The man who was a tree
by Goran Baba Ali
The young photographer was the first to see the naked man. It was never clear to him whether it was a dream, a vision, a drunk man’s imagination, or if he really had seen that young, naked creature in the dusk, at the beginning of the evening, turn into a tree and swiftly disappear between the other trees and bushes at the edge of the stream of Qilyasan, a small village just outside the city. From that day he began his obsessive search for the tree to photograph it and convince everyone of his integrity, to prove that he wasn’t crazy, neither a deceiver nor a liar, and hadn’t meant to bring the city into turmoil. He also hugely regretted that he hadn’t kept his mouth shut but instead, that same night, allowed his story to go around the city. In fact, it was not him who caused all that commotion. He had only told a few friends and acquaintances about that vision-like appearance. They were the ones who had told others about it and those others told some other people until the rumor, within a few weeks, had even reached Khatib, the head imam of the city, and gained a place in his Friday sermon.
Nobody believed that the tree, which some people claimed to have observed here and there, would be the same naked young man, who some other people said they had seen roam through the streets and alleys with a long, wide, fresh green leaf wrapped around one of his legs, crawling between his crotch to stretch further over his hips, his waist and under his armpit until finally wrapping around his neck and hanging over his chest. Who should believe whom and what, nobody knew. The whole town was talking about him, everyone was under the spell of the story, but nobody could confirm the existence or nonexistence of that creature. Most people were pretty sure that it was nothing more than an illusion. And for this they blamed the young photographer. They said he was the one who infected everyone’s mind with that delusion. When they talked about the naked young man, they also referred to a young photographer, although almost no one knew him or had ever heard about him. In a way they confused the two young men or they even mistook them for one person. At some point, most of the people also began to deny the existence of the young photographer. Even he began to doubt himself. He wished that all this were only a dream from which he would suddenly awake and breathe a sigh of relief.
For the young photographer, that day, during which he saw the naked man, was a special day. Not only because he thought he had seen Jesus, but also because on that same day, in the early morning, he was fired and permanently released from a crazy boss. Yet, at a later stage, he could not remember exactly what day or what date it was. And when a while later he asked his former boss if he could remember, the answer was, “No.” That day was certainly not so special for his boss; it was not the only time his assistant showed up so late for work that he threw him out for a few days before begging him to return. Remarkable days were, on the contrary, the days when he was on time. The only special thing about that day for his boss was that this time the fired assistant never returned.
That day the young assistant photographer appeared half an hour late at work. When he walked into the store, he found a crowd of angry customers who were impatiently waiting for the photos that they were supposed to get back immediately. Some of them were still waiting for someone to take their picture. His boss—as his assistant described him, an old crazy photographer who, until the autumn of his life, after years of shooting, hadn’t discovered that he had chosen the wrong profession, because he just hadn’t the patience for it—was in the darkroom working on developing pictures for a few customers. The poor man, on that busy morning, had to welcome all those hurried customers on his own, ask them what kind of photos and how many copies they needed, bring them quickly into the studio and take their picture. Most customers needed passport photos to apply for their drivers’ licences at the traffic police office, about two hundred meters away from the studio. After having photographed a few customers in a row, he had to lock himself in the darkroom, quickly pull the negatives out of the camera, submerge them in the developer, drag them between two of his fingers to get rid of any drops, dry them, then print them. After doing all of this on his own, he had to run out of the darkroom, drenched in sweat, give the pictures, still wet, to the customers waiting in his shop, take the money, bid them goodbye and quickly bring a few other customers into the studio, photograph them and so on, going through the process all over again on his own. And all because his assistant was late. But also because of the very fact that he found it too expensive, as his assistant had always suggested, to buy a Polaroid camera with which he could take, within a few minutes, four or eight photos of each customer without them having to wait for so long, sometimes up to half an hour. But also he and his assistant wouldn’t need to work so very hard. All in vain, however, because this suggestion always fell on deaf ears.
The boss himself had a much smarter and cheaper solution, he thought. He had transformed his Swedish Hasselblad into a fast operational camera. Originally the camera worked with rolls of the so-called 120-film with which you could take twelve square photos. But he cut the film in the darkroom into twelve loose squares and kept them in a separate box to protect them from light. Then, when he or his assistant had photographed a client, they put the negatives one by one in a template he had made out of cardboard. Then they put the template with the negative in it into the camera. If they had to photograph a few customers in a row, after taking the picture of one person they took the negative rapidly out of the camera in the darkroom, put another piece of negative in the template and put the shot negatives in a box on the left side of the developing device so as not to confuse them with the raw negatives. With the new negative in the camera, they went back into the studio to take the picture of the next customer. Then they developed a couple of negatives at the same time and printed them.
When they were both in the shop, they divided the tasks and everything usually went smoothly. As on an assembly line, one of them took the pictures and the other developed the negatives and printed the photos in the darkroom to hand them over to the other so that he could dry them, cut them nicely and give them to the customer before welcoming the next one. No real problems; everything went very smoothly.
But that particular busy morning the boss had to perform all the tasks on his own. When he heard his assistant on the stairs at the entrance of the shop greeting the cranky customers, he ran out of the darkroom swearing at him, his hair disheveled, drops of sweat running down his cheeks, behind his ears, his neck and dripping from his chin. His white shirt was steeped in sweat and stuck to his body. In the semi-transparent pocket of the shirt you could see a wad of dinar bills. When he stepped into the shop, he went directly to his assistant who had just reached the front door, poised to walk inside. He gave him a shove and shouted at him: “Don’t you dare enter, you lazy bastard! Go away! I never want to see you here again!”
The young photographer fell back down the few steps onto the sidewalk. With a jerk, he stood up and yelled back: “Yes, I’m a lazy bastard. But from now on I am a free man!” After five years working with this boss, he suddenly felt free. He was the only assistant photographer who had been able to work for such a long time with this confused madman. He saw himself more as his slave than his sidekick. Later he would say to his friends that although that day was an ordinary but surely miserable day for his boss, for him it was a very special day in which he cheerfully enjoyed every moment of his joblessness.
His resignation didn’t mean that he had become unemployed. Quite the contrary: that day was the beginning of a life with more responsibilities. He decided to work for himself as a street photographer. After he got up from the sidewalk and yelled at his boss, he dusted himself off and immediately crossed the street. He took the bus and went back home, grabbed his Polaroid camera, got on his bike and went to Serchinar, on the outskirts of the city. For a few hours, he wandered around the recreation areas surrounding the lake and took many photos of people who found it impressive that they got their pictures immediately after posing for the shot. They didn’t have to wait a few days like with the other street photographers who would give them a receipt for a studio where they would have to go to pick up their pictures—sometimes only to hear that, unfortunately, their photos hadn’t come out well. Now with his camera, they could see the results immediately because the Polaroids didn’t need to be developed in a studio like celluloid film. After he had taken a picture, or even two or three at the same time, he just needed to pull out the negative, which was not celluloid but paper, and shake it for some twenty seconds, then tear off the black cover and there you are: a Technicolor picture printed on the thick shiny paper.
After only a few hours, though, he’d used all his packs of Polaroid film. If he only had more with him, he could also have used them, he was sure. It was the beginning of a prosperous life, he thought. Within a few hours his pockets were full of money. He found it strange that his customers were happy to pay whatever he asked just for a photo that they could have in their hands right away. They looked at their pictures with amazement. The young photographer wondered if it was the secret of the camera and its quickly developed photos or the magic of recording the moments that enchanted his customers. It seemed to him that people felt happier about their lives when they could look at them from a distance, on the surface of a piece of paper. That made him enjoy his work even more.
But by the end of the afternoon his mood was changing. The smell of arak dominated his thoughts, a recognizable odour that excited and invited him to drink. His favourite drink, as it was for many of his countrymen, the most famous strong drink in the whole region and the pride of his country. In Serchinar, which was full of bars and people drinking everywhere around the lake, everything, even the trees, emanated that irresistible fragrance, with a sharp scent of aniseed. Once his film packs were finished, he bought a quart of arak at the kiosk and asked the owner for a plastic cup and some ice cubes in a plastic bag. He went through the chinar trees, the bushes, to the bank of the Qilyasan river, sat under a large tree on the edge of the creek, lit a cigarette and began to drink and unwind.
His exhaustion, but also his sense of indignation, were making him sad. He had a feeling of humiliation from working as a roving photographer, he realized. With each sip of arak and puff of the cigarette, he looked at his camera and thought about the sense and nonsense of his work. The longer he thought about it, the more he lost the enthusiasm and determination of a few hours ago. So much so that he now began to hate his camera, to which he had been so attached. He had spent the day strolling between the casinos in Serchinar, around the lake and through the gardens and parks that lie between Serchinar and Qilyasan, and had taken dozens of pictures of drunken men, especially boys who were just learning to drink.
It was two years since people had been liberated from a dictator who held them for so long in the grip of his regime and who had closed all roads to a normal life. They were still caught up in the euphoria of the uprising that had at last freed them from the so-called Republic of Fear. Going out in the evenings to hang out on the streets until late in the night was one of the rewards of that uprising. Everyone seized the opportunity, particularly frustrated young men who didn’t have to worry anymore about wars or being forced to serve in the military. You could find them in pairs or in groups of three, four or more in every corner of the city, in the many fields and hills on the way to the mountains, and especially in Serchinar. They went to drink and tell each other about their failed romances or the disappointments of their one-sided loves. They talked about the heartlessness of women and young girls who dressed up, wearing heavy makeup, and strolled through the streets without even a glimpse at all those frustrated men. It was like there was clean polished glass surrounding each of these women; you couldn’t see it but it was there. A glass wall that only those men who dared to approach them would encounter. And to work out all those frustrations, young men went to the outskirts of the town to drink in groups.
It was these men who asked the photographer to record them hugging and capture their eternal friendship forever. Some wanted him to photograph them while they were jumping in the lake with their clothes on. Or when they gave one of their friends a kick in the ass. He had to try to show in the picture how much the kick would hurt. It had to be an unforgettable kick. Or they asked him to go to sit in a tree and shoot them from there while they lifted their glasses towards the sky, clinking them together in a toast. He had to take the picture just at the moment that the drops of arak were splashing out of their glasses, like you see in western films.
Looking at his camera, he felt the weight of his disappointment more and more. Sadly he looked at the clear water in the creek in front of him; how confidently, unceasingly and without hesitation it flowed over the gravel and sand and how all the sticks, cans, bottles and caps under the transparent surface of the water sparkled, half immersed in the sand, left behind in an eternal silence, waiting for a merciful power to wipe them mercilessly away.
He took another sip, lit a cigarette and decided to put aside his gloom and not think about his frustrations. He tried to look at the events from a different perspective. To lose his job was for him a first step towards liberation from the bonds of a society from which he was completely alienated. He reached out his hand, grabbed his camera and laid it on his lap. Suddenly he realized that his camera could provide him with the distance he needed to protect himself from his environment, a society in which he felt like an unwanted element. He kissed the camera and put it back on his lap.
For the young photographer, Qilyasan was one of the most phantasmagorical places in the city. He often ran away from the daily lives of other people who, to him, looked as if they came from another planet. Although, in fact, it was he who seemed to them as if he was not of this world. Between the trees of Qilyasan he could be himself one hundred per cent. He could then build up a direct relationship with his inner world and forget the rest, the others with all their ideas, religion and political beliefs. It is not easy to live in such a society if you’re not like them. A feeling of alienation overwhelmed him when he thought about that society. The trees and the stream of Qilyasan and the smell of the arak in front of him strengthened that feeling so much that he forgot himself and became more and more a part of the world around him; a part of the trees, the river and the gravel and sand under the clear water. Every time he got drunk, he undressed and laid in the shallow water, gazing at the blue sky which was fluidly changing colors in the early evening; first to a pale orange that was penetrating slightly in the blue, then getting darker until becoming a colour between brown and dark blue and tending gradually to black. The glittering stars appeared one by one, the muffled sound of the birds little by little got quieter, until a heavy silence dominated the orchards. He thought that he was hearing, through the darkness and the tempered flow of the stream, the stars singing.
But that evening, when it gradually became dark and he peered into the stream and waited for it to invite him in, he was so tired, sleepy and drunk that he could barely open his eyes. He leaned against the tree, stretched his legs and put his feet on its huge roots, which were jutting out of the ground and stretching towards the water. Through his tired eyelids he saw many plastic bags, soggy papers, rags, empty cigarette packs and other things that were stranded between the roots. The gravel and sand at the bottom of the river sparkled under the orange light of the sunset and bewitched him into a deep sleep.
Suddenly the young photographer was startled awake by a strange noise that he just couldn’t place. A severe hangover swarmed around his head like a handful of iron filings. He did not know whether the sound came from outside or echoed inside his skull. He rubbed his eyes and saw in the water before him a strange creature crouching between the huge roots of the tree. He rubbed his eyes even harder and saw that it was a naked young man trying to detach himself from the roots. Wrapped in weeds and algae, he crept out of the water. Suddenly a new eddy of pain whirled through his head. He closed his eyes and started screaming. He pressed his palms to his temples in order to soothe the pain. When he opened his eyes again, the naked man had disappeared. He didn’t know if he should believe his eyes or accept that it was nothing more than a vision. But no, he was sure of what he had seen. He hung his camera around his neck, gathered his courage and strength and stood up. Reeling, he stepped into the water and crossed the creek. He ran drunkenly in all directions but didn’t find a trace of anyone in the dusk.
It was getting darker when he returned to the riverbank and, casting around, he saw in the water, a little further away, a naked man trying to get out of the river and reach the bushes, all with a large wooden cross on his shoulders, which in the dark could have been a tree stump or a very big leaf. The young photographer opened his eyes wide to get a better view. Quickly he raised his camera and tried to take a picture; a picture that could have been a masterpiece, as he always said later, a picture of the crucified Jesus, or a new Jesus with a big leaf on his shoulders. But when he pressed the button, he remembered that there was no film in the camera. Immediately, without thinking about it, he ran into the water towards the naked man. Just a few meters away from the fading ghost, which now seemed more like a tree than a man, his foot slipped on a rock and he fell forward. First his camera and then his face sank into the water. At the exact moment that his eyes reached the surface of the river, he saw the silhouette disappear between the trees in the small grove.