His childhood had been postponed for a long time. His father had become mayor of their village in Kashmir two years before Haneef was born. With the government position and the status afforded by his rank he had married a second wife, to enhance his prestige. Haneef and his younger brother were born of this second wife. There was every indication that the two brothers would eventually reap the many benefits befitting the sons of a great sheikh and his favourite young wife, and a new position. But none of that happened, for his father died, as sheikhs tend to, and most of his older stepbrothers were of an age where they could leave the village and head to the four corners of the earth in search of work.
So his childhood was put on hold like all orphans. He left school when he was still young and sold woollen gloves which his mother knitted for the soldiers stationed on the border. The road between the village and their barracks was filled with the noise of distant bombs and the songs of children mocking the Indians, inventing vivid stories of their cowardice and weakness. When he turned twenty, a recruitment office picked him up and brought him to Saudi and he felt his life was just beginning, just as now he felt the same sense of beginning in Glasgow, father of three girls, forty years old, making halal hamburgers for university students and waiting for his British naturalisation to be completed.
When Haneef came to Saudi for the fist time, Riyadh was like a pleasant oasis in the middle of the desert, strange but comfortable. The sound of the call to prayer emanating from dozens of minarets over microphones inspired a sense of awe in his soul and reassured him that the people were Muslims who loved Allah and the call to prayer and that they would take good care of him. He earned a wage the like of which his pocket had never seen and ate three square meals a day in exchange for which he drove a new car in a modern city and watered some trees in the garden. It was exile without teeth. The good life was all around and people had no worries, and few expectations. His heart was reassured and, remembering that he had not yet lived his childhood, he decided to savour it with us, like a ruminant brings the cud back into its mouth to chew a second time. Then a midlife crisis struck. It suddenly dawned on him that he had been traversing the streets of Riyadh for twenty years and neither he nor the city had changed. His fortieth birthday hammered him like a tent peg unwilling to descend any deeper into the sand in case he’d be lost there for ever. The three little girls, whom he had given Arab names, were still far from his arms, in Kashmir, rearing peacocks and spinning wool, waiting for their father, the hero, to come home. They were growing up so fast his distant heart could not bear it. Akbar, his Pakistani friend, who had worked as a driver in Riyadh for thirty years, died from diabetic shock near his employer’s house in Al Wuroud. He collapsed in the middle of the street, dropping the eggs, newspaper and tin of oil he was carrying. It wasn’t the way Haneef wanted to go.
The damned steering wheel crucified his shoulders as he drove us wherever we wanted, and nowhere he wanted. Meanwhile the children of the family he worked for were changing. They were growing up and beginning to speak a language which was too difficult for his humane dictionary compiled over twenty years of intimacy and loyal service. It became apparent to my mother’s compassionate eyes that the strong and honest man she had hired to serve her and her children when she became a widow was no longer strong, even if he was still honest. I heard him once having a terribly sad conversation with our Moroccan maid. His tearful eyes looked like glistening green olives. He was taking the cup of tea which she usually made for him after sunset. On this particular occasion he was sitting with her by the kitchen door, telling her about his daughters. He said he could smell the mud off their feet thousands of miles away. She was telling him about her sick mother and her daughter whom her ex-husband had taken with him to Italy. She hadn’t heard from the girl for years. These unexpected scraps of sadness fell on the kitchen floor, strewn about the doorway like lumps of wrinkled, pungent-smelling cheese past its sell-by date.
Excerpted from Beirut 39 by Samuel Shimon. Copyright © 2010 by Samuel Shimon. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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