When we reconstructed the city after the war, we set aside a plot of land one by two kilometres overlooking the river. On that we built the printing house. We raised its twelve stone tiers so that visitors would see it polished and glittering in sunlight next to the massive marble city towers. Work on building the house went on day and night for years, and now it pleases dozens of skilled workers to sit on the broad steps around the building to bask in the early morning sun and reminisce about those joyful days. Labourers and craftsmen then disperse on the wide city boulevards leading to their workplaces as soon as the central city clock chimes fifty strikes.
Our city authorities have attracted from neighbouring towns and cities scores of blacksmiths, smelters, masons, carpenters, engineers, and bestowed on them enough honours to raise their status among the public. But printers, transcribers of manuscripts, and writers received even greater honours. Theirs is the highest building in the city, and their chief is none other than the famed master we know as Yusif the Printer.
On this sunny spring morning I was walking briskly to the printing house, climbing up the many stone stairways, and manoeuvring my way through those relaxing on them. One impulse has so possessed me that I was oblivious to several colleagues who were also heading for the southern gate. Yusif the Printer has promised to share with me a secret he has kept locked in one of the house’s chambers.
My eyes hovered over the impressive mural on the arch of the gate, coloured in firm chalky strokes, to seek one more time a tiny detail showing an Arab transcriber bending over an open manuscript. At exactly this time of day when I report to work I look up to see the ink in his inkwell sparkling in the sunlight. Other details of the mural conspire with sunlight at other moments all day long. The transcriber detail diminishes as I go through the reception and service offices, then into the overwhelming openness of the inner hall. The hall is a thousand square metres, pierced through the centre by a massive lift shaft whose metal pillars are visible behind thick glass panels. The printing presses occupy the entire
I crossed the hall to the lift, my rubber shoes gliding over its solid glass floor. The coloured plastic chairs all over the hall are vacant at this time of day, and look brilliant under lights coming from hidden spots in the ceiling. The printing machinery is visible through the glass floor, with fork-lift trucks and carts rolling through the aisles, and separate areas for paper storage, binding, and the mechanical repair workshop. The printing presses and the heads of the workers are bathed in that merky basement light familiar in the press work area and which the eyes of our veteran printer had known since they first made contact with a printing machine. Below, massive wheels, oiled and gleaming, were spinning huge reels of papers and printing cylinders, and paper cutters are delivering to agile hands the first runs. Phosphoric lights from computer screens and monitors showered over faces, machines, and outstretched arms. From above, I could hear nothing – the glass ceiling ruled out the clatter of wheels and the fluttering of paper, not to mention the sucking of inks or the dancing of characters and forms on screens and sheets of paper.
Four lifts run up and down inside the central shaft, but only one has access to the printing floor. The giant glass lift ascends through the lower and middle tiers set aside for proofreaders, calligraphers, cover designers, illustrators, the photo lab, and the offices of the administrative staff, then through the eighth floor where the restaurant and clinic are. The lift slows down as it reaches the top four tiers housing writers, transcribers, editors, translators, and manuscript readers. From it you can see the occupants of these floors in their glass cubicles or in the corridors, and even have a glimpse of faces you might not have a chance to see elsewhere. The faces of the city’s gifted few who willingly shun publicity: learned scholars like M J Jalal and K Khalifa; the storytellers K M Hasan and M al-Saqr; the poets A Hussein, M al-Azraq, S al-Akhder, and S al-Chalabi; and elite journalists and publishers.
The occupants of these top tiers change, which explains why no visitor or worker had ever had a chance to see the city’s intelligentsia all together at one given time. Occasionally, their rank includes guests who collect manuscripts and rare books and who wander agog among the cubicles. But, as a rule, all writers, editors, or manuscript copiers from this city and neighbouring cities can stay at the printing house long enough to finish their work, but then leave so that others may take their places. Only Yusif the Printer has been a fixture here, and he might be making the rounds right now on the printing floor, or relishing seclusion in one of the cubicles.
I am a fellow at the house while I work on my novel Khamarawayh’s Last Portrait, although I knew Yusif before the war when he owned a small press in the city’s old business district. Besides the local newspaper he edited, he used to print his own fiction and his friends’ non-fiction there. When the city came under intense bombardment in the last year of the war, the press was closed even though at the time it was producing Yusif’s autobiography. Our meeting at the house after the war was brief and memorable. He looked old, a profusion of white hair hugging both sides of his red, slender neck. He supported himself on a smooth cane, and had a flower in his jacket lapel. It was at that meeting he promised to reveal to me what he had kept a secret at the house.
I got off the lift on the tenth tier where I work among the affiliated writers. In one cubicle, I saw Abdulwahab al-Khasibi proofreading his only collection of short stories, and from another I heard a diligent translator’s renderings of Tagore’s reflections. Then I walked past the cubicle occupied by Balquis, the young poet. She’s barely fifteen years old, becalmed and not of this world, like a dreamy bird I once saw in a pomegranate tree. She surprised me when she looked up. All I could think of then was Tagore’s line: “The bird wishes it were a cloud, and the clouds wish they were birds.”
On the eleventh tier, the transcribers’ floor, I saw the tired face of an old friend, Oobaid al-Hamdani, and I wonder if he’s copying the manuscript on medicinal herbs he found in a discarded box in a subterranean vault. Oobaid once told me about the Muslim medieval storyteller al-Hariri who penned seven hundred copies of his own Maqamat1. On this tier of the house, only an ancient silence marks the transcribers’ cubicles, and the invisible creeping of mice hankering after volumes of ambergris paper.
I walked for hours looking for Yusif the printer. As I reached the twelfth floor, I passed the quarters of the writers who had acquired permanent status. They are the only exception in the house. And why was it that these permanent residents would not complete their work, even if the house were to become a madrasa2 of sorts or a workshop for writing or printing? I was considering a number of possible answers when I caught sight of the veteran printer.
He was in the printing floor lift ready to descend.
“I have been waiting here for you for hours,” he says. “The first step dooms those who follow. As soon as you step into a corridor, you end up coming back to it, and when you move up to the next tier, you achieve no actual upward movement.”
That is humour befitting an old man familiar with ascending and descending. His sparkling eyes make me think of a giant press where thousands of machines run day and night to put out a single book composed of endless volumes. I give Yusif a wan smile. After all, it is he alone who knows the rules and secrets of the printing house.
Then he said: “I read your novel. I think you’ll rewrite it. You had Khamarawayh commit suicide the moment he entered chapter K instead of allowing him to materialize anew under a different name.”
His words surprised me.
“When you’re unaware of the value of letters,” Yusif adds, “you sever the chains of words beyond the repair that imagination or grammar can provide.”
I replied: “I’ll write the novel again. That will please me, of course, since it’ll help me prolong my stay at the house for one more year. I’ll also have more chances to get to know the recluses of the upper tiers.
“You’ll stay,” he said gleefully. “Your affiliation will be extended.”
I had to ask him about the permanent writers of the twelfth tier.
“They’re as permanent as ghosts, not individuals with names and accolades. Their works are part of this ever-reappearing ghostliness. As soon as they finish a page, a certain part of their existence vanishes. If they complete a book they’ll entirely disappear. But you see them every morning rewriting one page after another just to relish their presence at the house. What intoxicates them is the vineyard of inks, these ghosts of writers composing transparent pages. If you want, you can join them and never leave the house.”
I was fumbling for an appropriate reply when he remarked: “We won’t succeed in completing a book if we don’t really defend our characters. The name Khamarawayh, for instance, is hermeneutic since it reveals a part of the character’s truth. A character could escape death by hiding his or her name behind that of another, and not letting that name get swallowed up in the magician’s melting pot. Her name alone betrays her transparent symbolism and the shackles from which she’ll never be liberated. Give your character more than one name and more than one mien and your book will escape the rottenness of an ending. We fail because our books start to decay before they’re finished. We impose on them our imperfection – we die and let the book die with us. What a dismal outcome for an honest and painful ordeal.”
“Yes,” I said, overwhelmed. “We let our characters live for us.”
“When you approach the truth of genuine creation . . .”
I had the feeling that Yusif suddenly stopped talking, and then pressed a button on the elevator keypad. The elevator went down through a series of tiers and stopped at an unmarked one, the basement, possibly, or an entirely different floor. One thing I heard clearly is a suppressed roar. We left the elevator and came to a suite with black walls. Yusif brought out a small key and opened the door. When he turned the lights on I found myself in front of a small printing press, an ancient manual one, and cases of lead letters stacked all around it. The room was air tight, sound and light proof, and connected to a smaller side room with a table laden with zinc printing blocks.
“This is my secret, my friend,” Yusif said. “The treasure of the house.” He was looking at me searching for signs of wonder, joy, or interest, then said: “Here I can work the way I like. I salvaged this machine from the devastation of war. It was in a room in my house. The one I trust most.”
The silent machine generated around itself an aroma of ink, acids, oils, rubber, leather, and paper – the remains of several printings of the rare books this press put out. A structure crouching like a lubricated mythical animal. The mysterious energy the machine emits captivates my spirit and shakes my limbs and sends my heart racing, as if I were feeling with the ends of my fingers the ancient leaves of a volume bound with deer hide. Kalila wa Dimnah, or the One Thousand and One Nights, Ibn Sina’s Qanun. Yusif’s voice comes to me again, “On this press the Ottomans printed the first issue of Anafeer newspaper, and the occupying British authorities used it to print out colonial communiquÈs. Perhaps it even fell into the Iraqi rebels’ hands afterwards. When I bought it in 1940 from a merchant some of its parts were missing or damaged. A blacksmith I knew made replacement parts, and a famed foundry cast new sets of characters. Today, it will print my tales.
He then pulls out of an open drawer a newly printed sheet and gently places it on the machine. I bring the page close to the bulb over the press. “If you want to print a genuinely great book,” I heard Yusif say, “one for yourself and for the ages, you have to set its characters with your own hands patiently, confidently. You will only need a few copies. Ten would immortalize you ten centuries.”
The page feels as if it were printed on a rough stone tablet. The nicely lined text is surrounded by wide blank margins stained with faint streaks and spots of ink and fingerprints. The page has a full tale printed on it and ends with a dark star rather than a period.
Yusif is still flashing a euphoric smile. “One story fills out and never gets beyond a page,” he said.
I think about what he said, and soon realize the discipline and skill involved in his work. You can read Yusif’s tales where you choose without ever having to turn the page. The title of the story I’m reading is “The Mirror of Turdin,” and here is its plot:
A giant mirror the astronomer Sulieman al-Saymeri made from a rare polished metal and placed on a green hill outside the city of Turdin was to reflect the three stages of the city. Its past image in the morning, its present one at midday, and at sunset the sun was to display changing reflections of the city’s future. The city’s old image gradually appears as the sun ascends, revealing first the Ziggurat, then the irrigation canals of the Hanging Gardens, the Procession Field, and the Virgin’s Altar. As soon as the details come into full view, the display starts slowly to vanish. At noon, the show lasts but a few minutes, long enough for the inhabitants to recognize the city where they currently live. But the display at sunset is rare and unpredictable. It came up twenty years ago for just seconds before a lucky shepherd and his flock. The future city flashed and dazzled the human and animal eyes in an instant that would remain folded in pastoral time. The description of that future place which the city dwellers wrested from the shepherd was more bewildering than the resistance of the image to appearing. He spoke of that city as a colossal and glittering golden hand lining up houses in the shape of a cone. Then another golden hand, more brilliant and much faster than the first, would undo the work before the eye had had a chance to behold it. Since then, people go out to the fields surrounding the mirror hours before sunset and wait for the emergence of a city to come.”
In the nights to follow, the patient printer will put on his overalls, smeared with patches of ink and oil, and select letters from the cases. He’ll bend over the single-page forme to set the reversed characters of the tale with his blackened thumb, then align the rows within its wooden frame. And while we relish the leisure of our nights, he’ll secure the type forme to the bed of the press, feed in the ink, and lay a blank sheet of paper. He’ll turn the spiral handle gently down in the faint, saffron light of the bulb over the machine.
Years later my hands will hold one of the ten copies of the magnificent book of tales, illustrated with paintings etched by a house artist. I’ll read it on the stone steps outside the building in the deliciously warm sun of the early morning.Translated by Shakir Mustafa
Selected from the author’s collection Ru’ya Kharif [Autumnal Vision], 1995
1 Maqamat – classical genre of rhythmic stories or “assemblies”
2 madrasa – traditionally a Qur’anic school
* The author dedicates the story to storyteller Yusif Ya’qub Haddad