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Ya‘qub Balbul authored groundbreaking works of short fiction and poetry. The short story “Thawrat al-Jahl” (“The Revolt of Ignorance”) deals with a topic that occupied many Iraqi thinkers at the time, the fate of peasants and tribesmen. The Iraqi state sought to both utilize the economic potentials of tribal and rural populations and control the rapid pace of rural and tribal migration to Baghdad. Academics, journalists, and authors thus discussed the nature of rural and tribal life, reported on tribal revolts, and debated issues of relating to rural social reform, education, health, and hygiene. Representations of folk and tribal life were likewise current in in narrative prose, poetry, and the plastic arts.
In this story, the protagonist, Wa’il, is a naïve, settled tribesman who frequents the local coffee shop in the village. Utterly mesmerized by the radio in the coffee shop, Wa’il gradually becomes convinced that the instrument serves satanic and demonic powers. Although narrated in the third person, the story masterfully captures the tribesman’s consciousness. Balbul uses the word revolt to highlight the potential peril of the encounter between the nation’s uneducated tribal population and the state’s modes of technology and instruction. Balbul’s mastery of Arab and Islamic traditions, moreover, enables him to evoke an Islamic vocabulary in order to show how Islamic religious texts are understood by the naïve Bedouin. Radically, Balbul critiques the fact that Wa’il is imprisoned by the very same state whose officials neglected his education and social welfare.
A frightening, unsettling feeling, one which would entice his love of inquisitiveness, descended upon Wa’il whenever he listened to the radio in the café of the village of Al-Mahmoudiyya. Formerly, he would marvel at how the phonograph could produce speech. But his mind was really puzzled when he heard this little box reciting the Qur’an, singing songs, then speaking like a man giving guidance or medical advice. Sometimes he would listen to poetry emanating from it. But he did not quite grasp what ‘from it’ meant when speaking of this device. For unlike the phonograph, this box did not have a cylinder that could send out sounds. Occasionally, he would hear it broadcasting music, some of it unwieldy and dense, some delicate and pleasant. Yet he could not find in its sounds any harmony or concord. He could not discern any meaning from it, and did not even consider it to be music. His ear was loath to hear it, and his feelings for it were reluctant.
He was extremely puzzled as to the very definition of this box. How was one to explain the origin of its sounds, songs, and speech? Even the old phonograph was a simpler reality for him to comprehend in his artless, uneducated mind. He knew that it operated at the will of the café waiter, who would turn its crank, place the record on top of the turntable, then change its needle from time to time. He also knew that the phonograph could repeat the songs that were on the record without being able to innovate and generate things anew. By contrast, Abu ‘Abtan, the café proprietor, would merely twiddle his finger against a tiny wooden knob, allowing him to hear new Qur’anic Suras each day, new songs and hymns, or assorted speech, which would vary from that of previous days, poems in rhyme and verse, and current news about happenings in Basra and Baghdad and Mecca. All of this was enigmatic to him. It would perplex him and preoccupy his thoughts.
At first, he considered that there might be some sort of jinn in the box, but he abandoned this notion because he was certain beyond doubt that jinns did not know how to recite the Qur’an. And even if they were able to sing songs and blabber about, they were not capable of reporting news and current events. One day, he heard this box saying that the government had begun asphalting the road between Al-Mahmoudiyya and Baghdad, and what the box was saying was absolutely true, no fibbing about it. But how could they know about providing guidance and medical advice, or about the verses and poems that they were reading to their listeners?
His circumscribed mind refused to accept that there was a human being inside this box who was reciting the Qur’an, singing songs, and composing poetry. After all, he noticed it was too small to contain even the body of a medium-sized bird, so how on earth could this enigmatic person fit in it?
One time, he inspected the source of these sounds from up close. All he could see was a stand-alone box placed upon a simple wooden table. But what caught his eye was a black cord connected to the rear of the box, extending on the roof of the café to yet another cord stretched across two unconnected poles. What was this cable exposed to the sky? Could it be that the sounds were conveyed to him through them? Or were they themselves the source of these ramblings?
One day, his nescience, inspired by his inquisitive compulsion, drove him to elucidate the unknown. He decided to surreptitiously cut off the stretched cord, and he did so one early afternoon, when the café was empty of clients. He then returned home without anyone noticing. Later that evening, when Wa’il returned as usual to the café, he was startled to see Abu ‘Abtan furiously shouting out threats, attempting in vain to cause the box to chat and sing. Shortly thereafter, it became clear to him that the overhead cord had been severed; he learned this from one of the customers who happened to have noticed and called his attention to it. Abu ‘Abtan’s fury took over him, and he accused his waiter Majdoul. However, the customers who were gathered around him managed to convince him that the cord had been disconnected because it was overextended and exposed to gusty winds.
The following day, the cord was mended and reconnected. Wa’il was astounded to learn that the box had begun broadcasting again. It turned out, then, that the overhead cord was the foundation of it all. What was this witchcraft inside it? What sort of uncanny powers did it possess, which enabled it to compose songs, create stories and recite the Qur’an?
What stunned Wa’il the most was that he heard his fellow café-goers speak of how these hymns and voices were broadcast from Baghdad or Cairo (having asked around, he learned that Cairo was even farther away than Mecca), and that they arrived in their remote village without a cylinder or cord.
Wa’il’s attention was now turned to discovering how and why this mind-blowing wonder occurred. He took to secluding himself, staring for ages into the void, carried away by thoughts that far from offering his distressed heart comfort or relief, led him to revolt and rage combined with a debilitating, unmitigated pain.
This guy Wa’il, my dear friend, is a peasant of the ‘Al Fatla tribe, who settled in the village of Al-Mahmoudiyya and works in farming and ploughing. He is a young man of roughly twenty-eight years of age, handsome and distinguished looking. He stands tall and broad-shouldered, his complexion dark, and his hair jet-black and thick. His stern dark cheeks are adorned by a small beard. In each of his two pierced ears is a Bedouin-type earring. He has a striped robe made of simple fabric, which he only wears after he finishes his work. In its midst is a belt, in front of which he often wears a dagger in a leather sheath.
Wa’il has two wives and eight children, the oldest of whom is six years old.
* * *
One day, Wa’il was sitting on a large rock outside his hut, staring into space, despondent and disconcerted. In his head was something confusing and mysterious. His thoughts toggled between this and that, and he could not make heads or tails of anything. Above all, he was confused to no end. He was sad and his gaze was empty. He felt disturbed, not only in his head, but further down his chest and into his heart. This might have been the source of the melancholy that had overcome Wa’il’s soul, and perhaps the root of the wasting away that took over his spirit.
He was thinking about the little box . . . asking himself about the secret of this wonder: was it witchcraft?
It could be witchcraft, but it could also have no trace of witchcraft at all. Could witchcraft even be capable of composing poetry, reading the news and reciting the Qur’an? Furthermore, could witchcraft deliver to the people religious sermons and medical and moral advice? No! And above all, could his fellow listeners all be affected by so much foolishness and ignorance that they had been listening to witchcraft without realizing that it was witchcraft?
And how could this be witchcraft, when everyone was positive that the Qur’anic verses that they heard were being recited in Baghdad or in Cairo? No matter how one looked at it, it was by all measures bizarre.
Was it a divine miracle?
It could be a miracle, because it allowed the Qur’an to emanate from a mum wooden box and drove it to speak and sing. It could be something other than a miracle, so long as it recurred daily, and as long as it followed basic rules, without which there was neither Qur’an nor speech. Did he not try this himself, when he disconnected the cord and the talking box was deactivated? And if this wonder was a miracle, then how could it be that the voice was broadcast from Baghdad and heard here at the same time?
He would never believe or accept that the source of the Qur’an and the news and the poetry was in Baghdad or Cairo. What a bunch of nonsensical drivel!
It was inevitable, then, that inside this box there was something that he could not see and that was not reflected through this cheeky wooden veil. And it was equally inevitable that there was some sort of phonograph or something resembling a phonograph inside it. Moreover, there had to be a living being inside it who alternated new songs and new Suras with each passing day.
So, who was this creature who was simultaneously a singer, a poet, a newscaster, and a rabab player? And since he would occasionally listen to songs sung in a woman’s voice, could it be a woman inside the box? No! For he heard the Qur’an read in what was unequivocally a man’s voice. Could there be both a man and a woman in it? Or was it a person who alternated between being a man and being a woman?
This person might have the ability to change their accent or intonation, but how could this man fit in such a tiny box?
Later on, a thought crossed his mind that would change the entire foundation of his thoughts upside down. If there was indeed a man inside the box, as he was thinking, what was the meaning of the existence of the cord that was extended and exposed to the sky, and without which the box would have neither Qur’anic recitations nor the singing of songs?
Therefore, the cord was the source! What, then, was the essence of this cord that rendered it the source of all the singing and speaking that he heard?
No . . . no . . . this cord was nothing but an intermediary, which confused him and stood in the way of his understanding. Between what two things might it be an intermediary? Could it be connected to the person who was inside the box? And what might this cord be doing to a person who recited the Qur’an and sings songs?
And so Wai’l spent an hour – in fact, hours – confused, perplexed, and uneasy.
One of his wives cave over to Wa’il to joke with him and try to rid him of his melancholy and misery. She struggled to understand what might have led to these emotions. Wa’il resented her and drove her far away from him. She became suspicious and returned to ask him why he was sad and confused, but the only response she managed to get out of him was a shout, which shocked her and ordered her to stay away.
Since then, whenever Wa’il would take his seat in the café next to this peculiar box, he would carefully observe Abu ‘Abtan when he turned the knob, preparing it for recitation or singing. He learned how to do it himself, such that if he were to do the job, he would be able to carry it out perfectly and without flinching.
* * *
One day, Wa’il awoke at the break of dawn and was unable to fall back asleep. He began thinking about the secret of this box that was about to make him lose his mind. At that moment, he was overcome by extreme confusion, and his inquisitiveness and the rebellious revolt of ignorance in his head urged him to surreptitiously get out of bed, look for his dagger and examine it to his satisfaction, and then continue walking toward the café.
As he approached it, he was now entirely at ease. He entered through the open door and saw Majdoul, the waiter, sound asleep, his loud snoring clearly audible.
Wa’il was no stranger to the whereabouts of the box, having repeatedly watched Abu ‘Abtan placing it in a small cabinet fixed to the wall, then locking it with a key he would put in the pocket of his vest. Wa’il pulled his dagger out of its sheath and began carefully and attentively jabbing it in the wood of the cabinet. Within moments, the cabinet broke down, as it was old and shabby. He grabbed the box and then started manipulating it, mimicking what he had seen Abu ‘Abtan doing, altogether forgetting about the sleeping, snoring waiter lying next to him.
He turned the little knob, and pleasant music began emanating from the box. Wa’il began smiling; he was thrilled. He continued to turn the knob and was startled by the sound of an extremely loud thump that scared and rattled him. He pressed the knob and moved it around, and the disturbing noises only intensified in volume and coarseness.
The thumping and buzzing became dreadfully louder, and Wa’il’s body began quivering like a feather in the wind. Wa’il did not cease turning the knob, and the sounds diminished, but what followed them were the voices of people speaking in a peculiar jargon. He was frightened, as it seemed to him that he was in the kingdom of jinn, and that Satan and the devils had all come out of their hiding. He was not able to discern the voice of any single person. Rather, he heard the clamor of several people together, at times yelling and at times sounding disturbing, frightening giggles. Wa’il had no doubt that the jinns had all gathered and settled in this peculiar box . . . He then planned to shatter the box and with it the jinns that were inside it!
He grabbed the box with both hands, in revolt and trepidation, and hurled it at the floor with all his might. Debris from the box began flying all over the café, and suddenly the sounds all faded.
The sleeping waiter woke up out of pain, as a chunk of metal had hit him in the head. He rose, panicking, not knowing whether he was dreaming or wide awake. When he spotted Wa’il, he felt as if he had no choice but to take off and run, yelling at the top of his lungs, citing the Shahada and seeking help from the Dhimmis. Some of the people who were asleep in the huts and houses nearby were awakened by all the shouting and rushed out into the street. Meanwhile, Wa’il was trying to escape and hide, but the mob managed to catch and capture him without resistance. They handed him to the police, who arrested him.
Not five days had passed since this incident, when Wa’il was seen walking, escorted by armed police officers, on his way to the central prison.
August 15, 1937