Words, words, words


‘ Ahmad! That will not do! It is very important that you look….poor. Perhaps a bit…dirtier. Do you understand?’

Frank enunciated each word slowly, speaking firmly as to a child. Ahmad watched the movements of his lips and wondered at the stream of incomprehensible sounds that they emitted. He knew that Frank was cross with him but not why. Then Frank jabbed a finger at Ahmad’s chest making it obvious he thought the shirt was no good. But the shirt was new! The day before his landlady Rosa had left a tray outside his room on which was the folded pink shirt, two sugar crusted donuts and a cup of what he assumed was coffee. He shrugged his shoulders to show he didn’t understand and Frank turned away with an expression of annoyance and began barking something into the phone that he held clamped to his ear.

With the back of his hand Ahmad stroked the shirt, amazed once more by its softness. Monisha’s hair had been soft, soft and smoothly brown like a pelt. Every evening he would call her and she would run to sit at his feet, so close that he could feel the heat of the day radiate from her body. How he marvelled at all that knowledge inside her head! He used to cup his hand over that delicate, fine-boned skull and then gently run his palm down over her hair. Sometimes the rough skin on his hand would catch and snag it and she would pull away in mock annoyance. Now, after just a week in the United States of America, he noticed how that rough skin was softening. In fact there was so much hot water that his fingertips were turning pulpy.

Frank was getting more agitated, ‘We have a Press Call with all the major networks at four, Ahmad. Say, has your beard been trimmed?’ He peered at Ahmad and then swatted vaguely at him with one hand as if he was a troublesome fly before returning to pacing up and down the room. Why are you so angry, Ahmad wanted to ask. What has happened in your life to make you like this? At first he had thought Frank’s anger was to do with Monisha’s death. Now he wasn’t so sure. Frank seemed to want to make a public display of his anger whereas Ahmad’s own rage and grief he kept private, a small but fierce flame keeping vigil on his precious memories.

‘ President Obama?’ Ahmad enquired tentatively to the back of Frank’s bullet shaped head. He wasn’t sure if he’d pronounced the words correctly.

Frank swung round, surprised.

‘President Obama?’ Ahmad repeated, knowing he sounded like the stupid peasant farmer he was.

He could see the effort Frank made to contort his face into a smile. ‘ Yes, yes, all in good time. You don’t need to say anything at the Press Conference. Not that you can anyway. Just repeat Monisha’s name.’ He mimed keeping the mouth shut.

Ahmad caught the word Monisha and sprang to catch it and hold it, fluttering, inside his cupped hands.

Monisha. Monisha.


Rameen, his eldest son, had run to fetch him from the fields and when he first arrived at the patch of ground just outside their village all he could see was a heap of splintered wood, like a pyre, and pieces of paper blowing about in the gritty, desert wind. As he drew nearer, he saw her bag of books splattered like cockroaches under a man’s boot. Then he saw her arm sticking out from under the pyre, a slim olive skinned arm with a silver band encircling the wrist. A stick jutted out through her palm, crucifying her to the spot. Bowing his head he wept while paper flapped around the two of them like birds’ wings.

A few days later Frank came to the village in a jeep owned by one of the many Aid organisations now working in his country. Through a translator he explained how Monisha had been hit by a crate dropped from an American plane; how this was an outrage and should be brought to the attention of the world community. His organisation would pay for Ahmad to travel to the United States of America and put his case to the government there. Ahmad would have an audience with the President himself. At first, sunk in grief, Ahmad wasn’t interested in what this American with the red face and baseball hat was saying. It was Rameen who claimed that family honour demanded that some redress be sought. Wasn’t Monisha’s ambition to have studied law? Wouldn’t she have wanted her father to pursue the perpetrators of her unlawful killing? As it happened, Ahmad wasn’t convinced that Monisha would have wanted that. He could picture her shrugging her bony shoulders and giving that lop-sided smile of hers as if to say ‘ Do whatever you want to do but don’t use me as an excuse.’ At fifteen years of age she had a clear-sighted and fierce independence, yet had managed to achieve what she wanted in a way that had never undermined his authority as her father. Her winning the scholarship to the Girls High School in the city was a cause for celebration by the whole village and Rameen, with his lack of book learning but skill with words, had managed to convince their community that it was the right thing for his father to make the trip. Without a full night’s sleep since Monisha’s death, Ahmad’s bones ached from exhaustion. He offered no resistance.


‘ You OK, Ahmad buddy?’ Frank was asking. His face shone with sweat and Ahmad could tell he was nervous by the way he kept trying to loosen the tie that was knotted round his fat neck. He gave a questioning thumbs up.

Ahmad returned the thumbs up gesture.

On their way to the hotel, in a car so long he had at first been unsure of which door to open, Ahmad gazed out of the window and wondered at the city of his country’s liberators, so often described to them as one of riches and unbounded prosperity. Indeed, that had proved true enough. Not only was there an infinite supply of everything but it was all so big – the portions of food and drink, the buildings, the roads and even the people themselves seemed confident in spreading themselves out so as to occupy as much space as they wanted. Massive words shouted down at him from hoardings the size of small mountains; on some there were flashing lights, on others pictures that emerged and then faded, pictures of beautiful shameless women and men with orange bodies and shining, white teeth. Of course he recognised some of the symbols – MacDonalds, Coca Cola – but the rest became a welter of colour and movement that stung his eyes and made his head hurt.

What he had never expected to see were beggars slumped on street corners or drunks, women as well as men, grouped around monuments and fountains. On their way from the airport he actually saw a man urinate on the street in broad daylight. What was most shocking was the way that the black men sweeping the streets, washing cars or working in the toilets kept their eyes cast down as if their jobs had no dignity. Was President Obama, a black man himself with two black daughters, not interested in this? He had been assured by Frank that the President would be interested in Monisha’s case and that he would be giving an apology for her death. When this would happen and how hadn’t been made clear.

The Press Conference was a blitz of exploding lights and shouting which reminded Ahmad of an airstrike. The microphone heads that were thrust at them looked like grenades and it was difficult not to flinch as he and Frank sat behind a table while Frank answered questions shouted by the people behind the cameras. Behind them was an enlarged photograph of Monisha, taken for her entry to the High School. Ahmad was glad he didn’t have to sit facing it; Monisha looked serious and very, very lovely, just like her mother when a young girl, and the picture gave him a pain in his heart.

That evening, sitting and watching television with Rosa who was steadily eating her way through a box of custard filled donuts he saw himself and Frank on the screen. Words which he could not understand scrolled underneath but there was no mention of President Obama. From time to time Rosa gave him a friendly pat on the knee as if to comfort him. The next morning she showed him the newspapers which also carried pictures of him and Frank though what the story was he couldn’t tell.

He didn’t hear from Frank all that day or the following one, so stayed inside with Rosa and her son Jerry who was a little simple and had a belly like an oversized gourd. Ahmad liked the way the three of them ate together, smoked, watched television and carried out conversations with a combination of mime, hand gestures and the few words of English that he had acquired. It reminded him of sitting around the fire in his village, talking the sort of meandering, aimless talk that would not be remembered in the morning but after which would linger a rich, grainy residue of comradeship.

More days passed and still there was no sign of Frank. Every morning on waking Ahmad took his plane ticket out of the leather pouch and checked the date and time of his return flight. Reassured, he would slide it back and then say his prayers, kneeling on a towel Rosa had kindly provided. Soon afterwards would come the sound of his breakfast tray being left outside the door. After eating and washing he would make his way downstairs to the family room where the rest of the day would be spent in front of the giant television screen.

Rosa liked the shows where real people got angry with each other, shouting and screaming, while someone in charge tried to sort it out, just like the elders did in the village. Jerry preferred cartoons and Ahmad found he also enjoyed watching animals being flattened under car wheels and dropped from great heights but then, seconds later, returning to their original shape. Sometimes one of the news channels would be showing film of his country, or at least one very like it: men marching with guns along mountain tracks and tanks rolling down the main street of a big city while helicopters circled overhead like vultures. Rosa and Jerry soon realised that watching that kind of thing made him sad and pointing the controller thing at the screen and taking aim as if it was a gun and the screen was a target, they would change channels.

One afternoon Ahmad was slumped in a chair, watching the television through half closed eyes as he often did. The volume was always turned up as Jerry had trouble with his hearing and refused to put the little thing in his ear that would make it better. Ahmad had learned to tolerate the clamour, even starting to find it strangely soothing, almost preferable to the heavy silence of his bedroom where he was confined with his thoughts. Then suddenly, amidst the blur of moving images he spotted a familiar figure and sat up, shocked out of his torpor.

It was Frank. He was as red-faced as ever and standing on a platform with other men speaking at some kind of meeting. There were a lot of people listening to him as he ranted and threw his arms around in the air. Some of the people carried placards with a picture of President Obama that had been altered to give him horns or a neat black moustache. The camera zoomed in on one person who was dressed in an ape costume but who also wore a mask of the President’s face. Every so often Frank would invite a response from his audience and they would cheer but not in a good way. Ahmad knew that they were a mob and Frank was a leader who was inciting them to do bad things. Ahmad could not understand what was being said but he didn’t need to. Hadn’t he seen enough in his own country of the same kind of thing? Of men who rode into their village in trucks, brandishing weapons and making all sorts of promises to them as long as they voted the right way, promises that everyone knew they could never deliver; their leaders who made long speeches and threw their arms around, preaching hatred just like Frank was doing now, stirring up memories of old grievances to fuel new conflicts.

Suddenly Ahmad experienced a stab of remorse so acute that his hand involuntarily went to his chest. He realised then that he had handed over Monisha’s memory to a stranger, someone who was most probably a bad man. Somehow Frank had used his daughter as nothing more than a weapon for a cause of which he, Ahmad, was ignorant. She had become a victim and Monisha, his darling headstrong Monisha, could never be a victim. Worst of all her own father, whose duty it was to protect her, had colluded in this happening. Now he needed to be home: home where Monisha would be remembered not as a picture but as a real girl who sometimes bickered with Rameen, sulked about looking after the little ones and who had started to be vain about her beautiful brown hair; home where stories would be told by those who knew her in words he understood. He started crying, great raw sobs which tore at his throat and this started Jerry crying so that Rosa had to go and fetch paper towel for them both to wipe their faces with.

Ahmad flew home three days later, with still no contact from Frank and still none the wiser to what was happening. Rosa wrapped him up some donuts to take with him on the journey but they were taken away at Customs. His new friends were both upset when he left and he was sorry that the only thing he had to give them was one of the leaflets that he always carried around with him, the leaflets which had been in the crate that killed Monisha. Rosa and Jerry wouldn’t be able to understand them because of course they were written in Ahmad’s own language but they seemed to realise how precious they were to him.

He had memorised the words on each leaflet. What offended him most was not the message itself, exhorting his people to stand strong against the rebels and to work with the occupying forces. Propaganda and politics went hand in hand – even the simplest goatherd knew that. His country had been at war for so many years and its history was a history of wars, of fighting internal enemies as well as external. No, what offended him most was the quality of the words. The gist of the translation was clear but the cadences, rhythm and beauty of his language had been casually butchered.

Monisha had always been particular with words, choosing each one carefully like one would smooth pebbles to skim over water. Her mother had been the same, a quiet woman not given to complaint like so many others he knew. That’s why he hadn’t been aware of her sickness until it was too late. It was Rameen and the other young men who talked fast and furiously, repeating words they’d heard preached, chanting slogans and punching the air with guns. Monisha had been killed because someone somewhere thought that words could make a difference. And maybe they could help build a better world, thought Ahmad, as he stepped out of the plane and stood at the top of the steps, dry heat smacking him in the face. President Obama must have a fine way with words. While at Rosa and Jerry’s he had watched the ceremony when Obama was made president and he’d seen pictures of many people in the crowd with tears of joy rolling down their faces. Ahmad pulled up the top edge of his chupan to cover his nose and mouth from the fine grit in the air but not before he had breathed in roasting lamb, petrol fumes and human stink.

No words exist that can adequately represent the death of a child and that’s why on the flight home Ahmad tore up his few remaining leaflets. It had not been done in anger but with a quiet sadness, the ripped paper placed carefully in a refuse bag provided by the airplane company. But when the plane had landed and people were getting their luggage down from the overhead lockers, he noticed a few pieces on the floor by his feet and, embarrassed by his carelessness, picked the scraps up and shoved them deep into his pocket. Now, carefully putting his bag down bedside him, he reached into the folds of his garment and closed his fingers over what was there. Then in a swift, fluid movement he brought his clenched fists to shoulder height and, like a magician releasing doves, opened his hands. Those bits of paper found near Monisha’s body mixed with subway receipts and chewing gum wrappers in a fluttering whorl before they drifted down and settled into the dust. A gentle touch to his elbow indicated that other passengers were waiting for him to disembark. Carefully holding the handrail, Ahmad started his decent of the steps. Shading his eyes he thought he could make out the small figure of Rameen standing with his face pressed against the glass of the viewing lounge looking for a glimpse of his father.