Borrowing Mustafa

by Jonas Knutsson

"You want to lend me out?"

"This outreach program 'One Land, One Folk' promotes social harmony and togetherness," explained Karin. "You check people out of the library like you would The Mayor of Casterbridge and enter their cultural sphere through non-confrontational dialogue."

Mustafa found his wife's demeanor even calmer than usual, a sign her mind was made up.

"The only people interested in borrowing a Swedish Arab would be Danish skinheads." With pride Mustafa noted a sense of diplomatic finality in his own tone.

The Alfred Nobel Library resembled not so much a literary repository as a waiting room writ large. In spite of himself, Mustafa felt slighted as the Finn and the Pastune were already off the shelf, so to speak; like the Greenlander in the cowboy hat. Damn Eskimo cheated, bringing a case of Carlsberg Elephant Beer. The rowdy Icelandic sailors who borrowed Nanook of the North (along with his beer and bottle of Jägermeister) didn't so much as glance at Mustafa. This was prejudice and nothing but.

The lady in green flung the main door open, dragging the matching green velcro belt in her wake, and chose Mustafa over the gypsy with the eye patch. "You look just like Omar Sharif."

An ambience of many a festive gathering lingered in the cozy shabbiness of the Gustavson residence. "Jimi Hendrix sat in that sofa, you know." His hostess served Mustafa Lipton's lemon tea and herself a Pernod. "Know what I used to do?" added Fru Gustavson coquettishly.

"With Omar and Jimi?"

"I was a cleaning lady," proclaimed the velcro lady with the resonant clarity of a cabaret singer. "Did you ever see 'Ali. Fear Eats the Soul'?"

"Is that a horror movie?"

"Such yearnings she has, such true emotions. A woman's feelings don't change, Ali, they mature."

Karin worried how he was faring at the library. Mustafa was an insufferably content person. She dreaded opening a Bonniers dictionary one day only to find a passport photo of Mustafa over the heading "Homo Suedicus: Eats meatballs and watches soccer. Works at a travel agency but loathes to leave his armchair." There were aspects of Mustafa left unexplored, she was sure of it, parts of him left unconquered.

Only last week Karin, always first to champion his cause, accused a taxi driver of taking the scenic route because Mustafa was a foreigner (born in Stockholm whereas she hailed from Tromsö ). It turned out the driver suffered from some sort of dementia senilis, the old man's lower lip drooping and wobbling every time they hit a speed bump.

Footsteps echoed in the hallway like a speeded-up version of Mustafa's unhurried gait. Before Karin could greet him, Mustafa slumped into his recliner. "No more harmony and togetherness for me."

At the library Mustafa went unnoticed for three hours that seemed to pass slower than the seasons, the pangs of rejection overcoming the chagrin at being exiled to this politically correct slave market. Fru Gustavson didn't even say hello as she checked out the Eskimo who brought a case of Tuborg beer this time. Perhaps she met Jimi at the library too.

The lady behind the front desk lit up the hall with a smile every time Mustafa glared in her direction.

"Am I allowed to take out people too?" snarled Mustafa.

"Of course." Her sun-blessed smile, no longer suitable to the occasion, took on the appearance of a rigor mortis.

"Do you by any chance have a Hottentot or a Dutch porn star?"

"I understand your grievances."

"My grievances?" A disquieting vision of the lady librarian on loan to some raffish octogenarian bolted through Mustafa's mind.

"My brother used to work for the Red Cross. I sympathize with your plight."

"You know my wife?"

Towards evening, the library more or less abandoned for the more promising world outside, an index finger picked at Mustafa's shoulder as if writing something in Morse code. "You'll have to do." A diminutive woman, older than time, hovered over him. This crosser of cultural boundaries was at least more respectfully attired than the lady with the mature feelings.

"Have you by any chance seen 'Ali. Fear Eats the Soul'? asked Mustafa as he inspected her cloud-gray eyes for signs of a romantic inclination.

"That a horror flick?"

Marching in her wake through the confusion of streets, Mustafa found it difficult to keep up with the old lady's racetrack pace. On proud display in Madame Mogensen's dwellings, splendid in the frugal way of the stingy rich, stood the departed Herr Mogensen's swimming trophies. Mustafa tried without success to envisage Jimi Hendrix slouching between the sunflower-embroidered pillows on Madame Mogensen's durable bluer-than-midnight couch.

"I'm not sure how to go about this cross-cultural dialogue," confessed Mustafa.

"I saw 'Lawrence of Arabia' in London. Such heavenly blue eyes Peter O'Toole had. Come."

Without a word Mustafa followed, bent on retreat in case she'd seen "Ali. Fear Eats the Soul" after all. The cramped bathroom smelled of age as much as neglect.

Madame Mogensen's determined index finger pointed to a pile of tiles on the floor. "I bought these last week. My back isn't what it used to."

Neither was Mustafa's for the next five days. The diminutive rosette tiles proved difficult to lay with the half-dry cement six months past its sell-by date, the chore not finished until long after supper, a meal Madame Mogensen seemed to have struck off her social calendar.

Next Harmony and Togetherness Day, Mustafa snuck off as soon as Karin dropped him off on the library steps and headed for the University Cinémathèque. To the array of posters outside he paid scant attention, the object of his "Operation Enduring Freedom" not to let Madame Mogensen shanghai him at any cost. Ticket in hand, Mustafa noticed the poster and his good mood disintegrated.

"Where do you dig up this kitsch?" Mustafa growled at the girl behind the counter and pointed to the poster. The ring through her nose dangled ferociously as she straightened her back in indignation. 'Ali. Fear Eats the Soul' happens to be both Brechtian and heartfelt. I've seen it twice."

The poster featured a naked Turkish Gastarbeiter clutching a German Putzfrau in her sixties hungrily from behind.

"Your friend just called," said Karin without looking up from her tray of gingerbread cookies shaped like deformed angels.

"Jöran get the tickets?" Sweden was playing Montenegro next week and Ulle Kroogstaad had a twisted ankle.

"Madame Mogensen wants you to come by tomorrow at six-thirty." Karin's drawn-out cadence left no doubt his absence had been noted and confirmed.

This time Madame Mogensen treated Mustafa to dust-dry Princess crackers and a cobwebbed bottle of a long-since-discontinued brand of Baltic apple juice as he waited for the second hospital-white coating to dry on the windowpane. When the paint ran out, the widow Mogensen seemed not to grasp the dilemma. "Andreas was married before, you know. They detested me, his family. Acknowledged me soon enough though when it was time to pay for the funeral."

Mustafa waited in the drizzle for the bus to take him to Josepson's Hardware Heaven. Once back, the paint seemed to dry faster than he. His toil ended, Madame Mogensen led Mustafa in silence into the hallway where he lingered in hope of reimbursement. Even dwarfed by her own doorframe, the old woman commanded a daunting presence in her kimono studded with vicious-looking hyacinths. "I'll catch my death in the draught." Mustering all the vigor of her salad years, Madame Mogensen shut the door in Mustafa's face.

After three cycles in the Zanussi washer, the splotches of alabaster-white paint still clung to his crispy-new Levi's like mementoes of defeat.

From the sweetest of naps Mustafa woke to Karin brandishing the telephone receiver in his face.

"Just a moment, Madame Mogensen," Karin stared beyond Mustafa's flailing hands signalling his absence.

Mustafa placed the receiver to his ear as if a loaded revolver.

"My Gustavberg toilet is leaking like a sieve." Madame Mogensen's genteel drone left no doubt Mustafa was somehow the author of this misfortune.

"That woman would want for company in hell," thought Mustafa but said: "It might be wiser to call in an expert."

"They charge more by the hour than a minister makes in a day. I won't be made a fool for my own money."

"But Sweden-Denmark starts in fifteen minutes."

"What do you care?"

Mustafa was about to slam the receiver down when he noticed Karin gazing out at the statue of August Strindberg in the courtyard, as she did only when eavesdropping.

"I'll be there in an hour."

"Can't you take a taxi?"

Mustafa threw on his duffel coat but halted in front of the door. Karin's voice, reasonable as ever, ruptured the silence: "Madame Mogensen has been alone in this world since her husband drowned in that wading pool."

The ride to the Mogensen residence felt like a slow boat to Copenhagen. Mustafa suspected the old taxi driver with the protruding lower lip of taking up residence around the corner from him to exert a monopoly on his last paying customer.

At the flat Mustafa found himself outnumbered. Making the rounds were Madame Mogensen's sisters, Kirsten and Rasmina. The sisters Mogensen ignored him studiously as they feasted on chocolate marzipan fingers between furtive sips of sherry and Drambouie.

Around what would be the end of the second half of the game, Mustafa got the Gustavberg up and running and hoped the match had gone into extra time.

Mustafa stood unnoticed in front of the Mogensen girls as they chatted away with an unnatural ease informed by two hundred and thirty-seven aggregated years of hard feuding.

"All done?" Madame Mogensen interrupted herself mid-sentence without looking up.

"I think the taxi driver overcharged me."

"Perhaps the gentleman would like a nip?" suggested Rasmina.

Madame Mogensen shot her younger sister a perfunctory frown. "They don't drink."

The beard took a week to grow. His colleagues at teased Mustafa about joining the Taliban or hailed him as "Fidel". Jöran, a propmaster at Channel Two, lent him the kaftan none of the Three Wise Men needed at the moment. The skullcap, to Mustafa's surprise, proved rather expensive. For her part, Karin seemed overjoyed that he was at last entering his own cultural sphere.

The insistent ringing of the phone woke Mustafa at half past six on a Sunday morning. "It's leaking again. I must say I'm very disappointed."

Madame Mogensen's scowl dissipated somewhat at seeing Mustafa bearded at her door in kaftan and kafiyeh. Without permission he began stacking the boxes into her hallway. "Madame Mogensen, you my friend. For me you must keep these." The accent he'd borrowed from Gungah Din on the late show.

The empty, feather-light boxes—a contribution from Karin's nephew Jonas, the construction foreman—Mustafa pretended to lug in with joyful exertion.

"By all appearances the toilet has been leaking the whole night." Madame Mogensen reapplied her grimace.

"Why you watch this?" Mustafa pointed to the Ethel Merman movie playing on the upmarket Loewe TV.

"Watch who?" Madame Mogensen glanced with misgiving at the cardboard boxes blocking her hallway.

"The infidel. Why you watch the infidel?" Mustafa tried out a Peter Sellers accent.

"That's Ethel Merman," countered Madame Mogensen with evaporating patience.

"This is filth, American filth," sputtered Mustafa.

"And get those filthy boxes out of here when you're done," harrumphed Madame Mogensen, spotting as she spoke the inscription: "Danger—Explosives!"

"But Allah will reward you for guarding them from the infidel, memsahib Mogensen," declaimed Mustafa in a voice of brilliant ecstasy.

"I knew I should've picked the Ethiopian."

"Allah akhbar! Allah akhbar!" hollered Mustafa in tune to Madame Mogensen's shrieks, as he bounced into midair each time she let out a new cry of alarm, his kaftan following him down to the floor in gentle billows.

"Jesus, God and Carl Gustav. There's a terrorist in the living room."

The taxi made steadfast process through the late afternoon dusk. The drooping lower lip flitted across the rear view mirror as the old man snuck a glance at Mustafa. Sweden was playing Scotland tonight and Mustafa would catch the beginning of the match as this time the driver was bringing him straight home.

Jonas Knutsson is a filmmaker, translator and journalist. His book "Satan's Mercies" will be out this fall.