By Khalid Warsame
Edited by Omar Sakr
As I put on my shoes, I hear again the voice of Abu-Umar, Sheikh One-Sermon as we called him, claiming that a white couple once converted to Islam because he was an honest used-car salesman. They were so astounded by his honesty that they demanded to have him over for dinner, and over months, he opened their hearts to Allah and they came into the Ummah. I tell Idiris this story when he comes to pick me up. Do you think it’s true? Idiris scoffs. That man is confused, he says. I recently read a book written by a foreign-correspondent who covered Uganda during Idi Amin’s era. He said that the dictator had this curious force of presence whereby you immediately believed him no matter what he said, and that whatever he said sounded eminently reasonable. I recognise a polite version of this quality in Idiris. I’ve always believed him, and his opinions are instantly my own. Hold on, he says, I’ve got to step into my house.
He pulls up at his place on the corner of Hogans and Tarneit Road, heads inside, and emerges a few minutes later wearing his Richmond Tigers jumper and chewing some roti. Idiris’ beard is getting long, and his hair is wild and thick as barley. We’re going to be late for… should we just skip it? He looks at me, starts the car and we silently agree to get high instead of going to class. We had one subject together at uni, and we had mutually arrived at the determination never to go. When are you moving? He asks me. Tomorrow night, you’re coming round to help still, right? I look away as I say this. I want to open my body up to him but he pretends not to know that. We both do.
There was an Eritrean kid we knew, Obie. He had a habit of calling people ‘blood’ and ‘fam.’ What up blood? What up fam? He had gone to the UK one summer and came back with blood and family on his lips. I pay attention to the way people talk too much, and I justify this by wringing meaning from it. For example: blood and family are one, but you call someone ‘blood’ and that’s different from calling them ‘fam’ and that, too, is different from ‘bro,’ or ‘cuz’. I called Idiris ‘bro’ but he always referred to me as ‘Ahmed’. I think he recognised that I relied on him too much. I think the distance was slightly deliberate on his part. I think he was making room for another kind of closeness. In the years to come we will drift apart and reconnect and drift apart again and again, in perfect un-meditated confusion.
Three years ago when we were fifteen, Idiris came over to my house; we were planning to go to the park and meet up with Shitsy and his mates who had some booze and Idiris asked to borrow one of my shirts and undressed right there in my room and there was a small, brief moment where we gazed at each other with knowledge, that he knew exactly how I gazed at him, and our knowledge was united in shame. I move on from that thought the same way I move on from my discomfort whenever I am caught in his gaze now and feel that I can’t help but agree with him, because helplessness is a learned trait, and shame is a learned trait, and ignoring both is also a learned trait. I forget everything except these small charged moments: the looks, the heat, the snatches of conversation.
It’s high-noon and I don’t know where the sun ends.
The roads—straight and joined at the knees by roundabouts—remind me of a long-limbed insect. Houses line up on both sides, squat and unassuming and new. Idiris, roll down the window. Okay, he says and he blows his smoke outside. Bro, you’ve got to stop smoking all the damn time. I know, he says, but his eyes say, what can we do about it? Allah wills what Allah wills, and Allah wills his servants to smoke sometimes. He smokes Grantas’, my dad’s brand. For the rest of my life I will always reify the emotional weight of my friends and lovers by their smells, and when I think on this I will remember this moment, so long ago now, in the car with Idiris, with his scent and my dad’s scent mixing together in confusion, and I realise that smell is my alphabet and my Qibla combined. Here is my son: twenty years from this moment, he will smell to me like a boy from high-school, Moey, who wore Lynx Africa like a cloak. It will make me uneasy and I will make my displeasure known to my son, who doesn’t know any better. And here now, is Idiris, who smells of incense and dust and Grantas’. My father doesn’t even smoke anymore: he quit when I was nine.
On our way to The Bakery, Idiris decides that we need to eat, so we stop by the Maccas. We do our thing: go through the drive-thru to order, but then park the car and eat inside. We started doing this years ago because it’s faster and more comfortable. ‘McDonalds is actually in the real-estate business, not the burger business,’ said Mr. Morgan, our High School P.E. teacher, once. He had read it in a self-help book. In the flatlands of outer-suburban Melbourne, the golden arches are the tallest thing around. Mr. Morgan would probably have something to say about that too: something about how a visual identity imposes itself upon the land and upon our minds in the same way: about how the body is a map and maps are representations, interpretations, imperfect analogues to reality. He always had little pearls like that to share. He had read a lot of books, more than I have, though the quality of his reading was questionable to me at times. He always had the air of someone who was ready to be deceived.
As we walk into the Maccas, Idiris pulls at my sleeve. Look who it is. I look up: it was this African kid. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew him. He was friends with Dini from Wyndham Vale. He had a scar running down his face that seemed wild to me. Idiris walks up to him and they shake hands. He had a white girl with him, his arm around her waist. There’s something in the way he was possessing her that was at once familiar and uncomfortable to me. When I am older I will learn to pinpoint this sense as a hyper-awareness of the intersections of identities, about how black masculinity would always be oppositional and instrumental to white femininity. I would think about these constructions when I walk down the street with a partner, white, or a friend, also white, and catch the glances of white and black folk alike. I would notice how I tend to dismiss the gazes of white people but burn with a closely related species of shame under the gaze of black people. Once, ten years from now, Idiris would call me and say, ‘are you going to marry her?’ and I would say yes, and he would then reply, ‘You know, Frantz Fanon had a white wife.’
After they say goodbye to us, Idiris tells me that the white girl used to date Ibrahim, who was seeing this Somali girl now.
Idiris eats pensively. I’ve been having these dreams, he says. I am in a car, snaking through a road in the dark. My high-beams illuminate the trees shooting up from right onto the edge of the road as we ascend. Do you remember that time we went to Lorne? It’s like that road. And in that moment a truck full of schoolchildren screams into my vision, lights blinding me, and my car soars off the road into a ditch and fills rapidly with water. I drown right there in the driver’s seat, still buckled in, looking calmly ahead.
I ask him if the dreams are always the same or if they change sometimes. Idiris thinks for a moment. Sometimes my hands are still gripping the steering wheel, and other times they are folded neatly in my lap, he says finally. I look outside: a fire truck screams past Heaths Road. Something dad once told me resurfaces. I must have been five or six, and he was walking me to school. Over the pedestrian bridge, we watch an ambulance with its sirens on snake through traffic on Boundary Road. It’s bad luck to see an ambulance, he says, and he tells me that it’s a reminder that someone, somewhere, is having the worst day of their lives. I think about my dad’s words every time I hear a siren. I always circle this moment, this specific thought.
The dreams definitely mean something, I told Idiris. He shrugs and finishes his burger.
Along the way we pull up for a fire truck to pass us, another one. We later catch up to the trucks along Derrimut Road, near the cricket oval where we had Eid prayers. A large house burns vigorously, and traffic has crawled to a stop as one lane is cut off by the fire trucks. A small crowd gathers on the median strip as Idiris parks the car. We’re checking this out, he says. We stand at a distance for a while, as if gathering the sufficient amount of curiosity and nerve to come closer. The air is smoke and fumes, and a woman on the phone ahead of us sputters and coughs. The firefighters move about with an agility that contradicts their bulky outfits. Many of the people watching, like us, stood aimlessly, as if they’d been struck in the head. A red-headed woman in cutoff jeans walks in circles nearby, staring at the fire with wide, disbelieving eyes. She has a bright blue top on that says, ‘Bossy’, in pink lettering. She’s in my line of sight, directly in front of the burning house, such that my eyes keep slipping from the house to her and back again, and she must have sensed my gaze because she turns towards me. I look away, overcome. What’s up, says Idiris. Nothing, I reply. A man walks toward us, shirtless, holding up a large phone. His hairless body bulges in the heat of the day. His face rises and falls as he sweeps the scene with his phone camera, taking in the firefighters, the paramedics, the crowd, the television news van. It’s a big one, he says to us. Idiris nods. Anyone caught in there? He asks. The man shakes his head. That place has been vacant for a while. Check out the ‘For Sale’ sign out front. Probably an insurance job hey? Idiris is thrilled by the implication of foul play. I can tell he is running the scenario through his head. It’s a big house, vacant, worth a lot. We stand around for another half-hour, as the firefighters manage to contain the blaze. The crowd disperses quite quickly after that, though the shirtless man remains, and he and Idiris fall into a lurid commentary. The man, Shane, is convinced that it’s a suspicious fire. I’m a sparky. I could rig the place up to blow in a second, he says. I catch a glint of his eye from behind his sunglasses. Seen it happen before. It’s a modern house—it’s not going to go up in flames unless you want it to. Shane is deeply tanned, with thick arms and a large southern cross tattoo over his shoulder. His right arm is darker and more weathered than the rest of him. I could almost see it, his driver side window open, his elbow jutting out the car door. Long days spent driving from job to job. I recognised something in him I wanted—a lack of pretense, a lack of shame. He did not pretend that we were the same.
Later when we got back into the car, Idiris turned to me. I bet he was the one who did it, he says. Once we escaped the traffic, it didn’t take us long to get to The Bakery. The Bakery was a small carpark behind an old Great Leap Childcare Centre. The company that ran the centre had gone bust years ago, due to an unsustainably mad period of expansion, and only these derelict buildings remained, each fully equipped with toys and playground equipment and brightly coloured posters still visible inside. The carpark, a large secluded slab behind the centre and surrounded on all sides by a fence, with a park beyond that, was the perfect place to get high if you were a kid from the suburbs who still lived with their parents. Abshir was there, in his old beat up commodore, and we pulled up next to him. He got out of his car, into ours, and he sold us some weed. Like me, Abshir was from Flemington, so when he got in we also caught up on things.
The week before I had learned from my older brother that this Vietnamese kid we knew, Alex, was now in a mental hospital. Abshir also knew Alex: we went to primary school with him, and his family lived down the road from us. He burned down a shed once, and got on the nerves of every teacher, but I never would have pegged him as, you know, a hospital case. I tell Abshir the story.
They’re experimenting on him, he says immediately. They give people some fucking crazy medication to keep them like sheep, wallahi bro. I remind Abshir of the time Alex burned down the shed but this didn’t deter him. Remember that fat guy on floor five who used to scream at people in the lobby? Remember how he was taken away by the police and when he returned three months later he never spoke another word. Completely silent.
What did they do to him? Idiris says, and Abshir replies that it was obvious they gave him injections. Trust me bro, they’ll do the same thing to Alex. Idiris says nothing, but I can tell he agrees with Abshir.
They’ll only take you away if you have no family, I say. Abshir replies that we don’t know even half of what they’re capable of. I remembered reading about things like that, where they kidnapped people and experimented on them, but I thought that was in the past. Abshir returns to his car. I’m alone with Idiris again. Have you started packing yet? he asks. No, I haven’t even bought any boxes, I say. I’ll come round tomorrow morning and we can go to a self-storage place and buy some boxes. You won’t need many. Your house is completely empty.
A silence settles in the car, and I try to think of something to fill it with.
I almost wish Abshir was still here, talking up vast conspiracies. Did I tell you about how I once almost drowned? I say to him. Distracted, he doesn’t answer for a while. When was this? He eventually asks.
I must have been eleven or twelve. My brothers and I had snuck into the North Melbourne swimming pool one night. It was one of those gross nights you get when summer is at its height, where you almost forget what it was like to not be hot and sticky. My older brother helped me over the fence and as soon as I touched down on the other side, he let me go and took off his singlet. A few moments later I heard a splash. My younger brother also ran off in the direction of the pool. I hung out on the edge of the water talking myself into diving in. I wasn’t a strong swimmer as a child, I had always feared the water, I don’t know why, and my brothers knew this. They began taunting me from the water, encouraging me to dive in. I could barely see, and I couldn’t hear a thing except for my brothers’ voices. Even the sounds of the trucks and cars on Arden Street conspired with the darkness to obscure my senses. I jumped in, surprising myself, and immediately I was swallowed by the water.
What happened? Idiris says. I shrug. I don’t remember much of what it was like, except that my older brother pulled me out and took me home, making me promise not to tell our parents about it. I take my glasses off and hold them in front of me, inspecting the lenses for marks. They’re absolutely clear, which doesn’t feel right. You could have died, says Idiris. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way. The sun is setting, and Idiris turns the music up a little louder. I feel like I’m floating. He lights up a cigarette and passes it to me. You always know what to do, I say. He gives me an abbreviated smile as I breathe out a cloud of smoke. When it clears, he is looking the other way, his hands folded neatly in his lap.