شنبه, ۰۲ شهریور ۱۳۹۸
My father was the last person one would expect to see spending time in front of the mirror. Even more shocking was that he did it in front of the mirror in the living room, in front of the mirror in the hall but more frequently, in front of his little round mirror. This little round mirror had two sides: one side showed everything in a normal way but the other side showed a magnified version of things in front of it. And it was this contorted version of his own face that my father kept looking at as if he didn't trust the other two mirrors. This ritual, performed with alarming frequency in the last few months of his life, had gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the family. I'm sure neither my mother nor my brothers and sisters had ever noticed this little habit of his, otherwise someone would have said something. Any little sarcastic remark that hurt the old man was never missed by anybody in the house except me. And maybe, of all his family, he didn't mind me seeing him engaged in his obsessive habit. As long as I could remember my father had always ignored my presence and had never shown the slightest interest in me. But despite his lack of emotional engagement with me, I liked my father; I liked him then and grew to like him even more after his death.
Once a supreme athlete, he had spent many years of his youth in hunting expeditions, camping in the most inhospitable environments and walking in the hills and mountains for several days in search of moving prey. He told me he stopped hunting and broke his guns when one day he came cross two gazelles, a mother and her baby. He had fired a shot but apparently had missed the target. He said something strange happened after he had fired his gun. The mother had just stood in front of her baby and stared at him. He was ready to shoot again but the look in the mother's eyes had forced him to lower his gun. He said he turned his back on the gazelles and walked away. When he finished telling me the story I saw a few tears in his eyes. That was when I was about seven or eight and from that day I developed a soft spot for the old man until his death.
His habit of looking into the mirror was, to say the least, very odd. When he looked into the mirror, he was not shaving, checking his collar or arranging his hair or tie but rather, it seemed to me, he was looking for something, something which he needed to see and check in the mirror at least three or four times a day. Perhaps it was just a habit he had developed in the last six or seven months of his life.
He died of a massive heart attack coming out of the bathroom. By the time the doctor arrived, which wasn't long at all, he was dead. He smoked twenty to thirty cigarettes a day, ate food saturated with fat and in his final years never took any exercise. He was sixty-six when he died.
Then one day, some fifty years later, I was standing in front of the mirror shaving, when the memory of my father and his habit of checking his face in the mirror, came into my head. Half my face was still covered with shaving foam but I had a smile on my face, not a sweet and pleasant smile but a bitter one. I thought I saw what my father had been looking for.
A few years ago, walking with my wife and daughter in Disneyland, Paris, I saw Rea for the first time in thirty years. I knew it was her from the moment I had spotted her in the crowd some thirty feet away, but I needed to be sure in order to dispel any lingering doubt in my own mind. I moved towards her and shortly we were standing only six feet apart from each other.
Our separation had been acrimonious, to say the least, but since the day of our parting I had occasionally thought about the outcome of any accidental meeting between us. We were known among a few close friends as the passionate Persian and the Greek goddess. But Rea was a lot more than just another Greek: she was from Salonika, a true Macedonian. We both knew our ancient history well and were very proud of it. She used to tease me by saying that she had conquered me as easily as her great countryman from Macedonia, Alexander the Great had conquered Persia. I retorted by saying that Alexander not only conquered Persia, but also burned down the great city of Persepolis. I also said to her on more than one occasion that I hoped she wouldn't destroy me in the same way.
Unfortunately, our explosive and passionate love affair had to be kept quiet and under control, because she was married. I had no doubt that she genuinely loved both and was tormented and unable to decide what she wanted to do with either of us. After a few tortuous months of uncertainty regarding our future and a number of heated arguments I decided, very reluctantly, to put an end to a relationship which wasn't going anywhere and didn't seem to have any future.
Looking at Rea at such a short distance, I was convinced that it was her. I could clearly see the little scar just below her lower lip, a tiny little scar which I had kissed a thousand times. The little scar reminded me of a few other distinctive marks, but they were located on the most private parts of Rea's body. You could only see them if she really wanted to show them to you.
Rea was with a man, her husband I supposed, but not the husband I had known all those years ago. This man was at least ten inches taller that the one I had known. Rea and her man were in close conversation with two boys, the older about twelve and the younger no more than nine years old.
Then Rea saw me. She must have noticed me by the way I was staring at her. I had the advantage of having seen and recognised her first and now I was waiting for her reaction. I don't know if I was disappointed or relieved. Rea's eyes did not settle on my face. There wasn't the slightest sign of any recognition as she looked around, ignoring my presence and pleading eyes.
Twice more in the course of that afternoon our eyes met, and twice more her reactions were exactly the same as the first time. I was tempted to shout her name, go forward and shake her but somehow I suddenly lost all interest in Rea. I knew that all her memories of me must have been obliterated; the passionate Persian, whose Persian name she had converted into Greek, was no longer a live memory but a dead and forgotten one.
During the course of the day we had a few photographs taken alongside some of the Disney characters and in the evening when we were having dinner I had the opportunity to look at them properly. Looking at the photos I realised how much I had changed; no wonder Rea hadn't recognised me. I looked old and I looked just like my father.
The Disney incident happened in April, during the Easter holidays. In June we also attended a wedding. A couple of weeks after the event we received some of the official photographs. I was present in three or four of them but they confirmed what I had already known since April: I had changed into an old man and my recent photographs testified it. This was how people saw me and this was how Rea had seen and failed to recognise me. The tragedy was that like Rea, I was unable to recognise the man in the photographs.
"We are signs that cannot be read", wrote Holderlin, the German poet, some hundred and fifty years ago. And more than five hundred years before him, Rumi had declared:
"How without colours and signs I am
I had stood in front of the mirror either with a shaving brush or a can of shaving foam and a razor three times a week for the past forty odd years. And for many years, when I was a civil servant, I had to do it once a day. It required paying very close attention to my face at least for five minutes every time I shaved. But strangely enough, I had never noticed any major changes in my appearance and definitely not to the extent reflected in those photographs. All I could see and was aware of was a little loss of hair and its gradual greying. The fact is what I saw in the mirror was me, a “me” without a face, an entity without any defining characteristics. It was always a “me” whom I had known all my life; a face that I knew belonged to me and had never had any cause to check whether it was genuinely me or not. To me, it was an ageless face that had remained exactly the same as long as I could remember. I reminded myself of what Rumi and Holderlin had said. It didn't matter if other people couldn't see me the way I really was.
But the disparity between what I thought I was and what I actually was had come as a great shock to me. I suddenly became aware that the way I had perceived myself was very different from everyone else's perception of me.
It took me a long time to find out what it was that I was looking for in the mirror. At first, I saw what I had always seen and became angry with myself for being so stupid as to even try to see something different or something that was not there.
But one evening, I saw myself as I had never thought possible and it was not in the mirror. I was in my yoga class and during one of our first routine exercises our yoga teacher asked us to come away from our bodies and trace our movements since we had woken up that morning. She asked us to follow our movements throughout the day until we got into the hall lying down. It was then, having finished my day's journey that I found it difficult to get back into my body. I was looking at myself lying down on the floor and saw a complete skeleton of a person. There was no flesh; I was just a skeleton lying on the floor. I saw myself, for the first time in a completely new light. The image of my skeleton lying on the floor, motionless, lifeless and without any discernible connection with me haunted me for the rest of that evening and the following few days.
The most disconcerting fact of my experience was the knowledge that somehow I had been split open. I had been divided into two and one part of me had looked, quite independently, at the other part; the moving part had seemed totally detached from the part resting on the floor.
That experience, whether I liked it or not, had opened my eyes. I had been too close to myself, I thought, to be able to see myself as an impartial observer. That is how the cameras had seen me: they were detached from me, looking at me independently and without any preconceptions, something that I hadn't been able to do all my life.
Within a few days, I began to look at myself in the mirror: detached and void of any emotions; this was simply an act of impartial observation. Gradually and painfully, I started on the path of discovering myself the way I really was. Maybe, that is what my father had been doing all those years ago. My affection for him turned into admiration. This was a journey we all could do without.
A few months later, I could look at my photographs: old and new. I had no difficulty in identifying with them and recognising them as me in different stages of my life. I could see myself exactly the way everybody else saw me. For this, almost immediately, I began to pay a price, a very high price.
The advantage of being ageless or having no notion of your physical appearance is your total oblivion to all the realities of life. Once aware of how you look and how old you are, the realisation begins to demand certain patterns of behaviour. You become instantly aware of the nature of your relationships. Tolerance, sympathy, respect and indifference appear as major components of most of your relationships instead of what you might have regarded as love and affection. Once aware of this fact, you also begin to introduce limitations and barriers in your relationships. As a result, your social circle suddenly assumes a new character and it gradually shrinks. Worse still is the inevitability of having to acknowledge and come to terms with failed dreams. In the mirror, there is now a true reflection of a person who can no longer look away and ignore the facts. Every line on that face, every white or grey hair and every small shiny bald patch on that head, reflect or rather tell stories; stories of a life which seems to have failed to live up to your dreams and expectations.
My father was a deeply religious man. He believed in God and life after death. He believed everything that happened to you was for the best because God had wished it. Because of his unwavering faith, my father could not have been looking into the mirror, contemplating his successes and failures. Unlike me, I don't think he had been looking to find himself, to see himself the way everybody else saw him. And if that was not the reason, there must have been another reason for his obsession.
As the days passed, I continued to look at myself in the mirror, closely, openly and detached. Like my father, I had become obsessed, looking at myself in the mirror several times a day.
About six weeks ago I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I had discovered what my father had been doing. In no way I was going to follow his example. I was not going to check my face everyday to see how much more life was left in me. I believe my father was checking the fading light of his life in the mirror. He had done with this world and was anxious to get into the next.
Rumi and Holderlin were wrong. We are not signs that cannot be read or seen. On the contrary, we only exist because we can be read and seen. Life was too short and too precious to be wasted in front of the mirror. I decided I am as I am seen and not as I thought or would like to be seen. My perception of myself had no relevance to the realities and the facts measuring my existence. At the end of my obsessive search, I had found a man who regretted only one thing in his life; one thing, which is best, described by the Persian poet Shahriar:
I used my youth as a candle to light the paths, searching for life
I didn't find life, but lost my youth
Now with these old legs, I wish I could return
To search for my youth, through the hazardous paths of life
I had been a real nuisance to my family for more than six months. Then one evening, looking at my wife and children as we sat at dinner, I felt a warm sensation going through my body. Life was beautiful. And there was still some life left in my legs. I wish I could turn the clock back and tell my father to stop looking into the mirror and look at me instead.