Urban development has finally become a reality in the Sa’doon neighbourhood of al-Sibaq al-Qadeem. There stood our mansion on the edge of a wilderness facing a wide, unpaved street with the temporary name of Al-Ahwazi. The name actually belonged to the street it intersected with.
On the other side of the street stood large mansions surrounded by lush gardens. Before our house was built, these were the edge of the neighbourhood. My family sacrificed five lambs at the gate of the house the evening we moved in. Five was also the number of its outside doors, and the number of earlier childhood years I and my brothers spent in that house.
Our room was on the second floor. The children’s room – unbelievably large and with beds almost twice our number. Our relatives’ and friends’ children usually used the extra beds. At night, you’d hardly find an empty bed. There was a bookcase, also, and tables and chairs but I rarely spent the day there.
Something mysterious and taxing weighed heavily on me in this room. Something I might have come across in a thick book or just in my own thoughts, but when it was triggered, I’d open the door and storm down the stone stairway to my grandma’s room.
The mansion had the old and the new, but it was the old that always fascinated me. In-built oil heaters and air conditioners in the rooms had less charm than the bronze brazier during winter nights, when it glowed with red embers. The aroma of dried orange peel wafted out as it burned in the fire and we no longer noticed the oppressive smell of burning coal. Coloured hand fans were nicer and less noisy than the electric ones, which we avoided anyway fearing for our fingers or even our lives. The tea brewed over the steaming samovar tested better than that brewed on the electric stove, and bread from the tannoor was incomparably better than that of the kitchen oven. Um Jamil, the baker, used to make tannoor bread for us. She built a mud hut next to our garden fence. We ate the bread she made, especially the small rounds she baked for us kids, even though the heat burned our fingers. The kitchen oven saw action during seasonal holidays and family occasions only.
My grandma’s room was a living monument to the old. In that bare room there was just a kashan carpet and a big wooden crib. I remember the crib very well – perhaps the biggest and most elaborately decorated crib in all of Baghdad. A custom-made crib that could accommodate a breast-feeding mother. My new-born sister nearly disappeared in it between the mattress and the bright silk quilt. My grandma would sit in the corner on the carpet and rock the crib by pulling at the attached string. I’d lay down in front of her and listen to her lullabys: delillol, my child, delillol1.
I liked to stare at my grandma’s face. Its tranquillity induced awe, and the light it radiated looked angelic to me. The adults in the house praised her goodness and infinite dedication to her children, and now to her grandchildren. Her prayers included friend and foe.
When the baby fell asleep, I’d take my grandma’s hand and walk out of the room. She would follow in total loyalty. If it were a summer evening, we would sit on the front door step overlooking the street. The doorstep would still be hot from the day’s burning sun and my behind would feel it. My grandma would soon embark on a tale. Kan ya ma kan . . . Once upon a time . . .
At the centre of our gatherings during cold winter nights were the coal brazier and the stories. We were enchanted by the tales about wizards and male jinn and female demons2, and we used to ask for the story of “The Woman with the Picture” or the one about “Witch Pomegranate Seeds”, and my grandma would tell stories for hours. When the stories were exhausted, they were repeated, but occasionally she would come up with a new one. We kept asking for more, and she kept on narrating. She had little inclination for invention and told stories as she had heard them, and when her memory faltered she recoiled, muttering, “No, no, my God,” and corrected herself. We couldn’t care less for her convictions and scruples; all we wanted was endless storytelling.
My imagination was deeply touched when one day I heard her mention the word “Tantal”. Images of all shapes floated in my mind and inspired in me impulses of all kinds – pleasure, awe, curiosity.
Tantal3 was not a myth but a reality that the entire town perceived. Neither was he the jinn of the stories who always brought trouble. Tantal was fun, and with that fun came wisdom of an unusual depth.
“Tantal likes to fool around with people,” my grandma said in her quiet, engaged manner. “He does not hurt really, he just likes practical jokes. He appears in all sorts of forms, now a cat or a lamb, now a piece of thread. His jokes are funny.”
“You’ve seen him?” I interrupted her.
“No. I won’t lie to you and say I have seen him, but your uncle has. Not just your uncle – a lot of people say they have.”
Next to our room on the second floor was my uncle’s. He lived there with his wife and three children. I left my grandma in a hurry and ran upstairs, pushing open the door to my uncle’s room and going in. Before he got married and had kids he was fond of me, but I understood when his mind shifted to his family after the marriage. He liked to talk and he still liked me nonetheless. One needed to find him in a good mood, preferably not when his losses at the horse races had upset him.
He was having his dinner, but I longed to hear about his many adventures with the jinn. Some were pleasant, others horrifying; it was well known that he was bedridden for three months because of one of those adventures. That one I heard more than once.
“It was night time!” His voice quivered as it always did when he was telling the tale. “I was with a Muslim soldier, on guard in a fruit orchard. What an orchard it was -– endless! After a while, we heard the rattling of shackles, then a man as tall as a palm tree sprang in front of us. His legs were shackled but he kept coming toward us. ‘Stop!’ we shouted, but he kept advancing. ‘Stop or we’ll shoot’ we said, but we were simply wasting our breath. We panicked – really panicked. The Muslim with me whispered: ‘Haroun, help me – I’ve shit my pants.’
“The shackled giant was still coming towards us. We shot at him, but nothing happened. The bullets hit his chest but he kept walking till he towered over us. What happened next I did not know. I found myself home, and I stayed in bed three full months.”
My uncle’s adventures with jinn were countless. They liked to fool around with him. Not only them, but their ravishing daughters, too. On the way home from his grocery store one midnight he had an encounter with one of them. Luckily, he was with a colleague. They saw a beautiful blonde sitting at the doorstep to the celebrated Khulani mosque4, combing her long hair. If my uncle had a soft spot for women, that spot grew into a yawning gap when he saw the lonely midnight blonde at the mosque door. A gap that kept widening as the two men came closer to her. My naïve uncle wanted to flirt with her, but his partner warned him.
“It is a strange, right? Why would a woman of such stunning beauty sit here at such an hour. It’s the dead of night.”
They walked past the woman, still overwhelmed by the strangeness of the situation. They hadn’t walked far when my uncle nearly dropped dead.
“She’s calling my name,” he said. “How does she know me?”
“I warned you, didn’t I?” his frightened partner said. He wouldn’t let him turn around. “If you look back, we’re doomed,” he told him.
Then the ravishing woman’s voice called the partner’s name. My uncle had no doubt then, but was torn between fear and curiosity. Soon after, their backs were bombarded with stones. Scared, they took each other by the hand and ran as fast as they could. Indeed, he was lucky that time to have had his partner by his side.
I crept closer to my uncle till I nearly disappeared into his clothes, my eyes glued to his mouth. The moments between one morsel and the next seemed like hours.
As soon as he had swallowed his last mouthful, I asked him: “Uncle, is it true you saw a Tantal?”
Perhaps he had been losing more money at the races because he gave me a nasty look. When he loses all his money, he usually walks home – an hour and a half trip. I was too curious to allow for discomforts of any nature, not even his impassioned appeal of “Will you leave me alone, for God’s sake?” I begged him and perhaps the tears in my eyes overcame the losses at the races and the day’s hard work. What an impulsive man he was!
The rituals of finishing the meal intensified my curiosity. “My God,” I secretly prayed, “extend his hour of peace until he tells the story of seeing the Tantal.”
“Come on, Uncle,” I pleaded.
“Who set you on me this time? he resisted. He went to wash his hands and mouth, moving about warily. I kept looking at my uncle and wondering at the meeting in him of two opposites. The quiet, peaceful and gentle person, and the explosive and angry beast. Life taught me, by and by, that opposites have harmony of their own. I had a feeling that behind all his resistance was an urge to boast about his adventures – an urge to tell. The frustrations of losing at the races were things that came and went. Tantal was something else. Tantal was his thing. Others tell stories about Tantal, but they fade in comparison to those of the one person who had actually seen him. And when he spoke about Tantal, he did so with passion, as if he were reliving his experiences.
Yes, he saw Tantal more than once.
Once, he held him in his hands. He came to him at the barracks as an old dwarf wearing Bedouin clothes, and gestured to him that he was hungry. My uncle gave him a container of food which he devoured instantly. He wanted more and my uncle handed him a second and a third and a fourth. My uncle became suspicious and asked him who he was. He wouldn’t say. My uncle then picked him up and tossed him away. He vanished into thin air.
And Tantal appeared to him as a black cat. It approached him at the house door and rubbed itself against his legs. It was useless to try and get rid of it. When he knocked at the door, his hands felt they were knocking at a wall. He stepped back and looked, and the door was there where it was. He approached the door again and knocked, and again he was knocking on a wall. His familiarity with such situations came to his aid. He pulled out his pocket knife and invoked the name of God, and lunged at the wall. The knife landed on the door and made a deep mark. He became used to Tantal’s practical jokes and knew that their ordeal usually left only a passing memory. “Dreams,” he would say, “dreams that you remember, and that’s all.” I did not understand that and my mind remained possessed by burning images and illusions that blended reality and dream.
I became obsessed with seeing Tantal, an obsession that had its share of fear. I also started to become reclusive, and somehow lost interest in the tales of lesser jinn. What took hold of my imagination was the impossible. But why would seeing Tantal count as impossible?
“By God, by God, I saw it with these two eyes,” my uncle asserted, and my uncle was an undisputable fact. Why would Tantal appear to some and not to others?
In my room, I started to spend hours behind a closed door. One day, I opened the glass door of the bookcase and picked up, with trembling hand, a book illustrated with pictures of mythical creatures. It was a book about Greek mythology. I went through it and lingered at the picture of a strange creature; lingered long enough for the creature to take hold of my imagination and to start to come to life. The snakes crowning the old man’s head began to move. They all stared at me and stuck out their tongues. I had to close the book before they flattened me with their venom. Afterwards, even ordinary creatures, frozen in their ordinary places, scared me. I felt them creeping up my forearm, and they filled my insides with maddening images. I kept wondering what these mythological creatures had in common with Tantal, and when no gratifying answer was there, I sought solace in the outside world.
And in forgetfulness. The nastiest of all human afflictions – forgetfulness. But it helps us live. Lost in the trivia of living and survival, I forgot Tantal. School and the pursuit of pleasure for the following three years buried my burning desire to see Tantal until one day when I was sitting in the courtyard overlooking the mansion garden watching fibres flying from the tool of the cotton carder. Nearby, my uncle’s wife sat watching and talking to him. An existence that had shrunk because of the dust and the flying cotton and the rhythmic sounds of the carding. Soon enough, that small world was pierced and nearly swallowed into an overpowering force.
The carder had put his pad away and started brushing cotton fibres from his face. He carried on the conversation he was having with my uncle’s wife, the beginning of which I missed with all the beating he was doing: “I’m telling you, there are things in this world that make the mind boggle. Those who have not seen Tantal won’t believe in him. But we all heard about Tantal, and I saw him with these two eyes. Jumps at you when he likes, you know, that bag of mischief. Give you the smooth side of the rug only to pull it from under your feet. Like everything else in this world. Sometimes he does things as if a human being is nothing to him. I’d kill him if I could. He wants to have fun, of course, but why on my behalf? Why would he make me a laughing stock?
“Once I was riding a donkey, causing no offence, going somewhere, but half way there the donkey just stopped. ‘Move, you senseless beast, move!’ I said, but it was rooted to the spot. Then its head started to drop down, and I had to get down and see what was going on. Its black thing was erect and getting longer by the second. So long it touched the ground. “You shameless thing, enough!” I said, but it was useless to talk to it. That thing was like a black snake getting longer and longer and creeping along the ground. Two metres, three, four metres, and it came after me. Nearly touched me. The fucker was after me to shag me, I tell you. Then I understood what was going on. People stopped to look, and some were scared away. Then the crowd started laughing. ‘You idiot, how come you’re riding this donkey,’ they called out. I told them I thought it had no owner and I needed the ride. ‘You good-for-nothing,’ they said, ‘you wanted to ride it and it almost rode you.’ I tell you, I let the donkey go, and fled. I had no idea where the donkey ended up. They said that after I left, the donkey just disappeared – melted away like a lump of salt. They looked everywhere. That was Tantal, of course. How did I miss that?”5
My uncle’s wife was reeling with laughter. Guileless and passionate, she fell for it, and he was all eyes. A young, beautiful woman to whom he had just narrated a salacious, bawdy tale.
I was a child nearly turned into a man, a jealous man who wanted to silence the vulgar carder and put an end to his dirty oggling. But I did nothing – I was engulfed by a torrent of emotions and my determination became ever more elusive. It made little difference whether he was describing what had really happened to him, or was simply making it up. The important thing was that Tantal had come back, and the years in between had made me more reflective and appreciative of good stories. Tantal. An elusive mischief with a thousand shapes. A truth and a lie, and the rash impulse to see him added my head to a thousand more. “I have to see it,” I told myself.
But once again, life and forgetfulness put a damper on that impetuous urge.
Israel, the early 1950s
The age of speed has touched everything. Keeping up with change was becoming more daunting. One day we opened our eyes and the world had changed; we found ourselves in a new world. Al-Sibaq al-Qadeem suburb had vanished, and instead there were tents replacing uprooted trees. A faded, grey tent had replaced our huge mansion. The first night, I slept on the floor of the tent, feverishly tossing and turning and ceaselessly stung by nightmares and thorns. Big reddish ants feasted on my body as well. Before that night was over, I felt I had become an old man. I supposed that was what they meant by the leap. My grandma lay down in one corner of the tent, her face still glowing although its light was now dimmed by patient silence. She had never complained before, and her travails could never bring her to her knees. Stunned and disoriented, I kept to another corner of the tent and wept.
“Come here, ibdalak,”6 she said once, and hugged me. “Come, I’ll tell you a story.”
I resisted and freed myself from her embrace. Then I laughed cynically because I had grown up – become old indeed – and stories of the jinn could no longer entertain me. It seemed only yesterday when I was reading the biographies of world celebrities, and wanted to be like Madame Curie, or perhaps greater than her after discovering the elixir of life. And I wanted to go to the Sorbonne where Madame Curie went. Now at age twelve, I had become old, and the entire world was ageing with me.
The tents scattered in the wilderness looked like spooky tombstones. In fact, the smell of death was all over the place; the elixir of life was nowhere to be found. Another cynical laugh brought the realization that what we needed was water. Water itself had become that elixir and the force behind demonstrations in the camp. I joined those who shouted, “Water! Water!” The accursed leap of the early 1950s devoured people, including my father, and its aftermath hit children as well. The demonstrations were also for food and work.
“It is not our fault,” one of those in power once wrote. “We are trying everything we can. The problem is that you came from poor, backward countries still living in the dark ages.”
That somehow brought life back in the big mansion, and Madame Curie and the elixir of life – all fell before the winds sweeping through the fragile tents. A nameless feeling drowned me until forgetfulness once more made survival possible for those in the camp. We forgot the old life and started to get used to the new, cruel routine. We stopped demonstrating and stopped asking for water, that new elixir of life.
In the camp, shops started to appear, built from bits of wood and tin, and when more of them sprang up we had something like a village market. Behind the market, and a little beyond the creek – a creek from which the bodies of dead children were collected one day – was the tent in which my uncle and his six children lived. I used to cut through the muddy space between us, and cross the crumbling wooden bridge to reach my uncle’s tent. I used to think, when I entered the tent, that my uncle was probably the sole beneficiary of that disastrous leap – he had a separate home. A decaying tent, but a home, nonetheless.
Like most of the camp residents, my uncle was not working. He rarely came home before midnight, and I sometimes had to go to the camp café, pull him away from his playmates, and bring him home to his wife and children.
“Your hair is white,” I used to tell him. “Is it not time to give up gambling?”
“It’s just to pass the time. Do you think I place bets?” he retorted.
“You haven’t forgotten the races, have you?”
I’d joke with him. “You used to walk all the way home.”
“There are no races here.”
“There’s a café instead.”
“Do I owe anybody anything?” he would reply angrily, foaming at the mouth. “Nobody can tell me what to do.”
“OK, let’s move on,” I’d say, and sometimes he would say that himself after a short pause.
Sometimes, I would find him in a tent in the evenings.
“How come you’re here?” I’d ask. “No café gambling tonight?”
“I’m not staying late any more. I’m not that crazy to risk my life.”
“Why, what happened?” I asked.
“Do you mean you don’t know. Tantal has moved from Baghdad and is just across from here. Just after the bridge when you come from the market.”
“What?” I said, laughing. “This Tantal must like you so much that he had to follow you. Left Baghdad and found no other place but across from you.”
“I’m telling you,” he shouted, “you don’t believe me? A lot of people have seen him. Abu Rahma, for instance, who sells vegetables at the market, saw a black dog planted right in front of him as he was crossing the bridge. The dog began to grow bigger and bigger till it was the size of an elephant. Now go and look at Abu Rahma – he nearly died, the poor thing. Abu Rahma, and many others, I tell you.”
“Are you afraid of Tantal now? You two are friends. You’ve met him a thousand times, and even touched him with your own hands.”
“What are you talking about,” he cut me short. “This is not Baghdad. Who has the courage any more? Or the strength? Such stories are scary now. We can barely stand up, and if we see things like that now, we’ll be finished.”
In no time, the entire camp was talking about Tantal, and many stated they had seen him near the bridge next to my uncle’s tent. I started to go to the tent at night, and to leave late hoping to see Tantal. When I approached the bridge, my heart would start pounding, and real fear would overwhelm me.
That misguided urge of mine remained unsatisfied. I often thought of my uncle’s words that this was not Baghdad and that people had lost all courage, and realised some hidden wisdom was there. More experience only bore witness to this wisdom, and prompted me to get to the heart of it. The urge to see Tantal, together with the fear and cowardice that came with it, started competing with each other – the latter always seeming to have the edge. The heart of that wisdom, though, remained intact – a mystery just like Tantal.
Israel . . . 1970
I returned to that camp after spending long years outside Israel, still looking for myself. I was a man with thirty solid years of living behind him, which now seemed just worthless memories. And six countries which seemed to be different in everything, yet very much the same. And five romantic adventures – five women I loved and who loved me. Five attempts and five failures and five scars, and all that remained was bitter taste of boredom.
No job was left untried – thirteen all told, the last of which was as a porter at a huge grocery warehouse in Tehran. The back was bent, but so was the face and the spirit, and all for a trashy meal at the end of the day. Eventually, I decided to go back to the camp, still searching for meaning in my life.
The camp had changed, and those in charge must have counted the change as improvement. The tents became boxes made of wood, then boxes of stone, and in each box two rooms. The camp had become a humble but horrific suburb. The tents were gone, true, but the ugliness remained in the semblance of modernization that replaced them. I was still searching for myself and my life, but when I entered our cubicle, I lost all hope. My uncle was one of those to welcome me. His cubicle was next to ours.
“You came back with the booty, huh?” he said, his sarcasm overshadowing his humour.
“And you? What have you achieved? Got younger?” I challenged him.
“Well, what can we do?” He sounded defeated and apologetic.” The young grow up, and the old yet older, and the very old die. This is how it has been since the start.”
“So, what’s the purpose of life?”
“What? You want to change the world?” he protested.
I was silent. I had been glum to start with; now all attempts to have a normal conversation were futile. Then I remembered Tantal.
“What happened to Tantal?” I asked him. “Is he still there at the bridge, or has he followed you here?”
He grew excited for a moment, but did not seem to like my sarcastic tone.
“You still don’t believe in him, do you?” he said.
“A school has been built there and no one can go past it at night. Rahmeen, tell him what you saw the other night.”
Rahmeen was his youngest, born in the camp. When I left he had been a toddler.
“A friend of mine and I were walking by the school one night and we saw someone walking in our direction. He grew taller with every step till he became as tall as the electricity pole, maybe taller. Then he reached us, he was just a little boy. Nothing.”
Rahmeen stopped, and as if embarrassed by what he had just said, continued: “Maybe because it was dark and foggy the street light made things look different and he looked tall. What are we talking about? There is no Tantal!”
“Why not?” I protested. “He must exist, and if so many have seen him, I must, too.” I sounded convinced and my childish assertions drew some incredulous looks from those
• • • •
Nightfall was approaching as I ploughed aimlessly through the crowded streets of the city. Lack of interest was becoming second nature to me, and I walked quietly, hopelessly. Inside my head, a different kind of existence was in perpetual flux. I still looked at the thirty years of my past life as a handful of ashes. Was that life? And where was that woman who wanted me to see her naked through her window? I wrote to her once, “You have an affliction – get down, where life is.” Now both woman and life are disappearing. And the other woman who kept to herself in her room and danced. Danced every day as I looked on from my room. Perhaps she danced for me, too. Nonsense. Nonsense was the outcome of everything else in life. My uncle had said it – the routine of life since that start – and he was a friend of the jinn, he knew. Now life had made him afraid of the jinn – broken him and left him for dead. What was really worthwhile were the accidental insights as life ran away through one’s fingers.
At a crossroads I stopped – alone, jobless, and indifferent. I crossed a street and wondered why people were hurrying. Where to? When I got to the sea front, I slumped into a chair at a café with bright, colourful lights. The night before I was at another café with a friend, and when the waiter asked me what I wanted to drink, I said: “Elixir of life.” Then ordered a cold drink.
“You wanted to discover that elixir,” my friend said.
“I was a fool,” I said. “It was a dumb human slip.”
“But I believe in science,” my friend interjected.
“I believe in Tantal,” I answered.
My friend wouldn’t listen to such talk. When the waiter brought the drink, I didn’t like it.
“It’s my fault,” I told him. “I’m feeling sick. The drink is fine.” The waiter did not seem to believe me.
“Tantal is our only certainty,” I told my friend. “Everything else is an illusion.”
“You haven’t ever seen Tantal, and you know it.”
“Perhaps I’ll never see him, but I started to feel he has become part of my life.”
“You seem touched by . . .”
The sea breeze refreshed me, and surroundings restored my sense of being – the sunset, a child building sand castles, the tempting heart and sea. I took off my clothes and walked to the water, and soon felt lost inside a giant being. The sense of a challenge drew me away from the shore and towards the setting sun.
“Where am I heading?”
“To deep water,” the waves answered.
The next wave carried me away, and I felt I was shrinking. That was a moment where combating existence became real. The sea had powerful arms, a gaping mouth and empty bowels.
I looked back at the coastline, frightened. I wasn’t quite up to the challenge and wanted to flee. The sea kept pulling me in the other direction, towards the deep waters.
“Help!” I cried and swam furiously back towards the coast.
“Don’t be scared!” I heard a clear, shrill voice coming from the distant horizon that was coloured by the sinking sun. “Take my hand,” it urged.
I looked for the hand, and saw it – a giant hand that came from the direction of the deep waters. I tried to reach for it and heard the urging voice again: “Come on, come closer and take my hand.” I followed the hand towards the limitless monster. The hand beckoned, and I followed. The gap between us seemed to widen and the hand seemed to flee, but the voice still urged me to come closer.
I saw his face in the dying light – a swarthy giant with a big smile.
“You scoundrel! You’re pulling my leg!”
The giant laughed.
“Who are you?” I asked, enraged.
The giant disappeared. I was tired and scared and swam frantically towards the coastline. An inconsequential feather that the sea was toying with, but still capable of thinking and of remembering.
“It’s Tantal . . . I saw Tantal,” I shouted with all the strength I had.
A weak echo came back, “It’s Tantal . . . I saw Tantal.”
“Tantal” is translated from the author’s short story collection Ana wa Ha’ula’ wa al-Fisam [Me, Them and Schizophrenia], Tel Aviv, 1978.
1 “Delillol” is the opening word of a common lullaby in Iraq. Little is known of its origin or meaning.
2 “Daewat” of the original is translated as male jinn and “Sa’ali as female demons. Naqqash footnoted “daewat” as Iraqi folklore creatures close in appearance to a human being, but a lot more hairy. They sleep with eyes wide open, and close their eyes when awake. If struck once with a sword they die, yet another strike brings them back to life.
3 Tantal, in Iraqi folklore, is a creature of massive height and playful temperament.
4 A large mosque in Baghdad
5 The speech is written in the dialect of Baghdadi Muslims. Naqqash provides a standard Arabic rendering in the margins.
6 In Iraq Jewish dialect, ibdalak means to offer the self in sacrifice for the other.Translated by Shakir Mustafa