Every day after noon, Davood would wake up and spend the rest of his day on the rooftop of the lodging house, playing with the pigeons he kept in a wooden cage that was littered with feathers and droppings. He would fill the tin troughs with water and millet, grab one pigeon at a time, kiss it, and let it fly to stretch its wings. He would then look up at the sky, following his pigeons with admiring eyes like a fun-loving Persian king watching his wives frolicking in a vast harem. After supper in his room beneath the terrace, he would come out and squat beside the hauz in the middle of the courtyard.
All Davood talked about was his pigeons, which he called ‘my pretty ladies’. Being an insomniac, Davood would leave his room after nightfall, tiptoe outside the courtyard, sit on the step of the doorway and smoke. Afterwards he would wander in the quiet streets and lanes like a stray dog till the break of dawn.
Autumn’s arrival spelt misery for Davood. At night he could not stay in his room for long hours as the light and the sound of his radio would disturb and anger the other lodgers. After midnight he had to come out into the courtyard and squat beside the hauz, staring at the dark carpet of dead leaves that covered the surface of the water. In the pitch dark the autumnal wind danced around him, wailed like a gypsy in trance, swirling huddles of dirt and dust around, ruffling the carpet of leaves in the hauz.
Icy and snowy winter nights added to his misery. Months of interminable walks in the biting cold took their toll on his bearing and complexion. The lashing of the elements on his body made his back bend like the edge of a pitcher and his bruised face resembled that of a cadaver. Some men and women in the neighbourhood, returning to their homes from late shifts in the brickworks or drinking and gambling dens, would spot Davood’s hunched-over figure leaning against a lamp post or hugging, shadow-like, the wall of a lane. Sometimes he’d be sitting on the edge of a gutter, smoking, or scurrying in and out of dimly-lit alleyways, rubbing his hands together to keep warm.
During hot summer nights, after our supper, we would all come out into the lane to keep company with Davood when he had taken up his post on the step of the doorway. He would tell us all about his ‘pretty ladies’ – his tumblers, feathery-legged par-pars, bell-necked toghis, high-flying sooskis, and his zaaghis as black as charcoal. He would regale us with tales about his pigeons – how, for example, his sooskis soared so high that they turned into a dot and vanished in the blue sky. He would also reveal to us the secrets of the folk who lived in the lane – who had an affair with whose wife, who was an occasional prostitute to support her children or who was molesting which young boys. We would listen with interest, now laughing, now becoming thoughtful, as we had little knowledge as to what was going on in our neighbourhood. Around midnight we would stand up and saunter back to our rooms, leaving Davood alone on the step.
The nights before the end-of-year exams were the happiest times in Davood’s life. Why? Because my friends and I had to stay awake till dawn to revise our subjects for the following day’s exams. Around the beginning of May, every night, after I had finished my meagre supper, I would tuck my dog-eared textbooks under my arm, throw a shabby blanket on my shoulder, grip a flask of tea, fill my pockets with sugar lumps, and set out for the quieter back streets and lanes in our district to revise my lessons.
My student friends would have already taken up their positions on a pavement under a street lamp. I would find a spot near them, spread out my blanket, place my textbooks on it, open the flask and pour some tea for myself. We would then all stand up, walk up and down the pavement, going over all sorts of facts again and again, trying to commit them to our memories. In an hour or so, a hunched-up figure would come walking towards us. As he neared us, I would make out Davood’s haggard face. He would greet us in his dopey voice and sit on the edge of the gutter.
“Good job I found you here,” Davood would say. “I was beginning to feel a bit lonely in these godforsaken lanes.”
I would pour some tea for him, which he would drink with relish, noisily crunching the sugar cube in his mouth. Once perked up, he would begin to talk about his pigeons. We would share our cigarettes with him and go on talking about all kinds of things.
“I think it’s about time for you lot to do a bit of revision, otherwise you’ll all end up being good-for-nothing pigeon-fanciers like me,” Davood would remind us every night.
“Yes, Agha Davood,” we would agree in chorus, “you’re absolutely right.”
One night, as I was mumbling loudly, going over one of my history lessons, Davood asked: “What are you revising, Agha Hamid?”
“Shah Abbas II’s life.”
Davood took out a half-cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it, and took a long drag, listening to my reciting of facts.
“Shah Abbas II had hundreds of wives in his harem,” I recited loudly, “many of whom were as young as twelve years old.”
“I think I’m sort of like Shah Abbas,” Davood interrupted. “With the difference that my harem is full of pigeons.”
We laughed heartily.
The evening when all our exams finished, we met Davood in the lane to smoke and talk.
“How did it go?” he asked us.
“What do you mean?”
“The exams, of course.”
“Oh, the exams,” I said. “As always.”
“That means you’re all going to resit them again in August,” Davood said as if he were talking about a humdrum yearly event.
We would take our exams in August and fail again. We would then repeat the same year, scrape through exams in June, move to the higher year, fail again, and repeat another year.
Fed up with constant repetition of worthless facts and theorems that made no sense to any of us, we abandoned the education establishment and ended up doing odd jobs in and around the Bazaar to earn our living. Truth be told, many of our fellow students who passed the National Diploma found it the most useless piece of paper and ended up, like the rest of us, in menial jobs. I found a job in the brickworks.
The inhabitants of the lane soon found out that they could make good use of Davood’s nightly wanderings.
One summer night, as we were sitting on the doorstep of the lodging house, talking about this and that, Esmaal Agha, one of the neighbours, joined us.
“Can I ask you a small favour, Davood Agha?” he said all of a sudden.
“Anything, Esmaal Agha,” Davood said. “Just name it and I’ll do it for you.”
“I’m taking my family on the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mashhad for a week,” Esmaal Agha said. “I wonder if you could keep an eye on our house while we’re away.”
“I’ll be more than happy to do that for you,” Davood replied.
Soon the word went round that Davood had become a night-watchman, minding Esmaal Agha’s house. Another neighbour joined our circle one night and asked Davood if he could kindly watch his car at night as there were so many hubcap thieves lurking about.
A few weeks later Davood found himself turned into a proper night-watchman, looking after our neighbours’ homes and cars for no favours at all.
Despite his vigilance, however, some neighbours were shocked to find in the morning that all four hubcaps of their cars had been removed. There was only one man who could inform them about this, and that was Davood.
“Davood Agha,” the victim of the theft would ask him, “you didn’t happen to see last night anybody suspicious? The hubcaps of my car have vanished.”
“I only have one pair of eyes to watch all the cars,” Davood would say.
The thieves became more and more daring and craftier in their profession. To add insult to injury, not only the hubcaps were stolen but also the four tyres were removed and taken away, leaving the body of the cars standing on stacks of bricks.
Some neighbours informed Shamsali the Policeman, who occasionally wandered around our district. The first person to be interrogated in the police station was Davood.
When we met him the night after his questioning he did not look a happy man.
“This is what I get for looking after our neighbours’ properties,” Davood moaned.
“Don’t you worry, Davood Agha,” we all said in chorus. “The neighbours know that you’re a good man.”
Upon hearing about Davood’s interrogation, the neighbours got together in their usual hangout – Haydar’s Teahouse – in the Bazaar, and prepared a testimonial in support of Davood’s integrity. Everyone in the neighbourhood scribbled his signature under the testimonial, which was handed over to Shamsali.
Within a few days we heard that the officer in charge had accepted the testimonial as evidence of Davood’s innocence.
One Friday, around noon, my friends and a few of our neighbours were sitting in Haydar’s Teahouse, smoking and talking about the recent events.
“Things are definitely getting worse,” Esmaal Agha sighed, after billowing out smoke from the hubble-bubble pipe. “If things go on like this, we’ll all lose our livelihood.”
“You’re right, Esmaal Agha,” Akbar Agha agreed.
“How can we put an end to all this?” Hossein Agha joined in.
“I think the only person who can still help us is Davood,” Haydar Agha said after motioning the tea-boy to attend to the new customers who had just come in.
“But he’s already doing a good job,” Esmaal Agha said.
“I know he is,” Haydar Agha agreed. “But we can help him to be a bit more vigilant by motivating him.”
“What do you mean?” Hossein Agha asked.
“By rewarding him with a small sum of money each month.”
The neighbours regarded each other in silence. After a long debate, each of them agreed to give five tomans to Esmal Agha, who would hand it over to Davood at the end of each month.
The very same evening Esmaal Agha joined our circle and broke the good news to Davood.
“You know, Esmaal Agha,” Davood said, “I’m doing this out of a sense of duty to my neighbours. I didn’t want to do this to cash in.”
“Listen, Davood,” Esmaal Agha said, “all the neighbours are happy to reward you for your hard work.”
After some polite exchanges, Davood finally agreed.
From that day on Davood became our night-watchman, earning a meagre living out of his insomnia problem.
In no time the men and womenfolk in our lane began to treat him with respect. In a few weeks the theft of hub-caps and tyres became less and less and soon stopped altogether.
One late summer night, as Davood and I were strolling in and out of the deserted lanes and streets, I noticed that something was bugging him.
“What is it, Davood?” I asked. “You’re not yourself tonight.”
“To tell you the truth, Hamid,” Davood said, “I think I’m in love.”
“We all know that you love your pigeons,” I said.
“No, no,” Davood said. “I mean in love with a real woman.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “You of all people?”
“One thing I could never imagine was you falling in love with a woman.”
“Why not?” he asked. “Do you think I have a tail or a pair of horns?”
He then fell silent, gazing at the pavement. A blind-drunk passer-by staggered by, reeling and mumbling a popular love ditty.
“All right, then.” I broke the silence. “Who’s the young lady, may I ask?”
“Zivar.” Davood threw a sidelong glance at me.
“Hmm,” I muttered. “You mean Zivar the Pretty, the daughter of Hajji Berenji?”
“That’s the one.”
“Have you lost your mind or what?” I almost shouted.
“Anything wrong with that?”
“I hope you know that she’s the only daughter of Hajji Berenji.”
“Yes, I do.”
“And you do know that he fiercely protects Zivar as Shah Abbas II protected his wives?” I said. “Do you have any idea what kind of a man Hajji Berenji is?”
“I know he’s a rich rice merchant.”
“He’s not only rich,” I explained, “but also a fanatical Muslim who never misses a single prayer in the mosque.”
“I think Zivar fancies me,” Davood said.
“How do you know?” I asked. “She spends most of her time at home, and when she goes out she’s wrapped up in her black chador, always accompanied either by her watchful mother or by one of her bearded brothers.”
“Yes, I’ve seen her with them,” he agreed.
“She secretly smiles at me whenever they pass me by in the lane.”
“Positive. Some afternoons when I’m playing with my pigeons on the roof, she comes up to the roof of their house to hang the washing on the lines. She then stands near edge of the roof and smiles at me.”
“And you think only because she smiles at you, she has fallen head over heels in love with you, and you can marry her just like that?”
“Yes,” he said. “Why not?”
“Has it ever crossed your mind that she might find you a weird sort of guy who has nothing else to do but play with his birds?”
“You see, Hamid,” Davood said, “it is not that sort of smile. It’s a smile of secret passion.”
“Aye zeki!” I laughed. “A lot of young ladies like Zivar flirt, like those women in Shah Abbas’ harem, with young men of the neighbourhood on the roofs, during weddings and religious festivals,” I reminded him.
At this Davood had nothing to say.
“Maybe you should know that none of these young women ever gets married to the young men they admire,” I carried on. “One fine morning they wake up and find themselves engaged to men, chosen by their fathers, whom they’ve never seen or heard of in their whole lives, and that’s that.”
“To make matters worse,” I said, “as far as I know you don’t have enough cash to buy two metres of shroud for yourself. How then are you intending to keep a family going, I wonder?”
“I’ll change my profession, if need be,” Davood said proudly.
“What?” I said. “To work, if lucky, like me and others, in the brickworks, become a car minder, sell lottery tickets, or join the hordes of ticket touts who hang around cinemas in Lalezaar?”
“Something along those lines,” he mumbled.
“All right, then,” I concluded. “In that case, I wish you good luck, mate.”
The conversation ended, we walked on through the deserted streets and lanes.
Despite this conversation, Davood went on talking about Zivar whenever we sat beside the hauz or walked in the lanes at night.
One late afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the corner of Haydar’s Teahouse, drinking tea and smoking a hubble-bubble pipe with Javaad Shangool, discussing the fanciful romances of the young men in the lane.
“Talking of infatuations,” Javaad said. “Have you heard what Davood is doing these days?”
“Sitting on the roof and admiring his ‘pretty ladies’, I suppose,” I said.
“He’s definitely admiring,” Javaad said mockingly, “but not just his ‘pretty ones’, but a real beauty.”
“What do you mean by a real beauty?” I asked.
“The pretty young maiden who lives opposite the lodging house where you live.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen him eyeing the young lady who hangs her washing on the lines on their roof.”
“Do you know who that maiden is?” I asked, shamming ignorance.
“There’s only one maiden in that house,” Javaad said, “and that’s Hajji Berenji’s daughter – Zivar the Pretty.”
I fell silent, worrying what Davood might do next.
To find out if Javaad Shangool was telling fibs, I set about finding the truth myself. When Davood went up to the roof I sneaked up the stairs, shadowed him, hid behind the heap of junk in the kharposhteh, and watched him. As Davood played with his pigeons, he gingerly walked to the edge of the roof, glanced about, and sneakily eyed Zivar, who was busy hanging linen on the lines. She then stood stock-still, looking at Davood, letting her chador slip down her head, revealing her mass of hair as black as zaaghis’ feathers. Spell-bound, Davood stood too close to the edge of the roof for comfort. He only had his pigeons to impress Zivar with. So, he let them fly, whistling and encouraging them to show their exceptional talents.
Whenever my friends and I were in the teahouse or congregating in street corners, we talked about how Davood had begun to stalk the young beauty.
“He doesn’t give a hoot about what might happen to him if Zivar the Pretty’s brothers find out about his buffoonery,” Safdar Golaabi said one day.
“Those thugs will thrash him so hard that he’ll forget who Zivar ever was.” Mammad Farangi added his view.
I often heard the neighbours talking about Davood’s unwise behaviour when they queued outside the baker’s or grocer’s.
Finally, what I had been dreading all along with this farcical love-story took place.
One day at noon, when we were sitting in Haydar’s Teahouse, the tea-boy burst in and shouted at the top of his lungs that a brawl had broken out at the end of the Sayyed Vali’s Walk. Hearing this, everyone left their hubble-bubble pipes and teas and rushed out to see what was going on. As happened on occasions like this in the Bazaar, a throng of otherwise idle folk were stampeding in the direction of the fight. Upon arriving at the scene, I nudged my way through the crowd of onlookers. No sooner had I managed to find a place close to the scufflers than I recognised Davood, being pummelled by two roguish-looking men: Zivar’s brothers. As they kicked and punched him, they brayed crude swearwords, warning that if they saw him again following their sister, they would kill him. I jumped into the fray, trying to intervene.
“Sayfollah Khan,” I shouted, pushing between the brothers and Davood, “it’s not a manly thing for two of you to be beating one man.”
Sayfollah stopped and ordered his even more barbaric brother to leave Davood alone.
“Only because I have high regard for you, Hamid Agha,” Sayfollah said, panting. “We’ll let him go this time.” He turned to Davood who, bruised and bloodied, lay sprawled on the ground.
“Listen, you son-of-a-whore,” he barked. “If we ever see you anywhere near our sister, we’ll cripple you so that you cannot even take yourself to the privy.”
The two brothers walked away, nonchalantly swinging their arms.
“Show is over,” I shouted at the bystanders. “Come on, beat it!”
I helped Davood stand and we walked to Haydar’s Teahouse.
“Ohoy, Ali,” I called out at the teaboy, “bring us two freshly-brewed teas, will you?”
Davood drank his tea in silence. I offered him a cigarette and we both sat, smoking.
“Didn’t I warn you time and again that it would come to this?” I said.
Davood stopped following Zivar around. Being hopelessly in love, however, he carried on watching Zivar on the roof. Her brothers remained in the dark about these goings-on.
Zivar, being the prettiest girl in the lane, had many admirers. Soon these young men, who had nothing better to do than loaf about on their roofs, found Davood’s eyeing of Zivar too much to handle.
Regulars in Haydar’s Teahouse, these young men would sit on their bench talking about the pretty women of the neighbourhood. Every now and then, they would cast hostile glances at Davood as he sat with our bunch.
One of these young men, who happened to be a close friend of Zivar’s brothers, one day cornered me in the Bazaar and warned me about Davood’s behaviour.
“Listen, Hamid Agha,” he said. “You’d better give a word of advice to that pigeon-fancier to stop clowning around on the roof.”
“You mean to stop playing with his ‘pretty ladies’,” I said, play-acting.
“No,” he said, “of course not. He can do whatever he likes with his pigeons as long as he puts an end to his ogling of Zivar.”
“You mean Hajji Berenji’s daughter?” I said.
“What?” he said. “We didn’t know there were other Zivars in the lane, did we!”
“I don’t have a clue as what Davood is up to these days,” I said. “However, I’ll have a word with him.”
Not wanting to aggravate his foul temper, I left him.
Sinking ever more into his love-delusions, Davood carried on with his secret love-signals to Zivar on the roof. Even if he were thrashed several times by Zivar’s brothers, he could not put her out of his mind.
“You can’t go on like this, Davood,” I told him one night as we wandered in the deserted streets. “Take a look at yourself in the mirror. You look like a mongrel dog.”
“But I know Zivar is fond of me, Hamid.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“From the way she stands on the roof and looks at me.”
“Let’s say that you’re right, Davood,” I said. “But even if you are, Zivar’s fate has been sealed from the moment she was born. Sooner or later a rich merchant, a devout Muslim to boot, will snap her up and whisk her off and you’ll be left with nothing but your balls!”
A wry smile distorted his haggard face. We walked alongside each other in silence.
Not heeding my advice, Davood went on with his foolish antics on the roof.
Despite Davood’s vigilance, hub-cap and tyre thieves began to operate in our neighbourhood once again. In Haydar’s Teahouse, the regulars from our lane scratched their heads, smoked furiously, gulped down tea after tea and noisily debated what the cause of this sudden surge in thefts could be.
“Some folks are spreading the rumour that these thieves are Davood’s accomplices,” Esmaal Agha said one day.
“This is nothing but scandalous gossip to wreck his life.” Hossein Agha defended Davood.
“I for one trust this pigeon-fancier,” Haydar Agha joined in, prodding the tea-boy to hurry up with his tray of teas.
Since all these recent thefts had begun I had noticed a change in Zivar’s brothers’ and their friends’ posturing. In the teahouse they looked like a band of conspirators. I knew they were up to something.
One Friday afternoon I was sitting beside the hauz, splashing handfuls of water on my face, when I heard a loud banging on the door of the lodging-house. One of the lodgers, who had just come out of the privy, put the ewer down and rushed to the door. No sooner had he unlatched the door than it was flung open by two police officers who stepped down into the yard.
“Does anyone called Davood, known as The Pigeon-Fancier, live here?” one of them asked gruffly.
“He lives in that room just under the steps.” The lodger nervously pointed.
The two officers strode to the door, kicked it open and disappeared into the dark room. A minute or two later Davood was shoved out of the room, flanked by the two officers.
“Why are you arresting me, officer?” Davood protested sleepily.
“You’ll see later,” the officer in charge growled. “Move.”
“What has he done, officer?” I called out.
“Mind your own business,” the other officer barked.
They frogmarched Davood out of the door. I ran into the lane to see him being hustled into a police car, before watching it drive away.
The following afternoon Esmaal Agha and I went to the police station to find out what had happened to Davood. Luckily, we saw Shamsali the Policeman coming out of one of the rooms.
“Salaam, Officer Shamsali,” I greeted him. “We’ve come to find out about Davood.
“We’ve arrested other thieves who have confessed that Davood is implicated in these thefts,” Shamsali said and hurried out of the station.
“What?” I said, glancing at Esmaal Agha. “Davood, a thief?”
“If Shamsali is right,” Esmaal Agha said, “Davood must’ve been running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.”
I remained silent, knowing in my heart of hearts that Davood was not the type of man to betray people who trusted him.
A few days later Javaad Shangool and I heard from Shamsali that Davood had been sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.
“What happened to the other thieves?” I asked.
“They were all released without charge,” Shamsali said.
“That was quick!” Javaad Shangool said.
“Yes, I know,” Shamsali agreed.
“How could this happen?” I said, dismayed.
“Everything is possible in this land if you’re backed by the right people,” Shamsali said in a confidential tone. “I saw Hajji Berenji and his sons coming to the station accompanied by the public prosecutor.”
“You mean Hajji may have greased the prosecutor’s palm,” Javaad Shangool said.
“Everyone knows that the public prosecutor would even sell his wife for money.” Shamsali spoke under his breath, throwing cautious glances around.
Later on it became clear that poor Davood had been stitched up by Hajji Berenji and his sons in order to get rid of him.
The menfolk of the lane, when gathered in the teahouse, whispered Davood’s name for a while and soon forgot all about him.
Every Friday Javaad Shangool and I bought packets of cigarettes and visited Davood in Tehran’s Central Penitentiary. He often asked about Zivar and his pigeons.
“I would be grateful, Hamid,” he would say, “if you could, every now and then, give water and millet to my pigeons and let them stretch their wings a bit.”
Following Davood’s request, I looked after his pigeons. After a while, however, the birds showed little willingness to leave the cage. When I opened the cage door to let them out, they cringed and huddled together. When I managed to urge them to come out, most of them flew very low and the tumblers tumbled no more. After a while some of them were lost, some were stolen by other pigeon-fanciers, and others perished.
Whenever I visited Davood in prison, I could not bring myself to tell him about the fate of his beloved ‘pretty ladies’.
One autumn day I went up to the roof to see if any of the disappeared pigeons had returned. Soot-covered feathers, fluttering in the autumnal breeze, clung to the wire mesh of the empty cage. As I walked towards the kharposhteh to come down, I glanced back at the opposite roof. I saw Zivar standing motionless, far too close to the edge of the roof, looking in my direction. Her chador was slipped down on her shoulders, revealing her abundant black hair. Afraid that anybody might see me alone on the roof looking at her, I left the roof at once.
Towards the end of autumn, Zivar was married off to a merchant much older than her.
The day of Davood’s release I bought a cheap pair of trousers and a jacket for him and went to the Penitentiary.
“Now you’re a new man in these new clothes, mate,” I told him, giving him a bear-hug the moment he stepped into the prison yard.
Upon arrival at the lodging house, the first thing Davood did was to dash upstairs to see his pigeons. I followed him. Leaning against the doorframe of the kharposhteh, I saw him standing beside the cage, peering into the blue sky, as if trying to spot some of his sooskis. He then looked at Zivar’s roof.
“Forgive me, Davood,” I said, walking up to him and putting my hand on his shoulder, “I did not want to add to your suffering in the prison by telling you about your pigeons and Zivar.”
“I know you did your best for my pigeons,” he said. “What about Zivar?”
“Last autumn they married her off to a rich merchant who took her away only God knows where.”
Davood looked again at the direction of Zivar’s roof on which washing was flapping in the gentle breeze. The head of a young woman, no doubt a servant girl, appeared from behind the washing. She was humming a popular love-ditty.
“Let’s go,” he said in a gruff voice, turning to me.
A few days later I found a job in the brickworks for Davood. Every morning we went to work together. We spent our afternoons in Haydar’s Teahouse talking about this and that. Davood never again talked about his pigeons, Zivar, or any other woman. The back-breaking work in the brickworks made him sleep soundly each night.
aye zeki: exclamation of surprise mixed with mockery
chador: literally means ‘tent’. An open black cloak that covers the head and the entire body.
hauz: an ornamental pond in the middle of courtyard in traditional Persian houses used to wash clothes in, to floating fruits in during the summer, and to do ablutions.
Khan: honorific title added to the name of a gentleman
kharposhteh: a small attic room that opens out onto a roof.
salaam: hello, greetings
toman: an unofficial monetary unit in Iran, equal to 10 rials.
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