All week this week we focus on an extraordinary book of essays by Iranian-born Auckland film-maker Ghazaleh Golbakhsh. Today: her tale of a wandering Persian exile

The Shah of Grey Lynn walks in front of me, his body long and lean, his head hung low. A shah is similar to a king or tsar, and Persia had been led by a shah for centuries until the 1979 revolution. In Persia, we had legendary shahs like Cyrus the Great who wrote the world’s first mandate on human rights on a clay cylinder, a copy of which sits at the United Nations headquarters in New York. We also had terrible shahs as in the last, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who pandered to the West and believed his own hype so much that he once spent a fortune on a lavish celebration of the ancient ruins of Persepolis. But as millions in the country were poor, no one cared about the celebrations. Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose policies inspired the revolution which overthrew him, spent his final years in Egypt, in exile, much like the many citizens who would follow suit and find themselves as immigrants, exiles, refugees and asylum seekers.

The Shah of Grey Lynn wears his daily outfit like a uniform: a dishevelled blue sports jacket and light blue jeans that are two sizes too big and which hang dangerously low, sometimes dragging on the ground. To contrast this unruly look, he wears impeccably clean Allbird sneakers, the kind you see constantly popping up on your Facebook feed. The Shah has a thick head of beautiful dark hair that cascades around his head, but which stays clear of his large forehead. He has an equally thick beard that completely hides his lips, but the beard is meticulously well-kept.

The Shah never makes eye contact, as if almost afraid to stare at the world around him. He is both hobo and chic; an enigma who wanders the same stretch of road in upmarket Grey Lynn day after day, slowly, without purpose and alone. The Shah does not stride, he merely shuffles, as if terrified of taking up space. I always spot him on the way to catch my daily bus, and for some reason this comforts me.

One day I find myself sitting at a bus stop as it pours with rain; the kind of rain that comes from all directions, viciously and relentlessly. Suddenly the Shah wanders in, still with his slow pace despite the mini-typhoon. He stands under the shelter for a second, then without warning sits next to me. His eyes stay cemented to the ground.

“Should’ve brought my togs,” I joke then immediately regret it. Yet the Shah smiles, the first time I’ve seen him show his teeth, which are small and radiantly white. His face immediately melts into a warm kindness. He replies, “I can’t swim.”

I pause, wondering how to react, then he snorts a short laugh. Relieved, I laugh too. It seems that the Shah also enjoys terrible jokes.

“He would argue with his mother that all the greatest people valued kindness above all: the Prophet, Jesus, Buddha and probably even the great Omar Sharif”

As the rain continues its wailing, I ask the Shah some questions and he answers directly but personally. He is from a country that has battled revolution and war. He has a lot of worries. He lives alone in a tiny flat near a carpark. He hates the smell of coffee. He would love a dog. I ask him if he has any family here. The Shah grimaces.

“Sorry,” I stammer.

His face softens so I ask him to tell me the story and this is the story he tells:

The Shah grew up in a small village in a faraway land with two sisters and three brothers. They were an inseparable bunch even though his mother doted mainly on his older brother Ahmed. The Shah looked up to Ahmed as Ahmed seemed to have it all. He was handsome and overtly kind to everyone he met. Often, the family would joke that he looked like a younger Omar Sharif. Secretly, the Shah didn’t concur. Ahmed seemed much more handsome. Ahmed would consistently help people around him and his dream was to become a doctor so that he could help those most vulnerable. Their mother believed Ahmed to be too kind and that his kindness would ultimately become his downfall. The Shah disagreed. He would argue with his mother that all the greatest people valued kindness above all: the Prophet, Jesus, Buddha and probably even the great Omar Sharif.

His mother replied, “Yes, but at what cost?”

The Shah tells me how his family’s lives were seemingly normal until the Iran–Iraq war. They had the same wants and needs as most people; they desired love and acceptance and adventures; they loved good food and intelligent conversations. Yet much like my parents’ situation, the universe decided to intervene with unspeakable horrors. Time suddenly stopped and a deranged timeline evolved. The universities were immediately closed so Ahmed could not continue his dream of becoming a doctor. People had to make bomb shelters out of stairways and basements. Blackouts were common so the streets were eerily empty every night. Soon the entire family except Ahmed managed to escape to a neighbouring country, where they lived in limbo. Ahmed was left behind for reasons the Shah would not tell me. After a few years, the family moved to New Zealand as refugees, while Ahmed stayed behind in his homeland.

The war continued for years, and entire cities were almost eviscerated. Buildings that had stood for hundreds of years were mutilated. Scenes of dying citizens travelled the world and yet all the world could do was say, “How awful!”

It was at this point that Ahmed decided to take his chances and escape. Africa was not an option. Europe was near impossible. Ahmed instead found a way to Mexico after paying his life savings to people smugglers. The Shah kept in touch with Ahmed on his tortuous journey through Mexico—a land he had never seen, with a language he had no knowledge of and a journey that could end his life at any point. It was at the border between Mexico and the United States where Ahmed was arrested. While his group ran for their lives, a woman and her infant child fell behind. Ahmed, who was always too kind for his own good, stopped to help and thus he was caught.

Ahmed now resides in Los Angeles. There are no bombs, no invading zealots, but Ahmed is a prisoner. He is an ‘illegal’ who has no rights to lawful work, health services or education. His dreams of becoming a doctor have been vanquished and he now works at a local burger joint downtown. The kind of place where even when you leave, the stench of the grease stays with you. The kind of place where every single employee goes by only their first name, terrified of their pasts being revealed. It is a place of forced exile, a twisted Hotel California where folks can never leave. Ahmed is forever chained to this life, for if he leaves and tries to re-enter the US, he will be arrested and deported back to his homeland. A homeland he has not seen for over 30 years.

The Shah tells me that on his daily walks he only ever thinks about Ahmed. He wonders why someone who was just being kind is now doomed to such cruelty. He wonders whether Ahmed would have been successful if he had thought only of himself. He curses the world for not reciprocating the same kindness that his brother always gave out.

I know this story. My cousin Babak lives in Greece. He has been there for almost forty years as an ‘illegal’, with no rights and no permission to leave. While many of us in New Zealand yearn to visit Greece for sun-soaked beaches, ancient ruins and white-domed buildings, others see it as a terrifying gateway to an unknown Europe. The route to Greece is like a demented yellow brick road and Europe indeed becomes a type of Emerald City. The utopia the West represents is a fallacy to many who seek asylum. For the reality of being an asylum seeker is not a road paved with gold but one of fear and the unknown.

No one celebrates Babak and the life that he sacrificed. Like Ahmed, the grand life they imagined in the West has been cruelly stolen from them. They are prisoners in exile. Yet perhaps, like the martyrs, they too will one day achieve their gold-paved heaven. These exiled martyrs of the world.

I haven’t seen the Shah for months now. It seems that as soon as I had been told his story, his duty was done and he was away again, possibly to wander another street, possibly back in Iran. I will never know.

An edited extract from The Girl from Revolution Road by Ghazaleh Golbakhsh (Allen & Unwin, $36.99), available in bookstores nationwide.

Ghazaleh Golbakhsh is an Iranian-born Auckland film-maker, and the author of The Girl from Revolution Road, a collection of essays published by Allen & Unwin in September 2020.

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