by Ramin Tork
August 1, 2002 – The Iranian
After the butcher, and the grocer was a small fabrics shop just at the junction of Zand and Amiri streets. This was the first of many shops, which the local Abadanies called “Bazaar Kuwaiti”.
After this point you had all the foreign or fancy goods like the ones that sold music tapes and had side-by-side posters of Bruce Lee in Enter of Dragon and Googoosh with short hair. There was also the shop next door that sold smuggled watches and Wrangler jeans. This one was a good place to buy a fake Rolex for a reasonable price.
The air-conditioning cooler engines were humming in harmony like a chorus of singers and busy pumping hot air outside, and if you looked inside the mosquitoe-fenced windows of the town apartments, you could catch a glimpse of kids who had come from school to have lunch, or people praying or sleeping.
A hot dusty wind that was like a blow of a furnace, would break the suffocating humidity, and was making the empty plastic bags dance in the air. When the heat was this unbearable the locals would pray for monsoon rains that would wet their shirts, and cool them down. It felt like jumping into a cold pool of ice.
The rain would come down like large arrows of heavenly teardrops and blast the dry powdery dust of the streets and the old houses. The suffocating humidity would then clear up and the entire city would have a wonderful aroma of clay and a cool freshness. The rains would also clear away the irritating mosquitoes and the large flying ants that plagued the city at that time of year.
Today, there were no such rains and the sun was pouring out its rays of fire with full intensity. At this time of the day all that you could see in the street was a thin black dog barking, at the salt seller’s donkey tied to a tree urinating into a puddle, and a teenage boy with fuzzy hair just standing there.
The kid was wearing loose cotton trousers and shirt, and plastic sandals, standing still and poking a stick at a large dead sewage rat. The heat did not seem to bother the boy. He was busy looking at the rat’s face, and was completely mesmerised by the smile of death and the Bugs Bunny-like front teeth of the rodent. The rotten smell of flesh and the maggots crawling out of the rat’s body didn’t irritate him. He had pulled it with a stick out of the open sewage channels that ran by the side of the street and the stick had left a trail of dark purple stain coming right up to his plastic sandals.
At first site, Balal looked like a normal sixteen-year-old until you noticed the half dropped jaw showing up his mule like teeth and droopy lips that let saliva slide off one side of his mouth. He had a thin moustache, and his sun-scorched skin appeared dark with that fluffy facial hair that had not matured to a man’s beard. If you looked in his eyes, you could see an animalistic innocence that only little children had.
Despite his mental and physical disabilities, there was a sparkle of what seemed like intelligence. Those eyes seemed sad and happy all at the same time. It was hard to figure out how much the boy understood. He could hear but could not speak. All that he could do when he wanted to communicate was to gyrate his head and make inharmonious sounds that came from the bottom of his throat.
Inside the shop was Haji and Rahmat, his shop assistant doing the inventory. Today Rahmat was also to come over for lunch. Balal’s mother Naneh Abdul had cooked some halva in remembrance of Haji’s older brother. So out of good faith, she had asked Haji to invite Rahmat.
Rahmat did not miss such opportunities. He wanted to get a glimpse of Marjan, Haji’s daughter and Balal’s twin sister. He had loved the girl ever since he had laid eyes on her. The very first time she had come over to the shop to get some cash from his father, just in the first week of Rahmat getting the job.
Was it that long shiny black hair that did it or those eyes that would make you disappear for a thousand years? He did not know. If she would just turn back and look. If only Rahmat would dare to ask Haji for the permission of discussing the matter. If Rahmat could see a single sign of interest. He could not take the torment anymore. “God have mercy, if there is no hope at least get her out of my head!” He would think.
Haji came out of the shop, and called Balal over to join them. Balal did not want to leave the rat but hunger got the better of him and he pushed the dead animal back in the sewage where he had found it. “Leave that filthy thing alone; we are going for lunch,” Haji shouted.
Haji was a firm man. He was honest but not much of a businessman, and after thirty-five years of leaving Bushehr with his late brother and surviving a bankruptcy he had this small shop. Still, he had learnt to love Abadan. This was his home.
The Abadanies had their own pleasant moral code. Generally there was no backstabbing between the traders. They all got on with their own business. There was just about enough prosperity for everyone in the bazaar.
Haji enjoyed flirting with the female customers every now and then. It was good for business and he did get a kick out of it in a healthy sort of way, well as long as it was not vulgar and charming the customers enjoyed it. On the one and only occasion in his life where he had a devilish idea he had decided to hire a good looking assistant to bring in the female customers but he had ended up with Rahmat and his thick framed glasses.
Rahmat did run around like a bee and worked with all his heart for Haji, God bless him! Why did he work so hard? Haji did not know. It wasn’t his salary that was for sure. With Haji’s heart condition he needed an extra pair of hands even if the shop did not turn over that much profit so it was just as well he had Rahmat.
Rahmat was very cunning. He could read customers by how many golden bangles they had on their wrist or how much they would spend if they were in-towner or out-of-towners or even the smell of their perfume. He could also speak Arabic and was a master haggler and always send the customer away thinking that they had just bought the best bargain in town.
Balal was oblivious to all this. All he loved in the shop apart from his father was the veil cloth because it smelled like his mother. He would pick the cloth and smell it and he would feel the arms that would come out of that cloth and hug him like there was nothing else in this world. He enjoyed sitting in that shop to cool himself under the blow of the air conditioner then come out under the scorching sun, close his eyes and feel the warmth of his blood tingling from his burning nose and cheeks to the back of his skull.
Sometimes he would sit like that for hours with those shuteyes. Just sitting there like a Buddhist monk meditating. Occasionally Haji would look at the boy. Like a mirror, he would see his own face of youth reflected in those innocent yet twisted form. There was something of his wife’s softness there too. He had stopped dreaming about what could have been if the boy was normal.
In his old dreams, there was a Balal to be a bridegroom wearing shiny black shoes and a suite from Haji’s best fabric in the shop. The most handsome and smartest boy in town. Working side by side by his father. He had stopped asking questions from God as to why? “For your creative hands, and all that has been bestowed upon us, thank you God!” He would say, then he would look at the framed picture of his younger self in a praying pose with hands held high up to his chin looking at the black cube of Mecca; he would then shake his rosary beads in a gesture of surrender and then move his eyes back to the inventory notes.
In his mind’s eyes, he had thrown many spears of burning anger to the sky and had seen them disappear to a dark emptiness and not come back. He had learnt to live with the emptiness. This was the essence of his faith. Islam was his total surrender to the will of God and that was the rule no matter how much warmth or pain he could feel in that tired old heart. If only his brother was still alive. If only he felt secure for his family especially the boy, perhaps then he would not feel so much weight on his shoulders. All those questions had faded away. It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy. He was grateful for what he had.
Rahmat was still busy counting the rolls of cloth. “One Lawn, two Madras, a blue, and two grey jersey, five canvas, and one dotted Swiss. As for loose ones, ten meters of Drill, seven meters of organdy and five rolls of sailcloth cotton. For the fancies there is one cream and one black YSL kept for Mrs. Hijaz and his son’s wedding, and that is the last of it.”
Then they left the shop and Rahmat rolled down the metallic security blinds and locked up. The wide streets of the bazaar changed into the narrow side streets of the residential homes. A porter was having his afternoon sleep on the side of the road under the shade of a corrugated iron sheet.
They passed the Ladan patisserie/coffee shop that had the best ice coffee in town. Balal remembered the fruity Marzipan sweets and the ice creams that Marjan had bought for him here on New Year. Their home was not far from the public bath where Balal would get scrubbed and be washed vigorously until his entire sun-burnt skin peeled. He hated being shampooed.
The Arab rope maker who was busy making thick ropes for the cargo boats turned back and greeted Haji. The perfume of the lunchtime cuisine had filled the neighbourhood and Balal and his hungry stomach was getting restless.
They finally reached home. Jamal, Haji’s nephew was washing his face by the water tap that was on the side of the courtyard. Today Naneh had cooked her speciality, which was spicy fish stew (Ghalieh Mahi). Rahmat’s heart was pounding like a caught rabbit by just the idea of sitting not far from Marjan. Naneh who was a worldly woman had noticed Rahmat’s unease and could not help secretly smiling.
“So, Rahmat how is your mother? You should ask her to come and see us a bit more often,” Naneh remarked.
“She has been very busy with my sister having the baby. By the way this is the best Ghalieh Mahi and halva that I’ve had, but don’t tell my mother I told you that!” Rahmat replied.
“You should have lunch with us more often Rahmat. Jamal, go and get the covers and the pillows,” Haji remarked and took another puff of his after lunch Bubble Hubble and a sip of sweet tea. It was time for the afternoon nap.
Rahmat: “Haji you are very kind but I must go.”
Haji: “You are not going anywhere. You’ve worked hard with that inventory and deserve your rest. Just get your nap on that side of the room; business is going to be quiet today with people going away for their holidays, so we can relax.”
Rahmat was pleased. He was happy to spend as much time in Haji’s house. In fact he wanted this day to last forever. It was nice to have a lazy afternoon every now and then. It was nice to be in the same house as Marjan. In the room the grandfather clock was ticking away.
There was a shelf with the family pictures of a very young Haji and his late brother standing on the cargo boat they used to own and smiling like they owned the entire world. There were some books, a copy of the Quran and a picture of Haji and Naneh holding the baby twins Marjan and Balal and a one-year-old Jamal sucking a dummy.
Rahmat lied down and watched the overhead fan cooling his moist forehead until he fell sleep. The women just finished washing the dishes. Marjan went upstairs to study for her last end of year exam and Jamal was busy playing football outside. In football he had no match. He would control that cheap plastic ball with his bare feet in the dusty roads like a real pro. The kids called him Pele of Amiri street!
Jamal was the son of Haji’s late brother. He had been in Haji’s care ever since the car accident. He was the only survivor. It was a terrible tragedy. They were driving on the dusty Behbahan road and a lorry had run over the car. It was a very sad day when Haji had to go to the morgue to identify the crushed bodies and held baby Jamal, the only survivor in his arms.
Jamal had grown to be a fine young man. His father would have been proud of him. He had a part time job in summers, working for the National Petrochemical Company. Sometimes at work he would cut brass earrings for Naneh and Marjan on the Capstone Lath machine. He had saved enough money to buy a Honda 105 moped and had one more year to get his diploma.
Jamal would sometimes ride the moped to Ferdowsi girls’ school, stand nearby and put on his Ray-Ban sunglasses and pose for the girls. Just standing there, dropping wisecrack remarks and hoping he would corner a good looking catch using his charms.
What he had caught in his net about two month ago was a sweet girl called Leila who lived just off the Abadan Theatre. They would rendezvous in a coffee shop and on one occasion Leila had sneaked Jamal into her house. They had kissed in the cool basement next to boxes of pomegranates and the large jars of grape juice. To be caught would have been a disaster but it had been worth it!
He would sometimes put Balal on the back of his bike and just circle around Leila’s neighbourhood. Balal liked the happy-sad masks logo of the theatre. To him they were like cartoon characters. If Leila weren’t around or if the coast was not clear, Balal would get a tour of the town. They would ride around Beraim and Bavardeh Boulevard, or go and visit Jamal’s friends around Ahamadabad or Kofeisheh.
Balal had fun when they would ride the bike along side the dusty steeps by the Karoon riverbank where he could see the cargo boats crossing. He especially liked the Milk Bar where Jamal would buy him an ice cream, or the Rex Cinema where they would watch Googoosh and Behrouz fall in love. Sometimes working people would come here just to have an afternoon nap under the cool air-conditioning of the cinema.
Jamal and Balal would drive in those long green boulevards feeling the hot wind blowing against their faces. The endless rows of palm trees made you feel like you were riding really fast. You would pass the refinery and see the large pipes going across the road over your head and then pass the hospital to get to the Beraim district. Here you could smell the petrol and the gases that escaped from the tall coolers or the long pipes. Ironically the locals had got used to the smell. This was the city of petrol-sniffers. In fact, after living here and leaving for any other place, you would miss the smell and drive to a petrol station just for remembrance sake!
Beraim was the part of the town that was built by the British during when they were running Abadan as a little colony of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The British had left and in their place you had the class of well-off employees of the National Iranian Oil Company. The locals called them “sherkat nafties”.
Coming to this part of town was like doing a time warp into the very rich part of the Western Hemisphere. There were the “sherkat naftie” kids in their matching tennis gear or their cool racing bikes and backpacks heading for the open swimming pool or the club. The long avenues and the green grass of the boulevards that surrounded long rows of residential homes were well watered and kept clean.
Jamal had one or two friends here. He would put on his best pair of cream coloured trousers and black shirt and wet his hair with cream then go off with his friends to the Naft, Golestan, or Boat clubs. He wasn’t used to this world of the privileged where waiters with black tuxedos would serve grilled chicken or schnitzel at the tables and the bands that would play jazz for the people eating or drinking Johnny Walker or gin and tonic by the bar. But he knew how to play along.
Sometimes he would go to Night Club near Caravansara Hotel and see Korean dancers doing live shows with their feathery hats and sexy gear. It was amazing how he could get in — he could play bagpipes and drums for weddings and parties, so he had a lot of influential friends. If there was an Abadani wedding, he would be there shaking his shoulders and dancing like it was his own wedding. His Bandari group was popular around the town and they would sometimes get invited to play at the clubs.
Haji was not too keen on all this fancy behaviour but the boy needed to enjoy his youth and having seen the death of his brother, he knew that life could be too short so he turned a blind eye to Jamal’s wild side. All this was costly for a kid from the less well off area of the bazaar, but Jamal was used to spending his last penny living it up.
Rahmat opened his eyes. The ceiling fan was still revolving over his head. Then he heard the sound of thunder. It started to rain — the kind that came down like buckets of water pouring from the heavens. Haji was already up and was having his afternoon prayer in the corner of the room. It was time to go but he could not go until Haji had finished his prayers.
The rain got faster and faster. Rahmat and Balal came running into the courtyard looking soaking wet. Haji eventually finished and turned to Rahmat and said, “Wait for the rain to slow down; you’ll catch a cold in this weather.”
By now the courtyard was beginning to get flooded. The water was beginning to get to the rooms and could have ruined the carpets. Eeveryone rushed off with buckets and utensils to empty the water, and Naneh and Jamal rolled the carpets to one side of the room whilst Haji, Marjan and Rahmat were busy collecting the water.
Rahmat and Marjan looked at each other and smiled whilst they were standing bare feet helplessly collecting the water with those utensils and both looking very wet. Rahmat had finally got the smile he was waiting for; perhaps it was an affirmation of her affection or was it that he looked very silly and wet.
Surely, this was the best day of his life! Marjan blushed at the thought of showing the contours of her feminine shape underneath those wet cloth. She decided to go upstairs before her parents noticed her predicament. It was not decent to look like that but Mother Nature had her own way of teasing the young.
Originally published at Iranian.com