I am into shampoo now. My fastest selling product is a special car shampoo that removes stains and forensic evidence within minutes. Not even the faintest smell of gunpowder or narcotics can be detected on a vehicle washed by this superb brand of detergent.
None of my customers need to hide forensic evidence, or so I like to think, but they buy it as a precaution. You never know who’s going to get into your car and where they were before they met you. Just a precaution, I always say. Like safe sex, why take the risk?
I notice that demand for my products soars before and after unfortunate incidents. Someone going to Lebanon ordered a big quantity a year or so ago, and I am sure that the tragic death of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri had nothing to do with it. But why am I trying to explain? I only make detergent. I don’t wash anything myself. And if I do, I wear gloves.
The other day Yuri Ivanov, who was just passing through, showed interest in a consignment of detergent. We go back a long way. The first time I met Yuri was in Tripoli during the last stand of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). We were young, and we took risks.
In 1983, we drove trucks filled with boxes and didn’t ask what was inside. We delivered stuff to people who needed them. We drove into back alleys and were greeted by people who were grateful. We were offered tea and vodka by people who pronounced our aliases in tones of true friendship. Some gave us binoculars as gifts, flak jackets too.
Yuri is retired now, but still helps friends every now and then. We all do. Once you’ve outlived your first dozen or so of conflicts, you owe many people favors, and they turn to you when in need. And you know you can trust them. The ones who survive have a reputation to keep. The amateurs are weeded away, and over time some of the good ones disappear too. It’s good to see a familiar face. Yuri looked tanned and relaxed. He’s just been in Gaza.
“You should’ve seen it man, those breadlines. I haven’t seen anything like that since Kiev in the 1960s. It’s going to get worse, I am telling you. For weeks now, Hamas leaders have been practically begging every Palestinian faction to join its government. They’ve been handing out cabinet portfolios on a silver platter, but there were no takers. All they got for winning the elections was international sanctions. They must be really looking hard for a friend. No wonder Yuri felt at home.
“I could be minister of finance in a second if only my name was Mahmoud, I am telling you, Yuri said. He would’ve been a good one too. I know he was once offered something big in Belarus but turned it down. Some people are like that. I call it the moonlighting bug. Such people can only take jobs that are quick and profitable. They factor the risk into the cost and get in and out in a flash. That’s how it is in the land of the international broker. The big guys end up with small Mediterranean islands. The small guys, like us, end up with a lousy ranch off the Alexandria road or a tiny hacienda in Bolivia, where Yuri now lives. He’s first wife was Ecuadorian, I remember her, great salsa dancer. I was about to ask him about her, but I had a foreboding. So I asked about the business instead.
International negotiators have been wondering if Hamas would utter those three magic words: I recognize Israel. They sent Yuri to Gaza to sound them out. Not a job I would take, mind you, but he tried. “There is a lot of baggage around this one. The Hamas guys know the Israelis have a contract on their lives. So it’s a stalemate for now. Whether they say the words or don’t, it doesn’t really matter, he said.
Just to keep the dialogue and his gig going, Yuri made an effort to find middle ground. “I suggested the word “admit instead of “recognize, and the word “status quo instead of “state, stuff like that. Then I said that once they get to a negotiating table that’s when the deal is made. Yuri then went back to his superiors and asked if they would convince the Israelis to offer something in return, perhaps a reassurance that they’d negotiate at some point in the future. The Israelis, it turned out, were too busy with the elections, but said they’d think it over. “The good news, however, is that they love your detergent, Yuri said. “I showed them a sample and they went crazy about it. They’re wondering if I can get them some in a hurry.
“Look here, Yuri, I said. “Whatever you want, I am shipping to Bolivia. Once it gets there, it’s your call.