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Backgammon in the evenings

 

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An old man sat in an upright chair in front of the entrance to one of the buildings across the street. His clothes were old, clean and neat. Beside him there was a small table with a backgammon board on it and a second chair. The second chair was empty. The street too was empty except for small bunches of soldiers lounging about here and there. They had nothing to do. Now and then they would poke through the smashed shop fronts to see if anything had been left. The sun beat down but the old man was well in under the shaded arcade of the building.

Jack joined me quietly at the window. ‘That old harris is there everyday,’ he whispered. ‘For what? Why doesn’t he leave like the rest of them?’

‘It’s his job. He watches who goes in and who goes out, makes sure that nothing gets stolen.’ I knew the old watchman. He’d be there forever. He had no other place to go.

‘But it’s all gone already,’ Jack said quietly.

‘They’ve only looted the shops so far. The offices upstairs haven’t been touched yet.’

Jack went back to the magazine he must have read a hundred times in the last few days. I eased the window open a bit to let in some air. The empty sound of the deserted street came into the room. I sat back and watched, like the old man. Jack and I had nothing else to do, except make sure we kept out of sight.

There was a sudden popping noise as a public address system was switched on and then a harsh call to midday prayer came from the mosque next to our building. The old man got up and spread his prayer mat. He bent and prayed.

A few months before I’d been in his building on business nearly every day and we’d chatted a bit. I’d used him to brush up on my Arabic, which was poor, and he’d been very helpful. He was the sort of old man who’d help anyone if he could.

He took his duties seriously but he liked to relax whenever a few friends came around. ‘In the evenings we play backgammon,’ he would say, pointing at the weathered board and well-worn pieces he kept on the little table near his chair. Indeed I usually discovered a friend seated in the second chair when I came down in the late afternoon from the office I used to visit. Though the old man would be concentrating deeply on his game, he always broke to greet me warmly. He was very courteous.

He often told me how he’d lost everything in ’48. Though he was long past the age of retirement he still had a family, children and grandchildren, in Jordan in one of the camps and he sent them whatever he could from his meagre salary. I had tried to get him to talk about politics. But he’d always say that politics was for the young and that he had no politics now. He would shrug and add: ‘What’s the use? We Palestinians are outsiders with nothing. We’ll be forever out of our land.’

A few minutes after he had finished his prayers, a long limousine drew up at the kerb. At the sound of the car, Jack came back to the window, moving almost silently. Three men got out of the car. One was a short fat civilian in a large double-breasted suit. The second man was in uniform and looked like a senior officer. The third was obviously a bodyguard; he was fit looking and he carried an AK47 slung across his back and walked deferentially behind the officer.

‘It’s ok, they’re not coming this way,’ I said quietly to Jack. He nodded, relief flooding his face.

‘A ba’ath party git and his army buddy,’ He whispered very softly. ‘With minder.’ I didn’t think there was any need to whisper so quietly. We were in a good hiding place.

The old man smiled pleasantly as the three men went into the building. After a few minutes the officer came out again. He spoke to the old man and the old man shook his head. The officer whistled to a group of three soldiers just up the road. They trotted over and he yelled at them. They ran to a nearby shop and poked around in the broken window. When they came back one of them was holding a crow-bar in his hands. As they went to go into the building the old man stood up and said something. He pointed at the crow-bar. One of the soldiers pushed him back as they went into the building.

‘Why’s he objecting?’ Jack whispered, loudly this time.

‘It’s his job,’ I said. ‘He’s doing his duty.’

‘He’s going to get himself into trouble. I’d let the bastards take the stuff. It’s not worth getting hurt over.’

The old man sat down again, stiff and upright, in his chair. Jack went to the kitchen and I heard him pottering about as noiselessly as he could. He was a good choice of companion for this hiding game we were stuck with. He was a good cook.

After a while the three soldiers came out. The old man talked to them. He seemed to be questioning them, and I could see them laughing in his face. Then they went back up the road. Shortly afterwards two civilians came along the footpath, walking in the shade. I recognized one of them. He was one of the old man’s backgammon partners. The two men stood talking to him for a few minutes. The old man’s face was animated and I think he was asking them what he should do. The two men talked to him, patting him on the shoulder while they glanced up at the building. When he had quietened a bit, they came across the road towards the mosque. The old man sat down rigidly in his old chair.

About an hour later, as the smell of Jack’s cooking was beginning to waft around the flat, the officer came out of the building carrying a briefcase. The civilian followed with some papers in his hands. The minder staggered after them, his arms loaded with box files. They brushed past the old man and went straight to the car. The old man got up shouting. The civilian opened the boot of the car and the minder put his load in. The old man came over and started shouting at the three men around the car. His voice came clearly through the slightly open window. He sounded very angry. I could not understand his Arabic but I caught the work haram, forbidden, several times. And harami, thief.

The civilian got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. I could see his face; it was livid. The minder went to open the door for the officer. The old man went forward, shouting, and put his hand on the officer’s sleeve. The officer shouted. He pushed the old man away and began to get into the car. The old man stood his ground and shouted again. The minder unslung his AK47 and fired a brief burst at the old man. The car drove away. The soldiers up the road looked on.

The old man’s two friends came running across from the mosque. They could see he was dead. They waved and two other men came across the road carrying a stretcher. The mosques were also first aid centres in those days. They put his body on the stretcher and placed his prayer mat across his stomach and carried their load slowly across the street. Their faces were very white.

The backgammon board lay on the table between the empty chairs. I felt really gutted and Jack was very tense. He had made some very nice food for the evening but it was totally wasted on us. I never knew that old man’s name.

end

Kuwait – September 1990

© Paul D Kennedy, November 2005

 

   

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