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
As I was sitting in a taxi stuck in a queue of cars at the Atara Israeli army checkpoint, heading to Nablus to meet a beautiful widow I’d got to know on Facebook, it struck me that the timing of my trip to Nablus that day was unfortunate – there had been a martyrdom operation at the Atara checkpoint and some settlers had been killed.
There were extra checkpoints on the roads and the settlers were fuming. But being impetuous and impatient by nature, I still longed to meet the widow who had written that she wanted to tell me her life story so that I could turn it into a novel. She wanted to spare me the trouble of imagining surreal scenes, because her life was one long surrealist episode. “You just write it down,” she said. “The crazy events are already there. All they need from you is a little reworking and structure, and a bit of polish here and there.”
I was eager to meet her. Not to hear her stories, as it might have seemed from my reply to her: “Every month, I get dozens of messages from women I don’t know, who write telling me about their lives that would make perfect material for a novel,” but at the prospect of having her. Such deceptive backstories were often an avenue to wild sex.
The taxi inched forward. Over the shoulders of the passengers in front of me I could see Israeli soldiers slapping some young guys. I checked my wallet to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my ID card.
I trembled in shame and fear in front of the soldiers when they asked me to lift up my shirt so they could make sure I didn’t have explosives strapped around my waist. I politely refused. They asked to drop my trousers a little below the waist. I was so appalled, I almost fell over. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey soldier, I am a Palestinian man who writes short stories.”
The soldier gazed at my face: “But I don’t like short stories, I like long ones. It’s not your lucky day.”
The situation was excruciating. Behind me were hundreds of vehicles with their drivers and passengers, all staring at what was happening up ahead. I could practically hear them saying the same thing, “Disgraceful!”
A soldier, who didn’t like short stories, holding a truncheon, boredom already in his eyes and who thought he knew it all, was in my face. He asked me again to drop my trousers, to be extra certain of my innocence. At that point, I nearly fell over in terror. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey solider, have you read the book The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God by Etgar Keret?”
“What did you say? Etgar Keret? Have you really read Etgar Keret? Ooh, you like him then. That’s good enough. Off you go! Go on!”
That’s how I got away thanks to Etgar Keret, the famous Israeli writer, some of whose stories I had read in Arabic translation. I decided to use the same ploy at every Israeli army checkpoint to escape being humiliated by the soldiers. The taxi continued slowly on its way behind hundreds of other cars until Uyun al-Haramiya checkpoint where I took out my ID in readiness for further humiliation.
The solider was very tall and very blond. He looked to be in his thirties. In his blue eyes I could see he had read dozens of stories by Etgar Keret. I could hear voices telling me he had been influenced and astonished by Keret’s fictional world.
“Where are you going?”
“Who exactly are you going to see?”
“I’m going to see a beautiful widow.”
“What are you going to talk about?”
“About our lives, about literature, and maybe about sex.”
“We’re going to discuss the stories of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.”
Having said that, I expected to be let go or his face to show skepticism, but he carried on with his high-handed questions about my trip to Nablus. It dawned on me that Etgar Keret wasn’t going to save me this time. The soldier told me to go back to the cars and tell the drivers to turn off their engines.
That was the height of contempt for a short story writer who preferred death rather than carry out such an order. My blood started to boil.
“Hey soldier, I can’t carry out your order. I’m a short story writer, and short story writers don’t carry out soldiers’ orders.”
Blows and kicks rained down. From down below and up above, dozens of soldiers’ feet and fists pounded my face, my back and my stomach with kicks and punches… I came to in the arms of Palestinian passengers who picked me up and took me to a car whose driver had volunteered to take me to the nearest hospital.
At the entrance to Ramallah Hospital, occupation soldiers were setting up a checkpoint to search people going in and out. They pointed their guns at my head, which was bleeding.
“Where are you going?”
“To get treatment.”
“Who hit you?”
“Haters of the short story who haven’t read Etgar Keret.”
“Etgar Keret? Ooh, we like that writer. But how come you know him?”
“That’s a long story! Let me go in so they can stop my head bleeding.”
Inside the hospital in another bed near mine, lay a beautiful woman. She too had cuts to her head.
“Where are you from, Madam, and how did you get those cuts to your head?”
“The soldiers at the Atara checkpoint split my head open because I refused an intrusive search, one demeaning to a widow going to meet a famous writer who volunteered to turn her fascinating life story into a surrealist novel.”
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?