Contents of a Censor’s Outbox
When she sat at her desk her back was to the window and the view, an expanse of perfectly green lawn with a flagpole stuck in the middle of it. The top of her desk was neat: computer, telephone, green blotter with black pen marks winging across it, a few black wide-tip markers, regulation letter opener, two scissors, one large, one small, a box of single-edge razor blades, and a stack of stationery which read From the Desk of Lieutenant Meg Reilly, Fort Quonipset, New York across the top.
Beside the computer was a photograph of a man standing in front of a wooden house, the kind used as lookouts for wildfires in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains. The cabins were covered with wire to protect them from porcupines who chewed on the siding for the salt in the wood stain. The cabins themselves looked like porcupines on stilts. On the bottom of the frame was printed: Observer Walter Casey Reilly in front of his post, 1954.
Next to the photograph of her grandfather was a picture of a younger Lieutenant Reilly standing next to three other cadets holding American flags on the floor of the Continental Arena at the opening of a game between the New Jersey Nets and the San Antonio Spurs. The emblem of the Nets was painted on the floor at her feet. Facing her on the other side of the logo, blonde twins sang the national anthem. The audience had stood and applauded. She stared straight ahead as she had been trained to do whether the moment was stirring or a routine drill and she was feeding mosquitoes on a hot day in August. When the thunderous applause stopped, the lights came back on. In the audience she saw a man wearing a large foam rubber spur on his head. A man in a bear suit came out and danced on the floor in modified hip-hop style while audience stomped their feet.
That was her last stage performance. The road from the Continental Arena to a desk in a remote upstate town took several years but was a relatively straight line. Fort Q lay ten miles west of the Hudson River, tucked into a fold in the mountains. When Lieutenant Reilly needed to rest her eyes she looked out the window and imagined Mahican hunters as they had once slipped through the trees believing the mountains were the only world that had ever been and the only one that would ever be; little knowing that in a blink a former cadet who had inaugurated NBA games would sit in a desk in their woods reading other people’s mail.
Abutting the photograph of Lieutenant Reilly’s grandfather was her black metal Outbox. It was overflowing with marked and cut-up paper that was destined never to be delivered.
Growing up at the edge of the city of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX I used to draw treasure maps of empty lots. I’d dig under a pile of rocks, pry up a couple of cinder blocks or rake away dead leaves collected at the bottom of a culvert, coming up with little more than tin cans, worms, and wood ticks. People had been here before, I was sure of it, and they must have left some valuable part of themselves behind: a wagon wheel, a slug or medicine bottle from a wild west show, a boot from a Hessian conscript in the Revolution. Bits of quartz had to be evidence that diamonds lay compressed somewhere in outcroppings of granite studded with feldspar and mica chips. A genii never emerged from an ancient Schlitz bottle no matter how hard I rubbed it. When I expanded my explorations to abandoned buildings and boarded up gas stations I imagined the treasure of Captain Kidd or Blackbeard had miraculously migrated inland and could be found in the padlocked men’s room of a defunct Esso station. As I grew up I learned to separate mythological treasure from that which could be potentially real. The amoeba-shaped escudos and reales from the reign of Philip III of Spain minted in the New World wouldn't march on their own from Antigua to Des Moines, and I had no means to get to them. Treasure hunter and diver Mel Fisher needed sixteen years to locate the fortune of the Spanish galleon, the Atocha, sunk in the Atlantic. After sixteen years of coming up with sand in his pockets, the wreck was sited and Fisher was showered by a rain of emeralds and gold doubloons. From a scuba diving shop in Redondo Beach to the waters of the Caribbean he was able to make his dream come true, while I joined the Merchant Marines and became a vegetarian.
When I returned from my tour I worked from a third floor walk up in XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX writing entries for the Encyclopedia Britannica. With a view of a brick wall I felt like a truck driver taking conceptual cargo destined for book reports and who knows what else from one place to another. As I wrote about Incan gold or Burmese temple sculpture I looked for the key to unlock these stories. On an archaeological site from the moment shovel hits something hard and dirt is brushed away, treasure tends to change hands. Why not, I thought while writing about the looting of Rome, find treasure which has already been found?
Providing a connection between anonymous backers and hunters became my business, covering continents and oceans, but new territories are always sought. You have been tremendously helpful in this regard. The opportunities that come with your posting are excellent.
Clay tablets packed in the equipment of embedded TV journalists from XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX arrived. I drove to New York to retrieve them, listening to Nirvana as I drove, and singing at the top of my lungs. He left the unmarked crates with his doorman who helped me carry them to my van. The pieces were in excellent condition. The first set contained a list of a dead queen’s staff who were buried with her to help her in the afterlife: slaves, musicians, singers, storytellers, cooks, brewers, millers, kitchen workers, nursemaids, and hairdressers. The Babylonians were obsessed with lists. They believed experience could be organized through algorithmic procedures, sorting the world into categories they could process on clay tablets written out in cuneiform.
The second set of clay tablets detailed Hammurabi’s laws of physician liability.
Cost of surgery on a person of means: ten silver shekels.
Cost of surgery on a slave: two shekels.
If person of means dies as a result of surgery: surgeon’s hand cut off.
If a slave dies as a result of surgery: surgeon must pay to replace slave.
All pieces sold instantly. No sooner do they make their way to my warehouse when they are repacked and sent on to Paris, Tokyo, Chicago. A few have speculated that at some future date caches of looted objects will be found in basements, attics, garages, closets. All my closets are empty. Each object is sent out of my keeping like greased lightning. We don’t even shake hands.
And yet, I know there’s a great deal out there, still. I’ve seen pictures of the National Museum of Antiquities: the empty glass cases, boxes turned upside down, empty shelves, glass cutters lying on the floor, piles of debris, beads, shards of clay, mixed in with Assyrian amulets and tiny figures of Sumerian gods with outstretched arms. The museum had eight storage rooms full of artifacts from a variety of archaeological expeditions across the country. The objects were clay, copper, and bronze. They were weapons, figures of gods, clay or stone slabs incised with cuneiform, fragments of unknown meaning and origin. Of the eight rooms, five have been entered. According to reports there was no sign of forced entry into these rooms. The keys were customarily kept in the museum director’s safe. They aren’t there now, so the mystery remains, how to gain access to the three remaining rooms?
I also want to discuss another treasure with you, a real treasure. It lies in twenty-one boxes in one of the underground vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq. Sixteen of the boxes contain gold and jewelry belonging to the royal family. Five additional boxes contain the fabled treasure of Nimrud and the original golden bull’s head from the golden harp of Ur, one of the most valuable artifacts of the country. These vaults had been flooded, and had anyone the foresight to get in there before the army pumped the water out, the boxes might have been taken. In Topkapi (1964), Melina Mercouri imagines the possibility of a similarly fantastic theft. In a glass case in the Topkapi Palace attached to a mannequin dressed like the sultan is a dazzling gold and emerald dagger. It’s heavily guarded, but she and her accomplices including an inventor of Rube Goldberg-like gizmos and an acrobat, Guilio the Human Fly, do amazing things.
Please don’t send the pornographic blood-spattered murals from the Presidential Palace. They have next to zero monetary value and only appeal to a small, specialized, hard- to-locate group. Similarly, don’t send me flagstone-sized pieces of the unflattering mural of George Bush Sr. from the Al Rashid hotel. I have no buyers for it.
I will continue to provide hard cash needed for XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
at borders and airports.
From the Desk of Lieutenant Meg Reilly, Fort Quonipset, New York
The museum referred to in the attached document was used by snipers. They smashed a window from the inside and stacked crates and packing material against it so the remaining opening would be equivalent to the height of the shooter. The window (only one of two on the museum’s western wall) looks out on a street frequently used by coalition forces. Scattered around were abandoned things, a few dead rocket propelled grenades, a RPG launcher, an AK-47 magazine, one set of ceramic body armor, British made, with a couple of bullet holes. Apparently, they were testing it.
According to reports there was a three stooges aspect to the looting of the museum. Not only were a set of keys kept in the director’s safe, but there was a secret set of keys hidden in the museum which the thieves were also aware of and had obtained. These keys led to a fourth room which contained a series of thirty locked cabinets containing boxes of cylinder seals and ancient gold and silver coins. The fourth room, however, held a hazard. It was lined with hundreds of plastic boxes, also containing a jumble of as yet to be sorted and catalogued artifacts. One of the thieves accidentally tripped and dropped the keys into one of these boxes. The laser-cut unduplicatable keys disappeared into a hodgepodge of 5000-year-old antiquities. Since there was no electricity, the thieves lit scattered pieces of foam padding used for packing artifacts. The toxic fumes from these improvised torches provided little help to them. They threw boxes every which way looking for the keys but failed to locate them, therefore the thirty cabinets remained untouched.
My backers and I am interested in purchasing items from Site X, ruins of the city of Babylon, fifty miles south of Baghdad. Terra cotta or marble head of Babylonian King Nabu-na’id much desired.
Nabu-na’id (555-539 BC) was devoted to the moon-sun god, Sin. Sin was a troubled god, not unlike the king himself, and their stories are linked. The story of Sin’s conception involved rape and the exile of Sin’s parents by the pantheon of Sumerian gods, but despite his marginalization the moon-sun god was a powerful figure. Sin’s symbol is a reclining crescent moon, and if an artifact is unearthed bearing this icon, it’s a sign that representations of this particular king may likely also be in the vicinity. Nabu-na’id’s mother was a priestess of Sin and his father was a rich man, so Nabu-na’id was well-placed to get what he wanted; still he encountered many problems on the road to the throne.
The root of his troubles lay in theological differences. Babylonians worshipped Marduk, the scaly, spikeless dragon with aggressive talons and the head of a snake with a single horn, and Marduk guarded the walls of the city with great tenacity. Images of the dragon were everywhere so the new king ordered these friezes to be chipped away. By trying to change the state religion from dragon to moon-sun, he alienated the priests of the city, but the priests held many municipal cards. Nabu Na’id, his days numbered, had to cope with spiraling inflation and famine, a war against Egypt. The king, said to be going mad, was abandoned by the continually provoked and conspiratorial priests who had launched him into power in the first place. As far as they were concerned sacrificing Marduk for Sin was not part of the imperial bargain. Church was a tightly wound spring coiled inside state. Also, the general population was fed up with his despotic rule. The acolyte of the moon-sun god had enough loyal soldiers to lash out at the discontents and the insurgents. When the people revolted, he ordered large scale massacres. Nabu-na’id went into self-imposed exile, but unable to stay away, he boomeranged back. Recognized at the gates, despite his disguise, he was apprehended when he tried to re-enter the city of Babylon one last time. Some sources say he was killed, others say he returned to power elsewhere, so the exact nature of his fate remains a mystery. Like Nixon, he kept coming back.
Representations of Nabu-na’id are valuable to museums and, if objects can’t be authenticated, private collectors pay cash money. Enclosed find some poor quality photographs of Nabu-na’id statuary photocopied from a book on a 1926 expedition to Bismaya by the Oriental Institute of London.
Drawing of Napoleon loping off the nose of the Sphinx.
Pornographic magazine from 1976. Letter states similar items will be sent in case electricity failure prevents internet access.
Two cartoons in the same letter, stapled together:
Cartoon A: a Xeroxed photograph of piece of Mesopotamian frieze depicting a lion carrying a man in his mouth. Caption reads,Siegfried and Roy
Cartoon B: Xerox of a photograph from the Sgt. Bilko television show. Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko is seen playing poker. He’s sitting at a table surrounded by other soldiers. Lieutenant Reilley redacts every word superimposed on the speech balloons over the heads of the actors. They were discussing WMPs and she doesn’t find anything funny in any of it, but the mail comes from all over the continent and most often she finds none of it in the least bit comic even when the intention has been to amuse someone, somewhere.
Collage cartoon of cut and pasted newspaper. Beetle Bailey on a flying carpet. Uncle Sam as Disney genii coming out of a bottle wearing an Uncle Sam top hat and whiskers. Caption: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Your wish is my command.
List of words and phrases to be redacted:
|Shells||Collapse||[Beat with] chair|
“The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad”
Adapted from Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights.
Once upon a time in Baghdad there was a porter. On a day like any other as he was idly hanging out on the street waiting for a job, a woman approached him. Her face was partially covered by a mantilla of Mosul silk shot with gold, but he could see she had long black braids which seemed to float in the air behind her, black eyes with lashes like brooms. She raised her veil and asked the porter to pick up the basket of his trade and follow her.
The porter was dazzled, but he quickly did as she asked. He followed her for a while until she arrived at the door she sought and knocked on it. A Nazarene opened the door. She gave the man a gold piece in exchange for strained wine as clear as olive oil which she put in the porter’s basket. Next the woman stopped at a fruit merchant and from him she bought Shami apples, Osmani quinces, and Omani peaches, cucumbers and limes from Egypt, Sultani oranges, citron, and jasmine from Aleppo, scented myrtle, privet flowers, chamomile, blood-red anemones, violets, pomegranate flowers, eglantine, and narcissus. The porter had to shoulder all this. Although the basket was heavy, the porter felt it was his lucky day. Next stop was a butcher’s booth where she bought ten pounds of lamb wrapped in a banana leaf. Then she proceeded to another merchant where she purchased raisins, almonds, pistachio nuts, perfumes of orange flower, water lily, willow-flower, candles of Alexandria wax, olives in brine and oil. The list went on and on and provides a window into the kinds of things that could be bought in the market in medieval Baghdad.
The porter made a joke. He should have brought a camel. The woman reassured him that he’d be well paid for his services. He followed her to a house whose gate was marked by two leaves of ebony and red gold. The leaves parted when the door swung open. Standing at the door was a woman more beautiful than the first. She had eyes like a gazelle and eyebrows like crescent moons, her mouth was like the ring of Solomon, and her teeth like a row of pearls or chamomile petals, her throat, he compared to that of an antelope. The porter lost his wits, and the basket he carried nearly toppled from his shoulder.
He followed the woman into the house which was a knockout: balconies, fountains, arches, and galleries. At the end of one room the porter spied a couch of juniper wood set with gems and pearls. Above it swung a canopy of mosquito curtains of red silk looped up with pearls, Burton translates, as big as filberts.
On the couch lay a third woman, more beautiful then the first two. Her eyes were fraught with Babel’s gramarye (magic). Her lips were carnelian. The porter compared her to a golden dome, a galaxy, the sun at noon. He was at a loss for words. She told her sisters to help the man with his burden before he collapsed.
For all this they paid him two gold pieces and told him, gratefully but emphatically, it was time for him to be on his way; yet the porter guessed there was no man around so he dawdled shamelessly. Between the array of rich purchases he’d just carried and the three beautiful women, he wasn’t in any hurry.
One of the women suggested he ought to be paid another dinar, but he protested, two was his going rate, then he asked why there were no men in the house, saying there could be no pleasure without a man around. He advertised himself as a man of good sense, but the sisters protested. He wouldn’t be able to keep their secret. He should leave already.
“Lost is a secret, when the secret’s told,” one of them said.
He argued that he was literate, had read books and chronicles.
Fine, they said, if you want to stay, but you must ask no questions about anything you see and you must submit to our commands. He was asked to read the writing over of the entrance to their house which read in letters of gold:
IF YOU SPEAK OF ANYTHING THAT DOESN’T CONCERN YOU, YOU’LL HEAR THINGS THAT WON’T PLEASE YOU.
He told them this was not a problem and they proceeded to eat, drink, carouse, and according to Burton, “play tricks and talk about their lovers.”
Suddenly there was a knock on the door, and three Persian fakirs, newly arrived in Baghdad, entered the house. Each fakir was blind in the left eye yet half-blind though they were they noticed the porter was drunk and sore from slapping. The Persians were invited to join the party as long as they obeyed house rules. They agreed and took out a tambourine from Mosul, a lute from Iraq, a harp from Persia and began to play. Another knock on the door once again disrupted the party. This time they were joined by a caliph in disguise. It was Caliph Harun al Rashid attended by Ja’afar, his Wazir, and Masrur with his Sword of Vengence.
The whole group drank and caroused all night until the three beautiful women did some strange things. They called out two black dogs and beat them mercilessly, then wept over the dogs. One of the women also appeared to have been beaten, and she tore her clothing. The mystery of this was too much for the men to put up with in silence. One hour before morning dawned they elected the porter to ask what story was with the bastinadoed woman, her torn clothing and the dogs. The porter wasn’t crazy about having to break the rules, but his superiors pushed him into making the query. He pleaded with them to wait one more hour until daybreak but the disguised caliph and the others were too curious to wait. So he asked.
The women flew into a rage. “You broke your promise! You lied just to partake of the pleasures we offered and now you want knowledge which will destroy everything you value.” She struck the floor with her hand and seven African slaves appeared with drawn swords.
“Pin their elbows and tie them all together.”
The slaves did as she commanded then asked if they should cut off their heads. The woman turned to the fakirs.
“Were you three born blind in one eye?”
“No, each of us were blinded in a different tale which if it were written upon the eye corners with needle gravers would be a warning to whoever could be warned.”
She questioned the second and third fakirs, and their reply was the same as the first.
“Then each of you from the caliph to the fakirs to the porter, tell us your stories and if they’re good we will stroke his head and send him on his way, otherwise you have an hour to live,” the woman said. “Make the most of it.”
The clock was ticking, food and drink was scattered all over, and the house lay in ruins from the carousing, beatings, and all else. The three sisters had a story to tell as well, and Scheherazade would tell the story of the eldest sister, too, in order to tease out one more day of life for herself.
Sir Richard Burton, English explorer, orientalist, scholar, linguist, sexologist, mystic and spy, translated The Thousand and One Nights in 1850. Unlike European adventurers who had gone before him, Burton learned the languages of the places to which he traveled. When in Baghdad he wore the clothing of the people of that city and dyed his skin with walnut stain in order to pass as one of them.
The Thousand and One Nights grew into sixteen volumes and in the process of translation Burton, too, became a prisoner of Scheherazade’s tales which give detailed pictures of life in Baghdad long before photography was invented. There are two structures at work in The Arabian Nights, two contradictory visual models. One story is connected to the next like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, made up of one line of interlocking pieces, making it very difficult to accurately snip one out, hold it overhead and say this is Sinbad, or this is Ali Babi, or Aladdin, or any of the thousands of other characters that unlike those three, escaped the notice of Disney Studios. At the same time the stories occupy one another like a large set of Russian nesting dolls. They arrange themselves like a mise en abime puzzle: I’ll tell you story about a man telling a story about a man telling a story…
While working on The Thousand and One Nights Burton wrote extensive footnotes on Jinni, the etymology of the concept, and as well as the different classes of Jann, as if he knew the Jinni was the figure that would lasso the imagination of the West, as if the image of the Jinni would be the glittering tip of the sixteen volume iceberg. He wondered if there was a connection between Jinni and the idea of Genius, a word which arrived in Rome, he wrote, via the Asiatic Etruscans. Nefarious Jinni (feminine is Jinniyah) were related to the Rahkshasas, demons of the Ramayana, but not all Jinni were bad. Occasionally in The Thousand and One Nights they were hinges that led to completely different stories. Among the classes of Jinni are the Ifirt (masc.), Ifritah (fem.), Marid (masc.), and Maridah (fem.). In the story of “The Fisherman and the Ass” the Jinni emerges from a brass vase accompanied by a lot of smoke. The Jinni is described as follows.
His crest touched the clouds while his feet were on the ground. His head was as a dome, his hands like pitchforks, his legs long as masts, and his mouth big as a cave. His teeth were like large stones, his nostrils ewers, his eyes two lamps, and his look was fierce and lowering.
Besides Jann the other image from The Thousand and One Nights to have become a symbol of the Middle East is the flying carpet. On the subject of flying carpets, Burton has this to say:
The great prototype of the Flying Carpet is that of Sulman bin Daud [i.e. King Solomon], a fable which the Koran (cahp. xxi. 81) borrowed from the Talmud, not from “Indian fictions.” It was of green sendal embroidered with gold and silver and studded with precious stones, and its length and breadth were such that all the Wise King’s host could stand upon it, the men to the left and the Jinns to the right of the throne; and when all were ordered, the Wind at royal command, raised it and wafted it whither the Prophet would, while an army of birds flying overhead canopied the host from the sun.
Following Burton’s death, his wife burned much of his writing, but its possible copies, moldy, damp, and crumbling, exist somewhere he thought she would never look. In some attic, basement, closet, stable converted into a garage, a piece of yellowed paper sticks out between the badly plastered drywall. Only a triangle is visible. If these pages of allegedly burnt memoirs could be reconstructed, Burton’s investigations into the subjects Isabel Burton wanted to censor can only be imagined.
Lieutenant Reilly is headquartered in the second office on the right at the beginning of a long corridor on the second floor of a sand-colored cinderblock building. The parking lot alongside it is never full. From the air the scattered hummers and other vehicles look like a child spilled the contents of a Pez dispenser. When she’s finished reading, cutting, and marking for the morning she goes to the cafeteria which always smells of French fries and Coke, or, depending on what’s on the menu, like fried chicken. As she sits in a blue plastic chair she looks out over the lawn and chats with the guards who usually man the entrance to the facility. They, too, are getting their lunch. By now the shift is rotated and another group is sitting in the sentry box at the entrance to Fort Quonipset. After lunch Lieutenant Reilly returns to her office. She stares into the trees for a moment then turns on her computer and looks up a picture of the pornographic murals found in the presidential palace as well as those found in the hotel. The search doesn’t take long. She pulls a piece of typing paper from a nearby stack and draws a composite sketch of the murals rejected by the antiquities dealer. Lieutenant Reilley draws well although she’s had no formal training. The two presidents preside over a riot of limbs, crescent moons, spike-less dragons, Sumerian gods, and grenade launchers. She finishes her drawing and tosses it in into her outbox. Then she leaves her office using a key that cannot be copied and makes her way to the bathroom as sand colored as the exterior of Fort Quonipset HQ. The pink liquid soap is harsh and stings her paper cuts, but it leaves the indelible black ink marks of her trade intact.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C., and The Colorist, and a collection of short fiction, Storytown. Besides the Rail, her work has appeared in failbetter.com, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, and featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.