(edited by Jillian Schedneck)
Smiles, smiles—how the Balinese can project.
– John Olsen, journal entry, September 1973.
Mum hadn’t left Australia in 45 years.
It took us six months to convince her that a trip to Ubud—the sedate Balinese city where yoga comes with cocktails—would be the perfect way to celebrate her 70th birthday. Her counter arguments usually had a kind of patriotic logic to them (‘Why would you want to leave Australia? We’ve got everything we need right here!’).
To be honest, there were plenty of other sedate tropical cities we could have chosen that wouldn’t have involved Mum applying for a passport. But we kids knew best, and we wanted our Bali trip. After many rounds of reasoning, cajoling, and promising we would actually save money, Mum got on a plane.
From Mum’s home in Canberra, a trip to Ubud involves both Sydney and Denpasar airports, the latter of which terrified her with its blunt warnings about what happens to people who break Indonesian law. She arrives somewhat shattered, but happy to be in the same place as all her kids and grandkids for the first time in years.
My mother falls squarely into the category of people who are happiest when doing. She’s not a receiver of massages or a sitter and drinker of cocktails. So in many ways, a private villa staffed by people whose main job is to make guests more comfortable is her purgatory. We kids who knew best were completely aware of this fact, and completely ignored it. Maybe because we so wanted to see her relax for a few days. More likely because we wanted our Bali trip.
A seven-day family holiday is just right. Seven days factors in one to run around comparing hotel rooms, two for sightseeing, two for lounging, and two to wonder how much longer you can stand the whole thing. By day four, Mum is spending more time by the pool. On day six, as we sit down to her birthday banquet, she’s all but sparkling. She smiles more than I’ve seen her smile in years.
‘I just want to thank all my family for all their love and support,’ she tells us. This woman, who only ever left Canberra when absolutely required, now has her own set of tie-dyed pants and a matching Bali t-shirt.
Then it’s day eight.
Suitcases are packed and drivers booked when my brother-in-law walks into the villa’s flower-filled lobby, grinning like a kid who’s hidden his mum’s keys. ‘Looks like our flight’s been cancelled,’ he proclaims. We laugh. Our eyes widen.
On neighbouring East Java, restless Mount Raung is awake, sending out a plume of ash that’s drifting over Denpasar airport. Flights in and out are being delayed, then delayed further, then cancelled.
Panic sets in. What about work? What about school? What about Mum? By the time we get hold of our respective airlines to ask about the next flight out, every seat back to Australia is full for a fortnight.
My younger brother and his wife start calculating how much money they’ll lose if they miss two weeks of work. My older brother has his travel insurance policy in his lap and is diligently highlighting sections relevant to natural disasters. My brother-in-law continues to grin, giggling every time Raung’s towering ash cloud appears on the TV.
Mum goes back to bed. Eventually, we all sleep.
In the morning, the poolside orchids are the same surreal purple they were the day before. The woman who has been silently placing offerings around the villa each morning—delicate bamboo trays filled with bright flowers, incense and other treats—completes her rounds as usual. Roosters begin their chorus. Kites appear at unlikely heights in a spotless sky.
But now we’re not on holiday. We’re off schedule. Stuck.
Everywhere we go, the Balinese keep smiling.
When I stumbled on John Olsen’s collected journals, Drawn from Life, I kept re-reading his Ubud entries from 1973, wishing I could have seen the city during that time. Within five years, this Newcastle-born painter would be awarded an OBE (the Order of Australia came much later, in 2001, followed by the Archibald in 2005). But before all that, when he took this trip to Bali with his friends, it sounded like all he really wanted was a break from the Australian art scene and a few quiet G&Ts.
I’m sure Olsen wouldn’t have considered himself ‘stuck’ in our situation. To him, this would have been more time to sketch with a sweating drink in easy reach. More time to take in the colours and details. More time to understand the people.
‘I work in my brother’s field this afternoon,’ says today’s taxi driver. ‘Black dust all over me.’
Every day the ash cloud hovers above Denpasar, another day’s worth of tourists doesn’t arrive, and another day’s worth stays on, increasingly grumpy and nervous about parting with their Rupiah. We hear that one Australian airline is offering free tickets to Fiji for travellers who had booked for Bali. Basically, no one wants to deal with Denpasar.
The Balinese keep smiling—‘projecting,’ as Olsen put it. I try to catch their faces in quieter moments to gauge whether they share our escalating panic, but the smiles are fixed. I resolve to make more of an effort with my shoddy Bahasa and to spend my remaining Rupiah in a way that seems useful.
But it’s not long before Bali’s many gods decide they’ve had enough of our panicky family, and the wind swings in our favour. Mum’s flight gets out in a tiny window before the entire airport shuts down for the day, and my sister’s family gets home too. Only four of us—my brother, his wife, my partner and I—end up with an uncertain wait for the next available seat.
The rest of Australia now knows about the people ‘stranded in paradise’, and there’s reasonable outrage at our sickening luck. The four of us switch between guilty elation to tense frustration many times a day, as dodgy WiFi and dodgier airline staff thwart our attempts to book a seat home.
‘What if we just get a plane to Perth and work it out from there?’ my brother offers.
‘Darwin’s by far the closest option,’ my sister-in-law counters.
‘Yeah but it doesn’t matter how close anything is if the airport’s closed… Maybe we should look at getting a boat to…somewhere.’ That was my incredibly useful suggestion.
‘We just need to relax, and wait,’ says my partner.
Eventually, we decide to pretend Ubud just wants us to stay.
The 2015 Mount Raung tantrum sputtered on from early July well into August. Once we got home, only six days late, I compulsively checked each airline’s flight status page in a highly unscientific effort to calculate how bad things might be for the people I’d met. I now understood that peace and quiet are luxuries the Balinese save for the wet season. Half the year is given over to a cycle of entertaining, pampering, feeding and watering the tourists. I wondered about the French café owner whose Balinese wife made gado-gado so sublime it restored my faith in just about everything, the young Ubud hipsters who’d cottoned on to white tourists’ love of complicated health drinks, and the woman who would station herself outside the pricey gelato shop, hand outstretched, eyes straining to meet those of the people who walked past her and her children.
Earlier in 2015, Australians had been told to ‘#BoycottBali’ after the execution of two of the Bali Nine by firing squad. Mount Raung was the island’s mid-year drama. Then, in November, another ash-spewing volcano made itself known—Lombok’s Mount Rinjani cancelled its own crop of flights.
Our little part in it all felt like disaster, but the people in Ubud had a completely different interpretation. When I found Olsen’s journal, I suddenly had the words for it, and saw the line connecting 1973 to 2015: ‘Smiles, smiles—how the Balinese can project. A shining mirror on their faces, they align it so that it picks up the light. They can believe in your humanity, too.’
Alice Allan’s poetry has appeared in Cordite, Rabbit, Plumwood Mountain and Australian Book Review. You can find more of her writing at aliceallan.net.
'From What I've Read So Far Of Yours, It Sounds Like Every Man In Macedonia Hit On You.'
Put it this way. If it’s a sex fest that you want, and you look like you might be a woman, then go to the Macedonian Poetry Festival. Put it in your calendars. It’s in August every year.
Then again, if it’s actually poetry that you want, also go to the Macedonian Poetry Festival, which, as I discovered, and to my surprise, is not just a local affair but an event international in scope and focus. It’s been attended by such laureates as Pablo, Ted, Allen, Seamus, W. H.; and others from other places that in the English-speaking world we may not be so familiar with. Like Eugenio Montale, Joseph Brodsky, both Nobel Prize winners; and Leopold Sédar Senghor who, as well as being a poet, was the President of Senegal. Like Václav Havel from Czech. Poetry and politics. Remember him?
Would you believe it? Even our own Thomas Shapcott from Ipswich was guest-of-honour in 1989 and upon his head was placed the Golden Wreath.
There have also been, in the entire fifty years of the festival’s existence, two women, one white and one black – a Desanka Maksimović of Serbia and a Nancy Morejón of Cuba – who also had golden wreaths placed upon their heads.
So now here I am on the first morning of the first day of the Festival’s Golden Jubilee. I’m downstairs in the Hotel Drim in one of the official gallery spaces where there is a photographic exhibition, a memorial of sorts to mark the first half-century. I’m doing the rounds of it, pacing the perimeters, perusing the pictures hanging on the walls in their frames: your Nerudas, your Heaneys, your Senghors, your Montales, your Lundkvists, your Amichais. All interesting. But it’s the image of Ginsberg blown-up in front of me, in dark-room-developed black-and-white, that catches and holds my attention.
No chiselled bust shot or self-conscious solitary study, in it Ginsberg is casually strolling the Struga streets with another man, a poet, a Macedonian poet whose name escapes me the moment I read it on the paper plaque. But I do take in what he’s wearing.
The man is wearing a light-coloured safari suit and a pair of delicate spectacles. There is something fine, too, about his features, his bones, his throat, in comparison to the wiry-bearded, goggle-eyed Ginsberg. But they are both smiling – one the smile of someone who has caught, the other the smile of someone who has been captured. They share the same dreamy expression on their faces, the same glazed-eye gazes. And because of this it seems to me as if they have known, between them, some kind of intimate pleasure, poetic or unpoetic or both. Now this pleasure in that time, in that place, in Macedonia in 1986, when homosexuality had another ten years to be decriminalised, would have been unspeakable.
Of course, I’m only speculating.
But if they did share the kinds of pleasures I am imagining, I do not begrudge them. On the contrary. Something for everyone at the Macedonian Poetry Festival. No. I do not begrudge them.
Just as I do not begrudge the present-day patriarchs, or their pleasures, here before me, on the first night of the first day at the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival’s official opening ceremony at nine in the evening.
Out they come, one by one.
They teeter, they totter, they dodder assisted by walking frames, sticks and the beautiful, young women who accompany them, arm in arm, in old-fashioned ways onto the main stage. There, into the microphones that patiently await them, they gasp – or at least they seem to – their poems’ and their own last breaths. It does seem that way, as if hunched in their now-too-loose, crumpled suits they tire too easily; as if their bodies can no longer withstand or contain the force of their words or passions.
So, no. I do not begrudge the patriarchs anything.
They are my dear dears.
And now I am here.
In the audience, I mean.
With the thousands and thousands – the thousands – I sit on the grass. Others sit on chairs, fold-out, cafe or the odd municipal bench. Some stand. We all flank the banks of the River Drim. We face the stage which is actually, most days, a bridge. And we listen so attentively to the patriarchs and their poems. They transmit and we receive. It’s an eerie-feelinged atmosphere.
So quiet you could hear a pin drop – if pins were actually being dropped which, of course, they aren’t. Instead, what you hear in their place, along with the patriarch’s last-seeming gasps, is the soft beat of the wind; a breeze on the sails of the toy-like ships; boats that bare-chested boys make twist and turn on the water’s surface as part of the festival’s spectacle, as part of the celebration.
And then when the patriarch’s poems are done, when each poem is done, the people, the thousands and thousands of us roar with applause, and cheers, and bravos like I have never seen people roar for poetry before. Like, really, it is satisfying some great human hunger, a deep desire.
And then again the quiet.
And then the roar of applause.
And if that’s not enough, then do you know? I don’t. The nice middle-aged couple, who have invited me to share their picnic blanket and roasted pumpkin seeds with them, tell me that this night and the next and the next the Poetry Festival is being televised live and uncut on Macedonian National TV. To the whole of the rest of the country. To the thousands and thousands of other people who cannot be here but wish they could; who sit, the couple promise, glued in front of their screens. For poetry?
But Ginsberg. Back to that beatnik.
There’s a story that comes to mind when I think of Macedonia and poetry and him.
Now, I can’t remember if it was an old friend, also a poet, who told it to me when he came back from New York where he’d been – and good for him – chasing his dreams. There, he’d gotten involved in the famous, fledgling-welcoming Nuyorican Poets Cafe and had sort of gotten to know Ginsberg, at least rubbed shoulders with him regularly. Enough to understand that it was a habit, his custom to cruise the Nuyorican venue, as my friend put it, for fresh, young, male meat; to go home with a new piece of it every time.
Now, I’m not judging. Again, I’m not begrudging. As long as it’s all adult and consensual. I’m just saying. Poetry. Gatherings. Festivals.
But the story I was remembering.
Maybe it was this same friend, the one who went to New York, who told it to me. Or maybe I read it somewhere in a book or magazine. In any case – hearsay, gossip – it’s become a part of my own personal Ginsberg lore and legend; an example of his humanity, along with his pleasure-seeking, which is also an example of his humanity, I believe.
The story goes like this.
Ginsberg – he wasn’t always in New York, obviously. Sometimes he used to teach – poetry – in Boulder, Colorado at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics which he co-founded, incidentally. And what a crazy name. I mean – disembodied? Who wants a disembodied poetics? Not me. And I’d guess not him. Well, what do I know? I don’t know everything.
Anyway, while Ginsberg was teaching – poetry – he used to get quite involved with his students. He’d socialise with them. He’d have them around to his house for these big, generous, impromptu, family-affair type dinners. You know the kind. With a big pot of stew and a ladle laid out on the table; loaves of day-old bakery bread, mismatching crockery, cutlery, glasses and lots of bottles of cheap red wine. Lots of talking and shouting and laughing, too.
One night, sometime between the start and the middle of one of these big, impromptu family-affair type dinners, there was a knock at the door. Ginsberg – Allen – got up to answer it, thinking it was just another guest who was late. It was. It was a young, lone Jehovah’s Witness that Allen saw standing on the doorstep. All crew-cut and clean-shaven and neat-suited, he was carrying a copy of the bible and the good news.
Well, Ginsberg – Allen – what else could he do? In the fabulous frame of mind and mood he was in, he opened the door wide, wider still. He wrapped a warm, welcoming arm around the shoulders of the Witness and whisked him down the hall, telling him that he must come, come, join them, join us, to eat, eat his fill.
And the Jehovah’s Witness – what else could he do? Probably a little stunned that he had not been shunned as he usually was, he came, came, joined, ate, communed and broke bread with Ginsberg and the young poets-in-training. He was full. He had become so. He could not eat one morsel more, he said. At which point, Ginsberg – Allen – with perfect timing and in all sincerity, turned to the boy and asked, ‘Now, what is it that you have come to tell me?’
And the boy’s mouth hung open, slack at its hinge.
He was speechless or he’d forgotten the answer to the question.
He also had a bit of spinach caught between his two front, perfectly straight, white teeth.
Now, there, right there, Ginsberg should have been made an honorary Macedonian. Given the Macedonian people’s love not just of poetry but of hospitality, of being hospitable to anyone who should come a-knocking. Be it a neighbour, a relative, a friend, a travelling cabbage-grater salesman – or saleswoman – children folk-song singers on saints’ days and other special holidays. Even gypsies. Well, maybe not them. But definitely the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These door-knockers, in Macedonia, are especially well-loved. New in the region, having just expanded their mission, the Witnesses are enjoying a surprisingly friendly market.
This is an actual, true phenomenon.
So, what is it that I have come to tell you? What is it that I have come, to your door, conjuring so much smoke and so many mirrors, to say?
Firstly, it’s this.
Maybe no man in Macedonia ever hit on me at all. I may have simply been projecting my own repressed, internalised sleaziness – needs – desires – out onto the screen of the world, onto Ginsberg, onto poets everywhere, onto the anniversary of the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival. It’s possible.
Then again, I am an extremely beautiful and charming woman whose mere physical form must, no doubt, excite erotic promise. And I was, I am travelling alone – in a country where women normally don’t. Did I mention that?
Secondly – and this is not what I have come to say but a consequence of what I have said – I want to offer my apologies to the Macedonian Poetry Festival for possibly defaming its name. It was not my intention. But I accept, I concede that I may never, despite the country’s love of guests, be welcomed back. Let alone be the third woman to have a Golden Wreath placed on my very embodied head.
Anyway, I’ve got enough hats at home already.
And there is one last thing.
Here, on the first night of the first day, at the official close of the official opening of the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival there is a surprise for me, for us. After the patriarch-poets have finished their fine sets; and the bare-chested boys have laid their sails to rest; and the roar of the audience’s applause has died down to an almost-silence, there is one final thing I want to show you.
Above us, above the crowds’ heads, the thousands and thousands of us heading home or to our hotels or on to the late-night open mic bars, there is a sudden explosion. We don’t know of what. For a moment, I think, we all think in collective unison, that it must be a bomb – bombs. Stunted, second world war bombs that have been taken from an ancient military storage facility by an individual or terrorist group and set off. But it’s not. It’s just fireworks. Cheap ones. I don’t want to say from where. But they boom and crack so low; they send flaming shrapnel-type objects from sky to earth and threaten to set bushes and ladies’ bouffants and small trees alight.
We run. We shield our heads with newspapers, handbags, festival programmes, with bare hands. The thousands and thousands of us, stirred, affected, confused, we run. But from or to what? In this little scene and also in a broader sense – from what or to do we run? Which kind of folly? What kind of danger, desire or threat? Here at the fiftieth Macedonian Poetry Festival, is it really just sex that we all think we want?
Well, I’ll speak for myself.
It’s union that I aspire to, that I need. Spacious union – with appropriate boundaries, of course – with all things. Embodied. Disembodied. Both. Isn’t that what poetry’s for? Am I right or am I wrong?
Still, if every man in Macedonia didn’t hit on me, I’d probably feel something was amiss. I’d miss the indignation I feel. I’d think: I’d lost my mojo.
But in this moment, under the fireworks-pretending-to-be-bombs, amidst the chaos of criss-crossing crowds running away and towards, all that’s not so clear.
We run. I run.
But if I stopped and looked up, if we all looked up, we’d see – I want you to see – the night sky. It’s full of colour. Red, pink, blue, green. Yellow in bursts and streams; fountains. Comet-type things with tails appear only to disappear. Faulty, imperfect; shrapnel flaming, falling. So much wild colour. And it’s way too brief.
Now. Are there any more comments? Questions?
I woke up with an icepick headache. It felt like an alcoholic horse had pissed in my mouth. I lay in my sleeping bag trying not to retch, struggling to remember exactly what Laura’s breasts looked like, when there was a familiar noise. It sounded like me and Tama … pedalling our bikes?
I stuck my head out the tent. A pair of cyclists kitted out in full battle spandex and aerodynamic sunglasses and riding matching racing bikes, expensive ones, had just crossed the little bridge and were cranking past us up the hill. A couple more followed, all headed west. I ran towards the road in my underwear, laughing and waving. The lead rider, a sleek, freshly shaven dude in his early forties, waved at me and pulled over. The cyclist on his tail—a middle-aged woman, tanned and stringy—gritted her teeth and rode on. The guy’s shirt said ‘Avanti’.
‘Hello,’ he said, ‘we are ciclisti, from Italia. Where are you from?’
‘Mörön Khövsg—uh, New Zealand!’
‘Nuova Zelanda—in Australia!’ he declared with authority. ‘You ’ave many sheeps, but no people, yes?’
‘No, well, sure.’
A peloton of eight riders came round the hill and whizzed over the bridge. I waved and gave the riders a big thumbs-up, grinning with all my teeth.
‘Nice bikes!’ I said to the ciclista.
‘I know,’ he replied.
‘How far are you going?’
‘We start in Ulaanbaatar, five days ago. We ride to Mörön tomorrow, then easy day to Khatgal and the lago. We ride one ’undred twenty chilometri per day. I am, how you call, pace man,’ he nodded in appreciation of his own talent.
‘Sweet,’ said Tama, pulling a dirty T-shirt on as he walked over. ‘Where’s all your luggage?’
‘We ’ave autobus for that,’ he said. Moments later a couple of grey Russian Furgon mini-vans came slowly round the corner. ‘Our guide, they driving ahead and make us lunch, at night they set up the, the …’ he pointed to our tent, ‘the tende.’
‘We carry all our gear ourselves,’ Tama said. ‘In panniers. On our mountain bikes.’
‘Really?’ he looked at us incredulously. ‘And ’ow far does your trio ride?’
‘About 100 kilometres a day,’ I said.
‘Or more,’ Tama said.
‘On those?’ He looked suspiciously at our bikes. ‘That must be … please excuse me, I must to catch up with the peloton. You see, I set the pace—they need me! Ciao!’
He biked off extremely quickly, grunting in a too-high gear. The Furgons and their bored drivers rumbled past and overtook him. Back at our tent, the third moron was sitting in the vestibule, wearing his new blue sunglasses and playing with an ockie strap.
Tama went to wash in the river, which never got above shin-deep. I didn’t. I told Tama I was scared of Mongolian water snakes, which was partly true, but being in the Mongolian wilderness was the best excuse I’d ever had for not washing. So I sat in the sun with the kid and put on my matching sunnies. I rubbed a new layer of sunscreen over my dirt-caked skin and with the cooking knife cut the end off one of my socks so I could wear it high on my right calf to prevent further sunburn. The kid watched me with undiluted wonder, then took off his shoe and sock, grabbed my knife and started cutting the end off his own sock. I stopped him and tried unsuccessfully to explain about my melanin-poor skin, how this brand of skin was useless south of London, or Khatgal. He just looked at me with sad eyes.
We biked off across the bridge east towards Khutag-Öndör and found ourselves on a dusty, featureless plain. The sun was raw and fierce; my salmon-coloured right leg was grateful for the extra sock. We approached a blue metallic road map atop tall grey pole. It was eighty kilometres north to Teshig and 210 kilometres west to Mörön Khövsgöl. We had just completed a nine-day semicircle, a big wonky horseshoe arc in the wilderness. We could’ve been here a week ago if we’d ridden on the main road instead of detouring to Khatgal, but then we wouldn’t’ve been able to get lost in that swamp.
In the distance was a speck on the road. As we got closer we could make out a motorcycle with sidecar and flat tyre. An elderly woman sat in the sidecar in her best deel, looking grim. There were no gers or houses around—just the road, stretching dusty and brown to both horizons. She looked listlessly at our bikes; we looked uselessly at her puncture. Tama fished out the cigarette stash and decided to give her a whole packet. She accepted with a subdued bayash laa and lit one up. Five k’s down the road we passed a hunched old man who was trudging towards Khutag-Öndör in a now dusty suit.
When we reached Khutag-Öndör it was Naadam—again. We headed straight for the huushuur quarter, ordered fourteen and ate nine on the spot. The huushuur vendor sat with us. He looked different to most of the Mongols we’d met; he could’ve played a Red Indian in a sloppily cast Cowboy movie. No one else really talked to him, and he didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the Naadam celebrations.
We got a few funny looks from people walking past. I thought it was because we were so dirty and greedy, plus I stank. Then a drunk cowboy came panting and muttering towards us and pointed angrily at Tama’s Mongolian flag, which was lashed to his pannier bags and lying sideways in the dust. The vendor helped Tama stand his bike up, and while Tama apologised in English, he apologised in Mongolian. The cowboy demanded to have a ride of Tama’s bike. Tama refused, politely, I thought.
The cowboy spat in the dust and reeled off, shaking his head and repeating, ‘Julchiin … julchiin …’
‘Julchiin?’ Tama said quizzically to the vendor.
‘Ah … tourista,’ he replied with a sad smile.
We thanked the man for the food. Tama took his picture before shaking his hand and wheeling his bike away.
‘He seemed like an odd man out,’ Tama said. ‘He was nice, but people didn’t seem to like him.’
I just nodded. The guy reminded me of photos of Tama from early high school, just after his parents divorced: hopeful, haunted eyes.
Tama wanted to call Ami again. I stalked off down a dusty street to get supplies, a bit annoyed. Did he have to call her every single time we saw a damn phone tower? Why couldn’t he just … be, in the moment? Or keep a diary? It made me feel like I should call Laura, but I didn’t want to call Laura. I wanted him to not call Ami all the time. We were meant to be in the middle of nowhere.
I found a store crammed with nomads, in from the country and plastered already, loading up on cheap vodka for the festivities to come. When I asked for Chinggis Gold vodka a murmur went through the store—it was the fancy stuff, eight dollars instead of five. The shop also sold ice-creams in a cone, a delicious shock since refrigeration hadn’t really caught on in rural Mongolia. I wandered back with a couple of double-scoop strawberry ice-creams. Tama was down a side street leaning against a fence, still on the phone. I stood around and tried not to watch as Tama’s ice-cream melted in its cone. A plastic bag blew down the alley and tangled itself in my pannier bags. I kicked it loose and the wind carried it away.
Tama put down his phone. ‘Mongolian tumbleweed,’ he deadpanned.
‘How is she?’ I asked.
‘What’s going on in Ramcouver?’
‘Oi, it’s not Ramcouver until I arrive. She’s in bed. Tomorrow morning she’s got meetings with clients from Seattle.’
‘It doesn’t seem real,’ Tama said, sounding slightly confused. ‘All that … meetings and stuff. Crazy.’
‘Totally man, I don’t wanna think about it. I’m just trying to … be, in this. Y’know?’
‘If you say so.’
We rode out of Khutag-Öndör up a wide brown scar of a road. Heaps of jeeps rolled down past us, on their way to Naadam. We weaved on and off the grassy verge. It was bursting with Mongolian phosphorescence. Tama had his map-eye on a thin red line heading up a valley to the northeast. This would lead us in a wonky 100-kilometre horseshoe through to Selenge, ‘the breadbasket of Mongolia’, hopefully via some more of that sweet Khövsgöl-esque wildflower meadow and taiga forest. From there it was two days east to Amarbayasgalant Khiid (say that three times quickly), Mongolia’s largest surviving Buddhist monastery, where we could say some final prayers then züün east at top speed into the Khaan Khentii wasteland, never to be seen again.
We spotted a thin goat track winding off to the left across a steep hillside. It seemed like the way to Selenge and we took it. A couple of valleys over we came upon a tiny patch of beech trees, thriving incongruously on an otherwise parched and bleak hillside. After yesterday’s battering by the sun we were keen to sit out the worst heat of the day. I wrote in my diary:
Monday, 17 or 18 July. Seventh day straight riding. Exhausted, elated. Tama off for his daily poo. Jealousy.
Half an hour later we rode up an obscure valley. It was roasting hot in the sun and I was thankful when the tree cover began. The country was was stony and dry; we could have been in southern Europe, sunstroke in Sicily. The gradient increased. My right knee creaked in complaint and sweat soaked through my shirt. After an hour Tama stopped and spread Vaseline on his inner thighs to lessen the chafing. At the top of the valley an hour later we were greeted by the first ovoo in days: welcome (back) to taiga country. Tall dark conifers stretched for the sun, alone or in clumps, and the brown tyre tracks we were following unrolled over endless wrinkles and ruffles of bright green hill. Blue ridges in the distant north faded into purple peaks and silver-grey sky. We had a second lunch out of the sun on the lee of a ridgeline among the bracken and larch, forcing down cold huushuur and fish sandwiches. The boundless paddocks reminded me of New Zealand back-country farms, except purged of fence, tractor and pie shop.
I woke from an accidental siesta to the sound of bleating and maracas. A couple of hundred goats were coming up over the pass, herded by a nomad jiggling a plastic bottle full of pebbles that had been jammed onto the end of a stick. He rattled his makeshift shepherd’s crook in our direction when he saw us. We clambered groggily back onto our bikes and cruised on for a couple of sweet, dreamy hours. Slightly nearer the northern ranges the path cut a high line across the hillside to the left, rising up and staying high. There was also a cheeky smaller path dipping downhill and right into some wide wheatfields. We strapped on our helmets and went right and it was the best riding we had all day. We sailed through dark green fields of wheat along a dirt trail next to a wide grassy ditch. The storm clouds gathered behind us, really gathered, piling into the sky like I’d never seen before, not even in Mongolia. Once again we were in the middle of an open field, and I rode hard towards nothing in particular, towards the idea of shelter; Tama was ahead of me, riding harder. Every time I looked back the clouds were taller and darker. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A yellow-white flash, close. Tama pointed to the ditch and yelled something.
‘What?’ I yelled back.
‘If the lightning gets really bad, we can hide in there!’
I nodded and changed into top gear to try to outride the storm but the rain came and kept coming. We rode past some high wooden fences hiding farm equipment and a couple of half-built log cabins and a yellow construction hut on wheels that was roughly the size and shape of a packing container. A couple of workers poked their heads out of the hut and watched us ride past. In a couple of frenzied minutes the temperature plummeted and the rain turned to hail. Tama jammed on his brakes.
‘We should go back,’ he said, shielding his face.
‘Go back where?’
‘To that hut.’
The hail thickened. A big one got me on the right knee.
By the time we made it back to the hut hailstones the size of strawberries were vomiting out of a white sky and shattering on our helmets. We banged on the door and gestured could we please come inside please? The workers looked at us like we were very foolish and nodded. Inside, the racket of the hail on the steel roof was like being in a saucepan full of cooking popcorn. The room had metal walls on three sides and little windows on the fourth, and outside the hail made the fences and piles of timber look staticky, badly tuned. Hailstones the size of walnuts lay in the mud. There were no chairs inside but Bayarmaa, a solid, kindly woman in a purple jumper and pink sandals, made room for us to sit on their beds even though we were drenched. Moments later she presented us with steaming bowls of mutton soup and a plate of boov—deep-fried dough nuggets, for dipping. Ah, Mongolian hospitality.
There were three men in the trailer: Chuluun, a quiet, wolf-faced dude who wore his cap low; Gantulga, affable and slightly dim; and the aptly named Batsaikhan (‘Strong Nice’), Bataa for short, who had intelligent, cheeky eyes and seemed to be the team leader. They were building log cabins for the farm. I pointed out the window and shouted ‘shuuraga’ (‘storm’) above the racket. Bataa nodded and rolled his eyes like it happened every other day, then lit a cigarette. We said we were from Shin Zeland and that yes, it was very jijig—small—and very far away. Tama got out the map of the Khantai region to explain our route. Bataa looked up from the map and shook his head sadly, then laughed with twinkling eyes.
I was just getting used to the din when, out of the far left corner of the window, I saw a geyser of white concrete spray upwards into the air. No, it was hail, but it was going in the wrong direction. I shouted and pointed; Bataa threw the door open and we all piled outside to see a river of hail and ice-melt surging through the ditch that ran beside the road. Where the ditch turned a sharp corner the flow had burrowed into a nearby rubbish pit and it was spraying broken glass and plastic filth mixed with soiled ice high into the air in a toxic fountain. The ditch that me and Tama were going to shelter in to hide from the lightning now resembled a rampaging glacier on fast-forward. The workers ran inside and grabbed their jackets; Tama and I ran inside and grabbed our cameras.
On the other side of the ditch the wheat fields we had just been pedalling through were smashed flat and half-submerged in ice and water and mud. Bayarmaa stood with her hands on her head, distraught. Bataa, Gantulga and Chuluun pointed at the devastation, rooted to the ground in disbelief. Tama and I couldn’t believe our luck and dashed back and forth to make sure we got all the angles. This was it: Doig and Pugs vs Wild, meteorological carnage in the Mongolian wilderness, Steve Irwin sticking his finger up a stingray’s arse. I burned through all the memory on the Flip-cam and had to delete random files on the fly, wincing as I trashed clips of our lovely dinner with the moron and the cute geologist to make room for this mess.
‘Strewth, look at that flashflood. That’s a real ripper right there!’ I yelled in a bad Steve Irwin impersonation. ‘I wouldn’t wanna be caught in all those hailstones!’
‘If you fell in there you’d be dead meat, mate!’ Tama Irwin replied.
‘Zang … this is one of the craziest …’
‘De-va-sta-ting,’ Tama said, his accent lurching towards Austria. Then in his normal voice, ‘Have you seen that shit?’
‘It’s on YouTube—California’s burning to the ground, these crazy-arse forest fires frying everything, and a helicopter lands on a scorched hill. Arnie jumps out in a suit and sunglasses and the reporters are like, “Mr Governator sir, what do you think of the fires?“ Arnie is quiet for a moment, then he just goes [vaguely German accent] “De-va-sta-ting”—totally deadpan, and jumps back in the helicopter and flies off. It’s awesome.’
We ran around like kids in a burning candy store, stomping on banks of hailstones so they collapsed into the torrent. The temperature had plummeted but we didn’t care. Chuluun was hunched over a decrepit motorcycle, tapping at the engine with a stone and a broken chisel that looked Bronze Age. The bike wouldn’t start. Bataa ran up to me and motioned that he was going to use my bicycle to alert the neighbours downstream, or contact their boss, something—then he was gone. Five minutes later he was back; the road downstream was flooded out. He dumped my bike in the mud and took off in the tractor, which had a dishevelled little Mongolian flag fluttering sadly from its roof and a top speed of ten kilometres an hour. I had a feeling that any farmers downstream would probably know about the flash flood by now.
We weren’t going to make it to Khantai that afternoon. If we’d wanted to sleep in our tent that night we’d need an inflatable raft, so when Bayarmaa invited us to stay in the hut we accepted gratefully. Tama and I had changed into our wool layers, all of them, and Bayarmaa had our shirts drying over the pot-belly stove.
I dug a jar of jam out of my pannier; it went well with the deep-fried dough. I put some jam and dough on a plate and offered it to Gantulga and Chuluun. They looked at me strangely, said something that made Bayarmaa giggle, then smiled and tucked in. Towards sunset me and Tama went for a little cycle to see if we’d missed any destruction. The ditch was now overflowing with a steaming broth of dirty water, while inexplicable clouds of freezing fog from the melting hailstones were rolling across the fields. I rode into a corridor of mist and yelped: it was five degrees colder in the fog than out. It was impossible to work out why some of the hailstones were long melted while others remained piled in frosty drifts until the following morning.
When Bataa returned he was pleased to see us still there. I took him aside and gave him a couple of packets of Marlboros, gesturing that they were for the team. He looked at me in deep appreciation then quickly pocketed both packs before the others could see. We stood outside the hut and watched the doomed icebergs of hail melt into the brown soup. I wanted to ask him if this kind of thing happened often, but ‘extreme weather event’ and ‘anthropogenic climate change’ weren’t in the phrasebook. Bataa pointed at the wheat fields then waved his hands, as if erasing it all. Then he pointed at the half-finished log cabins. The same motion. No more wheat fields, no more construction. No more construction, no more job.
‘Where will you go?’
He pointed up the valley. Back to his village, back to his family. He stared at the ditch, motionless.
‘Muu,’ I tried to say. ‘Mash muu.’ (‘Very bad.’)
Bataa nodded sorrowfully. Then he shrugged his shoulders and laughed, his eyes smiling.
I pointed at him. ‘Buddhist?’ I asked.
‘Tiin, bi Buddyn shashintan!’ he cried.
That night we finished their dough and our jam and drank our bottle of Chinggis Gold vodka with some older men who had materialised on ancient but apparently sturdy motorbikes just after dark. We sat out under the stars and took turns ceremoniously throwing down shots of vodka. I snapped and bludged a Marlboro off Bataa, lit it up and sucked deeply. A little atom bomb detonated in my head and I returned shuddering to my body. I was so tired my whole face hurt.
‘Damn, you smoke your cigarettes like joints,’ Tama said.
‘Yeah … you want some of this?’ I coughed and giggled.
‘No way. But bro, I’d kill for a joint right about now.’
‘Yeah … not kill.’
I took another big gut drag. ‘Just snap a spine—Chinggis Khaan style!’
I went for a high five but Tama was talking to Chuluun, trying to tell him about Pakistan.
As the night wore on, we all got a little bit drunk and taught each other the words for night (shon), star (od), moon (sar), unidentified flying object (sansriin ül medegdex biet), alien anal probe (doesn’t exist in Mongolia). It was a beautiful clear shon and the ods were bright, as bright as they got on an obscure New Zealand beach, brighter. It was hard to comprehend that Bataa, Bayarmaa and co. had just lost their jobs. We finished the Chinggis sometime after midnight but no one showed any sign of going to bed. Finally I found the phrase for ‘we are tired’—bid yadarsan—and showed it to Bataa. Instantly he sent the old-timers packing and bundled the rest of us into the trailer. Bed was a raised platform about two metres long and four metres wide where Bayarmaa, Bataa, Chuluun and Gantulga slept side by side like Kiwis in a NZ tramping hut, or Tama’s three dads in their custom-made bed. Tonight it was six in the bed, tatty spare blankets, Tama’s feet sticking out the end. We laid down and I promptly passed out. The next morning Tama told me they had waited till they thought we were both asleep then got back up and sat by the door, smoking and talking quietly about the future.
This is an extract from Moron to Moron: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure by Tom Doig, published by Allen & Unwin. RRP $24.99 available now.
I hail a motodop.
He’s like, ‘Four dollars.’
And I say, ‘No, I live here, it’s two and a half.’ And he asks, ‘There and back?’
I’m supposed to smile so I do. I say, ‘Yes, bong, I do this all the time.’
And I walk away. He calls me back, of course. It’s a Thursday; who else is he going to take to the airport? And he says, ‘Three dollars.’
And I say, ‘No, two and a half, that’s fair.’
And he starts going on and on about petrol and his whole family till I’m just about to lose it and finally he says, ‘Okay, two and a half.’
It’s almost peak hour and everything looks like bushfire, like nicotine. The motodop starts up. His motorbike breathes a cloud and the sun disappears behind it. Everything’s noisy and yellow. It’s like being at a bar but without the mojitos. Just tyre to tyre with a thousand motorbikes. Makes me sick. The whole thing.
I spent the entire morning at the travel agency. It’s an airless box with faded old pictures on the walls of places you wouldn’t even want to fly to: Bali, Hawaii, Koh Samui … And some song wailing tonelessly in Khmer on the TV. People are supposed to have no money here but there’s always a TV.
I said to the travel agent, ‘Don’t even bother. I’ll just go there. I’ll go all the way out to the Lucky Air office at the airport because it’ll be quicker than this.’
I’m meeting Tully and everyone at Bar Long Time tonight and need time to get ready. The travel agent smiled at me like she meant it. You’re angry and they smile at you. I got up to leave and the plastic chair I’d been stuck to left welts on the backs of my legs. Up on the mezzanine an old man was stripping off behind a screen. Struggling to pull his white singlet over his gut. You spend your entire life trying to cover up here and then you go to the travel agent and have to watch an old man stumbling around above your head in nothing but a pair of undersized jocks.
It’s so frigging hot. I’m even happy it’s one of those old motos with the seats on the back, so at least I don’t have to press against the driver. They don’t sweat. Even my nose is sweating under my fakey Pradas. I could die right here from sweating. This Swedish girl died the other day because someone tried to steal her backpack while she was on a moto. Wasn’t wearing a helmet. After she came off they went back to get her bag and left her there, dead.
I said to Tully, ‘Look, I’m not promising to wear a helmet now but I’ll totally forgo the backpack and just use my tote bag if I have to.’
I told work I was too sick to come in. The land-rights report can wait. I wanted to get a Brazilian then book this ticket because Mum’s going on and on about how she’s alone and it won’t be Easter without me. But Rom wasn’t at the waxing salon, even though I expressly asked for her, and I got this other girl. She took the hair off alright but half the wax is still on there. It’s the most uncomfortable thing possible. We start passing people three and four to a motorbike and then I see a family of six: Dad driving, son between his legs, oldest daughter, Mum holding a baby, then behind her a tiny kid with her little kid legs dangling, her tiny bum hanging over the back. The only thing keeping her on is that she’s got a good grip on Mum’s shirt. They’re all smiling. I get my phone out. They stare at me like I’m crazy. I start taking a photo for Tully but t he motodop is apologising over his shoulder (I ignore him), then he turns off the highway and I’m yelling, ‘No, go that way, the airport’s that way.’
And he’s saying, ‘Sorry, sorry.’
He’s probably one of those hicks who come up from
Kampong Cham or wherever for Khmer New Year, their heads full of vampires and voodoo, and decide to be motodops for the day. They don’t know shit about the Penh. He stops at a shed selling petrol from glass Coke bottles and asks me to get off while he fills up.
I say, ‘Maybe you could have told me this before I got on. I’m in a hurry, you know.’
And he says, ‘Sorry, sorry, lady.’
You’d think they’d use something other than Coke bottles. What if some kid, the little kid on the motorbike, what if she drank one by mistake?
‘Hi,’ I say to the woman at the Lucky Air counter in the airport, ‘I wanted to change a f light but your website isn’t working and I can’t get through on the phone and the travel agent can’t seem to help me.’
‘Yes,’ smiles the woman, ‘the website isn’t working.’ No shit, I think.
‘Can I change my ticket here, please?’
I should ask her to waive the change fee too. Just pay the difference in the fare because of all the hassle, having to pay the motodop to come all the way out here and everything. The airport’s busy, people crouching everywhere. Families mostly. You’d think they’d give them some seats. If I ran Cambodia, the first thing I’d do would be to put in some seats to stop all this crouching. That and public toilets. Seriously. Everyone freaks out if I wear a boobylicious top but I’ve seen more strangers’ cocks in the last six months than in my entire lifetime. Tully texted me the other day because there was a guy pissing right across the road from the café where she was eating breakfast and it totally put her off her muffin.
The Lucky Air woman asks me to check the details. I haven’t been charged a fee and the fare difference is only forty US dollars and I think, Sweet. Our weekly pay is 250 bucks and Tully says that’s double what most Cambodians get in a month, but I say we still have to live our lives. So the woman books the ticket and I go to the ATM and get out a hundred so I have some cash for Bar Long Time tonight.
When I get back to the counter her smile is gone and she starts apologising, ‘Sorry, sorry.’
There’s sweat dribbling down the backs of my knees and I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. Then she says, ‘I’m sorry, madam, but I made a mistake. There is a change fee and also the fare is more and now you have to pay 130 dollars.’
‘One hundred and thirty dollars?’ I yell. You’re not supposed to yell in Cambodia. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, madam,’ she says again. She’s lucky there’s glass between us, I swear. ‘I made a mistake; it is 130 dollars.’
‘What. Do. You. Mean?’
‘I forgot the change fee, and … I … read the wrong currency. I’m sorry, madam.’
I fold my arms.
‘I wouldn’t have changed the ticket if it was that much,’ I say. ‘Just give me my original ticket back.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, madam,’ she says, ‘but it is changed already. Please pay 130 dollars.’
‘You made the mistake,’ I yell. ‘Lucky Air can pay it.’ She glances behind her. The door to an office is open. I can feel the air-con pumping out of that room and see a man in a suit hunched over a pile of manila folders. The woman stretches out one arm and shuts the door.
‘Please, madam …’ she tries again.
I look at her pale pink shirt, probably nylon. I’d be drip- ping in that. Her jewellery is all new but cheap, really cheap – I see that shit all the time at the markets. One hundred and thirty dollars. I think about how much that is to her and start to cry right there at the counter. I hope the woman thinks it’s sweat but she sees right through it because Cambodians just don’t cry in shops. I can’t stop looking at her shirt and her tacky, shit-cheap earrings. I grab my bag and walk back to the ATM and slam my card in and withdraw another fifty. The balance f lashes up on the screen and there’s practically nothing left, after rent and food and bills, for going anywhere or doing anything for the next week at least. The wax glues my undies to my crotch and tugs at the leftover hair and I suppose I cry some more. I wouldn’t give my dad the pleasure of Skyping him and asking for money to go out tonight. I go back to the woman and shove 150 towards her.
‘Here,’ I say, ‘130 dollars.’
I’m still polite. God, you have to be.
The woman says, ‘No no, madam, it’s okay, you just pay 100 and I’ll pay the thirty, okay? Okay, madam?’ Her stupid little earrings wink at me.
‘No,’ I blubber. ‘No, you can’t afford it.’
She’s probably only twenty or something but who can tell here, until someone gets married and goes to fat?
‘It’s okay, madam, you pay 100 and I pay thirty because it is my mistake,’ she says, ‘and also because you’re upset, you’re very upset,’ she says, and I am. I pass her the hundred and the other fifty stays hot in my fingers and she smiles at me and then I’m out in the weird waiting calm of the airport, looking across the tarmac.
‘Same place,’ I say to the motodop.
I’m glad I have my Pradas. I sit on the big wide seat and we pull into the traffic and move steadily along the highway back to Phnom Penh. There’s dust everywhere but it’s a tiny bit cooler. I could almost go to sleep. We slow down at the lights beside one of those big dirt trucks. The lights change and as the truck starts to move forward there’s this crunch – a plastic takeaway container under a shoe, but bigger. The truck doesn’t stop. It keeps going and as it rolls away, something appears underneath it. The wheel of a motorbike lying sideways on the ground. Then a bare leg. Then the half-crushed body of the motorbike, another leg, a helmeted head. A n arm sticks out and a cheap diamante bracelet around a woman’s wrist winks in the sunlight. She’s dead, I think. She’s dead. But then her leg moves, her arm. No one else moves. It’s like we’re dead. Finally a woman shifts underneath the motorbike and wipes at her shirt. The intersection moves again. The motodop ploughs into it, crossing lanes of traffic with his eyes fixed on the woman behind him.
‘Look where you’re going, bong!’ I yell, but I can’t take my eyes off her either.
‘I need some cigarettes,’ I say.
The motodop says, ‘Cigarettes?’ and pulls over. ‘I’ll get them cheaper for you.’
I give him the money. My cheeks are stiff with salt. He comes back and hands me a packet. He waits as I rip it open and take out two for him but he shakes his head.
He smiles, says, ‘No thanks, lady.’
I try to put one in my mouth but I drop it. I light it on the fifth try. He hands me my change and I guess he was right, it was about fifty cents cheaper that way.
She searched my face for a sufficiently spooked reaction, and while I did my best to play along, I was more impressed by Hana’s descriptive abilities than frightened of these things called jinns. After our English speaking class one afternoon in May, Hana and Munerah stopped by my office to discuss the upcoming quiz. Our conversation quickly shifted to other topics, like Munerah’s brother’s upcoming wedding, Hana’s sisters in Sudan, our favourite movies and then, finally, to jinns.
‘Miss,’ Munerah spoke up, ‘they are beautiful, I hear. A seer tell me one was in love with me. This one only had one eye.’
They began speaking rapidly in Arabic, presumably about Munerah’s encounter with the seer and her love-struck jinn. I watched Hana stroke the arm of her petite friend sympathetically and tried to remind myself that these girls were two of my brightest students at Abu Dhabi University. Why, then, were they talking about spirits with one eye?
‘But don’t be scared, Miss.’ Munerah turned to me. ‘They have no reason to hurt you.’
‘Those girls are just trying to scare you,’ Aysha said. ‘They don’t know a thing about jinns.’ She flicked her wrist as if shooing away a nasty fly as we entered the elevator. ‘One eye! No one can actually see jinns anyway. That seer was a fake.’ I was amused by her indignation, but I knew Hana and Munerah were sincere, no matter how ridiculous they sounded. If anything, I felt they were trying to protect me.
‘It’s all written in the Koran. Jinns live in their own world, but the evil ones find ways to get into ours. They’re made of smokeless fire so we can’t see them.’ I stood at her office door as she rummaged for her keys. ‘I know this sounds crazy to you, but it’s just like your spirits in the west, except jinns are not demons or ghosts or fallen angels. They are just . . . different, like us because they are independent, alive and have free will, but they are more ignorant, harsh and vengeful than humans.’
‘So why would they try to harm people?’ I said. ‘Why should someone be scared of them?’
‘Because they can possess you. Just like some humans are good and others are mischievous or plain evil, so are jinns. The evil or capricious ones can possess a person on a whim, because of desire, or if they are angry. If you pour hot water on them by accident or urinate on one, they can take it as intentional and seek revenge.’
From Aysha’s expression – brow furrowed, lips pursed – I saw that she was serious, and stifled a laugh at the possibility of urinating on an invisible spirit.
‘So they live in our houses?’
‘They’re not supposed to. If the come into this world they should dwell in open fields and abandoned houses, or places of impurity, like toilets or garbage dumps or graveyards. If they come into a house and are harmed, they need to be reminded that they have no right to be in a human’s home.’
‘How do you remind them?’
‘You just say it. In Arabic. But the real problem is when a human calls upon the jinn to possess someone through black magic. Then it won’t go away so easily.’
‘So that’s why my students said the jinns wouldn’t harm me.’
‘Exactly. Who would put a curse on you?’
‘Of course I believe in that kind of thing,’ my boyfriend Andres said. I was telling him about jinns on our drive back from Dubai. I had assumed we both understood them to be a folk superstition. I was wrong. ‘Just because I’m a businessman doesn’t mean I can’t believe in the supernatural, or whatever you want to call it.’
‘But we know them as genies – you know, Aladdin’s lamp, three wishes?’ I reminded him. ‘The west changed the idea, of course, but still, it’s only a myth.’
We stopped at a red light and Andres turned to me. ‘Didn’t I ever tell you about what happened to me in Lille?’
‘No,’ I replied, not swayed by the seriousness of his tone. ‘You’ve never told me any of your ghost stories.’ He didn’t laugh.
‘Seriously, here’s why I believe in spirits.’
Andres’s story took up most of the hour-long drive from Dubai. Three years ago, he had moved into a one-bedroom apartment near his office in Lille. ‘I heard babies crying at night,’ he said. ‘I asked my neighbours if they had kids, and everyone said no. I would press my ear against the bedroom wall, and it sounded as if the cries were coming from inside.’
He described the morning he’d woken up paralysed, sensing an invisible force pinning his wrists and ankles to the bed. He tried to wrestle with it, but couldn’t budge for what seemed like a long time.
‘Oh c’mon,’ I said. ‘Wasn’t that just a dream?’ Where was my rational boyfriend?
Andres shook his head. ‘No, I was awake. I felt the whole thing.’ He sighed. ‘Finally, I was able to push the thing off me and I could move again. But that was just the beginning.’ Andres became sick, but no doctor in Lille was able to make a diagnosis. ‘First my legs ached, then my stomach, then my chest. It was as if this thing was systematically attacking each part of my body. Then I was swollen all over.’ After six months, he asked a friend in China who knew a spiritual healer if she could help him. Andres promptly received six tightly folded pieces of paper with Chinese script on them. He burned four of them immediately. ‘For each one I burned, a spirit was sent to eternal damnation. I kept the other two as safeguards, so they know I still have power.’
‘So that’s what those little triangle things are on the night table?’ His Chinese spirit curses had been on the bedside table since he moved in, but I’d never bothered to ask about them. Andres had only told me not to throw them away.
‘Yeah, they’re protecting us,’ he said with a grin.
‘Well, then what?’
‘The spirits disappeared.’
‘So you think the curses worked?’
He shrugged. ‘They must have . . . except now there’s a problem. I felt it again.’
‘What did you feel?’
‘A couple of nights before I left for Abu Dhabi, I felt something holding me down again at night, pressing on my arms and legs. Ever since, my calves have felt swollen and my head aches.’
I grabbed his hand on the gearstick. ‘Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Why did we go to Dubai if you’re sick?’
‘I thought I could handle it,’ he said. ‘I’m an athlete, so I’m good at blocking out pain. I want to be strong for you.’
‘What do you think it is?’
‘That’s a good question.’ He laughed. ‘If I don’t feel better by tomorrow, I’ll see if the Abu Dhabi doctors can figure it out.’ But I sensed that he had already relegated this pain to the supernatural, to the revenge of spirits from China, France and New York following him to Abu Dhabi. We turned into my street in silence and entered my apartment noiselessly, as if we feared disturbing some ill-tempered jinns hovering in the walls or slinking along the tiled floor.
Andres slept until noon the next day. When he awoke, it was to complain of a searing pain in his neck and an awful headache. ‘You know me. I never get headaches.’
‘Let’s go to the hospital. We have to figure this out.’ I needed it to be something rational, not spirits attacking him in my own apartment. Not jinns.
‘It sounds like a classic case of jinns,’ Aysha informed me. ‘What he described, that’s just what people who’ve been possessed by jinns report.’
The doctor had found nothing wrong with him; all his blood tests were normal.
‘Believe me, people close to me have had this happen to them. The only way to deal with it is to see a sheikh.’
‘A sheikh? Isn’t that someone connected to the ruling family?’
‘Yes.’ Aysha looked at me as though I was hopelessly naïve, an expression I seemed to elicit often. ‘But it’s also the name for a holy man, someone who can advise people and, if necessary, get rid of jinns. I’ll ask my sheikh if he would treat a non-Muslim, but that shouldn’t be a problem since Andres believes in God. The only issue would be the language . . .’ She walked ahead of me, talking to herself. ‘But still,’ she continued, ‘I could translate the sheikh’s instructions and Andres wouldn’t necessarily need to understand the words that would be recited over him.’ She waited for me to catch up. ‘The Koran has power on its own.’
‘But why would a jinn try to hurt him?’ I sounded like a petulant child.
‘As I told you before, there are many causes. For one reason or another, Andres is vulnerable to them. Or maybe some enemy he doesn’t even know about put a curse on him.’
She saw me wavering and reached out her hand to me. ‘Seeing a sheikh couldn’t hurt him, anyway. Reading the Koran never has.’
‘I’ll ask him about it.’
‘Sure, I’ll try it,’ Andres said casually, as if I was offering him a new flavour of potato chip. ‘If Aysha knows the guy, and is there to translate, then it could be helpful.’
‘This is a serious thing, from what I understand. I think you have to believe in it for this “exorcism” to have any impact.’ I had never used the word exorcism before, but there was no other way to describe Aysha’s proposal. ‘Is this something you believe in?’
‘I already told you I believe in this kind of stuff,’ he said, somewhat exasperated. ‘I think there are special people in every culture who can bridge the gap between the spirit world and our own. This jinn thing is just a different regional form.’ He yawned.
‘Right,’ I said, surprised by his blasé attitude. ‘How are you feeling?’ Andres had been lying in bed all day. His face was puffy, stomach bloated, legs swollen, eyes dull. He was deteriorating in front of my eyes while we were talking about Islamic spirits.
‘I’m a little better,’ he said, and smiled weakly.
‘Why don’t you burn those two triangles?’ I said, picking them up and twirling them in front of him. ‘It worked the last time, didn’t it?’
He looked at me, aghast. ‘Do you know how powerful those are?’ He replaced them on the bedside table and settled back into bed, his arms around me. Just being near him had a draining effect, and I found myself falling asleep for several hours.
Over the next week, our rhythms were off. We ate midnight dinners at a cafeteria near the hospital where Andres saw more doctors and took more blood tests, to no avail. We checked email at three am and talked in bed until five. Since students were taking exams and I wasn’t needed much at the university, we slept throughout the day.
In and out of blurry dreams where I hovered above the city or pounded on a glass door separating me from my classroom, I began to see that I was an outsider in Abu Dhabi and wondered if I would ever feel accepted. Students continually whispered in a flurry of Arabic as soon as I finished speaking; in the afternoons, women in black cloaks trailed alongside me, private and concealed. When my students wanted to complain about their husbands or discuss their overprotective families, they went to Aysha. And why would they come to me instead? What did I really know of their culture and religion, or the way it felt to be a local woman in this developing city? As I lay next to Andres’s feverish, swollen body, I understood that a visit to Aysha’s sheikh would be my chance to glimpse a part of this culture that seemed unnatural and absurd to me yet was considered commonplace by those I felt distant from. I placed the back of my hand on Andres’s burning forehead, and vowed to tell Aysha we were ready to see that sheikh.
‘A sheikh my friend knows will come over tonight,’ Aysha told me over the phone, after informing me that her own sheikh lived in Sharjah, two hours away. We apparently didn’t have time to travel. ‘I’ll do the initial translating, but I don’t want to be there when he recites the Koran. I can’t have the jinns come into me when they come out of Andres.’
‘Of course.’ I was beginning to get the hang of this supernatural talk. I bustled around my living room, tidying up. I hadn’t expected a personal visit from a sheikh, but rather a trip to his office. This arrangement seemed awkwardly intimate. Andres’s stuff was everywhere. What would this sheikh think of us living together? Would he cure Andres or yell at us for our sins?
Aysha arrived and immediately handed me a sheyla along with a loose abaya and I quickly covered myself. Sitting on my couch, she watched her phone anxiously until it began to ring. ‘He’s here,’ she said without answering.
I stepped into the hallway to greet the sheikh. He wore a faded kandora, and a white skullcap instead of a cloth headdress. Even with his drawn face and long, traditional beard, I could see that he was much younger than I had expected. While I knew he must have seen me, the sheikh treated me like I was invisible, not even acknowledging me. He went straight into the living room, making a beeline for Aysha.
They spoke in Arabic, gesturing toward Andres intermittently. From their use of the words ‘la Arabi’ and ‘mushkil’, I was able to deduce that Andres’s lack of Arabic was considered a problem. As the sheikh looked around the living room, gazing intently at Andres’s clothes filling the cabinets below the TV, I wondered with a mix of worry and relief if he might call the whole thing off.
The sheikh sighed, took a seat facing Andres and me on the couch, and said something to Aysha. She pulled up a chair next to the sheikh and said, ‘He’d like to know your symptoms, Andres.’
The sheikh looked back and forth from Aysha to Andres as they communicated Andres’s pains – everything from the invisible force holding him down at night, to his swollen body and aching legs.
‘Don’t worry,’ Aysha said to me when Andres had finished. ‘What he has is classic. This sheikh can help him.’ I guessed her sympathy for Andres’s condition and belief in this sheikh won out over her fear of catching Andres’s jinn. She was staying for the exorcism.
The sheikh brought his chair right between Andres and me, so that his knees were almost touching ours, and began reciting from the Koran, so loudly that I worried the neighbours would knock on my door to complain about the noise. His recitation began as a song, then his speech became breathy; he sped up and slowed down; his voice high and then deep; he shouted then whispered, practically blowing the words out of his mouth and onto Andres’s lap. He repeated, ‘Bismillah al rahman al raheem,’ a common blessing which meant, ‘In the Name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious.’ I tried to pick up on a pattern, identify more words I might know, and figure out the purpose behind his erratic rhythm changes, but came up with nothing. I watched his beady hazel eyes and pointy teeth and wondered how anyone could gain spiritual relief from this fierce, tense man.
Andres’s face was a stoic mask. I couldn’t tell if he was enthralled, bored, angry with me for suggesting such nonsense, or moved by the beauty of the Koran and thinking of converting. I realised how little I still knew him. I crossed my legs, but then the sheikh glared at me reproachfully – the first and only time he looked me in the eye – and motioned for me to uncross my legs. Andres glared at me. How was I supposed to know? Why was I sitting on the couch, anyway, like a participant? I wanted to be in a chair beside Aysha; I wasn’t the one who claimed to be possessed.
Then there was a loud thwap. The sheikh was smacking Andres, hard, three times on his calves, thighs, forearms and shoulders. Slapping out the jinns? Andres flinched briefly, but then resumed his impassive stare. Abruptly, the sheikh stopped. He had been reciting for almost an hour. He sat back in his chair and asked Andres how he had felt during the recitation. Andres described, without hesitation and with striking precision, his physical state: he had a sudden headache, then it went away; his legs twitched, abdomen fluttered; there was a pain in his left side; a pressing, like a weight, on his shoulder. Aysha and the sheikh exchanged approving glances, and nodded encouragingly. Andres then spoke passionately about spasms and aches in the back of his neck and the soles of his feet.
I couldn’t decide if he was making this stuff up or if he had really felt all of that. And as I asked myself that question, I realised that either way I felt betrayed by him. While Andres appeared fully attuned to this world of religious sheikhs and descriptions of inexplicable ills, his exorcism was only confirming, loudly and clearly, my own outsider status. After a week of worrying over his health, going over all the possible causes of his pain, I suddenly felt detached from him, as if we were no longer in this together.
Then it was my turn to declare every sensation. I had felt nothing during the sheikh’s recitation, but knew no one present would accept that answer, not even Andres. ‘I felt some anxiety,’ I said. ‘In my stomach.’ Were they buying this? ‘And, uh, that’s about it.’ I wanted to add that I felt sort of angry when he was smacking my boyfriend, but worried that would be construed as resisting the release of the jinn.
The sheikh and Aysha conferred in Arabic.
‘What you have is typical, Andres,’ Aysha said. ‘Now, jinns usually possess someone because of a spell. Do you know anyone who would want to put a spell on you?’
I waited for some revelation, but Andres only shook his head. ‘Then it is the devil,’ Aysha said. ‘The worst kind of jinn.’ I watched for Andres’s reaction to this new development, but he remained stony-faced. ‘He enters when you are intimate with Jillian, when you drink alcohol, and when you are in places of sin, like the discotheque and beaches with nearly naked women. You need to end this behaviour. You have to make the devil sad; don’t let him make you sad. He will try to make you think that this wasn’t helpful, but don’t let him!’
I couldn’t believe one of my closest friends in Abu Dhabi had just told my boyfriend he was possessed by the devil.
‘Jillian,’ Aysha said, ‘the sheikh needs a jug.’
‘Yes, a jug for water.’
What next? I went into the kitchen, my abaya dragging on the unswept floor, and produced the only thing I had: a medium-sized pot. As I thrust the pot into the sheikh’s hand, Andres scowled at me as if I had just presented the Queen of England with a pile of dog shit. Aysha and the sheikh were not impressed either. The pot was clean, but the sheikh indicated that Andres should clean it again and fill it with water. When Andres returned, bearing the pot brimming with bottled water, the sheikh held it under his chin and began reciting again. The end of his beard circled in the water. For about half an hour, he nearly spit his words into the pot. Then Aysha produced a glass from my kitchen. The sheikh dipped it into the pot, and told Andres to drink.
‘Is it sweet, normal or bitter?’ ‘Bitter,’ Andres said confidently. I knew I was next. It tasted like regular water to me, but I too said that it was a little bitter. Andres sent me a piercing gaze, the word copycat on his tongue.
‘Jillian, we need towels,’ Aysha said, translating the sheikh’s instructions.
I brought out two large, brightly coloured beach towels from my closet for Andres and me to wrap around ourselves. The sheikh stood so close to Andres that their noses were practically touching. He blew on Andres’s face, big whooshes of spit-filled breath. Then the sheikh dipped his hand into the pot and whacked Andres with a big splash of water. I watched my boyfriend flinch, and I had to fight back a rush of laughter. Andres is being pelted with water, by a religious sheikh! It was all too ridiculous. When asked the effect, Andres said, ‘I felt as though I was being doused by a hose; as though it was a sprinkle of needles.’ I looked at him searchingly. How was he coming up with this stuff?
‘What is your name?’ Aysha translated.
‘Are you human or jinn?’
A considered, dramatic pause followed.
Whew. I knew I was next, but still protested. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to control my laughter this time. ‘Why me?’
‘Because you and Andres are connected. You probably have whatever he has too.’
I had feared as much. I scooted over to take Andres’s position on the couch, while he stood to watch. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but was unable to stop myself from flinching as water was flung at my face. When asked, I told them I felt resistant to it, and that I didn’t want it to happen.
‘It’s time to focus on treatment,’ Aysha translated. ‘Andres has to make a decision. You two either have to get married or break up. If you continue this way, Andres will continue getting sick.’
I looked at Andres, the man I had fallen for almost instantly, who had moved across the world to be with me. Yes, I was confused by his responses tonight and unhappy with the prospect of another year apart, but still, I could easily say he was the best man I knew. How dare these people say that the devil had entered him? How dare they declare him the worst kind of sinner? How many other real sinners were out there, not affected by the king of all jinns? What about them?
The sheikh provided a list of instructions, which Andres carefully wrote down. He was to take a teaspoonful of pure honey five times a day, listen to the Koran and avoid places of sin. I was told to take a laxative. After all, I had complained of stomach anxiety.
Andres thanked the sheikh profusely, handing him two hundred dirhams, almost sixty dollars.
Aysha too rose to go, saying she felt refreshed. ‘Now remember to keep the bathroom door closed at all times,’ she said. ‘That’s where the jinns live. Always say bismillah, in the name of God, before entering.’
‘Sure,’ I said, and wished her a good night. I’d had enough.
When we were alone, I waited for Andres to explode with laughter and mock the ridiculousness of our encounter, and his own exaggerated responses. But I knew, from the way he had thanked the sheikh and the extra money he gave him, that he had taken this exorcism seriously and his responses were true, if not heightened for dramatic effect.
‘Will you do what the sheikh said? Will you listen to the Koran and eat honey?’
‘I felt that man was holy, but I don’t think I’ll follow his instructions.’
‘But you wrote it all down.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t promise to do it.’
‘But you said he was holy.’
‘That sheikh was a pleasure to be near. I felt at peace just listening to him recite the Koran.’
‘Are you better?’
‘I’ve been slowly getting better this week. I think I just needed some rest.’
‘So why did you go through with it?’
‘Because you seemed so curious.’ He smiled at me like he was indulging a child in a fantasy game. ‘This was our last night together in Abu Dhabi. Do you think it would have been my choice to spend it this way?’
I glared at him. ‘You could have said something if you didn’t want to! You seemed to enjoy it . . . ’ Suddenly I was feeling guilty.
‘Baby, I did. It’s okay. By the way, was that what you expected?’
I shook my head. ‘No, not at all.’
That night, Andres informed me that we couldn’t make love, and asked me to close the bathroom door.
‘But what good will it do?’ I asked him. ‘I’m not going to keep the bathroom door closed from now on, and we’re not going to stop sleeping together.’
‘Just for tonight,’ he said drowsily.
Still, in bed we held each other tightly. I watched his dreaming eyes flutter and wondered if even he understood his contradictory reactions that evening. He believed in the exorcism but didn’t believe in it; he would follow some of the instructions some of the time but tomorrow drop the whole thing. Had he always been so baffling? I felt like I was being held by a stranger.
When I brought up the exorcism the next afternoon, Andres shrugged as though it had happened a long time ago and there was nothing more to discuss. I noticed the pot that contained the water the sheikh had blessed. I was meant to keep filling it with water so that it could mix with the blessed water. In this way, I could create an endless supply of holy water. I dumped it down the sink, half expecting wisps of smoke to rise from the drain.
I kept the jinn story secret from most of my friends. I worried they might think I was poking fun at Islam, denigrating the sheikh and positioning myself as superior. Yet when I did feel comfortable enough to tell the story, I heard various reactions. A friend who was familiar with the voodoo culture of Haiti was unfazed. My German friend nearly spit out her beer when I described the water pelting. My colleague Craig said his mother was a spiritual teacher and that he had heard of jinns before; she had told him that the desert spirits were the worst kind, sharp and nasty. He didn’t think Andres had had one, though, because he too believed that they only possessed when someone cast a spell.
‘Words have the power to harm and heal,’ he said to me, ‘when there’s enough energy and faith behind them.’
This was something I was beginning to understand. Yet this Arabian culture would persist in making me aware of my position on the wrong side of a glass door; when I was allowed to slip through, that world only appeared unfathomable and out of reach.