Phillip Kurata grew up in Lawrence, Kansas about 40 miles west of Kansas City. He studied at Kansas University where he received a Bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a Master’s degree in 1976. He drew on his experiences from living five years in Tunisia in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s to write The Reluctant Agent. Kurata has worked as a Peace Corps volunteer and a public health teacher in Tunisia. After leaving Tunisia, Kurata went to in Japan, where he lived for nearly three years, supporting himself teaching English, and working for a trading company. He later became a reporter and worked in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, China and France. He currently lives in Wheaton, Maryland.
Hammam-lif was twenty kilometers south of Tunis along the coastal highway. The rents were cheap and Bedouins, driven by poverty to seek work in the capital, settled there. The sea glittered in the distance. Sheep and a few camels grazed on clumps of grass in the sandy soil between the highway and the sea. A few bedouin families camped in tents. They had come to escape the summer drought and would be leaving now that the rains were coming and the hills would turn green again. Hammam-lif lay at the foot of a low, two-peaked mountain, Bou Kornine. Nicholas slowed for a donkey cart, then turned off the highway.
“Billah, ween il municipalite?” Nicholas asked a pedestrian.
The thin man with a red shishiya cap and a thin moustache said the city hall was two blocks down and to the right. Then his eyes widened when they focused on Nicholas. The Tunisian dialect was a bastardized mixture of Arabic, French and Italian, and Nicholas spoke it well. Hearing him speak in the dark, a Tunisian would mistake him for one of his own. Habib snickered at the effect that the Budweiser cap and sunglasses made in the daylight.
The ubiquitous portrait of the imperious President Belgacem hung in the entrance of city hall. A policeman rose from a bench and approached. Nicholas pulled off his sunglasses and cap. The policeman’s eyes fluttered. Habib saw that he was confused by the sight of Nicholas: a foreigner, have to speak to him in French. Have to be polite, but he does not look like a respectable foreigner. Funny hat, blue jeans, sloppy jacket.
Nicholas whipped out his journalist’s identity card and flashed it in the guard’s face and spoke in Arabic. “Where’s the office of the population register?”
The policeman, who was surely mustering his thoughts to speak in French, was struck dumb. His jaw drooping, he pointed down the corridor. At the end of the hall, Habib turned and saw the guard whispering to another policeman with more metal on his uniform.
In the office, a fat policeman with jolly, almond-shaped eyes flipped through the population register and ran down the page with his index finger.
“Mohammed Senoussi. Ah, yes, a student. He lives on the edge of the city with his mother and sister. Follow that street to the end and ask your way. Everyone knows each other.”
Nicholas drove through several groups of bandy-legged boys kicking balls in the street. At the edge of town, the pavement ended and the street turned to mud. When Nicholas’ tin can drove by, boys whooped and set off in chase. They caught up as Nicholas unscrewed the outside mirror and locked it inside.
“Take us to the house of Mohammed Senoussi,” Nicholas said.
The urchins led them through a maze of whitewashed cinder block shacks. A young woman with tattoos on her forehead and cheeks and dressed in green, red and black robes came to her door and watched them. Her robes were held together by thick silver pins. She wore heavy silver bracelets on her wrists and ankles. This was one of the richer women in the slum.
“Who are they?” she said to the boys.
“Foreigners,” they shouted.
More barefooted, dirty-nosed urchins swarmed around Nicholas and Habib as they tracked through the mud. In the winter with the daily rains, Habib thought this place must be a disease-filled hole.
One of the boys pointed to a group of men in hooded djellabas, milling outside a house. “That’s Senoussi’s place,” he said.
Nicholas and Habib pushed their way through the men and stepped inside. Women sat around a body covered by a sheet, lying on a straw mat on the floor. The walls were painted pea green and decorated with landscape pictures from a calendar. The only furniture were a steel tube table and three chairs in a corner. The women sat on sheepskins on the floor. They were fat and pale from carbohydrate-rich diets and no exercise since puberty. Their black frizzly hair was braided and bound in kerchiefs. They had taken off their white, sheet-size veils, which they wrapped themselves in from head to ankle. They wore dresses cut from bright flowery cloth. One sat at a charcoal burner boiling tea near the door of a tiny kitchen. The women scooted aside on their rumps to make way for Nicholas and Habib.
“Is this Mohammed Senoussi?” Nicholas asked.
“Aiwa,” a woman answered.
“Are you his mother?” Nicholas asked.
“Aiwa,” she said again. Her tattooed face was furrowed with deep creases.
“I’m sorry for your son.”
“Did you know him?” the mother asked.
“No, I did not. I’m a reporter. I would like to ask you some questions.”
“Please,” she said mechanically.
“When was your son’s body returned?”
“Who brought him?”
“Policemen. Three of them.”
“What did they say?”
“They said he had been hit by a truck. One said he was sorry. Then they left.”
“When is the last time you saw your son alive?” Nicholas said.
“Four days ago. When he didn’t come home, I didn’t think anything about it. Tunis is far away. He often sleeps over with friends.” She looked at her son’s body on the floor. She pulled her knees up under her chin and rocked on her buttocks. “Rubbi. Rubbi,” she moaned.
Nicholas looked at Habib and pursed his lips.
“Shall we go? There’s nothing we can do here,” Habib said.
Nicholas shook his head. He scrutinized the other women in the room. “Are you neighbors?” he asked.
They nodded. “Aiwa.”
“Where’s the father?” Nicholas asked.
“He’s dead,” said a girl with a dark complexion. “For a long time.”
“Does he have any brothers and sisters?” Nicholas asked.
“Me,” the girl said. She had a heavy boned face and frizzy hair twisted into braids. Her shoulders were broad and strong, and eyes were intelligent and sad. “The police left this paper.”
She tendered it to Nicholas, who squinted at the intricate Arabic script and moved his lips slowly as he sounded out the syllables. “What’s it say?”
Habib took the paper. “It’s a statement from the coroner. It says Senoussi died around three p.m. September nineteenth at Bab Djedid. He was struck by a truck and suffered massive internal bleeding.
“Slow down, so I can write it.” Nicholas scribbled in a notebook. “Okay. Go on.”
“That’s all,” Habib said.
“What’s his name?”
“Whoever wrote that report.”
“Let me see. Klibi. Hassan Klibi.”
Nicholas closed his notebook and put it in his jacket pocket. He took a deep breath. “I want to request something important now.” He looked at the sister and the mother. “I’m a reporter. I’m looking for the truth. I need to look at Mohammed’s body.”
The women’s eyes opened wide and they began chattering.
“You can’t ask that,” Habib whispered.
“Tell them I need to look for myself. I must try to verify whether the coroner’s report is accurate. Tell them it is the only way to get to the truth.”
“You can’t do that. Let’s leave.” Habib pulled Nicholas’ sleeve. Nicholas shook off his grasp.
“Tell them it is the only way to know the truth. Just get them to cooperate,” Nicholas hissed.
Habib shooed the neighbor women out. Then he turned to the sister. “Ya lilla, explain to your mother we want to help. We want to find out how your brother was killed. We have reason to suspect that he wasn’t run over by a truck as that paper says. Explain that to your mother. Tell her we need to see the body.”
The girl snuffled back tears and spoke to her mother. The mother nodded her assent and turned away. Habib drew the shade over the window to block the view of the gawkers.
Nicholas pulled the sheet off the head. A shock of unruly hair appeared, then the face. The eyes were closed and Habib was relieved. The eyes had dark circles around them, and the skin of the cheeks was sunken. He looked like a young man who had suffered from his thoughts. The right side of his face was discolored by a large bruise. His mouth hung open like a knocked out boxer’s. Nicholas touched the hair and found a gash. He pulled the sheet off the rest of the body. The thickly muscled shoulders, arms and legs did not fit with the sorrowful features. Nicholas pressed a bruised area of the rib cage. A bone popped up and wiggled under the skin. The chest, stomach and back were blotched with sausage-shaped bruises.
“He was beaten,” Nicholas muttered.
“He was always angry,” the sister said. “He was a good brother. He used his scholarship money to pay for our food. We tried to make him calm down. I said it was good enough that we could live. Father is dead. Mother cleans offices. I said the future would get better if he and I finished school and worked and we could take care of mother then.” Nicholas examined the body while the girl talked. “It was no use,” the girl said. “He said the rich people had everything, and they did not want to help the poor. He said he had to fight to make things better.”
Nicholas pulled the sheet back over the body. “What kind of a fight? Did he say?”
“He said many things. I didn’t understand very well,” the girl said. Nicholas pulled out his notebook and jotted in it. “He said the Americans are keeping the country poor and the people ignorant. I don’t understand that. Sometimes he called me stupid. It doesn’t matter. I know he loved me. Mother told him he had to accept the will of Allah. She said Allah decides, not men. Now he’s gone.”
Nicholas scowled. “What did he study?”
“Are there any books or papers of his here in the house?”
“There, in the other room. That’s where he slept.”
She led them to a tiny, windowless room. A foam mattress lay on the floor. She pulled a stack of notebooks and books from the bottom of a plastic wardrobe. Nicholas found Lenin’s The State and the Revolution and Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, both of which were banned.
“Did the police see these?” Nicholas asked.
“No. I told them there were no papers here. They didn’t insist.”
Habib looked at the girl and the shabby surroundings and figured even the police felt sorry for them. Nicholas and Habib stood up and returned to the main room. Nicholas thanked the mother and sister.
“Barallahufeequm,” Nicholas said.
“It is nothing,” the mother said.
“I hope everything will work out for you,” Habib said.
“Allah will decide,” the mother said, turning her palms up.
Nicholas pushed a five dinar note into the mother’s hand. “Take this. Maybe you can use it to help … pay for ….” His voice trailed off without finishing the sentence.
“Rubbi yaainik,” the mother said.
“May God protect you, too,” Nicholas said.
Habib and Nicholas pushed past the gawking men outside and tramped through the mud back to the car. The double-peaked Bou Kornine soared impassively in a cloudless sky.
Habib felt his chest tighten. The people of this slum have been crushed in the mud of ignorance and resignation and will never escape, he thought. Senoussi defied his fate and has been reduced to a slab of cold meat. At least he has stopped suffering. The sunken cheeks and the pitiful hang of his mouth stuck in Habib’s mind. He was the first dead man Habib had seen up close. He wondered how he would look when he was dead. The flimsy car rocked when they got in.
“The fucking misery of it all,” Nicholas muttered as the engine came to life.
“What did you say?”
While they puttered down the road in the sunshine back to Tunis, Nicholas started cursing again. “God damned, worthless goons.”
“What’s wrong?” Habib said.
“Fucking goons. They’re tailgating me.” He nodded at the rearview mirror.
Habib twisted around and saw the muddy grill of a Land Rover staring at him through the rear window.
In The Reluctant Agent, Kurata achieves that odd paradox seen in all accomplished fiction, of reporting the exact detail of a particular place in order to evoke universality. Kurata’s protagonist, Habib, leaves Tunisia for France, returns home only to find himself a visitor there, too. Alienated from his Islamic family, from his brother caught up in a corrupt Third World bureaucracy, Habib somehow manages to become a perpetrator of his own destruction and a victim of it at the same time. He looks for work. He sleeps in the park with a newspaper over his face. He loves Nouba, who gives his life meaning and structure. He slaps her around. Habib belongs to this world of intensity and lethargy. Yet he finds no place in it.
The Western notion of the Maghreb is one of camels and tents. Kurata’s North Africa is the North Africa of Paul Bowles and Camus, where men sit at spindly plastic tables in outdoor cafes while women hang dusty carpets from balconies. Where night brings the dim glow of the fluorescent tubes within the bicycle repair shops. Where sparks fly from welders at work on a nation’s fleet of broken cars. This is the land of insolence, the place Kurata portrays so brilliantly that within its light we see our own.
—Carolyn Thorman, author of Fifty Years of Eternal Vigilance and Holy Orders
Everything is right about this novel: characterization, setting, dialog, plot. A good director could almost capture its magical essence and still make it a first-rate film.
A good read that shoots to the heart of it.