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Saturday, August 7, 2010



2008 © Wolfgang B. Sperlich

My husband was recruited for a 6-months, development aid related teaching contract in a remote country. I followed him there for a three week holiday. The town is located in a desolate landscape, bare mountains and stony, dusty plains, broken only by dry river beds the locals call wadi. My husband’s accommodation, provided by the company, was a flat in a tenement building, three flights of stairs up on the top floor. The building, as all the others in the vicinity, stood in the middle of a moonscape – alas, not pristine but strewn with consumer rubbish that modern life has brought to even the most remote places on earth. Indeed such remote places seem to be affected worst, as they have not developed any strategies to clean up.

The desert environment is arid to such a degree that no visible animal life is sustained other than domestic ones, mainly in the form of goats and camels. Surprisingly, at least to a newcomer like me, there were even only few flies around the numerous open rubbish dumps that litter the landscape like open sores. I was also surprised by the extreme fundamentalism still practiced in that town. Women are not to be seen. The town centre is populated by men only. While the odd local woman, all in black, who scurries across the road, is given the evil eye, any sight of a Western woman, also attired in conservative dress, so as not to offend local custom, and regardless of age, provokes the lurid male attention that is deeply insulting to the woman concerned – and properly intended by the men. Boys and male adolescents are the worst as they freely insult and harass the Western woman, be it by blocking her way, trying to touch her bottom, shouting ‘fuck bitch’ or other such terms they have learnt from the porn industry that is beamed down on them from satellite TV. In other words, it is near impossible for a single woman to leave her accommodation, and go for a walk by herself.

After a week of holiday and sightseeing, my husband had to go back to work, and I was stuck in the flat on the third floor. To make matters worse, I was even unable to walk down the stairs by myself – even if only to dispose of the rubbish bag. As is perhaps typical of extreme sexist fundamentalism anywhere in the world, the contradictions that arise are of equally negative value. Our building had a Thai Massage ‘Health Club’ on the second floor – a brothel by any other name. Seedy looking local men in white distashes walked up and down the stairs, summoning up sufficient courage to ogle a Thai prostitute. Boys and male adolescents congregated in front of the door, and on occasion masturbated in full view of the tenants. When mentioning, indeed complaining about such a shocking state of affairs to the employing company, local dignitaries and police, there was always the counter accusation that such a state of affairs was initiated by the evil Western ways – no doubt a good explanation but hardly a good excuse. In any case no action was taken to remedy the situation – given that the company managers, local dignitaries and police officers were of course the best customers of the Thai Massage.

To repeat, it was virtually impossible to leave my flat without being accompanied by my husband. Not that the flat was dingy or anything. It was in fact quite adequate for local conditions. There was satellite TV with 600 free channels. Mainly advertisements for subscription sex channels, BBC and Al Jazeera included. There were two bathrooms, one with the local version of toilet; the showers had a water pressure that merely dribbled water on your head. The kitchen was rather small with only basic facilities such as a fridge and a gas stove. All the bed and living rooms had air conditioning (very noisy) and/or ceiling fans. Temperatures at night never went below the 30° C mark. I did some work on my husband’s laptop. I watched TV, hypnotized by all the sex. I brewed local coffee. I looked out the windows for any signs of my husband’s return from work. I did connect up the washing machine, which was positioned over the hole in one of the bathrooms, and needed a rigged power line from one of the adjoining rooms. Given that the plumbing leaked water everywhere – and not considering the contradiction of living in a waterless desert – my attempts at connecting power to the washing machine were aligned with my rudimentary knowledge of electricity, i.e. water is a good conductor and likely to shock and kill me. I survived and rigged up a washing line in the spare room. What else could I do? Where I come from, I am an outdoor person, at least pottering around in the garden, going for a walk on the beach at least once a day, going shopping as I pleased. Sure I hated my job, having to go to work five or six days a week, having to earn heaps of money to pay the mortgage and all the bills, but at least when I got back home I was free to do as I pleased. Well, at least according to our evil Western customs.

In my hour of need I found a friend. There was a singular fly, quite a small one, buzzing around my head. A living creature! Interested in me! Not abusing me! I let it settle on my shoulder. It didn’t fly off as I walked to the kitchen to pour myself a gin and tonic. Should I allow my new friend a sip? Better not as it might drown in it. I had flashbacks to our other previous development aid lives in the lush tropics, where whiskey bugs had to be discouraged by one’s covering the glass, lest the bugs dive bombed the desirable fluid and drowned happily in it. This was always odd since there was no shortage of other water sources all around us, including the never ending perspiration one suffered in the constant 90% humidity. Here in the arid desert, my fly was happy to sit on my shoulder. I wondered if I should strike up a conversation. At home I’d talk to our cats, as if they were human, and generally I was not disappointed by the responses, especially as compared to real human conversations which always seemed to end in hopeless confusion, if not tears. My cats always had nice things to say, and snuggled up for a cuddle, purring and playfully scratching. My new friend might have some limitations in this regard but not having had a fly friend before, one would not know what the possibilities were. My new friend seemed to be very loyal. It followed me around the flat, and just when I thought it had deserted me, it buzzed around my nose, so as to remind me of its continued allegiance. This was most impressive, as I seemed to remember that flies in general have a short life span – a matter of days, I thought, as opposed to our human eternity of  many decades – hence they have to accomplish many things during that time, and as such might have very little time to make friends with silly humans. Well, of course time is relative. In any case I was happy with my new friend.

Naturally my allegiance shifted radically when my husband returned from work, not least based on the sexual imagery that was on my mind, and now afforded a practical reality. There was however sufficient time to tell my husband about my new friend, lest he took uncalled-for action. While my husband is generally kind to all living creatures (plants included – he is against picking flowers) he draws a line when it comes to self-defense. In other words, he argues that to protect one’s life and that of one’s loved ones – never mind all the others – against fly-born diseases, one has to eradicate the poor old flies if they enter one’s house. To this extent he is handy with fly spray, and the occasional attempt to emulate the tale of the tailor who swatted seven flies in one foul attempt. There was little force or logic in my counter argument, that if the erstwhile sources of disease were eliminated, the flies would not carry such diseases, and prove quite harmless. My husband, as usual, was not convinced but in order to expedite what was on obvious offer on my part, he listened to my fly story with good humour, and promised not to harm the poor creature even though the fly on the wall metaphor might be somewhat distracting to our private pleasures.

Following our petit mort he was less conciliatory, as the fly kept investigating and annoying him. His attempts to catch the fly were however fruitless - as he admitted with some admiration for the fly’s dexterity. While the fly was very small and seemed to fly at low speed, it evaded capture – and death – by last millisecond flight maneuvers worthy of major aviation awards. Indeed the fly seemed to rely on its uncanny evasive take-offs and flight paths to such a degree that my husband began to consider the possibility that some divine destiny had intervened to save it, and preserve it for the edification of his wife’s company. Since he too was aware of the short life span of a fly, his only concern was to establish the identity of this particular fly, lest there was procession of successors that looked alike. From that point of view he studied the features of my friend, looking for identifiable characteristics, as it rested on my naked shoulder. He even put on his reading glasses to see more clearly. Maybe my friend sensed the unnecessary scrutiny, and took off and was not to be seen for the rest of the day.

The day of my departure arrived and as I tearfully said goodbye to my home of the last three weeks, I also shed a tear for my friend who was no-where to be seen. As we drove off to the airport there was something that caught my eye inside the car. It was my friend. I cried and cried. ‘Don’t be silly’ said my husband with devastating logic, ‘this isn’t the same fly, for heaven’s sake, didn’t you see the rubbish next to the car when we got into it, it came from there!’ ‘It’s my friend, and you know it’, I cried. ‘Ok, it’s your friend’, he tried to console me. By the time we got to the remote airport two hours later, I was sick with sadness, and my husband looked as if he was ready to cry as well. There were no more signs of any fly in the car, or when we got out and made our way to the departure gate. On the plane I only missed my dear husband, and I had forgotten my friend the fly. Back home on the other side of the world, I remembered and told the story to our cats. They were not impressed, especially as our female cat, Gracie, specializes on sneaking up on flies and pouncing on them. ‘Such are the contradictions of life,’ as my husband says. I don’t know why.


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