It’s been over ten years, but I still clearly remember the tight hug Arbar gave me that evening when I was leaving Bam, Iran.
On December 26, 2003, while Christians around the world were still immersed in the joyful atmosphere of the Christmas holiday, a catastrophe befell the Arabic world in the Middle East. Around 5 a.m. local time, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked Bam, a town in southern Iran about a thousand kilometres southeast of Tehran. The temblor was gone as quickly as it had come, but when the dust settled, the town had been laid waste. The sun rose over a city lying in ruins.
Three days later, I arrived in Bam. I’d left my home in Taipei with a Tzu Chi aid delegation the day after the earthquake. We first flew to Tehran via Thailand; then we flew again to Kerman, where we took a hired bus to the disaster area. Eight hectic days of relief work immediately began.
Arbar was the conductor on the bus hired by our team to take us around. During the first two days, he didn’t show any interest in us. He didn’t seem to care where we were from or why we were in his country. He seemed indifferent to the disaster that had hit his country too. Every day after we got off the bus, he’d go through the motions of cleaning up, and then he’d just fall asleep in a corner of the bus. He also helped direct traffic as we set out in our bus, or checked to see if the bus was properly parked when we arrived at a destination. That was all he did. He seemed to turn a blind eye to everything else.
A couple of days later, however, he began to show some curiosity about us. He asked us where we were from.
“Taiwan,” we replied.
“Ha, Thailand,” he nodded. “How far is Thailand from here?”
“Taiwan is about 6,700 kilometres from Iran.”
“Are there any Muslims there?”
“Yes, but not many. Most of the people there are Buddhists or Christians.”
“So none of you is a Muslim?”
“What are you doing here?”
“We came to deliver aid to the quake victims, to see what we can do to help.”
“Ah, you came to deliver aid? A group of non-Muslims travelled all those miles here just to deliver aid, and for nothing else. Really?”
Arbar looked dubious. We looked at each other and smiled. No one answered him.
Two or three days after that little episode, Arbar suddenly burst into tears after we had distributed aid to some quake victims. Everyone was concerned, and we asked him why he was crying. He said that he had been deeply moved that a group of non-Muslims would come from so far away to Allah’s country and work almost non-stop to help his fellow countrymen. He had taken it all in and was really touched. He couldn’t keep from crying.
After that, Arbar never slept in the bus again. Instead, he would follow us around as we went about our work. He interpreted for us, and he explained to his compatriots what we were doing in their country. As he got more and more involved in our work, he became more and more like a member of our team.
Eight days passed without my noticing—eight days during which I didn’t take a single shower. The magazine (Chinese Tzu Chi Monthly) I work as a photographer for was printing a story on the Bam earthquake in their next issue. To meet the deadline, I had to break from my group and go back to Taiwan alone.
It was dusk on the evening of January 6, 2004, when I said goodbye to everyone. Arbar didn’t know I was leaving until then. When he learned I was going back to Taiwan, he immediately gave me a big bear hug. He didn’t let me go for a long time. He hugged me so tight I had difficulty breathing. To this day I can’t forget the sensation of his stubble rubbing against my face, or the palpable sense of camaraderie that we had built from working together all those days under such tough circumstances. We hadn’t spent very much time together, and the worlds we came from were far apart, but our hearts were so close at that moment. I thought to myself: We’ll probably never meet again after I leave.
Arbar didn’t cry this time, but his eyes were red, probably from lack of sleep—he’d been busy helping us distribute aid.
The moon rose in the east. Kerosene lamps were lit in tents of quake survivors that were scattered on this land that had recently been ravaged by the force of nature. The illuminated tents looked like sky lanterns waiting to drift up into the sky. The Red Crescent logos and names printed on the tents were like the wishes that people write on sky lanterns. The scene was beautiful and heart-warming. Yet the occasional cries from the tents, from people mourning the passing of their family members, reminded passers-by that behind this seemingly beautiful scene was the harsh reality and cruelty of life that had been temporarily masked by the dark night and beautified by the lamps.
On the 11th day after the earthquake, my eighth day in Bam, I took leave of the town, taking with me some uncertain statistics and over 2,000 pictures. The sky lanterns faded farther and farther away from me. Eventually they merged into the dark sky and became countless shining stars.
Extracted from Tzu Chi Quarterly, Summer 2016 (Taiwan)