Photo de Shahab Rassouli
Medias - 20 June 2018

The “Miserable”, a story by Shahab Rassouli

For World Refugee Day, Shahab Rassouli, an Afghan refugee in France for more than a decade, recounts one of his first memories in a library, discovering Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, while in Iran. The year was 2002. Rassouli was nine and living in Lavasan, northwest of Tehran, having fled Afghanistan four years earlier with his parents and two younger brothers. Here is his story:


You’re just a dirty Afghan!” Zeinali says to me.
– “No, I’m not Afghan. I’m from the border town of Mashhad.” I lie like a criminal to save my skin.
– “Lie.” Sediqi continues, “Your father rented our old garage. Mine told me that you are illegal! I saw you hiding in the bathroom when the inspector came to check the classes earlier!

I feel lonely, like only the little girl of this novel, Cosette: she was treated worse than the dogs where she lived; I am treated worse than the cats in Iran.

Catch him, we’ll quickly know if he’s Afghan: like it is said, they have a tail, like the monkeys! Ahaha!” Zeinali laughs.

Jostled, I fall on the ground, with my heavy backpack weighing a ton. I am unable to react to my three classmates who have just discovered my true origin. I do not even know why I have to hide it, hide it like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Like the title, I am miserable. I continue to deny: “No, I’m not Afghan, I swear“. I swear because I am not welcome in this country. But I’m not nothing, and I did not ask, I did not want, my country, Afghanistan, to be at war. I think I’m just as Iranian as the others, but why? I think of Jean Valjean, hunted everywhere:

“Jean Valjean, freed convict, native of …” – that does not matter to you … – “has remained nineteen years in the galleys. Five years for burglary. Fourteen years for trying to escape four times. This man is very dangerous.” Looking for shelter, everyone threw me out. “Will you receive me? Is this an inn? Will you give me food and sleep? Do you have a stable?”

Zeinali attacks me to try to take off my dark blue uniform. Everything happens so fast: I have a stone in my hand, I feel the heat of the blood on my face, I see the big Zeinali fall right next to me, screaming in pain. I then seize the opportunity and run now, as quickly as possible to escape the rest of the group, heading to the big open entrance of the girls’ school, not far from there. Just at the entrance of the first building, steps lead me to the second floor. “He must not be very far, keep your eyes peeled” I hear Zeinali screaming outside.

The woman inside then understands the reason for my presence. I see again Jean Valjean, for once being received with respect instead of insulted:

– “True? What! You keep me? You do not hunt me? A convict! You call me sir! You do not come to me? ‘Go away, dog!’ they always tell me. I thought you’d kick me out. So I said right away who I am. Oh! The brave woman who taught me here! I’m going to have supper! A bed with mattresses and sheets! Like everyone! A bed! Nineteen years since I slept in a bed! You do not want me to go away! You are worthy people! Besides, I have money. I will pay well. Excuse me, innkeeper, what’s your name? I will pay whatever you want. You are a good man.”

Photo de montagnes en Iran

The door opens and the woman goes out to say to the boys, “If I see you again in front of the girls’ school, I swear I’ll call the Revolutionary Guards for harassment. Hurry up and get out of here, go!

They leave then, murmuring some insults. Inside, I am relieved. Even though she did not know me, she saved me:
Thank you very much, I will leave right away. I will not bother you any longer.”
– “I helped you, it’s your turn to help me, if you want. Come to my office, right there: I am the librarian of this establishment and I will not say no to a little help to put away the books I just received!
– “Yes ma’am, I’ll do anything you want.”
– “Call me Fatima.”
– “Very well, Mrs. Fatima. My name is Shahab.”

Fatima is in her twenties, thin with brown eyes, certainly religious, pretty even without makeup. She wears a long scarf around her, an obligation for all women who work for the government. She brings me into a classroom, transformed into a library. Against the dark green chalkboard on the wall is her desk. At the back of the room are a dozen brown cabinets with windows, behind which are stored books. A cheap gray carpet that you can not put your feet on without removing your shoes. Also sheets of paper, pens and old newspapers.

On the right are the religious books, here the books of history and science, there are the foreign and Iranian novels. They must be separated and arranged in alphabetical order. As soon as you’re done, you’ll be able to leave. Do not be stupid, I’ve got your eye on you,” she tells me gently.

I nod and put myself to work. All these books … And among them, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo … “But why do people keep this? What’s the point? It’s useless!” My father would say. According to him, only money settles all the problems, it is the only thing which we need. “Look at this, the prayer books, Shariat, the religion stories! Look at this, who will spend time reading Jules Verne, Gypsy tales, or Edgar Allan Poe?

Les Misérables … I wonder if there are more miserable people than us? I highly doubt it. Come on, I have to finish my mission. Wretch, miserable … Why can’t I get this damn thing out of my head? An invisible force drew me towards this book, as if I had to open it and start reading. Why this book? Why Les Misérables? I fight against my desire and end up tidying up all the books after three quarters of an hour.

Thank you Shahab, good job! You can go now, I hope you’re not too late,” says Fatima.
– “No it’s okay, I help my dad in his garage every afternoon after class. ”

Once back home, my father gets angry: “The wretched, the miserable! But why are you saying this? Now, change these flat tires instead of saying anything!
– “All right baba, I’m going but I only have one question. ‘Why are we Afghan? And why not say it?’