I was alone, behind the steering wheel. The destination I was heading for did not occupy my attention, rather it was the possibility of having no more petrol and of the car suddenly stopping. I had never run out of petrol, not even once, but I always thought about its possibility. And thus, what did not happen would become a happening.
The wide street between the company’s headquarters and the pedestrian suspension bridge was empty. It was filled with bright, quivering sunshine that usually gave Baghdad’s winter its tone and splendour. I cared for nothing, for life was going on and was beautiful in a hidden way, and things were explained gradually; or perhaps, more correctly, life was slowly getting worse and things continued to cling to a vague, hidden beauty. Perhaps, perhaps.
It was past four o’clock in the afternoon and I was quickly approaching the Kamal Junblat Square in Jadiriyya on the Risafa bank. I had then to turn left in the direction of the bridge and to clear my mind ofthose piano notes that had occupied me all night long. The tune was repeated and repeated, dozens of times, until I thought it had entered my body and was running in my blood. Then when it went in all directions, I had to find a way to silence those sound waves that continued to scratch the walls of my soul. By looking from the outside at this process, one could find in it an imbalance of values and ethical norms, not permissible under the traditions of silence after midnight in al-Harithiyya neighborhood and specifically at the home of the Chief Justice.
At the corner of the square, I did not turn left but continued driving straight ahead, elated by the tune and the cold breeze caressing my face. This way of driving straight ahead seemed more advantageous than I and my mother Sana’ had thought. No turn to the right or to the left, because the road was straight. They did not say it was not straight, never. And with “never”, she stretched out her snow-white hands in front of her, parallel with each other, saying: “Like this, my son.” Because of this and because I still loved her, as I knew, I would visit the Riwaq Hall on Sa’doun Street to see the exhibition of paintings, and from that moment on my destination would be known.
But what did it mean that this exhibition of paintings should take on the quality of being my final destination when it was not?
It was a step forward only, an endless step because it was no more than a desire. It was much like my desire, yesterday and today, to visit my maternal uncle Raouf in order to speak with him. I wanted to see him because of a need I did not know. With him, everything became extraordinary and anxiety went away temporarily.
[. . .]
Unconsciously, I turned towards the entrance of the ‘Alwiyya Club and I drove down in the alley leading to the car park. [. . .]
Fortunately, I found a place to park my car not far from the exhibition. When I was about to leave my seat, I hesitated. Something in the air did not appear to be strongly comforting, so I remained seated and listened to the piano notes coming lightly from within my soul. Singing. Singing.
For many years, my maternal uncle Raouf listened to me fondly as I related to him the strange stories of my childhood. He used to steal his way into our house and sit cozily in a corner in our main hall. My mother Sana’ used to revere him. He was her older brother, a little eccentric, resigned, and had an obscure past surrounded with awe.
I opened the door, got out, and left the car behind me. I walked unconsciously to the exhibition in the opposite direction.
He was always shy, and when he comforted me at the death of my mother Sana’, his shyness was gnawing at him, even when he was careful that his whispered interrupted words should not hurt me: “All things in life have no real relation binding them to us although they sink a knife into our heart. We are passers-by, like them . . . like them. And they are like us.”
What a way to console a nine-year-old child this was! Wonderful and not understandable. Nothing was like it except this way to reach the exhibition from an opposite direction.
The doors were open and some people were moving around in the softly-lit hall, looking at the paintings. I entered merrily, with a feeling of an indefinable joy. Basically, it did not matter what a really good artist wanted to paint, and how capable and valuable he was. He was a human being facing the absolute and, like a child, wanted to capture it and hold it in his hand.
Despite my usual confused state, I went around looking at the paintings with close great attention. I knew the painter personally and had followed his artistic development for some time. I felt that through the body of his works he spontaneously created in me some confused ideas that echoed my own state. What did one expect but defeat in a confrontation between a human being and the power of the absolute with all its dimensions?
But, no. There was a great difference between one defeat and another. One artist might fall at the threshold and another might exhaust the absolute before he fell. Exhausting the absolute meant he almost got the better of it, or perhaps he did so actually. Like Raphael and CÈzanne. Why not?
In a painting one could explore and feel the extent of the battle and the aspects of tension, relaxation, advance, and withdrawal in it. At that point, the artist’s characteristics would appear clearly as well as the qualities of his artistic personality.
“I said: Good evening.”
For he was not required to be really victorious, considering the forces of the two struggling sides. We should not believe that victory is possible. This is an illusion that crushes all artistic capabilities. We can . . .
“Good evening! What is this?”
A young woman I did not know was addressing me.
I thought I was standing between her and the painting so I took a step back. She blocked my way and stood in front of me. We were close in a corner at the north end of the exhibition hall.
“I’d like to talk to you. Don’t pretend you don’t know me.”
In fact, I was asking myself silently, “Have I seen this young woman before?”
‘You don’t even return the greeting! It’s as though you think that is a solution. Listen. I have seen you today by accident, and I want to tell you a few words only. And I’ll say them in spite of the bad circumstances.”
Perhaps she saw in my face an impression resembling stupidity or inability to understand.
“Have you . . . have you really not recognized me? I’m Salma, Dr Salma. I’m Amal’s cousin. Has my short hair style changed my looks so much?”
I realized at that moment that something might have hidden her identity from me. We were in a part of the hall that had only one painting, so because of that no one paid attention to us. Her hair style showed her round cheeks and long neck. Her forehead remained wide and her black eyes unchanged. It seemed she was sincere.
“I’ll not be long, Professor Hashem. It is evident that you want to run away, even from conversation. I don’t want to ask anything of you now or to give you advice regarding your difficult problems. One must admit that you have made everyone tired.”
She was wearing a pearl necklace. Decidedly artificial pearls. The time of genuine pearls has gone for ever.
“I only want to do what I think is my duty to Amal, and possibly to you too.”
Perhaps she thought I was about to move away from her, so she raised her hand between us.
“Listen to me, please. I’ll not be long. If you really respect yourself – and that’s doubtless – don’t continue with this attitude. And if you are involved, then seek the help of someone, me or her. She is an educated and poised young woman. Meet with her, Professor Hashem. This will not cause you any harm. She will certainly understand everything from you, and you will understand everything from her too. Why do you treat her like this? One year and a half! My goodness! This is contrary to all human conventions, all religions, all traditions. Don’t you see that?”
Her raised voice as she spoke the last words was why some people stopped nearby. Meanwhile, my right leg was tired because all this time I had been putting my weight on it, so I shifted my weight to the left leg. One who has a body like mine should pay attention to the muscles of his legs and should balance the pressure of weight on them. Perhaps she was carried away and said things she did not mean to say. Sometimes the music of words affects the soul and the nerves, spontaneously exciting them and then producing regrettable results. A quasi-mathematical question that has not been studied as it should.
“Why don’t you answer? Why don’t you speak?”
I had never seen her before. I must never have seen her before. She was an inquisitive woman with whom I was not pleased and who would never make me pleased with her, even though I had never seen her before. And, in truth, I did not know her. I certainly did not know her and this is what I will immediately explain. For we sometimes imagine an event that did not happen, and at other times we cut from our mind an event that did happen. All that is merely a confusion of vision. Because I did not know her and had never seen her before, she hit a sensitive point in me. Add to that her cursed short hair style. But clarifying one’s vision will set matters right, and I shall tell him that, and he will perhaps understand me. He will doubtlessly understand me. Understanding is not only mere linguistic exchange. In the true sense of the word, understanding, human understanding is communication between two existences. He sees me in front of him as I am now, and he picks up signals I don’t see: a fluttering eye, contracting fingers, wandering glances. And when he sees me at one moment in a certain enigmatic condition, he will seek help from his former visions of me in order to find the answers and then understand what other people don’t. Then conversation will take place, followed by full understanding. He will understand me.
The street, on which the Nu’man Hospital in A’zamiyya stands, was crowded and suffocating with dust and fading darkness. I suddenly reached it, and the Royal Cemetery appeared to me at the end of it, enveloped on every side by the dark red colours of sunset. As I entered the intricate winding alleyways hidden on the right side of the cemetery that strange feeling, awakened within me by the young woman visiting the exhibition, changed. And now, as I stood, bored and tired, in front of the house in which my uncle lived, and knocked on the door several times with no answer, I was overtaken by anxiety over him. As I began to think of the place where he might have gone to at this hour at the end of the day, I heard his soft, halting voice rising behind me.
“Welcome, Hashem, welcome. What good wind has swept you in this direction to visit me?”
His white beard shone somehow in the dark street and he was smiling with joy.
“Good evening, uncle. I’ve been knocking on the door for a while with no answer. Perhaps you were having a walk on the river bank.”
“True. I was walking there. Welcome, welcome. Open the door with this key. I can’t see the keyhole.”
I opened the door and we entered the large cool room. He turned the electric light on.
“Abu ‘Ala’ and his family went out several hours ago. He bought an old car a few weeks ago and hsa acquired the habit of taking a daily pleasure ride. It’s a used car, of course.”
“Yes. They drive daily in the streets of Baghdad without any specific destination. Please, sit down. I’ll make some tea. Will you drink tea with me?”
“Make yourself comfortable, my son. You’re tired, aren’t you?”
I did not answer him. He walked slowly to another part of the room and started preparing the tea for us. One of the windows of the room looked on an alley to the A’zamiyya Corniche and the sunset sky. Between the black walls and the clouds, there was a red point of light shining with brilliance for no reason, as though beckoning to me from a distance, as though in a shy greeting. As though . . . My God! Why should this be so?
“Tea will be ready soon. Why don’t you sit down?”
He then came forward and stood by me, looking out with me without saying anything. A few moments later, he whispered:
“You know, I am over eighty. I was eighty years old some time ago. Eighty!”
I turned to him in surprise.
He was smiling: “I never imagined I would reach eighty. My father – your grandfather – God have mercy on him, died before he was seventy. He was in very good health but he died before he was seventy.”
“Eighty! Seventy! Do these numbers have any meaning, uncle?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“I am now thirty-one, the same age my mother Sana’ was when she died.”
He seemed to be a little disturbed as he poured the boiling water into the teapot.
He turned to me: “What? Your late mother? Yes, Sana’, God have mercy on her.”
Then he resumed his preparation of the tea. He was short and his back was bent.
He turned to me and said, “Is . . . How is your father?”
“I don’t know. We haven’t spoken with each other for the last three months, or four – I don’t remember.”
“Strange. And Qadriyya?”
“Aunt Qadriyya? No, she is a kind person and she is fine.”
“And you, what happened to you? You seem to be tired . . . or . . . or are you disturbed also?”
“I don’t think so. Nothing important, really. I met a young woman I did not know, and she asked me . . . But tell me the truth, uncle. Is it true you used to write poetry when you were an officer in the Ottoman army?”
He raised his head and stopped pouring out the tea for a moment. He appeared to be surprised as he turned again to me, smiling as if he were shy.
“In Turkish . . . in Turkish.”
He then went back to finish his task quietly.
“My mother Sana’ told me. She was proud of you. My God! How often she spoke to me about you! I remember all those conversations of hers. I will never forget them. She said that one young woman in those days used to look at you from the latticed windows of her house as you went back and forth in your beautiful military uniform in the Bab al-Sheikh neighbourhood. She said you were handsome and awe-inspiring.”
“Women! They tell strange tales!”
He then came carrying a little tray with two glasses of pure, red tea.
“Yes, yes. I graduated from the Military College before I was twenty years old. I spoke Turkish well, and I knew how to speak French. They used to teach us languages along with military lessons. I knew Turkish well, both writing and speaking. As for French, no; it was not like Turkish. I began to forget it from the time I went to Istanbul.”
“Why did you go to Istanbul?”
“I don’t know. Everyone used to go there. But I believe they called me at the time. The government called me.”
“Why? Why did they call you?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“My mother Sana’ said you used to write nationalistic poems against the Sultan and that you used to be a member of a secret society. That’s why they called you, to investigate with you; then they imprisoned you and tried to kill you by putting poison in your food. But you became aware of that and . . . you saved yourself. How true are these stories, uncle?”
He gave me a questioning and inquisitive look, his thick eyebrows knitted together. He looked as though he was hearing some strange conversation about a person he did not exactly know. He took a sip of tea from his glass, and another. He looked towards the window opening onto the sunset sky, then he rose and walked to it slowly. He was wearing a dark and dirty military overcoat. He stood at the window drinking his tea in silence. As I looked at his back, his appearance seemed to me to be related to the confusion I felt within me. His overcoat was tattered, some of its edges were soiled with earth, and the shoulders were covered with white hairs. I was much like him: tattered in my soul, shaken, hateful of everything. I wanted to tell him about what I had seen seen at the exhibition of paintings; but instead of that, stories of my mother Sana’ from beyond the tomb came to my tongue. I thought he was disturbed. He remained standing motionless for several minutes and finished drinking his glass of tea, then he turned towards me and returned to his chair.
“For three months . . . you’ve not spoken with your father, and you are his only son!”
I did not think he was asking me a question, so I remained silent.
He said, “I used to visit you when your home was here, I mean at the A’zamiyya Corniche. Now, the distance is too far and quite difficult for me. I become tired when I walk for a long way.”
“If you called me by telephone, I would come and take you in my car.”
“True, true. In your car. You said . . . for three months you have not spoken to your father?”
“Yes. Maybe four.” . . .
“You know, uncle, you know very well that he hates me as he also was . . .”
He raised his hand towards me. It was clearly shaking, and his gesture silenced me.
He whispered: “He is your father, your father.” . . .
“Excuse my insistence on the necessity of taking care of your father, Hashem. My formation, from the beginning and throughout my life, granted the father a great measure of respect, awe . . . and power. Yes, power. I tell you . . . power.”
What was sinking deep down into the depths of a female human being like my mother Sana’, extremely tender, kind, weak, submissive, sympathetic, and on the brink of collapsing that would make her unexpectedly stand facing him four times or more each month, responding to his screaming with louder screams, to his anger with greater and fiercer anger, and to his harsh, offensive words with humiliating silence? Yet after that, when she looked around for me, moving with shaky steps, she would find me – or not find me – hiding in a corner in the house. She would hold me tightly to her slender body; her shaking, her concealed fear, her moist sweat flowing down her skin, and her despair would be passed on to me.
That difficult night . . . O what a night it was! When they began . . . when they both began their screaming at each other in the nearby room, I was frozen in my darkness under my bed cover, afraid to breathe. I wanted to pray to someone in this universe. I wanted to pray with pious fervour, because I knew that I was an innocent small child. Those qualities granted me a special distinction to be heard and to have my prayers answered.
That difficult night of my life, I wanted to pray with absolute humility as they were both screaming at each other at a late hour of the night. I thought that, like every time, I would be safe when the queen came to me (I told her: You . . . you are the queen, my mother Sana’) to embrace me and take me into her lap, so that we would tremble together and shed the same tears together. But she did not come to me that night. The queen did not come to me, and his voice continued to split the night air for a while, then suddenly he uttered his last scream, calling for help and being stung by a great anger. I got up from my bed in fear and rushed to them. I found her lying on the floor with her hair hanging all loose and I saw him screaming over her head, beating his chest, and shouting. It was a very difficult night for me and the queen never talked to me at all afterwards, and at the time I could not even touch her . . .
“. . . You’ve gone. Then the other woman telephoned, may God curse her. They consider you and me guilty. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“Open the door, Father, and let us enter before she gets sick.”
“Damn you and damn sickness a thousand times.”
He spoke as if he feared for my life, while he . . .
He was tackling the big lock.
“He wants me to die soon as an expression of his hatred for his own father, nothing more. There is no other reason. We bring them up, we toil in misery for them, but then after all that we encounter humiliation at the hands of these impure, despicable offspring.”
He pulled out the iron chain from its place and it flew into the air and fell with a noisy thud at his feet.
“I warn you. I don’t want you in my house if things continue to be as they are. Find another place for yourself to live in. This is the last time I talk to you. Remember it now. Remember it well.”
I was shaking as I changed my clothes in the cool, luxurious bedroom. I did not care to turn on the heater and quickly went out to the sitting room, then went down to the kitchen. Aunt Qadriyya was there, shaking too. He did not want to change his wet clothes and threw everything on the floor screaming and cussing. I comforted her, saying that he would take care of his health later on. She was pale and her face was emaciated. I held her hands and kissed her on the forehead and the hands. She quickly withdrew them and embraced me, sobbing. She was always emotionally divided between her brother and me, and I was like a son to her after my mother Sana’ passed away. She wanted to bring the negative and positive poles together without causing a fire or starting a conflict.Translated by Issa J. Boullata
Selected from Khatam al-Raml [Ring of Sand],
Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 1995