It was late 1979. No one was there in the world to represent me. It was then when I further realized that it was me who had to go on to shape myself and find deeper meaning to my experience. I needed a better understanding of the confusing world I was in. I did not have any choice; the only choice that was left for me was that I had to work harder to learn to make sense of my ordeal. I was hungry and homeless I needed food and a place. I was on the road with two books in my pocket.
They were talking about hope, I could hear them, and I wondered if it was possible to keep thinking of it in the absence of truth and with hunger taking me away? You see I had experienced hunger before arriving in Paris, but I deeply felt that this one was going to be very different. My previous experience was with others who were like me and shared the same retched place to endure it as I did. That place we called home and the people in it were my family. But this one was different.
Simply, I was on the road and I could not afford to drift in it. So I had to be mobile and always so, otherwise I was certain that I would collapse. I was experiencing this by myself, all alone, and in the far more alien places. I was on the road for sometime then and had just arrived in Paris.
Throughout my journey I felt the pressure of this hunger, but I had only realised its power when I arrived in Montmartre. Yes it was there, in this high place on the peak where the entire city could be seen, its narrow streets stretching as far as my weak eyes could see. I felt hunger deeper in my body and fear with it. They both arrived at the core of my being.
I looked deep into that space as I was dragging my body further up to find out where I was. I vividly recall how I reacted when I saw the whiteness of the Sacre-Coeur. For a strange reason I always wanted to see this place. I don't know why.
In that northern arrondissement of this city I did not know anyone. As usual I was alone with my few belongings and small amount of money, looking for a resting-place.
What was I doing, going here and there all alone inviting myself to my death? Perhaps in my imagination I thought the Cupola of the Scare-Coeur was going to cure me of my loneliness. I did entertain this thought as I was wondering throughout the streets of this old part of town. It was in Paris that for the first time I learnt how tragic it is when no one knows you in a place. I had always lived my life as a loner, but this loneliness was going to be very different.
I could not even hear the sound of my own mother tongue in this predicament I was in. It was early morning when I arrived in Paris. It did not take that long for me to realise the differences there. When I look at my notes in my old dilapidated journal from those days I feel the fear on my skin, asking myself how I had survived all those things? The answer to this question is that I absolutely do not know.
I was there a stranger in that amazing city by myself without any trace of familiar things in sight. I had recently left a place I used to call home which was stuck in my imagination and nothing else. I remember how Paris, with its immediate beauty and richness mixed with the sudden feeling of fear grabbed me. I had landed on a very different planet and I did not know how to come to terms with it.
Even though I had experienced hunger and loneliness, but I went through them in familiar places. Therefore what took hold of me as soon as I arrived was the absence of this familiarity. Where was I going to live? And where was I going to belong?
These thoughts pierced themselves into my mind so deeply that I somehow wanted to run away from this eternal city only a few hours after I arrived in it. What was I doing in this place? I wanted to know. What for? Living and curiosity. But at what cost? I was in deep pain about my ignorance of the world and I wanted to overcome it. Was this a right path to take with ongoing fear and uncertainties and the disease of hunger? I don't know. I did not have time to answer these questions. My body and mind were together on a strange mission.
I was on the road. I was fearfully thin and could not even see it. I reflect on it now. I was not particularly handsome and nothing was really striking about me. Was that why I wanted to explore the beautiful things? Who knows? I loved the commanding presence of the world in which I was born so poor. My tiny physical frame provided me with a kind of agility or as I thought about it a kind of invisibility to move anywhere I wished to, as long as I had the will to soothe two things, the pain and my mad imagination.
I was on the same wavelength as those who never fitted in the world. The tumultuous life I had experienced did not leave me room to rest. I needed to move on without a direction, but strangely enough I knew that deep down I wanted to know this mysterious world in which many fortunate people were living. Why I was suffering and hungry? Was I born to be a loner and a drifter in this roaring world? In my early years no one taught me how not to drift. Yes, this is true, no one.
From the moment that I found myself on the street with other children like myself I had to learn all by myself how to stand on my feet and I was sick of it. I don't know what I had to believe, so that the only consolations I had were my inner desire to live and reading. But it was hard, especially, when I was in the darkest moments of my loneliness.
I remember once when I was in one of those moments I read Charles Baudelaire saying that, 'It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art; and only the man can gorge himself with vitality, at the expense of the human race, whom, in his cradle, a fairly has inspired with love of disguise and of the mask, with hatred of the home and a passion for voyaging. Multitude, solitude: terms that, to the active and fruitful poet, are synonymous and interchangeable…'
I had come, in my youthful way, to attach myself in the poetry of poets who simply knew as many other great loners do, what a lonely person could search in the crowd. I agreed with poet who sad that 'The solitary and pensive pedestrian derives a singular exhilaration from this universal communion.'
Yes in my mind I was in communion with that kind of solitariness out there in the world and the crowds were my imaginary protectors. Were they really? I don't know, however I had to create something to live in that world, as a pedestrian in it. That was what I was looking for in the world, to drift but not to collapse. I was eager to hear and understand what was moving in me and I wanted to have peace in my life to share it. Except I was not ready and I knew that the road and my thoughts were my only companions and I did not have any desire to share them with anybody, no matter what.
That was the thing I was looking for in those intense hunger years. To tune into the music of survival in myself by knowing more. That's what my thoughts were focused on. I wanted to be the sole owner of what was moving inside me in that overcrowded world of Paris.
I recognised that there were others who felt more or less the same as I did. And in the depth of my solitude I dreamt to connect with them, even though I was struggling to survive my battle with loneliness. From time to time I met someone who gave me the impression that they felt the same in the world, but tragically it took only a short time for me to realise how much they were working to gloss over their feelings in order to create this pretentious space to deceive themselves and me that they were the one. I did not pay too much attention and left to follow my path on the road.
I knew that Paris was a haven to escape to. How come the child of an illiterate and poor family learnt this? I don't have any answer. A simple person with a simple life and a simple background, which was all shredded in poverty and hunger. That's what I could claim.
Short of money I was flirting with my fragile mind to drag my malnourished body on the road from my city to another. They had already seen enough tragedies and my intention to take them to Paris was to provide them with a rest. It may sound laughable thing to say but I did. One of the reasons why I suffered so much was that I trusted the world and anyone I met gave me the impression that they were interested to listen. I told them all about my life, everything that I felt and experienced and I told them with the spirit of sharing as lucidly as possible. My aim was to keep struggling for my survival and this did not leave me enough time to learn to hold back sometimes. I did not know that to be so open was going to further damage my poor state of being.
I did not care I needed to talk to feel alive.
I was not aware of all these things. But I thought it was because of the absence of my loved ones and my youth that I had deep emotions of sadness and intensity, those of an alien storyteller. It took me a while to make my mind up about others and finally one day I gave up on the idea of meeting others. From then on I took the road as my anchor and reading as the nourishment for my mind.
My path then turned into a long series of scavenging here and there to cling to my life. I was not able to look after myself. And that was the beginning of endless years as my odyssey led me into deeper loneliness and ongoing disappointments about anything. I did not have friends to go to and a family to stay with. I was there all by myself. A full-time young alien pedestrian in the world so unknown. This was the beginning of my many dark and small falls and ups.
The only thing I learnt was how to manage them by myself by moving from one place to another. I knew they were coming and the best place to go and see their arrivals was Paris. I knew what that city had done to so many lonely and imaginative people in the past, especially artists, and strangely I thought this was the place to start.
I was too young and I was already hitting bottom, I was not aware of what I was doing in this world and what meaning this accumulation of my suffering had to others. I wanted, if I had a chance, to transform all this experience into something useful and not live and perish like an unwanted piece of vegetable. That's what I mean by clinging to life. I was clinging to life and I wanted to do this in Paris and nowhere else.
I vaguely knew the legend of St Denis (not for any religious reason) who was the first Bishop of Paris when Romans arrived to the city in AD287. I did not know what he did, other than that the Romans decapitated him and left him there on the top of the hill. And I was aware of the story, how he through their horror, got up and picked up his head and started to walk to the peak of the hill to collapse and die.
I was so fascinated by people's reactions and their decision to build the great basilica of St Denis as it is there now. Myth or not I wanted to see the peak and the place. I also vaguely knew about that part of Paris's role in the French Revolution, and how important this part was for the start of Paris Commune in 1871.
Things were not clear in my head but I knew or heard of this place in my youth as I heard about other parts of this magical city. I was also aware of the futility of all these details for an empty stomach. But for some strange reason these basic and fragmentary knowledge had shaped a strong feeling in me for this place, which filled me with joy and helped my mind to get distracted from all the negative things in it. This feeling of joy, which was real, had magically helped tame my restless existence in that foreign place. I don't know why, but it gave me a faint sense of belonging and I could feel this, even though everything in the world looked rough and unforgiving.
I had heard that Montmartre was still seen as a village, and that it had kept that feeling, so this was another attraction that appealed to me to go there and visit it when I arrived in Paris. How did I find out? I don't know. Simply the word ‘village' attracted and provided me with an inner feeling of a safe place in the unsympathetic world in which I was dwelling. I had the feeling that it was that place where the inhabitants still had the collective generosity to connect and share with the needy ones in their village, as they were earthy. I cherished a dream that I was going to this village to be looked after.
My heart was beating faster as the day was getting older. I arrived in Paris in the early morning and after a few hours of wandering in wonderful Montparnasse and vaguely observing things, I decided to catch the Metro to Montmartre, as I was keen to start this uncertain trip from there. The moment I arrived at the Pigalle Metro station I decided to walk up towards the peak. But to my surprise the first thing that alerted me was its charm and beauty, and how cosmopolitan this place looked. I could not see any evidence of a village.
As I walked up towards Rue des Abbesses I began to notice the old windmills, which had beautifully, preserved themselves there. They were there, and I felt that they were telling me that once this place had a big heart. It was then that I began to wonder why it had for so long fascinated so many artists and great thinkers who came from all over the world to live there. And how it then became a rival to the Montparnasse district down below in the Qartier Latin, once the centre of the rebellion for students and now the Mecca for the bohemians, artists and intellectuals.
My fascination did take that long, it was at the bottom of the hill on the Boulevard de Clichy that I sensed and met the hostility of this place. It was on Place Pigalle. The train station was full of beggars and strange-looking people who looked more like pick-pocketers than passengers. Other than that, what frightened me the most was the people who looked worse than I did.
Were they the last remaining of the 1968 student revolution pushed to this part from Montparnasse by tourists agents to clean it for rich tourists to have their last glimpse of Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre died in April 1980 and was buried in the Montparnasse cemetery), looking like vagabonds? In an ironic fashion I wondered. I was aware that only ten years ago there was a student rebellion there in that magic city.
Except I have to admit that my head was full of restless energy, thinking of my urgent and immediate survival, so there was not much room to grasp all of this. My head was still bouncy from a revolution, which I had experienced in my country of birth. I decided to leave that behind me in order to learn more about the world and its mysteries, which had fascinated me for many years. I was looking for a chance to have some time and space to think of all the undigested things I observed in my short life, and the place I knew was a long and obscured road a head of me.
The night was approaching fast and beyond that, I had finished the food I had in my little bag earlier on. I had to look for a loaf of bread and a place to rest. My hope was that I could find a place in the old Montmartre near the old vineyard. My digestive system was screaming for food and my head for a place to rest – I was hungry.
There I began to look around and then I smelt the works, words, stories, fights, and struggles of impressionists, fauvists, cubists, surrealists and many others in that place. In my head I allowed myself to imagine that I could hear the voices of Appolinare and Picasso and so many other creative minds.
I was also strangely looking for the footsteps of Modigliani there, I knew he lived and died so young in Montparnasse. Perhaps I did have this feeling, because he read Dante in Italian when he was animated amongst his non-Italian speaker's friends in Paris. I was struggling reading Dante in my basic Italian myself and remember the echoes running into my ears now of my voice reading:
Cosi la mente mia, tutta sospesa,
Mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
E sempre di mirar faceasi accesa.
So my mind, held in complete suspense,
Gazed fixedly, motionless and intent,
And always as if on fire with the gazing.
— Paradiso XXXIII, canto 97
The Divine Comedy and Omar Khayyam's poems were in my old bag. They were my only companions. The first one spoke to me in Italian, which I was going to learn, and the second in Persian, which was my mother tongue. Two different poets, with two different outlooks in life and about the world, representing two different histories and parts of the world the east and the west. I felt comfortable with these companions and thought that both of them were thoughtful, challenging and rewarding.
Moulin Rouge was standing there for those who were seeking pleasure and could afford to have it. I could not even fantasise about these things let alone pay for them. The hunger was so deep that the only room my mind had to smell was the taste of food, any kind of food. The colours were dazzling there and I was so overwhelmed by that place that I nearly fainted. I don't know why Toulouse-Lautrec went there. I'm sure if it wasn't for creating those wonderful sketches, he wouldn't go there at all. It is of course where the famous Boulevard de Clichy and where Pigalle is, all confusing and mysterious. I heard that it was the best place to go for finding a place to sleep near the basilicas or near the Cemeteries de Montmartre as many homeless, poor and young tourists stayed there. I knew that I needed to get out from the Place Pigalle station and walk to the Rue Houdon and enter to the hill-like roads that looked so ancient and full of people.
I knew of the Rue d Lepic where Van Gogh had lived as a poor and miserable young artist, where he painted some of his masterpieces and befriended some very important people, when he lived there in the early years of the century. I could not afford to dream of renting a room anywhere, so I had to find a place and live at the mercy of my chances and local people.
When I look back and reflect I have to admit that it was 1979 and not 2004. The world was a very different place for a poor young man from the orient with great dreams. That's why I first went to my favourite Saint Germain des Pre in Montparnasse when I arrived in Paris. On that cold morning I arrived from Italy to Gare De Lyon on Boulevard Diderot with the hope to stay and befriend Paris forever. Such a dream the hungry young man had.
Here I'm reflecting and also thinking of the image of Le Bateau-Lavoir, this was another magic place, which was stuck in my mind those days, and this was another strong reason that attracted me to Montmartre after wondering in Monparnasse for a few hours. I recall reading about it on a piece of paper that I found in an Iranian arts magazine in my town years ago. I knew that it was here, in a rather strange room shaped like a laundry, where lived Picasso, the great poet Max Jacob, as well as the egocentric
Aopplinire who coined the tag of surrealism used to meet. I was vague and worn-out but I had this kind of strange pleasure and security, which had covered me by knowing such little and chaotic details of this city and places in it. I went to the Au Virage lepic and thought about how Le Bateau looked before it was burnt down in 1970. Thus, it did not matter, there; I felt the spirit of Georges Baroque and Van Dngen and the students who had changed the world with their ideas and determination in the May 1968 uprising. This was where Picasso, I found out, painted the famous Les Demoiselles d' Avignon in 1907.
But I have to admit that as far as I was concerned the Rue Lepic was a shrine I had to visit because it was where Van Gogh once lived and I have always loved his works and his attitudes to creativity.
And the local cemetery of course was the last resting-place for great writers whom I admired in my youth, especially Emil Zola. I was overjoyed when I found out that the great Stendhal, Alexander Dumas, and particularly one of my favorite filmmakers François Truffaut whose Jules and Jim I will never get tired to watch were resting there too. Knowing these filled my simple and naïve world up with joy and made my mind happy to have all these things in it to prevent fear and collapse.
I recall on my way up I came across this old bookstall that attracted my attention, simply because it was free to kill time watching people and the magnificent books on the shelves provided me a deep feeling of forgetting my loneliness for a while. Paris was full of things to see beyond my comprehension. Now I wonder why so many people like to live there and look so eager to find out and learn about the world of mysteries there. I have to admit; despite of all other things, Montmartre was a good place to start to soothe the hunger for me in that hopeless journey.
I looked at the Au Virage Lepic and then at the cheap Le Restaurant on Rue Ve'ron near Rue Lepic. Hungry and destitute, I kept gazing at the ancient surroundings as I struggled to drag myself toward the hill. I was focused to reach my destination when I suddenly realised that I was in front of La Goutte d'or, a famous place for poor workers and many ethnic residences in that part of Paris. I was delighted to see the place full of African vendors selling their well-arranged veggies and groceries.
All these things surrounding me in the Paris of 1979, diverse and god knows what. I was amazed and happy to see all these different people from all over the world next to each other selling their things and talking to each other. I recall saying to myself “what a treat so many things to see and learn”.
I was in Paris and I was hungry and had just arrived in that magic city and I was going to do my best to survive it. I did not know much about Paris and French except the life of Albert Camus and the fight he had with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on the existence of Gulags in Russia, a very vague understanding of existentialism, a magazine called Les Temps Modernes which I had never seen and a few other things, that's all.
When in mid-July 1979 I arrived in Paris, Sartre was still alive. But, so what? I was a loner without a community or any connection with the people who inhabited that eternal city. I was in hell, lost in my youth and was restless to cling onto something that would carry my life on and the fresh emotions about the country, city, family and friends I had just left behind.
Feeling lost and overwhelmed in that sophisticated city, I wanted to know as much as I could, but I have to admit I did not know much about anything really. I was in my early 20s, hungry, boring, uneducated, inadequate even in my own language. I was pursuing a life of a vagrant and was aimlessly observing a world, which I could not make any sense of.
In those times my greatest fear was to mentally collapse. I was all unknown in that mighty metropolis; however, deep down I was determined to keep things in perspective. I was sure that I wanted to keep my mind as sane as possible. Therefore, I began to imagine that I was part of that city and belonged to some parts of it. It was then that I adopted the obsessive walks. In order to fulfill my aim to remain sane I began to walk indiscriminately as if I knew all of the secrets of the city. I can't say that Paris was generous to me on those days at all.
Anyhow, when I think abut it I have to say that my life has always been a life between hope and despair. But reflecting on Paris now I have to say that I'm thankful that it kept me company in those extremely anxious months of chaos, loss and hunger. I'm grateful that in those intense times Paris allowed me to live there, it nurtured my thoughts, deepened my senses, and made me even more determine to remember things, which were housed in my memory box. What can I say except that that was the only inheritance I had with me in the world.
But I have to admit that the experience in Paris in that cold winter of 1979 greatly prepared and helped me to learn and reflect deeper on my loneliness, fragility and the obscure future that was awaiting me. And therefore, because of all these I promise that when next time I see Paris I will share with her all these things and even more.
……………….. Spam?! Khalaas!