When I started writing Shell Game 20 months ago, I imagined at first that it would center on a Syrian poet. My poet was called Tarik Kataba and he was in the U.S. illegally. He had been imprisoned and tortured by Bashar. When he was released, he fled and made his way here through what John le Carré called “the soft routes.” I imagined VI having an affair with him. It turned out not to be possible to use him to tell the story I was trying to write. He still exists, but not in the same role. I thought it might entertain some readers to see where I started.
chapter 4: Scars
When I closed my eyes, I saw not the battered head in the woods nor the smooth skin of the dead young man, but Tarik Kataba’s back, criss-crossed with welts.
That hot August day, the Hope Against Fear picnic. Tarik had gone for a swim at the far end of the private beach across from Max’s home. I’d noticed him walking up the beach to a rocky outcropping at the far end, but at that time, I didn’t know his name – we were a motley gathering of immigrants, refugees, high-end donors, friends of Lotty and Max like me.
Felix Herschel was there, hanging out with the younger people; presumably that’s where he met Rasima. Mid-afternoon, Felix joined me in playing beach volleyball with some of Lotty’s surgical residents and other energetic people. Rasima had left for work.
Partway through our game, Tarik’s shirt blew from the rocks into the water. Wind and waves were carrying it toward our end of the beach; I darted into the water to collect it before it sank. I took the shirt up the beach to the rocks just as Tarik was climbing out. The sun had burned the newer flesh around the scars, highlighting the puckered stripes against his olive skin.
He was mortified that I’d seen his wounded back. He grabbed the shirt without speaking and disappeared behind the rocks. During supper, Max told me his name, and that he’d been tortured in Assad’s prisons because of his poetry.
Later, as the sun was setting, I had taken a break from the yammer of the crowd to sit on the beach and watch the light on the water change color. After some minutes, Tarik appeared noiselessly at my side.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I also am sorry. Sorry for the rude action when you make the kind action.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked about his poetry.
“Poetry is my life and also almost end of life.”
As dark gathered around us, in fractured English, he softly told me his story. Tarik spoke Russian: during the Cold War, when Syria was closely allied to the Soviet Union, he’d spent a year in Moscow as a student. He’d made friends among people who circulated samizdat; through them he learned the work of the great dissident poets of the Thirties.
“Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. For me best is always Mandlestam. I try translate. Language hard, also hard is –“ he beat a rhythm on his thigh.
“Yes. Hard and therefore happiness to put in Arabic. My bad mistake: I choose wrong poem, poem Mandlestam write to Stalin.”
Tarik recited “Stalin’s Epigram” for me in Russian and then in Arabic. It sounded beautiful in both languages, although I understood neither. Tarik tried to explain what it said, but his English wasn’t up to the job.
When I pulled out my phone and looked it up, it was instantly obvious that it would rile a dictator. Mandlestam wrote that Stalin had a mustache like “cockroach whiskers;” his followers were “a rabble of fawning half-men” who “whinny or purr or whine” at his command, his laws were “horseshoes” which hit people in the head or the eye or the groin.
In 1933, after the “Epigram” reached his ears, Stalin had Mandlestam arrested, and ultimately killed. In today’s global war against ordinary citizens, a poet should not be surprised when the police arrive in the middle of the night.
“Problem is moustache. Stalin has big, like – like brush. Bashar moustache tiny, like pencil –“ he rubbed his fingers in the sand, imitating an eraser.”
“Smudges,” I guessed.
“Smudge, hmm. I ask daughter, Rasima know English perfect. Bashar moustache smudge. Not big like Stalin. Bashar not same like Stalin, I trying say.”
“I’m sure that didn’t help.” I couldn’t hold back a laugh, and instantly apologized, but Tarik laughed softly as well. “Yes. Not help. Bashar want big cockroach moustache.”
Tariq had spent nineteen months in Assad’s prisons, nineteen months where he was whipped with electric wires, among other tortures. His son, seventeen at Tarik’s arrest, slipped across the border to safety in Jordan. When Tarik was released, he left Syria immediately with Rasima, flying to Panama and moving overland to the United States. In 2013 we still seemed like a haven.
“My son, Adam, stay at Jordan. Better there.”
It was full night when Tarik finished talking. He and I left the party together. He spent the night with me, and I felt the scars in the darkness. We never repeated the encounter, not out of shame nor fear of Rasima’s discovering us. Whatever we both had needed was satisfied by that one night.