SynopsisAn exploration of the impact of the Arab Spring on a number of characters, Arab and non-Arab
ExcerptThe longer the war in Libya went on, the stronger became the temptation for Lisa to reveal to Terry the truth about his father. It was unfair that she had deprived him of this knowledge, and now fifteen years had passed since his birth. He was so interested in Libya, constantly following the news, speaking to Omar on the phone or in person: how could she not tell him of his connection with the country?
It was strange the way Terry had been drawn more to Libyan developments during the Arab Spring than those in other Arab countries where there were uprisings: Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen. When Terry”s class at school was asked to do a project on the new media and news reporting, he chose to focus on the coverage of Libya in newspapers, on TV channels and on Al-Jazeera English as well as on Twitter and Facebook. There was something about the Libyan revolution, the romance of its desert setting perhaps, its groups of young fighters on pick-ups, their mad courage, that captured Terry’s attention. Boys not much older than him were fighting in deserts, villages and cities and sometimes getting killed. His friendship with Omar was another reason for his near-obsession with the Libya war. For Lisa, it was as if some ancient, unknown forces of history and his father’s blood were pulling Terry. The old desert luring him.
The decision to tell Terry about his father began to form within Lisa, a swelling shape of suggestion. She brooded about it in the bathroom, taking her time in a coconut oil bath, planning how she would tell Terry and explain things to him. When she was buoyed up by the warm scented water it seemed simple; but once she got out of the water letting it drain from her body onto the chilly tiled floor, she saw the difficulties more vividly.
One June day, just like that, she knew this would be the day she told him. She suggested to Terry that they eat together that evening and she prepared a lamb goulash that she knew he liked. She got a bottle of Spanish red wine, a pricey one from Oddbins. She put on a loose Indian-style patterned top from Zara, narrow black trousers. She sprayed a light floral cologne on her body and hair. She had wanted to create a sense of occasion, but when Terry arrived home in the early he looked surprised and a little apprehensive. As if he knew something was up. He ran his fingers through his hair and it stood up even more than usual, in spikes.
“Pour yourself some wine” Lisa said. Terry examined the bottle with its 2004 label. “Posh wine,” he said. He sat in the sitting room where she had laid the table, and busied himself with his mobile phone. In the kitchen Lisa took the dish of goulash out of the oven. When she removed the lid steam rose from the long-cooked mixture of onions, lamb, tomatoes and paprika.
“Smells nice” Terry called out.
“Hope it’ll taste as good as it smells. For afters, I got some of that ginger ice cream you thought was good.”
Lisa popped her head out of the kitchen door. Terry was leafing through a Saudi Aramco World magazine she had received in the post that morning. The timeless world of old Islamic cultures, and of exhibitions: static, and far from the current turmoil of the Arab Spring. Lisa played for time in the kitchen, arranging the boiled potatoes just right on the plates, applying scrapes of butter which melted immediately on the taut scalding skin of the potatoes. She slowly licked the butter off her fingers and spooned the chunks of lamb in their rich goulash sauce onto two plates. She washed her hands and took her time drying her fingers. Terry put the television on and she heard someone on Sky News talking about Libya. Terry came to the kitchen door.
“Need any help?” he asked.
“Maybe you could put the salad leaves in the bowl and make some dressing.”
Terry opened the packet of mixed salad leaves and washed them in a colander under the cold tap. He put the leaves in a salad spinner. He mixed together with a fork the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a little Dijon mustard, salt and a grind of pepper. There was a momentary gush of garlic aroma as he pressed down on the garlic crusher and added its contents into the dressing. A mother and son working companionably in the kitchen to prepare supper; but Lisa knew that their relationship would somehow be changed by what she would soon be telling him.
“The guy on Sky said the rebels in Libya advanced again along the coast but they got beaten back”, Terry said. “They were getting panicky, arguing with each other. Running and then regrouping. One of the fighters was a Libyan dentist from Blackpool with a really strong accent from oop North.”
“Anyone might be arguing among themselves in those circumstances,” Lisa said.
“The important thing is, they’re not going to give in, not in the long run. I know it, Terry said. “They’re going to go on until they win or are destroyed. That’s what Omar’s been saying since day one.”
“Any news from Omar?”
“Well he’s got some relatives in Misrata. He still manages to speak to them every now and then on the phone. Another of his friends was killed a few days ago fighting with the rebels.”
The line she had rehearsed so many times in her head came out while they were eating the goulash.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about, Terry.”
“Oh yes?” he looked at her sideways, hair flopping forwards. He pushed it back from his face.
“And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. It’s been difficult for me. Somehow the right time never arose.”
“And now is the right time?”
“Well yes. With everything that’s happening in Libya at the moment.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” He waved his fork in the air, before attacking the plate of goulash again.
“Well it’s about your father.”
“Oh yeah. Don’t tell me he’s a military man. SAS maybe, fighting behind the lines? Or a pilot in NATO bombing the shit out of Gaddafi’s people.”
“No Terry.” A long pause. She swallowed a large mouthful of wine and almost choked on it. “He is, was, Libyan.”
“What?” He put down his knife and fork and looked at her. “My old man was .. a Libyan?”
“He was a Libyan refugee in an immigration detention centre when I met him. It’s called Meadowmere. Maybe you’ve heard of it.”
“I’ve heard of it all right. It”s one of the places where they have riots and the inmates try and burn it down. They repair the damage and then it happens again.”
“Right,” she said. “It’s an awful place. I went there a year or two after it first opened. I was doing an article on Arab asylum seekers, some of them had been on hunger strike, Algerian mainly, but there was one Libyan. And he was Ahmed.”
“So you go to Meadowmere and you meet this Libyan asylum seeker.' Don’t tell me you had an affair there somehow. Can visitors do that?”
“No – that all happened after he left Meadowmere. I had got very involved in his case when he was in detention, perhaps too involved. He was in a desperate state. He had been inside various prisons, like Rochester, and then Meadowmere, for nearly two years. Not because he was a criminal, but just because that’s what can happen to asylum seekers, they can be detained. The immigration people did it partly to deter other people coming to Britain who they thought were really economic migrants but who claimed poltiical asylum as a way of being allowed to stay.”
The words were coming out in a rush. “Those two years were almost a record length of time for someone to be held in immigration detention. We people campaigning for his release were appalled at his treatment. The immigration people had already tried to deport him to Libya via Tunisia. They flew him out to Tunis with two immigration officers guarding him on the plane - he was handcuffed between them - but at the airport the Tunisians refused to give him entry. They’d been tipped off by the Arab Organisation for Human Rights people in London that the British were going to try and send him to Libya through Tunis and that his life would be in danger. The Tunisians forced the immigration officers to bring him back to Britain.”
“Why didn’t the immigration people here just send him directly to Libya? Why did he have to go through Tunisia?”
“No direct flights. That was the crazy thing. Britain had cut off relations with Libya, imposed sanctions, more than 10 years before, when the policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead from the embassy during a demonstration – or people’s bureau as embassies had to be called in those days. And yet the British were still determined to deport him – although they knew what the Gaddafi regime was capable of, and that Ahmed would be in serious danger if he was sent back."
She thoguht back to the letters she had written to the Home Office and immigration directorate about his case. "They tried to make out that he had only taken part in anti-Gaddafi demonstrations here, and phoned up radio stations criticising Gaddafi using his own name, because they thought this would strengthen his asylum claim. They said he had put himself in danger through his own actions, and sort of manufactured an asylum claim.”
Terry pushed his plate away from him. “I’ve lost my appetite. So all these years you kept making up stories about my father, or at least not telling me the truth.”
“Terry there were reasons. I didn’t want you to grow up with the uncertainty – I don’t know what happened to him. I haven’t seen him since 1996. And also – well I didn’t know what he’d done exactly to be under threat in Libya. He had been doing some work in Britain, and his brother sent him a message from Libya warning him that on no account should he come back, and that if he did he would be arrested. I never knew the reasons, or whether it was just one of Gaddafi”s famous whims.”
“So you never knew whether he was a good Libyan,” Terry inscribed quotation marks in the air. “Or, a bad one.”
“I can’t imagine he’d done anything terrible or criminal. But he was terrified, really terrified, of being sent back. He said the Libyans would put him straight into prison, torture him and quite likely kill him.”
“So did he get sent back to Libya in the end?”
“After the immigration officers had to bring him back from Tunisia, they kept telling him they’d have to find another route to send him to Libya. Sudan was a possibility. It had good relations with Libya. And sometimes they deported Libyan asylum seekers through Malta, flying them out there and then putting them on a ferry to Libya. There were stories about Libyans preferring to throw themselves off the ferry rather than landing in Libya. Some drowned.”
“And so they sent him back?”
“In the end they were embarrassed out of it. The case went up to the Appeal Court and to everyone’s amazement he was eventually granted exceptional leave to remain in Britain.”
Terry’s face was red and moist. “I can’t take all this in”, he said. “So you what, gave him a pity fuck when he came out of detention?”
“Oh don’t be like that Terry. I’m just trying to explain. It”s not easy.” She started to clear the plates still laden with the remains of the meal.
“I forgot the salad,” she said.
“Maybe have it later. I feel sick.” Terry swilled some wine down. Then started to laugh, “Fucking ironical. There I am commiserating with Omar about Libya – me the English guy – and it turns out after all I’m Libyan myself with a maybe dodgy character of a father who deserted my mother.”
In the kitchen she spooned a modest amount of ginger ice cream into two bowls and then carried them to the table.
“It wasn’t like that,” she said.
“So he ran off when he found you were pregnant?”
“He never knew. And neither did I, for months. I thought all the stress of the case, him coming out Meadowmere, of trying to make it work between us had made – you know – my body shut down somehow. And by the time I did know, I had lost touch with him. He had moved, I didn't know where he was. Anway I thought it wasn’t fair to tell him when he had so many pressures on him and was tyring to make some new kind of life.”
“You mean I was just another form of stress? How do you know having a baby wasn’t what he wanted, or needed?”
There was a long pause. Lisa toyed with her plate of melting ice cream studded with small pieces of crystallised ginger.
“I can’t take it in,” Terry shouted. Lisa tried to quieten him. “It’s like you’ve landed me in the plot of a surreal film.” With a shaking hand he sloshed more wine into his glass. Normally Lisa let him have just one glass of wine at a meal, but she said nothing. He slurped the wine down.
“Un –fucking – believable,” he said. “Do you know how worried I was when you said you had something to tell me? I thought you were going to say you’re ill, with cancer or something. Trying to soften the blow with a nice dinner. Or, that you’re getting married. To whom, I don’t know.”
After a pause he said: “Ah, so that explains the Arabic lessons maybe when I was little. In case he came back, and you wanted to show you’d done your bit for me? It’s all beginning to make sense. The trips you took me on to the Middle East - to Lebanon etc.”
“I wanted to leave your options open. Anyway, it’s good to know a second language. Especially Arabic. It’s one of the important languages nowadays.” It was true that Terry prided himself on his Arabic, that he had this special knowledge and could write the script.
So, Lisa thought, she had made a mistake. She should have told him the truth from the beginning.
She clutched Terry’s hand. “Look, he was a good person, I knew that. But we weren’t suited for a relationship as such, or not a long-term one. We were too different. Now, eat your ice cream at least. You hardly ate any lamb.”
“You think anyone could eat when they’ve just found out their mother has been lying to them from the moment they were born?”
She flinched from his fury. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I honestly thought I was doing things for the best. It was a difficult situation.”
“Well I’m in a difficult situation now. You opened up all kinds of questions in my mind. And that’s why I had an Arabic name of course. Tariq. Terry. Not from Terence. No from Tariq – not, like you used to say, because you were so in love with Arabic and the Arab world and wanted me to have the same opportunities.”
“I wanted to leave the door open..” Her voice trailed off.
Terry stood up. “Thanks for the dinner, but I need some fresh air. I've got a lot to take in.” He picked up his jacket. She held her glass tightly and started ahead. She would going to cry if she wasn’t careful, and that would make things even worse.
“See you,” he said and walked out slamming the door.
Lisa’s heart was racing and she felt cold with shock. Well at least she had told him now. Perhaps after all she should have said nothing, especially as she had no idea what had become of Ahmed.
At her last meeting with Ahmed, in early 1996, he had phoned his brother in Libya on the mobile phone she had bought him. His brother had told him that their mother was seriously ill with a liver complaint. After the call Ahmed had become distraught and had said even if it killed him he would go back to Libya to be with his mother. Lisa had thought at first he was being over-dramatic, but he seemed to mean it. She hadn’t been able to tell Terry this before he stormed out. Not had she been able to show him things she had got ready from what she privately called her “Ahmed drawer”.
She had been going to show Terry photographs of Ahmed she kept in that drawer, including those taken at the Mandola Sudanese restaurant in Westbourne Grove when they had the party for Ahmed after his release from Meadowmere. There was the correspondence with his lawyers and the immigration authorities about his case. And she had planned to show him on Google how Ahmed’s case had made British legal history and was referred to in books and articles.
Ahmed had not been well in Meadowmere. He had been admitted to hospital for a few days of investigations at one point. He had told her how some other patients thought he was a Saudi or Gulf prince with bodyguards, not realising he was a detainee with immigration officers guarding him. He had been lucky not to be handcuffed to the bed.
The doctors investigating his case had advised Meadowmere that his anxiety was not helping his medical condition and that he should be released if possible. But the Meadowmere administration ignored this. Ahmed's health had been poor, and he could have died in the decade and a half since she last saw him. On the other hand, perhaps he had been eventually pardoned by the capricious Gaddafi and the Libyan authorities and gone back to Libya.
Among the papers in the “Ahmed drawer” were cuttings Lisa had kept of the articles she had written at the time about his case, and those of other asylum seekers. Michael Howard was Home Secretary in those days. And there were stories she had written in her writing group in the years after she used to visit Meadowmere. One of the stories was about a cleaner who worked there, and an unsympathetic son-in-law who rolled his hatred of immigrants into a general assumption that all those at Meadowmere were foreign criminals. But all these things were still in her “Ahmed drawer” unseen by Terry.
Over the next few days a fragile calm prevailed in the flat, smoothing over the tension underneath. She and Terry were careful with each other. He went out quite a lot, spent much time on the computer and met Omar at least once. She wondered whether he had told Omar about his Libyan father. After a few days, she asked Terry to sit with her at the table, on which she had placed cups of tea and a plate of butter shortbread biscuits. She showed him the contents of her Ahmed drawer, though not her personal diaries and journals from 1995 and 1996 which she had hidden in another drawer. She went through the photographs, letters and so on, explaining what they were, and left him alone with them when she went out.
On her return he said “Thank you Mum,” and hugged her awkwardly.
“I”m so sorry about everything,” she whispered.
Things eased between them after that to some extent.
But even now she had not told him everything. She had not told him how she had hunted on the internet for anyone with Ahmed’s surname and middle name over the years but had not found one spelt the same. Until recently when she had found someone with the same middle and last names on Facebook, and by searching for this name on Google had found that person was an expert working in the Libyan Ministry of Industry in Tripoli. The man's name was in the report on a conference of experts on industrial technology held in Gambia in January 2011 just a month before the Libyan uprising started. Could this be one of Ahmed’s brothers, or at least a relative, who would know what had become of him? The report included Tripoli telephone and fax numbers for this man, and an e-mail address.
Lisa had dialled the Tripoli telephone number one day, her hand trembling, her heart accelerating. Couldn’t it be dangerous, ringing this number? What if this person with Ahmed”s middle and last names had been connected with Libyan intelligence, was a murky character? A recorded message of a rapidly speaking woman”s voice told callers in Arabic that if they did not know the extension they should dial 0. Lisa did this, and got recorded music, reminiscent of that on the phones at Meadowmere. The music burbled on pleasantly and Lisa imagined it could have done so all day. Nobody answered the phone. With some relief she had decided not to hold on any longer and had put the receiver down. Should she send this person with Ahmed”s surname a message via his Facebook account, or just let the matter rest?