The child of bazaar
By Reza Ordoubadian
September 14, 2000
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
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
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
"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
"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,
"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.