Muammer’s last day is my first day. I stand, eyes on the floor, in a classroom full of Arabs. Ms. Whyy from the Schiller Institute introduces me and immediately cracks a joke. Then another.
The new teacher has a really hard German name, she says, it’s hard to remember it: Said Maruan, she says and laughs, really loud.
Besides her, I’m laughing too, but not so loud.
I rub a piece of chalk between my fingers until it’s gone. A student in the last row understands the joke and grins retroactively. Ms. Whyy from the German Schiller Institute says her goodbyes and wishes me luck — don’t worry, the Arabs are a polite little tribe. Then she wishes the Arabs luck with me, but they don’t understand the joke, and neither do I.
Whyy goes to her office and smokes two cigarettes, then looks herself in the mirror and slaps herself in the face until her green cheeks are all red. Then she exits the buildings and gives the AC unit a nearly playful kick. She walks across the campus, trying to avoid eye contact without looking at the ground, which she manages to do. She gets into her car and smokes another two cigarettes. A wet-wipe dispenser lies on the dashboard, which Whyy makes use of. On the passenger seat lies a plastic bottle filled with sand. She wipes the barely extant grime from her hands and face. She pulls another wipe from the dispenser and continues to wash herself.
But what do I know. In reality I’m standing in a classroom full of Arabs and I’m searching for the chalk between my fingers. I’m sweating a lot.
Where am I from, ask the Arabs: “Woher kommen Sie, Sai-ed Maruan,” and I answer that I’m from Germany, but that I’m also from Palestine. Had I ever been to Palestine, the Arabs want to know. I’ve been to Palestine once, I answer. And we can get started with learning German now, maybe, I add more quietly.
Where then? the Arabs ask, that is, where was I in Palestine, and I say they can open their books now. Was it maybe Tel Aviv, the Arabs ask, and I say some page number while the Arabs laugh about a joke I don’t get. Or, if we’re being honest, that I don’t want to have gotten.
Then the Arabs say something in Arabic that I understand, or if we’re also being honest here, that I don’t understand.
And if we’re still being honest, very honest, then in reality Muammar al-Gaddafi has exactly fifty-six days left to live.
I’m sweating like a crazy person, not because crazy people sweat particularly much, but because it’s really hot. Not because it’s summer, but because the stars shine directly onto this country at night. Not because there are no clouds, but because light and shadow cut a bad figure. Not because it’s true but because it’s nonsense.
I have to be home by dark. I play cards with my roommate Khaled. I play bridge and he plays something else. I lay a king down, and he says “Rummy!” lays his cards down on our plastic table and takes a sip of cola. I don’t challenge. When I lay down the king, then I’ve lost, whether it’s bridge or something else.
Then Khaled shuffles the cards and I avoid kings but he wins anyway and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Every hour there’s a blackout and every two hours Khaled strides bravely out the door to buy cigarettes, from whomever, and every day we haul a heavy canister of potable water up from the basement, which somebody, whoever, deposits there daily, and once a week some guy stops by (whoever!) and brings us a chicken. Some kids or other are always running through the streets, through the very dark nights, over volcano-like rifts in the asphalt. I aim a fan at my face to fall asleep and outside an artilleryman plays Stalin’s organ, blasting little holes in the big sky.
I think a little about kings and about Muslims, but only very very little!
On calm days the city has a fever and there’s hardly air to breath. Those days I wheeze as if I were sick. Khaled breathes like an athlete.
We spend hours at the market, which is always open when the city seems to have a fever. We buy bread and a yellow chicken, and Khaled talks to the men we meet, who inform us about the city’s fever. I nod and look at the fruit, at the black strawberries.
A guy circles the market in a pickup truck, and another guy with two machine guns stands in the bed, shooting a song in the air. Somebody cries out olives, and cheese that’s almost Italian, and cured beef. Somebody around seven years old runs through the market with a handful of stolen pistachios, and trips over a crate of peacocks and falls. Some guy selling pistachios drags the kid — whose beige tunic tore when he fell — back to the pistachio stand by the ear. Some guy pulls the feathers from a bird and I stare at the black strawberries and just can’t believe it.
But what do I know, reality has become a delicate spiderweb stretched between two cosmic black holes.
If we’re being really, really honest, then there isn’t any chalk, but a dry-erase board with markers.
Also honest: the fruit at the market stands breathes diesel fuel for a day until it’s blistered black.
And: on the beach lie black plastic bags in which women packed up in black wool have carried their household trash to the beach. The men pack up the women and the women the trash.
And: only the very brave enter the water.
And: I am not the very brave.
And: Khaled has never slept with a woman.
And also honest: my roommate’s name is Abdurauf and not Khaled. Khaled is my father’s name.
Whyy asks me whyy I don’t have any decent clothes. Arabs are very formal, she says, I should buy pants that fit right and a couple of collared shirts. She touches my leg and then my stomach, then screams in my face: “LOOK-AT-YOUR-SELF.” Khaled is waiting outside.
At the market I buy myself shiny pants and a pink shirt. Everything fits in the mirror. I turn to the side and rotate once around my own axis. I stand with my back to the mirror and crane my neck around. I do squats and run my fingers over the material and pinwheel my arms. There are flowers embroidered on the pants, and on the shirt too. I’m briefly satisfied and then I take one more look in the mirror. I pay and say to Khaled, but really more to myself, that I’ve just bought shiny pants and a pink shirt. I also buy a watch, a belt, and a few pairs of polyester socks.
At the first tree I come across, I throw everything onto a pile of trash that’s been laying there and never gets picked up. The magnetic tape from a cassette is wrapped around a tree and someone is dumping a case of rotting cucumbers on top of it.
I tell Khaled that I think that reality is like a spider web in outer space. I don’t mention the black holes. Khaled thinks that reality is more like a reddened sky with a half a sun on the horizon where you don’t really know if it’s rising or setting.
Then Khaled says that he thinks that Whyy is the biggest shill at the Schiller institute, like, the chief shill, and in England, shillings are small change.
He says he could imagine that Whyy hasn’t had sex for fifty-three years. He doesn’t say that, in his esteemed opinion, she could desperately use another go right about now, but then somehow he does say just that.
We walk to the beach and eat the bread. Khaled steals an apple. We throw away the chicken because it smells.
I let sand sift through my fingers until a shard of glass cuts my right index finger.
Khaled works as a secretary and I work as a teacher. And the Shill works as a Nazi. But what do I know.
While we’re sitting on the beach — somebody has come by and brought us coffee — Khaled gets a call. I hear Whyy on the other end of the line cursing and cawing and screaming about paper: “Whyy, for the love of Christ, don’t you print things double sided? Whyy can’t you print on both sides of the piece of paper like a normal person? I’m docking this from your pay, just so you know. I’m not your, your ah, your cash cow. It’s your funeral, see how you like it.”
Khaled hangs up and says he has to go, Whyy needs it again, she yearns for him, his golden loins and her snake pit have matters to discuss, she’ll really be taken care of. By him. Then he goes, slowly and bowed of back. I’d never write this if it hadn’t happened this way, but this is exactly how it was!
I say that reality is also like a crow in a region where there are no crows.
Or better: like the crackling of burning wood.
Or better: like the crashing of buildings collapsing.
Or better: like the thing between the crackling of burning wood and the crashing of buildings collapsing.
Whyy smuggled ham into the country. With her Shill papers. We eat potato salad with mayo and boiled ham. Instead of onions there’s ginger and instead of chives there’s nothing.
I tell Whyy that reality has become like a crow that lives in a region where crows don’t live. Whyy looks at me and draws her lip up to her nose. What, Whyy asks me, like a bread knife, is “reality” supposed to mean.
I say, “Reality is a crow in a region where…” Reality cannot be a crow, Whyy interrupts me loudly. This special crow could “really” exist, but there is a difference between reality and the real, and besides this thing about the crow is insultingly arbitrary. “And whyy, whyy is reality so unreal? There has to be a reason!” Metaphors are like schnapps, she says. The more alcohol, the worse the taste. “Crows and death, that’s kitsch!” she says and scratches with one fingernail across the tabletop. Then you might as well say: “Reality is like dying in war. That doesn’t do squat for me. Very high-proof schnapps is what it is, conformist schnapps, very kitschy! Instead crows could drink schnapps in the clouds while reality falls across the desert. Thaat’d be something! Everything else is a crime against the ambivalence of reality. What would you think if I said: you’re like a pug, like a big fat pug. That, my little friend, has a thing or two to do with empathy!”
Then she rolls up a slice of ham and throws it at a couple of Arabs passing by the window.
I think about it a little and want to tell Khaled that Whyy has a low threshold for frustration, but I can’t find the right words. Instead I say, “Whyy is an angry fly who flies with her thousand eyes against an unilluminated lightbulb until the thin glass shatters.”
Khaled asks me what a “Schrapnell” is. I ask him where he knows that word from. Khaled says that he’d rather not say. I think about it again and then I don’t say anything either.
On the street we drink a coffee and smoke. Khaled teaches me Libyan: Barackallahu ’fik means thank you. Wa fick barack allah means thank you for the thank you. A finger on your cheek means beautiful woman. A raised middle finger means fuck you.
I say that I know. Khaled says that he knows that I know. I say Barackallahu ’fik. He says Wa fick barack allah. N’shuffr means I see.
Then Whyy invites us over for dinner. There’s alcohol-free beer with alcohol, white bread, thyme, and sea bass. The bread is for us and the fish is for Whyy.
Khaled is at war. (That’s what we call it, we think it’s funny. I play his wife, waiting at home for her husband. He thinks that’s funnier than I do, but I also find it a bit strange.) At night the doorbell rings and I think very quickly of a shrapnel shell. I think that on the other side of the door, a shrapnel shell is waiting with a message for me, like nails on marrow. I smoke quickly and try to count the revolutions of my fan. The doorbell rings again. I think of Whyy who said that Arabs are very formal. She also said: Arabs are very polite and unpunctual and shade-loving and good drivers. After two cigarettes and four thousand revolutions, comes a knock at the door.
“Whyy are you making me stand out on the street at night?!”
What do you call an Arab who studied medicine? You call him Doctor.
Whyy holds a candle in one hand and is quaking with rage. She’s quaking, I think; with rage. She walks past me and stands in the hallway. She looks me up and down, the candle has only a few centimeters of wax left.
We stand there a long time looking at each other, the flickering light of the candle on our faces. Because I find the silence uncomfortable, I say, “That fan sure does get around.”
“Yeah,” she says, and wants to talk to me again about paper, could we sit down somewhere. I express the fact that there’s just my bed and Khaled’s, that we don’t have any chairs, but maybe the pillows around the plastic table and she goes, “Pff.”
I take her by the hand, which is very old, and pull her into my room. She speaks briefly about paper, then stops, and we stand in silence until the wax is melted and the wick goes out.
It’s dark, the whole city is dark. There’s an explosion and buildings fall to the ground. No one screams, no one is there, but there’s hissing and explosion and collapse. Whyy hasn’t let go of my hand, and she’s still shivering, whyy, no one knows. It’s a good sign, we’ve learned; if you hear the explosion then you’ve survived it. The hissing of the Tomahawk rockets, though, is like the shrapnel shell’s message of nails on marrow. One flies by the window. The pilot, a digital control unit, looks at us, blows us a kiss, and continues on his way, a way which only he knows through this very dark night.
And suddenly the light comes on and Whyy has been crying.
We stay sitting until the fan starts to smoke.
Something is happening with the timeline, steam rises from a new beginning smoldering in the yellow earth, so they say, it smolders, the new beginning. Through the fog of time, I search for reality:
It’s honest that a fan is affected by a blackout just as a city’s lights are.
It’s honest that Whyy sucks on Swiss herbal cough drops and smells like my grandmother.
It’s honest that nobody throws away a chicken.
All that kitsch is honest, if I say it.
The wind is honest and the smoke and the fog. Time is honest, but what’s also honest: everything there is to be told.
The next morning Whyy lies in my arms.
I run barefoot down the stairwell and jump into my boots before I step out the door. I run to the sea, and I’m the only one on the street besides the explosions.
Six degrees of separation, a smoking gun if it’s allowed.
I drink nonalcoholic beer for breakfast and let the sand run through my fingers. Somebody hits a boy over the back of the head and he cries.
I imagine that I go home where I find Khaled bent over Whyy. Or standing behind her, his erect member standing away from his body, like a curious child observing its surroundings, gleaming. And Whyy has her behind raised in the air, while her head is buried in a pillow, perhaps she’s crying or sleeping; maybe she’s dead. And I say, “But Khaled, I thought you were at war today!” And Whyy wakes up or stops crying and wipes her hand across her mouth.
It’s honest that the Shill threw Khaled out of the apartment that same night, on account of paper.
It’s honest that Khaled died that night, seven days before Muammer.
It’s honest that a shrapnel shell cut through marrow and nail to make a fog out of my friend.
A shrapnel shell isn’t honest though.
I’m not allowed in a mosque, or maybe I am but I’m afraid to. Who knows what those Arabs do there? And the Shill says: Who knows what those Arabs do there? And whyy?
One guy washes his feet, another leans his back against a wall and smokes. Three women wear dresses, some guy lays kebabs on a flaming drum.
Muammer’s last day is also my last day. The rebels stop our taxi on the way to the border to convey this message to us, they think it’s a good thing, I think. A few kilometers farther a shrapnel shell sweeps through the desert.
The pirates hoist their terrible linens on the high seas, a knife falls into the calm sea, from the shore a woman sings in the shadows of falling night a song about the pain of longing, wails and laments, a trickle of red blood runs down the Street of the Brave with a simultaneous cloud of dust. And the prophets, who knows, maybe they’re crying and their tears are of course a sea, they cry a sea, they salt the waters between the continents, they, they…
Originally published in Edit Magazine, Leipzig, Vol. 65, 2014.