Thursday, July 26, 2007

A story and its story

I received some good news (for a change)

That a short story I had written about one year ago responding for the strange demand of a small Dutch publishing house is going to be published after a long period of complete silence! It began by some whims or that what I believe from this publisher asking some NON-Dutch writers who live in Holland to write about Holland from a funny perspective! So to be funnier I decided to write the story in English which I do not master... I sent the story and we both forgot about it (the publisher and myself).

Then I got to know Elly who proposed one day - as a whim I think – to do our Blog. I asked her to “look“ at the story and she did, mainly editing and correcting it. We both forgot about it also. Then I got an email from a lady whom I do no know; I hesitated to open it, worried about many things: a virus, request for a donation, the promise of millions in the lottery I do not know about, and of course bad news... because what sort of stranger would write to me, unless it was to tell me bad news? But I am curious... so I read it and it was from this silent publishing house about the forgotten story asking for an appointment to discuss editing it to publish it soon.

I searched in my computer for Elly’s version of the story but could not find it... I wrote to her to send me copy. She did so. I sent it to the lady and we agreed a fixed day for our meeting and some days before the meeting I get mail from her asking to postpone the meeting till the end of August, because she is going in vacation... I agreed (what else can I do?) though wondering that the lady being Dutch must know in advance the timetable of her summer vacations

C'est la vie!
And here is the story

Fata Mourgana in Amsterdam

It was after two long months of waiting in the Camp – the political refugee camp in this country – that at last I had an invitation from my lawyer to discuss my case. My case is simple, but my lawyer (she had been appointed by some ministry or another) thinks it isn’t easy. Here in this country they believe that many things are not easy. However, I told her, “Madam Lawyer, I do not care what the result of the court case is, I care about one thing only: I want to go back”. She asked, what about the case? I said never mind the case; I want to go back to the desert where I belong. Of course, she – like all people here – wants to find logical reasons for the behaviour of human beings… logical!
She thinks I am illogical.

From the beginning when they arrested me here because I do not have a visa, 'they' did not know what to do with me. I had come to ask for justice, but instead of giving me what I wanted, they arrested me so they could subject me to their own justice. I told them, “sorry that I come here without a visa. Now let me go back”, but they said, “Sorry, you cannot go back until we put you in court, and find a lawyer to defend you. We,” they said, “want you to know that you cannot do things like this without facing the consequences.”
That means simply they want to punish me.
I also know that she, ‘Madame Lawyer’, wants to wash her hands of me and my case. I do not blame her; she told me in our first meeting, in her expensive office over one of the canals, that my case confused her. She said so jokingly, and I asked her why? She replied that I challenged her basic and human belief in herself as a lawyer. I did not understand, but I did’t comment. She told me that her work is bringing justice to people who have been treated unjustly.
Then I knew I had made a mistake.
If you ask me now, what mistake, and why is this happening, I can tell you at length the whole story of my journey, which became more important and even more interesting than the reason for it. So let us begin with the mistake: that was asking for justice. But let me tell you something about myself: I have no special liking or hatred for the cities and countries and the refugee camps through which I passed asking for justice. They are just places that belong to other people who are different from me in every way: skin colour, language, habits and of course climate and food - even the way they laugh. In spite of all that, or perhaps because of it, I do not mind much the places, countries, people, language, food and climate, because I know I am not going to stay here and live in a small concrete place like my cousin.
And, by the way, I did not come here to look for work or to live or even to visit my cousin who has a shawarma shop in Amsterdam. Justice is like looking for a mirage - not in the desert where we know how to find it and when - but looking for it in buildings and papers and law.

For a person like me who was born in a tent in the desert with a lot of sand and space around me, there are many paths to justice. For instance if a camel enters my aunt Fatima’s small farm and eats the plants there, we do not punish the camel, we give Fatima something instead, like money or food as compensation. But if the camel insists on visiting her farm, then we give her the camel, and she is free to do what she likes with it. Most probably, she will take him with her own hands and let him eat from her farm. This land here is a small, watery, grey and rainy in the mornings, and long, dark and rainy at nights. I was born near ‘The Mountain’ atop of which it is said, and deeply believed, that God spoke and chatted with Moses.
When somebody like Moses and his people run to the desert asking for help and safety, they come to us. We do not put them in prison (we do not even have one; the government have many) we put them in the guest tent, offer them food and water, and after three days we ask them what they want. It’s said that Moses’ people were lost in the desert for forty years until they found their way out. But we have stayed in the desert for thousands of years and never want to leave. We know the ways in and out. That is the basic problem that I am facing now: we do not want to leave the desert.
But let me say it slowly after my old way of telling things, not the new quick way people want to hear things from someone like me: "please can you hurry up; we do not have all the time in the world” and I smile politely or at least they think so, to show that "no offence is intended” but I am not sure why they spend a lot of time sitting in cafés and bars waiting for some person to speak with them.
However, let me concentrate.
Some three years ago exactly when my youngest daughter was born, I became the leader of my tribe after my father's death. He left everything to me, as I am the elder son. I got his camels (and his Japanese four-wheel drive), his sword (there were also modern weapons) and a big piece of the desert with some hills which is also part of the common heritage of the tribe. This land has the prettiest scenery between The Mountain and the sea (at the point where it is believed that Moses’ tribe crossed the red sea when fleeing from the Pharaohs). I was born in this area just like my father and his father and all my ancestors. This area has a history of people fleeing injustice to hide in it. There are places there where one could live in peace, listening to stories beside the fire, and nobody could find you if you did not want to be found.

And, there are lots of mirages.

My family earned their money and reputation by giving refuge to people and by leading the Believers to the top of The Mountain either by mule, or by foot for those who want to suffer more than the others. When I was very young, I used to climb The Mountain waiting for the voice of God to speak to me because I stuttered. I grew out of stuttering but I still wish to hear voices from the top of the mountain. The time came for me to leave The Mountain, the tent, my family, and the desert, when I turned fifty-six, travelling to other lands asking for justice, or because I thought that I should fight for justice. I had to travel, and leave behind me interrogations and torture (and possibly death).

Here the problem I mentioned earlier began with mirages.
People who do not live in the desert know nothing about mirages:
For them what they believe they see, mirages, becomes real.
For us, the people of the desert, they become things to play with. Why? Because we are not bored; when you live in the desert you have to do a lot of things just to survive, but if you are sure of your survival then you become like the mirages, you do not have to do anything; you are just there.
Then you get bored.
Sometimes you want to play or want to kill.
However, because we the people of the desert know mirages well enough, we only let them play with us and not kill us.
We enjoy playing games and tricks together with them.
One of the funniest games is what we desert people call "catching mirages"
The desert is like a human being: it loves tricks and games.

I did not tell my lawyer or the investigator from the Ministry of Justice about this. They would think I was crazy. I told them about other things that are part of the reason why I came. Some rich tourist company from across the sea wants to take the common land of the tribe and build hotels and swimming pools on it (the sea is so near!) but I refused to sell it at any price. The other reason the tribe do not want to sell this land is because it is full of mirage games. I played here and my children and their children are playing "catching mirages" on it. Some tribes even take permission from us to play at catching mirages on our land and in time it became a great festival. The games being like this: We all know when the perfect time for the mirages to appear is. So we wait. They always come in time, and begin to call us to play with them. One would say, “I see the lost camel of Salem... he is walking beside the tent of Mohammed the son of Ali.” Another would say: no it is not a camel you are seeing; it is the four-wheel drive of my brother Ibrahim, which was stolen; I see it in the oasis of the tribe of our cousins. The players divide themselves into two teams. The players of the first team agree with the person leading their team. The second team agree with their leader. Then, we the elders of the tribe, agree amongst ourselves which team should win. The winner must slaughter a goat or two and then we all sit and eat together.
Then the tourist company came offering us money to sell.
Of course, the news spread across the desert and all the tribes were angry. I felt that the desert became angry and more hostile: the water in the secret places is disappearing and palm trees refused to produce dates on time.
Because the desert could hear things and sounds like human beings.
I called the elders to a meeting to discuss what was happening. We took days over the meeting, and we all agreed not to sell. This decision was received badly by the tourist company and by the police officers in the desert because they know how much baksheesh the company will give them to close their eyes to the collecting of corals from the sea, when the tourists go diving in forbidden areas, or to the shooting of eagles, which is also strictly forbidden.
It happened suddenly: they came with guns and many soldiers to dismiss us from the tribal land. They said we do not have any papers to prove our ownership of the land. True we do not have silly papers, because, quite simply, our ancestors arrived before "they" came to the valley. The elders of the tribes asked me to travel to the other side of the world and put our complaints to the chiefs of the tribes of the world. So I went to the embassy of the land of America where their nationals sit and listen to complaints. They refused to give me visa and laughed at me. They told the local authorities about me. However, I know people who accept money to help other people to travel. My cousin in Amsterdam said, “Why go to America? Come here to this land because they have the greatest court of justice in the world.” So I decided to go to see and speak with my cousin who lives in Amsterdam where it is known he has a big restaurant. He met a woman from this country some years ago when she came to climb the mountain and she took him back with her. Once only he came back to visit his mother and told us fantastic stories about his wife’s country and how he eats a lot of halal meat every day (because his mother was worried that he is not eating halal meat). He told us a story about the important people who come to his restaurant and ask him advice about many things. He said that this country likes justice so much that they made a special court to bring before judges bad people even if they are big kings or high police officers.
Why was I chosen to travel? Because I know the tongues of two other big lands from the other side of the sea. I learned their tongues when I used to trade in the town nearby where tourists come to climb The Mountain. And of course I did not get visa from the embassy of this land; I was smuggled in after I paid a lot of money.

My cousin in Amsterdam has a small shop selling halal shawarma, not a big restaurant as he said. But never mind. He seems happy to see me. He named his shop Fata Mourgana. I asked him what it meant. He smiled and told me it means mirage. He said it’s because he misses the mirages.
But then the police came to arrest me one day because I have no visa and put me in the camp which is like a prison. My cousin brought a good lawyer who said that I came here to seek political asylum even though I told the police that I am asking only for justice and would like to return to my tent and my desert and my mirages as soon as I am finished.
That is how I become a refugee in the camp.
My lawyer believes me, or at least that is what she has told me. She is asking to meet today to discuss ‘the case’ as she put it. My cousin also advised me to drop the whole thing. I asked him – after I agreed – if he can put me in contact with people who can smuggle out of here and back to my tent. He looked at me as if I was crazy.
I am sitting now in his mirage shop after he came to collect me from the railway station. I smell the food he is giving to clients: not very nice. I asked for just coffee. I think I would not mind returning to the desert or even to a prison in my land where everything is clear: the mirage is a mirage and the injustices are injustices; the prison is a prison not a camp as they call it here. I think he began to like my idea because he looked at me and began to laugh. He said, “People pay a lot of money to come here and you want to pay money to get out; where is the logic?” he asked. We both laughed. I heard him speaking to some people on his phone asking about a way to smuggle me out.

Amsterdam January 2006

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