With Hafiz in Alaska / Short story by Zohreh Hatami (Iran)

Zohreh Hatami (Iran)

Zohreh Hatami was born in Tehran, Iran in 1955. She earned a Master’s degree in Human geography from Tehran University. Zohreh has written several short stories published in Iranian literary magazines and some of her screenplays are filmed in Iran. Zohreh Hatami moved to the United States in 2000 and taught Farsi to American and Iranian students and traveled from west to east of the US in a truck – another travel/story.  Hatami went back to Iran in 2017 and published her anthology by Morvarid Press in 2018.

With Hafiz in Alaska

A group of seven- eight of us are returning from our adventurous tour of the glaciers around Skagway. The glaciers who would sacrifice a part of their iced body to the ocean under their feet right when our cameras were off.  Every falling in is a conformance symphony of the glacier’s astonishing hums and the sigh of our astonishment.

Kris, our tour leader, stops the shuttle by the side of the road so we can take a picture of the historic Skagway train passing through the forested mountains.  The train slithers along the waist of a green wall of trees and hides in the heart of the lush trees before we can hunt a shot. “It’ll surface again.  Just there,”

We search for the nowhere Kris is pointing to.

The profusion of tall pines and cypresses colors the horizon in a spectrum of green.  Kris continues, “One hundred years ago, this train transported thousands of gold-seekers to the northwest of the mountains in Yukon in the Canadian territory every day, and now it carries thousands of tourists along the same path.” The train emerges again.  I let it pass by.  I don’t feel the need to cease its floating movement on a strip of film.  A cool breeze blows and rain begins.

We cheerfully go back to the shuttle with our wet smiles. Our commotion clouds the windows.  I wipe off a cloud with my palm and look out through the window. During the three days since I’ve started my trip, I am all eyes and breathes. There is a blue serenity in the air that impacts me.  It feels like I am at peace with the world. The earth and the sky seem united and I am united with them.   I feel a strong craving for Hafiz’s poems. I reach into my backpack to find the small book of his poetry I have always with me, in vain.  All I can find is my notebook, which is actually nothing more than blank sheets of paper.  There is no need to write.

I hear Kris saying that we are heading into Canadian territory now.  I am the only non-American on the tour.  He looks at me in the rearview mirror and asks me if I have the required documents for re-entering the United States.

“If a driver’s license is not enough, I don’t mind being left behind on the other side of the border,” I answer.

A lady from Seattle, who is traveling with her family, leans toward me.

“So, we have a defector in our group?” she teases me.

“An Iranian who wants to flee from America could be the theme of a very hot comedy movie!” I smile.

“Oh. So, you came all the way from Iran to visit Alaska.” Kris says.

I smile, thinking there is a strand of truth in his assumption.

“No. I live in California,” I answer.

Didn’t I travel all the way from the icy chapter of poles in my very first geography book.  From my childhood imagination; a magic moment when a long six-month darkness, abruptly surrenders to the light?  The desire to be present at that fascinating instant haunted my entire life. Yes. The ticket for this trip was booked in those days.

“I was going to go to the North Pole, but I settled on Anchorage and the

Inside Passage,” I say.

“C’est la vie,” he nods.

Kris, who is in his mid-twenties, introduced himself at the beginning of our tour as a poet who had moved from New York the year before. Joking I say, “And you?  Have you come all this way from New York to write your poems in Alaska?

“Yes, and it’s not only me.  Many young artists have come here.” he answers frankly, “We work to earn money in the summer and paint, write, and compose the rest of the year.”

I imagine the rest of the year, the infinity of the pure pristine, and the startling nights of the Aurora Borealis. The seeds of the idea of renting a room in Alaska for the next year have already planted in my head.

We are now at the American border.  The customs inspector climes up the shuttle.  It’s not raining any more, but the man has a plastic poncho over his uniform. He checks out tour documents, scans the passengers, inattentively, and leaves.  There was not even a need for my driver’s license.

On our way back to town, we visit the Gold Rush cemetery and pose in front of the cemetery’s waterfall for a group picture.  The passer-by who has taken our photo wipes off the camera lens and I can already see a worn pale picture that after years is still wet from the waterfall’s drops.

At the end of our excursion, in front of the travel agency, Kris tells me that there is an open mike at the Red Onion Saloon every Tuesday night.  The poetry reading starts at nine o’clock.  Coincidentally, today is Tuesday.  I tell him that I might stop by.  Everybody says goodbye and exchanges addresses and numbers with a warmth and affection that are unusual for such a short trip.  I stuff the addresses in the pocket of my backpack, knowing that away from this mesmerizing air that has engulfed us inside of this turquoise dome, we all will forget each other.

I go back to the hostel and enter the building through the backyard.   Colorful wind-catchers and long woolen socks hung on the wooden edges of balconies look like sunflowers reaching for the sun, the sun that is playing up in the sky until midnight, but isn’t willing to dry any tourists’ clothes.

At the desk, the receptionist tells me that someone called and left me a message.  I wonder who in the world could possibly know where I am.  I look at the note.  Oh, yes, Susan, the girl I met in Anchorage. Two nights ago, at the Anchorage hostel, I found out that she was also going to the airport early the next morning.  We cut our expenses by sharing a cab to the airport.  We were both heading to Skagway, with the difference being that she was flying directly to the destination and would be there within an hour.  I, however, was getting off the plane in Juneau and drifting a six-hour course to Skagway on a ferry hoping to see the Pacific’s breaching whales.  She was going to her friend’s and I had booked a bed at the only hostel in town.  We had planned to meet each other in Skagway.

When Kris told me about the poetry reading at the Red Onion Saloon, I was not sure if I wanted to let go of the sky and spend my night, confined, under the ceiling of a café. But now Susan’s message takes over my hesitation.  She and her friends will meet at the same place tonight.

The program starts at nine and now it’s only seven.  I go upstairs to my room to take a nap, but I can’t.  On my first night in Alaska I went to bed before the sky turned off its midnight light.  After lots of tossing and turning, I finally fell asleep after hiding under my blanket.  But it had not even been a few hours before I was woken up by the penetrating brightness that was stitching my room to the sky again.  I looked at the clock.  It was half past three in the morning and the sun was already up. I thought, okay, I am not supposed to sleep on this trip!  The very same day I realized that there was no need to write or to sleep, all I needed was to take a deep breath and walk a path where there was neither earth nor sky at the moment when it was neither day nor night.

I get up and go for a walk on the backstreets of the hostel.  The clouds reflected in the puddles look fluffier than the ones in the sky.

I remember the tableau I saw today in the ocean. I think I might go back home with a blank notebook but I certainly will write about this: It wasn’t even an hour from our departure that a whale surfaced. It was as if her powerful presence was not enough that she started showing off by exhaling and spraying water over his head.  Then, there it was! A rainbow was drawn on top of the spout by the sunshine who was dancing in the ocean. Involuntarily, I looked around to find someone; a human need to share while experiencing the beauty.

Alas, no one was on the deck.

It is a little past nine. I enter the saloon.  The place is long and dim, a blend of bar, café and restaurant.  At the entrance, there is a small intimate stage. A young man is reading a poem.  I stand at the door and scan the cafe to find Susan. I see Kris, in his black-brimmed hat, leaning against the bar.  He waves at me and motions to me to find a place to sit.

I pass through the crowded crumb-covered tables and see Susan and her friends in the faint light of the café.  They scoot over and make room for me in their circle.  Susan introduces her friends, but I can hear almost nothing.

The rear part of the saloon is noisy.  The servers with big trays full of food and drinks moving between the tables seem more like acrobats. There are some cold slices of pizza and empty glasses on our table.

“Is this a bar or the city meeting hall?” I shout.

Susan laughs and says that this place was once a brothel and the upstairs rooms have been kept just as they were one hundred years ago, but now it’s a museum.  Kris introduces the next poet.  In spite of the microphone, the voices hardly reach to the back. But, a chain of words beyond the vocal waves and the ear’s ability rattles over the tables and a river of poems floats upon me.

Now someone else is reciting his short Haiku-like poems.  It seems that only the people who are sitting at the front are listening to the poems. Susan and her friends are laughing.  I don’t know what they are talking about, but their transparent net of laughter rests on my face too.

The poetry part is over and now hip hop performers  have driven some of the audience to their feet.  A young girl is singing and two men are accompanying her with music.  Kris proceeds to our table.  “glad you could make it. How did you like the program?”

“I would like to read a poem.  In Farsi. With no translation.” I am surprised at myself because I hear my words for the first time when it is finished.

Kris, taken aback, looks at me. “Up there?  At the mike?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply.

Kris slowly turns his head toward the stage.

“Well, the mood has changed now.  You can see that…”

“I know.  But if you find a little slot, you can squeeze me in. Can’t you?”

He nods and walks away.  He thinks I probably just said something and will forget it quickly.

Another group performs.  This time the music is softer.  I tell Susan that

I am going to go up there and recite a poem.

“What?!” she says. I am not sure if she really didn’t hear me but I speak out loud, anyway.

“I am going to read a Farsi poem without translation,” I emphasize.

I can see the same look in her eyes that was in Kris’s and then she says, “Wow!”

“Exactly,” I answer, and realize that this is the same feeling that forces me to make this strange communication.  A small sigh in response to this oneness.

It is after eleven o’clock and probably starting to get dark outside.  A jazz band, who just finished their last set, packs their instruments. Kris comes to our table again.

“Do you still want to read your poem?” “Yes.”

So I can hear him better, or perhaps to be sure I completely understand his advice, he squats next to me.

“Look. I don’t think it’s a good idea.  Everybody is drunk.  Nobody is listening.”

“They will,” I reply.

He gets up reluctantly and goes to the stage.  The way that he introduces me makes me smile.  It’s as if he wants to say that he doesn’t take any responsibility for the next part.

“Today, on my travel tour, I met a lady who is here tonight and wants to read a poem.”

I don’t think anybody heard or cared what he announced.  I give my purse and hat to Susan and go to the microphone.

“I am from Iran and want to recite a poem to you in Farsi. The reason that I am not translating this poem is because….”

Everybody is busy eating, drinking and talking.  I give up explaining and start in Farsi:

گفتم غم تو دارم، گفتا غمت سر آید.گفتم که ماه من شو گفتا اگر برآید. 

The people in the front seats slowly turn to the stage and look at me.

 گفتم ز مهرورزان رسم وفا بیاموز. گفتا ز ماه رویان این کار کمتر آید.

The commotion subsides.

گفتم که تار زلفت رسوای عالمم کرد. گفتا اگر بدانی هم اوت رهبر آید.

In the dim light, I can see the figure of a waiter with a heavy tray in his hand, looking towards me.

گفتم که بر خیالت راه نظر ببندم. گفتا که شبرو است او از راه دیگر آید.

Silence like a moving wave gradually extends and precedes to the end of saloon.

گفتم که نوش لعلت ما را ز آرزو کشت. گفتا تو بندگی کن کو بنده پرور آید.

Susan and her friends and most of the people in the back of the saloon stand.

گفتم خوشا هوایی کز باغ خلد خیزد. گفتا خنک نسیمی کز کوی دلبر آید.

Kris leaning on the counter, stares at me.

گفتم دل رحیمت کی عزم صلح دارد. گفتا مگوی با کس تا وقت آن در آید. 

 Now, no one moves.  It is just like a scene in a science fiction movie when time stops for a while so that a character can reveal a secret.

گفتم زمان عشرت دیدی که چون سرآمد. گفتا خموش حافظ کین غصه هم سر آید.

I catch my breath and wait.   I have to say, “That’s it.”

It sounds to me that the applause is not going to cease. Walking back to my seat I have to stop at each table to respond the kindness of hands and warmth of hugs. What I hear is the words of familiarity.  An old man tells me, the unknown words reminds him of a forgotten memory. Susan hugs me and says that there was no need for translation. Kris takes his hat off to me from the bar.

An hour later, I walk back to the hostel. The mirror of earth had been raining on the turquois dome while we were making peace under the ceiling of a café, just when the polar night surrendered to the dawn.

One thought on “With Hafiz in Alaska / Short story by Zohreh Hatami (Iran)

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