Malik Ben weighed 300 pounds on the day he decided to have his name removed from the Yellow Pages. Lugging all that weight around day after day had gotten to be a chore, which is what prompted his second resolution: to go on a diet.
Malik had dark features. Black hair, which took on a reddish sheen-a kind of auburn he rather liked-whenever he spent too much time in the sun. Brown eyes, the same shade of brown as in the paintings of the old Dutch masters. Pupils that sometimes glowed with visionary intensity. Tawny, leathery skin, tough as birch bark, which served as a visual reminder of his parents-children of high deserts and mountains, where rattlesnakes slithered across the sun-baked soil and goats leapt from ledge to ledge. It was the kind of skin that would still be firm in old age. Malik used his hands a lot when he talked. He was delighted when his hands assumed the leading role halfway through a conversation and did the talking for him. They’d been made for the job. Hadn’t the Spanish Lady told him so?
Malik Ben was a healer. He healed people who were no longer in touch with their true, authentic selves. He referred to himself as an “authenticity healer.” His job was to help people recover their lost souls. It was a task he had taken upon himself. In the past, poets had been entrusted with the soul’s welfare. But since no one believed in poets anymore, Malik had felt compelled to assume this responsibility.
Thanks to his verbal skills, Malik made contact with others quickly and easily. But he was also a good listener-a quality his clients valued even more. It was his listening skills that paid the bills.
Malik’s office was in the heart of Amsterdam, in the basement of a nineteenth-century town house a stone’s throw away from Leidseplein. Callers were obliged to ring a bell that jangled loudly. Even before they stepped inside, Malik could tell what was on their minds by the expression on their faces.
Land was expensive in Amsterdam, so every inch of space was put to optimal use. Malik’s cubbyhole couldn’t have measured more than 80 or 90 square feet, but it served his needs: his occupation didn’t require a whole lot of space. The elm trees lining the street added an air of majesty, though the roots had gradually pushed up through the paving and cracked the sidewalk in several places. Drivers and pedestrians had never been heard to complain. The gnarled roots had a certain charm. People were used to them. Every once in a while somebody tripped over one, but it was usually a tourist, who scrambled to his feet and went on his way without noticing the beauty of the street.
Malik, down in his basement, stared all day long at shoes-sneakers, boots, pumps and high heels-as they strolled, stumbled and scurried past. He never tired of the scene. Sometimes the shoe-wearers came inside and were given a face and a name. They shook Malik’s hand, sat down and told their stories.
Malik Ben’s services were listed in the Yellow Pages under “Entertainment,” though it was hardly an apt description of his work. They’d stuck him in that category because they hadn’t been able to come up with a better alternative. The deed had been done before Malik had realized what had happened. “It’s like putting a hobble on the wrong leg of a donkey,” his father would no doubt have said. Malik didn’t worry about it, since most of his clients found their way to his office through word of mouth anyway. Being listed in the Yellow Pages showed that he took himself seriously, and that’s all that mattered.
He’d wanted to be listed under “Alternative Medicine,” but the Yellow Pages people had flatly refused. His other suggestions, such as “Alternative Therapy,” “Psychological Counselling,” “Spiritual Guidance” and “Career Consultancy,” had likewise been vetoed. The Yellow Pages had a monopoly on headings. If you didn’t fit under one of their headings, you didn’t exist.
Practitioners of alternative medicine were required to hand over proof, such as a diploma, a certificate or an official letter stating that they belonged to a professional organization or association. But Malik couldn’t produce a certificate and wasn’t a member of anything, which is why he found himself listed in the Yellow Pages among the clowns, the contortionists and the male strippers, who entertained their female audiences with enviable cocksureness. In sheer desperation, the Yellow Pages people had placed Malik in a handy catchall. He hadn’t even bothered to argue, but had simply gone forth to do good.
He was frequently asked at parties to explain his chosen line of work. “What do you actually heal?” It was then that he discovered that people had been given tongues to make life difficult. Your body might be in perfect shape and your cheeks cleanly shaved, but your tongue got so twisted up that nothing came out right. His few well-meaning stabs invariably trailed off into incoherent babble. His usual eloquence let him down just when he needed it the most. What he wanted to say, with studied casualness, was, “I try to restore the self-confidence of successful people who have lost their nerve.” But it never came out casually. His tongue refused to cooperate. Instead, he usually said something like, “What’s wrong with wanting to give people back their self-confidence?” It sounded defensive. It sounded like a counter-attack. And that had nothing to do with entertainment, much less clowns.
Faced with such a cryptic explanation, people usually looked at Malik as if he were the one who needed help. At that point, he would resort to an even simpler explanation. “I’m a kind of mental coach. I give my clients a psychological boost.” That’s how low he’d stoop in an effort to appear open and intelligible.
It takes a lot of energy to make yourself completely understood at parties. When Malik could bear the puzzled looks no longer, he’d make use of his last option: he’d slip quietly away. On the way home he’d feel empty and misunderstood, but the feeling never lasted long. Walking past his office was all it took to restore him to his usual good spirits.
Malik never felt sorry for himself. After all, he’d launched his career at the right time. With the grace of a skater, he danced across the slippery ice of an economic upturn. In the two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution and Hegel, there had never been a period in which human authenticity had been so sorely tried. The rat race and rampant consumerism had taken their toll. The winds of spirituality had swept in, cold and implacable, yet at the same time powerful, mysterious and irresistible. Malik knew that there was nothing new under the sun, but others marvelled at the New Age. He realized then that the writing was on the wall. It was a sign that people no longer knew what they were doing. And so he felt entitled to speak up.
Statisticians worked night and day like busy bees, gathering statistics to prove that humanity was in dire straits. Malik loved statistics. He rocked himself to sleep with statistics: his grade-point averages in school, his monthly profits, the average tax burden in the countries of the European Union, the rate of absenteeism among office workers in metropolitan areas.
Even without the help of statisticians, Malik would have noticed that a fundamental change had occurred. More and more people seemed to wonder who they were and to fall apart under pressure. As a result they lost touch with their inner selves. Or so the theory went. To make matters worse, some of them never managed to reconnect. They remained lost souls, forever in search of their identity. In Malik’s opinion the human soul had more to do with personality than with religion. He didn’t want his clients to misunderstand him on this point.
If anyone doubted his diagnoses-and therefore the need for his services-he pointed to the news reports in the media. One glance at the front page of the daily papers was enough to convince anyone of the seriousness of the situation. Presidents were losing control of the images they created of themselves. Not because the oil fields were drying up, but because they themselves were. Malik always smiled fiendishly as he perused the headlines. The more sensational the news, the better-his livelihood depended on it.
Malik knew why he had been able to adapt so quickly to the spirit of the times. He was the kind of person who learned from experience. And experience had taught him that it was better to blend in than to stick out. Nonconformity was charming in small doses, but too much was fatal. People who flaunted their differences were shunned; people who adapted were subtly rewarded. Malik didn’t know all the ins and outs of this subliminal game, but he enjoyed playing it. Natural forces seemed to be at work, and Malik was instinctively drawn to natural things.
If he hadn’t identified so strongly with the age in which he lived, Malik wouldn’t have been able to rake in quite as much money. He imitated everyone he came into contact with, including absolute idiots. He unconsciously adjusted the tone and pitch of his voice to match that of the person he was talking to, even if it was someone he barely knew or didn’t even like. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect other people. His profession, after all, required total commitment. Irony was taboo. The sharpest criticism could be communicated silently.
His desk was neat and tidy. It was cleaned twice a week by a small, smiling Colombian named Chiquita. That’s what she called herself at any rate, though he had no idea if it was her real name. He loved his desk. He cherished its smooth surface, its elegant size and shape. One day he asked Chiquita if she knew Juan. It was a stupid question, since it assumed that everyone in the world knew everyone else. She laughed, because Malik was always bombarding her with questions she couldn’t answer. He knew his desk would never be cleaned if Chiquita weren’t around to do it.
In fact, she meant more to him than he did to her. When he no longer needed her services, she’d quickly find herself a new employer. He, however, would soon be working in a pigsty. Besides, Chiquita was one of the few persons he talked to outside of his work.
A picture of the Vatican adorned his desk. He kept it as a reminder of a weekend he once spent in Rome. Chiquita was a devout Catholic, so she always dusted the picture and polished the frame until it gleamed. She’d never been to Rome and didn’t have the faintest idea of what went on in the Vatican, but the Pope’s residence clearly had a special place in her heart.
The picture represented something else altogether to Malik. He thought of it as the perfect symbol of how slowly things change: an event that seems like a major upheaval today is actually just a blip on the human landscape. The picture comforted him and gave him the courage to go on with his work, which obliged him to get up early in the morning and to exercise an infinite amount of patience.
Like Malik’s parents, the Spanish Lady and her husband had been refugees. Refugees with a small “r,” an “r” that tried to make itself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Their story wasn’t exactly grand either, and when urged to tell it, they looked positively embarrassed. They began to stutter so much that nobody ever made them finish the story. Beneath it lay a deep dark secret they didn’t want anyone to know. He remembered the words of the Spanish Lady: “We were all orphaned by the Civil War. We all had to fend for ourselves. There was no need to shout it from the rooftops.”
This more or less fit in with what Malik’s parents had always told him: “People everywhere are sometimes forced to flee for their lives. We weren’t the only ones.” Years ago, long before the refugee question had become a burning issue with an even greater news value than floods and famines, Malik’s father had seen a group of refugees on the eight o’clock news and had pointed out, with brutal honesty, which ones he thought were going to make it. Apparently he had an eye for that kind of thing.
The Spanish Lady had amassed a fortune in her host country, just as Malik’s parents had. They’d made the most of their opportunities and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. No one had ever thought that Malik’s father would one day be so rich that he’d never again have to worry about money. This was the same man who’d been welcomed to Holland by a clergyman who’d thrust a pair of underpants into his hands and then assigned him to a hastily built barracks. “You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot,” his father always said, “and not get discouraged when times are tough. Remember, you can always get a bowl of soup from the Salvation Army.” It was his father’s mantra, and it sounded good, the way he said it. His father had saved the underpants. “They’re a sacred relic,” he said. “One whiff of those underpants and I’m reminded of my first few weeks in this country. The same feeling of despair comes over me. And that’s good, because it gives me energy.”
Malik’s parents had arrived here with only two plastic bags, which contained their entire belongings. Holland had thrown open its borders to people whose voices had been silenced in other parts of the world, to people who longed for freedom and came to this country or to similarly welcoming countries to lick their wounds. They wanted to live their lives in peaceful surroundings, in places such as Ommoord, Poggibonsi, Sint-Niklaas or Aarhus. Holland was the oasis Malik’s parents had been longing for.
“We made the right choice,” his father concluded soon after his arrival. “We’ll get along fine in this country.”
“The toilets are dirty,” his mother said.
“Dirty toilets, clean kitchens-isn’t that how the saying goes?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
His father had felt at home right from the start. Before long his parents moved into a rented apartment in a working-class neighborhood. His father had promptly paid a visit to City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce and the Red Cross: to City Hall to register as a new resident, to the Chamber of Commerce to request a registration number for his future business and to the Red Cross to get a list of the most frequently occurring accidents and viruses in the Netherlands. He came home and told his wife that she should never stand on a ladder, since ladder-related incidents accounted for 80% of all home accidents. He visited the local churches, tasted the soup at the Salvation Army (“because you never know when you might need it”) and took his wife in to taste it too (“this has got to be rock bottom”).
Melissa Ben had wanted to go to Switzerland because it had mountains, chocolate and neutrality. Switzerland was a country that didn’t belong to anything, much as she and her husband no longer belonged anywhere either. That was how she looked at things. She had a strictly dualistic view of the world. People were either rooted or uprooted, secure or adrift, starry-eyed or down-to-earth. To Melissa, there was nothing in between.
In the eyes of Roxander Ben, however, his adopted country could do no wrong. While Holland was admittedly infected with the revolutionary spirit of the times, it never seemed to progress beyond the flower-power stage. Soon after his arrival, the whole country suddenly seemed to go searching for its identity, only to find a ready set of hippie credos, hippie gurus and hippie manifestos. Not even this could shake his father’s faith. Holland in the 1970s was a land of peace and harmony, where opportunity knocked on every door and the soup was rich and creamy.
The difference between Malik’s mother and father was never more apparent than in the way they dealt with strangers. One evening his father came home with a woman he’d bumped into on the sidewalk. They’d struck up a conversation, and he’d decided to introduce her to his wife. The moment Melissa Ben caught sight of her husband, fumbling with his keys outside the door, she hid behind the drapes, terrified of the unexpected stranger who was about to enter her private domain: an apartment without decent drapes, without books, without memories, without anything you could point to and say, “Look, that’s ours. That’s who we are.” A home, in fact, without the slightest bit of hominess.
The last thing she wanted was to be confronted with the hussy in tight jeans who was standing on her threshold. A woman who was bound to think she was ridiculous in her strange caftan. A woman who would look down on her and start flirting openly with her husband because she knew she could get away with it. Besides, the apartment still reeked of the spicy dish she’d prepared for her husband’s supper. Melissa Ben hated to cook.
Roxander stepped inside and called her name, but she didn’t answer.
“My wife is shy,” he announced to the sophisticated creature at his side. It was a blatant lie, but lying was second nature to him. He promised over and over again to tell the truth, yet when push came to shove, he always lied. He liked to joke about it: “Truth brings the world closer to you. Lying brings you closer to the world.”
Don’t make things worse than they already are, she thought. Don’t drag my name through the mud in front of strangers! But he did make things worse. He loved making things worse. He invited the Dutch woman to sit down and told her that his wife would be back soon, without saying where she’d gone, but implying that she’d just slipped out for a moment.
“Unfortunately, all I can offer you to drink is tea,” he said.
“I’d love some tea!” the woman cooed.
Melissa-still behind the drapes-balled her fists. What a suck-up, she thought.
Roxander offered the woman some of Melissa’s homemade cookies. His guest seemed to feel completely at ease. She had a soft, inquisitive voice. She thought the tea was delicious, the cookies even more so.
“If that woman had been the least bit sensitive,” Melissa said to Malik years later, “she never would have sat down.” As it was, his mother had been made to feel ridiculous.
“There’s something I’d like to show you,” Malik’s father said to his guest. He trotted off and came back with a roll of toilet paper. “In my country,” he said, “we don’t have toilet paper. It’s such a wonderful invention, and yet it’s so wasteful! Incredible, isn’t it? Imagine inventing a fantastic product like this that costs next to nothing to produce, yet commands a price that verges on the hysterical. Just think of all the trees!”
The woman laughed. “So what did you wipe your heinie with?”
“Your ‘heinie’? What’s that?”
“Your rear end.”
He laughed. “With a sharp pebble or a sheet of newspaper. Preferably yesterday’s paper, but it depended on the news. A good-sized pebble is the best. A little poking and prodding never hurt anyone. ” The two of them laughed.
He’s definitely making things worse, Melissa thought. It’s getting worse by the minute. Now he’s dragged my country’s reputation through the mud, and all to please a woman.
The visitor told Roxander that she was impressed by the Regime of No Color-the regime that ruled the country from which he and Melissa had fled.
“There isn’t an ounce of truth in what you’ve been told,” Roxander said. “The Regime of No Color has destroyed my country. Look at me. What’s a strong, healthy man like me doing here? I didn’t leave my country because I hated it.”
“Maybe you left because you wanted to tell the story of your country.”
“Boy, have you got your head in the clouds! My country doesn’t have a story to tell. All it has is poverty and despair. Our TV broadcasts the same crap day after day.”
“You must be exaggerating.”
“Me, exaggerate? Who’s the one who’s exaggerating-the person who calls a spade a spade or the person who admires the emperor’s new clothes?”
“You’ve picked up our language pretty fast.”
Malik’s father realized that talking to this woman had been a mistake. “An animal doesn’t abandon its territory without reason. The territory itself must have changed in some way, wouldn’t you agree? For example, the animal no longer feels safe, or isn’t able to find enough to eat. Anyway, I can tell you why this animal,” he said, pointing to himself, “left its territory. I was chased out of it, because I was a spy who refused to give his prized possession to the wolves.”
“So this is where you’ve been.”
Those were the first words Roxander Ben uttered to his wife when he found her behind the drapes. Two hazel eyes, anxious but hostile, stared back at him. “I see you’ve been playing hide-and-seek,” he said. “We waited for you all evening.”
She looked at him. “You don’t have a clue, do you?” she said. She strode over to the table, snatched up the roll of toilet paper and waved it angrily in his face.
“You can put that back in the cupboard,” he said. “Show-and-tell is over. You missed all the fun. She was impressed, she had a good laugh, and she was confused. Just like I wanted her to be.”
“I didn’t miss a single word. You came waltzing in here with a strange woman. You made our country seem ridiculous by claiming we didn’t have toilet paper, and you made it sound as if we escaped from hell. What on earth will she think of us?”
“I’ve got a plan. But in order for us to carry it out, you’ll have to put on those high heels I bought you last week.”
“The red ones? What for?”
“We’re going to make a baby. Who else can we tell the story of our lives to except our own child?”
“You want us to do it now . . . this instant?”
“No, when the clock strikes hickory, dickory, dock. I’m going to take a shower, and after I’ve dried myself off, we can get started. It’ll be this century’s greatest project. It’ll be the best baby ever. We’ll show the regime that we haven’t been beat!”
If Roxander Ben hadn’t added that last sentence, in which he turned the birth of their child into an act of resistance against the regime, Melissa Ben would no doubt have slapped him or cursed him or even bitten off his ear. But she was prepared to do anything to defy the regime. So she put on her red high heels.
Melissa missed her homeland too much to settle easily into a new country. She had specialized in the geology and morphology of mountains. Her country was located in the middle of a high mountain range, and she’d written her master’s thesis on the transitional zone between mid-sized and high mountains. Holland didn’t have a single mountain, but that didn’t stop her from thinking up research projects that she’d give her eyeteeth to implement. Dutch geologists invariably ended up working for the oil industry, and one of the oil companies did in fact have an opening for a geologist. They were anxious to hire her, because they were looking for someone to do field work in the country ruled by the Regime of No Color. They promised to give her a Dutch passport so she could go in and out of the country without getting into trouble with the authorities. The oil companies worked hand in glove with the regime. Melissa rejected the offer. The very thought of it made her blood boil.
Roxander begged her to reconsider. “Once the oil starts to flow, we’ll be swimming in the stuff. In money, I mean.”
“I don’t want to be swimming in money, not at my country’s expense.”
“Oil is oil,” he said. “Nobody asks where the gasoline comes from when they fill their tank. We can use that money to send our child to a good school, to put decent clothes on its back. Can’t you set aside your principles for once? We’re poor. We can’t afford to have principles.”
“You’re such a bastard,” she said. “You’re asking me to sacrifice everything I ever stood for.”
“I may be a bastard, but at least I’m an honest one,” he said. “I’m not going to sugar-coat this for you. The next few years are going to be tough. If you don’t take that job, someone else will. I don’t intend to be made a laughingstock forever. The only thing you need to sacrifice is your inability to face reality.”
“You smooth-talking bastard! There’s nothing left of the ideals you used to spout so often. Peace. Truth. Justice. They don’t mean a thing to you anymore.”
Roxander grabbed his wife by the throat. “I don’t ever want to hear those words again,” he said. “I’ve had it up to here with words like that. Those words have been our downfall. Words are indestructible. They never change. People do. Our entire country went chasing after a few simple words, and look what it got us: corruption, manipulation, mutual distrust and a pack of lies.”
For weeks Melissa was besieged with phone calls from the oil company. “The answer is no,” she said. And again: “The answer is no!” They raised the salary. “The answer is no.” They threw in bonuses, added more vacation days, upped her chances of promotion. “The answer is no.” Roxander could have strangled her. Instead he watched as Melissa destroyed their one chance to live a life of relative ease.
“The answer is no!”