The Poet Game by Salar Abdoh

BOMB 68 Summer 1999
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Every time he got sent to a new city he sensed he could get lost forever—which was not necessarily a good thing. Paris and London were the extent of his foreign watch, a few weeks of having to examine the backsides of some parasites from the Oil Ministry in the former city, and two much longer stints in London where he’d been instructed vaguely to keep an eye on teams of State Security thugs. As if he could have popped up to say, “Stop!” in case those guys ever took it to their heads to do away with an exiled dissident here and there. Fortunately for him, both those terms had been pretty eventless. The Office (being his real employer) wasn’t in the business of events anyway. So-called events were the specialty of people like those holier-than-thou hoodlums at Section 19. Which was why the Colonel had decided to have 19 penetrated in the first place by sending Sami here to pose as one of them.

At this point, however, both the Colonel and the Office were too many miles away and Sami didn’t feel a bit comfortable being here. Europe might be small but one at least always had the feeling that help was not too far. Europe was manageable turf, whereas the States were truly foreign country. Plus, this Manhattan grid daunted him. Having done translations of western intelligence literature in abundance for the Office, Sami was aware that no service worth its salt would send a man away without thorough preparation. Not even those geniuses at State Security did this. But the Office—or Daftar as it was called in Persian—being a shadow organization, quite justly claimed lack of manpower. They were the sort of self-proclaimed counter-counter-intelligence clique with which the State Security people in Iran would have a field day if things were to surface. So it was important to stay small, really small, which for Sami translated into not much more than a dog-eared map of New York City and 500 dollars in real 20 dollar bills.


One of the Libyans had been on his tail since Brooklyn, a pock-marked, shark faced man who had shown up on the third day in a yellow cab and hadn’t said so much as a greeting to Sami ever since.

It took some back-pedaling in the perfume section of Bloomingdale’s on 60th Street and Lexington to finally get rid of his man. The fellow was no good at it anyway, though Sami had to give him time to make it look natural. After finally ditching the Arab he continued to roam around just as he’d been doing for the past few days. His three day lock-up had confused things a little. The Colonel had given him six locations to cover on different days of the week. His contact could appear at two of those locations on a set day at 5:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon. One day’s grace period had been added to account for any hitches when he arrived. But not three days. It was just the sort of plan that sounded okay on paper but turned out to be full of holes when it came time to act on it. This wasn’t because the planners at the Office were inept, they just had a chronic problem underestimating their unwitting adversaries: the folks at State Security, especially Section 19 in Tehran.

So Sami had started his rounds on the fourth day, allowing the pock-marked Libyan to stay behind him while he wormed his way through long stretches of the island going north and south. He hadn’t really counted on being followed at first but figured that if they were to tail him there would always be time to spot his Office contact on the initial meeting place of the day, then proceed to lose the tail, and catch up with the contact on the second location.

All the while he’d had to fight to stay focused, to keep himself from being spellbound by the city, pushing his way through the dense afternoon rush of pedestrians around midtown Manhattan, to arrive at an appointed location to see no one there. Only this morning he had finally gotten anxious enough to take a chance with Damadi from Section 19. But Damadi had given him little except for a bogus sounding story about some Pakistani gadget man, who was more likely than not nonexistent.

This left Sami with one more set of 5:00 and 6:00 walk-bys and nothing further. In time he made his way down Broadway back to the garment district. At the foot of the statue of the old Jewish tailor on 38th and Broadway a mother and her two daughters sat eating slices of a fuzzy looking orange colored fruit Sami had never seen before. No sign of his contact. He zigzagged slowly, going further west. On 40th and Ninth Avenue he saw two homeless men who had found a beaten-up child’s kite in the garbage dump and were attempting to make the thing fly. Watching them as he passed, Sami imagined an alternate life where he was one of those kite-flying, shopping-cart rolling, garbage dump-scavenging, noisy, neglected Americans who had never been made to find the proper translation for an Intel-compound word like a “dead-drop.” The moment passed and soon he was walking by his second contact point, the AfterBurner bar on Ninth and 48th where no one was waiting for him and his watch said 6:00.

Maybe no one was meant to have come. Maybe the Colonel was baiting him for bigger stakes, though he couldn’t see to what purpose. He found himself drawn inside the bar. A considerable move, since never before had he done anything like this. He was a 30-year-old man who had never sat inside of a bar, never ordered a drink from a barman or woman, never known the self-perpetuating melancholy of a bar jukebox except through the books he had read and the scenes he had imagined through them while pounding the pavements in the streets of London and Paris. In Tehran none of this would have mattered of course, since in Tehran there were no bars to enter, no drinks to order. Manhood was gauged under a different light over there and you were probably better off not yearning for out of reach details.

He wedged himself between a thin old black man who was pleasantly drunk, crooning to himself, and a heavyset middle-aged woman with a bottle of beer and a shot glass in front of her. The bar stools were red, the tables in the back were red, the wall was painted red, and the faces of the tired customers in the bar were also red. There was a general redness to this place that in the muted light was oddly appealing to Sami. He ordered a Guinness because it sounded familiar. The woman sitting next to him turned to stare and rub her eyes. A younger crowd of college kids came in laughing their way to the back of the bar. He overheard a pony-tailed man two seats to his left shout something to someone about the “Beauty of those helical magazines,” and how it was too bad that they were outlawed.

His beer was as bitter as death but he drank it anyway. The woman next to him who was still rubbing her eyes told him, “Guinness makes me gag.”

“What do you suggest I drink then?” he asked politely. He really wanted to know. Somebody had put change in the jukebox, a mournful love song.

“Their vodka is only Gordon’s here. It’s watered down but the shot’s healthy.” She winked.

By the time Sami was on his third shot of Gordon’s, Joanna had told him her address and that she was in the middle of writing a cookbook that had alternating chapters on sexual positions. The bar got hotter. Someone had selected an entire CD set of John Lee Hooker songs. Joanna’s eyes were the only part of her that was approachable despite all the rubbing she administered to them. Sami ordered a fourth shot of vodka and a beer that he called Amber Rock twice until the sexagenarian bartender woman corrected him as she was setting the draft on the counter, “No honey, it’s Bock, Amber Bock.”

“This country is too big for me.” It was a sigh and a whisper to himself more than anybody else, yet Joanna caught it.

“Where do you come from, Greece?”

He didn’t know what to say to that. What was a Greek supposed to look like anyway? The one thing he kept going back to was his own lack of proper training and how he had been carrying it about like a dead weight these five, six years working for the Office. He ought not to be sitting in this bar right now. This was rudimentary but also probably beside the point. Since as far as the Americans went, if they had meant to have him picked up they would have done so by now. So for the time being he was safe, he concluded, a little too conveniently.

He ended up matching Joanna drink for drink. Soon the old black man was dancing a twist with one of the college girls. Meanwhile Joanna appeared to levitate on her seat with each new round. And the two men who had been talking about helical magazines earlier were now joined by a third who took the black man’s seat and began a discussion over “pre-ban magazines.” Such arcane language, Sami was thinking, until the newcomer turned to him and asked, “What’s your favorite pistol, buddy?”

Sami looked up and straight in front of him, noticing that the lady bartender had been replaced by another woman of about the same age. Then without giving it another thought he answered into his shot glass, “The old Browning Hi-Power. Best damn pistol ever made.”

“Bullshit,” came delightedly from two seats away. Another man asked, “Hey, where are you from? Never saw you here before.”

“Me? I’m Alexander, the Macedonian,” he mumbled before his mind started to fizzle.


He woke up with a fleeting headache and a solid thirst. A strong scent of cheap perfume pervaded the room. Disentangling himself from the mass of sheets and blankets he was under he got up to search for water. He knew where he was and how they’d gotten here—a short taxi ride at the end of which Joanna had addressed the Indian cab driver as Mr. Sheik. He remembered up until their entering her dark studio. There had been no sex. Not that it mattered either way, but he still had an ineffable sense of being unclean for having put himself in Joanna’s hands like this.

His fingers automatically searched for the leather pouch he’d strapped underneath his belt where he kept his money and the legit passport in his own name, Sami Amir. They were still there. Joanna didn’t snore but made a high, singsong whistling noise. He could hear the sound of cars over wet asphalt outside. Morning light was starting to seep in through the bathroom window and into the room. Around wooden table stood next to the opposite wall. He picked up a tall glass from there and automatically put it to his lips. Flat beer. He drank it distractedly anyway.

The stale alcohol made him want to retch. He’d had a sensation similar to this just about a year earlier watching a kid get the shit kicked out of him by some Revolutionary Guard thugs in Tehran. It had been an “exercise.” At least that was what the Office liked to call it. Every now and then the Office would do a penetration of one of the city’s policing organs, the Gendarmérie, the Basij, or the Revolutionary Guards. They would know what a certain squad was up to on a certain evening and they would choose to “install” themselves in the middle of an op. “It will keep you on your toes,” was the stock official explanation for such exercises. On this particular night Sami and three other men had instructions to catch up with a Revolutionary Guards roundup detail before one of the freeway exits and join them in whatever they were doing. It was the sort of useless, dirty job that made you hope for foreign assignments. The other three guys from the Office, being with the “Domestic Department,” had plenty of experience with this sort of thing. In truth they were something of a different breed from the likes of Sami. They could talk the talk and walk the walk of the Basij crowd and the Revolutionary Guards. They’d been chosen for the job not only because they were smart but also because they were bullies at heart. Someone like Sami would have never been picked up by the Colonel had it not been for his facility with a useful foreign language, added to the convenience of his not having any blood attachments to anyone.

The pretense that night was to act the part of a secondary Guards backup team. When Sami and his associates had come to the appointed place the real Guards soldiers already had a group of kids out of their cars and against the wall. One of the victims, a boy of about 17, was sprawled on the ground in a fetus-like position, bleeding from the mouth. The soldiers, five of them, took turns smacking the kid’s face with the butts of their rifles while one of them stood watching over the other kids. “This is the only mama’s boy who’s been drinking alcohol. His mouth smells like a toilet,” one of the soldiers said. Then the circle widened to allow Sami’s group to get some hits in. When Sami’s turn had come up he’d kicked the kid in the rear just to have contributed something.

But the next day he’d gone screaming to the Colonel, “I’m not going to be a part of any more Internal Exercise. Why don’t you send me abroad?”

And what was it the Colonel had said then?

“We’re not in this business to see that justice is done,” the man had barked, without letting himself get distracted from cleaning out his pipe bowl.

Perhaps even now it was really the Colonel he couldn’t get out of his mind. The Colonel, that pipe smoking, sleazy spymaster who had saved Sami from the horrible boredom of army life by detouring him into the Office instead; that odd entity entrenched deep in the bowels of the Islamic Republic’s power source, with his immense collection of classical CDs and a closet full of colorful ties that he never wore.

During that slight confrontation of last year the purity of the Colonel’s statement had rocked Sami in a pretty nasty way, not because he thought the answer itself was so monstrous but because of how downright honest it was. Today Sami had his highly sought after foreign posting and he’d already managed to get himself drunk in a Manhattan bar. He recalled again that luckless kid the Revolutionary Guards soldiers had beat up for drinking alcohol. Freedom sounded like an overblown word from this vantage point—here where you had the luxury to drink yourself to death like Joanna on that bed, Joanna who snored like a high-pitched medieval flute and who had been on her way downhill since the beginning of time.

On the phone card Sami had bought on arrival a full 20 dollars was still left. He knew he ought to put his clothes on, walk a few blocks, and make the call to London on a public phone. Instead he found himself sitting on Joanna’s toilet seat and twisting on the cheap Korean encryption device over the receiver.

A tinny, almost robot-like voice answered on the other end, “Daryush speaking.”

The primary signal for London was supposed to come with pre- and post-Islamic names. If whoever was taking the call came out with a name, any name, that was not Islamic it meant there was trouble. It took a few seconds for Sami to let that sink in. He’d never thought about what he’d say if the trouble signal was actually given.

Finally he identified himself and asked to speak with Mohsen, the Colonel’s code for overseas communications.

“You know that is not possible right now,” the robotic voice answered.

Then there was a pause that must have lasted at least five excruciating seconds. Sitting on Joanna’s toilet on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Sami could almost feel the other man thinking this one through. Trouble could mean a lot of things, including a turned emissary with a barrel of a gun to his head right now. How could the other man be sure if Sami was not turned? And if he wasn’t, then shouldn’t he have known better than to ask for Mohsen in London at a time like this?

“Look, can’t you put me on a three way?”

“That’s a negative.”

“What’s the problem?”

“You are on your own.” Then as an afterthought the voice added, “Like me.”

That could have meant anything. Sami still waited. There was a high-pitched clearing of a throat, and then, “More than that I can’t tell you right now. Mohsen wants to know if there’s progress.”

He felt as if this conversation was taking place in a room full of ether. The two of them had to speak over each other’s heads in order to reach some rarefied form of understanding.

“Progress on whose part?” Sami asked. “Us or the Backgammon players?” Backgammon being Section 19.

The man offered him another silence. He saw that the light had gone on in the room. Joanna was sitting in her bed smoking a cigarette.

“Listen, I’ve got to go. Tell Mohsen the offering is a bunch of lemons from North Africa. All amateurs except one.” He thought for a little bit and then added without bothering to talk in code, “19 has their man too. He’s expendable. Either that or he doesn’t have enough clearance to realize he’s expendable. Tell Mohsen the whole thing reeks of a setup job. There’s a phony story about a gadget man. But have them check on it anyway. Nur is the name. Check that with our friends in the Southeast too. By the way, my connection was not here. What’s going on?” He didn’t wait for an answer to that one and quickly hung up.

“Are you happy, mister?” Joanna looked bloated and lost. She wore a white nightgown and her substantial calves stuck out from under the blanket.

“Only when I’m on offshore leave.”

“Are you a sailor?”

Sami nodded. He imagined Joanna as a giant Mickey Mouse. Khosravi in the Printing Department had somehow found out that Sami was off to America and had asked for a Mickey Mouse for his eight-year-old daughter.

“Are you going to leave me now? You’re not a cop, are you? What’s your name anyway?”


“Is that a Jewish name? You don’t have to run, I’m not going to attack you. I brought you home with me because you looked as bad as I feel. And that’s pretty bad. When a man offers to buy rounds for half the people sitting at the bar you know he’s in trouble.”

“Is that what l did?”

“Just about.”

It seemed as if Joanna was offering him shelter with no strings attached, Joanna being the ultimate dream of half the penniless young men around the world desperately trying to get to America. Here was a familiar story: he could shack up with Joanna right now and no one would know the difference. Get married, get himself a green card, then take off for California on his own, and leave yet another lonely American woman knocking on love’s door.

“Hey, do I seem repulsive to you?”

Her manner of asking was so matter-of-fact that she might have been talking about a third party in the room.

“You don’t have to be,” he said.

He was standing by the kitchen window looking down on 11th Avenue. A black Lincoln was parked across the street, its windows tinted. There were thousands of cars like that in the city, with no distinguishing marks to tell one apart from the other. But he was sure he’d seen this one before. Where? During a glimmer of lucidity while stumbling out of the AfterBurner bar last night? Or even earlier, earlier than yesterday, perhaps as the car was hanging back outside of a Duane Reade pharmacy on Eighth Avenue two days ago while he’d gone in to buy himself a bar of Snickers chocolate.

Was this the reason he was being left in the dark for now? Had the Office contact picked up the tail they had on him and decided to walk away for the time being? But he couldn’t really see the Arabs chasing him around the city in a black Lincoln, even if they did have plenty of limousine service chauffeurs amongst them. Except for that fat Libyan, the other guys he’d seen in the Brooklyn house were your workaday immigrant mules before they were Moslem revolutionaries. You only had to look at their faces to see that. Then what about Damadi from Section 19? No again. This sort of thing was out of Damadi’s range. That man was a greengrocer at heart, a traveling salesman who cared more about his rugs and his silverware than anything else. God knew which cleric’s daughter he’d taken for a wife back in Tehran so he could get the New York posting. And now that he had what he wanted he wasn’t going to risk his lucrative export business by getting his hands dirty through anything so chancy as meddling in unnecessarily risky stuff.

When Sami turned around he saw that Joanna was standing next to him. Her cigarette breath was dizzying. He was truly captivated by her ugliness, the deep furrows in that tired flabby face, the smudged lipstick that might have been forgiven on a girl 40 years younger, and those puffy fingers that had held on to so many bottles of cheap American beer through the years.

At least in Tehran the playing field was a little more level for these unlovely women of the world. They had the luxury to hide behind the shadows of their own veils and save the real damage for more private realms. Had his own mother been alive she would have been around Joanna’s age, the American mother he had never seen. Had she been beautiful at least? The legacy she had left him was one of not belonging. He was a half-American who worked for a secret cell of the Iranian government that even its own intelligence service knew nothing about, and an Iranian whom everyone “back home” mistook for a foreigner, an American.

He was tired. He looked past Joanna at a calendar on the kitchen wall that was way out of date.

She followed his gaze. “Oh that. That’s nothing, it’s from three years ago actually, when I was trying to lose some weight.”

The black Lincoln wasn’t going anywhere, Sami noted.

“You look troubled, son. I promise I won’t molest you,” she laughed. “Let me give you a massage.”

He looked at her. “I’m really pretty good at it, you know.”

Joanna had curiously deft hands. Lying on her bed with his shirt off and his face sunk into her pillow while she massaged his back, Sami thought back on the Moslem “freedom fighters” in Brooklyn. What would they say if they saw this? Would they damn the half-American to eternal hellfire for drunkenness? For allowing his flesh to be rubbed and kneaded by a stranger, this infidel woman’s powerful arms?


Salar Abdoh was born in Tehran, Iran in 1965. He lived there and in England until the revolution of 1979, when he and his family moved to the United States. His novel, The Poet Game, will be published by St. Martin’s/Picador in winter 2000.

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Originally published in

BOMB 68, Summer 1999

Featuring interviews with Robert Altman, Ida Applebroog, Chuck D, Alvaro Siza, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Campus, Robert Pinksky, and Maryse Conde. 

Read the issue
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