It was in my first night at the refugee camp that a loud noise woke me up. I sat up in bed and looked around the room. Tom, my roommate from Africa was asleep. I wasn't sure where the noise came from and what it was. It could have been my own nightmare. But suddenly I heard someone's murmuring outside. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I quietly got off the bed and stepped out of the room. I noticed a man standing at the end of the hallway, by the big window, talking to himself. He turned around and glanced at me. He looked Middle Eastern. I went to the washer room and drank some water from the tap. I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “You've made it pal. You're safe now, away from all the madness.” I gave myself a congratulatory smile and walked back toward my room.
I noticed the man by the window again. I turned the lights on in order to get a good look at him. He turned around and looked at me again. We stared into each other's eyes but somehow couldn't connect in any way. He was looking at me but with an expression that was occupied somewhere else, far away from our present world and its concerns. The glint in his eyes seemed to be fuelled by deliriousness. He was a bold man, with a round, chubby face, possibly in his early 60s. He was wearing a dark blue Puma tracksuit, like a sport coach on the field.
After tucking myself into bed, I heard his voice, this time louder. So loud, that I could understand his Azeri monologue scratching the insidious silence of the night. The words suddenly changed into obscure noises that I could only identify as gunshots. It must have been the same noise that woke me up. It was filled with vengeance, anger and frustration, all the things that I wanted to leave behind, before being absorbed in them. When he ran out of breath, he started screaming out, “You son of a bitch, when I return, I'll ask you a few simple questions: one, why are you living on my property? Two, you have to pay me all the rent for all this time. Three…” There's a pause. Then a scream again, “You fucking son of a bitch get out of my house. Get me the gun. I told you before that your actions won't go unpunished. I warned you before. Didn't I? Now I have to shoot you.” Then more sounds of gunshots through his mouth.
Shortly after dawn, I went to the toilet. In the lavatory the same man showed up, washing his face and hands, as if he just got up. He greeted me politely in Persian with a strong Azeri accent.
“Good morning sir.”
“Good morning,” I replied. “How did you know I'm Persian?”
“Well, I recognize the faces,” he replied with an intelligent smile. “You must be new sir,” he told me.
“Yes, I just arrived yesterday.”
“Welcome, welcome. Let me know if you needed anything. My room number is 10, right next to you. Come for a cup of tea – any time you feel like it.” He told me with hospitality of a good neighbor.
Before departing we looked into each other's eyes and I felt it was completely different to the way he looked at me the night before. This time we connected. There was a palpable amenability about him. I was hoping that he'd say something about last night, apologize or something, but there was no mention of it, as if it was all together another person. Later I found out it was a quotidian act. Most nights Ahmed Khan screamed, swear, and riddled the silence of the night with his bogus gunshots and played out his demons.
Remembering his invitation I knocked on his door one day. He was listening to Radio Israel's Persian program. Ahmed Khan listened to all the radio stations that had Persian broadcasts. He turned the radio off as soon as I entered and put the kettle on the electric stove. He asked me courteously to take my seat in the only single couch in the room, while he stood by the table, preparing the tea.
“Did you escape through Pakistan or Turkey Majid Khan?” He asked me.
“Only minor ones.”
“Running away from conscription?”
“Running away from lot of things,” I tell him.
He smiled tightly and nodded his head.
“The country doesn't have an owner anymore,” he told me.
“Any country without a descent leader is not worth anything. But you see I love my country. I want to return one day. And I will. I promise you that,” Ahmad Khan told me, confidently as if he could see into the future.
“What's on the news?” I asked him, pointing to his small transistor radio on the edge of his windowpane, with its long antenna leaning out obtrusively.
“It's the war Majid Khan. It's the war that is keeping this government still in-charge. It's the best thing that had happened for them since the Shah left; the war with Iraq. It's halting everything,” he said with a conviction of a political analyst.
Ahmed Khan had a good supply of loose-leaf tea, raisin, pistachio, walnuts, cashews, and roasted sunflower seeds, the ones you could only find in Iran, all jarred separately, above the small shelf nailed precariously onto the wall. He poured the tea into a small crystal glass, and placed it on a small faded coffee table in front of me.
“Please Majid Khan, have some tea. Would you like raisin with your tea or cube sugar? He asked me.
“You have to forgive me I am out of dates. I asked my brother to send me some in the next parcel.”
He opened the jars one by one taking out a small portion of each onto a large serving tray. Then he placed it next to my tea, asking me politely to help myself.
“They are still fresh Majid Khan. I keep them in airtight jars to protect them from going stale. The river here, Majid Khan, the river, makes the air humid.”
Both of us observed a moment of silence as I sipped my tea, and chewed a few raisins, followed by couple of salted cashews.
“Take more Majid Khan. I receive them regularly. My brother hasn't forgotten me as yet.”
Most of Ahmed Khan's features had a comic quality about them. His small head, rested on a rotund shape body. His black circular eyes stared at you from underneath a pair of thick, bushy eyebrows that reached for the stars. A pencil thin moustache and a pug nose completed the facial features. His arms were large and still muscular. His impeccable mannerism, of course, was most noticeable as soon as he opened his mouth. His eye contact with you was brief, only at the end of each sentence. He bent his neck as he spoke, like a servant, with his hands, one across his chest, the other on his side, as if ready to pick something up or do something for you if needed. But all this contradicted his behavior at nights where he raged like a wounded beast.
“You see Majid Khan I am 60-years old. I should not be here, in exile, in a country that I do not understand the language. I love Germany do not get me wrong. I have been here before- back in the 60s as a young wrestler, part of a wrestling competition. We won all the gold medals, Majid Khan. We were treated with great respect. But this is not my country. We came here to prove that we were better than them; and we did. Now look at me; I am begging them to keep me in this hovel.” He raises his arm in the air pointing his hand to the rundown surrounding. “You should not be here either. How old are you Majid Khan? Please forgive me for asking.”
“I'm 18-years old.”
“You see Majid Khan. You should be at university, preparing for a career, or learning a trade. Everything has turned upside down for us. Majid Khan, our demons always get the better of us. That's why.”
Ahmed Khan looked at his watch and asked me if I didn't mind him tuning into the Voice of America, the Persian program.
I helped myself with more nuts while Ahmed Khan fine-tuned the radio station, playing with the antenna, changing its position along the long, narrow, windowpane, looking for a position with a better reception.
“You see Majid Khan, I am sure one day I will listen to the news that I have been waiting for for the last three years,” he takes one heavy breath, “that the regime has been overthrown. That would be the day I will truly rejoice. I have made a promise to God that I will feed the poor for 40 days. You see Majid Khan, we have not done anything wrong to deserve this kind of living. All these Europeans became rich because of our oil, to say the least. They filled their pockets with our money. Now we have to stay in a long queue everyday for a loaf of bread. It is not fair Majid Khan.”
The Voice of America did its routine reportage on the war: Iranian infantry made some significant advances, only to be pushed back by Iraqi gunners and missiles, with a number of casualties on both sides. It was the war items that occupied the news, most news about Iran. Ahmed Khan turned the radio off and apologized for turning it on in the first place.
“This war is dragging on for nothing. Iraq has never been a match for Iran,” he told me.
“It took us half a day to get an apology out of Saddam, when the Shah was in power, for trespassing on Iranian territory,” Ahmed Khan asserted proudly, as if he headed the Iranian army against Saddam himself.
That day, Ahmed Khan told me more about the “golden years” under the king, as he called them. He was a king supporter, for sure. And perhaps he had been purged by the new revolutionary forces that had swept the whole country. That was all I could conjure up about him, which still was merely a guess. It was hard to ask Ahmed Khan any personal questions. His conversations were all general, and that day he didn't ask me anything of significance.
All my visits for the next couple of months were repetitive scenes of my very first meeting with him, except some minor variations of course. I wanted to talk to the person who screamed at night. But, Ahmed Khan, because of our age difference, and the person he used to be, perhaps someone important under the Shah, always displayed a brave face. A face that was hard to penetrate. But come night, all the tension stored in the course of day was released. It all just poured out uninhibitedly and unashamedly.
I had cut back on my visits to his room. Whenever I saw him at night, he was the same angry, aloof man that only looked at me strangely, if that. Occasionally we see each other outside, as we collect our daily meals.
“Why don't you come for tea Majid Khan? I miss my conversations with you,” he said once standing next to me in the lunch queue.
“I will. I'm busy trying to learn German, Ahmed Khan,” I replied.
“Majid Khan, it's a good, strong language, German. It's too late for me to learn it. Even if I learn it I don't think I could speak it. It's the Azari accent Majid Khan. We still speak Persian with a thick accent. I am not good with languages any way. But good luck with it. By the way I got a chess set if you are interested to play one day. Do you play chess?”
“Yes I do, I'll come and have a game with you.”
I loved chess. I also loved and missed those dried raisins and salted pistachios.
That afternoon, before knocking on his door I could hear the small transistor radio, blasting away in his room. I realized it was news time and returned to my room and came back a bit later. Ahmed Khan had the chess set ready, as if he knew I was going to play with him that day. He did the usual round of dried nuts, from each jar, and boiled water in the kettle. He told me that I could start first by giving me the white pieces. Then he asked me which square I wanted to be checkmated? I told him I was going to ask him the same thing. He smiled at my prompt reply.
I lost the first game, and the second, and the third and stalemated the next three. Nothing was touched that day, neither the poured tea, nor any of my favorite nuts. He was an excellent player, and I was very rusty and not as good. I told him we should play more often, and left his room around 10 pm.
* * *
I kept awake till late into the night, thinking of him, waiting to hear him bawl out again. What disturbed me most was the way he stared at me, as if I was an intruder, or the culprit for his victimization. Once I looked at him with an acrid smile, hoping he'll respond in some way. But once again he looked at me like a total stranger. And I thought maybe all the talks, tea, chess games, etc… were just illusions, and that we never knew each other.
But that Friday night I decided to confront him, not in the corridor, but in his room. He usually came out after midnight around 1.00 am. I was determined not get intimidated by his after-midnight grisly countenance.
I put my ear next to his door. There was no sound coming from the room. I knocked, but there was no reply. I opened the door and entered. Ahmed Khan was sitting on his couch, with his legs crossed, leaning to one side, in quite a leisurely posture. He looked at me, with his eyes that sparkled under the dim light of his room. I greeted him but he didn't reply. I sat in front him on the chair. I noticed there're some open bottles of medication in front him, with some tablets and capsules scattered on the table.
“I miss the sounds,” he unexpectedly uttered staring blankly into the wall.
“I miss the voices,” he said it with a raised voice.
“I miss the voices!” he screamed.
“Ahmed the tea is ready, how are things at the factory? You work too hard. And the canaries exchange melodies with each other. Her soft voice motivated me to face the challenges of the day. My brother dropped in most afternoons on his way home. Three of us sat in the garden, on the wooden stretcher, next to the pool. Our voices mingled with each other. Everything felt comfortably familiar. We drank tea, and talked about the present, the past, the future, nothing hurried our talks, as if the world was listening with eagerness to what we had to say to each other.”
“Whenever my brother was around, mom called us with the title Khan. She always wanted us to have respect for each other and for others. From time to time we all stop in admiration and listen to the canaries singing breathlessly from their limited repertoire of melodies.”
Ahmed Khan baulks for a minute, as if something just got hold of his imagination. Perhaps some illusionary demons that he had to fight off. I was ready for any freaky reaction from him, but he resumed his monologue.
“I miss the voices. All those voices. They defined my world. Now whenever I put my head down they come back to me, but only to torture me. The voices once I longed to hear grind my soul. I hate my own voice. It's only my voice left you see. It's a voice of a coward.”
Ahmed Khan looked drowsy. He slurred the words. His accent was heavier. Perhaps the effects of medication was taking hold? His eyes appeared more tearful. In between his Persian sentences, he whispered some Azeri words to himself. He gets up from the couch and falls maladroitly flat on his bed. He pulls himself up and finds himself a comfortable position.
His room is identical to mine. In fact all rooms are identical in the camp. And the same dreadful silence reigns everywhere. It's a form of silence that I never noticed before. Silence with depth. Its depth nothingness. I had to get used to the feeling of emptiness it created in me. This silence has no link to anywhere, or anything. Yet it stirs so much up in you.
It shatters all my illusion of connectedness to the world. It challenges all your hope for any meaningful attachment in the future. It squeezes you into a tight spot and forces you to believe that there was never nothing else, except you and your thoughts and silence. Then you admit to yourself that there has always been you and your thoughts, and silence shadowing you.
Ahmed Khan grabs the pillow and places it behind him. A drop of tear begins to roll down his left cheek very slowly. His gaze is one of alertness, as if he has just woken up after a good night asleep. I'm not still sure how much he's aware of my presence.
“It is not pain. I always thought what pain was,” he starts to tell me. “I lost a wife to cancer. But these feelings are something else. They are beyond pain. You grieve for a loved one who is dead, but those who are alive and you cannot see give you the most excruciating heartache. You eventually accept that a loved one is dead, does not matter how unfair. But you can never accept the fact that you cannot see someone you love. And knowing they feel the same way about you just exasperate the feeling. Then you get these feelings, right here,” he touches his heart with the palm of his chubby hand, “It's here where it all takes place. I never knew I had these feelings. They are very… I cannot describe them… They reduce me to…,” he pauses without finishing the sentences, “I cannot describe them. I can never describe them. Pain is not the right word for it.”
More silence engulfs us as he appears to merely stares into the wall in front of him with nothing on his mind. I'm still not sure how much he is aware of my presence, not as a human being but as Majid, someone he enjoys spending time with?
“I was always good to my workers. I gave bonuses to those who deserved them. I gave cash to everyone every New Year as a gift. There was never any complaint, except praise and gratitude. If there were any hard feelings about anything, I dealt with them promptly. I tried my best to keep everyone happy treat everyone fairly. But something happened. It was our fabulous revolution, I suppose. Brotherhood and equality for all. The most deceiving slogans I've ever heard. They all turned against me. They spread all sorts of malicious rumors about me: Mummy's child, a pedophile, homosexual, Shah's pawn, and exploiter of workers. I was quite shocked. I was proud of my workers and my management. Those few who remained faithful to me asked me to sell the factory before it was too late and leave town. At first I thought it was an outrageous proposal, but I wished I had listened to them. One day there was a demonstration outside the factory. Workers were shouting for my downfall. I could not believe my eyes. I was arrested and accused of all sorts of things.”
Ahmed Khan slides lower in his bed, as if preparing to sleep. The words he can't pronounce easily come out as messy as the line of froth dripping down from the side of his mouth. A certain unknown chemical reaction is taking place in his brain, in his body of which he is not in control of.
“It was the demons again getting the better of us. Our demons always get the better of us. They are always waiting in ambushl,” he says as his last words to lull himself into complete silence.
Ahmed Khan's eyes are wide open, forming a fixed, expressionless gaze. His thoughts, typical of this hour of the morning, are occupied in another time, another place. His quietness rivals the cruelty of the encroaching silence. His right hand grabs his left chest, slowly massaging it. I slowly make my way out of his room. I know in the morning he'll be back on his feet, inviting me for tea in his room, beating me at chess, telling me about the “golden years” of his country. Until night falls heavily on his laden spirit, and the echoes of those voices that he loves, and mingled with, come out to stretch his longings. He knows the voices are fading away from the special place in his memory he once bestowed them. ………………..