In the Charles
de Gaulle Airport, people rarely notice one another for long; they scan
their tickets and the reader boards nervously, missing the faces and scenes
in between. The teen-age boy watching Merhan knows who he is--an Iranian
whose papers were stolen in Brussels and who has been trapped in this
seam between Britain and France for six years--and is trying to get up
the nerve to speak to him. He stands with his hands in his pockets, a
school bag high on his back, looking away every time he comes close to
locking eyes with Merhan. In the past, reporters who came to write a story
about Merhan's airport exile had bolted toward him belligerently, occasionally
startling him mid-sentence. For the middle-aged man is writing a memoir
Solzhenitsyn-style, composing and memorizing a sentence or two a day and
adding to a string of sentences wound tight in his head. The memoir grows
longer as his stay in the airport lounge continues.
Unlike Solzhenitysn, of course, Merhan has
free access to paper and pens, boxes in which to store his notes and manuscript,
reading material of all sorts (all of it abandoned by travelers as they
board their flights), and, most important, no jailer imposing silence
upon him. Many reporters have encouraged him to write about his plight
(and that's what they always called it, a plight--like some mispronunciation
of yet another missed flight), in order to free himself; in order to make
a little money off the juncture of confusion, bureaucracy and isolation
his life has become. But Merhan composes his daily sentences in the same
sense of defiance Solzhenitsyn did, defiance not against hard-mouthed
jailers, but against an insanity he, as yet, only sees through his peripheral
vision: the clutter of metal detector and X-ray that form the boundary
of this tiny, fluorescent non-country.
Today's sentence: I wait for the horizon
to slither into the ocean.
interview finally begins, the teenager, Dany insists on walking several
laps around the terminal. Dark-haired and thin, he volunteers that his
father, with whom he had recently been reunited, is Iranian like Merhan.
His mother, he adds, is a French woman. Merhan marvels at the mixed-race
child, feeling he can separate the French nose from the Iranian eyes,
as if Dany were assembled of far-flung parts that showed the wear of traveling
Dany explains his errand haltingly. English
is difficult for him, but he knows from the newspaper article that Merhan
does not speak French.
"A project for school," he says.
In his photography course, his latest assignment is to approach someone
he doesn't know and take his photograph.
"Mr. Delahaye says he can see in the photo
if we know the person or not. So we can't cheat," Dany says.
And how is that? Merhan wonders. Is it the
tension between strangers translated into the texture of the photo? Wariness
as a collection of dark broad strokes, a curtain behind which some intimate
"And you wish to photograph me?" Merhan
asks. Photographers accompanying the reporters had done so before. Merhan
hadn't then known whether he was expected to smile. He usually did--with
his mouth closed. He has never seen any of the newspaper photos taken
of him for none has appeared in the papers de Gaulle travelers left behind.
He knows what such photographs looked like, though. The polka-dot matrix
barely allowing the figure to emerge--the way the background was lost,
shapeless and murky.
"When I read your story in the newspaper,
I wanted to know what you look like," Dany says simply. The story had
recounted the initial theft of Merhan's travel documents, his plan to
return to Britain to reapply for a residence permit thwarted by British
immigration agents, and finally, his return to the De Gaulle Airport to
wait (who knew for how long) for readmission to England. According to
the newspaper, Merhan with only fifty dollars on his person. Airline stewardesses
and pilots gave him snack-bar vouchers and toilet kits intended for weather-stranded
travelers. He used his money to pay for phone calls.
On their third lap, they pass a plate glass
partition and in it Merhan sees his own dark hair and swinging arms. Washed
out in the glare of the overhead fluorescent lighting, Merhan's bright
eyes search for themselves and catch, instead, Dany's round shoulders
and the chrome of his sunglasses perched on his forehead like artillery
on a tank.
"No, I don't think I want my photograph
taken, thank you," Merhan says, his politeness smooth and glass. He has
become reserved over the course of these years. He doesn't want Dany to
take this refusal personally, but since he became trapped in the Charles
De Gaulle Airport he follows his intuitions very strictly. He feels that
Dany thinks him a freak, comparable to a bearded woman or a contortionist.
Merhan is shy; he has no interest in performing the role of pathetic stateless
jester for anyone. Least of all, a fashionably exotic French teenager.
Dany stops in his tracks. Taking has backpack
off, he rummages through the front pockets and produces a single photograph,
holds it before Merhan's eyes. The photo is of a man roughly Merhan's
age; Dany's father, the teenager confirms. There is certainly nothing
freakish about the man. He looks like a working stiff, a shy man until
you put a shovel or pick-axe in his hands; then he frets the ground with
elegant, aggressive designs.
Dany's photograph makes Merhan want to talk
with his father, to ask him about his journey from Iran to France, to
tell him of his own backaches and all-too-temporary insights. Dany makes
photographs to satisfy his curiosity about the world and simultaneously
makes others curious about what he has found and recorded. Merhan has
no idea how a boy so young manages this. He wants a picture of himself
like this one, one that shows a man ready to dig or break or balance,
one that shows a man as he appears, and not as he disappears.
"I have my camera here today," Dany says.
"I suppose I could use an author photo for
my memoir if it is published," Merhan says. "I assume you work cheaply."
Merhan to a bank of molded plastic chairs and takes his camera out of
his backpack. He fiddles with the lense, smiling at Merhan periodically
and assuring him that his preparations won't take long. The early evening
arrivals surge around them. Merhan watches people stop in confusion or
disappointed expectation ten or twelve feet from the gangway door. Few
of these business travelers are greeted by family at this hour, but almost
every one of them pauses and looks for a familiar face, not wanting to
rush past that loved one who might have come after all.
Dany presses the shutter button without
asking Merhan to look at the camera. Hearing the clicking advance of the
film, Merhan positions himself squarely in front of the boy. His hands
hang at his sides. The teenager walks toward him. Merhan raises his eyebrow,
a gesture his estranged wife Tahereh used to say made him look like his
own father. Visions of himself, upside-down and then right-side-up in
the camera's workings, wash over him like waves of water scouring a beach-head.
Merhan's mother died when he was a child.
His aunt took care of him until he started school. Then his father took
charge of his education. Merhan's father had seen to it that Merhan studied
hard and made plans for his future. When Merhan settled on anthropology,
his father wrinkled his nose. Merhan wanted to see the world, though.
He wanted to tread it end to end. Finally, Merhan's father consented and
Merhan was accepted at the University of Birmingham on scholarship.
Merhan's father had never even traveled
on an airplane. When Merhan first arrived in Birmingham, his father mentioned
visiting quite often, as if it would be the most ordinary turn of events
for the aging man. His father's ardent interest in European countries
dictated the portrait of England that Merhan conjured. Birmingham, a violent,
run-down city, had to be lush with a shade of green his father had never
seen; nothing else would do. The scent of the badly polluted river had
to raise dropping flowerheads and shine up their stems and leaves. This
foreign world had to be worth the loss of a beloved child. So for Merhan,
it was worth lying.
Dany lowers the camera. His blue eyes dilate
for a short moment. He rubs the right one and raises the camera again.
"Why don't you sit down here, so I have
the sun behind me?"
"Here?" Merhan asks. He sits erect with
his hands on his knees.
"That's fine," Dany says.
"So do you understand this machine you handle?"
Dany nods. "M. Delahaye taught us the entire
history of photography and how the first cameras were made. Before we
got to use these, we had to make pinhole cameras for ourselves.," he says.
"What is a pinhole camera?"
"It's just a box, really, with one hole
poked in it for light to get through and a place to feed film in opposite
the hole. Whatever light is coming from the object the pinhole is pointed
at when you expose the film is what turns up there. It gives you a good
idea of how to see the thing you're photographing in terms of light it
gives off . That's how I know when the sun is behind you, my film is getting
too much light. If I left you there, the light bouncing off of you couldn't
compete with the light coming from behind you.
"But right here, the light is falling on
you and making you easier to see," Dany concludes.
"Do you still have that pinhole camera?"
Merhan asks, the anthropologist in him fascinated by the home-made machine.
He wondered how big it was, what it was made of.
"I do. I'll bring it when I come to show
the photos," Dany says.
"Only if it's no trouble," Merhan says.
a careless man. Keys left in the ignitions of cars, banknotes used as
bookmarks gone missing after the books had been loaned out with enthusiastic
recommendation, windows left open to a swirling rainstorm. Each time he
outran a mistake, he felt a floating sense of relief. As if his luck was
only his if he ran it up a flagpole for others, like his wife, to admire.
Phrases like, "Merhan, you fool," or "What a close call that was" secretly
pleased him. His luck had been what made him stand out from others. Then,
at a customs desk in Britain, the luck ran out.
Years before he lost his papers, Merhan
despised travel for the energy it drained from him, for the slights and
oversights he suffered at the hands of airport and airline staff. Many
people treated him like he stunk, like their distance was sanitary and
prudent rather than political and racist. Even the way the customs agents
handled Merhan's travel documents, the way they craned their necks to
read them as he set them down without their touching them. Suspicion and
distaste covered Merhan's papers like giant red thumbprints. Merhan was
used to having these sheets of paper pushed back at him in silence.
His imagination raced, when the tall, broad-faced
British agent not only touched Merhan's papers but snatched and hid them
under the lip of the counter.
"What's the matter, Sir?" Merhan asked.
The agent waved his question away. The man
never looked Merhan in the eye, until he, along with two other agents,
had led Merhan to a room downstairs, one of the many windowless rooms
Merhan would discover in his trips along the international bureaucratic
circuit, always walking briskly behind a jacketed officer.
Criminals withstand such treatment by thinking
as they are hustled into and out of holding rooms, You people don't
know the half of it. Badness and criminality were forms of depth and
stubbornness. Merhan, in the same situation, was actively trying to break
his long-held habits of oblingness and grace because he sensed that these
qualities made him seem weak, and worse, guilty. So he set his jaw, steadied
his eyelids, and explored the idea that in moments like these men become
thoroughly bad. They forget their lives outside.
Merhan also knew that many foreigners lost
their papers deliberately, becoming stateless so they could emigrate more
easily to Britain, France, Germany, and others. He hated the thought that
these uniformed men lumped him together with these unimaginative and brutish
characters. Unlike them, Merhan had disdained settling permanently in
what he still considered a foreign place. He wanted a chance to explain
this to these men.
Many such chances came but he kept muffing
the telling of his life story. In the first place, he never knew how much
time he had to tell it. And in the second, the time limit seemed always
to be changing. Rushed from one of these encounters to the next, he wanted
to repeat the story exactly as he told it before. So he talked slowly,
focusing his mind, not upon the events themselves--his flight from Iran,
his studies in England, the robbery, the infrequent contact with aunts,
uncles, brothers and sisters spread across three continents, the lack
of contact with his wife, whom he knew to be living and working in southeast
Belgium, so close to where he had been robbed, but on the faces of his
He wanted the agents who drifted with him
from one interview to the next to corroborate his accounts. He became
distracted too by waiting for them to confirm or deny his speech by their
facial expressions. He had to fight to keep his story from incorporating
The British customs officials didn't deport
Merhan because they suspected him to be a terrorist or a fugitive. It
was bad luck that sent him hurtling back to the de Gaulle Airport. If
it was any consolation to him, a few of them told his story at home during
dinner the night they put him on the plane. They lingered over the theft
in the Brussels train station, imagining him reaching all the way back
into the space where his suitcase had been, dumb-founded by the bulky
item's disappearing act. Of the moment Merhan gave up and knew that there
was nothing more he could do alone.
Nonetheless, pity failed to bend British
law. His theft documentation was no proof of nationality, nor would it
entitle him to any sort of naturalization, despite the fact he had studied
in Birmingham for four years. Seventy-two hours after he landed in London,
he was escorted onto an Air France DC-8 and flown back to Paris. Though
he didn't speak French, he prepared himself to accept and perhaps embrace
this country. For if Britain didn't want him (and this by now he couldn't
deny), then he didn't want Britain either. He wanted a country where hospitality
meant something, where a man driven to abashment was as a matter of course
spared further pain. Though he couldn't say it to himself as he breathed
in the diesel and polyester of the plane's cabin, he wanted Iran.
In Paris, the customs agents had been considerably
harsher with Merhan, which, in Merhan's opinion, had more than a little
to do with the language barrier. The number of French agents that spoke
no English shocked him. French sounded like an endless stream of tired
commands, as if everyone in this country was on the nightshift and charged
with the unpleasant task of firing his underling. The translator they
brought first had too much trouble understanding Merhan's accented English.
So it was with relief and irritation that Merhan agreed to wait for a
Persian translator. As he waited, Merhan went over English verb conjugations
in his head obsessively. He saw the raw forms of words cascading down
the middle of the ranks he pictured. English, the language that had served
as his shiny lifeboat through several pleasant years in Birmingham, now
sat in dry-dock, its many nicks and abrasions apparent as soon as it was
drawn from the water.
A neatly dressed Iranian woman finally arived
to serve as Merhan's translator. Merhan then expected to resume communication
freely as he had in London, adding of course the indignities that led
to his expulsion days ago. But the woman seemed not to hear him as she
dutifully translated his speech. It didn't matter that the two shared
an ethnicity, a language, a homeland. Merhan was a bad penny, indeed.
With his now damp, creased papers affirming not citizenship but lost luggage,
he repelled aid. No one wanted to be thanked or fondly remembered by one
of his ilk.
As the windowless rooms shared a logic and
a structure across a sea channel and hundreds of miles, so did the government
agents and personnel, blue versus brown coats, Anglo or Gallic. Sympathy
for Merhan was at a premium as he drew closer to a point of stasis, the
Charles De Gaulle Airport itself. On one hand, the British had listened
to his story. Merhan was even under the impression that they had coaxed
it out of him. As audiences go, they were ideal: respectful, appreciative,
quiet. He hadn't realized, as he did squirming before these impatient
and dry French officials, that he had actually been dying to lay the whole
thing out like a streethawker displaying his wares.
Here in France, they would suffer it, all
right, they would listen. But no languid pleasure in telling could seep
into Merhan's voice. In France, Merhan's life story was a series of answers
all about the same length to a set of unvarying questions. His own story,
he saw in the light of this antiseptic and ungenerous reception, was the
story of too many. Although he was soon to be singularly trapped in the
Charles de Gaulle Airport, his crime was having far too common a story,
one of movements and renunciations and insufficiently thought-through
bargains that made his life cheap. A cheap life requires no freedom, fresh
air, property. Everything in such a life can and should be balled up or
smashed down, made small as possible.
When they realized that they had no place
to send him, the French agents began leaving Merhan in the public lounge
instead of alone in the holding room. They couldn't send him to Iran,
nor back to Britain though the admonished the British agents freely for
their cowardice. Calls went out to Benelux, Denmark, Sweden, Norway; then
the United States, Canada, Argentina. Merhan was like the garbage scow
that circled the earth one summer; without his knowing it, he was rejected
a dozen times in a week. Though the lead agent in the case had no particular
interest in comforting Merhan, neither did he want the man to settle himself
in the lounge for a long haul. So the agent assured Merhan continually
that it wouldn't be long until his departure; on Mondays he said it would
be by the end of the week; on Thursdays or Fridays, at the beginning of
the following week. Not long after, when his business took him through
the lounge, this agent charged through without looking to either side.
Eventually he avoided the area altogether.
Merhan's situation became a condition. He
hired a Parisian immigration lawyer who visited him in the lounge, resting
his open briefcase on his knees as they spoke. The agents maintained their
story that he was to be sent on to another location shortly. The relatives
he contacted promised to take action on his behalf.
Of all his relations, beside his father,
he put off contacting his estranged wife Teherah the longest. He wasn't
sure that regaining his freedom was worth re-establishing his connection
to her. When he finally called her in Liege where she had found work,
she listened to his story without interrupting him and agreed to help
him without a single mocking comment.
But, he learned, because he had been the
one to desert their marriage, she had no way of salvaging a nationality
for him. The immigration officials were more interested in the desertion
than they were in Merhan. They were keen to know how Teherah was surviving
financially. The governments of Belgium and France told the couple what
they had known as soon as they crossed the Iranian border: Their connection
to one another was not strong enough to withstand much.
Teherah promised to continue seeking solutions
for Merhan and also to contact his father in Iran. Merhan fretted. A father
shouldn't have to visit his son's misfortune in this way. This bad luck
shouldn't be able to jump borders and phone lines, traveling like a wind-borne
virus, a miasma. Teherah promised to lie for Merhan. Extra copies of your
copies, the insurance you would have wanted had you known, she promised.
Nothing more than that. Your father will be none the wiser.
Hanging up the pay phone and calculating
his remaining cash, Merhan thought long about Teherah, about all of the
refugees in Europe. And not just the ones trapped in unfamiliar cities
or living in bureaucratic interstices. He felt for Teherah's struggle
to discover what a normal life might be: living near a train station and
waitressing evenings; for the boyish Croatian amputee who tried to help
him when he first discovered his suitcase was gone. For the Vietnamese
street vendors and their naturalized children, who impatiently translated
for their parents at the bank and in the immigration offices. Even the
Somali businessman dressed to the nines in a crisp blue suit and leather
loafers earned his anxious attention. The Somali was more fortunate than
the others. But he was still part of a perilous system that depended on
continuous motion and displacement.
When he talked to Tahereh next, she reported
that his father was fine, that she could scarcely end the phone call because
he had so many questions about his son. She answered the best she could.
His sentence for the day came to him as he stared at the lens of Dany's
I wait for the fine restless latitudes of
earth be coaxed into bows then sealed into knots.
rattles the windows. Another plane lights up and takes to the sky. Dany
snaps and snaps until there are no pictures left on the roll. Merhan watches
with interest as Dany rewinds the film and unloads the camera and puts
the film in the front packet of his backpack. On Dany's back Merhan will
slip out of the Charles de Gaulle Airport without triggering so much as
a warning bell. He will bathe in cool chemical waters, hang from a taut
line as he used to hang from a tree limb kicking the leaves with his unshod
feet. He will parade among school fellows, be presented with great ceremony
to the discerning M. Delahaye who will affirm that Dany doesn't know Merhan;
indeed the boy has no idea.
"It's due the day after tomorrow, so I've
got to hurry and develop this roll," Dany says. "I will bring you copies
next week for sure."
"Good," Merhan says. "I look forward.
most nights the lounge becomes dusky and still. At this hour Merhan fears
being mugged as he sleeps.
I wait for mourning doves to train the
wind to sing their ache-song.
He misses his wife, though they have been
apart for almost ten years. He misses listening to her turning and reaching
in their small lavatory, the cupboard closing quietly, the way a moth
resting on a window would transfix her momentarily and he would only know
it by the seconds of silence, followed by more rustling and tapping.
I wait for the wheel of forgiveness to kiss
the rain-filled rut in the road.
At this hour, Merhan goes into the lavatory
opposite the ticket counters and gates and changes into his other set
of clean clothes. He washes one article of today's clothing at a time,
starting with his pants. Merhan never washed an article of clothing until
he lived apart from Teherah.
The water runs over them until it soaks
the fabric. He kneads them against the bottom of the sink a few times
and then uses them to stop up the drain so the bowl fills to its rim.
Rubbing the green handsoap flakes into the fabric, he beats the water
until it produces suds. He watches his reflection in the mirror as he
does this. The light in the lavatory is so dim that his face seems washed
of its features; he smiles. Or he flares his nostrils as he imagines a
flamenco dancer or a toreador might. An outlandish gesture, unlike him,
and yet it suits him, suits the man who will leave this airport one day
He lifts the pants as if they are his red
cape and water pours from them, onto the floor. Only a dappling of suds
remains. Running the water again, he rinses and wrings, feeling his biceps
flex, the joints in his hands becoming sore. Snap, he whips the pants
at the sink. Snap, the crack of the wet fabric, the impact, resound in
the empty bathroom and there is a slight ringing in the toilet bowls and
Hanging the pants over the formica door
of a toilet stall, he takes up his dirty shirt and undoes the bottom few
No planes will crash here tonight. Few thoughts
of escape or transport will trouble him. By the time he awakens, all of
his clothes will be dry and if he forgets to remove them from the stall
door, a custodian will deliver them to him, like a valet.
I wait for the grandiose spider to disappear
in the pores of her web.
Reporters have asked how he deals with the
sexual urges that pass through him. There is no sure-fire method. Merhan's
imagination has been his ally and his enemy. What cools his ardor faster
than anything is the idea that a woman who might give herself to him would
be doing so because (so his reasoning goes) he is a man a woman is almost
sure to have power over. He is trapped. This is why women seek prisoners
as correspondents and marry them; the marriages lasting perhaps a week
longer than the prison sentence.
Merhan's marriage to Tahereh broke up as
soon as the two migrated to the West for similar reasons. Tahereh took
care of him all their married life in Iran. She kept house, counted change,
reminded her husband to drop things off or pick them up. During their
initial journey west, however, Merhan took charge. If it had been up to
Tahereh they never would have made it past their own doorstep. She was
always looking behind her, fearful that someone might thwart them, though
Merhan's studies furnished them with visas and a stipend. Merhan looked
ahead, kept their tickets in his jacket pocket. When smooth talking was
necessary, he jumped right in as if he had been born to it.
Once they had reached Birmingham where Merhan
was to study anthropology, Tahereh insisted on an apartment in an immigrant
neighborhood some distance from the university. This Merhan didn't mind
terribly, for he also liked seeing his countrymen in the street; he liked
to hear his native tongue. Then, however, Tahereh began inviting other
Iranian emigres to their apartment regularly. Many of them treated Merhan
with a familiarity that he disliked. In response, Merhan stayed away,
walking the close streets of the city, riding the bus all night long reading
German anthropologists of the nineteenth century. It got so Tahereh never
knew when to expect him. Whenever he did turn up, he said he had been
at a conference. They lived on together, but no longer spoke of having
Two years into their stay, in the aftermath
of the events of '79, Tahereh's tendency was to side with the students.
She never left the apartment. The West had dirtied her enough. Merhan,
by contrast, felt ashamed at his countrymen's behavior. He disliked the
Shah, but found the taking of hostages horrifying. The images of the blindfolded
men sitting in the same corner on the floor day after day haunted him.
He stopped studying. Then he moved his things from the apartment, leaving
his checkbook behind, using their disagreement over the revolution as
his pretext for leaving. But this wasn't really the reason he left. He
simply wanted to be free of her fearfulness and her complaining. The apartment
was a cocoon of homesickness and it never failed to depress him. How she
wound up in Belgium when his money ran out he did not know. Why she never
returned to Iran, he didn't know either.
Merhan returned to his studies and took his degree; he began teaching
part-time and made just enough money to get by year to year. He sought
permanent political asylum in Britain, but put off applying for citizenship.
He saw no reason to bother.
The only thing Merhan missed in eighteen
years away from home was his father. Until Merhan's immigration problems
began, they spoke on the phone weekly. His father moved in with his cousin's
daughter shortly after the Revolution. Having Merhan in Britain caused
him some difficulty in the early days of the Islamic Republic, but in
the last five years things had quieted down. Now he was just an old man
in indifferent health who sat in the corner of the kitchen and told stories
of his son who had made it to the West.
An oceanic murmur washes through the
lounge. The security bells going off sporadically have a solemn beauty.
They are the sound of the terminal breathing. The sound of holes being
poked in the lid of a jar that contains a single luminous green caterpillar.
He winds his thread around the stick he finds handy, stares at the single
leaf pushed against the rim and lid of the jar. He goes to sleep inside
his cocoon dreaming only of that leaf.
I wait for caterpillars to spin their mysterious
wounds around themselves.
the morning a few days later, a security agent whom Merhan knew but who
had recognized him with more than a flinch beckons him to a security checkpoint
and, for a split second, Merhan thinks they are finally letting him go.
He breaks into a sweat and quickly makes sure all of his belongings are
secure. He drags his boxes with him, as if there is only a slim window
of opportunity. When he arrives at the desk, a woman hands him the telephone
and he hears Tahereh's voice. The ping of the security alarm is loud and
frequent, as if a passel of terrorists is crowding through the metal detector.
He focuses on a red light, then on the X-ray screen in front of him, a
collection of bright white outlines--ghosts sailing by him at what seems
like a million miles an hour.
As Tahereh tells Merhan that his father
died a week ago and was buried yesterday, he fights the urge to slam the
telephone down and run for the doors at the far end of the concourse.
Always the bearer of bad news, he intones to himself, always bad news.
He presses the receiver into his ear, focusing on the heat and pressure
in order to distract himself from the rising and falling of his stomach.
He doesn't know if he can make it to the bathroom in time. The lounge
is an obstacle course, so many bags strewn across the floor.
He rushes through the simple maze that forms
the entrance to the bathroom. Thankfully, it is empty. He grips the toilet
so tightly that his knuckles turn white. In his mind's eye, he is knocking
his front teeth against the rim of the bowl over and over again. His teeth
grind into a fine dust that coats his tongue. This powder coats the floor
on which he kneels and dissolves in the water before him. He stands and
moves to the sink to wash his face. This is where he is standing when
Dany looks around the entrance partition and catches his eye in the mirror.
Merhan hits the top of the faucet as if
to staunch the flow of water from the tap. The water won't stop. The more
he hits it the longer it runs. He looks over at Dany who works his school
bag off his shoulders and sets it down on the counter. Wordlessly, Merhan
moves past Dany, clipping his shoulder as he barges through the exit.
The powder still seems to float from the ceiling.
The hunched man pinches his arm to stop
himself from seeing the powder everywhere. When this doesn't work, he
rushes to the window to see if it is falling outside as well. He strides
to the closest plate of glass as if he is going to go straight through
it. Instead he stops abruptly and stares at the morning sunshine, the
waiting planes casting shadows on the tarmac. There is nothing amiss out
He walks back to the security checkpoint
and gathers his belongings, then heads to the snack bar. There are no
mirrors here. Only bright yellow and pink linoleum counters, scattered
with used sugar packets and bits of torn styrofoam. Merhan rests his head
on the counter, feeling the discarded bits of paper pressing into his
brow. As an anthropologist, he is dumb-founded that he finds himself in
a place that utterly defeats any possible ritual of mourning.
Dany spots Merhan and approaches the counter
with his hand outstretched. He slides his photographs toward Merhan as
if they are his own travel documents and he is seeking gingerly to gain
entrance into the older man's country.
the the photographs. He spreads them across the yellow formica bar, so
that he can look at them all at once: a very slow film. Merhan is surprised
at how happy he looks in the photographs. His father had taught him that
the bravest face was not clenched in determination; it was the face of
lightness and deception, the one that did not ask to have its burdened
shared. He is impressed with his ability to dissemble until he arrives
at the last photo. In this one, Dany has caught Merhan turning away. In
Merhan's peripheral vision, in the glare and heat of a hot dog rotisseries
turning, the emptiness of the concourse looms. This last photo is like
a mouse tail disappearing into a hole.
"So your teacher was satisfied that you
don't know me," Merhan finally says.
"He didn't mention that in specific," Dany
says. "He gave me a good grade."
"They are good photos. And just think, one
day they will will lead some anthropologists to an understanding of France
in the late twentieth century," Merhan says.
"Do you think they'll be thrown off by the
fact that you don't look French?" Dany asks.
Merhan slides the photo back and forth on
the counter. "It could be that he will conclude that this confusion of
races was a key factor in the fall of French society."
"There are already people who say that,"
"There is a tribe in New Guinea," Merhan
begins, "whose members believe that there are invisible holes all over
the earth, each man and woman has a destined hole through which he or
she will fall. Life can be lived in fear of that hole, they believe, or
it can be spent making a matching hole in the sky. All of their major
rituals--those surrounding birth, death, marriage--require participants
to lie on their backs and examine the sky; sometimes in silence, sometimes
with a welter of drums churning. Around them, tribal elders take large
sticks and test the ground around them.
"Apparently when the ceremony is finished,
the participants have to fight their fear of the ground beyond the portion
that the elders have tested. Their walking is practically dancing; they
test each step ahead of them like ballerinas pointing their toes in the
direction they wish to step."
"How do they make holes in the sky?"
"The method differs from tribe to tribe.
In some, making the hole or passage into heaven is strictly a matter of
conquering fear. Those who have the courage to walk without testing the
ground ahead of them go to heaven. The rest, who go on looking for a hole,
find one eventually.
"In others, it is a matter of predestination..."
"You mean they can't do anything to change
their fate?" Dany asks.
"Exactly, their life is simply spent waiting
to go through one hole or the other."
"Are you a religious man?"
"Not particularly. I believed in goodness.
I wasn't scared of god," Merhan says. "... until I got stuck here." Merhan
would not tell Dany about his father's death. He doesn't want the comfort
of someone who likely has no sense at all of his own mortality. "Now
you're thinking about those holes, huh?"
"That I've already fallen through mine,"
Dany stares at the photos on the counter.
He fishes in his backpack and draws out a cardboard box duct-taped in
various places, with aluminum foil pasted to one face. Merhan inspects
the slightly crushed cardboard box; he puts his eye up to the tiny hole
and struggles to see what is inside, as if Dany has caged a cricket or
a mouse for him. He sees the dark and feels his eyelashes brush against
Dany takes the camera and positions Merhan
so he can take a picture of him. Slowly, he pulls the plastic from the
film, warning Merhan to keep still. The minute of exposure passes slowly,
Dany staring at Merhan to make sure he doesn't move and Merhan staring
at the cardboard box, trying to project light from himself as he once
tried to send love darts to Tahereh. After a minute is up, Dany puts his
thumb over the pinhole as if he is snuffing a candle. Merhan releases
the breath he has been holding and takes a swig of coffee.
this photo--fuzzy within a circle of darkness, showing his eyes like two
healing bruises--to the first ones Dany took. Looking at it, Merhan imagines
that the distance between himself and his father can be traveled.
I wait for the cloud-train to blow its
whistle of jagged light.
The thought comforts him more than he expects.