by Maniza Naqvi
I can hear the Hallelujah man down on Broadway near the subway station. Ha-Le Lu yah—Ha-Le-Lu-Yah! Gee—Zuz! Gee Zuz! Gee-Zuz! I love you—-I love you—I love you—Ha—Le-Lu Yah—Ha-Le-Lu-Yah.
And I'm reminded suddenly of that time one evening when Jesus walked into a bar with a Pakistani and an Indian in Sarajevo.
I guess it's a good time to tell you this story.
Jesus looked very serious that evening a decade ago and formal too as Sanjay invited me to supper with them.
‘We're taking you to the finest restaurant in all of Sarajevo!' Sanjay said. And before I could say it was a tourist trap or anything like that Jesus solemnly added,‘It is my favorite.'
I think that was the first time I had heard him speak. He never uttered a word during staff meetings—just took notes and nodded from time to time. He wore Save the Children ties.
Now who was going to argue about where to go and what to eat with Jesus? Not me. Not with Jesus from Procurement or Sanjay from Financial Management both of whom, had my project document on their desks for review and which I needed back from them cleared and approved by c.o.b the next day. If this was the finest and the favorite restaurant in town who was I to show them the error of their ways or contradict them at nine p.m. on a cold and quiet night when I had nowhere else to go to. So be it. Done.I braced myself for the boring evening ahead.
On the short walk to the restaurant I stopped at an ATM machine. As I withdrew a couple of hundred Convertible Marks, I commented to them ‘This probably functions as surveillance. Someone somewhere knows that I'm standing at the corner of Olitsa such and such at such and such time in such and such city.'
Sanjay laughed ‘You are so paranoid. There is no such thing. This is the year 2004 not the book 1984!'
Jesus remained silent.
I pointed to the sky and said in a stage whisper ‘Oh yeah! Well He's been spying on us since the beginning of time!'
Jesus smiled. Sanjay didn't get it.
‘You know? Naughty and nice?' I hinted laughing.
Still nothing. Accountants.
The bar was quiet when we walked in and the restaurant was as forlorn a place as I remembered it. It was a dingy looking throwback to the Winter Olympics –of 1984 come to think of it. There were a couple of customers there–two men in military uniforms —huddled over their beers and food. Two Britons—beards—prayer caps talking to each other earnestly. And there was a couple seated facing each other at a table near ours. They seemed to be bored elderly musicians, waiting to perform: waiting for us to settle down before they would sing for us over our supper so they could have theirs. I looked the couple over. He had a harmonium on his lap. He was in his early sixties perhaps and maybe he was Roma? He seemed to be waiting for a moment to start playing but the patrons this evening wouldn't stop talking. Across from him and older than him it seemed, sat the singer—or perhaps she was a dancer—a bottle blond, with earlier versions of bottle red still evident nearer the roots. Swollen pouches of flesh beneath her eyes, blue eye shadow on heavy lids—and two rouge round spots on either plump cheek—-they sat in silence staring at each other. He in a suit—navy blue—she swathed in a velvet flouncy skirt in cypress green over which she wore an embroidered velvet smock and a colorful embroidered shawl. All of us, whiling away an evening away from home.
As Jesus, Sanjay and I settled down at our table in a corner I said ‘Hey Hay-seus, I saw a pretty decent documentary film on Cuba just the other night on some travel channel…Habana and the Buena Vista Club. So charming! I want to go to Habana before Fidel Castro dies. You know before everything changes and the old world charm disappears. You know?'
Jesus glanced at me and nodded silently. A waiter came over and fussed with the table removing extra plates and glasses while we watched.
A few minutes later just as the wine showed up Jesus leaned forward and offered this: ‘I was very close to Fidel Castro. I was his translator for twenty years.' Seeing my open mouth, he nodded ‘Yes. It is true. Not only that—-I was the translator then I became the defense attaché of Cuba for Raul Castro, and after that I was the last ambassador to the Soviet Union from Cuba before Perestroika.'
I stared with glee at Jesus. The evening suddenly looked promising. The bread arrived and we paused while I passed it around. Then the waiter asked for our orders. Orders were placed. We all ordered assortments of cevapcicci kebab and fish on skewers. Jesus ordered stew. Beef. I followed suit. Sanjay ordered a fish soup and munched on buttered bread.
Jesus continued ‘At the time that I defected to the United States, I was the Ambassador from Cuba to Moscow. Cuba was the most sophisticated surveillance State, much more so than the Soviet Union, —-neighbor spied against neighbor, children spied on parents, friends on friends and colleagues on colleagues. Yes everyone kept a watch on each other— a check and double check, a tracking of each other.'
He talked about how the Cuban State played everyone against each other for their own good and for the good of each other. How without having to be violently ruthless the State was ruthless. “But I knew the moment I had fallen out of favor. And I knew that I had to defect” He sat up and raising his fore finger in the air he said with pride ‘I was the highest ranking defector from Cuba. The Ambassador from Costa Rica to Moscow assisted me in defecting.'
‘Why, Hay-seus, why did you defect?' Sanjay asked.
‘It was because of a memo. I had written a memo back to my bosses in Cuba forecasting that the end of the Soviet Union was eminent based on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘Wow!' I said.
‘Yes.' Jesus agreed.
‘Ah' I said ‘Nagorno-Karabakh—I love saying that—so exotic—Nagorno-Karabakh, no?'
Jesus had his arms folded across his chest as he continued, ‘This one act of mine—the memo–had not been viewed favorably by Fidel. But still Raul had protected me because we had been personal friends'
I cast another glance at the musicians. They sat there across the table from each other—gazing at each other as if, in rebuke or is it regret. As if keeping each other's secrets by telling each other lies. From time to time she dabbed her eyes as though she were quietly crying. As though, they had rendezvoused here this evening years after being parted from each other to meet this one last time. Perhaps they had been a duo of singers and lovers and years later the war had torn them apart and separated them—now here they were meeting—He alone, still. She a spinster, no perhaps a grandmother, widowed: There comes a time that it's all the same. She looked, abandoned. She was dressed up this evening to recreate lost moments but had managed only a macabre resurrection of something long gone. Now they sat across from each other staring wordlessly while she wept noiselessly and he commiserated, silently.
Hay-seus talked and talked and I continued to listen enraptured, confirmed in my belief that just when you think you are going to be bored in Sarajevo—something happens—the Procurement guy—the quiet—boring procurement guy comes up with a story. It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for. It was true.
Jesus never once said an incriminating or negative thing about Fidel Castro or Cuba the whole evening. Not once. He simply narrated a sequence of events ‘So you see, it was impossible for me to have continued in that flow of life. It was as though Jesus was simply reciting a story that he had repeated many times before. It was a clear line of reasoning for the benefit of those accepting him in as their new friend, a rationale for his resurrecting himself from Castro's man and friend—to his new status in his new country the 'Not Castro's Friends' country.
But Jesus never once said an incriminating sentence about Raul or Fidel or his new best friends. Not once. Perhaps, the one who betrays all loves all, or maybe, the other way around. The omni presence of surveillance necessitates a deep faith in betrayal. And to gain its trust you must be dispassionate about yours.
When Jesus described the entire system as being one of surveillance without any outward appearance of it, I countered ‘Many would say that for the American society of today. You know the media— Americans never question anything—-the way technology keeps a close track on everyone, through laptops, the websites. ATM and credit cards'.
Sanjay vehemently protested ‘Well that's simply preposterous that's not at all how America is. No way!' Jesus and I exchanged glances, particularly amusing was his full throated and rather comical defense of the American media as a place of open debate and all opinions being given a fair hearing. I thought him a fool. And later, when I thought back to the evening, I thought: the kind of fool who most always only plays the part.
I was struck by how matter of fact and unemotional Hay-seus's analysis and story was, as though it had been turned over and over again, and rechecked from every angle—played and replayed to himself. And to others. Till it was flawlessly delivered and air tight as though it were the thinking of a resolved man—reasoned and dispassionate. Totally plausible and full of contradictions too which after all are allowed to human beings but most importantly provide evidence, that the narrator was credible and not dangerous to anyone. Not speaking ill of anyone.
Jesus said ‘The sophistication of Cuba's system, of Castro's genius was that a rebellion against him—a popular uprising would never happen. Those who stayed in Cuba, loved him—those who opposed him, he let them leave for America. And in the final analysis, though I myself could not tolerate it and wanted out, in the final analysis, no matter how bad Castro was, for now his leaving or dying would be the worst thing for Cuba.'
A defector, who advises faithfully, that the best course of action would be that Fidel must be allowed to live out his rule. Beautiful! And now he was a procurement officer stationed in the Balkans and the year was circa 2004. I looked across at the musicians again. Perhaps they were Castro's spies—shadowing Jesus—dressed up as a couple of musicians from an abandoned circus— looking like they'd stepped out of a painting. He fat, stodgy and with pudgy fingers—she fading and haggard: Both listening in on what Jesus was saying. We began eating— the beef stew. Jesus pronounced ‘I have talked to much. The beef stew is cold'
I said ‘It is tasteless.' I tried to get the waiter to bring me hot sauce.
He did. Ketchup. Heated.