Touba and the Meaning of Night by Shahrnush Parsipur
Translated from the Farsi by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (Marion Boyars 2007)
After her father dies when she is only fourteen, Touba – intelligent but barely educated – proposes marriage to a 52-year-old man who originally proposed to her mother. She divorces him a few years later and marries a Qajar prince, but when he takes a second wife she also divorces him. Alone and impoverished, weaving carpets to make money and care for her children, she seeks spiritual truth but ultimately the demands of her
crumbling household and family dramas including abortion, secret marriage, murder and extremism intervene.
Shahrnush Parsipur attended the University of Tehran and worked as a producer for Iranian national television. Protesting about the execution of two poets in 1974, she was imprisoned, and in 1980 was again gaoled, for four years. On her release she started writing, and Touba and the Meaning of Night became a bestseller. She now lives in San Francisco.
Havva Houshmand taught at the National University of Iran for twelve years and is currently a faculty member at the Albuquerque TVI Community College in the USA, teaching humanities and cultural studies.
She is the founder of a consulting partnership, Culture Alive, offering workshops and counselling with emigrants.
Kamran Talattoff is Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tuscon, Arizona. He is co-translator of Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur and the author of many articles on Persian studies and Iranian political figures.
Click here to buy the book.
Touba and the Meaning of Night
[Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible]
She was no more than six or seven years old when the Englishman came to their home. Never had anyone seen an Englishman, never had an Englishman come to anyone’s home. But he came to Adib’s home. Only
much later did she realize the signiﬁcance of the event.
Earlier, the Englishman had been galloping his horse down the dusty street when her father had begun to cross. The English horse had shied, and Adib had fallen down right in front of it. The Englishman struck Adib on the face with his whip and in broken Persian cried, ‘Stupid fool!’ and galloped away. Asdolah the butcher had been chopping meat on a tree stump in front of his shop. Ten steps behind, he tried to catch up to the Englishman, his chopping knife still in hand, cursing the man as loudly as he could. Unsuccessful, he returned to help the other shopkeepers lift Adib from the dust and the mud, and to stare in amazement at the reddened whip mark on his face. This incident was to become a torment to Adib, a memory that would not leave him for the rest of his life. The shopkeepers surrounding Haji Adib stared at him expectantly. If Haji had given the order, they undoubtedly would have gone on a rampage. Haji Adib never gave the order, and he never gave an explanation either. At the time of the accident, Haji Adib had been lost in thought, solving one of Mullah Sadra’s great philosophical propositions of Transcendent Theosophy. Because he was thinking about sitting in discussion with his friends that night, he had not noticed the horse.
Now that his thoughts had returned to the street, he noticed the people gazing at him. He also felt the burning of his left eye, reddened by the Englishman’s whip. He wanted to cover his eye with a handkerchief to stop the cold wind from causing him pain, but he could not do so in front of the people. In a loud voice he said that he would show the Englishman such retaliation that it would be written down in the stories. Filled with
determination, he started walking. The shopkeepers followed him silently, but also with determination. After ﬁve or six steps, he turned around and assured everyone that the Englishman would be whipped there and in front of them, but now it was best that they return to their work. He walked away quickly, and his anger grew deeper within him with every step.
By the time he arrived at Moshir O-Doleh’s home he was ﬂushed with rage. Moshir O-Doleh’s servant was shocked by the unannounced arrival of the guest, and in such an extraordinary state. The servant directed Adib to the parlor. There, Adib’s anger gradually turned to a confused agony over the whole situation.
The room in which Adib sat was furnished in European style. All around the room were various easy chairs and other fringed furniture. Paintings depicting scenes of Swiss mountains and European cities hung on the walls. The house had electricity, and it glowed with the light of immense crystal chandeliers. It truly belonged to someone with the name Doleh, which was a title given to those afﬁliated with the government. Haji seated himself on the edge of one of the upholstered chairs. Numbness and exhaustion overcame him as he waited.
His host ﬁnally arrived, apologized for his delay, and the two men drank tea and ate some pastries. Adib was beside himself. Though he searched for words to describe the event, he did not feel he could demean himself by complaining as the peasants did. But neither was he a warrior who could go out and claim what was his right. He explained to his host that their country and the fundamental and constitutional rights of the people were in the hands of the great men, a segment of whom were educated. If these men did not exist, then the wheels would stop turning, the peasants would grow impatient, and chaos would reign.
Moshir O-Doleh listened to him with great interest and agreed with everything he said. With a sense of degradation and humiliation, Adib continued by recounting the story of the Englishman. It was with great difﬁculty that he overcame the trembling in his hands and his voice. He was trying to say that he considered himself neither great nor important, but if he could be whipped by an Englishman, in front of enemies and friends alike – he, who carried the robe and turban of an educated man – then what would the people think? What could happen?
Moshir O-Doleh must have realized the signiﬁcance of the problem, for his anger was now as deep as Haji Adib’s. He spoke with resounding rhetoric, and in the end he promised to bring the incident to the attention of
His Majesty Mozafar O-Din Shah, and to pursue the English culprit through the British ambassador and give him his due. He added that things like this should not happen at the threshold of the twentieth century.
On his way back home, Haji Adib recounted his visit with Moshir O-Doleh to the shopkeepers in the street, emphasizing that they would soon see the results. He had calmed down by the time he arrived home at sunset.
The Englishman came the following week. The day before his arrival, European furniture was delivered to Haji Adib’s home, with no prior notice. Moshir O-Doleh’s secretary apologetically explained that Europeans were not used to sitting on the ﬂoor. And it would not be appropriate for the Haji Adib to sit on the ﬂoor with the Englishman’s head higher than his own.
He also reported that, while His Excellency Moshir O-Doleh sent his regards, he wanted to mention respectfully that the culprit was not an Englishman but a Frenchman. His Excellency had been very diligent in
trying to ﬁnd the Englishman through the British Embassy, but to no avail. Then another Englishman told him that a Frenchman had been heard reciting the story of the incident. His Excellency pursued the matter through the French Embassy, and the culprit was found. Nevertheless, the European culprit continued to be called the Englishman, even by the secretary himself.
The Englishman was coming to apologize personally to Haji Adib. In expectation of his arrival, twenty-four hours of absolute frenzy reigned in the old-fashioned house. To make things a little easier, Moshir O-Doleh sent his personal servant, who was familiar with serving Westerners, in order to make sure that no mistake would occur.
Haji Adib’s wife, Touba, and the younger children, together with the maid, Morvarid, were all seated behind the curtain that separated the living room from the salon so that they could view the Englishman. As Haji walked back and forth in the living room, he heard a knocking at the front gate. Moshir O-Doleh’s servant opened the door and directed the Englishman to the salon.
The man wore a riding suit, and the spurs on his boots made loud metallic sounds. He had blue eyes and colorless skin, and his hair was blond. Haji’s wife turned instinctively to look at Touba. She wanted to know if her daughter’s hair was lighter than the Englishman’s. Touba had been born with blond hair and was different in this respect from all her brothers and sisters. The Englishman’s hair was lighter. In fact, his hair was golden, while hers was more of a strawberry blond. The child paid no attention to these matters. She was totally absorbed in the Englishman.
The servant poured tea, then signaled for Haji to enter. Haji drew aside the curtain between the two rooms, and the Englishman stood up and bent his head slightly. He smiled and stretched his hand toward Haji. Haji shook his hand in a Western manner. Then the two men sat facing each other.
The Englishman gave a brief speech in his own language – not one word of which was comprehensible to Haji Adib, who had no alternative but to listen through to the end with a smile. The absence of a translator was deeply felt. Haji Adib assumed that the Englishman was asking his forgiveness. In response, Haji Adib uttered a few distracted sentences of understanding and forgiveness while staring at the man’s riding boots,
which somehow deﬁled the carpet. At the same time, he looked at his own bare feet. He had not thought of putting on shoes for the Englishman. He considered the Englishman’s act bold, though he had, in this very brief time, come to learn a few of their customs. He was wavering between viewing this act as a new insult or disregarding it, when suddenly the Englishman rose, took a small box out of his pocket, and stepped toward Haji to put the box in his hands. Haji Adib stared at the box with amazement and turned questioning eyes toward the Englishman. The man spoke, gesturing to Haji Adib that he should open the box. Haji Adib removed the cover and found a ring with a large diamond in it. The Englishman apparently had said that
the ring was a gift for the lady of the house, but Haji Adib, not comprehending a word, looked at it in bewilderment. The sparkling glow of the diamond caught the eyes of Haji’s wife, and she involuntarily pinched
her daughter’s back.
Haji Adib wanted to return the present. He uttered some words refusing the gift. The Englishman could not understand and merely smiled. Finally, Haji Adib also had to gesture. He put the ring to his lips and kissed it, then touched it to his forehead. In his mind, this was the way to show his gratitude. Then he stood up and put the box on the Englishman’s knees, and repeated, ‘No, no! Never! It is impossible!’ The Westerner seemed to understand some of the words. He tried to return the present to Haji Adib, but Haji Adib again adamantly refused. The man put the box in his pocket and shrugged his shoulders. It was time to go. He stood up, spoke a few words, bent his head slightly. They shook hands again, and the Englishman departed.
The shopkeepers had gathered around the arched entry where the Englishman had tethered his horse. They watched him bend his head to avoid hitting the door frame as he exited, and their eyes followed him as he calmly led the horse away from Haji’s undistinguished house. The people whispered among themselves as the Englishman calmly mounted his horse and rode away at a walk, disappearing at the end of the alley.
The next couple of hours at Haji Adib’s home were spent entertaining the neighborhood and recounting details of the visit. The part about the diamond and Haji Adib’s rejection of it was very well received. However, that night Haji Adib’s wife nagged at him. She could not forget the glow of the diamond. Haji Adib, who never shouted, now screamed. How could he possibly accept a gift from someone who had lashed him with a riding whip? But the woman sulked, and a week passed before husband and wife spoke to each other again.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersintranslation/makingtheworldlegible/toubaandthemeaningofnight-shahrnushparsipur/