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The child of bazaar
Short story

By Reza Ordoubadian
September 14, 2000
The Iranian

It was getting late, and his father had already decided he must work for his keeps. Most boys his age were already working, earning money for their families, but Abby was his mother's boy and had an easy childhood. Slight of body, his honey-green eyes sparkled with life and abundant energy, ready for any mischief - or, serious work as his father required. Two generations of trading and a long history of tribal blood had hardened the men into starting work early and earning money for the collective good of the extended family.

Ninety years old when Abby was born, the relationship between them was one of grandfather - or, even great grandfather - and grandson, although most children at that time had old fathers. Nobody knows, but his older brother was probably twenty-six when Abby was born; he took a father's interest in the young boy, defending him against the world the way his real father could not - or, would not. Grandfather believed children must fend for themselves in a chaotic world that was wrought with unexpected disasters and unwelcome intrusions of total strangers. After all, he had lost his first wife and six children to the Russian soldiers; wounded all over, he had escaped from a slow death in the hands of the Czar's soldiers, who did not tolerate armed resistance of the countries they were intent to occupy-and, they intended to occupy Azarbayjan. So, with an unshakable sense of a universal determinism, his father considered being thrown to the world to harden for the future calamities a necessary and dutiful gift any father could give his son. Therefore, when Abby came of age and became nine years old, his father informed the boy, "Abbish, it's that time."

"Yes, Sir," Abby understood. "Do I stay in the house?"

"Of course, boy!" his father replied as he was drinking his daily glass of onion juice laced with garlic, tarragon, salt, and ground pepper. "Of course you stay in."

And, in a few days Abby's father bought a store in the bazaar and had it fixed so that a platform was raised at the very back of the store, where Abby could sit - mostly stand - during the store hours; he stood tall, taller than the customers, a psychological advantage. It was a fabric shop where bolts of cloths were arranged on many shelves according to their weight and whether for women or men, all imported by Abby's father from India, England, and France, mostly wool fabric, occasionally silk and calico. Of course, the bazaar being domed like a caravan of camel humps, only small, octagonal ceiling openings barely lit the way for those who were after a bargain; inside the store, kerosene lamps shed a pale, saffron-colored light during the trading hours, and that was a plus, because it would be difficult for the customers to see the young face of the boy clearly and determine his age, a guarantee against slick shoppers who would certainly take advantage of the young trader.

Usually, and from behind the platform just beyond the shelves, a delicious aroma of cooking meat and freshly baked flat-bread flooded inside the store, mixing with the pungent smell of various fabrics for sale. The food, of course, was for Abby's lunch, but he did not prepare it. Early in the morning, Haji lit a small, rectangular brazier lined with a cast iron pot, which provided a steady, low heat for hours to cook the mutton, onions, potatoes, chickpeas, garlic and other condiments. The loaf of bread, paper-thin, two feet wide and three long, was broken into pieces to be used both as a filling bulk food and also spoon. One would take a piece of the white bread, line his right fingers with it, and then dip in the plate and pull out a morsel to put in his mouth: bread and all.

It was a winter day, late in January of 1881 when Abby's father left his own offices to take the boy shopping. The father first, the son following two steps behind him; he could barely hear what his father was telling him. Occasionally, he moved faster to catch up with his father to hear better, but never close enough to be disrespectful, or annoy him into a growl as he turned his head. Close by, the father's eyes burned like diamonds on fire, black diamonds when he became excited, happy or angry. There never was sadness in his eyes, Abby decided many years later, because he believed his portion was given him by God, and he need not have to worry; of course, he was the god of his clan. The father mumbled, and Abby thought he heard him say something about never leaving the store during the trading hours. "Never never!" he heard the father say. "They'll steal, fleece you alive, boy. Do you hear me? Fleece you alive."

"Yes sir," Abby replied "fleece alive."

"And, we best change your clothes!"

"Clothes?" Abby asked with surprise.

"Yes: I've ordered you new clothes!" the father informed him. Abby stopped walking for a moment: that would be a new experience. All his life he had worn his brother's old clothes; his mother, or one of the three older sisters, would alter them as need arose, and Abby always wore what his brother had not worn out during his growing years. "New clothes!" he whispered, his voice barely audible.

"Yes, you couldn't possibly sell in those tattered rags: respectable, boy, yes, respectable, I say you ought'a be respectable, boy."

Something good was happening in that entire venture, Abby decided: he was getting a store, which he preferred not to get; he was also getting new clothes, very exciting for a boy who had never worn new garments. That thought diminished the bitterness of his feelings about working every day. He had just made enough friends in the neighborhood that he could play all day long without feeling tired at the end of the day. Early in the morning he got up, hastily washed and said his morning prayers, then he ate breakfast on the run; after two hours of instruction from a coarse mullah, who was hired to instruct the boy in writing, reading, and, of course, Koran in Arabic, a language he had never heard before in his life, he ran out to play. He particularly loved one game he had learned on the sly, which eventually proved to be the sources of his grief when his father discovered him gambling. That very day he was sent to the windowless cellar for a few hours, and then his father decided that the boy had too much free time on his hands, in need of getting rid of his exploding energies, except that he called it "his wild humors."

He had learned the game in the streets, like a vagabond, from the kind of boys he could never bring home to play. They took the knuckle bone of a boiled mutton leg and cleaned it with borax and a fine powder that house wives made by rubbing two bricks together to high-polish their brass ware. The cleaned bone was used for gambling; a player tossed it in the air, allowing the bone to land randomly on one of its six sides. The person who predicted the correct landing was the winner. The four flat sides, the "naturals," could easily support the bone, but landing on the ends was a tricky, rare event. One could be bold and bet on those and win triple. Smarter boys filed the ends flat and rub with the brick powder to remove any trace of tampering. Abby had several such bones, but no one had ever discovered him. The penalty for the offense was severe, depending on the size of the offending boy. The bigger boys were never found out: the fear of a crashing fight often resulting in torn limbs and broken nose kept the younger boys in check. So, Abby's father was rightly concerned and decided to rescue his son from the sins of gambling and a broken nose, not to forget that he was coming of age and in need of work. Abby did not marry his first wife until he was over forty, but it was not uncommon for a boy to marry at the age of twelve. In reality, he was just three years away from becoming a husband of possibly a nine year old girl. His own father had married his second wife, a thirteen year old girl, when he was sixty-four.

And, as they walked in the bazaar, his father continued to talk, his words becoming visible in the cold air of January. They walked for a long time and out of the bazaar, heading to the section of the city of Tabriz called Little Armenia, the Armenians enclave for many centuries. Under their feet the cobble stones echoed into a rhythmic dialogue, his father's heavy steps thundering, and Abby's light feet responding weakly with respect; even in the sound of their feet the father dominated regally.

Soon, they arrived at a lonely shop in the midst of a long, insidiously quiet alley resonating with their unequal foot steps - the rest was walled houses and windows hung so high that Abby felt he might lose his equilibrium if he raised his head to see the tops of the windows. For no obvious reason at all, the doors and windows seemed to have been painted in varying shades of the same color: green. The father and the son entered through the green doors of the shop, Abby ecstatic with the prospect of new clothes, fitted to his body and size properly: gray flannel pants and possibly a red velvet tunic with leather piping on the seams, just like his older brother's.

"Good morning, Agha Mirza Agha," the Armenian tailor greeted them at the door, deferential, repeating the word Agha twice. "The blessings of God be with you today! We have it ready, sir."

"Good morning, Baron Hakkopian," the father replied. "This is the boy."

"He is!" Baron Hakkopian replied as he was bending his very scary, towering torso to look down at the young boy; he was obviously agitated - very displeased and confused. "This little one?!"

"Yes Baron, this little one!"

"But I thought..."

"This one... you hear? This one..."

"Not your other..."

"Yes, and get with it, Baron; we have work to do."

The tailor did not reply; Abby could tell that he was very worried, but Abby was still happy. This time it was not his older brother who was getting the new clothes; his father was giving him the clothes, a sign of becoming close to the boy, a sign that Abby had grown in stature in the eyes of his father, thus the world at large: without his father's respect, the world considered him just "a boy" with a name.

Baron Hakkopian left them in the probing room to fetch the suit as Abby dreamed of the fresh smelling cloth and his red tunic, forgetting his temporary exile into the light-less cellar the previous day. New cloth smelled clean, like a virgin, he had heard his father call his imported goods. Later he will learn with embarrassment that his father referred only to a kind of fabric made of virgin wool. During his frequent visits to his father's office, Abby often went to the cellars where bundles of fabrics wrapped in burlap were stored, each weighing one hundred pounds: but the smell made him dizzy.

Abby's heart sank as the tailor reappeared, carrying not a red velvet tunic and gray pants, but a long robe, like the one his mullah teacher wore. "No!" he cried, but no sound came out of his mouth. The robe was twice his size and the blackest piece of cotton-cloth he had ever seen, with a hole in the middle to put his head through. Before he had time to reassure himself that the tailor had made a mistake, his father ordered, "Abbish, put it on."

No resistance was possible when his father ordered in that tone of voice; without another word, Abby took the robe and pulled it down his head through the hole. He looked ridiculous in the mirror, and he jumped back with embarrassment. "It's so long" he started to say, but his father ignored that weak protestation, and turning to the tailor he said, "Beautiful! It looks great; hem it to his ankle, but let the sleeves ride. His little hands should be covered."

The tailor and Abby exchanged a desperate look, but neither had a choice in the matter. "Could be cut to fit him just nice!" the tailor made one more attempt to persuade his client to change his mind. "I'll make it ready this afternoon, no more time, I promise, this afternoon before we close!"

"No, this one will do, Baron."

There was no hope then; Abby's dream tunic of red velvet could never be realized now. The tailor saw the desperate look on the boy's face and dared to motion the father with his hand to go out of the fitting room. Abby walked to the door and glued his ear to it. The tailor was trying to persuade his father to allow him to fit the robe to the boy's size. "You don't understand," the father was telling the tailor. "Who'll buy a piece of cloth from a little boy? I want him to look older ... twenty years old!"

"Ah!" the tailor replied vaguely. "I can pad the shoulders. That'll make him look three years older."

"I've made up my mind; cut it as I ordered, and we'll get him a large hat," the father said, and Abby knew that something cataclysmic was happening in his life, powerless to fend against it. He removed his ear from the door and went and sat on the only chair in front of the mirror: his double looked no happier than he was. Since nature would not cooperate urgently, his father recreated him older with the choice of the clothing: the boy would have to grow up instantly to run the fabric shop.

The next day Abby was taken to the store; he had not seen it before, but his father had described it as a large, beautiful store with at least twenty-five different bolts of fabric. As his father talked about the store, Abby's heart sank. He remembered he was to sit in the store and sell the fabric to strange men and women. He had little experience with selling or differentiating among the many grades of fabric that his father was telling him were beautifully arranged in the store. He wanted to ask about the prices and money, but he did not dare to pose the questions that haunted his mind like a serial nightmare: he wanted to play knuckle bones, but instead he was repeating, "Yes, Sir," to his father's frequent question, "Do you understand, boy?"

He really did not understand, but there was no way that he could convey it to his father; then, his father said, "You understand, Abbish: you start high and go low."

"I start high and go low!" Abby repeated weakly. But it was not a reply as much as a puzzled question, and his father understood it immediately. He slowed his pace for Abby to catch up with him; he then put his right hand on his head, as if in a blessing.

"Haji will sit in front of the store; he'll signal the price with his fingers. He knows everything."

"Haji!" the boy said happily.

"Yes-Haji is coming to keep an eye on you. If he shows two hands, then the price is ten gheran for one zar of the cloth ... you start there, you understand?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"The customer will haggle, or course, and offer you less. Then look at Haji's hands; he will raise maybe seven fingers..."

"That's seven gherans!" the boy offered excitedly.

"Yes, good boy! If the customer accepts your offer, that is that; if not, Haji will give you the bottom price you can sell! You understand?" "Yes, Sir" Abby said, and he was glad that he was not going to be alone; old Haji was coming with him, as he did when Abby became the head of his father's firm in Istanbul nine years later. Haji had always taken an interest in the boy and called him Agha Abdol Hossein Khan in front of other employees and servants. They got along very well.

So, at the age of nine, looking twenty, my father began to run the fabric store that his father had bought to train him for the future, to become the manager of one of his branches in Sofia or Istanbul or Paris.


NOTE: A socio-psychological study, this story, among others, was told to me by one of my very ancient aunts, even older than my father, who was sixty when I was born. Father would never spend time to talk about trivial matters of this sort, but being the favorite nephew of my Aunt Ghammar, I was told the secret stories of the family life as if they were folktales of a nation, which they are! I never told my father that I knew anything about his childhood. That would have been impolite. According to Aunt Ghammar, my father had taken his father's admonitions to heart so seriously that during the eight-hour work at the store he would never leave to go to the toilet. Many years later, one day when my father felt especially talkative, he told his sister that at one point he was so desperate to relieve himself that he had pressed both hands against his mouth to keep from crying. His pants and the black tunic, however, were all drenched wet, and that in the cold of winter.

©All rights are reserved by the author


Reza Ordoubadian holds a Ph.D. degree in English and linguistics. He has held a professorship at Middle Tennessee State University and Visiting Professorship at Umea University (Sweden). He has published numerous pieces of fiction and poetry as well as scholarly articles and books on both sides of the ocean. He was the editor of SECOL Review for 18 years.

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