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19/01/2015

Black Flag

Sarah Young

An extract from a novel following a photojournalist through the Middle East and New Zealand during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and Christchurch earthquake.

She walks along the sand beside the road, making sure the camera is hidden. The sweat-soaked strap is heavy around her neck, chafing the sliver of bare skin occasionally exposed by the hot wind. She can feel something building. Light disintegrating into purple haze, sand clouds boiling in the distance, horizon invisible. Houses seem empty, electrical wiring hanging down patchily painted walls, pipes rusting, leaking, exposed. Sprawling graffiti. The side of Bahrain she is not supposed to see.

Barren is the only word. Dust on her tongue, dirt in her system, sand in her veins. No—sand is too discrete, too full of running movement, able to be trickled from hand to hand, cleanly changing shape. That’s Dubai. Bahrain is clinging, cloying, soft dust; everything shot through a dirty lens.

At least there are some people around here though. Old men playing chess on a table under a burnt tree, terse and urgent voices cracking out of their portable radio into the silence. A small boy inching his way down a broken slide in a playground encased in barbed wire. Over the road, older boys throw a ball to each other on a concrete soccer pitch with rusting goalposts, taunting the smallest who jumps desperately with arms held straight above his head.

When she walked out of the hotel earlier, under the full glare of a sun erasing every surface to white, the business district was empty. A few skyscrapers stretching above squat concrete buildings into the blue, the odd statue here and there. A different kind of fake, rougher, like a child’s attempt at forgery; a toy city without inhabitants, everyone put to sleep by a wicked witch. People come out at night, a man sweeping the bare courtyard of the museum told her. Like rats.

She wants to get her camera out now, she wants to get at this, this strange sense of life still going on, even if it is a muted life, a life holding its breath as it goes about its daily tasks, surreptitiously preparing for the main event. She feels naked without the lens before her face. That passport to invisibility, to being allowed to stare. Not here though. A camera means a different thing. Can’t risk it, not yet.

She can still feel Mark’s touch from this morning. What is he doing now? Cleaning his gun? Poring over maps? She has no idea. Even his text earlier as he walked to the base seemed to come from a voice she didn’t understand.

Just saw a body in the street. Good omen?

She failed to see how. He neglected to give her the details she wanted—age, gender, manner of death, where—so instead, as she lay in the hotel bed, she had to consider all the scenarios, an endless array of dead people draped over various parts of the city, until she couldn’t handle being in that room any longer. But he won’t know. She’ll be back before him.

The road turns. Ahead is the roundabout with its strange monument, six sails joining to hold a pearl. Looks more like six ribs to her, bones bereft of flesh, pulled out from their cage formation, leaning against each other like a tepee curving out widely to the base. The ribs touch just before the top, where they unfurl again slightly, a blooming flower of bones, petals opening up to the sun to reveal the white ball inside. This is where the protest is supposed to begin. And end? She hasn’t really thought about that yet.

A line of policemen sit in deckchairs beside a black Humvee, legs splayed, AK47s across their laps, some listening to earphones, others staring up into the sky. She lowers her head, readjusts her scarf over the camera. Lucky to be here, really. Plenty of reasons why she shouldn’t be here at all.

 

 

 

They detained her immediately upon arrival. Over there, they said, directing her to the chairs lining the wall outside the customs office. Wait.

She sat, shaking hands hidden beneath her bag, occasionally wiping her palms on her legs. I’m not here as a journalist, she repeated, as a man passed her another form to fill in.

As the last of her planeload was processed, one of the bored-looking officials in white sat down beside her, stomach bulging, stretching his legs and sandaled feet out with a sigh. They struck up a stilted conversation covering the important questions: how far away was New Zealand, did they really keep kangaroos for pets, oh that was Australia, right, but did she still know if their tails could actually kill a man, anyway why was she living in Dubai, had she been to Bahrain before, did she like their national museum? Finally, he asked why she was here. Really.

She gave the lines, and he smiled. Sat back, and lit a cigarette, right there under the non-smoking sign.

Engaged huh? Then you go back and it’s all done. Finito. Yeah? He raised his eyebrow as he took another drag, and smiled again, a knowing, sly smile. I’ve seen you before, that smile said. I’ve seen plenty of girls like you. She considered trying to maintain her front, but could see there was no point. Laughed, shrugged. Tried to look unbothered, bored even. Wished she had worn a slightly longer dress. Supposed at least if he felt he’d seen through one lie, he might not go looking for another.

He stayed there beside her, lit up another cigarette, pattered on about restaurants she should go to, local food she should try. No one seemed bothered by his smoking. She wanted to light one too, but no. Obviously not. The people who had also been held back on her flight—a pregnant Sudanese woman, an American businessman, and an old man who looked African too, perhaps—were let go. People coming through the gates from the next flight, and the next, stared at her. She felt like a criminal, every blemish exposed under those cold fluorescent lights.

Occasionally the guy leaned his head around the door into the small office where his higher-ranking colleagues were Googling her name and previous work. Let the Kiwi girl go. She’s all right. They’d reply in a short burst of Arabic, and he’d waggle his head, suck on his smoke. All right, all right. He’d try again a few minutes later. They kept talking. He asked her about Dubai. Horrible place, yeah? She gave a noncommittal shrug. He nodded, understood. She liked him. It was probably the most genuine conversation she’d had with a stranger in months.

They called her in twice. Who you work for? Why your camera? Are you doing a story? Each time she gave them the same answers, and they sent her out again. Then called her back in. Give us your fiancé’s number. We will ring him.

Half an hour later, a slim young man in a cream kandura held out her passport. You can go, he muttered, and walked off. The guy with the stamp slammed it down, eyes grinning.

 

 

She heads down the side street behind the cops. A tall man in black resting against a wall appraises her slowly while speaking into his phone. Usually she’s pretty good at reading people; you didn’t grow up the way she had and not be. But not this guy. Not those eyes. Another young man swerves slowly down the road on his bike, eating a chocolate bar from one hand, and stops to speak briefly with the man on the phone. She can smell burning meat. Black flags reach from windows above her, creating a moving, chequered ceiling of sky. She wonders if she should be here. This street feels different. She should know what those flags mean. But she hasn’t exactly had the time. Everything happened so fast.

She tips the last of her water into her mouth, looks back at the row of policemen underneath the deepening purple sky. Yes. It’s building. She imagines the people cooking that meat, hiding away in clouds of smoke inside these shells. Others collecting paving stones peeled from roads and rocks slipped into pockets earlier in the day, filling old glass Coke bottles with petrol and kerosene. T-shirts torn up into rags, balaclavas fashioned from large jersey sleeves, ragged eye diamonds cut with knives. Lopsided slogans scrawled across the backs of stolen real estate signs, more of these black flags being made, the humming of isolated sewing machines reaching out to join in the growing darkness above.

Preparations conducted in silence, unseen but still felt; an invisible network slowly gathering force. She turns back. The policemen look bored, oblivious to these ghosts of the future marching towards them. She wants to raise her lens again. But not now, not yet. Not with those blank eyes still idly assessing her, flicking from her ankles to her chest, resting briefly on her face, and then back again. She wipes the sweat from the back of her neck. Is she ready for this? Really? She thinks of the news article Mark sent her, with the photo of the girl in the red dress. Turkey. Or maybe Greece. Long dark hair flying, body twisting in the air in front of a backdrop of plastic police shields, face scrunched up to avoid the fine mist coming towards her, the photo capturing the moment before impact, the moment before spray hit skin, eyes, mouth, nose. Even as she turned her face, that girl was defiant. Looks kind of like you, he wrote.

But that isn’t her role. She isn’t that girl. Wouldn’t know how to fight if she tried. She looks at her watch. Almost six. Mark said seven, didn’t he? They work odd hours. She feels the same surprise she always feels when she suddenly remembers he is a navy man. A captain. No, a riverine captain. Combat warfare. We’re trained to kill. That video, taken on someone’s phone, he sent her a few weeks back—This is what we really do. What people don’t realise, or don’t want to know. All that stuff they told you when you visited – that was bullshit. This is it. The real deal. Machine gun bullets rupturing the air, the roar of the jetboat racing up the brown river, Mark’s voice directing his guys, swearing, getting lost amongst their shouted replies, she couldn’t tell which one he was, they all looked the same in their helmets, dark sunglasses, bullet-proof vests. Raw energy reverberating around the boat and then pouring into the jungle, more shouting, more bullets, rough and urgent and short against the lazy, waving electric chords of the Alice in Chains soundtrack. Rooster. Like the tattoos on the top of their right feet. Cock on the right, never lose a fight. Pig on the knee, safety at sea. Some had crosses on the bottom of their feet to keep the sharks away too, he said.

The fear, revulsion and excitement she felt as she watched it, as she replayed the song afterwards, trying to imagine him in what looked to her only like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A fiction. And of course it wasn’t real. It was a training exercise. But it was training for something, something that for all she knew had already happened.

She heads back towards the main road, wondering again who this man really is, this man who can order the firing of machine guns into something or someone he can’t even see, this man she kissed for the first time in an alleyway only a month ago. And who, really, he thinks she is.

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