When We First Met
He walked into what is today the ClockTower pub on Bank Street and made his way to the bar, siting kitty-corner to me a few stools down. He ordered a vodka shooter, then another, then mumbled into the empty glass, loud enough for me to hear, “This is the worst of times.”
I couldn’t resist: “… and the best of times,” I replied "A Tale of Two Cities."
He looked up at me with a perplexed look on his face. "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."
"What about Marx, Engel, Nietzsche and 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. Like me, Abbas was exposed to the discredited ideology of the man who famously condemned religion as “the opium of the people” as a college student during the time of the Shah.
I asked him if he was Muslim.
He said yes, but his hands, in a gesture which was meant to reassure me, told a different story.
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.
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).
Our conversation would veer into the nature of evil. What can you expect when you throw Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche into the mix?
I listened to what he had to say, for he obviously had had to come to terms with 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 Austen, the book that had marked my transition from, I think I want to be economist to I want to be a writer.
Abbas called the very next day and asked if we could meet for coffee at a Tim Hortons 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 declined. 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, a story about his time in Iran’s notorious Evin prison (see www.boreal.ca/Iran/Sohrab.htm). 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.
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 with me to read so I could tell him what I thought of his writing the 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.
The first line from a poem by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad said it all: “All my being is like a dark verse.”
“That is a very lonely poem,” I heard myself saying.
I would come to understand why a man whose life experiences completely transcended the simple cottage-like existence of ordinary Canadians would choose such a poem to describe his existence.
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.”
Abbas, since coming to Canada as a refugee, made his living cleaning and restoring oriental carpets. He claimed to have been called to 24 Sussex Drive when Brian Mulroney 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.
He talked 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 Tim Hortons 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. He started slurring his words. It was eleven in the morning and he was drunk. I then realized that at other times when I had 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-togethers. 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 Abbas, 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, Abbas would call to say hello. It had been about seven days or so since I left him alone and dejected when the phone rang. He asked if we could still be friends. Before I could answer, he said he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and moved into a place where no drugs and booze were allowed.
As they say, the rest is history. In April of 2020 he celebrated being sober for 15 years and counting, and being the best friend an unbeliever could hope for.
Bernard Payeur, January 30, 2006, Updated November 30, 2019