The sands of the beach are soft and sticky. My brown shoes are trapped there to be a remembrance of a running woman.
I don’t even try to know the name of the island we land on. Three black cars are on the beach and take us to a rural house. The drivers eat breakfast and change the plaque number of the cars. They give us a paint bucket that contains some cooked rice. No one of us eats that food.
The smugglers place seven of us in a car. Our driver is a man with grey hair and a crippled leg. He wears a police uniform and uses a police siren wherever is crowded. A young man is helping him and he is driving when the older man is tired. The car’s glasses are black and no one can see inside. Except for the times we pass less crowded roads, he doesn’t let us open the windows. He says “problem, problem, police” and locks the windows himself.
“Throw out your ID cards, passports, sim cards, and Iranian or Afghan money;” One of the men who is sitting in the back says. I have one hundred thousand Tomans that my mom put in my hand while I was in her arms to say goodbye. She told me this is all she can give me. I hadn’t got the chance to change it to dollars or rupiah. This is less than ten dollars. I throw that money from the window. I see parts of my heart breaking and flying into the air.
The weather is badly hot outside. The driver doesn’t let us get out of the car. He is more tough with the men. I feel I am going to vomit and beg the driver to stop. He probably thinks that I am pregnant. That’s why he shows a little mercy towards me. I vomit with an empty stomach. The memories are coming out with each retch.
One week has passed since I saw Baba. I still don’t know if it was the last time. I look at my hands and feel the warmth of Baba’s hands. I remember that bulging vessels on his dry hands. His calming voice who was able to remember every detail of each event in the past. He never forgot how he left Afghanistan.
When he buried my grandmother on a snowy day, he felt there is nothing left to connect him with his motherland. When spring came, he went to Kabul for the first time. Long way had made him tired. The weather was still cold. He bought ashak from a street vendor for lunch. Eating beside the stove of the seller man warmed Baba and in the meantime the seller man showed him how to find the passport office.
He was remembering that later, on the way to Iran, a voluble man was in the same minibus. He gave Baba a somniferous drink when the mini bus stopped to let passengers rest under the shadow of morus trees. When Baba left his village, he had some clothes, one small blanket and some money hidden under his waist, but after that short nap, he had only his clothes and the blanket.
The driver distracts my thoughts. He points out to a wharf. There are some old ships. Thin men who sunlight burned their skin portage stuff to the ships. Their chest bones move up and down by each load they lift up.
The driver points to the sea and says “Australy, Australy” and laughs. We know he is mocking us but no one has the least tendency to fulminate. A few minutes later, he drives us closer to the waterfront. He takes a pack of paper money from the dashboard and tells us to not talk. He pulls down the window and starts to talk with a guard of the port. Their talk doesn’t last more than two minutes. The man takes the money and counts it. The man lets the driver drive us onto the ship without checking the car.
The driver lets me and the other women get out of the car. An old woman who is with her son and her nephew wears a dress that covers one span under her knees. It is the first time that we can look at each other’s faces. A white scarf covers her head but some of her hair is out and seems like Egyptian style. Short hair is hiding her ears and a part of her cheeks. The black hair beside her cheeks does not have harmony with the wrinkles. I haven’t heard even one word from her in the two days traveling by car. The deck is big and there is a lot of empty space. Except for our car, there is one more car parking besides. Some Indonesian people sit on the corner sides of the deck and eat while watching the sea.
There is another woman with us who wears black frame glasses and is in her middle- age. She is a little shorter than me, not fat or skinny. Her skin is tanned and her Afghan-Tehrani accent is not new for me. Her name is Narges. We have been pressed and stuck in the car for almost two days and Narges has a lot to say and ask.
We stand on a corner facing the water. The water is more brown grey rather than blue and the stains of petrol move apart by the pressure of the ship’s motion. The old woman is still quiet. She responds with only one or two words. Narges turns her face to me and asks me uninterrupted questions; my age; my husband’s name; my city; how long I have been married; my family; Ali’s family; when we left Iran. Even though I don’t feel comfortable answering all the questions, I feel much better after talking to Narges.
Narges asks if Ali and I have prepared anything to say to UNHCR. I haven’t had any idea that we must prepare something. I was thinking that it is obvious that Afghanistan is not a place to live. I knew that we must stay in Indonesia for one or two years but I didn’t know we must prove that we are displaced.
Narges says not everyone will be recognised by the UNHCR. It seems ridiculous. I wasn’t alone when I faced death in that small boat. At least twenty other men, women and children were with me. Less than forty eight hours have passed since that night. It was so real when the rain and drops of ocean waves were mixing and dropping to our crumpled bodies. The unkind clouds and frightened faces of my fellow travellers were the only things I was able to see for four hours. The violent pressure of the sea’s water was not a game in a water park. It was so real. Is there any person who plays with their life for any reason except escaping death?
Narges tells me what she is going to declare for UNHCR. None of her children have a document in Iran, difficulties are twice for undocumented people. She looks at my mouth and waits to hear if it was convincing. I don’t know what to say. The old woman is just watching.
The sun sets. The redness of the sky is reflected on the water and it hides the impurity of the surrounding sea. The flaming radiations of the sun makes the clouds illustrious. The glory of the sea and the sky is united while the gentle line between them is slowly fading.
I look at my wrist to know the time. I see that my hand watch is not with me. Lights of the port are sparkling. The ship finally starts to move after it was stopped for almost two hours in the middle of the way. The driver calls us to get into the car. We almost reached the port.
We land from the ship while we are sitting in the car. A metallic board is spread from the ship to the land. A light slope is on the board and the car slides on it with shakes and noises. No one is here to check our car or ask for money. The driver moves slowly to exit the port and gets into the main road. The only thing that lightens the road is the lamps of some cars. Even the sides of the road are not visible. I turn my face to Ali and whisper, “are we really in Jakarta? It can’t be. The capital city mustn’t be this dark.”
I see some street food sellers from the car’s window. Only some plastic chairs and tables with a stove are in the corner of each sell man. Something like a curtain with pictures of different fishes and sea animals separates the street cafés. There are handcarts everywhere. They fry snacks and chickens on handcarts. A small light bulb is hung and lightens the space for street chefs.
Long traveling and not eating has made us impatient. Narges calls her husband from the back seat. Her husband sits next to Ali and me in the middle seats. Qasim, Narges’ husband, doesn’t respond. Narges taps on his shoulder. Qasim pulls his shoulder away and groans. Narges sits back and gets quiet again.
I ask the driver when we would arrive. He doesn’t understand me. Ali shows the digital clock of the car and repeats my question with head and hands gestures. The driver says one hour and brings his forefinger up. He continues that when he stops we must quickly get off the car and go to a hotel. He tries to tell us we mustn’t attract the attention otherwise we might be in trouble.
Finally he stops the car. The driver points to a small sign on top of a building that Saba Nooz Hotel is written on. He smiles and shakes hands with the men while holding his hands towards the sky to show he prays for us.
We take some narrow stairs to get into the hotel. When we get in, cigarettes’ smoke doesn’t let us see around. The walls are black and red and only two tiny lamps are in the front corridor. One man comes to us and says, “salam, khosh amadid.” We think he knows Farsi but he continues in his language. Qasim and the old woman ask Ali and me to speak with the man. I say we need three double bedrooms and one single bedroom. The receptionist sneers and says each one of us must pay twenty dollars. Everyone agrees and the men pay for one night.
The hotelman shows a corridor which we must pass to. There are six rooms in two rows. The hotelman says we can rest in each room that we like. It seems a very kind offer but when we enter the rooms, we understand why it doesn’t matter which room we select.
The old woman enters one of the rooms at the end of the corridor and the young boys follow her too. Narges and I look at the other rooms. I see some Persian words written on the walls. The date belongs to two years before. I search if more notes are in the room. I can read some other Persian notes with some names on the corridor’s wall too. There are messages mixed of hope, dreams and concern about what the new life would be.
یادگاری از روز اول در جاکارتا. از طرف امیر
Damn life, I miss my mother. Musa.
راه زیادی نمانده تا به راحتی برسیم. از محمد خدا بخش. 16/5/9/2014
Better days are coming soon. Najib, 2014/7/22
A big cockroach is running on the floor. My scream scares all and I feel embarrassed why I didn’t control myself. Narges is also scared of a lizard in another room and she looks for a better one but each one is worse than the other. One of them is big but doesn’t have a proper roof. The building pipes and electricity wires are seen from the holes and cracks of its walls. The other room is smaller and the roof looks better but doesn’t have water in the bathroom. The bathrooms are smelly and spider web shows no one is taking care of the cleanliness.
Ragged blankets are folded on each mattress. Running lizards and insects are everywhere. Ali and Qasim are killing them with mop and shoes and I think how the workers of this place can bear this condition.
Finally Qasim chooses a room. We say good night to each other. I hear Qasim and Narges voices arguing in their room.
Ali says there is a narrower corridor in the corner. There is a bathroom and a small room. We decide to spend the rest of the night there. I take out the clothes from our backpacks. All the clothes are wet. Now the bags and clothes smell. The metal buttons of my dress have rusted. Without thinking about where I can hang the clothes, I go to the bathroom to wash them. The bricks of the bathroom’s roof are broken. The air conditioning was removed and it left some hollows on the wall. I feel someone is watching me from the hollows. Unconsciously I look at the roof’s cracks after each few seconds. Ali calls me from behind the door. He says he covered the holes on the room’s walls to not let the insects come in. He found a ladder to hang the clothes.
The fear of the lizards doesn’t let me sleep. I worry they might find their way somehow to come in. It is three after midnight and Ali is talking to me to take my mind away from this room. He falls asleep while speaking.
Hunger makes me wake up. It is seven in the morning. Ali has woken up before and went outside. He comes back with some cookies and orange juice.
Ali has the phone number of an old neighbor who lives in Indonesia now. He is not sure to ask help from that man or we explore the city by ourselves. We finally call that man. He gets surprised when he hears we are in Jakarta. Before we ask help, he says he has to go and quickly says goodbye. We just heard this word from him that they live in Bogor. We repeat the word to not forget it, “Bogor, Bogor, Bogor.” This man’s reaction disappoints me and Ali. Ali says he and his family were always helping that man and he expected he would welcome us.
I ask Ali to request a clothes iron from the receptionist. I need to dry the clothes and pack our stuff. When he goes out, Narges comes and knocks on the door. She is speaking quickly again like we mustn’t waste the time. She says that the old women and the boys left the hotel early morning without saying goodbye or offering any help. I told her about Ali’s contact and the response on the phone. Narges says she called a fellow traveler who met them in India one month ago. She says this couple, Pari and Ahmad, arrived in Jakarta two weeks before us and they can help us to find a place to rent. They are on the way to pick us up from Saba Nooz.
The iron is too old and its wires are short. Before I can finish my packing, Pari and Ahmad arrive.
Ali, Qasim and Ahmad are talking in the front door. I stand to say hello to them but I can’t see Narges and Pari. Ahmad has medium height and his round face with curly hair makes him look fat. I feel uncomfortable in a group of men and look around to find the ladies. Ahmad says Narges and Pari are waiting for us downstairs.
I expect to see a woman my age but Pari is really young. She has long crimson dress with white scarf and shoes. She has white skin and wears no makeup. The simplicity of her face is assembled with a friendly smile. Ahmad says we go to the train station to go to Bogor. Pari knows the way.
The smile doesn’t go away from Pari’s face. She talks freely about their morning. They have been in the UNHCR office to register themselves. I apologize that Pari and her husband had to come to pick us from Saba Nooz but Pari says the UNHCR office is only two streets behind the hotel. Pari takes out some papers that are punched. Black and white photos of Pari and her husband are on top of the papers. Narges grabs the papers. She looks at them but everything is written in English and she cannot read them. She returns the papers to Pari and wants to know why she pulled her scarf behind her ears in the photo. Pari explains that all parts of the face must be visible in the UNHCR ID paper. I do not ask her anything.
I look behind to see if Ali is there. The sunlight burns my face. Walking with slippers is not easy and distracts me of the conversation with the ladies.
We reach an intersection. I haven’t seen this many motorbikes all together in one day before but there are tens of them behind the traffic light. Some of the motor bike riders have the same logo on their helmets and jackets. Some of the women wear hijab and some don’t. Their hijab is similar to what I have seen in Malaysia. I see some young girls who nicely hide their hair but they wear tight jeans.
The humidity and hot weather make the smell of sewage to be felt more. We turn to a street that Pari says the train station is located in. There are food street sellers on sidewalks. The smell of fried fish annoys me and I cannot stand it. I want to cover my nose but then I think it might offend the sellers. I ask Pari and Narges to walk quicker.
Finally we are at the gate of the station. Yellow fence is around the front gate. Many people are passing this gate. Plenty of them carry a backpack but they hang it in front instead of their backs. We wait for a few minutes until the men come. Ahmad shows the way in and takes some money from Qasim and Ali to buy the tickets. There is a shop next to the ticket seller. Ali and I go to the shop to buy water. I drink half the water once and wash my face with the left water. Ali looks calm now.
He insists to carry both backpacks and I refuse to give my bag to him. Finally I win to keep my bag with myself. It is heavy but carrying two bags in this hot weather must be very hard for one person. The others are already sitting on a bench waiting for the train. I sit close to Narges and Ali stands a step in front of me. Narges whispers: “You are a lucky woman.” When I look at her by questioning eyes, she says, ”I saw your husband taking care of you all the time. Qasim doesn’t care about me at all. He even doesn’t care if I need anything.”
I look around to escape the topic and see a man in uniform standing with a plastic truncheon just ten meters further. All I heard about being captured by police from the smuggler comes to my mind in less than a second. It makes me jump and go quickly to Ali. I pull his arm and tell him there is a policeman closed to us. Ali smiles and says, “he is the guard of the station, not police. And even if he is a policeman, how he would know that we are undocumented?”
A train comes and Ahmad calls us to get into it. We find empty seats in the middle of the wagon and the men find some seats almost in the front row.
Some men and women are standing in the middle of the wagon. Young people are busy with their phone. No one is looking at the others. The sound of an alert and a recorded voice is telling the doors are getting closed. The train departs.
Helma Sepid is a Hazara writer. Her parents moved from Afghanistan to Iran 43 years ago. She was fortunate to have a chance to study in Iran. Now, it is the sixth year Sepid lives in Indonesia and volunteers as a teacher in a refugee run learning centre. She inherited the interest in literature from her father and her older sisters.