Sunday, July 10, 2005

I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Sal Taki...

... A medium height, gentle-mannered, moustachioed man who sat next to us on the flight from New York to Salt Lake city on May 14th, 2005.

Sal [or Saleh, to be authentic]lives and works in Arizona, and was on a flight back home from Baghdad, which is where he was born. Where his family lives. Where he hasn't been since he was 17, which was a little more than a couple of decades ago.

He had been visiting his family, and had just spent six months with them.

He wanted to exchange seats: thats how it all started. Frequent visits to the high-pressured hell hole a.k.a the inflight loo did not call for a window seat. "I've not been well", he said, gently crumpled in his sky blue long sleeved shirt. I nodded, and complied- God knows anyone suffering on a flight that day had my sympathy. I had decided that trans-atlantic flights were the nearest you could get to Dante's purgatory.

Actually, wait.

That wasn't quite how it started. It started, at the very beginning, with Saleh asking me something in portuguese. My startled look made him switch to spanish. A pretty disgruntled "Im sorry?!?" got him to switch to the Queen's Own. He hurried to explain that he had thought I was a latina, which is why he had tried them lingos.

Madre de dios. I was curious- First, that someone could think I looked latin. Second, that this man who distinctly looked turkish-kurdish was speaking to an Indian in portuguese. The mind swum with the expansiveness of globalization... but then recovered quickly, for Saleh Taki was speaking to me.

Im not quite sure how this happened. Americans, and anyone who's lived in America for a justifiable length of time are notorious for their ability to small talk. It took a while for me to get used to bus driver's asking "hey, how are ya?" and me answering that with a "great, you?" with smiles and nods finishing the act. But this wasn't small talk. Saleh with the smiling moustachios and tired eyes wanted to know where we came from and why, and sounded a congratulatory grunt on hearing about the scholarship. He then proceeded to tell us that he lived in Arizona, and worked a lot with mexican and portuguese immigrants and I somehow reminded him of one. Concillatory nods all around. Delta airline staff supercilliously walking up and down, straightening hair and telling people to sit upright. The pilot drawls. The plane takes off. Ben [my ever faithful companion on this trail] dozes gently. Sal and I, sitting at an incline till we reach 3000 feet, talk about his home, his family, and what he does and why he does it in Arizona.

Biochemistry called, when he was a young lad. He set out by himself then, and though visa-wise the cross-over was easier for him than students like us now, there was none of the soft cushioning we received. No talk of culture shock. No family, and few calls back home. Sal Taki came as a boy, determined to leave what he saw and knew in Baghdad, wanting a new life in the land of dreams.

He took to contracting later- Building made him feel better. And all that time-- from 17 to 21 to 25 to 30 to 38 to 45-- he didn't go back home. Didn't want to. Till six months before the day of that flight, when his father and mother told him that they were getting old, and wanted to see him.

He went. And was returning on the flight I was taking, with Ben, to a new country with a bag of my own dreams.

Maybe it was because he needed to talk so desperately. Maybe I looked talkable to. But for the nine hours of that flight, Saleh Taki filled my ears with the tale of what he was just returning from.

"And see"- he said, pulling out his shirt to point to the white undershirt he said he always wore, always- "this is where the grease stains are. See? They get there if you carry a gun stuck into your pants like that. I was always trying to wash them out".

He has a family in Baghdad city- His father is a rich man, he has sisters and a brother, and two nephews, 12 and 15, and countless nieces. He's very fond of them, and told me of how he had to bribe Damascus airport officials to let him carry gold to them: earrings, necklaces, rings... things that Kurdish uncles from America carry home to their nieces. Saleh is Kurdish Iraqi, and knows how to use a gun.

Who does he use it against?

Cats, he repied laughing a little, though not above the general hum of the plane. He and every member of his family-- yes, his sisters and yes, his nephews-- carry guns all the time, to protect themselves from looters and gunmen. In Baghdad, you shoot by noise: if you hear something move in the garden, bang, BANG! Though most times, Saleh said, it would only be prowling cats.

The women know how to use guns as well- They are strapped on to their sides as they stir pots in the kitchen. The boys, 12 and 15, have guns of their own. They use it to protect their grandparents. They have been told that the old people's safety and that of the house rests on their shoulders.

Every night and day, shootings and bombings. Saleh said his ears still rang with the sound. Sure, his dad would never leave- That land was his, he was a rich man.

Saleh never took walks... though there are parks. The only problem is that dismembered bodies, not to mention toes and fingers, litter the grass. The present state of affairs allows anyone who thinks he has an issue or a grudge to extract personal payment or revenge.

He says he's not going back there. Good food- They day he landed his sister made biryani. But his stomach couldn't take it. He couldn't, and didn't want to, take it.

I didn't ask Sal who he voted for, what he thought about the Gulf war, why didn't he mind his parents staying there. Instead, I listened, and then we ate raisins-- "watch it, those can give you the runs too"-- cream cheese and crackers. After having to repeat "orange juice" to a belligerent, majestic, afro-american stewardess twice, Sal leaned over and murmured, "you know- you should say onjus. Don't try and make them understand what you're saying. Use their word for it".

Onjus. After the peanuts, he told Ben and I that he loved shami kapoor and rajesh kapoor movies. The women were so pretty, he said, with their long hair, their saris, and their eyes. Beautiful. At some point he thanked Ben and me for being there..."thankyou for being so kind". He and Ben hummed some old tunes together. I felt my eyes close slowly... and then felt Saleh open a blanket and throw it gently over me, making sure it covered me completely.

I woke a while later; Salt Lake city was near by. Ben complained about the lack of taste in airline food... I nodded, gently smiling, at the woes of my poor sancho panza. Sal spoke about the kebabs he could make, and invited us over to Arizona anytime we wanted to visit. He did give me his number and email address. I have it in front of me now, as I type... black micro-tip held gingerly against a turblence-shaken tiny writing pad.

He got up and left the moment the plane stopped taxi-ing. Said he needed a ciggarette, and hadn't had that, or a good meal, ever since he had left Baghdad. And that was it.

No bigger pictures, no hand shaking, no recognization of a Moment. But that was what it was.

A good man, is Mr. Sal Taki. I hope he-- and his family-- sleep safe, and have lesser causes to shoot at cats in the night.


A Hairy Snail said...

good stuff and all. where is this saleh guy now anyways?

but this ain't fair. :(

ah well.