arrived in Paris, Sartre was still alive. But, so what?
March 5, 2004
It was late 1979. No one was there
in the world to represent me. It was then when I further realized
that it was me who had to go on to shape myself and find deeper
meaning to my experience. I needed a better understanding of the
confusing world I was in. I did not have any choice; the only choice
that was left for me was that I had to work harder to learn to
make sense of my ordeal. I was hungry and homeless I needed food
and a place. I was on the road with two books in my pocket.
They were talking about hope, I could hear them,
and I wondered if it was possible to keep thinking of it in the
absence of truth
and with hunger taking me away? You see I had experienced hunger
before arriving in Paris, but I deeply felt that this one was going
to be very different. My previous experience was with others who
were like me and shared the same retched place to endure it as
I did. That place we called home and the people in it were my family.
But this one was different.
Simply, I was on the road and I could
not afford to drift in it. So I had to be mobile and always so,
otherwise I was certain that I would collapse. I was experiencing
this by myself, all alone, and in the far more alien places. I
was on the road for sometime then and had just arrived in Paris.
Throughout my journey I felt the pressure of this
hunger, but I had only realised its power when I arrived in Montmartre.
was there, in this high place on the peak where the entire city
could be seen, its narrow streets stretching as far as my weak
eyes could see. I felt hunger deeper in my body and fear with
it. They both arrived at the core of my being.
I looked deep into that space as I was dragging
my body further up to find out where I was. I vividly recall how
I reacted when
I saw the whiteness of the Sacre-Coeur. For a strange reason I
always wanted to see this place. I don't know why.
In that northern arrondissement of this city I did
not know anyone. As usual I was alone with my few belongings and
small amount of
money, looking for a resting-place.
What was I doing, going here and there all alone
inviting myself to my death? Perhaps in my imagination I thought
the Cupola of
the Scare-Coeur was going to cure me of my loneliness. I did entertain
this thought as I was wondering throughout the streets of this
old part of town. It was in Paris that for the first time I learnt
how tragic it is when no one knows you in a place. I had always
lived my life as a loner, but this loneliness was going to be very
I could not even hear the sound of my own mother
tongue in this predicament I was in. It was early morning when
in Paris. It did not take that long for me to realise the differences
there. When I look at my notes in my old dilapidated journal
from those days I feel the fear on my skin, asking myself how I
survived all those things? The answer to this question is that
I absolutely do not know.
I was there a stranger in that amazing city by myself
without any trace of familiar things in sight. I had recently left
I used to call home which was stuck in my imagination and nothing
else. I remember how Paris, with its immediate beauty and richness
mixed with the sudden feeling of fear grabbed me. I had landed
on a very different planet and I did not know how to come to terms
Even though I had experienced hunger and loneliness,
but I went through them in familiar places. Therefore what took
hold of me
as soon as I arrived was the absence of this familiarity. Where
was I going to live? And where was I going to belong?
pierced themselves into my mind so deeply that I somehow wanted
to run away from this eternal city only a few hours after I arrived
in it. What was I doing in this place? I wanted to know. What for?
Living and curiosity. But at what cost? I was in deep pain about
my ignorance of the world and I wanted to overcome it. Was this
a right path to take with ongoing fear and uncertainties and the
disease of hunger? I don't know. I did not have time to answer
these questions. My body and mind were together on a strange mission.
I was on the road. I was fearfully thin and could
not even see it. I reflect on it now. I was not particularly handsome
was really striking about me. Was that why I wanted to explore
the beautiful things? Who knows? I loved the commanding presence
of the world in which I was born so poor. My tiny physical frame
provided me with a kind of agility or as I thought about it a kind
of invisibility to move anywhere I wished to, as long as I had
the will to soothe two things, the pain and my mad imagination.
I was on the same wavelength as those who never
fitted in the world. The tumultuous life I had experienced did
not leave me room to
rest. I needed to move on without a direction, but strangely enough
I knew that deep down I wanted to know this mysterious world in
which many fortunate people were living. Why I was suffering and
hungry? Was I born to be a loner and a drifter in this roaring
world? In my early years no one taught me how not to drift. Yes,
this is true, no one.
From the moment that I found myself on the
street with other children like myself I had to learn all by myself
how to stand on my feet and I was sick of it. I don't know
what I had to believe, so that the only consolations I had were
my inner desire to live and reading. But it was hard, especially,
when I was in the darkest moments of my loneliness.
once when I was in one of those moments I read Charles Baudelaire
saying that, 'It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the
multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art; and only the man can gorge
vitality, at the expense of the human race, whom, in his cradle,
a fairly has inspired with love of disguise and of the mask, with
hatred of the home and a passion for voyaging. Multitude,
solitude: terms that, to the active and fruitful poet, are synonymous
I had come, in my youthful way, to attach myself
in the poetry of poets who simply knew as many other great loners
do, what a
lonely person could search in the crowd. I agreed
with poet who sad that 'The solitary and pensive pedestrian derives
a singular exhilaration from this universal
Yes in my mind I was in communion with that kind
of solitariness out there in the world and the crowds were my
Were they really? I don't
know, however I had to create something to live in that world, as a pedestrian
in it. That was what I was looking for in the world, to drift but not to collapse.
I was eager to hear and understand what was moving in me and I wanted to have
peace in my life to share it. Except I was not ready and I knew that the road
and my thoughts were my only companions and I did not have any desire to share
them with anybody, no matter what.
That was the thing I was looking for in those intense
hunger years. To tune into the music of survival in myself by knowing
more. That's what my thoughts
were focused on. I wanted to be the sole owner of what was moving inside me
in that overcrowded world of Paris.
I recognised that there were others who felt more or less the same as I did.
And in the depth of my solitude I dreamt to connect with them, even though
I was struggling to survive my battle with loneliness. From time to time I
someone who gave me the impression that they felt the same in the world, but
tragically it took only a short time for me to realise how much they were working
to gloss over their feelings in order to create this pretentious space to deceive
themselves and me that they were the one. I did not pay too much attention
and left to follow my path on the road.
I knew that Paris was a haven to escape to. How
come the child of an illiterate and poor family learnt this? I
don't have any answer. A simple person with
a simple life and a simple background, which was all shredded in poverty
and hunger. That's what I could claim.
Short of money I was flirting with my fragile mind
to drag my malnourished body on the road from my city to another.
They had already seen enough tragedies
my intention to take them to Paris was to provide them with a rest. It
may sound laughable thing to say but I did. One of the reasons
why I suffered
so much was
that I trusted the world and anyone I met gave me the impression that
they were interested to listen. I told them all about my life, everything
that I felt
and experienced and I told them with the spirit of sharing as lucidly as
possible. My aim was to keep struggling for my survival and this did not
leave me enough
time to learn to hold back sometimes. I did not know that to be so open
was going to further damage my poor state of being.
I did not care I needed to talk to feel alive.
I was not aware of all these things. But I thought
it was because of the absence of my loved ones and my youth that
I had deep
emotions of sadness
those of an alien storyteller. It took me a while to make my mind up about
others and finally one day I gave up on the idea of meeting others. From
then on I took
the road as my anchor and reading as the nourishment for my mind.
then turned into a long series of scavenging here and there to cling
to my life.
I was not able to look after myself. And that was the beginning of endless
as my odyssey led me into deeper loneliness and ongoing disappointments
about anything. I did not have friends to go to and a family to stay
with. I was
there all by myself. A full-time young alien pedestrian in the world
so unknown. This
was the beginning of my many dark and small falls and ups.
The only thing I learnt was how to manage them by
myself by moving from one place to another. I knew they were coming
and the best place to go
was Paris. I knew what that city had done to so many lonely and imaginative
people in the past, especially artists, and strangely I thought this
was the place to
I was too young and I was already hitting bottom,
I was not aware of what I was doing in this world and what meaning
of my suffering
had to others. I wanted, if I had a chance, to transform all this
experience into something useful and not live and perish like an
of vegetable. That's what I mean by clinging to life. I was clinging
and I wanted
to do this in Paris and nowhere else.
I vaguely knew the legend of St Denis (not for any
religious reason) who was the first Bishop of Paris when Romans
arrived to the city in AD287.
I did not
know what he did, other than that the Romans decapitated him and left
him there on the top of the hill. And I was aware of the story,
how he through
horror, got up and picked up his head and started to walk to the peak
of the hill to
collapse and die.
I was so fascinated by people's reactions and their
decision to build the great basilica of St Denis as it is there
now. Myth or not I wanted
see the peak and the place. I also vaguely knew about that part of
in the French Revolution, and how important this part was for the start
Commune in 1871.
Things were not clear in my head but I knew or heard
of this place in my youth as I heard about other parts of this
magical city. I was
futility of all these details for an empty stomach. But for some
strange reason these
basic and fragmentary knowledge had shaped a strong feeling in me
for this place, which filled me with joy and helped my mind to
all the negative
things in it. This feeling of joy, which was real, had magically
helped tame my restless existence in that foreign place. I don't
but it gave
me a faint sense of belonging and I could feel this, even though
everything in the world looked rough and unforgiving.
I had heard that Montmartre was still seen as a
village, and that it had kept that feeling, so this was another
attraction that appealed
to me to
and visit it when I arrived in Paris. How did I find out? I don't
Simply the word ‘village' attracted and provided me with
an inner feeling of a safe place in the unsympathetic world in
which I was dwelling. I
had the feeling that it was that place where the inhabitants still
had the collective generosity to connect and share with the needy
ones in their village, as they
were earthy. I cherished a dream that I was going to this village
to be looked after.
My heart was beating faster as the day was
getting older. I arrived
in Paris in the early morning and after a few hours of wandering
and vaguely observing things, I decided to catch the Metro to Montmartre,
as I was keen to start this uncertain trip from there. The moment
I arrived at
the Pigalle Metro station I decided to walk up towards the peak.
But to my surprise
the first thing that alerted me was its charm and beauty, and how
cosmopolitan this place looked. I could not see any evidence of
walked up towards Rue des Abbesses I began to notice the old
preserved themselves there. They were there, and I felt that
they were telling me that once this place had a big heart. It was
began to wonder
why it had for so long fascinated so many artists and great thinkers
who came from
all over the world to live there. And how it then became a rival
to the Montparnasse district down below in the Qartier Latin,
of the rebellion
for students and now the Mecca for the bohemians, artists and
My fascination did take that long, it was at the
bottom of the hill on the Boulevard de Clichy that I sensed and
met the hostility
was on Place
Pigalle. The train station was full of beggars and strange-looking
people who looked more like pick-pocketers than passengers. Other
me the most was the people who looked worse than I did.
the last remaining of the 1968 student revolution pushed to this
agents to clean it for rich tourists to have their last glimpse
of Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre died in April 1980 and was buried
Montparnasse cemetery), looking
like vagabonds? In an ironic fashion I wondered. I was aware
that only ten years ago there was a student rebellion there in
Except I have to admit that my head was full of
restless energy, thinking of my urgent and immediate survival,
so there was not
much room to
grasp all of
this. My head was still bouncy from a revolution, which I had experienced
in my country of birth. I decided to leave that behind me in order
to learn more
about the world and its mysteries, which had fascinated me for
many years. I was looking for a chance to have some time and space
think of all
things I observed in my short life, and the place I knew was a
long and obscured road a head of me.
The night was approaching fast
and beyond that, I had finished the food I had in my little bag
earlier on. I had to look for a
to rest. My hope was that I could find a place in the old Montmartre
near the old
vineyard. My digestive system was screaming for food and my head
for a place to rest – I was hungry.
There I began to look around and then I smelt the
works, words, stories, fights, and struggles of impressionists,
and many others
in that place. In my head I allowed myself to imagine that I could
hear the voices of Appolinare and Picasso and so many other creative
looking for the footsteps of Modigliani there, I knew he lived
and died so young in Montparnasse. Perhaps I did have this feeling,
when he was animated amongst his non-Italian speaker's friends
in Paris. I was struggling reading Dante in my basic Italian myself
the echoes running into my ears now of my voice reading:
mente mia, tutta sospesa,
Mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
E sempre di mirar faceasi accesa.
So my mind, held in complete suspense,
Gazed fixedly, motionless and intent,
And always as if on fire with the gazing.
-- Paradiso XXXIII, canto 97
The Divine Comedy and Omar Khayyam's poems were
in my old bag. They were my only companions. The first one spoke
to me in Italian,
going to learn, and the second in Persian, which was my mother
tongue. Two different
with two different outlooks in life and about the world, representing
two different histories and parts of the world the east and the
west. I felt
with these companions and thought that both of them were thoughtful,
Moulin Rouge was standing there for those who were
seeking pleasure and could afford to have it. I could not even
fantasise about these
pay for them. The hunger was so deep that the only room my mind
had to smell was
the taste of food, any kind of food. The colours were dazzling
there and I was so overwhelmed by that place that I nearly fainted.
went there. I'm sure if it wasn't for creating those wonderful
sketches, he wouldn't go there at all. It is of course where the
de Clichy and where Pigalle is, all confusing and mysterious. I
heard that it
was the best place to go for finding a place to sleep near the
basilicas or near the Cemeteries de Montmartre as many homeless,
poor and young
there. I knew that I needed to get out from the Place Pigalle station
to the Rue Houdon and enter to the hill-like roads that looked
so ancient and full of people.
I knew of the Rue d Lepic where Van Gogh had lived
as a poor and miserable young artist, where he painted some of
some very important
people, when he lived there in the early years of the century.
I could not afford to dream of renting a room anywhere, so I had
live at the
mercy of my chances and local people.
When I look back and reflect
I have to admit that it was 1979 and not 2004. The world was a
a poor young man from the orient with great dreams. That's why
I first went to my favourite Saint Germain des Pre in Montparnasse
when I arrived
in Paris. On that cold morning I arrived from Italy to Gare De
on Boulevard Diderot with the hope to stay and befriend Paris forever.
a dream the
hungry young man had.
Here I'm reflecting and also thinking of the image
of Le Bateau-Lavoir, this was another magic place, which was stuck
in my mind those
days, and this was another strong reason that attracted me to Montmartre
Monparnasse for a few hours. I recall reading about it on a piece
of paper that I found in an Iranian arts magazine in my town years
I knew that
here, in a rather strange room shaped like a laundry, where lived
Picasso, the great poet Max Jacob, as well as the egocentric
coined the tag
of surrealism used to meet. I was vague and worn-out but I had
kind of strange pleasure and security, which had covered me by
little and chaotic
details of this city and places in it. I went to the Au Virage
lepic and thought
about how Le Bateau looked before it was burnt down in 1970. Thus,
it did not matter, there; I felt the spirit of Georges Baroque
and Van Dngen
who had changed the world with their ideas and determination in
the May 1968 uprising. This was where Picasso, I found out, painted
d' Avignon in 1907.
But I have to admit that as far as I was concerned
the Rue Lepic was a shrine I had to visit because it was where
Van Gogh once lived and I have always loved his works and his attitudes
And the local cemetery of course was the last resting-place
for great writers whom I admired in my youth, especially Emil Zola.
I was overjoyed
I found out that the great Stendhal, Alexander Dumas, and particularly
of my favorite
filmmakers François Truffaut whose Jules and Jim I will never get tired
to watch were resting there too. Knowing these filled my simple and naïve
world up with joy and made my mind happy to have all these things
in it to prevent fear and collapse.
I recall on my way up I came across this old bookstall
that attracted my attention, simply because it was free to kill
books on the shelves provided me a deep feeling of forgetting my
loneliness for a while.
Paris was full of things to see beyond my comprehension. Now I
wonder why so many people like to live there and look so eager
to find out
the world of mysteries there. I have to admit; despite of all other
things, Montmartre was a good place to start to soothe the hunger
for me in that
I looked at the Au Virage Lepic and then at the
cheap Le Restaurant on Rue Ve'ron near Rue Lepic. Hungry and destitute,
I kept gazing
ancient surroundings as I struggled to drag myself toward the hill.
I was focused
to reach my destination
when I suddenly realised that I was in front of La Goutte d'or,
a famous place for poor workers and many ethnic residences in that
part of Paris.
delighted to see the place full of African vendors selling their
well-arranged veggies and groceries.
All these things surrounding
me in the Paris
diverse and god knows what. I was amazed and happy to see all these
different people from all over the world next to each other selling
and talking to each other. I recall saying to myself "what
a treat so many things to see and learn".
I was in Paris and I was hungry and had just arrived
in that magic city and I was going to do my best to survive it.
I did not know
except the life of Albert Camus and the fight he had with Jean-Paul
Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on the existence of Gulags in
Russia, a very vague
understanding of existentialism, a magazine called Les Temps
Modernes which I had never seen
and a few other things, that's all.
When in mid-July 1979 I
arrived in Paris, Sartre was still alive. But, so what? I was
community or any connection with the people who inhabited
that eternal city. I was
lost in my youth and was restless to cling onto something
that would carry my life on and the fresh emotions about the country,
family and friends
had just left behind.
Feeling lost and overwhelmed in that sophisticated
city, I wanted to know as much as I could, but I have to admit
I was in my early 20s, hungry, boring, uneducated, inadequate
even in my own language. I was pursuing a life of a vagrant
world, which I could not make any sense of.
In those times my greatest fear was to mentally
collapse. I was all unknown in that mighty metropolis; however,
perspective. I was sure that I wanted to keep my mind
as sane as possible. Therefore, I began to imagine that I
city and belonged
to some parts of
it. It was then that I adopted the obsessive walks. In
order to fulfill my aim to remain sane I began to walk
as if I knew
all of the
of the city. I can't say that Paris was generous to me
on those days at all.
Anyhow, when I think abut it I have to say that
my life has always been a life between hope and despair. But
reflecting on Paris
now I have to
thankful that it kept me company in those extremely
anxious months of chaos, loss and hunger. I'm grateful that in
me to live there, it nurtured my thoughts, deepened
my senses, and made me even more determine to remember things,
in my memory
I say except that that was the only inheritance I had
with me in the world.
But I have to admit that the experience in Paris
in that cold winter of 1979 greatly prepared and helped
me to learn and reflect deeper on my
loneliness, fragility and the obscure future that was awaiting me. And therefore,
because of all these I promise that when next time I see Paris I will share
with her all these things and even more.
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