Sadegh Sedaghat (or Johnny Simple) is a schoolboy in Iran in the 1980s. Each year, he has to write an essay called ‘Define Spring’. Translated by Peyvand Khorsandi.
Define spring Spring is when we are asked to write boring essays about spring. Every year it’s the same thing. This year, like every year, that’s what we’ll do. Spring. Spring. Spring. It’s a national tradition. My mum and dad used to do the same thing when they were my age and my grandparents, well, they didn’t go to school. In fact, if some of the stories my granddad tells me are true, they didn’t even have shelter. Dad says he exaggerates. How can you write about spring when you don’t know what spring is? I mean, if you can’t read and write it just comes and goes doesn’t it. I wonder what the sheep think. They must celebrate spring too — that’s one thing we Iranians do. Spring, the equinox, is when our New Year is. Sensible really, not bang in the middle of winter when everyone’s depressed. Not quite sure what equinox means. My brother says it’s a disco in London. Anyway, here’s spring, defined by yours truly Sadegh Sedaghat.
In spring the blossoms set in. And our replacement teacher settles in while the other, who has been taken away for correction, is happy not to be on death row, although it is not in rows but clumps that they kill our most thoughtful. One spring we have in Iran is called the Spring of Freedom. That’s when the government shuts newspapers and magazines and gags the people who write for them. Even the agony aunt is taken to prison where she is shown the real meaning of that word. In spring batons grow by brooks. The birds sit on branches wearing turbans, and beards, counting worry beads. But it is not they who should be worried. Trees shimmer with brilliance as they sway. They tie the Kurds to them and spray them with bullets.
Spring is a pretty season. Nature’s lap fills with daffodils and the chador it wears bears daisies. Its truncheon — nature does have a truncheon — sprouts buds in spring. It’s a bourgeois season. Flowers are everywhere. Their smell gets people drunk. Then they go to the Revolutionary Committee, where they are flogged. Last year, when I was thirteen, we went to Aliabad in spring. We went there to see my auntie — mum, dad, brother, sister, and me. She wasn’t in. At the Committee, a smelly looking beardy told us they’d got her. They said she was with the Savak once — you know the Savak, the shah’s secret police. Hardly a secret though, everyone knew of them and their crimes. Auntie gave up her necklace and bracelets to the chief of the Committee. He was very happy and forgot the charges. Probably he forgot what the Savak was too. But my auntie wasn’t happy. I felt she might cry. Sadegh, she said, I want you to grow up and be a knife-wielding thug. Then you can be the chief of the Committee and bring me back my gold.
In spring you fall in love with the neighbour’s daughter. She’s as beautiful as a poem. You see her on her balcony reading a new verse every day. Until, that is, the Foundation for the Poor steps in and throws them out. All their belongings, furniture, even their dog. And the girl next-door you never see again. Instead the head of the Foundation sits reading his religious pamphlet. We can therefore conclude: the groom with bad luck finds his bride is a man. So much for my essay on the meaning of spring. So what is it? I don’t know. Here’s line of poetry:
We unbolted our door to welcome spring,
But it saw the looks on our faces and bolted.
Define spring — again As my original essay on spring is now illegible, ill-informed and illegal, it is time to write a new one. And the thought of this makes me ill. In spring nature is born again and sent to the front line where it steps on a landmine. Spring is an Islamic season. Everywhere is green. Except, that is, my father’s bum, which goes purple after being whipped.
Buds appear on branches in spring, and the revolutionary guards use them for target practice. Nightingale chirrups that once bounced down the street turn into whining sermons, winding down it like serpents.
These you might expect up a minaret, but not a tree. Crows squawk. Blossoms blacken. And the rosebush in our garden, which usually bursts with red around this time of year, is afraid to.
We were in Kurdistan twelve months ago. Everyone was being bombed and shot at. They arrested my family and tested us for traces of Kurdish, and because none of us spoke any they let us go. We can therefore conclude: wise is he who knows he knows not.
In our neighbourhood there is a mullah who says spring is the season of bonking. He encourages sigheh, the temporary marriage, so people can bonk. He splashes on rosewater and goes out to pull — literally. Luckily the woman he grabs for smacks him. But she ends up going for coffee with a local jack-the-lad who helps her. As the poet says:
A stupid friend will set up your demise,
but take you for a date if he were wise.
Spring is a good time to loot your country’s ancient ruins. Last year I went to the National Museum of Iran with my dad. There was a giant stone griffin, from the days before Islam. “Ya Ali!” a few mullahs and revolutionary guards shouted. “Ali! Ali!” they said, hoping the Shia Imam would give them a hand. My dad asked what was going on. “Off for repairs,” said one. When we went back this year, the griffin wasn’t there. There had been no repairs. But my brother said, “Don’t worry. They will build us new ancient ruins next year.”
Last year I wrote a poem that I can’t remember now, but my teacher Mr Jafarzadeh liked it so much he read it out to the class. One of the religious boys told his dad, and Mr J was sent away for correction. But last New Year’s Day, crossing what used to be Mossadegh Street, I spotted him selling tea glasses and saucers by the side of the road. I went and said hello. He said hi back, and then asked if he could be excused. I couldn’t believe it — he wanted to go to the loo and was asking me. I said yes, of course — I wanted to hug him! “Thanks Sadegh,” he said. “I won’t be long.” There I was, looking after his stall. (We can therefore conclude: Mr J was pretty desperate to spend a penny; and for a few to be spent at his stall.) It turned out I recognised a few other vendors, who once worked in an office with my uncle. Mum’s cousin was there too. Before the revolution they called him ‘Professor’, but now they call him Mr Whippy. He sells labu, hot beetroot, by the side of the road. I saw one or two other familiar faces and asked if they also needed excusing. “Yes!” they said, but first I had to look after Mr Whippy’s van. I never ate so much beetroot.
So much for the essay of yours truly, Sadegh Sedaghat, written with a tummy ache. We can therefore conclude: no pain, no gain, dear cousin.