The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 4


by Hanif Kureishi

Call me Ezra. Call me Michael or Thomas. Call me Abu, Dedan, Ahmed. Call me Er or Asha. Call me whatever. You already have more than enough names for me.
     In this place my identity and even my nature change from day to day. It is an effort for me to remember who I am. Like a child rehearsing his alphabet, when I wake up I have to reacquaint myself with my history. That is because I am not recognized. I have no reflection here. Except in her eyes.
     When she sees me I come to life.
     Wearing my only shirt, in the small shabby hotel room that we are forced to leave, I jerk about on my toes waiting for her. My few pathetic possessions, along with my sacred books—Hegel, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kierkegaard—are in canvas bags. I hope they send a limousine because I am not sure how much farther I can walk. Something bad has happened to my nervous system, which makes me twitchy. My head is too heavy and my body is scarcely obedient.
     She was lucky to find a job as a maid here. For two weeks she has been hiding me in her tiny room. We took turns to sleep on the plank of a bed until I made an unavoidable mistake. I had a terrible dream, screamed, and was discovered. Here, even your nightmares can betray you. In future—if I have a future—I will sleep with tape over my mouth.
     We must get out. Who knows where. They suggested that I am a terrorist and that it would be no trouble to them to report me to the police, who would interrogate me again. She begged them not to bother since I have no religion and no acknowledged beliefs. I am a harmless bookworm, as soft in the head as ice cream. No terrorist ever found inspiration in Kafka.
     In my city I ran a coffee shop.
     She is angry. She has had enough. She is all I have. I like to believe she would never abandon me. She must know I would not survive. This strange life is too much for me. In two minutes everything could become different. I will know from her face.
     Haaji is ten years younger than I am and not as dark. As soon as she arrived she stopped covering her modern hair. She is not regarded with the suspicion the rest of us men are. She could pass as a "normal" person. I'd never touched a body so white.
     For a few weeks I became her savant. She had never met anyone like me, and my view of the world became hers. She risked her life to protect me, though I am not sure if she will continue to do so. We will see what I am for her.
     My city in my country was destroyed. I fled and traveled here, to the land where the Enlightenment originated, to the democracy where I became a nigger overnight.
     The foreigner has been suspect from the beginning of time. But let us not forget: we are all potential foreigners. One day you, too, could be turned over from the white side of life to the black. It takes a moment. Others will notice you do not belong; they will fear you.
     My close pal from the coffee shop, One–Arm, was organized. I'm aware this is unusual in a poet. We escaped together and the first few weeks were chaotic and rough. But he had connections here. He guided me.
     With him I got a job, as did many others, working for Bain, the man who secures empty houses and apartments in the great city. And so, after the terrible journey, things began to look up for me. I was even excited to see Europe again—the buildings, libraries, and landscapes. Though the last time, when I was a student, I had with me a tourist guide, a camera, and a cheerful curiosity. This new perspective—think of a man viewing the world from inside a litterbin—is, let us say, less exotic. It is also more informative.
     In the new city, as we waited to see how things would go for us in the West, we began to work for Bain, the king of miles of wedding–cake mansions and magazine apartments. We swarm of nomads, walking in history whether we like it or not, are the new slaves. We wanted jobs rather than to sit it out in transit centers for years.
     But Bain could do anything to us. We were compelled to admire him. We shadow people have no tourist guides or even meaning. Strike us if you want to. Take advantage. No one complains.
     We were inside the most beautiful houses and apartments in the world—the likes of which I'd never seen and certainly never set foot in. Empty as they were of life and people, we could enjoy these properties more than the owners—bankers, money launderers, and criminals, princes and dirty politicians—who lived in Beijing, or Dubai, Moscow or New York, and who had perhaps forgotten about them altogether.
     I can tell you: emptiness doesn't come cheap. I'd never seen so much light in a building before.
     Things that were not dirty, that had never been used, had to be cleaned and maintained. That was our job: working all day every day, we cared for deserted swimming pools, plump new beds, steam rooms, saunas. Acres of wooden floors and yards of blinds, walls, garages, and gardens had to be attended to. The repainting was continuous. People get less attention but they are worth less.

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