Feudal lines

From Morteza Baharloo's novel, The Quince Seed Potion (Bridge Works, 2004 ). Baharloo was born in Darab in Fars Province, southern Iran. He whiled an eccentric childhood with Turkish as his mother tongue, unable to speak Persian until the first grade. This early language barrier was Mort's first experience as an anachronism. On a late summer day in 1978 — filled with demonstrations and protests, the eve of the resignation of the Premier and two days after extremists burned nearly 400 people alive in the Cinema Rex of Abadan — Mort left for Utah. Listen to his March 2005 interview on San Francisco's NPR affiliate station KALW. Visit his site MortezaBaharloo.com.

The household cock crowed, heralding the exact moment darkness surrendered to dawn, just as two tiny limbs emerged from the laboring woman's dark orifice. The half-somnolent state of Fatima, the Bald Doula, shattered. “I see them!” she yelled. “I see them! I see them!” she repeated, as if competing with the noisy cock.

The collective shouting of the female spectators blended with the painful cries of the woman now deep in labor and the clamor of the curious preadolescent girls observing their own procreative destinies.

As the neighboring cocks crowed in concert, the doula turned her attention from the spectators in the cramped room to the laboring woman. What she saw terrified her. Two miniature feet lurked at the edge of the orifice as if reluctantly contemplating exodus from the mother's womb. The doula cursed the infant for not following the normal instinctual birth, while gently manipulating its feet back into the womb and rotating the slippery creature. She raised her face toward the ceiling to plead for success.

“There is no God but Allah!” she shouted. Fatima's midwifery services would not be generously compensated if she delivered a dead child or if the mother died in labor. As a pious woman, she knew that the fate of both mother and fetus rested in God's hands, not her own. As such, she found the customary methods of payment unfair. Focusing on the financial incentives, she increased her vigor and administered her skills as best she could to save the infant and its mother, as well as her fee.

“Bring me the mortar and pestle and an onion. Boil some water now, you lazy girls! Tell a Muslim man to grab a young hen and bring it to me. Now, I said! Now!”

The doula's efforts to rotate the infant proved effective, and he soon entered the world headfirst, his eyes open in an expression of shock, as if destiny were asking him enigmatic questions concerning the creator and the created. As Fatima held the infant aloft, she realized he was not breathing: there was no movement of his neonatal chest and certainly no sign of the universal complaint that most infants make upon entering the world.

The doula grabbed the onion from a pregnant woman who was watching the whole scene with fear and apprehension. In the pewter mortar, Fatima crushed the onion hurriedly with its matching pestle and then rubbed a generous dose of the crushed onions on the newborn's microscopic nostrils. Weakly, the infant began crying.

Next, the doula fetched a small opaque jar of lanolin from her satchel, turned the infant on his stomach, and lubricated his rectum. She then grabbed a struggling hen just delivered by a preadolescent boy. As the hen fluttered to escape her iron grip, Fatima dipped the bird's beak into the jar and rubbed the lanolin around the beak rapidly but thoroughly. Holding the hen's head in her strong clutches, she inserted the lubricated beaks into the infant's rectum.

The doula's desire for monetary compensation was directly proportional to her vigor in pushing on the hen, whose beak was no longer visible. She willed the hen to arouse the desired response from the child by fighting futilely, ultimately forcing the exhalation of its air into the infant's lungs via his rectum. When the hen could no longer inhale air, it would reach the point of asphyxiation.

As the doula and the other women watched, the infant began to pant, a miraculous case of beak-to-rectum resuscitation, or perhaps a case of infantile perseverance, which resulted in the infant's survival and the hen's demise.

“It's a boy!” the women and the girls shouted as soon as the doula allowed them to observe the infant's genitals. The women's ecstatic screams masked the newborn's cries. Fatima immediately thought, I can finally buy that head scarf, the gauzy one. I delivered a live boy! The male infant would bring her a good bonus.

“Take him outside for some of God's air!” she commanded one of the preadolescent girls. The girl obediently took the slippery, onion-scented creature to the porch and laid him on a blanket.

The mother's sudden and intense hemorrhaging interrupted the doula's palpable relief. The pregnant woman who had brought the onion and three other women came to her rescue, but after an exhaustive effort, the doula announced, “She has entered the gate of heaven! May Allah's mercy and compassion be upon her! She has wasted away. She is gone, you miserable women! Cry, you mourners! Weep for the death of this woman!”

“I want to speak to her sister or mother,” Fatima demanded authoritatively.

The pregnant woman replied, “Her mother is dead and her sister didn't show. I'm Kokab, her husband's brother's wife.” Her own fear of coincidental death in labor became more noticeable, but the woman managed to conceal her jealousy at the birth of a male infant into her brother-in-law's family.

“Who's her husband?” the doula demanded.

“Zolfali!” another female voice shouted.

“Zolfali, the Bli–” Fatima did a lingual incision on the word “blind” and swallowed the latter half. She must not show disrespect to the person who would compensate her by calling him “Zolfali, the Blind Licker.” After all, her name was likewise marred by anatomical problems. The locals called her “Fatima, the Bald Doula,” a condition she suffered due to a dermatological disease. As she washed the infant in a pewter pan and poured water over him from a long-spouted ewer, she made a concentrated effort to weep. Fatima was uncertain of her fee now that one of her two patients had not survived.

The dead mother lay on the mattress covered in blood and difficult-to-classify secretions. Her long, black hair protruded from beneath her gauzy, white head scarf. Tendrils of hair wreathed her head like deadly serpents.

“Send after the young dead bride's husband!” the doula commanded, trying to render the event more tragic by referring to the dead woman as a young bride. She had no cause to worry. Zolfali, the Blind Licker, ultimately paid the doula a fee equivalent to delivering a male infant, after discounting an arbitrary sum for the postpartum death of his wife. The doula, overjoyed at earning enough to purchase her gauzy head scarf, departed from the house of mourners in the village of Madavan outside the township of Kamab, Iran, three hundred kilometers from the Fars provincial capital of Shiraz, on the tenth day of Teer, July 2, 1928.

Due to the father's ambivalence in naming his son, Barat-Ali, Zolfali's brother, resorted to ridicule by naming the infant Sarv-e-ali, after the tall cypress tree of Ali, the first imam in Shiite Islam. Unfortunately Sarveali was an exceptionally small infant and became known instead as “Sarveali, the son of Zolfali, the Blind Licker.” Zolfali, although unsighted, could lick his own forehead. His tongue could eject, as he put it, like a monkey's penis, pink and fleshy, and ascend to his forehead. Depending on an individual's anatomical, physiological, vocational, sexual, or criminal idiosyncrasies in rural areas during that era, one might easily be called “Ruhullah, the Bushy Eye-Browed Youth Killer,” “Mustafa, the Epileptic,” or even “Hassan, the Mare Mounter.” Only in the mid-1930s did it become mandatory for citizens of Iran to choose a proper surname.

Alas, Zolfali died when the child was two years old. His maternal aunt and her husband, a shepherd, raised Sarveali as their own. One morning in the late spring of 1934, when Sarveali was about to turn six, his paternal uncle, Barat-Ali, the same relative who had named him, arrived at the shepherd's house. He said he had come to repossess Zolfali's herd of goats and sheep that Sarveali's aunt had claimed after her brother-in-law's death. Barat-Ali stated that he, a male blood relative, should become the boy's guardian.

Upon hearing this explanation, the maternal aunt shouted and pointed toward the open-air barn where the herd was kept: “So now that we've had the boy for five years, you've come to take him and his herd.” Barat-Ali did not reply to the woman. Instead, he thought to himself, Look at that herd! There must be a hundred in there!

Barat-Ali's rogue nature and intractable greed were well-known. “Boy,” he demanded to Sarveali, “go get your stuff ready and come with me… come with me and the herd. I'm your uncle, your father's brother, Mr. Barat-Ali.” Sarveali began to cry, instinctively understanding the worst.

“Don't cry, dear nephew. I'll take care of you from now on. Go and pack up!” Barat-Ali said. He smiled as he stole another glimpse of his new herd.

As soon as he, the little boy, and the herd left the gate of Nasravan, Barat-Ali began to spout orders at Sarveali. Away they went to Madavan, the village where Sarveali had been born.

“What kind of shepherd are you?” Barat-Ali ranted as the animals ran this way and that. “Can't you handle a few kids and lambs?”

Sarveali started crying again, but Barat-Ali had no intention of comforting the child. In the midst of his sadness, Sarveali was relieved that his mini-herd had come with him. En route to Madavan, Sarveali focused his attention on a young, pearly white goat, his favorite since birth. He watched the goat as it walked by a cluster of wild red anemones that had grown out of a mass of cow dung. As soon as Sarveali admired the flowers, his uncle, who was walking ahead of him, crushed them under his feet.

Barat-Ali's greed was defined by his name, which meant “promissory note bestowed by Imam Ali.” His own father gave him his name at birth in an effort to encourage kismet to bequeath prosperity on the family. Barat-Ali had spent his entire life, according to his own proud confessions, attempting to gain prosperity by means of theft, deceit, extortion, and other charlatan acts. In this same rogue manner, Barat-Ali successfully gained guardianship of his nephew. Sarveali, in essence, was to become his uncle's “barat,” a means of bringing him prosperity through the herd of sheep as well as any future wages the boy might earn.

* * *

As soon as the jingling of bells and the baaing and bleating of the herd sounded in Madavan, Barat-Ali's family appeared to welcome their leader, returning successfully.

“Get me some food, woman! I brought this whole herd all by myself.” He managed to force the herd into an open-air pen at the back of the house, while his wife, the same pregnant Aunt Kokab who had witnessed Sarveali's birth, rushed to serve her husband. “Gholi, hey, Gholi, here's the boy, ummm… I mean your cousin,” Barat-Ali said.

Following behind his uncle, Sarveali saw the woman his uncle had addressed. Kokab returned Sarveali's smile without a smile, not even a sham one. Sarveali then observed a fat boy close to his age, eating a flat loaf of bread rolled into a tubular shape. The first words the boy spoke to Sarveali were “I'm Gholi. Your baba is dead; mine is alive — hee hee.” A hot tear ran down Sarveali's cheek, but before his sobs could develop into full-blown weeping, the entire family started at the screech of another child.

“Shut up, Yazgulu!” Kokab yelled as she turned toward a swinging hammock on the front porch. She walked toward the little girl and picked her up. The child's light henna hair and huge blue eyes terrified Sarveali. He had never seen a child with eye color that wasn't brown. He decided to minimize contact with this cousin, imagining she was a djinn.

>>> Available from Amazon.com: Baharloo's The Quince Seed Potion
>>> Visit MortezaBaharloo.com

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