Hashem Gharaibeh
Karma – A chapter from the novel The Cat That Taught Me How to Fly



Imad’s friendship with The Cat grew. That angered Asaf. He objected to The Cat and Abu Zahra joining their circle. Their close, small group prepared dinner and ate together, and Asaf didn’t want those two to be part of it. “Abu Zahra, I can understand,” Asaf said. “He can wash the dishes and light the Primus stove. But The Cat – a plumber – that repulses me.”

Old Man rubbed his large nose: “Cleaner than you,” he said to Asaf.

Asaf didn’t give up and whispered to the comrade: “Cousin, you don’t know The Cat. If you ask me, he’s a bastard, a limb cut off a tree, with no important relatives, and no followers.”

Imad interrupted him: “Come on, Asaf. There are more prisoners here who are sons of tribesmen and important clans than there are bastards!”

“The Cat is a lazy snitch. He can’t keep a secret. Tomorrow you’ll see and you’ll say Asaf said so.”


Asaf was a smart, handsome, witty, and imaginative young man. In prison, he gained the nickname of Sharp-dresser. He dressed neatly and his shoes were always shining. His lisp made him sound almost aristocratic and inspired trust in his listeners. When he was young, Asef used to pronounce the letter “r,” as a “y”. Then he discovered that the sound “gh” was more flexible, softer on the ear of the listener, and had its own charm. His God-given talents were employed to trick people. He was a scheming swindler and a skillful liar.

He was also an informer. This made the self-appointed guard, Abu Hadid, tolerate Asef’s objections to accepting The Cat in the Elite group. Of course, they were the elite of only the southern prison quarters. The Cat was a ‘bird’, who sung to the police without hesitation whatever he saw and heard. But Imad forgave The Cat these trivial misdemeanors, such as So-and-so has a knife, So-and-so smuggled hashish into the northern side of prison, the shop of So-and-so sells agho . . .”

The Cat laughed whenever Imad drew a caricature of him with a black bandana, a chain with large keys hanging from his waist, and a screwdriver in his left hand (for he was left-handed)! The Cat curled his fingers to make a half circle, turned the picture around and said: “I only turn the door knob, or push the window, and if it opens, I go in.”

“And if it doesn’t open?”

“To hell with it. [He actually used a profane word] Others will open it.”

Prison is a comfortable refuge for thieves. In prison, they take a break from work. No theft had been reported against The Cat, Abu Zahra, or their companions in prison. However, thieves have the highest rate of prison escape, aided as they are by their ability to infiltrate and their experience in unlocking locked doors.

Abu Zahra was a modest petty thief who stole from entryways and porches. He stole laundry, slippers, plants – even a flower from a garden! In prison, he was most skillful at self-mutilation – cutting with a razor – in addition to his skill at playing chess. He moved a pawn on the chessboard and told Imad: “One spring The Cat escaped from prison to steal, and in the winter, after spending all his money, voluntarily returned, turning himself in to the police after sorting through their long list of stolen items.” Then he added: “The Swimmer, the most renowned thief in Jordan, escaped more than once, and from more than one prison. But he spent his retirement, until he passed away, playing dominos in Amman’s Central Prison.”

The comrade moved his bishop, threatening Abu Zahra’s king with what he thought was a fatal move, and asked The Cat about the escape incident. The Cat looked embarrassed, his face turning red and he stuttered: “That was a long time ago. Forget it.”


Abu Zahra won the game by protecting his king with a knight and trapping Imad’s king. Without gloating, he continued his story: “The Cat is smart. He pretended he was suffering from pain in his right kidney, and kept going to see the doctor, and accurately described the classic symptoms of having a gallstone until the doctor referred him to hospital. He taped a pebble to his side, which appeared in the X-Ray in the middle of his kidney. The hospital admitted him, and he escaped through a hospital bathroom window!

The thieves were loyal to one another and talked with respect about each other. Class did not exist among thieves. They treated one another with an astonishing equality regardless of their level of education, of their professions, prospects or specialization. Thieves didn’t brags about their lineage or education. Education was not necessary for that profession; it didn’t give a thief any favorability at all. Status was based on experience, which they all freely shared. They knew the laws pertaining to their profession better than judges.

State officials caught embezzling were denied the title of thief because, according to The Cat: “They work and have a monthly salary, and their stealing is a secondary job that they practise out of greed, abjectness, and lowliness.”


That evening, The Cat was different. He didn’t sing or recall the details of his day in his usual theatrical manner. When his companions asked him, as they did every evening, “Come on! Tell us. What did you see today?”, he replied: “Nothing,” and went to sleep!

Shortly after midnight, The Cat woke up and saw Imad sitting cross-legged on his mat. He crawled close to him. “Are you awake, comrade?” he asked.

Imad chided him gently: “Spare me your dream, Cat.”

“Not a dream, comrade. It’s something that actually happened.”

“You tell all your dreams as if they actually happened.”

“I have something that I can’t tell anyone but you,” he whispered determinedly.

“Tell it to the police files.”

The Cat grew anxious, showing a deep sadness that seemed to curl all round him. Comrade Imad felt sorry for him, sat up straight, and sighing, said: “Please tell me.”

The Cat whispered hastily: “Yesterday, I went into the women’s prison.”

He waited for a smile to indicate that the comrade was listening and continued: “As usual, Madam Malika had sent the prisoners to their rooms and gone back to her office. At the bathroom door, the guard unlocked my handcuffs.

Imad stretched out his legs, crossed them again, placed his hand under his chin, and listened to The Cat. “The pleasure comes, Comrade, when I recall what happened. When I was there, I had no time to process what was happening. My whole self was consumed with pleasure. I don’t know how to explain it to you. But the true pleasure comes later, when you repeat the film.”

“What film? I don’t understand what you’re saying. Speak slowly.”

“I went to the bathroom to clear the clogged drain. When I opened up the access, a sour stench came out. I’m used to it, but the policeman closed the bathroom door and lit up a cigarette. I asked him to leave it open; the smell of the urine was suffocating, but he refused, saying: ‘And you smell like cologne?’

“No problem. I found myself alone in the bathroom the women bathe in. In the corner was a Primus stove roaring away with a pot of water boiling on it. The steam filled the room. On the other side of the room was a low wall with a plastic curtain draped above it. It moved. I rubbed my eyes to see and I saw a woman standing behind the half wall. First a nipple flashed in front of me. I thought I was dreaming and went up closer. She was frightened, and hid behind the wall. I went even closer, and I saw! . . . I saw her hair loose, black, falling around her face. She was dripping water, her chest was full, her nipples stood out like berries. I became dizzy and almost fell down. I looked shocked. I wanted to tell to her: ‘I am here to check the drainage.’ But she was smarter than me. She stood up, placed her finger to her lips, and whispered: ‘Alone?’

“My hand involuntarily reached out and stroked her skin. When I peered at her behind the curtain, her chin trembled. Her wet lips touched mine, and I felt a sting. I sank into them. She was boiling over, her body soft and warm, like a melting peach. She was in her thirties, or maybe forty – who cares? Her hair was soft and long, and her eyes laughed. She opened like a flower. Nothing was left in my head except the smell of her soap and the whooshing sound of the Primus stove.

Desire wrapped everything in its sweetness. I held her and she didn’t resist. The plastic curtain fell between us; she stretched out her hand and removed it. Softly, she stroked it. It stiffened. She kneeled and placed it in her mouth. Her neck was a cone of sugar, her ears could be munched on, and her lips satisfied my hunger. She stood up. Our legs were tangled around each other. We slipped, and I was on top of her – nothing between us except the lather of the soap, bubbling. The soap and sweat on her skin were honey and butter. Her chest by itself was enough to fill my dreams until the end of time. Her back was a meadow; her belly like that of a cat, fuller from the belt down. When I thrust into her, it was warm, melting, like a piece of gatayef* drenched in honey – close and far, deep and delicious. She held me tight and swayed. I screamed and Karma gasped. Our honey gushed and the bathroom turned to a love rollercoaster.

“The whooshing of the Primus stove subsided, and we melted in the foam. I pulled myself into her lap and started shaking. She pulled her damp abaya over us that had been tossed in the corner of the bathroom, and I fell asleep. I slept as if there were no guards at the door or female jailers in the courtyard. I forgot them, I forgot the jail, and I forgot you. It was only she and I and the smell of our sweat. I felt safe. She whispered: “What’s your name?” I told her; ‘Saeed, but they call me The Cat.’ She laughed: ‘A Cat?’”

“The Primus stove died. The cloud of desire subsided, and the scent of the kerosene mixed with the stench of urine spread again. She gathered up her clothes and hid behind the door. I opened it. The sun blinded me and I remembered I was in prison! I blinked and her image flashed back and forth in my mind.

“Did you get your whole body in the sewage?” The guard asked.

“All good?” Malika Khanum asked.

“I said nothing. I didn’t even feel the handcuffs when the guard placed them on my wrists. I picked up my tools and left. Nothing was in my head but her image. If I could draw like you, I would draw her in full. Even the mole by her armpit, the birthmark below her navel, and the scar from the smallpox vaccination on her arm. But there is something that cannot be drawn, comrade – her scent. How’s that? Better than incense and basil is the scent of her skin. Doesn’t each of us have his own scent? Hers is different. How? I don’t know. It is trapped in my head and cannot be erased.”


The story of Karma and The Cat spread through the prison.

Although Imad had sworn to The Cat that he wouldn’t reveal his secret.

The Cat put a reassuring hand on the comrade’s shoulder. “Shit! I don’t care. Ha, ha, ha . . .” he said, laughing.

The prisoners whispered the story to each other, filling in the missing details. The story was told in many different ways. Each added his own experience to the tale. The versions varied to the point of contradiction, and it became the favourite narrative, told by all, with each producing a scenario that pleased him.

Only Abu Hadid continued to say: “The story of Karma is just a lie from start to finish, one of The Cat’s imaginary tales.”

Karma became the object of endless prisoner dreams, except for poor Abu Zahra.

Imad moved his white knight to the middle of the chessboard; Abu Zahra didn’t moved anything.

“What are you daydreaming about, Abu Zahra?” Imad asked.

Abu Zahra’s eyes were filled with tears, and he whispered: “Last night, I had a wet dream, Comrade.”

Imad laughed, “Karma?”

“I wish!”

“A boy?”

The words stuck in Abu Zahra’s throat. He forced them out: “I dreamed that I was thrusting.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

Abu Zahra wept. Imad gathered up the chess pieces and went with Abu Zahra for a walk in the prison courtyard. Abu Zahra told Imad about how he grew up listening to his mother’s complaints during the day and to her moans at night. She died giving birth. When he grew up, his father killed his sister because someone had slept with her!

Abu Zahra had never had sex with a woman or anyone else. He considered it harmful to the other partner; and he would not hurt an ant. The poor man’s aggression was limited to cutting himself with a razor when he became angry. And his sexual experience was confined to masturbating.

“When you masturbate, what do you fantasize about, Abu Zahra?”

He wiped a tear from his face and said bitterly: “A female donkey, or a cat, or a horse . . .”


The name “Karma” became the code word the prisoners used to keep her story secret from the prison authorities. It was a secret they all kept despite the many whistleblowers, informers, and spies with loyalties to Central Intelligence, the prevention unit, national security, and narcotics. Imad did not share this with the Party. The Cat’s status rose. He and his companion, Abu Zahra, joined the elite group, and started eating with them at the same table.

“Bastards!” Asaf whispered angrily.

Abu Hadid appeased him: “All men are bastards and each covers his sins in his own way.” Asaf pretended to agree. Imad was terribly disturbed by the assertion!


* A type of dessert made of a small pancake stuffed with nuts, cheese, or dates, baked, and then soaked in syrup.

Translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari


Published in Banipal 50 - Prison Writing

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