Q and A

By Sana Nassari

It was a July burning Friday. Before the beginning of the weekly poetry meeting Ahmed and Zabih were standing in front of the Culture Library of the Lavan Island. Ahmed was beside himself. He was too overwhelmed to wait for the meeting to begin, so he decided to read his poem to Zabih. It was hot and they were standing next to the window of the hall in which the poetry meeting was held every week. “These kinds of speech are too out of date. They belonged to the time when the lady love was veiled and love was happening in the wide shot!” said Zabih. Ahmed neatly folded the paper on which the poem was written and placed it behind the cigarette box in his shirt’s front pocket. Zabih pulled the collar of his tee-shirt out and blew a puff in it. “Damn! I’m soaked in sweat,” said Zabih hatefully. “So what do you think? Was it a bad poem?” Ahmed asked and took a cigarette out of the box. A grey Nissan Patrol turned into the street and pulled over in front of the library’s main entrance. Two men got out of the car. Ahmed hid the cigarette in his fist. “I wouldn’t say a bad poem! I meant it isn’t modern enough,” Zabih said while turning toward the wall so that the men could not see the Latin words on his tee-shirt. There was a big banner hanging on the wall:

Friendly Q&A Gathering with The Culture Minister and Mayor

Subject: Youth Problems

—It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness—

Zabih sneered. The library janitor came out and helped the men carry the camera and sound and light equipment inside. “Look!” Ahmed said, astonished. “What a great camera!” Zabih turned and saw the camera. “Mama mia! Do you think I can borrow it for the short movie that I want to make?” “Nope!” Ahmed answered and poked Zabih’s arm with his elbow. Four women were walking down the street, including Azadeh, the young poet who was considered the best poet among all poets of the isle. The air conditioners were all turned on and hot exhaust came out of the back of one placed in the window next to Ahmed and Zabih. They stepped a bit further from it. Zabih tried to make eye contact with Azadeh. Cyrus, the moderator of the poetry meetings came out the entrance door and approached the young men. “How is everything, guys?” Cyrus lowered his voice. “What is this nonsense?” indicating the banner by raising one eyebrow. “Couldn’t be related to our meeting,” Ahmed said and Zabih shrugged his shoulders. The women silently passed the men and entered the library. Cyrus asked Zabih and Ahmed to join them in the room to start the meeting and went in. “So you think that love happens in close-up these days?” Ahmed asked. “How we have been raised? Not even saying ‘hi’ to each other.” Zabih said. “They are afraid of many things,” Ahmed answered. “We’re scared of each other, then we enter a room and share the most intimate feelings together! We recite poems. Reading poems is the same as becoming naked. What kind of human beings are we?” The driver of the Nissan Patrol came back and locked the car, then glared at them for no reason.

When they went in the cool breeze of the air conditioners embraced them. Then they saw that all the tables of the study hall were placed in a row and covered with huge table cloths and some ugly artificial flowers so that it looked like a massive conference table. Ahmed said. “Apparently, they gave us the small room.” Twenty chairs were set symmetrically to the right and left, in rows of four. Most of the chairs were occupied and some poets were standing at the back, as always. Zabih and Ahmed took seats. The list of poets who wanted to recite their poems was circulating in their hands. The moderator sat at his table and began the meeting with a few lines from one of the most celebrated Iranian poets: Shamlou: Alas! If only the liberty sang a song, little, like the syrinx of a bird… The door opened and three young men joined the meeting. They took three chairs from the women’s side and added them to the men’s. The first poet, Azadeh, sat next to the moderator, ready to recite her poem. The door opened again and the loud voices of a few men giving greetings purred in the small room. Two more poets came in. The moderator asked them to borrow chairs from the study room, but they came back empty-handed. “What happened?” asked the moderator. “They said they need their chairs. The minister of culture and the mayor are in there,” said the newly arrived poet. “Are all their seats taken?” asked the moderator. “No, but it seems that their guests have not arrived yet. It’s okay. We are fine standing here,” answered the poet.

Azadeh began to recite: “Every step that I took/ Brought me closer to the city I fled from…” Again, the door opened. All heads turned to watch a big, middle-aged man filling the threshold. The moderator put his index finger to his mouth and silently signalled the man not to disturb him, but he was ignored. The man spoke loudly, “Sorry for the inconvenience, but it’s time for your Q & A with the authorities.”

The moderator’s eyebrows rose. “Does our voice bother you?” He asked, astounded. The big, middle-aged man ignored his question and continued, “We invite you now to take part.” All heads turned toward the moderator. Ahmed brought out his poem and unfolded it nervously. Trying to keep calm, the moderator said, “Dear poets, I appreciate it if any of you who would like to take part in the Q & A meeting, join these gentlemen in the study hall.” The big man impatiently watched. No one moved, and he stepped inside and waited, then he nodded his head and went to the study hall. Someone closed the door after him. The moderator said, “I apologise for the unwanted pause. Please recite your poem from the beginning again.”

Everyone was silent as Azadeh began, “Every step that I took/ Brought me closer to the city I fled from/ The sound of knife rose from my bones…” Someone knocked on the door and opened it. All heads turned, with clear discontent, toward the door again. A short middle-aged man with a diplomatic-collar shirt stepped in and spoke abruptly: “Excuse me but I’m told that my colleague asked you to join our meeting!” The moderator answered, “That is true.” The official seemed confused. A poet spoke up: “Anyone who is interested will join you. You don’t need to ask us again.” The official said, “But the minister and the mayor have come here for your sake!” Several in the audience shouted back, “For our sake?!” The official man answered: “Yes. It’s obvious from the title of the meeting: ‘Q & A with youth.’ You’re the ‘youth’.” The moderator countered, “But we are here for the poetry meeting. It is obvious from its title: ‘Poetry meeting.’” The official answered, threatening, “And your name is sir?”

Some poets got up from their seats and started to challenge him. “It is not our fault. You should have invited people to your meeting!” The official man said, “We did! We hung banners everywhere. In this little island, we hung ten banners.” “But then, no one was interested,” one of the women said. The official popped out his eyes: “Not interested? Impossible!” The other woman replied, “Impossible is impossible!” and the official said, “Alright, let us start from the beginning again. Why can you not dedicate one hour of your time to your hometown?” One of the poets said, “We can…” the official said, “Great! Let’s go,” and the poet continued: “But not now! Because we have this meeting now.” The official answered, “There’s always plenty of time for poems and stuff.”

Ahmed brought out his cigarette box and put it on his lap. Someone said, “We don’t have any questions!” The official challenged them, asking, “But you want to continue your meetings next week, don’t you?” He beckoned the moderator, whispered with him angrily, and then he turned to the poets and commanded, “All of you, come this way please.” The poets were led to the study hall and told, “Leaving the venue is not allowed.” The janitor had set a chair in front of the main entrance to block the way. A young poet nagged, “But we want to smoke,” and the official ordered, “Leave it for later. You’ve already kept the minister waiting a long time.”

The poets entered the hall in anger. Bright lights came on, and the cameramen recorded the entrance of the youth. Ahmad sat in the first seat and put his cigarettes on the table. He opened his poem and placed it next to the cigarettes. The mayor pretended to be busy talking to the others and the minister forced a smile, but he was thoughtful. That morning on the busy airport shuttlebus to the plane, a young man had stood up to offer his seat to him. He turned his head and saw, in reflection, an elderly man—with a seat being offered to him. That afternoon, after arriving in the municipality, he went to the bathroom and saw his face in the cracked mirror. Cut unequally in half, his face was that of an old man to whom people offer their seats. How he had not realised it earlier?

Within a few seconds, the conference table was covered with books, notes, papers, pens, and pencils. Zabih tried to make eye contact with Azadeh one more time but suddenly realised that the official man was glaring at him. Ahmed pulled a cigarette out of the box and slipped it over his ear. The minister started his talk in praise of the youth doubtfully. When he realized that the atmosphere of the meeting had become stiff, he tried to make a joke but no one laughed. Ahmed took his cigarette and put it in his mouth. The mayor invited the youths to ask questions. Ahmad unfolded his poem and then refolded it. No one spoke. The moderator pushed back against his chair and balanced on the back legs. The minister coughed. Ahmed took the cigarette from his mouth and put it on his ear again, looking at the nervous faces of his friends. The eyes of the mayor sparkled as he watched Ahmed. “Could you please introduce yourself as a young man from the island and ask your question for the minister?” The cameraman gestured to Ahmed, hinting at him to take the cigarette off his ear, and Ahmed lifted it off and kept it in his hand. “I am Ahmed,” he said. Everyone else was silent, awaiting his question. The silence went on until the mayor said, “Great! Nice to meet you, Ahmed. This is your chance to ask any question you have for the minister. The floor is yours!” Ahmed cleared his throat. He held the cigarette in front of his face, between the index and the middle finger, and said: “Yes, my question is, do have a light?”

20 December, 2022