When We First Met

"It was the best of times," he said.

"It was the worst of times," I replied, "A Tale of Two Cities."

"You know Dickens?"

"Of course, I know Dickens!" I said. "Have you read Bleak House?"

"Yes, I have," he replied. "Do you read Shakespeare? I just love Shakespeare."

"Yes, I have read Shakespeare."

"How about Hemingway?"

"For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, that guy and the sea."

I may have rhymed off a few more.

"What about Marx, Engel, Nietzsche, Goethe?"

"I know of them," I admitted. I had taken a course in Marxist economics called Marx’s Theory of Value at Simon Fraser University during my I think I want to be an economist phase.

We discussed Engel’s influence on Marx and his significant contribution to Das Capital and how managers of capital have replaced the owners of capital as those who are disproportionately rewarded for their contribution to the economy.

At one point during our discussion he remarked how nice it was to meet someone in a bar who could talk about more than beer and sports (the last time we would ever meet in a bar setting). I did not feel it was necessary to explain that Canadians have been conditioned not to indulge in more than superficial discussions with members of other cultures for fear of offending.

He wanted to discuss literature and poetry and that was fine with me, although, when it comes to poetry I know what I like and that’s about it.

At one point, our discussion veered into the nature of evil. What can you expect when you throw Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche into the mix. He was convinced that everyone was born good, that “evil” was a learned behaviour, and that religion was the great teacher.

I listened to what he had to say, for he obviously had had to come to terms with the nature of evil in a very personal way.

I don’t usually give out my phone number to someone I have just met in a bar. However, when he took out a book from his well-stocked book bag and asked me to write my number in it, I couldn’t resist. The book was Emma by Jane Austin; the book that had marked my transition from I think I want to be economist to I want to be a writer.

Sohrab called the very next day and asked if we could meet for coffee at a Tim Horton's on Bank Street, a few blocks from Parliament Hill. On my way, I picked up a copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. From our discussion the previous evening, I assumed he had not read it. I was wrong. When I offered it to him as a gift he gracefully decline. He had read the book.

“As a memoir it was okay,” he said, “but it was not literature.” An opinion with which I strongly disagreed at the time. That was until we collaborated on Days of Pain and Madness. Now I only mildly disagree.

He also had a book for me, a pre-war biography of Goethe by Von Houston Stewart Chamberlain… in German. I had assumed he had not read Lolita, he had assumed from our discussion that I could read German. We both agreed that we may have had a little too much to drink the night before.

I then asked the question that was uppermost in my mind.

“Are you a Muslim?”

“Yes, I am Muslim;” he replied “I was born in Iran, the son of a carpet-maker.”

I sort of apologized for asking him about his faith, but for me it was important. I explained that I had a somewhat obscure website where I occasionally wrote about Islam and I would love to have his opinion.

He had brought with him some of his poetry which he took out of that same well-stocked book-bag and asked if I would take it with me to read so I could tell him what I thought of his writing next time we met.

I immediately started making excuses to avoid having to read his poems. As he was putting those rumpled sheets of paper back into his bag I recognized the look.

“Give me a few of your poems and let me read them now,” I said.

I read the first poem.

“That is a very lonely poem,” I heard myself saying.

It was a completely inadequate description of the poem of a man whose life experiences completely transcended the simple cottage-like existence of ordinary Canadians. An unedited excerpt:

All my being is like a dark verse

which repeatedly

takes you into sun rising infinite growth and ornaments

   and my entire existence

     being squeezed and forced

          through small hole of


So I consider my life

               is spent sooner than

half my days in this

               dark world wide

               the intellectual release had

                    been none,

               the less marked

                         than the physical

 By servitude

      and have the mind in prison

               I must say

               bravery is fear my friend

 And I feel

          exiled and squeezed

          like a thin line of substance,

 twisted and drawn out to infinity

His love of literature was only exceeded by his love of carpets - oriental carpets - with an Iranian’s affection for the Persian variety.

“Do you know,” he boasted “that one of the oldest rugs in the world was a Persian rug found at the bottom of a Russian lake?

Did I know that when Islam came to Persia, making carpets was forbidden? It was only when some carpet makers came up with the idea of weaving verses from the Koran into their carpets that the ban was lifted. “It is from that period,” he said, “that we have the Muslim prayer rug.”

Sohrab, since coming to Canada as a refugee, made his living cleaning and restoring oriental carpets. He claimed to have been called to Brian Mulroney’s house when he was Prime Minister to remove a stain from a carpet that had resisted all modern techniques to eliminate it. A simple treatment, he explained, using yogurt did the trick.

On another occasion he said he was called in to repair a beautiful, expensive silk carpet that the Shah of Iran had given the late Mitchell Sharp when he was Secretary of State for External Affairs. It seems Mr. Sharp’s dog had chewed off a corner. He simply got some silk thread and re-weaved the damaged portion of the carpet.

Mr. Sharp was so impressed with his repair, he said for he recommended him to Canada's first female Secretary of State for External Affairs whose apartment, from Sohrab's description, had more riches from antiquity than many museums.

He continued talking about how he had fixed rugs for the rich and powerful of Ottawa. I took him at his word, even though his humble circumstances left me wondering. The reason should have been obvious.

We started getting together in the morning at a Tim Hortons on Bank Street a few blocks from Parliament Hill where we would review his poetry and that of others, and talk current events (mostly about news from the Middle East and Iran) and his extraordinary life. It was both fun and somber at times, but always informative until one morning he was particularly argumentative about what was an obvious grammatical error in one of his poems.

I know, it sounds ridiculous, two people whose second language is English arguing about English grammar. Then he started slurring his words. It was eleven in the morning and he was drunk. I then realized that at other times when I overlooked his difficulty in expressing himself, it was not because he had an inadequate command of the English language.

My father was an alcoholic. I told him that I had disowned my father because of his drinking (I had not, but I could have) and that I was prepared to disown him as a friend if he ever showed up drunk again. The next time we met he displayed no signs of intoxication.  I was late for another of our get-together. He had managed to secure our favourite corner table with windows on Bank and Cooper. He more than made himself at home. Papers were scattered everywhere, on the table, on the floor, with books acting as paperweights. In the middle of this paper tsunami was Sohrab, slumped in his chair. His enthusiasm at seeing me could not obscure the fact that he was stone cold drunk.

I stood there telling him it was over, that I never wanted to see him again with a packed Tim Hortons looking on. I had never done something like that before, and hope I never have to do so again. I glanced back as the door to Tim's closed behind me. There he was, still slumped among his papers; not the slump or the look of a drunk anymore, but that of someone whose world has just come crashing down around him. It took everything I had not to rush back in and do something. But I knew I couldn't help him. Like I said before, my father was a drunk.

We used to meet once or twice a week. In between, Sohrab would call to say hello. It had been about seven days or so since I left him alone and dejected at that Tim Hortons when the phone rang. He asked if we could still be friends. Before I could answer, he said that he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and move into a place where no drugs and booze were allowed. As they say, the rest is history. In April of 2019 he celebrated being sober for 14 years and counting.

Bernard Payeur, January 30, 2006, Updated November 30, 2019