Bob Majiri Oghene Etemiku
Abdul didn’t hear her say those words. But that’s what he imagined she would be saying to the men in front of her. She made the requests garnished with something that resembled a smile. And with the smile, a nod of her head and a bob of her hair followed. From where Abdul stood, he could see the whiteness of her teeth as her lips parted. While bending to look at the document, her eyes would brush through the person in front of her. And every once in a while, she would push back her bobbed hair before handing over the document and smile again — everything taking less than a minute with each person.
The group of men, women, and children standing on that line waiting for her were different shades of whiteness — cream, pink-white, white-white, and white like the white of Scandinavia — but all of the whitenesses before and behind Abdul could not come near the cherubim whiteness of Baba Cele’s gown. Baba Cele: the Spiritual Lord of hosts of the holiness of the Cherubim and Seraphim church at the back of Abdul’s house in Laos. His white robe lolling from his shoulders, even as it would upon King Solomon in all his array, seemed to have been vacuumed straight from the heavenly laundry house ordered by Angel Michael himself. A spectacle of holiness, that was Baba Cele; portly only in his belly and sporting a thick black beard on his chin, which had lost any kind of contact with any comb. Even the hair on his head could probably not recall what a comb looked like if it were asked to. Like the hair on Baba Cele’s chin, it too had lost the same kind of contact with a comb. But nobody was to know about that loss of contact of the hair on Baba Cele’s head with a comb for he always wore a chef’s cap on his head to hide all the facts of the hairs he carried on his head (one of the facts always on his head was from the bible: of the awaiting island in the skies populated by only seven comely virgins and…you know what, there was a mighty ocean for any kind of beer or booze or wine or whatever liqueur there to help him sharpen his appetite for the comely virgins…just imagine that for the whole of eternity…)
Abdul was the only black on that line. His black mop of his hair looked like soot from a pot sitting morning, afternoon and evening on a tripod, having its bottom licked vigorously by fire from village firewood. His mop of hair was like blight on freshly-vacuumed white linen from Rome. Ah, time in Venice, Abdul was reminiscing on one of the many times his mop of hair fetched him a tidy sum of euros and attention too.
The giggles come first. The first came from a demarcated coach in Venice one evening. Something seemed to have brushed through his mop-hair. No? As a youngster in Gunle he used to have a stubborn sore which was food for the flies. He often shooed the flies away from his sore with his hand, the way he just did askance and with an irritation. The giggler giggled once more. There was another brush or was that a hand touching his mop? Abdul turned quickly. Ah, there they were, the flies on his sore: two whitenesses staring at Abdul’s mop of a mountain of hair, as if Abdul’s was the eighth wonder of the world. He smiled at the two ladies behind and looked around him. All the whitenesses, with coiffures that were either strands or curls or carrot-tops, were sniggering or starring, or doing both. He turned from enjoying the stares. The whitenesses touched his mop again, this time more assured somewhat.
“That’ll be two euros, por favore.”
“Every touch is one euro. African hair you touch is one euro. Two times you touch is two euros.”
“Si”. The lady reached into her purse and stretched out her money to Abdul. “That is a wig, no?” She pressed Ola’s mop harder and gave it a little tug at his temples. It stood firm.
He hesitated, as if he was going to ask the lady to keep her money, that he too enjoyed this joke. “It’s my hair. African hair, the real one.” But he decided to accept the cash. “Gracia mille,” he said.
That day, Abdul left the coach, clutching the 25 euros the whitenesses paid him for touching his mountainous mop of African hair, giddy with wonder: how a joke can quickly turn into cash here. He felt like a prostitute but he shrugged it off, sporting a wicked smile.
Abdul had not always been like this. But it had taken two years to build this mop. There was to be no other way — underpants were no longer viable — but the foliage that went with it came with its burdens and joys. His first girlfriend wanted him to cut it off. He cut her off instead.
“You saw me like this… you liked me like this… and now you want me to cut off my hair because of you?”
She puckered her lips before dropping the bomb. “I saw you like this… I liked you like this… other girls will see you like this… they will like you as well.”
They broke up after that. This other girl sometimes looked at Abdul’s hair long before sighing.
“You look sad… what’s the problem?” Abdul asked her one day.
She sighed again before she said: “My father —“
“—He’s not well?”
“He’s fine… he’ll not like you… your hair.”
“That’s ok. I have a father as well who sees my hair and likes me just the way I am as his son.”
Abdul snapped out of his reverie — and inch by inch, it was getting to his turn to be told: “Papers, please!”
Little by little, he inched closer with his rucksack slugged on his back, the only piece of luggage he had. Perhaps she would smile at Abdul?
She froze as Abdul approached. He was still smiling, perhaps waiting to be smiled at in return.
This time Abdul heard the words. She said them as if she had sand in her mouth. Her smile had vanished, as if the words “papers, please” were the abracadabra responsible for the disappearance of the smile. The mellowness and cheer on her face just a few seconds ago, which she had offered everyone else, transformed, much the way milk transforms from its freshness to sourness. Her hair did not bob. She stood staring at Abdul.
Oh, it must be my hair. Or what was it? Did she know? Is it showing?
“Here.” Maybe she knows?
She barely looked at his bunch of papers. She kept staring at him: his hair. He returned her
gaze, and realised he was the one smiling.
“Where’re you from?”
“Where’re you headed?”
“It’s there on my passport.”
Her eyes slowly crawled from Abdul’s hair like a grown sloth just waking from sleep. But she let them focus on him a little longer while she scanned paper after paper, after paper. She looked at him a little longer before handing his papers back to him. She eyed him more and more, and the more she eyed Abdul, the more he smiled at her just the way the sun would after a violent storm. But the storm had only receded briefly. What seemed like pellets of ice started falling from behind him in snippets of Dutch, French, Russian, Finnish, Polish, Swedish, and Danish, and they rose above Abdul and the officer.
“Ok, you can go now… go, go.” She waved him off. Abdul strode along, poring over his flight ticket for Charles De Gaulle. He was still smiling. Abdul glanced at his watch as he strode on. 9:30.
He looked back to see his friend the lady officer speaking into a mouthpiece, the frost in her eyes still there. Abdul shrugged as he walked to the counter to be checked in for the 30-minute flight to Charles De Gaulle. His rucksack lolled on his back. It looked like a baby bonobo ape clinging to its mother’s back as she leapt from tree to tree.
He approached the desk clerk.
“Hi, please I’m supposed to be on the next flight to Charles de Gaulle.”
“Flight cancelled. You sit down. I will put you on next plane. Sit down please…”
Abdul shrugged once more, turned and made for the seats in the lounge. He didn’t know how long he had sat there on the metal couch in the airport lobby. After shifting here and there for some time, he glanced at his watch.
“10 o’clock…” he muttered to himself. He glanced at the flight-cancelled-you-sit-down lady, but she ignored him. She chatted with two of her colleagues who wore the same uniforms she wore. And every once in a while, they too cast glances at him and giggled wickedly. Abdul smiled and waved at them. They ignored him.
Abdul turned his attention elsewhere. The pair in front of him, an elderly couple, appeared deep in the papers they cradled in a way an old person would hold a grandchild. They seemed to be making a great effort to find out what the papers were saying. Abdul squinted, trying to see the language on the paper, but he was unsuccessful. He let go. Then, he looked about him. Hmmm, nice place. All of this looked like a Rolex. What was there was what was there: crisp, crisp, tick, tock, tick, tock… Abdul glanced at his watch again.
“11…!” Abdul nearly screamed. He glanced in the direction of the Flight-cancelled-you-sit-down-I-will-put-you-on-next-plane lady. But she was not at her counter. Nor were the others. Another was there. He approached.
“Hi, sorry to disturb you. Er, I was supposed to be on the 9:30 flight to Charles de Gaulle.” Sensing that the new lady was not paying him any attention, he banged his fist on her table.
“Hey, aren’t you the one I’m talking to?”
“No, not ‘’we’’, it’s me, Madam. I was supposed to have been on the 9:30 flight to Charles de Gaulle but the other lady here asked me to wait. She said that she’ll get me on the next plane, but she didn’t. What’s the problem with you people? This is already 11 o’clock. Please I don’t know anyone here and I must get on —“
“—She’s trying to get your attention. Entschuldigen is German for “Excuse me or Pardon me”.”
Abdul whirled around. There was a man standing behind him. He had a little smile just at the corner of his lips. “Please just have a sit down here while I talk with her. You missed your flight you say?”
Abdul nodded at him.
“Sit. Sit please. Let me handle this for you.” He was gentle. He looked nearly feeble. The glasses rested low on his nose. Abdul walked back to his seat and sat down. He looked at the pair converse easily. The new lady brought out a sheet of paper and showed it to the glasses. He nodded and walked back to Abdul.
“Sorry, I’m Alfred… airport security chief. I was sitting over there,” he pointed at a now empty seat, “and I couldn’t help noticing that you were in some kind of fix. She said you missed your flights?”
“Oh, yes. Twice now.”
“These things happen. Maybe there was a problem somewhere. See the paper she was showing me? Yes, it had your name on it. She said they had called your flight repeatedly.”
“That’s not true… I’ve been sitting here all this while—“
“Oh, I see. But how could I have known? I don’t speak or understand German.” There was a pause.
“You’re German, aren’t you, Alfred?”
“No, I’m not. I’m Canadian but I know a little German and a lot of French.”
“Ah, lucky you. I don’t understand any of those language. Sorry, my name is Abdul. Abdul Badmus. I’m from Naija.”
“Naija. I’ve heard a lot about that country of yours plenty.”
“Normal stuff. The good and the bad but mostly the bad.”
“Not all of that bad stuff’s true.”
“Yes.” Alfred didn’t seem to want to pursue the matter. “So what do you do?” he asked.
“I’m into real estate.” He said the ‘real estate’ positioning his mouth in a manner that suggested that real estate was something for bluebloods. “My company’s organised to have members of staff undergo training in French architecture. Our trainers are there and that’s where I’m headed. Actually, my hosts were supposed to meet me at Charles de Gaulle by 10.30, but see, see the time.”
Abdul thrust his left hand, on which his wrist watch was tied, at Alfred, his new-found friend.
“Hmm, terrible. But not to worry, the lady there’s assured me she’d personally let you know as soon as another announcement is made for you to board another plane.”
“Thanks Alfred.” As Abdul was talking, Alfred cocked his head to listen to the announcement booming over the internal broadcasting medium.
“That’s my ride. I am heading to Berlin. Will we see each other again?”
“I very much doubt it. After this training I’ll return home to mind my business. But I’ll love to get you something as a keepsake?”
“A keepsake you say?”
“Yes. See, its right here in my sack. Just hold on I’ll get it.” There was a bigger dose of a smile on Alfred’s face. A smile done in a way that did not let his teeth show. Alfred stood back to watch Abdul rummage through his rucksack.
“Here, have this.” He thrust a bundle at Alfred, who hesitated before accepting the bundle. It looked like a bundle, no, yes, it was a mass of clothes.
“What’s this, Abdul?”
“It’s from Naija. In Aruba, one our languages, it’s called Buba. Go on, try it on. Go!”
Abdul shooed Alfred to the gents. When he emerged from there, he had donned the buba, a top shaped like a T-shirt but made of fabric of various shades and colours. It looked good on him.
“Perfect. Looks as if they made it just for you. Now you can go back and try the shokoto. Actually we call these two pieces of fabric buba and shokoto.” A somewhat embarrassed-looking Alfred allowed himself to be goaded back to the gents. He came back in the complete outfit.
“Ah. Very good on you. Very smart.”
“Well, thank you very much, Mr. Abdul but I’ve got to go now. I heard the last call when I was in the gents.” He made to pull off the gear but Abdul restrained him.
“No, you can keep it. Keep it.”
“What? This must cost a fortune. You can’t be serious!”
“Yes, I am. And no, they’re not as expensive as you’d think. Besides I have a spare in my rucksack here. Yes, keep it, no, keep it,” Abdul gently urged Alfred on against his protestations.
“Thank you, Abdul, thanks. I don’t know whenever I’ll be able to visit you but is there an address, a phone or email I could reach you on, just in case?”
“Of course.” Abdul scribbled his number and email on a piece of paper.
Alfred took it and joined the queue. He looked back often at Abdul and with his eyes seemed to say, “Are you sure about this?” Abdul nodded back as well, as if to say, “Of course, my oyinbo friend.” Abdul stood watching Alfred as he walked into a cubicle. Then he sat. He looked at his watch again. He shifted here and there. Something was bothering him, as if time was of the essence. He looked in the direction of the new lady at the desk. Her attention seemed riveted at him, a little smile dancing on her lips.
“Are you sure about this? Surely, you’re not letting me have it?” It was Alfred. He had run back, panting.
“Yes, I said you could keep it!” A little note of irritation was in Abdul’s voice. “And if you don’t hurry, you’ll miss your flight like me.” Alfred smiled again and was off, waving at Abdul.
Abdul glanced at his watch again. A cool 15 minutes to go before the 12 o’clock plane was due to leave. There was time before he would remove the chip on his belt holding the plastic explosives sewn to his scalp. Seven whole virgins and a lake of wine in eternity! It was worth the gamble. They had promised to take care of his parents and sister Memunat after he was gone. At the Baba Cele church where all this started, the Mullah, Baba Cele, properly covered as a Cherubim and Seraphim preacher had assured him that a welcome party was already waiting in his honour. Boom and there would be a huge ball of fire in the sky and while all the infidels would start their journey to hell from the fire from the explosion in the sky, the virgins would meet him, scantily clad to ferry him to a banquet, all in his honour for his heroism. That’s the way to go. God be praised. He yawned and spread his legs out like a bored cat getting ready for a long nap.
He was not to see that Alfred was looking at him from the close circuit television in his vast office. Standing behind his huge desk, he preened himself. He looked again at Abdul from the CCTV on his desk. He adjusted his name tag on his vast table and murmured to himself, half smiling: “Colonel Franz Yakovlevich, head of airport security, always Alfred to the suspects.”
Colonel Franz Yakovlevich, Yakov for short, was born in Cologne, East Germany to Russian parents who lived there during the Cold War. His father, Major Igor Yakovlevich was only 15 when he joined the Nazi party, and later the storm troopers in 1924. At a very early age, Igor studied music and became a gifted pianist who played in clubs and bars. But he soon swapped his singing career for a not-so-singing one as Nazi riot leader, specialising in breaking up meetings of political meetings of opponents of the Fuehrer. In no time he became notorious and was known as the terror of Cologne. Two years after assuming this toga of notoriety, he was posted to Berlin to head the R.S.H.A – Chief Office for Reich Security. Before the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, Igor helped get his son, Franz drafted into the special counter terrorism unit of the BND — the intelligence service of East Germany, such that with the second unification of the two Germanys — east and west, he rose quickly, maybe because of his background or his education.
But before this draft into the BND, Franz studied at Eton, a school for children of the rich anywhere in the world. Under the circumstances, he polished his accent and assumed the airs of a well-bred Englishman. From the UK, he travelled to the United States, living in an apartment on East 71st Street, claiming to be a salesman. But indeed Franz had been approached by the KGB to work for them as an employee of the Soviet Trade Mission, to guard Russian materials at the New World Trade Fair. Over the years, he had earned the respect of his superiors in Muskin, so that when the Cold War came to an end, he continued to send valuable Intel to Muskin, posing as a counter-terrorist expert at the Hegel Airport, Germany. There was going to be a major hit, and his job was to see it through. The detonator was a black male, wearing a bomb sewn into his mop of hair.
He smiled revealing a set of teeth stained by years of inhaling smoke from his cigar. He always had his cigar whenever he wanted to execute a project of this magnitude. He typed something on the keyboard on his PC. Hmmm, perfect.
But how could he be sure if he didn’t get as close as he did to be that sure? When Gretel called him that morning to report sighting a man looking like one on their list of suspects, he swung to action. He had not allowed Abdul get on the flights he thought he had missed earlier. Alfred, or Colonel Yakov, took another close look. But he was still not sure.
“Ah, his email — Let me check.” He typed again on his keyboard. He kept typing and peering more and more at whatever the PC was telling him.
“A real estate guy, Abdul Karma, aged 32, lives in Laos, Naija. Now let’s see.”
He typed some more, and starred at the screen. There was something about this face. Had he seen this face somewhere before? Colonel Yakov pushed his name tag aside and pulled the computer a little closer. He stared at the hair. After a moment’s hesitation, he pressed a button on his table. A voice responded.
“A false alarm. Let him through on the 12 o’clock.”
“But Colonel, have you..?” the voice seemed to want to say something more.
“Sorry Colonel, what about his clothes?”
“Dumkopf, mind your business. And Monika?”
“Yes sir, Colonel?”
“Be nice to him as he boards.”
“Yes, Colonel Alfred, sorry, Colonel Yakov.”
He smiled and continued to preen himself as he looked at his image on the mirror on the wall.
20 minutes after, Abdul boarded the plane. But it was not as Abdul had imagined it. After he tugged at the lever hidden in his belt, intense pain ripped through his body and tore him apart from limb to limb — he did not see the ball of fire in the sky which propelled an apparition that looked like him and the other passengers to the afterlife. He did not see anything at first. There were no virgins and no booze. But the forms closing around him with clubs, knives, baseball bats, and daggers were unmistakable: all whitenesses.
FICTION AND NONFICTION
The Ship Breakers
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Bob Majiri Oghene Etemiku is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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