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I had just returned to the Hotel des Mines on Boulevard Saint Michel from
one of my customary evening walks. As I approached the front desk to retrieve my
room key I noticed the two Asiatics. They were speaking and gesticulating
excitedly in an attempt to communicate a message to the desk clerk, who spoke
The taller of the two turned to me and asked, "Do you speak
"Yes, I do."
"This man does not speak English. We must leave an
important message and he does not understand. Can you help us?"
What's the message?"
He explained that a German friend named Thomas Knorr
would be calling the hotel and was to be told the two had arrived in Paris and
would meet him in the German town of Lorrach in a matter of days. There was some
urgency concerning a business transaction. I had learned enough French in my two
months in Paris to give a crude interpretation. The desk clerk said he would
relay the message if the German called.
"Allah be praised," the Asiatics
exclaimed, throwing their arms to the air. "Let us celebrate your arrival at a
good time. Come, we shall have some tea."
The three of us proceeded across
the street to a tea shop. We made our introductions. The taller man, Hasan
Fahtami, was a carpet dealer from Iran. He was in Paris looking to expand his
family business. He had been to Europe once before. He was thin, clean-shaven,
and well-dressed in European clothes. He had intelligent, dark eyes, and a
bright smile. His companion was an Afghan named Ataullah Abduli, who was part
owner of a small motel in Kabul. It was his first time out of Afghanistan.
Ataullah was also dress in Western clothes -- boots, jeans, denim
jacket-but his clothes were worn and shabby. He was shorter than Hasan, but much
stockier. He had a thick, wiry, black beard, a prominent nose, and a full head
of black hair.
"You were very kind to help us, Mr. Thompson," Hasan
"It was nothing really. Please call me David."
"I will call you
David-jan. 'Jan' means 'soul' in Farsi, but we use it to mean 'good friend.' We
are strangers to you, but you helped us anyway. No other people in this country
help us. The French never help us. They never speak English and I know many of
them do. It makes me angry when they refuse to speak English. They think they
are better than we are. The people in our countries always help strangers. They
are friendly people. I hate this country. The people are too cold. You should
visit Iran and Afghanistan. They are ten times better than France. We are
staying in Paris only a few days to make some business contacts. Then we will go
to Germany. And you, David-jan, what do you think of France? Do you plan to be
in Paris very long?"
"My experience here hasn't been too bad, but it is
expensive and I don't know how long I can stay. I have no income and I don't
think the money I have will last very long. Is it difficult to find work in
Iran? Is it expensive there?"
Hasan told me there would be no problems
finding a job. There were many Americans working in the oil business and many
others teaching English. The cost of living was not high, libraries were free to
use, a room would be easy to find, and the affability of his people would make
me want to spit on Paris. Ataullah nodded in agreement. So impressed were
they with the friendliness I had displayed that, much to my amazement, both
Hasan and Ataullah offered their services and friendship if I would return to
their countries with them. Dreams of adventure danced in my mind. I wasted
no time agreeing to their proposal. They appeared pleased with my
For the next two days I took time to help my new friends. I acted
as their guide, taking them to all the favorite places in Paris I had
discovered. I helped them buy gifts to take back to loved ones, secured their
train tickets to Germany, and helped in processing their visas.
"You are very
different from the other Americans," Hasan often said. "You do not act so
proud and arrogant and rich. You are not afraid to mix with others who are
different from yourself. You will like Asia very much."
particular, fascinated me. Hasan was more westernized in his dress, his
mannerisms, the way he expressed himself. He was ingratiating when dealing with
someone he believed higher on the social hierarchy than himself, someone from
whom he could gain something. Ataullah, on the other hand, was reserved and
unpretentious. He seemed awed by the immensity of the buildings as we paced the
streets, baffled by the complexity of the traffic, disgusted with the hectic
pace of a city where few people had time for one another.