KR OnlineEssay

The Dog-Killer of Khartoum

And so the figure of the dog-killer of Khartoum enters the conversation. With a checkered scarf wrapped around his head and carrying a shotgun, he appears unannounced on the embassy steps at noon.

The American Embassy—it is embassy men who are talking, sharing the story between them—had complained to the local police about the dogs that roam wild through the streets of Khartoum. So without consulting anybody, without coordinating with them—the storytellers—the police had sent this man with his weapon.

“There are no walls around the embassy in Khartoum,” one of them adds, “not real ones. Just an open row of pillars.” He is leaning back on the host’s sofa as he reminisces, and from chairs and sofas and cushions scattered on the floor we are listening to how the dogs were lounging everywhere, sunning themselves on the embassy steps, when this man appeared, raised his shotgun, and started firing.

Outside, Damascus is dark and cold and clear; it is the second night of “The Feast of the Sacrifice,” a celebration of Abraham’s not really sacrificing Isaac. In America it is Thanksgiving weekend, so we have gathered to eat chicken wings, drink beer, and watch college football: Oklahoma versus Oklahoma State.

In Oklahoma it is early afternoon, bright and cold and clear. On the host’s flatscreen TV a clump of cheerleaders in tight red vests and red pleated miniskirts is milling sluggishly in and out of the camera frame. They look very young and happy and ruddy in the cold.

For a while I watch TV from the far side of a large dark table, behind a bowl of chicken wings. Beside me is a small, mahogany-colored woman with beautiful bone structure, the only non-white person at the party. She does interior design for the Shell Country Club. Shell? The Shell Corporation, she tells me, runs a country club just outside Damascus. Her husband works for Shell, and she will be departing with him soon for Azerbaijan.

Neither of us has much to say about football, so after a while we turn our faces toward the TV. My view of the screen is mostly blocked by men’s heads. They all have closely and choppily cropped hair. I nibble at a soft greasy chicken wing as if it were a large fried insect and study these haircuts. They seem decisive and awkward at once, like the bravado of children’s sketches.

Another woman comes over for a second helping of chicken wings. She is soft and matter-of-fact, somehow blowsy and frumpy at the same time. She is working on her Arabic now that her Farsi is ok, and tells us how today her housemate made pumpkin fritters.

Surely both my sisters made pies today, I think guiltily. Possibly several. If I were in America, I would not—I am sure I would not, though I keep re-smoothing this certainty to myself—have made any. My eyes keep straying over the backs of the men’s heads. They remind me of lawns in the Midwest, the way people mow them too short, just for the sake of having perfectly flat planes. The exposed edges of turf flanking walkways sliced as if with a razor. By mid-summer the grass is brown and hurts to walk on barefoot.

I would like to hack my hair off like that, I think, just to be so rawly decisive, to prove I didn’t have any feelings about it. But I am sure it wouldn’t work, that even doing this I would be doing it out of feeling. Like after my little sister saw “Dances With Wolves”, and said anxiously, “I’m sure they didn’t really hurt any buffalo to make that movie. Not even one, I’m sure.”

Shut up, it’s just a movie, you don’t know anything. Sister-anger, very old. Having to do with authority and hierarchy, with the asymmetry of being able to make someone else cry and not be made to cry oneself. The grass will grow back, it’s just grass. It’s not even really dead.

One of the men is joking about golf being the most boring sport, and I contribute to this. Then an argument ensues about which is more exciting, NASCAR or soccer, and which is more boring, baseball or basketball. One of the men knows all of the rules to basketball and has been reciting them for the last ten minutes. When someone else insults basketball he stands up and starts yelling: Un-American! Communist!

NASCAR, lots of breasts and alcohol, what’s not to like? NASCAR, because you can pass out and come to again and still understand what’s going on. The disappearance of pro-wrestling and its reappearance as analogous to the renaissance of NASCAR.

“I never thought it would be popular outside the South,” muses a woman on one of the couches. I decide to move onto a sofa cushion closer to the TV The commercials are making me more and more worried. All the commercials are for different branches of the military. In one, a woman in one kind of camouflage is speaking to the camera while walking sideways down shallow concrete steps: speaking, stepping down one step, speaking, stepping.

“Pretty soon she’s gonna ask, what’s my motivation here?” someone yells. Then there’s one for the Navy, which ends with a black screen and an IP address in white letters:

“If you can say it you can do it,” his friend counters.

“Nuc-u-lar,” someone else says. “I’m sure it’s ‘nuc-u-lar.’” More jokes about jarheads, jarheads, glad there’s no jarheads here. And why such-and-such supply clerks are assigned to wear camouflage.

“Because they figured out that in the Air Force you get cable TV and air conditioning. Whereas in the Marines you have to sleep in a hole in the ground!”

I am silently fretting. I haven’t paid such good attention to the economy since I’ve been gone, but I know there used to be commercials for other things, especially during sports games. What has happened to all our other products if this is the only thing we’re advertising now?

Finally I ask the host, who’s sitting on a sofa cushion beside me, what channel is this? He has short blond hair, blue eyes, and a deep permanent crease across his forehead. He also has a slow, bland voice that stays entirely uninflected at all times, with which he explains that we are watching the Armed Forces Channel—free for people in the military, but they aren’t allowed to show any commercial programming, not even for a second. So they have to make do with these filler ads.

Someone yells something about not taping your grenades, causing scattered laughter. Again I request an explanation, which I understand, though I don’t dare venture the question arising from it: why would you want grenades hanging from your chest? I imagine the people on the sofas with grenades dangling from their shirt-pockets. Then I try to imagine the weight of them hanging from my shirt also. By their pins, taped or not.

The host offers me a green tea martini, a blend of fruit liquors he made himself. He makes his own beer, too; his parents have an organic farm in the western forests of Washington State and often use hippies from the nearby college as interns. I was once such a hippie on such a farm in Washington, a fact I haven’t concealed from him; I have tried, in fact, to make a small, amusing production of it, a kind of conversational hors d’oeuvre.

But I realize, with something like relief as he keeps talking, that he hasn’t remembered anything I told him the last, first, time we met. He tells me about chasing meditating hippies from his raspberry patch, and we trade stories about beekeeping. The behaviors of bees, beekeepers we have known. I ask him if it’s true that a hive always posts guards, even at night, and he says yes. Each hive has its own personality, and its mood changes daily.

I want to tell him about a beekeeper I remember, a huge, carrot-bearded ex-cop who always wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and denim overalls and once burned his eyelashes and eyebrows off trying to fill a homemade hot-air balloon with some flammable gas. Maybe he was always melancholy, but when he talked about bees his melancholy attached itself firmly to them: to how, when he moved a hive, he could never gather all the bees in. Even when he sealed the entrances late at night, some of the guard bees stayed outside and were left to fly around lost until they died.

I want some explanation for the misplaced tenderness of this large, reluctant person for swarms of small, stinging insects, but I am afraid to babble. And just then the host has to go pull more chicken wings out of the oven.

I feel better, at least, about the commercials, though they make me nostalgic for my students in the U.S. The soldiers are mostly the same age as they are, and they have earnestly provincial hairdos. One woman appears with her bangs carefully gelled into separate strands that curve stiffly like huge false eyelashes down her forehead, stirring memories of staring into the long pocked mirror running the length of the girls’ bathroom, then the minor vertigo of breathing whiffs of aerosol while bending over a sink, sweeping my hands across my hair in a fervent combing motion.

An ad comes on ad praising chancellors and chaplains. A soldier is talking to a chaplain, his elbows propped forward on his knees. Strong arms: strength can be serious. “Because combat changes everything,” the caption reads. “Even you.”

“Now he’s gonna kill himself!” one of the guys on the far sofa keeps repeating. “Now he’s gonna to kill himself!” The chicken wings are borne in and poured into bowls, hot and soggy with grease.

And the two guys on the far couch, similar in baseball caps and polar fleeces, start trading stories again—about other embassies they’ve worked at, other dogs they’ve seen killed. Rushing silently up to the windows of a moving truck, howling in the mountains of K—. Then returning to Khartoum, with flourishes of incredulity.

“—without telling us first!”

“—without consulting anybody!”

“—and he started shooting, right there on the steps. Aiming—pointing a weapon directly at the building and firing—”

“And the guards, there was no reaction from them. We called the guards and they were totally, like, whatever. They were like, There’s no problem, nothing’s happening. It’s just the guy here to shoot the dogs. He’s just killing the dogs.”

“And our boss was out in his truck, and he was locked and loaded—he had the safety off—”

“But I mean, he was milliseconds away from just—”

“And I was—here’s this guy, he shows up and starts shooting. And I’m thinking, this is it, he’s killing the dogs, I’m next—.”

• •

In the taxi, how is it that we end up talking about angels? The driver and I, on the dark road back from vacant edges of a shopping district, rattling toward the warren of cobblestone alleys where I live.

Ah, yes, because the taxi driver’s daughter’s name is Sidra. After the ritual greeting—Welcome Where Are You From Are You Married What’s Your Name Jennifer? Jennifer Beautiful Jennifer Lopez!—he tells me about his daughter, waving her picture towards the backseat.

Yes, Jennifer Lopez. I am always glad to get through the Jennifer Lopez part, though I know the greeters are glad to have a familiar name to hang their welcome on.

“What meaning, Sidra?” I am trying out my Arabic.

“There is earth and there is”—the driver’s hands leave the steering wheel in a gesture indicating above-the-earth—sky, heaven? Heaven! There are seven layers of heaven, and the road between them is Sidra.

“Sidra beautiful.”

“Heaven?” he says, checking me for recognition. “After death there is heaven. And the day of”—it sounds like the same word for “check”. As in, the day of Check, please. But with my bad Arabic I cannot be sure. I think I like this uncertainty; there is an intimacy to guesswork. It is what I like about the haircuts I’ve just left, I think—it is sincere in its hastiness.

“Seven layers and the day of the Check. And the—”

“King? Or angel?”

“Angel, angel,” he is insisting.

“What is the difference between king and angel?” Or else I say, what is the difference between angel and angel?

“There is an angel for everything,” he says. An angel of the soul—or of wind, the words are very close. An angel of death—he puts his fist to his chest, then yanks it away quickly as if drawing out a cork. An angel of Miriam. An angel of Jesus. An angel of Mohammad’s night journey through the seven layers of heaven. Many angels.

I tell him what a poet told me recently, because I like it. In the Koran it says that every person has four lives. In the first, we began before time, as atoms in Adam’s back. In the second we get a body—this life in time, in which we are talking inside a dilapidated taxi. The third—the least talked about, the poet said—is the transition between this life and the next. And one life is immortal, and lasts beyond judgment.

I like this idea because I like the activity of perceiving layers to things. But my Arabic is failing me. I get stuck on the word for life. What is the plural of life? Not one life, four—in Arabic the plurals may follow one of several patterns.

“Snakes?” asks the driver, skeptical.

“Life! Life! You know, life! Four lives.”

He frowns. “She’s Muslim, your friend?”


“Sunni or Shia?”

“I don’t know,” I tell him truthfully. I don’t want to tell him she is a poet, which seems to me a suspect, unlikely category that I want to protect. I watch him frown in the rearview mirror.

“There are only two lives,” he says—“this life, and after death. Two. But many angels. Gibreel, Muhammad, Marium, Issa—the holy Jesus.” I am not going to argue about how many lives there are. I try just to echo the names he says when I hear one I think I know.

“I speak little English,” he says in English, halting suddenly in his catalogue of angels. “But I only learn from”—he pauses, searching—“from life. In school, I study French.”

“Yes,” I agree, happy to have a fact upon which we can converge. “Because before you had the French—”

“Yes, yes,” he agrees, “the French”—occupation? or education. Another word I don’t know. “I am happy,” he says in Arabic, and then in English. “I am happy you are learning Arabic.”

“What is your name?” I ask. We are at my stop, the curb outside Bab Sharki. The Eastern Gate. A curved stone archway, beyond which huddles a clutter of round-domed churches topped with blue neon crosses and mosques with green neon encircling their minarets.

A crowd of eight or forty or so boys in black leather jackets immediately surrounds the taxi; it’s hard to get a taxi during Eid. But the driver is in no hurry to take the money I am holding out; he is thinking about his name. Abd al-Halim. “Servant, you know, servant. Servant of—Halim, it means—.” Finally he says, “It is one of the ninety-nine names of God. God has ninety-nine names.”

“Yes, I know,” I say, again happy to know something. The would-be passengers are crowding against all the windows of the taxi as if my remaining inside it is depriving them of oxygen. I crack open the door and step out. “Happy Eid!”

“Bonjour! Happy Eid!” Everyone is goofy with the happiness of eating, beaming and rowdy with the pleasure of too much. Bonjour! Bonjour! Welcome!

• •

Walking to Sam’s bar I am so happy thinking about the seven layers and ninety-nine names and all the angels that I don’t see J sneaking up behind me to announce that I’m almost on time.

J sometimes looks like a ghost to me before I realize I know him. He is very pale and English and completely bald, and good at making faces we agree are difficult to read. If the Messiah himself was standing in front of me, he told me recently, my expression would be the same.

I try to respect a policy if it’s consistent. Such as punctuality.

I see K is here also, with M, his Spanish wife, and two other Spaniards I don’t know. I sit down and try to explain to J about the angels and the seven layers and not taping your grenades. K keeps offering me cigarettes in the interstices of our separate conversations, shaking more and more of them out of the packet when I don’t take one, as if three would convince me when one didn’t.

I am not smoking and I am drinking only Pepsi because two beers and half a pizza made me sick three nights ago. Since Sam opened this bar, having most of my friends drinking a block away from my house has been a blessing with mixed results for my digestion.

“Where is the rest of that pizza?” J asks.

“In my fridge. And I’m not going to eat it.” J makes a face. He thinks I am not strict enough with my hangovers: just drink more. The Spaniards are arguing about which alcohol is better for curing illness, rum or cognac. For sure a strong one, they agree. I want to tell K about the four lives, and he nods as I am speaking. But he is distracted by what the Spanish guy next to him is saying.

“A poet?” I say hopefully.

No, an electrical engineer, leaving Syria for Saudi Arabia in the morning. K and M just met him and his colleague for the first time that evening—a good reason to drink and smoke and speak Spanish. I tell K about the guy who works for Shell, departing soon for Bishkek.

“I didn’t know Shell was here,” I add.

“Yes, for a long time,” M calls from the head of the table. Everyone seems to know about the Shell Country Club. J even had a photography show there once.

“I didn’t know there was oil here,” I say.

“They have a little,” M says.

“A lot!” K exclaims patriotically.

“Don’t tell anyone,” I suggest. K is Syrian and translates sports articles from Spanish into Arabic. Sometimes he translates poems from Arabic into Spanish, or vice versa, just for the hell of it. He reads the translations at the weekly poetry night in the basement of a downtown hotel, the smokiest public space in Syria.

Last week he read an Arabic version of a Machado poem and I read the Spanish version. Quatrains set in the dry interior of Spain, empty and flat, and himself as solitary as on an ocean. Man has four things that are useless to him at sea, goes the ending of the poem, dryly. An anchor, oars, a rudder, and fear of shipwreck.

I love Machado. His “cara de bueno”—“face of goodness”—and his slow loves for people and the place he’s from, which are hard to distinguish from squinting into some far distance. In the middle of nowhere, the dry heart of a vanished empire, keeping some tenderness for the tiniest ephemera: raindrops on glass, the provinces of memory. No separation for him between the clarity of childhood and of elegy; always daydreaming and always pointing out that this is an inevitable condition of humans, a kind of sleep we walk in inside time until it runs out.

In summer in the middle of Spain it is hard to tell time is passing. The dry plains bring maybe the same feeling of vastness that explorers had on the American prairies as they waded across them, wet up to their chests. Sailors lost in grasses before they were cut. Or approaching the same landmark over days and days. Where it rains less than 20 inches a year, people plowed hopefully until the land blew away. Then rolled west again, against the black winds, out to the Pacific.

In Spain, when there was nothing to farm people also left for the lusher edges, for ships that carried them to the Americas, where the accent is still the gargle of Extremadura, The Hard Edge. Consonants leftover from the Arabs they had driven south across Gibralter’s Strait. 1492: not a good year for Muslims and Jews, though a good year for the Admiral Colon tacking westward. Our Christopher, his saint-namesake around his neck, a dark speck almost imperceptible on the horizon.

Four things has man that don’t serve him at sea—. Impossible to translate exactly; a literal version puts on the heavy boots of Anglo-Saxon, the marching gait of Beowulf. The Spanish is more fretted, with more dapple and give between the stresses.

“What does Halim mean?” I ask K.

“Patience,” K says impatiently, as if it were obvious.

I try to explain to J my regrets about pies, my mixed feelings about Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State.

“What is this holiday about, anyway?” he asks, so I have to explain the concept of Thanksgiving. How the Indians fed the Pilgrims, who would have starved otherwise. So we eat Indian foods—

“And now fuck off,” J says to imaginary Indians, squinting.

I finish my Pepsi and walk back slowly toward my house along the line of taxis, a single lane being the maximum width of traffic that will fit through these pre-car streets. Always many taxis, even late at night, stacked pairs of taillights waiting to pass under the pale arch.

I balance along the well-fitted stone curb itself, around the stone balls mounted on it, my boot-heels clicking. The game is to swing my feet around the balls without wobbling or losing my balance. The balls are to keep cars from driving up and passing on the sidewalk.

Then turn left at the lounging secret policeman, always so bored in his large square valet parking vest. In Oklahoma it is still late afternoon, and the cheerleaders are pink-cheeked and pretty in the cold.