Friday, 12 October 2012

Faziz Ahmed - Smugglers Blues

Faziz could think of no one he hated more than his Captain. It wasn't an abstract hatred like, say, the hatred of the cold, or injustice, or spiders, no, this was a very specific, targeted, reasoned hate. The kind that hangs around with murder.

His Captain was no more than twenty three years old. Faziz was twenty one, and his fellow border guards were mostly even younger. He did not feel like a man, more like a boy in oversized shirt. As far as Faziz was concerned the Captain was the same - even if he wore expensive sunglasses and enjoyed exercising the, admittedly real, authority that he held as leader of the border patrol. To help him celebrate his twenty first birthday, the Captain had "rewarded" Faziz with the keys to the warehouse where all seized goods were stored. This reward came with the responsibility to maintain the inventory and detail all stock, plus extra security patrols. Now Faziz had to rise two hours earlier than his comrades in arms just to make it back to the barracks for the morning parade. If he was late then his pay would be docked substantially, as he had discovered in the very first week of his new duties.

As Faziz washed and dressed in his threadbare uniform he spoke to his cat, Mirabelle, who was sitting upright in the centre of the bed, waiting for him to leave so she could drift off uninterrupted back into more of her sweet, sweet, cat sleep.

"Today Mirabelle," he said half into a towel and half into the mirror as he dried his face and hands, "I will get one over on that kaddaab. I will."

Mirabelle blinked, trying to hold in the sleep that was threatening to turn into consciousnesses. Her unexpressive face was consumed with feline disinterest.

"God is great. I will" Faziz said, without conviction.

Mirabelle just wanted him to go. She stared at a point on the wall roughly two feet to his left and pretended not to know him.


The Captain was giving his favourite lecture. "Alright you fatahs, today we are going to do our jobs and protect this border to our wonderful land. Persons considerably more clever that you will ever be have decreed that these items shall not pass. Study today’s dispatches well. There will be penalties for any slip ups. Allahu Akbar."

Faziz flipped to the last of the twenty five pages that constituted the list of contraband. A few months ago this could fit on one side of his notebook, but within a season it had expanded beyond all reason. Today’s additions included table tennis bats, the works of Charles Bukowski, kidney beans, blue eyeshadow, cherry cola and Oscar statuettes. Faziz reasoned that he could probably live without these luxuries, but was equally immediately filled with a burning desire to own these works of Charles Bukowski despite never having heard of him until this moment.

Was he really carrying a rifle to protect the land against kidney beans? The world had gone insane and taken him along, into a place where even music was contraband. How the nearby Bazaar managed to retain and replenish it's stock of forbidden wonders was a mystery. It had been many years since Faziz had set foot in the Bazaar. If his Captain found out he had been seen there then he would be thrown in a cell and forgotten about for a long, long time. Possibly forever. He already knew that his shack was being searched on a regular basis for illegal items.

The stars must have been aligning for the Captain as his very favourite thing was approaching the border. A large tourist bus, well maintained and shining against the sand, quite unlike the broken down hunks of rusted metal that ferried the locals around. The same locals who knew their way around the regulations and lived only to subvert and ignore the Captain's authority.

A coach full of wealthy travellers, lured out into this vast area of blazing nothing with the promise of bartering their easily replaced valuables in return for ancient artefacts and forbidden materials. As he ostentatiously strode into the centre of the road and rose his arm to stop the bus, the Captain was relived that his huge sunglasses would at least prevent some of the joy he felt from being so obviously displayed on his face.

"You are under the protection and authority of Captain Tariq Famil of the Border Patrol" he barked, "You will please line up and produce your papers. Clearly identify which belongings you are travelling with and prepare for inspection." The Captain scanned the mainly elderly figures disembarking into the rifle sights of his favourite guards. He could easily get a few hours worth out of these confused and frightened forgieners. Life was good.

Whilst the Captain delighted in harassing the passengers, Faziz found himself in front of the only traveller approaching the Border on foot. It was the British girl who worked at the Bazaar.

Normally the Captain reserved the privilage of exerting authority over this woman for himself, but Faziz had noticed that those encounters were not quite the same as the usual bullying. Recently the Captain had seemed almost nervous when she approached. There had been a strange incident last month when the dogs had suddenly turned tail rather than be in the same space as her, and another where the guards on duty had parted like the red sea when she crossed with unsearc
hed bags and then could not subsequently explain why, leading to a conspiracy of silence.

Aware that the Captain always had an eye, or a spy, on him at all times, Faziz summoned up his impersonation of the other guards.

"Papers please" he said, as brusquely as he could manage.

She dug around in the satchel that was slung across one shoulder and handed the crumpled identification to Faziz. Amy McCraken, work permit, merchants assistant, Borderline Bazaar.

"This looks to be in order Miss McCraken. But I will need to check in your bag I'm afraid."

"Wouldn't you rather help your Captain?" she said, "I could just go on my way and you can get your share of an old age pensioners purse. They might even have gold teeth if you are lucky."

Faziz suddenly had a sense of why the Captain was finding excuses to be elsewhere when this woman crossed the border. It wasn't the words themselves, it was the undertone carried somewhere deep in her polite insolence, something too old and powerful to be submerged into her voice. It was disconcerting enough that she already projected an aura of homelessness, that she clearly would be no more in her correct environment on one side of any border or the other.

The bag was a battered leather satchel with a brass plate on the flap reading "Col Thomas Morgan". He stood the bag up on the table and rolled down the sides revealing around twenty LP records in thick cardboard sleeves.

His heartbeat quickened as his fingers flicked between the sleeves. Chet Baker, Miles Davies, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy - the names themselves had a poetry, reinforced by the deep colours of the sleeve illustrations, some stark and almost brutal portraiture, others surreal shapes and scenarios.

He looked directly into Amy's ridiculoulsy green eyes. "I'm afraid, Miss McCraken, I am going to have to ask to come with me. Unless you prefer that I refer this matter to my Captain."

"I have a merchants licence, you can see that" she said, pointlessly as they both knew.

"Please." said Faziz, indicating the open door of the cabin just a few feet across the border.

Amy stepped inside.


"You understand, Miss McCracken, that the import this type of material is strictly forbidden?"

"I understand that there are customs regulations which are difficult to follow and impossible to enforce, if that is what you mean."

Faziz continued, "Importing illegal improvised music is a serious offence. The Captain has decided that only military waltzes and religious music can be allowed, for the benefit of all".

Amy held up an LP with a black and white portrait sleeve and the title A Love Supreme.

"This is religious music, you idiot. And besides, your Captain is a madman,"

"That may be the case Miss McCracken, but I must be loyal to the guards. However, if there is some debate in the classification of these goods then perhaps there is room to...manoeuvre, if you understand me. Perhaps, Miss McCracken...Amy...perhaps we could come to some....arrangement?"

Amy folded her arms across her chest protectively and glared at him with a force that would have knocked another man back a good couple of feet.

Faziz smiled. He had played this perfectly. He was going to get what he wanted.


The empty satchel lay on his bed as Faziz sat on the floor leaning against the base. His fingers flipped through the hard cardboard LP sleeves, allowing his eyes only fleeting glances of the artwork. It was too much to take in at once, he was building up to believing what he had in his hands. How long was it since he had heard real music? A year? Had he ever heard real music? How would he know?

He had played the part of lecherous bully so well that when he revealed that he would allow Amy on her way in return for simply allowing him one night with the albums and not her, she was so thrown that she agreed immediately. It was so easy to believe all men were pigs that it was a useful confusion that they were not. He had undertaken personal delivery of the bag and contents to the Bazaar before opening hours the next day. By way of guarantee of the safe return he had explained even the slightest hint of an accusation against him to the Captain would lead to his disappearance, even if the source was considered a known smuggler.

Tomorrow he would leave even earlier than usual, so early that he might not even sleep, relying on his cigarettes and Charles Mingus to keep him awake, and travel quietly across the border to the Bazaar. The bag would left under the tarpaulin at the front of the store, there was no danger of it being stolen. It would be there waiting for Amy when she arrived an hour or so later, records intact, no damage, no harm done.
One day the Captain would check the contraband lockup against the inventory and the world would end. But then, who could say when that that day would come. One day he may be Captain, or the regime might fall and all restrictions be lifted, or a great meteor strike the earth and wipe all the miserable souls that existed there out of existence.

As the pulsing music spun out of the one tiny speaker of his ancient record player it occurred to him suddenly what a tragedy it would be if items from the forbidden inventory were mistakenly stored in the Captain's house through human error, to be discovered by a visiting patrol who had formed the opinion somehow that they had been offered their pick of the illegal items in return for carrying out this legitimate duty.

The way the music twisted and leapt was full of possibilities. It was clear to Faziz now that these possibilities were in everything, how had he not seen this before?

The excitement of the previous track gave way to a mournful but exhilarating chant. It seemed to wind it's way through the air and surround Faziz. He had never heard anything so beautiful, but at the same time it did remind him of prayer. Amy was right, this was religious music.

"Allahu Akbar Mirabelle. God is great".

Mirabelle stalked out of the room, waited a few seconds, then walked back in pretending to be a different cat. One that would curl up against Faziz's legs and listen to music.

Faziz is listening to this

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Movie Night - Candy 1968

A Hollywood film crew have set up camp so close to the Bazaar that they are being bothered by visiting traders who assume the array of cars, rigs, replica weapons and plastic foodstuffs are for sale. There is a fair amount of goodwill towards the crew locally however as they have offered parts as extras to pretty much anyone who wants to get involved in the film.

Tomorrow Amy and Old Tom are spending the day appearing in a marketplace scene. Where the guns come in is not clear, it's supposed to be a romantic comedy. Amy is playing some kind of Harem girl with an AK47 but she won't show us her costume and says we'll need to pay to see her in the film like everyone else. A lot of people here would pay, no question. Old Tom is doing the stereotypical colonial English Johnny, pith hat and all, has even a couple of lines. Good luck with that Mr Director, let me know how it works out for you.

Take 37 - Tom, for Gods's sake man! All you have to do is just stand there and when Amy runs past with her rifle you say "That's the native gels for you, eh, what?".  Action! "....Eh.....That's what the angels do for the natives." CUT!

But that is for tomorrow and, as is often the case here, you need to negotiate a difficult day before you get to the one you want.

Desert country or no, it is not an overly hostile environment. Yet every so often the wind will blow the sand around to the extent that it can cut your eyes open, so not unreasonably people prefer to stay indoors, and must forgo their nightly dose of the million stars that smear along the ink black sky above the barely constructed tents and attendant open air crate seating that pass for the local bars.

Everyone knows what is coming even if no one mentions it. They start to crowd into the bazaar as the sunset signals the end of the business day, the legitimate business, that is. Hardly any of them actually stepping into a shop, or even deigning to linger at the side of a stall. There is no pretence, we all know what they are here for.

After a while someone finds that when they opened their mouth some whispered syllables fell out, and rolled away through the crowd. Then the next someone brazenly repeats the unbidden words out loud, and that persons friend joins in when it is repeated. The hall erupts and the clapping starts, first in time and then quickly resembling the sound of two massed armies in tap shoes running to battle down a marble battlefield from a mile apart.

"Movie night" they chant, feet stamping now, so loud that capital letters would be needed to show the effect in print, "MOVIE NIGHT! MOVIE NIGHT!"

Having sensed the sea change earlier in the afternoon, Old Tom is already in his element. At his signal the haphazardly stitched envelope of white canvass that otherwise sits unobtrusively rolled is let loose and falls like a sail across the back wall of the Bazaar, billowing and then resting, becalmed but ready to take us away from here. We will stand on this familiar deck but gaze out onto strange lands (as if, of course there could be stranger).

Old Tom's ancient sausage fingers defy logic and nimbly thread some ancient celluloid into the wheel of his projector. Mysteriously, the bumbling incompetence he either works so hard to project or is genuinely in the grip of vanishes like an alcohol flambe, or love. Like a master craftsman he teases the materials to life, and colour explodes onto the makeshift screen.

No one knows how many reels of film Old Tom has in the iron trunk that sits at the back of his shop, or how he acquired them. One night under the stars in a rare moment of lucidity, possibly through the medium of sambuca, he spoke eloquently on the successes and failures of the Hollywood studio system with an insiders knowledge. Then he fell off the crate he was sitting on and set fire to his hair having knocked over the whole table including candle.

Last month he showed a print of "Dirty Harry" in which the role of Harry Callaghan was played by Frank Sinatra. Before that it was an Orson Welles double bill with "The Other Side of The Wind" and "It's All True". Why these films are not vailable on DVD is a mystery. Strangest one recently though was the film the Beatles made after Help! but didn't release, only printing up very limited number of reels. It was a strangely humourless romp called Up Against It, where they didn't play The Beatles so much as a four characters who are facets of the one, and they all end up in bed with the girl at the same time. It's pretty clear why United Artists didn't want to distribute it. Shame about the music though. The title track had definite traces of the melody to "Jet" about it. Obviously Paul McCartney couldn't let something that good so totally to waste.

Tonight it is obviously another one of these productions that must have been airbrushed from history, intended to be destroyed if not for the light fingers of Old Tom, his comedy forgetfulness a slight of mind as he ambles off accidently into the forbidden rooms, manages to not light the furnace and somehow ends up with cannisters in the boot of his car instead of the landfill stite.

The film crew have entered the Bazaar, their American camp no match for the wild sandstorm. They mingle with the crowd and are accepted without awkwardness despite their reversal in status, from creators to participants. It's just something that happens here, it has happened to everyone in this room in one way or another. Somehow within a few days of arrival you just get turned inside out, flipped around. You just have to handle it, or get back on the bus.

As the dust dances along the light beam Ewa Aulin transforms into elemental godesses Candy and encounters Richard Burton as Mephisto, the poet with the life of a rock star, Ringo Starr as a Mexican gardner whose goal of cceptance to the priesthood is under threat from predatory American girls, Marlon Brando as a charlatan shaman, Charles Aznavour, Walter Matthau, John Houston, the screen is crammed with an endless list of Hollywood greats.

Incomprehensible, if brilliant, it must be a hoax, given away by the ending where the various characters appear to return for a surrealistic reprise of their roles. Old Tom's ultimate joke, stitched together from the fragments of broken strips found in the bottom of his trunk. Poor Old Tom, he is further gone than anyone ever thought if he thinks anyone is going to believe this film ever existed, even in this place.

Candy 1968 finale

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Amy McCraken walks to work

As seemed to be the case with increasing frequency the mountain was on the wrong side again when Amy woke up. Last night as she was falling asleep, wind-up radio beneath her pillow going into slow kinetic reverse, she had watched through her bedroom window as the moon struggled to avoid being punctured on the spikes of the peaks before her eyelids in turn were slammed down by gravitational forces once it finally rose above. Now as she sat on the edge of her bed trying to keep the strands of her hair on top of her head and out of her eyes and mouth where they were determined to stay, she gazed out across the plain at the horizon, her view uninterrupted but for the first of the sharabangers filled with the usual mix of treasure and junk, in both stock and human form.

Perhaps the mountain had gone to Mohammed. Again.

The day before the border patrol had consisted of wire fences, jeeps, floored tents with scanning equipment, fourteen armed guards and as many dogs. She had understood more of what the dogs were trying to say than the men. Neither were abusive, but it was frightening to walk through the middle of them anyway. More unnerving in a way was how the lead guard flinched and his dog started to spin around, tail down, when she pulled out her papers, as if she was the frightening one. But today there were just two boys kicking something that was not a ball and probably had as much air outside it's hopeful and in no sense spherical shape than inside. Maybe the mountain had pierced the moon last night after all, and this was all that remained after it's fall to earth.

They were belting the ball, bag, dead animal? Don't look too closely, don't look back and forward across the border, changing sides every so often through huge holes in the fence which couldn't have been there yesterday but at the same time must have been.

As she drew level the older of the two stopped the bag, thank god under his elephant hide foot and called over to her "Today there is a tax on crossing the Border. One kiss. Each". Amy puckered her lips above flattened fingers and channelled Monroe, freeing two butterfly kisses into the air. This seemed to be enough, the bag was once again changing nationalities at the height of it's parabolic arc before the second kiss had even been fully mined.

What was it that was kicking her across the border? Surely yesterday she had lived on the east side of the border and crossed to her job at the Bazaar on the west? How could this be happening? And shouldn't she feel something about it, some kind of concern for the way the physical world was suddenly fluid?

And who exactly was she thinking all this for anyway? Who was ever going to hear her internal monologue, broadcasting from inside her head for an audience of one.  Live from the Borderline Bazaar, this is Amy McCraken. Cracking up.

 cracking up

Monday, 1 October 2012

Wim Oudijk - Beauty

The old master visits the Bazaar. Even behind the scarf that he has wrapped tightly across the lower half of his face to protect against the sandstorms he is clearly recognisable, all the more so for the cat perched on his shoulder wearing goggles and a protective scarf of their own. It is not clear which one of them will have more whiskers hidden. As he gathers sackfuls of vinyl from the shelves you find it hard to focus on him directly. Aftershapes, ghosts, dopplegangers move in and around the space he has or will occupy, younger men, older men, some resembling the old master, some not. A crowd of faces solidify behind him momentarily, the present day composers who refuse to die, looking over his shoulder as he scribbles down a newly created score on the back of the original 1967 Smile album he has come to purchase, some nodding approvingly, others whispering to themsleves "I wish I had thought of that". The beaded curtain over the door sommersaults in, distracting you, and when you look back the old master and his cat are gone, the feline scarf falling to the floor in time to the sound of music fading into the distance.