Uncle’s Complaint: Tale of a Rejuvenation

December 30, 2018 by  

Part one – Dr. Iraj Bashiri

We are generally, from childhood, knowledgeable about the mythical and immortal persona of ‘Amu Nowruz (uncle New Year). But are we familiar with his inner feelings? Do we know who his acquaintances are, or who is privy to his intimate sentiments? Do we know what brook rejuvenates him, replenishes his merry temperament, and makes him eternal? Let us spend this New Year with him and his friends and become acquainted with his concerns. After all, his joys and sorrows are our joys and sorrows, too.

* * *

Once upon a time, in a village near the ancient city of Hamadan, there lived a kind and vivacious man. He knew almost everyone in his ancestral village and everyone in the village, and its environs, knew him. Wherever he went, he took his happiness and joy with him or, at least, so it appeared. The village children called him Uncle.

On this morning before Charshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday of the Persian year, as had been his custom for centuries, he got out of bed, drank a cup of hot water, and had a quick breakfast. Then he donned a long, baggy pair of black trousers and walked to the mirror. There he trimmed his thick, black beard and combed his long, curly hair. From the closet, he got a long, green garment with a slit on each side. Over that traditional Iranian costume, he wore a red shawl, which rode around his slim waist and covered most of his long-stemmed pipe. He completed the ensemble with a black, felt hat that he took from a peg on the wall. At the threshold, he sat on the short platform and pulled his homemade, cotton shoes over his feet. Finally, before taking his walking stick from beside the door and striding out, he picked up a large, worn out, empty bag and threw it over his shoulder.

Uncle had performed this ritual for as long as he remembered and had done it with a particular pleasure. In recent years, however, a feeling of unease had been creeping in and upsetting his usual joyfulness. While in years past he had been virtually oblivious about the future, on this day, however, coming events seemed foreboding. He was getting increasingly apprehensive about the fate of the village and its children. 

In years past, on this particular morning, whenever he had walked out of the house, he had been greeted by an assembly of children in their new Nowruz clothing—some standing at the door, some sitting on the spacious platforms at the entrance to his house, some perched on the roofs, and still others twittering in the trees along his path. They had greeted him with laughter and joy. Their laughter had reverberated throughout the locality and made everyone cheerful. Troops of musicians with Haji Firuz had thronged in the streets and alleyways; clowns with their dancing bears and buffoons with their baboons had amused passers-by for small change. Uncle, with a steady mien, had walked to the end of the road and left the village.

But today, the platforms were deserted. No one was there to greet him. There was no sign of joy, no laughter of small children and no bears and buffoons.

Walking down the winding alleys, Uncle recalled happier and more pleasant days, when laughing and chattering children followed him from the door of his house to the outskirts of the village. The younger ones fell behind and returned home while the older ones trailed him along the rocky road all the way to the foot of the mountain asking for toys, woolen scarves, socks, and other such things. The whimsical ones asked for mountain goats and baby deer. Uncle listened eagerly to their requests saying, “O.K., will do… Won’t forget… You got it!…” as he continued on his way.

When he passed the rock on which the older children used to sit and watch him climb, he stopped, looked back at the village, and sighed. “I feel sorry for my fellow villagers,” he said to himself, “I wish I knew how to awaken them!”

Before he began his climb, Uncle stopped at the foot of the mountain and refreshed himself by drinking from the pure water of the spring gushing from the rocks. Like every other time, drinking the water altered Uncle’s outlook. It was as if a window was opened and he was allowed to enter the past. He felt he was privy to the thought processes of his ancestors. Uncle always learned from the experience of his ancestors and used his knowledge to guide the future generations.

The aroma of the blooming land permeated the mountainside. The sight of the newly appearing rhubarbs, red mountain tulips, orchids, and other wild flowers pleased him. Nature, unlike his fellow villagers who had abandoned him, welcomed Uncle as it had done before. Once again, he found himself in a world that seemed to be immune to change.

Uncle climbed most of the morning, reaching the summit about noon. There he sat on a boulder and looked around. On one side, he could see the beautiful city of Hamadan and, near it, his tiny village. On the other side lay an enchanting green valley recently freed of the winter snow. Springing from somewhere below his boulder, a brook wound itself around bushes and through the ruins of some forgotten fortresses, and tumbled down the mountainside. At the foot of the mountain, the brook joined a sizable river that flowed at the bottom of the valley. Beside the river, there was a small thicket, and between Uncle and the thicket there were some waterfalls. Among the thick foliage at the bottom, Uncle could distinguish the silhouette of an abandoned mill and in the bluish mist far-off he could make out shiny lakes and indications of houses and fields. Uncle intended to reach the mill as quickly as he could.

At the foot of the mountain, where the brook joined the river, Uncle halted to watch the turtles and the snakes basking in the sun and the small birds that chirped merrily flying in and out of the bushes. The freedom that those creatures enjoyed made Uncle happy and brought him a special sense of relief. The cares of the village gradually released their grip on him and he felt rejuvenated—just as he had felt years and years ago. He breathed the fresh air as he walked along the river in the direction of the mill.

The mill’s appearance had hardly changed. Its low door, mossy stone walls, and thatched roof had stayed the same. He stood at the closed door for a short while and listened to the water cascading down the well of the mill. Then he rapped on the heavy wooden door with his knuckles. There was no answer. He knocked again, this time more loudly. The door opened. A middle-aged man appeared in the doorway. He wore a white peasant’s shirt without a collar and a pair of black, baggy pantaloons. He had long, curly black hair. He greeted Uncle warmly, hugged him tightly, and ushered him into the mill.

The mill’s interior was in great contrast to its outward appearance. It was a large hall decorated in the traditional Iranian style with beautiful Persian carpets hung on the walls and a korsi set up on the far side. Around the korsi lay richly decorated pillows of down and draped over the korsi was a heavy, colorful silk quilt. On top of the korsi, there was a hookah, a basket of fruit, a bowl of pomegranate seeds, and a tray filled with roasted sunflower, pumpkin, and melon seeds.

The foreground of this traditional Nowruz display consisted of a tablecloth on which was arranged an assortment of Nowruz decorative objects. Uncle, looking at the display, said “Happy Nowruz, Mashiya. I wish all the best for you and Mashiyaneh during the next year and for many years to come!”

Mashiya said, “Happy Nowruz to you, too, son. We also wish you the best of years.”

The sofre was displayed on a table that floated on a pool of fresh water. Colorful flowers surrounded the pool. Beautiful red fish swam in the pool among the budding lotus leaves. Here and there, the reflection of the plants and the flowers on the water, enhanced by the faint hues of oranges, apples, and the goldfish created a beautiful scene.

None of that was new to Uncle. He had spent his childhood in this enchanting valley and, thereafter, had visited the place quite frequently. He could not detect even a small change. The occupants who, in a way, stood for Uncle’s parents, were always gracious to him, listened to him, and tried very hard to keep all discomfort and unhappiness away from his eventful life. In return, Uncle, too, loved them deeply.

His host showed Uncle to his place at the korsi where he could rest. Uncle thrust his feet and a good portion of his torso under the quilt, felt the warmth of the hearth under the korsi, and asked, “Where is Mashiyaneh? Isn’t she here?”

“She will be back shortly,” said Mashiya with a warm smile. “She went out to the river to fetch water for the animals…”

Even as Mashiya spoke, the door opened and Mashiyaneh entered. She was dressed in a long, white gown over which she had thrown a heavy coat. She greeted Uncle, took off the coat, and walked by the display. Her black tresses flowed over her shoulders and a mild smile crossed her lips. She was charming and unforgettable. Looking at her reminded Uncle of his childhood days. Mashiyaneh came to the korsi, stood where she intended to sit, then bent gently, lifted the edge of the quilt, and thrust her feet under it. Uncle felt the cold emanating from her feet.

Beside Mashiyaneh was a brazier at the side of which a pot of tea was steeping. The aroma of the tea and the fragrance of the flowers mingled with Mashiyaneh’s natural perfume. Mashiyaneh poured a cup of tea and offered it to the guest. Mashiya offered him fruits and nuts.

In years past, the mere sight of Mashiya and Mashiyaneh had transported Uncle from moroseness to a world of dreams, a world where earthly difference did not exist and misery and poverty were forbidden. This year Uncle was reluctant; he did not wish to be easily transported into a world of illusions and make-believe. Mashiya had already felt Uncle’s unease, at the time he had opened the door of the mill and welcomed him. To cheer Uncle up, Mashiya said, “This was a cold year, son. We hardly had enough senjed for the display!”

Uncle surveyed the haft-sin, the centerpiece of the display. In a round wooden tray, there were seven things. Around a beautifully budding hyacinth plant lay a red apple, a handful of crimson senjed, several bulbs of garlic, some sumac, a pinch of nigella seeds, and a cup of vinegar. Uncle believed that those items were the remaining vestiges of the Holy Immortals of the old religion; their very existence sustained the world. The sight boosted Uncle’s morale. “Yet,” he said, “it is not so much the cold that bothers people. The very thought of the arrival of spring, the blossoming of the trees, and the Nowruz house cleaning rejuvenates even the most incredulous of them.”

Looking across the korsi at Uncle’s sad face, Mashiya realized that Uncle’s unhappiness had become much deeper than previous years. He tried to persuade Uncle to talk about what bothered him. “Spring has arrived,” he said. “What possibly could mar the happiness that Nowruz brings?”

Uncle sighed and said, “Spring is indeed here. No doubt about that. But is its luster here, too? How often should I say that Nowruz is gradually losing its luster. People no longer cherish the firm beliefs of their forefathers. Each year fewer and fewer bother to put henna on their hands, color eggs, toast wheat berries and sunflower seeds. … Rather than visiting each other, they practically run away from each other. They even travel to avoid the traditional Nowruz visitations. Many immigrate and settle among strangers without even looking behind them.” Then he murmured, “That is at least what it looks like in our parts.”

Then nodding his head knowingly concluded, “This is not a new phenomenon. It is a creeping trend that is becoming worse each year. Last year in particular it was difficult. It was like living in a state of continuous mourning. All year long, the whole village was clad in black. The question is, a wake for whom? The dead being mourned do not belong to us!”

Mashiyaneh, who had been listening to Uncle’s complaint, said, “Son, don’t be unhappy! As they say, the world has its ups and downs. Don’t allow yourself to be overtaken by grief. Be patient. This year will be different. I promise.”

Uncle was somewhat disappointed in Mashiyaneh. He felt that she was not taking him, and his complaint, seriously. He said, “You are not living under the conditions that I live.” Then he corrected himself and said, “I mean that your children over there are experiencing. Come to think of it, forty or fifty years ago I, too, would not have been able to imagine what I am telling you. But, unfortunately, it is a reality over there, just on the other side of the mountain.”

Mashiyaneh responded calmly but firmly, “Well, I don’t know about that, son. We, too, have had our share of difficulty. A time came, in fact, not long ago, when our valley lost almost all its wealth and verdure. It was a horrendous time. It happened before you were born.”

Uncle was taken aback. He had always admired the spunk of this ancient couple living through the harsh winters of the mountain range. But he knew nothing about the horrendous time that Mashiyaneh was referring to.

“It sounds ominous,” he said. “How did that happen?”

“Through our own fault. We unknowingly brought it upon ourselves. Or maybe I should say by disregarding our age-old traditions they brought it upon us.”

Uncle turned to Mashiya and asked, “Mashiya, what is the story? What calamity befell you?”

Mashiya said, “It is a long story. I will give you the short version. A fiend, actually a man-eating viper demon in the guise of a beautiful woman, came to the valley and settled among us. The men, especially the young, were enchanted by her. After some time, she moved her family and relatives in from their original homeland, somewhere far away, Yemen, I think it was called, to the valley. They settled upstream from us. In time, against all our objections, they built many dams upstream and diverted the water in the river to irrigate their newly created orchards and fields. Downstream, the river went dry and the mill stopped. Before long, the lush valley and its fields were turned into a wasteland. People lost their livelihood and became destitute. Many left the valley.”

“Are the waterfalls where the dams were?”

“They are,” said Mashiya. “Their intention was a total takeover of the valley. They created conflict among us so that brother killed brother and father killed son without remorse…”

“I am surprised that you allowed that,” said Uncle shaking his head.

“We were taken by surprise. On the surface, being inherently secretive, they pretended that they loved our culture and supported our traditions. In reality, however, that was not the case. They wrote beautiful poetry in celebration of Nowruz, but in their hearts they hated Charshanbe Suri, Nowruz, and our other celebrations. They devised every scheme to erase them from the face of the earth…”

“That is astounding. You all are so wise…”

 “Wisdom had nothing to do with it. What was involved was lack of respect for the integrity of human beings, for progressive science, and for societal justice. They networked and as soon as an opportunity occurred, they took control of the valley. Before long, their inhumane aggressive and chauvinistic behavior turned the people of the valley into their virtual slaves. Furthermore, it turned out that even before they became rulers, they had facilitated the departure of our people from the valley, especially those who posed a threat to their future enterprise. In fact, the practice continued after they took control as well. As for the rest of us, they suppressed us mercilessly. They treated the women harshly, restive women in particular. Assaults and rapes were normal. On your way here you must have seen the ruins of their fortresses, homes, and temples.”

“I have seen those ruins many times, but I did not know that there was a story behind them,” said Uncle and added, “As I said, your discussion would have frightened me years ago; but, today, you are retelling my own story to me. What intrigues me the most is that there are so many similarities. Did those, let’s call them ‘intruders,’ respect the integrity of human life?”

“Not really,” responded Mashiyaneh without hesitation. “Of course I should preface that with saying that they made a sharp distinction between the people of the valley and their own people. The life and property of the people of the valley were expendable. But the life and property of their own people, who were distinct by language and costume, were fully respected. They supported each other. In sum, they were arrogant and self-centered. Their women were nowhere to be seen. They, themselves, too, rarely came down to the valley. They administered affairs through agents.” 

“Did they respect animal life?”

“No,” responded Mashiya and added, “How should I put it? They were very unlike us. We respect all living beings, especially dogs for their loyalty and for guarding our flocks and, indeed, our own lives. They, on the contrary, exercised a vendetta against dogs and hurt them without reason. Their children, in particular, were vicious…”

Mashiyaneh interrupted Mashiya, saying, “helpless and unprotected dogs suffered the most, of course, but the other wild life, too, was not immune. They liked hunting and killed animals for the fun of it. For instance, if we had not prevented it, they would have hunted down all the lions and today you would not be able to find a single lion.”

“How about the environment? Did they respect the environment?”

“No,” said Mashiyaneh. As we have been saying, they virtually dried up the valley by the dams they built to irrigate their fields and orchards. The draught they created was intense. They cut many of the trees and many more were turned into charcoal. To retain some of the verdure, we planted saplings. Even those were destroyed. As I said, human life in the valley was not their concern. How could they be mindful about animals and plants!”

“Let me ask this last question. It is a very important one,” said Uncle. “Did they practice nepotism?”

“That was their worst feature,” replied Mashiyaneh. “In fact, I can say nepotism, in its tribal version, was the mainstay of their strength.”

“They kept long narratives about peoples and places,” added Mashiya. “Their own people and places, of course. They kept secret genealogies indicating where their people lived, and what their relation was to the viper at the center. They knew exactly who did and who did not belong. Everything: jobs, housing, water distribution, field supervision, every single affair was organized on the basis of the contents of those documents.”

“Under those harsh circumstances, didn’t a time come when you could no longer take it?” Uncle asked.

“It did,” said Mashiyaneh. That was the time that they wanted to replace our holy ones with theirs.”

“What was the difference?”

“Our holy ones were absolute and divine with universal concerns. Their holy ones were of this world and had tombs in Yemen. There were several upstream as well.”

Uncle asked again: “If they had succeeded, what was the harm to your society?”

Mashiya said, “That would lead to ancestor worship. That meant we too would build places for the worship of their ancestors and forget about our own holy ones…”

Uncle wanted to say something, but decided not to. Instead, he asked, “If they were as deeply entrenched as you tell me, how did you dislodge them?” “Or did you?”

“At the end, they were forming the upper crust,” said Mashiya. “Of course, they started in the valley but, before long, rose above all of us both in wealth and prestige. Their sons and daughters lived in luxury and studied in Yemen, while the people of the valley were obliged to work in the hell that they had created around them so that they could add more wealth to their assets in Yemen.”

to be continued



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