Manhal Alsarraj
Manhal Alsarraj (Sarraj)
As the River Must

As the River Must

Patience, for in a few hours, precisely at dawn, Lamia will become mad. There’s still a canister of diesel – a litre or less – placed behind the door of her house, in the dangerous corner, along with the coal burner and the gallon of kerosene and everything else she fears might harm her mischievous daughter Sahhoura.

She was half asleep, suckling her infant, as her husband sighed and buried his head between her shoulder blades, her three-year old daughter in a deep sleep at her feet. But finally Lamia, who was always alert, did fall asleep, exhausted, and so did her ailing husband.

Then a loud pounding on the door made him leap out of bed in terror to open it. They kicked at his skinny frame, and trampled on the black concrete floor of the house, and in two steps, there they were, she knew what they were after. She pulled her robe around her and her infant son, who held on to her breast. The baby irritated her so she tossed him behind her back but he grabbed on to her shoulders, which became a wall behind which he observed the strangers. They poked at hanging clothes with their bayonets and kicked their hard boots at the fragile red plastic child’s slipper with its toes cut off. They lifted the pillow on which the child’s head rested and searched beneath it. They didn’t find anything so let go of it; Sahhoura’s head dropped but she did not wake up. Anas’s eyes watched everything from behind the wall of his mother’s shoulders as she moved about, bending, lifting and putting right what the attackers had damaged in her tiny home. Unbeknown to her, in a movement as sudden as envy, one of them grabbed the remaining canister of diesel from behind the door of her home and poured it everywhere. Lamia, preoccupied, had grabbed her husband’s pillow instead of Sahhoura who, despite the din, hadn’t woken from her contented sleep at her mother’s feet and didn’t hear anything to disturb her peace.

And so she was burned to a crisp.

Lamia was shocked to find she was running clutching a pillow to her chest instead of a child. The silent Anas was in one hand and the pillow in the other. She stood at the bridge and decided to get rid of that treacherous pillow.
But she threw the infant into the river instead.

And so Lamia found herself without burdens, without her babies, without her husband and then without a mind.
“Lamia, Lamia, do you remember your poor husband who guarded the stables of the rich people on the other bank of the river? Do you remember your children – Sahhoura who was three, and Anas who was only three months old? Do you remember your home, its shiny concrete floor glistening after a midsummer afternoon’s wash, and the tub where you boiled your children’s clothes?”

Lamia had been like a bee, crossing the bridge dozens of times a day, uninhibitedly pushing through any door, placing her slippers under the first tree, hanging her robe on the first branch and washing her hands and face and neck, tidying up around her and picking up everything she found on her way, hurriedly watering the plants, roasting eggplants, picking molukhiyya, and frying potatoes for her spoiled little ones’ dinner. Chickens and children rushed towards her, and she would entertain them with her hands, her tongue, her feet, as they grasped the hem of her dress and she chatted with everyone, non-stop; and, if she couldn’t find someone to chat with, she would sing. If she found a box of fruit in front of her, she’d pick something out, wipe it on her dress and eat it, resting from her incessant chatter. When she found something she didn’t recognize, a new voice recorder or an electrical machine, she would laugh at her own ignorance, apologizing to everyone around her. She wouldn’t ask what anyone needed, she already knew what everyone needed, but no one knew what Lamia needed, to them she did nothing but secure their own needs.

Her house burned down, then it collapsed like the houses on the other bank, her husband disappeared with the disappeared, and she threw away the pillow on her lap. She saw the night guard of the windmill turning into a night cat and saw her neighbourhood and the other side of town turn to rubble.

She went to the shelter on her side of town, by the mouth of the big river. Corpses of women lay huddled together, and children were losing their minds. She saw Um al-Izz, murdered, her belly still moving – she had been on the verge of childbirth. She sat on the floor as close as she could to the womb of the pregnant woman and her stubborn unborn infant, placing her cheek, then her ear, then her palm on the woman’s belly; despite the extreme cold and its mother’s death, the infant’s heat made everything boil. She sang to the writhing belly, slept for some moments and then awoke – the child must be suffocating in its home, its mother’s womb. For three days she covered the belly when she felt cold and uncovered it when she felt warm. The belly stopped moving and, again, Lamia lost her mind.

Once upon a time Lamia was sane and had three children – no, two children and a husband. Her husband was like a lamb, wearing thin, wide-legged trousers, engaged in cleaning houses and feeding the remaining horses. Lamia fed all her neighbours with stuffed zucchini, thyme sandwiches and maghmouma. She collected sage and covered sleeping babies. She would soothe children who were constipated, rubbing their bellies with oil. If, on one of her bridge crossings, she encountered children swimming, she would pull them out, dry their faces and necks with a corner of her dress, suck the water out of their ears, arrange their fringes and then playfully smack them on their bottoms, flicking her head to tell them: “Off home with you!”

She wouldn’t check her palm to see if she had been given money, but was content with shy, grateful murmurs. She only remained at home to sleep or to tease that lamb, her husband or her children.

Crazy Lamia still goes back and forth on the bridge between the banks of the river, carrying a bundle whose contents God only knows, crossing the river to the side that had been full of houses and was now empty of everything except the storage place. She would spit at the sign of the storeroom, and at the river, then go and sit on Fatima’s step to catch her breath, eating the cat food that had been placed out there for her.

In her madness, she scares Abu Salim al-Jarbou‘, she scares the mukhtar and some people she instinctively recognizes – no one knows them better – such as Abu al-Kufiyeh, who returned from his travels under the protection of Abu Shama’s men. They shudder when they run into her, and fearful that she will throw them into the river, cross the street muttering: “Every catastrophe has an end, why won’t stupid Lamia leave us alone?”
“Anyone who works with Abu Shama’s men now walks about with his head held high, Lamia. There’s no longer any room for any Abu al-Kufiyeh or al-Mulatham*, they all walk about now with heads and faces uncovered,” Fatima sighed.

She remembered the young men in the houses and the streets nearby, lost in a flash, some who hadn’t even finished school, some who had left unfinished stories, some who had left cloth at the tailor’s without settling on how the pockets should look, some who had promised younger brothers outings to the cinema, some who hadn’t swallowed that last morsel of food. They had left, in clothing that barely covered their bodies, and their things remained where they were, their identity cards, their suitcases by the door, their heavy metal trunks locked, keys in the cupboard nearby, marked with an arrow. In the middle of the room there are the belongings of a groom whose wedding was to be celebrated in fifteen days’ time, but he disappeared along with the rest – the medical student, the engineering student, and others, young and old.

Fatima found herself heading to the storeroom to check on the jars of pickled eggplant, to make sure the oil still covered the eggplants. She moved the sticks that formed a cross on top of the eggplants and added some oil. She uncovered the olive jar, her fingers stirring the lemon and peppers, then added another layer of olive oil. The scent of the mixtures wafted through the white gauze covering the jars.

The siege by Abu Shama’s men dragged on and on. Most of the houses ran out of supplies; oil was scarce since it was also used for lighting. Women fought bitterly over a fistful of burghul, over misplaced knives or woollen blankets for sick children. The men who remained all eyed each other with great suspicion. They sought ways to escape the siege. The devil slept in their beds, snatching away morsels of food. They began to get used to him, and they sought to find ways to bury their dead without giving away their hiding places, so they wouldn’t be shot by accidental or deliberate gunfire. But then Umm Ragheb complained about the stench of her son’s corpse while she held her still-living son in her lap. And so they all agreed to share the responsibility of burying him in a ditch by the river.

Fatima’s palm tree, despite the cold, was growing vigorously, its fronds strong and dry.

They covered themselves in blankets to keep out the forty-day frost, listening attentively for the sound of the bread cart throwing loaves on the ground, rushing from their places to snatch one up, sending the young ones stumbling over each other only to return sobbing, clothes ripped, gasping for breath, their veins bulging and lips trembling with cold and anger, dusted with flour and dirt, chewing on the morsels of bread they had managed to seize. Fights broke out between people over pieces of bread. No one got anything more than a few chunks torn off by bloody fingers.

In 2000 Manal Alsarraj’s debut novel Kama Yanbaghi Li-Nahr
[As a River Must]
was prohibited from being published in her home
country of Syria as it dealt with the Hama massacre of 1982.
It was, however, entered for a literary competition run by the
Department of Arts and Culture, Sharjah, UAE,
where it was awarded 3rd prize
and published there in 2002.

* mulatham means ‘covered’, or ‘masked’ in Arabic.

This selection is taken from Banipal 41 – Celebrating Adonis, which includes a feature on Arabic writers in Sweden