By Nasir Taqva'i
Translated by Minoo Southgate, © 1980
The sea, which is neither blue nor green, has pushed the town back, halfway up the mountains. At high tide the waves' white froth sinks in the sand at the threshold of the first houses. The waves beat against the dykes between the stone wall that circles the low land and the dock. Behind the wall built along the dock are a few shops and a shellfish cleaning factory, and the shade cast by the wall is the porters' hangout.
Dark, patternless brown mountains hump behind the town, curl around the bare sandy hill, and disappear into the sea, except for a few scattered rocks jutting out of the water here and there. The beacon blinks a bit farther away in the sea. At night, the moon shines into the rooms through open windows. On the water, the beacon fuses its red beams with the moonlight each time it flashes. At dawn, when the moon grows pale on the mountains, the long distant line between the sea and the sky casts a white gleam. You can hear the fishermen's voices and the sound of their oars as their boats approach the horizon, black against the silvery glitter of the water. When the white line in the horizon turns yellow and the sun reaches the high ventilation towers of the houses and the dome-like covers of the tanks, the fishermen return. The sun looks from above. On the sandy beach, old men shade their eyes from the sun, watching the boats anxiously. Once fishermen, they now weave fishing nets and wait for the boats, hoping to make a few pennies by repairing the nets torn by sharks. The women wear loose gowns with embroidered skirts. They watch the boats through the two holes of their black veils, anxious to get the fish in time or their husbands' meals. Naked children stand beside a mound of colorful loincloths, ready to jump into the water when the boats get nearer. Farther away, the porters sit in the shade, leaning against the wall, waiting for a boat--or a ship, if it has been a few months since the last one's arrival.
From the tops of the ventilation towers, the sun penetrates the rooms through the colored glass windows, painting rainbows on the plaster walls. The large house facing the children's playground never catches the sun in its windows. The townspeople have broken the glass with stones.
It was in this house that Engineer Agha Julio almost settled down. While he lived there, the light went on at night in the room at the right side of the house, and sometimes a woman's cries broke the cemetery-silence of the large house. Engineer Agha Julio was a big; ruddy Italian. Children loved the two lines in the corners of his always laughing mouth. The photograph he gave Dolu before he left is still in the box under the bed. Dolu hasn't looked at it again since he found it. However, for him the memory of Engineer Agha Julio is something more than a photograph in a box, something he has hidden in a secret corner in his mind.
The day Engineer Agha Julio arrived at Langeh, the children were sitting on the dyke, their fishing lines in the water, watching a ship that had anchored where the water was darker. The water was shallow near the shore, so the cargo had to be brought in by rowboats. He came in the second rowboat, wearing a black beret. Four porters went to the boat with a chair and held it by its legs while he climbed onto it. Then they carried him toward the shore, the water up to their knees. Suddenly the porter in front tripped over a rock and let go of the chair. Engineer Agha Julio fell into the water and his shorts, socks, and shoes were soaked. The porters were frightened, but he smiled at them. Still, they were afraid and did not charge him for the lift. He walked past the children in his black beret, khaki shirt and shorts, a camera hanging at his side and water squashing in his shoes. But the children did not laugh at him; they said hello.
As long as the ship was in the harbor, no one thought that he would stay in Langeh. But he stayed for a year, or maybe a bit longer. He seemed to be up to something, or maybe he had conceived some wild scheme on his way back from the Bostaneh mountains. He rented a house facing that of Mirza Hasan, the owner of the shellfish cleaning factory. The engineer had proposed a joint stock company to him. Mirza Hasan had not understood the details of the deal. "If I'm going to get hoodwinked," he had said, "it won't be by that Italian." The engineer had not repeated his offer. That year Mirza Hasan suffered a loss. The shellfish were carried off to the sea by an unseasonable storm.
Then the Engineer Agha Julio struck a deal with a truck driver who used to bring fruit from orchards on the other side of the mountains. On every trip the truck had broken down and the fruit had spoiled, but the driver continued the enterprise, hoping for better luck. The last time the truck had broken down, its main spring was bent so badly that it could not be straightened. The Engineer Agha Julio was good at making a bargain, and was an expert mechanic as well. He examined the engine and the four tires like a man checking a donkey's snout and knees. The truck was back on the road in no time. When it passed through the streets, the children would push their loincloths under the strings they tied around their waists and chase it in the dust, barefoot. One day the truck went by loaded with workers. Engineer Agha Julio was driving toward the mountains. The workers were mostly fishermen and porters. He had told them that there was sulphur in Bostaneh Mountains, and they had been carried away with the dream of success. Only Mirza Hasan was skeptical and had no faith in the enterprise. He didn't know why, but his pessimism proved justified. The mine collapsed and crippled three workers. Two of them were porters at the dock. The fishermen and porters returned to their former callings. The latter were angry at the engineer. The people divested the ruddy Italian of the title 'Engineer' and reduced his name to Agha Julio.
The truck, which was falling apart, was put to work at the dock. The porters would glare at it angrily when it was loaded, but the head of the town, Kadkhoda, was happy. One night, in the Jame' Mosque, he registered the first freight company for the port of Langeh and vicinity in the name of Agha Julio in the Koran. The Shiites' objection to having a heathen's name in the Koran was overruled by the Sunnite majority. In protest, the Shiites stopped attending the Jame' Mosque. They did not remain idle, however. Covert activities began at Mirza Hasan's instigation. The porters, who were mostly Shiites, congregated in the shade behind the wall and talked for a few days and nights. They argued, cursed, and gave one another the finger, until those in favor of smashing the truck were dissuaded by fellow workers who were afraid of having to pay damages to the red-faced Italian. In the end they voted for passive resistance and decided to fight the Italian by charging less. Soon after, scarcity of business forced Agha Julio's freight company to close down. Agha Julio complained about the porters' syndicate to the Kadkhoda. Kadkhoda was scared. He had heard the word 'syndicate' on his battery operated radio. He intervened, the Shiites and the Sunnites were united, and the Shiites began to attend the Jame' Mosque again. When their religious leader, Mirza Hasan, resigned, the Shiites thought nothing of his resignation. And when Kadkhoda made it up to Julio by registering his new occupation in the Koran, no one left the Jame' Mosque.
The run-down truck was bartered for Abdollah Patar's old convertable Ford (which Sheikh Jaber's son had brought from Adan years ago) and Langeh's first cab company was established. The cab would go to the countryside also--if it could find a passenger. The Ford was old and had spoked wheels. The horn, which Agha Julio himself could not stand, stampeded the donkeys, so Kadkhoda forbade honking in the town.
Whenever Agha Julio had no passenger--which was always the case--he would take the children for a ride and sing for them. This was the beginning of their friendship with him. He wanted to learn their language and he had picked up a few words, although he and the children understood each other perfectly without words. He hadn't had much success in learning their songs, however, and generally sang Italian songs. The children could not judge his performance. Some made fun of him; others nodded with approval. Agha Julio's behavior cost him the grownups' respect. They dropped 'Agha' from his name and called him simply Julio. But the children continued to call him Agha Julu.
Agha Julu's ruddy face turned brown in the summer and his black beret gave place to a straw hat. The less people respected him, the more he enjoyed himself. He was that kind of man. He consumed more arrack as his taxi consumed more gasoline. But business was dull because everybody in Langeh had his own private donkey. Agha Julu was forced to sell the car back to Abdollah Patar, who was now proud to have two cars in his garage.
Agha Julu was idle for a while, then disappeared for about ten days. The children went back to playing on the beach and fishing in the deep waters between the rocks. After all those rides, they found the walk to the rocks exhausting. One evening, when the children were playing in the square, Agha Julu returned. They gathered around him and he had them clean up one of the lighter rooms in his house. He hung a black curtain on the wall facing the window, and put up a big sign at the door. Mirza Hasan saw the sign when he left this house early in the morning. He cursed for a while, then called the townspeople. But Kadkhoda was pleased. Agha Julu had opened Langeh's first photo studio. The children were in clover. With the long red strips of film paper, which had a nice smell, they made hats, belts, and swords, and invented new games to play. Instead of thread spools, they now used empty film reels in their toy carts. The townspeople were curious and only the fear of Mirza Hasan prevented them from having their pictures taken right away. But it wasn't long before they all did so, when they caught him looking the other way.
The daughter of the progressive Kadkhoda was the first female to go to Agha Julu's studio for her picture. Zeinab followed suit, out of rivalry with Kadkhoda's daughter. She even took off her veil, so her picture would be prettier than Kadkhoda's daughter's. After a few weeks, Agha Julu told the children to take the sign down. The town had a small population and everybody had his picture taken during Agha Julu's short career as photographer.
Once more Agha Julu was between jobs. The children would gather around him after play and teach him their songs. They would ask him to tell them about his town. He would unbutton his shirt pocket, pull out and unfold a piece of paper crowded with black lines over patches in different colors. He would point to a spot. The children would laugh. Then they would not laugh any more and would ask him to stay in their big town instead of going back to that small green boot on the paper. He would make them understand that he would not go back. The children never doubted his sincerity. They had become familiar with his gestures, his mannerisms, and the expression in his eyes. His dignified countenance helped him to maintain a respectful distance between himself and the children; otherwise they would have made him a laughing stock like the blind Toku. The children liked him the way he was and didn't want him to change. The grownups could not accept him as easily. They slandered him, but eventually surrendered to him. The children kept betting over his next job. They thought of everything except what he finally took up five days after he had photographed Zeinab.
Agha Julu took to the streets, singing and dancing. As Zeinab's father put it, the neighbor of the religious Mirza Hasan turned into a common street performer. The children were bursting with anticipation. They knew Agha Julu was not so foolish as to forfeit his dignity for nothing. The first night Mirza Hasan was lying in his mosquito net on the roof and had just blown out the lamp, when Agha Julu started singing in the street below. Dolu quietly sneaked past his parents' mosquito net and went down the stairs into the courtyard and opened the street door. He squeezed through the children, who had gathered in a circle in front of Zeinab's house. In the middle of the circle, Agha Julu was dancing and snapping his fingers. Toku played the clarion, his cheeks nearly bursting with air. Occasionally he would stop playing and would sing "Oh wine seller woman, how much is your wine?" The children would pick up the chorus and sing along. Then Toku would sing again "The moon is out tonight, how much is the wine?" Agha Julu sang too; but when he did, the children would stop singing, and would only laugh at him. You couldn't help laughing at his singing. The empty arrack bottle on the ground harmonized all that discord. When Mirza Hasan pushed his way into the circle, Dolu was caught by surprise. He did not have the chance to disappear among the children. Mirza Hasan took him by the hand and slapped him, shouting, "Go home, you bastard." Then he cursed Toku. "The way this blind beggar has taken to this crazy Julio!" he shouted.
"Say Agha. Agha Julu!" Dolu said.
"Get home, you bastard," his father shouted.
Dolu left the window open that night, using the heat as an excuse. His father had not let him sleep on the roof. His mother brought his bedding down from the roof the next morning. Dolu was at the window, listening. Suddenly he heard Toku's clarion wailing not too far away. Dolu looked out of the window and saw Toku and Agha Julu turn the corner and stagger into the alley with their shadows. The children were following them. Dolu ran to the door and turned the knob, but the door did not open. He felt a lump in his throat, as a child does whose parents have refused to take him along to a wedding. He went back to the window. Agha Julu and Toku were in front of Zeinab's house. The children were clapping. The newcomers melted into the moving circle of flesh. Agha Julu was dancing and singing in the middle of the circle. Now and then, when he took a gulp from the bottle in his pocket, Toku's loud clarion and the children's happy cry made up for his silence. A while later, Dolu saw his father rush toward Zeinab's house, where the windows were lighted indicating that the occupants were not asleep. He knocked and shouted for a long time, before they opened the door. He went in and returned not long after with Zeinab's father. They knocked a few more doors and other old men joined them. Then all left the alley together. Dolu tried to open the door again, but failed. Suddenly the noise stopped. He went to the window. The men had returned, led by Kadkhoda, whom they followed at a respectful distance, as if awed by his old pistol. The men broke into the circle, or maybe the children let them in. Kadkhoda said something to Agha Julu, and the latter went with him without a word. The men waited there angrily, until the children returned to their homes.
That night Dolu heard his father cough louder than on previous nights. He coughed as he turned the large beads of his rosary between his fingers. "What a brave man!" he said to his wife, mocking Agha Julu.
"You were too many," Dolu cried, unable to control his anger.
"Kadkhoda will stay with him all by himself tonight," Mirza Hasan said.
"Then he'll show you," Dolu said angrily.
"Shut up, you bastard," Mirza Hasan shouted.
For the children, the next day's sun was the slowest sun that ever rose on the rooftops. They all woke up earlier than usual. Even Delbad woke up on his own, before his father could awaken him with a kick in the spine. Normally the children found excuses not to do the shopping for breakfast. But that day they volunteered to go. On the way to the market, however, none went beyond Kadkhoda's house. Two men were carrying Kadkhoda out of the mud-brick hut that had served as the town's prison since the night before. Kadkhoda was drunk, quietly singing "Oh wine seller woman." (Thereafter, whenever Kadkhoda wanted a drink he would take a gulp from Agha Julu's bottle, when no one was watching.)
The old men whispered together. Their expressions intrigued Dolu and he listened to them attentively.
"Won't you say this wishy-washy Kadkhoda has proved he can't handle Julio?" Mirza Hasan said to Zeinab's father.
"Julio is a crafty fox, but I'm not going to let him get away with this," Zeinab's father said angrily.
"Don't kid yourself. We ought to think of something that'll work," Mirza Hasan said. Dolu thought his father had come to his senses.
"What sort of thing? He is disgracing me," Zeinab's father said.
"You aren't thinking of giving in to him, are you?"
"I don't know. I've got to do something."
"What do you want to do?"
"It was my fault to turn him down. Mirza Hasan, do you think if Julio gets married, he..." Zeinab's father said quietly, too embarrassed to finish. A knowing smile wrinkled Mirza Hasan's face as if he had tasted bitter tea. "But with one condition," Zeinab's father added quietly.
Dolu did not wait. He ran to Agha Julu's prison and the children followed him, screaming. Agha Julu threw the window open in terror.
"Agha Julu!" the children yelled.
"Agha Julu, hurry up before it's too late."
He shouted at them. They quieted down and turned to Dolu. Dolu looked at them importantly, as if about to reveal a big secret.
"They want to make you a Moslem," he said to Agha Julu. The children saw the color return to Agha Julu's face and his laugh lines reappear deeper than usual. He laughed aloud. The children stared at one another. Agha Julu shut the window. They stood outside the hut, amazed.
"Did you see that?" Mamu said. They all turned to him.
"His face. His face was a funny color," one said.
"Why, he was just laughing. That's all," Dolu said.
" I'm not talking about his laughing. I think he's scared of something. Isn't he?" Mamu said.
"He isn't scared of anything," Dolu said.
"We'll help him, if it's necessary, won't we?" Mamu said.
"If he isn't worried, why should we worry?" Dolu said.
"Well, aside from all this, is he going to become a Sunnite or a Shiite?" one asked.
"A Shiite, of course," two answered together.
That afternoon the men took Agha Julu to Sayyed Mohammad Sadegh, the mujtahid. He read from the Koran. The children didn't understand a word he said, not even Delbad, who had gone to mosque school for two years. Then Agha Julu repeated Sayyed Mohammad's words, his accent making them even less comprehensible. It was because they were worried about him that they didn't laugh.
The wedding was celebrated the night after. Toku played the clarion, his cheeks swelling larger than anyone remembered. Agha Julu went around happily in his khaki shorts and T-shirt with a bottle of arrack in his hand, dancing. From the roof, the women tossed sweets and coins over his head. The men found excuses to call him by his new name, Engineer Agha Javad. It was the happiest night in the children's life.
After getting married, Agha Julu settled down a bit. He drank more than before, but people said he had grown more sensible. When the women passed him in the street, they wouldn't pull their black chadors over their veils any more. He had become part of the community. But the children stopped going to his house. They cleaned their playground, took out their fishing rods and waxed the lines. When they met him on the street, they would just say hello and walk by, then turn and watch a man who was no longer their playmate. He was a husband.
A few weeks passed in peace (like all the weeks the children remembered before Agha Julu came to Langeh), until Agha Julu began his new occupation. This time the nature of his work was a mystery to all. Whenever he smoked imported cigarettes and carried imported liquor in his back pocket, the children would know that a new ship had arrived. They would gather on the shore to watch it. That month two ships anchored near the port. The porters said it was a good month. The tugboat had brought two oil barges and the freighter had come for the shellfish for the second time that year. Meanwhile, once every few days Agha Julu would deliver something in boxes of photography paper to the ships and return. The children made bets and thought hard and long, but could not guess what was in those boxes. They saw him burn something on the roof of his house twice. They recognized the smell of film paper and the big fire led them to assume that Agha Julu's business was prospering. He did not buy the old Ford, but would rent it now and then. His honking called the children out, and the dust in his wake exasperated the shopkeepers. The laugh lines in the corner of his mouth were deeper than ever, until one night things changed. The neighbors heard sharp cries and loud voices from the house and after a series of separations and reconciliations, Zeinab returned to her father's house for good. Zeinab's father seldom left the house after that. The cause of the divorce was still a mystery when Agha Julu married again, this time no less a bride than Kadkhoda's daughter. The children enjoyed the second wedding celebration as much as the first. But this time the marriage lasted only a couple of weeks. One night Dolu was at the window, when he heard shouting from Agha Julu's house. He heard a scream and saw a shadow on the window of Agha Julu's room which was lighted by two or three lamps. The shadow looked like a naked woman's. Dolu turned his face and did not look again. The woman's screams were loud and resonant. Then Dolu heard the sound of breaking glass. A black box was hurled through the window. It broke when it hit the ground. The woman ran to the window again. Pieces of paper and cardboard whirled in the air. Agha Julu rushed out of the house, and collected everything. When he went inside, the fight resumed. Shortly afterwards, Kadkhoda's daughter rushed out and ran to her father's house.
Early in the morning, Dolu and Delbad found a stained photograph in the sludge in front of Agha Julu's house. Dolu hid it in his pocket quickly. It wouldn't be nice if Agha Julu found out that the children had seen his first wife's nude picture.
Dolu and Delbad stared at each other in amazement. Delbad turned his face and began to walk without a word. "Delbad," Dolu said.
"What?" Dolu asked.
"I won't tell anyone, either," Dolu said quietly.
Later in the evening when silence and sleep had fallen on the small town, the children left Mosallah's coffeehouse and began to walk toward their homes. One by one they left the main road and turned into side streets, until Dolu was left alone. The moon was out. The shadows scared the solitary child and quickened his step. Before reaching home, he heard Agha Julu's voice. He was speaking in his own language. Dolu did not understand. Agha Julu was sitting, facing the wall. Dolu did not know who he was talking to. "How are you, Agha Julu?" he said, standing behind him.
Agha Julu did not look at him; he raised his bottle, took a gulp, and frowned. Dolu hadn't seen that kind of bottle before. He decided the arrack was of poor quality. But Agha Julu licked his lips and smacked his tongue against his palate. Dolu realized that the more the arrack made you frown the better it was. Agha Julu began to talk again, still facing the wall. The shadow on the wall made no response. 'Sometimes it's better if you don't say anything, like the shadow,' Dolu thought. But he couldn't leave. He tapped Agha Julu on the shoulder until he turned his head. Dolu sat on the doorstep before him. "Agha Julu," he said quietly. They looked at each other. Dolu said nothing. He discovered that Agha Julu didn't look like a husband any more. He stretched his arm, holding the photograph. "Here. We found this in the sludge. I swear we only looked at it once. Delbad promised he wouldn't tell anyone."
Agha Julu took the photograph. The wrinkles on his forehead persisted. He put the photograph in his shirt pocket and smiled, pressing Dolu's hand lost between his own large hands. He stood up. His shadow slid down the wall and entered the house before him. Dolu heard him sing the chorus in his drunken voice. He waited until the light was put out. He continued waiting until all sounds had died down in the house.
It was the fifth month of summer--Langeh's long summer, when the nights are so short that the sun rises before the moon has completely disappeared. That day, the sun's first rays had just turned the mountain tops and the tips of the ventilation towers golden. In the cool morning fathers awakened their sons with a tap on the head or a kick in the spine, and sent them off to market before they had washed away the sleep from their eyelids with a splash of cool well water. Dolu saw something new on the way to the market. The sight of a pea-green jeep circled by children drove away the heaviness of sleep from his eyes. "What's going on?" he asked Mamu.
"I don't know. We saw a few gendarmes go into Kadkhoda's house."
"Let's go in," Delbad said.
"No. If I'm late with the bread again, my father will kill me," Dolu said.
"All right. Go and get the bread. If something goes wrong, we'll let you know," Delbad said.
Dolu went to the bakery with Mamu. The baker spread the dough expertly. His hand and arm would enter the red mouth of the oven and come out sweaty. Dolu saw the dough rise with small bubbles and darken. He was thinking about the jeep. The gendarmes would not come to the town for no reason. He heard his name and turned. Delbad was running toward him and calling his name. They ran together, bumping into people who were in their way. The wall of flesh was harder to penetrate than before, yet somehow they ended in the middle of the circle and saw Agha Julu held by two gendarmes, his hands handcuffed before him. The gendarmes' bayonets flashed in the children's eyes. They couldn't believe what they saw. Agha Julu's face was like that day when Mamu had said he seemed afraid of something. He was quiet, his head bent down. When he looked at the men, they turned their faces from him. He turned to the children and looked them in the eye one by one. He stood before Dolu, with those same laugh lines, placed his handcuffed hands on Dolu's head and thrust his fingers in his hair. Agha Julu's smile was not gay. His eyes pointed to his shirt pocket. Dolu understood. Sheltered by Agha Julu's large body, he thrust his fingers into his shirt pocket, took out the photograph, and hid it in his own collar without looking at it. Agha Julu laughed. Dolu's hair was pressed with a pleasant pain.
The corporal emerged from the house with two more gendarmes carrying Agha Julu's belongings. The children could not look the corporal in the eye. Their eyes would not go beyond his mustache. "The son-of-a-bitch, every place he opens up shop he destroys all the evidence," he said to Kadkhoda. He turned angrily at Agha Julu, who was laughing. His hand went up. The children closed their eyes and heard the blow in the dark. Mamu nudged Dolu. "Shouldn't we do something?"
"Shhhhhh," Dolu said, watching the bright metal handcuffs dig into the red flesh of Agha Julu's wrist. He knew Agha Julu could break the handcuffs with one move if he chose to. He hadn't done so for a reason. The corporal shouted, and the gendarmes pushed Agha Julu toward the jeep.
"Sir! Captain, you can't. We won't let you take him away," Delbad shouted, no longer able to control himself. The corporal frowned, like a captain who has been addressed as a corporal. Delbad was tongue-tied. Even the children's encouragement could not make him speak again.
Everybody was silent, until the jeep disappeared in the column of dust it left behind.
"Who on earth was he?" Kadkhoda said as quietly as the settling dust. He felt as if he had seen a passerby for the first time.
"He was a strange creature," Mirza Hasan said.
Dolu ran toward his house. He wanted to cry. In the room, he shut the door firmly, put the photograph in the box with his eyes closed, and pushed it under the bed. He threw himself on the bed, lying on his stomach, and hot salty tears burned the corners of his mouth. He heard the people stoning Agha Julu's house and breaking the windows. He did not go to the window to look.