This story was published in today’s Guardian.
He filled up the tank before he left Kuwait City, filled it again at Qurriyat near the Saudi-Jordanian border. He stopped a couple of times for sandwiches and crisps, otherwise kept on driving through the flat desert with stereo playing and air conditioning humming. They waved him through the crossings after he’d waved his genuine Rolex and his heavy silver rings at them. Including border stops, the journey took eighteen hours. These days the world’s a small place, which is one of the Prophet’s Signs of the Hour – distances will disappear before the end comes.
Dusk was falling on Damascus when he arrived. Fumes rose from the minibuses and paraffin heaters and from people’s cigarettes and swirled up to meet the thickening night. Green lights and minarets shook on either side, and there were potholes in the asphalt. He didn’t bother checking into his hotel. He wanted to get straight to business.
He drove towards the mountain, through the centre of town. He followed a highway along the bed of a gorge. Here at last the barren melted against the power of potential fertility. A gurgling stream rushed beside the road, and there were trees and restaurants, sometimes dining rooms fatly bridging the water. He pulled in at a building more contemporary than the rest, a tall building fronted in metal and dark mirrors.
A smartly dressed youth sat behind the reception desk. Stairs to the upstairs rooms rose to the right. Two miniature trees sat potted on either side of the bottom step.
He looked at the youth, and straightaway asked, “Is Miss Dallal here?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
He chose not to pull rank. “No I don’t.”
“Just a moment, please. I’ll see if she’s not busy.”
While he waited he finger-combed his hair in the glass of the door. He’d left his briefcase on the back seat of the car, beside his overnight bag. One kind of business at a time.
She arrived in a black evening dress, holding a matching handbag out in front of her as if it might explode. Her gaze was intelligent, penetrative. Her body was well-curved but still sober and elegant.
“You wanted me?”
He told her his name. “People speak very highly of you,” he said. “They say you’re the best in the business.”
She received his hand delicately. It shook, not quite imperceptibly, within her grasp. He wasn’t so sure of himself, even with all these years of experience fitted under his straining belt, even with the insulation of his impressive company title.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s have a drink first. Then we can talk.” She swished in front of him, leftwards through the swing door to the bar.
A waiter pounced as they entered and ushered them through great wafts of noise to a table. He sat down and took his bearings. In the centre of the circular room women and girls were shuffling and kicking, fingers linked, on a dias. They revolved and paused and continued revolving in a reluctant sort of debke. But more were girls than women, most in their mid teens, their hormonal and depression-related skin problems overbrushed with pink plaster. Smiles on their faces, their eyes in mid-focus. Knee-length dresses and well-dressed cleavage, or buds of breast on some of them, dark spots erect like goosebumps, like nausea and fear.
One held the microphone and purred a tuneless lovesong to Iraq, her lost paradise. Surging synthesiser and an invisible drum backed her up. Each girl had a thick coil of black hair shimmering against the length of her back or brought over the crown of her head to be bumped and twitched like a curtain.
The place was packed with men who’d driven north from the Gulf states. He was embarrassed when he realised this. Some fanned wads of lira or riyal at the girls’ feet or sprayed the notes into strobing smoke. One man danced in front of the dias, shaking his robed hips, shaking his hands above his head, kuffiyeh stretched between them.
He was glad he was wearing his suit. He removed a tissue from the box on the table and wiped his brow with it. His substance becomes liquid at such ambient temperatures.
He ordered whiskey while she sorted through her bag. Lipids rattling in there, lubricants, balms.
He looked her carefully in the eye. “I’m an oil man,” he said, irrelevantly.
“Me too,” she said, smiling. “I have a degree in petrochemicals. Everybody in our family.”
Her eyes were green and flecked with gray. His eyes began to water. Blue gusts of smoke blew between them. Carbon and hydrogen were thick in this atmosphere.
The bottle arrived with two glasses.
“I’ve been to Iraq,” he said.
“I was lucky. I enjoyed it. It was before you invaded us.”
“I didn’t invade anybody.”
“Forgive me, Miss Dallal,” he chuckled. “You know what I mean.”
“So where did you go?”
“I worked at the Rumaila field.”
“My father worked on the Rumaila field.”
He unlidded his eyes. “Really? What was his name?”
“No! Abu Jasim? What a coincidence! I worked with him. He was a respected man. I know him well. Tell me how he is.”
“He’s dead, God have mercy.” She said it in a very flat and even tone, with the usual smile on her lips.
“My God. What happened?”
“Somebody shot him.”
His next question died in his throat. He took a swallow of whiskey. “God have mercy. But your mother is alive?”
“She is, thank God.”
“Thank God. And in good health I trust. You must send my best wishes.”
“Send them yourself. That’s her over there…”
He followed her slender finger across the jumping heads of the crowd to a woman who sat in the shadows. A late middle-aged woman in a white hijab, stiff-lipped, dessicated by tension, rigidly respectable. The only woman in the room wearing hijab. Scornful of the humid heat, she also wore a long blue overcoat. He looked at her briefly, hard, and then, for a long time, he stared at the table.
“Don’t you want to say hello?”
“I never met her,” he said. “The time isn’t suitable.” He sipped the whiskey. “Jasim, your brother. Is he alright?”
“No. God have mercy.”
He tapped the glass against his teeth.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said, and then more wistfully – “Do you think there’s a moral lesson in it?”
His brow sank in confusion. “A moral lesson?”
“It depends on the place, I suppose, and why he was there. As well as the time.…”
She talked and she kept talking. She talked as if she were compelled to let it out, all that material accumulated inside her and crushed into fuel for her speaking.
The corpses were trapped in her soul as in a sealed tomb. No worms in there to eat the memory and only the hardiest of bacteria, so putrefaction had been a slow business. The gases released during the process were caught, concentrated, and the remaining black essence had been distilled to an ever blacker, ever more tarry substance. This roiled and sludged between her spine and her sternum, under immense pressure. Now that a breach had been opened, it spurted upwards through her throat.
He let her go on, nodding, not properly listening, blinking smoke from his lashes. It was difficult to hear because of the music. He poured and sipped, drank until his chest was burning. Soon he would steer her back to business.
But he didn’t need to. She abruptly broke off and leant in close, laying her hand on his thigh. Surprised, he tensed the muscle there, shifting his bulk a little so the splayed-out flesh wouldn’t seem so flabby.
“It’s time to start the negotiation,” she said.
He swallowed. “I want everything,” he blurted next. He frowned at the table as he said it.
“You can have everything you want for twenty thousand.”
“I haven’t changed my dinars yet.”
“The equivalent then.”
“That’s fine,” he mumbled.
She stood up. “Come on. Let’s go upstairs.”
They left the salon arm-in-arm. Miss Dallal’s mother followed at a distance.