By Alat Asem, translated by Bruce Humes, and first published in issue 14 of Peregrine, an English companion to Chutzpah! magazine, June 2013, edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner.
Sidik Golden MobOff had turned his cell phone off again, so he was the only no-show for our evening tipple. The latter part of his double-barreled nickname, “MobOff,” was another tag pinned on him by his mates.
After he retired, his routine was to power off after an hour or so in the morning, and keep it off during the afternoon to avoid indulging with his meat-and-liquor sidekicks. This was in deference to Big Sister Roxian, his granny of a wife devoid of feminine appeal, who watched over him like a hawk. She’s ancient and her mouth is capable of the most vulgar invective, so it was no easy feat to catch a glimpse of our old brother’s crafty countenance.
If you went to his place to ask him out, from behind the slightly ajar door the crossgrained, eyebrowless mug of his deranged old lady appeared, her wild feline eyes glaring at you:
“I’m on the lookout, but I haven’t seen him either!” was her time-honored response.
Big Sister Roxian looks no different than the victim of a kidney heist—vindictive, as if today were the end of the world. She’s revolting.
One day as Sidik Golden MobOff and I enjoyed a quickie, I mentioned Big Sister seemed to be acting bizarrely. “The other day I saw her wipe the nose of a wild street dog with the money she was going to use for meat at the market,” I said. “Just give her the boot. It’s no big thing! They’ve calculated there are more women nowadays, and the only way to set the relations between the sexes right is to allot three females per male.”
“My wife’s old now,” said Sidik Golden MobOff. “She’s family. I can’t leave her.”
“Your thinking isn’t liberated. You still haven’t enjoyed the pomegranate-blossom young sisters of southern Xinjiang, those beauties who console the heart, nourish the body and feed the eyes,” I replied. “That old bag of a wife of yours cusses you out right in front of us. Haven’t you had enough?”
“I’m seventy-five this year,” said Sidik Golden MobOff. “How can I compare with a fiftyyear-old young rascal like you? When it comes to the wife, I don’t get philosophical. If I can coax my way to a full belly, that’s fine with me.”
My old lady objected to my hanging out with Sidik Golden MobOff. She said screwing around with him meant I was either busy imbibing horse piss—she never called it liquor—or unnaturally shortening my lifespan.
I’m peculiar, according to her. I don’t eat onions, won’t touch vinegar, and don’t make friends my own age. They’re clueless old scoundrels who wander the streets aimlessly, she says.
That’s something I can’t explain either. My pals are all hoary Living Treasures who drink little but talk plenty. But their loquaciousness is a good thing because their words are rich in experience they’ve paid for in tears, blood and money, and that’s free wisdom for my butt.
One concrete benefit I derived from Sidik Golden MobOff’s example is that now when I arrive at home after work, I turn off my mobile before entering. Leaving it on can be a hassle. One time after I’d returned home and eaten, a bunch of con artists, newcomers and old hands, called to invite me out for a drink, claiming they’d got their hands on some fine brew stashed away—during the pre-1949 republican period, they claimed—in the cellar of the Dry Field Slope Thousand Buddha Caves.
I went with a clear mind but returned wasted like a madman. I called my old lady “Miss” and spent the whole night messing with her as if she were a hooker.
But there’s worse yet. Another time when I was tipsy, pictures of my lover flooded my mind and I imagined I was lying on a hotel bed phoning her out of the blue. But it was inconvenient for her to speak. “You’ve got the wrong number,” she informed me, “my number is 2828228,” which sounds just like Uyghur for “is man here is man here is is.” The other party was subtly warning me, but it just didn’t compute and I doggedly kept trying to make a date to meet in some hotel.
My old lady had two big arguments with me over those misdeeds. When I got over my drunk I wouldn’t own up to it. I didn’t know anything about the day before, I pleaded; that guy wasn’t me, it was my shadow.
She said she wanted a divorce. “What’s this about marriage and divorce? They’re all money games,” I replied. “I bought you with money, and you can’t go anywhere. You’re the night lamp that will shine on me forever.”
She grew more resolute with each passing day, and it wasn’t easy to mollify her. I played dumb at first and then admitted that yes, I’d been drinking, but as for calling that girl, even if Tianshan Mountain collapsed, I couldn’t admit to that.
At times like those, a man’s greatest talent lies in his ability to bamboozle his wife. “If I dare let this occur a third time, then I’ll jump in the River of the Western Regions and end my life,” I swore. But she wouldn’t allow me to say anything inauspicious. “Then I won’t go anywhere deep, just somewhere marshy, hop up and down and leave it at that.”
But later I got back on the straight and narrow and didn’t dare mess around again. Years of experience have taught me that when a husband is unfaithful, it can incite his dutiful wife to abandon her principles and seek blind revenge. In this murky process, the woman is unwittingly sullied. The family’s eventual breakup won’t hinder the birth of the next generation, but the emotional scarring of her children is a source of lifelong regret for the mother.
Here’s my guiding principle: If you have a thief’s heart, you must have a thief’s principles.
And the best thief is the one who never gets nabbed.
Like that canny thief, Sultan Cotton & Rice. For years now he hasn’t lived or dreamt clean, but that old swindler is still as prosperous as ever, and heaven knows what’s stored inside his noxious intestines.
Sultan Cotton & Rice was the sole person to be spared one of Sidik Golden MobOff’s verbal lashings, and when he revealed the man’s secret to me, I was startled by his earlier silence.
It was out of character. Sidik Golden MobOff was not a tolerant man, but when it came to Sultan Cotton & Rice, he might as well be a different person entirely. Over and over I asked him the reason behind his reticence, but his lips remained sealed. As soon as I mentioned it, he’d remark that the horse tripe at the farmer’s market were the tastiest, let’s go have a drink!
In the early days Sultan Cotton & Rice was in the rice business at the border, and he was nicknamed “Rice,” because if you yelled for “Sultan” pure and simple, a bunch of smiling Sultans would turn their heads in response.
Later on he illicitly unloaded big batches of his friends’ cotton lint on unwitting clients, and fled across the border. That was a big amount of money and his friends chased him to Almaty in Kazakhstan, so he ran off to Russia. His friends chased him to Russia, so he ran off to France where he had a face-job done and changed his name to “Ablayob,” a hybrid appellation often used by the Uyghurs who settled in Almaty a century ago. The key lies in the “-yob” at the tail-end that gives it an exotic air.
He returned to Almaty where he lived for a decade and took foreign citizenship, and after he moved back to Xinjiang he invested in several markets at the border crossing.
Just one person knew Sultan Cotton & Rice’s true identity, someone known as Savvy Wahap, a Russian interpreter and unofficial sleuth, and he spilled the beans to Sidik Golden MobOff.
“Brother,” said Sidik Golden MobOff, “from ancient times practitioners of translation have been many-eared. You should take this secret and piss it into the Taklimakan Desert forever. Don’t even tell a ghost. That would be playing with your life. If Ablayob gets wind of it, he’ll hire people to gouge our eyes out.
“Just now I heard nothing. I’m deaf and blind. I didn’t see you. I’m an idiot and I don’t know you. What’s the key to happiness? Learning how to be simple-minded.”
Sidik Golden MobOff locked this secret away in his belly. Word had it that the authorities were cognizant of this secret, but given that Sultan Cotton & Rice had invested in those marketplaces, they didn’t bother removing his mask. Even shortly before his death, I still hadn’t figured out what kind of blood ran in Sidik Golden MobOff’s veins.
UNCHARACTERISTICALLY, I DIDN’T power off today. Nijat the Drunkard overindulged and got lost, so I left my phone on for him. We had gathered for a drink ostensibly because Nijat the Drunkard, or “Haircut”—his temporary nickname—had had his beard trimmed, so he was picking up the check. We’re creative when it comes to an excuse for satisfying our craving for booze.
The conversation was good and the laughter boisterous. Everyone drank to excess, got affectionate and talked dirty. When the guests rose, brushed off the seat of their pants and began to depart, someone began crooning a love song. The memory of the unattainable sweet grapes of his youth and the crickets in his belly reignited his yearning, and only through song could he cajole those bugs back to sleep.
There was cursing outside on the street—someone who naïvely believed he was singing an ode to the Inventor of Liquor—while someone among us denounced Sidik Golden MobOff, grumbling that the older he got the shiftier he became, keeping his cell off 24/7, and not even honoring us with an appearance.
When we exited the restaurant, our host Nijat the Drunkard was nowhere to be seen. I dispatched his mates to look for him in the nearby drivers’ hostels. He likes those earthy places mainly because of the foreign furnaces that burn smokeless coal. Everyone gathers round the iron-skinned heater and chews the fat. It’s cozy and the warmth penetrates to every spot on the body, setting your acupuncture points on fire.
But more to the point, he likes to shoot the breeze with the drivers and listen to their tales. But Nijat the Drunkard wasn’t in any of the hostels, and it was freezing cold, so we broke up and went home to sweet-talk our wives.
The next day the news making the rounds was that Nijat the Drunkard had left our VIP compartment for the lavatory, where he burst into song. But when he came out he couldn’t locate the stairway and began turning in circles like a crazed bull, so a big-bellied cook led him to a stairwell in the back and showed him out of the building.
Nijat the Drunkard heaved a long sigh, turned around, faced the cook, extricated his family jewels with considerable difficulty, and prepared to belt out another tune.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked the cook.
Nijat the Drunkard sobered up somewhat, feeling a tad more lucid now due to the cold. “Chief, you don’t mind if I give my piece a look, do you?”
“Look at your own piece? What if you get frostbite? Go home and check it out!”
“I just wanted to make sure it’s still there!”
“Rest assured,” said the cook, “as long as you’re around, you won’t misplace it.”
But after they parted, Nijat the Drunkard didn’t go home. Suddenly obsessed with the thought of his lover, he arrived at her door and banged on it energetically.
Her husband Rostam opened the door. Nijat the Drunkard’s eyes opened wide. “Fucking donkey piss!” he yelled. “Your heart’s bigger than your brain. How dare you sleep with my woman!”
Enraged, Rostam strode over and landed a punch squarely on his nose, followed by a kick, and Nijat the Drunkard tumbled to the ground. Just when Rostam had lifted his foot to stamp on him, his wife came running out and hugged him.
“Rostam, don’t be stupid, he’ll end up dead! I don’t know this jerk.”
Having absorbed a punch and a kick, Nijat the Drunkard was thinking much more clearly, and he dragged himself to his feet and ran off.
At midnight my mobile rang. I felt under the pillow for my warm Nokia, activated the screen and glanced at it with an eye still fuzzy from sleep. It was Sidik Golden MobOff’s number. I closed my eyes and listened, wondering why the old trickster wasn’t asleep at this hour.
Strange. There was silence on the other end.
Suddenly over the mobile came a gut-wrenching, forlorn bawl. “Brother, my daddy’s dead!” cried Mulik, the elder son of Sidik Golden MobOff.
Stunned, I opened my eyes and saw for a moment the face of Sidik Golden MobOff, obstinate, crafty and sage.
“Little Brother,” I said, “What are you babbling about? What’s happened?”
“Father dropped dead.”
“Wait. I’ll be right there!”
The weather was still glacially cold and I waited a long time before a pirate taxi pulled up.
When I entered Sidik Golden MobOff’s home, no one was weeping. There were just his four sons, and his grandson Hal whom he had kept by his side, kneeling silently in a corner of the living room. As our centuries-old custom dictates, they were saving their tears for dawn. It would be unthinkable for there to be no wailing when the other mourning Muslims arrived to offer condolences.
Faces pale and eyes adrift, his sons shook hands with me and then tearfully recounted, one by one, their father’s abrupt death.
My attention was focused on Hal, Sidik Golden MobOff’s eldest grandson, who sat in a daze on the carpet, crying mutely, because I knew about Sidik Golden MobOff’s recent situation. In the last few days, his wife had taken their granddaughter to the countryside for a relative’s wedding. Hal was living at their place and was his caretaker, so he was the only one who knew the real story.
After I had posed a few questions to the others, it was his turn to speak. “We ate out in the afternoon and it got dark right after we returned. I went back home to wash up, but when I returned I found Grandfather lying motionless on the carpet. He often teased me like that, so I tugged at him a few times, but I realized something was wrong and I called Father and we took him to the hospital.”
“What did the doctor say?”
“That it was too late to save him,” replied Hal sadly.
“Didn’t he say anything about an illness?”
My legs went limp and my mind went blank, and for a moment I couldn’t find the right words. The atmosphere hardened till the room felt like a huge tomb, interring everyone’s spiritual bonds.
Led by Mulik, I entered Sidik Golden MobOff’s bedroom. A white shroud covered his corpse, and hanging on the wall was his portrait by Malik, the master oil painter. Many were those who appreciated neither Sidik Golden MobOff’s behavior nor his temperament, but the Master counted as his only soul mate.
The painter ridiculed those who reproached the man behind his back. “You’re all complacent materialists. But Sidik Golden MobOff is a man of self-awareness, the kind of selfawareness that would reap dividends in any era. He was born two centuries ahead of his time.”
I admire the portrait and once tried to assess it critically, and I found that the Master had indeed captured Sidik Golden MobOff’s spirit. Concealed in his expression were the ancient myths of our land, and his longing for mortal life danced in his eyes.
When I reached the bed and halted, Mulik read my thoughts and pulled back the white shroud covering his father’s corpse. Sidik Golden MobOff lay peacefully on the bed. His forehead shone, but secreted between his eyebrows was a mysterious string of thoughts.
This sublime Big Brother of mine shall rest like that forever.
As I observed the complex wrinkles on his face, I began to ruminate. While alive, he often prayed that Allah grant him a quick and easy death. To spend years bedridden, imposing on one’s family yet unable to check out, that would be genuine Hell.
As is our custom, a white cloth under his chin was tied to the top of his head. My tears flowed silently. I couldn’t believe this was real. Such a long life, a complex soul, terminated just like that? How could he leave our world so abruptly?
I returned to the living room and knelt down on the carpet, but I couldn’t control my thoughts. I asked myself: What is life? Life should be a very strong, durable rope. How could this rope snap just like that? There should be a process in which it is worn down and weakened by the violent forces of nature—a warning period.
“We’ve sent a car to pick up mother,” announced Mulik.
My mouth didn’t speak, but my subconscious did: A couple this old should always accompany one another. When one party casts aside the other to act independently, the price paid isn’t time spent apart. It’s life itself.
“Send out word of the loss now,” I said. “If anyone asks, just say it was a cerebral hemorrhage. You all need to stick to the same story. No official cause of death? That won’t do!”
But deep in my gut what bothered me was, why didn’t his sons demand some kind of an explanation for his death from the doctor?
After the funeral we buried Sidik Golden MobOff in the best public cemetery. By best, I mean there are water and trees among the tombs, a landscaped garden.
But wangling the spot for the grave itself took some doing. I sought out several acquaintances and had to disembowel my innermost intestines—the ones inside my intestines’ intestines—in order to obtain a plot, because I owed it to his soul to make a good showing, to win respect for his spiritual successor from the living who continued to badmouth Sidik Golden MobOff.
Human beings, alive and dead, cannot do without the soil’s support. Mute yellow soil has nourished humankind since time immemorial, but despite their gift of speech, humans rarely express their gratitude.
The way I put it, I am familiar with the belly inside Sidik Golden MobOff’s belly, and I know every twist and turn of his intestines. With the passing of Big Brother, our place here has lost a unique spectacle.
Many people spurn the very footsteps he left behind, but to my soul’s understanding, he was the sly operator who, amidst our lamentations, made us aware of what was in the people’s interest, and pointed the way to righteousness; he was the devil whose eyes could penetrate walled labyrinths. Thanks to his flesh-and-blood critiques of people and affairs, his was the sole voice of reason within this city.
In a world of snow and ice, buses began to budge and Muslims began to discuss Sidik Golden MobOff in hushed tones.
One comment reached my ears from a bus seat behind me. “In summary, this deceased mate of ours was a rather odd fellow, and the words at my disposal are insufficient to dissect his temperament.”
An old gentleman seated in front of me, sporting a modest, not fully white beard with intermingled deposits of grey (like the striped skin of a Xinjiang cantaloupe), had an amiable look about him. He sighed at length, and pronounced: “Folk good and bad both die, but the bad all die in wintertime.”
I didn’t speak out immediately, because the people in this place live according to longstanding custom. If someone has a beard, you bite your tongue and offer up a smile, even if you are the one endowed with heavenly wisdom.
I once remarked to Sidik Golden MobOff that this is the kind of place where bearded men aren’t friendly, and friendly men don’t wear beards. He said that beards represent time, and friendliness is greed, and it’s all one and the same.
But at the time I couldn’t help myself. “Esteemed Elder Brother,” I said, “pardon me, for I’m young and unbearded. But hearing what was just said, the heart itches and the mouth is hot, and I also want to say a word or two.
“As young as I am, I count not a few friends among Elder Brothers, and know truckfuls of knowledgeable Gentlemen and lesser types, and I’ve chewed on my share of ancient books and works by current authors, but I’ve yet to hear this adage: ‘The bad all die in the wintertime.’ Pray tell, Elder Brother, are you a university genius, or an Immortal from a seat of learning in the Heavens?”
Elder Brother turned around and looked me straight in the eye. “Whom do you take yourself for?”
“A person complete with a nose, ears and eyes.”
“You’re still young,” said Elder Brother. “When you’ve lived to my age, come look for me again.”
“But what if, by that time, you’ve kicked the bucket suddenly during the winter, what then?”
Elder Brother turned toward me again. “Of which family are you the child?”
“I am the child of other people.”
“Go ahead and ask any one on this bus,” said Elder Brother. “Did that devil Sidik Golden MobOff ever utter one sentence of human speech? If he didn’t die in the winter, would he have died in some heavenly summer?”
“Since he was such a terrible man, why did you take part in his funeral?” I queried.
“You’re still young. When you reach my age, you’ll understand.”
“Allah willing,” I said. “During my lifetime, I hope never to learn how deep the rot in your gut extends. When a human life ends, others should pray for its soul. In reality, that is for our own protection, for each of us is basically nothing. Just how filthy our behinds are, we know in our hearts. Even the moon is spotted!”
“What nonsense,” said the silver-bearded Elder seated in the front row. “What day is today? Kindness is the greatest of virtues. Who dares bicker like this concerning the soul of a departed being?”
Suddenly listless, no one uttered a word.
I felt that Sidik Golden MobOff was still living among us. This comforting sentiment clouded my judgment, and I began to suspect that his death wasn’t due to the customary summons from Allah.
“Don’t get obsessed with mysteries,” said Nijat the Drunkard. “Blind suspicion will cost you your objectivity. Sidik Golden MobOff lived seventy-five years, his fair share, so let’s spend what’s left of our time remembering him fondly. If we all died within a certain period of time, or we were vaporized only after we lost control of our faculties, who’d remember any of us fondly?”
“But his passing was very mysterious,” I argued. “A perfectly normal fellow who died without warning. Death should proceed like this: you catch a cold that leads to an illness, check into the hospital, discover one or more brand-name ailments have taken up residence within your esteemed body, beseech a renowned surgeon to operate, exhaust your savings, learn from the doctor that there’s no cure, get carried back home and pampered and given whatever you like to eat, and then your relatives, friends and best mates come to visit, final farewells are bid, but you hang on for a few days and shut your eyes for good at sunset, whereupon your relatives commence their wailing—that is death true to its name!”
“But the Angel of Death is no mate of ours,” said Nijat the Drunkard, “and doesn’t give you a heads-up.”
I went home, lay down on my bed, and recalled my past with Sidik Golden MobOff. At seventeen we were already friends. I was attracted by how weird and distinctive he seemed, and by his reputation and unique reasoning and lingo. He was my shifu who taught me how to quaff a shot of liquor.
Back then he didn’t have his “Golden” moniker yet, but the country’s doors opened eventually and he took the opportunity to leave, and returned with his trademark gold in place.
His youngest brother Bakri lived in Almaty. He had left with their father a few years earlier, but you could say he was lured abroad. At the time it seemed as if our city was a mouthpiece for foreigners, where people vaunted foreign lifestyles and the moonlight of neighboring countries. Over there was a virtual paradise of cars, villas and pretty women—a paradise for each and every person.
People abandoned their houses and possessions by the hordes, rushing to exit the country with the passion and fervor of would-be hajji setting out for Mecca.
In that refreshing foreign land, they gradually found that a word followed them closely and began to affect their lives and spiritual longings. “Immigrant” was the courteous appellation, but in alleyway bars the term was “drifter.”
Only then did they raise their heads and realize that there was just one sun in the sky, and when they lowered their heads to observe the lives of their neighbors, they discovered their pans were round too, and they ate the familiar five cereals, not foodstuffs from other planets. Most terrifying of all was the need to unquestioningly accept being disposed of at will by the local government, the threat of massacres and even betrayal of the land that had nurtured them from infancy.
And so, in those bizarre times, relatives who held their ground back home in the Motherland put lyrics to one song after another, chanting them from memory inside cozy little lodgings alongside the River of the Western Regions that came straight out of an oil painting.
One set of popular verses went like this:
Beloved, lovely and lucky kin of ours:
Whither your strands, your dreams, your paradise?
Like unfeeling fall leaves, you discarded us:
Whither your yesteryear’s paradise?
It was around this time that Sidik Golden MobOff renewed contact with his brother in Almaty and traveled there, accompanied by his wife. With things just beginning to thaw after so many years, Sidik Golden MobOff hadn’t dreamed of leaving the country to visit his younger sibling.
But one day Islam, the head of the Neighborhood Management Office, came looking for Sidik Golden MobOff and wanted him to contact his brother. Now the government was encouraging citizens to visit their relatives who lived abroad.
Sidik Golden MobOff brought all sorts of gifts across the border to his brother, as well as Xinjiang specialties and porcelain tableware that sold for a handsome profit. This was at his brother’s suggestion. “Our reunion is an opportunity for us both, and Allah made me wait for this day to arrive,” said Bakri. “As long we’re alive, there is hope. The nation has opened its gates. From here on in, money talks, and we need to learn how to use it to arm ourselves.”
But the problem was that you couldn’t exit with a large amount of cash, so Bakri suggested that his brother be fitted with several false teeth before his visit. He could have them replaced with gold-filled ones during his visit, and after his return he could have them extracted and sold.
When we got word that Sidik Golden MobOff was going to come back across the border, a few of our mates and I went to greet him. When we saw his mouth stuffed with golden teeth some of us were startled, some guffawed, and others stared speechless. The unspoken thought of the gapers was that most men with gold inlays are suffering from dysentery and having lost their sex drive, are reduced to playing with pretty girls like dolls.
“Congratulations on your gold teeth,” said Nijat the Drunkard as we dined at the eatery owned by Mardan the Steamed Stuffed Bun. “A man with a kisser full of gold glitters. You’re the first in our city, and your mouth is auspicious!”
“These gold teeth aren’t mine,” said Sidik Golden MobOff. “I brought them over to help a friend.”
“Big Brother has many ways of doing a good deed,” I said, “and even the space inside your mouth has not gone unused.”
“Teeth are a good thing and their owner never tires of using them. A man should make use of all his organs,” he concluded.
“Great,” said Nijat the Drunkard. “He’s never had a decent nickname, but this mouthful of gold teeth is a wish come true. Let’s call him ‘Sidik Gold Teeth.’”
“That’s a little too direct,” I said. “Just ‘Golden’ sounds better.” One week later he had his metallic molars removed and sold, but the “Golden” tag stuck to him for the rest of his life.
As I lay on my bed, my mind was still fixated on that conundrum: Big Brother’s death was extraordinarily mysterious. How can a man—like a duck or a pigeon—die at the drop of a hat?
In the depths of my belly and intestines, I began to search for those people with whom Big Brother had issues, or who even hated him.
The year of his run-in with Dr. Hamit was a record-breaker. The city’s residents, aged from seven to seventy, all remember their names and those hush-hush matters, and that vendetta is imprinted in both men’s minds.
Dr. Hamit is our city’s miracle physician. The people know his name for he is a master surgeon whose charmed scalpel has saved many a soul bound for extinction.
One of his cases was commented and marveled at by the stove, in bed and under it too:
Salam, a lathe operator in a factory, misused his machine and as a result accidentally severed his own finest equipment. His superior wrapped up the blood-soaked darling and dispatched it and its owner to the hospital where Dr. Hamit promptly salvaged it, reattaching Salam’s beloved in the shortest delay possible. But in terms of length and hardness, it was no match for its erstwhile self.
When Salam checked out from the hospital, Dr. Hamit suggested that he go home and give it a spin, and report back on how it performed, for the doctor was keen to open a special dossier on the case.
Salam went back and cajoled his wife to try it out, but her face filled with terror, for she feared that thingamajig wasn’t sewn firmly in place and might detach inside her, which would be a really big hassle. So they started cautiously, but eventually he lost control and ended wildly.
But nothing had gone awry, and a joyful Salam came back to see the doctor. “Brother Hamit, everything’s superb. I want to thank you with all my heart! If I didn’t have this thing of mine, I’d have to piss squatting like a bitch. Would I still be a man then? I’d be so ashamed I wouldn’t even know where to go to end my life!
“But I do have one request: It’s five centimeters long now. Can you extend it by a few centimeters?”
“That would be difficult,” cautioned Dr. Hamit. “Principally because we don’t possess the requisite raw materials. And it wouldn’t be scientific to lengthen it. For an injured limb, shorter is better.”
When word of this case history spread among the people, some took it at face value while others thought it was a clever fiction, considering that his darling had been sliced off and could hardly be reattached with a sewing machine. It’s a chunk of flesh, not underpants or a skirt.
I had my doubts back then too, so I queried Dr. Hamit about it at a wedding banquet. Speaking with gravity, he confirmed there had been such a case history. “That guy Salam’s hopes were unrealistically high. He came to see me several times with a load of cash, and he wanted me to lengthen that piece of his a wee bit. But was that possible? Where could we source the raw material?”
Afterwards war broke out between Big Brother and the doctor, and I reckon the blame lies with Big Brother. As I’ve said before, he was envious, even abnormal, and that’s how those documents came to be bound into a dossier.
Big Brother got his hands on ten pages of dirt and shed the light of day onto the private affairs of Dr. Hamit, exposing them to every nook and cranny of the city.
Back then I had a spat with him over this: What right did he have to vilify Dr. Hamit? “The red packets he accepted were an expression of gratitude and respect on the part of the patients’ families. He obtained his medical know-how through study, and he didn’t ask for the money, so what’s it to you?”
“He accepted money from the poor,” retorted Big Brother. “Doesn’t his conscience know the meaning of shame? And he lives extravagantly. Doesn’t he fear Allah’s chastisement on Judgment Day?”
“Are those poor people relatives of yours? I asked.
“That just reveals your childishness,” said Big Brother, “only people who survive on leftovers from others speak like that. My Brother, please remember: I speak on behalf of the River of Human Decency. None of us can separate ourselves from this waterway. Ensuring it flows purely and smoothly is something that each soul with a clear conscience must do.”
“How could I live and not dare to speak out, covering my mouth before the sun as if it were my ass? When the Angel of Death approaches and we implore Allah to forgive our misdeeds, if I hadn’t struggled against this sort of person, could I hold my head high before the earth’s cereals, roasted lamb and fine liquor? Could I face the sun that nurtures us?”
“Then why didn’t you pass those documents of yours to the authorities?” I asked.
“It’s not as simple as that,” said Big Brother. “I wanted to blacken his reputation in the eyes of the people. No matter how superior his medical skills, if someone is greedy and devoid of a merciful heart, then he has no call to be proud of himself.
“What’s more, some civil servants who live off grain dispensed by the emperor are accustomed to covering each other’s butt. So that was the only way to humble him in public and let the people judge for themselves if my revelations rang true.
“I know about the particular situations of several poor people. It’s because this moneycrazed doctor demanded a red packet from one poor fellow that he sold all his livestock, and others have been forced sell off half their family’s courtyard.
“Are we supposed to sympathize with these people with our mouths alone? No, we should recount their anonymous stories and reveal their fate to everyone, and let the masses know: Dr. Hamit isn’t the magnificent type he’s cracked up to be on TV. That would help the poor. The rich are free of trouble, while the poor can’t climb out of troubles on their own.
“If I, a so-called salaried intellectual, just laze away and don’t speak out, can I call myself a human being? Even these liquor bottles would curse me.”
Big Brother let me see his incriminating dossier, and it was earnestly penned and venomous. His comments were expressed in toxic and inflammatory language. He listed the doctor’s assets and even dragged his wife’s pet dog into the fray. He used every pernicious phrase in the database and distributed his damning dossier in the district where Dr. Hamit resided, as well as every lane and hidden alley in the city.
Gossip raged like wildfire: How in the heavens could a doctor on a state salary own five mansions, two upmarket sedans and a taxi company? How could he have so much money?
But those partial to him retorted, how could you be a doctor without money? How could you update your medical know-how? That was all farting in the wind.
Doctor Hamit read the file and was ready to sue Sidik Golden MobOff, but his friends dissuaded him. “Don’t fall for this,” they warned. “The day you take him to court, Golden MobOff will have achieved his goal. He intends to bring this to society’s attention and force you to explain the origin of your assets before a judge. That would be a deadly move on his part, because you are The People’s Doctor and you can’t accept bribes.”
The most unbearable thing for Dr. Hamit was the way Big Brother slapped his wife
Busaram in the face, recounting how well she fed her pricey imported pet, and had its teeth fitted in gold caps each time she took it out for a walk. The dog would circle its master and proudly curl its lips to parade its glitzy dentition, complementing Busaram’s status as a member of the elite monied class.
But this flaunted their wealth in a way that upset the people’s feelings. In a society where many people still possessed no gold, if she gilded her pet’s teeth, in the future could the head of this family distinguish between dog food and human food?
Dr. Hamit agreed to see me. I respected him a lot, principally due to his skills as a physician. He had saved many critically ill patients over the last two decades. At that time there were no red packets, but now there are, and that’s other people’s money, so for Big Brother to yank down the doctor’s pants to inspect his family jewels wasn’t right.
“Just what kind of a fellow is that Big Brother of yours?” asked the doctor. “Bring him over some time and I’ll give him a thorough check-up. There’s definitely something wrong with his mind.”
“It’s not just his mind,” I said, “he has problems everywhere. I’d put it like this: if someone invites him for a drink, he sings like a nightingale and flits like a butterfly, but if he’s paying, his eyes emanate rubbish.
“His intestines are a few hundred meters longer than your average person’s. His potbelly is crammed thick with sleaze. As for those incriminating dossiers of his, best treat them like a garbage dump. ‘Dogs are prone to bark, but the camel caravan marches ahead.’”
On the way back, it occurred to me: Could this guy be the one who did in Sidik Golden MobOff?
The night of his death, Big Brother went for a drink with his friend Momin Back ‘n’ Front on the pretext that the latter wanted his will translated from Uyghur into Chinese, and Big Brother intended to charge 500 yuan for the document. But Momin Back ‘n’ Front was unwilling to cough up that sum, so Big Brother told him to find someone else, he couldn’t be of service.
“But we’re friends, lifelong friends,” protested Back ‘n’ Front.
“We’re friends of the mouth, not of the heart,” said Big Brother. “I want payment for psychological reasons, not because money is honey. When I’ve translated it and printed it out, I’ll treat you. That means I’ve triumphed, I’m sharper than you.”
“Back ‘n’ Front” is Momin’s nickname and it was Big Brother who dubbed him that. It’s an insulting sobriquet: It means his front and back are identical because he doesn’t possess a love machine.
They battled one another with tongue and brain in the same trench, but they were never bosom buddies.
In our community, the only person who excelled at translating Uyghur into Chinese was Big Brother, and this was the inexhaustible source of his arrogance and aloofness. His colleagues and fellow students all granted him this; he never lost the knowledge of Chinese he acquired fifty years ago, while his erstwhile classmates have exhausted theirs and can no longer put it to good use.
One year a friend visited from Beijing, a man of culture who researched poetry. We’d just downed two shots when Big Brother began showing off, quickly winning him over and joining him in the liquor’s sway. As I filled their glasses and observed the points where Big Brother was brilliantly sweet-talking my Beijing friend, I had to chuckle. Big Brother was a psychologist and a gifted con artist.
He began by reciting the poems left by the High Commissioner Lin Zexu when he was banished to Xinjiang’s Ili for his role in China’s defeat by Britain in the Opium War. Big Brother first rendered them in Uyghur, explicating the brilliant word choices in his rhyming scheme, and then recited poems by Li Bai and Su Dongpo and touched on the status of translations of these revered ancient poets’ works into Uyghur.
When they had finished off their third round, Big Brother raised his head and announced, proudly and mysteriously, that he had been writing a thesis now for five years, focusing on the accomplishments of Li Bai’s verse, the key point of his argument being that Li Bai was Uyghur. His background in the Western Regions and the intrepid spirit of his poetry were proof of that point.
I couldn’t help but chortle and turned toward my Beijing friend. “This Big Brother of ours is very witty. No sooner do his lips touch liquor than he speaks like an alien from outer space!”
A few days before when we were entertaining a group of Shanghainese guests, Big Brother had proclaimed that the twentieth-century poet Guo Moruo was Uyghur. As long as he was imbibing, any famous personality could be Uyghur.
“Admirable, admirable!” gushed my Beijing friend. “It’s a pleasure to meet someone so knowledgeable.”
Big Brother cupped his hands before his chest in the traditional Chinese fashion. “You flatter me!”
But he had achieved his goal, for this was the desired effect.
He sought any locale that allowed him to flaunt his talents and unleash all the wisdom at his command. How he packaged himself depended on the venue. When his fellow Uyghurs were present, he bragged about his knowledge of history; if more sophisticated persons were there to stop his half-filled bottle from sloshing, he’d extemporize with an historical allusion of his own making, jabbering something about how he had read this or that Chinese classic, thereby silencing his interlocutor—because those Uyghurs who understand Chinese are few, and even rarer are those who can read the classical form.
When Han friends were present, he’d recite the verse of famous poets. All of this was capital accumulated in his university days thanks to his diligence. His fees for composing a formal complaint in Chinese, as well as translating from Uyghur to Chinese, were all very high because no one in the community could top him in these matters.
Another secret need he had was for money. In his elder years, hard cash was very important to him because his old lady didn’t give him any spending money, since she feared he’d squander it on firewater. The first few years of his retirement, he kept his own bank card to withdraw his salary, but later he got roundly soused a few times and his wife confiscated his card and refused to give him any allowance.
So he depended on remuneration from his copywriting and translations to quench his thirst for spirits. Several places in the city offering printing services had his mobile number, and as soon as there was an order, he went over and translated the text. In the summer he could earn a few hundred yuan each day, but precious little in wintertime, so during the cold months he depended on the summer money he’d accrued behind his wife’s back.
He used to hide the money in a tiny pocket inside his underpants. He sought out underwear equipped with one of those concealed pockets, stuffed the cash in it, zipped it up and had it keep company with his dear old family jewels to console his desire and small-time ambitions.
But eventually his wife discovered his secret so he began passing his earnings to me for safekeeping. I applied for an ATM card with his birthdate as the password, and whenever cash was deposited or withdrawn, he received an SMS on his mobile clearly showing the amount.
He was very pleased with this. “You’re a walking stick that Allah has given me in my old age,” said Big Brother, “one equipped with a brain that can think.”
Later on Big Sister Roxian simply wouldn’t allow him out. When she left to buy groceries, she’d lock the door and tell him to stay put. But he’d jump out the window and go drinking, and when he was done he crawled back in through the window and lay on the cushioned divan watching TV. When she returned and found her man stinking of booze, she finally stopped trying to control his whereabouts. But under no circumstances would she give him money.
That night Momin Back ‘n’ Front agreed to shell out the 500 yuan translation fee, but then Big Brother said he wanted the money upfront. Muttering obscenities, Momin Back ‘n’ Front handed over five crisp hundred-yuan notes. “When you croak, I swear I’m going to place a prickly gunnysack crammed with cash at the back of your neck.”
“Much obliged,” replied Big Brother. “Then I won’t have nightmares over there.”
The two weren’t soul mates, but neither could walk away from the relationship. None of the eyeballs fixed on this spectacle, inside our circle and out, could comprehend the game they were playing. “They’re a pair,” I once explained to an Elder Brother. “One’s mouth stinks, and the other’s heart stinks, but they’re inseparable.”
A decade ago Momin Back ‘n’ Front once invited Big Brother and me to his place for horse tripe and a drink. It was a freezing winter straight out of a fable where the roadside snow towered over the rooftops. In that season, liquor and horse innards are delicacies.
Big Brother’s way of drinking was distinctive. He didn’t wait until after dinner to imbibe like the rest of us; before eating he’d down a big, four-ounce glass that warmed the body through. “That’s just the alcohol for opening up your blood vessels,” as he put it.
Then he chewed a few mouthfuls, switched to a small glass, and began to shoot the bull. The more he drank the more clear-minded he became, and each time he opened his mouth out came a line from the classics. Even if no one requested it, he’d recite poetry. In the midst of this intensely enthusiastic ambience, he soaked his intellect in a murky hot spring, surfed the waves of the intoxicating sea, and mellowed in sweet drunkenness.
That night we drank until the wee hours, and when we had our fill, I suggested that we decamp. Momin Back ‘n’ Front wouldn’t hear of it, and he insisted we spend the night—not because it was late, but because he wanted our company as he continued to drink.
But an hour later, out of the blue he told us to beat it. We couldn’t stay any longer because he wanted to bang his old lady. I didn’t speak since it wasn’t my place to say anything.
“Are you playing games with us?” protested Big Brother. “It’s late and it’s started snowing, and when it snows the wild dogs come out to rut. We don’t dare go home now. You sleep, we’ll drink.”
“Don’t you have ears?” said Momin Back ‘n’ Front. “I want to lay my old lady, the good wife my father gave me, not some mistress. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed to hear that grand symphony?”
“One, two, three—out with you!”
I stood up, tugged at Big Brother and walked out of Momin Back ‘n’ Front’s place. All the way back Big Brother kept swearing at our host. He was the forefather of all bovine creatures and a dirt bag to boot.
The next day Big Brother said we’d been insulted. It was no big thing to me, except that Big Brother felt that Momin Back ‘n’ Front was taking him for a fool. From then on, they stopped speaking and for five whole years didn’t associate.
Five years later I invited the pair to a feast. After we’d consumed a whole roast lamb and terminated a bottle of liquor, I pronounced a few trite courtesies that are popular among our people—and could just as well be put to use a few centuries from now—and insisted they shake hands and make up.
But they still had worms deep in their gut. It’s true they didn’t multiply, but it’s also true they didn’t die.
The day after Sidik Golden MobOff departed, I invited Momin Back ‘n’ Front to the gritty bar where he’d drunk with Big Brother on his last night. He and I used to hang out here. Our “Emergency Center,” he dubbed it. You could get a drink as soon as you walked in and wash it down with peanuts and soybeans. Lip-smacking good.
Impatient for an infusion, I chugged an ounce and then took a seat by the window to wait.
Several people were lined up at the bar, glass in hand, each partaking with a distinct expression: some tranquil and genial as if savoring honeyed water or bird’s nest soup; others grey-faced and forlorn, drinking painfully, their wrinkles invisible daggers thrusting silently into their fragile nerves.
When their glasses hit the counter, some used mineral water as a chaser and some munched on peanuts, while others removed their caps, took a whiff of the acrid scent of sweat inside to dispel the stink of liquor on their breath, exhaled a long, long breath, and then warmth began to radiate from their visages. The earthy bar oozed a stifling stench.
Momin Back ‘n’ Front arrived and we entered a small unadorned corner shielded by a colored cloth from the bar, and I began wiping the table clean. It swayed like a drunkard, creaking pathetically and indistinctly, like a death wish murmured by an old geezer. This table was ready for hard-core drinkers with time to kill.
I ordered a bottle and poured two generous glasses to the brim. “Brother, let’s drink at a leisurely pace, and you tell me how things were on the night that Sidik Golden MobOff departed.”
Momin Back ‘n’ Front took a sip and sighed deep and long.
“No one can see his own face, and I’m no different,” he said. “I can’t explain my own faults. Sidik Golden MobOff is gone. Discussing the dead courts bad luck, because the instant the deceased shuts his eyes he has already begun to repent. You shouldn’t whip the shadow of a repentant soul, that’s common sense. It’s just that, just that . . . let me tell you, the biggest complaint I have with this friend is that he gave me an absolutely devastating nickname. I’m a man. How could he insult me like that? Your nickname is more important than your birth name, because it will be passed down from generation to generation. But I never did anything immoral in my lifetime!
“My son is named Mutallip Momin, but those born after him will ask: Of which Momin is this Mutallip the son? The Elders will answer: ‘Momin Back ‘n’ Front’! When someone explains this nickname, how nasty that will sound! Is there a nickname like this on all the earth? Big Brother—may his soul ascend to Heaven—was a vicious, vicious man!
“That night he held his breath and swallowed four ounces in one go,” said Momin Back ‘n’ Front, and then he recounted Big Brother’s oration in detail.
“‘Whoever invented liquor was a genius,’ began Sidik Golden MobOff. ‘They should have rewarded him with eternity, allowing him to live in any era. But back then there were no geniuses or heroes, so they let this great inventor slip away.’
“I reminded him that he wasn’t around then,” Momin Back ‘n’ Front continued.
“‘You enjoy your mother-in-law’s cooking, Momin Back ‘n’ Front, but you’re no fool. If I’d been alive then, I’d have ensured that he could live in any era. What’s the point of feeding the Elixir of Eternal Life to a dog?’
“‘True,’ agreed Momin Back ‘n’ Front. ‘That would only do it harm. And what meaning is there to eternal life? You don’t have all that many things to do. You only live to accomplish a few tasks, and after ten years, you’re done. Cling onto life and refuse to let go, mess with yourself, what meaning is there in that?’
“‘But none of us can let go,’ said Sidik Golden MobOff. ‘In our gut, we’re all philosophers, but when we open our mouths, or take off our pants, we’re all dumb and blind. We can’t see the site where the spiritual flowers blossom, or where the higher laws devotedly await our arrival so that they may guide us forward. Our eyes are fixed elsewhere, our mouths in the present tense, and our emotions in the past. It’s not desire that is fooling us, it’s death’s secret emissary pulling on our nerves from an unseen abyss. Mankind professes to be perfect, majestic and the Creator of All Things, but when human beings brag like that death has no ears for our pride and obstinately sketches its own road map.
“‘Harmony is nonexistent. When you’ve filled your gut it’s time to go. That bed, that pan, that extra pair of underwear, that walnut basin freshly unearthed, they’re yours, they’re mine, but in the end they all revert to the unborn.
“‘Long before a man enters this troubled world everything has been pre-arranged, so what’s the meaning of these lives of ours? It’s death that consummates us, and grief that awakens us, or else we’d never reach a conclusion.’”
Momin Back ‘n’ Front paused, and I began to ponder all this. Based on the circumstances at the time of their farewell, there were no grounds for suspicions about Momin Back ‘n’ Front. Of course, if he was hiding something from me, then that’s something else again. His animosity and desire for revenge were deep-seated, but I didn’t spot any flaws in his story.
Momin Back ‘n’ Front downed a drink on his own and ordered two hard-boiled eggs. “Have an egg,” he said, shelling one. “You know how foul human beings are, eating this thing that comes out a hen’s asshole. Pathetic.”
“People are no different. We all come from somewhere dirty.”
“When a man dies, he’s dead,” said Momin Back ‘n’ Front. “And that’s even truer for this Brother who was a secretive oddball. Is there any meaning in investigating the cause of his death?”
“We were friends,” I said. “I drank his liquor and tasted his salt. I want to be worthy of those countless, mysterious nights.”
One reason people found it difficult to get along with Sidik Golden MobOff was his contempt for migrants from anywhere, and this was why others often cursed him. At wedding banquets, funeral feasts, hatmatoi rites of circumcision, drinking parties, gatherings and so on, his mouth was king and the center of attention, and no one could out-speak him.
At the wedding ceremony of a friend’s son, he once sharply, proudly, even boastfully answered a query by Kurban. “No, it is a sin to take part in a migrant’s wedding. We must not go. It suffices to pray for the couple from far, far away.” “How is that?” asked Kurban.
“The flip side of a migrant is a beggar. If you dine in the same room as a beggar, your good luck will be exhausted. Isn’t that terrifying? Luck aside, what else can a man call his own?”
“With so many people in a room, how can you tell a migrant from a native?”
“At the first round of tea, observe carefully,” explained Big Brother. “Those who reach for tea are natives, while those who hold out their hands to snatch the opening refreshments are migrants, pure and simple.
“Behind the natives are roots of nobility. These are real men whose stomachs are lined with fat from years of good fare. They understand the manners befitting a guest and they aren’t keen to deplete their host’s snacks in one go. But the migrants fix their eyes on them when they enter the room, and record their number in their hearts.”
Hearing this, everyone chuckled. The locals were pleased while the migrants and their offspring silently cursed Big Brother but didn’t dare openly refute him. In their hearts they whispered his was a filthy soul that a century of ablutions couldn’t purify.
At times like these, Big Brother would get all pumped up and continue with what he dubbed his “classical discourse.”
Once a fight broke out in one of the residential quarters between two migrant herbal doctors, with damning insults flying back and forth over who should lay claim to a patient. After a certain amount of time had passed, a migrant taxi driver had a lamb slaughtered and invited Big Brother to the feast to enlighten those two restless migrants, to help them make up and accept their lot.
After he’d had his fill of Uyghur pilaf and finger mutton, Big Brother cleared his throat conspicuously. “The two of you shouldn’t be so presumptuous. When you’re in another land and have eaten your fill, to argue and speak filth about each other’s parents is wrong. You need to learn to hide what is shameful from the eyes of others.
“Back home, neither of you is a bona fide doctor. At best, you harvest medicinal herbs. Does a genuine herbal doctor ever abandon his roots and move? In his hometown, a physician is the Emperor. What does ‘hometown’ mean? Hometown is Paradise, and even a mountain of gold will not entice a genuine doctor to leave his hometown; you must call on him.”
As a result, those two herbal doctors ceased bickering and began to help each other. The migrant driver thanked Big Brother. “For people of your ilk, I have to use language with thorns to teach you,” replied Big Brother. “Flowery words won’t do.”
I can’t say I fully understood Big Brother’s temperament. His face and eyes were those of a volatile personality, and his innermost heart as complicated as the copper wiring in a transformer box.
When he saw a lad come galloping by on a fine steed, Big Brother would be unhappy and mouth profanities to himself. When we walked on the street his face was tense from start to finish, and this unsettled, even frightened others.
He’d look for any sort of a place to get a drink, and in the winter he spoke of the summer, and in the summer he spoke winter words. He could be praising a bouquet of roses, but all you’d find yourself looking at was a tuft of withered grass.
At times like that I’d imagine that I’d more or less grasped his innate duality, but a few days later, he was a different Sidik Golden MobOff. He was a hyperactive sparrow unwilling to allow anyone to observe any one of his myriad aspects in full. His existence consisted of a ghostly blur, an eternal puzzle, rendering it impossible to grasp the essential features of his soul or jot down his keyword in script. The root of his frequent transformations lay, I think, in his psychological need to stand out and wave the banner whatever the affair, and served as a cunning way to avoid being ensnared.
“Big Brother, you probably even know what it’s like for a mother to give birth,” I once quipped.
“A man should be knowledgeable about everything, for he is the first salt of the earth,” he replied earnestly.
Madame Munir suddenly came to mind. He’s out of prison now. Could he have had a hand in Sidik Golden MobOff’s demise? There was good reason for suspicion.
The conflict between Big Brother and Madame Munir was a battle of blood and fire, Madame Munir once confided. They were pals from their bare-butt days, but didn’t remain friends to the end. The pair took a liking to same beautiful young girl in their youth, but thanks to his family’s superior standing, she ended up sleeping in Madame Munir’s embrace.
Although Big Brother received a university education while his childhood pal went to work straight out of high school, it was Munir who had won promotion to Bureau Director five years earlier, and this kept Big Brother awake deep into the night.
He often swore at him. “A world-class housewife! Such a poorly educated misfit that he can’t even read his own death sentence—a Bureau Director?”
The “Madame” moniker was Big Brother’s doing too. After his promotion, Munir donned silk with the advent of spring: deep red, dark green or jet-black long-or short-sleeved shirts. A new shade each day covered his torso in exceptionally bright colors.
In that era, silk was a luxury item beyond the reach of the common folk. Big Brother suspected he was dipping into public funds for his sartorial needs, and it was taboo in the community for a man to wear upper garments of silk. After all, this noble and elegant fabric was the exclusive property of the female, so when a male wore them, it was said he had a “ticklish back.” In pillow talk, this meant the man was endowed with an antsypussy.
Then at one weekend drink fest, Big Brother set his tongue, teeth and lips to work all at once, ridiculing Munir’s maroon silk shirt, suggesting its deep red tint was a metaphor for man’s longing for transsexuality, a woman’s monthly period, and a wife’s happiness. So he christened him “Madame.”
Henceforth whenever Madame Munir had the chance he cussed out Big Brother, labeling him sub-human, a son-of-a-bitch born in hell. Superficially they remained courteous, but when the other party was absent, profanities flowed. Eventually, their bizarre mutual hatred fermented into an internecine war that neither could resolve. But in Big Brother’s eyes, he was the victor, for he had the last laugh.
As Nijat the Drunkard put it, the yeast behind all of this was that beautiful woman contested by the two men three decades earlier. When it emerged via the state authorities that Madame Munir was indeed to be promoted to Deputy Mayor, Big Brother couldn’t sit still.
After he’d confirmed this tattle was actually a firm decision, he hit the bottle. Occasionally he requested my company, and we went to the restaurant serving young pigeon meat in the open-air farmer’s market. We drank up a storm with our big glasses, but we didn’t eat. At times it was too much to watch, and I’d feed him a baby pigeon leg for consolation.
“Is this what life is all about?” Big Brother asked. “Madame Munir doesn’t know half of what I know. I wouldn’t even let him wash my feet. Isn’t this tantamount to slapping my face in front of my peers? Isn’t this a vulgar shirt-sleeve miscast as a noble collar?”
Whereupon Big Brother penned the Letter of Accusation that torched Madame Munir’s dream.
When it came to putting allegations to paper, Big Brother had rich experience and even tradition on which to draw. Those dagger-sharp words secreted in his subconscious helped him to realize his goal.
“If Madame Munir were to become Mayor,” Big Brother admitted, “My first option would be to migrate elsewhere, have a nervous breakdown, and live out the rest of my days in misery, subsisting on cheap eats. Or, I could commit suicide. To go on living would be an insult to me, but if I ended my life with a major event at least I’d be able to justify myself to the hairs on my manly chest.”
And so Big Brother took everything he knew and put it down in black and white, attached his signature, and dispatched the letter to the authorities.
I advised him against signing it, but he refused. “I have the courage to do so. He’s not a clean man and I’m proud to do battle with him. The post of Deputy Mayor denotes a kind of responsibility, and more importantly, in the eyes and hearts of the people, this post is an honor, but Madame Munir’s behavior would tarnish it.”
And Big Brother succeeded. When the authorities came down to investigate, all Madame Munir’s dirty laundry was hung out to dry under the midday sun.
He administered the initial cut by attacking Madame Munir’s lifestyle with the revelation that he supported two mistresses. Then Big Brother ripped away the veil covering the construction work teams that Madame Munir operated underground. Big Brother exposed the villas of the man’s four daughters, and provided pictures too, noting that this was Madame Munir exploiting his office for the benefit of his own children. The manner in which several entrepreneurs had proffered luxurious sedans to each of his daughters was also clarified.
The period that ended this run-on sentence came when Madame Munir was found guilty and sent to do time.
Nijat the Drunkard visited Madame Munir in jail. “I don’t blame anyone,” Munir said. “I respect Sidik Golden MobOff. On the surface he’s a nut case, but he has a noble soul. I knew full well that I was living a nasty and greedy life, so why did I still hanker after the post of Deputy Mayor? If I’d been satisfied with the post of Construction Bureau Chief and lived with my tail between my legs, I wouldn’t be doing time.
“I’m the fool. Maybe Sidik Golden MobOff was right: It’s those plush silk shirts that did the damage.”
“No,” replied Nijat the Drunkard. “The silk shirts are innocent. It’s your soul that damaged itself. The quickest destruction is self-inflicted.”
After Madame Munir left prison, he opened a small convenience store in his residential area, and ran a pay-phone center. It was a popular spot and he sold alcohol there too, but the Elders looked unfavorably upon his dealing in booze at his age, and denounced him behind his back.
“I do sell liquor,” he explained when I visited him. “But it’s just to hide the fact that I drink. In my old age, how could I pass what’s left of my time without a drink? I’m thick-skinned now, and I realize that the days we are allotted are sweeter than honey.”
“Did you hear that Sidik Golden MobOff died?”
“No, I didn’t know at the time or I would have gone to the funeral,” he said. “I heard he died very suddenly. A cerebral hemorrhage. But he was actually very healthy, in better shape than me.”
“Big Brother’s death was quite unnatural. The police are looking into it, and word is that night his drinking partner was Momin Back ‘n’ Front.” With that, I stole a glance at his face.
“In prison I thought a lot about this,” reflected Madame Munir. “The best life is a tranquil one with three meals a day. Sidik Golden MobOff was a wise man, and he understood this. If someone hurt him, I don’t think it was Momin Back ‘n’ Front. Basically speaking, he and Sidik Golden MobOff were two birds in the same cage. Most of the time their tongues were at odds, but somewhere unseen their souls were tied together on the same tether.” “If only that were true,” I thought to myself. But I said nothing.
“Why do you always give these people a hard time?” I once queried Big Brother. “Do you enjoy living in the midst of trouble and tense relations?”
“I’m a friend to everyone. Take Madame Munir. He’s a friend who grew up with me. It was the Almighty Allah who willed that we grow up, hand in hand. This was our shared good fortune. But later on Madame Munir sullied himself, and devoured the era of his own innocence. Does the fault lie with me? Did I bring about this tension? No, for he discarded his childhood memories. If a real man forgets his glories and dreams on the path to adulthood, his soul will eventually be consumed by greed, and when he breaks out in noisy lamentation, he will no longer be himself. That’s the price he must pay.”
“You don’t give others a chance,” I protested. “Everyone has problems and a shameful side to them. We mature in the process of overcoming those shortcomings! ”
“Someone who dreams of serving as Mayor shouldn’t be so disgraceful and indecent,” he argued. “Beginning in his childhood he should be an ideal soul. The Mayor should be a spotless person, for he is power and eternal honor. I won’t permit anyone to trample on this honor.”
Yalkun also ranked among the enemies of Big Brother, a person of many friends and many enemies. Another much-disliked aspect of his personality was the way he looked down his nose at others. People typically found him morally pompous, but deep in his bones were pride and the desire to dominate, and a camouflaged envy. He worked hard to render this invisible, but in his blood and emotions, self-pride was his compass.
Momin Back ‘n’ Front once scolded him: “What’s so grand about you? Are you equipped with two cocks? Do you possess the Lance of Eternal Life? Or is it just that you happen to know Chinese? I’m not your old lady, so don’t get haughty with me!”
Yalkun was once his friend, and it was Sidik Golden MobOff who dubbed him “Father-in-law.” In our circle, everyone was tickled about this nickname, some secretly so, for Big Brother used this lethal title to give voice to their anger, booting Yalkun’s stinking pretensions right into the garbage pit.
That year’s Muslim Corban Festival began on a wintry day when the void between earth and sky was awhirl with snow. According to the Elders, it was the biggest snowfall in half a century. Piled by the roadside higher than the rooftops, the snow, as tempting as flour, attracted flocks of pigeons. They danced upon the mysterious snow mounds, giving passersby short-lived warmth.
The second day of Corban is the time to visit friends and wish them a Happy New Year. As we began our rounds, Yalkun was always out in front, taking the seat of honor as soon as he entered a house, and grabbing the first cup. And in each home it was he who spoke, telling us stories, praising his father-in-law while ignoring Big Brother. We all knew that Yunus, his fatherin-law, was a County Chief who had bought a nice car and built a mansion for Yalkun, so in his heart, this old grandpa had become an Immortal.
At first Big Brother bit his tongue in silence, but it proved too much to bear. “Yalkun my good Brother, has something gone wrong inside your head? Whether you’re lying down, up and about or taking a piss, what’s it with ‘my father-in-law this’ and ‘my father-in-law that’? Don’t you have a father of your own?
“What’s a father-in-law? A father-in-law is a 50-yuan shirt you tote around in a designer bag to present with a fake smile when you go through the motions of visiting him at New Year’s, and that’s it. Who lauds his father-in-law like you? If your own father caught wind of this, wouldn’t he sever your balls?”
“How could I have no father? My father is a physician respected by all. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that,” Yalkun said, “because your memory is poor and you’re always on bad terms with good doctors. Water has seeped in and addled your brain.”
“Every day that passes sees you turning in to a more docile donkey,” retorted Big Brother. “Starting today, we shall call you ‘Father-in-law Yalkun.’ May this nickname of mine forever trap you in a sewer and slowly putrefy you. Let it be printed indelibly in your mind: the classic cautionary tale of a man who disowned his father to sing the praises of his father-in-law, to be eulogized among the souls of good men.”
Father-in-law Yalkun was incensed. He grabbed a teacup off the table and hurled it, but Big Brother dodged it nimbly. The cup smashed into the tin furnace so hard that it dislodged the smoke funnel. Big Brother strode over, jumped up and gave him a head butt. This is an ancient way of fighting among the common people, and if you take it on the nose bridge, it can cost you your life.
A few years back, nobodies and important types were literally lining up to fight, and lives were often lost. It was all a matter of how you used your head. If you aimed right, one butt and your problem was solved.
Father-in-law Yalkun collapsed. Big Brother had struck him squarely on the mouth, and he was bleeding and had lost two front teeth.
Big Brother was ready to charge again but I grabbed his hand. “It’s New Year’s! At a solemn time like this, under someone else’s roof, aren’t you ashamed?”
“You get this straight, Father-in-law Yalkun. If you ever again dare to glorify that father-inlaw of yours, I’ll slice off your prick and feed it to the bitches on the street!”
I passed a handkerchief to Father-in-law Yalkun and told him to wipe the blood around his mouth. “Some day I’ll rip that black heart of yours out and feed it to the dogs!” he fumed.
“Forget it, buddy!” I urged. “Can’t you tell how much energy Sidik Golden MobOff still has in reserve? He’s a born thug, and even if you grew another pair of hands you wouldn’t be his match. Go home, wash your hair, take a piss, lie down on your divan and get some shut-eye!” Or, could it be Father-in-law Yalkun who did in Big Brother?
Everyone was a suspect but I had no proof. I went for a long chat with Sidik Golden MobOff’s widow. Her children agreed with my suggestion that we exhume Big Brother and conduct a forensic autopsy. But Big Sister Roxian wouldn’t hear of it.
“Let us live in peace,” she said. “Death is Allah’s summons. The common folk’s evil is a blind louse, and revenge means poisoning one’s own bowl of rice. I don’t want revenge to breed revenge. I can only pray that my children pass their days peacefully under the sun.
“Let it be, my Brother. Just in order to locate the origin of this calamity, it wouldn’t be right to cut open the stomach of an unblemished corpse and torture the soul of the dead. That would be a sin too. Let him rest in peace, for adapting to the Afterlife is not easy, and the truth is not always so pleasant.”
From then onwards, I began imbibing with no drinking partner. I didn’t feel like inviting Momin Back ‘n’ Front along because of his fatal mania for speaking ill of the dead. After a man dies, he becomes the germ of another human life, so one should not disrespect the soul of the deceased.
When the traditional Funeral Banquet marking the fortieth day of mourning after Big Brother’s death ended, I had a round with Momin Back ‘n’ Front. But his mouth was full of insults for Big Brother. A tasteless affair. Even if it is a dog that has died, we should pray for its soul. Why are human beings so unforgiving?
During the weekend I left my courtyard with no destination in mind, but the wind and Big Brother’s soul led me to a migrant bar behind the last watermill in the farmer’s market.
In reality it’s a poor man’s watering hole, crude and undecorated, with air that stinks like your butt—combustible at the strike of a match. Two pathetic types had collapsed drunk against the wall and were slumbering sweetly. The rear end of one lying in the corner was exposed, and flies hovered over it, buzzing in tipsy revelry. Talip, the bar’s poor boss who sports a full-faced, grubby beard, walked over, covered the man’s ass with a piece of tattered clothing, swore at him, and returned to the rickety counter.
I ordered four ounces of liquor that I divided between two glasses, placed one across from me, and raised the other in a toast. “Big Brother,” I said, “this was your favorite place. Are you well over there? You’ve departed, so you can start over. But I’m still alive, so I have to keep on chugging! When I can’t drink any more, I’ll go to Paradise looking for you.”
Suddenly, a voice spoke. “Brother, enjoy your drink. Get your act together there first, but rest assured, I’ve got a place for you to sleep here.”
“Big Brother, I recognize your voice!”
“Thanks. Enjoy your drink and polish off a lamb’s head for me, Brother. I’m nostalgic for a view of the old watermill, this warehouse that stores my body and my memories. And don’t forget to buy a round for the pitiful poor folks here in the bar. They weren’t predestined to end their lives in a haze. It’s just that chance, like the wind that loves to wander, bamboozled them. Here in the old watermill that nourished the old city in its infancy, respecting life means showing respect and sympathy for decline.
“In our subconscious, we are all living myths, kings; but in reality, our luck is not in our hands. So loving your own filthy behind is a way of accepting fate, slowly approaching death so that when you take your last breath, the mortal world owes you nothing.”
“I miss you so much,” I whispered. “Hearing your voice is my greatest consolation. You departed suddenly, and I’m investigating the cause of your death.”
“No, you needn’t do anything,” said Sidik Golden MobOff’s soul. “I’ll let you in on a secret. That afternoon I shared a bottle with Momin Back ‘n’ Front, and I had a tad too much. After we parted ways, I ate a bowl of wonton on the way home and bought two boiled eggs. I use it to coat my stomach when it gets acidic at night. And I bought ten steamed stuffed buns for my grandson. Each time the wife isn’t home I prepare this stuff ahead of time.
“When I got home my grandson Hal was watching TV. His father had called and Hal said he was going home for dinner. After he left, I lay down on the divan to watch TV and fell asleep.
“I dreamt my old lady was scolding me: You moribund geezer, you old wino, you’re shameless! At seventy-five you’re still getting soused even though you’ve got a bunch of grandchildren. You never set foot in a mosque, you don’t read the Koran, and you don’t repent.
Are you still a human being?
“My old lady’s hand flew over, and I cried out in shock. I opened my eyes wide and for an instant the lamplight pierced my eyeballs. Then my entire body trembled, I couldn’t catch a breath, and I died.
“Brother, don’t be sad. I actually passed away neatly, in a dream. If my old lady scolded me as ruthlessly as that in real life, wouldn’t I lose face? If I were sick or lying in bed awaiting death, or I’d become befuddled or a vegetable, wouldn’t I just be a spectacle for the crowd? The best death is to reach a certain age and suddenly depart from the earth, dying lightly and cleanly, without bothering others. I’m satisfied. I ate, drank, played, made scenes, kicked up a storm, sweet-talked or offended others, and this mortal world doesn’t owe me anything.
“Goodbye, Brother, I’m leaving. Live well and await death in its good time. Forget the good stuff, and repent the bad in a timely manner so that when death calls you’ve no regrets. Detail the places you’ve hidden your money and keep it safe so when you’re dead your widow will pray for you, thankful for the money.”
Sidik Golden MobOff’s soul departed. I raised my glass, and emptied it, sobbing. I wiped away my tears, and went out and bought a bottle for these poor barflies, and forty kebabs and five pieces of naan too from the store next door. Then I returned to my seat, looked out the filthy window, and sat there blankly.
Talip came over with two glasses of liquor. “Brother, here’s a toast to you. That devil of a split personality Sidik Golden MobOff who passed on recently—has he really left us? There’s a fellow who was more stalwart than a stone!”
“His soul is still with us. It was here just a moment ago.”
Talip’s eyes widened. “Do boozers have souls?”
“They do indeed.”
“I’m relieved,” said Talip. “To die soulless—I can’t imagine!”
Translated by Bruce Humes