Receive Our Newsletter
For news of readings, events and new titles.
Translated by Issa J Boullata
Chapter Two from the novel
Mustafa al-Fili disappeared before the end of Desert Storm. He stayed at home, and no one saw him during the whole of the time we listened to news of the uprisings of the South and the North, and the adventure of the Imredi market and its aftermath.
He was a student at the College of Pharmacy when I was in my last year at preparatory school. His disappearance did not greatly concern me, until he suddenly reappeared on a summer’s evening in the middle of this year.
He came in to see me, unconcerned by the possibility that I could be a secret government agent, and asked me about my health. After that, he visited me every evening. In his latest visit, he abandoned talking about my spine and my withered legs, and spoke about the devil, as though he had been secretly listening in to all my night-time hallucinations. He said that since his first visit he had been overcome by a deep anxiety and that, although he did not want to frighten me, he had to tell me that he always saw the devil sitting at my feet, massaging them with his thick, black hands.
He looked at me in a strange, loving way and then said: “Your soul is strong but the tax on that is exorbitant.”
I believed Mustafa, of course, and decided to ignore my withered legs, the smell of urine that constantly hung about me, and my unkempt hair that had not seen a barber for a month.
His words continued to multiply in my head like strange bacteria. I did not resist the feeling of false calm but let his words have their effect. However, the important question remained without answer: Was Mustafa a messenger from God or the Devil?
* * *
All this may not have been something that really happened. When the men of the Party raided the houses in the area, looking for young men with black beards, I happened to be crouching inside Bunniyya’s clay bread oven that was covered with dry palm branches and leaves. Bunniyya stepped in front of the oven, with the matchbox in her hand, as though she actually intended to light it to make bread.
Comrade Dakhil and his friends in their olive-coloured uniforms descended on us from our roof, coming over the neighbouring roofs. They wandered about the house and went into all the rooms. As evidence, they presented comrade Dakhil with the rosaries they found and small prayer-disks of sacred earth used in prostration, and then they entered the kitchen. One of them lingered in the toilet, and comrade Dakhil waited impatiently for him to learn what he had found there, until he heard his friend’s short and intermittent farts and turned his face away in disgust. At that very moment, Bunniyya sprinkled black petrol onto the dry palm leaves protruding from the mouth of the oven, then threw on a burning twig in order to completely remove all suspicion of the possibility of someone using the oven as a hiding place.
I heard the noise of the crackling fire as it moved through the dry leaves. But it remained far away from my body, which was well hidden by the coverings that Bunniyya had haphazardly thrown over me and that I had not contemplated for such use..
She pretended to be occupied with kneading the dough and rolled it into ball-shaped pieces. She then arranged these on a tray near the oven, and ignored everybody as she worked busily.
In usual circumstances, such strange conduct would be enough to raise suspicion, but comrade Dakhil was not looking for me in particular. He was looking for every young man with a black beard in Sector 38. The targets were multiple and extensive, but so far he had not caught anyone this hot day, and the time remaining was not sufficient to allow him to engage in a microscopic search for a hidden enemy, who might well be found in one of the neighbouring houses.
* * *
Hameed became the most famous drunkard in the area. He often quarrelled with the guards who roamed about at night in the streets and alleys, blowing their disturbing whistles in the face of spectres. He became hostile and tolerated nothing. The guards who knew him and knew their old friend Yarallah, used to pick him up, putting up with his various curses. They would knock on the door and hand him over to sick Yarallah or to Bunniyya, like a criminal being committed to his cell.
I became more hopeless and silent, for neither the angels nor the devils paid any attention to me. There was no one but Bunniyya, and I was not qualified to place her in either of the two groups, because I knew she complained of serving the cripple, who was me. Hameed used to talk to me when he was drunk, without waiting for me to respond and without caring whether I listened or not. He used to chatter like a radio that was abruptly turned on. He would rant for several minutes, sometimes more and sometimes less, and then he would unexpectedly fall silent, get up and go to his room, which later became mine.
One evening, I was lying on my bed as usual, reading a book, when there was a knock on the door and some strange men handed Hameed over to Bunniyya, demanding in a threatening tone that he should desist from disturbing the people. Blood spattered his mouth and nose, and his torn shirt was heavily smeared with vomit. He was in a pitiful state. What happened that night was the beginning of a nightmare that would be repeated the following nights: with the same men, the same appearance of Hameed, the same threatening words – nothing changed from that point on. Later, when I rose from the bed, I learnt the details of the obscure story which had led Hameed to this crisis point. He had to make a decision: it should either be final closure or a new beginning.
This is was what had happened. Hameed had suddenly stopped working with the gangs smuggling anything made of tin to Kurdistan and Iran. This work had led him to establish strange and thorny relationships with many persons but, through it, he had managed his relationship with the men of the Party who benefited greatly from the bribes he gave them from time to time to buy their silence and stop them from pursuing him. He had earned a lot of money from this work, most of which went into the deep pocket of Bunniyya’s black abaya. With the rest of the money, he obtained a passport and used it to threaten Bunniyya and Yarallah now and then, so that they would leave him alone to do whatever he wanted.
For several nights, Hameed continued to return home without being drunk or having caused trouble. Then, without much emotion and with an expression on his face that we had not seen before, he announced his intention to travel. Of course, no one believed him, for he had announced many things that he never carried out. But, this time, he really did travel and took with him a small backpack as if he was going to Mosul or Basra. He did not exhibit any of the emotion that would be appropriate for a man who was leaving. Even his goodbyes to me, to Yarallah, and to Bunniyya seemed to be said in a passing way, and were not charged with any sense of termination or of a total break with a former, long and eventful life. I received the news in similar fashion. I assumed that he would return the next day, or that he would knock on the door at night with his usual frightening violence, and Bunniyya would rise from her sleep, blaspheming and cursing all things holy, and looking in the dark for her black plastic slippers, in order to go and open the door to this “idiot” (as she said) “before he woke all the neighbours”.
On a summer day in the early 1990s, I raised my hand and waved as the large travel company bus was turning to leave the ‘Allawi Garage. I raised my hand in response to his raised hand pressed against the window of the bus. Only the glass separated our two hands and the two farewell greetings. I was bidding farewell to my own life too.
That night – while Hameed was looking for a suitable hotel in the middle of Amman – there were several regular and respectful knocks at the door. Bunniyya raised her head, her beloved television-watching interrupted. I ignored them and thrust myself into my bed as though I was still paralysed. After further knocks, Bunniyya got up, blaspheming as usual and cursing this “idiot, son of an idiot”. She crossed the hallway, shuffling along in her plastic slippers, as if she was repeating some act of past days when Hameed would appear again at the door with his bloody face and with his clothes smeared with vomit from drinking. But when she opened the door, she saw Nabeel.
Nabeel’s original name was Izghayyer, but he had changed it ten years earlier for an elegant name that suited his psychological need to suppress the accumulated drawbacks of his previous name.
Bunniyya addressed him with the words: “Ha, my son! How are you?”, and thus announced that she remembered his face before even inviting him to enter. When he appeared at the door of my room with his tall body and white face, I did not get up for him, I don’t know why: I pretended to be sick. Bunniyya explained, absent-mindedly or perhaps colluding with me, how I had become paralysed. But Nabeel was not interested in her explanation and cut her short before taking a sip of tea from his glass. He was embarrassed as he explained to her how the story of Kareema and Hameed had become the talk of the town. He wanted her to inform Hameed of this because, when Hameed recovered from his drunken stupor, the affair would be a serious issue between two tribes. His previously strong relationship with them as neighbours at al-Shakiriyya would not help him, nor, for that matter, would the esteem in which his father was held.. Actually, it was Hameed’s father who was the cause of this problem, because he had preserved his extinct relationship with his former neighbours at al-Shakiriyya, and continued to visit them now and then in Sector 55 of the Kurdish neighbourhood, sometimes accompanied by Hameed. It was here that the calamity began – when Hameed saw Kareema.
But this was an old story, and almost ten years had passed since then. It belonged to the time in which Kareema’s father was called Abu Izghayyer, and not Abu Nabeel. So, what was new now?
Bunniyya remained speechless, holding her thin, tattooed hand to her mouth, as if it emitted a foul odour. She listened to Nabeel, whom she still called Izghayyer, and let him chatter on without interruption. I alone knew that her understanding pose concealed great anxiety and a desire to end his visit in an appropriate manner.
And yet, perhaps she understood as I did, why Hameed had been coming home covered in blood and vomit. In some strange way, he had recalled moments that had died in his memory, and had relapsed into times when he was a soldier existing between life and death in the 1980s, when his feeling for Kareema had been at its height. He used to pronounce her name as if he was saying Icreama because in his view she was a serving of cream and resembled Arabian white custard or jelly. He continued to dwell upon the fact that he had been earning a good salary as an anti-aircraft corporal, but Yarallah had not appreciated this.
Hameed had urged Yarallah to ask for Icreama’s hand on his behalf, but this never happened for various conflicting reasons, and no one can now tell precisely what the real reason was.
The family of Abu Nabeel, or Abu Izghayyer, was Kurdish and belonged to the Fili tribe, and Yarallah told Hameed more than once that the President would sooner or later deport them from Iraq.
But what Fili Kurd would call his son Izghayyer and speak by using the sounds of cha and cheef ? More likely he had refused to marry his daughter to a soldier who could die one day and leave her a widow. That is a joke, of course, for only angels, devils, and Egyptians were exempt from conscription in Iraq.
What a silly reason that was in those times. Perhaps the real reason was the mother’s desire to marry her daughter to a doctor or an engineer, having fixed her doting mind on those two professions. Perhaps wine, which Hameed loved more than he loved himself, played a role in the tragedy, for Abu Nabeel’s family was known for their religiosity and had lost one of their sons to alcoholism.
However, the logical hypothesis would be that Hameed had begun to drink wine and became addicted to it after losing Kareema, not before. I personally posited a ready-made explanation, better than all previous ones, which was that “The girl is engaged to her cousin”. This is how three-quarters of romances in our city usually end.
The beautiful Icreama got married, therefore, and that night Hameed got drunk. He could have drunk the Tigris dry. In the middle of a street flooded with sewage, he drank as much as a tanker load of various kinds of drinks whose quantity no one could calculate. He plunged into another world for a long time and, ever since, he had fiercely hated Yarallah and Bunniyya. That is why he never uttered a word about Kareema or anyone else in front of them.
“He comes into the alley drunk, when people are still out,” Nabeel said. “He sits next to the wall opposite the door of our house, and then starts weeping and calling at the top of his voice: ‘Icreama, Icreama . . . O Icreama!’ And the teenagers in the area mock him, calling him ‘the seller of white custard’. He has scandalized us; and meanwhile the woman has been living somewhere else with her husband and children for a long time now.”
Nabeel’s voice was shaking as he spoke, and Bunniyya answered him weakly, taking her hand from her mouth: “My son, Izghayyer. Hameed has gone away, he has gone to Amman, my son.”
Nabeel took her words the wrong way, and broke off his visit. As he reached the entrance of the courtyard he said to Bunniyya: “Away . . . not away . . . I don’t care – tell him what you want. But we too have tribes. Next time, I will take him to the police myself, and then we will let the elders come to an understanding.”
Bunniyya returned to watching the television, and leaned her slight body against her folded abaya. As for me, I felt the need to go to the toilet.
When I went outside to the courtyard, I was seared by the hot air, and then by the stench of old shit in the toilet. I sat there for a long time without doing anything, and then I burst into tears. I wanted to scream at the night: “Icreama . . . Icreama . . . O, Icreama!”
* * *
With my hand waving, the scene was reversed this time. I was here behind the shaded window of the long distance bus, and he was there on the platform beside Bunniyya and Yarallah. They were all waving to me, though apparently unwillingly, it was what they had to do in such a situation as they were too feeble to come up with anything else. I looked at Hameed and his limp waving. Perhaps he was thinking the way I had thought previously, in the original version of this scene: perhaps he was thinking of the two farewell waves and the two hands that the glass of the window prevented from being one.
I looked at his damaged foot, that had been wounded by stepping on a landmine in the wilderness outside Mandeli in 1986. I knew that his foot was really still there, inside the artificial one on which he could hardly balance himself when standing up. He had planted the minefield himself two months earlier with his friends, in the early cold winds of that inauspicious year and after the heavy rains of the end of autumn. He was told that the mines, which they had clearly marked, had slid and moved to another location.
He discovered the new location later, when one of the concealed mines exploded and shredded his left foot. This story is like the story of the projectiles that are shot into the sky and return directly on to the one who shot them.
And then because of a second disaster, his left leg had to be amputated from the middle of his thigh. This was another completely new accident: Hameed was carrying the walkie-talkie as he climbed Mount Mawat with his friends, perhaps for the thousandth time, when a cannon bomb fell at some distance from the mountaintop, and although the bomb hurt no one with its shrapnel, a large chunk of rock was thrown on to Hameed’s leg, leaving his artificial foot dangling and hurling him into a deep hollow on the mountainside.
When he woke up at the Sulaymaniyya Military Hospital, he saw a worried Yarallah with his kufiyya and iqal staring at him. Hardly had Yarallah seen his son open his eyes, when he addressed him with harsh words that were not at all suited to the situation: “I told you to get married. Who will accept you now when you are like this?”
Hameed understood his father’s oft-repeated reproach, but did not understand the latter part of his angry sentence until some time later when he was able to look down at his legs lying on the white-clad bed. He was shocked to see his right leg stretched out there alone, neglected, and unable to move except with difficulty. He was very sad for this leg, but he was not yet ready to be sad and cry for the missing one left somewhere, there, on the slopes of Mount Mawat.
After a period of time, he abandoned his artificial leg because it seemed to him like an intruder with whom he had become bored. He threw it away as though it had been the thing that had driven away his live leg of flesh and bone, and exchanged it for two crutches.
In those difficult circumstances, he was visited by many people who offered their condolences and their congratulations, and he deserved both. He had lost a part of his body forever, but he had also escaped forever from this crazy war and the wars that followed. But if his visitors had been able to read his mind, they would have found something else, other than resignation and acceptance: they would have been surprised to find that Hameed, during the long time he was lying in bed, had been preoccupied with what had happened to his lost leg, and with the dreams whose odd and illogical contents he did not understand and which appeared to be mere reflections of the distraction of his troubled mind. He was calm and content because in the darkness of his exhausted mind there was a voice telling him that his leg would return one day, and that the unreal power which controlled his life would then collapse and everything would return to its former state, and his leg would return to its place as part of his body. He believed this, but did not know how it could possibly happen. Either it would happen, or he would return to the death whose brink he had been at earlier. Either would be better than this hopeless severance from recuperation in body and soul.
He briefly revealed some of those thoughts to an old school friend of his, Chasseb Mashkhout, but this was an unforgivable stupidity; for what could Chasseb understand of all those hallucinations? They only told him how bad Hameed’s condition was, nothing more, but they gave him an opportunity to appear older and wiser than Hameed, and this was a self-image which Chasseb had long dreamt of in his heart of hearts and had long hoped would come true one day. Chasseb did not know this now, and was overcome by feelings of sadness, disgust and regret; but, deep down, he felt overjoyed. He had finally achieved superiority over Hameed.
He said to him in wise tones: “You are now better off than any soldier who expects death every night, and at every moment. Your battle has ended, and you will become rich after receiving the generous bonuses the President will grant you. You are better off than Abu Salman al-Taweel, who became a ‘waistcoat,’ without arms and legs. You left only your left leg there, and returned with the other members of your body. This is better than the return of your leg to your body, or if your whole body had been left there. And what does poor Abu Salman al-Taweel do after having left in no man’s land the supporting limbs needed to perform his conjugal duty? He has been liberated from the exhaustion of the sexual act, and has left this task to his wife, who is never satisfied but who thanks God every night in secret because the war has, at any rate, left his penis intact.”
Translated by Issa J Boullata
Excerpted from the novel Inahu Yahlam aw Yalaab aw Yamoot
[He is Dreaming or Playing or Dying]
published by Dar al-Mada, Damascus, 2008