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Kids playing gol-coochik. Photo by Emad Mirsaeidi

We were a foursome, totally inseparable

By A. Hamshahri
June 2, 1999
The Iranian

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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