Fiction | June 01, 1998
Mortimer of the Maghreb
CHARLES MORTIMER WATCHED the rippled brown land wheel back to horizontal. He drained the last drops from the plastic glass of Johnny Walker the air steward had given him, and decided: that’s it, no more booze for a week. Au boulot. His former life, his real life, stitched together by the clackety-clack of the typewriter and the patter-patter of the laptop, and by the roar of jets, was coming back to him now. Once again he was baptized in the odour of jet fuel (which still made him sick), born again in the air, the medium of his real work.
They had been flying for two hours, deep into the desert. As the plane finished its turn for final approach, one of the Migs stationed at the air base sliced through the desert sky like a steel meteor. His heart tightened. The old feeling came back to him, the feeling you almost smelled in your nose and which told you this was the one, this was the right place to be, you would find what you needed here-the feeling that guided you to the front page. Enough of those page-rune columns. How good that he had returned Mohammed Ahmoud’s telephone call and gone to meet him at the Wolf and Whistle, that he had got away from that damn little office with its blue carpet and lunch account and oversized computer terminal-all the perks just for him, the grand old man come home to grow fat and die.
“Welcome, Mortimer of the Maghreb,” a man in fatigues addressed him when he reached the bottom of the aeroplane steps. Mortimer squinted at the man, who was grinning broadly, by which Mortimer understood that he was to take the greeting as a joke. He chuckled back. Like his compatriot Mohammed Ahmoud back in London, the man looked like he would weigh very little. He introduced himself as Ibrahim. Mortimer noted a certain friendly roundness about his face, almost a clownishness. Men like that could be dangerous, Mortimer thought. They didn’t care about anything.
“Welcome to S.A.S.R.,” the man said, speaking awkwardly, with excessive emphasis, as if it was difficult for him to utter each foreign letter of his spurious nation’s name. He hissed on the S’s. The letters stood for “Saharan Arab Socialist Republic.” A seriousness came over the clownish face as he pronounced them.
Mortimer followed the man towards a waiting Land Rover. As he moved across the tarmac, away from the aeroplane, the wind caught him unawares. It was an extraordinary wind. He had traveled a great deal-in the Pamirs, the Balkans, the Caucasus, in South Africa, the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, all the world’s trouble spots over the last thirty years-but never, it seemed to him, had he known a wind like this. Strong and steady, and so hot he felt there must be some mistakesomeone had left an engine running, or opened a furnace at the wrong time. It scalded his face, burnt his neck. It came from nowhere, from everywhere. Mortimer looked around. Beyond the airstrip with the one jetliner there was nothing but flat, open desert, beginning at the edge of the tarmac and stretching away for hundreds, thousands of miles.
What a place to live! It was an unfinished world, not ready for human habitation. What a place for a war. He remembered his wars being in beautiful landscapes, among valleys and mountains and rivers. You would wake up to see the dew glinting on a gun barrel and feel the sun warming your back. You would eat your porridge overlooking a gorge. Or you would hike up a trail among fir trees. Or you might be staying in some dismal concrete city but from the hotel window you could see splendid dusty mountains. This was different. A construction site with no construction, an emptiness without end.
Mortimer had been here before, ten years ago, but he remembered the terrain quite differently, as a glinting plain of gravel.
The Land Rover sped off down a paved road that soon became a washboard track and finally a set of tyre tracks on packed earth. Beside the tracks ran an intermittent line of old oil drums, each painted with one white stripe. Finally the car passed several rows of white canvas tents. The rows were very long. Mortimer couldn’t see how long, because far away the tents disappeared over a brow. This was the “canvas city,” as Mortimer had dubbed it, where the Solario guerrillas and their people lived, the vast tent home of the “Nation-in-Exile” for whose homeland they were fighting.
The car pulled into a compound of old buildings covered in peeling yellow stucco, some French desert post from long ago. Mortimer was left in a high room with a stack of foam mattresses and a pile of blankets in one corner. He understood that he was to arrange a bed for himself, a comedown after the way he had been treated so far, in Algiers and on the flight. He pulled the top mattress off the stack and began unfolding one of the thick, hairy blankets.
A soldier interrupted him. “Venez, monsieur.” Then, not sure if Mortimer understood, he added, smiling, “Vamonos. Yalah, yalah.”
One thing about these men: they really knew how to smile at you. Desert men were the ultimate brothers. Forget old-boy camaraderie. No men knew how to befriend one another like desert men. They held hands, they hugged, they sprawled by the fire with arms draped over one another’s thighs like wild animals in repose.
He followed the man down a corridor, across the compound and into a canteen. He took a seat at a long bench, along with some fifteen or so others, most of them local soldiers, but one a man in a pale blue shirt with a UNHCR badge over the breast pocket. A soldier brought Mortimer a plate of couscous with some red sauce and a lump of tough meat. A glass of a sweet pink drink followed.
Mortimer was halfway through the meal when the man called Ibrahim appeared beside him, squatting on his heels. “Are you ready?”
Mortimer was clearly still eating, but answered, with his mouth half full, “Whenever.”
“Let’s go,” Ibrahim said, as if eating were merely a way of passing time.
Outside, another Land Rover, open-top, was waiting. “Bring anything you need. We’ll be gone four or five days.”
Mortimer wasn’t sure what he needed. He went into his room and pulled -a toothbrush and a new notebook from his bag.
The men wrapped a headscarf round Mortimer’s face, laughing, until he was left with only a slit to peer out of. The material smelled of plaster dust.
“You have to,” Ibrahim explained. “We drive fast.” A light chorus of laughter approved the remark. “The wind here, the dust. They can make you ill.”
It was as open as a Land Rover could be: not even a windshield. Just the bare bottom half of the body, with two spare tyres and two giant jerry cans attached to the back. The whole thing was painted a dusty desert brown, and all bare metal had been coated in matte grey paint. Mortimer noticed there was no speedometer. No instruments at all. Just the pedals and the various gear sticks.
The Solario fighters were good with their Land Rovers. They drove excellently and would long ago have had to give up their fight had they not. They likened the Land Rover to the old Bedouin’s camel, to the corsair’s sloop, to Britain’s Spitfire.
Thus, so simply, so matter-of-factly, and before he was ready for it, Mortimer found himself finally embarked on another war story, another front line, back in business.
Charles Mortimer, foreign correspondent extraordinaire, chronicler of wars and plagues and ruptured governments, interviewer of popes and pashas, had had columns set aside for his exclusive use in half the world’s papers. He had smoked Cohibas with Castro and dined on Maine lobster with Reagan. He had been hosted by the best hostesses of London and Washington. He had written light pieces on the L.A. Jacuzzi set, who counted him a friend. He had drunk beer with the mad Billy Fuentes, beer baron of Bolivia, commanding chief of the death squads. Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama had agreed to a joint interview with him. He had eaten lunch with every European leader. Haile Selassie had bestowed the Order of the Silver Stork on him, and the queens of several countries, including Romania, Norway and Tonga, had personally awarded him honorary degrees. For twenty-five years Mortimer had ridden the biggest waves in the business. Whimsical embracer of causes, instigator of media hunts, media races and winner of media coups, Mortimer had redefined his profession.
He had done all these things, but he had done them then, not now. All that was then, five years ago, seven, ten, twenty years ago. Now was different. It surprised Mortimer, when he thought back, how long and how short five years were. That so long a time could go by so swiftly, so emptily. Or not emptily (life abhorred a vacuum), but filled with something so different, so uncomfortable, compared to what had come before. Five years filled by gales of doubt, drunkenness, regret. Regret, the great devourer, could swallow half a decade in one go. Regret was a terrible trap, people said. Stop it. Just stop it. Don’t think about it. You must look forward, onward.
Five and a half years ago Mortimer had risked everything on his biggest story. He had succeeded in gaining an interview with the Soviet president, and after endless consultation of every source, he syndicated a story on the impregnable primacy of the Supreme Soviet. Contrary to all reports, he declared, the writing was not yet on the Kremlin wall. Everyone took the story-Le Monde, the Zeitung, the Washington Post, the Times. It was the coup of a lifetime, the summit of achievement. Except that just five weeks later the Berlin Wall came down, and six months later the Soviet Union was in tatters.
Mortimer had not just been spectacularly wrong, he had risked everything. It was as if every editor and source he had was implicated in his shame. A Times leader referred to him as a curiosity, an American paper alluded to his “disgrace,” and the Spectator cancelled his retainer. Of course most people were too caught up in the excitement of the new events to think about him, but he wasn’t. He had flown too high, and here was the result. After such a debacle, he thought, a man needed a change of profession, of name, of identity. He needed to start all over again. Which was out of the question at the age of fifty-two.
Saskia, his wife, had argued with him about it for months at the dinner table. She had told him again and again that he was wrong, and she took their differences personally. Which was unlike her. Also unlike her, after his great misjudgment she started minding about his peccadilloes-the publicity girl at the magazine where he was an honorary editor, the pretty assistant at the Times news desk. Their marriage had long been pragmatic, accepting of human weakness and strength, elastic enough to contain his work, his erratic urges, his sudden departures and returns. But now Saskia talked to him only in public, at dinner. Otherwise, she slammed doors, left the house without goodbyes, and forsook for the spare room the matrimonial bed that he so often forsook himself. Eventually, eighteen months after his great embarrassment, she left him.
By then he was already caught in a swift stream of forgetfulness. It wasri t that he stopped working-he dabbled with foolish columns in the Standard and the Mail, long inches in which he was free to scribble himself hoarse on any matter that piqued him: waiters no longer wearing ties, wine lists in which the Australian imports had squeezed the clarets into an appendix; the new “Metro” taxicabs. The brash new world springing up around his ankles was ripe for stomping on. At three in the afternoon, with copy due for the evening editions, it provided an inexhaustible supply of annoyances for a man with a keyboard in his lap and a bottle of Pauillac in his head, a man who would much prefer to have remained before his Camembert and gleaming glass than to have hailed a Metrocab back to the grey-walled warehouse of an office where you were no longer even supposed to smoke. At least they allowed him that: a little box of a room all to himself, regarded, incredibly, as a privilege in that open-plan arena, where he was permitted to smoke up a fog as long as he kept the door shut.
Occasionally, in the office, Mortimer would look up from his column-“Mortimer’s Monday”; “Mortimer on the Movies”; “Metropolitan Mortimer”-and sniff the air, test the ground: still foul, still tilted. When life went wrong, why didri t it right itself like everything else on God’s earth? Five years on, the ground was still skewed. And while you waited for it to recover, the weeks turned into months, and once seven months had gone by, you saw that seventy-seven could do so, and before you knew it they nearly had.
The rushing chaos of these years could have gone on and on, he knew, until he found himself collapsed into a hospital ward with two weeks to live. Did you blame the drink? But he had drunk before, he had always drunk, except in Saudi or when he caught hepatitis. Was it Saskia’s leaving? But he had never depended on her for his sanity or purpose. Things had gone wrong before she left, anyway. Was it really just his hideous error, then? But all men made errors. Editors knew that. They were willing to give him a second chance. He had only to indicate where he wanted to go, what war, what famine.
When, in short, would he no longer find himself churning out furious columns about newfangled menu items like arugula and pecorino (“What the devil is wrong with good old parmesan?” he watched himself typing, like some foolish old colonel) and instead be back at work? But it was desperate, not a hopeful, question.
When Mohammed Ahmoud telephoned and reintroduced himself, the two of them not having spoken for over seven years, Mortimer had felt a stirring of old, good feelings-that simple enthusiasm, almost joy, of sensing that someone was about to do you a favour, and you would be able to return it, and together you would advance one another’s causes. Ten years ago Mortimer had brought Solario’s war to international attention, though since then the story had stagnated and dropped from the papers.
Chuckles of reacquaintance down the telephone line. It was morning, fortunately. Mortimer was more or less sober.
“Something important,” Mohammed Ahmoud said. “When can we meet?”
Mortimer and Mohammed Ahmoud met in the Wolf and Whistle in Pimlico. That was something new-lunch in a pub, not at a white-cloth establishment. It felt good. It felt like things ought to feel.
“A major new offensive,” Ahmoud said. “We cut through the Wall in many places at once. We reduce the Moroccan army to nothing. They’re just boys.”
They had to plan and arrange, Ahmoud said. Two or three weeks.
Mortimer watched the slight Arab facing him across the pub table, sipping his lemonade through a straw with his curiously big lips. Ahmoud moved slowly, with that desert economy born of unrelenting thirst. Mortimer liked that way of moving. It seemed more a way of being. Something in him loved a desert.
Sitting in the dingy Wolf and Whistle with the drizzle of Pimlico tapping against the window, Mortimer remembered how he used to feel in his heyday. It occurred to him that if he had that feeling in him still, his heyday was not necessarily over.
“Can you get me to the front line?” he asked.
Mohammed Ahmoud put down his glass of lemonade and tilted his head to the side, trying to conceal a smile. He shrugged. “All things are possible,” he said, in the way of desert men.
Before they left the camp, the guerrillas drove Mortimer between two rows of tents for mile after mile. They were big square tents, canvas, UN issue. Women sat in the doorways, some dressed in the traditional robes, a few in fatigues with scarves over their heads. The Solario were proud of their particular brand of Islam, which did not subjugate women, many of whom held staff positions in the army. Here and there children in tattered clothes stopped to watch the Land Rover pass. There was an air of slowness about the camp, as if everyone were living at half-speed.
They drove past a huge old black Bedouin tent. Mortimer remembered such a tent from ten years ago, when he had visited before. The guerrillas had held a kind of banquet in it for some delegates visiting the refugee camps. It had been like some bizarre folklore evening in a posh hotel, inexpertly rendered out here in the desert. They had slaughtered a baby camel, which sat, hump and all, on an ark of tinfoil, being slowly hacked to pieces as the evening progressed, while in the corner a band wailed on primitive oboes and thumped frenetically on goatskin drums.
He had enjoyed that evening, drinking endless glasses of tea and smoking pipes of rough tobacco. He had just published his first story on the guerrillas, his initial report on the Great Wall of Africa, as he called it, a phrase that had been used in the headline and became general currency. The Solario’s enemy, Morocco, had constructed a 1,000-mile rampart of sand in the desert to keep the guerrillas out of the disputed territory. It wasn’t really a wall, just a bulldozed dyke some six feet tall with military posts strung along it, but it was still a remarkable story, and Mortimer had broken it. He had been riding high then. Everything he touched came out right. An editorial in the Times the following week referred to him as “Mortimer of the Maghreb.” He remembered dancing along to the crazy music, flirting wildly with a pretty Saharawi woman who was a guerrilla colonel.
The Land Rover passed a well where a throng of people had gathered. Farther along, a water truck with a great green tank on the back crept past them, going the other way, dribbling on the dust.
Then they left the tents behind and accelerated onto the open desert. The day was cloud now, and the desert stretched away as a sheet of grey sand, an endless beach without an ocean.
Ibrahim grinned at Mortimer and whispered, “I could pick them off with my Kalashnikov.”
Mortimer believed him. He and Ibrahim lay side by side at the top of a mound, passing a pair of binoculars back and forth. Ahead of them, perhaps two hundred yards away, the top halves of three Moroccan soldiers showed as little figures above a long, low dune. This was the third time in one day that Mortimer had been asked to crawl up a stony bank to peer at Moroccan positions. He was tiring of it. He couldn’t write a story about looking at soldiers. And it was uncomfortable. Little stones pricked his elbows and knees.
He nodded at Ibrahim and began to move down the slope. Ibrahim immediately started too, so that the initiative might seem his.
Back at the camp Mortimer wrote, The noisiest place on earth is not a pressing mill, not a rave, not an aircraft test hangar, but a war. War assaults not the ears but the very bones.
He closed his notebook. He was lying. This war was quiet. Now and then came the soft thud of a shell exploding far away, well off target, its sound absorbed by the endless desert. The enemy had installed- a radar artillery system at immense cost and to little effect.
Mortimer had forgotten the strange matter-of-factness of war, the way you could be in the heart of a war and not even know it. Nothing really happened. You just drove about in an empty landscape. You saw no one. Occasionally you heard a distant boom, but otherwise nothing told you a war was going on. Except for something in the men, perhaps, a calmness born of danger, as if they were saving themselves for something big, lazing the way opera singers or rock stars might do on the day of a show.
Several times on his first day Mortimer heard the distant thud-thud of the Moroccan artillery, followed a few seconds later by a pair of brief whines, two soft crashes. The guerrillas had long since learnt to dodge the radar. Ibrahim pointed out a faint stick on the horizon once, between two hills. “Radar antenna,” he said.
Mortimer nodded and felt he ought to take a picture, but buckled up in his jacket and headscarf, it seemed like too much trouble.
In the evening and all the second day they traveled on the terrain Mortimer remembered. It was an amazing land, a rolling plain of gravel-real gravel, like on a drive in Hampshire. It went on for hundreds of miles. In the morning it looked like a beaten sheet of silver. At noon it shimmered like overheated metal. In the late afternoon, golden light hovered above it, blinding like the ocean. And for ten minutes just after the sun slipped down, it wheeled itself through the entire spectrum, beginning with a fiery red, ending in luminous violet. Under the moon it glittered like sugar.
Day Two. Saskia, I have decided I must write to you. I don’t know of course if I’ll ever send this, but you are the one person I want to talk to. Being here makes me think of you, I don’t know why. I feel that I have been a fool, an ass, someone despicable mostly for his obtuseness. But let’s forget about that. I think you’d like it here.
They stop every five minutes. What? Hello? A puncture? Carburettor trouble? An ambush? No: tea every time. Tea after tea after tea. We all pile out, someone lights a fire, out comes the tiny blue pot, the plastic bags of mint and sugar, the tin of fierce grey “chinois noir. ” Six shot glasses carefully twisted into the sand. No warming the pot. They just pour in the water, add a palmful of tea, and set the whole lot on the fire. When it fizzes they drop in a great lump of sugar and the interminable frothing begins-pot to glass and glass to pot, back and forth in the highest arc you can manage. The idea is to get up a good sweet froth. But the first glass is never sweet. The tea is too bitter. You can hardly get it down, it’s so strong. Bitter like life, they say. They always have three rounds. The second is better: they add the mint, and more sugar. Strong like love. The third is easiest of all. Sweet like death. A sentiment peculiar to the desert.
Tea helps a man who has just come off the bottle, no question. My fingers are settling down at last. Yesterday I had such bad shakes I could hardly hold the blasted glass.
Amazing men. They lounge by the fire giving half their attention to the tea, keeping half on the alert. You’ve never seen people so relaxed. And in the middle of the Sahara, in the middle of a war. Tolstoy was right: there’s no laziness like a military life. You can spend weeks doing bugger all and feel fine about it because you’re a soldier. You don’t even get bored. Boredom is a child of guilt, and there’s no guilt here.
Have I done the right thing? Too early to say. Is there a price? The thirst is intolerable. They ration water. I drink five times as much as anyone else. They have this way about them, like camels or snakes. They don’t need to take anything in. My asking for water has become a joke. They call me ‘Z’eau. ” Yet I hardly mind the thirst. This is one of the damn things about life. Do the one right thing and everything else falls into place. But sit around doing the wrong thing and you can’t handle anything. What makes you make the crucial move? That’s the question. Thank god I don’t have to worry about that for now. Just get on with the story. This must be the big one. The week that changed the Sahara. I believe it still, though so far we have done nothing but drink tea, and there’s been no sign of an offensive.
Mortimer woke up disgusted with himself in the middle of the night. He got up to pee. The men were still sleeping, and as far as he could see no one was on watch. No sign of dawn yet, but you could tell it was close. A kind of plain peace hung in the air, a sense of ordinariness, which seemed to connote day.
His stream rustled on the dry ground. He was able to wonder why self-loathing had invaded his sleep. It was a strong, sad feeling, but it was possible it made no sense. It was possible that in the early morning on the desert such a feeling might evaporate.
Nothing had happened yet. He mustn’t forget that. He had come down to give their cause the limelight just as the tide turned, just as they swept across that Moroccan barrier in a flood of mortars and grenades and Kalashnikovs, in a modern-day Bedouin swoop. And after three days of rambling and camping, and enjoying it, there was no question he was going soft on the story.
His hosts carried on in their leisurely desert way: twelve cups of tea a day, hours spent in repose, hours spent driving silently across the wastes in order to fire off two rockets at some lonely stretch of the Moroccan wall, then all the way back for a bowl of couscous.
Mortimer liked being with them. There was nothing brash or macho about them. When men were doing the most manly things-fighting wars, sailing ships-they appeared most womanly, doing the cooking and washing, taking care of themselves with a fastidiousness beyond the scope of suburban man. They were modest too. They went about their chores good-naturedly: the building of the fire, the opening of giant cans of soup and pasta, all mixed together in an aluminum cauldron, the tea ceremonies, the spreading of blankets as if for a picnic, the handing out of enamel bowls of couscous eaten with a mix of ease and dutifulness, without pleasure. For they were never hungry. They showed up the Western obsession with food and drink, the compulsion to fill the mouth. Nor did they ever tire, or sweat, or sneeze, or even cough. They were hard to pin down.
The truck had broken down once. Mortimer watched the man who fixed it. He appeared to have no idea what was wrong. He stared at the engine a long time, then reached in with a spanner-he didn’t even have to find the right spanner-and turned a nut randomly, it seemed, vaguely, dreamily. The Land Rover started up at the next try.
Mortimer couldn’t help admiring them. He felt himself become a little like them: perhaps that was what made a traveler. In Afghanistan, for example, he hadn’t just laughed at the Mujaheddins’ jokes, he had learnt to find them funny. In the jungle he had naturally squatted on his haunches and spat like the tribesmen. In logging camps he had drunk beer at eleven in the morning and enjoyed the feel of sweat spreading across an overtight T-shirt. In British country houses he developed a taste for port and cigars, for whiskey before dinner. Now he remembered the taste and smell of other deserts, and began to recover a peculiar stillness of the mind which he had learnt from the Kalahari Bushmen. A lizard mind: being still within the cave of your skull while looking out on the dazzling world. A useful way to be.
He felt better. Perhaps he was just a natural traveler, a man who couldn’t live happily at home. Unless it was being with these men, who did not stand if they could squat, or squat if they could lie, who thought nothing of lounging by a tea-fire for half the day, nor of rising at two in the morning for a difficult and dangerous ride without food or even tea until the afternoon. They did not respond to comfort the way other men did. Once, years ago, Mortimer had shared a hotel room with one of their diplomatic team in Geneva. The room had two big beds. The guerrilla unrolled his cape and slept on the floor. What was the point of a bed? What, when it came to it, was the point of a house? Tombs for the living, they called them. Only they could claim an unbroken line going back to the apes. They alone of men had never stooped to sow seeds. Their daily life mapped out the truth of human existence: that our home on the planet could only ever be a transitory camp.
Day Three. The flies! You’d hate this. You’ve never seen anything like it. The absurd tea-pouring attracts them. They settle all over everyone’s fingers, first the pourer’s, then everyone else’s. Once the glass is in your hand they line the rim completely, like margarita salt. Wave them away and they ignore you. Only if you touch them will they move, and even then you have to push. Reluctantly they step onto their neighbour, then angrily buzz away. You lift the glass to your lips. Inches from your mouth, there they are still. Just as you think: Fuck it, I’m never going to be able to drink this. Or else: Fuck it, I’m just going to have to swallow a couple of flies, they vanish. Lower the cup an inch and there they are again.
The desert is good for fuck-its. Who can be bothered in this heat?
A funny thing: how I like it here. How it suits me.
About the guns. Men want clarity and simplicity and that is what guns offer. Guns make life simple. They feel right. Let me explain-guns clarify life. They give you a buzz of direction. They make a man feel loved. They justify him.
On the fourth morning, Mortimer looked through his notebook and wondered: What was all this nonsense? This was hardly the first time he had been in a war. Perhaps he had softened in the last few years, and perhaps it was even a good thing. Saskia often said how hard he was, how he needed softening. He must surely be softened, if he thought softened a good thing.
He wrote down: Copy, you bastard. Enough bloody philosophy.
They were lying in the lee of a dune, around ten o’clock. All trace of the morning cool had evaporated. Mortimer was having to resist the urge to pull away his headcloth, which they said would make him thirstier. A trickle of sweat was making its way down his side. He remembered to lie still. The kettle gurgled as it heated. The man in charge of it opened the lid. He was a handsome man, the darkest of them all, dark as a Ugandan, with bottomless eyes and deep folds on his face.
“Ibrahim,” Mortimer called.
Ibrahim was busy stuffing a pipe with the foul, powdery black tobacco they smoked. He inverted the instrument and lit it with a twig from the fire. Exhaling a stream of smoke, smiling benignly, looking high, he raised his eyebrows at Mortimer.
“The paper is not going to be pleased,” Mortimer said. “There are many other places they might have sent me.”
Ibrahim rested his eyes on Mortimer in such a way that Mortimer felt easy about going on, in fact felt relaxed about his complaint, no longer especially wanting it acted on. “I mean, at the very least I need an interview from Lamin Aziz.”
Lamin Aziz was the “president,” the guerrilla leader and head of the refugee camps-of the Nation-in-Exile. It was a toy town: toy government, toy politicians, even a toy government house, that giant tent of black wool, one of the original nomad tents. The intention was that one day all these toy institutions would be moved to a small dusty city in the disputed territory. It made one wonder about government and the machinery of state-it was all like a game at playschool, not just here but everywhere.
Ibrahim shrugged and took another pull on his pipe. “Vamos a ver,” he said, breathing out smoke.
We’ll see. Mortimer shook his head. These people. So laid-back. They didn’t mind that their war was going on and on. In fact it suited them. They could carry on living in tents and scampering around the desert in Land Rovers, just as they liked. What would they do with a country, if they ever got one?
All that day they stayed at the same camp, lying in the shade of the Land Rover. Three of the men dozed beneath it, crawling out only to drink tea. Mortimer’s impatience grew, then dwindled, then grew again toward noon, as the strip of shadow he had been lying in became too narrow to cover him. He lay beside the hot brown iron of the vehicle, baking like a pizza, as hot as he had ever been, even in the baths of Siberia. Despair touched him: What was he doing here, wasting his time? If he was going to go somewhere, he could have gone to the oil spill in Greenland. The word “Greenland” felt like a rebuke. What a fool. Here he lay, pressed to the ground by an immense heat.
At four o’clock they returned the teapot to the back of the Land Rover, kicked over the ashes, and climbed aboard with their rifles in their laps.
Mortimer had slept. When he saw the sunlight glittering on the plain like water, he felt better. The day was nearly over. He had survived. It felt like an achievement. They swayed and purred over the desert, then wrapped their faces for a long, fast race across packed mud. At the far side the driver plugged the vehicle into four-wheel drive and picked his way between two gravel slopes, hidden from the world. When they stopped, Ibrahim took Mortimer’s hand, which surprised Mortimer, and made him follow behind on his belly as they slithered up a rocky slope. At the top Mortimer slowly raised his head. Ahead of them, some fifty or sixty yards away, four black dots showed at the top of a sandbank: helmets, soldiers.
No one else had come with them. Ibrahim pressed a finger to his lips. They were evidently to wait for something. He had an idea he was about to be given a graphic display of guerrilla tactics. They were showing off to him.
Two cracks sounded. Ibrahim sank to the ground and pressed a hand into Mortimer’s back. He lay with his cheek against a rock. A moment later he heard a whine, then another, each followed by a thud. They came from somewhere behind them. Mortimer eased his head around to look back down the slope. The Land Rover was gone.
Ibrahim kept his face to the ground and smiled. “They know we are here,” he whispered. “But you see? They don’t know where.”
When they raised themselves on their elbows, the four little helmets had vanished.
Mortimer felt uneasy. A clatter of gunfire broke out a ways along the wall, accompanied by the whoosh of rocket grenades. There was silence, and another clattering of guns. Then some weapon made an odd noise, like a moan cut short. A little cloud of smoke rose up into the sky, faint and precious.
A few minutes later Ibrahim started crawling backward down the hill. Mortimer followed. The Land Rover had returned. In it sat two new men, wearing faded navy blue caps. Mortimer could see at once that they were different from the others, though it was hard to say why. Perhaps they were a shade paler. All the guerrillas climbed in, and they drove off in silence.
That evening they passed a group of nomads. Their black tent was startling on the empty land. The nomads were apparently friends, and greeted the rebels warmly. The rebels left a jerry can with them and drove off with a small goat. One of them, sitting on the side of the vehicle, held it clamped between his knees. At first the animal attempted to stay upright as the vehicle bumped along, then gave in, realizing that it didn’t need to, the man’s legs would hold it steady.
They made a detour across a dry wadi and pulled up beside a kneehigh shrub. One of the men dug around the plant with a machete and excavated a small log of root.
They camped in the middle of an open flatness. The driver simply switched off the engine and let the vehicle coast, and wherever it stopped was camp. Everyone spilled out.
The two newcomers with blue caps sat in the circle of men, drinking their tea slowly and thoughtfully, staring at the ground. Mortimer pulled out his notebook and began describing them: young men, moustaches (like all of them), heavy eyebrows, quite dark … in short, almost identical to the others. Maybe not as lean.
He nodded at one of them and asked where he was from, thinking he knew the answer.
The man glanced at Mortimer, then looked away. He must have been astonished by the question.
Ibrahim stepped around behind the circle and sat beside Mortimer. “They’re Moroccans,” he said. “Fresh from the Wall. Prisoners. You want to talk to them?”
Mortimer asked them a few questions. Both were silent, unsure who this strange foreigner was, unsure whether they were being interrogated, suspecting perhaps that he might be a journalist and afraid of what might get back to their command. Mortimer left them in peace for the second and third rounds of tea.
He flipped through possible headlines. Desert Rebels Stop for Tea. Tea on the Frontline. Desert Rebels Give Their Captives Tea.
From a little way off, outside the fire circle, came a soft, anxious bleating, then the sickly liquid sounds of slaughter. One of the soldiers fed the tip of the big root into the fire, building up a blaze.
Day Four. Barbecue tonight. First they flay the poor beast (a goat), then spread out the skin, fleece down, and use the slippery sheet as a butcher’s block. They dismantle the animal and store the various components-legs, organs, skull, ribs-in piles at the edge. The first fresh meat in almost a week, but I have little appetite for it. Who cares? Eating is just something to do.
I keep remembering years ago when I walked from Timimoun to one of the little oases. While covering the Malian famine. There was nothing but sand, dunes forever as far as you could see. It was a windy day. After half an hour Timimoun was lost from sight. We knew it would be a few hours before we could see the first palm gardens of the oasis. Just the compass to guide us across the ocean of sand, the Great Western Erg. What a place. The wind blew away our tracks. Can you imagine that? I can barely remember the sight now, but I remember what it felt like. It was a lesson. No tracks. No past. It was true not only of that journey but of everything, all life. All of it blows away. I mean that not as a metaphor but as reality. We have no past. There is no going back.
They say the struggle for good and evil goes on in the human mind. Nowhere is that clearer than in the desert. This is the original tabula rasa, where whatever has been is erased.
This is embarrassing but I keep seeing you in the landscape, in the crevices between the hills, in the hill on the horizon, which lies there just like you do, still, sure of itself. I am beginning to realize how much I miss you. Sometimes I see suddenly that none of this makes any sense. I mean these last few years. Our situation. You were always right. You understood in advance of me. It has taken me a long time to see, to see myself, and you, and us and what remains to us. We must meet as soon as I am back.
The last time he’d seen Saskia, ghastly time, he took her to dinner at L’Escargot. Why there, of all places? He should have known better. The minute he held open the door and saw her sitting on one of the stiff little sofas waiting for him, he knew it would not work. They had had to sit through an excruciating dinner. He should have had her over, if she would have agreed to that, or else gone to a Chinese or an Indian, even a pub. Somewhere informal. And why meet at night, like a pair of dating undergraduates?
She had looked beautiful. He didn’t have the habit of noticing her beauty. Seeing it that night, he felt excluded. The old sadness rolled over him. Her blonde hair pleasantly, outdoorsily grey at the roots, was pinned back the way he liked, sleeking her cheeks. She had lost a few pounds, she looked strong, lean. He recognized the beauty in her small frame. She seemed to have acquired shape. She sat very correct-looking, with her knees together, just showing beyond the hem of a black skirt. She had dressed up not for him but for the restaurant.
What sharp, intelligent eyes she had. She could look like a rabbit, a fiercely bright rabbit, sitting there hunched up and staring at you. Thank god, he thought to himself, that she had had children. Imagine if she had come to him childless, and he had kept her that way, as he would have done. Only one thing, in the end, could redeem any life: progeny. Not for him, of course, but for her. She could survive whatever love threw at them because she had her future assured. Children mitigated death, he thought, as if reproduction really were the one thing we were put on this earth to accomplish. He would go naked into death with nothing to diminish it but age.
Was Saskia the love of his life? His first answer would be no. That was Clarissa, who had left him when he went off to Afghanistan on his first assignment, and who had never looked back. She was married by the time he returned, and she had made a good life for herself. Women were practical like that. But his second answer would be yes, of course Saskia was the love of his life, his actual life. The dream life might hang on, but in the end, he was sure, it would be the actual life that counted.
The prisoners were with them all the following day, silently doing whatever the party did-tea, drive, tea, eat, drive. They never looked at anyone, not even each other.
All wars were strange. You sat around a fire and chatted. The fact that your cousin or brother or friend was no longer at the fire with you made no difference. The fact that two of the enemy were, also made no difference. Still you sat and spat and smoked and drank tea and entertained the foreign journalist with little stunts. “Fighting” consisted of endless sitting around. Clipping nails, picking at dry skin, rubbing stubble, musing, composing letters in one’s mind.
Just now they were all sitting on a caked white mud flat. They seemed to make their own little stage around the fire. They had to have their own reasons for all of this. The surroundings could supply none.
“Ibrahim, this is the end of the fifth day,” Mortimer said. He had not showered since being down here and had lost all desire to. His skin and clothes had become one. “Is anything going to happen?”
Ibrahim chuckled deeply. At times he had an incredibly deep, rather beautiful voice. “No problem,” he said. “Everything can happen.” “I’m only here another day and a half. I have to leave with something. It’s the Sunday Times. Why won’t Lamin Aziz see me?”
“All things can happen,” Ibrahim answered, with typical desert oracularity.
Day Five. We have taken two of the enemy. They seem nice enough. Life goes on. We all drink tea together. In the desert all men are brothers first, warriors second. It’s a little like those Christmas truces in the trenches. Another tea, Maroc?
Night fell. The huge planet wheeled its flatness across the western sky, sending a band of deep blue shadow into the pale east. The band deepened and spread. The orange west became spangled with early stars. A slither of a moon, a hair caught on a camera lens, shone luminously in the glazed sky.
The two Moroccans and two of the guerrillas had vanished. They had slipped away somehow. Mortimer must have been dozing. He got up to have a better look. All around, the plain lay flat: no sign of anyone. Yet they could not have gone far. The desert’s apparent flatness contained hidden gullies and ditches, even small canyons that you saw only when you were almost in them, but still their disappearance startled him.
He heard something. A faint crack. A whine, a high-pitched groan. He stood still, staring into the silence of the coming night. Nothing more. Just stillness. A hissing in the ears. As he listened a wonderful feeling crept over him. His legs felt warm and fluid, his heart seemed to tingle. Good things would happen to him. They had before and they would again. His fate was to clasp the globe in his fist. Never in human history, perhaps, had there been a man of such wide experience.
Another crack, a moan. Both sounds were very faint. Mortimer wasn’t sure if it was his ears playing up. It could be a desert fox, he thought. Or one of the birds. He had seen a bird in the sky the previous day.
One of the guerrillas fiddled with the knobs on a big cloth-covered military radio. He wore a pair of small, hard-looking headphones. He raised a speaker to his lips and spoke softly, then adjusted a dial.
Ibrahim approached Mortimer. “Get some sleep. We’ll be up very early. Midnight.”
“Where are the prisoners?”
Ibrahim smiled. “Sleep. The desert tires a foreigner.”
Mortimer lay on his back. He could still feel the glow that had entered his body. The stars dropped from the sky and hung just above his face, so close he could stick out his tongue and lick them. They were coarse like sea salt.
Mortimer understood that he had been playing it too much their way. He must stay awake, but so they thought he was sleeping. He was a journalist, a reporter. He had got caught up in the romance of things. Back to basics: the difference between what they say and what I see equals the truth.
The soft human voices in the emptiness were soothing. The crackles of the fire died down to a low hiss. The voices became big and deep, superbly resonant out there on the flat land. Mortimer listened, imagining at times that they were talking in French or Spanish, and that he would understand what they were saying if only he listened harder. At some point the Land Rover left. When it came back there were a few hushed, concerned exchanges. He rolled onto his side and opened his lower eye. By the car’s wheel, a cap lay on the ground. It belonged to one of the Moroccans. He decided to stand up and surprise them.
He did so. He yawned and shuffled off to pee, and saw what he needed: the two Moroccans bound back to back, lying on their sides in the back of the Land Rover, slack as a pair of socks. The face of the man nearer him was covered in dirt. The mouth of the other hung open.
Mortimer’s stream made a pleasant sound in the wide night. It drowned out the voices at the camp. He had a heavy feeling in his chest. He told himself it’s nothing to what you have seen, remember Eritrea, remember Cambodia, this is war, war is like this. But it didri t work. His stomach rose. He took a few steps forward, not as many as he planned, bent over and puked. Strings of phlegm swung from his mouth as his stomach hardened into a knot.
“Too much for you?” came Ibrahim’s voice. “You’ve been to many wars, no?”
Mortimer didn’t answer but walked with lowered head back to his sleeping roll.
The action that followed was hard to make sense of until it was over. In the middle of the night they dismantled the campsite and mounted the Land Rover. They drove for an hour, then parked at the foot of a low hill. Ibrahim clutched Mortimer’s arm, guided him halfway up the hill, then pushed him flat on his belly. What Mortimer saw from the brow surprised him. The whole area between the hill and the Moroccan wall was covered in bodies, and the bodies were moving. It was an eerie sight: an infantry attack of the old school, the oldest school. This was how the pashas’ caravans had been ambushed: a knife clenched between the teeth, elbows creeping forward over the ground. There must have been fifty fighters.
Then: thud-thud, thud-thud, sounding far away. A moment later the screech-booms rang out. There was another attack going on a few hundred yards up the wall. Mortimer stared but could make out nothing. The snaking figures had risen up in a silent wave and were sprinting up the bulldozed dune. Then they were out of sight. This was the strangeness of war: Mortimer and Ibrahim still just lay there on the ground, and unless one knew, unless one actually made the imaginary connections, it might seem that nothing unusual was going on.
A clatter of rifle fire sounded out. Then silence again. Figures came back over the dunes: more this time. Soldiers kept on coming, more and more. Most of them held their hands clasped on their heads. Everyone was jogging, jogging and stumbling down the dune, across the open space, and up the hill, the nearest within thirty feet of Mortimer. It all happened in silence.
Mortimer slithered back down the hill. He watched the new prisoners being loaded into a waiting Unimog. He wondered how they would all fit in. Somehow they did.
The Solario fighters dispersed. Mortimer found himself back at the Land Rover with exactly the original band of six. Everything was as it was before. It had been a good operation: slick, quick, and without traces. Like a dream, the attack might never have happened. How would you know it had?
The two dispensed-with Moroccans were gone.
Day Six. Perhaps things are getting better not when the bad times are over, but when you stop thinking of them as bad times. When you can see good even in them. Heigh-ho.
For example? For example the locusts. Saskia, you have never seen anything like this. It changes you. I’m serious.
They passed the locusts on the way back to the camp. Locust Africanus: Lime-green, wingless, the juveniles draw up in marching columns hundreds of miles long.
They showed as a black line, some geological feature remarkable only for being long and straight. The Land Rover rode over it. Then Ibrahim called to the driver to stop and tapped Mortimer’s knee.
The two men knelt close. The insects were unaware of them. Ibrahim said the vanguard would already be in Mauritania, two hundred miles away. Every bit of them was bright green, the bent thighs, the heads and bodies, even the antennae, as if they had been dipped entire in green paint. They were at once horrific and magnificent. A thousand miles’ marching lay ahead of them. Incalculable distance, incalculable number. You could just hear the rustle they made. Where were they going? What made them go? What made them that brilliant colour? They stopped neither to eat nor sleep. They belonged to a destiny vaster than man’s.
Things of this magnitude, Mortimer wrote down, require the whole sky in which to resonate.
He put his pen back in his breast pocket and closed the notebook. His heart was racing. Had he been a fool? Had he failed to realize something perfectly simple? He thought all the trouble was to do with his work, but maybe it was quite different. Maybe he had nearly been doing the right thing these last few years, without knowing it. Perhaps he no longer wanted what he thought he did.
He looked at the locusts, and again his mind resonated with a song to their magnitude. He didn’t think: famine in Mali. One hundred and twenty thousand refugees within the year. Logistical nightmare. UNHCR, etc. He thought: The world is so big. That was all. His head hummed.
Then he wondered: all those years in which he had flitted from atrocity to atrocity and horror to horror, perhaps an overarching question had governed his randommotion. He had been looking for a reason not to have faith. And he understood now that he had failed.
He must stop and rest. That was the stern injunction of the plains of gravel: rest, traveler, rest.
On his last day Mortimer had still not seen the president.
He understood what had happened. The Solario had tried to impress him with their first small capture, and failed. They had tortured their captives for information and carried out the bigger raid. It would benefit them anyway, of course, but more so since Mortimer could report that Morocco’s defenses were at least partially ineffective.
But it was nothing like the promised offensive. Mortimer had been had. Or something had gone wrong.
War. wasn’t the way the papers reported it. It was all an act. Those Moroccan soldiers didn’t want to be killed. They were recruits who had just left school. Of course they would do what they were told if the enemy had them at the end of a gun barrel. A war was a show, a movie. Algeria produced, Solario performed. Meanwhile Britain; France, and the U.S. bankrolled Morocco’s side, pouring huge sums into the friendly autocrat’s thousand-mile defense without any hope of return. What was in the disputed territory? A few thousand nomads, a barren seaport clinging to the Atlantic coast with a few streets of crumbling concrete, some phosphate mines long ago abandoned because of the war, and a thousand miles of nothing.
Meanwhile Solario lived in tents, drove Land Rovers, camped on the desert, just as they liked. They had a mission in life.
Mortimer was waiting in the same long, high room to which he had been delivered on first arriving. It might once have been a Legionnaires’ barracks, he thought, though it had the air of a schoolroom. He had to wait until sometime in the afternoon. The guerrillas had dropped him off that morning and driven away with the minimum of good-byes. Four of the foam beds had been made up. There were other visitors now. The same stack of blankets stood in the corner, shorter than before. Otherwise the room was empty except for Mortimer’s bag, which sat open beside a pile of papers and books, his. He couldn’t understand why he had brought them all.
He sat with his back against the wall. He was good at waiting now. In his lap was an open notebook, in his hand a pencil, but he was staring at the opposite wall where, just below the room’s one window, a large section of yellow plaster had fallen away, exposing dusty brickwork. Something stirred in his mind and caused him to look up at the three big beams supporting the ceiling. It was a vacuum of a room.
He had been here three hours, he was covered in desert dust, but his appetite for what might have been a pleasure-washing off six days’ dirt-had vanished.
Day Seven. I’m not sure how I’m going to leave here. I wish you could come and meet me at the airport like in the old days. I can see no reason to go back other than to see you. They killed our two prisoners. I was sick. Then they captured another batch. They want me to see that they can.
I leave this afternoon. There’s no respite in this life. Not even in the desert.
A young reporter in Kabul once told me we were the reason people fought wars. Look at Lawrence of Arabia, he said. You know Lawrence was made by that American newspaper man. I thought he was crazy, but now I have to wonder if he wasn’t right. I do.
Half an hour before he was due to leave, when his bag was packed and he was still sitting alone in the barrack room, Mortimer heard footsteps advancing down the hall. Ibrahim entered. “Yalah. Let’s go.”
Mortimer was surprised to see him. He smiled. “I thought you’d be back at the front by now.” He zipped up the bag and lifted it to his shoulders.
“No, no,” Ibrahim said. “No bag.”
Mortimer looked at him. “The airport?”
Ibrahim shook his head. “Important meeting.”
“Important meeting,” Ibrahim repeated, without a trace of a smile.
Outside, another Land Rover, dark green, hard-top, waited. They drove Mortimer around the camp and away. At the side of a hill a set of unlikely steel doors appeared. They opened from within, and a guard spoke to Ibrahim through the car window. The Land Rover entered a long ramp lit by intermittent bulbs. They drove downward a long way, curving always to the left. As far as Mortimer could see, the ramp might continue endlessly downward on its slow spiral beneath the desert. They stopped outside a grey metal door.
Ibrahim nodded. Mortimer climbed out and pushed open the heavy door. A guard within led him along a dark corridor into an enormous ambassadorial suite full of huge armchairs and ashtrays. You could feel at once that it was a room large and comfortable enough to absorb fierce differences, and probably had done so.
President Lamin Aziz looked like a young man. He had a moustache and bright eyes and wore combat fatigues. He shook Mortimer’s hand and pulled a pack of Marlboros from his breast pocket, along with a gold lighter, and offered one to Mortimer. His English, French and Spanish were fluent, Mortimer knew. He was an intelligent man. You could see it in his eyes. As the lighter flared at the tip of his cigarette an unmistakable sparkle showed in them.
He lay back in an armchair, draping one leg over the chair’s arm. “Eventually he has to stop this insanity,” he said of the king of Morocco. “We won’t stop. We are in the right.”
Mortimer took notes and fired off his questions just like in the old days, yet the more he wrote down the less he felt he had. As his pad filled, his hands emptied. Why was there a war? Sitting in armchairs and discussing diplomatic initiatives made no sense. Once you heard someone talk about it, war became absurd. What made sense was streaking across the desert in a Land Rover, camping around a fire, sucking harsh smoke from a copper pipe, and baking bread in the sand. That was what humans were made for.
“I know we can count on you to understand our cause,” the president said, blowing his smoke up toward the high ceiling. “You know the injustice of the Moroccan position. You know he has violated UN Resolution 565 repeatedly. You know this must not go on. You also know how we can deal with two prisoners if it helps our struggle. You know how we can deal with eighty-seven prisoners also.” He paused, took a big draw on his cigarette, and blew the smoke up again, following it with his eye.
Mortimer watched the president’s face. It was rough, pockmarked like an adolescent’s, and shone with a contained excitement.
The president didn’t look at Mortimer for a long time. Another man let himself into the room, also dressed in combat fatigues.
“Ah, Mohammed,” the president said expansively, waving his cigarette hand.
Mortimer nodded at the newcomer, who walked in smiling, took a seat, then asked Mortimer, “So how was your stay?”
Only then did Mortimer realize it was Mohammed Ahmoud, the London man. “What the-?”
He felt the floor move, as if beneath the ground one might actually feel the world turning.
Mohammed Ahmoud could plainly see Mortimer’s surprise. He smiled. “I’m here to make sure everything goes well.”
“We need to know we can count on you,” the president continued. “You are a respected man.”
Mortimer waited. The desert had taught him to wait.
“We know you support our cause,” the president said. “Why does Britain still support the king? We must do everything to isolate him.”
“I’m a journalist,” Mortimer began.
“The struggle makes demands of us all,” the president interjected. “I am a soldier by nature, not a politician. Look at Mohammed Ahmoud. He is a teacher by training, yet he must work as a diplomat now.”
Mohammed Ahmoud nodded gravely.
The president stubbed out his cigarette in one of the giant marble ashtrays. “Think of those prisoners.”
“We can’t trust anyone,” Mohammed Ahmoud added. “We have been treated badly. By certain people.”
The president shrugged, sniffling vaguely. “You know our position is just. We do not like to mistreat our prisoners. It would be a pity if we were forced to.”
Mortimer saw that the glint in the president’s eye was not humour or intelligence but zeal. He was a dangerous man. It seemed obvious now that something like this would be said.
Mortimer had no doubt whatsoever that he would do what they asked. He would print whatever they wanted.
As Mortimer was driven toward the airport, out of the refugee city, a terrible nostalgia seized him. Everything seemed sad. The huge red desert, the two men who had died horribly and unnecessarily, the atrocities committed under cover of vegetation, and the brown rivers , of ugliness and waste threading through the world, all were sadness incarnate. So too the gleaming airliners that ferried you back and forth among these places. He felt flat as the desert, and the flatness stretched on forever. As he stood on the tarmac waiting to board, hearing the steel roar of the jet engines, his nostrils touched by the nauseating odour of jet fuel, he was surprised by the sudden knowledge that this was the last story he would ever do. He had crossed the wilderness now, the chariot had come to take him home, and he was going home. He would pay the warriors off once and for all.
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