The Bus, a short story by Saneh Jaleh, killed on Monday, aged 26

As a tribute to Saneh Jaleh, who two days ago lost his life in the fight for freedom of expression, I have translated a short story written by him.

Saneh Jaleh, a 26-year-old theatre student at Tehran’s Arts University was killed by the regime’s forces during demonstrations on Monday 14 February.  The protests had been in support of the people of Egypt and Tunisia, celebrating their freedom of expression and will. Iranian citizens in Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan, Mashad, Kermanshah and Rasht bravely took to the streets for the first time in more than a year with the slogans “Tunisia, Egypt, Iran” and “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now Seyed Ali [Ayatollah Khamenei]”. As night fell the regime’s Basij and security forces attacked the peaceful protestors, with their  callous tactics as the scene descended into one of familiar horror.

I leave you with Jaleh’s fictional short story The Bus, originally written in Persian (see bottom of page) and published in Azma magazine.

The Bus

by Saneh Jaleh

Beside the young man is an old man with a cigarette. The third drag of the cigarette is over and the young man awaits the smoke. The old man lets the smoke out. The smoke enters the young man’s throat. He deliberately coughs gently but the old man doesn’t hear. The cigarette goes up and down and he flicks the ash on the floor of the bus, the young man’s eyes following the movements of the old man’s hand. The young man leaves the old man alone and stares out of the window.

The single seat has become free. It seems the lady sitting there had had second thoughts about the journey, or maybe she’s forgotten something, or maybe she could no longer stand the cigarette smoke. Either way, it’s the young man’s luck and he’s making the most of it, now two steps further from the smoke. He sits in the seat, glued to the window and feeling cold. His body relaxes into the seat and he closes his eyes. There’s a small smile on his lips, but it curls back the minute the sound of the engine is heard. His eyes are now open and he leans back normally.

He looks out of the window, following the slow, short steps of the lady. Her left hand is by her ear and she’s talking non-stop, not wanting to think about turning back or not turning back, but her happiness is complete in turning her gaze away from that place. He looks at the time. It’s exactly 2:35pm. Now to check the wallet. Only 50 Tomans. The taxi fare is exactly 50 Tomans. A smile. This smile reminds him of the old man’s smile and his own smile before getting on the bus. An old man whose appearance did not differ all that much from the old man on the bus but who spoke nothing of his conscience.

The bus is now in motion. The driver glances in the side-view mirrors and gently puts his foot on the accelerator. He watches the driver and the movement of his hand as he changes gear. The back of his head is more interesting. Thinning yellow hair that goes from the back of his neck to below the middle of his head. Because he has no hair in front, the young man thinks: “Ah, a calm, bald, driver.” The bus separates from the row of buses. The passengers look out of the window at the cement buildings at the crossroads, half yellow, half black. What a ridiculous colour scheme, they’re thinking to themselves. With that the bus stops. The driver quickly gets down. A few other free drivers join him as he releases the bonnet. They all look at the engine. The young man sees a number of heads bobbing up and down and occasionally to the side.

A familiar head emerges and opens the door, climbing back onto the bus. The young man can now see his face. He’s saying: “Dear passengers. The engine has cut. It won’t take long to fix. Of course we need to change one of the parts. This will only take half an hour, if you wait half an hour it will be fixed and we’ll get moving.” Laughter, or upset, or indifference are the traits he evokes in us. With half an hour to go, everyone quickly gets off to warm themselves with a hot tea or coffee. The old man draws a cigarette from his pack and calmly gets off the bus after everyone else. He’s probably thinking to himself that a cigarette in the cold air is more pleasurable, the young man thinks. He stays where he is, because he can’t be bothered, and because he has no money. He only pulls up the zipper of his jacket and stares out of the front windscreen of the bus. His eyes narrow, focusing on something that links to a bad feeling.

He chooses to revisit the story anew. He looks at his watch. The time is exactly 2:35pm. He says softly, the story will end in 25 minutes.

It was 1pm. He set off for the terminal in search of a friend or acquaintance. He only had 50 Tomans. That’s why he was looking for his friends. He needed at least 450 Tomans for the hire. He searched everyone he saw but could not see a friend among them. Having searched the whole terminal he could no longer bear to stand. Desolate, he sat in a chair at the far end of the terminal alongside the road, saying: “It’s better this way.” He stared at his shoes and stretched out his legs. His hands lay on his knees, just as something unexpected happens. Unbelievably, there is a 500 Toman note at his feet. He wants to believe it. The man’s heart begins to beat for a moment, but then more desolate than ever, he says to himself: “It’s better this way.” Hopeless he says: “Yes sir, go ahead.” The man replies: “You’ve dropped your money.” With a smile the young man says: “Where? Oh here it is, I found it.” “Thank you very much madam.” “You’re welcome.” And he hears the footsteps of a woman gradually fading. She is making her way to the buses. As she approaches she reaches into her bag and pulls out a ticket and presents it. As she gets on the bus, she disappears from the young man’s view. She’s probably sitting on the other side, he says to himself.

He puts the money in his wallet, uncomfortable but happy. Looking at the wallet in his hand he remembers the 1000 Toman notes he’d had. He asks himself: Was the old man telling the truth? He tells himself that it has nothing to do with him, that he fulfilled his duty. He recalls the old man’s smile, smiling. He checks the time. It’s 2pm. He wants to review last night’s events again. He gets up and goes into the bus terminal, finding a comfortable chair. It’s exactly five past two in the afternoon. The adventure will end in precisely 25 minutes, he says to himself softly.

It’s dark. Exactly 8pm. He dresses carefully, as always doing up the zipper on his jacket. He wipes his shoes with a hanky and calmly puts them on. He opens the door to leave, quietly closing it behind him. His nightly ritual of roaming the streets for one hour begins. It’s cold outside. He walks softly. He looks at others, but is lost in his own thoughts. The street is empty. A cold wind hits him. He loses himself in thought, like every other night. He doesn’t notice an old man joining him on one side. Maybe because he wasn’t expecting him. But the old man makes his presence felt. Before that there had been noone else on the street. With anxiety and disquiet he hurriedly says “My son, my son…my son has had an accident.”  The young man hears only this sentence and stares at a folder and piece of paper that the old man is holding. On it is written: Urgent request for Blood group O. He looks back at the old man. It seems he has stopped talking. Realising this, the young man says “How can I help?”. The old man replies “I need 2,700 Tomans; the man with blood group O has said he won’t give any blood until he receives all the money.” Without hesitation, the young man reaches into his pocket. He hands over three 1000 Toman notes. The old man smiles brightly, saying “My son, I am indebted to you. Give me your number or address, or take my identity card.” He says the last sentence more slowly. But the young man has distanced himself from the old man and is once again walking soflty. Thirty, forty steps away, it occurs to him that the old man may not be telling the truth. He decides it has nothing to do with him, that he has done his duty.

He looks at the time. It is exactly 2:35pm. The bus is filling up. He walks towards it. There is only one free seat, next to an old man. The single seat opposite is occupied by a lady.

He looks at the time again now. It’s exactly 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The door opens and the passengers one by one return to their seats. The driver is seated behind the wheel. He puts his foot on the accelerator harder this time. the engine roars. The bus sets off with greater speed. The young man stares at the cement buildings, blocks of half yellow, half black. What a ridiculous colour scheme, he thinks to himself. Just then he sees a young man at the crossroads, walking slowly, head down; he may look for something, or he may not. With the end of that sentence, he closes his eyes.

The Bus by Saneh Jaleh