Foreign Affairs by Fred Vahid

When Hassan told me that Zia had just passed away, I burst into an uncontrollable laughter. It was only some twelve hours ago that we caught the lift together and he offered me a cigarette. It was a custom of him to offer me a smoke.

Hassan’s expression was a fusion of anger and disappointment, as if my laughter was voluntary. I remembered, as vividly as Hassan’s presence in front of me, when we both approached the main entrance of our apartment building from opposite directions. His long, black coat and friendly smile was unmistakable, even in the dark. ‘Time to go to sleep son’, was his last sentence- a mixture of alcohol and nicotine reeked repellently from his breath.

Despite our age difference, I felt we’re as close as two dissidents neighbors could be. I think having both left politics, for different reasons of course, developed a pleasant entante cordial between us. We felt safe with each other, for we were both under the mercy and protection of a foreign government.

There was much melancholy in his eyes the last few times that I spoke to him. More than usual I have to say. No one can conceal melancholy. It’s behind every smile, humor, and expression. It has a world of its own with its unique set of precepts. And in Zia’s case it had become the strength of his character because it was unwavering and consistent. Melancholy in him strived to be recognized and respected as a legitimate form of being in the world; like once his beloved communist manifesto.

His part-time job in the local kebab shop gave him enough money to drink flamboyantly in the pub a few times a week. A massive heart-attack finished him off in the lift lobby. By the time the paramedics got to him he was long gone to the world that he vehemently rejected its existence.

I met him first in the local kebab shop after my evening German class. I didn’t know we’re going to become neighbors one day. His thick, wavy, dyed black hair and shinning green eyes made him look more like a Persian aristocrat than a dissident living in a foreign land. He was proud of his fluent German and often impressed people with the power of his rhetoric, specially after a few drinks. The pub, he gradually noticed did not converse in German much but in English, however. It was an Irish pub in a diplomatic quarter of town where foreigners who worked at their embassies gathered for a drink and a chat when the day was done.

I was sitting at my usual corner when Christine walked in the pub with a man. We hadn’t seen each other since we shared a bed over a week ago. I had reviewed a range of possibilities in my mind as to how I should react when I see her next but the scenario of her with another man didn’t cross my mind. I felt so unprepared and vulnerable. She ignored me and took her seat in the far corner . Was one week apart enough separation to start a new relationship? Certain moments in our intimacy, like a tantric dance, awoke new closeness in me.

When our eyes finally met from across the floor she smiled and said something to her companion. I readied myself to go and talk to her when Rose entered the pub after a long absent and distracted me. She was an older German lady that I had my eyes on long before I met Christine. Having not seen her for a while I regrettably thought of her as a lost opportunity. Now she reappeared on the scene again. Rose lived in the newly built block of flats only minutes from the pub and worked casually in a few boutiques in the local district. She dropped in invariably with Hans, her gay friend, once or twice a week. And now she was on her own and what puzzled me about her was that I’d never seen her with a partner.

I told Mike to get her a drink. I told him my social security check was due in a few days and that I’ll pay him back.

‘You’re a refugee,’ he told me, ‘stop acting like a bourgeois.’ Mike whispered to me as a reality check.
‘But I wasn’t born a refugee.’ I told him, ‘and a proud bourgeois I’ll always be.’

Mike knew my story. I was just finding my feet in the embassy when it was taken over by the zealot Islamic staff. And the hope of ever becoming a fully-fledged diplomat, serving my country was dashed.

Statelessness was the price that I had to pay for my freedom; so I remained in the land of the “infidels”.

Mike delivered the drink to Rose as soon as she touched her seat. She looked pleasantly surprised and looked to my direction when Mike pointed to me. I raised my glass and toasted her. I noticed that Christine was watching me furtively from her corner. I walked up to her.

‘Good evening my name is Fred.’ I stretched my arm to shake her hand.
‘My name is Rose.’ Her hand soft and light.
‘I know. I’ve spoken to Hans about you.’
She blushes.
‘How strange he never told me.’
‘We’ve seen each other here before haven’t we?’ I asked her, rhetorically.
‘Yes. We have. But somehow never met.’ She tells me and I’d like to think there’s a subtle tone of regret in her voice.

We both picked up our drinks and sipped in one harmonious movement.

It’s a friendly pub, isn’t it?’ She asked.
‘Yes. I wonder what will happen to it if the embassies move to Berlin?’
Having heard rumors about it among some diplomatic circles.
‘If it did, not only the pub but the whole Bad Godesberg would die. By that I mean businesses. It’s the foreigners that keep the businesses alive here.’ She tells me with a confidence of an economist, looking concerned.
‘You haven’t been around for a while. Have you been away?’ I asked her, trying to bring the focus back on her rather than an uncertain future.
‘You noticed! I’ve been to Italy for holidays.’
‘Italy, it’s a beautiful place.’ I tell her.
‘Have you been there?’ she asked me with a childlike enthusiasm.
‘No, but I feel I must one day.’
‘You should go there. Italy is one of those places that everybody has to visit. So much history and arts. One could visit Italy forever.’

Bruno, the pub’s manager entered with Dass, the new Sri Lankan waiter. Zia finishing his shift at the kebab shop dropped in just after 11.00.

He always headed to my table first, whether I liked it or not, which wasn’t always congenial but I’d learned to maneuver around him. And only later, after a few drinks that is, he moved about and socialized with other patrons and insisted that I call him by his first name, Zia, rather than his surname, by which I usually addressed him by.

‘Hello son,’ he says to me.
‘Hello Mr. Hatefi.’
‘Hello madam,’ he greets Rose with a kiss on her hand.
Rose and Zia knew each other well for they had been living in the same neighborhood for the last ten years.
‘Hello Zia.’
‘Are we discussing the world’s affairs? I tell you I’m not calling the shots in the kebab shop,’ he pauses, then raises his hands to his nose and sniff them like scented flowers.
‘Beautiful smell of barbecued beef,’ he utters, ‘Anybody wants a drink?’

Zia always bought a round of drink for every one who happened to be at his table, whether they liked it or not. His generosity was almost dictatorial.

‘By the way Hassan came to the shop. How are you going with him? Still having problems? The other night he asked the manager if the meat was halal. Ali, also the owner and a Muslim told him he should ask before he eats and not after. How did you bunk up with him? You two are very different.’

‘It’s a long story. But I’m going to leave soon hopefully.’
‘Yes, I know. You didn’t probably have much choice.’ He tells me sympathetically as if he was in a similar situation at least once before.

My incongruous living arrangements, however, wasn’t something that I wanted to discuss in front of Rose.

‘How’s your beautiful daughter?’ Rose asked Zia.
‘She’s fine. She’ll be staying with me on the weekend.’
Zia was divorced from his German wife and his fifteen year old daughter, Layla, stayed with him couple of weekends a month. Layla had been to the pub on number of occasions with Zia and most of us regulars knew her well. She spoke some broken English. Zia had never forced her to learn Persian and she had never felt the need to speak it. But she said that she understood some words, for her German mother was fluent in it and her parents’ arguments were mainly conducted in Persian; another reason why she didn’t want to learn it or speak it. The sound of Persian reminded her of unresolved disputes, and irreconcilable differences. And the shrill sound of its consonants in their shouts and hollers still echoed harshly in her young, sensitive ears.

Hans entered the pub. He was from Munich but was working and living in Bad Godesberg. Being from Bavaria, he once said, made him feel also like a foreigner. He made much effort to speak in English, thinking non-Germans couldn’ t understand his Bavarian accent. But his accent never disappeared, only the words were constructed and delivered slower which sometimes tested my patience.

I turned my head as I felt the presence of somebody near me. It was Christine standing next to me with her companion behind her.

‘Hi Christine.’ I greeted her, automatically rising from my seat, kissing her on the cheek.
‘This is Jacob. My brother’s friend, visiting us. Jacob had studied in America and speaks very good English.’ Christine introduced him to us.
‘Does any body want to speak German these days?’ Hans asked?
‘Only foreigners like me who can’t speak English very well, Zia answered back in German.
‘Would you like to join us?’ I asked Christine.
‘No thanks, we’re leaving. I wanted to show Jacob the pub. He’s catching a flight back to London. I’m driving him to the airport.’
‘Did you want to catch up tomorrow?’ Hoping she would say yes.
‘Maybe. I’m playing tennis with my brother. I might drop in here later for a drink in the afternoon.’ She tells me indecisively, before departing.

* * *

Preparation was underway to conduct Zia’s funeral. Layla and her mother Dietrich wanted to have a nonreligious ceremony, refusing the offer of Ali to invite a clergy from the Iranian embassy to cite verses from the Koran. He believed that Zia had long abandoned his communist ideas and had contritely re-embraced his good religion which was all evident from his charitable character.

‘My father would turn in his grave if any one utters a religious word at his funeral. He never said anything about religion to me, ever. Only his friends and acquaintances need to gather around. That’s what dad cared about most. ’ Layla told us.

Acquaintances he had but friends I wasn’t sure. Zia in fact didn’t have that many friends, if any. He deserted them all when he left Berlin ten years ago, disagreeing with the way his comrades ran the Iranian communist branch in exile. His friends were merely the public he socialized with, if you could call that friendship.

Dietrich was positive that fifteen people from her side of the family would attend his funeral. Rose and I were confident that twenty people from the pub and the neighborhood would definitely come once they knew that Zia had passed away. And Bruno, Zia ’s drinking partner, could manage the rest.

It was a cold but sunny day in late autumn when Layla, Dietrich, Rose and I drove to the funeral hall which was on a large country estate about ten miles north of town, not far from the farmlands owned by the Indian embassy.

‘Zia never remained faithful to any thing,’ Dietrich told me in Persian while Rose was driving the car and talking to Layla in the front passenger seat.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked her.
‘I mean at the funeral it would be good to say that he was passionate about something and remained faithful to a cause. But Zia didn’t. I’m sure you think other wise.’

Dietrich spoke with conviction. After all they had lived together for twenty two years.

‘Now Layla thinks he was some sort of a political hero.’ Dietrich sighing ambivalently.
‘He was a great man. We all loved him.’ I told her.
‘Come’n Fred, he had no friends. He lived a lonely life. He didn’t talk with any one who differed with his views. He thought he alone cared about everything and the rest of the world didn’t give a damn.’ She tells me.
‘He had a golden heart.’ I told Dietrich. ‘I loved him. And I think Layla sees his dad’s heart. The heart is the most important thing. Isn’t it?’

‘Yes, the heart is the most important but non of you have ever lived with him to know what he was like.’ Dietrich uttered ever so calmly, like a soliloquy.

Then she dropped her head and became silent as if memories flooded her brain.

‘Zia wanted to live several different lives simultaneously,’ she continued, ‘Political life, family life, social life, charity life, drinking life and they all encroached onto one another. And it was the family life that always came last on his list.’

She turned to her window, staring blankly onto the dark gray road.

The car took the right hand turn and climbed up the dirth road . On top of the hill stood a sequestered old building with farmland and valleys stretching all around it.
Bruno was going to conduct the ceremony. Rose and Dietrich decorated the interior with candles and flowers. We all waited anxiously for people to arrive.

I looked out the big glass window when a taxi pulled in. Dorothy got out, looking around for the entrance. Dorothy was a day patron at the pub. She worked for the British embassy as an admin officer for the last twenty years. I had no idea that she knew Zia.

Dorothy walked and embraced Layla and greeted Rose and me. She gave a distance greeting to Dietrich when Rose introduced her as Zia’s ex-wife.
‘No one told me that Zia had passed away. I just heard it from Bruno at the pub this morning. Who would have thought! So unexpected!

Her voice became tearful and she covered her face with her black, polyester gloves.
‘He was a lovely man, a dear man. I’ll miss him greatly.’ She bursts into tears before regaining her composure.

Dass, Mike and Ali, the catering team, pulled up in two cars. The hall’s decoration was finished. Long trestle tables of food and drinks were set up and people slowly began to trickle in. In the background Persian setar, Zia’s favorite, played away lamentably.

Bruno and Layla stood together and coordinated their parts as main speakers. With the exception of people from Dietriche’s side of the family, most of the attendees were the regulars from the pub, mostly embassy workers, and a handful from the neighborhood of Bad Godesberg.

My eyes began searching for Rose in the crowd. She stood with a small band of Germans around her. She turned her head toward me and smiled as if she knew I was trying to catch her glimpses through the waves of bodies and their drowning commotions. I smiled back, the blackness of her dress filling my eyes.

There were more people in the hall than any of us had anticipated. All activities came to a halt and people took their seats when Bruno stood behind the microphone. He tapped the microphone with his finger a few times to make sure that it was working. He seemed calm and in control as if he was going to make another presentation for some embassy event at his pub. Not far from him stood Layla.

He first began to speak in German then changed into pidgin English with his strong Italian accent. He wasn’t sure what language to speak. He was aware that a good number of people didn’t speak German but his English wasn’t good enough either. So he said that he was going to speak in German and asked those who didn’t understand it to raise their hands. Then he asked those who understood German and spoke English to sit next to the ones who didn’t and interpret for them. Some people moved or swapped seats.

Bruno told us that Layla’s riding lessons took place on that farm when it operated as a riding school some years ago. The valley, with a few aged ponies still left on it, was panoramically visible through the big windows. One of the ponies suddenly pranced about and trotted toward the fence and stretched his neck out, his eyes looking unfocused to our direction. Bruno briefly paused when he noticed that some of the heads turned toward the farm, staring back at the pony. Bruno faced the crowd and regained our attention by telling us the story of his first encounter with Zia, how they hit it off and drank and talked till the early hours of the next day, at the end of which Zia got up and said to him that he had to go to his day time job, with a “freshest smile”.

Layla slowly approached the microphone and Bruno asked her to read the elegy she has written for her dad. Some whispering voices turned into audible discussions as some of the interpreters were finding it hard to translate the poem into English.

After Layla’s poem Bruno took the microphone again and invited any one who knew Zia and wanted to share a memory with the rest of us to come forward. Dorothy was the first one who stood up and walked to the front. She spoke German with a Yorkshire accent and I moved to the nearest translator. She said many kind things about Zia, how warm and cultured he was. Dorothy and Zia knew each other for the past five years, meeting irregularly in the day times when the pub was quiet and their conversation uninterruptedly traveled to interesting territories. There was something she admired in him the most she emphasized, and that was the way she felt in his presence, “loved and accepted” she said.

When Dorothy sat down silence dominated and I became nervous. I got up and walked to the front. Bruno gave me a faint smile. So many episodes involving me and Zia went through my mind. I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to say. Memories scrolled before my eyes. My gaze fell on Dietrich who sat in the front row staring at me. Did she really know everything about him, or knew him more than anyone else? Can these snippets of memories reveal more about Zia than her twenty two years of marriage to him? Who was the real Zia? My eyes then fell on Christine who must have come in unnoticed. She was sitting with her brother in the upper right hand corner, both staring at me. I remembered the afternoon she came to the pub, after her tennis. We talked about a lot of things except each other.

‘With Zia I was myself, comfortable with who I was.’ Picking up the thread from Dorothy’s. I don’t know how he did it whether he had a magic formula or not. He wasn’t the happiest of all men, but whenever he was with me he made me feel as if in him I had a good, reliable friend. What I liked about him most was that he never gave me any advice about what I should do in life, yet he assisted me whenever I got stuck. He showed much affection toward me. He was kind to whomever he drank with and I was lucky enough to be one of them. And despite our age difference, which is or was rather 35 years or more I felt we were great friends. And if I knew he was going to die so suddenly I would have told him how I valued my friendship with him, despite the fact that there was very little that I had to give him in return for his kindness toward me...’

I sat down feeling a bit critical of my little speech. Using the word “despite” twice. For saying, that he wasn ’t happy in front of Layla. Claiming his friendship where in fact, at times, I had been critical of his insouciant conduct.

* * *

Later in the evening, when my thoughts were as scattered as the day I packed my few personal belongings and left the embassy, I knocked on Rose’s door with a bunch of flowers in my hand. She opened the door and let me in.

‘Are they for me?’ she asked.
‘Of course, who else?’
‘How did you know where I lived?’
‘I remember Hans once told me that you lived in the same block of flats. So I scoured around until I saw your name on the door.’
‘Why didn’t you ask me at the funeral?’
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I returned. Then I thought what if you disappeared to Italy again and I didn’t see you.’

She thanked me for the flowers and put them in the vase and placed it in middle of the table in the living room.

‘They are beautiful.’ she tells me.
‘I think everything went well today, don’t you?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, very well. Bruno was great!’
‘He’s a fabulous M.C. I think it’s all in his Italian accent that’s so warm and welcoming, putting people at ease.’ I tell her .
‘I was so worried, thinking we won’t be able to get enough people and the big hall will look empty.’ Rose said.
‘I think Dietrich was right, Zia didn’t have that many friends.’ I told her.
‘Yes, because he didn’t want any.’ Rose told me, always supportive of Zia. ‘He talked and drank with whomever he pleased. He was a gregarious man. Everybody was his friend. People liked him.’
‘I know what you’re saying but don’t you think he needed a few close friend?’ I asked her hoping she would agree with me.
‘I’m sure he had some close friends once he lived in Berlin. But I think he didn’t feel the need to have bosom friends. He was so friendly and sociable. Don’t you think he was your friend? Isn’t this what you said at the funeral that in him you had a reliable friend? That he helped people as much as he could.’

‘I meant what I said about him. But I also believe that a close friend is someone you share your intimate thoughts with. Someone you look at as your equal. Zia never shared anything about his personal life with me. Did he ever tell you how he felt about life, himself or any deep issue in life?’ Thinking this time I’ve cornered her well.

‘He didn’t need to. I’m sure he’d bashed his head with those questions before. Zia was very much a thinking man. With Zia what you saw was what you got. That’s what I liked about him. When he was sad, he looked sad. When he was happy, he laughed and joked. He didn’t hide his feelings.’

There were as many different pictures of Zia as there were embassies in Bad Godesberg. Perhaps Zia himself had a different picture of himself. I had to drop my postmortem examination of his character and hold on to what I thought was him, before his memory faded with time.

As she stood by the kitchen making the drinks I got up and kissed her on the back of her neck. She stood still. I kissed her more. She dropped her hands to her sides. Her neck felt supple and the fuzzy hair in her nape was silky and warm. For a moment she appeared responsive as if she had been waiting for that moment for me to embrace her.

‘Don’t, please don’t Fred.’ She tells me.
‘What’s wrong?’
‘I love somebody.’ She tells me like a confession.

I stopped kissing her and pulled back.

‘Can I ask you who he is?’ Curious to know who the mysterious man was.
‘He doesn’t live here. I mean he doesn’t live in Germany.’
‘He lives in Italy?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, how did you know?’
‘I thought perhaps your trips to Italy had something to do with it. Is this long distance love working out all right?’
‘It’s not going to continue for much longer. Tony’s divorce proceedings will be over soon and we’re going to live together in Rome, where he’ll work for the Italian airline.’ She tells me.
‘I’m happy for you. You’re a beautiful woman and deserve a good man in your life.’
‘Thank you.’ She says.
‘Tell me are you attracted to me as I’m to you?’ I asked her.

She pauses.

‘Yes I’m attracted to you. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep with you. We can be friends. I like you. I’ve always been attracted to people who looked different to German men. That’s why I fell in love with Tony.’

After more drinks and more talks I leave her, already thinking about my last unannounced visit for the night.

* * *

‘Can I stay with you tonight?’ I asked Christine, just as she opened the door.
‘How can I say no when you’re giving me so many reasons.’
‘How many reasons do you want?’
‘Tell me in the morning. I was just about to go to bed. It’s late and it’s been a tiring day for everybody.’
‘I agree, let’s get some asleep and we talk in the morning.’
‘You can share my bed,’ she tells me, ‘you don’t have to sleep on the couch. It’s big enough for both of us. Do you remember?’
‘Can I move in with you?’ I asked her so unexpectedly that even myself became alarmed by it.

Her gaze on me becomes so intense that she looks like a different person.

‘Why Fred?’
‘Because it’s good for my German.’ I laugh. ‘I like you. I want to know if we could live together.’ Hoping she’d believe me.
‘What if we couldn’t?’
‘Then I move out.’ My voice sounding more like a promise than a possibility.
‘I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. Our relationship is following a funny pattern. We met just over two weeks ago. We spent one night together. Since then we spoke to each other twice, only briefly…’
I interrupted her.
‘I think suddenly living together fits in perfectly with this unorthodox pattern. Don’ t you?’
‘Let me think about it.’ She tells me.

I put my head on her smooth, naked body, and wrap my arms around her torso. I wanted to ask her whether she’d slept with any body in the course of this last fifteen days. But then again I wanted a fresh start with her, leaving the past behind. Except aloofness not much had happened between us.

The same pleasant, jasmine aroma rises from her body as I clung to her like an altar, praying that all my chaotic longings may fall into some kind of order. But Dietrich’s tired face flashed before my eyes. In those melancholy eyes were so many stories and memories that floated timelessly. She sat quietly and stared at those of us who wanted to paint a rosy picture of Zia. She looked at us like foreigners from a far away lands telling her about the man she once knew and loved.

I sank my head deeper into Christine’s warm flesh.

Fred Vahid