In Translation: My Button Eyes // چشم‌های دکمه‌ای من

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

A short story by Bizhan Najdi, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay. The original Persian follows the English translation.

My Button Eyes

I’ve got a big head. My face is smooth—no cheekbones—and I have buttons for eyes. I can’t stand up. I need help to walk, otherwise my legs crumple and I fall face-first into the ground. My hair is like carpet-fringe and I really like how Fati’s breath smells. I like the smell of her warm breath so much I used to make her laugh and press my face into the sound of her laughter. Whenever Fati left the house with her dad, they would leave me on the shelf by the window. Seeing the street where Fati waved from the crowd at my blue velvet shirt made me forget I couldn’t move my arms or legs.

It was as if the window was hung from the sky by a rope and I was swinging from one side of the street to the other between the buildings.

One day, I was thrown out that very window onto the street. The mirror on the shelf came with me. The bricks came too.

Fati’s mother was also hurled out of the room by that sound that tore the air apart. I fell motionless on the sidewalk. A short distance away from me, Fati’s mother twitched her legs a couple of times and then, like me, stared at the people with her button eyes. But I was looking at the minaret of the mosque. Its green height towered up into the sky and painted the sound of the call to prayer onto the clouds.

People were running all around me. Smoke was billowing out of a house’s open doors. The smell of burnt sugar wafted over the sidewalk. On the other side of the smoke, a date tree had caught on fire. The people who lifted the dead, saying prayers as they went, were much bigger than the people who had been passing by the window a few minutes ago. I was looking for Fati’s shoes and her plump calves among all the feet. The minaret’s tiles looked so blue, I was certain Fati hadn’t been crushed under the bricks. My chin was still wet from her runny nose (whenever she kissed my neck some of her snot got on me).

As of sunset that day, there was no news of Fati. In the days after, when the people were leaving the city, I didn’t see anyone passing by who would let me smell their breath. As the city grew empty, I began to cry.

I missed the sound of Fati’s mother on the sewing machine. The day I was born, the smell of sauteed onions came from the kitchen, and the curtain, which the breeze had blown halfway into the room, tickled me with its lacy feet. I didn’t know that I didn’t have any teeth and that later, I would fall beside the open doors of a house and have to look at the burnt branches of a date tree for hours, days.

Saturdays slipped by, coming out of one alley and sliding into another. That’s where they grew dark and disappeared.

One of those evenings, a dog came out from behind an overturned mattress lying in the middle of the street. He came within a few paces of me, lifting his left leg into the air. Right across from me, he leaned his grey haunch against the wall. He laid down on his belly and licked his wounded paw. Looking at me through his watery eyes and resting his head on his paws, he napped until dark. Once dark came, he leaned his thigh against the wall again, lifted his left leg and slowly went away. I was terrified. I talked to myself until morning came.

Over the next few days, I was bored by the emptiness of the streets. I knew that my arms were splayed out next to me and my blue shirt was fading day by day.

One night it rained for hours, and the ground beneath me grew muddy. The raindrops seeped into my face. Water ran underneath me. The inside of my head was waterlogged. When the sun did come out, it took me a long time to dry. A gust of wind came and moved one of my arms. It threw a piece of shade from one part of the sidewalk to another. Little by little I grew familiar with all the objects surrounding me. The asphalt dragged itself over the ground, hunching over the city square in its full length. A young man in the center of a paper glued to the wall never took his eyes off me. The back of my head had rested on the ground so long, I could hear the rush of water flowing under the bridge. I even heard the rumble of iron passing over water for the first time. Much later I saw a huge chunk of metal coming down the street.

On its face, it had a long, pipe-shaped nose. Its iron feet were round and made lines on the ground. It passed right by my face. Behind it a bunch of people were walking, carrying their hats in their hands like buckets. They didn’t speak. One of them was sitting on the pile of iron and yelling at them. He didn’t have the same accent as Fati, and he didn’t know that both I and the scorched date tree were watching him. Behind the infantrymen, two people were carrying a man on a stretcher. They went into the mosque courtyard and laid the stretcher beside the pool. To cool themselves off, they dunked their heads in the pool. They lay down right there. Then they left without taking the stretcher. The man lying on the stretcher stayed just as he was. It seemed to me like he was looking inside the earth. Sometimes I think, like me, he must have nothing under his clothes but stuffing—no bones or anything. The day people come back to this city, they’ll definitely pick him up from the beside the little wall of the pool.

I’m telling you this so you’ll know where I’m lying.

Fati?

I’m talking to you!

~

چشم‌های دکمه‌ای منیوزپلنگانی که با من دویده‌اند

من کله‌ای بزرگ دارم. صورتم صاف و بدون گونه است. چشم های من دکمه‌ای است. نمی‌توانم بایستم. کسی باید کمکم کند تا بتوانم راه بروم وگرنه روی کشاله‌ی ران‌هایم شکسته می‌شوم و با صورت زخمی به زمین می‌افتم. موهایم مثل ریش قالی است خیلی هم از بوی دهان فاطی خوشم می‌آید.

به خاطر همان بوی گرم دهانش بود که او را می‌خنداندم و صورتم را به صدای خنده اش می‌چسباندم.

وقتی که فاطی با پدرش از خانه بیرون می‌رفت مرا روی تاقچه و پشت پنجره می‌گذاشتند. با دیدن خیابانی که فاطی از لای مردم برای پیراهن مخمل آبی من دست تکان دهد، بی حرکتی دست ها و پاهایم را فراموش می‌کردم.

انگار پنجره با طناب از آسمان آویزان بود و من از این طرف خیابانه به آن طرف بین ساختمان ها تاب می‌خوردم.

یک روز از همان پنجره به خیابان پرت شدم. با من آینه روی طاقچه هم آمد. آجرها هم آمدند. مادر فاطی هم در آن صدایی که هوا را پاره کرده بود با من به بیرون ازاتاق پرت شده بود. روی پیاده رو بی حرکت افتادم. مادر فاطی کمی دورتر از من دوبار پاهایش را تکان داد و بعد مثل من با چشم‌های دکمه‌ای به مردم زل زد. اما من نگاه کردم به گلدسته مسجد که قد سبزش را کشانده بود تا وسط آسمان  صدای اذانش را به پشت ابر می‌مالید.

در اطراف من مردم می‌دویدند. دود از درهای باز خانه‌ای بیرون می‌آمد. بوی قند سوخته از پیاده رو می‌گذشت. پشت دود، یک درخت خرما آتش گرفته بود. مردمی که مرده ها را کول کرده و با صلوات رد می‌شدند خیلی درشت تر از آن‌هایی بودند که همان چند دقیقه پیش از زیر پنجره می‌گذشتند. بین پاهای آن ها دنبال کفش و ساق پای گوشتالوی فاطی بودم کاشی‌های گلدسته آنقدر آبی به نظر می‌آمد که مطمئن بودم فاطی زیر آجرها له و لورده نشده است. هنوز چانه من خیس از آب دماغش بود( وقتی که گردن مرا می‌بوسید آب دماغش به چانه من مالیده می‌شد).

تا غروب آن روز خبری از فاطی نشد. روزهای بعد هم که مردم از شهر می رفتند کسی را ندیدم که از کنارم بگذرد و بوی دهان او را روی من بریزد. همین که شهر خالی شد من بی آن که چشم هایم را بازکنم یا ببندم زدم زیر گریه.

دلم برای شنیدن صدای چرخ خیاطی مادر فاطی تنگ شده بود. روزی که من به دنیا آمده بودم از آشپزخانه بوی پیاز داغ می‌آمد و پرده‌ای که به باد تکیه داده بود تا وسط اتاق می‌آمد و پاهای توری خودش را به من می مالید. من نمی دانستم که اصلا دندان ندارم و بعدها باید کنار درهای باز خانه‌ای بیافتم و ساعت ها، روزها شاخه‌های سوخته یک درخت خرما را نگاه کنم.

گاهی یکی از شنبه ها را می دیدم که از کوچه‌ای بیرون می آمد و سر می خورد توی یک کوچه دیگر. همان جا غروب می شد و از همان جا می رفت.

یکی از همان غروب ها از پشت تختخواب وارونی که وسط خیابان افتاده بود سگی تا چند قدمی من آمد که پای چپش را در هوا گرفته بود. پنجه پایش ریخته بود. کپل خاکستریش را به دیوار روبه روی من تکیه داد. شکمش را چسباند به زمین و زخم پنجه اش را لیس زد و از لای پلک های قی آورده اش مرا نگاه کرد و تا آمدن تاریکی، پوزه اش را روی دست هایش گذاشت و چرت زد. تاریکی که ریخت، دوباره کپلش را به دیوار تکیه داد. پای چپش را بالا گرفت و آهسته دور شد. من خیل ترسیدم. تا صبح با خودم حرف زدم.

روزهای بعد خالی بودن خیابان حوصله مرا سر می برد. می دانستم که دست هایم کنار شانه هایم دراز شده و آبی پیراهنم روز به روز رنگ پریده تر می شود.

یک شب ساعت ها باران بارید و زمین زیر من گل آلود شد. دانه های باران در صورتم فرومی رفت. زیر من آب راه افتاد. توی کله من خیس شد. آفتاب هم که زد خیلی دیر خشک شدم. یک بار هم باد تندی آمد که یکی از دست هایم را تکان داد و یک تکه سایه را از این پیاده رو برد و روی آن پیاده رو ریخت. کم کم با تمام اشیاء دور تا دورم آشنا شدم. اسفالت خودش را روی زمین می کشید و درازیش را روی میدان خم می کرد. پسرجوانی از وسط کاغذ چسبیده به دیوار، چشم از من برنمی داشت. آن قدر پس کله من روی زمین مانده بود که می توانستم صدای رودخانه زیر پل را بشنوم  حتی صدای عبور آهن را بار اول از آب شنیدم. مدت ها بعد دیدم که از ته خیابان آهن پاره بزرگی جلو می آید.

روی صورتش دماغ لوله شده درازی داشت. پاهای آهنی اش گرد بود و زمین را خط می انداخت. از کنار صورتم گذشت. پشت سرش عده‌ای پیاده می آمدند که کلاهشان را مثل سطل دست گرفته بودند. با هم حرف نمی زدند. فقط یکی از آن ها که روی آهن نشسته بود به طرفشان داد می کشید. او لهجه ی فاطی را نداشت و نمی دانست که من و درخت سیاه شده خرما نگاهش می کنیم. پشت سر پیاده ها دو نفر تخت روانی را می آوردند که مردی روی آن دمر افتاده بود. آن ها به حیاط مسجد رفتند. تخت روان را کنار حوض گذاشتند. سرشان را در آب حوض فرو بردند خودشان را خنک و خیس کردند. همان جا دراز کشیدند. بعد بی آن که تخت روان را با خود ببرند دور شدند. مردی که دمر افتاده بود همان طور باقی ماند. به نظرم داشت توی زمین را نگاه می کرد. گاهی فکر می کنم که او نباید زیر لباس هایش مثل من غیر از خُرده پارچه‌های کنار چرخ خیاطی، استخوانی، چیزی داشته باشد. روزی که مردم دوباره به این شهر بازگردند حتما او را از کنار دیوارک حوض بر می دارند. این را می گویم تا بدانی من کجا افتاده‌ام.

با تو هستم فاطی.

Translator Note

This short story appears in a Persian-language collection by Bizhan Najdi called Cheetahs That Have Run with Me, winner of the Gardoon Literary Award and Golden Pen in 1994. It tells the story of what may be interpreted as the 1980 Iraqi invasion of an Iranian border city, Khorramshahr, through the eyes of a doll caught in the crossfire. Despite the fact that this book won two of Iran’s most prestigious literary awards, so far only two other stories from it have been translated into English.

Najdi (1941-1997), from Lahijan, Iran, published just two collections of fiction in his short, late-blooming literary career. This book, however, met with great acclaim, and its unusual postmodernist style provoked substantial amounts of literary criticism in Persian and some in English. His work often depicts major formative events of Iranian history and their effects on common people, albeit by circuitous means, circumventing the censors and using unconventional narrators, like a horse or a man’s tattoo, to describe otherwise untouchable topics.

I came across Najdi’s work while conducting research for my PhD in Persian Language and Literature at the University of Cambridge, which I defended in 2017 before taking up the position of Lecturer in Persian Language at Columbia University.

This skillful, atypical and much-commented upon set of short stories represents the culmination of a movement in Persian literature towards formal experimentation as a way to deal with censorship of political themes. It deserves the chance to be read and recognized by English-speaking readers, who largely experience Iran through news headlines rather than its many literary achievements.

About the Author

Bizhan Najdi (1941-1997) was an Iranian writer and teacher. Najdi is most known for his award-winning story collection Cheetahs That Have Run with Me published in 1994 in Iran, three years before his death.

About the Translator

Michelle Quay is currently Lecturer of Persian Language at Columbia University in New York. In 2018, she was awarded her Ph.D. in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her translations have appeared in the Everyman’s Library series The Language of Flowers and in the forthcoming Life and Letters of an Iranian Communist: Stories of Bozorg Alavi. She received the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to study at Pembroke College, where her research focused on Medieval Persian Literature. Prior to her studies at Cambridge, she obtained her B.A. from the University of Chicago in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and her M.A. in Iranian Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Ms. Quay’s interest in Persian was sparked at a young age growing up in Southern California in close proximity to the largest Iranian diaspora community in the United States.

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