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RED BIRDS

Updated October 14, 2018

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Illustration by Aysha Faseeh
Illustration by Aysha Faseeh

Red Birds revolves around three major characters who lead the narration — American pilot major Ellie whose plane has crashed in the desert near the refugee camp he was supposed to bomb; precocious 15-year-old Momo from the refugeee camp whose elder brother has mysteriously disappeared and who dreams of making it big as an entrepreneur to escape the poverty of his surroundings; and Momo’s dog Mutt whose brains were partially fried during a freak accident and who can see strange birds nobody else can.

The following excerpt is our first introduction to Momo’s narrative voice.


This place is full of thieves. I know what you gonna say. You’re gonna say what’s there to steal? And I’m gonna tell you: look with care, there is nothing to steal because everything has already been stolen. You’re gonna think maybe you can have a camp without water taps, a camp with road tax, a camp without a road, a camp with electric poles, a camp without electricity, but surely you can’t have a camp without a boundary wall? So where is that boundary wall, you gonna ask? Stolen.

You’re gonna say how can anyone steal an entire boundary wall? And I’m gonna say you don’t know these people, my people.

Mohammed Hanif’s third novel is released globally on October 18. Eos presents a worldwide exclusive excerpt from the upcoming work

When it comes to stealing, they are artists.

They stole it brick by brick. Foundations were dug up and every single bit of concrete, mortar was taken away, steel wires were pulled with bare hands. There are those who’re gonna blame me for prying the first brick loose, but I did that to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the international-aid types, nice-smelling do-gooders who obviously were the biggest thieves of them all. But they did their paperwork. You see that crater there? That was gonna be a dam for a water reservoir. You see that pile of shining steel poles tied down with chains and locks? That was gonna be electricity. You see that shack with two buffaloes in it? That’s my alma mater. For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen. There was a complaints register where you could report this kind of thing, it had a ball-pen tied to it with a piece of nylon string.

Yes, you guessed that right, it was stolen along with the ball-pen.

There was a waterfall here, yes a proper waterfall, it had shrunk to three feet and the fall was only basketball-hoop high. Bro Ali and I used to bathe under it when I was a child. And that was not a very long time ago. Some people’re gonna say that if I was only a child back then how would I know? How can there be a waterfall in the middle of the desert, they’re gonna ask. And I’m gonna say you know nothing about this place, my place.

Take a little walk and you’ll see the main attractions of our Camp; Allah’s servant’s fresh Chicken and Vegetable Shop, that man is a smuggler and a hoarder and a black marketer. Escape the swarm of flies around this slaughterhouse and you come to the Royal Hardware Depot run by a pair of teenaged thieves who used to steal from the Hangar, and now forage from the desert and sell it on the open market, random piles of scrap metal. The corner shop is occupied by Doctor and his chair rescued from an ambulance, yes there was a time when the Camp had its own ambulance. It ran up and down the streets, blaring a faulty siren, announcing new deaths, promising maybe you’re not gonna die and only lose a limb. Where is it now? A pile at the junk shop, you can buy it by the kilo. No wonder Doctor has given up emergency medical care. Everybody saw how he became a doctor, through trial and error because there was no other doctor. But he isn’t happy being one. Some people are never gonna like moving up in life. Doctor’s all-encompassing attitude to health care is simple; don’t worry about your wounds, or your wasting organs; worry about Mother Earth because she really is gonna die.

The blue plastic sheets that serve as the roofs of all the camp houses are joined together. When Mutt is in a good mood he can run from one corner of the Camp to the other just by jumping from one roof to another and comes back within three minutes. Sometimes children chase him, sometimes he chases children. Children are increasingly bored with him.

You can’t be a child in this place for long. Blame it on the heat, or buffalo milk or camp food but you are expected to grow up fast. Big bro Ali was two years older than me when he was sold. People tell me now that I am the real boss and every bit of respect I get I have earned, but I know he was the original boss. He didn’t even have to try. At school, he was the only one who would read all his books on the very first day of the academic year. His notebooks were full of gold stars.

We woke one morning and instead of his school uniform he put on black overalls, with a golden wing on his chest. It seemed as if he had gone to sleep a normal big brother — who slaps the older boy who fingers you in the street and then comes home and slaps you for having got into trouble in the first place — but woken up with wings. As if the night had turned him into an angel. The day Ali was sold, he was dressed in black overalls but underneath he didn’t forget to wear his Boss T-shirt. Of course Bro Ali had no idea he was being sold. He thought he was being offered contractual employment at the Hangar with guaranteed overtime; most bright school graduates think life is contractual employment. I think life is a business opportunity.

Father Dear got greedy, and now he pretends he’s just another hapless dad and honest worker.Incompetent thieves call themselves honest workers. He is that kind of dad.

Father Dear still insists that he got his son a job at the Hangar.

Mother Dear was still trying to start a fire, tears in her eyes, when he sat on Father Dear’s motorbike and went away. They are powerful because they are never late. They work like clockwork. I ran after him to give him the omelette roll she had made. But they were a little whirlwind in the distance. He turned around and waved as if telling me he’ll be back before I know it. I took a bite from the omelette roll. It turned into sand in my mouth. I threw it to Mutt who had followed me in a state of excitement. He sniffed it for a very long time before gulping it down. I think I like Mutt because he knows how to exercise controlled greed.

How’re you gonna keep your integrity in a place where thievery is not only accepted but also expected? If you are not a petty thief, if you are not gonna steal bricks and paper and sugar then surely you are a bigger thief, you are probably gonna steal truckloads of sugar and buy all the bricks and copper wire that all the petty thieves stole. What you gonna do when wading through a morass of moral corruption?

Education, they said. Education gonna solve all our problems. There was art education. Art teacher said draw a pitcher, with a crow drinking water from it. There was science education. Newton, science teacher said, sat under an apple tree. I drew pitchers, I thought about Newton. But the real education was on TV. It doesn’t always work but when the signal is good you catch bits of Nat Geo Xtra and Capital Talk. And father brought back an old copy of a book called Fortune 500 from the Hangar. There are men in that book got their own personal yachts. They’ve got uniformed waiters serving them food in the middle of an ocean. You tell me how drawing pictures of pitchers and crows and sitting under an apple tree gonna help you acquire that yacht? How you gonna pay those waiters’ salaries? Maybe you can get all your science and all your art education and then become a waiter on one of those boats.

I focused on my business education and I became an entrepreneur. No, it doesn’t mean that since you can’t beat them you join them, because they wouldn’t let you. And you definitely don’t fight with them because you’ll lose.

Mohammed Hanif at the Lahore Literature Festival| File photo by Tariq Mahmood / White Star
Mohammed Hanif at the Lahore Literature Festival| File photo by Tariq Mahmood / White Star

I became a businessman. I buy and I sell. I provide services and I charge. I make deals and I take my percentage. While people discuss problems of growing up, I find solutions to the problems that grown-ups have.

Some might say that I am an evil entrepreneur, a post-war profiteer, a petty black marketer, and I am gonna tell you that is jealousy speak. That’s basically petty thieves telling you how petty they are. Show me another fifteen-year-old businessman in this Camp, even all the other camps, who owns his own Jeep Cherokee 3600 CC. It’s vintage. It’s sky blue. And when we are on our way to make a deal it floats above the sand as if it’s being carried on angels’ wings. I got plans to acquire a Land Cruiser Vogue which is gonna be more suited to these climes, but even when i have acquired my Vogue I am not gonna abandon my Cherokee. You never get over your first car and your first love. I don’t know about love yet (it will come when it comes but I don’t intend to fall in love until I have made my first million), but even when I have made a few millions I am gonna keep this princess. How I ever gonna get over a beauty like my Cherokee? Never. It’s Momo’s promise.

Like every successful businessman I have other assets, some tangible some not, I treasure both equally. After all, what is business? It’s the process through which you turn ideas into hard cash, you take positions on futures and you see what bits of the past are gonna do well in the markets.

But sometimes the past is very costly merchandise.

I have to admit that Bro Ali going away like this was a blow we are still recovering from. I was forced to take on the responsibility of running the household; drying Mother Dear’s tears, pressing Father Dear’s pants. I am not going to school either. And if I am not gonna go to school, then school is gonna remain shut. Buffaloes needed their shelter back, now they have it.

I want those overalls too. People say kid brothers always gonna follow in the footsteps of their older brothers. They are wrong. I want to do better than him. Also what footsteps do you follow when there are no tracks in the sand? We have looked and looked for him, not a sign anywhere. Not even a rumour about him being seen on moonlit nights at the edge of the desert. Sometimes families stand there calling out to their boys and they swear they can see them, they wave their hands and sing lullabies, and shout their annoying nicknames: Moon, Flower, Abdul ... and then they run towards them and find only shadows on the sand. I stood there with them once and I got to confess, I felt stupid. I didn’t see Bro Ali and I didn’t see any of the other boys either. When you perform certain actions because everyone else is performing them and then feel stupid, you probably are stupid. I have to admit we have reached a plateau. With the Hangar shut down, no planes coming, no planes going, it seems the whole war thing was started just to take Bro Ali away from us.

But I also hear the call. I can’t live here and enjoy the comforts of the Camp while Bro Ali remains missing, living in some hellhole and God knows what they are gonna do with him. There were boys who didn’t come back before, but they were not Bro Ali. When you are pushed to the wall you have to go to war because there’s nowhere else to go.

When I am stuck for ideas I take my Mutt for a hunt. Sometimes he catches a few lizards, sometimes I have to pull live scorpions from his mouth. Mutt is not suicidal, just plain stupid. Sometimes he gets into a sulk, and runs away to the desert and pretends he is about to die. He always goes to the same spot, the place where we were gonna breed our racing scorpions. He wants me to come looking for him and find him and persuade him to not die.

How’re you gonna keep your integrity in a place where thievery is not only accepted but also expected? If you are not a petty thief, if you are not gonna steal bricks and paper and sugar then surely you are a bigger thief, you are probably gonna steal truckloads of sugar and buy all the bricks and copper wire that all the petty thieves stole. What you gonna do when wading through a morass of moral corruption?

When Bro Ali didn’t come back for a whole week after starting his contractual employment it became clear that contractual employment was code for kidnapping. Around the same time Mutt started seeing things after his brains got fried. I knew that business was gonna have to be put on hold. You can say that it’s a mid-career break. But some- times you need to tend to the family business first.

Did I tell you about the real family business? Father Dear worked at the Hangar, Supplies and Logistics, and ran the occasional workshop on youth affairs, mostly sex education. And his employment and his love for his employers is the source of all our troubles.

I intend to change that. We’re gonna become people of independent means. My personal business model is about saving lives and making money while doing it. Rescue and rehabilitation. Bigger risks, bigger returns. They can’t have soldiers everywhere. You can’t afford to be sentimental about these things. Have you ever seen a fireman cry after he rescues a kitten? He is just doing his job. It’s for the kitten owner to cry, or for that small curious crowd with their mouths open as if they are not watching a man in a uniform climbing down a ladder holding a dumb kitten but God himself descending to save his creation.

These people; my people, they are nothing but thieves with tears. Doctor comes over and cries about the dying planet and the sun and the moon. Scrap-dealing brothers cry over not finding more redundant military hardware and falling scrap prices. Others come to Father Dear asking for his help to bring their boys back. These people are rude, they have no shame, asking someone who can’t even bring his own boy back.

There is no room for sentiment in my line of work. You look at your liabilities. You look at your assets. You take a position on small, safe investments like my Falcons for Ethical Hunting project. You take a bet on the long-term prospects like I have done with Sands Global.

But a rescue mission is a different kind of business. You need motivation. And, trust me, with Mother Dear’s sighs and her laments I have enough motivation. You would think that Father Dear would provide the logistics. If not a car and a gun and a map, at least he should find a way to get us into the Hangar. I can score fuel for the car, I can get my own gun, but can’t he get us some ammo and a map? Definitely a map. He ran the Hangar’s logistics and all their local purchases for three years and now claims there is nothing in there. All he has to say is that they have moved to a secret base and he doesn’t have the security clearance anyway. I can tell that he knows more than he tells us. He behaves like Mutt when he steals a bone but then hides it somewhere because he is afraid of being caught. Father Dear thought we were all set to become rich and powerful. My boy has a job at the Hangar, it’s not like the menial jobs that other boys get. Maybe they’ll give him a rank, give him a uniform. If not that, then maybe witness protection programme, because after my Ali is inside the Hangar he gonna know all about the operational stuff. Let’s just say Father Dear got greedy, and now he pretends he’s just another hapless dad and honest worker.

Incompetent thieves call themselves honest workers.

He is that kind of dad. I am gonna tell you a story about the guy who cut his finger to help you understand Father Dear better. So the guy cuts his finger accidentally and he asks his friend to piss on his finger so that it might help in speedy recovery or at least save the cut finger from festering. This friend looks at the cut finger, then looks down at his own crotch and says I can’t do that, it’s humiliating. The man with the cut finger begs and pleads and says I know you respect me and you respect our friendship but what’s a few drops of piss between friends? But the friend says it’s all dried up down there.

Sometimes that’s how loyalties are tested. Don’t get me wrong, Father Dear moral rectitude is all-encompassing: Father Dear is the kind of person who is not gonna piss on his own cut finger. He is not gonna help me bring Bro Ali home. He is hiding something. How does a person sign up for a job and disappear just like that? I wonder what if a lady cuts her finger would she ask her friend for the same favour? I suspect ladies are gonna be cunning about this. In the first place they are not gonna cut their finger. And if that does happen, they are gonna find a more cunning way of curing the cut finger before resorting to piss remedies.

But Father Dear is also chronically depressed. He is going through a phase of unrequited love for his American employers. This is the problem we suffer from. Not only are we thieves, we are chronic lovers too. Thieves can give up. Lovers can’t.

Mutt is also a chronic lover. Mutt is dumb but reliable. He needs appreciation like we all do. Sometimes he needs appreciation when there is nothing to appreciate. Recently he has been seeing things on the rooftops. He raises his mouth and growls as if he has seen a ghost. But you indulge him; you look up towards the roof and assure him that whatever it is he is seeing, you are seeing it too. I indulge him because I am gonna need him. Mutt is essential to the mission.

Also when you love someone you try and train them.

The first step is to acclimatize them to the conditions. I have taken Mutt on long walks and left him in the desert to find his way home. He is a veritable commando now. He can survive in the desert without water for three days and he is never gonna betray my trust. His brain might be fried but his heart is gold.

I am still testing him though, toughening him up. Just the other day I was practising my special free kick on him. The ball hit him, maybe broke something in his fit but brittle body. And he went into a sulk. He is probably waiting near the scorpions’ pit in the desert for me to go and find him.

I know he only considers it a game but sometimes it hurts: as if Bro Ali going away wasn’t bad enough, now Mutt is also gone. People who leave you of their own accord, without any external pressure, that is always gonna hurt more. Mutt will get over his sulk and little injury and head home.

With Bro Ali, we’ll have to go and bring him back.

Mutt will come back himself. He always does.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 14th, 2018