by Rees Nielsen
It was the summer of 1971 and Murrow and I were stuck in Tehran waiting for the weekly bus to Istanbul. Down the hallway this barrel chested German was leaned up against the north wall smoking a cigarette.
“I’m going to tell you my life story.” The German informed me as I passed. He was approaching middle age and had that weathered look that suggested trouble. “I’m not going to lie to you. I need a loan. Not baksheesh, mind you, but a short-term loan. They’re about to kick my wife and I out on the street if I don’t come up with the rent. I’ve got a check coming week’s end and then I can pay you back.” He flicked a cigarette out of his pack and held it out in my direction. “Let me tell you my story then it’s your call.”
His room was at the far corner of the hall. A chubby Persian boy clutching an accordion was waiting timorously next to the German’s door. “This is Hissan,” the German explained, “He has come for his weekly lesson.” The boy looked at the floor in awe of the maestro.
The German patted Hissan on the top of the head. “Come Hissan, show me what you have learned.” The German opened the door and pointed at a chair where I sat down. A woman wearing a turquoise silk sari embroidered with silver thread came out of the bathroom. She stood to the side checking the mirror while braiding the last strands of her long thick black hair. She waved me over to the sink at the other end of the room.
“It is permissible for a man to grow his hair long. That is fine,” she said. “You have beautiful hair but you must wash it three times every day. Come to me and bend over the sink.” She took a bottle down from the cabinet and, of all things, began to shampoo my hair.
Hissan, who couldn’t have been more than eight, strapped on his accordion. He played with enthusiasm but he played like an eight-year old. Hissan wasn’t the next Mozart but you had to admire his reverence for his mentor. He hung on every word. Half an hour later he pulled some waded Rials out of his pocket and anxiously asked about his next lesson.
“So you’re a musician?” I asked after the boy departed.
The German smiled as I dried my head. He acknowledged the lady in the room sitting stiffly at the edge of the bed. “This is my wife Akter.” Akter put her palms together closed her eyes and dipped her head. The German had crossed the room in three quick strides and was holding a large scrap book which he opened at the end of the bed. He waved me over and I sat across from him on the other side of the book.
“What do I call you,” the German asked
“Call me Red,” I answered, “everybody else does.”
“Red, I am no ordinary musician. I am an entertainer. You understand the difference. A musician plays in an orchestra, an entertainer plays for the audience. I can play the accordion or the guitar or the horns, but better than that, I can play the crowd. This is my path. I am a student of songs and also a student of people. Songs can tell you more about people than any newspaper. I can sing songs from anywhere in the world. Anywhere! Name a country and I will sing you a song.”
“Look,” He flipped rapidly through the scrap book which was pasted with handbills of numerous countries from every hemisphere. He lighted on what he was looking for. “Red, believe me, I know American songs. Look here, I lived in Texas for four years.” He pointed at a black and white photograph. It was a photo of the young German on a quarter horse wearing a black Stetson. “That’s me,” he assured me.
“I know all the melodies. All the everyday songs. I know ditch diggers songs. I know the lullabyes. The love songs. The drinking songs. I know the songs you grew up with in grade school. I know Red River Valley, Streets of Laredo, Strawberry Roan. I know all the cowboy songs and the coal miner songs and the union songs. I can sing about the Civil War. I sing the songs of Ulysses and Robert E.”
I took a long look at the photo. It was definitely the German and from what little I could see it looked like Texas. “You’re a folk singer then?” I asked.
“Yes, yes I am the volk singer! And my wife Akter, she is a classical Bengali dancer. I play and she dances. We play all over the world. You know the Hilton Hotels. Yes I have played the Hiltons many times, many countries. We have a home but we can’t get back until my check comes through. My wife is East Bengali, there’s a war going on and we can’t cross the Pakistani border. We need to fly direct to Mumbai.”
“Let me show you something. I have my own instrument. I invented it,” the German explained enthusiastically, “It’s what you Americans call, one of a kind.” He jumped from his chair without waiting for my reply and pulled this huge contraption from under the bed.
The workings of the instrument were bolted to a large sheet of plywood almost as big as the bed itself. It was crafted with all sorts of piano wire and sitar strings. There were levers at intervals and myriad mechanical devices. Some wires ran diagonally above other sets of strings. These sympathetic strings picked up on the vibrations of the bottom strings and created a harmonic hum echoing off the workings of the instrument. Near the top there were a set of keys that struck the tightly strung wires much like a piano. The German had cut a half circle into the plywood giving him room to reach all the gizmos on the board.
The German began to pick at his contraption slowly but with rising intensity. At one point he threw a bow onto the bed, stopping at times to draw a low deep groan out of the thing. Meanwhile he strummed and picked, as he delicately tuned his creation. The myriad levers seemed to provide him with a range of chords while there were other sets of strings where he plucked, with remarkable dexterity, at individual notes.
It sounded similar to a sitar or a zither, then later, especially when he ran through the scales, it produced a ringing liquid clarity, like a runaway bluegrass mandolin. The thing was filling the room with a sound that was dense and pungent. The German was trapped in the sway of this composition. Then the melody slowed from its frantic pace and became simpler, almost familiar. Without warning he lent his voice to the mix:
I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan
I’m goin’ to Montana for to throw the hoolihan
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw
My uncle used to sing that very song after a long day and a tumbler or two of Canadian Club. I have to admit hearing Ol Paint in this shabby hotel in Tehran left me missing home for the first time in a long while. There were some borders I couldn’t cross either but that’s a story for another time.
The German played on for another twenty minutes in a million languages and styles. His shirt was sweated thru and he flung his head from side to side as he played with utter abandon as if we weren’t even there. Without warning as the music reached a fevered pitch he abruptly stopped, like pulling the emergency brake on a passenger train. I nearly fell from my seat thunder struck by the abrupt end of the concert as his Stradivarius lay on the bed humming along down a long road that stretched off into what approached forever.
The German looked exhausted. He dragged his instrument back under the bed and sat there contrite. The thing was still vibrating. His shoulders sagged and his voice took a plaintive tone. He turned to the front of his scrapbook and spoke breathless.
“When I came east I was a young man. The same cock sure stupid young man you run into every day. A man not so different from yourself. I owned a Mercedes and a matching trailer and I had 20000 marks in the bank. He pointed to a photo which showed himself standing before just such a rig. Look at me now. I am a child’s abandoned doll. I am a mutt with a torn ear that will never mend.”
“How to begin?” He thought about this for some time. “In the beginning I was determined to establish some concrete direction. My peculiar ambition being to practice and learn the music of every country along the old Silk road. I did this to foment some historical context to my interests. In the process during a foray into east Bengal, I met Akter and not long after we became man and wife. We began to perform together. It was as if the world with all its troubles had given Akter and I a pass. We had run off to join the circus.”
“After two years a child was born. We named our daughter Pavi and we bought a small house in Eastern Mumbai. By the time Pavi was four we gave up the road. We had cultured a network of clubs and hotels in the surrounding area that provided a livelihood. Akter taught school and I gave lessons. We set about raising our daughter properly. We lived in a middle class neighborhood and we had middle class concerns.
Our particular neighborhood was under the control of the Vardha Bhai. They were a local mafia of Tamil criminals. Theirs was an organization of bootleggers, smugglers, opium traffickers and murderers. They operated with impunity. They even had their own courts and they settled their scores as if they were a country unto themselves.
One evening I caught a boy trying to lift my Mercedes. I knew him to be the son of one of the thugs of the neighborhood, so I dismissed him with a swift kick to the pants rather than the beating he deserved.
That’s how I ended up in the court of The Vardha Bhai. They captured me with the quick strike of a black jack and a coil of rope. I was hijacked off the street and when I came to, I sat in a dock before the local gangster magistrate. I was told to surrender my Mercedes before the end of the following day in recompense for my offense. I tore open my shirt and pointed to my heart. “Take it now.” I screamed, “save yourself the trouble.” I considered them duly warned.
That night I sat in my car with a club and a small sword. I kept a pistol in the glove compartment. Just before dawn they set upon me. I sent two of them to hospital before someone landed the deciding blow. I lay there stunned on the street. One of the goons rifled my pockets till he found my keys. He started my Mercedes and sat there patiently waiting.
There was blood running down into my eyes. I managed to get to my knees but I was too wobbly to stand. A third man came crashing through the front door. He had something in his arms. I could hear my wife calling my name frantically from the front door. This last gangster had tied a kerchief over his face, he paused and opened his arms. “Tell Daddy goodnight,” the monster said and then he kicked me and the lights went out.
When I came to Akter was shaking me. She looked worse than I did. She held me in her arms for the longest time rocking back and forth with me in her lap trying desperately to clear the cobwebs from my head. Pavi had disappeared and I knew the clock was ticking.
The German took the scrapbook and opened it in his lap. Methodically he turned the pages until he found the place. There was the newspaper photo of a beautiful young girl and the banner headline: KIDNAPPED!!!
“Over the next 5 years I spent all the money I had trying to find our Pavi. I bribed. I begged. I threatened. I made crucial contacts within both the criminal organizations of Mumbai and the police. Through these contacts we discovered she had been sold by the Vardha Bhai to slave traders who dispensed children across Asia as house servants and prostitutes.
I sold the Mercedes and mortgaged our home. I sunk every pisa I owned into her discovery. Gradually we came to know the names and evil histories of the handful of men responsible for this despicable act. Slowly I began to give up hope of her return. I resorted instead to the least transcendent of emotions, personal revenge.”
“I murdered five of the perpetrators of my daughters abduction in cold blood. I poisoned the man that did the actual deed. I stole his car, drove it some two hundred miles and handed the keys to a beggar. Over three months time I bankrupted his family.
The others I killed face to face and with my own hands. I snapped their necks like a farmer snaps the neck of a chicken. I came upon them in the dead of night and waited for their eyes to cloud over so that the very last thing they saw was my face and my vengeance.” The German was silent and in this ghastly silence I read the articles in the scrapbook of a beautiful 11 year old girl stolen from her family.
“Red,” the German said at long last. “A piece of advice. If you choose to marry, marry a Bengali. The women of Bengal are both beautiful and loyal. They are known for their honesty and they will smoke charas with you. They are not timid in bed either and most important, they protect you from snakes.
As god is my witness I will tell you a true story. We traveled to East Pakistan, the country they call Bangladesh now. Akter’s people live there. You would have thought we were royalty the way they received us. We were given a hut at the edge of the village next to the jungle.”
“I was tired after the long journey and I ducked my head to enter the hut but Akter refused to let me pass.”
“ ‘Babu she said, ‘you must not enter here. There are seven Cobra’s inside and they will strike you. Wait here while I fetch them.’ ”And so she did, returning seven times and each time holding a cobra at arms length.”
“Akter how did you know there were seven, I asked my wife.”
“’I could smell them Babu,’ she answered. ‘They smelled like seven.”
The German looked at me. He looked exhausted. “True story.” He said, “Every word.”
The German was suddenly played out. He was no longer the hardy barrel chested German I had encountered in the hall an hour or so earlier. He looked older and feebler than I had realized. I stood up to take my leave. Without a word I pulled my wallet and handed over most of my cash.
“It’s all I got,” I added. “I’ll talk to Murrow see how much cash he’s got on him.”
“Like I said,” the German assured me, “I can pay you back come the Thursday.”
“That’s ok. We have tickets for the Wednesday bus to Istanbul.”
“O,” the German said and looked down at his hands. He had massive hands and I did not doubt he could snap a man’s neck if he took a notion to do so.
“I studied literature in school. I have always loved books. I eat books like Texas eat bar-b-que. I will tell you this secret Red. It is a secret I have discovered after years of study. In this world there are only two books worth reading more than once. There is this,” the German held up a well worn Bible. “All great literature springs from here.” The German slapped the Bible as if it were a drinking companion and he was slapping it across the shoulders. And there is this,” The German opened a drawer in his nightstand. He handed me a dog eared copy of The Lustful Turk. I gathered in a glance that this was a 17th century erotic novel set in the harem of the Dey of Algiers.
The German tore a page out of a notebook and scribbled on it. “Here,” he said, “this is our address in Mumbai. Should you ever find yourself in the vicinity call me or just come by. I will personally put myself at your disposal. We can ride the elephant. We can go on a tiger safari. We can go anywhere you want to go. Take our number with the confidence we will never forget you.”
I tried to return his copy of The Lustful Turk but he was having none of that. “My gift to you. Thank you for your generosity.” I turned to leave. “ Remember,” Akter said, “you must shampoo the hair three times every day.” She somberly held up three fingers. I held up three fingers in return and nodded solemnly.
I grabbed the doorknob and I heard the German say, “Red, read the book and if you need to don’t be shy, use the hand.”
About the Author:
For 35 years Rees Nielsen farmed stone fruit with his cousins on the family farm 3 miles southwest of Selma, at the heart California’s San Joaquin Valley. Three years after the passing of his wife Riina, he moved to Indianola, Iowa where he chauffeurs his grandchildren, Marshall and Adelaide Taylor, to and from elementary school. He has published poetry, fiction and visual art in the USA and the UK.