The aroma of barbecued chicken and lamb chunks hung deliciously in the air. The restaurant had opened only a few months ago. But the minute Ali stepped into it, he was hit by a gust of nostalgia. LOVEAT read the board, but to him… this wasn’t just a restaurant in the bylanes of Hong Kong. It was home. Digging into a plate of mirza ghasemi, a grilled eggplant dip, his thoughts manoeuvred down the memory lane. The scene shifted to a large house bedecked with Persian motifs, tapestries and a beautiful old-world charm. A bubbly woman stood importantly in the kitchen, barbecuing chunks of succulent chicken and lamb onto a wrought iron grill. It was his aunt — a woman of love and compassion. Before the Iranian revolution, he often sat by her side as she cooked elaborate meals, especially on Fridays which are considered to be holy in Iran. He watched her as she meticulously added the saffron threads to the mortar before grinding it to a fine powder. “Bring me some butter, and make it quick, the guests will be here very soon,” She said. The saffron rice topped with melted butter, together with the eggplant were her favourites. And the biggest learning Ali had, as he watched this scene, was the importance of having guests over. She often said that a guest was no less than God visiting the house… and if you ever visited a Persian home, you would know how true this is.
As the guests made their entries, the house was filled with excited chatter, the sound of little feet thumping rhythmically as they ran around the wooden floors and the loud rumbling of stomachs as his aunt brought out her labour of love onto the dining table. Ali took a sigh as he smelt the delicious aroma of the greased kebabs wrapped in a Persian bread and yogurt on the side. His heart was melting. He shut his eyes and opened them again. He was back to reality. The same dish was right in front of him at LOVEAT. He took a bite and the world felt like a better place.
That night, as Ali sat in his apartment, he was consumed by thoughts from his past. He let the thoughts brew as the memories flashed. He had packed a bowl of marinated olives from LOVEAT that he relished as he remembered all that he had been through. His mind took him back to that day at his aunt’s house in Iran. After everyone had finished devouring the delicious spread, they sat back, filled to the brim with contentment and conversations. The favourite topic of discussion at that time was that of politics. With the revolution came a change of regime and the deposed King was replaced by the ruling clerics. This caused a lot of anxiety among all Iranians, especially the educated working class. What followed was a war between Iran and Iraq. Living through a war was no easy feat, after all. So they left no chances to fate.
Ali’s parents planned their escape. The growing anxiety, clash of opinions and the decline of an otherwise prosperous state led them to make this brave decision. They were going to France, and there was no looking back from there.
It was the year 1984 and Ali was in the midst of a sweeping field of bamboo sticks. He walked carelessly along the towering sticks until he saw the miniature ones lined up alongside. His family had moved to France and taken shelter at a family friend’s apartment before moving into their own home. They wanted to eventually get to the United States of America, but it wasn’t as easy as they had imagined. He felt the sun shining down upon him as a thought struck him. He quickly plucked the bamboo sticks to create bunches and filled his bag as he went. Knocking at one of his elderly neighbour’s doors, he exclaimed, “Do you need bamboo sticks for your plants? They can help your plants grow nice and tall. I can bring them to you whenever you need them.” She looked at him and then at the sticks and said, “These are lovely. I will need more. Can you bring them to me tomorrow?” Triumphant with his new-found business, he said, “5 Francs for one, please.” He proudly gave her the few sticks he had collected. Soon, the word spread and Ali was the most sought-after 12-year-old in the apartment complex. He realised then that he had a knack for trading, just like his ancestors from the Persian empire. For 1.5 years, Ali’s business thrived. He ended up with his own pocket money and even created a trading book of football team cards with his earnings. He was building his own Silk Road and the seed for this thought was planted in the bamboo forests of Southern France. But soon, it was going to be time to leave. The United States of America was calling. And he had to answer.
15 year old Ali was in love. He sat there in front of the TV, awestruck. The pictures moved on the screen as his eyes engulfed them. He giggled. He was watching a silent movie with his father beside him. It felt like a dream, a romantic rendezvous that he wished went on forever. His father found it amusing, the way his son watched the screen with rapt attention. He picked up a 35mm camera from his wardrobe and handed it over to Ali. “Here, this is a gift from your uncle. Make good use of it,” he said with a smile. Ali looked at the camera quizzically, thinking about how to use it. But he always had a liking for gadgets and he happily accepted his gift, spellbound by it. Just then, his mother snapped a finger and the spell broke. “Yes, mother!” He responded in a monotone.
“Look at the time, Ali! We’re late.” He scrambled, on all fours as he sprang back to reality. They were flying to Germany in the next 4 hours and he wasn’t close to ready. As he stood at the airport, waiting in line with his parents, he felt his insides turn. “What do you think? Will we get it?” Asked his father, more to himself than his wife.
“I think we should. We can’t go back to Iran. The kids have a better future here in the United States.” She murmured, as she ruffled his head.
Ali’s gaze remained transfixed at a photo he carried in his hand. The image of Charlie Chaplin stared back at him. That day, he made a silent promise to himself, “I will make a better future for us,” he thought as he looked up at his parents, determined to take on life.
He sat listlessly, watching the scene. His 35mm camera hung around his neck, swinging like a pendulum as he walked across the ruins. Rubble, broken bricks, struggles, tears, and excited banter surrounded him. Walking along the fine line dividing the city, he felt a little part of his heart soar with the crisp December winds. It was 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. And he was witnessing it, first hand, in the middle of it all. He had never felt this kind of an emotion before. He stopped. Tightly shut his moist eyes and felt someone bump into him. He opened them, looking for his spectacles strewn on the ground. He picked them up nervously to clear his vision. And as soon as he did, something caught his eye. There were soldiers looking at him through holes in the wall. “Go on, click click!” They nudged him. They were kissing the wall, like a love-lorn lover would, his muse. Loud music trumpeted through the scene. Some of them were dancing, others posing, crying, smiling… The emotions were infectious that afternoon. Ali noticed that the soldiers were smiling from their eyes, a sense of victory hung around them like a halo. He felt goosebumps when he saw the scene unfold in front of him. And he knew, he wanted to capture this frame for life. And so he did. Those memories… they would never fade.