White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  Hell hath no fury et cetera, et cetera. Irie walked hot-faced from the Iqbal house and headed straight for the Chalfens with revenge on her mind. But not against Millat. Rather in defense of Millat, for she had always been his defender, his blacky-white knight. You see, Millat did not love her. And she thought Millat didn’t love her because he couldn’t. She thought he was so damaged, he couldn’t love anybody anymore. She wanted to find whoever had damaged him like this, damaged him so terribly; she wanted to find whoever had made him unable to love her.

  It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greetings cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

  Millat didn’t love Irie, and Irie was sure there must be somebody she could blame for that. Her brain started ticking over. What was the root cause? Millat’s feelings of inadequacy. What was the root cause of Millat’s feelings of inadequacy? Magid. He had been born second because of Magid. He was the lesser son because of Magid.

  Joyce opened the door to her and Irie marched straight upstairs, maliciously determined to make Magid the second son for once, this time by twenty-five minutes. She grabbed him, kissed him, and made love to him angrily and furiously, without conversation or affection. She rolled him around, tugged at his hair, dug what fingernails she had into his back, and when he came she was gratified to note it was with a little sigh as if something had been taken from him. But she was wrong to think this a victory. It was simply because he knew immediately where she had been, why she was here, and it saddened him. For a long time they lay in silence together, naked, the autumn light disappearing from the room with every minute that passed.

  “It seems to me,” said Magid finally, as the moon became clearer than the sun, “that you have tried to love a man as if he were an island and you were shipwrecked and you could mark the land with an X. It seems to me it is too late in the day for all that.”

  Then he gave her a kiss on the forehead that felt like a baptism and she wept like a baby.

  3:00 p.m., November 5, 1992. The brothers meet (at last) in a blank room after a gap of eight years and find that their genes, those prophets of the future, have reached different conclusions. Millat is astounded by the differences. The nose, the line of the jaw, the eyes, the hair. His brother is a stranger to him and he tells him so.

  “Only because you wish me to be,” says Magid with a crafty look.

  But Millat is blunt, not interested in riddles, and in a single shot asks and answers his own question. “So you’re going through with it, yeah?”

  Magid shrugs. “It is not mine to stop or start, brother, but yes, I intend to help where I can. It is a great project.”

  “It is an abomination” (leaflet: The Sanctity of Creation).

  Millat pulls out a chair from one of the desks and sits on it backward, like a crab in a trap, legs and arms splayed either side.

  “I see it rather as correcting the Creator’s mistakes.”

  “The Creator doesn’t make mistakes.”

  “So you mean to continue?”

  “You’re damn right.”

  “And so do I.”

  “Well, that’s it, then, isn’t it? It’s already been decided. KEVIN will do whatever is necessary to stop you and your kind. And that’s the fucking end of it.”

  But contrary to Millat’s understanding, this is no movie and there is no fucking end to it, just as there is no fucking beginning to it. The brothers begin to argue. It escalates in moments, and they make a mockery of that idea, a neutral place; instead they cover the room with history—past, present, and future history (for there is such a thing)—they take what was blank and smear it with the stinking shit of the past like excitable, excremental children. They cover this neutral room in themselves. Every gripe, the earliest memories, every debated principle, every contested belief.

  Millat arranges the chairs to demonstrate the vision of the solar system which is so clearly and remarkably described in the Qurn, centuries before Western science (leaflet: The Qurn and the Cosmos); Magid draws Pande’s parade ground on one blackboard with a detailed reconstruction of the possible path of bullets, and on the other board a diagram depicting a restriction enzyme cutting neatly through a sequence of nucleotides; Millat uses the computer as television, a chalk eraser as the picture of Magid-and-goat, then single-handedly impersonates every dribbling babba, great-aunt, and cousin’s accountant who came that year for the blasphemous business of worshiping an icon; Magid utilizes the overhead projector to illuminate an article he has written, taking his brother point by point through his argument, defending the patents of genetically altered organisms; Millat uses the filing cabinet as a substitute for another one he despised, fills it with imaginary letters between a scientist Jew and an unbelieving Muslim; Magid puts three chairs together and shines two Anglepoise lamps and now there are two brothers in a car, shivering and huddled together until a few minutes later they are separated forever and a paper plane takes off.

  It goes on and on and on.

  And it goes to prove what has been said of immigrants many times before now; they are resourceful; they make do. They use what they can when they can.

  Because we often imagine that immigrants are constantly on the move, footloose, able to change course at any moment, able to employ their legendary resourcefulness at every turn. We have been told of the resourcefulness of Mr. Schmutters, or the footloosity of Mr. Banajii, who sail into Ellis Island or Dover or Calais and step into their foreign lands as blank people, free of any kind of baggage, happy and willing to leave their difference at the docks and take their chances in this new place, merging with the oneness of this greenandpleasantlibertarianlandofthefree.

  Whatever road presents itself, they will take, and if it happens to lead to a dead end, well then, Mr. Schmutters and Mr. Banajii will merrily set upon another, weaving their way through Happy Multicultural Land. Well, good for them. But Magid and Millat couldn’t manage it. They left that neutral room as they had entered it: weighed down, burdened, unable to waver from their course or in any way change their separate, dangerous trajectories. They seem to make no progress. The cynical might say they don’t even move at all—that Magid and Millat are two of Zeno’s headfuck arrows, occupying a space equal to themselves and, what is scarier, equal to Mangal Pande’s, equal to Samad Iqbal’s. Two brothers trapped in the temporal instant. Two brothers who pervert all attempts to put dates to this story, to track these guys, to offer times and days, because there isn’t, wasn’t, and never will be any duration. In fact, nothing moves. Nothing changes. They are running at a standstill. Zeno’s paradox.

  But what was Zeno’s deal here (everybody’s got a deal), what was his angle? There is a body of opinion that argues his paradoxes are part of a more general spiritual program. To

  (a) first establish multiplicity, the Many, as an illusion, and

  (b) thus prove reality a seamless, flowing whole. A single, indivisible One.

  Because if you can divide reality inexhaustibly into parts, as the brothers did that day in that room, the result is insupportable paradox. You are always still, you move nowhere, there is no progress.

  But multiplicity is no illusion. Nor is the speed with which those-in-the-simmering-melting-pot
are dashing toward it. Paradoxes aside, they are running, just as Achilles was running. And they will lap those who are in denial just as surely as Achilles would have made that tortoise eat his dust. Yeah, Zeno had an angle. He wanted the One, but the world is Many. And yet still that paradox is alluring. The harder Achilles tries to catch the tortoise, the more eloquently the tortoise expresses its advantage. Likewise, the brothers will race toward the future only to find they more and more eloquently express their past, that place where they have just been. Because this is the other thing about immigrants (’fugees, émigrés, travelers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  The End of History Versus The Last Man

  “Look around you! And what do you see? What is the result of this so-called democracy, this so-called freedom, this so-called liberty? Oppression, persecution, slaughter. Brothers, you can see it on national television every day, every evening, every night! Chaos, disorder, confusion. They are not ashamed or embarrassed or self-conscious! They don’t try to hide, to conceal, to disguise! They know as we know: the entire world is in a turmoil! Everywhere men indulge in prurience, promiscuity, profligacy, vice, corruption, and indulgence. The entire world is affected by a disease known as Kufr—the state of rejection of the oneness of the Creator—refusing to acknowledge the infinite blessings of the Creator. And on this day, December 1, 1992, I bear witness that there is nothing worthy of worship besides the sole Creator, no partner unto Him. On this day we should know that whosoever the Creator has guided cannot be misguided, and whosoever he has misguided from the straight path shall not return to the straight path until the Creator puts guidance in his heart and brings him to the light. I will now begin my third lecture, which I call ‘Ideological Warfare,’ and that means—I will explain for those that don’t understand—the war of these things . . . these ideologies, against the Brothers of KEVIN . . . ideology means a kind of brainwashing . . . and we are being indoctrinated, fooled, and brainwashed, my Brothers! So I will try to elucidate, explain, and expound . . .”

  No one in the hall was going to admit it, but Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah was no great speaker, when you got down to it. Even if you overlooked his habit of using three words where one would do, of emphasizing the last word of such triplets with his see-saw Caribbean inflections, even if you ignored these as everybody tried to, he was still physically disappointing. He had a small sketchy beard, a hunched demeanor, a repertoire of tense, inept gesticulations, and a vague look of Sidney Poitier about him that did not achieve quite the similitude to command any serious respect. And he was short. On this point, Millat felt most let down. There was a tangible dissatisfaction in the hall when Brother Hifan finished his fulsome introductory speech and the famous but diminutive Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah crossed the room to the podium. Not that anyone would require an alim of Islam to be a towering height, or indeed for a moment dare to suggest that the Creator had not made Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah precisely the height that He, in all his holy omnipotence, had selected. Still, one couldn’t help thinking, as Hifan awkwardly lowered the microphone and Brother Ibrhm awkwardly stretched to meet it, you couldn’t help thinking, in the Brother’s very own style of third-word emphasis: five foot five.

  The other problem with Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah, the biggest problem perhaps, was his great affection for tautology. Though he promised explanation, elucidation, and exposition, linguistically he put one in mind of a dog chasing its own tail: “Now there are many types of warfare . . . I will name a few. Chemical warfare is the warfare where them men kill each other chemically with warfare. This can be a terrible warfare. Physical warfare! That is the warfare with physical weapons in which people kill each other physically. Then there is germ warfare in which a man, he knows that he’s carrying the virus of HIV and he goes to the country and spreads his germ on the loose women of that country and creates germ warfare. Psychological warfare, that is one of the most evil, the war where they try to psychologically defeat you. This is called psychological warfare. But ideological warfare! That is the sixth warfare which is the worst warfare . . .”

  And yet Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah was no less than the founder of KEVIN, an impressive man with a formidable reputation. Born Monty Clyde Benjamin in Barbados in 1960, the son of two poverty-stricken barefoot Presbyterian dipsomaniacs, he converted to Islam after a “vision” at the age of fourteen. Aged eighteen he fled the lush green of his homeland for the desert surrounding Riyadh and the books that line the walls of Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. There he studied Arabic for five years, became disillusioned with much of the Islamic clerical establishment, and first expressed his contempt for what he called “religious secularists,” those foolish ulama who attempt to separate politics from religion. It was his belief that many radical modern political movements were relevant to Islam and moreover were to be found in the Qurn if one looked closely enough. He wrote several pamphlets on this matter, only to find that his own radical opinions were not welcome in Riyadh. He was considered a troublemaker and his life threatened “numerous, countless, innumerable times.” So in 1984, wishing to continue his study, Brother Ibrhm came to England, locked himself in his aunt’s Birmingham garage and spent five more years in there, with only the Qurn and the fascicles of Endless Bliss for company. He took his food in through the cat door, deposited his shit and piss in a Coronation biscuit tin and passed it back out the same way, and did a thorough routine of push-ups and sit-ups to prevent muscular atrophy. The Selly Oak Reporter wrote regular articles on him during this period, nicknaming him “The Guru in the Garage” (in view of the large Birmingham Muslim population, this was thought preferable to the press-desk-favored suggestion, “The Loony in the Lock-Up”), and had their fun interviewing his bemused aunt, one Carlene Benjamin, a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  These articles, cruel, mocking, and offensive, had been written by one Norman Henshall and were now classics of their kind, distributed among KEVIN members throughout England as an example (if example were needed) of the virulent, anti-KEVIN element that bred in the press from even this fetal stage of their movement. Note—KEVIN members were advised—how Henshall’s articles end halfway through May ’87, the very month that Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah succeeded in converting his aunt Carlene through the cat door, using nothing else but the pure truth as it was delivered by the final prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him!). Note how Henshall fails to document the queues of people who came to speak with Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah, so many they stretched three blocks round the center of Selly Oak, from the cat door to the bingo hall! Note the failure of this same Mr. Henshall to publish the 637 separate rules and laws that the Brother had spent five years gleaning from the Qurn (listing them in order of severity, and then in subgroups according to their nature, i.e., Regarding Cleanliness and Specific Genital and Oral Hygiene). Note all this, brothers and sisters, and then marvel at the power of word of mouth. Marvel at the dedication and commitment of the young people of Birmingham!

  Their eagerness and enthusiasm was so remarkable (extraordinary, outstanding, unprecedented) that almost before the Brother emerged from his confinement and announced it himself, the idea of KEVIN had been born within the black and Asian community. A radical new movement where politics and religion were two sides of the same coin. A group that took freely from Garveyism, the American Civil Rights movement, and the thought of Elijah Muhammad, yet remained within the letter of the Qurn. The Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. By 1992 they were a small but widespread body, with limbs as far-flung as Edinburgh and Land’s End, a heart in Selly Oak and a soul in the Kilburn High Road. KEVIN: an extremist faction dedicated to direct, often violent action, a splinter group frowned on by the rest of the Islamic community; popular with the sixteen-to-twenty-five age group; feared and ridiculed in the press; and gathered tonight in the Kilburn Hall, sta
nding on chairs and packed to the rafters, listening to the speech of their founder.

  “There are three things,” continued Brother Ibrhm, looking briefly at his notes, “that the colonial powers wish to do to you, brothers of KEVIN. Firstly, they wish to kill you spiritually . . . oh yes, they value nothing higher than your mental slavery. There are too many of you to fight hand to hand! But if they have your minds, then—”

  “Hey,” went a fat man’s attempt at a whisper. “Brother Millat.”

  It was Mohammed Hussein-Ishmael, the butcher. He was sweating profusely as ever, and had forced his way through a long line of people, apparently to sit next to Millat. They were distantly related, and these past few months Mo had been rapidly nearing the inner circle of KEVIN (Hifan, Millat, Tyrone, Shiva, Abdul-Colin, and others) by virtue of the money he had put forward and his stated interest in the more “active” sides of the group. Personally, Millat was still a little suspicious of him and objected to his big slobbery face, the great quiff emerging from his toki, and his chicken-breath.

  “Late. I have to close up shop. But I been standing at the back for while. Listening. Brother Ibrhm is a very impressive man, hmm?”

 
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