|Paul Gauguin - Bowl of fruit and |
tankard before a window, 1890
‘That was a good night. Heavy. Came home late with this girl, but she had something to do in the morning – don’t remember exactly. So she left kind of early. Don’t know actually, I didn’t wake up nor feel her leaving. Kudos to her for not stealing anything though. Miriam I think her name was… not sure. Anyway… So I woke up early afternoon, 1 or 2 must’ve been, and the sun was up and I could see the city from the window, such a sunny day… ah, beautiful! I sat on the window sill for some 10-15 minutes til I was like ‘Ok, time to face the day’. But God, I was feeling so …lascivious of sorts, and found the tankard half full of Jack. I must’ve filled it the night before. We probably intended to eat some of the fruits the night before, hence the mess, though I don’t think we ever got round to it in the end. So I drank some of the stale whisky, the tankard holds just under a full bottle. And the canvas was just to the left; all laid out, with the brushes at the side, I must’ve wanted to draw something the day before. Grabbed a brush and went for it. I didn’t really plan it, I started out without knowing what’s gonna come out on paper and I didn’t imagine anything useful will anyway. I put the mill in the corner first, cause that shiny yellow wall was just jaw-dropping, but then I realized I drew the line too high up, so I was like ‘Hell, I’ll draw the apples’. Didn’t bother arranging them or anything. And I was drinking all the while, I think I got through the half tankard of whisky pretty quick, so just put it back on the table. Only realized it’s there after I drew its contour on canvas. And I was like ‘Hmmm, well I’ll leave it in now’, but the drawing on it is so intricate I wasn’t really feeling up to putting in the work to draw it. So I left it to figure out later, and that’s actually the last thing I drew. If you look at the carvings on the cup, it’s a whole scene, the detail on it is mind blowing, I was never gonna bother with that. So I just mashed up some lines a la Monet, never figured the canvas is gonna make it anywhere further than the rubbish bin anyway.’
‘It’s a beautiful tankard, babba’
‘I know, got it at this art fair eons ago. In a village east, high in the Kashmir. Zebak or Ziak or something. Don’t think it was made there though, looks like it must come from somewhere South.’
I knew Daoud and daddy are going to be sharing stories for hours on end and I wasn’t really listening to them. I only remembered Daoud’s story about the painting last week, when it got into my hands by a completely unexpected and wonderful accident. I remembered Daoud was saying something about an auction house that was gonna take it to Europe and how he was going to get good money for it. Well, I paid 20 quid for it, though the guy in the flea market was only asking for 10. Truth to be told, I could’ve probably talk him down to 5, but not in the state I was. I’d never really buy anything from the flea market, but I’d go every week as it reminded me of… gosh, I don’t even know if ‘home’ is the right word. It reminded me of something that I felt was a part of me. I was surprised when I spotted it. I remember akaa Daoud gave it to the art museum for a while to be part of an exhibition of his paintings, but then got it back as this dealer kept nagging him about how much money he could make off of it. So naturally, I thought the museum made prints of it and somehow, one of them made its way to this Afghan flea market. I grabbed it to look at it then I saw the burn mark on the side from when Daoud’s flat burned down. I tried hard not to cry, but Farid must’ve seen my tears as he asked me if I’m ok. I’m looking at it now and I have no idea if I should put in on display somewhere where I’d see it every day, or just hide it away just like all the horrible memories I’ve carried with me over two continents.
I do remember that specific day well. I was always happy to about visiting Daoud, as I know I’d see Farrah. And dad was all too happy to visit him as it was the only place where he could have a drink without mum nagging him about heaven and hell and The Prophet and Muslim values. So it was a win-win, and it was like our little ritual. Dad would usually ask me if I want to go out, I’d always say yes, then he’d pretend he had no idea where to go and call to see if Daoud is free. He was always free, and he’d always ask us to come over and ‘take it from there’. We didn’t really take it anywhere. In a household of five, mum would always cook for about 20, so dad would grab the remains of last nights’ dinner and Daoud – huge fan of mum’s cooking - was all too happy to accept that in exchange for a few glasses of alcohol which, as a good Muslim, dad would never buy. He did take care to stop by the market though, to get something for mum, whose anger at the stink of whisky would be quelled by an incense, or a necklace, or some robe. And once we got to Daoud’s studio, I’d be quick to make an excuse to go out, and that was my day done. Sometimes, Farrah’s dad would come over, in which case I didn’t need an excuse to go out at all, we’d be messing about with the canvases and colours while they’d be putting the world to rights over whisky.
‘Are you not worried at all, Daoud?’
‘Waseed, I’m a Christian, not a Communist. I couldn’t care less who’s in power as long as they let me paint. As a matter of fact, I don’t even care if I ever sell another painting again, I’ve been lucky enough to have already made more money than I’ll ever need.’
‘But herein lies the problem, laalaa. Do you think the mujahideens won’t come knocking to your door specifically because you’re a Christian?’
‘Bah, don’t think so. I’m not a threat, I’m an anomaly. Too few Christians around to be any kind of critical mass in the revolution. And I’ve never said anything either for or against Islam. To be honest, I think Islam is preferable to the Communists, but not the kind that the mujahideens are hoping for.’
‘Communism is good, Daoud! Without the Soviet Union, we’d still be herding goats instead of driving Ladas. No heating, no blocks of flats…’
‘No fucking individual opinion, either. You’ll see, it will be much better with the Americans.’
‘Why would the Americans care?’
‘Oh, the mujahideens are all American puppets. You see, they don’t like having the Soviets so close to their oil.’
They were always going on like that. I wasn’t really listening to their conversations; it’s surprising therefore how much I can remember after all these years. Anyway, that afternoon I did not make any excuses. It was a sunny day, probably just as sunny as the one that inspired the painting with the tankard, so I went to the window to see if there is indeed any beauty to the mill, as I knew it to be scary and noisy and dusty. And then I saw Farrah playing jozbaazi. Now you see, that is beautiful, not the stupid mill! Oh, God, it was indeed a scorching day, but she shone brighter than sun ever could! I sat still the whole afternoon, just watching her and smiling like the idiot kid I was, with the occasional bouts of jealousy when she’d be touching someone else, quickly subdued by the sight of her smiling.
‘Ali, what’s the matter, mashwm? You ok? Do you wanna go out?’
‘No, I’m good here plaar. Can I get an apple?’
I knew I loved her. I was looking forward to turning 13, the first thing I’d do was ask dad to go to old Waseem and ask him to let Farrah marry me. And then we would move in together and I’d be with her all the time. What more can one ask?
And yet last I saw of Farrah was her big round blue eyes devoid of life, with a mixture of caked dirt and blood covering her beautiful face. I cried for days, and I think I punched dad pretty hard when he forcefully dragged me away from her body. I kept crying the couple of weeks that followed. Leaving Kabul and heading for the border were all a blur. Thinking back, dad’s bravery makes me very proud and I wonder what I would have done under the circumstances. But back then all I could see were Farrah’s beautiful red lips biting the dirt. I was upset we left. I didn’t care about the fighting and the shootings and the militias; all I wanted was to play another game of jozbaazi with Farrah. On our way to the border, I heard dad telling mum old Waseem and his wife stayed. He didn’t know, but they were probably killed shortly after, as the whole neighborhood was razed to the ground. Couple of guys from the mosque tried to help dad get Daoud out of his studio when the building caught fire, but by the time they managed to get in, he was already dead, apparently. I don’t remember seeing the body, even though I was there when they carried him out, rolled in a carpet. Dad wanted to give him a Christian funeral, but he couldn’t find a priest after two days of trying, so in the end they took him to the mosque with the others, thinking that it was better Daoud gets buried with Muslims than all of us staying and risking our lives too. In all honesty, I don’t think he cared all that much. The folks from the mosque also saved all they could from his flat, including some of his paintings, the one with the tankard amongst them, a week before it was due to be taken to an auction in France. Dad joked it will make it to France anyway, though in completely different circumstances. He tried contacting Daoud’s sister in Paris, but the phone lines were cut and it was near impossible to get a message out of the country in those days. Turns out, it was impossible to get Daoud’s paintings out of the country too. They were withheld by the Pakistani police together with most of his and our possessions. So mum, dad and the three of us had to cross the border and got into the tent camp with only one piece of hand luggage each.
And that’s pretty much how we crossed two continents. Well, the three of us did, Mum and Dad never made it to the Mediterranean. After years and years of nightmares and bad news being the only things reaching me from Afghanistan, akaa Daoud’s tankard painting was the symbol of a time when I was a happy careless child in my parents’ house, just as any child should be. How it ended up in my hands three decades later was a miracle that I didn’t intend to inquire too much about. I decided to hang it in the hallway.