His name is Ali
This is a story of two friends
September 16, 2005
From time to time, memories of Ali come and go and I still remember him like it was yesterday. How can I not? At one point, he was a big part of my life, and those memories are somehow tattooed deep in my mind.
This is a story about friendship, struggle, survival, loneliness, laughter and sadness. It's about a relationship of two Iranian teenagers who find themselves fighting for their dreams in a cold, foreign land. This is a story of two friends.
It all began in the spring of 1985, in Montreal, Canada. This is when and where I first met him.
I was with some of my new friends who I had just met shortly after my arrival in Montreal. Besides my roommate Bijan, there were four other Iranian friends with us that day. Bersabeh and Behnaz who happened to be sisters, and of course, Niloofar and Behnam their roommates, all whom I was introduced to through Bijan. We were all neighbors and we were all going through the same ordeals as newcomers in our new city, Montreal.
One Saturday, we were all invited to some sort of a lunch party, so we decided to go together by metro. We came out of a metro station called 'Sauvé' and proceeded to walk to the gathering place, which wasn't too far from the station. The party was hosted by Shamss and his British girlfriend who had just arrived from England to visit him in Montreal. Shamss, who was the oldest among us, was first friends with Bersabeh, and we were introduced to him through her. Since nobody really knew anybody at the beginning, that is how everything used to work in Montreal – networking through each other.
When we got to Shamss's apartment building there was a guy in a sleeveless red T-shirt sitting on the edge of his apartment window, playing his classical guitar and greeting the girls. I didn't know who he was, so I asked Bersabeh to tell me what's going on.
"Oh, that's Ali, a friend of Shamss. They came here together from India where they used to go to school, and now they live in the same building," she said.
He didn't have the typical dark skinned Iranian look to me, so out of curiosity I asked, "Is he Iranian?"
"Yes," she responded.
At that moment, we were at the entrance door of the building so we rang the bell and Shamss came to greet us.
"Come on in guys, you are welcome," he said.
After all the hugs and kisses we settled down and the conversations started right away. The subjects of our conversations those days were usually limited to our daily struggles in our new Canadian life in the city of Montreal. Such as what's happening with your immigration status, and have you found a job or not, and so on. Then of course the discussion would change to Iran and Iran-related topics, mostly our personal memories.
Suddenly, in the midst of all of this, there was a knock at the door and Shamss answered.
"Hey, Ali, come on in buddy. We're all here chatting away. Come and join us," he said.
I looked up and it was the Iranian guy in the red T-shirt who we had just seen. He had a cassette tape in his hand, which seemed like it belonged to Shamss. So I guess he was returning it back.
He walked in and the official introductions and greetings started all over again. This is so and so... etc.
His first impression was so nice and friendly that it didn't take long for everyone to get along and carry on with the conversations, chatting away.
I clicked with him right away. As I recall, this was because of the fact that we were both interested in music. And of course seeing him playing his guitar at the beginning made the whole process much easier and enjoyable.
It was a wonderful day that day, which I'll never forget for the rest of my life. And Ali and I finished it off by exchanging phone numbers. However, that wasn't the end of it. Actually, it was the birth of a friendship in a true Iranian fashion.
I remember after that gathering, I was so fascinated by Ali's personality that I spoke very highly of him for the rest of the day. His mannerism and people skills were somehow extraordinary to the point worth mentioning it.
It was sometime after that when I saw Ali again, but this time it was only the two of us as I recall. Things were moving quite fast in those days. We were new to Canada and we were living in one of the most difficult and complicated cities in Canada - Montreal. Trying to understand and keeping up with the immigration process was a daily activity for almost all of us at that time. Not to mention looking for a job, which was important to everyone for at least two major reasons – one, to prove to the Canadian immigration that not only were we Iranians worthy of living here in Canada, but we deserved it too. The second reason was the fact that we needed to support ourselves financially. So most of the friendships were shaped and based on those facts of our daily lives.
However, there was another reason behind the shape of most friendships among us Iranians in Montreal, which I call the emotional factor. Like the loneliness factor, which haunted us day and night. We were neither adults nor adolescents per se, however we were a bunch of late teenagers. Emotionally vulnerable, and experience wise, full of holes.
Ali arrived in Montreal almost a year before me, sometime in 1983. So we decided to go around the city so he could show me the pros and cons of living in the so-called Paris of North America – Montreal.
Getting around the town is very easy, since Montreal arguably has the best and most sophisticated public transportation imaginable. Clearly laid out, easy to understand and it gets you everywhere you need to go. Ali showed me all around the city, and while we were going through the experience I noticed something very interesting about him. He spoke English with a British accent better than Persian, his mother tongue. I was amazed. My curiosity took over and I had to ask him.
"Ali, how did you learn to speak English so well?"
"Oh, my parents sent me to study in India at a private British boys school when I was only eleven years old. That's where I learned the language," he replied.
"You were eleven years old? God, you were so young man," I said.
"Yeah, I know. It's a long story," he said.
There was a moment of silence as I remember. We were walking and his head was down staring at the ground. We were approaching fall, but the cold, dry wind was already blowing and whispering in our ears. I could sense that he had suddenly gone deep into his thoughts. And then the silence broke with a low tone of voice coming from his dry throat and he said:
"You know… My parents got divorced and they sent me to India. My mother is married to someone else now and I have a stepbrother whom I've never met. My dad is not around and I'm all by myself, you know Farzad, I'm all by myself."
I couldn't say a thing, not even a word. I recall, for some strange reason I started getting emotional. My eyes started to drown in pools of tears and I felt numb. I only had a second or two to come up with a response and I was feeling hopeless. Then again there was this silence hovering over us, but it was so cold, so sad this time. Suddenly in one impulsive moment, I said:
"I'm sorry man… I didn't know… I'm so sorry."
His head was still down staring at the ground and he didn't say a word. He just shook his head with a little smile on the corner of his cheek. Silently he acknowledged my sorrow.
We continued walking and I knew somehow that somebody needed to break this sad silence.
"Have you tried Canadian beer yet?" he asked.
I felt like a heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders, so I didn't hesitate for one second and said, "No, I haven't. Is it any good? Maybe we should try some, eh?"
We both agreed to stop by a bar and get a couple of beers and chill out. So we did. That day was a good day and throughout the whole thing I had a strong feeling inside telling me that this was going to be a good friendship after all.
I was right. My friendship with Ali grew rapidly and we ended up being roommates in a tiny semi basement apartment in downtown Montreal on Fort Street. After moving in together, a series of events started to happen to both of us. The first and the most important event was the news of my father's sudden death, which I received from my mother and which changed me forever as a person. Some less major events were Ali's being accepted to Georges Vanier College, my acceptance by the Canadian government, and of course the TV series "Miami Vice". These were the subjects of conversation between Ali and I most of the time.
During the day we used to get up as early as 6 AM just to get ready for our blue-collar jobs in the garment factory district called "Chabanel", deep in no man's land, far from our downtown apartment. I was working in a handbag factory and he was packing socks in another. Every day when we got home, we used to talk about our day while getting ready to go to night school. I was studying English as a second language and he was a freshman dealing with the entire first year curriculum.
Everyday there was a new story about work. The slavery work that we went through. When and how we got insulted either by his Jewish boss or my Armenian-Lebanese foreman who for some reason hated Moslems. Ali's complaints were mostly about the pressure he went through with his Jewish boss to pack more socks faster and being searched by them at the end of the day to see if he was stealing socks or not. Or, his poor fingers, which were shattered, roughed up and cut from the sharp edges of the boxes he had to assemble to pack socks in. My complaints were quite similar to his too, but somehow more personal. My boss Gerard used to call me "ayatollah", other times he preferred "Khomeini". Sometimes during lunch time he would ask me in front of the rest of the mostly Lebanese workers, "What kind of shit are you eating today, Khomeini?" and that sort of thing.
The work experiences that Ali and I went through those days on the one hand were making us stronger, and on the other, were destroying our self-esteem. We used to take turns when it came to shedding tears over the whole ordeal. And we used to ask God and each other when this hardship would be over.
We carried on like many other Iranians in Canada and used to call it fighting for survival. However, it was easier for some of us who were receiving financial assistance and harder for the ones who were not. For the first two years, I was receiving $200.00 US a month from my grandfather in California, but Ali had no such privileges. He had nobody to even call him, not even send him a post card, never mind money. So, I recognized that even though I wasn't rich or wealthy by any means, I used to pay for some of his share. Imagine how hard it was living on a $4 dollar an hour wage and working as a general worker - but that was life. We used to say to each other that it was still better than dying in the Iran/Iraq war, man. And it was true. What we were going through was heaven compared to what our boys were going through back in Iran. Just by knowing that, we were both appreciative and therefore were able to carry on.
Four years passed by and it was 1989. Ali was still battling college and I was done with my English courses after all, and I registered as a part time student at Trebas Institute of Recording Arts to study my first passion - sound engineering. At that time we were no longer living together. He had to move closer to his college and I lived with a family in order to cut my expenses to afford my tuition fees. However, Ali and I used to see each other and talk over the phone to keep in touch. We were as close as always but with more burdens as life was moving on. Same old topics and conversations, not much had really changed. Until the day that I was faced with the toughest moment of my life since my father's death. And, this time Ali wasn't there to give me his shoulder to cry on.
I spoke to Ali earlier that week and we were supposed to set a date to see each other over the weekend and chat a little bit. Unfortunately I was in the middle of my studies and I turned him down, of course with a rain check. He was okay with it and I remember when he said, "Amoo Farzad, damet garm dadash. Mano ba in dokhtar Faransavieh tanha nazar diger. Ok, bashe, vali delemoon barat tang misheh. Badd mibinamet." [Uncle Farzad, now, don't leave me alone with this French date all of a sudden. Ok, I'll miss you then. See you later.]
On the following Monday, the phone rang. It was Amir, the guy who was living with Ali. He wanted to see me. It was quite strange to me, since I had no relationship with him whatsoever, except seeing him around with Ali. I had no objection so I agreed to see him. When I saw him, he looked kind of pale and tired. At first I thought he had had a fight with Ali, or something to that effect. We were standing at the entrance of the metro station and he lit up a cigarette. He picked up his head and started staring right into my eyes. A moment passed by and then he said:
"Ali died at the General Hospital on Saturday night."
My blood pressure started dropping at the speed of sound. I was getting dizzy and suddenly had to sit down. I couldn't breathe. My mouth started getting dry like the deserts miss the rain. All I could say was, "What?"
He put his head down and started poking at the ground with his shoes. He couldn't face me, nor say a word. There was a dead silence!
I cried and I cried and I cried. All my memories of him flashed right in front of my eyes and in every slide of those memories, Ali's face shone through them all. Amir allowed me to cry my heart out and he patiently watched over me. When I somehow got enough energy to say a word, all I could say was, "What happened?"
Ali had gone on a date with his new French girlfriend on Saturday night. The same night that I was supposed to join them. They went to a place called the Peel Pub. It was a very well known joint for students and ordinary folks to go and listen to live music and of course drink lots of cheap beer on tap, served in pitchers. The Peel Pub was a nasty place as I remember – a huge beer hall overlit with fluorescent lights and reeking of beer. Anything could happen in that nasty place.
He was enjoying the live music and having a good time with his French date, when he started getting harassed by a bunch of English Canadian racist punks. According to the Montreal Police Department and his date, Ali tried over and over again to ignore the punks until it got down to his race of being Iranian. "Where are you from?" he was asked, and according to his date he proudly said to them: "Iran - I'm Iranian."
They started insulting him in any way, shape or form as possible. Insult after insult flew around until he finally lost his patience when the insults attacked his race. His beautiful red-blooded Persian Iranian race. He confronted them and in one moment those guys attacked him and one of them stabbed him right in the chest. The knife punctured his skinny chest and penetrated about an inch into his Iranian heart. He went into a coma soon after and died before he arrived at the hospital. That's what Amir told me.
I got all the information necessary to get ahold of the situation and told Amir to get on with his day, I'd be okay. Amir left and I sat there at the entrance of the metro station and suddenly noticed something very strange. I was sitting in front of the same metro "Sauvé when almost 4 years earlier we came to see Shamss and I met Ali for the first time. At that moment my tears started falling down again. I was crying like a baby who lost his parents. I was hopeless. I was sad. I was broken into pieces. I was mad. I was cold. It wasn't summer time like the first time 4 years ago. It was fall. The trees were naked, stripped of their leaves, they were soulless. A cold and lonely autumn wind was blowing right into my face as I remembered everything once again. The only difference this time was that I wasn't 19 anymore. I was almost 24 years old. I turned around and looked at the same road to Ali's original apartment, but I didn't have the heart to go through it one last time. I was alone and felt lonely suddenly.
At that moment I felt what Ali went through since he had left Iran and lost his parents and family life – his Iranian life. At that moment I found myself in his shoes, deep in his life. At that moment I understood him better than any other time that I had spent with him all those years. At that moment I could hear his voice telling me: "I really don't have anybody in this life". At that moment I could hear him singing all those Persian songs he used to sing playing his guitar. Farhad, Dariush, Fereydoon Forooghi. At that moment I could hear him singing, "Jomeha jaye baroon khoon mibareh" [on Fridays, instead of rain, blood is pouring down].
I got up and left the scene by entering the metro station. I got into the train and sat quietly on one of the corner seats and I stared at the glass window looking at my own shadow reflected in the glass. And I cried.
Throughout the whole journey I remembered how much Ali was in love with Iran and being an Iranian. Being in love in his case is actually an understatement. He used to hang a huge flag of Iran above his bed no matter where he lived. I remembered his Persian albums, old but cherished. I remembered his books, clothes, shoes, and accessories. And I remembered the blue picture frame that he bought for my birthday to frame my father's picture and put on my desk. I remembered when he used to grind his teeth when he was sleeping. I remembered him eating raw mushrooms with mayonnaise for dinner when he was broke.
I left the metro and started walking home. During my short walk, I mingled with more memories of him. I laughed and I smiled. I choked and cried, till I got home. I recall that I locked myself in my room for the rest of the night and I couldn't sleep. For the next few days, I tried to arrange to see him in the morgue at the hospital where he was sleeping tight. Amir, his other friend, was working with the immigration authorities to find his mother back in Iran and get her over to Montreal for the funeral.
I finally went to see him at the morgue for the last time. His beard and nails had grown a bit. He was sleeping like I used to remember. But the only difference this time was the fact that he wasn't grinding his teeth anymore. I said goodbye as my tears streamed down my cheeks and I left.
Amir couldn't find me for the funeral, since I moved away from the place that I was residing. Anyway, even if he could have found me, I didn't have the heart to attend his funeral. It was more than I could handle at that moment of my life. That's not how I wanted to remember him.
I have the same feeling now. I can't go on talking to you anymore. My keyboard is drowning in my tears and I'm deeply sad staring at the monitor. But before I leave you with these words, I would like to say to you all my beloved Iranians, to cherish your loved ones. Whoever and wherever they are. Your father, mother, sons and daughters. Cherish your husband and cherish your wife. Love one another as much as possible. Because one day you just notice in one moment that your life has been nothing but a bunch of memories. And those memories define who you are, where you come from, and where you go. Then suddenly you will learn that there is no memory with less satisfaction than the memory of some temptation we resisted. Now, I'm at the end of this piece, and all I'm asking you here for the last time is to say:
"Happy 40th birthday Ali."
Now, you are neither alone nor lonely anymore, my lovely friend. You are not all by yourself anymore. Like I promised, I have invited all the Iranians to salute your Iranian soul. I loved you like a brother dear Ali. And like the last thing you ever said to me, "I will see you later… Badd mibinamet".
Don't forget – at this point of this story, his name is not Ali - his name was Ali. However, he's still a friend of mine and he always will be. So it shall be written – so it shall be done. And I'm done.