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The Exceptionby Christian Jungersen
“Dont they ever think about anything except killing each other?” Roberto asks. Normally he would never say such a harsh thing.
The truck with the four aid workers and two of the hostage takers on the tailgate has been stopped for an hour or more. Burned-out cars block the road ahead, but it ought to be possible to reverse and outflank them by driving right through the flimsy small shacks.
“I mean, what are we waiting for? Why dont they just drive on through the crowd?”
Robertos English accent is usually perfect, but now, for the first time, you can hear that he is Italian. He is struggling for breath. Sweat pours down his cheeks and into the corners of his mouth.
The slum surrounds them. It smells and looks like a filthy cattle pen. The car stands on a mud surface, still ridged with tracks made after the last rains, now baked as hard as stoneware by the sun. The Nubians have constructed their grayish brown huts from a framework of torn-off branches spread with cow dung. Dense clusters of huts are scattered all over the dusty plain.
Roberto, Ibens immediate boss, looks at his fellow hostages. “Why cant they at least pull over into the shade?” He falls silent and lifts his hand very slowly toward the lower rim of his sunglasses.
One of the hostage takers turns his head away from watching the locals to stare at Roberto and shakes his sharpened, one-and-a-half-foot-long panga. It is enough to make Roberto lower his arm with the same measured slowness.
Iben sighs. Drops of sweat have collected in her ears and everything sounds muffled, a bit like the whirring of a fan.
Garbage, mostly rotting green items mixed with human excrement, has piled up against the wall of a nearby cow dung hut. The sloping three-foot-high mound gives off the unmistakable stench of the slum.
“O glorious Name of Jesus, gracious Name,” the youngest of their captors intones. “Name of love and power! Through You, sins are forgiven, enemies are vanquished, the sick…”
Iben looks up at him. He is very different from the child soldiers she wrote about back home in Copenhagen. Its easy to spot that he is new to all this and caving in under the pressure. Until now hes been high on some junk, but hes coming down and terror is tearing him apart. He stands there, his eyes fixed on the sea of people that surrounds the car just a short distance away; a crowd that is growing and becoming better armed with every passing minute.
Tears are running down the boys cheeks. He clutches his scratched black machine gun with one hand while his other hand rubs the cross that hangs from a chain around his neck outside his red and blue I LOVE HONG KONG T-shirt.
The boy must have been a member of an English-language church, because he has stopped using his native Dhuluo and instead is babbling in English, prayers and long quotes from the Bible, in solemn tones, as if he were reading a Latin mass:
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for the length of all my days…”
Its autumn back home in Copenhagen, but apart from the season changing, everything has stayed the same. Peoples homes look the way they always did. Ibens friends wear their usual clothes and talk about the same things.
Iben has started work again. Three months have passed since she and the others were taken hostage and held prisoner in a small African hut somewhere near Nairobi. She remembers how important home had seemed to all of them. She remembers the diarrhea, the armed guards, the heat, and the fear that dominated their lives.
Now a voice inside her insists that it was not true, not real. Her experiences in Kenya resist being made part of her quiet, orderly life at home. She cant be that woman lying on the mud floor with a machine-gun nozzle pressed to her temple. She remembers it in a haze, as if it were a scene in some experimental film seen long ago.
This evening Iben has come to see Malene. They are planning to go to a party later, given by an old friend from their university days.
Iben mixes them a large mojito each. She waits for her best friend to pick something to wear. Another track of the Afro funk CD with Fela Kuti starts up. After one more swallow, she can see the bottom of her glass.
Malene emerges to look at herself in the mirror. “Why do I always seem to end up wearing something more boring than all the outfits I've tried on at home?”
She scrutinizes herself in a black, almost see-through dress, which would have been right for New Years Eve but is wrong for a Friday-night get-together hosted by a woman who lives in thick sweaters.
“I guess we just go to boring parties.”
Malene is already on her way back to the bedroom to find something less flashy.
Iben calls out after her: “And you can bet tonight will be really dull. At…Sophies!” She pauses, as if the mere mention of Sophies name says it all, and hears Malene adopt a silly voice: “Oh, yes…at Sophies.”
They both laugh.
Iben sips her drink while she looks over the bookshelves as she has done so many times before. When she arrives somewhere new she always likes to check out the books as soon as she can. At parties she discreetly scans the titles and authors names, filtering out the music and distant chatter.
She pulls out a heavy volume, a collection of anthropological articles. Clutching it in her arms, she sways in time to one of the slower tracks. Her drink is strong enough to create a blissfully ticklish sensation.
She holds her cold glass, presses it against her chest, and gently waltzes with the book while she reads about the initiation ritual to adulthood for Xingu Indian girls. They are made to stay in windowless huts, sometimes for as long as three years, and emerge into the sunlight plump and pale, with volumes of long, brittle hair. Only then does the tribe accept them as true women.
Also on the bookshelf is the tape that Malenes partner, Rasmus, recorded of the television programs on which Iben appeared when she returned from Kenya. It sits there on the shelf in front of her.
Nibbling on a cracker, she puts the tape into the machine and presses Play without bothering to turn down the music. As the images emerge on the screen, she takes a seat.
Now and then she laughs as she observes the small puppet-Iben, sitting there in front of the cameras of TV2 News and TV Report, pretending to be so wise and serious as she explains how the Danish Center for Information on Genocide, where she works as an information officer, lent her to an aid organization based in Kenya. There is a short sequence filmed in a Nairobi slum before the camera records the arrival of the freed hostages at the American embassy for their first press conference. She studies these images. Every time she sees them, they seem just as fresh and unfamiliar.
Malene comes back, trailing a faint scent of perfume and wearing a gauzy chocolate-colored dress. Dresses suit her. Its easy to understand what men see in her. With her thick chestnut hair and lightly tanned skin, she looks positively appetizing, like a great smooth, glowing sweet.
Malene realizes at once which tape Iben is watching and gives her friend a little hug before sitting down next to her on the sofa.
Iben turns down the music. Roberto, still in Nairobi, is addressing a journalist: “In captivity it was Iben who kept telling us that we must talk to each other about what was happening, repeating the words over and over until they were devoid of meaning, or as near as we possibly…”
He smiles, but looks worn. They were all examined by doctors and psychologists, but Roberto took longer than anyone else before he was ready to go home.
“Iben explained that there were a lot of studies demonstrating how beneficial this could be in preventing post-traumatic stress…”
TV Report cuts to Iben speaking in a Copenhagen studio. “If you want to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, its crucial to start debriefing as soon as possible. We had no idea how long we were going to be held. It could have been months, which was why it was a good idea to start trying to structure our responses to what we were experiencing during captivity…”
Safe in Malenes apartment, Iben groans and reaches for her drink. “I come across as…totally unbearable.”
“Youre not the tiniest bit unbearable. The point is, you knew about this and most people dont.”
“But its just the kind of stuff that journalists are always after. I sound like such a psychology nerd…as if I had no feelings.”
Malene puts down her drink, smiles, and touches Iben's hand. “Couldnt it be that they were simply fascinated by the way you managed to stay in control inside that little cow dung hideout? You were heroic. No one knows what goes on inside the mind of a hero, and you certainly werent used to being one.”
Iben cant think of anything to say. They laugh.
Iben nods at Malenes dress. “You know that you cant turn up at Sophies in that.”
“Of course I do.”
The next recordings are Iben's appearances on Good Morning, Denmark and Deadline. On screen she looks like somebody quite different from the old stay-at-home Iben. Normally her shoulder-length blond hair is thick but without the sheen that the sun brings out in most blondes. The African light, however, has been strong enough to bleach her hair. Since then, she has had her hairdresser add highlights to maintain her sun-drenched appearance.
She had also wanted to hang on to her tan, which, in the interviews, was almost as good as Malenes. And she felt that the usual rings under her eyes were too visible for someone not yet thirty, so she had followed Malenes lead. She went off to a tanning salon, but it didn't take her long to realize that frying inside a noisy machine was not for her. Now her skin is so pale and transparent that the half-moon shadows under both eyes look violet.
At the time, her story suited the news media down to the ground. Whatever Iben said was edited until it fitted in with the narrative they were after: an idealistic young Danish woman confronting the big, bad world outside and proving herself a heroine. She was the only one who had managed to escape from the hostage takers. Afterward she had left her safe hiding place to run back to the captives in an attempt to make the brutal policemen change sides in the middle of a brawl.
The papers loved quoting the other hostages when they described Iben as “the strongest member of the group.” A tabloid phoned one of them and didnt leave him alone until he admitted that “without Iben the outcome might well have been less fortunate.” The media chased the story for a week and then totally lost interest. The groups captivity had lasted just four days, which meant that Iben didnt rank among seriously famous hostages. By now, the journalists have forgotten her.
Iben realizes that Malene is trying to sneak a look at her face to find out if somethings the matter.
“Malene, Im fine. Why dont you go and change?”
“Are you positive?”
Malene and Rasmuss apartment is in a state of transition. Draped over the backs of two cheap IKEA folding chairs are Indian throws from a fair trade shop. Like the cheap Polynesian figurines on the pine shelves, the blankets are reminders of the time when Malene was studying international development at university. Three years have passed since Malene received her graduate degree and a well-paid post at the Danish Center for Information on Genocide. Now their furniture includes a pricey new Italian sofa and two sixties Danish Design armchairs. Both Malene and Rasmus make decent money, and little by little theyve been able to afford more upscale pieces.
Theres little evidence, however, of Rasmuss taste. After receiving a university degree in film studies, he couldnt find a job, so now he sells computer hardware at trade shows all over Europe, requiring him to spend more than half the year on the road.
The telephone rings. Iben answers and recognizes the deep male voice with the Jutland accent. She has listened to Gunnar Hartvig Nielsen so many times on the current affairs program Orientation.
Iben calls Malene, who is presently sporting jeans and a fashionable, colorful silk shirt. It looks like her last bid in the dressing-up stakes, because she has put on some makeup.
Iben hears Malene turn down Gunnars suggestion that they should meet for dinner and invite him to join them at Sophies instead.
When Malene hangs up, Iben wonders aloud: “Could he really be bothered to come to Sophies?”
“But whats he going to do there?”
“Meet people, talk to me. Have a good time. Like we are.”
Iben switches off the television and follows Malene to the bathroom, where Malene finishes putting on her makeup.
Iben had heard Gunnar Nielsens name for the first time when she was still a student. Everyone in her dorm shared a daily copy of Information, which published Gunnars stream of articles on international politics. They scrutinized every word and particularly admired and debated his reports from Africa.
Like Malene, Gunnar had grown up in rural Denmark. At nineteen, he joined a development project in Tanzania, where he taught himself Swahili, and then stayed on in Africa, traveling around for three and a half years. When he came home, he wrote a book about the continent, The Rhythms of Survival. It not only had become required reading for young backpackers, but also was taken seriously by people concerned with international issues.
By the time he was twenty-five, Gunnar was a well-established journalist. He had gone back to Africa several times. At one point, he had tried to combine university studies with his Information assignments to cover summit meetings and conferences, but the dull world of university life couldnt compete with the excitement of being at the center of things, so he had dropped out of the course after little more than a year.
Iben and Malene were still at university when Gunnars newspaper pieces suddenly stopped. His fame as a star left-wing writer quickly faded.
Four years ago, when she was a student trainee at the DCIG, Malene had found out what had happened. She had managed to get hold of him for an interview about the horrific but at the time unrecognized genocide in the Sudan. Gunnar had taken a job as the editor of Development, a magazine published by Danida, the Danish state organization for international development. He had told her that, after his divorce, he needed a steady income to pay child support and to rent a new apartment with enough space for his childrens visits. His articles were as good as ever, but they went almost unnoticed by people outside the circle of Danida initiates.
Iben, who was studying comparative literature at the time, felt envious of her friend, who always met such exciting men through her work, and was good-looking enough to attract many of them. Her envy deepened when Gunnar invited Malene out to dinner.
More meals followed. Malene and Gunnar explored restaurants in every corner of the city, but did nothing else. Gunnars stocky frame, his “disillusioned Socialist” attitude, and, above all, the fact that he was in his midforties meant that Malene thought the chemistry between them wasnt right, much as she loved dining out with him. Now and then she would tell Iben about how weary she felt when she saw the pleading in his large eyes.
Once Iben spoke out. “It isnt fair to keep going out with Gunnar and letting him pay for one meal after another. Hes in love with you and you dont even want to sleep with him.”
“Oh, come on. We always have such a good time together. And hes said that he isnt expecting anything more—you know, like love or sex.”
“But hes got to pay for you all the same?”
“No, its not like that. Its simple: he enjoys eating in restaurants and so do I, but Im broke. If he couldnt afford it and I could, Id pay for him.”
When Malene met the younger, cooler Rasmus and became his girlfriend, he too tried to stop her evenings out with Gunnar. Iben overheard Malene say, “Rasmus, theres nothing sexual between Gunnar and me. Were just good friends.” Still, Rasmus had insisted that she should pay her share.
Before leaving, as Iben and Malene talk about who they'll see tonight, they wolf down some leftovers. In the hall, Malene quickly changes to another pair of her expensive orthopedic shoes, which she needs because of her arthritis. They drain their mojitos—and leave.
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