By Alie Ataee
Translated by Mohammad Sarvi
I’m a novelist and a café owner in Tehran, so I’ve met and I keep meeting a lot of people.
The second man arrived after the first man had already ordered chips, cheese and beer. He nervously said in a loud voice: “They’ve sentenced him to death. They’re going to hang him.”
While filling his glass with beer from a bottle, the first man said: “I told you there’s no way he could get away.”
The second man took a chair, sat down and said: “There’s nothing we can do.”
The first man pushed the chips and cheese plate toward the second man and said: “Obviously not. He committed murder. It’s not a joke.”
They got busy eating. I asked: “Do you need anything else?”
The second man just noticed my presence. He looked at me with surprise, like he didn’t expect me to be there. He responded: “What’s on today’s menu?”
“Would you like to see the menu?” I asked.
“Yes please. My friend wants to order,” he answered.
As I put down the menu on the table in front of him, I asked: “Who is going to be hanged?”
“Naghawi,” he answered, ”Do you know him?”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“He shot his wife and daughter and neighbors in Nazi Abad,” he explained.
“Why?” I asked.
“Honor killing,” He responded.
Both men stared at each other. The first man kept on talking: “This kind of people still exists; people who would get suspicious of their daughter because of one simple phone call. And they would kill her mother too!”
“I understand,” I said.
But I didn’t understand. I left their table. The café experienced one of its sad days. Naghawi had killed his wife and daughter, and two strangers were talking about his death sentence while having a snack.
The drizzle turned into a heavy rain. I took a book from the shelf and sat in front of the yard. As I was about to open it, I remembered Maryam had told me about her uncle who had killed his daughter in Kermanshah, because he didn’t know what she was leading her life. I asked her what was she doing for living? And Maryam didn’t respond. She only said, let’s pray for her soul. Souma also said Sabiheh was killed, because it wasn’t clear whom she had been writing letters to I asked who was she writing to? Souma said no one had ever found out. g there facing the yard and reviewing these memories, I felt angry with the second man who had delivered th horrible news about Naghawi, so angry that when he asked me for napkins, I told him we don’t have any.
He ordered his cake and coffee fifteen minutes after the first man finished his. . Once the first man was done, he said: “Would you please bring me an apple tart, ma’am?”
I went to the kitchen and brought him the tart. The second man had eaten half of his cake and he was busy devouring the second half. He said while chewing: “Only if the weapon is found his crime is proven..”
The first man didn’t respond.
The second man kept talking: “He won’t say where it is because he has bought it from someone whose identity he’s hiding.”
The first man said: “It’s probably a G3 rifle. Massacres are usually done with G3.”
The second man stopped eating and said: “How do you know this? However, it doesn’t matter what kind of gun it was; a bullet kills anyway.”
The first man stuck his fork in the tart and said: “Because only a professional would be able to kill seven people.”
The second was done eating. He said: “He wasn’t a professional. If he were, he would have killed only her daughter, not a crowd!”
The first man said: “You’re being too naïve, someone who’s holding a G3 rifle wouldn’t just kill one person.”
The second man looked down at his cup of coffee, then pushed it to the other side of the table. Perhaps he didn’t like the cup. Then, he said: “You’re so confident as if you’ve ever held a G3 rifle.”
The first man Kept calm. “Of course I haven’t. There was no reason to have one. I Don’t’ have a daughter or even a wife.” laughed so hard I could see his gums. Some cake was stuck on his teeth, but he couldn’t see it.
The second man said: “Let me search the internet for G3 rifle to see how it looks like.”
“It’s the kind of rifle that Naghawi managed to obtain,” the first man said.
The second man took his tablet out of his handbag. While he was busy searching on the internet, he said: “We know Naghawi. How would he obtain a G3?”
The first man stared at the second man with surprise and finally stopped eating. He said: “Now you arrived at the same question the police did. We certainly don’t know how he obtained it.”
Scrolling through pages on his tablet, the second man said: “It’s so strange that Naghawi was such a capable person and we had no idea!”
The first man said: “Totally. It’s not easy to get such a rifle. He didn’t look like such a capable guy.”
Listening to them, I was imagining a G3 rifle, the incompetent Nagahwi, Maryam’s cousin, Sabiheh who wrote letters, and the messed up tart on the table…
The images were passing in my mind like a slideshow, but none of them made me bring the men their bill and say: “We’re closing early today.” َAfter a while, managing my coffee shop, I felt I didn’t feel like continuing anymore. The man I loved had left me and I was lonely. Also, after the day the two men visited my shop, I concluded that all other men were into weapons and bullets. That’s why I decided to leave Iran for good. Well, I thought an experienced café owner can run a coffee shop anywhere in the world.
As I said earlier, I was a café owner in Tehran. This makes me eligible to say that Caffe Vito is one of the most ridiculous coffee shops in Paris. Not that the seedy places in Paris are rare, but this café is really a special one. Two Italian men are the owners. Some waiters are Malaysian. The only type of coffee they serve is Arabic. Tunisians and Moroccans get a twenty percent discount.
A café owner is always curious about other cafés, so that he can compare them with his own. When you’re in a city famous for its cafés, you keep evaluating your coffee shop based on things other cafés do and don’t. For example, how the cakes and coffee taste in those places and how customers are being served. Café Vito is one of the places that I visit on a daily basis, perhaps because I want to keep reminding myself that any café in Tehran is better than Vito. One day I was there, it was one of those ordinary days that nothing really happens. It was an ordinary morning and I ordered one of their ordinary coffees, thinking I had to write a paragraph about Vito and how cheap it is. I had all the information in mind. All the items on the menu including different Arabic coffees which were actually the same and only the chocolate served with them was different. And, , the number of Moroccan customers who received a twenty percent discount. As I opened my laptop to write the report, the waiter put my coffee on the table and said: “I’m so glad you’ve been visiting us for several days. Mariam is also happy by your choice.”
I smiled and thought to myself, so this is how the story begins, Mariam, a woman whom I’ve never met, is glad that I’m back for another visit. Perhaps I was wrong about those two Italian men with big white teeth being the owners of this café. Mariam owns the place and her employees greet customers on her behalf. As I started typing, a waiter appeared with a form titled “Hello to Mariam” and said: “Please fill out this form and become a member of our customer club.”
The form requested information such as name, phone number, and number of times per day I visit the café. I couldn’t stop thinking about “Hello to Mariam”. I envisioned Mariam as a self-absorbed woman or a strong woman with devoted fans. I filled out the form and added a comment at the end: “Your coffee isn’t not at all. I keep coming here because the taste of your coffee reminds me that coffee tastes better in Iran.”
I tried my best to write a neat French sentence. I double-checked the spelling of each word. I wanted to make sure she knows my comment is thoughtful. I handed back the waiter the form. I was anticipating his return as he came back with two copies of a one-page comic story and placed them on the table without saying a word. He wasn’t smiling like before and he didn’t care to ask why I bothered visiting them if I didn’t like their coffee? Since he didn’t ask, I couldn’t tell him I had other reasons. I picked a copy and looked at it. It was a biography; the word “Mariam” on the top was emboldened.
Mariam is a Moroccan woman whose husband was from Tunisia. During the colonial times in Morocco, she saved up money by selling coffee to fund Moroccan and Tunisian migrants. Mariam spent the money for the migrants’ healthcare. Her husband died in Malaysia of an unknown illness. Later, she married an Italian man. The two Italian men at the café are her grandsons.
It ended with this sentence: “Mariam, a woman who hates borders and powers.”
The biography made me think if Mariam hated borders. Did she really dedicate her life to migrants? If yes, why the waiters are Malaysians and why do Moroccans and Tunisians get discounts and why only Arabic coffee is served. I start typing my article:
Suffering is transferable through genes. People suffering from homelessness give birth to homeless children. Even though some homeless think in the future they can own a place to live there forever, the faulty genes won’t let them. It doesn’t matter if they are born in Morocco, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iran or Malaysia. It doesn’t matter if they belong to a colony or they are victims of a war. It doesn’t matter where their next generations are born. The chromosomes that contain homelessness are passed on. Homelessness passes through the borders and nests inside the heart of refugees forever. As a result, one day a refugee takes shelter in another refugee’s café, while none of them are the person they were supposed to be.
When I saw them, they were getting separated. The boy was sitting on a wooden bench near Seine and the girl was standing, listening to the boy. He said: “There’s no reason to be afraid. You just have to go to the airport and return to Tehran.”
The girl sat next to the boy and said nothing. The boy took a pipe out of his bag and lit it gently. The girl held her head down. The boy held his head to the sky, and breathed the smoke out. He continued: “so many people come and go, none of them worry like you do. It’s just a six-hour trip, like a trip from Tehran to Isfahan.”
The girl grabbed the boy’s hand by the wrist and said: “But we came here together.”
The boy reacted: “But this time we’re not going back together. Is it blasphemy?”
The girl quivered and said: “Then what?”
The boy snapped: “What do you mean?”
“Are we going to meet when you are back in Tehran?” the girl asked.
“Yes, but less. A lot less,” the boy answered.
“Did I do something wrong?” the girl asked.
The boy answered angrily: “You overestimated my patience.”
“I had a wonderful time with you. I felt so blessed with you.”
The boy pulled his hand out of hers and said: “You have to wait until you’re wanted. You have no patience. An impatient woman isn’t a suitable one to live with.”
The girl tilted her head and said: “Give me more time, I’ll change.”
The boy put some more tobacco in the pipe and said: “I gave you an opportunity to travel. I got you a visa so you could come here to spend time together.”
“Don’t you consider the circumstances?” the girl said. “It was my first time out of the country. I wasn’t used to bathrooms here. The food didn’t’ go well with my stomach.”
The boy leaned back and said: “These little things are in every life. As I said, you don’t have patience.”
The girl moved on the bench to talk to the boy face to face and said: “How do you rank me?”
The boy who obviously liked the question, answered: “You used to be zero. Now you’re below zero.”
The girl leaned back again, or perhaps she collapsed. I couldn’t see her anymore. I saw the boy’s legs as he walked away. I made up their story in my mind. The story of a boy who goes on a trip with a girl. They’ve planned to marry. The boy leaves the girl before the trip is over. I got up and went toward the girl. As she was fiddling with the bits of tobacco left on the bench, she didn’t notice me. I asked in Farsi: “May I sit here?”
She looked at me with a smile, glad that I spoke Farsi. We were sitting across each other. Her full face looked much prettier than her profile seen from a distance. She had a long thin face. Her hands were shaking and her face looked uncertain” like a woman who’s insecure about her beauty and she’s convinced nobody likes her.
“How long will you be staying in Paris?” I asked.
“I’m leaving for Tehran tonight,” she answered.
I tried to pretend I was happy and said with a fake excitement: “amazing! I wish you a nice trip!”
She didn’t respond. She paused for some seconds, then asked: “How many gates should I pass through before boarding the airplane?”
“Three, I think I answered, “There’s the same number of them as when you arrived.”
She nodded. I wasn’t t sure whether she had a bad feeling, knowing that I overheard their conversation t. But I told myself, even if it was a bad feeling, it couldn’t be worse than what she’d felt earlier.
Don’t worry,” I said, “Nothing bad is going to happen. There are signs everywhere and the flight information officer answers any question you might have.”
She was quiet and kept her head down. I continued: “Let him go. Your life will be better without him, trust me.”
She raised her head. Her eyes filled up with tears, and tears rolled down her cheeks. I kept talking: “You couldn’t keep him by force, but he wasn’t a good guy anyway. You’re better off without him.”
She asked with a low tone: “How do you know?”
“Because he left you in the middle of the midway in your relationship,” I answered,” He had days and months in Tehran to tell you he doesn’t think you’re no match for him, but he chose a situation like this to say it. Do you think a good guy would do that?”
She shook her head and said: “I can’t believe it.”
I lit a cigarette and looked at the tourist boats sailing along the Seine. People took selfies on the deck and a loud music was playing. The city was alive, and I was thinking about how she was not happy. I knew that it would take her a long time to believe that the boy had left her. It would take her a long time to leave her homeland forever, and it would take a long time until she would be willing to go back to the land of shootings and angry men and loveless women. That’s who we are. Don’t human beings have anything except themselves?
Alie Ataee is an Iranian-Afghan fiction writer and playwright. She has an MA in Dramatic Literature from the University of Tehran. Her stories speak to the themes of immigration and identity crisis. She has published two novels and more recently a collection of short fiction.
Her books have won several awards including the Mehregan Adam Award and the Vav Literary Award. Some of her short stories have been translated into English and French and published in a diverse set of literary journals like Guernica and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her new nonfiction about the war on Iran at Afghanistan borders is forthcoming.