The Order Of The Forgers (A microfiction series)

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Part One: In Deplorable Company.

‘This is a secured government building. How did you break in?’

He’s in full control of this conversation. It ebbs and rises as he sees fit. He alternates between using his tongue or his fists to communicate. I in turn respond well within my disposition with silence, grunts of pain or the occasional insult against his mother. I’ve crossed paths with men of his ilk before. I’ve been through worse than him.

The conditions could have been worse, of course. Not to say I enjoy being suspended in the air with my arms clamped and chained to opposite walls of the room, and a cup of coffee would have been nice too, but I’ve been in worse positions. One room I was exiled in once, I stretched my hand before my eyes and could not see it. When people talk of purgatory, I remember that place.

This place, it’s nothing. This man, he will tire. They always do. He does, and he leaves.

That’s when I whisper to my arm, ‘Mif-tahun.’

There are exactly seven hundred and twenty nine locks in this entire building. I can feel each one of them, but right now I need to focus on just two.

The process has always been painful, it’s never not been, but I need to be rid of these chains.

It stings.

It burns.

Then it gets worse.

In my haste, I drop my newly acquired key. It clinks mockingly as it kisses the floor, then rolls away and disappears into a drain in the floor.

I swear in exasperation.

Right then, let’s try that again.

 

In case you're wondering, Part Two is over here!
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Microfiction Monday #12: Receipt

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…wherein dissent is punished…

In her defense, she hadn’t meant to do it, or rather she hadn’t done it consciously. The dust bin just happened to be there, at the supermarket’s exit and she extended her arm and threw the receipt inside. There was no thought to the action, just a habitual reflex.

Which is why she was more than mildly surprised when she answered the door a few hours later and was accosted by two sneering policemen. One of them held the offending receipt at eye-level for her to read the contents there.

‘This yours?’ He asked.

She pored through it once more, before confirming to the officers that it had in deed once been in her possession.

‘CCTV cameras caught you dropping it in the bin a few hours ago.’

‘Nothing odd about that, is there?’ She asked, puzzled.

The second chuckled, ran his fingers over his tablet and started reading rapidly, ‘Chapter three section four of The Accords states, “Any and all pieces of parchment, pamphlets, documents, clothing material, fabric, posters and all other manner of signage bearing an image of his Highness or the Crest of the Crown shall henceforth be treated as holy as his Sovereignty and any show of dissent towards such material will be treated as a show of dissent towards the King himself.”’

The first policeman flipped the receipt and the blood drained from her face. There, inscribed at the bottom of the receipt using cheap ink and barely visible to the unfocused eye, was the Crest of the Crown.

‘But, I love the King,’ she protested, ‘I named both my first son and my first daughter after him.’

‘Very funny in deed. May your humor assuage you in whatever bin His Highness’ magistrates decide to dump you in.’ The first policeman mocked as they dragged the poor struggling woman into the waiting police van and with each desperate cry for help, she noticed painfully her neighbours windows and doors shut ever tighter.

Microfiction Monday #10: Encounter.

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…wherein they make themselves known…

‘Ground Control to SS Madura, please respond.’ Mike breathed into the microphone once more, the words growing wearier each time he said them.

The SS Madura was presently somewhere between Earth and Mars. The crew on board had stopped transmitting a few minutes ago following a loud crashing noise which often meant that something had gone wrong. The spacecraft’s current distance from earth meant that there was a delay of almost three minutes of transmission between them, which meant having to wait twice that time to hear a reply from the crew.

‘Ground Control, I can barely hear you, you’re breaking up.’ the response crackled through the loudspeakers of the control center to the collective sigh of everyone but the voice was hardly recognizable.

‘Welcome back sir, we lost you there for a minute. Can you give us a status report?’

‘We crashed into a projectile, a spaceship possibly, sustained damages to the outer hull and other critical components, life support system operating at fifty percent efficiency.’

The response had come back after four minutes instead of the expected six, which could only mean the spaceship was heading back to earth. Mike made a quick mental calculation of the speed it would take the spaceship to close the gap that quickly and almost fell on his back. That kind of speed was simply not attainable by the SS Madura.

‘Um, could you elaborate further on your last, you crashed into a spaceship, possibly? And please identify yourself.’

The response came after just two minutes now, the rapid manner of its arrival and the new edge in the voice making Mike feel as if the speaker was standing over his shoulder.

‘I can conclusively confirm that we did crash into another spaceship,’ the man still hadn’t identified himself and that bothered Mike very much, ‘The inscription on its outer hull read SS Madura. There’s a habitable planet nearby which we can assume was the launching point of the Madura. We’re heading there now to investigate.’

Mike looked around the room at the uncomprehending terrified faces of his colleagues looking up to him. His voice came out shaky and uneven as he whispered, ‘Oh my God!’

Microfiction Monday #9 : Adjusting.

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…wherein a new home is made…

‘Don’t worry buddy, you’ll get used to it.’ Father promised his son.

‘But it’s too empty and too…noisy.’ The son criticized the vastness of their new home, and the echoes that bounced off the walls.

‘It’s only as empty as we let ourselves imagine it. See that spot? We can bring in sand from the beach and build a sand castle right there.’

‘Whoa! A sand castle?’

‘Yes,’ the father laughed, ‘The biggest sand castle anyone has ever thought of, we can build it me and you. With your mother gone, we can do anything we want now.’

Even as tears stung his eyes, he trusted the words coming out of his mouth like script off a holy book and like a scientist on the cusp of a cosmic discovery, let the thrill of freedom wash over him.

They did get used to it, of course.

Which is why the boy slept soundly in his father’s arms, even as the blistering heat of the noon sun bore down on them and the patter of the cityfolks’ rapid steps on the pavement and the thrum of vehicles around them reached a crescendo.

They made a home and they got used to it.

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credit: hobotraveller.com

 

Microfiction Monday #7: The New Trend Kills.

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…wherein this story gets a cliché title…

Sharon’s car glided down the freeway, late in the night under the patter of light showers.

She hummed to herself, one arm on the steering wheel, the other making a meal of her phone’s screen as she scrolled up and down her Facebook timeline. She glared gleefully at the latest iteration of her friends exploits with the latest trend to hit the ether: a Facebook app that predicted hilarious ways in which people would die.

She chuckled when Victor, her best friend, posted his result: death by suffocation under a heap of elephant dung. She thought it might spook him to tell him their boss was planning a safari retreat for the end of the year.

Barbara, that snobbish girl from HR, would die from having her head stuck in the poop chute of a donkey. Never mind how her head would end up there in the first place, it made Sharon laugh so much because it seemed absolutely fitting.

Hooked in as she was by the prospects of humor that lay behind her interaction with the app, she submitted her own query. The result played back on her screen in fun, multi sized fonts that danced up and down:

‘You will die in a horrifying and completely avoidable road accident. Cheers!’

She stared at the words as if they made very little sense.

‘Well that’s not funny at all!’ She exclaimed.

And because she desired to be entertained and would not have it any other way except that which pleased her, she hit the refresh button, and then again, and again…

Kawangware…

AJAB

A toyota canter is parked on a street in Kawangware carrying the newest wheat flour product to enter the market. We’re sitting inside, the driver and I, while the loader, or ‘turnboy’ in more common euphemisms, totters lazily about the lorry, bored . The salesman am tasked with training to use this software for sales automation is somewhere close but outside our view, spreading the good word to the local residents. He’s hoping they take more than just the good word from him.

Parts of Kawangware remind me of the Kisauni of old. Open sewers, dusty murram roads, hybrid houses composed of cheap aged stone, wood and metal sheets, interspersed occasionally by more modern high rises. A church looms large in the background, the glint of its marble exterior and glass windows hard to miss. At just about every corner, hawkers and ‘mama mbogas’ flaunt their wares, including omenaa…I haven’t seen omenaa in ages.

Droves of giddy goat calves skip about, darting between people and vehicles, and causing aforementioned ‘mama mbogas’ way too much distress.

Our driver has the radio tuned to classic 105 and it’s been bleating the works of Lionel Richie and the Backstreet Boys for seemingly forever. I am lost in my usual random sessions of musing when a man approaches the car and inquires of its contents.

We proceed to perform the grandest pitch to ever be performed, hoping to leave him in no doubt that he should buy one bale or he’d be doomed to a life of misery otherwise.

‘Pastries made from this flour can cure just about any disease.’ I tell the man with a deadpan voice. I’ve been moving around with these salesmen for three weeks now, so naturally I’ve picked a few skills along the way.

‘Your man will never leave you if you use this flour.’ Is what our salesman told a bemused lady we’ve served a few streets back.

For some reason though, our pitch doesn’t work and the man walks away…’I cant buy your product unless it’s really as good as you claim’ He protests

Our driver captures our collective puzzlement and disappointment as he calls back, ‘If you don’t try it, how will you possibly know it’s as good as we claim?’

‘Ako mbele ama ako nyuma?’ The turnboy asks about the very absent salesman, betraying signs of growing impatience. Is he ahead of us or behind?

In another context, the same question can be asked to ask opinion of someone about a second person’s level of affluence, capacity for forward thinking among other things.

The driver assumes the second context is implied. ‘Ako nyuma sanaa’ He replies, shaking his head at the customer who’s rebuffed us. He’s way too behind (backward).

‘Uuh’ the turnboy sighs in exasperation and I almost burst out in laughter.

Ajab2

 

 

 

Microfiction Monday #6: Footsteps

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…wherein two gentlemen have a bit of fun…

Kevin and his exotic-looking friend Calvino spent the afternoon in his room, with their ears firmly fixed on the comings and goings in the hallway outside, engrossed in a game that required them to guess who was walking down the hallway, using just the sound of their footsteps as a clue.

“Two men, carrying a heavy box.” Calvino called at the sound of two sets of rapid irregular footsteps accompanied by grunting. A moment later, two men walked past the door carrying a heavy-looking case.

“Two children and a woman.” Kevin excitedly offered his guess at a new set of steps coming from the hallway.

“Not just any woman, their mother, and it’s three not two, she’s carrying another on her back.” Calvino added confidently.

Soon enough, a weary-looking woman passed, with a baby strapped to her back with a leso and two chubby kids dressed identically in tow, holding hands and struggling to keep up with her. Calvino seemed incapable of containing his joy at how accurate his prediction turned out.

Presently, the sharp unmistakable sound of high heels on tiled floor floated in from the hallway.

“Easy, this one.” Proclaimed Kevin, “Must be one of the nurses.”

“Not quite.” Calvino beamed once more.

“Well who else would hear high heels?” Complained Kevin.

“Wait and see.” Calvino seemed about to burst with laughter.

Not long after, Mr Jones from Ward C next passed, fully dressed in attire befitting a lady of the party-going type, from a blouse and skirt all the way down to a cherry lipstick and mascara, and looking so comfortable in this dress configuration it was all Kevin and Calvino could do not to roll on the floor laughing, until he’d passed.

When finally their fit of laughter came to an end, it was to be promptly followed by another set of high heel footsteps, except these ones came with an urgency that could only mean one thing.

Calvino looked at Kevin once more, only this time he wasn’t beaming, but had a look of alarm on his face. “Oh dear, you’re in trouble my friend. Laters.” He flashed a deuces and then disappeared in a puff of smoke at the snap of his fingers.

An angry-looking nurse appeared in the frame of the door looking like she might melt away and morph into a volcano how cross she looked.

“Just look at him.” She snapped, “All jacked up on stolen morphine he is…and smiling like a fool. Are you planning on getting released from here, you sorry cud-chewing ignoramus? Because am having enough trouble as it is taking care of a cross-dressing middle aged married man and father of two gallivanting around like he owns the place without having a junkie who does not intend on getting better wasting my valuable time and effort.”

Or is it simply that you’re making your case to be transferred to ward C?”

Kevin felt troubled at the last words and he wondered if Calvino would ever teach him that vanishing act he was so good at.

Microfiction Monday #4: Of Extroverts, Introverts and The Troglodyte.

…wherein animals talk and do…stuff…

He approached the pride of lions with well-founded apprehension at first. Upon realizing they did not plan on being hostile to him, he walked more confidently and joined them as one would his own family.

They took him in. He reinvented his life around their endless pilgrimage through the Savannah. He learned how to spring upon the slow-witted wildebeest. He tossed himself in the scorching sand playing with the cubs. He howled and roared into the night sky as the ground below melted under their might.

Until one day he left, to seek less rowdy company.

He passed by a hyena, and measured the size and look of her. He found her features dismaying, the shorter hindquarters, the arching back, the dirty spotted brown coat, the perpetually damp nose.

“Ugly, ugly creature.” He beheld. To his surprise, the hyena reciprocated the remark and leaped off, laughing and wagging her tail.

He came upon a cheetah, and was taken in by her grace and beauty, her cunning and movements, her graceful silence. She put too much stock in her own company, however, and soon he was unable to keep up with her because she was too fast for him.

The hyena came back, taunting him with the same words and the same laughter.

Hurt and confused, he crawled back to his house, as all tortoises tend to do from time to time, and vowed never to come out again.

The Tormented

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Part Two

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to let you know that you’re going to die. No I don’t mean that in an existential kind of way, ‘All living things will die’, no I mean that you, sadly have no further part to play beyond this story. This is the end for you. I figure we should get this out of the way already. It’s like I said earlier, we know the destination already, we’re here for the journey.

So enjoy the ride while you can, indulge in your speculations and draw up plans for escape as much as you please, but just keep your hopes low.

The teenager stares you down like a meal then points you to the chair with his mighty arm. Something is choking you at the base of your throat, there’s a high possibility that it’s your heart in its new unnatural position. The chair looks a fairly long journey away, but you couldn’t move your legs if you wanted to anyway. Your knees almost fail you, but a pair of strong arms grab you before that happens and dump you into the now empty chair, its former inhabitant having being dragged to his final destination, be it six feet underground or the dumpster outside.

Your hands are fastened to the arms of the chair by leather belts wrung so tight your palms almost immediately lose color. The young man rinses his bloodied fists then dries them with a dirty looking towel.

It’s at this point when I say unto you, ‘Goodbye, Adios, Kwa heri ya kuonana.’ It doesn’t really matter that I don’t know you very well, I still cannot stand watching you slowly decay under the assault of a brute. You deserve better.

So forgive me, once again, for I must exit this story here, and I only pray that you have a happier afterlife!

“Wait!” You shout to the young man before he lands the first punch. Now, now what’s on your mind?

“I have something you need to hear.” No, you don’t, but I can’t wait to hear this.

For some reason, you seem to have the brute’s attention too.

“Would you willingly jump into a pool of boiling oil?”

“Would he what now?”

“Is he teaching metaphors or something?”

The dissenting voices around you quiz in confusion but the teenager stays silent, so you continue, “I doubt Vickie would appreciate her messenger going back in a casket, after all the trouble I went through to get here. How do the English say it? ‘Don’t kill the messenger?’

The effect is immediate. Fred turns towards your two captors who shrink back in response.

“And you two never thought to ask him who he was first before offering him to me? Before bringing him here?”

“No, they never seemed to care. Never once stopped to wonder if I was a police in civilian clothes, wearing a transmission device with an army of backup waiting to swoop in here at my confirmation.” Oh yes, fan the flame. “I understand the risky nature of our business, but to tolerate such recklessness among your officers can only mean you are comfortable with an early doom.”

The teenager seems to be mulling over your words, a reaction you were hoping for but not really expecting. You’ve stumbled upon something here. Maybe a past history between these three? Fred turns to his apparent second-in-command, an old looking man.

“Am sorry, but this is the last straw. Their recklessness has been too disruptive to ignore anymore.”

The lieutenant hangs his head in disappointment but then nods in concession. The two men who have caused you so much unpleasantness this evening are dragged out by half the gang in attendance into a remote room in the building, where their cries and pleas die off to the curt sound of two gunshots.

That bit of business done, attention shifts back to you and a question that’s been gestating for what might be an eternity is finally spat out…

“And who are you precisely?”

…but you’ve been preparing for it…

“Vickie said it would be best for all concerned if I don’t tell you. Just in case, someone snitches.”

…the hook is cast…

“Fine.” He grumbles after a long pause.

…and the fish bites on the bait.

“Why did she send you here?”

“She wanted me to give you a message. The gang is pushing through with that heist they’ve been planning.”

Oh yeah. No good has ever come from talking without constraint, but your now-deceased captors’ inability to stop yapping might prove to be your savior tonight. But you’re not out of the woods just yet. The young man stares you down skeptically, before finally turning to his clansmen.

“Do you hear that? The Stupid Ones are walking to their deaths tonight.”

The place erupts in guffaws and howls.

“The army couldn’t be happier to have live volunteers for target practice.” One man shouts in the background.

“The bullets will slice right through them, haha.” Someone in another corner laughs.

“So all the stash and money,” you try to amplify the burgeoning prospects, “…only two guards looking after it all. And the ladies…”

“What about them?”

“All unguarded and bored and waiting to be rescued…”

“What good are they to us?” You are taken back by the question.

“Um…uh…some of them are excellent bookkeepers, they can help you guys keep track of all your money and assets…”

The subsequent boos give you momentary pause. Clearly these men are hard to read.

“…and uh, most of them are excellent cooks and will help you with laundry and keeping the place clean…”

It’s cheers and nods of approval this time. Bingo!

“Enough!” commands the young man, “We will attack immediately!”

The hall erupts into a flurry of activity as the gang proceeds to arm themselves with all manner of potent ammunition and drench their bodies in concoctions that their local witchdoctor promised would grant them invincibility.

The moral standing of these people aside, they seem to have neglected the place they’ve chosen to call home. It’s stuffy and dark, puddles of some disgusting liquid litter sections of the floor, and the squeaks from the roof above give you the feeling there’s a colony of rats up there enacting a Game of Thrones-esque political thriller. You really can’t anticipate parting with the place more fervently. As you prepare to take your leave, however, Fred asks you to slow it down.

“You’re coming with us, messenger boy.”

“But, I…”

“But nothing, come on.”

The gang sets off in an armada of pickups and jeeps that carries itself with the pomp and noise of a wedding procession and the urgency of a presidential motorcade. You find yourself sharing the company of Fred and his silent deputy who takes on driving duty at the moment. Freddie pulls closer to you and gleefully shows off his ‘toy’, a rocket launcher with cryptic-looking controls and a name etched to the side in paint: SPARKY.

“Oh, that’s just her name.”

“Why do you call it…her, Sparky?” You ask.

“Because, doofus, when she’s on song, she makes a lot of sparks.” He laughs like a maniac and rubs the machine intimately.

Somewhere along the way, your car breaks off of the procession into a dirt path that’s soon swallowed by thick forest. You think this is it. Maybe they didn’t believe you or they were planning to dispose of you even if they did. Your fears are not even remotely allayed when the car pulls up just at the edge of a clearing, a cabin in the middle of it with lights on. Fred’s deputy honks twice and the lights inside the cabin blink twice in response.

“Well, gentlemen, that’s my cue.” Fred pulls his hair back with a comb, “I’ll be asking Vickie about you, errand boy. Now hold on to this for me.” He winks and hands you the rocket launcher as he leaves the car.

You’ve dodged bullets all night so far, you figure this is where your luck runs out. It’ll take Fred a minute tops to discover Vickie has had no correspondence whatsoever with a scrawny, clumsy eleven-toed nerd that fits your description, and then after that it’s curtains down for you. First, you’ll need to take out Fred’s mute lieutenant.

As if reading your thoughts, the man leaves the car and jumps on the car’s bonnet where he lights a cigar and merrily puffs away. You figure you could make a run for it, go for the thick tree cover but the tree line is too far away from the car and a seasoned gun wielder would make waste of you before you got far. So you decide to join him outside.

“Fred’s gonna get himself killed for this kind of stupidity. Taking his rival’s wife to bed.” The man complains, “He used to do it because he loved her, but now I think he only does it to spite his opposite number. Worse, I think Vickie is beginning to realize it too. But warn him however much I want, he never listens to me anymore.”

Something about the way the man talks ropes you in. There is some undercurrent of pain under the man’s shaky voice. He’s also quite possibly the only sane person you’ve met so far since the turn of midnight. You get the distinct feeling that he, like you, is here not by choice.

“Forgive me for asking,” you intrude, “but I get the feeling you’ve known Fred for a really long time?”

The man pauses a few seconds too long as if weighing the question, his eyes focusing into the distance.

“Fred’s parents were passionate career criminals, just like him.” He narrates. “It, of course, cost them their life. Then it was up to his failed businessman of an uncle to look after him.

“I tried my best, God knows I tried my best, to stop Fred from following his parent’s path, but I suppose I didn’t try hard enough.

“When finally, he took up his parents’ throne, I saw no other choice for me except to…stick with him, keep him in check, stop him from doing something stupid, like executing his own gang members.”

The last part seems laden with accusation, “Am sorry if I made your job hard today.” You say apologetically.

“No,” he responds, “Those two were always too clumsy for their own good. Still, it doesn’t help with team morale.”

A long silence passes between the two of you…uncomfortable and palpable.

“But we’ll pass through whatever storm, him and me. Together till the end if need be.” The old man adds.

It’s a charming sentiment, one you don’t get to admire though. Because, latching on to the old man’s last words is a chortling yell from the direction of the cabin. The old man jumps immediately from the bonnet, on edge.

This is it, you think, time to make like a ghost and disappear. But you figure a blow to the old man’s head with the bazooka in your hands will knock him out cold and you can truly be free and safe to make a run for it. However, because you are clumsy, you struggle with the machine, and fall flat to the ground. From down there, you see horrors that will stick with you to the end of your times.

A lady emerges from the cabin, you can only guess that it must be Vickie, it’s hard to see in the darkness. In her hand she carries a sphere of some sort, round like a football, only it can’t be a football because you notice that there’s hair on the top side of it, and upon further inspection, you notice two eyes and a mouth and you realize that Vickie or whoever it is, is carrying the miserable remains of Fred’s thinking faculties.

You see the old man break down in front of you, like his life had meaning no more. You see him fall down to his knees and cry like a pained parent. You see him defy his anguish and rush towards the lady with his gun out and you see him meet his own end as a man hidden in the bushes flanks him and mows him down with his own semi-automatic firearm. You watch Vickie walk towards the man and laughs heartily at some joke you’re not in on.

“I can’t believe they actually fell for that.” The new man says, “Yet they call us the Stupid Ones.”

Vickie says nothing, just stares at the body on the ground before her.

Now’s the time. Your feet respond to your command and you run. You run like you never you thought you could. Your feet are cogs of a mighty machine, your lungs and heart the engine of NASCAR racecar. You run until your shoulders ache, and force you to stop, and you realize you’re still carrying that awful bazooka. You examine the name etched to the side, and find yourself taken over by a fit of laughter.

You finally get it, the joke, and it’s not a funny one. Which is why you’re laughing.

The world is filled with people tormented by a need for something. A need for purpose, others a need to break free from a prison only conceived in their minds. For the men and women you’ve run into tonight they are tormented by a need for superiority, to stand over the remains of the biggest threats to their perfect little worlds.

Your own torment is a need for establishment, for a grand stage where you can talk and people will listen, where you can paint and people will be drawn in.

Which is why you put your life at risk tonight, chasing that elusive spark you were fortunate enough to experience through a half-daze.

You’re laughing not out of humor but out of sheer want of anything else to do.

It’s madness.

“What’s wrong with it?” You don’t quite notice the car pull up next to you.

“Is he one of them?”

“He might be, they seem to have an intimate connection with their weaponry. See how he’s cradling that bazooka and smiling at it like it was a baby.”

“So he is one of them.”

“I’d stake my writing arm on it.”

“So, what to do with it?”

Before the end comes, you do finally notice the car, and more importantly its occupants. A firm faced lady, who could only be Vickie. Now that you see her close up she seems a perfect match to the idea of her you’ve been carrying in your head all night. Next to her, an unfamiliar face carrying the ghost of a smirk as the man behind it draws his gun on you and pulls the trigger.

 

—————————————————————————————————————–

Oh hello there, welcome back from the dead. I have a teeny tiny request to ask of you. When I was halfway through writing this piece, a friend of mine challenged me to create a story with a relatable and/or adorable and/or dynamic character(s) and then kill them off. So I had to change a few things around, including the ending to accommodate his homicidal cravings.

So you, brave soul who has read through all the horror of the story, I would love to hear your feedback on whether you think I’ve successfully stood up to the challenge, character-wise and otherwise, in the comments section.

Thank you so much for reading.

Different.

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We’re different you and I,

And couldn’t be further away,

From being alike.

 

You cry more,

And I laugh less.

You write from left to right,

From right to left I write,

You like to sing and dance,

Singing while dancing,

I’ve done not once.

 

But…

 

We hear whispers,

Where others,

Only feel the fury,

Of wind,

We see tears,

In the rain.

 

We gaze upon the weary ant,

Trudging along the dry wall,

And wonder,

How her day was.

 

We blink at the milky way,

And think this is how,

We were meant to perceive,

The night sky.

 

We watch the wretched,

The poor,

The ‘ugly’,

Find peace within,

And wonder how anything else,

Can be called beautiful.

 

We’re different you and I,

In many obvious ways,

But we’re the same you and I,

In many different ways.

The Bedouin & The Dates

This story you’ve never heard before,

Of the Bedouin who terrifies his people so,

The amiable folk of Wadi Swaffah,

His name is Ali Hamza al-Jabbar.

 

See the earth crumple,

And squeal under his feet,

See it crumble and slowly wilt.

 

See the men scamper,

Forlorn and wimper,

As they crawl back into their mothers’ wombs.

 

See the ladies sweep his path,

With palm brooms,

And swoon in the aftermath,

Of his grand passage.

 

See him now,

Coughing and spitting,

His conduct unwitting.

 

See him look suspectfully,

At the tender dates,

Mixed into his meal most unsavory,

Of bony rats and slimy snakes.

 

See him shake his head,

And swing his sword,

At an enemy unseen.

 

See him wonder why,

One of life’s finer tastes,

Would make him question,

The sanity of his madness,

And claim,

The peace of his mind.

 

See him wander aimlessly,

Across the land,

Until he becomes the sand,

And the sand becomes him.

 

This story you’ve never heard before,

Of the Bedouin who terrified his people so,

The amiable folk of Wadi Swaffah,

His name was Ali Hamza,

But no longer al-Jabbar.

42 Hours To Arusha And Back.

I have a very vivid recollection of this guy who was on our bus to Arusha, simply because of the way he carried himself. He was clearly drunk. He ambled his way through the aisle of the bus in staggering stages, engulfing anyone in close proximity with a nauseating strong musk of cheap beer. There was no question about it, he’d been tipping bottles that same morning and not the previous evening, but it was the day before Christmas so maybe he could be forgiven. Maybe not. His clothes wore him, in stead of it being the other way around, his oversize washed-out orange shirt flapping impatiently like a flag in the wind. But apparently he had a very, very important role to play amongst the crew of the bus.

The crews of Kenyan intercity buses seem to grow and shrink in number and complexity every season. There’s the driver obviously, chatty and sometimes vulgar and his conductor who does the heavy work, passing out the refreshments or getting your luggage out of the boot if you alight midway to the bus’ eventual destination. But then last year a new member joined the crew, the second driver. When he can’t find an empty seat, he usually lays a mat in that space between the driver’s and the VIP1 seats, then assumes all kinds of hilarious sleeping postures that beg for a photo shoot.

Then there’s that guy who thinks he’s Rambo’s nephew. He swings on the bus door until you reach Changamwe or the bus company’s out-of-town office where he disappears off into the dark night, never to be seen again. For those buses that cross the border, there is another dude who plays a very pivotal role. He’s the go-to guy if you want to cross the border when you’re not eligible to. You have kids who have no passport or vaccination card? No problem, he’ll get them through no hassle. This was the niche that the hero of our story occupied.
After ten or so rounds to the front of the bus and back, he finally stopped at our row and asked for our passports. I hand him mine, he writes down the details he needs, hands it back. My uncle with whom I was travelling wasn’t carrying his passport but that shouldn’t matter because an agreement reached some years ago by East African countries allows for travel across borders with just your identity card, right?

So our man takes my uncle’s ID card, explains the process he would go through at the border and tells him we’d have to pay five hundred shillings to be issued a certain document that would equate to a visa. But we already knew the whole process because we researched before we left and we knew the fee to be paid wasn’t anywhere close to five hundred, more like three, which meant our guy would pocket the excess.

Now, my uncle thrives in moments like these, mind you, where he would confront people who either don’t do their job right, or require you loosen your purse strings a bit more to “motivate” them, he gives it to them cold and flat. But he’d confessed to me a few minutes ago that his head was throbbing with a headache, so I could understand this time round when he decided not to indulge in his thirst to shame this man and instead handed over the requested sum. Our guy continued forward, carrying out his civic duty. A minute later he came back, almost gouged his entrails on the floor, composed himself and said, “This five hundred should be just enough, but you never know with these border guys. They might ask for more.”

My uncle still said nothing, but this time he chuckled because he understood what was going down here. Cheeky. Very cheeky.

The man then moved on and left us to our thoughts. Ahead of us, occupying almost eight rows of seats was an Indian family apparently on their way to a wedding. When they tired of speaking in Hindi, they switched to Swahili, which they spoke with an accent you’d expect from Swahili or Arab folk living Majengo Guraya or Kibokoni, not an Indian family. I feel compromised and vulnerable.

How I could possibly trust my ears again after this betrayal?

Then I remind myself that this is what travelling is all about. You meet people who surprise you, others who try to make a living off of you because you look innocent. On our way back from Arusha, we didn’t even book a ticket for the return trip in advance. We finished our business midday, then returned to the bus station (or stendi as they call it in TZ ) to find it packed with travellers. We fought our way into the best seats of a bus which took us as far as Moshi. From there we took a manyanga to Holili, then a boda boda motorcycle took us through the border post to Taveta. At Taveta we struck gold as a man with his private car took us to Voi. We sojourned at Voi for a while, packed ourselves full of nyama choma and chapati, then hitched another matatu to Mombasa where we arrived weary and sleepy at midnight. But it was all good. A thrilling Kenyan-savannah-slash-Mount-Mau-and-Kilimanjaro adventure that was the refreshing reload button I had been begging for during the long holiday.
Along the way we met more intriguing and curious people including another drunk who engaged the matatu driver and some of the other passengers in a battle of expletives and a Serengeti Maasai man at the border who was told either he stole his brother’s passport or his hand, because the fingerprints didn’t match.
But then on the other hand, that matatu we took from Moshi was so packed with passengers, my face was constantly being pressed by at least two elbows or armpits for the duration of the trip, and that boda boda trip was so bumpy I wondered if I would ever be whole again after that, and during the final phase I had to sit with my knees hunched over for so long they finally caved and started to hurt, and then it took me two days after we arrived to finally wear off the exhaustion from the travelling.

It’s all part of the experience.

Traveling is refreshing. Traveling is exhausting.

I love it. I hate it.

So anyway, we arrived at the border post, which is nothing like the rickety old building I remember it as. A new state-of-the-art building stands over the ruins of the old one. It even has those metal detectors that would set off alarms if you had too much iron in your blood.

Once inside, we present our passports for verification and visa stamping. There are two sets of counters you have to go through, one with Kenyan customs officers and the other with their Tanzanian counterparts. A gap less than a meter wide separates them. If you stand with your feet just wide enough you can be in Kenya and Tanzania at the same time, essentially you’d be in two places at once. If that’s not cool enough yet, if you stand sideways at the gap and suck in your stomach, you’d neither be in Kenya nor Tanzania. You’d be nowhere. Invisible.

Our hero (hope you haven’t forgotten him already), carrying my uncle’s ID card runs off to another office within the building, comes back with the document we were promised, signed and stamped and sealed. So we believed we were all done but we were wrong.

Our half-sober star makes good on his promise to try and make more money off of us by claiming the mabwanas inside want to be paid more. So uncle offered up to go in and talk to the mabwanas himself, at which point our man jumped and said there would be no need for that.

I imagine my uncle wanted to break into laughter over how thin and poorly-planned this scam was.

“Kenya mambo hayaendi bila pesa, buda.” The man finally said, smiling with those half-dented bronze teeth of his. Nothing happens in Kenya if you don’t tip off.

But should it be that way, though, just because it already is, when it doesn’t really have to be?

Then again someone should have told the poor fool, we weren’t even in Kenya anymore. Should we really carry the worst bits about ourselves everywhere we go?

Oh did I mention I love traveling? I do, I really do.


Now then, won’t you feast your eyes on these photos I took with my modest phone camera during the trip?

Angry Muslim On My Screen


I finished watching the fourth season of 24 the other day.
As if I wasn’t already a big fan of the series, this season just went above and beyond to hook me in even further.  Jack. Bauer. What’s not to like about this guy?

The narrative around which the show 24 usually revolves is that a lot can happen in a single day. And boy doesn’t a lot happen in Jack’s life in those 24 hours. His hobbies during the day include kicking butt and running around a lot without, seemingly, stopping once to catch his second wind. He kicks off with staging a store robbery, then single-handedly storms a compound chokeful of terrorists to rescue a government official, then saunters off to the headquarters of an arms dealership to gather intel where he wards off an army of mercenaries, then leads a black-ops mission to retrieve an informant from the Chinese embassy, all while looking as fresh as a November chrysanthemum (I don’t know what that word means either).

And he does all this while constantly being pressured and second-guessed by his bosses who include quite possibly the most incompetent US president ever depicted on a TV or cinema screen.

He is hands-down the embodiment of all our fantasies of resilience and invincibility. Jason Bourne and wimpy James Bond have nothing on him at all.

Perhaps it’s just as well that Jack Bauer is not a very complicated man. He has no philosophies to preach or grand prophecies to narrate to his audience. His dialogue does not include confounding parabole with deep life lessons a la Master Yoda. When a character is that ‘simple’ but fights for his country and innocent people, everyone can relate to him.

His adversaries, on the other hand, are the ones with complicated philosophies and big words, which is why they are so blindly committed to their causes they are willing to die for them. In this season, true to form of most TV and cinema presentations in the recent decade, and of particular interest to this article, Jack’s adversaries happen to be…well…“Muslim” terrorists.

When the first few episodes of season four came out, there was such a huge uproar over the portrayal of Muslims in the show that the Muslim Council of Britain lodged a formal complaint, and it’s hard not to see why.  The show depicts a Turkish Muslim family so modern and assimilated in a foreign culture that the mother doesn’t wear a hijab, and the teenage son begins dating a non-Muslim local girl. Which is a big problem because frowny daddy has plans to turn continental US into a radioactive wasteland and his son’s girlfriend jeopardizes that…I think? What follows is borderline sinister and truly heartbreaking.

Feirouz, the teenage son, is pressured by his parents to kill his American girlfriend, because ‘she saw the darn warehouse’ where the father and other terrorists have been hiding a kidnapped government official. Feirouz chickens out and tries to rush his girlfriend away to safety, but she dies in his hands as it dawns on him that his mother poisoned the girl’s drink. You’d expect Feirouz would break down in tears and cry a river, but somehow, he manages to pull himself together immediately and doesn’t seem that distressed. No biggy, mum and dad were right anyway. Then, in a curious turn of events, mother turns against father to protect Feirouz, husband shoots mother, proceeds to kill an uncle and is on the verge of killing Feirouz when Jack Bauer swoops in once again to put an end to the madness. Just a troubled, messed-up family from start to end.

When the complaints began flooding in, the show’s creators promised that Muslims would be cast in better light towards the middle of the season. When that anticipated moment finally came it manifested in an underwhelming, in my opinion, cameo of two scrawny Muslim gun-store owners who helped Jack Bauer fight that army of mercenaries, further propagating the idea that Muslims are always ready for a fight, whether it’s to actively start one or to simply join in.

Alright, so maybe that’s what 24 is all about, gritty scenes with bad guys and good guys gleefully exchanging bullets every chance they get, so maybe that was the best we could have hoped for, but then I remember watching another show, the X-files, where one episode follows two very normal looking (and to some extent timid) Muslim teenagers cruising through an American town in their car until they park besides a building. Then to my genuine, but premature, delight they begin reciting together, a dua so familiar, in accent-free Arabic, I almost joined in. I remember thinking check out these two poor guys shaking and praying, are they going for a job interview or something? I hope they get it, I really do. I felt stupid seconds later when they walked into the building and it went up in one of those colourful explosions Hollywood is famed for.

It put me off so terribly, I watched the rest of the episode with my hand half reaching for the remote, but still curious to see if there would be some redemption for the Muslim community to come later.

It’s really depressing, I tell you, watching a TV show depicting people who claim to share spiritual beliefs with you, speak flawless Arabic and recite verses of the book we recite every day and regard as our life-manual, only for them to later on draw out their AK47s from thin air or don a bomb vest. You look at those people, when they are presented to you initially, hoping to see elements of your own life reflected back to you, but nothing of the sort is forthcoming.

We, Muslims, are people too.

We make embarrassing mistakes, small and big, throughout our lives, like every other human being.

We have an unhealthy habit of crying too much when we lose someone close to us, like most human beings.

We have our moments of comic awkwardness.

Like when we cant decide what to do with our hands while greeting the elderly who are our non-Mahrams (those we are eligible to marry). Our norms dictate it’s more respectful to extend your arm, yet at the same time tell us we shouldn’t when it’s a non-Mahram. Biiig dilemma.

Or that famed three-part Eid hug moment, when visiting relatives and you can’t remember whether you’re supposed to start on the right side or the left, or whether to end it with a kiss on the cheek or not. And if we do finish it that way, then who goes first? And then, you have that scene where both of you try to do it together and end up going around in circles and your necks wrap around each other and give rise to a clumsy two-headed monster.

Or how about the curious glances we contend with when we shout “Allah Akbar” in public after hearing good news. ‘Allah Akbar’ means ‘God is Great’ by the way, not ‘Death to the West’, for anyone here as yet unaware of that fact. In my mind I sometimes imagine a scene where a traditional middle-eastern mother visits her son in the US or Europe where he’s been studying and recently started working, and when the son pulls up at the arrivals terminal in his shiny brand new car, the overjoyed mother breaks into a khaleejy dance singing, “Allahu Akbar, my son’s made it. Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.”

The son jumps outside, fidgeting and smiling nervously and tries desperately to get her to stop, “Ma, mama, ya ummi! Here in the states we say, ‘Yay!’ and sort of jiggle our feet. Quick now, get in the car, before mysterious men in dark suits pull black bags over our heads and throw us in an FBI van, shukran.”

Are none of the above moments or similar worthy of joining the ranks of those classical “famous TV scenes”?

How much longer are we going to have to wait for that modern Muslim family sitcom the world so desperately needs right now?

I don’t know, something’s got to give. Am almost sure of it. That there will come a time in the future when someone in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry will look at the culture of a people who make up a quarter of the world’s population, see past the layers of stereotypes and into the humor and romance in it and finally produce a critically acclaimed, fan-adored show that really, actually captures the life of the modern Muslim.

Until that happens though, this angry “Muslim” on my TV screen, with his bloodshot eyes and his sharp tongue and his gun-trigger-seducing fingers, will remain as strange to me as the mission he dedicates his life –and death­ – to.

Kilimanjaro

I’ve been on the road the past two days to Arusha and back, and during the journey I must say I was really shocked to find Kilimajaro’s trademark glacier-covered top is not even close to what it used to be.
Even worse is that the amount of glaciers left on the mountain now is even less than what I saw four years ago when I travelled to Moshi. It therefore felt right to coin this poem as tribute to one of Africa’s  most iconic dwindling landmark, whatever difference that might make.

In his kilt of green,

The giant spread his boughs,

Behind a murky screen,

Of angry scheming clouds.

 

A marvel of history,

Shrouded in deep mystery.

 

Until the clouds parted,

The mystery lifted; departed,

 

And revealed was the giant’s familiar head,

In unfamiliar new state of undress,

Pensive villagers nodding in dread,

At what fury might conceive,

For the missing crown on the behemoth’s head,

When next it would its slumber leave.

 

Then the clouds once more hugged,

The giant in private passionate embrace,

Of furious tempest and granite stone.

 

And the villagers’ dread,

Was now as good as dead.