They say that no one perceives himself as a villain. They say that even angels of destruction are heroes in their own stories. They say that the days of characters who long to act evilly out of the abstruse love of darkness are long gone. They say that our epoch, as reflected in its creations, is enchanted by complete, deceptive portraits of monsters. They say that the danger lurking in this enchantment is a simplification of a different kind. They say that the various solutions offered for the analysis of the tortured souls, which have been banished into external social darkness, replicate in turn superficial patterns of thought. They say that literature implies a movement beyond simplification, challenging it, disrupting it. All these claims carry significant weight. But how are they translated into literature? In 2011, Lavie Tidhar published “Osama”, a novel depicting a world untarnished by global terror, a world in which the infamous terror attacks of the past twenty years never actually took place but were merely an event in a book of pulp fiction, whose hero is Osama Bin Laden, the avenger. Jo, a private detective, is hired to follow Mike Longshot and discover the true identity of the writer of the pulp fiction series. This depiction is one way of answering the question – creating a gap between the story that is told and its representation, suspending it, employing a wonderful dislocation. There is another strategy at play in “The Last Osama”, which involves putting the attraction/repulsion dynamic to the test, and further exploring the gap between representation and the story. Tidhar presents a fast-paced, thrilling adventure that tells the story of involuntary identification with someone considered to be the sworn enemy of the 21st century. While at the same time, Tidhar examines the sources of his own enchantment within his biography, his creative life. The complex relationship between both levels of fictionality is expressed in vivid prose and takes on issues such as the relativity of violence in our time and thought control, in a highly original manner. All of which gives rise to one of the most sophisticated, powerful and expressive political stories I have recently encountered.
I was riding through the lowlands, the horse’s hooves scattering dry dust into the air. An inflamed red sun hovered on the horizon like a damaged eye, leaking tears of yellow and blue and tendrils of puss-like white clouds. A group of men in the distance were hanging Osama. I stopped my horse on the crest of the hill and looked down. They were too busy, drunk with power and excitement, to notice me. That was a mistake. There were around seven of them. They were dressed in torn green clothes, like uniforms. The Osama was between them. They had formed a circle around it. One of them had a rope. He threw the rope over a branch. There was a tree there, it was the only tree for miles. The second time they threw the rope it caught. The Osama was struggling against them – a young specimen, shiny black beard, strength in those wiry arms. They held him down, eventually. Got the noose around his neck. They were too busy to look up, and anyway the sun was setting. I couldn’t hear them, I was too far. I wondered what they were saying, and what language they spoke. They were ill-kempt, their beards grew wild. I imagined the stench of their unshaved bodies. I readied myself. They strung the Osama up and pulled – I had it in my sight. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, focusing, my finger tightening on the trigger until, with a soft exhalation, I pressed it. The gun fired. The sound of the gunshot was loud in my ears. It travelled fast, but not faster than the bullet. It hit the rope and cut it. The Osama fell down to the ground. I needed it alive. The men reacted almost comically. They looked around them with bewildered expressions of surprise. I got back on the horse and cantered towards them, the gun at an angle. I didn’t hurry. I didn’t need to. They saw me approach. They had no guns or they would have used them already. They just stood there, seven burly, belligerent, tired men, the fight suddenly knocked out of them. They stood almost motionless, the Osama on the ground between them, and they watched me approach. When I came close I stopped. The men looked at me. None of them made a move. One, the closest to me, regarded me thoughtfully for one long moment then spat on the ground, a long string of juice hitting the earth wetly. ‘Move,’ I said. None of them did. I showed them my gun. It was usually my winning argument. ‘Sorry, boys,’ I said. ‘He’s mine.’ Their faces changed. Resentment. Disappointment. I couldn’t read their faces, they had been feral for too long. I didn’t know if they understood my words. I didn’t want to kill them. I hadn’t been paid to. ‘He’s mine,’ I said again. I touched the butt of the gun for emphasis. Still they wouldn’t move. The Osama was motionless on the ground, but I could see it was still breathing. The man closest to me spoke. ‘One,’ he said. I could tell the words came at an effort. ‘One… man.’ He looked at his fellows, pointed, as if articulating a difficult proposition. ‘Si… seven,’ he said. He sounded proud. ‘Seven men,’ he said. I nodded. Then I showed him my gun again. ‘One gun,’ I said. I nodded at him and his fellows. ‘No gun,’ I said. I could see their minds working, it was that slow. Something like a silent communication passed between them. ‘One… Osama,’ the man said at last, speaking for the group. He pointed, vaguely, in the distance, at an easterly direction. ‘Many… Osama,’ he said, hopefully. I shrugged. I was only being paid for this one. ‘Mine,’ I said, simply. The man’s shoulders slumped. ‘Here,’ I said. I opened my saddle bag. They looked up at me but made no move. I pulled out a packet. I opened it up slowly, showing them. Half a loaf of bread, a lump of hard yellow cheese. ‘Food,’ the man closest to me said. The others echoed him, one after the other, that single word going around in a circle. ‘Food…’ The sun was setting fast. The Osama was breathing quietly on the ground. I closed the packet and threw it to them. The man closest to me caught it. ‘Food,’ he said. ‘Go,’ I said. He nodded. I nodded too. My head inched at the lying Osama. ‘Mine,’ I said. ‘Yours,’ the man closest to me said. I waited. The man shrugged, then spat on the ground again. Then he and his men dispersed, ebbing away from the lying Osama, walking slowly, heading to the setting sun. I waited until they disappeared. I got off my horse and approached the Osama. The gun was pointing at it. It opened bright eyes and looked at me. I couldn’t tell what was in his eyes. Hate or bemusement or resignation. Eyes too alien to read. ‘Turn on your stomach,’ I said. He didn’t move. ‘Do it!’ I kicked him. He rolled over. I grabbed his hands and pulled them behind his back and tied them with the rope that was lying there. The noose was still on the Osama’s neck. I tied his legs together. I stuck a piece of cloth in its mouth. Trussed up, I lifted him up. He was light, they were all so light. I put him on the horse, behind the saddle. I climbed on. The horse neighed. I patted it. We rode on, into the night, me and the horse and the Osama. # The town was called Ninawa. It wasn’t much of a town. The buildings lay half-formed, the life had been shelled out of them. An Osama was hanging from a tree as I approached the town. Buildings were burnt and shelled and broken but amidst them some rebuilding effort had taken place, and a major artery had been cleared through the rubble where wooden houses rose over the old broken concrete. There was an inn and a hand-painted sign showing a man being swallowed by a whale. I rode into town. On wooden porches men watched me uneasily. From the windows of the brothel I could see the curtains twitch. I rode on. I came to the sheriff’s place. A single star on the door, and a crude crescent moon beside it. The sheriff came out to greet me. He was a fat man, in a torn military uniform that had once been clean. He spat when he saw me. Chewing tobacco. His teeth were stained. ‘This the one?’ he said. I nodded. He didn’t look that interested but he came over. He lifted the Osama’s shirt and checked and found the mark and nodded, and spat again. I got off the horse and pulled down the Osama and left him in the dirt in front of the sheriff’s place. The Osama looked up at me, silently. The sheriff went back into his office and returned with a small leather bag and threw it at me. I heard coins jingle. I caught the bag and put it away. The sheriff opened his mouth to say something then seemed to change his mind. He nodded. I nodded back. I got back on the horse and rode to the inn and tethered the horse there. I went inside and ordered a drink.
* * *
The proof copy of Osama arrived yesterday morning. I held it in my hands and opened the pages wide and put them against my face, and smelled the pages. They smelled like paper. I wrote the earlier part of this story in Jaffa, but I am now in a place just outside London, in Surrey, and there’s a fox on the low rooftop of the garden shed, just standing there, watching. The air is much cooler here, the relentless heat of Jaffa dissipating like it never was. I was here when King’s Cross went, E— would have been travelling to work that day but had been out of the city for an interview. My friend S—, also a writer, had come to London that day too, for a conference. He said his plane kept circling in the air, and they weren’t told why. When they landed the captain said it was a stormy day out there, and passengers were advised to use umbrellas.
There were three of them and they’d been waiting for me. The bar had a long wooden counter and it was dark inside and it smelled of spilled beer and stale smoke and stale sweat. There was a flag on the wall with too many stars on it. The walls were stone and it was cool inside. There were low wooden tables but only one man sitting down, his back to the wall, his face in the dark. I sat down at the bar and ordered my drink. The man behind the counter had one eye and his hair grew long over the one that was missing. He brought me a beer in a none-too-clean glass. I passed over a couple of coins and he disappeared back into the shadows without comment. I took a sip from my beer. Then another. I didn’t move when a man sat down beside me. Did not look sideways. Took another sip. Waited. Felt his attention on me. I was calculating my next move – swinging the beer glass into his face, breaking it, rising, kicking the stool from under him, pulling out my gun. I took another sip. The bartender didn’t come back. The man beside me on the bar said, ‘We wondered if you had a minute.’ I turned my head at that. His hair was cut short, he was greying at the temples. He wore a uniform and his shirt had been recently ironed. There was sweat on his brow. The bar was very quiet. I heard footsteps and a second man appeared, walking towards us. He was zipping up his pants as he walked. ‘This him?’ he said, nodding at me. ‘We just want to have a chat,’ the man sat down beside me said, patiently, ignoring the other one. He had a softer accent, I realised. And there was a crown and crossed swords on his badge. ‘A friendly chat, Mr. Longshott.‘ ‘This the guy?’ the man standing up wiped his hands on his trousers. Looked me up and down. His nails were dirty. ‘You an Osama sniffer? You catching Os, cowboy? Shit –‘ he made that last word drawl. ‘Fucking cowboys,’ he said. ‘A chat, Mr. Longshott,’ said the one with the soft accent, softly. ‘We have a job we think you’re the man for.’ I took a sip from my beer. It wasn’t a very good beer. I stood, pushing the stool away. The man standing up jumped, just a little. The man sitting down never moved. I looked at them both. Then I turned around and looked at the third man, the one in the shadows, the one with his back to the wall, sitting on his own at the one occupied table. I nodded, once. He nodded back. I walked over, not hurrying, and the two other men followed me like shadows. I stopped before the table. The man sitting down pushed a chair towards me with his foot. It scraped loudly against the stone floor. When he moved, leaning towards me, his face came out of shadow and into the light. He had a long face and thick grey hair and he smiled easily and without humour. I knew his face almost as well as I knew Osama’s, or my own. Once his face had been everywhere. Recently, not so much. His teeth were white. He said, ‘Mr. Longshott.’ I nodded again. ‘General.’ ‘Please. Sit down.’ I sat down. I put my beer mug on the table. The other two men remained standing. ‘I’m listening,’ I said. ‘One of our Osamas is missing,’ the old general said.
In any of the great Vietnam War movies – Apocalypse Now; Platoon; Full Metal Jacket – the Vietnamese never speak. This is not their story. It is the story of a war and the soldiers who fight it, against a nameless, voiceless, faceless enemy, an alien enemy. The Vietnamese in those movies are the alien Bugs of Starship Troopers. They are without humanity, Charlie-devils in the jungle-hell. I wrote Osama in Laos. In Vientiane, across the Mekong from Thailand. ‘Why Vientiane?’ Joe asks, at the end of the novel. Because it is the middle of nowhere, and everywhere, I could have told him. The setting of another war. It was safe, in Laos, to recall the other incidents, Nairobi and London and Ras-el-Shaitan. To contemplate the war from the other side. US forces have dropped over two million bombs over Laos in the Vietnam War. Kids would go looking for scrap metal and come back without a leg, or an arm. In Vietnam, they call that war the American War. # I once had a drink on the Mekong with a UN volunteer who specialised in making artificial limbs. His previous posting had been to Afghanistan.
‘I’m still listening,’ I said. The general leaned forward, across the table, his face half-masked by shadows. The man with the soft accent came forward then. He was holding a file in his hands. It was made of rough brown paper. I saw my name written across it in bold black letters, handwritten. Mike Longshott. ‘Longshott, Mike,’ he said, that same soft, almost apologetic voice. The other one, the one with the dirty nails and the bad manners, snorted. ‘Fucking cowboys,’ he said, to no one in particular. ‘Served with decoration in the second war and again in the third one. discharged in –‘ he named a date that meant nothing. ‘Current occupation, various, but predominantly bounty hunting. Osama captures: fifty-seven.’ The man with the dirty nails whistled, sardonically. ‘Osama kills,’ the man with the soft accent continued, ignoring him, ‘unknown.’ He coughed, apologetically I thought. ‘But presumed high. Mr. Longshott, you have an impressive record.’ I took a sip of beer. Waited him out. No one seemed inclined to talk. I took another sip. The room was very quiet. There was no sign of the bartender. I sighed and put my beer back on the table. ‘I wasn’t a member of the original team,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t in Abbottabad. I wasn’t a part of Neptune Spear.’ I felt I was talking too much. I was the only one talking. I saw them exchange glances. I wondered what else my file said. Abbottabad was a long way away, beyond the mountains, and in another time. The compound, helicopters approaching, men dropping, machine guns firing, we stormed up the stairs and there he was, at the top, looking down. He went back into his bedroom and that was deemed a hostile action. When we burst in he was standing behind two veiled women who were trying to protect him. We pushed them aside. Then we shot him, kill shots in the head and chest. ‘Mr. Longshott.’ It was the general, speaking. ‘We need a man to go up-river and catch us a son of a bitch.’ ‘What do you need me for?’ I said. ‘You have –‘ I gestured with my hand, not completing the words. The remnants of an army, I thought but didn’t say. He said, ‘We believe this is not just any Osama.’ I remembered the Abbottabad Compound, the gunshots going into his soft body, and the explosion. Like a cloud of insects, rising… I felt a tightness in my chest. The old general nodded. ‘Play him the tape,’ he said. The man with the soft accent put a device down on the table. He pressed a button and a voice came out of it, disembodied. I felt a shiver run through me when I heard his voice. I had forgotten it, or hoped I had. ‘We fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression.’ There was a scratchy quality to the recording. His voice never wavered. ‘No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure –‘ The man with the soft accent pressed a button and there was a sped-up sound and then he pressed a button again and Osama’s voice resolved again, somewhere else in the speech, some terrible recollection, and he said, ‘Blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down –‘ the man with the soft accent pressed another button and the silence returned. ‘You will travel up the Euphrates,’ the old general said. ‘You will locate the Osama and you will destroy it. All of it.’
“Blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down.” He wasn’t talking about Al-Qaeda, he was talking about an American-aided Israeli invasion of Lebanon, one that he witnessed. My dad fought in that war, that invasion. It is so quiet here, in the room overlooking the garden, with the sun out, and the radio playing in the background. Here in an England whose people cheerfully divided up the Middle East and went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and who genuinely had no idea as to why they were being attacked. Outside women in burqas walk their children to school and their white neighbours complain in low voices about immigrants, and those Muslims, and how can they treat their women this way and they should go back to where they came from – to the places we bomb. The places we continue to bomb. Osama comes out in two months. And I am hoping to finally put an end to it, this occupation of my life, this invasion of my mind. I remember Nairobi, the Hilltop Hotel on Ngiriama Road, the narrow bed we lay on, the terrorists a floor below. I remember the shell of the American embassy, the ring of soldiers surrounding it, uselessly, now. I could not not write Osama. Not with the ghosts, and their whispers in my ears.
A day’s ride out of Ninawa and I was alone, alone under the stars. The river came into view. It was not the same river. The river was life. You say Euphrates, but it was not Euphrates, not exactly, not since the world changed, not since they picked it up like a toy and shook it, shook it hard until it fell sideways and into pieces and when it was formed again it was different. There were high mountains in the distance, and beyond those mountains there was nothing any more, not since the Compound, not since the spores. ‘You’ll be going into the wild lands,’ the man with the dirty fingernails told me. We were outside. My meeting with the old general had been concluded. ‘The lands where the wild Osamas are.’ He laughed without humour, hawked on the ground. ‘Bring us the head of Prince Osama,’ he said. He looked at me and shook his head. ‘Fucking cowboys,’ he said, compassionately. I left him there and felt his eyes on my back as I rode out of town. As I left I saw them hauling the Osama I’d caught up on the gallows. # I made a fire by the bank of the river and watched the stars. The Euphrates was dirty-brown and the water running fast. The wild lands, the man with the dirty fingernails said. But everywhere was the wild lands now. I slept and in my dreams I was back up those stairs, and bursting through the closed door of his bedroom, pushing aside the veiled women, and then I was pressing the trigger, once, twice, three times, bullets hitting soft flesh, chest and then head, and then the explosion. They were still running the war in the world, the world was war, and the old Euphrates travelled in and out of space and time, it travelled through Uruk and Avagana, it was everywhere and nowhere and he was at the end of it, they told me but it couldn’t be right. Osama Prime. When I woke up it was early morning. I saddled up and rode again, the sun low on the horizon, climbing, like a beetle, climbing. # As I travelled the landscape changed. Low hills, occasional settlements. I skirted the villages. There were men in the world and the things that had once been men, and there were Osamas. Several times I saw fresh tracks. Wild Osamas. I kept thinking of his voice on that tape. ‘You were a soldier,’ the man with the soft accent told me, before I left. ‘But this is no job for a soldier.’ I followed the river. Seagulls cried overhead. Several times I smelled smoke, cooking fires. Twice I came across the bodies of men. They had been torn apart. I waited, but when the attack came it still caught me by surprise. # They came out of the water. Their skin was a grey-green, like a diver’s suit. Their hands extended into flippers or claws or human fingers, depending. They rose out of the water and the water fell from them. They had once been human, perhaps they still considered themselves so. I shot the first one in the gut and he dropped, flopping on the ground. Seal-men. The others were upon me then. They shed remnants of their humanity like skin. They clubbed me like seals. They bit into my skin, tore chunks of flesh from my arms and thighs. I shot another one and the shot went through his skull and I kicked out at another, uselessly: they were heavy and slippery on the ground there in the night under a crescent moon. When the world changed and compressed and all there was was war, the moon, too, changed. It had stopped shape-shifting. It was a war moon, a constant moon, a crescent moon. I tried to fight but they were too many and I felt myself growing weak. The irony of dying like this made a laugh like a cough work its way out of my bruised lungs. I fell under their weight. I was doing knife-work now, cutting through blubber, trying to reach vital organs, trying to take as many of them with me as I could before I went. Then there was a terrible, high keening noise. It cut through the air and for a moment I thought it was the sound of my death, the sound of a heart, stopping. Then a tearing barking noise and the seal-people fell back. I turned, I was on my back, I wiped blood from my eyes, the weight on my chest had gone and I felt lighter. I blinked in the light of the moon. A wild Osama was standing above me. # It was an old Osama. An Osama having gone through all the life-stages of an Osama. His beard was white and his turban was dirty-grey. His skin was wrinkled, his lips bloodless, but his eyes were still the Osama eyes, that clear, penetrating gaze. The seal-folk moved away from it. They growled but if they had language, they had forgotten it. The ancient Osama advanced on them, his feet bare on the ground. I turned my head, and saw. Behind him, ringing me in a half-circle like a moon. A pack of wild Osamas. There were Osama brats, half-naked, with bare, hairless cheeks, and cheeky grins, and young Osamas, student-like and studious, and militant Osamas, post-desert, with that hungry look, and cave-Osamas with that hunted look about them. No wonder the seal-men turned back. They oozed into the water, cursing wordlessly, bereft of language. We were all bereft of language, those of us who were left, I thought. I felt a little shaky. The Osamas approached me, cautiously. I could see them sniffing the air. You had to be cautious, you were an Osama in the wild. There were trappers out there, villagers, military remnants, bounty hunters like myself. It was a hostile world to be in, for an Osama. I didn’t know what they’d do. I had seen them tear a man apart, before. Wordlessly, they stared at me. Then the old one, the leader, keened again. There was a sense of loss and pride in that sound, but something else, too, that I did not understand at the time. A sound like victory. Then they turned away, the whole base camp of them, and left, just like that. I was left lying there, on the bank of the Euphrates, staring after the departing Osamas. After a while I sat up. My ribs hurt. I crawled to the water’s edge and drank, though the water was filthy.
I plucked “Mike Longshott” out of the moulding Hebrew pulp novels of the sixties and seventies. He was a composite being, a man who did not really exist. Longshott wrote soft core pornography, tales of Nazi concentration camps where prisoners were abused, physically and sexually, by Aryan goddesses, sadistic nymphomaniacs of the Third Reich. He was a pen-name broke young writers hid behind for cash. He was a collective, burrowing into the sexual and social taboos of his era. He wrote crap, was paid crap, and his books, sold under the counter, went from hand to hand and bathroom to bathroom, their covers featuring naked flesh and whips, guard posts and POW slaves and a plethora of large improbable breasts. He never lived, he never breathed, his prose was eminently forgettable. He was a hack, a pulpster, a paperback writer. His name was Mike Longshott and he was going to be my hero.
I was on a boat, and my wounds have been bandaged. I was on a dhow, and the sail was pushing us, up or down river I couldn’t tell. But I could smell the wildlands, the Osama-lands, and I knew I was getting closer. I opened my eyes. A man was looking down on me. I blinked and then I knew why I felt so well, in the bandages, as if some medical professional from the days we still had those had taken care of me. I looked up at the man and he looked down at me without expression. His mouth was a scar. Scratch that. His whole face was a map of scars. I sat up, despite the pain. They had fed me some sort of pain killer, I thought. Not the type that came in capsules, we didn’t have those any more, pain had been allowed to flower a long time ago. Some sort of plant, making me thick-headed and woozy and strangely happy. The man was almost naked, and each and every inch of him was covered in scars. Some were old and scabbed over. Some were new and still bleeding. I tried to speak. My mouth was raw, as if I’d swallowed razorblades. ‘Where are you taking me?’ He looked at me. One of his eyes was missing. He drew a knife and calmly cut himself, above the left nipple, a long slow trail, the end of the point sharp, drawing a long line of blood on his wounded skin. He sucked in his breath, like a prayer. ‘Ahhh…’ ‘Wherever you want to go,’ another voice said. I turned my head. An older version of the same man sat in the front, watching the water. All but naked, deeply scarred. We were all deeply scarred, I thought, but some of us had taken it to a whole new level. I sank back on my mattress, there on the deck, under the stars. Scarrists, I thought. I’d been picked up by Scarrists.
Mr. Scar was at the helm. He looked nineteen. Mr. Scar was handling the sail. He was the oldest one of them, a drawling accent and the remains of a tattered uniform still on his puckered skin. Mr. Scar was the chief, he ran this boat. Mr. Scar was the machine gunner, he was the one who never spoke.
I had time to recover, on the boat. You never got off the boat. The Scarrists had everything they needed right there. They had their knives and their bandages and their lotus flowers, and the thick paste they made out of them. The river was thick like oil. It was sluggish like blood. The deck of the boat was covered in old stains. When I stood up at the rails I saw the landscape shifting past the boat. The sun was always setting. It was red and pussing like a sore. The mountains looked crudely-drawn in the distance. Sometimes I could smell smoke. Sometimes, in a great distance, I could hear their calls, the last song of the Osamas. But with each passing mile they were growing closer. I could feel them coming closer. I could feel his nearness, too. His, most of all.
Bin Laden, Osama. Born March 10, 1957 in the old count, to his father’s tenth wife. His mother divorced. He lived with her and her new husband and their four children. Inherited almost $30 million from the family’s fortunes. At university, studied economics and business administration. He wrote poetry, and was a fan of Arsenal football club. Married in 1974, again in 1983, 1985, 1987 and 2000. Fathered 20 to 26 children. Fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, then ran a campaign against the House of Saud. Established base in Sudan. Expelled following failed assassination of Egyptian president. In 1996 declared war on the United States. Returned to Afghanistan. Has been in hiding since September 11, 2001. Located and executed at the Abbottabad Compound, in Eastern Pakistan, ten years later in 2011.
I stared at his dossier. Old dates, old names for places we no longer had. They hurt, they felt like scars on the tongue. We never caught him. Abbottabad had been the source, it was where it had started. The days on the river floated by. Mr. Scar ran the boat with silent command. They weren’t bad, the Scarrists, they just had nowhere else to go. None of us had. The river ran and I remembered, I remembered Abbottabad.
I remembered running up those stairs, the orders had been clear enough, he’d have to work pretty damn hard to get out of there alive, he was at the top of the stairs, I pushed in, he retreated into the bedroom, the women trying to protect him, screaming, I pushed them, I put the bullets in him, in his chest and head. A soft, popping sound… Time seemed to slow. He exploded not in blood and bones and brain but like a pillow, bursting open. It was silent. Things that were not feathers came out of him. He disintegrated as I watched, helpless. The women turned their heads. So pretty… they floated in the room, these things like feathers which were not feathers. Soft, almost weightless. So much of them. The windows had been open and they floated out, and I followed them with my eyes. One tickled my nose and I sneezed – Time sped-up, but still it was so silent there, I heard someone break the silence with a ‘What the fuck!’ and I turned, I don’t know why, I don’t know why even today I don’t know why I was the only one who wasn’t affected, I didn’t – I turned and saw M—, he was an officer, I saw the first of the – they were not feathers, they were not, they were – Spores, and I saw the first of the spores float through the air – so pretty! – and come to land, gently, so gently, like a whispered kiss, on M—‘s forehead – It seemed to dissolve – It was absorbed into M—‘s skin. It went inside of him. For a moment nothing happened. He opened his mouth, to speak, perhaps to say, ‘What the fuck!’ again, but his lips were changing and only a soft exhalation came out of his mouth and a rash began to grow on his face, on his skin, and it took me a long moment to realise it was a thick, black beard.
I woke up screaming in the night. Hands held me down. A sickle moon looked down on the boat. Never get off the boat, only I would have to, I had no place here, no place anywhere. ‘Take it,’ a voice whispered, close by, ‘take it.’ I stared at the knife. I took it from him. I ran it, gently, gently like a shiver, down my arm, and blood welled out. ‘There…’ the voice said. It was Mr. Scar, the old one. ‘There…’ A peace came upon me. They bandaged me, and gave me poppy juice, and I slept, and woke up with a new, fresh scar.
There are memories smudged into the brain, as if a child, clumsy with finger paints, had left sticky finger marks and traces of Guasch crammed inside the cranium, into places it is impossible to erase them from. This is Nairobi for me, the American embassy a blackened shell of a building, the soldiers surrounding it. I remember the Hilltop Hotel where we stayed alongside those hidden Al-Qaeda operatives, the dimness of the rooms, the quiet. Outside dust motes hovered in the still air, shoe shiners sat in the shade waiting for custom, they were selling scratch cards from a booth and I bought several, we walked in the dark to an Indian restaurant where we were the only customers, a hush had settled over the city, the spirits of the dead wafted upon the waters. The Sinai in 2004, E— on the beach, the sun had set and it was dark, quiet, a fire was burning nearby, in the kitchen a young Bedouin was roasting a chicken, someone was smoking a joint, the smell of it rose in the air, the beating of the Red Sea against the sand – BOOM! Like a comic book explosion, exclamation marks rising from it like flying darts – KABOOM! POW! The car bomb exploded just further up the beach, in Ras-el-Shaitan, driven into a camp identical to the one E— was staying at, reed shacks on the beach, stoned backpackers, mosquito-nets and mosquitoes – The screams rose into the night air, E— did not know what to do, she watched the flames, we were apart, I couldn’t phone, the news were jumbled, no one knew who had lived and who had died, a random person phoning, heard from someone who’d heard from someone who was there, E— is all right, please phone C—, a stranger, and tell them their friend is alive, too – The spirits of the dead coagulated, restless, amassing now, more and more of them, and E— passing through King’s Cross to work when the bombers struck, but she had been away that day, could not get back into the city, we spoke on the phone and watched the news on the television – And E—‘s friend L—, who worked with her in Laos, a fellow aid worker, they would not renew her visa so she went back to Afghanistan, she had loved it there, kidnapped and then a rescue attempt, US forces storming the camp where she was held, killing her with one of their own grenades – KABLOOEY! BAM! Cartoon war with a cartoon president reading a story about a goat, and a cartoon villain muttering threats into a camera, mutual ghost-gatherers, God-botherers, and we were fodder for their hate.
‘We don’t go any farther,’ Mr. Scar told me. Ahead of us the river curved and I could see a village on the point, smoke rising. The sick moon, the sickle moon, hung above our heads like a scar carved into the sky. ‘Why?’ I said. He shrugged. ‘It’s hairy out there,’ he said. He pointed. ‘That’s Osama’s point.’ ‘Osama don’t surf!’ I said, but he just shook his head at that, perhaps remembering a time we had cinemas and movies, a door into escape. One by one the doors had shut, and we who remained were trapped here, in this new Osamaworld. ‘This war…’ I began to say, but he stopped me, with a gentle smile, a smile like a scar, and a hand on my shoulder, and he said, ‘The war is already over. It was over a long time ago.’ I watched the boat sail back. I was left alone on the bank. I had no horse. The seal-folk killed my horse and his blood ran red into the brown river. I walked. I followed the river, remembering.
The spores rose into the air that night. They hovered over houses and rooftops and were blown far and wide by the winds. I saw the men – I saw my friends – I saw them change. I saw the beards creep up along their naked chins, I saw their smooth-skinned arms fill with wrinkles, and saw their eyes change, saw the look in them become a penetrating gaze, their lips thinned, they spoke in tongues, they said: ‘Security is an indispensable pillar of human life –‘ ‘Free men do not forfeit their security –‘ ‘Just as you lay waste to our nation. So shall we lay waste to yours –‘ ‘Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon?’ And so on. I saw them reach for weapons. I saw them look at me. They shot down the helicopters and the men, dying, were transformed when the spores hit them. I ran. Somehow I was not affected. I was not Osamaed. I ran and they followed, the first of the wild hunt, the Osama-spawn, they hunted me and each one I killed exploded in a soft cloud of spores that rose and rose and then fell, softly, drifting in through open windows, settling on the faces of sleeping women and men, transforming them. They hunted me through the long night and the world contracted and changed, we lost the war that day, we were lost that day, and I lost them in the mountains and hid in the deep black caves.
I walked through the night. Nothing troubled me. The world was a quieter world nowadays. The remnants of men and their army still congregated together in what was left of the cities, places like Ninawa and Caubul and Nuyok, and hunted and kept away the wild Osamas. But out here, in the wildlands, men were few and far between. I walked and the river followed me, until I came to the place.
They called it, simply, the base. Al-Qaeda: the base. There were low buildings and a fence, trees growing there. The river flowed nearby and it was in the shadow of the mountains. Osamas of varying shapes and sizes watched me mutely. I saw a human corpse dangling from a rope and a sign on its chest in childish white letters that said Sorry. My bare feet sank in the mud. My beard had grown in my days on the boat. The silent Osamas watched me. A raven screeched high above. I walked through the valley of the shadow of death and I felt no fear and the stars were bright overhead. I came to a hill and I walked up it and I reached him. He was sitting on a folding chair, watching me. He was very old. A jester at his feet, a man who was not Osamaed, in the remnants of a military uniform, with no insignia. He smiled a manic grin and chattered at me. ‘The poppy fields are beautiful, red like the blood of martyrs.’ He had a high trembling voice. He said, ‘God lives in the clouds like smoke, he has a long grey beard.’ The man sitting on the folding chair turned his gaze on him and the jester scampered down the hill. The man turned his gaze on me. His eyes were rheumy but still somehow sharp. Almost, I fancied that he smiled. ‘You have come to kill me,’ he stated. ‘I have come to…’ my voice sounded different in my ears. The man in the folding chair had a long beard turned white with age. ‘You have tried before and you have tried many times,’ he said, not unkindly, ‘but do you not see? Killing the man is not enough. A man is more than flesh and gristle and bone and blood. Kill the man and all you do is preserve the image of the man. His ikon. Kill a man and a thousand spores of faith and belief, a thousand spores of idea erupt into the world. Look,’ he said. He reached his hand towards me. I took it in mine. Our hands were the same. I raised my free hand to my beard and he did likewise, to his. ‘We are not so unlike, you and I.’ I was running up the stairs and he was at the top. He had backed into his bedroom. I burst through the door and the women were screaming, they were trying to shield him with their bodies. I pushed them away. The gun was in my hand and I used it, firing bullets at point-blank range into his chest and then his head, confirmation kill, eliminating with extreme prejudice. I fired into silence and a cloud of spores rose into the air, like ideas that wouldn’t die, and the world was quieted, with a sound like the hiss of escaping air.
Osama and Osama and Osama, amen. THE END
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