On a couple of occasions – that I know of – I’ve had my irises scanned. These in the airports where I get pulled over for the stupid questions. In theory, a computer link can now tie my iris to my bank account, credit rating, police record, driving license and passport details – all in the sharpest microsecond.
The town centre has been replaced by a shopping mall, owned and controlled. People take more interest in Angelina Jolie’s romantic life than in the course of political events. The politics on show are soap opera, and the soap opera is determined a ‘British value’. According to the new points system for migrants, access to Britishness can be speeded up by campaigning for a political party (I presume they don’t mean Hizb ut-Tahrir), while ‘active disregard for British values’ – which might or might not mean protesting against imperialist wars – will retard membership of the club.
The great Englishman Dr. Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And on that sound note allow me to introduce a short story by the Syrian writer Ibrahim Alloush, translated by Domenyk Eades.
The search by Ibrahim Alloush
Translated by Domenyk Eades
We spent several months together. For the first week or so we didn’t talk much. He would just tell me to look left or right. Whenever we approached a group of people, he would slow down and whisper to me, “Look carefully to see if he is among them.”
He came each afternoon by no later than four o’clock. I had been used to sleeping in the afternoon hours, but I couldn’t any longer. The roar of the motorbike penetrated my head as I paced back and forth around the house, contemplating the day’s journey so that I wouldn’t fall asleep and leave the man in the street waiting for me. Before his shoes even touched the pavement and he had turned off the engine of his motorbike, I was already out the door and by his side, while the others in the house still slept. My parents grew worried about me. The children made the most of this time playing and shouting away from the strict and vigilant eyes of their parents, unrestrained by their rules and prohibitions. The man would take me with him for one purpose or another.
In the beginning our trips were not well planned. But after the first week, when we started talking to one another, he told me what he wanted to do. It seemed that he could no longer stand driving around for four hours at a time without speaking. On the holidays and weekends we would be together for about ten hours at a stretch. We spent our time drinking soft drinks or coffee, and the proprietors would never let him pay for them. This was after I had included cafes and restaurants within the areas of our daily search, as well as the entrances to mosques when the people were entering and leaving around prayer times, especially during the Friday prayer.
The man persevered, never complaining or showing any sign of anger or discontent. He never grumbled to me about his life or his work. I thought that if I had possessed the perseverance he had shown, I would have been able to complete my university studies instead of delaying year after year relying on what now seem to be just flimsy excuses. A long time had passed, full of playing around and making up excuses which led to me missing opportunities to work in the Gulf. I had believed that the only people remaining in the country were failures like myself, until I met this diligent, hardworking man.
During this time, I developed an ability to read faces. I would get the kind of strange feeling that creeps up on you when you are looking at a portrait, or a scene from a film which tells of events before they happen, or to some extent when one reads the description of a face in a book. But this time the faces were real in these streets which I knew well. But the faces were strange to me and they would flee from in front of me while I was studying them. This strangeness gave me a space to contemplate and consider them carefully. It made the faces seem slightly further away than the everyday and the familiar, and more like something from my imagination; from films and paintings.
A month after my search began I was surprised at the wealth of faces which had entered my memory. I could not imagine that such a thing as seemingly insignificant as a face could comprise so many different details and variations within such a small physical space. Some were circular, others rectangular, or pale, hot, afraid, yellow, indifferent, or hiding deep sorrow. Some faces were possessed by people who seemed to use them to walk the streets with instead of using their feet. Some seemed as if they were made of clay which had not yet dried and which you might worry about getting too close to lest they cracked. Some were like glaring billboards, advertising all that lay behind them. Some were like rocks lying scattered randomly over the ground. Some were passionate faces which looked at you in anger, and others with cold indifference. Some were immersed in everyday life and others seemed to drift along aimlessly without any purpose or meaning.
It is strange that I cannot remember the man’s face in spite of the many months we spent together traversing the streets. Perhaps this is because I usually sat behind him. I remember only the cold tone of his voice, which was constantly reminding me to be meticulous with the faces I came across. The tone was stern and forceful due to the years it had been ordering people around, even though the man did not really hold any position of authority. The nature of his work and the use to which he put this tone meant that he could now use it skilfully, preventing the very thought of arguing or questioning him from entering anyone’s head.
Sometimes I think that if I saw him now I would only recognise him if he spoke and gave an order. His physical appearance has been wiped clean from my memory, as I hadn’t looked at him long enough to put the details of his face to my memory. I would be right behind him. I would mutter a greeting and he would mutter something in response.
I can say that the first month was enjoyable compared with the months that followed it. He wouldn’t pass by any of the faces which had gathered together without studying them carefully. He had previously given me the freedom to look around and go where I wanted without specific directions.
In subsequent months he started marking out one region to survey thoroughly and completely. The main streets and roads were checked, then the alleyways, and then houses with addresses written on a list which he always took with him. He rang the bell and without any welcomes or introductions we went into the house. He said to me:
Be very careful that you remain unswayed by the poverty you see and the warm welcomes that greet you. Don’t miss a single face, even that of a very young person. You must take careful note even of a baby, as a baby resembles his parents. This way we will get who we want.
He walked in front of me and opened the rooms: kitchens, bathrooms, and toilets. The faces peered at us frozen with terror. We mingled with them without a single one of them asking us what we wanted, and we wouldn’t let them know what it was we were after.
We started driving around the neighbourhood, monitoring the streets and alleys. We fenced the neighbourhood in with the smoke from the exhaust of our motorcycle. Then we made an incursion into it over the lines on the map which he had memorised, drawing parallel and criss-crossed lines with the smoke of his motorcycle, isolating the faces in squares of blue smoke, which was sometimes blackish in colour, depending on the degree of effort the motorbike had to make when it ascended and descended. We passed shops and corner mosques as we went through the neighbourhoods. He would exchange gestures with some people. I didn’t see the gestures on his face, as he would be riding on the motorcycle in front of me. However, I saw the responses on faces hidden here and there, gesturing back to him. The neighbourhoods were filled with faces. Some of them were elegant, others seemed neglected, and the appearance of some of them was of no concern to us as they seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary; that of a father with his children, a handsome youth waiting for his girlfriend, or a repairman busy fixing his equipment. He would promptly give a signal to change our direction to another route.
In the summer months, my inner thighs would become chafed. I used various kinds of ointments to relieve the pain in my burnt legs, which were scorched from the plastic seat cover, which pumped strong heat onto them and melted my skin. But the man didn’t complain about anything. It was as if his motorcycle was a part of his body. I began to grow tired of the search. Even sitting in the cafes which we used to enjoy eventually lost its appeal to me, as did the restaurant and café patrons who were busy chatting about everything and anything. When I eventually spotted the man we were looking for, I was convinced that their conversations had amounted to worthless rubble, just idle chit chat for killing time and relieving their boring lives.
When I left with the man on the motorcycle that afternoon, I got a vague feeling that something would happen, and before the motorbike turned into the street where I saw him my heart pounded. I sensed the strong beat of his heart, and before I analysed what was happening, I saw on the corner of the road a distinct man appear with an appearance which was very different from that of the people who had gathered in the restaurants, cafes, and the other places. A broad smile grew on my face, but he looked at me without any concern at all, with the face of the man on the motorcycle in front of me. His face was like the sun, and its bright light shone into my heart. It was him, the man who said “NO”. His features came together in front of me the moment I saw him. He went into the room on that day, and I was alone there. The remaining members of the committee had gone to breakfast and only I remained by the ballot box, alone. He asked for a ballot paper, and I said to him:
Naturally you want to vote ‘Yes’!
No… I don’t want to vote ‘Yes’!
But this is not allowed… You will just give everyone a headache!
He replied, “Well, this is my opinion!” He took a piece of paper from my hand and drew a circle around the black letters of the word “NO”. He ignored the word ‘YES’, which was printed in green letters. He folded the paper, posted it into the box, and left. This was the ‘NO’ which had made the man on the motorbike accompany me for all these months. I pondered over his smiling face. It was as if he recognised me and knew the reason why I had been riding behind the motorcycle man. He had such confidence in himself that I almost cried out to the motorbike man to stop and arrest him, shouting:
It’s him… He is the man who voted ‘NO’!!
But I couldn’t bring myself to torment the man in this way. His light had shone into my heart. I felt at that moment that I was a part of the rubble which I had been watching and monitoring every day. But this man’s face shone brightly and he rose up in my eyes to the status of a hero, such as one might read about in a great epic.
The man on the motorcycle complained, “How I hate this upstart. I hope that I get something on him. I will make his face resemble a shoe. I don’t like people like this. He’s a strange one!!”
I said to him, “He sure is a strange one!!”
A few months later, the man came to me in despair. He took me back to the house, and for the first time he said:
Tomorrow I won’t come here. I have something I have to do. I will return to you one day, and we will definitely find him no matter how much time has passed!!!