Robin Yassin-Kassab


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His father used to work at the refinery, which was a good job. His father brought home a new toy every evening, that’s what Bilal remembers. Many of the toys are still at home, stuffed under his mother’s bed: speaking animals, racing cars, things that work if you have batteries.

Bilal thought his father had a round and jolly face, but this thought contradicted the stern, gaunt photograph framed on the living room wall. The photograph was a fact – unlike Bilal’s thought, which was only a thought, as vague and blurry at the edges as thoughts tend to be.

A couple of years ago, a long time now, his father had been arrested and taken away. This happened to a lot of people and was nothing much to cry about.

There was some confusion as to his father’s exact location. One aunt said he was in the local prison. One said he was in prison in the capital. His uncles squeezed his shoulder and said nothing at all.

One aunt said he was in heaven. When Bilal heard her he thought his father had been killed and he began to cry inconsolably. But his mother told him that that aunt was just upset and raving, that his father was in prison in the capital, and that Bilal would meet him again one day when he’d grown up and done something that his father could be really proud of. She said people don’t die in any case. And Bilal was consoled.

He was the oldest child, the only son, so in a way the head of the household. He bossed around his two sisters who were too little to obey him. He knew he bore responsibility for them and for his mother whose wages paid the rent on their flat but didn’t put food on the table. That was his job. But what he suffered in responsibility he regained in freedom.

Though his mother still pulled his ear, he was his own boss. He chose how to spend his time. He spent a great deal at the tar pit, bouncing on tar bubbles. Sometimes they started fires and threw flaming tar bombs at each other. There were usually five boys in the group. Burqan, the oldest, most nearly-bearded boy, dictated what they did.

Bilal spent even more of his time at the intersection. This was a kilometre on, past his block and the school he used to attend: a glaringly open highway, fifty metres across, intersected by a thinner road. On the right side of the highway was a graveyard made of quick-bleached tombstones, yellow dust, and a couple of bent trees. Bodies were sometimes found here. (It seemed to make sense, bodies turning up in the graveyard.) On the other side there was a petrol station – a single pump under a faded red shelter – and a long once-whitewashed wall running away from it along the thin road. The wall trembled under contemporary weight: graffiti on top of graffiti, slogans over older slogans, birdshit, spit streaks, lime. A stink arose from the further side of the wall, where waiting men had relieved themselves.

Sometimes there were tens of waiting men and sometimes hundreds. Their vehicles were backed up like sweet wrappings under the sun: cars, vans, trucks and buses, all rustling and glistening. It was usually far too hot. The men disembarked and stretched, told jokes, and quarrelled. Some dozed in the driver’s seat with the door open for breeze and a newspaper wet on their face against flies. Some erected umbrellas under which to eat sandwiches. Anything to pass the time. However uncommitted they might seem they were true devotees intently attending the goddess petrol, praying her juices might flow. When supplies drove in, a mighty throbbing woke the crowd, which fought and rushed to slake its thirst.

Bilal didn’t like petrol. When it sloshed on you you couldn’t wash it off. It was like fish under your nails, like the grease of grilled chicken, but still worse. If it covered your hands you could taste its chill in your mouth. It infected food and water. And it made you feel sick. It limited the oxygen available.

It was also dangerous. Once when Bilal was soaked in it – his hair and his T-shirt thick and his cheeks and lips screwed up against the fumes – Burqan announced he was going to set him on fire. Burqan pulled a heavy metal lighter from his pocket and struck the flint three times. Bilal knew the bigger boy wouldn’t dare do it, but he was scared of an accident nevertheless. Petrol was everywhere, crystalline droplets in the air, invisible, clinging perhaps even to Burqan’s slow-strumming thumb. The boys were frowning, grinning, hoping for drama but not believing. Then they told Burqan to stop.

What Bilal liked at the petrol pump were the financial opportunities. You could sell anything that worked down the waiting line: sunflower seeds, prayer beads, glasses of tea. The best seller on a summer’s day was tamarind juice, so this was his usual equipment: a bucket full of juice and a bucket of ice, purchased in the main shopping street and hawked at mark up here.

Better than selling was to guard a rich man’s place while he went to meet his friends. If he was kind and you were sufficiently polite he might let you sit in the car. Bilal liked to sit with the windows closed until he became dizzy from the heat, but he did it rarely because when he did he had to lurch out after a few minutes and drink whatever was available, usually tamarind juice, and so waste his profits.

There were men who’d pay you to warn them if a patrol approached. Bilal often took this job on account of his clear strong voice. (Hadn’t his father named him Bilal after the first caller of the prayer?) He stood in the middle of the intersection and observed the distance. If a patrol rumbled into sight he called, and the underground men scurried across wasteland into the shelter of dark buildings.

The strongest men didn’t have to wait at all. They left contact details instead. When the oil trucks arrived Bilal or another of the boys ran to the nearest shop with a phone and called their numbers. Then the men drove their sharkish, smoked-glass vehicles right up to the pump, forcing those at the front of the queue to zigzag.

He didn’t mind working here. He liked walking the line of the cars, especially at night – checking the windows and addressing the passengers as if it was him on patrol, as if these people were guests on his territory. He could even look at girls, if he was lucky enough to find some. Usually women stayed in their houses these days, and it had always been a man’s job to fill up on petrol. But sometimes men had no choice but to bring their wives and daughters with them. Perhaps the women were scared to stay alone. And some wives and daughters had no husbands and fathers, so they were forced to behave like men.

There was a woman he’d seen several times. Once she’d bought a glass of juice. She was a beautiful woman with pure black eyes and smiling lips, in a black dress, with a little boy in the seat beside her. Certainly a widow. Last time he’d seen her he told himself that he’d marry her if he were older. Maybe he would anyway, in a couple of years. She was too old for him of course. His mother wouldn’t let them marry. He didn’t care. He’d take her to another country. He wanted to live.

He recognised the car first, and then the shape of her head. The little boy was asleep and the woman was crying. Not bawling like a woman at a funeral, but steadily, silently, with her eyes wide open. Tears brimmed on her lips.

Bilal glanced back at the pump, fifty or sixty cars away. An oil truck had arrived and the vehicles at the front were bustling. The strongest men had begun to arrive too. Before long the pump would run dry. The woman was probably too far back in the line.

Bilal looked at the woman and looked at the pump. He dropped the ice bucket. He had four glasses, which he arranged on the bonnet of the car. He filled these with juice and poured the rest into the dust. The woman looked right through him.

He sprinted to the pump, reaching it at the same moment as a strong man, who opened and half-stood at his door. His car had smoked windows and a flawless black finish.

“What’s the bucket for?” he asked, returning Bilal’s greeting.

“Tamarind, uncle.”

“Give me a glass.”

“I’ve just run out. Let me fill her up for you.”

“Go on then.” He passed Bilal a coin and sank back behind the wheel.

When the tank was full Bilal jerked the nozzle from its hole but kept the pump running. Petrol splashed into the bucket which he’d fixed between the vehicle and his feet.

He ran back to the woman. He tapped on the windscreen. She jerked her head like a startled bird.

“Sister, do you have a tube?”

He pushed one end of the tube into his bucket and sucked the other. Then he fed it into the car. When the bucket was empty he walked away fast so she wouldn’t be able to thank him.

He’d lost his profits, so he didn’t go home when the other boys left. Instead he hung about in the milling crowd, trying to think of a plan. Generator lights pooled in the wasteland and made long craggy shadows of the people. He begged for a while until somebody slapped him.

He thought he’d ask money from the men who park the petrol containers, who must have money. But the cabs were empty. Clutching bucket and tube surreptitiously behind his back, Bilal slipped behind the trucks. If he could find a way to the dregs he could sell a bucket and go home.

Then a ripping came. Everything ripped open, not only him. Bilal rose suddenly up into the flashlight sky. The back of his head vanished. His chest was emptied through holes.

He was not quite present at the time of the blast, that’s true. He was dazed.

Later he heard the screams of many people, and then the doctor saying, “That’s it, God be merciful” – but the doctor was badly-trained if you ask Bilal, for here Bilal is, as alive as ever. He’s fine now. But in a bed of yellow dust, his face wrapped over (not uncovered like a martyr’s). In the grave.

He moved his hands to scratch the lid, but his hands wouldn’t move.

The air in his lungs was wet with petrol. Oil slicked towards him – down from the surface and up from below. His eyes didn’t water, but his soul revolted against this stinking drip of oil.

In the moment before the oil became completely unbearable, he heard his father’s voice.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 3, 2010 at 10:31 am

Posted in writing

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