From Mahboobeh and Ahl

The story they told was that Mahboobeh’s father’s aunt, Hajar, was responsible for the family’s uprooting in the year one thousand, three hundred, and eighteen of the Hijra. A few months before Mahboobeh’s birth in the city, the wind demon unleashed a savage storm from his sack, tearing up God’s good earth, and exposing, bit by bit, for all to see, the remains of the aunt, gruesomely slain. Wailing and scandal filled the land.

Everyone now knew that the mysterious veiled woman who, under cover of night, in remote caves and abandoned shepherds’ huts, had slept with any man who came to her on horse back, was none other than Hajar. The veiled woman never appeared in the same place twice, they said, and it took great luck to find her. What’s more, she never gave herself to a man who came on foot; only riders interested her. To the chosen ones who reveled in the sweetness of her favors, she spoke not a word, though at the height of ecstasy, she seemed to murmur “My regal, nocturnal horseman!” into their ears.

The number of men who sought her passion and the heat of her whisper multiplied, desperate souls galloping through all the barren places around the village till dawn. Exhausted by their nightly quest, they would succumb to sleep in the morning and dream of delights yet to come. And so they began to neglect their tasks, stopped toiling in the fields, and the little village gradually crumbled into ruin.

One sleepless night, Hajar’s husband—one of the few remaining able-bodied men in the village—quietly crept out of bed, leaving behind his apparently sleeping wife. He slipped into a neighbor’s stable, where a saddled horse awaited him, and joined the riders of the night. Hours passed as he rode the land. The cold nagged at him to abandon his search and return home. But before his desire for the legendary veiled woman abated, the scheming stars aligned in his favor. He found his way into the enchanted realm of her body and was soon immersed in the nectar of her ministrations. From that night on, the veiled lady was never seen again—that is, not until the night the demon loosed his winds.

Gales rose as the gossip mongers wagged their tongues, tying the disappearance of Hajar to the vanished lady of the caves. The fearsome wind carried such grime that even the gossipers’ words, like the trees and houses, were coated in dust. Windows flew off their hinges and fires were snatched from hearths. Haylofts caught fire and dried-up trees burned for hours. Anything that dared stand in the way of the wind was battered down. Trapped in their huts, the villagers abandoned hope. Gardens vanished, walls collapsed, sands shifted, animals were buried, and finally the churning earth disgorged the remains of the missing woman. Only then, in the glaring sunlight that followed the storm, could they confirm that the veiled woman had, indeed, been Hajar.

Indignant, the village men blamed Hajar’s husband, who, utterly humiliated, shouldered the blame and took it upon himself to journey to the city court so that he could receive his just punishment. But, alas, the winds had so distorted the collective history and identity of the village that there seemed no remedy for the despair of the men and the torment of the women. The fields were devastated and the wells dried up. Dead animals slowly decomposed under the sun, and the fatty stench carried disease. Finally, weighed down by their memories and few belongings, the villagers departed for other places, became strangers in distant lands. But the men were forever after haunted by the infamy of Hajar, who was, after all, more or less a blood relation of them all, and the women were trapped by walls of suspicion the men built around them as a consequence of Hajar’s betrayal.

A few months after their arrival in the city, Masoomeh, who was mistakenly named Mahboobeh, was born. Fearful of future disgrace, her father had secretly prayed for a boy child. Her birth, therefore, did not gladden him. But there was an added source of distress: a few weeks before the delivery, the child had issued blood in the womb, and when the mother detected the blood, she was so horrified that she was driven to the brink of death. This strange development persuaded the parents to sacrifice an innocent lamb before the proper, designated time to welcome a baby.

(Translated by Ashurbanipal Babilla, and edited by Nahid Mozaffari and Deborah Tall)

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