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Excerpt from the novel
THE TOBACCO KEEPER
Translated by Amira Nowaira
When Yousef woke up that morning, he tried out a tune or two on his violin as usual. He then placed the violin on the table and went to wash his face. With his hands still slightly wet, he dressed his lean, dark body in white shorts and a large shirt. He flattened his hair with his hands, gazing into the mirror with thoughtful eyes and a bleak face. Suddenly he heard a high-pitched scream. He turned towards the window, but there were only the carriages going down the street, the sunbeams coming through the glass and the sounds of nightingales echoing in the house. Then there was another scream from next door. He emerged from his reveries and went to open the window.
At that precise moment, Yousef saw the fire starting in the house opposite, his aunt Massouda’s other home. She had left her larger house in the Muslim neighbourhood of Al-Karradah because she believed that the Al-Torah area, being a closed ghetto, was much safer than a mixed neighbourhood. Al-Torah was an old area that was completely off-limits to non-Jews. She had no idea that this area would be now be swarming with strange, angry faces or that their houses would be looted by young men wearing caps and belts, whose bare and muscular arms held palm branches, wooden canes and iron rods that they waved in the faces of the terrified Jews.
From where he stood, Yousef watched the scene unfold in front of his eyes without forming any thoughts about it. He gazed as coldly at the scene as Alberto Caeiro, the keeper of flocks in Tobacco Shop, would have done. Standing by the open window, Yousef stared and watched cart drivers and coachmen with whips indicating their willingness to deliver the loot to the homes of the thieves. From his position, Yousef watched the crowds running in the pale and hazy light and heard the hoarse screams of Jews suffocating and dying, but still he formed no clear ideas, just like Alberto Caeiro in Tobacco Shop.
He saw men brandishing swords and knives as they ran after Sabreya, the daughter of Daoud Effendi. She ran with her hair flying loose, pursued by a group of assailants who managed to catch her by the hair before she could enter her house. He watched them as they lynched her on the ground, watched them as they stripped her of her clothing, as she screamed. He watched them place their feet on her head and stamp on it with full force. He watched two handsome men remove her bracelets and saw the angry mob break down the doors and enter the houses of the terrified, trembling Jews huddled together in the corners. The looters fled, carrying the furniture on their backs. He saw them emerge with linen and quilts, having thrown the occupants of the beds onto the ground. He saw them enter kitchens and remove all the cooking utensils, even the pots on the stove. They snatched the ladle from the hand of the gaping, terror-stricken Jewish woman. They went into rooms and took everything they could lay their hands on: bundles of clothes, carpets, rugs, children’s clothes and even books.
‘What will you do with those books? Can you read English?’
‘We’ll sell them at the market. Anything from Jewish homes is easy to sell.’
Coldly and dispassionately, Yousef observed the scene of death that was all around.
What he would never be able to forget, however, was the burning of Rabbi Shmuel’s books and the burning of his aunt.
He was looking at the books curling in the fire, shifting and hissing. At first there was a popping sound, then he heard the stirring of the embers. The flames rose higher and higher, consuming clothes and wooden objects. He saw the covers of the books twist and twirl like rolls of cloth. When the fire began to die out, he saw his aunt on the ground, on her bare knees. Her skin was burning, peeling and blackening. Her facial muscles were contracted and her bones cracked, while the flames consumed her hair. The crackling sounds of his aunt’s body burning stifled his screams, which emerged only as quavering, incomprehensible sounds. The flames flickered around her body before reducing it to charred dust that lay scattered on the ground.
He collapsed, unconscious.
When he opened his eyes, he felt as though it had all been a dream. His aunt lay a couple of metres away from him, her skin charred and her skull fractured. Her body had shrunk in size so much that it had become no heavier than her beautiful long black hair.
* * *
Did Yousef consider the move to the Hassan Pasha neighbourhood a significant change in his life? Certainly. Did it represent a departure from the terror that had dominated his life for so long? Certainly. But after drinking five glasses of wine in a row and wiping his mouth with his handkerchief, he told his friends that his old feeble life had gone for good. He was no longer dominated by fear as he had been in the past. Instead, his life and his character were totally transformed. What had at root caused this change was going swimming with his friends in the river. At first he had been hesitant, timid, holding back. From a safe distance, he had watched the waves as they broke against the shore. Then he went alone to conquer the water, braving the waves with his chest. He felt the lapping of the gentle water against his body, as he moved his arms and swam towards the bridge. At that moment, Yousef felt an invisible force overtake him, body and soul, a kind of tyrannical joy that engulfed him until he began to laugh and breathe freely.
That year he also visited Al-Adhamiyah during the Prophet’s birthday celebrations. He took part in the great festivities in front of the mosque. He drank juice and ate with his friends from the food that was spread out on long tables, enjoying the chaotic mixture of food and talk as their hands reached for the roasted stuffed sheep. That year he also wrote a long poem in Arabic, glorifying the Iraqi army during the 1948 war against Israel. He descrsibed the valour of Iraqi soldiers and how they were only defeated by betrayal. Then he delivered a long monologue in rhyming couplets in praise of the Arab Nation.
(In one of his letters to Farida, Yousef had pointed out how swimming in the river had erased the humiliating fear that had always dominated his life in Al-Torah. He felt then as though an earthquake had pushed him into action, forcing him to jump and leap in. Fear had vanished completely from his heart because he had been strong enough to overcome it.)
But did his fear really and truly disappear? Did it vanish for good with the splash of the water? Could the water wash away the terror that had made him tremble for days on end at the sight of the slogans written on the city walls along with the swastikas? Those slogans, cheering the victories of the Axis, had been on the lips of the young and old alike. Did his fear disappear when he read statements venerating Hitler and proclaiming ‘Hitler, the protector of the Arabs’? Did he lose his fear of the sons of high-ranking army officers who wore uniforms with wide sashes and decorated their shoulders with the emblems of their ranks? Was he no longer afraid of the ‘Boy Scouts’ or the ‘Youth Brigade’ who paraded in their uniforms and searched Jews for wireless equipment and mirrors on allegations of sending signals to British aircraft, and who, while searching the alleged culprits, would scream out, ‘Exterminate the germs’.
In fact fear never entirely left Yousef’s heart, for as soon as he found himself facing any of them, his eyes would fill with tears and he couldn’t utter a word. He wished he could hide away in a deep, empty well. He would try hard to collect his courage but could only stutter, his power of speech gone. When he went out walking, he would look the other way, avoiding all eye contact.
But we have to admit, however, that little by little, after moving to his new house, Yousef assuaged his fears. He gradually got rid of his fear of Muslims. He found himself more and more in the wider world, part of life itself, and not trapped in a musty fear behind walls. He no longer shut himself up at home with a book, as he used to, but was now captivated by the lights reflected in the waters of the Tigris. He revelled in the humidity of summer by the bank of the river. He paraded in a white outfit, throwing pebbles into the water as he walked along the bank, beside the cafés and bars, feeling completely weightless. He now felt that he truly existed in this life, in Abu Dudu, the Hanoun market, Al-Adhamiyah and even in Al-Karradah itself. In Hindiya, the most exotic of Baghdad’s neighbourhoods, which he had never gone near in the past, he felt liberated. He began to visit the countryside and other areas that Jews never ventured into.
In a letter to Farida, he wrote the following telling lines: ‘To live in a Jewish area, like Al-Torah for example, was to live like a Jew among Jews, to live afraid and uncertain. But there was a much wider circle out there. That’s why I wished to break into that new circle and destroy the old shackles that kept me chained. I could do this only by living among people, like everyone else.’
This meant that in those days Yousef had adopted the lifestyle of other Muslim and Christian young men and had became one of them. He had managed to conquer his fears for good. He acquired a new look that I saw in one of the photographs I found inside Boris’s envelope: a handsome, clean-shaven young man of twenty, wearing a black cap and a very elegant white suit. With his broad chest, beaming smile and formidable build, he looked perfectly happy. He had placed his large hands on the shoulders of friends who were standing to his right and left, laughing. Behind them was a new, white Chevrolet.
Published in Banipal 41 – Celebrating Adonis
Haris el-Tibgh [The Tobacco Keeper] is Ali Bader’s tenth novel. Published in 2008 by al-Muassa al-Arabiya Lil-nashr, Amman-Beirut, it was longlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (http://www.arabicfiction.org/book/39.html). The above excerpt is from the complete translation by Amira Nowaira published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, September 2011. ISBN: 9789992142622, hbk, 352pp, £9.99