As the incessant blare of the disconnect tone faded into a high pitched buzz in my head, the cordless slipped from my hand and hit the linoleum so hard its battery pack flew across the living room. There was a cacophony of shattering glass as my vision blurred. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the faded brown corduroy couch, hugging its slightly mismatched throw pillow and staring at the envelope nestled in a pile of tiny translucent cubes that sparkled in the available light.
The plain manila envelope—slightly sullied and worn from its long journey from some urban area in Afghanistan to the sprawling San Fernando Valley—had been glaring at me from the glass coffee table for four days when I got the call from Ali’s father, Mahmoud. Every time I had found the courage to pick it up, the same thought would invade my mind. What if he’s all shell-shocked? So, I’d cower in the kitchen with some Earl Grey and fight off the realization of what he might’ve become.
In his previous letter, Ali had described how—after a small skirmish in a desolate village on the outskirts of Kandahar where the resurgent Taliban had been recruiting children—he had killed a boy.
“While securing my side of the perimeter,” he wrote, “I found him sitting on a pile of rubble next to the remains of a chalk board with a Kalashnikov at his feet. He didn’t even have a mustache yet, and he already had swollen purple tracks all up and down his arms. He laughed hysterically as he held a weak dog in a chokehold with a foot-long bowie knife to its snout. The thing is, David, he looked like I did when I was a kid. He eased up on and released the skinny animal, but it just laid itself down right there and licked his toes through his sandal straps. Then, he got real quiet and still for a moment before his face went all grim. He dropped the knife and bolted for his rifle.” There was an ellipsis followed by, “He wouldn’t have made it in this world anyway.”
At first, I couldn’t understand what urgency had caused Ali to send his next letter through the local mail there and not the military base. Then, I realized that the only thing in the red ink postmark not in Pashto was my birthday. I tried to remember how long it had been since Elliott’s graduation party when we last spoke. I went to my room to look at the dollar store puppy calendar my mom had bought and filled in to keep me on task with my university applications. I had hung it next to a facsimile of The Ancient of Days. Above the month of November, a baby American White Shepherd had been propped up on a podium decorated with the Stars and Stripes. It looked terrified. I was about to flip back to the annual when I saw it. “Shit!” The echo reverberating throughout the empty duplex. “It’s Election Day!”
I had just turned eighteen two months before and all the older employees in my department at MetroCenters Mortgage kept saying, “I bet you can’t wait to vote for Obama.” So I found this website—uniquetees.com—and had a black shirt made with my favorite William Blake quote on the front. I wore the words “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s” emblazoned in white across my chest every casual Friday for a month. But, after an uncomfortable sit-down with former prison guard turned human resources manager, Carlos, to “reflect on company morale,” I realized that it would just be easier to don polos every day and vote for some kind of change rather than try to explain my theory of how isms create schisms.
I sat back in my chair for a moment and turned my gaze away from the university application materials strewn across my desk. I had told my mom that after high school I’d need to take a year off to work. My year was up. I had gotten the job at MetroCenters on accident. Elliott’s older brother, Sam, a loan officer there, had fractured his coccyx. Someone had lowered his chair as a practical joke and he came down hard on it at just the wrong angle. But, being loyal, he was determined to process on from home, so he needed someone to bring him his files. Elliott’s band had a gig to prepare for, so he asked if I could help.
I wasn’t mobile then, so I had to take the Red Line Rapid down Ventura Boulevard. At the pickup after mine, a pale-skinned and frizzy-haired middle-aged woman in a tattered designer knit sweater boarded with Harry Potter in one hand and a Louis Vuitton duffle bag in the other. She sat down in the front seat behind the driver, unzipped her bag and pulled out a pair of fluorescent orange firing range earmuffs. She placed them over her ears ever so gently and my heartbeat quickened a bit as she reached inside her bag again. I think I might have let out an audible sigh of relief when all she pulled out after all that was a light grey blanket. She adjusted the muffs a bit before disappearing under her cloak of invisibility—presumably to that realm of magic and fantasy where neither the Dark Lord’s name nor the word “foreclosure” are mentioned.
The office building—now occupied by DeVry—was located in the Sherman Oaks Galleria—where the 405 meets the 101—and the entrance was between a Starbucks and a Fuddruckers. The scent of coffee and burgers that day filled my mouth with bile. The files were supposed to be waiting for me at the front desk with the secretary, Brad. After waiting for Brad for over an hour, I decided to take a peek around his desk for myself. Just as I started snooping, I heard a squeaky female voice say, “Can I help you?”
I turned around and my heart fluttered a bit. Mid-twenties. Tall. Brunette. Professional attire, indeed. I fumbled my words while avoiding conspicuous glances at the ample cleavage blooming from the unbuttoned frill of her blouse as I tried to tell her I was there to get Sam Patters’ files from Brad.
After her own search of Brad’s desk proved fruitless, she sat down, picked up the phone and called into the loan processing department. She talked with a Mr. Moon who told her to send me on back. When I turned the final corner as instructed, I ended up not in the loan processing department, but in a room lined with six tables, each with its own computer and scanner and all but one decorated with family photos and office kitsch. I was about to leave when a rather rotund Mexican guy walked in.
“David?” he asked extending a plump hand. I was a bit nonplussed, so I just shook it.
“Hey. I’m Fernando, but everyone here calls me Nando.” He walked over to the apparently uninhabited table. “All right then. It’s real easy,” he said as he picked up a stack of forms from an open file, placed them in the feeder of the scanner and proceeded to walk me through a complicated file saving routine which I knew could be easily bypassed by setting save to automatic. Then, he gave me the kicker. “You can start with these.” He pointed to a stack of nearby files in a bin marked SCAN. “I’ll be back in about half an hour. I’m already late for our monthly meeting with El Jefe,” he said with a gilt-toothed smile before leaving.
Now, what am I supposed to do? I wondered. I assumed that the files must have been Sam’s and that they just needed to be scanned before I could take them, so I sat down, set up the autosave, scanned the documents inside, put the files back together and placed them in the bin labeled DONE. Fifteen minutes later, Nando came barreling back down the hall like a sweaty rhino, arriving with barely enough breath to speak.
“Sorry guy, but are you David Brown?”
“No, I’m David Bloom,” I replied. “Sorry, but I didn’t know what to do,” I continued. “I was supposed to meet Mr. Moon in the loan processing department, but I guess I got lost and…”
“And you scanned all these files anyway?” he asked pointing to the monitor screen.
“Yeah,” I said.
“In just fifteen minutes?” he asked.
“Yeah. I guess,” I replied.
“You wanna job?”
$20 an hour is a dream for a guy barely finishing high school, and, in less than a year, I had pioneered a whole new scanning system that increased data backup time by 100%. By then, Nando and ten other scanners were working for me. We moved out of that drab communal space and got our own offices, and I was offered a 60K salary contract to manage. But then came the all-out subprime orgy. I started to see loan applications with totally fictionalized incomes—like seamstresses make 100k a year. Then, it went beyond legal loopholes. One day, Nando brought me two files with the same guy’s picture on two completely different driver’s licenses. I took them to Mr. Moon whose wife, Heran, made him kimchi dishes every day. I caught him in the middle of lunch at his desk just as he was sucking up the last of his noodles. He made a quick call to the top. He was told to tell me to go ahead and scan the files for the record. A month later, I saw the man with the multiple identities in the front office laughing and shaking hands with the president as he left. I told my mom about it, and she got antsy about me getting involved in something illegal. Frankly, I was pretty nervous too. That’s when I quit.
I hadn’t looked for work or worked on my applications for days when Ali’s letter arrived. I’d been immersed in Spengler’s Decline of the West. The genesis of my advanced readings had nothing to do with anything prodigious on my part, but it would become a staple of my life. It started as a simple choice between watching 500 channels of nothing on cable, surfing the web for nonsense I’d never need to see or know or reading as I waited out my middle school years with Osgood–Schlatter disease. That’s when my patellar ligaments started their rapid expansion and my knees swelled into a couple of ridiculous skin balloons. Never having smoked a day in his life, my dad had passed away of lung cancer the year before and my mom didn’t know what to do. She worked every weekday down at the county building as a file clerk and was as spent as the day when she got home. After missing a few months of sixth grade, the school didn’t know what to do either. They couldn’t hold me back—something about discriminating against the disabled. That’s the first time I heard the word “handicapped”. So the principal put out a call for a volunteer to be my homework courier and tutor, but he got so many requests that he had to hold a competition to select the fittest student for this service. Interested students had to write an essay answering the question, “How would you help your homebound classmate with his homework?” Most kids who applied had helicopter parents who couldn’t afford fancy prep schools to groom their children for the Ivy League. They probably wrote their children’s essays for them. I sneaked a peek at a few. They went on and on in nicely typed sentences on glossy white paper about how they’d use this approach to handling the homework and that strategy for tutoring. Ali had simply written in his own neat handwriting on a single piece of plain ruled paper about how he’d be my friend. My mom was supposed to select five finalists for interviews and choose the winner, but after reading Ali’s short essay, she didn’t need to interview anyone.
I liked Ali immediately. He was scrawny then, even for a sixth grader, but he wasn’t meek. He had a rather large head topped with poofy jet-black curls that made it look even bigger, large pensive eyes with piercing gray irises and olive skin. His parents had been Shiite Muslims who had left Iran and organized religion in 1988 near the end of their country’s war with Iraq. Ali would never meet his two older brothers. He hadn’t even been conceived when Muhammad and Hassan were conscripted by the Revolutionary Guard and killed shortly thereafter in a mustard gas attack at barely twenty-two and eighteen years of age respectively. The Guard wanted to compensate the Riazatis for the so-called martyrdom of their sons by giving Mahmoud’s engineering firm exclusive military contracts. But before he had to reject their offer and risk insulting the Islamic Republic’s brand of honor, Mahmoud sold his business and ran with his wife and a suitcase through the desert to Turkey.
I had been reading and analyzing my favorite collection of Blake’s poems and prints when Ali arrived for the first time. He was well-dressed in Dockers khakis and a green polo—a stark contrast to my worn-out jeans and faded Rush tee—and he carried a ridiculously oversized backpack that I presumed was full of books and materials for me. I invited him in and he stopped at the entranceway holding the straps of the pack in silence as he stared around at the living room walls covered with wall-to-wall ceiling-to-floor bookcases.
“Wow. It’s like a library in here,” he said in a slight Brooklyn accent.
“Yeah, there’s more in the back rooms too,” I said. Then, I told him about how I’d built all the bookcases with my dad before he passed away, and he got this really solemn look on his face—a look that would become more frequent as we got older.
“I’m so sorry,” he said in a sympathetic tone, and I smiled. How refreshingly mature his sentiment was. When he saw I was okay about it, he asked how many books I had read.
“I’ve read a few of those,” I said pointing to The Great Books of the Western World across the room. “And I’ve read all of these,” I said touching a set of Khalil Gibran’s works on a nearby shelf. “But this is my favorite,” I said as I picked up Blake.
We stood in silence for a moment as he pulled on the straps of the backpack, trying to shift his weight around.
“Here, let me help you with that,” I said as I helped him slide the backpack off and set it on the floor.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Ugh…thank you. That was like carrying another me.”
“Check this out.” I sat down on the then-new corduroy couch in the living room. He sat down next to me, picked up the mismatched throw pillow and hugged it in his lap as he looked over at the page I had opened up to. “This is Albion,” I began. “He’s like Adam in Blake’s mythology, but more like the spirit of man than like a single man.” He let out a genuine “Whoa” as he stared intently at the picture. “Yeah, Blake made his own mythology and he’s got all kinds of characters like this.”
He looked up from the book at me and said, “You know, my father loves to read too. We have something like this from Persia. It’s called the Shahnameh. It means book of kings. My father used to read it to me when I was a child.”
“Are you a Muslim?” I asked.
“Nah,” he began. “I mean, we’re not like Muslims you hear about in other parts of the world or see around here. My family follows a type of Islam called Sufism. We’re not involved with any organization though. It’s like the essence of Islam versus all the outward practices.”
I was impressed by Ali’s sophisticated understanding of literature and religion, but that made sense once I met his father.
Mahmoud Riazati had been a promising engineer who—despite the downturn in the Iranian economy after the Islamic Revolution—had made a small fortune overseeing the construction of several new highway systems throughout northeast Iran. He had learned English in the time of the Shah. To a deep oratory voice he added an eloquent diction. In his spare time, he enjoyed—as Ali had understated—reading. He was a connoisseur of suits and colognes. He always wore a freshly fragranced three-piece. Although Mahmoud had a keen interest in spiritual matters, his real passion was political science. He was particularly fascinated by the history of the European Enlightenment. I’ll never forget those nights when Ali and I would sit beside the fire and listen to him read in his sonorous voice from the works of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville. Mahmoud was an astute critical thinker and, after his readings, he would engage Ali and me in friendly yet serious debates on the nature of the human condition. So it was then that the pursuit of the higher intellect became our drug and Mahmoud became our pusher.
By the end of seventh grade, the tension in my knees had eased up a bit and Ali and I were spending almost every day together—sometimes at my place, rockin’ out to my dad’s old records or watching movies, but more frequently at Ali’s parents’ place. For a while, Mahmoud became the father I had lost—someone I could get real answers from—and Ali’s mother, Mona, became like a second mom to me. She loved to listen to classical Persian music as she worked around the house. Her favorite thing to do by far, however, was prepare elaborate dishes—an activity she sometimes engaged in all day—and she was all too happy to have another boy in her home. As we passed through our middle school years, the portions of her delicious Persian stews—of sweet and sour pomegranate and chicken fesenjoon or mixed greens and lamb ghormeh sabzi on top of mounds of saffron-seasoned basmati rice—grew bigger and bigger. Some Friday nights—when she wasn’t too exhausted after work—my mom would join in too, and we’d all enjoy creamy roulette cakes, cup after cup of cardamom Earl Grey and laughter late into the evening. We were all in a pretty happy bubble for a while until—for the second time in his life—Ali was attacked.
It’s hard to imagine Ali before we met. Growing up in a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, everyone had assumed he was an Arab, but that was back when it didn’t matter so much to his gentrified neighbors. Then, one day after school, a few months after 9/11, he was followed home by a couple of older black kids who called him a “motherfuckin’ Osama” as they beat him unconscious and stole his belongings.
Ali didn’t like to talk about the attack. Mahmoud would later tell me that when he arrived at the hospital and saw his son lying there, he fell to his knees. He had moved to New York, the land of opportunity, to start a new life with a new business and family, only to be told his degrees were unacceptable. As kind as the interviewer at the upscale engineering firm all the way out in Manhattan was, all he could offer Mahmoud was a job as a mail sorter. Ali was born shortly thereafter, and although Mahmoud and Mona were happy to be able to raise their son in relative freedom, they had no way to save for a better life. Before the first attack, Mahmoud had already realized it was no longer safe in the city, but his resources were fast depleting. As his knees hit the hard white hospital tile that day, Mahmoud began doing something he hadn’t done for over a decade. He began praying. A week later, as Ali lay at home safely recovered and back in the care of his parents, a distant cousin of Mahmoud’s whom he’d never met called him from Los Angeles and offered him a job as a contractor for his family-owned and operated engineering firm.
“You ever wonder what your life would’ve been like if your brothers had survived and you’d been born and raised in Iran?” I asked Ali as we left my place.
“Well, I might not have been attacked,” he said matter-of-factly, “but I’d rather be physically beaten for a moment then mentally beaten all my life.”
As we were rounding the corner from my street to the road leading down to the park, Ali walked off the sidewalk up to a tree in the front yard of my neighbor’s house. Turning back and smiling, he said excitedly, “I can’t believe I never noticed this! You know what this is?”
All I knew was that whenever its branches grew over the sidewalk, its abundant beige fruit would fall all over and turn into a layer of brown mush on the concrete.
“This is a shahtoot tree,” he continued. “And this,” he exclaimed as he picked one of the small bumpy fruits off the tree and held it between his thumb and index finger, “is the king of berries, the mulberry.” He popped it in his mouth saying, “One of these trees used to grow in my neighborhood back in Brooklyn.”
He looked off in silence for a moment as he chewed then swallowed.
He was about to pick off another when the owner of the house—an old Armenian man with deep lines in his white-bearded face—came out. I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood, but I watched people, and I knew he wasn’t a lonely old man. There were always different people of all ages visiting him, and I gathered that he was the patriarch of a rather large family. He smiled as he approached and asked Ali if he spoke Persian in Persian. I knew this because the question began with Farsi. “Baleh,” answered Ali in the polite affirmative. Then, he asked in broken English, “You enjoy my toot?” and I had to literally bite my tongue.
“It’s very good,” Ali said, looking at me and trying not to bust up too.
“My father give me seeds when I was very small child in Turkey.” As he continued his eyes became a bit glassy. “When I was young man, I plant some in Tehran where I live for a while, but they no grow. Then, I have to move. I come to America. To California. I have only one seed left.” He held up his boney index finger as he said this then used it to point at the tree’s trunk. “I plant it here, but it no grow here at first. Then, I meet my wife and the summer after we get married—after heavy rain—a little tree comes out of the ground, and from that one last seed I get many more seeds. I give to my children and they give to their children and, now, many more trees grow all over California.”
The old man picked off a few berries for all of us. He popped one in his mouth and we followed suit. “This is nice. Here we are,” he continued, “all children of Abraham. When will world see? It is simple!” Then, he started speaking to Ali in Persian, and, despite the old man’s smile as he spoke, Ali got his solemn look. All I could make out was marg. Death.
A few days later, we were checking out books from the public library, and Ali got one on the Armenian Genocide. Later that same evening, as Mahmoud was telling us how Julius Caesar transmogrified the Roman Republic into an Empire, Ali became agitated.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Baba,” he began addressing his father, “You always say that there is a price to pay for freedom. Julius Caesar was a tyrant, and now some say Bush is like Caesar, but Saddam is the tyrant. I’m not happy about the war, but I think he deserves nothing less than death for his crimes against humanity.”
“Well, that may be true, my son.” Mahmoud spoke with a heartfelt understanding. “There must be justice, but when they catch him—and they most certainly will—the kind of justice he receives will say just as much about his people as the kind of evil he committed says about him. Let us hope it is acceptable to the world and not just a few.”
I should have known then that Ali would try to be some kind of hero someday. He had been raised on tales of mythological warriors who had fought against the eternal powers themselves to win the right to determine their own destinies. He had heard of the courageous men and women throughout history who would not sit idly by while iniquity reigned. He had grown a bit since we first met, but he still felt so small. It was clear even then that he was getting tired of talk.
It was the end of our freshman year at Taft High. I was back in school, but—thanks to Ali and his father—I was so far ahead of my classmates that my boredom was tantamount to torture. The one class Ali and I had together—Advanced Algebra—happened to be homeroom. Our teacher, Mrs. Berkheimer, whose favorite pastime—besides doing absolutely nothing—was to sit behind her desk taking excruciatingly loud sip after sip of cup after cup of coffee as she assigned drill after drill, had been at Taft since it was first established back in the 60s. I imagine that the day after obtaining tenure, she just sat back with a warm cup of joe in her hands and has been taking it easy ever since. It was always the same thing. Ten minutes into our warm-up exercises, Ali and I were casting furtive glances at each other. That day, when Mrs. Berkheimer told everyone to bring up their worksheets and the silence was broken by the rustling of papers and the shuffling of feet, I just said it.
“We gotta get the hell outta here!”
“I concur,” was Ali’s reply.
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do.” I proceeded to lay out our clandestine plan. After class, we’d simply walk out of school through the least expected exit—the front office. I’d go first and run back home and Ali would follow.
When the bell rang, we exited the room, paused for a moment and nodded to each other. I’d never been to the front office. Through the entrance from the interior of the school, there was a small corridor that led to the front door. But right before the exit sat the gatekeeper, the secretary, a woman with very angular features and a stony expression whose C-shaped desk and swivel chair gave her an almost panoptic view of the more open area ahead. A throb of panic struck my heart as I realized how easy it would be for her to snag me, and just as I was about to turn around, she answered the phone, did a 180 and started reading through a file out loud for whoever she was on the phone with. With her back to the door, I walked with swift velvet feet out the front. I continued out into the faculty parking lot expecting someone to yell at me to hold up, but no one ever did. I walked right off the school premises, and once I was on the other side of Ventura, I bolted the rest of the way home.
I had just bought The Return of the King on DVD over the weekend and, now, we’d have the whole day to watch the complete The Lord of the Rings trilogy. With The Fellowship of the Ring queued up to play, Cokes out on the coffee table and a bag of Orville Redenbacher’s poised for popping, I awaited Ali’s arrival. But ten minutes passed. Then twenty. By half an hour, I figured he’d either had had to abort his part of the mission or he’d been caught, but it was far worse.
I arrived at the hospital with my mom later that evening. I saw Ali lying unconscious through the glass door to the room. My mom went ahead to comfort Mona as Mahmoud approached me in the hall.
“David, how could this come to happen?” he asked as the acid in my stomach began to churn and my face contorted. All I could do was sit down in a nearby chair, bury my face in my arms and sob. I felt hands rubbing my back, but I couldn’t look up.
Just one block from my place, Ali had been attacked by Ronnie Jenkins and Bryan Hobbes, a couple of skinheads who had a reputation for brazenly professing their ideologies in Iron Cross T-shirts and unguarded racial slurs to all “mongrels” who crossed their paths. They had been prowling the neighborhood that day and Ali, small and different, was easy prey.
Mahmoud kept on saying, “It’s okay David. It’s going to be okay,” but I knew it wasn’t. I looked up, and he asked again, “Do you know how this might have come to happen?”
“Can I see him first?” I asked.
We went into the room. I hadn’t noticed from the hall that his eyelids were all puffed up and purple and that he had three stitches across his lower lip. But the worst thing of all was the remnant of the swastika which had been written with an indelible black marker on his forehead. For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to want to kill someone. I must have screamed because some of the nurses in the hall asked if we were going to need help, but Mahmoud allayed their fears. Then, he told me, “They’ve already taken them into custody, David.”
I just slid down the wall onto my rear saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”
After Ali’s recovery, Mahmoud decided it was time to move once again in search of that ever-elusive condition called safety. Business had been picking up for him, so he transplanted his family to Sherman Oaks and enrolled Ali in a private Catholic school. We tried to keep in touch—mostly by cell, but during our few talks everything got reduced to niceties. Ali would ask how I was doing, and I’d say “All right.” Then, I’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “All right.” Everyone and everything was all right. I told him that my schedule for the first half of sophomore year was shaping up to be all right, and he told me his new home was all right. Then, in what would be our last phone conversation for a long time, he seemed to have found a new footing. He told me that everyone at Notre Dame High was way into Jesus, but, nevertheless, “pretty cool.” He said he was thinking about trying out for track or joining the swim team and that he hoped the training would at least make him stronger. After that, every time I slid my cell open to call him, I’d freeze and I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I guess he couldn’t either. The last thing we said to each other then was “Talk to you later.” Later would be two years.
My sophomore and junior years were painfully uneventful. I kept my focus on my schoolwork. The pace had picked up and evened out for me since I had gotten into the Honors and Advanced Placement Program. Every now and then, I’d go watch Elliott perform with his band, Fool on the Hill, when they played at local coffee houses. Elliott had always been an amazing poet, but no one had ever suspected that there was an indie band front man in there waiting to be actualized. By day, he was an unpretentious shaggy-haired high school honors student in 501s, a plain white tee and old-school Vans. By night, he was the kid in black with his hair slicked back, growling out emotive ballads in a baritone register quite low for his age. Shortly after Ali moved away, we realized that we shared similar artistic sensibilities and became conceptual collaborators.
On the first day of senior year, Elliott and I met up for our occasional lunch discussion in the quad. We were sitting out in the open under a particularly indefatigable sun, equating the misery of urban industrialization depicted by Blake in “London” to the miseries of materialism and consumerism in our own society when we noticed James Jenkins—Ronnie’s younger brother—heading toward the rallying platform in the center of the quad flanked by two other guys we’d never seen. After Ronnie and Bryan were sent away to juvie for five years for what had been classified as a hate crime, James concealed his overtures to his older brother and kept his racist sentiments to himself. Then, Elliott pointed, saying, “Put my money on the new guy.” I knew he was a Muslim because he wore a traditional white knit kufi cap tightly over his shaved head. But it wasn’t the traditional Islamic head covering that made him stand out. It was his build—massive beyond his years. He awaited his would-be adversaries with his python arms crossed over his barrel chest.
We got up and headed toward the customary circle already forming around the opponents. When we made it to within clear view of the contenders, I realized why James had it in for the newbie. Although he now had a short black beard, the face with a small scar on the lower lip was unmistakable. The next thing I knew, I was rushing in. But it was over for James before it began. He stepped up to Ali and a split second later fell back like a limp fish being tossed through a market. He hit the ground hard, bounced a little and was out cold before the other two guys took their stances—one shouting “You’re goin’ the fuck down you fuckin’ terrorist.” They were planning their attack when I stepped in front of them full of adrenaline, but the school guards rushed in and literally dragged us all away. As we were taken off in different directions, Ali stared at me in disbelief.
Even for a Friday night, La Rouge Café was packed. Fool on the Hill had really grown in popularity since they started performing a year prior. The band stood poised with instruments in hand for a few moments. Elliott had told me that this built excitement and it was true. Then, the unlikely rocker came out from the kitchen, gripped the microphone and said, “This one’s inspired by a poem by William Blake. It’s called ‘Clearly.'”
The music kicked in with a bass drum like a heartbeat. Then, a little shred on the guitar. Then, it all coalesced. Everyone was rocking and nodding their heads to the rhythm, but Ali just stared with an intensity I’d never seen as Elliott came in.
Well, if I break away these chains, will I be free,
Or will I find another illusion to imprison me?
And if I close my eyes to the world, will I finally see
A vision of…a vision of…of sublimity?
Let it be.
After all, we were born free
And when we die, our souls will be released,
But in the time in between,
I will choose sweet liberty.
I was deaf, but now I hear.
I was blind, but now I see…Clearly…
After the first part of the set, as the band took a quick break, Ali rolled up his sleeves, revealing an Omega Speedmaster on his left wrist. From the wool taj—the more cylindrical cousin of his usual kufi cap—to the custom-made Italian boots, he was decked out in black.
“Ramadan is near. It’ll be my first fast,” he said as he stared at me intently. He had emailed me a couple days prior to tell me about his decision to begin praying five times a day and fasting.
“So you’re a practicing Muslim, now, eh?” I said inquisitively.
He smiled as he hailed the waiter and ordered an espresso. “My faith is my own. I don’t like to label it. Shiite, Sunni, Sufi, those are all just a bunch of words that people use to follow someone else’s interpretations of the truth.” He’d always been mystical in his beliefs, but this was the new Ali—the Ali of action. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder if this turn of his toward religiosity was just another attempt to find some pattern of order in the chaos of this otherwise dark and ruinous age. I wanted to get into it, but it would have to wait. Elliott was back on.
After the performance, Ali and I cruised up Ventura in his new BMW 125i coupe. To say Mahmoud had grown his distant cousin’s engineering firm to quite successful proportions would be a gross understatement. Despite my trouble getting used to how big and flashy Ali had become, some things hadn’t changed. “Hey, remember this one?” He queued up a song from the controls on the steering wheel. “Welcome back to a time when rock rocked,” he said as the unmistakable first twang of Tom Morello’s guitar sounded out on Audioslave’s “Like a Stone,” and, then, like that, we were back to where we had once been, singing along with Chris Cornell as we nodded to the steady beat.
As we neared Woodman, Ali turned down the volume. “Would you like to say hello to the folks?” he asked in a somewhat ceremonious manner.
“You’re sure your parents won’t mind?” I asked. “It’s kind of late.”
Ali was either solemn or all smiles those days. At this, he smiled and said, “Are you kidding, man?”
We headed east on Woodman and Ali said, “I’ll show you where I went to school the last couple of years. It’s on the way.” We cruised by a large high school football stadium. “That’s where I used to practice and play.” I was going to ask him about his time there, but soon we rounded another corner and he said, “Here we are.”
We pulled up to the front booth of a gated community. The security guard who, despite the uniform, looked like a total surfer dude with his blond hair and blue eyes, came out and said, “Good evening, Mr. Riazati,” as he opened the gate. Ali smiled humbly and said in return, “Good evening, sir.”
We parked in the driveway then entered the house through the garage, passing a Mercedes sedan to get to a door that opened up into an enormous kitchen, where Mona was cooking dinner. She squealed with delight “Oh my God!” as she rushed over to hug me. Then, she called out “Mahmoud! Mahmoud!” And Mahmoud appeared shouting “David!” and after another round of hugs and great jubilation and a cheery dinner, we retired to the living room for some tea.
The Riazatis’ new furnishings went beyond their old sense of formality. A large ornate Persian rug covered the white marble tile floor and elegant hardwood chairs and couches with silk plush cushioning lined walls decked with paintings depicting scenes of pre-Islamic and ancient Persia. We played catch-up for a few minutes. Mahmoud talked about how they’d made a small fortune contracting their interior designers to a major private jet manufacturer. Then, a smiling Mona said, “This is just like old times.” But a moment later there was a palpable tension. I wondered if it was my being around at first, but then I realized that Ali had his solemn look. I tried to act normal, congratulating Mahmoud on his success, and that seemed to help a bit.
“God has been good to us, David. You are always most welcome here you know, and if you ever decide to go into engineering, there will be a job waiting for you. We run a family business.”
To this, Ali stood up slowly and said, “Well, man. It’s almost midnight. I better get you home.”
Mahmoud said something to Ali in Persian as we headed out. I could tell by the tone that it was a sort of kind rebuke. There was a guilt-stricken humility in Ali’s short replies of “Baleh. Baleh,” and an unresponsiveness to his mother’s kiss I couldn’t understand.
We were turning the corner to head back down Ventura when Ali finally told me the whole story. “They kicked me out of school, man,” he began as he pulled over to the side of the road next to the football field. “At first, things were pretty cool and exciting. I met some guys who played football and I started working out with them. They gave me tips on how to build muscle and I must’ve had a hormonal spurt or something because I bulked up pretty quick. I began practicing with some of these guys, tried out junior year and I actually made it. I played fullback for almost the whole season. I felt a real brotherhood with my teammates, but things started to change with my other classmates near the end of last year. I can’t say the preaching was one-sided. I made it my mission to educate them as well. I had read and studied the Bible and no one was going to tell me how I ought to regard Jesus. One day, in Church History class, as we were nearing the end of our study of the Reformation, the teacher had us split up into two groups. One group pretended to be Protestant and the other Catholic, and I ended up in the Protestant camp. Each person had a chance to ask the other group a question. The teacher’s intentions were good. He meant to show that Christianity is still one faith at the end of the day and that it could be healed. I’m not saying I regret what I said, but I do feel like I could have been more subtle. When it was my turn, I asked the Catholics why the Pope who is supposed to be the imago Christi lives in a palace and hoards worldly treasures when so many people are starving and dying throughout the world. No one wanted to answer, so the teacher chimed in, saying that for every priest that serves with the majesty of the Holy Father, there are a dozen monks who live a life of glorious poverty, prayer and service to humanity.”
“And they kicked you out for that!” I exclaimed.
“No, but it pissed off a lot of people. So, my parents and I had to meet with the principal, and I was suspended from football. It was the first time my father had ever seriously yelled at me. He was right. Sometimes I just don’t think. I certainly wasn’t thinking when some of the more rebellious students who thought what I had done was cool invited me to drive out with them to Joshua Tree. I hadn’t seen the dark side of private Catholic school yet, so I really didn’t know. Halfway to the desert, a bag of shrooms came out and went around. By the time we got to the park, everyone was out of their minds. I took the driver’s keys right out of his pocket without him even realizing it and walked off from the group to be on my own. I was sitting under a large Joshua tree and staring at a mirage when I think I had a vision. In the distance, I saw a Middle Eastern-looking man dressed in a white robe materialize. He had an almost fiery glow around his body. He walked toward me a bit—close enough that I could see his face—and waved at me with both arms to come to him. I got a bit scared, so I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them back up he was gone.”
“What did it feel like—the shrooms,” I asked.
“That’s the thing, man. I never touched the shrooms,” he replied. “I never touched them. I drove everyone home, left the car in the original driver’s parking lot and thought it was all over, but some of the parents found out about their kids and everyone blamed it on me and that was it.”
When the buzzing in my head stopped and my wits returned, I pushed myself up from the couch. How often had we sat there together, watching movies and just talking about life? I bent over and pulled out the envelope from the shattered glass, and I realized that as Mahmoud told me the news I’d dreaded to hear, it was the first time he’d ever called me “son.”
Ali had been in Afghanistan for almost a year and I’d heard from him only two other times since he’d left. In his first letter, he extolled the courage and honor of his fellow soldiers and described his service as an interpreter during meetings between his NATO commanders and tribal leaders. Because the tribal leaders would often pay more attention to him since he looked more like them, he was given more training in direct negotiations. He was particularly proud of the fact that he had helped unite two neighboring tribes that had been loyal to the Taliban into a new local council. But in terms of the status of women and children, Ali was appalled.
“They,” referring to his parents, “had always taught me that Islam is a religion of peace. I told them that I could no longer allow it to be hijacked by barbarians. This is why I had to come here,” he continued. “But this society will collapse if we cannot secure equal participation for these women and children. This will require a change in culture that I’m beginning to believe we simply do not have the capability of engendering.”
If only I could’ve talked with him sooner. It was the last home game of the football season right before graduation. There had been an announcement in homeroom earlier that week that there would be a special military demonstration on the field before the game. As the crowd swelled the stadium, the introduction blared from the loud speakers. Clearly, everyone had expected to see troops display some tactical maneuvers. Those who were still shuffling in didn’t seem fazed by the prospect. But just as the announcer was finishing his spiel, the distinct sound of helicopter blades could be heard above the din and, suddenly, there was a CH-47 Chinook hovering above the windswept field. Everyone froze. Ropes were dropped and six Army troops quickly descended, dispersed in different directions, and planted flags representing all the countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force. In a matter of minutes, the vehicle had landed and the soldiers had carried out their mission and, as the swooshing sound of the chopper faded into the distance, the crowd cheered for the perfect circle of flags left in the center of the field. I let out a “Psht” as I turned to Ali, but he hadn’t heard me. He just sat there with eyes wide open and full of fire.
I opened the envelope from the side so it would still seem sealed at a certain angle in the future. I sat back down on the couch and took out the letter. With hands trembling, I unfolded the single sheet, and there, on the regular ruled paper, Ali had written in his own neat handwriting:
You were right.
God, David. You were so oblivious. The day after graduation, I headed from work to Elliott’s party in my brand new fully loaded black Toyota Prius feeling quite self-righteous. Even after paying all my bills and helping my mom out, I was still saving a few hundred a month from my work at MetroCenters, so I thought it would be fun to show up at the party in full black Armani for the sheer fun of surprising Ali. He tried his best to feign surprise, but his solemn look gave his wayward thoughts away. About a half-hour later, he said he had something really important to tell me, so we headed outside to the backyard to get away from the crowd.
At first, I thought he was putting one over on me. “Alright. Ha ha,” I said while giving him a salute. But his words were filled with such solemnity and his eyes were so full of zeal that I quickly realized it was no joke.
“You did what? Are you crazy?” I yelled.
He tried to smile. “Calm down, man. You’re going to have to be calm. I’m going to need you to be my wingman tonight. I have to tell my parents.”
“You haven’t told your parents?” I yelled. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Listen, man!” he yelled with fierceness and a tension in his voice and body that scared me. “It’s done! Okay?!” He must have realized that he had frightened me because he dropped back down to continue in a rational tone. “This is what I’ve got to do. The world needs help. I’m no humanitarian. I’m certainly not going to be the man my father wants me to be. You think these clothes, the car, that kind of thing is what I’m all about? I’m not saying these things are bad. I know they just want me to be happy…”
My chest tightened and my brow tensed as he hunched over for a moment and when he came back up there were tears streaming down both our faces.
“…I know my parents just want to keep me close and safe,” he said hoarsely, “but safety’s an illusion. People are suffering out there, David.”
“C’mon man,” I cried. “You can’t change the world like this. No one can.”
I tried to reason with him for hours. Mahmoud had called me later that evening, crying and begging me to convince him to try some other way. But we had already said what we could and Ali’s response had been the same each time.
“I can’t wait that long.”
Bret Kaufman is a College English Instructor, Writer, and Global Citizen. His short stories have appeared in The Northridge Review and The Fast-Forward Festival. He is currently involved in various literary and academic endeavors, some of which are highlighted on his website http://www.bretkaufman.com.