The Old Man or Problems of Patriarchy

By Dr. Omar Sabbagh

Tariq peered out of the window of the living room of his third-floor flat, watching a glow-worm of traffic inch its way in puma-wrapped technicolour across the wide thoroughfares of Al Barsha 1, Dubai. Of course, he’d quite gotten used to the way the traffic signals changed colour by the eon rather than by the minute, though he himself rarely drove in Dubai. No; the metro service in that part of the bustling desert-city was quite adequate; more than adequate in fact. Dressed in silky grey and sky blue, clean and limpid as a polished shell, the metro was a tribute to a thriving, flourishing, if makeshift, habitat. It docked, quite nicely for him, then wormed like a lean and obsequious bullet, out of one of the far ends or limbs of the huge Mall that neighboured his apartment, the apartment he shared now in his close-on two-year marriage with his wife, Maryam. After a few more moments of aimless pondering, he turned back from the window and scanned the room. The two main paintings adorning the walls were melees of blue and white; one a seascape in some no-man’s-land between abstraction and representational art – and he just loved the vibrant licks of white paint at the bottom, near-end of that sea, because he could smell the brine there and feel the nice metallic cool of the water on his feet. The other, opposite, had been a gift from a family friend, a wedding-present in fact, painted by the brother of a friend of his brother’s – a now highly-distinguished Iraqi painter who was Emeritus at some university and had had at least two major museums of fine arts named after him. This latter painting was supposed to be one of the few paintings done of the cantankerous modernist poet, Ezra Pound; and there was something both swarthy and atmospherically-androgynous about the young man painted there. Come to think of it, that made little sense. Though the painter in question was now in his eighties no doubt, even if he had painted Mr Pound, say, in the sixties, said Mr Pound would have been quite deftly aged by then, and certainly not the blue-faced Byronic youth looking so soulfully at an angle out of the frame, wrapped and cosseted and draped in some swarthy mantel that reached up from the shoulders and round the back of the head up to the somewhat shadowed brow. Tariq emitted a soft, daft chuckle to himself, as though responding to the quip of a nearby angel. Yes, he now thought to himself, I too am getting old. His phone now tinkled.

‘Hello?’ His voice was deep, gruff, a voice like the colour of his ghost-grey goatee beard.

‘Yes, I know,’ he continued in response to the voice on the other end. ‘I know that. But he’s the apple of my eye.’ While he slowly rubbed the mole by his nose on the right side of his brown-skinned cheeks, a gesture indicating enervation, he continued to listen to what this woman had to say about Teymour.

‘Gay? He’s not gay.’ The woman on the far end of this strange chinwag was adamant though; and she seemed to be offering a profane litany of evidence testifying to her statement. Tariq listened for another minute or so, then interrupted her long, belaboured monologue.

‘Listen, I think I know my own son! Now that’s quite enough.’ He placed the phone down and walked towards the entrance of the kitchen, nearly bumping into Maryam as she emerged therefrom bearing a tray with two mugs of simmering green tea.

‘Who was that, love?’

‘Oh,’ Tariq fibbed, ‘just someone asking after Teymour.’

‘Someone from London?’

‘Yes, I suppose so.’ As he clutched his mug, Tariq tried to shake off a stupor. The woman with whom he’d just spoken had distracted him. The idea that his own son, his only child from a previous marriage, might in fact be homosexual, well, it was a wholly new train of thought. It had never once occurred to him. And parry with it as he now did, some small and tender part of him was set wandering. Maryam now said, observing her husband surreptitiously,

‘Harried by a ghost?’

‘What’s that?’

‘You seem distant. What is it? Teymour ok?’

‘Yes, yes.’ He now conquered the makeshift demon, pulled off a wide smile and kissed his wife on the cheek. ‘I’ve some work to do in the study,’ he said, looking dearly into her eyes. ‘I must get this article finished by the morning. This business in the Yemen is getting out of hand.’

Maryam nodded as he trundled off, carrying his still steaming mug of tea. She watched him disappear through the doorway, as though hooded by thoughts. She knew enough not to press him on the matter, whatever the matter was. If it was important, she knew he’d let-on at the right time.

*

The next day, Maryam woke earlier than was her wont – though still, she now estimated, a couple of hours after Tariq. He was getting up earlier and earlier of late. After making a pot of coffee, pouring herself a mug of it, steaming in vermilion and black, she walked into the living room and spied an opened book laid face down on the long coffee table by the sofa. Seating herself, she picked it up. Its title ran: Delightful Murder. It was a book she knew, or at least knew-of; the one ‘literary’ foray made by the august Ernest Mandel himself! That Belgian economist, leading Marxist and Trotskyist leader for so long, had always had a penchant for detective fiction. She knew that because Tariq had once explained it, a few years back, when, recently-divorced, he’d been courting her in those first few months of their acquaintance. She could still picture that scene in a small but elegant and smoky bistro near the left bank of the Seine.

‘To this day,’ he’d said, ‘you do realise that the Penguin edition of the three volumes of Capital still make-use of his Introduction. God! In sixty-eight his little slim An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory sold over one point five million copies! Can you just imagine, I mean, just try and imagine something like that happening today! Im-possible.’ He was dressed all in white that evening, and the white glowed against his dusky skin; glowed like the glamour of his dark and sparkling eyes.

Perhaps it was the fact that he was nearly thirty years older than her, perhaps it was his oaky charisma, a mixture of deep seriousness and lightsome charm, but Maryam was smitten when he spoke with such impassioned verve. She wasn’t a political animal herself, though she did keep au courant with the world-scene; and more so now that she was falling in love with this older man so involved in the left-wing movements across the globe.

‘He’s most famous of course for his Late Capital. But my favourite of his works is his Marxist Economic Theory. That by the way was his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne. It took him nearly ten years to write, and he does something quite special there – though old-hat in today’s climate, where such tricks are anachronistic given the high-brow sophistication of the intelligentsia, left or right.’

‘What? What did he do?’ It wasn’t just amorous interest; Maryam was genuinely intrigued. For her, books and the world of the intellect had always been a presence; but somehow, she’d just never been as invested as this older man, talking to her now with such heartfelt passion.

‘Well, while updating Marx, he mimicked him. He dealt with the various parts of the Marxist economic conceptual apparatus, but developed them in an arc that told the political-economic history of the civilised world that was now, as then, susceptible to such a penetrating critique.’

Maryam had frowned here. She’d placed her glass of red wine, which until then she’d held up in an inquisitive space between the table and her lips, as though poised there as a question-mark, back down on the table.

‘What I mean is: he showed how the conceptual tools of Marxist economics could be seen to grow, to develop organically with the history of economic organisation. He showed, in other words, how Marxist economic critique was no a priori theorising, but that it itself was deeply grounded in the empirical history of material civilisation.’

Maryam had thought it through, and as she was a highly intelligent woman, she’d now said, with eagle-eyed perceptiveness,

‘But then, doesn’t that paint quite a bleak picture of history?’

‘How so? I’m not sure I follow.’

‘Well, doesn’t that make it look like Marxism is kind of inevitable?’

‘Yes, I suppose it does.’

‘But then if Marxism is an ineluctable result of economic history, well, doesn’t that…’

Tariq had caught on now.

‘No, it doesn’t. I see where you’re going with this. No, it doesn’t. Marxism is still worthy as a fighting-promise, a fighting-proposition. Yes, in the sense you mean, it is a part of the way of the world. But no, it is also stuff from the briefs of the angels.’ There was both warm Marxism and there was cold Marxism, he’d said, switching now to his more clowning mode.

They had clinked glasses, glasses of delicious, crisp Beaujolais, and had drunk into the early hours that evening in Paris. He’d offered to take her there only the week before, to give her the grand tour. And she’d jumped at the chance. A year later they were married.

And yet, it wasn’t on that particular evening that Tariq had spoken of Mandel’s life-long love for detective fiction. But it was in the environs of that early time in his courtship of her. He’d said that certain minds, like Mandel’s, certain mathematically-minded intellects couldn’t resist mysteries. It was the architectonic neatness of their construction, their sweet mathematics, that attracted such rationalistic mindsets. And it wasn’t limited to social scientists or even hard scientists. There were certain literary minds that matched; he’d given the examples of G.K. Chesterton, or, one of the latter’s epigones, one of his most avid readers, Jorge Luis Borges. (Even if the latter’s literary mathematics wasn’t restricted specifically to detective fiction. In fact, the latter’s literary mathematics was even more tremendous in so far as it worked itself out in short stories that were far from detective fiction.) And, he’d continued, there were even religious minds that thrilled to the stuff. Such as the Oxonian and catholic stalwart for a whole generation, a good friend of Evelyn Waugh’s no less, Ronald Knox. Though hardly anyone knew about such figures nowadays. They were far more well-known during the post-war era. And part of the reason that he, Tariq, knew of someone like Knox, not himself being much of a ‘religious’ type, was because he too had been an Oxonian – if in a period, even then, posthumous, quite conclusively posthumous…

Maryam now toyed with the slim hardback in her long and delicately-fingered hands. Delightful Murder she recalled now, ogling the book-cover, to be a short social history of the detective story. But what was it doing here, laid face-down but open none the less, and not duly stacked away in one of the voluminous bookshelves of her husband’s study? As though in response to her mental query, Tariq now ambled out of the study, bearing a wide smile.

‘Finished. The Yemen piece; just sent it off. It should appear next week, I gather.’

Maryam decided now to stay silent about her mysterious find of the Mandel book, the Mandel book itself a short, taut discourse on mystery. Tariq seemed oblivious, but he did now say,

‘By the way, you were asking about that call yesterday.’

Maryam racked her newly-woken mind.

‘You know, about Teymour.’

‘Ah yes.’ She just managed to stifle a look of perplexity from playing completely across her features. ‘And?’

‘Well, it was just an old friend asking after him. I told him he was doing fine. I called him “the apple of my eye” because that’s what you call a child born in May.’

‘Is it?’

‘Well, that’s what I’ve heard. Anyway. Now that the piece is finished, and dispatched, I thought we’d go out for lunch. What do you say?’

‘I’m game.’

‘Good. Good.’

His face creased up, like a round and melting ember of coaly brown and bristly silvery-white, and Maryam felt warmed, as ever, as though wrapped in a soft, thick duvet of what was, it was certain, bona fide, mature love. She would be with him, she knew at some steep and stark gut-level, until forever kissed the cosmos.

*

They spent the rest of the day galivanting about Dubai, a city they’d only recently moved to due to the dire illness of Maryam’s father. She needed to be on the ground and, as Tariq was as much in love with her as a nineteen-year-old tossing and turning in the storm of a piercing first love, he’d not objected. He still travelled, but the move hadn’t disrupted that. In fact, as one of his specialisms in his political journalism was the Middle East, Dubai wasn’t so bad as a base. And that night, after they both had trundled, tipsy alike, to their third-floor apartment, they’d made love as though for the first time. Life, for the older man and for his younger spouse, was looking rosier and rosier than ever. Maryam had found the love of her life; Tariq had found more than that – a veritable lease of life!

However, the morning after was a riposte. While Maryam’s sleep was dreamless, or so it seemed to her the next morning, Tariq woke the next day having aged it seemed, by the djinn-spurred copiousness of his dream. It was the fey uncanniness of it all that most overwhelmed him.

He’d dreamt he was in Paris again. It was or seemed to be a lecture he was attending, during or near to the time of the famed student revolt in sixty-eight, the year the world teetered on the brink. Ernest Mandel was seated next to him, whispering it seemed the translation from the German of the young Jurgen Habermas. Which was strange, because that seemed to meld two different occasions, the former one having been in Germany, Frankfurt to be precise. But then that’s what dreams did. So, Tariq now thought, wiping the dream-spread sweat from his brow, fair enough. But as far as he could remember the words Mandel was spouting into his ear were not strictly-speaking political. He was spewing forth a launched and personalised invective against his protegee. He was threatening to kill his son, Teymour, even though Mandel had died close to the time Teymour was born, in the real world, in real time. He was launching a tirade as well at the young-old Tariq, for having written his first novel, a serial political satire, titled, Redemption, and ending it in the way he had. Tariq had made Mandel, the somewhat hyper-real hero of the tale, well-nigh hermaphrodite, ending the satirical foray with a scene in which he, Ernest Mandel, had nourished his own baby from what turned out to be his own manly breasts. Tariq had ended with that scene because he’d wanted the political utopian to be a sexual one as well. He’d tried to explain the logic to Mandel, on more than one occasion shortly after the book was published in the late eighties of the previous century. But in real time, years and years ago now, Mandel had been furious, and for the space of a few years had cut off ties with his protegee. In the dream, however, Mandel’s ire was directed against his son, Tariq’s that is. And then just as Tariq felt he’d had enough of the threats of the old man, Leon Trotsky, the original ‘old man’ himself suddenly appeared on the scene, to tread the boards of what was becoming an incredibly terrifying dream. Trotsky walked down the aisle of the lecture hall, unnoticed by any of the crowd or any of the panel, unnoticed by all except he, Tariq. As he approached the raised dais he motioned with his hand for Tariq to calm himself. He approached the two of them now, while Mandel was whispering still in Tariq’s ear. He leant in to Mandel’s ear and himself whispered something, something that seemed both momentous, ominous, as well as happenstance and by the bye. Mandel suddenly jerked his head back and burst into hysterics. He patted the young-old Tariq on the back now, while wiping the ludic tears from his eyes, telling him that it was OK after all, that he wasn’t intent on murdering his son. Tariq then looked up at the old man himself, and thanked him, his eyes and his face filled with depth-charged emotion. Trotsky smiled back. He said that he was delighted to be of service. And to keep the cause alive. And to keep the cause alive.

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic.  His first collection and his fourth collection, are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17).  His 5th collection, But It Was An Important Failure, is forthcoming with Cinnamon Press at the start of 2020.  His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile, was published with Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016; and a riveting collection of short fictions, Dye and Other Stories,was released in September 2017.  His Dubai novella, Minutes from the Miracle City is forthcoming with Fairlight Books in July 2019; and a study of the oeuvre of Professor Fiona Sampson, For the Love of Music, should be released by Anthem in 2020.  He has published or will have published scholarly essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, Hilaire Belloc, Henry James, George Steiner, and others; as well as on many contemporary poets.  Many of these works are collated in his To My Mind, Or, Kinbotes: Essays on Literature, forthcoming with Whisk(e)y Tit in 2019.He holds a BA in PPE from Oxford; three MA’s, all from the University of London, in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy; and a PhD in English Literature from KCL.  He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB), from 2011-2013.  He now teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where he is Associate Professor of English.

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