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The Desperate Stranger

January 13, 2011

I met him on a street corner. I saw the man eyeing me for a while, sniffing out my foreigner scent like people are wont to do here. “What are you doing in Kyrgyzstan?” he asked me from a few feet away. I told him I was here to study falconry, and the word lit up his eyes. “I am from the U.A.E., sir! You know we love falconry there. Tell me, can you help me?” I agreed, hesitant, not sure what might come next. “I need to find a falcon and ship it to Abu Dhabi. I will give it to my sheikh.” I told him I thought that was probably illegal – most falcons are in the Red Book, the Kyrgyz compilation of endangered species. You definitely can’t take them out of the country to give them to Arab princes. He was undeterred. “Please, sir, help me. Please. I am in trouble.” The stranger looked at me with pleading eyes, and I could tell he meant it.  I gave him my number. He called me not long after and asked if we could meet. I asked for his name. “Marvin,” he said, “you can call me Marvin.”

The next night he was sitting across the table from me, stabbing his hand with a toothpick. “You see this?” he said. “I feel nothing.”  The drugs made him numb, but he needed them to stay sane. He had been through too much; he couldn’t afford to feel. He talked about it a lot, more than a lot, spewing forth his life story like a recital. When he was a fetus, his dad left him. When he was fifteen, his grandmother died. She was the world to him, he said, and he gave up on school, on life, on everything. Without an education, well-paying jobs were impossible to get, and without a father or a family he was on his own.  He sold watches and tried to get by. But he wanted a decent life like the rest of his countrymen. The U.A.E. is one of the riches countries in the world. The cost of living is absurdly high. So he took out a loan from the bank. Then he took out another, and another, and now he was screwed. Absolutely screwed. He was ninety thousand dollars in debt. The banks will report me to the police, he told me, and then I will go to jail for three years. “This is my last hope,” Marvin said. “I need this bird”

He had written letter after letter to the sheikh, asking for forgiveness, asking for help. But they had ignored him. Now, this was his shot at redemption. He imagined himself strolling up to the palace, a feathered beauty on his arm. Falcons are prized there, worth thousands. The bird would be a gift. Maybe he could curry some favor. Then he would ask for a pardon, or a state job in the emirate. “They need to help me,” he said. “I am a UAE citizen. But now, I am nothing to them.”  His words affected me, but there was little I could do. I refused to become involved in a falcon smuggling operation, while on a Fulbright-funded mission to preserve falconry nonetheless. I tried to make some other suggestions. Maybe he could start a tourism company, and bring U.A.E. citizens to Kyrgyzstan to see our birds and our hunters? Maybe he could just stay here. There was no time, he said. In three weeks, he had to go back to Abu Dhabi, and then it was all over.

I met him several times after, and every time he grew sadder and sadder.  His problems would not vanish. He couldn’t find a bird, but a bird wouldn’t help him anyways. He was in debt and the jailhouse was looming.  In U.A.E., he told me, debtors and criminals are one and the same. They were kept in rank prisons in the heat of the desert, with murderers and drug addicts. He would rather die, he said, than go to prison.  I asked him if he really meant that. He looked at me and his eyes were without hope. “I will not go there. I can’t.” He told me that in the deserts of Morocco you can find black magicians, and you can sell them your soul for a fortune. “They are made of electricity,” he said “like eels. They could help me. I don’t know what else to do.”

When I call him now and ask him how he is doing, he always answers the same way – “Well, I’m alive.” I meet him out of pity and he tells me of his woes. He can’t sleep at night. He lays in bed shaking. When he does sleep, he tells me, he dreams of flying, like a falcon. “I just want to be free of this all. It weighs on me.” I find myself comforting a man I hardly know, trying to convince him that life is worth living. It drains me. It really does. The hardest part is that he doesn’t seem to listen. He talks about the future like there is none. “When I’m gone,” he says “will you write about me? Tell people my story. Tell them about Marvin, the poor man from the rich country. He just wanted to live a decent life. But nobody would help.”  I promised I would. It’s not a happy story. But some stories need to be told.


Marvin affected me a lot. I found myself thinking about him often, about what would happen. I bought a new guitar last week, and recorded a new instrumental song with it to test it out. I had interviewed Marvin the day before, and I  sampled his voice for the track. The song is about as sad as this story, but maybe you’ll like it. It’s the first music I’ve shared in a while.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie permalink
    January 13, 2011 3:54 pm

    Sounds like Marvin needs rehab more than a falcon.

  2. Santiago permalink
    January 13, 2011 10:20 pm

    Hi Keenonkyrgyzstan,

    It seems that you are skilled at listening as well as to writing, and these are important qualities. This is why I am taking a chance at writing to you. I am currently in Afghanistan where I had the great privilege of meeting an honest, smart, and beautiful person from Kyrgyzstan. Aziza, a Kyrgyzstan woman who left me fascinated with the cultural richness and beauty of the country and changed things in the way I see life. I was surprised as how vast my ignorance was, being that I grew up in a little island in the Caribbean where a country like this seem as remote and unknown as any other planet in the solar system than earth itself. I’ve been researching the internet to learn as much as I can about the country, people and culture. It is in this path is that I’ve come to writing here today. Curiously, I live in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I dare to say Marvin seems to have more problems than he had let you out on, and no, not financial, or drugs-to those fast to judge. In the Middle East, the father represents everything in the upbringing and in the life of males. I can easy see how not having one can have such results. If you have an e-mail I would like to get in contact with this fellow, that is if he is not in jail. I would like to ask him about his experience in Kyrgyzstan while smoking shisha or having tea and perhaps sharing some options for him as far as finding a respectable job. I might grab my back-pack pay someone special a visit and live the country… maybe embrace it. Any words from you would be greatly appreciated.

    • Santiago permalink
      January 13, 2011 10:50 pm

      I heard the song with your new guitar and slide. Based on his English, “Marvin” might indeed be educated, maybe even some college based in my experience. English is not the country’s official language. I also read your post on the Komuz. Do you have any sounds of it you could share? I am surprised that the musical notation is not the one I am used to see my brother reading or writing, and how interesting he must be of seeing them-maybe he has because that is his life, but I am not sure. My brother is a Music Professor at an University in Puerto Rico. I’ve brought him instruments from some of the places I’ve been, like and Egyptian Oud and an a Hawaiian Ukulele. And it seems like I’ve just found another excuse to drop by the country.

  3. Colleen permalink
    January 14, 2011 11:40 pm

    Thank you for your blog and for sharing your music. Very haunting. Like Santiago observed, you’re a good listener. I hope Marvin can get some help. It does sound like rather a desperate situation, though.

  4. January 19, 2011 6:39 am

    Beautifully written. Excellent narrative style. Enjoyed this sad story.

    • January 21, 2011 9:09 am

      Thanks for the kind comment! I fixed the link in my profile, btw, it now has a ‘.com’ at the end.

  5. Vincenzo St.George permalink
    January 26, 2011 2:33 pm

    Well written, sir. Although I concur with ‘Debbie’, who I am assuming is your mother, that this young lad seems in need of a therapist, not a friend.

    • January 27, 2011 9:03 am

      He was already seeing a therapist, who told him he shouldn’t live alone in case he might try to kill himself. Yeah.


  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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