Author: Sudabeh Mohafez
Translator: Kate Roy
He’s there again. In all his glory: luminous, shimmering, irresistible. He’s there again and has taken me by surprise, as always. He always arrives unannounced. He comes and goes as he pleases. Today he caught up with me on the Weidendamm Bridge. Behind me, the evening rush-hour traffic speeds along Friedrichstraße. Next to me, my bicycle leans against the wrought-iron railings. Between the Tränenpalast and the old Brecht Theatre I look into the setting sun, mirrored in the Spree, glittering and dazzling. There, on the water, he stands, huge, silent and invincible. Damāvand. The mountain. The crown of Tehran. He stands on the water, grows out of it to his height of almost six thousand metres, spreads himself out to the left and to the right over the banks of the Spree, rests on streets and houses, and his white-covered head shines brighter than the Berlin evening sun.
My throat is raw. I’ve had this before. First comes the shortness of breath, then the lump in the throat. I know that it goes away if I stay calm and don’t question what I see. I’ve tried everything. Simple things like turning around or running away, more costly ones, like taking all manner of drugs. But it’s no use. If he appears all of a sudden, Damāvand, then he has his reasons. Then he won’t let himself be driven away; then he stays where he is and for as long as he wants. In any case, it would be foolish to wish for that. To drive away a mountain, to scare off, chase off the mountain of mountains, how childish.
So I breathe out fully, wait a fraction of a second, breathe in again and gaze at the vast, rocky massif that has turned up so unexpectedly in my little fissured Berlin. The calm of Damāvand can be felt even down here, and the browny-blue shimmer of his creased, cracked and jagged sides rests right over the Centre of Berlin, my old new home. The ochre-coloured village at his feet dozes in the evening sun, though I know that in reality it no longer exists. The city has consumed it. Maybe it’s become the old quarter at the heart of a new district, though more likely it’s been razed to the ground and disappeared. But not its residents, who are poor and dispensable. Yes, it’s most likely ended up like that. The village will have made way for new multi-storied apartment blocks made of cheap concrete, which will be rented out until the concrete’s fully dry, like the Wilhelminian-style houses in Berlin before the turn of the century. Rented out until the concrete’s fully dry to the people who used to live there before in mud houses and small homes nestled into the rock face, made of clay bricks they’d fired themselves.
The horn concerto of the Tehran traffic floods my ears like music. The Schiffbauerdamm is all draped with coloured lights, it must be a holiday, and my mouth waters when I spot the men crouching by the roadside next to their small kerosene ovens selling labu, beetroot cooked in salty water.
At the base of Damāvand’s slopes in North Tehran the Spree flows under my feet, and one of the punks who’ve set up camp outside the Tränenpalast wants to scrounge cigarettes. I tell her that I can’t give her any because I’ve given up. She doesn’t believe me and demands at least one. I ask if she can see the mountain. All she can see is a dumb bitch, and right where I’m standing, she replies. She whistles for her dog and leaves.
I turn back to the highest of the high. Smoking wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. I’d inhale deeply and send a long, silvery grey streak into the air. Into the air in front of me, in front of my face. A smokescreen that would cloud my vision and shroud me from view, shroud me from the mountain. Only for a second of course, for a fraction of a second. In any case, it would be foolish to wish for that. To hide myself from the mountain, from the mountain of mountains, to make myself go away, to evade him, to escape.
I absent-mindedly feel around in my jacket pocket for a forgotten packet of cigarettes, but it’s been too long since I stopped smoking. I still remember the moment well. We were sitting on the steps of a small shop which stood empty, like most of the apartments in the old, run-down building. We, that was Mira and me. She smoked filterless cigarettes that smelt like pipe smoke, and brought stories along with her. I was responsible for a six-pack of cheap beer and a pile of old newspapers to keep out the cold from underneath us. By then I had already switched to light cigarettes, which meant I had to put up with Mira mocking me every evening. From the end of March to the beginning of October we sat on the steps till way past midnight, had three beers each and lost ourselves in Mira’s stories. They were dreams for the future or tales from the past. But one thing was constant: they always played out in Berlin, in Mira’s Berlin, a city I didn’t know, and whose streets were lined with prisons, asylums and shelters. They were mainly inhabited by poor prostitutes, rich prostitutes, children and dogs. They were brimming with politics, politics galore. Politics from below. Mira swore by that.
We didn’t talk about my Berlin. Mira wasn’t interested in it, and I could understand that because my Berlin was a blurry one. One you couldn’t see clearly, that constantly eluded you, and stayed somehow shadowy. It was like me: an oddball, a bit lost, unattractive, contradictory and scarred.
On one of these evenings we found ourselves in the Söthstraße prison where women with bent backs were making wooden clothes-pegs. Mira was narrating the tale of a passionate love affair that played out here, only to end, a few years later, as dramatically as it had begun, in Italy of all places. Completely immersed in her story, I was repeatedly stubbing out my thirty-seventh cigarette of the evening on the ground, and when I finally dropped the butt I suddenly couldn’t breathe any more. I was gasping and making squeaky, groaning noises. Panic-stricken, I thought that life can’t end out of the blue like that, so unexpectedly and in such a mean way, and, over the noise building up in my ears, I heard a voice. It shouted again and again, “Breathe out! You have to breathe out!” It was Mira. She repeated this command over and over as she yanked my arms up high over my head – a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. I haven’t smoked again since.
I told Mira about Damāvand once. He was standing right there in our courtyard. I thought about it for a bit, summed up the courage, and asked her if she could see him.
“Who?” she wanted to know.
“The mountain,” I said quietly, “there, in front of us.”
We were sitting on the windowsill of our hole of an apartment on the fourth floor of an old building and looking down. It was late summer or early autumn, the golden glow of the sun’s last rays hung over the courtyard, a couple of cobwebs were spun out, attached somewhere by invisible threads, seemingly suspended in the nothingness in front of us, and there was a smell of earth in defiance of the city all around us. Damāvand was standing right in front of us. I had to tilt my head right back to see his snow-capped peak. I was glad he was near me, and thought of my father and how he’d taught me about geological formations on a trip to the mountains. He talked about animals that had lived here hundreds of thousands of years ago. That had lived underwater, since we were walking on sedimentary rock. On an ancient ocean floor that had been pushed to the earth’s surface by titanic forces; ammonites, trilobites, animals from prehistoric times with Latin names, buried deep in the rock.
“Nah, can’t see yer moun’in,” said Mira, after a glance at the courtyard.
I told her about him then. How he appeared first on the plane, and I was afraid that the plane wouldn’t be able to carry the weight. We passengers, the stewardesses, the seats and the small oval windows were shimmering in Damāvand, just as the ivy and the front of the building across the courtyard were now, while under us, silently, unheeded, my Tehran was fading away. I told Mira too how the mountain next turned up at my school in Berlin. In P.E. with Mr. Katzing, and while I was cleaning Mrs. Malikowski’s apartment. Anywhere really. Over and over again.
“And, well, now he’s here in the courtyard. He’s been here for a while this time. Nearly two weeks, I think.”
Mira was silent. After a moment she swung her legs over the windowsill, got herself a can of beer from our latest acquisition, the fridge, which was our pride and joy because it hadn’t cost anything and guaranteed a chilled Pilsner anytime, and sat back down next to me. A hiss flitted through the kitchen as she lifted the ring pull with a practised flick. Like every other beer, Mira drank this one slowly, with full appreciation. When she was finished, she surveyed the courtyard for a while, thoughtfully.
“Still can’t see ‘im, yer moun’in,” she said, swinging her legs.
I nodded and we fell silent again for a while. Then Mira pointed to the silhouette of Mr. Börne which was visible in the frosted glass panel in his kitchen opposite us. He’d fitted it there because he knew that when we weren’t sitting downstairs on the steps, Mira and I hung out up here and looked into his kitchen. But the kitchen had recently been furnished with a shower cabinet. Clearly the new views which that would afford were going too far for Mr. Börne, and so, with the help of the frosted panel, he’d narrowed our field of view to something more acceptable. Mira gestured with her can at Mr. Börne’s shadow on the glass and said that it reminded her of Max, and with that she began a new story.
Mr. Börne’s shadow there in front of me, I give up the search for cigarettes and take my hand out of my pocket. Something paws the pavement near me. A donkey is standing next to my bicycle. The mountain has never gone this far before. I focus on breathing, in, out, in, and find to my relief that the little boy sitting on the animal is blond, and, what’s more, is accompanied by a colourfully clothed, well-fed man, whose head is adorned with a jester’s hat crowned with little bells. He’s rattling a small can with some coins in it. The trio are collecting donations for a circus that’s performing in Schöneberg. I need my money myself, shake my head and think that the child should really be in bed. This thought earns the stranger a reproachful look, which he doesn’t understand. The small grey donkey gives a muted snort and I could swear that he’s grinning at me when he looks up at me. In my mind I tell him that I should really be heading home too. The donkey nods, content. I reach for my bicycle and turn around to wave at Damāvand.
But he’s vanished, like he has so many times before. And the old Spree, she’s lapping and rippling as if nothing has happened, nothing at all.
From Wüstenhimmel Sternenland by Sudabeh Mohafez
© Arche Verlag, Zurich/Hamburg, 2004
All rights reserved
Translation © Kate Roy