And Still Burning
We — my colleague, and I —were in Rome, Italy, in the mid 90s. We had travelled there as the engineering team of an Iranian project to work with the vendor. The Iran-Iraq war had ended and some industrial projects had been re-started in Iran. As soon as we arrived and were settled in our hotel, my colleague, whom I would call Hypocrite, started talking to me about his dreams of drinking and seeking enjoyment during our short period working in Rome. Although he was acting ridiculously composed when we were in front of our bosses or other coworkers, you probably know what I mean….
One Friday evening when we were back at the hotel, he started saying: “It’s our weekend, let’s go to a bar and a beautiful cabaret, it’s our free time, why not?”
He knew that I drank occasionally. Eventually, we went to a bar close to our hotel. After some drinks he insisted on finding other places. I tried to tease him, and said we should go to Campo de’ Fiori.
“Where is it?” Hypocrite asked.
“That’s a very beautiful place and it is the place where Giordano Bruno was burnt alive,” I said, but Hypocrite didn’t believe me and assumed I was joking. Then I started to explain about Giordano Bruno and the Dark Ages. I said: “Such people were sacrificed to teach us how to think.”
He still though I was joking, although I was serious. We left the bar discussing Campo de’ Fiori, Giordano Bruno, and the Dark Ages. I dumped on him all I had read about the humanity and the history of philosophy, and shamefully I thought that I knew a lot.
We reached a cinema. We were Probably talking seriously and loudly in Farsi for we attracted the attention of a man who was attaching some photos to the board of the cinema.
He turned to us and sardonically said in Farsi: “Gentlemen, please calm down” as an invitation to a conversation. He looked like Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago, so here, I will call him Omar Sharif or Dr. Zhivago; you may call him whatever you like. When we started talking together, I realized that Omar Sharif was very overwhelmed and had been looking for a moment of rest after a long working day. But soon he wanted to leave, and said that his working time was over, and that he had to rush to see a sick relative.
But I asked him to drive us to Campo de’ Fiori because his working time was over, and we were ready to pay him for the drive. Inn the car I sat beside the driver and Hypocrite on the backseat. Hypocrite, apparently drunk and asked Omar Sharif to drive us somewhere enjoyable. I was interested to know about Omar Sharif’s life and why he was living in Rome, etc. But I realized that he was hesitant to talk in front of Hypocrite, assuming the latter was spying on him.
When I asked Omar Sharif about his life, instead of an answer he asked me: “Why are you interested in Campo De’ Fiori?” and again I tried to impress him with all I had read in the books.
“I have read some of these books too…I was a communist…I escaped after 1980…You might have heard about that time.” Omar Sharif said.
I was interested to know more but he hesitated to continue. After more questions and trying to reassure and relax him, he continued to speak vaguely; I understood that. he had been a university student but had to escape from Iran because of his ideology and having participated in protests with other students at the university against restrictions enforced by the strictly religious revolutionary government. And after several months of living in trouble, he had been lucky to arrive in Italy. And now he was working as a handy man in different places and his job in that cinema was the cleanest one.
“Your energy,” he said, “when you were talking about the Dark Ages reminded me of those days after 1979 in Iran and political arguments with my friends.” His political activities had been limited to distributing some newspapers and participating in some political gatherings. That was all the political activities he had done in Iran or elsewhere.
Then he asked me again: “Why are you interested in seeing Campo de’ Fiori?”
I explained that I wanted to open the eyes of Hypocrite, but he just replied to me with a cynical smile.
After a long drive we arrived in a an area that did not seem very beautiful or comfortable In street filled with apartments. He parked the car and told us: “Follow me.”
After passing a long staircase we reached a very small apartment. He opened the door and we entered. The apartment was filled with the smell of fever and sickness. A very sick skinny lady was lying on the bed, burning with bad fever.
Omar Sharif said, “There you go, here is Campo de’ Fiori…and the burning Giordano Bruno…see…he is still burning.” Some copies of a book in a foreign language that I was unable to read were piled beside that lady’s bed.
“Who is she?” I asked as I took one of the books.
“She is a refugee from the Balkan war. Don’t you know that a brutal war is ongoing there? She was a writer and escaped from this brutal war between formerly communist armies…like me a communist student who escaped from a religious country.”
Hypocrite was badly agitated and shouted at me angrily: “Let’s leave here soon.”
But I was interested to know more. I looked at the book, a green cover with a portrait of that lady on the cover page. For a few seconds I felt that I drowned into nothingness. I felt I was flowing in nowhere.
Hypocrite rushed to the stairs scolding me and went out onto the street. I wanted to give Omar Sharif some money, but he looked at me sadly. I felt ashamed, but I collected myself and said, “I want to pay for this book…I want to buy a copy.”
“You cannot read it, I cannot read it either; why do you want to buy it?” Omar Sharif said.
“Oh, yes, I even want to buy two copies, one for myself and one for my colleague,” I said. Omar Sharif looked through the window and said, “For Him? A book?”
I looked out at the street, and we both saw that Hypocrite was vomiting into a garbage bin.
We left the apartment. Omar Sharif was ready to take us back to our hotel because we were very far from it, and it was too hard for us to come back alone in that late night.
“What about that sick woman?” I asked, and he explained: “She will be sleeping by the time I get back”.
After vomiting, Hypocrite scolded me saying: “You ruined my night…Campo de’ Fiori…Campo de’ Fiori.”
In the car, Hypocrite rambled on in the backseat with unstoppable hiccups.
Omar Sharif was just burbling, probably because his heart was eagerly looking for an intimate conversation. He was speaking about the refugees of Balkan, and said, “I don’t believe in communism anymore and I don’t believe in any religion. Probably all I wanted as a student at university during the days of revolution was justice, which I couldn’t find anywhere.”
Between hiccups, Hypocrite was nagging that I had ruined his night by continually saying, “Campo de’ Fiori… what a night! Campo de’ Fiori…what a stupid friend!”
I felt I was sitting between two ruined lives, two ruined worlds, one who was driving the car and the other who lolled on the backseat seeking enjoyment.
I felt that I was sitting between one person who was mincing his words and the other who was nagging and hiccupping. It had started to drizzle.
After a long pause Omar Sharif asked me, “Do you… still want to go to Campo de’ Fiori?”
I didn’t answer, I didn’t have an answer. Instead, I closed my eyes so as not to see the striking row of streetlights running fast towards us and smashing on the car´s windshield through the rain drops and the darkness of night.
Mansour Noorbakhsh writes and translates poems in both English and Farsi, his first language. He tries to be a voice for freedom, human rights and environment in his writings. He believes a dialog between people around the world is an essential need for developing a peaceful world, and poetry helps this dialog echoes the human rights. Currently he is featuring The Contemporary Canadian Poets in a weekly Persian radio program https://persianradio.net/. The poet’s bio and poems are translated into Farsi and read to the Persian-Canadian audiences. Both English (by the poets) and Farsi (by him) readings are on air. This is a project of his to build bridges between the Persian-Canadian communities by way of introducing them to contemporary Canadian poets. His book about the life and work of Sohrab Sepehri entitled, “Be Soragh e Man Agar Miaeed” (trans. “If you come to visit me”) is published in 1997 in Iran. And his English book length poem; “In Search of Shared Wishes” is published in 2017 in Canada. His English poems are published in “WordCity monthly” and “Infinite Passages” (anthology 2020 by The Ontario Poetry Society). He is a member of The Ontario Poetry Society and he is an Electrical Engineer, P.Eng. He lives with his wife, his daughter and his son in Toronto, Canada.
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