The Last Smile

By Sadeq Hedayat

Translated by Iraj Bashiri
Copyright, © Iraj Bashiri, 1984

In this world nothing is permanent. Life is like a flame produced by rubbing two pieces of wood against each other; it glows momentarily and then it dies out. We are cognizant neither of its origin nor of its destination.

the Buddha

In a splendid chamber lit by countless, fragrant candles, its floor covered with rare carpets and its walls draped with valuable silks, the Barmecides Ruzbehan, Azadbakht, Gushwad, the commander of the Khorasan regiment, and Barzan, the Minister of the Treasury, had gathered to discuss the recent events at the court of the Caliph. They wore long, leather hats and printed silk robes. Before them stood cups of wine and priceless vessels filled with sweets and fruit. Their gestures, clothes and views were harmonious; in its dignity and majesty, the assembly was so exalted that it seemed that a piece of the devastated Sassanian aristocracy had been resurrected. Azadbakht, with a graceful gesture of his hand, was saying, "You name it and the Caliph will do it! I suspected his sincerity from the beginning. He no longer needs us, and you will see that soon he will begin his opposition."

Gushwad added, "The most damaging thing for us is this rift between Ja'far and his father and brothers. Ja'far, in his insanity, has ruined our plans. Just consider his affair with that forty-year-old bitch, 'Abbaseh! Or consider his cooperation with 'Abd al-Malek Saleh, an enemy of the Caliph, or the enormous sums he embezzled from the treasury to give Saleh, only to be double-crossed in the end! Ja'far's deeds have sown seeds of suspicion in the Caliph's mind, turning him against the Barmecides. Both Yahya and Fazl, on the other hand, have been behaving with sound and logical minds."

Barzan notes, "For a while now, the Caliph has been disinterested in Ja'far. These days his boon companion and guide in pleasure is Zarat ibn Mohammad. Furthermore, Musa writes me that recently Harun turned Yahya ibn 'Abdollah, Ja'far's accomplice, over to Ja'far for execution, but Ja'far released the culprit. Fazl ibn Rabi', of course, informed Harun of this. As you can see, the rift between the Barmecides and the Caliph widens."

Azadbakht, "But is this reason enough for Harun's anger at all the Barmecides?"

Barzan, "You are right to wonder. But this is only part of its cause. Let us not be oblivious to the opposition of 'Isa, son of Mahan. This same man who became governor of Khorasan, with Yahya's aid, now informs the Caliph that the Barmecides are attached to the faith of their ancestors, that they promote irreligion, Magism and Zoroastrianism. Otherwise, why should Harun appoint an individual to oversee our every move! Furthermore, Musa is being accused of inciting rebellion. One of the Caliph's relatives writes him, and I quote, 'Many of the inhabitants look upon Musa as the real Imam and pay their religious dues to him,' and Abu Rabi'a writes Harun as follows, 'And what will the Caliph's answer be when, on Resurrection Day, he must defend entrusting the lands of the Muslims to the irreligious, Zendiq Barmecides!?"'

Azadbakht, "This morning I received a messenger from Bamiyan who says that Balkh is struck with the plague and that the newly Islamized inhabitants, attributing the disease to the anger of God, are returning to Buddhism. Of course when this news reaches the Caliph, he will assume it is a Barmecide prelude to revolt."

Barzan, "In addition, are you aware of the fact that Harun, for reasons unknown, has had Ja'far's secretary, Ans ibn Abi-Sheykh, beheaded? Fazl considers this event a bad omen and feels it is the beginning of the Caliph's war against the Barmecides."

Gushwad, "We made a mistake when we showed the Arabs the ways of government, but we didn't stop there. We wrote a grammar for their language; we devised a philosophy for their religion; we fought their battles; our own youths were killed for them; we offered them our thought, soul, industry, music, science and literature on a silver platter, hoping to tame and civilize their wild and restive souls. But alas! Their race and their thought patterns are essentially at variance with ours. And they should be! These ferocious individuals with sunburnt skin and ugly calloused hands are mere highwaymen whose minds are rooted in camel dung. Can they be any better? Their whole bodily constitution confirms an inclination to theft and treachery. How can we expect more from Arabs who just yesterday ran after lizards barefoot, who dwell in miserable black tents? Harun's kindness and congeniality were mere artifice; inside he nourished a deep hatred for us and plotted vengeance against us. He thirsted for Iranian blood. Now, of course, the Arabs have achieved their goal. Arab thought, like a ripe, open boil, has polluted the entire civilized world, and there is no more use for us."

Azadbakht, "Like pebbles, Khaled, Yahya, Fazl and Ja'far have bestowed the valuable jewels and the fortune that had been gathered at the Nowbahar temple for centuries on these mouse-eating Arabs; every punk poet has received a treasure. And what have our brothers achieved? They have bought themselves the anger, the hatred, the vengeance and the envy of a bunch of camel drivers. Harun envied us from the beginning. He envied us for our court, for our thought and for our dignity. He envied us even for our customs and way of life. And he is not the only one; these Arabs who work around us and flatter us are our bitter enemies, too. They are simply awaiting a gesture from above before they revenge their race."

Ruzbehan, "No. You are wrong. Barmak and his sons joined the Caliph and Islam intentionally. They meant to influence the events; they intended to weaken Islam and gradually do away with it so that they could rebuild the Nowbahar temple, invite the people back to Buddhism and eventually rebel against the Caliph. That is why they tried so hard to assure the Arabs of their good intentions, and they have succeeded. In the past the Arab caliphs have been nothing but puppets, manipulated by the Barmecides. The Barmecides are the real rulers. As for holding the empire together, if the Arabs think the Barmecides have worn out their usefulness, they are gravely mistaken for, were the Barmecides to abandon their positions today, the very fabric of the empire would be torn asunder. If there has been any material or spiritual aid from the Barmecides to the Arabs, it has been for the promotion of the Barmecides' own interests. What does an Arab aspire to? Gold, silver and a harem full of women. This is the zenith of an Arab's desires. This is why they prospered; and now they have arrived at their promised paradise. The Barmecide plan has been implemented and must continue. We must pursue our people's efforts and those efforts must culminate in the desired objective: the massacre of the Arabs and the independence of Iran."

Barzan, "In his recent letter, Fazl warns us to be careful, cautioning that we must decrease our association with the Arabs--we must keep our distance. His whole hope rests upon Khorasan because in Khorasan the Barmecide influence is felt more strongly than in any other place and because Khorasan is far from the court. He says we must find a way to rouse the people against the Caliph from Khorasan to Balkh. The Caliph will send one of us to quell the rebellion. Then we can incite the Caliph's army to mutiny, kill the Arab commanders and gain the independence of Khorasan. This plan must be executed perfectly; it is our only hope. Everything is now in readiness. But Fazl has warned us not to act until we hear from him again; the situation is perilous and uncertain and he has not yet made his final decision."

Azadbakht to Gushwad, "Are you sure that your regiment can be trusted to follow orders when the time comes?"

Gushwad, "Rest assured. At my bidding all the commanders will rebel against the Caliph; the massacre of the Arabs will be accomplished in short order. For the present, however, I wait for Fazl's messenger, Firuz."

Azadbakht, "Then the massacre must be finished before 'Isa, son of Mahan, returns."

Ruzbehan, "And before Harun issues the order for the massacre of all the Barmecides!"

Azadbakht, "What if the Caliph's order arrives before Fazl's message?"

Barzan, "That is impossible. Our messenger regularly arrives two days before the Caliph's. We have the best messenger service around."

Suddenly Ruzbehan opened a golden box and removed a pill. He put it in his mouth and washed it down with a cup of wine. Then he rose to leave. The others needed Ruzbehan's further advice but, accustomed to his mysterious and sudden departures, they dared not prevent him from going. Despite the importance of the subject, and though he was instrumental to the discussion, Ruzbehan thus walked slowly to the door and left. Beyond the door, two slave boys carrying lanterns met him.

The city of Tus, its mosques, gardens and mansions, was shrouded in darkness. Only the sound of a camel's bell and the voice of a distant singer intermittently broke the silence. A light breeze filled the air with the fragrance of acacia flowers.

Ruzbehan, who seemed not to be in a natural mood, passed through a couple of dark, narrow alleys. He did not look around him but gazed steadfastly at the trembling light of the lantern. He arrived at the door of his house, and his escorts bowed as the door opened. From inside came the sound of a waterfall and the whisper of a cool breeze. Zarrin Kamar, Ruzbehan's special slave, met him and, without uttering a word, handed him a sealed message. Ruzbehan took the letter and, barely seeing it, shuffled through the house like a somnambulist, Zarrin Kamar following close behind. The pair had passed through a labyrinth of corridors when Ruzbehan stopped at a steel door adorned with Indian designs. Zarrin Kamar opened this door and Ruzbehan entered the chamber. Zarrin Kamar followed, closing the door behind him.

The chamber was a spacious one with a small pool in the center. It was lit by chandeliers of ivory and colored glass whose subdued and mysteriously colored lights made this a very splendid place. At the end of the chamber reposed a statue of the Buddha in the lotus position. Of metal, it stood about two yards high. The eyes, made of ruby, glowed as if on fire. The face was cunning; yet it retained the regularity of features noteworthy in Indian sculpture. He had a fat belly; his hands rested on his knees. His eyebrows were narrow, his nose small, the eyes expressionless. A mocking, philosophical smile played across the lips, as if the Buddha recalled some memorable moments of a previous life. Two deep wrinkles creased the corners of his mouth. The face expressed at once serenity, confidence, mockery and contempt. A thin silk curtain was drawn before the statue while incense burners, emitting rings of fire which filled the air with fragrance, flanked its sides.

The walls were lavishly decorated with representations of the Buddha, the angels and companions. There were other, curtain-like paintings depicting "the life of the Buddha," Buddha's meeting with Gupa, his fiancée, his meeting with the beggar, with the yogi, with the dead and so forth. The lower part of the wall was a dark crimson, the color of liver or gums. From the middle of the chamber a small spring gushed, trickling into a shallow pond finished with colored marble. Beside this pond, near the spring, was a large mattress filled with swan feathers and adorned with colorful, embroidered silk pillows.

Ruzbehan sat down on the mattress, assumed a lotus position and stared at the statue of the Buddha. He seemed to be concentrating his thoughts. His throat was dry; his mouth tasted like gum extracted from a pine tree. Suddenly his mind became active and the deep crevices along his mouth formed an unmistakable expression of happiness. A tall girl of tender age, like a shadow or a genie, with large eyes, bare arms and dark hair stuck to her temples, entered carrying a jug of wine. Wearing a large earring, a white dress and soft slippers, she put the jug beside the mattress and sat down. Pouring a cup of wine, she handed it to Ruzbehan. Zarrin Kamar removed the thin veil from the statue of the Buddha; then he brought a delicate musical instrument resembling a sitar and he, too, sat down at the edge of the mattress.

The girl, Golchehr, and Zarrin Kamar were both from Soghdia; they were like two creatures born from cloud and smoke. In this mysterious subterranean dwelling, beneath the subdued light of the chandeliers, they appeared even more magical. Their faces were beautiful, pleasant and polite. They were like two angels, like two of the angels painted on the wall.

As Zarrin Kamar began to play the musical instrument, a transient smile crossed his half-open lips, as if some distant and memorable moment were awakened in his imagination. He played a Soghdian tune which began quite low, soft and staccato, and built gradually to a fast and exciting crescendo followed by a sudden cadence. This song had no particular meaning for the casual listener; only basic notes were being played. But every pluck at the instrument conveyed a world of sensation and meaning to Ruzbehan. It was as though a lengthy song had been condensed to a few notes, highlighting the basics while leaving the details to the listener's imagination. Repeatedly Golchehr filled the cup and handed it to Ruzbehan and he drank the wine without stopping. The music became unusually soft and mysterious. It was as if this music had been invented for celestial rather than terrestrial ears.

Ruzbehan's gaze centered on the face of the Buddha, at times glancing aside to the waves on the water. It appeared that the music had imparted a special soul to the pictures on the wall, that now they had come to life. The trembling of the strings of the instrument saturated the air with this soft and mysterious music and even the water from the spring, the statue of the Buddha and the pictures on the wall moved in time with the music. The distant, celestial notes mingled the atoms of Ruzbehan's being with the waves, making them one. During such moments it seemed that his life was becoming one with the waves. He experienced a new and mysterious awareness, enabling him to discern the secrets of creation. He gazed at the waves on the surface of the water as they undulated with every note and disappeared. He was engrossed in his own thoughts as if in purgatory, hovering between existence and nonexistence. Oblivious of the future, time and space, he plunged into a limbo of the mind where everything, even life and death, is unthinkable. Golchehr followed her master's every move as she served the wine, watching for familiar signs to indicate that he had had his fill, that she and Zarrin Kamar should leave. But this time, to her astonishment, unlike other evenings, Ruzbehan kept on drinking. Seductively and repeatedly she filled the cup and handed it to Ruzbehan, each time pressing her body closer to his. Suddenly the breaking shoulder strap of her garment uncovered her chest and one breast. Though it seemed that Ruzbehan paid no attention, this time, instead of taking the cup, he grabbed Golchehr by the waist, dragged her close and brought her lips close to his. Then, with an extraordinary effort, he pushed her away, grabbed the cup and dismissed the girl and Zarrin Kamar with a wave of his hand. Once they had gone, Ruzbehan produced a powder from his pocket, poured it into his cup, drank the wine and resumed his concentration on the face of the Buddha.

* * *

Ruzbehan the Barmecide and his family were all Buddhists. His grandfather, Barmak, son of Jamasp, belonged to one of the noble Iranian families who since the Parthian era had been entrusted with the hereditary guardianship of the Nowbahar temple in Balkh. Ruzbehan was also the grandson of Khaled the Barmecide's brother, Hassan; his mother was the daughter of the Magus, the king of the Chaghaniyan. The Nowbahar temple, known in Sanskrit as "noweh vehara" or new temple, was a major Buddhist sanctuary visited by pilgrims from India and China. Even some of the kings of Khorasan had made pilgrimage there: standing before the towering statue of the Buddha, they prayed and kissed the hand of the guardian of the temple. In the year 24 A.H. (646 AD), 'Abdollah ibn 'Omar ibn Qoraysh dispatched Qays ibn Haytan Aslami to Balkh to capture that domain and destroy the temple. In this raid the temple was robbed of all its valuables including four doors: three steel and one silver. When finally the Barmecides returned to prominence, they repaired the Buddhist temple, identifying it to unsuspecting Muslims as a fire temple. During these dark days, the Barmecides made a show of adherence to Islam, but covertly they remained faithful to their own creed, secretly plotting against the Arabs and biding their time until they could rid Iran of Arab domination. Gradually they gained influence, bringing all major military and civilian administrations within their control. In the past Harun had offered Ruzbehan several lucrative positions, but the Barmecide had made excuses to the Caliph. Instead he had worked during the day making most crucial decisions and, at an appointed hour, about midnight, he had left for his underground retreat, leaving the tiring routine of daily meetings behind. In the morning he emerged to face another full day of administrative tasks and difficult resolutions. His task was particularly awesome because he was the trustee of Yahya, Fazl, Musa and Mohammad and because he shouldered the responsibility for implementing the Barmecide plan to gain the independence of Khorasan, a province which extended from Balkh and Bamiyan to the gates of Iraq. Moreover, as a scholar he participated in many learned discussions organized by Muslim, Brahman, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Manichean, Mazdakite and Christian theologians, legislators, poets and physicians who came from Gondishapur. At night, however, after taking a pill sent to him by the guardian of the "Noweh Sangha Rama" in Balkh, his mood changed and he would head for his personal, subterranean mansion. It was as though his life were drawn between two poles: his days were filled with the challenges of life, his nights with rest and tranquility in his own "mute mansion". The title "mute" indicated that no one was allowed to utter a word within the bounds of this sanctuary.

At night, when a second being like a shadow or a spirit obsessed him, Ruzbehan sank deeply into his own philosophical world. His involvement in Buddhism was both intellectual and artistic. He had made certain compromises to give his version of Buddhism an Iranian flavor. One could say he had softened the Buddha's strict rules of self-mortification and abstinence. He had relaxed the pledge of self-mortification, allowing himself wine, for instance, and had special ideas with respect to abstinence. A lack of pleasure tied to the absence of temptation did not, to his mind, constitute a case of yogic abstention; rather he believed that one should be able to abstain while placed in the midst of the pleasures and amenities of life. For this reason he had created this "mute mansion," incorporating in its delights every possible means of pleasure. It was amid the beautiful faces, the most delectable wines, to the lament of the saz and the fragrance of rare perfumes that he would close his eyes and plunge into philosophical dreams. This, for him, was the true yogic experience. Ruzbehan's goal was to annihilate all personal desire by closing his eyes to the needs and pleasures of the flesh. He performed this exercise repeatedly in the hope of attaining the elevated spirituality achieved by the Buddha. Surely such achievement would be the key to happiness, a key unknown to ordinary man! But what most attracted Ruzbehan to Buddhism was the statue of the Buddha and especially the firm, mocking, cunning, indescribable smile. It was a smile resembling the vibrations of the strings of the saz or the shining waves of the shallow pond upon which the colored lights of the chandelier played. Ruzbehan's philosophy, in the main, was inspired by these waves and by the smile of the Buddha--his was the philosophy of the "wave." In every being, form or thought he discerned a passing wave. The whole creation resembled the still surface of a pond like the pond before him which, if disturbed by an untimely breeze, produced countless passing waves. When the breeze stops, thought Ruzbehan, everything will return to its original form--to Nirvana or the everlasting nothingness. Life and death, happiness and misfortune, he concluded, are all waves, passing whims, or gateways to the nothingness of Nirvana. They are the whispers of a breeze lilting whimsically over the surface of the water. Life seemed a pitiful spectacle, and so he sought the remedy for his sorrows in drinking and in the abandonment of desire. And he intended to put an end to his own desire for living, since according to the teachings of the Buddha, desire nourished the reincarnation of the soul, enabling it to persist on earth. Whoever could do away with desire, he thought, could achieve annihilation or eternal bliss.

Ruzbehan believed that the Buddha's smile confirmed his wave theory; the Buddha's smile, too, had formed on his lips like a passing wave. For a long time now Ruzbehan had attempted to pose like the Buddha; every evening he practiced that happy, sorrowful, cunning and noble smile. Were he to imitate this smile properly, he thought, he would experience the state of bliss and Buddhahood. But this night, because he had licentiously desired Golchehr he added some powder to his wine, drank it and resumed his singular concentration upon the face of the Buddha. Was this a sleep-inducing drug, or was it the elixir of life?

* * *

That very night, the 13th of Safar, 187 A.H. (809 AD), before Ruzbehan's plan could be implemented, the Caliph's messenger arrived with the order for the massacre of the Barmecides. That night twelve hundred Barmecide women, children, relatives, friends, slaves and sympathizers were put to death.

The following day, several Arabs broke the steel door down and entered the mute mansion. They found the chandelier extinguished but the fire still burning, lighting the Buddha's mocking smile. Ruzbehan, leaning somewhat but still seated in the lotus position on the mattress, had become petrified. At his side was a saz resembling a sitar and a jug of wine. In his left hand, he held a crumbled piece of paper. One of the intruders approached and pulled it from his hand. Emblazoned with the seal of Fazl, son of Yahya the Barmecide, the note ordered the massacre of all the Arabs to gain the independence of Khorasan. Ruzbehan's lowered face was reflected in the pool, a dark glow in his motionless eyes. The Buddha's philosophical smile had dried on his lips. Reflected darkly in the waves of the shallow pond, the ominous and mysterious smile appeared to say: This too, like the waves on the water, like the smile of the Buddha, is no more than a wave--a humorous, passing wave.

Sadeq Hedayat's Corner

Top of the page

Home | Courses