At All Costs
A short story published in Five Dials. It’s only the second short story I’ve written, and I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed of it. Here’s the link. It includes an interview with Noam Chomsky.
Abdu, masterful and charismatic, was holding forth above a long table which supported a debris of pastes and salads, when he registered, like a disturbance on a radar screen, a burst of cruel hilarity erupting from a couple of the younger guests. Abdu didn’t slow down; instead he increased his volume and amplified the movements of his hands. It was important that as few people as possible noticed the teenagers’ disrespect, and that nobody noticed that he had noticed. To notice it was to grant it value, and that he must not do.
This was his 60th birthday meal. At the climax of his life, after decades of sustained effort, he’d won the right to celebrate birthdays, like Europeans do, and also to be considered a right-living patriot. That is, an embodiment of modern success. No woman at the table wore a headscarf, and neither, of course, was any alcohol served. His young dyed-blonde wife presided quietly at his side. She wore a cream-coloured jacket and trousers from Paris. He wore a new, blue suit. All eyes were upon him. This was essential. If they didn’t recognise him correctly now, he would be ruined in his own eyes.
So the teenagers made his stomach lurch with the shock of impending disaster, but he breathed it away, and kept on talking. Perhaps he had interpreted wrongly. Perhaps his loss of control extended only to losing the boys’ attention, and they were only giggling at something private and inconsequential, not at the jinn story he was relating with so many careful insinuations and suggestive gaps. Continuing to talk gave him time to observe and analyse and, if need be, to limit the damage. Already he was making evasive manoeuvres so retreat could be more smoothly effected, subtracting mystery from his face and voice and adding light irony in its place.
The change in tone made it necessary to revise the story itself. Specifically, the old man of his tale, the one he’d consulted on the means of communicating with the jinn, would have to be a more ridiculous figure, and the punchline would be a joke at this primitive’s expense. He’d spend more time describing the poverty of the shaikh’s surroundings, his wheezy breathing, the rottenness of his teeth. He wouldn’t end, as he always had before, with the implication that he, Abdu, had become proficient in jinn lore. He wouldn’t refer to the jinn as ‘our friends’ and then lapse into abrupt and evocative silence.
Silence. Behind the strain of performance, Abdu remembered the years of his poverty. Remembered the silence of death that inhabited his mother when she fell to the floor at the climax of her trance. Little Abdu ran forward from the shadows to tug at her dress, but was restrained by the other women. “Leave her, boy. Leave her, habibi. She’ll come back now and be well.” And his fear receded, for he knew it was so. It had happened before. She had fallen like this, and after a few shivery moments she had risen again, happier than she’d been for weeks, crying happy tears, a phoenix rising from ashes.
In the days before they went to the zar she was ashen-faced and shuffling. She wept steadily as she swept the floor or made the bread. She didn’t reply when Abdu or any of his brothers or sisters spoke to her. To their father she only responded yes or no, and he, understandably, spent even the little time he had for resting out of their rooms, elsewhere. Abdu’s mother would occupy this depression for such long stretches that Abdu couldn’t remember its beginning. Her happiness was like his babyhood, a clouded dream. But when she gathered him, the youngest one, and walked with the neighbour women to the place of the zar, he knew that relief was about to rain upon them.
At the zar there were too many women for him to count, and some round-eyed, world-shocked infants like himself too tired to bother shouting. But the women did shout, though not in their usual directed fashion. They began in a circle, each woman swaying and twisting, moaning the name of God, making their voices plunge and rise like beaten drums, like waves beating on rocks, like blood in your ears when you run too hard towards home, and two or three of the women would strike at the daf, the homemade tambourines, and then more would beat at their breasts, the chant rising, becoming screams and wails and tremors, until the circle broke, women clawing the cloths from their heads, hiding their eyes with their arms, and his mother trembling, shrieking and falling. “What’s happened to her?” he cried. “What’s happened to mama?” And after he’d asked six or seven times a panting woman would tell him, “akhath-ha al-haal, habibi – the trance has taken her,” and then, “Leave her, habibi. She’ll come back. She’ll be well.” And always she did come back, as if she had died and then been resurrected. Brought back to life, given a fresh, smiling face.
The memory was an embarrassment. People nowadays were so much more grown up. These days, only drunkards and hasheesh smokers would allow their inner feelings to overspill so promiscuously. But back then it was as if everybody drank and smoked; they were weak vessels containing huge emotions. In Lebanon during the passion plays Shia villagers would lynch the man playing the murderer of Hussain, if they managed to get their hands on him. Not a popular role for the actors. But people progressed and developed. By the late 60s, by the time Abdu was an engineer and a respected man, people’s understanding of role-playing had developed so far that film baddies became superstars. There was a cinema in every city, and only the dying generation wept and wailed at the zar.
Abdu talked, and grinned a grin of well-kept teeth. His eyes glanced beadily across the faces of his peers, from police officer to doctor, from businessman to party official, and across the white and painted expanses of their wives’ faces, and returned again to the young people, the children of his own upwardly mobile generation, children who could take it all for granted. Who hadn’t had to struggle. Their heads were pointed towards him but they couldn’t quite look into his eye. They were smirking still; it was quite clear. On closer examination, they were older than teenagers, probably already returned from foreign studies. In fact, it was possible they owned import licenses and car dealerships, mobile phone franchises, land development rights. These were the men he should be establishing relationships with if he didn’t want to slip from the place he had climbed to. New men. Smirking, complacent, too comfortable. Dangerous.
He remembered a fairground game he’d played once in England. A white woman was holding his shoulder, taller than him, and the air smelled of rain and fish and chips deep fried. The game itself involved smirking plastic rabbits popping out of holes, and him wielding a plastic hammer to bang them back in place. All the teeth and the spinning lights and English people expecting him to be confused and clumsy; and the rabbits speed up, as he remembers, until sooner or later, but inevitably, you can’t keep them all down any longer.
“Ha!” He finished off the anecdote with a flash of noise and a triumphant bucking of his forehead. “The man didn’t have any people to talk to, but he did have the jinn! His friends the jinn! Ha!” He was a little breathless, and glad to have finished. With the hand kept concealed under the table’s surface he clutched and crumpled a serviette. Tears of sweat were pooling in his eyebrows. As soon as somebody else began speaking he would mop his brow. For now the guests were laughing, and nodding at him as they did so. Everything as it should be. He felt his wife’s grateful simpering.
What had disgusted him most in England was the London Carnival that a woman had made him visit – its single surging communal body – and all the whites and blacks losing themselves in reggae music and smoke. In that mire of limbs and colours and odours he lost the woman for a few minutes. When he found her again she was delirious, forgetful of herself. But Abdu, he’s done so much work on his self, he will protect it at all costs.
The laughter went on, and Abdu wiped his nose, looking graciously outward. But the two that concerned him most were laughing at a different pace to the others, too slowly, and for each other’s benefit, not his. One swarthy and snake-thin; the other plump and pale, with a brownish fuzz of beard around the mouth in the style they called sek-sooki, like the English word sexy. They disrupted everything. Abdu’s fixed grin fell, bringing relief to his cheeks and throat but an immediate tension to the table – which perked up the older guests. Their laughter scattered and stopped, Abdu’s temporary allies still enacting appreciation with nods and smiles and wrinklings around the eyes, collaborating with him, keeping it going. But what would they say to each other in their cars as they drove home, in their offices, on the telephone?
“And do you talk to them too, Uncle, the jinn?” The swarthy one with slicked-back hair had spoken. The sneer in his tone was unmistakeable.
What do you do to reply to this? He’d like to reach over and slap these two, show them the strength he had left. He’d like to shake them until they whimpered for him to stop. He’d like to squeeze their necks. He felt great power stirring. But it wouldn’t be safe. He realised suddenly that he didn’t know whose sons they were. Their names escaped him. They must be someone to be here at the table. He should have taken more care of these things. Had he relaxed too much? Had he fallen asleep?
Whoever they were, he had to restrain himself. Screeching in abandon is not religion. The country had built schools and hospitals. Those willing to work hard had become educated. Abdu especially had become an educated man, looked up to, a pillar of respectable society. He wasn’t rubbish. He wasn’t people in the slums plugging their toilets against rats, sharing meals with cockroaches.
Nevertheless, he felt himself angering, like bubbles and fizz escaping from a half-uncorked bottle. He heard cracks, buzzes, whinings in his head, air squeezed through tiny skull tubes, traffic through hidden tunnels. He bit back on it. This kind of emotion is better kept indoors, better targetted at the children. Better a door or two away even from the socially advantageous wife. Come, gather yourself, for he’d done well until now, negotiating party men when the Resurrection came to power, negotiating the sects and each individual’s prickliness, dominating those he could and submitting when he’d had to. He’d developed a good technique in garrulousness, and he understood the codes of success. Live a sedentary life. Make yourself likable. Know the rules.
A certain amount of deception was necessary, it went without saying. It was true that isolation was the price of control. And it was also true that, out of necessity, he had returned to that world which still nobody denied, not even the petty boys before him, the realm of the beings of fire, which the Qur’an, after all, describes. Let them deny the jinn, and publicly prove themselves unbelievers! Abdu, even if he knew it was forbidden to seek their company, he had learnt to deal with the jinn. He wouldn’t be ashamed. The jinn became his friends. His servants, really, for he didn’t go to them moaning and shaking, but as one in command. His order for them was always the same, just applied to different people: “Show me x’s true face. Tell me what is in his inner heart. What his body hides.” What he’d been shown had given him an edge.
Yet now, in the restaurant, Abdu realised with mild shock that he had lost the struggle. He was on his feet, and his throat was open. “Do you know who I am?” he roared. “Do you know what I have achieved?” Anger unleashed contradictory currents, of domination and submission both at once. He frightened the world; he gave in to himself. His fist struck the table so the pillaged dishes jumped. Masks flopped from the guests’ faces. Some of them, too, showed anger – a clean and righteous anger targetting Abdu, because rules had been broken. The wives shrank into expert disdain.
Abdu’s voice, now wordless, bellowed louder. He screamed. He sounded like his mother at the zar before the silence. His voice sounded distant, further and further away. He saw his body from afar and forgot that it was his. Yet he didn’t mind. For once, bodies didn’t matter, and inside he was blank.