Artush and the riddles of
November 13, 2003
Hamid was the first refugee I met since my arrival
in the small Bavarian town. They put me in his room because it
only vacant bed left in the men's single quarters. When
I confronted him for the first time he greeted me with a hospitable
smile, as if he was expecting me. At first I thought he was from
Afghanistan, for he spoke to me with a perfect Dari accent. He
told me he'd learned it from some Afghan refugees, with
whom he shared the room before me.
There was no ice to break
between us. I found myself telling him my life story over a chai
that he made the same evening. He sat there quietly listening
to every little detail of my journey to Germany. He was the first
person I was telling everything to. He just sat there, on the
dilapidated orange couch, and smoked his rollie and listened.
He listened serenely, completely and caringly. When I finished
he got up and made more fresh chai. I wanted him
to say something. I felt he was hesitant, but I didn't know what
about. The cigarette rotated between his fingers and lips. At
last he broke the silence and said, 'Gee pal what a story,
glad you could make it out.'
It became clear why he was hesitant at first, for
after our forth chai he cautioned me that if I tell my story verbatim
to the Immigration officials,
they'd reject my case outright. He didn't want to
degrade what I had to go through I suppose, but he knew the
authority would shred my story to pieces and at the end they would
throw it back at me and tell me it's all a lie, or at best
there's not enough evidence to support my claim.
as I learned from him, is not necessary after the truth but a good
story. Like publishers they want something that would capture the
imagination and create the "suspension of disbelief" for
the reader. He said a plot must be structurally flawless, so the
path to climax is believable. This, he said must be of primary
concern. He was right as I discovered later. Hamid who'd
made the same mistake himself had no hope of ever being accepted
as a refugee, but this was least of his worry.
He had made his way from India, to South East Asia
and then to Eastern Europe. Making his way from Czechoslovakia
he was halted at the border by a customs officer who refused him
entry. Then the same officer offered him, as a way in, to become
a refugee. Well, it was either reverse back to Czechoslovakia,
or accept the kind proposition of the border officer. Hamid had
spent a skint period wandering behind the Iron Curtain and wanted
to stay somewhere more permanently and possibly work and
his empty pockets with some strong currency. He saw it as the only
Hamid, five years my senior, at 24, had
already lived in five countries, where I had only lived in one,
Afghanistan. And if Russians hadn't
invaded my country, and killed my father and brother, I'd
have stayed there for the rest of my life. He spoke more languages
than any one I've ever met. He was born and raised in Iran,
that's what he told me anyway.
Apart from Persian, he spoke
at least two important local dialect, Azari and Gilani . He said
he learned Turkish in matter of months because of its closeness
to the Azari dialect. Living in India he learned both Hindi and
English. And since his arrival in Germany, some two years prior
to me, his German has become good enough to assist newly arrived
refugees with interpretation and translation of their stories
and documentations. At the camp, I had seen him converse with Assyrians
from Iraq and Armenians from Iran in their own tongues.
Hamid was liked and respected by whomever he came
in contact with. His informative and insightful discourse on immigration
and counseling talks, put the most anxious and worried refugees
at ease. However, beneath this unruffled, friendly face, lied a
turbulent soul that roared violently. I only managed to get a glimpse
of some horrifying phantasmagoria that his imagination created
and thrived on. His fragmented soul made me wonder how he could
lead two vastly different lives simultaneously.
give himself to a particular creed, philosophy or religious belief.
His analysis of them would eventually abate his seething excitement.
Then he distanced himself from any philosophical or religious doctrine,
as if they're not to be trusted. His lack of attachment
to anything gradually undermined most of my own simple belief system,
and I began to question things, but never as passionately, or with
any great sense of urgency with which Hamid pursued.
Sitting in a bar once, he told me he wanted to break
free from whatever surrounded him, animate or inanimate. I spent
a long time
thinking about what he meant by it, but still couldn't quite
grasp it. Wouldn't this state be nothingness or fanaa,
I asked him. He only answered "no". No explanation nothing,
as if his explanation would be beyond my comprehension. Hamid often
baffled me with this kind of unexplained statements or wishes which
to me seemed more like fantasy.
As a result of my 'friendship' with him, I learned
that there was an immense distance between us. This poisonous,
alienating lesson opened a way for a bigger, more terrifying realization;
the wider chasm that I had overlooked between me and every other
human being. I saw these distances as unreachable, as if each individual
was moving toward an unique destiny and all our understanding of
each other was illusionary in nature, merely helping us, mostly
out of necessity, to relate to all these passing phantoms, including
ourselves, whom we called 'human'.
Perhaps, he was going to come up with his own unique
religion one day, I sometime thought. His open-mindedness, compassion
fellow human beings, sharp intelligence, and personal experiences
of different cultures and languages, could create some universal
creed, more in harmony with the spirit of his age than any of his
predecessors. I never doubted Hamid's greatness and I prayed
for him to overcome his doubts and disbeliefs and put his talent
to some good use for the sake of lost and wandering souls like
himself. But this was a vision harder to uphold than seeing the
defeat of Russians in my homeland.
I remember during the first few months of us sharing
a room together he maintained a happy, contented appearance. Like
role model he tried to help me with whatever it was in his limited
capacity. When I was refused to attend German classes, he gave
me private lessons. He taught me English as well. He periodically
about my future plans, dreams and aspirations. But as
time went by, he paid less attention to me and got more tangled
in his own thoughts. I often couldn't decipher what went
on in his complex mind, but I surely could read his mood, sometime
before they even manifested.
Returning from his long solitary walks in the forest,
he'd utter words, and phrases like, 'it's all a game', 'we're chasing
our illusions', 'we're all floating particles
in an aimless
universe', 'it's all our ego needing to assert
itself at any cost', 'love can not be defined'.
'Are you talking
to me?' I ask him, trying to break into his philosophical soliloquy.
then change his demeanor and put on his usual cool smile. This
time his face looked more dazed than a pretentious
smile could hide.
'Don't pretend Hamid', I'd tell him. 'Your
thoughts won't affect mine. Tell me what're you thinking,
what's bothering you, why are you uttering these negative
Leaning against the dinning table, he relit his
rollie and cast his gaze on the jagged, wooden floor. At first
I thought he's
not going to respond to me at all.
'Everything is affecting us, can't you see?' Hamid
said firmly. 'We're influenced by everything around
us, the air, the building, the people, our past, our future, the
stars, the food we eat, everything,' he added.
Hamid was in a dark state of mind, I knew it.
'But that's not how you felt last week', I'd
tell him as an irrefutable evidence to change his mood. 'Last
week you said how your regular meditation and vegetarian diet has
helped you feel better. You're fairly excited after you finished
reading the biography of Swami Panjurie. You commended him for
his insight in spiritual things and wished to reach his level of
Hamid said nothing. His laconic behavior vexed me.
His eyes then shifted suddenly and focused on me. I noticed his
right fingers had
been blotched by the burning tobacco between them. I continued
with my line of attack.
'Isn't it the hardest thing to stay on one path?'
I put to him.
'Yes Shahab but, we can't ignore the legitimate
questions. Otherwise we won't know where we're heading,' he
said with a sympathetic voice.
Hamid could look at a concept from several different
angles and like his capacity for languages almost seemed like a
that he possessed. I didn't want to ask him what valid or
legitimate questions he was thinking about in case I didn't
understand them. I have been bogged down with some of the philosophical
concepts he had shared with me before. I also didn't
want to fall into the abyss of intellectual contradictions either,
as he did. However, the bits and pieces of his arguments I
managed to pick up and understand, deeply stirred me.
Living with Hamid was challenging to say the least.
But I knew, that even if I changed my room, I wouldn't stop thinking
about him. Beside I still preferred to share a room with him rather
than anybody else. I felt part of his spiritual quest. It was him
who started me thinking about the big questions in life, and I
felt it was with him that I was going to find any answers.
to impress him, I pretended that I too thought about life as deeply
as he did. Once I told him life was all a futile attempt, and all
suffering and wandering and progress made us no wiser, only evolving
us into more complicated creatures, with ever more complex existentialist
puzzles to work out, in order to justify our existence. With all
sincerity I was never tortured about the futility of life as he
For me the Russians were the biggest enemy, the potential
destroyers of my life, family and race. The feelings of anger,
hate and vengeance centered me and gave me a sense of mission and
allow me to give to any philosophy and thought that weakened my
resolve. Hamid never understood this part of me. He'd lived
a totally different life. He'd never witnessed a member
of his family shot for defending his homeland. Or seen his neighborhood
taken over by foreign invaders, or the destruction of his
The only real enemy that Hamid had ever encountered
perhaps the biggest enemy of all. I was hoping that one day I could
prove this to him. However, helping him was as strenuous and perilous
as fighting the Russians. Our arguments or discussions always ended
up with my retreat into a contemplative silence. It was his sophistic
thoughts that were making inroads into my soul and changing the
pattern of my existence, without me even knowing it.
* * *
I was turning into a 19-year-old man on the 24th
of September, only a week away. Hamid suggested that we go to Munich
and spend a night with a friend of his, Walter. We're both
financially very poor. The government handouts barely bought
our personal effects. Neither of us could afford to stay away
the camp. To leave the camp was illegal as well.
As far as a
refugee could venture out was within the five kilometers parameters.
was a rule that most refugees broke. Refugees who worked in the
black market in the surrounding cities, commuted back
unchecked. As long as you paid for your train ticket and kept
a low profile you're just another foreigner and not a refugee
who's stepped out of his designated demarcation. Hamid once
got busted late one night in Munich central station. Munich train
station is heavily monitored for drug traffickers, black market
workers, and illegal migrants.
A freezing wind from the Alps numbed
any notion of a mild autumn in our heads. Hamid had arranged to
meet Walter at his work place,
near closing time.
'Where did you meet Walter?' I asked Hamid.
'Before I was sent off to the camp, they put
me up in a hostel near his supermarket, where I bought my smoke
from. Walter was
friendly to me. He has also lived in India and Afghanistan.
Wait till you listen to his Dari accent, you'll be surprised.
Walter and I have lots in common. He's a good soul, wait
till you'll see him, I'm sure you'd like him.'
Lot of things about
Hamid surprised me. And meeting a gay German man in his late
50s was no exception. Walter was as
friendly as he described him to me. And his Dari comprehensible,
he never studied it. He told me his travels to Afghanistan
began back in the 60s, before I was born and has continued to the
day. Walter knew more about Afghanistan than I did. He had
visited all of her famous sites, had mingled with every tribe and
hash with the Mojahedins in their hideouts before
Hamid and Walter talked together in a variety of
languages, English, German, and at times in Hindi. Walter occasionally
about some Sanskrit words he was learning. Later that night,
out a cake and a watch as present for me. Considering that we'd
never met before I was quite taken by his gesture. It was my
first birthday outside home. I considered myself lucky to be
seen so many people die in the war we waged against the Russians
that my departure was seen by my mother as an attempt to save
and continue our family name, and perhaps our race, if the Russians
With all the fruits and vegetables that Walter had
given us, we were fairly stocked up at least for another couple
I by now were following a strict vegetarian diet. Hamid religiously
got up at six and began to meditate till eight. Meditation
was the only spiritual practice he performed without shredding
to bits with his critical mind. It was also the only two hours
his wakefulness that he didn't smoke, although he usually
had one already rolled up waiting for him.
By the time he finished
his meditation, breakfast was ready. Then he would go out
on his long walk and return for lunch around 1 pm. The
afternoon was spent reading or studying. Usually one of us would
for a walk while the other did the cooking. After dinner,
through to Sunday we went to town to a particular pub where
they played very loud rock music.
Hamid was reading when I entered the room. I noticed
he hadn't done the cooking. He looked subdued, exhausted, as if
had oscillated between indefinite number of possibilities regarding
some metaphysical question. I couldn't read his mood this
time. My heartbeat increased, as if a stranger was sitting in
front of me. His eyes looked hollowed and their gaze trance-like.
body language was slow, real slow. He was not sitting in his
customary lotus position, but casually sprawled over the couch.
shining, black hair, which was always combed and styled, were
scattered as if caught in a wild storm. He rested the book over
He looked up but remained on the couch.
'What are you reading?' I asked.
'A German novel', He replied.
He put the book down on the couch in one long movement.
It was already dark and windows were fogged up. Our small room
like a prison cell, with no view to the outside world.
'Did you want to go out tonight?' I asked him.
'I've been thinking about leaving Shahab,' Hamid
'Leaving where?' I asked astonishingly.
'Anywhere', he paused, 'perhaps back to India.'
'But why so suddenly?
'Here has been the longest spot I've ever stayed.
It's been too long I think.'
'No one is going anywhere until we get our asylum,
we all know that. We're half way there. I know you still got a
but you can only go back, not forward. What happens if you changed
your mind? You can't come back.'
'Why should I come back?'
Both of us observed a strange moment of silence.
There was nothing I was telling Hamid that he didn't know.
never anything I knew which he didn't know.
'After we get our passport we'll be free. We could
go anywhere and do anything. That's why we're here, waiting for
so long. Have you forgotten? Isn't it the reason why you're
here?' I asked. The lowering, and shaking tone of my voice
was betraying a dubiousness I felt inside.
'I needed a rest.'
He staood up sluggishly as if he had been glued to the couch. 'I've
been moving around all my life. I came to Europe by accident. Then
exactly what you just told me. It seemed reasonable at the time.
is not worth the paper it's printed on. You know that. It
causes nothing but trouble and humiliation. More so in Europe
than anywhere else. Beside I don't want to live in Europe. So
why hang around here any more. I don't belong here. I'm
not saying India is the place I feel I belong to, but for
time being that's where I'd like to be. Europe has
never been my kind of place.'
I could never convince him neither with reason,
nor with piousness. He always did what he wanted to do. I was a
fool to think that
I ever influenced his decisions in any way.
'When are you thinking of leaving?' I asked him
hoping vainly that he'll give a date far in the distant future.
'I don't know in a week or two,' He replied unhurriedly.
'I'll come with you. I've never been to India. I'd
love to come and visit all those ashrams, Hindu holy places,
ancient towns that you've described to me,' I told him with
'You can't come. You haven't got a passport to travel
with.' Hamid reminded me.
He was right I couldn't go anywhere.
I was stateless.
Hamid left the following week to another uncertain
future perhaps. There was nothing waiting for him there, except
where he could enter unchecked, no one asking him where he was
from, why he was there, or if he was telling the truth about
himself. He said to me in India there are more people like himself
searching as if the act of searching was his best profession.
After his departure I felt I was no longer secure in the world.
The world I'd constructed for myself, I realized, was no longer
sustainable. Hamid's presence, like some sort
of drug, fed my sense of insecurity and legitimized it. I was wrong
to ever think that he didn't affect me. I could
have never told mom about all this. She'd laugh at me. For
her, I was in the safest part of the world. An unsafe place, for
her undoubtedly, was Afghanistan, where there's hunger, falling
bombs, mines and foreign invaders.
* * *
I went to see the only foreign doctor in town, whom Hamid
used to visit. I sat in his waiting room with five others. He was
Assyrian Iranian who had come to Germany back in the 60s, in his
late teens. I picked up a nature magazine from the neatly stacked
publications on the coffee table in front of me and sank into the
big, comfortable, leather chair. For some brief moments I forgot
why I was there at all.
'Hello what can I do for you?' The doctor asked me.
'Hello sir. Hamid had recommended you to me.'
'I don't know him, is he a patient of mine?'
I felt embarrassed. Why wouldn't he remember him. Hamid
seemed to have a good rapport with him, I recalled.
'Hamid was from
Iran. He used to visit you, when he was living here, in the camp
When I saw the bemused expression on his face, I pulled
out my wallet and showed him the snap shot of Hamid that I had
the photo of my family. He laughed, and acknowledged him. But he
told me his name is Artush, that's why the name Hamid didn't
ring a bell. I was now more embarrassed, for I had placed
a photo of a man in my wallet who's real name I didn't
'Yes, a very nice chap, a very talented man I should
add, like myself he's an Assyrian, that's why he came to me.'
day the doctor prescribed some very "mild" sleeping
tablets and promised that my asleep will improve. He said I was
too young to become dependent on them and I should try to get some
natural sleep instead.
On my way back to the camp I bought my
second pack of Drum tobacco, and rolled myself one. It turned
out crooked, bent, with more tobacco in the middle
and less on either ends. Hamid rolled them so perfectly only
using one hand. I thought about my new roommate, Albert, an African
from Chad. I'd never met a Black man before. I wondered
what his life story was, and if he knew that the Immigration
man was after a good story.
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