Translated from the Arabic by Farah Sharaf
What Marx didn’t really say
The group didn’t have a unified heartbeat. But language brought them together in the rhythm of distant words, mad melodies. In their depths, there was a great emptiness, a window without a drop of rain. A wind whistled, a bat touched their faces, and the heart pounded, pounded, pounded. What were they looking for? Why wasn’t the storm thinking about them, the city, the doors, the alley?
What’s in there, in the lowlands of the city?
– “Someone shot him in the head.”
– “In that pub….”
– “Someone committed suicide in there….”
– “Committed suicide, or was he playing?”
Down beneath the window, a girl walked the night alone. Their faces were overflowing, searching for some kind of hope, a transient smile, a gleam, a sparkle.
He lifted his slender yet strong lumberjack hand. “Liars get everything.” He was sitting on an old black leather sofa, his feet on a red Turkish rug covered with dust from all the dirty feet. “Marx said that…” he added, blowing his cigarette smoke in the air.
They called him the Teacher, since he’d once taught in the villages of his country before he came here seeking political asylum, claiming he’d been a communist, claiming he’d been persecuted by the authorities. But he never got asylum, because he couldn’t prove he’d had a political background of any kind, apart from his constant fabrication of phrases Marx never said.
The police were crystal clear about deporting him, but he kept himself in disguise, using fake papers and a fake name no one ever called him. Instead, he was known to his friends as the Teacher, and even to the idiotic group of smugglers he worked with. Since he wasn’t able to work legally, he had a job with the amateur mafia, as a smuggler.
Jalal was the only one who knew the Teacher wasn’t a true Marxist. In fact, he was a mix of everything: a smuggler, religious, honest and obscene, gallant and a liar. But he wasn’t at all lucky, and, on top of that, he didn’t give a damn about ideas. But if he wanted to assure his audience as to the truth of anything, he’d say: “Marx said that, I swear on my sister’s honor, Marx said it.”
– “What?” Jalal asked, in astonishment, wondering if Marx had indeed said that sentence.
The Teacher assured Jalal, sounding a little bit angry: “Marx said it… on my sister’s honor, he did!”
– “Where? I haven’t heard it.”
– “Were you with Marx, to know every single word he said?”
– “No, but this sounds like an Al Pacino line, picked up from a Hollywood movie, and not Marx!”
– “Just shut up! You always pretend to be Mr. Know-it-all here, in this place, and that really ticks me off….”
The Teacher spelled out these last words, irritably and rather intensely, and that did quiet Jalal, who was busy fixing an old radio covered in a cheap, red plastic cover, all its keys blackened by hundreds of dirty fingerprints.
The Teacher didn’t like Jalal’s disbelief, so he got up, acting as if he remembered the anecdote:
– “As I recall, Marx had said it to Engles… maybe he was talking to him about the 1848 revolution. I don’t know exactly where I read it, but I’m sure!”
The Teacher seemed deeply assured, and to a point that kept Jalal’s mouth shut. But the bold wrestler, whose arms were carved up by tattoos and who normally didn’t interfere in such matters, looked up when he heard a number, since he thought they were talking about money:
The Teacher said: “Shut up! You’re an ass who doesn’t even know who Marx is.”
– “Yes I do. He and Haj Fouad both had the same beard.”
It was a rainy day in Brussels, and on that cold, wintry day the view of the city was gloomy, gray and wet from that apartment window in the Matonge neighborhood. Everything from that view was awash with water: Shops, streets, the passenger’s faces, cars, trees, dumpsters, and the barstools on the sidewalk. Women, wearing rainy coats and umbrellas, walked slowly towards the Porte de Namur metro station from Ixelles Avenue, while others were running, trying to find shelter beneath the cornices and umbrellas of Boniface shops.
Jalal got up, saying he’d come back at night. He was wearing a heavy black leather jacket, a gift from an aid worker a year ago.
– “Where to?” The Teacher asked, thinking Jalal was angry because of their argument about Marx’s quote.
– “I have a date at the Russian pub,” Jalal said.
– “Hah… Be careful, those ones are bastards.”
Before walking out, Jalal sat on the sofa and put on his wool socks, then slipped on a pair of H&M shoes he’d bought two years ago from one of the cheapest stores in Ixelles Avenue. The store was near the pizza shop, where he’d met the Teacher.
He placed five Euros on the table and raised his fist as a goodbye. The other two men raised both fists, a sign of strength. Jalal opened the door, closed it behind him, and they heard his footsteps on the stairs.
Actually, Jalal had met the Teacher two years earlier, when he’d bought a three-Euro Neapolitan pizza from Pizza Hut, near the post office and the Swedish H&M store on Ixelles Avenue, the one that goes directly to Flagey Square, where he’d just been at the Welfare office, and had felt hungry on his way home.
When he’d passed by, he could smell the hot pizza in a large tray under a low fire, the smell wafting from a small booth at the front of the restaurant where a girl stood, wearing the restaurant’s uniform and selling slices of pizza, three Euros apiece for patrons and those walking the street.
Jalal stopped in front of the shop. Before him stood two Belgian girls, wearing jeans and speaking Flemish, the language of the northern Belgian minority. Beside the teller was a thirty-something African woman with a big round ass, buying pizza and talking loudly on the phone, and although her French was impeccable, she annoyed everyone. Near Jalal was a thin, brown-skinned guy with a face familiar enough to make Jalal wonder where he’d seen him before, or if they’d even met.
Jalal glanced to check who this guy was, eyeing him from head to foot. He was the same Teacher we’ve already met: he had a brown face, with a fine mustache and sharp eyes, not yet thirty and wearing smart clothes. He too, bought a three-Euro Arabiata pizza from the saleswoman. She handed him the slice, wrapped in paper, and he chewed on it while licking a hot string of cheese back into his mouth.
At that moment, they both looked at each other and smiled at once.
– “Where have I seen you before?” The Teacher asked while trying to cool a hot mouthful of pizza by flipping it over in his mouth.
– “I don’t know, but it seems I’ve seen you before, too.”
Then the Teacher recalled:
– “I remember! I saw you in the refugee office.”
– “Yeah, right. I remember, too. You caused some trouble there…”
The Teacher didn’t comment, but he asked him, while eating:
– “Is your pizza any good?”
– “Yeah, very!”
– “What kind is it?”
– “A Neapolitan.”
The Teacher looked at him and said, seriously:
– “I’ll give you a bite, and would you give me a bite from yours?”
He pushed his slice for Jalal to have a bite, while he took a small piece from his, and shouted clearly:
– “Mmmm, It’s better than mine, it’s delicious. The Arabiata stings bitterly, and I’m not used to that kind of sharp-tasting food. I should’ve known anything with an Arab in it was sure to end up badly!”
– “I’ll make you a deal,” the Teacher said.
– “What’s that?” Jalal kept on eating and wiping his mouth with a tissue.
– “You’ll give me your slice, and, in return, I’ll give you mine and a Euro…” The Teacher fished 1 Euro from his pocket and placed it on his palm for Jalal to see.
Jalal laughed, and with no hesitation, he took the Euro, the Arabiata pizza, and gave him the Neapolitan. And so they walked together while eating.
– “Were you granted asylum?” The Teacher asked Jalal, while crossing the street toward Matonge, the African neighborhood in Ixelles.
– “What a lucky man you are!” Avoiding the green traffic light, they ran into traffic, dodging two black cars, a Fiat and Mercedes that were rushing north.
– “What about you?”
– “No. Actually, my application’s been denied, and I no longer hold legal papers. But I manage.”
– “Fake papers.”
– “Really! Where?”
The Teacher didn’t answer that. He didn’t mention the Turkish forger in Colonia who issued fake formal papers, who gave him a fake ID and a fake passport, with which he’d already escaped the police a dozen times.
They crossed the street to a place near the Teacher’s house. The Teacher crumpled the pizza’s wrapper, wiped his mouth, and tossed it in the dumpster. Two nearby cats regarded them cautiously, and a bunch of empty beer bottles, strewn around the garbage bin, were being collected by a drunkard who intended to sell them and buy alcohol from Delhaize, the supermarket near the Botanique.
When the Teacher marched towards Jalal, he pointed to the two grey cats and said:
– “Those two cats are Muslims.”
– “I’m telling you, those two are Muslims, they exited from the house of that Moroccan man. And do you see that tomcat?”
– “The tomcat!”
– “Yes, that one…”
He pointed toward the corner of the street, where a clean and pretty cat was languishing.
– “This one is Christian, it belongs to the Belgian guy who lives across from us.”
– “The cats here are quite indulgent, they don’t care if you’re a Muslim or a Christian. Once I witnessed how this Muslim cat allowed the other one to fuck her… they are much better than people.” And he spat on the floor.
The Teacher ran up the stairs to his apartment, while Jalal took the bus heading downtown, where he usually met some Russian thugs in a bar.
Jalal got down the stairs to the door of the building, which faces De la Paix Street in Matonge, the African neighborhood in Brussels’ Ixelles suburbs. It was named after a small neighborhood in Kinshasa, and during the fifties it was populated by African students, as it was where some colonial departments had been established.
Jalal marched down the street, zipping his jacket’s collar as a stiff breeze whipped past his face. Looking left, he saw a black sack in a corner filled with empty beer cans, and on the sidewalk in front of the grocery that sells African kitchen equipment was the powerful smell of dog shit. While he was crossing the street, he heard an awkward cough coming from behind him, and a woman talking on the phone.
Jalal walked on a sidewalk where the black slaves coming from Congolese colonies had marched before him with miserable faces and hearts filled with hate. He stopped for a moment, snapped out his pack of cigarettes, and lit himself one, blowing smoke into the night air. Thoughts raced through his mind, first among them Marx’s quote, fabricated by the Teacher, and he wondered: What does the Teacher even know about the 1848 revolution! He remembered how the Teacher had, incidentally, mentioned it to him a few days back. Thundering, bedazzling was the way he’d said it… Jalal smiled. It wasn’t upsetting to him, so much as it was fun and amusing. When he arrived at the house of the African students influenced by Patrice Lumumba who lived in an old house with a view to the wide street, he mumbled:
– “Maybe Patrice Lumumba was here too, and lived here in this place, and he used to read in one of these pubs…Marx’s The Communist Manifesto! Maybe the blond assassins with their blue or green eyes lived here as well. Certainly, the wives of the colonists’ clerks came to the ‘Training House’ often enough, before joining their husbands in the colonies.”
– “They were all here!”
That’s how Jalal spoke to himself, while walking down the street:
“Europeans seeking black prostitutes, hash detectors, food thieves, drunks, hippies and maybe even Marx was here during the nineteenth century, when he took shelter in Brussels, to write the third part of Das Kapital…”
– “If only the Teacher knew Marx’s old house, where he lived and wrote Das Kapital. Where Marx cheated on his wife Jenny with the maid… He would be a pain in the ass with such information, because, whenever he hears a story about Marx, he repeats it like a parrot! As if he wants to prove to us, and not the police, that he was a prosecuted politician back in his country. But they, the police, found he was so far from politics that he’s anything but. In the end, they refused him political asylum and he took on repeating any phrase mindlessly, with:
– “Marx had said it.”
Jalal saw the African surge on Saturdays when he walked in the neighborhood. He saw them gushing from big malls, marching into cafes similar to those in the far continent, a barbecue smell drifting from African restaurants, jewelry stores, a beauty shop where women braid each other’s hair like a straw mat, cassava groceries, okra and ryegrass. Newspapers are filled with articles about the increasing crime rate in Matonge. There’s something about assaulting policemen, and a den of violence, prostitution, drugs.
Jalal crossed the street towards Porte De Namur, where parked cars sheltered sleepy cats behind their wheels. The cats were watching the shoes of passersby, cautiously and idly, yet amused by the feet, pants, and legs from beneath skirts that strolled steadily down the street.
He went to the other sidewalk, where two African guys were arguing. One of them was wearing a cowboy hat and the other was wearing a cap, which gave him the appearance of an American baseball player. Close by was a guitarist playing reggae songs by Bob Marely, and a muffler on the floor for spare change. In one corner, a drunk was hugging his booze, there was mass prayer in the church, a pickup truck carrying ancient furniture was parked in front of a three-story building, and on the balcony black children stood, watching with their hands on a clothesline weighed down by a bunch of underwear, bras, and nightgowns.
Jalal left Matonge behind him and marched toward La Bourse, downtown, where the pub of the Russian thugs was located. Or as the French billboard noted: “Bar des loubards russes.”
He decided to go in there and talk to Vladimir, who was usually alone. Jalal would find him sitting in front of the display window, staring at passengers, drinking strong Russian vodka—the kind that has a sharp odor—and eating slices of lemon with salt.
He’d met Vladimir in the refugee camp almost two years ago. A month after their introduction, Vladimir punched an Afghani in the eye because of an argument over the TV in the camp’s corridor. Face soaked in blood, they took him to the hospital. The blonde supervisor, Madam Ann—who despised Vladimir—reported the incident to the police, and Vladimir escaped the camp to a friend’s house in Saint-Jose, near the Botanique metro station. And so he wandered the streets of Brussels on his motorcycle like a maniac. To onlookers, his features were frightening: long blonde hair pulled into a black and red plaid ribbon, arms covered in tattoos, and on his chest a picture of a tiger, a snake, and a dragon. Vladimir hid his long Marlboro cigarettes in his sleeve and his loaded pistol under his red sweater. He pointed it at the head of anyone who disagreed with him, and that’s why they call him “Angry Vladimir.”
– “Vladimir.” Jalal shouted outside of the display window. The bar’s name was written in red in Russian, inside of the bar: “таверна российских хулиганов.”
Vladimir said nothing. He sat with his glass in front of him, staring at nothing in complete silence.
Jalal entered the bar and came face to face with the waitress, Alexandra. She was holding a tray, her shirt open to reveal a small golden cross between her breasts. “Orthodox,” Jalal said, “a faithful and a sinner, just like what Dostoevsky was, during the old age.”
She spoke to him in a low voice:
– “Talk to him!” she nodded, indicating an angry Vladimir with a tip of her head. She knew that no one was able to speak with Vladimir in that state but Jalal. Without greeting her as usual, Jalal just smiled at her, despite the great respect and love he had for her. She always convinced him to drink only Tequila at night, telling him it’d turn him into a rough sailor in bed. She didn’t know all he had was a box of porno magazines under his bed. She also tried to convince Jalal to get beautiful tattoos on his arms and to lift weight to build up the muscles in his arms and chest, because women adored a strong man, not a sensible one.
– “Vladimir… you alright?”
Wordlessly, Vladimir glanced at him, then went back to staring into the void. So Jalal pulled a chair and sat across from him, while Alexandra served him with a tequila shot with lemon and salt.
Before saying anything, Jalal drank his shot. With wet eyes, he ate a lemon slice, put some salt on the back of his thumb, and licked it.
– “You alright? Talk to me…”
– “He triggered me…”
– “Who did?”
– “That son of a whore!”
– “Which one?”
– “The Albanian.”
– “Which one of them?”
– “The phone thief!”
– “What did he do?”
– “He stole my girlfriend’s phone.”
– “How do you know it was him?”
– “She told me!”
– “How did he do it?”
– “She was walking in the street and he snatched it.”
– “Bastard, Jalal said. Vladimir looked at him, finished his vodka in one swig, and said:
– “Hey, come with me.”
Alexandra stood in shock, drying her hands on a white cloth while the two men were leaving the bar in anger, without paying her a penny. Once Jalal noticed her disturbance, he shouted:
– “We’ll come back in a while.” So she got back to her job while their flight caught everyone’s attention in the bar. They crossed the sidewalk that hosted the bar’s wooden chairs and rounded tables, which were sheltered with red plastic umbrellas painted with the name of the bar on the side. There were big gas heaters up against the wall to warm some of those Russians who usually came to smoke and drink vodka in big glasses.
Vladimir unhooked the chain that held his Honda BlackBird motorcycle to a wedge in the street and pulled it down from its trestle. He then unhooked the helmet chained to his black leather saddle with a key and handed it to Jalal for him to wear.
– “Take this!” he said, without looking at him.
– “Don’t you wear one?”
The tattoos on Vladimir’s strong arms were peeking out from underneath his shirt as he mounted the bike in complete confidence. He lifted up his leg and settled on the bike before nodding to Jalal to sit behind him. Jalal got on behind, and while he was putting his feet on the side footrest near the wheels, his belly grazed Vladimir’s gun. Vladimir slammed the starter pedal with a heavy foot—once, twice—before the engine squawked loudly and the space was filled with the smell of burned gas.
They were racing through the street to get to Schaerbeek, the location of the Albanian gang. Despite Jalal’s helmet, the passing wind was deafening. Vladimir was driving recklessly and extremely fast, running dangerously between cars, dodging them in a way that stopped Jalal’s heart multiple times. Vladimir’s long blond hair, unwashed for more than a week, was flapping in the air like a flag, almost going up Jalal’s nose and choking him. He slowed down a little as he took a turn into Avenue Rogier. In a fury, Vladimir stopped fast near a small and nearly dark bar. The outside lanterns were broken, the walls peppered with bullet holes, and dark stains covered the glass.
Vladimir chained his motorcycle quickly and rushed into the bar. He pushed open the door with Jalal right behind him. Both went in.
A grey cloud was floating over the place. Everyone was smoking, despite the laws prohibiting smoking in closed areas. The Albanian – the phone thief – was standing in front of a poker machine, holding a polygonal glass of beer, drinking and panting like a dog. He was barking with victory and laughing like a devil as he won some Euros playing a poker machine. He didn’t notice Vladimir, who stood behind him.
Vladimir grabbed the Albanian’s shoulder and roughly turned him so they came face to face. Vladimir drew his gun and pushed it into the Albanian’s mouth, whose eyes blossomed with fear and whose mouth shivered, as Vladimir had a good grasp on his hair while the Albanian was biting on the gun. Vladimir scolded the waitress, who screamed once she saw the gun:
– “Shut up!”
He pulled the gun out of the Albanian’s mouth and fired a shot up the ceiling that made everyone drop to the floor. When he returned the gun into the guy’s mouth, it burned his tongue, and he started screaming, weeping, and babbling with vague words.
At that moment, two of the other Albanian gang members slipped out the door so fast they forgot their jackets, on hangers. Vladimir turned to Jalal and asked him to watch the door, in case they came back with weapons or had the idea of wrecking his motorcycle. Jalal rushed to the door to see where were they headed, but from the way they were walking, it didn’t seem like they were coming back for Vladimir, who was holding a gun viciously, threatening to shoot anyone who came near him.
He asked the Albanian to take out the phones.
– “Take out the phones or I’ll blow your head off right now.”
– “Yes, yes…”
– “Fast! I’m angry.”
– “Please… There you go”
The Albanian pulled two phones out of his pocket: the iPhone 7 that belonged to Vladimir’s girlfriend and a black LG G3.
Vladimir snapped up both phones abrasively. He saw the two letters that made his and his girlfriend’s names before he checked the phone and flipped it around to make sure it hadn’t been scratched. After that, he turned over to Jalal, giving him the black LG G3 and said:
– “This is for you.”
Jalal happily tucked it in his pocket while Vladimir put down his gun to check out the frightened faces around him. He stepped up to a table with a glass of vodka on it, took it without taking his eyes away from those who were looking at him in silence and fear, and emptied the whole glass down his throat. He smiled at them and said, holding up his hands:
– “Show’s over…”
He beckoned at Jalal to leave the bar, quickly, which Jalal gladly did. They both walked out to the motorcycle parked outside.
Life returned to the bar soon as they left: voices, movements, and toasts returned to tables, as did the cycling of the poker machines with all their lights and numbers.
The two of them got on the bike as quick as a blink. First was Vladimir, who placed his gun between his belt and his hip, covering it with his red sweater. When Jalal mounted the bike behind Vladimir, he again felt the pistol with his belly: a pistol missing all its bullets but one. Vladimir pushed down on the engine pedal, and his screaming and the smoke of burned oil filled the air.
As the motorcycle turned into Avenue Rogier, they heard the police alarm coming from a distance – maybe from the Botanique, or from the northern rail station. Clearly the waitress had called the police after they left the bar. Vladimir took a turn into narrow streets, avoiding the police, and they both felt blessed with victory.
Here they are: going off through Brussels’ night on a fast motorcycle, waving their fists, as glory was theirs!