Friday, 12 October 2012

Faziz Ahmed - Smugglers Blues

Faziz could think of no one he hated more than his Captain. It wasn't an abstract hatred like, say, the hatred of the cold, or injustice, or spiders, no, this was a very specific, targeted, reasoned hate. The kind that hangs around with murder.

His Captain was no more than twenty three years old. Faziz was twenty one, and his fellow border guards were mostly even younger. He did not feel like a man, more like a boy in oversized shirt. As far as Faziz was concerned the Captain was the same - even if he wore expensive sunglasses and enjoyed exercising the, admittedly real, authority that he held as leader of the border patrol. To help him celebrate his twenty first birthday, the Captain had "rewarded" Faziz with the keys to the warehouse where all seized goods were stored. This reward came with the responsibility to maintain the inventory and detail all stock, plus extra security patrols. Now Faziz had to rise two hours earlier than his comrades in arms just to make it back to the barracks for the morning parade. If he was late then his pay would be docked substantially, as he had discovered in the very first week of his new duties.

As Faziz washed and dressed in his threadbare uniform he spoke to his cat, Mirabelle, who was sitting upright in the centre of the bed, waiting for him to leave so she could drift off uninterrupted back into more of her sweet, sweet, cat sleep.

"Today Mirabelle," he said half into a towel and half into the mirror as he dried his face and hands, "I will get one over on that kaddaab. I will."

Mirabelle blinked, trying to hold in the sleep that was threatening to turn into consciousnesses. Her unexpressive face was consumed with feline disinterest.

"God is great. I will" Faziz said, without conviction.

Mirabelle just wanted him to go. She stared at a point on the wall roughly two feet to his left and pretended not to know him.


The Captain was giving his favourite lecture. "Alright you fatahs, today we are going to do our jobs and protect this border to our wonderful land. Persons considerably more clever that you will ever be have decreed that these items shall not pass. Study today’s dispatches well. There will be penalties for any slip ups. Allahu Akbar."

Faziz flipped to the last of the twenty five pages that constituted the list of contraband. A few months ago this could fit on one side of his notebook, but within a season it had expanded beyond all reason. Today’s additions included table tennis bats, the works of Charles Bukowski, kidney beans, blue eyeshadow, cherry cola and Oscar statuettes. Faziz reasoned that he could probably live without these luxuries, but was equally immediately filled with a burning desire to own these works of Charles Bukowski despite never having heard of him until this moment.

Was he really carrying a rifle to protect the land against kidney beans? The world had gone insane and taken him along, into a place where even music was contraband. How the nearby Bazaar managed to retain and replenish it's stock of forbidden wonders was a mystery. It had been many years since Faziz had set foot in the Bazaar. If his Captain found out he had been seen there then he would be thrown in a cell and forgotten about for a long, long time. Possibly forever. He already knew that his shack was being searched on a regular basis for illegal items.

The stars must have been aligning for the Captain as his very favourite thing was approaching the border. A large tourist bus, well maintained and shining against the sand, quite unlike the broken down hunks of rusted metal that ferried the locals around. The same locals who knew their way around the regulations and lived only to subvert and ignore the Captain's authority.

A coach full of wealthy travellers, lured out into this vast area of blazing nothing with the promise of bartering their easily replaced valuables in return for ancient artefacts and forbidden materials. As he ostentatiously strode into the centre of the road and rose his arm to stop the bus, the Captain was relived that his huge sunglasses would at least prevent some of the joy he felt from being so obviously displayed on his face.

"You are under the protection and authority of Captain Tariq Famil of the Border Patrol" he barked, "You will please line up and produce your papers. Clearly identify which belongings you are travelling with and prepare for inspection." The Captain scanned the mainly elderly figures disembarking into the rifle sights of his favourite guards. He could easily get a few hours worth out of these confused and frightened forgieners. Life was good.

Whilst the Captain delighted in harassing the passengers, Faziz found himself in front of the only traveller approaching the Border on foot. It was the British girl who worked at the Bazaar.

Normally the Captain reserved the privilage of exerting authority over this woman for himself, but Faziz had noticed that those encounters were not quite the same as the usual bullying. Recently the Captain had seemed almost nervous when she approached. There had been a strange incident last month when the dogs had suddenly turned tail rather than be in the same space as her, and another where the guards on duty had parted like the red sea when she crossed with unsearc
hed bags and then could not subsequently explain why, leading to a conspiracy of silence.

Aware that the Captain always had an eye, or a spy, on him at all times, Faziz summoned up his impersonation of the other guards.

"Papers please" he said, as brusquely as he could manage.

She dug around in the satchel that was slung across one shoulder and handed the crumpled identification to Faziz. Amy McCraken, work permit, merchants assistant, Borderline Bazaar.

"This looks to be in order Miss McCraken. But I will need to check in your bag I'm afraid."

"Wouldn't you rather help your Captain?" she said, "I could just go on my way and you can get your share of an old age pensioners purse. They might even have gold teeth if you are lucky."

Faziz suddenly had a sense of why the Captain was finding excuses to be elsewhere when this woman crossed the border. It wasn't the words themselves, it was the undertone carried somewhere deep in her polite insolence, something too old and powerful to be submerged into her voice. It was disconcerting enough that she already projected an aura of homelessness, that she clearly would be no more in her correct environment on one side of any border or the other.

The bag was a battered leather satchel with a brass plate on the flap reading "Col Thomas Morgan". He stood the bag up on the table and rolled down the sides revealing around twenty LP records in thick cardboard sleeves.

His heartbeat quickened as his fingers flicked between the sleeves. Chet Baker, Miles Davies, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy - the names themselves had a poetry, reinforced by the deep colours of the sleeve illustrations, some stark and almost brutal portraiture, others surreal shapes and scenarios.

He looked directly into Amy's ridiculoulsy green eyes. "I'm afraid, Miss McCraken, I am going to have to ask to come with me. Unless you prefer that I refer this matter to my Captain."

"I have a merchants licence, you can see that" she said, pointlessly as they both knew.

"Please." said Faziz, indicating the open door of the cabin just a few feet across the border.

Amy stepped inside.


"You understand, Miss McCracken, that the import this type of material is strictly forbidden?"

"I understand that there are customs regulations which are difficult to follow and impossible to enforce, if that is what you mean."

Faziz continued, "Importing illegal improvised music is a serious offence. The Captain has decided that only military waltzes and religious music can be allowed, for the benefit of all".

Amy held up an LP with a black and white portrait sleeve and the title A Love Supreme.

"This is religious music, you idiot. And besides, your Captain is a madman,"

"That may be the case Miss McCracken, but I must be loyal to the guards. However, if there is some debate in the classification of these goods then perhaps there is room to...manoeuvre, if you understand me. Perhaps, Miss McCracken...Amy...perhaps we could come to some....arrangement?"

Amy folded her arms across her chest protectively and glared at him with a force that would have knocked another man back a good couple of feet.

Faziz smiled. He had played this perfectly. He was going to get what he wanted.


The empty satchel lay on his bed as Faziz sat on the floor leaning against the base. His fingers flipped through the hard cardboard LP sleeves, allowing his eyes only fleeting glances of the artwork. It was too much to take in at once, he was building up to believing what he had in his hands. How long was it since he had heard real music? A year? Had he ever heard real music? How would he know?

He had played the part of lecherous bully so well that when he revealed that he would allow Amy on her way in return for simply allowing him one night with the albums and not her, she was so thrown that she agreed immediately. It was so easy to believe all men were pigs that it was a useful confusion that they were not. He had undertaken personal delivery of the bag and contents to the Bazaar before opening hours the next day. By way of guarantee of the safe return he had explained even the slightest hint of an accusation against him to the Captain would lead to his disappearance, even if the source was considered a known smuggler.

Tomorrow he would leave even earlier than usual, so early that he might not even sleep, relying on his cigarettes and Charles Mingus to keep him awake, and travel quietly across the border to the Bazaar. The bag would left under the tarpaulin at the front of the store, there was no danger of it being stolen. It would be there waiting for Amy when she arrived an hour or so later, records intact, no damage, no harm done.
One day the Captain would check the contraband lockup against the inventory and the world would end. But then, who could say when that that day would come. One day he may be Captain, or the regime might fall and all restrictions be lifted, or a great meteor strike the earth and wipe all the miserable souls that existed there out of existence.

As the pulsing music spun out of the one tiny speaker of his ancient record player it occurred to him suddenly what a tragedy it would be if items from the forbidden inventory were mistakenly stored in the Captain's house through human error, to be discovered by a visiting patrol who had formed the opinion somehow that they had been offered their pick of the illegal items in return for carrying out this legitimate duty.

The way the music twisted and leapt was full of possibilities. It was clear to Faziz now that these possibilities were in everything, how had he not seen this before?

The excitement of the previous track gave way to a mournful but exhilarating chant. It seemed to wind it's way through the air and surround Faziz. He had never heard anything so beautiful, but at the same time it did remind him of prayer. Amy was right, this was religious music.

"Allahu Akbar Mirabelle. God is great".

Mirabelle stalked out of the room, waited a few seconds, then walked back in pretending to be a different cat. One that would curl up against Faziz's legs and listen to music.

Faziz is listening to this

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