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Refugee

Carlos' last wish
For Majid

By Farid Parsa
September 29, 2003
The Iranian
 
When Saman brought Carlos into our room, he weighted only about 45 kilos, living in the lavatory.

After Saman was gone Carlos became my responsibility. It was like a legacy that was passed on from one refugee to another. I got to look after Carlos longer than Saman at the end. Never, however, did I do a good a job as him. He had a special way of minding him, almost with reverence, as a loyal friend would give to a dethroned or a fallen king.

We both used a fusion of verbal and non-verbal communication with him that halted at a certain point; never far enough, mostly inadequate and frustrating. Carlos did not follow a conventional grammar. He sometime used four different languages in one short paragraph -- each sentence touching on various obscure topics within the same paragraph. And they all ended with his most used and popular phrase, which was partly in his native Serbian, and partly in English, "Jeben ti sestru big boss". He always said it in his kind, gentle voice that never completely faded despite his deteriorating mental and physical state.

Carlos' eyes had an innocuous stare as if they could be faithful even to total strangers. All his features had a feminine quality to them, fleshy, sensual mouth, short, retrousse nose, thin and unobtrusive eyebrows. And when he was shaven, two dimples formed on his cheeks as he smiled.

Carlos was suffering.

It was four in the morning. Carlos wasn't in his bed. He usually went to bed late where his mutter slowly changed into a coo, then nothing. He slept in one hour or half-an-hour episodes. I knew he'd be in the lavatory, standing by the dripping tabs talking to himself, drawing on the walls with his nails, keys or tiny pencils. I brought him in, and later tried to spoon-feed him. He aversely took a few spoons, mixing his relentless mutterings with every morsel.

Saman was ever so patient with him. He fed him, washed him, clothed him and periodically shaved him. At times he'd sit next to him and tried his best to talk to him. He'd repeat the words loudly and clearly, like a teacher teaching new words to his pupil. He'd stay with him sometimes for hours, without getting a sensible word out of him.

Finally, we reported him to the office. Carlos was rapidly going downhill. We thought we had to do something. He'd to be saved from himself. After all we'd done our best and made no progress. We wanted to see him cured, redeemed somehow from his madness, that were eating away at his soul; like a sort of disease. We thought there must be some sort of a treatment or a drug that would set him free, even if it was for a brief period. A respite, perhaps, was all he needed to be able to gather his strength and pull himself out of his predicament. But we're wrong. Very wrong. A child's fantasy more like it.

Neither of us knew what Carlos was like when he came to the camp. He was one of the first refugees here some five years ago. As far as the camp's oral history went, he was a quiet person and didn't bother any one. He kept to himself and hardly left the campsite. He was an electrical engineer by trade who had left Yugoslavia, God knows on what political grounds. Only a handful of people had spoken to him; to them he sounded like everyone else, normal, sensible, someone with an unique past.

We had imagined how he would sound like if he had kept his sanity. Out of his personal effects, we gathered whatever gave us a clue to Carlos' "real' personality. We wanted to find a voice for him, a voice that expressed itself in a language we understood. There weren't that many pieces to this puzzle.

"Carlos tell us about your background; what made you come to Germany?" Saman asks.

"Yugoslavia is under communist government. I was an activist against communism," I answer.

"Were you ever married?'

"No, but I had a partner," I answer.

We had discovered the only photo Carlos had. It was of a woman walking on a country road covered with snow. She had a smile on her face with her raised arms in mid-air, as if catching the snowflakes as they fell on her. She looked beautiful, and lively. We assumed she was Carlos' girlfriend.

"Where's she now?"

"She's back in Yugoslavia." I answer.

"Is she waiting for you to return?"

"Oh, yes. She's waiting for me. I've told her that one day we're going to be married."

"Do you think the German government will grant you refugee status?" Saman asks.
"I hope so."

"Why do you like spaceships so much?" Saman unexpectedly questions me.

Before answering I look at Carlos sitting on the couch and muttering to himself. How can I answer that question without sounding mad, I wondered.

"Ever since I was a child I fantasized about the universe out there. I flew a spacecraft to far distance planets. My passion determined what I later studied at university. I became an electrical engineer. I wanted to work for a space development center. I applied to work for NASA, but until I get my visa they won't consider my application, they told me," I answer somewhat satisfactorily.

"Carlos sometimes you talk to yourself. Could you tell me why?" Saman asks.

I laugh at first, looking at Carlos murmuring softly to himself, not knowing we're searching for a voice, not for him, but for our own sake.

"I got too much on my mind. Sometimes my thoughts become muddled, so I can't seem to discern between them anymore. So what's the point of confusing people? What's the use, could you tell me?" I ask Saman.

"Yes you're right Carlos. But what are these confusing thoughts?" He asks.

I look at Carlos. He reveals nothing to me, except the undertones of his tangled worlds.

"They're better left whispered rather than pronounced loudly," I mutter to Saman.

Saman said, once in Tehran, where he was from, a mad man lived in his area. However, Saman thought he wasn't mad at all. Because he sounded intelligent whenever he spoke to him. It was his erratic behavior that people didn't like. Saman said once the man screamed his head off which confirmed to people that he was truly mad. As he was crossing a busy street, a young man stopped him and asked for a light. He stood in the middle of the street and shouted at the guy, abusing him.

"Why don't you buy a fucking light," he said to the young man. "You can afford the cigarette so get the damn light as well. Can't you see this is a busy road we're on, idiot?"

And apparently he went on and on and held up traffic for a long time. But Majd said he had a point. It's just the way he went about it was wrong. Saman believed a mad man with a voice, had a better chance of standing up for his rights than a sane man without it. Saman undoubtedly was on the side of mad people. And he did whatever he could to restore Carlos' voice.

* * *

The room without Carlos was quiet. We had no idea what he was going through at the hospital. During our first visit, we're told he was under examination and that we couldn't see him on that day. We couldn't imagine what kind of examination they meant. Another day he was fast sleep when we arrived. We didn't wake him up.

On his return after three weeks, Carlos was as subdued as a monk who had taken a vow not to show any emotion. He could hardly say a word, let alone dispense some of his favorite phrases that made us laugh. Carlos was drugged out. The drugs had taken away many things from him but hadn't restored his sanity.

We longed to see the old Carlos. The new Carlos was someone who was just breathing. And all traces of character was wiped out from him. They had dumped him at the camp like a piece of recycled flesh. He had become yet another person. He even looked different. His beard had grown massively. His hair was puffing out sideways, accentuating the baldness in the middle of his head. And his face, expressionless, blank, without any link to its sane or insane past.

It was only after the effects of the drugs had worn off that he began to surface again. He started his soliloquy and his usual contemplative stride, up and down the corridor. He began hanging around his favorite spot -- the lavatory -- again, like a pilgrim succoring from a holy place. We're glad, almost relieved to see the Carlos we knew was making a come back. We promised each other not to let him ever go back to the hospital again.

The day Saman left for Canada, Carlos and I followed him to the train station. Carlos knew Saman was leaving although he didn't say the word goodbye. He kept on repeating the phrase "Jeben ti sestru big boss" with his head uncustomary cast down, and an unusual smile that had a tinge of melancholy hidden at its core. That day he looked clean and shaven. Saman had given him the last wash-up. When the train left the platform, he ran after the train. It was the first time I saw him run. He fell but got up and ran again, and stopped out of exhaustion. Like me, he knew that his minder wasn't going to return.

As we're walking back on that cold autumn night, I detoured around town, and Carlos followed me from behind. Carlos never walked beside me but always sauntered from behind. He never asked where I was going, but always trusted and followed, as if my destination was also his. It was the first time I was walking with him without Saman being around.

Although it was hardly an hour since he'd gone but I missed Saman already. Saman had promised to organize my visa to Canada. The key to freedom was to marry someone, he used to say. And he was going to find me a bride. We never discussed Carlos, however. What was going to happen to him after I was gone? I had to find another refugee to pass him on to, I guess? Or perhaps he would get better, and eventually manage to stand on his own feet? That's what I would liked to believe in. But nothing was clear or certain with Carlos, he would become as unpredictable as the destiny of most refugees in the camp, who waited year after year without any new chapter opening to their lives.

I turned around and told Carlos that I was going to make a phone call. You could never tell if he understood you or not. Carlos never made direct eye contact. Even on those rare occasions when he looked you straight in the eye, his mind was somewhere else, somewhere buried beneath his soliloquy, the meaning of which only he alone understood. He always paid attention to some abstract idea somewhere else. Saman and I, however, instinctively knew that Carlos was aware of what's going on around him, at least with the propinquity of our triangle. Beyond his ambiguous responses, we thought, lied an acute awareness.

I wanted to call mum that night. Tell her I was all right. That I had a plan to follow Saman to Canada. She knew of Carlos. And of Saman. She always came with a religious solution for Carlos. Pray for him, she'd tell me. She said she'd made a promise to God to kill a lamb annually for the rest of her living years and give the meat to the poor if Carlos was cured from his madness. She said her religious bargaining with God usually worked.

As far as I could remember, there were always sacrificial lambs for every obstacle, unfulfilled desire, or ambition: A lamb for dad's safe return from his journey. A lamb for my sister's first job after her graduation. A lamb for me to escape safely. A lamb for me to get residency. A lamb for Saman to migrate to the U.S, or Canada. A lamb now for Carlos. She even mailed a silver charm to me which he said we should pin to his shirt to keep evil spirits away. Many strange letters and symbols were carefully hacked on hundreds of equal squares. Alas, it didn't work. And one day it just disappeared from his clothing.

Before crossing the street I turned around to see where Carlos was. Carlos was way back, standing inside a telephone booth that I must have passed unnoticed. We're almost out of town, with the wide pavement narrowing along the road. I walked back and opened the door and realized it was an old rotary dial phone, giving only interstate connections but not international.

"I can't use this phone, Carlos. It's only for inside Germany." Carlos kept pointing to the phone and muttering his mumbo jumbo words.

"Carlos I can't use this phone."

Carlos wasn't budging and I was losing my patience. I tried to tell him in German, just in case he didn't understand me, but he still stood there and pointed to the phone as if he knew something about that phone that I didn't.

"Yes I know it's a phone Carlos, I'm not dumb, but I can't use it," I told him for the last time.

I was going to leave him there, hopping he would give up and follow me back to the camp. But he picked up the receiver and handed it to me. I thought I'd show him what I meant. I had tried these old black phones before. After dialing the international numbers the phone automatically cuts off and returns the change. I dropped a few coins in and began dialing. The phone cut off and the coins dropped in the change box.

"You see what I mean, I can't use this phone, it's kaput," I told him with a raised voice.

Carlos held my hand, grabbed my index finger and put it over the ring of the dial and pressed the tip of my finger against it. I wasn't sure what he was trying to do. My finger started hurting. It was the first time that I'd become irritated with him. With my other free arm I grabbed his hand and told him that he should try it himself and pressed the handset against his ear. I put a few coins back in the phone and called out the numbers one by one. Carlos dialed by applying pressure on each individual number rather than simply placing his finger in the holes and turning the plate. Was this one of Carlo's eccentric behavior or was he genuinely trying to show me something? The first thing I noticed was that the coins didn't drop back. Was he dialing at all, with this unorthodox method, I wondered.

After he finished dialing, he gave me back the handset.

I heard the phone ringing on the other side. It was Kabul's familiar long rings with lengthy silences in between. Mom picked up the phone.

I talked to her close to an hour and when I put the handset on its base the few coins that I put in dropped back again. I said to Carlos, that he was a genius. Carlos answered back, "Jeben ti sestru big boss."

I wondered if there were other things he had tried to tell me which I was incapable of understanding?

The next day I walked back and figured out where the phone booth exactly was. It was a sequestered booth as you left the town eastward, on the main road. With only 34 marks monthly pocket money, the phone became a beckon of hope that left its door open for me 24 hours a day.

* * *

Carlos never ceased to shock me with his offbeat behavior. He was now wearing a pair of plastic gloves. He had written on the walls a new sentence in German, "Tragen Handschuehe". He kept telling me and everyone he saw that I should wear a pair too. He said germs enter our skins through our hands and pollute our bodies. And we must wear gloves to protect ourselves from their devastating effects.

His self-mutterings had accelerated. He spent most the time outside the room, in the lavatory. He was losing weight rapidly. He refused any food. And the very little food I managed to force down his throat he threw it back up. Other refugees complained about him. His walking in the corridor until late kept some refugees awake at night. They also didn't like to see him in the lavatory all the time, it made the small kids and the women feel uncomfortable.

I told mom about it and she wanted me to get him sent to the hospital. I kept describing the way he came back from his first visit. But it was impossible to make her picture it. Mom had never seen Carlos. How could I describe him over the phone. I had promised Saman to look after him and never send him back to that dammed hospital.

The summer of 1981 had turned out to be a hot one. I could see the difference in Carlos' behavior after taking him on long walks in the woods. He rested longer at night, therefore muttered less. Sleep, I thought, was the best medicine to rest his tumultuous mind. Carlos loved the walk by the lake, where he swam with all his clothes on and made all the sunbathers raise their eyebrows at us. I sometime joined him. Onetime, I friskily pushed his head under water and saw his muttering still continued.

Carlos, perhaps, was more present in his drawings on the walls of Block D, upstairs, than anywhere else. They expressed his deepest longing to his ultimate freedom. The picture of a spaceship leaving earth appeared on every wall. Whether hacked with his nails or drawn with a marker, it looked comprehensive. It was a spaceship that one would see in science fiction movies. It had a big crescent front window with pilot and copilot seating. The spaceship itself had a pentagonal shape with every angle carefully measured and drawn. It looked as if it could carry no more than two people. Carlos did try to describe it to us. He said he wanted to leave planet earth. He had no hope or faith in it any more. When Saman asked who was his female copilot in every drawing, he said she was his mother. We asked where he was wishing to go. He called his imagery planet Lolo 46. I don't know how he came up with that name or if it signified anything. Lolo 46. A funny name I thought. Lolo 46 alsohad its own galaxy drawn on the walls; a star, like our own solar system with other planets rotating around it.

It was on his birthday that Saman bought him a poster of a real space shuttle, the Apollo 1. It was a 2-meter-long, colored photograph, graphically produced. Carlos was ecstatic when he saw it. He knelt beside it, infatuated, like one next to a lover or an idol. He then began describing its various components in a muddled language. Out of excitement he was frothing in the mouth as he uttered the technical names. Every second sentence was "Jeben ti sestru big boss," which he passionately addressed us with.

There was something authentic about Carlos, and that was his passion. Even in the heat of madness his passion couldn't be relinquished. It was his passion that made his mutterings sound like some ambiguous oracle that perhaps only the gods understood. He reminded us of Sufis who masqueraded as village idiots in order to be left alone to serve their God. It was a holy way of looking at him and it did help us to relate to him more humanely. It was only after his return from the hospital that for the first time; he looked passionless.

One evening when I came back from shopping, I couldn't find Carlos anywhere. I asked around and a group of refugees told me a medical team had taken him away by force. Carlos was horrified. As soon as he set eyes on them he ran and climbed up a tree. Police was called in and eventually they brought him down and took him away. I looked around my room. I spotted a pair of gloves resting on the edge of the dinning table. I put it on. It was his last wish for us and humanity that we all wear gloves. No number of sacrificial lambs were not going to obliterate my sadness. I had a premonition that Carlos wasn't going to come back.

I walked toward the outskirts of town, like a dejected pariah. My boiling anger and frustration warded off the cold wind of early autumn. There was very little traffic on the streets. I wanted to walk endlessly. I wanted to declare war with the world around me. There must have been a war going on! Otherwise why was I walking on that cold night, as a foreigner in an alien country? What forces had driven me to be out there? They were the same evil powers that had trapped and destroyed Carlos, I thought. Surely there was a connection between all this. I realized how much I hated Germany.

I was in the middle of a war. I was only too stupid to realize it. It was all part of the same string of battles. They were out there to get me. There were no marked frontiers in this new kind of war; everywhere was the enemy territory. I had to fight them whenever I could. And how stupid I was not to come to see the reality of all this sooner. Mom was mistaken when she told me I should take refuge from the Russians. How naive she was to think that they were on our side. No one was on our side.

I found myself near the phone booth. Without thinking I entered it and began to dial Saman's number in Canada. Saman picked up the phone. I told him about Carlos. He lost his temper and swore and cursed everyone. I asked him if he knew about this free phone. He said no. My suspicion was gone. I felt ashamed even asking him that question. Saman was never a sort of guy to hide things from me.

I said I didn't want to stay in Germany any longer. I would either return to Afghanistan or go somewhere else. He said he was still searching for a suitable girl for me.

I called mom next. I told her about Carlos. Mom thought it was a good thing for him to be at the hospital. She would never understood what a mental hospital could do to people like Carlos. She had never seen anyone like Carlos in her entire life. She'd no idea what Carlos was going through and how much more pain was going to be inflicted on him. It was useless to try to describe to her what it all meant for Carlos. She could never understand it. He's going to become numb again, suspended more vulnerably in the universe.

Strong shafts of light all of a sudden beamed up the phone booth, as if an angel witnessing all this had appeared to comfort me and assure me that everything was going to be all right for Carlos. I turned around and noticed two German police cars parked right outside, with their headlights aiming at me. I got nervous. I hung up the phone, cutting mom short. I stood there, not sure what to do next. The door opened. Two policemen stood side by side right outside the door. I knew I couldn't get away.

"Are you Omid Bakhtari?' one of them asked.

"Yes," I answered.

"Show us your ID?" one of the demanded.

I took out my ID and handed it to him. I was under arrest, they told me.

"I haven't done anything wrong," I told them.

One of them said they had my taped conversations with people overseas, as if I was a KGB agent caught picking up my latest assignment from Moscow.

I was18-years-old but like an old man I felt frail and week. Everything seemed to be against me on that strange night. And the only three people I loved and gave me strength were somewhere else. I turned my head up toward the somber sky and cried out, "Jeben ti sestru big boss". My voice was abrasive, resentful and carried no traces of Carlos' passion and kindness.

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