By Kim Farleigh
Statues of Saddam, rising over his palace’s walls, depicted him as Nubocodonosor. Those statues represented delightful revenge for he whose brilliant inquiries about nuclear physics to French nuclear technicians were so complex that those questions couldn’t be answered—not bad for an “uncultivated thug.” His statues commemorated victory over his detractors whose mockery of the evil genius had come from their naive belief in their false superiority. Many of those detractors had now been executed by that expert in nuclear technology.
Saddam’s downfall’s repercussions, however, were brewing across Iraq. Someone unperturbed by that brewing was staying in the hotel we were in in Baghdad. Hubert, a French journalist, said: “He walks around Baghdad unprotected. He thinks he’s in Amsterdam.”
Hubert wore black-framed glasses and the constant shimmer of a charming smile. The shimmer shone when he said that our hotel should put a sign on the front door saying: No Americans allowed. Nothing personal. We know you understand. He was referring to a bomb blast at Fox News’s hotel that had woken us all up the day before. That explosion, like a mine shaft eruption, had rumble-shock-wave shivered our hotel’s windows, a seven-in-the-morning reality booooooom that had snapped us out of sleep’s illusions.
“Everywhere unprotected?” I asked Hubert, curious about this guy “who thought he was in Amsterdam.”
“Ask him. He’s over there.”
I spun: a man in beige trousers and a white, long-sleeved shirt was at a table opening a computer. We were in the hotel’s reading room beside the lobby. A big window revealed that the facades on the other side of the street were plastered with thick dust that had arrived from the desert, the dust not having been cleaned away because of the war, its accumulation making the facades resemble miserable, bearded faces, ironic symbols of coming threats.
“Hi!” the man opening the computer yelled.
His name was Konrad. His head was framed by the fungus-like dust that gave the facing facades a grey-mould look of rot and decadence, like microcosms of a worsening Iraq.
Konrad exuded gregarious self-containment. He had short, blonde hair, a round face, and eyes of amiable self-assurance. A picture of an ex-football star decorated his computer screen. The ex-footballer’s eyes exuded displeasure within a disquieted face.
“That’s my son,” Konrad said, pointing at a boy photographed with Patrick Kluivert, the ex-footballer.
Kluivert’s eyes looked murderous. Konrad had invaded Kluivert’s privacy in an Amsterdam hotel lobby. Studying that photograph, I thought: Our eyesight is similar, physically, but once information passes through retinas it’s transformed by dreams, prejudices and mood—by inferiority and superiority—into multifaceted forms, as if our irises are prisms inserted into our eyeballs by unfathomable fates.
“How many people,” Konrad asked, “have a son who’s been photographed with one of their country’s greatest ever players?”
Konrad’s pride was less worrying than his denial of Kluivert’s distaste.
“People say,” he continued, “that Baghdad is dangerous. But I walk everywhere. I haven’t had a problem.”
The high-security Canal Hotel had been recently hit by a bomb blast, many killed, including senior UN staff. I had never seen such optimism. The horribly unexpected lurked like monsters in all corners of Baghdad.
“The Canal didn’t erect a sign saying: No Fox journalists allowed,” Hubert joked later when he and I were talking about the incidents that had happened in recent weeks.
“Is he blind and deaf?” I asked, referring to Konrad.
“He may as well be,” Hubert replied.
It had been years since I had met someone who genuinely mystified me. But Konrad mystified everyone.
“If you keep doing what he’s doing,” Hubert said, “in this place, there’s only one thing that can happen—the thing nobody recovers from.”
No one denied that, except Konrad.
A military convoy rumbled under my room’s balcony: Humvees, armoured Jeeps, and tanks. The tuneless, whining thunder created by that convoy said something of the reptilian vision responsible for such a noise.
A man in a wheelchair spun his wheels past the washing machines and refrigerators that sat in cardboard containers on the footpath on the other side of the road in front of shops selling domestic appliances, the wheelchair man’s head bent forward, arms frenetic, strangely obsessed by speed.
The eight-story concrete shell of a half-constructed building faced me, bricks scattered around the building’s base, black, paneless rectangles facing the hotel. Heat clung like fur to my body, moistening my skin.
A white-gold flash left one of the black, paneless rectangles, Humvee hit. My ego contracted to a dot, vision squeezed into sight’s centre. An orange flash turned white-gold where the Humvee had been, sunset hues under mushrooming grey; black, coiling smoke rose above flames that cracked like crunching glass, sharp-centre vision amid surreal obscuration.
“What was that?!” Hubert asked, crawling to the balcony.
“RPG from the building site,” I replied.
Machine-gun fire ripped holes into the half-constructed building’s facade, smoky dust rising like flameless fires from that concrete shell, gunfire, like beating on tight drum skins, cracking: plack plack; plack plack plack.
An Apache helicopter appeared above the balcony, just there! almost within touching distance, perception rocked by the reality reversal of the helicopter’s silence, adrenalin crushing time into milliseconds, the missile fired by the helicopter striking an upright, concrete shelves collapsing, dust billowing.
The following silence had ocean-floor depth; familiar sounds then shot time back past its normal rhythm in the other direction: voices screaming, engines roaring; plack, plack; plack, plack.
Flames wavered on the Humvee. Swirling smoke, twisting in coiling, vertical streams, without vapour’s grace, blackened airborne grey. Tanks blocked the road. Faces peered from doorways. Curiosity’s swelling and shrinking balances fear’s rising and falling.
Soldiers scrambled over the rubble.
My ego fled back out into an expanding space that was now filling with excitement. “I’m floating,” I said.
Dust, caught by the sun above the road’s valley, shone golden over a charred torso that hung from the Humvee like melted tar, dusty incandescence hovering over the horror, like a spirit released from pain.
Konrad disappeared during the convoy attack, coordinated attacks occurring that day across Iraq, the hand stirring the brewing increasing that murky undercurrent’s rhythm in a gesture that said: “You could be next.”
“I warned him constantly,” Hubert said. “But he was in a dream.”
And who isn’t? The dream freedom crystallises from our dreams.
Objectivity isn’t nice so it’s frequently rejected; but it was also difficult to ignore, difficult believing Konrad could have been that optimistic without having had some motive that was currently beyond my speculative powers. Hoping to understand his motives, I watched his death on YouTube. I wasn’t interested in gratuitous violence, but by how I would react. I went to Iraq to stop emotions being hammered into oblivion by daily life’s crushing sameness, a hammering that makes self-discovery difficult.
My teeth clenched. If you think truth shouldn’t be ignored just because it isn’t nice, then you have to face that noble philosophy’s consequences. I faced those consequences as Konrad’s head began getting severed by a carving knife. He screamed until he could scream no longer. My neck muscles tightened as I held my head’s position against the need to look elsewhere. I hadn’t known what I was going to feel before seeing that video, but I knew it wasn’t going to be the draining inconsequentiality that normal societies create by oppressing the unpredictable. I went to Iraq to feel something new, but I went cautiously. Konrad had been so optimistic that he had even been unable to see his own unpopularity as if unpopularity itself hadn’t existed.
I wasn’t surprised by the executioner’s righteous brutality, the rapidly slicing hand, the blood expanding, and . . .
I stopped looking. That video, adding nothing more to knowledge, would only reinforce prejudices, allowing other criminals to perpetuate outrages in the name of justice.
I was shocked by Konrad’s carelessness; seeing his behaviour as wayward helped my self-esteem as I struggled to believe that I had common sense, given that common sense is intelligent fear. Would taking precautions have annihilated his reason for being? Something had stolen from him Death’s significance. But what?
One day, Konrad took photographs on the street below my room’s balcony. His white shirt shone like sunlit snow. He grouped together the satellite-dish and washing-machine retailers whose shops faced our hotel. Men on plastic chairs sat before a standing row of grinning men. My telephoto lens brought them closer. Satellite dishes were flooding into Iraq, increasing fear; curiosity with technology reveals repugnance.
The smiling men’s faces contrasted with Kluivert’s grimace. Back-slapping occurred as they examined Konrad’s camera screen. Konrad saw extreme beauty in humanity. He believed in this selflessly, his amiability genuine, not connected from getting consolation in heaven.
Two girls emerged from a shop dressed in one-piece, ankle-length, green-velvet garments. Gold embroidery decorated their sleeves and collars. Wavy, black hair touched their shoulders. They faced Konrad so he could snap them. They stared at his lens, unsure of what to expect. A satellite dish on a cardboard box behind them faced the sky, like a hopeful ear seeking relevance from that impartiality above.
The girls stared at Konrad’s camera screen. Konrad’s teeth became visible, bone-white heightening the blackness of the girls’ hair, the hair emphasising Konrad’s shirt`s whiteness, harmonious opposites linking.
I stayed on the balcony, fearing humanity’s lust for revenge. When Konrad entered the hotel, I went to the reading room. Because his vision differed from mine, I wanted to know his thoughts.
“A good day?” I asked.
“Fascinating,” he replied. “Every day is an adventure.”
“That’s why we’re here,” I said.
His exaltation rendered danger irrelevant, something fantastic enlightening his world.
“Baghdad isn’t that dangerous,” he said. “Look at this. Cute, eh?”
His faith in humanity astounded me. Sweet wonderment lacquered the photographed girls’ faces.
“Beautiful,” I replied; “especially with the colours.”
“Tomorrow I’ll be doing the same,” he said.
Bad idea that, I thought.
Fear in dangerous places rises with knowledge; it’s not a sine curve, accumulation telling you it’s time to leave, too many experience packages delivered too quickly, no need to open them all simultaneously: opening inevitably comes.
Hubert said: “I really tried warning Konrad.”
“You did everything possible,” I said.
“I should have got the police to arrest him,” he replied.
“You did everything you could,” I reiterated.
No warning would have worked. Konrad had negotiated death’s valley as if evil didn’t exist, our attitude towards him having changed, his absence becoming a loss that had arrived suddenly. You miss people you share unique experiences with, personality often irrelevant against the uniqueness of the mutual life felt. Misplaced may have been his faith in humanity, but death elevates the dead: I now felt he had been blessed with a greatness that, although short-lived, was purer than most will ever know.
“Some dreamers,” I said, “believe angels take us to heaven. Konrad was rational in comparison to that.”
“True,” Hubert said; “but he was weirdly confident for some reason.”
“Weirdly confident” pursued me down the cord back into normalcy that connected Baghdad with Amman. The unexpected loss came from sharing the unusual experience of being in Baghdad; but it didn’t explain everything. Uncertainty regarding Konrad persisted as melted electricity pylons, with forlorn, drooping heads and buckled spines airstrike-twisted, passed by, like mourners holding vigils for the departed. Glinting vehicle dots fell off the world’s distant lip. A moving carpet of ant-like-diminutive, herded goats, amid the earth-sky immensity, suggested why God was from Arabia, where dimensions diminish personal magnitude, giving room for Almighties.
Risk-taking had given me the experience to write the articles I wanted to write, the land-sky enormity feeding my satisfying humility. Imagine the freedom realised by believing that this enormity comes from a God who protects you? Religion reflects our lust for liberation.
Konrad had walked around Baghdad, photographing the locals, because displaying goodness amid savagery freed him. The thrill born from this reckless amiability had been so overwhelming that it made him weirdly confident, more life experienced in Baghdad than many experience in decades. But I still didn’t know why in his case he had had the incentive to discard risk so wantonly.
His optimism had created discomfort, some fact surrounding him that we were ignorant of. I went to Iraq to get the experience necessary for writing and to release emotions buried by safe routine, to touch life’s pulse. This seemed sensible to me, while being crazy for those whose lusts for liberation assume more standard forms. But they, too, are weirdly confident, bitter divorce and unemployment only happening to others—until it happens to you.
The motivation spectrum, wide as imagination, gets braced by constructs of how liberation can be achieved. Loss turned Konrad’s attitude into relevance, our individualistic hunts for freedom creating risks, just chance I survived and not him, “weird confidence” having eliminated grind for us both.
Acknowledging what we had shared diminished my misplaced superiority, deepening my consideration of the possibilities of his motivation, agitating not knowing what the specific circumstances had been that had inspired him.
Reflected buildings created false images of profound depths in the Amsterdam canal that faced me, upturned seagulls reflected beneath living counterparts, men lifting packages from a boat onto the footpath in front of the café I was sitting in, the table beside mine occupied by two men; one asked the other: “Have you ever just wanted to disappear?”
The question intrigued me.
“I would if my circumstances changed,” the other one said.
“In what way?” the first guy asked.
“If life became meaningless,” the other one said.
A waitress took their orders. Orange jeans encased her lavish hips.
“I could disappear with that waitress,” the first guy said.
“Do you know anyone who has disappeared?” the other guy asked.
“Yes. His name was Konrad.”
Surprise whipped my mind. The returning waitress’s white teeth were encased by cherry lips. Ebony hair decorated her shoulders. Most men get few chances with women like that, nature ensuring that equal rights (opportunities) will never exist.
“Sorry,” the waitress said, “I forgot to bring the water you ordered.”
“Great,” the first guy replied.
“Great?” the waitress asked.
“Because I’ll see you again soon,” the first guy replied. “And that’ll be great.”
The waitress’s laughter made me feel envious. I also felt frustrated that the story about this man Konrad had been interrupted by that beautiful creature.
“Anyway,” the other guy said, “you were saying?”
Faking disinterest, my “curiosity” for the reflections facing us became “extreme.” The first guy sipped his drink; then said: “His wife was gorgeous and funny. Envy couldn’t have been higher. Konrad floated around the office we were working together in in a mist of bliss. He was happy enough naturally, so you can imagine how she made him feel. She and his son died in a car accident. He crashed from gargantuan heights.”
Clamorous clarity hit. Rising seagulls swirled as the boat left, ripples wrecking water tranquillity, packages being carried into the shop beside the café.
“He had everything,” the man continued. “A great woman, a cute, happy son, a great job, many friends; then it all went, bang, like that.”
The still reflections returned, creating illusions of vast depths.
“He went to Iraq with a camera,” the man continued. “We didn’t know that at the time. He disappeared after losing interest in everything.”
The waitress returned with the water. Beauty doesn’t prepare you for disaster, while leading you to it. The waitress’s face had harmonious long and short curves that the master craftsman of nature had created to produce a perfect balance of forces. Few men could have expected to have more than one woman like her in their lives—and that was only if you got lucky.
“It feels like an eternity,” the admirer told the waitress, “since we last saw each other.”
“Sometimes working in this café feels like an eternity,” the waitress replied, calcium appearing in that wonderful face. “So thanks for the compliment.”
Her lips gleamed as she headed back inside.
Konrad’s ex-work colleague sipped his drink and said: “Then we heard what happened to him.”
The speaker’s snow-white hair exaggerated his cheeks’ redness and the greenness of his eyes. I braced myself, recalling that video. The orange Konrad had been dressed in was the same colour as the waitress’s jeans, she as dangerous, but in a different way, as the executioner . . . Loss can take years to feel; you need time to realise that you share life’s really great experiences with so few people whose value therefore increases with age.
“He got kidnapped and executed,” the snowy-haired man said. “Being in the office after that felt like being at a funeral.”
The man stared at the shutters on the facades facing us, wonderstruck by some idea; he said: “He went to Iraq to be surrounded by a misery even bigger than his own. It took me a long time to understand that. At first, I just thought he had gone mad. Generally speaking, we’re stupid when we think about other people’s motivations.”
Of course, I thought, you idiot. That’s why! And that’s why he didn’t care about Kluivert’s reaction in that damn hotel: he had been too happy to have worried about other people’s petty stroppiness.
And then I thought: Many men, driven by unfortunate personal circumstances, must have gone to war, maybe even to die, unable to hack reminders of past bliss. And maybe they’ve done this with bright faces that hid impossible sorrows, men above caring about this superficial world of trifles who had sought their ultimate recompense amid the suffering of others, freed from daily life’s flaring absurdities to soothe those in need, and done so as a tribute to their own loss and to that loss in others.
Their mouths froze open, the wind giving the trees a mournful voice, as I said: “I should have got to have known him better. I could have saved him. What an idiot I am.”
Kim has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Palestine and Iraq. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes bullfighting, painting, photography, international affairs, and fine wine and food, which might explain why this Australian from Perth lives in Madrid. 139 of his stories have been accepted by 84 different magazines.