White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Hmm.”

  “Very impressive,” repeated Mo, patting Millat’s knee conspiratorially, “a very impressive Brother.” Mo Hussein was partly funding Brother Ibrhm’s tour around England, so it was in his interest (or at least it made him feel better about donating two thousand quid) to find the Brother impressive. Mo was a recent convert to KEVIN (he had been a reasonably good Muslim for twenty years), and his enthusiasm for the group was two-pronged. Firstly, he was just flattered, downright flattered, that he should be considered a sufficiently successful Muslim businessman to leech money off. In normal circumstances he would have shown them the door and where they could stuff a freshly bled chicken, but the truth was, Mo was feeling a bit vulnerable at the time, his stringy-legged Irish wife, Sheila, having just left him for a publican; he was feeling a little emasculated, so when KEVIN asked Ardashir for five grand and got it, and Nadir from the rival halal place put up three, Mo came over all macho and put up his own stake.

  The second reason for Mo’s conversion was more personal. Violence. Violence and theft. For eighteen years Mo had owned the most famous halal butchers in North London, so famous that he had been able to buy the next-door property and expand into a sweetshop/butchers. And in this period in which he ran the two establishments, he had been a victim of serious physical attacks and robbery, without fail, three times a year. Now, that figure doesn’t include the numerous punches to the head, quick smacks with a crowbar, shifty kicks in the groin, or anything else that failed to draw blood. Mo didn’t even phone his wife, no matter the police, to report those. No: serious violence. Mo had been knifed a total of five times (ah), lost the tips of three fingers (eeeesh), had both legs and arms broken (oaooow), his feet set on fire (jiii), his teeth kicked out (ka-tooof), and an air-gun bullet (ping) embedded in his thankfully fleshy posterior. Boof. And Mo was a big man. A big man with attitude. The beatings had in no way humbled him, made him watch his mouth, or walk with a stoop. He gave as good as he got. But this was one man against an army. There was nobody who could help. The very first time, when he received a hammer blow to his ribs in January 1970, he naively reported it to the local constabulary and was rewarded by a late-night visit from five policemen who gave him a thorough kicking. Since then, violence and theft had become a regular part of his existence, a sad spectator sport watched by the old Muslim men and young Muslim mothers who came in to buy their chickens, and hurried out shortly afterward, scared they might be next. Violence and theft. The culprits ranged from secondary-school children coming in the cornershop side to buy sweets (which is why Mo allowed only one child from Glenard Oak in at a time. Of course it made no difference, they just took turns beating the shit out of him solo), decrepit drunks, teenage thugs, the parents of teenage thugs, general fascists, specific neo-Nazis, the local snooker team, the darts team, the football team, and huge posses of mouthy, white-skirted secretaries in deadly heels. These various people had various objections to him: he was a Paki (try telling a huge, drunk Office Superworld check-out boy that you’re Bangladeshi); he gave half his cornershop up to selling weird Paki meat; he had a quiff; he liked Elvis (“You like Elvis, then? Do yer? Eh, Paki? Do yer?”); the price of his cigarettes; his distance from home (“Why don’t you go back to your own country?” “But then how will I serve you cigarettes?” Boof); or just the look on his face. But they all had one thing in common, these people. They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies, and petitions the world could offer. It had brought him more securely within the fold of his faith than even a visitation from the angel Jabrail could have achieved. The last straw, if it could be called that, came a month before joining KEVIN, when three white “youths” tied him up, kicked him down the cellar steps, stole all his money, and set fire to his shop. Double-jointed hands (the result of many broken wrists) got him out of that one. But he was tired of almost dying. When KEVIN gave Mo a leaflet that explained there was a war going on, he thought: no shit. At last someone was speaking his language. Mo had been in the frontline of that war for eighteen years. And KEVIN seemed to understand that it wasn’t enough—his kids doing well, going to a nice school, having tennis lessons, too pale-skinned to ever have a hand laid on them in their lives. Good. But not good enough. He wanted a little payback. For himself. He wanted Brother Ibrhm to stand on that podium and dissect Christian culture and Western morals until it was dust in his hands. He wanted the degenerate nature of these people explained to him. He wanted to know the history of it and the politics of it and the root cause. He wanted to see their art exposed and their science exposed, and their tastes exposed and their distastes. But words would never be enough; he’d heard so many words (If you could just file a report . . . If you wouldn’t mind telling us precisely what the attacker looked like), and they were never as good as action. He wanted to know why these people kept on beating the shit out of him. And then he wanted to go and beat the shit out of some of these people.

  “Very impressive, Millat, hey? Everything we hope for.”

  “Yeah,” said Millat, despondent. “I s’pose. Less talk, more action, though, if you ask me. The infidel are everywhere.”

  Mo nodded vigorously. “Oh definitely, Brother. We are two birds from the same bush on that matter. I hear there are some others,” said Mo, lowering his voice and putting his fat, sweaty lips by Millat’s ear, “who are very keen on action. Immediate action. Brother Hifan spoke to me. About the thirty-first of December. And Brother Shiva and Brother Tyrone . . .”

  “Yes, yes. I know who they are. They are the beating heart of KEVIN.”

  “And they say you know the man himself—this scientist. You in good position. I hear you are his friend.”

  “Was. Was.”

  “Brother Hifan says you have the tickets to get in, that you are organizing—”

  “Shhh,” said Millat irritably. “Not everyone can know. If you want to get near the center, you’ve got to keep shtoom.”

  Millat looked Mo up and down. The kurta-pajamas that he somehow managed to make look like a late seventies Elvis flared jumpsuit. The huge stomach he rested on his knee like a friend.

  Sharply, he asked, “You’re a bit old, aren’t you?”

  “You rude little bastard. I’m strong as a bloody bull.”

  “Yeah, well, we don’t need strength,” said Millat tapping his temple, “we need a little of the stuff upstairs. We’ve got to get in the place discreetly first, innit? The first evening. It’ll be crawling.”

  Mo blew his nose in his hand. “I can be discreet.”

  “Yeah, but that means keeping shtoom.”

  “And the third thing,” said Brother Ibrhm ad-Din Shukrallah, interrupting them, suddenly louder and buzzing the PA system, “the third thing they will try to do, is to convince you that it is human intellect and not Allah that is omnipotent, unlimited, all-powerful. They will try to convince you that your minds are not to be used to pronounce the greater glory of the Creator but to raise yourselves up equal to or beyond the Creator! And now we approach the most serious business of this evening. The greatest evil of the infidel is here, in this very borough of Brent. I will tell you, and you will not believe it, Brothers, but there is a man in this very community who believes that he can improve upon the creation of Allah. There is a man who presumes to change, adjust, modify what has been decreed. He will take an animal—an animal that Allah has created—and presume to change that creation. To create a new animal that has no name but is simply an abomination. And when he has finished with that small animal, a mouse, Brothers, when he has finished he will move to sheep, and cats, and dogs. And who in this lawless society will stop him from one day creating a man? A man born not of woman but from a man’s intellect alone! And he will tell you that it is medicine . . . but KEVIN makes no complaint against medicine. We are a sophisticated community who count many doctors among us, my Brothers. Don’t be misled, deluded, fooled. This is not medicine. And my question to
you, Brothers of KEVIN, is who will make the sacrifice and stop this man? Who will stand up alone in the name of the Creator, and show the modernists that the Creator’s laws still exist and are eternal? Because they will try and tell you, the modernists, the cynics, the Orientalists, that there are no more beliefs, that our history, our culture, our world is over. So thinks this scientist. That is why he so confidently presumes. But he will soon understand what is truly meant by last days. So who will show him—”

  “Yes, shtoom, yes, I understand,” said Mo, speaking to Millat, but looking straight ahead as in a spy movie.

  Millat looked around the room and saw that Hifan was giving him the eye, so he gave it to Shiva, who gave it to Abdul-Jimmy and Abdul-Colin, to Tyrone and the rest of the Kilburn crew, who were stationed by the walls as stewards at particular points in the room. Hifan gave Millat the eye once more, then he looked at the back room. Discreet movement began.

  “Something is happening?” whispered Mo, spotting the men with the green steward sashes, making their way through the crowds.

  “Come into the office,” said Millat.

  “OK, so, I think the key thing here is to come at the issue from two sides. Because it is a matter of straight laboratory torture and we can certainly play that to the gallery, but the central emphasis has to go to the antipatent argument. Because that’s really an angle we can work. And if we lay our emphasis there, then there are a number of other groups we can call upon—the NCGA, the OHNO, et cetera, and Crispin’s been in touch with them. Because, you know, we haven’t really dealt in this area extensively before, but it’s clearly a key issue—I think Crispin’s going to talk to us about that in more depth in a minute—but for now, I just want to talk about the public support we have here. I mean, particularly the recent press, even the tabloid element have really come up trumps on this . . . there’s a lot of bad feeling regarding the patenting of living organisms . . . I think people feel very uncomfortable, rightly, with that concept, and it’s really up to FATE to play on that, and really get a comprehensive campaign together, so if . . .”

  Ah, Joely. Joely, Joely, Joely. Joshua knew he should be listening, but looking was so good. Looking at Joely was great. The way she sat (on a table, knees pulled up to chest), the way she looked up from her notes (kittenishly!), the way the air whistled between her gappy front teeth, the way she continually tucked her straggly blond hair behind her ear with one hand and tapped out a rhythm on her huge Doc Martens with the other. Blond hair aside, she looked a lot like his mother when young: those fulsome English lips, ski-jump nose, big hazel eyes. But the face, spectacular as it might be, was mere decoration to top off the most luxurious body in the world. Long in all its lines, muscular in the thigh and soft in the stomach, with breasts that had never known a bra but were an utter delight, and a bottom which was the platonic ideal of all English bottomry, flat yet peachy, wide but welcoming. Plus she was intelligent. Plus she was devoted to her cause. Plus she despised his father. Plus she was ten years older (which suggested to Joshua all kinds of sexual expertise he couldn’t even imagine without getting an enormous hard-on right now right here in the middle of the meeting). Plus she was the most wonderful woman Joshua had ever met. Oh, Joely!

  “As I see it, what we have to impress upon people is this idea of setting a precedent. You know, the ‘What next?’ kind of argument—and I understand Kenny’s POV, that that’s way too simplistic a take on it—but I have to argue, I think it’s necessary, and we’ll put it to a vote in a minute. Is that all right, Kenny? If I can just get on . . . right? Right. Where was I . . . precedent. Because, if it can be argued that the animal under experimentation is owned by any group of people, i.e., it is not a cat but effectively an invention with catlike qualities, then that very cleverly and very dangerously short-circuits the work of animal rights groups and that leads to a pretty fucking scary vision of the future. Umm . . . I want to bring Crispin in here, to talk a little more about that.”

  Of course the cunt of it was, Joely was married to Crispin. And the double-cunt of it was, theirs was a marriage of true love, total spiritual bonding, and dedicated political union. Fan-fucking-tastic. Even worse, among the members of FATE, Joely and Crispin’s marriage served as a kind of cosmogony, an originating myth that explained succinctly what people could and should be, how the group began and how it should proceed in the future. Though Joely and Crispin didn’t encourage ideas of leadership or any kind of icon worship, it had happened anyway, they were worshiped. And they were indivisible. When Joshua first joined the group, he had tried to sniff out a little information on the couple, get the lowdown on his chances. Were they wobbly? Had the harsh nature of their business driven them apart? Fat chance. He was told the whole depressing fable by two seasoned FATE activists over some pints in the Spotted Dog: a psychotic ex–postal worker called Kenny who as a child had witnessed his father kill his puppy, and Paddy, a sensitive lifetime dole collector and pigeon-fancier.

  “Everyone begins wanting to shag Joely,” Kenny had explained, sympathetically, “but you get over it. You realize the best thing you can do for her is dedicate yourself to the struggle. And then the second thing you realize, is that Crispin’s just this incredible dude—”

  “Yeah, yeah, get on with it.”

  Kenny got on with it.

  It seemed Joely and Crispin met and fell in love at the University of Leeds the winter of 1982, two young student radicals, with Che Guevara on their walls, idealism in their hearts, and a mutual passion for all the creatures that fly, trot, crawl, and slime across the earth. At the time, they were both active members of a great variety of far-left groups, but political infighting, back-stabbing, and endless factionalizing soon disillusioned them as far as the fate of Homo erectus was concerned. At some point they grew tired of speaking up for this species of ours, which will so often organize a coup, bitch behind your back, choose another representative, and throw it all in your face. Instead they turned their attention to our mute animal friends. Joely and Crispin upgraded their vegetarianism to veganism, dropped out of college, got married, and formed Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation in 1985. Crispin’s magnetic personality and Joely’s natural charm attracted other political drifters, and soon they had become a commune of twenty-five (plus ten cats, fourteen dogs, a garden full of wild rabbits, a sheep, two pigs, and a family of foxes) living and working from a Brixton bedsit that backed on to a large expanse of unused allotment. They were pioneers in many senses. Recycling before it became the fashion, making a tropical biosphere of their sweaty bathroom, and dedicating themselves to organic food production. Politically they were equally circumspect. From the very beginning their extremist credentials were impeccable, FATE being to the RSPCA what Stalinism is to the Liberal Democrats. For three years FATE conducted a terror campaign against animal testers, torturers, and exploiters, sending death threats to personnel at makeup firms, breaking into labs, kidnaping technicians, and chaining themselves to hospital gates. They also ruined fox hunts, filmed battery chickens, burned down farms, fire-bombed food outlets, and smashed up circus tents. Their brief being so broad and so fanatical (any animal in any level of discomfort), they were kept seriously busy, and life for FATE members was difficult, dangerous, and punctuated by frequent imprisonment. Through all of this, Joely and Crispin’s relationship grew stronger and served as an example to them all, a beacon in the storm, the ideal example of love between activists (“yada yada yada. Get on with it”). Then in 1987 Crispin went to jail for three years for his part in fire-bombing a Welsh laboratory and releasing 40 cats, 350 rabbits, and 1,000 rats from their captivity. Before being taken down to Wormwood Scrubs, Crispin generously informed Joely that she had his permission to go to other FATE members if she was in need of sexual satisfaction while he was gone. (“And did she?” asked Joshua. “Did she fuck,” replied Kenny sadly.)

  During Crispin’s captivity, Joely devoted herself to transforming FATE from a small gang of high-strung friends to a viable
underground political force. She began to put less emphasis on terror tactics and, after reading Guy Debord, grew interested in situationism as a political tactic, which she understood to mean the increased use of large banners, costumes, videos, and gruesome reenactments. By the time Crispin emerged from jail, FATE had grown fourfold, and Crispin’s legend (lover, fighter, rebel, hero) had grown with it, fueled by Joely’s passionate interpretation of his life and works and a carefully chosen photo of him circa 1980 in which he looked a bit like Nick Drake. But though his image had been airbrushed, Crispin appeared to have lost none of his radicalism. His first act as a free citizen was to mastermind the release of several hundred voles, an event that received widespread newspaper coverage, though Crispin delegated responsibility for the actual act to Kenny, who was sent down for four months of high security (“greatest moment of my life”). And then in the summer of ’91, Joely persuaded Crispin to go to California with her to join the other groups fighting the patent on transgenic animals. Though courtrooms weren’t Crispin’s scene (“Crispin’s a frontline dude”), he succeeded in sufficiently disrupting proceedings to officially warrant a mistrial. The couple flew back to England, elated but with funds perilously low, to find they had been turfed out of their Brixton pad and—

  Well, Joshua could take the narrative from here. He met them a week later, wandering up and down the Willesden High Road, looking for a suitable squat. They looked lost, and Joshua, emboldened by the summer vibe and Joely’s beauty, went to talk to them. They ended up going for a pint. They drank, as everybody in Willesden drank, in the aforementioned Spotted Dog, a famous Willesden landmark, described in 1792 as “being a well accostomed Publick house” (Willesden Past, by Len Snow), which became a favorite resort for mid-Victorian Londoners wishing a day out “in the country,” then the meeting point for the horse-drawn carriages; later still, a watering hole for local Irish builders. By 1992 it had transformed again, this time into the focal point of the huge Australian immigrant population of Willesden, who, for the last five years, had been leaving their silky beaches and emerald seas and inexplicably arriving in nw2. The afternoon Joshua walked in with Joely and Crispin, this community was in a state of high excitement. After a complaint of a terrible smell above Sister Mary’s Palm Readers on the High Road, the upper flat had been raided by health officers and found to be sheltering sixteen squatting Aussies who had dug a huge hole in the floor and roasted a pig in there, apparently trying to re-create the effect of a South Seas underground kiln. Thrown out on the street, they were presently bemoaning their fate to the publican, a huge bearded Scotsman who had little sympathy for his Antipodean clientele (“Is there some fuckin’ sign in fuckin’ Sydney that says come to fuckin’ Willesden?”). Overhearing the story, Joshua surmised the flat must now be empty and took Joely and Crispin to look at it, his mind already ticking over . . . if I can get her to live nearby . . .

 
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