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What happened to him? I guess I am too afraid to find out

April 15, 2002
The Iranian

I met Ali when I was seventeen and fresh off the farm, as they say. After years spent in the sheltered environment of a tiny suburban school, I was thrust into an eclectic college campus situated in the vibrant downtown neighbourhood of a cosmopolitan city. From a graduating class of less than fifty students, I was parachuted into an institution containing approximately 30,000 students from the most diverse backgrounds.

And by diverse, I don't mean just race, culture, or religion, but all types of personalities and quirks, manners and types. It was all so overwhelmingly different than the restricted circle of friends I had been used to for practically all of my life.

Among this dizzying environment, Ali stood out immediately. I can still remember the day I met him in a crowded student cafeteria. I was instantly drawn to his intense green eyes, his smile full of charm, even his cute tie (a tad on the overdressed side for the hippie-enamored campus but it contributed all the more to his individuality).

Ali's bubbly and warm demeanor, bombarding me with questions about myself and my first impressions as a freshman, was a welcome relief at a time when I felt so lost in the herd. His enthusiasm was contagious. We talked and laughed endlessly about a rainbow of subjects. He got me to sign up that very day for a student club he was running with other classmates. We were living that clich-- you know the one about feeling like we have known each other all our lives.

The next time I saw Ali was quite a different picture. I had walked into a student lounge that I favoured because it was quiet and remote, just the place to go over a few notes in between classes. But I immediately spotted Ali sitting at the old, rickety piano over in the corner. I was shocked at his sight. The brightness of his green eyes was gone, and he was staring at something intangible, lost in his thoughts.

His head rested on his left arm, which he had leaning against the piano. The other hand was tinkling a few melancholy notes on the keys. I put a hand on his shoulder and asked him what was wrong. He looked up and I saw his eyes were full of tears. The look of sheer pain was so raw and vivid, it tore my heart. Finally, Ali revealed the cause of his despair. He had just learned that his grandfather had died in Iran.

Now it was my turn to have my eyes well up with tears. I could only too readily identify with Ali's ordeal. All of us children of immigrants could. To be so far away from home, far from our loved ones, with the constant fear, unfortunately eventually realized, that they will breathe their last breath without laying their eyes upon us again, without us being able to kiss them goodbye one last time. This was what Ali was going through at this moment and my heart reached out to him.

Of course, anyone could empathize with this poor soul, but I was especially prone to feeling a nurturing instinct when confronted with the pain of a fellow human being. I was and still do wear my heart on my sleeve. I just didn't know at the time that it constitutes a weakness, not an advantage, out there in the jungle of life.

Over the next few years, Ali and I continued to grow closer. He was just such an amazing guy to hang out with. He quoted Shakespeare like other guys my age would quote the Simpsons. He once tutored me over four hours over the phone for a class I had difficulty with. Now that was friendship! He was the only one of my friends who agreed to come with me to watch my obscure foreign movies. He was just brilliant, on any number of subjects. Plus, he was really funny and down to earth. His confidence did not seem arrogant, it was electrifying. I was in awe of him.

Like many young Iranians, Ali had traveled to many places in the world. I liked to listen to his depictions about the different countries he had lived in, and visited. Once, over tiramisu, he told me how his parents had made the mistake of entrusting him to a German family in his teen years, in order for him to avoid his military service in Iran.

Besides feeling like a fish out of water all alone in a strange country, the old German couple hosting him turned out to have neo-nazi beliefs. Quite a strange turn of events for people who had volunteered to receive a foreigner in their midst. "I think they needed the money!" Ali chuckled. Finally, his father had to come in person and rescue him from these nutjobs. Ali delighted in recounting how he got a trip to Italy, kind of to make up for the hard time he had had.

All the time he talked, I was speechless. He was one of the few people who really knew how to tell a story. I felt like I was right there with him. I told him he had a gift and he should write a book about his experiences. He just gave me a modest smile and changed the subject.

One of the things I admired a lot in Ali was his refusal to compromise who he was for anyone. I mean, remember, I was still in my teens back then. Having been raised by pretty conservative parents ("Just right of Hitler," I would often joke), it was a big deal to me to have a friend like Ali, with his long hair, his pierced ear, and his constant smoking (of all kinds of substances).

He also lived by himself, and worked part-time. His independence was a sign of maturity to me. He was a different breed than those "boys" I had gone to high school with. I could bet most of them still lived at home with mommy.

Once, I invited him to a restaurant where a whole bunch of my tribe (including my parents) were dining, celebrating I don't remember what. He asked me whether he should remove his earring for the sake of my relatives. I told him almost immediately not to. He should come as he is. It meant a lot to me that he asked though. And in turn, Ali was gratified that I didn't ask him to compromise. He later told me how much that gesture meant to him.

Ali's refusal to conform extended to his religious beliefs. He was playing with his necklace once, which was inscribed with some Farsi or Arabic words (I couldn't tell). I asked him what the necklace symbolized and he told me it was a sign of his Bahai faith. Before I met Ali, I didn't even know what Bahai was. All I knew though, was that they were mistreated in Iran.

In the summer, as he got ready to travel back to Iran to visit his family, I asked him whether he would take his necklace off. He gave me a categorical no. I was very worried about him but somehow knew he would be okay.

I didn't hear much from him during that summer and when he came back, he seemed as exuberant as ever. It wasn't until some time later, during a deep conversation, that he confessed that something horrible had happened to him, or rather his father, during the summer in Iran.

As I sat there speechless, Ali recounted how his father had been arrested and taken to prison by the notoriously anti-Bahai agents of the regime. The officers, he told me, had detained his father in a cell, subjecting him to all sorts of torture. But the worst was the sounds of women being raped and tortured which Ali's father could hear in the adjoining cell. The officers kept telling him that his wife and daughter would be next.

"What happened?" I remember crying out "Where is your father? How is he?" Fortunately, Ali replied, his family had been able to buy his father out of prison.

My nurturing instinct was now full-blown when it concerned Ali. I felt so protective of him, all the ordeals he had gone through. That's why I paid no heed to the nasty whispers and gossip running throughout the campus about him. The stories they revealed just made no sense in light of what I knew about Ali.

Talk of Ali having been kicked out of his previous school. (I knew the truth: He had merely changed colleges because he fell in love with a girl and wanted to be closer to her).Whispers of Ali currently flunking out of school. (This was ridiculous: He had just recently told me how Yale Law School had sent him a letter of early admission based on his brilliant application. I felt I was part of that success as I had helped him study for his LSATs and also to write his application essay.) Nasty rumours spread by a lot of the female Iranian students about him cheating on his girlfriend. (I knew they were just the revenge of girls he had dated briefly during temporary break-ups with his true sweetheart.)

I just dismissed it all, thought he must have made some enemies. Who hasn't, even unknowingly sometimes? True friends know where they stand and don't adhere to stupid gossip. However, despite my loyalty, I could not help feeling Ali was changing, certainly acting odd. His appearance for example. When I had first met him, he used to care about his appearance, even standing out in his preppy clothes in a sea of funky looking (and funky smelling) students.

But gradually, he looked as though he had just rolled out of a tent. His hair was greasy, like he hadn't washed it in ages. He was beginning to have a receding hairline. He chain-smoked even more fervently than before. He had taken to wearing the same sweater a few days in a row. He did not bother to launder it and the sweater came to be imbued with such a nicotine stink, it was hard to be around him, even for fellow smokers.

Also, when did he ever go to class? Nobody could remember the last time they had seen him show up in a class they had together. He would instead appear around 4 in the afternoon at the student lounge we all frequented, looking like he had just woken up. Then he would spend the rest of the evening there, eating, and smoking, socializing with everyone but never, ever studying.

There finally came a time when I couldn't blind myself anymore. This happened after another one of Ali's trips to Iran. This time, he had no horrible story about prison or torture, rather an intrigue which seemed to fall straight out of a James Bond movie.

He began, as he always did, with a believable scenario. He was describing his days of partying with his friend on the island of Kish. So far so good: I had heard about the lax rules in this Iranian Free Trade Zone and was sure people flocked to this destination because of the access to more liberal entertainments than on the main land.

But slowly, as always, Ali's story became more and more incredible. He told me about this secret underground casino into which you could only enter through a special code in the elevator leading down to it. Once in there, women were walking around with hair freely flowing while men won and lost millions at the roulette tables. The more Ali talked, the more I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. This was too much even for the hillbilly me to accept.

The worst was when Ali, with the most candid of faces, talked about meeting the owner of the casino, who happened to be Rafsanjani's son. He said that the then President's son took such a liking of him that he hired him right away to broker a hush hush international arms deal between Iran and Canada. That's when I couldn't take it anymore. All I remember was that I started running out on the street. I was just running and running -- fast.

Ali tried to run after me at first and I can still remember him screaming my name in the street: "Nikiiiii?.Nikiiiiii?" I went through probably a million emotions: Shock, disgust, fear, repulsion? I was so angry, both at myself for being such a nitwit, and also at Ali for being such a liar. But the overwhelming feeling was confusion. One word kept resonating in my head like a hammer on an anvil: "Why? Whyyyy?"

I just couldn't understand it. In my innocent world of black and white, people didn't lie without a motive. And if they did, they were bad, evil people, not your best friend of many years! Now I was open to seeing the truth. I went to some trusted friends on campus: A couple of hours finished confirming what I suspected. Ali was a pathological liar.

For whatever reason, every ounce of his being, every breath he took, it was all a lie. Everybody that came his way had "benefited" from his carefully constructed stories, his beautifully written epics. All the gossip, the rumours, those were, ironically, the truth in this case.

Ali had been lying to me from the beginning. That included the horrible lies about his family. His grandfather was alive and well. His family had never been sequestered by the regime for their religious beliefs, simply because they had never practiced the Bahai faith in the first place.

And it was a well known fact that Ali was flunking out of school, just like he had at his previous school. He had not been admitted to any law school, much less early admission at Yale! It went on and on? It was like our friendship had never existed. It was entirely constructed on falsehoods, smoke and mirrors.

I had definitely lost my innocence. From now on, I would be like the rest of the world: suspicious of new people, mistrustful of stories that seemed out of the ordinary, even a little bit. Who knew this would be the most stinging lessons I would learn from college, among all the courses on Machiavelli, Camus, and Stephen Jay Gould! For better or worse, this was what I took away from my experience.

I welcomed the fact that my next program of studies would take me away, to a different town. I could forget about everything, about all the lies. I couldn't find it in my heart to forgive Ali, especially concerning the lies he had told about the demise of his family members. This, more than anything else, was unforgivable to me. How could I trust someone who so blatantly spoke the words "torture" and "father" in the same sentence? Was this some sick twisted fantasy? An attempt at getting attention?

I was too wary to even try to find out. It was not my problem. I couldn't do anything about it. I just wanted to move on with my life. But soon, Ali followed me and managed to somehow find me, even though I hadn't given out any contact information to any of our mutual friends. I guess he did have a little bit of the James Bond streak in him after all. I had made up my mind never to talk to him again but he had me backed in a corner and I decided the best way to get rid of him was to hear him out.

I still shudder to this day at the thought of his face, streaked with tears, telling me in a shaky voice that his brother had cancer. I knew this was another lie. It only increased my horror at him, someone so eager to manipulate, to make up such atrocities about his own family in order to achieve sympathy.

I decided to be so rude to him that he would of his own volition avoid me for the rest of my life. And it worked. I never heard from him again, except from time to time, some snippets about his life which were recounted to me by our mutual friend Manijeh.

It was sad that Manijeh was the only person who still tolerated Ali, lies and all, out of our initial group of friends from college. Everyone else (including me) he had driven away with his lies. But Manijeh I guess had the biggest heart out of all of us. She managed to forgive him each and everytime he would utter a new incredible story. She must have been a better nurturer than I ever was.

The weirdest thing after all this is that every Iranian friend I made ever since, and to whom I tell my "Ali the pathological liar" story, ALWAYS retorts with a story about an "Ali" of their own. Sometimes it is a female classmate of theirs who claimed she dated a famous baseball star. Other times, it is a male friend of their father's, in his middle ages, who coolly lies about getting paid $6 million for an invention that everyone comes to find out never existed. And Mr. Charles de Gaulle himself, whom Ms. Setareh Sabety wrote about earlier in this magazine [Aym not eeraaniyan], isn't he just the perfect illustration of this lying sickness?

To this day I haven't figured out if this phenomenon is an epidemic native to our countrymen and women, or a worldwide occurrence. I guess it doesn't help that, whether professionally or socially, I interact for the majority of the time with fellow Iranians. So I have not been able to judge for myself if this is as common in other cultures.

All I know is that, so many years after discovering the truth about Ali, my repulsion and disgust have turned into immense pity and compassion. I remember the most chilling thing Manijeh ever told me about Ali: She had met Ali's parents in Iran and they seemed perfectly aware that their son was delusional. They even joked about it. I wondered if instead of laughing, they had taken this seriously, Ali might have gotten the help that he needed.

After seeing a movie like A Beautiful Mind, it occurred to me that these lies were truly a sign of mental illness. I mean, the more I think about it, the more I think that Ali's gift for storytelling was no gift at all. He managed to make you believe he lived through those incredible events simply because he had a complete delusion that they really had occurred.

But I guess there is still some taboo in our culture about admitting that your family member, your very son, requires psychiatric help. I guess it is just easier to ship him off to a far away country overseas, all by himself, as long as the family honor is intact at home.

I still wonder to this day what has ever become of Ali after all these years. Is he still managing to draw people in with his amazing charm? If so, how long does that ever last before they realize they are talking to an insane person? Has the burden of living alone finally taken its toll on him? Is he living in an institution somewhere? Or worse, out on the street, talking to himself (or rather to his invisible demons?)

I have not had the guts to ask Manijeh, the only person who would know. I guess I am too afraid of what I might hear.
Comment for The Iranian letters section
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Niki Tehranchi

By Niki Tehranchi

Tehranchi's features index


Aym not eeraaniyan
A man's refusal to acknowledge his Iranianness
By Setareh Sabety

We must lie
To survive
By Shahraiar Zahedi


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