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The Book of Collateral Damage
Translated by the author
It was my last day in Baghdad. We had spent two weeks filming interviews and driving around the city every day from seven in the morning until sunset. We had agreed that the last day would be free for the crew so that each of us would do whatever he or she wanted and get to know the city. I, however, who knew the city very well, decided to spend my last day in its old streets and to roam in al-Mutanabbi Street looking for some books. This was my first time on my own in Baghdad since our arrival. Our filming schedule was brutal and we had decided to stay at a hotel in al-Karrada instead of the family house so as not to attract thieves to our equipment and so we could more easily charge our batteries every day since one could get no more than a few hours of electricity a day at best.
It was my first time in my childhood hometown since I left it back in June of 1991 after the Gulf War. I wanted to be alone with Baghdad to sift through my feelings and impressions after two busy weeks during which I had had no time to gaze into the mirror of my soul. I went to al-Shahbandar Café which is usually crowded with literati on Fridays. I searched for some of the familiar faces I had met a week before at the Union of Writers. There had been a poetry reading, which was held in the morning because of the curfew imposed by the occupation. I saw Salah al-Qasab, the famous theatre director, sitting in a corner surrounded by a camera crew, and I heard some French words flying around. I couldn’t find a place to sit and the heat was sweltering inside so I decided to walk through al-Mutanabbi Street.
Booksellers had spread out their books on the sidewalks. The wind whistled as it leafed through some of the books, quickly turning over pages. There was no recognizable order for the way books were displayed, which promised pleasant surprises for those who had enough patience and curiosity. I heard the noon call to prayer from a nearby mosque and men started to make their way to it. Some of the shop owners were closing their shops and joining the pilgrimage. Successive wars and barbaric sanctions had done a lot to bridge the gap between most people and a god of eternal mercy. They accentuated the eloquence of his promises of a rosy future always somewhere ahead of this dark present. Even my grandmother had quadrupled the number of crosses she hung in every room except the bathroom and the statues of the Virgin Mary to whom she prayed every day to rid Iraq of its nightmares. The house resembled a mini museum. When I teased her about it she told me our relatives who’d fled the country in previous years had left them with her. “You all left and I stayed here alone facing these walls.”
She was upset that I had decided to go to al-Mutanabbi Street on my last day instead of spending the time with her and savoring one of her famous dishes. “You love books more than me!” I promised her I would stop by in the afternoon to have tea and say goodbye.
I noticed a significant number of Shi’ite theology books which could never have been sold in public before, especially ones by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr who was executed by Saddam in 1980. The bookshop at the beginning of the street showcased glossy posters of Shi’ite clerics with their long beards and black turbans. Lying right next to them were equally glossy magazines whose covers were crowded with actresses and singers, both Arab and foreign. I thought that they could use some of the cloth in those turbans to cover some of their flesh and strike a balance between the hidden and the exposed. There were tens of newspapers. The chaos brought about by the occupation had allowed anyone with capital to start a newspaper to trumpet his ideology. I saw Muhsin, the young man I had interviewed two days before. He was a member of the Workers’ Communist Party. He was arguing passionately with a passer-by. He hailed from al-Thawra and had impressed me with his command and mastery of Marxist literature and his optimism about Iraq’s secular future despite the symptoms of sectarianism and anti-secularism already floating on the surface and permeating political discourse. He raised his right hand, which was protecting his forehead from the sun, to wave and smiled. He had invited me to visit their temporary headquarters in a bank at the beginning of al-Rashid Street, but I apologized because we had so much more to film and had committed to interviews. I felt some guilt as I waved back and smiled. He laid his hand on his chest in return and then raised it again to his forehead and continued his argument.
I browsed the titles in one section: a book on Veterinary Medicine. French without a Tutor, Hamlet (translated by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra), Al-Rusafi’s Complete Poems, Shakespeare and Solitary Man. I saw an old copy of the third volume of al-Jawahiri’s poems, published by al-Rabita in 1953. I reached to take a look. The cover was light green with torn edges and yellowish paper. “What You Please” was the first poem. “Do what you please/It’s an opportunity to seize/To rule/To raise and bring down/To trade necks/To give and withhold.” Were I not an atheist and a nihilist, I would have thought it was a sign of some sort and could have been written about what is taking place right now. The seller sat on the sidewalk on a white plastic chair reading al-Zaman newspaper. Someone had told me that it was the most popular daily. Its first page announced the formation of the Governing Council by the occupation. He looked as if he was in his early forties, medium height with black hair and a thick beard with some white hairs. He wore a light blue shirt, jeans and slippers. I asked him what the price was. He lowered the newspaper and sized me up with sharp hazel eyes. He asked me to show him the cover and said: “40,000.”
“OK, I’ll take it.”
I didn’t want to haggle, because the book was worth more. I looked some more and found Saadi Yousef’s Collected Poems 1952-1977 published by al-Adib with a red cover and in excellent condition. I didn’t inquire how much it was and just put it on the side next to al-Jawahiri. I noticed he was eyeing me as he turned the pages of the newspaper. Suddenly he asked with a hint of hostility: “Looks like you’re one of them returnees. When did you leave?”
“Welcome back! It’s about time” (sarcastically).
“Where do you live?”
“Good for you. You guys did very well.”
He shook his head, so I said: “Look, I’m not here to rule you and I haven’t received money from anyone. I’m just here to film a documentary about the situation. That’s all.”
He was taken aback by my sharp response, and retreated: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . you know we see all kinds of people these days.”
He showed me the newspaper and pointed to the front page: “Look at these bozos of the Governing Council. Half of them have been abroad for twenty or thirty years and now they want to come and rule us.”
“I understand, but I have nothing to do with them.”
“Are you a director?”
“No, I’m a writer, but am here with a crew.”
“Which satellite channel?”
“We are independent.”
“Pleased to meet you. What is your name?”
He extended his hand: “I’m Nadim. If you’d like to look at more books, I have some really good ones at the warehouse. Lots of al-Jawahiri and more poetry collections.”
“That would be great. Is the warehouse far?”
“No, just across the street. Please come.”
He got up from his chair, left the newspaper on it and asked his neighbour to keep an eye on his books and asked me to follow. We crossed the street, and he put his right hand in his pant pocket, taking out a key chain. We stood in front of an old wooden door, which he opened. We walked through to a dark hallway with stairs at the end. I thought we were going to climb the stairs, but he turned to the right and there was another wooden door painted green. It had an extra padlock, which he opened before putting another key in, and opening the door. We went in and he pulled out a plastic chair like the one he had been sitting on in the street and asked me to sit down. He pulled a cord dangling from the ceiling, expecting to turn on a ceiling light, but nothing happened. He tried again to no avail.
“No electricity! Please have a seat.”
I sat down. The place was dark and the only light found its way through a window to the right that was covered by a curtain whose color had once been deep blue, from which the sun had sucked for years much of its blueness leaving it very pale. He drew back the curtain and the Baghdad sun rushed in exposing the dust particles flying around. The walls were covered with shelves that were full of books up to the ceiling. There were piles of newspapers here and there on the floor. The left corner of the room had a small bed with a thin mattress and crumpled sheets. Next to it was a small table and on it a radio and a candle on a plate. To the left of the bed was a medium-size cupboard with yet another pile of newspapers on top. A half-open door led to a bathroom.
He interrupted my exploratory tour saying he slept here at times because it was too dangerous to go home after dark. He had moved some of the newspapers and books from another chair and stood on it to reach some of the high shelves.
“This here is all al-Jawahiri and Iraqi poetry. I have lots.”
He handed me a few books, blowing away the dust from them. I stood up and went toward him to take them. They were the remaining volumes of al-Jawahiri’s collected poems.
“Do you like al-Bayyati?” he asked.
“Not much. What do you have of his?”
I told him I was mainly interested in poetry, but also looking for any rare or first editions. I noticed that one of the lower shelves was full of relatively organized files with newspaper clippings and pieces of papers sticking their heads out. There were also notebooks. I was curious and asked about them.
“Personal papers. A project.”
“A documentary project about the war.”
“Yeah, you can say that, but it’s different. It’s a long story.”
“I like long stories. Maybe we can interview you about it?”
He laughed. “You want to make me famous?”
“Nah, I’m still at the beginning and it’s going to take a long time. How long are you staying here?”
“Alas, I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“And what do you do in New York?”
“I teach at a university.”
“What’s your subject?”
“Ah, makes sense.”
He took one of the files out and started to leaf through it with his right hand. There were handwritten notes on tiny pieces of paper and newspaper clippings.
“This is a lifetime project. An archive of collateral damage, but not in the traditional sense. It’s about all the forgotten damage or what is never even mentioned. Not just civilians. Animals, plants, and even objects. All that has been destroyed, day by day, hour by hour. This file here is for the first minute, and it’s still incomplete.”
“You mean this last war, of course?”
“And what kind of sources do you use?”
“Everything. Newspapers. Magazines. Oral history. Personal observations and even imagination if need be.”
“That’s a huge project!”
“Yes, but it’s important and someone has to do it. Anyway, please forgive me, but I have to get back to the books.”
“No, of course, I appreciate your help.”
He took the books and put them in a plastic bag. I asked him how much. He said: “We’ll consider it a gift.” But I insisted. He timidly said: “A hundred dollars.” I expressed my admiration of his project as we left the warehouse and offered to help. I wrote my mailing and email addresses in New York on a piece of paper. He said he didn’t use email and did not know how it works, but that he would ask. I apologized for my presumptuousness as I remembered that email had been banned and was not available during Saddam’s time. He offered to help me acquire any books I needed if I gave him an idea of what I wanted. He asked me where we were staying and I told him “Ishtar” in al-Karrada. We shook hands and he wished me a safe trip saying: “Be careful. There are lots of gangs and thieves on the desert road to Jordan.”
I continued browsing in al-Mutanabbi Street and bought a few more books including an old edition of a Jurji Zaydan novel and a collection by Husayn Mardan. I was supposed to meet the Palestinian driver we hired in Amman at the far end of the street to take me home to say goodbye to my grandmother and have tea with her and the neighbors. And when I returned to the hotel right before the curfew, the receptionist told me someone had left a message and a package: “A man who said he met you in al-Mutanabbi Street. He waited here for an hour, but had to leave to avoid getting caught by the curfew.” He handed me a brown envelope. I opened it right there and found a copy of Hello Insomnia by al-Jawahiri with a small envelope tucked inside, and another bigger one. I opened the small envelope, which contained a note, and read:
I hope you had a fruitful day in your Baghdad. I apologize for intruding, but I have thought much about the beautiful coincidence of our paths crossing and decided to take you up on your offer to help. And so, encouraged by your generosity and kindness, I’m enclosing the first chapter of my project for you to read. I hope you like it. You might be surprised, but despite my profession, I’m not well connected when it comes to publishing and I have no knowledge of the way it is done abroad. If you like the manuscript, perhaps you could translate some excerpts into English. I would be indebted if you were to help me to publish it. Please accept the al-Jawahiri booklet as a small token of my appreciation and friendship. I will try to get an email account to stay in touch and correspond. I thank you again in advance and apologize for my initial rudeness.
Respectfully and cordially,
Baghdad, July 13, 2003
Excerpted from a novel in progress