Luis Carvalho was the “sad Portuguese”—that is what they called him, or at least what we called him, we the children in the neighborhoods of Sif, Mahallat al-Pasha, Nadhran, and Bllush even when we were grown boys and then teenagers, but before we became men, because the war came upon us and did not allow us to complete our years together—it took most of the group to the graveyard before they had lived out even a quarter of their lives.
It was the same war that made Luis Carvalho—a short man, the sad Portuguese—sadder, more agitated, and more attached to his guitar, than when I sat beside him on board a ship he had left anchored for long years near al-Khawrah, indeed even when I visited him in an old house in Lisbon in the Bairro Alto or “high quarter,” before we went down to a bar where they played some sad fado music. It was packed with customers as we tried to recollect what happened in Basra, amid the smoke and laughter and drunken shouting. It would be overstating it to say we were telling stories, because the fact is that we did not tell a single story out loud; we were sipping glasses of rum and port—he was more loyal than I to traditional Portuguese drinks—and we communicated by clinking our glasses, with our eyes, and through the internal monologues in which each of us was immersed, as if we had been thrown here as we had been in Basra before the war chased us out of there. Except that it was different this time. At his house in Lisbon, I was the exile in this now distant place, whereas in Basra he was the exile here in that now distant place. There was no need for either of us—he, who had now entered his seventies, or I who even now am not half his age—to ask each other, “Do you remember that day?” because people usually ask about nothing but commonplaces, whereas what had become exceptional in our lives was anyone who threw themselves before us without giving us a choice. That was the case that wintry evening. We were not in Macondo, as he told me that remarkable day in Basra in front of the Armenian church, between Mahallat al-Pasha and Sif, indeed we were in Lisbon, in the Bairro Alto, in the Manzo Bar filled with smoke, where we sat on September 22, 1980, without our having planned it that way.
I still remember, the day the war broke out, when he was sitting as usual in front of the church, the Armenian church, by Am Soares’s little shop, cradling his guitar. When the street emptied in the evening, a passerby might hear him late, but everyone knew that he was singing one of those songs we were all used to hearing him sing, and which later, in exile in a bar near the harbor of Porto in Portugal—after I had learned several languages, including Portuguese—I understood to be “Querida Saudade.” I knew at the time why he sang the song with such yearning: he was alone. But I did not know that Saudade not only meant solitude but that it could also be a girl’s name—indeed, it was the name of Am Soares’s daughter.
As usual, he was not sitting by himself that day. Seated at the foot of the chair—usually proudly occupied by Am Soares himself, who like a dethroned king would only give up his throne to Luis—was Mulhem, Mulhem whom the war would take from me, not as a corpse but as a long-term prisoner of war, even down to today, and who sat that way, I think, so that he could see Sarab, the Armenian girl with the short red hair, dark blue eyes, and little pug nose, who at that very moment was opening the window of her room upstairs and pretending to read a book. The truth is that I loved her too, but I kept my love a secret, unlike Mulhem, who confided in us his crush on her.
“You’re crazy,” Luis told him.
“God loves crazy people,” Mulhem answered.
“It doesn’t matter what Mulhem thinks. We all know that it’s impossible for a Shiite to marry an Armenian.”
That day, Luis sang while Mulhem sat on the ground in the jeans he was so proud of—as he was of all the clothes his sister had brought him from Kuwait—and a sailor T-shirt Luis had loaned him, with the Portuguese lettering for “Highest Glory to Sailors” written on it in Portuguese. Neither of them paid any attention to me when I got up and stood behind Mulhem. The fact is that this time I had not come here to hear Luis’s sad voice. I wanted to tell them that war had broken out, and that perhaps within minutes, if not seconds, we would see warplanes flying overhead. There was no need for me to inform them, however, for just as I stood up, and as Luis’s sad voice was singing the very words querida Saudade, and as Mulhem, daydreaming as usual, squatted like a sad king along us, his eyes faraway in the direction of Sarab’s window—at that exact moment, more than sixty jets flew overhead, passing in a flash, accelerating rapidly in the direction of the port, leaving behind only black trails of smoke and a reverberating echo that drowned out the echo of Luis Carvalho’s sentence, which I have never forgotten, even today as I sit in a bar in Lisbon: “La barco, la barco, la barco, queridos.”
Only now do I know that his albarco meant al-bakhera, the Arabic word for ship, and that queridos meant “dear ones.” Perhaps, and I am not exaggerating here at all, despite my ignorance of foreign languages (except English), I was guessing somehow at what the word queridos meant, because we really were his loved ones, for we doggedly stuck with him all those years when he sat there, but as regards the ship, I honestly did not know anything about it until that day. But before getting into the details of the ship story, I need to get to other matters essential, I think, to the context of that story.
In fact, that day was also the first day I ever entered the Armenian church. Now when I try to recall what happened the day the war broke out, I think of those commonplaces that the war overturned, as any war does. What I mean by commonplaces are all those everyday things we never noticed, everything that is called routine, everything we do automatically without paying attention, because it’s always there, with nothing to call our attention to it or compel us to think about it.
I don’t say that arbitrarily, because on that day, September 22, 1980, some things ceased being routine for some people—perhaps it did not happen to everyone—or to be absolutely accurate, my own view of so many things changed. If I strain my memory hard this time I notice things I had not noticed before, or in my best guess, I passed by until that moment constantly because it was there and that’s all, long discarded—not just things or places, but humans too. In this way I learned so many things that day, or discovered so many other things by way of the two stories Luis told me: the first was his arrival in Basra and the second was the story of the girl with short red hair and large dark blue eyes, and the little pug nose, just as in all circumstances and in the end, just as people do not live apart from each other—even when they launch war against each other—nothing appears that does not have some relation to the other. Sometimes I wonder whether it was necessary for the war to happen for us to discover what routine had routinely hidden? (Don’t we discover people’s civilizations these days only when wars break out?) I don’t know … but what I want to say is that for long years, for example, and until that day, I couldn’t pass by the Armenian church without thinking of walking into it. Perhaps it would never have occurred to me had Luis not breathed the thought to me.
“Queridos, for so many years I would pass the Armenian church without ever thinking of walking into it!”
Perhaps that was because of his Catholic upbringing, which allowed him to enter none but a Catholic church.
His face, unlike mine—or even Mulhem’s—grew sadder. Surely it was not sorrow but fear that was set on our faces. It was he who spoke.
“Queridos, don’t be afraid. War does not only consume itself, because it has no dream, it crushes every life and every dream!” We did not understand—or at least I didn’t—whether it was better for me to talk about myself starting now and leave Mulhem out of the story for a while, for it was Luis who left within minutes, cradling his guitar, as I fabricated an expression on my face suggesting that I understood what he wanted to say. I even went into the church with him.
The church was empty except for us and a priest we did not see until we got as far as the pulpit. Just before that when I joined him, I saw him standing at the altar with candles, taking a long candle and making the sign of the cross, and it was the sad Luis Carvalho doing that, whose Portuguese compatriots called him Luis O Vermelho (which at the time I understood to mean “the Red”) referring to his communist past, which we knew nothing about. He seized the huge candle and lit it. I was behind it, until we reached an enclosure that I recognized as a confessional. There we met the priest, who approached us smiling, as if he wanted to grant us the fortitude to bear a deed for which he was responsible (the war?). We were stuck together, Luis and I, submissive, each of us with a candle in his hand. The priest stood in the middle and placed a candle over each of our heads and began to murmur expressions I could not understand (I thought Luis understood them better than me); the priest—as I later found out—was speaking Syriac. Then I heard him say, “You are blessed, my sons, because you are visiting the Mass despite the war.”
We did not ask what Mass he was talking about; the church was empty. At that moment I saw the priest tremble at the sound of nearby bombardment. I looked at Luis and saw his lips trying to pronounce a few words, but in vain; they opened only to give the impression of murmuring. Had he understood the terror of the priest, whose flinches revealed the wrinkles on his face, whose movements seemed so sudden and uneasy? Luis did not give me time enough to think about what the priest wanted to say—I now heard him speak to the priest.
“Father, go to your room. Don’t worry about us.”
The priest did actually leave, as if he had been waiting for us to say that, or as if the ever more violent sounds of the bombardment had followed him and that he, not Luis, had discovered that he needed to rest.
I saw Luis rise from his place for a moment. I got up behind him and followed him and we reached the corner near the pulpit, where the confessional stood. Luis placed the candle, which had never left his hand the whole time, on one of the benches. We stood facing one another with the enclosure more or less between us. I did not know that the confessional had a back door against the church wall until I saw Luis pushing it open.
“Go in on this side and listen to what I tell you!”
I entered, and he entered from the front and sat on the wooden support. I had difficulty discerning him through the little perforations in the window, which was the sole means of seeing his face. I could scarcely see him, and the grid threw big shadows over his face where he sat. Every time, I knew when I visited churches in my exile, that this was a place for confessions and penance for sins—how did I know this back then, I who was raised Shiite? I did not ask him why and how, but listened to the story he told me that day. He was Luis Carvalho, the sad Portuguese as we called him, we the neighborhood children of Sif, Mahallat al-Pasha, Nadhran and Bllush, and Luis O Vermelho (the Red) as his compatriots called him. The man had his story, which he told me that day, the day the war broke out, and I do not say that out of literary necessity but because the man had a genuinely unusual story, which perhaps had not seemed unusual to me until that day, because I encountered him and saw him and heard his songs as part of my daily routine. Now, I try to recall the story, despite the claim that the war ended long ago. I know the difficulty of what I am doing, because there is nothing harder than telling true stories, so it is no wonder that I dawdle in retelling the story, or that my memory is distorted when it comes to exactly what happened that day.
“La barco, la barco, la barco, querido.” He pronounced that sentence and was silent a while. Then he repeated, “The ship is coming, Father.” He was silent again, after imparting that sentence to me earnestly. Then he started offering his confession. It was not actually a confession of a sin, for Luis had committed no sin that required forgiveness. He was telling me his story, yes, his story which, but for that day, may have remained hidden under the rhythm of daily routine and I would have not heard him tell it. Not before we left Iraq. Not until we met once again years later in this old bar, sitting beside the glass of its huge window, viewing from our spot the high bridge erected over the Tagus River, and the other end, going in the direction of the little tourist city of Estoril, where a statue of Christ crucified on a white marble cross had been raised, looking like the prow of a huge ship.
As of that day, the day the war broke out, twenty-four years had passed since Luis’s arrival in our city, or more precisely in our neighborhood, where his countrymen had preceded him by centuries. Some time after his coming we gave him the title al-Hazeen or The Sad—though members of his own community had at first called him Luis O Vermelho. Luis never imagined that one day he would set foot in Iraq, specifically in Basra, even though he knew from his earliest school days of the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who anchored his ship at Basra.
“Everything happens by coincidence. Coincidence shapes our lives, and is the only destiny that drives our fates,” Luis told me. For until that day, when his ruin began, September 22, 1950, he had not known that he was Luis Carvalho, the motivated volunteer soldier, until that day, number 2276809, Luis Carvalho, a member of the paratrooper unit called The Upper heavens Heavens Heavens
Heavens (“a poetic name,” was the comment of Luis the Sad, and also the Poetic), the first battery of the battalion known at the time as Salazar’s Commandos, named for the man, originally a civilian, who one day granted himself the title of general and ruled Portugal for nearly half a century—had now known that the story of his aversion to the military would begin that day—despite the fact that at that time he had not yet deserted—and there was, inside him, something still to be transformed.
Perhaps I thought he was telling tales then, perhaps his stories seemed—until that day—merely forgotten facts, or facts we would classify as everyday, but they—and he confirmed this—forced him (and us) to recall them, all of them in detail at once, whether we wanted to or not. For at the moment the jet flew overhead, its noise broke not only the sound barrier, but opened an interstice in his memory and made him set off running all at once.
Thirty years before the Phantom jet flew by—which, true to its name that day, was as ominous as any phantom—on September 22, 1950, a similar plane did not pass, rather he was sitting in the similar plane, soaring at that moment over the Mozambican port of Beira. At the time, he had served just short of six years in the paratroop unit (“I was the age you are now,” he told me). He was in the plane with a number of his colleagues, all natives of the Portuguese port city of Porto—youths at the outset of their lives. There were perhaps fifty of them. The cabin resounded with their voices and their songs, mingling the enthusiasm for war of some with the equally powerful expressions of pain of the other half of them because they were separated from their loved ones. But Luis the Sad or Luis O Vermelho suddenly took notice amid the combustion of the emotional songs of one of that group: Jose Alfonso. Yes, Jose Alfonso. How had he, Luis the Sad, Luis the Red, forgotten this name? For had it not been for him, he would have not known they were flying over the port of Beira. Jose sat directly in front of him (on September 22, 1980, he remembered the image exactly) when he felt the change of the plane’s altitude and he looked ahead of him, through the small round window—behind Jose Alfonso’s back—and when his eyes first glimpsed the tilted prow of ships. He sang out, “We’re here, it’s the port of Beira!” As soon as he pronounced that sentence, Jose Alfonso looked around at him and said mockingly, “Today it’s Beira, but not for long—we’re going to change the map.”
Perhaps until that time Luis did not grasp this fact: it is soldiers who change the maps and the names of places and things, even the names of people. If Jose Alfonso was recalled, it was because that young man had never gone unnoticed in his life. For apart from the actual change of the port of Beira a few days later, after they had obliterated it along with the ships there, Jose Alfonso was found, having hanged himself from the prow of the wreckage of a ship (after the Portuguese army leveled the port, leaving nothing but the wreckage of a ship, of which only the scorched bow remained).
“Jose Alfonso hanged himself just as Christ was crucified.”
That image never left Luis’s imagination. It haunted him in all his travels, as he wandered, his solitude wandering with him, in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, the Cape Verde Islands, Timor, and finally Goa, Goa of India—how disgusted I get these days when I see advertisements for tourism in the subcontinent—do we all really need some kind of shot to lance our pus-filled boils, something that seems to have become normal these days? Even now as I pose this question to you, I am not provoking any of you with it, though I want to point out the extent of the changes that befell Luis the Sad, or Luis the Red, and me (sitting before you), just as Luis sat before me in the confessional that day, even though he—unlike me—sat with a candle he had lit—I am not completely sure—more out of love for la barco, the ship, than for Christ, the Christ of the Armenians in Sif, Mahallat al-Pasha, Nadhran, and Bllush. Of course we knew—even long years later when we sat in the tavern in Lisbon—that just as September 22 was the day the war broke out, it was the needle that released the flow of Luis’s memories. Goa of India was the needle that opened Luis’s eyes to a new world.
It was September 22, 1956 (twenty-eight days before I was born), and the sun had just set when a small plane carried Luis and his comrades to Goa . Luis at first was unable to believe that they were headed there to wipe out the place, even though the number and type of the weapons they carried with them made that obvious. He may have guessed, but even so he did not want to believe it. By that time he was tired of war, but—to tell the truth—he dared not reject the war and desert the army (“Where to? I had a mother and sister waiting for my salary every month!”). When he realized the plane was cruising over Goa he found his eyes cruising and looking out the window. This time his gaze was freer. No one was sitting in front of him. And instead of the noise of the plane flying them over the church, this time all he heard was his comrades’ breathing. Each one of them was occupied with his own internal monologue. But just as the plane passed over them as they sat in front of the Armenian church, those moments passed over and under the sky of Goa—swift and fleeting as a falling star. For a moment Luis found himself suddenly on a small ship sailing waters unknown to him. He still remembered how sickened and frightened he had been at first. Perhaps he might have remained so for a long time had he not seen a gray-haired, half-naked man addressing him in Portuguese, beside whom was a man helping him, whose clothing and accent were Indian.
“What happened?” he asked at the time.
The man then explained to him how they had found him adrift on the sea, wearing a Portuguese military uniform. And that he too was Portuguese; he had fled long years ago from Salazar’s wars, when he was living in Basra (“Have you heard of Basra and the Suq al-Hunud, the Indian Market?” the man asked him) amid the Portuguese community, and that he (Luis) was lucky to have been discovered because it was his last voyage to India, for until recently he had been doing business between India and Basra, and that everything had been fine until the Portuguese army arrived in Goa. And that the previous day they had annihilated all the villages around the cities on the pretext that they were sheltering resistance fighters.
Of course Luis did not know until that day that there was in fact a Portuguese community in Basra, despite the fact that he had heard of Basra and known it through the tales of Sindbad’s voyages and the legends of Hasan, like me, as that day I grasped for the first time that there were Iraqi Portuguese, or Iraqis of Portuguese origin, living on the fringes of the neighborhoods of Sif, Mahallat al-Pasha, Nadhran, and Bllush, near the Armenian church, and that they named their children Joao, Luis, Eduardo, and other names that never struck us as odd back then because it was part of the routine we had always known, and part of the routine of a mixed country that might have been named Iraq as an affectionate diminutive of the word “al-a’raaq,” or “many origins,” but I do not know, even though I do know why Luis was called Luis the Red and Luis the Sad.
Red, because he followed in the footsteps of the man who took him along with him on the ship on September 22, 1956, and who turned out, later, to be one of the very first Portuguese communists, who took part in establishing the first cells of the Marxist movement in Iraq. He was one of those who circulated strange leaflets calling for the “expulsion of colonialism” and smashing “the bourgeois system,” and calling on the “proletariat”—of which there was no such thing at that time, or ever, in Iraq—to seize power. (The first of these leaflets appeared among that small community, and only in Basra, where I lived.)
Sad, because the memory of the death of his Portuguese compatriot, who had once taken him along on his ship from Goa of India to Basra, always made him feel sinful and sad, more than his emotion and sorrow when he saw the soldier Jose Alfonso—his comrade in arms in the attack on the port of Beira—who had hanged himself like an unknown Christ on the prow of the last ship—one of many ships anchored in the port (I think that before the wreck it was used as a dance hall for the city’s citizens) and which was the only surviving part of it. On that day he heard the news from his Indian assistant, who had returned alone, suddenly, to Basra with the ship, announcing that the man had died after entering a struggle he had joined “on purpose” with a great whale.
The man had spoken to him of his fiancée, Saudade, the daughter of the Portuguese trader Soares (of Jewish origin, a trader at the time, then went bankrupt just when the Jews were expelled and their properties were plundered, leaving him nothing for his success at insisting on remaining in Basra but a modest shop between Sif and Mahallat al-Pasha), she of the beautiful singing voice, she the rebel who went out barefaced, with no cloak or veil, at a time when she was the only girl who sang and performed on stage in public. “She was every man’s dream,” the man told him, remembering her lovingly as they plowed through the waters of the Gulf. Luis was truly surprised when he saw her for the first time, with her beautiful laughter and the modesty of her speech. She had no difficulty speaking to him in Portuguese (the man had taught her the language). She told him she spoke English fluently in addition to Arabic and Hebrew. Saudade was delighted to learn that Luis played the guitar, and said she would be happy to sing accompaniments. And so Luis spent long periods with her, singing Portuguese fado songs together, and his fervor led him to write her the song “Querida Saudade.” When she heard him sing that song, she felt a strange and sudden change in her feelings. She did not tell Luis that day, though she did tell her fiancé that she had begun to feel a change in her feelings toward him, though she did not know exactly why.
It is possible to hide everything in life except love, because the glow in the eyes gives it away. And this is exactly what happened. For ever since that evening, Saudade felt a strange shiver that revealed how Luis made her feel, for he knew that she loved him just as he loved her, and it was then that their songs took on a new profundity. And so his days passed, and the man—her fiancé, despite his sorrow—could not find fault in what Saudade and Luis were doing; he rented a room near Am Soares’s house—perhaps because he thought this was the safest way of getting her back from Luis, who had had feelings. Until what happened happened, when her fiancé told her that he had agreed to go on a voyage that might be a long one. Saudade did not know that this time, perhaps, he had decided to depart from her life and never return. She did not need much time to start torturing herself, because perhaps she was the reason he had got into a struggle with a great whale, first of all because it was an unequal struggle, and secondly it was a struggle caused by the state of futility they had experienced; because he, as she knew, through all those years had never thought of taking on a struggle like this one.
And then Saudade closed the door to her room, hating singing and hating everything. Nothing was to any avail with her, not her father’s pleas nor the Portuguese fado songs Luis played on the same guitar that had once belonged to his red Portuguese compatriot. For this reason, old Soares allowed Luis to sit in his chair to sing in his loud, husky voice so that Saudade could hear, and perhaps change her mind, come out of her room, and accept him as a man again. No, nothing like this had ever happened before. Even when Luis personally tried with her, she did not respond at all, as if there had never been anything between them. The more emotional Luis’s songs became, the more Saudade persisted in her mutinous solitude. Did she feel guilty? No one knew. And then she was found hanging from the prow of the ship anchored even today near al-Khawrah. How sorry he was later, having seen her crucified like that, and not being able to do anything about her slender, distended neck or her protruding tongue. What use now were songs or guitars? Shortly thereafter, he tried to remember whether Jose Alfonso had had the same sad gaze that she had on her face as she hung there. Since that day Luis’s songs grew sadder, so much so that we named him Luis the Sad, even though we did not know the meaning of the Portuguese fado songs.
That day as he sat before me in the confessional of the Armenian church, I asked him, without knowing or realizing how my question could have been taken, “And now, what is left of all those years?”
It was no good for him to tell me he had not left Basra, because I knew that the reason for his attachment to the city was his attachment to a lost memory or a sorrow he was a party to, because we can quickly forget the cities where we lived happily, but we never forget the cities in which we suffered. Doesn’t Porto represent a permanent torment, the city in which he lost every connection he had to life—his mother, his sister, and finally Jose Alfonso?
“Querido, for me, Basra compensates for Porto.” That is what he told me that day as he sat near the pulpit. “I will tell you a little secret.” He swallowed a moment and then went on. “That ship is still there.” In a featureless voice, in which I could detect neither joy nor sadness, he added directly, “All these years I thought about her in spite of everything that happened. Even today I have no wish to leave Basra.”
For the first time I knew that twenty-four years had passed since he first arrived in Basra; I had been perhaps seven or eight years old when I first heard his sad voice and the sound of his guitar in front of Am Soares’s shop, indeed when I heard of Luis the Red and Luis the Sad.
“Do you realize you’re old enough for military service now?” he asked me.
Not until that moment had I grasped that the calling up of my age cohort for reserves service was only a matter of time.
“The ship is still there. Do you want to go away with me?”
Before I could ask him where, he answered me.
“To Macondo—have you heard of it?”
When he pronounced that sentence, I looked at him like someone just awakening from a deep slumber. Despite the darkness around us, especially him, as he sat in the shadowy corner of the confessional, I could see a bright twinkle in his eyes that I had never seen there before, perhaps because I had never gazed into them with such depth, and perhaps because that twinkle had never been there before. Who knows. I watched him get up and leave at that moment. I might have remained there, seated, for a long time had I not felt his hands on my shoulders and heard his voice.
He did not need to tell me that, for I found myself getting up to follow him. When I stepped outside the church, I saw that Mulhem was sitting in Luis’s chair for the first time, and trying to play his guitar, while Sarab was still at the window of her house, pretending to read the book in her hands, though every now and then she looked furtively down to where Mulhem sat.
Suddenly Luis smiled at Mulhem’s face, saying nothing, as if he knew all his thoughts.
“I won’t ask you—you’ll never leave!”
Mulhem shook his head as if he did not understand what Luis meant. Then I knew why Mulhem was sitting there, showing no interest in joining us. I remember that he had a nickname too, Mulhem the Sad, because of his passionate attachment to the Armenian girl named Sarab.
Luis and I left the place.
“La barco, la barco, la barco, querido!” Luis said to me. I saw him head for the port, and walked behind him. It was now evening, and the sounds of bombardment could be heard from nearby places, sounds that grew louder as our steps drew closer, and with the agitated footfalls of other people here and there, surely surprised by the news that war had broken out. Suddenly I saw Luis slowing his steps, as if he were afraid of reaching a ship he might find destroyed. Or I do not know why I thought at the time that he was afraid we would find it, after all these years, without a prow. But to pose the exact question—who would now want to hang himself from that prow? Had he and I not decided to leave the port, Basra itself? Unlike Mulhem—whom I suddenly imagined horribly crucified, with his guitar, on the prow, who had nothing to do with the ship that would take us away; no, but on the prow of a distant ship which would never reach any port or signal like a distant lighthouse … distant, so distant, seen only by the eyes of practiced sailors; sad sailors.
© Najem Wali. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2013 by Peter Theroux. All rights reserved.