In the Long Shadows
Most evenings, as night is falling, I walk to where the houses trickle out and the nothing that lies beyond begins. I think of it as a line though there is no real boundary or fence to speak of, no customs post or barbed wire. Still, that is how it feels. A line you cannot see or touch, but it is there all the same. And that is where they are building the tower.
As the day draws to a close and the sun tumbles into the earth’s embrace, the shadows grow long and spiny, stretching themselves like elegant fingers towards the horizon. Out of the lengthening shadows time seems to flow. The world comes alive in a magical way. I remember evenings like this from when I was a child. Briefly, it fills me with hope. The light is soft and warm and the sky grows deep and intense.
Over this the dark tower now looms.
It is an unusual structure. Ancient and modern at the same time. The design and materials they are using are said to be among the most advanced in the world. Most people laugh when they hear that. This is new to us. We are not used to having this kind of standard around here. We are waiting for the joke to be explained, even though we can see that actually it carries a ring of truth. The tower marks a change in all our fortunes, they tell us.
There is something about it that is not of this world. Perhaps it is the contrast with the barren surroundings. Standing out there in the middle of nothing makes it seem all the more out of place, an incongruous fact rising out of the earth. When the sun strikes the smooth surface it gleams like black glass. In truth no one can say what colour it really is, or what it is made of. From a distance it appears like a gleaming plume of water shooting high up into the air. There are no houses around. No roads. There is nothing but sand out there - sand and small stones which I am told are the crumbled remains of ancient mountains that rose and fell millions of years ago. To me they are just stones. The ground is otherwise perfectly flat and bare. There must have been a plan to construct a road out to it, but if there was it has been abandoned.
When you look at it for a long time you realise it is a curious shape. Not entirely straight, it curves improbably inward at the bottom. At the top, which rises over one hundred and fifty metres above the ground, it narrows to a pinnacle. In outline it resembles a natural feature shaped by the wind and the rain rather than a manmade structure. There is something primitive about it, obscene even, which makes you wonder if it might be a relic from a forgotten civilisation, some part of our collective memory that has been lost to us. But it is completely modern. In fact, it is not quite finished. In the side there are gaps let into the concrete shell. These are rectangular, and they are also uneven. They appear not to correspond to any regular sequence. Sometimes L-shaped, sometimes rectangular. Some are vertical, others horizontal. If you stare at these for a long time you can begin to sense a complex pattern. But it is as if it is intended to inspire confusion. The dark rifts appear like scratches, etchings, or the letters of a strange alphabet, a language no longer spoken. It reminds me of a piece of clay I saw in a museum once; a sacred tablet with an inscription carved into it thousands of years ago by the people who used to inhabit these lands. All that remains of them and their language is a few dusty objects preserved in a corner of the museum. People take their families there when they can think of nothing better to do on holidays. They might pause for a moment and then, finding nothing of significance to themselves, they move on. Thousands of years, thousands of lives tossed casually into the well of oblivion.
When I am out there I find myself remembering things. Otherwise I have no time to think of the past. There is too much to see to. Crops need tending, animals have to be fed, goats milked. I live on the edge of the city and yet it seems so far away it could be another country. My circumstances have changed. I no longer have the ambitions I once had. None of us has. Once we had hope. Once we wanted to make the world a better place.
I suppose the tower could conceivably be a monument of some kind, but then to what or whom is it dedicated? If not the ancient pagan gods and goddesses, the kind they have taken to destroying these days, then what? And why is it out here, of all places, where few can see it? Most of the monuments they put up nowadays are clumsy old contraptions, hideous contortions of marble and steel, usually with a military theme, placed at intersections in the centre of town. Buses career around them wildly, often losing control and toppling over, crushing their occupants. They do not have the timeless elegance of this new contraption.
Asking questions is the best way to get yourself into trouble, as everyone knows. But I can’t help wondering. Why was the tower abandoned? There were rumours of a fatal mistake having been overlooked. A flaw in the plans that would turn the building into a deathtrap if it was ever completed. The reasons may have been financial or political but we shall probably never know. In order to allay fears of government impotence, the minister decided to inaugurate the unfinished monstrosity anyway. He arrived in a long motorcade of sirens and flashing lights accompanied by an entourage who clapped and sang and waved palm fronds joyously in the air. A mournful bull was led up to the tower. A butcher’s knife glinted in the bright sunlight and blood seeped into the sand. When the minister attempted to hop over the dead animal he slipped, landing on his backside in a sticky pool. He was quickly bundled into the car by his bodyguards, leaving behind a bloody trail of footprints in the sand that stopped abruptly without explanation, as though he had vanished into thin air.
So the tower remains uninhabited and useless. For a time it was mentioned by politicians and government spokesmen in speeches, as a symbol of the new prosperity that was coming to our country. A living testament to the great reserves of oil that would soon be flowing from our proud soil making us all more wealthy than we could ever have dreamed. Now a dry wind blows through the empty windows and doors and no one has seen any sign of wealth, although the pipelines are said to be flowing and certain parts of town have grown lush with luxuriant gardens and leafy trees, the pleasant trickle of cool water flowing over marble fountains. Great palaces have sprung up along the river, occupied by neither kings nor deities. No one knows exactly who lives there. If you manage to tune into a foreign radio station you might hear talk of a boom, but we have yet to see any sign of it.
Nowadays it is easier to believe the rumours than the nonsense they report on the radio. All day and all night they enchant people by playing the same music over and over. There is a television at the corner shop where people gather in the evenings. But it is the same story. They show you people living in distant foreign places and explain how unhappy they are with their lives. They cower in fear of violent crime. They suffer crippling diseases brought on by over indulgence. But to us they look plump and well fed. They have nice houses and everyone seems to own at least one car. Yet we are to believe they live an empty existence. We have nothing to complain about, the woman on the screen smiles at us. Our lives are much better. Some fool always agrees with her, but the rest of us sit in the dark and mutter our curses. In the news they show the president opening a new dam, a new power station, an airport. But it’s always somewhere far away from here. You can never go out to check if the power station is really where they tell you it is.
Walking out to the tower used to be easy, but not any more. Now you have to pick your way through the shamble of huts and makeshift shelters that has sprung up. A tide of human debris has flowed down the river and locked itself here as solidly as any dam. A barrage constructed from flattened cardboard boxes and reed mats, beaten tin and the odd palm frond now extends towards infinity. Surrounding this there is a minefield of shit, as all the people who have come and settled like crows on that plain naturally have to relieve themselves, so not only do you have to hold your breath, you also have to be careful where you put your feet. Our new neighbours are not welcome. Often their children wander into our houses and pretend to be lost. They have less than we have, but we have too little to share.
A long time ago I played the guitar in a band. For one brief period we were very much in demand. We played at weddings until music was banned. Then our singer was stabbed in the throat by a deranged man who was actually a student of theology. He disappeared for a time but was later appointed to a new university in a nearby town and made head of the department of religious law. I have a photograph from those days, taken by Sami, which shows me sitting on a stool holding a guitar. If you look closely you can glimpse a strange glow in my eyes. I was a dreamer in those days. We all were. I wanted to be like Django. I had a cassette of his and that is how I learned to play. I knew nothing about him really, but I liked the name, Django, which reminded me of the cowboys in the films. It is the only photograph I have and I can barely recognise myself. I know it is me, but it looks like a stranger in a strange world. The studio background was painted to resemble an oasis, with a big palm tree and a river shining in the moonlight behind it. The man in the picture is no longer me, it is who I once was. I look back on that face as though on a distant land I once heard about. The guitar was an old one I borrowed from a garage mechanic who had accepted it in payment for some repairs. A taxi driver had found it in his back seat once, he said, forgotten by a customer. He charged me by the hour, but he let me practise for free in his workshop.
At the height of our success, our band used to play at least once a week, sometimes twice. People knew us. We played at engagement parties, student graduations, the opening of a gallery or an exhibition, embassy receptions. We played everywhere. Our success was due to our flexibility: we could play anything and everything, from reggae to love ballads to popular contemporary songs. If we listened to a record a couple of times we could instantly copy it. I cannot describe the happiness I felt when I played. The people would dance and sing along with us. The world was at peace with itself. Except that it wasn’t, not really.
I wonder these days if all that was somehow wrong. Was I trying for something that was not meant for me? When I go out there and listen to the wind I realise there is no one else to ask. The others have all gone, even Sami. Sami disappeared like the rest of them. He was there and then he was not. He had always been fascinated by cameras, but later he told me it was the day we took the photograph of the band was when he realised. He said the smell of the developing chemicals was the smell of djinns cooking. Every evening he would go and sit with the old man who ran the studio, pestering him to show him how it all worked. Eventually he bought himself a camera, and soon that was not enough so he got another. It was more than a hobby, it was a passion, and like most passions it would not be satisfied until it consumed him.
For many years we lost contact. I think he was travelling a lot. I heard news of him from mutual friends. I read his name in newspapers. It seemed he was building something of a reputation for himself. Then one day, quite out of the blue, he turned up at the front door of my house. I did not know what he wanted. He didn’t say. He sat there for a time in silence. I talked of this and that. Then he looked at his watch and he left. From then on he would turn up at odd hours. Always without warning. He would just appear late at night with no explanation. I would wake up in the night to find him standing in the shadows. He would jump over the rear wall and remain hidden for long hours, watching to make sure I was alone. Sometimes I think he even went away without saying a word. I would stand in the yard and call his name and there would be no reply.
The last time I saw him he was almost incoherent. I barely recognised him. His was was raw from the wind and the sun. He had lost weight. His eyes were wide and stared fixedly at a point in the distance. I thought he was feverish from the road. It is a long journey out to the western regions, by train and road. He showed me what he had brought back: photographs, hundreds of them; burned villages, barren hills, blackened grass, graveyards. He went on and on about armed militias, foreign pilots, flying gunships. They pick out a figure in the landscape and press a button and that person is gone. Fifteen minutes after the attack they are on the ground drinking coffee and reading poetry in that strange language of theirs. He showed me a picture of a blonde man holding a book. He had memorised some words: ‘Stars were racing. Thoughts were racing. And the Sphinx was listening in the desert.’ He looked up at me; ‘Its beautiful, isn’t it?’
This has nothing to do with us, I said. I was scared. Scared that Samir was losing his mind. Scared of where all this would lead. If it were true, I argued, there would be protests. The world would not stand by and let this happen. They would know. The night was quiet and still. The soft rumble of a car rolled slowly by in the street outside. I could think of nothing more to say. Without another word he turned and vanished into the shadows and never emerged again.
I was a teacher back then. I travelled to school everyday in a clean shirt and stood in front of an overcrowded classroom of fifty noisy boys and spoke of harvests and cash crops that meant nothing to them, of mountains they would never see and places that no longer existed. All our textbooks were out of date. Forests had since been hacked away, lakes had been drained. I limited myself to the facts they needed to get through their exams. They repeated the words after me. There was not enough time to make them understand. But once in a while, when we were ahead of our schedule, I would talk to them of other geographies.
History is full of lost legends, I said. Ancient geographers recorded, for example, the land of the Wakwak, where human beings grow on trees. The boys laughed. Once the world was full of such stories. The City of Brass had two gleaming towers of beaten metal. From a distance they resembled blazing fires on the horizon. It was perched on the rocky edge of the Great Ocean of Darkness. There was no entrance to the city. Many people tried to get in and failed. Finally, a brave and intrepid amir managed to penetrate the high walls. He found all the inhabitants dead, the city strewn with corpses so handsome and lifelike it was as though they had just stopped what they were doing a moment before. In the innermost chambers of the royal palace they found the queen. Alongside her was a letter explaining that they had died of hunger. But how? It made no sense for them to have perished when surrounded by so much wealth. Soon after that I lost my job.
The sky is an arch they say and we are the archers. We aim for the distant horizon and hope against hope. In the evenings a certain tranquillity returns to the world. This empty shell where the wind sounds its strange lament. As the light changes the tower seems to go through a range of transformations, like a chameleon. The world settles flat against its base when the magic hour comes again. As the shadows grow longer, flowing into one another, I get the strange feeling that there is something out there in the twilight behind the tower, something that remains just beyond my reach. Sometimes I stay too long and find myself picking my way home carefully, trying not to step on something nasty in the dark.
16th International Berlin LIterature Festival 7-17 September 2016[read more]
Announcing the Inaugural Annual Lecture
Friday 14 October
Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize 2016 is translating from Norwegian[read more]
On World Refugee Day
The Ship No One Wanted
– a monologue by
WELCOME LITERARY SALON
was Tuesday, 21 June, during Refugee Week
Sudanese authors & Banipal 55 at Waterstones Piccadilly on 14 June[read more]
[read all news stories]