-This is the excerpt from a larger work by Mohamad Saleh-
He dreamt, and oh what a dream.
But it was only a dream.
He opened his left eye.
He turned his body over so that he was lying flat on his back, and he stared at the ceiling. The familiar color palette and fructified, polka-dotted pattern assaulted his senses and made him feel the entire weight of his body and all of its excesses. Yes, all of the memories and notions that intersected at various angles to form the thing that was “Ahmad” were momentarily suspended in the few precious hours during which he was able, with the help of medicines and such, to sleep. The moment he opened his left eye they entered his mind deluge-like, and seemed to let out what he thought was a resounding and victorious “Ha!” They entered and with the help of his conscious self he was pulled contrapuntally — his heart servile as the sepulchre of his mind took control. He is a young twenty-two year-old holding her, feeling her hands playing with his hair and smelling the perfume she lightly dabbed on her favorite polka-dotted dress. She straddles him, pulling up the hem of her dress to better situate her legs around his hips. He kisses her neck and presses the tips of his fingers against her back, breathing her in and feeling a saccharine, viscous warmth drip-drip-drip and slide behind his chest cavity and into his abdomen. His breathing was less metronomic while he was awake, which is to be expected considering the psycho-chemical accommodations the human body makes for sleep. For that experience believed by some Muslims to be just like death, save for the waking up…
Ahmad’s apartment was built in the mid-20th century, long before his mother and father ever knew that they would one day regret having a child. There was one room in which to place a bed for sleep, a desk for work, and whatever else was necessary and could fit into approximately six hundred square feet in what had become an almost mythical place… ONYC… Old New York City…
A counter separated the tiny kitchen from the main room, and a door by the entrance led to the bathroom. The cinderblock floor was covered with moldy hardwood that consistently ejected an unhealthy dose of something Ahmad thought smelled like what antiperspirants were at one time manufactured for, and the chipped walls were painted auburn.
This was Ahmad’s home.
He filled it with old trinkets from his adolescence and immediate post-pubescence: there were tablets and phones designed in the early 21st century whose batteries had calcified and could no longer conduct their classical electrodynamic symphony; hard drives (solid state and not) that didn’t pair with any existing computers; multiple flat screen televisions whose resolutions were too limited to broadcast anything worth watching (that is, of course, if televisions were still used to transmit news and entertainment). He’s sitting on a blanket in a park in the middle of summer and listening to his friends discuss the innovations sure to come. The apprehension they collectively and quietly felt at completing their studies evaporated at the realization that the past few years were nothing but a prolegomena to the narratives, their narratives, which they knew would redirect the global order thematically, structurally, stylistically… He listens quietly, happily acknowledging his luck at having such brilliant peers and periodically smiling at nothing the way genuinely happy young men smile at nothing. Besides his obsession with the archaic, his room was covered on each wall with posters and photos from a time when the most important artists, thinkers, leaders, and scientists largely derived from a specific race, class, and gender. A time that stretched back non-linearly. Circularly. Not diachronic. Something that never functioned as a function. Of course, this was all before the global Tanzimat; before the colonization of extraterrestrial space; before scarcity, the cause of so much bleeding and hatred, faded into the past; before humanity was forced to confront the depressing possibility of an infinite existence…
There were no photographs. One might find this strange, but wasn’t it a great writer’s Greek friend who said, “The best stories are those you don’t want to preserve”? Ahmed believed in this motto without ever having heard or read it. The memories he had were the memories he ought to have had. It wasn’t virtue that motivated this belief, but duty. Ahmad’s will aligned with what he categorically believed was a practical imperative necessary for his well-being: remember only that which is necessary for your story. Yes, everything else, all the simultaneously inchoate and fully-formed experiences that swirled in the firmament and touched his life but that he couldn’t remember… well, those would have to make do with his subconscious, guiding him quietly through his ever-dimming twilight.
Ahmad, choosing to live in a flat without the necessary plumbing and computational updates, threw off the covers he had ever since he was a teenager and sat upright. His back ached. He is twenty-five, tall, confident, and fighting a massive individual at least twice his size width-wise. He jumps from side to side and feels his pupils dilate. The dry night air invades his middle as the gravel pushes the cloth of his shoes into his feet. The man grabs him by his ribs and lifts him into the air. Ahmad feels the ground crash into his lower spine, making it an axiom of the rest of his life that the muscles of his back wrapping around his thighs will stretch and tense whenever and for whatever reason.
For so long he’d been tempted to revisit the past he recorded on his various cameras and phones. A past he’d written on electronic documents he failed to print and so were lost forever in the deep micro-recesses of transistors completely and totally inaccessible. There was almost not a single new, useful invention in the entire apartment. The only exception was an updated speech-transmitter that could record long monologues with near perfect accuracy. The Amanuensis it was called. During the mid-21st century, a new and popular field called Orthography attracted the most talented mathematicians and physiologists. Their collective goal was to produce a machine which could reiterate anything spoken with absolutely no spelling mistakes or solecisms of any kind. All together, they developed a new algorithm which made it possible for technology to penetrate the secrets of natural language. For machines engineered by humans to apprehend the subtleties of something so magnificent and complex that whole cultures sprouted coterminously with its development. A 21st century moon landing…
Ahmad stood and cracked his fingers, attempting to perform the daily stretches rendered unnecessary by muscle-massaging nano-robots that ensured physical vitality well into old age, but which he refused to have coursing through his bloodstream. He then walked over to his old chair, sat down, and pulled the transmitter out from a wooden desk. Inspecting the black cube, he held it by its vertices using his right thumb and index finger, looking at it from each of its sides.
“So horribly designed. Where’s the beauty?”
He asked as he turned around the black, shining cube that needed no buttons or switches to work — only speech. The machine recognized the specific Fourier series of his voice, and it emitted a soft fluorescent signal. Ahmad stared out of his window at the ruins of 22nd century Old New York City, sighed, and began.
‘I stood at the top of what I knew to be the largest hill in all of Razaq and thought out loud and to no one in particular, “Oh God yes!” An uncharacteristic purple-tinted fog meditated not so much on the city as it did in-and-between its buildings and people. The sand slopes peppered and salted with rocks, gravel, and all other results of the conflagration between earth and atmosphere were an extended arm away. The buildings standing at attention right in front of me, which is to say so many kilometers away, interrupting the never ending desert and only resting temporarily on the seniority touting hills (which, by the way, fuck them so what if they were there first?) were not close, though they seemed to be. I could have, if I tried hard enough and believed as though believing were a pillar of my personal faith in something or everything, reached out and grabbed the hills. Played with them like the mud houses we used to build on Dead Sea beaches as children. Roads crossed here and there, dipped under newly constructed bridges and swayed between Bedouin encampments, themselves holding up the development and growth so private and held dear by so few. The seven mountains and many hills of which Razaq is composed seemed to lean — to loom over things not so far off in the distance and to force angles and shapes to mutate. I had no idea, from my vantage point, the difference between one and the other. What was a road along a street leading to some neighborhood that I knew was angled at around forty-five degrees seemed to be angled more obtusely, at around sixty to seventy. I was accelerating at rates of rates incalculable.
I was what the Ministry of Family and Values, which was responsible for ensuring the maintenance and continued practice of the high morals and customs so championed by my ‘people’ (persons unrelated to me except vis-a-vis long, oft-undocumented chains of cultural transmission and sometimes-literal-most-times-figurative insemination), considered dangerous. Standing at the top of that hill, feeling the city so vulnerable, I may as well have been. I felt the blood rushing down through my abdomen and I opened my eyes wide.
Aware. Not the English “aware” meaning to perceive a specific situation, but the Japanese aware: the bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty.
Oh, what a scud missile would do to you oh lovely Razaq!
Oh, Mother of life and the world!
Oh, what I would do to see you on your knees, bent over and thighs spread out and legs bleeding…
Your bazaars, colorful and beautiful, and boring and useless, bringing so much to so many!
So many seasonal treats and silks and souvenirs and all the tourists losing themselves in the dreams they had of you so fully realized!
The (not-so)ancient streets leading directly to your mosques and churches, minarets and spires set high, crescents and crosses filtering the sun, eclipse-like…
Your slums forced to neighbor your opulent buildings,
Your rich and ugly walking past and overlooking your poor and beautiful,
I often wonder today, sitting here saying these things to you and watching as you receive them and process and transmit them, whether that was the best and most fruitful period of my life… Whether you, as close to understanding what it is I am saying (proudly enunciating each syllable), will at some point care about something…
Mustafa drove up to the top of the hill in a rust-colored Mazda. He was narrow-shouldered, almost stocky but muscular, his dark brown eyes sunk into his face, and his hair and beard had by then congealed into a single, Pangea-like mass of sheep’s wool covering his head and face. Taha was in the passenger seat. I looked at my friends in the car and then looked back at Razaq. Taha was tall, clean shaven, and thin, with long blond hair and heterochromic eyes — the right one was blue and the left one green.
Mustafa pulled over, turned off the ignition, and stepped out of the car.
“Why haven’t you been answering your phone you jackass?”
A typical greeting.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear it ring.”
He slammed the door shut. He was usually upset, but I could never properly locate the locus of all his daily frustrations. Something about the misalignment of correlatives and causatives.
“Why’re you lying?”
He was agitated.
“Why do you think I’m lying?”
“Because you’re a jackass.”
He waved his arms around, yelling and practically foaming at the mouth, with spit and spiddle coagulating at the edges of his lips.
“Why do you keep calling me a jackass?”
“Because you’re wasting our money like a crippled jackass, you know?!”
“How am I wasting your money?!”
“You’re wasting our time!”
Ah-hah! Yes! Time! The one cherishable thing worth everything! Let all things burn but let them burn in a timeless vacuum. Let us move closer to that stillness. Let us accelerate to the point at which all things cease to move and time is malleable. Flexible. A manifold the bending of which is as easy as the bending of cartilage…
“I apologize for wasting your time.”
His massive shoulders and forehead relaxed, the circumoral muscles around his lips easing the tension in his face and so vaporizing the tension in the space between us.
We shook hands and hugged. I pointed to the Mazda.
“Where’d you find this?”
He looked at the car, smiled, and patted its hood.
“I bought it from Antony Habash!”
The tension was back, surging through my eyes, face, and hands.
“You bought it?!”
“Yes, you know the pieces of paper and coins?”
Taha stepped out of the passenger seat and walked around to where we were standing.
“It is… Why would you spend your money on something like this?!”
Mustafa sat on the hood, crossing his massive arms and legs.
“You know, it was cheap, and it’s more economical to have a permanent vehicle.”
I looked at him with what I imagined was a look meant to communicate wordlessly how much of an idiot (a fool!) I thought he was.
“For what? Aren’t you going to ruin it after just one session?”
“Oh, this isn’t for skidding.”
“Then what the hell you jackass?! Finally listening to those Fuck-You-Take-Some-Valium ads?!”
Razaq city was the capital of Razaq, which was a member of a loose federation of exclusively Arab states. Much like the Gulf Cooperation Council, the political and economic union consisting of all the Gulf Arab states, the Razaqi Interstate Agreement meant the borders between each member-state were relatively porous, the freedom with which a person travelled between them largely depending on his or her citizenship. Citizens of RIA countries could travel between states in Razaq without the need for a visa. Members of a few other nations could do the same: the peoples of Andorra, Belgium, Canada, The United States of America, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, The Czech Republic, Malta and two dozen others could purchase a plane ticket, travel to Razaq, and wander about its states all in the same day. Citizens of other countries would have to go through the disenchanting and soul-undermining visa application process. What fascinated me most about the list of nations whose peoples were freely allowed into Razaq was the conspicuous lack of Arab states. Where were the Arab-Berber nations of North Africa? Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya? Where was the Mother? Where was Egypt? Where were the famous crumbling Biblical states of the Levant? Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine? Where was Babylon’s burning carcass? Where was Iraq? Razaq was a conglomerate of notions and peoples, all looking forward towards an imagined future history constantly out of reach because of the tug and pull of past history. Oh Razaq did you think we can be without Palestine? Oh Razaq…
As far as globally significant alliances go, the one of which Razaq was a part was the most colorful. Each member-state was free to choose its brand of government. There were the stagnant single-party authoritarian regimes, the self-righteous experiments in socialism, and the obnoxious theocracies. The differences between the latter two were often hard to surmise and, if I’m to be perfectly honest, they all borrowed from one another. Torture techniques, responses to international criticism, popular designs and fashion trends…
The cultural borders were punctuated by gaping holes.
The Razaqi government was a monarchy. It began with a single, free reigning king who fucked widely and forcefully. He sired tens of sons and I forget how many daughters (god forbid he cared to keep count of the daughters). He was taller than most men and so exerted and asserted his authority not only through duplicity and deception, but by adducing the ape brains all human beings naturally possess. Small monkey don’t fight big monkey unless small monkey crazy, then small monkey die bad.
A part of this government, the Ministry of Family and values had for many years been doing everything to combat what it denounced as the “Dread of Destruction”, or car-skidding. A skidding session, when performed properly, would damage a car’s tires and brakes so much they would require immediate repairs, which was something we could never afford. When we began “throwing the iron” (because what is skidding but throwing two tons of iron around?) we preferred to steal cars from the less-than-fortunate neighborhoods around Razaq’s two mountains in the south. We usually returned them early the next morning, and on those few nights when we didn’t the police never seemed to care. There were only a handful of individuals who regularly skidded, and then a far larger number of others who helped keep the whole thing going. There were the scouters: young men charged with finding empty lots and roads for the sessions and with watching for the police. They often had skidder-aspirations, and were only scouting in order to gain the elder skidders’ respect. There were the investors, or wealthy young men (and sometimes women) who had done close to everything they could possibly do within the realms of legality and were itching to try something fun. We were often forced to skip days of work or school at a time after skidding while we dodged the authorities, and so the investors paid us to make up for the lost income. This made skidding affordable. Then, of course, there were the children from the slums who, because of their age and size, would either steal car keys or distract car-owners long enough for scouters to break into their cars. It took the authorities a very long time to figure out the details of this hierarchy, and even then there we were always faster… Oh yes we were always so much faster…
The Ministry, after registering a large number of complaints from the more wealthy and self-righteous inhabitants of Razaq City, who lived around the sixth and seventh mountains in the north, began an advertising campaign encouraging any and all present and possibly-future skidders to seek medical help. Huge billboards were erected along wide roads ideal for skidding, and posters covered all prominent squares in and around the first and second mountains, imploring all young men to “Feel for our Values”. The images they used were of course borderline pathological: a Muslim mother in a hijab with one, single, massive tear slowly inching its way towards her chin; a little boy in rags standing in front of his brother’s asymmetric and depressingly small tombstone; a mangled car, a fiery wreck, whose passenger side door was covered with blood… At the bottom of each advertisement was the number for a hotline. We were encouraged to dial this hotline and to speak with a medical specialist who would prescribe some pill or another to inoculate against the urge to throw and domesticate the iron (skid properly, and you’ve domesticated a two ton iron beast).
Skidding was dangerous on multiple levels. If you didn’t die from an accident then the police were after you, and the only thing worse than dying in a car crash was having a Razaqi police officer grab you by the back of the shirt collar as you tried to run away from him. Once they got a hold of someone those animals were cold. They beat and beat and beat, with butts of guns and batons and their own limbs. It was as though we were less than the living — soulless creatures whose whole reason for existing was to drag the virtuous and the God-fearing down into hell with us. And if the police never caught you, then there was always the risk of one day feeling that emptiness we all feel so deeply on occasion, and then as a result calling the Ministry’s hotline and finding yourself tied down to a bed as they force fed you all sorts of drugs that did God knows what…
Skidding was dangerous on multiple levels.’
Ahmad stopped and stared at the transmitter.
‘And maybe this all never happened.
How would you know?
How would you know?!’
He stopped shouting and stared at his feet. He inhaled, stroked his patchy beard, and stared at the map above his desk.
‘It was surprising to see Mustafa invest in something we used to throw around so carelessly.
“So what do you want it for?”
Mustafa looked at us, and then he turned around and sat on the hood of his new car. He looked at his hands: chipped, yellowed, and calloused. The hands of an old laborer or a young skidder, the difference between the two being only age.
“Real worker’s hands!” Palavered Taha.
“Yes, real worker’s hands.” Mustafa spat on the ground and rubbed his palms against his pants.
The Germans have a word for a face badly in need of a fist: backpfeifengesicht. Whenever Taha was on the verge of some sort of Marxist rant about the value of the worker and all that 20th century nonsense, his face very badly in need of a fist as its sybaritic qualities, his eyes and jawline and hair, morphed into something obnoxious and self-absorbed, Mustafa would quickly shut him down.
“Doesn’t matter what I do. No one who can pay something worthwhile will hire someone with these hands!”
Mustafa stood up and turned to face Taha.
“Is there a session going on today?”
Taha looked at me. I shrugged. I never kept track of those things. I preferred to follow my friends, who were always much more capable of teasing out the excitement in life and doing all of the things that earned them the sort of necessary respect from skidders, bazaaris, artists, etcetera that I could never have but of which I was always aware. How sedulously I constructed not just an air, but a cloud of total indifference to this fact. Taha stood up and walked over to Mustafa.
“How about we visit Abu Bilal?”
He smiled his usual broad smile, and Mustafa and I smiled back.
Taha hopped into the passenger seat next to Mustafa while I laid in the back.
We drove down the hill whose incline, again, seemed to mutate. At one moment we felt the gentle hand of space and time pressing itself into every material element of our beings, and at another we glided along, almost weightless. Taha, in dust-covered white trousers, which is to say beige trousers, and a white t-shirt almost camouflaged because of his pale skin, passed me a cigarette filled with bits and pieces of brown Moroccan hashish. I inhaled and held my breath. I felt the pipes leading the smoke through my body ache under the pressure, letting out unheard moans of pleasure that translated into loud, phlegmy coughs. Oh yes. The blood vessels of my arms flashed in echoing patterns, the spaces between the iron filled stems deathly white.
I passed the cigarette to Mustafa, and he passed it to Taha, and on and on. The hill leveled out and we drove through an expanse of desert nestled between two mountains. I looked out the window on my side of the car and noticed the annual circus tent. My neck gave out, and my head found what felt to be the most comfortable headrest ever designed by man.
It was so many years ago.
I was twelve and my sister, my lovely, wonderful sister, was visiting from Kuwait where she moved to live with her husband. Her boy, a five-year-old who still couldn’t speak, was a restless, sad little thing constantly yelling and screaming and not knowing how to express what it was that made him happy, sad, or any natural combination of the two. It was the summer and the circus had made its annual pilgrimage through the desert, finally landing in Razaq after a seemingly exhausting journey.
One day, when the screaming and crying had burrowed their way too deeply into our brains, we decided to go to this very same circus. We entered the tent and sat on tarp covered bales of hay. We watched the lion tamers and gymnasts, the clowns and sword swallowers and tightrope walkers. Act after act failed to satisfy the boy, and I was on the verge of losing my temper at his whining when a beautiful body covered in a Spider-Man costume ran out on to the center of the circular stage. He recognized the superhero, as any boy born at the very end of the twentieth century would, and his screaming and crying immediately stopped. He smiled and pointed at the masked vigilante as she, for her breasts were accentuated by the tight lycra that covered them, pranced about doing backflips and jumping from what seemed to be one haphazardly placed rope to another. I couldn’t stop staring at her breasts. The guilt bubbling in my gut which was rooted my religious upbringing prompted me to look away for fear of cosmic retribution on the one hand, and out of respect to her on the other. But who was she? In all the years since that day whenever I would tell this story I never once thought about who she was. What was her story? How did she end up in a Spider-Man costume in the middle of the desert?
All of the children in the audience, bored and stumped by the painted elephants and fire breathers and sword dancers, cheered for this wonderful woman dressed as a man who does, as received wisdom informs us, whatever a spider can. After a few minutes this Spider-Man waved good bye and ran backstage.
During the short interlude between performances I stood up to buy some cotton candy. My sister and her husband were discussing something or another, and the little boy was nowhere to be found. I put my hand on her shoulder.
She looked to the stage, and in a few imperceptible microseconds her jaw slacked and her eyes widened. I followed her stare and saw her baby boy, my first nephew, in the middle of the circus tent jumping up and down and running in circles. He was, it seemed, doing his best to twist, gyrate, and flip like the Spider-Man we just watched. He tried to do a headstand and fell on his bottom. My nephew. My beautiful, wonderful nephew. I don’t think I ever wanted to protect something more in my life. I would’ve slaughtered whole nations; raped their women; killed their livestock; put pure iodized salt on the geological remains.
My love for this child had the potential to bear hate.
My love for many peoples had the potential to bear hate…
After a few seconds, which felt like a few minutes at the least, he turned and tried to go backstage like the rest of the performers. I ran to pick him up and bring him back to the family, embarrassed and self-conscious…
“This isn’t Moroccan hash! This is way too strong!”
I woke up and realized Mustafa had stopped driving, pulled the car over off of the road, and was running around screaming the same thing he did whenever he smoked too much hash.
We laughed and watched our friend escape the confines of what was considered acceptable behavior as he danced around the car while taking off his shirt, dancing and screaming the entire time.
“Mustafa, get in the car!” screamed Taha as he stuck his upper body outside the passenger side window.
“Mustafa, what are you doing?!”
He asked while laughing and bashing the side of the Mazda.
“Don’t hit her! She needs to get us through the King’s highway and to the bazaar and home without attracting attention!”
I laughed and pounded the roof of the car through my window.
“You shits! Stop hitting her!”
He screamed as he swung his limbs around, frothing at the mouth and staring at the empty, grossly blue sky. Taha and I fell back into our seats, laughing so much I felt as though I was going to vomit.
“Oh shit! Oh shit!”
Mustafa bellowed as he finally exhausted himself and collapsed on to the ground in front of the car.
“Come on, get up, we’re going to be late,” I shouted.
Mustafa looked in my direction, my head sticking out of the side of his new car like a bulbous, herniated tumor, and then suddenly jumped to his feet. He picked up his shirt and put it on, stumbling into the car, and slowly pulled it back on to the street.
I realized we were at the top of Razaq’s second mountain.
We slowly descended the circular road around the hump and then eased back into another stretch of desert.
Mustafa stared at a bedouin man kneeling in front of his tent while we waited at a red light.
“Look at him.”
“A man on his land.”
Taha, his elbow resting on the passenger side window, took a drag from a cigarette.
“He’s a bedouin. That’s not his land.”
Mustafa turned to him.
“He farms it doesn’t he?”
“No. He doesn’t.”
Mustafa spat out of the car.
“Then what’re the goats and lambs for?”
“To slaughter or milk. Bedouins don’t grow anything, you know that?”
Mustafa looked at Taha, who smiled back. He knew what he was doing.
“What a jackass, this blondie!”
He spat again.
We drove through the King’s highway, watching as the sun’s rays bounced off the sand and then off of the cars driving past us. The sky was hazy and ever-changing, orange and blood red from one angle, clear and sky blue from another.
“Have I ever told you both what happened to my father? Why we can never go back to Khartoum?”
The light turned green, and before we could answer him we sped off.
“My father was born the eldest into what later became a family of four. His father died when he was eight. This means that, you know as a kid, my father was orphaned. My grandmother was a sweet old women. But, you know, what can sweet old women do? What good are they where we’re from? There wasn’t a single shred of care.
His aunts laughed at him. His cousins thought he was mentally retarded. His uncles ignored and made fun of him whenever he tried to debate them. They called him an idiot, shooting down his ideas and suggestions. My father. My father!”
He sped up, ten kilometers every two seconds, until he hit his usual cruising and skidding speed, which at that time was around 120 kilometers per hour.
“This affected him for the rest of his life. I think it stunted him, you know? My father. He would always berate us, my siblings and me. Telling us about his childhood. How horrible it was.
Many years later, after Sudan’s liberation, he tried to start a company. I have no clue what the business was, just that there were opportunities and you know he, the man everyone treated like a simple-minded fuck, wanted to take advantage of it. My father. His younger brother was a government official. They went into the damn thing together! He was a talented businessman, and my uncle was in the government! What more did they need?…”
We passed two vans and hit a spread of empty highway between two car-clusters. Mustafa’s hand moved to the emergency brake, and my stomach fell into itself. I felt the seat hug my sides and heard the friction between the car’s tires and the road force its trunk to spin around. Mustafa turned the steering wheel to match the change in the car’s motion, keeping it under control as he straightened it out.
“He sold us out!”
He screamed as he skidded between two cars.
“My uncle! He told the government that my father was trying to undermine its authority! He made up stories about how we were well off because of how we took advantage of the previous regime! How we deserved to be punished! How he, my uncle, was devoted to Sudan and only Sudan! The bastard!”
Another two cars.
Taha, holding on to his seat, yelled out, “I thought this car wasn’t for skidding!”
Mustafa slowed down and brought the car back under control.
“If I can only hold his neck in my hands, the whore! My father was pressured to enter the government. He whored himself out in order to save himself…and us. I can never get the image out of my mind. He bent over and let that bunch of smiling donkeys fuck him. He would always tell me after that, ‘Leave the government to itself and keep yourself to yourself.’ Leave the government to itself? Ha! I say make the government your bitch! Ha! The government? Ha!”
He took a cigarette out from a pack he had lying in the glove compartment. His hands were shaking because of all the adrenaline coursing through his system — his veins popping with the endocrinal drug surging through to his brain and heart.
He was free to say what he wanted to say, the thoughts and beliefs that he would never dare express to anyone else besides us out of fear the secret police would disappear him.
“He was never the same after that. He developed an ulcer. He screamed at my mother. He ruined my oldest sister’s engagement. We once sat down to a beautiful lunch my mother made – chicken and seasoned rice and almonds and salad. I was five or six. I got into some stupid argument with one of my brothers. And my father, my wonderful father, picked up the huge saucer of food and threw it at the door.”
And what of fathers and sons?
What of the love that destroys as it creates and generates?
What of the hate that mingles between love?
Tucked into its DNA.
Taha, who was staring out of his window the entire time turned his head and faced the windshield.
Mustafa looked at him.
Taha shot Mustafa a look.
Mustafa’s eyebrows relaxed, and he pulled over onto an empty plot of land. It was some time past noon, and the sun was still bobbing overhead, shooting its scientifically valid death rays at us. Taha stepped out of the car and we followed. He looked out.
“This is a beautiful city and a beautiful place. My grandfather would have loved it.”
He leaned back on the Mazda and stared at the two mountains we were in between, his eyes floating from one to the other.
“His name was Mahmoud. He led my family out of Palestine after their expulsion. He was a leader, and so naturally was invited to the king of Jordan’s palace shortly after my family entered the country. We were fortunate enough to have status, and so avoided the camps. At first anyway… This was years before my parents met and even longer before they moved to Razaq. My grandfather was expected to thank the king for his generosity…for his kindness…”
Taha sat on the ground cross-legged, his back to us, on a plot of sand between two mountains.
“Mahmoud was in a line of men who were all formally dressed: long, thick, camel hide cloaks over thin, white robes and head dresses hiding thinly cut hair. He wore traditional eyeliner.
Jordan, in many ways like Razaq, was composed almost exclusively of hills. Mountains of sand and stone jutted out of the Earth in haphazard patterns. The landscape was dotted with the occasional Bedouin tent and olive tree. The sky was clear. The air was dry. Mahmoud felt comfortable in the familiar climate. The hill was angled at 45 degrees.
The line moved.
The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 had already begun and Mahmoud, as I said, fled his home with his extended family. Countless men, women, and children. They all took the keys to their homes with them, expecting to return once the Arabs won. Wives left their gold and children left their toys.
Mahmoud arrived at the palace gates. He dismounted and a young servant took the reigns. He saw the horses of the men who were in front of him in line feeding to one side. He entered an expansive square courtyard. At center the palace stood firm, elegantly designed and made up of smooth, reflective lime stone. Two sets of stairs converged from the right and left ends of the square up to the palace doors, in front of which was a wide balcony. Covering the side of the square Mahmoud entered were olive trees and sculpted flower plants and bushes. Servants walked around carrying silver trays with small, decorated porcelain cups filled with dark Turkish coffee. The Palestinians stood in the shade of the olive trees discussing the war.
‘I hear the Americans sent their best tanks for the Jews.’
‘The English. It’s the English’s fault.’
‘What about the French?’
‘We should’ve never trusted them during the war.’
‘My brother’s trying his luck with Damascus.’
‘Anyone you know go to Egypt?’
‘When will we get to go back? My wife’s been hassling me all day.’
‘You know how obnoxious these Jordanians are.’
Mahmoud walked over to a small group close to him. He towered over the men.
‘Peace and blessings.’
‘Peace and blessings.’
‘Like I was saying,’ continued a gray bearded preacher, ‘it’s not just about overcoming their defenses. The West has been trying to undermine us culturally and internationally ever since the middle ages. You know one of their mathematicians refused to use algebra because it was invented by a Muslim?’
The men nodded along.
‘And what about Al-Andalus?’ the preacher preached. Mahmoud held back. Trying to ignore the sort of talk that would inevitably lead to proselytizing, he surveyed the men in the circle. All had the deep set wrinkles and sun tans characteristic of farmers. Hands rough and nails chipped, yellowed, and hardened. Mahmoud rubbed his fingers. Though a farmer, his prominent hooked nose, piercing brown eyes (although brown eyes rarely, if ever, pierce), and cheek bones distinguished him. The sheikh finished his tirade and a calm descended.
‘These trees are beautiful.’
The men agreed with Mahmoud.
‘Do you think the king planted all of them?’ asked a shy little boy holding on to his father’s calve.
‘Well if he did then he knows what he’s doing.’
‘Then, what do you think these servants do all day?’ wondered an old man.
‘Oh, probably busy scrubbing off the royal shit stains.’
Stares focused on coffee.
They all knew why they were there. They needed to give thanks. The king opened the borders. The Palestinians never had a king of their own (Europeans monarchs notwithstanding), but they understood deference. A salute. A bow. A kiss of the hand. Mahmoud shuddered. The only men whose hands he ever kissed were his father’s and grandfathers’. He felt nauseous at the thought of bowing. A salute was more palatable. Maybe. Mahmoud Sadik was anxious.
Suddenly, the palace doors opened and two rows of uniformed men separated by the length of the doorway marched out in sync. After the fourth man in both rows stepped out the soldiers stopped, turned on their heels so that each row faced the other, and saluted.
The king walked out.
He was dressed in traditional garb similar to what the Palestinians were wearing. The only noticeable difference was the ringlet he wore on top of his head dress: overly decorated and multi-runged, it marked him as a member of a royal family. The Palestinians’ ringlets were all simple, dark, and double runged. The servants hurried into the palace, gazes lowered in front of their leader.
The king smiled and looked over the crowd of men in front of him.
‘Peace and blessings!’
‘Peace and blessings,’ the Palestinians replied, slowly moving out from under the olive-tree shade.
‘I express my deepest sympathies for your people,’ he began.
‘We Arabs have arrived at an impasse in our collective history. The West has unfortunately chosen to go forth with the establishment of a Jewish nation-state on your land. These powers, acting recklessly, believe their military forces free them to do what they please. In this case, they mean to displace you, and to take away the land you inherited from your ancestors. The land they worked and tilled ever since the Prophet, peace be upon him, walked this earth. Understand one thing, my brothers, in faith, although I am sure I do not have to tell you: that is your land.’
The Palestinians moved closer.
‘The land of the messengers, Jesus and Moses. The land which
houses Al-Aqsa. The land Umar liberated from the infidels and the land Saladine liberated from the Crusaders all those years ago. Today, as then, it is under siege. It is being attacked by foreigners who want to take it from you. Who believe they have some claim over it. Foreigners who do not understand just how stubborn we, Arabs, are. They do not know that while they perversely chase after this life like dogs chasing their own tails, we would happily leap to our deaths to protect that which is ours. Men, I promise you this: we will not let it happen. We, your Arab brothers, will not allow those invaders to desecrate our holy land. You will return to your homes. That, I swear on my crown and country. Until then, you are protected by Jordan, its lands, and its government. You have my word.’
‘Praise God!’ Someone shouted.
‘God is great!’ They responded.
The Palestinians cheered.
Mahmoud understood the cheering subsuming the pride spilling over the edge of the square garden. His heart swelled with every reference the king made, religious or historical.
The sky. Hues of blue-brown-violet.
The screaming and the glorifying of God died down. The king stepped towards the men and, to Mahmoud’s horror, the first Palestinian he addressed immediately kissed his hand. The king smiled and asked the man which part of Palestine he was from. The man happily replied. Mahmoud pursed his lips.
Honor. Yes. Honor.
Mahmoud nervously pressed his toes into his slippers and clenched his fists. The Palestinians lined up. The king slowly spoke to each man, and each man kissed his hand, and the king smiled and asked where each man was from. Mahmoud found himself three quarters down the line. Palestinian men kissing a king’s hand. One man genuflected. Mahmoud’s chest burned. The king was moments away. Mahmoud’s eyes darted left and right. He could feel his nails digging into his palms. His chest heaved.
Palestinians’ backs arching .
Gabriel’s six hundred multi-feathered wings made of light as sure as jinn are made of fire covering the sky. What a sight. Sweating. Feverish. His headdress soaked up the papule-like droplets off his forehead. His breath was heavy. His head felt light. One man away. Yes.
Bend over. Let him have you. You might as well.
Call yourselves men, eh?
Children of Adam?
Children of Adam!
And here we are. Here we are now. We’ve come to pay whatever last respects and eulogies are owed. At the end of our collective history we enter a vestibule in which, yes, we choose to allow for verisimilitudes. Yes. We allow. Yes. Yes. No. Maybe.
‘Peace and blessings.’
Mahmoud’s face contorted. Yes. Peace and blessings.
‘Peace and blessings.’
The king, at least a foot shorter than Mahmoud, lifted his hand. He did not angle it palm down to indicate that he expected Mahmoud to kiss it. That would have been too crass. Instead, he expected Mahmoud to first take his hand as an equal and then, reaffirming the king’s noble and superior blood, turn it and kiss. Mahmoud’s eyes calmed. He looked at the king’s hand, then into the king’s eyes. His mind wandered. He focused.
Mahmoud took the king’s hand.
Mahmoud shook the king’s hand.
Mahmoud let go of his hand.
Mahmoud walked away.
The men shook their heads.
Taha finished. We were sitting on the Mazda, our sight lines perpendicular to his back the entire time. A young man pounding the desert earth crying as his mother runs between two mountains hysterically and desperately searching for water.
He stood up and turned around. His eyes were blank, the words flowing out of every pore of his being wringing him entropy-less. The past is always invading the present. The past. That inescapable something invading the spaces in which I exist, commanding me to look and acknowledge. Yes. I see the bazaar in the shadow of the mountain only a few kilometers away. The colors enter the periphery of my retina and God what I would do to bleach you — to throw you away into the trash bin like so much of the present. The smells of artificial, ever-decomposing plastics and genetically engineered foodstuffs, discarded toys and animal carcasses gallop into my nose. Take the purples and greens, the fuchsias and violets, the deep and light blues and drain them. Squeeze and twist them in concentric spirals until all that is left is a dirty, filthy whiteness haemorrhaging purity and contaminating everything it touches. Until all that bombards my senses and in turn overloads my synapses is the reflected light of the sun, refracted through my vision and my own past, the inception of which is necessarily interpolated to events and performances that preceded our geneses — our conceptions!
Oh how I love you, you beneficent, all powerful bitch. I wander about in the house of your mercy gasping for your warmth, hoping to feel the magma of your care and your calloused fingers pressed against my throat, you Hades. I am Proserpina, and the marble of my skin is impressed, forced into place by you!
Ahmad stopped speaking. The Amanuensis’s soft flourescent light blinked three times.
“Yes, yes I’m finished for now. Turn off.” He was disgusted.
He stared once more outside his window, and then he stared at the map of the late-20th century world pinned on to his wall. His eyes drifted from the East (the U.S. and Europe) to the West (China and India). He considered the jagged lines that made Mesopotamia, Syria, and Arabia such volatile places for so long. The razor sharp borders that led to so much heartache and confusion, the loyalty to which watered ideological soils and motivated the almost century-and-a-half long sequence of bloodshed. A warmth filled his body as he remembered these old countries. I loved you, Palestine; I loved you, Jordan. I loved all of you, and I loved Razaq most.
What’s in rape, torture, murder, and mutilation? In lies about development and goodness and God-ness? So what if we forgot our past?
Image Credit: Self portrait by Käthe Kollwitz