Return of the Hadi
- “What the hell is he doing back?”
- “How the fuck should I know?!”
- “The skins will be after him. We have to get to him before they do”
It was a long trip from Tunis back to Banlieue 34, what we call Cite Koulous. Thirty-six hours in a packed ferry cruising the Mediterranean was hotter than any of the weather in Tunis. Three hours on a train from Marseilles to Paris busted my wallet. I had to take a motor rickshaw back to Koulous.
Tunisia was a blast. All of my extended family is in Algeria, so I didn't have to worry about them setting me up with a bride like my friends who usually go back to the motherland. I got myself a gig digging old Phoenician burial sites with Libyan archaeologists. Pretty cool stuff, I made a point to walk around the remains of Mos Eisley and Tattoine left behind from shooting Phantom, Clones, Revenge, and New Hope. As far as I was concerned, that was the real archaeological relic. At least it would be if not for the tourists messing everything up, leaving their cut-up foam sandals on the sand for lizards to choke on. The gig was how I got in touch with a Libyan who could get me a new CNIS for when I got back to France. My new name was Shaquille al-Hadi. Any name was better than being one out of billions of chumps named Zinedine, but it felt weird that I share my second name with another world-famous athlete.
I'm standing outside of main corridor into Koulous in my grey chinos, makeshift tire sandals I bought from a bazaar in Tataouine, ruby shades, bandanna, blue duffle bag, and a navy camouflage shirt. Koulous was supposed to be Cologne, but the East Asians took to calling it Kowloon due to the shape it managed to take as a walled city. Skyways, sheds and other annexes were built between the alleys of the original project buildings. Now, all the buildings are wall-to-wall. The corridor runs straight across the walled city where the street was, it picks up a mean chill. The inside doesn't get a lot of sunlight, so the Cite is usually pretty cold. I’m not to well dressed for the climate inside. Fluorescent lights illuminate the walls and concrete floors. The first thing I notice as I walk inside is a metal door, a sign, and a black grill along the side facing out. The sign above the booth says "Boba Fe Thé" with a chalk drawing of Boba Fett's helmet on both sides of the sign. The metal door says "Ouvert 1000-1500 L-V” with “Mở 1000-1500 Hai Dến Sáu" below it posted neatly along the panels. It's Tuesday and about 10:00 AM. I hear a lock opening right on the hour the sign promised. The metal door raises up onto the roof.
A petite woman with a blue and white striped sports top pushes the door up. Her head is concealed under Boba Fett helmet with a ponytail hanging out. She forms her hands into a gun pointed at me. "Put your hands u..." she gasps a pause. Her helmet tilts sideways like Luke's storm trooper helmet in New Hope. "Zinny?!"
"Anny?!" Anh Thi Ly is the only person in the world who ever called me Zinny. I slip off my shades and let out a smile all the way up to my eyes. "I can't believe you made it out!"
"Neither can I". She takes off her helmet to reveal a face happier than mine. With the helmet hanging on her hand, she reaches herself over the counter and gives me the biggest hug her small body is capable of. "How's your brother" I ask.
She lets go of me and slides back behind the counter. "The five-oh took Lanh off for possession and selling three months ago. It wasn't even his, Thierry left some behind at his place. I took half of the cash Lanh left behind. I put it to a bank deposit for six months, and got enough back to open this place"
"Looks good. What is a Boba Fe Thé anyway. Is it a Vietnamese thing?"
"Not really. More like Chinese. Bobas are the big tapioca balls that go into the milk tea. How about I show you one?" She opens a tray and scoops these glowing green bobas into a clear plastic cup and puts the cup up to a fountain valve. The cup fills with a steaming hot black or purple liquid which makes the bobas glow brighter. The last valve the cup visits pours milk into it, dimming the bobas a little. Anh squeezes a dome lid on the cup, takes out a super wide straw, and puts it through the hole in the dome. "Here, this one is one the house"
"Merci" I'm glad she gave me this freebie, I don't have much dough left after coming back. "I have to get back to my old place, Faruk's probably rushing to clean it up." Before I leave, I take a sip of the tea to try it out. The straw picks up a green glowing boba. The slippery ball squeaks and squirts as I chew it. It doesn't have any taste of it's own, but the texture goes well with the sweet fruity flavor and the charred taste of the black tea” I like this Boba Fe Thé. I'll be sure to stop by"
– "Nice to see you again Zinny. Actually, I'll stop by your apartment after I close"
– "I'll be waiting. By the way, my name is Shaquille now"
"Oh" I can tell she was a bit disappointed by hearing that, as if the reason I left a year ago came crashing back to her. She forces a smile and a wave around her disappointment, letting me part with "See you tonight, Shaq" and a nervous laugh. I raise and wave the cup.
A lot has changed since I left a year ago. Cite Koulous seems a lot more peaceful now. I notice there are less keufs patrolling the streets. The graffiti tags are a little more prevalent than before, and a couple of them are written in Latinized Berber and Arabic. There is a lot more Vietnamese writing than I remember. I walk past a couple of people on the way back to my flat. A few huddled card players argue the calculated level value of their hands. A black lady sits on the steps babysitting a pigment collage of children. I remember the path I take to the apartment; Find the pair houses built wall-to-wall, take a right. Climb up the stairs to the fountain filled with trash slurry and sawdust over it, another right. Find the stairwell that leads up to your apartment.
I make it back to my flat a little later than I thought. A year ago the walk wouldn't have been this long. I guess all the sightseeing made it a little longer. The wall hugging the narrow stairwell has marker graffiti less intricate than outside. Most of the kids practice designs on the inside walls before heading out to mark a piece of public wall as their own. I'm not carrying much, so the climb up to floor six is easy.
I knock the door with the hinged ring grasped by the jaws of a brass lion. I hear shuffling behind the door. I hear "S'il te plaît un moment" behind the door. A bearded guy in a blue shirt, my blue shirt, answers the door. He seems to have stolen Faruk’s whiny voice. He lets out Faruk's shrieking laugh and smiles. Oh, wait...This is Faruk.
"Zinedine!!! It's so nice to see you back. How was the trip monam?!" He's always this loud and annoying. "It was awful, but I'm here and alive".
Faruk motions me into the apartment and I step in. I don't recognize it at first. It's been rearranged to hell, even the posters. The Scarface, the Lewis v. Tyson, and the Clone Wars, are all one wall instead of every wall like I had it. I get my bearing by focusing on the windows and kitchen. I know those parts of a room never rearrange. Faruk notices the cup of Thé in my hand. "Huh? You bought that expensive hipster swill?"
– "It's not bad, the clerk was real nice, gave it on the house"
–"You mean that bitch"
I look at him sternly for a moment "I'll let that slide monam. We got a lot of work ahead of us and I just want to doze. So where did you put my bed?" I find the bed where I left it. I fall on the bed and doze like a rock.
In my haze, I notice I am spirited away into a dream. I and some faceless ancient crew clad in brown leather armor are rowing in a misty sea. The boat looks something like a galley, with a band of rowers on each side of the ship. A guy who looks like Faruk with a bandanna gazes out with his hand over his eyes. His twitch tells us he notices something "My king, It's a light! Land sighted!" We find and converge on the light. As our craft gets closer, We notice countless other lights, way too many lights. This must be a grand city. Oddly, this city of cities doesn't have a port, so we land on a flat shore a ways off, most of coast between us and the city is a cliff over jagged rock. We are met by what looks like a welcoming party.
Tunisian-sounding drums and flutes play as we are pelted with velvet-like flowers and adorned with heavier but equally soft garlands. Some of my men go straight for the attention of eager women and jugs of wine. We walk and sing our way to the imposing gates. I've seen this place before; I recognize the walls and buildings, except that they are higher and painted now. Wait...this must be Carthage.
We are guided through the lavish market and corridors lined up with loud trumpets and covered in white petals. I lose a couple of men to the inviting doors of brothels and private terraces the women guide them to. After many delays, we finally make it to the steps of the palace where the Queen and her entourage await us.
I step quickly ahead of everyone else to greet the Queen. Her dress is a shiny and dark teal. The soft white veil hooded around her eyes matches her detached sleeves. "I bid you welcome..." she speaks in French "Monsieur Aeneas"
Queen Alisse hosted a great banquet for me and the men. Some of the men who left before returned drunk and candid enough to holler at the Queen's vestal and haughty entourage. Tart wines went with slow-roasted lamb, squid and boar, all else in my dream blurred except for a series of passionate and chatty visits with the Queen which included small trinkets and gifts for me. . Instead of sharing Trojan War stories on a balcony over the cliff facing the sea, I told her about how I ended up saving a friend's sister from a pack of skinheads one Parisian night. The Queen was amazed. After another series of blurs, I saw a winged guy telling me I couldn't stay in Carthage; That I had to fulfill a destiny of some sort. Some blurs later, I addressed my men of my plan to go north into Sicily. It was only after I dismissed the men that I noticed Alisse behind me with tears all over her face and dress. I pleaded for forgiveness from the Queen as I pursued her back to her boudoir. The palace was a maze not unlike the alleys of Tunis.
We set sail from the great city. From the sea, I noticed smoke bellowing out from the balcony where I shared stories and moments with the Queen. I put my hand above my eyes to get a better look. The fire is made up of the gifts I left behind. My eyes itch as if the smoke reached all the way here.
My real eyes open like a curtain. I flinch awake. As I rub my eyes it hurts more, I think someone peppered me as a joke. I see three blurry figures that look like pale, globe-headed aliens. These guys are cops?!
I get pulled out of bed just as quickly as I see them. "We've been waiting for you, enculé!"
I get dragged by me feet to the living room the wood panels scrape my shoulder blades. As they drop me on the floor on my stomach, I turn around on my back looking around frantically. The blurry shapes make themselves known. It's the skinheads. How did they get here? Where is Faruk? I turn my head to try and find him. I find him stiff leaning on the closet door with a knife in his chest. His shirt has turned purple, caked with blood "The macaque knows his place, you should to". As I try to shuffle onto my feet, the small one drives a fist reinforced with dusters onto my jaw. The punch should have knocked me out, but it just pushes me down on my back. The two big guys walk both sides of me and push my hands down to the floor by my wrists and pin my hands down with their boots. The lugs on their treads cut into my palm.
The small one chuckles a little “You like that? These boots are a marvel of European engineering". He lifts up and tilts his right foot to gratify himself over the sight of his treads. "Some people say if you twist your foot on someone's face, the lugs on these can rip the soft flesh off. I’ve always wondered about that"
When the runt puts his sole on my face with the intent to twist, I hear a crack and boom sound on the door. I can only see pairs of sneakers tripping the boots that held my hands on the floor. I watch as the skinheads are thrown out the door to roll down the stairwell. One of them opens a plastic water bottle and pours it on my face. The cool water washes off the diluted pepper spray.
I get up and exhale something resembling mesi to my rescuers. However, a big Asian guy stands in place of the toppled door; his face relays that I’m not going anywhere.
I look around to see who else agrees with him, a few other Asian faces. One of them has a Boba Fett helmet on.
– Ahn? What the hell is this about?
– We appreciate your help before, but now we run Kowloon” she says under the mask ”Don’t try and start any sort of gang or movement like you had before. It’s gone and you’re never getting it back
– What the fuck? I started this shit!!! I got us together against the skins! I killed the first one just to show you guys they’re just a bunch of clowns...
– …and then you ditched us.
– Well, now I’m back,
Anh took of her mask. It came off clean, not messing her hair at all. Her face was raging “You think it was all fun and games while you were gone?!! You notice that all your guys except Faruk ain’t here? And now he’s dead too!! The skins either stomped in all their heads on the steps or scared them out”
– I came back didn’t I?
-- Should have stayed back like the rest of your Magreb macaques. You even know what Magreb means? “Where the sun sets”! The sun falls on you and its now rising on us. Just stay out of the way!
– What am I supposed to do? Huh?
Anh commands something in rapid-fire Vietnamese. All the guys leave the apartment to stand on the steps. Anh shrugs off her queen-of-the-pack pretenses and her face relaxes from raging to worried “You’re name’s Shaquille now. You have a new life” Anh says in a remorseful tone. “You can’t be a hero forever; it’s our turn to protect you now”
Still, what am I supposed to do then?
She registers a giggle and smile over her tear-glossed eyes “If you shave, you’d look a bit like Jango Fett and all his clones” She throws me the helmet “You could run the tea booth”.
Something makes me think I don’t have a choice in the matter. I accept anyway.
“I’m still a hero then, eh?”