A smile too bright.

“Do you know what that shape is?”

A smile which lit up his face like a glaring jack-o-lantern and an unfailing whispery “yes.”

An acknowledgement which manifested itself as a question.

“Is this a square?” I asked, pointing to a circle.

The same protracted reply stretched out in the affirmative, and I foreshadowed a day where the fluidity of his blindly exuberant replies would trickle down into sluggish streams of uncertainty.

I asked him again if his name was really Dilun.

A name which transgressed my expectations of phonetics.

His writing books were caressed by this strange combination of letters which propagated like a rampant virus, and I stared at him sadly. Children were quick to chide parents who carelessly misspelt names on birth certificates, yet in this case Dilun was the maker of his own masterpiece.

I watched him as he sat dully, staring at sentences which were like insurmountable roadblocks. I lamented that I was not able to transfer my appreciation for the subtle nuance of language across, and construct a safe haven within a raging sea of obscurity.

It was remarkable how a simple action had such far-reaching consequences – a flipping of binary bits from 1 to 0, a sudden mutation of the genetic code, and in this case; a divergence from ‘a’ to ‘u’.

I yearned to hug him in a show of solidarity and assurance, yet feared I would be cast under the blanket reserved for those who carried out gross exploitations of the teaching profession. Unseeing, unfeeling – the baseline by which he lived his life was indiscernible to me.

His parents asked how he was going.

“He’s eager to learn,” I said, overcompensating with a garish smile plastered on my face.

I didn’t mention the hideously short attention span. The growing frustration went unchecked too.

“He’s had a lot of surgeries,” they said.

“Okay.”

“We took him overseas for a while, you see – ”

“Okay.”

Tentative steps which hedged around an extra chromosome.

Fear of  addressing the elephant in the room.

His parents announced they were going to McDonalds and his eyes lit up; a far cry from his flat monochromatic workbooks which coloured his desire to learn with reluctance.

He walked into the rain; a prolonged paper thin “goodbye” echoing across the empty room. The rain continued to fall as I watched father and son walk away, the former clutching the latter’s hand with a tightness which was painfully honest.

I wished that I could tell him not to worry; that his son would make it some day, but the words remained unspoken as they drove away, rivers of water threatening to steer the vehicle off course.

The thief.

I thought she was beautiful. She walked down the street as if the rain was indiscernible to her; a mere sheet which caressed her limbs and brought more comfort than hindrance. She was in her mid-30s, with high cheekbones and mousy hair which fell to her shoulders. Her woolly cardigan appeared to be more cotton than wool and I wondered whether she had purposely adopted the unspoken uniform of middle-age. I bounded after her on a whim.

She ordered tea, made mellow by copious amounts of milk.

“It’s my marriage anniversary today.”

Dates were as fleeting to me as the sudden moods of my grandfather; a veteran of the Second Gulf war. I found it a hindrance to remember birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the like for I believed them to be nothing but a show of excessive narcissism.

“You don’t celebrate your birthday?”

Her tone revealed what she thought of me, a young woman in her early twenties who fell outside the bounds of social convention. I ignored the slight and focused on conversation.

“Any plans for tonight?” I asked, attempting to be socially palatable.

“He’s dead,” she replied bluntly. “My husband, that is.”

Her jarring tone caused me to blush and mumble, and the warm lights of the coffee shop suddenly transformed into glaring beacons. As always, I felt ill-equipped to deal with such situations and fumbled to extract appropriate condolences.

“He must have been a great man,” I said awkwardly; hedging an attempt at remediation.

“Oh he was,” she replied with a thin-lipped smile. “Left behind a legacy of immense debt and creditors barking at my heels.”

The atmosphere turned sour.

She asked what I did for a living so I told her I was a writer.

“Struggling?” Check.

“Unsuccessful?” Check.

“Anything else would be unexpected,” she remarked, smugly casting me into the cubicle reserved for her bourgeois expectations.

I wondered what her idea of success was.

Success was fleeting, like the temporary high from a drug. Success was a gallery where works were elevated onto pedestals and halls filled with chatter, like a brooding storm cloud which threatened to burst into a silent museum where tattered paintings drifted idly in the whispers of past achievement.

She spoke of everyday struggles to pay off her loans, and I lamented my lack of foresight in choosing a candidate whose life was governed by the meanderings of a bland life. The brief glimpses of vibrancy I had observed had drowned under her subservient adherence to routine. I wrote down her email on an unused napkin in an attempt to affirm the pompous flair associated with artists, and by the time dusk fell I was glad to call it a day.

Two weeks later, I sent her a story. She replied with an email.

‘Thief!’ she said.

I replied unemotionally that I was merely the curator of a museum whose artefacts consisted of stories. A collector of tales.

This explanation no doubt only reaffirmed the sheer arrogance and eccentricity typical to the artist, so I was unfazed when she replied in a show of cold anger.

‘Forever taking the back-seat to the showman. You’re a real class act,’ she mocked.

I shrugged off the insult when it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t felt the need to apologize, for her insults rang home.

In essence, that was what I was.

The stealer of ideas. The capturer of moments.

The thief.

 

No inhibitions – كلنا معاذ

He slumped over his desk, dusk creeping upon him like a stealthy thief. His head was filled with a buzzing which threatened to overpower him as the computer screen began to blur, like a foggy windscreen with limited visibility.

He glared at the birds chirping outside as each chirp was like an absurd stab of unwarranted joy at this time of deep distress.

It had been an hour since he had received the news and still he could not bring himself to move away from the damning screen.

He recalled the wide-eyed, cauterizing feeling of helplessness as a young child lost in the mall, and reflected that it was not unlike the feeling he was experiencing now. His hair lay tousled from him carving new swathes as he ran his hands through his hair repetitively, for lack of anything concrete to do. He realized that he was in the premature stages of sudden shock.

Well-intentioned with a desire for justice.

Capitalizing on the stoic image of past warriors.

It was all an excuse. A ragged, flimsy screen which masked core tenets of intolerance. Sweetly dripping poisonous, honeyed words.

You were no-one, he scoffed.

They had been drawn from a cesspool of ignorance and blind hate; ears closed and eyes shut as they blindly searched for a purpose in the world. Unfortunate by-products of socio-economic failure who wished for instant recognition; whose beliefs operated on binaries where there was no leeway for discussion.

The figure in the cage looked at the individuals who stood before him in unyielding rows like sheep in soldier’s uniform; faces obscured to hide the fact that at some inherent level they knew that what they were doing was wrong.

One knelt down to light the stream of petrol.

Young, fragmented minds who had eagerly turned towards authority, disillusioned with a self-inflicted unfulfilling life.

The fire raced towards the cage.

A hideous, sickening shriek.

He turned away from the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Collar.

They sat around the glass table in crisp white shirts and streamlined suits. The meeting room offered an impressive panoramic view of the city below; a silent monolithic landscape where the sluggish movement of people and cars paled in insignificance to the towering buildings which surrounded them.

“The work’s boring, but it’s easy.”

The fat pay packet gleamed at her like a Cheshire Cat.

An ambulance rounded the corner, sirens blaring, but the lack of auditory reception caused her to be struck by a sense of emotional detachment. She instead felt a sense of curious indifference similar to the amateur scientist observing cultures on a petri dish.

“You won’t have to think much.”

This was irrevocably an alias for “let me rob you of the facility to think.”

“You’ll get hired anywhere after this!”

An illusory light-bulb moment where she thought she could hold up the year-long façade.

They key was to breathe. She realised this after a week where she mistakenly superimposed the feeling experienced when trying something new onto the monotony of the task itself.

Flipping a burger for the first time was exciting.

Flipping a thousand burgers was a form of drudgery.

Her views had changed.

Just like a crumbling Eiffel tower needed a solid base, she recognized that the garbage collectors, labourers, and janitors were all integral components of the food chain.

We need someone to maintain our infrastructure, she thought, propagating her romanticized blue collar views onto a disapproving society which operated on accolades and self-important prestige.

I can observe you, respect you, but I simply cannot be one of you.

She felt that confining a human brain to operate in a domain defined by repetitive, menial tasks was an insult to the diversity of the human mind.

Humans could entertain the notion of possibility. The ability to say no. The ability to innovate. The ability to formulate new responses to situations unheard of.

Every person had the capability to think on their feet.

I was not born to be a robot, she thought sullenly as she untangled a box of cables which were like a nest of poisonous snakes, choking each other.

She sat down on a seat overlooking the harbour on her lunch break, and tried to dispel the growing lump in her throat which threatened to cut off her air supply. As she munched on her salad, she thought of the one building which always caught her eye as she drove into the city.

It could be two, three or even five years.

Wait for me, she said. I’ll wait for you.

 

Trouble in Paris.

Amal climbed the podium and surveyed the audience before her. The auditorium was silent, and the heavy pall of mourning lay over the onlookers.

“Words are all we have. Words are all we have ever had.”

Her voice resounded against the walls like the gentle re-emergence of birds in the aftermath of war; a lone attempt at affirmation for a society which previously had no need for such assertion. The onlookers below were like stone statues; uniform in their countenance of unyielding grief. It was morbidly fascinating how loss transformed the fresh beauty of youth into haggard faces; old before their time.

She had started off as an amateur journalist, thrust into the depths of obscurity like most other journalists who started out with nothing. Her late nights spent rewriting articles generated a source of paltry income; barely enough for subsistence. The junk food industry welcomed the dastardly poor with open arms, and for a while she fell prey to unnatural concoctions which beamed at her like insincere declarations.

Uncle Saeed was a pot-bellied man with a distinctive laugh. He bought her a doll when she was five, a jewelled headpiece at eight and a cookbook at twelve; each present paving the way towards a pre-defined future whose inception had been mapped out before she had even uttered the first guttural cry of a baby which gasps for air.  She was introduced to family friends as a future nurse; an occupation her three other sisters had succumbed to after years of overprotective coddling.

She forgave him for these patriarchal notions which had been shaped by generations of influence.

In retrospect, it had been unwise to make her intentions known against a volatile backdrop of misguided oppression.

“A journalist?” he stuttered, anger robbing him of the ability to speak coherently. “What do you know of people and politics? You’re only a child,” he raged. He left her behind, face darkening like an impending storm in his wake.

She threw herself into a world governed by ideas. She chased after a world as fluid as politicians’ promises, ranging from disarmingly polite to tyrannically authoritarian. Her thoughts spanned journal after journal; driven by a burning urgency to unlock the eloquence of speech.

Her first breakthrough had been ten years ago, when she transformed into the magician who no longer fumbled with their tricks, instead pulling words out with remarkable sleight of hand.

With new-found respect came understanding. She wept for the poets; the artists and writers who had toiled away at their craft, oscillating between dark depression and exuberance in true testament to the spirit of the ever-melancholic artist.

They were the ones who had the courage the lift the instrument of their trade – be it a pen or brush, and lash out in frenetic leaps of unbridled thought. Proposition was stacked upon proposition, only to be knocked down like a transient hypothesis when new ideas were brought to the table, and voices chattered brightly well into the night.

With the crack of a gunshot, all was silenced.

The birds stopped chirping.

The sluggish flow of blood was the only indicator that some sort of life had existed; an unworthy tribute to the exuberance and creativity of the human mind.

The pain in her chest intensified as she addressed the figures below, and she struggled to control her tears.

“I refuse to let misaligned attempts at censorship taint a canvas of diversity, for intellectual death manifests itself when we cease all trains of thought. The right to speak is universal! It is up to individuals to carefully choose how they wield it,” she cried; a lone rose blooming amongst thorns.

“Let life be an exaltation of Voltaire’s words: I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

She stood back, eyes glimmering; head tilted to the sky in defiance.

Silence permeated the stage like a dull mist, spreading towards the back of the hall. Then slowly the figures below raised their hands to their hearts, one by one, in a show of solidarity.

 

 

The writer and the engineer

‘You can’t have it all,’ they said. ‘You’ll be going a mile wide and an inch deep.’

He straightened his tie, and grabbed his briefcase.

His desk held an odd assortment of items, from network diagrams to soft toys. The artist in him rejoiced at the growing disorder, which was kept in check to some extent by colourful post-it notes and to-do lists.

It wasn’t that his work lacked intellectual engagement, but rather the desire to write lay dormant at the back of his mind. It was activated unexpectedly in the form of the man who looked too affluent to work in a convenience store; the stunning waitress whose smile vanished when Immigration appeared, and late nights spent gazing at the stars as he floated down the pool.

He was a self-fashioned anthropologist, who felt it was almost a duty to chronicle the subtleties of the human race. A statistical birds-eye-view was of no interest to him; rather each statistic blossomed into a pulsating hub of emotions and unique circumstance in a celebration of life.

It was only when he returned home and threw off his work clothes that the artist in him emerged.

There were times when he wondered if he was a writer by force, or by choice. He snatched at words clumsily and found that they eluded him most of the time, not unlike scrambling to find a light switch in the dark.

There were times where he stood back in awe, lifting his pen to admire what appeared to be a masterpiece until he sullenly came to the realization that it was nothing but a chaotic mess of obscurity.

His work was never palatable; it had to be tailored and measured. A square peg would never fit in a round hole.

He wondered how people formulated measures to gauge art by. He didn’t mind going to art galleries, for what was writer but a subset of artist?

It was up to an artist to delicately tiptoe between the realms of comprehension and abstraction, yet at times he trod this line thin –  so invested was he in his craft that he unwittingly became his own audience.

The words were never for you, they were always for me.

The phone vibrated.

“CRITICAL ALERT: ora_cdb_rac4009 instance is down.”

He sighed and flicked his pen lid dolefully. It was easier to navigate through familiar territory where the rules were known, instead of trying to traipse through uncharted lands and create mountains.

Ambition would have to be stifled, for now.

The pen was put back into its holder.

The devaluation of commodities.

“What commodity do you deal in?”

“Data.”

“That’s a sustainable trade for you.”

He stood at the edge of the lake as a casual observer, watching a toddler create ripples by throwing stale crusts at the ducks. The movement startled a flock of geese nearby who took off into the air in a V-formation, squawking loudly as they did so.

In this day and age, commodities were expendable; their importance defined according to global requirements. The Industrial Revolution had spawned a rapid increase in the desire for oil, and catapulted Saudi Arabia to the forefront of the petroleum kingdom. Yet a gradual gravitation towards alternate sources of energy meant that oil no longer was the desirable commodity it had been a century ago.

In light of the unpredictability of the market, his trade was sustainable, indeed.

The owner of the kosher stall across the lake pulled down the metal grille with a clang, and wiped her sweat-streaked face with a rag. Her husband had passed away last year, and she managed the stall single-handedly with an iron resolve. Small microcosms within a macroscopic landscape. That was how he liked it. A balmy breeze drifted across the lake, ruffling the ducks’ feathers and bringing with it the intrusive combination of cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes.

He swatted a fly with a rolled up copy of The Australian and it fell away with a satisfying thump. His eyes were drawn to the front page of the paper.

Malaysia hit by Worst Flooding in Decades.

It was fascinating how the Earth was capable of housing extremes of weather; but for him, raging bushfire, obliterating cyclones and unstoppable monsoons were all just words restricted to the confines of journalistic endeavour.

It was unfortunate how his relatives held onto commodities which depreciated at an alarming rate.

The atmosphere last summer had been coloured by dull undertones of distaste. His aunts and uncles were gathered around the communal dining table, upon which a photo of his fiancée lay. After a prolonged period of hesitation an aunt finally burst out, ‘you can’t marry Khadija! She’s too dark!’

The ads displayed on TV were insufferably plagued by a permanent colour impediment, where every ad was characterized by an unnatural white glow. He was not surprised to see his aunt’s cupboards lined with whitening creams, like an invasive army with dubious aims. He was doubtful of their effectiveness and reasoned that instead of fulfilling their intended purpose, they had gradually whitewashed his relatives’ intellect into oblivion.

The sun had begun to set as he strolled past two businessmen engaged in worried discussion; gesticulating pointedly. He caught the words ‘market monopolization,’ and ‘decreasing net exports.’

He smiled to himself as he bent down to unlock his bicycle and cycled away. His commodity of choice was sustainable, indeed.