Bara the Wifebeater

It’s not the name he would choose, and no one dares use it to his face, but with his empire in our street reduced to his wife’s chop shop, Bara has little left to show for himself except his frustration and his fists. Yet at the peak of empire, the ruler of Rue 103 was a respected entrepreneur, running a general store from a one-room shack, a popular table-football club and a busy brickmaker’s yard. But he was squatting on land too valuable to be left to a poor man without connections, and so last month a bulldozer razed the vacant lots and a team of labourers quickly knocked up a wooden fence around the perimeter. After that, work stopped until ownership was settled between various well-connected claimants, downtown in the air-conditioned offices of lawyers paid to do what they’re told.

The brickyard used to be a hive of activity: a constant traffic of horse-drawn carts bringing sand and gravel and taking away ready bricks; one man mixing the concrete; two others filling the brick mould, scraping off the excess, carrying it to the edge of the yard and tapping it out to join the lines of other bricks baking in the sun. Each gesture repeated a hundred times; each man could anticipate the other’s actions and match his own in a smooth series of movements that was as choreographed as a ballet. It was hypnotic to watch under a white-hot sun.

Bara supervised horizontally from a cardboard mat in the shade of a lean-to by the wall. He fiddled with his radio and dozed until the worst of the heat had passed. Then he would stand and stretch, and inspect the pile of reject bricks. “This one’s ok! Fix this one! It’s good enough!” His workers sorted through the pile in silence, adding chipped and split bricks to the waiting carts.

Then Bara would straddle his most coveted object, a black and dented scooter, and ride loudly down the rutted lane, nodding to his peers and ignoring the others. Where he went, I don’t know.

At dusk, he returned and pulled the boys from the table-football, giving their places to the adult clients eating at his wife’s chop shop. The adults made more noise than the children ever did, living out their lost ambitions of glory on a battered wooden table and eleven player pegs. The cries and protests continued until after dark — a wonder since there was no light to play by.

Bara retired to his wife’s table and shouted for his food. She served him at arm’s length; unfortunately, Bara’s arm was longer and never failed to reach out and slap her, even while his right hand was already scooping up rice from the bowl. One smack was enough to make a point — I’m the boss.

With the loss of his other activities, Bara has turned to wifebeating full-time, chasing her into a corner and ignoring her screams or the calls from her customers. Disgusted by the violence, fewer people frequented the place, preferring to eat in peace in the hot, tarpaulin tents recently set up at the end of the street. And now, in Ramadan, there are no customers at lunchtime at all.

Which leaves Bara his final venture, renting out a tall ladder to his neighbours, including me. For the equivalent of a day’s wages, he lent me the ladder for a few hours so that I could install an air-conditioner for the kids’ bedroom. Others shook their heads when I told them the price, but none could get Bara to budge — he knew it was for me and he knew I would pay.

I don’t mind the price, really I don’t — it’s only a question of time before another rich person dispossesses him of his sleeping yard. And the worse it gets for Bara, the worse it gets for his wife. That I mind.