SULEIMAN (1996), by Waldo Bien
“Suleiman!” (Call in the wind to the east)
“I call you, Suleiman, brother and friend, ever since you put up your tent in me. Let us sit down at the fires of the caravanserai. Tell one another from our luck. Share food and happiness, praise Allah the Almighty. Suleiman, let me listen to your loving whisper before we stride along the holy army’s road.’’
“Suleiman!” (Outcry on a town wall)
“Suleiman, enemy, I am looking for you, viperous brood. Let us look into the depth of our eyes; execute the bloody craft in the name of Jerusalem. Come and fight. I will split your skull with scalding sparkling steel; damn you till the end of days.
1968.An officer from the bridge announced on the radio that our ship would cross the 10th degree of latitude within the next hour; a threshold one should cross with imagination. To the northwest lay the ‘Hadramouth ‘, the land of sunburn’, south Arabia’s mountain range along the Yemenite coast. I was deck steward, served tea and bouillon on the upper deck from sunrise till 10 a.m. I was also theater decorator for the shows on board, my job in afternoon and night.
In-between my daily routine as a deck steward I had plenty of time to dream. So I dream-walked riverbeds and desserts in Yemen, visited the legendary places and oases of thousand and one nights.
I was leaning onto the heavy tea station wagon that I had polished some minutes ago in night- looming laziness. Now I turned playful circles with my foot. Soft welling tar mountains rose between bleached deck boards. I could feel their touch through the thin leather of my sole.
In the reflection of the polished tea container I could see the old lady sitting in her deck chair, her image soft twisting and dancing, caused by a crinkle in the container.
Somewhere behind us on starboard, another steward was setting up deck chairs. The early youth of a day.
Since we left Lisbon, she had been the first passenger to appear on deck each day. She sat down in ‘her’ deck chair, “out of the wind, please”. With the voice of a librarian she then ordered tea “nice and hot, please”
She sipped from her cup, holding it by the ear with the top of her fingers.
Her vital way to approach a day dragged me into irresistible optimism. The last bit of night within me disappeared. Her eyes exposed friendly self-consciousness, someone who’s been around and knows her way. During the stormy surrounding of Cape Good Hope the whole ship had groaned. Even old sailors had turned pale. She had sat in the lounge and had asked for tea “with some of those nice brown Danish biscuits as I had yesterday, please.” She had asked for the menu, picked up a fallen stitch of the knitting she always carried around, was full of joy when boiling waves smashed onto ‘her’ window while other passengers felt like dying.
Now she enjoyed herself with the deep inhaling of fresh air. Behind us clattered deck chairs. Some steps away from me the railing, its solidity reduced by humidity and fog. In the abyss behind it the rushing and splashing of pitched water could be heard. A scar from Madagascar on the way to Bombay.
Bombay, Bombay. Filled with desire my temples pondered. Bombay…, Bombay …, Bomb …. I projected my expectations onto the fog.
It was boiling and surfing. Thoughts running out on me like waves and dissolve in milky green depth.
Waves, waves. Over hilltops and valleys walks the Indian tiger to inspect his territory.
She asked ‘If I knew the weather forecast because of possible delay’. I put my hands onto the cold and salty iron railing and insured her that it soon would clear up again. We listened to the ships horn and bell. Suddenly other horns could be heard nearby, the mooing complaints of cows ploughing through tough clay…. Again. Two, three, together now. Then, 30 meters away from us the fog was pressed aside. A Latin sail became unveiled, the unreal blue grey of a wooden hull, red railing. Wooden dwarf meets steel giant. Its sail hung down in resignation. All decks were filled with rusty brown lamenting cows. A sea- herd.
A stooped man with a white turban worked on its deck. Following an inner voice he slowly raised his head and looked up in gazing astonishment following the giant grey hull upward and brought his eyes to rest in mine.
It all unrolled like an atomic cloud, along my spine and nerves to the back of my head and soul. Dream time fall- out. Real Time, Despite opposite directions the distance between us stayed for moments the same. The world brought to a halt by human gravitation.
The cows became silent as if surprised by a sun eclipse. All but one, which expressed its grief in loud ignorance. Its head turned towards the hundred illuminated bull’s eyes of our ship to complain. Some of those bull’s eyes had pupils that were faces; a banker, a mistress, a princess, a cook, a bishop, a whore.
I changed roles with the turban man, our breathing interconnected. Then the magic chain broke. We continued our course in opposite directions. The same moment I found myself back on deck, surrounded by empty sea. I heard the cracking of ‘her’ deck chair and saw her twinkling eyes:” Very special indeed” she said. Looking over the ocean she asked my name. Some weeks later in Hong Kong she walked over the gangway to finally leave the ship. I stood on deck and looked for her in the crowd on the quay. She wore her blue flower dress and straw hat and was surrounded by soliciting cabdrivers. Restless, her eyes searched the decks of the ship and saw me standing on boat deck. Released she waved with her gloves, climbed into a taxi and disappeared.