Decline And Fall

So much has happened here, yet nothing’s changed. This is where I last saw my brother – alive, that is, before all the identifications and burials. The Spanish Steps still abound with the merriment of life lived in travel. What seemed like hundreds of people, mostly tourists with erect cameras, and the occasional local with limp ice-creams, festooned the Baroque steps, and created a noise and a buzz much like a herd of wildebeest on the African Savannah. It was only my second time seeing the Steps, and, I must admit, I could not hold back the swarm of touristic after-thoughts that affected every visitor’s mind when they came here – though the thoughts themselves were as kitsch as miniature Coliseums.

But my thoughts were like no one else’s. For they were not uttered in my voice, but the voice of my brother. I remembered everything through him, for him, by him – until I could no longer tell if I was him and he was me. “’Spanish’ steps? – what a joke, these are the bloody Japanese steps!” The multitudinous herds of Japanese tourists were still there, photographing themselves with sticks, carrying unopened guide-books in their hands and oohhing at every Baroque pigeon dropping they set their eyes on. When I was here last, I saw a Roman tour guide passing by a group of Japanese tourists and bowing his head to them, smiling a wry “konnichiwa” at them, whilst they stood bemused and as stoic as a feted sculpture of Apollo. Only my brother could have noted the demeaning cynicism in the guide’s greeting, and saw beneath it the charming superiority of Western civilization, a superiority baptized by Bernini and deified by our artistry with pork.

I could not help but smile at such memories. Even as the rain clouds cast an unflattering pall over the languid, imperious scene, I felt myself sated, bemusingly at peace. I suppose I had wept enough. Weeping, like our earth, but unlike a banker’s greed, was finite; there was an upper limit, and I had the sense that I had reached it. Rome – and these Steps – seemed like the only thing left that was untainted. The house where we were raised had become a house of bondage: to crave it (as I undeniably did) was an act of sadomasochism. The country where we were born and where we lived our flagrant lives, now felt like a mausoleum. But Rome, though it was the scene of the crime, felt frozen in anticipation. It was beatified at the knife’s edge, and it defied the overarching sorrow that veiled everything else by its unique position on the borders of guilt and innocence. For Rome was as hapless as my brother had been; it was once more an arena enslaved by alien perversions. I forgave it the minute I set eyes on those Steps. I threw my arms around it, and we consoled each other.

For the rest of the day I retraced the steps of our first pilgrimage. Our first visit to Rome was inspired by the bridge that connected our distinct interests: the poetry of Virgil. Our coming to Rome was the fulfillment of a mutual dream – stepping foot in the Imperial City had been for us a return to an intellectual home. We both concurred, though I had been the only poet in the family, that both of us were in a unique position: we had two sets of DNA; the first the random set we inherited from our parents, the second we acquired from the literature we read as children. We were – as our similarly slanted eyes and prematurely thinning hair confirmed to anyone – both children of James and Lilian, however, we found our favoured mutual ground in being the bounded children of Virgil, Dante, Milton, Locke and Graves. Our strolls through Rome took us away from the masses that obfuscated all those Vaticans and Coliseums, and took us instead to the intimate shrines of the English Quarter around the Steps, the Protestant Cemetery, the Bohemian Trastevere, and the bookshops in and around the Piazza Navona.

I walked to all those places with the reverence of an ailing, desperate pilgrim at Lourdes. Wherever my brother had stepped, smiled, conversed; there was holy ground. I recreated our conversations as if they were gospel, re-told his jokes like a Psalm, and for lunch I ate everything he had recommended to me as if it were the holy host. And yet, for all the reverence I felt, I could not help but feeling like a traumatized soldier re-visiting a battlefield. Rome, precious Rome, could not help but feel like the scene of a crime. It’s not your fault – I have already absolved you of all blame. But all the same; the city I have loved and yearned for since childhood, the city I travelled to alone, for the first time, with my only brother before I married and left home, could be nothing else but a theatre of trauma. I don’t know whether I should hate it or worship it, just as I could not know if I should love or hate my life. I smirked, then, as I recalled how we were dreading going back home. Even on our first day in Rome we were contemplating the dreariness of normal life. I feared the cold feet I was bound to feel at wedding a woman I hardly knew, but loved because, well, it was my brother that had first worshipped her. And he could not bear to confront the thought of returning to a life filled with emasculated failure. A man with incontestable wit, intelligence and searing reason, must naturally find it difficult being a mere accountant with an overly-flattering social life. We called our dread Post-Holiday Blues. But they never came, they never came. How I yearn for the dread borne in days of sanity. Anything else is just funereal, tinged with the salt of self-annihilation.

Over dinner, that night, which I had alone in a subterranean restaurant near the Termini station, I contemplated the dread I felt in that somber present. “Tomorrow, I am meeting my brother’s murderer.” The waiter that served me was a tall, young charmer with the demeanour of a bullfighter; he sensed my ill-mood and kept me company with his epigrams: “tutte e posibile”, “everything is good, if you have a good contorno”, “aperitif is on the house – it should always be on the house”. We spoke for awhile about the only topic Roman citizens seemed to be interested in at the time: cost-of-living. I did our conversation no justice; as we talked about rising fuel prices and frozen salaries, I wished, could not help wishing, my brother was with me to say something no one had thought of saying. Instead, all I could say to the waiter was “it’s awful, really awful.” How my brother would have loved this Enrico. How I loved Enrico. But nothing was as it should have been – except the pork; the crackling and the juicy fat was more than I could have hoped for. How sacred pork was. How my brother revered it. Little did Enrico know that my praising of the pork he served me was more than mere praise: it was my attempt at defiance.

The next day, in the hospital-like headquarters of the Roman police, I met he who thought pork was filthy and unclean.

*          *            *

“Jehad, what did father say to you last night, when you were out?”

“Why do you ask, Naser?”

“If there is something you should know, then I, as your brother, should know it also.”

“There was nothing of importance, Naser. Don’t worry about it.”

And so it was that I once more get shrugged off by my insuperable brother. Jehad Al Khatib Khalaf – you are everything I could never be. I am, and always will be, the little brother; my birth, so long after yours, was but a footnote to my family’s history. You are the firstborn, heir to whatever throne, the first to show my parents that children age eight can demonstrate adult intelligence – I showed it too, but by then, they were too far immersed in your worship to take heed of the little shadow, Naser. “There was nothing of importance”… how do you expect me to believe such a lie? In the time of Charlie Hebdo and the almost complete annexation of Libya by our brethren, you expect me to accept that their private conversation last night was about poetry and sport? Why must I be excluded yet again?

Of course, not all the blame can be thrust unto others. I have been an idle child – at times. My penchant for reading the poetry of the great minds that were inspired by the Prophet’s, Allah have mercy on him, wisdom – and though I am now able to recite the Holy Quran by heart, and a great many other poem besides, I recognize that I am an inept worker and, an adolescent not quite fit, as yet, to understand the machinations of the world we inhabit. I understand, only superficially, the import of the Holy War that so obsesses my brother and father’s mind – I know vaguely how they were one of the first to enroll with the armies of Allah, to expel the foreigner from our beloved Syria – nay, the Caliphate. But all I could ever do was watch. My brother, on the other hand, he was born a leader. He has the voice of a sand-storm and a chess-board for a mind. My father believed him divinely inspired; for he could foretell things not even the Mullahs could have foretold. It was my brother, as a matter of fact, that had begun befriending the Syrian rebels, when he sensed the oncoming civil war. “If we infiltrate their ranks, we will have taken the first step towards the Caliphate.” And when he was proven right, my father adored him more than he had ever done. I had never seen my stern, grey-bearded father embrace Jehad so tenderly. And all I could do was watch, embittered by envy. “Much silence and good disposition, there are no two works better than those.” Those, alas, are the sacred verses I was born to fulfill. But accepting inferiority is a tyrannical feat.

When we came to Rome my brother was for a time angry – it required my father’s wisdom to calm him. Jehad’s foresight failed him when he was assigned to take his family on the road to Turkey, to get a boat to Malta, then get asylum in the heart of the kafir’s faith. But my father reassured him: “they are doing this because they trust you. They want you to be on the frontline.” “The frontline is in Syria, not in this forsaken place!” My brother raged. “But this, my son, is the new frontline.” With those words my brother’s eyes seemed to radiate; it had dawned on him what was in store for him, for us. And he gleamed with delight for many a day after. And though life in Rome was restricted and insulting, my brother and father seemed to have become one mind, one body.

I hated Rome more than my brother did. Back home, back in Syria, I could venture out and meet like-minded boys, and some of them were happy to discuss poetry and to enter debates about the most inspired of Quranic verses, and at times, we even recited impromptu verses in honour of our brothers-in-arms. But what could I do in Rome except hate? It was the first time in my life I saw, first-hand, the banalities of the Westerner. I was disgusted by that civilization in decline; with whores for women and drunkards for men. Everywhere there were beggars who were merely shunned by the affluent, and the kafirs walked together without even noticing their companions presence – they preferred the company of their technology than their own family. It is true, I saw it! No one spoke of poetry, though Rome was supposed to be a poetic city, and no one discussed anything that was worthwhile. I had never seen anything so despicably shallow. The wisdom of Allah and the Prophet could not come too soon for them – and I knew, deep down, that they were eager for its arrival. No human being could live so aimlessly and so bereft of civilization for this long. They reject us merely because they see us as enemies. But their hearts yearn for the sanity of Sharia. And though I hated living amongst them, I was beginning to come out of my shell.

The day that my brother hid from me the contents of his late night meeting with my father, I was overtaken by a calm sense of knowing. This must be what my brother feels like in the comfort of lucid foresight, I thought. That morning, without really knowing what I meant, yet unbearably excited, I found my father in his bedroom, smoking his pipe and reading a new pamphlet, his robes smelling of smoke and his beard seemingly blacker than grey; and I told him: “father, I will make you proud.” He looked up and stared at me for a few disconcerting seconds; his stare was hard and studious, and I felt like a clown. And then he smiled. A smile that seemed to say, “it took you long enough, little one”, and he put his head back down into the pamphlet, not wanting to overdo the gesture. That night, I went out to eat amongst the kafir, full of solemn expectation and a familial glee of righteousness. I did not know what was to happen, but I knew that that night, I would be the one to draw the new frontline.

I found myself in an underground restaurant, full of suited kafirs and bow-tied waiters. I ordered coffee and some toasted bread, not even wanting to look at a menu that undoubtedly contained the unclean beast. When the tall, goateed waiter brought me my coffee I turned my attention to those around me. How strange I must have seemed to them, in my white robes, my patchy stubble, and my dark eyes hidden beneath heavy-set brows. And then I looked at them, with their own eyes, and thought of the pride they must have felt at their own appearance. Their slender ties, their slim-fit shirts, their women with their embracing dresses. How could human beings be so different yet so bound? We were like siblings from different worlds. In that moment, I admit, my hatred for them was tempered: I felt more like an educator confronted by his hopeless, pitiful students. All they needed was education, I thought. But, then again, I could not understand a single word they were saying – Italian was a vulgar tongue not fit for minds raised on the sacred script.

Then there came to sit next to me two men, so alike, and who spoke a tongue that I could begin to comprehend. It was not Arabic, surely, and yet the vocabulary was so alike. I could pick up 60% of what they were saying. Then the waiter came, and they spoke to him in Italian! What were these tanned, slim, dark-haired men? Were they one of us, or citizens of a country not too far from our borders? Whatever nationality they were, it was soon clear, they were not one of us. And their talk was utterly insulting, offensive and disgusting.

“This pork is an absolute masterpiece.” It was the older, taller man that did most of the talking. “Leave it to the Romans to take something so common, so readily available, and turn it into an altar of sophistication. And only religion, that barbaric relic, could deprive men of this pleasure. It needs only religion to make good men do wicked things – and I say good riddance to it. How is your pork?”

“Exquisite.”

“Enjoy it, then. That is the difference between us, and them. There are only two kinds of people in the world today: those who love pork, and those who renounce it. It is the difference between the refined and the primitive.”

How dare he! The stupid, wretched little kafir – how dare he laud the merits of his prostituted culture and decry our glorious civilization and our divine way of life. He calls us barbaric, primitive, because we follow the word of the Prophet, Allah have mercy on him – the insulting, ignorant Western bastard! He will have to pay for his insolence, he must, he – ah, father, so here we are. “I will make you proud.” The anger that overcame me suddenly transformed itself into a serene calm, the kind that comes from a life-changing decision having been taken without need for debate or thought. It was almost a divine revelation. Allah has sent me this insolent kafir just so I, Naser Al-Khatib Khalif, can redraw the frontlines. I swear by the Prophet that this night shall be that kafir’s last. The knife under my robes throbbed with anticipation. All I needed was to have him alone.

And when I found him alone, on his way to the hotel, whilst his companion stopped to buy a lighter from a tobacco shop for their father, the knife did what it had to do. It delivered to me the blood of the heathen, and my own moment of greatness. By the blood of this worthless, I rid myself of the shadow of my older brother!

*                    *                              *

“Prego,” the tall, grey-bearded policeman escorted me into the cell where they told me my brother’s murderer lay waiting. As I was escorted through the police-station to the interrogation room, I felt like a virgin being lead to a prostitute. I bore the same nerves in the pit of my stomach, as my body fought a civil war that could never be won: that between anticipation and loathing. Infantile plans whizzed through my mind; I fantasized about killing him, torturing him, spitting in his eye, and even promising to hunt out his family. In my split-second fantasies it did not matter that the Roman police force would be standing next to me. Fantasy is fantasy because reality is allowed into its realms only as a clandestine shadow. But I discarded the rebellious, unproductive fantasies because I was just old enough to know that they would let me down the moment I laid eyes on him.

And I was not wrong. As I saw him, in the grey, half-windowed room, barely lit, like a cave in winter, I was overtaken by a vampiric fear. His youthful presence, his stubbly half-man beard, and his cocksure posture on the chair, intimidated me just as it was meant to. It took a few seconds for the promised loathing to kick in. And when it did, I could not force out any rage, only an effeminate whimper as I imagined the way my brother must have looked at him – the last man he would ever see. It was too much to take, I almost ran out of the room; but what would await me there: only ghosts of everything my brother could have been. So I gathered myself, a female detective running her hands on my tense shoulders, and I sat down opposite the robed murderer.

He did not say a word. But he kept on looking at me, studying me, as if he were trying to extract fear from my every pore. It made me defiant; I stared at him like one stared at a growling dog. When he looked away it was only to listen to the words of the interpreter. I could understand some of the words, some of the vulgar Arabic he spoke to him, and I gathered that he was asking him if he had anything to say to me. The bastard shrugged his shoulders, threatening a third-world smile. He held his peace: I could not.

“Did you know my brother?” I asked him in slow, pronounced Maltese, my face muscles focused solely on holding back the torrent of tears.

He understood me almost perfectly. “No.” I sensed a disarming crack in his arrogance, as if there was a shred of humanity present.

“He was a genius, you know. Genius.” I repeated in case he misunderstood. “My big brother… you have no idea what a life you have wasted.”

“Kafir.” He said moving only his right hand, as if it were a snake in the grass.

“Infidel.” The interpreter translated, though he didn’t need to.

“Infidel, how could you know, you never knew him!” I said my hands clenched together, as if they were praying to Mars.

“I know enough. I hear you.” His pointed finger was clean and determined. Not even any hair on his knuckle. It disturbed me how measured and cruel the boy was.

“You heard us, what are you -?”

“ – At restaurant. You and he.”

“The restaurant… you were there?”

“I hear all. You and he, you put filthy pork before civilization.”

“Is this a joke…” I looked around me, smirking, holding back the dawning realization: my brother was murdered by a joke. I could not take him seriously and yet, my brother was dead because of this.

“No, the joke, is you. After all, you are the pigs.”

“You murdered my brother, for, for that?” I was getting frustrated at myself at how speechless I was. There I was confronting everything I detested, and my words failed me. What would my brother think of me? His only advocate.

“Many more will die. Sharia will come.”

“Bring it on.” I said with all the hatred my facial muscles could muster. The officers and detectives on either side of us shuffled nervously in their seats.

“You see,” he said, almost laughing. “You are full of hatred. It is beautiful. Hatred is power.”

“I hate you because you are evil incarnate.” My voice began to rise. “And if I could I would kill you like the dog you are.” I lifted myself out of the seat, and our minders did the same. I made the effort to calm myself. I remembered all the lessons of rationality my brother had taught me. “But I won’t. Because we are not animals. We are governed by humane laws, not the sadistic dictates of an illiterate, desert pedophile.” He did not understand the nuances of my insults, so I insisted that the interpreter translate my words. When he did, his face turned pale with repressed fury. Ah, the power of words.

“Watch how you speak of the Prophet, Allah have mercy on his soul!”

“Why – the bastard is dead! Your civilization is founded on the delusions of a criminal with more wives than hands.” I was beginning to revel in my own miniature version of the 21st century crusades. I felt as if I were contributing, and I knew my brother would be proud of my resilience in the face of terror.

“To hell with you, you bastard kafir!” He stood out of his seat and slammed his hands on the table – like a child throwing a tantrum. “Our civilization is glorious. We have morality, good women, and no poverty.” He really believes what he’s saying, doesn’t he? Not only that, he is actually offended. He is a boy, after all, and he is taking my insults personally, as if I were offending something familial. Is this really happening? Is my enemy really another victim?

“And is any of that,” I said with a tampered voice. “Reason enough to kill my brother?” He fell silent. My lips quivered, though he was too far away to see. “Tell me, do you have a brother?”

“I have.”

“What if I had killed him because I disagreed with him?”

“An eye for an eye.” He said with his head bowed, as if to himself.

“So I have the right to kill your brother now, do I?” He would not respond, and his head remained bowed. I had won an argument with a fundamentalist and yet, I felt almost pained. I had to leave, there was nothing for me there, but before I left, I had to find some closure. “If I told you that my brother was a moral man, filled with nothing but kindness, who spent his life standing up for the rights of others, would you still say he deserved to die?”

“He is my enemy.” He replied almost without thinking, his mind focused elsewhere, on something more turbulent than I could fathom – his eyes looked weak, the way an extremist’s eye were never meant to be. It was a damning experience gazing into the humanity of your brother’s murderer. And I left that room not sure of what to think. The poets of Rome and the philosophers of France had always taught me to question everything – even what I was most comfortable with. But being unsure in that moment felt like a betrayal. He represented everything I was supposed to hate… I had contemplated taking my own life because of what he so callously deprived me of. And my life, whether alive or undead, would always be lived in the shadow of my brother’s severed smile, his forbidden companionship, and his thwarted dreams (and even worse than this, the image of his pale corpse lying prostrate in the embrace of rigor mortis… his was the first dead body I had ever seen). And did he not know that I am an atheist – I did not have the luxury of a future reunion. He was gone, and I would never see him again, neither in this life nor the next. All I had left was his memory, which I alone had to keep alive and proud; scant consolation, really. But even knowing all that, I still felt that my brother’s death was somehow inevitable. People stricken with cancer often tend to ask themselves Why Me? I did not need to ask that. My brother was a drop in a pond. Thousands of others were dying like him: in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and now, even in our beloved Europe. Who was to blame? No one was to blame. Hell, everyone was to blame, even us.

We are all accomplices in murder. What else would you call someone who witnesses a murder and covers up for the guilty party? I never dared dream that what was happening in faraway lands could happen to me. All that strife, that miserable death, that rape and mutilation: they were mere abstractions to me. Now they were as tangible as my brother’s flesh and blood. I don’t know if it is a failure of our imagination or a selfish, cowardly ignorance – but to stand by and let all that misery pile up on the lives of millions, is, I now understood, nothing better than involuntary manslaughter. The murder of ignorance. Complicity in a crime we did not commit yet did nothing to hinder. My brother was murdered by a poisoned mind; a poison which could have been stopped, either by war or education (or the two arm in arm). He was right, my brother, and myself, we were his enemies. Though we never chose to be, no one ever did anything to stop that mentality taking over his young, gullible mind. I was not excusing him – I will never excuse him. After all, we must all take responsibility for our own actions. But, perhaps, if we took the time, in our Enlightened existence, to save the lives of those oppressed by the tyranny of thought than we could be saving the lives of our own kin.

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