“Azar” by Ellen Gunnarsdottir

Azar in the fish factory, 1975; photo courtesy of Azar

I met Azar* some years ago on a winter evening at my parents’ house in Reykjavik. Afterwards, I could not get his image out of my mind. My mother had served a heavy Icelandic meal–a leg of lamb with potatoes–and was in the process of bringing in a vanilla sponge cake topped with a thick layer of meringue, cream and berries. Wedged between his hosts in their stately house, Azar looked worried as my mother cut him a slice. He explained that he never ate after eight in the evening but would gladly make an exception tonight for my mother’s desert. With conscientious effort he made his way through the mountain of flour, eggs, cream, and sugar and seemed relieved when it was over.

I found Azar’s kindness to my mother and her cake touching, and so I sat down and had a coffee and he told me the story of his connection to Iceland. It had to do with what I later understood to be his generous capacity for love. He had fallen in love with an Icelandic woman while studying filmmaking in West Berlin in the early seventies. This woman had a young daughter and Azar was only in his twenties, but it didn’t matter. He was so in love that he not only became a father to her daughter, but also accepted that he would eventually have to learn her language, move up north with her when she was finished with her studies, and become Icelandic. When he had finished his degree and she had a term left to finish hers, she sent him to live for a winter in her hometown, a remote fishing village in the Western Fjords on the 65th latitude north. He would work in a fish processing plant and by the spring he would speak fluent Icelandic. This village had around three hundred inhabitants and was nestled in a small inlet ten kilometers from the main town on the bay. A paved road that wound around the coast connected the two towns, but locals often used the shorter, older dirt road over the ridge between them.

By the time Azar arrived in the village it was late October. Snow had been on the ground for some time, and the winter darkness was setting in. The village had one main street from which derived a few smaller streets, a gas station and an elementary school. A few corrugated iron huts built by fishermen before World War II stood on the edge of the beach; the rest of the town was composed of low-lying concrete houses painted white or grey. The town gave off a sense of cowering, of an animal lying low. Azar’s girlfriend had told him that the village was in the avalanche high-danger zone and that when there was a lot of snow many inhabitants had to be moved to the main town until the danger was over. He wondered if the house of her relatives where he was staying was one of those houses, but nobody mentioned it to him and he tried not to think about it. If one turned from the mountains there was only sea and the bluish, snow-covered mountains of the Western Fjords hinterlands. There was no natural harbor, only a wide sandy beach and the village was open to the weather coming straight from the Arctic. The main source of employment was the fish processing plant that had been set up a few years earlier.

Azar had never used his hands for anything other than drawing, holding a camera, cooking and driving his Vespa, and the work came as a shock. He had to be at the plant by five in the morning to get dressed in white overalls, thick white rubber boots and overcoat, and put a blue hairnet over his head. The factory was brightly lit, its cement floors constantly covered with icy running water to wash away salt and fish blood. The conveyer belts made angry, high-pitched sounds when they brought the fish out to the workers; to this day he hasn’t been able to get that sound out of his head. Long before the boom years of the nineties drew the locals to the capital the processing plants in the Western Fjords were still full of Icelanders whose entire working lives were spent gutting, carrying and fileting fish. The men were put to the task of fileting, stacking and loading crates, while the women worked on the finishing touches, the deworming and tidying up of the edges. When it became clear that Azar did not have the speed, synchronization or physical strength to filet an adequate number of codfish per hour, the manager moved him to the women’s line. He learned to find his station and turn on the intensely bright overhead lamp that would help him see if there were worms that had to be picked out from the flesh of the cod. At first, he experienced feelings of nausea as he saw the squirming white worms inside the fish, but he got used to it. It was easier work and the women were nicer to be with than the men who, with their hulking frames and morose faces, looked at him with suspicion and spurned his attempts at conversation. Some of the women even introduced him to their boyfriends, husbands and cousins, and after some weeks he knew a few people in town and sometimes hung out at the gas station in the evening, drinking non-alcoholic pilsner, accepting sips of aquavit when the shop clerk wasn’t looking. He couldn’t understand a word of what was being said and the Icelanders did not seem to realize that unless they mixed a bit of English with the Icelandic they would exclude him from the conversation. When they looked at him it was as if they could not fathom how he had not been born to speak Icelandic, as if the world beyond the island was only an abstract idea, and not to be taken into account in daily life.

As soon as he arrived it dawned on him that his thin nylon and silk bomber jacket from Berlin was utterly unfit for the 65th parallel and there were no shops in town. He borrowed a coat from his girlfriend’s family and bought a pair of work gloves and a wool cap at the gas station. His days started at five in the morning and ended at six in the evening, after which there was not much else to do than return to the house of his girlfriend’s relatives, eat dinner, lie on his bed and smoke while he waited for sleep to come.

Slowly he got used to the work in the factory, but it was the onset of the dark months that really troubled him. By early November the sun had disappeared entirely. When it rose it never got high enough in the sky to emerge above the mountaintops surrounding the village. The only way he knew it was still rising every day was a vague daylight that began to creep into the valley in the late morning and hovered there until the mid-afternoon before fading, slipping away as if it had never wanted to be there in the first place. At night he was plagued by insomnia. If he managed to sink into sleep he would soon wake in a panic, his heart racing as he waited for the hours to pass. He was pinned to the bed by the weight of the most complete darkness and the most complete silence he had ever known in his life. By early December he had lost all sense of time and place; he felt himself choking on darkness, as if it had forced itself down his throat and was searching to blacken the fibers of his body. This was a despair he had never known existed, not even in Tehran when a beloved cousin had suddenly disappeared into the jails of the Shah and his family knew they had to leave before they were next; not in the first, lonely year of being a student in Berlin with the unfamiliar language, the dreary atmosphere of a city filled with war widows: none of it came close to the kind of angst that clutched at his heart here in a village of a few hundred souls in this forgotten corner of the world. For the first time in his life he felt as if nature was deliberately rejecting him, doing its best to lure him into the sea, a method of suicide that he discovered from people’s talk was popular among Icelanders.

He quickly came to know that the villagers were not at all like his beloved girlfriend whose mercurial mood swings were his delight; her laughter, her fury, her tears, all warm and life-affirming. Aside from the women whose confidence he had gained, these villagers barely spoke amongst themselves. They just went about their daily activities within nature’s great silence. The only sounds that resonated in his ears were the noise from the plant’s machinery, the roar of the sea, and the whinnying blasts of wind coming directly from the Arctic. Not even his girlfriend’s family spoke to him. Meals were eaten in silence, and if they spoke about the weather or some practical things that needed to be done they did so in a dry, abrupt manner, as if they had an aversion to each other.

Usually a cheerful, optimistic person, Azar felt himself with each day losing any sense that he was even alive within his own body. He decided to become proactive to get out of his melancholy and accepted an invitation to go with a group of young people to party in the town on the other side of the mountain ridge. With this prospect his mood began to lighten: there were only three weeks until he would go to Reykjavik and see his girlfriend for the holidays. He had missed her desperately, feeling her absence like a cavity inside him that grew as every Sunday phone call left him lying inert in bed. He found himself resenting her relatives for not being her, for being substitutes for her when they had none of her essence, none of what made her so special. His girlfriend, for him, was some kind of a deity, a woman of the earth who on her own had effortlessly given birth to and cared for a child, a girl who was subsumed into her being as easily as she had birthed her into the world. There was no end to his admiration and love for her.

A slip of daytime with new friends, 1975; courtesy of Azar

With that shining image in mind he got into the car with his friends, in his joy discarding the ugly winter coat he normally wore and putting on his aviator jacket, the one he had worn for months through the Berlin spring, summer and fall, enjoying its lovely cut, color and material. It was his best friend in this netherworld he found himself in, and he would not leave it behind on his one night out. The old road over the ridge had been cleared but it was icy, and the small Lada jeep skidded back and forth. The revelers were not worried; there were thick snowbanks on either side of the road and they would provide a soft landing if they skidded too far. Azar reached a state of near ecstasy when the lights of the town under the pitch-black sky came into sight. Like his village, the town seemed to hunch under the towering, grim mountains that surrounded it on three sides, trapping it in a stony enclosure with the sea as its only route of escape. But it had a main street, several shops, two bars, a swimming pool and an airport, the very airport he would be leaving from in three weeks to land in Reykjavik, to disappear into his girlfriend’s arms, to hold her day and night, feel her breath on his face, her laugh in his ears, her beautiful lovemaking moans in the deep night. Looking at the thin airstrip as they passed the outskirts of town he experienced an almost painful sense of liberation. It brought tears to his eyes and he shuddered as pangs of anticipation and desire racked his body.

They decided to go to the swimming pool first. They sat in the hot pots and looked at the sky. The wind was picking up and there were signs of a blizzard on the way. But he was used to blizzards now; they often came at night and were gone by morning, and like the wild sounds of the sea they were a relief because at least they brought noise and action to the endless nights. Sitting in the hot pot he felt fine with everything. His body was warmed through for the first time in weeks; he was looking forward to dinner and a night of drinking and talking instead of lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling. He was even beginning to pick up a few words in Icelandic; now and then he almost understood a sentence. His friends were gossiping about friends of theirs in town and if he really tried, he could make out some of what they were saying. This made him feel good; he would present himself to his girlfriend with his much practiced “how have you been” and “I love you more than anything in the world” in Icelandic, and her parents would give him credit for his efforts. They would see that he was a man capable of supporting and taking care of their daughter, even if he had olive skin and came from a country of Shahs, secret police and corrupt generals.

After the swimming pool the group went to a burger joint. There they were joined by other young people from the town, and in a large group they walked down the main street to the local bar. The bar was decorated in Western style, with carriage wheels and road signs from America on the walls. It had a tall, hardwood bar counter and sold three kinds of whisky. He loved whisky and hadn’t had a drop of it for months. His pocket was full of money as he had recently been paid at the factory and so he invited everyone to a round, not caring that the stack of bills he put on the table equaled two weeks of pay. For some reason, when that round was finished, nobody replicated his gesture and so he thought it prudent to only pay for his own drinks from there on. The louder and more animated the Icelanders got the harder it was to understand them and so he withdrew and allowed himself to daydream about his upcoming vacation in Reykjavik. As the images of that imminent bliss began to stack up in his mind he drank faster and faster until he no longer even pretended to follow what his friends were saying, but found a solitary corner where he stretched out his legs and closed his eyes as the chamomile aroma of his girlfriend’s thick corn-colored hair filled his nostrils and he closed his eyes.

When he awoke his friends were gone and the bar was empty. He asked the bartender what had happened. He said they had gone off to a party at somebody’s house. Where? The bartender pointed in a vague direction and said something complicated in Icelandic. Then he said he had to leave as they were closing.

Out on the street the blizzard was in full force. Under the lights from the street lamps, vertical sheets of snow hurled past and through him and disappeared down the empty street. There was no sign of the green Lada and no lights on in any houses. He walked down the street looking for the gas station he remembered seeing on the corner, but it too was closed. He ran up and down a few streets, hoping to see the green car or some lights in windows, but the entire town was shut down and the car was nowhere to be seen. He had to keep moving so he began to walk in the direction of the road they had taken on their way from their village. He had only his aviator jacket, his jeans, a thin shirt and slippery leather shoes. No hat, no gloves, no scarf. At the entry to the road the street lights ended, and he was in complete darkness, the same darkness he had found so oppressive as he lay safe and warm under his sheets every night. Now he wished more than anything that he was in his bed, that this was only a dream he was having instead of staggering, frozen, along an unlit, abandoned road in an Arctic blizzard. He tried to run, but his leather shoes kept slipping on the icy surface and several times he fell flat on his face. After a while he lost any idea of how long he had been outside or where he was: he was in a furious black and white vortex making howling sounds around him, angry, hungry, aggressive sounds. Somehow, he had given himself over to a creature that wanted nothing less than his total obliteration, right then, at that very moment.

He thought of his girlfriend and her little daughter, their warm female abundance, their devotion and dependence on him, how the three of them played soccer together in Berlin playgrounds, how he walked the little girl to school every morning before taking her mother to the university on his Vespa. Cinematic scenes of cold Berlin winter mornings passed before his mind’s eye, scenes that might or might not have happened in real life. There was the winter sun warming his girlfriend’s cheeks so that they were soft to the touch when he put both his hands on them to give her a full kiss on the mouth before they separated to go to their different departments.  It made him cry, and he could not stop crying even if the tears froze the skin on his face and he felt his eyelashes snap. How could she have sent him to this place? How could she make him prove his love in his way? A woman who did what she had done could not truly love the man she did it to. She had to be incapable of love and much closer on the inside to the ill-mannered, taciturn relatives she had put him up with. She had to have known what it might do to someone who had grown up in the sun to deposit him in the bowels of a dark fjord with a tribe of hostile people speaking a language that grated on his ears every day as he endured the blue lights, the squirming worms inside the fish’s white flesh, the pasty, hostile people, the horrible food and watery coffee. What had he done to her to merit this punishment?

He realized that he was lying down now. He was trying to find shelter by burrowing into the snow bank on the side of the road, hoping to somehow disappear into it. But the wall would not give in, it was hard and cold, and the blizzard was driving into him as relentlessly as before. If he did not move he would die here: the most ridiculous, useless death in the world. The Icelanders would feel bad, but deep down they would judge him for not being equipped to survive this northern environment as they had survived it for centuries. The silent consensus would be that he had only himself to blame, and soon, once his family had come to take his body away, he would be forgotten and his girlfriend and her daughter would be playing soccer with another man in a Berlin playground, kissing another man goodbye before heading into school, inviting another man to cook for them as he had done every night since they had started living together, spending hours on cooking the most delicious Persian food. With that same willful, absent-minded naivety they would find a new victim who would give his life to them, and they would barely notice.

He tried to get up, but his feet would not move, and his hands would not push into the ground. This really was the end. For some reason it made sense; he had always, since the day he began to remember anything, known deep down that it was his fate to die, at the age of twenty-five on an abandoned road between two villages on the 65th parallel north. It was a relief to have come to the end; to not have to get up at four-thirty to go to the fish factory; to not have to endure another Sunday dinner with the sad family; it was all coming to an end and that was how it should be. In his frozen body he could no longer recall what it had felt like to desire his girlfriend, to feel currents of lust racking his body when he thought of her. This too was a relief. He closed his eyes.

When he woke he was being dragged into a car. People were laughing. “Come on man, what were you thinking? People have died on this road in the winter. Seriously, did you think we were going to leave you at the bar? You were so dead, we couldn’t even carry you out. What an idiot!” All said in English: for the first time since he had arrived in the Western Fjords, the Icelanders were speaking their weird, halting English to him. Somebody put a coat over him and a wool hat on his head and then he lay there sprawled over at least four of them in the back seat until he was dragged into his room and thrown onto the bed by his girlfriend’s cousin, who muttered something in Icelandic about him being a total loser.

He managed to undress and crawl under the covers where he lay shivering for what seemed like hours. When his alarm clock rang he did not get up. He stayed in the bed until sleep finally came. As far as he knew nobody came to check on him, nobody seemed to care. In the late afternoon, in the glum half-light, he dragged himself into the kitchen where he made coffee under the stony gaze of his girlfriend’s aunt. He asked her in English to call the airport and make a plane reservation for him for the following day. “Are you leaving,” she said. “Yes, I am leaving,” he said, and as he said it the weight of the darkness and the cold fell away and he began to shed tears of relief.

He heard her go into the living room, dial a number and mispronounce his name as she made the reservation. He made himself two pieces of toast, poured his coffee and staggered back to bed where he ate and drank before falling into a deep sleep until his alarm rang at six in the morning. He dressed, packed his suitcase and walked through the kitchen where the family was making breakfast and out the door without saying goodbye.

At the gas station he got a ride with someone he vaguely remembered as one of the people they had met up with at the bar. He explained that he was going to the airport to get on the Reykjavik flight.

“Ahh, for the holidays,” said the man.

“No, I’m going back to Berlin,” Azar said. “I’m not coming back.” The man nodded as if this did not surprise him. They drove in silence to the airport and he paid his fare. Then he sat in the airport for five hours while he waited for the plane to arrive from Reykjavik. He was starving but there was no food. In fact, there was no one there save for a couple of airline employees doing something in an office behind the check-in desks. But he stayed quiet and focused, refusing to look behind him at the glass door with a view of the steely, snow-dusted mountains that seemed to be trying to crush the little airport with the same vehemence as the blizzard had howled and screamed and tried to crush him the night before. When the plane finally landed, skidding precariously on the runway he did not hesitate before getting up and being the first person to check in for the Reykjavik flight.

In Reykjavik, he did not contact his girlfriend’s family. He went to a hotel in the domestic terminal where he found a travel agency that booked him a flight to Copenhagen the next day. From there he would take the night train to West Berlin. The cost of the hotel and the flight ticket amounted to nearly all his savings. He calculated that once he had bought his train ticket to Berlin he would be broke. But he did not care. With butterflies in his stomach he luxuriated in the hotel’s hot tub, swam a few lengths in its heated pool and had a whisky at the bar before eating a hamburger. The next morning, he got on the bus to Keflavik airport, through the American military base, and then he was on the plane. When the wheels rose from the ground he cried, just like he had cried in the snow when he had almost died on the deserted road between two villages on the 65th parallel.

“You went back to Berlin to be with your girlfriend?” I asked. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Azar and his girlfriend had separated when they were still young.

He smiled and shrugged. “For a while. But she wasn’t impressed with me.”

“But now you’re here, all these years later, in Iceland.”

He smiled again, a sweet and melancholy smile that translated into his eyes. I had the feeling that he smiled a lot like that.

“I try to see the little girl as much as I can. She has just adopted a baby of her own. That’s why I came.”

A few years after the evening in Reykjavik when I met Azar, my father told me that now past seventy, he lived with a thirty-year-old woman, drove around Berlin on his Vespa and played soccer every week. My father showed me a picture of him: lean, dark and thin, with a gangly, boyish frame, thick black hair peppered with grey and a slightly receding hairline that makes him look like a French intellectual or movie star from the fifties. He met and fell in love with his girlfriend when he was past sixty and she was only a few years past twenty. He told my father he had repeatedly tried to break it off, but she wouldn’t have it. She loved him too much and swore that when it came to it she would take the consequences of his old age.

This made me think of Azar’s story of how he almost died for love on the 65th parallel. Instead of feeling resentment that a charming old man should use his powers to seduce a young woman to keep him warm in his last years, I felt happy for him. Because he wasn’t really an old man; he was the same man I had met at my parents’ dinner table, gently stuffing himself with a cake he did not want in order to make others happy; the same man who had travelled to the ends of the world and almost died to prove his undying love for a woman and her young daughter. I remembered a quote from Ben Okri: “Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment.”

I thought of Azar in that way: as a man who dwells in his own enchantment, who makes the leap to the ends of the earth, or backwards across forty years of his life, to be with his beloved.


*his last name 


Ellen Gunnarsdottir received her Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University in 1998. She is the author of Mexican Karismata: The Baroque Vocation of Francisca de los Angeles, 1674-1744, as well as scholarly articles on Latin American history, and the co-author of Go Green, a children’s book on sustainability published by Disney. Her short fiction has appeared in The Write Launch. A piece of hers appeared in the spring issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, where it received honorable mention in the the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. She lives and teaches in Reykjavik.