CHAPTER ONE from the novel
Translated by Thomas Aplin
The words of the characters in this novel have been documented in such a way as to absolve us of responsibility for any distortion or fabrication of events, or even the suppression of details that might sometimes leave the scene incomplete. The names of streets and districts in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, have been written down as they were given verbally. We have made no attempt to verify their existence on the map, since this is of no importance to our work. How we contacted the characters and recorded their words are not revealed in the text, owing to the requirements of professionalism, which do not go beyond recording, with the exception of some graphic and psychological description in addition to some brief commentary whose nature does not impinge upon the actual documentation. Anything that may be deemed outside the scope of documentation, we shall put down to poor judgment or misunderstanding, for which we apologise. The opinions expressed by the characters are theirs alone. Anyone who wishes to verify an uncertain matter, or clarify an ambiguity or confusing detail, can contact the main characters, whose names are given in the chapters, and also those whose names are withheld – they having preferred to use the novel as their mouthpiece and remain anonymous – via their home telephone numbers only, as they have refused to give their mobile numbers:
Tassu Arif Miran Bak (46 years old) 388436
Nazli Rakan (41 years old) 663178
Shiraz Rahman Rahmani (39 years old) 731116
Rawat Khalil (46 years old) 332323
Zintana Hassan (43 years old) 615543
Shtula Jabri (27 years old) 411988
Rihani Mohammed Sikar (40 years old) 378339
Darkhu Khalas (50 years old) 623484
Zulaikha Abdulqadir (44 years old) 825577
Salam Sheikh Ghardaq (44 years old) 466844
1 The Chitchat of Tightly-Clad Souls:
The Genesis of the Mind
With the flat of her fist, Tassu struck her son, Rand, on the head. The reverberation of the thump fluttered around the skulls of the women seated in the lounge. They cringed in distaste. “Your bones are like stone, Tassu,” said Nazli Rakan. She looked at the fourteen year old: “His brains’ll come out of his nose in a bit.” Rand smiled: “My brains are silicon, Umm Tuva.” Rand received another thump on the head from his mother’s fist. Seated in a chair beside the green sofa, she leaned her upper body towards him: “Her son’s name is Tufu, you son of a whore.”
Rand got up off the sofa out of her reach: “Her son looks like the actor Tuva.”
“I’m not offended, Tassu,” said Nazli. She lifted her face to the young boy, still standing: “Call me Umm Carola, Umm Helen, Umm Mazola.”
“Mazola oil?” asked Salam, sat close beside her on the grey sofa, opposite the green sofa.
“Come here, come closer,” Tassu called to the young boy. She pointed at him with the glowing end of her cigarette: “I’ll burn your balls. You haven’t taken the street sign down from the building.”
“Mum’s blathering,” replied the young boy, adjusting the position of his metal-framed glasses. “How can I remove the street sign?! I thought you were only joking yesterday.”
The big woman shook her head regretfully. She lifted her long blouse above the belt of her jeans and, in full view of her nine guests, scratched a fold of flab on her stomach. “How can I rely on this strip of meat sprinkled with the dust of Qamishli?”
“Rand was born in Sweden, Tassu,” said Rawat Khalil, whose heavily dyed hair dripped gold.
Tassu replied: “The nameless testicles of his father were full of the dust of Qamishli, huh!”
“I’ll kill you one day, Mum,” said the skinny youth, whose jeans had slipped down his flat buttocks.
“Good heavens,” muttered Tassu, enjoying her son’s remark. She turned her brown eyes on her companions:
“I’m going to change the name of this street.”
“Change your own name first, Tassu,” said the big-bosomed Zulaikha Abdulqadir.
“One day I’ll change my name. I’ll change my religion, and my vagina too. But I’ll change the name of this Katarina street first. I’ll call it Mulla Ali Khabut.” She traced broken letters from a lost song in the air: “Mulla Ali Khabut, Wali al-Qishda – Patron Saint of Cream in the winters of Qamishli,” she said. She chewed the sleeve of her blouse in resentment. “If only I’d eaten mother before she gave birth to me, if only I’d eaten her from the inside before she gave birth to me.”
“What’s your poor, dear departed mother got to do with anything, Tassu? It’s your weight that’s bothering you. Spend a couple of hours in the oven to melt the fat off you, and your idea of changing the street name. God, Tassu, the ass of Katarina, and I don’t know who she is, is still better than the blessings of Mulla Ali Khabut, Patron Saint of Cream, who ballooned your trousers to bursting point.”
“Can you squat?” said Shiraz Rahmani. Then she whined: “Will one of you open the window. Actually, open the wall, my clothes are shrivelling up, they’re choking on your tobacco.” She sniffed the hem of her black jacket disgustedly. “Kurds never stop smoking. Their children are addicted to smoking without having smoked. Their souls began as tobacco. When they go to heaven they ask God for a field of tobacco, not Houris.”
Tassu, who was forty-six years old, squatted between the two sofas, her lips clamped around a cigarette. Agilely, she stood up and vigorously shook her behind: “None of you can compete with my agility, not even Shtula,” the big woman said. She turned her body toward the wide-eyed Shtula, took hold of her and pulled her up from her seat beside the grey sofa: “Come on, dance my girl!” The young woman shrunk from Tassu’s rough hands: “Stick to the topic of changing the street name, that beats dancing,” she said, adding, as she returned to the seat she’d just been snatched from: “Take a ladder and a screwdriver to take the sign down. And take a can of spray paint to write the name Wali al-Qishda.”
“This is a country of law, Little One. I shall go to the law about the obligations of the law,” said Tassu. She scratched her gut.
“That’s priceless, Lady of the law,” said Shiraz Rahmani, who was thirty-nine years old, and whose large breasts surged up from under the material of her blouse. She added: “And what part of the law are you going to bring to the penis of the law?”
Dark-skinned, narrow-eyed Zintana Hassan joined in: “You mean the cunt of the law that Tassu will bring to . . .”
Zulaikha Abdulqadir, who was forty-four years old with heavily dyed red hair, cut her off: “We’ve got kids here, control your tongues.”
Tassu turned to her son Rand: “Take your brother Huss and go to your room. Don’t forget to take a plate of food each. When you’ve finished your dinner, eat your brother too and that computer, that magnetic box.”
“How did you manage to produce magnetic boxes from your womb, Tassu?” asked Zulaikha.
“Kurdish testicles are magnetic,” replied Tassu.
“I’ll fill a couple of plates for you lovelies,” said Darkhu Khalas, a fifty-year-old woman whose hair was dyed a light red. She served them everything on the spread, which took up two tables placed together: boiled potatoes, fried chicken drumsticks, bulgur wheat with chickpeas, grilled aubergine and salad. The boys protested: “We want the potatoes and the drumsticks, nothing else.” The stout little woman smiled: “My pleasure,” she replied. She looked at Tassu: “Does Huss have to spend his entire life under the cement of his name? Change it. With a simple application that won’t take nine minutes you could change his name,” she said sorrowfully.
Tassu replied: “Three years and two months Darkhu, and this thimble, son of a thimble, hasn’t stopped crying from the hour he was born. My heart’s worn out. If you only knew how much I’ve suffered you’d call him Hush. Hush. Hush, repeated thirty-nine times. He’s poured cement on my brain with his crying that even the Swedish stonebreakers couldn’t make a dent in.”
She struck her head hard with the palm of her hand: “If I were to hit Shtula’s head like that, it’d swell up. But there’s nothing but reinforced cement in my skull.” She moved closer to the twenty-nine year old Shtula Hibri, and, since the latter was seated, hugged her head against her stomach with a rough tenderness: “What’s the likes of you, Sweetie, Little One, doing with pickled sprouts like us, the nine of us, eh, Cherry Pip?”
“I didn’t know I was still a cherry,” responded Shtula. She freed her head from Tassu’s arms and took a large gulp of beer.
The curtain flapped in the breeze that blew in through the open window on an evening hung with the grapes of the last of the Swedish summer. Outside the window of Tassu’s apartment, on the first floor of a six storey-building, whose northern side looked out onto Katarina street, in Stockholm’s Rinkeby district, the leaves of the trees rustled, eager to depart.
“Fill your cups, daughters of autumn,” said Tassu to encourage her nine guests to start dinner. “Who’d have thought we’d become worn out so quickly? Our lives are sagging like our arses.”
"They’re being wiped like our arses,” added Zulaikha, feeling her small bottom under a dress that looked like an abaya.
“This year’s autumn, 2008, is going to be a long one. That’s what the annual Horoscope reader says in Click magazine. Winter’s going to be short.”
“Like the penis of my ex-husband who was killed,” Shiraz broke in, cutting Zulaikha off mid-sentence. She idly picked up a drumstick then returned it to the dish as though she’d changed her mind.
“Since when was your ex-husband killed, Shiraz?”
“Has he not been killed yet?” wondered Shiraz with an ambiguous, sarcastic levity. She filled her fork with the bulgur wheat cooked with chickpeas and tasted it: “This food fills the bones with air.” The tall Nazli Rakan was quick to comment:
“In that case, this food’s good for Zulaikha. It’ll fill out her arse like an African woman’s. How their buttocks in Rinkeby rub and squash together in their trousers as they walk.”
“Buttocks like that make it difficult to convince anyone of famine in Africa,” said Rihani Mohammed Sikar, a forty-year-old woman whose fingers were crammed with silver rings of various styles.
“Make some room for me,” said Salam Sheikh Ghardaq, who was forty-four years old with a large rump, as she helped herself to everything laid out on the tables. She moved aside after filling her plate: “We’ve got a Finnish investigator in Immigration Affairs. She asks me to ask the immigrants who come to have their stories checked out if they eat garlic,” she said, speaking rapidly to ears trained on forks.
“What?!” asked the forty-one year old Nazli, whose nails were bitten to the skin. “Finnish? You mean Shola Takinin, skinny as a . . .” and she thought for a moment to come up with a fitting analogy. Salam came to her aid: “Like what’s between your thighs.”
“Never mind. What’s up with that miserable fart all the time?” said Nazli.
“How can I ask an immigrant, an asylum seeker, if he eats garlic? It’s cheeky. Once, I said to her: ‘Listen, the Swedes who occupied Finland don’t hate garlic, so why do you hate it? We foreigners love garlic. We love kisses with the odour of garlic,’” said Salam in a raised voice. Rawat, with large lines on her upper lip, was quick to add sarcastically:
“Why didn’t you add: We love penises rubbed in garlic.”
“I’ll add that next time the whore needs me,” said Salam, pleased.
“If you say that to her, the immigration office won’t ask you to interpret again,” advised Zintana, who moved past her to the chair leaning against the wall.
“The number of Kurdish asylum seekers is going down. Interpreting hours for the investigators are falling. They call us to interpret once or twice a week. This dirty work doesn’t matter to me any more. I’ve already made enough money to set up a retirement home in Alvik,” said the small-breasted Salam. She added: “I’ll tell the Finnish investigator about the pricks rubbed in garlic.” She sipped her beer: “Who chose a Finnish woman to investigate asylum seekers in Sweden? Now I get it: the frostiness freezes their tongues.”
“I shall go to the law about the obligations of the law,” said Tassu, returning with the fantasy of debates, amid the ornate dishes, to the fly of her imagination sitting atop one of the letters of the street name. In her hoarse voice, Darkhu disapproved of her friend’s insistence:
“Why are you so angry about the name of the street?”
“I’m afraid of spending the rest of my life in this street,” replied Tassu, as she ate the food from her plate.
“What’s going to change if the street’s called Wali al-Qishda?” asked Darkhu.
“I’ll eat the rest of my life quickly,” replied Tassu.
“No, change it but eat yourself slowly. We need our vaginas to grow old together,” said Darkhu.
“They’ve already grown old, dummy. They’re only good for dubious activities now,” replied Tassu.
“What are your vagina’s dubious activities, Tassu?” asked Zintana.
“Pissing,” replied Tassu.
The young woman Shtula rapped her fork against the rim of her plate: "Why are you all talking so despairingly? Aren’t you fishing for anyone, Divorcees of Sweden, Kurdish ladies?”
“What are we going to use to fish a prick? The moustaches that have appeared beneath our noses?” said the oldest of the friends, Darkhu Khalas. She moved forward until her breasts were pressed against Shtula’s:
“When you’ve slept with a man, Shtula, come to me so I can smell you. Perhaps I’ll remember the smell of fucking.”
“Can’t you smell anything now Darkhu?” asked Shtula winking an eye. She laughed.
“Have you done it recently?” replied Darkhu, sniffing her.
“Five weeks ago,” said Shtula. She sighed. “My body’s knowledge of fucking is fading, Darkhu. My vagina’s becoming illiterate.”
“I’ll put the life back into this street’s vagina,” said Tassu. She placed her plate on the table between the two sofas. She turned to adjust the angle of a picture that hung on a short string on a plastic hook fixed to the wall. She righted the slant but the hook broke suddenly and the frame, which contained a black and white photograph, fell. The glass smashed on the edge of the chair. The women froze for a moment, then laughed. Tassu pushed the broken glass and the frame under the grey sofa with her foot, that was bare save for a sock. “Hide here for now, Mum and Dad. I’ll come back for you in the morning.” She groaned, gritted her teeth, and sat down on the floor to feel her foot. She pulled out a small splinter of glass from her big toe: “Whore,” she muttered. She dropped the splinter into the grey ashtray on the table. “I’ll call on you all to protest in Rinkeby Square for the street name to be changed. It’s a legal right. I’ll bring the sock of law to the attention of the law,” she said as she removed her sock and found the wound was light. She put her sock back on: “I’ll call on the Kurds of Stockholm and Uppsala to protest.”
“Wouldn’t it be more effective to petition the municipality to have the street name changed, O Queen of Sweden?” asked the flat-bottomed Zulaikha, with a sarcasm her serious and mild tone failed to conceal.
“The municipality! What municipality?” Tassu asked herself in mock surprise. She turned her face from her companions to the floor enveloped in a skin of polished wood: “Which municipality in Sweden is Rinkeby attached to?”
“The municipality of Mogadishu,” said Nazli, who had bitten-down nails and large, dark eyes.
“O Mogadishu, O my heart,” sang Shiraz Rahmani, who retained a notable shapeliness, and provoked the malice of Zintana Hassan, who thought she had Iranian ancestry:
“You’ve obviously tasted a black penis, Nazli. So long that Darkhu could write nineteen lines of her Kurdish poetry on it.”
The beaded bracelets on Darkhu’s wrists jangled as she pushed her plate into Zintana’s back: “You’ve obviously tasted a black penis and used your big mouth to write nineteen kisses on it, from the tip to the balls. You pickled vagina,” she said, alluding to the two Kurds who used to import pickles from Turkey and whom Zintana had married one after the other.
“Stop this sluttish talk for a bit. I thought only little girls talked like that,” said Shtula, opening a can of beer.
“How long have you been living among us, Shtula?” asked Shiraz, who didn’t bother with make-up with the exception of some kohl applied to her eyelids. “Three years,” she said, continuing: “Haven’t you noticed that the more our bodies fail us, the more fluent our tongues become in compensating for the failed vaginas between our legs?” She laughed. “We talk like whores, yes. Your young body behaves like a whore in bed. As for our bodies, they’re pure in their loneliness. Our beds are for pure sleep. Our vaginas are for pure sleep.” She struck her palm against her large, fierce chest: “Grant me the penis of a mujahid, Shtula, and take from me a tongue as chaste as the tongue of a saint.”
“There’s no whore in this life,” said Tassu. She lifted the hem of her blouse from the fat of her right hip that escaped from the waist of her trousers. She scratched the fat: “God has yet to create a whore in this life.”
“In what life then will the whore be found?” asked Nazli.
“In the hereafter,” replied Tassu.
Some compact discs fell from a shelf when Rawat Khalil, golden glints flashing from her heavily dyed hair, pulled one out. “I’ll shut you up with music that’ll snatch the clitoris from the lion’s den between your legs.” She fed the disc into the flat, slim-line machine.
The throat of the popular singer let out an abrupt cry, and the strings of the tanbur trembled in fear. It was the voice of the king of songs of homesickness, pain, emigration, and love; as bruising as the convulsions of an electric drill as it burrows into the asphalt. The voice was wrecked in the machine, a millstone grinding itself down. It resolved itself, found harmony, then contracted like a muscle. The cry of the singer, preserver of the Kurdish folk spirit, shook the insides of the terrified machine. The resonance of his wild voice reached the steel foundations of the building. The music flared up.
Some of the women sighed repeatedly in rapture; sighs slippery with the oil of their hearts. “Tear our hearts,” they shouted with the singer, who almost destroyed the machine with the force of the air in his lungs. “Tear up the street sign,” shouted Tassu.
“If you change the name of this street, the Somalis will demand that all the street names in Rinkeby are changed, Tassu. A Somali republic will appear in Rinkeby,” said Rihani, as she lit another cigarette, her mouth half full of food.
“I heard the Somalis are asking for Islamic toilets in their workplaces,” said Zulaikha.
“Their workplaces! Where do they work?” asked Tassu.
“It’s not the Somalis asking for that. You’re getting things mixed up, Zulaikha. In Britain their pious brothers and sisters, Pakistanis and Moroccans, are asking for Islamic toilets in their workplaces,” said Rihani.
“What are Islamic toilets?” wondered Rawat.
“I don’t know,” replied Rihani.
“Will the British contagion reach Rinkeby?” pondered Rawat.
“Maybe it’ll get to the point where some are demanding mosques in Swedish schools and nurseries,” said Rihani. Shiraz pulled up her cotton blouse to allow her large breasts to breathe: “How many mosques are there in Rinkeby? Thirty-eight?” she asked.
“Thirty-eight? Are you serious!” Rawat asked her.
“A little less than that. Rinkeby is the Mecca of the Scandinavian states, and three quarters of Europe,” said Tassu. She raised to her mouth her glass of the white wine that no one else was drinking except Darkhu. She tried it, grimacing at its taste. Darkhu snatched the glass from her hand: “Don’t pollute the water of Paradise. You’re only fit to drink tobacco water.”
“Soon, the Somali pirates will reach the lakes of Stockholm,” said Rihani, who was wearing a shawl.
“The Kurds have arrived so why shouldn’t the Somalis?” asked Salam, who had silver streaks in her auburn hair.
“The Kurds have arrived but not the Kurdish pirates,” replied Rihani.
“The Kurds, pirates, never. Wasn’t Napoleon a pirate?” asked Salam.
Rihani furrowed her brow in puzzlement. She wiped her mouth with a paper tissue patterned with badly drawn stars. “Napoleon? What made you think of Napoleon? Your friends drink my deadly wine, and you’re the one who’s drunk,” said Rihani. “Are you trying to kill us with your home-made wine, Rihani?” asked Nazli, and Rihani replied: “You’re drinking beer, you haven’t tried my wine yet. You only have to be within a couple of metres of a glass of it to get drunk, like Salam who brought up Napoleon.”
“His mother was Kurdish,” said Salam.
“Napoleon’s mother?” wondered Zintana, as she crushed the empty beer can in her hand.
“Perhaps you mean the mother of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s mother was Kurdish, Salam, not Napoleon’s,” said Darkhu, correcting the trivia of history.
“I swear to God, everything in this world was Kurdish before the Kurds staged a coup against God,” said Tassu.
“What coup, O Divine Knower?” asked Darkhu, as she filled a glass with Rihani’s wine, kept in an old, plastic 7-up bottle.
“Let they who are without a history preserve themselves. Everyone without a history is plotting a coup against God,” said Tassu.
“The Turkish tobacco smuggled into Sweden is making a philosopher of you, Tassu.” Darkhu nodded her head as she spoke.
Tassu undid the top two buttons of her trousers, above her gut: “We have no history, therefore we have the right to steal Napoleon’s mother, or Alexander’s mother or the mother of humankind,” she said.
“Why stop at the mothers?” asked the flat-bottomed Rihani, who wore a black velvet Irish hat.
Tassu replied: “If I mentioned the fathers of humankind, it wouldn’t add anything to the greatness of the Kurds. The Kurds have always been fathers. They’re born fathers.”
“What about the Kurdish mothers?” asked Rihani.
“Kurdish women are fathers. They’re born fathers. The Kurdish woman comes out of her mother’s vagina a father, not a mother,” replied Tassu.
“Show us your cock, Tassu,” said Darkhu.
Tassu undid another two of her buttons, revealing the hem of her knickers. She felt her crotch and shook her head sorrowfully: “You lot aren’t arousing. My cock isn’t erect yet.”
Tassu’s mobile phone rang inside her trouser pocket. It rang to an ice cream van chime, a sound that can be heard throughout the Kingdom of Sweden, on every day of the year. Frozen cream with its committed, nihilistic flavour that limits the otherwise innumerable choices of ice and restrains the options of a humid summer, for three thirds of which it rains. Tassu liked to listen to the short, repetitive melody, a hymn to announce the visit of frozen travelling flavours. “I can hear Qamishli,” she’d say. She wasn’t concerned with confirming the coincidence between the birth of the ice cream van in Sweden and the date Qamishli had emerged as a sound, after its emergence as a land and a people, which Tassu had left twenty-five years before. “I can hear Qamishli.”
“What does Qamishli sound like?”
“It sounds like what I think about without thinking.”
After nine days piecing together the fragments of the melody, Kosta Kosta Lliadi, of Greek origin – a technician of fox-like cunning in the programming of mobile phones – had programmed the ring tone of Tassu’s phone, a perfect reproduction of the call of the ice cream seller’s roaming vehicle.
“Hello,” whispered Tassu into the hard, invisible ear.
At that moment, Darkhu’s phone rang: the crowing of a cockerel. From inside the little device came the eternal sound of dawn. Darkhu’s phone rang with the confident tone of the cockerel’s throat. Her phone was a cockerel. Time, with its majesty and fickleness, was divided equally between dawn and dusk. Between dawn and dusk there was no context except Darkhu’s poems with their vociferous, Kurdish flavour. Whispering, she spoke in Swedish.
“Hello,” said Darkhu in a disapproving voice, as though a bubble of bitter images had interrupted sweet thoughts.
Shtula’s silver phone rang: the sound of a saw and groaning, a stochastic composition. Zulaikha yelled: “Aren’t there enough sluts to listen to in this whorehouse. What do you find so entertaining about the sound of a saw and boiling semen?”
“I enjoy seeing the look of surprise on peoples’ faces when my phone rings on the metro: first it’s surprise, then smiles of silent wonder as clitorises harden. My phone’s entertaining. What’s a phone if it’s not entertaining? Put the sound of wailing, Zulaikha, in your testicle of a phone – the wailing of a divorcee without an arse,” said the wide-eyed Shtula. She gulped down her wine thirstily, and followed it with a sip of beer.
“Are you making fun of me, you paralysed clitoris? Your strong, youthful buttocks won’t help you to attract a penis to pack more meat between them,” said Zulaikha, insulted.
“Enough of these phones, they’ve started a war,” cried Nazli from her wide mouth. “How did your phones come at the same time?” she added.
“If only my phone could come, Nazli. I bought it for 12,000 krona, and it’s been silent two days now,” said the small-breasted Salam.
“12,000!” exclaimed Zintana, astonished. She looked between the faces of her friends: “Whose vagina did you raise the cost of the phone from? Do you call God with it, and your dead relatives?”
Rihani, her fingers wrapped in silver rings, jangled the gold necklace that hung against her chest, its golden sound competing with the coarse, confused rings from the depths of the three phones. “I was going to record this jingling as a ring tone for my phone, but a lot of stupid women can’t tell the difference between base and precious metals.”
“The important thing is that you know it’s the jingling of gold, Rihani,” said Zintana, wide-mouthed like Nazli with the large, dark eyes.
“It’s not enough,” replied Rihani.
“Enough or not enough, it’s unimportant. The gold around your neck is too much,” said Zintana.
“A woman’s neck was created for gold. Gold was created to be the first thing to touch her breasts,” said Rihani.
“Actually, gold was created for smuggling,” said Tassu as she turned off her phone.
“How did you hear our conversation with your ear pressed against the shaft of your phone, Tassu?” asked Salam, as she mockingly rubbed her purportedly expensive phone against her crotch.
In response, Tassu did the same, rubbing her phone against her crotch. She continued where she’d left off: “Gold was created for smuggling. Assyrian women take their money, hidden beneath beds, to Syria, and buy gold with it to wrap round their necks, ankles, wrists, and bellies. The Swedish Customs officers can’t confiscate their gold. It’s a personal item like perfume, lipstick and socks. The Assyrian women will use up their stores of gold with the goldsmiths of Sweden.”
“Do you think that Customs don’t know what you know, Tassu? Gold is gold. A lot of it on the neck of a woman travelling to Syria will raise suspicions,” said Rihani as she played with the thick-linked necklace on her chest.
“You know Sweden and the Swedish people. They’re careful not to insult anything considered sacred by the foreigner, or the foreigner’s traditions from the land of his mother and father. Tell Swedish Customs that gold is a woman’s honour. That’s enough for them to approve the shipping of a tonne of gold to Syria. They buy land in Syria with Swedish gold,” said Tassu.
“Do you hate all the nations of the earth, Tassu? The meat pastries the Assyrians make in Fittja restores spirit to the tongue,” said the golden-headed Rawat. Contemptuously, Tassu replied:
“Nations of the earth? Every nation, if it isn’t able to plunder the next openly, becomes a thieving nation and plunders. That’s the rule. All of us are born either invaders or thieves.”
“From what university did you acquire this knowledge of yours, Tassu?” asked Darkhu sarcastically, puckering her nose with its concave bridge.
“I studied it on the pores of my skin, from my navel to the edge of the dry pit between my legs”, replied Tassu.
“Jingle, Gold,” said Rihani cutting into their conversation, as she played with the necklace, with its thick links, against her chest. She said roughly: “Shut the Kurdish women up, Gold.”
“Rihani, one day you’ll go home without your neck. It’ll be snatched with the gold hanging on it by a Croatian, Pole, Gypsy, Finn, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian or a Lithuanian,” said Nazli. She was about to continue when Tassu cut in, adding: “Or Assyrian, or Armenian, or Ethiopian, or Pakistani, or Bengali or Sri Lankan.”
Rihana said cheerfully: “You’ll return home carrying your head under your dress.”
Darkhu revised the course of the words that exploded like sand, to the line that Tassu had uttered:
“None of those you just mentioned are European. Let’s stay in Europe and see who would be the most likely, the most fortunate to snatch Rihani’s neck.”
Tassu didn’t hesitate, she answered: “A Turk, I’m sure.”
“The Turks aren’t European yet,” replied Darkhu.
“What’s Europe?” asked Tassu contemptuously, opening the palm of her left hand to snatch a continent torn from the darkness of liquid heights: “I swear to God, Europe needs another thousand years to know what Europe is. Israel becomes Europe in the European Song Contest. Morocco is demanding European citizenship. Turkey has its foot stuck in the door of Europe. My children are European now.”
The crushed beer can creaked in Shtula’s hand spilling out the foam of the blond mind of the sunny brew: “The Kurds are the gods of Europe,” said the young woman, who wore a cotton blouse rolled up to reveal her navel.
“What?” asked Zulaikha, her face half engulfed by the smoke of her cigarette.
Shtula didn’t reply to Zulaikha. She stared at the froth dripping from the crushed can onto her fingers: “Fizzy. The last penis I held fizzed like that.”
“Whore,” muttered Zulaikha.
“What did you say,” asked Shtula, with her big eyes. Her eyelids had become a little heavy from the sunny blends of the beer and the wine.
“The Kurds. What is it with the Kurds?” said Zulaikha.
“They created Europe. The Mitannian Kurds gave Europe its name when it was clear the Greeks didn’t know exactly where their country was. The Kurds clung on to the land of the Greeks as it floated through the air and brought it down to settle on the waters of the Mediterranean. The Kurds are the fathers of Athens,” said Shtula. She burped: “One of you give me a cigarette, my packet’s finished. Balls.”
“I heard something about that,” said Tassu, as she piled up the dishes of leftovers.
“You haven’t heard any of this before,” said Shtula, and added: “You don’t listen.”
“What’s up with you, little Swedish bird? My hearing is sharper than the hearing of your vagina,” said Tassu, smiling.
Darkhu stretched out her legs among the dishes – abandoned after appetites had been satisfied – on the table between the two sofas. Tassu took the trouble to move aside some of the cups and paper napkins: “I see you’re sleeping, it’s not even nine yet, Darkhu,” she said. Darkhu sighed: “I’ve spent my life writing poetry about the dawn, no one notices me. An eastern woman comes, a failure in the clothes she wears, a failure at cooking, a failure at fucking, a failure at smoking, she comes to the literary market as a last refuge to save herself from further failure. She writes something about the millstone of her vagina, and what happens, happens. Do any of you know what happened? Europe threw itself in astonishment at my feet, the divine writer with translations, invocations and prayers for her in its parliaments. Europe is surprised, every time an eastern woman writer talks about her vagina, that there’s something called a vagina. Europe hasn’t heard of the vagina. The bad female writers of the East have opened Europe’s eyes to a new continent in this world – a continent of flesh. A little continent of flesh. If a Swedish cat ate it, it would die from poisoning. Damn the continents,” said Darkhu with a dry displeasure like the taste of the white wine made in Rihani’s bathroom. She provocatively took her legs off the table to shoot down the wound hovering above her heart: “Europe has been waiting for someone to describe the vagina to it since it became unimaginative at fucking.”
“How do you put words together like that, Darkhu? You’re the best of us at speaking,” said Nazli, as she chewed the remains of nails that had so far been spared her teeth. Shtula rapped the bottom of her beer can against the arm of the chair beside her:
“Wait, wait, Nazli. Darkhu said something false.”
“False?” said Darkhu, who sufficed with scented lotions on her skin and didn’t use perfume. “What’s false, little Swedish bird, Shtula?”
“Europe has no imagination when it comes to fucking? Europe’s the mistress who brought the art of licking and sucking to the world. Haven’t you seen a dirty movie?” said the sleepy-eyed Shtula.
“That’s not art. There’s no imagination to it,” said Darkhu with no desire to elaborate.
“Really, Darkhu, you’re a poet, you start off from you don’t know where and end up you don’t know where,” said Nazli, looking at her watch. She stroked Darkhu’s full thigh with the palm of her hand: “Tassu hates the name of the street. We don’t understand. You hate Europe. We don’t understand.”
“I hate my penis,” said Darkhu lazily, looking at her watch in turn.
“You have a penis and Tassu has a penis. You’ve revealed a centimetre of them to us, God forgive the sins of your ancestors, all of them,” said Zulaikha.
“I’m going home,” said Rawat. “There aren’t many trains after 9 pm on Saturdays.” She kissed Tassu goodbye and put on her green fitted jacket. She put on her shoes and waved at the others. “We’ll meet at Nazli’s next Saturday evening.” Softly, she closed the door behind her, slipping out on the glow of her golden hair.
For a few moments the sitting room was silent. Darkhu leant against Shtula: “Your house is far away, little bird.” The sleepy-eyed Shtula didn’t answer.
“Leave her be,” said Tassu. “I think it’s best if she sleeps here with me. Rihani’s wine is an infidel.” She went up to the CD player to feed it a new disk – songs of lamentation. Darkhu protested: “Spare our skins. Our skins have begun to form boils of sadness.” Tassu shrugged her shoulders: “No music means no music.” She disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a large mug of coffee. She sat on the chair next to the grey sofa and its joints creaked. Shtula opened her eyes wide and gathered the loose threads of her wakefulness into a braid: “I’ll sleep here. Fill my cup, Darkhu dear.” The tumbler was filled with wine and its light bubbles chirped on the sharp tongue of fermentation. The floppy Shtula sat up in her seat:
“In Morocco, they’ve begun to marry off ten-year-old girls over the Internet. Imams’ rabid testicles. The day will come when those with the beards will take the virginity of every child in her tenth month.”
“Supple vaginas, Shtula,” said Darkhu. “Supple vaginas that will quietly mature on the hot coals of their penises.”
“Whore,” whispered Zulaikha.
“What did you say?” asked Shtula, not quite sure of what she’d heard.
Zintana spoke quickly, the non-smoker who enjoyed inhaling tobacco smoke: “Religion permits it.”
“Since you’re an authority on the subject of religion, what happens to our vaginas in heaven?” asked Shiraz, whose only adornment was the kohl applied around her slightly jaundiced green eyes.
Zintana replied: “It’s too late for them to serve any purpose in heaven. A vagina over forty is a suicidal vagina.”
“You’re right,” said Salam. “What use are vaginas like ours in heaven? The men have no time for us. Vaginas tight as a chicken’s anus are waiting for them. No kisses. In heaven men don’t need to kiss the females. There’s no time for kissing. The rows of waiting vaginas don’t allow time to be wasted on kisses. Penises never go soft.”
“Anyone would think you’d just got back from there, Salam,” said Darkhu. Sipping her wine, she added: “Even if we go to heaven we’ll be in hell. I’ll pray, while I’m still in this life, that the skin of a penis that has blown itself up reaches me.”
“Where?” shouted Tassu. “Show me a penis that has blown itself up. I’ll gladly offer it all my parts. I’ll guide it to a place where it can explode itself with such a force its echoes will reach the skies of paradise.”
“Go to Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq,” replied Salam. Darkhu cleared her throat: “You simpleton, Salam. Suicide bombers have reached all the streets of Europe. Penises explode on earth and bits of their testicles are shot into the corridors of paradise. Perhaps every day, without realising, you see some of those who’re waiting to explode their penises. On the metro, I’ve seen men with the clothes and beards of the Taliban. Dear God. Europe is finished.” She knocked back the last of her wine: “I said to the Swedish investigator at Immigration Affairs, ask them if they’d allow their children to marry a Swede, but he refused, afraid of breaking the rules of questioning. He said: ‘It’s not in my interest to ask a question that could upset an asylum seeker.’ Interests?” she over enunciated in her hoarse voice. “Some of the asylum seekers ask where the mosque is while they’re requesting us to fill in their application forms. Sweden will become a mosque on columns of ice and cement, from Lapland to Lund, and in the courtyards of this mosque the magpies of ABBA will fly instead of the pigeons of Mecca.”
Zintana exhaled the harsh rhetoric of smoke and sucked in the sitting-room air, fetid from long stagnant years. Tobacco smoke has the logic of the despot but lacks the vainglory. Smoke that conciliates the opponent with its subtle association with that which is unlike the smoke of fire. Incense, alone, is liberally inhaled at its origin, as layers of resin from the first tree, lost in the gardens of paradise lost. Tobacco smoke stealthily steals a signet from incense to support its propagation. Borne by this signet, it forms an unrelenting gnawing assault on the known geography of scents, heralding the covenant of fire.
The smoke of that which burns is not usually savoured: in the logic of fire, ashes are the punishment for the insolence of its apparition, and its impossible friendship. The smoke of that which burns is the torment of that which burns, except for incense: its smoke is the glory of its creation of ashes, in memory of the scent of sublimity in the mysterious sublime.
With the perseverance of those plants known for their vigour, tobacco prepared itself for the role that would lead to another rhetoric for smoke on the frontiers of incense. It spread without force. It expanded and conquered without vainglory. It surrounded incense along the wide stretches of the kingdoms of incense, its provinces and its homes of open and locked doors. It subjugated incense without vainglory, laying the destiny of a new genesis for miraculous smoke.
Tobacco has been accused of deception. The metaphors for deception – pleasure and killing – have been attributed to tobacco. It has been harried as a religion spreading news of a God in an apparition of smoke. Nations have not united in their common causes as they have in their confrontation with tobacco: its followers have been beleaguered. The places that colluded in the opulence of the new smoke have been closed down, tobacco’s devotees being forced to seek refuge in caves, fleeing from the tigers of the law, fleeing from enslavement in the arenas as a people who have renounced the covenant of well-being. But, until the appearance of a new dawn in the science of that enchanting smoke and all its temptations, no one will claim the matter has been settled and the record complete.
The chime announcing the approach of the ice cream van grew louder, its musical phrases measured like the hours on that night preparing for abstinence since the day turned frugal at the end of summer, lean, emaciated from the fasting of early light in the earth’s north. “The ice cream seller can’t find his way to the house,” said Tassu. She shook her head in annoyance: “But his vehicle revives me with the taste of ginger in its melody.”
Shiraz got up off the green sofa to sit on the floor, leaning her back against the wall: “Sitting on the floor is good for the bone in my right hip. Dear God, even after all these years, my body hasn’t forgotten the stab of the knife, its blade plunged into the buttock right up to the thighbone. A piece snapped off and the bone’s never mended,” she said.
“You’re deluded,” said Rihani.
“Where’s the delusion in my feelings of pain?” asked Shiraz.
“Who told you the story of the young man who stabbed your mother in the stomach while she was pregnant with you?” asked Rihani. Shiraz replied:
“Before, you said your mum’s husband told you,” said Rihani, and Shiraz responded surprised:
“I didn’t say that.”
“Every time you tell us the story of this stabbing you add something new, Shiraz,” said Rihani.
“I’ll shut up then,” said Shiraz resentfully. “It’s a crime now to talk to you lot.” She lowered her gaze announcing a boycott that would not last. She mumbled sullenly: “Get me a mug of coffee, Tassu. Move, and burn off some fat.”
Tassu looked at her without reproach: “Would you like it with milk, as usual?”
“Why do you always pretend to have forgotten how I take my coffee?” said Shiraz.
Tassu replied calmly: “With milk, Princess, naturally.”
“And with a little sperm,” added Shiraz, reproachfully.
“I’ll masturbate into the cup for you then,” said Tassu, heading into the kitchen.
Nazli yawned, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’ve smoked a lot today; two and a half packets. I can smell the tobacco in my bones,” she said. She got up and straightened the skirt of her long black dress: “Why do we have to live in houses and not on the streets? I could stretch out on the pavement tonight.”
“The voice of stupidity,” commented Rihani, whose long hair was dyed jet-black. “There’s no bed like your own.”
Nazli stretched her limbs as though she’d just woken from a restful sleep: “The road home is strewn with cigarette butts. I can bear the distance as long as I can inhale their aroma.” At the door she scattered a handful of dry kisses in the direction of her friends as she put on her black jacket and her shoes.
Nazli whistled softly beside the lift, which she didn’t need to take. The miserable corridor smiled at the building with its grey flooring – the prisoner of a dull mind.
Tassu shut the door on her words of farewell. She turned her eyes to her friends’ faces. “Who wants coffee?” she asked the floppy women, but no one replied. “No Kurdish woman’s clitoris is aroused on a Saturday night,” she said sarcastically and headed to the kitchen to get herself a coffee.
Zulaikha clicked her fingers – a sarcastic rhythm: “We need a song to make us wet, Tassu, we’re getting dry.”
Tassu’s two sons, Rand and Huss, emerged from one of the rooms. They got themselves a drink and some slices of fried meat, and then returned to their fortress surrounded by the angels of the computer and its divine games. Shtula winked at them before they disappeared into the small hallway: “Wouldn’t you like fresh meat,” she asked them with a wickedness as sleepy as her eyes. Darkho gave her a reprimanding kick: “Tassu will kill you. Their balls are like pistachios that haven’t ripened yet.”
“They just need salt,” replied Shtula. She giggled. She took a swig of beer and followed it with a sip of wine. “Every time I touch my cigarette something trembles on the inside of my left thigh. Smoking is a pen that writes something, Divorcees of God,” she said, looking at her glass.
“What does it write, child?” asked Darkhu. Then Tassu, returning from the kitchen, interjected: “Ask me, ask me.”
“OK, Tassu, what does it write?” asked Darkhu.
“It’s writing the birth of a penis for me,” replied Tassu.
“Why didn’t God create you as a man, Tassu?” asked Salam, and Tassu answered: “How you know I’m not a man?”
“This is the first time I’ve known a man to have a womb that gives birth,” said Salam.
“Yes, I’m a man with a womb. Would you laugh at God for creating a man with a womb?” asked Tassu.
“No, I swear to God, God would laugh at anyone who thought you were a woman, Tassu,” replied Salam.
Tassu placed her large coffee cup on the edge of the table between the two sofas. “What a life, Tassu,” she muttered to herself in a sorrowful tone. “My heart is a man’s heart. My lungs are a man’s lungs. My pubic hair is a man’s pubic hair, my cry is a man’s cry.”
“What’s the difference between a man’s cry and a woman’s cry?” asked wide-mouthed Zintana, savouring the tobacco smoke.
Tassu replied: “When a woman cries she cries until her tears run dry, then she claims, after that, that she cries from her throat and not from her eyes. A man, if he cries, likes to keep some of his tears, so he doesn’t shed them all. Man is a vault and woman a courtyard.”
“Tassu, Daughter of Egyptian okra,” Zulaikha addressed her with mockery mixed with wonder at her logic.
Tassu replied: “I only eat Turkish okra, dear. Don’t confuse things. Egyptian okra was harvested in the time of the pharaohs. Okra likes mummies, wood, fibres, desiccated skin, tin, iron, goats’ hooves, sand. Dear God. How does an Egyptian okra seed grow to the size of a pumpkin? The Egyptians aren’t to blame; the Swedes are for importing the mummies’ okra, with its big seeds like a half krona.”
“Isn’t it better we buy Arabic okra rather than Turkish okra, Kurdish woman, Tassu?” asked Zulaikha, keen to point out the flaw in Tassu’s comparisons between the different schools of okra, and its invasion of Sweden from two lands that share the faith of one sea.
“Do you know where the Turkish company harvests its okra, which is tinned and exported to Sweden? Maybe from the field of your mother’s aunt in Cardin, Zulaikha,” said Darkhu, and Tassu pressed her with additions to her logic:
“Turkish okra is like a pencil tip, like your fingertips. Which would you prefer? The tongue of a Turkish bird, or the tongue of an Egyptian buffalo? If we imported a donkey tomorrow, from the desert of Houran, after presenting the legal papers detailing its health, age and tastes to the Swedish department of animal importation, and when the donkey arrived, we took it down to the basement of this building of ours, to the wire-mesh storage area allocated to this apartment, tied it up there, sewed up its mouth for four days, and then waved a big bunch of clover in front of its eyes and nostrils . . .”
“Clover!” interrupted Rihani. “Where would the clover come from? From the IKEA Empire?”
“The IKEA Empire? Is IKEA greater than the Kingdom of Sweden?” asked Zintana.
“Yes,” replied Rihani.
“You’re exaggerating,” said Tassu. “Perhaps, if we added together all the square metres occupied by IKEA’s branches throughout the world, it would seem greater than the United Arab Emirates, but not bigger than Sweden. Sweden is like one of IKEA’s products: an island tied to an island, a forest nailed to a forest, fields glued to other fields. Cities overlapping cities with joints that only need a small screw to hold them in place. The first screw to come loose will be the Rinkeby screw. Every one of IKEA’s products is like a kingdom when its parts are put together, then, after a couple of days they break up like Yugoslavia.”
“We’ve forgotten the donkey and the clover,” said Rihani.
Tassu tried to backtrack a little: “OK, Rihani, if we waved a bunch of fresh green beans in front of the donkey’s eyes and nostrils . . .”
Rihani cut her off: “Green beans?” She smiled from behind the smoke of her cigarette. “Do donkeys eat green beans?”
“It’d eat your vagina if it was starved for four days. But let me finish, Rihani,” said Tassu, annoyed by her friend’s interruptions. She continued: “If we waved a basket of fresh hay in front of its eyes and nostrils – that is: if we burnt its heart with hunger upon hunger, and desire upon desire, then untied the rope around its legs and let it loose on a sack of Egyptian okra, it’d prefer to starve to death. It wouldn’t eat the Egyptian okra.” Wearing an expression of amazement, she asked: “What do they feed these okra bushes? What dung do they use? Dung made from sand, sandals and scraps of old clothes. And . . . the okra comes to us in small, vacuum-packed bags like Kufu’s testicle, in accordance with export regulations, protecting the rights of greengrocers in accordance with UN law.” She boomed: “My God, who allows this okra to be distributed in Sweden?”
“I know,” said Darkhu. “The imported food inspectors would never object to okra or mulukhiya because they don’t want to be accused of insulting Islamic greengrocers.”
“Islamic greengrocers?” asked Shtula, resting her head on the arm of the sofa.
“Of course,” added Darkhu. She exhaled a billow of smoke that rose to envelop the ceiling. “It’s like halal meat and halal bags.”
“Halal bags?” asked Zintana, excited at the idea.
“Halal! Write the word ‘halal’ on a bag, on a building, on a street, on your vagina. Everything becomes halal when the word ‘halal’ is attached to it. No Muslim man marries a halal vagina unless it’s from outside Sweden. No Muslim woman marries unless she imports a halal penis from outside Sweden. As for young Muslim men in Sweden, their penises don’t take into account shariah law when they’re with their blond, Swedish girlfriends. But when the time for marriage comes, divine guidance returns to their penises, they follow the righteous path, and marry halal vaginas from the land of their forefathers, the land of halal soil . . .”
Zintana cut in: “And halal water.”
“And halal rain,” said Zulaikha.
“And halal semen,” added Shiraz.
“Taliban girls!” exclaimed Zintana, adding with a slightly delayed reaction: “I don’t like okra.”
“Smoke, then. Smoke lots. Smoke as though you’re eating corn on the cob or bulgar and fried meat, Zintana. The taste of fat on your lips is only equalled by the taste of smoke. To smoke is to taste the soul,” said Darkhu.
“The taste of the soul? What does it taste like?” asked Zulaikha.
Shtula opened her sleepy eyes, practised at taming images before they could announce their rebellion: “What happened to you, Zulaikha, is that you sucked a shaft,” she said.
Zulaikha flared up: “Whore.”
“Idiot. In bed, when the shudder of fucking reaches our skulls, life in its entirety becomes a whore. There’s nothing more fun than life when it’s a whore. Look at it, at your age now: no bed, even if you’re stretched out on a thousand beds, no bed is equal to an erect penis before ejaculation,” said Shtula, who then swigged some beer from her can just as the same insulting word from Zulaikha’s mouth reached her ears: “Whore.”
“Bring me a penis that doesn’t disappoint and call me what you like,” replied Shtula.
“Oooh”, murmured Darkhu with revived imagination: “Sometimes I have the idea of sitting on the lap of a young man, on the train, and making out I didn’t see him”.
“Wouldn’t you settle for less?” asked Tassu. She added: “What if he was middle-aged?”
“Fine,” replied Darkhu without hesitation. Then she added: “As long as he didn’t have a moustache, Tassu.”
“Oh, come on! At my age I’d be happy to kiss the mouth of a man with a moustache,” replied Tassu.
“That’s disgusting,” commented Darkhu.
“I’ll lick the moustache of any man who lies on top of me now,” said Tassu, determined to provoke her poet friend, but it was Zulaikha who spoke next: “Personally, mouths with moustaches have begun to make me vomit.”
“Do you vomit if a man with a moustache goes down on you? Every woman has two mouths. No mouth refuses what the other mouth accepts,” said Shtula as she played with her navel.
“Whore,” replied Zulaikha.
“If only I were the only whore from the beginning of creation to its end. No man would shrink from me, and I’d shrink from no man,” said Tassu.
Darkhu swallowed another sip of wine: “You, Tassu, want to be the history of humankind,” said the woman who dedicated her poetry to dawn and not to any other time.
“I don’t understand,” said Tassu.
The air became sluggish with the build-up of smoke. Salam opened a window wide. The gold chain round Rihani’s neck jingled. Out of the blue she asked: “Isn’t there tobacco in heaven?”
“Adam tasted tobacco in heaven and God exiled him to protect the secret. But someone let God down, and tobacco spread across the earth. Tobacco is the true secret,” said Darkhu.
“Did Adam have a moustache?” asked Tassu for no reason.
Darkhu replied: “No. Before Eve was born from his rib, he used a Gillette GII.”
“Are you for moustaches or against them, Tassu?” asked Shtula.
Tassu replied: “I’m for the mouth.”
Without replying Shtula stood up, and with magnificent lethargy, took herself off to the kitchen and disappeared. Something broke, its pieces heard scattering across the floor, reverberating with a metallic ring. The women listened, half-spoken words poised on tongues. Shtula returned, her big eyes somewhat sleepy. She held a cold can of beer in one hand, and coloured bits in the other. She spread out her hand: “This fell off the fridge door,” she said to Tassu apologetically. A small metal flag rested in her palm. A flag with a magnetic strip, its wavy edges golden; like a flag in the wind of the dawning of human pride resting limp on the anxious ball of history. Red paint, white paint, green paint – configured in parallel bands of equal height, their certainty rippling like colours befitting the turbulent logic of great pain and hope to the point of drowning and arriving at paradise. Dead-centre in the white had been the sun of a most perfect land, its beautiful rays tugged at by unseen children – straight, geometrical, like the frenetic play of light on an endless day. Upon this sun the Kurds have secured two of the nine pillars of their forgotten souls, as is necessary for nations that wander in the narrow corridors of words, to reinforce the foundations of their souls.
It was this golden sun that had come apart from the white of the metal flag which was dislodged when Shtula opened the fridge with a force her sleepy hand could not control. With an unspoken apology she handed the small flag, with its magnetic strip, and its sun, to Tassu, who rolled the two coloured pieces into the darkness under the grey sofa with the frame and broken glass of her parents’ photo: “I’ll pick them all up in the morning,” she said.
Zintana yawned with her wide mouth. She got up on her fat legs, listening with her eyes to the metallic whisper of time from her watch. Shiraz stood up, raising the two strong wings of her ample breasts. “It’s the curse of the earthly trains and the heavenly trains. I don’t want to go home, but I will.”
Zintana and Shiraz left Tassu’s apartment at nine thirty. Salam Sheikh Ghardaq said goodbye to them with words tossed like cigarette butts before Tassu could get a word in. “Kidnap a man, and phone me so I can join you,” she said, getting up finally from the green sofa, having moved in turn from one seat to the next. She stuffed her hand down her brown trousers to her pubic area with uninhibited enjoyment. Tassu, returning from closing the door behind her two friends, stared at her: “What are you doing? Have you receive a revelation from erect meat?” She shook her head, marvelling at her friend’s rubbing: “That’s the first vagina in the new century to experience a miracle.”
“Oh, you,” replied Salam, as she pulled her hand out of her trousers. “My pubes have grown long.”
“Shave them,” suggested Tassu.
“Why?” asked Salam.
“For emergencies. Who knows?” said Tassu.
“No emergencies, no expectations, no possibilities,” replied Salam. She shrieked joyfully: “No man, no penis, no interpreting.” She sat down again: “I didn’t do a good job of interpreting, yesterday, between some asylum seekers and the investigator.”
“What do you mean?” asked Zulaikha, and Salam replied: “Some people claimed they were Iraqi, but they didn’t speak in Iraqi dialect. I’ve interpreted the language of Kurds, from satanic dialects to the dialects of Gabriel and Michael. I’ve interpreted Arabic dialects even from Mozambique . . .”
Tassu interrupted her: “Arabs from Mozambique, what dialect do they speak?”
Salam looked at her with disdain at the shared joke: “The asylum seekers yesterday – a man, his wife and two children – their dialect wasn’t . . .” she shook her head, as if to say it was difficult to define. Zulaikha exchanged a nod with her, pointing out: “Perhaps they weren’t Iraqis. Lots of Kurds, in front of the investigators, claim they’re from Kurdistan in the north of Iraq when they’re actually from Turkey. The Sorani dialect, the Kurmanji dialect, the Tootinji dialect,” she said.
“Tootinji,” giggled Tassu.
“Tootinji, yes. It comes from smoking too much,” explained Zulaikha sarcastically. She turned to Salam: “How do you know they’re Iraqis when you don’t understand their dialect? Because that’s what they claimed?”
“I understood their terror,” replied Salam, looking at her long fingernails.
“You understood their terror?” asked Zulaikha. “In what dialect did their terror speak to you, Salam?”
“I understood their terror. Yes. They would’ve eaten themselves if I hadn’t made out I understood them. And understood that they were Iraqis and convinced the investigator of that. The despair in their voices touched me to the bone. I made up a lot things they didn’t actually say. Does it matter? The Swedish investigator typed what I gave him into a computer. The lawyer sitting beside me was counting the time, to claim a fee that carried on increasing as long as we carried on chatting,” said Salam.
Darkhu whispered: “And you too.”
“Yes. But this interpreting work’s going to dry up, Taliban girls,” said Salam. She struck the polished wooden floor with her un-shod heels: “Zintana was spot on when she called you Taliban girls.” Returning to the subject, she said: “I’m no longer called to the airport when people apply for asylum as soon as they enter. I don’t understand how matters are handled from there.”
“Actually, they call us. I was at the airport ten days ago,” said Rihani as she played with the gold chain dangling against her chest.
“Ten days ago? They were calling me up every two days,” said Salam indignantly. She added: “How many hours were you there for to interpret between the investigators and the asylum seekers?”
“Stupid immigrants,” commented Darkhu. “Why don’t they contact us before they come? We could advise them on the reasons to give for needing asylum, reasons that no investigator could refute.”
“Darkhu, you have a sharp tongue. I reckon you could come up with all sorts of creative reasons to get asylum,” said Tassu with wonder in her small, honey-coloured eyes.
Darkhu waved her hand in front of her face, dismissively, and her beaded bracelets jangled: “No ordinary reasons. No extraordinary reasons. No intelligence. No penis. The asylum seeker has to claim idiocy, and he’ll get what he wants. Idiocy is the road to Europe.”
“Europe? What’s wrong with Europe? Where would you be without Europe, Darkhu?” said Shtula, her tongue loosened by Rihani’s wine.
Darkhu slapped the palm of her hand against her chest: “Little bird, I’ve invaded Europe, and the matter is finished. I am Europe.”
Rihani signed softly. She placed her hands on the lower part of her belly: “I’ve got to go now. The blood’s moving. Satan’s period,” she said, then bent forward a little in her chair, her breasts suspended over her thighs.
Gravity has its agitation. Something has not been completed to be able to fall – ripe – a pear of time into the palm of place: so life prepares its retreat. It dries its moist shadow in the female’s womb, and reclaims it, drop by drop, from the uterus as blood.
A light headache and cramps, this is how life announces it has been failed by a seed that has not ripened. The woman hasn’t given the man the vision of the conclusion of her body’s cycle. The man hasn’t given the woman the fruition of the thought of the water within him.
It becomes clear, when the monthly cycle is completed without a fertile obstruction to hold back the blood that life does not have a precise mastery of arithmetic. There is no past in the vision of life in arithmetic. No present: the moist female, with her fertile particle struggles to bring the numbers into proximity to define the processes of the body. Sometimes her body gets it wrong. Her seed – the pearl, errs sometimes. But the actual error in the sum is existence, with which all true possibilities are born.
Rihani had not brought forth a possibility from her womb to the world. The possibility will haemorrhage drop by drop, tomorrow, to its dust, and perhaps Rihani will whisper: “It’s my vault that’s exploded, it contained many souls that God didn’t want.”
Rihani stood up. She looked at her watch, shored against the fickleness of numbers. She shook her head sorrowfully: “From the moment man put a watch on his wrist he became a slave.”
“No, it wasn’t wristwatches or clocks that made man a slave; it was menstruation,” said Zulaikha. She looked down her big nose at the phantoms of the fates hovering around her existence: “Why did we accept this, ladies?”
“Who are you talking to,” asked Darkhu.
“I’m talking to your behinds,” replied Zulaikha.
“They’re not to be consulted, so talk to God,” said Darkhu.
“Dear God, You don’t know the pain of menstruation, the disappointment of menstruation, the headache of menstruation, and the cramps of menstruation. If only You had given us a seed other than blood. If only the kiss of a man were enough to become pregnant. If only his touch could be sufficient. If only we could have avoided ova that explode if a man – the son of a whore – doesn’t rush to fry them in the oil of his sperm. The man – the son of a whore – doesn’t suffer pain,” said Zulaikha, whispering tobacco smoke.
“The man isn’t the son of a whore; he is the whore. The whore doesn’t have a womb, she has a penis,” said Darkhu. She mused: “In the beginning God created a man-whore with a penis to fuck himself.” Expanding on her idea she added: “Wasn’t Eve from his rib, from his body? He fucks himself, then. From that day he’s been a whore who fucks himself.”
“Where are you going with your tongue, Darkhu?” asked Salam, as though sensing that Darkhu intended to go on at length.
Darkhu replied: “To Tassu’s testicle.”
Tassu giggled: “We’ve resolved the dilemma, thank God: we’ve given the man our vagina and he’s given us his penis; now it’s for God to decide how He places the flesh on the body.”
“How do you feel now your period’s become irregular, Darkhu? The thought terrifies me, even though my period’s still regular,” asked Salam.
“You mean I’m finished, my body’s finished, my womb’s finished. What’s going to change about you if your period becomes irregular or stops? There’s no difference between you with your period now, and you with an irregular period tomorrow,” said Darkhu.
“I won’t conceive,” replied Salam.
“You’ve got a daughter like the moon, that should be enough. One child is enough. One and ten are the same. You’re lucky. Look at those around you, your rampaging geese friends, their children, who have munched on their lives like slugs on coriander,” said Darkhu.
“I need to believe, Darkhu, that my womb is still capable of . . .” said Salam before Darkhu cut her off: “Of what? The potential of new sperm? Your womb has no meaning now. So let it stop dreaming.”
“We were created women. Shut up,” said Salam who had no desire to arrive at an inevitable resignation. “I’d love to have swollen lips, as though fifty men had licked them non-stop. As soon as one mouth became slack in its task of licking, another would take its place. Two days ago Immigration Affairs called me to an interview between the investigator and a woman asking for asylum; a woman with puffed-up lips. It wasn’t like she was asking for asylum, more like she was dragging it from me. A Syrian woman, Arab,” she stopped talking, then thoughtfully: “How much had she spent on cosmetic surgery to her lips?” She got back to her point: “She maintained she was under observation, that her heart was bursting in terror at an occupation worse than the French occupation; terror at the new royal family in the Syrian Republic. She said that to me word for word. She seemed intelligent, convincing, calm, with nerves for which she must have had an operation. I liked her calm, puffed-up lips. Lips that threatened to leap off her face.”
“Whenever I’ve seen lips that have been puffed up with cosmetic surgery, I’ve thought of them as a monkey’s vagina. Why do some women prefer to have a monkey’s vagina on their faces in place of their lips?” said Darkhu.
Salam was quick to make the accusation: “You’re jealous.”
“Of who? Of monkeys’ vaginas?” asked Darkhu contemptuously.
“I’d like to have cosmetic surgery on my lips. Syrian women, all of them, have puffed-up lips. I’m Syrian,” said Salam. She sent kisses from her mouth exploding in the air: “From my lips, I’ll prepare a huge banquet for the mouth of a man, then he’ll eat me.”
Tassu laughed: “No man’ll eat you. The next man to have the opportunity with you, he’ll have no teeth, and perhaps no lips either.”
“You’re a failed woman. My vagina isn’t dead yet, Tassu. I’m only forty-four,” said Salam with an optimism that was a little terrified of an age that would dry her up.
Darkhu’s hoarse voice blazed: “Alexander, the two horned, died before he’d even reached thirty.”
“What does Alexander have to do with me, Darkhu? What’s my vagina got to do with Alexander? Will my vagina be alive thirty thousand years after the death of Alexander? Did Alexander pass by Syria?” said Salam.
Tassu’s son, Rand, peered from round the corridor leading to the bedrooms carrying a clear plastic box with cardboard backing. He held the oblong box out towards his mother: “What’s this?” he asked surprised, and his mother snatched the box: “It’s a collar for you.” She slapped his thigh with the back of her hand: “You’ve been searching my room?”
“The box was on the bed. I saw it from the door,” replied the skinny youth, with black hair tied in a ponytail.
Darkhu snatched the box from Tassu’s hand and examined it: “This is a dog collar.” She tilted her head back in feigned surprise: “Where’s the dog?” She smiled sarcastically: “Your desperation is absolute, Tassu.” She turned her face to the boy, Rand: “Go back to your room, sweetie. I need to have a word with your mummy.”
Rand looked quizzically from Darkhu to his mother, but didn’t find an explanation for the presence of the dog collar. He pulled up his jeans, which had slipped down over his buttocks, then turned and went back to his room.
“A dog collar, even?” muttered Darkhu: “You’re absolutely desperate. You’re going to buy a lover.” She reached out her hand to shake Tassu’s in congratulation: “Desperation brings good solutions sometimes.”
Tassu slapped Darkhu’s extended hand: “I’m not desperate yet. I see the eyes of the Turkish butcher on my behind, at the ICA store, devouring my trousers. One day he’ll bring me half a stolen sheep,” said Tassu.
“Save us from gossip. Are you going to buy a dog, Tassu?” asked Rihani who was on the verge of leaving.
“I am not buying a dog,” replied Tassu confidently.
“What’s this collar then, and lead, and the box decorated with the picture of a dog? Are you dreaming of a dog? Listen,” said Darkhu with the tongue of someone searching for a collar in the vision of words: “Everywhere . . .”
Rihani interrupted: “I’m leaving. Tell me tomorrow over the phone, Tassu, about the riddle of your dog.” Tassu accompanied her to the door. Rihani emerged into the space of time, at a loss how to navigate the roads.
Darkhu continued, her words exemplifying the futility of categorisation: “Everywhere a dog enters he’s exploited. You know what I mean. Whoever can’t find someone to talk to gets a dog. Whoever can’t find a dance partner gets a dog. Whoever can’t find someone to train to listen to them gets a dog. Whoever wants a jester gets a dog. Whoever wants a satisfying fuck but can’t get one gets a dog. Whoever wants to take a picture of a dog for herself gets a dog. Whoever wants a book for a quick read gets a dog. Whoever doesn’t find the time to go to university gets a dog to send to university. Whoever wants to bark at her neighbour who owns a dog gets a dog to bark back at her neighbour. Whoever wants a child gets a dog. Whoever feels that her children don’t satisfy her intellectually gets a dog. Whoever wants to adopt an orphan gets a dog and calls it by the name of an orphaned child.” Darkhu spoke in a manner where the lines rapped upon her tongue, the window of lines.
“What are the names for orphans?” Zulaikha asked her.
Darkhu replied: “Every name given to a dog, or a bitch, is the name of an orphan no one has adopted.”
“OK. We’re talking about women and dogs. What about men and dogs?” asked Salam.
Zulaikha yelled an answer that encroached upon Darkhu’s passion for digression: “I’ve noticed something. I’ve noticed that every man who walks a dog acts like a woman, they walk the dogs, or the dogs walk them, no more so than women. The private parts of every man have the smell of dog hair. And I haven’t fucked a man until he’s shaved his pubes.”
The tin can creaked in Shtula’s floppy hand, warning that her head would emerge from the river that was pulling her to the tributary of its sleepiness: “How do you know that, Zulaikha? Have you smelt the pubes of a unshaven man in the first place, or a bitch’s fur first?” said the short-haired one derisively, the lids of sarcasm heavy with sleep.
Zulaikha shook her head scornfully. Darkhu patted her on the shoulder, encouraging her not to reply to Shtula, as she stood up, with eyes that sniffed out the time from her watch: “The last train’s leaving soon. It’s really early, but it’s a long way. God. The ground in Sweden stretches like mastic. Every day when I go home, I find my house further away from wherever I’ve returned,” said the poet. She straightened her blouse, which was creased at the back. She fastened a button that had opened above her breasts. Zulaikha got up in turn.
“Place remains youthful, Darkhu. It grows and expands,” said Salam. Superciliously, Darkhu looked at her in approval: “God, if someone had told me you’d said that I’d never have believed it. But I heard you. Do you read books?” She scratched her head: “Would you allow me to continue, Salam Sheikh Ghardaq? OK, time, like us, grows old and contracts. Our souls contract to the point of invisibility. Souls aren’t worn in the old age of our bodies. There will come a time when we encounter places without time. We and places face to face without time. Places are youthful, they expand. We grow old and shrink until there’s no room for anything in our bodies. We don’t die: Time dies in grief at its hatred of place.” She inhaled deeply after the lecture amongst her followers with hearts filled with smoke or with the roaring of wine.
“What’s this, Darkhu? Where are you coming from,” asked Tassu.
“From a hole in my old age through which Zulaikha’s wine drips onto your dead penis,” Darkhu replied. She turned towards the door followed by Zulaikha as they got ready to leave. They put on their shoes that had been left at the front door, and then put on what they’d been wearing over their clothes when they arrived. Shtula said goodbye to them with her head limp against her chest, before Tassu shut the door behind them: “If only I were a man, I’d satisfy you both for nothing. I’ll pray for you,” she said from a bitter mouth closed on a slice of salted lemon. Suddenly sleepy, she stretched out her legs on the table between the two sofas. Seven empty beer cans were scattered around the floor. She withdrew her legs apologetically. “I didn’t see these ugly cans. They hide themselves once they’re empty.” she said. She got up and moved heavily round the table to pick up the cans, but Tassu and Salam rushed to do it. Shtula sat on the chair her limbs limp, from her brain to her knees. She smiled with eyes half-shut, a smile of gratitude at a life as sleepy as her: “Give me a glass of wine, Zulaikha,” she whispered.
“Zulaikha left,” said Salam as she placed a glass of wine in Shtula’s hand.
“I wanted her to insult me,” said Shtula.
“Whore,” said Tassu. She played with Shtula’s hair: “Does Zulaikha say it better than me?”
“Why does Zulaikha insult Shtula, our little bird, with this word?” asked Salam. Tassu replied, teasing: “Shtula is the youngest out of us. She’s the prettiest. She deserves to be insulted like that.”
“At one time, Tassu, you were a whore,” said Salam.
“No,” replied Tassu decisively. “I was never young at any time. I wasn’t prettier than anyone.”
The wine glass fell from Shtula’s limp hand. It didn’t break. It rolled, toppling across the wooden floor and then settled on its wide rim.
The doorbell rang. The sound wave unleashed by the pressing of the bell travelled from the plastic box on the hall wall into the sitting room.
The reasonable strange produces its noisy offspring from the reasonable familiar. Annoyed, Tassu said: “Who’s this penis?” She grabbed Salam’s wrist to examine the ether of time rising from her watch. Unhurried, she got up. She rubbed the fat of her midriff bulging over the waist of her trousers: “Do you have a prescription to ease this war, Salam?” she said and Salam replied asking: “War? What war?”
“The war of my body fat against me,” said Tassu. She continued with mock annoyance: “Is there any other war?”
The bell rang a second time.
Tassu yelled crossly in Swedish: “All right, I’m coming.”
Her son Huss peered round the corner of the corridor that led to the bedrooms: “What is it, Mummy?” he asked her curiously. “Get back to your farting computer,” snapped Tassu.
Suddenly Shtula gave a gasp. She bent over the table between the two sofas and broke into a violent bout of sobbing. Tassu was confused. The doorbell rang a third time.
Tassu rushed to the door, looking behind her at Shtula, who was being consoled by Salam who didn’t know the reason for her crying.
Tassu opened the door: it was the daughter of her Polish neighbour who lived on the ground floor directly below her apartment. A twenty-one year old girl with heavily dyed red hair, and piercing eyes: a dead stare, but one that penetrated like cold rays. Her words were spoken with a monotonous rhythm; very calm and slippery: “The noise is disturbing us. The noise in your apartment has been going on all evening and still hasn’t stopped.”
Tassu smiled apologetically, and said in a mild rebuke: “There’s no noise, neighbour. Just now, only just now, some tins fell. Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.” In a Swedish glowing with the oil of her Kurdish throat, she added: “I apologise.” She reached out her hand and stroked the girl’s upper arm affectionately.
“The noise is loud,” said the girl in her calm voice, through thin lips that only met when she spoke.
“I’m sorry,” repeated Tassu in a friendly tone.
The Polish girl stood unmoving in front of Tassu.
Tassu opened the door wider to allow the girl to better hear any noise coming from inside the apartment: “Do you hear any noise?” she asked her.
The girl didn’t move and continued to staring at Tassu with her steady, cold look.
Tassu loosened her hand on the arm of the girl, who wore a checked red blouse that hung over her jeans. She muttered, as though asking permission to go back inside after the apology, which it was meaningless to repeat: “It’s not 10 o’clock yet as you can see. Your mother hasn’t gone to bed yet, right?” she said.
“The noise was loud,” said the girl with tiresome repetition.
Her patience exhausted, Tassu replied: “It was loud, now it’s stopped. Call the police.”
“I won’t call the police,” said the girl. And she added: “Just stop the noise.”
Salam’s voice floated up from the sitting-room, provocatively: “Shut the door in her face, Tassu,” she said in Kurdish.
Tassu cast a meaningful look over the girl’s face. She tried to summon the most profound effect of the slipperiness of her tongue: “Listen, sweetie. I’ve apologised to you in Swedish, and now I’m apologising to you in Kurdish as well. I’m going to close the door.” She made an apology in Kurdish from the deep anchorage of words whose letters no wind had ever carried to Poland. Perhaps an exception might have been a Kurdish soldier in the Ottoman army, who screamed from the frontiers of Bulgaria in the direction of Poland.
The girl moved half a step closer to Tassu: “We don’t want any noise from now on,” she said through her querulous lips. Tassu muttered. She issued an angry sound from her throat, somewhere between animal and human but restrained as far as she was able:
“Go fuck yourself, or I’ll fuck you before I close this door. Go back to your mummy.” Tassu’s vulgarity made no impression on the girl’s mien. “Is the noise going to carry on tonight?” she asked in an icy tone.
Tassu took a step towards her. She gently held the girl’s face between her palms, and then pressed her lips against the thin, open-lipped Polish mouth, with a scolding kiss that sounded like a knife ripping through taut material. After the kiss, she released the damp, stupefied mouth, and freed her hands from around the girl’s face.
The girl was astonished, an astonishment that was more evident from her open lips than from her staring eyes. She stepped back a little showing no sign of upset. She walked calmly along the corridor between the first floor apartments to the stairs leading down to the ground floor. Tassu smiled. She wiped her mouth with her thumb and forefinger, feeling the traces of the girl’s damp mouth. With the tip of her tongue she licked her two fingernails, relishing the sparkle of a vicarious kiss.
This selection is from Banipal 41 – Celebrating Adonis, which also featured Arabic Writers in Sweden
Fourth SAFAR Film Festival opens in London in September[read more]
Banipal 62 – A Literary Journey through Arab Cinema for summer reading[read more]
Remembering Denys Johnson-Davies[read more]
New Banipal issue
A Journey in Iraqi Fiction
Najwa Binshatwin, the 2018 Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow[read more]
Ahmed Saadawi salutes Banipal magazine
[read all news stories]