He stands in the departure hall, boarding pass in hand, and looks contentedly at Nina. She is so civilized, that alone would be enough to make her the ideal wife. To look no further, that’s also a form of being civilized. For the time being he doesn’t even want to think about getting married, but he imagines himself coming back and telling her all about his trip. During his years at university, people sometimes accused Sam of a lack of fantasy, but he is definitely able to fantasize about the future.
“Do we have time to drink something?” asks Nina.
“I have to get going,” he says. “When I come back, I’ll take a few days off. We can go up to the mountains.” He gives his girlfriend a quick kiss. She tells him again to take good care of himself. Then he turns and walks towards the passport control. When he gets there, he turns and waves to her, and she waves back.
Sam is wearing beige pants, brown suede shoes, a blue shirt and black sports jacket. He has sprinkled himself abundantly with the aftershave Nina gave him for Christmas. His suitcase contains a raincoat, two warm sweaters – Baghdad can be cold in February, he’s heard - four shirts, four pairs of trousers, a suit for any official occasion that might come along (no one said anything about it, but it seemed wise to count on there being one or two formal gatherings), an overnight bag, seven pairs of socks, seven pairs of underpants, a CD of Madama Butterfly, which he’d listened to regularly during the drafting process, and the book that Nina gave him, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
At the airport in Vienna he has to rush from one transfer gate to the next. Still, he makes a quick call to say goodbye to his mother and Aida. And, as a sort of good-luck charm, he asks the same question he always asks whenever he calls his mother: “How is Aida doing?” The flight to Iraq is full, to the very last seat. The man beside him is an Arab, an Iraqi, he imagines. Five minutes after takeoff, the man falls asleep. His head keeps rolling onto Sam’s shoulder. When the head lands on his shoulder for the fourth time, he decides to leave it there. The Iraqis have had a hard enough time as it is, there’s no reason why Sam shouldn’t lend a shoulder to his Iraqi neighbor for a few hours.
The sweaty head still resting on his shoulder, he eats his in-flight meal with gusto, wipes his hands with the moist towelette Austrian Airlines serves along with its meals, then takes the design for the opera building out of his bag for another good look at what he came up with at his desk in Zurich. He’d had a scale model built as well, but it seemed fruitless to drag that along. Images of the model are on the hard disk of his laptop, along with a fantastic 3D presentation. When you see the 3D presentation, you have the feeling that you’re walking through the opera building and can touch the walls.
Despite the visa stamp in his passport, the customs formalities at Arbil take awfully long. The customs official leafs through his passport. “Business?” he asks Sam after a while.
“I’m going to design a new opera building for Baghdad,” Sam says. A certain gravity has crept into his voice, a nonchalant authority that goes with the status of professional architect. He is young, but professional. Even during his first year at university he had tried to come across as professional.
The area around the baggage carousel is not crowded. A fairly shabby-looking man and an older woman in a wheelchair look on in puzzlement as the last four suitcases roll past; the other passengers have already left.
His suitcase, the one with the light-green hair ribbon tied to the handle, is not there.
Sam waits a bit, but when the same four suitcases roll by for the third time, he realizes that he needs to look for a lost-luggage counter, or perhaps a ground stewardess. He sees no counter, he sees no ground stewardess.
The woman in the wheelchair looks Iraqi to him. He walks over to her and asks amiably: “Are you waiting too, for your suitcase from Vienna?” He’s not sure whether the shabby-looking man belongs with this lady or not. In any case, the man doesn’t turn and look at him.
The lady speaks to him in Arabic. She has bluish lips and her breathing is labored.
“I don’t speak Arabic,” Sam says. “I’m sorry.” The lady reaches out her hands to him. He steps back, he doesn’t want her to touch him. “I don’t speak Arabic,” he says. “I’m sorry.” She just keeps talking at him, her gasping grows worse all the while.
A rather unpleasant start to his trip. He walks towards the exit, and then, almost right away, sees the suitcase with the green ribbon. Someone else must have taken it off the carousel and, fortunately, realized their mistake in time.
It touches him to see his suitcase again like this. He thinks about Nina, he misses her, he misses Zurich, his afternoon walk from office to station, the train to Küsnacht. The emotion takes him by surprise. Only a few hours ago he had been standing beside her at the airport in Zurich and, to be frank, he had hardly been able to wait to be off on his own.
He gets ahold of himself again, straightens his sports jacket and walks into the arrivals hall the way someone with an important commission would. Briskly, a bit irritated at having been delayed unnecessarily at customs.
A man with blond, almost milky-white hair comes up to him.
“Samarendra?” the man asks.
“Yes,” Sam says. “That’s me.” The man takes his suitcase and wants to carry his satchel with the shoulder strap as well, but Sam says: “I’ll hold onto this one myself.” The man hurries out in front of him, on his way to the parking lot. He holds open the door of a gray Chevrolet.
Sam takes the backseat, the man sits in front, beside the driver.
The driver is a Mideastern-looking fellow; almost bald, stocky, with an impressively sturdy neck.
“I’m Bill,” the blonde man says. He has turned in his seat, he looks at Sam questioningly, as though not entirely sure he has just picked up the right person. “I’m responsible for your safety. The driver’s name is Hassan. If I should be incapacitated for any reason, Hassan will take over. There’s a bag beside you on the seat. If you’re forced to leave the vehicle, take that bag with you. I understand that you think your laptop is important, but a laptop can’t save your life; that bag can. It’s too late to drive to Baghdad now, so we’re going to spend the night at the Sheraton in Arbil and head south tomorrow morning early. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the team then. Is that all clear?” Sam can’t quite place Bill’s English. It’s neither American nor British, probably not Australian either.
Bags that can save his life: he has a hard time imagining it. An operation can save your life, or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Bill’s deadly earnestness makes him smile. “All clear,” he says.
Sam looks out the window. Iraq seems different from what he’d expected. Neater. More orderly. More normal.
“Have the other architects arrived yet?” Sam inquires.
Bill, it turns out, has nodded off. Sam has to repeat the question.
“I don’t know,” Bill says. He seems irritated, as though Sam has asked something untoward. But then he turns and speaks to Sam again: “It’s a good thing you didn’t fly directly to Baghdad, they would have stolen your suitcase there. Half the travelers who land at Baghdad never see their luggage again, or else they find it back empty. At first no one could really care, the Iraqis were glad enough just to be alive.” Sam is sure Bill doesn’t mean it that way, but his last comment sounds like an accusation. As though Sam wasn’t glad enough just to be alive.
The hotel has an air of ostentatious uniformity about it. Would it have been built under Saddam’s regime? In any case, as far as he’s concerned, it’s a building that should be torn down as soon as possible.
Before they’re allowed to enter the hotel, Sam has to open his suitcase twice. A security guard rummages listlessly through the contents.
“Completely shit security,” Bill says quietly. “Totally corrupt. Unprofessional.” Sam listens resignedly to the man’s comments. They remind him of what museum-goers say when they’re dissatisfied with the special exhibition.
Bill goes with him to the desk. In a whisper, he discusses something with the hotel clerk.
Only when Sam takes the key, a plastic card, does he notice that the hotel is not called the Sheraton, but the Erbil International.
“Why did you say this was the Sheraton, Bill?” he asks. “This isn’t the Sheraton.” “It used to be,” Bill says. “Around here we refer to things the way they used to be, everything here changes so quickly.” Again there is irritation in his voice, as though Sam could do anything about how quickly things change here.
“My team and I are in a hotel a couple of hundred meters down the street,” Bill says. “Be ready in the lobby tomorrow morning, eight o’clock.” Sam has room 609. An employee of the Erbil International brings him his suitcase. Three times over, he receives an explanation of how the air conditioner works, then the man remains standing hesitantly beside the bed.
He wants a tip, Sam realizes. In Zurich, just to be sure, he had exchanged some francs for U.S dollars, five hundred dollars to be exact, for unforeseen circumstances. The bank only had hundred dollar bills and a few fifties. In his wallet he finds a ten-franc note, but ten francs seems like a bit much to him.
“I’ll give you your tip tomorrow,” Sam says. “Okay? I need to break a few bills first.” When the man starts explaining the workings of the air conditioner for the fourth time, Sam decides to give him the ten francs anyway. The man looks sourly at the banknote.
Sam takes a shower. Then he goes looking for a bathrobe, but there is none. He puts his underpants back on and sits on the bed, cross-legged.
It takes a bit before he realizes that there is noise coming from the room beside his. At first he thinks the people there are making love loudly, or watching a pornographic movie, but when he listens carefully it becomes clear that they are shoving furniture around. He hears men shouting, it sounds as though they’re fighting. Sam goes over to the wall and listens. He opens the door a crack, but there is no one in the corridor. The sounds of what can safely be called a knock-down-drag-out fight are still coming from room 611. He hears panting, and what he assumes to be blows.
Sam sits down at the desk in his room and picks up the phone. Now there is the sound of something being pounded violently against the other side of the wall.
It could very well be someone’s head being pounded against the wall, Sam thinks, or is his imagination running away with him? He decides not to wait any longer and calls the desk.
“Excuse me,” he says, “this is room 609. I have the impression that something’s going wrong in room 611. Could someone come up and take a look?” The desk clerk says something Sam doesn’t understand. He tries a second time to explain that someone needs to come and take a look in room 611, but while he is still talking he hears the clerk giggling. Then, in rather bad English, the clerk says: “We offer massage service in room. Masseur now working in room 611. You like massage in room too?”
Sam is sure that the sounds coming from room 611 are not the sounds of a massage, but he says: “Oh, well, that explains everything. Sorry to bother you.” He lies down on the bed. First he thinks about his sister, then about his girlfriend, and then about Hamid Shakir Mahmoud. Finally, he falls asleep.
When he awakens it is almost 10 p.m. local time. The hotel is quiet. He puts on his shirt and trousers, pulls on the slippers he takes with him everywhere, even when he sleeps over at Nina’s, and goes out into the hall. He knocks on the door of room 611. No one answers.
Back in the room, Sam takes a bottle of mineral water from the mini-bar and calls his mother.
“How’s Aida doing?” he asks.
“Fine, how are things there, Samarendra?” his mother answers.
His mother has never stopped calling him Samarendra, as though to remind him that he can’t get away from his name.
“Excellent. I’m still in Arbil. A clean bed. Nice room. But an awfully ugly building.” “Have you met the other architects yet?” “No,” Sam says. “Not yet. Only my security people.” “You mean bodyguards?” He is reminded of politicians on TV, surrounded by men in sunglasses with a wire running up behind one ear. He usually finds those men more intriguing than the politicians themselves.
“Not really. They’re security people. They keep an eye on things. But everything’s quiet around here. Don’t worry.” “I hope you win,” his mother says. “Your father would be very proud of you. I love you.” “I love you too,” he says, and hangs up.
Lying on the bed, he examines his drawings carefully again.
What he has in mind, although he didn’t want to tell his partner Dave about that yet, is an entirely new trend in architecture. No longer an architecture that looks down on people, that tries to wield power, but an architecture that stands beside people, that gives. Generous architecture. He doesn’t so much want to reject Fehmer’s work as to send it in another direction, to improve upon it. Fehmer didn’t understand fully enough that the big problem is the waste that people leave behind. As an architect, you have to take that into account; here is the person and there is his waste, the two are inseparable. Anyone who builds for humans must also always build for human waste.
Visitors can move through the opera building in many ways. His design invites them to do that. Everything is open. Transparent. Generosity implies freedom. The toilets are designed for sustainability, the human manure will be used to generate energy.
Once again, Sam searches for his design’s weak points. Without considering himself arrogant, he has to admit: once again, he can’t find any.
In a state of mild euphoria he calls Nina, but she doesn’t answer. He sends her a text instead, to let her know that everything is going well in Iraq, that he is approaching Baghdad and that, as he promised, he misses her for a few minutes of every hour.
A little before eight the next morning he takes the elevator down to the lobby. He has shaved carefully and taken a long shower. Expecting the journey to
Baghdad to be long and dusty, he has put on the same clothes he wore the day before. The breakfast buffet was all right, the fruit salad was not particularly fresh, but it was tasty enough.
When he goes to check out, he finds that the bill has already been paid. Such diligence surprises him.
As he is watching a group of men in traditional dress conversing on one of the couches, he looks up and sees that Hassan is standing in front of him. He didn’t see him coming.
“Have you been waiting for a long time?” he asks. Hassan picks up the suitcase with the green ribbon and walks outside.
Sam follows him. He’s excited about this, he can’t wait to meet Hamid Shakir Mahmoud and show him the drawings. In all modesty, he will convince him that his design is the best way to achieve the dream, he will make Puccini’s entry into Baghdad possible. Where Frank Lloyd Wright failed, he will succeed.
Two other men are standing beside the Chevrolet.
“This is the team,” Hassan says. “We’re here for your safety. This is Heavy.” He points to a man with a moustache.
Sam wonders whether he has misunderstood the man’s Iraqi name, or whether he really is called “Heavy”.
“And this is Honey.” Hassan points to another man. A stocky fellow. Round. That’s the first word that comes into Sam’s mind. Honey is round.
Samarendra wonders whether the man is really called Honey, or whether he’s perhaps heard wrongly again. He feels it would be impolite to ask, and besides, it doesn’t really matter.
Honey climbs into a black BMW that is parked beside the Chevrolet. It has Iraqi plates, but also a sticker with “D” on it. This particular BMW must once have raced down the autobahn.
Hassan holds the door of the Chevrolet open for Sam, and Sam slides onto the backseat.
The man they call “Heavy” is sitting up front, beside Hassan.
As they leave the hotel parking lot, a guard raises the barrier gate.
Sam sees that Honey is behind them in the black BMW.
He wonders where Bill is. Maybe he has the day off. Or does this mean that something has happened to Bill. “Incapacitated”, that was the word Bill had used yesterday.
Once they’ve left Arbil behind, Sam enquires amiably: “Isn’t Bill going with us?” “No,” Hassan says.
Sick. Incapacitated can mean that too, of course. Maybe Bill has diarrhea. Food poisoning. People who know the Mideast well had warned Sam. Watch out for the lettuce, be careful with vegetables. And drink a can of cola every day, to avoid problems.
“Now I am Bill,” Hassan says.
Indeed, that is what Bill had said, Sam recalls now, that Hassan would take over if he were to be incapacitated. If he got sick.
“But your name’s Hassan, isn’t it?” Sam asks, just to be sure.
“Name Hassan, but now am Bill,” Hassan says.
His safety is indeed being seen to, the men create the impression that they know what they are doing. Lying on the passenger seat, under a sort of dishtowel, is a machinegun.
This morning he’d tried to call Nina, but he got her voice-mail. She had already sent him three text messages by then, it’s true, fond messages. In the voice-mail message he left for her he said that everything was fine, that she needn’t worry about a thing. He had signed off with the words: “I kiss you on your pretty lips.” Whether he really thinks her lips are pretty, he’s not exactly sure. Sometimes he’s afraid that he lies without meaning to. But he’s an architect, he doesn’t design mouths. In fact, what does he really know about mouths? Nina is put together well, he knows that for sure, the overall picture is almost flawless. Her rear end is awfully small, but that will get bigger of its own accord. For a moment he thinks tenderly of her little moustache.
After about half an hour, Hassan stops at a roadside restaurant.
“Toilet?” he asks.
Sam shakes his head.
“Here to Baghdad no more toilet. Sure?” Sam is not sure. He climbs out and tries to pee, but nothing comes.
When he comes out of the toilet, Hassan is sitting on a little patio decorated with some plastic garden furniture that doesn’t really live up to Swiss standards. He’s drinking cola from a can. Heavy and Honey have stayed in the cars.
“Cola?” Hassan asks. Sam nods.
Hassan orders for him, and a can of cola is put down on the sticky table in front of him.
“Nice country?” Hassan asks, observing him closely.
The can is sticky too. As he wipes off the top of the can, Sam looks at the hills around the gas station. “Certainly. Nice country,” he says.
“First time?” “First time,” he replies.
“Hope not last time,” Hassan says.
Back in the Chevrolet, Sam falls asleep.
When he wakes up, he finds himself looking straight in the face of a soldier who has stuck his head halfway in through the window on the driver’s side.
“Checkpoint,” Heavy says.
“Journalist?” the soldier asks Sam.
“Architect,” Sam says.
The soldier looks at him uncomprehendingly, then starts speaking excitedly in Arabic.
“Are you carrying weapons?” Hassan asks. “That he wants to know.” “I am carrying no weapons,” Sam says. “I am an architect.” “Your identification,” Hassan says.
Sam hands his passport to Hassan, who passes it on to the soldier.
The soldier leafs impatiently through Sam’s passport. As he does, he glances at Sam a few times. Finally he hands it back to Hassan, and says something in an unpleasant tone.
“He wants to know what you doing in Iraq,” Hassan says. “You have papers to show what you doing?” From his satchel, Sam pulls out the letter the World Wide Design Consortium sent him by e-mail, the one he printed out just in case. It says right there in black and white that Samarendra Ambani is one of the three finalists in the design concourse organized by the WWDC for an opera building in Baghdad. The soldier looks at the letter as though someone has pressed a sheet of dirty toilet paper in his hand. Then he hands the letter back to Sam and walks off without a word, to the next car in line.
They are allowed to drive on.
The driver and the passenger talk to each other in Arabic.
“When do I get to meet Hamid Shakir Mahmoud?” Sam asks.
No one replies, they act as though they haven’t heard him.
In the backseat, Sam tries to imagine the meeting with Hamid Shakir Mahmoud. “Giving is the new taking,” that’s what he’ll tell him. In exactly those words.
It’s late in the afternoon when they arrive in Baghdad. What strikes Sam most is the dust and the walls. Walls and concrete blocks everywhere. Walls and more walls, Baghdad is a city of walls. Against attacks, explosions.
The concrete blocks aren’t pretty, but they’re probably effective enough. Sam wonders whether there might not be some more aesthetically pleasing solution. The viewer has needs too, the passer-by, he wants more than just to have his life saved.
They get out of the car. Honey’s black BMW is nowhere in sight.
“This is the villa,” Hassan says. He points to a decrepit building surrounded by a sturdy wall. Armed men in civilian clothes are pacing slowly back and forth around the building.
Heavy takes the suitcase out of the car and shows Sam to a room on the second floor.
The room has a bed, a desk, a chair and a little electric radiator. There is a yellow towel hanging over the back of the chair. For the rest there is a window, hidden by a heavy, dark-blue curtain. When Sam pulls the curtain aside, he sees a wall. A blind window.
“Your room,” Heavy says. “Bathroom beside. We are down.” Heavy glances around as though to make sure everything is really safe. Then he walks out of the room. Sam hears him going down the stairs.
When the sound of footsteps has died out, Sam takes a look in the bathroom. It’s a fairly large bathroom. The bath mat is filthy.
There is a sheet of paper on the wall, with a text in English, written in large letters: “Instructions: shower on no more than 20 seconds per day. Shower on. Get wet. Shower off. Soap. Shower on again. Rinse. Shower off.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Sam sees something move.
It turns out to be a little lizard, or at least what Sam takes to be a lizard. He doesn’t know much about reptiles. Three of them are clinging to the wall beneath the sink. He can’t take a shower in here, he decides.
Then Sam closes the door, the one Heavy had left open behind him. The key is gone. He wonders whether he can use the toilet here, but that’s something to worry about later.
He opens his suitcase.
The clothes in it are not his. Sam closes the suitcase. The green hair ribbon. He sniffs at the ribbon, he smells Nina. He examines the suitcase carefully. This is definitely the same suitcase the two of them bought together. It’s Nina’s ribbon; it is his suitcase.
Sam opens the suitcase again quickly and once again sees clothes that aren’t his.
He removes everything, but there is nothing that belongs to him. Only the cd of Madama Butterfly and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns are his.
He opens the book. On the flyleaf, Nina has written: “For my sweetest Samarendra, will you be careful? Shall we buy a puppy when you get back? A thousand kisses, your Nina.” He slams the book closed. With growing agitation, he starts rummaging through the clothes that do not belong to him. “Where are my things?” he says quietly.
He stuffs everything back into the suitcase, closes it and takes it downstairs.
In a sort of kitchen area, Hassan and Heavy are sitting at a plain wooden table. They’re drinking Fanta Orange.
Sam puts the suitcase on the table. “This isn’t mine,” he says.
There is no aggression in his voice, only impatience.
“Not your suitcase?” Hassan asks. He seems genuinely surprised.
“Yes, my suitcase,” Samarendra says. “But not my clothes.” He opens the suitcase and routs through the clothing with his left hand. Pants, shirts, a creased suit, socks, underpants. An overnight bag that doesn’t belong to him. He opens it. A toothbrush that isn’t his.
“Not mine,” he says, more impatiently and loudly than he’d meant to. “Someone else’s.” Hassan shakes his head. “I not understand,” he says. “This is your suitcase.” Sam’s clothes were not extremely expensive, but they were of a good quality. Brand clothing, bought on sale, but brand clothing nonetheless. Maybe some poor Iraqi took his chances and made off with them. These people have nothing at all, of course. An Armani shirt, that would drive them wild. A silk tie, a Paul Smith suit.
“Someone took my clothes out of my suitcase,” Sam says. “I really want to get everything back. Where are my clothes?” Hassan shakes his head again. “These are your clothes,” he says.
He pulls a shirt out of the suitcase. Short sleeves, checkered. Cheap textile. Hassan stands and holds the shirt up to Sam’s chest, as though he were a salesperson. “Your size,” he says, “your clothes.” Hassan folds the shirt neatly and puts it back in the suitcase.
A feeling of failure descends on Sam, a feeling he hasn’t had till now. Perhaps it’s loneliness. As long as you have your own clothes, you’re not lonely. Yesterday he still had his clothes. He was happy then.
Then he realizes that he should try to show understanding for the situation. He is in another place, a different culture, he needs to adapt. To start with, he needs to calm down.
But he can’t, the truth is that he has no understanding to show. Although he knows full well that there is something petty about this attachment to his own clothing, that it is not exactly the attitude of a man who has been everywhere – a man who needs nothing but his own ideas, his laptop and a toothbrush – still, he wants only one thing: his own clothes back.
“I need to buy new clothes,” Sam says at last. That seems like a good alternative to him, it calms him immediately.
Hassan shakes his head. “Impossible. Too dangerous.” Heavy points to the suitcase. “Those your clothes. Your suitcase. Your clothes.” Heavy’s voice sounds friendlier than Hassan’s. The message remains the same: Sam is mistaken, Sam is lying. He is being reprimanded like a child.
“I want to buy socks,” Sam says. “I need clean underwear. These are not clean boxer shorts.” He pulls a pair out of the suitcase. The boxer shorts are a faded red.
He raises them to his nostrils. An unpleasant odor. “These have been used,” he says, “these are not my boxer shorts. All this belongs to someone else. I need clean underwear. I understand very well where I am and what is going on here, but I want to buy a clean pair of underpants. It’s not about the money. I can pay for it. The drive to the shop, too. If you two go with me, I’ll pay for it. No problem. Maybe you two need to buy something, too?” Heavy takes the boxer shorts out of Sam’s hands and sniffs at them, the way a connoisseur might sniff a glass of very special wine.
“Mr. Ambani, these your underpants,” says Heavy, and lays the shorts back on the table.
“Please, call me Sam. I know my own clothes. I know my own underwear. I almost never wear boxer shorts.” Heavy looks at him with a smile. Maybe he’s trying to say: well, perhaps it’s time you started.
Sam can hear how feeble his own voice sounds, how dubious. They must think he’s a man who doesn’t know what’s in his own closet, someone who lets his wife pack his suitcase for him, an absentminded architect.
Sam picks up the boxer shorts between thumb and index finger, tosses them back into the suitcase and closes it firmly.
Without another word, he takes the luggage back to his room. He washes his hands.