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A short story and an excerpt from The Persian  

by Kathleen Hite Babb, U.S.A.

Shakuhachi An Act of Faith: Excerpt from The Persian

She stared out of the plate-glass window into the midmorning haze, sensing only the movement of the heavy machinery that propelled the ferry across this segment of the Setonaikai---The Inland Sea. She was oblivious to the tiny isles parading by, dressed in their calico colors heralding yet another season of hibernation. The sight had grown pale from familiarity, since it was there almost daily for her over the past five years. Yes, the recent typhoon had changed the face of the countryside, but even that was now too commonplace to make the view any more worthy of interest.

The drone of the TV newscaster reached her, and she looked up at the face. The lips were moving, words marshaled forth in their prescribed fashion. Yet, even with the aid of photos and film, she couldn't understand the heart of the issue. All attempts were frustrated; she found solace in her Walkman instead.

Never once when contemplating this long-term move to Japan had she suspected she'd be sacrificing anything more than her job. Cameron loved it here, but then he was the Japanese scholar. He read the language, spoke the language; he lived and breathed Japan. And she was here for him. But how much had she lost because of it? She stopped thinking about it years ago, it was just too painful. And slowly over time she stopped thinking altogether. It had been inevitable. She had what she called 'peripheral' social contact, since her conversations could only be as deep as her superficial knowledge of the language would allow. Mental stimulation was a luxury well nigh nonexistent because of the communication barrier, and because information in English was so hard to come by.

Every so often Cameron would remark, "Why don't you learned more Japanese? I mean really sit down and study it? That would solve all your problems, you know.
She couldn't explain to him that fluency wasn't really the answer. The social circles of housewives preoccupied with children or college girls on the hunt weren't particularly appealing.
Now as the ferry docked, she hopped on her bicycle and peddled up off the dock. The bike gave her a form of exercise she enjoyed and a feeling of freedom that public transportation could never offer. It was almost the only area of her life she felt she had control over.
She pumped harder up the incline and through the back streets. At a traffic light, she removed her pullover and pressed it into the basket behind her, half wondering if it would bounce out as had the long green onions a couple of weeks ago.
Soon she crossed the bridge. It was much better since its recent reconstruction. Now recollection of its leaner days were only a blur. As she traversed the streetcar tracks a bus rumbled by honking madly. At first she swore to pay no attention to it. The driver was perhaps annoyed about something and was taking it out at the sight of a gaijin. (She hated the word. It literally meant outsider.) She peddled on. Something began to dawn. How odd the horn-blast had been! Rarely did anyone but an occasional taxi or truck driver use their horn.
The realization stopped her. She thought a moment, then checked for her sweater. Instinct told her it was gone; that was why the bus driver had made such a ruckus. It was his signal.
Looking out into the busy avenue, her vision lighted on the missing garment. Turning the bike around, she braved the traffic to snatch up the pullover before some motorist made it a target.

Entering the national university by a side gate, she parked in front of the building where Cameron had his office. The unswept cement staircase inside always reminded her of something out of Dr. Zhivago after the revolution. A new campus was being built, so no one felt the need to or has the interest in keeping things clean.
As she walked down the gray corridor, three or four faces greeted her, and she was friendly in return. Everyone knew why she was there, and (she suspected) were sniggering to themselves. She was the only wife to come to the office. It just wasn't the thing to do here.
She knocked a couple of times at Cameron's door. The lights were on inside.
A secretary on her way to the elevator remarked in passing, "Markham Sensei is in the faculty room."

She stared after the woman for a second as though the words hadn't been addressed to her, then called out, "Is he in a meeting?"
"No, he and Hicks Sensei and Carlson Sensei are having a long chat over coffee."
"Thank you," she hastened to say, but it was too late; the woman was gone from sight.
Feeling a bit awkward, as though on sacred ground, she stepped into the faculty room. The men were in the midst of an emphatic conversation and didn't notice. It wasn't until Ichiro Yamashita, another of Cameron's colleagues, nodded a bow that the others looked in her direction.
"What's up, Mick?" Cameron asked, smiling lovingly to her, using her nickname.
"I thought I'd stop by and see if you had a street map. I can't pick up the meishi unless I know where the printer's shop is. You don't happen to have one, do you?"
"I don't. Sorry. You might try one of the secretaries."
"I have one," Mr. Yamashita volunteered in carefully pronounced English. "Not a map, but a city atlas. Will that do? It's in my office."
His room was packed with books and papers of all description, rising to the ceiling. Because of the clutter, the place made her feel that she was in a breathless morgue of antiquated concepts more than in an airy vault inspiring lofty ideas. Flipping through notes and searching under scholarly theses, her guide finally reached past her to bring forth a hefty volume. With his help the street and building were easily located.
"Do you think you can remember where it is?" he asked.
She hesitated, then replied, "Would you mind if I made a photocopy of this page?"

So with the volume under arm, she headed off to the copy shop, a well-lit prefab of one room that stood between another dismal concrete classroom building and an old wooden-framed structure. In contrast, the latter seemed as though it could well have been a barracks during the war.
She stopped. From the second story of the "shed," as it was fondly referred to by the initiated, came the dissonant chords of musicians at work and play---the music practice rooms. Hearing the scratchy strains now brought back sharply her own hours of rehearsing as a college student. Now the Sirens were calling and she responded, taking the stairs up, each step groaning in its old age.

Reaching the landing, she hesitated. For several seconds, the musicians were at rest, except one. From the far end of the building came a haunting sound like the sighing of a lone wind, empty yet defined. Above the other timbres, it drew her onward till she was standing in front of the door.

Unexpectedly, the door was thrown open, and a young man came out, leaving it agap. She stood there for a brief second. Behind her she heard the collegian knock at a neighboring door, and disappear inside.
Disappointment replaced surprise. She longed to hear him play more. Yet, an odd sense of relief washed over her.
She entered the vacant cubical, and stood absorbing the fragrance of an experience long past. Of course, she had never practiced in a room with rickety floors, closed windows that let in more than just sunlight, and walls that were hardly thicker than cardboard. Her rehearsal room had been in modern facilities, paneled with acoustic tile, and were soundproof. In spite of the differences however, the vibrations were universal - the music stand decked in the black and white of the printed page, the seat or two, the instrument and its case, the cleaning rag and cork grease - they were all the same.

Lying across a folding chair was the source of those breathless tones.
She had heard the shakuhachi before, but had never seen one up close, and had never watched it being played. Now she gazed down at the bamboo flute, knowing that it was held in front of the musician like a clarinet. It had neither keys nor fipple, nor was it reeded. The finger holes were exposed and its lip rest was a mere slice out of the wood. She couldn't help but stare at it in awe. Then her sight went to the music and the bubble of understanding burst. On the stand was the strangest form of musical notation she had ever seen. It immediately aroused her curiosity.

Her concentration was broken, though, as her ears pricked up at the sound of a door opening, words spoken and footsteps that were coming in her direction. She panicked realizing she had no means of escape. 'What am I going to say? How can I explain myself? What am I doing here anyway?' The words shot through her head, but could not be reflected upon, for there in the doorway stood the music-maker himself, equally startled.

The street atlas fell from her hands, and she bent down to pick it up, all the while apologizing, "Gomenasai, gomenasai." She couldn't think of anything else to say. When she rose to look him straight in the eyes, she saw that they were artist's eyes, not cold, but obviously annoyed.

She stuttered, "Anata no ongaku wo kikimashita." I heard your music. The words were coming to her almost unconsciously. "The shakuhachi is beautiful, isn't it?" She could sense his suspicion, and rightly so; how did he know that she wasn't intent on stealing the instrument?

He walked past and gathered it up.
"The music," she went on in a nervous rush in Japanese, nodding at the stand, "it is so very different. Would you play it for me?"

Again, reluctance. But when at last he put his mouth to the wood, there was nothing else but the hollow, insubstantial sounds. All uncertainty evanesced. Existence soon became pure sound - pure emotion. He played on and on without pause, without mistakes, free of self-consciousness. Particular passages made her feel as if she were at the foot of a waterfall, and others gave her the sensation of being at the mouth of a gigantic cave.

At length the beauty died away, and sadness again rushed to fill the void. She was loath to breathe at first for fear of making any noise. But the musician's movement was effective enough to snap her back to reality.
She looked again at him as he sorted through the papers in front of him. "Tottemo kirei, desu ne!" she whispered. "Subarashi! Arigato." It was beautiful, wasn't it! Wonderful! Thank you. "How long have you been learning the shakuhachi?" she went on in Japanese.

"For about four years," he spoke to her for the first time in a voice as soft as his playing.
"Then traditional Japanese music is taught here at the university?" Then she added in English, "I wouldn't have thought it."

He continued on, not reacting to the foreign words, "Yes. But actually, I am studying with a master."

Astonishment was bald on her face. This industrial city was hardly a place of peace and serenity. Such a cultural backland had little appeal to her, and she couldn't imagine what any skilled artisan could find to keep him there.
As though speaking to herself, she said, "In my university days, I, too, studied music." As soon the words were out of her mouth she regretted them, for she realized that they couldn't possibly mean anything to him.
His response was sincere behind it's formal politeness: "Is that so?"
She was encouraged and went on. "I played the flute." But she didn't really want to talk about herself, her mind was on his instrument. "Is the shakuhachi difficult? I hear it is."

He handed it to her to try. She couldn't produce a solid tone from it.
The fact would have been an insult had we both not found it amusing.
Together they laughed out loud. He then took it, and placing it to his lips, blew across it, demonstrating. "Try again."

The blowing made her giddy, but she finally succeeded in eliciting a faint tone.
"That's a good start," he said, honestly impressed, and pleased.

She stood at the door for a moment, not knowing what more to say. "Shitsurei shimatshita. O jama shimashita." I've been rude. I have interrupted you. She bowed and started to leave, but stopped. "Do you think your master would teach me? I know music---well, not that music, but I...I know rhythm. I would learn quickly."

"I can't say, of course. But I don't see why not. He has another foreigner who studies under him."
"And does this person speak Japanese?"
"The gaijin? Yes, excellent Japanese." Seeing the change on her face, he hastened to add, "But music is universal, words aren't so necessary---it's the feeling, the spirit. If you are sensitive to it, that is all that matters."

Illustration by Barbara Casterline, 1999.

She understood only half his words, but suspected she knew what he had said, and her hopes rose for a second time.
Yet by the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, she was feeling dejected. How could she speak to the master about her wish and in return comprehend his reply? How could she possibly swallow her pride and have Cameron accompany her as translator? It would be embarrassing. She'd feel like a little kid that had to have Daddy arrange everything. She couldn't do it.
She made her photocopy, returned the atlas, and found Cameron alone in his office.

"Find what you needed?" he asked, concerned by her long face.
She remained introspective, not wanting to talk, yet longing to blurt it all out. "Well, I had better be going before I'm late for class. I'm doing a video lesson today, so I've got to get there a little early to set up." She didn't move but sat in silence, then finally said without much strength, she said, "Learning an instrument in Japan is expensive, isn't it?"
"I imagine a lesson would cost as much as, say, a private Japanese or English conversation lesson. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I don't know. I just thought . . . " She didn't bother to finish the sentence.

Cameron's words turned her around halfway to the door: "A student gave me these concert tickets the other day---to a shakuhachi concert. By a local master. Thought we could go."

An Act of faith: An excerpt from The Persian

An excerpt from a Bahá´í historical novel by Kathleen Hite Babb.

Being a muleteer Ali Khan knew how to dress for the cold. And in early March 1889 it was still cold in Shiraz. Bundled up in his sheepskin jacket and his papak cap of the same material that covered his ears, he sat on his folded pallet in the small room he shared with his two younger brothers. He smiled to recall his recent return. The homecoming, albeit a humble one, had been a definite triumph, he felt.

He had traversed the square with determined steps. Although dirty and burdened down with his saddle, saddle-bags and whip, he was glad to be home. Through the bazaar he trod, smiling at the familiar faces that greeted him. Loiterers and shopkeepers stood over braziers talking of news and rumors. It was a common sight, but it warmed Ali's heart. Down busy streets he traveled, his steamy breath before him. At the entrance to a mosque he paused briefly to offer a prayer of gratitude, then he continued on his way. Crossing another public square, he took a dusty side street, bowing his head in thought as he walked on. Yet through it all he heard his name called out, and he halted. When finally his eyes focused on Ustad Ali standing at the door of the coffeehouse, he beamed with joy.

"Ali," the carver was saying, "when did you get back in town? How was the commission to Bushire? Come, join me in a cup of chai , and let's talk. You look as though you could use something warm."

The muleteer approached the doorway, his eyes taking in the rumpled hands of the Bahá´í. He spoke loudly knowing the man's weakened hearing since the beating. "I wish I could, dear friend, but . . . well as you can see I am in dire need of a bath. I must get home." Then he paused in perplexity, drawing even nearer the man.
"Besides, how is it that you are having tea in the middle of the afternoon?" They both knew it was the Bahá´í fasting period.

Ustad Ali's smile was broad. He winked and replied in a raspy whisper, "I'm not. I order it and let it sit and get cold. Then I order another. That way I can stay and listen to the latest news." He winked again. "You understand. You get washed up and come back. I'll buy you a cup of tea . . . or coffee or . . .whatever."

"I can't right now. But perhaps this evening, late this evening. I've something to tell you."

The carver was curious and concerned at the same time. "Everything went well on the coast, didn't it?"

"Yes. Yes, it went exceedingly well, praise Allah. We had pilgrims to Mecca going and returning. There was one special one . . . but I'll tell you all about it later."

Soon the muleteer stood facing a particular gate---the one to the House of the Bab. He paused for a long moment as though divining something no one else could. At length he turned away and headed home.

Opening the gate to his father's house, he felt apprehension ripple through him, but then it fled. He went inside.

Recalling it now, he didn't let consternation cloud the happiness that had been his companion since his days on the coast. Every night since his return, he had spent in the presence of old and new friends alike. It was as if heaven had opened up to him. Yet he knew it couldn't last. He had to come back to earth and deal with what people unthinkingly called ´reality.´

Yes, there were some things he had to deal with, the foremost being his father. He felt sad as he thought about it now. God knows I don't want to disappoint him. But surely he'll find out I've become a Bahá´í sooner or later. Wouldn't it be best if he heard it from me? Oh, dear God, it will crush him. But what am I to do? I must be faithful to my own soul. A verse from the Qur'an gnawed at him as it had even before he made his decision: "Do men think when they say 'We believe' they shall be let alone and not be put to proof?"

Perhaps there is nothing to worry about, he consoled himself. In a few days Masoud will get another commission and we'll be gone from here. It could be ages before Father learns. Or perhaps never. He hasn't heard so far, and I've been home now almost a week. And too he may not care. I provide him with an income. He needs me. But the young muleteer suspected he was deceiving himself. He remembered with clarity his father's reaction when it was learned that one of Ali's brothers intended to convert to Christianity in hopes of receiving an education. Ali had never seen his father so angry.

Anxiety wracked Ali again. Unrolling his prayer rug, he knelt down on it and bent his forehead to the ground attempting to empty himself of the myriad conjecture and imaginary chains of denouement.

" . . . Forget not My bounties while I am absent," he recited from memory, "Remember My days during thy days, and My distress and banishment in this remote prison. And be thou so steadfast in My love that thy heart shall not waver, even if the swords of the enemies rain blows upon thee and all the heavens and the earth arise against thee . . .

...And if thou art overtaken by affliction in My path, or degradation for My sake, be not thou troubled thereby.

Rely upon God, thy God and the Lord of thy fathers . . ."

His breath puffed out with every syllable, but he was unconscious of it. Indeed, he was so wrapped in his devotions that he didn't hear his brother enter and kneel down at the right angle to him.

Bending low, Farid put his mouth close to the suppliant's ear. There was venom in his words. "I know, Ali. I know. And soon everyone will know. Masoud just told me."

The muleteer sat up, but didn't move from his rug. Opening his eyes, he looked squarely at his younger brother. Ali's gaze was not one of challenge, but of apparent readiness. His voice was level as he asked, "And what is it that you know?"

He watched as Farid began to encircle him. Where Ali's demeanor bespoke earnestness, Farid's was one of hostility and loathing, the muleteer could feel it pouring out of the teen.

"I know where you go so late at night. And I know why. And I know why you are not eating, why you are fasting at this time of year rather than at Ramadan."

"I've already explained tha---"

"Yes, of course. We all know that you are 'purifying your soul with prayer and fasting.' Why? Answer me that, will you! And do you think I don't understand the significance of THIS?!" Farid kicked the prayer rug, but Ali remained outwardly calm despite the fact that Farid had again thrust his head down into Ali's point-blank vision. "Do you think I am so stupid that I don't know in what direction Mecca is? You're not facing Mecca!" His eyes were steel cold.

"Sit down, Farid. Sit down."

The youth didn't move.

"All right, so be it. If I must talk to you like this, I will. But firstly, tell me what I've done to deserve your malice. Or is it that you've always been jealous of me?"

"Jealous? Of you?" Farid broke into harsh, vindictive laughter. "I'm not jealous of you. I don't envy you in the least. In fact I can barely wait to see what Father will do when he finds out. You will be the one to envy me!"

The words were hardly out of Farid's mouth when angry steps drew nearer down the passage, footsteps that Ali recognized at once as his father's. He was home early, and Ali was sure he knew why. The moment he had been dreading had at last arrived.

In the doorway stood his parent, red-faced, with rage in his eyes. "What is this I hear in the marketplace, that you've abandoned the True Faith. Do you deny it?"

"No---" he tried to explain but his father went on.

"Curse that detestable Bab. Now! Prove to me that you are not one of them. Well? I'm waiting."

"No, I won't do that."

"Then what I hear is true, isn't it? You've become a Babi. Worse even than an unclean Christian, you've become a godless heretic!" he shouted.

"Please, Aqa-Jan, let me explain to y---"

But there was no time. Lunging for Ali's whip that lay on the floor next to the young man's saddle bags, the father lashed out in blind rage. "How dare you do this to me! I allow you a little education - the only one of my sons to be given this advantage, and what do you do? You abandon the beliefs of your forefathers. Just because you can read and write you haughtily reject the Pure Faith for some bizarre scheme of a half-crazed sayyed."

"No, that's not tru---" Ali tried to protest, but his words were drowned out again.

"You were the pride of this household. But now you have only brought disgrace and dishonor. I go down the street and everyone whispers 'There goes poor Salman Baqir whose son has shamed him with all his fancy learning.' Knowledge. Education. Books. WORDS!" The whip came down on each period.

The last thing the young man heard was his mother's high-pitched cry, "No, Salman. Noooo! Don't do this!!!" Failing to arrest her husband's arm, she fell to the ground, weeping loudly. The beating continued until the man's arm grew too tired. Ali, blood-stained, his jacket in shreds, lay on the floor in an inert heap.

"So you think you know more than the mulla," Salman Baqir panted, wiping his mouth. "Well, he is wiser than you will ever be! Out! Get out you filthy dog!" he cried, kicking the motionless form harder and harder.

Farid cringed in the corner, pale with fright, his father's diatribe to Ali ringing in his ears: "If you ever show your face in this town again I will personally haul you before the Imam Juma. Now, get out of my house before I kill you!"

You can read the article:
The Realm of Possibility: Harmonizing Fact and Fiction, at

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