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By Alex Smith






Left to rot in an Iranian prison and under the shadow of death, Kamaal tells fellow-insurgent Drew the story of the four drunk beauties - Elvira the housekeeper and ex-assassin, Lou the Senegalese sculptor, virtuoso cellist Mimi, and Adriette, a food fundi from the Free State.


The two men follow the beauties’ wild chase through Iran in pursuit of a killer, a quest undertaken to prevent a catastrophe. And all the while the ancient and modern flavours of a country – its poetry, architecture and music – come to life in the rich and sensual tapestry of Alex Smith’s story-telling.




ADRIETTE STARED HARD at the packet of airline sugar she was about to add to a plastic cup of tea. Far below, the ancient lovelands of Persia – the trusted rice plains of Gilan, the river Atrek, hankering always to flood into her Caspian Sea, and the tranquil stratovolcano Damaavand – rolled by darkness. Up high, Adriette’s sugar poured through the watery tea and floated fast to the bottom of the cup while in a dim room on the ground floor of a ten-story block near the Mowlavi Street bird-market of Southern Tehran another spoonful of sugar drifted swiftly through hot tea to the floor of a glass belonging to a man in a smart navy anorak. While he watched the tea cool he rubbed his hands and tweaked the cuffs of the jacket of which he was extremely proud. 


In the deep pocket of the anorak, within an envelope
 of flimsy paper embossed with a catfish motif, was a
 gloomy reality of which the man was less proud.


“The labyrinth of misunderstandings between Middle Easterners and Westerners,” read Mimi from a travel guide the Widow Nila had give her, “is replete with half-truths and stereotypes…” Thus continued Mimi until a quarter of an hour before the flight landed in Tehran, when the women around her who had been glamorously attired began to put on long, austere coats. It was more than a seasonal change; it wasn’t an ordinary winter they feared. In the seat across the aisle from Elvira, a woman wiped bright lipstick off her lips and covered her blonde hair with a scarf. Regardless of the heat in the poorly ventilated plane, the woman knotted the scarf tightly under her chin.


The plane dipped to begin its descent through the stars and the clouds and into our world, Students of Shooshtar.


After landing and disembarking, the beauties found themselves in an airport with floors tiled in avocado-green melamine. Security guards stood at the end of a wide passage waiting to check passports beneath a portrait of the much-hated and also much-loved Ayatollah. On another wall was a multi-language sign with a picture of a woman in a chador. It was a device about the laws relating to clothing. All other signs were in Arabic script. Lou looked bleak with her lips cleaned away and her bonfire of curls squashed beneath a scarf. Uncharacteristic too was Elvira’s moodiness: to make up for going to Iran a week before the wedding she’d promised Carmelita she would quit smoking and already she had a filthy craving for a Camel.


A man in his forties was waiting to guide them through the frenzy of the airport. Navy trousers were the only kind of trousers he owned and so he was wearing navy trousers. Recently his wife had given him a smart blue anorak and wearing it gave him the feeling he was fortunate to be loved, when so many others were lonely. His wife was the one who had written the sign he was holding, bearing the words “Elvira, Mimi, Lou and Adriette." In one hand he had a half drunk bottle of Iran’s favourite yoghurt drink, doogh. He blinked, tired and trying to keep awake. Asleep in bed next to his wife was where he longed to be. Yes, asleep with his feet hanging over the edge of the bed, cooled by the winter night, while the rest of him was hot and cosy under heavy blankets and beside his warm wife.


"It will be about eight hours driving,” Mr Bahraami said. “If you are hungry I have with me some fruit and also doogh and tea.”


“Doogh, that sounds rather splendid.” Adriette took out Notebook No 21. and opened to the waiting page opposite the Dorado Curry. “What is doogh exactly, Mr Bahraami?”


With great delight, Mr Bahraami extolled the many merits of doogh, and when Adriette had drunk a full glass of the miracle drink, had liked it immensely, she showed him her notebook and asked if he’d be willing to add a recipe to her collection. This pleased him greatly, not because he was a good cook, or because it gladdened his heart to think a beautiful woman was genuinely interested in his beloved country, but because he seldom had the opportunity to explain some if its truths to the world outside.


“Mrs Adriette,” Mr Bahraami said, "allow me to give you a recipe for this excellent collection you are making.” Since the driver’s English was virtually non-existent, Mr Bahraami spoke freely of a Khoresht-e-Aloo-Esfenaj, a stew of spinach and prunes he’d had at the Penguin Restaurant near Enghelab Square. As he spoke, Adriette noted it all down in her journal. “There were four of us he said.  “Two friends, the sister of one of those friends and I, who was in love with my friend’s sister, although I’d never managed to speak to her. Much as I wanted to look her in the eyes and ask her many questions, I could not bring myself to do more than glance at her and even this was an effort, but rich in rewards. Looking into her eyes I felt I could understand the universe, which was becoming harder to understand every day. 


You see, as I sat there eating my stew of spinach 
and prunes, wanting to talk to the woman who would, 
in due course, become my wife, I was very sad.


He paused. He pulled his anorak up from off the floor and felt in the pocket. When his fingers found the gloomy reality they sought, he continued with his hand resting in the pocket, always in touch with the flimsy envelope.


“I was sad, worried. Not only because I was unable to make humorous and clever conversations, but because I had just that afternoon heard about the death of Zahra Kazemi. She was an Iranian–Canadian freelance photographer detained for photographing Evin Prison. I risk myself talking about this but some risks are worth taking. She had been in prison for nineteen days before she died. I met her once, so was shocked that day to hear she was dead, but still I was hungry (strange bodies we have), very hungry and eating mouthful after mouthful of spinach, lamb and prunes. About a recipe for it, well, I can guess at it, my wife makes it often enough.”


You will need cubes of lamb meat, fresh spinach chopped up, fresh lemon juice, chopped prunes with no stones, onions, lime powder and leeks. Salt and pepper too.


Now the onions and meat must be fried in some oil. When the meat is brown, add water, not much, and the lime powder. My wife is a great fan of lime powder. Leave it cooking for a long time – you could read the newspaper in that time. After that, in another pot, fry the leeks and spinach then add them to the meat with lemon juice and salt and pepper. It stays for a while, not too long, long enough to drink a glass of doogh, and maybe five minutes before eating, you can add the prunes to the stew. It’s good to eat with rice.


Mohammad Bahraami, 43, Tehran.


The driver of the Iran Khodor car had been driving since seven the previous morning, had gone through several flasks of tea and three packets of the mints he found too sweet and was surprised, impressed actually, by his own stamina. Certainly, the sight of Elvira and her beautiful friends was most rejuvenating to him. He watched her shut her eyes.


The window was cold against her head. She put her tote bag against the glass like a pillow and soon fell into a claustrophobic sleep, always aware of being watched, even through her dream. In truth it was not the driver’s eyes she could feel on her, but those of a magus. In the village of Abyaaneh a girl was having a vision of a celestial chariot transporting birds; peacock, a hoopoe, a white crane, a nightingale, a crow and a lark. In its wake spread blood of magnificent redness and the girl saw that one among the party of birds would soon die.


Mr Bahraami also rested his head against a cold window, but he did not sleep. Some time nearing dawn, he took out the flimsy envelope embossed with a catfish and from it pulled the voice-box of a nightingale. Outside the ancient voice of Iran’s falling snow whispered as the car sped on and by.


Born in Cape Town, Alex Smith has lived in China, Taiwan and the UK, and when still working as a designer and textile merchant travelled extensively to other parts of the world. Alex’s first novel, Algeria’s Way, set in Spain, was published in 2007 and her first non-fiction novel, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, set in China, was published in 2008 and was included in the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award longlist for that year.


She received the 2010 Sanlam Youth Literature Award in silver for Agency Blue, a teen adventure novel set in Cape Town, and was shortlisted for the 2009 PEN/Studinsky Literary Awards judged by JM Coetzee for “Soulmates”, which is part of the New Writing from Africa anthology, and in 2009 her story “Change” was included in the prestigious Touch anthology of stories by 25 top SA authors. She was a finalist in the 2009 SA Blog Awards in the category Best Post on a South African Blog for A Video to Celebrate International Mother Language Day and the Close of International Year of the Languages, a blog post written in 29 languages of Africa.


Being a booknik, naturally Alex is passionate about the accessibility of books in mother languages, in 2008/2009 she volunteered to promote the Little Hands Trust’s blog at BOOK SA and conducted a series of interviews with African authors on their childhood memories of books and reading. Two of her favourite formative reading experiences interviews were with Ugandan poet Susan Kiguli and South African author/journalist Darrel Bristow-Bovey.


Four Drunk Beauties by Alex Smith
Book homepage
EAN: 9781415201046
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