Najem Wali | from:Arabic

Wars in Distant Lands

Translated by : Raymond Stock

When I pulled Teresa’s postcard from the mailbox it was three in the afternoon. I didn’t read it at first, just glanced at it quickly as I stepped into the house, the card still clutched in my free hand. I tossed the little bag I was carrying onto the table in the center of the sitting room and went straight into the bath. The day was unusually warm. As I do on such days, I turned on the cold water and began to fill the tub. Rapidly stripping off my clothes, I slipped into the water while it was still running – after first laying my wristwatch and the post card next to the magazines and letters that cluttered the little chair that I left within easy reach.

I scrubbed my head for a moment, then shook it, spraying water over the papers nearby. I grabbed a towel and dried my dripping hand, then picked up Teresa’s card with shaking fingers. I saw a picture of an old tavern, with antique style wood furnishings and blue tables. Among them stood a handsome, dark skinned man. Strands of white lent a magical air to his wispy hair. “Hemingway Bar in Havana,” it said in Spanish on the back of the card. Also on the back, Teresa had faintly scrawled a message in a style a bit like Hemingway’s own: “Roamer of worlds and words – you sailor on terra firma – don’t be surprised by this card. I was going to send it from Havana but suddenly went to Madrid. Expect me at 7:00 on 16 June at the station near the Cafe Regreso. Wear a white suit and shoes and a Panama hat. My heart is still your home.” She added a postscript, “I hope you’ve forgotten the war. But you’re right-which war?” Nor did she forget to append a joke as well. “No doubt this card will reach you the same day I do.”

She knows that my life is nothing but a string of strange coincidences. At any rate, I had only four hours to get to the station where I’d be meeting Teresa. Yet those four hours, which on a normal day would go by in a flash, today seemed like an unbearable torment. I couldn’t believe that she was coming after all this time. I surely needed more than four hours to grasp the idea that we’d be seeing each other again. Of course, I could have just torn up the card, or acted like I’d never received it. But how could I face the way she looked at me when she opened the door and found me here?

I’d known Teresa for five years, since my first visit to Madrid, before my recent transfer to Lisbon. We’d loved each other violently, and hated each other with the same intensity. We’d broken up with each other at least five times, but come back to each other with the same ardor as before, to resume our quarrels with renewed passion. And when I say that we broke up often, I don’t mean the kind of breakups that last a night or two, that we all experience hundreds of times in our love stories, but the sort of separations that last a long time. Which is what happened the last time. I didn’t throw out her things, or put them out of sight, but kept them as they were, just the way she left them – her clothes in the bedroom closet, her beauty aids in the bathroom: a collection by Yves Saint Laurent; perfume by Cartier Must, Coco Chanel, and Paloma Picasso; a bottle of Body Shop shampoo with Brazil nut and honey; containers of white liquid soap scented with musk and essence of plums. On the bathroom windowsill stood the milky white lotion that she used to massage into her body, that after accidentally breaking its original container I wound up keeping in an empty can of Nescafe. I can still remember her laughter when she saw what I’d done with the lotion on the day before she left. I caught her inspecting it, turning it end over end in her hand, and when she noticed me watching her she giggled, saying that she would leave me the stuff so I could use it myself.

Seven months, two weeks, and three days had passed since. that afternoon when – hearing the doorbell ring – she left the house with her little bag. At that moment I stuck my head out the window and saw a strange man waiting for her downstairs. I followed her as she went outside, without her noticing, until she reached the port. There she strode arm-in-arm with the man toward a waiting steamer, over which flew a Cuban flag.

I felt no jealousy. I wasn’t angry that she’d left with another man. Rather, despite my pain at what had happened between us, and not because I am a “modern, liberal” man but because of my sympathy for the sailors of the world, I had made peace with myself, in a way.

Why not? You are the cause, I told myself, and despite your bragging – in your early days with her – about being a “sailor on terra firma,” only travel competes with your love for her. She was the one who was willing to give up her job as a journalist, though haunted by the love of departure. She was the creature for which you were searching, so you could wander with her to perdition over the face of this. globe, while both of you made your country wherever your feet trod the ground. Except that you yourself, since the day you met her, have stayed where you were. In Madrid you were making up excuses, saying, “If only this city were on the sea, I would voyage every day.” Once she asked, “Where would you like to live?” And you answered, “In Lisbon.” “Why?” Teresa wondered. So you told her, quoting a verse by Rafael Al-berti, who had referred to Rome instead, “Lisbon is a danger to wanderers.” Then you followed with, “I love harbors, the way I love Basra.” She didn’t commit herself at the time, but after twenty four days had passed, she asked you to pack your bags and go to Lisbon. She’d asked the newspaper for which she worked to transfer her there, though she hadn’t told you about it. So you went to Lisbon together. Three months and ten days later, she showed you that you had lied, that you didn’t really move the way you did before. “Maybe you’ve aged,” she said. When you denied it, this time by making an excuse about the “ruins of Basra” for after Basra, it’s hard for you to love any harbor – she remarked, “Then it’s war that still paralyzes you?” War? Which war did she mean? The first? The second? Or the third that might yet happen? Or is it the war that rages perpetually there? Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about what she said too seriously if she hadn’t run off with the Cuban seaman.

Seven months, two weeks, and three days later and I’m thinking about my situation. I’m trying to organize my life without her. Of course, I’ve endured a lot of pain. More than once I’ve wept over her departure. I have thought that her absence would last forever. All during our relationship her desire to cross the Atlantic never abated. Many times she told me about her grandparents, who lived in the Andalusian city of Cadiz before they made their way to Cuba. She was a child in those days, and her mother would show her photos of her family that had moved to “La Habana” after the Spanish Civil War. Her mother later joined them, leaving behind her father, who hated nothing in life more than travel. Twenty five years had gone by since he asked her, “Why did she leave Cadiz for Havana?”

Since her childhood she had dreamed of going to Cuba herself. “What about you?” she asked me. “Yes, we’ll go together,” I told her. “But be careful,” I cautioned, “for no sooner will I fly there than I’ll come back here.” So she wondered, “What is it that binds you to this part of the earth?” When I failed to speak, she answered for me, “I know, you’ll say, Basra. But now there’s no such place as Basra: now there’s only the war.” The war, the war-but which war? Teresa isn’t the first one to say this to me, while I too think that I’m haunted by the war. More than five years and I hadn’t tired of recounting the war’s events to her. No matter the occasion, whether we were sitting in front of the television, or seeing soldiers in the city, or even listening to tapes of music – everything reminded me of the war.

From her side, Teresa forgot none of this, for she described it in a letter she wrote to me before going away – despite the fact that we were living together at the time. The letter was stuck in a sheaf of her old missives, along with some from my brother and sister and friends, which I’d put – as I’ve always done – close to my bath to pull one or more of them out each time I filled the tub. (She hated this habit and told me, “I’m not surprised that you haven’t forgotten the war, for is there one of these letters that doesn’t talk about it, or its miseries?”)

She didn’t know that I put her letters there, too, perhaps because I used to deliberately shove them to the bottom of the pile. I tell you, that letter, which I was reading for the twentieth time, reminded me of all these details. Particularly that I insisted on listening to the music of Boney M (“The Imbeciles,” as Teresa called them), along with “Waltzing Matilda” by Tom Waits (because of my friend Mulhem’s love for it, and which I have liked since the first war, and still do-but which war?).

Even my friends’ complaints about it reminded me of it. “All he cares about is the war,” they’d say, “like a curse that never ceases pursuing him.” She hadn’t forgotten the story of the white suit, the white shoes, and the Panama hat that the tavern owner Matilda had given me as a gift before I left Basra.

In those days, when Teresa heard I’d lost it, she surprised me by buying a white suit and Panama hat and white shoes during one of our trips to Florence. (Yet what would I say to her if she saw me sitting among you, wearing the Caribbean clothes once again, but without the white shoes?)

That day she asked, as she handed me the suit, “Do you know why Matilda gave you this outfit?”

“What do you mean?” I replied defiantly.

“You don’t understand, my dear, that it’s to drag you out of the hell of the war,” she laughed.

“What is the war to me now?” I demanded.

“Enough of this curse that stalks you,” she swore.

The war, the war – but which war? How much have I longed for liberation from it, and to forget the day that it broke out. Yet it seems that destiny has been pursuing me, from the moment I left my country until today. The letters that have come to me through those years are heavy with all that has happened because of it.

The war – how long since it ignited? Fifteen years, nine months, and two days? Or five years, eleven months, three weeks, and three days? Or has it been all our lives? Didn’t it break out when you or I came into the world, in that country which now not only seems so far away on the map but also because of what is happening to it, and what is happening to us, hundreds of light years distant? That country, which I am not the first to forget nor the only one to not think of at all, except for the war.

Teresa used to say to me, “The war is between you and that country!” Not an inappropriate observation, but one that offered me scant consolation. And now, as I tell this story to you, I try to remember other things from it – for example, my friends, my childhood haunts, my first love, my first sexual experience, my first drink – but it’s all futile. All that comes to me is the war. Even if sometimes I succeed in chasing it away, it weighs upon me like the plagues of Egypt, hurtling down upon me like the curse of Yahweh, like the rains of revenge with which He pulverized offending cities at the dawn of the world.

That afternoon in Lisbon, after I finished my bath, and with a headache that had overwhelmed me for hours on end, I decided to put paid to the war completely. I threw away the tape by Boney M and the one with “Waltzing Matilda” on it and put on the white Caribbean suit with the Panama hat. Unfortunately, the shoes were black – in the chaos of my house, I couldn’t find the white ones. Yet I fulfilled Teresa’s wish.

On that midday, I also realized that I loved this woman to the point of worship. My pride would not avail me; my life would be made no easier by giving her up, or even by forgetting her. Never mind that she left me or went out with whichever man she wanted, I still loved her. I’d do whatever she wanted me to do.

Strange how we go around and around; we meet a lot of women, until we get to know one in particular – one who will be the center of the world. No matter who she is or what she does; no matter the wars, both declared and undeclared, that raged between us, there’s only her – and salaam, that’s it. Did I say “salaam“? Was Teresa the alternative to war? Was she peace? I don’t know.

Rather than that question, there were others demanding answers in my head as I drove my car toward the Lisbon train station. I didn’t even notice the distance between my house and Rua dos Douradores until I entered the underground garage at the station. I paid no attention to the time until I came to the platform and the great clock loomed before me: 6: 10 P. M. I still had a lot of time, then – so I went to the newspaper kiosk and bought the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, plus the Spanish paper, El Pais, and the Portuguese paper, Publico, and the Italian one, La Repubblica, and the German Sud-deutsche Zeitung, the British Guardian, and the New York Times. (This is what I normally do when I travel by train or wait in a cafe, to get a kick out of people’s curiosity when they see me reading all those languages!) Then I walked over to the big cafe at the station, the Regreso, where she’d asked me to wait for her at 7:00.

Truly happy I was, and sure that I would surprise Teresa with the white suit and Panama hat, and with the decision that I’d arrived at in my bath that day. I’d tell her that we’d move to the Spanish countryside, or maybe to Tuscany, or, if she wanted, to Paraguay, and raise cattle there. And there we’d live together, forever. I wouldn’t ask her about the Cuban sailor, or about her other men either. Rather, I would just love her more, and I’d forget the war absolutely. And we would have children.

As far as I can recall, it was on a Sunday in summer, on 16 June 1996, to be exact. I was cutting through the station to the Cafe Regreso nearby. After I had scanned the newspapers and tucked them under my arm, I heard someone calling out in Spanish, “Campos, Campos!”

At first I thought that the young man, decked out in a naval uniform, was addressing someone else. Yet when I saw him approach me, then throw his arms around me, I was sure he’d meant me.

“Campos, you obstinate man, how is my Doppelganger doing?” he said.

After I’d broken free of his grip and taken a step back, I realized that we indeed did look alike. Yet I told him, “I’d like you to look me over carefully, and perhaps you’ll realize that you’re overdoing it – for I’m from Basra.”

But he laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Strange that you’ve abandoned your dreams – you were always dreaming of Sinbad and Basra.”

I said nothing, but smiled and shrugged my shoulders.

Why not, I thought. I still have fifty minutes ahead of me, and it’s a beautiful story.

I remembered that, since we must make up a story when writing one, then why not do the same when telling one? So I’m inventing the tale as I go along, in order to tell the truth, more or less.

I felt an old longing for the sailor’s uniform I had worn for six months in the late Seventies, when I worked as an interpreter for two East German admirals at the naval base in Basra. Those were my golden days in the service. The married woman who lived next to my grandfather’s house would wait for me with passion, and she would insist that I wear sailor’s clothes whenever we met.

And I still remember, when my employment at the athletic department in the navy ended, and I transferred to al-Mahawil Base near Babylon, how an officer in the artillery battery to which I was assigned screamed at me, “Get rid of those woman’s clothes, you jerk!”

Not satisfied with that, he punished me by making me march up and down the length of the parade ground as he shouted in my ear, “I’m going to show you the real meaning of ‘military,’ and then how we’re going to liberate Palestine!”

“Tell me,” I started to say, when he jumped in.

“Alejandro.” He told me his name before I could ask, as we sat in the Regreso.

“Alejandro, tell me,” I began again, “is the naval service as hated among the other military branches in your country as well?”

He laughed as he pulled two cigarettes out of a pack, offering me one, which I took – despite the fact that I’d quit smoking a long time ago.

“Hombre,” he said, “your favorite Cuban brand.”

“Campos,” he asked as he lit it for me, “how did you forget that?” Then he added as he blew out smoke, “Don’t you remember the infantry officer, Zein al-Abidin, who made us stand in the sun for two days in Buenos Aires when we were coming back on the double?”

“Coming back?” I blurted. “Alejandro, where were we coming back from?”

His face tightened as he looked at me searchingly, then he called to the waiter to bring us two cappuccinos.

“You were always very smart, Campos, always playing different parts,” he said. “Now the deaf man, now the blind man, now the dumb man. How I envy you.”

He paused for a moment to watch my reaction. Then he resumed talking, only this time without looking at me, just inspecting his cigarette that was more than half smoked.

“You’re the guy with the glib, cultured tongue,” Alejandro upbraided me, “who didn’t say anything, not a word, to the officer who punished us in the barracks at Buenos Aires. He abused us because we belonged to the navy – he believed that the naval forces had betrayed the army during the Falklands War, because they had British training.”

I said nothing. The waiter brought us our cappuccinos. Draining his cup completely in one gulp, Alejandro stopped the waiter to ask for another. Then he tossed the stub of his cigarette on the floor.

“You used to say that we had it coming,” he went on, “because we had been there, even though you knew we weren’t in the fighting.”

Pushing my cup toward him, I told him that I’d wait for the one that was coming.

Alejandro took a big swallow. “I used to ask you who was right – us or the English? And you always had the clever answer.”

He stopped again and took another draught. He lit another cigarette, then switched voices.

I know that if the English are routed,” he imitated me, “the rule of the generals will go on.”

Halting, he added, “Despite the fact that you didn’t back the British.”

The waiter arrived with the third cappuccino, and I began to sip it calmly. We sat together like this for nearly forty minutes. I don’t remember how many cigarettes we smoked or cups of cappuccino we drank, one after the other. Alejandro told story after story about life over there, in the Falklands. I didn’t try to interrupt or contradict him.

And why should I? The young man recited his story with a totally confident demeanor, though I was perplexed by what he was saying. The important thing, of course, wasn’t whether I was convinced by what he said but whether I was convinced by the way he was saying it. I could have stopped him and waved my identity card in front of him, but how could I persuade him of my German nationality when I’d told him in the beginning that I was born in Basra? And when I’d spoken to the waiter in Portuguese? And how could I explain my proficiency in Spanish (though he’d consider my failure to speak with him in his Argentine dialect as being linked to my flight from that country a shrewd attempt on my part to disguise my identity)?

But what is logic to a man who tells a story the way he does (isn’t it possible to make up the tale as we go along? For Alejandro didn’t conjure the past merely in its details) until I felt I’d been with him then myself, as well as in the present. I asked him what he was doing in Lisbon, and he told me about their steamer coming from Argentina. They were on a quick trip to exchange military experience.

“I didn’t go with the others,” he said. “There was something calling out to me, saying, ‘Campos, your double that you lost after the war in Buenos Aires was not killed but escaped to seek harbor in the ports of our Lord.’ The voice said he was the only one who escaped our fate – which is either to be buried, or imprisoned, or exiled.”

Should I have thought the same way as my friend Mulhem, the POW? At the time, I seriously thought – however absurdly – of objecting to what Alejandro was saying.

“Do you see, my friend, Sinbad doesn’t die,” Alejandro said, his mouth stretched in a grin. “I see you as you always describe yourself, a sailor on terra firma.”

After this sentence came out of his mouth, carrying the sound of that beautiful Latin phrase, he added, while pointing at my white suit and Panama, “You’re a Caribbean man – the only thing you lack is a lady dolphin!”

“A lady what?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember the story that the woman who owned the bar told us, about the men from the Amazon in the city of Macondo?”

When I remained silent, he went on. ‘”When a group of these men sees some female dolphins playing,’ she said, ‘they carry them to the land, play with them, then sleep with them the whole night long.'”

Alejandro giggled, winking his eyes. “You know that they grant you a special power.”

His hand didn’t cease playing with the brim of his sailor’s hat, while the smile never left his lips. “And you – where’s your dolphin?” he taunted.

“She left with a Cuban seaman,” I told him. “Do you know that you look just like him?”

He laughed as he asked me, “You won’t forget, naturally.”

I shook my head.

“Amazing,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of truth in what you say. We go around and around and around and always wind up with one woman. It doesn’t matter who she is or what she does to us.”

Agreeing, I queried him, “What do you think is the cure then?”

Alejandro looked at me for a long while, until I felt that everything had come to a halt: the beating of my heart, the hubbub of the cafe’s patrons, the smoke wafting in the air.

“Only death will free you from her,” he declared.

“But I don’t feel like dying,” I retorted.

He crushed perhaps his tenth cigarette beneath his foot. “I know this is why you slipped out of the war,” said Alejandro. Then he went quiet for a moment.

“Do you have any dolphin oil?” he asked me suddenly.

“What kind of oil?” I asked, astonished again.

“Campos,” he answered, “you have forgotten a lot in these last years. Didn’t you tell me the story of your trip to the city of Macondo?”

When I didn’t react, he launched in excitedly, “Who but you would wander around the military sites when we were entombed in our trenches there and would tell us one story after another – your stories were like manna from heaven in that hell.”

In that instant it seemed I was once again inspired, and I found myself saying to him, “Do you mean that evening when I landed on the outskirts of the town of Macondo?”

“Yes,” he said eagerly, and then again, as if he didn’t believe it himself, “yes, yes.”

Before opening my mouth again, I consumed the cold, thick dregs of my cappuccino and said, “In the evening, just before sunset, I was meandering down by the river, at the edge of Macondo. The long tables of the smugglers groaned with all the scarcest goods from every comer of the earth: musk oil from the Himalayas, carpets from Samarkand, perfumed soaps by Vichy of Paris, Royal Lavender body lotion from London, clotted cream from Dublin, wild-beast hides from Marrakesh, bottles of tequila from Mexico with small serpents inside, rare birds from the Amazon, ful beans grown by the blacks of the Sudan, little wooden drums from Basra, and aromatic water from Suq al-Shuyukh in southern Iraq.

“In a corner of the market I met a woman selling herbs that cure boils on the skin and tree roots that cleanse the body. Behind pyramids of leaves there were rows of bottles of Johnnie Walker filled with a milky white liquid. I asked her what this was: she explained that it was the ‘essence of female dolphins’ tears.’

“‘If you take some drops of it and put them in your eyes, and rub them on your face and your hands,’ she promised, ‘then the person who loves you will never, ever leave you!'”

At this point, Alejandro stopped me.

“Did you buy a bottle of this stuff?” he drilled me, evidently forgetting that he had just told me he already knew the story. But we both knew that every time we tell a tale, its course always changes.

“Naturally, I tried it,” I assured him, “and it was a wonderful time. There wasn’t a single woman I failed to attract like a magnet-until I met Teresa, for whom I had been looking for a very long time. I didn’t want to spend just a fleeting moment with her – I wanted to spend eternity with her.”

Here I paused, and he waited quietly for me to resume. He seemed drugged by what I was telling him. Slowly. I picked up the thread again.

“My bad luck was that during my absence she began to use the oil on herself, even though I’d hidden it in an empty can of Nescafe. The next day, a strange man appeared at the door. Soon another man appeared, and then another, until one rang the bell and called for Teresa by name. Quickly she came down with her bag without even saying goodbye to me. I followed them to the port – and the man was a Cuban sailor!”

Lighting another cigarette, Alejandro offered me one, but I refused it.

“What are your plans now?” he wanted to know.

“I’ll try to persuade her to come back and live with me in the country,” I said. “I’m sick of the city, and besides, I want to have children with her – it’s better to have them out there.”

“You don’t have to go to the country to have children,” he retorted. “They spring up like weeds wherever you are – even in heaps of garbage. How could you get her back?”

Neither of us spoke for a while, as though we both accepted the way the story ended. Just as one knows that all stories must have an ending, and must end the same way that they began. One part of each story is hollow and turns around and around on itself, until we wind up sitting there not knowing who is telling it. Is it really us, or a voice from inside ourselves? Or is the tale telling us? Roles are swapped in the recounting, and then who is setting a trap for whom? The reality is that we – Alejandro and I – had both forgotten our current business for a while. Thus I forgot simultaneously about my newspapers and the time, and entered into a conversation with him as though we were making up the story ourselves, and living it ourselves, alone.

“What about you, Alejandro?” This time, it was me asking him about his future. “Haven’t you thought about deserting from the army yourself?”

His face brightened, as though he had been waiting for me to ask this question.

“Of course I have,” he said, “and because of this book that I was always telling you about.”

He wasn’t satisfied when I nodded my head, pretending to understand what he meant.

“I want to write a book on Existentialism and the military – but a curse on the army,” he continued. “I just can’t escape. I have four children – they popped up like weeds.”

I was truly saddened. I didn’t know what to say. We both fell silent, and my mind wandered for a long time. An image of myself in naval uniform floated before my eyes. Was it fate that had sent Alejandro to make me long once again to wear those clothes? Were not all the years that I lived through during the war – with all its fire – nor all the time that had passed while I dwelt in these new cities, nor all the women I had known – not even the return of Teresa – able to change what destiny had decreed for me? Nothing, that is, but the appearance of this Argentine man, from out of those wars in distant lands? So many questions rained down upon my head, I was no longer really there – until his voice brought me back.

“What do you want to do now?” he demanded.

I stared at him in confusion, as one waking from a long sleep. I looked up at the big clock that hung over the station platform that I could see from my seat. I saw him smiling as he watched me.

Without warning, I found myself asking, “Alejandro, you know my fondness for sailor suits?”

He nodded. “And you love the Caribbean,” I went on, “and you want to get out of the military, as well I know.”

There was no doubt that he agreed with me; he nodded his head again.

“So what do you think if we traded clothes?”

He gaped at me in shock. “Now?” he stuttered.

“Yes, now,” I said as I stood up. Alejandro wanted to take out his wallet and pay the bill, but I told him not to do it, because we would be coming back. I knew where the WC was, and when I started to walk toward it, he followed me.

Entering two adjoining stalls, we handed each other our clothes over the low concrete wall between them. “You go out before me,” I told him as we were leaving. “I’ll catch up with you.”

“Campos,” he declared, “your genius cannot be stilled.” Then I heard him close the door behind him and climb the stairs that led to the cafe.

Two minutes later, I followed him. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered that I had left my identity card and cash in my suit pockets. But I didn’t go to Alejandro, who had returned to the place where we’d been sitting. Instead, I made for the rear door, facing the WC, so that he wouldn’t see me. In seconds I reached the station’s platform.

Glancing up at the huge dial over, head, I saw that the time was exactly 7:00 P.M. Yet there was no need to consult it. The brakes of Teresa’s train as it pulled to a stop screeched in my ears, and I turned away and marched to the station’s exit.

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