Younis loved his country, all of it that he had seen anyway, and he had seen more than everybody he knew. He was a commercial traveller, buying fabric mostly, and some leather goods. Business took him south to the edge of the desert, where low, white villages were dwarfed by sand dunes, and all along the Mediterranean coast. Some mornings he would pull up beside the coast road, get out of the car, and stand in the play of wind between the land and the sea, would throw his suit jacket on to the back seat and stand there in his shirt, arms slightly away from his body, his tie flapping around his shoulders. He loved the people of his country too, a humorous nation, excitable, generous though largely underfed, speaking a rich creole of French and Arabic with countless oaths borrowed and often spliced from both. A good-looking people. More handsome than those from either side, at any rate. Younis himself was much admired, though unmarried. His moustache was broad and his hair still thick. The Lexus belonged to the company, in truth, but the apartment, in a good part of town, was his.
He might have called himself a patriot, but here, as in certain other countries, the word had assumed some negative overtones. It had come to connote a kind of small-mindedness, and a parochial, or at least less than cosmopolitan attitude to non-Arabs. Younis regretted but understood the recent upswell in patriotic feeling amongst the lower classes. Though he was a businessman he thought of himself as being essentially of the left. He bought a socialist newspaper two or three times a week and always on a Thursday. He dressed in western clothes but maintained some local habits. What bound him to the masses, to the young men in the squares who veered between political discontent and nationalist fervour, was his passion for the national football team. This passion created a literal queasiness in him. He was so invested in the fortunes of the team that watching them made him sick. He would heave with nerves if the opposition crossed the halfway line. So he couldn't watch. Or could only watch the game's neutralities. The national anthems. The ball being shuffled across the back four. The pundits at half-time (though he would have, occasionally, to avert his eyes from the screen as attempts on goal at either end were analysed in slow motion).
Later on this particular September day the Desert Falcons were to play a World Cup qualifier against Senegal, in Dakar. Younis was not optimistic about the result, nor indeed his chances of avoiding the match. If he stayed in his hand would drift towards the television remote like some disembodied horror, and he would curl and cringe on the sofa until the rout was complete. Every café in the city would be showing the game, every laundrette and takeaway. Market stalls and taxis would have the radio tuned to a sports channel. He thought about driving out of the city, but again foresaw a twitching hand, one that could almost be identified as his own, fiddling furiously with the dial of a car stereo. He would have to go out on foot, he realised. Younis decided to reacquaint himself with the stuffed fauna in the Musée National. He would set out just before six, walk directly to the museum, sit in front of some paintings, be transported back to an idealised childhood amongst the tatty taxidermy in the basement, then make his way back. He estimated that the whole adventure would take up to two hours, long enough for the match to reach its unhappy conclusion.
The afternoon had begun to cool as he put on a linen jacket and skipped down the stone staircase of his building, a free man. On the corner of his street a workman and a gendarme were arguing over a flag, which the labourer had tied to a barrier. Younis listened as he waited for the lights to change. It seemed that the cop had told the workman to remove the flag because, as he pointed out (and not unreasonably, Younis thought) it considerably reduced visibility for anyone turning left on a filter light. The labourer, who seemed to be in a less reasonable frame of mind, kept repeating that the flag was 'symbolic', and it emerged besides that the flag was a permanent fixture on the barrier, had been tied to it, in fact, since the Desert Falcons had last made it to the World Cup, seven years previously, and was therefore, in all likelihood, irremovable. The gendarme then enquired if the navvy had an alternative barrier at his disposal, which enquiry was duly answered, somewhat insolently, in the negative. Younis imagined retelling the story at some later point, of The Flag and the Hole in the Road, perhaps as an amusing antidote to the disappointing reversal about to visited upon his beloved national team by the Senegalese. The lights changed and he let them, patting down his jacket for an imaginary billfold, or pack of cigarettes, a charade performed so that the two interlocutors would not think he was merely loitering in the hope that they would come to blows. He made an effort to record their continuing dialogue in his mind, more or less as it happened.
“I can't just leave the hole unprotected.”
“Well cut it off then,” replied the constable.
“I can't and I won't. The flag is a symbol.”
“So you've said. May I ask what the flag symbolises, and how?”
“It symbolises our nation. Our struggle.”
The policeman nodded.
“I'm still struggling to understand how, exactly, this dirty bit of cloth symbolises the whole nation. Isn't it just a flag? And a flag in the wrong place? Tell me.”
The lights changed again. Younis let them.
“So the white band,” the workman began, “represents the peace we have achieved.” The cop surveyed the noisome junction.
“I suppose we're not actually at war, just at the moment.”
“The red is the blood shed by those martyrs, our fathers and brothers, with which peace, and our freedom, were bought.”
“Did you read that in a pamphlet?” The workman lit a cigarette and smiled but did not answer. Younis sensed that the situation was moving towards detente. Tempers cooling like the day, energy dispersing towards the end of the universe.
“And the green?” The workman wasn't sure.
“I guess it represents the country. The green land.”
Islam, thought Younis, crossing the road, finally. Green is for Islam, spine of the nation, its laws, sacraments and customs. There was a lot of desert, yes, but even here in the north it wasn't particularly green. A strange conclusion to reach. He imagined an alternate flag, with a beige stripe at the bottom. That might best represent the country's topography, was that the word? And yet it was a beautiful country, and no greener now, after the revolutions of his lifetime, than when the French were in charge, nor the Spanish before them. So the green represented a national religion, an established faith. Younis could have done without it. People needed to forget about the next world and focus on their desires in the here and now. Want something, buy it. Don't worry too much about what you can never possibly know. At the western end of the harbour the land rose up a thousand feet. There was a Moorish fort there, and a Spanish chapel beneath it. Less close to God. Tourists were driven up in coaches to see the battlements and the icons. Once a year, on Ascension Day, some pilgrims from the city walked up there. For what? There was a café and some souvenir stalls and a view over the port. Nothing special.
The boulevard was empty. Younis strode along it at a military pace. He imagined himself as the sole survivor of some biological outrage. The whole world at his disposal but no-one to share it with. He shivered and fell out of rhythm for a moment, becoming conscious of each footstep. Ahead, four hundred metres on the left, loomed the museum. Richly coloured friezes running in a band around the building. White stucco, black railings with an occasional soft drink can impaled upon them. A border of coarse grass. Palm trees every twenty yards or so. It was, Younis reflected, a modest, colonial sort of affair. Not the Louvre, nor the Prado, but something out at the edge of things. And perhaps all the better for it. A uniformed man stood on the steps and addressed Younis as he approached the gates.
“No admission after five forty-five.”
“Since I've worked here,” said the man.
“Was it your decision, then, to change the opening hours?”
“What? No, I just work here.” The two men stood regarding each other for a moment, then the security guard lifted his chin and looked back towards the port. “Go home and watch the match,” he said. “That's what I'll be doing.”
Younis offered the man a limp salute and turned around. He was disappointed, but the walk had killed some time and kept his mind off the game. He walked north, staying on the shaded side of the boulevard. Ten minutes later he turned right towards the centre of town. He had decided to take refuge in the shop of Murad, his barber, who was a Christian and possibly a homosexual. Anyway, Younis remembered, Murad took no interest at all in football, and the television in the salon was invariably tuned to an entertainment channel. He skirted the bazaar, walking through the jewellery district. This was the oldest part of the city, the blackened buildings crowding closer, gutters almost touching overhead. Most of the shops were open. Old men hunched behind heavy glass cabinets. Men who had lived through everything but had seen nothing, hidden away in this dark corridor, insulated by diamonds. They beckoned to him. “Buy or sell,” he heard repeatedly, muffled by closed doors and old velvet. Six forty-five. Half time. He sat outside a small café and ordered a coffee. He sugared and sipped it. Very good, like the coffee in Spain, he thought. A moment later his stomach seemed somehow to violently rotate within him as, looking away from the café, he saw the match score reflected in the darkened window of a shop across the street. Any other score might have taken a moment to absorb, to reverse the characters and to recall which was the home team. It was nil – nil. Gloriously and unambiguously scoreless. Younis allowed himself a brief moment of hope. Perhaps they could pull it off. But hope was almost immediately overwhelmed by memories of past failures. The team defending a narrow lead, dropping deeper and deeper into their own half, throwing themselves in the way of every shot and cross, until tired legs can no longer perform. A low drive deflected twice in a crowded box. A foot withdrawn just too late from the path of the overlapping left back. All that effort for nothing.
Younis pulled a note from his wallet and tucked it under his saucer. There was a photograph in there, sandwiched between two business cards. His niece aged about four. He had always been fond of the girl, grown up and living in America now, but the reason he kept the photo was because of an unusual quality he felt it possessed. Her hair is long and uncovered. She wears a knee length brown dress which he remembers being stitched from a heavy fabric, corduroy perhaps. She is leaning forward at the waist, her arms stretched down in front of her, her hands half a metre apart. There is a red ball in mid-air. This was the thing about the photograph. It seemed to capture not only a moment, but also what preceded and followed this moment. You could see that the girl had just bounced the ball, but also, from its position slightly beyond her reach, you could see that she would not catch it and that the ball would skip away from her over the hard ground. He had taken the photo himself, and did not remember if this had happened, but looking at the image it was impossible to conceive that it hadn't. That the girl hadn't shrieked slightly, and skipped along after the ball. He wasn't sure what significance this had, really, but he felt that it must have something to do with how humans experience time and space. This was the kind of thinking he tried to avoid, particularly when it was late, and he was alone. But his mind was generally unquiet. The little girl in the brown dress provoked another question, as he rose and put on his jacket. How, he wondered, did we get from that innate instinct to play, to the present moment, where nation was staked against nation, across the globe, where the kicking of a ball could not be an unpolitical act, if only because of the great numbers of souls, his included, who were invested in the trajectory of that act? He heard the whistle blow for the start of the second half.
There was a red sign above the barber shop window with Murad's name and line of business hand-painted upon it in Arabic, French and English. This last, lowest set of letters was smaller than those above, as if added as an optimistic afterthought. The town attracted few tourists, and those who made to these narrow streets were usually looking for hashish rather than a haircut. A tricolour was pinned up in a corner of the window, just big enough to reassure nationalists that their custom was welcomed (Younis thought of the roaddigger) and not so big as to prove distasteful to everyone else.
Murad was not busy. He sat alone on the vinyl banquette where, during the week, his customers would wait their turn in the chair. Younis watched him for a while before entering the shop. His attention, it seemed, was divided between the large tropical fish tank at the back of the shop and the television in the corner. Nothing was happening in the fish tank, nothing that Younis could perceive, anyway. Meanwhile on the flatscreen young men and women threw themselves about in silence. Murad rose as he entered and greeted him warmly. The barber's own hair was thinning somewhat, and was unnaturally black, and as he spoke to Younis he repeatedly scraped his palm over his scalp from front to back. Funny, Younis thought, that you never saw a dentist with bad teeth.
“I was just thinking about closing up for the day.” Younis stepped backwards, smiling.
“I can come back, if you prefer. I've already been turned away from the Musée National...”
“No, no, sit down.” The barber was flustered. “Not a soul for two hours. On a Sunday.”
“There's a football match going on,” Younis explained. “An important one.”
“Not important to me.”
“Well, important in the sense that it has robbed you of your usual customers.”
“But their hair will still need cutting, whoever wins.”
It was then agreed that the client's hair would be washed, prior to cutting, and that afterwards a wet shave would be in order. The great black chair was duly lowered and Younis leant over the sink. Murad's voice, sharing some gossip about the mayor and his mistress, was only intermittently audible as water and hands and shampoo and more hands and more water swilled about his client's ears. The effect was not unpleasant. As Murad towelled his hair dry Younis watched a young man approaching in the mirror. A young black with untidy hair. Murad saw him too, and made towards the door. Younis still had water in his ears. Murad explained that he was with his last customer but the young man offered to pay double as he had a job interview in the morning and felt it important that he resemble, at least somewhat, the small square figure in the photo he had attached to his curriculum vitae. Just a trim with clippers, a five minute job. Murad's resistance to the young man's appeals seemed, to Younis at least, distinctly unchristian, and as a representative of at least one minority (almost certainly two) the barber might have been expected to empathise with the plight of a fellow who was similarly marginalised by the random circumstances of his birth, and the conditions which informed themselves upon these circumstances. It was not so apparently. But Younis hectored Murad, without referring to this surmised parallel between the two other men's conditions of life, querying instead if the barber could afford to turn away a paying customer in the current climate, determined in this last afternoon to be a whimsical thing altogether. The young man sat down on the banquette, eventually, and nodded his thanks to the older man in the chair. Almost immediately Younis regretted taking sides. The young African asked if he could watch the end of the match while he waited. Half an hour to go, or thereabouts. Murad tossed him the remote.
Younis clenched each part of himself and tried not to look. The familiar nausea swelled over him as Murad, with exquisite slowness, moved around him with the scissors. Statistics appeared in the lower third of the screen. Senegal could boast eighty-five percent possession, most of it in the Falcon's half. Twelve corners to none. Seventeen attempts on goal (nine on target) to none. The away team hadn't had a shot. The sound was still off but Younis was confident that the commentator would be recycling some variation of “The statistic that really matters is the score”. Younis tried to focus on the blades of the scissors. He saw them moving in the mirror and listened to them clicking. Yick-yick-yick. It was impossible. Eighty minutes. Murad produced the small mirror and showed him the back of his head. It looked, Younis thought, reassuringly similar to the back of his head after the last dozen or so haircuts he'd had. Murad was still brushing cut hair from his neck as he rose to leave. The barber pressed him gently back into the seat. “Let's shave you.” He disappeared into the back of the shop and reappeared with a small pile of steaming towels. The Falcons keeper tipped a forceful header on to the crossbar. As Younis sat with the lower part of his face shrouded in hot towels Murad shaved the African's head. The young man pronounced himself satisfied with the job done, and paid double, as promised. Murad gave him back one of the notes. He stayed in the chair next to Younis who appeared to be ill. The older man, whose skin had taken on a grey tinge, was watching the game closely now, though his head seemed to wobble rather on his neck. He reached for the remote and unmuted the television. Forty thousand people whistling. This was odd, he thought. Did the home crowd want the game to end? Perhaps it was a cultural thing. Were they jeering their team? Murad removed the towels and began lathering his chin.
Three minutes of extra time. The whistling intensifies. Murad is saying something. His two customers urge him to be quiet. Another corner. Senegal leave one on one at the back. The corner is too close to the Falcons keeper who catches it and punts it towards the halfway line. It looks like a training drill. The ball bounces over the Senegalese centre-back and is seized upon by the solitary Falcons forward. He is smaller and quicker and pulls away towards the edge of the penalty area, but shifts the ball too far in front of him. The Senegal goalkeeper sees this and charges out to clear but gets to the ball a quarter of a second after the centre-forward who lifts it over his sliding legs. The forward is flipped, almost and the ball rolls goalward. The Senegalese centre-half recovers and hooks it around the post.
Younis remained in his seat. As the ball rolled towards the line he refused to admit the possibility that it might cross it, that the retreating defender might stumble or fluff the clearance. Three points away in Dakar was simply too much to dream of. A draw seemed certain now. Senegal were down to ten men, and without a goalkeeper, having used their three substitutions. The left-back had taken the gloves and stood behind the wall half-laughing as he directed them into position. A draw was an excellent result. So he would not rue the chance that hadn't quite gone in. The incident had secured the point. Murad peeled a blade from its wrapper and slid it into the razor. It felt odd to experience this calm, Younis thought, to watch as a disinterested observer might. He felt the blade against his cheek. The stand-in goalkeeper gave a thumbs-up to the referee who blew his whistle. Mohamed Shahili, nineteen years old and perhaps sixty-five kilos, took two steps towards the ball and poked it with the outside of his right boot, still on the toes, but kicking slightly across it. Murad began to pull the blade down over his client's left cheek, in short staccato movements. Like a Bernard Herrmann score, thought Younis, listening at the same time to the TV pundit who was explaining that the biggest difficulty from this distance was getting the ball up over the wall and down again in time for it to squeeze beneath the bar, while Shahili's strike seemed to be overcoming this difficulty in the most convincing fashion, leaving the locum keeper flatfooted as it slid down the back of the net and the ball rested there, its energy spent, an object newly weighted with history.
Younis jumped this time and the razor marked a thin red line an inch below his cheekbone. Murad stepped back from the chair and the young African pointed at the older man beside him. The cut was narrow and red and there was still white foam above it. None of the men would swear to it, and they didn't mention it to friends and family in the following weeks and months, but they all saw it. The blood beneath the wound had changed colour entirely and was now bright green, the green of the flag in the window of the small salon.