“Asha and Haaji”—a story by Hanif Kureishi

15 June, 2022

My town in my country was destroyed. I fled and travelled here to the land where the Enlightenment originated, to the democracy where I became an outcast overnight. I woke up to find I’d turned into someone else.

Hanif Kureishi


Call me Ezra. Call me Michael or Thomas. Call me Abu, Dedan, Ahmed. Call me Er, Asha, Trash or Shit. Call me whatever or no one or nothing. You already have more than enough names for me.

In this place my identity and even my nature changes from day to day. It is an effort for me to remember who I am. Like a child rehearsing his alphabet, when I wake up I have to reacquaint myself with my history. That is because I am not recognized. I have no reflection here. Except in her eyes. When she sees me I come to life, if life is the accurate word, which it probably isn’t.

Wearing my only shirt, in the small shabby hotel room which we are forced to leave, I jerk about on my toes waiting for her. I see that I am very thin now: near-death has something to say for it. It is a very odd thing, living every day in fear. At least you get to practice renunciation, but I am, I have to say, a reluctant ascetic. At home I never went to bed with less than five pillows.

My few pathetic possessions, along with my sacred books — Hegel, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kierkegaard — are in canvas bags. I hope they send a limousine because I am not sure how much further I can walk. Something tragic has happened to my nervous system which makes me twitchy. My head is too heavy and my body scarcely obedient. I’d have been better off as a cat.

She was lucky to find a job as a maid here. For two weeks she has been hiding me in her tiny room. We took turns to sleep on the plank of a bed until I made an unavoidable mistake. I had a terrible dream, screamed, and was discovered. Here, even your nightmares can betray you. In future — and I also use this word with a laugh — I will sleep with tape over my mouth.

She and I must get out again. Who knows where. They suggested I am some kind of security risk, or terrorist, and that it would be no trouble to them to report me to the police, who will interrogate me again. She begged them not to bother since I have no religion and, I have to admit, no acknowledged beliefs. I am only a harmless bookworm as soft in the head as ice-cream. No terrorist ever found inspiration in Kafka. And I’m far too lazy to start killing people. I don’t give a damn for invasions or wars; I expect nothing less of humanity. But all this, what has happened, is an inconvenience too far.

In my city far away I ran a coffee shop.

She is angry. She has had enough. And she is all I have. I like to believe she would never abandon me. She must know I will not survive. This strange life is too much for me and my mind is a madhouse. I wait for her. In two minutes everything could become different. I will know from her face.

Haaji is ten years younger than I am and not as dark. As soon as she arrived she stopped covering her modern hair. She is not regarded with the suspicion us men are. She could pass as a “normal” person. I’d never touched a body so white.

For a few weeks I became her savant. She had never met anyone like me, and my view of the world became hers. She risked her life to protect me, though I am not sure if she will continue to do so. We will see what I am for her.

My town in my country was destroyed. I fled and travelled here to the land where the Enlightenment originated, to the democracy where I became an outcast overnight. I woke up to find I’d turned into someone else.

The foreigner has been suspect from the beginning of time. But let us not forget: we are all potential foreigners. One day you too could be turned over from the white side of life to the black. It  takes a moment. Others will notice you do not belong; you will disgust them; they will fear you.

My close pal from the coffeeshop, One-Arm, was relatively organized. I’m aware this is unusual in a poet. We escaped our country together and the first few weeks were chaotic and rough. But he had connections here. He guided me.

We swarm of new nomads walking in history whether we like it or not, are the new slaves.

With him, two months after I arrived, I got a job, as did many others like me, working for Bain, the King of miles of wedding cake mansions and magazine apartments, whose work was to secure empty houses and apartments in the great city. And so, after the terrible journey, things began to look up for me. I was even excited to see Europe again, the buildings, libraries and landscapes, though last time, when I was a student, I had with me a tourist guide, camera and a cheerful curiosity. This new perspective — think of a man viewing the world from inside a litter bin — is, let us say, less exotic. It is more informative to be at the mercy of others.

Bain could do anything he liked to us. We swarm of new nomads walking in history whether we like it or not, are the new slaves. We were compelled to obey and even admire him, which he seemed to enjoy. We shadow people have no tourist guides or even meaning. Strike us if you want to. Take advantage. No one complains.

We were inside the most beautiful houses and apartments in the world, places I’d never seen except on television, and certainly never set foot in before. Empty of life and people, we could enjoy these properties more than the owners — bankers, money launderers and criminals, princes and dirty politicians — who lived in Beijing, or Dubai, Moscow or New York, and who might have forgotten about them altogether.

I can tell you: emptiness doesn’t come cheap. I’d never seen so much light in a building before.

Things that were not dirty, that had never been used, had to be maintained. That was our job: cleaning the clean. Working all day every day, we cared for deserted swimming pools, plump new beds, steam rooms, saunas. Acres of wooden floors and yards of blinds, walls, garages, and gardens had to be attended to. The repainting was continuous. People get less attention but they are worth less.

Our team went from house to house. Sometimes the places were close together, in the same block. Other times we were driven around in a van. People like me, we so-called talkers and intellectuals, those of us who live by abstract things like ideas, words and beauty, are of not much use in the world. I wondered how long I could last in this job. However, in one remarkable house, I was assigned to the garden, clearing leaves, pruning, digging.

It was in this house, under an elegant staircase, almost resembling the one in my favorite movie — and Hitchcock’s best — Notorious, that I discovered a small room with sloping walls containing an old armchair. I guessed the billionaire owner had not only never used this space or seen the armchair; he didn’t know it existed. What would he care that when I sat in it, and rigged up a light, I was comfortable at his expense? Perhaps he was kind and would have been happy for me. Why not?

Just two months before this, when the shelling started in our city, and we finally recognized the truth — that our lives as we’d known them were finished forever — we had to clear out. I gathered clothes and as much money as I could get hold of. Then I stood and stared into nothingness: even while my companions waited for me, something kept me back.

My books. You might find this odd, but they were my main concern even then. There’s nothing like displacement to give you time to read. Kafka, Beckett, Hegel, Nietzsche, Montaigne. My father had passed them on to me. They were my mind and treasure, my single resource.

When it was time to flee, and everything was falling down, I rushed to the back of my café, which also functioned as a library and bookshop, pulling down whatever I could carry, filling my hold-all, other bags and my pockets.

In the new city Haaji and I had found ourselves working in the same house. Bain mostly employed women but he needed men for some work. At first I barely noticed her. She seemed quiet and humble, with her head bowed, wisely keeping out of trouble. None of us spoke much. This assembly of ghosts was in shock. Our mouths were shut.

When I saw her looking at me, I wondered whether she had seen me talking to myself.

Late one evening, when we had finished work and were yet to taken back to our accommodations, there was a rap on my cupboard door. I was inside, in my armchair, reading. At this noise in my secret place I was terrified. Was it now I’d be punished and dismissed?

Hearing her soft but urgent voice — “Asha, Asha, it’s Haaji” — I opened the door. She stepped past me and sat on a stool, opposite my chair. Her intrusion seemed brave. I was puzzled. I waited for her to speak.

“What’s in that book?” she said at last. She pointed. “And in that one? And that one?”

“What do you think? Why do you ask?”

She was able to admit that she wanted to talk to me, this small girl in her white work coat and white shoes. Two scared people sitting together in a cupboard. She asked me to say something about what I was reading. Would I explain it?  I could tell she was clever and even educated, but only up to a certain level. Perhaps she had had problems at school or with her family. She was thin and frail, yet with some determination to her.

What a discovery. Modesty has its limits. Let me say that at this time, with her, I found myself liking myself very much. I had a function. She made me into a person.

These visits were repeated over many nights. I saw that I had to clarify and simplify my thoughts. There’s only so much most people would want to know about Hegel. But she was fascinated to hear about the master-slave relationship, the interdependence of the owner and the servant, leader and follower, creditor and debtor. How they are bound together. The eternal impossible reflection.

I was surprised; I became enthusiastic. I wanted her to know what I saw in this stuff, why I said it was more important than money. More important than most things people valued.

“You’re so kind, you can be my teacher,” she said.

I enjoyed that. It was invigorating to be of use again at last. What did we need? Better words. Fresher ideas for her circumstances. The new vocabulary gave her a enhanced angle. She could see more clearly from the adjusted position. What you think you’re doing under the official description you’re not doing under another. Like sinning, for instance. Suddenly it can appear under love.

What a discovery. Modesty has its limits. Let me say that at this time, with her, I found myself liking myself very much. I had a function. She made me into a person.

Like me, like all of us here, she was afraid and running from something. But unlike me, she was running towards something.  A new life: hope, the future. It was good to see.

Haaji and I, as new companions, could consider ourselves privileged as we went from house to house carrying cleaning equipment. We got to see good furniture, art, sculpture. Only the richest people could afford Warhols, usually the Mao. There were eerie deserted swimming pools and kitchens with no food in them bigger than apartments. We washed down sheer walls of glass overlooking the city.

At night, when I was sometimes the watchman in these houses and all was quiet as a monastery — the beautiful quiet of a city — we sat with our feet up, compelled by the ever-changing night landscapes. In our way we could share the privilege. We could walk on the most beautiful carpets and eat on tables made of Carrara marble. We slipped into their swimming pools and floated on our backs in our pants. What a wrongdoing it was. How we violated them, living their dream. And how childish it made us.

In this panopticon, permanently under the unfeeling eye of some nebulous authority, Haaji and I did a dangerous thing. Our eyes lit up when we saw one another. Something was starting between us; luckily it wasn’t what you think.

We began to play games. We knew where the cameras were. No one looked; Bain and his men rarely glanced at them. There was nothing to see. I’m not sure if any of us stole anything. We were searched all the time.

Rasha Deeb. “Fear,”acrylic on canvas, 80x80cm, 2020 (courtesy Rasha Deeb).

Haaji and I liked to pretend we actually owned these houses of the rich where we served. During these games we could be wealthy and royal. We strode about with authority, shouting orders. We discussed how difficult the builders were and how severely our lawyers would treat them. We wondered about lunches and lovers. I asked her which suit she preferred me in, and which tie and shoes looked best. We speculated about whether we would go to Venice or Nice for our holidays, if we would have sea bass or veal, champagne or vodka.

It was an empty exhilaration. One-Arm came to me with a warning. We had to be more secretive. The others had noticed. There were several black men working with us, mostly doing building work and deliveries. They were dirty, licentious, argumentative, threatening. Their language was incomprehensible and none of them had read a book. Forgive me, please. I hear you. But to each his own foreigner. Can’t I hate arbitrarily too? Is that another privilege I have to forsake?  Sometimes hating tastes better than eating. You know what I’m talking about.

One-Arm said the blacks were gossiping about us and they liked the girl. Why would these others want us to be happy when they were not?

In my city I ran a coffee shop…

In our familiar closet, bent under the sloping walls and in our armchair, Haaji and I talked harder by candlelight. Democracy, love, dreams, gender, virtue, childhood, racism: we had it all out. The sensation of infinity and no one else in the world.

She tried to show me her body, a madness I couldn’t sanction. I looked away and told her about my coffee shop. To keep the café alive I’d describe the families, smiles and jokes of my friends there, now scattered who knows where.

In my city I ran a coffee shop. These beautiful words I recite each morning, like a prayer or affirmation.

I consider myself middle-class. With a hesitating, timid manner, I’ve have always feared mirrors. I was never much to look at, with bald patches, a heavy, duck-like walk, and shortness of breath. I have had two lovers, but I was always scared of women and never keen to copulate. What is a man before a woman who is having an orgasm? Is there anything more terrible? I don’t believe most people really like sex. Certainly, I found so-called sex physically intrusive if not obscene. It seemed unbelievable that people could want to put their tongues in one another’s mouths. Now, I loved motorbikes. A Ducati is a thing of glorious beauty.

Socrates said, I can only think of Eros. I take this to mean: how does one relate passion to the rest of one’s life? Some people look for God, but I look for my own god of Eros in everything and not only bodies. I see it in coffee and sentences. So I go along with St. Augustine: I may have remembered it wrongly, but I like to think he said that having a penis was God’s hilarious punishment for being a man. Your dick goes up and down randomly, particularly when you’re young, and you can’t control it by willing. In church, I found, it went up with inconvenient regularity. Then, when you’re finally in bed with Cindy Crawford and she is murmuring your name, you know you’re not going to make it. Forget penis envy, I’m all for castration. That is why I hide my penis in books. I’d rather read about it than live it.

There, before, in my town, with my routine, I was dedicated to my work and liked to serve. It was an honor; I was proud of the little place. Making an Americano, offering pastries and newspapers, talking to my customers, seeing if I could charm them, this was my vocation.

My 1200cc motorcycle was outside where I could appreciate it, large and classic as I wiped the tables down and swept the floor. There were pictures and photographs on the walls — works I bought from local artists to encourage them. In the back of the café were books on architecture and comfortable chairs. My clientele consisted of fine dissenters a blink away from prison: human rights lawyers, academics, blasphemous writers, singers, anarchists, troublemakers. I made sure to know them all by name. Sometimes I was invited to their houses. I imagined a band of aliens, bohemians and originals. Like Paris after 1946: Richard Wright and Gertrude Stein chatting.

Now, suppose some dictator takes the guns the west sold him and blows up your coffee shop. Not only that. The street, in fact the whole town, everything and everyone there, is, one day, obliterated in a surging fire. Suppose you look out at your neighborhood one morning and everything you know is gone. Behind the conflagration there is only filth, ruin, smoke. The people you saw everyday — shopkeepers, neighbors, children — are dead, injured or running. And no one recalls why making this hell was necessary or what good cause it served.

Rasha Deeb, “Blind God,” acrylic on canvas, black light color, 210×120 cm, 2020 (courtesy Rasha Deeb).

Civilization is a veneer. Underneath we are incontinent beasts. Who doesn’t know this? Yet it is not true. If we are savages it is because we are commanded to be so. Because we are followers. Because we are obedient.

People: I am coming at you with my strange ways. Like many others, I scrabbled to the city of the enlightenment. At first I slept on benches and beneath dustbins. I shat in your parks and wiped my ass on your leaves. It was dangerous. Strangers roughed me up.  I took that as an affront, having never seen victimization as a natural part of my condition.

Almost as soon as I arrived, my papers were stolen as I slept. Later, I got new papers. I had been warned, but I was forced to go to Bain. You should have seen the approval on his face. He had predicted I would have to ask him humbly for help. He had done it a hundred times with others and made sure it cost me. His friends grabbed all the money I had brought with me, and Bain took his cut. Then I worked to pay him back. I would never pay him back. Like the others, in exchange for some safety, I was the devil’s forever.

You must think me careless. I got new papers. Then I lost them. Really, it was then that I lost everything. This is how.

You walk along a quiet street in a normal city with your friend, One-Arm the poet. It is a part of the city which considers itself civilized. You see a woman in a café reading a book. Attractive people talk of Michelangelo. You see galleries and museums with people strolling and looking. There are new buildings with fabulous curves. You want to go in. You tell One-Arm that even Ulysses went home.

You approach a bar. For you, the ordinary citizen, it is nothing but a bar. But to me, for whom the normal was a long time ago, it is a danger point. From where I see things, you might call “the normal” a façade or window-dressing, just as the dying might think the healthy inhabit a stupid illusion.

Outside the bar a man is drinking. He looks up and his eyes take you in. Here, in the heart of paradise, an explosion takes place inside him. Your being outrages him. At the same time he is filled with a peculiar pleasure: this is satisfaction anticipated. I should say: madness is the mainstream now. Haaji calls it the new normal. For thirty years I was a free man. Now I am a dangerous dog in someone’s path.

You grab your poeticizing friend by his one good arm and you shuffle away. You have recognized definite danger.

As you feared, the man comes, with others. They are always nearby and they are quick. These are productive times for vigilantes, the protectors of decency.

Nihilism doesn’t dress well. You wouldn’t want to discuss poetry with them. They have shaved heads. They wear leather and have tattoos. They have clubs and knuckle-dusters.

One look at us is all it takes for them to know civilization is at stake. We raggeds with our awful belongings and need are a threat to their security and stability.

I have no doubt: it is dangerous for us here in Europe. I am paranoid, I know that. I hear interrogations and arguments in my head. I expect people to have a low view of me. We are already humiliated. Not that there isn’t much for us to be paranoid about. If we are on the street, just walking, they stare and often they turn their backs. They spit. They want us to know we are peculiar to them, unwanted. They talk about choice and individuality, but it amazes me how conformist and homogenous everyone is.

We, the reduced, the primitives, savages and filthy drifting blacks are terrorized. We, I say. We are not even a we. We are still a “them.” The cause of all their problems. Everything bad stems from us. I needn’t enumerate  their accusations. I don’t have much time.

We flee, One-Arm and I. We run as we’ve never run before. A blur of limbs, a streak of terror.

They catch us. They beat me so badly I can’t open my eyes. I can barely hear. The police are indifferent, of course. The fewer of us the better.

One-Arm was murdered that night but saviors came before I died. Haaji persuaded Bain to let me stay while she wrapped me in her pale love. What use was a wrecked man to him? She convinced him I would soon be back on my feet. I wonder how she really persuaded him, particularly after he said he would have her skin made into a pretty handbag for one of his employers? It wasn’t entirely a joke. He was selling the women in other ways. Our bodies have their uses.

Haaji must have been in love, or at least devoted at that time because her kindness was unlimited. This will surprise you, but she had been uplifted by my optimism. These are dark days in a dark world for us dark people. And perhaps I’m some kind of holy fool. Yet I never stopped telling her that I believe in the possibility of collaboration and exchange. People can, I maintain even now, do creative things together. I’d seen it in the coffee shop where good things were said. If there were only destruction, there’d be no life at all on this planet. Hear me: let us try some equality. Equality is such an interesting idea. Why is it the most difficult thing?

After the attack nothing was right with me. Bain had his group, and he had seen that Haaji was susceptible. There are many men keen to run cults, and many devotees who will join them if they believe they will be eventually rewarded. The cult generally, whether religious or political, patriarchal or matriarchal, has not stopped being the modern form of belonging.

There were those who saw him as a liberator. He was Schindler, protecting and hiding those of us threatened with extinction. Unfortunately he had his theories and preferred belching words to listening. After work, in a millionaire’s mansion, I can see him pacing up and down like an iman or preacher, on a priceless wooden floor, while we slumbered at his feet.

Humor is usually humiliating and tyrants don’t encourage such instant deconstructions. My mumbled quip about the price of disenfranchisement being the necessity of enduring hurricanes of hot air didn’t boost my attractiveness. Unluckily for me, I’m an enthusiast and skeptic rather than a follower. In a properly efficient tyranny — the only ones worth considering — someone like me doesn’t last five minutes.

Despite my desire to remain cheerful if not cynical, the world was making me bitter. If you think literature is weird, try reality. I had always been an admirer of Beckett. As I giggled through his prose in my coffee shop and wrote his quotes on postcards to send to friends, it never occurred to me that I’d be buried up to my neck in manure. Unfortunately, the fictionists I admire give no instructions and require no sacrifices. That is their virtue and failure.

With nothing to lose, I had a good idea.

Since the attack, toothache had taken me over. My teeth were giving me unforgettable trouble. How could someone like me afford a doctor or dentist? The pain was too much and I wanted to strike out at the world. Why can’t people be nice? That’s a good question, isn’t it? Kindness has no politics and there wasn’t enough of it in the world. I would introduce some. So I became keen to murder Bain.

He was rarely alone but came out into the garden of the mansion to smoke one night. He had his back to me: the part of him I most preferred. I was sitting behind a tree at twilight, reading by the light of a small torch. I noticed a branch nearby and it occurred to me to relieve Bain of his brains. I thought: aren’t I really a murderer dreaming I’m a respectable man? By sparing the world an evil force I would receive both satisfaction and moral fulfilment. If you ask me, it is the sadists and perverts who cause trouble, being overly concerned with what others are doing. Didn’t I want to be good?

He turned away.

I thought: I can still catch up with him, and strike him. There is time. Millions have murdered. Many liked it. Didn’t they seem to live on, unworried, continuing to enjoy TV and discounts at their local supermarkets? But I was weak. We are all Hamlet’s brothers, and killing wasn’t a breeze for me. Why should it be? I let the moment go. As he disappeared along a path, I picked up the branch and knocked it in regret against my knee. The log disintegrated.

I wasn’t able to do the work Bain demanded. I was limping and weak. I had no rights and no money. There were rumors he was selling the organs of recalcitrant workers. Not that he would get much for mine. I asked her to leave with me.

It was touch and go. I had to tell her that the protection she sought was an illusion. There’s never any shortage of tyrants and their self-interest was catastrophic. She had found the wrong master in Bain, and I couldn’t be a master at all.

We escaped at night, taking backways and hiding in woods, washing in petrol stations.

We were settled in a small town which is worse for us than the city. The residents are restive and nervous. There have been bombings and attacks throughout the country by maniacs, religionists and politicos. There was a shooting not far from here. The politicians hurry down like housewives at a sale. After each tragedy, the people hold vigils and light their candles. They link hands, weep, and swear they will never forget. But they do forget when there is another and then another incident.

They insist that they are being forced to put their values of decency and tolerance aside. They must protect themselves against outsiders. We are not the saints they thought our suffering obliged us to be. We have let them down with our banal humanity.

And here we are now. Haaji got a job in the hotel and smuggled me into her room. We didn’t talk. I had no mystery left. I’d taught her everything I knew and it wasn’t enough. After a time I saw what was wrong: I didn’t know what to ask of her.

I lay there for days. The room became a kind of tomb. It was a good opportunity for me to think about death. Socrates, after all, wanted to die in his own way, when he was ready. It was not suicide: death was not a “must-have” for him. Nor was it despair. Rather, it is a question of whether there is any profit in living. People want to live too long now. Considering my own death certainly changed a lot in me. I lost a lot of fear.

Late at night, if the coast was clear, she and I would sometimes sneak out together, through the backdoor. She walked ahead, wearing lipstick. I had to go behind, tattered, making sure not to lose sight of her. Our distance was essential. A woman like her, with a man of my color, we could never hold hands. They already believe we copulate more than anyone deserves.

At the harbor we’d sit apart, on different benches, joined by our eyes, signaling to one another. I have come to like, if not admire, ordinariness. Along with an empty head, it is the loveliest privilege.

One night, when the weather was wild and the sea a frothy cauldron, I caught sight of many other boats on the horizon, bringing hundreds more of us aliens with upraised hands, shouting “freedom, freedom!” Meanwhile there was a hubbub in the harbor. Some wanted to watch them drown. For others, human values had to persist. While they fought amongst themselves some of the boats went down.

Now I hear a noise. It is her footsteps. She comes in. She barely looks at me. She is different.

She gathers her things and walks out into the street. She is ahead of me as always. She knows how weak I am, but she is walking fast, too fast for me to follow. She knows where she wants to go. It is raining. I hurry along. But it is hopeless.

I call after her. I want a last glimpse and a memory. “Here, take them. You will need them.”

She stops.

One day everything will be borne away in a great fire, all the evil and all the good, and the political organizations and the culture and the churches. In the meantime there is this.

I hand her my bag of books. They are inside me now. Let it go.


Hanif Kureishi, the British author of Pakistani and English heritage, grew up in Kent and studied philosophy at King’s College London. His novels include The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel, The Black AlbumIntimacyThe Last WordThe Nothing and What Happened? Among his many screenplays are My Beautiful Laundrette, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Le Week-End. He has also published several collections of short stories and had numerous plays performed on stage. France awarded Kureishi the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2008, The Times of London included Kureishi in its list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The same year, he received the distinction of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Kureishi has been translated into thirty six languages.


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