Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Saeed in America

Saeed's first job in America had been at the Ninety-sixth Street mosque, where the imam hired him to do the dawn call to prayer, since he did a fine rooster crow, but before he arrived at work, he took to stopping at the nightclubs along the way, it seeming a natural enough progression timewise. Disposable camera in his pocket, he stood at the door waiting to have snapshots of himself taken with the rich and famous: Mike Tyson, yes! He's my brother. Naomi Campbell, she's my girl. Hey, Bruce (Springsteen)! I am Saeed Saeed from Africa. But don't worry, man, we don't eat white people anymore.
There came a time when they began to let him inside.
He had an endless talent with doors, even though, two years ago during an INS raid, he had been unearthed and deported despite having been cheek-to-cheek, Kodak-proof, with the best of America. He went back to Zanzibar, where he was hailed as an American, ate kingfish cooked in coconut milk in the stripy shade of the palm trees, lazed on the sand sieved fine as semolina, and in the evening when the moon went gold and the night shone as if it were wet, he romanced the girls in Stone Town. Their fathers encouraged them to climb out of the windows at night; the girls climbed down the trees and onto Saeed's lap, and the fathers spied, hoping to catch the lovers in a compromising position. This boy who once had so long dawdled on the street corner - no work, all trouble, so much so that the neighbors had all contributed to his ticket out - now this boy was miraculously worth something. They prayed he would be forced to marry Fatma who was fat or Salma who was beautiful or Khadija with the gauzy gray eyes and the voice of a cat. The fathers tried and the girls tried, but Saeed escaped. They gave him kangas to remember them by, with slogans, "Memories are like diamonds," and "Your pleasant scent soothes my heart," so that when he was relaxing in NYC, he might throw off his clothes, wrap his kanga about him, air his balls, and think of the girls at home. In two months time, back he was - new passport, new name typed with the help of a few greenbacks given to a clerk outside the government office. When he arrived at JFK as Rasheed Zulfickar, he saw the very same officer who had deported him waiting at his desk. His heart had beat like a fan in his ears, but the man had not remembered him: "Thank God, to them we all of us look the same!"
Kiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss

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