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Refugee

Little black spiders
Short story

December 19, 2003
The Iranian

So much went into organizing this gathering that I wondered whether it was worth putting it on in the first place. Volunteers spent money out of their own pockets to buy all the grub and grog. Refugee women started the food preparation a few days before the event. Tables, chairs, dishes and cutleries were borrowed and carried from the local churches. Last year they put on the same function, but apart from only a small number of people from the local parishes, no one else bothered to come.

The crux of the problem lied in the hearts of the locals who resented the existence of the refugee camp in the parameters of their town. They often blamed the refugees for the increase in petty theft and other misdemeanors in their town. The Amnesty volunteers who regularly visited the camp refuted their claim and accused them of racial intolerance. They unconditionally supported the refugees against such ill-founded pronouncements. They treated us with respect which in turn restored and replenished our low self-esteem. For many of the refugees the volunteers were their only vital support and hope. They never let us down and fought tooth and nail for our rights and dignity.

The volunteers' first and last hurdle, nevertheless, remained the same, to bring the locals closer to the refugees and put an end to the demonizing. But always something happened that undermined their efforts, whether a scuffle between the refugees with some Dutch louts in the local pub or some refugee caught stealing a shaving cream or razor blade from the supermarket. As if all hell broke loose, it was enough for the local residents to point their fingers at us for all the other terrible things that they thought a Dutch person would never commit. We'd become the butt of their prejudices you might say.

I never liked to take part in these functions any way. My previous experiences proved to be somewhat degrading to whatever was left from my battered dignity. I discovered that the most cumbersome act is to sell yourself as a human being. And that's what you have to do at these gatherings. At first you're not aware that you're doing it. You think you've been merely nice to people who've housed you, feed you and to a large extent determine your future for you.

But at night, alone, you remember their cold stares that bordered on suspicion, their defensive body language that kept you at arm's length, as if you're invading their private space. And worst of all, their probing questions that exposed and trivialized your little secrets. Secrets that you never thought you'd share with any strangers. Dad was so much against me leaving the country. He said to remain and suffer at home is far less mortifying than being a refugee in another country. There're always disagreements between my parents, especially over whether I should sneak off to another place for a better life or stay at home under tyranny.

I allowed the thought of Rebecca to permeate and dominate my mind that day. Her caring and happy face always brightened up the vapid atmosphere of the camp for me. She became my perfect, clandestine motive to attend and celebrate something tangible.

Homely decoration of colorful ribbons and flashing lights, as one would see on a Christmas tree, had covered the branches adjacent to the oval. Long trestle tables were set up along the oval with rows of exotic food on them. The smell of different dishes, wafted through the air. They're expecting a lot of people this time. Rebecca and other volunteers have been working on invitations for many weeks now, visiting the local businesses, pleading with them to come, letter boxing all the residents and even mailing invitation cards to Amsterdam, asking some members of the parliament, sympathetic to the refugees, to attend.

6.00 p.m. Dutch people slowly began to trickle in. The volunteers in particular were eager to know how many people from the town would show up. I nestled down in a cozy corner, near the friendly Africans, drinking a Heineken. Rebecca's glance from across the field suddenly met mine and she smiled. We always managed to smile at each other from a distance. The only time I ever stood next to her, close enough to smell the scent of her hair, she was dragged away by a few refugee women who wanted to show her something. As she walked away, she turned her head around and looked at me and smiled. A beautiful smile.

Did I risk my life to get to the land of the free in order to drink beer and admire a girl from a distance, free of harassment, I asked myself. To hope that the Dutch people would not look at me as a petty criminal? Was this the culmination of all my efforts to be free? I wanted to believe that my life had a purpose, if not divine, at least human. Siding with mom, I wanted to prove dad wrong. Yes, there's a better life out there in the universe where I can fulfill my dreams, where I'll be judged for what I do and what I stand for. And no one can hold me back from giving myself to the forces of destiny that's beckoning me to leave. No one! 

8.00 p.m. We had a reasonable amount of guests, not that it made any difference for me how many people showed up, I told you I'd my reason to be there. A ratio of one Dutch to every ten refugees was what we had and what was needed for volunteers to be content. People were gathered in distinct divisions however, every group stamping their feet on a different patch of turf, marking a separate territory. Peter, on the other hand, as unselfconsciously as the kids around him, was helping them to put on the black jersey that he'd brought over for them, and was telling them about the legend of Lev Yashin as dutifully as an ancient Celtic bard.

I only met Peter that very same day when I went to his store in town to buy myself a pair of sneakers. My old runners, the same ones I crossed the mountains with exactly one year ago, were completely worn out. The residue of Peter's fame as an ex national football player was still cherished among those refugees who were old enough to have seen him play in five European Cups and two World Cups.

Before entering his store, I had a look at my government vouchers. It was exactly 60 gilder. I could afford a descent pair with that much credit I was told. As I entered I noticed a diminutive figure sitting behind a large desk talking to a customer in a high pitched voice. I busied myself browsing at the range of sports shoes on display. Suddenly my eyes caught the series of framed pictures hung on the wall. The tastefully placed photos, seemingly of various football stars, piqued my curiosity. I drew closer to possibly see a picture of any of my favorite football stars, but instead they're all of one man, Lev Yashin. At first I didn't recognize him, till I read the caption underneath one of the photos, "Yashin holds the USSR Cup trophy." The name sounded familiar. It was Dad, I recalled, who mentioned his name to me first. Not that he was ever a football fan. He followed everything Russian rather.

The photos covered Yashin's career in chronological order. There was a picture of Lev in his first factory team, wearing black, standing taller than the rest of the players. Or, lying on the ground hugging a ball, with a player flying over him. In a bigger photo, with his Derby cap tightly fitted on his head, he'd sprung up high, grabbing the ball, almost defying the law of gravity, making other players around him look like helpless dwarfs. One photo that stood in my mind most was of him pouncing toward the ball with his arms stretched out further than any pair of arms can. His arms surrounded the ball like a prey. His feet were barely touching the ground as if his arms were balancing and directing his whole body. In the last photo, with his hands firmly on his crutches moving him along, he was walking together with Dmitry Kharin the young Russian goalkeeper.

As I was enjoying the small photo exhibition of Yashin's career as a goalkeeper, I heard Peter uttering his name. 'Yashin was the best goalkeeper ever. I don't think if anyone can ever match his standard. He earned himself the nickname Black Spider.' I glanced back at the photo of Yashin and I could see how he'd earned the title. Wearing black, his long arms looked like the arms of a spider and almost as intimidating. The customer gave out a perfunctory smile as if he'd heard the story before, grabbed his merchandise and left the store. Peter for some moments appeared lost. He looked around his immediate surrounding to find something to do, but nothing seemed to take his fancy. He turned to his left instinctively, and saw me standing in front of his icon. He didn't know I was in his shop.

'You like football?' he asked me in Dutch, from across the store.

I answered back in English, 'yes', and walked toward him, trying to maintain the etiquette of politeness when talking to an older person.

'Yes I can speak English too,' he replied.

He straightened his hair with his right hand and played with his hoary sideburns, one at the time.

'Which team you support?'

'I like Bayer Munich, and Brazil.'

'Yes good teams. But have you heard of Yashin?' he asked, like a priest examining a disciple about an influential saint.

'I've heard of him.'

'He was the best goalkeeper that football ever had,' he said it with a deep conviction.

'Nice photos, eh? I collected them over the years,' He said.

'Was he really the greatest?' I asked him.

'Undoubtedly. I met him myself, in 1962 World Cup in Chile. They won the European Cup in 1960. It was all because of him. USSR was a good team, but it was Yashin's goalkeeping that made them a great team.'

I selected a pair of Adidas and took it to him. When I produced my vouchers he slowly whispered, 'vluchteling'. Then he asked me where I was from. I said Iran. I thought he was going to comment on the country's topsy-turvy politics, so I got ready to distance myself from it all. But instead he engaged me in the history of Iranian football. He named a few players, commended their effort in the 1978 World Cup and at the end he said, 'Yashin was better than any sportsman in the world of football. He kept his goal intact in more than 250 games. Have you heard of any goalkeeper who's the same record?' Peter asked proudly.

I just nodded my head with amazement. Who was I to disagree with him. Perhaps Yashin was the greatest goalkeeper of all times?

Like his previous customer I smiled at him, a smattering smile. And felt that I'd seen and heard enough about Lev Yashin for one day. Just, as I was preparing myself to leave without being rude, he said, 'I'll see you over there a bit later. I'm bringing some gifts for the kids.'

I didn't know what he was talking about at first. He was, of course referring to the function that was on that afternoon. Peter raised his hand into the air and said 'there could be even a young Lev Yashin among them' and gave out a guffaw.

* * * 
Around last year this time, was also the beginning of Rebecca's visits to our camp. She and a few other volunteers went door to door, in the family section, hearing the refugees out. Now today she was standing about 20 feet away from me and doing exactly the same thing. Sighing with every wail. Delighting in every joy.

I noticed Iranian and Afghani refugees tossing and hurling dour looks at each other. The Iranians in this camp always took out their frustrations on the Afghanis. They're the most belligerent group of refugees. My wounded generation I called them.

9.35 p.m. All the guests were gone. The Amnesty volunteers, like always, did their best to talk to the visitors, telling them of our vicissitudes in life, reminding them of their own during WW II. Some of the more educated refugees tried to engage the visitors in more specialized talks about politics, economy and other world affairs. Anything sophisticated enough to wipe away their stereotype notions of us. Majority, however, consumed the food and kept within their own clicky groups.

No one turned up from Amsterdam, perhaps it was too much to expect. My eyes had lost track of Rebecca. She was probably with the women somewhere. She never abandons her own kind. As soon as I made a pledge in my heart to speak to her, I felt a vague, new sensation rushing through my spine, stomach, and experienced a slight shake in my hands and knees. Was life all about keeping promises?

10.00 p.m. Peter was the only guest left. He was still with the kids. Now that the stage was empty, he brought the kids onto the oval and began a practice session with them. The kids looked good in their new uniforms. As Peter spotted me leaving shouted, 'these little black spiders are good. They just need a coach.'

I checked the mailbox in case I missed the afternoon delivery and walked back to my room. I turned my radio on, tuning into radio Luxembourg. I looked onto the oval one last time through my widow. The volunteers had packed all the furniture up and heaped them all in one corner. The kids by following Peter's instructions had formed a line taking turns in kicking the ball. Peter corrected their technique and spurred them on with his pep talk. The kids' unblemished enthusiasm blocked out the chill October evening air that vaporized their rapid, short breaths, and removed them momentarily from the mazy world of adults.

Author

Farid Parsa left Iran in 1981 and lived in Europe for three years. He immigrated to Sydney in June 1984, where he has lived eversince. He has studied mass communication, theology and Theatre at tertiary level. He is currently employed as senior staff with the State Library of NSW, Sydney.

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