The tall, curly-haired young man makes it seem like he’s ready to help me. I tell him I’m looking for a book I spotted on the sales rack just a few days ago. A book with a brown jacket featuring a picture of the Kremlin Square and a silhouette of Anna Akhmatova on it. He squints his eyes, furls his eyebrows, letting out an ‘Anna Akhmatova’ through his sealed teeth.
You can tell he doesn’t recognize the name. I come to his rescue, ‘There’s no mention of Akhmatova’s name on the cover. The title is something like An Encounter …’
“An Encounter With the Poet, ’”a deep scratchy voice interrupts me. And then gives out the full title in English.
I turn around and see a man standing behind me. Slender, a bit shorter than medium-height, almost sixty. I hadn’t noticed him. ‘The account of Anna Akhmatova and Zoshchenko’s meeting with foreign students in Leningrad, am I right?” he goes on.
He was right. That’s exactly why I’m interested in the book. I didn’t have enough money on me to buy it the other day. ‘There was only one copy. And I bought it,” he says playfully.
The young man is happy he doesn’t have to solve any problems anymore. The look in his eyes begs me to let him off the hook so he can attend to other things. I do. The man continues, “The much-sensationalized meeting of November 1954, a year after Stalin’s death.”
He talks with such confidence you can tell he knows much more about this. He has a strange accent, hard to pin down to any particular region in Iran. More like a foreign accent.
“Have you read the book?” I ask.
“Yes, I finished it. It was good. Contained almost all the questions and answers. The author, himself a student in those years, was present at that meeting. He was a bit displeased with Anna Akhmatova and how conservatively she answered the questions but praised Zoshchenko. You must remember that a few years before this meeting they were both dismissed from the Writer’s Union. All of this engineered by Zhdanov. He was the one who called Akhmatova ‘the whore nun’.”
I tell him I’ve read some on this. The depth of his knowledge intrigues me. “I’m translating a collection of poetry by Akhmatova. So I’m reading every book about her I can get my hands on.”
“May I ask your name?”
He gleams at hearing my name and reaches out to shake my hand, “Yes, I’ve read your translations of other poets. Pat on the back!”
Which leaves me wondering if he liked them or not. I’m glad we’re now in that familiar terrain where it feels appropriate for me to ask something, or to ask for something. I’m barely done when he says, “Sure. The book is all yours. I’ve read it already. Seems like you need it more than I do. By the way, which language do you translate Akhmatova from?”
“English. But I know enough Russian to compare it with the original.”
“You know Russian?”
“I wouldn’t say I know it. I’ve taught myself, with books and Linguaphone cassettes. But I stubbornly try to read the Russian text, with the help of dictionaries.”
“That’s great,” he laughs. “So, you haven’t taken any courses?”
“No, Russian is not as popular as English, you know. Earlier on, I had a teacher from Baku who worked in an import-export company. I took a few lessons with him in introductory Russian. But then he left Tehran and I continued on my own. It’s a difficult language.”
“It’s not difficult at all,’”he shook his head. “Depends what you compare it with. If it were, you wouldn’t have learned anything at all, given the limited means there are.”
I have a feeling he knows Russian.
“How about you? Do you know Russian?”
“Russian is my mother tongue.”
Mystery solved. He was not Iranian.
“But you speak Persian perfectly well.”
“My English and French are better than my Persian.”
He must have seen my jaw drop. He laughed, “I’ve lived a few years in each. And I’ve been living in Iran for over ten years now.”
I decided this was not the time to curb my curiosity, “If I may be so bold to ask, you work as a…?”
“Researcher. Of history, contemporary history to be more precise. That’s why I came to Iran.”
I thought getting to know him might help me with my translation of Akhmatova, and nervously suggested, “It would be great to have a chat if you have an hour to spare.”
“Gladly!’”he replied. “Let me pay for these books and we’ll go chat over a cup of coffee somewhere.”
I’m over the moon. I have lots of questions. Outside the Book City on Hefaz Street, at the foot of the steps, he asks if I know anywhere around here and already has a thought while I’m still wondering, “There’s a cozy little café around the corner, on Sana’ee Street. Not too far from here. We can walk there. The owner is Armenian. The coffee and the cakes are the best.”
I readily agree and we start walking. Were it not for the particular interrogative intonation he ended his sentences with, it would be impossible to think of him as non-native speaker of Persian. He must have quite a knack in learning languages. One of those people who don’t put too much effort into it.
The café on Sana’ee Street is a fairly small room with a dozen square tables for two or four and an aged wooden counter behind which stands an old man of medium height with a full head of grey hair and a bony rectangular face. The shelf above him is lined with bottles of fizzy drinks and juices of all kinds.
Between the counter and the wall, on his right, a small display cabinet lined with fluorescent light contains a variety of cakes on a glass shelf. To his left, is the coffee machine with a few sugar bowls, coffee and cocoa powder canisters and a milk jug on top. The owner knows my companion. He greets him warmly. We sit at one of the tables by the window, facing the street.
“You’d like some coffee?”
“Great!” he smiles, “but allow me to pick the cake because the one I pick is to be found nowhere in Tehran. It’s homemade by his wife. He says he’s been carrying this cake for forty years and the recipe is top secret.”
He talks about Akhmatova in such great detail it’s as if they’d lived together for years.
“Have you done any research on Akhmatova?”
“No, no!’” he corrects me in a rush, “Akhmatova is one of my most favorite poets. I knew her personally and followed her work closely. I was even about to publish one of her poetry collections under her own supervision.”
“You must have been quite young then.”
“No, I was about the same age as I am now,” he replies casually.
He is silent. I look at him, perfectly puzzled. He doesn’t seem like he’s joking. He’s looking down, playing with the sugar bowl on the table, and doesn’t feel like he owes me any explanation.
He notices my shock, and changes the topic, “The encounter the author talks about in this book occurred a year after Stalin’s death. Murmurs of dissent could be heard here and there, but the air of terror among people, especially artists like Akhmatova, still prevailed. Those days, Akhmatova’s son was arrested again, and her third husband, Punin, had died in the forced labor camp. For fear of his son being persecuted even more, Akhmatova did not appear much in literary circles and talked rarely when she did. Meeting with the students would have been dangerous for her. Later she said somewhere, ‘The students, especially the English ones, wanted me and Zoshchenko to criticize the party and our dismissal from the union. Zoshchenko did this very softly and he received a warm applause form the audience. When came my turn, one of the students asked what I thought of the party’s decision and Zoshchenko’s statements. I said I thought both the party and Zoshchenko were right. And no one applauded.’ ’’
The slender man shakes his head, “Those were horrible days. The kids in the hall could not understand Akhmatova. She said to someone later, ‘in those three hours, I saw the storm brewing. I thought my beloved Lev will be taken for another interrogation the day after.’ ’’
“Her son. Lev Gumilev. As I said he was imprisoned in the camp those days.”
I was getting impatient with all this curiosity building up, “You knew Akhmatova personally?”
“Yes. Her second husband, Shileiko, and I were classmates at the university. We studied history together. I got to know Anna Andreuevna through him. Although I knew her poetry before.”
My breath catches. On Sana’ee Street in Tehran in 1994 sits a man before me who claims he was friends with Anna Akhmatova who’s been dead for over thirty years now. He notices my disbelief but pretends he hasn’t. He lets my mind swing from one side to another in utter confusion.
“This is the second time in my life I am so shocked,” I say, “the other time was when I saw Dr. Jalal Sattari in a publisher’s office …”
“Jalal Sattari who writes on myths?”
“Yes. When he heard I’d translated a book by Nazim Hikmet he casually said, ‘He’s a great poet. I met him in Germany. His personality was as fine as his poems.’ ’’
The slender man laughed aloud, “What’s so strange about meeting a famous person?”
“Famous people are part of history,” I explained. “One thinks they only live in books. Now, Sattari’s meeting with Nazim Hikmat, as strange as it may seem, could be plausible. But your friendship with Akhmatova is quite bizarre. We’re talking forty, fifty years ago. How old were you back then?”
“I told you, I was the same age as I am now,” he says in a serious tone.
He completely ignores my confusion. And you can’t tell from his face if he’s joking or not. I don’t know what to say. I’d rather talk to him some more, hoping we get somewhere. I go back to Akhmatova.
“Maybe Akhmatova wouldn’t have had much fame outside the Soviet Union, had it not been for the Cold War years.”
He stares into the void outside the window.
“For many in the West, Akhmatova enslaved in Stalin’s chains took more prominence than Akhmatova the poet. But the truth is she was a great poet. The world is rediscovering her, now that many things have changed. One of the few people who talked about Akhmatova in those days was Isaiah Berlin.”
“The British philosopher you mean?”
“Not so much a philosopher,” he corrects me gently, ‘as a thinker. And also not British, but Russian. Berlin was in Russia until the age of fifteen. He then immigrated to England with his parents and became a naturalized citizen.”
“Really? I didn’t know Berlin was Russian. Now that you say that many things are starting to fall into place for me. His writings on Pasternak and Akhmatova, his book Russian Thinkers.”
“Seems like you’ve done a thorough reading of his works,” he says with an air of content.
“Actually no. I haven’t read any of his philosophical or political works. But I’ve read everything he’s written on literature. I know he’s written quite extensively on music as well. He’s an interesting man. I read somewhere that he was at some point one of the high-ranking officials of the British Consulate in Moscow and met Akhmatova too.”
He looks me in the eye for a second and whispers, “November 1945, in Fontanka, Leningrad.”
The café owner who seems to function as a waiter too approaches us with a beautifully delicate wooden tray. Two cups of coffee sit on two flower-patterned saucers, and next to them are two elaborately patterned plates with a knife and fork on the side and a chocolate cake in each. He waits for the slender man to move his arms so he could put the plates and coffees on the table. My companion reaches out to get the coffee cups from him and takes a good whiff with his eyes closed before putting them on the table, “Wow! Thank you so much.”
“Noosh-e jan!”, says the owner as he puts the rest of the items on the table. “Can I bring you anything else?”, he asks with the same friendly smile.
“No, thank you very much!” says the slender man gently tapping on the owner’s arm.
I pick up where we left off.
“You must have known Isaiah Berlin too.”
“In fact, I somehow arranged that infamous meeting. That same day, I saw him in the Writers Bookstore on Nevsky Prospect in Leningrad. The bookstore was a hub for people looking for old and rare books. That day I was looking for a history book. I overheard someone asking the store clerk about Soviet authors. Among the authors, he was particular about Akhmatova. He wanted to know whether she was still alive. The bookseller knew about my friendship with Akhmatova. So he sent him over to me and basically freed himself from the burden of a headache. Talking to a foreigner, particularly about Anna Andreyevna, was not the wisest thing to do. I told him Akhmatova was still alive and was a friend of mine.
“I asked his name and realized he’s the famous Isaiah Berlin whose essays I had read in the journals friends brought from abroad from time to time. He was really eager to meet Akhmatova. I called Akhmatova right then and asked for a time to meet. She was reluctant for a moment. Her son, Lev, had just been released from prison. She didn’t want to get into trouble yet again. But when she heard the man was Russian and was more interested in her poetry than the political stories surrounding her, she agreed to meet with him that same afternoon. That day, I took Berlin to Anna myself.”
He raises his cup and cautiously brings it to his lips. Takes a small sip and puts it back on the saucer. I’m confused. I don’t know why he has started this game. I say in complete distrust, “Interesting! You take Isaiah Berlin to Akhmatova in Leningrad half a century ago and are now telling me the story in Iran.”
“What’s wrong with me being friends with Akhmatova and bringing a guest to her?”
I’m almost losing it.
“In that case, you must be a hundred and something years old now.”
He laughs aloud. “Don’t be so hung up on time and years. When I met Berlin in London some years ago he spent a whole hour trying to sort out the dates and figure out why I’ve stayed so young. Poor Berlin was even more stunned than you are because he said I hadn’t changed a bit since the time he saw me at the bookstore. He insisted this must be a miracle of nature. Berlin is a rationalist. For him, everything must pass through the filter of logic. That’s why I don’t blame him too much. But why you? You are a man of letters and into poems and poetry. You of all people should take it more easily. What is time after all? An arbitrary line, with past on one side going all the way back to darkness. And future on the other, ending up again in darkness in a step or two. We’ve all somehow accepted this and keep going on with our lives. Sometimes, one of us deviates. We slip to this side of the line being the past, or to the other side being the future. This happens all the time. Look around you. You sure have seen completely unnatural things. A baby born with two heads, or another born with a tail. I don’t know, thousands of such examples. Or a man who dreams of his long-dead father. In the dream, the father gives him directions to a chest full of the money he had saved. The son goes right to the chest and becomes rich overnight.” He laughs playfully.
I take a sip of my coffee. It’s thick and bitter but tasty.
“Isn’t it delicious?”
“I told you, no one serves a coffee as good as Monsieur’s in Tehran. And the cake. Try some.”
The cake is delicious too. Who is this man? Is he mad? Doesn’t seem to be. I remember a few years ago I was at home on a weekend when I heard Vangelis on TV for the first time. The tune always broadcast a few seconds before the news. I suddenly had a strange feeling. A very clear image conjured up before my eyes. I saw myself seated on a chair in a sidewalk patio of a café in a city in Europe waiting for someone. The image was so detailed I could have sketched every bit of it on paper had I been an artist. Even the narrow cobblestoned street on my right winding uphill seemed so real, as if I had walked on it a hundred times. The music was cut and all the images evaporated. A few days later I heard the tune again and the same images reappeared with the same clarity.
I must have thought all these aloud because the slender man said, “You don’t believe it so you try to somehow justify it.”
“Exactly! I thought maybe I’ve seen the street or the café years ago in a movie with this soundtrack and now I’m pulling those images out from the back of my mind.”
The man lets out a short sigh and stares at his half full cup of coffee smiling.
“It’s always been like that. Humans have always wanted to find answers to their questions. And when that becomes impossible, they try to somehow convince themselves with a made up answer. Basically they explain things. The reason is very clear. When we get to a point where we can’t understand existence we get nervous. We look for a ray of light in a dark endless desert and at the end we somehow try to hold on to even a flicker of light, heave a sigh of relief and go on with our lives.”
He looks like he’s talking to himself. He doesn’t look at me and speaks in a half-voice. Suddenly he looks into my eyes.
“So what happened in the end, to your music and dream?”
What happened really? Nothing. It’s still with me and every time I hear it I am transported to the same café, same street, same clear images. I feel brave. It’s the first time I’m talking about all this with no fear of being ridiculed. I’m not holding back anymore. Whenever I tell these things to people around me, especially Guity, I waste no time to say I don’t believe in any of it before they start lecturing me. But the slender man has opened the door of a house for me, into which I can step without trepidation and peek into its rooms and back closets.
I share another secret with him.
“Years ago, a couple of friends and I were going to a pub in Edinburgh, Scottland. I’m sure you know what a pub is. Something like our own qahveh khaneh, coffee houses. One of them suggested we go to the ‘End of the World’ on Cannon Gate street. He said the pub is 200 years old. He asked if I’d been there before. I said I hadn’t. Down the slope on Cannon Gate on our way to the pub, I suddenly remembered the rest of the street and the little shops on it. ‘Do you mean the pub next to the barber’s?’ I asked them.
“‘So, you’ve been there before,’ asked the friend who had suggested going there. I said no but I explained all the details of the building and pub’s interior to them. They were in disbelief. Everything was correct down to the last detail. Eventually they believed me when I said I had never been there. One of them said, ‘Sometimes these things happen. The French call it déjà vu.’ And the other joked, ‘The pub has been engrained in mankind’s collective subconscious. God bless Jung’s soul!’ and we all laughed.”
The slender man stared at me without smiling. You could tell he was thinking about a distant thought. There was a moment of silence. I ate the rest of the cake. Suddenly as if startled awake he says, “so you too slip to this side of the line sometimes.”
He looks serious but I jokingly say, “I try not to slip in any direction.”
He ignores my flippant tone. “This is beyond our control. We all do.”
“So you must have slipped to the other side. The future.”
He doesn’t smile. He agrees. Everything seems complicated all of sudden. I can’t read the situation. “By they way, I don’t know your name yet,” I say.
He blinks absentmindedly and says, “Oh, of course. I’ll give you my card.”
He reaches into his pocket for an old leather wallet, pulls out a card from one of the small folds, and hands it over to me. It’s a simple card. One side is in Russian and the other side in English. In the middle of the card in fairly large font is written “V. N. Orloff.” With the name underlined, and two words underneath: “Historian, Literary Critic.” At the bottom of the card, on the Russian side, there’s a Leningrad address and a London address on the English side. No phone number. No other words. I thank him.
“Can I have your phone number?”
“Of course! I’ll give you my phone number and address,” he says eagerly. “I’d be very happy if you’d visit me. I live by myself and have many books on Akhmatova, even her poetry books. You may find them useful.”
“I’m sure I will. I would love to see you again,” I say.
He looks for a piece of paper on which to write his address. I pull out a small notebook from my bag and rip out a page and give it to him with a pen. In very nice handwriting, in Persian, he writes, “Sohrevardi Jonoubi, South of Russel Pharmacy, Aqiq Alley, No. 53, 2nd floor, third bell from the bottom.”
And writes his phone number underneath.
Early in my path as a literary translator in Iran, I became familiar with Ahmad Pouri’s translations of Nazim Hikmet, Nizar Qabbani, Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova. Reading Pouri’s masterful translations was nothing short of a directed reading course, an encounter with the translator. In one of my visits to Tehran a few years ago, I chanced upon a novel entitled Two Steps This Side of the Line [Do Qadam Invar-e Khat], this time not translated but written by Pouri. I picked it up and finished reading it in the few remaining days of my stay.
Two Steps this Side of the Line is a novel in seven chapters. The story set in Tehran, London, Baku and Leningrad, centers on Ahmad, an academic who is translating the poems of Anna Akhmatova. One day in a bookstore, he runs into a strange man who claims to be a close friend of the noted Russian poet. The man tells Ahmad that he can arrange a meeting between him and Anna, who has died nearly fifty years ago, but that first he needs to fly to London to collect a love letter Isaiah Berlin has written her and take it to Anna in Russia. To the surprise of Ahmad’s wife and friends, he is dragged into this maze, almost entirely willingly.
That the novel has as its protagonist a literary translator made the decision to translate it an obvious and immediate one. Two Steps this Side of the Line is a story in which poetry and politics intertwine. It is a narrative of many layers: the love story involving Anna and Isaiah, the loveless married life Ahmad is leading, and his inner recollections. History, philosophy and psychoanalysis delicately coalesce in this book.
In another, more recent visit to Tehran, I had the fortune of meeting with Ahmad Pouri and discussed the translation of the work into English. He said he had delayed the thought until now because he wanted whoever translates the novel to ‘own’ the language. I cannot lay claim on owning either of the two languages at play here: my mother tongue, Farsi, or the tongue of my second home, English. With owning, comes proprietorship and with that comes the entitlement to profits and the responsibility for losses and liabilities. All that at the individual level. And language is but a collective act. So I hope I have taken a step to ‘hold’ these two languages with care, here in this translation and beyond. The way one holds a fragile object or entity, like love.
Lida Nosrati is a literary translator. Her poems and translations of contemporary Iranian poetry and short fiction have appeared in The Capilano Review, The Apostles Review, Words Without Borders, Dibur, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She has been awarded fellowships from the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, Yaddo, and Santa Fe Art Institute (as a Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Fellow). She lives and works in Toronto as a Legal Aid Worker in Refugee Law. Photo by Setareh Delzendeh.
Ahmad Pouri was born in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, in 1953. He has translated more than 25 collections of poems and prose narratives including Letters of Chekov and Olga, and Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. His first novel, Two Steps This Side of the Line, was nominated for ‘Once Upon a Time Literary Award’ as well as the top prize of Golshiri Foundation for first-time novelists. His second novel, Behind the Mulberry Tree, failed to get the green light for publication from the Ministry of Culture. He is currently working on his third novel.