Diya al-Jubaily
Dhia Jubaili
A Deadly Joke


At 10 am, at the height of the morning rush at Friday market, I was wandering about looking for a reasonably priced bicycle, a present for my grandson. He had burst into tears when we left the house, but as he did that every time I brought him to the market with me, I had never asked him why he cried, and I knew full well that he’d quieten down when the real reasons disappeared, i.e. when he got his bicycle. Until then, his cries would maybe turn into screams, and he’d wail loudly throughout our walk through the crowded souk.

I held on to his left hand, so that he couldn’t extricate himself and get lost between the passers-by and shoppers, who so crowded the market that it was difficult for me to breathe easily. I thought about going home, but then I remembered my grandson and the reason I had come to the market. So I hoisted him onto my shoulders, and continued to make my way with difficulty, the place being chock-full of people and wares, until I arrived at a spot no less crowded than anywhere else, where one of the salesmen had put a bicycle on display. There was a man there too, with a skinny hunchbacked boy who had dark skin and a shaved head, wearing a dirty grey dishdasha, as quiet as a statue, nothing about him moving except his small eyes. The boy didn’t seem at all affected by the noise and crowds around him, unlike my petulant grandson, whom I had taken off my shoulders and now gripped by the wrist, his annoying crying quite unbearable.

The man was haggling over the price of the bike, but I found it extremely reasonable, and indicated my desire to buy it. This caused the man to turn on me, his features hardening and his eyes narrowing, glaring at me in utter disdain. But I didn’t care, and letting go of my snivelling grandson’s hand, took out my wallet and paid the seller for the bike. I immediately felt guilty, as if I had been mean and opportunistic, having nabbed the bike from under the man’s nose – and he had seemed far more intent on having it than I was. I heard him muttering behind me, swearing at me before leaving with his son, who had burst into tears so bitter they shook me and saddened me terribly even as the sound faded into the crowd. My grandson, on the other hand, was quiet, his tears dissipated by the bicycle.

As I struggled with remorse over the pain I had caused that poor man, the place was rocked by a terrifying sound that rooted me to the spot. The hair on my head stood on end, almost falling out due to the shudder that ran through me, as a man began to scream out a repetitive warning: “RUN!”

It was a frightening voice that grated on our ears: “Run, everybody . . . run . . . a bomb . . .”

Jaws clenched, faces paled, and the silence was so heavy that I began to make a mental inventory of the events of my life to have something to hold on to before the bomb went off, but I couldn’t think of a thing. My head was full of memories of misery, and did not offer much resistance to my accepting the inevitable. But then with one hand I grabbed the bicycle and with the other my grandson, who was oblivious to the danger and to the fact that his yearning for a bike would be effaced forever when the damned bomb went off, smashing us into little pieces. And even then, I did not do my utmost to look for an escape from the threat about to descend upon us.

A deathly rush began, and with every push I almost fell to the ground, but then the swell of humanity would pick me back up in the other direction. With every tidal wave that struck me, I heard the terrifying roar of women screaming and children crying out for help. All except for my grandson: the only sound he emitted sounded like the noise made by a choking chicken, which led me to believe that he had joined the ranks of the dead. I burst into tears as I pulled his body from beneath the tangled feet of people swaying like tormented souls on Judgment Day.

I thought of suicide, of just throwing myself down to be trampled. That would be better than returning with the body of my dead grandson to his poor mother, since there really was no hope of life returning to the corpse I was still dragging along behind me. But then someone, a person whose face looked familiar, dragged me back onto the side of the living, giving me an additional burst of strength to climb over the hurdle of the iron railings that separated the road and the pavement.

I felt that I had dropped off the plateau of misery into the lap of death. Then my head hit the asphalt and I felt its warmth creeping into my exhausted body. After that I felt nothing as I lost consciousness. I woke to the sound of my grandson crying. I stared at him, embracing him, examining his face. He was still scared, trembling from fear at what had just happened, but there was no trace on him of the crush. “Mum, Mum! What’s happened?” he cried, as he had never cried before. Meanwhile, the man who had snatched me from the jaws of death was scolding his son, who was still silent. He was gesticulating, as if he were using sign language. The boy was trying to catch his breath, shaking his head quietly, his dark face blotched with the traces of blows.