Written by Ali Hosseini, an Iranian writer living in the United States, this is the fourth of six fictional short stories we will be publishing as part of our inaugural fiction series. While diverse in both content and style, these narratives share an interest in the ‘fate’ of the Middle East, and use fiction to make conceivable seemingly farfetched and unachievable possibilities for its tomorrow. We hope that their imaginings might spark a very real debate about what kinds of future Middle Easts are desirable and attainable.
He was young and handsome, tall, with a square face and wondering eyes. There were a few threads of white in his black curly hair and a dark-reddish mark running from his chin down his neck where the skin had been burnt. I remember clearly the moment we stood facing each other – I, wondering if he was Iranian, and he, probably thinking that I was Iraqi.
He asked me if I was from Iraq. “No,” I answered, “I’m Iranian.” That was when he said we were enemies.
I hesitated for a moment. “If we were on the other side of the Earth,” I said, “maybe we would be enemies. But we are here, thousands of miles away from that ancient desert. We can be friends if we want to.” I held out my hand from behind the counter. “My name is Nazeer.”
After a momentary silence he reached for my hand. “I am Samir,” he said.
“You know Arabic?” he asked, surprised.
“No,” I said. “I’m from Khuzestan, in the south of Iran, close to the border with Iraq, and as you probably know, there are many Arabs there.” As soon as I mentioned Khuzestan, I saw the wonder in his eyes intensify and felt his hand tremble. He released mine right away, put a five-dollar bill on the counter for the bread, cheese, and cucumbers, and left the store in a hurry. I watched him walk away beneath the shadows of the palm trees, lining the sidewalk like spears. He paid no attention to his surroundings and looked strong and proud as he vanished from view.
Every day just before sunset he would come in to buy bread, cheese, and cigarettes and then walk to the beach. Sometimes, after I was finished with work, I would take a couple of cans of soda and join him. Usually I would find him sitting alone on a bench in the shade, his eyes fixed on the sea and the sun. I would sit next to him and we would eat bread and cheese and talk.
“We have a saying in Persian,” I said. “The time comes when a person must dare the sea”
On one of the first of those occasions he gestured toward the people on the beach, swimming and playing. “Look how carefree they are. Aren’t they afraid? One thing that scares me is the power of the sea.”
“When I first came here,” I said, “I was wary of the ocean. But little by little I got used to it.”
He smiled. “Well, what is the ocean to a person born in the desert? If it were a desert I wouldn’t be afraid to go into the heart of it. But the sea, no. The place I put my feet must be dry and stable.”
The waves were stretching in and out. “We have a saying in Persian,” I said. “The time comes when a person must dare the sea.”
He fixed his sharp eyes on me, as if to say what could a person like you, happily living in Southern California, know about daring.
I don’t know what it was about him that attracted me. Maybe it was the mystery I saw in his eyes or the unease I noticed when he heard I was from Khuzestan. Or maybe I was trying to prove that we could be friends.
One late afternoon, I found him sitting in the same spot watching the sunset. I offered him a soda. “The sea is surprisingly calm today,” I said. “And look at the sun – so much bigger and redder than usual.”
“Yes, like she’s in a hurry to reach the water,” he replied.
Behind us the palm leaves rustled as if in competition with the pounding waves. Samir looked at them and then out toward the horizon. “It reminds me of my village, Al-Kabir. In my childhood days I wanted so much to know where the sun went at the end of the day. My grandfather used to say, ‘It goes to the Red Sea at the end of the desert. She has scattered fire all day and, tired, lowers herself into the sea to cool off.’ Ever since those days I wanted to go to the end of the desert, sit there by the Red Sea, and watch the sun lower herself into its heart.”
“It was the sun that saved me,” he said after a long silence.
“Saved you from what?” I asked.
He stared down at his feet and kicked the sand with his heel. “From that burning desert on the other side of the world, as you called it when we first met. From the world of stupid, crazy men. From people who won’t leave you alone.”
He lit a cigarette. “During the invasion of Kuwait and our dream of a ‘Greater Iraq,’ my platoon was sent to the border. For two months we were in the desert, in bunkers hidden underneath the sand. When I got there, I heard that they were equipped with modern facilities – fans, kitchens, beds, and so on. What a lie! They were graves! It was as if we had dug our own graves and buried ourselves alive. Twelve soldiers in one hole. Wherever you put your head or foot, someone else’s head or foot was already there. Sand in your eyes, in your ears, under your teeth, in the bottom of your throat – it would get into every opening of your body. After two months I couldn’t take it anymore. I got to the point where I kept thinking I had to get out and just be by myself for a while. One day, I crawled out of that hole and sat there watching the sun shimmering at the end of the desert like a huge copper tray. It was as large as when I was a boy and used to leave the village with Grandfather to watch it. The Arab peninsula was the whole world to him.”
“I’ll never get used to this place,” he said. “This morning, in the 7-Eleven, do you know what the cashier said? He asked me where I was from, and after I answered, do you know what he said? ‘You’re the enemy. Who let you into this country?’”
He stopped talking. When he was quiet, it was as if he was somewhere miles away, in a place familiar only to him. And when he talked about his childhood, it made me think about my grandfather and my childhood days in Khuzestan.
“That’s our story,” I said. “Having your heart in two places. We have to go on by keeping the old memories alive and at the same time finding a way to feel at home here in a new land.”
He rose suddenly and started walking along the shore. I followed him, the foaming waves coming close to our feet. He stopped for a moment. “I’ll never get used to this place,” he said. “This morning, in the 7-Eleven, do you know what the cashier said? He asked me where I was from, and after I answered, do you know what he said? ‘You’re the enemy. Who let you into this country?’ What can I say to a person like him? You tell me.”
I could see the scars on his face trembling and searched for something to say.
“It takes time.” I said finally. “A person cut off from his own land and in a new place becomes sensitive to everything he sees or hears. The aspects of his homeland will seem better to him than the best things here, and the good things here sometimes become unbearable. Some of us enter a battle with ourselves which may have no end. But as the saying goes, the passing of time slowly changes us all . . .”
“I’ll never change,” he said angrily. “I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have agreed to come here. I wish I had never stepped out of that hole – that grave in the desert – and had been buried alive like many of my soldier friends were.”
“I crawled out,” he said after we had walked in silence for a while. “And was sitting watching the desert shining under the late light of afternoon, when I heard the sound of the jets. Not one or two – the sky was full of them. In an instant the whole desert went up in flames and sky and earth became one. I remember the moment when I was thrown into the air. Then there was nothing. When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see a thing – I was surrounded by a circle of fire and smoke. I had never seen sand melt.”
He pushed his hand into the sand and watched the grains fall between his fingers. “In that hell I only thought of my brother Taher. He was in the Iraqi army when Saddam ordered the attack on your Khuzestan. His body came back to us as a pile of charcoal in a bag. After seeing his ashes, my grandfather lived only for two months.”
I couldn’t stand hearing what he was telling me. A shiver ran through my body. I turned my eyes away toward the horizon. The sound of the sea died out in my ears and I heard artillery shells, the sounds of MIGs and sirens, and the cries of people. I couldn’t keep them away . . . I tore off my clothes and plunged into the sea. The waves pounded and I kept on swimming farther out. When I turned to swim back, I could see Samir, his outstretched arms disappearing and reappearing behind the rising and falling waves. He was beckoning to me in agitation. When I got out of the water, he yelled. “Why did you do that? Why? Are you crazy going that far? Weren’t you afraid of the waves?”
I wanted to say something, but no words would come out of my mouth. Then suddenly I cried out, “We had brothers and sisters, too! We had homes, too! They were burned. They were blown up . . .” I realised I was shaking. My hands were trembling and Samir, stunned, stood staring at me and rubbing his burn marks.
I became quiet, looking down at the sand, hating myself. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what came over me. These sorts of memories, as you said yourself, never go away.”
He lit a cigarette, handed it to me, and lit another one for himself. We walked on in silence.
“For me,” he said, “there’s no end to it. Everything is still alive in here.” He pointed to his head. “They are all alive in here. Like you who didn’t know what to do and ran into the sea, I couldn’t figure out what to do in that burning desert either. I was lost and confused. I got up and ran toward the sun at the end of the desert. She had a halo of dust around her. It was as if I saw my brother Taher in the middle of the fire and smoke trying to get away. I didn’t want to become a piece of charcoal like him. I don’t know how, but I got out of that circle of fire. With my eyes fixed on the sun at the end of the desert, I kept running.”
“They’ve gone under the sand,” he used to say. “When the sun is gone the shadows disappear under the sand”
He pointed toward the horizon where the light reflected on the surface of the water. “I still feel like I want to run toward the sun. Like in the days of my childhood. Every day with Taher and my grandfather we would leave Al-Kabir to watch the sunset – I’m not sure if anything is left of our village. The more we would walk towards the sun, the lower it sank. I would turn around and look at our shadows stretching out long behind us. Grandfather’s mantle flowed in the wind and made his shadow dance over the sand. We would walk and walk without ever reaching the Red Sea. When the sun was finally gone, I would look around us and say, ‘Abi, Abi, what happened to our shadows?’ ‘They’ve gone under the sand,’ he used to say. ‘When the sun is gone the shadows disappear under the sand.’”
Smiling, he pointed toward the ground. “See, ours have gone under the sand too.”
I looked at where our shadows had been. “Samir, after the jets came and you escaped, what happened then?”
“I only thought of the Red Sea and the sun, and kept running until it was dark. I didn’t know how long or how far when suddenly there were bright lights all around me. I froze. They were American soldiers. Then I realised I had no clothes on. Everything had been consumed by the fire.
They took care of my burns and a week later transferred me to a Saudi camp. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Iraqi soldiers there and every day more kept coming. I was there for about six months. We had to keep ourselves entertained. Everyone who had a talent would teach the others. We tried to learn some English so we could talk to the Red Cross representatives. It was a world full of outcast soldiers- – soldiers who didn’t dare to go back to their own homeland. We were a headache for all the parties involved. If the Kuwaitis had gotten hold of us, we would have been massacred for sure, and the Saudis thought if they kept us under the sun for a few hours each day, we would finally melt and disappear under the desert sand. In truth, after ten minutes standing motionless under the sun, you did feel like you were melting. The Americans didn’t know what to do with us either. Finally the United Nations and the Red Cross sent us to different countries. I came to the United States with a hundred other men. I was in New Jersey for three months, and came here a month ago. It was my destiny to end up here. But in my heart I wanted to go somewhere else, some place that I chose myself.”
Darkness fell over the ocean. Samir talked constantly as we walked. His words brought images of Khuzestan to my mind. But I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to bring up what the Iraqis did to my homeland and what we went through. I couldn’t bring myself to add to his pain. I listened in silence.
“Even with a million words I couldn’t explain what happened in that desert,” he went on. “How a person can age a hundred years in a day. Sometimes I dig inside myself, plunge deep into myself. Sometimes my insides become heavy and bitter, like this sea. I look at myself, think of myself, in Al-Kabir, in school, in the military camp, here beside the sea. I ask, what happened? Where am I?”
The next day, I waited for him in the afternoon, but he didn’t show up. When I finished work I went to the beach and sat on our bench, listening to the waves and watching the white lines of foam appearing and disappearing. I waited, but he didn’t come.
Seven days later, on a Friday, he came into the shop, looking happy and well dressed. His hair was short and combed and his face was shaven.
“Where have you been, brother?” I said happily. “You suddenly disappeared.”
“I needed to be by myself for a few days,” he said. “There was a war waging within me. As you said, the time comes when a person must dare the sea.” He smiled.
A sense of victory was evident all over his face. While he was paying for the bread, cheese and cigarettes I said, “The weather is beautiful today. As soon as I’m done here, I’ll join you at the beach. I’ll bring a few bottles of beer to celebrate.”
He walked away with the same pride I saw the first day I met him.
After work, I went to the beach, carrying a few cans of beer. The weather had changed. The sky was dark and overcast. I didn’t see Samir in the usual spot. I looked around but the beach was empty. The sun, hazy behind a bank of low clouds, was disappearing into the swollen sea. When I sat on the bench, I saw a bag a few yards away. It was the bread and cheese. They were untouched.
I followed the footsteps receding into the distance along the shore and my eyes fell on the
Arabic words written on the sand. I knelt down to read them just before they were washed away by the waves. “Ana zehabt le altaqi ma’ esh-shams”– I went to meet the sun.
This story first appeared in Puerto del Sol (V. 40, No 1 – Spring 2005).