An Elephant

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Chapter 5: Salim

5: Salim #1

“The satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they look upon a loaf of bread.”


- Rumi


“It happens tonight, so we need the money for it today, or it’ll be too late” David warned. Salim hated this kind of pressure.

“I know, I know. We need to do something, I just don’t know what” Salim answered, looking around nervously. Across Place St George, he saw a pair of England supporters, both wearing the team’s shirt. They looked like a father and son, and Salim wondered what their family home might be like. It made Salim think of his own father, now long dead. How he longed for a family home of his own; just a real home would be a good start.

He and David were currently crashing above a disused Tabac, along with two Portuguese guys and a Dutch couple. With hostels, squats, and smoking buddies’ sofas, Salim seldom had to sleep on the street, but he’d done it often enough to know that in winter, five in the morning was the coldest time of day.

For the past few days he had been watching foreign visitors and wanting to be one of them - they all seemed to be so relaxed, despite the excited buzz of the football.

Tourists everywhere he thought, there’s so much money to be made here, but the risks are huge. He looked at Hotel de la Paix in the corner of the square as the three drunk Englishmen outside it laughed loudly. He felt menace beneath the surface of his surroundings.

There’s that Giovanni in plain clothes, and there may be more dotted around. Police presence seemed to have trebled due to the football, and that didn’t even count riot police, who wouldn’t be far away. This had chased away much of the usual street element, and all morning they had only seen one or two of the usual faces from around the area.

He took out his near-empty pouch of tobacco and started to roll a cigarette as he casually glanced at the passing tourists, and then at David. The contrast with the relative affluence around them was striking: David’s washed-out, ill-fitting clothes and comparatively unwashed look differed hugely from the crisp, wholesome brightness of the passing tourists. They all looked healthy and at ease, they all wore new trainers and they threw their food away if they didn’t like it. Salim remembered sometimes having to wait for days before he had the chance of eating the tail end of a UN food parcel as a young child. All the same, the general air of excitement of the visitors was rubbing off on him a little, raising his spirits.

He watched the two journalists with the video camera in the centre of the square. The camera had a sticker with the Stars and Stripes on it.

Even US television has turned up… at Place St George of all places.

He dropped his head to the left to get his long hair away from the cigarette as he licked it, and then rolled it to completion in one slick movement to the right. He spotted a large guy in a Romanian shirt on the other side of the square who was looking at a public information poster on the wall as he passed. It had a diagrammatic warning to be aware of pickpockets. Salim and David both watched as the man couldn’t help himself as he instinctively tapped the back pocket in his shorts, indicating exactly where his wallet was.

Some people are so obvious.

“No stealing today” he whispered, knowing what David was thinking. “No wallets, cameras or anything else. We should find a better way. Anyway, there are police all over, there’s that local idiot now.” He nodded toward the round-faced Giovanni who often hassled them. In the past he had searched them on a few occasions, but by some fluke of timing or concealment, each time he had found nothing more than cigarettes and rolling papers.

“Plain clothes today. I bet that other guy that was with him a minute ago was a flic too. We need to be extra careful.”

“How else are we going to make up the difference?” David asked. “We are still 600 Francs short of buying the next lump, and we still have 300 francs worth of the current batch left to sell. There’s only a few hours to go before we’re due to meet with Karim – nowhere near enough time to sell it all…how about tongs?” David suggested.

“No way” was Salim’s quick answer. David sometimes carried a set of barbeque tongs for thieving purses. They enabled him to reach deeply into beach bags, usually belonging to women, while they queued, without putting his whole arm in and drawing attention to himself. It worked surprisingly well, but Salim only considered stealing to be a viable option when he was literally starving, and as they still had money to invest, it was merely a question of timing.

The same old hamster wheel problem Salim thought to himself. We buy the hash, we sell, we buy some more…

He knew that the process would work if they didn’t keep smoking the profits, get too stoned to do much, and realise that they had taken a week to sell the rest. The little profit they made was soaked up by their own use and living expenses, and they often had to find top-up money elsewhere to buy the next batch. Suddenly they were desperate again.

His stomach felt empty, as it so often did, and he felt his very soul was starting to go the same way.

“Stefan and Susie?” David suggested.

They could borrow the required cash from the Rotterdam couple they squatted with, but Stefan and Susie always expected them to repay them all the cash, and then get stoned for free as well. And that’s if they were even in the squat, and could get the money in time.

Man, I want out of this shitty, circular existence.

Salim spent most of his time in the company of drop-outs: runaways, addicts, prostitutes, pimps, thieves and the mentally ill. He sorely wanted to get on in life, and his involvement in drugs was, in theory, just to make ends meet on a temporary basis. He wanted to stop it all and integrate with mainstream society. He was never going to be a successful dealer, he didn’t even want to be, and he was becoming more and more aware of the fact that his life was spiralling out of control. He was likely to land in serious trouble with the law, or serious trouble elsewhere. He didn’t know which was worse.

Even if they stole the Romanian tourist’s wallet, it was only a temporary fix and would solve nothing. He often fantasised about life on the straight and narrow: a job, a full belly and a good night’s sleep; a good balance between mind, body and soul. His father had a favourite saying: ‘If a farmer uses a plough all his life but does not plant the seeds, can his crops grow?’ He asked himself what foundations he was laying, floundering as he was, on the edge of society.

Unlike David, Salim stole very rarely, only for food money, and he did not enjoy the buzz of the process at all. As a young child, his father had caught him stealing a bag of dates and told him that he would never learn that stealing was bad, until it taught him a lesson he would never forget. His father then took him a few streets away to introduce him to Ali, a man with only one hand, the other severed at the elbow as punishment. Even in the face of harsh adversity, his father had been dead for years before Salim stole anything again. It had been in Paris…

Salim had arrived as an orphaned asylum seeker, and was placed in a hostel in Pigalle, still only a boy of nine, suffering with acute tuberculosis. He suffered frequent beatings and psychological abuse, at times little better than the bad times in his native Iraq, so as soon as the TB went into remission, he ran away. He wore only a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a tracksuit top; it was minus five and the Parisian snow was ten centimetres deep. Initially he had been very lucky and found a place to sleep on a roof, next to the extractor fan from a public swimming pool. The warm air it spewed out probably saved his life. After a week of stealing food from supermarkets he decided to leave Paris, and move further south, mostly to keep warm.

“If I was gonna steal a camera, I’d steel that one” David joked. He was pointing out the American journalist’s cameraman in the centre of the square. A clunky tripod held an impossibly large video camera while his female associate interviewed a tourist.

“You could do the old smeared ketchup trick and distract him by rubbing it off. I’ll slip his camera into my pocket and be off before he knows what’s hit him. No one’ll notice a thing” he laughed. He tapped the mall breast pocket of his T-shirt. The professional camera looked like it weighed about as much as David did, and it was easily as long as one of his arms.

“They won’t chop your hands off for it here, you know” said David, immediately switching his attention back to the Romanian with the advertised wallet - he knew well Salim’s story about one-armed Ali. David genuinely enjoyed the process of stealing and the thrill of the chase. Before partnering up with Salim, he had hung out with Patrice, making a living from theft alone, until Patrice got caught selling a stolen car and went to prison.

“That’s not the point and you know it. It’s just… wrong. There are victims.” It was a subject they had discussed before, and with similar results, but they were both getting a little tetchy due to the hot weather and the impending deadline of the hash deal with Karim.

“You’re a fucking dope dealer!” insisted David.

“Shhh!” Salim automatically checked over each shoulder. “It’s a far more legitimate business than stealing – it brings pleasure to people. It may be illegal, but it’s not immoral, and not without honour… for me at least.”

“Don’t tell me, eight hundred years your people have been smoking it. You invented it.”

“There’s nothing wrong with raising the spirits, and yes, it’s eight hundred years since Shayk Haydar used it. We didn’t invent it, though, it was coffee-drinking that the Sufi invented. Voila! What about Holland? There are no victims in a Dutch coffee shop, just good cannabis and good coffee. No victims or losers.”

David pulled a face, and they both knew what he meant. They had bought some hash off an Algerian guy three months previously. It turned out to be of such poor quality they wondered if it had any real cannabis in it at all. They had invested their 2000 francs in it (all they had in the world) and they had needed to recoup the money to buy more, and so, with some difficulty they had offloaded it. Most went to tourists and students as usual, but in their desperation some had gone to an acquaintance they knew from the other side of town, called Omar. They had made their money back, but Omar had become a victim. They had crossed paths several times since, and it had been very awkward. What made it worse for Salim was that he genuinely liked him a lot.

If he gave it any thought, Salim was conscious that, other than the public service aspects of supplying good quality hash to grateful students, he was not contributing to society as much as he would like. He hated his inner void and the feeling of abandonment, as he felt French society was doing very little for him - he didn’t even have a home to call his own - but the nagging feeling of guilt continued regardless.

His half-burnt cigarette had gone out, so he carefully placed it in his pocket for later, and looked up at the clear blue sky for a moment allowing his mind to wander. His immediate financial predicament also made him consider his spiritual malaise, and he recalled a recent conversation with Ahmed, the Eritrean man who helped out at the local shelter. Salim and David ate there when down on their luck, which was often, and he had taken an interest in Salim’s predicament. Just like Salim, Ahmed had been raised in the Sufi tradition, although unlike Salim, he continued to practice his religion in earnest. Ahmed seemed genuinely concerned about Salim’s welfare, both from a practical and spiritual viewpoint.

‘Sufism has come to represent those who are interested in finding a way or practice toward inner awakening and enlightenment’ Ahmed had explained.

At the time Salim was intent on finishing his tabouleh and then leaving the hostel to roll a joint, but soon afterwards he had given it some more thought, once he had smoked half of it. Sufi followers use a variety of techniques to move toward God and unity of being; singing, playing music and the circular dances of dervishes, but Salim felt too numbed by his hand-to-mouth lifestyle to even consider such things.

He did feel somehow honoured to receive the advice, as it is commonly held in Sufism that a person cannot learn, until he is in a state in which he can perceive what he is learning, and what it means. Sufi imam do not tend to speak about profound things to people who are not prepared to cultivate the power of learning. There are lessons which can only be taught to someone who is sufficiently enlightened to say: ‘Teach me how to learn.’

They had touched on a story that Salim had covered at school back in Iraq and remembered vividly - Rumi’s story in Masnavi about an elephant being examined in the dark. The different examiners are led to make assumptions about what it was that they are touching, but Rumi offered no set resolution to the story. Salim felt proud that he could relate to a story he thought was so evocative and potentially deep, and so characteristically Sufi.

Ahmed had recounted another Sufi saying to Salim: “Ignorance is pride, and pride is ignorance. The man who says ‘I don’t have to be taught how to learn’ is proud and ignorant.”

Ahmed was highly cultured, and went on to explain that far from being confined to Sufis, the story about the elephant is told by Hindus in India, amongst Buddhists and among people who followed a religion unknown to him, called Jainism. The story even had a scientific reference, to do with particles and waves, but he couldn’t fully understand the reference.

Salim considered his life to be a bitter struggle for survival, not a journey in the pursuit of the finer things in life, and the Sufi path wasn’t going to make up the three hundred Franc deficit to buy the next package from Karim. Fifty grams of hash was what they needed to buy today, if he was to feed himself, and not rely on the shelter’s charity.

“There’s that Columbian woman with the coke we saw last night!” said David, struggling to contain his excitement. “She’s been sat right over there all along and we didn’t see her!”

So what? Salim thought.

“We have stuff to do, and that’s the Brazilian flag on her T-shirt, not the Columbian.”

Anyone from South America! She will have real coke! Genuine, not like that shit I bought from Alex The English. Let’s go and talk to her.”

The previous evening they had seen this same woman and she had been carrying the same canvas rucksack as today. The previous day she had been aimlessly hanging around Place St George, and at one point her bag had fallen open allowing a familiar glass pipe to almost fall out. Anyone carrying a glass crack pipe around with them, must be using more than just a bit of hashish, but David had bided his time.

The woman sat with her back to the wall of the school, legs folded beneath her, watching the people mill through the square. She watched them approach, and as usual, it was David who spoke first.

“Hey Brazilian! Got any coke?” It was clear from her reaction that she suspected they were making reference to her glass pipe, but her answer was a simple:

“No.” Her accent was very strong.

“You take it though, don’t you?”

“No. Never.” She smiled as she said it, but not like she was lying Salim thought, more like she meant it and didn’t want to offend. Salim was in no hurry to take any, given the urgency of his afternoon and the need to find funds for Karim, but he couldn’t imagine a glass pipe being used for any other purpose.

“Have you got a spare cigarette?” This was David’s second question to almost everyone.

“No.”

“Do you take amphetamines?” asked David. Salim’s shoulders dropped sharply and he looked at him in mild shock, he was clearly clutching at straws.

“No.” With that she nodded, indicating something behind them, and before Salim had a chance to quiz her on why she had carried a crack pipe the previous evening, Salim turned around to see a face he knew well. The approaching policeman’s name was Giovanni, but he generally called him ‘Inspecteur’.

“We haven’t got time for this” said Salim under his voice, as they walked slowly away. “We need to find cash and we’ve only got a few hours. Maybe we should try and find some tourists down by the beach that will pay double the usual price for what we have left - then we’d have enough for Karim. We can blend in with the crowds there, I feel a bit exposed here, today.”

“She had a crack pipe yesterday, you saw it yourself” David whispered.

“So what? She didn’t seem like she had any coke to me, and what if she has? I don’t want to smoke crack. Even if she gave you a bit, and for free? We need to be elsewhere, or we’ll miss tonight’s meet and we’ll be stuck for a whole week. You know how dry it is at the moment, the whole city’s locked down for France ’98.”

They walked slowly as Salim fished in his pocket for the half-smoked cigarette and could tell that David was unconvinced by his reasoning and was desperate to get high on anything he could lay his hands on. They were still hovering when they heard the loud, familiar voice behind them.

“Hey. You two behaving yourselves, I hope.”

“Always, Monsieur l’Inspecteur.”

Every time! He pretends to be friendly, we pretend to be innocent. He’s unlikely to search us in front of all these tourists… Why plain clothes today? he wondered.

Giovanni walked away from the woman in the Brazilian T-shirt and laughed his over-confident laugh that all present knew meant ‘don’t bullshit me’. His gaze momentarily rested on the woman on the ground behind him, then he looked accusingly at Salim and David.

“We have a lot of visitors from all over the world here for the next few weeks. We have the press…” he nodded at the journalist and cameraman behind him “…and importantly for you two,” he pointed at David and then Salim “law enforcement, and lots of it. You wouldn’t want the CRS dragging you away for some difficult questioning would you? Leaving you with a bit of baton-rash, maybe? Where are you from, Arab? Morocco? Tunisia?”

Salim didn’t like being pointed at, and looked around absent-mindedly, suppressing his resentment.

We’ve spoken maybe twenty times before, and this is the first time you ask me where I’m from.

“I was born in Iraq,” was Salim’s response. “I came to France eight years ago.”

“Well just know that I’ve got my eye on you, and your accomplice. Now be good.” Giovanni turned and walked away. Salim fumed silently, watched by David who understood why.

Salim was born in Iraq, and had been raised as a Muslim, but he did not consider himself an Arab at all. He was Kurdish, of Persian origin, and when he was seven years old, he had been locked up by Arabs, in a prison underground, for no other reason than his Kurdish background. As a child he had never understood the Ba’athist regime’s reason for his incarceration, all he knew was that he had been made to live in a dungeon, beaten and starved, and that he went for two whole years without ever seeing the sun. He had no love for Arabs, and he detested being taken for one.

They watched Giovanni leave, and stood and looked around. Yet another group of football tourists approached Place St George, followed by two that stood out from the crowd…

Street hustling and some petty theft over the years had taught Salim how to recognise when someone was carrying something valuable. From the moment he saw the guy, he was convinced. Aside from the firmness of his grip on the handle, the purple-haired skinny guy furtively looked down at the bag he carried, and then at the people around him. He was walking near an absolutely enormous tattooed guy and Salim hoped they weren’t together. He looked at David, who had also spotted the bag - the way it was being carried, and the implicit suggestion of its value. In a few seconds the black holdall would arrive onto Place St George. They nodded in acknowledgement at each other to show they’d both seen the opportunity. For a brief moment, Salim dared hope it might even be his ticket to escape his life altogether.

“Never mind 50 grams of Moroccan hash from Karim. I don’t know what’s in that bag, but I’m certain that it’s really valuable. This could be a real turning point.”


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