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Robert W. Norris, expatriate author
Robert W. Norris, Expatriate Author
A Vietnam War conscientious objector's adventures and search for identity on the road from Paris to Calcutta in 1977.
David Thompson is a former Vietnam War conscientious objector in Paris on a quest to find himself in the early days of 1977. When he befriends an Iranian and an Afghan and is invited to return with them to their countries, his quest slowly becomes a descent into his own private hell. On the road from Europe to the East he encounters Kurdish bandits in the eastern mountains of Turkey, becomes involved with an underground group opposed to the Shah in Iran, escapes to Afghanistan, passes through Pakistan during the uprising against the Bhutto regime, and suffers extreme sickness on the streets of Delhi and Calcutta.
Although continually searching for the happiness and identity he could not find in the U.S., he cannot easily shed his American past. Throughout the journey he is hounded by the demons of memory, particularly that of his father, a World War II hero who disowned David and died while David was still in prison. The story is interspersed with a multitude of characters whose philosophical, political, and religious opinions influence David greatly in his search. The journey itself becomes a physical manifestation of his struggle to achieve reconciliation with his own conscience.
I had just returned to the Hotel des Mines on Boulevard Saint Michel from one of my customary evening walks. As I approached the front desk to retrieve my room key I noticed the two Asiatics. They were speaking and gesticulating excitedly in an attempt to communicate a message to the desk clerk, who spoke only French.
The taller of the two turned to me and asked, "Do you speak English?"
"Yes, I do."
"This man does not speak English. We must leave an important message and he does not understand. Can you help us?"
"Perhaps. What's the message?"
He explained that a German friend named Thomas Knorr would call the hotel and was to be told the two had arrived in Paris and would meet him in the German town of Lorrach in a matter of days. There was some urgency concerning a business transaction. I had learned enough French in my two months in Paris to give a crude interpretation. The desk clerk said he would relay the message if the German called.
"Allah be praised," the Asiatics exclaimed, throwing their arms in the air. "Let us celebrate your arrival at a good time. Come, we shall have some tea."
The three of us proceeded across the street to a tea shop, and made our introductions. The taller man, Hasan Fahtami, was a carpet dealer from Iran. He was in Paris looking to expand his family business. He had been to Europe once before. He was thin, clean-shaven, and well-dressed in European clothes. He had intelligent, dark eyes, and a bright smile. His companion was an Afghan named Ataullah Abduli, who was part owner of a small motel in Kabul. It was his first time out of Afghanistan. Ataullah was also dressed in Western clothes -- boots, jeans, denim jacket -- but his clothes were worn and shabby. He was shorter than Hasan, but much stockier. He had a thick, wiry, black beard, a prominent nose, and a full head of black hair.
"You were very kind to help us, Mr. Thompson," Hasan said.
"It was nothing really. Please call me David."
"I will call you David-jan. Jan means 'soul' in Farsi, but we use it to mean 'good friend.' We are strangers to you, but you helped us anyway. No other people in this country help us. The French never help us. They never speak English and I know many of them do. It makes me angry when they refuse to speak English. They think they are better than we are. The people in our countries always help strangers. They are friendly people. I hate this country. The people are too cold. You should visit Iran and Afghanistan. They are ten times better than France. We are staying in Paris only a few days to make some business contacts. Then we will go to Germany. And you, David-jan, what do you think of France? Do you plan to be in Paris very long?"
"My experience here hasn't been too bad, but it is expensive and I don't know how long I can stay. I have no income and I don't think the money I have will last very long. Is it difficult to find work in Iran? Is it expensive there?"
Hasan told me there would be no problems finding a job. There were many Americans working in the oil business and many others teaching English. The cost of living was not high, libraries were free to use, a room would be easy to find, and the affability of his people would make me want to spit on Paris. Ataullah nodded in agreement. So impressed were they with the friendliness I had displayed that, much to my amazement, both Hasan and Ataullah offered their services and friendship if I would return to their countries with them. Dreams of adventure danced in my mind. I wasted no time agreeing to their proposal. They appeared pleased with my decision.
For the next two days I took time to help my new friends. I acted as their guide, taking them to all the favorite places in Paris I had discovered. I helped them buy gifts to take back to loved ones, secured their train tickets to Germany, and helped in processing their visas.
"You are very different from the other Americans," Hasan often said. "You do not act so proud and arrogant and rich. You are not afraid to mix with others who are different from yourself. You will like Asia very much."
Ataullah, in particular, fascinated me. Hasan was more westernized in his dress, his mannerisms, the way he expressed himself. He was ingratiating when dealing with someone he believed higher on the social hierarchy than himself, someone from whom he could gain something. Ataullah, on the other hand, was reserved and unpretentious. He seemed awed by the immensity of the buildings as we paced the streets, baffled by the complexity of the traffic, disgusted with the hectic pace of a city where few people had time for one another.
I spent an entire day alone with Ataullah shopping and walking around. The first day we met he had been dressed in Western clothes, but on this day when he showed up at my room, he was dressed in his native attire. To my eyes he appeared to be wearing a loose set of brown pajamas. A brown cloth was also wrapped around his head with the tail tossed over his left shoulder. Ataullah took no notice of the smirks cast his way as people passed him in the streets. He seemed completely unaware of the strange appearance he projected.
As the day passed, I learned Ataullah came from a nomad family in the Afghan desert and possessed no formal education. He could not read or write. He had gone to Kabul as a boy. At first he sold pudding in the streets, then became an errand boy in a small motel. He saved every scrap of money he could until eventually buying half interest in the motel. Five of his brothers had moved from the desert to help him run the motel. This was his first venture outside his country, something few of his countrymen were able to do. He had saved enough money to buy a passport, telling the government the trip was for business. His journey to the West was comparable to a man being thrust suddenly from the days of the Old Testament into the twentieth century. To Ataullah, Paris was like travelling to a distant galaxy far superior in technology and material goods, but inferior in the quality of its life. He said he missed the simplicity and the leisureliness of Afghanistan. His almond-shaped eyes scanned everything with an air of mistrust. What impressed me most about Ataullah was that, despite his apparent simplicity, he had been able to pick up portions of three foreign languages -- English, German, and Farsi -- and communicate in them, even if in an unpolished manner.
At the end of the day as he boarded a train to Lorrach two days in advance of Hasan, Ataullah said, "I am thankful to you forever, David-jan. I shall not forget. I am Afghan. You come to my country and everything I have is yours."
I spent most of the next two days with Hasan. Although we were approximately the same age, Hasan assumed the attitude of an older brother, one who had experienced more of the world's joys and maladies and thus was responsible for passing on what he had learned. He asked few questions about my own life. I was glad of that. I was tired of constantly explaining myself to others. The things Hasan spoke about were so different and engaging -- his military life as a driver for a general, his travels throughout Asia and East Europe, the customs and rituals of Iranian life, his many love affairs – that it was natural for me to acquiesce and listen patiently. Hasan seemed pleased to have such an attentive audience.
It seemed his exposure to the world outside of Iran had corrupted Hasan to a certain degree, but I admired him. He was an adventure-seeker, a quality to which I had a strong attraction. When he boarded the train to Lorrach the next day, we agreed to meet again in Germany. He gave me Thomas Knorr's address and phone number. I could reach both Ataullah and him there. I was to wait for two weeks to give him time to buy a car that he would later sell in Iran to cover the cost of the journey