“What really counted was the possibility of escape, a leap of freedom, out of the implacable ritual, a wild run for it that would give whatever chance for hope there was. Of course, hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like man, by a random bullet. But when I really thought it through, nothing was going to allow me such a luxury. Everything was against it…” – Albert Camus, The Stranger
I’m in Sri Lanka with Craig, a friend from my home town, and we’ve been having trouble sourcing cigarettes and beer.
In the hostel we’ve checked in to, we ask a boisterous young man from Afghanistan, a man smoking and drinking a beer in the courtyard, whether he knows a place. He offers to take us himself so we say “sweet, in 15 minutes?” and he says “the future is unpredictable! The future is now! You never know what is going to happen!”. So we push our unwashed bodies off the couch, pull on our shoes and march out of the house.
From the hostel awning, we watch the afternoon storm roll in and settle above Colombo city. The rain begins to fall and our bare, sticky arms welcome it.
“When it rains we go inside and when it’s sunny we go in the shade.” The Afghani says. “If I say I love you, will you run away?”. He turns to us and flashes a smile, bringing a beedi to his lips before offering the packet to Craig.
The three of us walk through the bustling Sri Lankan streets with tobacco in our lungs. Later, we'll discover that smoking in major cities and train stations here is illegal, but at this point, the blissful ignorance that comes with arriving in a foreign land is enough to prevent us from questioning our cultural assumptions.
The man whose name we don’t know tells us he’s been in Sri Lanka only a week or so and that it is here he tasted the ocean on his lips for the first time. I could sense the shock from Craig, an avid surfer, beside me.
“To me, this is heaven.” he says, with his hands outstretched. “Afghanistan was hell and now I have escaped, I am free!”.
We learn he was an orphan. His father died when he was very young and his mother had to sell him like a slave. He lived on the streets and never went to school.
I don’t know what school is like, but I love learning. When I was little and working on a farm, whenever new people came, I would point to things in books and tell them to explain. This is how I learnt English.
We learn he also knows how to speak Persian and Indian and that he’s learning Spanish too, because he wants to marry a Spanish girl.
He weaves around tuk tuks on the bustling streets with agility. He looks over to us and smiles.
But last year, I found Mum on Facebook and yesterday, my VISA to Canada was approved so I can go and meet her! I don’t know what it’s like to have a Mum, but I have one! I messaged so many people on Facebook and many blocked me, but Mum wrote back and asked if I have a birthmark on my leg and I do.
He reaches down and pulls up a pant leg. There is a small birthmark, the size of a milk bottle lid, on the inside of his calf.
I have been looking for her for 20 years and she has been looking for me too. I am the happiest man in the world!
Craig and I look over to him and smile. “I bet you can’t wait to see her.”
“I’ll be her husband, I’ll be her son. I’ll be everything! I’ll dedicate my life to her and I’ll never leave her side man!”. He pulls the beedi from his mouth and drops it into a street bin. He turns to me and says “I call you man because you are outside. Women cannot go outside like this where I am from so you are a man”. He walks ahead.
We ask him what he did for work, before he came to Sri Lanka. He tells us he worked in search engine optimisation which meant presumably, he was one of those people many of us with websites outsource our SEO to. I wonder how often we think of the human life behind the email.
He tells us he loves to write as it was books that opened his eyes to the world.
Have you read Camus? The Stranger is my favourite book – it’s my life. Camus has written my life, we are like brothers. Growing up in Afghanistan, of course I was Muslim, but The Stranger broke me. It made me realise my life was based on one story.
I remember once I was writing for 7 days straight with no sleep. I took a lot of ecstasy and at the end of the week I fell asleep on the floor and I was exhausted. When I woke up, everything had been erased. People began talking, telling me they knew I was writing against the Taliban and against all the gods. I received a letter that told me to stop. That’s when I got out. You don’t understand. It’s different there.
We make our way to the counter that sells alcohol. $2.10 for a 500mL beer. Craig buys 6 and we start talking about how we will carry them back to the hostel.
“You enjoy her, she enjoys you and I enjoy the both of you” he says, a smile glued to his face. Later we tell him that we're simply friends and he can't believe it. Two friends of the opposite sex travelling together? He couldn't comprehend it.
As we near the hostel entrance, I ask him what his name is, a nicety that is often futile in hostel lobbies, emerging only once a connection has been established.
And yes, I’m valid too.” He laughs. “And you?”
“Yes, like Craigslist.”
We walk into the hostel together and open a beer.
*His name is spelt Walid, but pronounced with a V.
All shots taken with my little point and shoot film camera.