King Herod's Houses
I’m trying to be attendant to small miracles these days. I’m not
drinking as I used to, I’ve just landed a big commission, and my
daughter was born in good health. But I see dead spaces everywhere.
I’m reminded of Herod, king of undernourished men and women,
who built flat and sloping and tall and crumbled things. Only
the Cave of the Patriarchs still stands, and all of its siblings are
dead. Herod built things to last, but history abhors permanence.
It’s obvious to me that buildings feel something: their roots and
tentacles, subterranean in reach, burrow under streets and groves
and rivers and expressways. They’d emerge from the ground
organically were it not for the dirt-clogged metal sinew. Foundation
stones lie dormant, of course, but some are awake and present in
the world. Do they have anything to tell us? I once posed a polite
version of this question to the woman who runs the Church’s
Opportunity Shop. She said, ‘None of that here,’ and unwelcomed
me with a look.
Yesterday I had an argument with Farhiya. She was sitting in the
back with our daughter, so I had to look into the rear-view mirror
to meet her eyes. The baby was restless; she didn’t take to car travel.
Farhiya was still annoyed at my mother for refusing to hold the
baby at the hospital. I tried to explain to her how Hoyo was, but she
was having none of it. ‘Gabow, your mother is an odd woman,’ she
said. She was gripping the baby seat with one hand, half-leaning
over, as if to shield it from the world. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
‘You’ve just got to deal with how she is,’ I told her. ‘She doesn’t like
babies.’ ‘Who doesn’t like babies? Why doesn’t she like our baby?’
‘It’s not our baby she doesn’t like. It’s just babies in general.’ I think
children remind my mother of death. She has a natural disposition
toward fatalism and is forever besieged by terrible premonitions.
Her worries consume her. Now that I am older I understand her
better—we all sublimate our fears in strange ways.
When I think of buildings, I am really thinking of people, and
perhaps in this I reflect my mother. Near the house where I grew
up, there’s an empty lot where the old plastics factory once stood.
A man died there when I was seven or eight. It was a hot day, and
I’d gone out to buy ice-cream. I had a habit of clutching coins in
my fist until they were covered in a film of sweat, and then licking
the coppery taste from my palm. The ambulance screamed past me
and a spill of workers gathered nervously on the street in front of
the factory. I stood around the edges of the crowd and watched as
the paramedics rushed inside. I didn’t see them come back out, but
later that evening my father, whose friend Abdulwahid worked in
the factory, informed us that a man died there that day.
Farhiya says I take my profession too seriously. That I think about
it too much. She finds it odd that I spend hours and hours walking
around listening to dead bricks. But one can’t help one’s peculiarities.
‘They want you to design apartments, not monuments,’ she said,
when I first showed her my rough sketches for the structures that
would go where the factory once stood. Her words struck a chord,
though not in a way that she intended. A monument. To whom? I
think of the man who died, in that space that will soon be filled with
modern luxury apartments. None of it will last, but the buildings
themselves will dig into the earth, coiling in the undersoil, arranging
their surroundings, speaking strangely to strange men and women.
Soon, no-one will even remember there was a factory there. Except
me—small and unafraid, my palms smelling faintly of copper,
glistening with sweat.