Hanif Kureishi: “Asha and Haaji”

15 June, 2022
Rasha Deeb (b. Dam­as­cus, 1988), “Inside,” acrylic on can­vas, 120x80cm, 2020 (cour­tesy of Rasha Deeb).

 

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 a nig­ger 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 a nig­ger 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, 210x120 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.

 

BeckettBooksDostoevskyfictionforeignersHegelHitchcockKafkaKierkegaardmigrantsnomads

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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