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Translated by Yasmeen Hanoosh
I wonder if my Chechen killer has read The Cloven Viscount. I wanted to ask him, but I couldn’t, being no longer alive as he cleaved my body with his electric saw into two symmetrical halves. The wind was circling in spirals that sent dirt up toward the grey sky, forming a ceiling of dust over this borderland, making it look like a scene from the apocalypse. Once the cleaving operation was over, my Chechen killer performed his ablutions and noon prayer, and then his Afghani colleague invited him to lunch.
I heard them arguing about me.
The Afghani was wondering how to tell my Sunni half from my Shi’i half. The Chechen said that the left half is Sunni, but the Afghani disagreed. He argued that lefties are from hell, as is said in the Qur’an. The Chechen objected: “So what do you want us to say to our fellow mujahideen? We brought you a right half without a heart?”
“Look who’s talking about hearts!” said the Afghani sarcastically. “And what did your heart tell you when you cleaved this man in two?”
The Chechen was vexed, practically tearing out the hairs of his yellow beard: “You told me to do it.”
“Really?!” the Afghani scoffed. “And would you have killed yourself if I’d told you to do that?”
“Yes, I would’ve!” The Chechen answered defiantly.
“Well then,” the Afghani challenged him. “Show me that you’re a man!”
The Chechen duly grabbed the rifle and fed it a bullet.
The two were sitting face to face on the ground under the shade of a wild shrub. They had their rifles next to them, along with a pot of cooked desert truffles, bread, and two water containers. The Chechen had a pale face and a long yellow beard, and wore a black Islamic cap that covered his ears. The Afghani had a beard that covered his whole face except for his nose and eyes. He wore a Kandahari outfit and a Pashtun cap. They both bore the facial features of dwellers of harsh mountainous regions: tense, sullen, menacing, as though they were constantly on the verge of initiating a bloody fight, even when sitting down for a casual chat.
After the ‘jihadi’ conversation had ended with the Chechen killing his Afghani comrade and running away in the four-wheel drive, my two dear halves helped each other get up. As they tried to take their first step after the dreadful cleaving operation, they floundered on the spot, before banging into each other and falling back to the ground. Blood still poured from their wounds. They feared that their bowels would spill out and they would lose their organs, but they found their innards to be still securely in place, as though glued together. They could hear the heart pounding fast, like an African drum, and the stomach boiling away like a pot from the last meal I ate before the two terrorists caught me. The veins danced like snakeheads, as though they wished to slither out and fight one another in a gruesome scene that almost made me faint. After a while they calmed down, and all was still – except for the blood, which was coming out in more of a trickle now. They expected death imminently. Their unusual case wasn’t so different from others which had at times defied imagination, such as that of the Iraqi soldier, whose head was blown off by an Iranian bomb in the 1980s war. In spite of that, he continued to walk on his feet for a short distance, which was miraculous enough for someone who had suddenly become, less than a second before, headless.
They tried again. With difficulty, they managed to get up and leave the place, hopping like an injured crow. They picked up my wallet and the contents of my bag, which had been strewn all over the place by the Afghani fighter, taking them with them. They looked like two drunks after a tavern brawl collecting their belongings that had been scattered during the fight. They left, staggering and leaning against each other for support, and between them the following conversation ensued:
The right half: “What was the name of the author of The Cloven Viscount?”
The left half: “Calvino.”
“Yes, Italo Calvino, I think.”
“Is he a terrorist?”
“No, why do you say that?”
“Didn’t he cleave the viscount?”
“Yes, but he reconnected him later.”
“And us? Who will reconnect us?”
“I don’t know.”
Suddenly, the right half stopped. He made the left half stop too, since they were leaning on one another.
“Why did you stop?” the left half asked impatiently.
“Wait,” the right half complained. “What can we do without Calvino?”
And so on they went with their exhausting journey.
“Have you read J. M. Coetzee before?” the left half asked, tapping his head with his index finger. “Waiting for the Barbarians?”
“No,” the right half answered. “Constantine Cavafy.”
Before my killer thought of cleaving me in half, he asked me: “Are you Sunni?”
“No.” I answered.
“Then you’re Shi’i?” screamed the other one, the Afghani, flecks of his saliva spraying my face.
For the second time, I responded no.
“What are you then?” the Chechen asked while chewing on a toothpick. “Don’t tell me you’re a Communist!”
“Not that, either. I’m Iraqi.”
The two of them began laughing so hard to the point where I feared they would explode in my face like two balloons full of shit. The Afghani got down on his knees, arching his body as he cackled and slapped his forehead. The Chechen lay down and started kicking up his feet like a donkey scratching his back against the ground. I even heard a fart.
What on earth has got into these two goats? I wondered. What is driving them to laugh in this repulsive manner? Why do they seem so off their heads at a time when they are supposedly about to slaughter me? Are they really laughing because I’m Iraqi or is something else the matter? I didn’t get it.
“Listen, man,” said one of them, after hitting me with the butt of his Kalashnikov. “Save us your nationalism. There’s no reconciliation in Islam.”
“What’s this gibberish?” the other one said in that constantly menacing, savage tone they seemed to share. “This gibberish, you can shove it up your ass, and don’t be a mule. You understand?”
“And now,” the Chechen went on, after feeding his rifle a bullet and pointing it at my head, “tell us once and for all, are you Shi‘i or Sunni? And don’t you dare fool around.”
But I fooled around. I insisted, continuing to repeat my original words: “I’m Iraqi!”
“Your Personal Identification Card.” The Chechen stretched out his hand and yelled the command: “Give me your Personal Identification Card!”
Had this Chechen been Iraqi he would have asked for my ‘identity’ rather than my ‘Personal Identification Card’. Iraqis, as is the case in some other Middle Eastern countries, don’t call what he asked for a Personal Identification Card, or national identification, or ID, even though that’s exactly what it is, and despite the words ‘Personal Identification Card’ being written on it. In fact, nowhere on it is the word ‘identity’ to be found. Yet we still insist that it is an identity. This is what everyone calls it, from the President of the Republic to the rubbish collector.
I didn’t give it to him, which made him even more angry, so he smacked me in the face.
I had remained in in the same position since these two lousy terrorists had made me kneel and interlock my fingers behind my head. The Afghani approached and stuck his rifle above my right ear, while the Chechen rummaged in my pockets until he found my ‘identity’ in the leather wallet. It was in the back pocket of my trousers where I kept it, like most Iraqi men.
The Chechen’s demand for my ‘identity’ reminded me of the many times that the Military Discipline units would ask bus passengers at checkpoints, which dot the country from north to south and east to west, to show their ‘identities’. Some would reach into the back pockets of their trousers to take out these ‘identities’, whereas the elderly would reach into the front pocket on the left-hand side of their jackets. It’s as though as young men, we don’t care about these ‘identities’, which are more than just a card, so we stick them in that place on purpose, reaching behind to feel our backsides whenever someone enquires about our ‘identity’. Yet as we age and become sluggish men in retirement, we begin placing our ‘identities’ in the front pockets of our jackets. We do that gently, patting our hands on that location if we misplace them, looking like someone with an aching heart, as if the very earth will reject our corpses if we don’t preserve these ‘identities; close to our hearts.
When the Chechen found my ‘identity’, he grabbed the bag that was strapped to my shoulder too. He handed it to the Afghani, who caught it with the nozzle of his rifle and squatted next to me to take out my belongings and comment on them. After that he flung it brashly behind him in a dramatic and almost comic way – except for the sunglasses, which he had put on, and a Marlboro cigarette which he placed between his thick lips, and a bottle of whisky which he stashed in his side pocket when his Chechen friend wasn’t looking.
“A shirt.” He smells it and spits to the side: “What’s this smell, man?!”
“Perfume!” He sprays his armpits. “Stinks!”
“Toothpaste.” He tastes and spits it out. “Mint.”
“A shoe brush.” He wipes his dusty boots. “I don’t need it.”
“A comb.” He combs his hair and puts it in his pocket.
“A shaving razor.” he passes it along his neck, simulating the slaughter process. “God is Great!”
“A journal.” He opens it and reads a little. “Bullshit.”
“A book.” He opens it and thumbs through it. “Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Is he a poet?”
He asks me and I nod, to which he responds: “As for the poets, only the perverse follow them.”
“Epic of Gilgamesh,” he thumbs through it while scratching his armpit with his fingernails and then smells them. “Superstition.”
“Hammurabi’s Law?” He flips through the book. “Heresy and error.”
“Idol!” He contemplates a statue of the Sumerian king Gudea. “An abomination from the devil.”
“History of Iraq?” He smells the book and screws up his face. “Shit on more shit.”
“Pictures.” He flips through my personal album and eyes me suspiciously. “Is this you?”
Meanwhile, the Chechen was trying to spell out the information on my ‘identity’ with difficulty. My name did not easily betray a sectarian distinction. Moreover, our ‘identities’ do not indicate, nor even hint at, our sectarian affiliation. However, they do include – and perhaps this is one of the most serious misjudgements in the history of Personal Status legislation to afflict non-Muslim Iraqis – a reference to the person’s religion. And although the word ‘Muslim’ filled the blank with its clear, large letters, it was not enough for these two fighters who claimed to be enlisted in the sacred defence of Islam. In the end, you had to be either Sunni or Shi’i.
Anger exploded in the Chechen’s head, practically setting his hair alight. I may have imagined it, but I was sure I saw plumes of smoke pouring from his head as he peeled the plastic laminate off my ‘identity’ and tore it up. He tore it into three pieces and threw them in my face, with a warm spit that stuck to the eyelashes of my left eye.
“Dog, mangy heretic! I spit on you!”
He came toward me to hit me. His feet made a racket that seemed to come from above me rather than in front of me. It was terrifying and foretold of evil. He was hissing like a crazy snake whose gums were itching and who needed to stick her fangs into my flesh and her venom into my blood in order to relax.
The Afghani’s voice came suddenly. He was still emptying my bag and commenting on every object within. He yelled in excitement: “A cellphone!”
The Chechen had an idea which I immediately grasped. They would film themselves with me. They would do that before killing me. However, one problem instantly presented itself and complicated things: the password. For, like other Iraqi men who had affairs outside of marriage, I had created a password for my phone that not even the devil could figure out. And since I was surely to die, I decided never to give them that password, which they finally realized after trying with me for over half an hour. For the first time in my life, I was stubborn as a mule, stubborn enough to offer my own life before considering giving them my password. May they die out of spite!
I don’t know how many blows I received after that from the Chechen’s rifle butt – on my head, chest, back, shoulders, stomach, and sides. Meanwhile, the Afghani kicked me with his heavy boots. He focused on my middle, on my balls to be more specific, as if he’d resolved to castrate me. He then went paused, trying hard to decipher the password that I locked my phone with. Something distracted him, and made his lips flutter like the thighs of a horse worn out by flea bites. Most likely it was Monica Bellucci, my favourite celebrity, who distracted him, since I recalled choosing her half-naked photo as the background on my smart phone screen. Then suddenly, as he stared and drooled like a sexually deprived street dog, the Afghani’s eyes bulged and he threw me a cunning smile. He even winked at me, like an old whore leaning against a lamp post in an alleyway. I realized that Bellucci’s magic had ended the moment my damned phone betrayed me. It refused to accept the fingerprint of the Afghani, but betrayed me all the same, handing me over to more torture. One or two minutes passed, during which the two terrorists proceeded to fix their clothes and comb their beards, preparing for their photo with me. God knows who they would send it to afterwards. Maybe my wife, mother, father, one of my siblings, friends, or maybe one of the satellite channels to be broadcast on their screen under the big caption: ‘The victim before his murder!’
They placed me back in the humiliating position in which they preferred me: on my knees. The Afghani stood to my right and the Chechen to my left. They rested their hands on their knees and leaned in. The Afghani brought the phone close to my face and waited for it to unlock it and snap a picture. He tried several times. No use. It wouldn’t unlock. I knew the reason, but I didn’t tell them until they had worked it out for themselves. It was the blood. All the blood that covered my face prevented me from unlocking the phone. But they didn’t give up. They washed my face and removed the thick mask of gore and went back to try, but again, to no avail. The reason this time was that not a single pore on my face had been left intact. They broke my nose, the devils; split my lips, destroyed my teeth, slashed my forehead, and bruised my eyelids. This is why, for the second time, my phone didn’t recognize me.
At that point, they stopped their futile attempts and agreed to get rid of me.
I preferred dying to tolerating more of this miserable torture. Even if I’d said that I belonged to this sect or that, they wouldn’t have left me alone. If I’d said I was Shi’i, they would’ve killed me instantly. If I’d said I was Sunni, they would’ve recited: “The Islamic State is here to stay,” and expected me to finish the sentence with “and is spreading” to complete the homage. But that wouldn’t have been enough for them, either. They would’ve asked me to produce supportive evidence which I wouldn’t have been able to provide, the simple reason being that they were not Iraqis. If I’d said I was Shi’i, I would’ve looked like a Sunni who was lying. If I’d said I was Sunni, I would’ve looked like a Shi‘i who was lying.
This is how I began my wait for the bullet of mercy with which one of them had to perforate my head in the end. The Chechen would’ve fired, had it not been for a sudden sound which broke out and temporarily halted the execution process:
Oh my homeland!1
Oh my homeland!
“What’s this bullshit?!” The Chechen suddenly shrieked, as though someone had stuck a pole up his ass.
“Where is it coming from?” he screamed.
Glory and Beauty
Grace and Majesty
“Stop this shit!” the Chechen brayed again. The Afghani took my phone from his pocket and muted the sound. It’s good that he didn’t answer the call. It could’ve been my mum, or wife, or one of my relatives. I didn’t know. And it was no longer important to know, just as it was no longer important to know the method through which I was going to be killed, or the execution tool, which the two men had suddenly decided to change. It was as if their boredom with their usual execution practices had compelled them to invent a new method, one that hadn’t yet occurred to anyone – except Calvino, that is.
“Okay,” I heard the Afghani say in his distasteful voice. “We’ll find out which sect you belong to, our own way. Just you wait.”
He headed over to the four-wheel drive with which they had chased and caught me, and returned with an electric saw that he handed to his Chechen comrade. He whispered something in his ear which later turned out to be the killing method they had settled on. He then came up to me, turned me over on my stomach, straightened out my legs and placed my arms by my body. Meanwhile the Chechen took on the important task: splitting me in half with this cutting implement.
Oh my homeland!
Oh my homeland!
The phone rang again.
“God damn your homeland!” The Chechen almost lost his mind when he heard that tune again.
Life and Relief
Joy and Belief
“Turn off the damned phone or else . . .” the Chechen raged like an ox in a mud puddle as he threatened the Afghani, who in turn screwed up his face.
“Or else what, you leper?”
“Nothing,” the Chechen answered as he tried to control his savage rage. “Just shut the phone up. It’s distracting me.”
The Afghani complied and stood nearby to watch the last drop of mercy on this Earth leave his Chechen comrade, who had begun to saw me in half. He started with my head and went down my back, along my spinal cord, and ended in my middle, between my legs. Since he began with my head, I didn’t feel the teeth of the saw proceed through my flesh and render me a cloven corpse with no ‘identity’.
Oh my homeland!
Oh my homeland!
The phone rang for the third time.
“Tell you what,” the Chechen, who was swimming in my blood, walked over to the Afghani after he had accomplished his task and tossed the saw aside. “Take this shit out of your pocket.”
The Afghani sullenly obeyed and took out the phone, the chant of the national anthem still audible.
Shall I seeeeeee you
Shall I seeeeeee you
Safe and Blessed, Victorious and Honoured?
Safe and Blessed, Victorious and Honoured?
“Throw it!” the Chechen commanded in a voice that was closer to a bark as he put his finger on the trigger guard. “Throw it, I’m telling you!”
“Okay, okay! No need to scream,” the Afghani said sourly.
“Toss it up in the air,” the Chechen told him, this time pleading. “Up! Up!”
The Afghani cast a final look at the beautiful Bellucci and tossed my phone, which continued to sing out, into the air:
Shall I see you eminent
Reaching the stars
Reaching the . . .
At that moment, the Chechen let fly a hail of bullets until he hit it. The phone was smashed to smithereens and the anthem was silenced. Ibrahim Toqan’s words were shattered, and Muhammad Fleifil’s melody dissipated. I was no longer me, and the homeland was no longer itself.
1 These lines refer to “Mautini”, an iconic Palestinian poem composed and put to music in 1934. In addition to serving as a national anthem for the Palestinian Intifada, since the fall of the Ba‘thist regime in 2003 “Mautini” was adopted as the Iraqi national anthem.
Published in Banipal 61 – A Journey in Iraqi Fiction, Spring 2018 (Click here to go to Contents of Banipal 61)
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