I became obsessed with sodomizing Sheikh Arif round about the time his posters started crawling all over the streets. Today is July 20, 2012, right? A little over a year and a half after we toppled our president-for-life, Hosny Mubarak. Sheikh Arif’s posters began to show up only three, maybe four months ago—when he announced he was running in the elections held by the Army to replace said president. They seemed to self-procreate. And the more I saw of them, the more intense was the impetus to make the bovine symbol of virility they depicted a creature penetrated. Penetrated personally by me, of course, and I made a pledge to the universe that it would be.
4 September 2011: Baghdad via San Francisco, for Youssef Rakha, makes more sense than Baghdad
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
The Book Bench
Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department.
Posted by Sanders I. Bernstein on June 15, 2011
We’ve known for a while that Roberto Bolaño was a queer cat. He’s certainly enjoyed multiple lives—four, by my count (so far: scholars will undoubtedly invent a few more in the future). There was his actual life; there was the one he made up (claiming, at one point, to have been in Chile when Pinochet came to power, a claim later refuted by those who knew him); the life he lived in his poetry and fiction; and his afterlife as a worldwide literary phenomenon, which he’s been living since his death in 2003. That year also marked the translation of his work into English (beginning with New Directions’ publication of the novel “By Night in Chile”), and the birth in the United States of a new critical darling: he became to us a Latin American Jack Kerouac, his “Savage Detectives” another “On the Road.” We’ve wanted to know all we could about Bolaño, though separating fact from fiction has proved difficult.
The task got a little simpler (or maybe more complicated) with the publication this year of the English translation of “Between Parentheses,” a collection of fragmentary essays, articles, and speeches, which a panel of five literary wise men and women gathered to discuss last Monday at the Galapagos Art Space, in Brooklyn. “Between Parentheses” has been the subject of some small notoriety. It contains the (perhaps fictional) essay “Beach,” which has contributed to the Beat-ification of Bolaño by suggesting that he, like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs before him, had done his share of experimenting with mind-altering substances. (It begins, matter-of-factly, “I gave up heroin and went back to my town and started on the methadone treatment administered to me at the clinic.”) But, by design or coincidence, not a word about that infamous article was mentioned. Our flock’s leaders flew right over “Beach” and never looked down. (For more on “Beach,” and the period of Bolaño’s life it covers, see Daniel Zalewski’s elegant 2007 piece in The New Yorker).
The panel did begin with a nod to “Parentheses”’s unique role as the lone collection of non-fiction (or near-non-fiction) that we have from the author. The moderator read from the beginning of the introduction to the book: “This volume collects most of the newspaper columns and articles that Roberto Bolaño published between 1998 and 2003. Also included are a few scattered prefaces, as well as the texts of some talks or speeches given by Bolaño during the same period. Taken together, they make up a surprisingly rounded whole, offering in their entirety a personal cartography of the writer: the closest thing, among all his writings, to a kind of fragmented ‘autobiography.’” Of course, as the moderator admitted, “the closest thing … to a kind of fragmented ‘autobiography’ ” doesn’t mean that much at all.
But the panelists certainly felt that the essays were entertaining, and that they showcased some of Bolaño’s more feral elements. As Natasha Wimmer, Bolaño’s translator, put it, “It’s not that his non-fiction is that brilliant. He just goes for the jugular. It’s shocking.” The novelist Francisco Goldman agreed, and chided North American critics for playing down Bolaño’s shock value: “It’s as if they’re trying to domesticate him, make him seem like he’s a McSweeney’s writer.”
This suggestion that McSweeney’s writers are somehow constrained brought a swift retort from Heidi Julavits, one of the editors of a McSweeney’s publication, The Believer. “Or a Paris Review writer,” she said.
Goldman shot back, “No. They’re different animals.”
Julavits reminded him that he was in DUMBO, Brooklyn, a.k.a. prime Eggers territory. “This is a Lars Von Trier moment. Keep digging,” she advised.
Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, and Wyatt Mason, a contributing editor at Harper’s, wisely kept out of the fray.
Had we tamed the wilds of Bolaño by the end of the discussion? Not at all. We in the audience were lucky to make it out of our seats alive (or, rather, dry). All throughout the night-club-ish space, murky black ovals dotted the floor, surrounded by a subtle shimmer of metal railing, but otherwise invisible. It was only when someone’s chance remark on the heat drew a “Well, there are pools all over here. Why don’t you just take a dip?” that I realized that the dark spots were full of water. The name of this savage setting now made a whole lot more sense—and not merely because the night had been dedicated to Roberto Bolaño.
First there was Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, then the agonised song to Moloch in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl… It strikes me now that, long before 9/11, speaking from within the culture entirely, another Beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, called America the Roman Empire of today. It strikes me because this is precisely the conclusion to which Islamists and Arab nationalists had already come by other means, exterior to America itself and seemingly less sensible to boot. The difference is – what Islamists and Arab nationalists want is to replace the Roman Empire with their own vision of imperium. Even when they do not admit it in so many words, they object not to what is there – an empire, but to who owns it – white, more or less secular Protestants and, by extension, to what it is like. And indeed, with Americans as much as Islamists and Arab nationalists, the lure of totalitarianism is such, few since the 20th century have managed to escape it at all. Whether in religion- or race-based, military, technological, theocratic, egalitarian, Marxist or (a form of totalitarianism seldom perceived as such) even psychoanalytic guise, the drive to make everyone the same, to place everyone within the same theoretical scaffolding and see everything through the same ideational glasses, lives on past what just may be the terminal apex of western civilisation. It dogs both visions of utopia and the individual’s sense of moral fulfillment. Long after reason and science turned empires back into republics, realms into constitutional monarchies, and God (with few, always universally damned exceptions) into various kinds of more or less consumer-friendly, more or less vacuous discourse and practise, humanity seeks sameness still; it identifies Good and Right, if not directly then through the faulty mechanism of a salient majority, with All. And it is to that faulty mechanism, to totalitarianism within a professedly non-totalitarian global order, that we should perhaps look for Evil, Wrong and the errant minority – not by pitting ourselves against the identity of its administrators, many aspects of which we share or would like to share – but through a true, humble and consistent, honest understanding of our place on earth. On this side of the line dividing the unipolar world not only by wealth and its attendant power but also by the capacity, the will, ability or initiative to produce civilisation, the salient majority turns into a blind and infinitely pliant force which, in the hands of anti-democratic Islamists, for example, becomes an opportunistic means to power through “democratic process”, in the hands of a corrupt quasi-state a brutal instrument of repression. Either the Roman Empire does not know this, or it does not care. And whether or not we are going to let it know, not to oppose its supposed plans for the region, we should begin to ask what it means by democracy.
After Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real”
O roar of the universe how am I chosen
(Originally appeared in Journal For the Protection of All Beings, 1961)
By Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg
Gregory Corso: What is your department?
William Burroughs: Kunst und Wissenschaft.
Gregory Corso: What say you about political conflicts?
William Burroughs: Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.
Gregory Corso: Who manipulates the cloth?
William Burroughs: Death
Allen Ginsberg: What is death?
William Burroughs: A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.
Gregory Corso: Do you feel there has been a definite change in man’s makeup? A new consciousness?
William Burroughs: Yes, I can give you a precise answer to that. I feel that the change, the mutation in consciousness, will occur spontaneously once certain pressures now in operation are removed. I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought, feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host.
Allen Ginsberg: And if they are removed, what step?
William Burroughs: The forward step must be made in silence. We detach ourselves from word forms — this can be accomplished by substituting for words, letters, concepts, verbal concepts, other modes of expressions: for example, color. We can translate word and letter into color — Rimbaud stated that in his color vowels, words quote “words” can be read in silent color. In other words, man must get away from verbal forms to attain the consciousness, that which is there to be perceived at hand.
Gregory Corso: How does one take that “forward step,” can you say?
William Burroughs: Well, this is my subject and is what I am concerned with. Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you — in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to. Now try breaking up part of the page like this:
Are there or just we can translate many solutions for example color word color in the soft typewriter into political conflicts to attain consciousness monopoly and control
Gregory Corso: Reading that it seems you end up where you began, with politics and it’s nomenclature: conflict, attain, solution, monopoly, control — so what kind of help is that?
William Burroughs: Precisely what I was saying — if you talk you always end up with politics, it gets nowhere. I mean man it’s strictly from the soft typewriter.
Gregory Corso: What kind of advice you got for politicians?
William Burroughs: Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever.
Gregory Corso: What if people don’t want to change, don’t want no new consciousness?
William Burroughs: For any species to change, if they are unable and are unwilling to do so — I might, for example, have suggested to the dinosaurs that heavy armor and great size was a sinking ship, and that they do well to convert to mammal facilities — it would not lie in my power or desire to reconvert a reluctant dinosaur. I can make my feeling very clear, Gregory, I feel like I’m on a sinking ship and I want off.
Gregory Corso: Do you think Hemingway got off?
William Burroughs: Probably not.
Allen Ginsberg: What about control?
William Burroughs: Now all politicians assume a necessity of control, the more efficient the control the better. All political organizations tend to function like a machine, to eliminate the unpredictable factor of affect — emotion. Any machine tends to absorb, eliminate, Affect. Yet the only person who can make a machine move is someone who has a motive, who has Affect. If all individuals were conditioned to machine efficiency in the performance of their duties there would have to be at least one person outside the machine to give the necessary orders; if the machine absorbed or eliminated all those outside the machine, the machine will slow down and stop forever. Any unchecked impulse does, within the human body and psyche, lead to the destruction of the organism.
Allen Ginsberg: What kind of organization could technological society have without control?
William Burroughs: The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences — If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers, definitely scientists. Yes, I’m definitely antiscientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as the real and only universe, the universe of scientists themselves — they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled — in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works — the mass media — unparalleled opportunity.
Allen Ginsberg: Who do you think is responsible for the dope situation in America?
William Burroughs: Old Army game, “I act under orders.” As Captain Ahab said, “You are not other men but my arms and legs –” Mr. Anslinger has a lot of arms and legs, or whoever is controlling him. Same thing as the Eichman case: he’s the front man who has got to take the rap. Poor bastard, I got sympathy for him.
Gregory Corso: Could you or do you think it wise to say who it will be or just what force it will be that will destroy the world?
William Burroughs: You want to create a panic? That’s top secret — want to swamp the lifeboats?
Gregory Corso: O.K. How did them there lifeboats get there in the first place?
William Burroughs: Take for instance some Indians in South America I’ve seen. There comes along this sloppy cop with his shirt buttons all in the wrong hole. Well then, Parkinson’s law goes into operation — there’s need not for one cop but seven or eight, need for sanitation inspectors, rent collectors, etc.; so after a period of years problems arise, crime, dope taking and traffic, juvenile delinquency. So the question is asked, “What should we do about these problems?” The answer as Gertrude Stein on her deathbed said, comes before the question — in short before the bastards got there in the first place! That’s all —
Allen Ginsberg: What do you think Cuba and the FLN think about poets? And what do you think their marijuana policy is?
William Burroughs: All political movements are basically anti-creative — since a political movement is a form of war. “There’s no place for impractical dreamers around here,” that’s what they always say. “Your writing activities will be directed, kindly stop horsing around.” “As for the smoking of marijuana, it is the exploitation for the workers.” Both favor alcohol and are against pot.
Gregory Corso: I feel capitol punishment is dooming U.S.A.
William Burroughs: I’m against Capitol Punishment in all forms, and I have written many pamphlets on this subject in the manner of Swift’s Modest Proposal pamphlet incorporated into Naked Lunch; these pamphlets have marked Naked Lunch as an obscene book. Most all methods of capitol punishment are designed to inflict the maximum of humiliation — not attempts to prevent suicide.
Allen Ginsberg: What advice do you have for American youth who are drawn to political action out of sympathy for the American revolution?
William Burroughs: “I wouldn’t be in your position” — old saw. If there is any political move that I would advocate it would be an alliance between America and Red China, if they’d have us.
Gregory Corso: What about the Arab peoples — how are they faring?
William Burroughs: They’re stuck back thousands of years and they think they’re going to get out with a TV set.
Gregory Corso: What about the Negros, will they make it — not only the ones in the South, but everywhere?
William Burroughs: Biologically speaking the Afro-Asiatic block is in the ascendancy — always remember that both Negro and White are minority groups — the largest race is the Mongoloid group. In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.
Allen Ginsberg: What do you think of White Supremacy?
William Burroughs: The essence of White Supremacy is this: they are people who want to keep things as they are. That their children’s children’s children might be a different color is something very alarming to them — in short they are committed to the maintenance of the static image. The attempt to maintain a static image, even if it’s a good image, just won’t work.
Gregory Corso: Do you think Americans want and could fight the next war with the same fire and fervency as they did in World War II?
William Burroughs: Undoubtedly, yes — because they remember what a soft time they had in the last one — they sat on their ass.
According to Maynard & Miles, this is the first published interview with William Burroughs. It appeared in the 1961 issue of Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a periodical edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and published by City Lights Books in San Francisco. (Maynard & Miles E1)
INTRODUCTION to QUEER, William S. Burroughs
Youssef Rakha on resistance
Two years before 9/11, the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix seemed to predict something of cosmic magnitude. Not the levelling of the World Trade Center, exactly, but something like a new and impossibly difficult beginning after the definitive end — of humanity as we know it, of science-based civilisation, of freedom as a value or state of being, confined to a particular set of material practises. Anyway, with the benefit of hindsight, The Matrix made a strong case against Francis Fukuyama’s end-of-history hypothesis. The logical conclusion of liberal democracy was not only the “desert of the real”, as Slavoj Zizek eventually noted, but also the perfect starting point for global insurgency. The fight that could no longer be between capitalism and its mirror image would not be, as the film presented it, between man and machine, nor would it be between the west and Islam (the majority of westerners, after all, have as little empirically to do with George W. Bush as the majority of Muslims with Salafism, even less with its jihadi and takfiri formulations). The fight would rather be between the paradise of Samuel P. Huntington and all that it actually costs — Saddam and Al Qaeda included. To the contemporary human being, even the contemporary Muslim, Neo is of course a far more attractive messiah than Bin Laden — hence the rational world’s greater sympathy for Neo — but consciously or not, both perform the same function of resisting a system designed to cheat people not out of material advantage as such but out of seeing what their existence entails. Without a live mind that directs it, the body of the people is as good as dead.
Under Mubarak in Egypt, under whatever it is that Mubarak stands for — military-based, as opposed to simply military dictatorship — freedom remains at a premium. By freedom I do not mean simply political freedom, the right to “peaceful” protest, to personal safety against state- and (by extension) Washington-endorsed abuse, to participation in public decisions, or to the flow of information and ideas. I do not mean simply economic freedom: quality of education and employment opportunities, work ethics, the relative epistemic and material security required for developing an interest in any rights at all. I do not even necessarily mean social freedom: access to minimally humane public and private space, recreational leeway, or channels for interpersonal contact not based on financial exchange. I mean freedom from the burden of the lie which, while reflecting deprivation from all the above, also involves that idea of resistance — expressed, as it must be under the circumstances, through identity. We are where we are because they are where they are; our edge is that we are different from them. In itself this is perfectly true; the relevant questions however have to do with who they are and how to reposition things sufficiently for us to be elsewhere. Neo, you will remember, could only battle with the machine from within the Matrix, on its own terms, in his virtual as opposed to physical incarnation; and if in the process he virtually dies, then he has died physically too; because, as Morpheus tells him, “The body cannot live without the mind.”
Democracy only goes so far, then — but surely the answer is neither autocracy nor theocracy. It is not because neither of those two alternatives have been able to stand up to democracy in the first place; if anything they lend it credence, they strengthen and glorify the Matrix, they make the machine seem not only the best of all possible worlds but the only world that is possible. And if the body cannot live without the mind, in this sense, then resistance — like communism, like jihad — reduces to a mere aspect of the matrix. It is true enough that Arab and Muslim identity — the driving force of resistance, in our case — has proved incredibly flexible. Identity is flexible enough for the matrix of liberal democracy to run through it whether as is or in altered form. It is flexible enough to provide the machine with a pretext to kill, and to be the instrument of death. It is flexible enough for Mubarak to suggest, in the last address he gives before stepping down (probably on American orders) that he will not step down on American orders — and for a sizable part of the population to be taken in by that — even though Mubarak’s principal job for decades has been to carry out American orders without the least consideration for the feelings or interests of his people. Such flexibility is possible because, unlike the force with which Neo must contend, the substance of the global order is human and discursive. Identity does not prevent the very symbol of Arab-Muslim resistance, Hassan Nasrallah, from expressing unconditional support for a Syrian regime which — never having been chosen by a majority of Syrians — is happy to commit mass murder on the streets. Nasrallah is no messiah after all. The body cannot live without the mind.
And so it becomes possible, by recourse to identity and resistance — the same lie by which Saddam, Al Qaeda and Hassan Nasrallah are smuggled into Arab and Muslim minds as Neo-like figures when in fact they are agents of the Matrix — to see the events of January and February not as a people’s revolution (and it is true that a good 80 percent of the Egyptian people did not have the freedom to participate in a revolution) but as some kind of conspiracy aimed at destabilising the country, destroying the economy, compromising the security of the people. Yet in the absence of a vision for the future, let alone a global movement which, unlike the Soviet Union, unlike Pakistan or Iran, is both ready and able to content with liberal democracy, what is even the most glorious of revolutions if not a bid to take full advantage of the Matrix, to enjoy “the real,” as Morpheus puts it: “what you can feel, smell, taste and see… simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
I came home and found a lion in my living room Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion! Two stenographers pulled their brunnette hair and banged the window shut I hurried home to Patterson and stayed two days Called up old Reichian analyst who'd kicked me out of therapy for smoking marijuana 'It's happened' I panted 'There's a Lion in my living room' 'I'm afraid any discussion would have no value' he hung up I went to my old boyfriend we got drunk with his girlfriend I kissed him and announced I had a lion with a mad gleam in my eye We wound up fighting on the floor I bit his eyebrow he kicked me out I ended up masturbating in his jeep parked in the street moaning 'Lion.' Found Joey my novelist friend and roared at him 'Lion!' He looked at me interested and read me his spontaneous ignu high poetries I listened for lions all I heard was Elephant Tiglon Hippogriff Unicorn Ants But figured he really understood me when we made it in Ignaz Wisdom's bathroom. But next day he sent me a leaf from his Smoky Mountain retreat 'I love you little Bo-Bo with your delicate golden lions But there being no Self and No Bars therefore the Zoo of your dear Father hath no lion You said your mother was mad don't expect me to produce the Monster for your Bridegroom.' Confused dazed and exalted bethought me of real lion starved in his stink in Harlem Opened the door the room was filled with the bomb blast of his anger He roaring hungrily at the plaster walls but nobody could hear outside thru the window My eye caught the edge of the red neighbor apartment building standing in deafening stillness We gazed at each other his implacable yellow eye in the red halo of fur Waxed rhuemy on my own but he stopped roaring and bared a fang greeting. I turned my back and cooked broccoli for supper on an iron gas stove boilt water and took a hot bath in the old tup under the sink board. He didn't eat me, tho I regretted him starving in my presence. Next week he wasted away a sick rug full of bones wheaten hair falling out enraged and reddening eye as he lay aching huge hairy head on his paws by the egg-crate bookcase filled up with thin volumes of Plato, & Buddha. Sat by his side every night averting my eyes from his hungry motheaten face stopped eating myself he got weaker and roared at night while I had nightmares Eaten by lion in bookstore on Cosmic Campus, a lion myself starved by Professor Kandisky, dying in a lion's flophouse circus, I woke up mornings the lion still added dying on the floor--'Terrible Presence!'I cried'Eat me or die!' It got up that afternoon--walked to the door with its paw on the south wall to steady its trembling body Let out a soul-rending creak from the bottomless roof of his mouth thundering from my floor to heaven heavier than a volcano at night in Mexico Pushed the door open and said in a gravelly voice "Not this time Baby-- but I will be back again." Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the universe how am I chosen In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.
Paris, March 1958
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And verily We had empowered them with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts—Koran, xlvi, 26
My instructions are to deliver the corpse to Nastassja Kinsky. We are to meet at nine tomorrow morning in the lobby of the Cecil Hotel, just off the seashore in downtown Alexandria. The corpse is a lightweight microelectronic bolt that looks like a miniature coffin; Nastassja Kinsky is an agent of the Plant. If I revealed what the Plant is, I would die.
Five weeks ago, a bearded boy came into my office and took his clothes off. Later that night I told my wife we had to be separated by the end of the year. She mouthed the word divorce interrogatively and cried. I stayed in the office until I found an apartment, seeing the boy every day. He tasted of sand and vine leaves, groaned like a reed flute, and made me so happy it didn’t even register that I was sleeping with a man.
Since then I’ve learned many things. One: that sexuality is a silly mental construct, but so is almost everything else in this world; who would have thought a thing like the Plant was possible? And two: that the Plant is so powerful and fair, no one would have to kill me if I was to die; I would just contract an illness, have a car accident, something. The Plant can make things happen so only you are responsible; it can alter the constitution of the air.
The boy proved lithe and tender, a divine sensualist, but it turned out he was on a mission to recruit me. His name was Allen Ginsberg, he said; mine was to be Joseph Koudelka. My post would involve making weekend trips to deliver microelectronic parts around the region. He explained to me what the Plant is doing to change the world, why I was chosen for the vacancy, and how those deliveries matter.
The term of the contract was unspecified, but he assured me about the Plant’s employment philosophy: No one will serve for longer than a very small portion of their lifetime. In that brief period people have what he called adventurous skill accumulation. Payment is made only once at the end; it never involves money but, Believe me, he said, it is worth it.
You’re not serious, I scoffed.
It’s like the trip of a lifetime, he ignored me, except you learn a lot too. And you get a very valuable present at the end, something to treasure forever.
Learn about what, you howling faggot?
He was crouched on the floor tying up his shoelace; I couldn’t help ogling his perfect buttocks, barely believing they were in my hands just a few minutes ago.
I already said—no questions!
Okay, I drawled. Whatever. So, what do you say, he looked up. Will it be yes or no?
Something made me nod, vigorously, though I knew it meant I would never see him again.
Later on the thought of psychosis repeatedly crossed my mind. Had things failed to correspond with people’s testimonies or gone wrong, I would’ve given in to it, too. As it is, everything is consistent: my work as an attorney, down to the bearded teenage client whom I met with so intensively for a few days last month; my monthly visit to my mother in Damietta; weekly drinking binge with two school friends; the divorce proceedings; moving house; everything.
The third thing I learned is that it happens to everyone, at least once or twice in the first week of work: you think you’ve gone mad, that all you’ve been experiencing is a string of hallucinations. The thought still dogs me, a temporary comfort, because what’s actually frightening is it’s real. The way things happen, they happen by order of the Plant.
And so I’ve made four journeys on the job, all safe, straightforward transactions, with the opportunity for a little sightseeing on the side.
Tonight, switching off my cell phone the way I’m supposed to for the duration of every assignment, I board the train to my favorite weekend destination for the first time.
It is more complicated because I haven’t been in Alexandria for months; and it always stirs up difficult emotions when I go. Not once did I board this train with any goal but to relax, usually after a big case or another extramarital affair: with a woman. Before Allen Ginsberg—believe it if you will—I had never touched a man in my life.
So far it seems no different from any other time, though: the stiff-backed seat, neon lights, chug-chug of iron-clad progress as we pass a sequence of empty sandlots, slowing at the dimly lit crossroads of some outlying shanty town before we pick up speed.
Only, after the bedlam of Ramses Station, the coach feels eerily quiet. I’m thinking of Allen Ginsberg: the way his spine would curve to pre-empt a particular caress; his biceps stiffening while one hand cradled his balls, the other pushing his face down. Suddenly it strikes me that we’ve passed both Cairo stations and I’m still alone on the coach.
I get up and scale the entire iron horse, hand on corpse in my asbestos-padded pant pocket while I cross from one coach to the next. Maybe it’s the Nawwah, a kind of mini hurricane that ruffles the coast once or twice a winter, but there are fewer passengers on the Cairo-Alexandria line tonight than I’ve ever seen. I must dismiss the idea that this is the work of the Plant.
Frequently, on performing a task — that’s what the guidelines said to the word, as far as I can recall them: instructions are transmitted through a packet-switching information grid like the internet but without hard drives or cache; all files are self-deleting, they appear for three minutes at a time, and you’re expected to commit their contents to memory — you will notice that particular events develop in an unusual or salient manner, generally in such a manner as to facilitate or conceal elements of your undertaking. You will not stop to think about such developments… At certain, higher branches of the Plant, it is possible to control the range of eventualities in a very limited portion of the space-time continuum; in your experience, however, it may or may not be the case that such control has been exercised. It is pointless and marginally less efficient to attempt to find out if it has…
The corpse writhing and beaming imperceptibly on my groin, I take the book out of my rucksack and start reading. It’s an eleventh-century Sufi text, an interest I’ve kept up since doing my MA in Islamic Law; it talks about the unity of existence.
Every number is reducible to the one, it says; and in like manner, all things are reducible to their oneness, however much they multiply, or differ. No thing can exist without a sense of its value, but no value can be sensed without a unit: all, in the ultimate exhalation of the holy breath, is one…
But a passenger just came into the coach and the sight of him is distracting me. He is young and brawny, the passenger, the shape and color of Allen Ginsberg, but broader shouldered and clean shaven. If you multiply one by one you will obtain one, the book says, but if you multiply it by any other value you will obtain no other but that value. From my seat I can only see the back of his head, but I know he is inwardly staring at me.
There was eye contact when he passed: I made a note of the tiny fish-shaped scar above his eyebrow, how abruptly the fuzz behind his ears gives way to curls, his nebulous grin.
I haven’t had eye contact since. Somehow I just know he is staring at this bald, fast aging lecher, following the fingers with chewed cuticles as they turn the pages, reveling in the sheer libidinal need contorting the chapped lips. I do know, because the moment I get up, he turns his head and signals with his eyes, that same grin promising my deliverance.
Excuse me, he breathes; his voice is higher than I want it, but his jawline is chiseled, spare stubble glittering in the fluorescence like some black-green savannah in miniature.
I was wondering if you might know what this is. He holds up a piece of card, black, whittled into an immaculate octagon: an item I’m familiar with. I just found it in my pocket, he laughs diffidently, shrugging. No idea where it’s come from.
Oh? Now I remember that, when he came in, the train had not stopped since my tour of the coaches, nor had I seen anything like him while my eyes scoured the seats, freaked out by the inexplicable scarcity of passengers.
Maybe you can help me? Oh to trace the fish with the tip of my tongue, to lie back and feel the savannah punishing my plains. I know it sounds whacky, but there has to be an explanation.
Is it just me, he adds suddenly, or is this train empty like mad? It is, I mumble, trying to steady myself. Empty… yes. I was… just thinking that.
Then I’m striding ahead, balancing with difficulty, his breath on my shoulder and nothing else in the world, until we are face to face in the toilet cubicle and the door is locked.
Let’s see, I hiss, clutching at the soma that torments me.
Before I realize it, I’m not sure where he’s gone. The cubicle door is ajar and I’m crouched in the corner gathering together my clothes. I do it fast, wiping the semen off my thighs and picking wet hairs from my face, even though it’s clear there’s no one around to watch me. In half an hour or so the only thing he said is his name, panting and grinding: Jim Morrison.
Straightening, at last, I slip my hand in my pocket to make sure the corpse is there, but what stands out against the cold, packed grain of the asbestos is warmer and more angular, wider on one side; it is perfectly stationary, too: it doesn’t give off waves or beams.
I take it out: the black octagon. Must be a message from the Plant, I decide, hoping it will explain. Can’t wait to get to the hotel, though: in the room, I can bring its edge into contact with a naked wire and absorb what it says before it bursts into flames.
No point worrying, I know, but how can I be sure Jim Morrison really works for the Plant? If he doesn’t—no joke—I will probably be maimed.
The fourth thing I learned: plans change spontaneously as often as not; sometimes the least expected thing is the thing that’s supposed to happen. And the fifth: only end result, not intention, is judged; say I managed to hold onto the corpse, and it turns out this guy is supposed to have it, then I’d still suffer the consequences alone.
Masr Station is as busy as Ramses. I file along toward the exit, steadily gathering speed as I picture the message in a haze of light. Dodging clusters of baggage and refreshment stalls, I can’t help wondering where all these people came from. Intimacy is such a fickle thing, it only takes a quiet train ride for the perfectly familiar prospect of a busy station to look strange.
Already I’m having to block out thoughts of my wife now I’m in Alexandria: I’ve always come after the end of something; a whiff of sea air is all it takes for reflections to start trickling through my head. The only reason they’re relatively at bay is I need to know what the Plant has to say to me. Then there is this sudden, unexplained hunger and I just know the best way to ignite the octagon has to do with food. Should I stop and eat on the way to the hotel?
At the exit the grubby-green polystyrene prayer mats have been rolled into columns and stored upright to one side. I recall how much it used to bother me when the faithful would block the way out, microphones blaring above their heads. Until five weeks ago I never understood why anyone believed it was necessary to pray.
Lesson number six: there are only two things in life—your body, and the possibility of something else. Without that possibility, your body might as well just wither away and die, which it will in either case, sooner than later. The possibility rather turns it into an instrument or a tool, something to work with in a slightly more meaningful setup. That’s why it’s necessary to pray, unless your something else doesn’t require prayers, or you have a post with the Plant.
Only one mat is still spread out on the floor. On the edge of it sits an old peasant woman smiling charmingly into the void. Legs crossed, back bent forward, she mutters in the same level tone, unperturbed by lack of attention; for some reason neither police nor station staff are making any effort to remove her, even though she is clearly a beggar woman and, by order of a widely publicized campaign, they have to excise street characters from public space.
You will eat in a minute, she happens to be saying as I pass. Give me something to eat with.
I bend over and hand her a note, much bigger than I intended. Something about her face is drawing me to her; I realize it is this, not benevolence, that made me stop. Crouching down there, beyond layers of tattered black muslin, beyond the haggard female form, I can make out the contours of my father’s face. It’s a fleeting impression, but haunting.
May He give you without calculation, her tone doesn’t change as she slips the money into her bosom, with frightening alacrity, nor her smile.
It’s hard to tear my eyes off that dark, sculptured visage, familiar and far away at the same time, but my legs are starting to hurt and I’m confirmed in the decision to drop by Andrew’s on the way. Out of habit, not for a logical reason, I ignore the middle-aged men yelling Taxi as I charge ahead. A taxi would save time. Except that I want to walk toward the sea, not seeing it, just knowing it’s there: in fifteen minutes I’ll be inside my Greek client’s fish restaurant sipping beer.
The thought of beer preoccupies me while I slip into Prophet Daniel Lane, where Alexander the Macedonian is thought to be buried, past the used book stands and the used camera store, all closed; and it starts, softly, then ferociously, to rain.
Three minutes from the station, emptiness has already gripped the streets, but it’s less freaky now because the Nawwah is raging. The rain keeps people indoors; actually it’s so absorbing I’ve almost forgotten my troubles: Allen Ginsberg, my wife, the corpse, whether I’m on the right side of the Plant. By the time I push the glass door and head for the table I always take, I’m drenched. A pretty young woman comes up with the menu.
Andrew isn’t here? No, he is away in Matrouh, she says confidently. You are his friend? I nod: And you? I’m seeking out her eyes, the way I used to do it with my wife, before we got married. When you’re a man addressing a woman you don’t know, this is the cruelest, sweetest way of saying: I like you; or so my wife used to say.
His little sister. She looks down. I used to study in Athens…
I wonder if I still have an appetite for women, though. Deliberately, I’m picturing my client’s sister naked in the toilet on a train.
Suddenly the thought of beer brings on this searing need to urinate. I can barely stay still while I blurt out my order: Grilled mullet and a plate of squid. Salad and bread, no rice. You can decide on the sauces, but can you get me a beer while I’m indisposed?
The chances are she’s still nodding uncomprehendingly while I lock the bathroom door. It’s like a ground-floor apartment, this restaurant; its bathroom is spacious and homey, unisex, without cubicles or peepholes. It’s not until I’ve relieved myself that I notice a slight break in the electric circuit of the sink light. Then I realize what brought me here.
I look closer: a tiny length of wire is exposed. I ply it out with my Biro. Holding the octagon in both hands, I take a deep breath before I let the current run through it.
JIM MORRISON CLEAR, it says, the letters shimmering in a subdued glow, like the last few embers of a charcoal fire about to die. NK: RECEIPT. REWARD FOR FIFTH SUCCESS TONIGHT. And in smaller type: enjoy grilled mullet, squid.
Before I have time to gape, I’ve managed to burn my finger. No matter how amazing what an octagon has to say, it’s always more amazing the way it disappears: a clear blue flame and nothing, absolutely nothing else. Once it’s gone out, your hand is slightly wet; that’s all. You never have the luxury to mull over the message. I sometimes think it’s this that makes it stick.
After the second beer I practically run to the Cecil Hotel. I want to look at the sea but I’m dying for legitimate privacy; and I promise myself I’ll be back in good time.
The fish seeping gently into my bloodstream, egged on by alcohol, I’m warm and tired and I need to sit still. The rain has gotten harder and the wind whistles through my pores, as if in counterpoint to the fish settling in there, quietly, calmly, a musical expression of arrival at the sea.
It takes a little while before, rushing alongside the seashore, inhaling the sea air in long gulps, I realize this is nothing but relief: knowing that I didn’t get it wrong on the train, that in five weeks I’ve been good enough to be rewarded; but I’m not at all impatient to find out about my prize. I’ve played guessing games with the Plant before now.
Checking in feels that tiny bit smoother than I’m used to. Finally I’m on my back, revising the contents of the message one last time. I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her. I am to expect more madness tonight, happy madness.
I close my eyes and repeat what I have to do, a habit I’ve acquired since the third week. The rain rap-rapping against the panes, delayed and overpowered by the cawing of the wind, I rest my arm on the pillow and just go on repeating the words in the dark.
I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky… I am to receive something… I am… Kinsky…
When I wake up there is cold coffee by my bedside: a room service order. It’s been years since I fell involuntarily asleep. Overjoyed, I sit up and light a cigarette, remembering the promise I made to myself. For a while I savor the intermittent sound of the rain. Gradually trouble is returning, though: the sad story with my wife; so long as I can turn it to melancholy I’ll be fine. I exert myself to turn it to melancholy while I shower, shave, change my clothes. It’s not working.
I prop myself up in bed and take out the book, a grim attempt to get distracted; I don’t know why it never occurs to me to switch on the TV. From the unity of existence, though, we’ve moved abruptly onto the afterlife; and something about the business of death is taking my mind off it all.
When religious people tell you that life on earth is temporary, a brief sojourn and never the dwelling place, it’s normally to scare you into practicing their rituals or repeating what they say; as far as I can make it out, this guy is not about that at all, even though he’s using the same language. He’s simply drawing your attention to lesson number six.
When you die it’s just like being alive, he’s saying: the difference is mere detail. All that stuff about heaven and hell, eternity and judgement, it’s all already here. Life and the afterlife, in other words—they’re practically the same thing. I put the book down and close my eyes.
Lesson number seven—a memory of words shimmering in a subdued glow, or was it one of those fleeting text files on my computer screen?—The Plant is both factory and flora. It manufactures, it grows. It holds the copyright to being as well as life, for being is intervention while life is merely flow. It is the sight that startles, the sound that soothes, the odor that induces nostalgia. As of your release from service you will think of the Plant repeatedly on having such hitherto ordinary encounters; and dying, you will be grateful for having been of service to the Plant… The funny thing is, it works. However momentarily, I’ve forgotten my wife. But I’ve ordered two more coffees before I step out onto the wet asphalt, and the words are already fading on my memory plane.
Dawn is descending on Unknown Soldier Circle when I run into my father. He is huddled at the bus stop with his back to the shore, squinting at tomorrow’s paper in the streetlight. It is still windy, an indeterminate respite from the rain. The sea spray reaches all the way to the curb, where I’m bracing my calves when I catch sight of him.
In Alexandria on a weekend, I’ve always waited to watch the sun rise out of the water. That’s why I’ve been tramping downtown, but I couldn’t go back to sleep if I tried. Aside from the usual anxiety of being on the job, I am still brooding over leaving my wife. No amount of Sufi literature is going to put an end to that. I see the backs of her sneakers bouncing effortlessly away under the great bulk of her parka, farther and farther away on the asphalt, such tiny things so effortlessly daring gravity, and it is the saddest image in the world.
When I become aware of an indistinct figure at the bus stop, it’s been a long while since I’ve taken anything in. All I know is I’m crossing the road to the esplanade, where that bus stop happens to be in front of me. The azan for the dawn prayers just sounded. Any minute now, the sun will slice its way through that black-and-white quilt with a monster tossing under it; and when it does, it will hand things back their shape and color, as gradually as my wife’s ankles stepping away. Whatever I do, I don’t want to miss that. Everything else is a blank.
At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a soul since I stepped out of the hotel; and if not for the little man sitting there, the bus stop would’ve been a blank too. I stand back and jiggle my head before I cross over.
I don’t recognize him right away—for some unknown reason, still, nothing could be further from my mind than my father—but before I know it I’m dithering, edging closer. I want to know what kind of street character could brave both Nawaah and esplanade; at night the shore is policed even in the best of weathers, to root out beggars and madmen. What kind of desperado, I want to know, managed to intercept my brooding?
When I first catch sight of his face, I think of the beggar woman I ran into at the station—how come he looks so like her; she too looked like someone, didn’t she… but, for the same unknown reason, probably, I can’t for the life of me remember who.
Involuntarily, almost, I’m sitting next to him on the bench. It is supposed to have three wood planks but the middle one is dislodged and my buttocks sink uncomfortably into the gap; I want to readjust my position but I’m mesmerized by his clothes.
In the house Baba always wore what used to be known in Egypt as a robe de chambre: the same brownish garment, shrunken by years of washing, threadbare at the seams. In summer it covered his underwear, in winter two layers of pajamas. As he grew older he took to going out late at night for tomorrow’s paper in his house wear, something that genuinely saddened Mama.
Now as he looks up, coughing, I recognize the spluttering, elongated, slightly exaggerated squeal that punctuated so many of our evenings.
Then I make out everything at once: the Kastor fabric of his winter pajamas, filthy cuffs giving way to hands barely thicker than the blue veins they contain; ancient sandals exposing a similarly emaciated pair of feet, their incredibly meaty, sharp-edged toenails taking on a whole spectrum of hues as they jut out, looking healthier than everything, and the base of his legs a mesh of diabetic scars and damaged tissue; then the tight, hard rump like roots to the permanently curving spine, dandruff overtaking the wrinkles on the back of his neck; smooth bald spot flanked by willowy silver hair; and the face, my father’s face, toothless, coffee-stained lips and heavy, pinhead stubble, all white, like the loose, leathery skin on some long dead monster; and his reddened nose looking enormous. Somehow his eyeglasses make it even more enormous than it is: the glasses?
Only now, gazing into the blotched enamel of his glasses, do I remember that my father is dead. Some two weeks after I got married, five years ago almost to the day, Mama had phoned from Damietta with the news. She sounded unusually calm, I remember. I didn’t want to spoil your honeymoon, she said, but I didn’t have a choice. When I asked her if she was alright she said, May He make this the last of the sorrows; not, she added, the first.
All through my time with my wife I was battling against that enigmatic premonition, pondering over the fact that he hadn’t liked her, and my ever growing doubts about the possibility of happiness in marriage. Somehow grief over my father became linked with the conviction, however secret, that I would one day leave my wife. It was harrowing in other ways, of course. I had never suspected his death could shake me so hard. But it was this that I thought about the most…
Baba? He looks up; instantly, it becomes hard not to burst into tears. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, he intones his usual welcome: a very commonplace expression that,
through sheer warmth, he managed to make entirely his own. Looking delighted, the way he did every time I called him, he grabs my hand and touches his lips to it: a reversal of the patriarchal convention that he alone championed; I can’t think of any other father who did that.
What on earth are you doing here?
Just reading the newspaper. I glance down to make sure it really is tomorrow’s paper—and it is—but I have to raise my hands to my eyes. Can you believe they’re redrafting the constitution again, those sons of a horny woman? Hysterical laughter muffles my tears. He won’t stop ranting about the government even now. It’s like the country is the ranch of their grandfather, the filthy pimps. Then he takes off his glasses. His eyes are clouded. They are round and very small; and it’s as if I peered into them only yesterday. How much more do they want to pilfer?
But, Baba, no one is paying any attention.
How will the corruption stop if all we do is sit and complain?
You’re beginning to sound like them, Fouad. Listen, what’s all this business about classes?
Classes? My name sounds strange now that I’ve learned to think of myself as Joseph Koudelka.
I’m told you’re taking classes. Deep beneath the murk, I can make out a subdued twinkle: the one I saw when he first caught me masturbating, and again when he smelled my reefers. That twinkle was the extent of his disapproval; it always gave an impression of complicity, as if he was telling me that he knew and didn’t mind, but that we could both get into trouble for it. It made him incredibly lovable. Schoolboys, and such. You know what I mean.
Busted, your Honor.
At least you’re free of the stick insect—that’s how the old man referred to my wife, because he found her very tall and very thin but mainly, he said, because she had perfect camouflage: She always appears where you didn’t know she was there, you understand, he would say—and that’s always a good thing. Naturally there will be happiness in your life from now on.
You don’t disapprove? Dis-what, he bawls, easing into his favorite insult: Curse your father, son of a shoe! Destroying the family, and all that. We were trying for a baby, you know. None of this
bothers you at all? To tell you the truth, Baba, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty. Fuck off, he says. Naturally, the twinkle comes across in his tone now, there’s reason to feel
guilty if all there is to it is the classes. That, maybe, you should think about. Not that it makes you any less of a donkey to feel guilty at all. What’s there to feel guilty about in this world?
Botching my secret work?
If you did that, you would be instantly dispatched to where you can’t feel a thing. At least, he adds equivocally, not in the way you’d expect to feel it.
You mean—right, I stutter… but… how do you know what would happen to me if I fucked
Same way I know about the stick insect and the classes.
I almost say: Is it true you can’t feel anything once you’re dead?
There are certain questions I’m not allowed to answer, he stops me just in time. And one thing you mustn’t mention while you’re with me whatever you do, you understand?
Okay, I nod. I think I know what that thing is.
Shall we have a little walk then?
As far as I know that’s allowed—hands on knees, he is heaving himself up with a mighty sigh, the way he did every time he had to get up in his lifetime, as if there was nothing more difficult in the world—so long as we both act normal. It’s very exaggerated, but that’s what makes it touching. At some point I will just go, you understand, and you act as if nothing happened.
There is no rain still; even the wind has let up. Only, as we move along the shoreline at his excruciating pace—it always used to annoy me how deliberately slow the old man walked—sea spray keeps splashing our faces. He has the same old tendency to lag a step or two behind, head bent slightly to one side, hands clasped together over the small of his back. As I slow down and stop to keep pace with him, it surprises me how little death changes in a man.
You remember Tante Faiza, Baba?
Whatever became of the midget? She must be ninety this year.
Ninety-two, in fact. But she’s alive and kicking. Mama says she’s got a suitor.
Didn’t I tell you she would see everyone to the grave, the witch?
Eventually I put my arm round his shoulders and leave it up to him. Humming and laughing, we plod along the seashore, my father and I, and it’s as if we haven’t stopped doing it since I was three. In Alexandria, all through my childhood, we would often have this same walk in the evening while I drank my carton of milk: the prerequisite for getting a new matchbox car. His hand on my head, Baba’s pace was too slow even for my tiny steps.
Barely perceptibly, the black water is taking on color. In the distance, a faint orange tint infusing the blue gray turning gray white, the outline of the citadel begins to appear. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, my father greets the red disk coming up behind the minaret, beaming at me. Naturally, he adds, daybreak makes no difference at all. I can barely stop myself from laughing.
Fouad, he sounds devastated. You must kiss your mother for me. You’re not serious?
Believe it or not, I miss the old bitch.
How I wish Mama was with us, I suddenly think, out loud.
You can never tell your mother of this—
Naturally?— Any more than of your secret work. Curse your father, he begins— Son of a shoe! The oddest part of this is there’s nothing uncanny about it. It’s as if I never married, as if he never died, as if I really was in Alexandria on a weekend. Birds, white and streamlined, are circling the stone hedge and fluttering out to sea. Their calls seem to echo the Nawwah; a car or two whizz past and, before I appreciate the fact, it’s light. We walk on a little. The streets have filled up when I suggest we have a breakfast of coffee and croissant at the Trianon Café. The rain has returned and my father is slowing down even more, oohing and ahing all along the esplanade. He stops to light a cigarette, but every time the wind blows out his match; when he finally manages to bring the tip of the cigarette in contact with the flame, a fat drop of rain lands right on top of it.
I glance at him impatiently, but he keeps trying. You’re a good boy, Fouad, he suddenly turns to me, mumbling. I am your reward. What? But it’s as if he didn’t say anything; he just struggles on with the matches. So are we going for croissant or what? Always impatient, he says, like that fat mother of yours! Then we’re sitting opposite each other by the rain-splattered window, there is bright sunlight outside, and the aroma of coffee fills my nostrils. The croissants are hot and crisp, but my father is smoking. I am about to tell him that I love him when he winks, nodding toward the waitress. So I look up: she is beautiful; for the first time since Allen Ginsberg, though I don’t realize it yet, something stirs in my groin while I look at a woman.
Yours if you want her, he says, naturally. Baba, I scowl. Please! Anyway I am going to go to the toilet, he mutters to himself, getting up. Curse the father of your mother, my good man. It is barely audible. The son of a bitch is going to discipline me… Baba! He looks back.
Are you sure it’s okay to up and leave the stick insect? Yes, Fouad, he smiles suddenly, my little donkey. I’m sure.
The waitress smiles back very sweetly, anyway. Later, when I slip her a scrap of paper with my number, she will even blow me a kiss. Now my watch says eight thirty and Baba is not back from the toilet. I get up and follow inside to look for him. All the cubicle doors are open. There is no one there. Back in the Cecil Hotel lobby, I’ve barely wiped the tears off my face when my coffee arrives. I sip it slowly, grazing the place with my eyes. For once the anxiety of being on the job is overpowered by a different emotion—grief. I feel exactly the way I felt in the second two weeks of my marriage, but somehow I know it is temporary. There’s a tremendous sense of gratitude, too, which helps, but where on earth is Nastassja Kinsky?
When I open the door to my room at nine thirty, exasperated, there is an elderly woman on the edge of my bed. She is dressed very elegantly in an auburn three-piece, her long, snow-white hair tied back in a bun. In the way she sits and especially after she starts talking, I appreciate her regal bearing. She has the well-heeled composure of a princess, haughty and upright.
Strange, I’m thinking, that she looks so incredibly familiar: I am sure I know this face; and her voice, I know I’ve heard it before. These recognition games are getting tiring—I mean: maybe I’m just projecting—but I can’t help noticing a resemblance between her and my father.
I dare say you mispronounce my name, Monsieur Koudelka. She grins. I have brought you a small gift, rather valuable I may add. I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting for long. You were generous with your money last night, I didn’t think you would begrudge me your time today.
While she stares squarely into my eyes—is it my imagination or is she snickering?—I realize she is the beggar woman from Masr Station.
Oh my God, I begin.
You will excuse me, Monsieur Koudelka, but I must catch a train in half an hour. Here, she hands me what looks like a giant termite. It is the isoptera, she enunciates. It will instruct you as to what you should do with it on your return to Cairo.
Only now she gets up, striding straight to the door. Monsieur Koudelka, she stops and turns, her hand on the doorknob. Yes? This will be your last assignment. My… for the— Safe journey, Monsieur Koudelka.
While she shuts the door behind her I let myself flop onto the bed. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that it’s over, that there will no longer be a Plant in my life. Neither wife nor Plant, I mumble, getting comfortable and peeling off my clothes. Before I fall asleep it also registers that the prospect of another boy is vague and mildly repulsive. Memories of Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and all those in between seem to come from a different world, alien and isolated. Without wanting to, I am picturing the eyes of Andrew’s sister: the way they glistened in the tungsten light, and when she averted them, looking down…
I wake to the sound of the rain, the isoptera describing a perfect circle next to my head on the pillow. For a while I simply watch it, wondering, with relative calm, what it might be saying to me. Then, just to see if I can make anything of the faint buzz that accompanies its motion, I place it on the bedside table and bring my ear in contact with the wood, pressing hard. At first I can only hear static, but gradually something else is coming through.
What are you doing, you donkey? I can make out my father’s voice, weak, barely audible, but undeniably his. You are to keep this peculiar mouthpiece for when you have a real situation, classes and such. Then you can consult me. If you try and listen to it all the time you’ll wear it out. And no, he adds, as if he could hear me thinking, we can’t have a conversation through it. Now switch off the tiny button at the back and keep it safe. At that the voice fades; there is nothing but static.
I am naturally spellbound for a few minutes, then find the button he mentioned, hidden where the last segment of a termite’s abdomen would be, I get ready for departure. On the way out, my assignment over, I switch my cell phone back on. I don’t notice it at first but gradually, insidiously, an unbearable joy is taking hold of me. I don’t think downtown Alexandria has ever looked so beautiful in the early evening.
Once again I will walk to Masr Station: I want to take in the streets.
I am reading about the straight path—the one that, mimicking divine oneness, connects life with the afterlife and back again—when my cellphone startles me. There’s a young man eying me but I haven’t been paying much attention. I guess that, in five weeks, I’ve developed a particular look; not all my male lovers have been agents of the Plant, and Egypt is full of young men seeking out middle-aged lechers like me: they get a useful connection if not money; they get a desperate, consuming passion. There’s some desire—I won’t deny that—but I can’t be bothered to act on it at all. I’m far more interested in the characteristics of the path.
Hello? Hi. The voice is soft and coquettish; I put the book down. I just thought I’d get your name. Who is this? Forgotten already? We met this morning at the Trianon Caf?— Alright, I exclaim, grinning from ear to ear in spite of myself. Well, I didn’t get your name either, did I? I’m so happy you called. My name is Mohgah, the waitress says. You may not be aware of it yet, she giggles—as I am picturing her—irresistibly. But I am your destiny.
Published in Miranda Literary Magazine