Kids playing gol-coochik. Photo by Emad Mirsaeidi
We were a foursome, totally inseparable
By A. Hamshahri
June 2, 1999
I was in 10th grade at Rudaki High School. I was the youngest in our
class, having earlier jumped three grades in one year. There were 50 kids
to one class with each four assigned to one bench. I shared the third-row
bench with Amir Bagheri, Hassan Yazdan, and Akbar Namin. We all lived in
the same street; totally inseparable, living life to the full and not missing
on a single mischief. Come to think of it we were a complete nuisance to
anyone unfortunate enough to tread our paths.
After school, we played gol-koochik until sundown. After dusk, it was
alak-dolak in the dimly lit streets of south of Tehran. Alak-dolak was
easy to set up; all we needed was willing participants (which we had plenty
of), one walnut stone-hammer handle (alak), a smaller piece of the same
(dolak), and two bricks. The players were split into two teams. Winners
from the previous night would start to bat. This was the instant when actual
WAR began -- a war of such huge proportions that a loss would have been
simply unbearable. We would sacrifice anything imaginable to win. Every
player of the batting team had an unlimited number of swings, until he
was nullified (by the catch of the dolak by the opposing team). But in
the meantime and while the dolak wasn't caught, the batters will move along
and go forward for the entire length of the pitch. Consider that!
There were often six players to each team. The distances covered were
huge, sometimes in excess of several kilometers. Often the games would
spill over to the next night. This would go on until the last batter was
caught. That was payback time for the catchers. One by one and sequentially
the catchers would do their damnedest to cover the rolling pitch while
screaming in one breath: "alakam, dolakam, charkh-o falakam; Ali migeh:
zooooooh..." When finally one could no longer continue his battle
cry, the next catcher took over.
This went on until the last catcher was back to the original starting
point. When (more often it wasn't a question of IF) the starting point
was not reached, each catcher had to carry his opposite number on his back,
uninterrupted, back to the starting point. If any of the catchers reneged,
the punishment was simply unacceptable. It consisted of a barrage of the
most obscene insults to all the female family members. Any self-respecting
person would suffer the pain of death to complete the distance, either
in a yell-for-hell sprint or an excruciating donkey-ride.
Of course there many would renege on their payback dues and suffered
consequences beyond our childhood imagination. But alas not our foursome,
and particularly not Hassan and Akbar. We would not only go through hell
and back to complete our distance, but Hassan and Akbar would also shoulder
other people's dues to keep preserve our dignity.
One autumn night, when we were on the losing side and naturally several
kilometers from the staring post, we came across this group of young men
huddled around a pocket radio listening to Ataollah Behmanesh commenting
on the Iran-Israel soccer game. They were panic-stricken while praying
for the final whistle, as the Iranian goal came under wave upon wave of
attacks defending a 2-1 lead. We were all screaming for the end of the
game. Finally, Parviz Qelich-Khani's magnificent goal was enough to seal
one of Team Melli's greatest victories. When the dust settled, we noticed
several of our alak-dolak teammates had deserted us. We were left with
no option but to cover the whole distance.
I took the first leg, trying to inhale sufficient amounts of that autumn
night air to last me a long distance. I tried my best but was only able
to cover no more than half a kilometer. Amir did not do much better. Akbar
was a smart kid; I reckon he must have cheated, as he covered an unbelievable
distance, close to a kilometer in one breath. Hassan was physically stronger
and very fit, but this was too much even for him. He must have run the
best part of two kilometers. He was so pumped up by that victory, that
none of us managed to keep up with him.
When everyone eventually gathered at the starting point, there were
lots of arguments and finer pointing. But looking at Hassan's determined
face none of our opponents took it any further, as they probably didn't
want to go home and justify to their parents why they had a bloody nose.
From that night on, we never ended up on the loosing side, and in the process
managed to formulate (to my eternal shame) some of the most colorful language
ever heard in the streets of south of Tehran.
Recently I tried to touch base with my childhood friends. Amir gave
me a distant look from behind his sewing counter with his glasses resting
perilously on the tip of his nose. He pressed hard on the foot pedal to
finish the shirt he had promised to deliver two weeks ago. And I silently
drank the tea he had offered and looked into his aged face. I tried to
find traces of that long gone friend. I found nothing. His eyes were too
expression-less to gauge what he was thinking. One thing was clear: he
had to finish that shirt before the day was out. So I left him, knowing
full well that was probably the last time I would see him.
Akbar was sitting on the edge of the joob, with his head deep into his
chest, when I eventually managed to find him. Drug abuse had reduced this
once handsome boy to a pathetic shadow of himself. His genuine, fun-loving
eyes had turned lifeless and aimless. Looking into his eyes, for a split
flash of a second I saw a glimmer of hope induced by memories. But soon
the darting eyes shattered my illusion and brought back the flood of reality.
I found myself gazing into the trickle of dirty water in that filthy joob.
Quietly I got up and left. The friend who had helped me find him said,
"You must be the first person he has not tried to extract some money
out of." I thought to myself it is every man's right to cling on to
some aspect of integrity.
I already knew Hassan was missing in action, and given up for dead.
He was the only child of the family. Having searched every nook and cranny
of Iran, his father gave up and died five years ago, broken hearted. His
mother constantly chatters with herself and is often seen pasting up and
down our old street, always clad in a thick black chador. I went around
to pay her a visit. She had a big black and white portrait of Hassan in
his khakis placed on the mantelpiece. It had a small aluminum plaque, with
his name and number, no bigger than a matchbox collaring the lower part
of the portrait frame with a black ribbon. Finally, Hassan was officially
pronounced a martyr in the war. Although nothing was found of him, his
mother seemed to have come to terms with the situation and reconciled herself
with the unacceptable reality. Hassan was a dear friend to me. As a child
I always thought of him as a hero. As a man I still do.
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