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Chapters 1 and 2 published in Banipal 39, pages 14-22
Here continues Chapter 3 . . . of
The Traveller and the Innkeeper
Translated by William M. Hutchins
The weather was dusty and the sun was shining brilliantly. It was eight a.m. At ten the weekly meeting began and, as he usually did, the Director General would attend. Inspector Qasim Husayn crossed al-Waziriya street, heading once more to Bab al-Mu‘azzam, and like all the previous times he could remember just going out for a stroll, let his feet lead him into the hubbub of the itinerant peddlers and taxi drivers. On his way, Qasim first passed the small bridge which the train crossed behind the dam and then the faculties of Education and Commerce, which were known for their beautiful female students, before he reached the Kirkuk Railway Station, which was deserted most of the time, since once the train arrived early each morning it slumbered there until it woke again in the evening when travellers flocked to it. Then it would puff smoke and whistle repeatedly before heading north like an aged donkey, returning whence it had come. From there he ended up in the working-class market opposite the student dormitory, where vendors congregated on the sidewalk, selling every sort of thing, near shops that sold tobacco, sugar, and tea. Some Bedouins were haggling with cloth merchants about brightly coloured textiles and others sat on benches in kebab and tikka restaurants, around which cats prowled, awaiting their share.
He threw himself on a wooden chair at the entrance to the narrow market and ordered tea. He enjoyed watching these nomadic Arabs, who dragged the tails of their cloaks behind them, and listening to them address each other in loud voices as if they were back in their vast desert. He reflected that the scene was reminiscent of a religious festival. He would occasionally tease them when he sat near them in a coffeehouse, asking: “What are you doing in Baghdad?”
They would look at him askance and ask: “Do you think we’re not good enough for Baghdad?”
He would reply mischievously; “Not at all; I didn’t mean that; I just think the city is tiresome even for its residents.”
“It’s a city of cheats.”
Inspector Qasim knew they were right and savoured the bitterness of their words. In this city, no one liked anyone else. Smiles were freely given but coated with sour colocynth. He himself had tasted this bitterness along with everyone else. The Director General, who would be seated opposite him at ten a.m., was agreeable as long as you didn’t make a fuss but would disown you and give you a kick in the butt once he found you were no longer useful. He also knew the Director General would gush with emotion for his co-workers, adding to his façade the mien of an important leader. Even so Inspector Qasim would sit for two hours or more, listening to him with a superficial politeness without paying much attention while he chattered on about the most trivial matters. Someone might well rise, overwhelmed by emotion, and declare shamelessly: “What would we have done without you?!” The Director General would smile, attributing to himself more importance than he had, while Qasim Husayn retreated further into his shell, masked by pride. Perhaps precisely because of this pride, he had parted with many who had once been his friends and his heart had grown cold with the passing years as he began to create nightmares all by himself. Indeed, he frequently pictured himself in his victims’ place and sympathized with their role, which he envied, even if he didn’t acknowledge that to himself. He occasionally pictured himself hanging by chains from a window in a dungeon, refusing to utter a single word, while someone flogged him until blood gushed from his body. He would become increasingly obstinate, like some of his victims, as the whip cracked ever louder before biting into his wounds.
Qasim Husayn rose, saying to himself: Now my very dreams are quitting me, and walked toward the street, diving into the sea of bodies, which flowed along chaotically. It was five minutes past nine. There was still enough time. He wanted to see everything in this city, which resembled no other. Even now, despite all these buildings that rose here and there, it hid, in its innermost heart, old quarters with narrow houses cheek by jowl and rivers of brackish water that ran down streets filled with filthy children dragging behind them the tails of their shabby dishdashas. His feet had carried him into the alleys of al-Fadel, where he saw women seated in front of their doorways, conversing with each other from afar. Their inquisitive, distrustful glances besieged him; what kind of creature was the man who had profaned their privacy? He breathed with relief when he found himself once more outside the alleyways and in the market; then he crossed al-Kifah Street and caught a taxi.
“To Park al-Sa‘doun.”
He reached the office ten minutes early. Before he could drink the tea that the office messenger placed before him, Inspector Yusuf came over to ask: “Do you know that the Minister is angry at us?”
Qasim asked dismissively: “Why? What have we done to anger him?”
“The Director General’s secretary came to fill me in on everything.”
“Everything? What do you mean?”
“The Minister accuses us of negligence and dereliction in pursuing saboteurs and in uncovering their cells.”
Inspector Qasim Husayn laughed and retorted: “They’re nothing but a handful of crazy boys, and we’ve caught them. What more than that could we have done?”
“I’d like to see you say that to the Director General’s face!”
But the Director General did not even refer to those “crazy boys” with a single word during the meeting, which lasted more than an hour. He discussed, as he always did, everything without saying anything in particular. He was in fact addressing himself. Once the meeting ended, Inspector Qasim felt he needed to salvage his ego, which had been reduced to nil while he was in his boss’ presence.