Ali the Truck Driver
Up ahead at the intersection the soldiers are stopping all vehicles. You are glad you decided not to drive your truck. The roadblock is even further forward today. It is only because the driver of your minibus is known to the local police that they let him through. He has to talk fast all the same. How could you have done that? Today your laryngitis is so bad that you can hardly make yourself heard. Your nephews had been wise to suggest the mini-bus, even though it had cost you a bribe. If only the air wasn't so hot and dusty and the queue so long. And now what's this? A wedding procession. Incredible. Your driver tries to join in the festivities by pressing his hand down on the horn, but it doesn't make any noise.
Maybe this will be your last trip. It is one of the many you have made since the death of your brother-in-law, Hasan. Poor Hasan. One evening three car loads of soldiers had come looking for him. When he'd kicked up a fuss they had shot him, right there at his own dinner table, in his own house, in front of his whole family. And what had he done? Nothing. He had been given the wrong name, that's all. The soldiers had been hunting for another Hasan in another street, a completely unrelated individual. But that was how things happened now. There had been no apology, no compensation, not even a newspaper report. It made up your mind. At Hasan's chaotic funeral you had decided to emigrate, regardless of what ill feeling it caused. Your cousins had migrated to Australia many years ago and there had been a scandal at the time. But now they were citizens there. They had a good business. Their daughter had been to a university. They sent videos.
So at Hasan's funeral you had decided you would join them. But there were now many obstacles that your cousins had not encountered. After the truck bomb in the market the foreign embassies had moved to a fortified part of the city, highly inaccessible. You had queued innumerable times before submitting your application and then months had passed with no word until you had received a letter informing you that you had been rejected. Apparently you were too old. You needed to be under thirty five. Also you were unskilled. Driving trucks was not a skill. And finally your cousins were not able to act as security for you because, according to Australian law, they were not your cousins at all. And there was one more thing—you were too fat. In God's name! Of course, if you had been a rich business man matters would have been different. A rich business man, such as that man Ayoub with the importing business, would be permitted to be as old and as fat and to have as many cousins as he wanted. But you were not a business man. You were a truck driver. It seemed that Australian trucks were driven by men who were young and below average weight.
You had not known what to do until your nephews had brought to your door a young acquaintance of theirs who claimed to have taken an interest in your affairs. He had scoffed at your application forms. He had told you that what you needed was an agent. Such a rude and obnoxious person he had been and you had sent him packing. But you had hung onto the phone number he provided and when the phones resumed working for the few minutes they did each day you'd arranged to meet the young man's agent, which is how you come to find yourself on the minibus.
You trip and stumble as you descend the bus's faulty stairs and you wonder how you will recognize this agent. Will he display a hand-lettered sign like an airport chauffeur? Surely not. But you recognise him straight away. He is the only one in the café who is not a foreigner. He is drinking tea at his own table watching a little television. You sit with him and try to explain the situation, but your throat burns and your voice is hardly audible. He keeps watching his television while you whisper your story. When you have finished he says nothing. You wait while he holds up his finger for the waiter to bring him a plate of pastries. He eats two of them and makes you wait. Whatever it is he is watching on the small television you can't see. It has no sound except a tiny hiss. Like you it appears to have laryngitis. The man breathes deeply through his black nostrils and wipes his fingers. "Ten thousand," he says finally, rolling his bottom lip with his forefinger. That's all he says, ten thousand. For a moment you are confused because ten thousand was not a figure that was mentioned in your telephone conversation. Does he mean ten thousand for all of you? "No," he says crossly, "ten thousand for one." For one. How can that be possible? You cannot afford to pay for four at that price. At ten thousand you can afford to pay for one, that's all. The man shrugs.
What are you to do? You have the money with you, in the envelope. You are ready. You have sold your truck. You have signed over the lease of your house. You did not expect this. What is to become of you now? The agent watches his miniature tv while your head spins.
One is no use, you tell him. You have a wife and two children. What use can one be to you? He shrugs again. It's not his concern. As he watches his miniature television you try to think of what you can say to persuade him. Your voice is about to give out completely. Before you can come up with anything he sees something on the screen that pleases him greatly. He smiles at the television and turns to you with an unexpected offer: he is feeling generous; he will take ten thousand for two of you, one adult and one child. "What?" you say to him, so on edge you hardly comprehend. He repeats his offer: one adult and one child.
You think. How can this help you? One adult, yes, because if necessary you can leave your wife behind. The truth is she complains bitterly about leaving her mother. So it would be easy to let her stay. The old woman will not last forever and soon your wife will see how well you are living in a new country. She will come to her senses. But the two children, what on earth are you to do about them? How can you leave one of them behind? And which one? Your daughter or your son? No good asking for advice. You know what people will say. Your brothers will not hesitate: take your son, take the ten year old. Leave the daughter behind. She will soon be looking for a husband. She is already fourteen. Leave her with her mother to watch her and they will bargain about a dowry on your behalf. Then she will not need to come at all.
That is what they will say, isn't it, because your brothers think sons are more important than daughters. But your brothers aren't thinking of leaving. Your brothers do not see things as you do. What do you think? You try to imagine what would be best. You try to picture in you mind your son in another country. In Australia. But you can't. You can only picture your son as he is, playing on his GameBoy all day, eating sweets he's stolen from the kitchen. When you try to picture your daughter you see in your mind the video your cousins sent to you, the video of their daughter graduating from the university dressed in her gown and her strange hat on top of her headscarf. She is an engineer now. How your wife scoffed at this, saying your cousins were fools to let their daughter do such things. You told her to mind her own business and she had responded, banging the pot of coffee loudly on the table, "And what would you do, husband? Would you have our daughter study engineering?" And you had found yourself shouting back, "Yes, if it please God!"
And why wouldn't it please God, you think. Your daughter is no different from your cousins' daughter. She does well at her schoolwork. She is a good girl. She respects her parents and listens to what they say. So then and there you decide. You pay your ten thousand to the agent and you put your son's papers and your wife's back into your pocket. You are resolved. It is the best you can do. If you left your daughter behind who would keep her away from the meddling influence of your nephews? They have already tried to fill her head with their nonsense about religion and sacrifice and piety. You have already had to speak to her about it because you feared they were turning her into a zealot. Australia would be a good place for her. And even if you leave your idle, lazy son behind for a while there is no fear that he will become a zealot.
The minibus has vanished when you leave the café and you set off on foot along the hot pavement. It will be quite a walk home but you will stop and drink tea on the way to ease your throat. You plan your announcements, what to tell your wife, your brothers, your son. Then you turn the corner and before you realise, bang, you are in the thick of it. The dust has hardly settled. People are crying. The occupying solders are leaping from vehicles along with the local police. You are herded into an alley and made to wait. The word goes round that you must show your identity papers. "Your papers!" the unshaven police officer asks you. "What is going on?" he demands. "Why have you got these people's papers? Where are your papers?" With your final ration of voice you explain that you have been to the embassy so your wife and your son can visit their relatives in Australia. You must have left your own papers by mistake. But this story is not good enough. They manhandle you into a truck and drive off.
The police station where they question you is foul and dirty. You are there for hours. There has been another suicide bomber, someone tells you, another young woman. You have no voice left to retell your story. The soldiers offer you nothing to drink. They point their guns at you and make you lie flat on the floor. For a moment you think they are going to shoot you, as they shot Hasan. But you force yourself not to panic. There is a small shifty man who is translating. You do not like him and he does not like you. He claims he cannot hear what you are trying to say. He claims he cannot read what you write down for him. But when you offer him your gold wristwatch his hearing and his reading suddenly improve. He remonstrates with the soldiers and you are released. As you leave the police station another poor soul is dragged in. His hands are tied together with plastic rope. He is bleeding. His family is with him. They are crying and tugging at the hands of the soldiers. Another Hasan.
As you hurry home your throat is searing. It begs you to pass by the stall where you can drink Sahlep. You ignore it. You hurry home to prepare for tomorrow, for your journey, for your new life. When you have those things your voice will return of its own.
But as you approach your house you find everything in uproar. It is like a hot wind blowing in from the desert. You can hear your wife and your mother-in-law from down the street. People are blocking the doorway, neighbours, your wife's relatives. There are dozens. Your wife is wailing. What is going on? You take hold of the woman and try to get sense out of her. But she pays no attention. There must be another death, you think to yourself, another relative, another Hasan. From out of the throng your nephew paces towards you bearing the news. All this uproar, all this commotion, he tells you, is because it is your daughter's wedding day, because she has become a bride. He seems intoxicated. You look at him dumbfounded, lost for words. What does he mean, your daughter's wedding day? What is he talking about? How can she possibly have been married while you were gone? Who is her husband? Why were you not told of this? Your mind spins out of control and you no longer register the distress and hubbub about you. You suddenly have a vision of your daughter in a wedding dress, not a traditional wedding dress, but the white one of the West and on her head you see the black cap of your niece, the engineer, in her graduation video.
Then abruptly there is a detonation in your dream. You realise, but you don't want to realise. Your nephew is spouting a great diatribe into your face. It is your daughter's wedding day because your daughter has gone to join the band of martyrs, the occupiers are your enemies, the West is your enemy, they will be thrown out, they will be crushed. And your wife is wailing. The women from your family are wailing and tearing their hair.
You return to the agent the next day. Or maybe it is the day after, you are not sure anymore. You come to tell him that you no longer require papers for your daughter. Instead you need papers for your son. But he tells you that your daughter's money is already spent. It was her bride price.