For All Nails #291: The Packer
by Jonathan Edelstein
The first thing Christian noticed was the spices.
Evidently Numidia wasn't hot enough, so they had to set their food on fire too. Take the fish in front of him, for instance. Tomato sauce, fine. Coriander, fine. Enough chili to make his throat feel like the gates of Hell, not fine. And the man sitting across from him laughing wasn't helping at all.
"You put it out with this," said his companion, dipping a piece of flat bread into chickpea paste. He chewed and swallowed, and found the heat a little more bearable. Three more doses of the same medicine and he could speak.
"This is what you eat in the morning?"
"Morning, noon and night, habibi. Welcome to Numidia."
"Sure." Christian looked down at the beach, past the students having breakfast under the palms, and made a mental note to ask the next waiter to tone down the food. "I hear you're hiring."
"Maybe. Did you ever drive?"
"For Lazienski in Berlin."
Christian's companion - Rashid, last name unknown - recognized the name. "I've had some business with Lazienski," he said.
"He's not bad. Can you fix lokes yourself?"
"If I have the tools."
"Can you drive a trekkie?"
"If I have to," Christian said. "Where am I going that I'd need to drive off-road?"
"South? To get what?" Christian hadn't thought there was anything to the south except desert. What the hell was there to pick up in the Fezzan? Oil, but you couldn't put that in a trekkie - and surely nobody smuggled olives or figs...
"People, habibi. Ever hear of a place called Ouadai?"
"Trust me, it's bad there. If you lived there, you'd sell your mother to get out. Sometimes people do. And now that we're part of Europe, they all want to come - they figure if they get here, the next step is a job in Berlin or Amsterdam. Most of them don't make it that far."
"Think, habibi. How do you think all the abdis in this town got here - do you think they were all born of Jewish mothers?"
There were many black people here, Christian realized; more than could be accounted for by legitimate immigration. He couldn't blame them; to a subsistence farmer from Ouadai, even construction work in Tripolis would seem like heaven. It was a dangerous trip, though; with all those marabouts preaching war down there, Numidia's southern border was a military zone.
Crossing could get you shot - and that was on top of all the other things the desert could do to you. For a moment, he wondered if he should walk away - but people got shot in Berlin too, and he needed the money.
"What's it pay?" he asked.
"Ten thousand," said Rashid. "Plus a thousand in road money, and you don't have to give it back."
Christian nodded; he thought that if he economized, he could put an extra two or three hundred in his pocket. "When do I leave?"
"Day after tomorrow, at sixteen. That doesn't mean sixteen- thirty." Rashid pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and placed it on the table. "I've got a garage in Siwani; here's the address. Be there, and don't keep your passenger waiting."
"Someone has to know the route, doesn't he?"
Christian used the time to get situated. He'd been living a day at a time since he got to Numidia, but now that he had a job, he could find an apartment. His friends in Berlin had told him the Medina was the place to live, but that was way out of reach; maybe when he had the ten thousand, but not before. So was the Sepharad district where all the embassies were, or pretty much anyplace else middle-class. When he found a place, it was in Siwani, not far from Rashid's garage; it was a working-class neighborhood, mostly Arabs and recent immigrants, and comfortably anonymous.
He was leaving in two days, so he could furnish the place later. All he needed now was a few things - a vitavision, a couple of chairs, a table, forks and knives, some food light on the spices. He wasn't sure he should even get a bed, but he saw one for a bargain at a junk shop, so he bought it and paid a couple of abdis to shlep it home.
All this took him most of the first day. That night, he made dinner, stretched out on the bed in his underwear and watched the vita. There wasn't much on, and he couldn't understand most of it anyway; the news was in standard German, but the rest was laced with Russian, Polish, Arabic and something else he didn't recognize. He paused for a while on a German costume-opera adaptation of the sira of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan - even the Jews can enjoy watching an Arab king stick it to the Christians - but finally settled on a pretty Jewish girl singing Cairene ballads. That he didn't need to understand.
The second day, he had chickpea paste for breakfast and wandered through the neighborhood. He wasn't looking for anything in particular, but he liked to get to know new cities quickly. A driver should know the streets, and a driver in his line of work should know the boltholes.
He found the bookstore four blocks from his flat. Bookstores were another place Christian liked to know; his reading habits had been something of a laughing matter for Lazienski. They'd stood him well in the end, though; it had been a bookseller who'd told him the polis were looking for him. The polis had only wanted to talk to him, but they'd wanted to talk about Lazienski, and casual conversation about Lazienski was usually fatal. Here was another bookstore, though, where nobody had ever heard of him or Lazienski, and he had all day.
The books inside were mostly used and mostly German, with a sprinkling of Arabic and Russian titles; there were some tables and chairs on the floor and coffee at the counter. This early in the day, nobody was there except Christian and the cashier. She was about twenty-five and darkly attractive; he was sure she was an Arab until he saw the Star of David necklace.
"You're Jewish?" he asked.
"More or less," she said, in German but with an accent he'd never heard before. "I'm an Arab Jew, which means I'm an Arab. And you're new here."
"If I weren't, I'd know the caste system?"
"No; if you weren't, you wouldn't be blond. We've only been getting those for a few years." She smiled, but there was some truth in what she said; Numidia was rich and the climate was pleasant, but until recently it had been a little too alien to draw many non-Jews. It was still a bit different, but it was part of Europe now, and for some reason that made it seem less forbidding.
He realized belatedly that he'd been rude. "I'm called Christian," he said.
"Hell of a name to have in this country," she answered. "I'm Esmeralda."
He took her hand. "Can I buy you a coffee by way of apology?"
"No, but you can share one." She put down her book - the writing wasn't Roman or Cyrillic, but it also wasn't Arabic - and poured coffee for them both.
He'd picked up the book by the time she set the coffee cup down, looking for some clue as to the language or the subject matter. She took it back from him, shaking her head but still smiling. "It's Hebrew, if you really want to know," she said. "Some of the haskalot here write in it. A few of them even speak it at home, although nobody else uses it outside prayers. Most of them are Germans" - he could tell she meant German Jews - "trying to find what the rest of us never lost, but they write some good novels. Like this one - it's about an Arab Jewish family in the Settlement War."
Christian knew enough about Numidian history to know that the Settlement War was the original conquest and that the indigenous Jews had been on both sides at once, but he didn't know much more. Esmeralda filled him in on that, and other things, between customers. As it turned out, she was free for dinner. He was glad he'd bought the bed.
The trekkie was Numidian-made, and looked solid; the Numidians were used to building for the desert. Christian inspected it carefully, checking the tools, the spare parts, the cans of petrol, but he found nothing wrong. The engine was strong, able to handle off-road driving with a heavy load of passengers; about twenty could fit in back, although it wouldn't be comfortable for them.
His traveling companion was Jewish. That didn't surprise him much; in the Berlin demimonde, Germans worked for Poles, so why shouldn't Jewish packers here work for the Arabs? The man's name was Adam Cohen and he'd done the Ouadai run five times. He also spoke fluent Arabic and one or two of the other languages they used down there, which was a good thing given that Christian didn't.
By the time they'd finished checking the trekkie and loading supplies, it was full dark. It was best to travel at night this time of year. Daytime temperatures in the Fezzan could top fifty degrees, and the record was almost sixty FN1. Night travel was slower, but the engine was at less risk of overheating, and so were people.
The first night's destination was Sabha, an oasis town about four hundred miles south. They took the A356 south from Tripolis and quickly left the traffic behind; ninety percent of Numidia's population lived along the coast, and the open desert began less than an hour south of the capital. The road was modern and well- kept, but once they reached the Fezzan, it was almost empty. Somewhat to Christian's surprise, he found that the very emptiness was a hazard; his mind kept wandering even with the radio playing and Adam talking enough for two. He wasn't used to this kind of driving; German roads didn't soothe people to sleep. He had to stop a few times to clear his head, but they made it into Sabha as the sun was rising. As Adam had told him, Sabha was a city of a hundred thousand, built around the largest oasis in the Fezzan and the center of an irrigated date and olive- producing region. It had a prefab, half-constructed feel - the population had doubled in the past fifteen years - and it was one of the few Fezzan towns with an appreciable number of Jews. The rest were a mix of Arabs, Berbers and migrants from the south looking for seasonal labor.
The old city had somewhat more character, and they found a meal and a room in a small hotel by the oasis. The building was six hundred years old, and Christian found that there were others older still; this was where the Garamantes had lived two thousand years before, defying the Romans and impressing Pliny with their courage. Later, when he had slept and eaten again, he made his way through the market stalls to the city museum, with its cave paintings proving that the Sahara ten thousand years past had been a grassland alive with cattle and lakes.
In the evening, they took on petrol and water, and turned south on the C49. Even in the darkness, Christian could tell that the countryside here was utterly desolate; he and Adam had the road to themselves without houses or vehicles to light their way. They passed through Zawilah oasis, once the capital of the Bani Khattab, and then, at one in the morning, the tiny village of al- Qatrun. The owner of the petrol station was an old Bedouin who was surly at being awakened but willing to do business, and they replenished their fuel of water before heading off the road. The military zone began just south of al-Qatrun, and road travel was no longer safe. There were army patrols in the open desert as well, but the trekkie had blackout lights, and Adam knew how to spot the patrols before they saw him.
Shelter the next day was a lean-to in the desert; Adam and Christian took turns sleeping uncomfortably and keeping watch in the cab. When night fell, they crept south again, picking their way through wildlands and along smugglers' tracks. The atmosphere was tense and false alarms were frequent, but they saw nobody, and sometime during the night they crossed into Ouadai.
Northern Ouadai was, if anything, even more dangerous; there were rebels and bandits in this region who considered a Numidian trekkie a rich prize. They were attacked just before dawn, with shots echoing through the desert and men seeming to pour out of nowhere. Adam fired back while Christian turned on the headlights - no point in concealment now - and pushed the accelerator to the floor. They had no chance of winning a stand- up battle, but the trekkie could outrun anything the Ouadaians had; by failing to kill them in the first seconds of the ambush, the attackers had lost. It seemed like an eternity before Christian stopped hearing gunfire in the distance, but they were out of danger in less than a minute.
They decided to continue into the daylight. Adam estimated that they could reach Aozou within four hours, and the risk of another ambush outweighed that of overheating. They could sleep in Aozou, pick up their cargo in the evening and make it back over the border by sunrise rather than spending two days on the Ouadai side.
He was almost correct; they rolled into Aozou five hours later, just past ten. The town - if it could be called that - was a rough collection of shelters for uranium miners with a business district consisting of a hostel, general store and mosque surrounded by hundreds of smugglers' stalls. The town itself was thick with soldiers, as was the only road south, but they were interested only in protecting the mines and shaking down travelers. Fifty thalers of Christian's road money convinced the officer at the checkpoint to look the other way, and he was hardly surprised when that officer told him where to find the packer they had come to meet.
The packer made his headquarters at the hostel tavern; such things were strictly illegal now in Ouadai, but there was little law in Aozou. A mug of beer and some stale bread and goat cheese served as Christian's breakfast while Adam made the arrangements; afterward, he found his way to their room. The room was hot and the bed was filthy, but he slept like a baby.
Adam woke him at seventeen. The packer was downstairs with their cargo - twenty-one refugees from the south, a motley collection of Bedouin, Toubou and abdis. Adam spoke the birds' language, and he loaded them and their packs on the truck. Two of them had their passage money - three thousand a person - but the others had nothing; once they got to Tripolis, they'd have to work it off for Rashid. For most of them, that would work out to two or three years' indentured servitude, but they evidently thought it was better than staying where they were. That wasn't Christian's business, though. His job was to bring them north, and what happened after that was up to them.
It was the second day of their journey back north. Adam was sitting watch in the trekkie cab while everyone else slept, Christian in the lean-to and the birds in makeshift shelters or under the truck. Christian was dozing fitfully and dreaming of Esmeralda, which was good, and Lazienski, which wasn't, and looking forward to a civilized bed and shower. They were in the desert two or three hours from Zawilah, and a good night's push would get them all the way to Tripolis.
He was dog-tired. It wasn't easy to sleep in the desert - even in the shade of the lean-to, the heat was almost unbearable - and he'd been on edge all the way from Aozou. In his waking moments, he could feel the heat starting to fade, and he knew that he'd have to be on the road again in an hour or two. Once he turned the ignition, the next stop would be Tripolis, and by that time he'd have earned every thaler of the ten thousand Rashid had promised him.
Then he heard the shots.
It took him a moment to realize what they were, but once the gunfire registered in his mind, he snapped to instant alertness. There couldn't be bandits this far north of the border, the Numidian army usually asked questions before they shot, and it couldn't be...
Yes, it was.
The birds were up, and they were armed. Adam was dead, leaning out of the cab window like a rag doll; even as Christian watched, one of their passengers opened the door and flung him bodily to the sand. He realized at once that if it had been his turn keeping watch, he would have been the one killed, and he knew that he might still be if he stayed where he was. The desert was all around, but death was right here; Christian turned and ran for his life into the Fezzan.
The gunshots ended while he was still running, only to be replaced by a sound that was even worse - the noise of the trekkie speeding north. He'd never get that ten thousand now; even if he made it back to Tripolis, the odds of Rashid being there to pay him were slim. The birds were going to Tripolis to kill people - others from Ouadai had done so before - and anyone connected to the vehicle that brought them there would be caught up in the sweep. He was probably safe - Rashid didn't know his address or real name, and neither did the hotelkeeper at Sabha - but Rashid was for it.
It was a little premature to worry about these things, though. It would take two days to walk to Zawilah, and he thought he had enough water to last that long, but he wasn't sure and there were other things in the desert that could kill. If he could get to Zawilah, he still had about four hundred thalers of his road money, and that would probably be enough to make it back to Tripolis and find another job.
He wanted to see Esmeralda again. He didn't want to die. Maybe he should have taken his chances with the polis in Berlin. Or maybe not; there was still a chance it could all turn out all right.
He turned slowly and walked back to the campsite, to see what he could find before heading north.
(Proceed to #292: I Will Let You Down.)
(Proceed to 9 February 1981: Buque Nights.)
(Proceed to Africa, Numidia: Love Story.)
(Return to For All Nails.)