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from the May 2005 issue

The Black Storyteller

If you believe my grandmother's version of the story, then her mother-my great-grandmother Rose Garden-must have been fifty years old when she finally decided to live with "Black Anees" under one roof. And all of the stories agree-that is, the stories of the neighbors, which my grandmother heard when she got older-that Rose Garden was beautiful, in addition to having remained a strange and puzzling character to the women in the Saa'i quarter (I'll leave aside for now speaking about the men). Her renown had spread to all the areas bordering our home-Al-Sabkha, Pasha Station, Al-Saif, Nathraan, Al-Balush-it had even reached the Courthouse quarter. But it was the people of this last neighborhood, specifically, who were the first to be in the know, for they had foreseen it long before it actually happened. In fact, some of them even wondered aloud why the two lovers had taken so long to decide to live together according to the law of God and his prophet. Well, we can be sure-to the supposed disappointment of the people of the quarter-that they did not live together according to God's law as one would have hoped for them because at that time a relationship between a white woman and a black man was not easily welcomed, even rejected outright. (Even though my great-grandmother was olive skinned, it didn't matter, for this was considered a type of whiteness, whereas black was just black!) How then could it be possible for a woman of my great-grandmother's social station?

Most of the residents of the quarter, if not all of them, knew that Rose Garden did not come all that way from her home in Al-*ŠñAshaar to the writers' lane so often just to have some legal documents written up. Definitely not. And they voiced their doubts, not because they were out to get her or to tarnish the family's honor, but because they were right!

In the beginning, however, nobody knew that Rose Garden was traveling all that way for another reason, and if anyone had suspected they could only have shaken their heads in disbelief. For my great-grandmother was the wife of a man of high stature with the authorities-who were English at that time-and it was said that it was only a matter of time before he would be governor of Basra. (This was before he lost everything in ambiguous circumstances, which perhaps played an active role in what happened with my great-grandmother.) So it was natural that her repeated visits to the writers' lane would raise questions among people. At first, people didn't dare to voice their suspicions out loud, first out of fear of the consequences of their talk, and second because there was a possible interpretation which did appear reasonable to a certain extent: maybe the lady was coming to get help from one of the knowledgeable writers in drafting a petition to the authorities requesting her husband's release from jail, where he had been placed under suspicion that he had been involved in the coup attempt undertaken by an idealistic nationalist general-years later, when the nationalists finally took over the country, they named one of Baghdad's uglier plazas after him. However, two things eventually caused people to leave that hypothesis behind. First of all, her husband was able to prove somehow that he had in fact been working under cover among the group of officers surrounding the Kurdish general who wanted to establish an Arab state, in order to reveal and inform on them. Secondly, if she had in fact been coming to see one of the skilled writers, then she had switched him for another writer-two days before her husband's release-and even after he had been freed, she continued to visit this new writer, who had appeared suddenly in front of the courthouse. Some went so far as to say that this man had only become a writer for her sake alone, and that they had never seen him write for anyone else-this despite the crowds that came to him, and his spreading fame due to my great- grandmother's constant visits to him, for it was enough to say "Look, he's the best writer, or else why would the colonel's wife go to him!"

What happened then is of little importance however, for if you look closely at the pictures which I have now before me on the table-which I managed to obtain a short time before I left the country-and which were taken of her when she was young-I know that it is a fact that she was an exceptionally beautiful woman, and that all of the pictures I have in my mind of her are only phantoms with no relationship to what I see in front of me.

"The truth is the only real phantom," Anees told me one time.

Now, when I recall that sentence in the midst of my own exile, I truly understand the secret to what he said. It was him that Rose Garden chose to live with, unmarried at that-you can imagine the magnitude of the catastrophe such a decision presented in those days-why, even in these days. This woman, whom perhaps all of the women in the neighborhood envied for her husband and his high rank-before he disappeared, of course-this same woman would become an "infidel"-as they started to call her-and go and live with a black "slave" as the people of the region called dark-skinned men like Anees. Yet, he was the only man who could enchant my great grandmother, she who was surrounded by ministers and other high-ranking government employees-and he was the only one who interested her after the disappearance of her husband, who secretly joined Mussolini's army after his release from jail.

I remember that in 1967, when I was a child, only five years old, I told her about my fear-a strange thing; I don't know where it came from. Now I recall the sentence as I sit in a Caribbean village, after my own marriage to a black woman-isn't it strange that I am trying to get around this by resorting to deception, straight lies even, in writing this sentence and what precedes it-that "as I write this I'm sitting in Caribbean village after my own marriage to a black woman"-in order to boast, falsely, to you and convince you that I am not racist and that color means nothing to me, maybe you will believe me!-I almost managed to forget what I said back then. I believe it was evening, and she was darning one of Anees's wool socks, soon after they began living together, when I stopped playing and uttered the thought that had just occurred to me at that moment: "I'm afraid that a black man will come one day and take my wife!"

In those days I didn't beat around the bush with my sentences, which were perhaps influenced by what I overheard of the neighbors' comments about what she had done. She didn't pause in her work, and went on sewing despite her surprise, which I noticed in the tone of her voice, but which was nevertheless unembarrassed at my directness and spontaneity. She said to me: "In the end, all women are black!"

I didn't understand what she meant then. But my trust in her caused me to believe what she said. When she saw the questions in my eyes, she tweaked my cheek and said, "You love me, so you are black too."

I'm not exaggerating when I say that as happy as I was with what she said, I was equally distressed to discover that I was also black. For a long time I hated everything black, despite my attachment to Anees-until the day, when I had just turned eighteen, and had been called up for my military service, when he called out to me, "It's a white day!" instead of the usual "It's a black day." He was referring to Monday, September 22, 1980, and it wasn't the first time he had inverted the colors, for I had heard him more than once saying "White is a wicked color." To tell the truth, he wasn't the only one who used the colors in an opposite manner than the rest of the community; over time I realized that my great-grandmother had also begun to do so. One day she said to me, "I am the black woman and he is white like my heart!"

She did not say that in jest, for Anees did not only invert the colors, he also turned my entire world inside-out, just as he had done to Rose Garden. If I didn't ask in those days, like the others did, what the secret of her relationship to him was, I know now why she was ready to sacrifice her social status, her marriage, and her reputation for him:

"He told stories! Yes, in addition to being a man with many wonderful qualities that would please any woman, he is a storyteller, and his skin color and religion are meaningless."

That is what she said-it doesn't matter if she was exaggerating or speaking under the influence of her powerful love for Anees. I had to believe her, for-as I would later learn-we go to the theater and listen to stories with the same passion with which we listen to songs on the radio-because they make us forget who we are! My great grandmother wanted to forget herself, just as I try to forget myself as I write this story. (When I asked my mother about the truth of all this, she replied "Maybe she's right, don't you see how women are in a much greater hurry to have children than men are?" When I asked her what the relationship was between that and storytelling, she answered, "A child makes us mothers forget ourselves, for when a baby comes into the world, we possess the entire universe in him.")

Maybe there is nothing more terrifying than to discover that we are really no more than what we appear to be in cold reality. Did Anees know this? I don't know. I only heard the story from him in bits and pieces-it seems that my great-grandmother, and my grandmother, and my mother all learned it from him (for the men in my family didn't want to talk about him, and when they did talk about him they made sure to add the word "slave" to his name, aiming to belittle him by stressing in every sentence "that's what the slave" said or did or claimed.)

Nevertheless, I will try here to gather all of the pieces and put them back together again in order, despite the fact that I am not even sure where the man came from, although all agree-including my grandmother-that he came from India, and arrived in the writers' lane next to the courthouse in early 1939, one month after the outbreak of World War II.

That's when a circus from India came to Basra for the first time. They pitched their tent in the spot which today is called Bashar Street. Anees' role in the circus was to tell stories. But it seems he wasn't satisfied with just doing his job; he loved to try new things. During the day, when he wasn't working (the circus only played in the evenings), he would push a cart in which he would place a rabbit, a cat, and a dog, all curled together, and next to them a music box. He would walk behind this cart every day as far as the courthouse gate, and there where the writers all sat he would turn the music box crank, and a melody would emerge that would make even the coarsest hearts stop, not only because of the melody, but because of the sight of the three animals, which would dance and play to the music. When the music stopped, they would curl back up together on a blanket embroidered with roses that covered a large palm-frond basket over which the petals of strange flowers were scattered by the hand of a wooden statue, which Anees explained to me years later was meant to personify Hussein-or "your Hussein" as he said when I asked him about it.

Maybe it was on one of those days that my great-grandmother happened to pass by him while out for a stroll with her first husband. For sure their reason for stopping there was not limited to the music which attracted their curiosity, but the man himself who stood there turning the crank on the cart on which a dog, a cat, and a rabbit sat side by side in friendship. The sight of him was equally strange, and his clothes themselves inspired much curiosity, for Basra had never seen anything like it: his pants and shirt were of different colored silk, and his cap was also multicolored; in addition to that, on his own large nose he wore another, larger nose, made of red plastic. In truth-my grandmother told me, as she heard it from her mother-her husband didn't want to stop, but Rose Garden insisted on listening to the strange cart's music box. For fifteen minutes she stood mesmerized before the strange man.

"A funny Indian," her husband said, pulling her by her arm, not noticing the looks that were exchanged between his wife and the man with the box, as though the two of them had agreed to see each other again and soon. All of a sudden, Rose Garden saw the man's hand beckon her to come nearer, and when she approached she saw the rabbit on his arm; he stroked it gently and asked her to do the same, and she did. "She had never felt an animal with such soft fur before, she felt like she was touching something electric," my grandmother said when she told me what happened that day. "From that day on the man had enchanted my mother." So she left, and a very clear feeling overcame her, that she would meet this man again, had to meet him!

She didn't know, however, that her husband had understood the gaze she had exchanged with the man, and that he would entreat the authorities to keep the man and his cart out of that place, because "with his inappropriate music which is unbefitting to the customs of our citizens, he is provoking the people's emotions," as he wrote in the report he presented to the British authorities-a funny position to take considering Basra's old whorehouses were all located quite near to there.

Thus, Anees and the music player disappeared for quite some time. In addition to military police making him stay away from there, the circus he worked for decided to move on to another place. Anees didn't go with them that time; instead he snuck silently away from his group that night on the road, and returned to Basra-this time without a cart. He took up residence in an ancient hotel in Old Basra-what a surprise it was when he discovered it was actually a brothel!-which Rose Garden's husband happened to frequent periodically. The next day he stood without the cap or the clown nose, but in the very same clothes he had been wearing the day Rose Garden had seen him. He didn't see her pass by. Not just for a day or two, nor a week or two, nor even a month or two, but longer. One day, one of the writers noticed his constant return and recognized him, and asked him what he wanted. Anees didn't beat around the bush but said directly: "That woman!" and he pointed at an elegant woman seated at the table of one of the writers, whom she came to visit every day.

"Rose Garden?" this writer asked, surprised.

Anees nodded. At that point, the man-exhibiting a clear sympathy for him, for, as he told Anees, he had found his way of telling stories in the circus wonderful, just as it had amazed him that he had been able to get three animals together who were usually enemies-suggested that he bring him an old table and chair and that Anees become a writer as well. That day, Anees told the man frankly that although he could in fact both read and write, he was no good at writing up legal documents. And when the other writer asked him what he was good at, he answered confidently but almost despairingly:

"Love letters only!"

And so, Anees sat there, the first writer to do, not legal requests, but love letters only.

At first, my great-grandmother didn't know that this new man was the same man from the circus, the one who had played the music that enchanted her. One day, when she came as usual to the Writers' Lane, he called out to her, in an eloquent and rhetorical Arabic to which her ears were not accustomed: "No one but I can write for you what you wish." She might have ignored him, had she not heard in his voice a melody that reminded her of the music that she had been missing for so long. She felt her heart leap, and her head turned toward him against her will. She could not believe that she was seeing him again, seated among the writers. Her feet led her to him, and she asked him before taking a seat in the chair in front of his table: "Can you write love letters?"

"Only letters written to what is beyond the sea!" he replied.

She said to him, "So write for me, please, to a beautiful man with dark skin, who tells stories, and who left with his music and his animals a long time ago, abandoning me with my memories of a rabbit and the feel of his delicate fur!"

He corrected her: "Her fur, if you please."

"Her fur? And what is her name?" she asked, half surprised.

He answered in his ever melodic voice: "Her old name doesn't matter; but ever since that stroke of the hand her name has been Rose Garden."

What the residents of the quarter and the neighboring quarters didn't know, was that my great-grandmother-before changing her mind and asking him to write a love letter to the man she went on to describe to him-didn't go that day to have a legal document written up as usual. No, she had gone to have a letter written on behalf of her daughter, my grandmother, who was desperately in love with a muezzin, the shaykh of the nearby military camp which housed Indian military units fighting under the British army. "He would say Allahu akbar and my soul would melt," my grandmother told me when she described him to me. He also had the features of a black man, but "he was dark-skinned from Egypt, and Egypt is an Arab country" my grandmother would always add-as though Arabs cannot be black!

If I believe what my family says, then my great-grandmother didn't resort to going to the writers' lane until all her other efforts had failed. But it had come to her attention-indeed my grandmother confirmed it herself-the Egyptian shaykh was far more bedazzled with the daughter of the English general who was in charge of the troops stationed in Basra than he was with my grandmother. Someone had told her that one of the writers in the lane specialized in love letters, and could change people's hearts. (Although, since no one had actually hired Anees' services until then, it must have been Anees himself who had advertised himself among the members of the circus first, and the other writers second, when he was still just loitering among them, before the other writer had suggested that he set up shop there.)

And so, on that day, my great-grandmother sat down across from him and it didn't take her long to realize that this man had a special magic to him. When he had finished writing the letter, he asked her boldly if she had time to listen to a story or two. I don't know if she agreed the first time, or the second, reluctantly-but in the times that followed, it was she who began to insist on hearing stories. In a short time my great grandmother Rose Garden heard the following stories:

The story of the five maidens Ni'ma, Rahma, Shafqa, Ra'fa, and Rifqa (Gentleness, Mercy, Pity, Kindness, and Tenderness), each of whom asked their father for a yellow narcissus, a water lily, the carnation of pain, the daisy of confusion, and a flower like the peacock's tail . . .

The tale told by the sad Portuguese man, whom the residents of Old Basra had never paid attention to, who sang of the girl Soledad, daughter of the old Jew, Uncle Suarez, and the suffering of the young man Mulham, who loved the Armenian girl Sarab . . .

The story of Edward, the owner of a small bookshop, who undertook the adventures of the Thousand and One Nights with a young boy by reading travel books, and the passion of this Christian man for Teresa, who lived far away on the Caribbean sea . . .

The story of the soldier Campus, who was waiting for Teresa to come from Havana, and his Argentinean friend Alejandro . . . the two of them loved to act and put on plays. They even did a show in the middle of the main train station at Lashbuna, and changed their costumes there in front of everyone . . .

The story of the gypsy girl who loved pomegranates, and the girl with the enchanting laugh who went with a rough-faced police officer, only as a bet between them, that he wouldn't be able to take her virginity. Later this same girl gave the book Chronicle of a Death Foretold to the young man who lived in the house, selling flower bulbs for a living (the young man, who then traveled to the Caribbean, was me) . . .

The story of the man who traveled to Macondo to visit the woman who had always told him about it, and discovered that she had died . . .

The story of Matilda, and her determination to close her tavern, and help a soldier get on the first ship to the Caribbean . . .

That strange story about the young man who would take the drunks home on his donkey every night . . .

And finally the story of the black storyteller (who was him, Black Anees), who had come from the Caribbean with a cat, a dog, and a rabbit, which would take turns sleeping on his arm, and next to them was a wooden statue with Caribbean features named Hussein . . .

Thus my great-grandmother heard him tell many stories. It didn't matter that they had no direct connection to her, though there were those that he told with great enthusiasm which did relate to her personally, or to her daughter, my grandmother-who did in fact marry the Egyptian shaykh, though only for two months. And when Rose Garden wanted to seek a divorce for her daughter, she went again to Anees and asked him, "How can we influence the Egyptian shaykh?" And he replied, "With stories!"

She didn't understand at first. Maybe she needed some time before she would realize that the stories he told were affecting her so strongly as well, causing her to abandon her social position and carry the burden of everything people were saying about her-often truthfully-because of Anees. All of this only because he told stories, and every story made him more mysterious and made her more attached to him. He did it all with assurance and confidence, and even had no objection to writing a separation letter from her to her husband (his only daughter, Aneesa, showed it to me a week before I left Basra)-as if he knew that in the end, only the stories would be victorious. On October 28, 1980-the day I left the country-my mother said something similar to me: "I didn't think that one day you would become a story to me while you were still living!"

No one knows for sure exactly where Anees came from, or how he got there. If you were to believe all of the stories, you could only come to the conclusion that it was he himself who spread all those stories around about himself, in order to appear strange and cryptic to a country that assumed itself to be the standard of normality. But it was my grandmother-the only one whom I trust in a country where it's hard to trust anyone-who succeeded in convincing me with the way she told it and the dates she had memorized. My doubts can come to nothing since I have no arguments with which to refute her claims. Thus it was through her, and not through anyone else-including my own memories, so many of which contradict each other that I've given up on them-that I learned that the man himself was a story that differed from everything else people said and invented about him.

For instance, it was said that he was Indian, but spoke classical Arabic because he had studied at a Quranic school while he was still in India. And it was said that he was not Indian, but Indonesian, and had gone to India in order to join the circus that was renowned across Asia at that time. One of the strangest of the many stories that circulated about Anees was the one invented by the intellectuals of the city, who said that he was a descendent of *ŠñAli bin Muhammad-the leader of the black revolution in the tenth century, whose family fled to India after the revolt's defeat-and that he had returned to Basra to seek revenge for what had happened to his forefathers. Therefore, the story went on, it wasn't strange at all that he would start up a love affair with the wife of an important military officer. Some even went so far in their imaginations as to imply that Anees was behind the disappearance of Rose Garden's colonel husband.

All of those stories are less important, however, than my grandmother's version, which is what I am left with in my own attempt to tell what may or may not be the most reasonable version of the story. According to my grandmother, it is true that he arrived with the Indian circus, but he was not Indian. Rather, he was the descendant of an old family from the Suq al-Shuyukh that traded in spices, which in order to escape the violence of the Turks had fled to India, specifically the region which is now called Pakistan. They later moved to South Africa, and after that, emigrated with the first ships of the United Fruit Company to the island of Trinidad, then to Cartagena, where they lived with other families from the Suq al-Shuyukh on a plantation called Macondo. Because they were so foreign to the North Americans who had established these plantations, one of them discovered that he could work as a circus entertainer as a way to avoid the servitude forced on the African slaves. And so, Anees's grandfather and father worked in the circus that came to Macondo. After his grandfather passed away and his mother was killed in the mass of people that crowded Macondo's train station after the banana workers' strike of 1928, Anees' father smuggled him out with the first cocaine traders. The family never forgot how to speak Arabic, and that is why this man-who was thirty-nine years old when he met my great grandmother and wrote for her the love letters she requested-was able to communicate with Rose Garden and all of the other writers in fluent Arabic. (At first I wasn't sure I believed that Anees had been thirty-nine when he met Rose Garden. But when we were saying our farewells on September 22, 1980, he said to me "I didn't know they would celebrate my eightieth birthday by declaring war!" I'll never forget that sentence, and it proved the veracity of what my grandmother had told me about his age.)

Until that day when my great-grandmother came, he hadn't believed that by sitting at a table among the writers he would attract the woman whose image hadn't left his mind for a single day, much less that by sitting there, his customers would multiply as well. He didn't know that he had chosen the most appropriate moment-the day the war was announced. On that very day his table was overrun with customers, made up of two types-first of all, men who had just been called up in the draft, who were most likely illiterate, and unable to write even a simple note let alone a love letter; and second, women who knew that the war was coming to snatch up the men they loved and make them disappear from their lives, without even allowing them to say goodbye in person.

Anees was not the only one who didn't dream that the career he had taken up would flourish as it did, for none of the writers in Writers' Lane had dreamed that one day they would become real writers called on to transcribe others' passionate emotions. Most of them believed they were only there to write this or that legal request and they sufficed with embellishing on the wrongs that had been done to their customers. This included Anees, whom they had nicknamed "Black," for even his colleagues who sat with him in front of the courthouse made fun of his decision and said mockingly, "A black guy writing love letters!"

He made no comment. Inside, he was intoxicated, for he had come to love his new work as much as he loved telling stories. He may have seemed to them like one of those characters who appear and then disappear on a movie screen, but they didn't realize that there was a story to this man, a story that might seem as strange as the rest of the stories I tell.

My mother says that she was the only one to notice that Anees didn't have completely African features-"his features are sort of like ours!" An odd sentence that I heard from her more than once. Even though she never articulated exactly what "our features" consisted of, I gathered that she definitely meant his blue eyes. But that color is not one of "our features"! I might have busied myself searching for an answer to this for a long time if he hadn't said to me one day, "Have you heard of the Suq al-Shuyukh?"

I responded with another question: "No-where is it??"

"That doesn't matter, but do you know that in the old days animals and people of all kinds came through that market!"

I asked him what he meant, and he said:

"What do you think they did in those days? They would get drunk and get married, and act as though that were their last day on earth!"

I asked him if he were just telling me a story like the rest of his stories. He said, "How is this a story? Wasn't Adam dark and Eve fair?"

I was eighteen at the time, and I told him that I didn't care that much, and that in the end all of us were the children of a mixed god whose father and mother are unknown. That is when he said something that I only understood many years later:

"Why do these stories matter so much to you?"

At that time I didn't know that I as well would fall in love with writing stories. I remained silent and didn't even try to come up with an answer. I don't know why I did that. I was so sure he would always be there, he was such a part of my daily routine, until what happened on September 22, 1980.

It was a Monday at six in the evening when I heard the news that war had broken out. I didn't panic, but at seven o'clock when I heard the announcer on the radio himself announce that my age group was being called up for the draft, I thought-perhaps wrongly-that those were the last moments of my life, and that I had to write a farewell letter to my beloved, the girl with the short red hair who was an actress in one of region's theatre troupes. Of course I could think of no one better than Anees to craft a farewell letter for me that would reveal my love to her-a love I had never actually confessed to her in all that time-first of all because I was young and shy, and second because everyone I told about her (like my friends and family) were against me having a relationship with her. My closest friends said to me, "An actress in a theater troupe will do more than a professional prostitute!"

Everyone knew of my love for her except for her. And so there was no better time to declare my love than the day both the war and the draft were announced. My decision made, I went to find Anees.

It was a bizarre day for all of us. Anees and my great-grandmother had left the house where they had lived together for eighteen years-ever since the scandal had become public knowledge. Anees was carrying the same table that he had started writing on forty-one years before, before my great-grandmother had taken it to her house; as for her, she was carrying ink and paper. There on Writers' Lane, they sat together, just the two of them, next to each other, and when they saw me approaching, I heard them say, at the same time:

"Nothing but love letters from today on!"

I replied, before sitting down on the sidewalk beside them: "Indeed, nothing but love letters from today on!"

But today, as I write, or as I tell this story, I wonder: How did it pass them by, these two who were inflamed by love stories, that there had never been anything but love letters-not only that day but forever, and everywhere.

Read more from the May 2005 issue
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