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Translated by John Peate
The world circulates around us, not around the bloodstream, but around the dilapidated nation, around cities crumbling day and night. For a third and final spring, swarms of bees buzzed around the acacia flowers. Olive trees budded their promises and myrtle bushes baked their starry blossoms near the park fences in the Daoudi neighbourhood of Mansour district. Manar was living on Al-Tawuus Al-Azraq Street, ten doors down from us. She spent the war in a silk dress decorated with little yellow flowers, death fading in the face of her splendour. Her eyes would never show any fear but then, one day, she came to me trembling: “Hayat, I’ve had a death threat because of these medicines from abroad that I send around the hospitals. You know, to the units that don’t have the basic drugs. The threat’s a pretty final one too: ‘You’re collaborating with the enemy. We’re after your head’.”
“Did you tell anyone you were doing this?”
She was silent. Who had she told? Who had singled her out in all this chaos? She had gone on receiving the medicines from foreign aid sources and sharing them around the outpatient clinics and accident and emergency departments.
She said to me: “Have I done something wrong? The patients are dying and I’m on my own. Some of the staff even steal the drugs and sell them on the street. What have I done wrong, using the drugs to save dozens of lives?”
“Nothing, of course.”
“Well, they can’t see that. They call me a collaborator.”
“Who knows about this? Is anyone watching you?”
“I’ve done this work since the sanctions started. I have always worked with the international charities, so what’s new?”
“Have you seen Sara?”
“That journalist who’s the mistress of one of the top brass. She used to publish so-called poetry under the name Salsabil Al-Rashid, singing the praises of some poet lover of hers. Then she changed her mind and made them paeans to the top brass she’s been having an affair with for two years.”
“What about her?”
“She works for the Red Cross now and wears the hijab and jilbab. I’ve heard she has links with one of the militia groups. She said she had seen you in the Red Crescent offices. I met her yesterday. I went to see my boss to give him the books I had revised for printing. She used to work as his secretary years ago and left the institute because of a scandal. His wife had found out about the two of them.”
Manar fell silent. Then she phoned her brother Rafid, a Life Sciences lecturer at the University of Baghdad.
“Rafid, you’re not the only one who’s been threatened. They’ve contacted me too. Please go home, Mum is on her own.”
Then she turned to me: “I’m getting scared, Hayat, really scared.”
“So stop receiving the drugs, ask for some time off and stay indoors.”
“The patients are dying. It’s premeditated murder. I can’t do it. I’m a doctor. I can’t, it’d be a crime.”
The heavy smell of manhood and the sound of gunfire woke Manar out of unconsciousness. A spiky smell was in the air and she had been dragged out of oblivion to discover that she was completely naked. She was traumatised. Her chest was crushed and bruised, all she felt from it was pain. She was wet, cold and shivering. She was naked, lying on a Tabriz carpet soaked in blood. Her blood smeared its colours, blurring the stars, the flowers, the birds and the strange creatures with gazelles’ bodies but human heads, heads with sorrowful eyes. Their outlines were erased, drenched in a burnt ochre redness. Her naked body seemed even starker white against the blood-drenched carpet. She moved her hand and felt its thick pile. She realised that her fingers were touching the embroidered reliefs of birds’ wings poised for take-off. Between waking and nightmare, she felt as if she were floating, surrounded by the scent of cold night, deep in its blackness and enveloped too in the heavy smell of men’s sweat and semen. A heavy velvet quilt of darkness lay across her face, her chest, her stomach and her legs. There was just a searing splinter of light from the window burning into her neck. She touched her face, which was convulsed in a grimace of pain and shame. She came across a deep cut from her temple to her chin, a clotting trickle of blood within it.
Between bouts of agony and the trauma of blood loss she slept fleetingly but then woke with the return of the pain. The flow of blood between her thighs had taken all spirit from her and left her raving and sobbing. She wanted to go and wee – something which intensified the tearing pain – but was unable to move. Her body was bruised and bleeding, as if a steamroller had passed over her and mashed her flesh into her bones.
Was she dead? The pain, the convulsions in her stomach and the blood flow told her she was not. But what was death if it were not like this? Yes, she was dying – and with no grave, butchered like all those whose bodies one came across on the pavements of Baghdad every night.
She no longer knew the boundary between the finality of death and the smell of men and blood coming from her broken body. The smell was overpowering and nauseating. It reminded her, in fact, of the smell of horses in summer. When she was a girl she had once gone, in Baghdad’s early days of winter, to the Equestrian Club in Mansour to start learning horse riding. There had been nothing to smell then but the fragrance of the eucalyptus trees and the scent of oleander. But when summer came, so too came the stench of horse sweat and piss and the smell of their heavy breath. She would throw up whenever she went to the club, so she had to give it all up. She had loved horses, the very image of animal beauty. They were proud, intelligent creatures, but she could not be near them.
She did not know where nightmare began and reality ended. Things were mixed up in her mind. Then she fell asleep again and began dreaming of a far-off time. She was a child in this dream at a time, however, she couldn’t place. She was lost in a local market, among sellers of oranges, lettuces, palm hearts, truffles, lotus fruits and fish. Her mother had parked near her clinic and gone with her there. It was near Al-Washash, between Mansour and Iskan, in the west of Baghdad. She was looking at a grinning fish with fins of glimmering gold. She was fascinated by this fish, laughing as it was with its red, needle-like teeth. She began to count its teeth, but then discovered that she had lost her mother and so began to cry. A man whose face she couldn’t make out came up to her and took her off to a dark house. He told her that they would play together and that she shouldn’t be scared. He fondled her and she cried. He gave her a sweet, then sucked her fingers and licked her face. He said to her: “I am a cat. Cats like to lick little girls’ faces.” His very smell was hanging in the air in that place. She was scared and sobbed when he raised the hem of her blue dress and put his hand between her thighs. She saw his face transform into a beast’s. His features contorted and his eyes bulged. She screamed and screamed until the man disappeared. Then she found herself facing a black cat which was staring at her aggressively. She cried and said: “I want my mum, I want my mum.” She heard the cat calling to her: “Manar! Manar!” She truly believed that the cat had spoken to her, but had it really or was it her imagination? She didn’t know.
The cat then changed into a woman. The woman touched her hair and her hands and carried her out into a wheat field bordered by thorn bushes. The sunlight was dazzling. The child slept a while among the stalks of wheat which crackled beneath her. She loved their prickliness and their smell, mixed as it was with that of damp soil and powdery clover pollen, like the smell of her mother. The white sky blazed and dazzled her when she opened her eyes. She had slept and slept and the woman had disappeared.
The child could smell baked bread. It overwhelmed her. Everything turned into bread: the field, the sky, her blue dress, everything became a huge, soft, warm flatbread. She loved bread. She craved it and started to chew on her dress. She laughed and laughed. She smelled the scent of her mother too. And then she came out of the dream but could not shake off the memory of the cat.
Conscious once more, there was no smell of bread, just the stench of blood flowing between her thighs. She was back there, floating in a coagulating pool. The room was blood, the ceiling blood; the darkness took on the colour of blood: her own blood. Her hand was bloody too.
Manar had seen them leave her to die in the room. She had pretended to be dead, holding her breath. She had resisted the pain of her wounds, though they were tearing her to pieces. The four of them had raped her in turn. A bullet had entered her arm and exited through the other side. The blood from both wounds was mingling – from between her naked, pale thighs and from the bullet wound in her arm. She did not move and held her breath. She resisted life and death at the same time. If they were to come back, they would surely finish her off. Then again she hoped they would return to staunch her wounds and cover her nakedness. But they had gone.
She hadn’t been able to distinguish between their faces or their boyish voices, the rage and vulgarity of their dialects a mixture of those of the rural midlands. They had smelt of stables and dust. Their palms were rough and their skin like dried-up palm fronds. She had kept her eyes closed and had shaken with fear. She had screamed when two of the men had forced her down onto the carpet and the first had thrown himself on her. He had torn her blouse, bared her breasts, pulled her trousers down and torn her underwear. She had screamed and scratched at his face but he had gagged her with his hand and bitten into her breasts. The blood had flowed, covering her chest. She had screamed but had been unable to hear it. She was dying. She was mumbling and the death rattle was in her throat. Then came a gunshot in the other room. One of them shouted to the others: “I’ve killed him. I’ve sent Dr Rafid Al-Baghdadi to hell, damn him!” All the while she felt a fire burning between her thighs. She was fading, her body was failing, she was dying. Then three shots and a feeble moan from her mother. So they had killed them both in a split second. Then they took turns with her. She no longer knew where she was and what was happening to her. How many of them were there: four or five? She didn’t know because she was losing consciousness. She was losing blood and feeling cold. She was shuddering from cold and terror, in fact, and felt like throwing up. She tried to rally herself. Her body was traumatised, blood gushing from her. So she was to die here and die alone. The blood was streaming from her and she was feeling weaker and weaker. She was choking on her own tears and did not have the strength to move her bloody arm. Her throat was drying out and her tongue lolling to the back of her mouth.
She had heard them smashing down the wooden door, storming through the house and firing bullets. It was very close to sunset and people were busy preparing a meal to break their fasts after a long Ramadan day. She could smell lentil soup, fried onions, grilled kebabs, amber rice, the fragrance of rosewater rice pudding and saffron milk pudding from the neighbours’ houses. She heard her mother howl first as she slumped into the corner of her room. She was prone with horror as she heard her brother: “Take me and leave them. Leave my mother and my sister, damn you, you bastards, you murdering cowards! Leave them and take me. Aren’t you after me? Here I am, take me!”
She heard the echoes of their voices and then she couldn’t hear anything any longer. A terrible silence fell upon her soul. She and Rafid had had death threats. She was to have left for Jordan in a few days’ time and then onward to any country which would give her a visa.
When the killing was done, all those who had come for the purpose went out into the large back garden, reeling in the euphoria of rape and murder. The smell of blood clung to their skin and clothes. They could no longer hear anything, the screams and shouts having subsided. They had prepared to take Rafid with them, as their squad leader had told them to, but changed their minds when their car broke down. They left it at the crossroads of 14th Ramadan Street and Mansour Street, opposite the remnants of a dais erected at one time for the anniversary of the founding of the ruling party. They were four masked men carrying Kalashnikovs and wearing baggy sirwal trousers. One of them had a shirt like the Special Force commandos wore. The other three were carrying the haul of jewelry, and cash in a green purse, in a plastic bag. Two of them sat in the garden on the swing seat, its canvas cushions striped with the red deposited on them by yesterday’s dust storm. The other two sat on the black wrought iron chairs. One was talking on a mobile phone: “Yes, yes, sir, it’s all over, absolutely. We’ve done our duty and sent them to hell . . . Like I told you, sir, the car broke down . . . what’d be the point of abducting them? No one would pay a ransom . . . We killed the three of them . . . Cut their heads off? – No, sir! . . . No, we didn’t chop them up either, we shot them. The atheist died first. His sister resisted at first, then gave in. Dealing with the mother was down to me . . . Yes, yes, sir, we cleansed and purified ourselves. We waited until iftar2. . . No, no, we’ll pray and break the fast here . . . We won’t be able to get back to HQ till nine . . . the streets are too busy during Ramadan.”
Then one of them asked: “Did you check everything out?”
“The girl was beautiful and white. I thought twice about killing her, but after we’d all screwed her she was dead.”
“She was nearly dead when I gagged her. She was a virgin. No one had had her before, and I had her before you lot did.”
“She probably choked when you climbed on her. She was crying.”
“Look, they’re all whores, these women who don’t wear the veil. They mix with men. She wasn’t crying, she was enjoying it. We’ll get rid of all of them, these women doctors and women journalists, these atheist teachers. We’ll track them down wherever they go. This is our greater jihad.”
“Safwan took the mother and shot her. The mother was pretty too. Was she really a doctor?”
“Yeah, and the son was an unbeliever. He taught Darwin at university. A PhD in atheism!”
“Darwin? What’s that?” one of them asked.
“Some atheist who denied men are descended from Adam. And she was the whore who took medicine from the Americans and gave it to the Red Crescent Hospital, to Al-Yarmouk Hospital, to Al-Ma’mun Clinic.”
“Why don’t we burn the house down?”
“No, no, let’s leave everything, we’ve taught the atheists a lesson.”
“Go in the kitchen and make us something. Don’t we have to break the fast when we hear the call to prayer?”
“We have broken the fast with lust and blood.”
“Who said that? We did a good thing. Killing atheists must be worth quite something in the next life.”
“Is their food halal?”
“Course it’s halal, they’re Muslim atheists, don’t make life difficult for us.”
The man searched the kitchen. The mother had made kibbeh Mosul, filled with minced lamb, almonds and currants, as well as roast chicken with garlic, lemon and turmeric. There were pickled cucumbers and some sweet rice with rosewater too. All of this was ready for dinner, ready for the return of the eldest daughter Amal, due back from the clinic at 10 o’clock. There was no bread; the man looked everywhere but found none. “Break our fast without a crumb of bread or a date?” he said to himself. He carried the plates to his colleagues in the garden.
“Take this, this is all there was.”
Two of the men were praying and the third had just finished doing so.
“Not bad for breaking the fast.”
Manar did not regain consciousness until Amal slapped her face, screaming: “Manar! Manar! Manar!” Amal bent over her, kissing her and weeping: “Manar! Manar!”
Amal had come back to find her lying between the bodies of Rafid and her mother. Manar had crawled from her room to where they had left the two bodies. Amal was strong but her sturdy body shook with grief. She moved her mother’s body with little effort: she had been a champion swimmer for years. She had won cups and medals but had given up sport when the sanctions were imposed. She had turned her focus onto her clinic in the working-class A’amel neighbourhood. She had refused to share a clinic with her fiancé Hosam, who was also a doctor, in the Harithiya neighbourhood.
She called her uncles and aunts but no-one could get to Daoudi until morning because of the curfew. They began to prepare the two coffins and called in those who dress the bodies of the dead. They were buried that morning in Sheikh Ma’roof Karkhi Cemetery.
After three days of mourning, Amal told her uncle: “We’re leaving Iraq. There’s no life for us here after today. We’ll stay with you a while till Manar has built up her strength.”
“But where will you go?”
“To any country we can get a visa from. We’ll travel to Amman first. We’ll get travel permits there. We might go to Bulgaria. Hosam’s brother is there and he’ll help us.”
“I’ll come with you to Sofia. I’ll see for myself that you’re all right and then come back.”
“No. You can’t leave Aunt Siham and Maha alone among these pigs. Hosam will come with us. Don’t worry, we’ll get married and travel as man and wife. I promise you, uncle, we’ll travel when Manar is back on her feet. You can help us book the plane tickets and take us to the airport.”
After two months Amal saw the signs of pregnancy in Manar. She approached her uncle Jamil, who was a doctor too.
“She should have an abortion”, Amal said.
“She doesn’t have enough blood, your sister. She’s too young and thin.”
“Leave it to me. I can get the blood she needs from the clinic.”
From Chapter 8 of the novel
Saydat Zahal [Saturn Ladies]
Dar Fadaat, Amman, 200