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Shahrnush Parsipur's novel reveals ongoing tension between rationalism and mysticism, tradition and modernity, male and female, East and West



September 20, 2006

Excerpt from Touba and the Meaning of Night (2006, The Feminist Press) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof. From a distinctly Iranian perspective, Touba reveals ongoing tension between rationalism and mysticism, tradition and modernity, male and female, East and West. Speaking in an idiom unique to its author and indicative of a new tradition in Persian women’s writing, the epic also defies Western stereotypes of Iranian Women and Western expectations of Iranian literary form.

Touba and the Meaning of Night, p. 8-14:

During his years at the seminary school, as a teenager and shortly after puberty, Haji Adib had believed that the sky was the husband of the earth. Haji loved the sleeping lady earth in autumn and winter. In the winter, when snow covered everything, he thought of the sleeping lady earth who cradled wakefulness in her sinews until the sudden tremble 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 fantasy, 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 discovery 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 anyone, he was naturally categorized among the scholars of the old school. Coming home from school every day and passing the basement 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 courtyard 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 housed the wheel, turning the sky dome without cessation.

He remembered the chaos of war in the city of Herat, and the flood of deserters, the hunger, and the inflated food prices. He remembered how he had thought that if only he could spread his body on the earth so it would cover these four walls, if only he could for one second take her with love and aggressiveness, then all wars would end. People would become calm. They would look after their own business, and there would never be famine. And after that loving domination, he would have only to give orders, and the lady would submit. She might give birth, she might not; she might bear fruit, she might not. Whether the sky poured rain or not, everything would be at his command.

When his father died after a long illness, he was left with the responsibility for the many women in the family, those who did their weaving in the basement of the house. They were from the city of Kashan, where weaving was a tradition. His brothers were all in the carpet business, but he had turned to the sciences. Every time he entered the house and announced his arrival by invoking the name of God, the women would run to different corners to cover their hair. Haji enjoyed their imposed silence when he was there, and, without knowing how or why, he cared for their affairs. He would arrange for the girls' marriages and find wives for their sons. In order to take care of everyone's needs he spent his own youth without a wife. Unknowingly, he had married the lady earth. And though he did not confess it, he feared her. He was afraid of her chaotic laws and her famines. At the age of fifty when he finally married his illiterate wife, he actually enjoyed her ignorance and simplicity. A single sharp glance was enough to put the woman in her place, and the turning wheel of life's activity continued.

After the incident of the Englishman, having paced the yard of his home for many long days, Haji Adib finally came to the conclusion that women do eventually lose their innocence. In fact, the lady was never asleep, nor even half asleep. Rather, she was always awake and spinning in frenzy. It was just this turning that caused the seasons to follow one another, floods to occur, and droughts to descend. The rhythmic sound of the shuttle comb on the loom now implied something different. Haji Adib thought about the women, "They can think." Something had been shaken in him again, just as the first time he had seen the globe. Haji Adib thought, "Very well, you know that the earth is round, you knew it very well. But then why so much anxiety?" This knowledge threw him rapidly into depths of thought. In his studies he had read that some of the Greek philosophers had hypothesized the roundness of the earth. He knew that the scientists of the east also had knowledge of this fact. At least, a few of them knew it. Then Galileo had come and proven it. Haji Adib knew all of this, yet he wanted to continue believing in the squareness of the earth.

He sat on the edge of the octagonal pool and leaned his head on his left arm. He needed to understand why he wanted the earth to remain square. Impatiently, he wanted to throw aside any thought of the sleeping lady earth. But the thought would not leave him, spinning in the sphere of his mind.... Who was it who said that slaves were merely tools that spoke? Haji Adib had at last found a thought to keep him from dwelling on the sleeping lady of the earth. Who said it? Perhaps it was a Roman. He raised his eyebrows, but it would not come to him. He could not remember.

Who was it who had said, "Let us shut the books and return to the school of nature?" Again, his memory failed him. What had been the use of all his reading, he thought.

On the ground, ants were coming and going in a straight line. Haji Adib placed his index finger in the way of one of the ants. The ant stopped, shook his antennae, then climbed up his finger. Now that the earth was round, everything took on a different meaning. The ant walked aimlessly up and down Haji Adib's finger. Without doubt, Rumi had been right: Nature progressed, ascended, and was always becoming. But did an ant think? Perhaps it had some kind of thought process. Not everything could be Haji Adib's sole possession, particularly thought.

He put his finger back on the ground and the ant climbed down and joined the line of its friends. It seemed as though the ant was telling them something. Every once in a while it would stop in front of one of the other ants and move its antennae in response to the other one's, and then they parted quickly. Haji smiled. Possibly they were informing each other about a pink moving wall. The ant did not have an image of Haji Adib, even if it could think. But somehow, fearfully, it understood him.

Haji Adib went to look at the small hill the ants had made. He thought, "What about dust? Does dust think?" For the earth turned, and everything on it turned with it. And each individual, minute item was capable of thought, and also rotated, just as the larger principle did, the earth itself. Even a tree was therefore a whole, and would have its own kind of treelike thought process. And its parts, perhaps each in its own wholeness, would think separately, so that the parts which formed the roots and descended into the depths of the earth had the tendency to grow downward, and the parts that were branches had the desire to ascend, parts and whole alike.

Haji Adib knew he did not have to worry about the thought process of dust particles. Some of the laws of this rotating living being were clear. If at the end of February one planted the proper seeds, by mid-spring one would have a garden full of colored pansies. Pansies also had their own thought, and so did water and dust. All together, they created an exhilarating combination. He thought, to possess this much knowledge was enough for now.

Haji Adib thought, "I am old." His heart sank. There was not much time left to spend on the subject of becoming and metamorphosis, or the spirit of dust in part and whole, or to contemplate the trees as a whole or the minute parts making up the whole. He thought that probably each in its own minute society had a few Haji Adibs and Moshir O'Dolehs and Englishmen who fought each other. He laughed and imagined that probably Asdolah their local butcher chopped their meat for them. And then he laughed loudly again.

Suddenly the rhythmic sound of the shuttle comb stopped in the basement. Haji Adib could no longer hear the soft conversations of the women. The sun had not yet reached the middle of the sky. Haji Adib still sat on the edge of the octagonal pool, his fist under his chin. He turned his head around and, through the sharp angle that formed between his head and his arm, looked in the direction of the basement. The women had gathered by the basement window staring in his direction and were whispering. He had a feeling that they were talking about him. He remembered that just a few seconds ago he had laughed, loud and without inhibition, in a manner that was not appropriate to his position, and that the women had never seen such behavior in him. As he slowly tapped his foot on the ground, he thought, "They think. Unfortunately, they think. Not like the ants nor like the minute parts of the tree, nor like the particles of dust, but more or less as I do." But, he was certain that they would never have thoughts about Mullah Sadra.

Suddenly he was shaken again, for of course they could think about Mullah Sadra as well. Had that not been the case with that rebellious and audacious woman who lived in their town when he was a child, who created all that uproar and sensation? People said that she was a prostitute, but they also said that she was learned. How much talking there was about her! He remembered someone telling his father that she was the messiah. The women were laughing behind the basement window. Haji thought disparagingly that they were behaving with typical women's foolishness. One pushed and the others burst out laughing; one was tickled while the other tried to get away. If there had not been a man in the house, their laughter would probably have been heard all over. Undoubtedly some of them were going crazy for not having a husband, but it was not possible to find husbands for them. They were dependent on Haji Adib, and there was not a man available at the moment who was rich enough to take one of them. Besides, if they did get married who would then weave the carpets? For that, he couldn't bring strange women into the house. They might then participate in some perverse activities with one another.   

Haji Adib pressed his lips together in anger. He decided, "Yes, the earth is round. Women think. And soon they shall have no shame." A small cloud covered the sun, a gust picked some dust and twigs off the ground. "That is the way it is. As soon as they discover they are able to think, they shall raise dust. The poet Hafez of Shiraz was right, 'This witch was the bride of a thousand grooms.'" He suddenly realized why the earth had to be square, why it had been considered unmoving, and why every man had the right to build a fence around his land. If they left this prostitute to her own devices, she would constantly spin around and throw everyone off balance. Everything would then be chaos.

With a sharp, aggressive gesture, Haji Adib turned toward the basement. The women's murmuring suddenly stopped. He heard their footsteps as they returned to their weaving looms. The clouds had moved away from the sun. Haji felt angry and humiliated. Most of all, he felt afraid. He felt the day would soon come when the Englishman would appear, and tell his own version of the story, just as he shamelessly brought a diamond ring for the lady of the house, his wife. How dared he?

Suddenly, Haji Adib stopped his pacing. He turned and looked at his daughter who had sat by the side of the pool and was attracting the fish by splashing the water with her fingers. Her curly golden hair, uncombed and disheveled, glowed in the sun. It shone like a rainbow. It was necessary that Haji Adib tell his daughter everything before the Englishmen did. His wife could no longer be educated. Then, even if the Englishmen did tell her their own version, it would not have the same effect. His daughter, with all her intelligence and her clever questions, needed to know.

Haji Adib called Touba to him. The little girl ran toward her father. In the room, they sat across from each other and Haji Adib explained to her that from this very day forward she must begin her education. They would begin with the Koran and the alphabet and read Sadi's Rose Garden. The first sentence that the girl learned remained in her memory forever: "Touba is a tree in paradise." Comment      

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