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The Pickup

by Nadine Gordimer
Penguin, 270 pp., $14.00 (paper)


In one of the stories in Nadine Gordimer’s collection Jump (1991), a working-class family in England takes in a lodger, a quiet, studious young man from the Middle East. The daughter of the family becomes intimate with him and falls pregnant. He proposes marriage; dubiously the parents consent. But first, says the lodger, the girl must travel, alone, to his home country to introduce herself to his family. At the airport he secretes a bomb in her suitcase. The plane is blown up; all the passengers die, including his unborn child.

From her reliance on the stereotype of the diabolical Islamic terrorist, one would guess that, at the time she wrote the story in the 1980s, Gordimer had not thought deeply about the question of why, in the human family, young Muslim men have assumed the role of the bad boy, the delinquent. A decade later, as if to make amends, she revisited the kernel situation of the story: the Arab who for ulterior motives woos and marries a Western woman. In it she found the potential for a far more original and interesting development; The Pickup (2001) is the fruit of that development.

Julie Summers is a white South African from a wealthy family. She is young, she is liberal in her attitudes, she has a job in public relations. Her life is going well, or well enough. One day Julie’s car breaks down in the center of Johannesburg. The mechanic who deals with it is handsome, dark-eyed, foreign. She befriends him.

Abdu, as he calls himself, turns out to be an “illegal,” one of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners in South Africa without papers, working on the fringes of the formal economy. Most of these illegals are from other African countries, but Abdu is from the Middle East, from a country that is not named but is described as small, poor, backward, and without oil. South Africa is only one of several destinations he has tried: he has already had spells in Britain and Germany doing jobs the locals turn up their noses at.

For the land of his birth Abdu has only contempt. It is not even a proper country, he says, just a patch of desert demarcated by lines some European once drew on a map. His burning ambition is to become a legal immigrant, preferably to a wealthy Western democracy.

Abdu and Julie begin an affair. The sex is wonderful; for the rest they have little in common. She reads Dostoevsky; he reads newspapers. She, with her South African background, sees people in terms of race and class; he sees them as legals or illegals. He dislikes her circle of friends, disaffected members of the new, post-apartheid intelligentsia, black and white, whose lifestyle he disapproves of and whom he considers naive, ignorant of the real world. He prefers Julie’s father and his banker colleagues, of whose crass values and moral vacuity Julie herself is ashamed, and who in turn want nothing to do with the penniless foreigner she has picked up.

Abdu presses Julie to enlist her family on his side in his struggle with the immigration authorities. But Julie is reluctant, and anyhow Abdu has left it until too late: notice arrives that he is to be deported.

At this point he expects Julie to drop him, as he would drop anyone whose usefulness to him has expired. Instead she goes out and buys two air tickets, which she holds out wordlessly to him. The gesture shakes him. For a moment he sees her in all her mystery, an autonomous being with hopes and desires of her own. But then the old barriers go up again: if this woman cleaves to him it is because she is in thrall to him sexually, as all women are subject to their passions; or because she is involved in some complicated moral game of the kind that only the idle rich have time to play.

Julie’s decision to leave South Africa with him creates a problem, however. He cannot introduce into the bosom of his family a woman who is no better than a whore. He will have to marry her first. So hastily they are married in a registry office.

Why does Julie take the momentous and apparently foolish step of abandoning a not unsatisfactory life in not uninteresting surroundings to run away to a benighted corner of the world with a man who, she must know, does not love her, who switches his very smile on and off as a way of controlling her?

One reason is sex, with the meaning that Julie, with Gordimer behind her, gives to sex. Even when words lie, sex can be relied on to tell the truth. As long as sex with Abdu remains profoundly satisfying, there must be some potential to the relationship. Furthermore, in Julie’s feelings for Abdu there is something maternal and protective. Beneath the surface of his hard male contempt she finds him touchingly boyish and vulnerable. She cannot abandon him.

Most of all, however, Julie is tired of South Africa in a way that, while it may be hard to believe in someone of her age, twenty-nine, is all too easy to accept in someone of Gordimer’s generation—tired of the daily demands that the country, with its history of exploitation and violence going back centuries, and its disheartening contrasts of poverty and affluence, makes upon the moral conscience. Wistfully Julie quotes to Abdu (who is indifferent to poetry) lines by the poet William Plomer:

Let us go to another country
Not yours or mine
And start again.

But for the fact that James Baldwin has already annexed it, “Another Country” would be a fitting title for Gordimer’s book, capturing its central concern—how to make a new life—better than “The Pickup.”

So Julie and Abdu arrive in Abdu’s disdained country of origin, and the true name of Abdu the abductor is revealed: Ibrahim ibn Musa, brother to a butcher’s assistant, a waiter, and a domestic servant. Ibrahim returns not full of glory as the son who has made a successful life abroad, but as a deportee, a reject.

Having settled his wife under his mother’s eye in the bleak provincial town where they live, Ibrahim repairs to the capital, where he spends his time haunting embassies, pursuing contacts, in quest of the elusive visa.

For Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the insolence of office,” having to kowtow to bureaucrats, is good enough reason to put an end to one’s life. No one in our times has to endure more of the insolence of office than a third-world visa petitioner. Ibrahim, however, will swallow any amount of it as long as the beacon of “Permanent Residence” continues to blink. Permanent Residence is a blessed state. Permanent Residents own the world. They have only to show their magical papers and all doors open.

What Ibrahim has to offer the world is a dubious degree from an obscure Arab university, a halting command of English, a deep thirst to shed the identity he was born into, a strategic readiness to accept the West at its own valuation, and, now, a trophy wife, “the right kind of foreigner.”

While he is waiting for word from on high, Ibrahim sits in coffee shops with his friends talking politics. His friends are representative young Arab nationalists. They want the modern world but do not want to be taken over by it. They want to be rid of their corrupt government, by revolution if necessary, as long as revolution is driven by morality and religion.

Ibrahim is quietly skeptical. Getting involved in national politics will, in his eyes, doom him to permanent residence in poverty and backwardness. His longings are of another kind; they arouse him in obscure ways and set him apart from his fellows.

Australia turns him down, then Canada and Sweden. But after a year of petitioning the United States comes through with two visas. Ibrahim is jubilant. He and Julie will live in California (“Everyone wishes to live there”); he will go into information technology or else, with the help of Julie’s stepfather, into the casino business. He cannot believe his ears when Julie announces she is not coming. She will remain with his family, she says; she has found another country, and it is not America, it is here.

Ibrahim’s friends want a new, better Islam that incorporates the best of the West. Ibrahim’s family has the same vision, though in a more down-to-earth form. They want big cars, soap operas, cell phones, gadgets. As for the rest of the West, they prefer to have nothing to do with it. The West is a “world of false gods.” They cannot understand why Ibrahim wants to go there.

One explanation for why Western-type democracy has failed to take root in the Middle East despite a century of democratic movements and uprisings is that Arab nationalists have wanted to pick and choose from the Western cornucopia, taking over science and technology and/or educational systems and/or institutions of government without being ready to absorb their philosophical underpinnings as well, the false gods of rationalism, skepticism, and materialism.

If, in this account, Ibrahim’s friends are in the process of falling into the same trap as their fathers and grandfathers, while Ibrahim is in the grip of a delusion, where does Julie stand? Plunged into her husband’s family, Julie is at first dismayed by her lowly position as a woman, as well as by the absence of the comforts she is used to. But she soon knuckles under and becomes a good daughter-in-law, doing the humbler household chores, contributing to the community by offering English lessons, commencing a study of the Koran, and generally adapting to a new rhythm of life.

This is no mere show, nor is it an exercise in cultural tourism. We are unambiguously given to understand that in the course of the year she spends in Ibrahim’s home Julie undergoes a fundamental change of a spiritual if not religious nature. She begins to understand what being part of a family can mean; she also begins to understand how life can be so deeply infused with the Islamic code that everyday behavior and religious observance can hardly be distinguished. None of this comes about because Ibrahim’s family is a particularly exemplary one. Though his mother, who becomes Julie’s model and who gradually warms to his foreign bride, lives a deeply spiritual life, the other members of the family are unexceptional people of their place and time.

The question of Julie converting to Islam is not raised. The spiritual development that takes place in her is determined not by doctrine but by what one can only call the spirit of the place. Ibrahim’s home is near the town limit. A few blocks away starts the desert. It becomes Julie’s habit to rise before dawn and sit at the edge of the desert, allowing the desert to enter her.

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