This is a translation by Kayvan Tahmasebian and Rebecca Ruth Gould of Hormoz Shahdadi’s novel Shab-e Howl (Tehran: Zaman, 1978), 17-23.
Ismaili sits on a chair at a table. The benches are full of boys and girls. Noise. Noise of terror. They’ve started. Tapping their feet. What should I do? Where is Saberi? I have come. Now if they want to leave the class they can. None of my business. I must go. I must be at the university’s main gate. What should I say to Saberi? To Madadi? They’ll say that he cancelled his class. No. I’ll stay. No. I’ll sit. Here. Bum bum bum. Tum tum tum. Stomping their feet. Rhythmic. Just as they flagellate and beat their chests on the night of Ashura.—Oh, Hussein was killed. Oh, Hussein was killed.1—Bum bum bum. Let them stomp. Let them stomp their feet. She stomped her feet. She threw away her nail file. She stomped her feet. Tum tum tum. She said I can’t. I want, but I can’t. I can’t live with you anymore. I said: you’ve only figured this out now that you’re pregnant? Tum tum tum. She said, no. I figured it out long ago, long ago. Ten years ago I figured it out.
Ten years? So what about the first two years of our marriage?—Bum bum bum. Oh, poor child. Alas! Oh, poor Zeynap. Alas! Alas! Alas Hossein was killed. Alas! Alas! Alas Hossein was killed.—Should I speak? Should I talk? What about for example? What should I say? Silence, gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen, silence! What about singing? Weep, Muslims! Bum bum bum. They’re laughing. They continue stomping their feet. Tum tum tum. Sakineh Sultan said she had bled. She must be awake now. Bum tum. Bum tum. Here comes Mr. Saberi. Dark-eyed and pale-faced. The creaminess of his face and the blackness of his eyebrows. Eating a cream puff. In the same classroom. I was sitting behind her. She was eating. Oblivious to the teacher. Who was drowsily reading from a textbook on the history of Iranian-Russian relations. I guess he was an opium addict. An addict from Kashan, perhaps. Like a pet. Bum, bum, tum, tum. Stomp. Stomp my friends. Bum, tum, bum, tum, tutum. Stomp.
“I’m leaving. May I, Mr. Saberi?” I have to leave before they arrive. I have to leave before they invade. Now they don’t care if it’s a student or a teacher. They beat everyone. They beat Dr. Eftekharzadeh’s wife. Battered her belly. Eight months pregnant, apparently. And why? She assumed that they distinguished between men and women in that Karbala chaos. Luckily I parked my car in front of the campus. I hope the street isn’t closed. “Mr. Shirazi, I’ve got errands to run. I have to leave. Please lock the door to my office.” My cigarettes? I don’t want them. I’ll buy a new pack outside. It goes without saying what’s going to happen. The campus is not crowded. Here are the men with batons. Like they’re getting ready. Evidently. She used to come this way. Five minutes before the class starts. When everyone is in the classroom. She walked in beauty. Her bags, her book, the cream puff in her hands. Creamy hands. Raw illusions. Illusion-eating. Everyone. Sitting in a fridge, I’m eating illusions. Where did I read it? A woman born from inside my dreams. Or something like that. A woman born from my knees in a state between wakefulness and sleep. Or something like that.
Ismaili stops. Shit. See I almost forgot. I have to return. I hope he hasn’t locked the office door yet. He returns. Arrives at the Faculty of Law. They have not started marching yet. They usually start marching in front of the Faculty of Literature, or Science, or Engineering. He climbs the stairs. No one is in the hallway. Evidently the teachers have not shown up. Or if they have, they’ve closed their doors. He turns. Climbs the large staircase. An uproar. So noisy up there. Where’s Shirazi? He turns the door handle. The door opens. Good. I left it in the upper drawer. Here it is. A bundle of yellow papers. The pack of memories. Sack of shit. Yellow relieves my eyes when writing. Yellow. The color of memories. The color of shit. I can’t. I can’t be away from these sheets even for a moment. He walks out. They’re descending the stairs. He fastens his steps. Takes the stairs, two at a time. Reaches the hallway. Passes the entrance. They’ve entered. Here’s their truck. Not a bad idea to find a place to rest before I go to the hospital. Where? Doesn’t matter. Anywhere. Cigarettes. Let’s not forget cigarettes. Perhaps in the glove box of the car. Where are my keys? I didn’t forget them on the table, did I?
A bundle of yellow sheets of paper
The pack of memories, sack of shit
Yellow, color of memories, color of shit
He opens the door of his Paykan. Sits at the steering wheel. Opens the glove box. Takes out a cigarette. Turns the car on. Lights the car’s cigarette lighter. Ha! Yellow relieves my eyes when writing. Occurred to me as soon as I glimpsed the notes. I didn’t think for example of what I’ve written. Why I’ve written. Why I’m carrying them with me twenty-four-seven. I haven’t been able to give them a good shape yet. I have to. I have to give it a good beginning finally. I have to read them again. No, I have to read them a thousand times. This guy has parked his car so badly in front of me. OK. I could get out finally. I have to drive to Naderi Avenue and Istanbul Avenue. Where should I park my car? Perhaps I’ll park around Faranseh Avenue. The hospital must be near there. Modiri or Vaziri. Something like that. On Faranaseh Avenue there are no more than a couple of hospitals. I can find it. Bum, bum, bum. They often start by stomping. How did we start? The same way. We used to boo too. We used to chant slogans too. We used to recite poems too. Fiction is no slogan. Nor is poetry. Fiction is fiction. Ha! I know its recipe. I know it well. I judge it well too. I can’t write how it feels. Don’t I want to write it? Do I fear writing it? Do I fear suddenly encountering a creature on paper that is way different from the tidy image I have of myself or of others? Do I fear emptying the sack of the past I carry on my shoulders night and day? Terror is always with us. Just like God is always with us. Not too bad. Not a bad sentence. I’ll start with this sentence. Or one like it. It shouldn’t turn out like biography. Useless. They laugh at it. They say he’s written autobiography. No. That’s wrong. I don’t want to talk about “I” at all. I fear talking about “I” at all. If I haven’t written it all yet, it’s because I want to preserve my “I.” She said you always talk about yourself. You always count yourself prior to everyone and everything. She said that and hanged her dress in the closet. I was about to reply. I was about to say, Don’t distract, honey. I saw how you got close to Mohammadi at the party all night long. I didn’t say it. I said, Why do you say that? She said, You talked about your memories from the beginning to the end of the party tonight. What memories? Why do you put the burden of your past on others’ shoulders? When you were young, you were too emotional like other young people. You wrote things that some yellow presses published. That’s all. For ten years, you’ve been only talking. For ten years all you’ve been saying is you’ve been writing. For ten years, you’ve been carrying the box of memories, the yellow notebook, day and night. But no stories. I was about to say, You’re right, but I didn’t. I sat down on the edge of the bed. I said, OK. So what? Why do you say this? Why do you repeat everything you’ve said a thousand times before? She replied. She replied and replied in anger. Replied, Because I’m tired. I’m tired of you pretending to be an artist.
She had turned her back to me. She was combing her hair. Only my hair has stayed young, I know. Where did I read it? I can’t remember. Let’s not forget I shouldn’t drive through Faranseh Avenue. Pahlavi Square is jammed with traffic twenty-four-seven. Why don’t they stop honking? Tum, tum, tum. I still hear her voice. Bum, bum, bum, bumtum. Bum, like East. Eastern. One has to live in an Eastern way. Has to eat in an Eastern way and fuck in an Eastern way and talk in an Eastern way. Has to be fucked in an Eastern way. Has to translate in an Eastern way. Has to write in an Eastern way. For whom do I write at all? Especially in this chaos. Move ahead. Move bro. His mind is somewhere else. If I don’t honk, he won’t move. Honk, honk. He moved. Perhaps he’s thinking of his wife and kids: wife and kids. Kids are at school now. Shirin and Shahin.
She said, You’re so immersed in yourself that you can’t tell which grade your daughters are in if you’re asked. Haha! Grade one and grade three. Easy. I even know where their school is. Isn’t it funny? I doubt it myself. I doubt it when I know which grades my kid are in. I reply myself. I ask myself. What about starting with a question. Is terror always with us? Is God always with us? Is the past always with us? Yellow relieves my eyes when writing. Yellow. Blond hair. Her hair always blond. On our first date I said her hair doesn’t match her name. Blond-haired Iran. Blue eyes and blond hair are rare among Iranians. Her eyes are brown. They’re not blue. Her eyes are small too. None of those almond-shaped eyes. Iran’s eyes are like needles. It was our first days together she said, They call me needle-eyed. I had held her hands. She said it unexpectedly. When she was saying, They call me needle-eyed.
She said, Look. I saw her palms were all red. She said, I have an allergy. I have an allergic reaction when they call me needle-eyed. I said, Don’t worry. I won’t call you needle-eyed. Your eyes are small but they’re beautiful. Besides, you don’t see the world small. She said, No. I don’t see the world small. But I’m small myself, aren’t I? I said, No, you’re not. Her nose is small. Her lips are narrow. She’s fairly short, but she has big breasts. Now she must be up by now. She must have told the nurse to bring her books and magazines. Perhaps fiction. Perhaps she’s reading a newspaper. I’m sure she’s reading something. Lying down in bed. I don’t know if Mohammadi’s been informed. I cannot know. I cannot figure out the relationship between them.
When she combed her hair, she stood up to go to the bathroom. She said, Go. I want to sleep. I was about to ask how long she’s been intimate with Mohammadi. I didn’t ask. She said, Sakineh-sultan has made your bed. Just take care not to wake the kids up. Couldn’t be. It was impossible there was a relationship between her and Mohammadi. Impossible. How can I make sure? Besides, it’s none of my business. Now I don’t have any rights. Why not? She’s still the mother of my kids. After four or five months I desired her suddenly. I wanted to take possession of her. She came back from the bathroom. In her purple nightdress. Her breasts were peeping out from beneath her dress. She said, You’re still sitting here. I said, Because any husband has some rights and any wife has some duties. She laughed. She said, Finally? You manly desire is aroused. I said, I think so. She said, Well, my womanly desire isn’t aroused. I have to turn here. I’d better park in the parking lot. I’ll walk to Naderi Avenue. It’s not yet 9:30. I’m there. Let’s not forget the notes.
He gets out the car. Locks the car door. Smoking. A bundle of papers in his hand. Going down Faranseh Avenue toward Shah Avenue.
I didn’t know it was the middle of her cycle, when she could get pregnant. She didn’t say it well either. She broke into tears. I had pushed her dense hair aside to kiss her earlobe. She was shedding tears. She said, I don’t like you to touch my body at all. But the doctor told me perhaps a kid would make things better. I assumed she’d just ended her cycle. I laughed silently. I said silently, OK, you can assume we’re making a baby. And kissed her. She said, You’re doing it too hot tonight. I said, If you speak any more, you’ll make me cold. I was lying. She ridiculed Mohammadi. The thin, talkative, bearded guy. He looked like the mullahs. Of course, he is a mullah. A modern mullah. He said he didn’t dress like mullahs just for better social status. That’s true. I don’t doubt his religious zeal. He wants everyone to return to Islamic principles. He sees the solution for everything in unquestioning implementation of Islamic law.
But why with my wife? Is he going to guide her to the right path? To the right sirat, direct path! I was about to ask why she got close to Mohammadi. I didn’t ask. I couldn’t ask. Her lips were slithery as always. Her hands were warm as always. What about starting like this: Imagine a forty-year-old man who is scared of sleeping. Who is scared of crowds. Who is scared of loneliness. Never looks into a mirror. Because what he sees in the mirror are two dull stunned eyes on a smooth forehead that is constantly sweating. Not bad for beginning. The rest is more or less ok. It’s already too much. Convoluted and disorderly. Ten years. Actually, I have lived the story first and then have written it down. Impossible. Impossible to sit and write. I could not write. It’s difficult to write these days. Not because cinema and television fed themselves on the work of writers. No. Not because sociology and psychology have collapsed the writing market. No. Writing is difficult these days because no one reads. Or some do but I cannot imagine them. I cannot imagine for whom I’m writing. I could imagine someone ten or fifteen years ago. Now that I imagine him, that person is getting old. Frown lines furrow his forehead. Who dozes. Who has become indifferent to art. Isn’t it that the miracle of life …? Not bad. Not a bad word, not a bad sentence: When life has lost its miracle, when everything that appeared possible has now become impossible, when dreams are nightmares, and memories torture, and thought insists on forgetting, how can one write? Or read? Not bad. I’ll start like this: How do you want to write? Or read? There’s no literature. Or there is but no one trusts it. How to trust it? How?
Every morning when you look at the newspaper, you see a world filled with non-literature, non-poetry. At night, when your arms and legs ache, your head is dizzy, your throat wheezes, and you breathe with difficulty, how can you read those words that you know are lies? How can you be interested in people who you know are unreal and fabricated by imagination? Now you don’t value people’s imagination, even if they’re writers. You think their dreams are valid for themselves. They’re of no use to me and my life. And not only me, one thousand ones like me. We who work our fingers to the bone and our life stories are not fictions. They are unending events that have been repeated millions of times for thousands of years, and no one cares. Not bad. When you find the beginning, the rest will be alright. Like a smell you catch when you’re sleep and it creates. Creates a woman for example. In a state between wakefulness and sleep.
A woman who is there and is not there. Who is there because you hear her voice somewhere. You’re like the others. You’re like the others. She’s not there because your ears prick up and your eyes widen. The dark room. So dark. Half-dark room. Not room. A hallway. A long rectangular table has filled it throughout. And two chairs only. On both sides of the table. A well-dressed man sitting in a chair. In front of me who have lost myself. The castrated I. What a strange phrase. If I’ve lost myself, then what’s an I? No. That’s right. That’s what I’m going to write about: an I that has lost itself. Has lost. I have to buy cigarettes.
Ismaili buys a pack from a kiosk. Enters Cafe Firuz. Sits at a table by the wall. Orders tea. Opens the pack. Stands up. Come out of the cafe. Buys a matchbox. Returns. Sits down. Lights a cigarette. Puffs. With the cigarette in his hand, he reads:
1 Ismaili is referring the verses recited by Iranians while mourning the death of Shia Imam Hussein on the night of Ashura. We have noted the sections from the Ashura lamentations by adding dashes (not present in the original). Shias venerate Hussein b. Ali, their third Imam, whom they believe was martyred in the battle of Karbala in 680 which took place between his faithful companions and the armies of Yazid I, the second caliph of the Umayyad caliphate. Hussein’s martyrdom is commemorated by Shias during a ten-day mourning period from the 1st to 10th of the month of Muharram every year.
Hormoz Shahdadi was born in Iran in 1948. His first book was the short story collection An Ancient Tale (1976). Its title story, an account of a Jewish mother and daughter who are forced to abandon their home due to antisemitic harassment, attests to the author’s lifelong interest in the perspectives of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority societies. Night of Terror (1978) similarly addresses the theme of the oppression of religious minorities, including Jews and Bahais. Shahdadi migrated to the United States soon after the revolution, at which point he stopped publishing fiction, even as Night of Terror became an underground classic status for a new generation of Iranians, raised after the 1979 revolution.
Kayvan Tahmasebian (https://poets.org/poet/kayvan-tahmasebian) is a poet, translator, literary critic, and the author of Isfahan’s Mold (2016) and Lecture on Fear and Other Poems (2019). His poetry was a finalist for The Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation & Multilingual Texts in 2017. With Rebecca Ruth Gould, he is co-translator of High Tide of the Eyes: Poems by Bijan Elahi (The Operating System, 2019).
Rebecca Ruth Gould (https://rrgould.hcommons.org) is the author of the poetry collection Cityscapes (2019) and the award-winning monograph Writers & Rebels (2016). She has translated many books from Persian and Georgian, including After Tomorrow the Days Disappear (2016) and, with Kayvan Tahmasebian, High Tide of the Eyes (2019). A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was awarded the Creative Writing New Zealand Flash Fiction Competition prize in 2019.
Photo Credit: Fabian Irsara on Unsplash