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Execution in the Stadium
A chapter from the novel Duroob al-Fuqdan (Paths of Loss)
Translated by Paul Starkey
It was the day that Ali Salman went to watch the first public execution in al-Thawra (Revolution) City. When he woke up, dawn was already creeping through the window, which overlooked a side street in al-Dakhil neighbourhood. The clear rays of the dawn spread over his mother Makkiya al-Hassan and his sister Madiha Salman, who were sleeping on the floor near his bed. He took a step beside his mother and she stirred. She raised her head a little from the pillow then rested it back on the edge. With half-closed eyes she saw light filling the house, which was open to the sky’s vault through the door her son had opened on his way to the courtyard. He washed his face and went back to his room to get dressed. In the shadows of the moist, gentle sleep that rested heavy on her eyelids, she imagined he was getting ready to go to work, for it was the time construction workers set off for work in the various districts of Baghdad. She reminded him not to forget his tools as he had done last week. As he combed his long hair in front of the wardrobe mirror, he said he wasn’t going to work, but was going to watch the execution of ‘al-Khoshi’ Nayef al-Saedi. Her body shuddered, and she felt a wave of guilt for having forgotten an event like this that she had known about since the previous day. The authorities had announced two days before that they would carry out the death sentence on Nayef al-Saedi publicly that April morning, the beginning of the 1970s.
She sat on her bed, thinking of Najiya Shayya’, Nayef al-Saedi’s mother, who would lose her son in a few hours. Her heart throbbed in terror when the thought came to her that she might lose her son as well. As she fastened her headscarf over her brow, she told him she would like to go with him, but she could not as she had a headache from being up the night before, helping Madiha draw water from the mains pipe. At that time, drinking water was being cut off during the day in the summer months, and it was only possible to get it at night using a hand pump. In a tone of surprise, she said: “The water was very late yesterday and only came two hours ago, although there is still two months to go before summer.” She pulled her headscarf fast again over her brow to relieve her headache.
Ali Salman went quickly out of the house. His mother uttered warm wishes and fervent prayers behind him, raising her head as dawn broke, stretching out like a lofty bow over the pure blue page of the sky.
On the main road that links al-Dakhil neighbourhood of al-Thawra City with al-Bab al-Sharqi in Baghdad, Ali Salman joined the groups of people heading for a football stadium near the Abu Dalaf café. It was where the execution was scheduled to take place, the same place that had witnessed the death of six security officials a few weeks previously.
Old men, faces pale and lined, with long or jutting white beards, emerged from side roads and empty squares. Women wrapped in black, dragging their children after them or leading them by the hand. Angry young men, their eyes red and protruding from lack of sleep. Professionals, workmen, students, unemployed, boys and girls, all hastening their steps to arrive before the time scheduled for carrying out the sentence of the young man who had provoked such alarm in the security establishment that they feared he might awaken the spark of rebellion in the city. Those who admired him and those who feared him looked on him as a helper of the oppressed and downtrodden, of the weak and persecuted. They saw in him a man who had challenged the security apparatus, which had often terrified them in their sleep during raids to detain politicians. The police waited impatiently for the execution to take place, anxious for a victory over someone who had dared to humiliate them and their power.
In the streets surrounding the pitch, the human flood surged from the districts of al-Thawra al-Ula, al-Sharika, Gayara, al-Chawadir, the Kurdish quarter, and from every forgotten outlying part of the city, while the residents of the houses of Sector 55, which overlooked the football pitch, climbed onto their roofs to follow the execution. Nursing mothers carried their children in their arms and stood in front of the houses, taking a step nearer to the pitch from time to time, whenever they felt the time for the execution was approaching.
The crowd was becoming larger and more attentive as time went on. The authorities were eager to carry out the hanging in front of the largest possible number of citizens, to consecrate the power and dominance of the state and to remind them that anyone who dared to challenge its security institutions would be punished by death. For this reason, they chose Friday, which at that time was the only weekly holiday, so that lots of people would be able to attend.
Ali Salman tried to find Alwan Aziz in the lines of those waiting but couldn’t. He thought he might be somewhere in the square, leaning on his stick or propping himself up against someone’s shoulder.
People were crowding around and jostling to pick a space or a gap through which they could look at the place where a wooden gallows had been set up, resting on steel legs 18 feet high. The rope was made of silk mixed with linen, and designed so that the accused would die a minute or two after the sentence was carried out. Ali Salman noted that the gallows was surrounded by soldiers and civilians, armed with Kalashnikovs, with an executioner dressed in black in the midst of them. He was lively and moved quickly as he checked more than once that the rope and noose were in good shape. There was said to be a doctor who had been sent to watch the execution and certify the death, but none of those present had seen him. Ali Salman saw men securing wooden pegs for a thick plastic fence that would be put in place moments before the execution to hide the details from the eyes of the spectators.
* * *
None of Nayef al-Saedi’s contemporaries can recall anyone getting the better of him in a quarrel or wrestling match as a boy or a youth. When he reached the age of twelve, he got into fights with his friends, and when he had beaten them all, he started to challenge boys older than himself who irritated him or attacked him or even avoided him. His clothes were always torn in more than one place all year long, apart from the morning of the first day of Eid. When he was thirteen, as his enemies increased in number, he started carrying a blunt, rusty knife wherever he went. At first, he put it under his trouser belt next to his skin, which irritated and hurt him, so he wove a holder for it from old shoes that he collected from piles of rubbish. But whenever he moved quickly it fell out, and other people discovered it just when he wanted it hidden to surprise his enemies. So he wore a dishdasha with a long side pocket into which he put the knife, so that no one could see it, except for a few of his friends who acknowledged his leadership. It was also within easy reach of his hand to unsheathe and brandish. All this happened with the encouragement of his father, who considered it a necessary training for his youthful years in a world ruled by violence and governed by force. But he didn’t give the same sort of attention to his elder son, who was calm and introverted. No one remembered him. People knew far less about him than they did about Nayef al-Saedi.
The father worked as a caretaker in the public hospital. One day his wife, Najiya Shayya’, tried to rouse him early in the morning as usual and found that he had died. At the funeral, her eldest son met his mother for the first time since he had married and moved to al-Chawadir district. His parents hadn’t been happy about his marriage to a woman they spoke of as a ‘foreigner’ because she belonged to a different tribe from their own. He had surprised them then by ignoring their anger and devoting himself to his own married life and his new job as an assistant to a bulldozer driver in a road building company.
In front of the mourners, he apologised to his mother for not keeping in touch. He kissed her head and hands and promised to visit her every month. Then, stroking Nayef’s round, shaved head, he said that his father had left a man in his place. That seemed to his mother like an apology for his absence, and so she accepted his apology. She looked at Nayef with sympathetic eyes. She was certain that the lad would defend her heroically against any attack when he grew up. He would protect her and support her in her old age. She said to herself that she wasn’t a widow while he was with her. But she began to suffer with him after he hit his teacher in class, was expelled from school, and began a life of loitering on the edges of the city. This was where unemployed youths formed groups to smoke hashish; it was a vast area of wasteland that allowed them to see the police from a long way off when they came to make arrests, or to arrange heated masturbation contests while passing around smuggled pornographic pictures. Nayef al-Saedi formed a band of youths to attack other youths, force them to accept his authority, and then use them to steal fruit from the market. After that, he started a new type of fight, letting his gang loose on another gang of kids from a neighbouring sector, resulting in bloody communal brawls that lasted several days. This caused his mother innumerable problems, making it necessary for her to apologise every day to the families whose sons were exposed to his attacks. But she always expected that he would soon stop this behaviour. When she despaired of it, she said, in the midst of a crowd of women: “I can’t do anything. Let them beat him as he beats them!”
Although she feared his anger, and his swift, hot-headed reactions, she was happy with him and his bravery. Thus Nayef al-Saedi carried on until adulthood when he suddenly underwent a massive transformation which surprised everyone. He made his peace with the kids in the sector where he lived. He gave them his affection and helped and defended them, male and female alike, though he continued to behave violently and nastily towards others.
One Friday evening, five security men in civilian clothes entered Sector 55, accompanied by a policeman armed with a Kalashnikov. When they approached the football stadium, Umm Ibrahim, who was watching some boys’ matches in which her son was playing, thought they were targeting her neighbour, Kadhmiya Mohammad. Some days before, Umm Ibrahim had seen some strange men wandering around the pitch and in the side streets nearby, watching Kadhmiya Mohammad’s house and looking at the faces of passers-by. They went away for an hour or two, then came back, and they were constantly changing with other men. On the basis of past experience, she realised they must be security men. She told Kadhmiya Mohammad and asked her to watch them in turn, and to tell her immediately if she saw any suspicious movement from them. At the same time, she started being extremely cautious herself.
Umm Ibrahim hurried into the house, breathing heavily. She climbed onto a metal chest to look over the wall separating her house from that of her neighbours, and called sharply to Kadhmiya Mohammad, who came out into the yard of her house in alarm. None of her family was there at that moment. Umm Ibrahim told her, stammering, that some security men had been around, and she made a sign, indicating that Kadhmiya should leave quickly using the paths across the roofs.
It seemed that Umm Ibrahim was doing exactly what Jabbar Ekhnouba – the owner of the café of the same name – had done when he defended wanted politicians by informing them of the presence of security men in his café but without publicising his opposition to the authorities. The methods he used changed from time to time: sometimes it was done with a song, sometimes a previously agreed word, and sometimes a furtive wink. As soon as the signal reached the intended person, that person would hurriedly go and hide in the houses adjoining the café or would climb the stairs and go over the low walls on the roofs. When the café was crowded with informers, Jabbar Ekhnouba would get on his old military motorbike and ride around the nearby streets, warning any friends or wanted men he saw that they should not come to the café. The security authorities would detain him for some days, then release him. It was said that the release was effected on condition he undertook to refrain from playing that role ever again, for the investigators had already despaired of his accepting an offer to cooperate and work as an informer for them.
Umm Ibrahim went back to the football stadium to tell the largest possible number of people about her belief that that was enough to thwart the operation. Then she saw Nayef al-Saedi and told him the life of Kadhmiya Mohammad was in danger. For a moment, he was lit up with a feeling that combined love and madness. Umm Ibrahim felt happy because here was a man who would take on a bigger task on her behalf. She went back to her house.
Meanwhile, Kadhmiya Mohammad was climbing skilfully over the low walls round the flat roofs of the houses, connected by secret alleyways. She hadn’t taken anything with her that would slow her down, but made do with her abaya and rubber shoes with no laces.
As she felt her way along the easiest pathways, in the prickly darkness of the sunset that had begun to close in around her, she occasionally stopped, turned around and listened carefully and fearfully. In front of her stretched hundreds of connected roofs. She had to cross eight to take her to the area behind her house, after which it would be easy to choose her escape route, because the layout of the city allowed her to take a shortcut via stairways that could not be seen from the ground.
She stopped to define the direction she would take, hiding in the thick shadows of some clothes on a roof-top washing line. Her heart was thumping. She had to hurry. It was possible they had surrounded the area to besiege her and arrest her. She knew that if she was detained this time, it would certainly be the end of her. She smelled evening cooking smells, and heard the sound of the clash of plates, the crying of a young baby and a quarrel between two women, then the distant voice of a beggar. From another house she heard children laughing, but the last thing she heard before she lost consciousness was the sound of a hail of bullets.
The moment she had put her feet on the secret paths under that dark sky, Nayef al-Saedi had stood in front of her house – just after the arrival of the police detachment – ready with a villainous heart. He walked up to the policeman until he was immediately opposite him. As he winked at him, inclining his chin to the left as he did so, he whispered to him that it would be best if they went back the way they had come, or a lot of blood would be spilled. The policeman gave a mocking laugh and uttered some vile expressions directed at Nayef’s mother, then turned towards his colleagues. Nimble as a tiger, Nayef al-Saedi pulled his knife level with his belt from behind his neck, where it had rested against his spine; with a sudden movement, like a flash, the knife split open the policeman’s arm, and his gun fell. Nayef al-Saedi picked it up with a trained hand that had grown accustomed to weapons during his compulsory military service. The surprise hit the security police so powerfully, like a thunderbolt. They started turning around as if to seek help from each other, or the people around them, who saw in what had happened some sort of miracle or wondrous event. Under a sky that was opening onto an early twilight, a hail of bullets reverberated around the place, and before the security men could defend themselves, six of them fell, corpses covered in blood, and Nayef al-Saedi disappeared like smoke.
The security forces deployed their men and spies to apprehend him but they were unable to do so during the first few days as he kept changing where he stayed. But he quickly thought doing that was cowardly and went home, passing through a crowd of people who treated him like a hero, and past others who saw his return as a death wish.
His mother’s warnings had no effect on him. Nor did her insistence on his going to any of his relatives in other provinces because her house could be subject to searches and raids at any time. She said that if they detained him, they wouldn’t leave him alive. But he paid no attention to her and said that he couldn’t accept living in a state of humiliation.
A few days later, the house was raided by security men carrying loaded revolvers. It was midday, and Nayef al-Saedi was asleep. His mother woke him with a loud shout. As he got up and stood in the middle of the room, he found himself surrounded by security men. He put out his hands to receive the handcuffs a policeman was carrying. They searched the house, looking for the rifle. They scattered the meagre contents of the house and found the rifle amidst a heap of tattered and worn-out clothes but didn’t find any ammunition. Then they led Nayef al-Saedi off to the police correctional facility in al-Chawadir district.
The news spread through the city and became the chief topic of conversation, accompanied by surprise and consternation. No one understood, either on the day itself or in the years to come, why Nayef al-Saedi had given himself up that easily, just as no one understood if his firing on the security officials was a deliberate, conscious act or whether it was a mistake made by a man stricken by fear or frustration.
The day after Nayef al-Saedi’s arrest, his eldest brother came to take his mother to stay with him. He had disappeared throughout the years following his father’s death, and had not kept his promise to visit his mother every month, as he had undertaken to do at the funeral. Trying to escape from her disappointment, she said: “At last, you’ve remembered that you have a mother.” He didn’t say anything, but bowed his head in shame, overcome by pangs of regret and conscience. She gathered her clothes together in a small bundle and went out with him, walking with short, slow steps. She walked behind him, and all the time he kept stopping to wait for her. His wife received her hospitably. She embraced her and kissed her, and brought a basin and water to wash her feet, but she refused. She also refused to eat the food she offered her, which made her daughter-in-law feel embarrassed. But she forgave her, for she knew it was sadness that was making her mother-in-law reject everything.
So Najiya Shayya’ spent the first days in her eldest son’s house in isolation, not taking any notice of the grandchildren whom she had never seen before. She was preoccupied with what would happen to her son. She spent hours reviewing scenes from his life since his childhood to the moment of his arrest, and derived strength to face her ordeal from his strength and boldness.
* * *
The profound silence that had settled over the stadium was suddenly shattered by the clanking of the chains on Nayef al-Saedi’s legs as he made his way towards the gallows platform. The prisoners’ transport vehicle from which he had alighted quickly withdrew and disappeared. Ali Salman clung to his spot, resisting the crowd and the pushing and shoving. He saw Nayef al-Saedi, who was taller than the guards accompanying him in the last few moments of his life, as he walked forward, weighed down by his chains.
Nayef al-Saedi was exhausted, his hair was dirty, and his eyes were open but tired. His grey dishdasha moved gently on that furious morning. He showed no sign of fear or regret. His body was upright and his head was held high.
In front of eyes scrutinising every one of his movements, Nayef al-Saedi refused help to mount the platform. His jailors had left him shackled until the last moment. He let his slow, fleeting glances wander among the silent, watching crowd, but could see in it only a dark mass of heads crowded together like matchsticks. The sentence imposed on him was read out in a quavering voice. Nayef al-Saedi seemed not to have heard the impassive, slow voice despite the fact it was relaying the death sentence. Ali Salman was aware that they were surrounded by army forces. His eye followed a helicopter that had started to hover over a low hill, and in which he could see the pilot and co-pilot. As it turned around the pitch, its descent towards their heads aroused fear in the hearts of the women and girls, which was soon dispelled when it disappeared into the heights of the sky, now starting to be lit by the rays of the sun.
The spectators returned to following the execution proceedings, which were being deliberately drawn out. They listened to Nayef al-Saedi when he was asked for his last wish. In a strong voice, with not a hint of a tremor in it, he said he would like a cigarette. One of the guards came forward with a cigarette, which Nayef al-Saedi refused, directing looks of contempt at him from bulging eyes, as he said he wanted a cigarette from his mother, a cigarette from her hand. The guards paid no attention to him, and Ali Salman thought that Nayef al-Saedi’s voice was coming from above, from a moon or a cloud or a mountain. The helicopter circled again over the packed craning heads, then disappeared again, cutting through a distant white cloud.
The crowd shifted tensely as the civilians pulled the plastic curtain and fastened it to the wooden posts. Nayef al-Saedi disappeared behind it. At 7.25 that morning, the curtain was pulled back to reveal a corpse hanging from the gallows rope. The head had been concealed in a black cloth bag, tied like an inverted blackened archaeological jar belonging to a bygone age. Nayef al-Saedi’s friends stared at it helplessly, unable to defend him or support him. They moved back, broken and defeated, except for one of them, who withdrew from the crowd, his eyes red with anger, and cried out in a loud voice: “I am Nayef’s brother!” Then he solemnly swore vengeance. His name was Sa’ad Kapoor.
A woman let out a long wail, which disappeared into space. Other women turned their heads away from the scene, which had aroused terror in their hearts. Another woman shouted out as she dragged away a girl who had fallen on the ground in a faint. People crowded around her, but she asked them to go away, shouting: “A cup of water, God spare you!”
In a few moments, someone brought water from a nearby house, sprinkled some drops on the girl’s face, then wiped her with her apron as she urged people to move away: “Don’t stop the air getting to her!”
The girl’s face was contorted and flushed, and her eyes opened so that the whites could be clearly seen. Her lips parted, and her teeth began to chatter. The woman moistened her hands and left the drops of water to flow over her dry, blue lips. Little by little, the girl moved and got up with the help of those around her. She went away and sat on a rock that was used by the kids as a goal marker in their football games. She was covered in a cold sweat. Overhead the helicopter completed a final circuit before finally disappearing.
* * *
Nayef al-Saedi and his companions belonged to a generation that had emerged from clay and marshes and ashes. They were the sons of men descended from the world of reeds, fish, water, wheat and palm trees. The families had fled from oppression, from pursuit, from being enslaved to the land and its agricultural seasons, which multiplied losses, debts and humiliation, and they had come to the verdant, shining promise of Baghdad. They lived on the city’s outskirts, behind the Nazim Pasha dam near Tayaaran (Aviation) Square. There Nayef al-Saedi and his colleagues were born in the reed huts and cottages of al-‘Asima and al-Maizara, the two districts that made up Khalf al-Sadda (Behind the Levee). In their childhood they lived amidst darkness, manure, dung-heaps, lice, fleas and nits, wearing old ripped clothes and sleeping on rotten carpets stained with urine. In an attempt to improve their living conditions, through housing that included essential services like water, electricity, paved roads, and sewage facilities, the leader Abd al-Karim Qasim had them moved to al-Thawra City. But political struggles did not allow him to complete the project he had lovingly planned, so others reluctantly completed it.
In the new district, these young men became sullen and impulsive, their temperaments sharp as their weapons, deprived and repressed at home, in school, in street, café and market. All of this imbued in them a sense of disobedience and rebellion. So they became absorbed in confrontations with the authorities – any authority, of whatever sort. They were noble beggars, loyal and treacherous, good and bad, sometimes defending and sometimes violating honour, sometimes practising the values of virtue, and at other times aiding the dishonourable. They aspired to happiness, but when it came they turned it into mourning. At certain times they would happily respond to their friends’ needs, while at other times, slash and maim their friends and acquaintances with knives or daggers. They dreamed constantly of the day they would find work but they found themselves living in the streets with no shelter or income. So they started securing their daily livelihood by charging to “protect” the Bazzakha groups of local singers and dancers at circumcision and wedding parties. They became a phenomenon and were given the name ‘Al-Khoshiya’, ‘the Good Guys’, because they usually started whatever they had to say with the phrase “ana khosh walad” – ‘I’m a good guy’. The ruling authorities saw in them a source of unrest and spread rumours about them, exploiting the violent, deviant lifestyle of some of them in order to blacken their reputation and spread hatred of them, and hence to weaken them and gain mastery over them in a city in which waves of kindness and viciousness alternated.
As they guaranteed to defend all the residents of their own areas, a group of ‘the Good Guys’ took on the defence of the communists who were being pursued by the authorities – in the same way as Nayef al-Saedi defended Kadhmiya Mohammad, who the security apparatus saw as a danger because she was a member of the female section of the Communist Party in the city. But the security forces did not publicise the reason for pursuing her, so as not to give the impression that the Communists were a political force with a presence in popular circles. Rather, they presented the matter as being a criminal pursuit. Unfortunately for them, they had chosen the wrong target: Kadhmiya Mohammad was a shining name, beloved in the city and spoken of in cafés and private gatherings with respect and appreciation.
Kadhmiya Mohammad had abandoned her education at the third intermediate class, in accordance with her husband’s wishes. Although she separated from him after less than a year, she never went back to continue her studies but worked in a family weaving enterprise. She was not known to have had any relationship with anyone after her divorce, and she did not become the object of gossip or rumour. On the contrary, she earned the admiration of everyone because of her respect for people and her concern with their problems and quarrels, even personal and family ones. She made a great effort to educate and eradicate illiteracy among women, and in that she succeeded to a large extent. Many women learned to read and write under her guidance, including her neighbour, Umm Ibrahim. Kadhmiya Mohammad usually went back home in the evening, sometimes a little later, towards nightfall. When Nayef al-Saedi saw her getting off the Passenger Transport Authority bus, or out of a taxi, he would follow her until she reached her house safely without her knowing in order to protect her from any possible attack. He respected her and when her name was mentioned in front of him he would raise his hand and say: ‘My pleasure!’ A lot of people noticed how much he loved her, but he never spoke about it, not even in a quick remark or passing allusion.
When Kadhmiya Mohammad heard the news of his execution – because of her – a wave of sadness overcame her, paralysing her for several weeks. She withdrew from any work and devoted herself to reading the books and magazines that arrived at the unknown location where she was hiding. As she recalled the moments when she had seen Nayef al-Saedi by chance in a street in the city, she was overcome by the painful notion that she had not treated him with the attention he deserved.
Little by little, from her secret hideout, she recovered hope in everyone that she had devoted herself to loving and defending. She spent the subsequent period in disguise, travelling between cities and the countryside, carrying out tasks for the party. After that, the city received no news of her, and no one heard anything of her, though a lot of people were inclined to believe that she had subsequently been detained, and had ‘disappeared’ in prison.
* * *
Ali Salman moved back until he had put the human wall behind him, overcome by admiration for the daring and bravery of Nayef al-Saedi. As he moved away from the stadium, though, he felt a wave of sadness creep through his chest. He closed his tired eyes, then opened them again, to see small, misty crystals forming in front of him like tears, clouding his view. He couldn’t continue walking, but remained floating in the intense silence of the void, lit by the rays of the first hours of the day. He sat on a bench in front of a closed-up shop, shaded by a wooden gallery that was on the point of collapse. In his head there floated a confused, distant image of four people whose corpses had hung from wooden stakes behind the dam at the end of July 1963. He wasn’t completely certain that he had actually seen the four people who had been executed, for his mother, Makkiya al-Hasan, who was anxious on his behalf about everything when he was a boy – even the breeze, the sunset and the stars – wouldn’t let him go far from the house, or change his school route or cross a road used by cars. Perhaps he had heard about them from Alwan Aziz, who was also around at that time, and told him that he had passed that way and seen corpses hanging by the neck, dan