My mother was odd. She did things you’re not supposed to. Like having raw tomatoes as an afternoon snack. She’d bite into the tomato’s flesh, the blood pooling around her lips. Afterwards, she’d smoke cheap cigarettes and read me stories about the fisherman Mororo and the monster. For two years, I was bedridden with hepatitis. After my father left, it was just the two of us. When my fever rose, she’d open the windows and we’d sit out on the balcony. I’d close my eyes and listen to her conjure tales of Mororo’s lost brothers, taken by the sea monster. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if she was reading for herself or for me. When I’d open my eyes, I’d see a cigarette in her fingers and the sea behind her. I’d watch the waves, sometimes they’d look like angry dogs, and other times like cigarette ash, or my father’s navy-grey socks.
My mother predicted things. The day before Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female prime minister, was assassinated in 2007, my mother put down the remote, nervously bit into a tomato, and said, “the tide will be high tomorrow”. The next day, the tide washed away the make-shift stalls on the beach. Bhutto’s crime-scene was also hosed clean by specialist teams.
My mother would know when the copper lines would be stolen, or when the city would go into curfew. She’d sense when to stock up on cooking oil or on onions. The nights when to remain indoors, away from “bullet rains”. In hiding her fear, it diverted, manifesting in obsessions that later became my inheritance.
The fridge was always stocked with tomatoes and the kitchen drawer with cigarettes. Even now, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her with a missing husband and a chronically ill son. In her grief, she devised rituals to control her environment. And late at night, unable to sleep, I listened to her cleaning the toilet, mopping the floors, and then repeating the entire process. The scratching of her lighter, the night sea, which sounded like whining dogs, and the breeze, which carried the smell of nicotine, salt, and her perfume, made me unable to think of anything outside of the flat without also thinking of her.
Our flat was hoarded with objects deposited by the sea. Fishing paddles, rope ladders, planks, bottles, shipboards, sand, seashells. From the 16th floor, my mother tried to create the conditions of a shipwreck. She consumed news at an alarming rate. Perhaps her ability to forecast events was nothing more than well-attuned common sense. Down below, the city was manic, inconsolable, and from our ship’s hull, we waited for my father to return. She told me how Mororo immersed himself into the sea inside an iron-cage. When the monster came close, it was caught in the cage’s blades.
I counted the tomatoes she ate, the cigarettes she smoked, and from our balcony, watched as the street dogs fought with crows for scraps.
It wasn’t until I met Agata in London that I thought of the tomatoes again. During the break for my first shift at the cafe, she pulled out a salad tomato from her bag and took a bite.
“You’re not supposed to do that”, I said.
“Do what?” she asked.
“Eat tomatoes like that,” I said.
“You English people are all the same, with your rules.” She said.
“I’m not English, but people don’t do that here,” I said.
And that was that. Agata was now the second person that I’d ever seen grab a tomato and have it as a casual snack. Like a squishy plaything. I tried to read into her relationship with tomatoes, but I got nowhere. Instead, I’d watch her arguing with the customers. It was always the same, they had too many preferences with their coffees, or they weren’t speaking to her in the right way. She had zero tolerance for passive aggression, for any Englishness that made her feel small or unseen. She also had no desire to “fit in”. With time, I grew to like how easily she handled confrontation, and whenever there was a pesky customer, I knew the cold reception awaiting them. I’d hide behind her, focusing on the hissing coffee machine, the playlist, which was a mix of Enya and Björk, or on improving my latte art: I longed to create a milk-monster, then watch it disappear as someone chugged their flat white.
We seldom spoke, but I learned through conversations she had on the phone, that she ran a small theatre company, which performed adaptations of Polish plays at a fringe theatre in South London. I’d hear her grumbling into the phone whenever she mentioned Słobodzianek or Janusz Głowacki, and something about theatre in Poland being “a dead dog’” until the early 2000s, how it was all director-led and the “clinging maestros” from the 90s were just sad, old men sucking the creative oxygen. But when she spoke of Sikorska-Miszczuk, she lit up. After some Googling, undertaken with considerable difficulty because of just how difficult Polish words are to spell, I found a production called “Loose Screws”. From the reviews and excerpts, I learned it was a tragic-comedy that looked at Poland as a separatist Islamic state. I wasn’t sure about the references, if it was an edgy investigation into a prime minister who didn’t want to let go of power, or if it used stereotypes of “Islamic countries” as a cultural landscape to process Poland’s own issues with fundamentalism and patriarchy. After 2001, Islam became the Western world’s symbol of a witch; misunderstood, ostracised, and used as a communal villain so Western nations could continue operating in denial. I wanted to tell Agata how personally I wasn’t big on religion, but perhaps Sikorska-Miszczuk was using the “trauma of the other” as an exotic prop.
And for this “umbrella West”, Islam became a mysticised blackness – black head-coverings, a black temple, golden calligraphy against black fabric, and within this empty blackness, visibly Muslim women were cast as witches. They became synonymous with projection; vilified, othered, diminished, and having their agency as women removed by moral whiteness. The fear-mongering that proclaimed the Islamic state was going to seize European cities missed the point. Any productions or books that created a “Muslim dystopia” through the lens of European morality, weren’t much different from the projections of early orientalists, who ascribed moral value to blackness. It was all the more confusing, when these witches left stores like Gucci, Zara, and Rolex, with stuffed shopping bags. It appeared, that even witches wanted the ease and convenience of liberal, capitalist democracies.
Sometimes people from Agata’s company would drop by. They always looked sulky, with their beanies and oversized glasses, and they’d go on cigarette breaks and from what I could tell, have serious conversations about the future of theatre. I wanted to participate, but I was intimidated. They drank black coffees, which I thought reflected European realism: bleak, bitter, providing enough energy to get by. Whereas, I drank sugary lattes that lent an artificially constructed happiness, the kind that people who grew up in parts of the world where synthetic sugar was their first taste of neo-liberalism and “consumer happiness”. Agata’s friends wanted nothing to do with the post-Soviet sugary frenzy in Poland and distanced themselves from the new middle class with americanos and espressos. Poland wasn’t too different from Pakistan in this regard, vacillating between Medieval iconography and post-colonial nation awakening.
I began to think that the new culture wars weren’t taking place in the Global South where drought, food shortages, floods, and extreme poverty were the order of the day, but in European cities where young, cosmopolitan activists fought over products and consumer preferences. In this branded utopia, the search for perfect products prevented people from looking too closely at the wider phenomena of consumer liberalism, or how products don’t solve issues. With more and more companies being exposed for “greenwashing”, it was clear that the European consumer was, for the most part, perfectly content with the lazy activism of “morally correct” products, and quite literally, consuming their ethics, becoming the world’s corporate moral compass. I searched for words to link the “social death” of found objects my mother took from the sea, with virtuous products that signalled status in the West.
Later, I’d learn how the theatre wasn’t to be joked around with in Poland. Even the idea of laughing in a theatre was tantamount to a crime. Agata’s friends spoke of TR Warszawa, post-communist allegory, men who ate meat, the women’s movement, and how England was a sad, vassal state, only having the curious appeal of factory towns. Considering the only play I’d seen was West Side Story, my nosiness translated into a hell of a lot of research. It was because of the tomatoes, and the Camel Blues Agata constantly smoked, that I felt I needed to go deeper. I was unhappy with anyone’s assessment of Agata as a “distressed European”. I wasn’t sure why I felt close to her either; there was no romantic connection, nor was I necessarily interested in her intimacy. I just wanted to be around her.
Agata knew things, or well, rather than knowing she intuited things.
“I feel like something will happen.” She said.
“What did you say?”
“What’s that?” I asked again.
“I don’t know,” She said.
Later in the day, a brick flew off the building and hit a woman walking below. A man from the council came into the cafe, with the brick placed in tupperware, demanding, “Where’s the manager?” Apparently, the water between the bricks had frozen and the brick popped out.
“How did you know?” I asked Agata.
“I’m a witch.”
“You can’t say that over here, women aren’t witches,” I said.
“Are you a woman, or are you a witch?” She asked.
“No, but it’s somewhat…politically incorrect.” I said
“You English people are all the same,” She said.
“I’m not English” I protested.
It was back to Enya. Back to the hissing machine, which Agata yanked and punished, throwing out unhappy coffees. Sometimes, I’d look through the windows and I’d think of the time I shared the flat with my mother. How she filled my head with tales of Mororo’s wiliness as well as his exclusion; the stronger, reckless brothers were taken by the monster. But Mororo used his weakness as an advantage. He entered an underwater cage which would later kill the monster. From its belly he extracted his brothers. The story is an allegory of nafs, how lower impulses need to be overcome to achieve freedom. But back in my flat, as my young body slipped deeper into hepatitis, “the water disease”, I grew to despise Mororo for harming the monster, for the lingering morality dressed up as an adventure story. My mother wasn’t a witch, she was just odd, processing her grief in mysterious ways. After she died, I never thought I’d think of the way she ate tomatoes again.
Agata knew when the coffee delivery would be late. When a theatre would be interested in a new play. When to be nice, or to be aggressively rude to customers. She had great intuition, but I struggled to connect it with witchcraft. I tried telling her how in London people don’t equate intuition with witchcraft, how it’s tied to a misogynistic history perpetuated by the Church. How it was meant to curtail and restrict women that questioned the status quo.
“That’s why I’m a witch because I know.” She laughed.
With time, I gave up challenging her, and the more frequently she was able to predict things, the quicker I lost trust in myself. I thought of her ability to anticipate the future as a kind of metaphysical power, a knowing that only gods or people that work with gods have. And I realised that Agata’s bunkering into a witchy identity was more a retaliation against people who didn’t know how to code her, than any manifestation of witchcraft. She joked around with it, never taking it too seriously.
I started bringing her small gifts. Chocolate. Perfume testers. Expensive mushrooms.
“Will I get a raise?”
“Is this the job for me?”
“Will I get married?”
“How many kids should I have?”
Soon, before making any big decisions, I would bring Agata a gift and ask her what she thought. This pissed her off, “You think I am a service?” she said, and then take the chocolates as she laughed.
“But Agata, help me please.”
“You English people are all the same, fish and chips and no idea what to do with yourselves.”
One day after work we went for drinks.
“I think you’re looking for your mother.” Agata said.
“That’s not the help I asked for”, I said.
“But what reminds me of your mother?” She asked.
When I told her the story of the tomatoes and the cigarettes, she laughed until tears came to her eyes. Finally, she came up with a solution. She took me to a supermarket, where we bought a fresh tomato, a pack of Camels, and a lottery card. I did as she instructed, ate the tomato, smoked the cigarette, and then scratched the card.
“Now you are your mother”, she said.
I spent that summer cultivating tomatoes; cherry, sun-ripened, beef, and salad. My gift to Agata was a small tomato plant. She smiled, “How did you know I wanted a tomato plant?”, and before I could answer, she said, “You’re one of us now”.
Later in the year, I went to two short plays Agata advertised on Instagram. “Harvest Season” was a tragic-comedy about a Polish man who was allergic to tomatoes. The tomatoes represented his attachment to his mother and his desire for an idyllic, village life, and how instead of processing his attachment, he lived off schnitzel and fried chicken, eating into his mother’s fear.
“The Iron Witch of the Sea” was about a woman trapped in a cage. The woman, named Morara, had to fit the cage into a man’s mouth to release herself.