copyright 1984, 1999
Hedayat's Iran was a country in transition; his life and works reflect its flux. He was born three years before the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. His formative years were spent in a milieu that juxtaposed nationalist sentiment and religious feeling with a growing amalgam of modernization and Westernization. During his twenties Iran failed at attempts to form a duly elected government. Nor, in his thirties, could Reza Shah assume full control. Neither the government nor the Communist party, which had begun its activities as early as 1920, could mobilize a following substantial enough to turn the tide against the British, something the Iranians had done during the 1890-91 tobacco boycott. Gradually everything Western and modern became acceptable while everything Islamic was rejected as superstitious and substandard. Islam was reduced to a ceremony in which all rites were based on traditional beliefs and shallowly held Islamic principles. An increased mobility and a greater access to non-Islamic sources of knowledge helped to incite this break from the dogma of traditional preachers and teachers.
The Second World War liberated Iran from the grip of Reza Shah and from the sole tutelage of the British. The Tudeh party, which distanced itself from the old Communist party in 1941, grew into a considerable force. Along with Islamic and democratic (British) ideologies, this party, in conjunction with a young and ineffective Shah (Mohammad Reza), created an era of high hopes. While individual rights were not as strictly denied as under Reza Shah, this was not a period of freedom per se. At most, artists and intellectuals enjoyed a breathing space.
At the end of the fourth and the last decade of Hedayat's life, someone tried to kill the fledgling Shah. The unsuccessful attempt was blamed on the Tudeh party. The party was made illegal and its offices were closed. There began a struggle to regain not only the lost freedoms of the Tudeh members but also Iranian rights that had been lost to the Pahlavis and the British since 1906. As a result, in 1951, the year that Hedayat committed suicide, a nationally elected government, headed by Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq, took power for the first time in Iran. Mosaddeq nationalized the oil industry and, through the National Front, educated the youth as to their rights, their power, and their potential as a political force. Here we shall examine some of the issues that shaped the 1930's and 1940's in Iran as seen and interpreted by Sadeq Hedayat. Since Hedayat was not as daring in the early 1930's as he was later, it is important to read between the lines of his stories. At times his silence on the atrocities of the time is profound. It underscores the grimness of the episodes discussed by others.
This chapter is a difficult one to deal with. A number of themes and many stories must be discussed to reveal the dynamics of socio-political change in the Iran of the time. To this end, we shall divide the chapter into two main parts, one dealing with social issues and the other with political concerns. We will begin the section on social issues with a look at Hedayat's treatment of women. We will then proceed to examine Hedayat's collections for social themes by way of plot summaries for the major stories. We will examine "Buried Alive" on judgment, "Three Drops of Blood" on trust, and "Chiaroscuro" on modernization and the dynamics of change. We will conclude this section with a brief discussion of "The Stray Dog" focusing on determinism and free will. In the section dealing with political concerns we will examine Hedayat's later stories, stories in which he voices his opinion about the political climate in Iran and against the government's strangulation of the masses.
Except for a few stories like "Zaban-e Hal-e Yek Olaq dar Vaqt-e Marg" ("The Silent Language of a Donkey at the Time of Death") and "Hekayat-e ba-Natije" ("The Story with a Result"), Hedayat's works appear in collections of some eight to eleven stories each. The latter is a good story with which to begin our discussion of Hedayat's treatment of women. The story is about a page and a half long; more than half of it is devoted to Gowhar Soltan's rebuke of her son, Mashdi Zolfaqar. The object of Gowhar Soltan's fury is Setare Khanom, Mashdi Zolfsqar's wife. The complaint begins as the young man steps into the doorway:
This long eulogy on the demise of precious Islamic traditions and on shameful, prevalent fashions results in the young man's whipping his wife enough for the mother-in-law to intervene. It turns out that Setare undergoes this humiliation almost daily. She decides to do away with the cause: she shoves her mother-in-law into the oven pit.
Here there is a conflict between traditional Islamic morality and new, Western-liberal attitudes. At issue are how women should appear and behave in public, how a wife should be chosen so as to elevate a young man's status in society, how a wife ought to submit to a life within a rigid hierarchy and, finally, how age is to be preferred above knowledge.
The Iranian youth of the time were no longer adhering to these doctrines from the pulpit. Rather, they hoped to tear down the barriers between the sexes. They refused to interpret sexually every conversation between man and woman. They believed that knowledge is not the monopoly of the aged and that a distinction must be made between knowledge and experience. They demanded a voice in the socio-political and the socio-economic relations that the older generation were establishing with the rest of the world. Because they were less submissive, their rebellion was thought heedless and disrespectful of the aged. The youth believed in class struggle toward a classless society rather than in class distinctions. This, they thought, would free women from slavery to male ego, youth from the tutelage of the aged and the country from foreign dominance.
Women's rights appear again in "Haji Morad," a story which also touches on the right to divorce. Having made a mistake in judgment, a personal shortcoming, Haji, who also beats her, denounces and then unilaterally divorces his wife. In this way, he not only justifies his wrong act but also buttresses his social status as a God-fearing man who sacrificed his happiness for the honor of the community (for further discussion of this story see Chapter six).
Education and a lack of social mobility for women is the subject of "'The Elder Sister." Islam's inability to work out a solution makes this case of sibling rivalry poignant. In this story an unattractive twenty-two-year-old spinster lives in a poor and superstitious family which includes her younger and beautiful sister called Mahrokh, her abusive mother, and incompetent father. The mother discusses Abji Khanom's ugliness openly and laments that the family is stuck with her for the rest of her life. Mahrokh, on the other hand, finds a job as soon as she is fifteen; she also finds a suitor who soon becomes her fiance.
This new development in Mahrokh's life is unexpected for Abji Khanom, who has spent her life performing every ritual, participating in every religious gathering, and trusting in a betterment of her situation. Yet she finds herself in a less favorable social position than Mahrokh, who does not even perform her prayers willingly.
At the time of Mahrokh's wedding, social pressures begin to mount and ritual, Abji Khanom's main defense against reality, becomes threadbare. Unable to cope with her insight and her mother's sarcasm, Abji Khanom commits suicide, perhaps to collect the rewards that she has gained for her piety.
Abji Khanom's mistake, one could argue, is that she mistakes rituals for the spiritual. She feels that to do something for God will oblige God to do something for her, i.e., to give her a husband. At the same time she believes that Mahrokh will become a spinster who never marries. But her own situation defies her logic. When she finds herself rejected by family, men and God, she chooses the oblivion of suicide as a lesser evil than the continuation of a miserable life.
"The Elder Sister" combines the problem of being unattractive with the problem of sibling rivalry in an environment suffused with contempt, prejudice, superstition, and ignorance. Abji Khanom must live under a sacred though unwritten law: the elder sister must get married or die before the younger can marry. Abji Khanom ponders her alternatives as she sits on the edge of her bed. She cannot leave the house and get a job, she is too proud to accept an ugly man who may marry her out of mercy, and she cannot leave her family and live alone to lick her wounds and hope for a better future. These avenues were not open to single women in the Iran of the 1920's. Many like Abji Khanom were confronted with similar alternatives. The real killer, Hedayat intimates, is society --that invisible agent that metes out the sentence, provides the knife, and watches with cold eyes until the verdict is carried out.
A slight variation on the same theme appears in "Morde Khorha" ("The Ghouls"). This story, which borders between tragedy and comedy, is about a polygamist who dies and is survived by two wives and several small children. For three hours, as his cold body waits in the graveyard for his family to pay the gravedigger, his relatives fight over the inheritance. It is not clear, for instance, who should pay the digger and how much. Each wife accuses the other of neglecting their husband, theft of property, and even of murder. Primitively enough, each wishes to hold to what she has acquired during the years and especially during the last moments before the husband's death. Even the teeth of the deceased are removed. However, when the dead husband, who in reality has suffered only a heart attack, returns from the graveyard in a shroud, the women reveal their true nature. By returning the man's property to him, they acknowledge that they both have been selfish and unfair to their man.
Marriage, this story intimates, is a mockery when personal satisfaction replaces obligation to one's spouse and to society. Here is a man who has ruined the lives of two women by bringing them into a never-ending conflict and two women who are ready to dismiss him even before he is really dismissed.
The helplessness of the Iranian woman and the general ignorance of the community is the subject of "Mohallel" ("The Legalizer"). The story deals with the role of the intermediary in marriage. According to Islamic law, a man who divorces his wife shall not remarry her until she is, in the interim, married and divorced by a different man, a legalizer. In this story, two old men who have divorced their wives discuss their youth and their problems. It turns out that one man had used the other as a legalizer but that, once this expedient marriage had taken place, the legalizer had refused to divorce the woman, thwarting her former husband's plan to remarry her. But, now that both have divorced her, all that is water under the bridge. They wonder to whom she may be married now.
The story examines marriage laws that are unfair to women and emphasizes the inadequacy of educational programs for children. The girl in the story is legally coaxed to bed by a thirty-year-old man. She is at the time so young that on her wedding night she must be carried into the bridal chamber. She does her best, for three years, to run his household. When the prospect of a rival looms large, she takes refuge in divorce. Years pass. The good memories that tie the former husband and wife to each other lead them to seek an intervening marriage so that they may remarry. The wife endures this marriage also. Then the man they trusted refuses to let her go; she lives with this man for five years, and finally forces him to divorce her.
The story intimates that the Iranian masses in general, and women in particular, are ignorant; a few opportunists rule their lives, exploit their youth, and discard them. In the words of Mirza Yadolla, "The essence of what I am saying is this: people must become educated; they must become literate. Otherwise, as long as they behave like donkeys, we will ride them."2
"Zani-ke Mardash-ra Gom Kard" ("The Woman Who Lost Her Man") addresses mobility and its problems. In a series of flashbacks, Hedayat tells the story of Zarrin Kola, her man Golbebu, and their son Mande Ali. At the age of fourteen, the beautiful Zarrin Kola finds herself in love with Golbebu who has come to their village to pick grapes. With the assistance of an old lady, Zarrin Kola marries Golbebu; together they move to Tehran. But in Tehran Golbebu changes. Soon, through a new friend, he finds pleasure in opium and gradually loses interest in his wife and child. Eventually he returns to his own village.
After about five weeks, Zarrin Kola begins a search for her husband; finally she locates Golbebu's village. She goes to Golbebu's house where his mother, who reminds her of her own mother, and Golbebu's new wife appear at the door. She is told in Mazandarani, a dialect she cannot comprehend, and through gestures that her marriage is over and that the child is her responsibility alone. Disappointed, Zarrin Kola abandons the child on a doorstep and is soon picked up by another villager. The new man has Golbebu's same delectable idiosyncrasies. Zarrin Kola hopes that this young man, who sings like Golbebu, can also whip her, beat her, and bring her as much pleasure as Golbebu.
Hedayat's summation of a woman's plight in the Iran of the 1930s appears in "'Alaviyeh Khanom" ("Madame Alaviyeh"). In this story chaste women are not heard from at all. Rather, it is the scum who are led by a retired prostitute named Alaviyeh. Among them are some prostitutes who rival Alaviyeh and some who are submissive. At the lowest level is a black woman who is insulted by one and all. Here is a summary of the plot.
Madame Alaviyeh is making a routine pilgrimage in a four-wagon caravan to the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad. An ugly, corpulent, retired prostitute of uncertain age, Alaviyeh has chosen a (quasi-religious and theatrical operation, parde-dari, as a means of eking out a living for herself and three dependents, variously referred to as her children, stepchildren, adopted children or relatives; sometimes they are even called strangers. Often she uses the children, and some of the adults of the company, as objects of pity and sometimes she places them in the audience as a claque to arouse customers' generosity.
The journey begins on a cold, snowy day in Tehran and continues quite uneventfully. The author describes the characters in some detail: an invalid and a paraplegic being taken to the holy shrine to be cured; a number of women who are, except one, totally submissive to Alaviyeh; a few carriage drivers, passengers, attendants and the like and, of course, the children who are constantly blamed for Alavi eh's every present, past. or future misfortune. Hedayat, partial to the animal kingdom, describes the poor state of the horses as they are whipped forward through mire and slippery snow.
Alaviyeh travels routinely between Tehran and Mashad as a pilgrim but, in reality, she has a couple of businesses on the side. One is directing Aqa Machul, a young man of questionable origin and ability, as he amuses audiences along the way with talk about the events in Karbala while showing a sequence of paintings depicting the Prophet Mohammad, the Saint Ali, and his descendants at Karbala. Alaviyeh makes sure that every cent received ends up in her pocket. The other business is to sell her body, a job getting harder as time goes by. She also sells the other women and boys in her company to the men of the caravan or to other men along the way. She believes that peddling women as sighe (temporary marriage) is absolutely lawful and takes pride in being a sighe herself. She also peddles young men like Aqa Machul, though she can provide no legal justification for it. Receiving just enough money from these activities, she and her company live an uneasy but respectable life in the caravan. That Yuzbashi, her carriage driver who swears in Turkish and Russian and is the one man to whom she feels partial, wants and respects her adds to her peace of mind.
Things proceed well until one night at a small caravansary in the small town of Abdolla Abad. Everyone finds a place to rest, mostly in the corners of dark and dirty rooms at the inn. Alaviyeh's company chooses one of the better rooms and soon they all retire. Alaviyeh, however, leaves her room and does not return till morning. When she does return, she orders Aqa Machul to set up the parde and earn "a few bucks" before they leave. The sleepy Aqa Machul reluctantly follows her order but, before he finishes describing the first episode on the parde, one of the women in the caravan interrupts the show by accusing Alaviyeh of carrying on with her man. The audience turns from the parde to what Hedayat calls the realparde, i.e., the ugly face of a society that nourishes itself on the type of stories concocted by such a one as Aqa Machul. The descriptive tone of the story gives way to a series of classic exchanges (see Chapter seven) between Alaviyeh and Saheb Soltan, her true match both in diction and action. A heated argument ensues and people gather around them.
As a result of this prolonged series of accusations, counter-accusations, curses and litanies, Aqa Machul, who fails to side with Alaviyeh, loses his job to one of the passengers--a new apprentice of Alaviyeh and a new preacher for the community--and Alaviyeh loses her ride and Yuzbashi, who angrily leaves Alaviyeh and her children for Mashad. The children become, as usual, the unfortunate object of Alaviyeh's wrath. A month later, however, Yuzbashi and Alaviyeh meet in Mashad, make up, and decide to resume their travels, agreeing to return to Tehran together.
In later life Hedayat becomes political and his stories reflect the political measures set into motion by men for a nation half of whose citizens are women. Women do play a role in The Pearl Cannon, but their roles, like the role of the other members of that cast, are not well defined. Indeed, in his other stories women appear as objects of desire, but in this story they appear as objects of lust.
Women in The Blind Owlmust be regarded from two vantage points. From one we see women as we see them in Hedayat's other stories and in fiction in general. From the other we see women through the philosophy developed in the work. As a whole, women are depicted as objects of desire. The ethereal being, the Bugam Dasi, and the whore all fall into this category. As objects of desire they dominate the lives of men and command their every move. This leaves them free to do whatever they wish. The whore, for instance, sleeps with every male but the narrator.
Another woman in the story is nanny, a pious, meddling, trouble-making hag responsible for instigating quarrels between the jar painter and the whore, a quarrel that ends in the latter's death. The nanny is something of a stepmother with every intention for the well-being of her son. She is a survivor. On the other end of the spectrum is the whore's mother. She is depicted as a gentle and loving soul.
Women are also identified with the Nag-serpent. This image recurs a number of times in the novella, especially in the second part. Consider, for instance, the following description of the dance performed by the Bugam Dasi before the trial by Nag:
A similar image obtains in the jar painter's final encoutiter with the whore:
Elsewhere, women are represented as wombs, potential sources of reincarnation and subsequent suffering for mankind. This is especially significant when the whore becomes pregnant, but her child is stillborn. This child is the jar painter who, having been successful in his battle with desire, is not reborn.
Hedayat develops this negative image of women to perfection in the second part of the novella where women emerge as what is referred to in Persian as mar-e khosh khat-o khal, or snake with attractive patterns. Such a snake is attractive to a child from whom the reptile's beauty conceals its lethal sting. The true nature of women is brought home to the jar painter as seen in the following passage:
This view of women is probably Hedayat's personal view. It is consonant with the image, developed in the first part of the novella, in which the ethereal being's attractive eyes disarm the pencase-cover painter and deprive him of the wine flask, the embodiment of his freedom from enslavement to her eyes and to desire.
Ahmad Kasravi says that there are two Islams: the Islam brought by the Prophet Mohammad and the Islam practiced today in Iran and in the rest of the Islamic world. The latter, he believes, does not even resemble the faith that unified the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks in the early centuries of Islam. The former, he believes, no longer exists.
Modern Islam, declares Kasravi, is fraught with ancient superstitions and the dogmatic preachings of a bunch of social parasites. Rather than become a positive force in society, these have rejected the professions to take the offices of the Mujtahid and Akhund. Their duty is to perpetuate the lies established by their predecessors and to add their own.
Kasravi thus condemns Shi'ism, the official religion of Iran, for believing in a future Mahdi, for elevating Ali and his descendants above ordinary human beings, for worshiping the burial places of Shi'ite saints, for mourning the martyred saints, and for practicing taqiyye (dissimulation). Hedayat is a contemporary of Kasravi, and many views of the latter are reflected in stories of the former, so much so that Reza Baraheni criticizes Hedayat:
Hedayat, however, was not establishing ethical and religious standards for the Iranian society. He was commenting on and reflecting aspects of Iranian society in his literary works. And this, Baraheni agrees, is a good thing which Hedayat does well.7
Hedayat began his career as a social and ethical rather than a political commentator. His early stories have a strong social component. The Buried Alive collection is a depressing comment on the Iran of the 1920s and a more or less valid comment on contemporary Iran. The characters in the collection do not transcend their personal problems, be they haste in judgment (e.g., "Haji Morad," and "Buried Alive"), mistaking the ritual for the spiritual ("The Elder Sister") or confusing appearance with the substance of life ("The Ghouls"). These early stories reveal a society sinking in the mire, each individual's struggle pulling him and others hopelessly down.
Justice attracted the young Hedayat and his concern for it remained with him throughout his career. As a theme, it leads to an examination of judgment which itself cannot be rendered, or discussed, without considering the polarities of right and wrong, good and evil and the like. The character in "Buried Alive," for instance manages to defy death a few times; he concludes that he is immortal. The consequence of this judgment proves lethal for him. Haji Morad, another character who suffers the consequences of his wrong judgment, accuses a woman of indecency--a woman who proves not to be his wife. He makes an emotional rather than a reasonable judgment. For this hm: could have lost his credibility were he not astute enough to divorce his real wife.
Haji Morad suffers his just deserts, but what of his wife's rights in the dissolution of the marriage? She is a decent woman caught in the claws of a pretender; yet the system allows the latter to take advantage of her reputation and of her life. The divorce, it is true, enables her to escape Haji, but the allegation of infidelity remains with her. The crowd who followed Morad to the police station may not blame her, but what about the public at large? Will they understand that she is being blamed for Haji's shortcomings?
Judgment is normally rendered by one's peers as punishment for wrongdoing. There are, however, instances of seemingly erroneous judgment; these we human beings cannot justify. Davud the hunchback in the story of the same name is a case in point. He is a gentle and loving soul tortured in a tortuous body. He loves people, he loves dogs (which most Muslims shun) and he wishes to establish a lasting relationship with a girl. But the girl, judging Davud by his appearance, shuns him as if he were a dog.
The judgments children make at an impressionable, early age play a decisive role in their later life. In "The Elder Sister," for instance, two sisters deal with the question of morality and how one can best satisfy its demands. One chooses ritual; in the end this proves to be the worse choice; ritual does not save her from an almost ritual death. The other chooses common sense--she does what her best judgment commands. She survives because she takes the reins of her destiny and does not allow emotion to win her over.
It happens that of the two sisters the one who loses is ugly and this, we are persuaded, has caused her downfall. But if we think the problem through we find that she made her choices a long time before her physiognomy became a factor in her life. The days she prayed for reward and the nights she wept in supplication could have been spent acquiring knowledge and breaking away. We know that most avenues of progress were not open to women at that time. But we should remember the many women who, like Parvin E'tesami, broke these barriers. Abji Khanom's failure, therefore, is as much as a result of her own choices as of an hostile society.
Judgment or, more accurately, the ability to judge is a subordinate theme in The Blind Owl. There we encounter a division not unlike that between Mahrokh and Abji Khanom in "The Elder Sister." Of two painters one is not able to judge correctly and thus is limited in choice and freedom; the other is endowed with the talent to distinguish truth from error--he becomes a free man.
Judgment rendered on the basis of emotions is judgment rendered blindly. Haji Morad, Abji Khanom, the pencase-cover painter who narrates The Blind Owl, and Pat in "The Stray Dog" judge on this basis. They all are sufferers. The veiled woman in "Haji Morad," Mahrokh in "The Elder Sister," and the jar painter in The Blind Owl make their judgment on the basis of reason. They are survivors.
Justice's attraction for Hedayat influences even his choice of works to translate. "Divar" ("The Wall") by Jean-Paul Sartre and "Jelo-ye Qanun" ("Before the Law") by Franz Kafka are some of his translations into Persian. His commentary on Kafka's In the Penal Colony deals with the same topic. We shall discuss this piece, entitled "The Message of Kafka," in Chapter seven.
Finally, as free men we make certain judgments and we accept responsibility for them. Hedayat's satire deals with this aspect of human relations; his Pearl Cannon ridicules both those who subject people to such humiliation and those who abdicate their right to judge out of ignorance or to gain riches and status.
The situation is hardly different in Three Drops of Blood. In this collection, however, it can be observed that Hedayat ignored many important issues simply because they had political connotations. Indeed, a harsh treatment of the clergy here supplants the much needed criticism of the political institutions of the country. And this in spite of the theme of the major stories in this collection, namely, trust.
There is, for example, no trace of the murder of prominent men nor are there satires of political groups. In fact, in spite of Reza Shah's repressive rule, there is in this collection no story about freedom. What there is, however, is noteworthy as a portent of what Iran was to undergo: the distrust of government, family and friends. The SAVAK mentality that developed in Iran under Reza Shah's son took root during the father's rule when every member of the society tried to accuse the others so that he or she could survive the tyranny. There was no institution known as SAVAK yet, but the fear born of lost trust in family and friends and the dread of having no institutional security in a country that resembled an asylum was wholly demoralizing.
Hedayat's examination of trust in characters who lack trust in their fellow man hardly scratches the surface of the distrust festering in the Iran of the time. Indeed no one could discuss or write stories about justice, trust, and freedom; those authors who did reflect the insanity of the time were branded lunatics. Hedayat himself, for instance, had already been recognized as a lunatic and his pieces were read, except by a very few, for entertainment rather than for substance.
Although Hedayat revealed the nature of the Iranian political machine under Reza Shah, the degree of distrust it had fostered was not fully addressed and discussed in the literature until the time of Sadeq Chubak. It is in Tup-e Lastiki (The Rubber Ball), Chubak's brilliant fictional portrayal of the hysterical Minister of the Interior under Reza Shah, that we are afforded, for the first time, a glimpse of what Hedayat could have written about.8
One of Hedayat's prominent Islamic characters is the trustworthy, but fake Haji. We encounter him in Haji Morad, a penniless orphan who returns to Hamadan and finds himself a rich man. Only a woman whose face he never sees recognizes him for what he is: "Who do you think you are, you shabby bum! Just whom do you think you are addressing?"9 The wife of a mashdi, she could spot a real haji in a crowd of a thousand.
Similarly, Haji Aqa, rather than spend his time in supplication for the blessing of his afterlife, spends every minute of his waking hours robbing Peter to pay Paul. He has a hand in every civil and governmental affair and does not mind cheating his way into the Majles if that is what it takes to be elected. Cheating is not difficult for one who has the full trust of his community: "I have lived in this town for seventy years now. Everyone knows me. People trust me. People trust me with their belongings, even with their wives... "10
Trust, of course, is one of the fundamental Islamic virtues of the traditional Iranian society. In the following we shall examine Hedayat's treatment of this theme.
While justice was stifled by the establishment, when discussions of freedom and human rights were all but nonexistent, trust held Islamic Iran together. It was against this bulwark that Reza Shah fought. Mohammad Reza Shah went even farther and instituted the SAVAK to create distrust among people. Now, the current regime has asked members of families to "tell" on each other.
By definition, trust is assured reliance on some person or thing: one can predict the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something. It is in this sense that "Three Drops of Blood" examines trust. The protagonist is confined to an asylum because the society claims it cannot trust him. Were the narrator of "Three Drops" or were one of the characters, say 'Abbas, to inhabit the society rather than the asylum, what would happen to the society? Perhaps very little. Ironically the danger to society is not the narrator or 'Abbas but the supervisor. As the trusted member of the society he must protect others, yet he instructs his guards to shoot any cat that approaches the cage of his lost bird. We may question the comparability of a cat's life and a human being's life. Hedayat gauged people's humanity by their treatment of the animals, especially of cats and dogs.
"Three Drops of Blood" warns of the oncoming degeneration of the old morality. It shows that the distance between the supervisor and the inmate is shrinking and that soon the society will be flooded with the likes of an inmate who says:
Entrusted with the family of someone with whom he traveled to the town of Kazerun in Fars province some five years ago, Dash Akol, a qalandar himself, is presented with a fait accompli. His high standards of chivalry cannot allow him to refuse assistance to the family of the now deceased fellow traveler. At the same time, he falls in love with the dead man's beautiful daughter, Marjan, twenty-six years younger than he. Although he knows that her family would consent to their marriage, Dash Akol prefers to confine his love to taking care of her. Rather than communicating his affection to the girl, however, he repeats the words "Marjan...Marjan... you are killing me...to whom can I tell this. Marjan... your love ... kills me." to his parrot.12
Like Abji Khanom who, to forget reality, took refuge in religion, Dash Akol takes refuge in drinking and in caring for Marjan. As in the earlier story, the prospect of marriage, especially to a man as old and ugly as Dash Akol, disturbs the flimsy balance and Dash Akol is forced to face reality. Despite seven years of retirement from the circle of the toughs, he now challenges an old enemy, Kaka Rostam, the strongest of the group, to mortal combat. Weakened from years of inactivity, he loses. On his deathbed he entrusts his only possession, his parrot, to Marjan, who cares for the bird as it declaims: "Marjan... you are killing me ... to whom can I tell this?..."
"Dash Akol" examines trust in a traditional society where people daily are as much obliged to trust as they are to pray. Moreover, it is incumbent upon the individual to be chivalrous and to aid the weak and the fallen. Dash Akol's mental and emotional strength is tested when he finds himself torn between his duty to serve and the personal satisfaction that marriage would bring him. He chooses to die as a qalandar rather than betray the trust of a co-traveler of some five years earlier.
Trust is woven into the fabric of Iranian culture; the most trusted individuals are the clergy. Yet Hedayat shows that the Islamic clergy have their own shortcomings. The story of Sheykh Abol Fazl and his disciple, Mirza Hassan Ali, entitled "The Man Who Killed His Passions," combines the themes of duplicity and trust. It is a sobering piece on the subject of Sufism and its demand for self-mortification as a prerequisite for ascending to higher stages of human understanding. Like every Sufi morid (initiate), the protagonist enlists with a guide morshed (guide) and spends his youth reading the literature and following the guide's dictates, especially those of self-mortification. A small incident alerts the now middle-aged protagonist to the fact that, though his guide is well-equipped with theory, he is quite poor in practice. Disillusioned by this proof of his guide's dishonesty, and full of remorse that he has spent his youth denying himself, he begins to drink heavily and finally commits suicide.
"The Man Who Killed His Passions" examines the individual's trust in those who, like the Imam, guide the community. We are shocked to discover that the man who preaches abstinence from sex rapes his own maid and that the man who preaches frugality for others feeds on partridge. This same man, it is discovered, puts a dubious value on life itself--to him a cat's life is worth seven cents. What then is to him the value of a man's life? How can this hypocrite be a guide? What sane person, during the best years of his life, would trust the control of his emotions to a man who lacks control over his own? "Trust yourselves" is Hedayat's advice. 13
The crack in the dam to which we referred is much wider in this story than in "Three Drops of Blood." There the supervisor would have his guard kill any cat because one had stolen his canary. Here a man of God who preaches frugality promises to kill with his own hands the cat that took off with his partridge dinner!
In "The Whirlpool," a somber, melodramatic piece, Homayun leaves on a long mission, trusting his wife to his best friend, Bahram. When the traveler returns one cold winter day, Bahram commits suicide, leaving all his property to Homayun's daughter, Homa. Homayun is confused by the letter in which Bahram bequeaths all his property to Homa and begins to suspect his wife of infidelity. He even goes so far as to infer from his resemblance to her that Bahram is Homa's father. In a tongue-in-cheek manner he communicates these suspicions to his wife. She will not hear of them; rather, she takes the child and moves to her father's house.
One day much later, Homayun comes across the envelope which had contained Bahram's will. In it he finds an additional note which earlier, in the confusion of the moment, he had overlooked. In this note Bahram explains that he is in love with Homayun's wife and that he has planned the suicide to keep their perfect friendship immaculate. In the meantime, however, this careless misunderstanding has cost Homayun his daughter's life. While searching for her father in the cold, she has contracted pneumonia and died.
"The Whirlpool" examines trust in the age of mobility and explores relationships among the younger generation, a group which does not and cannot justify reliance on an older value like refaqat (friendship). A small event, Hedayat says, may easily shake such trust and herald a tragic end.
Finally, "Asking Absolution" is based on an unacknowledged fallacy about pilgrimage which is that, no matter how many and grievous are the sins one commits, the holy Shi'ite saints have the power to expiate them if the criminal confesses, is contrite, and is willing to make restitution. Through a series of confessions by pilgrims on the way to Karbala, Hedayat reveals the true face and inner sentiments of a bunch of cold-blooded murderers and cutthroats. By turns, they confess that the have committed their vile acts knowing that they can "buy" protection through the power of the Ulama, who will serve as intermediaries for them on the Day of Judgment.
How can society prevent the illegal and inhumane actions of these criminals who trust in the efficacy of repentance? Hedayat insinuates that as long as the mullahs preach that Allah will forgive those who repent and pay a fine commensurate with their deeds, no matter how evil, Iran will be the haven of criminals and cutthroats.
Hedayat's inability to influence affairs is nowhere more evident than in Chiaroscuro, a testament to the suffocating literary atmosphere of Iran in the early 1930's. As one plows through the seven stories in the volume, one cannot help but wonder why Hedayat ignores major issues like kapitalasiyon (capitulation), the movement for a Farhangestan (language academy) and efforts leading to the unveiling of women. The documents of the time refer to summary execution of dissidents and to murder of intellectuals and influential ministers. Couldn't he have dealt with these vital issues in a subtle and artistic manner? Instead, in this collection, Hedayat gives the reader a bland, ineffective, and harmless report of the activities of some shadowy figures subsisting in a twilit zone between life and death. Could the drab, meaningless and ritualistic approach of Hedayat to "The Serum of Sterility," "The Ancestors of Man," "The Nights of Varamin" and other stories signal anything other than the intensity of the pressure on the writer? No. if The Blind Owl is an indication of Hedayat's ability to reflect the mood of society, then he certainly could have written these stories differently. The question is whether he could have lived to see them in print.
The central theme of the collection is modernization and its effect on the individuals in a community. It is a pivotal theme to which other themes such as alienation are tied. We have already seen how S.G.L.L., the serum of sterility, which was supposed to lead the way to zero population growth, turned into a serum of lust producing a nightmare in which arson, manslaughter, and suicide prevailed.
In "The Doll Behind the Curtain," foreign culture fascinates the protagonist. An eccentric and unsuccessful youth learns of and imports to Tehran a foreign life style. This fashionable life almost succeeds in replacing his native ways. But in Tehran the fascination gradually wears off. However, it begins to grow on the others. Thus, when he recognizes the value of his culture and decides to return to the old ways and his old life, he has no recourse. That life, too, has changed. Growing Western by mere imitation, the native way now so resembles the import that the protagonist cannot tell them apart. Ironically, the native ways are compromised without affecting the protagonist directly. And this is important because, as we shall see, Hedayat spent a lifetime trying to promote Iranian culture in tandem with world cultures rather than rallying against them. But the pace of Westernization was rapid even for his time. Compared to Hedayat's times, the Shah's last days were not unlike the future Hedayat had predicted in "S.G.L.L." Consider, in 1979, four hundred youngsters burned in a movie theater in Abadan.
The irreparable damage of modernization to traditional Iranian culture was that it undermined the family. Hence the strong sense of kinship and regionalism so evident in stories like "Dash Akol," evaporated. Having become free, the individual ventured out of the village or town; in most cases he never returned. Becoming nonchalant, he or she, created and dissolved ties on the spur of the moment. "The Woman Who Lost Her Man" depicts this condition in the most telling way. Once Golbebu abandons Zarrin Kolah for good, she leaves their child on a doorstep and washes her hands of the whole affair. Moments later she sees a mule-driver and befriends him. Isn't this way of living contrary to every value in traditional Iranian family life? Yet modernization succeeded in creating this life in Iran within a relatively short period of time.
Hedayat holds the individual responsible for this change rather than society. It is when the individual abdicates his or her rights to choice and trust that society takes over and forces its ways on him or her. In no story is this abdication of inherent individual rights and acceptance of extraordinary ways as apparent as in "The Don Juan of Karaj" which, appropriately, deals with the theme of the lure of the new. In this story Hassan, an ugly, fat, traditional slob, plans to marry a beautiful, outgoing actress. To impress her, he dons expensive clothes, pays her room and board in an expensive hotel, and frequently takes her to the most expensive restaurants. For the New Year vacation, he takes her to the town of Karaj, outside Tehran. There they meet a self-styled Don Juan, a Westernized young man whose only possessions are a record player and a few records. He is also a master liar and a charlatan.
In the course of an evening, Don Juan tacitly convinces Hassan's fiancee that she should abandon Hassan and join him in a life of adventure. Fascinated by the lure of Don Juan's world, she accepts and leaves Hassan. The latter, however, recognizing the futility of his make-believe venture into the world of Westernized Iranians, has already left Karaj.
"The Don Juan of Karaj" clearly describes the inner sentiments of the hajis, the bazaaris, and the rest of the traditional but affluent segment of society which follows the dictates of Islam superficially while making a vague claim to a good life. Obviously the new society growing out of Iran's then increasing ties with the West tended to negate the values of Hassan and his society. Don Juan's free spirit and openness in accepting challenges not only attract Hassan's fiancee but also bring the lack of "belonging" home to Hassan himself. The only difficulty is that Don Juan is a mere facsimile of a Westerner. He lacks the substance to which the girl is attracted.
A comparison of "Dash Akol" and "The Don Juan of Karaj" shows that the entire society has changed and that the issues discussed by Kaka Rostam and Dash Akol in the small teahouse in Shiraz no longer concern this society. Of Don Juan Hedayat says:
Determinism is another theme which runs through the works of Hedayat. In what follows we shall discuss "Buried Alive," The Blind Owl, and "The Dead End" in relation to this princtple.
In "Buried Alive" the protagonist is a suicidal youth who, deluding himself, tries to determine whether suicide is inherent in human nature or is something that one can overcome, like a disease, and survive. To assess the eternal conflict between free will and predestination, the protagonist chills, poisons, and mortifies himself. Nothing happens to him, as if some "evil" force protects him against harm. He feels invincible. And he exults in his capacity as an invincible person until somewhere free will gives way to predestination; he is found dead beside his incomplete diary and a deck of cards.15
Here Hedayat leaves the conflict unresolved, although a close examination reveals that fate is the determining principle. In The Blind Owl the experiment is repeated. This time, however, two major, independent forces are at play. Determinism has sway over the lives of some people, and free will enables some others to reach the Ultimate. Hedayat shows these forces at work in two men. One is a painter of pencase covers. His adherence to pencase-cover painting dooms him to suffering and a harsh life. When the appointed time comes, distracted by a pair of enchanting eyes, he is prevented from acquiring a wine flask that contains the key to his salvation. This man is brought to Shah 'Abdol-'Azim to continue a life away from the object of his search. He has to live with the object of his desire, the enchanting eyes.
The other man is one who does not accept things as they are presented to him. To every thing he applies his own sense of choice and acceptance. Thus, rather than living with his wife, a whore symbolizing desire, he seeks distance from her. Meanwhile he acquires enough knowledge to recognize the reason for his enslavement to her. When finally he destroys her it becomes apparent that, where one is able to exercise free will, nothing is predetermined.16
The conflict between free will and determinism in The Blind Owl makes the story not only dynamic but also cohesive. One reads a story told by a doomed man not only about his own misfortunes but also about the good fortune of one who exercises free will and overcomes the obstacles. In "The Dead End," Hedayat allows determinism to tip the balance. Before dealing with this story, let us summarize its plot. "The Dead End" is the story of Sharif, a forty-three year old man who, after twenty-two years of wandering and holding staff positions, returns to Abadeh, his birthplace, as its director of finance. Arriving in the small town, he realizes to his chagrin that the town and its citizens have changed. The former has lost its magic, and the latter have ceded their dignity to lust, wealth, and the good life. Furthermore, he finds himself completely misplaced: he does not share the others' lust and desire for wealth, and he has never deviated from his own standards of decency and mercy. Then, too, his uncomely appearance gives him reason to avoid others and to take refuge in opium, araq, and his memory of the past. He clings to his administrative position, not out of need, but to kill time.
Scanning, his years as he looks at an album of photographs, Sharif remembers that he always liked a picture taken of him with Mohsen, a classmate and later a good friend, who drowned in the sea before Sharif's eyes. Unable to swim, Sharif had watched his friend succumb to the waves. This dismal episode sapped Sharif of much of his vitality, introducing a phase in his life marked by tile frightening refrain, "It had to happen this way!"
Intervening years, however, have driven Sharif's recollections of Mohsen, their first intimate touch, their marriages and their cooperation, into the background of his memory. He has taken refuge in cleanliness, friendship with animals, opium, and araq to keep those sweet memories as distant from reality as he can. In Abadeh, now, he has created an uneasy balance between an eventful past and an unbearably peaceful present.
One late afternoon a young man, the image of his lost friend Mohsen, enters Sharif's office. Looking at the newcomer, Sharif's latent memories rush to the forefront. To his astonishment, he is suddenly overwhelmed by the refrain, "It had to happen this way!" This is Mohsen's son, Majid. Not only his appearance but his manner, even the way he clears his throat, remind Sharif of Mohsen. Sharif takes the letter of recommendation the young man offers, but he cannot read it. The lines of the letter dance before his eyes and the refrain "It had to happen this way" rings in his ears.
When Sharif recovers, he asks Majid to live with him. Majid accepts. Because he can now convince himself that his old friend, Mohsen, never died, Sharif is happy. But the old man's happiness lasts only about two weeks. One late afternoon, Majid drowns. A pathetic Sharif, hearing the news, walks out of the house repeating the old refrain, "It had to happen this way!"
"The Dead End" is one of the more shocking of Hedayat's stories, comparing what an inexperienced youth sees with what the same person sees many years later. Certain views of life are no longer so compelling; others compel the individual even more. The pressures of life, the disappointments, the lost hopes of youth, and the frustrations of old age greatly burden the aged protagonist. Nor is he able to control his destiny. Finally, the very picture of suffering, he awaits death.
In this story the Zoroastrian principle of free will is tempered with the Islamic principle of determinism. By allowing the two principles to converge, Hedayat creates a balance so delicate but invigorating that his reader cannot guess the outcome of his story until the very end; even then his stories based on these eternal conflicts can defy understanding.
The phrase "It had to happen this way!" so thoroughly summarizes the misfortunes of Sharif that there remains little difference between him and the narrator of the first part of The Blind Owl. And as those familiar with the agony and disappointment of that individual know, the depth to which an individual can descend is never deeper than his. It is always tempting to see something of the author in the character and to try to read Hedayat's state of mind from Sharif's. But by now Hedayat is so well versed in pitting free will against predestination that the conflict could hardly be anything more than an exercise in supplying another variation on a familiar theme.17 Whether the very writing of the story at this time could be a valid reason for such speculations is another issue. But that is beyond the scope of this chapter.
Tragic as it is, two of Hedayat's stories, "The Stray Dog" and "The Dead End," portray as much his own final days as the lives of Pat and Sharif, their respective characters. Pat and Sharif strive to relate to the world around them, but people reject them and their values. Pat is ready to give his life for some man's compassion, but instead he is pelted with rocks. Sharif wants to create a meaningful relation with the citizens of his old neighborhood, but he ends up talking to his dog--the citizens are no longer those people with whom he had lived and whom he had yearned to see.
As we shall see, dogmatism, ignorance, selfishness and pursuit of wealth and name were characteristic of the literati, the clergy, and the scholarly community of the time of Hedayat. Indeed the government gloated over it. As a result, alienated individuals like Hedayat ended up living their lives day by day, killing time as it were, hoping for someone or something that would mercifully put an end to their misery --not unlike the tragic ends that meet Pat and Sharif. In "The Message of Kafka" Hedayat describes the intellectuals' plight in this way: "Life on earth... is the intrinsic desert whereon the corpses of the caravan of spent days accumulate."18
We shall return to this state of affairs in our discussion of "The Message of Kafka."
It is in India that Hedayat adds a meaningful political dimension to his stories. The Blind Owl leads the way. Here Hedayat takes on the monarchy, an institution he deemed largely responsible for the ills of Iran. He compares the monarch to a whore, a symbol of desire, the cause of man's downfall. He shows how with the help of his henchmen the monarch sustains himself by the drudgery of others and how he dominates their every move. Indeed, they cannot see beyond his well-worked-out and attractive facade.
As a political statement, however, The Blind Owl failed miserably. Except for a few who intuitively attributed its content to the political realities of the time, the majority regarded it as emanations from a deranged mind. The political and the religious machinery of the time, too, promoted this view (see Chapter eight).
After his return from India and especially after Reza Shah's departure from the scene, Hedayat began to voice his political concerns more openly. "The Dark House" is the first instance of such changes. In this story Hedayat returns to one of his favorite themes: the dissolution of all social ties and a return to a natural way of life (cf., "S.G.L.L."). It is night and the narrator is traveling by bus between Arak and Isfahan. On the way the bus picks up a passenger wrapped in a dark blue raincoat. Wearing a hat the large rim of which flops over his shoulder, he carries a package under his arm.
The new passenger boards, sits silently and declines all conversation. Yet, when the bus stops in Khunsar, he approaches the narrator and invites him to his home. The house has two rooms. The room where the stranger has been sleeping is now vacant. This is where the narrator will sleep. The second room, which the stranger will occupy from this night on, resembles in shape, color, odor and other features the interior of a womb. The stranger's package carries the only item missing from the room: a red lampshade.
The man sits on the bed in his pink pajamas and drinks milk. He explains that he has given up life as the narrator knows it, determined to have no dealings whatever with the outside world. Were he desperately to need something from that world, he would commit suicide. He could not bear to talk about his own ancestors or those of others:
After a long discussion of the ills of society, the narrator goes to his room and sleeps. In the morning, entering the strange room to thank him, the narrator finds his host on the bed, petrified in a fetal position, his head between the palms of his hands.
"The Dark House" is an important story for two reasons First, it is, as Al-e Ahmad correctly points out, a decisive indicator of Hedayat's change of attitude towards the mundane world and its values. Second, it charts Hedayat's departure from a life of inaction and restful meditation to one of adventure and exposure. To this story can be related the genesis of "The Patriot," "The Water of Life," Haji Aqa and The Pearl Cannon. All these stories would not have been written, had Hedayat not decided to venture out of his protective shell and speak up--had he not written The Blind Owl.
Hedayat's change of attitude is reflected most prominently in "The Patriot" but also in "The Stray Dog" and, as we saw, in "The Dark House." From The Stray Dog collection the reader learns to expect pieces, not necessarily short stories, that expose impostors and that eliminate the sand castles built by the establishment on false claims to knowledge and experience. It is not accidental, for instance, that the man chosen to represent Iran's "Golden Age of Enlightenment" in "The Patriot" is over seventy years of age, has lived all his life near Tehran, and thinks that he is the center of the universe. With this character Hedayat shows his utter contempt for the older generation who, steadfastly holding on to Iran's resources, have kept the country's youth at an arm's length while implementing their own decrepit brand of progress.
"The Patriot" is the story of Seyyed Nasrolla Vali, a seventy-four-year-old man commissioned during the reign of Reza Shah to travel to India to propagate the educational progress of Iran's "Golden Age." Although Seyyed's travel experience is no more than a three-day trip to Damavand, north of Tehran, he agrees to the commission because it is part of his duty as a patriot, because he might find and bring back to Iran some unknown literary work by which to immortalize himself, because the job pays more and includes fringe benefits and, above all, because he has been asked by the Minister of Education himself.
Now, Seyyed Nasrolla is the trouble-shooter at the Ministry of Education. He knows Arabic and pronounces it better than the natives! Indeed on board the ship he talks to a native Arabian but, to his surprise, he finds that the Arab does not know his own language well. He does not understand the Seyyed! Seyyed also knows French and thus can decipher English, since it is his understanding that English is merely renegade French, misspelled and mispronounced. He translates "Emergency Instructions for Passengers" as "Instructions for Retrieving Passengers," for example. The very need for such instructions makes Seyyed suspicious of Western technology. Despite the fact that he considers himself well-versed in oriental and occidental philosophy, Gnosticism, and ancient as well as modern sciences, he is filled with fear. The thought that his refusal to deliver flattering lectures or to confer diplomas on certain youth might have earned him this punitive, voyage drives him to the verge of insanity.
Seyyed then decides to follow the above-noted instructions and to test one of the life jackets in case he may need it. After a great deal of difficulty, he gets into one. Then he has a nasty thought. How would it be possible to put on one of these in an emergency? He decides to stay in the jacket for the rest of the journey. He lies down on his bed and rests. Overtaken by sleep, he begins to have nightmares. Dreaming of struggles to save himself and his family from sharks and sea monsters, he is increasingly entangled in the strings of the jacket and eventually strangles.
When news of the loss of this "prize of mankind" reaches Tehran, many lectures and conferences are given in Seyyed's honor, the names of streets are changed to "Patriot Street," several titles, including "patriot," are conferred upon this "unfortunate" and his service to the motherland is eternally memorialized by the Minister of Education.
"The Patriot" attacks the very center of the system responsible for Iran's backwardness, the Ministry of Education. Here, for the first time, Hedayat presents a blunt portrayal of the incompetence, narrow-mindedness, conceit, and ignorance of old bureaucratic paper-pushers seeking higher and higher positions at the expense of the talented and worthy segment of the population, the youth. That this story appeared at the time when Reza Shah's dictatorship had given way to the repressive regime of his son, who muzzled the press and routinely sent young intellectuals into exile, underscores Hedayat's resolve to make himself heard.
While in works like "The Water of Life" Hedayat was content allegorically to refer to prominent individuals in high places, in Haji Aqa he focuses on types. Thus, just as in The Blind Owl, so in Haji Aqa he develops a political theme; but here he utters all he wishes through the flimsy character of Monadi al-Haqq, a poet who refuses to conform. We shall discuss the vehement encounter between him and the title character later. Here we shall provide a brief plot summary of this rather lengthy story.
Haji Aqa centers on the life and deeds of Abu Torab, an eighty-nine-year-old throwback to the time of Naser al-Din Shah. He is a master bazaari capable of manipulating a wide range of socio-political forces in Iran. Haji's areas of interest include transacting real estate, management of textile factories, transportation lines, and narcotics rings, and manipulation of the public media. He also wields great influence at court. In the late 1930's, when Iran vacillates between an alliance with Germany and joining the allies, Haji Aqa sides with tile "Muslim" Hitler and his Germans rather than with the atheist communists who, he is sure, have begun the Second World War for the sole purpose of confiscating his property.
After the fall of Reza Shah in 1941, Haji escapes to Isfahan where the democrats, who are certain to Confiscate his property, will be unable to find him. But soon it becomes obvious that life in Iran under Reza Shah's son will hardly differ from life under the father; only some new terminology has replaced the old. Haji, elated, returns to Tehran and renews his social ties. The trip, however, makes him ill and inflames his hemorrhoids. Now Haji, for the first time in his life, comes under the influence of Westerners, Western technology, and the new progressive Westernized faction of the Iranian population. This and other factors gradually bring him to the realization that democracy is not as frightening as people have made it sound; indeed, he begins to convince himself that he has been a practicing democrat all his life!
The thing that preoccupies Haji after his return from Isfahan, besides his illness and impending surgery, is his inclination to run for the Majles. Oddly enough, he feels that he has the credentials for the job: he is illiterate, of course, but he has a son who reads the news to him; he is not in foreign service, but he runs a smuggling operation manned by Iranian ambassadors abroad; he is a member of the Farhangestan in charge of the evolution of the Persian language; he has influence in the ministries and the court, in the army, in the bazaar and in the transportation, carpet, tobacco and drug industries. Besides, he is rich and what votes he cannot earn he can buy, not only with money, but with promises of influence and opening doors.
How does Haji Aqa come to be who he is? Does everyone view him in the same light? Haji is a Haji for two reasons: first, he is born on a certain day of the year and secondly, he is the sole heir to a tobacconist who, by hoarding tobacco during the tobacco boycott and selling it later, had made a fortune. He then invested this fortune in cheap real estate and by the time of his death at the age of ninety-three he had become a wealthy man. To this fortune, which Haji inherits along with the title of Haji, he has added the property of four rich wives, each of whom died mysteriously: one from an overdose of opium, one in childbirth, another by falling from the roof and the fourth, recently, from an old stomach ailment. Haji has also retained the property of six other wives who preferred to abandon their dowries so that they could divorce Haji. Now he has only a modest harem of seven wives. Of these, two are concubines. One of the concubines, Mohtaram, has a two-year-old daughter and is carrying another child. The latter perplexes Haji: he wonders how old a man can be and still sire children. He is suspicious of Mohtaram's cousin who visits his harem quite regularly, especially since the two-year-old seems to look more like this man than like Haji himself. What is more, family scandal of this magnitude will surely besmirch Haji's good name in the bazaar.
How does Haji Aqa keep his business and home in order? To assist him, Haji has an old servant named Morad. Morad is not allowed to do anything for anyone, not even for the members of the harem, without proper consultation with Haji. Haji demands to know, for instance, why the number of the plum pits should be four less than the number of the plums themselves. He also instructs Morad to make sure that Haji's wives do not touch his food lest they should add special drugs to it, drugs that would manipulate Haji's affections and attract him to them. Haji's wives are not allowed to leave the house without his knowledge. Mohtaram, however, has managed, twice at least, to go to the baths!20
In order fully to control his wives, Haji has chosen to meet with his business associates in the vestibule of his house. From here his associates cannot see the inside of his harem; while, at the same time, no one can enter or leave the house, even to buy a lollipop, without Haji's knowledge. The room is a small one, and, Morad screens all visitors, deciding who will be honored by an audience with the Haji. Those present in the room always leave as soon as others arrive. This arrangement allows Haji to perform all his negotiations in secret and remain a trustee of the people. They can trust their property, even their wives, to him!
Among those who come to Haji for favors, one man stands out. His name is Monadi al-Haqq, or the proclaimer of the truth. Like Saheb Soltan who showed up Alaviyeh, this poor poet tricks Haji who casually but confidently asks him to compose a poem on the theme of democracy so that Haji may read it at a conference. The reason Haji himself does not compose the poem, of course, is lack of time, for his time is spent writing a book on the subject of patriotism The inflammatory dialog that follows is a confrontation between two adversaries representing two ancient and divergent schools of thought, two eras of Iranian life and culture:
Haji, apparently, interprets Monadi's initial refusal as ta'arof, a stratagem with which he himself is well familiar. He thus approaches the poet by way of flattery, sweetening the pot, and promises:
No doubt Monadi, who had pretended to Morad to have come to seek Haji's assistance, had really intended to show Haji up and to humiliate him:
Haji assesses the situation. He realizes that he has met his own match; but he is on the opposite side of the fence from him. In confusion he blurts: "You. too,... belong to this society... however, you are an incompetent thief ..."24
Monadi agrees. Then he goes on to explain why Haji should consider him incompetent. Because competence, he says, is a relative thing:
Haji now realizes that he has to defend his integrity. He draws on Monadi's insecure position as a poet as opposed to his own as a prominent member of the society. "I have lived in this town for seventy years now," he says. "Everyone knows me. People trust me with their belongings, even their wives..."26
But Monadi knows his way through Haji's stratagem. He retorts with an analysis of Haji's frauds, frauds that have secured him his status:
We do not intend to analyze Haji Aqa or this episode here. Rather, we want to draw attention to Hedayat's firm stand against the likes of Haji Aqa, who had harnessed the wealth and power of the nation without showing the slightest ability to comprehend affairs. Haji Aqa, for instance, is illiterate, but he is a member of the Farhangestan; he is a bazaari, but he is visited by the Minister; he is a civilian, but he promotes officers in the army; he is ignorant of the actual goingson in Iran, but he manipulates international affairs.
After The Blind Owl, Haji Aqa is Hedayat's longest and most popular work. It offers insight into Iranian society's peculiar ways and shows how issues are settled through personal contacts rather than by bureaucrats. Many issues including hypocrisy, polygamy, women's rights, class barriers and exploitation are broached. But we can forgo a discussion of these thanks to the translation of G.M. Wickens, Haji Aqa: Portrait of an Iranian Confidence Man and, especially, to the "Introduction" to this volume by Lois Beck. Perhaps only a brief analysis of the work as a symbolic representation of the power structure in Iran can be added.
Haji Aqa symbolizes the clergy and the monarchy combined. Though he is apparently independent--he certainly seems to make all the decisions--the Haji's life-line is in the hands of Western technicians. An analogy can be drawn, for instance, between Haji's sickness and the Millspaugh mission, the consequence of which was to involve the United States in Iran's financial affairs. But, more than anything Haji Aqa is a testament to the need for change, a need recognized by the monarchy. By giving us Haji's need for a poem on the subject of democracy, a poem that no one will write for him, Hedayat skillfully unveils the monarchy's search for a remedy. Because the monarch, like Haji, realizes that none of his astute dealings has been astute, none of his brilliant machinations has been brilliant, and that he has gained nothing by manipulating people all his life. Like the doorkeeper of some unknown castle, he has spent his whole life keeping track of the comings and goings of others.
But this remained an ideal. The poem on the subject of democracy was not written and Haji Aqa did not wait long before his days came to an end, ironically by the hand of the same Western technicians and his own associates, the very individuals who had asked him to read a poem on the subject of democracy.
Towards the end of his life Hedayat turned to the problems of the working people and to the Tudeh party. In "Tomorrow," he shows that, although born to nobility, he can understand the Iranian worker's courage to face the government's bullets for a semblance of freedom. Hedayat's sympathy for the working class and their plight of long hours, low wages, lack of job security, and bad working conditions is documented in the lives of Mehdi Zaghi and Gholam, ex-coworkers in a printing shop.
Both Gholam and Zaghi had been involved in the Tudeh party and are familiar with the troubles of that party in Iran around 1947, the year the story was published. Inasmuch as every incident, including the abortive attempt to assassinate the Shah in 1948, was blamed on it, the party was forced to go underground.
Zaghi decides to leave Tehran and go to Isfahan, then a major center of Iran's textile industry, to find another job. His hopes and aspirations are revealed one sleepless night as he ruminates on how he is going to Isfahan, how he is going to live until he gets a job and, above all, how he is going to survive the tough life of a worker in a society in which he must identify himself either with the government or with the Tudeh party. For protection, he carries brass knuckles in his pocket.
News of Zaghi's death reaches the printing shop in Tehran. Friends at the printing shop write a long "In Memorium" in the paper. They explain that the death occurred during a labor dispute and strike in Isfahan. Gholam, however, does not believe the news from Isfahan. Now it is he who ponders a sleepless night and begins to suspect the central government of shooting the three leaders of the party, one of whom was Zaghi, in cold blood. Then Gholam discovers that Zaghi had a friend, Hushang, a fellow printer afflicted by tuberculosis and now confined to a sanitarium in Tehran. He decides to help this friend. He decides to go to the sanitarium and talk to Hushang before carrying out his revenge for Zaghi's death.
After "Tomorrow," abuse yields to outright attack on individual members of the Pahlavi dynasty. The Pearl Cannon is a work that must be regarded as the culmination of Hedayat's satirical bent. It goes beyond Mr. Bow Wow and Tittle-Tattte and culminates in the second peak of Hedayat's career. We shall have more to say about these books later.
In this chapter we have looked at the various themes developed In the fiction of Sadeq Hedayat. We have shown that in the earlier stages he was preoccupied with social and ethical concerns, writing each collection around a central theme. In this respect we examined the themes of justice, trust, change, and determinism in stories written primarily before World War Two. In the Years that the West struggled with Hitler's army, Hedayat struggled with the monarchy and a decrepit regime that was nourished by self aggrandizement, flattery, and propaganda. In this connection we briefly discussed the novelette entitled Haji Aqa, as well "The Dark House," and "The Patriot."
The Fiction of Sadeq Hedayat:
The Life of Sadeq Hedayat
Social Setting and Themes
"The Message of The Blind Owl"
A Personal Note
|The Pearl Cannon