At my last Persian class we finished the story we were reading, it was seventeen pages long and we seemed to have been reading it for ever; I was going to stop with Persian but stayed to see what happened at the end. The title is ‘The Story of the Sigh’ and it comes from Azerbaijan; I don’t know if it was collected from a storyteller or came from a written source, but it is extremely strange, with the most extraordinary events and curiosities, the strangest of which is the Sigh itself, or rather himself, as he appears in person whenever anybody sighs.

            The heroine is the youngest daughter of a merchant, she has no name and no physical characteristics, unlike two young men who also feature and are described as being ‘as beautiful as the moon’. The Sigh is not described either – one imagines him as just a breath of air, ah! – but he is authoritative, and fair. He takes the heroine off to a beautiful garden where she meets the first lovely young man; when he reaches up to pick her a flower she sees a feather under his arm and removes it, whereupon he falls down dead. She weeps and reads the Qur’an beside his body, to no avail.

            Later on another beautiful young man is found crucified in a cellar, held captive by his nurse, and is saved by the heroine. His mother tries to offer him to her in marriage but she refuses, using an excuse based on Islamic law about the amount of time one has to wait before remarrying. It is not obvious to the foreign reader that she has been married at all, but being drugged every night by a beautiful man in a beautiful garden is a clue that we missed (when she discovers the tea is drugged she pours it away under the carpet, the classic Persian hiding place).

            At the end of each adventure she sighs, and there comes Sigh again. It is an amazing story, with elements recognisable from Western folk tales and others from a completely different world, but when struggled through over a period of weeks by someone with a very limited grasp of Persian, it acquired an extra layer of mystery, with the moon-faced young men, the feathers, the tea under the carpet and of course Sigh himself. Several times the text says, literally: ‘She gave a sigh. Sigh came.’

            While reading it I kept thinking that Sigh reminded me of someone and finally I had it: Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout. This was a children’s television programme in the 1960s, set in a magic garden, with Dougal the dog, Florence, the little girl and Zebedee, a man on a spring: boing! would go the spring, and there would be Zebedee, with his large moustache and magical powers. Legend has it that the BBC got it from French television, with neither sound nor script, and it was Eric Thompson, father of Emma, who made up the story, names and dialogue to match the pictures. Reading the ‘Story of the Sigh’ was something like that; one could work out what the words said but not always what they meant.

            Finally the girl asks Sigh to take her back to the garden, where the beautiful young man is lying; she rubs ointment under his arm, he sneezes and wakes up. The flowers bloom and the birds sing. I’m glad I stayed till the end.

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