HEART OF STEEL

HEART OF STEEL

Ravanipur, Moniru

an excerpt from a novel by moniru ravanipur*

Heart of Steal (1989), a novel whose very textual structure disrupts all notions of traditional narrative, is a story about a single, thirty-year-old woman writer named Afsaneh who is struggling to carve out a space for herself in society. She has been traumatized and driven mad by events in her childhood, her marriage, and the Iran-Iraq war. In order to protect herself, she has surrounded herself with an imaginary world and invented characters-such as the Dictator and Horseman-who appear real to her as well as to the reader. Fantasies and flashbacks are juxtaposed alongside tangible circumstances in the present to set the plot tossing between dream state and reality. By continually shifting between what was and what is now, Afsaneh finds herself adrift in time as well as place. The very act of writing empowers Afsaneh to make her own decisions about how to recreate reality, allowing her to create new, fluid alternative spaces of discourse. Through the creative process itself, Afsaneh decides about whom and what she will narrate. In so doing, she discovers her once absent voice, which is now strikingly present. Indeed, One Thousand and One Nights is often evoked because of the central role of the act of writing and the storytelling present in the narrative. And so Ravanipur finds herself on solid ground as she leans on the richness of the Persian tradition, and it is this element that constantly adds hope to a narrative that deals with severe historical and cultural dislocations existing in contemporary Iran. – Rebecca Joubin

WHEN SHE REACHED THE ROOFTOP, she heard the scream of a man searching for his eyes. He was screaming into the wind-the wind of fall, the wind of the month of Azar, Azar of 1977.

She covered her ears and fled along the rooftops. If only she could reach the beam of light and slide down from there into a small Shiraz garden alley. The sound of Father seared her nerves… Khajeh Tabal…KhajehTabal…1

A face crumpled with pain. Eyes staring into the darkness. Hands groping their way to keep her from falling from the rooftops into the small cobblestone streets of the city, the city of Shiraz, whose winds smell of narenj blossoms, whose scent permeates the darkness. Bitter orange trees, hunched down and shrinking, their leaves screaming…her eyes burned and when she licked her salty lips, she knew they would be parched. For the bitter orange tree had dried up.

If her hands could be forced loose, then a boundary could be formed between her and the darkness. The sound of Father was like fine sand hitting her face. She heard Khajeh Tabal…Khajeh Tabal…the sound of a man who was screaming and searching for his eyes. She saw those two empty eye sockets-they were not wounded. Perhaps this was why he could deceive her and the others.

The wind played with her thin, orange nightgown. And she was fleeing. Perhaps she was fleeing in the direction of the voice of Father. Perhaps. The city was asleep. The city of Shiraz in the month of Azar of 1977.

As she left the publishing house, she saw them standing there, the Dictator and the Horseman. It was as if the two of them were afraid of losing their way. Despite her exhaustion, she forced a smile. Pulling down her headscarf, she held the publication proofs in her hands in such a way that they could see them. And when they smiled back, she breathed a sigh of relief. She set out in the direction of Enghilab Street, staring at all the cars stuck in traffic…military deployment. As far as the eye could see, young men were leaving for war in buses.

She stopped on the sidewalk. The distance between being and not being. She thought that no matter what she said, even if she screamed, no one would hear her. What she would have given not to be seen. She stood very still, careful not to even blink an eye. If I were to blink, she thought, then this street would no longer exist. There would only be the ground, barren and scorched, with half-burned tanks and torn bodies scattered throughout the south and west. What was the distance between being and non-being? Who existed, who didn’t exist? She didn’t blink an eyelid. With one misstep, these young hands would be dragged into the frame of another picture, thirsty hands separated from the body.

“Salavat.”2

An adolescent with a red band on his forehead thrust his arm out of the bus window:

“We’re on our way to Karbala.”

“No talking,” said the Horseman.

The Dictator frowned as usual and pointed his finger at the adolescent, but the youth did not pay any attention.

He had a moonlit face and black hair. A few steps closer, and she would be able to reach out her arm and hold the hand of the adolescent who was on his way to Karbala. If only he had put his arm out farther, she could have grabbed his hand. But the youth did not move. His hair was not long, and his eyes were tiny and bewildered. He seemed about twenty years old, tall, with broad shoulders. When he sat on a red-maned horse, the horse would scream three times in the direction of the sun.

She looked up again but could no longer see him. As for the youth, he frowned and did not know where to turn his eyes. What did this woman, with her puzzled face and wrinkled forehead, want from him? What was she searching for?

Suddenly, he seemed to have found a solution. Lifting his fist and pointing in her direction, he screamed: “Marg Bar Bad Hejab….Death to the improperly veiledwomanF And the young men in all the other buses yelled in unison: “Marg Bar Bad Hejab….” And so the caravan set out again. She remained motionless. The Horseman was leaving and the Dictator started to laugh.

The Horseman and bus were no longer in sight….No-there was no resemblance, no resemblance…. Four months ago she had seen that picture on Manoucheri Street at some peddler’s stand. Big black eyes with a strange look in them, long hair that was set loose about his shoulders, a kashkol in his hands. What were his eyes observing?

“How much does this picture cost?”

“In Khedmat-e Shoma Begiram-I’m at your service. This is a picture of a Dervish.”

“I know, sir. But how much does it cost?”

It didn’t really matter to her who it was. A picture could mean something different to each person. To her, it was a picture of the Hero of the Zand Dynasty.3 It mattered nothing to her what the peddler said about the picture, or if her old landlady would merely gape at it.

She smiled and started walking in the direction of the bookstore. The booksellers on Enghilab Square had any book one could ever want. Her heart lifted but then suddenly froze, the smile draining from her lips. There was the sound of Father in the air again. It came from the very distant past, from those days when everyone was pouring out into the streets.

His eyes were blinded even whik his own servants surrounded him….

Sour and biting memories. He was searching for two big, black eyes that had been blinded. Two eyes, real and….

Lost in the past and adrift, she entered a bookstore so that she could not hear the cries ofthat man, the screams that once hunted her above the rooftops. Was he still searching for his eyes? She turned her head quickly and heard the words of Father, who was still sitting with that man under the bitter orange tree and playing chess:

“Who can write in the presence of an eternal fear?”

The truth always loses itself among the memories. The truth can be lost as though it never existed. Not on the ground, not anywhere else. The difference between a historical event and an insignificant happening in the life of an individual is that a historical event has a witness who can bear witness to truth and lies. Yet, it is those same witnesses who crouch fearfully in a corner, peering at their surroundings. Then slowly, across every age, they observe:

Khan Qajar would hurst into laughter when the eyes of….

And what was the Hero of Zand doing? What had he been doing through all those ages?

With chains shackling his hands and feet, he refused to bow down. No one could hear his cries of pain, but the sound of his wounds filled his own ears. Sweat on his forehead, he squeezed his lips tightly together.

“What do you want, Khanom?”

“A book…about Lotf-Ali Khan Zand.”

The salesman looked at her surprised. The lady was clearly not in touch with reality.

“It’s a book entitled The History of the Zand Dynasty-a story about the life of the Hero of Zand.”4

The man found the book among the shelves and peered at the woman again.

“No! Don’t wrap it up,” she said.

She held the book on the Zands. Turning the pages, she was suddenly seized by fear. What if they had drawn a picture of him, or…or? She became aware of the Horseman standing at the doorstep. He pointed at her.

“In those days, who could take a picture?”

“A painting, then?” she asked.

“It was forbidden.”

She felt relieved. She stopped looking at the Horseman and continued to turn the pages. But the Dictator was in front of her, at the salesman’s side, giving orders.

“Go home now. Go home.”

She fled the bookstore and headed to Farvardin Street. The fragile leaves were slowly separating from their branches. Fall was on its way, the fall of 1986.

The old lady gently opened the door. She placed the plate with loobiya polio on the desk and waved her hand toward it.

“Meat is expensive.”

The woman brought the plate closer and put out her cigarette.

“So what?”

“For you nothing ever matters. All you want to do is puff on your cigarette.”

Then the old lady smiled. It was clear that she had something to say and until she did, the woman would not be able to get rid of her. The woman’s tiny domain was the second room on an apartment situated in a ten-story building at the corner of Khaghani alley. The alley ran down to Pastoor Street. The apartment itself was no bigger than sixty square meters. It consisted of two rooms joined by a small foyer. Hers was one of the rooms-a tight, dark space with no windows that the blue of the sky could penetrate. Her wooden bed and numerous books, which were crowded onto bookshelves, made the room seem even smaller.

“You can eat a piece of candy, pay me some money, and have meat in your meals. The good life. So why all this smoking?”

The old lady was sixty-five years old. She had a white, round face framed by golden hair that was colored regularly and small, light-colored eyes that perpetually sparkled. The old lady’s appearance had brought the woman to the conclusion that even dolls could grow old. For the old lady was just like a doll, and she still hung a picture of Bani Sadr on her wall.

“You know, he’s a fugitive. Aren’t you afraid?” the woman asked.

“No-It’s just a picture, not a person,” the old lady replied.

At eight-thirty every evening when the news bell sounded, the woman was forced to leave her room and sit in front of the television. The old lady would continually groan:

“This Haj Agha is not so bad-Anyway, I was ready….”

Then the old lady would let out a long sigh:

“You know, a widow is so preoccupied with raising her children that when she suddenly stands before the mirror, she is taken aback. Suddenly she realizes that she needs to buy some hair color and confront something that has lurched into her home through some unknown door. Then the day comes when she understands that the very picture she has hung on her wall shall never come alive and rescue her. It shall just continue staring at her until she grows older and withers away.”

The old lady stood and prayed. The woman could hear the sound of her mumbling. As always, when the old doll was done praying, she would open the door and say:

“Last night I was not able to fall asleep. These curtains are useless, the way they let so much light pass through.”

The woman understood the signs. Now, finally, the old lady would say what was really on her mind. She stood with that same white prayer chador at the entrance to the woman’s room:

“Hey, Koofti-you little shit-the electricity bill has come. The way you stay up all night, it’s four times more than what it should be.”

With her small, doll-like eyes, the old lady smiled and then closed the door.

No one said a word. Not a word. They stood quietly. Perhaps for just one moment they would shut their eyes. One careless moment. And then another picture, in another frame, would appear-all because of a quick blinking and shutting of the eyelids. No. They mustn’t close….With all your might, you must force yourself to see. Open your eyes as much as possible and stare at the incident. Don’t shut your eyes until you can preserve everything. But as for those screams….

The woman stopped eating her loobiya polio and sheltered her face with her hands. Her temples throbbed. She gently placed her hands over the eyes of the Dervish. Velvet, black velvet. The sound of tearing velvet echoed in her ears. She was frightened and stood up. There was no window, no opening. She sat at the edge of the bed and closed her eyes. All the world’s velvet was tearing, and someone, whose hands and feet were bound by chains, was screaming.

He fell at the feet of Khan Qajar, and Khan Bozorgh said that two of his servants [sodomized] him.

Her eyes burned. The very walls cracked open from the screams of Khan Qajar. She had to move to another house. The sound of tapping letters from her own typewriter would not leave her alone. Whenever the keys pounded on the paper, she could no longer hear the sound of the wails.

If you write, the screams shall come to an end. But what about the noise of the typewriter and of the neighbors, the footsteps coming and going until sunrise, the children who stayed up all night long? How could she work, with no window, no sky, and all this noise-the very sound of the neighbors’ snoring, the sound of men and women breathing? Soon the children would climb up all the windows and walls of the building like snails…like turtles.

She stood up and lit a cigarette. She was filled with hatred of everything-the snails and turtles, the screeching laments of women and men who, without reason, attached a dakhil6 to the enshrined corpse of an imam and would not loosen their grip until he had bestowed a blessing on them.

She longed for a place to walk and smoke her cigarettes in peace. She looked around in confusion at the gray walls of the room. The books and the ceiling. The low ceiling…. Suddenly, she heard the sound of gunshots in the distance. A familiar sound: It was seven years ago when she first heard it. Perhaps someone was running. Perhaps someone was forcing her to lift her hand in surrender. Perhaps a hand was searching her. In a time far away, seven years ago, she saw people screaming as the fury of the gunshots rose….

She opened The History of the Zand Dynasty and scanned the pages:

Mirza Mehdi Khan Esterobadi, secretary and advisor to Nader Shah… The history of Nader’s world conquests…. The revival of the name of Shahrokh’s grandfather would have given a new splendor to Shahrokh’s own crown and throne….

Under Shahrokh’s command! On whose payroll are you? Gunshots in the air, hands lifted in surrender, hands that were investigating. Stop-otherwise I’ll shoot! How is it possible that you could always see the people screaming as the gunshots were fired? How?

She turned the pages:

Without strength and power, the hand of the rider stopped working, the legs of his riding animal stopped moving…. His eyes were deprived of sight….On the way, a group of infantry riflemen diedbecause of the intense cold and severity of the snowfall, and lack of organization. Amid one thousand wounds and hardships, they arrived in Shiraz during the month ofjamadi al-aval….7

She hesitated….Put it down. Close the book. Suddenly you may hear something you mustn’t, you may see something you mustn’t. But the Dictator sat on the bed and said:

“Read.”

She held her hands up high, as she had done when the guns used to shoot in the still of the night. She surrendered. Surrendered to the Dictator. She saw the satisfaction on his lips.

She leafed through the pages:

The entrance of Lotf-Ali Khan and a large crowd on the outskirts of the city caused fear and terror in Haji Ibrahim. So he announced that if they stopped helping Lotf-Ali Khan to enter Shiraz and joining his forces, they would be safe and receive immense favors. Otherwise, it would be the cause of his displeasure and lead to the destruction of their family and relatives. Since the homes and families of most of those men were in Shiraz, they no longer cared whether they appeared cowardly in the eyes of others. On the third day of the said month, all of them deserted Lotf-Ali Khan. And so, aside from a dozen of the emissaries and, the grooms and lightly armed horsemen who had no houses or relatives in Shiraz, no one was left by Lotf-Ali Khan’s side.

She gazed at the picture of the man who was standing with a kashkof in his hands. all alone-where had he gone?

Amidst thousands of hardships, Lotf-Ali Khan finally brought himself to the entrance of the city of Bandar Abu Shahr. But Sheikh Nasser Khan had blocked the paths of agreement and instead opened the doors of opposition and disobedience. Sheikh Nassar Khan treated LotfAli Khan differently than he had before. And since Lotf-Ali Khan was not allowed to enter Bandar Abu Shahr, he went to Bandar Reeg and sought help from Amir Ali Khan, the governor. Then Amir Ali Khan obediently admitted Lotf-Ali Khan to Bandar Reeg and was determined to serve him.

And one more time, he sat on the red-maned horse. What would he do? What could be done, if anything? She wanted to leaf through the pages but her hands trembled. God forbid that he be like other conquerors. No. How could you assume that all conquerors behave the same way? How do you know that they don’t have other ways and manners? Hesitation warred with the desire to hold on to the memory. Finally she bent over the book again, her tired eyes picking out the ancient words:

Lotf-Ali Khan entered Kazaroon and spent a few days taking care of business there. Because of the way they treated him when he was on the run and as he entered the suburb of Kazaroon, Lotf-Ali Khan punished Reza Ghali Khan Kazarooni, Ali Nagbi Khan Valid, and Mir Abd al-Ghofar. For these men had snatched away a few of the special horses of his vanguard. And so Lotf-Ali Khan first blinded these men and then bound them in chains.

Frightened, she closed the book. Stretching her arms over her head, she pulled her black manteau onto her shoulders. She was cold. What color were their eyes? Black? Hazel? The color of fire? Blinding is always the preferred form of torture. Then no one sees anything anymore and the pictures in one picture frame can be easily switched to another. Sometimes you have to remove them from the sockets. There were so many mutilated eyes that Dr. Mehrsayi, all alone in the hospital hallway, would suddenly scream:

“Khodaya-Oh, my God, their eyes-they must all be blinded! All their eyes must be removed.”

Sometimes you blind people by will, and sometimes by force. No one has ever gone to a rooftop and yelled out: Khajeh Tabal….Khajeh Tabal. That is, unless he is compelled.

“That’s enough now. Let go, let go.”

It was the Dictator who was ordering her to relax:

“Will you become a captive this quickly? A captive of what you are reading? It’s all a lie, a lie.”

He was right. Why wouldn’t the narrator of The History of the Zand Dynasty tell a lie? How do you know he was not bribed-with all those compliments he made to Khan Qajar? She glanced at the picture. The Hero of Zand looked as if he never needed to sleep. Clean and kind-with a kashkol in his hand-he was just staring. The velvet of his eyes. No. He can’t deprive anyone of his eyesight. He can’t. And it was common knowledge that the people trampled on his reputation with the rumors that they circulated among themselves. They made up damning stories on their own, or because they were forced. Perhaps the narrator of The History of the Zand Dynasty himself was suffering from some loss or from a disastrous turn of events. Perhaps the narrator heard the screams of the Hero of Zand when he was attacked by a group of men. Perhaps he was himself one of the observers of Khan Qajar’s court and witnessed how, with a hot rod, they burnt the eyes of the Hero. And now, perhaps he wanted to relieve himself of guilt by concocting fabrications and lies in order to relieve himself from such strange and sorrowful memories.

“History is all a lie. A worthless lie. It has no power, none.”

She stared at the Dictator. He was the one dictator who came into the world for the very purpose of giving orders. he did not even mind being called a dictator. Indeed the word resounded in his head. She saw he was laughing. He was pulling at the collars of his shirt. The stars on his shoulders jumped up and he patted them down.

He had bestowed these stars upon himself. As he grew old and taller, he gave himself stars. And now he had so many stars on his shoulders and had gown so tall that his head reached the ceiling of life. And he knew that history was useless. He had read all Father’s history books. Father who with glasses would stare at him and sit and play chess with a man-the man who had found his eyes. The Dictator saw how the moments are as ephemeral as the wind and that with the passage of just one event, the condemned are no longer around. Or the condemned have lost their power. So condemning is meaningless-just a ridiculous game. It is like a yarn that, once woven, sews up the earth and time. It makes a mountain out of hay, and from a mountain, hay….She heard the faraway voice of Father passing through the top of the mountains and by the walls of her room:

“The Hero of Zand did not wish to die. Somehow they tortured him in such a way that he would remain alive-but with pain. Do you know that they even humiliated him in the presence of his two servants-in front of their very eyes?”

History is always ugly. Monstrously ugly….”I am at your service. This picture is a Dervish….” But she did not want to hear anything. She did not want to read about what was or was not. Father had said:

“It makes no difference what is going on in their heads. They are strange men. Like the Hero of Zand.”

He passed through history, through the hallway of past generations. The offspring of each generation, forming in their mothers’ womb, must learn something of that other time. Thousands of exhausted eyes stared at him and thousands of ears still waited to learn the truth about his story.

It was late at night. Who could say where the singing rooster in the big city came from, or how its voice managed to pass through the walls of the room? The rooster sang three times. The woman smiled with exhaustion:

“Who is denying something, someplace?”

The Dictator replied:

“Everyone denies everything, everywhere.”

She got up. If the rooster sang one more time, the old lady would wake up. She’d come to the door, give a tired glance to the picture and say:

“It’ll be morning soon-won’t you sleep?”

With reservations she turned out the light. The Dictator remained in the dark. She could hear the sound of his breathing. He breathed as he had on that very day when he came out from under the bitter orange tree and said:

“This is the first rule-Never say you’re a widow.”

She accepted. Now it was night. She shivered. In the dark, she held out her arms.

“Come sleep with me. Come.”

He came and lay beside her. The woman hid herself in his embrace and shuddered. She saw the Dervish whose hands and feet were held down by chains. Then the laughter of Khan Qajar rose to the heavens, cracking the sky wide open.

Notes

* Moniru Ravanipur has emerged as a leading female voice in post-revolutionary Iran, and her novels and short stories have been hailed as major literary achievements. Although she is highly sensitive to gender issues, she also depicts with great sensitivity the discontent of her male characters in a transitional society, which is rapidly changing. Although she is subtle with respect to politics, she passionately critiques her society. The themes she touches on include gender issues, drug abuse among the youth, madness and schizophrenia, the Iran-Iraq War, the impact of the Iranian revolution on today’s Iranian youth, generational dislocations, the notion of historical truth, and the significance of the act of writing and literary creation. It is Ravanipur’s signature use of inventive language and tools of subversion that allows for the creation of uplifting hope amidst bitter realities.

1. Kbajeh (Mr.) originally meant a vizier, the one next in power to the king. The term was later used to refer to a eunuch, a castrated male, who guarded the harem. The eunuch was the master of the house.

2. A special formula of praise and greeting to God, Mohammad, and his descendents. Sometimes said when asking God for forgiveness because of a bad thought, or said when asking for luck. Often used on solemn occasions.

3. Hero of Zand: refers to Lotf-Ali Khan Zand, who was the last ruler of the Zand Dynasty. His six-year reign was filled with bloody fighting, and in 1795, he was captured, blinded, and killed by the Eunich Agha Mohammad Khan. Indeed, he was blinded in the presence of his own servants, and Mohammad Agha Khan even ordered his servants to sodomize Lotf-Ali Khan.

4. Here Moniru Ravanipur is referring to Tarikh-e Zandiyya, written by Ebn al-Karim Ali Reza Shirazi, ed. Ernst Beer (Leiden, 1888).

5. A popular Persian dish consisting of string beans, meat, and rice.

6. A piece of ribbon or cloth that is tied around the Imam’s shrine to make a wish.

7. From the different pages of Tarikh-e Zandiyya [The History of the Zand Dynasty]. The Zand Dynasty was an Iranian Dynasty that began in Shiraz and Esfahan and lasted less then fifty years, from 1749-1795.

8. A cup suspended by a chain and carried by a Dervish.

Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Oct-Dec 2003

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