this is a blog for short stories and other things which we may call short writings. for now the writings are mine, but if you are willing to add yours short stories or comments, please do.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Reporter Who Died From Obesity

by: Hassan Bahri

Late in the Sixties of the last century, many wonderful things used to happen. People lived with big dreams and believed in what they dreamed. The Beatles imagined, and a whole young generation shared that dream – even Prince Ali, as we used to call him, felt a touch of that common dream. He spent year after year carrying a small transistor radio close to his right ear, which unspooled fairy tales deep into his mind.

About me, the narrator, who spent his moments of relaxation watching others, there’s nothing worth saying, just that I was then a student, a school student, at a secondary school, in a poor part of my city. I lived not far from the school. The narrow street where I lived was dirty, in summer dusty and in winter muddy. On the left side of it there was a shop where neighbours exchanged news and views, as well as looks, before they made their purchases.

They always used to arrive in the shop all together, as if they were coming to share their rumours, and not to buy whatever they could afford. You could sometimes tell from their looks what they were swapping, and you could even guess the phrases they were whispering in low voices, as if they were sharing highly guarded secrets. Something was about to happen or going to happen, at least they believed so, and were waiting for it. Even the sudden surges of the late autumn wind, whirling dust and yellow leaves on the street, seemed to be tipping them off that something was around the corner.

There, waiting was the main drive to live.

‘Surely God doesn’t forget those who humbly follow him
- Be patient and God will reward you.’
It was the most uttered phrase on this street.

Prince Ali had spent his days wondering why this life didn’t want him around its table, and why it was pushing him away from its shops.

These questions were tussling in his small head, and might even have exploded it. But before that could happen, just as in the old fairy tales, a miracle occurred.

One day while he was strolling alongside the motorway, a car, yes a car stopped by him. A woman opened the car door and addressed him, smiling, in a language different from his. She tried to explain to him with words and gestures what she wanted. Prince Ali caught the word ‘Turkey’. He was very happy to have understood this unknown language. He lifted his own hand high pointing northward, and shouted in his own language:
‘Turkey… yes in this direction…’

Before the car disappeared in the direction to which prince Ali pointed the pretty woman gave him a small transistor radio, or talking machine, as he used to call it, and a bunch of strange brown sticky fingers. Everything was beyond him, he was totally bewildered by what the road brought to him.

His way back was different from his way there, only a few hours before. He felt excited. A woman - with a car! - had spoken to him in a different tongue and he had understood what she wanted …She had given him all these things just because he knew what she wanted… he was`t so useless, after all!

Half way back to his dusty street, after he’d used most of his senses on the brown fingers without discovering what they were for, he decided to bite one of them. When his gappy teeth bit into one of them. It crashed easily and melted away with a flash of sweetness that filled his mouth.

That was a big day for him. He dreamt that night of a big world full of that brown sweet stuff, and hundreds of beautiful women giving it away to everybody, as much as everybody wanted …

The next day prince Ali was waiting for me at the end of our street as I came back from school. He showed me the radio. I was a schoolboy, a student, so I know everything, at least he thought so. But For me, as well, it was something new. then after a few minutes of fiddling with it, sounds came out of it. Prince Ali was transfixed, and before he took it back from me he muttered some holy verses to keep all possible genii and evil spirits away from all around the place.

Then every new day brought some curious neighbours to him asking him the latest from his radio. Through this magic box prince Ali became a focal point on this street. And soon he found his new career in this stagnant community.

Prince Ali was always on the alert, waiting, his mouth half opened and his transistor pressed to his hungry ear, as if he wanted to minimise the distance the news would have to travel between the radio and it. He was trying to make sure that he would hear the latest from the BBC Arabic Service before anybody else. Or maybe he just wanted to squeeze the last drop of news from his magic box.

Our reporter was short. His legs were slim and one was shorter than the other was. I always wondered how they carried his small body so quickly. Nobody knew his exact age. even he had no idea about it. They told him that he was born when his mother was collecting olives fruits the year after the drought and famine struck the whole region. But he looked middle aged man, about fifty years old at this point. His face was circular and his cheeks were sunken, his clothes shabby and his hair scruffy. But what was most striking about him his rounded, reddish frightened eyes, which always reacted to the news coming from the radio pressed against his ear.

He had nobody waiting for him. No job to do, no family to care for, no money, so he was happy to become the community’s sentinel. Waitting not on the top of the hill but at the furthest end of the street, dying to break all kinds of news to the customers in the shop. As soon as he heared anything, you would see his bowed legs snatching nervously at the road between his listening-post and the shop, on his face a frown or a smile, according to his evaluation of what he heard. At the shop there were always some customers, and they never failed to see Prince Ali coming. He loved the BBC; it was his source of news. Words coming from nowhere, and even tradable. At the shop! And for food! All this began to be reflected in his demeanour and self-confidence.

Since he had got his transistor, he enjoyed a new kind of life. People needed him. He was happy to notice how others started to listen to him – something that had never happened before - every time he broke the news. He was happy with all of that, and even happier when someone would ask him for details regarding some event far away from their small world.

He would never forget that day when he told them that the Russians had sent Yuri around the earth. And all of the shoppers asked him: ‘Who is this Ury?’ His answer was full of confidence: Yuri Gagarin, Russian astronaut. He was brief and curt, as if this Yuri was one of Prince Ali’s good friends, and astronauting was something the prince did every day. The shoppers were impressed, but divided in their reactions and everybody had an opinion.

But they were more divided on the day Prince Ali broke the shoe news:
‘Khrushchev banged with his shoe on the desk in the United Nations!’

Prince Ali had started to learn the secrets of his food-rewarded career.
He had begun rephrasing the news and holding back details that he would then be asked to explain, so he could get more and better food and higher status among his growing audience.

This particular news was a big event for him. Everybody wanted to know who were this Khrushchev, United Nations, and the shoe…
Prince Ali explained everything to them; they were impressed by all of it, from Prince Ali himself to the United Nations, to Khrushchev, and most of all by the Shoe…

Our reporter Prince Ali got more respect and food, even sweets, for this life-changing news, but not before some heated discussions about Khrushchev’s shoe. First, every one of them had a look at his own shoe and then at the others’. Most of them were in awe of Khrushchev’s brave act, but others were not happy with it. It’s not good, they argued, to put a shoe, no matter how new it is, on a table. After all, maybe the shoe was dirty! But Prince Ali was quick to answer that Khrushchev’s Shoe could not be in any way like theirs:
‘It’s clean, and expensive…’
‘Did you see it?’
‘No, but Khrushchev is President, he can buy a new Shoe every year, not like you, or me, every ten years if we’re lucky’
‘Look, my shoe is new, I bought it not last summer but the one before, but if it were me I would never put it on a table… just imagine how much dust would fly off it… No, no I would not do it…’

After Khrushchev, or let us say with the Shoe Effect, Prince Ali became the most sought-after man in his community. Even some of the women there started to look at him with different way. He felt it. Before they glanced at him with some kind of sympathy mixed with indifference. Now their looks were more fixed and more mysterious. All that filled him with more energy. Some men even began to feel jealous of him. A certain level of danger brings respect. He felt this. But He had no more difficulty selling his news and getting better food for it, and he began reshaping or even adding some flavour to his news, to please his audience. The more he did this, the more food and respect he got.

It was exciting for him, he began to toy with them more, and this community of waiting-people was hungry, from its part, for more and more news…

They were still waiting for something to happen. For Some big event. They did not know what it was exactly, but they felt it would be a big event. Why should it be big? They didn`t know, but they had spent their lives in waiting for something to happen. And the more, and more often, the news came, the more they were excited, and nurtured an amorphous feeling that what they were really waiting for was ever more imminent.

Sometimes Prince Ali found no major news in this world, no surprises, no big disasters, no matter how hard he pressed his transistor to his right ear - which became gradually flatter than the left one as a result.

What to do? His reputation was at stake!

Having worked so hard in his career as a reporter, he had got to know what kind of news would please his public gathered in the shop, and he was aware how generous they were when they were pleased. So in the fallow periods of the news market, Prince Ali began to bring more flying saucers to the earth and more signs of salvation for believers in God. He found his audiences were delighted and reassured by such news, and his rewards were accordingly better.
With a stomach stuffed all the time, our reporter also discovered gradually the pleasure of leading others by the nose, even of using or misusing the power of his knowledge to control the main tap… and of asserting his superiority with an unconscious and uncontrolled desire of revenge. Especially towards those who had been until recently talked down to him as hungry, dirty and useless.

Along with this new pleasure he savoured another one, that of his self-transformation from just a reporter of the news, to its pudgy creator. He was selling them hope to keep them alive for another day, and giving them an opportunity to pass on the virtues of waiting to their offspring.

The wind still whirls the dust and papers there, where our reporter Prince Ali died long ago from obesity, leaving room for more sophisticated newsmongers.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bread heap and a dreamer

by:Hassan Bahri

He was putting together a number of the hardened bread balls. His movements were sluggish but careful. The faint light dimmed everything, but it was clear that he was determined in what he was doing.

He heaped them together against the wall behind himself, folded up his military blanket, placed it to cover the pile, and with painful convulsive movements he pressed his back against that structure. The packed balls pressed back against his lower back and shared his pain.

Everything around was silent, except the fragmented groaning and moaning that pierced the thick walls and ran around the complex labyrinth of narrow corridors.

He was swallowed deep in his thoughts:
- What to do? What’s next?

His eyes were transfixed by his swollen feet, starting a journey backward into his past years, trying to pinpoint those moments when it happened, when he had found himself cornered. Life had been generous with him from this point of view. But he had always been able to turn those bad moments into good ones, just with patience and meditation on the best ways to survive.

But now? This is a completely different experience!

Three weeks have now passed since he was pushed into this room, a little wider than a pauper’s grave in a crowded graveyard.

It was completely underground. He counted thirty-two steps down when they led him here, handcuffed and with a blindfold on his eyes.

There was a small, square gap in the ceiling. It had been barred with iron bars, but the light came through. It was a faint light, radiating from 30 watt bulbs scattered throughout the space above the cells.

On the cell floor there were a dirty mattress, a military blanket and many balls, balls of bread, very hard and old. At first those balls gave him still more gloomy thoughts. Who left them behind, and why? Had they given this person extra bread, and why? Were they trying to bribe him with the extra? Or was he just a refusenik who decided to go on a silent hunger strike?…

But later on he used some of them as a pillow to rest his head on, after putting them into his under-shirt and tying them into it.

The next day when the gaoler hustled him back into the cell after the ‘party’, as the interrogation session was called, and shut the thick iron door behind him, he played back the whole session and thought about what he had said and what he thought they knew.

- Use your head! Tell them what you think they know already. Never say an extra word; it’s a dangerous game and you are the weaker one...

Somebody shouts:
‘Number 14, take your food!’

A plastic bowl is pushed underneath the door.

The same food! Two or three chunks of unpeeled potato floating in thick concentrated tomato soup. Everything’s dirty, even the bowl...

- Stop thinking about food and your stomach! Whether it’s good or bad, eat it all! Don't give them a chance to subdue you through hunger.

When he had finished that day’s delicious feast, he began anew his foraging expedition over the walls and the floor, hoping to find any traces of the men who had carried the name ‘Number 14’ before him. He felt this cell was some kind of common mother for the Number 14s. After their ordeals in the interrogation yards, they enjoyed in it the pleasures of numbness, told their stories, and shed tears against its walls.

Number 14 was like a league uniting them in brotherhood.... This train of thought was encouraging to him. In reality he was doing what he did because of his fear of this new place, following an inner instinct that pushed him to get familiar with somewhere he was forced to be in. Maybe it was going to be his last resting-place.

On the lower part of the right hand wall he found some kind of hieroglyphic script. He looked at it round-eyed, trying to find the clue. He managed to decipher the first real name among the Number 14s: ‘Tarek’ was the name. Tarek was a lover. He had drawn a heart and arrow, and written the name ‘Seham’ on the other side of the heart. But more importantly, Tarek drew something like a calendar on the wall, putting marks for days, weeks, then months, on the chart. He had spent more than a year in this place.

- ‘I’m sorry for you, my Brother!’

Underneath Tarek’s chart many others had left their names and drawn their time lines on this wall. He looked round wondering how they had drawn all this, what kind of pencils they had used? Every ‘guest’ in this place would have been deprived of everything on him, except his own clothes without a belt, and cigarette packets without a lighter or matches, if he carried them.

He read all the stories again and again. At first there seemed no important information for him in them, just names and loved ones, and plenty of ideological symbols, from sickles and hammers to crescents. Every brother distinguished his identity by writing down his name and what he stood for.

But what struck him was that after they spent weeks in this place, their different identities started to wither away, making way for just one kind of human fear. And by the end one identity united them, that of fear, crying out for freedom and life.

- ‘This is the way I’ll go too!’...’No! I am strong!’…’I will beat them with my mind!’ But in his heart, he was aware that he didn't even know what was going to happen to him the next day.

He turned his eyes quickly away from his brothers. He did not want to be just a few lines and an unknown name left on an unknown surface in an underground cell, like the scratches left by bare nails on a slippery wall, telling nobody that somebody had made them trying to resist sliding into oblivion.

He couldn't resist. His hands continued eagerly searching the mattress and the floor for other clues.

In one corner of the folded mattress he felt something intriguing, hard and long.

Quickly he unfolded the edge of the mattress to find three things, not just one: one piece was like a knife made of bone, white and sharpened. The other piece was a real needle, something unbelievable! How had it arrived here?

The third item he couldn't identify straight away. A roll of metallised papers, compressed together in the form of a cigar, tapered at one end.

He held the knife and the needle in his hand, tried them on his bare skin. It gave him a kind of secret fear. A gloomy idea of committing suicide was always haunting him. He put them back in the folded end of the mattress, hoping he might forget their whereabouts.

He picked the roll of paper up, turned it in his hands several times and drew a line with it on the wall. A trace was left, as if drawn with a clumsy pencil, and then he understood how the Number 14s had left their lives on the wall.

With no intention to do so, he found himself writing his name on the wall, at the end of the queue. He smiled and shook his head: anyone would do the same.

He kept the paper pencil handy. After that, he used it to add a stroke and a number every day. He felt in control of the chain of time. Every stroke meant a day had passed by. When there was no stroke, no day passed by. It was his world and it was he who decided if there were a day to pass or not.

A few days after that incident, he heard a quiet knock on the other wall, the one opposite the one with writing on. He knocked back. The other’s knocks were somehow rhythmic. Several knocks, pause, then knocks again.

It was Morse code, he knew that. He wasn't able to answer. He remembered reading about it before. A former ‘guest’ of a similar place had written about it, written how cell-dwellers exchanged information using this language. But everything from that time was murky in his mind now.

He spent most of that night trying to remember how it worked. The next day on his way back from the interrogation yard, where they had asked him again about his friends and his activities, suddenly a light flooded through his mind, and the whole riddle of the knocking language was solved.

As soon as the door was shut behind him, he took a deep, very deep breath, two or three times. Then he repeated to himself the whole knocking code. He recited to himself the alphabet of his spoken language in order, and then he repeated the seven groups formed by regrouping the alphabet into subgroups, each subgroup containing four or five letters.

He started practising straight away, tapping out the code with his fingers on his knees. His right hand fingers tapped out the group number, and his left-hand fingers number of the letter within the group.

He spent all his spare time that day practising typing his name, his city’s name, and why he was in here, with a view to telling all to Number 15 that night. He had great hopes, and serious things to achieve. The coming hours would bring more than whips and dirty food.

The night was slow to come that day, but when the shadows of silence reigned, he could not bear to wait for Number 15 to tap. He knocked twice on the wall and awaited the response. Soon the answer came back. The other was eager to speak, and he spoke so quickly that Number 14 couldn't understand. But he assumed that as in ‘real life’ and with normal people, Number 15 was asking him to introduce himself, his name and charge.

He began knocking out slowly, but with great precision, all the information he assumed the other had asked him for; the only thing he could do at that stage. Number 15 was listening silently. When he finished, or the words he knew were exhausted, the other was vehement in his answer, but Number 14 still couldn’t understand anything…. After this one-way exchange of information, mixed feelings stormed him. He exulted in the cell and his soul revived anew. For the first time he flew in his dreams that night, hugged his mother, stood in a deep valley in his village and yelled out a long shout, listening to the echoes of those shouts rebounding again and again….

He woke up with new hope and a strong determination to beat the interrogator. Every spare moment he recited the new language; he had no time to think about anything else, he even forgot to mark that day’s passing, and it chose to remain in his mind, not to hang on the wall.

He began to understand Number 15 and his ‘talking’ speed improved quickly. Every night there was something to discuss.

Until that day when he knocked, but nobody answered.

He felt lonely and down; he could not do anything. But he consoled himself, saying:

- ‘Maybe they released him! Why I am sad? It means I will not be here
forever, either. Some day… ‘

The next night he knocked again at the same wall. The other wall faced onto the corridor, and Number 13 would be in the other block of cells. His knocks were answered. A new guest, but he was illiterate and several days passed before Number 14 could talk with him easily.

A new prisoner made a difference, and he felt better. Number 14 asked him about Number 16 and the other numbers. Soon he had a whole picture of his neighbours and their charges. He drew a portrait in his mind of every guest around, compositing each one with somebody he knew before, when he still could walk in the street and ride the bus. In his dreams he met their outside counterparts and lived a surreal life. He met them in imaginative places. Sometimes he carried his cell with him, at other times the cities were inside the prison. He met long-dead relatives. He met women without names; flirted with them and even lived whole sexual adventures with some. His morning mood was always dependent on his night’s experience and his imaginary escapes…

He pushed aside the heap of bread balls from behind him, lay on his side and tried to seduce the sleep to come.

That night he dreamed of another woman. She was exotic, assembled from many women he had met in his life. He tried to touch her, but she was elusive. Every time he felt she was close enough to touch she was quick to re-establish her distance, with grace and mystery. The two of them were walking in a city very similar to cities he had known, but it wasn’t any one of them. They ran through an empty street, a long one, dimly lit. There were shops around; it was early evening. They entered one of them. Its entire staff were gaolers he had met in the prison. Gaolers as cashiers, gaolers as assistants and on security. He stood, surprised. All of them raised their eyebrows, slowly, even mischievously. He turned back, took his girl’s hand, and they ran as quickly as they could. The shop workers ran after them. Suddenly he and his girlfriend were at the end of the street. The street ended in a very deep drop, so deep that he couldn’t see the bottom of it. He stopped there. She disappeared, the gaolers were right on his heels….

He woke up, sweat on his forehead and a heavy thumping inside his chest, not on the wall where it normally arrived.

- ‘Why didn’t I jump, stand my ground, push through to the end…. I always need five minutes too long… This time, come what may, I won’t retreat’

Next morning in the interrogation yard he took a stand, as if he were continuing his grotesque nightmare. He was clear in what he told them, strong in the presence of the gaoler with the whip, his head was higher this time and his eyes were blazing with pride. When they led him back to the cell, he was quick to strike out that day with a slash on the wall. This slash was darker and longer than the other ones.
Sometimes the fear of pain pushes us to give up some of our convictions. We compromise them with betrayals, hoping to escape the physical pain. But it never works. The pain of conscience keeps us awake for more nights and haunts steadily our souls right to destruction.
So the mark on the wall declares:
‘No more retreats. Physical pain will fade, but remorse lasts. I will stand for what I believe.’
His journey of defiance had begun. He would bear the consequences.

Strange Case
by:Hassan Bahri

Here I am, it’s been two years now. London is bigger than I imagined, and less than I expected. Its streets full of others, buying, eating, drinking, looking round. Seeing, but not noticing. Consuming, but not digesting.You do the same, hoping somebody will talk to you. Nobody does. But when they say ‘sorry’ for things you never used even to notice, you nod in return, and try to work out what that ‘Sorry’ was for. There, where you came from, nobody has their ‘personal space’, there are no boundaries. Everybody steps over each other’s boundaries all the time. They call it warmth, caring. You used to, as well.It`s nobody`s fault that here you feel downcast and blue. But realising they will not come to you, you go to them.So two days later, on a double decker bus, I headed to the City of London. That day, like the day before, I had barely spoken ten words. In front of my mirror. To myself:‘It’s a nice day…go…find someone - and talk.’All the way on the double-decker I was thinking about the importance of exchanging words. With meaning or without meaning doesn’t matter, what matters is talking. For the first time I realised the importance of the word in itself. It was at the beginning of all beginnings, it is the source of all other powers we have, many problems could be solved by just exchanging words, many lives could even be saved.
Words… I felt I had discovered something important. A feeling every lonely woman or man shares with me. The word is a kind of energy, maybe you could call it bio-energy, the word is a carrier of that inner energy which, if not expressed, may kill…I thought about those who sleep on the streets, who sit in the Underground and at every crowded street corner, asking for change. I was quite sure that in that moment they need to exchange words, not money, and all the people who give to them misinterpret their words. We all think what we need is money, more and more money, but our real need is kind words. Not ‘How much is this?’ and so on, but more genuine, heart to heart words.
Words warm , words console, words bring love and bring tears, words can make wars or peace… we all just need genuine words which come from real feeling, not just for the sake of saying something…I imagined a world without words, or what would happen if our world suddenly stopped exchanging wordswords are so important, yet I could barely remember when I last used them not to buy, but to chat …
‘Last stop, last stop! Bus terminates here!’…
I got off the bus, sunk in my thoughts about words, meaning to stroll over London Bridge. It’s a nice walk from there to Tower Bridge. An old man looked at me and said:
‘It’s a nice day, isn’t it?’
I was so surprised that he was gone before I could agree with him that indeed, the day was really nice.
I took the road down to London Bridge. The river, the people, the afternoon sun and even the wavy line of smoke, descending from a factory chimney far in the south-west of the city, were beautiful. Alone and lonely on this crowded street, I walked past the bridge by the riverside. Did the same as others were doing, bought a drink from a pub, sipped it on the embankment, left my big empty glass there, and headed to Tower Bridge, still hoping I could find somebody to talk with.When I got there, many - so many - people were enjoying the beauty around, the boats, the late afternoon sun - and themselves. Some were leaning on the parapet, watching what was going under the bridge, and some maybe were following a piece of floating wood as it jerked over the river, trying to deduce its speed, or trying to travel with it mentally in its erratic journey to unknown shores. And to others, like me, the bridge was just a bridge, a way to cross the river without going into it… A few had gathered around two playing dogs, who were barking cheerfully, exchanging doggy words and celebrating their casual encounter. I halted there, like the others, watching the dogs.
For dogs life is so easy. Any dog, as soon as it sees another dog, begins shouting and talking. Maybe because dogs are less numerous than US! Or, WE are more clever!? For us, the thinking animals, it’s impossible to do the same. Just imagine having to greet, to celebrate, everybody passing around you. Anyway, I don`t think dogs get depressed.
The two dogs were still playing. It was an opportunity to make contact, and this time I could not miss it. Maybe the dogs’ method of communication was contagious. So I found a place round the barking dogs.A man looked at me:
‘That’s a nice dog, isn’t it?’He said it, and went on his way, before I could bark -sorry- answer him back.