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The Koli By The Fire— Moniro Ravanipour

Jan 14, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Persian by Marjan Modarres Sabzevari 

 

Prancing around the tent, she was twisting her body and twirling around with any alteration in the sound of the Ney-anbān [1]. She was dragging her young and lively body towards a Manes[2] like the flickering flames that the wind had blown about. Her long magenta dress was drenched in sweat, clinging to her body. She stood there, struggling to keep her black eyes open, waiting for a man who would get exhausted from drinking, a Manes who would summon the father and put some money in his pocket, heading for the town or staying thereabouts in one of the tents afterward. The father had dropped a word in her ear:

“He’s someone important, dance beautifully, dance well.”

She had already been sitting in front of a Manes whose olive-green eyes were twinkling.

She had been dancing many nights until morning alongside the flames of firewood… 

Her mother, with swollen feet, had lain in the corner of the tent. The townspeople would turn up around the tents to fill the father’s pockets with money:

“Dance… Do you want your mother to die?”

She rolled over on the sand. The sky was bright, and the moon was close, very close:

“If I climb the palm tree, I can grab it.”

The man was walking towards her. When the man got closer, she laughed with reckless abandon and uttered:

“Oh, is that you?”

The man with olive-green eyes hesitantly stopped for a moment:

“How quaint it is! Palm trees and the sea… You have a beautiful city.”

The young girl chuckled. Manes gave her an ambiguous smile and pulled out a small notebook from his pocket. She was seemingly oblivious to the events. He caught her gaze fastened on the notebook:

“I write books, stories…”

The young girl slid forwards and held the man’s fingers with caution. They were warm. She felt warm. The man picked his head up and said:

“Can you read and write?”

“No, sir! It’s not common among us.”

“What a pity!… By the way, what’s your name?”

“Ayeneh[3].”

The man’s eyes gleamed with amusement. He gave a hearty laugh and looked at her kindly:

“It’s near morning.”

Dawn broke.

“Well, Ayeneh… It is already late… Tell me the stories tonight, whatever you can remember, and besides, I will pay you well for each one.”

“My granny knew many stories, sir…”

Late in the morning, she entered the huge tent. Kimia, the father’s young newlywed wife had been snoozing in the corner:

“You didn’t say what he wanted from you.”

“He asks for some stories. He’ll give me money for each one.”

“Be cautious of his intentions toward you!”

Law! The elderly women have been echoing the tribal rules many times, telling the same words in the girls’ ears until a man of the same heritage would appear and buy them, and all of a sudden, the young girl would give in to tribal traditions.

She sat opposite Manes:

“You’re late, sir.”

“I spent some time by the sea… on a boat.”

Reposing on the sand, she stayed next to Manes, who was smoking a cigarette. The sound of the Ney- anbān could be heard thus far. Night proceeded until the light of morning.

“You remember the address, don’t you?” Manes asked.

“Ha! Opposite the sea, a narrow alley, a home with a green shenashir[4] and three full-length windows facing the sea.”

“Bravo, Ayeneh…”

The mother’s voice was resonating through her mind: “I merely abandoned her for half an hour, and she disgraced herself.”

It was late in the evening when she left for that alley… The father was still asleep, but the others were awake… awake… Ten days later, the tribe found out. She had gone to that alley more often, following the words of Manes, a man who had come from Tehran and used to ask:

“What do you sell, sad and bare-chested girl?”

“I sell the seas, sir,” she had learned to say.

It was near noon, and the sun was above the square. Silence. You have stood in the middle of the square for your father to fling off the stars from your eyes with the same hands which used to caress your cheeks… one star… two stars… a thousand stars, and now the world becomes dark.

“Shame on you… Will you tell me which fiend did this to you?”

The first day was for the father to hit her until his exhaustion, then it was the Saffari men’s turn… She didn’t name anyone. In the middle of the sixth night, the tribe mounted up. Ayeneh was tossed into a corner like a stone. The only thing left for her was a bag of old clothes and her memorabilia from her mother. She was crawling on the ground.

Saffari Tribe… At dawn, Ayeneh blew into her injuries, put the palm of her hand on the ground, leaned on her knees, and went towards something which she had noticed further afield… an ewer… her father’s ewer… the ewer which he used to gather and keep his money in, buried in the ground. Father! Have you too broken the rules of the tribe for love, father? She hugged the ewer, it smelled of her father, the smell of his affection…

“Don’t run away, Ayeneh… Where are you going, in the end?”

“Nowhere, I will merely get out of this story.”

“Good for you, Ayeneh…”

“Good for her?”

“The heroine can get away from the story, but I am alive, breathing, and there is no exit for me. My hands and feet are pinned to the barriers of this life. Where can I get away from life?”

“Are you crying? You, you who can write?… Let’s get away together, ha?”

“I can’t, the characters of my story will find me wherever I go.”

“I am the leading heroine, if I were not…”

“No, you’re not, I am writing this story based on a female artist’s paintings, and…”

“And what?”

“I’ve lost my Manes, too. I am writing this book to publish it, and to find him, if you stay, the story will end, you will go to Tehran as well, and find your Manes… we are each other’s saviors.”

Ayeneh opened her eyes. She found herself in the town, in that narrow alley, pressed the bell, and looked up to see Manes appear, but a man with shaggy hair leaning on the shenashir said:

“He’s gone… He wasn’t an acquaintance of mine. He was just a Nowruzi[5] guest.”

Late at night, when Nowruzi travelers abandoned the sea, she could rest, facing the black sea under the protection of rocks, staying away from the young people who had been chasing her along. In the tumult of waves, she heard the waterfront workers chatting:

“It’s Ayeneh… The tribe threw her out… It’s said that she was beaten ten days and nights…”

“I’d gone to their tents twice.”

“I’d seen her, too…”

“It’s not clear which fiend did this to her…”

“The way she danced, men yearned to…”

The smell of bread was the smell of life. She was holding a piece of bread with both hands like a two-year-old child as she ate it.

“Where is the warm presence of koli women?” she asked herself as she walked towards the main street.

Laughing, a mischievous little boy threw a stone at Ayeneh. A male passerby hurried through the child:

“Bastards…”

The town was kind to her!

And the men of the town were restlessly squirming in bed and thinking about the neighborhood of “women for men from all around,” and they would stare at each other’s eyes drowsily every morning to tentatively discover Ayeneh’s figure and…

Ayeneh started her journey to Shiraz.

She was sitting in a lorry; the driver was a middle-aged man with half-gray hair and a bushy mustache, clasping the steering wheel the whole way. He lit a cigarette, just past the mass of palm trees.

“It’ll be OK. Don’t worry, I already told you that my daughter, Maryam, is a student at the University of Shiraz… I will take you there… consider her to be your sister,” he said with a raspy and kind voice. 

Ayeneh was roused from her slumber amid some commotion. Some soldiers were checking the lorries. A young and skinny soldier wearing a new, loose uniform asked the driver:

“Driver’s license!”

The driver showed his card.

“What have you loaded?”

“Cotton.”

“Have you loaded cotton, or a passenger?”

“She is looking for her relatives.”

“Right, you are released, but she stays here ’til her situation gets figured out.”

Ayeneh ran after the lorry, shouting. The soldiers surrounded her while their officer approached and asked, “Who is she? They reported opium smuggling to us, and you guys catch a girl instead?”

“Sir, her relatives have gone to Shiraz, we should stop a passenger bus for her,” said the soldier.

Shiraz… Qur’an Gate of Shiraz…

The old cemetery… Her own home, the burn-faced woman’s…

“Nobody asks for fortune-telling here… Let’s go to the parks.”

“What’s the difference?… I work and earn money,” said the burn-faced woman.

“It’s not in me to take someone else’s money.”

On Wednesday, the park was almost empty of people. A cool breeze touched her skin as she sat next to a small pool.

“Tell our fortune…”

They were four young guys. She had noticed them before getting into the park. She already knew the real story was different…

“Money, clothes, and food… Whatever you want… We are only four guys…”

“Get lost, or I’ll let the whole city know!” Ayeneh yelled.

They followed her, the one who had no voice.

Holding her bony throat, she ran and ran. Out of breath and soaked in sweat, she got home.

The burn-faced woman had bought a lantern for their home.

“We already had lanterns at home,” Ayeneh said impatiently.

“Here is still dark, Ayeneh,” she muttered under her breath with eyes half-closed, “Here is dark. I can’t. I’m short of breath.”

It was a Thursday… The home with plenty of lights and a mirror hanging on the wall that proliferated the light of the lanterns… The burn-faced woman sat among the lighted lanterns, no longer saying any words… Tearing down the street, the flames were sparking, sent out of her body as she smiled a puzzling and shamefaced smile, as if she lay in a kind man’s arms… Anxiously, you stood next to the road, waving your hand. You screamed…

She collapsed onto the hospital bed. Only her eyes remained unburnt. With every cry of pain, bloody stains blossomed on the bandages… poppies, poppies… and at the last dawn, the injuries on her body flamed as Ayeneh heard her distant voice:

“Do you want to know the story of fire…?”

The story of fire is an ancient narrative. It was the time when the world was dark and nobody existed on the earth except a man and a woman. The woman lost her man and began to search for him melancholically. The woman sighed, and her cries of anguish reached the sky, and the seed of the sun was formed. From now on, the woman is seeking the man better in the light of the world. She is seeking and seeking, and she eventually finds him. The man watches his own image gazing into the lake water. The woman sits next to the man and talks to him to remind him of the past, but he does not respond. Only once in a while turning to see his own image in the woman’s eyes… The woman gets frustrated. She shuts her mouth. She does not talk, does not cry any longer, holding her sighs inside until the day that they turn to flame.

This is the first fire on Earth, the first fire by which the first man in the world can keep himself warm…

“Ayeneh, where are you going? This bakery is less crowded.”

“I’m looking for a crowded bakery to get home late.”

“Why?”

“Why have you brought so many people into the story?”

“Who?”

“All the young people who come to Maryam’s home nightly, they constantly make plans against the government.”

“Ayeneh! These young people have given up everything to help poor people like you…”

“You yourself know that poverty didn’t throw me out of the tents, the hands of the dead were in it…”

If I did not have a hold of the basement keys, I would not have stood there for hours in front of the walls, looking at the paintings. Some were still fresh as if they were finished yesterday by Farzaneh, the painter.

Tehran was not dressed in blue.

Tehran was not dressed in green.

Tehran had a lifeless, white sky.

On the 5th of March, 1981, nobody died.

The university was mad, like one who did not know what he was saying nor knew what he wanted… Ayeneh came up, looking pale:

“Stand up, Golafrooz…”

“Money, the money made by selling newspapers,” said Golafrooz.

Ayeneh said: “Let it go… Maryam.”

How long had she been walking? Where was she? In an old neighborhood, she looked around, sitting on a platform in darkness, and she saw a man emerging from the shadows who wore an attire very similar to a priest’s robe with a color uncannily similar to night. Ayeneh got frightened and wanted to get away. She heard his voice:

“What are you doing up here in the darkness, my daughter?”

Father Yuhanna closed the book. Ayeneh had been sitting on her knees in front of him. Golafrooz had been lounging and languishing on the sofa.

“Sin and mankind are born together.”

“What kind of sin, Father Yuhanna?”

“The first sin, Adam and Eve’s sin.”

She wanted to take calm steps, holding the painter’s home address in her hands and kept looking at home numbers. It was written on the second bell: “Hannibal.”

Hannibal, the painter, was a 50-year-old man who had a long white beard, always with a smile on his lips:

“Hello… Hello… I’m making a bet that you’re the one who paints Christ as a woman… Well! Don’t imitate, leave Christ and Maryam behind for Father Yuhanna, paint from life… If you work well, you’ll be one of our good painters in ten years.”

Once again, Nowruz arrives. Where would the Nowruzi travelers go…? And the voice, the familiar distant voice had resonated through her mind for a week, not leaving her in peace. Someone’s groan seemed to be let out from far away, calling her. It was the estranged voice of her father… I shall take the newspapers with myself, and all those with my photo in them…

The Koli’s story is finished. Entirely finished.

She opens the old chest… puts on that long magenta dress. Ayeneh places the anklets on, stands in front of the mirror, and asks:

“Is that you…?”

Laughing drunkenly, she says:

“Yes, I am you.”

“Shall we dance?”

“We shall dance.”


Notes:  

[1] Ney-anbān: A traditional Middle Eastern flute
[2] Manes: A guest to gypsies, companion  
[3] Ayeneh: A Persian girl’s name, that means ‘mirror’ in English           
[4] Shenashir: Mashrabiya, also known as Shanshuūl or rūshān 
[5] Nowruzi: Relating to Nowruz (Persian New Year)


Also, read a lyrical prose piece, written in Bengali by Shankar Lahiri, translated into English by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri, and published in The Antonym:

This Heart, The Sinking Depths…— Shankar Lahiri (Part One)


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Moniro Ravanipour, an Iranian-American author, was born in Jofreh, a village on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Her birthplace has had a substantial impact on her writing career. In addition to children’s stories, Ravanipour has written many short stories, several novels, and a few screenplays. Her short stories have been translated into many languages. Ravanipour’s short stories have been published in PEN America, World Literature Today, and CONSEQUENCE Magazine. You can follow her on Facebook.

Marjan Modarres Sabzevari (born September 18, 1986, in Yazd, Iran) is a lecturer and literary translator, and her poetry translations can be found online and in print. They have been published in Columbia Journal, Denver Quarterly, and Circumference Magazine. She has a master’s degree in English language and literature and a bachelor’s degree in English translation. She can be found on Facebook.

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