Mukallah 1993, by Waldo Bien
A strange place this Mukallah. One can see light blue pickups racing by, loaded with pitiful, moaning, Ethiopian black head sheep, or, pale pink oil barrels surrounded by suntanned Yemenites, with golden teeth, their shoulders loaded with Kashlinikovs. The city lingers on a plain, narrow, coastal strip, backed by high limestone cliffs, that look like the folded skin of a white rhinoceros. Some call this seaport the umbilical cord of the Hadramouth, connecting the ‘wadi’s’, that are hiding in the hinterland, with the rest of the world.
At 5 am I am still strolling about in the harbour district. I like harbours. They are like blood banks. White blue Dows mix with packs of scabrous dogs and images of weathered seamen, throwing their alter egos overboard in return for a bottle of filthy booze, or, a pinch in soft flesh.
One can sleep undisturbed on bags of Arabian coffee beans, or ,crates coming from Rangoon and other far -off places, often with contents other than the freight papers indicate. A trail is following the coast line, flanked by laid out boats on its sea side.
The road surface is paved with thousands of sun bleached, and wickedly grinning, deformed shark heads.
“Sharks”, Ismael exclaims with a tone of deep disgust in his voice, while squatting and spitting on them. A little stream of foaming urine flows from underneath his caftan and gets absorbed greedily by the soil. Only some foam remains on the lower jaw of the metallic shark head, which moves in the wind like a beard.
There is something eerie between humans and sharks. The boatswain and the cook of a ship, I once worked on, had caught a big shark from the rear deck in one of the harbours. I can still, very vividly, see the blue-silver colossus hanging there, occasionally jerking wildly on the stainless steel meat hook they’d borrowed from the cook with which they had caught it. Something ice cold had radiated from its eyes, like the lens of a camera. The monster observed us from close and for long, imprinting our faces deep into its memory, or maybe even in the collective memory of its species, so that, at a later and unforeseen moment, retaliation could be found.
This mere thought made cold shivers go up our spines. Everyone of the crew that showed up on deck, even the most peaceful ones, had shown remarkable behaviour. With general permission the animal, still alive, got treated with robust stabs of the boats hook, giving the crew huge entertainment. One man stubbed his cigarette butt on it.
Only our hermit, the radio officer, had stood absent with a foggy stare in his eyes. He was probably going over one of his chess matches that he played at night over the radio that went on for months in a row. He played against colleagues whose boats floated around elsewhere. He played right through the hearts of hurricanes and over the heads of those drowning and their sinking ships. There was a sharp contrast between his grubby look, his dandruff covered suit draped around him with careless hands, and the timeless top design of the shark that hung on the hook. When the monster was dead finally it was brought down and laid on deck, A few men carved their names in its skin with knives and someone urinated over the beast. To clear the possible shark memory as thoroughly as possible it got cut in to small portions and kicked overboard accompanied by loud shouting. At the exact moment I saw the last chunk of meat hit the water surface, the call of the muezzin sounded and Ismael my guide excused himself and left for the mosque.
With an easy air about me I wandered through dusty and deserted alleys. A warm breeze came in from the Indian Ocean. It’s impossible to pass through this land without being seen. An unseen spying eye was always there. All of the wood work of the houses had been made with extreme care and craftsmanship. Clearly the work of ship carpenters, who are aware that the quality of their craft could mean the difference between life and death. I passed the gate of the military barracks where I had seen a large armoured limousine the day before. In one of the back windows, with glass as thick as a fist there was a hole, like a fishing hole in the ice. In the fish- tank like twilight of the green armoured glass, a well fed sheik was forced to rest. A second hole, located at chest height, his white caftan where a mass of dried blood had poured out and dried. The gold brown leather cover of the seats looked like the blood sprayed skin of a satisfied predator after its meal. The sheik turned out to be a dummy. The suggested story was real. Revolution. Assassination.
In the harbour around the corner rose the green lit minaret of the mosque like a lighthouse. I said goodbye and I dragged myself back to the hotel. Every step up the stairs made a creaking noise because of the cockroaches you stepped on. The sinks and the urinals in the large restrooms, situated on every floor, dangled from the walls like neglected teeth. In the corridor two crumpled up men were sleeping on a ragged Indonesian sofa.
One hand clutched a machine gun, the other arm hung, like the arm of Marat, ‘l’ami du peuple’, murdered in his bath tub, powerless pointing to the floor.
From behind the door the nagging sound of an electric alarm clock was audible. Another door was wrenched open and a flourishing green light radiated through the hallway, clearly decreasing the health of the two sleeping men. A half naked man tried to reactivate them by violently pushing them around and letting out gurgling exclamations. A poster on the wall, the top two corners had come of, was moving in the wind like a pious man begging The Almighty for mercy. I sped up my pace and escaped. The door of my room was open. Apparently somebody had been fumbling around in the wardrobe. The clothes that were there in the closet when I rented the room, were now gone. Unaware I seemed to share this room with someone. The shape of another human being had been imprinted into my bed. Because of my clammy skin everything seemed irritatingly close. A new āllah ākbar sounded from the minaret .
I sensed a certain resignation that took hold of me. All this was impossible to grasp in images. I tore the film that had been exposed in the previous days out of the cassette and let it whirl from the open window without worrying where it might end up.
Only several minutes later a man knocked on my door to return the film rolls. He wanted to know whether it was true that all Christians worship three Gods as the imam had said. “No”, I replied, “But further to the east in our global village are places where they worship Gods with many arms or even an elephant trunk”. Shocked he staggered backwards in to the hallway. Afterwards I could hear the appalled man inform his friends through the closed door.
In the shower, that reminded me that I too might be a worn off carcass some day, that will gradually function less and less, there was a little window from where one could look into the mosque, a very large, rectangular room, left open on the south-eastern side. The flat roof rests on high pillars. It is very convincing to see the people practice their faith so relaxed and just take a nap afterwards, stretched out on one of the many carpets. Five meters above their heads a large number of mighty rotors where spinning, which made the brightly lit room in this still half dark world look like a space ship. The rocking backs of the believers was the engine.
As I lay in my bed, stretched out, pulling the sheet over my face, someone starts modifying a plate of iron in one of the crevices between the hotel and the mosque. Something made me think of the tracks of a chainsaw on the jaw of a wale, but I don’t remember what it was. Also, I thought about asparagus green and daylight lamps. If I jolt my memory, I can vaguely remember the rest of a fog like grey sleep: Arabia Felix.