I once worked in an office with a very sensitive and kind man named Amir. He was a single man of about forty years old and wrote beautiful poetry, which he occasionally shared with the rest of us. Amir was quietly spoken man who had migrated from Iran. He had a gentle accent, lively brown eyes and a mass of black and grey frizzy hair, which stood straight up like the American boxing manager, Don King’s hair.
Amir was one of the most interesting people at work and everybody enjoyed his company. He was socially and politically astute and always had a wise story to share – which often helped somebody in the room. His words were always valued, highly regard and taken in with complete respect by anybody fortunate enough to come into contact with him.
One day, he arrived at work in a very excited mood. He told us that after spending over twelve months writing many letters and making many phone calls; he had finally secured the release of his brother from a political prison in Iran. We didn’t know it, but Amir’s brother had been in an Iranian prison for eight years, and the entire office staff anticipated a joyful reunion for them both.
A few weeks later Amir set off to the airport to bring his brother home. His casual jeans were replaced with smart slacks, and his polo shirt replaced with a crisp, freshly ironed cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up a little at the wrists. His hair was slicked back, resembling a better organised mass of frizz and his body language was like that of a child on Christmas Eve. Amir’s fingers fidgeted and he couldn’t stand still. His face glowed and there was no pause to his persistent smile. His emotions were like fireworks and nobody resisted the temptation of being swept along in his nervous excitement.
Amir didn’t know what to expect in meeting his brother. The Embassy tried to prepare him but, despite their help, the humble shell of a man he met at the airport was a frightful shock. Amir recognized that the thin, dazed man was his brother, but he wasn’t the strong, feisty person Amir had seen 8 years ago. There was no eye contact when they met and no affectionate embrace.
The brother had been tortured and locked in a 3 x 3 metre prison cell for the entire 8 years. He had become unaccustomed to human touch, sunlight, conversation, relaxation, regular meals, helping himself to water when he was thirsty or sleeping. They arrived at Amir’s home and the brother silently placed himself into the corner of the lounge room, pacing a 3 x 3 metre area, like he did in prison. When Amir spoke to him, the poor brother stood to attention, muttered an obedient and submissive response, and continued pacing. Poor Amir didn’t know what to do with him. He took long service leave to stay with his brother. The reunion wasn’t even close to being a loving embrace of long lost brothers – it was a confusion of identities.
Two months later Amir returned to work and, to our surprise, he was different. His strong, square shoulders had slumped and his speech sounded monotonous, almost defeated. We imagined he might have been sad and that he wouldn’t be sharing any wonderful stories of his homeland or his brother. We were all shocked to the core by the depth of the sadness.
Nobody knew what to say or how to behave, we just smiled in respectful acknowledgement and gave short, reassuring hugs. We didn’t talk in our usual cheerful tone; we whispered in hushed tones like at a church or funeral. I felt guilty about having such an easy life – maybe we all did. An awkward hush filled the office.
Zoe broke the silence after lunch. She had a mug of coffee in her hand and asked loudly, “who wants to hear a funny story?”
I thought she was taking a risk and wondered if her boisterous invitation was offensive to the grieving in the office. We gathered around her computer terminal and waited for a response from Amir. “Come on Amir!” she beckoned with enthusiasm.
He stood and made his way to the gathering of women. Zoe was about 24 years old, and she had an innocence about the way she spoke. She began by telling us her story is about her hen’s party back in Turkey.
Amir looked distant, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. Rose put her arm across his back, around his shoulders, and his focus returned to Zoe. She was saying she was still in her teens and living in Turkey when her family announced they’d arranged her marriage and that Zoe’s godmother had organized a hen’s party for the following week, in her honour.
Each guest arrived, handing Zoe a beautifully embroidered serviette. She said she was confused about what to do with them, as they weren’t of a matching set. She decided to ask her godmother’s advice.
“Godmother, why do they offer me these serviettes? They are of no use because they are not matching.”
“Match? Match with what?” replied the Godmother.
“A matching set.”
The Godmother smiled, reached her arms forward and squeezed the sides of Zoe’s face between her thumb and forefinger. “My child, these are for the bedroom. They are for cleaning up after….” The Godmother’s hands gestured toward her own lap to complete the sentence.
“Do you mean after my husband and I have…? Not to put on my tables?”
The godmother nodded and couldn’t wait to tell the other guests of how beautifully innocent and especially virginal her godchild was. Zoe said her face was so red that she swears some vessels burst near her left eye.
Zoe’s story lifted Amir’s spirits and, for the first time since leaving for the airport two months earlier, he laughed. Colour returned to his grey face, his eyes lit up and we caught a glimpse of that familiar smile.
Amir laughed too long, too hard, and too loud… we all did. The ice was broken. Life in the office began to return to normal after Zoe’s story.
(*Names have been changed to protect privacy)
(Photo from http://www.gamac.info)