Sunday, 11 January 2015

A short story - Snapping fingers

21:42 Posted by The Thalesians (@thalesians) No comments
I have been writing a novel over the past few years, which is very loosely based on thirty snapshots of real events in the Arab World over the past sixty years, told by different fictional narrators. It is a book I shall probably never finish. I had written this chapter below over a year ago, about a fictional event where a cartoonist is punished for a satirical cartoon (this scene is loosely based on the conflict in Syria and a similar event which happened there). The narrator below is the fictional cartoonist in question. After the terrible events in Paris this week, I felt compelled to share the chapter, which begins with the narrator explaining why cartoons are so successful for conveying a message.

A short story - Snapping fingers

Children see before they speak, as John Berger once said(1). What is a smile but a reaction to what a child senses, a deeply powerful visual message, which surpasses any words, to the outside world. Although each sense has its own place for deciphering the world, the visual sense can often be deployed much quicker than our others senses. Every event in the outside world ripples into our sensory sphere, at each point spreading its tentacles into a different sense, until finally our brain processes a reaction. It is perhaps for that reason that children so love cartoons, because of the way a cartoon immediately has meaning without the need to delve further, a singular burst of flow into the visual cortex, a gamete of vibrant colours, shining like rivers of light and filled with caricatures. Sometimes I think that caricatures, although seemingly grossly skewed perceptions of the outside world, are closer to the way we remember images, than an oil painting faithfully rendering its subject.
Unlike cartoons aimed at children, the satirical variety can be interpreted on many different levels, on a purely superficial level, but also a deeper more philosophical level, a thousand words bundled into a single snapshot, catalyzed by humour. That is the power of a satirical cartoon, that in amongst the beautiful artwork, when the viewer takes a second look, the message surges through the ether, like a man rising to the surface of the sea, frantically gasping for oxygen.
For every cartoon, the process of creation is the same, whatever its message. The artist’s hand dips its brush in paint, later to sweep it across a page, creating an image from nothing, but a mere spark of creation, leaving behind a trail of joy. For every act of violence, the irrationality is the same, whatever the message. The aggressor’s hand dips its sword in the fire, till it burns red hot, later to sweep it across the artist’s hand, leaving behind a red trail of blood. Why you may ask should the aggressor’s hand do this: is the artist’s hand such a threat? I had thought the artist’s hand to be little more than an irritant. However, today has taught me otherwise: what a tyrant fears more than people losing their fear, is to be laughed at publicly. For with laughter, loud, bellowing across the rooftops, rather than in the privacy of homes, his time is finished.
My morning had begun as it always does, a stroll through the ancient streets of Damascus, as old as civilization itself, the very first imprints of mankind’s attempt to tame nature. The mind is a powerful creation, but without inspiration, it dulls and withers. As such, I used each moment of my stroll, to gather the ingredients of inspiration, the smell of fresh bread lingering through the air, the laughter of children being dragged to school, the sweet sight of beautiful Damascene women, their hair fluttering crisscrossing in amongst itself creating a shadow of intrigue as they walk past. My mind was a cross between a blur and a high, tired by severe lack of sleep whilst also eager to begin my daily work. The solution that day, as every day, was a burst of caffeine. It was just early enough to contemplate sitting outside at my favourite café. Any later and I suspect, it would have been foolhardy, for August is the month, when the Damascene sun breathes fire, and the rain is a distant memory of the winter. This year more than any the streets had been alive with fire, not from the sun but from the hearts of my fellow Syrians burning for change.
I chose my spot to sit. I could see all the regulars, most of them my friends and those not, were at least acquaintances. I did not even need to order, as soon as the café owner, Badri, saw me through his spectacles with its edges worn down by years of usage, bandaged together by sellotape, he brought out my coffee. I nodded my head in thanks and he smiled, revealing his teeth, all somehow arranged at different angles and some missing. He never wanted to talk about what had happened.
All I knew from the others was that in the 1980s, he had refused to serve a man. The man had been drunk and raucous, and had begun to swear and make lewd remarks at women walking past. He returned the next day, more sober, but with some henchmen, their hair perfectly coiffured and their faces filled with evil. Strange that, the mukaharat are supposed to work in secret, but for them to be effective, they have this unmentioned uniform, difficult to precisely describe, but obvious to any observer. They sat at another café opposite, the whole day, sneering at the café owner. When it was time to shut up shop, Badri could see them walking across the street for him. He knew screaming would be useless. So he accepted his fate. They placed his head in a headlock and proceeded to beat him. It did not last long, but long enough, to do that to his teeth and he is too poor to ever fix them.
Whilst I thought of the misfortune that befallen Badri, I stared at the coffee cup he had broad. It was thin and spindly, with a small protruding handle. Inside it, lay coffee, its colour the darkest shade of brown possible, nearly indistinguishable from black. I stirred and stirred the coffee with a small spoon. I looked up across the street, and could see three men seemingly waiting for something, their backs perched against the sand washed wall of another coffee shop. Smoke trailed from the cigarettes precariously hanging from their mouth. I could see their cigarettes perceptively rising and falling, in tandem their breathing, which forced them to suck in clean air, before expelling it, tainted by white smoke. They seemed disinterested, with everything, except the Damascene women, who passed in front of them. Occasionally, they would look up at me. As if in unison, they would squint, trying to focus their sight on me. I continued to drink my coffee, quicker than I ordinarily would, forcing my mouth to bathe in the bitter taste of Arabian coffee. Even with many spoonfuls of sugar, the bitterness was still perceptible, rather than some faint memory of an aftertaste. Sometimes, sweetness in whatever quantity is unable to glide through an atmosphere filled with despair. As the coffee’s taste permeated further through my consciousness, I noticed the three men across the street, continually looking at me, no longer seemingly distracted by Damascene women. I thought it was time to go. I slipped a few coins onto the table to pay for the coffee. Jumping up, I immediately started walking further on. Behind me were the three men, whose young legs were carrying them much quicker than my old legs. I kept trying to walk on quicker, but it was futile. Sometimes we can ignore our age, but at times of our greatest need, our age is reminded to us forcefully. As the crowds thinned, they became closer, the scent of violence seemed more forceful than ever. Finally they had driven me into a lonesome alleyway, where the only light lay above from the heavens, but to my left and right, forward and back, there was nothing but the emptiness of darkness. My wary feet had begun to ache, my heart was beating far too fast for a man of my age, as my body forced my pace to a near halt. I turned. They halted. What little light my eye could gather, was reflected by my pursuers eyes, glowing white, broken by their pupils, which appeared to be little more than dots. They stood next to one another, such that together, they seemed to coalesce into a single being, wide enough to dominate the whole path. I could not make out which of them was taller, indeed which of them was fatter than the next, as each seemed to be an identical copy of the other.
“Why have you been running from us?” mused the man to my right, the words coming out of mouth, spaced by short gaps. He stepped forward, just enough such that the sunlight was able to catch his face. Emerging from the darkness was a face, as bland as it was colourless. The only colour I could decipher from his face, was that of his brown eyes. The rest of it had a whiteness, which seemed outside the norm of the spectrum of colours afforded to human skin. It was more like that a bleached sheet of paper, than that colour usually sees in skin. The glint of his golden touch served as the only break for my eyes of the colour white which made his face, and the blackness of the shadow surrounding him. The other two men remained quiet, but I could hear their hands moving towards their pockets. The rumbling of change from their pockets, was swiftly replaced by that of a snap, which was rather too similar to that sound I grew accustomed to in the army years ago, the sound of a gun being made ready to fire. In my mind, these two men, became the quiet ones, whilst the man talking to me, was in effect the speaking one.
“I didn’t know who you were,” I replied, knowing this to be a feeble excuse.
“You knew precisely who we were,” the speaking one said, grinning in such a way, that I was unable to ascertain whether it concealed a grimace. He raised his right hand, clicking his fingers as he did so. Slowly, he extended one of his fingers so that it pointed directly at me, a silent order for the quiet ones to begin their work. Like hungry animals, they swarmed towards me, grunting in near unison, their faces still largely cloaked in darkness. I closed my eyes, thoughts of the Almighty began to flood my mind.
              I opened my eyes. Greeting them was a hand, clenched into a tight fist, skin stretched tightly over the hands knuckles, so that the bone was visible underneath. Then only pounding. Pounding. It came towards my face repeatedly, buffeting me from side to side. Then the fists appeared to multiply. It was though a thousand fists were coming towards me, flying in such a way to inflict maximum damage. I could feel blood, running down my face, its iron taste trickling past my taste buds. Their faces began to be peppered with red specs of my blood, Syrian blood. With each strike, their faces became more red than white, my eyes becoming more glazed over with a mix of blood and tears. At some point I fell, I cannot remember precisely when. It was when I fell, that the smell of leather and shoe polish became more obvious. Their shining shoes struck my jaw, several times. How many times I don’t know, it was simply enough times to deliver their message.
              In all this time, of punches and kicks, blood spilling, they had forgotten my hands, the source of my voice, until I heard the leader cry:
              “His hands!”
              From that point on, their efforts to destroy my hands, far outweighed any possible violence they had previously inflicted on my face. All I remember is the sounds I heard, my eyes could no longer remain open, as though my instincts were telling me, close your eyes, close them now, and the cliché will be true: it’ll become a scene played out in your nightmare, rather than in reality. I was very nearly tricked, for at the time, I couldn’t feel the full intensity of the pain, that came in my hands later.
There seemed so many sounds. The sound of snapping, like that of a shutter coming down in a camera, but much louder. The sound of grunting coming from them, like animal a frenzy at feeding time. The sound of violence has many forms, but silence is not one of them.

(1) John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Like my writing? Have a look at my book Trading Thalesians - What the ancient world can teach us about trading today (on Palgrave Macmillan). You can order the book on Amazon. Drop me a message if you're interesting in me writing something for you! 


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