If you missed Part 1, read it here
If you missed Part 2, read it here
Heartbreak and unspoken conflict were at a high pitch in the mindless destruction that followed. Meanwhile, the fruits of compensation pledged by the Muslim Brothers manifested in extraordinary ways.
Excavations began the next day. Massive earth-moving machines, tree cutters and other weapons of mass destruction took over the property with military precision, obliterating forty years of the Body Cobra’s labour of love.
One hundred-year-old oak trees; fir trees and acacias were brought to their knees. Asters; zinnias; Michaelmas daisies, their yellow centres lifted to the sun; palest pink roses; agapanthus; purple, yellow and orange pansies; violet and maroon irises; magnolias; red, pink, coral and violet azaleas; jasmine; hollyhocks; wisteria; fuchsia; oleander and lavender – ripped out, torn off, bodies crushed, defaced and shattered, necks grotesquely twisted to one side, broken limbs extending towards the sky as if in prayer.
As their last breath left their bodies a heavenly fragrance wafted towards me like holy incense.
The army departed, at last, leaving behind a multi-coloured holocaust of plant life. I wept for the loss of the gardens; I wept out of fear and uncertainty for the future, and mostly I wept for the mindless destruction of the Body Cobra’s life’s work.
A holocaust of plantlife
The Body Cobra never returned. A Seeff for sale sign was erected on the verge outside the gate.
His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to dismantle his home and remove his belongings. Within weeks the Muslim Brothers bought his flat.
I went to visit Mr Ermann. A new wife, Rokaya, opened the door and invited me in. “My husband has just had his bath”,she informed me, “but please wait, I know he wants to see you very much.”
I was surprised to walk into an atmosphere of domestic contentment with exotic aromas of cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom aniseed and turmeric drifting from the kitchen, and classical music playing softly in the background. I heard Mr Ermann and the other wives laughing and chatting animatedly in the next room.
I wandered around the sitting room, still rich with antique Judaica, touching objects reverently, breathing them in: An 18th century Polish silver Torah shield; a silver Passover goblet, an embroidered, velvet challah cover and a Damascene Seder tray made of copper and silver, with a menorah in the centre and engraved on the outer rim the Hebrew words: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill]. May my tongue cling to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy…”
I was lost in contemplation of a painting of a rabbi painted in 1900 by the Austrian artist Josef Johan Suss when Rokaya tapped me on the shoulder. “My husband is ready to see you now,” she said.
Mr. Ermann was lying on this bed, propped up against a pile of pillows. Two of his wives were busy settling him in. I greeted them. Again, I had a distinct feeling that I had seen them on their way in or out of the Diamond Polisher’s flat.
“My dear…” he said warmly. I am so happy to see you, so very happy. I was going to ring you because there is so much to talk about, so much going on.” I noticed a copy of the Koran lying open on his bedside table.
Mr Ermann watched me silently. “Yes, my beloved Rokaya has been reading to me,” he said. “She has such a soothing voice.”
Rokya, who was hovering at the end of the bed, blushed with pleasure at his acknowledgement of her. She and Fatima excused themselves.
Mr Ermann gestured for me to sit on the chair beside the bed. Zubeidah, meanwhile, drew up a chair at the bottom of the bed and began to massage Mr Ermann’s yellow toe-nailed, gnarled purple feet. I looked away, feeling that I was witnessing something as intimate as sexual intercourse.
Replacing the book, I asked after the Body Cobra. Mr Ermann shook his head sadly. “He’s not dead,” he said.
I sank back in the chair with relief.
“They thought it was a heart attack at first. We all thought that,” he said. But it’s something else, a condition called Takotsubo Syndrome, broken heart syndrome”.
“Broken heart syndrome…?
“Yes. I’d never heard of it before but I’ve been reading up on it. It looks like a heart attack at first apparently, but what happens is the left ventricle of the heart blows up like a balloon. The Japanese discovered the condition. They named it after the little fishing pots they catch octopuses in. Takotsubo”.
“Takotsubo? How do you spell it?”
“T-A-K-O, and then T-S-U-B-O. Fascinating isn’t it?
“So he’ll get better?”
“Yes. People do recover from it….Poor dear Hymie…,” Mr Ermann shook his head, looking towards the window. “… A broken heart…Oh my…oh dear….”
We sat silently in mutual mourning for a few moments.
“I have a gift for you,” Mr Ermann said suddenly, his voice lifting. “Zubeidah, darling, go and fetch the parcel please…” Zubeidah let go of Mr Ermann’s feet and left the room. She returned with what appeared to be a large package of books wrapped in brown paper. It was heavy.
“Goodness… for me?”
“Yes,” Mr Ermann nodded enthusiastically. Don’t open it now. Take it home with you.”
It was late afternoon when I left Mr Ermann’s flat. Down below, in the concrete quad that was once the garden, the Muslim Brothers were teaching the new converts how to pray. I stood in the shadows watching them.
A group of Africanists, including Makabung, was also watching from a second-floor balcony in Block B. They were dressed in black T-shirts with an image of a raised fist emblazoned on the front, intensifying their solidarity and giving the impression of latent violence.
The hum of the forbidden voices of Hasidic women keening rose in a tense spiral from behind the door of the rabbi’s flat next door to Mr Ermann’s.
“Allah created body and soul together, so as Muslims we pray with our bodies and our souls, facing the Kaaba, God’s holy temple in Mecca, with Muslims all over the world, like one body, with Allah at the centre of our thoughts. Allahu Akbar ,” Aslam roared. “Allahu Akbar”, the converts repeated after him.
I left them prostrating themselves, foreheads to the ground, and observed with satisfaction that beyond their prone bodies and the walls surrounding Oak View Mansions, the trees on the pavement were sturdy and rooted; their leaves iridescent in the fading light.
They seemed to be waving at me. I almost waved back.
The parcel from Mr Ermann was an early English translation of the ‘Masnavi’ in six volumes. The Persian Sufi, Rumi’s poetry and teachings on mystical Islam have profoundly influenced my own spiritual path. I opened one of the volumes to a bookmarked page and read: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there….”