Were it not for the misery of waiting on it for hours and hours, “Ney Boulevard,” my dear, could, would, and, in fact, should have been the most exhilarating name a street can have.
When I first heard the name I got very sentimental. Ney, Persian reed. I imagined a bamboo grove on the opposite side of the street, like the ones in Chinese paintings. I imagined farmers in conical straw hats and knee-length rubber boots pacing through the grove as they harvest bamboo shoots. All this in blue-green on a milk-white background. The other side of the street was by contrast loud and colorful, full of cafés and little French shops, with everything in bamboo. Bamboo shades, bamboo chairs on the sidewalk purposely arranged for people-watching, you’d think. A man plays the ney as he walks by.
I had a sip of whiskey.
I ask the ney player where the préfecture de police is. His fingers untangle from the ney for a moment and point to the building next to me, and go back to it again as he walks on. It’s a wonderfully impressive building. One can see the shiny golden railings through the open doors. A slim police officer with straight blond hair, who looks a little like Alain Delon, is standing at the door. His hat shines under the noon sunlight. His grayish-blue eyes look at me with great kindness. He salutes me as I walk in through the door. I chuckle. You French people are so damn polite! We only salute our superiors. I smile and pat him on the back, as if to say, relax, I’m your buddy, not one of those Frenchmen with a pickle up their asses. So, you don’t need to bow or anything, I won’t complain to your boss. He likes this and pats me on the back in return. We become friends. Let’s go for coffee or a drink when my shift is over, he says, and tell me what goes on in your country and I will tell you about here. Great idea! I go get the refugee application form, come back to fetch him, and we sit in an inviting sunlit patio to chat over a pitcher of beer. He takes off his hat and puts it on his knee. The ney player walks past us again. I say to the policeman that we have a very important poem in Persian:
Now listen to this reed-flute’s deep lament
About the heartache being apart has meant
François, the policeman, asks me why lament. Well, they don’t understand our pain, you know.
Since from the reedbed they uprooted me
My song expresses each human agony
We both laugh and drink our beers in one gulp. But I feel a little sad. I recite the third line, this time only in my head.
A breast which separation has split in two
Is what I seek, to share this pain with you.*
And I sigh.
The French are really nice, really friendly, but they don’t have a “breast split in two,” you know what I mean? And I sigh again. I look at François who suddenly seems so distant, with those beautiful eyes and killer looks. These guys are good to have fun with. When it comes to sadness, though, they are strangers. They have no idea. They don’t know what pain is. They just don’t.
Sanaz was listening, and scraping through the basket of fries in the meantime.
I said to myself how patient she is to be listing to this nonsense. “Write these stories. They sell like hot cakes here,” she said.
“In what language?” I asked.
“In the same language you spoke with the police dude,” she said.
She can be bitter, with a sharp tongue. Not my type. And not even pretty. She wears her hair in a ponytail, predictably alternates a green or yellow turtleneck underneath one of those puffy vests. There’s more to her breasts than meets the eye. What you see is just the tip of the iceberg. Yadollah set her up with me to get rid of her. He said this girl looks a little tough but is as sweet as sugar. Sugar? Diabetes is more like it. True she has some qualities. She can be so irresistibly kind sometimes. And her eyes. She’s at least fifteen years younger than me but very mature. She is from Tehran’s uptown. Some class she’s got.
I tell her the fries she’s eating will go right to her thighs and won’t go away.
“So you’re suddenly so sensitive ever since you became gay?” she said.
I wanted to say something but she put her hand on mine. She reached for my whiskey and Coke and had a sip. She pulled up her chair closer and rested her head on my shoulder. “It wasn’t your first time at the préfecture de police, was it?” She said it with such a perfect French accent.
“No, I’ve been there many times,” I said. “It’s such a shitty place. No ney player. No cafés. It’s cold. An ugly cement structure that exudes coldness even in summertime, I swear.”
I don’t know why I swear by saints and Imams when I get drunk. Which is what I was doing right now, and that’s bad. I want to be sober when the gay guy shows up. Sanaz says I’m not drunk and that everything’s fine. I believe her and order one more whiskey. She smells like green apples.
A bunch of young people were sitting at the next table. Not even halfway through their drinks, and they were already drunk and talking loudly. They were tall and blond, like movie stars. And underdressed in this cold. The one sitting closest to me and hitting my ankle unknowingly every few minutes was twenty at most. He was their guru, so to speak. He was wearing blue jeans and a brown jacket over his faded T-shirt, and talked more loudly than the others. No wonder these French are so confident. It’s their looks perhaps. They are not potbellied like me, bald, with speckles of gray in their otherwise black stubble, and other such problems. This guy’s skin, for instance, is white as silk. His lips are red like he’s wearing lipstick. I ask Sanaz why she doesn’t hang out with them when she speaks French so well. It’s a shame that she always hangs out with us.
She lifts her head, “You think I know French,” and then puts it back on my shoulder and the smell of apples fills the air again. She’s sleepy but doesn’t want to go and leave me all by myself. She wants to stay until the gay guy shows up and maybe translate for me. The guy is Iranian but doesn’t know much Persian because he grew up here.
It was Yadollah, again, who found this guy for me. The Refugee Board doubts my story and thinks it’s full of contradictions. “Your problem is that you say you are gay but have never seen a gay guy in your entire life,” Yadollah says. “Go to the Marais one day and talk to a couple of them.” He was sure as hell that I wouldn’t go to the Marais. It makes me cringe. Let’s say I go. How am I supposed to talk to them not knowing a word of French? That’s why he decided to find this almost-Iranian dude for me. I was prepared. I had a bunch of questions for him. And Sanaz was there to help. Just observing the guy was enough. How he sits. How he talks. His coyness. This lateness is part of being coy, I bet.
He must look like a tart, so heavily made-up that when he walks in I take him for a pretty woman eyeing me up all the time. He has gone to great pains to bleach his naturally black hair. He’s wearing fake eyelashes, not to mention fake boobs that look like bowling balls. Like Sanaz’s, only firmer. He’s wearing one of those lace shirts and looks like the photos from the back pages of Pariscope magazine. He walks up to me in all coyness with suggestive eyes. I ignore him at first out of respect for Sanaz thinking he’s a woman. He licks his index finger from top to bottom. I keep ignoring him until he comes to sit at the same table as the young kids. They start chatting and get chummy all of a sudden. The kids treat him to a drink. They laugh out loud. The old worn-out waiter is not too pleased and mumbles something when serving them. The young kids ask the gay guy why he’s come here instead of going to the Marais where all the gay bars are. I figure that this is the guy. But I act like I haven’t noticed him. I don’t want them to judge me in case he tells them why he is here. I’d be disgraced. He tells them he is here on a mission, to talk to someone who is making a refugee claim as a gay man but has never seen a gay person in his entire life. The French kids die laughing when they hear this. “What kind of yahoo is he?” they ask. “Where’s he from?” “He’s Iranian,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong. Not all Iranians are ignorant. Iran has Takht-e Jamshid, the Great Cyrus who saved the Jews. Iranians are Persian, that’s no small feat.” I jump in here. “I overheard your conversation,” I say. “But I didn’t interrupt because as our great poet Hafiz says ‘Words are not the custom of Dervishes.’ But having heard you, allow me to say a few words.
“It may be true that I’ve been raised in conditions not as culturally rich as yours, and I don’t speak French as well as you. I may not look as good as you. I don’t know, my socks may stink and have holes in them, my shoes might be dirty, but it’s not like I’m illiterate. I have a diploma in literature. I know I am entitled to live the way I want. It is quite likely that if conditions are ripe, if I’m granted asylum, accommodation, a meager welfare, I might as well become gay, who knows? And you as intellectuals would deny me that?”
I know I’m bullshitting but I want to put them in their place. The kids don’t seem to give a shit but the gay guy is moved to tears. He’s crying his eyes out, and mascara is running down his face. I offer him a tissue to dry his tears. He comes to sit next to me and Sanaz without even saying good-bye to the kids. He says, “You wanted me to teach you about gays but I should learn from you.” Sanaz dashes out of the café furious that I’ve become gay, already. I tell him I’m talking about being human, regardless of being gay or straight. Then I reach for the form in my pocket. I tell him to go over the narrative and change it to look more like his own life, more believable. He’s still sniffling. He starts reading it. The waiter brings over his drink from the other table, casting a suspicious look at me.
“Where are you?” Sanaz asks.
She drinks the whiskey all the way to the last drop and is crunching on the ice cubes now.
“Sanaz, I have no clue what these French people are about,” I say.
“Don’t worry, neither do I,” she says with a smile that sweetens her eyes.
I don’t understand her. She’s been here since she was a teenager. If I spoke a fraction of her French, I would be friends with the whole country, well at least half.
Take tonight for example. On the way to a café on Sebastopol Street, an old man walking his dog said something to me and looked at me. I could tell he was asking for help. But I didn’t understand what he was saying. I’d say he was saying nasty things because I’m a foreigner if he had a different tone but he had a friendly, almost frail tone, like he was asking for help. We would become friends, he’d ask me over for dinner. I would ditch Sanaz and the gay dude and go to the old man’s French country house with its arched windows and lilac-colored wooden shutters. Walking toward their house, I can see a thin strip of white smoke ascending from the chimney on the clay roof of the house. I can tell his wife is making a traditional French meal for me while he sits in his armchair by the fireplace, reading an illustrated book about Napoleon. The dog barks as I get close to the house. The old man shouts that the door is open, just come in. A few dinners later and I realize they don't have a child, no relative, nothing. Just this dog to inherit all the money after they’re gone. But he wants to put it in his will that I will inherit all his wealth because I'm the only one he can trust to take care of the dog. Otherwise, can a dog, even with all the money in the world in his bank account, protect himself? Can he?
There’s one problem though. The family did have a son who was gay, and was disowned by the family and cut off from his inheritance. The old man wants to know if I, not being married and all, am gay or not. “I have to be honest with you,” I tell him. “I’ve never had sex with a man but whether or not I’m gay is a different issue.”
“The gay dude has stood us up,” Sanaz says. “It’s already nine-thirty. And look at you. Staring into space.” She orders two whiskeys, as if she’s going to pay for all this. She takes two sips, to kill time perhaps, and asks, “What happened next on Ney Boulevard?” She wants me to tell her tales. I don’t. I sigh. I have a sip of whiskey, and keep staring vacantly.
You have to line up before the Préfecture de Police. A long line that has representatives from every country in the world, almost every country. Iranians for sure, and they always extend a helping hand. I’ve seen a lot of Sri Lankans too. And always a bunch of white people. Who must’ve left behind beautiful green villages for this shithole, God knows why. Doors open at eight-thirty in the morning. People start trailing in through the gate like snails. It’s a police station, with security and all. Just like an airport. You have to put your wallet and cell phone in a basket to be X-rayed, go through the gate yourself, and stand in another line for ages. In that line, you’ll get a number. The first time I went there, I was given an even number and I took this as a good omen, despite all the shit I had been through. The second time they gave me a form that I could either fill out there or bring home to be filled out by someone who knows French. I had filled out a similar form in Ankara saying I was a political activist and I was rejected, so this time I said I was gay. Courtesy of Yadollah again. He said this year everyone claimed they’re Christians, so the French have had enough of Christians. Just say you’re gay. I didn’t have to explain much. There was only a half line to explain. On my next visit, they completed the file and issued me a temporary residence permit. A wide-hipped woman with eyes so deeply set you could barely see their green, gave me a file along with another form to be filled out with great care. She set a date for my next appearance. I appeared. This time a man who looked like her brother, especially when it came to the hips, issued me a file number. I had twenty-one days to send a letter to the refugee board, called OFPRA, which I did, so they could report to the police. The OFPRA office itself is yet another sad story. You have to take the train to the end of the world. The same train that takes you to Disneyland. All the way I thought of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters to ease my nerves a bit. At the OFPRA office, I ended up with a nasty fuckface of an officer. Everyone said, “This Monsieur is the worst.”
He had in his hands the form I had filled out ages ago in Ankara and asked me why I claimed I was a political activist in Ankara and now in Paris I’m a homosexual.
“I am a political activist,” I said firmly. “Being a homosexual is a political activity in my country.” Needless to say, credit goes to Yadollah for this ingenious line. I was messed up. And repeating this nonsense by heart made me feel even worse. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster in Disneyland with my stomach churning.
The officer didn’t seem too pleased, “Do you have anything to add?”
“Yes, I have also changed my religion,” this came out of my mouth before I even knew it. I was pissed, that’s why.
“To what?” he asked.
“To sucking cocks!”
My interpreter was startled. It was too much, I know.
“Sanaz, remind me to ask these Christian convert friends of ours next time how much whiskey one needs to drink before one’s blood turns into alcohol,” I say to her.
She gestured five with her hand and put that five on my shoulder.
“Text Yadollah. Ask him what happened to this gay dude.”
“You text him. I want nothing to do with him,” she said.
These chicks are so damn difficult, I swear to God. She lived with him for six months and now she doesn’t even want to text him, now that I need him so badly. And I was not sober enough to type out those tiny letters on the phone.
The young kids had left. Their table was empty and quiet. Two elegant middle-aged men were sitting there instead, wearing bespoke jackets, their spiky hair freshly cut and styled. They both had stubble. One had an ascot and the other had an expensive silk scarf around his turtleneck.
The older these Frenchmen get, the classier they become. They must be those kids’ fathers. But they sat there with such class, so elegantly, so quietly. They must be talking about their kids and what a perfect couple they would make. I swear I could hear them say,
“We’ve been friends all these years. We grew up in the same neighborhood. I shopped at your father’s grocery store. He gave me freebies sometimes and sent his regards to my father. When my mom cooked dishes for special occasions she would send a plate to your home. Now that we’re grown-ups and somebodies, it would be a shame to let our kids just go fall in love with an immigrant and god-forbid marry them. We should marry them off to each other and sweeten our palates for this wonderful occasion. My wife, Brigitte, also agrees. She was very happy when I told her I’m going to have a boys’ night out and have a drink with Georges tonight. She wiped away tears of joy with the corner of her apron.”
“These guys don’t have khastegari, do they?” I asked Sanaz.
“No, they don’t,” she said while putting her head on the pillow of her hands on the table.
I looked again and saw the fathers of the bride and the groom, their eyes locked as well as their hands, saying I suppose, “Forever, we will remain a family forever!”
The old waiter cleared away the empty glasses and asked something, like if I wanted another drink. I didn’t know if I wanted one more drink, but I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t drinking because I was cheap, or Muslim, or something. And Sanaz was half-asleep. So I signed for two more drinks.
Sanaz woke up when the drinks came. “Are you crazy? This guy isn’t going to show up. Let’s go.”
This didn’t mean she wouldn’t drink her whiskey though.
“I’m a wreck, Sanaz. I’m so sad. I’m dying. These cocksuckers want to kick me out. And no one wants to help.” I was in tears. “They’ll put me on a plane back, simple!”
Sanaz rested her head on my chest again. To make me feel better I suppose, but she could barely talk.
“I sold my store to give all the money to that motherfucking smuggler. I’m ashamed to go back. If I go, my mother will force me to go visit my uncle. My eldest uncle,” I was sobbing by now.
“Shush,” Sanaz said.
“I swear to God, to Imam Ali . . .” she shushed me with her hand on my mouth this time. I kissed her hand.
There was almost no one left in the café. You could hear the music more clearly. The waiter brought us the bill without asking. A man was sitting by himself at one of the tables at the very end, sipping his wine and leafing through a book. A young lad was mopping the floors, getting closer to us.
“When is this gay dude coming?” I asked Sanaz.
“When the ney flower is in bloom,” she said.
Which took me back to the first time I heard the name of Ney Boulevard.
*From The Masnavi, Book One, translated by Javid Mojaddedi, Oxford University Press: 2004.