About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clocktower 1 The clocktower in November 7 Square is a symbol of the coup mounted by General Zine al-Abidine ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba on November 7, 1987. The clocktower stands where a statue of Bourguiba stood before. 2 where Mohamed V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquillity of the deserted capital city is disturbed by its well-known nutter: a paranoiac who circles the tower for the last time then starts pushing people away, warning them of the poisonous hands of the clock high above. He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else. He imagines that he is picking them up from the marble base of the wrought-iron clocktower that flaunts itself like a whore in the last years of the struggle. People have forgotten the days of forced disappearances and fear. Not a single person has disappeared for a year or more. People are enjoying the sacred siesta of August. The temperature is over fifty degrees, and the devil of midday picks the crab lice caught in transient lust from its crotch.
Ambulance and police sirens suddenly massacre the slumbering siesta, and everyone rushes, with the traces of drowsiness and dried semen stains still on them, to the street of streets. Something is happening at the lofty clocktower. Cordons of police officers surround the place. Rapid intervention forces hide behind cold helmets, and press back with batons the onlookers at whom car horns honk from every direction. Human beings without number look up to the top of the stern clock. A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach. Everybody is amazed. He is about to announce the end of the world.
Necks strain to look at the bold climber who has reached the top of the clock and is holding on to one of its hands. He takes a water-bottle out of his back pocket, has a drink and then empties what is left over his head. He removes his leather belt and secures himself with it to some iron rings, and turns to the crowds that have gathered below like ants. Nervous policemen surround the crowds and run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down: up there is out of bounds. Meanwhile he mutters something, the content of which is lost in the air. Only fragments of what he says fall like droppings from a ram. There is a movement of his left hand and he waves right and left, indicating his refusal to come down. The police carry on pushing back the people who are circling the tower like dung beetles. They try to ban any photography, to silence voices and to prevent mobile phone cameras being focussed on the hands of the clock. Traffic comes to a standstill and the car engines throb like the veins of a hundred metre sprinter on the starting line.
Something serious is going on. No one has been bold enough to get near the clock for the two years since a soccer fan fell off it in a delirium of happiness after his team won the President of the Republic Cup. On that day, the water bubbling up from the fancy fountain beneath the clock turned into a pool of red. From that evening the clock was subject to strict surveillance: it occupied a strategic site in the heart of the capital, regardless of what the nutter sometimes said about it.
The crowds grow and the front rows are reinvigorated by tourists who pour in from the beaches and from hotels nearby. The policemen’s batons are a little muted, but the men grow more agitated. They run about everywhere, barricading the pavements and extending the restricted area. Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand at the top of the clock like a gecko.
For years on the site of this clock stood a verdigrised statue of Bourguiba on a horse, with one of its forelegs raised to the faces of those who looked up. It was said that it raised its hoof in the face of Ibn Khaldun, whose statue had been planted like a bad dream opposite Bourguiba – and at his request. After he was swept away by order of the present rider, the statue was removed and there sprouted in its place a giant clock-tower with a cold cement pedestal. It was not long before it gave seed to smaller versions that were planted in each town and village, while statues of the Leader were banished from every part of the land.
The clock was changed for another that came from Switzerland or England or America – there were conflicting reports about the nationality of the new clock – and a bronze plinth was decorated in arabesque style. Groundless talk without proof about the clock of unknown origin was installed in the heart of the city that was heedless of its sons. No trace was left of the Leader whose statue was moved to La Goulette to gaze at the bitter sea.
Spiderman remains above the restricted zone, supporting himself with the leather belt from which he hangs as he swings about, like a professional mountaineer. Below, the world, bewildered. The crowds grow after workers leave their offices. One whole hour passes by and the police are chewing their sticks, unable to persuade the man of the hour to come down. Among the crowd strange things are going on. Thieves and pickpockets are busy stealing mobile phones and necklaces from the women onlookers; hands grope startled breasts or oblivious bums.
Climbing to the top of the clock is a serious crime, an unpardonable sin. What is happening today undermines security. The police are facing a dilemma: how can they get on top of the situation when the scandal is unfolding in front of everybody – citizens and foreigners, and the whole country at the height of the tourist season too?
An officer almost bites the head off one helpless policeman, asking him for the thousandth time, “How did that dirty son a of a bitch get up there? Where were you, stupid idiots? How did you let him get near the clock and let him climb up as well?”
Elsewhere a policeman pounces on a tourist and snatches the camera that he was pointing at the clock. The policeman rips out the battery and nervously hands back the camera, cautioning him against using it again. The barricaded area is a restricted security zone.
The crowds start to mutter about the behaviour of the police as they clear a large space between the people and the location of the incident. Their grievance becomes louder when they see the man on the clock waving his hand and addressing the chief of the rapid intervention forces. As he is waving the empty water-bottle about, they understand he is asking for water. Another bottle is brought. A policeman scales the clocktower’s inner stairway. He throws the man the end of the rope tied round the bottle. The man grabs it and, after the policeman tries to open negotiations, orders him to go back down.
Nothing of his conversation with the policeman is heard. People are busy listening to the ravings of one young man who is shouting, “They’re showing what’s happening on television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news and the frequency of the channel.”
People take out their phones. The message reached everybody at the same time. The policemen get more het up and frenziedly start to look for something or other. Another group of policemen come and busy themselves searching buildings all around for the source of transmission and for the camera that is filming the incident.
Some people rush home but crowds remain and others arrive until the pavements and streets are packed to overflowing.
The translation appeared in “Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa I”, Edited by Peter Clark, Dar al-Saqi in collaboration with IPAF, 2010.
That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates – in fact, on the principal cattle estate of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.
B.O.S bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art” illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness – perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B.O.S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen – even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.
Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.
In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to swallow B.O.S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the users of B.O.S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder? But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it is not the popular form. I am not gullible.
I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on the Ile Royale,
It concerns the engineer of the steam-launch belonging to the Marañon cattle estate of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd. This estate is also an island – an island as big as a small province, lying in the estuary of a great South American river. It is wild and not beautiful, but the grass growing on its low plains seems to possess exceptionally nourishing and flavouring qualities. It resounds with the lowing of innumerable herds – a deep and distressing sound under the open sky, rising like a monstrous protest of prisoners condemned to death. On the mainland, across twenty miles of discoloured muddy water, there stands a city whose name, let us say, is Horta.
But the most interesting characteristic of this island (which seems like a sort of penal settlement for condemned cattle) consists in its being the only known habitat of an extremely rare and gorgeous butterfly. The species is even more rare than it is beautiful, which is not saying little. I have already alluded to my travels. I travelled at that time, but strictly for myself and with a moderation unknown in our days of round-the-world tickets. I even travelled with a purpose. As a matter of fact, I am – “Ha, ha, ha! – a desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!”
This was the tone in which Mr. Harry Gee, the manager of the cattle station, alluded to my pursuits. He seemed to consider me the greatest absurdity in the world. On the other hand, the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., represented to him the acme of the nineteenth century’s achievement. I believe that he slept in his leggings and spurs. His days he spent in the saddle flying over the plains, followed by a train of half-wild horsemen, who called him Don Enrique, and who had no definite idea of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., which paid their wages. He was an excellent manager, but I don’t see why, when we met at meals, he should have thumped me on the back, with loud, derisive inquiries: “How’s the deadly sport to-day? Butterflies going strong? Ha, ha, ha!” – especially as he charged me two dollars per diem for the hospitality of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., (capital L 1,500,000, fully paid up), in whose balance-sheet for that year those monies are no doubt included. “I don’t think I can make it anything less in justice to my company,” he had remarked, with extreme gravity, when I was arranging with him the terms of my stay on the island.
His chaff would have been harmless enough if intimacy of intercourse in the absence of all friendly feeling were not a thing detestable in itself. Moreover, his facetiousness was not very amusing. It consisted in the wearisome repetition of descriptive phrases applied to people with a burst of laughter. “Desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!” was one sample of his peculiar wit which he himself enjoyed so much. And in the same vein of exquisite humour he called my attention to the engineer of the steam-launch, one day, as we strolled on the path by the side of the creek.
The man’s head and shoulders emerged above the deck, over which were scattered various tools of his trade and a few pieces of machinery. He was doing some repairs to the engines. At the sound of our footsteps he raised anxiously a grimy face with a pointed chin and a tiny fair moustache. What could be seen of his delicate features under the black smudges appeared to me wasted and livid in the greenish shade of the enormous tree spreading its foliage over the launch moored close to the bank.
To my great surprise, Harry Gee addressed him as “Crocodile,” in that half-jeering, half-bullying tone which is characteristic of self-satisfaction in his delectable kind:
“How does the work get on, Crocodile?”
I should have said before that the amiable Harry had picked up French of a sort somewhere in some colony or other – and that he pronounced it with a disagreeable forced precision as though he meant to guy the language. The man in the launch answered him quickly in a pleasant voice. His eyes had a liquid softness and his teeth flashed dazzlingly white between his thin, drooping lips. The manager turned to me, very cheerful and loud, explaining:
“I call him Crocodile because he lives half in, half out of the creek. Amphibious – see? There’s nothing else amphibious living on the island except crocodiles; so he must belong to the species – eh? But in reality he’s nothing less than un citoyen anarchiste de Barcelone.”
“A citizen anarchist from Barcelona?” I repeated, stupidly, looking down at the man. He had turned to his work in the engine-well of the launch and presented his bowed back to us. In that attitude I heard him protest, very audibly:
“I do not even know Spanish.”
“Hey? What? You dare to deny you come from over there?” the accomplished manager was down on him truculently.
At this the man straightened himself up, dropping a spanner he had been using, and faced us; but he trembled in all his limbs.
“I deny nothing, nothing, nothing!” he said, excitedly.
He picked up the spanner and went to work again without paying any further attention to us. After looking at him for a minute or so, we went away.
“Is he really an anarchist?” I asked, when out of ear-shot.
“I don’t care a hang what he is,” answered the humorous official of the B.O.S. Co. “I gave him the name because it suited me to label him in that way. It’s good for the company.”
“For the company!” I exclaimed, stopping short.
“Aha!” he triumphed, tilting up his hairless pug face and straddling his thin, long legs. “That surprises you. I am bound to do my best for my company. They have enormous expenses. Why – our agent in Horta tells me they spend fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising all over the world! One can’t be too economical in working the show. Well, just you listen. When I took charge here the estate had no steam-launch. I asked for one, and kept on asking by every mail till I got it; but the man they sent out with it chucked his job at the end of two months, leaving the launch moored at the pontoon in Horta. Got a better screw at a sawmill up the river – blast him! And ever since it has been the same thing. Any Scotch or Yankee vagabond that likes to call himself a mechanic out here gets eighteen pounds a month, and the next you know he’s cleared out, after smashing something as likely as not. I give you my word that some of the objects I’ve had for engine-drivers couldn’t tell the boiler from the funnel. But this fellow understands his trade, and I don’t mean him to clear out. See?”
And he struck me lightly on the chest for emphasis. Disregarding his peculiarities of manner, I wanted to know what all this had to do with the man being an anarchist.
“Come!” jeered the manager. “If you saw suddenly a barefooted, unkempt chap slinking amongst the bushes on the sea face of the island, and at the same time observed less than a mile from the beach, a small schooner full of niggers hauling off in a hurry, you wouldn’t think the man fell there from the sky, would you? And it could be nothing else but either that or Cayenne. I’ve got my wits about me. Directly I sighted this queer game I said to myself – ‘Escaped Convict.’ I was as certain of it as I am of seeing you standing here this minute. So I spurred on straight at him. He stood his ground for a bit on a sand hillock crying out: ‘Monsieur! Monsieur! Arrêtez!’ then at the last moment broke and ran for life. Says I to myself, ‘I’ll tame you before I’m done with you.’ So without a single word I kept on, heading him off here and there. I rounded him up towards the shore, and at last I had him corralled on a spit, his heels in the water and nothing but sea and sky at his back, with my horse pawing the sand and shaking his head within a yard of him.
“He folded his arms on his breast then and stuck his chin up in a sort of desperate way; but I wasn’t to be impressed by the beggar’s posturing.
“Says I, ‘You’re a runaway convict.’
“When he heard French, his chin went down and his face changed.
“‘I deny nothing,’ says he, panting yet, for I had kept him skipping about in front of my horse pretty smartly. I asked him what he was doing there. He had got his breath by then, and explained that he had meant to make his way to a farm which he understood (from the schooner’s people, I suppose) was to be found in the neighbourhood. At that I laughed aloud and he got uneasy. Had he been deceived? Was there no farm within walking distance?
“I laughed more and more. He was on foot, and of course the first bunch of cattle he came across would have stamped him to rags under their hoofs. A dismounted man caught on the feeding-grounds hasn’t got the ghost of a chance.
“‘My coming upon you like this has certainly saved your life,’ I said. He remarked that perhaps it was so; but that for his part he had imagined I had wanted to kill him under the hoofs of my horse. I assured him that nothing would have been easier had I meant it. And then we came to a sort of dead stop. For the life of me I didn’t know what to do with this convict, unless I chucked him into the sea. It occurred to me to ask him what he had been transported for. He hung his head.
“‘What is it?’ says I. ‘Theft, murder, rape, or what?’ I wanted to hear what he would have to say for himself, though of course I expected it would be some sort of lie. But all he said was – ‘Make it what you like. I deny nothing. It is no good denying anything.’
“I looked him over carefully and a thought struck me.
“‘They’ve got anarchists, there, too,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’re one of them.’
“‘I deny nothing whatever, monsieur,’ he repeats.
“This answer made me think that perhaps he was not an anarchist. I believe those damned lunatics are rather proud of themselves. If he had been one, he would have probably confessed straight out.
“‘What were you before you became a convict?’
“‘Ouvrier,’ he says. ‘And a good workman, too.’
“At that I began to think he must be an anarchist, after all. That’s the class they come mostly from, isn’t it? I hate the cowardly bomb-throwing brutes. I almost made up my mind to turn my horse short round and leave him to starve or drown where he was, whichever he liked best. As to crossing the island to bother me again, the cattle would see to that. I don’t know what induced me to ask–
“‘What sort of workman?’
“I didn’t care a hang whether he answered me or not. But when he said at once, ‘Mécanicien, monsieur,’ I nearly jumped out of the saddle with excitement. The launch had been lying disabled and idle in the creek for three weeks. My duty to the company was clear. He noticed my start, too, and there we were for a minute or so staring at each other as if bewitched.
“‘Get up on my horse behind me,’ I told him. ‘You shall put my steam-launch to rights.'”
These are the words in which the worthy manager of the Marañon estate related to me the coming of the supposed anarchist. He meant to keep him – out of a sense of duty to the company – and the name he had given him would prevent the fellow from obtaining employment anywhere in Horta. The vaqueros of the estate, when they went on leave, spread it all over the town. They did not know what an anarchist was, nor yet what Barcelona meant. They called him Anarchisto de Barcelona, as if it were his Christian name and surname. But the people in town had been reading in their papers about the anarchists in Europe and were very much impressed. Over the jocular addition of “de Barcelona” Mr. Harry Gee chuckled with immense satisfaction. “That breed is particularly murderous, isn’t it? It makes the sawmills crowd still more afraid of having anything to do with him – see?” he exulted, candidly. “I hold him by that name better than if I had him chained up by the leg to the deck of the steam-launch.
“And mark,” he added, after a pause, “he does not deny it. I am not wronging him in any way. He is a convict of some sort, anyhow.”
“But I suppose you pay him some wages, don’t you?” I asked.
“Wages! What does he want with money here? He gets his food from my kitchen and his clothing from the store. Of course I’ll give him something at the end of the year, but you don’t think I’d employ a convict and give him the same money I would give an honest man? I am looking after the interests of my company first and last.”
I admitted that, for a company spending fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising, the strictest economy was obviously necessary. The manager of the Marañon Estancia grunted approvingly.
“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued: “if I were certain he’s an anarchist and he had the cheek to ask me for money, I would give him the toe of my boot. However, let him have the benefit of the doubt. I am perfectly willing to take it that he has done nothing worse than to stick a knife into somebody – with extenuating crrcumstances – French fashion, don’t you know. But that subversive sanguinary rot of doing away with all law and order in the world makes my blood boil. It’s simply cutting the ground from under the feet of every decent, respectable, hard-working person. I tell you that the consciences of people who have them, like you or I, must be protected in some way; or else the first low scoundrel that came along would in every respect be just as good as myself. Wouldn’t he, now? And that’s absurd!”
He glared at me. I nodded slightly and murmured that doubtless there was much subtle truth in his view.
The principal truth discoverable in the views of Paul the engineer was that a little thing may bring about the undoing of a man.
“Il ne faut pas beaucoup pour perdre un homme,” he said to me, thoughtfully, one evening.
I report this reflection in French, since the man was of Paris, not of Barcelona at all. At the Marañon he lived apart from the station, in a small shed with a metal roof and straw walls, which he called mon atelier. He had a work-bench there. They had given him several horse-blankets and a saddle, not that he ever had occasion to ride, but because no other bedding was used by the working-hands, who were all vaqueros – cattlemen. And on this horseman’s gear, like a son of the plains, he used to sleep amongst the tools of his trade, in a litter of rusty scrap-iron, with a portable forge at his head, under the work-bench sustaining his grimy mosquito-net.
Now and then I would bring him a few candle ends saved from the scant supply of the manager’s house. He was very thankful for these. He did not like to lie awake in the dark, he confessed. He complained that sleep fled from him. “Le sommeil me fuit,” he declared, with his habitual air of subdued stoicism, which made him sympathetic and touching. I made it clear to him that I did not attach undue importance to the fact of his having been a convict.
Thus it came about that one evening he was led to talk about himself. As one of the bits of candle on the edge of the bench burned down to the end, he hastened to light another.
He had done his military service in a provincial garrison and returned to Paris to follow his trade. It was a well-paid one. He told me with some pride that in a short time he was earning no less than ten francs a day. He was thinking of setting up for himself by and by and of getting married.
Here he sighed deeply and paused. Then with a return to his stoical note:
“It seems I did not know enough about myself.”
On his twenty-fifth birthday two of his friends in the repairing shop where he worked proposed to stand him a dinner. He was immensely touched by this attention.
“I was a steady man,” he remarked, “but I am not less sociable than any other body.”
The entertainment came off in a little café on the Boulevard de la Chapelle. At dinner they drank some special wine. It was excellent. Everything was excellent; and the world – in his own words – seemed a very good place to live in. He had good prospects, some little money laid by, and the affection of two excellent friends. He offered to pay for all the drinks after dinner, which was only proper on his part.
They drank more wine; they drank liqueurs, cognac, beer, then more liqueurs and more cognac. Two strangers sitting at the next table looked at him, he said, with so much friendliness, that he invited them to join the party.
He had never drunk so much in his life. His elation was extreme, and so pleasurable that whenever it flagged he hastened to order more drinks.
“It seemed to me,” he said, in his quiet tone and looking on the ground in the gloomy shed full of shadows, “that I was on the point of just attaining a great and wonderful felicity. Another drink, I felt, would do it. The others were holding out well with me, glass for glass.”
But an extraordinary thing happened. At something the strangers said his elation fell. Gloomy ideas – des idées noires – rushed into his head. All the world outside the café appeared to him as a dismal evil place where a multitude of poor wretches had to work and slave to the sole end that a few individuals should ride in carriages and live riotously in palaces. He became ashamed of his happiness. The pity of mankind’s cruel lot wrung his heart. In a voice choked with sorrow he tried to express these sentiments. He thinks he wept and swore in turns.
The two new acquaintances hastened to applaud his humane indignation. Yes. The amount of injustice in the world was indeed scandalous. There was only one way of dealing with the rotten state of society. Demolish the whole sacrée boutique. Blow up the whole iniquitous show.
Their heads hovered over the table. They whispered to him eloquently; I don’t think they quite expected the result. He was extremely drunk – mad drunk. With a howl of rage he leaped suddenly upon the table. Kicking over the bottles and glasses, he yelled: “Vive l’anarchie! Death to the capitalists!” He yelled this again and again. All round him broken glass was falling, chairs were being swung in the air, people were taking each other by the throat. The police dashed in. He hit, bit, scratched and struggled, till something crashed down upon his head. . . .
He came to himself in a police cell, locked up on a charge of assault, seditious cries, and anarchist propaganda.
He looked at me fixedly with his liquid, shining eyes, that seemed very big in the dim light.
“That was bad. But even then I might have got off somehow, perhaps,” he said, slowly.
I doubt it. But whatever chance he had was done away with by a young socialist lawyer who volunteered to undertake his defence. In vain he assured him that he was no anarchist; that he was a quiet, respectable mechanic, only too anxious to work ten hours per day at his trade. He was represented at the trial as the victim of society and his drunken shoutings as the expression of infinite suffering. The young lawyer had his way to make, and this case was just what he wanted for a start. The speech for the defence was pronounced magnificent.
The poor fellow paused, swallowed, and brought out the statement:
“I got the maximum penalty applicable to a first offence.”
I made an appropriate murmur. He hung his head and folded his arms.
“When they let me out of prison,” he began, gently, “I made tracks, of course, for my old workshop. My patron had a particular liking for me before; but when he saw me he turned green with fright and showed me the door with a shaking hand.”
While he stood in the street, uneasy and disconcerted, he was accosted by a middle-aged man who introduced himself as an engineer’s fitter, too. “I know who you are,” he said. “I have attended your trial. You are a good comrade and your ideas are sound. But the devil of it is that you won’t be able to get work anywhere now. These bourgeois’ll conspire to starve you. That’s their way. Expect no mercy from the rich.”
To be spoken to so kindly in the street had comforted him very much. His seemed to be the sort of nature needing support and sympathy. The idea of not being able to find work had knocked him over completely. If his patron, who knew him so well for a quiet, orderly, competent workman, would have nothing to do with him now – then surely nobody else would. That was clear. The police, keeping their eye on him, would hasten to warn every employer inclined to give him a chance. He felt suddenly very helpless, alarmed and idle; and he followed the middle-aged man to the estaminet round the corner where he met some other good companions. They assured him that he would not be allowed to starve, work or no work. They had drinks all round to the discomfiture of all employers of labour and to the destruction of society.
He sat biting his lower lip.
“That is, monsieur, how I became a compagnon,” he said. The hand he passed over his forehead was trembling. “All the same, there’s something wrong in a world where a man can get lost for a glass more or less.”
He never looked up, though I could see he was getting excited under his dejection. He slapped the bench with his open palm.
“No!” he cried. “It was an impossible existence! Watched by the police, watched by the comrades, I did not belong to myself any more! Why, I could not even go to draw a few francs from my savings-bank without a comrade hanging about the door to see that I didn’t bolt! And most of them were neither more nor less than housebreakers. The intelligent, I mean. They robbed the rich; they were also the fools and the mad. Des exaltés – quoi! When I was drunk I loved them. When I got some drink I was angry with the world. That was the best time. I found refuge from misery in rage. But one can’t be always drunk – n’est-ce pas, monsieur? And when I was sober I was afraid to break away. They would have stuck me like a pig.”
He folded his arms again and raised his sharp chin with a bitter smile.
“By and by they told me it was time to go to work. The work was to rob a bank. Afterwards a bomb would be thrown to wreck the place. My beginner’s part would be to keep watch in a street at the back and to take care of a black bag with the bomb inside till it was wanted. After the meeting at which the affair was arranged a trusty comrade did not leave me an inch. I had not dared to protest; I was afraid of being done away with quietly in that room; only, as we were walking together I wondered whether it would not be better for me to throw myself suddenly into the Seine. But while I was turning it over in my mind we had crossed the bridge, and afterwards I had not the opportunity.”
In the light of the candle end, with his sharp features, fluffy little moustache, and oval face, he looked at times delicately and gaily young, and then appeared quite old, decrepit, full of sorrow, pressing his folded arms to his breast.
As he remained silent I felt bound to ask:
“Well! And how did it end?”
“Deportation to Cayenne,” he answered.
He seemed to think that somebody had given the plot away. As he was keeping watch in the back street, bag in hand, he was set upon by the police. “These imbeciles,” had knocked him down without noticing what he had in his hand. He wondered how the bomb failed to explode as he fell. But it didn’t explode.
“I tried to tell my story in court,” he continued. “The president was amused. There were in the audience some idiots who laughed.”
I expressed the hope that some of his companions had been caught, too. He shuddered slightly before he told me that there were two – Simon, called also Biscuit, the middle-aged fitter who spoke to him in the street, and a fellow of the name of Mafile, one of the sympathetic strangers who had applauded his sentiments and consoled his humanitarian sorrows when he got drunk in the café.
“Yes,” he went on, with an effort, “I had the advantage of their company over there on St. Joseph’s Island, amongst some eighty or ninety other convicts. We were all classed as dangerous.”
St. Joseph’s Island is the prettiest of the Iles de Salut. It is rocky and green, with shallow ravines, bushes, thickets, groves of mango-trees, and many feathery palms. Six warders armed with revolvers and carbines are in charge of the convicts kept there.
An eight-oared galley keeps up the communication in the daytime, across a channel a quarter of a mile wide, with the Ile Royale, where there is a military post. She makes the first trip at six in the morning. At four in the afternoon her service is over, and she is then hauled up into a little dock on the Ile Royale and a sentry put over her and a few smaller boats. From that time till next morning the island of St. Joseph remains cut off from the rest of the world, with the warders patrolling in turn the path from the warders’ house to the convict huts, and a multitude of sharks patrolling the waters all round.
Under these circumstances the convicts planned a mutiny. Such a thing had never been known in the penitentiary’s history before. But their plan was not without some possibility of success. The warders were to be taken by surprise and murdered during the night. Their arms would enable the convicts to shoot down the people in the galley as she came alongside in the morning. The galley once in their possession, other boats were to be captured, and the whole company was to row away up the coast.
At dusk the two warders on duty mustered the convicts as usual. Then they proceeded to inspect the huts to ascertain that everything was in order. In the second they entered they were set upon and absolutely smothered under the numbers of their assailants. The twilight faded rapidly. It was a new moon; and a heavy black squall gathering over the coast increased the profound darkness of the night. The convicts assembled in the open space, deliberating upon the next step to be taken, argued amongst themselves in low voices.
“You took part in all this?” I asked.
“No, I knew what was going to be done, of course. But why should I kill these warders? I had nothing against them. But I was afraid of the others. Whatever happened, I could not escape from them. I sat alone on the stump of a tree with my head in my hands, sick at heart at the thought of a freedom that could be nothing but a mockery to me. Suddenly I was startled to perceive the shape of a man on the path near by. He stood perfectly still, then his form became effaced in the night. It must have been the chief warder coming to see what had become of his two men. No one noticed him. The convicts kept on quarrelling over their plans. The leaders could not get themselves obeyed. The fierce whispering of that dark mass of men was very horrible.
“At last they divided into two parties and moved off. When they had passed me I rose, weary and hopeless. The path to the warders’ house was dark and silent, but on each side the bushes rustled slightly. Presently I saw a faint thread of light before me. The chief warder, followed by his three men, was approaching cautiously. But he had failed to close his dark lantern properly. The convicts had seen that faint gleam, too. There was an awful savage yell, a turmoil on the dark path, shots fired, blows, groans: and with the sound of smashed bushes, the shouts of the pursuers and the screams of the pursued, the man-hunt, the warder-hunt, passed by me into the interior of the island. I was alone. And I assure you, monsieur, I was indifferent to everything. After standing still for a while, I walked on along the path till I kicked something hard. I stooped and picked up a warder’s revolver. I felt with my fingers that it was loaded in five chambers. In the gusts of wind I heard the convicts calling to each other far away, and then a roll of thunder would cover the soughing and rustling of the trees. Suddenly, a big light ran across my path very low along the ground. And it showed a woman’s skirt with the edge of an apron.
“I knew that the person who carried it must be the wife of the head warder. They had forgotten all about her, it seems. A shot rang out in the interior of the island, and she cried out to herself as she ran. She passed on. I followed, and presently I saw her again. She was pulling at the cord of the big bell which hangs at the end of the landing-pier, with one hand, and with the other she was swinging the heavy lantern to and fro. This is the agreed signal for the Ile Royale should assistance be required at night. The wind carried the sound away from our island and the light she swung was hidden on the shore side by the few trees that grow near the warders’ house.
“I came up quite close to her from behind. She went on without stopping, without looking aside, as though she had been all alone on the island. A brave woman, monsieur. I put the revolver inside the breast of my blue blouse and waited. A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder destroyed both the sound and the light of the signal for an instant, but she never faltered, pulling at the cord and swinging the lantern as regularly as a machine. She was a comely woman of thirty – no more. I thought to myself, ‘All that’s no good on a night like this.’ And I made up my mind that if a body of my fellow-convicts came down to the pier – which was sure to happen soon – I would shoot her through the head before I shot myself. I knew the ‘comrades’ well. This idea of mine gave me quite an interest in life, monsieur; and at once, instead of remaining stupidly exposed on the pier, I retreated a little way and crouched behind a bush. I did not intend to let myself be pounced upon unawares and be prevented perhaps from rendering a supreme service to at least one human creature before I died myself.
“But we must believe the signal was seen, for the galley from Ile Royale came over in an astonishingly short time. The woman kept right on till the light of her lantern flashed upon the officer in command and the bayonets of the soldiers in the boat. Then she sat down and began to cry.
“She didn’t need me any more. I did not budge. Some soldiers were only in their shirt-sleeves, others without boots, just as the call to arms had found them. They passed by my bush at the double. The galley had been sent away for more; and the woman sat all alone crying at the end of the pier, with the lantern standing on the ground near her.
“Then suddenly I saw in the light at the end of the pier the red pantaloons of two more men. I was overcome with astonishment. They, too, started off at a run. Their tunics flapped unbuttoned and they were bare-headed. One of them panted out to the other, ‘Straight on, straight on!’
“Where on earth did they spring from, I wondered. Slowly I walked down the short pier. I saw the woman’s form shaken by sobs and heard her moaning more and more distinctly, ‘Oh, my man! my poor man! my poor man!’ I stole on quietly. She could neither hear nor see anything. She had thrown her apron over her head and was rocking herself to and fro in her grief. But I remarked a small boat fastened to the end of the pier.
“Those two men – they looked like sous-officiers – must have come in it, after being too late, I suppose, for the galley. It is incredible that they should have thus broken the regulations from a sense of duty. And it was a stupid thing to do. I could not believe my eyes in the very moment I was stepping into that boat.
“I pulled along the shore slowly. A black cloud hung over the Iles de Salut. I heard firing, shouts. Another hunt had begun – the convict-hunt. The oars were too long to pull comfortably. I managed them with difficulty, though the boat herself was light. But when I got round to the other side of the island the squall broke in rain and wind. I was unable to make head against it. I let the boat drift ashore and secured her.
“I knew the spot. There was a tumbledown old hovel standing near the water. Cowering in there I heard through the noises of the wind and the falling downpour some people tearing through the bushes. They came out on the strand. Soldiers perhaps. A flash of lightning threw everything near me into violent relief. Two convicts!
“And directly an amazed voice exclaimed, ‘It’s a mirade!’ It was the voice of Simon, otherwise Biscuit.
“And another voice growled, ‘What’s a miracle?’
“‘Why, there’s a boat lying here!’
“‘You must be mad, Simon! But there is, after all. . . . A boat.’
“They seemed awed into complete silence. The other man was Mafile. He spoke again, cautiously.
“‘It is fastened up. There must be somebody here.’
“I spoke to them from within the hovel: ‘I am here.’
“They came in then, and soon gave me to understand that the boat was theirs, not mine. ‘There are two of us,’ said Mafile, ‘against you alone.’
“I got out into the open to keep clear of them for fear of getting a treacherous blow on the head. I could have shot them both where they stood. But I said nothing. I kept down the laughter rising in my throat. I made myself very humble and begged to be allowed to go. They consulted in low tones about my fate, while with my hand on the revolver in the bosom of my blouse I had their lives in my power. I let them live. I meant them to pull that boat. I represented to them with abject humility that I understood the management of a boat, and that, being three to pull, we could get a rest in turns. That decided them at last. It was time. A little more and I would have gone into screaming fits at the drollness of it.”
At this point his excitement broke out. He jumped off the bench and gesticulated. The great shadows of his arms darting over roof and walls made the shed appear too small to contain his agitation.
“I deny nothing,” he burst out. “I was elated, monsieur. I tasted a sort of felicity. But I kept very quiet. I took my turns at pulling all through the night. We made for the open sea, putting our trust in a passing ship. It was a foolhardy action. I persuaded them to it. When the sun rose the immensity of water was calm, and the Iles de Salut appeared only like dark specks from the top of each swell. I was steering then. Mafile, who was pulling bow, let out an oath and said, ‘We must rest.’
“The time to laugh had come at last. And I took my fill of it, I can tell you. I held my sides and rolled in my seat, they had such startled faces. ‘What’s got into him, the animal?’ cries Mafile.
“And Simon, who was nearest to me, says over his shoulder to him, ‘Devil take me if I don’t think he’s gone mad!’
“Then I produced the revolver. Aha! In a moment they both got the stoniest eyes you can imagine. Ha, ha! They were frightened. But they pulled. Oh, yes, they pulled all day, sometimes looking wild and sometimes looking faint. I lost nothing of it because I had to keep my eyes on them all the time, or else – crack! – they would have been on top of me in a second. I rested my revolver hand on my knee all ready and steered with the other. Their faces began to blister. Sky and sea seemed on fire round us and the sea steamed in the sun. The boat made a sizzling sound as she went through the water. Sometimes Mafile foamed at the mouth and sometimes he groaned. But he pulled. He dared not stop. His eyes became blood-shot all over, and he had bitten his lower lip to pieces. Simon was as hoarse as a crow.
“‘Comrade-‘ he begins.
“‘There are no comrades here. I am your patron.’
“‘Patron, then,’ he says, ‘in the name of humanity let us rest.’
“I let them. There was a little rainwater washing about the bottom of the boat. I permitted them to snatch some of it in the hollow of their palms. But as I gave the command, ‘En route!’ I caught them exchanging significant glances. They thought I would have to go to sleep sometime! Aha! But I did not want to go to sleep. I was more awake than ever. It is they who went to sleep as they pulled, tumbling off the thwarts head over heels suddenly, one after another. I let them lie. All the stars were out. It was a quiet world. The sun rose. Another day. Allez! En route!
“They pulled badly. Their eyes rolled about and their tongues hung out. In the middle of the forenoon Mafile croaks out: ‘Let us make a rush at him, Simon. I would just as soon be shot at once as to die of thirst, hunger, and fatigue at the oar.’
“But while he spoke he pulled; and Simon kept on pulling too. It made me smile. Ah! They loved their life these two, in this evil world of theirs, just as I used to love my life, too, before they spoiled it for me with their phrases. I let them go on to the point of exhaustion, and only then I pointed at the sails of a ship on the horizon.
“Aha! You should have seen them revive and buckle to their work! For I kept them at it to pull right across that ship’s path. They were changed. The sort of pity I had felt for them left me. They looked more like themselves every minute. They looked at me with the glances I remembered so well. They were happy. They smiled.
“‘Well,’says Simon, ‘the energy of that youngster has saved our lives. If he hadn’t made us, we could never have pulled so far out into the track of ships. Comrade, I forgive you. I admire you.’
“And Mafile growls from forward: ‘We owe you a famous debt of gratitude, comrade. You are cut out for a chief.’
“Comrade! Monsieur! Ah, what a good word! And they, such men as these two, had made it accursed. I looked at them. I remembered their lies, their promises, their menaces, and all my days of misery. Why could they not have left me alone after I came out of prison? I looked at them and thought that while they lived I could never be free. Never. Neither I nor others like me with warm hearts and weak heads. For I know I have not a strong head, monsieur. A black rage came upon me – the rage of extreme intoxication – but not against the injustice of society. Oh, no!
“‘I must be free!’ I cried, furiously.
“‘Vive la liberté!’ yells that ruffian Mafile. ‘Mort aux bourgeois who send us to Cayenne! They shall soon know that we are free.’
“The sky, the sea, the whole horizon, seemed to turn red, blood red all round the boat. My temples were beating so loud that I wondered they did not hear. How is it that they did not? How is it they did not understand?
“I heard Simon ask, ‘Have we not pulled far enough out now?’
“‘Yes. Far enough,’ I said. I was sorry for him; it was the other I bated. He hauled in his oar with a loud sigh, and as he was raising his hand to wipe his forehead with the air of a man who has done his work, I pulled the trigger of my revolver and shot him like this off the knee, right through the heart.
“He tumbled down, with his head hanging over the side of the boat. I did not give him a second glance. The other cried out piercingly. Only one shriek of horror. Then all was still.
“He slipped off the thwart on to his knees and raised his clasped hands before his face in an attitude of supplication. ‘Mercy,’ he whispered, faintly. ‘Mercy for me! -comrade.’
“‘Ah, comrade,’ I said, in a low tone. ‘Yes, comrade, of course. Well, then, shout Vive l’anarchie.’
“He flung up his arms, his face up to the sky and his mouth wide open in a great yell of despair. ‘Vive l’anarchie! Vive -‘
“He collapsed all in a heap, with a bullet through his head.
“I flung them both overboard. I threw away the revolver, too. Then I sat down quietly. I was free at last! At last. I did not even look towards the ship; I did not care; indeed, I think I must have gone to sleep, because all of a sudden there were shouts and I found the ship almost on top of me. They hauled me on board and secured the boat astern. They were all blacks, except the captain, who was a mulatto. He alone knew a few words of French. I could not find out where they were going nor who they were. They gave me something to eat every day; but I did not like the way they used to discuss me in their language. Perhaps they were deliberating about throwing me over-board in order to keep possession of the boat. How do I know? As we were passing this island I asked whether it was inhabited. I understood from the mulatto that there was a house on it. A farm, I fancied, they meant. So I asked them to put me ashore on the beach and keep the boat for their trouble. This, I imagine, was just what they wanted. The rest you know.”
After pronouncing these words he lost suddenly all control over himself. He paced to and fro rapidly, till at last he broke into a run; his arms went like a windmill and his ejaculations became very much like raving. The burden of them was that he “denied nothing, nothing!” I could only let him go on, and sat out of his way, repeating, “Calmez vous, calmez vous,” at intervals, till his agitation exhausted itself.
I must confess, too, that I remained there long after he had crawled under his mosquito-net. He had entreated me not to leave him; so, as one sits up with a nervous child, I sat up with him – in the name of humanity – till he fell asleep.
On the whole, my idea is that he was much more of an anarchist than he confessed to me or to himself; and that, the special features of his case apart, he was very much like many other anarchists. Warm heart and weak head – that is the word of the riddle; and it is a fact that the bitterest contradictions and the deadliest conflicts of the world are carried on in every individual breast capable of feeling and passion.
From personal inquiry I can vouch that the story of the convict mutiny was in every particular as stated by him.
When I got back to Horta from Cayenne and saw the “Anarchist” again, he did not look well. He was more worn, still more frail, and very livid indeed under the grimy smudges of his calling. Evidently the meat of the company’s main herd (in its unconcentrated form) did not agree with him at all.
It was on the pontoon in Horta that we met; and I tried to induce him to leave the launch moored where she was and follow me to Europe there and then. It would have been delightful to think of the excellent manager’s surprise and disgust at the poor fellow’s escape. But he refused with unconquerable obstinacy.
“Surely you don’t mean to live always here!” I cried. He shook his head.
“I shall die here,” he said. Then added moodily, “Away from them.”
Sometimes I think of him lying open-eyed on his horseman’s gear in the low shed full of tools and scraps of iron – the anarchist slave of the Marañon estate, waiting with resignation for that sleep which “fled” from him, as he used to say, in such an unaccountable manner.
One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away.
Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said:
“What’s that you’re holding?”
And Masha said:
The manager said:
“How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.”
“You won’t put me to work.”
The manager said:
“Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till.
Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles.
The manager said:
“What are you fining me for?”
And the police replied:
The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said:
“Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.”
But the sales assistant in the fruit department said:
“No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.”
The police said:
“It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The police headed towards the cashier.
The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said:
“I won’t go.”
The police said:
“Why won’t you go, you fool?”
The cashier said:
“You’ll bury me alive.”
The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump.
“You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department.
“No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.”
The cashier said:
“Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.”
The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative.
The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading.
“But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha.
“Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?”
“And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant.
The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said:
“It’s just outrageous!”
“Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one.
Then the manager scratched his moustache and said:
“Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.”
They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold.
The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed.
“That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.”
But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad.
The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped.
“Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!”
The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next.
The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said:
“Who’s this sitting at your till?”
But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say.
The manager didn’t say anything either.
At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal.
The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.
31 August 1936
“It was a pitched battle…” – a description he had often read out to his classmates from history textbooks but never thought he would one day use as he had just done, speaking to his friend, to describe that night. He didn’t even know what ‘pitched’ meant. He just felt it captured the passion of his history teacher at the time.
“… The ground invasion began from the western side of Tel el-Hawa. As you know, the area is divided into two parts, west and east. The west has brightly coloured apartment blocks that have names and are stuck together in rows. It’s quite well known for its bourgeoisie since most of the residents work for the Palestinian National Authority that was created after the Oslo Accords and instituted their bourgeois class. But those people created no wealth of any kind. Actually, the good name of the bourgeoisie took a bad hit when the term was used to characterize that side of the area. Perhaps there was something problematic about applying the concept. Many people think that the bourgeois are the rich who own their own homes and eat well, and in that respect we can count the residents of the area as such. But the real bourgeoisie is a class made up of businessmen and factory owners that creates some wealth. They are also hard workers and those who spark revolutions.”
“I don’t understand why you have to provide all those details as if I came from a foreign country. Why do you have to explain what I already know to tell me about the battle? Perhaps you want to give me a masterclass in you Communist ideology that has been dead and buried for ages. Spare me and just tell me the story. I’m from the area the same as you. But I’m a real bourgeois and you’re a self-styled one.”
“Ha, ha, ha! Exactly! That’s just what I mean. Anyway, the other half of the area, the eastern side, is closer to the border but the invasion didn’t start there. It’s mostly agricultural land, and the Occupation Army started encroaching from the more vulnerable area, where it was not expected to encounter any resistance. The Army left the east of the neighbourhood till last. It’s where the true bourgeoisie live, the owners of farms and factories, even if most of those were shut down because of the siege. They were also behind the revolution. Many of the resistance leadership had homes there. The battle of the 2008/2009 war took place that night.”
Is there another war in history that when you want to talk about it, your have to append two years? Or when you write it down, it looks like you’re referring to the academic year, with a slash between the two numbers? Basically, apart from this war, is there a war that begins at the end of one year and ends at the beginning of the following year? A succession of questions, numbers, and years took his thoughts away, as if he was trying to uncover an algorithm to predict the outbreak of war, forgetting that in his situation, war was an inheritance.
He poked the fire in the grate and piled the coals beneath the teapot to heat it up for the third time. Through the fog of this thoughts he observed his friend Abu Ahmed watching and waiting for him to snap out of it, just as he had waited a little before for him to finish his revolutionary preliminaries. What he loved about his sessions with Abu Ahmed was that he rarely interrupted when he went on too long in speech or went too far in the imagination.
He poured the tea and resumed: “The Army infiltrated into Tel el-Hawa and occupied the residential towers, contrary to all expectations. At that point, the PA people who had come from Tunis and Lebanon felt they were in direct confrontation with the Army, something which hadn’t happened since the 1980s. Still, that area wasn’t the Occupation’s target, but the other side of Tel el-Hawa, the revolutionary side where we live. That day I stood behind this window watching the missiles and listening to the gunfire and the screaming. Some people got away from our street by driving away at top speed, especially those who lived at the ends. Those in the middle, like me, were stuck. I couldn’t even open the window one centimetre. It was pitch dark. There was no electricity. Sometimes I heard the gasps of the resistance fighters as they ran. Honestly, I couldn’t tell whether it was the Army or the resistance running. It wasn’t even really running in the way it was back in the first Intifada for example. It was more like stalking. Like a game in which you ended up either alive or dead. A game in which you could enjoy deceiving death. You stood in front of it, but made it pass you by. Something like Russian roulette: one bullet in the chamber, spin the barrel a few times, then pull the trigger as soon as it stops without wondering whether the bullet will get you or not. The chase was like that. The combat was like that.”
“Strange that it’s been ten years since the war and this is the first time you’ve told me these details.”
“Ten years, right, almost to the day. Cold like this. Then it was impossible to light a fire for warmth. A spark the size of a fly meant certain death. Anyway, my friend, I stayed in the house, dipping bread into oil and zaatar, after the kids and my wife and mother escaped to my uncle’s house a week before during the ceasefire. I knew they wanted to take revenge on the eastern side, which is what happened. But I stayed guarding the house. You know how much I love history. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the battle, which happened too. To begin with, I heard guys calling to each other. I didn’t recognise any of the voices. I saw black shadows running through the blackness. I did know the local guys, but wasn’t friendly enough to recognise one of them from his voice. I’m a smoker and don’t go to Friday prayers at the mosque, so I was shunned in a certain way. I went out to work and came home to watch a game or read a book. I wanted to be a history teacher, but unfortunately, my high marks in science made my family pressure me into enrolling in something connected with medicine, so I went to the school of pharmacy.”
“It’s like you’re standing on stage introducing yourself to the audience. You’ve told me the story of history, your exams, and pharmacy a thousand times. Have we got old and senile? Go and pray on Fridays, perhaps God will be merciful and you’ll stop losing your memory.”
“Just listen, Abu Ahmed, and I’ll finish telling you what happened. Suddenly, I saw things glint like flickering lanterns, but it was more like the sheen of glass than lamplight. Straightaway, I knew it was an Occupation special forces unit. I couldn’t tell whether it was their weapons or their helmets that were flashing. My heart was beating like it would burst and I was so scared that I would be shot in the head that sweat trickled down from the back of my neck to my legs. You can taste death when it’s close. I was terrified of making any movement. They would hear me for sure – there weren’t many houses around me as the land hadn’t been developed. It was empty and that was what had made it safe for the resistance and a problem for the Occupation. So they were backed up by two helicopters. I’ve never been to the cinema, but from this viewpoint I saw what must have been more dramatic. Cinema in real life.
“They knew exactly where they were going. A helicopter shelled one of the houses. Then came an exchange of fire that went on for a few minutes before the same building was shelled again. Then everything stopped. I couldn’t hear the battle anymore. They must have left or got into the helicopter, I’m not sure. Minutes passed then I heard the voice of one of the resistance guys calling for help. He was wounded. All his comrades must have been killed because his was the only voice and resistance fighters don’t usually move around individually. None of the local residents still there approached him. Fear gripped the hearts. Of course, I didn’t approach either. I heard him calling, ‘Help me.’”
“We’d left the house that day, as you know, and fled to our uncle’s house in the north.”
“I heard him moving in the dust. He seemed to be writhing on the sand like a cat that had been hit by a car. Have you ever seen how a crushed cut struggles? It’s a sight that tears you up. Those were the thoughts messing with my head when I could hear his voice but not see him. Soon he called out again in a fainter voice, ‘Arab nations, where are you?’
“Amazing. He was bleeding to death and in his final struggle it occurred to him that the Arabs might respond. Perhaps it was despair as he drew his last breaths that worked on his mind and speech, taking it back to earlier slogans. How could someone in his struggle call out to nameless people whose response he did not know. Do you know what it’s like? I’ll give you an idea. A criminal shoots you one freezing night in Sweden, and as you’re dying alone in the snow, you shout, ‘EU, where are you?’
“Was there anything more ridiculous than that phrase of his. It might have been a worn out cliché, but it made me want to burst into tears. I instantly understood his unshakeable sense of his own inevitable death. What he said wasn’t a history lesson. It was a lesson in human weakness and the love of life. I mean my love of life.
“The next morning, once we were sure the area was safe, we cautiously stepped outside our homes. The sand had soaked up his blood. He lay there in a black jacket with a mask over his face.”
“Uff. What are you going on about? You’ve made me shudder. It wasn’t your fault, Salam. It was his fate. His time had come.”
“Fate, are you mad? That guy would be in his thirties now. If he’d lived and got married, he might be a father. Submission to an unjustified death makes me sick. I feel it’s helplessness not faith. Where were the neighbours and the locals? Where was the sheikh of the mosque?… Where, my brother, were the Arabs? Everyday for the last ten years when I leave my house I see him lying there. Imagine how many times I’ve stood in the doorway. How many times I’ve seen him stretched out. I’ve been living with the dead since that night. The whole of this city lives with the dead.”
“It’s been three wars, that’s no small thing.”
“When is war ever minor? All the wars in the world that I’ve read about, especially those with millions of victims, were all lies, because you can only write about war if you’ve survived.”
“Let God guide you. Go and pray the dawn prayer. Enough talking for today. Without faith, our people would never have endured all this suffering and these crimes.”
“The secret of our strength isn’t faith, but living with the dead. Good night. I pray the morning prayer at home.”
“Oh I forgot. You’re a spoilt bourgeois. The mosque comes to your bed. God Almighty forgive me. No one wants to speak blasphemously. God give me strength and refuge. All you’re saying is from the heat of battle.”
“The real blasphemy is what’s happening to us.”
Abu Ahmed headed for the local mosque. Salam tided up the cups and scattered sand on the fire. The whole time they had been sitting there, he felt that someone was behind him. He looked at the spot. Nothing had changed except the barrel of dried cement that the dead man had lain next to was gone. “Ten years we’ve been neighbours, my friend,” he whispered, “and I’ve never once said good morning to you.”
The transfer began at two in the morning, while a northerly wind blustered furiously outside. Some of the prisoners didn’t even have time to dress before the Federal agents burst into their cells. Shoving and kicking, they forced them to line up in the corridors, cover their faces with their arms and parade in front of a wall of soldiers who threatened to shoot them if they even dared to look up at their peers. All of them were shivering, some of them were worried about the welcome they might receive at their destination. Others were more confident; they’d already made arrangements at their new prison. Since mid-December, it had been rumoured that their current one would be emptied for a new Mel Gibson film, but this was flatly denied by the authorities even after the declaration of the closure of the facility due to its unsuitability for human habitation had been published in the state’s official gazette.
Almost a thousand prisoners were herded into rented buses and escorted by an army of Humvees to other prisons across the state. The doors of Allende prison remained open and dozens of women crowded around, waiting for dawn so they could find out where their loved ones had been taken.
Rodrigo was sent to the empty prison to check out the cells and photograph the graffiti the prisoners had left on the walls. Rats had taken over the halls, facing down any member of the public cleaning staff foolish enough to try to shoo them away.
When he remembers the sight, Rodrigo wrinkles his nose as though the stink were still in his nostrils.
“It was a pigsty. I don’t know how so many people could possibly have lived there, how they could eat at the stalls claiming to serve ‘tasty tacos’. It was so disgusting. You crossed the exercise yard and headed into a kind of nightmarish market. The wood was rotting, swarming with flies and cockroaches. It stank of drains and disinfectant.”
Rodrigo watched the police remove televisions, fans, cameras, and even industrial machinery. He also saw the women crying with receipts in their hands. The appliances they’d bought for their relatives and hadn’t even finished paying for weren’t on their way to their new cells.
“I spoke to the representative from Social Rehabilitation and asked him if the prison had closed because of Gibson’s film and he said no, it was being closed for health reasons. The fact that the transfer was happening at the same time as the start of filming was a complete coincidence.”
On the thirteenth of January, 2010, Fidel Herrera Beltrán announced to a conference of legal experts that several organized gangs had taken over the Allende prison and were planning a riot during which several prisoners would have their throats slit. Although he never identified the gangs in question, he insinuated that it was linked to the death a few months before of the founder of the Zetas, Braulio Arellano, aka El Gonzo or El Z 20, in Soledad de Doblado, a small rural town close to the port of Veracruz.
Although some protested (Representative Sergio Vaca, for example, described the transfer as a ‘Fidelism’ and declared that he would crucify himself naked if the building were ever sold. A transaction that, fortunately for everyone, never took place) the defunct prison was ‘loaned’ to Mel Gibson for the filming of How I Spent my Summer Vacation (which was released to little fanfare or acclaim in Mexico in 2012 under the name Atrapen al Gringo – Get the Gringo). The sum that Gibson paid for the loan was never disclosed.
And when the Municipal Director-General for Cinema was asked whether the prisoner transfer was carried out at the request of the Australian actor, he said, coincidentally, that the eviction of the prison and filming happening at the same time was a ‘complete coincidence’.
In early February 2010, Lalo had a day off so he went to a casting session for Mel Gibson’s film. He knew that they were looking for dark-skinned people with tattoos who’d been in prison. Lalo only met the first requirement, but he still got the gig. After queuing for five hours, they told him to come to the prison on the twenty-ninth of April at five in the afternoon and that he’d be paid four hundred pesos.
When he arrived, he learned that he was supposed to play a ‘civilian’. The extras also included ‘police officers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘prisoners’, and ‘reporters’. A friend of his, Eliseo, would play a prisoner: he’d ‘stayed’ at the Allende for a couple of weeks for stealing copper wire and the experience had secured him a role. Lalo recognized him among the extras waiting to head into the prison and went over. Eliseo confided his fears: “Hey man, I’m fucked up. I’ve been here before, I don’t want to go back… what if this time I don’t get out?”
Eliseo pointed to the extras he remembered from when it was a real prison: they were all young and skinny with scruffy hair and red eyes. Eliseo pointed to a kid covered in tattoos: “They call that dude the Devil. He’s not even twenty and he’s killed about five people. He must have been let out to work on the film. Mel wants everything to be as authentic as possible.” Lalo was terrified. He chatted to a fat woman dressed in a police uniform who turned out to be a real officer. She told him that a few hours ago she’d been recruited along with a few dozen colleagues. Her superiors had told them that they were being sent on a ‘special operation’. When they got off the bus, they found out that they were going to be extras in a Mel Gibson movie. Lalo looked around him. Giggling nervously, he realized that he couldn’t tell the officers from the ex-cons.
Filming began. The production team gathered everyone in the yard. The instructions were to act out a riot. They had to pretend it was an ‘ordinary visiting day’ and then throw themselves to the ground when they heard shots. They were doing that until three in the morning. Lalo’s stomach was red from rolling around on the cement floor. Then the film team split them up: some (Lalo included) were supposed to huddle together in the prison yard, the others were supposed to run into the surrounding passages. They were filmed from a helicopter. When the sky started to lighten, the crew began to take down the lights and sent everyone home.
They headed down Calle Zaragoza to Rayón and turned onto Independencia, the narrow avenue that runs in front of the cathedral and the municipal palace. There were two hundred of them, women mostly: old, chubby, their skin plump and shiny as dark fruit. They waved their scarves and shouted angrily for the restoration of government support – buses and food – so they could visit their relatives in the prisons to which they’d been relocated following the closure of Allende prison in January 2010. By May, the government programmes had been terminated: the ruling party candidate Javier Duarte’s campaign needed all the resources it could get.
More banners and slogans demanded greater empathy from the judiciary, who’d more or less suspended six hundred and fifty cases ‘until further notice’. Plenty accused Gibson of having swindled the government.
“Go fuck your mother, Mel,” screamed an old woman followed by a girl with green eyes in short shorts. “I was promised seven hundred pesos a day for me and my granddaughter, and so far they haven’t paid us half that,” she complained, red with anger and sunburn.
“How much did Mel pay for Allende?” someone said further back. “They say a million dollars…”
“No, it was much more than that, a lot…”
“Negro took it all for the elections…”
“No, no, Negro wouldn’t do that…”
“Don’t blame the government: it’s the judges and rehabilitation people who are the problem, you know?” chided a woman dressed entirely in red, from her fancy trainers to the tips of her hair.
“They say that after the transfer some people were never seen again, they escaped, or disappeared, like the guy who killed Yunes’ cousin,” murmured a young woman with long hair. “Some of the prisoners haven’t even been brought to trial, like that lady who stole a bike. She’s been locked up waiting for two years.”
“Poor thing,” they commiserated.
“At least I know that my guy deserves it…”
“The invention of the soul allows us to conceive of the body as a parasite. Hands can be objects that are devoid of feeling during the day but soft and tender at night. These actions do not contradict one another. They take part in the dual situation of not being me and nonetheless being mine.”
The phone rang, and when I answered it I heard a mumble and a stammer, then a cough. A few seconds later I heard a male voice: “You’ve most certainly forgotten, but you once promised to publish my book. We met in Baqa, Baqa al-Gharbiyye. You gave me your phone number and your email address. You haven’t changed it, but you’ve not been answering.”
He tried to refresh my memory about the conversation we had that evening in Baqa. As it turns out, it was an event that took place some ten years ago. “Are you in hiding?” he asked, “or has it still been possible to reach you?”
“No, it’s just that…”
“I do that too. I distance myself from people.”
He chuckled. “It’s a long story, and I promised myself I wouldn’t take up your time.”
“Email me the manuscript,” I said. “I promise, I’ll read it and write to you.”
“I would prefer to show it to you.”
His persistence annoyed me.
“I won’t take up much of your time.”
Based on his rich Hebrew vocabulary, it was clear to me that he was a man who had read many books in Hebrew, although his heavy Arabic accent smoothed it somewhat, and the language sounded affected at times. “OK,” I heard myself say.
It was August, and I was exhausted by the humidity. I never left the house and I did not feel like hosting, as I am fanatical about my freedom. What had come over me to make me acquiesce? I dialed his number with the intention of postponing the meeting but I hung up at the sound of the ringtone and grumbled to myself. I suspected that it was the fact that he was an Arab that had caused me to acquiesce. I stood by the window and peeked outside at Rothschild Boulevard. The street was packed and the sky had a reddish hue. The air-conditioner gurgled softly, producing sounds reminiscent of the large fan my father had installed behind the “cooling rack” he attached to the window in their small apartment on the kibbutz. Another person trying to fix the world… An hour passed, and the man did not turn up. I searched for stars in the sky which had grown dark, but I knew I would not find even one in the Tel Aviv sky. Then I heard a sort of scratching at the door. I went to open it. In the entrance stood a tall man wearing a white shirt, a yellow bow-tie, and black patent leather shoes. With his right hand, he grasped the handle of a blue trolley bag. “Doesn’t your door have a doorbell?” he asked.
“The button’s right here,” I said.
“Is it? I’m half-blind. It comes with the years. We don’t die all at once. We do it in installments.”
“Come on in,” I said. He walked in, pulling the trolley behind him, and he stopped in the middle of the room.
“Aren’t you hot? You’re dressed as if it’s not sweltering outside.”
“Hot? No. My father, may he rest in peace, used to say: ‘What people see is more than what they think. How you dress is your opportunity to be who you want them to think you are.”
He smiled, and I noticed that his two front teeth were broken. I gestured with my hand toward the sofa. “Please, have a seat. I’ll bring us something cold to drink.” He followed my movements. I could feel his eyes boring into my back. I almost turned to face him. What was I thinking when I invited him over? When I returned he was seated calmly on the sofa, his right hand grasping the trolley handle. I put the glass of cold water down on the table, and my gaze swept over his face. It was narrow and emanated fragility. For a moment he seemed to tense up inside himself, but then I saw him relax, lift the trolley and place it on his lap, open it, and remove a tall stack of pages that were tied together with twine. He placed the bundle on the coffee table. It was at least thirty centimeters high. Printed across the top page, in large letters, was the title: “Kaddish.”
“Wow.” The word escaped my lips. “How many years did it take you to write that book?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows? My grandfather started writing it, and then my father. I finished it, or at least it seems that way to me. You tell me.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“I don’t live anywhere.” He cleared his throat. “In our little village by the sea, where I come from, there were guys who ate in a different house every day. My father used to say, ‘They don’t want to forget their true home.’ I spend every night in a different house. I have a brother-in-law, my late sister’s husband, whose house I sleep at two nights a week. I have a friend, a fisherman, and I can sleep at his place when I need to. I once lived in Baqa, but the house was designated for demolition and then demolished. I rented a place, but when I got sick and was in the hospital they stole everything I had except the manuscript and the books. The fisherman is keeping them for me, and I keep the manuscript in the trolley. After everything that happened to my family in the village by the sea and to me, I don’t want to settle down permanently anywhere.”
“What did you do before they demolished your home?”
The man wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and smiled at me. “I did what you told me to do, during that conversation in Baqa – you told me to smuggle myself, to sneak about, to slip away. You said then that this was human nature, that people cannot do anything in a straight line. That one always needs to maneuver between the forces of evil and insanity.”
I smiled. I did not remember telling him anything of the sort. He looked at me and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them he said: “The moment a person acquires the power of some kind he becomes evil. Someone holding a knife – stabs. Someone holding a gun – shoots. And someone holding a pen writes laws that are always on the side of the thieves and the murderers. This applies to the entire human race, as well as to animals. Wolves devour sheep, lions devour zebras. I read what you wrote – that even when your father tried to fulfill dreams of justice and equality it turned into a nightmare. Dreams are only good when they remain in your head. If you want to fulfill them, it becomes a nightmare.” He took a sip of water from the glass. “It’s impossible to resume living normally after they demolish your home. And if you’re an Arab, you best learn how to speak about.”
Something inside me wanted him to leave. I stood up and opened the window. The air that flowed into the room carried the sounds of a piano as if trying to say: “Look, Iftach, I brought such and such, and such and such – that is, this and that type of jazz, and a good imitation of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me.’ Free yourself of this guy…he brings nothing but trouble!” But I immediately became suspicious of myself and asked: “How do you make a living?”
“I’m a smuggler,” he said. “My father was also a smuggler. After your War of Independence, the people who fled to the Gaza Strip wanted to move back to Israel. He would smuggle them. When the Egyptians came to the Strip to introduce order, they closed off our village. He smuggled us out. That’s how we got to Baqa. My grandmother was also a smuggler. During World War II my grandfather was drafted and she smuggled meat, tobacco, and other contraband.”
“What do you smuggle?” I asked.“I smuggle myself. I’m the only one left from my family. My sister got married and died of an illness. My older brother went to Jordan and was killed in Black September. I stayed in the house until they demolished it, and since then I’ve been smuggling myself.”
“So, the book is your family’s life story?”
“No, no. The book is about the war against ego. That is, war against the temptation of believing that you have the ability to change things. It was my grandfather who started the war. He would say Kaddish for the ego every morning and every night, in Hebrew, to make his life miserable. This book contains the history of all the wars against ego.”
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
The man slowly untied the knot on top of the bundle, pulled out the first page, and said: “This is the preface that my grandfather wrote. He was a fisherman, but he had books that he would copy out of: ‘God is a cosmic wolf, the tyrant of all tyrants, everything is his work: the hungry wolf, the frightened sheep, the struggle for existence, cancerous illnesses, heart attacks, insanity. He created all the evils that you know and can imagine. They say he also creates new angels every day. They ingratiate themselves with him and sing him songs of praise, and then when their ego sprouts and grows they are destroyed.’”
“So, your god is some kind of a heavenly wolf?”
He was silent. I walked over to him and picked up the stack of pages, read two of them, and said: “Leave it here. I’ll read it. Do you have a copy?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t plan on leaving you the book. I also didn’t intend on you publishing it. Who needs books in our day and age? Not even the authors themselves. All I wanted was to speak to you.”
“I know a few people who need to do that,” I said.
“No. It’s surrendering to the ego.”
He straightened up, retied the twine carefully around the stack of pages, and placed it back in the trolley that was on his lap. Then he stood up and made his way to the door, pulling the trolley behind him. I walked him to the hallway, and I told him again that I’d be happy to read the book. “Thank you very much,” he said. “But what can literature do? Nothing. Good night.”
I was in the process of completing some research on the progress of democratization in Tunisia under the threat of terrorism when a message notification popped up. The message read: “I would like to connect with you in a civilized way, yes civilized, like drinking coffee together, if you know what I mean. A cup of coffee with you would mean the world to me. Sugar cubes touched by you would turn my cup into the Sea of Marmara, which shimmers more brightly since you inscribed your name in its sands. If only you knew that you have the enchantment of the orient in you. O women of the sea of Carthage, the font has run dry and the company of friends has parted.”
I pulled my earpieces out and reread the message, which was dripping with desire. Calling upon what skills I had in Arabic, I returned to Shahrazad’s tales of oriental men, and also recalled my grandmother’s advice and all the ploys and schemes of women, to make my response commensurate with his words.
I tapped away at the keyboard and started composing my reply. But I held off. I had no great longing to drink a cup of coffee with him. Stories about Marmara seas did not tempt me, and I cared little for such romantic notions on the lines of Nizar Qabbani. My sights were set on the vineyard of his bronzed chest, which I would make a cozy bed for the approaching autumn nights that would coincide with his return from Turkey. I wanted a great deal from the lips topped with a light moustache. Yes, I wanted to exhale sighs of love over him. Using the mouse, I moved the cursor over his image to outline in my imagination the taste of his kisses.
I got up from my desk, made a mug of coffee, and with a sigh of relief lit a cigarette to take a break and to show that handsome man sitting at the other end of the Mediterranean some indifference. I knew that was a classic strategy for dealing with men, but I found it useful in cases like this one.
I finished the democracy and terrorism report and left the office for my small apartment. I opened the door, kicked out the neighbour’s stupid cat that, to my annoyance, came in whenever I was out and sat down to make a routine call to my mother, who had been living for a while in Gulf with my big sister. I gave her my daily newscast, full of lies, and which I began by telling her that I had cooked food at home and ended by telling her that I had become a serious woman of thirty-one no longer interested in one-night stands. That always reassured her, plus I said amen to her invocations for me. Then I turned on my computer and took a bite of the sandwich I had bought from the shop at the end of the street.
Messenger pinged. Another message from him: “I hope my words did not offend you. I’m dreaming of that cup of coffee with you.”
I cried out aloud, “Allah, Allah, a gift from God!” I reeled off my reply: “Not at all. I’m honoured to be of interest to a writer of your standing. I’m grateful for your good taste.”
He replied: “No my dear, you deserve better than that. The honour is all mine to engage in dialogue with a woman of your standing.”
I kept the dialogue going, a chorus line of nymphs urging me on. I was amazed by his refinement and his words that went no further than that cup of coffee, the articles he published in the cultural press, and his admiration for my research on democratization in Tunisia. His discourse slipped between the personal and the public, and I went along with everything he said and refrained from comment. I considered inviting him to turn on video so he could see me in my sheer white one-piece and I could pretend to be all coy with him. But he didn’t fall into that trap. He lived and breathed in the medium of language.
Despite his handsome looks, albeit tainted by a rampant look in his eyes, he did not seem very interested in women. I remembered that I had deliberately sat in the Mondial Café with a copy of a magazine that he had an article in, so that I could go and discuss what he had written on literature and revolution. I intended to make it seem that at the Democracy Institute, where I worked, we were aiming to support writers interested in literature and publish free thinking.
My trick worked on him, and he started explaining his creative project. He mentioned the reasons why he had published his recent books, but I don’t remember anything he said because at the time I was in a trance from the scent of his sensuous Parisian perfume. I barely managed to stop my left hand from playing with his soft white hair. I ended the encounter after taking down all his details, even his marital status, parentage, and hobbies. If time had not been so short – he had to leave for a meeting with the director of a publishers – I would have learned what his favourite food was and the size of his underwear.
Since that encounter, I began planning to make him fall for me. That was no easy matter, especially with a respectable man like him who loved reading books and listening to music, and didn’t like drinking alcohol. He didn’t go out to the capital’s bars with his writer and journalist colleagues, a fact that tired me out when I wanted to find out his news.
Nobody knew much about his personal life, but it was stressed that he was a respectable man. That usage of respectable did not make me too happy, because I know the standards of respectability for my society. It’s said with reference to a guy who’s no good at kissing girls and a man who’s never tasted the wine of this country.
He was the writer Mohammed Aziz, a man with an aristocratic heritage, refined, and elegant, and well known in cultural circles for his calm temperament and politeness, his love of reading books and refusal to join in drinking sessions, and his signing himself: A man exhausted by his Arabism. Although he was in his forties, Aziz had no little respect for those younger than him. He had been involved with a Palestinian poet. Then, after the last Gaza Intifada, they broke up. Since her, his heart had not skipped a beat for any woman.
My heart, on the other hand, was like a public housing project, expansive enough for all the men around, provided they were handsome and butch, irrespective of their nationality and affiliations. I was an internationalist when it came to passion. A defender of pluralism when it came to love as much as I defended it when it came to the Tunisian political scene.
The absence of his Palestinian girlfriend made him very sad and very supportive of her cause. We’ve forgotten about Palestine since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, possibly because we saw victory in our own sons: in Bouazizi we saw Muhammad Durra, Samir Kuntar, and all those heroes from the Arab east whom we loved. Despite that, Mohammed Aziz carried on wearing his kufiyah, ever faithful to Hanzala.
I wrote to him: “ ‘Because I love violently and expect to be loved violently back, today I am going to kill you with love.’ I dedicate Jaafar Majed’s poem The Enchantress to you.”
He replied with the speed of someone in wait for a woman’s yearning: “I fear the enchantment of Carthaginian sirens. Go easy on my heart, you naughty girl.”
I laughed, but wrote, with real yearning: “May God strengthen the heart present before me like the rhythm of prayers being chanted. Yours truly.”
I finished my literary phrases, inspired by someone’s blog post, shut down my computer, and slept. Yes, I slept and dreamed of a shameless prince charming, cynical even about my swooning and getting lost in his eyes.
I woke up a little worn out from my late night of chat and verbal hide-and-seek with Mohammed Aziz. I sat in the L’Univers Café to drink coffee and smoke a cigarette. I invited one of my nation’s miserable poets over to drink coffee and smoke a few cigarettes with me to elicit whatever information I could about Mohammed Aziz, who seemed to have got inside my head. I tried to speak about him and his excessive commitment to Arab causes, in spite of the terrible things happening in our own country. The poet gave a shrug and said, “You don’t know that Mohammed Aziz studied in Damascus and was a militant with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It’s rumoured that he was in the armed wing and had a relationship with a PFLP poet.”
I exhaled the cigarette smoke. Talk about resistance and militant female comrades was well known to me. All left-wing Tunisians who studied in Damascus or Beirut or Iraq would come back to us as heroes and authorities on leftist, Islamic, pan-Arab, nationalist, and even separatist thought. A few words in an eastern dialect and praise for the taste of arrack, made someone the centre of attention. Mohammed Aziz was one of that sort: Tunisians who had lived under eastern skies, those who claimed a lineage from the tribes of Adnan and Taghlib, and whose grandfathers were of Ottoman descent and whose mothers were from Saguia el-Hamra.
Having his eastern leanings confirmed inspired a certain patriotic feeling in me, along with a tinge of possessiveness towards the men of this country, whom on my blog I normally described in the vilest terms and mostly accused of being effete and lacking real manhood. But now I felt a burning sense of injustice when I saw Mohammed Aziz publishing love poems to the women of Syria and the women of Iraq, while overlooking the women of Carthage, Numidia, and the alleyways of the old city like me.
I spent the whole day thinking of strategies and techniques to make him fall for me. It had become an issue of national pride for me, almost chauvinist. I made a bet with myself: either I made him fall for me or I wasn’t the high priestess of the Majiri tribe.
I thought about waiting for his return the following week and tricking him by inviting him to a kofta place for some renowned Tunisian food with the taste of the alleyways of the old city. But the fire burning inside me since the day at the café did not allow me to make the arrangements for dinner. I had to rush to his Facebook page to find he had written what mattered to me: “I’m thinking how will I deal with the treasures of my beloved?”
I pressed the chat button and wrote without any Arabic allusions: “Kiss them and mourn in her arms. The heavens will be grateful for your effort.”
He answered in a flash: “I had no idea you had such a dangerous poetic sensibility.”
“Your presence is more dangerous, Mr Mohammed Aziz,” I replied.
“More dangerous for whom?”
“More dangerous for the women of this country. More dangerous for the women of Tunisia who weep when their prince charmings leave for the east. Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?”
He stopped chatting. Perhaps my last sentence was like a random bombardment of his soul. I had gone way too far to start brushing the dust off the memories of that Palestinian woman who still lingered in his almond-shaped eyes and attractive chest. God, please let me sleep in his arms in the cold winter of Tunisia. I slept with my computer on, so that I might wake to a love letter from him. But to my disappointment, he said nothing, but posted on Facebook things that crushed me: “When one of my female friends wrote to me, ‘Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?’ I understood why the poet Kamel Bouajila said ‘Tunisian women are beautiful in word and deed. They are Tunisia’s refuge when she yearns. God bless the daughters of the priestess.’”
Comments from his friends about his praise for the women of Tunisia multiplied in the dialects of Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. I devoured what was written and smiled. I put on the song, Barsha, Barsha, ya mudallal, 1 and danced until my body ran with sweat. I went into the bathroom to put a stop to the dancing with warm water. It was an invigorating day. I started it by giving an amorous smile to the director of the centre, whose name I can’t endure saying and whose hateful screwed-up face I can’t endure seeing when he asks me to produce a report or set up a workshop on the constitution and human rights. Workshops, seminars, and reports that I write to satisfy our followers and in line with the inclinations of funders. I write like waiters at a café: presenting what’s ordered.
The skills in flattery I had acquired through my work with civil society organizations made me a dab hand when it came to dealing with men, particularly those special cases like Mohammed Aziz. It was enough to lend an attentive ear and show plenty of interest for you to win his affection and trust. I suspect that the world is well aware that in our countries, we don’t want to listen but desire only to talk.
A week went by, during which Mohammed Aziz told me the date and time of his return to Tunisia and asked me to meet him at the Carthage Airport café, shortly after his arrival. I said yes. The generosity of my spirit correlates with the good looks of the man arriving, and our writer dripped machismo from the palms of his hands to the soles of his feet, which were dressed in a classic black shoe of Italian crafting.
I sat in the airport café and ordered a black coffee without sugar. I lit my second cigarette and suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder as a sign to turn round. Another hand, drenched in perfume, embraced me. He kissed my cheek and I pretended to be taken by surprise, leaping from my seat to hide how I had melted at his embrace. I started chatting and asking questions about his trip as a means to distract my bold tongue from inviting him back to my place.
He talked about his trip, the books he had bought in Turkey, and his Syrian comrade whom he had met in secret, away from Erdogan’s spies. He also mentioned Syrian women’s resistance to Daesh, and I thought, “God granted us a respite from Palestinian women, so he sets his sights on Syrians. Will I have to wait for a war to break out in Tunisia to make him satisfied? My God, what’s it about?”
We finished our coffees and he invited me for dinner at a Damascene restaurant that had recently opened in El Manar. I made my acceptance conditional on changing the restaurant for one in the old Medina of Tunis. I got what I wanted.
We met at the walls of the Medina to make our way to the restaurant which was lost in alleyways lit by dim streetlights. I took his left arm and started singing Tunisian melodies full of suggestion and flirtation. He commented on my voice, which he liked, and I continued singing while giving explanations of the lyrics, none of which he understood.
We arrived at the restaurant and he expressed his approval of the place. Then he expatiated in praise of my extensive knowledge of Tunisian women’s songs, as if he were discovering them like a tourist exploring a foreign country. I steered the conversation towards the history of resistance on the part of Tunisian women, the stories of el-falaqa 2, Mount Bargou 3, Kheil Salim 4, and the sabayhia 5, and accounts of women who took up arms. He commented by referring to the Free Officers revolution and Ahmed Orabi. He certainly knew the history of Gamal Abdel Nasser in detail, while quite lacking knowledge of el-Daghbaji 6. He couldn’t even understand a rural Tunisian accent, and I had to explain to him the meaning of poems and names, even the name of my tribe with its ancient Amazigh roots, as old as the oleanders and the flow of the Medjerda River.
“You’re drowning in being Tunisian.”
“No, you’re the orientalist who lost his bearings and became so enmeshed in the east that you don’t even understand our Tunisian dialect, let alone my mountain tongue.”
My answer didn’t go down well and the tenor of his conversation changed. I, however, redirected the conversation when I spotted Hamouda el-Naknouk 7, the Tunisian guitarist, sitting behind Mohammed Aziz. Even though I hated him because he acted like a prostitute, I was obliged to mention his name to stop the atmosphere from becoming any more fraught. “Aziz, have you seen who’s sitting behind you? It’s Hamouda. He’s just re-recorded My Heart is Set on an Arab Little Girl.
A spectrum of happiness danced in his eyes and he got up to say hello to the effete Hamouda, leaving me alone at the table. Hamouda leaped from his seat straight into Mohammed Aziz’s arms and showered him with kisses. He rested his head on my prince charming’s shoulder to inhale his perfume. Then I saw him invite him to join him and his friends. At that point, Mohammed Aziz gave me a sign to join them. I grabbed my bag and headed over before the anger rose in me.
“I’m sorry, I’m feeling tired and would like to go home.”
Mohammed Aziz replied, “No worries. I’ll take you back home with Hamouda.”
“Are you intending to continue your evening with him?” I retorted.
No one answered me, and I don’t think my oriental prince charming heard the question in the first place. I left the restaurant and walked defeated behind Hamouda el-Naknouk, who had tucked Mohammed Aziz’s arm under his.
In Mladá Boleslav there lived a stationer called Petiška. He was a man who respected the law and had lived, for longer than anyone could remember, across the road from the barracks. On the Emperor’s birthday and other Imperial and Royal occasions, he would hang out a black-and-gold banner from his house and provide Chinese lanterns for the Officers’ Club. He sold pictures of Franz Joseph to gin shops in the Mladá Boleslav area and to the police station. He would have supplied portraits of Our Ruler to the schools under the administration of the local education authority as well, but the dimensions of his pictures did not conform to the specifications approved by the Regional Schools Council. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Petiška,’ the Imperial and Royal Regional School Inspector said to him once when they met in the Sheriff’s Office, ‘but you’re trying to give us a longer and wider Emperor than the one prescribed in the Regional Schools Council Instructions of 20th October 1891. The Emperor as defined in the Instructions is somewhat shorter. Only Emperor is 50 cm high and 36 cm wide are permitted. Your Emperor is 50 cm high and 40 cm wide. You reply that you have two thousand pictures of our Monarch in stock. Don’t imagine that you’re going to fob off any old rubbish onto us. Your emperor is shoddy goods through and through. And the way they’ve got him up is a scandal. He looks as if his whiskers have never been combed, there’s an enormous splash of red on his nose and on top of it all, he’s got a squint.’
When Mr Petiška got home, he said irritably to his wife: ‘That old Emperor of ours has landed us in a pretty pickle!’ And this was before the war had started. Mr Petiška had been lumbered, in short, with two thousand portraits of the Emperor. When war did break out, Mr Petiška was overjoyed and full of high hopes of shifting that merchandise of his. He displayed pictures of the bloodthirsty old codger in his shop under the inscription: ‘A good buy! The Emperor Franz Joseph for 15 crowns!’ He sold six: five to the barracks, where these lithographed portraits of the Last of the Habsburgs were hung up in the canteens to whip up the fervour of the reservists, and one which was bought by old Šimr, the tobacconist. This Austrian patriot beat him down to 12 crowns and still complained in heartfelt tones that it was daylight robbery.
He took out advertisments and offered the Emperor for sale in National Politics and Voice of the People: ‘In these difficult days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our sorely tried Monarch, at 15 crowns.’ He didn’t get any orders, but he did get a summons to present himself at the District Seriff’s Office, where he was informed that in future, he had better avoid expressions like ‘difficult days’ and ‘sorely tried’. Instead, he should use: ‘glorious days’ and ‘victorious’. Otherwise, he would find himself involved in complications. So he issued the following advertisement: ‘In these glorious days, no Czech home should be without its portrait of our victorious Monarch, at 15 crowns’. But that didn’t work either.
All he received was a number of obscene communications, in which his anonymous correspondents advised him with total frankness to put his portraits of the Emperor where the monkey keeps its nuts, and yet another invitation to the Sheriff’s Office, where the Duty Commissar told him that he must follow the guide-lines issued by the Imperial and Royal Correspondence Office in the wording of his advertisements. ‘The Russians are in Hungry, they’ve captured Lvov and got as far as Přemyšl. You don’t talk about “glorious days” in the face of all that, Mr Petiška. It sounds as if you are amusing yourself, indulging in sarcasm and irony. With adverts like that, you could end up in the Castle, in front of a Court Martial.’
Mr Petiška promised that he would be careful and composed the following advertisement: ‘Every Czech would be glad to sacrifice 15 crowns for the opportunity to hang our aged Monarch in his home.’ The local journals refused to take the advertisement. ‘Good God, man,’ said one Managing Editor to him, ‘do you want to get us all shot?’
Mr Petiška went home very upset. At the back of his shop the parcels containing his stock of Emperor’s portraits were lying about all over the place. Mr Petiška dipped into one and was horrified by what he found. He looked round anxiously and was relieved to discover that no one had seen him. He began gloomily to brush the dust off the parcel and found that some were damp and mouldy. His black tomcat was sitting behind the parcels. There could be no shadow of doubt as to who was responsible for their moist condition. In an attempt to divert suspicion from itself, the cat began to purr. Mr Petiška threw a broom at the treasonous animal, and it fell silent. In a rage the stationer stormed into the living quarters and growled at his wife: ‘That bloody animal has got to go! Who’s going to buy an Emperor that’s been pee’d on by a cat? The Emperor’s mouldy. He’ll have to be dried out, God dammit!’
Mr Petiška’s afternoon nap, which he took while his wife was looking after the shop, was very disturbed. He imagined that the police had come for the black tomcat and that he, too, was being taken along with it before a Court Martial. Then it seemed as if he and the cat had been sentenced to death by hanging and that the cat was the first to go. And he, Petiška, was blaspheming at the Court in terrible language. He gave a fearsome shout – and saw his wife standing beside him. ‘Heavens above!’ she said to him reproachfully. ‘The language you’re using! If someone were to hear you like this!’
She reported in an agitated voice that she had in the meantime tried to dry the Emperor in the garden, but that some stone-throwing hooligans had used him for target-practice ‘and now he looks like a sieve.’
Other losses were registered as well. The hens had come and sat on one picture of the Emperor, which was drying on the grass, while they were going through their digestive processes and in the condition they were in, had turned his whiskers green. The young Saint Bernard belonging to Holeček, the butcher, which was a naïve young thing and had no knowledge of Paragraph 63 of the Criminal Code, had attempted to eat two pictures. That pup had it in its blood, though. Its mother had been destroyed by the knacker a year ago for eating the banner of the 36th Regiment on the parade ground.
Mr Petiška was not a happy man. In the wine-cellar that evening, he said something about the Emperor. The burden of his speech was that the authorities in Vienna looked on the Czechs with distrust because they weren’t buying portraits of the Monarch, at 15 crowns a time, from the firm of František Petiška in Mladá Boleslav.
‘Bring the price down,’ said the landlord, when it was closing time. ‘These are hard times. Horejsek is selling his steam-thresher for 300 crowns less than he gave for it last year and the Emperor’s in the same boat.’
And so Mr Petiška wrote out the following announcement and put it in the display-case in his shop window: ‘In view of the economic crisis, I am offering a large number of beautiful portraits of the Emperor, normally priced at 15 crowns, for 10 crowns each.’
And once more all was quiet in the shop. ‘How’s the Emperor going?’ asked our friend the owner of the wine-cellar. ‘Poorly,’ replied Mr Petiška. ‘There’s no demand for the Emperor.’
‘If I were you, you know,’ said the landlord of the wine-cellar in a confidential tone, ‘I’d try to get rid of him at any price, before it’s too late.’
‘I’ll wait a bit longer,’ said Mr Petiška.
And so the ill-disciplined black tomcat continued to sprawl all over the portraits of the Emperor. After eighteen months, the mould had even reached the Emperors at the bottom of the pile. The Austrians were on the way out and Austria as a whole was like something the cat had brought in.
And then Mr Petiška took paper and pencil and worked out with a heavy heart that he wasn’t going to get rich this way and that if he sold the Emperor for two crowns he’d still make a crown on each portrait.
And he devised some effective publicity. He put a portrait in the display case and wrote underneath: ‘This ancient Monarch reduced from 15 to 2 crowns.’
All Mladá Boleslav came that same day to Mr Petiška’s shop, to see how shares in the Habsburg dynasty had suddenly fallen through the floor.
And that night the police came for Mr Petiška, and after that things moved swiftly. They shut down the shop and they arrested Mr Petiška and brought him before a Court Martial for committing an offence against public peace and order. The Ex-Servicemen’s Society expelled him at an Extraordinary Plenary Session.
Mr Petiška got thirteen months of hard labour. He should really have got five years, but it was argued in mitigation that he had once fought for Austria at the Battle of Custozza. And the parcels of portraits of the Emperor have been impounded in the meanwhile in the military depository in Terezína, awaiting the hour of liberation when, on the liquidation of Austria, some enterprising tradesman will wrap his cheeses in them.
Gentlemen, my name is Jamal Ahmad. I work as a signals private in Forward Reconnaissance Unit 312, engaging the American enemy in the south.
I confess in your presence, and I am of sound mind, that I killed Salim Hussein, signals corporal in our unit. I pulled out my revolver and shot him in the head, because he was quite simply a traitor, and the penalty for treason is death.
I do not deny it, and I am prepared to defend my action regardless of the punishment you impose.
I sentenced him to death and I carried out the sentence myself, with my own weapon. That was because as I went into the signals room I caught him speaking to an American intelligence officer. It was at noon on Monday, and I could not bear listening to him spouting abuse and filth. I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning army revolver. I fired three shots at him. I aimed right at his body so that one bullet lodged in his forehead and one in his heart, and I fired one at his balls.
I wanted to emasculate him because a traitor is not a man, and therefore has no right to die a man. These are the ethical values of we Arabs. Honour and the land above all. Whoever betrays honour has to die without balls, and whoever betrays the land has to die without a grave.
Gentlemen, I did him no wrong by this action, none. I went through an agony of reflection before I proceeded to kill him. I lost the ability to sleep, and for two months I didn’t sleep a wink. I even held a trial in my head. In my imagination I even gave him a lawyer. But in the end, I reached the conclusion that he was a traitor, and there is no escaping the fact that the penalty for treason is death.
I bid you, Gentlemen, not to imagine that the treason of the signals corporal in our unit is an enigma. I came upon him on Tuesday evening, and found him communicating with the Americans and giving them the coordinates of many military positions. I heard him with my own two ears, which will be eaten by worms after I die. I saw him with my own two eyes as he was committing an act of treason in front of me, without batting an eyelid about what he was doing.
He is quite simply a spy, and when I confronted him about it he confessed that he was a spy working for the Americans. But he felt remorse for what he had done or was afraid of being denounced. He asked me to shoot him once in the head. It would be a bullet of mercy, so I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning revolver and fired one shot. He fell to the ground.
Yes, one shot to the head was enough to kill him, and I don’t know about the other two shots. There was no need for more shots to kill the traitor, for the only punishment for a traitor is death as you know. I don’t suppose anyone in the whole world would dispute that.
Gentlemen, honour is our most precious asset. As you know, I am an honourable and courageous soldier, and so my military honour could not abide me coming across a traitor and a spy for the Americans in our unit and my not carrying out the sentence of death. There is no enigma about it at all, as I have explained to you. I came across him in the signals room and saw him laughing and speaking English with an American officer. I confronted him with the matter. He denied it however. He said he was talking to a certain corporal Adil in the Construction Unit who, like him, was practising speaking English. I knew that he wanted to deceive me. At that moment, Gentlemen, I did not have my revolver with me. But I looked to the right of the radio and noticed on the chair his 9 mm calibre Browning revolver. He sensed the danger and as he reached to get hold of it I pounced on it and snatched it from his grasp. I took two steps back. He stood there speechless, and I fired two shots straight at him, one at his heart, and the other to his balls, because a traitor is not a man.
I don’t know anything about the bullet that hit him in the head.
At that moment Signals Private Wahid came in. He came in immediately after hearing the shot that had been fired and saw the traitor spread out on the ground and me with the revolver in my hand. He was an eye-witness any way, and I suppose he told you that he entered the place after hearing the shot and found the corporal dead.
But what he said afterwards is not correct. I was not in the room at the initial moment. I was passing by in the corridor that led to the officer’s room and I passed the signals room by chance and heard Corporal Wahid asking me to come in. When I went in I found him shaking and in tears. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he had betrayed his military unit and had sullied his military honour. He had, in exchange for a sum of money, given the Americans the coordinates to enable American planes to bomb Iraqi forces. He was full of remorse for this and had decided to kill himself. I handed him my military revolver, and he took it from me with assurance. He stood in front of me, placed the revolver to his temple and fired one shot. He fell to the ground, the revolver in his hand. Then Signals Private Wahid came in. He had been smoking outside the signals room and found me standing there unarmed. The signals corporal had fallen to the ground, the revolver in his hand.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is an ignorant fellow. He can neither read nor write. He is a peasant from the south who knows no English and does not know whether the signals corporal was speaking with the Americans or with one of his friends in the Construction Unit. But this issue does not fool me at all. I was standing near the signals room and heard strange sounds and an argument going on inside between Signals Corporal Salim and Private Wahid. The signals corporal was receiving telegrams from an unknown source, probably the Americans. In the course of the argument a shot was fired from Private Wahid’s revolver that hit the signals corporal in his balls. Private Wahid accused the signals corporal of having relations with his wife when he had sent her via him a sum of money two months earlier. The traitor had taken advantage of this and had had relations with Private Wahid’s wife, as Private Wahid himself confirmed.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is lying when he says that the signals corporal was not speaking with the Americans. He said that he was on duty; that he was speaking with a soldier he knew in the Construction Brigade; that Corporal Wahid was asleep; and that it was me who went in and woke him up and accused him of having had relations with my wife when I asked him to take my salary to her when he was on regular leave.
It’s not like that. First of all, she isn’t my wife but Private Wahid’s wife, the man who accused him of treason. But afterwards I discovered that he had been talking with the Americans in English, and so, Gentlemen, I have not broken the law, but enforced it. The penalty for treason is death. When I caught him betraying Private Wahid and spying for the Americans, he stammered to begin with, then firmly denied it. He thought that I might let him get away with it. I said to him, “I’m not getting my own back on you, but there will be someone who does enforce the law against you.” I handed over my revolver to Private Wahid, and said to him, “Avenge your honour; this is the man who sullied your honour.”
As soon as Corporal Salim turned round, Private Wahid surprised him with a bullet to his heart. I took the revolver from Wahid and fired two shots, one at his balls so he would die without his manhood, and the other at his temple to kill him off.
The traitor, Gentlemen, deserved to die without mercy. These are our laws. He was not a human being, but a louse that had to be crushed!
Gentlemen, I am an honourable soldier. There is not a speck of dust on my honour. I have done nothing in my life out of order. It is now autumn, and this is the second year of my military service, and I don’t know why you have sent for me.
I don’t have any money and I don’t have any hopes. I never made contact with the Americans. Everything they have said about me is a fabrication to embarrass me in public, a character assassination. I did not kill Signals Corporal Salim because of a woman. The woman is my wife and not the wife of Private Wahid. He was not there and I don’t know who brought him as a witness. He did not see a thing. I have been living an insult for a long time, Gentlemen. My wife betrayed me and sullied my honour while I was here defending the honour of the fatherland. She deserved to die.
As for the signals corporal, I don’t know who killed him. Perhaps Private Wahid because one of those two was committing treason and spying for the Americans.
Much has happened to me whose meaning or causes I do not understand. The signals corporal tormented me for ages. He told me that to be a soldier in signals you had to have a voice that did not jar. You had to open your mouth and breathe out from your lungs as if you were singing. It was not necessary to speak but you had to know what you were saying.
Gentlemen, he threatened me because I was not proficient in my work. He said he would kill me and dance on my rotten corpse. He used to shout at me whenever I made a mistake in relaying messages among the officers. He spat at me. He kicked me in the stomach.
I am a humble private, Gentlemen. I haven’t slept for two months, since the beginning of the American invasion to this day. Everyone has ganged up against me: Time, Fate, the Americans, the signals corporal and my wife.
“Well then tell her that she intends to get out of here, mister,” the Israeli policeman called out. He was standing, arms folded, at one entrance to Mandelbaum Gate when I explained to him that we had come with my mother who intended to go through after being allowed to pass. I pointed over the Jordanian side of the gate.
That was at the end of the winter. The sun was hinting at spring. The dust between the mounds of rubble was covered in green. Rubble heaps to the right, mounds of rubble to the left. Children with pe’ot (side curls) playing amidst the piles and the green stirred a sense of wonder in our children’s hearts. Our kids had come with us in order to say goodbye to their grandmother. “Children and hair braids – how on earth?!”
In the heart of that old neighborhood we always called “Musrara”, there was an expanse of dusty asphalt which formed a wide courtyard. It was marked off by two doorways: the “here” door and the “there” door. These gates were made of stones from ruins and flattened tin, and were whitewashed by plaster. Each was wide enough to ensure proper passage for the “exiting” or the “entering” car.
Stressing the word “exit”, the guard said, as if he wanted to teach me a lesson; “What’s important is leaving the Garden of Eden, not getting in over “there”.” The customs officer did not want us to miss the lesson either. When everyone was kissing mother goodbye, he said: “Whoever exits from here never comes back”.
And I think that such unsettling thoughts also plagued mother during her last days with us. When our close friends and family members gathered the night before the trip to Jerusalem she said, “I lived in order to see my mourners (those who would eulogize me) with my own eyes.” And in the morning when we slid down the sloped alley to the car, she turned her gaze behind and gestured toward the olive and apricot trees at the door of her house, musing, “Twenty years I’ve lived here, and who can count the number of times I’ve gone up and down this alley!”
And when the car passed by the cemetery on the outskirts of town she turned to her deceased dear ones and let out, like an inner whisper, “Why isn’t it my fortune to be buried here? And who will place flowers on my granddaughter’s grave?”
In 1940, when she had gone up to Jerusalem, a fortune teller had told her that it would be her fate to die in the holy city. Would his prophecy come true in the end?
She was seventy-five back then and had not yet experienced this feeling of terror that was taking over her heart and injecting utter emptiness into her soul; a feeling like the pangs of a suffering conscience – missing one’s homeland. And if one were to ask her, for example, to explain the meaning of the word “homeland”, she would undoubtedly become confused just as she did that time she first came across the word in her prayer book and didn’t know whether to say it meant house, or at a minimum, laundry tub. Or perhaps it meant the piece of land – the Kuba crater – that had come down to her from mother (her friends laughed at her when she wanted to take the laundry tub with her but she did not even dare to think of the Kuba crater). Or maybe “homeland” was the cries of the milkman that came with the dawn, or the din-don of the oil vendor’s bell, or her sick husband’s coughing voice, or nights like the nights when her children were home – those who had gone with their families and abandoned her doorstep, leaving her alone.
Of all places, this lintel was her house’s doorstep, the one on which her last gaze rested, and the one that was privy and could attest to the countless times she stood on it, day in, day out – to see her children off, having gladdened their hearts, or to sing them a song; a tender, mother’s song, with tears in her eyes:
Dark-feathered chick, your expression grew
Into that of a bird; to sing and to nest were your teachings
Now you have grown, your wings have lifted your feathers,
You have flown, and I troubled over you for nought.
Even if she were told that “homeland” was each and every one of these things all together, the term’s riddle would not have been solved. But now, when her legs are stepping over to the “no-man’s land” and she is expecting them to let her move and step forward – now she turns to her daughter and says, “How my soul yearned to sit and rest, if only one more time, on that lintel!” Her elderly brother, who had troubled himself to come from the village to part from her, gave an instant nod, his face pained and puzzled. For indeed, this was the mysterious thing which caused him to mourn and his sister to suffer; that which she could not uproot from the ground and take with her – this thing that was most dear to his heart as well. A neighbor of ours said to him: “When all’s said and done you’ll be forced to sign on to their vendor’s contract. The law’s on their side!”
But the old man turned to me and said: “Listen, my dear, one day my father, my younger brother, and I were watching over the field. Suddenly a flock of thrushes engulfed the field. My little brother took a hunting rifle in his hands, to show that he was a real man. A loud laugh burst from my father (you remember how your grandfather laughed, my dear?). When he saw the son of his old age thus, he called out, “Hunting thrushes is a man’s job, my boy!”
But the little one was immensely stubborn. He held on to the rifle without relaxing a muscle. Sometime later he came back with a live thrush in the palm of his hand. The wonder of wonders! We were dumbfounded. And he, the little wild thing, was jumping with excitement. He was so proud of this chance to hunt that had come his way. “But we didn’t hear the gun shot!” my father called out, to which the little hunter replied, “I put a spell on the rifle, Dad!” And my father and my father’s fathers made me swear never to tell his secret – which was: he saw the thrush in danger when it was caught between the teeth of a big cat. Without a second thought, the boy bolted after the cat amid the boulders and the corn stalks, until he caught it and rescued the feathered thing from the predatory jaws.. .voila! And they expect me to sign on to a contract to sell (out) these memories? They have no power in their laws to do such a thing – none!
My advice to you is not to come to Mandelbaum Gate with your children. And it’s not because the ruined houses fascinate or entice them to cast about inside for a magic lamp or adventures like Aladdin’s. In fact, it’s not even because of the Hasidim’s waving sidecurls (pe’ot) that cause children to ask intriguing questions. They shouldn’t come with you because the road that leads to Mandelbaum Gate does not stop at it, even for a fleeting second, for those entering “there” or exiting “here”. There are American luxury cars whose passengers are healthy and dressed up, either with a blaze of color around their necks or in their army uniforms.
There are the cars of the “cease-fire people”, and of groups of U.N. inspectors. The rest of the passengers are ambassadors and representatives of Western states, with their presidents and their presidents’ cooks, their drinks, and their beautiful women. They do stop briefly by “our gate” so their drivers can exchange greetings with “our” guard — as cultured people do. And after passing through the no-man’s land, they stop briefly by “their gate” and exchange greetings with “their policemen” too, such that in this space of good manners and culture there is a back-and-forth Israeli-Jordanian competition.
The “he who goes from here” death sentence does not fall on these travelers; nor do they come under the Garden of Eden law of “he who enters does not leave.” For this way the honored observer can take lunch at the “Philadelphia” hotel over there, and dinner at the “Eden” hotel on this side, while his smile never skips off his face.
When my sister turned to the soldier – to the one who stands by “our gate,” to ask his permission to accompany mother to the Jordanian gate, he replied: “It’s forbidden Ma’am.” But I see those foreigners entering and leaving as if this were their home!” “Everyone is allowed to pass through these gates except Jews and Arabs. Except for the natives, my good lady.” He then said, “I must ask you to move out of the street. This is a main road bustling with traffic -.” He broke off in mid-sentence to joke with the passengers of a car pulling up (was it an “exiting” or an “entering” car?)
But we didn’t see what was funny here.
“Everything comes to an end, even in a time of parting!” said the customs official. An old woman leaning on a stick set out from “our gate” in the direction of “their gate.” She slowly crossed the “no-man’s land,” turning her head back from minute to minute, waving her hand and advancing further. And why should it be precisely now that her conscience knocks at her?
A soldier in a kaffiya and band burst out from among the ruins on the opposite side. He approached the old woman who was entering and stopped to snatch a bit of conversation with her. The two of them looked over to our side. We stood here with the children waving our hands. A soldier who looked deprived because of his exposed head stood in front of us and talked with us as well. He repeated that it was forbidden to go one step further.
Why did he say, “It’s as if she’s crossed the Valley of Death from which we don’t come back. That’s the reality of war; borders and Mandelbaum Gate. I must ask you to move over to the other side of the U.N. car”?
And suddenly a small body, squirming with life sprang out — leaped like a ball thrust into the air by a soccer game kick, streaking conspicuously towards the rival team’s goal post. The body leaped out and started to run ahead of us, cutting across the “no man’s land.” With a shock we realized that this was none other than my little daughter running after her grandmother, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” Look – the “no-man’s land” is already behind her and she’s reaching Grandmother..and Grandma is lifting her up in her arms.
From afar we saw how the soldier in the kaffiya was looking at the ground. My eyes were moist and I can attest that the soldier stood there pecking at the ground with his foot. And as for the soldier who stood with us, he also lowered his head and started scuffing the ground. The guard who was standing by the office doing nothing faded back and went inside. The customs official started looking for something in his pocket which he had apparently lost all of a sudden…
A great miracle happened here. A little girl cut across the Valley of Death from which none return. And see, in spite of everything she does come back to us crowned with triumph over the present reality of war, borders, and Mandelbaum Gate.
A girl ignorant of all of this, who doesn’t understand the real difference between the soldier in the kaffiya, and this one here with no head covering. A small, innocent girl! And because in those days there were no open hostilities towards the remote lands, how could the silly little one not think, as she was accustomed to, that she was still in her country? Here she saw her father stand on one side and her grandmother on the other. Here were cars galloping back and forth across the “no-man’s land” just like they did by her house. Here people speak Hebrew, there they speak Arabic. And therefore she speaks in the two languages, in the one with her great-grandson and in the other with his horse. The customs official despaired, it seemed, of finding the thing he had lost (there is an end to everything, even to embarrassment), for he suddenly stopped the exhausting search, moved in his place, and said to the soldier as if to comfort him: “an innocent child.” “I must ask you, good people, to move away from the street lest one of your children fall between the wheels of the stampeding cars.”
And he moved back first.
Do you understand, therefore, why I advised you not to come to Mandelbaum Gate accompanied by your children? Their logic is so simple and uncomplicated, but so healthy!
*Translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh, 1955
**Reprinted in Iton 77 No. 196, May 1996. 18-19
***Translated from Hebrew into English by Stacy N. Beckwith, August 1999