad way, but don’t worry. They’ll treat him wherever we go. I’ll make sure he’s treated immediately and in return you’ll visit me here every day. I’ll give you everything you want.”

She held my hand tightly and led us to another building, down a flight of stairs and into a dim hallway. While she was adjusting her coat, Zahra knocked on a door. Inside sat two women and a man eating grapes. They turned to us when one of the women, who was wearing glasses, asked, “What’s going on, Zahra?”

Zahra explained, “I’m sorry to disturb you. This older man, my sister’s husband, is in trouble. He needs your help.”

She took the paper from my father and handed it to the bespectacled woman, who began to read. Zahra asked for their help and promised them anything her heart desired. The others laughed, and the woman with the glasses half-smiled and checked a notebook before announcing a twenty-day wait for an appointment. Zahra shouted in panic, “Twenty days? What are they supposed to do in the meantime? They don’t have a home or the means. Can you really wait half an hour for them to last twenty days?”

The man, biting into a grape, suggested, “Write it down for tomorrow morning, we’re out of time.”

Zahra replied gratefully, “God bless you, doctor, and all of you.”

The woman scribbled something on the note and gave it back to Zahra with the instruction, “Come first thing in the morning.”

Zahra promised to follow it and wished the woman a speedy marriage. Outside, Zahra handed me the note and my father said a prayer for her. Zahra raised her eyebrows and signaled with a “Shh!” Silence

My father fell silent as we made our way through the garden, Zahra and I leading the way and my father following behind. Zahra remarked, “Your father is quite a fool. If they’d heard him, they’d think I’d set them up.” Then she turned to my father, “Be here in the morning, okay?”

My father replied, “We’re not going anywhere, ma’am. We’re just going to sleep behind the gates until morning.” As we approached the exit, the gate guard who was peeking through the bars turned to us and said to Zahra, “That guy’s back.”

“Which one?” Zahra inquired. “The same one who’s been coming here for a week and is after Mrs. Nejat!”

The doorman pointed to the man standing on the street corner. Zahra hurried ahead and asked, “Did he manage to get up there?”

The gatekeeper laughed, “That damn dog is pretty lively, I can assure you.”

When my father and I reached the gate, the gatekeeper opened it for us. Zahra said to the gatekeeper, “Ahmad Agha, these two are my relatives.” Ahmad Agha replied, “We got taken care of their situation.”

“Take care of them,” Zahra advised.

As we left the hospital grounds, Zahra called out from behind the bars, “Just sleep here, I’ll check on you later.” We walked away from the bars and I started to eat one of the apples Zahra had given me. My father asked, “Where did you go?” He handed him an apple and we ate as we walked further away and settled by a water channel.

“This place is much better than the others,” my father mused, “maybe our luck will change here and I’ll feel better, then maybe I can eat something.” When he had finished his apple, he asked, “Have you got any more?” I replied, “They’re all gone.”

He frowned, “You ate them all yourself?”

Irritated, I replied mischievously, “If you eat too much, you’ll throw up!”

His eyes widened, “What business is it of yours if I do that?”

“If you didn’t throw up, I’d have given you more,” I said. “Give me,” he demanded. “That’s all I had,” I replied. He raised his fist, slapped me lightly and said, “Now you’ve done it.”

“Are you feeling better?” I asked.

He replied, “Of course I do.” He lit a cigarette and put his hand on his chest.

“Do you want another drag?” I teased him.

He growled, “Shut up!”

“Touch me if you dare,” I challenged him. Annoyed, he shouted, “If you keep yapping like that, I’ll shut you up for good!” I always had to laugh when my father said, “I’ll shut you up.” We sat in silence for a few moments and watched each other.

“Are we going to sit here until tomorrow?” I asked. “If you don’t want to, get up,” he replied. “I’m happy to sit,” I said. He mumbled, “Then keep your mouth shut.”

“Who’s the chatterbox, you or me?” I countered. His eyes narrowed, “By God, I’m going to hit you so hard you won’t get up!” “You always hit me, didn’t you just do it now? Go on, hit me again!” He looked at me, perhaps feeling a tinge of pity. He suggested, “How about we get up and take a walk around the neighborhood?”

“I don’t feel like it, my legs are giving out,” I replied. He rummaged in his pocket, took out a few coins and handed them to me, “Go and buy something.” I stood up and hadn’t even reached the middle of the street when he called out to me, “Hey, kid! Buy something I can eat too!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll buy you something you can eat your fill of,” I assured him. At that moment, I noticed Zahra waving to me from the other side of the fence. I hurried back and reached the fence, where Zahra pointed to a pot and shouted, “Look, hot lunch!”

I climbed over the fence, grabbed the pot and before I could climb back down, my father reached me, snatched the pot out of my hand and eagerly started eating next to the curb. Zahra laughed, “The old man must be starving, isn’t he?”

“It’s always like that with him,” I said. “Don’t worry about it, poor guy,” she replied. “I don’t, it’s none of my business,” I said.

“Just keep me in your thoughts, okay?” she suggested. “Okay,” I agreed. “How would you like to be my own son?” she offered. I fell silent and she looked me in the eye, “Then I’d find you a wife!”

I said nothing and she continued, “Don’t you want a wife?” “I don’t know,” I replied. “You don’t know what a woman tastes like?” she teased, “How should I know?” I shrugged my shoulders.

She laughed, “Poor thing, come a little closer!” She moved forward and her face was very close to the fence, her breath heavy from the smell of onions. She grimaced and asked if I didn’t like her jokes. I laughed and played along, enjoying the carefree moment.

As people came closer, Zahra withdrew and promised to come back in the afternoon. “Be here, okay?” she said. “Okay,” I confirmed and turned back to my father, who was busy with his food, and asked him if he was trying to choke. He looked down almost tearfully and mumbled that it was his first bite.

When I saw that most of the pot was empty, my annoyance grew. I took a bigger bite and my father teased, “Who’s going to choke now?” Annoyed, I threw the morsel on the street and shouted, “Bloody hell!”

He laughed and asked why I was wasting God’s gifts. He turned around, spread his legs, held the pot between them and carefully formed a larger bite, which he popped into his mouth despite its size.

In the late afternoon, my father wasn’t feeling well. He was lying against the wall and breathing in short bursts. After vomiting a few times, his complexion had turned pale and yellowish; his eyes were swollen, his eyelids were trembling and his hands were shaking aimlessly. I sat on the side of the road, feeling miserable and impatient, waiting for my father to fall asleep so I could walk out onto the busy street with the trees and bustling activity across the street. At that moment, I heard Zahra’s voice. She was standing behind the fence and grinning at me. I got up and walked over to her.

She asked in a playful tone, “What are you doing?”

I replied, “Not much.”

She grabbed my hand firmly and asked, “Boring, huh?” I pulled my hand back without answering and she looked around before suggesting, “Do you want to come in and look around the hospital?”

“Sure, I’d love to,” I replied eagerly.

She pointed to the other end of the fence and instructed me, “Go from that end and jump over here.” As I started to move, my father called out weakly, “Where are you going now?” I told him, “The woman says to go into the house.”

Without another word, I walked to the end of the fence, climbed onto a platform, pulled myself up and jumped into the garden. When I landed, I found myself over a large pit filled with broken, rusty containers and rubble, with the tail of a distressed cat twitching underneath. Just a few steps further on, Zahra caught up with me with a broad smile. Then we stealthily made our way past the trees to the large buildings, where many faces were pressed against the windows looking out. Zahra held my hand again and asked, “Have you ever been in a hospital?”

“I came this afternoon,” I replied.

She continued, “That’s right, you did. Do you like it here?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

She laughed and said, “I really like it here. It’s fun, you know?”

“That’s good,” I said, somewhat reassured.

As I was about to withdraw my hand, she took it again and began to describe the hospital from her point of view. She explained to me that some people think hospitals are places where people either die or get better, but for her it was a place full of life and activities. There were weddings, parties and even games of chance and readings in the quieter hours. It was a place where you could quickly fit in and find a sense of belonging amidst the chaos.

Suddenly we reached the back of a storeroom and came face to face with a thin man with a thin mustache shouting, “Those bloody idiots, if I don’t put them out of work by tomorrow!”

Zahra stepped forward and inquired, “What happened, Mr. Emami?”

Annoyed, he replied, “What else? All these fools can do is eat and sleep. They’ve all gone on vacation and there’s no one to pick up the chicken and egg deliveries. And our director, bless him, would rather sleep than worry about it.”

Zahra suggested, “Why not send Ismail?”

Mr. Emami scoffed, “That thief? So he can steal half of it and then pretend it’s none of his business? I’m not in charge of the storeroom, you know.”

“Then how about you accompany the kitchen apprentice?” Zahra suggested.

Frustrated, Mr. Emami ran his fingers through his hair and shouted, “There’s no one available, everyone’s busy. They’d rather let the government’s bread go to waste.”

Then his eyes fell on me and I took a step back because I was reminded of Mr. Gilani’s intense gaze.

He turned to Zahra and asked, “And who is this young man?”

Zahra introduced me, “He’s my cousin who has just come from the countryside.”

“Is he sharp enough?” Asked Mr. Emami.

“Yes, he’s quite capable and in good shape,” Zahra assured me.

“Can he go with Ismail and get this done?” he asked.

“Of course he can,” Zahra confirmed confidently.

Mr. Emami breathed a sigh of relief and called out happily, “Good, good, then that’s settled. Perfect!” As he hurried into the house, Zahra admonished me, “Watch what you say!” I protested, “But I can’t…” Zahra interrupted me, “It doesn’t matter. You just get in the car, drive off and come back.” I was worried, “What about my father?” She assured me, “I’ll let him know.”

Mr. Emami was waiting outside and announced with a grin, “I’ve called, he’ll be here any minute.”

Then he inquired, “What’s your name?”

“Ali,” I replied.

He joked, “By the right of Imam Ali, I hope you don’t turn out to be a thief; come in and we’ll see.” In the large storage room, he pointed out several boxes of chicken pictures among stacks of boxes and various items and explained, “You have to collect twenty of these boxes.”

I asked, “Where from?”

He explained, “From the chicken farm. You know how to count, don’t you?”

“Of course,” I confirmed.

He playfully patted me on the back and giggled, “All right, smart guy, twenty of these crates and a hundred slaughtered chickens, got it?” I agreed, “Sounds good.” He warned me and pointed upwards, “Make sure Ismail doesn’t steal anything.” I voiced my concern, “But I can’t overpower him.” He advised me, “You don’t need to confront him; if he tries anything, just let me know

When we stepped outside, a white van was parked near the storage room and Ismail was talking to Zahra. Mr. Emami loudly instructed her, “Ismail, my dear, take this note and go with this young man to pick up the chickens, and come back quickly.” Ismail approached, took the note from Mr. Emami and looked at me before saying, “Let’s go.”

He got into the van first, followed by me, and drove off. He crumpled up the note that Mr. Emami had given him and put it in his pocket. As we drove past the hospital on the main road, I saw patients loitering outside in crumpled white dresses and flip-flops, their toes peeking out. When we reached the gate, Ahmad opened it and cheerfully told me, “Come back with your hands full!” Ismail muttered to himself, “Yeah, sure, as if.”

When I saw my father sitting huddled against the fence, my heart sank. As we drove further away from the hospital, Ismail looked at me again and asked, “Who are you?”

I explained, “I’m Zahra’s nephew who has just come from the country.”

He grumbled, “Zahra’s nephew, eh? Where is all this going?”

Then he asked pointedly, “So they hired you to spy on me?”

I hastily assured him, “No, I swear.”

He snapped at me, “Don’t swear, boy. I’m not an idiot.”

Not wanting to provoke him any further, I kept quiet. When he turned into another street, he calmed down a little, “You’re not going to tell on me, are you?”

I replied, “That’s none of my business.”

He eyed me suspiciously, “Are you kidding me?”

I insisted, “No, sir, I…”

He interrupted me, “My name isn’t ‘sir’, my name is Ismail, understand?” I knew his name was Ismail, but I kept quiet and frowned in response. He lit a cigarette and asked, “How old are you, boy?” I replied, “I don’t know.”

He grinned, “You’re playing dumb, aren’t you?”

I enlightened him, “What do you mean?”

He concluded, “Never mind, it’s not important.”

I just replied, “Okay.”

He challenged me, “Don’t just say ‘okay’. Stand up for yourself.”

I asked, “What does that mean?”

He explained to me, “When someone swears, you swear back even harder. When it comes to hitting, don’t back down and don’t let them hit you. If I hit you, you hit back immediately. If you don’t, you’ll always get pushed around, and shirkers don’t survive long in this hellhole. So, what do you say?”

I asked timidly, “So you want me to curse you?”

He laughed, “No, kid. I just want to see if you can talk tough.”

I assured him, “It’s all good, very good.”

Delighted, he said, “Some people think Ismail is an idiot, even crazy. They don’t know that I’ve got a lot on my plate. So, how old are you?”

I guessed, “Sixteen, seventeen, I’m not sure.”

He remarked, “You’re pretty tall for your age.”

I didn’t answer, whereupon he suddenly shouted, “Relax, boy! What’s that look for?”

I jumped up and he burst out laughing and quickly turned into another street. He asked, “Do you know the name of this street?”

I replied, “No, how should I know?” He said, “It’s called Kindness Street.”

“So?” I inquired.

“Does it really make a difference to you and me what this dump is called?” he replied.

I conceded, “No, it makes no difference.”

“Swear on your life!” he urged.

“On your life!” I repeated, to which he frowned.

“That’s mean, swearing on my life so quickly!” he scolded.

“You asked me to,” I defended myself.

“Even if I had, where’s your decency? You could at least have pretended to swear on your own life. You know, that’s what the dishonorable ones do, who put their lives above others.”

We turned into another street, bathed in bright sunlight that forced us to squint. I glanced back at the trunk and noticed two black benches on either side, surrounded by straps, rings, and other jewelry, and in the middle, something that resembled a coffin wrapped in a bloodstained cloth. “What are you looking at?” Shouted Ismail Agha.

“What is all this?” I asked.

“Forget that for now. Tell me, what’s the name of this street?” he deflected.

We entered a wide, tree-lined street whose name I didn’t know. Ismail Agha playfully poked me in the knee and said, “Don’t bother guessing. You won’t know. It has a foreign name. Do you know any foreign names?”

“No, not by any stretch of the imagination,” I replied, to which he replied, beaming, “God bless this honor. Stay alive, my boy. How about we have a few beers on the way back? Ever had one?”

“No,” I admitted. “Then you won’t get your first glass from me, will you?”

“Sure,” I agreed, and he added, “I drink because I wonder why not? We’re all going to die in the end, aren’t we? So we might as well enjoy it. Life is too unpredictable, nothing to live for. You’re not just hanging around aimlessly, are you?”

“I suppose I’m,” I confessed.

“That’s how all decent people are, and then look at this! Imam, the unfortunate one, thinks he’s better than a thousand donkeys just because he manages a warehouse.”

As we drove on, we reached a dusty road flanked by a narrow stream where women were washing dishes and clothes and children were playing on a fallen tree. Ismail Agha stopped the car, I got out and walked towards a large iron gate that opened halfway to reveal a small man with a scarf around his head. When he saw the car, he opened both gates wide. We drove into a compound with several buildings and a large, muddy green pond overshadowed by a massive iron pump. Ismail Agha greeted a plump man and inquired about the master’s whereabouts. “Behind building number three,” the man said.

As we walked past the buildings, Ismail Agha murmured, “Look at the chickens, tens of thousands of them. Can you imagine whose stomachs they’ll end up in? God forbid!” We came across people with scarves around their heads carrying empty baskets and eventually passed behind one of the buildings where a group had gathered around a large fountain. A man holding woven belts called out, “Come and see! If Haj Zamardi hadn’t been so stubborn, this wouldn’t have happened.”

As we approached the well, someone tapped Ismail Agha on the back and pointed to another spot. As we turned around, we saw several men with their pants rolled up carrying baskets of tiny, clean chicks, which they threw into the well, their soft chirping echoing until it was drowned out by the louder cries of the next group. Ismail Agha began to speak, “The master, these…” when someone interjected, “There’s nothing I can do to prevent the loss. The profit has to be made somehow. Let’s see who loses in this deal.”

As the baskets were emptied, the men holding them hurried back. A chick hanging by a thread from one of the baskets was torn off and fell to the ground. I secretly picked it up and put it in my pocket. Ismail Agha handed a document to the master, who scribbled something underneath and passed it on to a gaunt old man in a torn straw hat. We continued our walk, and as we rounded the building, we met more men coming out with their full baskets. In one of them sat a black chick with elongated feathers on its white ones, screaming in terror. We took the crates out of the warehouse, loaded the car and drove off. Ismail Agha lit a cigarette and muttered, “Damn it!”, and I whispered, “The poor little ones!”

“Do you know what they’ll sprinkle on them afterwards? Just wait,” Ismail Agha said as I reached into my pocket and felt the little life inside. Ismail Agha turned to me and demanded, “Hey, get it out, let me see.”

I took it out, and its tiny heart pulsed like a little knot under my fingers. Ismail Agha threw his cigarette out of the window, took the chick from me, kissed it and said, “Too bad we can’t take it to the hospital; we’d both be reprimanded immediately.”

“What should we do then?” I inquired. He handed the chick back to me and said, “Wait, we’ll stop at Ali Beg on the way. I’ll have a few glasses to soothe my headache and you take something for your stomach. Then we’ll tell him to look after the little girl. Ali Beg is a good man, he never says no. We’ll both check on him weekly.”

“All right,” I agreed.

At nightfall, I found my father across the road next to a ditch, deep in his cigarette.

When he spotted me, he scolded me, “You bastard, where have you been?” “I was with Ismail Agha,” I replied.

He got angry, “You had no right to leave without telling me. Didn’t Zahra tell you?”

“She did, but it would have been better if you had told me yourself. So what did you get?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.

He stood up half in disbelief, “Nothing? You go out and come back empty-handed?”

“Yes, I swear I got nothing,” I said, as he suddenly grabbed me by the arm and demanded, “Take it out, now!”

“Get what out?” I asked, confused. “The money and everything you got,” he said insistently. I freed myself from his grip and admitted, “All I’ve is a bowl of beans from Ismail Agha…”

He interrupted me and asked, “What did you do with them?”

“I ate them,” I said.

“You could have eaten poison, why didn’t you bring me any?” he replied. “What do you want me to buy for you?”

I asked, “Do we even have money to go shopping?” he countered. “Let’s go to the railings, maybe Zahra will bring us something,” I suggested. We both got up and crossed the road to the dark garden. The hospital buildings were lit up and a car, which I assumed belonged to Ismail Agha, turned around the warehouse and disappeared into the darkness. We paced back and forth and waited until my father became impatient, “Where is it? Why isn’t he coming? Doesn’t he know I’m hungry?”

“Maybe he doesn’t know,” I offered. He grabbed me by the arm, “Then you have to tell him.”

“They won’t let me in at this time of night,” I said. “How can they not let you in? They have to,” he insisted and dragged me to Ahmad Agha’s door, where he was sitting with two others smoking a hookah.

I shouted through the railing, “Ahmad Agha, Ahmad Agha!” They all turned and looked at us. Ahmad Agha stood up and asked, “What’s going on?”

“Open the door,” I said. He handed someone his hookah and came over. When he saw me, he asked, “Is it you, boy? What do you want?”

“I’ve to see my aunt; I want to go to her,” I explained.

“At this time of night?” he asked as a car drove up, its headlights illuminating Ahmad Agha’s face.

He explained, “Fine, I’ll send you in with this one!”, opened both gates and instructed the driver, “Please drop this boy off at building number three.”

As I opened the back door of the van, a voice warned me, “Be careful with that box, boy!”

A box of blood was placed on the back seat. I carefully sat down in it and caught a glimpse of Mr. Gilani’s profile in the mirror, a thick cigar clenched between his teeth. As we drove off, he grumbled something to himself. As we approached building three, he tilted the mirror, looked at me a few times and asked, “Where have I seen you before?”

“I saw you this morning,” I replied to Mr. Gilani’s question.

“How many times have you done that?” he asked.

“The first time,” I replied.

“Oh, then we still have a lot to do together,” he remarked. When we reached building three, he slowed down and asked me to get out, which I did. Then he sped off and turned into another street. I pushed open the glass door and stepped inside. The corridor was deserted. I tiptoed towards Zahra’s room and was about to knock when I heard several voices from upstairs. I listened carefully; it was Zahra’s voice, loud and clear, “They should bury that fat old witch. Come downstairs and we’ll see what we can do”

I hurriedly climbed the stairs and as I came around the landing, I saw Zahra standing on one side of a coffin with another plump woman. Zahra’s face lit up when she saw me, “Is it you? Thank God, come up quickly!” Then she turned to the other woman, “You’ve been in this hospital for four years and you’re still afraid of the dead?”

The chubby woman retreated to one of the rooms and Zahra said with a smile, “I never thought I’d see you here. Help me take the deceased to the mosque, let’s see what happens then.” We lifted the coffin and made our way downstairs. I lay on my back, while Zahra bent her elbows to prevent the body from slipping. As we came down the stairs, two girls stopped arm in arm when they saw us. They stepped aside as Zahra called out, “Say a prayer!” and we giggled and put the coffin down. The girls circled us suspiciously and one with a red scarf around her neck asked, “What happened to her?”

“She danced the tango with the Grim Reaper,” Zahra replied jokingly and laughed again.

The other girl nudged the first and suggested that they should leave.

Zahra called after them, “Go on, but tell this Fatti ‘the bitch’ not to be too coy. If my nephew hadn’t come, how would I have managed to bring that old hag down?”

The girls gave me a look and hurried up the stairs. We lifted the coffin again and continued our descent. Zahra pushed open a gate at the bottom and we stepped into the dimly lit cellar, which was filled with all sorts of odds and ends, broken beds, heaters, tripods, iron bars and several coffins. In one coffin lay a corpse with a shroud with its feet sticking out. There seemed to be a headless figure in the back of the cellar, but I couldn’t make out what it was. We placed our burden next to another corpse. Zahra turned around, closed the door and came towards me, “Good work, really good.”

“What’s good?” I inquired.

“That you came here,” she replied.

“I have come to fetch a mat for my father,” I explained.

“I’ll give you a mat, a blanket, anything you want,” she offered. Suddenly she went to the first body, took out a Koran that was lying on the chest, placed it on the second body and said, “That settles it, doesn’t it?”

She came closer, put an arm around my waist and giggled. I asked, “Why are you doing this?”

“Am I doing something wrong?” she asked.

“My father is waiting for me,” I said.

“Don’t worry, it won’t be long,” she assured me and kissed me on the cheek. “I “should go now,” I said

“Why? Why don’t you stay a little longer,” she urged me.

“It’s getting late, I have to go,” I said.

“Come on, you can’t leave when things are getting interesting,” she teased, pulling me closer to her. We sat on a bed covered with a black sheet, her hand rested on my knee and she asked, “Will you marry me?”

“What are you talking about?” I was taken aback.

“That’s a good idea, isn’t it?” she said and kissed me, sliding her hand under my shirt onto my stomach and asking, “Don’t you like women?”

“I don’t know,” I replied uncertainly.

“Haven’t you ever been with one?” she wanted to know.

I fell silent as she stroked my stomach and whispered, “If you knew how good it felt, you’d want it all the time.” Then she leaned back, pulled me down with her and pressed her face to mine. “I like them young, the old ones are no good, the younger the more appealing.”

She wrapped her arms around my neck, her legs around my body and I begged, “Let go of me.”

“No, don’t go. Stay with your aunt,” she insisted.

“My father is waiting,” I reminded her.

“Let him wait. I want to give you treats, apples, pears, pomegranates and a mat,” she enticed, trying to undo my belt when I protested, “Why are you doing this?”

She covered my mouth and shouted, “Shut up, you fool!” I calmed down and she said quietly, “If you don’t, you won’t get anything. Many would love to be in your place, but I’m only doing this with you.” She reached for my belt again and I confessed, “I’m scared.”

“Afraid of what?” she asked.

“Of Mr. Gilani,” I blurted out. “Everyone’s afraid of him, but he’s not here,” she reassured me.

“What if he suddenly appears?” I was worried when we heard footsteps on the stairs. “He’s here!”

I panicked and we both jumped up. Zahra quickly calmed down, and so did I. The door swung open and two other plump women, clutching a coffin, entered. When the first one saw us, she screamed and Zahra calmed her down, “Don’t be afraid, it’s me, Zahra, from ward three”

They placed their dead on the floor and the screaming woman huddled together holding her heart. The other one looked at us in astonishment and asked, “What are you two doing here?”

“Nothing, we just brought that one down, like you,” Zahra explained, pointing to our corpse.

The first woman complained, “May you fall from grace, I almost died of fear!”

Zahra replied, “You’re still scared? Grow up!”

The second woman pointed at me, “And who is that?”

“Fatti’s nephew. He came to my rescue because she was too squeamish to help me, and the poor boy had to drag a corpse because of me,” Zahra explained.

We went outside and as we climbed the stairs, the second woman asked sarcastically, “Really Zahra, is he really your nephew or do you have a trick up your sleeve? Spill the beans!”

As I stood next to those waiting, I saw my father emerge in an unusually stooped posture and trembling. He leaned against the wall to support himself and called out to me, “Hey, jackass!” I stood up and walked towards him; he put his arm around my shoulder and complained, “I think I’m dying.”

“How did this happen?” I inquired.

“What did you expect? My insides are turning inside out. He couldn’t hold himself when we came down the stairs, he got sick, he turned around and spit out all sorts of colorful, slimy bits,” he explained.

I admonished, “Look what you’ve done! Now they’ll have our heads.”

He closed his eyes and moaned, “What else can they take from us now?”

His face was pale, sweat was pouring down his face. I waited for him to catch his breath before we got up, left the hospital and sat down behind the railing. “What did they do to you?” I asked.

He leaned his head against the wall, “I’m thirsty, so very thirsty.”

“Shall I get you some water?” I offered him.

“No water, get me some hot tea,” he asked.

“Where am I supposed to get tea?” I asked.

One of the three sitting next to us interjected, “We have some.” He filled a bowl from a container and handed it to my father, then asked me, “You’re an electrician, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“All electricians are dead tea drinkers. I wonder why that is,” he mused.

I walked towards the hospital entrance and noticed a young man in a car staring intently at the hospital yard. When he saw me, he gestured me to come closer and asked, “Where are you from?”

“From here,” I replied.

“Are they letting you into the hospital?” he asked.

“Yes, they do,” I assured him.

“God bless you, my son. Take this letter, go to ward four, find Mrs. Nejat, give it to her, get an answer and come back, okay?” he instructed me.

“Okay,” I agreed.

“You’re not going to forget, are you?” he urged.

“No, no. Mrs. Nejat, did you say?” I confirmed.

“Yes, and there’s a tenner in it for you,” he added.

I took the note and went inside. Ahmad Agha, who usually stops everyone, didn’t say anything to me. I slipped past the bushes and made my way to ward four. The square in front of the building was bustling with people. Some people were sitting on the stairs with papers in their hands, others were grumbling and swearing. At the foot of the stairs, I saw a young woman and asked, “Mrs. Nejat?”

She looked at me and instructed me, “Go to the second floor, first room.” I climbed the stairs and entered the first room. A young, beautiful woman was sitting behind a desk, admiring her eyes and eyebrows in a mirror. When she noticed me, she asked me, “Yes?”

“Mrs. Nejat?” I repeated.

“What can I do for you?” she replied kindly.

I handed her the letter, which she opened, read and then asked, “Where is it?”

“Outside, in the car,” I informed.

She looked at her watch and said, “I can’t now.”

“What do you want me to tell them?” I asked.

“Tell them I can’t now,” she replied.

As I was about to leave, she called out to me, “Tell him to wait at the top intersection at one o’clock.”

I hurried downstairs and outside, where I saw the man leaning against his car, smoking. “What happened?” he asked when he saw me.

“At one o’clock at the top junction,” I told him. He chuckled, “Perfect!” Before he got into his car, he reached into his pocket and handed me a tenner. Satisfied, I returned to the sidewalk and waited for more cars, which would perhaps bring me even more tenners. Soon a white car approached with three men sitting in it, two in the front and one in the back, all staring into the hospital courtyard. I walked up to the car and one of them asked, “What do you want?”

“What do you want?” I replied.

The one in the back punched me in the nose and barked, “Get lost, you dog owner!” I held my nose and retreated while they continued to watch me. Eventually I hid behind a phone booth. A few minutes later, the person who had hit me got out and spoke to Ahmad Agha, who was sitting on a four-legged stool next to the hospital, before returning. When they left, I walked up to Ahmad Agha and asked, “Who was that guy?”

When he saw me, he exclaimed, “Where have you been, boy? Your aunt was looking for you.”

“Okay, but who was that man?” I insisted.

“I don’t know. They’ve been looking for a young doctor for a long time and can’t find him. Go to your aunt now,” he advised me. As I approached the building, I saw Mrs. Nejat emerge from behind the bushes. She had put on a white dress with a yellow blouse decorated with a few small red flowers, a shiny bag over her shoulder and open-toed shoes that showed off her painted nails. She smiled when she saw me and asked, “Where to?”

“I’m going to my aunt’s,” I replied.

“Who is your aunt?” she inquired.

“Zahra, from ward three,” I replied.

She walked beside me, her polished fingernails shining like the little red flowers on her blouse amidst the colorful sequins of her shoes. After a few steps, she asked, “Did you give her the letter?”

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“What did she say?” she wanted to know.

“She was satisfied,” I replied.

When we reached station three, I said, “I have to get in here.”

She examined me from head to toe and remarked, “Go ahead, but don’t tell your aunt about…”

“Why would I?” I assured her.

She opened her purse, handed me a five-toman bill and said, “Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed.

In the hallway, I bumped into one of the nurses who was carrying a cat down the stairs. As I passed her, I asked, “Where’s Aunt Zahra?”

“She’s in the kitchen,” she replied nasally.

I set off again, turned into the sandy road that led around the building and saw about twenty barrels at the end, with black flies buzzing around them. The kitchen was opposite the barrels, with large windows and black chimneys. As I got closer, I saw many sisters waiting with trays. I was looking for Zahra when she suddenly appeared, pushed the others aside, grabbed my hand, pulled me in and shouted, “Where have you been hiding? We walked through a smoky corridor into the kitchen, where about fifteen men were milling around the stoves, talking and cooking. The smell of fat and rice filled the air. Zahra shouted loudly, “Ahmad Agha, hey, Black Ahmad!”

One of the men put his ladle down next to the stove, wiped his hands on his apron and turned to us. “I’ve finally found it,” Zahra announced with a triumphant smile. Black Ahmad grinned and asked me teasingly, “How are you, big bear?” With a wink, he pointed at Zahra and joked, “Look, you’ve got a well-fed aunt there!”

Zahra replied with a laugh, “You should be ashamed of yourself, Akbari!” Black Ahmad wiped his nose with the back of his hand, grinned again and cheekily announced, “How about I become your aunt’s husband the day after tomorrow? How does that sound?”

With a feigned grimace, Zahra replied, “Stop talking nonsense and speak properly.”

Black Ahmad suddenly became serious and turned to me, “Do you know what party I have planned for you? I asked, “No, what is it?”

He explained, “From now on, you’re going on your own.”

“How so?” I inquired.

He explained, “You are going to the outskirts of the city with Ismail Agha, setting up a large stall and selling pilaf.”

Astonished, I repeated, “What?”

Zahra nudged me to signal that I should wait while Black Ahmad continued, “I’ll give you a Primus stove, ten to twenty bowls, a copper tray and two barrels of pilaf. You heat the stove, warm the pilaf and sell each bowl for two to three zars. Do you understand?” I nodded in agreement.

“But don’t let your aunt down, yeah? Keep a grip on your books,” he warned jokingly.

Zahra shook her head, “You’re unbelievable, he would never do that.”

Black Ahmad insisted, “Enough of the delay, Ismail Agha is waiting for you.”

As Zahra and I walked out the back door, Ismail Agha was leaning against the car munching on a big bite. When he saw me, he shouted, “Ya Ali!” and stood up.

Zahra informed me, “Ismail Agha will show you the ropes”

With his mouth full, Ismail Agha mumbled, “What are you saying? He’s ready to go.”

As I got into the car, Zahra asked me quietly, “Are you coming to the mosque tonight?”

“Of course I will,” I assured her.

“Would you mind if Fatti came with me?” she asked.

“Why should I mind?” I replied, “It’s better if we’re all together, then no one will get suspicious.”

“All right,” she agreed and we set off.

Ismail Agha finished his bite and drove us away. As we drove off, I noticed my father standing at the curb, scanning the area. I asked Ismail Agha to wait and called out, “Father, father!”

My father shouted back excitedly, “Where are you going? Where are you going?”

“I’m going to sell pilaf,” I explained.

As Ismail Agha drove off, my father called out anxiously, “Wait, wait, what are you selling?”

I put my hands over my mouth and kept shouting, “Pilaf! Pilaf! Pilaf!” We drove through a busy square and came to a busy intersection. Ismail Agha braked and announced, “We’re here.” The streets were teeming with people and makeshift stalls. I got out and Ismail Agha opened the trunk. He handed me the Primus stove and the tripod and we set them up under an old plane tree by the roadside, then unloaded the copper tray and the bowls.

Ismail Agha jumped down and we carefully placed the barrels on the ground, which quickly attracted a crowd. “Just do your thing, ignore them,” Ismail Agha advised.

We lit the stove, set up the tripod and placed one of the barrels in the copper bowl. I rolled up my sleeves and started arranging the cooled pilaf in the bowl.

Ismail Agha said, “The rest is up to you. Stay here until I come back.”

“All right,” I agreed.

Shouting “Ya Ali”,” Ismail Agha hopped back into the car. Before he could drive off, I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Hey kids, hey beggars, two zars for a bowl of pilaf, eat up!”

The crowd around me grew and a man with a worn coat asked loudly, “Are you serving the sick hospital waste here so that the poor can eat it?”

I replied, “First of all, God’s grace is not dirt, and secondly, if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”

I raised my voice again and shouted to anyone who would listen, “Hey brother, hey mister, hey dad, hey mom, hey beggar, two zars for pilaf, eat up!”

A few people came forward and handed me their coins, and I filled their bowls with generous scoops of pilaf. They squatted down and began to eat. The man in the coat, still watching, said to the customers, “How can you digest this filth mixed with the filth and disease of the hospitals?” One of the customers shouted back, “Mind your own business, old dog, it’s my stomach!”

The old man muttered, “Go ahead, poison yourselves if you want,” and walked away.

I shouted even louder, “Hey, ignorant people, hey wanderers, I’ve got pilaf, two zars to fill you up!”

The customers came in waves, squatting down as I filled their bowls and handed them to them, and they began to greedily devour the food. I collected the coins and plopped them into a bowl. One customer, who wedged a hefty bite behind his lip, turned to the others and said, “This isn’t so bad, you know? Another closed his eyes in resignation and muttered, “It is what it is.”

A gaunt man, who had finished his meal and stood up to leave, said, “Too bad it’s so cold.”

The first man replied, “Well, you can’t expect a warm kebab for two zars.”

As the coins continued to fill the bowl and I continued to serve sitting down, a young man my age came and sat next to me. I looked at him, he looked back and smiled. “What do you want?” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied. I called out again, “Hey dad, hey mom, you want pilaf? Come here, two zars for a taste!”

A customer handed back his bowl to refill it and turned to the young man next to me, “It’s decent, Qader, try it.”

Suddenly Qader blurted out, “Cheap food, cheap food, lunch for two zars!”

He looked at me confused and asked, “Do you need help?”

“All right,” I agreed.

The crowd had grown. Qader suggested, “You can’t do this alone. You take care of the money, I’ll serve the pilaf.”

“Then roll up your sleeves,” I told him.

While we emptied the first barrel, we dragged the second one to the front and poured its contents into the tray. Qader was restless, shouting and serving, keeping an eye on the customers, collecting money, handing it to me and sweating the whole time, “Pilaf, pilaf, pilaf! rice, rice, rice!” And I repeated, “Two zars, two zars, two zars!”

Then a tall, slim man with a scarf tied around his head patted me on the back and whispered, “Do you give credit?” “ “No credit,” I replied. He offered, “I’ll give you a pill and take two bowls.”

“What are you offering?” I asked, to which Qader interjected, “Take it, it’s worth it.”

Over the next hour, the crowd had thinned out and we were almost out of pilaf. Qader remarked, “We did a good job today.”

“It couldn’t have been better,” I replied.

He asked, “Aren’t we going to eat?”

“You eat, I need to see my father,” I replied.

He filled a bowl and began to eat heartily, stuffing big bites behind his right cheek and swallowing. The old man with the worn coat reappeared, stood there watching us and asked, “Everything sold?”

“Despite your best wishes,” I replied.

He said, “God knows what to do with you. What if people get sick?”

Qader snarled, “Go away, old dog, leave us alone.”

The old man wiped his nose with the back of his hand and replied, “If I leave you alone, you’ll kill everyone.”

I shouted, “We’re doing everyone a favor, what’s it to you, jerk?”

Qader advised, “Ignore the fly, he’s always like this.”

The old man lamented, “What am I to do? I’ve been circling you for two hours, you think I want to eat your slop?”

I felt a pang of sympathy, filled a bowl, and handed it to him. He began to eat, and I teased, “Hospital waste isn’t so bad, is it?”

With his mouth full, he retorted, “Yes, it’s terrible.”

“Then why eat it?” I asked.

He glared at me with bulging eyes, punched his stomach, and said, “This damn hungry dog inside me, understand?”

As we packed up, collected everything and waited for Ismail Agha, Qader asked, “Will you be here every day?”

“Yes, why not?” I replied.

“Can I be your apprentice?” he asked.

I looked at him and said, “Okay, I’ll take you on, but you have to do a good job.”

“Did I do a bad job today?” he inquired.

“Today was good. I’m talking about other days,” I replied and handed him a handful of change. He was pleased and said, “Then give me the pill.”

I handed it to him and he asked, “Do you know what I need this for?”

At that moment, Ismail Agha’s car honked. I got up and so did Qader. We opened the trunk and packed away the barrels, the tray, the Primus stove and the bowls. I got in next to Ismail Agha, and Qader approached the car and said, “I was just saying…”

I interrupted him, “Okay, tomorrow.”

As we drove off, Ismail Agha asked, “Who’s that guy?”

“My apprentice,” I said. Ismail Agha looked me up and down, giggled and exclaimed, “You clever devil!”

When evening came and we returned to the hospital, Ismail Agha said, “Listen, kid, that’s not how it works. You have to learn to ride a motorcycle to keep up with all these tasks.”

I confessed, “I’m scared of riding; if I crash, it’s all over.”

He assured me, “If you learn, you won’t crash.”

“But how can I learn?” I asked. “I’ll teach you,” he promised.

Together we went to Ahmad Agha to borrow his motorcycle. Ismail Agha got on first and I jumped on the back. We rode up and down the street behind the kitchen a few times. “Aren’t you scared?” Ismail Agha asked. “Not at all, I’m actually enjoying it,” I replied. “You’ll enjoy it even more when you drive it yourself!” he shouted.

Then he put me on the bike and showed me how to do it. He rode up and down the road next to me and when he stopped at the kitchen window, he encouraged me, “Now you’re riding on your own.” Riding alone was surprisingly easy, and going up and down the road felt comfortable, although I was still afraid of falling when turning. Every time I passed Ismail Agha, I was gripped by uncontrollable laughter.

As I did my laps, it occurred to me to stop by my father’s house and show myself. So instead of turning back, I turned towards the main road and heard Ismail Agha’s shouts behind me, “Hey, savage, where to?”

As I reached the doorstep, Ahmad Agha stuck his head out of the cab and shouted, “Watch out, boy, you don’t end up under a car!”

I replied with feigned bravado, “Don’t worry, I’ve been doing it for years.”

As I pulled onto the sidewalk, I stopped where my father and a couple of older men were sitting together smoking. When my father saw me, he exclaimed, “Look at that! What’s that?”

I explained, “That’s Ahmad Agha’s motorcycle. I’m planning to buy one for myself.”

“Buy one for you? And how exactly?” he asked.

“I’ll manage somehow,” I assured him.

My father turned to the others and jokingly remarked, “Look at this ungrateful offspring. If you’re so keen, why don’t you buy one for me too?”

One of the old men laughed and joked, “At your age, you still want to ride a motorcycle?”

Baba joked back, “If he won’t buy me a motorcycle, he should at least get me something else.”

“And what exactly should I get you?” I asked.

He complained, “Who knows? You spend everything you earn on yourself and forget that you have an old father.”

“I take such good care of you and yet you are unhappy?” I countered.

He replied, “If I hadn’t fallen ill and ended up in hospital, your business wouldn’t be so flourishing.”

“But you’re better now,” I said.

“Yes, now I’m sitting here waiting for you and wondering when you’ll come back or visit me,” he said.

I replied, “You don’t have to stay here; sit wherever you want.”

He concluded, “As long as you’re stuck in this place, I have no choice but to stay.”

At that moment, I heard footsteps behind me. It was Ismail Agha, who put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “Where did you go, boy?”

I laughed, “I just came to visit my father.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” he commented.

“Not really, it’s quite simple,” I replied.

“Get off, let me see,” he said.

I got off and he took my seat and instructed me, “Hop on the back.”

As we were about to drive off, my father shouted, “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“What did he say?” Ismail Agha asked.

“He just complained that he had nothing to do,” I explained.

“He’s right, you should think of something for him,” Ismail Agha suggested.

“Like what?” I pondered.

After a moment, he suggested, “Build a teahouse for him.”

“A tea house?” I replied.

“Yes, just a samovar, a few teacups and a teapot under a canopy. That’s all,” he explained.

Excitedly, I agreed, “That’s a great idea.”

We dismounted in front of Ahmad Agha’s quarters and brought the motorcycle back. Ahmad Agha, who was lazing around and smoking his hookah, asked, “What are you planning?”

“We just went for a ride and came back,” replied Ismail Agha.

Ahmad Agha commented on our good mood, to which I replied confidently, “Why shouldn’t we be?”

Laughing, Ahmad Agha admitted that he would do the same if he were us.

Ismail Agha and I laughed together and made our way to the kitchen, where he explained, “We’ll get serious about the tea house tomorrow morning before you get on with your other tasks.”

“Sure,” I agreed. Aunt Zahra and the other women sat in the kitchen sipping tea. Ismail Agha turned to Zahra and asked, “Do you know what kind of temperament your nephew has?”

And Fatti, who was sitting next to Zahra, burst out laughing and said, “Yes, she’s a lovely niece.”

Ismail Agha inquired, “What did you say?”

Fatti suppressed her laughter and replied, “Nothing, I just pray that God protects her.”

We both sat down next to the ladies, who poured us two cups of tea and placed them in front of Ismail Agha and me. Ismail Agha poured his tea into a saucer and thought, “Do you know where we’re going to have our tea tomorrow?”

Zahra inquired, “Where?”

Ismail Agha announced, “A picturesque café outside the hospital will open its doors tomorrow and serve delicious teas.”

One of the nurses interjected, “Should we give up the hospital’s free tea and pay for our drink somewhere else?”

Ismail Agha suggested, “Maybe they’ll offer us a free service.”

“Right?” he asked me with a laugh.

I replied, “Maybe.”

Ismail Agha became serious, “But not for everyone, only for a few.”

Zahra asked, “For whom?”

Ismail Agha pointed at me and explained, “For him, for me and for you.”

Fatti inquired, “What about me?”

Ismail Agha teased, “Maybe you’re lucky too.”

A small woman with a red double chin asked, “And me?”

Ismail Agha jokingly replied, “You’d have to give something to enjoy the tea.”

The woman’s face flushed with indignation and she slapped Ismail Agha on the chest and shouted, “Shame on you!”

Everyone burst out laughing. After we had finished our tea, Ismail Agha turned to me and said, “Right, let’s settle the bill and call it a day.”

I took out my wallet and Fatti exclaimed in surprise, “Wow, business must be going really well for you.”

Ismail Agha joked, “May the envious go blind.”

I cut off two hundred notes and handed them to Ismail Agha, who accepted them, said “God willing” and got up to leave.

As I was about to leave, I bumped into Black Ahmad chest to chest at the door. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “How’s business, merchant?”

I replied, “I’m doing well, how are you?”

He said, “Not bad, if only your aunt would leave me alone,” and chuckled.

I asked, “Are you happy with us?”

He replied, “Sure, but you’ll have to raise your prices.”

I said, “Patience, patience.”

As I walked out, Zahra called to me from behind. I stopped and asked, “What’s up?”

She caught up with me and asked, “Where are you going?”

I replied, “I got things to do.”

She asked, “What kind of things?”

I replied, “What’s it to you?”

She said, “My God, you’ve barely been here two months and you’re already getting cheeky with me?”

I replied, “To be honest, we’re not the arrogant type.”

She complained, “Since you’ve been hanging out with the ladies of the church, you’ve become aloof towards me.”

I assured her, “You’re just imagining it.”

She replied, “I’m not stupid, but I’m telling you that those ladies won’t do you any good.”

We turned onto a gravel road and Zahra took my hand in hers and said, “You know I care about you a lot, right?”

I confirmed, “Yes, I know.”

She reached into her bag and said, “Look what I got for you.”

She took out a pair of white-framed glasses and asked me, “Try them on, let’s see how they look on you.” I put the glasses on, turned to her and saw her clapping with delight and exclaiming, “Oh, how good you look!”

Then she took my hand again and asked, “Are you coming over tonight?”

I replied, “Not tonight.”

She asked, “Why? Do you have plans with Fatti?”

Angrily, I replied, “No, with someone else.”

She pressed me, “With who?”

I shouted, “Stop snooping; what business is it of yours who I’m seeing?”

She got angry, frowned and I quickened my pace. She ran towards me again and said, “If the truth gets out and everyone finds out, you’ll be in trouble.”

I replied, “Let them cause trouble if they want to.”

She got angry and threatened, “I’ll go and tell everyone.”

I replied, “Do what you want.”

She looked at me pityingly and demanded, “Give me back my glasses.”

I gave her the glasses back and said, “Go away.”

She insisted, “You have to give back everything else I gave you too.”

I snapped, “You didn’t give me anything.”

She threatened, “I’ll make your life hell and tell everyone.”

I laughed, “You’d only embarrass yourself.”

She looked helpless because she didn’t know what to do, and after a moment she asked in a pleading tone, “Why are you doing this?”

I replied, “Because you’re acting like this.”

She insisted, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

I replied, “Neither have I.”

She stood in front of me and looked at me tenderly from head to toe, then she gently put my glasses back on my nose and asked, “Are you coming tonight?”

I promised, “Yes, at ten.” We parted ways and I left the hospital. My father was sitting outside with a couple of old men, still talking. I walked past him onto the sidewalk and hurried because it was already late. I reached the first intersection and stood by a phone booth, but they weren’t there yet. I took off my glasses, put them in my pocket and asked a passing lady what time it was. It was just before six. I sighed with relief; our meeting was at six. They arrived at six, three of them in the same white car. They opened the back door for me, I got in and greeted them; they returned my greeting and we drove off. The one sitting in the back asked, “So?”

I replied, “I’ve been waiting for you for three days.”

The man behind the wheel asked, “So?”

I said, “He finally showed up today.”

The third inquired, “What time?”

I guessed, “Around half past eight, with a cab bus.”

The first asked, “How did you recognize him?”

I described, “Tall and slim, right? His hair is thinning at the front.”

The second confirmed, “Yes.” I added, “And he was carrying a big bag.”

The first asked, “Then what?”

I said, “I asked my aunt about him; it was actually him.”

The first asked, “Then what did you do?”

I explained, “I approached him under the pretext of asking about my aunt and kept an eye on him the whole time.”

The second asked, “What did he do?”

I said, “Not much, he just changed his clothes, put on a white coat and sat down in a room to read.”

The second asked further, “What else did he do?”

I replied, “He didn’t eat and he smoked.” The second asked, “Didn’t he come outside?”

I said, “Yes, they called him out a few times to look after some patients and then he returned to his own room.”

“Didn’t anyone come looking for him?” the first man asked.

“Yes, one person came from outside to see him,” I replied as the car braked abruptly.

The second man asked urgently, “What did he look like?”

“I don’t remember exactly,” I admitted.

The first man followed up, “Was he thin, fat, tall, short, did he have a mustache?”

“He definitely didn’t have a mustache,” I clarified.

“And?” the third man pressed.

“Well, he wasn’t particularly thin or fat,” I described.

Then the first man pulled a stack of photos out of his bag and asked, “Was it this one?”

After looking at it, I replied, “No, not that one.”

He handed me another photo and asked, “How about this one?”

I looked at it and said, “I don’t think it was this one either.”

He handed me a third photo and said, “Look at it closely.”

“I’m not sure, but this one has a mustache,” I said.

The man ran his little finger over the mustache in the photo and asked, “What if he didn’t have a mustache?”

“No, he wasn’t either,” I concluded. After throwing away the fourth, fifth and sixth photos as well, he put them away and the car continued on its way.

We made our way back to the first intersection. The first man then asked, “Listen carefully, do you know how to use the phone?”

“Of course I do,” I replied.

He instructed me, “I’ll give you a number. As soon as you find him, call this number immediately.” He scribbled a number on a piece of paper and handed it to me along with a wad of banknotes. The car stopped and as I got out, the first man shouted, “Don’t forget it!” Before I could reassure him that I remembered, they slammed the door and drove off.

As the sun rose, my father’s café was bustling with activity. In the dim light of dawn, Ismail Agha and I tied a few pieces of wood to the railing to make a small gallows and covered it with a tarp to create a canopy. We placed a short stool against the wall and set up our tea station, filled the samovar with water and lit a fire underneath. While we were busy with our work, my father, who was no help at all, circled around us, chattering incessantly, looking over our shoulders and repeating, “Ah, that’s better, yes, it’s good now. No more touching, that’s perfect.”

Whenever Ismail Agha tried to teach him something, my father insisted, “I know that all by myself. My hair didn’t turn white in the mill for nothing; trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

When the hospital doors opened, Ismail Agha and I were sipping freshly brewed tea. We stood up and my father, who had put a cloth over his shoulder, called out in a distant voice, “Fresh tea, fresh tea!”

Ismail Agha warned, “Don’t give it on credit, old man.”

My father replied, “Do I look like a fool? No credit, absolutely no credit.”

Together we made our way to the hospital. When we reached Building 3, Ismail Agha tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’ll wait for you at lunchtime.”

“All right,” I agreed.

I went to Zahra, who was carrying a bag up the stairs. When she saw me, she grinned and asked, “Did you sleep well?”

“Listen,” I replied, “Mr. Emami needs me; I’m on my way to the warehouse. If that doctor shows up, let me know right away, will you?”

She gave me a look and said, “You really have something to do with this guy. What business is it of yours?”

“What was our deal last night? Didn’t you agree to stop meddling in my affairs?” I reminded her.

She laughed and said, “It’s okay, don’t be mad.”

“Remember that,” I warned her.

As I made my way to the warehouse, I saw one of Mrs. Nejat’s friends walking to her department all dolled up with a bag on her shoulder. I had known her for some time, as I often saw her walking under the pine trees with Mrs. Nejat, laughing and chatting. When I greeted her, she turned around, returned my greeting and looked at me in such a way that she couldn’t just walk away. She stopped and asked, “Do you need anything?”

“No, woman,” I replied.

“Then why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

“I just…” I interrupted her, and with raised eyebrows she asked, “What did you want?”

“I wanted to know your name,” I confessed.

She smiled and said, “Derakhshan.”

Surprised, I exclaimed, “Ah, so that’s you!” She frowned in confusion and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I added hastily.

“It must be something, you have to tell me,” she insisted.

“No, woman, it’s really nothing,” I assured her.

“Why is it something? Where did you hear my name?” she insisted. Embarrassed, I said, “Just like that.”

“You must have heard it from someone,” she insisted.

“Yes, woman,” I admitted.

“Who did you hear it from?” she inquired.

“I’m afraid you might be upset, woman,” I expressed my concern.

She thought for a moment and assured me, “I won’t be upset. Tell me!”

“From a gentleman,” I revealed. “What gentleman?” she wanted to know.

“You don’t know him,” I replied.

“Then how does he know me?” she wondered.

“I don’t know,” I confessed.

“Is he from the hospital?” she asked.

“No, woman, he’s from out of town,” I explained.

“How do you know him?” she inquired.

“He came by a few times in a red car looking for you at the entrance to the hospital. He’s a very nice man, tall with curly hair,” I described and fell silent.

“So?” she asked.

“Nothing, he just asked me a few times to pass you a note, but I declined,” I confessed.

“Why did you refuse?” she asked.

“Well, I didn’t know you then and didn’t want to ask anyone else,” I explained. She pondered and then asked, “Why didn’t he want to give it to me himself?”

“He’s a bit strange; he comes to the hospital entrance every day at lunchtime and as soon as he sees you, he gets in his car and drives away. I think he’s very shy,” I speculated.

She said nothing and walked away slowly, deep in thought, her head bowed. After a few steps, she stopped, turned around and I walked up to her and asked, “Yes?”

“Next time he gives you a letter, take it and bring it to me, okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” I promised, and with longer strides, she walked away while I chuckled to myself and thought, “Just wait, I’ll bring you a good customer, don’t worry about it.” I continued on my way, crossed a narrow sidewalk, turned around and reached the back of the warehouse where I saw Mr. Emami standing alone, cursing, “Damn thieves, you have sunk so low that you are stealing from the government warehouse?” I walked up to him and asked, “What happened sir?” He grabbed his hair in frustration and shouted, “What else could have happened? These devils eat, drink, steal and now they’re breaking in at night. Come here, look at this.” We went ahead and entered the warehouse, weaving our way through boxes and sacks until we reached a window with a broken pane. Mr. Emami, trembling with rage, pointed at the window and said, “Look at that, what does that mean? A broken window, what does it mean? It means breaking into a government camp, and that is theft. They should all be caught, their hands chopped off, thrown in jail, and then hanged.” He turned around, paced, and muttered in a choked voice, “How am I supposed to know what they stole? I can’t tell: chickpeas, beans, eggs, rice, lentils, soap? They steal so much that it’s not even noticeable. Curse their parents, they left nothing behind and made me call the police. Curse their lineage.” Then he turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, “My son, would you be willing to sleep here at night?”

“My father would be left alone,” I replied.

She suggested, “Your father could sleep here too.” I hesitated, “Well…” She urged, “Well, what?” I fumbled, “Just that…”

She interrupted me and suggested, “You get five Tomans a night. What do you think?”

I thought about it, “Sounds good.”

She laid down the conditions, “You come here every night and take the keys from me. Agreed?”

I agreed, “Okay.”

She sat down on a box and dismissed me, “And now off you go. I’ll wait for you tonight.”

As I walked away, she called after me, “Don’t go to those ruffians and loot the store, will you?”

Before I could answer, she burst out laughing, “No, go on, I know you. You’re a good boy.”

I stopped by to check on Zahra; the guy hadn’t shown up yet. Outside the hospital there was a hustle and bustle, a crowd had gathered around my father’s tea stall, eagerly drinking tea while he walked around grumbling with one eyebrow raised and one lowered, collecting the used glasses to wash and dry them. A group sat a little apart and watched the tea drinkers. My father turned around and shooed them away, “Go on, pay up!”

One of them groaned, “We’re here every day, we’ll pay tomorrow.”

I inquired of a young man with a well-groomed mustache, “What’s going on here?”

He replied, “We want tea, but he won’t give it on credit.”

I asked, “Don’t you have any money?” He replied, “If we had money, we wouldn’t have to deal with this cheapskate.”

“Why don’t you have any money?” I urged. Some turned to us; one man with pronounced shoulders shrugged and admitted, “Yes, why don’t we have any?” I handed the young man a two-toman coin and said, “Now tell him to bring the tea.”

The coin clinked loudly as he shouted, “Come and get it, old man, and bring the tea!”

My father stepped forward, took the money, and remarked, “Do you see what kind of people you are? You’re trying to trick me.”

And when he returned to his tea stall, I teased them, “Are you all trying to get rich now?”

They stared at me in amazement and I assured them, “I’m not joking, I’m serious.”

An old man asked, “How so?”

I explained, “There’s a place where they’ll take a few drops of blood and give you twenty toman for it.” The broad-shouldered man waved me off, “They want our blood? No way!”

I reassured him, “It’s not like that at all. I’ve done this many times before and it’s completely fine.”

They fell silent, and then someone asked from the back, “Where should we go?” I explained, “I’ll drive you.”

There was silence again. I urged, “You don’t want to go, do you?” The young man with the mustache said, “I’m in.”

One after the other spoke up, “Me too.”

”All right, I’ll come with you.

I asked, “Anyone else?”

A few others spoke up, so I said, “Right, finish your tea and I’ll be back.”

As I got up to leave, a few others shouted, “Wait, we’re coming too!” I promised, “Okay, I’ll take you all with me.” I hurried to find Ahmad Agha, who was sitting in front of the stall, and asked him for Mr. Gilani’s phone number. “What do you need it for?” he asked.

Desperately, I begged him, “Please, get me the number.”

We went into the cabin and Ahmad Agha dialed Mr. Gilani’s number and handed me the phone before walking out. After several rings, a woman’s voice answered, “Yes?” I asked, “I need to speak to Mr. Gilani.”

“Speaking,” she replied.

“Hello, Mr. Gilani,” I greeted.

“Who is this?” he inquired.

“A customer,” I said.

“What do you want?” he asked.

I hesitated for a moment, then I blurted out, “I’ve rounded up a group and I’m bringing them here.”

“What’s your name?” he asked. “Ali,” I replied.

“We don’t have an Ali,” he said.

“Well, Mr. Gilani, now you have one!” I exclaimed.

“All right, bring it,” he said.

“How much will we make?” I asked.

“You’re a good businessman, aren’t you?” he remarked.

“I just want to know,” I urged.

“Two tomans each,” he said.

“No, sir, twenty-five each,” I negotiated.

“That’s too much,” he objected.

“We can’t have less,” I insisted.

“Do you have transportation?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“Then come over,” he said.

Excitedly, I shouted, “We’re on our way!”

I hung up, hurried out, and was met by Ahmad Agha’s scrutinizing gaze. “What’s the news?” he asked.

“Where is Ismail Agha?” I inquired.

“Behind the kitchen,” he instructed me.

I found Ismail Agha’s car, but there was no sign of him, so I went into the kitchen, where everyone was busy at the stoves. I asked Black Ahmad, “Where is Ismail Agha?”

He winked at me, “Ask your aunt.”

Annoyed, I demanded, “Stop it, just tell me.”

He lit a cigarette, handed it to me and said, “Don’t get upset, he’s in the storeroom.”

I took a drag and went into the storeroom. The door was ajar and inside Ismail Agha had taken off his socks and was stretched out on a cot. I called out to him, whereupon he jumped up startled and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Hurry up, let’s go,” I urged him. He quickly put his shoes on and asked, “What happened?”

“Just start the car,” I said without waiting. I rushed out, jumped into the car and sat in the passenger seat. Ismail Agha, who was still groggy, got behind the wheel and asked, “What’s going on?”

“We got something important to do; let’s go,” I told him.

Without saying a word, he started the car, put it in gear, honked the horn and sped off. We rounded the kitchen and drove off. Ismail Agha asked, “Where to?”

“To the coffee house,” I instructed him. He mumbled under his breath, “You’re not even going to tell me what’s going on”

He braked and I hopped out. All the tea drinkers were already waiting. I opened the back door of the car and waved, “Come on, get in.” They all piled in, and after I closed the door, I jumped back in next to Ismail Agha and urged, “Let’s go.” As we drove off, he asked, “Who are these people anyway?”

“We’re going straight to Gilani,” I explained. He slammed on the brakes, the car came to a screeching halt and he turned to me and asked, “To Gilani?”

“Don’t hesitate, we get twenty-five a head,” I explained to him.

He looked me in the eye for a moment and then somewhat reluctantly put the car back into gear.

A few evenings later, I rode Ahmad Agha’s motorcycle to Mr. Gilani’s, who was waiting for me and had told me to come along. His street was dimly lit and the door to the lab was closed. I braked and got off. There was no movement in sight. I was about to ring the bell when a voice from upstairs asked, “Who is it?”

It was the voice of Mr. Gilani. When I looked up, I saw him holding a lit cigarette between his fingers, leaning his elbows on the balcony railing and looking down. I shouted loudly, “At your service, Ali.”

He said, “The door is open, push it open and come up.” I pushed the door open, took the bike into the hallway, locked up and walked up the half-lit staircase, which was covered in leopard blood stains, two at a time. I didn’t know where to go when a door opened and Mr. Gilani said softly, “Come in.”

I went in, he closed the door and gestured. We entered a cluttered room with broken chairs and tables, piles of junk and several large shelves of wide-necked bottles next to each other. Mr. Gilani took a drag from his cigarette and said, “Sit down!” I sat down on a chair and he sat in front of me behind a desk. He was wearing a red shirt and had his belt tied on both sides. On the desk was a half-empty bottle, a broken glass and a lot of pistachio shells. He stared into my eyes for a while, then stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray, took a long cigar out of the desk drawer, put it between his teeth and asked, “You drinking, boy?”

I said, “No, sir.”

He said, “Haven’t you ever had a drink?”

I said, “Well, I’ve sipped it once or twice.” He poured some of the bottle into the glass and said, “That’s something else. Drink it up!” I toasted to health and gulped down the glass. He poured himself a sip and asked, “What’s your name again?”

I said, “Ali.”

He said, “We’ll call you something else here. How about Alipour?”

I said, “That’s fine.”

He said, “What’s your main profession?”

I said, “I don’t have a main job; I do different things to make a living.” He asked, “Like what?”

I said, “For example, I sell garbage pilaf in the city center at noon, I fetch cabs for patients outside the hospital and I sleep in Mr. Emami’s warehouse at night.”

He asked, “What else?”

I said, “That’s it, just like that.” He said, “I think you can do more, like smuggling and stuff. Don’t you do that too?” I said, “No, by God, sir.” He said, “Why are you scared? I’m not going to hurt you.” I said, “Really, I don’t know anything about this business.” He said, “If you knew, would you do it?” I said, “Then I probably would.” He took a sip from his glass and said, “Open your ears well, I want you to drop all your other work and just work for us.” I asked, “What do you mean by work?” He said, “Drop the warehouse and pilaf selling and concentrate only on blood work.” I said, “No sir, actually those jobs are very good for collecting customers.” He said, “You’re wasting your time.” I said, “No, sir, I’ll manage somehow.” He said, “You should at least bring twenty-five people a day.” I said, “Instead of twenty-five, I’ll bring forty for you. What do you think?” He said, “Excellent.” He laughed and showed me his long teeth. Then he poured half a glass and handed it to me. I said, “That’s too much for me, sir.” He said, “You seem to have a capacity for everything, so you must have a good capacity for alcohol too.” I laughed and took a sip from the glass. He asked, “Too bad we don’t have a taste.” I said, “That’s not necessary, it’s very tasty.” He said, “How should we organize our work now?” I said, “Just like the last few days.” He asked, “You don’t agree with a monthly wage?” I said, “This way is to your advantage.” He said, “What’s in it for our benefit?”

I said, “I’ll attract more and more customers.” I lit a cigarette, whereupon he looked at me strangely and said, “You smoke too?” I laughed and said, “I’ve only just started.” He said, “At your young age, it’s just icing on the cake.” I laughed and said nothing. He took the glass from my hand, poured himself some schnapps, took the cigar from between his teeth and said, “You can do all the nonsense you want in life, but don’t smoke, or smoke very little. I only smoke two cigarettes a day, one at the beginning of the night when I’m drinking and another in the middle of the night when I wake up and go out on the balcony. I light a cigarette, sit down and look at the city. In my imagination, I visit every house, enter every room, see everyone, young or old, men or women, until I realize my cigarette is over and I can calm down and go back to sleep.” I said, “That’s great, I should learn that too.” He laughed and said, “You’re such a rascal.” I said, “You’re too nice.” He said, “That’s one of the seven old sins.” I said, “Whatever you say.” He said, “It’s clear you’re made for this kind of work.” I didn’t answer, he took a sip from his glass and said, “You’re very materialistic.” I said, “What can I do sir, I want to buy a motorcycle.” He said, “Don’t you have a motorcycle?” I said, “No sir, the one you saw belongs to the porter of the hospital.” He put his cigar between his teeth and said, “If you work well this month, I’m willing to buy you a motorcycle.” I said, “I’m grateful to Mr. Gilani. Just pay my bills day by day and at the end of the month I can get three motorcycles.” He shook his head and said, “By God, you can outsmart the devil.” We both laughed, I got up, said goodbye and went downstairs. I got the bike out of the hallway, started it up and as I was about to leave, I looked up and saw that Mr. Gilani had come back to the balcony and was leaning forward with a lit cigarette between his fingers. I shouted loudly, “Mr. Gilani, we have a lot to do until midnight!” In his squeaky voice, he said, “That’s on you. I’ve never met a creature like you before.” Late that night, I sat there and did the math after walking around excessively in the early morning until I found Mr. Emami, handed over the warehouse key, dropped by Black Ahmad, opened the coffee shop, took care of seven or eight people for Gilani, checked on the girls a few times to sort out their problems, handed over a letter for two patients to Mrs. Nejat, brought some mithqal opium for some addicts and walked up and down in front of the ward waiting for the man until Ismail Agha showed up. We greeted each other warmly and inquired about each other’s well-being. Ismail Agha said, “What new trick have you got up your sleeve now? It seems like you’re up to no good again.” I said, “No, man, I’m just going for a walk.” He said, “So you enjoy walking up and down, huh?” I said, “Is there a problem?” He laughed and said, “I swear to Hazrat Abbas, tell me the truth.”

I said, “Well, I guess I’m up to something.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What is it?”

I said, “Nothing, really.”

He said, “Tell me the truth.”

I said, “I’m waiting for someone.”

He said, “Who are you waiting for?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “You mean you don’t know who you’re waiting for?”

I got defensive and said, “Do you really need to know everything I’m up to?”

He frowned and said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve, haven’t you? Have you forgotten who you’re and where you’re from?”

I said quietly, “No, I remember well.”

He paused for a moment and asked, “Are you bitter about me?”

I said, “No, why would I be?” He asked, “Has anyone upset you?” I said, “No, not at all!”

He said, “Did something happen?”

I asked, “And what?”

He said, “Then why do you look so worried?”

I replied disinterestedly, “I’m not worried and I’m certainly not scared.”

He looked me in the eye for a while and said, “I’m not stupid, something’s going on. This is the first time you’ve talked to me like this.”

I said, “It’s not the first time; I just don’t like it when other people always stick their noses in my business.” He backed away and said, “Ah, so that’s how it’s. So now we’re bothering you, huh?” He was seriously annoyed and I didn’t know how to get out of this situation. I said, “Listen, I’m just waiting for someone here. Do you understand that?” He thought again and asked, “Who are you waiting for?” I said, “That’s your answer, and you’re not going to let it go, are you?” He lit two cigarettes, handed me one and said, “So we’ve come this far, have we?” I said, “Give it a rest, man. What are you even talking about?” He got angry, grabbed me firmly by the arm and said, “Listen, kid, I’ve known you for a while. I know what kind of person you’re, you’re not afraid of anything and at your age you’re willing to do anything for money. Don’t think we’re stupid and don’t get it. You’re not cut out for this work, you’re just a middleman, a lackey, a scavenger, a leech, a thief, someone who doesn’t work but has his pockets full. Understand, you aren’t alone, there are many like you, but what do I care. Just take care of yourself, know your limits and don’t get cocky, do you understand that? I can hit really hard.” He glared at me. I took a few steps back and said, “I didn’t do anything to you, Ismail Agha.” He said, “Could you do anything to me at all?” I said, “I’d never dare.” Suddenly I saw the man with the bag walking with short steps along the roadside. He seemed very tired and was dragging himself along, and I kept an eye on him. Ismail Agha noticed this, looked at him and mumbled, “So you were waiting for that guy, huh?” I said, “No.” He said, “You were staring at him pretty hard.” I said, “That’s it.”

He said, “All right.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and walked on, Ismail Agha following me. As we approached Ahmad Agha’s stall, Ismail Agha said, “I guess you’re tired of walking outside the station.” I said, “Yes, not anymore.” He asked, “And what do you want to do now?” I said, “Nothing, I’ve no plans.” He said, “Great, I’m free too, let’s walk around a bit.”

I was frustrated and shouted, “I’m not coming!” He looked at me as if he wanted to tear me to pieces and asked grudgingly, “Why not?” I said, “I’m not in the mood, I want to be alone.”

To annoy me even more, he said, “And I don’t want to be alone at all.” I said, “Then go with whoever you want.”

He said, “I only want to go with you.” I wanted to hit him so badly, but I controlled myself and said, “And I don’t want to be with you!” He said, “Why, why don’t you want to?” I said, “I’ve things to do.” He asked, “Didn’t you just say a moment ago that you had nothing to do?” I said, “Well, I’m now. What’s it to you?” He said calmly, “Fine, I’ll help you.”

I screamed, “Leave me alone, what do you want from my life?” He looked at me, his lips twitched and he said, “Get lost!” I slowly walked away feeling terrible. I never wanted Ismail Agha to be angry with me, but he had caught me at a bad time and was very persistent. There was nothing else I could do. I turned around twice and saw him walking towards the kitchen with his shoulders slouching. I sat next to my father for a while and when I was sure no one was watching me, I got up and walked to the intersection. The phone booth was empty; I opened the door and went inside. I inserted a coin and waited a few seconds. When I had caught my breath, I started dialing with trembling hands. I was scared for no reason. As I dialed the fourth number, the door to the booth opened, someone grabbed me by the back of the neck, pulled me out and before I knew it, I was hit hard and fell to the floor. I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t move.

When I managed to stand up easily, I saw Ismail Agha standing over me with his hands on his hips, and a few women had formed a circle around us some distance away. I spat blood on the ground. Ismail Agha said, “Get up, you calf, let’s go and see.” One of the women, who was standing further away than the others, said, “Why did you do this to him, you brute?”

Ismail Agha said, “It’s none of your business.” He helped me up from the ground; his car was just a few steps away. He put me in the car, got in himself and we drove off. At first he drove fast, then he slowed down, took out his handkerchief, gave it to me and said, “Wash your face.” The blood around my mouth had dried up and couldn’t be wiped off. We drove a few streets further. Ismail Agha seemed to be talking to himself, muttering, “He deserved it, I should have broken his neck; I knew exactly what he was going to do.” Suddenly he shouted, “This is pure cowardice, you bastard!” and the car shot forward. We almost collided with a truck; Ismail Agha slammed on the brakes, swallowed his saliva and asked, “You don’t understand what’s going on, why are you doing this?” I said nothing. Furious, Ismail Agha said, “Answer me.” I started to cry. He looked at me, seemingly moved by my tears, drove a few more steps and then stopped again. When my crying had stopped, he opened the car door and said, “Get out and wash your face under the tap.”

I got out; two children were playing near the tap. They backed away when they saw me. I bent down and washed my face. Blood was still coming out of my mouth. I took a sip of water and when I stood up, I looked at Ismail Agha. He had his head on the steering wheel, his eyes closed and a lit cigarette between his fingers. When I saw that he wasn’t paying attention to me, I ran off, through the alley opposite, meandered through several side alleys and turned into another street. After entering another alley, I slowed down, crossed several streets and left many alleys behind me, certain that I wouldn’t be caught.

Now it was my turn. I entered another phone booth, inserted a two-zar bill, dialed and waited. When the call was answered, I said, “Sir!” A male voice answered, “Who is this?”

I said, “I’m calling from the hospital, the man has arrived!”

He asked, “Who?”

I said, “It’s been over an hour.”

He asked, “Why are you telling me this now?”

I said, “Ismail Agha didn’t allow me.”

He asked, “Who is Ismail Agha?”

I said, “The driver of the hospital, he didn’t let me, he ended up beating me up badly.”

The reply was, “Alright, we’ll take care of him too.”

I hung up the phone and before I turned around, I thought I saw someone standing behind the door of the cabin, but that was just my imagination. When I turned around, there was no one there, but suddenly I saw Ismail Agha jump out of his car, he had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, his eyes were bloodshot and his fists clenched. He covered the distance in a few steps and stood in front of me with his formidable presence, behind the glass door of the public phone booth. Out of fear, I closed my eyes and sat down on the floor of the phone booth with trembling legs.

About Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi was a celebrated Iranian writer who made a significant contribution to the country’s literature and cinema. Born in Tabriz on January 15, 1936, he became one of the most prolific writers of his time, publishing more than forty books in a wide range of genres. The Game is Over was translated by Ali Salami.

Sa’edi’s works of fiction include dramas, novels, screenplays and short stories. He has also written non-fiction, including cultural criticism, travel literature and ethnography. His talents were widely recognized and he was regarded as one of the most important writers of his generation.

Sa’edi was born into a middle-class family and grew up in the city of Tabriz, where he began his literary career while completing his education. He received a medical degree from the College of Tabriz in 1961. During his final year of school, he wrote a short story entitled “Morḡ-e anjir” (The Fig Chicken, 1956), which was published in Soḵan, a prestigious literary magazine in Tehran. He then published two novellas in Tabriz entitled “Pygmalion” (1956) and “Ḵānahā-ye šahr-e Ray” (The Houses of Ray City, 1957). Sa’edi later moved to the capital Tehran, where he completed his compulsory military service and began a five-year internship in psychiatry at Ruzbeh Hospital in the fall of 1963. During this time, he and his brother, who was also a doctor, ran a clinic in a working-class neighborhood in southern Tehran, offering free or affordable medical services to patients.

During these years, Sa’edi gained critical acclaim through the publication of short stories and dramatic sketches. He published a collection of twelve interconnected short stories entitled “Šabnešini-e bāšokuh” (The Great Soirée, 1960), in which he depicted the frustrations of educated urban civil servants and the middle class with a mixture of humor and tragedy.

Sa’edi’s screenplay for the movie Gav (“The Cow“), directed by Dariush Mehrjui, is often regarded as his magnum opus. The film was part of the New Wave Iranian cinema movement and played a crucial role in shaping the direction of Iranian cinema in the years to come.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979 and his subsequent exile, Sa’edi remained an important figure in Persian literature, even though he was forced to leave his homeland. Although he lived in Paris, he continued to produce literature that resonated with Iranian audiences and captivated readers around the world.

Tragically, Sa’edi struggled with depression and alcoholism, which eventually led to his untimely death in Paris on November 23, 1985. Despite his death, he remained a beloved figure in the world of Iranian literature and cinema, leaving behind a rich legacy that continues to inspire generations of writers and filmmakers in Iran and beyond.

The Garbage Dump is a symbolic short story by Gholamhossein Sa’edi, published in 1345 (1966) as part of a collection entitled “Tomb and Cradle” by Nil Publications. Similar to Sa’edi’s other urban stories, the central theme is fear; fear of something that is so intertwined with life and human relationships that it becomes an unknown and seemingly incurable thing. It is something man-made (like money), a product of social relations between people, which Sa’edi sees as a more tangible and incurable fear compared to superstition in rural areas.

The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Ali, a young man begging with his father in the city. The narrator and his father arrive at a hospital on their way through the city and stay there. The son infiltrates the hospital, befriends the staff and manages to find work for himself through these connections. Gradually, he becomes contaminated and turns from a poor teenager into a criminal.

The Garbage Dump is an example of the intellectual perspective on issues such as unemployment, moral decadence and political oppression in the pre-revolutionary system of Iran, presented in the form of a story. Sa’edi implicitly illustrates the exploitation of the rulers over the oppressed and the poor. Despite its intrinsic value, however, the story did not attract much attention, while Sa’edi’s popularity had little impact. Meanwhile, Sa’edi went deeper and provided a more accurate portrayal of marginalized groups that played an important role in the events that led to the Iranian Revolution of 1357 (1979) and its aftermath. Unlike many romantic writers, Sa’edi does not contrast the city with the village in this story, for he sees the village behind the city and the prevailing conditions. Even after fifty years, the story remains credible for the reader.

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