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Touristan

About Manfred Malzahn

Manfred Malzahn (born 1955) has lived and worked in Germany, Scotland, Tunisia, Algeria, Malawi, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates. Beside a range of academic publications, he has been writing poetry and short fiction in English, Scots and German since the late 1970s. His literary output includes song lyrics performed and recorded by various artists, as well as the libretto for a musical play premiered in Germany in 1997.

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I was undecided. My small suitcase was neatly packed with a fortnight’s supply of clothes, and my cabin bag contained all I would need on a long-distance flight. But I still could not make up my mind about the itinerary, in spite or perhaps because of the many marvellously cheap last-minute packages offered by travel agencies in the airport terminal.

The Azores, Bali, Crete, all for a song. And I was badly in need of a getaway from the problems at work and at home that had been wearing me down. So much so that my wife finally set me an ultimatum.

‘Take a break. You need rest. Just go. Anywhere. If you don’t, we will both crack up, and that will be the end of our marriage. It can’t take a lot more strain at this point. And you’re not much use to the children either right now. Go, relax, think, and come back in a saner state. Don’t call. Don’t even think of us. Clear your mind.’

She was right, of course. I had been a burden for quite some time. A grumpy and irritable bastard, to be precise. And a lucky bastard, too, for instead of the punishment I deserved, I got a holiday. Time to myself, not a worry in the world, no commuting, no shopping, no demands, no complaints, no boss—nothing.

But where should I go? It was understood that nobody should be able to guess my whereabouts. This seemed to rule out any places I had visited and liked before, from Antigua to Zanzibar. It was time for a leap into the unknown.

‘Give me a trip that’s different,’ I said to the sympathetic young lady at the agency’s desk. ‘Just pull something out of the hat that’s totally weird. I don’t even want to know where I’m going. Just need to get away for a couple of weeks.’

I was a little surprised that the young lady did not even have to think about my request. She simply took my passport and credit card and invited me to help myself to a coffee from the office machine while she began to make a booking. Fifteen minutes later she handed me an envelope.

‘Here’s your voucher,’ she said. Check-in is already open at counter sixty-six. The flight is scheduled to take off at eleven. Have a nice vacation.’

A good two hours later I dozed off after a fairly decent in-flight lunch, two glasses of red wine and a large postprandial brandy. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the announcements, and I had no idea where our destination lay. The name was Avayabad, the code was AAD. I had never come across either, but that was surely part and parcel of the whole exercise.

I woke up shortly before we landed. It was dark, and I did not see much of the place to which I had come, neither from the air nor during the minibus ride to my four-star hotel. This was a recent building in an understated modern style, with uniformed staff that seemed to come from all corners of the globe.

As I presented my passport to the receptionist, it occurred to me that nobody had asked to see it at the airport. I had made a long journey, but apparently not crossed a border. I tried, but could not suppress what had to be the stupidest question the young man who served me had ever heard.

‘What country’s this?’, I asked. It sounded like a quote to me, but I could not recall where it came from, and I had no time to ponder.

‘Touristan,’ the young man said, in a polite but matter-of-fact manner that seemed to invite no further questions. I took my room key and then the lift to the eleventh floor, from where I got a bird’s-eye view of the surroundings. Hotels and swimming pools as far as the eye could see, strung along a beach that lined a crescent-shaped bay. I was not sleepy and decided to take a stroll.

On my way to the beach, I overheard a veritable plethora of different languages, some of which I did not even recognise. The signage was only a tad less multilingual and reminded me of Indian bank notes. English had pride of place everywhere, Chinese seemed to mostly come second, followed by Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian, Hindi, Arabic, and a few more assorted European and Asian idioms.

The air was balmy, and I stretched out on one of the many vacant deck chairs on the beach that would surely be occupied during the day, when I was accosted by a man in what resembled an African-style dashiki suit. The wearer, however, looked Asian. Vietnamese perhaps. To my further surprise, he spoke the Queen’s English as though he had come straight out of Buckingham Palace. And certainly not the servants’ quarters either.

We exchanged a few pleasantries, until my curiosity about where I had landed got the better of me. ‘Touristan,’ I said. ‘What can you tell me about it?’

‘We are more of an experiment than a country,’ he replied. ‘But in due course, we may become one. Just a few more decades of development.’

What I gathered was that an international consortium had commissioned a man-made island of unprecedented size, to accommodate those holidaymakers who did not particularly care about where they went, as long as it was warm, sunny, friendly, and not excessively foreign. It was to be as cosmopolitan as one could imagine, with just a touch of local colour added.

‘What local colour?’, I asked. ‘Crafts, costumes, folklore, that sort of thing?’

‘Precisely,’ was the answer. ‘We are working on it. A native population, a history, a language. Vaguely Afro-Polynesian, though our experts are still trying to assess what would be the most globally acceptable. Somehow primitive but not threatening. No clicking sounds, no gutturals, plenty of vowels. Musical. A kind of third-world Italian.’

This new language, he told me, was one that all the staff would soon have to master, in addition to their current fluency in at least three other idioms. Applicants had to prove their competence in those through rigorous exams before they could become employees or, in due course, citizens of Touristan.

This was to be one and the same thing, since the entire country was one vast holiday resort. Its management—soon to be elevated to the status of government—had chosen the motto ‘Of the tourist, by the tourist, for the tourist’.

By and by, I learned quite a bit more about the way the place functioned. Pregnant employees had to go on maternal leave as soon as their condition became visible. Their children were born and raised elsewhere, by grandparents or other relatives, with generous support from the management. Sick employees were taken off by boat or plane and treated on an adjacent smaller island named Arogya.

The management were at present discussing a plan for a pension fund. The retirement age was to be 50 for men, and 45 for women. Retirement was of course tantamount to repatriation, and hence there would never be elderly inhabitants, as there were none under the age of eighteen. Hence Touristan had no need for on-site nurseries, schools, or old people’s homes.

I could not decide whether or not I liked the whole idea. I did have a pleasant vacation, though, and I was a much easier person to deal with on my return.

‘Where did you stay?’ asked my wife.

‘Disneyland,’ I said.

‘Which one?’ asked my wife.

‘Couldn’t tell,’ I said. ‘They’re all the same, aren’t they?’

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