War and Silence Short story by Elli Dehnavi Translated from Persian by Kara Abdolmaleki Release Date: May 2015
Eight years have passed since the war ended but mom still wears black. Standing in front of the tall mirror, Sadjad is styling his hair and eyeing mom’s image in the mirror; she is chopping up a sugar cone. Zaynab would comb her hair in front of this same mirror. He places the brush on the shelf and runs his palms through his face. Mom has placed the ironed shirt and pants on the poshti against the wall.
Mom tells him not to forget the money envelope. Sadjad gets changed in the bedroom, returns to the living room and grabs the envelope between the pages of the Quran. Mom reminds him not to fold it. She wonders if it isn’t too early to go.
“No, we are supposed to show up early to help them with the guests,” Sadjad replies.
Mom goes into the kitchen and comes back with a sugar cone wrapped in silver paper and hands it to Sadjad. He knits his brows. “The money is enough. What the cone for?”
Mom says it is auspicious.
“It’s embarrassing in front of my friends.”
Mom says why embarrassing? She wants him to give it to Ali’s mom, with regards.
Still in the sulk, Sadjad says nothing.
The alley and the yard’s entrance are decorated with light strings. Standing at the door is Ali, chitchatting with his friends. He has a plain white shirt on, with coal-black serge pants. He has rolled up his sleeves and is wearing the watch with the metal band that his father brought back from Mecca. This is the first time he is not wearing sneakers. They have been friends since childhood, before Zaynab left.
Tables have been set up in the yard for the men. The sound of music and women’s clapping and singing can be heard from inside the house. In small groups, the men are either sitting at the tables or standing all around the yard, talking. There are trays of fruit and pastry on each table, but no sign of tea or sherbet. Ali’s father is asking for him. One of the light bulbs is out and needs to be replaced before dark. Ali and Sadjad offer to go to the small grocery store at the end of the alley. Ali’s father asks them to get a few spare bulbs too, just in case.
When they return, the decorated wedding car is parked at the front and there is no one around. Ali is irked, “Ah, dang it! We just went away for a minute!” Sadjad knows how badly Ali wanted to see the moment her sister stepped out of the car in the white gown. He would feel the same if it was Zaynab’s wedding.
They enter the yard. The bride and the groom have gone inside. The cheering of the women can be heard; the air is filled with the smell of wild rue incense. They join Ali’s father, who is pouring tea and putting the teacups on the trays. Ali lifts a filled tray to take to the guests, but he and his father are called inside to take pictures with the bride and the groom. He passes the tray to Sadjad and goes away.
Sadjad is preparing the second round of tea when the men burst into cheers and applaud. The bridegroom must have come out. He turns his head to see him. The pot wavers and the tea spills on his hand. He puts down the pot hastily to blow at his hand. He turns to look again, but the groom is so surrounded that Sadjad can’t see him. He dries the spilled tea from the tray with a rag and hands the tray to Ali’s cousin. Ali calls him: “Where are you?”
“I’m here, pouring tea.”
“Come on,” and pulls his arm. “This is Agha Hesam, our dear son-in-law, and this is my friend Sadjad.” His voice is filled with pride and joy.
The groom smiles and shakes hands with Sadjad amicably and turns back to his conversation with his friends. Sadjad is still standing in front of the groom, numbly gazing at him. He was acting normally. Is it possible that he has not recognized him? How could he? He is not the frail kid he was eight years ago. He is tall and grown now, and his voice has deepened. Of course he won’t recognize him. But Sadjad remembers him vividly. His face is just like then, except the passing of eight years has left its mark.
Sadjad does not recall the details: suddenly all he saw was red, the asphalt, Saleh’s blue shirt and Sadeq’s white T-shirt. It all happened so quickly that he could not choose between seeing and not seeing. For eight years, he has relived that instant time and again. And then he ran. Was it for minutes or perhaps hours, he cannot tell. All he remembers is he could not run anymore, and before he could think, he saw himself on the ground. The sun was down. He got up. His head was aching. All around him was wheat plants and the suburban houses in the remote horizon. How big the town had appeared to him then! The thought of walking to the town’s main square would make him cry. Later, when he learned in geography class that his town had a population of eighty thousand people, he felt proud. Eighty thousand!
It was dark when he got home. The yard entrance was open, but there was no coming and going, nor a sound. Father, Saleh and Sadegh were not home (and he did not know of their whereabouts until a few days later), a few of the neighbors’ kids were sitting with his cousins Zahra and Majid, all watching TV on mute. They peeked at Sadjad when he entered. At the living room corner, aunt Sakineh had mom in her arms. Mom’s shoulders where jolting. Aunt Roqayeh had a glass in her hand which she was incessantly stirring. Except for the neighbor’s wife, who glanced at him, no one noticed his entrance, or if they did, they did not acknowledge him.
“Sadjad, have you had your pastry?” Ali asks him, his voice almost lost in the loud.
Sadjad doesn’t say anything.
“Do you want me to bring you some ice-cream?”
Sadjad only watches him.
“Buy me the ice-cream first,” Sadjad said.
“Don’t be a nuisance. First take this, then we’ll go for ice-cream,” Zaynab replied.
“I said no.”
“I’ll tell everyone, then.”
Annoyed, Zaynab started towards the store.
“Alright, give me the books. I’ll take them.”
“What a sweet little brother you are.”
Zaynab did not enter the alley. She gave the books to Sadjad and waited in the mosque on the corner. An acquaintance could turn up any moment and see her stalling. She went to the washroom and shook the dirt off her chador and tidied her headscarf. She went back out, not looking at the building across from the street, and slowly sauntered down the way. Sadjad was standing on the main street with a book in his hand. Zaynab snatched the book from him and shoved it into her purse and held on to her chador more tightly.
“Alright, here’s the money. I’ll wait here, you go get it quickly.”
“But this is too much.”
“I know. Keep the change and get another ice-cream tomorrow.”
Sadjad ran off happy as a clam, and bumped into an old man at the store entrance. Zaynab hid her laugh behind her chador.
A little further from where they got off the cab, Sadegh was sitting by the wall with some of his friends. Zaynab pretended that she had not noticed him.
“You did not lose the change, did you?” she asked Sadjad.
“No, it’s in my pocket.”
Sadegh walked towards them and asked with knitted eyebrows, “Where were you?”
“Hi” said Zaynab with apprehension. “Hi. I said where you were?”
Sadjad said “I had ice-cream,” grinning cheerfully.
“You forgot to say something.”
Sadjad stopped smiling “oh, hi.”
“I went to get my book back from a friend,” Zaynab explained.
“Don’t you see her at school?”
“Yesterday she forgot to bring me the book and it would have been too late by Saturday.”
“You went to her house?”
“No, she brought it to Al-Mahdi mosque.”
“So where is it?”
“Atefeh! The book, obviously!”
“Oh, in my purse.” She stalled for a moment, and then unzipped the purse to take out the book, but Sadegh said “Go home quickly, mom needs a hand.” She walked away, feeling relieved.
Zaynab entered the house, hung the chador on the hanger on the corner of the living room, and said “Hi mom. You should have left the vegetables to me to rinse.”
Mom asked why she was late.
“It only took me half an hour, is that late?”
Mom had said she should get home before Saleh and Sadegh. Sadegh has been looking for her.
“I saw him.” Before getting changed and going into the kitchen to wash the vegetables, she hid her purse under the bed. She couldn’t wait to read the letter and open the small present hidden inside the book.
Ali’s father tells Sadjad: “Thank you son, I hope that was not too much trouble.” He wants to say that Ali would help out with his sister’s wedding in return, but swallows his words with a fatherly sorrow and looks at the new guests and smiles.
Dad has not smiled for a long time. When he gets home in the evening, he sits on his cushion and plays with the fringe of the carpet, drinks his tea, and counts his beads. Without diverting his gaze from the carpet, he sighs from time to time and thanks God. It has been several years since mom stopped asking dad how business is going; she does not tell him about her day either. She just brings tea, opens the supper spread and closes it. She sews, keeps herself busy and stays out of dad’s sight as much as she can. From sundown, when dad gets home, to bedtime, life is passed in quiet; Sadjad has gotten used to this silence and has learned to respect it.
His eyes catch Ali’s father’s. He smiles and looks down. Ali’s father comes forward. One of the neighbours enters the yard and is welcomed by greetings of the people. His name is Kazem. Ali’s father hands the tray of pastries to Sadjad and goes towards Kazem. They kiss each other on the cheek; after greetings, Ali’s father looks over Kazem’s shoulder, “So where is your noble son?”
“Your humble servant–He should have come, but I am afraid he has his university entrance exam to study for this year.”
When they cleaned up after lunch, Zaynab was still talking about the exam. She said even the class geek was not happy with the questions. “Oh and Mr. Yousefi’s daughter was there too, by the way.”
Mom said that she had gotten married two years ago and had a child last year.
“Yes, that’s her. The husband came to pick her up after the test with the baby in his arms.”
Mom said she did not understand what the Yousefis’ daughter was going to university for. She should stay home and tend to her life.
Sadjad said “So if you go to university, you will go away, to another city?”
“You just pray I get admitted. I’ll visit you every week, I promise”
Mom put her chador on and before leaving said that she should not keep mentioning it in front of Sadegh and Saleh. They will think of something if she gets admitted.
“You mean if I get admission I should not go just because they say so?”
Mom said she was going to a funeral with aunt Sakineh. She said her brothers would be home in an hour and she should have their tea ready and warm their lunch.
“Sure,” said Zaynab.
Without raising his head, Sadjad noticed her picking up the phone and, after a few deep breaths, starting to dial. “Will you get me a glass of water? Please, my dear? Not too cold.” He knew who she was calling. Zaynab had shown him the present; it was a silver chain with a locket, like a winged man.
On the last night, Zaynab put her arms around him. Her eyes were wet. She put his head to her chest and caressed his short, coarse hair and said “Remember I will always love you.” Sadjad said “I love you too. Sadegh and Saleh yell at me all the time – ”
Zaynab put her hand on his mouth “hold up your hand.”
Sadjad loved doing this, he opened his palm and closed his eyes. Something cold fell in his hand. He opened his eyes—The chain with the winged man.
“Yours now. But you should promise you won’t lose it.”
“Thanks. I won’t.” Zaynab hugged him again and whispered she will always love him no matter what.
Zaynab had only confided her plan to her friend Atefeh, who had failed to dissuade her from going. After a four-hour ride, the bus arrived in a huge transit center, incomparable with the small bus terminal of their town. She got off the bus. She did not dare raise her head and look around. All the way, she pulled the chador into her face lest someone might recognize her. She exited the terminal. The cab drivers accosted the passengers. Taxi? Taxi? Where are you headed ma’am? She did not reply, but pulled on the chador and hid more. Once she was far enough from the terminal, her eyes began to probe, but she did her best to avoid eye contact with the people. A few blocks farther, there was a phone booth. She entered and closed the door. A man and a woman turned around and eyed her but could not see her face. She picked up the receiver and took out a coin from her pocket. The edges were black with germs. She put the coin in the slot. She knew the number by heart, but dialed the area code out of nervousness. The busy tone made her realize; she hit the hook and dialed again. She prayed it would be busy, so that she could hang up and, for one more time, go over the words she had prepared in her mind. It was ringing. Her mouth was dry. It rang three times. She gulped her saliva down and tapped on the window with her left index finger. She was about to hang up after the fifth ring that his sleepy, hoarse voice on the line said “hello?”
“Hi. Yes? –Zaynab? It’s you? Let me call you.”
“I’m not calling from home.”
“Someone might see you.”
“Nobody knows me in this city except you.”
“What do you mean? –You came here? What for? Are you out of your mind? Do you realize what’s going to happen if your brothers find out?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“Couldn’t you do it from there? How did you come here?”
“I took the bus. I need to see you. There is a problem.”
“Couldn’t it wait a few weeks until I get back?”
“It’d be too late by then. It might be already too late.”
“Alright, you’re scaring me now. What happened?”
“My cousin Habib – They have arranged the marriage for this weekend.”
“Marriage? What do you mean marriage? Bastard! — … That bastard! Wait a second! They arranged it? What were you doing? Sitting there saying nothing?”
“I did but no one listened. Dad agreed when they came over two years ago.”
“What? And you? You agree too, don’t you? Are you—Are you calling to say goodbye?”
“No, I just wanted to say …” She stalled, she was waiting for the voice on the other side to encourage her to speak, to ask what is it that she wants to tell. “Wanted to say that – If you want me, the time is now ———.”
There was no words from the other side, just heavy breathing. Zaynab prayed he would say he will come this very week with his family. She promised herself to offer 500 tomans to Zeyd-Ibn-Ali shrine.
“I want you, but I am not in a position right now. I am still a student and I have the military service to do. Even my father won’t agree like this, let alone yours. Go home. Please go home before they find out.”
“They have found out by now”, her eyes were wet.
“Maybe not yet. Say you went over to Atefeh’s. You’ll think of something. Are you crying? Crying won’t help. You’ll just put yourself down with this childish behavior, and me too.”
“Please Hesam; just come talk to my dad.”
There was silence.
Sadjad ran after his father and Saleh and Sadegh. They were mad with fury. They did not notice Sadjad; he was invisible to everyone. His cousin Habib was also with them. They went towards the terminal. Earlier, Sadjad had tried to stop Sadegh who had said “I will cut the shameless whore to pieces”, but Sadegh had bashed him into the wall.
The bus came to a halt. The chauffeur’s assistant opened the door and jumped off; “Take care everyone!” He noticed Sadegh “Hey Sadegh, how’s it going?” Sadegh did not answer. He got on the bus. Saleh was waiting by the bus, dad and Habib were on the sidewalk. He burst out hollering. He was swearing. Then he appeared at the door. He was pulling on her chador and kicking her.
Sadjad ran out from behind the pillar to tell them to let go of her, to leave her alone; wanted to say “Zaynab” that everything became red.
A few boys his age and younger are dancing with the music in the yard. The groom is strewing money at them. Sadjad’s head is spinning. He is thirsting for a chilled glass of water. He can feel the sweat drops on his back. His temples throb with a sharp pain. He feels being suffocated. He puts his hand on his neck, and holds the silver necklace chain between his two fingers with the Farvahar locket hanging from it.
Sadjad walks toward the groom and looks into his eyes. Without reciprocating his smile, he takes the necklace off and puts it in Hesam’s hand and walks out.
Written by Elli Dehnavi, translated by Kara Abdolmaleki
Artwork by Amad Khalili, teaouse exhibition, Iran Artists Forum (2007)
. Large sturdy cushions placed against walls as backrest in West Asia.
. First day of the week in the Iranian calendar.
About the Author
Born in 1980 in Mashhad, Elli Dehnavi is a writer, editor, and literary translator who also does academic research on Middle Eastern cinema and literature. She studied English Literature, and started writing stories and translating works of fiction and critical theory in her early twenties. She is the author of Burnt Papers (Kaqazhaye Sookhteh), a collection of short stories that was published in 2011 in Tehran. She was the editor of Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature for two issues, one on Literature and Identity, and the other on the Literature, Culture, and Cinema of Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. At the moment, she is preparing a second collection of short stories. Parsagon asked her about her favourite works of literature and cinema by women.