From the author of Gate of the Sun and "one of the most innovative novelists in the Arab World" (The Washington Post Book World) comes the many-layered story of Little Gandhi, or Abd Al-Karim, a shoe shine in a city fractured by war. Shot down in the street, Gandhi's story is recounted by an aging and garrulous prostitute named Alice.
Ingeniously embedding stories within stories, Little Gandhi becomes the story of a city, Beirut, in the grip of civil war. Once again, as John Leonard wrote in Harper's Magazine, Elias Khoury "fills in the blank spaces on the Middle Eastern map in our Western heads."
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But they’re talking.
I see their images in front of me, fading away behind their eyes. Eyes that vanish, and water. Lots of water, covering everything. And distant voices; voices that seem to be distant. I summon the images before me and listen.
I don’t know who’s talking or who’s listening. I’m talking. I’m the one who’s been talking all along. But I’m not sure. Is it my voice or the images? Why are they like that? I see their images while they themselves dissipate like water. Water doesn’t dissipate, water just takes you and goes. They’re in the water, and they’re all just like the water. I’m telling the story and it hasn’t even ended yet. And the story is nothing but names. When I found out their names, I found out the story. Abd al-Karim, Alice, Suad, the Reverend Amin, the American Davis, the dog, the barber, Spiro with the hat, Salim Abu Ayoun, Doctor Atef, Doctor Naseeb, Abu Jamil the impresario, Lieutenant Tannous al-Zaim, the second dog, Madame Nuha Aoun, Husn, Ralph, Ghassan, Lillian Sabbagha, Constantine Mikhbat, Abu Saeed al-Munla, “The Leader,” Fawziyya, Husn the son of Abd al-Karim, Abd al-Karim the son of Husn, the Assyrian Habib Malku, the Aitany boy, and al-Askary, et cetera, et cetera, and the White Russian woman, et cetera, every one of them died. They went to this et cetera thing and didn’t come back. I don’t know if Najat died, but the old baker Rashid died for sure. And the rest, I don’t know. Even the death of Abd al-Karim, who opens the whole story, is uncertain. I didn’t see him die. Actually, I wasn’t even there when he died, and when I went to visit him at his house, I didn’t find any trace of him. Not of him, or his wife, or his daughter, or the barber. And I didn’t search for them. I met Alice in a cheap hotel called the Salonica. The first time I went to it, I thought the owner was a Greek from Mount Athos, where lots of monks live, but it turned out to be just some small hotel, situated next to the Starco building, which had been demolished by bombs. It was full of retired prostitutes, barmaids, whores, and some soldiers. Alice was a maid in the hotel. She told me she was a maid, but I don’t know, and I don’t know why she told me all those stories. When I lost track of Alice, and the hotel disappeared in 1984, I remembered Abd al-Karim and decided to write these stories down. I discovered that the things Alice told me weren’t lies. A woman in love doesn’t lie. Alice wasn’t in love and she didn’t lie. That’s how she was, told lies like everyone else, but she told me everything, and all of it was true.
Alice vanished, and they began dying right before my eyes. Was it I who was killing them, or am I simply a narrator telling their stories?
I walk, and Abd al-Karim’s shadow walks beside me. I see his small frame and broken teeth and thick, tawny neck. I see everything, and when I ask him about Alice, I discover he’s merely a shadow. Abd al-Karim has become a shadow that fills my eyes. When he died, no one knew about it. He died when death ceased to have any value.
“Death has always been cheap,” Alice said when she was telling me his story. But she was lying, because she knew death does have a price—death itself. They said he was killed by a stray bullet. They said he fled from his house, so they killed him. They said he was walking along the road and so they shot him in the back. But after his death everyone disappeared. Even Alice vanished. I waited two years, but she had disappeared. Alice went to the Salonica Hotel to work as a maid, and the owner had a lot of affection for her. “She’s a treasure,” he said to me, winking with his left eye. At the time, I wasn’t doing anything. I’d bring her a bottle of arak, get to the hotel, and see her sitting, waiting for me in the lobby among soldiers and men chewing their food and yawning. She’d take me to her room, and I’d see her trembling hands covered with black veins. When I’d pour her a glass, she’d slug it down in one gulp, the trembling would stop, and she’d start talking. I’d abandon myself to her words. She said I was like one of her children. “You’re all my children,” she’d say to me and everyone sitting around her. The owner would laugh, saying, “Not so, lady. We’re not sons of a bitch!” and everyone would drown in laughter, and Alice would laugh. I would look at her and get scared. Who was this woman? I met Abd al-Karim by coincidence, but her, I don’t know how I met her. Abd al-Karim, nicknamed Little Gandhi, was a shoe shiner. He never shined my shoes, but everyone had told me about him. I ran into him once and we talked for a long time. But her, I don’t know, maybe another coincidence. She was a woman in her sixties, but there was nothing womanly about her—flat chest, an emaciated body that disappeared under her long black dress, eyes half-closed, a long nose, thin lips, and hands that constantly shook. She was a woman with nothing special about her, except that she reminds you of some other woman. It’s always like that. We give flight to our imagination when we see a woman, only because she reminds us of some other woman we used to know. Every woman has a female antecedent in our minds, and Alice was no exception. She looked like Victoria, the one crazy Antoun the garbageman would chase after, trying to kiss her because the store owner Emil promised him a lira if he could do it. Maybe I was fantasizing about Victoria, who I wanted to have, as did all the boys in the quarter, taking after their fathers. “All women are memories,” I tried to say to Alice as she told me about Lieutenant Tannous. But she said no. She was right. In those days, I couldn’t understand why she turned me down, because I was a coward. Now I know; all women are memories except the one that’s potentially yours. For you’re a man because you’re some woman’s potentiality. The woman who doesn’t remind you of another one is your female potentiality. This one you don’t fantasize about or with, this one kills you. You can’t write her story because she takes you on the final journey to death.
Alice is the one who took me on the journey to Abd al-Karim and these names and faces. And now I ask, Who traveled and who remained? Did she take me on her journey and Abd al-Karim’s journey, or was I just a mirror? I don’t know. What I do know is that she traveled to Mosul and Baghdad and Aleppo before finally settling down in Beirut, whereas Abd al-Karim, otherwise known as Little Gandhi, never traveled at all. He stayed behind, attached to his wooden box, in front of the main gate of the American University. He stayed in Beirut and tried every possible occupation before dying on top of his box. But when he came to the end of his journey, Abd al-Karim didn’t realize he’d traveled more than all the shoe shiners in the world. Not because he had come all the way from Mashta Hasan in Akkar to Beirut, but because Beirut itself travels. You stay where you are and it travels. Instead of you traveling, the city travels. Look at Beirut, transforming from the Switzerland of the East to Hong Kong, to Saigon, to Calcutta, to Sri Lanka. It’s as if we circled the world in ten or twenty years. We stayed where we were and the world circled around us. Everything around us has changed, and we have changed.
Before he died, Abd al-Karim changed a lot. But death didn’t give him a chance to see the city after it was transformed into its present Third World condition. Maybe it will happen to us too. Death won’t give us a chance to see transformations we can’t imagine. At any rate, the journey will end, whether we like it or not.
I’m the one narrating and writing. I want to travel with those people, but I find myself alone in a dark corner. I search for the rhythm of a journey that took place a few years ago, and feel like I’m digging in a deep well. I’m not digging, the well opens its mouth and pulls me in. And just as Abd al-Karim set out on his journey, and just as Alice, and Amin, and Malku, and Nuha, and Lillian, and Abu Saeed, and Rima and Husn and … set out on theirs, I, too, want to go. I discovered I was digging a well that was swallowing me up.
THE JOURNEY OF LITTLE GANDHI. Copyright © 1994 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.