Artush and the riddles of life

Hamid was the first refugee I met since my arrival in the small Bavarian town. They put me in his room because it was the 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.

The authority, 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 to Germany 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 replenish his empty pockets with some strong currency. He saw it as the only sensible option.

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 matters 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.

Hamid couldn't 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 for his 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 a responsible 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 asked me 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.

He'd 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 things?'

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 maturity'

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 natural disposition 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.

In order 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 was.

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 didn't 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 community.

The only real enemy that Hamid had ever encountered was himself, 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 on my birthday 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 from the camp. To leave the camp was illegal as well.

As far as a refugee could venture out was within the five kilometers parameters. It was a rule that most refugees broke. Refugees who worked in the black market in the surrounding cities, commuted back and forth 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.

'In Munich,' He answered.


'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 always 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, considering 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 present day. Walter knew more about Afghanistan than I did. He had visited all of her famous sites, had mingled with every tribe and smoked hash with the Mojahedins in their hideouts before ambushing the Russians.

Hamid and Walter talked together in a variety of languages, English, German, and at times in Hindi. Walter occasionally asked him about some Sanskrit words he was learning. Later that night, Walter brought 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 alive. I'd 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 won.

With all the fruits and vegetables that Walter had given us, we were fairly stocked up at least for another couple of weeks. Hamid and 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 it to bits with his critical mind. It was also the only two hours of 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 go out for a walk while the other did the cooking. After dinner, from Wednesday 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 his mind 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. His body language was slow, real slow. He was not sitting in his customary lotus position, but casually sprawled over the couch. His straight, shining, black hair, which was always combed and styled, were scattered as if caught in a wild storm. He rested the book over his chest. 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 felt 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 said unexpectedly.

'Leaving where?' I asked astonishingly.

'Leaving Germany.'

'Where to?'

'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 valid passport, 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. There was 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 someone suggested exactly what you just told me. It seemed reasonable at the time. Our passport 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 much enthusiasm.

'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 those open ashrams 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 an 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.'

'Who?' He asked.


'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 I mean.'

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 placed next 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 even know.

'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.'

That 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 man 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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