The Village Indian by Abbas Khider
Today Sampsonia Way presents “The Miracles,” a chapter from Abbas Khider’s novel The Village Indian, which has recently been translated into English. In September Khider was awarded this year’s Hilde Domin Prize for Literature in Exile. He currently resides in Germany, where he was granted asylum after escaping Iraq in 1996.
The Village Indian tells Khider’s story of exile through the voice of a fictional protagonist named Rasul Hamid who describes his flight from Iraq, along with his attempts to live as an undocumented refugee, bouncing between North Africa and Europe.
With elements of both tragedy and comedy, the following excerpt details the many “miracles” that allow Rasul Hamid to flee from Iraq to Germany as he hides from the police, falls in love with a prostitute, and cuts sketchy deals with human traffickers.
Chapter 6: The Miracles
I SWEAR ON ALL CREATURES, both visible and invisible that I have nine lives. Like a cat. No, no, twice as many. Cats would go green with envy. Miracles happen—in my life—always at the last minute. I believe in miracles. In those strange moments for which there is no other term. One of life’s secrets, as it were. These miracles have much in common with coincidences. But I can’t call them coincidences because a coincidence doesn’t happen many times over. A coincidence is just a coincidence, as lame as that might sound. You can talk about one big coincidence in life, two at most, but not more. So there are events that are miracles, not coincidences —that’s how I will put it, even if the logic isn’t exactly Aristotelian. I’m not a superstitious person, the supernatural and subterrestrial are not for me. In the course of my life I’ve developed, so to speak, my own religious persuasion, one made to measure for me. Absolutely individual. To this day, for instance, I worship tyres. Yes, car tyres! To me they’re not just a car’s feet but guardian angels. I know that doesn’t sound particularly intelligent, given that many people have lost their lives to car tyres. But car tyres can also save lives. And that is how the first miracle happened.
- Abbas Khider
- Abbas Khider was born 1973 in Baghdad and has lived in Germany since 2000. In 1996 he was released from prison, where he was held due to “political reasons.” From 1996 to 2000 he had to survive as a refugee in many countries. He has published various poems in Arabic and lives in Berlin, Germany where he studies philosophy and literature. Der falsche Inder (translated into English in 2013 as “The Indian Village”) won the “Adelbert von Chamisso Förderpreis”, a renowned sponsorship award, in 2010. Abbas Khider has also been awarded several stipends and grants.
- Also published:
Die Orangen des Präsidenten (2011)
Brief in die Auberginenrepublik (to be published in February 2013)
I was in jail in Baghdad. Being in jail in Baghdad is no miracle. In the nineties, it was even the norm. One day, we were taken on an unexpected journey. A never to- be-forgotten journey. The guards got all the prisoners together, bound their hands, blindfolded them with bits of black cloth and put them in several cars. The cars moved slowly. Everything was dark. I could hear only my fellow prisoners breathing and my heart thumping. Could smell only the others’ sweat and their old, damp clothes. After what seemed like half an eternity, an endless babble of voices reached my ears as did the roar of engines. I could hear the everyday noises of my home town again. The yells of children, the loud music from the music shops and the street dealers shouting: ‘Fresh tomatoes, salad, fruits and vegetables, all fresh . . .’ After a while, I could hear only the wind against the sides of the car. Then a sudden bang. The car stopped. The prison guards’ voices drew closer. The door opened slowly and we heard the order, ‘Out!’ I moved, in slow motion, in order not to fall. ‘Sit! On the ground!’ I sucked in the air. It was cold but fresh. I knew this air. We were in the desert. But why?
The guards were talking to each other.
‘We need to change the damn tyre as quickly as possible. Then catch up with the others.’
‘That’s impossible. We don’t have a spare. We’ll have to fix it!’
‘How long will that take?’
‘Half an hour, maybe!’
‘Shit! They’ll kill us. Get on with it.’
For half an hour, there was a deathly hush. The guards spoke little. Then, ‘Get up and get in. Quick!’ The car began to move but suddenly stopped again. Incomprehensible sounds from outside. A minute later, we drove off again. For a while I could hear the strong desert wind, then human voices and the sounds of countless cars. Perhaps we were back in town again. A few minutes later, the car stopped again. Again, the prison guards’ voices drew closer. Again, the door opened. Again, we heard the order, ‘Out!’ I recognized the strange smell of the prison, the smell of damp, the smell of the sagging flesh of imprisoned people. Was it the same prison? Had it just been an outing?
The guards removed our bonds. I was back to the large section of our prison. Only twenty of us now. Where were the others? There’d been so many before. Three hundred, almost.
No one knew.
That evening, a guard came and gaped at us, surprised. ‘Do you realize God loves you?’
‘You’re still alive!’
‘What! Does that mean the others—?’
‘Yes, they were executed in the desert. That car tyre saved you.’
I SWEAR ON ALL CAR TYRES—the next miracle followed soon after. In Iraqi slang, we refer to jail as ‘behind the sun’. It was clear to me that I’d never be allowed back to life on this side of the sun. Walking from the dark side back into the brightness of lightbulbs I began to consider impossible. Yet the day came when the government declared an amnesty for all political prisoners. Because I’d been charged with minor and insignificant crimes, I was permitted, with all the other minor and insignificant prisoners, to see the light of the sun again. The major and significant prisoners had all been executed long ago. I waited for a month to be released. It was a very long month, longer than a decade! Eventually, though, I was ‘in front of the sun’ again. I got into a taxi. A short time later, I was home. I knocked. My mother’s face appeared.
‘How are you today?’
‘Fine, and you?’
‘Fine. Don’t you recognize me?’
‘No, who are you? Is it one of the boys you want?’
‘Do you really not recognize me?’
She stared at me, speechless, drew her breath in sharply and fell unconscious to the floor. She couldn’t have recognized me! How was she to? A good eighty-five kilos and burnt brown when I left, I’d returned fifty-five kilos and as pale as a piece of Gouda. Eighteen months of hardly any bread and no sun at all had changed me beyond recognition.
I SWEAR ON THE AMNESTY—this miracle needed another miracle in order to really save me. The miracle of the chance to flee Iraq. As expected, the gods and devils of the government wanted me behind bars again—or, better still, hanging from the ceiling. They sent me an official letter, demanding that I end my studies and report to the army. I was also to report to the security police. I decided to flee. I had no desire whatsoever to go ‘behind the sun’ again.
I left our part of town and went into hiding with relatives. There were so many policemen in the streets, you’d have thought they were a people in their own right. But thanks to my friend Abba, I could still be out and about. For the next few months, he supplied me with fake ID more than fifteen times, with just as many names and professions. Each time, I had to learn by heart my new name and all the details that went with it. Even today, I wonder which one of them I really was. And who they all were.
The day finally came when I could leave all those names behind and sail the seas, using my real name. Getting a passport in Iraq wasn’t easy but I managed. Two official documents were required—one confirming you’d done your military service, the other that you weren’t subject to a travel ban. The whole thing cost a million Iraqi dinars, or a thousand American dollars. Even with the best will in the world, I couldn’t meet all three requirements. Of course, I hadn’t reported to the army. Of course, I was subject to a travel ban. And, of course, I didn’t have a million dinars to spare.
An acquaintance of my elder brother worked as a policeman and wasn’t short of contacts with various Baghdad authorities. He offered to alter the data the authorities held on me and to arrange a passport that would enable me to flee to Jordan. He would need two thousand dollars from me, though. Two thousand dollars! Where would I get that kind of money? This time, it was the women in the family who saved me. My sisters sold their jewellery and my mother sold her brother her part of their father’s house. Though my family had barely enough to live on, I managed to get the money together.
Within a week, the policeman managed to alter my data. Eighteen months in jail for political reasons became eighteen months of military service, and a drifter, about to abscond, became an art-college student. Finally, I had a passport with my real name. Even the travel ban vanished from the records for forty-eight hours, giving me two days to leave the country for Jordan. Once all the bribes were paid, precisely thirty dollars remained. The policeman returned them to me—a gesture, to help get me started.
Years later, I still have dreams about the Iraqi police arresting me at the border and I begging them, in tears, to release me.
I said goodbye to my family and boarded the bus. It crossed the Iraqi border and continued towards Amman. Even now, I can’t believe I managed to leave Iraq. Years later, I still have dreams about the Iraqi police arresting me at the border and I begging them, in tears, to release me.
On the other side of the world, in Jordan, two men in uniform suddenly boarded the bus. Sat down behind me. Oh God, no! What do they want me for? They’re armed. Should I get off the bus, make a run for it? They’re just Jordanian soldiers. But soldiers are soldiers. Maybe the Iraqi government has put them on to me!
With these, and similar thoughts, I passed the many long hours until we arrived in Amman. I took my bag, got off the bus and ran. Like a world champion. After a while, I stopped—I was sweating—and turned round. No one. The people in the street stared at me as if I wasn’t quite right in the head. An old man, standing outside his food shop, beckoned me over. ‘What’s wrong, my son? Why are you running like that?’
‘Where are you from?’
‘I see. Come, drink some water.’
He gave me a glass of water and a pat on the shoulder.
‘Don’t worry. This is not Iraq but Jordan.’
I SWEAR ON ALL FAKE DOCUMENTS—I didn’t plan these miracles. They always just happened, at the end of long cruel periods.
When I landed in Africa, I lived there for years without a single miracle. All my attempts to cross the Mediterranean failed. I took on all kinds of jobs, just to survive, until the day I met Miriam. I can still remember her scent. The smell of the sea in the evening. She was in her early twenties, perhaps, a round white face and red lips, as if it was chilli she’d used, not lipstick. We first met in the Grand Tourist Hotel on Omar al-Mukhtar Street in Tripoli. She worked as a chambermaid. Every morning, she’d come into my room, empty the bin, say ‘Hello’ and ‘Welcome to the Grand Tourist Hotel!’ Then smile and leave. Was she mad? This hotel had nothing to do with tourists. An old building, six or seven floors. Full of foreigners, gays, whores, alcoholics, dealers and criminals. And filth. And a toilet in the corridor, fit for everything but going to the toilet.
Miriam was both a chambermaid and a whore. I paid her for the first night. Told her I just wanted to talk, not fuck.
‘How come?’ she asked, surprised.
‘I’ve never paid for sex.’
We did sleep together, all the same, that night. The second night she gave me my money back. Suddenly, it was something like love—like many of those strange feelings you don’t expect and can’t understand. I was with her for a month. She even wanted to pay for my hotel as I didn’t have much money left. Though it cost only a dollar per night, I couldn’t afford it. ‘With the others, I’m doing my job,’ she explained. ‘But with you it’s because I want to.’
She never would tell me why she sold her body. All she told me was that she was from Morocco and had been working in the hotel for the last two years. The hotel belonged to a police commander, also well known in Tripoli as a pimp. ‘Policeman or pimp—there’s not much of a difference here,’ she said with a shrug.
She had to give her pimp a percentage of her earnings. ‘There’re some things you’re better off not knowing. They can be very dangerous. You can be sure, though, that behind every whore and every nun, there’s a sad story.’
I was trying to find work again but could only find odd jobs on building sites. My Iraqi passport was causing me concern too—it was valid for only another month. Having it extended at the Iraqi embassy wasn’t an option. I knew what to expect there. A few difficult and worrying weeks followed. The Libyan police could deport me to Egypt at any time. The Egyptians would then deport me to Jordan. And the Jordanians to Iraq.
But then came the night that changed everything.
I was walking along the beach one evening, watching the boats and ships before returning to Omar al-Mukhtar Street to get something to eat. I crossed Green Square and continued towards a falafel stand. Suddenly, five men blocked my path. I couldn’t see their faces. They beat me until I was lying on the ground, motionless. What was this all about? What was happening? I had no idea until one of them hissed, ‘Fucking Iraqi! You’re dead if we ever see you with Miriam again.’
I lay there, looked at the sky, the stars and couldn’t hold back my tears. I got up again, with difficulty, and tried to return to the hotel. My body ached. I dragged myself through the masses of rubbish left behind by the street sellers. Outside the hotel was a man with my bag. He threw it at my feet and vanished behind the door. I took the bag and went back to the beach, laid it on the ground like a pillow and fell asleep.
Nightmares—never-ending—tormented me. Suddenly I saw Miriam’s face. It wasn’t a dream. The sun was shining, and Miriam took my hand. We got into a car. The driver didn’t look like an Arab. She didn’t say a word to me, Miriam. Instead, she kissed me the whole time. The driver was Turkish, I learnt later. He dropped us outside a flat in the town centre. Miriam took my passport and gave it to him. He promised to come back as quickly as possible. Miriam fetched a damp cloth and began cleaning my wounds. When she was done, she took her L&M cigarettes from her bag and put the packet on the table in front of me. She then went into the kitchen to make some tea. Tea in hand, she told me that the Turkish driver was arranging a visa for Turkey for me.
‘How? It’s impossible! My passport expires soon, and the Turks won’t give an Iraqi a visa just like that!’
‘You don’t need to know the details. But you’re off to Turkey today.’
‘What about you? Won’t you come with me?’
‘I can’t. It’s my fate to stay here.’
‘But if you can arrange a visa for me, you must be able to get one for yourself too.’
‘You’re like a child. You don’t understand the world out there.’
I had some tea and smoked a cigarette, then we lay down and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I could hear Miriam. ‘So tell me—’
‘I have the visa and the ticket,’ the Turk said. ‘The ship sails at four this afternoon.’
Miriam looked at the clock on the wall. ‘We have two hours.’
I boarded the ship. Miriam stood on the harbour. Waved goodbye with one hand, wiped her tears with the other.
I’ve not heard from Miriam since. I sent her six letters in the space of a year. Posted to the hotel address. But there was no reply.
I SWEAR ON MIRIAM’S LIFE—sometimes, I can hardly believe what I’m writing. The things that happened next don’t happen even in fairy tales. In Istanbul, for instance. I was sitting with twenty Kurds in a top-floor, two-room apartment. Thirty square metres, barely. With us was Ahmed, a Turk from Iraq. He was very handsome and dreamt of going to Germany and becoming a great painter there. The flat belonged to our people-smuggler, who was to get us to Greece soon. The smuggler had run into me in Taksim Square. He came straight up to me and asked, ‘Greece?’
‘Iraqi, Iranian, Pakistani or Afghan?—Greece?’
‘Me too but I’m a Kurd.’
‘Car or foot?’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘Foot, twenty days and five hundred dollars. Car, two days and fifteen hundred dollars.’
‘On foot, please.’
A refugee doesn’t behave like a normal person when he’s out and about… He watches only people’s faces, his eyes wander restlessly. Like a clock that has gone mad. He keeps looking over his shoulder, fear written on his face.
People-smugglers know their clientele very well. A refugee doesn’t behave like a normal person when he’s out and about. He thinks everyone is a policeman. He’s suspicious of everyone. He’s not interested in shop windows or posters or women. He watches only people’s faces, his eyes wander restlessly. Like a clock that has gone mad. He keeps looking over his shoulder, fear written on his face. In my case, the symptoms were probably very evident. I later learnt that many people-smugglers have this ability—it’s known as their seventh sense.
None of my flatmates had a passport. All of them had left Iraq and entered Turkey illegally. My passport had now also expired and was useless. That meant all of us always had to stay indoors to avoid getting caught by the Turkish police. There was a clear agreement—the door was only to be opened after three knocks. One afternoon, though, someone hammered it five or six times. We all stood there, paralysed. Fear had completely demoralized me. Being deported to Iraq and landing in the hands of the Iraqi police again—that’s all I could think of. Suddenly, the door was kicked in and three policemen rushed in. Shouting wildly, they forced us against the wall. A fat policeman with a mole on his nose kicked a Kurd in the stomach. The man fell to the floor and began to vomit. During which time I suddenly spotted the open window that led from our small room onto the terrace of the next building. The other two policemen were trying to get the Kurd back on his feet. The one with the mole was watching. Propelling myself off the wall, I raced to the window and jumped out. I could hear shouting behind me. Someone following. The buildings were high, about ten floors. I ran and ran. And heard women, down on the street and on the terraces across the way, shouting ‘Hırsız, hırsız, hırsız!’—Thief, thief, thief!
I reached the fifth building. There was now a side street between me and the next set of houses. I had no chance! I stopped and turned round. Behind me was Ahmed. And behind him, one of the policemen watching us through the window. The terrace of the final building had no door. I looked down. Three floors below there was another. I looked to the left and to the right. Pipes, only. And several windowsills. I jumped and landed with one foot on the gutter. Then hopped onto a windowsill. Ahmed was right behind me. The windowsill gave way beneath our weight. We plummeted onto the terrace. By the time I picked myself up, Ahmed was already at the door to the building. It was locked—damn! We looked at each other, helplessly.
Suddenly, we heard a voice, an old man. ‘Gelmek!’— Come! He was leaning out of a window. He waved us over, signalled that we should climb in through the window. Ahmed climbed in first. The man offered us a seat and began to question us. Ahmed spoke good Turkish, like all Iraqi Turkmens. He translated for me. Once we’d made it clear we weren’t thieves but Iraqis trying to get to Greece, the man asked, ‘Are you Shi’ites?’
‘I’m not,’ said Ahmed, ‘but my friend Rasul is.’
The old man smiled. ‘My name’s Ali and I’m an Alevi. We Alevis are very like the Shi’ites. The Turkish government makes our life hell too.’
He got up, offered me his hand, then hugged and kissed me, calling me ‘Brother Rasul.’
He gave us food and drink and talked to Ahmed about Iraq. From time to time, Ahmed would ask me something or translate a certain bit for me. About two hours later, Ali said he’d go down to the street and see if the police were still there. A few minutes later, he was back again. ‘The air is clear, not a policeman to be seen.’
The old man said we could spend the night there but we decided to leave. We thanked him warmly and took our leave. I never saw Ali again.
Ahmed knew other people-smugglers. He found a Kurd for me, a Turkmen for himself. I ran into him again, later, on Omonia Square in Athens. He didn’t recognize me. He was standing next to a smuggler, one with several thuggish bodyguards. I greeted Ahmed. He looked at me. But his blue eyes seemed lost, failed to focus. Each had a huge black circle at the centre. He wasn’t as handsome as he had been in Turkey. Looked semi-derelict. Some refugees told me he’d become this smuggler’s sex slave. ‘Your man’s got Ahmed hooked on drugs. Ahmed has to accompany him everywhere—as his “wife.”’
I SWEAR ON ALI and all the Alevis—I didn’t want to have to count on any more miracles. Of course not—what kind of fate would that be? But I had no choice. The next miracle hit me completely unexpectedly too. This time, I was with a smuggler and twenty-three refugees and already on the Greek side of the Ebrus. We’d been walking for almost three weeks, from the Turkish border near Edirne, past Komotini, to Xanthi, our final stop. During the day, we slept in the forest or in the mountains. From six in the evening until five in the morning, we walked, or ran. Along hidden paths through Greece. From Xanthi, it was impossible to walk any further. As the smuggler explained, there were only impassable mountains or the sea. We had to wait for a lorry to take us to Thessaloniki or Athens. We camped for a week behind a hill, near an old, deserted factory. Round us were small fields and dusty earth. The lorry didn’t come. The bandits did instead. Late afternoon, just before sunset. We heard nothing but the shots. The smuggler jumped up. Six of us fled with him. Ran as fast as we could, without stopping to look. But we heard the bullets whistle past, on either side. I fell several times but picked myself up and ran on. We headed straight for the factory, hid inside. No one followed us.
The smuggler peered at me.
‘Are you injured?’
‘Fuck, you’re bleeding! They got you.’
I hadn’t noticed, nor could I feel any pain. But I had been hit—twice. One bullet through my right hand. The other deep in my left calf.
The smuggler examined me more closely. ‘These aren’t real bullets. They’re for animals. That means those guys weren’t policemen!’
We waited another two hours before returning to our camp. That’s what all smugglers did—after two or three hours, they went back to the starting point. When we arrived, our whole group was already there. They told us the men wanted money. And they got it. There were seven of them, all armed and masked. No one knew if they were policemen or bandits. The smuggler decided to stay with us and sleep here. He hoped to find a solution the next day. That night, though, my leg began to hurt. An intense throbbing pain. In the morning, the smuggler turned to me, You’ll have to travel on your own by train. It will take the lorries another three to five days to arrive. And you won’t last that long. Three days from now, at the latest, you’ll be dead. I’ll buy you a ticket. You can take the train to Athens. If you make it there, you’ll be saved. You’ll also be saved if the police arrest you—they’ll make sure you get to a hospital.’
I agreed. A Kurd called Imad said he’d had enough and wanted to accompany me. Shortly after midday, our smuggler arrived with a car driven by a Greek. The smuggler gave us tickets and said the Greek would take us to the station.
We shaved and put on the clean clothes that every refugee has in his rucksack for such occasions. Then we got into the car.
We shaved and put on the clean clothes that every refugee has in his rucksack for such occasions. Then we got into the car. The Greek didn’t say a word. Drove us through a small town before stopping outside a low building with a sign that read, ‘Xanthi Station’. He went off right away. Two minutes later, he was back—to accompany us to the platform. Five minutes later, we boarded the train and he said goodbye with a curt, ‘Yassu!’
The train pulled off. After a while, the ticket inspector came to check our tickets.
He took us right up to the front of the train, near the engine, and tried to tell us to wait there for him. He went into the driver’s cab and reached for the phone. Imad and I looked at each other but said nothing. Of course, we knew what this meant for us. The train began to slow down. Not far off, there seemed to be a small town. The ticket inspector came back out of the driver’s compartment and passed us on his way to the middle of the train. The train stopped, the doors opened and passengers got off. Imad looked at me and whispered, ‘No police!’ We jumped out of the train and ran down the street. It was dark. No one followed us.
We ran towards a big park. Lots of people were sitting around, eating or chatting.
‘Man, that was just like an action film!’ Imad grinned.
‘You’re right—one based on a true story.’
Fortunately, I was in no pain at all. You wouldn’t have thought there was a bullet in my body. In the park, we spent our time watching people in the street, marveling at the gorgeous Greek women. Time was passing quickly and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. I spoke to a young lad. He had a beer and some peanuts on the ground beside him.
‘Hello, can you help me?’ I asked in English. ‘I’d like a ticket to Athens. I have money. Will you buy it for me?’
Where we were, exactly—the name of the town— interested us very little, if at all, at this point. I’d always thought it was Kavala. Kavala, though, has no trains and, so, no station, as I’d learn years later. We were, in fact, in Drama. A more appropriate name you couldn’t have asked for, given our predicament.
My English was nothing special but the young Greek’s English was no better. He nonetheless gave the impression that he was enjoying our conversation. And so, it seemed that our tragic drama in Drama had been resolved. I told the Greek we were Iraqis and didn’t want to buy the tickets ourselves. He took us to a small park outside the station. Then went into the station alone. A short while later, he returned to explain that a ticket to Athens cost twenty dollars and the train left at one in the morning. Imad gave him fifty. The boy bought the tickets. He’d changed the rest of the dollars into drachma. Imad said he could keep it. He looked at us, smiled and put the money in his pocket. Finally, he pointed at the clock above the main entrance. ‘You have only thirty minutes.’ He took his leave and we thanked him.
We waited. It was a very long half hour. Imad thought every person round the station was a policeman. I tried to calm him, though I had the same feeling. He, however, swore—on all his prophets—that they all looked like policemen. We moved slowly in the direction of the station concourse. Just before we got there, a bus stopped at the entrance and a group of Africans accompanied by two blond Greeks got out. In no time at all, the station was reverberating with the sounds of a Turkish bazaar. Happy ‘Hello Africa’-s were being shouted everywhere. I quickly grabbed Imad by the arm and, as casually as possible, we got in among the Africans and boarded the train—without being stopped. Imad thought it better if, on the train, we separated. ‘If one of us is arrested, they might not look for the other one.’
So he turned right and I turned left. I sat down opposite an old lady. About seventy and very like my grandmother, who had died while I was in jail in Baghdad. I even thought I could see my grandmother’s smile on her face. I leant back on the headrest and closed my eyes.
Suddenly, I felt a soft hand on mine. Startled, I opened my eyes. The old lady was leaning over me, looking at me, worried and a little apprehensive. She was examining my wound, which had become inflamed during the day and was now pretty bad. She spoke to me in Greek. I answered, simply, ‘I am from Iraq.’
She knew only a few words of English. She said, ‘Ticket?’
I held it out and she took it from me. She whispered a soothing ‘Okay!’ and tried to gesture to me what she wanted to say. ‘Have a good sleep. I’ll deal with everything else.’
I think the word ‘Iraq’ was enough for her to understand my situation. She was my guardian angel for the rest of the journey. When the tickets were inspected, she showed ours together, and I’m almost certain she told the ticket inspector that I was with her. She bought me cheese, bread and a Coke. I slept like a baby. I woke up, briefly, a few times, but went straight back to sleep and slept until the next day when we arrived in Athens. She then took me to the Red Cross, where—with a friendly ‘Bye-bye!’—she left me in the care of a nurse.
Whether this old lady was a Greek goddess in my delirium or a reality, I don’t quite know. I only remember how, in the train, I suddenly felt severe pain, pain I had barely been aware of with all the stress of the escape. That’s probably why I didn’t register everything clearly, but the tender face of the old lady has remained with me. I don’t have any idea where Imad ended up. The doctor at the Red Cross told me, ‘It’s a miracle you’re alive.’
I SWEAR ON THE OLD GREEK GODDESS—I can hate the world and, at the same time, love it. And with people, it’s just the same. Always, there were murderers and rescuers, haters and lovers. I decided early on, though, to take the world as it is. I know a miracle always occurs at some point in my life. And that’s some comfort, in this world of ours. The next small miracle happened soon. A few days before New Year’s Eve. In Patras. This small, unassuming town had a beautiful, big harbour from which many ships set sail for Italy. There were refugees all over Patras, in old houses, in old factories, in the park. I camped with them for weeks. Word had it that the police wouldn’t be operating strict checks between Christmas and New Year. Entire groups of refugees were disappearing, on a daily basis. I’d had only bad luck, been arrested four times by the heavy-duty harbor police. Each time I’d been kicked out of the area. Each time by a policeman with an even harder kick.
On 29 December, I was gloomily strolling along the harbour wall and wistfully watching the departing lorries, ships and foot passengers. Dusk had already fallen. Suddenly, a storm broke. There was rain. Suddenly, the harbour was empty. A lorry without a tarpaulin was parked right beside a big ship that was ready to sail. Instinctively, I climbed the wall, dropped down on the other side, ran straight to the lorry and hid at the back of the hold. I found a large, black plastic sheet, threw it over me and lay beneath it, absolutely still. About ten minutes later, the rain stopped. I heard the driver climb in. He started the engine and drove straight onto the ship. Another twenty minutes later, the ship began to move.
I unpacked my refugee kit—a small razor blade, a roll of Sellotape and a plastic bag. I made a cut with the blade down the tarpaulin and climbed through it, into the lorry.
A good while passed before I could hear no voices any more. I looked round the cargo deck. There were so many lorries, I was spoilt for choice. I decided, for reasons of safety, to look for a different one. Found a white one, with ‘Italy’ on the door. Why not? I unpacked my refugee kit—a small razor blade, a roll of Sellotape and a plastic bag. I made a cut with the blade down the tarpaulin and climbed through it, into the lorry. Inside, cardboard boxes were piled up to the roof. I managed to find a good place to lie down. Now, the Sellotape was called into action—to close the slit again, from the inside. I used the plastic bag to pee in.
For the entire journey, I heard nothing but the whistle of the wind, the roar of the waves and the lorries creaking as they rocked with the ship. The crossing was very long. I had to lie where I was, the whole time, and not move. Finally, the ship docked. The lorry set off. More than twenty minutes later, it stopped again. The driver got out and slammed the door. I waited another five minutes, peeled off the Sellotape, cautiously put my head out and looked round. The sky was dark. I looked down. I was in a harbour. Some harbour, somewhere. It was definitely European though, I realized right away. Everything written on the lorries and posters was in Roman script. Hardly anyone was round.
I jumped down and walked towards the fence. It was very high. Beyond it was a brightly lit street, with lots of people. I’d always heard from smugglers that, in Italy, refugees could do whatever they liked, except get arrested within a harbour area. If you were arrested in the harbor area, you were deported immediately. To Turkey, or some other place. If you were arrested outside the harbor area, you were allowed to stay, Italy being a country of asylum.
And so I ran the last bit like a horse straight up to the fence and, like an Olympian athlete, hurled myself— don’t ask me how—with a great leap over to the other side. I looked back but didn’t see anything unusual. I tried to keep walking, as casually as possible. How I managed that daring leap is beyond me. But, as is well known, fear can give you incredible strength, if not a pair of wings.
Once on the well-lit street, I asked my way to the station and trains to Rome. I was now sure I was in Italy. You could hardly miss the pizza shops. Which town it was exactly didn’t interest me. My one concern was the next train to Rome. In the large station, I bought a ticket and travelled to the capital that same night. There were no police or annoying ticket inspectors. A long time later, I found out that I’d landed in Bari harbour. Early in the morning, I reached Rome, where I’d barely left the main station when I happened upon my friends for ever— refugees. They’d made themselves at home in every corner of the huge Termini station.
At about nine in the evening, I joined a crowd of people who led me straight to a big building on a huge square. A man was delivering a speech and, judging by the applause, was a prominent figure. The pope? Several years and just as many New Year’s Eves later, I learnt where I’d actually celebrated my first New Year’s Eve on European soil. It was the Victor Emmanuel Monument, or the ‘typewriter’, as it’s ironically known by the inhabitants of that impressive metropolis.
I SWEAR ON RAIN, and on New Year’s Eve—I didn’t want any more miracles. I’d had enough, I just wanted some peace. Despite that, another tiny miracle came my way. I’d ended up in Germany by now—Bayreuth, to be precise—in a home for asylum seekers. The judges and my interpreter had listened to my whole story. They said they could only grant me asylum if I could prove I’d been a political prisoner in Iraq. Evidence, yet again! How the hell was I going to do that? Which Iraqi torturer was going to be so kind as to confirm in writing that he’d beaten me to death, nearly, or done who knows what to me? Then, luckily, I recalled a day in jail when we’d been visited by the members of a European organization. After the Second Gulf War, the United Nations had demanded that the Iraqi government allow a few international organizations to inspect Iraqi authorities and jails and write a report. These organizations had drawn up lists of prisoners’ names, a measure I’d dismissed back then as stupid and pointless. I did, however, think it appropriate to tell the female judge about it. She promised to make inquiries at Amnesty International. A few weeks later, I was visited by my interpreter. He grinned triumphantly and looked at me as if I was a hero. ‘Hell! They found your name.’
I SWEAR ON AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL—I’ve often wondered how on earth I’m still alive. Why did all these miracles happen to me? Why, of all people, me? I don’t think there’s an answer to questions like that. But that’s how I ended up with my own, personal saints—Amnesty International, the rain, New Year, the Red Cross, the old Greek goddess, Ali and the Alevis, Miriam, fake documents, my mother and my sisters, the amnesty and, last but not least, car tyres. They’re all of comfort to me in the severe weather the world sometimes experiences.
This excerpt from the The Village Indian (2013) by Abbas Khider, Translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin, was reprinted with permission from Seagull Books (London, New York, Calcutta).