The Journey – Reflections on a Trans-Siberian Rail Passage
‘Assalam O Alaikum’
It is near dusk and soon it will get dark. My train will not arrive till 9:30 pm and stop in Perm for about 20 minutes. “Listen, Olga, as much as I’d love your company until it’s time for me to leave, I am also conscious of your precious time, and if you can’t stay for an early dinner, perhaps we could have a quick coffee and call it a day?” She considers briefly, and then demurely suggests, “Or early dinner, and THEN coffee” with a grin. Everything’s coming up roses, I think to myself!
“But this time it will be my, my… podarok… dar… how do you say… like gift or something… like present”, she added. “Treat? You mean treat, like you want to pay for it?” I asked. “Da, da, da… Yes, that is what I mean.” I spontaneously fired back, “Nyet, nyet, nyet… I am afraid I cannot allow that, it’s just a culture thing, nothing more, nothing macho, and I hope you will understand. Let’s go, I’ll just follow you.”
We have dinner at a lovely French restaurant, near Tsentral’nyy Park.
Olga orders grilled fillet mignon with béarnaise sauce and asparagus and I get the halibut with sorrel and spinach. The food is absolutely sumptuous; I am told they actually have French chefs preparing the food, which explains the authentic touch. Olga orders some pastries with our coffee that are just divine not only in looks but taste as well. She suddenly remembers something: “There is a mechet’… you know, mosque, in Perm that I completely forgot to tell you about, but it’s already too late now.”
“Well, that then gives me yet another excuse to visit Perm again, the other being you”, I say to Olga, as I look at my watch, not realizing the flirtatious hint in what I just said. “All good things must come to an end, I suppose… time to make a move”, I utter. We take the metro and arrive at the train station in 15 minutes, leaving us about 25 minutes before the train arrives.
Olga would probably have been quite happy just spending a leisurely day with a ‘brown American’, practicing her English and having lunch, dinner and coffee. She had not offered her services in the capacity of a formal guide, but more as a friend she knew from before. Nonetheless, I could not overlook the value of her time and discount the worth of her company, but found it rather gauche offering her money. So I quickly came up with a plan. “Olga, if you would do me a big favor, I’d like to pay you for that as a thank you gesture. But you must accept the deal before I tell you what it is… so do we have a deal?”
She pauses for a couple of seconds and then agrees, “Well, I am not sure what the favor is, but OK… it’s a deal, I guess”, with palpable inquisitiveness. I scribble something on a piece of paper, fold it in half and hand it to her along with $250, apologizing for not having an envelope on me. “Would you kindly do me a favor and give this note along with $50 to the imam… the priest of the mosque, as a small donation and keep the balance as my expression of thanks for that and your time and company.” Olga agrees to visit the mosque and keeps a $50 bill, but courteously declines the balance as recompense, as she awkwardly tries to hand me back the remaining bills. “But I am so happy and obliged to have already been treat… no, treated, right… treated to lunch, dinner and coffee.” When I remind her that she was breaking the deal, she finally acquiesces, rather disconcertingly.
Olga is curious to know what I had written on that paper and I suggest that she try to read it. She struggles, “Assa lam O ala kum”. I had written ‘Assalam O Alaikum’ in English and Arabic, and after pronouncing it for her, I explain to her what it means – peace be unto you. “Salam in Arabic literally means peace, like ‘Mir’, the Russian space station, which I think means peace, right?”
“Oh, like Shalam or Shalom, something like that,” Olga says excitedly. “I have heard some Jews at the Jewish synagogue greet each other like that. We have a small Jewish population here.” Olga looks at her watch, and then goes, “Oh, sorry, you asked about Mir… yes, you are right it does mean peace in Russian, but it can also mean world or universe.”
The train finally arrives at the platform. I find my carriage and we wait just next to it, trying to get in a few last words. I thank Olga profoundly once again for her time and gracious company and invite her to visit me and my family in Dubai. “I really hope one day… but it’s so far… maybe, who knows if it’s in my luck, life is so full of surprises” she responds, with a smile and a glimmer in her eyes. “I would love to meet your wife, and of course Natalia!”
As the train’s departure announcement is made, Olga gives me a big hug with a kiss on the cheek, which I reciprocate, and softly utters “bolshoi spacibo…, have a very safe journey, and I hope to see you again sometime soon. Poka-poka… do svidaniya (bye bye)”. As I turn to board the train, I hear Olga’s voice struggling with ‘asla malaka akam’, ‘assmalaam asa lakam’ and look over my shoulder to see her reaching out for the note in her pocket. I climb up the train carriage and just then, as she steps closer, she reads out a very clear “Assalam O Alaikum”. We smile and wave each other goodbye. The train moves slowly as I see Olga walk a few steps, trying to keep pace with it and then she stops. She waves one last time as the train gathers speed. I too, with much reluctant heart, wave back a final goodbye and then lose her face in the crowd.
My reason for stopping in Perm was only to revisit the city and see more of it, as it happened to be on the way, and I figured that I would also have the good fortune of saying hello to Olga. I will never know if Olga delivered my note to the Imam of the mosque in Perm and what the Imam’s reaction might have been. I later learnt that the Perm mosque was shut down after the Russian revolution and reopened for religious services in 1990.
Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths
Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the US where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and MBA. After working in the field of aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM in various engineering and management positions, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence, Data analytics/mining and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.
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