No freedom fighters “Yeah, in Lebanon. Ninety to Ninety-two. I've paid my dues, helped the brothers.”
Excerpt from chapter 1 of The Poet Game by Salar Abdoh (Picador, 2000).
Abdoh was born and raised in Iran. During the revolution his father had to leave the country quickly, as he was on the original list of fifty or so people who were to have been executed. He was the owner of the Persepolis soccer team. He died a few months after moving the family to the U.S. in 1979.
“I kind of raised myself since the age of fifteen,” Salar says. ” I traveled around the U.S., didn't finish high school, worked odd jobs, brawled a lot, got sent to juvenile hall a few times, lived in abandoned buildings. At some point in the mid eighties I decided to shape up. Got my degree, went to U.C Berkeley, majored in Near Eastern History and Literature. Then left for the Middle East. Lived in Iran during the early Nineties. Traveled around in Asia. Came back to the States. To New York. Joined my brother, Reza Abdoh's theater troupe, Dar-A-Luz, as a writer. After Reza's death in 1995, I went and got my Masters in Creative Writing and English Literature at the City College of the City University of New York. Currently I teach English at the City University and just published my first book, a thriller called The Poet Game.”
The Libyans who surrounded him were humorless fellows. It was nothing to get restless about, Libyans were notorious for this. In early 1992, when the Office had penetrated the inappropriately named 'Lightning Battalion' in a northern Tehran suburb, he'd come in contact with a lot of these so called Exchange Students from various Arab countries. The Lebanese were hotheads, the Syrians were cautious, old hand PLO guys were capable of degenerating in a flash, the Egyptians could be serious and smart, yet also egotistical and clownish. But the Lemons, as the Libyans were called, were a breed apart. No talk, little action. And definitely not the kind of freedom fighter you'd want to cover your back in times of trouble.
One of the Libyans said something in Arabic and nodded at the direction of the cemetery they were passing. Sami had seen it from high up when the plane had been circling over Kennedy Airport. From this vantage point the sprawling graveyard had a certain authority to it, but from the plane it had appeared as something indecent and incomplete. He thought: how is one supposed to explain this idea to a Libyan brother? Then he wondered if he shouldn't say something for the sake of politeness. Neither of the men in the back responded, however, to his comment about being hungry. Finally the one in the passenger seat, a fleshy character who seemed to be the boss turned to face Sami.
“It's Ramadan. You don't eat.”
The finality of the statement should have piqued him, but he didn't feel up to it. You usually had two sorts of Arab operatives to deal with: one set acted as if having an agent from Iran was like having the Prophet's own right-hand man at the helm, while the other lot were pugnacious and sneering, treating the Persians as if the ancient battle of Qadissiyah between the two races had never ended. For the time being Sami was content to exert little effort. A more energetic emissary might already have been collecting brownie points trying to please these boys. He tapped the fat Arab who had addressed him. “What?”
“You speak my language?”
“What, Persian? That's not funny.”
“Then I'll say it in English: fuck you; I'm going to eat anyway.”
The fat man gave a shrug and the ones in the back shifted uncomfortably. The car sped along a wide street. Sami read 'Jamaica Avenue' on a street sign. For no reason that he could think of, seeing this sign made him think of Winston Churchill. There had been a street in Tehran called Churchill, the name of which they'd changed after the revolution. He wondered why somebody would want to call a street in Brooklyn, Jamaica. He could ask the stonefaced Lemons — Limu in Persian — but he doubted if it would instigate conversation. He settled back into the seat, wondering if somebody was going to offer him a cigarette so he could refuse — but no, it was Ramadan, month of fasting, and they probably expected him to pray alongside them. This wasn't a comforting thought. They passed a traffic light as a Jewish man was getting into his car. This caused stirrings of tension in the car, like the push of a wrong button. The driver of the car, a dark-skinned young fellow with Berber features, muttered something under his breath. “I always knew I should have learned Arabic when I had the chance,” Sami said. Without turning around the fat fellow up front repeated the tail-end of Sami's sentence, “When you had the chance.”
“Yeah, in Lebanon. Ninety to Ninety-two. I've paid my dues, helped the brothers.”
There was more silence while they turned into a side street. Then the big fellow started to ask him about dues. “What is dues? You speak well English? How come?” But he didn't stop for an answer. The four of them slid out of the car at the same time. Sami followed.
It was a three story red brick building with a black iron-gate that opened to the side of the first floor. The street was nicely tree-lined and brown-skinned kids played in it. For a second he was scandalized at the apparent amateurism of these people; was this an Arab neighborhood? But then he heard the staccato exchange of Spanish. And soon he was even more relieved as a Chinese woman went pushing a stroller on the other side of the street. This made him recall how little he really knew. Until last week he'd been back to working on one of the Colonel's pet projects in Tehran, mostly translating reveal-all memoirs of this and that Western intelligence service. For internal consumption of the Office of course. As if any agency worth a dime would let its real secrets be given away that easily. Nevertheless, it was a job and it beat chasing Interior Ministry guys all over the city.
A big breasted light-skinned man with a goatee and a Bokhara cap opened the door, looking rather too self-consciously pious. An American, Sami guessed, searching for Islam's regimented enlightenment.
He found himself in a small room with a barred window boarded up from the outside. A floor mat and an old yellow blanket had been thrown in a corner for him to sleep on. A Koran lying atop a short stool. A few plastic clothes-hangers in a closet with no door. This was evidently intermission time. How long it lasted was up to the Libyans. He was a house guest without a key, being welcomed to Brooklyn, New York. He'd been incarcerated before, but only during routine Office exercises. What was not so easy to figure was whether this too was an exercise or not. So on the second day he began to delve into the Koran they'd provided him with out of sheer boredom, readying himself for the long haul. They probably had him under some sort of observation, though he couldn't tell how. He gave a name to the man who had received him inside the house — Hazrat, or Prophet — just to fix his face in his own mind. Hazrat set a food tray for him without saying a word — at an hour which Sami guessed to be dusk — two days in a row. On the third day Sami tried to break the ice. “Your hospitality is beginning to weigh on me, brother,” he whispered in a sarcastic voice.
The hesitation took the form of Hazrat setting the tray by the door, and then arranging and rearranging its position as if it was less food than an offering. Sami reached for a piece of sweet date — they were splurging. “Are you scandalized at me, brother?” he asked as the other was leaving the room.
They didn't give him much of a chance after that. When the door burst open it dawned on him that old Hazrat had forgotten to lock it. Not that he would have tried to get out. Stretching over on the mat he said in Persian, “Fellows, if you treat your friends like this I'd hate to visit you at home in Tripoli.”
A runt of a Libyan with bushy eye-brows began to yell in Arabic and frisk through his clothes. Two other men stood around, pretending to debate something among themselves. This was the shake-up that Sami had been expecting for some time. He let himself be manhandled until a carefully shaven man wearing a pale blue suit appeared outside of the door.
“Tell the fuck to either shoot me or give me a cigarette,” Sami said again in Persian.
The man in the doorway stepped closer and answered also in Persian, “But Mr. Amir, you don't smoke cigarettes.”
Sami muttered something about the fact that now they were getting somewhere. The runt shook him again and the man who had answered him in Persian said, “He says you've come here to spy.”