Short Fiction by Feridon Rashidi
Hushang’s auntie, Kowkab, had been to all the houses in the neighbourhood in order to find a suitable wife for her nephew. Each time she came back with disappointing news: the girl’s parents were unwilling to marry their daughter off to a motherless young man whose father was a hopeless opium junky. Besides, they also knew all about Hushang, he was a no-hoper, loafing around in the lanes and streets from dawn to dusk, taunting young ladies and getting into scraps over them with other idle young men.
Hushang was a baby when his mother passed away. His sister, A`zam, and his Auntie had taken charge of his upbringing.
“Auntie Kowkab,” said Hushang, one summer’s day as they sat on the steps leading to the terrace of their lodging-house, “I don’t think there’s any hope of me finding a wife.”
“Don’t you ever say that, dear,” said his Auntie. “Always put your trust in God and he’ll sort out everything for you.”
“But you’ve been to all the houses around here and haven’t found a wife for me yet.”
“I know, dear,” she said. “I’ll be on the lookout to see if I can find a wife for you in some of the lanes further up the street.”
But as time passed and with no suitable wife-to-be in sight, Hushang soon abandoned hope and left the matter to fate.
One afternoon, Hushang’s friend, Davood, saw him squatting in the doorway of the lodging-house and walked up to him with a broad grin on his face.
“You look happy today,” said Hushang.
“Guess what, Hushang?” said Davood, “I’ve got good news for you.”
“I’ve found your future wife.”
“Since when did you become my matchmaker!”
“Since an hour ago!” Davood said.
“So, where’s this wife of mine then?”
“In Zibaanejaad Lane.”
“Auntie Kowkab has been to every single house in that lane.”
“I know,” said Davood. “But she doesn’t know about the new arrivals there, though, does she?”
“That’s right, dadaash,” said Davood, as cheerful as if he had found a wife for himself. “A family with a gorgeous-looking young lady in full bloom.”
“How do you know she’ll be the right wife for me?”
“Hushang,” said Davood, “I’ve known you since we were kids, I know about your likes and dislikes, ladies included. Right?”
“That’s true.” Hushang nodded.
“Do you want to see the young lady or not?”
“I do, Davood, but it’s all hopeless,” said Hushang. “I’ve no luck with women.”
“I think you’ll be lucky with this one.”
“How do you know?”
“Daash Davood knows everything,” he said, sounding as if he were the very fount of all wisdom.
“All right then,” said Hushang. “How and when are we going to see her?”
“She probably goes to one of the high schools not far from here.”
Davood began to explain his plan of action like a military man. “Listen. Early tomorrow morning, you and I will go to the baker’s. You’ll go inside the shop, pretending you want to buy bread. I’ll stand outside, keeping an eye on the door of the house where your future wife lives. Once the beauty shows up, I’ll give a signal to you by lighting up a cigarette. We’ll then shadow her at a distance till she arrives at her school.”
“From then on you’ll take over and I’ll go to see my own ‘pretty ladies’.”
“Are you going to leave me alone in the street to go to your frigging pigeons?” Hushang protested.
“That’s right. I’ve just caught a lovely towghi.”
“Is that what you call friendship then?” said Hushang. “Leaving me on my own there?”
“Don’t be a donkey. You don’t have to wait all day outside her school. She’ll be inside till four. You can go back and loiter in the streets till the girls come out.”
“Will you come back in the afternoon to keep me company?”
“All right,” said Davood. “As soon as I’ve sorted out my ladies, I’ll come back and join you.”
Early next morning, Hushang and Davood set off and hung around the baker’s. At eight o’clock a young lady walked out of a nearby house. She was wearing a school uniform – a grey shirt and short blue skirt. As proud as a peacock and hugging her school books to her bosom, she glided past Davood and Hushang without casting so much as a glance at them. Gaping like two nitwits, they stood there, watching her walk away.
“How beautiful she is, Davood,” Hushang mumbled gruffly, without taking his eyes off his wife-to-be.
“She is, dadaash, she is,” Davood muttered.
“I wish I were those books so that she would press me to her bosom!” Hushang said.
“I envy you, Hushang.”
“For what?” Hushang asked.
“For marrying such a gorgeous girl, of course.”
“You’re jumping the gun, aren’t you, Davood? Primo, I’ve only just seen her today. Secondo, we don’t even know what her parents are like. Tertio, she’s far too beautiful and haughty for a devil like me.”
“Don’t lose heart so quickly, Hushang,” said Davood. “These beautiful creatures sometimes prefer devils like you to the sons of those rich Haajis in the Bazaar.”
They shadowed the beauty till she came to a bus stop, then followed her on to the bus and stood right in front of the long seat where she sat. Hushang kept casting furtive glances at her. She opened one of her textbooks and started reading.
“What shapely fingers she has,” Hushang whispered to Davood.
“Be quiet,” Davood whispered back at him. “She might hear us, you fool.”
“Excuse me.” The heavenly voice made Hushang start. The young lady had stood up and was making her way through the crowded bus to the door. The two friends followed her out of the bus. She crossed the road, walked a little way, and arrived at her all-girls school where she passed through the gate and mingled with a crowd of chattering girls. At the harsh sound of a bell, the girls lined up to go to their classes. A grumpy-looking old caretaker shut the school gate.
Hushang and Davood sat on the edge of a gutter, staring at the gate.
“Well, dadaash,” Davood said, “now that you know where your missis’ school is, I must crack on. I’ll leave you to it and catch you tomorrow.”
“Can’t you stay a bit longer?” Hushang pleaded.
“No, mate. Got to go,” Davood said as he walked away.
Hushang sat on the edge of the gutter alone, staring vacantly at the passers-by. Bored, he stood up and loitered in the streets, ending up in a nearby park, where he sat on a bench wistfully watching the young mothers playing with their small children. At midday he stretched out on the bench, daydreaming about his future wife.
The sound of an ice-cream vendor woke him. He looked at his watch. It was well past three o’clock. Jumping off from the bench, he loped off to the school. Finally, at four o’clock the ill-tempered caretaker opened the gate and the girls poured out on to the pavement. Jabbering noisily, they scattered in different directions like flocks of birds.
“No sign of my future wife, yet,” Hushang said to himself. At last he spotted his sweetheart who, hugging her textbooks to her bosom, was chatting to two of her friends. Waving goodbye to them, she crossed the road alone and waited at the bus stop, standing right in front of Hushang. When they were on the bus, he sat opposite to her. With his heart pounding, he was lost in admiration of her beauty.
From that day on Hushang’s life was turned upside down.
He had heard people talk about falling in love. He had listened to countless love ditties about the torments of love, but he did not know anything about the sorrows that love can inflict on a young man’s heart. He became more and more restless. Unfamiliar feelings began to gnaw at his heart. He lost his appetite and began to have sleepless nights. All he desired was to be with his sweetheart.
Every day he would take the same bus and sit or stand in front of her so that he could lose himself in adoring her. Like an assassin, he would follow her to her school. He would sit on the edge of the gutter, trying to compose the right phrases to express his love for her. When she emerged from the school, he would be so stunned by her beauty that he would lose his ability to speak to her. He would follow her out of the bus, then stand in front of the baker’s, watching her walk gracefully towards her house.
One afternoon, she walked into the baker’s. A woman, veiled in a black chador, greeted her.
“Bah, bah, Manijeh joon,” the woman called out. “Maashallah, maashalla, you’re becoming more beautiful by the day. One of these days I should come and ask my brother to engage you to my son.”
“Thank you, Auntie,” his sweetheart said, turning as red as pomegranate.
“So, her name is Manijeh,” said Hushang to himself. “As beautiful as herself.”
The following day he told Davood what he had heard in the baker’s.
“My future wife is called Manijeh,” Hushang informed Davood. “And I found that her Auntie wants to engage her to her son.”
“A beauty like Manijeh would be soon snapped up by someone,” said Davood. “You’d better hurry up and let her know about your secret passion.”
Hushang, however, was in no hurry.
Some evenings after supper, he would walk to Zibanejaad Lane, hide behind an electricity pole, and wait to see if Manijeh would come out. He would smoke a few cigarettes, casting anxious glances at the door of her house. Worried that inhabitants of the lane might think him behaving suspiciously, he would wander in the dark streets and alleyways, before eventually returning home, only to have another sleepless night.
Every day Hushang ironed his only shirt and pair of trousers to look more handsome for his Manijeh. Before setting off to the bus stop, he sprinkled some water on his hair, and combed it back to look like his favourite film star.
Unable to pluck up courage to talk to Manijeh, Hushang resigned himself to hanging around the baker’s at four o’clock each afternoon just to catch a glimpse of her.
He continued his daily ritual throughout the windy autumn days. Sometimes, Davood joined him in this futile adventure.
“This is getting seriously farcical, Hushang,” said Davood one day, as they were hanging about the baker’s. “Winter will soon be here and you’ll freeze to death if you go on like this.”
“I don’t care,” said Hushang. “I want to look at her.”
“I don’t think by just looking at her she’ll become your wife. Sooner or later you’ll have to talk to her.”
Not heeding Davood’s brotherly advice, Hushang continued his ritual in the vicinity of the baker’s.
Some of the neighbours had already begun to wonder what Hushang was up to, loitering around the baker’s.
One evening, one of them, a kindly man, aired his concern to Hushang’s father over an opium-smoking session.
“I never know what that boy is up to,” said Hushang’s father, letting the thick smoke out of his nostrils. “Whatever job I found for him in the Bazaarcheh he soon left and began to dick around with some dodgy characters.”
“Maybe you should find a wife for him so that he settles down.”
“My sister has been busy matchmaking for this sonofabitch for months.”
“Did she find any suitable girl?
“They all sent her packing once they found out from the busybodies that my son was a no-hoper.”
Having seen Hushang so many times wandering around the baker’s, A`zam decided to talk about him to Auntie Kowkab.
“Auntie Kowkab,” said A`zam as they were squatting beside the hauz, rinsing some linen, “I suspect Hushang fancies a young woman.”
“How do you know, dear?”
“Because he irons his shirt and trousers every single day,” said A`zam. “Every day after lunch he splashes water on his hair, stands in front of the mirror, and combs his hair before going out.”
“A young man of his age does this sort of thing all the time.”
“But I’ve seen him hanging about outside the baker’s as if lying in wait to see someone.”
“In that case I’ll have to find out what’s going on and who the young lady is.”
After this conversation, Auntie Kowkab launched herself into action.
The best person to consult was Ozra Torkeh, who lived in Zibaanejaad Lane and was the treasure-house of gossip in the neighbourhood.
“Ozra Khanum,” Auntie Kowkab asked her when they met in the grocer’s at the junction of Zibaanejaad Lane, “do you happen to know of any suitable young woman in your lane?”
“A new family moved into one of the houses at the other end of the lane a month ago,” Ozra said.
“Any idea if they have a daughter?”
“They certainly do.”
“How does she look?”
“She’s as beautiful as the full moon.” Ozra grinned, pulling her chador over her head.
“Any idea if she’s engaged to someone?”
“She will be, one of these days.”
“Anyone you know?”
“They say to her cousin.”
“Have you seen this cousin?” Auntie Kowkab asked. “Is he handsome? Is he rich?”
“He looks like a baboon,” said Ozra Torkeh. “But he works in his rich father’s carpet shop in the Bazaar. A wealthy haaji, they say.”
Hearing this, Auntie Kowkab fell to thinking.
It didn’t take her long to find out that the object of her nephew’s affections was indeed Manijeh, the daughter of the newcomers.
A few days later, Auntie Kowkab and A`zam cornered Hushang when he was preparing himself to go and keep watch outside the baker’s.
“Hushang joon,” said Auntie Kowkab, “we know why you’re fooling around the baker’s at four o’clock every day.”
“I wait there to meet my mates,” Hushang said, shamming ignorance.
“I didn’t know that one of your mates is a young pretty lady,” Auntie Kowkab said.
“What are you on about?” said Hushang. “Which young lady?”
“Come on, Hushang joon,” said Auntie Kowkab. “Don’t try to kid the kidder, young man. When I was young and pretty I remember how my admirers from all the neighbouring lanes lined up outside the grocer’s and baker’s to catch a glimpse of me. I know all about young men when they fancy a girl. If you tell us who that young lady is, I’ll do the matchmaking for you. This time you might be in luck; you can never tell.”
Hushang was left with no choice but to reveal his secret passion.
“Please, don’t go matchmaking yet,” Hushang begged his Auntie. “You might spoil it if her parents find out about me and my dad. I’ll try to open my heart to the young lady.”
Hushang, however, did not open his heart to Manijeh. He wrote soppy letters to her, telling her how he suffered from the torments of unrequited love, of his sleepless nights, and the fact that he dreamt about nothing but her. But he didn’t have the nerve to hand any of them to her.
One day he read one of these letters to Davood as he sat on the low wall on the roof of the lodging-house, clutching his towghi in his hand. Davood listened gravely, puffing away on his cigarette and shaking his head.
“How can you tell her about one-sided love if she doesn’t even know you exist, let alone you love her?” Davood asked.
“Maybe she has seen me standing at the corner of the baker’s, gawking at her,” Hushang said, flicking his cigarette butt on to the roof.
“I don’t get this,” said Davood. “Being such a gorgeous creature, many young men would gawp at her, wishing to marry her. Truth be told, I know someone who really has taken a shine to her,” he lied. Perhaps if Hushang could be made jealous, that would make him take action.
“Na babaa!” said Hushang, alarmed. “I hope you’re not making this up.”
“May they wrap me in a shroud if I lie to you!”
“Who’s this son-of-a-gun, then?”
“You know Mehti Shaleh?”
“The lad who drags his left leg along and works in the garage opposite to our lane?”
“That’s the one.”
“How can he fancy Manijeh if he’s so ugly and has only one working leg?”
“He may be ugly and have only one good leg,” said Davood, “but he has balls the size of walnuts that unfortunately you don’t seem to have. Besides, he also has a dick and, therefore, human feelings.”
“Why do you think his balls are larger than mine, may I ask?”
“Because he had the guts to speak to her.”
“What?” Hushang cried. “Mehti Shaleh has spoken to Manijeh?”
“Yes, dadaash,” Davood said calmly.
“You’re right,” said Hushang, standing up. “He definitely has balls to have spoken to her.
“Where’re you off to now?”
“I’m going to teach him a lesson so that he will never again dare speak to my future wife.”
“You and your future wife,” said Davood. “Sit down. You’ll be pleased to know that Manijeh warned him if he ever went anywhere near her again in the street, she’d ask her brothers to give him a sound thrashing. He won’t dream of talking to her again.”
“I didn’t know she has brothers,” Hushang said, worried.
“I only found out about them a few days ago.”
“What do they look like?”
“They’re well-known in the Bazaarcheh as being very fanatical Muslims and protective of their only sister.”
Hearing this, Hushang sat down, brooding over this new information.
“Come on, mate,” Davood went on. “Get a grip and talk to your ‘future wife’. If she likes you, she may be able to persuade her parents to take you seriously, once your auntie has done the matchmaking, that is.”
Hushang, however, did not talk to Manijeh. The arrival of winter did not change his daily ritual. He went on hanging around Manijeh’s school and the baker’s on the coldest snowy days.
One evening in spring, as Hushang was walking with Davood through Zibaanejaad Lane, they saw that the top of the front door of the house where Manijeh lived was illuminated by a string of colourful lightbulbs.
“Excuse me, Khanum,” Davood asked a woman who had just come out of the house, “could you please tell us what’s going on here?”
“A wedding, of course,” said the woman. “Any minute they’ll bring the bride.” She then scurried towards the end of the lane.
“I wonder who that bride is,” Davood said.
“You know that only one possible bride lives in this house,” Hushang muttered, a dark cloud of despair sweeping over him. “Manijeh.”
“Let’s wait and see,” said Davood. “You might be wrong. You know that sometimes people lend their large courtyards to neighbours for holding their wedding ceremonies. The bride may not be Manijeh, after all.”
A car, decorated with white ribbons and with a loudspeaker fixed on its roof, stopped at the end of the lane. An ear-splitting ditty about weddings and the future happiness of the couple poured out of the loudspeaker. Five screeching women got out of the car and helped the bride out. Other cars, making a racket with their non-stop hooting, came to a halt in the street. A clamorous crowd of guests, joined by a throng of idlers, entered the lane. As the bride’s maids and her relatives came closer to the house, Hushang was struck by the shapely body and the beauty of the bride.
“What a lucky bastard to have such a beautiful wife,” he mumbled.
“And this bride, I’m sorry to say, is Manijeh!” Davood said.
“This bride cannot be Manijeh.”
“She is, dadaash, she is.”
“If she were,” said Hushang, “I’d have easily recognised her.”
“You didn’t because she was wearing heavy make-up and was partly hidden under the lace thrown over her head.”
“Let’s go into the courtyard to find out for ourselves,” Hushang suggested.
“All right then,” said Davood. And the two friends went in.
The courtyard was decorated with lines of colourful lights. Grim-faced, black-suited men and black-chadored women were sitting at the tables on which were placed bowls of sweetmeats and fruits. A young man was rushing from table to table, offering glasses of tea to the guests. The bride sat beside her groom, her veiled head staring at the table as if looking for something she had lost.
“Why do they all look so miserable?” said Davood. “It’s as if they’re sitting in a tekieh, waiting for the mollah to start his sermon.”
“I suppose they’re all fanatical Muslims and don’t have a clue how to cheer up a bit for a wedding.”
“Take a look at the bride and the bridegroom,” said Davood. “They both look as if they’re in mourning.”
Only when the bride lifted up her lace to nibble at a sweetmeat offered to her by the bridegroom was Hushang able to see her face.
“Let’s go, Davood,” Hushang whispered in his ear.
“Why?” said Davood. “We’ll soon have a free dinner!”
“To hell with the dinner,” said Hushang. “I think you were right. The bride is Manijeh.”
“Forget about her,” said Davood. “Come on, have some sweetmeats. The ones with cream taste of rosewater.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Hushang insisted. “If I stay any longer I might do something stupid. I can’t bear looking at that idiot who’s going to sleep beside Manijeh tonight.”
“I think this hopeless love has curdled your brains,” said Davood. “Babaa, they’re now husband and wife.”
At that moment Manijeh noticed Hushang and began staring at him in a peculiar way, as if surprised and at the same time pleased to see him. Alarmed, Hushang stood up.
“Where are you off?” Davood asked.
“We’ve got to go,” muttered Hushang. “She’s seen me and might tell her thuggish brothers.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Davood. “My mates and I will take care of them.”
“You and your mates deal with them, but I’m off.” Hushang walked quietly out of the courtyard. Davood grabbed a handful of sweetmeats, stuffed them into his pockets, and followed him.
Manijeh moved to her new home a few lanes down the street. Hushang went on falling in love with other young women in other lanes. Auntie Kowkab diligently continued her matchmaking, visiting different families with promising young women living in far-off lanes. The news was never good. Fed up with worrying about her brother’s happiness, A`zam finally resigned herself to marrying a thuggish, apelike butcher who had been wooing her for years. Hushang’s father, when at home, spent all his time in the basement of the lodging-house, smoking opium and gazing for hours on end at the glowing charcoals buried under the ashes.
One morning Hushang heard someone knocking loudly on the door of the lodging-house.
“All right, all right!” shouted Hushang, “Don’t smash the door down.”
A police officer stood outside, tapping his foot impatiently.
“Does someone called Hushang Shooshtari live here?”
“Has he done anything wrong, officer?” Hushang asked.
“No, he hasn’t.”
“What do you want him for then?”
“He’s been called up for Military Service.”
“Because at the age of eighteen it’s everybody’s duty to serve the Shah and the country,” the policeman explained irritably, as if Hushang were stupid.
“All right then,” said Hushang, hiding his identity in the hope of somehow avoiding the service. “I’ll let him know, when I find him, that is.”
“Yes, find him.”
“According to this call-up paper,” said the policeman, shoving the paper in Hushang’s face, “he lives here.”
“He did for a while,” said Hushang. “Then he disappeared, like so many of the other junkies who disappear all the time in this district.”
“If you see him, tell him to report to this address,” the officer said, handing the paper to Hushang.
No sooner had the policeman left the lane than Hushang dashed up to the roof to find Davood to tell him the news and ask his advice.
“I’ve been called up for Military Service, Davood,” Hushang told him, panicking.
“You look shocked,” Davood said, letting one of his ‘pretty ladies’ fly.
“Course I’m shocked.”
“Well, don’t be,” said Davood. “Two years Military Service is the life-tax we pay so that the Shah and his clan can enjoy themselves in their fucking palaces uptown.”
“But I haven’t found a wife yet.”
“Forget about your bleeding wife and get your arse to the office today, otherwise …”
“They’ll hunt you down and drag you to that fucking office of theirs.”
“What if I don’t report?”
“They’ll treat you as they’d treat a deserter during a war.”
“Put simply,” said Davood, “they’ll fuck you up, and you’ll pay a heavy price for what remains of your life. Do you remember what happened to Hossein Faraari?”
“The one who dodged the service several times?”
“He just vanished after they caught him.”
“That’s right,” said Davood. “So, when the time comes, we all have to go, dadaash.”
Hushang gazed at the rooftops shrouded in the mid-morning smog.
The following day Hushang, along with a large number of other young men, was dispatched to the city of Kerman.
After a few weeks, the same ill-tempered military gendarme came for Davood, asking him to report to the recruiting office. He was then sent to a barracks in a godforsaken town. Unable to bear being away from his ‘pretty ladies’, Davood pretended that he was mad so that he would be exempted from service. His playacting was so convincing that the military doctors had no choice but to kick him out of the barracks.
Back in Tehran, Davood spent most of his time on the roof playing with his ‘pretty ladies’. From time to time he received a letter from Hushang, promising him that he would come back once he’d finished his two-years’ service, find a job, and get married.
Two years passed and Hushang did not come back. Another year came and went. No news from Hushang. Davood wrote a few letters to him but received no replies. He even went to the nearby Military Office to find out what had happened to his friend.
“Go on, bugger off!” the officer shouted at him.
But Davood never forgot about Hushang.
A year later the Islamic Revolution happened. Soon the war with Iraq broke out.
One snowy winter’s day Davood was sitting in the teahouse at the end of the Bazaarcheh, taking hard drags on his cigarette.
“Is that you, Davood?” someone called out.
“You’re talking to him, dadaash,” Davood said, raising his head.
“Don’t you recognise me, you son-of-a-gun?” said the man, who was dressed in a soldier’s uniform. He dragged up a chair and sat on it. “Yours truly, Hossein Faraari.”
Davood peered at him through the smoke and burst into laughter.
“It’s you, Hossein!” Davood cried, standing up and giving him a bear hug. “Look at his uniform! I thought they got rid of you somehow.”
“You can see that the motherfuckers didn’t succeed.”
“What’s all this uniform about then?”
“Once they finally caught me, they offered me lifelong service with all the perks and benefits.”
“So you joined the ranks of the bastards, mate,” Davood said, his mood darkening.
“What else could I do, mate?” said Hossein. “I had nothing to come back to.” He took out a pack of cigarettes from his top pocket and offered one to Davood. “Anyway, I’ve news from someone you know.”
“Someone I know?”
“A commissioned officer friend of mine called Hushang Shooshtari who’s based now in Zahedan asked me to let you know that all is fine with him and his family.”
“Hushang!” exclaimed Davood loudly. “He has a family now?”
“A wife and two kids.”
“Who’d have thought!” Davood smiled.
A few days later Davood saw A`zam. She was now wearing a long, grey overcoat with her head covered with a black scarf.
“Any news from Hushang, Davood Agha?” She repeated the question whenever she saw him.
“Good news, at last,” said Davood. “A soldier friend of mine told me Hushang is all right.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s a commissioned officer in Zahedan, married with two kids,” Davood said, smiling.
“So he’s settled then?”
“Finally, A`zam Khanum, finally.”
“Do you remember Manijeh, Davood Agha?”
“How can I forget her, A`zam Khanum,” said Davood. “Whenever I see her, I think of the old days with Hushang.”
“She was asking Auntie Kowkab about Hushang the other day.”
“She ran away from her violent, womanising husband and now lives with her parents, waiting for her divorce to go through.”
“Ask your Auntie to tell her that my good old friend Hushang is now happily married.”