Haji Murad jumped off the platform of his shop, brushed the dirt off the folds of his dark grey garment, tightened his silver belt, stroked his hennaed beard and called Hassan, his apprentice. Together they shuttered the shop. Producing rials from his large pocket, Haji gave four to Hassan who, whistling and with long strides, disappeared into the crowd. Haji donned the yellow cloak which was tucked under his arm, looked around, and began to walk slowly. His new shoes squeaked with each step. Most of the shopkeepers along the way greeted him, saying, "Salaam, Haji; how are you, Haji? Haven't seen you in a while, Haji!"
Haji had heard these salutations in the past; nevertheless, he attached a special importance to the word Haji. He took pride in himself and returned the greetings of his colleagues with a magnanimous smile.
The word Haji was tantamount to a title, even though Haji knew that he had not visited Mecca. In fact, his father had passed away when he was still a child and his mother, following her husband's will, had sold their house along with all their other possessions for gold coins. Then, severing all roots in Iran, she had taken the whole family to Karbala.
In a year or two, the money had been spent and the family had turned to begging. Only Haji, with great difficulty, had managed to return to his uncle in Hamadan, upon whose sudden death he had come into a great windfall. Since he was the sole heir, he had inherited his uncle's title of Haji along with the shop.
The new Haji had taken a wife, but he was not happy with her. For some time now they had been fighting. He could stand anything except the sarcasm she threw at him; in response, and to keep the upper hand, he had taken to beating her. Sometimes he felt badly about the beatings, but every time they soon kissed and made up.
What exasperated Haji the most was that they still had no children. Haji's friends frequently advised him to take a second wife, but he would not fall for this idea. He knew that a second wife would only increase his misfortune. So he listened to their advice but disregarded it. His wife was still young and beautiful. After several years of marriage they had acquired a certain intimacy which somehow helped them get through life more easily. As for Haji himself, he, too, was still young. If God willed, he thought, He would grant them a child. Thus Haji was not inclined to divorce his wife. Neither could he give up his habit of beating her; he beat her and she became more obstinate. In short, things had gone haywire, especially since the previous night.
Haji now appeared at the entrance of the bazaar splitting watermelon seeds in his mouth and spitting the shells on the ground before him. He breathed in the fresh spring air and thought ahead to what was waiting at home--the usual struggle with his wife: his remarks, her doubly charged retorts, the subsequent beating followed by dinner, red-eyed glares at each other and eventually bedtime. It was also the eve of Friday, which meant that his wife had cooked rice and vegetables.
These thoughts ran through his mind as he looked around. He recalled his wife's exact words, "Now, now, fake Haji! Are you a real Haji? Then why do your mother and sister beg under the lights in Karbala? When Mashdi Hussein the money changer asked for my hand, I was a fool to reject him. Instead, I married you, fake Haji!"
Several times Haji bit his lip. It occurred to him that he might rip his wife's belly open were he to meet her then and there.
He had reached the street called Mesopotamia. He glanced at the green willow trees on the river bank and imagined spending all of Friday entertaining his bosom buddies and playing music in the Murad Bek valley. He thought this would give both him and his wife a respite.
He was nearing the lane that led to his house when suddenly it occurred to him that his wife had passed him without offering any sign of recognition. Yes, it was his wife. Although Haji was not like most men who could recognize women behind the veil, his wife had a distinguishing mark which allowed Haji to pick her out from among a thousand women. She was his wife. He recognized the white border of her veil. There was no room for doubt. What puzzled Haji, however, was that his wife should leave the house at such an untimely hour and without his permission! She could not be going to see him at the shop; where was she going? Haji quickened his pace. It was surely his wife. If, however, she were going home, she was going in the wrong direction. His anger had reached its limit. He could not contain himself any longer. He wanted to catch and strangle her. Losing control, he shouted, "Shahrbanu!"
The woman turned her head and, as if frightened, quickened her pace. Haji was on fire. He could not distinguish his head from his foot. His wife had not only left the house without his permission, but she did not acknowledge him even when he called her. This touched him to the quick. Again he shouted, "Hey there! I am talking to you. Where have you been at this time of day? Hold it!"
The woman stopped and yelled, "None of your business. Who do you think you are, you shabby bum! Watch whom you're addressing. What do you want from a decent woman? I will give it to you straight ... Help! Help! Help me out of the clutches of this drunkard! Do you think this is a lawless town? I will turn you over to the police... Officer!..."
One by one the doors of the houses opened and from all sides people began to join them. Haji's veins stood out on his reddened forehead and neck!
"What a mess!" he thought to himself. "Everyone in the bazaar knows me. Look at the rows of people!" The woman, still totally shrouded in her veil, continued to yell, "Police!..." Haji's vision darkened. He stepped back, then forward, took aim and struck the woman, screaming, "It's useless... don't try to change your voice on me! I recognized you from the start. Tomorrow... tomorrow I will divorce you. Since when have you been on call? Are you trying to toss my hard-earned reputation to the wind? Shameless woman! Don't force me to tell everything in public. People, be my witness, tomorrow I will divorce this woman. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, restrained myself and swallowed my anger. But now the knife has cut to the bone. People, be my witness. My wife is unchaste. Tomorrow... people, tomorrow..."
The woman turned to the spectators and said, "Cowards! Has the cat got your tongues? Are you going to stand there and let this shabby bum molest a decent woman on the street? If Mashdi Hussein the money changer were here, he would teach you. If only one day is left of my life, I will have my revenge! Isn't anyone going to ask this bum why he impersonates people? Now...now ... know who you are dealing with. I will make you suffer for this... Police!"
A couple of mediators took Haji aside and a policeman appeared on the scene. People stepped back. Haji, the woman whose veil had a white border, the witnesses and the mediators all set out for the police station. On the way each told his version of the story to the policeman. The curious crowd followed to see what the outcome would be. Haji was wet with perspiration. He passed the people abreast a policeman! Worst of all, doubts began to assail his confidence. A more careful look at the woman's buckled shoes and her stockings, different from his wife's, strengthened his doubt. The references she was giving to the policeman, too, were checking out right. He knew Mashdi Hussein the money changer, and she was his wife. Haji realized that he had made a mistake, but it was too late. He did not know what the outcome would be. They reached the police station. The people remained outside while Haji and the woman were ushered into a room in which two lieutenants were sitting at their desks. The policeman saluted, gave a detailed report of the incident, then withdrew and stood at the other end of the room. The chief lieutenant turned to Haji and said, "Your name?"
"Sir, I am a life-long servant at your service--an insignificant nobody. My name is Haji Murad. Everyone in the bazaar knows me."
"I am a rice seller. My shop is in the bazaar. I carry out your orders without question."
"Is it true that you have been disrespectful to this lady and that you have assaulted her on the street?"
"What can I say, Sir? I mistook her for my wife."
"On what token?"
"The border of her veil is white."
"Surprising! Don't you recognize your wife's voice?"
Haji sighed, "Sir, you don't know what a mischievous creature my wife is. She imitates all animals. When she returns from the baths, she imitates all the women who have been there. She mimics everyone. I thought she was trying to fool me by changing her voice."
The woman, "What impertinence! ... Officer. You saw him slap me in front of the multitude. Now the 'possum's trying to play dead ... What impertinence ... He thinks the city is lawless. If Mashdi Hossein finds out, he will give you what you deserve. With his wife? Lieutenant, Sir!"
Lieutenant, "All right Madame... That will be all. Please step out and let us see what we can do for the Haji."
Haji, "By God, I repent. I didn't know. I mistook her. Believe me, my reputation is at stake."
The lieutenant wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to the policeman. Then he asked Haji to go to the other desk where, with shaking hands, Haji counted out some bills and, in the name of a fine, laid them on the desk. Now Haji was presented in front of the police station. People stood by, whispering. Haji's yellow cloak was removed from his shoulders and a man with a whip came and stood beside him. Haji lowered his head with shame. He received fifty lashes right in front of the people, but he did not twitch an eyebrow.
When it was over, he produced a large kerchief from his pocket and dried the perspiration from his forehead. Then he picked up his yellow cloak and threw it over his shoulders. The corner of the garment dragged along the ground as Haji set out for home. His head was lowered and, by walking lightly, he tried to throttle the squeak of his shoes.
Two days later Haji divorced his wife!
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