Like soft drizzle on the face that refreshes the whole body, violin music energised the tepid evening. Maysa’s tunes made the world safe enough for women to crave for genuine living where they could find real love and real men. The moving tunes banished Hayat’s fatigue and wiped away the sting of her perpetual tears. They opened up the scenery in front of her where she could bond once more with her old friend in the garden, the massive fig tree, as it whined with the moves of the violin bow across the strings. Maysa had been taking music lessons twice a week in an effort to fulfil the dream of her missing father that she become a celebrated violin player performing in one of Baghdad’s big concert halls.
The tunes extended into the night air and modified its colours, then leapt up to touch the lower extremities of the clouds. All Hayat’s senses took in the music, a condition of Sufi elevation she had trained herself for with Ghalib’s help. He introduced her to pieces by Ghanim Haddad the Baghdadi, Orhan Murad the Turk, and Paganini the Italian. In that music condition in which the soul soars she loved Ghalib even more. Or deeper, and the two of them became one and discovered the rays of light leading to heaven.
For Maysa’s fourteenth birthday, Hayat got her the violin. She sold some gold ear rings and a chain with a fish that had colourful enamelled scales. She asked Ghada, the music teacher, to pick an the suitable violin. Hayat would listen to Maysa’s practice and a world brimming with cruelty and blood would gain a few bright spots.
Maysa is now twenty-four and she had six students of her own. After enrolling in the evening programme at the Music Conservatoire, she was good enough now to play Mendels-sohn's Violin Concerto. She also tried her hand at a piece she wanted to dedicate to her father for his dream of seeing her perform at a concert hall in Baghdad.
Women saw Hayat and her daughter as an odd pair.
“A vain woman. She works day and night so that her daughter studies music.”
“She wants her to become a player at the telephonic orchestra.”
“No, no. The symphonic orchestra.”
“And who is going to marry a woman like her?”
“If my son ever dare a thing like that, I’ll banish him to the end of the world. A woman who plays music!”
“She’s destroying her daughter’s domestic future. She’ll have to put up with a spinster.”
Hayat knew they would always find something to criticise. She would not be able to match their skill at deliberate misunderstanding and condemnation, but she knew well what she wanted and she did just that because she believed in it. What a waste of time it was to try to explain to relatives her views of herself and of women in general. The good thing was that she always confronted them, and they had no choice but to whisper behind her back.
“Her in-laws have boycotted her because of her daughter’s music.”
“None of her relatives visit her.”
“They all dumped her when she turned down a marriage proposal from a relative.”
“How can she remarry before she’s sure of her husband’s death?”
“And how can she remain with her daughter with no guardian around?”
“But where are the guardians? Her brother-in-law who’s unemployed and living off his wife and mother?”
“Or her own brother who took everything even her share of the inheritance?”
* * *
Hayat knew, perhaps inherently through her senses, that what grew in her garden woke like her at dawn to spread with the first ray of the sun the secrets and aroma of reproduction. Things have lives of their own, she knew, and creatures have souls, because she went out at dawn during the days of air raids to get some weeds and felt then the soul of the weeds embraced her own, and liberated in her that unstoppable force we call woman’s eternal being. That night and the one after it there were no air raids on Baghdad or other cities. An undeclared truce of sorts that people used to get more drinking water and canned food and beans and tea and dates in preparation for the following round.
Charmed by the natural world and by living things, she muttered something like a prayer in praise of this overpowering heavenly bounty that binds man to other creatures. The language she whispered was one that plants and birds responded to. Her trances enabled her to rein in time and lead it to wherever she wanted it to go. Challenges like these pleased her and enabled her to be what she wanted every morning. She could be the sum of things and needed no help from others. The self she saw in the mirrors of her dreams was the self she would stand by.
She bent and cut a weed with yellow fragrant flowers. She didn’t know the name of the flower, but its scent gave away its secret. Then she heard a woman’s voice.
“Good morning, Sitt Hayat.”
Her neighbour Ruwayda had taken her away from this unity with weeds and fragrance. Her head was sticking over the hedge separating the two gardens.
“Good morning, Umm Ziad. I thought I was the only one who woke up before dawn.”
“The raids. We couldn’t sleep all these nights. The two girls are traumatized, and Hisham and Ziad spend the night following the news and playing chess. There’s nothing we can do. We get some sleep during the day.”
“Well, the past two days the raids stopped. Perhaps . . .”
“Hisham says news analysts predict they’re preparing for a bigger assault.”
“Perhaps the bombardment will stop.”
“Who knows! You and we are the only people now left on the street. I suppose we’re to guard the neighbours’ houses.”
“More people left?”
“All of them left. Left Baghdad altogether. They left at night. Amal and her three children and her husband went north, and Basma’s family went to Najaf. They left the house keys with us. You’re staying, Sitt Hayat, right?”
“We’re staying no matter what happens. Where would we go to and why?”
“Suaad told me we must be crazy. She wondered what kept us from running away to save ourselves.”
“We all are crazy and staying is our brand of craziness.”
That conversation took place twelve years before. Hayat also remembered the column of cars leaving Baghdad when the bombardment started. People sought refuge in schools and mosques and shrines. Some even joined Bedouin camps in the desert. Hayat used to see them departing, merely moving in time but stuck in place. All places were alike under the rain and wind and fear, and they moved without a goal or compass. Can somebody depart and never return, Hayat used to wonder. Some were willing to surrender half their years just to get away from death. What would they do with the other half? Nobody knew or wanted to know and all they cared about was what was going to happen next. They vanished in all directions, flickering lights bound to extinguish as they went deeper into their escape.
They went to unknown villages, unfamiliar houses, and they had to change their habits and language and the way they wore their clothes, perhaps even their names, to fit in these places. Labyrinths of place that they would have to keep changing because their souls would keep denying them. Battalions of travellers exchanging hunger and fears and information. A woman gave birth on the road, another suffered an asthma attack, an old man succumbed to a heart attack. One of their companions was death, another, their anxiety growing with every step they took.
Fields of barley surrounded the roads, ripe for harvesting, and behind them rows of trees that disappeared into the wilderness. Some women were crying silently in the cars. One wanted to go back because she had left her future hanging on a window, and another because she had not said goodbye to her beloved. A third because she had forgotten her diary, full of scandalous confessions and the secrets of the heart. What if her brother found it?
* * *
Suzanne thinks her birth was doomed by some evil star. Among her family members, only her sister Bouran had any luck. She left to go to Jordan and then married a Lebanese businessman. They put their capital together and invested it in tourism. Her brother Sinan had just found a job teaching architecture at the University of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. She was the only one who kept missing opportunities. She dissipated the fortune she had inherited from her father, a carpet and real estate businessman, and shackled herself further with ill-advised choices. Three years ago, she became engaged to Abdul Maqsud al-Ghannam, and they made the marriage contract, but Abdul Maqsud kept postponing consummation of the marriage in order to blackmail and humiliate her. When she asked for a divorce he refused and, regardless of every legal recourse she tried, left her in mid-air. To add insult to injury, he married his cousin and continued the torture to get half her house and only then would he let her go.
She broke up with Ghassan after she met Abdul Maqsud who mesmerised her with his lies, and now she lay in this lonely bed with no hand caressing her arms or lips. She opened the bedroom window overlooking the Tigris and the sun invaded the room. The breeze from the river was refreshing, but when the wind picked up, the house and the surrounding orange orchards were engulfed in the smell of burning gas from the oil refinery across the river. She closed the window and started up an air freshener that flooded the house with the exotic scent she had picked up that day. Luxury was her one weapon of defence against hazards that could come her way any time, especially from that man who had poisoned her existence.
To fight her troubled nights and days, she took baths in her marble jacuzzi. She scented the water with revitalising mineral crystals and tried to forget. The body went under water, but her agony rose with the steam and spoiled the bliss of the water. That jacuzzi was a tiny borrowed sea bought with her fortune, but it was a fake sea so many of the objects around her. Mere substitutes for real things that no longer existed. Everything in her life seemed to be an image borrowed from other more real lives.
Only the mirrors around her were able to penetrate her soul. Do I have a soul left, she wondered. Mirrors told her what she did not hear from people. They mocked her, and possibly deceived her.
“Who am I?” she asked the mirrors.
“You’re the plush silk sofas, the marble table and the flower vase. The still life painting, the statue that continues to stand there, and the curtains heavy with the dust of years. You’re the female in her charming ascendancy and a woman in her descent into humiliating compromise.”
Suzanne laughed and then wept.
Her laughter and weeping reached Umm Tomas, and she came up, her steps labouring from her heavy weight. She always carried her rosary beads with a small silver cross hanging at its end.
“You all right, may the Virgin Mary guard you?”
“I’m fine. Can I have my breakfast in the balcony?”
Two women, one thirty-five the other in her seventies, gave support to each other in a world that was collapsing. Tomas has been sending invitations to his mother to visit him in Detroit. Before 9/11. Several invitations, with phone calls to coax her.
“Mother, go to Jordan. I’ll arrange everything for you. You’ll get the Green Card after you get here. And they’ll give you citizenship. You need to hurry up before it’s too late.”
“Tomas, listen. you and your wife Rita. I don’t want citizenship. I have citizenship. And I don’t want a Green Card, OK? Are you listening. Tomas? I don’t want to travel. I’m staying here with Suzanne in the house of Bahjat, may God have mercy on his soul.”
Umm Tomas had lived in this house for the past forty years taking care of it and cooking Baghdad and Mosul dishes for the family. She stayed around while the family itself went in all directions. She witnessed the slow erosion of both the family and the house, and the dispersal of its descendants into grave and exile.
“They want me to leave home and go there.”
“All your relatives left years ago,” Suzanne would tell her. “You don’t have anyone left here.”
“Listen, Suzanne. My people are here in Baghdad and Telkief. My father and my mother, and my uncle priest Behnam, and my aunt Josephine and my aunt Victoria, and my cousin Joseph, and my cousin Matti. And Tomas’s father. They are all here.”
“But they’re all dead.
“No, Suzanne, they’re not. They are more alive to me than those who left me. Those who went away. I mean alive, you know, they come to me every night in dreams. Every night, during the Virgin Mary’s feast, I see them going up to the mountain. I wish I can hear again one of uncle Behnam’s sweet sermons. We don’t hear these any more. Aunt Victoria used to make lawash bread for the winter and mother used to make the kushki. I used to go with other children to the orchards to collect the sumac and terebinth berries. Believe me, I see them every night. I don’t see Tomas,” she said. Then she added in her Mosul dialect: “but my prayers are with him wherever he is. May God give him happiness with the Virgin’s blessings.”
Umm Tomas wiped her tears away with one end of her black headscarf. Two braids of grey hair stuck from under its edges, and these were all that remained from her youth. The two women had tried to reinvent a family long lost, with Suzanne playing the daughter, Umm Tomas the mother. There was, of course, an allowance for the difference in social status. Suzanne was becoming drained in a strange and suspended marriage, and Umm Tomas had seen her only son leave her to live in exile. He was there and he wasn’t, and she saw him and did not see him.
She visualised him at his baptism at the church of St Yusuf, the guardian saint of workers, among children wearing white dresses with gold and purple ribbons. The deacon was going round with the incense burner. She saw the roses she placed at the alter and remembered the twenty dinars she donated for the soul of Tomas’s father. The priest began singing the hymns. Tomas’s beauty set him apart from everybody, including his father and me. May God make him happy and may the Virgin guard him.
Suzanne found an email from her sister Boran.
Suzanne, do everything. There must be a way. Give him what he wants to let you go. Get out of the country with a temporary marriage contract. Come to Amman. I’m waiting for your reply. Boran.
Dear Boran, I can’t, she wrote. Do you understand? There’s no end for Abdul Maqsud’s blackmail. He has refused to divorce me unless he becomes a co-owner of my house. I don’t know how he knew the siblings had given up their shares to me. He has an arm everywhere, like an octopus. I went to check on your house. The guard had to go to Kut for a few days because his uncle had died. Anyway, I found the bedroom window broken and the alarm system disabled. I brought somebody to fix it. The thieves stole electronics – television, video players and tape recorders. Bronze artefacts and clothes, and I think they took your black coat because it looked like real fur. The good thing is that the paintings are secure because they were in the basement. Your real fortune is in those paintings, the other things can be replaced. Brother Sinan told me you have been thinking of selling the house and furniture and farm. Will you be coming some time in the near future to sell off your property? The gardenia bushes and the mango tree and the rubber trees are all dying. I cannot find a gardener who will agree to take care of the garden. It’s a farm, they say, not a garden. Greetings to Walid, and congratulations for getting Lebanese citizenship. Let me know ahead of time if you’ll be coming to Baghdad. Kisses, Suzanne.
Umm Tomas went to church on Ascension Day and brought an olive branch that she hung on her door. Suzanne bought a white dog, a pedigree with a birth certificate and ancestry in Switzerland and Lebanon. She also went with Abu Hussein, the night guard, and bought a large fish tank and cages for numerous parrots.
Suzanne had been trying a number of things. Japanese flower arrangement, French lessons, losing weight, coloured contact lenses, false nails, plastic surgery. The fissure between self and self widened. The body was becoming perfect while the soul eroded in a life of fear. One nightmare gave birth to another. She hired a night guard to protect her in case Abdul Maqsud tried to break in, and then reported to the police assault attempts that had not happened. Dr Salaam told her she was suffering from another bout of depression and wanted her to continue taking her medication and to see him every week.
“Finally, I’m leaving,” Shirmeen al-Azmiri called and told her.
“I found a young man interested in emigrating. For three thousand dollars he’s agreed to a temporary marriage contract. The price of my freedom. We got the contract today. Aren’t you going to congratulate me?”
“Are you planning to stay with him?”
“Well, if I find him likeable during the trip. Why not?”
“And if he refuses?”
“Why would he refuse? No, he wouldn’t. Many would love the opportunity. What more could he want? Emigration? I’ll help with that. Money? I have a lot of it. Charm? You know your Shirmeen. What about you?”
“You know how complicated it is. I’m really being held hostage now.”
“You haven’t persuaded Abdul Maqsud? Give him what he wants. Bail yourself out.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll keep trying.”Translated by Shakir Mustafa
From the novel Hadiqat Hayat [Hayat’s Garden], published by Ministry of Culture, Baghdad, 2004