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Seda: Voices of Iran

Morteza Miraftabi (Short Story) The Acquaintance

Translated from the Persian by Farzin Yazdanfar

"Why are you throwing up?"

When the conductor heard this, he stared at Mr. Ranjbar dumfounded. Mr. Ranjbar, embarrassed and confused, took the ticket from him and moved away hastily. It was hot and stuffy inside the bus. Mr. Ranjbar's eyes had been fixed on the face of a woman who was slumped in the back of the bus, with her mouth open just like a crow suffering from heatstroke and thirst. The odor of half- digested food pervaded his mouth and throat as if he had just thrown up. His wife's figure appeared in his mind. He saw her holding her belly and throwing up in a bucket. Her shoulders were trembling and her face was swollen. Her eyelids were puffy. Her mouth had the odor of melted opium. Mr. Ranjbar looked out of the window at the trees, the stores, and the people coming and going. Everything was alien to him.

The bus reached the square and Mr. Ranjbar got off. In the window of a shop, he saw a fat face. It was the familiar face of his old friend, Mr. Ashna. Mr. Ashna's face was still child-like, but he had gained weight. He had neatly combed and parted his hair, which was not as thick as it used to be. They hugged each other and started walking.

Mr. Ranjbar had unintentionally remained in his friends's arms for a few minutes. Ashna's fat face had the smell of a deodorant soap. Ashna, who was happy seeing his old friend again, was laughing and talking loudly. He was insisting that they should spend the afternoon together. Mr. Ranjbar was being dragged by his friend; he was following him involuntarily. Ashna went and bought some mast-o- mooseer [1] from a big store.

"This is the best mast-o-mooseer! People even come from Shemiran to buy it from this store. I guess we are lucky. Aren't we?" said Ashna.

He laughed.

He went to another store to buy batteries for his radio. "I turn on the radio at night. It's a habit. There is this woman who sings Arabic songs. I love it." he continued.

He burst into a guffaw.

"My wife, Nuzhat, says 'Shame on you!' But I hold the radio close to my ears and listen."

He bought slippers for his wife. He cracked a couple of jokes with the salesman and burst into laughter. As they were leaving the store, Ashna told Mr. Ranjbar: "This is the third pair of slippers I've bought. My sisters-in- law took the first and the second pairs. They liked my taste. They liked the design of the slippers with this red flower on them... ."

He didn't finish what he was going to say. He bought a women's magazine, toothpaste, and a toothbrush for his wife. "Commercial toothpastes are no good. They damage one's teeth. This is a medicinal toothpaste which is good for sensitive gums. Look at the toothbrush! There is this pointed rubber on it which is used as a toothpick. It kills all the germs."

Ashna stopped to pick up the pictures that he had taken at the picnic last Friday [2]. Looking at the pictures, he was excited and loudly explained what was in each one. "This is my sister-in-law. She's a college graduate. All the bachelors are asking for her hand. This is Mr. Shahvar. He is very influential in the Ministry of Finance. We have just met. Look at him... ."

Ashna burst into laughter again. As he laughed, his eyes became smaller and smaller.

"Look at this guy! He works at the Oil Company. He is very successful. Look at him! When I took his picture, he was holding a hose in his hand and squirting everybody. He has a good sense of humor. We call him 'Timsar' [3]. This is his garden. Look at him! He is too fat... ."

They left the photo shop. Ashna decided to leave the rest of the things that he had not finished for tomorrow. Two hours later, Mr. Ranjbar was in Ashna's house. He was sitting in a room looking around and Ashna was going in and out of the room talking continuously.

"I bought this in Europe two years ago. There is also a Kashan rug with Lachchak-Turanj design [4] spread downstairs. Nuzhat says that she likes it. It is spread under her bed. I buy Isfahan, Na'in and kashan rugs. You know that Turkman rugs are of inferior quality. We lay them in our hallway. My brother-in-law was interested in this rug with the Shah-`Abbasi design [5], but I beat him to it. He regretted his mistake and wanted to pay three thousand tomans more than the original price. I laughed at his offer in front of his wife and told him: "The buyer has paid and the seller has collected. It's a done deal."

There was a moment of silence after the last words came out of Ashna's smiling mouth. As he laughed, his veins could be seen on his cheeks. Mr. Ranjbar was looking at him, but he was not listening.

"What are you looking at? It's obvious that you're an expert. The thing you're looking at is an antique. Nuzhat bought it from a guy who was going to the U.S. to stay there. As you see, this is the statue of a woman, but very different from other statues that you've seen... ."

Ashna, who was happy having the statue in his possession, was looking at it very enthusiastically. His eyes were shining and his movements were abrupt, indicating that he was restless.

"Look! This Spanish dancer's dress is long. It's made of silk. The ones that I've seen in other places don't have the statue of the male dancer. The dancer has a guitar, too. Nuzhat's cousin has only the statue of the dancer but not that of the guitar player. We bought these statues almost for free. The guy who wanted to sell them to us asked for two thousand tomans. I took a thousand-toman bill out of my pocket and made him swear not to say anything more. He agreed and I got the statues almost for free... ."

Ashna went towards the furniture and the dining table.

"... We bought the furniture and the dining table from an American advisor who was here on duty and was about to leave the country. We only paid thirteen thousand tomans for the furniture, the dining table, and twelve chairs. It was a good deal."

Ashna' eyes were moving over the furniture. He continued: "... There are four armchairs and a sofa. The table is made in the U.S. with American wood. For twelve people. Look! It's so shiny that you can see your face in it... ."

Mr. Ranjbar who was standing beside the kitchen table turned his face involuntarily towards the surface of the table. A black shadow appeared before his eyes.

"I got them from him almost for free. The original price must have been forty thousand tomans... ."

Mr. Ranjbar took the statue of three monkeys from the mantelpiece and looked at them. Ashna said: "I swear to God that this statue symbolizes everything: all the books written so far, all the philosophies, all the poems, metaphysics, and Holy Books. It is said that Aristotle asked his disciple, Socrates, what the secret of success in life was; and asked him to sum it up in a short sentence. Socrates needed time to think about it. After twenty four hours, he went back to his teacher and told him that he had the answer: " Close your eyes to what you see and close your ears to what you hear. This is the secret of success in life." Aristotle kissed Socrates's forehead and told him that he would not have been his disciple if he had said otherwise. For this wise answer, he called Socrates his teacher. Look! There is a sentence in English carved on the statue: Le Secret De Bonheur. It means 'The Secret of Success.'"

Mr. Ranjbar turned his face and gazed at the Statue of three monkeys. The statue showed the first monkey putting his hand on his ears, the second one covering his mouth, and the third one closing his eyes. Le Secret De Bonheur had been carved on the base of the statue in French. "The secret of success in life! I bought two of these statues in Europe and gave one of them to my brother-in-law. He says that he's received hundreds of offers so far. People are willing to pay even two thousand tomans for it, but he swears to God that he won't sell it for even a hundred thousand tomans."

The odor of vomit passed through Mr. Ranjbar's nose. His wife's face appeared in his mind again. He saw her throwing up. Her eyes were coming out of their sockets. Her head was deep in the bucket. Mr. Ranjbar realized that his arm was in Ashna's hands. Ashna was trying to wake him.

"Are you sleeping? Where are you? Are you awake?"

Ashna burst into a guffaw. As he laughed, his cheeks were flushed. He said: "Lie down here! Sleep well. Make yourself at home. If you decide to stay overnight, we'll go to my brother-in-law's house. He can provide us with opium-smoking pipes and a brazier. He has a howzkhaneh [6] in his house. You should see it. He calls it "howzkhaneh-ye may va dood" [7]. There are cushions for the back all around and a fountain in the middle. The pond is full of fish. After drinking liquor and smoking opium, we can watch one of those X-rated movies. It's one of the best. Nobody has anything like it. You, go to bed now and rest."

Mr. Ranjbar gazed at him as if he were asleep and Ashna had just waked him.

"...Or if you want, we can go to the Club. They're showing a movie tonight. We can also play Bingo. I've won many times. I'm known as 'Mr. Bingo' at the Club. I always buy two cards. Not more! My brother-in-law buys three or four cards, but he's a loser. He loses every time he plays."

Ashna burst into laughter.

"With his mustache dangling, my brother-in-law asks me whether I've made a secret deal with the people in the Club."

Mr. Ranjbar did not know how he had been taken to Ashna's house. He did not know whether the street was a long one or a short one; a wide one or a narrow one. He could not remember how he had entered the house and what he had eaten. The only thing he could remember was his wife who was vomiting. It was Mr. Ashna's wife who reminded him. She was a fat lady who was gasping for breath as she came upstairs to welcome him. Once again, Mr. Ranjbar remembered his wife, the bucket and the milk spilled from its bowl.

"If I don't sleep in the afternoon, I get a headache. Reading puts me to sleep. Reading is like sleeping pills for me. You, take a nap. Make yourself comfortable. After you wake up, we'll go either to my brother-in-law's house or to the Club. Or we can stay home and sit by the flower-bed in the backyard. I will ask Nuzhat to make Kashk-e Bademjan [8]. She is very good at it."

After Ashna made sure that Mr. Ranjbar was comfortable in the bed that he had made for him beside the "Family Museum", he closed the door and left Mr. Ranjbar alone. Mr. Ranjbar turned over and over on the bed. He gazed at the objects in the room: the pendants of the crystal chandelier which were glittering under the light, the picture hanging on the wall, the things which were on the mantelpiece, and the "Family Museum". Ashna opened the door and peeped to make sure that Mr. Ranjbar was comfortable.

"Are you comfortable?"

Partially sitting up, Mr. Ranjbar leaned on his elbow and said: "Comfortable?"

Ashna with a book under his arm came in.

"My glasses? Where are my glasses? You know, I have to read for half an hour before going to bed. Reading books is like sleeping pills for me."

Still leaning on his elbow, Mr. Ranjbar said: "Yes... ."

Ashna pointed to the book that he was holding under his arm and said: "I love to read books, especially this one. I can't fall asleep unless I read some pages of this book. This is a book about the mysterious medicinal properties of various foods. Reading this book puts me to sleep."

Mr. Ranjbar plunged into his thoughts again. The image of Ashna's wife who was panting as she came upstairs appeared before his eyes.

"Everybody who has taken this medicine, has been cured. After one passes the age of fifty, he needs these medicines to prevent impotence."

Ashna burst into a guffaw. His laughter was louder than usual.

"Fifteen grams of fennel, ten grams of caraway seeds, fifteen grams of coriander, fifteen grams of angelica, fifteen grams of Anise, seventy grams of cumin seeds which is almost five times as much as the amount of fennel; these are what you need. Mix them together. Each time use one teaspoon and add water to it. Boil it for exactly two minutes; let it become steamed for ten minutes. Drink one glass after each meal; add honey to it. Make sure the honey is natural. you will see the result. But when you are in your lover's arms making love, don't forget to give me your blessing. Ah! I forgot to tell you that you should also add leek juice to the mixture."

Ashna laughed. As he laughed, he opened his mouth so widely that his two incisors, braced with silver wire, were visible.

"Now I'll let you go to bed. Sleep well."

Ashna took his glasses from the table and left Mr. Ranjbar alone. Mr. Ranjbar could hear the sound of Ashna's footsteps as Ashna dragged his corpulent body downstairs. He could not remember even a word of what Ashna had told him. He took the plastered statue of a woman from the mantelpiece and started looking at it. It reminded him of his wife throwing up. Her dark blue swollen face was in the bucket; her breathing had quickened. The bowl of milk was beside her lying on the ground upside down. Her mouth had the smell and taste of opium which had been dissolved in her stomach. Her eyes and nostrils had widened. Mr. Ranjbar could see her face vividly, but all of a sudden her face began disappearing. The flesh on her cheeks began disintegrating and falling off so that he could only see her skull. Ashna's loud laughter woke him up. Ashna was downstairs laughing with a loud voice. Mr. Ranjbar put the statue back on the mantelpiece, but the other objects there caught his eye. Among them were Ashna's framed pictures. In one of them Ashna was shaking someone's hand. In another one he was holding a tray offering a pair of scissors to a man wearing a bow tie. There was also a small frame with the picture of Ashna's wife showing her naked shoulders. Her smiling face reminded Mr. Ranjbar of his wife again. Her head was in a bucket; she was throwing up. Mr. Ranjbar put the picture back on the mantelpiece and went towards the buffet which Ashna had called "the Family Museum". On the shelf he saw a set of tea cups with the picture of an old man painted on them. There was also a dragon in the picture behind the old man who with his big head resembled Mr. Ranjbar. Staring at the glass door of the buffet, Mr. Ranjbar saw his own expressionless and confused face with a black shadow around his eyes. The dragon behind him was ready to devour him. Mr. Ranjbar could feel the heat of the fire coming out of the dragon's mouth on his neck and spine. He turned around to see the dragon, but there was nothing. The dragon had disappeared.

Ashna came in and said something incomprehensible to Mr. Ranjbar.

"Why are you throwing up?" The words echoed in Mr. Ranjbar's head.

Mr. Ranjbar who had not listened to what Ashna had said, went by the buffet. Ashna with several albums of pictures in his hand had entered the room. In his bathrobe he looked like a chessboard with red squares. With a happy face he opened the albums.

"I thought you might fall asleep without seeing these pictures. They bring back memories... ." Ashna showed Mr. Ranjbar all of the pictures in the albums. The pictures that he had taken while he was in the military; the ones that he had taken when he was still in school or those which showed him attending picnics with the VIPs.

"... Look! This is me standing under the waterfall in Pass-Qal`eh. Again, this is me visiting Chehelsutoon in Isfahan. Look at me! I am in my mountain-climbing get-up. It looks good on me. Doesn't it? This is me wearing a hat in the Club. Do I look good in a hat?"

Ashna was excited. He was restless and wouldn't stay still.

"This is Reza, a real con. I haven't seen him for twenty five years. He came to my house and borrowed twenty tomans. He left and never came back. I think he's left the country. Perhaps he's in the United States. I was going to find his address and write him a letter asking him to return my money. After twenty five years, he owes me four times as much as he's borrowed. This is me shaking hands with the leader of the Party. This is Najafi, the head of customs. Don't get fooled by his bald head. He owns a house in Za`faraniyeh. Every year he buys a new car. When Nuzhat and I go to Kelardasht, we stay in his house. He says that only fools drive old cars."

Turning his face away from the albums, Ashna looked at Mr. Ranjbar and laughed with a loud voice.

"He embezzled a lot of money and made himself rich when he was the head of customs in Khurramshahr. Moreover, he owns two stores on Sa`di Street. He owns pieces of land in every corner of the city of Tehran. This is Pourdanesh. I am sure you have seen his picture in the newspapers. This is the Tomb [9]. I was there with Mr. Hughes and all my bosses were there, too."

All of a sudden Ashna burst into laughter.

"...This jerk, Najafi, look at his big belly. Here he is naked on the beach. He has a good sense of humor. He points to his gut and jokingly says that a chicken leg is buried here and lamb kebab there. He says that he's spent a lot of money to develop such a big paunch... ."

Ashna laughed so much that his eyes filled with tears.

"... Nuzhat says when Najafi enters the room, his belly comes in first... ."

"...This spoiled rat is Hasan Mohammadi. We served in the military together. He was the best in training camp. He could bring his legs up above his waist. He's made good progress; he's even been appointed as the Governor General. He is very influential and shrewd. We used to sleep on the same bed when we were in the military. This is my brother-in-law. I took his picture when he was asleep. He snores so loudly that nobody wants to be near him. This one is my sister-in-law with her two daughters... ."

Ashna showed all of the pictures to Mr. Ranjbar. He looked at the pictures, but he saw nothing. Ashna was explaining about each one, but Mr. Ranjbar couldn't even hear what he was saying. His wife's figure appeared in his mind again. She was throwing up. The doors were closed and the room was stuffy. The air inside the room was heavy as if it had not been changed for years. His wife's face was still in his mind. She was vomiting in a bucket. Ashna, weary and tired of too much talking, had already left the room. Before leaving the room, he made sure that Mr. Ranjbar was comfortable. Mr. Ranjbar, motionless, gazed at the wall. Everything was silent. He heard a noise coming from inside the ventilator as though a crow sitting on the air-conditioner had cawed and flown away.

Ranjbar, sleepless and exhausted, closed his eyes for a few minutes. He was about to fall asleep, but his foot jerked sharply as he was falling asleep, waking him up again. The small framed picture of Ashna's smiling face caught his eye. He got up and listened carefully to see whether he could hear anything downstairs. He heard nothing. He put on his shoes, opened the door, and went downstairs. As he was leaving the house, he remembered that Ashna had patiently showed him every corner of his house: the rooms, the storeroom, the basement, the guest room, the hall, the bedroom, the balcony, and even the bathroom in the corner of the backyard. He remembered that Ashna had showed him these places a couple of times, and every time he had turned on the lights to make sure that everything could catch Mr. Ranjbar's attention. Having reached the bottom of the staircase, Mr. Ranjbar smelt the odor of an insecticide. He saw Ashna and his wife sleeping in the hall. Ashna' wife had covered herself with a bed sheet. She reminded him of his own wife whose face appeared in his mind once again. She was throwing up in a bucket in a room which was stuffy and dimly lit. Mr. Ranjbar looked at Ashna once again. He was in his underwear, and seemed to have grown fatter and paler. His mouth was open and his hand was holding a straw fan. He was sleeping soundly. Mr. Ranjbar quietly opened the door and stepped on the sidewalk of the street which he had never seen. There was no sign of anything familiar. He felt the warmth of the sun on his face. He closed the door and walked away. In the sky he saw a thick gray cloud in the shape of a monkey which had cast a shadow on the streets and buildings of the city.

Translator's Note: 

* "Ashna" ("The Acquaintance") was first published in a collection of short stories entitled, "GULDANI BAR PANJAREH- e SHAHR", Iranzamin Publishing Co., 1987, pp. 13-23.

** Morteza Miraftabi is a contemporary Iranian fiction writer.

*** This translation was first published in Chicago Review vol. 38, no. 3, 1992.

  1. Mast-o-mooseer: yogurt mixed with shallots.
  2. Iranians often go on a picnic on Fridays, the only day off after a six-day-work week.
  3. Timsar: a title used for high-ranking military officers. 
  4. Lachchak-Turanj is one of the designs of the Persian rugs made in Kashan.
  5. Shah-Abbasi is a design which consists of a central flower surrounded by a floral wreath. The wreath usually consists of yellow, red, and blue flowers and the whole design is woven upon a blue or deep red background.
  6. Howzkhaneh: a place in a traditional Iranian home where there are cushions for the back all around and a small pond with a fountain in the middle. In family parties, men get together in this place to have a drink and smoke opium.
  7. Howzkhaneh-ye may va dood: the howzkhaneh-ye wine and opium.
  8. Kashk-e bademjan: fried eggplant mixed with liquid whey, a popular traditional Persian food.
  9. The tomb of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's father, Reza Shah.



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