November 7, 2000
In 1950, a hearty healthy youth of excellent looks named Ahmad Bashiri
had been an ace student at Tehran University. An outgoing, gregarious young
man, he played soccer and volleyball, and was a member of as many youth
organizations as there were, some working as fronts for political parties
of opposing programs. He attended all their meetings, parties and fund-raisers,
minding everyone's business but his own, which was not much of a business
as of yet. It kept him busy with the lighter side of life. A side he wished
he never had to leave.
But the early fifties in Iran were trying times, the exciting ever-changing
times of intellectual and artistic activities, when everyone seemed to
belong to a party, a cause, an ideology. At the junction of the oil nationalization
frenzy, Ahmad graduated from college with good enough grades to land a
job with the National Railroad Organization of Iran as an engineer, and
since he was the first engineer ever to come out of the Bashiri stock,
the title stuck to him with the glue of affection and became part of his
name: Engineer Ahmad Bashiri.
Standing a head and shoulder above his peers at six four, with a head
full of wavy pitch-black hair, combed upwards and away from his face, he
was the sensation of the railroad organization. Hopeful secretaries and
other female employees of no particular repute flocked to his office building
on phony premises just to take a peep at the dashing young man whose star
shone brighter than any other male in that corner of the world, and who,
above all, was still unmarried. And he took his time with each and every
one of them. There was an Army cot in the den of his office, a relic of
camping ventures from his university days, which opened and shut noiselessly
with the regularity of the moon chasing the sun. Scores of secretaries,
a good portion of them married, lost their hearts there on that cot, and
did not mind doing so even during regular working hours. He was wild, insatiably
whonking away at them, and they responded to his fervent pursuit with their
own small grunts of satisfaction.
An ideal arrangement had offered itself to Ahmad for which he was grateful.
He was renting a basement near the Gomrok Intersection. His landlord was
an artist, a painter of nature, who constantly sought virginal scenes of
plains, deserts and snow-capped mountains. He lived above the basement,
but was often away, on the road to the remote regions of the country, in
pursuit of his muse. Unlike most artists of his time, though, he was void
of any political convictions; just liked to take long trips to far out
places in the bosom of nature to draw pictures of mountains, trees, cattle.
Which presented to Ahmad an unreal proposition: with numerous colleagues
of the opposite sex, he could put the different parts of the house into
good, memorable use. As long as the artist was himself a single man, although
advancing in age, this compromise could not have worked any better to both
But in three years time, his landlord met and married a widow and, before
long, had moved her and her daughter into the house. If it was not for
the faithful cot in the den of his office, the damper on the philandering
years of Engineer Ahmad could have been blamed on the new arrangement in
his living situation. But the folding bed offered its services as generously
as before. What slowed down the Engineer, then? What dampened his appetite,
softened his manhood? It was not a lack of a lair that had matured him,
that's for sure. Then what? It could be safely said that a new hobby had
appeared in his life, which he had not foreseen nor for which had he allotted
a slight chance: the widow's daughter.
Maryam was her name. A slight girl of seventeen, with a small face and
curious, glittering gemstone eyes that were black with tiny streaks of
orange, which could cast a spell if you were not careful. And careless,
careless he was. From the moment his eyes stroked her face, that instant
the sun-rays reflected her dream-like being before his eyes; from the moment
his ears tingled with her melodious voice, the sound of her soft feet on
the tiles of the yard, the rustle of her starched dress-from that moment
his heart found a higher reason to beat in his chest: a high school student
of womanly proportions.
Engineer Ahmad knew from then that he was badly in love with her, because
day and night his mind was a-swim with the image of her slender figure,
an image he could vanquish only with conquering of a female form. From
that day, it was not the usual women that he made love to on that cot anymore.
It was Maryam, in different clothes and shapes and temperaments. He had
her in a variety of ways in that office of his: on her back, on her sides,
on all fours from behind, on top with her hair pouring down on his face,
underneath, standing behind the door, bent over the desk, astride a bench,
under the desk, every which way over and over, and every time he opened
his eyes she disappointed him by transforming into someone else: his boss's
wife, the secretary down the hall, or any one of the other women he associated
with in those days. He was disappointed again and again, and did not know
quite what to do about the blaze that burned in his soul.
The artist's long absences provided an excellent opportunity for his
tenant to get near his daughter, the ephemeral subject of his obsession.
She was preparing for her twelfth grade finals that spring, and often she
would come out to study, but sometimes, like women secure in the knowledge
of their desirability, she would come out just to tease. She would sit
outdoors in sleeveless shirts, or otherwise a casual dress, showing off
her smooth skin, slender neck, silken hair. And she almost never failed
to lure him outside. There were always thick books around her, even when
she was not studying. That was what made her most comfortable, having books
laying about to leaf through; something to keep her delicate fingers busy
with. Or else, she would be resting on the steps leading to the yard, combing
her waist-length hair that was darker than night, or polishing her self-manicured
The game they played always included her pretending to be busy with
her schoolwork, hair, nails, anything but engaging in this cat-and-mouse
game with her step-father's tenant. His room in the basement opened into
the yard by way of a series of sliding windows that covered the whole side
of the room, and went under the metal steps, so that when she sat on top
of the stairs, he could hear the sound of her feet on the metal. Noticing
her up there, he would rush to make his appearance, always initiating the
conversation by inquiring about the school; if there was anything she needed
help with; if there was anything he could do to assist her. She then would
stop and raise her head from whatever she was doing, and politely, with
an affectation of innocence in her voice, answer his inquiries. School
was usually fine, there was nothing she needed help with; she would give
him a smile, a note of gratitude for his offers.
That's how they played it, safe and innocent. A conversation would follow
with him not taking his eyes off her, but offering her his pack of smoke.
He knew she liked to smoke out in the open air. On occasion he had seen
her smuggling a cigarette inside her books and smoking it when she was
sure she was not being watched. Although she felt comfortable around him,
(she would even smile at his jokes) the offers of smoke she dared not accept
for fear of incurring a debt she could not pay back.
Between them there were always two conversations going on at the same
time: one they carried on the surface with their polite discussions of
school and future plans and dreams, the other, a subtle give-and-take of
coded messages, which involved trading glances, hand gestures and flirtatious
tones of voice that hinted at the existence of a world of exotic secrets
and sweet yearnings beyond the normal facade of life. While they both engaged
in the first form out of necessity, they treasured the second, and indeed
bore the first in order to benefit from the second. Thus their affection
for each other grew in the most amicable of ways-not without her mother's
guidance-and so did his love for her.
He deemed it sensible to await her graduation before professing his
love, lest it cause any distractions during her finals. Love could be an
embarrassing proposition to a woman of such a tender age, and he did not
wish to embarrass her with what he was desperate to say. . . . But as it
turned out, the artist did not find Ahmad suitable for his step-daughter,
and straight-away rejected his bid to become his daughter's spouse. Ahmad
blamed his timing this rejection, but truth be known, the artist had been
preoccupied with a peculiar problem at the time: his work-in-progress.
When the youngster had stopped him to talk about his heart, he had dismissed
him by waving a hand and saying, "It's a ridiculous idea, son."
"But why? Am I not good enough? Don't I have a bright enough future?"
"That may be . . ."
The artist's elusiveness was perturbing to the young suitor who had
no previous experience of this sort. The trick was to stick to the facts
only, and hope for the best. "Don't forget that I'm an engineer, sir.
I've found my way."
But even his position at the railway organization failed to impress
the artist. Of course, the artist knew Ahmad was trying to tell him that
he was able to support a family, and that he was by no means a bum without
a future. That, however, was not what the artist was concerned about. He
was presently concerned about a specific shade of orange that he had seen
on his last trip, in the sky covering a village in Kurdistan. If it had
been anyone else in the painter's shoes, he would gladly have allowed Ahmad
marry his daughter. But the artist almost ran upstairs to hide himself
in the building. That special shade of orange proved more onerous to produce
than he had allowed. The truth was, he wanted his step-daughter to marry
a fellow artist. "Any fool can find his way," were his last words
to Ahmad before disappearing into the building. "An artist alone knows
how to lose it."
Slightly dismayed but not given up, Ahmad talked his dilemma over with
his brother who was wise enough to suggest recruiting the help of the family
elders. His advice was not without merit. Only the elders could talk the
kind of nonsense that would make sense to the artist, hopefully getting
him to come around. Shortly thereafter, Ahmad sent a long message to his
brother explaining, in tortuous detail, his predicament, adding that if
he did not marry this girl, he might as well die because life without her
would be impossible.
At long last, the day came when Ahmad, in the company of his brother
and Uncle Farrokh went up the stairs to the artist's home to ask for the
step-daughter's hand. The artist had just come back from a trip to the
south, and was full of anecdotes with which he set out to entertain his
guests for three hours. Protocol suggested that the guests sit patiently
through his dull observations, until he ran out of things to say. A moth
flew about aimlessly, colliding with the walls. He had seen the flock of
oil workers and their demonstrations for higher wages, and had painted
a few landscapes of the ocean. Palms and dates, and Arab women with their
black masks. The humidity, the bitter salt-water, barefooted children in
the dusty alleys, the inoffensive foghorn of the oil tankers that had been
prevented by the British to load the Iranian oil as a protest to Mossadegh.
When finally Farrokh veered the conversation toward the purpose of their
visit, the artist threw his brows upward, and closed his eyes to convey
he did not take it lightly. He told the guests that on the surface he had
no problem with Ahmad marrying his daughter. What better son-in-law than
an educated young man like his tenant? Where else could his daughter find
a better man? "But I can't speak for her, you see. She's the one who
Presently, Maryam's small figure came to life, standing by her mother,
grinning widely, eyes on the floor, mumbling something to the effect that
yes, she would choose the man before her to be her husband-a progression
the artist had not included in his forethought. But if that was what she
had chosen, then there was only one other obstacle he could throw in their
way: "What had the gentlemen in mind about the dowry?" A question
well-timed and fatherly put. "As the father of the bride, I demand
a dowry of sixty kilograms of mosquito-wings."
A peculiar deadpan silence fell upon the room. As to the nature of this
bizarre bid nothing could be said except the reaction it invoked among
those present. Not a regular silence, mind you, in which human sounds of
breathing, moving uncomfortably and such could still be heard, or the clink
of silverware against a china plate. Nothing of the sort. Not the kind
commonly referred to as the lull before the storm, either. This was a silence
of confusion, because nobody moved, breathed, or even allowed his pupils
to wander. All eyes basted the artist's face in disbelief. Had they heard
him correctly, or had he gone insane in the span of a few minutes? No one
even attempted to get into the artist's head during that short interval
to see why he had said what he had said.
Even Uncle Farrokh, who had been especially summoned for his quick wits
and clever remarks, was dumbfounded. All he could think of was to ask the
host to please repeat himself, just to make sure that his ears had not
betrayed him. "Aarreh baba, the dowry," triumphantly came the
response. "And I hope you're not of the belief that dowries are a
thing of the past, because we're not. Sixty kilos of mosquito-wings, please."
Now that it was established that the artist was completely out of this
world, the suitor and his company looked at each other and tried to formulate
their response without having to excuse themselves to the privacy of the
adjacent room. They tugged and pulled at the proffer put forward, and tried
to conjure up the ulterior motives behind such an unusual request. Time
was running out. Something had to be said there and then, but what? The
compounding pressure proved too much for Ahmad, who became red as a lobster
and left the room. Maryam, who was still standing beside the door, let
out a loud sigh and followed him, banging the door shut on her way out.
If a notion of the man and his character was had by those present, a
window into his mind could be found. Perhaps then it would have been reasoned
out that in his convoluted inference, no man could come up with sixty kilograms
of mosquito-wings, therefore no future son-in-law would take leave of his
daughter should she lose her excellent features to the passing of her prime.
But as it stood, that jewel escaped them like a wild animal. All they knew,
based on their inadequate knowledge of dealing with the art community,
the man's demand was a farce. Sly and artful, in the worst sense of the
As Ahmad left the room among the peehs and poohs and sighs and the final
bang of the door, the solution came to Uncle Farrokh slowly, slowly. He
calmed everyone down, and it was seen in his composure that he was in full
control of the parley. His final remark, which was just as crazy as the
demand itself, astonished the artist even further. "That's fine by
us. We accept; no problem. And please call our lovebirds in. We have much
to celebrate." Although at this point Ahmad was happy about the prospect
of marriage, he was still low on account of the terms of the dowry to which
his uncle had accorded on his behalf. If it had been money, or jewelry,
he would have no objection. That would have been expected. But, sixty kilos
The government had begun a fierce campaign against malaria in Mauzandaraun
and Geelon, drying the marshlands and swamps, establishing vaccination
programs, and setting up clinics that admitted hundreds of patients throughout
the northern plates. Not to say that success was imminent, but there was
progress, and the promise of swift justice for the killer mosquitoes. Farrokh
Bashiri was a lawyer for the Health Department, on extremely good terms
with the top ranking executives. "I can even collect a hundred kilos,"
he said. "What're you worried about? But, inshallah, you will marry
this girl and stay with her forever." A point the artist could not
have agreed with more.
Theirs was a story of requited love that ended in marriage. With a ring
symbolizing his eternal love for her, which she wore to the day she died,
and the odd terms of the dowry that caused quite a few eyebrows to take
an upward swing. Things seemed to go smoothly for a few years. Taken for
granted were the regular promotions that came his way and the children
that came hers, first the twins, then a girl. For some time she had wanted
to find work outside the home, but the new family additions pretty much
determined the fate of her ambitions.
As years burned by, the olive Army cot had remained in the den of his
office, unused, until he moved up to a managerial position, changed his
office and gave it away. A huge desk occupied his new office, and the rest
of the room was taken up by cameras, surveying tools and tripods, a transit
and a level, rolled maps and aerial photographs and small doll-size renditions
of trains and locomotives on a set of tiny railway tracks.
If anyone had asked him what was the most immediate concern in his life,
he would undoubtedly mention the names of his twin boys and his daughter
for whom he would lay down his very life. His love for them coupled that
of his love for Maryam who was a model of a mother and spouse by anyone's
standard. But as stories go, a distraction appeared in his life (or there
would be no story).
Into the bliss of his marriage walked one Miss Yakobi, the widow; the
new secretary who was, on top of her normal responsibilities, a first rate
typist and a recent graduate of the secretarial school, who could churn
out immaculate letters befitting an up and coming manager. Her skills in
the office aside, the day she was hired would be known as the end of the
calm. For Miss Yakobi was, in many ways, a reminder of his bachelorhood:
curvaceously formed, lusciously behaved, vivaciously spirited, voraciously
countenanced; in short: sensuous to the eye. She was not that young, or
that naive, or coy by any stretch of the imagination. She gave off the
scent of wild African flowers, which revealed as much about her as the
cleavage-bearing clothing she chose to wear to work. Her femininity was
not exaggerated in them or in the make-up she wore which concentrated around
a pair of tiger eyes, full firm lips and high cheeks, but exuded in the
way she held her head up and maintained a look that would be characterized
as one of a decisive hunter. It was the lack of a trite femaleness that
attracted aggressive and power-hungry men.
Equipped with all devices of allure, she was a man-trap disguised as
a secretary. Thus the stage was set; no hope left for the Romeo in Ahmad's
heart. What he did: for the second time in his life, he fell in love. When?
Sixty-five days, to be exact, after Miss Yakobi started working for him.
How come? Need not ask, but the evidence was there, in his own bedroom;
he became empty of all desires for his own wife, to the point that she
had to beg him for love-making. Maryam's desire for him no longer carried
a weight, much like the wings of the mosquitoes he had promised in the
dowry settlement. There she would sit at the foot of the bed and weep her
eyes out, enumerating the number of weeks they had not been intimate with
each other. "We haven't made love in such a long time, I feel like
I don't know you anymore, Ahmad." And all he could do was to blame
the workload and fatigue and God-knew what.
Oh there were pockets of resistance in his being, to be sure, no one
claims otherwise. Days in which he scorned himself for even thinking about
Miss Yakobi. Days in which he regretted having hired her in the first place,
or in which he regretted not having considered getting rid of her at first
chance. But the cunning Miss Yakobi deflated each and every lament by appearing
before him with those long legs of hers, a swing of her hips, an accidental
brushing against his shoulder of her brimming chest. If he were to lean
in the opposite direction of her advances, this would not dissuade the
ruthless predator that Miss Yakobi had resolved to be. She would thrust
her bosom further in his way, as if saying, Can you resist these? Can you
not touch? Can you not want to bite?
Then the inevitable happened as the inevitable usually does.
One day when she had gone to his office looking for a file, their eyes
met and he became a sobbing confessor of love. To his sorry shape she reacted
with utter skepticism. "Na, na boss. That kind of talk isn't becoming
of you. Not agreeing with your character." She had done, as it appeared,
a little investigation around the office; there were old colleagues and
past paramours who were more than willing to dump the beans. The National
Railroad Organization of Iran's female employees had long memories, and
longer tongues, which left no secrets unrevealed. For the sake of Engineer
Ahmad's new object of fascination, they had recalled forgotten stories
of indecent trysts that followed unmet vows, empty words before triumphs,
high talk that preceded unchaste deeds and misdeeds.
Miss Yakobi was no actress. She wanted no victim part to play. She would
be the culprit if anything. She wanted that talk done away with. So she
found Engineer Ahmad's supplicating a turn-off - do it but don't name it.
"Control yourself, boss," said Miss Yakobi with obvious delight.
"I'm just a typist, na? That's all." She was delightful and therefore
unfair; she giggled the kind of giggles that bespoke intrigue, while seductively
offering this or that limb of her fair frame to his hungry touch. The truth
of the matter is that she did not mind the touch of it, only the talk of
it. As though naming spoiled her pleasure of the illicit deed.
That day, as the air grew sticky with aroused desires, he gave in to
her instruction, and felt and groped different parts of her well-developed
form in a perverse silence; the whole time wondering about her and himself
in that awkward position. A ritual established itself out of that encounter.
She followed him around the office when they where alone, and, fully clothed,
availed herself to his transgression without going all the way. His advances
went further as days went by and, as long as they were made in silence,
each day she let him discover something new, filling him with unsatisfied
urges that came and went beyond an outright obsession. In this she observed
two rules: never baring her skin, and never, ever letting him have his
way with her. Now what man could stop or reject that proposition?
Three weeks of that, and there was the question of being discovered.
Also: the idle time in between their touching sessions that was spent in
anticipation contributed to an immense work pile-up. Above all, the muteness
of it killed him, and the lack of resolve. She still held back, though,
denying him even a taste of her lips until he was able to prove his love.
"God knows I love you. I haven't loved my wife even, the way I
"Sorry, boss. Na. Been burned before. Can't trust men. Bye-bye."
"Don't go, yet. Stay here. What do you want me to do to prove that
I mean what I say? What? You just, just name it."
Na, na. She would not speak it. As for the question of resolve, he said
he would kill himself if she did not offer herself completely, without
restraint. But it did not soften her heart. Then he threatened to kill
her. Still, when she heard the distinct sound of a zipper, or felt the
warmth of his hand anywhere near the Danger Zone, she would dash out the
door without notice. And when he threatened to fire her, she stared at
him icily, and said: "Na, na. Plenty at stake. There's much your wife
and I could discuss over a glass of herb tea and almond biscuits."
The daunting realization that he had brought down his own house poured
over him like a cold bucket of water.
Ravishing Miss Yakobi, who looked like a sex-kitten ready to be pounced,
had turned a winning hand. She had him in her clutches, and knew it too.
From that day on, she acted around the office as though she were the only
pebble on the beach. She appeared not to care anymore about the day-to-day
operation of his office. Whole files were misplaced, messages were lost,
phones were allowed to ring longer than necessary before earning her attention,
the boss's tea did not come on time, or came only when it was cold. She
still availed herself to his probing fingers, though, just to fuel the
magic. But even that came by less frequently.
What did she want him to do? Pound water in a mortar? Whatever it was,
somehow he figured it out on his own. With his final decision regarding
his marriage, theirs became a story of requited love that ended in marriage
that ended, pure and simple. Engineer Ahmad Bashiri left his wife of six
years and married Miss Yakobi at the city hall, period.
What became of the dowry settlement? Facts are not conclusive. To save
time, the following fact is reproduced here without interpretation. An
anonymous truck unloaded a nightly cargo over the wall surrounding the
house of an artist located on Gomrok Intersection. The content of the cargo
. . . appeared to be . . . sixty kilograms of insect-wings . . .