Michel shakes the last of the peanuts into his mouth before dusting his hands off over the grass. He grunts, swallows, clears his throat.
‘As I remember, they called it the Freedom Walk. It was only a walk in the morning from the hotel to the conference centre, because the organisers were worried about causing a traffic jam. But they had renamed the conference centre – which by the way was originally a dance hall for the Dutch colonials, no Indonesians allowed. They called it the Freedom Centre, and they turned the walk there into a sort of parade.’
‘And he was part of it?’ I ask.
‘Indeed, my brother, he was. One of the main attractions. Army fatigues, big smile.’
I register that phrase with pleasure, my brother. What would have sounded natural in Arabic is touchingly stiff in Michel’s English. He holds his drink up to the light. I wonder whether he means to illustrate something: this is how dazzling the Leader was, or that moment was, twenty-odd years ago, when the heads of liberated or soon-to-be liberated states, the great and the near-great, walked together between one building and another along a flimsily barricaded path in a small, humid Javan city, autographing children’s notebooks and saluting the crowd – how like the setting sun on a New England evening pushing its rays through a gin and tonic. Or perhaps he will segue into a new subject – and at even the thought that Michel might stop sharing his memories with me, my desire to hear them intensifies. I become shy. I try not to look at him. The clock strikes the hour.
In Arabic, he says: ‘We’re going to miss you, you know.’
‘Oh.’ I tug my jacket so it sits better over my stomach. ‘Thanks.’
Our bench is directly across from the university’s Science Building, where denim-clad undergraduates trail along the path. The end of semester is nigh: in a few days they will be free. For our goodbye meeting this afternoon, I’ve supplied the cocktail flask and glasses, while Michel has brought snacks and a farewell gift: another book, wrapped in brown paper. On Saturday, Kaitlin and I will be leaving for California.
Suddenly, Michel shouts: ‘Read the sign, Bruno!’
Ahead of us, a shaggy young man with a long blond ponytail has wheeled onto the lawn.
‘No bicycles on the grass.’
Standing on the pedals, Bruno directs the bike back onto the path without acknowledging his professor’s rebuke. Slowed by the throng of other students, he zigzags to keep balance.
‘And did you see him up close?’ I ask. ‘The Leader.’
‘Of course.’ Michel, flushed from yelling, settles back against the bench. He considers me. Then, having apparently decided, he takes me with him into the past.
First of all, he was late. The rest of his delegation, having travelled en masse, were already in situ by the time his train drew into Bandung on the Saturday night. He stepped out of the station, drenched by a quick monsoon rain, and spotted a young local uniformed man standing under an umbrella: a student helper from the Ministry of Information, watching for late arrivals. The helper chaperoned Michel to the Savoy Homann, into a marble foyer stocked with boyish soldiers in thick white socks and hard hats. Michel’s English was fine by then – so he tells me in his now mellifluous American accent – but he still had trouble deciphering speech that strayed too far from a certain kind of received pronunciation, and as a result he must have misunderstood the attendant at the front desk because he took a wrong turn in the carpeted corridor and found himself by the swing doors of a conference room from which voices were emanating. One of the doors was propped open; he peered in. His wet jacket cooled in the air blown by a fan. Half the electric lights were on and a few chairs had been unstacked. And there, that figure, head of a Greek god, speaking into a switched-off microphone.
‘People of Egypt!’
A seated man, narrow skull ribbed with veins, raised a finger. ‘May I suggest, “People of the world”?’
‘Ah. Yes.’ The Leader smiled. ‘A habit.’
‘You must remember,’ Michel tells me, ‘that the coup is still fresh at this point. He’s only been in power, as the head of state, for a year.’
‘People of the world!’ said the Leader.
A second man raised a hand, palm out. ‘If I might, if I might, sir – People of the Third World? Given that, America, for example, is not invited . . .’
The Leader eyed his notes, pawing his cheek. ‘Let me think.’
A small figure in a white suit and white panama hat scurried past Michel into the conference hall.
‘Ah,’ said the Leader. ‘Why not simply say – Mr President!’
The white-suited man, who was Carlos Romulo, glanced around the room in confusion. It was still only 1955: Romulo would not become president of the Philippines for another seven years.
‘Excellent, sir,’ said the bespectacled adviser. ‘That’s a sensible way to go.’
‘Don’t look so frightened, Carlos!’
The Leader laughed to his companions, hand on his chest to help the laugh along, like a cough.
Michel’s eyes are going misty with memory and gin.
‘To see him so close was rare,’ he says. ‘Later on, of course, he became feverish about security. In Aleppo there’s an Armenian joint called Hagop’s, and whenever the Leader was in Aleppo, he always went to Hagop’s – but don’t ask me how I know this!’ His smile – brows lifting, face alive with lines – feels intended for someone else, a previous interlocutor, possibly female. ‘Hagop became the only person in Aleppo who knew when the Leader was coming to town.’ Another sip and he reverts to a version of himself I’m more familiar with. ‘Anyone who stages a coup knows the fragility of power. Anyone who overthrows the powerful – who takes power,’ and he grabs the air in front of us like he is grabbing a lapel, ‘becomes a paranoid maniac. And he really became diseased with secrecy, he saw conspiracy everywhere, Brutus on his doorstep, that sort of thing. But that spring, they were all puffed up in their robes and badges, and they entered the crowds like deities entering the River Ganges. Of course there was security, but . . . People came running out of restaurants when they heard the motorcades, screaming and waving like teenagers at American pop stars. Except that these were revolutionary leaders, bearing the weight of the people’s hopes.’
The Leader continued practising his speech, in which he denounced the shenanigans of the imperial powers, the colonisation of Palestine, commended the valiance of the Algerians, tiptoeing around the Americans, the CIA have some nice guys, and then he zoomed in on the mushroom cloud.
‘Fear of war has been aggravated by the development of mass-destructive weapons capable of total annihilation. The stakes are high. The stakes are the very survival of mankind.’
‘Fantastic, sir, beautifully said,’ said Carlos Romulo, wiping sweat from his upper lip.
‘Carlos,’ said the Leader. ‘Why are you here?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Has someone sent you?’
‘Sent me for what?’ asked Romulo.
‘To . . . listen?’ Toothpaste smile. Laughter.
‘Certainly not, sir, no, sir,’ said Romulo, tremulous, ‘I only – I, I –’
‘That’s all right!’ said the Leader. He looked down at the representative of the Philippines with a threateningly benevolent smile.
‘The Philippines,’ says Michel, ‘were in the small bloc of American sympathisers who were drawing a lot of suspicion. I was exhausted and needed to change out of my wet clothes, but my delegation happened to be in that bloc too, so I might have stayed there longer had I not – I mean, imagine, if the Leader had accused me of spying . . . I found another member of the hotel staff who took me straight up to my room.’ He sips again and sighs. ‘The heads were staying in these bungalows in the mountains, they descended in the mornings in cars. It was only the lesser delegates in the hotels, and the journalists, drinking late together in the lobby.’
‘You were hardly a lesser delegate,’ I say.
‘Don’t flatter,’ says Michel. ‘I was a minor delegate. I was twenty-four.’
‘I only meant,’ I say, but I don’t persist.
The student throng before us has petered out and a wedge of sky between the Science Building and Graduate Studies is blushing with sunset. At any moment Michel might announce it’s time to leave. I screw the cap off the flask and tilt it towards his glass. Distracted, he acquiesces. The liquid tinkles in the cup.
‘And you mustn’t be nostalgic either,’ he says.
‘I’m not nostalgic.’
‘And also don’t be romantic.’
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘The age of greatness is over.’
I touch his glass with mine. Around the quad, the wind strikes up and starts to shake the trees.
‘When was the age of greatness?’ I ask.
‘Well, it’s an artificial question,’ Michel replies, as though he had not a moment ago introduced the phrase. ‘The idea of golden ages is basically romantic, it only exists in retrospect. But if pressed I’d probably say 1962, Cuba notwithstanding.’
I have lived in America for over ten years. When I first arrived in ’65, I spent a week in Jersey City at the house of a second cousin and took the train each day into New York, waterlogged with jet lag, distracting myself with tourist sites. On two of those outings, I was approached by psychics. The first, a woman with wispy hair and stick legs loitering by the West Eighth entrance to the West Fourth Street subway station, informed me that I had a strong aura. I said thank you, what is an aura? She glittered with fake jewels. Putting a hand on my arm, she told me I’d come West from the East and that I would eventually go further West. This was not a difficult assumption given my face, I am obviously not from the West, and I might also have had the extra sheen of a clueless new arrival, or perhaps my clothes gave something away, but disconcerting to me was this suggestion of a further West, since I was at that time still imagining I’d return to Iraq after my studies, hopeful that the situation would have settled. Yet here I am, ten years later, there are the rumblings of another war in the Arab World and I am headed further West just like that woman told me. I still regret paying her those ten dollars. I’d just opened a bank account and there was hardly anything in it. She frogmarched me to a cashier’s window then hugged me on the street with an ardour I tried to believe was real even though I could see her craning round and felt her arms pumping as she passed the singles between her hands, counting. When a second woman stopped me a few days later on a crowded stretch of Broadway, I wondered if there was a convention for psychics or crooks going on nearby and whether they preyed on recent immigrants. This one stopped in front of me, staring, told me I had a strong aura, and I immediately said, No, thank you very much! But now that I think about it, maybe I did have a strong aura; maybe auras are gathered by motion, an intensity of past and present. Maybe wars bring auras in their wake, maybe those of us who have seen death recently and up close broadcast certain kinds of light that only certain kinds of people can see. Maybe psychics are like our leaders, they discover they have a real gift and they start out truthful, idealistic, well intentioned, until they see a chance to make a little money off the back of the truth and they take it, and then truth and fiction start to blur, and they die before their time with a vague sense of having misused a gift, having abused the masses, unsure what they ought themselves to have believed.
Grief burnished me then, and no one in America besides these two women seemed to notice. I had lost a mother, a father, both sisters, in the coup. I had walked through flames, I was high on survival, and now I was in America, at the zenith of the wheel. Quickly, the East Coast and New York City in particular squashed any sense that I was special. I developed an odd relationship with my own name. No one could pronounce it, not even the woman who would become my wife. I think generally Americans can’t force their palates into the right shapes but more importantly they are afraid of trying because they are afraid of failure, and it wasn’t long before I not only accepted the American approximation but was repeating it when anyone asked who I was, so in effect I pre-empted their fear of failure, I deliberately made introductions easier, in order to feel digestible, as a stranger. After a while, the Americanised sequence of sounds practically became my name, so that when I first met Michel on campus for the interview and he addressed me correctly, my ears registered the pronunciation as a mistake. At the same time, it was like he had reached a hand out and plucked a string deep inside me, and a forgotten chord, intimate and strange, reverberated up my spine, like the beginning of a record your mother used to play in the mornings. Tears sprang to my eyes too fast for me to hide them, and the older professor said, Welcome, kissing me on both cheeks before slapping my arm, not unkindly.
My position here has been temporary. The salary was not stupendous and Kaitlin took some persuading: I explained to her about Michel. Michel is barely at the midpoint of his career and he’s already a legend, swimming in the crème de la crème of the Ivy League while also having been physically present at several key points of our various interrelated movements. He is a walking piece of history, famously modest, famously well paid. Whenever, during my research, I examine photographs taken at significant events over the last twenty years I half expect to see him and often I do, a profile constructed of newsprint dots, sometimes with and sometimes without a heavy pair of glasses, lurking in the crowd at various assassinations, meetings, summits. And yet, miraculo, the same man now lived in an American cottage with an open-plan kitchen and a yard full of iron furniture, while also – or so I’d heard, hanging hungrily on to the academic grapevine from suburban New Jersey, where I completed my doctorate – acting like an uncle to almost any young Arab intellectual or entrepreneur or artist who turned up on his doorstep. And while I generally remain sceptical of hagiographies, there was something about this complex of facts that drew me to apply for and ultimately to accept an adjunct position for which I was frankly already overqualified. I’d once witnessed Michel thrash an opponent at a public debate, speaking complete sentences with a neat mid-Atlantic drawl, his hair immaculately combed, his original accent appearing in the shape of an occasional word like a rock poking up through parting waves. That was the only other time I’d seen him in the flesh. When I arrived on campus, he was more haggard than I expected. He wore a tweed jacket and his Arabic had started to break.
Idols can disappoint. Michel was sharp during meetings, charismatic in the cafeteria, but, to my confusion, he kept me at a distance. I thought up and threw out a thousand reasons why he only nodded politely at me in the corridor. I attended all his public lectures. Then, in the second week of my final semester, a note appeared in my mailbox.
Are you free Friday? Am hosting small soirée, 7pm at 37 Carroll Street on the East Side. Please join and do bring your wife.
Our footsteps rang out on the cold paving stones.
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