Touba and the Meaning of Night


The sky was crazy. Rain had been falling for three days, bringing an end to the seven years of drought that had caused the pool in the middle of the front yard to be covered with dried scum. Touba took the opportunity to scrub away the old scum with a broom. So that she could continue her work, she emptied the water bucket by buck-et onto the ground beside the pool. The earth no longer had to remain a slave to its dream for water.

Haji Mostafa’s two wives were staring out of the window toward the pool at the eighteen-year-old divorcée, who was so engrossed in her task that had it not been pouring rain, she would have poured with sweat instead. The younger wife, naïve and childlike, was tempted to join Touba in washing out the pool. The older woman, more shrewd and cunning, was gripped by the fearful thought of what would happen should Haji Mostafa suddenly arrive home and see the half-naked woman in the courtyard pool. She opened wide the window and called out to Touba. Touba stopped her work and turned to face her. The older woman told her that it wasn’t right to be washing out the pool like this, half-naked. What if a man showed up—if Haji himself arrived, or even someone else.

Touba pursed her lips and went back to work. But she had lost interest. She paused and looked around. The pool had been cleaned as well as it could be. Nothing else could be done. With a bowl, she collected the remainder of the pool water into her bucket. With broom, bucket, and bowl in hand, she lifted herself out of the pool and stood on the edge to let the rain wash her feet. Walking toward her room, she was aware that the women were still gaping at her.

She shut the door and pulled the curtain to escape the curious gaze of Haji Mostafa’s wives. She took off her underwear and real-ized that her body was covered with mud and scum. She prepared her bathhouse supplies and dressed herself, putting on her long black chador and face cover. With her bundle under her arm, she locked the door to her room and headed toward the house gate. Haji Mostafa’s two wives rushed to the window again, and the older woman asked Touba where she was going. Touba replied that she was headed for the bathhouse and that when Zahra returned she was to follow Touba there. Haji’s older wife wanted to say something, because she had orders from her husband—but she did not dare. As she left the house, Touba thought that she would no doubt have to ask these tiresome tenants to leave.

The rain pattered on, light but persistent. By the time Touba reached the bathhouse, it was dripping from the edges of her black chador. Touba was neither saddened nor disappointed by the rain. From the first day it appeared, the rain had brought happiness, just as, during the four arduous years of her unhappy married life, each dry day had brought the continuing accusation that she was respon-sible for the drought. Her husband, Haji Mahmud, had received a vision telling him that there was a connection between the drought and her presence in his house. In the beginning, Touba could not comprehend the significance of this accusation. She was not used to thinking of herself as a damned being.

When Touba was nine, her father, Haji Adib, had returned from Mecca and told his daughter that he had stood under the golden waterspout of God’s house and prayed for her life to be as long as Noah’s. Her father was a tall man with penetrating, pensive eyes, a man as great as the world, and the memory of him was dear to her. In addition to the title of Haji, which he acquired because of his pil-grimage to Mecca, he was also titled Adib because of his knowledge. Touba knew this from the day that she had first been able to distin-guish her right hand from her left. Touba’s mother, who was an illit-erate woman, had often told her and others that their benefactor “is an Adib, and that means a greatly educated person.”

She was no more than six or seven years old when the English-man 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 Eng-lishman 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, red-dened 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 writ-ten down in the stories. Filled with determination, he started walk-ing. The shopkeepers followed him silently, but also with determi-nation. After five or six steps, he turned around and assured every-one 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 unan-nounced 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 uphol-stered 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 funda-mental 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 humilia-tion, 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 nei-ther great nor important, but if he could be whipped by an English-man, 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 prob-lem, 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 inci-dent 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 Eng-lishman’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 separat-ed the living room from the salon so that they could view the Eng-lishman. 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 English-man’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 Eng-lishman 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 Eng-lishman 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 fol-lowed him as he calmly led the horse away from Haji’s undistin-guished house. The people whispered among themselves as the Eng-lishman calmly mounted his horse and rode away at a walk, disap-pearing at the end of the alley.

The next couple of hours at Haji Adib’s home were spent enter-taining 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.

For a few months after this incident, there was a great deal of coming and going. Haji Adib was invited many times to the homes of Moshir O-Doleh and other important people. It seemed that elite society wished to spread its protective umbrella over the head of a man who was a distinguished retainer of the old sciences. At the same time, through these gatherings, Haji Adib came into contact with the new sciences. He had known, of course, that the earth was round, but when he saw the large globe at Moshir O-Doleh’s home for the first time, he was shaken. Haji Adib was introduced to the story of Christopher Columbus and other discoverers. Moshir O-Doleh explained to him how everything had been turned upside down and the state of things was growing worse, proclaiming it was now a fact that one needed to adapt to Western ways, or else become subservient to Westerners.

Soon the excitement of all the socializing died down. Haji was not cut out for these comings and goings, and his limited income was also a consideration. Once more, he returned to the privacy of his own home and to the chests that contained his books. Gradually the episode of the Englishman settled into the deeper parts of his being. His ever-present thirst for learning about the mystic Mullah Sadra had abated. In fact, it had been a long time since he had thought of him. In the afternoons, dressed in his cape, he walked back and forth in his courtyard and thought instead of the roundness of the earth. What most excited him was not Columbus’s voyage, but the idea that because of the earth’s roundness, there would suddenly appear an Englishman at his house and he would have to furnish his home in Western furniture and hang Western-style paintings on the walls. All of this because the earth was round. At Moshir O-Doleh’s home he had also met Western-oriented Iranian gentlemen. Though he could deny neither their existence nor the fact that they were growing in number every day, he did not like them.

The question about the shape of the earth continued to weigh on his mind. Everyone now knew that the earth was round. But the sky—well, perhaps it was four-cornered? No. It couldn’t be four-cornered; the sky was also round, as every schoolchild knew. The sky was round, so below the earth there was also blue sky, as blue as the sky above. But if that were true, the sewer wells dug on this side of the earth could open up on the other side facing the sky. And the bodies of the dead were not actually buried in the earth, but only suspended in a heap of dust and stone. And the whole planet, the earth, turned under a motionless sky. Who knows? Perhaps it was not motionless after all.

During his years at the seminary school, as a teenager, Haji Adib had believed that the sky was the husband of the earth. Haji loved the sleeping lady earth, especially in autumn and winter. In the win-ter, when snow covered everything, he thought of the sleeping lady earth who cradled wakefulness in her sinews until the sudden trem-ble of thunder and rain in the spring. In autumn—which was the spring of the mystics, according to his father—he would go on long walks to hold communion with the clean, quiet, and motionless lady. Without knowing it, he was in love with the earth. He had a feeling of support for her, even though he knew that in the end it would be this same earth’s job to take him into her, to disintegrate and to digest him. Still, in his mind Haji supported the earth. His hidden excitement would reach its peak when, in his games of fanta-sy, he imagined himself higher and grander than the lady earth. There could be no doubt that the eternally motionless lady, half asleep and half awake, needed infinite protection. And yet, how could the lady who was so large, so very large that she was perhaps infinite—how could she have a protector? A grander thing could not be conceived. The bittersweet sadness that filled him at the discov-ery of his own smallness seemed odd even to him. In those days there had been a vague rumor about the roundness and finiteness of the earth, but his loving feelings for her prevented the young man from believing it. Perhaps this was the reason he had not learned the new sciences. And since he did not discuss these matters with any-one, he was naturally categorized among the scholars of the old school. Coming home from school every day and passing the cellar rooms of his parental home, he could hear the women of the family talking, continuously and relentlessly, as they wove their carpets. The sound of their shuttle combs on the looms created a delicate rhythm that accorded with the laws of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Haji was also the protector of these women. There was no grandeur here to frighten him. He thought, “We have our own four walls.” And even in the near-infinite grandeur of the lady earth, he felt that his four walls had a place of their own. His parental court-yard had rectangular garden patches and an octagonal pool in the middle. Deep in his mind, he felt that he stood at the center, where the pivot held the wheel, turning the sky dome unceasingly.