June 22, 2005
Baharloo's novel, The
Quince Seed Potion (Bridge Works, 2004
). Baharloo was born in Darab in Fars Province,
southern Iran. He whiled an eccentric childhood with Turkish
as his mother tongue, unable to speak Persian until the first
grade. This early language barrier was Mort's first experience
as an anachronism. On a late summer day in 1978 -- filled with
demonstrations and protests, the eve of the resignation of
the Premier and two days after extremists burned nearly 400
people alive in the Cinema Rex of Abadan -- Mort left for Utah.
Listen to his March
2005 interview on San Francisco's NPR affiliate
station KALW. Visit his site MortezaBaharloo.com.
The household cock crowed, heralding the exact moment darkness
surrendered to dawn, just as two tiny limbs emerged from the laboring
woman's dark orifice. The half-somnolent state of Fatima, the Bald
Doula, shattered. "I see them!" she yelled. "I see
them! I see them!" she repeated, as if competing with the
The collective shouting of the female spectators blended with
the painful cries of the woman now deep in labor and the clamor
of the curious preadolescent girls observing their own procreative
As the neighboring cocks crowed in concert, the doula turned
her attention from the spectators in the cramped room to the laboring
woman. What she saw terrified her. Two miniature feet lurked at
the edge of the orifice as if reluctantly contemplating exodus
from the mother's womb. The doula cursed the infant for not following
the normal instinctual birth, while gently manipulating its feet
back into the womb and rotating the slippery creature. She raised
her face toward the ceiling to plead for success.
"There is no God but Allah!" she shouted. Fatima's
midwifery services would not be generously compensated if she delivered
a dead child or if the mother died in labor. As a pious woman,
she knew that the fate of both mother and fetus rested in God's
hands, not her own. As such, she found the customary methods of
payment unfair. Focusing on the financial incentives, she increased
her vigor and administered her skills as best she could to save
the infant and its mother, as well as her fee.
"Bring me the mortar and pestle and an onion. Boil some
water now, you lazy girls! Tell a Muslim man to grab a young hen
and bring it to me. Now, I said! Now!"
The doula's efforts to rotate the infant proved effective, and
he soon entered the world headfirst, his eyes open in an expression
of shock, as if destiny were asking him enigmatic questions concerning
the creator and the created. As Fatima held the infant aloft, she
realized he was not breathing: there was no movement of his neonatal
chest and certainly no sign of the universal complaint that most
infants make upon entering the world.
The doula grabbed the onion from a pregnant woman who was watching
the whole scene with fear and apprehension. In the pewter mortar,
Fatima crushed the onion hurriedly with its matching pestle and
then rubbed a generous dose of the crushed onions on the newborn's
microscopic nostrils. Weakly, the infant began crying.
Next, the doula fetched a small opaque jar of lanolin from her
satchel, turned the infant on his stomach, and lubricated his rectum.
She then grabbed a struggling hen just delivered by a preadolescent
boy. As the hen fluttered to escape her iron grip, Fatima dipped
the bird's beak into the jar and rubbed the lanolin around the
beak rapidly but thoroughly. Holding the hen's head in her strong
clutches, she inserted the lubricated beaks into the infant's rectum.
The doula's desire for monetary compensation was directly proportional
to her vigor in pushing on the hen, whose beak was no longer visible.
She willed the hen to arouse the desired response from the child
by fighting futilely, ultimately forcing the exhalation of its
air into the infant's lungs via his rectum. When the hen could
no longer inhale air, it would reach the point of asphyxiation.
As the doula and the other women watched, the infant began to
pant, a miraculous case of beak-to-rectum resuscitation, or perhaps
a case of infantile perseverance, which resulted in the infant's
survival and the hen's demise.
"It's a boy!" the women and the girls shouted as soon
as the doula allowed them to observe the infant's genitals. The
women's ecstatic screams masked the newborn's cries. Fatima immediately
thought, I can finally buy that head scarf, the gauzy one. I delivered
a live boy! The male infant would bring her a good bonus.
"Take him outside for some of God's air!" she commanded
one of the preadolescent girls. The girl obediently took the slippery,
onion-scented creature to the porch and laid him on a blanket.
The mother's sudden and intense hemorrhaging interrupted the
doula's palpable relief. The pregnant woman who had brought the
onion and three other women came to her rescue, but after an exhaustive
effort, the doula announced, "She has entered the gate of
heaven! May Allah's mercy and compassion be upon her! She has wasted
away. She is gone, you miserable women! Cry, you mourners! Weep
for the death of this woman!"
"I want to speak to her sister or mother," Fatima demanded
The pregnant woman replied, "Her mother is dead and her
sister didn't show. I'm Kokab, her husband's brother's wife." Her
own fear of coincidental death in labor became more noticeable,
but the woman managed to conceal her jealousy at the birth of a
male infant into her brother-in-law's family.
"Who's her husband?" the doula demanded.
"Zolfali!" another female voice shouted.
"Zolfali, the Bli--" Fatima did a lingual incision
on the word "blind" and swallowed the latter half. She
must not show disrespect to the person who would compensate her
by calling him "Zolfali, the Blind Licker." After all,
her name was likewise marred by anatomical problems. The locals
called her "Fatima, the Bald Doula," a condition she
suffered due to a dermatological disease. As she washed the infant
in a pewter pan and poured water over him from a long-spouted ewer,
she made a concentrated effort to weep. Fatima was uncertain of
her fee now that one of her two patients had not survived.
The dead mother lay on the mattress covered in blood and difficult-to-classify
secretions. Her long, black hair protruded from beneath her gauzy,
white head scarf. Tendrils of hair wreathed her head like deadly
"Send after the young dead bride's husband!" the doula
commanded, trying to render the event more tragic by referring
to the dead woman as a young bride. She had no cause to worry.
Zolfali, the Blind Licker, ultimately paid the doula a fee equivalent
to delivering a male infant, after discounting an arbitrary sum
for the postpartum death of his wife. The doula, overjoyed at earning
enough to purchase her gauzy head scarf, departed from the house
of mourners in the village of Madavan outside the township of Kamab,
Iran, three hundred kilometers from the Fars provincial capital
of Shiraz, on the tenth day of Teer, July 2, 1928.
Due to the father's ambivalence in naming his son, Barat-Ali,
Zolfali's brother, resorted to ridicule by naming the infant Sarv-e-ali,
after the tall cypress tree of Ali, the first imam in Shiite Islam.
Unfortunately Sarveali was an exceptionally small infant and became
known instead as "Sarveali, the son of Zolfali, the Blind
Licker." Zolfali, although unsighted, could lick his own forehead.
His tongue could eject, as he put it, like a monkey's penis, pink
and fleshy, and ascend to his forehead. Depending on an individual's
anatomical, physiological, vocational, sexual, or criminal idiosyncrasies
in rural areas during that era, one might easily be called "Ruhullah,
the Bushy Eye-Browed Youth Killer," "Mustafa, the Epileptic," or
even "Hassan, the Mare Mounter." Only in the mid-1930s
did it become mandatory for citizens of Iran to choose a proper
Alas, Zolfali died when the child was two years old. His maternal
aunt and her husband, a shepherd, raised Sarveali as their own.
One morning in the late spring of 1934, when Sarveali was about
to turn six, his paternal uncle, Barat-Ali, the same relative who
had named him, arrived at the shepherd's house. He said he had
come to repossess Zolfali's herd of goats and sheep that Sarveali's
aunt had claimed after her brother-in-law's death. Barat-Ali stated
that he, a male blood relative, should become the boy's guardian.
Upon hearing this explanation, the maternal aunt shouted and
pointed toward the open-air barn where the herd was kept: "So
now that we've had the boy for five years, you've come to take
him and his herd." Barat-Ali did not reply to the woman. Instead,
he thought to himself, Look at that herd! There must be a hundred
Barat-Ali's rogue nature and intractable greed were well-known. "Boy," he
demanded to Sarveali, "go get your stuff ready and come with
me... come with me and the herd. I'm your uncle, your father's
brother, Mr. Barat-Ali." Sarveali began to cry, instinctively
understanding the worst.
"Don't cry, dear nephew. I'll take care of you from now
on. Go and pack up!" Barat-Ali said. He smiled as he stole
another glimpse of his new herd.
As soon as he, the little boy, and the herd left the gate of
Nasravan, Barat-Ali began to spout orders at Sarveali. Away they
went to Madavan, the village where Sarveali had been born.
"What kind of shepherd are you?" Barat-Ali ranted as
the animals ran this way and that. "Can't you handle a few
kids and lambs?"
Sarveali started crying again, but Barat-Ali had no intention
of comforting the child. In the midst of his sadness, Sarveali
was relieved that his mini-herd had come with him. En route to
Madavan, Sarveali focused his attention on a young, pearly white
goat, his favorite since birth. He watched the goat as it walked
by a cluster of wild red anemones that had grown out of a mass
of cow dung. As soon as Sarveali admired the flowers, his uncle,
who was walking ahead of him, crushed them under his feet.
Barat-Ali's greed was defined by his name, which meant "promissory
note bestowed by Imam Ali." His own father gave him his name
at birth in an effort to encourage kismet to bequeath prosperity
on the family. Barat-Ali had spent his entire life, according to
his own proud confessions, attempting to gain prosperity by means
of theft, deceit, extortion, and other charlatan acts. In this
same rogue manner, Barat-Ali successfully gained guardianship of
his nephew. Sarveali, in essence, was to become his uncle's "barat," a
means of bringing him prosperity through the herd of sheep as well
as any future wages the boy might earn.
* * *
As soon as the jingling of bells and the baaing and bleating of
the herd sounded in Madavan, Barat-Ali's family appeared to welcome
their leader, returning successfully.
"Get me some food, woman! I brought this whole herd all
by myself." He managed to force the herd into an open-air
pen at the back of the house, while his wife, the same pregnant
Aunt Kokab who had witnessed Sarveali's birth, rushed to serve
her husband. "Gholi, hey, Gholi, here's the boy, ummm... I
mean your cousin," Barat-Ali said.
Following behind his uncle, Sarveali saw the woman his uncle
had addressed. Kokab returned Sarveali's smile without a smile,
not even a sham one. Sarveali then observed a fat boy close to
his age, eating a flat loaf of bread rolled into a tubular shape.
The first words the boy spoke to Sarveali were "I'm Gholi.
Your baba is dead; mine is alive -- hee hee." A hot tear ran
down Sarveali's cheek, but before his sobs could develop into full-blown
weeping, the entire family started at the screech of another child.
"Shut up, Yazgulu!" Kokab yelled as she turned toward
a swinging hammock on the front porch. She walked toward the little
girl and picked her up. The child's light henna hair and huge blue
eyes terrified Sarveali. He had never seen a child with eye color
that wasn't brown. He decided to minimize contact with this cousin,
imagining she was a djinn.
from Amazon.com: Baharloo's The
Quince Seed Potion
>>> Visit MortezaBaharloo.com