Content warning: this article includes reference to violence, illness and grief.
Grown-ups often say to children “you look just like…” as if they’ve forgotten how lineage works. As if they’re discovering that we carry pieces of them in the lines of our faces as they look at us. I say ‘grown-ups’ as if I were not already one.
I meet the man at the corner of Angel Station, he says hi, and immediately after, like he can’t help himself, “you look just like your uncle”. And this time, I treasure this discovery because he hasn’t seen the face of my uncle in 40 years, and I have never met him myself. Yet at that instant, he is suspended between us; as if Djalil were really there.
Exile modifies the matrix of all social things. To the untrained eye, exile is a distance. In effect, it is a disruption of space and time. Things which ought to be far away are suddenly very close. And the things I cannot live without are far out of reach.
I find in this man, whom I met at the corner of Angel station, some solace. I watch the way he moves, and the way he switches places with me on the sidewalk when people nearby are smoking, and I think he is of my people. I mean very instinctually, in a sense he is kin. A month ago my father told me he found an old friend of my uncle’s. He said “would you like to meet him?” and maybe it was a plea more than a request. This is how we mourn. There is no grave, just conversations with not-so-strange strangers in coffee shops in London.
He tells me about my uncle; about how his back always ached, and how demanding and kind he was. He talks about his own time in prison as well, at some point we both cry. Me, when he tells me how they covered his mouth with a wet cloth, so the children at the school nearby the prison wouldn’t hear him scream as his feet were lashed. Him, when he recalls the memory of my uncle’s last day before he was executed.
Last week I met an old friend of my own; she looked odd, like she was standing slanted on something, feet on uneven ground. “I lost my father three months ago”, and I saw in her eyes, three months could have been three hours. There is nowhere for her to mourn. No piece of land for her to kneel on, no headstone to brush her fingers over. “We have a grave,” I tell her.
When my father and his friends came to France 35 years ago, one of their friends, Farhad, bore the brunt of exile very badly. They say in a sense he embraced the idea of leaving; he knowingly caught AIDS from a lover. Farhad’s was the first grave that they had. We go there once a year. My uncle Khosrow always pours a shot of vodka for him and places it on the headstone. Last time we went, my auntie, Fati, said, “You have to take care of him when we’re gone”. Farhad is the only one they got to mourn properly; his is the only grave they have. When they visit him I can’t help but feel they mourn all the absent ones as well.
I look at my friend’s face, tense and so very sad and I say, “We have a grave I can take you to”. She smiles, brisk and bright, like she understands exactly what I’m offering,
“I would like that”.
Featured Image: SOHRAB SEPEHRI (IRAN, 1928-1980) Untitled, oil on linen. WikiCommons.