Volume 33, Number 2

Coffee Shop

Roger Sedarat

Knowing the best art shows happen underground, free of government censors and their green police minions, you’d think Amir would have planned his own secret exhibit. But as with the best of creative projects, it came about almost by accident.

In need of extra money for his art supplies, he agreed to help his older Uncle Hisham at his coffee shop. While he hated the idea of busing tables and washing endless cups, working at such a hip place where so many cool musicians, writers and painters hung out made it all worth it. So much about being an artist is being at the right place at the right time, and as he works his way up to take some big curator’s order, who knows? Maybe he’d get his work shown at an even better venue than his old man.

Ironically, though, it was his being in the wrong place at the wrong time that made the real difference in his early career. Getting high in the early evening after work with his friend Esan, a punk guitarist, along with a few of his friends, when someone saw on telegraph that there were protests nearby, they all said fuck it and decided to check it out. Elhan, Esan’s sister, had been brutally treated during her recent arrest, when all she did was ask why the cops were beating on a couple kids she knew from school. For him, anyway, Amir could tell this was not going to be a spectator exercise, especially as he saw him put a few bottles filled with kerosene in his bag.

Since his father’s terrible arrest and indefinite incarceration, Amir tried whenever possible not to overtly call attention to himself. He’d planned like usual to lay relatively low, letting these friends go to the front lines if they so chose. Then, he’d maybe preserve some element of this next riot, perhaps as some kind of graffiti mural under the cover of the darkness.

True to his plan, he found a little patch of grass somewhat above the scene of angry young people throwing rocks and bottles at the cops, much like where a general would sit to observe some great battle. When they started to light a few tires on fire, the smoke in the twilight along with the collective dark shadow of riot police closing in on the protestors looked so amazing and theatrical that Amir actually took out his pencil and sketch pad. After a few pages of capturing the grand scope of the ever escalating conflict, with a swarm of what even from this distance he knew were the local, poorer youth from this neighborhood and the uniformed police charging toward them, he decided to get closer.

Rightly afraid of tear gas canisters blasting in one direction, and bottles along with Molotov cocktails thrown in the other way, he sat on a curb beside a large mailbox. By this time there was hand-to-hand combat, or more often than not, police-baton-to-innocent-kid’s-head violence. Sketching frantically, Amir captured a random bloody face screaming in desperation, followed on the next page by the cop they’d manage to pull from his pack and now stood around kicking him to near death.

He almost didn’t have time for what he knew were much-needed details, the increasingly thick tear gas that even from this vantage point was making it hard to breathe and at times to even see. Adding to the unplannedness of these drawings, which would come to have more meaning than he could imagine even in this revolutionary moment, his blurred vision began coming through on the pages, ultimately transforming his depictions into an impressionistic nightmare somehow more real than actual photographs and video he’d watch later.

Feeling at this point he might have drawn enough, which he had to admit was more based on the fear of the ever-increasing violence, he started to close his sketch book and think about turning toward home. Then, in the foreground just to his right, only 200 meters away, he saw one of the kids from this poor neighborhood, a little younger than him, maybe 14 at most, light a Molotov cocktail. As Amir opened his book again and started to sketch the outline of his face and the hand holding the flaming bottle, he saw in real time the target of the makeshift bomb just as the kid started to throw it: A riot policeman on top of a small building with a rifle just before him.

As the blue-yellow flames of the bottle exploded onto the cop, Amir drew the fire as quickly as it consumed him. His burning like the picture appearing before the artist on the page seemed somehow fated, too instantaneous to consider the collision of the bottle with the burning man as anything but inevitable, the arm of the rioter that so fiercely tossed the homemade bomb above the two-story building passing the divine torch, so to speak, to the hand of the artist trembling as he sketched the horrific effects. For a second it seemed the cop’s partner rushing to his aid might save him, but the jacket he threw on him only added more fuel to the fire. “Just like the regime to design cops’ clothes so they burn,” thought Amir, as he immediately captured his black uniform busting into spectacular flames.

Knowing now that things would escalate, he scanned the crowd for a few seconds, searching again for Esan and his friends. Spotting them on the other side of the street from where the kid had thrown the bottle gave him a certain sense of security in the familiar, even as he found himself consumed with worry. So keyed into the convergence of forces, it’s almost like he could intuit what would happen before it did. He wanted to tell them to run away now, immediately, before some imminent terror he could sense and almost, but not quite, see happening.

Then, just as he thought of closing his sketchbook and leaving this scene in the background, he heard, then saw, the massive shooting. One by one, then ten by ten, he saw the crowd of mostly teenagers rat-a-tatted to the ground. The collective massacre looked to him almost unreal, like a performance, something like the taziyeh when believers beat their backs on the streets of Karballah to recreate the martyrdom of Hussein.

Of course now more than ever he wanted to run, especially when catching a random glimpse of Esan’s chest opening in a burst of blood as he fell in slow motion to the ground. But the same inexplicable force that struck him like destiny compelled him to stay, thankfully three-quarters hidden behind the metal mail box, and keep drawing. Quickly capturing the soldiers who appeared on other rooftops, machine-gunning into the crowd, his hand then followed the weight of the falling bodies. Too many to render with much detail, he focused more on the collective accumulation of the corpses, though at times with great effort bringing himself to include a specific signifying identity, the tattoo of a guitar on his friend’s arm, the boyfriend grasping onto his bleeding girlfriend as she fell, stroking her face….

How strange to find himself close to this massacre yet at such an objective distance from it. Watching more and more bodies fall, his recording of them through images made him feel like some of the old haiku masters he loved to read in translation simply observing leaves falling from trees in autumn. Fixated now on the accumulation of so much red, like globs of paint simultaneously squeezed from so many tubes, he dug into his backpack for his colored pencils. Into the nearly complete picture—though of course more victims kept dying—he now worked the splotches of blood. Without intending it, they did actually begin to look like leaves. Noticing the seeming random metaphorical vision, he began to honor it, turning the massacre into dying bodies with leaves falling which he’d come to call The Deep Fall.

A cloud of smoke from the guns hovers over him. The bullets, which had remained at a relatively safe distance during his intense drawing, suddenly begin striking the metal mailbox. Instinctually cramming his sketchbook into his backpack, he turns and run in zigzags from the carnage.


Thankfully, his double life of a graffiti artist has given him the needed skills to escape. Having navigated so many side streets and back alleys in the dark when running from a random shop owner or even a cop on a motorcycle, he knows just what door to an abandoned building to try or dumpster to dive behind when needed. Watching panicked protestors storming by in a pack like a school of terrified fish fleeing a shark, he wishes he could tell them all they’d stand a better chance if they split up. At this point, however, all he could do was save himself. Peeking from broken windows and piles of garbage, he gauges his staged bursts away from crowds, which he tragically sees getting cornered.

Unscathed and far enough away to look again like an ordinary high-school kid coming home from hanging out with a friend, he wipes the sweat from his brow, and takes out his jacket from his backpack to cover up his soiled shirt.

“You! Come over here!” orders one of the two green police patrolling a corner.

Amir looks behind him, as if they’re talking to someone else.

“Yes, you!” says the other. “Walk over here… slowly! Put your hands where I can see them.”

As he approaches them, focusing on his breathing, he sees a handful of kids his own age turn the corner. Clearly they have come from the protests. As if to signal their guilt, unlike him they turn around and start walking the other way suspiciously quickly, as if about to break into a run.

“All of you stop, or we will come break your heads open!” shouts the first one. “Get over here, with your hands up… like this punk!”

“We weren’t doing anything!” cries one, obviously protesting too much.

“Get the fuck over here!” screams the cop.

It worries Amir to be grouped with them before questioning. As the other cop calls for a van, he sees the need to separate himself. On some level it’s shitty, he knows that, but after all he’s heard his father endure in prison plus the thought of his getting his family especially his mother in any more heartache, he understand what he has to do. From his religious uncle Hussain he’s learned that in Islam it’s sometimes okay for a believer to hide his faith to ensure his own survival. Though he knows that’s intended specifically to preserve oneself as a Muslim, he rationalizes in real time the need to adapt such a philosophy.

“Excuse me, officer, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was studying at my friend Mirdad’s house, and it’s time to get home or my mother will be worried.”

As the group of protestors approach, just the one now focuses on Amir. “Studying huh? What subject? Let me see your book?”

Especially terrified given the contents of his sketch pad, he takes his giant text book out of the backpack. “Calculus, we have a test tomorrow.”

“Hand me your phone,” he says. “Now open it… with your password.”

“That goes for the rest of you too. Take out your phones,” says the other one to the group. “I know you have them.”

His cop looks through his phone, going to photos, then his telegram account. While he’s worried about pictures of the band, friends he knows who cause real trouble in their daily lives well as him smoking hash with eyes red and squinty, he knows that is not what they are looking for. Even so, starting with his phone, should he then look at his sketch pad he is done for. Photos are bad enough, evidence of having been a part of a riot and wanting to throw down the government by spreading images. It’s somehow much worse, reasons Amir, to have intimately interpreted the carnage he will come to find out was authorized by the grand ayatollah. As he’s handed back the phone, his fingers grip the edges of his backpack.

“Okay, this one is clean,” says the cop. “Go home and study some more.”

As Amir starts to walk away he hears them discover, one by one, what they were looking for with the others. “Ah, so you weren’t doing anything. Only shooting videos of violent thugs attacking the police. Look, Camron,” he says to his buddy, “this one has the video of the cop on fire.”

Amir can’t help but turn and look, though he knows he should just walk straight home. While the van pulls up with other policemen, except for the one held by the arm the others start to run. They are chased down, one by one, and even now at some distance Amir can hear the screams from the beatings.


There is an inexplicable heaviness at the coffee shop. The tragedy alone seems to have broken the spirit of the artist customers, and now the continual crackdown by the police keeps everyone from talking about it publicly. Of course this makes the effects of what happened all the more poignant. As Amir goes table to table to collect used cups and plates, he can feel the reactions in all of their simple and very low-stated thank yous.

As when under intense interrogation the night before, he has every intention of keeping his presence at the protests along with his artistic rendering of the massacre, a complete secret. They are still arresting people from postings on the Internet. Knowing about the clientele who come for coffee, they already stopped in here this morning for interrogations. Both he and his cousin denied any knowledge of what might have happened. While his uncle wasn’t there, he too had seen one of the videos circulating among young people. When the more vocal of the cop team gave him a card and asked him to please call if he heard anything, saying that it was a matter of security for the country, he added what seemed like his complete reassurance. “Of course, officers. I want to get any culprits involved just as much as you do.” When the same two came back to actually lead a musician friend they both know away for more questioning, Amir is sure he made the right decision to lay low.

Re-watching various videos of the massacre, however, keeps him incredibly angry. He wants to go back in time and join those he first watched passively, throwing what stones and bottles he could at the police before they start shooting and even after it. At the dinner table with his artist parents, who seem just as upset as him if not more so, he feels impotent, wanting to tell them all he’d seen and even show him his drawings. They’d kill him for it, if not themselves, out of fear, so he just lets his father rant.

“Terrorists! That’s all the government is—if they can’t control the people, they’ll just shoot them down,” screams his father.

“We have to leave now, soon, forever. It will only get worse, and they’ll come for you again, but next time, you won’t come back” sighs her mother.

How Amir hated the fact that his father had real credibility, risking all in his creations with what he depicted in his political art. He had at least began in his own way to make such revolutionary moves, but couldn’t risk being found out for it. Somehow he’d have to live in anonymity, perhaps saving his drawings and smuggling out of the country if they really did leave. For sure in England or better yet America he could display what he’d done. They’d honor him too, like his old man, perhaps give him his own show.

But near the end of his parents’ heated debate, one this time seemed more pressing than the others, the Grand Ayatollah came on the TV in the background. Turning it up, they saw him in tears, giving a speech.

“So now they are martyrs!!!” screamed his father. “Okay, yes, but for trying to challenge the pigs oppressing them, especially the grand pig, the Ayatollah.”

“My God even in our apartment don’t say that. They really will kill you the next time,” pleaded his wife.

“Good! But first, I’ll paint the massacre the way it really happened, not like their propaganda,” he replied, heading to his studio, presumably to get started.

If his father meant it, then why shouldn’t he too respond in kind? Amir actually was there, capturing it visually in real time. Besides that, at least for the hastily sketched series he knew there was no way his father could match him. It’s not like his technique was so amazing. He was, after all, maniacally sketching so fast his brain almost couldn’t catch up to the movement of his hands. But something rare had come over him, that force which the great ancient nemesis of his people the Greeks called the muses, but he’d simply come to call God. It’s like the drawings, they drew themselves, with him merely a channel.


The following day before work he visited his friend Ali at the print shop, making him promise he’d keep his order to themselves.

“Must be important. Like good porn, maybe of your cousin Moshde?”

“Shut the fuck up,” replied Amir. “Just look.”

For the first time he flipped through his sketchbook in front of another. An artist himself, with whom Amir had gone out on several nights of graffiti expeditions, he actually did value his opinion.

“Damn these are fucking amazing!” he whispered, looking around to make sure nobody else was watching. “I mean, it’s not just the material, although it’s that too. You do such great interpretations, like the blurring of the whole reality with the smoke, that puts the viewer in the position of getting tear gassed.”

“It really happened like that, my eyes were fucked up, but I kept drawing.”

“And the redness of the tulips, merging into the blood, so perfectly surreal. Then the cop on fire we heard so much about. Fuck.”

“Can you print them on these?” asked Amir, handing him napkins.

“Nah. Too delicate. But I can bleed it through as a kind of silkscreen effect. It will look different, but ultimately the same. Could be even cooler the effect.

“How much?” asked Amir.

“Come on, man. No charge. I’ll do it in my downtime today, when the boss is out. Come back later.


Taking a break from washing dishes in the afternoon at the shop, he returned to retrieve the order. They did look quite amazing. Going back to work, without even telling his uncle, he replaced the regular napkins with these thin pieces of paper.

Slowly but surely, the artistic customers he always considered it such an honor serving took notice. They’d never risk voicing what they discovered to the owner. Even among themselves they spoke in hushed tones, but they were discussing it. Did they know he’d drawn the pictures? No doubt they suspected, as he’d been introduced as the resident artist among the workers of the shop.

The more Amir cleared tables, the more he found little tokens left for him, a tip now and then, but more often a caption written on one of the images. “Fight the power!” “We will never forget. May the murderers burn as easily as this napkin.”

Of course his uncle discovered his work that night at closing. Watching him hold one up to study it, then another, he turned to Amir and nodded his head ever so lightly. Then as they both were finishing up the cleaning in the kitchen, as he got his pay for the week his uncle added another stack of bills. “Keep up the good work,” he said, then wiped down the counter.