Terror in Fiction, Terror in Real Life

Very bad pic of a very cool festival
March 12, 2013 - My friend Shiraz Maher had this article published last week, discussing the importance of Literature Festivals in Pakistan. I believe he makes a very valid point: It seems like they are really a place (and one of the few, perhaps) where political issues of all kinds can be discussed publicly and in front of a large audience.

At the festival in Karachi this year this was definitely true. There was a very open debate for example on the issue of the disappeared in Baluchistan. And hundreds of people listened and participated in the discussion. It was impressive. And it only added to the tragedy that Pakistan is living that only hours later a terrible terror attack killed close to a hundred people in Quetta - including many children. 

Having been invited to the Karachi Literature Festival last month, I had to make up my mind which parts of my book I wanted to read from. Of course I was most excited about the prospect of discussing what I had written about the radicalisation of the islamophobic movement in Europe. But I decided that as an author one also needs to take risks - so I chose another passage to read from as well. In it, I describe a fictitious terror attack in the centre of Berlin. 

Gratefully I have never been witness to such a bombing myself. But I knew that this would be different for many Pakistanis, so I was very curious to find out how they thought this attempt at describing such an attack checked out. Those who spoke to me about it afterwards thought it worked. I certainly hope so, and if it does, it may have helped that I describe the whole thing through the eyes of a journalist.

But be that as it may, in case you are interested, you can find said passage below

Cheers, Y. 

Excerpt from: „Radikal" 
(c) Yassin Musharbash
Translation: Katy Derbyshire

This can’t be happening, thought Merle Schwalb, shaking her head. But I can see it, even though I can’t hear it, can’t hear anything any more, apart from this buzzing, and I don’t know where that’s coming from. I’ll write it down. Write down what happens, that’s what they taught me. The last line in her notebook was: Presenter dull, Lutfi brilliant. Now, still shaking her head as if to banish a thought by force, she drew a firm line from left to right across the page. The time, you mustn’t forget the time! She cast a glance at her watch and noted down 8:41. What do I see? Merle Schwalb closed her eyes for a moment, opened them again and began to write. Glasses without lenses on the floor. Pool of blood under the table. Where is it from? A waitress, blood on her apron, leg gashed open, blood flowing. Shoes missing. Foot bloody too. Why isn’t she screaming? She must be in pain. Because I can’t hear! Look everywhere, not just downwards, look up, look forward, you know where to look! A camera. Burst open, looks like a scarecrow. Tables fallen over. Plates, smashed, mug with 2TV logo. Man twitching, holding hands in front of face. Next to him a woman, looks dead, mid-30s, jeans, sneakers, Adidas, eyes closed, arm almost detached, elbow bone visible. On her back. Tattoo on left lower arm. Next to her man, older, bald, table on top of him. Unconscious or dead. Look further forward! Look where Lutfi was sitting! Perhaps none of this is real, shot through Merle Schwalb’s head as she went on writing and writing. 
That would explain why I can’t hear anything. Maybe that’s what it’s like in a dream. You don’t know you’re dreaming. But then why the buzzing? – Write! Presenter’s desk, orange, burst in the middle, wooden slats protruding, like skeleton. Presenter on floor, lying on stomach, ponytail getting redder and redder. Ponytail dripping. Small puddle. 
Or it’s all an exercise. They’ve blocked my ears so I look more closely. I’m wearing headphones; that’s where the buzzing’s coming from. I’m working with the investigative team now; they have to do that kind of thing. Of course they don’t tell you beforehand. It just starts off. And then you have to take notes. With buzzing in your ears. Thank goodness I’ve got my notepad! More notes! Latif, grey pinstripe suit, blue shirt, legs splayed. Strangely splayed. On his side, blood coming out of nose, ear, mouth. Blood in his mouth. Eyes closed, eyelids bruised, one pressed in. Parts of hair missing, perhaps more. Ear bleeding, lacerated. Shirt stained and torn. Left shoe missing. Lots of blood. Shoe half a metre away. 
To Merle’s left, a lamp fell from the ceiling.
It’s so strange when you can’t hear! As if it was much slower! Keep writing. People running away, in all directions. Two children. Crying. Looking for someone? Running to and fro. Man pulls other man out from underneath table. Motionless. Splinter in forehead above left eyebrow. No blood. Eyes closed. Dead? Wearing black AC/DC shirt. Fat. Hiking boots. Shopping bag. Tourist? Do they have tourists in the 2TV morning show audience? Keep going! Broken glass everywhere. Parts of mixing desk on floor. A control knob, set to 7. A young woman, long dark hair, brown summer dress, takes two children by the hand, holds their eyes closed. Takes them slowly to the exit. I’ve seen that woman before! Keep going! 8:45 – four paramedics run into studio, hand signals, hectic, inspect the injured. Run from one to the next. One runs to the presenter, looks at her neck, touches, shakes his head, leaves her. Goes to Latif. Takes pulse. Goes on. Don’t forget the details! Never forget the details, no matter how small they are! Bracelet on the floor, small silver beads, torn, beads scattered. A receipt next to it, 2 x MOMA breakfast, price illegible. One table apart from mine is still upright, two cheese croissants, started. Now I know where I saw the woman! She was sitting right at the front on the left! The young woman comes back without the children. Walks to the front, to the broken desk. Large green eyes. She’s looking for something. Looking on the floor where Lutfi and the presenter were lying. She talks to a paramedic, who points outside. She nods. Worried. Why did I notice her before? You know the answer. Why? You know! Yes, I know: because she was at a table with Samson. My God. What’s happened here? I don’t want this. I want it to stop. I can’t hear anything. I want to hear again. I don’t want this. I want him to stop pulling at me, I don’t want this.
Merle Schwalb turned around with a jerk. Something or someone was trying to drag her off her chair. It was Samson. He was talking at her but she still couldn’t hear anything. Merle pointed at her ears and shook her head. Samson nodded. He signalled to follow him. Again, Merle shook her head and pointed to her pen and pad. Samson’s expression changed. He drew back his arm and slapped her. Merle got to her feet and followed him.


‘She can’t hear!’ Samson shouted against the noise and the screams.
‘Sumaya, we have to get out of here. Right now.’
‘But there are still injured people and hardly any paramedics.’
‘Sumaya, that might have been just the first bomb. We’re going now!’
‘What about Lutfi?’
‘They don’t know. They’ve taken him to hospital. The paramedic wasn’t sure whether he had a pulse or not.’
‘OK. Are you injured?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Good. Come on.’


The first noise Merle Schwalb heard apart from the buzzing sound was the dramatic flapping of the helicopters above them. Perhaps, she thought in a daze, because I’ve never heard so many helicopters above Berlin. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the sound. If she could hear that, she might be able to hear other things too. And indeed, as if a curtain was being drawn back slowly or her face was being pulled out of a box full of cotton wool, she began to register other sounds, although only in muffled form.
What had happened?
She had witnessed a bombing. She had got up early that morning to watch Lutfi Latif, to get some colour for the story, for the story, as her boss Arno Erlinger had told her to do. Latif was making an appearance on the 2TV morning show and she’d booked a place for the part of the programme that was broadcast live from the small studio from 8:30. She had wanted to observe how Latif behaved in the face of the alleged threat to his life, and he was on the show to talk about an initiative he’d launched for literacy skills for migrant women. She had never experienced him live before and she’d been impressed by his panther-like smoothness, by his Obama smile. And then – then it had happened.
She remembered a flash, and the loudest sound she’d ever heard. And then? Then I started writing. Instinctively, Merle’s left hand reached for her inside pocket. Yes, the pad was there. I wrote it all down. I took notes. I didn’t help, like this woman next to me, who was sitting with Samson and whose name I don’t even know. Merle felt tears pricking her eyes. But when she realised she was just about to cry over herself, she held them back. 


At a press conference in Berlin, the Federal Minister of the Interior appealed for calm and assured the public that investigators are working around the clock to shed light on Friday morning’s bombing, which has so far claimed seven victims and injured thirty. Unknown terrorists had set off an explosive device in a television studio in Berlin-Mitte at around half past eight. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. The chancellor has cancelled a trip to Washington scheduled for this afternoon. The bomb exploded during a live broadcast, while the MP Lutfi Latif was in the studio. According to a magazine report, the Green Party politician has received a number of threats from Islamist extremists over the past weeks. The interior minister stated that it was too early to speculate about a link. Lutfi Latif was taken to hospital with severe injuries.
Merle was relieved that her hearing had returned almost to normal and she could think more or less clearly again. She was sitting on the floor alongside the young woman with the long, dark hair and green eyes, in front of a small TV in Samson’s converted attic. This was the third time she’d seen the footage of the explosion. She even saw herself, filmed from diagonally above. She hadn’t even noticed a CCTV camera mounted up there. Then there was a cut: a concerned minister in a black suit behind a microphone. Then another cut: an archive photo of Lutfi Latif. And then another: a cutting from the Globus article. Meanwhile, a ticker-tape of the latest headlines ran along the bottom of the screen: Number of victims raised to 9 +++ Chancellor: ‘cowardly attack’ +++ Federal President intends to visit site +++ Terrorism expert: ‘We were warned’ +++ US President sends condolences +++ All following programmes postponed.
Samson was sitting a few yards away from her and the other woman at his desk. The moment he’d unlocked the door and shooed them up to the attic, he’d booted up all his computers and was now working on three keyboards simultaneously. Merle looked over at him. She knew that expression on his face. Total concentration, hardly blinking, a deep frown. She knew he was unaware of anything happening around him. He wouldn’t say anything until he thought he had something to say.
Why on earth didn’t I think to help? Or at least to run away? All I did was sit there and write. Is it some kind of déformation professionnelle? And if so, isn’t it even sicker that I’m sitting here now, having just survived a bomb, disgusted with myself, and still all I can think about is whether my Blackberry’s still working so I can send my notes to the news desk? I was there, after all! An eyewitness, there’s nothing better than that!
Oh yes, there was something better. Eyewitnesses can die. Like the presenter, for instance. Or the man with the splinter in his forehead. 
‘I – I wanted to tell you, it was great how you helped the children earlier. My name’s Merle, I work for the Globus,’ she said to the woman with the dark hair. 
A brief moment of confusion in the big green eyes. ‘You’re Merle Schwalb?’
‘I’m Sumaya al-Shami.’
‘How do you know Samson?’
‘He advises Lutfi Latif. I work in Latif’s office.’
‘I’ve known Samson for years.’
‘We… we used to be together.’
‘I have to go out and make a call for a minute. Let them know I’m still alive and all that.’
At that moment, Samson turned around in his desk chair. ‘Merle, you can tell Erlinger there’s an al-Qaida video claiming responsibility on the net. That’ll impress him. Just like your notes, I’m sure.’


Samson held out a memory stick, saying nothing. 
‘Thanks a lot, Samson, really.’
‘No problem.’
‘Is it the real thing?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘That I don’t know yet.’
Samson! Are you more doubtful than about the other al-Qaida videos you write about every other damn night?’
‘Don’t shout at me,’ Samson replied quietly. ‘But the answer is: yes. For the time being anyway.’
‘I don’t know, for God’s sake. It’s just a feeling, OK?’

1 comment: