24 Restless Hours

24 Restless Hours

By: Samad Behrangi

(June 24, 1939 – August 31, 1967)

Dear Readers,

I didn’t write the story “24 Restless Hours” to set an example for you. My purpose is rather that you become better acquainted with your fellow children and think about a solution to their problems.

Samad Behrangi

If I were to write everything that happened to me in Tehran, it would take several volumes and perhaps be dull. Therefore I will recount only the last twenty-four hours which shouldn’t be so tiresome. Of course I must also tell you how it happened that my father and I came to Tehran.

My father had been out of work for several months. Finally he and I left my mother, sister and brothers at home and went to Tehran in hope of finding others from our hometown who had been able to find work there. One acquaintance had an ice stand. Another bought and sold used clothing, and a third was an orange vendor.

My father also managed to obtain a hand cart and become a vendor. He hawked onions, potatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables, earning enough to provide us with a bit of food and send something home to my mother as well. Sometimes I accompanied my father on his rounds, and sometimes I hung around the streets by myself, returning to my father only at night. Once in a while I sold wrapped rial chewing gum, charms and other such things. 

Now let’s get on with the story of my last twenty-four hours in Tehran. That night, Qasem, Ahmad Hossien, and the son of Zivar the lottery ticket vendor, and I were there as well as two others who had become our friends an hour earlier in front of the bank.

We four had been sitting on the steps in front of the bank discussing where to go to throw dice when the two newcomers came and sat beside us. Both of them were bigger than we were. One had a blind eye. The other was wearing new black shoes, but one dirty knee stuck out of a hole in his pants. Those two were worse off than we were. 

The four of us began stealing glances at the new shoes. Then we eyed the fellow’s face as well. Looking at each other, we boys whispered: “Friends, be careful, for we’re at the side of a shoe thief.”

The fellow noticed our stares and demanded, “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever worn shoes before?”

“Leave’em alone, Mahmud,” said his friend, “Don’t you see their navels and asses sticking out? The poor things, how could they buy shoes?” 

“You’re right, that was a stupid question,” Mahmud agreed. “I’m looking at their bare feet and yet I ask them if they haven’t ever worn shoes.”

His friend with the blind eye said, “Not everyone has a rich papa like yours who spends money like sand buying new shoes for his kid.”

Both of them fell into a fit of laughter. We four were completely baffled. Ahmad Hossien looked at Zivar’s boy. They both looked at Qasem. Then the three of them looked at me: “What shall we do? Get rid of them or let them go on hooting with laughter and making fun of us?”

“You thief!” I challenged Mahmud, “You stole the shoes!”

They both burst out laughing. The blind guy poked his buddy in the side with his elbow and kept saying, “Didn’t I say so, Mahmud? …Ha ha! …Didn’t I say so? …Heh heh…Heh…Heh!….”

Cars of all colors were parked along the street, so tightly packed that there seemed to be a steel wall stretched before us. Then a red car right in front of me started up, opening a space so I could see into the street.

All kinds of vehicles -taxis, cars, buses- jammed the street and slowly moved along bumper to bumper, making a lot of noise and generating confusion. They seemed to be shoving each other and shouting at one another. I think Tehran is the most crowded spot on earth and this street the most crowded in Tehran.

The blind guy and his friend were about to faint from laughter. I wished to god we’d get into a fight. I’d learned a new swear word and wanted to try it out, given even the slightest excuse. I wished Mahmudwould slap me. Then I could get angry and say to him, “You hit me? I’ll cut off your balls with a knife! Yeh,me!” With this in mind, I grabbed Mahmud by the collar and shouted, “lf you’re not a thief, then who bought the shoes for you?”

This time they stopped laughing. Mahmud quickly jerked free and said, “Sit down, kid. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The blind guy separated us saying, “Let him go, Mahmud. You don’t want to start a fight at this time of night. Let’s enjoy the fun while it lasts.”

The four of us still wanted to beat them up hut Mahmud and the blind guy just wanted to joke around and have a few laughs.

“Look, Brother,” Mahmud told me, “we don’t want to get into a fight tonight. If you want a fight, let it wait til tomorrow night.” And the blind guy said, “Tonight we just want to talk and laugh a little. Okay?”

“All right,” I said.

A shiny automobile stopped across from us and parked in an empty space. A man, a woman, a little boy and a fluffy white poodle stepped out. The little boy was exactly the same height as Ahmad Hossien and was wearing shorts, white socks and two-tone sandals. His hair was combed and oiled. In one hand he held a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses, and his other hand was clasped in his father’s. The woman, with bare arms and legs and wearing high heeled shoes, was holding the puppy’s leash. As she passed, we smelled lovely perfume. Qasem picked up a nutshell at his feet and threw it hard at the back of the little boy’s head. The little boy came back, looked at us and said, “Bums!”

“Get lost, sissy!” spit out Ahmad Husayn angrily.

I seized the opportunity to say, “I’m going to cut off your balls with a knife.”

The others all burst into laughter. The father took the little boy’s hand, and they entered a hotel a few meters up the street.

Again all eyes turned towards Mahmud’s new shoes. “Shoes aren’t really so important to me,” said Mahmud amicably. “If you want, you can have them.” Then he turned to Ahmad Hossien and said, “Come here, shorty. Come on, take off the shoes and put them on your own feet.”

Ahmad Hossien threw a suspicious look at Mahmud’s feet and didn’t move. “Why do you stand and stare?” Mahmud asked. “Don’t you want the shoes? Well, come and get them.”

This time Ahmad Husayn stood up, went over to Mahmud, and bent down to take off the shoes. We three looked on without saying anything. Ahmad Hossien took a firm grip on Mahmud’s foot and tugged, but his hands slipped, and he fell back on the sidewalk. Mahmud and the blind guy broke out into such laughter that I was sure their stomachs would start aching. Ahmad Husayn’s hands were black. The blind guy kept poking Mahnnul and saying, “Didn’t I say so, Mahmud! …Ha, ha…Ha! …Didn’t I say so? …Heh, heh…!”

You could see where Ahmad Hossien’s fingns had slipped on Mahmud’s foot. The three of us finally realized we’d been tricked. The laughter of those two jokers was contagious; we burst out laughing too.  Ahmad Hossien resentfully got up off the sidewalk, looked at us a minute, and then he started to laugh too. We laughed as if we’d never stop! Passersby stared at us then moved on. I leaned over and examined Mahmud’s foot closely- there wasn’t any shoe! Mahmud had merely painted his feet to look like he was wearing new black shoes. It was quite a trick! “Why don’t we play dice,” Mahmud suggested. 

I had four rials. Qasem didn’t say how much money he had. Our two new friends had five rials. Zivar’s kid had ten rials. Ahmad Hossien had no money whatsoever.   We went a ways down  the street and began to throw dice in front of a closed shop, drawing straws to start the game. Zivar’s son got the longest one. He threw the dice and got a five. Then Qasem threw and got a six. So he took a rial from Zivar’s son and threw again. He got a two. He threw the dice to Mahmud who got a four. “This must be my lucky night!” shouted Mahmud, clapping his hands in glee and picking up two rials from Qasem. We threw the dice in pairs, like this, playing in succession.

When two well-dressed young men came along from the right, Ahmad Hossien ran forward and pleaded. “A rial…Sir, give me a rial…Come on! …” One of the men slapped Ahmad Hossien and shoved him aside. Ahmad Hossien ran in front of them and begged again, “Sir, give me a rial … A rial is nothing at all … Please….”

As they passed in front of us, the young man grabbed Ahmad Hossien by the back of the neck, lifted him up, and put him on his stomach on the guard rail at the side of the street so his head hung towards the street and his feet towards the sidewalk. Ahmad Hossien flayed out his arms and legs until his feet reached the ground, then he stood up right there at the edge of the gutter. Two smiling young girls and a young boy approached from the left. The girls were wearing pretty colored short dresses and were walking on either side of the boy. Ahmad Hossien ran up and entreated one of the girls, “Miss, please give me a rial… I’m hungry… One rial is nothing at all … Please! …Miss, one rial! …!”

The girl didn’t pay any attention. Ahmad Hossien begged again. This time she took some money from her purse and placed it in Ahmad Hossien’s palm. He came back to us, smiling, and said, “I’ll throw, too.”

“Where’s your money?” asked Zivar’s son.

Ahmad Hossien opened his fist and showed us. A two rial coin was in the palm of his hand.

Qasem said, “So you’ve been begging again!” and was about to hit Ahmad Hossien when Mahmud grabbed his arm and stopped him. Ahmad Hossien didn’t say anything, just made a place for himself and sat down. I stood up and said, “I don’t throw dice with beggars.”

Now I had just one rial. I had lost three of my four rials. Mahmud, who hadn’t done so well either, said, ‘That’s enough dice throwing. Let’s play foot of the wall.”

“Latif, ‘Qascm said to me, “Don’t spoil the game with your blabbering. Who wants to throw?” he asked around.

“Throw all by yourself,” said the blind guy. “We’re going to play foot of the wall.”

Zivar’s son pointed at Qasem and said, “It’s useless throwing dice with this fellow. He always gets five and six. Let’s flip coins.”

“Fine,” said Ahmad Hossien.

“No,” Mahmud said, “Foot of the wall.”

The street was getting quiet. Several shops across from us had closed. To start out the game, each of us threw a rial from the edge of the gutter to the foot of the wall. The coins were still laying there when Ahmad Hossien yelled, “Cops!”

The cop, billy club in hand, was two or three steps away from us. Ahmad Hossien, the blind guy and I started running. Mahmud and Zivar’s son were right behind us. Qasem was about to gather the money from the foot of the wall when the cop reached him. The cop whacked him with the billy club, but he got away. “Gambling bums!” the cop shouted after him. “Don’t you have a home and family? Don’t you have a mother and father?” He bent over to gather the rials and then went on.

After I passed the intersection, I was left alone. The rice and kabab shop on the other side of the street was closed. I was late. When the rice and kabab apprentice pulled the iron door down halfway, it was time to get hack to my father. I hurried through the streets saying to myself, “By now, father has surely fallen asleep. I wish he would sit and wait for me… By now he’s fallen asleep. And what about the toy store? It’s closed by now too. Who buys toys at this time of night? …Of course they’ve crammed my camel into the store, locked the door, and gone away…I wish I could talk with my camel. I’m afraid she’ll forget what we planned last night. If she doesn’t come? …No. She’ll come for sure. She herself said she’d come tonight and carry me off for a ride around Tehran. Camel riding is fun too, ah! . . .”

Suddenly a brake screeched, and I was flung into the air so hard that I thought I was being thrown into the next world. When I fell to the ground, I realized I’d been struck by a car in the middle of the street, but miraculously I wasn’t hurt. I was rubbing my wrist when a woman stuck her head out of the car and shouted, “Well, get out of the way of the car! …You’re not a statue after all.”

I suddenly came to. A heavily made-up old woman was sitting behind the steering wheel. The huge, collared dog curled up at her side looked out and barked. Suddenly I felt that if I didn’t do something immediately- like break all the glass on the car- I would burst from the force of my anger and never be able to move from this spot.

The old woman honked the horn once or twice and yelled again, “Are you deaf or something? …Get out of the way of the car! …”

One or two other cars passed around us. The old woman stuck her head out and was about to say something else when I spit in her face, swore at her several times, and then ran off.

When I had run a ways, I sat down on the step of a locked store. My heart was beating fast. The store had a door of iron grating. It was light inside. All kinds of shoes were in the show window. My father had said that even with our earnings from ten days work we couldn’t buy a pair of shoes like that.

I leaned my head against the door and stretched out my legs. My wrist still hurt, and my stomach was gnawing. I remembered that I hadn’t eaten anything. ‘Tonight I’ll have to go to sleep hungry again, “I said to myself. “I wish that my father could have saved something for me . . .”

Suddenly I remembered that tonight my camel was coming to carry me off on a tour. I jumped up and quickly went on my way. The toy store was closed, but I could hear the toys behind the iron grating. The freight train chugged and whistled. The big black bear was sitting behind the machine gun and seemed to be firing off one shell after another, frightening the beautiful, lovable dolls. The monkeys leaped from corner to corner and sometimes hung from the camel’s tail until the camel cried out and told them to move on. A donkey with long ears gnashed his teeth and heehawed. He let bear cubs and dolls climb on his back and carried them around with long strides. The camel’s ears were pointing towards the ticking wall clock as if she had made an appointment with someone. Airplanes and helicopters flew overhead. Tortoises dozed in their shells. Mother dogs were nursing their puppies. A cat stealthily removed eggs from the bottom of a basket. Rabbits stared in surprise at the hunter in the cupboard across from them. The black monkey put my harmonica, which was always in the show window, to his thick lips and drew out various pretty tones. Dolls were riding in cars and buses. Tanks, rifles, pistols and machine guns were rapidly firing off bullets and shells. White bunnies held huge carrots between their paws and gnawed so tint, ‘heir teeth showed up to their cars.

Most important was my camel, who’d upset every­thing if she tried to move. She was so big that there wasn’t room for her in the show window so she stood at the edge of the sidewalk all day long and watched the people. Now she was standing in the middle of the store jingling the bells around her neck, chewing gum, and pointing her ears in the direction of the ticking clock. Every now and then a row of white haired baby camels cried out from the cupboard, “Mama, if you go out, let us come too, okay?”

I wanted to have a word or two with my camel, but no matter how loud I shouted, she didn’t hear my voice. I kicked the door several times, hoping that the others would quiet down, but just at that moment, someone seized me by the ear and said, “Are you crazy, kid? Get out of here and go to sleep.”

It was no time to stand around. I freed myself from the cop and set off so I wouldn’t be any later.

By the time I reached my father, the streets were all quiet and deserted. Lone taxis passed by. My father was sleeping on top of his hand cart in such a position that if I wanted to sleep there too, I’d have to wake him up and get him to move his legs. Other carts with people sleeping on them were at the edge of the gutter or by the side of the wall. Several people had fallen asleep on the ground. There was an intersection here where someone from our home town had an ice stand. I fell asleep as I stood there and slowly slumped down at the foot of our hand cart.

Jingle! …Jingle! …Jingle! ….

“Ahoy, Latif, where are you? Latif, why don’t you answer me? Why don’t you come down so we can go riding?”

Jingle! …Jingle! …Jingle! ….

“Latif, dear, don’t you hear me? I’m your camel. I came so we could go riding around. Well, come get on and let’s go.”

As my camel reached the balcony, I got out of bed and jumped, landing on her back. I said laughingly, “I’m sitting on your back, so don’t shout any more!”

The camel was happy to see me, too. She put some gum in her mouth, gave some to me as well, and we went on our way. After we had gone a ways, the camel said, “I brought your harmonica. Take it and play something for me.”

I took my lovely harmonica from the camel and began to blow into it energetically. The camel accompanied my playing with the jingling of her many bells.

The camel turned her head towards me and asked, “Latif, have you eaten?”

“No,” I said, “I didn’t have money.”

“Then let’s first go and eat dinner.”

At that very moment, a white rabbit jumped down from a tree and said, “Camel, dear, we’re having dinner at the villa tonight. I’ll tell them. You go on.” The rabbit tossed the end of the carrot that it had been chewing on into the gutter and hopped away.

“Do you know what a villa is?” asked the camel.

“I think it means summer quarters.”

“No,” the camel said, “Not summer quarters. Millionaires build palaces and magnificent houses for themselves in places with pleasant climates so that whenever they feel like it, they can go there to rest and enjoy themselves. These houses arc called villas. Villas have pools, fountains, large gardens and flower plots full of flowers. They have a troupe of gardeners, cooks, servants and maids. Some millionaires own several villas in foreign countries, Switzerland and France for example. Now we’re going to one of the villas in north Tehran to shrug off the summer heat from our bodies.”

The camel said this and suddenly seemed to grow wings. We flew up into the air like birds. Below my feet were pretty, clean houses. There wasn’t any smell of smoke or filth in the air. The houses and alleys wore so neat that I thought I was watching a movie. I asked the camel, “We’re not leaving Tehran, are we?”

“What made you think that?”

“Well,” I said, “out here, there’s no smell whatsoever of smoke or filth. The houses are all large and pretty as a bouquet of flowers.”

The camel smiled and said, “You’re right, Latif, my boy, Tehran has two parts, each with its own characteris­tics. North and South. The North is clean, but the South is full of smoke, filth, dust and dirt, because all the worn out buses operate in that section. All the brick kilns are in that section, and the diesels and trucks come and go from there. Many of the streets in the South aren’t paved; the dirty putrid water in the open sewage gutters of the north flows downhill to the South. In short, the South is where the poor, hungry people live, and the North is the area of the rich and powerful. Have you ever seen the ten story marble buildings in ‘Hasirabad’, ‘Naziabad’ and Haji Abdol Mahmud Avenue’? In these buildings are the elegant shops of the rich, who own luxurious automobiles and dogs worth several thousand tomans.”

I said, “In the South, you don’t see such things. There, no. one owns cars, but a lot of people have hand carts and sleep in dugouts.”

I was so hungry that I thought the bottom of my stomach was turning into a hole.

Below our feet was a huge garden with colored lights, cool and full of freshness, flowers, and trees. A large fountain like a bouquet of flowers was in the center and several meters away there was a goldfish pool surrounded by tables and chairs, flowers, and blossoms. Lots of different foods with intoxicating odors were arranged on the tables.

The came said, “Let’s go down. Dinner’s ready.” 

“But where’s the owner of the garden?” 

Don’t worry about him,” the camel said. “He’s been tied up and stuck into the basement.”

The camel landed on the colorful glazed tiles at the edge of the pool, and I jumped down. The rabbit was ready. He took my hand and led me to one of the tables. A little later the guests began arriving. Dolls by car, a group by plane and helicopter, the donkey with rapid strides, tortoises hanging from the tails of baby camels, leaping and somersaulting monkeys, and scampering rabbits ar­rived all at once. What strange noisy guests they were for a dinner whose smell alone made the mouth water: fried turkeys, chicken kabab, all kinds of rice dishes and stewed meats, and many, many other foods that I didn’t even recognized. Big bowls of every kind of fruit you would want wore set within easy reach.

The camel stood on the other side of the pool, motioned everyone to be quiet and said, “Welcome everyone, large and small. It’s a pleasure to have you here, but I’d like to ask you if you know why and for whose sake we’ve planned this expensive dinner.”

“For Latif. We wanted him to eat one stomachful of good food to cheer him up,” said the donkey.

The bear from behind the machine gun said, “Well, Latif comes to watch us so often that we -all of us- like him.”

“That’s right,” agreed the leopard. “Just as Latif wants to own us, we want to belong to him.”

The lion said, “Right. Children of millionaires get tired of us very quickly. Their fathers buy new toys for them every day so they play with their toys once or twice, and then get bored and abandon us so that we wear out and die.”

I began to speak. “If all of you will belong to me, I promise you I’ll never get tired of you. I’ll always play with you and won’t leave you alone.”

The toys said in one voice, “We know. We know what you’re like. But we can’t belong to you. We’re sold for a lot of money.”

Then one of them said, “I don’t think that even a month of your father’s earnings would be enough to buy one of us.”

The camel quieted them down again and continued, “Let’s get back to the subject. Your comments are all correct, but we planned this gathering for the sake of something very important which you haven’t mentioned.”

I spoke up again, “I myself know why you brought me here. You wanted to say to me, “See, not everyone goes to sleep hungry at the side of the street like you and your father.”

Several men and women were sitting around the table eating very quickly. Apparently they were the servants and maids of the house. I began to eat, too, but there seemed to be a hole at the bottom of my stomach so that no matter how much I ate it wasn’t enough, and my stomach kept on growling and gurgling. Like all those times when I am very hungry.

I thought, “I’m surely not dreaming that I’m still hungry?” I drew my hand across my eyes. Both lids were open. I said to myself, “Am I sleeping? No, I’m not. The eyelids of a person who’s sleeping are closed, and he doesn’t see. Then why aren’t I satisfied? Why do I feel my stomach gnawing?”

I had been walking around the building and touching the expensive stones in its walls. I didn’t know where the dust and dirt was coming from, and something hit me right in the face. I was in the basement now so I thought that’s why the air was dusty. On the first step dirt flew into my nose and mouth so violently that I sneezed: “Achoo! . . .”

“What happened?” I asked myself. “Where am I?”

The street sweeper’s broom passed right in front of me and brushed the dust and dirt from the sidewalk into my face.

I asked myself, “What happened? Where am I? I wasn’t dreaming, was I? But I wasn’t sleeping, and I saw my father’s hand cart and heard the noise of taxis. Then my eyes fell on the buildings of the intersection area in the morning twilight. So I was awake. The street sweeper had swept past me but still was throwing up dust and dirt, making streaks on the sidewalk, and moving forward.

I said to myself, “So, all of that was a dream? No! …Yes, it was a dream. No! …No! …No! …”

The street sweeper came back and stared at me. My father bent over from the hand cart and asked, “Latif, are you sleeping?”

“No! . .No! . .”

“If you’re not sleeping, why are you shouting?” my father asked. “Come up beside me.” I went up. My father put his arm under my head but I didn’t go to sleep. My stomach gnawed. My stomach was stuck right against my backbone. My father saw that I wasn’t sleeping and said, “You were late last night and I was tired so I went to sleep early.”

“Two cars had an accident, and I stood and watched. That’s why I was late.” Then I said, “Father, camels can talk and fly….”

“No, they can’t.”

“Yes, you’re right,” I said, “They don’t have wings.”

“Son, what’s the matter with you? Every morning when you wake up you talk about, camels.”

I was thinking about something else and said, “Being rich is a good thing, Father, isn’t it? A person can eat anything he wants and have anything he wants. Isn’t that right, Father?”

“Don’t be ungrateful, Son. God Himself knows well who to make rich and who to make penniless.”

My father always said this.

When it was light, my father took his slippers from beneath his head and put them on his feet. Then we* got down from the hand cart. My father said, “I wasn’t able to sell potatoes yesterday. I still have more than half of them.”

“You should have gotten something else.” 

My father didn’t say anything. He unlocked the padlock on the cart and took out two full bags and emptied them on the hand cart. I lifted out the scale and weights and arranged them. Then we went on our way. 

“We’ll go eat some soup,” said my father. 

Every morning that my father said, “We’ll go eat some soup,” I knew he hadn’t eaten dinner the night before.

The sweeper had streaked the sidewalk to the end of the street. We went in the direction of City Park. The old soup vendor was sitting at the edge of the gutter as always, back towards the street and a caldron of soup simmering over a slow fire in front of him. There customers, men and women, were sitting around eating their soup from aluminum bowls. There was a woman lottery ticket vendor who wore a ragged veil like Zivar the lottery ticket vendor. She was crouched over and had put her bunch of lottery tickets on her lap and covered her knees with her dirty veil.

My father greeted the old man and sat down. We gulped two small soups with some bread and got up again. My father gave me two rials and said to me, “I’m going to make the rounds. Come back here at noon, and we’ll eat lunch together.”

The first person I saw was Zivar’s boy. He had blocked a man’s path and was repeating, “Sir, buy a ticket. You’ll probably be a winner. Come on, Sir, buy one.”

The man forcefully freed himself from Zivar’s boy and went on. Zivar’s kid muttered several curses and was about to walk away when I called out to him, “You weren’t able to dump it on him!”

“He was in a bad mood; he’s probably been fighting with his wife.”

The two of us went on. Zivar’s son stuck his bunch of ten or twenty tickets in front of people and repeated, “Sir, a lottery ticket? Madam, a lottery ticket?”

For every ticket that Zivar’s boy sold, he got a rial from his mother. When he had covered his expenses, he didn’t sell any more tickets but played, ran around, got into fights, or went to movies. He had more money than any of us. He had the habit of stretching out in the water gutter under the bridge at noon and sleeping for an hour or two. In the morning before the sun rose, he woke up and got ten or twenty lottery tickets from his mother and started on his way so that he wouldn’t miss the morning customers and would finish his work before noon. He didn’t want to ruin his afternoon as well by selling tickets. 

Zivar’s boy had sold three tickets by the time we reached Naderi Street. When we arrived there he said, “I have to stay right here.”

Only a few stores were open. The toy store was closed. My camel hadn’t come to the edge of the sidewalk yet.  I didn’t have the heart to pound on the door and disturb her morning sleep. I passed by and went farther and farther up the street. The streets were full of school children. In every car were one or two children whose parents were taking them to school.

At this time of morning I could only find Ahmad Hossien for company. After I passed through several more streets, I came to the streets where there wasn’t any smoke or dirty smell. The children and adults all had clean fresh clothing. Their faces shone. The girls and women glowed just like colorful flowers. The stores and houses seemed like mirrors under the sun. Whenever I came to such areas, I thought I was sitting in a theater and watching a movie. I was never able to imagine what kind of food they ate, how they slept or spoke, or what kind of clothing they wore in such tall, clean houses. Can you figure out what kind of food you ate when you were in your mother’s womb? No, you can’t. I was like that. I couldn’t imagine it at all.

Three children, satchels in hand, were looking into a store window. I stood behind them. A pleasant smell came from their combed hair. I couldn’t help sniffing at the back of the neck of one of them. The children turned around, looked me over, moved away from me frowning in disgust, and left. From a distance I heard one of them say, “He sure smells!”

I had a chance to look at my reflection in the store window. My hair was so long and thick that it hid my ears. It looked like a hat of hair placed on my head. My burlap shirt was a dark dirty color and you could see my sun-burnt body at its torn collar. My bare feet were filthy, and my heels were cracked. I wanted to shatter the brains of the three rich children. But was it their fault that I lead such a life?

A man came out of the store, motioned me away and said, “Get out of here, kid. It’s still early, and I haven’t made any sales to give you something.”

I didn’t move and didn’t say anything either. The man motioned me away again and repeated, “Well, go on. Get lost. What impudence!”

I didn’t move and said, “I’m not a beggar.” 

“Well,   excuse   me,   Little  Sir,   then  what  do   you want?”

“I don’t want anything. I’m just looking.” 

And I left. The man went into the store. A piece of white glazed tile shone at the bottom of the water in the gutter. “I didn’t hesitate. I picked up the piece of tile and threw it with all my strength at the store window. There was a crash, and the glass broke into pieces. The shattering glass seemed to lift a heavy burden from my heart, and I started running as fast as I could! I don’t know how many streets I had passed when I ran into Ahmad Hossien and realized I was now very far from the store.

As always, Ahmad Hossien was scurrying this way and that in front of the girls’ school, begging at the cars that brought the girls. This is what Ahmad Hossien did every day early in the morning. I still don’t know who Ahmad Hossien lived with, but Qasem said he had only a grandmother who was a beggar too. Ahmad Hossien himself never said anything.

When the school bell rang and the children went to class, we started on our way.  Ahmad Hossien said, didn’t bring much in today. Everyone says they don’t have any change.”

“Where shall we go?” I asked.

“Let’s just wander around like this.”

“No, that won’t do, “I said. “Let’s go and find Qasem and drink a glass of buttermilk.”

Qasem sold rial glasses of buttermilk at the end of Si-Metri Avenue, and every time we went to see him, we drank a free glass of buttermilk. Qasem’s father bought and sold used clothing on Hajj AbdolMahmud Street; a shirt, fifteen rials; two pairs of shorts, twenty-five rials; coat and trousers, seventy or eighty rials. Hajj Abdol Mahmud Street was one turn from the area where Qasem worked. Doorways, walls and even the ground of this street were littered with old dilapidated objects: each owner stood over his pile, calling to customers. Qasem’s father had a tiny shop where he, his wife and Qasem, all three of them, also slept at night. They didn’t have a house other than this. Qasem’s father bought torn, dirty clothes from this one and that, and from morning to night, Qasem’s mother washed them in the shop or in the gutter of Si MctriStreet and then mended them. Haji Abdol Mahmud Street was dusty and didn’t have a water gutter. No vehicles passed through it.

After one or two hours of walking, Ahmad Ihisjyn and I reached Qasem’s work area. Qasem wasn’t there, so we went to Hajj Abdol Mahmud Street. Qasem’s father said that Qasem had taken his mother to the hospital. Qasem’s mother was always having trouble with either aching legs or an ulcer.

Near noon, Ahmad Hossien, Zivar’s boy and I were sitting at the edge of the gutter on Naderi Street next to the camel, cracking sunflower seeds and discussing the price of the camel. We decided to go inside and ask the storekeeper. The storekeeper thought we were beggars; we hadn’t even gotten in the door when he ordered, “Get out of here. I don’t have any change.”

“We don’t want money, Sir, I objected.  “How much is the camel?” And I pointed outside.

The camel?!” the store owner asked in surprise.

From behind me Ahmad Hossien and Qasem repeat­ed, “Yes, the camel. How much is it?”

The owner of the store said, “Go on outside! The camel’s not for sale.”

Discouraged, we left the store. As if we had enough cash to buy the camel anyway, even if it had been for sale. The camel was standing firmly in place. We imagined it could carry all three of us at the same time, without any effort whatsoever. Ahmad Hossien’s hand could barely touch the camel’s stomach. Qasem was about to try it when the storekeeper came out, seized Qasem’s ear and said, “Ass, don’t you see the sign says don’t touch?”

And he pointed to a piece of paper pinned to the chest of the camel. Something was written on the paper, but none of us could read. We left and began walking and cracking sunflower seeds. A little later, Zivar’s son said he was tired, found a quiet place in a water gutter under a bridge, and went to sleep. Ahmad Hoissien and I decided to go to City Park. The air was hot and suffocating. We were sweating more than you could imagine. Neither of us spoke. I wanted to be with my mother. I felt very lonely.

At the City Park gate Ahmad spent two rials to buy an egg sandwich and let me take a bite too. Then we went to the usual spot in the water gutter to wash. Some other children were washing themselves farther up, splashing water on each other. Ahmad Hossien and I quietly stretched out in the water, washed our heads and bodies, and didn’t bother anyone. The park guards came towards us shouting. We all jumped up to escape and went to sit on the sand under the sun. Ahmad Husayn and I were drawing a camel in the sand when I heard my father’s voice over us. Ahmad Ilusayn went away. My father and I went to the liver shop and ate lunch. He asked, “Latif, what happened? Are you sick?

“Nothing’s happened.”

We went under the trees of City Park and stretched out to sleep. My father noticed that I kept turning from side to side and couldn’t sleep. “Latif, have you been fighting?” he asked. “Did someone insult you? Tell me what happened.”

I didn’t feel like talking. I wanted to grieve in silence. I wanted to hear my mother’s voice, smell her, hug and kiss her. Suddenly I started crying and hid my face against my father’s chest. My father sat up, held me, and let me cry as long as I wanted. But I still didn’t say anything to him. I only said that I missed my mother. Then I fell asleep, and when my eyes opened, I saw my father sitting over me, his arms folded, looking into the crowd. I took his legs, shook them and said, “Father!”

My father looked at me, drew his hand over my hair and said, “Are you awake, my boy?” I nodded my head.

“Tomorrow we’re going back home,” my father said. “We’re going to be with your mother. If there’s work, we’ll stay there and find something to eat. If there isn’t, there isn’t. Whatever happens, it will be better than this for here we’re like worthless orphans. And the rest of the family is no better off without us.”

On the way from the park to the garage, I didn’t know whether to be happy or not. I didn’t want to leave the camel. If only I could bring the camel with me, I wouldn’t be unhappy anymore.

We bought our tickets, then started walking through the streets again. My father wanted somehow or another to sell his hand cart before evening. I wanted somehow or another to have one more long look at the camel. We planned to return to the garage at night to sleep. My father didn’t want to leave me alone, but I said I wanted to walk around a while to shake off my depression.

It was near sunset. I don’t know how many hours I had been standing and watching the camel when a convertible came by and stopped near me and the camel. A man and a fresh, clean little girl were sitting in the car. The girl’s eyes were glued to the camel, and she was laughing happily, making me think they were going to buy the camel and take her home. The girl took her father’s hand and got out of the car saying, “Faster, Daddy. Someone else will come and buy it.”

The man and the girl were about to enter the store when they saw me standing in front of them, blocking the way. I don’t know how I felt. Was I afraid? Was I about to cry? Was I unhappy about something? I don’t know how I felt. I only know that I stood in front of the father and daughter and repeated, “Sir, the camel’s not for sale.”

The man pushed me roughly aside, saying, “Why are you blocking our path, kid? Get out of the way.”

The two of them entered the store. The man began talking with the store owner. The girl turned back again and again to look at the camel. She looked so happy that you’d think she hadn’t been even a bit sad in her whole life. My tongue seemed to be dumb and my legs powerless to move; I stood at the door and stared into the store. The monkeys, baby camels, bears, rabbits and the others looked at me, and I felt their hearts burning for me.

The father and daughter were about to come out of the store. The father stretched out a two rial coin towards me. I put my hands behind my back and looked into his face. I don’t know what kind of look I gave him, but he quickly put the two rials into his pocket and passed by. Then the store owner pushed me away from the door. Two of the store workers came out and walked towards the camel. The little girl went and sat in the ear and looked at the camel with worshipful eyes. When the store workers lifted up the camel, I didn’t even think but ran forward and grabbed the leg of the camel, shouting, This is my camel! Where are you taking it? I won’t let you!”

One of the workers said, “Get out of the way, kid. Are you crazy or something?!”

The father asked the store owner, “Is he a beggar?”

People gathered to watch. I didn’t let go of the camel’s leg. The workers had to lower the camel to the ground and hold me back by force. I heard the voice of the girl calling from the car, “Daddy, don’t let him touch it any more.”

The father went and sat at the wheel. They put the camel in the back seat. The car was about to start up when I freed myself and ran towards it. I held on to the car with both hands and screamed, “Where are you taking camel? I want my camel! “

I don’t think anyone heard my voice. It was as if I had become dumb and no sound came from my throat and I only imagined I was screaming. The car started and someone grabbed me from behind. My hands were snatched from the car, and I fell on my face on the pavement. I lifted my head and saw my camel for the last time. She was crying and angrily ringing the bells around her neck.

My face fell in the blood running from my nose. I pounded my feet against the ground and sobbed. I only wished the machine gun in the store window belonged to me.

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