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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disillusioned Immigrant Struggles With Rat Race

Tugging, a loud persistent gnawing. The scrape, cacophony even, of claws tap, tap, tapping across the counter top, up the walls and along the roof. At least three on this night. Maybe six, or seven.


"They run across my stomach when I sleep. Look," the man says, grasping his right index finger with his left hand and thrusting it under a bare light bulb. A dimpled shadow cut across the concentric lines of the skin, saw-toothed; he does not feel the bites as he sleeps, his hands and feet numb, in temperatures of minus 33 degrees Celsius.


"Forty-nine I've killed, and still they come," says Salah Aldin Issa.


The rats are not the only ones living close to the bone at Bistro Ali Baba, a kiosk set back from Miklukho-Maklaya Ulitsa. For 19 hours every day, from 2 p.m. to 9 a.m., Issa takes a knife to a vertical spit of artificially compressed duck, carving thin oily pieces that he places onto a circle of pita bread slathered with warm garlic mayonnaise, piled with grated cabbage and onion, then dusted with black pepper and salt. There is the occasional sliced tomato.


He says he has his regulars. There is Mr. Chalky Skin and Red Eyes squatting in the shadow of the kiosk, dropping used needles onto black dirt.


There is Ms. Scraggly Teen, addicted to drugs and cash poor, who asks, "What's wrong, don't you need a woman?"


There is Mr. Foreigner with dark skin and clear eyes who arrived as a student, only to become a street entrepreneur. And there are the police officers who extract the cost of a shaurma -- 10,000 rubles ($1.70) -- from wads of cash allegedly fattened by bribes demanded nightly from the dealers, and the addicts, in exchange for turning a blind eye.


"It's not how I envisioned my life," Issa says. "I live poorly, without a woman, without a family. I see my son only one time a month. I work only to smoke, to eat.


"I don't live. Like a man, I don't live."


An ethnic Kurd from Syria, Issa was 29 years old when he moved to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1989 to become a journalist. He studied at Moscow State University by night, living on the profits from sales of glasses he bought in Tallinn for 15 kopeks and resold in Moscow for 3 rubles. He met a dentist from Tashkent, and married. They had a son. He got his diploma.


Last year his wife of five years died of cancer. Work dried up at Radio Rossiya, where he broadcast Voice of Moscow in Arabic. He moved his 3-year-old son, Ibrahim Khali, to a dacha with his grandmother. On Jan. 5, Issa, 37, moved himself into the kiosk.


His 65 kilograms hang on what had been an 80-kilogram frame. His hair is thinning. He wears an olive green shirt, a black vest, black slacks, a black and green tie, a leather belt and shoes, and finely embroidered socks -- hocked by an addict.


Underneath the clothing, a scar soars across his stomach from a shrapnel wound he received while fighting for the Syrian army in 1982 in Beirut. An impolite scar he got in 1978 hovers above his left hip from a bullet, also from in Beirut.


"My soul is strong. I am not afraid. If a person has a good mind, he's rich. He doesn't need a lot of money," he says.


"I don't want a villa. I don't want a Mercedes. I want an apartment, a table and to write. ... I can't write because I sleep poorly, I eat poorly and work is hard."


Maria from Murmansk is 36 days late. She answered an ad he placed in four newspapers looking for a wife. She knows about the rats, the kiosk with steel walls and a moist wooden floor. She wrote that she is leaving her 200,000-ruble-per-month job as a maid in a hotel to live with Issa, to share his dreams, to be his wife.


"I'm a man. I work. I don't care if it's hard," he says. "But love? I'm a person with a soul. I need someone to tell me, 'Salah, I love you.'"


The day Maria arrives from Murmansk, he says, they will start to save money from the $150 the kiosk grosses per month. He says they and his son will leave Russia together and return to Syria -- which could take awhile, considering most of the cash goes to feeding himself, his son and stocking the kiosk.


"Look, look!" A large brown rat stops as if on cue. Issa stubs out his cigarette and stretches for the air rifle that lay on a heap of clothes.


He hoists the butt to his left shoulder, takes aim and squeezes the trigger -- phfftp! The animal flinches, its tail swishing spastically, and drops hard to the floor.


Number 50.


"This," Issa says, "is the life of a journalist."