Sunday, April 18, 2021
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Saffron-Stained Fingers

Aj Satori thumbs through pictures on his iPhone, his fingers stained yellow from curry and saffron. Out of 5,000 pictures, he finally settles on one and reveals his find. The picture reads, “If you don’t fight for what you want, don’t cry for what you don’t have.”

“I think this one is good,” he says with a soft voice and a thick, Persian accent.

He is sitting at a table in the middle of his small restaurant, brightened by large windows and propped doors. The Kochee Kabob House has room enough for a small stove, a bigger open flame kabob grill and six tables of which Aj sits at the table nearest the cash register so he can greet his customers as they enter. If the customer is unknown, he acknowledges them and nods a polite hello; if someone is familiar he may smile, and if they are friendly, a handshake or a “good to see you.” Aj Satoir and family have owned the Kochee Kabob House at its original California location in the University Town Center since 1994. At one time in the late 1980’s, there was a New York Kochee Kabob House, but that was a long time ago and Aj only concerns himself with the present. Presently, business is good, especially since UCI started again this January. He has his health and the health of his family. But Aj appreciates each day for what it brings, whether it is playing basketball at the park with his 14 year-old son or doing projects on the computer with his 18 year-old daughter, he is a faithful man who places his trust in God. He selects another picture and turns his phone around beaming with pride, like a parent showing off pictures of their kids. “God is Great,” reads the picture and Aj is smiling. His faith in God is as much spiritual as it is practical, for he has a reason to believe that a higher being wishes for him to be alive.

Aj was born in 1968 to a large, wealthy family in Afghanistan. His father was a doctor and so their family enjoyed a luxury life until 1979, during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union began to invade Afghanistan. Aj was only 14, yet old enough to fear for his life. Many people in Afghanistan feared the violence of military intervention and fled their home country to bordering countries. In 1982, he and two older brothers fled Afghanistan to evade military enlistment by the Soviet Union. The brothers walked north-east through the Afghan mountains to reach bordering Pakistan. They left with a group of 25, led by those who knew their way through the Afghan mountains. Sometimes they could travel during the day, but most time they traveled at night. Often, they didn’t have food to eat or water to drink. When they could hear Soviet helicopters flying low through the mountains, they would freeze, holding their breath. The journey to Pakistan took the group an exhausting two weeks. When the Satori brothers arrived in Peshawar, they stayed in a hotel, but without valid i.d.’s they could not stay long. After two months the brothers walked another 196 kilometers, about 40 hours, to Islamabad, also a larger metropolitan city in Pakistan. Here, in Islamabad, they stayed for about seven months, the longest of all their stops. Living in Pakistan was difficult for the Satori boys who didn’t know the people nor the language. They left such a comfortable life to live in basic hiding. The Satoris were frustrated and nothing could be accomplished quickly. Aj and his brothers were in correspondence with their older sister living in New York, who arranged their travel visas and passports. The process took about six months, and when the passports and plane tickets arrived, the boys had to make their second to last journey, 1,400 kilometers, to the coastal city of Karachi. The airport in Karachi is the largest international airport in Pakistan with a flight service to Aj’s final touch-down in New York.

Aj has never since been back to Afghanistan because there were so few good memories for him to revisit. He prefers to leave the past so he can savor the moment. Aj was born into a privileged family, and never expected to struggle or work from the ground up. The dramatic change in the course of his life forever affected his world view summed up by the inspirational pictures on his phone.

“Don’t look up. Always look down. If you only look up, you think everything will stay.” His nine month journey from a comfortable home through foreign languages and lands gave him a vital appreciation for the present and positivity for the future.

His eyes gleam and he turns the phone around to show his promised last picture. Business is starting to pick back up after the 3’ o’clock lull, but this picture means too much to not share.

The picture shows a close-up of a mason-jar containing fireflies nestled in grass, the words read, “One day everything will be okay.” He thought this in Pakistan, and he believes this now.

He smiles, gentle wrinkles caught in the outer corners of his eyes, hanging on his tanned skin, and shrugs his shoulders.

“Who knows? God knows.”