Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


WATCHING VEILED WOMEN GO BY

I have known Bernie and Mike since all three of us were cub reporters on various Paris papers, long before they teamed up as Embee ( "M" and "B", their initials) and climbed to international fame. In spite of the English-sounding diminutives by which they were known, they were both French - Michel and Bernard - and both Parisians. There was a slight predominance of brawn and ruthlessness in Mike and of caution and kindness in Bernie; this combination must have been one of the factors that made them into the one and only Embee.
On assignment and off - although off assignment they were usually planning the next one - they were almost inseparable, without incurring the usual suspicion of homosexuality because they were both keen womanizers, and later became reasonably good, though of necessity part-time, husbands and fathers. In the early days, our acquaintance developed not so much on the job - each of us worked for a different paper - as at a small airfield near Paris, where I did an occasional parachute jump while Bernie and Mike were taking flying lessons. Having qualified for their pilot licenses, they took me up for a couple of rides in a small plane, let me handle the controls at a safe height, and infected me with the sport. Bernie flew mainly for fun and liked aerobatics, while Mike from the start saw a private plane as ideal transport for certain kinds of assignment, and went on to qualify for twin-engined planes and flying at night and in difficult weather. On a tight budget because of the expense, he already knew which of the various planes on the market would suit him best (a small twin-engined amphibian) and even already had a name for it: The Frog, in English, because it sounded sharper and jumpier than the French La Grenouille, and also to take the wind out of the sails of envious Anglo-Saxon colleagues who might want to call a French competitor that.
In addition to their university degrees in journalism (I never got anywhere near a university), they were always learning something new and useful, mostly teaching themselves in their spare time. For a few weeks it would be advanced photography: tele and zoom lenses, fast films, motor drives, and shooting around corners with a mirror attachment. They maintained that a reporter who couldn't take his own pictures was no better than a photographer who couldn't write his own texts, and called it Total Reporting. At other times it was geography, history, nature, anything that could help them on present or future assignments. And, constantly and in parallel to everything else, they were learning languages. They already knew English, and first of all branched out into German, Spanish, and Italian. By the time they teamed up as the Embee, Mike could also speak Swahili and Bernie, Arabic.
All three of us were about the same age, but I have always felt older and more experienced, having grown up in a poor and nasty neighbourhood in Marseilles - father, much older than my mother, dead when I was ten; a succession of mother's lovers after that; dirty and bustling narrow streets with theirs markets, bars, brothels, thieves, dope peddlers, prostitutes, fights, police raids, and an occasional dead body in the street; rubbing shoulders with blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese long before traveling to their native lands; trying to make a living at a variety of jobs - delivery boy, waiter, clerk, anything that brought in a few pennies. And reading, reading all the time, snapping up books and magazines and slowly steering myself towards journalism and Paris, while Mike and Bernie were growing up in comfortable homes, attending university, and reading books about what I was learning in the streets.
During the years that followed I would run into them regularly, in Paris and all over the world, all three of us young rising stars of international journalism. And, whenever we met, we would get down to a long talk over a bottle, or have a series of meetings if time and circumstances allowed, talking shop and comparing notes.
From the start, older in experience if not years, I watched Mike and Bernie learning things. If one considers tips to waiters as an innocent introduction to bribery, a typical difference between them and me was that they learned about tips eating in restaurants, while I did so as a waiter. Larger bribes of a more complicated sort were actually one of the reasons why they finally fell out with their respective editors and turned freelance; they wanted more of a free hand and fewer questions asked. The editors knew that bribes were often the only key to a door, and that it was not always a ten-dollar note slipped to a waiter or a desk clerk. But they suspected Bernie of occasionally helping his sources on the losing side to escape, and Mike of using large sums not only to obtain news but to make them happen. He argued that the most he ever did was lightly greasing the shafts of wheels which were already in place and about to turn. What one should and should not get involved in occasionally led to arguments even after they teamed up as the Embee, flaring up to their worst on the night Embee ended, although even then they managed to patch up their differences and agree on a course of action.
But that came later. Of their studies of foreign mores and customs, I remember one sunny afternoon when the three of us were sitting with two local acquaintances in an outdoor caf¨ in the capital of a small landlocked Muslim country even more strict in religious matters than Iran or Libya or Saudi Arabia, but without their size, oil, and importance. There are opium poppies grown in the hills and stuff refined in small labs, but again on nothing like a global scale. The capital is an overgrown provincial town in a country where provincial towns are overgrown villages. Most of the time, there is nothing for a correspondent to do here except sit in an outdoor caf¨ sipping coffee - alcohol is forbidden - and watch the veiled women go by, which was exactly what the five of us were doing that afternoon.
The veiling of women has been taken to an extreme here. They start wearing veils sooner than in other Muslim countries, and the dresses are even baggier.
"The ladies here are almost literally the proverbial cat in the bag," Mike said. "We Westerners couldn't live like that."
"But, my friend," replied Ali, a graduate of Sorbonne, "think how unfortunate most of your women are compared to ours."
"They are?"
"Of course. To start with, few women are born beautiful. Most are so-so, and some are downright ugly. In a society where they are exposed, this unfortunate majority has to live with it, depressed, jealous of the few beautiful ones, and resigned to second or third-rate husbands if any. And the beautiful ones permit themselves all sorts of liberties unheard of here. I had a beautiful girl for a mistress when I was at the Sorbonne, and a more vain, spoiled, and silly bitch you have never seen. She's married to someone rich now, and deep into furs, jewellery, jetsetting, and, if you please, into women's lib as well. Serves him bloody right."
"Yes, what has women's lib got to say about those veils?"
"Women's lib, my friend, like any other lib, begins at home. Before going for equality with men, shouldn't women try for some among themselves? And what could be more unequal than a small minority having the first choice of admirers, popularity, success, lovers, and husbands at the expense of the plain majority? But here, we do have it. The most you can check beforehand is the beauty of the eyes and the voice, and the grace of movements, which is a lot but not everything. Otherwise, no girl, inside those clothes and behind that veil, is more beautiful or ugly than another. So they don't develop inferiority complexes and don't worry themselves sick about what sort of husband they are going to get, if any. An arranged marriage is a lottery, for the men also. It might be easier to be a street cleaner here than in Paris so long as you might yet marry the most beautiful girl in town."
"And if you marry the ugliest one?"
"You might never be able to compare her with others, and beauty is nothing if not comparative. How does Proust put it? "Let's leave beautiful women to men without imagination." Here, my friend, you're free to believe that your wife is the loveliest of them all, and no one will prove you wrong. And if the worst comes to the worst, you still have three chances left, because our law allows you four wives, although for this you have to be rich, like our friend Akhmed here."
"I wasn't all that rich when I started marrying them," said Akhmed. "I had a small carpet business, and I took care to marry girls who knew about carpets. Mind you, you have to be fair in such an arrangement and spend some of your profits on them."
"And, pardon a personal question, can you keep all of them happy in bed as well?"
"God be praised, my friend; if you don't work too hard, eat well, and live in comfort, it is not a problem, and certainly easier with four different wives than with the same single one all the time, as you French should know. And then there may be all sorts of harmless little things among them like masturbation or lesbian tendencies to help you along. Four wives under a single roof may have a more varied sex life than their husband knows. I do notice that two of mine are very close, and God knows what goes on when I am not there, or in those baths where they spend hours gossiping and making themselves pretty. You can't get pregnant that way, or bring home some nasty disease, so it's not really rocking the boat. They seem quite happy, and the children are well cared for and getting a good education. One of my wives is a great story teller - we sometimes call her Sheherezade - another knows all sorts of games, the third is a good teacher, and the fourth a gifted musician. Not many children are luckier than that."
I thought of my own wife, alone with the kids while I was on assignments, overworked like hell, and worrying about her first wrinkles. I was making good money, which helped with work-saving gadgets, servants, and baby-sitters, but several times our marriage had been heading straight for the rocks. Now that the kids are bigger, and my wife - still fairly young and attractive - has more time for social life, the arts, and sport - and, I suspect, occasional love affairs - things have calmed down and the marriage looks on an even keel.
"What's more," said Ali, "give a thought to your Western women as they grow older. All their wrinkles, sagging breasts, and deteriorating figures are on display, while here they stay hidden inside those robes and behind those veils. How many of your women, when forty winters have besieged their brow, wouldn't jump at the chance of wearing the stuff on condition that the young ones wore them as well, eh?"
"And if you were a Muslim," added Abdullah, "you could always marry three more like that one," he nodded at a passing woman all of whose clothes could not conceal her youth and grace. "Without going through three divorces first, which doesn't do anyone any good, except the lawyers."
"You know something," said Mike, without mockery. "I never thought of it that way."
"Neither did I," said Bernie.
Once again I felt superior to them. Not only had I thought about it; I have seen it, as a young boy in Marseilles, where there were lots of Arabs from North Africa.
(I was glad that neither of them brought up clitoridectomy, considered in the West a barbaric custom designed to lower a woman's enjoyment of sex and thus make it easier for her to remain faithful to her husband. A reporter never makes his informant angry, unless it is to draw more information from him; he is not a reformer or a judge.)

On a less peaceful occasion the three of us were in the underground shelter of a Beirut hotel, in the company of a dozen other reporters, because there was shelling and small- arms fire outside, with the warring factions, for reasons best known to themselves, also taking occasional shots at the hotel windows. After a while I noticed that Bernie and Mike have disappeared, and went to look for them along a narrow passage behind the shelter. I found them in a store-room full of old furniture, interviewing a young man with a moustache, wearing a camouflage battledress and cradling a Kalashnikov rifle, who spoke passable French. Bernie and Mike gave me a dirty look - I was gate-crashing an interview they must have taken some trouble to arrange - but courtesy prevailed and they moved over, giving me some space on the edge of an old bed, and pointed to a half-empty bottle of brandy on the floor.
"But you're supposed to be the Christians in this area," Mike said.
"So we are," the young man replied. "But even a Christian, unless he is a saint, is entitled to self-defence. You see, my friend," - I thought how nice it was to be called "my friend", even if your friends shot at you if you came to the window - "this fighting is supposed to decide things for generations to come. You sound upset about so-called children. The Palestinians train them at thirteen to fire shoulder rockets, and when you drive along and someone in a battledress lets off a rocket at you and misses, you first of all shoot him before he fires another one, and only then, maybe, inquire how old he was."
"Some of the children you killed in Sabra and Shatilla were much younger than that, did not have any rockets, and their mothers were killed with them, as well as some pregnant women."
"It was the U.S. army exterminating the Indians last century which coined that phrase about getting rid of the nits before they hatched into lice. What we are doing - and the enemy is doing exactly the same - is long-range warfare, trying to eliminate not only those who are fighting us today but also those who might fight us tomorrow. It's accepted and expected in this part of the world. May I remind you that it was you Europeans who invented or reintroduced the so-called "total war" in this century? What we are fighting here is also a total war, without your outdated, ridiculous, and never fully implemented chivalry and Geneva Convention. There's a straight road from the Old Testament instructions on how to occupy a town - kill all the men, and take women and children slaves - to the Russian purges of the thirties, the Jewish Holocaust, Dresden, and Hiroshima, not forgetting the reintroduction of slavery by Fascist Germany and Communist Russia, under other names but worse and more hopeless than the old kind, which, by the way, lasted in the free and democratic United States until the second half of the last century. Why be more double-faced than you have to be?"
Bernie and Mike listened carefully and nodded from time to time. Once again, a reporter never argues with his informant; he is not an educator or a judge, and he needs as much first- hand insight into wars and what makes people fight them as he can. The Falklands one was fascinating in this respect. For eighteen years, the Argentinean government had been killing thousands of people, without trial and without informing the families about their fate, until the people were on the brink of revolt and the government's days seemed numbered. Then they invaded the Falklands, and the slate suddenly seemed wiped clean, with enormous enthusiasm and support for the government. In Cambodia under Pol Pot, roughly one half of the population killed off the other half. There had been the Roman gladiators, the knitting women around the guillotine, and the anarchists before today's Red Brigades, Baden-Meinhof, Hisbullah, and various other terrorists. Perhaps one does not have to start with a cause; perhaps the desire to kill and destroy comes first, and the cause is found or invented afterwards.
Bernie and Mike now often traveled by Frog, Mike's old dream come true. It was a small all-metal amphibian four- seater, a flying boat but with a retractable undercarriage for use on land as well. It had two engines, one behind the other in a single nacelle over the wing, each with a propeller of its own, the one in front pulling and the one at the back pushing. Each engine had enough power to keep the plane flying in case the other one failed. The Frog could take off from a small field and land in an even smaller one. Bernie and Mike gave me and some other reporters an occasional lift, but on the whole the Frog was meant for the two of them. The back seats were taken by luggage, cameras, tape recorders, food, drink, a pup tent, sleeping bags, and a miniature folding motor scooter. There were also collapsible fuel bags of impregnated canvas which could be strapped to the back seats and connected directly to the fuel system, doubling Frog's range at the cost of preventing the pilots from smoking in flight. The Frog could thus take you to places unreachable by commercial airlines, and - sometimes even more important - get you out in a hurry. I was rather envious of the Frog and played with the idea of getting something similar of my own one day, although it was more useful to a team of two; on long flights, Bernie and Mike took turns at the controls while the other one rested or slept. Other agencies tried to imitate them but they soon discovered that there was more to it than just putting two reporters with flying licences into a small amphibian. To rub salt into the wounds, Bernie and Mike attached a sticker under Embee's logo on the fuselage : "Beware of Imitations."
Their teamwork was not always smooth. I first witnessed a dispute in Africa, during a famine. Even if you're a reporter, you never quite get used to people dying in front of you, especially children, especially of hunger, especially if there is food not too far away but, due to a lack of roads and transport, local bureaucracy, greed, corruption, politics, and sometimes a civil war as well, it never reaches the starving people. Bernie insisted that they use the Frog to fly in some food. Mike resisted, saying that it won't help much and might end badly. Bernie won after submitting some sort of ultimatum and they flew in a few bags of flour strapped to the back seats. As soon as Mike unloaded the first bag in a field outside a starving village, a riot started. A woman and a child were trampled to death and a dozen people injured. The Frog sustained dents and a cracked windshield, and would have been further damaged if Mike hadn't quickly thrown all the sacks out as far as possible and then kept firing his pistol into the air while Bernie started the engines and we took off.
On another occasion, also in Africa, Bernie got badly upset when they were interviewing a woman whose husband had been shot and who received an official bill for so and so many cartridges and a coffin, although it was common knowledge that the bodies were being dumped into common graves without any coffins.
"I was photographing the document," Mike told me later, "when I quite clearly heard Bernie grinding his teeth behind me. I've read about people grinding their teeth, but that was the first time I've actually heard it. Something nasty was happening to him. I suggested we take a vacation, spend some time with our families by the sea, and he agreed, as soon as we interviewed Alex Urunda."
"The last interview for both of them."
"Yes. We had a nasty argument, perhaps our worst, when that military putsch broke out. We both admired Alex and what he was doing, but I thought that Bernie was too optimistic, even if Alex was trying the right things for the right reasons. With the rebels advancing, I was for clearing out at once; the Frog was there with the fuel tanks full, and I didn't think anyone connected with Alex would be safe if they overran the place. Bernie insisted we wait and see what happens - so far so good, that's what reporters are for - and then, if necessary, fly Alex out. With the memory of that food supply fresh in my mind, I just exploded. Bernie was hysterical, swinging between ultimatums and practically begging on his knees. He promised it would be the last time, without guessing the way he was going to keep his promise."
"What do you mean "we"? It was Bernie who tried to fly him out. You were in the hotel that night, shacked up with a native girl, by the way rather not your type - too young and skinny."
"That's what everyone thinks. But it was going to be such a tricky take-off and climb that, being the better pilot, I insisted on handling it myself."
"But I saw you with my own eyes in the hotel that morning, before they took us to see the burnt-out Frog with what was left of Alex and Bernie still inside. I also had it from the manager that you and the girl had breakfast in bed in your room."
"Each body with a small bullet hole which, considering the state they were in, nobody noticed. And the manager did not mention that it was a late breakfast; they're used to reporters sleeping late after a night with a local girl."
"Mike, what exactly happened that night, seeing you've decided to tell me?"
"The day before, we had our first real quarrel. Bernie wanted to fly Alex out of the country, even if he had to risk his neck, even if our partnership was over. He said there comes a time when one either does or does not do the right thing, and if one doesn't one pays for it for the rest of one's life; quoted Cavafy about the big yes, things like that. He was completely hysterical and it was an ultimatum. Of course he insisted that I keep out of it and pretend he had stolen the plane and did everything on his own. The problem was that the Frog was parked in a narrow valley, and the only direction to gain height after the take-off was along the valley, and there was an army camp at the end of it, already in rebel hands. If they opened fire when the plane was low overhead they would have to be really lousy shots to miss. It called for the best pilot Frog could get and that pilot was me. At first Bernie wouldn't hear of it, but then I did an ultimatum of my own: either we go together or the Frog stays where it is, so he had no choice. Good God, that was the first time I saw tracer bullets coming up from the ground, and they would have made a pretty sight if some of them were not going into the Frog; a few holes in the wings first, and then engines and propellers, and down we went. I still had some control over the thing and crash-landed her near the first trees of the jungle behind the valley, where some of Alex Urunda's friends, about to turn guerrillas, were supposed to be hiding."
"Was anyone hurt?"
"Not by the ground fire, but on landing Alex Urunda hurt his knee, and the Frog was a wreck. We got out, and I slashed a canvas fuel bag and tossed in a match. Then Bernie and Alex went for the trees and me in the opposite direction. It was the original plan for such an emergency; Bernie had insisted that I should separate from them, not only for my own safety but also perhaps to be of help afterwards, from the outside, if they were captured. We saw the jeeps with the searchlights coming from the camp and I wondered whether it was such a good idea to set the plane on fire. It was supposed to make them think that the bodies were inside, burning to cinders, but right then the blaze was guiding them straight towards us. They caught Alex Urunda, limping with Bernie supporting him, in their searchlights. I have some underexposed but passable photographs, taken with a telelens on high-speed film, of an officer shooting them with a pistol, a bullet in the heart each at point blank range, and then the soldiers throwing the bodies into the burning Frog."
"You had your camera with you?"
"And my pistol. I never go without them on such jobs and always keep them within easy reach, so I just grabbed them before jumping out of the plane, but I couldn't do anything with the pistol to help them that night. I managed to get back to town without being seen, picked up that girl in a bar which stayed open till the small hours, and brought her to my room in the hotel for an alibi."
He refilled our glasses.
"Well, here's to Bernie and Alex," he said.
"And to you, Mike. It was a brave thing to do. Will you be getting yourself a new plane now? Frog Two?"
"Frog Two, yes, but not a plane. A helicopter. You have to move with the times. I don't like those long take-offs and landings any more. A four-seater again, with all the gadgets. I still have to learn to fly the things. What do you say we take a course together?"
"I wasn't thinking about getting a helicopter of my own, with all the disadvantages of flying alone."
"Neither was I. I am offering you a partnership, like me and Bernie, only - let this be very clear from the start - without any more food deliveries or rescue missions of any kind for any reason; pure reporting and that's it. What do you say?"
I thought it over for a while, and then said "All right", and we refilled our glasses and clinked them.

# # #

ę1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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