January 21, 2002
“Salute to Life, I Lost my Youth.”
(Graffiti on a lonely rock in the mountains surrounding Tehran)
It was September 9, 1998, Iran Air flight 747 to Larnaca, Cyprus-a Mecca for the Iranian Middle Class, a place of temporary respite from a deadly existence riddled with constant pains of inflation, economic insecurity, and cultural boredom. This was a journey to the Mediterranean Sea, a place for co-ed bathing and swimming, women free of the suffocating head-to-toe Islamic outfit, food, wine, music, and all that is worthy of human desire. The Mediterranean Sea: only a few hours away from the chance to stroll on the beach without the watchful eyes of the security force and the Islamic Volunteer Corp, hold hands and watch the beautiful sunset, smile and love without fear. The passengers waited anxiously for flight 747 to Larnaca: a chance to be human once again, live and love like humans, breathe the fresh air like the humans do.
Smiles on their faces, men and women dreamed of good times ahead and a temporary freedom from the pains of everyday life. Still covered in the Islamic garb, women dreamed of the moment they would take off their long robes and allow their skin to be touched by the heavenly sensation of the Mediterranean sun and the fresh air dancing on their deprived skin. This was the kiss of life.
Filling out customs forms, I was approached by a nervous-looking young man. Pale and worried, he did not know his way around. First time leaving home, riddled by fear and worry, he asked me to help him fill out the forms. Following me around, he requested to stand by me while waiting for the boarding time. Suspicious of the young man, I found an excuse and left the lobby to say farewell to Maryam. We hugged under the suspicious eyes of passersby, stared at each other’s eyes, and departed in silence.
Half an hour gone, aboard the Iran Air Flight to Larnaca, thinking of Maryam, I heard the young man’s voice. “I am glad to find you again. 24C! Yes, my seat is next to yours. I am so happy to be with a friend.” The young man sat next to me in row 24, smiled, placed his handbag under the seat, and thanked God for being seated next to “friend.”
He spoke after minutes of uneasy silence. “Have you been to Cyprus before?” asked the young man. He was once again anxious and fearful, his body destabilized by a fear deadlier than death. I responded affirmatively to his question.
“How much dollars do you take with you?” I did not wish to answer this question. My suspicion of the young man in 24C was intensified.
“Is three hundred dollars enough?” he asked, hoping for my affirmation. Three hundred dollars! This was the amount I heard over and over from other anxious and fearful young men on that short flight to Larnaca. “Is it enough?” I smiled and avoided the question.
“Will you stay in Larnaca?”
“No,” I responded without hesitation. I told 24C of my plan to visit a friend in Paphos, a well-respected Cypriot, an educator, and a man of wisdom. I was to visit Andreas Georgiades and his loving wife, Stella, in Paphos.
“Are you staying in Larnaca?” I asked 24C. He hoped to leave Larnaca. Limasoul was where 24C had planned to go. 24C told me of an Iranian man who would give him work as a construction laborer in Limasoul. He told me of the money he would save and his future plans in Iran. I was not sure that 24C himself believed his dreams.
“Have you spoken to the man?”
He had not. The young man only had a phone number. He was on a journey away from home with three hundred dollars, a small handbag, a phone number, a dream, and a face that betrayed the inner secrets he wished to hide. I remembered Sohrab Sepehri’s poem.
I must leave tonight.
Pack a suitcase the size of my loneliness.
I must leave tonight.
I had lost my suspicions of 24C by now. His journey was not for the Mediterranean sun, the fresh air, and as he told me, “not for women.” He closed his eyes for a few short minutes waiting for the takeoff. I thought about his tale, turned to my left and for the first time noticed the man in 24A. He was young, in his early twenties. I smiled. He said hello. We greeted one another with respect.
The plane took off. I read my newspaper. 24A smiled again. 24C broke the silence. “Will you stay with me when we get to the airport in Larnaca? Can you help me not get deported?” Suddenly hijacked from my own reality and taken to the world of fear and anxiety of deportation, I nodded and look for ways to hide my uneasiness and feeling of awe after this abrupt encounter.
Deportation was to become the common theme of my conversations with 23A, 23B, 17D, 25G, 19D, and many other young Iranian males on the plane-young men in search of the scarce opportunity to toil, and a chance to live. Deportation was the common fear of the young men on the flight to Cyprus-a heaven not too far away, a garden of hope protected by tall walls and immigration officials who could spot foreign men in search of toil. This was Iran Air flight 747 to Larnaca, Cyprus-an uneasy collage of happy travelers in search of joy and those nervously awaiting their first encounter with the guardians of the heaven-the deadly collage of comfort and despair.
The frightened man in 24C told stories of young men, young like him, men in search of toil, men deported and returned to Iran from the airport, never reaching their dreamland, never toiling under the blue sky of the Mediterranean Sea.
“Can you help me not get deported?” 24A listened in silence. He too looked frightened now. “Do you think they would deport me?”
I asked 24C to be calm. How can I promise to save him from deportation?
The plane took off. I turned to 24C. His eyes closed, his face revealed an intense sense of fear. “Be calm,” I told 24C holding his hand. A few minutes of silence, a flight attendant covered head to toe in dark blue appeared with a tamed smile and a basket of domestic candies, plates of snack, bread, packaged sandwiches, and fruits-last wishes of men awaiting their execution. I did not eat my bread. His eyes on my plate, 24A smiled. “Can I have your bread?” he asked. I offered him my plate. He calmly put the bread in his shirt pocket. “I could use it later,” said 24A with a strange smile. I offered 24A my fruits. He accepted.
My journeying neighbors had never flown before. Amazed at the wrapped packages of food, they asked me to explain every piece. Small packs of salt and pepper: these were creations beyond the imagination of 24C, symbols of the world of the “others”, others so near but so far, clustered with them on flight 747 to Larnaca, Cyprus.
“I hope they do not deport me. That would be the end of me,” said 24C after the short minutes of peace of mind created by the amazing packages of food. The man in 24A put two packs of fruit in his handbag, and a coffee cup too.
Half an hour before landing, surrounded by men of despair, I too felt the suffocating sensation of fear and anxiety. “Can you stay with me on the line?” pleaded 24C. And once again, I told him to control his fear. “Self-control is your only chance.” 24C put his head down, covering his anxious face in his hands that betrayed years of toil, and nothing but toil.
The flight attendant in dark blue handed out arrival passes written in English. Nervous whispers erupted in rows around me. Men moved from one row to another, searching for help to fill out the forms, asking for possible ways to hide their plans for their odyssey. I was approached by frightened young men, looking for a way to disguise the real reason for their journey. No knowledge of English, no money, no hotel reservation, no real occupation at home. Private business was what everyone asked me to write on the arrival forms.
One thirty in the afternoon, landing in Larnaca Airport, I was followed by 24C, 24A, 17 B, and other frightened men on their desperate voyage in hope of a better tomorrow. I consoled 17A. “Will you speak to the officer for us?”
Line 1. The buzzer sounded. A door opened. 17A approached the booth. An unfriendly officer asked questions. 17A stood before him in fear. The officer picked up the phone. I looked at 17A. A plain-clothed security man arrived. Young, no smile, he escorted 17A to a room. A locked room behind the passport booths. He unlocked the door. 17A entered. He locked the door.
The realization of what was feared, 24C turned to me with a deadly fear on his face.
Line 2. The buzzer sounded. The door opened. 24C approached the booth. An unfriendly officer asked questions. 24C stood before him in fear. The officer picked up the phone. I looked at 24C. The plain-clothed security arrived. Escorting 24C to locked room behind the passport booths, he unlocked the door. 24C entered. He locked the door.
Line 5. The buzzer sounded. The door opened and 22A approached the booth. We looked at each other, saying our last farewell with our eyes.
The buzzer sounded again. I said farewell to 18A.
An hour and a half passed. All frightened young men were behind the locked door. This was the end of their dreams.
The buzzer sounded. The door opened. I approached the booth with my American passport. The unfriendly officer smiled. We shook hands. I was on my way to Paphos.
September 10, 1998, Paphos – I was in the small garden of the Marilena’s Apartments, enjoying the fresh breeze from the Mediterranean Sea, heavenly grapes, sweat figs, the forbidden red wine, feta cheese, and olives. Drowned in Joy of life, I closed my eyes and remembered the haunting image of 17A entering the locked room. I opened my eyes, looked at the kind face of Andreas Georgiades, and took a sip of Othello, vintage 1983.