Found in translation
For Sam, the past lurked behind the meaning and shape of
words and the future could be explored and measured with them
April 21, 2005
In couple of weeks time I had to report back to my case officer
about my progression in the new course. Those of us who were unemployed
for more than a year were lucky enough to get a case officer assigned
to them. Sam's and mine happened to be the same person. Case officers
usually were called after a vicious dog breed or another. The trepidation
of meeting Roty (short for Rottweiler) at a designated day and
hour was the best motivation to get a job, any job. She was an
obese, thirty year old woman. Once a month she talked down on me
for an hour. At times I felt I was in jail and had to convince
her that I was reformed enough to get an early release. Roty was
never satisfied with my or anyone else's effort to get a job until
we got one.
Doing this course raised my status. Success in it meant
that I'll be put on benefit for a year, allowing me to work
toward my business plan. This also meant I didn't have to
set foot in the social security office every fortnight to hand
in my forms. Meeting Roty would also be reduced to every
She never stopped giving bizarre pep talks whenever
she found herself face to face with us -- the long term unemployed.
'It's a competitive world out there,' she tells me.
'It's dog eat dog Ali.' She stares at me with her small, shrewd,
penetrating eyes almost reflecting the meanness of the world outside.
'The sooner you get out there the better, you know. You lose
your self-respect. You see, once you become unemployed for too
long... I don't know how things are in Iraq...'
I correct her for at least the fifth time that I was from Iran,
'Sorry Iran. I always get the two mixed up.' She tells me with
a self-forgiving tone of voice as if it was the fault of whoever
chose the names for those two countries.
'You see here in Australia we take work very seriously. It's
all because of our Christian background. Work is sacred. Everybody
has to work. Now you are lucky enough to be sent to do this course.
My government is paying for it. Sorry, our government is paying
for it. If you do well in it, we give you an allowance for a year.
But you have to work hard, Ali. Work hard. Make hay while the sun
shines. Have you heard that expression? You have done enough English
courses with us to know, I'm sure.'
I told her that I was planning to bring ethnic artists into the
country and organize concerts for our culturally starved ethnic
community. There was good money to be made, I assured her. My business
plan was comprehensive. I used statistics, graphs, interviews and
showed financial statements of previous concerts to prove
it. At first she was dubious but later she agreed with my
participation in the course. I hadn't seen Sam for a while and
had spotted his
name on the list which meant he too had qualified for the same
course. Feeling curious, I asked her what business plan Sam had
'Sam,' she sighed, 'Sam is a very clever young man. I hope he
succeeds. He wants to organize guided tours for the Asian tourists
visiting Sydney. It's all because of his language abilities.'
was a good idea, I told her.
'It's a good idea all right. But there are plenty of people already
doing it. You need to be aggressive Ali, aggressive.' She clenches
her fists bringing them to the eye level shaking them in the air.
'I don't think Sam has that killer instinct to succeed in business.
It takes more than just a good business plan to succeed these days.
You'll find out when you get out there. Then you know what I mean.'
* * *
Sam and I met during another course. Prior to that we had seen
each other many times in the social security office standing in
the queue, or sitting down next to each other waiting for our names
to be called out or while filling various forms and applications.
We had a sense of knowing one another without talking.
Sam never appeared tired, bored or anxious -- as if being unemployed
a full-time occupation with exciting prospects. Unlike me he was
always clean-shaven, and dressed neatly and expensively. He carried
a small, but elegant leather handbag that gave him an aura of affluence.
His eyes seemed to be engaged in some higher purpose and they looked
beyond earthly contact. He was tall, above six feet and constantly
checked the time on his wristwatch, as if running late for an appointment.
He never talked to anybody and vanished the second he was done.
The very first time we spoke was during another
short course; it was called something like "how to write excellent
resumes and do
wel in interviews". In our coffee break I introduced
myself. Sam looked timid. I got the impression that he wasn't
sure if he wanted to meet or talk to me. But as soon as he heard
my foreign accent he became interested and started asking questions.
'Where are you from?'
'I was born in Iran.' I told him.
'Iran. I don't know why I never went there.' He told me, his
sloping eyes forming a pitiful expression almost guilt.
'Do you know much about it?' I asked.
'Not really. I'm an idiot.' He said, self mockingly.
'Very Australian of me isn't it? Ignorant of other people's worlds.
I bet you know everything about us. You speak English very well.
How long have you been here?'
'Enough to survive on social security handouts.'
He smiled and said, 'You know a fair bit then.'
Our teacher was mingling with other students. He was a man in
his fifties with a high-pitched voice. I noticed Sam wiggling
away every time the teacher came remotely near us.
'He makes me nervous.' Sam told me.
'I've done another course with him before. He probably thinks
that I'm a dole bludger.' He paused. 'I probably am. But I'm far
more clever than he is.'
He put his hand in his pocket and took out a checkered handkerchief.
He carefully opened it and swiftly took something out of it and
put it in his mouth and drank it down with the remnant of his black
coffee. He did it so naturally, like an expert shoplifter who blends
in with the rest of the crowd by becoming so absorbed in his illicit
act. I didn't know him well enough then to ask him what he just
* * *
While sprawling on the soft lawn and biting our sandwiches I asked
Sam about his business plan.
He furtively laughed as if the world was listening in and said,
'I know nothing about business. I only once invested in some stock,
on friend's recommendation of course; I know next to nothing
about shares. The price plummeted and I lost everything.'
'How do you mean you know nothing about business? The whole purpose
of the course is for us to come up with a plan for our business
idea. And I know about yours, Roty told me. All you have to do
is write up a good plan and give it a shot.'
'Oh don't get me wrong. I know how to write up plans, perfect
plans. I had to write one in order to be allowed to do this course.'
He said proudly.
'But why are you doing this course if you're not going to at
least try out your idea?'
'Because I've got my own plan. It's not a business plan as such
but a plan.'
'What do you want to do after you finished the course?' I wanted
to show him that there wasn't much future for him, only more forms
and meetings with Roty.
'If they accept my plan, I'll take off to Bali.'
'What?! You can't do that. As soon as you leave the airport they'll
stop your benefit.'
'I'll go at the end of the year.'
'I was born there, I mean Indonesia, when my dad was preaching
the gospel to pagans.'
He lights up another cigarette.
'Later I went back to Indonesia and ended up in Bali. I met Siti,
my girlfriend. She's Balinese. She runs a hostel. A lovely girl!
The problem is that she wants to come and live over here and I
want to go and live over there. She tells me she'd only stay in
Bali if she ran her own business. So I'll send her some of the
money that they give me over here. She said by the end of the year
she'll be able to buy us a small hostel. That's the plan any way.'
Sam spoke five languages and had a university degree. He could
have been teaching, working in a bank, or a government department,
doing something else and earning good money. But Sam didn't
want to do anything. Unlike what Roty told me that work was like
duty here, Sam remained indifferent. He told me he had tried
many jobs but could never keep them for long. He always carried
a novel in some foreign language and as soon as there
was an opportunity he would take it out
and read. In class, he sat at the back and covered
his novel with course notes and quietly imbibed foreign
alphabets and their meanings. Whenever he came across a word or
a phrase that he didn't know, he wrote it down in his small pocket
notebook. He frequently asked me about Persian or Arabic words.
I taught him several Persian conversational phrases.
* * *
The Persian new year was approaching and my assignment was to
assess people's turn out at a function. I invited Sam to come
Before the concert we picked the nearest Thai restaurant and sat
in a cosy corner. In several months Sam would be going to
Bali and I was going to miss him. His unique behavior, like some
drug, squeezed the past and the future into one single experience
in the present. Sam asked nothing about the past, unless I brought
it up. And if he did, it was always in
connection with something we were doing in the present. And he
related everything to words and their various meanings. As if the
past lurked behind the meaning and shape of words and the future
could be explored and measured with them. The more he asked about
pronunciations and associations of words the more I felt what shade
of meaning a word should take and not so much my experience
of them. It was as if I was looking at life from a vantage point,
with power and insight, detached from everything and had the choice
to look at any part I wanted. And I'd never done this
He would say, did you know this word is related to that
and that word is connected to this and their meanings had changed
from this to that. The layers of meanings were like the changing
layers of my consciousness, intricate, evolving, yet like grammar,
grounded in definite laws and precepts.
'I feel comfortable Ali. I don't know why. But I do.' He told
me as a compliment.
'What do you mean you feel comfortable? We're having dinner
together. Why shouldn't we feel comfortable?'
'I like your reasoning.' He waits. Then he picks out a fresh
packet of Chesterfields from the front pocket of his jacket and
puts it on the table. 'You don't mind if I smoke?'
'No, I'll have one with you.'
'Oh you smoke?
'I can't do that. I can't do anything socially.' He tells
me like a confession.
'Are you ready to order?' I ask him having finished our fish
cakes and satay chicken.
We put our order in for the main course and drink more wine.
'I don't know the differences of occasion here Ali.'
'What do you mean?'
'Like you just said that we're having dinner together so we should
feel comfortable with one another. I mean these different spaces
and what they should signify fade away for me as soon as I'm back
in Sydney. Here whenever I talk to somebody I feel I've been trespassed.
Words lose their meaning and become like thorns. I have accepted
the diagnosis of the psychiatrists about my condition. But they
can't tell me why I feel fine as soon as I leave the country. They
say it's a form of escapism but I don't believe that.'
He puts his hand in the pocket of his trousers and pulls out the
checkered handkerchief and opens it up as slowly and carefully
as opening a prayer mat. In the middle there are tiny, dark
'I need to take these in order to be able to function here. They
'What are they?'
'They are medications for anxiety for my social phobias. But you
see as soon as I speak another language, or set foot in another's
country, I feel cured. There is something wrong here. Something's
missing. There is something in the air that puts the yin and yang
off balance; for me anyway. I feel very different to these people.
I grew up in different countries. I'm not attracted to anything
here. There is no social cohesion. I don't know anybody here because
I can't relate to them. I don't care about who tackled who, or
who is out of the game because of a hamstring injury. I hate
sports. I don't feel part of anything.' Sam added to his screeds.
I felt very different to Sam. I had made it to the farthest and
safest shores possible where nobody could tell me what to do or
not to do. I loved the distances between people. For me freedom
was felt more in the abstractness of ideas and beliefs than in
any dogma. Neither of my social interactions were contrived, I
felt. For me sacredness was a form of hypocrisy. I was sick of
social roles and expectations. I abhorred predictability. And I
detested any sense of belonging to any group or institution except
my own thoughts and beliefs. All I needed to complete my independence
was my finances which have been hardly in good shape. But now for
the first time I felt that it was going to happen for me. I was
going to be in charge of my destiny from every aspect. I kept
quite and listened to Sam.
We ate more food and opened another bottle of wine and smoked
more cigarettes. Sam, despite his skinny posture, had a huge appetite.
Food quickly disappeared from his plate. He was also getting more
and more expressive and animated. His accent became musical. His
sentences sounded lyrical. He told me, it was one of those
rare occasions that he didn't feel the need to take his normal
dose of medication. He uttered something in Thai to the waitress
and there appeared more food on our table. Sam came across as if
he was enjoying himself like a kid in a candy store. I was seeing
a side of Sam that usually stayed hidden inside him. And I believed
it was this side of him that he wanted to give rein to.
you a Christian yourself?' Thinking son of a missionary must
have some affiliation with religion.
'No, not at all.' He said readily as if he was lifting a heavy
load off his chest. 'I'm glad you asked me that. My parents did
their best to win me over to Christ but they gave up. My dad said
the heathens were easier to convert than his
own son. I know about lots of religions but I don't believe in
any one in particular. I consider myself a Hindu if anything.'
'Are you a Muslim?' He asked me, probably thinking an Iranian
must be a Muslim too.
'I was born one. But I don't believe in Islam or any other religion.'
'You see we're very much alike.' He told me. And also worlds
a part I thought.
We were running late for the concert. Before we left, Sam asked
me to do something for him.
'Can I ask you a favor Ali?'
'Are there going to be lots of people there tonight?'
'Yes, a few hundred at least.'
'Do you know some of them?'
'Yes. At least half a dozen.'
'Could you tell them that I'm an Iranian?'
'What! But you don't look Iranian.' I said firmly.
'You don't look Iranian to me either. You could be from any where,
Turkey, Portugal, Brazil, just to name a few.'
'Yes, but I speak the language.'
'I could have been born there instead of Indonesia you see. I'm
sure there were a few missionaries in your pagan country?' He laughs.
'Yes that's true'. I nodded my head.
'And if my missionary parents left Iran when I was 2 years old,
I couldn't have learned the language either, right?'
'Yes, that's true too.' I had to admit all these possibilities.
'So, technically I could be an Iranian.'
'But, why, why couldn't you be yourself?'
'An Australian? I'm not an Australian. I'm as much an Australian
as you are mate.' He stretched the word "mate".
'I love to become an Iranian tonight. You don't know, I get a
great buzz out of it. I'm more in my own skin when people don't
identify me as an Australian. I also want to know how Iranians
react toward someone like me. I bet you already know how Australians
react toward you when you tell them you're one of them.'
I knew exactly what he meant. I
had masqueraded as English, Turkish, Kurd and finally Spanish in
order to bring myself over here. But
there were times I truly wanted to be someone else, not just
to get passed the tightly controlled boarders. And I wished culture
was something I could freely choose after shopping around, like
most things in life.
At the concert, breathing in the air of familiarities that I once
emptied from my lungs, I counted not just the bodies but observed
the motions of the dissidents who fled after the first glimpse
into their contrived existence. They were now trying to reassert
themselves in their new territories, find new directions, take
root and recall fate out of suspension. Sam qualified; he fitted
right in like the rest of us.
That night Sam was "Saam", the Persian mythic figure.
He smoked, drank, and danced. He glowed like a star, brighter than
any culture. He took out his checkered handkerchief and waved it
in the air during a Kurdish song, holding hands with Persian girls
on the dance floor. He picked up new words and told me he will
definitely go to Iran one day. I said things are different over
there. He looked at me with disbelief as if I had no idea what
I was talking about.
* * *
I started driving taxis to supplement my income and save money
for my future project. One morning on my way to the city I picked
up Roty. I had a hat on and was wearing a shade that made me unrecognizable.
She took the back seat and gave me the address of her workplace.
She had found herself a new job, I was told, with another government
department. She took out her makeup kit from her handbag and started
powdering her face.
'Which way are you're taking me?' Her voice echoed obtrusively
in the cap and I felt I was being interrogated by her again.
'The most direct route madam.' I told her.
'Let me see.'
She cast her glance out the window and browsed the streets like
a landscape conveyancer.
'All right. Keep on this road and turn right at the next light.'
'That's exactly what I was going to do.'
'You have an accent... where are you from?' she asked.
'I'm from Iraq ma'am.' Thinking it made no difference for her.
'From Iraq. I knew a man from Iraq. Ali. A polite young man.
He was very ambitious. You sound just like him. Stop here for a
minute,' she suddenly tells me, 'I want to get the papers and buy
a packet of cigarette.'
I parked in front of the newsagent and waited for her. I sincerely
hoped somewhere out there in the world someone would find her attractive.
Would kiss her, caress her and tell her that the universe is not
entirely a mean place. She kept quite and read the paper for the
rest of the trip. It was a short trip that seemed like a very long
Not long after Sam was gone that
I received a postcard from him. Colorful Balinese girls with tall,
golden crowns were dancing on
it. He had gone into partnership with his girlfriend Siti, investing
in a hostel for backpackers. He said he named the hostel after "Saam." He
loved sitting at the reception, making reservations for people,
chatting to customers and at quieter times, read novels. There
were many Australian tourists, but he no longer felt
the need for medication to deal with them. They picked up
his accent and asked where in Australia he was from.