My ominous association with ghosts goes back to my early childhood years. Aunt Sedighe my father’s youngest sister lived in Shoushtar, one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back to Achaemenian dynasty (400 BC). Shoushtar used to be the winter capital of Sassanian dynasty and it was built by the Karoun River. The river was channeled to form a trench around the city. A subterranean system called ghanats connected the river to the private reservoirs of houses and buildings, supplied water during times of war when the main gates were closed. The ruins of these ghanats still exist and one was connected to Aunt Sedighe’s house where my cousins and I explored if we dared to.
We were told that her house was the primary residence of Jens and their immediate families. I never was a big fan of ghosts especially the ones who lived in my aunt’s house. I did not care for their demeanor as these creatures scared the hell out of me when we visited my aunt in Shoushtar. Although I was forewarned about Jens and their tendency to possess children, I never refused to play in the basement and explore deep inside the ghanat. Yet, the never ending maze connected to her basement was too narrow, too long, too dark and too creepy to conquer.
My eldest sister however believed the toilet in her house was scarier than its Jens. It was so filthy that she did not go to the bathroom the entire trip. At times I ruthlessly mocked this historic city and its Jen-infested basements, entertained my siblings and offended a large portion of my father’s family as a result. I was convinced it was because of my insensitive commentaries that a few years later, my aunt decided to move to Ahvaz and leave the house to Jens, its original owners. Not going back to my aunt’s house however was not the end of my encounter with “Az ma behtaran, the “better than us”, a phrase I heard from my father all the time. From very early years, I had a restrained relationship with Jens yet I could not avoid them. They appeared in my dreams, frightened me in the darkness and never left the labyrinth of my imagination.
During the first six years of my life in Ahvaz, we had no bath in our house. Each Friday, the only holiday of the week, my father woke me and my two older brothers hours before dawn and took us to the bathhouse, hammam.
“Why so early?” We begged every Thursday night and always received the same response. “We’ll be the first customers, better service and no waiting.” Those facts did not alleviate the torment of trudging drowsily through the empty streets in bitter cold. No one should have to endure such an ordeal just to be clean.
In addition to my lack of regard for personal hygiene, I had a more compelling reason to avoid the hammam in early mornings. The creepy stories my father had told us about the ghosts dwelling in hammams convinced me to remain filthy for life. He told us the story behind the famous Persian proverb, “Hump over Hump”
“One early morning a hunchback goes to the hammam and faces a large group of Jens in a circle holding hands and stomping their feet in jubilation. Unaware of the nature of the festive crowd, he joins the festivities and starts singing and dancing. The Jens enjoy his pleasant company and admire his good spirit. As a token of their appreciation, a Jens touches the stranger’s back and removes his hunch.”
My father continued, “He leaves the hammam, cured. The former hunchback rushes to the bazaar searching for his fellow hunchback to share his blissful encounter. He tells his friend how the Jens enjoyed his human qualities and rewarded him for his jolly spirit, “They adore it when we sing and dance,” he said.
The hunchback thanks him profusely for giving him a rare glimpse of hope. He obtains the address and the next morning before dawn he rushes to the hammam. All the way he snaps his fingers, sings happy tunes and dances with delight. As he enters the hammam, he faces a host of mournful Jens sitting with grim faces. He does not waste any time. Entering the circle of mourners, he sings and dances. The Jens do not appreciate the stranger’s lack of respect for their grief-stricken event. To punish the discourteous hunchback, a Jen places his friend’s hump next to his and sends him home with two humps.”
I was more terrified by the stories my father told us about his personal experiences with the “better than us” creatures.
“One early morning in the hammam I was the lone customer with a few bathhouse workers. After relaxing in the hot water basin for a few minutes, I came out and lay face down on bedrock. A worker removed the bath towel from my back and meticulously scrubbed my entire body with the lathery loofa. As he was tending to me, I looked down and noticed he had hooves instead of feet. He was a Jen. As horrified as I was, I acted as if nothing out of ordinary had happened. After he finished tending to me, I left him an uncharacteristically generous tip. Then I hastily dipped myself into the rinse basin, swiftly dressed and raced out of the haunted hammam.
As I was rushing out, the administrator, who I knew for years noticed my nervousness. He asked me if everything was OK. I stopped, took a deep breath, approached him and whispered, ‘Do you know that your worker has hooves–he’s is Jen.’ The administrator calmly nodded, pointed to his own hooves, and whispered back, ‘You mean like these?’”
Every Friday morning in the hammam, my first order of business was to check people’s feet. Sometimes I even examined my own father’s feet. Why did he know so much about Jens? How could he know so much? At times I snuck up on the patrons while they were being washed or when they came out of the rinsing basin wrapped by the layers of towels and stared at their feet. My vigilant curiosity did not go unnoticed by other patrons. I could sense people eyeing me, whispering to each other, and trying to stay away from me. I was not concerned about how everyone reacted. What bothered me was my strained relationship with a kid about my age who I met in that hammam. He was an acquaintance I cherished dearly. Although our friendship was constrained by my weekly one-hour visit and confined to the hammam, I grew fond of him, a friend whose name I never learned.
According to my father, he was an orphan, and the adopted son of Khalil, the live-in custodian of the hammam. We never had a chance to play together or talk much yet seeing him in that morbid setting every week was bliss. Being around him me made me feel safe and forget all about creepy Jens. But my peculiar behavior tarnished our friendship. When he saw me entering the hammam, he found every excuse to avoid me. I wanted to tell him the reasons behind my bizarre behavior but I couldn’t get him to listen. On many occasions when we arrived, he was still asleep. I would go to the room upstairs and wake him. I could see the terror in his face when he suddenly saw me sitting next to him in bed. He ran out to the mezzanine. I would chase him, shouting, “Don’t be scared, little boy. I just want to play with you.”
Soon after my last Friday visit, the hammam closed. The rumor was that it was possessed and no client dared return. The deserted building remained intact for years. To this day occasionally, I wake before dawn and go to the same hammam, hoping to see my childhood friend. I sit by the basin, wash myself, and think of all my father’s spooky Jen stories.