It goes without saying that Ett öga rött presents enormous problems to any translator. When it was published in Sweden, reviewers and many readers assumed that it was written in “Rinkebysvenska”, that is, incorrect Swedish as spoken by immigrants. On that basis, the obvious thing for a translator rendering the text into English would be to try to familiarize himself with the kind of English spoken by immigrants in an English town such as Bradford, or perhaps preferably an area with a high proportion of Arabs – Halim, the “hero” and narrator of An Eye Red, is of Tunisian ancestry.
However, I had heard from the Swedish publishers that the author disputed that interpretation, and maintained that it was not in fact an attempt to reproduce an immigrant “dialect”. Mr. Khemeri was in the USA when I was asked to translate an extract from the book: he was due to give a reading in English in New York, and time was very short. Luckily, this is the age of electronic mail, and I was able to contact Jonas and ask for his assistance and advice as the translation progressed. Some of his comments I found extremely interesting and useful:
“What Halim does is to try to dissect the Swedish language on purpose – he can speak the language perfectly, but tries to give the impression of the opposite.”
“...he purposely gets expressions and constructions ‘wrong’ in order to create an identity for himself, in order to express himself in a language he doesn’t regard as being his own (despite the fact that he was born in Sweden). One way in which it is clear that his language is a conscious construction is that he writes ‘pure’ Swedish when he reproduces the conversations he has with his father in Arabic.”
So, there was evidently no point in trying to “learn” genuine immigrant English – which was just as well in view of the shortage of time. It was more a question of deciding on certain recurrent errors, such as omitting the definite and sometimes the indefinite article, making word order mistakes, misusing the “-ing” form of verbs, and so on. But not consistently, and certainly not when Halim is reproducing something said originally in Arabic. The author frequently used the word “playing” when discussing how Halim used Swedish, and so I had a little fun trying to invent amusing linguistic errors of the kind made by somebody who knows the expression used is wrong, and also knows perfectly well what it ought to be. (“Dad had brainwaving”, “Dalanda sat ... screwing her eyes”, “Alonzo has got a job with a breaking-down lorry”.)
I have to admit being very pleased when Jonas insisted that I should replace the “black men” who were playing “Africa drums” by “niggers”, on the grounds that this was a typical example of how Halim would purposely use a term normally restricted nowadays to racial bigots. It encouraged me to use the word “Wog” shortly afterwards, on the same basis.
Looking at the text again now, several months after having made the translation, I think perhaps the English might have been made more incorrect than it is; although I also feel it is important not to turn the English into too much of a farcical gobbledygook, Halim is too clever for that. But no doubt many readers will have their own ideas about how the English version could be made more faithful to the original.
It was today last of summer holiday, and therefore I helped Dad in the shop. At first we filled displaying windows and stuck on sale price labels and then we plucked out new items. In the storeroom it was fullest chaos with heaps of dirt and spidernets in corners. I helped to clean and found a bag with old Ninja Turtles thermos flasks and cartons with tweezers and nail trimmers. Also I found masses of battered boxes with sparklers and further in, an old fire engine I won in school raffle, that was ages ago (maybe at junior school). Dad put thermos flasks and fire engine in displaying window, and hung there also some Snoopy bibs. I said it was too full but Dad said it is important everything is seen from outside. Then he asked me to write text on displaying cards.
This morning you see we found stolen bicycle outside our front door. It had dumped in bush, with punctured wheel and also the pedals somebody had taken. Dad had brainwaving and said we could use the cycle for advertising. And so we took the bikewreck and stood it outside the shop with displaying card what I wrote: “We have EVERYTHING!” (Dad chose the words.) Also I drew arrow so that people grasped it was our shop that was being meant. I smuggled the marker to my pocket as it is always good to have extra pen.
Later Nourdine dropped in. He carried the Pokemon machine in an old pram and knocked happy on the door. About in May the machine went broken and behind the glass the yellow Pokemon beast just sat fully still and even if we put money in, no plastic ball came. Nourdine promised he could mend and then whole summer he has been saying: “Soon it is ready, day after tomorrow, next week, soon...” Although really the machine has only stood in Nourdine’s room and collected dust.
Dad opened the door and we helped the pram over threshold because the machine is prettily heavy. Nourdine had oiled all the mechanisms and fluffed the yellow fur. Almost the machine looked like new bought (apart from the scratches on the glass).
“Well?” cried Nourdine happy. “What do you say now, eh?”
“He who believes in the potion shall be cured,” muttered Dad, feeling pleased.
The Pokemon swayed backwards and forwards as it should and made that noise, and when Dad tried with a coin there was buzzing and the plastic ball came tumbling out. As reward Dad gave Nourdine two hundred kronor and a Ninja Turtles flask.
In the afternoon I said I needed to go to town for buying books to school and then I took the underground out to Skärholmen. It was sunny Sunday and the square was teemed with people. Dalanda sat on her usual bench, screwing her eyes, and directly I saw her, there was happiness. Beside on the bench she had bags of vegetables but as soon as she saw, she put them on ground. She fumbled to give me big hug and triple cheek-kisses. Then she leaned back and held my hand.
We sat quiet while the fruit sellers shouted bananas at bargain prices and dirty-cheap cucumbers. At the same time longer away the niggers were playing Africa drums and the pigeons circled near the benches in hoping for more bread. Maybe for you it sounds funnily not to be ashamed with sitting on a bench talking to an old lady. And maybe the first time I chattered Dalanda I felt also a bit so. But direct you would regret if you knew her powerfulness. Dalanda knows everything about the history of the Arabs and she it is who has told about that we have best philosophers and smartest mathematicians and fiercest warriors. Also she has said that we Arabs are not like other Wogs but more civilized, and when she says that almost every time I have coldest shivers in the back.
Today Dalanda started to tell about a mass of Arab writers, wizards like Ghassan Kanafani, Fathi Ghanim and Naguib Mahfouz who has got Sweden’s finest Nobel Prize. Also she said every Jew who can write is there in Swedish but shit few Arabs. Plus there is a Jew called Salman who trashed the Koran and his book is everywhere in Swedish.
“You see, we invented the alphabet, your dad must have told you about that? When the ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus, all Europeans lived like barbaric dinosaurs.”
“So everybody has copied us, in fact?”
“Hmm, you could say that. And all those old writings are still there, with exactly the same message as when they were written. Writings are not like people, who change and forget things. That’s a bit why I’ve... bought a little...”
She groped in her handbag and produced fat notebook with red hard cover. On top of the red it was a mass of yellow patterns, and among other I saw the crescent moon and the star glinting with sunlight.
“Here... This is for you... If you use it in the right way I promise you that you will never need to worry about forgetting and becoming like my accursed husband.”
I nodded solemn and took the book. From first second when I saw those empty pages I could feel The Power flowing through my fingertops.
“But you can only have it if you promise to keep on working hard. Then I promise you in return that one day you will be able to write here in Arabic. Do you promise?”
“Of course. Walla.”
Dalanda smiled with all brown teeth and patted me on the head.
“My little dreamer. I suppose you know what they say in Egypt? A man without a language is like a...”
“...camel without a hump – worthless.”
Dalanda nodded in content.
“Yes, precisely. I know that with Allah’s help you will soon be able to write Arabic just as good as you speak. Inshallah!”
I answered also “Inshallah”, and thought with longing about my lessons with Safa. Dalanda looked proudly. The rest of the time we chattered local gossip. Dalanda told how Juan was back from his dad in Chile and evidently Alonzo has got a job with a breaking-down lorry. Then Dalanda told that she was little worried, for now even more Bosnians have moved to our old haven.
“I have always had problems with Yugoslavs,” she explained. “I always say that one should think twice before trusting folk who start wars and rape their neighbours.”
I nodded to show that I agreed. When we hugged byebye I could smell her veil and also little of her henna tattooing, and inside it was the sting of some memories, and then all was normal again.
That evening I sat long in my room and wondered what I should write. First I tested thinking up story about a junkie who gets dodgy stuff from the Yugo mafia and then gets himself weapon to sort his revenge. But I dropped the thread, because what do I know about junkie life and dodgy stuff? Plus I have never shot with a real Glock. Therefore I tore up the page and instead tried to write, no messing, about what happened today. That must be the genuinest possible, and obviously Naguib Mahfouz would never write stories about anybody but himself and his life.
Today on the path to school I had feeling things were different. I went up the steps that always smell of drunken piss, crossed the bridge over Långholmsgatan and saw the school towering up like great big castle on top of hill. All time I heard Dalanda in my head like a radio. She reminded me I am not a gangster but a descender of Hannibal who battered the Romans with elephants, and al-Khwarizmi who gave his name to algebra. Yes, it has been a bit so ever since I chattered to Dalanda first time, but now it was stronger than before.
At school everybody was hanging on the lockers and waited for Carin. Kristoffer was sitting on the window ledge and tried to impress the girls with belching. Then he showed Jessica the grazings he had from the packet holiday after moped crash. Nobody cared less, obviously, and instead Anna told how she was in Cuba and then spruced up holidays cottage in Sandhamnen. Then everybody started chattering summer holidays so I went towards careers room and read on notice board with ads for high schools. Then I heard ping behind my back and out from the teachers’ lift came Curre with his squeaky trolley a bit in front. I thought he was nearly bigger than usual and I thought he looks ever so like ten-pin ball – big, round and black. You know, everybody thinks often all Eritreans are thin and spindly, but I swear Curre must weigh over 18, maybe 20 stones. (That’s because he came here already when little and he’s eaten his way up since.) Stuck in his curly hair over one ear flap was green felt pen, and although I helped him lots of times last spring now he seemed not even to recognize. Several seconds he only stared at my hand until his eyes got focus and his smile lighted up.
“So, you’re back... back at school... but that’s cool, I think, cool to have you back... back at school, cool...”
“Thank you, thank you my friend. See you later.”
I had to pull hard in getting my hand out of his because under all flab Curre has loads of muscles, obviously. Plus I have learned that as soon as Curre rounds off, you have to stop.
Back outside our classroom, Carin came walking with Alex from the staff room. Carin unlocked and welcomed us all while Alex slid in and sat in corner and played warder. Today he had gone over the board in hiphop style with baggy Fubu jeans and a new purple Laker shirt.
The rest of the day was boring stiff. Swedish and history and loads of new books. In the canteen was goulash soup and we were only allowed two slices of soft bread. I grabbed like five without Alex seeing, and the ones I couldn't manage I smeared in butter and stuck under the table. In the afternoon we had chemistry with Anita and then art with a new teacher who had glossy lips and seemed a bit poof. We had to finish early because the summer warm was heavy, and still the air conditioner packs up sometimes.
In the evening me and Dad invited Nourdine to dinner. Right now they sit in kitchen playing chess. Before, I played against Dad and as thank you for Dad’s chakchouka Nourdine did washing up. Dad had headache after heavy workday and therefore he made a pause in match to drop tablet into water glass. Then Nourdine hit the cupboard door with his head but stopped the moment before and stamped his foot:
“Headaches – sometimes they just hit you!”
Nourdine copied exactly how the ad goes and filled the kitchen with roaring laughter. Dad smiled as answer. He has said that Nourdine always laughs loud because that’s how they learn them at acting schools and then it’s hard to get away from it. Me, I think he mostly laughs loud because he wants to be heard and stand in centre so you don’t miss he’s there. Sometimes I can think it irritates that he always comes creeping round to us since we moved here. Of course we grasp he gets tired of his hostel home but also he must fix his life better than just hanging out here or at pub.
Dad came back to chess match with fizzing water glass and stirred with index finger. Then he gulped the glass and attacked with bishop. Nourdine left the washing and started to act his Baloo in Swedish:
“Ho, ho, now then Halim, here we go! Just see what your old man is doing...”
Dad’s bishop caught me in bed because left side was opened up and his queen was isolate. Dad’s face was bare of clues, but even so I should have gathered because Nourdine was still staring keen at the board.
You might think it sounds weirdo that Nourdine plays Baloo but that’s because he acted him on stage at Hornstull. It was ages ago, maybe two years, nearly exactly after Samir had introduced Dad and Nourdine to each other. The play was most for kindergarden kiddies but still Dad and I went to check out. Nourdine had grey makeup and long whiskers and dress that made him fatty so he looked like a real bear. Then he chattered perfect just like in film. When he piled fruit on his hand and danced with the ape king the kiddies guffawed a lot.
I tripped into Dad’s chess trap and with my castle I took his queen. Right away as the queen landed in the olive-wood box I saw Dad’s mouth twitching with glee. Nourdine went back to the washing and sang:
“I mean the bare necessities, that’s why bear no can rest in ease...”
I grasped immediately the match was lost. Dad attacked with his knight and I did clumsy effort to defend with my other castle. But my king was pressed in ambush and three moves later I was shitted on. Dad leaned back on creaking kitchen chair and hammered back of his head. Nourdine shouted solemnly in Arabic:
“Otman, you must teach your son that the queen is not everything...”
Then he must have heard what he said and the words sort of floated round in the kitchen like crumbs of dust. Direct Dad became more serious and the air was different. Quite a long time it took before the air became more usual. Just now from the kitchen I hear how Nourdine is swearing loudly because always he loses against Dad. Now I don't rightly know what to write more and so here I stop.
I am sitting alone at my desk and it is like the fullest chaos inside me. It is hard to write, but I must because if not it is like my head will explode. Today was Wednesday and we had woodwork in the morning. All was as usual with sawdust and wood glue and sandpaper. In the first hour the girls in the class all wanted to make tarty-farty butter knives and cutting boards. I swear they are not created for woodwork, therefore why they choose it I have no ideas. Kristoffer has better ideas but he is too clumsy. Direct he tried to nick material for throwing star in his rucksack. Alex saw and squealed to Nisse who banished him from the workshop with fleas in his ears.
In the second hour Carin came in and interrupted. She beckoned me and shouted (because if else you wouldn’t hear in all the row): “Halim, would you like to come with me for a while, we’re just going to have a quick meeting. You can wait here, it won’t take long.” (The last she said to Alex, who was sitting on chair in the corner.)
The meeting was in Carin’s classroom and on the way there I had little regrets and felt prettily guilty although I was as innocent as a newly born lamb. Carin said nothing and me neither. In the classroom I realized it was serious meeting as the headmistress was there. A bit sorry I felt for her pupil’s chair because its arms were forced out to max bending and any second the legs would probably break. Next to her sat the school welfare officer like frightened little mouse in wrinkled girlie dress. All the time she fiddled with her silver butterfly brooch. All of them fell quiet when they saw me come. Carin sat down at the other side of the headmistress, and then all three broke a smile like chorus under command. With glittering gums the headmistress said how nice it was to see me, and I felt like shudders.
Then everything went quick. It was like direct after they spoke it became little chaos and therefore I don’t know for sure if I heard everything right but still I know Carin’s voice spoke about cut-backs and they had to prioritize and then I heard the school welfare officer’s how home-language instruction had been threatened for long time and I heard the headmistress squash a sneeze and then I heard Carin’s and you don’t need to worry about Safa as she has job out at Blackeberg and sends lots of greetings. Then the welfare officer’s and Alex is the first special teacher who has coped with you all and then Carin’s and it all went so very much better last term.
I reminded myself about polite and calm, Polite and Calm, no sillies, no hellabaloo. Took the deepest breath and then I looked up at the stupid bitches. They sat there proud in a row. “Who has decided?” I asked.
“Who has decided? Who has decided?”
The welfare officer looked at Carin who looked at the headmistress who instead looked at the welfare officer. Nobody wanted of course to take responsibility and Halim thought they were handing round the guilt like passing the parcel. And he continued to ask again and again until the headmistress in the end lost patience. From over all double chins came out a little mouth.
“But Halim, you can’t claim that this comes as a surprise. Your time here at this school hasn’t been exactly without problems. And the bottom line is, we can’t afford both Alex and Safa. We have to prioritize.”
Then her flabby hand tapped the folder with Halim’s name while Halim himself breathed deep and said Calm and Polite in his head.
“Besides you must remember that this is a chance for you to pull yourself together. Alex is here for your and Carin’s and the whole class’s sake.”
Then she looked content at Carin and her flabby chins shuddered as she said: “Well, that’s that.”
Carin said I could go back to the woodwork class and I shot out of the room like greasy lightning and felt the chaos growing inside. It was like the biggest breaker rolling in towards the beach where Halim walked barefoot in sunshine. But just before it all broke over him he discovered by chance that domestic science room was unlocked and empty.
Dalanda tapped his head and smelled of henna and silk and reminded that in Sweden there were sayings like “Talking’s worth silver but silence is golden” and “He who waits for something soft will never wait too long”. We Arabs say instead “A man without courage is no man at all”.
Total silence when Halim took the marker pen from his pocket and on the white screen used for showing slides he drew wicked caricature of the headmistress on all fours with horse’s prick in her mouth and a speech bubble saying “I swallow!”. Afterwards he drew a great big star and next to it an even bigger crescent moon. (Unfortunately the moon was a bit lopsided and banana-like but even so it was powerful.)
I promised from now on the stupid bitches will regret they try to make Halim a humpless camel and now it is total war because descenders of Hannibal and Saladin give up NEVER. Before I went back to the class I attacked two toilets next to the handicrafts workshop, crossed out all stupid graffiti and filled every tile with black stars and moons.
Later in the day Alex tried to soften up with little small-talk.
“Hi there Halim! How are things? Everything cool?”
I let his questions crash to the ground like parachute jumpers who forget to pull the cord. Alex became nervous and of course he started blinking hard with his slitty eyes.
“But... anyway... It’ll be you and me working together a bit extra this autumn. Cool, eh? Are you happy with that?”
I just stared without answer and although Alex wanted to show hard surface you could see he was crushed. Why should I respect anybody who when it becomes silent direct he has to use all his face to blink? I pressed hard on the mute button in my brain and Alex grasped he had lost.
Now it is late evening and I can’t sleep and so I have instead boiled mint tea and sit at desk. In the living room Dad snores from armchair. At about six Dad came home with booze bags and gave two good news:
1. Nourdine will have audition for role in a real play. Nourdine saw the ad today on way home and the director said direct he would probably be suited for main part!
2. The bicycle we found and that now is advertising billboard works like bomb. Several days in a row there have been more customers than usually in the shop and some have bought also.
Dad washed the hands with washing-up liquid and shouted that last customer before closing bought masses of things for his business.
“You know those elk soap-dishes you didn’t think were any good? He bought four. And nine-ten towels and two of those tins with sticking plaster. All in cash!”
Dad smiled with all his face and shouted that it now was time for a celebrating.
To dinner Dad drank several wine glasses and then he continued in front of telly. All the time I sat beside on the sofa and thought when is best time to tell. All the time I thought it would be better moment little later. On channel three was hospital soap and even when I skiddled out of living room I could hear Dad talk to himself about the story.
In the last ads break I plucked courage and told him the school had snuffed out home-language instruction. At first Dad didn’t seem to hear. I repeated with bit louder voice, but still Dad didn’t release TV screen from his eyes.
“Hello, didn’t you hear? No more Arabic lessons. They say there isn’t enough money.”
There passed many seconds. On telly was ad for loo paper and then finally Dad looked at me.
“Why didn’t you believe in those elk soap-dishes? I told you they would sell.”
“Stop it. Don’t you understand? It’s finished, finito, over. Never again.”
Dad gave the deepest sigh.
“It’s you who don’t understand, Halim.”
Between Dad’s lips and the moustache it was dried wine traces.
“You see... My son... What language do they speak in... let’s say... Greece? Go on. Guess!”
“Did I hear you say Greek? Ten points. And... er... in... France? Well? Your time’s up... what? Yes! Twenty points. French. And in Sweden they speak... now’s your chance... to win 10,000 kronor, if you get it right...”
“But we don’t.”
“It’s not actually true that we...”
Dad’s eyes were again glued on telly. Where a fat cook with a poncey haircut says Yes washing-up liquid gives more shine than any other. For 3 minutes they told mixed news and then they showed some nincomtwit in Karlstad who had Sweden’s biggest collection of soft drink bottle tops. Dad changed channels and I tried again.
“Dad. We speak hardly any...”
“No, but that’s because we can jump between a little Arabic – a little Swedish. No problem for us, we can... Look, it’s those... what are they called?”
Then we sat quiet. Dad pointed happy at screen because on channel four they were telling about Friends who in summer gave perhaps 60 concerts and now in autumn were going to let loose the new disc. Plus they were going to be in Dance Band show and lots more. They played some tracks from new disc and Dad’s foot beat the rhythm.
“Are this band popular with you young people? They can’t be, can they, eh? ‘Winning smiles’... What do they mean by that? Smiles – smiles, that is, that you make with your mouth – and winning? Winning what? A race?”
Dad smiled his biggest smile and did his jockey play and it’s not easy not to have bad thoughts and so quickly I left living room. Inside me I felt there was coming some uproar and one second was enough. I saw her and it has passed some time so therefore she needs cushions on both sides in the sofa as support, and from her mouth slide long dribblings. Dad wiping again and heavy sounds when wet paper lands on the floor because she can no longer control. When she again opens her mouth, still the pills are left because muscles for swallowing are going away with everything else and Dad looks up and sees me, further off, maybe near the door almost on threshold. Shortest second but with little focusing I came back. I stared for long time at photo of King Hassan II on gold throne in black suit and black tie and calm face before red star in background. Then I tried to sleep for quite a while before I instead boiled tea and took out the notebook.
Now it’s Sunday evening and I sit at my desk new-bathed. There is calm in the air and it is seldom that all silence is so sort of collected as on Sunday evenings when you sit up alone after a bath.
This morning Nourdine dropped in already in the morning. He had with him script of the play he might get part in. Also in the bag he had two unopened ciggy packs and like a pound of pistagio nuts. Dad produced ashtray and shut sunlight out with Venice blinds. Nourdine rolled up shirt sleeves and did breathing exercises so that it sounded like when girls give birth. Meanwhile me and Dad helped to translate hard Swedish words. The play was called Peer Gynt, but in fact I think Peer Git was a better name. It was a Norwegian who wrote it many hundreds of years ago and the language was sort of sticky porridge. The characters were called for instance “säter-maid” and “button moulder”. When somebody prattled on they said “you are being dotty” and when they answered back they called him nasty names like “clodhopper” or “sourpuss” or “ditherer”.
Some times I could feel Dad looking at me with disappointment when I didn’t know all hard words. But after some thought and with wordbooks we usually understood what they wanted to say. The play seemed prettily odd. Peer Git picked up a few girls and hung around with troll-families and then he was at sea and in the desert and in the end he came home as old man and regretted all he had ever done in his life.
When Nourdine was in bathroom I asked Dad why Nourdine was so pleased over drippy poofta part. Dad just sighed and kept on turning dictionary pages. When I said the play seemed a bit farty to Nourdine, he only laughed.
“You can’t be too particular, Halim. You have to take what you can get. All parts are not like Estragon! I must have told you about when I travelled the world with Beckett’s play? We performed in Berlin... Milan... Paris...”
Nourdine had sat down. Now he put one foot over knee and gave his biggest punch, sort of.
“‘There is nothing to be done’, do you hear that Halim, listen now, it’s in English: ‘There is nothing to be done’!”
“OK, let’s move on in Swedish,” said Dad, interrupting him. “Show Halim how you pronounce it.”
And Nourdine did his best to read awkward script like Swedelander would do. Sometimes he sounded real thing, sometimes he stuck on some fancy word and sometimes Dad had to remind not to use too much Baloo-voice.
They practised scene where Peer sits with Mountain King. Dad read Mountain King’s words and Nourdine stood in middle of room and played Peer. The text told how Peer didn’t really want to become troll, but then the king talked him round with offer of gold and girls, and then Peer drank troll beer and put on troll clothes and even stuck on himself a little tail to be like troll. In the end though Peer got his grip, said no to Mountain King and skiddled away.
Although Peer was a git I felt that Nourdine played the roll with max empathy. At same time it is hard to understand how Nourdine can be so pleased when he has earlier played more real parts. Once two years ago he played taxi cabby in short film that was played at movie festival in Denmark. Also another time he played kebab-seller in Different Worlds (we have it on video). First he stands in background and then he leans forward out of stand and asks him called Daniel: “Strong sauce? Salt on fries?” Me, I think parts like that are better suitable because no matter what, they are more real for Nourdine than some tarty-farty Norwegian called Peer.
At lunchtime I skiddled out of the play-acting and cigarette smoke, slunk through the subway barriers and headed for Skärholmen on the red line. Dalanda was on usual bench, feeding the pigeons. After I told her about the first school week and home language, she burst into flames and immediately started on about Integration Policy.
“What do you mean, Integration Policy?” I asked her, and then she looked at me with eyes you maybe use when you look at injured little birds.
“Do you mean to say that your dad hasn’t even told you about the Integration Policy? Hasn’t he explained that Swedish politicians have started to work on changing all immigrants into Swedes?”
And although I was beginning to think a bit the same thing, I refused to let anybody trash my father.
“Yes, of course he’s told me, it’s just that it was ages ago. That’s why. Ages ago.”
Dalanda had still a bit sceptic.
“Your dad... Is he really a true believer? Does he pray five times a day? Does he often read the Koran?”
I nodded at first two questions but then it felt like it was becoming too many lies at same time, so I shook my head at third question.
“But he doesn’t read Swedish shit-books,” I said quickly so that she wouldn’t think Dad was on road to being Swedified. “He reads mostly Arab authors. And poets.”
“Which ones?” asked Dalanda in between chewings of her orange.
“Omar. He loves Omar Kayyam. Before, he read masses of other books including some by Swedelanders. But now he reads almost only Omar.”
Dalanda looked as if she’d eaten black pudding by error.
“Omar? Don’t you know that Omar isn’t an Arab? He’s a Persian, little Halim. And besides, he’s a toss-pot and a scatterbrain. Does your father drink alcohol as well?”
“Very extremely seldom,” I said and asked if I also could have an orange. She gave one and then she belched silently some times.
“Do you know what I think? I think your dad is one of those intellectual types. I think he’s a chameleon who goes somewhere new and adapts to fit in. Becomes a new man, forgets all tradition and history. In Libya we have a proverb that says there is a big similarity between intellectuals and lame camels. Do you know why?”
“No, tell me.”
“Because neither of them will ever start a revolution.”
Dalanda let the beauty of the proverb sparkle a little while before speaking again.
“How’s the writing going, by the way? I hope you haven’t given up?”
“No, no, of course not. I keep writing away. It’s going great.”
Dalanda leaned back content and mumbled on about writing being important for thinking. I concentrated on eating orange segments. When she dozed off I moved closer so that I could smell her. She usually says she is sleepy because she has flown over so many time zones in her life. From beginning she is born in Luleå, although both her parents came to Sweden from Libya, that was a long way ago, nearly Middle Ages. But then of course her parents regretted and sent her to grow up with relations near Tripoli. There she met Saudi diplomat who took her to USA and then Austria. Then they came back to Sweden and also Dalanda’s brother’s family could buy residence permit. All lived happy until diplomat’s chauffeur crashed into taxi near Karlaplan driven by Stockholm’s wickedest but beautifulest Swedelandic girl. Direct she saw Dalanda’s husband wore expensive suit and had posh diplomatic Merc, and therefore she pounced him and convinced him they would become luvvie-birds and Dalanda should be dumped. The husband fell over for it and in the finish he called police because Dalanda refused to move out of diplomatic house. Then she was taken first to hospital for a bit and then to her brother in Skärholmen. Still she says she has shooting pains every time she sees taxi (especially if it has Stockholm-Taxi sign).
When she woke up from her own snoring I think she noticed I had moved closer. She started talking about the Jew Sharon who had just taken a walk to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He did it mostly to upstir the Palestinians and of course response was hellabaloo. Masses of Arabs have died already and Dalanda said it was easy to understand their anger.
“Sharon has been around far too long, therefore it is extra-sensitive. You know I suppose that he was the one who approved the massacres in Sabra and Shatila? Do you know about Sabra and Shatila?”
“Of course I do.”
Dalanda continued to say Sharon was biggest threat to peace and everything would go to the pot if he got more power. At same time I remembered because Sabra and Shatila were something Mum and Dad used to talk about. Certainly, of course I know about that. Maybe two thousand Arabs (mostly women and children and few old age pensioners) were slain because Jews had occupied and then when PLO had been driven out they let in Falangists. Everybody knew and even USA had warned. I remember blood-pictures of bodies in ditches and children in heaps and pregnant mum lying dead (nearly naked). Also I remember guy who was kicked to death and instead of face there was just mincemeat and occasional half tooth lowest down. Dad boils over and says I am too little but Mum who is still strong pushes him away and shows more photos and says I am just exactly right age. O yes, I know about that but if nobody reminds there is a risk that memories will turn mouldy.
“Now then, my little dreamer. Did you like my orange? Didn’t you see the Jaffa label?”
Obviously I knew direct she would never buy Jaffa oranges and for long time we laughed together. Still she held my hand, and inside it was the warmest feeling.
At about four the bird who is married to Dalanda’s nephew came to collect. She wore yellow jacket over yellow T-shirt and on her legs she had side stripes with yellow fabric (but her handbag was more orange). She didn’t look at me, just took hold of Dalanda and said: “Jalla, it’s time to go home.”
As I thought she was a bit lacking respect, breaking into ongoing conversation, I said “Beshuaya, beshuaya” but the girl didn’t seem to hear. She just took Dalanda’s carrier bags and led her off towards car park.
When I came home Dad and Nourdine had finished rehearsing. There was big pile of pistagio shells on table and now they were watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
“Your neighbour!” Nourdine shouted and pointed at Bengt Magnusson.
Dad listened to 10,000 kronor question but didn’t answer. Instead of watching Swedelandic telly I ran bath, slid down into bubbles and wondered if the guy we’d exchanged flats with had pulled quick one or not. You know, everybody thinks Swedelanders are always more honest than Wogs and a bit therefore I think we trusted him when he said telly star Bengt Magnusson lived next door. Dad was so keen to escape from Skärholmen and was extra puffed up when he heard that and saw the name on door. In early days Dad often talked about meeting Magnusson in cellar or lift, but we still haven’t caught glimpse. Even so his name is there on letter-box, and Dad said he once heard smoker’s cough coming from inside the door. Maybe we were swindled, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, I thought, and ran more hot water because the old had turned cold without me noticing.