Trouble at Gatwick Airport.

And JFK.

Make that Heathrow.

What the fuck does it matter?

Anyway, there was talk amongst the check-in staff that I was dead drunk; then, that my research assistant, a distinguished British academic in his very late fifties—School of Oriental and African Studies, for fucksake, you idiots—was not appropriately dressed for an international flight.

Why do they waste our precious time?

Neither charge was remotely true; I’d hardly had anything to drink (less than ten units of alcohol in three hours), and, as far as I’m concerned, my assistant looked reasonably presentable in leather swimming trunks, tartan bedroom slippers, and a somewhat frayed cardigan-like towelling jacket. Had he been wearing a shirt, his appearance could not have been faulted, and at least his hairy chest and distended gut appeared to be clean.

I was wearing a pair of what I had been told, by experts in London, were seagull-hunting breeches, some fresh rugby boots, and a fashion T-shirt, with the surprisingly vulgar slogan “Football Fuck and Dog Shit” splashed in big red letters across the chest. I cannot imagine who took the time and trouble to come up with that one.

My assistant whispered into my ear: “Don’t say a word, old man. Keep mum and stay dumb. They can’t prove you’re under the weather if you keep your mouth shut. If I remember right from last time, they’re not allowed to lock you up without a court order. And I’ll tell them you’re recovering from a near-fatal 48-hour brain operation, so the situation becomes a question as to what sort of bastards they are to treat you like this. If need be, we can always repair to the aerodrome latrines and apply some form of bandaged poultice to your forehead.”

I nodded appreciatively, and stood, as best I could, to a military-style attention, keeping my bags and academic equipment at my sides.

His plan seemed feasible.

This is what friends are for.

And there are times when scholarly attention to detail can be at a premium.

“You deal with the fucking paperwork.” I said. “I honestly don’t think I can manage it myself.”

He agreed, getting out the passports, health certificates, tickets, bogus letters of introduction, fake CVs, bribes, and what-have-you.

I whispered “Look here, old boy, I think I’ve got a tennis racket in my suitcase. Get it out and fiddle about with it. Tell them we’re on our way to a sports festival somewhere. They might think you’re a celebrity professional and give us carte blanche.”

He guffawed at the drunken stupidity of my plan, yet turned me down, preferring to take his chances dressed as he was.

“Are you carrying any contraband?” I asked him, sotto voce.

“Are you carrying a tennis racket?” he answered, innocently.

“Good man.” I said, patting him on the shoulder.

But what did he mean?

We both chuckled.

I wanted to be sick. We had both been smoking marijuana for some hours and were well past our best.

It was all very silly, really, when I think about it now.

Somehow, we managed to get past the Gestapo and board the Air Mauritius flight to Tbilisi.


And it proved to be a long and intellectually exhausting journey.

This was not going to be a Cox and Kings Tour.

Once airborne, and after the drinks trolley had been ‘round a few times and we had stocked up, my companion opened the serious section of our conversation with a dazzling display of intellectual pyrotechnics. I believe his intention had been to outline a phenomenological archaeology of the soul, of the sort any drunken college student could come up with.

But somehow never does.


“Consider a distinctive Middle Eastern people, say a gaggle of worthless scum, like the Bedu, several thousand years ago.” he began. “One of their number, wandering about the wastes of Arabia, counting sand dunes for comfort, and suffering from an all too common combination of agoraphobia and camel-dung toxicity, suddenly undergoes a particularly profound spiritual revelation. And on returning to the tribal marquee, he announces, to his astonished fellows: ‘Allah—God bless him—is sorely troubled with us. He loves the Arab mentality, with its petty vindictiveness and bog-shed stupidity, more than any other in creation, but there is one big problem. He finds our constant, date-fuelled flatulence very difficult to deal with. God knows nothing is more horrible that dried-fruit farting, especially from a stinking Middle Eastern arsehole, but the difficulty is, the Lord cannot hear our prayers for all the noise. He is unable, for example, to distinguish our fervent requests for the deaths of our enemies from casual emissions of date-based methane. To solve this problem, we must all immediately plug up our anuses so that God can hear what the fuck we’re praying.’ Okay so far? So, what do you know, they all insert cleverly-constructed palm leaf suppositories, beautifully-decorated with arabesques, up their arses. Fair enough, what the hell; it’s the Middle East, as James Baker would say. Walking is difficult, camel-riding is a nightmare, but the Lord has spoken through his prophet, and we all know what that fucking means. Now comes the difficult part. How to show especial saintliness, or fanatical holiness? Think about it, you prick. Of course! A larger, more  uncomfortable, more self-righteously ostentatious plug! Now everyone is going around with these huge fucking things protruding from their posteriors, making locomotion pretty difficult, not to say unsightly, believe me. So fucking what! It’s holy, for Christsake, it’s what God wants! Women and children are brought in on the act—‘plugging-up’ is turned into a ceremony—and in a few generations, the whole bloody thing is compulsory. Of course, everyone farts as much as they did before—they just take the fucking cork out when they get home—but as a displacement gesture, they are keen to lay blame on other people. Farting suddenly becomes a crime. Imagine it. Sanctimonious informers are everywhere. Groups of black-shirted fucks walk the streets in groups, slapping their faces until they bleed, shouting in unison, ‘Ali, where the fuck are our plugs? Where are our fucking plugs, Ali?’ You get the picture. Unrepentant weekend farters are stoned to death, and anyone caught farting in a mosque has a red hot poker stuck up their passages, as happened to Edward the Second. Saudi Arabia becomes the first ‘absolutely spiritually fart-free’ country in the world, with Iran just a couple of squeaks behind, and so forth.”

“Are you serious? None of this rings true,” I said, struggling to cope with some of the ideas, and feeling slightly irritated with the hectoring tone I felt creeping in.

“Be patient; I’m getting there,” he said, warming to his exegesis. He roared on in an increasingly loud voice: “Okay, okay: compulsory recto-plugging; saintly plug-enlargement competitiveness; the recto-mutilation of criminals; the whole fucking modern medieval Middle Eastern hamper, indistinguishable from anything that goes on there today. Now imagine a child growing up amongst these bum-plugging, face-slapping scum. He sees his father struggling to get comfortable on a camel; he sees his mother shuffling stupidly about the kitchen, constantly sighing in pain and rubbing her crack, but he says to himself, “Truly, there is no fucking other way.” Along comes some satanic American who offers the kid the chance to study in the States, say at a cesspool of contamination like the Johnnie Cochran Law School, on a Bum-Plug Fellowship, but the kid is undecided, at least until after he’s been properly plugged himself.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” I said, trying to get at a bottle of white which had rolled under my bloody seat. I knocked my plastic cup off the fold-up table in front of me and red wine splashed all the way down the front of my shirt.

“Wait, wait!” he said, by now shouting at the top of his voice. “We’re nearly there, for godsake! Eventually, the kid arrives in the West. He’s wearing designer Bedu robes and the he’s been fitted with the handsomest, most ornate plug his family can afford. The fucking thing sticks out of his crack about three feet! He’s proud as fuck with his culture, his religion, and his society. He waddles the streets as best he can, a huge fucking smirk on his face, stopping to rest against a lamppost only when the pain overwhelms him. Then, wouldn’t you know it, some thoughtless Texan shouts out, ‘Hey kid! What’s with the fucking carrot up your ass?’”

“Will you two bloody well shut up!” roared a man in the seat in front of us, twisting around as he did so and peering over the head-rest.

I let the in-flight magazine fall across my face and pretended to be asleep.

My assistant exploded with alcoholic aggression. “Clear off, you fucking bum-plugging lout! Unless you want your fucking face creamed, you filthy fucking vulgarian!” he roared as loudly as he could, his words surely reaching the furthest depths of the aircraft. “We’re in international airspace now, you ineducable cunt! Get back to your fucking 875 page Stephen King novel, you Tolkien-reading fuck-brain, you fucking Romanian sex trafficker!”

The man in front turned away, looking horrified.

I nodded pathetically.

My assistant went on with his account as if nothing had happened. “So what does the kid do? Does he take out the plug, throw it away, live a normal life, and risk the wrath of God? Fucking hell no, forget it! Instead, he takes the Texan’s address and tries to kill him, while drumming up political support amongst the Bum-Plugger lobby in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere, claiming religious discrimination. Farrakhan organises a million plug march, and rap negroes start fitting ultra-hip gold plugs, so let’s kill cops, hey motherfucker. Suddenly, it’s ultra-cool to have a distended sphincter. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

I wanted to, honestly.

So I thought about it, looking at it mentally from several angles, and bringing my not inconsiderable academic training to bear on it.

It was no easy task.

“Hark, he is calling Elijah,” I answered, after a pause.

“Precisely. Exactly. Magnificent!” he said, applauding me with a cascade of deafening hand-claps. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

Eight years of philosophical study does bring some rewards.

“Yes, yes. But what if the Bum-Pluggers are theologically in the right?” I answered. “What if God genuinely can’t tell the difference between our farts and our innermost prayers? The accession to secular power of Middle Eastern religious leaders makes sense in this scenario. Have you thought of that, you fucking infidel, you fucking arrogant Westernized dog, you fucking pornographer?” I said, trying to stretch my legs. Then I added, “By the way, do you think we could get into First Class? If need be, we could bribe the waitress with a back copy of Santa Barbara Cocksucker.”

“Too late. I gave them to the purser,” he said, looking embarrassed. “How do you think I got us these seats, you bloody dullard?”

“What about our copies of Memphis Tit-Fucker?” I asked.

‘No. I want to keep those in case we get into a tight corner in Afghanistan.’

“So what do we do, then?”

“Let’s finish these three bottles of red first,” he said. “Then we’ll take a fucking walk. We’ll kick our way into First Class if we fucking have to. We deserve it. We’re scholars and long-time academics. We’re philosophers-at-large. We’re fucking visionaries.”

I agreed.

We never left our seats.


Tbilisi, Baku, Dushanbe, Alma-Aty, Mecca, Medina, Riyadh.

Jesus Christ.


“Where the hell are we now?” I asked my assistant as we arrived, in the white-hot sunlight, at what appeared to be an abandoned bus station—or was it an oil refinery—on the edge of the Taklamakan.

We were both by this stage very much the worse for drink.

I was nearly blind.

I really wanted to kill somebody, anybody would do; it seemed absolutely appropriate.

“I thought we’d check out Qom. I’ve got some contacts there,” he said, scanning the horizon like a Boy Scout.

That did it.

I decided to teach him a lesson.

Getting a fix on his position, I lumbered purposefully over to where I judged he was standing and just about managed to grab his towelling robe by one of the frayed lapels. “Are you mad, you bastard theologian?” I screamed, full of the sense of purpose that only alcohol can bestow. “Khomeini’s shithole cemetery? With all that sauce in our fucking luggage? We’re almost a mobile liquor store! Get a grip on yourself, you fucking idiot! Every piss-brained Revolutionary Guard in the country will drop on us like black shit-flies on a Christmas pudding! By the time they’ve done, you’d be praying for a fucking car bomb to drive by! And your usual routine—telling them we’re Russian clergy—is not going to cut the least fucking ice, now that the old Soviet Union no longer exists. For pity’s sake, you shit-for-brains London academic, you bastard TLS book reviewer, you fucking departmental dead-wood, what the hell are you trying to do to us?”

I tried to shake some sense into him, but couldn’t get up a decent head of steam.

Suddenly, a revolver shot exploded in my left ear.

I screamed at my friend to duck; they were fucking shooting at us, probably Revolutionary Guards, this was fucking serious !

But for some reason, he made no move to save himself, and he told me later that what I had in fact heard was the sound of his fist connecting with a very heavy punch to the side of my face.

These were not happy days for the two of us.

We shuffled about in the sands in a mock-aggressive embrace, like exhausted sumo wrestlers, altogether too fucking fat and flabby to do anything decisive.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said after a pause, sounding bewildered, and steadying himself against a stack of empty oil drums while still keeping an arm locked tightly around my neck. “Okay, okay; we stay on the leeward side of the border. We stay here.” He pointed vaguely towards the ground.

“Sometimes, you really fucking make me wonder,” I said, squirming out of his hold and grabbing on to a metal handrail I found sticking out of somewhere or the other.

“I could be losing my touch,” he said, pulling disturbingly at his face with his fingers, as if to animate it.

Because, as you know, when you’ve been drinking steadily for some hours, your face can sometimes go dead on you.

We could not have been a pretty sight.

Neither of us had had a good look in a mirror for 25 years.

Or would probably ever do so again.

“It’s all right, old man,” I said sympathetically, easing myself to the ground. “It’s the evil bloody atmosphere out here. It gets to you. Added to which is the constant sight of all these bum-plugging swine, wherever you look.”

He took a huge gulp from a bottle of slivovitz wrapped in a copy of El Ahram.

Holding on to a length of piping, he bent down and passed the bottle over to me.

Fuck the strength of the stuff.

Fuck it to hell, for all of our sakes.

“I say we book into an ashram for a day or two,” I suggested, lying on my side, and propping myself up on an elbow. “Jesus. And check out the action. Finish off our duty-free. Write up a few participant observation reports. Lay a bit of pipeline, if we’re lucky enough to be offered it. Then, then, when we know what the fuck’s going on, we carry on with our business. Then, and not before. Do you hear me, old man? Hear me? Pipeline.”

“Good thinking,” he said, his legs giving way. “You win.”

He broke his fall with his shoulder and made a despairing noise, like a bull being stunned at an abattoir.

I couldn’t help him, and he couldn’t help me.

Later, after the sun had set, and we were able to come to our senses—I was hoping we had died—we got an auto-rickshaw—a moribund tuk-tuk—to drive us to a village in a dust-swept plain.

And we managed to find—a good distance away from the unnecessarily noisy local bazaar and discotheque—an adequately clean boarding-house, with a first-rate third-floor roof garden en suite. Perfect. Excellent luck. Fucking  wonderful. Even if the stench coming up from the irrigation ditches—and the septic tank—left a bit to be desired, but then again, this was Rough Guide territory. We had food, shelter, running water, single malt, and a fine stash of hash. Almost everything any British soldier could want.

What I would have done for a glimpse of female pubic hair.

But no.

And as I was climbing the stairs to our room, I popped my head around the kitchen door, hoping to find a plate of chicken and chili samosas cooling on the windowsill.

But no, again.

Instead, an enormous, shapeless woman, cloaked in the requisite black tent and looking like a huge, oily turd, listlessly tending a charcoal fire.

These stupid bloody women have a lot to answer for.

Not knowing I was there, she suddenly rubbed her crack in anguish before letting out an exhausted, long-suffering, abandoned sigh.

It suddenly occurred to me to ask her if she was wearing a plug, but the joke would have been lost on her.


For all installments of “Love You, Zyra,” click here.