He went back to his room, and the maid went home. Their similar pains remained scattered at the kitchen doorstep to be chewed by the cats that circled there throughout the night. My mother increased his wage by a few hundred riyals after securing a promise that he would make more careful arrangements for saving his money and stop buying the modern electronic gadgets which took his fancy. She would tell him off like a child as he shook his head in embarrassment, not uttering a word. And she gave him the freedom to work weekends, transporting fruit and vegetables with some of his compatriots so he could make a few hundred extra.
He told me he wanted to move with his family to another place, far from his Kashmiri village where he could never be sure that they would not be attacked by the Indians and their stray bullets in that contested border area between the two countries. He told me he wanted to buy a small pick-up to ferry passengers between their homes in the mountains and the train station. That would be sufficient to make a living. He also told me, later, that everything he had earned in Saudi he had spent on his expensive wedding and the generous remittances he sent to the wife he had left behind and whom he visited every year, sowing in her belly a baby girl the colour of wheat. Haneef the bachelor, in his first fifteen years with us as a driver, had been different from this preoccupied distracted character whose presence in our house now almost went unnoticed. His smile had been wider before and he had lived life to the full. We were his family and it seemed he would never leave one day with a final exit visa. But during the last five years Haneef the father was gloomy most of the time. He had a little family in Kashmir to worry about and his smiling features disappeared to be replaced by a tense face and troubled brow. His usual smart appearance slipped and he started to appear in traditional dress, looking just like any Pakistani labourer. Now, with his voice crackling over the airwaves, the most enthusiastic I could be was to take as long as possible with my greeting and ask about his children, and because that did not require more than a couple of questions at the most I was obliged to repeat them several times, and then as the questions dried up I asked him about Glasgow and its people. He laughed, ‘Lot of Saudi here ya Muhammad, study university, come to restaurant for halal meat. I tell them I in Saudi twenty years, they no believe.’ I didn’t know if seeing the Saudis, who had become his favourite customers in Glasgow, delighted or annoyed him, after he had spent exactly half of his life in their country. Certainly they could not all be pleasant to him and Haneef would never have expected them to be as kind to him as they were now being in Glasgow.
I remember one day when he called us in Riyadh from the police station and we had to go and take delivery of him. He was covered in blood, having had a fight with five Saudi lads who had tried to cut him off while driving. His face looked like a burst ball despite his nonchalant grin and the dried blood on his forehead and moustache, which indicated that the altercation must have lasted several minutes before it was broken up by passers-by. The five Saudis were in no better state than him, having learnt that life in Kashmir, in a border region contested for decades, forged proud hearts and strong fists!
It pained me that I found it so difficult to move along the conversation with a man who had played such a major role in my childhood memories, if I were to be honest about it at least. I still remembered them with total clarity, in their natural colours, and at the same time I couldn’t come up with spontaneous words for the telephonic ether to transmit. All the memories were there in my mind but they were incapable of speech: playing football in the sultry summer heat, watering the garden on poignant afternoons, the wrestling match on the TV on Tuesday night, the national team’s matches in the Asian Cup of ’88, the crowded Ramadan umrahs, swimming at Half Moon Bay, changing burnt-out light bulbs, barbecues during the boring winters, Eid prayers with all their Allahu akbars, singing in fast-food restaurants, taking the mickey out of the fat Moroccan maid, and lots of other memories you’d expect from a child as he hurtled from five years old to twenty-five. Haneef was present in them all, right in the thick of the action, for they would hardly have been possible if he had not been there. It was he who taught me to clean the heads on the old video with drops of petrol, and how to tell the difference between Hindi and Urdu, and how I could blow up the football using the insect repellant, and how to stop the buzzing of the neon lights without having to change them. That was when learning those simple things was interesting, before I grew up and the pleasures of life gradually receded.
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
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