White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  A minute earlier Millat had turned the key ever so softly in the front door. Since then he had been standing in the hallway, listening to the conversation and smoking a fag. It was great! It was like listening to two big Italian matriarchs from opposing clans battle it out. Millat loved clans. He had joined KEVIN because he loved clans (and the outfit and the bow tie), and he loved clans at war. Marjorie the analyst had suggested that this desire to be part of a clan was a result of being, effectively, half a twin. Marjorie the analyst suggested that Millat’s religious conversion was more likely born out of a need for sameness within a group than out of any intellectually formulated belief in the existence of an all-powerful creator. Maybe. Whatever. As far as he was concerned, you could analyze it until the cows came home, but nothing beat being all dressed in black, smoking a fag, listening to two mammas battle it out over you in operatic style:

  “You claim to want to help my boys, but you have done nothing but drive a wedge between them. It is too late now. I have lost my family. Why don’t you go back to yours and leave us alone?”

  “You think it’s paradise over at my house? My family has been split by this too. Joshua isn’t speaking to Marcus. Did you know that? And those two were so close . . .” Joyce looked a bit weepy, and Alsana reluctantly passed her the kitchen towel. “I’m trying to help all of us. And the best way to start is to get Magid and Millat talking before this escalates any further than it has. I think we can both agree on that. If we could find some neutral place, some ground where they both felt no pressures or outside influence . . .”

  “But there are no neutral places anymore! I agree they should meet, but where and how? You and your husband have made everything impossible.”

  “Mrs. Iqbal, with all due respect, the problems in your family began long before either my husband or I had any involvement.”

  “Maybe, maybe, Mrs. Chalfen, but you are the salt in the wound, yes? You are the one extra chili pepper in the hot sauce.”

  Millat heard Joyce draw her breath in sharply.

  “Again, with respect, I can’t believe that it is the case. I think this has been going on for a very long time. Millat told me that some years ago you burned all his things. I mean, it’s just an example, but I don’t think you understand the trauma that kind of thing has inflicted on Millat. He’s very damaged.”

  “Oh, we are going to play the tit for the tat. I see. And I am to be the tit. Not that it is any of your big-nose business, but I burned those things to teach him a lesson—to respect other people’s lives!”

  “A strange way of showing it, if you don’t mind me saying.”

  “I do mind! I do mind! What do you know of it?”

  “Only what I see. And I see that Millat has a lot of mental scars. You may not be aware, but I’ve been funding sessions for Millat with my analyst. And I can tell you, Millat’s inner life—his karma, I suppose you might call it in Bengali—the whole world of his subconscious shows serious illness.”

  In fact, the problem with Millat’s subconscious (and he didn’t need Marjorie to tell him this) was that it was basically split-level. On the one hand he was trying real hard to live as Hifan and the others suggested. This involved getting his head around four main criteria.

  1. To be ascetic in one’s habits (cut down on the booze, the weed, the women).

  2. To remember always the glory of Muhammad (peace be upon Him!) and the might of the Creator.

  3. To grasp a full intellectual understanding of KEVIN and the Qurn.

  4. To purge oneself of the taint of the West.

  He knew that he was KEVIN’s big experiment, and he wanted to give it his best shot. In the first three areas he was doing fine. He smoked the odd fag and put away a Guinness on occasion (can’t say fairer than that), but he was very successful with both the evil weed and the temptations of the flesh. He no longer saw Alexandra Andrusier, Polly Houghton, or Rosie Dew (though he paid occasional visits to one Tanya Chapman-Jones, a very small redhead who understood the delicate nature of his dilemma and would give him a thorough blow job without requiring Millat to touch her at all. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: she was the daughter of a judge and delighted in horrifying the old goat, and Millat needed ejaculation with no actual active participation on his side). On the scriptural side of things, he thought Muhammad (peace be upon Him!) was a right geezer, a great bloke, and he was in awe of the creator, in the original meaning of that word: dread, fear, really shit-scared—and Hifan said that was correct, that was how it should be. He understood this idea that his religion was not one based on faith—not like the Christians, the Jews, et al.—but one that could be intellectually proved by the best minds. He understood the idea. But, sadly, Millat was far from possessing one of the best minds, or even a reasonable mind; intellectual proof or disproof was beyond him. Still, he understood that to rely on faith, as his own father did, was contemptible. And no one could say he didn’t give 100 percent to the cause. That seemed enough for KEVIN. They were more than happy with his real forte, which was the delivery of the thing. The presentation. For instance, if a nervous-looking woman came up to the KEVIN stall in Willesden Library and asked about the faith, Millat would lean over the desk, grab her hand, press it and say: Not faith, Sister. We do not deal in faith here. Spend five minutes with my Brother Rakesh and he will intellectually prove to you the existence of the Creator. The Qurn is a document of science, a document of rational thought. Spend five minutes, Sister, if you care for your future beyond this earth. And to top it off, he could usually sell her a few tapes (Ideological Warfare or Let the Scholars Beware), two quid each. Or even some of their literature, if he was on top form. Everyone at KEVIN was mightily impressed. So far so good. As for KEVIN’s more unorthodox programs of direct action, Millat was right in there, he was their greatest asset, he was in the forefront, the first into battle come jihad, cool as fuck in a crisis, a man of action, like Brando, like Pacino, like Liotta. But even as Millat proudly reflected on this while in his mother’s hallway, his heart sank. For therein lay the problem. Number four. Purging oneself of the West.

  Now, he knew, he knew that if you wanted an example of the moribund, decadent, degenerate, oversexed, violent state of Western capitalist culture and the logical endpoint of its obsession with personal freedoms (Leaflet: Way Out West), you couldn’t do much better than Hollywood cinema. And he knew (how many times had he been through it with Hifan?) that the “gangster” movie, the Mafia genre, was the worst example of that. And yet . . . it was the hardest thing to let go. He would give every spliff he’d ever smoked and every woman he’d ever fucked to retrieve the films his mother had burned, or even the few he had purchased more recently that Hifan had confiscated. He had torn up his Rocky Video membership and thrown away the Iqbal VCR to distance himself from direct temptation, but was it his fault if Channel 4 ran a De Niro season? Could he help it if Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” floated out of a clothes shop and entered his soul? It was his most shameful secret that whenever he opened a door—a car door, a car trunk, the door of KEVIN’s meeting hall, or the door of his own house just now—the opening of GoodFellas ran through his head and he found this sentence rolling around in what he presumed was his subconscious:

  As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

  He even saw it like that, in that font, like on the movie poster. And when he found himself doing it, he tried desperately not to, he tried to fix it, but Millat’s mind was a mess and more often than not he’d end up pushing upon the door, head back, shoulders forward, Liotta style, thinking:

  As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim.

  He knew, in a way, this was worse, but he just couldn’t help it. He kept a white handkerchief in his top pocket, he always carried dice, even though he had no idea what a crap game actually was, he loved long camel jackets and he could cook a killer seafood linguine, though a lamb curry was completely beyond him. It was all haraam, he knew that.

  Worst of all was the anger inside him. Not the righteous anger of a man of God, but the seething, violent anger of a gangster, a juvenile delinquent, determined to prove himself, determined to run the clan, determined to beat the rest. And if the game was God, if the game was a fight against the West, against the presumptions of Western science, against his brother or Marcus Chalfen, he was determined to win it. Millat stubbed his fag out against the banister. It pissed him off that these were not pious thoughts. But they were in the right ball-park, weren’t they? He had the fundamentals, didn’t he? Clean living, praying (five times a day without fail), fasting, working for the cause, spreading the message? And that was enough, wasn’t it? Maybe. Whatever. Either way, there was no going back now. Yeah, he’d meet Magid, he’d meet him . . . they’d have a good face-off, he’d come out of it the stronger; he’d call his brother a little cock-a-roach, and walk out of that tête-à-tête even more determined to fulfill his destiny. Millat straightened his green bow tie and slunk forward like Liotta (all menace and charm) and pushed open the kitchen door (Ever since I can remember . . .), waiting for two pairs of eyes, like two of Scorsese’s cameras, to pan on to his face and focus.





  (Great, supwoib, so we all know each other, went Millat’s inner monologue in Paul Sorvino’s voice, Now let’s get down to business.)

  “All right, gentlemen. There is no reason to be alarmed. It is simply my son. Magid, Mickey. Mickey, Magid.”

  O’Connell’s once more. Because Alsana had eventually conceded Joyce’s point, but did not care to dirty her hands. Instead, she demanded Samad take Magid “out somewhere” and spend an evening persuading him into meeting with Millat. But the only “out” Samad understood was O’Connell’s and the prospect of taking his son there was repellent. He and his wife had a thorough wrestle in the garden to settle the point, and he was confident of success until Alsana fooled him with a dummy trip, then an armlock-knee-groin combination. So here he was: O’Connell’s, and it was as bad a choice as he’d suspected. When he, Archie, and Magid walked in, trying to make a low-key entrance, there had been widespread consternation among both staff and clientele. The last stranger anybody remembered arriving with Arch and Sam was Samad’s accountant, a small, rat-faced man who tried to talk to people about their savings (as if people in O’Connell’s had savings!) and asked not once but twice for blood pudding, though it had been explained to him that pig was unavailable. That had been around 1987 and nobody had enjoyed it. And now what was this? A mere five years later and here comes another one, this time all dressed in white—insultingly clean for a Friday evening in O’Connell’s—and way below the unspoken minimum age requirement (thirty-six). What was Samad trying to do?

  “Whattareya tryin’ to do to us, Sammy?” asked Johnny, a mournful-looking stick of an ex-Orangeman, who was leaning over the hot plate to collect some bubble and squeak. “Overrun us, are ya or sumthin?”

  “Oo ’im?” demanded Denzel, who had not yet died.

  “Your batty bwoy?” inquired Clarence, who was also, by God’s grace, hanging on in there.

  “All right, gentlemen. There is no reason to be alarmed. It is simply my son. Magid, Mickey. Mickey, Magid.”

  Mickey looked a little dumbfounded by this introduction, and just stood there for a minute, a soggy fried egg hanging off his spatula.

  “Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal,” said Magid serenely. “It is a great honor to meet you, Michael. I have heard such a great deal about you.”

  Which was odd, because Samad had never told him a thing.

  Mickey continued to look over Magid’s shoulder to Samad for confirmation. “You what? You mean the one you, er, sent back ’ome? This is Magid?”

  “Yes, yes, this is Magid,” replied Samad rapidly, pissed off by all the attention the boy was getting. “Now, Archibald and I will have our usuals and—”

  “Magid Iqbal,” repeated Mickey slowly. “Well, I bloody never. You know, you’d never guess you was an Iqbal. You’ve got a very trusting, well, kind of sympathetic face, if you get me.”

  “And yet I am an Iqbal, Michael,” said Magid, laying that look of total empathy on Mickey and the other dregs of humanity huddled around the hot counter, “though I have been gone a long time.”

  “Say that again. Well, this is a turn-up for the books. I’ve got your . . . wait a minute, let me get this right . . . your great-great-grandfather up there, see?”

  “I noticed it the moment I came in, and I can assure you, Michael, my soul is very grateful for it,” said Magid, beaming like an angel. “It makes me feel at home, and, as this place is dear to my father and his friend Archibald Jones I feel certain it shall also be dear to me. They have brought me here, I think, to discuss important matters, and I for one can think of no better place for them, despite your clearly debilitating skin condition.”

  Mickey was simply bowled over by that, and could not conceal his pleasure, addressing his reply to both Magid and the rest of O’Connell’s.

  “Speaks fuckin’ nice, don’t he? Sounds like a right fuckin’ Olivier. Queen’s fucking English and no mistake. What a nice fella. You’re the kind of clientele I could do wiv in here, Magid, let me tell you. Civilized and that. And don’t you worry about my skin, it don’t get anywhere near the food and it don’t give me much trouble. Cor, what a gentleman. You do feel like you should watch your mouth around him, dontcha?”

  “Mine and Archibald’s usual, then, please, Mickey,” said Samad. “I’ll leave my son to make up his mind. We will be over by the pinball.”

  “Yeah, yeah,” said Mickey, not bothering or able to turn his gaze from Magid’s dark eyes.

  “Dat a lovely suit you gat dere,” murmured Denzel, stroking the white linen wistfully. “Dat’s what de Englishmen use ta wear back home in Jamaica, remember dat, Clarence?”

  Clarence nodded slowly, dribbling a little, struck by the beatific.

  “Go on, get out of it, the pair of you,” grumbled Mickey, shooing them away, “I’ll bring it over, all right? I want to talk to Magid here. Growing boy, he’s got to eat. So: what is it I can get you, Magid?” Mickey leaned over the counter, all concern, like an overattentive shopgirl. “Eggs? Mushrooms? Beans? Fried slice?”

  “I think,” replied Magid, slowly surveying the dusty chalkboard menus on the wall, and then turning back to Mickey, his face illumined, “I should like a bacon sandwich. Yes, that is it. I would love a juicy, yet well-done, tomato-ketchuped bacon sandwich. On brown.”

  Oh, the struggle that could be seen on Mickey’s kisser at that moment! Oh, the gargoylian contortions! It was a battle between the favor of the most refined customer he had ever had and the most hallowed, sacred rule of O’Connell’s Poolroom. no pork.

  Mickey’s left eye twitched.

  “Don’t want a nice plate of scrambled? I do a lovely scrambled eggs, don’t I, Johnny?”

  “I’d be a liar if I said ya didn’t,” said Johnny loyally from his table, even though Mickey’s eggs were famously gray and stiff, “I’d be a terrible liar, on my mother’s life, I would.”

  Magid wrinkled his nose and shook his head.

  “All right—what about mushrooms and beans? Omelette and chips? No better chips in the Finchley Road. Come on, son,” he pleaded, desperate. “You’re a Muslim, int ya? You don’t want to break your father’s heart with a bacon sandwich.”

  “My father’s heart will not be broken by a bacon sandwich. It is far more likely that my father’s heart will break from the result of a build-up of saturated fat which is in turn a result of eating in your establishment for fifteen years. One wonders,” said Magid evenly, “if a case could be made, a legal case, you understand, against individuals in the food service industry who fail to label their meals with a clear fat content or general health warning. One wonders.”

  All this was delivered in the sweetest, most melodious voice, and w
ith no hint of threat. Poor Mickey didn’t know what to make of it.

  “Well, of course,” said Mickey nervously, “hypothetically that is an interesting question. Very interesting.”

  “Yes, I think so.”

  “Yeah, definitely.”

  Mickey fell silent and spent a minute elaborately polishing the top of the hot plate, an activity he indulged in about once every ten years.

  “There. See your face in that. Now. Where were we?”

  “A bacon sandwich.”

  At the sound of the word “bacon,” a few ears began to twitch at the front tables.

  “If you could keep your voice down a little . . .”

  “A bacon sandwich,” whispered Magid.

  “Bacon. Right. Well, I’ll have to nip next door, ’cos I ain’t got none at present . . . but you just sit down wiv your dad and I’ll bring it over. It’ll cost a bit more, like. What wiv the extra effort, you know. But don’t worry, I’ll bring it over. And tell Archie not to worry if he ain’t got the cash. A Luncheon Voucher will do.”

  “You are very kind, Michael. Take one of these.” Magid reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper.

  “Oh, fuck me, another leaflet? You can’t fucking move—pardon my French—but you can’t move for leaflets in Norf London these days. My brother Abdul-Colin’s always loading me wiv ’em an’ all. But seein’ as it’s you . . . go on, hand it over.”

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