An Azeri in Zurich: A Conversation on Exile

Yusuf stood tall at 5’11 when he helped us carry our luggage into his car after we had checked-out from a Swiss hotel with free Turkish coffee near Zurich HB main train station.  The two Spanish receptionists from the Basque region were the ones who discouraged us in taking the train to the airport.  They suggested we instead try Uber in that sub-zero cold and rainy weather in Zurich.  So, my wife booked a ride and in less than 5 minutes, the car was there.  Since we had two big bags that were placed at the compartment, we needed to put the smaller bags beside her at the back of the car and I had to sit in front.  We bade a final goodbye to frozen Zurich, a cultural jewel  bisected by the Limmat River that gave birth to the art and literary movement of Dadaism.

After fastening the seat belt, my thoughts were focused on the arrangements upon arrival at the unfamiliar Zurich Airport.  I was praying our Vueling flight to Barcelona will not be cancelled because another night in Zurich is undoubtedly expensive.  While I was preoccupied with these practical things, I noticed something beside the driver, Yusuf,  who was checking Waze.  He had a small book with a leather cover.  Not being able to contain my curiosity, I commented.

“I noticed you have an interesting book there.” expecting a rebuff since at first, he had this proud look of someone who was dragged to drive for someone in a wet afternoon on the slippery road.

“Huh!” a surprise look came from him not expecting for someone to notice a book of all things that can be commented about, like the weather outside or the kind of car that he has.

“Is it in Arabic?” I persisted in asking.

“Yup.  A book by Nesimi. Poems in Arabic. A gift from my wife.” with a smile and a sense of satisfaction that someone got interested to know more about what he is up to.

“Great.” I smiled back and thoughts gripped me about this driver being connected to his roots, literary tradition in the mold of great Islamic poets.

Although it was my first time to hear this poet, I learned later him to be a romantic Azerbaijani mystic whose collection of work is considered one of the best in the 14th and 15th century Arabic poetry.

“Any favorite passage you have there?” I continued to probe and with a sense of amazement, my interest greatly piqued.

Both worlds can fit within me, but in this world I cannot fit; I am the placeless essence, but into existence I cannot fit.

He slowly delivered this line with a tone of melancholy and evident sadness. It seemed at that moment, these words came from several thousand miles of Persian and Turkic legends, of the collision of the physical and the spiritual worlds, the charm and insanity of living and dying, the shifting sands of history and the breathing of stars on cold, deep and long nights.

I was discomfited because I did not expect that a beautiful passage can come from such an unusual setting – outside there was the continuing rain that looked like it will not stop and inside that car moving at 60-km/hour, we were still trying to settle our bearings.  There I learned Yusuf is an Azeri, of Azerbaijani origin, a political refugee from northwestern Iran who came to live in Switzerland for 2 years now.   He had gotten married to a German working in a non-government organization just outside of Zurich.  From his story, we learned that it took him two long years of waiting in a refugee center in Spain, learning German, before finally was allowed entry into Switzerland.  It was a period of uncertainty with a possibility of deportation to the country of origin.  This after the perilous slip from Iran, leaving his elderly parents and younger brothers who continue to be active in the protest movement where systematic repression is harsh and violent.  For him it was no longer tenable to work being an applied mathematics faculty in an engineering university with a price on his head by the secret police.  He had to make that decision in life and leave his fate, his doctoral degree and involvement in the struggle for self-determination.

Having sensed that he might have revealed too much of himself already to a couple whom he was not certain of their nationality. He asked us.

“Thai?”  with a quizzical look in trying to ascertain us.

“What made you think we are from Thailand?”  I tried to understand his perception of us.

“Well, just my wild guess.  I get to drive some of them here in Zurich and I can imagine you both from the warm beaches in Thailand.” he quipped with a big shrug of his shoulders.

When we informed him that we are Filipinos, he became animated as he knows something about the Philippines particularly Manny Pacquiao, who according to him is one of the best boxers if not the best in the world.  He knows the drug war being waged by Duterte and had seen the episode of Filipino cuisine featured by Anthony Bourdain.  Mortified, he said one day he will try balut and other Filipino staples.

As we continued smoothly through Schaffhausersstrasse for quite some time, I reflected again to that passage from Nesimi he recited earlier.

“Both worlds can fit within me, but in this world I cannot fit; I am the placeless essence, but into existence I cannot fit”

I wanted to relish that moment when a soul was being bared in that frozen frame of space and time.  I had wanted it because it speaks voluminously of a truth.  The truth of exile.  I am acutely aware of this inherent need and thirst of connection of people to their land, their roots, their shared history and to their own narrative as a race, a cultural entity and their national consciousness.  World literature is awashed with this kind of writing from Hosseini, Aleksander Hemon and Leila Abdelrazaq, and even Vladimir Nabokov and Bertolt Brecht.  As a Filipino myself, the stories of diaspora haunt me profoundly, stories of pain and struggle from the oil fields of Baku to hospitals in Chicago and from picturesque towns of Bergen to luxury cruise ships in the Caribbean.  For Yusuf himself, it is interesting to note that his very name signifies that of Joseph in Genesis who suffered the fate of being sold to the Egyptians yet became a powerful vizier whose life became an important part of the Israelites’ narrative.

Before turning left to stay on Vorfahrt Ankunft, I asked about him being a political refugee in this city of global finance, banking and the famous Kunsthaus.

“Well, maybe I would grow old here in this city, not being able to see my folks again and the town where I used to play, pick olives and pray.  Or maybe like Lenin, went home from Zurich to St. Petersburg and start a revolution, changed the course of history not just for Russia but the world.”  he said smiling with a hint of nostalgia and hope.

“Hmm. Nobody knows.”  I responded and checked myself in responding more as I sensed that he had something more to say.

“I used to grapple with the idea of being away from the center of it all. However, I learned to live with that.  Driving here, marrying someone from another culture, having this conversation with you, bringing you and your wife to the airport for another leg of your travel may be my small way of contributing to the bigger action of it all, our journey as human beings. I see my brethren from Syria, from other parts of the globe wanting to escape it all, from war, from oppression and poverty and this is survival. This world is in flux and continues to evolve. I am riding its peaks and throughs with an open mind.”  he said this in solemn resignation but his voice certainly finding that small niche where the slimmest of hope can be nurtured and kept alive.

Silence was our only response to this.  An uncomfortable silence.   I tried to look for words to affirm his thoughts, yet none came.  In that briefest of moment, it seemed like exile is also a secret place of abeyance where words are inadequate to contain a simple truth.   All we could say to each other as we parted when we arrived the airport was ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum my brother”.

Before boarding the flight to another place, I searched a poem by Nesimi and found some solace with the poet’s wisdom.

“I myself took up the cloak of blame;
I smashed the bottle of honour and virtue on a stone.
What of it?

Sometimes I rise up and watch the universe from above,
sometimes I go down to earth and lose myself in love.
What of it?

Sometimes I study life’s meaning in the holy books,
sometimes I go to the tavern and get drunk.
What of it?”


6 thoughts on “An Azeri in Zurich: A Conversation on Exile

  1. So beautiful Max. The short taxi ride captured the life of the driver, the message in the passage gives a preview of people who live in different places outside of their comfort zone, culture and belief.
    I got mesmerized with the frozen Zurich and got more connected with its beauty with your short encounter with its people.

    Liked by 2 people

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