Classes would start on the twenty third of the month. They were expecting it to be feel overly warm, enough of the clouds and the interior of their homes. He was enrolled in all four that he chose, and the fifth that was mandatory. His metaphysics professor, Subhan, had agreed to let him sit in on the class that he chose, so long as he proved that he was gifted, as he mentioned on the permission slip handed in at the door, the first time they had been seated, choosing to sit in the very front row, at least until he had made an impression, that he was present and, at best, an able student, and at worse, trying absolutely hard, enough to be taken seriously and to get what he wants, namely, to be the best of his generation, against all odds. It was certainly late, enough for him to consider going home, walking the four miles on Boulevard Najjar, smoking at least four cigarettes as he most certainly wanted. He had heard about the small video shop, recently opened, and decided to give it, at once, a call. She had surprised him, he would never know why.
“Paul,” Joyce said, relieved to have found him, finally, outside of the noise, away from all the stacks and lessons, the audience in their stately robes. “I’m glad to see you again. I thought you would leave, after speaking.”
“I wanted to see the realism workshop later.”
“Who’s giving that, again?”
“I think it was P.M. Lane. He’s a doctor, specialized in wombs. There’s like a chronic case of traumatic after spillage that comes from that. The whole process. It’s really, really bizarre.”
“What time are you seeing that? Is it open?”
“Yeah I think you can still get tickets. You want to check? I can come with you. It’s right around the corner.”
He walked her through Albany Hall, corridors wide embalmed with masts of prior visitations, speakers sharing their own accord, and vocal cords and time for taking.
“So, I was happy to find you. I wanted to ask you some advice. I loved what you were saying, about honest work, integral work, work that comes from the heart.”
“I meant it.”
“The changes are out of control man. It’s like we’ve been brought up from the dark. My whole mission, my whole attitude, it’s just the beginning of this journey we’re on. Can’t you feel it? I feel it in my bones.”
“I know what you mean. I’m ecstatic.”
“So am I.”
“Do you think anyone takes us seriously, in there? I mean, I was the only other person clapping by the end.”
“I don’t think they care, because, for some reason, I think it’s been sold to them, this idea that if they care for something strong enough it will be given to them, if it is accepted by others, it will come easily. Something like that, I don’t know.”
“How’s the coffee business.”
“You seemed to give a good reading of the third quarter.”
“When you see someone like that, pushing someone else’s buttons, you don’t know what to think, how else to respond to them.”
“Are you referring to Fattoush?”
“Not exactly. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know. What were we saying before?”
“What are you up to Joyce? What’s going on?”
“I have this idea.”
The video store was only a quick pit stop, for them to take notes of what was going on, not being able to predict what came and went like it had been planned, somewhere, studied and absorbed into matters of being and fact, like sustenance in the lower ward, feeding in circles what is being dispensed to customers at a lower cost, namely, insurance, mortgages, things like that, the cost of living had never such soared, though there was benefit that it had on them, benefiting those who did not ignore the costs they were incurring, as the yearly summers stormed, feeding fascination all summer long. He introduced himself and turned in his ID, and in his doing so exposed to Joyce the wallet in his hand, which she noticed, for the first time, that evening, learning just then that he was rich, not so evident himself, and it could just be his parents, or a family member who had helped him out, though by the comfort he had in carrying it, a Melon clutch, the sort of wallet carried by a guy whose parents were not divorced, and who had always had whatever he most importantly wanted. Sawwaf went on to open Barhoum’s, a video renting joint that started the booming wave of pirate sales in the country. He was the first to incorporate downloadable content on a renting platform. It was gold. He didn’t even make that much money off renting. The same casual indifference people showed to returning legally provided films to their owners applied to renting from Barhoum’s as well. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars on late fees. In fact, he was so prominent on the fact, that people started to open joint accounts, to minimize the pay they had to themselves endure. People realized they would have to pay less, in the long run, if they contributed two or three dollars once a week to someone’s failure, rather than sixty seven dollars after seven weeks, for their own. He rarely went after those who didn’t pay, but they were never again able to rent from him, or the subsidiaries he eventually opened, without making it known he was an owner, which was enough misfortune for them, enough to deter those thinking of not paying. He was known to give breaks, but the breaks came only when he was present, and often to those he found beautiful in some way. For instance, his love for one Layal Nassar was unheard of. He found her so intriguing, he named an entire corner of the store, an entire section of the store, after her. The classic French section, with all the satirical films of the great comedians. But he even gave her a nickname, refusing to save her account under her given name, wanting to own the rights to her name himself, to naming her.
Catalogue Coffee had the smart sense, Paul’s idea, to set up shop as both a one stop shop for coffee shop owners and clients looking for a quick fix. It was adequately designed as well. Extremely spacious. Four couches facing one another with a massive coffee table in between. Draping overhead lights, rounded heads and tungsten bulletins, carving from the ground up, circling around the sofa’s arm, or draping from the ceiling high, a full four meters above ground, the sleek aluminum arms held together in a spiraling steel coil. The bar area sold small doses, bags and boxes, to customers who wanted to take the coffee home, and beside the small shopping area was the bar itself, serving pancakes and freshly baked cakes from the bakery next door, Hoda’s Homemade, and an agonizingly tasty selection of coffees and teas and some sample juices for stay or to go. Behind the bar, a small cubicle opened onto a backyard, whereby trucks could park and load or unload, taking or delivering in large quantities. The benefit for restaurants to buy from Catalogue Coffee, rather than go straight to the source, at Color Copy, where by the way Paul Bacosirian, after five positive years, with three full quarters of earnings, had bought himself a seven percent share in the company, was that the premium on customs at the port itself far exceeded what companies, coffee shops mainly, would have to pay once the premium were already paid by Paul. As he was willing to pay a massive premium, knowing he would be selling off that much and much more, they waited for him to gather supply, once a week, before seeking his services.
“Paul is the owner and founder of Catalogue Coffee. His latest brew, Emphatic, a surging hybrid of Arabic and Robusta, brewed by the collective Color Copy, whose warehouse on the port at Port la Chaise has transformed not only the taste of coffee nationwide but the quality of our beans as well. There were other girls he liked, and other boys. He was very fond of Rudy Nano. People thought the same of Rudy. He was one of the few who took kindly to Ibrahim’s attention. He didn’t find him strange in any way. He found his passion inspiring. He could often be found swiveling on the swiveling stool behind the cashier’s desk, smoking cigarettes, flexing his muscles while inspecting himself in the mirror, wearing one of his ten known sleeveless vests, tightly pressed against his nipple tight breasts, drinking from a carton of juice or yogurt. The whole place smelled of cigarettes. Sawwaf opened Dark Night to compete with the other game salons in the city. Each one had their own style, their own physical character, their own landscape. Like a nation, with flags and borders. Dark Night was designed by one of Ibrahim Sawwaf’s crushes, Junior Sabbagh. He was a student at the Dublin Academy, the university section. The campus was down the street, and many of the patrons at Sawwaf’s joints studied there. It was designed with the idea of a spider web. The intersecting lines of cubicle game zones, personal computers fitted with reclining chairs, Juniper headsets, and small personal remote controlled ordering devices, to order drinks or food without having to move, were all colored a deep and charcoal silver, and the matted floors entirely black, so the crumbs from biscuits and opened bags of crisps looked like stars mellowing in the cosmic womb, the stream of computers strung in a web of intersecting vines. That was where Wasef and Kamel met, and before long they launched their enterprise, to great effect. They had to stop frequenting Dark Night, as they were slowly stealing the disgruntled patrons of Sawwaf’s little empire, that had started form a gulag like feeling around the place, as people were volunteering to work behind the desks in order to pay off their debts. Film Tawil was a rogue organization. They were pirates, at the end of the day. But, they had struck a deal with the authorities, of whom there were many interested and involved. Where others like them failed, unable to shed the criminality of their enterprise, Film Tawil and its owners, Wasef Zarzour and Kamel Ghmeid, had transformed themselves from an early working bedroom station of profit seeking pirates to a full fledged community member, full with three offices and a working board, who decided mainly on political decisions, such as to shut down the working server in mourning of another martyr, or to remove the interface linking Ras Amin from Dar al Assad during the street fights, where sides were being torn. Wasef Zarzour came from a long line of MQP supporters, his grandfather boasting many portraits, all of them hung in a family member’s house or office, of him standing alongside the late Rafiq Nuwar, founder of the MQP. Kamel Ghmeid, on the other hand, was born to a diverse range of family affiliations. His mother, Rita Ghmeid, born Rita Nahhas, was an evangelist, a missionary of the Articles of His Jesuit Sons. She spent her childhood preparing for a life in the convent. That all changed when she met the young Youssef Ghmeid, who was studying to become a professor in theology, teaching at the Institute of Intercultural Faiths, before its dissolution. They married and embarked on a peasants intellectual life, but as the war raged the two were separated not only by his having to serve for the Righteous Sons, the paramilitary force boasting two cabinet ministers after the war, but also by ideological disposition. Rita, the staunch, militant evangelist, bred and born. Her husband, Youssef, had transformed. The war, like many others, had changed him. He returned from it doubtful, questioning the motives of those around him, including the company he kept, people among whom it was known for his keeping them, including the Source, to whom he had spent his life devoted. Devoting was like a myth he kept in store, savoring the emotions and gratification for when it mattered most, like on the eve of his last birthday, sitting around, getting stoned, reading from the verses of Nuwar and Abu Bakr, who he held in the same esteem, a surprise to the most until one realizes the strength of his cards. He was born into a certain home, and from it which he did his damage, entertaining many myths that were others to store, carrying a certain grip and a glare in his gait, knowing he would not be harmed, when the very act of going for a walk outdoors had totally transformed. He joined the socialist leaning RSS, before it was outlawed by the ruling congress of Peter Habib. He wanted betterment for the people, not war. He wanted to see buildings that had been torn down rebuilt, built again in the original image, not, as was becoming clear, stolen and appropriated by conglomerate contractors who had government pockets full of fresh donations. He wanted wheat prices to go down, school subsidies for the ordinary citizen. He wanted fresh milk and eggs to be delivered to every home, from nationally owned farms. He wanted to outlaw the propaganda machines of the war. He wanted what happened never to happen again. Sadly, apart from a few mystic rebels among the RSS pack, he was for the most part alone. Even the Leader of the RSS, Joawad Antoun, abandoned his Leanings for the still secular yet centrist FNL, before they took up in arms. This made Wasef and Kamel’s partnership troublesome for their parents, but not for them. Neither of them cared one bit for the causes of their families. They had seen, growing up, grown men reduced to tears in the wake of great and tragic loss becoming them. They had witnessed the destruction of Der Durun, right before their eyes, and not one voice in the single world spoke to break the suffering. What did they care for names and parties, waving petty flags in the air in support? They wanted what all were wanting, at some point in the port. They wanted to make a living, even if it required some illegality and gall. What else had they been done, as children, focusing their intent where others might draw the sword. Kamel was a good student, he was the best in his class, but his partner had never once taken anything serious until he was at least twenty four years old, have taken two more semesters with which to graduate, and actually, including the semester he dropped when he had broken his leg, skiing at the Repose resort chalet that he shared with his brothers, who were older and much better off, and had learned how to do with their time what was expected, and including the semester he was late just coming in, the war having come together as he was about to start, and in his wanting course of duress was suspended six months, it was four semesters in total that he missed, postponing him those two years, while others had moved on, Sami Gibril working at The Havoc Theater, as an acting lead, and Ismail Ruhan studying economics at the London Free, Martine Duro working for her parents in Ras Shahid, earning a living out of selling old clothes, packaging them with lustrous fabrics, ornaments and paper wools. Some of the boys, like Malik Alwan and Reda Antoun were working as consultants, and had promised to tag him along until they had forgotten him, having for the most part moved on from their daze and habits, taking the easy way out, pertaining to warmth, that great seductive experience that culminates coming of age, earning hat is yearning and available at present, earning each of them a song and name, a face with which to remember them, the sense that they were being watched. It was summer, when they first entered the Unruly Terrace, the outdoor terrace with a string of cars, seated, like the old days at a drive in theater. It was the first drive in theater in town. He wore skinny jeans and a top charms necklace that covered his chest, around which he cloaked in a greying robe, the sort of hoodie worn by lunatics let loose like a load. Film Tawil was a great and durable enterprise. The two came together from their days playing on opposite teams in the internet café cum gaming salon Dark Night, opposite the building where Film Tawil first opened. It was owned by a strange and peculiar bourgeois gentlemen by the name of Ibrahim Sawwaf. His family were well known and well connected. He had other businesses, in fact. His brother owned the infamous Hotel Charon, named after the first century ferryman, as a sort of tribute to those wonders of the ancient world that were harbored in the everyday blessings of the sad little port. Other than that one venture, and another restaurant in a mountain enclave north of the capital, owned by his sister and brother in law, the family were for the most part occupied in communications, from the old days. His father had opened one of the first call centers in all of District 1, speeding up the process of telephone communication. Some suggest it was a Leading cause of the war, but that has never been proven. They were both good humoured. Wasef always showed up on his moped, sweating profusely, his black or white t shirt sweating through the skin, his cargo khakis showing pockets of wetness and areas of shading light. He was a hard worker, in at seven and out by nine or ten, sometimes staying past midnight, if there was something crunching. If they were having trouble with something serious. But they didn’t have trouble that often. It worked like a known surprise. Everyone knew what they were doing, including those calling in. They never had a caller upset from one of their ideal choices missing. For example, when Rundown released all fifteen episodes of their season in one night, on one international server, for a limited time and price, they worked through the night to get that shit done. What separated them from the rest wasn’t their commitment to procuring everything out there. It was two basic principles. Firstly, they refused to pirate any locally produced material, excluding work that had been produced elsewhere but had some facet of post production in the country. Secondly, their commitment was to customer service more than anything else. On any given night, they had up to twenty four men and women on call at their headquarters, ready to listen in on any customer’s demands. These did not include the sixteen who were taking live telephone orders, and the twenty two who were running live orders online, allocating what went where and to whom.
“What is your specialty?”
“Have you worked in customer relations before?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So, what makes you think you would be a good fit?”
“I don’t know. I can work away from customer service if you want. But I saw there was a job posting for it. I am a very good technician. I like to work alone. I am quiet. Maybe customer service is not good for me, I don’t know, but I can help in any way I can. Is there something for me to do?”
“There might be, actually. I see here you have competed in four competitions, during your studies at the National University.”
“You won gold twice and silver twice. That’s quite impressive. What was your project about?”
“The first time I won gold I did a survey that is constantly updating itself with the answers as they are coming in and an algothrythm that is collecting the data and projecting very new and updated graphs and charts. There was a professor at the university, he wanted something like this, for his research. He studies crime and people’s perception of crime, as it happens, and so on. I did something nice for him because I made it possible for him to have a worldview, like a map, of the world of crime. There were graphs and charts relating to crime novels, crime movies, crime articles in newspapers, and articles relating to psychological studies being conducted locally and abroad. So like a world of crime, at his fingertips, that he had forever projected onto the wall in his research studio. It was very nice. I was happy with it.”
“And that won over what, that year, do you remember?”
“Someone else made an algothrythm that collects people’s food.”
“I won gold again the third time because I made a very nice project concerning health, and I created an algothrythm with another student, who is a friend of mine, and we did something where people created profiles, and in a way, with how much information they put in, we tracked the possibility of them incurring any illness, however harsh or light.
“And did it work?”
“It did. Some were very severe. We predicted someone would start to incur a pancreatic illness based on their eating and drinking habits and way of life. Their information was simple to track as they were using an Ostridge watch and using it to order everything they ate, all the time, and they always, always, always finished their food, and their drinks were always paid for, even outside, at bars, restaurants, clubs, though they didn’t go out so much, on their watch, so it was possible for us to track through their receipts and their payments and see how they lived their life, everything was automatic, on the program, and we started to monitor it when it began to show flashes of red, warning signs.”
“And? Did it work?”
“It worked. But he did not do fine. He’s very ill now, almost paralyzed. He had a very bad sickness in his spine because of a collapse of his organs, one kidney and his liver.”
“That’s unfortunate,” the interviewer said. “As you know, we’re looking at the company in a new light. We want to do things differently around here. I’m worried about the market as it is. I’m worried about a lot of things. I have some people I want to keep, and others I want to discard. I don’t want to be the big, bad guy coming in here and fucking everything up. But you have to understand, the times are changing. We don’t have the same support in parliament as we’d like. The business, at the end of the day, is corrupt. We manage on a secure set of bribes, in and out of the coffers every month. That won’t last long. It’s dirty out there, don’t you think? I don’t like what I’m seeing. They’re going to come in here and cut our throats, if we don’t change the model a little bit. I don’t trust them. The partners before me had too much trust in them. I don’t know why. They were never that secure. Did they ever face any fines?”
“Not that I remember.”
“That’s amazing. I don’t know how they worked it out. It’s not going to work out like that, anymore. I’m telling you. They’re coming around with their hands out, their knives in their pants. They know what they want, it’s theirs to get it. I want us to survive.”
He stared back at him with a strange stupefaction, suggesting a willingness to conform to his model, to conform to his mold, to help out, how he might, if only to secure his job, his living wage, and the routine of his life, which he had never really sought so much to cherish beyond equatorial means, navigating on a bridge of routine, somewhat blind indifference to everything that goes on. The world around him, however chaotic, however harsh, had always seemed so totally secure. It was his own life that was abnormal, that was able to resist the forces of normality, and thus, banality, so dear.
“Do you see yourself continuing in customer service,” he asked him?
“Whatever you want,” he said to him.
He returned to his desk. The others were out for lunch. The room was pleasantly dark, just the faint blue light of his desktop beaming. He flipped through the pages of Silverscreen, studying the bodies of all the models. It was still open on his desk, from before the interview. Was it strange to Leave it out, he thought? Saleh came back into the room. He came in quietly, sitting at his desk right away. He wanted to go over to him, but he wouldn’t budge. He felt like it, but he didn’t have the urge, the usual urge, providing his every move. He stared at the clock on the right hand corner of the computer screen. At that moment, their friend, Rabah, called him on the phone. He answered, connecting Saleh to the phone.
“We’re going to the protest tonight. People are going at four. I have to Leave work at seven, then I will go.”
“I’m with you, brother,” Saleh said, though Mohammed was still uneasy, difficult to provoke.
“Why do you want to go there?”
“Come on, we should go.”
“No, I don’t want.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want? What’s the matter with you? Hasn’t it been hard on us all?”
“Everything is fine,” he said to him, meaning it.
“Everything is not fine. I want us to make a move, my friend, to make it happen. Come on, we’re going to go tonight, and you’re joining. Otherwise, what is the point? When one of us sticks his neck on the line, shouldn’t we all be involved?”
“You’re acting like we’re a gang,” he said to Rabah, who was changing back into his work clothes, removing his basketball shorts and flip flops and Leaving them by the door, the noise of the small plastic dustbin wrapped with a white plastic bag to collect its droppings shook like a maraca as he kicked against it twice, the sound of someone else’s shoes tapping in the hall.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the gym. Listen, Mo, when was the last time you did something for your friends?”
“I loaned you three dollars last week.”
“That was a loan. This is a gift, from the heart. Join us, come on.”
Saleh’s line cut from the phone, before returning, “I have Akram on the line.”
“Saleh, are you going?”
“I have no choice, my friend. My brothers are all going down, I don’t know why. They have never protested in their life! They don’t even own a weapon, I don’t know how they will go.”
“What does your mother think,” Akram asked, entering the conversation.
“She says it is stupid to go. Nothing will change. Maybe it is a generational thing. Why do I believe it will happen? I don’t know. What are they even aiming for? Nothing is so important to me now. But still, I will go. Why not? What have I got to lose?”
“They are going to arrest every person there, and they will shoot at some, especially those at the front.”
“I’ll be at the front,” Rabah said. “The team is all going.”
“I know,” Akram answered, annoyed that Rabah had chosen to mention the team, as a sign of his superior sense of camaraderie. Ever since he had been kicked off the team, last year, for attacking the coach with a knife, he had been subjected to such humiliation on the part of Rabah, who was happy to take the reigns of their group, even hosting their weekly hang outs at his house, no longer wanting to come to Akram’s, for fear, they said, of being found out. His server just wasn’t as secure.
“Shit, look at this,” Saleh said, grabbing a paper as it slid out of the printer’s mouth. “This was just sent to all of us, everyone who works here.”
“What is it?”
“Read it out.”
“It says in light of the upcoming demonstration this afternoon, and the fact that many people we all know will be going downtown to voice their complaints and ensure their voices are heard, we are suspending our employees right to do so. Anyone found out to have visited the site of protests, however large or small, gathering for any purpose to voice their concerns, will be immediately cut from their jobs. The partners at this company have zero tolerance for disobedience of this sort. There is a time and a place to do things, and not to necessarily run amuck, causing havoc, destroying homes, which is surely the intent of the organizers.”
“They’re scared,” Akram said.
“They are,” Mohammed called out. “I just had my performance review.”
“You didn’t tell us how it went. What did they say?”
“They are worried. There is a lot of pressure. A lot going on. They want to do this favor for the police. Anyway, what are we, twenty people here, in all? Five of us feel like going, it’s a joke. We’re so little, we don’t really count. It’s only a favor, it’s political from above. They know what they’re doing. What do we do?”
“We go, no matter what,” Saleh said, happy to provoke the boys. “If they dare to fire me, I will resign.”
“Where will you go? What kind of work will you do?”
“I will do something else, I don’t care. Look at Mazen, look at Marwan. Everybody Leaves, and we sit here and sulk. I’m sick and tired of this fucking job, anyway. It totally sucks. I came here to hang out with you guys and answer the phone. Look at us, we sit in the fucking dark, hating our lives.”
“I don’t hate my life. I’m happy.”
“Okay, you don’t hate, but look at you, you’re disintegrating. You’re looking like a piece of borek that’s been left on the street for three weeks to mold. Even a dog wouldn’t kiss you, if he saw you lying on the floor.”
“Okay guys, I have to go. I’ll be at the corner
“What do you think, Kemal,” they asked the only other person in the room. “Will you go down?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“You don’t believe in your rights,” Saleh asked him?
“I believe in my rights, but I don’t want to be associated with these people. They are all artists and deviants and all around bad people. I don’t trust them. Do you? If I go, I will be put at the front of the line, because I am less than them, in their eyes. Look at my clothes, my shoes. How much do you think I own? Why should I stand in line for them? Who am I to them? Maybe I am not with the police, because they are corrupt, and I hate the government, because they are shit, but I don’t want to go with these people, not at all. What do you know about them? What will ever change for you?”
“Can anything really change?”
“Nothing is changing.”
“Exactly my point. Man, at the end of the day, who gives a shit, the fucker is black, the fucker is white, still, he sits in the same fucking chair and smokes his fucking pipe, and does whatever he wants. These bastards will go to hell, I’m sure, but they will enjoy it while they are here. I don’t want to go down and fight. What for? Throw sticks and stones at the police, who are armed with bulldozers and tanks? Yeah right.”
“Then what will you do? You will sit and watch from the windows while your town burns down?”
“Why do you want to burn it so bad? What is the point?”
“The protests are already becoming old. Nobody will go. Soon, everybody will stop going. You will see. There is no point. You want to go because it is like a festival. It is a party, to everyone. My friend works as a bouncer, at a club. He doesn’t want to fucking go man, because he knows he will be put up front. Everyone from the club is going. They are bringing speakers and a truck. They said they will play their music. Like, a big fuck you to the police. What will happen? Nothing. The police will stop them, unload the truck, take everything that is theirs, and the others will be told to run. Run for your lives, they will say, and they will spray them, like it is champagne, and they will run, like they are rats. Forget it, man. Go out, it is your weekend. Have fun.”
Kemal stubbed out his cigarette in the grey paper cup he used as an ashtray. It had been his coffee from the machine selling instant coffee on the first floor of the building. But that was from yesterday, and the day before, he had already used it as an ashtray, and so there was a little bit of water in the cup as well, from putting out fire, so the little paper cup smelled already a week old, the cigarette ash having combined to form a bitter smell of stained mats, something bitter, something old.
They met up with Rabah on the corner of the street downstairs.
“So, Mohammed, have you decided to come?”
“I have not.”
“What will you do instead?”
“I will visit my father at his office, then I will go home.”
“Your father will not be there. I’m sure he’s gone home.”
“I haven’t spoken to him yet. Maybe so. In any case, why go?”
“Night is falling. We have to go. Forget it, my brother. Don’t come. See how far you go.”
“Even if you threaten to hold this against me my entire life, I will not come.”
“I have more important things to think about, don’t you think?”
“Either way, I’m not coming. You guys can go.”
He walked in the other direction, home. News quickly spread that afternoon that the government had issued a curfew, to be implemented at dusk, for all residents excluding those living in the districts of Pastoral, Samaran and Tal Khar. They were sitting around the living room. Two soda bottles, long ago gassed, blocked their vision of the television, a few inches from the table, on the other side. The four of them sharing one couch, totally stoned. News had just broke that afternoon, that the government had issued a curfew, to be implemented at dusk, for all residents excluding those living in the districts of Pastoral, Samaran, and Talk Khar. The settlements, basically, as they know it. Rabah was still in his rugby clothes, yet to change after practice. Akram wearing a white collared shirt, that accentuated his carrot like tan. He had his eyebrows done, but they didn’t know it. He went to Sit Reda on Avenue Rose.
“Do you think we’ll have class tomorrow,” he asked.
“No man, no class, for sure.”
“Are you sure?”
“They haven’t said it yet,” Saleh said.
“When will they announce it?”
“Usually they would have done it by now.”
“So we do have school.”
Youssef was the one to ask, out of all of them. He was working in the District office for Parliamentary Affairs, going to work in a suit and tie. He was pacing back and forth, chugging from a bottle of wine. He had taken off his tie, smoking a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other. He was sweating, and his shirt was open to three dots, sweat stains gathering under his armpits.
“I have to go to the office,” he said.
“Can you go through?”
“If they stop me, I’ll tell them.”
“What will you say?”
“Don’t go now man, it’s fucked.”
“I have to go, bro, I have to go.”
“Who the fuck goes to work right now?”
“I don’t know bro, I don’t know. They said, everyone’s going.”
“Guys, we’re out of wine.”
“Someone order from Chakeeb.”
“He’s not delivering, akid.”
“He is, man, he is for sure.”
“I don’t have my wallet.”
“Here, use my phone.”
“Call, bro, call.”
“Yalla bro, I’m calling.”
“What are you doing,” Saleh said to Rustom.
“I’m turning my video on.”
“Why are you combing your hair?”
“I’m talking to my girlfriend,” he said, the sound of the blow dryer on, the two of them standing in the apartment hallway. “By the way, who called earlier?”
“Malek. He says there’s no school.”
“I doubt it. I’m sure I have physics.”
“Fuck it, don’t go.”
“Enta what are you doing?”
“I’m here bro, and I’m here,” he said, dropping the shaver from his face, gathering the lathered cream as it frothed.
Malek turned the radio on.
“What’s the best song on the album?”
“First song, definitely.”
“What do you think Thomas?”
“Simple. I like it.”
“I’m going to leave it to my host for the day, thank you guys for joining in and listening. We have only one station, as you know, and it rocks. When it comes it goes, my brothers. When it runs it flows. The story is in the soil, forget it, and you will suffer. You will remember this, like you remembered Ob. The story is in the soil. Peace out my sisters. Peace out my brothers. Be cool, carry on. Keep going to the beat, my brothers.”
“Turn off the radio, bro, I’m bored,” said Saleh, reaching for wallet, seeing if he has any cash, wanting to order food.
“Who do you thinks delivering?”
“He’s a driver. He picks it up, if it’s on his road.”
“I’m calling, wait.”
“How do you even have his number?”
“I don’t man, it’s online.”
“It was put there by his daughter. It’s really cute, man, you have to see the picture. They’re a super sweet family. He used to coach wrestling at our school.”
“He’s sick. Super short.”
“Yeah, all of them.”
“Hey babe,” came Rustom’s voice, silencing the audience. “What’s up?”
Sabine’s voice stuttered over the wire, the sound of movement, like rubbing a cloth on a microphone while it was on. “Hey babe, what’s up?”
“Nothing much. I’m at Saleh’s. We’re about to order food. You?”
“Not much. Not much.”
Rustom turned back toward the crowd.
“Why the fuck is the audio off?”
“What’s going on babe?”
Sabine had done her hair that morning. Blond streaks running parallel highlights to her natural brown.
They cut each other off, speaking at the exact same time.
“What’s your plan today?” “What are you guys doing?”
“Nothing, we’re sitting here. Saleh lost to the boys, he’s pissed.”
“Lost at what?”
“Oh, you guys play? I didn’t know.”
“No, no, babe. On the computer.”
“Nice. Is it virtual?”
“It is but it’s a bit retarded. Like the controller always gets locked. It’s shit. They’re saying the next generation is gonna be sick. They’re just delaying.”
He dropped off his car in front of the Gros Popo, where he left it with a valet from outside the restaurant. He couldn’t recognize him, though he had come to know most of the valets around the neighborhood, recognizing their faces, knowing some of them by name. It helped to know some of them at least, certainly the bosses and the general staff. They wouldn’t take the car too far out on busier nights, forcing a forty five minute wait to retrieve the car. They would ensure it wasn’t taken for a joyride, and if it were, that it was taken care of and returned in good shape, with nothing stolen from the inside. They would do so only for a generous tip, which he was willing to dole out so long as he was able, enjoying the role and growing quite accustomed to assuming that sort of place among men. He walked over the small bridge connecting the angular roads, intersecting like a vine, to the plot of land he had come to visit. He had taken a great risk in buying the building and the land. Regardless of what happened, it was his, though he had incurred a heavy debt. He knew it would turn over, it always did. The market was acting in his favor. Every apartment in the city was becoming more expensive, even if the roof were made of tin and cards, and the walls were made of enamel. The work seemed to be going well. He’d learned from his father, while building the two pharmacies, not to trust the dates given by contractors. He hired two project managers, to coordinate with one another, and a contractor to supply all the manpower. An old friend, Ramzi Wassouf, was starting to oversee his father’s civil engineering firm. He had grown in the ranks, starting straight out of university on a minimum wage desk job and working his way up, thirteen years later made partner of the firm. It was a local franchise but they had built a big name. They even managed a joint venture with Bey Engineering to minimize risks on the airport. He called in the favor he was owed as a friend, and Ramzi promised him a project coordinating team to help him oversee the entire field of works, to get him through the process. He had to find architects willing to work on minimal insurance, and to manage a team of thousands, suppliers, skilled and unskilled laborers, managers, the law. He’d hired an attorney from Kanaan & Baker, or K & B, as it was known. He didn’t know anyone in the upper management, though he had a friend working junior in the mergers and acquisitions department. He linked him with someone he could trust who had a cheaper retainer than some of the others who had worked most of their lives on strong commercial cases with big payouts and larger funds. The process was exhausting, but he was learning. Melhem, the project manager, was experienced enough in the field to know when to strongarm the law with cash payments and when to hold tight and when to budge. He kept a steady supply on envelopes streaming out of his office. There were sixteen police officers a week coming in for the kill. Each of them with a number. He’d forgotten to pay one of them on a holiday recess and the officer took it as an affront. He shut down the entire construction for three days, delaying all kinds of deliveries and works. He toed in three trucks and threatened to confiscate an entire container of supplies sitting at the port, waiting to be hauled. But he knew he wouldn’t make good on that threat. It would sell the story short, put him in with the bigger eyes. He wanted to call him and see what was going on but the man wasn’t answering his phone. He didn’t mind. He would always call back and when he did he managed to talk for hours about everything twice. He didn’t need anything, he just wanted to check in. To comfort himself. The faced of the old building was being hammered in that day, bulldozed to the ground. A few dozen workers climbing ladders and drilling into stray tethered pipes. He watched as the columns of the outer wall collapsed. He could finally see beyond the building’s havoc and ahead to the sea. In late summer, as the last few boats parked on their way south, hurdling waves crashed angrily against the shoreline boulevard, sweeping untended belongings onto the busy street. He would build upwards, into the sky. Thirty five floors, one hundred residential apartments, and a large commercial showroom on the bottom floor, either for one of the large banks or a luxury car dealership, such as Luxury Automatic or Vanity. Both had submitted tenders to occupy the space. Rita, his accountant, was reviewing the work. He wouldn’t mind putting a bank in there though. It brought more people to the building. He would have a restaurant on the ground floor, in the back, and maybe even a small terrace bar, open only at night, or on weekends, where people who wanted to spend their money wisely on decent finger foods made with quality ingredients and attention to detail, and cocktails that could be compared to the very best, always iced cold if they were meant to be iced, where Bellini’s were always made with fresh peach juice and the martini olives were handpicked from a sack of organic goods. The restaurant could be tied to the bar, so the two could work together to attract the same set of crowd, alternating their nights between dinner and drinks, one or two nights a week at best, he couldn’t expect more. He had even consulted the owners of Café Hermes, to offer them two options on the wine list where he could stock one of their bottles, but they refused. He went straight to Sergio Vose, the enigmatic head Chef, to ask if he was willing to consult on the menu, if there was anything he could propose, even going so far as to offer him collaborative options on the finger food menu at the bar. He never heard back from him. He wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a collaboration with Sergio Vose! Once the idea struck, he knew he had to make it work somehow, however he was going to do it, he would find the man and convince him. They had met once, at a dinner in Repose, during an après ski night of drinking. He was with a group of childhood friends. They looked happy together, like they had all accomplished their dreams. he remembered looking back at his own friends wondering if it would ever be the same, thinking then that it wouldn’t, it would never be the same. He knew he oved them, he would always love them, but they didn’t share his ambition. They came from different leagues, all of them, some of them would never have to work a day in their life, and they would still make more money than all of them. Others would never be able to afford buying their own apartment in the city proper. But none of them shared his dreams. He wanted to be more than something, someone. He wanted to be spectacular, like they spoke of old characters in American films. He had decided to offer Sergio Vose something excellent, something he might prefer. He would offer him to name the establishment. After consulting with a few associates he decided upon offering up the bar, not the restaurant. His father suggested, and his mother agreed, along with his accountant and Mohammed, his silent partner, that he had no business offering Sergio Vose a restaurant, as he had already claimed the greatest establishment in their town. He needn’t accomplish anything else and his name would still be spoken with such reverence it could evoke the longest surge of sighs and a dawning silence whereby those involved would reflect on the times they shared at the Café Hermes, having enjoyed the finest selection of food, straight from the hands of Sergio Vo. Offering him to name the bar would give him the chance to do something different. He could do a play on words, but that was going out of style. He could name it after himself even, which was sure to draw in a crowd. The name Vo alone could fill the place all week, with enough people waiting outside in a line, and waiting for hours, for them to take bookings and reservations, and to separate between regular and guest list lines, with a red velvet rope and carpet, or something of the sort. People weren’t opening that sort of establishment anymore, but he knew that it would work, still, people hadn’t changed so much. They take what they are offered, he thought. They’ll take it all. He was willing to pay a heavy premium to make it work. He had time to make it happen. He had sold eighty five percent of occupancies already, and the plot for the showroom would come. He had lunch later that week with a managing director at Bank of Monroe, where he had taken out a heavy mortgage and an even heavier loan. They first financed his apartment in the financial district, and he worked with the same director, Margo Shahine, before she had gotten married. She told him about the apartments in their favor, where they could lease on a twenty five year mortgage with an option to restructure once. It seemed like a good deal. He didn’t know what brought them together but he found her cute. Even though her company were known to be hostile. Wherever they put their money they always ended up owning in the end. But nobody would give him the loans to build his project. He had to go with them. Margo wanted him to put a down payment of sixty percent, which he found ridiculous. He had been given a painting by the late Buccolt, by his grandparents on his mother’s side, who always had a little more in the bank than his father’s parents. His grandmother had gone to school with Buccolt, they’d grown up together. The painting was small, a little square one foot long and wide. He sold the painting for eighty five million koura, a little less than it was worth. He never met the buyer, but he made good on a twenty two percent down payment, which he was able to front with help from the painting and help from his father’s pharmaceutical joints.
He decided to call Sabine, a girl he had been seeing, in that way that one is able to see someone for what they are in the imagination of the bearer. Though it might pride those to whom it is meant to portray, and those of whom are easily portraying. It seemed opportune, the four of them sitting in the living room, checking their phones, the others drifting off like paper planes, eternally disappointed, gaining calories in the air. The sound of their fall was callous, but among other things, the journey was long. He decided, right then, to call her. To call her, was not to do wrong. It was, to try something in himself he had been trying, he had wanted, for so long, to try. Stammering outdoors with a plan, seeing perfect in sideways, sharing alarm. The week had been bright for him, bright since it started, but now and again things did go wrong.
“Hey! It’s me. Keefik? Do you feel like going for a drive?”
She couldn’t hear him.
“Sorry! I can’t hear you! Where are you? It’s loud!”
He was driving, with the roof down.
“I’m in the car! You’re on speaker!”
“Do you want to go for a drive!”
“NOW!” Kiss ikhtek ya ikht e sharmouta, he thought.
He couldn’t take it anymore. The sound of her screaming was so bothersome, as it was, but on the speakers, speakers he had invested so much to enjoy, the sound of her shrill screaming cursed at his ears. He pulled over the car, on the side of the road, parallel parking between a large brown dumpster and a small set of cones, put off to the side, not for using.
“Where are you,” he said.
“I’m home. Is this Rustom? What the fuck was that, dude?”
“You stayed on the line this long, without knowing if it’s me?”
“What’s up, habibi?”
Both their voices went soft, dropping a lower tone, the length of his lower lip slipping somewhat lower, poting with his jaw.
“Nothing. I wanna see you, babe. When am I gonna see you?”
“Where are you now?”
“I’m in town, driving.”
“Tab, come pick me up, if you want.”
“Yeah? Okay. Now? Where?”
“Where is that?”
“It’s on Boulevard Haggar.”
“Man, the fucking traffic there now, it’s shit.”
His voice perched up, realizing he had messed up, sounding so doubtful, so blazed.
“How is it? Can you see it from the window?”
“Sara7a it’s not bad, but if you don’t wanna come now I get it.”
“Khalas, khalas I’ll come.”
“How long do you need? And where do you feel like going, by the way, I didn’t ask you.”
“Ana la ayreh. Where do you want?”
“I have to pick something up, actually. Do you mind?”
“Where? What is it?”
“At La Bibliotheque,” the largest shopping mall in town.
“Yeah, sure, whatever.”
“Khalas no, no, it’s fine. If you don’t want, whatever.”
“No, baby, la2. Whatever you want. You want to go to the mall, I’m down. Shall I call Hamid, tell him to join?”
“I don’t know. I felt like telling him.”
“Whatever you want babe but I thought it was just going to be us.”
“Tab ma enno it is us, for the drive, but I don’t feel like going inside of the mall. He lives near there. Khalas yalla I’ll call him when we’re there, I can go see him.”
“Shu ya3ne you’re gonna ditch me ballah and go inside alone?”
“Matha giltilek ya ga7ba,” he wanted to say, but he didn’t.
“Khalas whatever, let’s go. I’m coming to pick you up. Where do I meet you, on the boulevard?”
“At Petit Gogo’s. She lives upstairs.”
“Nice. Is it a sick flat? Can I see it?”
“Um, no, that’s weird.”
“Tab whatever bye hayete.”
“I was kidding, babe. Don’t be so shy!”
“Call me when you’re here, come up.”
“Tayeb, bedek shi?”
“Tamam hadi tschuss.”
There was laughter on the other end of the line.
“Actually, wait, can you bring coffee? One of the girls asked.”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
Coming into it.
“What do you want? What kind?”
“Where will you go?”
“Ana personally I like the coffee at Café D’Argo.”
He could hear Sabine speaking to her friends, on the other end, evident by her whispering away from the phone.
“Are you passing Café Bad?”
“Sure, I can. It’s not in the way b’zabit but it’s fine, IC an go there, ya3ne, of course.”
Finally, getting annoyed.
“Babe, yalla, just tell me what you want.”
Relaxing, a little bit.
“Enno, yalla, let’s go. I wanna see you kamein. This whole time I haven’t been driving. And I have a meeting at nine.”
“It’s four now, habibi.”
“I know, I know. Tab shu, what did you decide?”
“Yalla, hold on. Okay, two café macchiatos, two lattes and two silver foes.”
“What’s silver foe babe?”
“Babe, like obviously, it’s on the menu.”
“Yalla, babe, see you in a bit. Kisses, bye.”
“Send me a message babe.”
“Send me the address of Café Bad b’zabit, I forgot I think where it is. I don’t know. Send me the order kamein.”
“Tayeb, yalla, bye babe.”
Ayreh bi hal 3ishi b’ayreh, he thought.
He rolled down the windows, simultaneously fixed and directed, pressing on the Elixir function to the right of the steering wheel, which managed all devices and securities to their predetermined settings. He checked the rearview mirror, aligning it just right.
“You have an Ostridge watch, right?”
“I do. Yeah, I’m wearing.”
He gently rolled up the sleeve of his arm.
“What do you think of it? My friend was thinking of buying it. Hiye she’s into art and design and these things, kamein. What do you think? Is it too light? Does it fall? It looks weak. I heard kamein it stops if you jump.”
“Hayete are you jumping a lot these days?”
“No bas enno still. At the gym, wo hek, bil ghalat.”
“I don’t think you’re jumping bil ghalat bas anyway, ana at the gym I take it off. I take it off before showering kaman. Huwe it doesn’t have the same in flight function of the Macinro watch, or the Mikinley. And if you sweat on it, it’s Leather, you know? It’s not nice. So, ana, I take it off, ya3ne. That’s one thing you can do. Why, your friend is thinking of buying it?”
“His parents want to get him a watch. He doesn’t know which one. He’s picky kamein. I don’t know, maybe you know him. You know Saleh and Radwan? The cousins? They played football for your school, I think.”
“Of course. I know them well. I know Saleh, he’s really good friends with my cousin, Rabah.”
“Oh my god you know Rabah? No way,” stretching the way so it looked and sounded more like waaaaaaaay, “that’s so cool.”
“Dude, Rabah is my cousin.”
“Oh my god, you’re kidding. I love Rabah. He’s so sweet, honestly, so sweet. I didn’t know that. So you’re a Basho, too, then?”
“Yeah, you didn’t know?”
“I didn’t. Wow, I’m impressed.”
“It’s not impressive. We haven’t had any special powers for decades.”
“Still, it’s prestige ya3ne.”
“You don’t have prestige?”
“Akid la2, ana shu 3ande?”
“My last name is Bash, we shortened it from Bashorwan before Rabah’s family. Hinne they did it recently, you know that right? Just after the war.”
“Eh, I know. What’s his dad into by the way? It sounds really sketch.”
“It’s not. He’s just a tech guy. He’s worthless. He’s nice, bas enno he’s not worth anything special, don’ waste your time.”
“Waste my time what ya3ne? I wasn’t thinking of anything.”
“Enno ‘cause you asked.”
“Haram 3aleik aslan. To say his dad’s worthless. Mish 3ayb?”
“Rabah knows it. He wants to be more like me. Rabah really looks up to me.”
“Wallah, I didn’t know that.”
“Now you know.”
A strange tension filled the air, decimated by the waiter’s apologetic nerve, approaching them.
“Shu bit habo tekdho lyom, ana el specials kamein, b’ilkon yehon?”
“Shu 3andak special habibi,” Rustom asked?
“3ande ana il kafta djaj wol kebbe bil la2teen. Shu habeen tekkdo lyom, b’tishrabo shi? A7we, wine? Carola, danta, lite? 3anna kil shi?”
“Kil el alwen!” Rustom joked.
The waiter nodded his head. He had never seen them before. He didn’t care about them either way, but he liked the looks of her, his friend. He also liked the friend, the man, but he felt a little envious of the man, so he didn’t let his heart bulge too strong, making firm assertions, gestures of his kinship to the man.
HE PARKS Sabine in front of a building, this is before the Skylark is built.
“I want a building like this, babe. I want this.”
“You’ll get there, habibi. What’s the rush?”
“You don’t understand. It’s easy for you. You don’t have to do anything. You’re hot. You’ll get through.”
She was dropped off at her dorm. He turned the car around, parking in front of the pines overshadowing the gates, where the small guardsmen hid behind blinds, sheltered from heat or sunlight, or the curious eyes of those outside the gates, to whom they owed no courtesy or gift, and were told to be suspicious, no showing less.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, reaching over to kiss her. It was the first time since they met he had tried, and for some reason, without thinking, she turned her cheek away from him. She wasn’t sure why. Fortunately, he didn’t have a small mind, taking it upon himself to hold her by the chin, to turn her gaze towards him.
“What are you afraid of?”
“Don’t be cheesy, babe.”
“Tell me, I wanna know.”
“What do you wanna know? Why I didn’t kiss you? I’m not that fast. Ntor shway.”
“Ntor how long? If you’re not interested, babe, just tell me, don’t string me along.”
“I like you, but I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what? You either like me or you don’t? Anyways, it’s fine. It was a weird day today, it’s fine.”
“No, man, don’t get upset. It wasn’t weird at all, what are you saying? Calm down, don’t get so worked up.”
“I’m not worked up.”
“You are! Look, you’re sweating.”
“Khalas, man, forget it,” Rustom said, extremely worked up. “I have work in the morning, yalla let’s talk tomorrow.”
He looked away from her, pulling the handbrake up, making the point he was ready to leave.
“Oh so now you’re mad, ya3ne? What the fuck? You tried to kiss me, man, and I didn’t, so what? Get over it. Khalas, bye.”
She pushed open the door, struggling with her bags, her heels and stepping out safely. Feeling weak in her knees she started slow. She had too much to drink, maybe, or maybe it was the joint. Maybe they were both too drunk, or something, that’s why it didn’t work, she thought to herself, stepping out of the car, managing to hold onto the door’s arm as she came upon it, able to carry her weight. The thought of the security guard, one of them, seeing her, focusing on her as she struggled to stand up straight, calling her reputation into question, discussing her in his head, imagining her naked, fucking her on the car. If it was Akram, Ali. Ali, who takes so long to take her signature, she thought, Ali who spends most of his time in his head, conjuring images of feats he could not attain in real life. She considered turning around, to Rustom, to say goodbye, but the moment she stepped on two solid feet, the feeling was so fulfilling to her, she decided not to try, fearing her ruining what she had accomplished. When I return to the Dormitory the living room hall is barren. Most of the doors are closed, and several of the windows in the hall have been opened, allowing for a gentle breeze to settle unremittingly into the room, amid the distinct calling song of crows. I peek through the doors of Sit Shiham’s room, where her view looks over the open quarry. She’s been living in the same room for over three decades, spending most of her time in front of the television set that had been in her room for some time, before it had broken and was removed, promised to be replaced without any strong assurances. I’m not sure whether to envy her, or to pity her condition, and it would probably be best to do both, or neither, than to choose either one and respond accordingly, because it is her luck and fault that she is in this condition, and if I am not in her condition then I have no say whatsoever as to whether it is wrong, or difficult, or tough, or outwardly violent to the interior of her soul, since she has no means with which to respond, possessing all the means but without hard data, choosing to construct an individuality based on social mores and a strict silence when approaching, or intervening, a crowd. She’s sitting with her back to the door, the large frame of her single bed calloused against the apron wall, the steel frame of the headrest disappearing behind a curtain of simple white cloths she’s collected from the others. It’s difficult to watch, and it reminds me of my own condition, wondering whether I am the strange inflection that sits before my watch. She has a habit of speaking out loud, to nothing that can be seen in particular, nobody visible to an omniscient crowd, but presumably thinking herself in the company of a member of the cleaning staff, wiping away at the floorboards, around the bed, while Sit Shiham smokes in her usual guiltless stare, recognizing the cleaner, as one of her friends, who has taken to doing the chores as a simple favor, garnering nothing in return, since the cleaner no longer wipe the floors in the Dormitory, spending most of their time volunteering work at the Infirmary and other organizations, keeping the cleaning of the halls to ourselves. Sit Shiham is older than the cleaners, so she confides in them without having to explain herself, without being asked or pried in return. For those who stand in their ghostly place she discusses with as much certainty and fortitude the matters of the day, digressing into politics when necessary, so as to seem quite intelligently involved, though she has bad ears and spends most of her time watching the news struggling to understand what the loud speakers are saying, buzzing over an absolute trilling static mania that fills the waves of a newscast song. She doesn’t have to listen to her cleaning friends, focusing her energy on herself, without caring for what one of them may think, whose face and name I’ll never know. She calls them by different names, calling the cleaner beside her today by the name of someone passed on, forgetting the names of those volunteering, opting for the names of those no longer there. At exactly the hour, she folds a napkin holding a cookie and some dates, pocketing them and wandering outside from her room, ignoring me as I stand beside a stack of water bottles and a cabinet of canned goods. I pour myself a glass of lukewarm water, the water spreading fiber bodied salts down my dry throat, streaming like a child’s kettle waters weekend castle sands. I can taste the desert smog at the back of my mouth, something that sits like sugar would soak and dry in a heated pan. Another resident steps out from their shell, gently closing the door so as to pass incognito, without drawing too much of the communal wrath. I’m not sure how many others are shared in the room. As the door closes they walk over to the television area and sit down on the couch, playing with their handheld device. I’ve wanted a device for some time, but I had to give mine up at the reception, and during orientation I was told I would not be having it back until much later, if I were to be given the pass. For most of us, it is impossible to be given the pass to speak on the device even if it were working, even if the bills are paid on time, either by walking the fifteen miles to Army Cross, crossing the frontier and paying the subordinates, or wiring the money somehow, though that is for me impossible, as I am excluded from transactions that do not pass by hand. This way I am a signatory to my payments, to be tracked at a later time. The device emits a sound, and the owner is laughing. Sit Shiham is holding a newspaper in her hand, one she’s grabbed from a rack by the window, and staring aimlessly at the kettle stove atop the sink, hoping for some work to be done. She’s mumbling to herself, suggesting to someone in her midst to set upon cleaning the stove, and to make her a kettle of tea. A television in an adjacent room is turned on, the volume blaring through the otherwise quiet hall. The resident with their device laughs out loud, laughing without paying attention to the incremental growth of their sound. Another resident appears in the hall, wiping a plate clean with a checkerboard towel, used by some residents as a small picnic sheet. There’s a television across from me, resting on a two door cabinet with four tainted heels, one of the legs shaken from overuse, leaning on a wad of crumpled paper. A popular afternoon show plays in the background, muted and nearing its hourly end. Sit Shiham returns to her room to argue with the cleaner mopping the floor around the bed, before returning to the common area, ignoring my presence while I flip indifferently through an old, outdated sports magazine, returning to her preferable seat, behind the television, on the small wooden table with two diverging legs, where an old computer spends most of her time. She sits down, and before she has finished lighting her cigarette she yells for a cleaner to place an ashtray at her side. Hearing the indifference of the ignoring crowd, she smokes into an old can of Julip soda, high concentrate, that I realize has been sitting there for several hours, probably from before I went out for a walk. She clicks sporadically at the computer mouse, focusing on an oncoming surge of cards. The mouse under her right palm is the second mouse she’s ever owned. Initially, she’s only ever used the mouse that came with the computer itself, that had been found by Saleh while rummaging in one of the communal waistbin outside, until someone explained to her that the accessories that came gifted with the computer were not that good, and after years of obvious use had been almost entirely worn out, and it was probably beneficial for her to buy another mouse, accurately sized, designed specifically to suit her needs and her wants, to pleasure her wants, like they were tentatively the wants of the designers, and the makers, and the laboring craftsmen themselves. It would be beneficial for her, spending so much time anyway on the computer, doling away at the active screen, like they had begun some sort of relationship together, secrets they would never tell anyone else, known only to themselves, hidden somewhere in the passive space between their stares, until it could be exfoliated from an intrusive public, a narrowing gap that grew narrower by the day, culminating in a shared fated fall, where both outnumbered screens, the oak ceiling of Sit Shiham’s eyes and the exuberant light of the computer screen, lay flatly at the head of a grave, surrounded by tentacled pests. I watch her play her sport, rocking in her rocking chair suited best for reading or passing out. She carries the five of hearts under the six of spades, the ten of hearts over the jack of clubs. Something about the number three gives her a jolt, every time, a sudden incursion of joy, striking as though she has been pinched in the dimpled recess of her thighs. When she clicks the mouse’s nose on the closed off head of the stock, the much revered three of clubs flops onto its side, like an insect pushed over, resting on the shell, furry talons waving in the air with scornful desperation, swept up by an omniscient mop, settling into a ball of muth. The tableau, for some reason, stops responding, responsive as it usually is to the tyrannical ravings of her will. She doesn’t like to play the game, she wants to own it, to make it hers, to collect the cards, the memories, the embarrassment, all in a day’s work, an impassive abridgment of her soul, passable only to her. She clicks three times in a fit of rage, her teeth grazing their stalagmite fangs like a pair of pins whose centers match. She’s been warned by some of her doctors, who know she has no chance of passing, figuring she’s in it for the longest haul, waiting for some change in circumstance or just to see out the remainder of her days, not to embrace her temper, the nerves down her neck shaking with the shock of her clenching jaw, each and every time something goes against her way, the pain that becomes so familiar, a pinch at the point where her hair stops growing and her short and stubby neck begins, followed by a striking sensational pain weaving through a wave to the abscess of her temple. The computer is obviously frozen. It happens all the time. The computers in the common area are more susceptible to infringements, probably due to the fact they’re second hand and so indelibly old. I recognize the growing frustration as she pricks away at the mouse, clicking at an ever growing speed of three hundred clicks a minute. She’ll never understand why the computer freezes. It seems to defeat the entire purpose. Besides, it freezes mostly with her, never as often with the others, and they use it nowhere near as long. Thankfully, she has something to smoke, pulling a final stick from the open mouthed pack sleeping permanently beside her mouse leading thumb, almost too close to the edge of the monitor’s plateau shelf, above the valley of the keyboard, where wanton ashes and microscopic furs of spit fall like the acrid droppings of industrial rain. She considers restarting the computer, despondent to remain in a placid wayward state, debating the question for what could amount to half an hour. I know the dilemma well. If she restarts the computer, he would have to call for help, someone from the Dormitory, top open the game. She doesn’t know how to open the game herself. Though she plays hours a day, she’s never bothered to know, she’s never needed it. Knowing. Knowing the things others could know. Not having to know is a certain luxury, the result of a certain class. A class that enables her not to know. Not to care, not to bother. Knowing or having not known and having come to know at a later time, she’s only ever seen herself as belonging to one class of people, a power class, of the general population, in general voice and tone, stiff of national blood complexion, respondent to the upper classes, outwardly obedient, subordinate when called upon to bow a gentle head. At the helm of her home, she had been a tyrant, accounting for her rarely being visited by members of her family who still lived in the outdoors. Among her closest and least visible friends, she’s competed with the best. But in the great scheme of social and political life, she’s spent too long of her life possessed by irrelevance to uproot her name from the lower class. It’s different for her daughter, who tries to visit once a year, if she can be granted a permit. And it would be different for her grandson, her daughter’s only child, the cause of two abortions and a tragic miscarriage eight hours into labor. Her grandson, born into a world of splendor and possibility, living with his parents away from the port. Her daughter, largely forgotten her roots, walking with the confidence of a woman who has never, in her life, felt weakness at the hands of someone or something else, felt injury from a resentful, exterior source. She’s never had to savor a bite, for fear of going hungry later, at least according to Sit Shiham, whose often claim to have been scolded for not savoring her bites by her dominant and abusive father intent on imposing his will over his household she mentions in every other conversation. But her daughter’s adoption into a new breed, shedding the weight of her past, needing it only so much as her emotional quiverings require, content to surround herself with a spiraling mass of products to stand as a measure of her success. So long as she continues an incremental praise of the social ladder, admitting the capacity to purchase and disregard at will into her lexicon of habits, replacing newly bought Oboloe lamps, each amounting to several thousand decades of dollars, only a month after buying them, according to Sit Shiham, simply to test her style, ruminating in a flood of guests passing through the voliant labyrinths of her home, for which she could claim no real part in the accruing of her fortune. She looks up from her place with obvious frustration, clenching her jaw and biting at her teeth. She looks me once over but decides to ignore my presence. Nobody passes in the halls. She will continue her wait, her palm lying flat against the mouse, her other palm falling slowly down the recess of her inner thigh, where her thin pattern robe is pulled up over the knee. Part of her wait is stipulated on the fact that there is every possibility that the computer, still frozen, might work again, saving her the disgrace of quitting before the end of the match. She hates quitting, I know, because so do I, and if it is unfair to her, illegitimate, delegitimizing the entire experience that had promised to become her pleasant worth, it is the same for me, and I am the one watching her, I am the one in my obvious stare watching the unraveling of an aging clown, whose laughter is never heard but who, when silent and divorced to her room, can be heard laughed at, mocked by the very servants who surround her in care.
Things were going well for Mohammed Battal. Working at Film Tawil had really changed his prospects. Before his job, he was spending far too much of his time alone, wasting his fierce understanding of computers and technology. He was back then only a consumer. He had no intention of joining the production side of things. To work where the fights were won and lost. Of course his first job was largely ceremonial. An assistant, there to watch over the working floor to ensure people were behaving. It was his father’s idea. He had built quite a respectable empire in the services world. He wanted his son to Learn to do things the right way, the difficult way. But Mohammed was one of their best customer service employees. There was one night, a customer had called, asking for advice. He was playing off a live stream, one of the shows they put up on their own public service, that could be accessed remotely by anyone with the code. Purchasing the code was easy. It came by text, BubuCum, Narcis, and the like. Whatever worked for the customer, they would say. The client was complaining and they were very upset. They’d even threatened to connect the service to an external auditing source, knowing the threat was an empty one, as Film Tawil had paid off the authorities to great effect. Every time this client, playing off a live stream, clicked on the tab to open it, it opened another tab, which was an advertisement, and as he was about to click on the other tab, the advertisement tab would switch with the product tab, streaming what he wanted, so he would then by mistake close the streaming tab and not the advertisement tab, which kept making the switch the moment he moved the mouse, making it impossible for him to comply and watch what was already playing. Given the fact he had paid to rent the product for up to eleven hours, at a reduced price, as the hours were overnight, he wanted to watch it as soon as possible, that night in fact. In just under forty two minutes, which seemed like days to the client waiting on the phone, huffing and puffing his way through various modes of communication, feeling himself out in the wild world of digital piracy platforms, Mohammed Battal, hero of the night, encoded an update the piracy software the client had downloaded, in order to watch their streaming content, that would block the advertisement from being able to open on its own, even as a response to his clicking on it. It was virtually impossible to block the advertisement from initially popping up. However, what Battal realized he could do, was to make it in turn impossible for the advertisement to be opened by the client themselves. In effect, he was censoring the advertisement. That was another idea, which came to them later, while discussing the genius he had shown over a bottle of cherry cola and shawarmas from downstairs. He didn’t have plans for himself that excluded Film Tawil. He didn’t think he had to, but word was getting around that times were changing, things were going to become more difficult. He wasn’t sure what. He actually didn’t listen to the news, paying no particular attention to the world at large. What interested him interested only a few circle of friends, many who worked, like him, in the customer service or engineering sections at firms, like his, operating on some vague definition of legality, in an entrepreneurial grey zone, basically. His friend, Rabah, was adamant that things were out of control, that they hadn’t seen it coming, that the marauders of the East and North would encircle their fair capital and burn it to the ground, unless they withdrew their won forces from protecting the surrounding villages and her predatorial encampment, accepting the way of Ra. But Rabah lived in his own grey zone, a world where Thrill-Man 2 characters conformed to his daily life, eating and sleeping and shitting where he ate, slept and shat. He wore a shirt and tie and suit pants to work every day, of course, because he had to. But he never forget where his alliances lay. He was always wearing a pair of Animosity socks, with the emblems of the Dark Genus or the Marauding Cloud obvious. A bunch of friends were going over to his house that night, for ceremonial celebrations of the Eleventh Dawn, the Rise of Igloos and Purple Statures, seated at the Heart of Reigns. It was an attempt by the five of them to form a believing cult, based largely on the premise of three intersecting narratives, all of them taken from the same video game. That of the Dark Genus Ob, of whom little was known before the Third Establishment of Rites and Pilgrimage. It was based largely on the story of eleventh century poets, who remained in their castles as their countrymen were slain, switching their allegiances in order to become what could not become of their fellow men and women, to become the seeds of champions, to tell their won story as the world was built again. It was in many ways a horrendous story, that many in the region did much to disavow. But the game centered on some self explanatory tactics of espionage, involving great and alluring tactics of deceptions and internal deceit, that were always drawing their fair share of excitement upon a crowd. Entering the time of Ob, there was the slight fascination with the story of Nub, Ob’s greatest godson, who had died as a sailor before being reborn as a saving saint, traveling the extent of Her Majesty’s travels in the face of great and violent doom, becoming what became of god fearing men who had yet to experience the womb. It was a ceremonial narrative, that the game did not employ as a matter of levels to be dismissed one after the other. The story of Nub was a moral story, for the revelers, Battal being one of them. It told the same story over and over again. The characters, lost in a warring daze, or tired after weeks without rest, traveling on horseback or walking through the countryside in a field of slush and mud, would fall ill at the sight of a burning temple. Their first response was to save it from its destruction. They would devise a plan, forgetting their ill health for some time. But the temple could not be saved. Their characters, in how they would repent, begging forgiveness for their Leaving the temple behind, would accrue a certain number of Jealousy points, that could garner them fitter than others for the following rounds. It was an interesting game actually. Because of the way it was structured, there was the consistent presence of a sort of moral authority, a moral police, hovering over the digital space. Those who had accrued such moral virtuousness would be rewarded with higher rankings in the moral brackets of the game. Thus, Battal, virtuous as he was, had become, in six slow and tiring months of Thrill-Man 2, the most virtuous of all his friends. Problems began to set in when Thrill-Man 3, which was set for release some six years after the release of Thrill-Man 2, was suddenly released. It caused great distress. Thrill-Man 2 had only been on the market for one year. Thrill-Man, the original, that would never be referred to with a consequent number, had lasted a beautiful ten years on the market, though it was steadily emerging at the time, the technology evolving every day but the graphics staying steadily particular. There were numerous updates, of course. There was the Thrill-Man holiday package, six years in, which rebooted the entire universe without losing any of the saved games. At the time, Battal had jumped from being the one hundred and fifty six thousand and two hundred and fourteenth best player in the game, at his level, in his peak, to the fifty sixth thousand and two hundred and second best, playing. Before the switch, it was impossible for him to judge himself against other players who were not playing on his interface, the server that was being used, pirate or not, by most of the people in his country. When the international servers unleashed, it was chaos. The sudden release of Thrill-Man 3 proved an existential crises in his life. It was then that Battal began to hear words of tyranny of the minority, then that he began to understand his shallow place in the presence of all things. He realized then that he was at the bottom of an entire structure modeled on his remaining perfectly still. His friend, his closest friend at the time, Mehdi Sawwaf, of no relation to Ibrahim, though they were fond of one another, told him pitiful stories of how Thrill-Man 3 had been done six years before, of how Thrill-Man 2 had been ready for release two years after the release of Thrill-Man, the Original, and had only been kept secret because of its continuing sales. Actually, he argued, were it not for the release of the Jupiter console, which completely revolutionized gaming, for them and for the world, Thrill-Man 2 would not have been released then at all. They were willing to wait until the last gamer bought the game before releasing their treasured upgrade. It was distressing news. He didn’t know who to believe. People were suddenly talking about change, about things that were to come, that would uproot them all, and all he could think about was the server. He liked the idea of going to Rabah’s house that evening, but he had already made plans to watch the last four episodes of Kings and Queens. He wouldn’t have another chance to watch them that week, and then it would be no good. He had a gaming date with Sinister, that was Mohammed Hout’s gaming name, the following night to play Top of the Lines, the interesting role player game where characters took on the persona of an acrobat and danced above city lines, stealing whatever pleasured them, taking what they would find. There was no real point to the game but their amusement, which for a few hours a week was amusing enough. The following day he had work and after work he had planned to join the live streaming competition of Simple Lives, another simulation game where he took control of a character’s life, Leading them through different milestones in life. He had a family, in the game, and his character was a young eleven year old girl, named Taby, who he was beginning to form a happy yet discreetly loving relationship with. The interesting thing about the game was the ability to communicate with the character on an artificial level, watching it from afar. He could upload details of himself, becoming as distinct a character in the game as he was in real life, in terms of nominative attributes. In that way, he wasn’t sure if Taby was actually a creation of the game, of himself, or a real person’s conduit image, coming to life in his form. Rabah’s mother, Souraya, was happy when he invited over his friends. She looked forward to it. She was always so concerned with him, not Least because of his inhibition towards things that mothers dreamed of for their sons. She had begged him to join his cousin, Rustom, in a summer finance course when they were still students. He had more opportunity than his cousin, Rabah, and she felt sorry for her son when she compared the two of them. It wasn’t his father’s fault, at all, he had tried so hard to give him the life he never had, and he had done, so far, so well, in her opinion. Rabah was a grown man and had to take care of himself. She was unsure how long he would last at his job, as he hadn’t lasted so long at anything. She liked seeing his friends, some of them too shy and awkward to get to know, but boys like Akram and Ragheb did their best to comfort her, entertain her, while she was preparing them food or something of the sort. She liked Ragheb, even though he seemed overly infatuated with himself. It seemed for good purpose, to make a living somehow, using his body where his mind couldn’t take him too far. She knew he hadn’t graduated, though his friends didn’t know. She ‘d known his mother, growing up, they’d gone to the same school. He was a lot like her. Tough on the outside, soft on the inside. Akram as well, she liked. He was smart, kind, gracious. He always helped clear the table when he joined them for dinner. She didn’t like to be surprised with guests, so she often had to remind Rabah not to invite anyone over without telling her first, something he had trouble doing when he was growing up. But with time he got used to the idea, and having started to make his own money didn’t eat at home so much anymore. She wanted him to be good with his friends, to invite them over as much as possible, but she also resented the idea of him having so exclusive a club of friends he couldn’t meet anyone else. They weren’t the most ambitious, though they wanted to take care of themselves, most of them at Least. Mohammed she wasn’t sure of. He was polite enough to say hello and introduce himself when he walked into the house, but only if she was standing right there, having opened the door for him, or putting something together in the kitchen, from where the doorway could be seen. If she wasn’t standing there he wouldn’t find her at all, and Rabah, being as indifferent as he was to her demands, would fail to notify her of someone else’s presence. She was often caught informally in an evening gown, walking to the kitchen to get something to drink, finding Mohammed standing there awkwardly, staring back at her, his eyes trying so hard not to deviate from hers, though he wished, so much as he could, that he could take one good look at her in her evening gown. She tried to get him to see Rustom more often. They enjoyed each other’s company so much. She regretted the fact that she had spoken so highly of Rustom’s family when Rabah were younger. It had probably given him some sort of complex, damaging the relationship. He wasn’t able to feel himself, to feel his usual confident self, around his cousin. They spent two nights a week together, playing video games, playing outside. She liked to keep Rabah close, as his father was often working nights at the hospital. She knew he wasn’t proud of his father, while Rustom was, at Least publically, visibly fond of his own. So much so he wanted to better him. That was the sort of figure Rabah lacked in his life, in his youth, someone who could inspire him to do better than he did, all the while showing him the love and support he needed to do just that. But what was he going to do? He had no skills and was hopelessly ineffectual at almost everything he did. He spent so much of his time and energy on games, games that brought him more stress than joy, more misery than companionship, steering him to a life of loneliness, a life she abhorred, the thought of her son, spending his adult life in front of a computer screen, getting fatter and fatter by the day, ignoring the outside world, finding himself on a fast track journey to regret. What could she have done differently? She put him in the right school, the best they could afford. She forced her husband to stay away from politics, so as not to confuse his son, so as not to be used as a pawn in the story. But then his rat brother took his chances, making it in the world, surprising them all. His brother who hadn’t been able to afford a home when he got married, moving into the apartment upstairs on their own dime. They always kept good relations, but somehow she knew it had broken her husband. Seeing his brother, his younger brother, making headway in the world, stealing a little here, a little there, nicking what he was able to afford without coming closer to being caught, without risking the entire dissolution of his family’s reputation, something her husband worked so hard to avoid. It hurt him how lazy his brother had been in covering up the tracks. He never said it, how disappointed he had been. She understood. He didn’t have to say it plainly to her. He stopped inviting them over on weekends. Maybe it was that. Maybe he was embarrassed. By the life and home they accumulated, after all those years of hard work. Maybe she was embarrassed for him to see them that way, after having moved so steadily forward in his own life, working under the patronage of Nagy Barhoum. They were such good salesmen, all of them. With every government project, a new car, a new watch, a new home. They moved family homes four times in twelve years, something unheard of for the house of Bash. At least he had told her his friends were coming over that night. She was expecting htem around nine, an hour or so after Rabah came home from work. He sometimes came back around ten, but as it was the weekend he told her he was going to come home early, around seven, to start setting up. Setting up for what, she had asked, trying so hard not to disturb his mood. He became so sullen when she questioned him. She only wanted to know what they were getting themselves into. Why didn’t they go out, like other boys their age, who hadn’t married yet and didn’t have to conform to staying, reluctantly, at home. Rabah would never be the reluctant husband. So long as he didn’t have to communicate his thoughts or his feelings, or listen to the thoughts and feelings of his wife, he would be glad to stay home all night and on weekends. Maybe he would change, she thought, once he’s married and has a wife and home. Maybe it would force him out of the house. But where would he go? He couldn’t possibly go out to one of the late night shisha cafes on Avenue Rose. She hated him going there. She’d even rather him spend his pathetic adult nights at the Dark Night, where he used to love going before his job, than to be in one of those disrespectful cafes, dishonorable cafes. She hoped he never touched their women, if he decided to go. She hoped he never would. But of course he would. Why wouldn’t he? Wasn’t he at all curious? He’d never brought a woman to the house, not once in his sorry life. How sad, she thought. She heard him come through the door, the latch in the keyhole opening with a crack, the sound of the squeaking door swung open. She rushed out from the kitchen to greet him, standing in the doorway, removing his shoes, his eyes glued to his phone, removing one shoe first with the toe of his foot, pressing on the heel, setting it to the side as it dangled from his foot, removing the other shoe.
“How are you, sweetheart,” his mother said.
“I’m fine, mother. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I made you some food. Are your friends coming?”
“Yes. Ofcourse. They come every weekend.”
“That’s good. Will you stay home all night then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
He walked away from her, into his bedroom. He slammed the door behind him.
“I made pastries and minced meatballs in yogurt tomato sauce!” She yelled over his absence.
She walked back to the kitchen to prepare the last thing, ruminating the salad in a lemon olive oil sauce, adding some pomegranate molasses to the fattoush. She turned the television on the in kitchen, turning it on to the news. The news hadn’t come on yet, it was fifteen minutes still. There was a telenovella she enjoyed watching, but the episode had run that morning, they were playing it again. She remembered the scene that was playing, a mother, like herself, at home cooking for her son, like herself, was complaining to one of her servants about the amount of work she was forced to do. The show was funny that way. Characters were always complaining to one another about their lives, but always complaining to those to whom life was still even more demanding. The servant, as became evident later in the show, slept in a small cot without any place to put her feet, just next to the kitchen. A bed, fitted between two tight walls, that was really meant to be a closet, the walls set up with shelves, the belongings of her life strewn about disorderly. She wished she could change her kitchen, like they were discussing in the show. Why did she watch such things, she thought to herself. She’d never have the chance to redo her kitchen. Sit Shiham, her oldest friend, had changed her kitchen twice in twenty two years in the same apartment. Sit Shiham was old, older than her, by ten years or so, maybe more, nobody could be sure about her age, she had no certificate, no memory of course, no witnesses to bare the responsibility of truth. What did it matter? How had she benefited from her redecorating the house? She was barely able to walk through the apartment, let alone spend enough time apart from her computer, playing cards, to enjoy what had been given to her by fate. She realized she had not visited her in some time. It had been some time, surely, she couldn’t even remember when. How much the world had changed, she thought. There was a time, two days would not go by without her hearing from her friends. Suddenly, with the blink of an eye, they all seemed to disappear into their private confinements, retreating into a dull and spacious home. Did they think of her as she thought of them, she asked herself. She ought to pay a visit to her friend, Sit Shiham, she decided. She would call Sit Saghira and ask if she wanted to join. That way they could go together. They would bring something for their old friend. Some biscuits, the ones they bake on festival, the kind she adored. Did she like the ones with pistachios, she thought, trying to remember. The biscuits with dates? She checked the cabinets above the counter. She found some walnuts, some pistachios, but no dates. Maybe she could ask Rabah to pick some up for her. But he wouldn’t be Leaving the house until the morning, if he even left at all. She could ask one of his friends. She saw how they did it in foreign movies. The mothers were always asking their guests to help them in the kitchen, or to do something for them. She didn’t even dare ask them to finish their food. And they took full advantage of everything she gave them. They’d never spent a hungry day in her house, not once. Did they ever think to ask if they could bring something with them, to lighten the load? It was a different generation. They were all like that. Some of them were better than others but they remained part of the bunch. Samira, Rustom’s mother, often boasted that when her son came around with his friends from the program they always came with gifts. How often was she there to greet them, Souraya thought. Samira had given so much for her work, abandoning her child four months after he was born. What good did it do, she thought. It did a lot of good, actually. She hated to admit it, but she had been too soft on Rabah, too present and caring, nurturing him through every illness, every episode of sadness, of loss, caring for him like he had just been born. When Rustom had a fever, Samira through him in front of the television and went to work, asking the servants to look after him, to make sure he ate, or didn’t eat, whatever he preferred. Look how he turned out, she thought. She prepared some plates, some cutlery, placing them on the kitchen table with a tray. On the tray there was already a small bowl of labne, a small bowl of olives, black and green, and a small bowl of pomegranate, if they wanted it with the food. It went nice with the minced meatballs. She hadn’t put pine seeds, she realized. How had she forgotten the pine seeds? She walked over to Rabah’s room, the sole of her slippers slushing along the tiled floor. She knocked four times on the door, her usual knock. Erratic, urgent.
She pushed open the door. He was in his boxers and a vest. She hadn’t realized how fat he was becoming. He had put on at least twenty pounds since the beginning of the year. What changed? He was getting older. It happened to all men of his age. They hadn’t realized it would happen, eating sandwiches at four in the morning and then one day, they woke up and it was their, their very own belly. He was fixing something for the set up, setting up a line of desktop computers, each on their own tripod like stand. He had a set of plugs and wires in his hand, dragging them along the carpet. She eyed the carpet carefully.
“When was the last time we cleaned the carpet,” she asked.
“How should I know?”
“We need to clean it, I think. When are your friends coming?”
He popped his head up from behind the set of computers.
“We can’t clean it now.”
“Leave it outside the room when they leave, I’ll clean it before you wake up in the morning. Listen, I forgot to put pine seeds in the yogurt, do you want me to fry some and put them on the side, or should I fry them and put them in the yogurt right away? I haven’t heated the yogurt. I was going to do it when they arrive. Or I can also Leave the pine seeds on the side and you fry them, if you want. Do you know how to do it?”
“It doesn’t matter to me. Whatever works for you.”
“I’m doing this for you. What do you mean whatever works for me? It’s not for me. It’s for you.”
“Then do it. Fry the seeds.”
“Okay. Listen, there’s a plate of fresh figs in the fridge. Have as many as you want but Leave some for oyur father. And don’t let Ragheb get to them.”
“Put them somewhere else then.”
“Why should I put them somewhere else?”
“I can’t keep him from going into the fridge and seeing them?”
“What do you mean you can’t? When I was growing up, not once did I ever touch anything at a friend’s house. Never in my life.”
She closed the door. Akram liked reading. He wasn’t the only one. Rabah enjoyed reading as well. Their preferences differed. Rabah had a fine selection of politics and technology. He surfed through them quite quickly, often skipping over entire pages to catch up with the drift, knowing that writers spent too much time explaining what could be ascertained without words. Akram preferred reading novels. Romance novels, actually, but he didn’t admit it to anyone there except Mohammed, who had been over to his house countless times. Their spent their afternoons trying to shatter records one of their favourite games. Mohammed didn’t care for reading. He spent a lot of time in his mind, in the imagination, which he felt was similar to reading, using the same portion of the brain. Akram tried to put him on to Habib Nourallah, the effortless romantic. Mohammed didn’t budge. He’d given him the book to take with him, but he’d forgotten it at his place. Akram dropped the idea. He browsed through the bookshelf. They were waiting for Rabah to confirm the connection. He’d set up a basic home interface that cut through the usual channels, evading the government network. They didn’t want to share their server speed with the thousands online. If he told them it was go time, it meant they had usurped the local channel, lodging on to an invisible network, probably owned by the military. The military, clever as they were, outsourced their logistics and maintenance, trusting the expertise of the citizenry above their own kind, who didn’t have the same aptitude towards the system. The locals left various gaps, if only for themselves to enter. It made for a decent game or two of Thrill-Man or Hide and Seek, the role playing military conquest game, that Rabah often won. Matar was sitting on the couch, waiting for a call from work to make his delivery. Mohammed was eating a bag of sour cream and onion chips. Saleh was sitting in the other room, trying to connect to a phone call with his wife. He called her his wife but she was really his girlfriend. They hadn’t married yet, though he had proposed. She said yes, but she was waiting for him to show his seriousness. She lived two cities away, in a one bedroom stall with her parents and three siblings. She shared her room with two other girls, her sisters, who were always prying into her life. The boys found it funny, that he had chosen someone so remote. He said he met her one afternoon when bicycling in the village where she lived in summers. They knew it wasn’t true. They had met online, and had probably never met in person. The sound of a blender could be heard, followed by the sound of the blender’s body tapping against the old limestone counter. Ragheb walked into the bedroom where the five computers were lined up in a row, all with their headsets and baskets of ribbons, each ribbon pertaining to a select set of moves, in order to notify the others, without having to continuously seek clarification, where the characters had moved, the small ribbons attaching to a small blackboard of glue on top of each desktop computer, the ribbons like pins on the blackboard mood. He had in his hands a large blended juice, a protein shake with two bananas and the bag of Pure Whey protein. On the table already, where he sat, there was a filtered juice of Nitrous Oxide Obsolete, the fruit punch mixture smelling like acid rain. Alongside the juice and the shake was a small box of pills, the cap already opened, six fat white pills staring back at him from one of the pockets, four blue pills and two red pills staring back from the closed pocket door. The blue pill contained a specific mix of fat burners that alluded to his diet. The red pills were for him to ensure he could sleep that evening, a dose of melatonin that latched on to the fat burners, tiring them out when their work was done. The six white pills were nitrous oxide, a daily dose of twenty four pills, six of them four times a day, once in the morning, once at noon, once after lunch and once after dinner. To take them right, he had to keep a steady regiment of diet and sleep, always maintaining the same set of hours, clocked in and out, no matter what. He was up by seven, the pill in his mouth five minutes later, no later than that. Within three minutes, he felt a surge, a steadily rising boost of energy, overcome his body. Within fifteen minutes, he was showered and ready to go, the energy overwhelming his body, deepening his mental focus as well. He was done with breakfast by seven forty five, a daily dose of five eggs, two thin crust pancakes with sugar and maple syrup and bananas and other fruits on the plate, like kiwis, raspberries, blueberries, good as antioxidants, good for his nourishment, for the mind, a large mug of filtered coffee, to give the nitrous oxide another boost, a slice or two of bread with dried thyme and olive oil, a bowl of fresh cracker cereal, with a quarter liter of fresh cow milk, and a small bowl of boiled white beans, with or without a tomato sauce, with or without garlic and onions, depending on his plans for the day, sometimes, if he was going out, meeting a girl for breakfast, or heading straight to the gym, where he wouldn’t want to smell foul, he ate the beans with nothing, pouring on them a little drizzle of olive and a lot of salt, enough to make them eatable, more so than they already were. By eight he had left the house, having taken a large shit, which he accounted happily for, and brushed his teeth and washed his face with a clear unscented Sirella lotion. He always wore the same style of clothes, a tight black, white or grey v neck t shirt on skinny black or blue jeans. He combed his hair back, applying a little mouse for it to stay in place. He used a specific type of gel for many years but the smell, while working, of his sweat infusing with the gel, was too much for him to bare. He was sensitive to certain smells, hence the unscented lotion, the unscented body cream he applied twice a day, after the shower and after his workout, sometimes adding a third lotioning, before going out or before going to bed, though he would have to wait ten minutes for the lotion to seep into his hairless body, shaved once a week at Beydoun’s Body Corps. He applied a different hand cream and foot cream as well, two times a day, sometimes three, to avoid cracking hands and blisters and athlete’s foot on his feet. He had graduated as an engineer but dropped that entirely. He was working at City Lawn as an assistant gym instructor. He hadn’t taken on any clients yet, but was helping out some of the more sought after during their rounds. He was bulking as well for a round of fights he hoped to enter, challenging for a local mixed martial arts coaching badge. He had little experience but felt with his reach advantage, standing at six feet and four inches, and his propensity to bulk up, weighing in at one hundred and twenty four kilograms, thus far, he could take on anyone on his best day. He wasn’t there to compete with his friends. He was there to humour the crowd. To come last in all proceedings. Mohammed was going to win, no doubt, and the fight for second place was going to between Rabah and Akram, who were the smartest. Mohammed spent more time than anyone Learning how to play. He knew all the tricks in the book. Though they had a pact never to use cheats that not all of them could use, he managed to play like he had all the cheats in his pocket. Nobody dared question his integrity, however. It would have broken his heart. They only competed against each other in the first round. The winner of the round would be crowned captain for the evening, Leading the team into battle. The captain chose the first mate and the second mate. Beyond that, the rest were surplus and were often the first to die. Mohammed was a good captain. He knew the game well. He memorized every sandbag in the landscape. He knew where they could hide, when they could strike in pairs, when to reLease the pack on a forward run, when to sprint for cover, when to duck under a bag and aim to kill. He played cautiously, and some of the boys found it irritating sometimes. He liked to take it seriously. He liked to take his role seriously. Rabah was more rogue, more eager. So was Akram, but with a bit more flair. It was Akram who had won them the Dark Night Thrill-Man championship, with a solo run, powering through a barricade of enemy fire, kill the last three soldiers on the other side, after the entire team had been swept out. Mohammed was annoyed with Saleh. Ever since he’d gotten a girlfriend, however he had managed that, he’d been so obsessive. She forced him to stay online, keeping him logged in to Narcis and BubuCum and Pipe. He kept his phone on the roof of his computer, staring back at him. She watched his every move, his every twitch and turn. At first, he had asked them if he could keep the headset for the game in one ear and the headset for his phone in another, and alternate the mouthpiece for both. They refused, flat out. Akram said it wasn’t right of him, but if he had to do it, he wouldn’t stand in his way, but he wouldn’t be happy. Mohammed was upset. He didn’t say a word, but he was upset. Rabah made fun of him and called him stupid, and mentioned how little they needed him in the first place and that he wouldn’t mind. He tried to convince them that she would fall asleep at some point, and then he could put the phone on loudspeaker, or on the major speakers in the bedroom, and if she happened to wake up he would hear her voice and know something was wrong, but otherwise she would disappear into the night, and they could go on playing. Ragheb tried to explain that he was wasting his time. He had to decide what he preferred to be doing and to focus on that, otherwise he would jeopardize both. Wise words from Ragheb, prompting Akram to agree. Matar didn’t mind either way, he said, he had gotten the call to make a delivery and might come back later, he said, if he had time. Saleh surprised them that night. It was Rabah’s idea to open the fridge, after smoking the joint. Saleh had suggested to wait for the joint until after eating, in order to keep the high in its place, to survive, letting it thrive in order for them to take hold of the Land and claim their place among fictions. He wanted to portray the protagonist in a different way, to tell the story backwards. Mohammed supported him, wanting in both definitions, to visit the kitchen before smoking the joint, to access the high while playing.
“Playing,” Akram said?
“It’s about more than just that,” he said, seriously.
Akram was serious, as well. Rabah was serious, as well. He wanted the protagonist to speak in verse, like the poet princes in Passion of the King, or the eleventh horseman of The Seven Tides. He even wrote a prologue, for the preview and the trailer, and possibly, not exactly but a derivative of, the opening sequence, in a narrative based approach. Saleh thought it was in their best interest to approach each level on its own, reverting back to the original ethos of video game literature, where the players were tasked to succeed in the object of a single game, rather than progress through a set of stages, levels or layers or quests, as has become the borm. Akram was careful not to upset his friend, but he found it crude. Still, he let him speak, to hear what his good friend was saying, was wanting to say and not saying it. But it had been said, by Saleh, a thousand or so times. If they were to progress in their design of the game, they were going to have to think differently, to imagine a world where forms are impossible, where heavens collide. Mohammed, to hasten the process, suggested they smoke half the joint before going to the kitchen, and the other half after, during which time one of them would roll a second joint, to take over in the first. Akram liked the idea, reminding him to consider the fact of their depleting supply, the hash of which had gotten smaller, barely enough for two joints left, and lest one of them tire, they were sure to be there all night, hanging out, if not until morning, it would be smarter for them to smoke the last joint they had no more than two hours, at the latest, before Leaving, given that Rabah was unable to procure another source, Mohammed said it would be smarter to smoke the half joint before and half later, and half the second, also the last, some thirty minutes into the session, Leaving nothing more than a puff for each of them for later, something to tickle the buzz, but Saleh argued, that he wasn’t sure he was able to stay that late, that night, as he had somewhere to be in the early morning, to which they all asked, either by inquest or official nodding, Where, to which he asked, Why, what difference does it make where I go in the morning, causing Mohammed to say that it mattered, it matters a great, great deal. Their quest was more important than anything else they had going, it had to be that way for them to succeed. They were playing the Bishops, competing against their rivals for the eleventh time. For warm up, they both did an exercise exhibition match on Football Pro, five against five, the remaining players simulated online. Akram was their in form player, and for them to win he had to be on point. The game started slow. Shams, on the other team, was quick to his feet. He played one twos all over the pitch. It went up the left field of play several times in the opening sequence. (Put above, before the quest part game) Rabah interrupted them. As host for the evening, he had the responsibility of informing them that they had a legitimate offer to play an exhibition match against their rival team, the Bishops, led by Shams Hakim and Wasef Monroe. If they were going to advance, he said, they should really consider the offer. They hadn’t been playing well of late. They lost the weekend before at Football Pro to Team Oliver Wreaks. They were totally outplayed. Losing two to one and three to one, respectively. It could’ve been four to one had it not been for Mohammed’s penalty save, in the last minute, all on his own. It almost cost him his friendship, having purposely pipped Saleh to it, who loved playing keeper in delicate situations. To them, it had always seemed a blessing, as none of them liked playing keeper at all, even when they went to play outside, in Shady Springs or at the Public School, the first of which was the more expensive to rent and farther away, but the grass was always perfectly cut, and they used real grass for all of August, when the weather was dry and there were less fleas, and it never rained until early autumn, sparing the grass from a sea of slugs, living on the borders. He pressed the lunge button three times and pushed the sprint forward and immediately sprint back, with the thumb of his left fingers. Akram couldn’t watch, it was so close, only for a matter of pride. They were laying at their preferred stadium, the Stadium of Arcs, and they were wearing the read and white colors of home. They sang the Marsellaise and played like it was a final. Losing could never dampen their spirits, even after such a loss, though Rabah was known for dreading to lose, becoming slightly manic in the process. When Rabah and his cousin, Rustom, travelled to Rome to watch the Cup Final, and the better team won, and their team were outright embarrassed, it took him three years to speak of that day, five years to admit it. They decided to meet in the kitchen before smoking the joint, and before playing. Mohammed pulled out a jar of Greek yogurt from the fridge. Rabah pulled out the food his mother had made. He didn’t need to ask what Mohammed was doing, knowing that he put yogurt on everything he ate, smothering his food in the sloppy white cream. Matar had come back from making his delivery. He had taken off his hat, resting it on the knob of his chair. He was scrolling down on his phone when a call came to him. Rabah asked him to Leave the room, he told them he was going to ignore it, surprising them, as they knew him as someone who received every call, no matter how important, whether he recognized the number or not, having answered several times before, right in front of them, to numbers designated do not answer. He said it was the same administrator from a political calling committee, gathering for the next municipal elections. Rabah was surprised. Out of all of them, he considered himself the smartest, and the most capable in undertaking a political significance. Why hadn’t they called him, he thought. Before he was able to ask, Saleh had already posed the question. Matar said he was unsure, but that it might have something to do with the fact he hadn’t served a mandatory military training, such as Akram and Saleh, and their friend, Manjod. Rabah hadn’t even heard of them, admitting as much out loud, so impertinent. They were surprised he had so exposed himself, taking it as a sign of his already having smoked without telling them. The hash had been left at his house, Saleh thought. Mohammed thought it as well, adding that the papers had still been in the sack when they last smoked, and that they had come undone somehow, his likely having provoken it. Mohammed wasn’t interested in the political affair, though it claimed the surprise of the remaining three, without Saleh, who had taken his Leave, to use the guest bathroom, having almost exploded with the first sip of tea. His heart was racing. He was sweating. The caffeine made him nervous, but Rabah insisted they all smoke and take tea with the hopes of keeping alive, the hash taking care of their bodies, drowsing them in a comfortable slouch, the tea keeping their eyes alert, their motor functions intact. They didn’t need to have so much mental focus, as Rabah believed in their ability to work from playing. It was his idea not to train, to run mock exercises in different games. All of the others were of a different thought, believing they should train, though Mohammed and Akram solely agreed included in their training ought to be their exact highs, so they could replicate the effect to perfection. When he trained for the rugby team, he said, he always took the exact set of supplements in training as he would before games, otherwise it was pointless, he would be taking them in games without practice, without knowing what effect they would have on his body, on his running, his legs, his shifting body weight quickly, his mental preparation, his confidence, in his teammates, in himself, his ability to work with others, to get the best out of himself. His legs were the most commonly effected. He was slower, the blood rushing to every moving pore, his body became heavier, he couldn’t run with the skipping speed he could in training. Then why take the supplements, Rabah asked. For his performance overall, he said, he couldn’t survive the intensity without supplements. What was he taking, Saleh asked, having taken a few supplements while doing his military course. He wouldn’t have survived himself, he said, having to wake up at four in summer and five in winter, running forty Olympic laps right away, the only choice of shower being a cold water sponge, straight from the Taimuri Springs, that could be used to hose himself down. It was just outside the barracks, beside the two standing outhouses and the small wooden spool, used to wrap belts, armor and magazines. After eating, they returned to Rabah’s room, to smoke the joint and begin playing. Saleh brought up the political affair, without his knowing, by asking Matar what his plans were for the night and tomorrow in the day. Matar joked that he wasn’t going to the protest, for sure. Rabah was again taken by surprise, and realized he had completely forgotten about the topic until then, causing him to ask, without his usual pretense of wanting to appear informed, what protest he was referring to. There was a demonstration planned for the next day, he said, and an opposing one planned for the day after that, one by each side, though he couldn’t tell the difference in the two, they were both privileged, he said, and spoke from their privilege, and would be stupid to surrender their rights for the benefit of all, so of course he didn’t care for a thing they said, as they would be stupid to actually do so. Rabah had never discussed politics with Matar, who always seemed so ill informed. Akram felt the same way, but he knew it why it was he felt that way, knowing that he had come to the conclusion based on Matar’s looks, his skewed front teeth with the masculine chip, his burn on the right side of his face, and the piercing in his eyebrow and the two on his ears, his spending all of his time on the phone and his buying an expensive bike, much more expensive than he could afford, though even for someone like Akram, who couldn’t care less, it was indeed impressive. Rabah asked why the first group were protesting, but Matar didn’t know. Akram asked how he had heard about the demonstration, to which Matar was surprised to be asked, discovering that he didn’t really know, that he had to think back on it and would let them know, sitting back in the chair, slouching his legs forward, so the gloss flags of his jeans hung over the chair, gleaming in the second row. While Saleh was rolling the joint, some two minutes later, breaking the small piece of hash a second time, and Rabah was sparking the joint, lighting the bat over the ashtray, cupping it with his hand, like so- (nike check)- Matar remembered how it was exactly he had known, having made a house delivery of hash three nights before, to some clients who lived in Pastoral, at the foot of the financial district. He had just met the girl at the Gros Pop, the night before, having been called by the bartender to sell him three joints, already rolled and ready to spark, for some ladies at the bar, with whom he was flirting. He had no chance with either one, but he had to take his chances. The view from where they sat and dealt, and the main street on the other side, where her brother and sister went, while she was buying, sitting on the balcony smoking their last joint, from the stash she had bought the day before, still flowing. Rabah thought they should attend. He said it with a very specific tone, to show how serious he felt about it. He wanted them to feel like he was Leading, taking a decision on behalf of them all, knowing they would concede to his will in the end, barring the occasional disaster that befell them all. Akram agreed, but he wanted to know more. Mohammed was already online, playing on his computer. They asked him to stop what he was doing and to open a browser for them to search, to see what was going on exactly. They asked Matar if he remembered the name. Of the group, or the meeting, the location of their protest. He couldn’t say, though he remembered it had something to do with the Martyr’s Head, at the heart of Ras Shahid.
“Did you know any of them,” he asked?
He didn’t, but he said they looked like they could never be his friends, not in a million years. They wore colorful pants and the women wore only jeans, and each of them had their hair painted in a different color, corresponding to their ultimate flag, multi-colored as well.
“What did they look like,” Akram asked.
He said they looked like artists, like foreigners, like fags.
“Let’s get back to the game,” Mohammed said.
“Did you find anything,” Akram asked, coming over to his side of the table, pulling the third leg of the Casbah rolling chair forward with the teeth of his toes.
“Only the website,” Mohammed said. “For both of them.”
He drew them up onscreen. The others gathered round, each exclusive to an exclusive detail, Saleh noticing the strong, masculine men, Mohammed noticing their lethargy, the general lethargic mood of the actors, Akram noticing the good graphic design, Matar as well, noticing the typography, having tried for graphic design for two years, executing seven out of a possible twenty courses out of that time, amassing a failing twenty one credits out of a possibly sixty, the first three waived for his starting as a sophomore, needing thirty more from the sixty pass in his final year, unable then to pursue his final goal, to work at the graphic design and copy center Bliss Patrol, where all university students eventually executed their final projects, printing on specific paper, using a top of the line machine. What disgrace! And a real loss to his family, who had high hopes for their son, but he was the most likely to be lost in the woods out of his family. To his credit, he gave it a good shot, executing his first freshman jury with palpable grace, but the rest of his work deformed after that, having discovered his habit of smoking. The language was strange to all of them, even Rabah. He fared well in the methodology, but not the language itself. Akram at Least understood the principles, but the meaning was indifferent without proper understanding of their roots, the brief and major causes as outlined in the Confidence of Creeds, and later amended in the Confidence of Causes and the Confidence of Roots, splitting the Constitution of Provisional Understanding in two, by the Utilitarians and the Greeks. They spoke of high hopes for the upcoming municipal elections, where they expected to face still opposition from members and supporters of the status quo, who had for so long maintained strict control over the city’s fate. They pledged to do such wonders as reopen the abandoned theatres and art houses, to transform unoccupied spaces into public parks, for gathering or the manipulation of norms, to produce something, to make importance, or to use them as studios to evolve their cause, their workmanship, their performance, providing free workshops for all to attend, all who agreed with their cause. Above all, they pledged to refuse the restrictions passed by the local governance, as overseen in the Ethics of the Union, in the vicinity of Pastoral, as outlined for the Carnival of the Arts. The encroachment of censorship upon their works was increasing, they said, to an unreasonable amount, that even they, as children of that strangely contested city, could not understand. They expected certain provisions in place, and they would rise to defy them, but the encroachment had far exceeded their opposable means. Akram was adamant they should go. It would be new and exciting, something they were all craving in some way. Mohammed disagreed. He had plans for the next few days and couldn’t see why he had to spend his time defying a system he had so far been pleased to disregard entirely. He had circumvented every possible rule in the sequence of networks available to him, and of his concern. There wasn’t a game he couldn’t crack or a program he couldn’t decode and transform its meaning to appease his will. He was the one who transformed Asherton Live into a live recording software, editing and cutting on its own, conforming to a set of algorhythm’s, based on optimum reading of audio frequencies, taking into account their natural harmonics, sounds suited to certain rooms, including high, midi and bass readings, updating instantly from one recording fact to another, even going so far in his second edition, unreleased to this day, to change, add or remove audio effects, such as reverbs and compressor tools, based on their optimal usage at the very given time, including in the third edition the capacity to record several alternations of a single note, beat or measure, or a single strand or style, saving all of them at once, contained in a substitute file on the live editing feed and in the saved folder, all the while maintaining that same narrative structure for hunting in a straight line. Rabah understood. He didn’t like to ask someone else to abandon their plans, to switch priorities, at such short notice. It was his way as well, to take plans to the grave, he would die before rescheduling out of his own accord. They decided to hold a vote, and the leading vote was not to be obligatory but recommend, so as to continue their ethos as a team.