At the end of our second day in the country Rezim brought us home for tea.
The family used to jointly own a large plot of land at the edges of the commercial district. Generations of exciting divorces and unwise business ventures had left the exact extent and contents of the property uncertain. The clan had married itself out so aggressively that technically Rezim’s relatives owned the entire neighbourhood, necessitating more exclusive definitions of kinship.
Rezim’s immediate family (a mere thirty-two individuals spanning four generations) was based in and around a well-matured apartment building. Standing at street level he also proudly pointed out local establishments whose owners he would publicly acknowledge as relations: his aunt’s busy little boutique, a rent-a-car service run by the husbands of several cousins, a bookstore by someone he didn’t know the English word for. He disassociated himself from the video store a few doors down, with its prominent displays of women in unlikely scenarios: the proprietor was separated from his family by at least two divorces.
We made our way up the stairs, ignoring the smell of cabbage. It was not one single staircase, rather each flight brought us onto shared verandas allowing entry to the individual flats. We saw several members of the clan enjoying life after evening prayers; children playing (it wasn’t a school night) and the unemployed men reclining on charpoys, good-naturedly explaining to one another why everything was someone else’s fault.
Fatima handed out sweets to the little ones; an irresponsible thing to do before dinner, but no one rebuked her. As we ascended I saw one toothless grandmother gleefully pinch a toffee from a five year-old.
Rezim lived on the top floor. He ushered us in, and bade us be comfortable as he disappeared into the dark interior to yell for his family. We took off our shoes first so as to not sully the richly-carpeted interior of the flat. The entrance room was damp, overflowing with cushioned furnishing and the walls were painted in the national cyan. Kris and Em took couches flanking what looked like a real rhino horn. Fatima sat on a high divan and immediately sank half a foot into it, giggling.
Lights came on from the other room and we heard nearing voices. Rezim shared the flat with his parents, father’s parents, two brothers, the wife and child of one brother (didn’t catch which one), five sisters and two cats. He managed to corral most of this group to come meet his foreign guests and had thrown in the visiting friends of some of the children for good measure. It became quite tight in that living room, but the family shared Rezim’s straightforward charm and attentiveness. We were brought honeyed tea and watermelon seeds (which I had acquired a taste for) and a teenaged sister showed Fatima how to sit on the divan without getting swallowed by it.
We spoke with the family for some time. They asked us how we were enjoying the country (truthfully, very much), where we were each from, what we did for a living, and so on. They were very interested in our documentary, local history being a great source of pride, and Kris’s camera aroused exclamations of admiration. He of course took several photos of us with the family and promised to email them to Rezim later. The grandfather marvelled at the images on the camera screen, and launched into a long story about the Polaroid he’d owned in olden days. After fumbling the conclusion and looking lost he smiled and blessed Kris and Em, wishing them many healthy children.
Kris and Em regularly lied about being a married couple. In certain parts of the world a pair of Swedes obviously in love will always arouse notice. Revealing that they were living in sin would only stir trouble. Fatima posed as my younger sister for similar reasons. She was obviously Rezim’s family’s favourite, with all the ladies clustering around to praise her beauty and grace. They had clearly never seen her eat a burger.
One of the brothers (the unmarried one, hopefully) seemed to be quite taken with her as well. He announced that he would play a song for the guests and left to fetch something similar to a guitar. His technique was good and his voice sweet. We didn’t understand a word of the song but his constant eye contact with Fatima got the point across. Everyone, including the blushing object of his desires, clapped in admiration at the end of the performance, though I added a few suspicious glares to stay true to my role as guardian of Fatima’s notional chastity.
To the family’s shocked delight, Em requested a turn on the instrument. She and Kris then treated us to the traditional Swedish ballad ‘Wonderwall’. I dutifully clapped along, pretending I didn’t hate the song. Sitting next to me was Rezim’s father, who turned to me and asked in surprisingly good English if I too was as gifted as my friends. (Fatima he didn’t ask, perhaps because he thought being cute was a talent in itself.)
I can play the harmonium but they might have had one stashed away and I had no intention of performing. Instead I let slip that I’m a hobbying artist, and cursed myself when his manner suddenly changed. It was not a good country to be an artist in, and I’d foolishly assumed Rezim’s father wasn’t very conservative in his attitudes. My fears seemed confirmed when he beckoned Rezim over for a bout of furious whispering. Quick visions of being run out of town or being pelted with pebbles in a public square flashed before my eyes. One of the cats began to tie itself around my shin.
As Kris and Em once more reached the conclusion that you were their wonderwall Rezim and his father turned towards me decisively. “Do you do portraits?” Rezim asked, derailing my train of thought entirely.
“Ah, yes. Yes, that’s what I mostly do,” I responded.
The older man smiled. “How very lucky this is. My wife’s uncle is actually the best portrait artist in the city.”
“Oh?” That was unexpected. I shook the cat off.
Rezim nodded. “He has a studio nearby. He lives above the bookstore I showed you earlier. Would you like to go see him?”
“Oh? Yes, of course, I’d love nothing better!” I exclaimed, because the Swedes were warming up for ‘She Will Be Loved’ and I had no intention of being at Ground Zero.
“Wonderful! He does not often meet other artists. He will be delighted to talk to you.”
Rezim and I made our excuses and left, promising his mother we’d be back in time for dinner. I told Kris and Em and I’d be back, but they only smiled and said, “Beauty queen of only eighteen”; it occurred to me that if I died those would be the last words they ever said to me, which would be an awful end to a friendship of six years.
Fatima discreetly reacted to my abandonment of her with an unladylike hand gesture. That at least would be a fitting epitaph.
To reach the bookstore we had to walk to and then cross the intersection. As Rezim had previously shown us it was a large, well-lit establishment. Though the intersection was rimmed with bright buildings hosting shops busy with night traffic it was nice to see the bookstore was holding its own against its gaudy neighbours.
It was a short but colourful journey to our destination. The streets hosted many interesting opportunities for those with money and little wit. In other parts of the world enterprising women would have offered Rezim and I a good evening at affordable rates, but there these women had male representatives who lacked the necessary sex appeal. I was invited to buy, at great cost, bootleg copies of 50 Shades of Grey and The Audacity of Hope. At least the souvenir-sellers were not after me – to them I merely looked like Rezim’s hairier cousin. The Swedes would have been waist-deep in carpets and plastic Korans before they knew what was what.
The only thing I bought was a packet of pistachios to share with Rezim. He ate them with the shells, and I winced at the loud snaps they made inside his mouth. I imagined one might pinch his tongue and teach him a painful lesson.
A tree blocked the pavement, forcing us to step onto the road. It wasn’t growing up through the concrete, but instead emerged horizontally through a courtyard wall. Rezim told me it was a very old tree and was supposedly haunted by – of course – one of his ancestors.
“We have much history on this street.”
Nearing the intersection, we narrowly dodged death coming at us in the form of a family motorcycle. A traffic officer’s safety vest glowed from atop the island while chaos reigned happily around him. There were signal lights but they seemed strictly ornamental. Rezim had a little anecdote about the traffic island as well: it had once been the shrine to a saint.
“My grandmother would pray to him, but the government destroyed it when I was very young.”
I asked him why as we waited for the traffic officer to do something that’d let us cross. Rezim shook his head, “Because they thought it was superstition. Impure. The government was more difficult then, not-so liberal as it is now.”
“A lot of the original revolutionaries were still in power, right?” Names I’d read about in history books flashed before my eyes: some of the previous century’s most infamous figures. ‘Not-so liberal’ was certainly one way of describing the world they had created for people like Rezim.
“Yes, all the ones that mattered.”
The traffic sergeant’s attention finally snapped back to our plane of reality and he halted the oncoming stream long enough to let us through. Rezim tried to guide me by taking me by the hand, but I shook him off. I’m Dhaka-born. I needed no help crossing a road.
Anyway, we didn’t die.
It was bigger and busier on the other side. The cosmopolitan elite shopped there, though they presumably also went to other places for variety’s sake. Familiar names on the storefronts: Pizza Hut, Gucci, Nokia. Closer inspection revealed crucial differences: notice the discreetly vital ‘New’ hovering over ‘Pizzza Hut’. The copyright lawyer’s reach is long and rightly feared.
Many of the better-dressed sort were young and in good cheer. They milled around the cafes and streamed out of an impressively large shopping mall, many in shy pairs. Billboards advertised the latest arrival at the cinema within: a remake of The Magnificent Seven. Not what I’d have chosen for date night, but it didn’t seem to have done the lovers any harm.
I was surprised, actually, to see such open displays of romance. They weren’t devouring each other on the pavement, obviously: none of them were even holding hands. But their body language made it clear: we are together. That’s more than I’d expected.
I pointed this out to Rezim. “The country is changing,” he told me.
Most of the girls were out of headscarves, another unexpected detail that days hanging around remote villages and ruined fortresses hadn’t prepared me for. Some were even wearing clothes that made it clear they had legs.
This last observation I did not share with Rezim.
We arrived at the location he’d pointed out from his doorstep. The bright, modern building. It turned out it sold footwear.
“Rezim, this isn’t a bookstore.”
He turned to me, confused. “Yes, it is.”
That’s when I realized that he’d walked a few steps ahead of me and was standing before a dingy space obscured from immediate notice by a large tree squatting on the pavement. This was a six storey building dating from around the Birth of Christ and it hosted a variety of establishments including a homoeopathist’s, a notary service, an evil-looking sweets shop, and, on the second floor, a bookstore.
The upper floors were dark. Washing hung upon ropes indicated people lived up there, but nothing to show that anyone called the place home. Thin beams of light tried to escape through the wooden slats of narrow windows.
“My great-uncle lives on the fourth floor.” He indicated a damp alley to the side of the building, lit by a single dim sodium lightbulb. “The stairs are up here.”
“Alright,” I said, tossing the packet of pistachios aside. “Let’s go.” Empty shells clattered onto the pavement.
Rezim gave me a quizzical look. “You threw it on the street?”
This flustered me. The alley was littered with nutshells, orange peels, damp newspapers and spent condoms. Littering is of course wrong just on principle, but was it fair of him to hold me to higher standards than his own people?
He saw the look on my face and bit his tongue, smiling. “Oh, no, no, I didn’t mean it as a rebuke! I’m sorry. I just thought it was interesting.”
“Interesting? How’s that?” I stepped closer to him. He was standing next to an open doorway leading into some old gloom. The alley smelt of sewage.
“Well…” he entered the building, beckoning me to follow. I did, and the alley’s lone lightbulb seemed to have had the power of a midday sun in comparison to the interior. A door ahead probably led into the sweet shop, but Rezim was making his way up a stairwell. He continued his explanation, “You remember earlier today, when you were speaking to the village headman? I was waiting by the car with Miss Fatima and Mister Kristian.”
“The village by the valley or the one near the old serai?” The stairwell smelt less strongly of urine, but it told a history of bad tobacco. I had to take my steps slowly. Luckily the landings on the upper floors had the lights on.
“The village by the valley.”
“The headman there offered me a goat.”
“Yes, I remember. You should have accepted and gifted it to me!” Rezim laughed.
“Apologies.” We’d reached the second floor, which was visible but really shouldn’t have been. The plaster was cracked and blistered, exposing the brickwork. Signs warned that the notary and the homeopath prowled here. “I’ll save the next goat for you.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you.” The flight of stairs was flanked by old propaganda. “So while we waited for you, Miss Emma and I bought some pistachios for us. Your friends put every nutshell into the pockets of their coats!”
We both laughed, he at the eccentricities of foreigners and I at the habits of my friends. I looked at the posters on the wall. They dated from a variety of periods, decades of shifting causes overlapping – literally, pasted over one another. They celebrated the sort of leaders who could order themselves celebrated, memorialized the victims of whoever happened to be in power at the time, and condemned a host of national bogeymen: the USA, USSR, China, Iran, India and Israel each had played the part in their day.
The stairwell was a major ideological battleground and it wasn’t clear who’d won or what they’d won.
Rezim was still on about the nutshells. “I couldn’t believe it! We were standing in a village square, there was rubbish everywhere, but they said they would drop them later when they got home.”
“Oh, yes. Kris and Em are all about cleanliness, you can’t reason with them.” Faces of dead revolutionaries looked down at me from the posters on the wall. Features indistinguishable through the cheap pink ink and decades of neglect, they’re probably still there on that wall today.
Frozen in a future that doesn’t even remember needing them.
“And you aren’t?”
“Hmm?” I suddenly remembered that I’d been having a conversation.
“You aren’t as tidy as your friends?” Third floor. Bookstore to the right, but it was closed.
“It’s not that. They’re from a different country. Where I’m from, no one minds if you litter.”
“Ah,” he said, ahead of me. “What about Miss Fatima?”
“What about her?”
“Well, she’s also from where you are.”
I was about to open my mouth to contradict Rezim, but remembered just in time that I was pretending to be her brother. “Oh, well…” I tried to think of something to say and settled for, “she’s just… different. She isn’t like me at all.”
It sounded incredibly false, but Rezim seemed satisfied. “Well, certainly she doesn’t look at all like you, Praise God!” I laughed with him, relieved but nervous. “My brother might try to ask you for her hand in marriage. Have a care.”
“Well, he certainly wouldn’t be the first.” I smiled, remembering.
We’d arrived on the fourth floor. Rezim directed me to the flat on the left. “He would have competitors, then?”
“Just a few dozen other people.” The door had a poster too, but this one much newer. It listed the known names of God.
“Well, no woman worth having is easy,” said Rezim. He knocked on the door, careful to avoid the writing.
I pondered his words: they were blatantly sexist yet in some deeply-buried vault of my soul I acknowledged their merit. The crisis of the modern man.
Rezim’s great-uncle didn’t open the door, but we had the key to let ourselves in.
The old man lived with his cat, a mummified manservant, and some hundred-odd of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen in my life.
Rezim saw the look on my face and smirked, “We told you he is the best.”
They were on the walls, these ladies. Some were small, no bigger than the span of my hand. Others were giant, larger than life. Inks, waxes, charcoal and paints had all been mastered, but the loveliest of them by far were in simple pencils. A few of the women were made in full, from scalp to toe in the richest colours, but many more were mere heads constructed with busy strokes, form emerging from chaos.
The miracle of a great portrait: the subject’s beauty, life and meaning are not lost in translation, but are instead elevated. Skill alone cannot do this; I’ve known masters who produce perfect, cold work and mere students who can at times take your breath away. I notice this most in portraiture, and that can’t be a coincidence.
It was clear to me that what made Rezim’s great-uncle’s portraits of the women transcendent was not his mastery of the craft, but love – and the understanding of how to use it.
Of course it’s probably easier to feel love for your subjects if they looked like that.
The flat’s front door opened onto a large room that served as a combination of gallery, dining space and study. The furniture was rich but far from pristine, time having had free rein over everything that wasn’t a portrait. That it at least looked like comfortable living was saying much given the evil conditions of the building itself. Clearly even being the best artist of his sort didn’t guarantee regular income in that country.
The old artist sat surrounded by his ladies at a plain writing desk at the far end of the room. He was hunched over a sheet of paper, working gently with a pencil. He gave no signs of having noticed our entry. The world seemed to begin and end at his desk.
I whispered to Rezim, “He’s very focused on his work, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but he is also almost completely deaf,” Rezim responded in his usual volume.
The cat appeared from a side room, a fat bastard who accepted Rezim’s scratches with the satisfaction of someone unwrapping a birthday present. I knelt down to get in on that action too, and while I played with the cat Rezim moved forward to get his great-uncle’s attention.
He crossed the thick, dirty carpet and tapped the old man gently on the shoulder. The artist jerked up from his drawing, turned to see Rezim smiling down at him, and burst into a delighted grin. Rezim loudly salam’d and bent down to touch his great-uncle’s feet.
Then they both stood up, embraced and began talking to each other. Rezim was practically shouting. I vaguely recognized the chaste variant of the language, but the meaning completely eluded me. It was about as much as I could do to even understand the vernacular, though I did know how to imply someone had been illicitly fathered by a leper.
Rezim was pointing at me and saying something which I recognized as my cue to draw closer and also yell, “Salam!”
The old man looked at me in curious confusion.
“SALAM!” I said again, smiling harder.
He turned to Rezim and probably asked him why he’d brought a mentally subnormal man to his home to shout at him. My guide and friend said to me, poker-faced, “He says he is very happy to meet you.”
He was enjoying himself, was Rezim.
My loud greetings had aroused the attentions of the manservant, who it seemed had been sleeping soundly within his lair. This gentleman was bidden to bring us refreshments, and he creaked off to do so.
We pulled up some chairs to the desk and broke the ice with the obligatory call-and-response routine of “Where are you from what do you do how do you like our country are you married and why not?” For once I’d like to be the one dishing out those questions. I was curious to know what the appeal was.
My attentions were distracted by the pristine beauty the artist had been sketching. He was working on a small sheet of good cartridge paper and had a cluster of pencils, pens and sticks of charcoal at the ready. “Sometimes I start thinking I will do it with the pencil and suddenly I want to maybe do a little work with the wax on the cheek,” Rezim translated for me. “My actual studio is back there –” the artist had pointed to a closed door “– but I prefer to sit in this room for sketching. It is so annoying to walk all the way there to get a little wax so these days I just bring everything here with me when I sit. As soon as it strikes me that, ‘Aha! I should do this!’ I have what I need at my fingertips.”
I nodded along politely. He spent a lot of words making a straightforward point but I suspected I’ll talk exactly like him if I ever reach his age. I looked at the mini-studio on the desk and expressed my admiration for his work and complimented his model’s beauty.
The looks of confusion on the artist and his great-nephew’s faces suddenly made me realize what was obviously missing.
I gasped, “Wait, there is no model!”
No photo. No reference of any sort. She appeared to have been plucked out of the old man’s mind. I looked again at the sketch, not believing it. The strands of her hair and the play of light across her cheek, clear even in faint pencil marks. What a genius, to invent someone so vividly.
Rezim mouthed, “The best.” The old man smiled with pleasure to see me so obviously impressed. Then he said something which, Rezim told me meant, “Well, actually there is a sort of model. This is a portrait of my true love.”
I frowned. The woman looked very young, someone you could justifiably call ‘girl’ without condescension. Rezim explained, “My great-aunt died in labour long ago.”
“My condolences,” I told the artist, who nodded in quiet acceptance. “She was very beautiful; you were a lucky man.”
“Yes, I was. When she died, cameras were very rare. Not like it is today.” The old man was speaking matter-of-factly and indeed it was Rezim who seemed saddened to tell the tale. “We had a wedding photograph, but it was lost before her pregnancy. We thought we would have time to take more photos later, but alas!”
“Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un,” added Rezim, speaking for himself.
“Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un,” I parroted, softly enough to disguise my awful pronunciation.
“Inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un!” The old man sighed. “You see, I have no photographs of her, but God has given me this ability to draw. I use it to try to remember her to myself. I draw her as often as I can.”
“You have more sketches of her? I would love to see them, if I may.”
“Well, look around you!”
I did that. The images on the walls… all of her? I stood up to take a closer look, frowning. If I looked at them with the idea established that they were all of the same person, I could sort of see it. A few similarities were maintained: pallid, a face that sloped slightly forward, thin lips, pure black eyes, hair in brown tresses. Yet these shifted back and forth in dimension and hue, adjusting with the lighting and context of the respective image. Here her jaw was thicker, the forehead high then low again. A multitude of expressions and attitudes.
A hundred iterations, and who knows how many more hidden away in the back rooms. Which caught the truth of her? Who was the old man’s one true love?
He was smiling at me sadly, understanding my confusion. “I try, and I try. But my memory slips, her face alters, I can’t quite remember. I used to tell myself that someday I will finally finish a piece, step back, and it will strike me like lightning. Here, at last, she is! But I am old now, and I realized…”
“I realized that would never happen. If I couldn’t remember her face then, I cannot now. These are all I will ever have of her.” He said this, not with the sorrow of defeat, but with peace.
The manservant arrived with bitter black tea and sweet oranges. Rezim’s great-uncle told me more about his work and the challenges he faced.
“The government does not like us artists. They particularly hate people like me, who draw other people. They say we are challenging God by daring to create what only he can create, that we will be punished by Him someday. So far I have been safe because I keep to myself, and my family are rich and faithful, but the future is not in my hands.”
He looked at me earnestly. “I ask you, my friend… how can what I do be wrong? God gave me a gift, my wife, and He took her back. God alone knows what is best. He let me have this other gift, the power to try to remember her… would He not take that away as well, if I were not meant to have it? I do not understand all this talk of sin, of punishment.”
“Well… I don’t agree with the government, but are you not trying to, in a way, recreate her? To bring her back?”
“No.” He shook his head. “They are just drawings. Only memories. Is it wrong for me to want just this much?”
Rezim’s phone rang. His mother was calling us back to eat. I touched the old artist’s feet in farewell and wished him well.
“Insha Allah,” he said, squeezing my hand.
I studied the paintings once again before leaving, searching for the woman. I couldn’t find her.
They were so beautiful, though. Lies holding a torch for a truth long gone.
I was very quiet during dinner. Kris and Em didn’t seem to notice, but I’d gotten used to their habit of drowning out all else when they were having a good time together. They played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ before we left, and Rezim’s brother was so moved that he made a gift of the instrument then and there. I’d never seen Emma look so pleased with herself.
If Rezim noticed I wasn’t saying much to him on the drive back to the hotel, he didn’t draw attention to it. I wished him goodnight and made arrangements to see him again first thing in the morning. There was a hill with a broken fort that needed filming.
Another day, another ruin.
Before turning in for the night, I asked Fatima for a cigarette. She looked at me quizzically, but handed one over without comment. She’d seen me quit four years ago.
I smiled, thankful for her. “Thanks, you. Goodnight.”
She kissed me on the cheek – “Goodnight” – then left for her room.
From my room’s veranda I had a fine view of the city. Its lights glowed, patchy and threadbare along the hills. Down there, people lived with God as best as they could.
I put out the stub but felt restless, dissatisfied. I didn’t want to sleep just yet.
A thought had been niggling at me since we’d left the flat above the bookstore, and I decided to do something about it.
My room had a desk, and stationery to use on it. I began to sketch.
I was drawing… well, I won’t tell you her name. Stories by men, and for men, would call her The One that Got Away. That’s a term inadequate for anything outside sport fishing, but I could write page after page for the rest of my days and still not have expressed the fullness of her.
So: The One that Got Away. Why ever not?
It was slow work. Frustrating. I couldn’t agree on what she actually had looked like, you see. Adjusted, adjusted. Grew angry. Grew tired.
Eventually, I was done. I probably had a picture buried somewhere in my phone. It’s hard to totally divorce myself completely from the past. After I found the photo I compared it to my sketch.
It was a terrible likeness. I’d loved the woman for five years, and couldn’t remember what she’d looked like. I cursed myself and went to bed.
I stayed awake until the dawn, still thinking about it. Futile art, portraiture. We look for the truth of a person and all we ever capture is a shadow. Nothing we make will ever match what is already of flesh and blood. The artist does wish he were God, but that job is either taken or – worse still – non-existent.
No artist can tell a person who they are. All we can ever say is that, to us, this person at least is.
“That’s nothing,” I said out loud.
In my head the voice of an old widower responded, kindly: “It is enough.”