The Iron Grasshopper
What do you see? Tell me, child, what is it you see? Two plateaux across the horizon and a string of villages, dust blowing between a reckless summer and a mute winter. Your time, child, is that of plants or birds. You close your eyes on a dawn that peels off its masks as you close your eyes and grab with both hands some undefined reins. You are preparing for old age or old age is getting ready for you. Together you weave a magic that glows only once just like a single heartbeat. Life could kill itself with desire for a second heartbeat.
• • •
We were small, my friend, tiny ducklings standing neatly on each side of the road like written lines. There was pandemonium, overwhelming in its intensity. The teachers who were jumping between the rows of us waving their sticks looked more like scared cats: “Pay attention! Wave your hands when the President passes.” The President passed through our midst, waving. The geometric lines got tangled behind the motorcade, becoming a dense black block sloping unevenly, violent chaos.
I fell many times, pushed by bodies and legs. It was hard to surface from the human lake. When I arrived home, my face looked more like dust than the face of a child.
That was how violence began, my friend, lasting two weeks in a small town close to the Taurus mountains. The beginning was an official “violent” celebration. We had to cheer at all times, inside and outside the classrooms; we had to decorate the walls many times over, with or without an occasion; hang small flags on our chests, with or without an occasion – and draw some vague image of happiness on our faces without glancing within.
The violence of the “official” celebration was one that exceeded the capacity of an unofficial child. I had to bear it with an annihilating submission becoming in turn violent, a violence that exceeded the capacity of a child.
That was how violence began, my friend. I stole coloured chalk from school, filling the squares of the stone wall around the public garden with my initials, and the letters found on my pencil “HB”. These letters were the initial breaking up of the “public cleanliness ordinances”, the code of the “clean”; the code preserving public “cleanliness”. That violence which I assumed was particular to me seeped into our home since that initial violent passing of the President, gradually taking many forms among a family of eleven.
The courtyard of our home, my friend, that wide spacious courtyard surrounded by a high wall was unhurriedly approaching a desolation it had never known. The guests, strangers and familiar, who came and went with no reason began decreasing from one day to the next according to the diminishing of our possessions. My father’s moodiness intensified, a violent silence that would only reveal itself as it slammed against other desperate bidders in the city’s seed market. More than one hundred arms raising up iron mallets slamming down hard enough to splatter raw meat.
The violence of the official celebration was accompanied by the beginning of a violent mass poverty. It started in the school and spread to the market; it entered our homes and never left.
• • •
“A diminished childhood. So does the beginning. I became conscious of something new, violent and loud: You are a Kurd. Kurds are dangerous. It is prohibited to speak Kurdish in school. That was new when three-quarters of the city close to the Taurus mountains were Kurds. You begin to grasp the equation: the teachers are excessive in despising and hitting the pupils. Those who cheer every new regime come to the town and scrutinize the faces. You’re a child but you’re not blind. They hated you beforehand and you don’t know why. The teacher hates you, so does the government employee and the policeman. This is new: I can become violent then, more violent than need be in the face of that demonic intrusion.
You begin to look at the Bedouin children in school with disgust. You make fun of their awkward haircuts, the blue tattoos on their noses, cheeks and hands, and their excessive primitiveness. You don’t know why they are favoured. You wait until school is dismissed for any reason to fight, day after day. The headmaster demands to see the responsible parent and your father goes to school. The headmaster demeans him for his accent. Your father is defiant with violent pride. He challenges the headmaster: “Who are you to talk to me this way?” The headmaster replies: “I am the God of your god . . .” My father leaves, angry. That very day two henchmen stand on the street of the headmaster and drag him down the road by his feet. He complains to the police. The police come to our house and my father refuses to accompany them. The henchmen and relatives gather in raging anger. The matter reaches the governor who has the rank of major. He shows up in a luxury car and the elder, Hussein Agha, comes out screaming: “I will trample your cap into the ground if you arrest this man.” The matter is is then settled quietly; and quietly the headmaster gives up his aggression. It is not over. Childhood becomes hell, just like the beginning when you waved your small hands at the President.”
• • •
“The followers of Shaykh Khaznawi are traditional. We know them well, their movements, their behaviour. We know who screams loudest in the Sufi circles, whose movements are the most extravagant when the “secret” was revealed to them.1 Shukru was an eccentric, moody disciple and amazingly funny. He would walk ninety kilometers to the home of Khaznawi claiming greater blessings awaited more arduous efforts. Shukru was of medium height and very stocky. He’d wear three garments one on top of the other, a woollen sirwal, and draping them all with a thick cape made of goat hair. He’d wear all these clothes summer and winter carrying a large stick tied to his wrist for fear of losing it. He had an obsession with collecting string found on the road. His pockets were always full of pieces of string and when they overflowed he’d put the surplus in his turban.
Shukru had no other job but to seek out banquets: weddings, births, circumcisions or deaths. His epileptic fits made him froth like a bull: he’d come to exhausted and drink a bucket of water that would pour down his long thick beard like a river. He had no home. Night-time, he’d sleep in a sheep-pen or in some ruins.
We feared him, us children. We feared his bulging eyes and his epileptic fits. Unlike women, who – on account of his mental deficiency – allowed him, the only male, to attend their special circles. Shukru liked that and would play along exaggerating his idiocy. When a woman got excited and swooned in ecstasy in the presence of the divine, Shukru would get up and carry her outside the circle. He was caught many times placing a fainting woman on his lap in an image that did not hint of help but of something else. We saw often how fast the fainting women came to their senses not because of Shukru’s first aid but because of his extreme closeness. They would glare at him angrily revealing at times hidden desires, cursing him while staring at a specific bulging spot in his body. He’d laugh out loud, sounding more as if he was weeping, and fall flat on his back.
Shukru was generally in a good mood, but the “day of darkness” transformed him into a brooding, terrified man. Do you know the “day of darkness”? We woke one morning to an unusual darkness, a blackness, and fear was on the face of all adults. It was a morning when no one could see more than one metre ahead. We went out to the courtyard and couldn’t see our way to the gate. Regal, resilient dust had invaded the earth, streaming through glass like sunshine. It was as if the dust slept with us and was there when we woke up, as if it were in our clothes.
Murmuring spread: “It’s the sign.” Adults performed their ablutions and went to the mosque. We walked behind them feeling our way by the walls like they did. The blind leading the blind. At the large door of the mosque all men of the neighbourhood gathered. Murmurs and supplications, looking towards the West and saying: “It will emerge from there.”
The game was unusual to us children: what began with a small worry became an anxious wait for the emergence of the sun from the West.
The dust began to clear a little. We were able to see the houses across the street. But terror prevailed. Shukru walked up and down in the middle of the road raising his hands to the unknown with the wooden stick tied to his wrist, and screaming: “Maddad khoja! Maddad.”2 The adults told him: “Calm down, Shukru.” Shukru ran to the Imam standing in front of the mosque and kissed his hands reverently looking at him beseechingly. The Imam said: “Have no fear for the believers, no harm will come to them.”
We didn’t know why they remained standing at the door of the mosque and didn’t go in. Murmuring calmed us down. “The mosque is the last haven.” The all-consuming danger still hadn’t materialised. We’d stop breathing when we heard words like “Dajjal” and “Ya’juj and Ma’juj”. They were coming – creatures with beards, no more than a foot high, who ate metal and stone. Creatures led by the one-eyed one on a one-eyed donkey followed by the sinners of the earth, most of them women. They [the women] would walk ahead of him naked trying to seduce the steadfast. Their sign is the sun emerging from the West.
So this was the ominous darkness then and the dust must be from the collapse of the unbreachable wall that God had built around Ya’juj and Ma’juj.
Shukru tells the Imam: “I will drive them back with the stick.” The Imam answers: “Calm down.” Shukru said: “I will blindfold myself so the women won’t seduce me.” “Calm down.” Shukru again paced up and down in the middle of the road beseeching: “Maddad khoja . . . maddad.”
By noon the dust lifts and forms emerge as if from a lake of dust. All look up, the sun, a faint red circle, emerges behind a dark cloud in the centre of the sky. Adults are confused: “It’s in the middle, did it emerge from the East or the West?” They wait a little to see where it is heading. Shukru doesn’t wait, throwing his turban on the ground he screams: “From the West, the West, maddad . . .” He suffers an epileptic fit and falls flat on the road like the wall of Ya’juj that had just collapsed.
It wasn’t long before it was clear there had been a miscalculation. Judgment Day was being postponed, So was the destruction of the world. The earth must now carry its burdens, its dead and their conspiracies for a few centuries more. The adults dispersed from the mosque and we children remained. It wasn’t long before we started to chase the sheep of Hamdan the shepherd who that day, for the first time in thirty years, woke up late in his pen.
• • •
Hamdan had grown grew up an orphan in the care of his brother who gave him sheep to tend. He knew nothing of the city and the people except their names, his world never extending beyond the circle that encompassed a hundred sheep. He lived completely alone. Shukru did not honour the secrets of Hamdan’s solitude. He drew the inquisitive to tales describing, sparing no detail, the strange relationship the shepherd had with his flock.
He told how Hamdan would get up in the night and gather the sheep in a corner, then mount them the way a man mounts a woman or he would rape the sheep on the . . .
Hamadan’s dismay at Shukru’s indiscretion was unmatched by his brother’s anger at the both of them. To fight the rumours he decided to marry off the shepherd, and paid a dowry of one thousand liras to an eleven-year-old orphan. She was truly a child. She would tell us children, like a complete imbecile, how Hamdan would beat her if she refused him, how he would callously tear her clothes off the way you peeled an onion, how he would gag her with his rough hand over her mouth so no one would hear her screams . . . how . . . and how . . . We would shiver, us children, we who had conned her into telling us all the details about the shepherd possessed by evil, the “husband of the sheep”.
We had no choice, us seedlings of the North, but to emerge from the holes and cracks and surrender to a tempest of terror. Terror, terror, terror, the earth began with terror and ends with it. Terror incarnate with an incoherence that unfolded within us. We had no choice but to live within the orbit of the silent scream of Hamdan’s wife, that one long, contagious, echoing scream. We were always laughing, yet we shivered from laughter and laughed in shivers.
• • •
What next? What about the black dog, Tusi, who didn’t leave a pen without stealing an egg or a chick? What about her who drowned in Musisana swamp after the iron pitchforks had pierced her body with holes? And the cockerel with one leg, that tragic bird who crowded in with the hens to eat their seed and got so pecked at so he would wait for a chance later to steal his hard-earned food? What about when you caught him after a long wait, plucked his wings and threw him to the hens who then pecked him to death? And the brothers of Shakir the henchman who turned Bahram’s wedding into a bloodbath because he wanted to marry the bride? They captured her after killing the groom and six others. What about when she got raped under the rain to the ululations of women who despised her family for refusing to wed her to Shakir? What about Handar who crossed the Turkish borders with thirty men on horses dragging Afdi by his legs from his home? What about Adfi’s screams and wails? And the sleeping sentry? And the silent border that was at its most violent when a child from there would insult another or when a Kurd would declare he’s a Kurd? And Sharu, ever the drunk, standing in front of cinemas day and night gambling a small lottery ticket for a pack of Pall Mall? And Stifu who would cross the road his back bared and “Tarzan” written across it? And Habisnu the idiot? And the henchmen who raped him repeatedly on a local soccer field in broad daylight in front of children returning from school? And the famous Gulisar, the queen of whores whose body the Imams refused to pray over, the cemeteries of Christians and Muslims refusing her burial so she was buried apart, after a glorious reign? And Mullah Ahmad, the Imam of the second small mosque in the town – the speed with which he condensed the Friday sermon and the prayer into one? And Abdel Rahman the mu’ezzin who was often seen pulling from his jacket magazines with pictures of naked women in? And the bull of the Sufi Mahmud who’d mount half the cows of this earth for the price of one? And Darij who gambled his wife one night when his money ran out and how her brothers hacked at his body with knives so that he survived with one leg, two paralyzed arms and one ear? And the Jewish quarter which we vaguely feared? And the plateau of Qulu that breathed at night? And the daylight ogres on the plains of Mu’irika? And the dogs with human heads in the cemetery of Inas? And the gypsies living in the southern region of Maqali’, and their women – chances were that behind a rock you’d likely see a half-naked woman beneath a stranger? And Usi the old man who wandered among the districts lugging a wooden box on his back selling liquor? What about the eternal dust, what about the thunder of the North child?
You woke us up so that we would re-tell the travesty.
Translated by Mona Zaki
One of two sets of excerpts in the Banipal 14 feature on Salim Barakat, selected from Siratan, Barakat’s two autobiographical novels of childhood, [The Iron Grasshopper] (1980) and [Sound the Trumpet, Sound it the Highest] (1982), re-printed in one volume, Dar al-Jadid, Beirut, 1998.
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