Monday, March 24, 2014

#121: "Ahmed" by Ihab Hassan

~This story was previously published in Chelsea (2006).

Ahmed was happy when I first met him; only gradually the sweetness in his smile drained.  Sweetness?  He held it back, as some Egyptians do, history trampling on their lives.  Slight, elfin—or was it ferret-like?—he had long, black eyelashes, genetic memories of desert storms and pitiless light.  So, what was Ahmed doing in New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud? 
                                                                        *
I was staying at the Auckland Hilton, a white, angular structure jutting out from Princes Wharf, like a cruise ship that never departs. 
Good morning, sir, where shall I put the tray?  Those were Ahmed’s first words, spoken in labial English.
I pointed to a table by the window—it was all I could manage.  An interminable flight from San Francisco had erased two Greenwich Meridian days from my life, and I felt both drowsy and jaggedly awake.  But I would have a week to recover—I consulted for a manufacturer of plastic hulls, specializing in sloops, all expenses paid—during which I would breakfast in my room every morning, high in the hotel’s gleaming prow, watching the ferries glide in and out of Waitemata Harbour. 


*
One morning, I asked Ahmed: Have you been here a long time? 
Counting fingers on both hands, he said: Eight years, sir.  I am originally from Damanhur, in the Nile Delta. 
He must have heard the same question a hundred times and knew how to explain his origins in casual, unthreatening ways.  I waited for his counter-query—he would have seen my Arabic name on the tab—but it never came.  Instead, he asked as always:
Shall I pour your coffee now, sir?    
As always, I answered: Thank you, I’ll do that myself. 
But then—I don’t know what primordial spirit possessed me—I added: My people are Lebanese, from Tripoli.  Tarablus in Arabic. 
He brightened: Ah, the Cedars of Lebanon, I heard songs about them in Egypt when I was a child.  (His hand went to his heart.)  Do you revisit Lebanon often, sir?
I knew, then, I had gone far enough and just shook my head.  Nostalgia bores me with its implication that time betrays all our promises.  And the tribal imperative vexes me with its assumption that blood is more essential than water.  I turned to the window in time to see a Swedish freighter, its hull striped yellow and blue, slip out to the Pacific among screeching gulls.  I had visited Sweden many times but never returned to Lebanon.
Ahmed did not bring my breakfast the next morning, nor the next; it was brought by a young Maori with the patina of a smile on his copper-brown face.  Soon after, I returned to the States.
                                                            *
Three months later, I was back in Auckland, arriving at dawn, vaguely grum.  Once again, I had lost two virtual days, though I knew I would regain them flying back east.  Cincinnati, my hometown—is that east?  I had always thought of the Orient as a foreign place with exotic foods and faces.  Through the smoked limousine window on the airport road, I could see the light just beginning to touch the roofs of colonial cottages, their gates and dormers painted white, touch the hibiscus and jacaranda in early bloom.  I thought to myself: why, with a few altered features, these houses could blend into the suburbs of my hometown.
Hometown?  My father, a steady, austere man with an imposing, pock-marked nose, had never spoken to me of Lebanon.  Perhaps he was hindered by raw memories of sectarian strife, an intricate web of rage, defying cisatlantic comprehension.  But once, hand resting on my shoulder, he had said: Son, home is not where you first see the light, it’s where you gather light into yourself.  I looked out of the window again at the neat cottages commencing to stir and thought, yes, I could gather light in any one of those places.
Then I remembered Ahmed.  Could he afford to live in one of these houses?  With a half-twinge, I realized that I did not look forward to seeing him.  Inchoate feelings about origins run deep in us—I knew that—but I was in no mood to splash about in murky waters of the primal past. 
*
The next morning, I tried to look impassive when I heard the knock on the door.  Ahmed smiled sweetly, though he seemed to have indefinably aged.  Putting down the breakfast tray, he surveyed it critically with cocked head; satisfied at last, he stepped back, raising his arms in votive offering.
 Welcome back, sir, was it a good flight? 
I groaned, head bowed, shoulders hunched.  His smile spread, baring teeth crowned with gold.  Had his hair suddenly thinned? 
Well, he said, it’s very far from America, New Zealand
He paused, as if he had just forgotten a coffee spoon, then added gratuitously:
The people here are very lonely, sir.
It was an odd statement.  I found myself wondering: what does he want from me?  It isn’t the tip; I tipped him well.  Does he want to share some plaint?  I was hardly an ideal confessor; for I held no grudges against my fate.  And I liked Aotearoa—that’s the Maori name—liked its great, tangled forests sweeping up the sides of volcanic mountains, its basalt rocks tumbling wildly into frothy chasms and violet seas, its shades of flora more intense than anything I had seen in the northern hemisphere. 
Somehow, the fair descendants of Albion had made their home among tattooed warriors, primeval ferns, bewildered emus, and scampering kiwis.  Not Ahmed.  Sprung of Nilotic earth, he yearned for blood-lines, the noises and smells of an older culture.  I let his comment on loneliness slip by.
*
A week passed—this was going to be a longer stay.  I consulted at the firm and rode the ferry to Waiheke.  At the hotel, I sat downstairs in the Bellini Bar, perched on a chrome stool, a vodka Gibson—no, not a Bellini cocktail—before me, and watched tankers and cargo ships dock or depart.  I thought: what’s the big deal, we all time-travel nowadays, shuttling between languages, crossing datelines.  Still, Ahmed may have had a point.  Can the scent of a mother’s hair or laugh of an infant in its crib travel between continents?  Does a fanatic heart ever yield its home?             
 It may have been two weeks after my return, during our brief morning chat, that Ahmed suddenly asked with his usual smile:
Would you like to visit the Lebanese quarter in Auckland, sir?
I didn’t know there was one, I stalled.
Oh, yes.  It’s small but authentic.  He made a circle with his right thumb and index finger, held up in the air.  Not far from here, he insisted, narrowing his eyes as he pretended to survey the breakfast tray once more.
But why did I stall?  Sure, Ahmed brought me breakfast—this didn’t make him my servant.  Not in this poignant democracy stranded in the Pacific, not in the modern “hospitality industry” to which he belonged.  (In New Zealand, people said:  “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.”)  Anyway, his enigmatic sweetness—I didn’t call it sadness then—intrigued me.  I agreed to meet him in the hotel lobby on his day off at noon.

*
The day came; I went down to the lobby, hoping Ahmed would not call me “sir.”  When the elevator door slid open, I saw him in a light gray suit and open, lavender shirt, standing next to a woman.  He stepped forward to greet me, his left hand stretching toward his companion:
Please meet, my wife, Audrey, he said. 
As we shook hands all around, I noticed her milky skin and flaming hair, her build a touch squat.  Dutch stock, I told myself.  We took a cab, Ahmed insisting that I sit in the back with Audrey.  Her Delft-blue eyes calmly smiled as Ahmed, half turning around, pointed out sights along the way.  He said:
There’s a good place out on Old Dominion Road, the Cedar Bakery.  They make a good lamb and chicken schwarma and serve Lebanese bread with hummus and tzatziki.  Afterwards, we can walk around. Please, sir, let me invite. 
I started to remonstrate but Audrey cut me off: Oh, it was Ahmed’s idea and it’s not expensive at all.  I sat back in my corner of the cab, sensing her sidelong glances, thinking: why didn’t he tell me about his wife?
Everything in the restaurant, including the small, bustling staff, seemed “authentically” Lebanese.  The whitewashed walls were decorated with handsome arabesque tiles and bad paintings of cedars rising from steep hills.  We sat at a corner table with spotless paper mats; we ate and talked.  At first, the words came as if squeezed through a fine-mesh sieve.  Ahmed used Kiwi slang—wally, hard yakka, tiki tour—more for Audrey’s benefit, I felt, than for mine.  She looked at him maternally—critically, too—her judgment as indissoluble as her love.  I asked: Do you have any children?  He answered quickly: No anklebiters, no, my wife’s a nurse, sir, and we have no time.  Audrey sipped serenely from her water glass.  
I tried to change the subject:
Do you revisit Egypt sometimes?
Whenever we can afford it, Audrey said.  Ahmed’s family is very warm.  I can almost speak Arabic now. 
She laughed, a pleasant sound rising from deep in her belly, then equably said: But there are always visa problems in Egypt.
Oh?  I don’t know about Egyptian officials, Audrey, but New Zealand Immigration strikes me as quite decent.
That depends on your passport, she replied in a distant tone.
I was relishing my hummus and didn’t want to get into racism or geopolitics, so I turned to Ahmed:
You have relatives in Egypt
I have a mother, she’s quite old, and two sisters.  One lives in Jordan.  (He paused for a long time, Audrey suddenly very alert.)  Also, two children from a former wife.  They are in school—you call it junior high in America?  I don’t see them. 
C’mon, Ahmed, Audrey said, a touch  sharply.  You worry more about where you’re going to be buried than about your children’s future. 
She looked over at me, her annoyance already flickering out:
Are there many Lebanese in America?  Where do they live?
Well, there may be half a million.  Many settled in Michigan.  But they’re spread out among the big cities.  In various states.  My home state is Ohio.
All Egyptians go to California, Ahmed said miserably.  They like the weather.   
He stopped to push around the chicken on his plate:
But they also don’t like to be buried in foreign earth. 
He looked at Audrey, moistly, defiantly.  I imagined her foot moving toward his beneath the table.
*
After lunch, we walked out among gaudy groceries and aromatic food stalls displaying their names in looping, foreign scripts.  Some shops had heavy, iron grills.  A few women passed by, managing to appear shapely beneath their hijab.  It was less a visit to Little Lebanon than a multicultural stroll in the mild, New Zealand sun.  But the mildness soon went out of the day.  
A few blocks down on Dominion Road, we encountered three Maori youths lounging at a bus station.  They were muscular, their flesh taut beneath t-shirts clinging to big, broad frames—I could not see how a spear could penetrate those bodies.  Their eyes had red veins, and one dangled a jug of plonk from a hooked finger.  As we approached, all three aggressively leered.  Suddenly, the one with the jug grimaced horribly and stuck out his tongue—it hung like an angry, red snake.  Ahmed slowed down; Audrey walked right up and took her place in the bus line.  The Maori broke into a loud, good-natured laugh, but the smallest of them growled: Pakeha and sandniggers, sandniggers and Pakeha.  Audrey did not flinch; no one spoke.  When the bus came, we boarded it.  The Maori stayed behind and jeered again.  I stood by the door, and when the bus stopped near David Jones Department Store, I waved to Ahmed and Audrey before getting off.
A few days later, I returned to the States without seeing Ahmed.
                                                            *
It is hard to recall events that go against your grain, recall their texture and hue.  But I remember, with unwilling clarity, sitting at my desk a month or so later in America, and glaring at my AT&T bill.  There were phone calls—amounting to $1239.44, to Jordan and Egypt—that I had never made.  The phone company said I had charged the calls to my card in Auckland.  I told them I knew no one in Jordan or Egypt—and who had authorized those calls?  They said, we’ll look into it.  A few days later, they called back, claiming that recipients had confirmed the story; the calls were mine.  I spluttered something.  We can’t give you their names, they said curtly.  In cold dudgeon, I wrote the FBI, the FCC, one Congressman, and two Senators.  Four fretful months passed; AT&T dropped the charges.
But the matter did not drop from my mind.  I felt alternately furious and betrayed.  I thought of the time I had forgotten to shut down my laptop at the Auckland Hilton while I hosted some business associates at White’s downstairs, downing too much Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc with my barramundi, too much to keep track of things.  In a wild swerve of thought, I recalled the time at the Palais Jamai in Fez when a hot-eyed young waiter insisted deferentially—I should really say, with unctuous menace—that I find him a job in America, just because he had heard the maître d’hotel utter my Lebanese name.  But Ahmed didn’t fit in this scheme of mean-spirited suspicions.  Or did he?
                                                            *
A year or so later, I returned to Auckland.  I had missed the racing sailboats, shimmering seascapes, and upside-down constellations in the sky, all visible from my floor-to-ceiling window at the Hilton.  But I also felt the moon- shadow of suspicion lengthen as I approached Aotearoa.
A week passed: seven breakfasts and no Ahmed in sight.  I considered inquiring about him.  I pondered asking the Manager if the hotel employed any Jordanians, any Egyptians, beside Ahmed.  Then, before I could ask, the phone rang just as I was finishing breakfast one morning.
Hello, this is Audrey.  I hope you are well.
I pricked my ears like a Doberman.
It’s been some time since we saw you, hasn’t it?  Her voice was low.    
I have never been good at small talk or phatic noises, and Audrey was no better.  Just over a year, I said.
I thought I could hear distant shuffles and sounds, filtered through Audrey’s palm at the other end.  Then her voice came strong and brisk like a nurse’s:
Ahmed’s quite sick.  It’s pancreatic cancer. 
I could hear her breath and mine while I tried to coax from myself some appropriate inanity.  I’m terribly sorry, I murmured.  Audrey came to my rescue:
Actually, Ahmed is doing all right just now.  Would you like to visit him some time?  He’s here at home.  He’d love to see you.
Yes, of course.  I reached for pen and pad.
We live in Devonport.  You can practically see the village from your window, across the Harbour.
I jotted down the address and said: Please say hello to Ahmed.  Then I replaced the receiver delicately, as if it was a Fabergé egg.
*
Strange what sticks in the viscous folds of the brain, what slips away or rankles and remains.  The matter of the fraudulent phone calls had been settled financially but still lurked in that cob-webbed corner, at the back of the cave, where injuries live.  What harm had I suffered, though, except wasted time?  And what proof of malfeasance did I possess?   My passage through Auckland, when the calls were made, may have been sheer coincidence.  There was nothing in my scientific work—not in studies of fluid turbulence, not in the mathematics of chaos theory—that could resolve the issue.
But I had a dream the night before the visit to Audrey and Ahmed.  I remember it particularly because it featured a black yawl, everything black, hull, spar, jigger mast and sail, even lines and halyards, even the shredded pennon.  The boat tacked into a setting sun, leaving behind a reddish, oleaginous wake.  I seemed to be both steering and hovering above the yawl, watching its course with indifference.  When I woke, I retained nothing but that image—and a feeling of eerie detachment.  For several hours that day, I felt reconciled to all things good and bad in the world. 
In that mood, I boarded a frisky ferry to Devonport, a strong breeze rumpling the harbor waters. 
*
It was a short walk inland to the address Audrey had given me, past souvenir shops and cafés.  The confident villas on the shoreline yielded to cottages, some in quaint disrepair, strewn among patches of sand and scrub.  Ahmed’s place was small and prim, with a latticed veranda, painted pastel gray.  Lantana, dwarf palm, and purple bougainvillea ruffled with the wind in the front yard. 
Audrey opened the front door when I rang, a severe smile composing her features.  Past her square shoulders, I saw Ahmed lost in a large wingchair.  He sat there like some animal, frightened and shrunk, yet still intensely human.  As I stepped into the parlor, he stood up, twisting sideways, leaning on the brocaded chair, pain showing through his eagerness, the old sweetness now a mere trace.  But his long eyelashes still curled delicately upward.
Welcome back to Auckland, sir.  Welcome to our house.
I shook hands all around, and offered Audrey—I had decided against flowers—a box of assorted Middle Eastern sweets, gift-wrapped in white and green, the colors of the old Egyptian flag. 
There’s something Egyptian, Turkish, and Lebanese here, I said.  I hope you’ll find something you like.
Audrey took the box and inclined her head:
That’s very kind, really.  I’ll be back with some tea.  Meanwhile, please make yourself comfortable. 
An awkward silence hovered in the room till Audrey returned with a tray crowded with white napkins, silver spoons, pink china, and a heaping plate of biscuits.  We chatted over tea.  But I began to sense something sad and vaguely fulsome in the air, like cheap incense—I have never liked that odor—so I tried to give our talk some forward slant, an aura of hope:
Will you be visiting Damanhur soon?
Ahmed seemed embarrassed on my behalf.  Realizing that I may have underestimated the brevity of his future, I reddened and quickly asked:
How’s the family, your sister in Jordan
Given my dormant suspicions, that question seemed to me nearly as tactless, in fact disingenuous, as the last.  Ahmed answered anyway, looking at the fake Oriental carpet under his feet: 
Oh, they are fine, thank you.  But my sister in Jordan is having some trouble with the government. 
Audrey cut in: Egyptians are not as welcome as they used to be in Arab countries.  There’re too many of them, they’re better educated, and they tend to fuss.
Well, Ahmed said—eyes meekly heavenward—everyone has visa trouble these days. 
An edgy pause ensued.  On his lap, Ahmed’s fingers began to knead a stubborn, invisible loaf.  I found myself wondering if Audrey’s people ever called her husband a “sandnigger” behind his back.  We sipped our tea self-consciously. Presently, Audrey leaned forward in her chair:
Ahmed wanted to talk to you about something else, though.  Didn’t you, dear?
She looked pointedly at her spouse.  Like a cornered ferret, Ahmed’s eyes began to dart.  At last, he blurted:
Can I show you my village, sir?  It’s just outside Damanhur.  His voice sounded oddly shrill.  He twisted out of his chair again as I looked with undisguised perplexity from Ahmed to Audrey. 
She knit her thin eyebrows, as if puzzled herself; recovering, she said cheerily: 
It’s a surprise.  Ahmed rarely shows it to anyone.
I followed my hosts down a narrow corridor, past a bathroom and bedroom, to a tightly-shut door.  Except for the transparent glass knob, it looked less like a door than a fitted panel in the wall.  Ahmed turned the knob with a curious twist, pushed in the panel gently and stepped aside.  I looked in with amazement shading into shock.
The whole room, larger than the parlor, was a diminutive Egyptian village: square mud houses; a small mosque with a single minaret striped black and white; irrigation canals of blue glass; fields of green felt in two tones, one for rice, the other for cotton; a sakia here, a shaduf at the other end, to water the fields; groves of palm trees; dogs, donkeys, water buffaloes on the dirt roads; chicken in the yards, cats crouching on the flat roofs—everything except, conspicuously absent, the fellahin.  Denuded of human beings, the scene seemed like a frozen tableau or reverie.
I continued to gaze, my silence deepened by the silence of my hosts.  At last, Audrey said almost inaudibly: 
Ahmed built it by himself.  Five whole years.   
With a sound halfway between a sob and giggle, she added:
We could barely afford it.
Astounding!  I murmured, sensing again some hidden confession, some hurtful explanation, about to fill Ahmed’s museum of lost dreams. 
Astounding, I repeated, and looking quickly at my watch, pretended to gasp.  With as much contrition as I could manage, I apologized:
Oh!  But you must excuse me.  I must really go now. 
Ahmed and Audrey turned to me with an ineffable expression.  There was chagrin in it, yes, but also something else, perhaps relief.  No, it was more than that: call it mutual absolution.  Still, when I reached the front door, I felt strangely penitent:
Thank you so much, again.  I don’t know when I’ll be back in Auckland.  From the front steps, I waved and they waved back.  Ahmed gave me his old, sweet smile.

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

            My wife and I travel often to the Antipodes.  Flying to Australia, we sometimes stop in New Zealand.  In Auckland, we stay at a ship-shaped Hilton, overlooking the harbor, where vessels from seven continents anchor before sailing off to other destinations.  In the morning, brutalized by jet lag, we breakfast in our room, brought to us by a rainbow coalition of waiters, born in various parts of the world.
            Though I rarely experience nostalgia, I have wondered how immigrants to the Land of the Long White Cloud deal with memories of their original homes and with the demands of the ground under their feet.  The perceived isolation of Aotearoa—the Maori name for New Zealand—in the immense Pacific, the general kindness of its present inhabitants and the singular beauty of its landscapes, shadowed my wonder.
            All characters and incidents in the story are fictional.   

*****
ABOUT  IHAB HASSAN

Ihab Hassan has received two Guggenheim, three Fulbright Fellowships, and two honorary doctorates from the Universities of Uppsala and Giessen.  He is the author of fifteen books of essays and memoirs, and of many short stories, published in such journals as New England Review, Antioch Review, AGNI, New Ohio Review, Witness, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Review, Confrontation, Fiction International, Nimrod, Pleiades, Wasafiri (London), Flash (Chester, UK), Quartet (Tokyo), etc.  He has just completed a novelette and stories with Egyptian backgrounds, The Changeling and Other Stories.  

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