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(The Suicide Mission)
3 excerpts by
The Suicide Mission is a novel in three parts, relating to the three cities and phases through which the story travels.
PART I: The State of Emergency (Basra)
PART II: The Confrontation in Amara (Amara)
PART III: The New World Order (Baghdad)
(From Part I of the novel, The State of Emergency. The first scene, introducing the two European main characters and their portable suitcase - The Democracy - which includes, among other things, a Nomadic Parliament:)
"We should be aware of the magic of the media. We should not just watch the catastrophes and the events that are taking place; we should be making the events ourselves."
- Osama bin Laden, head of a transnational NGO (Non-governmental Organisation), c. turn of the millennium
o. Wandering in the Wilderness
"It was still early in the millennium, and hot," writes Nielsen, "we were sweating, our collars and ties were too tight and The Democracy already felt like a burden. Every five minutes a vehicle rattled past, a battered Toyota pickup with some men in the back, lanky, skinny birds wrapped in sandy-coloured clothes and partisan scarves, black eyes staring at us. The wheels raise two columns of dust, which slowly swell, merge into one another, sink to the ground, and the truck is gone. I cast a sidelong glance at the man walking next to me. With his dark suit, thin reddish-fair hair and wide striped tie flapping in the desert breeze he looks like an Irish EU diplomat who has lost his way. - You must go to immigration office, said one of the border soldiers at the first Kuwaiti checkpoint and lazily waved his machine gun in the direction of the no-mans desert in the background. We nodded, picked up The Democracy and started to walk. We walk without actually having understood where we are going. We just walk. Between us, connecting and separating us, the case hangs just above the desert ground. The sky is blue, the desert is grey, and through the crack between the two elements a fine wind blows, whirls up a little dust, otherwise theres nothing. We walk. The black shadow with the pale reddish face floats along in the corner of my eye. Who is he, I think, who on earth is this man? In Copenhagen Airport he suddenly disappeared; with the long purposeful strides of a statesman he cut his way into the mass of impeccably-dressed Westerners and western-dressed Orientals. Fifteen minutes later he returned with a satisfied expression on his face, carrying a tin of foot powder in a chic little plastic bag. During our stopover in London he disappeared again and reappeared just as suddenly with the same stiff but satisfied calm gaze and another tin of foot powder dangling from his big red hand. On the main thoroughfare in Kuwait City he went into a Pharmacy and came out with a bottle of mouthwash. And now, I think, now here he is, walking alongside me in the desert between Kuwait and Iraq, an Irish EU diplomat in suit and tie, carrying a heavy metal container and, hidden somewhere under his jacket, in his pockets or perhaps sewn into or sprinkled into his belt or socks: two tins of foot powder and a bottle of mouthwash. White mans burden.
The track ahead splits into two, each following its own direction out into Nothing. Which route shall we choose? I glance at the man. Hes sweating. Who decides? Who carries the responsibility for this? Far off to the left there is something looking like an abandoned petrol station, the colour sucked out by the sun, a grey box in the grey sand. We take the left. This is a misunderstanding, I think; it seemed like a good idea back home in Europe but here, in the no-mans desert between Kuwait and Iraq, The Democracy feels quite unmistakeably like a burden, the right idea in the wrong era. But weve done it, weve picked it up, weve started walking, and now theres no way back, two Europeans wandering the wilderness into a new millennium where every other people, even the Bedouins, have long since stopped wandering and now sit, smug and contented and without the least desire for democracy, behind the smoked windows of their Kuwaiti four-wheel drives. "Discover Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world! www.islam.org", as it said on the last hoarding before the border to Iraq and the state of emergency.
We approach the grey box. Its bigger than it looked, not a petrol station, more just a row of grey concrete military huts. There are a few doors and on the doors signs written in Arabic characters. As far as I know, neither of us understand Arabic, not a word; we havent had time to get to grips with the particulars, world history has just spat us out here in the desert, without warning, two Europeans in suit and tie. A dirty lorry is waiting in the shade below the grey concrete overhanging the huts. A cluster of eyes float around in the dark soup under its tarpaulin, staring at us. Suddenly someone shouts. Now! I think, just a case of letting off an idle volley through the opening in the tarpaulin and were out of the picture, exit Europe! I raise my free hand and wave it a bit, give a friendly smile and nod. It goes quiet, just the sound of the sand creaking under our boots. They might be frightened too, I think, frightened that theyve gone mad, that theyre seeing things: two pale missionaries on their way into the desert. And then were past, on our way out towards another vanishing point. A little while later the lorry overtakes us. A cloud of dust that rises up lazily, apathetically, and then just sinks back down to the ground. Sand, sand, sand, the sun and the wind, which isnt much of a wind, its not carrying anything, no dead leaves, no insects or rain. No smell. Nothing. This is not good, I think, the thin line between heaven and hell begins to dance up and down. - Help, I say, - help. He doesnt answer. This is too stupid, I think, we havent prepared ourselves for this at all, neither physically nor mentally. Every other delegation from every other empire, religious community or Nationalmannschaft would have prepared, for months, undergone an insane or scientifically-calculated programme. I, like every ordinary man, jog round a lake or two now and then, but our countrys small and so the lakes are that much the smaller. Nothing compared with this desert of light. I think. But I dont say anything. Without warning the man lifts his free dangling arm, swings the big pink hand in an upwards ninety-degree arc, pointing it into haziness. As if there was anything to see, I think. Yes, there is, there really is something: another hut, a sandcastle or just a tin shack with a bullet hole in the side and a tattered flag stirring lazily in the wind. If I survive this, I think, yes, what then? I think. If you survive this, youll die.
And then it comes, I can hear the roar growing out of the stillness behind us, I twist my upper body and with a prehistoric reflex I reach out my free hand and turn the thumb up and wave it around - But the truck just rattles past, the rather non-veiled Arab in the drivers cab looks sleepily out at us and onwards, straight through and disappears behind the cloud of dust he stirs up in front of us. We carry on. How much longer? I think. The real nightmare hasnt even begun, its not this, this no-mans land, this wandering in the wilderness, this endless plain of sand isnt a part of the story at all, neither ours nor the worlds. Its not a place at all, just a space, the gap needed to separate the world from the state of emergency. Its not mentioned anywhere, not in my atlas, not on the TV news or in any of the warnings weve been given. If youre going to die, I think, and you are! then would you kindly just wait until the story has started and youve crossed the frontier into Iraq. You cant die in a place that no ones thought of and no one has feared and no one has mentioned with so much as a single word. That would be too ridiculous. - Ach, says the man, all the puff goes out of him, he puts down his end of The Democracy and, as its a joint venture, I have no choice but to follow suit. I let go of the handle and straighten myself up. We look through a fence at the hut, which on this closer inspection is not a hut, more like a fortress, a stronghold of cement under the Kuwaiti flag, fenced in and decorated with barbed-wire streamers. No entry.
But why you two, they said, women and children and people like us in all our ordinariness. Well someones got to do it. We said. But why right now? they said. Its now that theres a need for it, we cant wait with introducing democracy until democracy has been introduced, can we. We said. At that moment a caravan of shiny four-wheel drives passes us, six extravaganzas from US AID, each with its barbecued two-hundred-pound hunk behind the steering wheel; big heavy bull heads that slowly turn towards us and merely register, with no surprise, completely without feeling, they see something apparently utterly inconsequential as they roll by. We stand there for a bit. Just stand. The man turns his head towards me, his face is expressionless, I cant tell if he intends me good or harm, I cant see any sign of any intention at all. He sighs, shrugs and we walk around The Democracy, pass by one another half-way round without saying anything, lift the case and carry on out towards yet another hazy and colourless box shimmering in the light on the rim of the horizon.
In one of the coalition barracks in Kuwait we applied for admission to the state of emergency. - Who are you? We looked at one another. - Two quite ordinary men, we said.
- No one in particular. What do you want? they said. - Weve come with The Democracy! As a matter of form the coalition had decided to divide humankind into five categories: natives, soldiers, businessmen, journalists and humanitarian aid workers. - Which category do you belong in? they said. We looked at one another. - None, they said. And so we had to leave. The next day we came back. - But, what do you want?! said the Kuwaiti General Al Mumin. - As we mentioned, we said, - weve come with The Democracy. - Are you soldiers? he said. - No, we said. - Are you businessmen? - No, we said. - Are you humanitarian aid? - No, we said, - weve come with The Democracy! And then it went quiet again. - The Democracy, he said, - good idea. I just dont know how - to make you fit into one of the categories. I really dont know. At that very moment a British colonel comes into the barracks. In his old leather briefcase Colonel Andrzej Frank has a well-worn copy of William Shakespeares Hamlet. - I know who they are! he says and points at us, - they are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern! Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two small characters in the grand tragedy, two assistants who step on stage and do their best to accomplish their mission! - Well, says the Kuwaiti general, - well then, lets throw them to the lions!
We approach the hut. Another mirage? No, this time its a real hut, a rectangular box thrown out at a random spot in the desert, two doors, an in and an out, and dotted about in the grey surrounding sand a few dusty pickups and the row of six dazzling four-wheel drives. We go for the exit. An oblong office, a counter, a Kuwaiti Indian at a computer. We pull our wine-red European passports out of our jackets. He looks at them, leafs through them, shakes his head. We give him the green papers from the Kuwaiti general. He nods, asks us to take a seat. Where? We go out into the sunshine, out to The Democracy. The man at my side pulls a packet of Gauloises Blondes from his suit pocket, shakes out a single cigarette, lights it and smokes. The six big hunks from US Aid come out of the hut and walk over towards their vehicles. The first five just give us a quick glance, the sixth stops, - Doù? - LEurope, we say. - Et pourquoi? We point at the case resting in the dust between us. - La Démocratie. He laughs, loudly, wildly, a roll of thunder in the desert, and gets into his truck. The six vehicles pull a line of dust behind them out towards the horizon, where a gateway arches up to the border of nothingness. A last drag and the man throws away the butt, we go into the hut, fetch our papers, pick up the case and go on our way. We walk. And if we ever reach the gateway, then what? I think. Will anyone be waiting for us, will anyone be standing by, as agreed, two natives who will pick us up and drive us further into Iraq? And if not? Then weve had it. We walk. There it is, right out there on the rim of the horizon: the gate into the state of emergency, like a U that someone has dropped, a U that has blown in across the stage and landed upside down in the dust. The wind is light, but against us, our ties are flapping like two pennants flying at half mast, but at least the suns behind us. And the gateway grows, slowly and deadly surely it rises from the dust, and in front of it a row of waiting vehicles. - I cant go on, I say, so close to the goal, but suddenly its over, my poor arms, my neck, my shoulders have been pulled out of their sockets, - I cant! I say. He doesnt answer. I close my eyes. And carry on.
- Nielsen, he says. I open my eyes. Were there. Like the last pedestrians in this world we walk along the row of waiting vehicles, towards our goal, the gateway, the upturned U. We put the case down in the dust; a Kuwaiti soldier runs the point of his machine gun down our jackets, trousers, to the edge of shoes and boots and up again. He gives a toss of his head. We nod, pick up the case and walk in."
(From Part II of the novel, The Confrontation in Amara. Following a shocking encounter with the state of emergency in Basra, the two Europeans and their Iraqi assistants think that they will now have a few peaceful days in Amara, a big city situated in the Iraqi province bordering Iran. Here the British forces have - according to the coalition - everything under control. But chaos soon breaks out and in a state of chaos no one knows the identity of the enemy: is it the fundamentalists, is it the people, the British, the clan chief? Or is it us?:)
"The operations were a real Battlegroup effort, as all the companies and squadrons were involved to control the crowd and settle the situation. The troops did amazingly well as many of them had no sleep for over 48 hours, as one event led into the other."
- Report on the British armys website about events in Amara, 10-11 January 2004
"There is no order that can be applied to chaos."
- Carl Schmitt, early 20th-century European realist
"# posted by Nielsen: 9:21 AM
Thursday, January 08, 2004
AMARA, morning, mist
- Well walk, today well walk! I say. The sun is somewhere out there behind the mist, on the other side of the Tigris, behind the closed-for-the-winter Riviera, beyond the sign saying "Amara sumer koafe", the Sumerian koafe in Amara, you know?! We walk, its still cool and misty, quiet, provincial, like November in Esbjerg. We walk, despite the war-nings, the first Europeans in Amara since the war, we greet people, - Salaam Alekhem,
- Alekhem Salaam, stop and have a bit of a chat with the local football team, twelve men and two balls but no stadium, the British have taken that and kept it. We suggest they have a match with the occupying forces: if the Amara boys win, then its off you go, britee go home! They laugh, we continue. - We would be better off without Nielsen, says Adnan. Rasmussen with his red-cheeked diplomatic countenance merges into the crowd here too, but not Nielsen; my pinched nose and my scarecrow frame in its grey suit stick out everywhere. - We would be better off without Nielsen, says Adnan. We laugh, another last laugh. On the open space between the bridge, the government building, the pink palace and the coalitions huts, between the barbed-wire streamers and the symbolic road blocks, a couple of hundred unemployed men are gathering for a peaceful demonstration. - The people of Amara are very poor, says Adnan, - Saddam took all the money from Amara, he was jealous, you know, all the most educated people, all the poets and artists in Iraq-
- they come from Amara! we say in chorus and laugh to left and right as we walk through the crowd and on towards the gateway into the liberation forces, we just walk, straight through, not like in Basra; the iron gate goes up, we walk straight in, "Mr. Nilsson and his delegation", as was written on the board in the authors club in Basra. Pipis little monkey with entourage. No fort, no fence, no questions from the guard, just a bow and a - Alekhem Salaam in response to our - Salaam Alekhem. For the first time weve got a foot inside the white mans club, Europeans among Europeans. In front of the cement hut a couple of bare-headed British soldiers in loose uniforms stand chatting, - mornin, how are you! Out on the Tigris, behind the veil of spiky-new barbed wire, a couple of Marsh Arabs punt themselves along in a hollowed-out canoe. The muddy water, the mist, this November chill in the Iraqi province on the border with Iran, Amara Amara, city of the moon," writes Nielsen, your envoy, elegiacally to the newspaper back home, sitting in his safe place at the computer screen in the coalitions hut - the citys only connection to the internet and the world - and then continues with his weblog for his own pleasure: "And so here we are," he writes, "Nielsen & Rasmussen, two ordinary Danish Europeans in the middle of what they call a state of emergency, Esbjerg in November! each of us sitting in front of a quite ordinary computer, writing. And there, behind our impeccable backs, is Adnan, sitting as usual with his comfortable little paunch, or wandering around trying to whip up a bit of an atmosphere, - now there are thousand people outside, maybe two thousand! he says with his Arab sense for melodrama, - maybe they start fighting! - Oh, yeah! we say, - sure! - I think my article from Basra should be in the paper back home today, I say, - or maybe it was already in yesterday, I seem to be losing track of the days. - Maybe we can read it on the net, says Rasmussen. - Yes, maybe, I say. Right! I think, maybe its time to get up, leave this safe and sound European connection and go back to work and The Democracy." Writes Nielsen. But then something happens: "Somewhere out there we heard a bang," writes Nielsen much later in his notebook. "Rasmussen got up, abruptly towering up two metres above me, - its over, he yelled, - schluss! - They start shooting! said Adnan. - Nielsens mission! hissed Rasmussen, hanging like an eagle over me, casting his angular shadow down across the computer screen. - Move, I said. - Nielsens mission! he said, - not The Democracy, not Nielsen & Rasmussen, but Nielsens mission! - Come again? I said, - is it my article? - Yes, didnt you hear it? Or maybe it was some kind of bomb! whined Adnan. - What did it say? I said, - Rasmussen?! - You could only read the title, but that was more than enough, he hissed and tightened his tie,
- its over, Ive had it with this, this Nielsens mission! he said, - Schluss! Like a German chancellor, he spun on his heel and stalked out with Adnan dogging his footsteps. - What is it, what is it, Rasmussen, where are you going? dont you hear? he whined, - listen, they start fighting, wait for me, Rasmussen, wait!"
And while Rasmussen, outside under a January sun, but still within the walls of the coalitions rectangular cement yard, smoking and seething marches twenty-thirty circuits with his interpreter, the slightly overweight Adnan, like a dog at his heels, and while the people, the two hundred peaceful unemployed demonstrators just on the other side of the wall, have in all haste become two thousand in revolt, with stones and home-made pipe bombs against the police batons and dilapidated machine guns, then Nielsen, at his temporary place in front of the computer screen among the Brits inside the hut, turns his back on reality, takes cover out on the internet and carries on scribbling his weeping baby to the newspaper back home on the old continent:
"Its a strange world, a beautiful, dirty and paradoxical world we die in."
Concludes Nielsen and reluctantly allows himself to be pulled back to reality in the coalitions hut, where Adnan is waiting behind him, fidgeting impatiently: "- Nielsen! he said, - we better leave! It is not safe here, they started fighting outside, listen, its half the city now, maybe they break down the walls. - And what about Rasmussen? I said.
- Rasmussen, he is outside, come on, Nielsen, we better leave, Emir is waiting somewhere with the car. - Is he angry? - Who? - Rasmussen! I said. - Yes, I dont know, youd better talk to him. I got up and walked in front of him out of the room, along a corridor, "WC" was written on a slip of paper stuck on a door, I grabbed the chance, - just a moment! It was a proper toilet! not a stinking hole in the ground, not a foot-shaped pile of sloppy faeces on the edge of the abyss, no, a white china bowl, "Armitage Shanks", maybe theyd brought it with them from good old England, complete with cistern and flush lever and even a water mirror at the bottom. I looked at myself in it, adjusted the black-and-white turban that Emir had wrapped me up in, relieved myself, washed my hands and went out into the yard. It was a different picture now; all the British soldiers were gone, Rasmussen was walking around alone, like a black streak of lightning in the fierce sun, smoking, a cigarette in one hand, the rest of the packet in the other. - Rasmussen, I said. From the other side of the white wall we could hear the crowd, a scattered shouting and shoving, like cattle, a blaring megaphone and something that sounded like firecrackers. - Come on, guys, lets go! said Adnan. - Rasmussen, I said. He turned his back to me, gazed through the barbed wire out across the river, - Rasmussen! I said. - Nielsen, he said. - Listen! yelled Adnan, - they start shooting! - Yes, yes, I said, - weve heard it! I dont understand, I said, - it must be a misunderstanding. - Nielsens mission! he hissed. - No, I said, - Ive never written that, it must be them at the newspaper. - Yes, yes, he said, - Nielsen, he said and sucked the last glow out of the cigarette, - Ive had it with you, sir! He vanished in a veil of smoke, along the fence back to the hut. - Come on! I shouted. Adnan came over to me, - what is it? he said and took hold of my arm, - come on, guys! - Not guys, I said. - What? he said. - Not guys, I said, - we are not in fucking America, this is British territory! I said, and shook myself free and followed after Rasmussen. - Wait! shouted Adnan, - we cannot stay here, they start shooting! - Rasmussen, I said, calmly, - its not fair. - Listen, said Adnan. - Schluss! said Rasmussen. - What? said Adnan, - The End, I translated. - But we cannot stay here! - Okay, lets go! said Rasmussen, spun 180 degrees and walked straight across the yard towards the gate. - Wait! shouted Adnan and ran after him, - wait! Rasmussen walked ahead of us, smoking, into the narrow passage that led to the gate, past a couple of local police boys who were standing bolt upright, shifty eyes, listening to the noise coming from the square, clinging to their dilapidated Kalashnikovs as their heads turned to follow Rasmussen; the guard leapt to his feet, stared at the foreign statesman, took hold of the iron door and opened it, no hand to his chest, no - Salaam Alekhem or the other way round: - Alekhem Salaam, just a brisk nod from Rasmussen and then he was out of there, out among the throng in the square, the black smouldering jacket making a breakaway with us, the peloton, ten metres behind. - Rasmussen! shouted Adnan and caught hold of the edge of his jacket, hang on! over a few road blocks, past one of those universal white plastic chairs lying overturned in the middle of the crowd with its white legs sticking up in the air. It was like a festival, just without music, I turned round and saw three British boys standing on the roof of the guard house holding their heavy metal, like three bad signs against the pale-blue sky,
- fast, shouted Adnan, - fast, fast!
- Fast, fast! he shouted. We started to run. I looked at Rasmussen, smiled at him, but he acted like he didnt see me, like I was dead. Adnan dragged us over some road blocks,
- they start shooting! he said. - Listen, I said to Rasmussen, - this isnt my fault. The demonstrators filled the whole open space between the bridge and the government building, threw stones at the liberation forces and shouted. - Nielsen, Rasmussen overruled the chaos, - your self-centredness, sir, knows no boundaries! Then there was the sound of a shot. I dont know what Id do without Rasmussen, I - I cant say I love him, but I hate him in a heartfelt and warm kind of way. Everything would be so easy without Rasmussen, what a life, it would be awful! Adnan opened the car boot and tumbled The Democracy down into the darkness, shoved me onto the back seat and looked around for Rasmussen. He was standing a few metres away, like a long black jack knife against the chaotic background, smoking. - Come, shouted Adnan, - come on, Rasmussen! and waved his hand in the direction of the open back door. Rasmussen shook his head and took a drag on his cigarette, - that, he hissed heavily, the smoke swirling out of his mouth, - youre not going to get me doing that, not with him. - We got to get away from here, back to the hotel, shouted Adnan. - Good, then Ill walk, said Rasmussen and spun round on his statesmans heel. - Rasmussen! shouted Adnan, - Rasmussen! and opened the front door, - take the front seat then. Rasmussen hesitated for a second, scowled across the Tigris. Then he walked over to the car, without a word he snapped the knife shut, got in and we drove off. I looked out at the angry dark faces: men, just men and big lads, fathers and sons, their threadbare shirts and wind jackets, and their open shouting mouths full of decayed teeth,
why havent any of them got the fifth tooth on each side of their upper mouth? I asked, and shook my head and tried to forget myself and remembered the first fantastic time, when Rasmussen and I had just met: it was summer, there was World Cup football on television every single morning, we closed the curtains, shut out the sun and the rudely good weather, sat in our vests and cheered and cursed at it all. Late in the evening, when the students in the office at the top of the tower in the Nørrebro district had gone home, or at least had gone out, we sat bolt upright, as if in a charabanc through the night, drinking no-frills lager while, in perfect harmony, we celebrated our disdain for it all, for the good life, good food, good weather, good ingredients, every kind of quality time, just the thought of sitting in a good chair with a good book filled us with synchronised nausea. And that was the end of that night; we stood up, finally to make our farewells. - Nielsen, he said, - Sir, you are a genius! and raised his arm, he was just about to pat my shoulder, but he pulled himself up short and shook my hand instead, released it and watched me totter down the stairwell and out into the night, which mirrored me perfectly: bright and brief and hard-pressed from all sides by light.
How have we got into this sorry state? I think, and pull my scarf up in front of my face and gaze out across the crowd, which suddenly starts moving forcefully; no fundamentalists, no imams in tunics and scarves, none of what weve been warned about, just children and unemployed men pouring out of the side streets as they throw a glance and then just one more stone over their shoulders at the liberation forces. How has it all gone so wrong, I think, the British seem so invincibly big, like machines from another planet, with their electronic helmets and headsets, their smart desert boots and camouflage outfits which, rather than making them blend in with the countryside, make them stand out conspicuously here in the city as row after row of them run a sort of 110-metres hurdles over the road blocks, which they must have put in the way themselves; the dirty, jeering youngsters, the machine guns that still merely dangle like a weighty possibility across the soldiers backs and point down into the potholed asphalt. It cant be true, I think, it all began so well, we had a vision, a dream of a new and more just world, we were not invincible, but just and frightened and fervent enough to stand together and together travel down here to introduce The Democracy, I think, as Emir suddenly swerves out of the crowd, puts his foot down and drives a rocky grand slalom between potholes and puddles and overturned cement blocks and then suddenly a squealing swerve up into a side street, past the building where the Islamic movement is waiting behind shutters and bolted doors and into the bazaar, the sudden quite ordinary teeming life of women in black tents, little kids and vegetable stalls, - Im hungry, I say, - I want a banana, moss! At that moment the people, boys and men, pour out of the alleyways like porridge boiling over. - Take another way! says Adnan, and then we hear the first shots from the liberators, - down, Nielsen, down! I just dont get it, only this morning we were so happy -"
(From Part III, The New World Order, which takes place in Baghdad, the centre of the Clash of Civilisations, religions and clans. Here The Democracy really comes up against its enemies, and the friend Adnan - interpreter and perfectly ordinary Iraqi citizen - turns out to be a former oil smuggler, a millionaire with designs on the post of president. Nielsen is struck down with a high temperature. After a chaotic meeting with young Iraqis at the Academy of Fine Arts, the mission and Furat, a student at the Academy, have ventured out into the Baghdad labyrinth. Nielsen abruptly rouses from his feverish haze:)
All of a sudden Nielsen is sitting in a completely different place in another, somewhat smaller, inner courtyard, surrounded by older and almost exclusively western-dressed Arab men: "What am I doing here?" he thinks and looks around, "behind dazzling white walls, under a trellis with vines, around three square metres of hand-shorn Centre Court they sit, urbane, well-clad in the previous centurys European fashion à la Paris with a bohemian touch, suits, shirts, one in a waistcoat with a gold chain hanging an arc from the pocket, here and there a coloured item, conversing with soft hand gestures and a discreet but suddenly wildly sparkling gold ring, smoking, drinking their tea from small sugared glasses, what am I doing here? I think. No idea, its as if Ive lost touch with the bigger picture, but at least theres peace here, I think, refuge, - a little museum for civilisation, I say. - What? says Furat. - It is nice, I say, a little secret peace of paradise in the hell of a Baghdad. - This place, says Furat, - is called Hewar Gallery. - Hewar! says Rasmussen, delighted, - really! A lot of the western journalists that come to Baghdad mention Hewar Gallery, it seems to be the heart of the intellectual life in Baghdad. - Oh, yes, says Furat, - you see these men, he says, and tosses his head and lets his gaze sweep across the fifteen-twenty men sitting conversing quietly in the shimmering shade under the trellis, smoking, - these men, these great artists, these famous journalists, - yes! says Rasmussen. - They are all Baath people. - No?! says Rasmussen. - All of them, says Furat, - Saddam servants, they came here every day after work in Saddam times, they come here every day now. - But why, then, do you come here? says Rasmussen. - I just wanted to show you this, says Furat and gets up and leaves. I close my eyes and sink into the lovely incomprehensible murmur of cultivated male voices. In the distance I hear the bangs and the merry crackling, and for a moment I picture a beautifully composed and perfectly controlled firework display. Im freezing, but the sun makes me comfortably dizzy; I open my hands and hold them out, feel the palms burning. - Nielsen! Adnan tugs at my sleeve, I get to my feet and let myself be placed on a bench next to the silhouette of a man, clear-cut in the fierce light. - This man is from the famous city of Samara, he is journalist from a big newspaper, says Adnan, - he wants to write about you and The Democracy. - Oh! I mumble and smile and shade my face with a hand, the better to see: a dark suit, a corner of pink cloth juts out of the breast pocket, the face is thin, hard, but it looks as if hes smiling, I think, and place my hand on my chest. He laughs and shakes my hand, - so, what is it you want? he says, - tell me, why have you come to Iraq? I tell him about The Democracy, about the parliamentary assemblies, about The Nomadic Parliament. He smiles. - He asks you what is your name, says Adnan. - Nielsen, I say and nod, - Nielsen. - Mister Nielsen, he says and leans forward and places a soft warm hand on mine, - you must go to Samara.
- Yes, I say, - maybe we will. - No no, he says and lifts the hand and waves it around, - not maybe: certainly! Certainly! Samara is a very important town, centre of the Sunni triangle, very important, he says, - especially for you! - Really? I say. - Of course, he says, - you will have a meeting there. - What do you reckon, Adnan, I say, - shall we go to Samara?
- Dont you know the famous story about Samara? says the journalist. - No, I say. - No?! he says, clicks his tongue in dismay and looks at Adnan. - I know, says Adnan, - I know.
- Yes, says the journalist, - Im sure someone will be waiting for you in Samara, he says,
- Mister Nielsen, he says, opens an elegant leather briefcase and takes out a camera, his fingers are long, well-cared-for, the nails big and rounded off with a narrow white rim.
- He wants to take a picture of you, says Adnan, - for the newspaper. - Oh, I say. - So everybody will know you, says the man. - Thank you, I say and turn and look for Rasmussen, but the chair he had been sitting in is empty. - Say cheese! says Adnan,
- cheese, I say. - So! says the man and puts the camera in the briefcase, - Iraq doesnt need democracy, he says, - no, I say, - what? I say, - why? - Iraq needs a strong man. I look at Adnan, he smiles and nods. - A man who can gather all the Iraqi people as one, says the journalist. - Maybe, I say. - A man like Saddam Hussein. - Okay, I say and smile and think about my photograph in his newspaper and all the people who will see it and recognise me, as what? I wonder. What will he write: American? the infidel? the devil himself? - Is it a good camera you have? I say, pointing at the leather briefcase. - Very good! he says,
- Canon, digital. - Great, I say, - great, and when do you think your article will be in the newspaper, next week maybe? - No no! he says and waves his hand, a little nettled, - no no, the day after tomorrow. - But only in Samara, I say and nod and smile and hope. - No no, he says, - my newspaper is national, all over Iraq. So! he says and stands up, - we are hungry, tell Mister Nielsen the story about Samara! he says, and places his hand on my shoulder as he walks smoothly past me towards the bar. It isnt a bar but just a metal counter like in a canteen. A small elderly man stands pouring tea and coffee into the little rotund glasses that are already half-full of white sugar. On the way the journalist pauses and greets other distinguished-looking gentlemen, they laugh, and he spreads out the fingers of one hand while turning its little gold ring with the other. - I think Ive got a temperature, I say, - what can it be, malaria? - I dont know, says Adnan and watches the journalist, - probably something youve eaten. It is this rich man, he says, - this rich merchant in Baghdad. - Who? I say, - you? - No no, he says, - the story! - Okay, I say and close my eyes and lie back in the shade. - He has this servant, says Adnan, - the rich man, and one day he sends his servant to the market place to buy some stuff. - Bread and bananas and a little yoghurt, please, I murmur. - Yes, I know, Nielsen, but then the servant comes back all thin and white, and he says Master, I saw Death in the crowd, and he was making a threatening gesture to me. Please, Master, says the servant, please lend me your horse, and I will ride to Samara, and there Death will not find me. And so the servant gets the horse, and he rides away to Samara as fast as he can. And the rich man eats his lunch and says his prayer, and then he goes for a walk, and he meets Death in the street, and he says to him, to Death, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant this morning? Oh, no, says Death, it wasnt a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad cos, you know, says Death, I have a meeting with him tonight in Samara. - Mister Nielsen! The journalist places his hand on my shoulder and sits down in the chair opposite me, - please, he says, and passes me a falafel. - Im sorry, I say and raise my hands, - I dont feel well. - Of course you dont, this is Iraq, please, eat! he says and takes my hand and puts the falafel in it, - please. - It is a gift, murmurs Adnan, - if you dont eat, you offend him. - Thank you, I say, and smile and take a bite, even a piece of the serviette, and chew and smile and nod, at what I have no idea: now that hes sitting in another chair I can see him, not just a sharp silhouette, not a demonic but, on the contrary, a lovely-looking man, his eyes are dark and sparkling, nothing psychopathic about them, a touch of green in his jacket subtly complementing the grey silk shirt, the soft, slightly effeminate movements, speaks exceptionally good English, a gentleman, I think, not the hint of a beard, neither tunic nor head scarf nor any weapon, Allah not so much as been mentioned. - Mister Nielsen, he says, - pleased to meet you!"
"Suddenly were out in the fierce light. Rasmussens long sharp silhouette swirls up from the dust and, around him, Adnans fuller form, Furats short thickset and Emir, wheres Emir? I turn, the little square in front of the gallery is deserted, almost blindingly white, ten metres away an American tank is blocking all the traffic thats missing. I walk towards it, stop. On the top, behind the machine gun, the classic high-tech torso towers up, the more or less cubic head staring straight ahead, motionless. A little white plastic rod is sticking out from the slot between the lips. Whats that? I think dizzily, - a monument? I recall the original scene from the liberation of Baghdad: we see the big deserted square with a statue of the dictator, and then the liberators enter, fearlessly they roll across towards the statue, they encircle it, climb it, hang the American flag over its face and overturn it. Out of consideration for the viewers they had brought along a little group of Arabs, not up in their tanks, of course, they were just running behind, in scattered Arab disorder, carrying an old Iraqi flag from the pre-Saddam period, and shouting. It wasnt Iraqis, said Adnan the other day, he could hear that they shouted with a completely different accent. They were probably some of the Americans allies from al-Qaeda. It had all been planned, right back in two thousand and one, said an American in another TV news item, a woman at that, mother of one of the liberators, Jeff, who unfortunately died even though according to the plan there wasnt anything you could die from, as long as you were American. It was an accident, she said, it began with the attack on the World Trade Center on the eleventh of September, which the American president had planned in collaboration with al-Qaeda, so that there would once again be enough divisions in the world for history to start afresh with the good versus the evil and the introduction of democracy to all the countries and peoples of the world. But thats too simple, I think, typically American, one thing is that the Arabs havent got anything against dying, theyre willing to, thats the crucial difference between them and us, the incomprehensible, the absolutely alien we will never be able to understand or just bear to think about, thats one thing, but they dont do it just like that, following orders from the American president, they were presumably acting in good faith and deep down convinced that they did it in the service of a higher cause.
- Salaam Alekhem. The soldier doesnt reply, no movement. - They put him there every day, whispers Furat, who has suddenly appeared at my side, - at least I think its the same guy. Some days ago I ask him if I can ask him a question. - Did he answer? - Nope, he said, Im working. Doing what? there are no enemies here, I think, maybe its purely symbolic, a monument to liberation. Despite the camouflage outfit and high-tech gear you can sense the body inside it, the blood, muscles, bulging, the perfect figure, the classical ideal, which for the Romans and Greeks was still just an ideal image, is here made real, in flesh and blood, the sturdy neck, one big muscle. Incredible, I think, how have they got so big in just two hundred years, what kind of substance have they found over there and nurtured to the perfection that he has become during his time spent at one of the famous universities they all seem to graduate from whether they can read or not, just like their predecessors, the East European sports stars who all came from a workers league, railway workers, mine workers or from the army, I think, Red Stars. All of a sudden a hand is raised, slowly, calmly, takes hold of the little white rod in the corner of the mouth and pulls it out. Its a lollipop. Pink. - My name is Nielsen, I say, - I come from Europe, with The Democracy. - Hi! he says. - Hi, I say. And that was that. Discourse across the Atlantic. A "hi" and the rest is silence. The lollipop back in position in the corner of the mouth, body turned to stone. Monumental.
I turn round, the others have vanished, gone, theres just the empty dusty square, white, dazzling in the light from the January sun hanging above the rooftops. I shade my eyes with a hand, try to spot a way out, a track, it cant be true, I think, but it is: theyve just left me here. Im freezing.
- Your friends have gone. Its the journalist, our man from Samara, like a genie appearing from a lamp. Hes lit a cigarette, stands with his elbow resting in his left hand, smoking. - You want to smoke? He takes a silver cigarette case out of his jacket pocket and holds it out to me like a flashing mirror. No, thanks, I try to say, but my mouth is completely dry, I shake my head, dazzled. - No, of course, he says, and puts the case back in his inside pocket, - Americans dont smoke. - Im not American, I mumble. - I know, he says, - I know, but you know, he says, - in the eyes of the Iraqi people, you are exactly an American. - Okay, I say and start to walk, towards the light, far too much light, sharp, low-sweeping white sky, white walls, even the dust on the road is brilliant white, and behind me: my shadow. - So, where do you want to go? he says. - I dont know, I say, - you know where my friends are? - No, he says, - you afraid? - Well -, I say. - You think maybe someone will shoot you? - No, I say. - No? he says, - I know many people who would like to shoot you. - Okay, I say. - You dont think someone will shoot you? - I dont know, I say. - I think someone will shoot you. I stop walking, look around. There are three roads, three dusty white streets with a scattering of rubble, a couple of parked cars. Not a person in sight. - You dont know where you are? - No, I say. He laughs, - no no, he says,
- Baghdad is a big city, very big, bigger than Samara, you remember, you must go to Samara. - Yes, I say. I look back. At the end of the road, on the deserted over-lit square, the American tank hovers, monumental, immovable, the big torso, the machine-gun barrel pointing across the square straight at me. - You afraid now? - Well -, I say. - You must be afraid, he says. Its just a coincidence, I think, quite by chance, the tank has been here for a long time, long before I got here, its my own fault, I just happen to have placed myself right here in his line of fire. - NIELSEN! I turn round and raise my hand against the light. Out of the light comes a small shapeless silhouette, a white coat, the black moustache,
- Nielsen! he shouts - what are you doing? I totter towards him, he grabs hold of my arm and shakes it, as if he was my mother, - why didnt you come?! he says. - I think Mister Nielsen got lost, says the journalist. And laughs."