Preamble to a quasi-political work I've been tweaking for some time now.
|The revolution, as promised, was not televised. Not the real one. Footage of the National Defence Forces storming the palace spread, and took pains to show a patriotic core of the old guard, supported by an auxiliary force of loyal newmen; but the real change didn’t happen in the lush gardens of the Capital Palace, at the extraordinary midnight session in Parliament, the factory towns that went up in flames, or the fortified American embassy. In a suburban home, twenty kilometers from the capital and far from the cameras, a grey-haired mother-of-three locked herself in the guest bedroom, stuck a pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger. She didn’t leave a will, she didn’t even utter a prayer. Her only wish was that history – “Hishtory!” she had scoffed to the heavens as the painkillers dulled both tongue and mind; as grown men wept behind the door – would do her the favor of relegating her to its shredder. The popular struggle, the armed resistance, the circus of denunciations that ricocheted across the nation – superfluous, a “dick-glove” as Amina was wont to say. The revolution was over before it ever started.
Lately Hatem was possessed by the thought of falling, more specifically of breaking his legs. He would be walking along, minding his own business as it were, when the most benign thing – stairs, bathtubs, even sewer caps – triggered vivid images of broken bones, blood and agony, of his mother’s tears and his father’s laments. These waking nightmares were all the more terrifying because there was no sleep to rouse himself from. He couldn’t remember when exactly the obsession had started, and thus could not find the root. The fear was crippling him. He had taken to walking at snail pace, carefully, eyes firmly on his feet, to avoid bumps and those dreaded sewer caps. He showered sitting down. The kitchen – which, in the traditional style, was situated outside the house proper – he avoided at all costs, lest he trip on the crooked doorsill and fall onto the concrete floor.
This was why Hatem now stared into the corner of the bedroom, where his grandmother’s wheelchair sat bathed in moonlight. The old woman was sleeping in the bed next to his, so still that one would be forgiven for mistaking her for a corpse. One would, of course, have to be as deaf as she was, because toothless mouth ajar, she emitted a snore that kept even the alley cats awake. Hatem hated sharing his bedroom with his Grandma Zuleikha. She slept in three-hour intervals, waking to poke him with her walking stick and motion with her hands, usually for something to nibble on, for water, or help with her ablutions before dawn prayers – which he would be compelled to lead. She had long since lost any semblance of continence too, and more often than not, he would be lumbered with the task of cleaning her up. How old are you? When will you just die? These thoughts came to him frequently, very frequently, and he would instantly chide himself for them.
One day, after he had washed her and begun the evening prayer, she soiled herself halfway through, meaning he had not only to wash her for the fourth time that day, but start the prayer over too. The thoughts congealed into a solid plan: All it took, Hatem had realised as he towelled the bag of bones dry, was the slightest nudge, and even that he could avoid by removing the rubber ferrule from her walking stick and letting nature take its course. But! The extent of his malevolent ingenuity had frightened him so much that, on the spot, he slapped himself across the face. The resulting bruise he explained away variously. To his mother he had walked into a door; to Farouk and Jamal he had gotten into a fistfight with a plainclothes police officer who tried to detain him for distributing Party literature. He was unfortunately clueless as to which “Party” and the story earned him yet another epithet: Porky.
From that day onwards, he would pore over Hamed Al-Sadeq’s weekly political column, if only to stay abreast of Jamal and Farouk’s discussions. It paid off. The morning he broke the news of Gorbachev’s resignation to them remained among his proudest, and more than compensated, he felt, for his overenthusiasm at news of the “official” fall of the Berlin Wall – “The world ended in 1989, Porky,” Jamal had scoffed. Hatem did not understand politics. More specifically, he did not care to understand. There was no practical use for politics in this country. He had witnessed first-hand the abductions on that foggy night in ’81, when scores of his neighbours were carted off by the SIS. Terrified, he had asked Zuleikha when they would be taken away too. “Traitors,” came her reply, as she sat fingering her prayer beads. “Going back where they come from. Are you a traitor?”
“No,” he peeped back.
“Nothing to be afraid of, then.”
Mrs Farzani and her twelve-strong brood, Hamid the neighbourhood drunk, and Fathiye – whose habit of brushing her lush copper hair at her bedroom window was a nightly attraction – all these and more were traitors. Signs went up across the street and within a few days, he had new neighbours, new friends.
It was more than five years later, after meeting Farouk and Jamal, that he made sense of what had happened on the night of December 13, 1981: At the outset of the Iran-Iraq War, Lebanon was in tatters, and the only thing deader than Sadat was Nasserism itself. Khomeini’s seemingly impossible Islamic Revolution now neared its third year and its expansionary goals were clear. Closer to home, after Parliament’s dissolution and the purges that followed, all that remained of the “official” Left and Right was a band of venal impotents, bickering over hypotheticals, lest they offend the SIS by discussing anything of worth. In hindsight, it would have been more surprising if there hadn't been a plot to overthrow the government. Persian covetance of this tiny island was centuries-old, but it was different this time; there were no formalities, no recourse to the League of Nations, or the Great Powers, as in the Shah’s time. Three days before the tenth anniversary of independence from Britain and the Emir’s accession, an armed insurgency, trained and equipped by Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards, attempted to topple the regime and create a satellite state. These were Cold War methods. The consequences were equally harsh and clandestine.
Those directly implicated in the coup simply “disappeared”, but the sizeable Persian diaspora remained a problem. Only ten years before, the Palestinians of Jordan had brought that country and its king to their knees, triggering a regional war; if Arabs were now fighting fellow Arabs, a local Persian insurgency fed on Khomeini’s rhetoric was not far-off. But what to do with them? The pre-War methods of FDR, Stalin and Hitler were no longer viable. Then some enterprising soul suggested: If the Persians liked the Islamic Republic so much, why didn’t they go live there? And so across the northern coast, the “traitors” were quietly bundled into boats for exile. In the weeks that followed, one would often hear people say that their neighbour “went to bed next door and woke up in Iran.”
Hatem’s newfound awareness, though edifying, did not inspire any political aspirations in him. Farouk and Jamal trumpeted the “glory days” of resistance in the 60s and 70s because they did so from the safety of their comfortable, bourgeois existence. Hatem, on the other hand, was the first literate, first to attend high school and first to attend college in his family. Although he was still too embarrassed to invite friends over, his home had gained a second floor, ceiling fans, a gas stove, a refrigerator and his beloved Grundig wireless – not bad for a house of illiterates who still shared one squatting toilet. He had a steady job, which afforded him meals at hotel restaurants – with cloth napkins and goblets, no less! – and a group of friends who were leagues beyond him had welcomed him into their fold. Hatem was content. Why would he risk any of it for politics?
With a smile on his thick lips, Hatem turned away from the wheelchair, tucked his hands under his cheek and closed his eyes. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I tell her everything and tomorrow everything changes for me. Tomorrow, I tell Amina I love her, and tomorrow she will leave that ass Jamal. Reciting this credo always lulled him to sleep; tonight was no different. It was in that preliminary stage of slumber, when the limbs have succumbed but the mind sails at half-mast, that Zuleikha’s stick came crashing down on his head. He started, ear hot and ringing, and squinted at the other bed. He could smell it before he saw it. She had done it again. He sighed and flung his cover aside.
“Come on,” he said, raising her up.
“Is it time for dawn prayers?” she croaked.
He shook his head – it was barely past midnight.
“Liar,” came her reply, as she clung to him like a baby orangutan. “But never will Allah delay a soul when its time has come. And Allah is Acquainted with what you do.”
So why does He tarry with yours, old woman? Why-won’t-you-just-die?! Upon entering the dank bathroom, it occurred to Hatem that he had surpassed senicide, and was now knocking on blasphemy’s door. Wrestling with the urge to harm himself, he shut his eyes, bit his lip and hurried, dragging Zuleikha along. A mere two strides from her shower stool, he slipped on the wet floor of the bathroom and went flying. If he had known that this moment would come to define him, he might have been more careful, but in the seemingly endless process of falling – mind racing with blood, broken bone and Mama's tears – he never imagined that he would land, with a blood-curdling crunch, atop his grandmother.
Once the sheikh finished his sermon and turned to commence prayers, Jaber joined his paws and assumed the position "in the name of..." He resisted the urge to smile to himself as he went through the motions of kneeling and prostration. Where was the sheikh's venom now? Gone were the hot-blooded, agonized pleas to God for the liberation of Palestine, for the destruction of the Persian infidel's profane temple, for the earth to quake beneath the boots of America's armies, a deluge of blood to cleanse the Earth of her iniquities. Now it was Cumbaya and thank you for the fish, sir, three bags full sir. 5,000 watts to the testes had mellowed him; 5,000 more and Mr X could've convinced him to don a yamaka and blow confetti from his backside. Jaber rose, trying to remember the last time he had truly prayed to God, the last time he'd been foolish enough to expect an answer from Him. Jaber, in his own opinion was not a nihilist; he was a realist and that position, in his opinion, required more strength of character than any God fearer or atheist could lay claim to. In times of doubt, could either refer to their respective flocks? He was his own man, free to do as he wished with his brain and his cock. He was by no means "happy", indeed far from it, but he could spot a turkey from a mile away and that clearheadness was as close to divinity as he cared to venture - for he understood the way of things, and what was faith, what was science, but a yearning to understand the way of things?