The shrouded body on the gurney seemed a station that broadcast alarm but also tranquility and calm. The faint light that came from the room beside the main entrance picked it out as did the gentle light from the small lamp directly above the physician’s chair. A circular wall clock was striped by black shadows created by the door’s panels. The doctor’s eyes avoided the body when he turned to gesture to patients, one after the other, to step forward to be examined, and then prescribed medicine for them. He forced himself to focus on each patient and wrote the prescription with unusual deliberation. He would, though, at times turn his wrinkled face spontaneously toward the shrouded body on the gurney. Then his gaze would retreat as his expression soured with a pained wretchedness at odds with the professional indifference of the short, male nurse, who studied the physician’s prescriptions and prepared to give an injection when necessary. The physician’s assistant, meanwhile, was boiling with rage, and his eyes glinted with nervous flashes, which seemed ready to explode at any minute. He managed, however, like the doctor, to retain control of himself and to calm his anger. He took his time explaining the preventive measures patients should take when he thought that necessary.
The patients were strung out in a long queue that stretched outside for about ten meters beyond the hospital’s door, beneath a canopy that shielded them from the harmful rays of the July sun. It did not, however, protect them from the intense heat. Many patients entered this room simply to pass through to other departments: Ear, Nose, and Throat, Fractures, or Internal Medicine. Then their eyes immediately caught sight of the shrouded corpse on the gurney. They would involuntarily look away, as if afraid that rash fate might strike them down too. For this three-man medical team, these other patients constituted so many inevitable thorns in the flesh. There was no way to route them through some alternative entry, and the medical team had no other space except for this room, which was only three meters square, for their four chairs, which were arranged around a rusty, gray, metal table.
The body’s two brown feet, which were coated with dirt and caked in places with dried muck, terminated in long, dark black toenails on top and grimy, cracked heels beneath. As the protruding nerves spread to the toes, they looked bloodless and yellow, and the veins were dark green.
The doctor and his assistants tried in vain to forget about the corpse and to concentrate on their tasks, but it forced them to regard it. No matter how hard they tried to distract themselves with anything else, they inevitably failed. It seemed to radiate beams that drew their gaze to it and then pierced their eyes. Why? Just because it was there? Or was it the boy with the wide, blank eyes?
The physician stared at him again. How grief-stricken his eyes are! They fill his face. How deep they are! Why does he seem to be choking on a lump in his throat? The boy was seated cross-legged beneath the gurney, gripping his father’s shovel, which he had leaned against the wall below his father’s feet. Even though he was no more than ten, he was so totally composed that he had not shed a single tear. His gaze, which was focused on the floor, had a profundity that surpassed normal sorrow. It virtually dug into the bricks and penetrated their layers to traverse them entirely. Sorrow dominated the small room, became a canopy for it, and condensed there in the air. The constant motion of the nurse and the physician’s assistant could not dissipate it. When they spoke in a loud voice to deliver various instructions to the sick, shuttled back and forth between the two doors with patients, whether calmly, cautiously, or quickly, stretched upward, or sank down incessantly, they nonetheless seemed to be looking and staring at this thick awning of sorrow, time and again.
Since the gurney was located in a narrow passageway, most patients bumped into it coming or going. Then it would be pushed a little and bounce off the corner of the wooden door, which gave access to the hospital’s numerous wards, before returning to its original position. It would also shift backward and forward with any collision or movement, no matter how gentle. Then the edge of the cloth kerchief over the man’s face would slide down and wave in the empty space beneath the gurney—in front of the face of the boy crouching there—and the deceased man’s face and head would be revealed. His black hair had not turned gray yet, and the small, gleaming, yellow bald spot at the crown of his head had a few long black hairs sprouting from it. The face disclosed a wrinkled brow that had shrunk to the skull, as if so shriveled that the skin had been rubbed off. Whenever the kerchief slipped down, the boy would rise, lean the spade against the wall, lift the edge of the yashmak, open it, and spread it to cover the exposed portion of the face, the eyes, which were open, part of the emaciated cheeks, and the aquiline nose. He covered these calmly with a gesture that suggested sacred veneration. The greater part of the kerchief lay beneath the head, and all that showed was the delicate hem, which was lined by dangling, white tassels. The boy did not dare pull out the rest of the yashmak to cover the face completely, because the only space he could find on the gurney for his father’s tattered, worn headband was on the man’s chest. He disliked putting it there, if only because that was not its proper place. He wondered whether his father felt the weight of this iqal on his chest or not. He had heard people say that the dead feel, see, hear, hurt, and experience joy—but in ways that are not apparent to the living—and that the dead share existence, life, and feelings with the living, who can, however, share nothing with the dead.
The physician glanced at him and his father occasionally as did the others. The doctor meant to give the boy his father’s death certificate and discuss it with him, since the certificate had been sitting in front of him for some time, but his reticence deterred him. That was one reason, but other factors included the crush of work, masses of patients, and intensity of the heat, which was an inferno that the ceiling fan could not cool. He was alarmed by the silence of the boy, who leaned against the wall, sunk into a heavy, almost impenetrable abyss of sorrow.
The doctor finally summoned his courage, rose, and walked round the table to the boy, holding out the death certificate, which he had just folded. He sighed, blushed, and said with stress on each consonant, “Don’t lose this paper. They won’t let you bury your father without it.”
He was surprised by the reaction of the boy, who rose quickly, accepted the document, and adjusted his patched, worn dishdasha. Inserting the death certificate beneath the hemp rope that served him for a belt, he carefully placed it in his inner pocket. Then his empty eyes gazed at the doctor again with the unspoken question: “What should I do?”
The doctor said, “Take your father and be on your way.”
The physician sensed he was shedding a mountain that had been dumped on his shoulders and sighed with relief as he gazed into the boy’s empty eyes. Once the boy heard what the doctor said, he turned toward the body. He lifted the headband from his father’s chest, loosened it, and placed it around his own neck. He put his skinny arms around his father’s chest and started to lift him from the gurney. Then the hem of the head-cloth fell off the face, which was varnished with annihilation, and the dead man’s head dangled off the back of the gurney, is if wishing to separate from the body.
Its mouth opened, revealing yellow teeth blackened by decay and a deep void like a well from which the waters had vanished thousands of years ago. Exhausted, jaundiced, desiccated features surrounded empty eyes that looked upward with an eternal indifference.
Tears welled up in the doctor’s eyes—beneath his spectacles—but he smiled gently and sympathetically. He leaned down beside the boy, placing a hand tenderly on his shoulder while his stethoscope, which hung down his chest, swayed between his clean, white lab coat and the boy’s chest. “Not that way. Go find a taxi. Then the staff will help carry him. You can’t carry him by yourself.”
When he said this and placed his palm on the boy’s shoulder, the boy’s hands relaxed. He rested his father’s head on the gurney once more and covered the entire face with the yashmak. Then the stolid, screaming defiance of the empty eyes was masked. Turning toward the doctor, he gazed at him. He clearly did not know what to do. Among those present he was the person closest to the deceased, but he was stunned by this event, which had dumbfounded him. His thick, black hair, which was coated with dirt and sweat, had not been cut for ages. Its strands had grown long enough for it to look like a halo that doubled the size of his milk white face with its symmetrical features. When he walked beneath the sun’s rays, he felt the sweat boil on the crown of his head. His mother had wanted to wash his hair that very day, but his father had stopped her, saying, “Wash his hair tomorrow. I need him today.”
The physician imagined the boy was a deaf-mute but dismissed that notion. The boy was obeying his directions; that meant he could hear and probably speak as well.
He looked at the doctor with all the flabbergasted incomprehension of a person who suddenly found himself in an alien world he was experiencing for the first time: the doctor, the hospital, the throngs of people who stared at him sympathetically, the shocked patients who had passed in both directions since morning, moving quickly while casting a spontaneous, noncommittal glance at his father’s body. Suddenly, though, terror would register in their pupils and they would look away. They arrived as if on some urgent errand they wished to conclude. Why was he here with his father? Why had they parked him in this crowded location? They told him his father had died. Was this cramped passageway all they could find? He sensed the pain they felt when the short nurse gave them an injection in their buttocks. Why was he doing that? He watched the nurse flush as he went about his work. The man had a nervous temperament, and his words were few and sharp—rather like the barking of the dog in the reed hut next to theirs. He feared the nurse would head his way and lash him with that shout. The nurse, however, did not look at the boy. He turned away, toward the wall, where the large, round clock hung a foot away from the calendar, which was crammed with incomprehensible symbols surrounded by the faces of very lovely kids wearing magnificent, clean clothes that were nothing like his cheap, dirty tunic. These boys and girls with their happy, beaming faces were alien to him. He had seen children like them in the market, but there a vast gap separated him from them. When they approached him, they grew upset and agitated, because they were afraid of him. They resembled the patients here in the hospital.
Everything had seemed strange to him today—even his father. Why did he wake the boy at dawn, wresting him from a delightful slumber?
“Yunus! Yunus, wake up! Wash your face.”
In a twilight of drowsiness, everything had seemed confused. He had returned more than once to the mat. There, as soon as he placed his head on the pillow, he sank into a well of delightful sleep. But his father had him under surveillance and returned to wake him time and again, patiently and deliberately. When the boy did not wake, he splashed his face with a handful of cold water drawn from the basin hidden inside the hut to keep stray dogs from lapping it up. He heard his mother call to his father as she yawned, “Why do you insist on taking him with you? Look at his hair—it’s like felt. I’ll cut it today and wash it. Umm Ghalib gave me some soap and permission to turn on the water so I can wash him and his sister, Hasana.”
“He must come with me. I need him.”
He had no idea then what his father had in mind. The darkness faded when gray light appeared—like the shadow of a vast tent as big as all existence. His fatigue and drowsiness weighed heavily on him, and he almost fell asleep as he walked along. He shook off this deep-seated lethargy only when stray dogs attacked them.
There were more than fifteen dogs. How had they gathered in a pack? Now he was wide awake. Two years earlier his brother Yusuf had told him, “Dogs do not frighten a real man. If they surprise you, sit down, and they’ll stop. Then if you can, throw a stone at them. They’ll separate and flee, even if there are more than a hundred of them.” Since then he had followed his brother’s advice whenever dogs attacked. So he leaned down quickly to seize a rock from the ground as quick as lightning and lobbed it toward the dogs. They stopped, and one whimpered with pain. The simple motion of throwing the stone had caused him to feel hungry. He missed Yusuf a lot. He had wept more than once when remembering how they had played together, how they had raced and wrestled each other. Yusuf had taught him everything. Nothing his father or mother had tried to teach him had sunk in. Yusuf had taught him how to be a porter and Yunus was a good one now, even though there were few customers these days, especially since the embargo. Shoppers carried their purchases themselves. He considered himself lucky if he found a single customer in a week.
“Don’t ever forget this: When you reach the customer’s house, never enter it. I enter if the customer is a woman. If it’s a man, don’t even stand by the entrance. Hand him the goods outside. Never step inside. Do you hear me?”
Yusuf had repeated that message more than once while staring at him with concern, forcing him to nod yes. He had not offered any explanation or rationale. He had not told Yunus everything. After he met the other porters his own age, however, he had heard frightening tales that made him heed Yusuf’s warning. Yes, Yusuf had taught him many things.
That same hot day, he had screamed, groaned loudly, and begun to hop on one foot, because the other hurt so much. Then Yusuf had come to him and shouted, “Don’t make a scene! Stop screaming and look at the sole of your foot. See! There’s a small nail in it. Pull that out. We’re barefoot and lack any footwear. Some humiliation like this is always happening to us. Press firmly on the wound till it bleeds. Wait a bit. Then walk on tiptoe till the blood dries. Your pain will end soon. Remember that the blood must dry for the wound to heal.”
Uncle Marzuq paid them a visit. He wore a clean, new, blue kerchief on his head with a new black headband. His dishdasha was new too, and he had on shoes made of yellow leather. He came with his friend Uncle Nasir al-Khashshab, who was tall and slim and had a tan complexion. It had been some days since the man’s head was last shaved, and his black hair was an inch long. His broad, black headband was pushed so far back that Yunus expected to see it fall off with every jerk of the man’s head. These expectations, however, were not realized, because the iqal was fastened tight against the back of Nasir al-Khashshab’s head. These two guests sat chatting and drinking in the hut with his father. Uncle Nasir pulled out a red pack of cigarettes, and the two other men each took a cigarette. Uncle Marzuq lit their cigarettes. Yunus had never seen his father smoke on any other occasion. He noticed, however, that his father was thoroughly enjoying smoking this time, inhaling forcefully and then exhaling the white smoke from his broad nostrils. When they had finished smoking the first cigarette, Uncle Nasir offered them another, but his father declined to smoke a second one.
He and Yusuf were playing outside the hut while dusk’s beautiful, unique colors filled the horizon with their splendid magic. Then the visitors called Yusuf inside and spoke with him. He watched Yusuf’s eyes sparkle with happiness as he nodded his agreement to what they said. Yunus, who was playing with Hasana, was too far away to hear what they told Yusuf. After the visitors left the hut, Yunus heard his father tell his mother that the men had offered to take Yusuf with them to Basra, where he would work in the date warehouses, which they referred to as al-jaradigh or the date shacks. When she asked her husband what he had decided, he replied confidently, “At least this way he’ll learn a trade better than being a porter!”
Then he asked her, “What do you say?”
“The decision isn’t mine to make. It’s up to you.”
“The best decision is God’s.”
Yusuf did not discuss the matter much with him but seemed delighted to be embarking on a momentous adventure. He merely told Yunus, “I’m going to Basra.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“You’re too little. Perhaps in a few years.”
The next day he saw Yusuf leave the sirifa, accompanied only by his Uncle Marzuq. That was the last time he saw Yusuf. After taking some ten steps, Yusuf turned back toward him, waved, and smiled. Then in no time at all, he disappeared with Uncle Marzuq.
Three months later tall, slender Uncle Nasir arrived one afternoon. He greeted the family, entered the hut, and did not wait for Yunus’ mother to prepare tea. Instead, he put his hand in his pocket and drew out an old black wallet from which he took a whole dinar to hand to Yusuf’s father. Then his mother at once began praying that God would preserve Uncle Nasir and Uncle Marzuq as well as all their children and families. His father would have liked to splurge on tharid, a meat stew served over crumbled bread, but Yunus’ mother insisted on buying fabric for new clothes that she would sew herself, especially since the ‘Id al-Fitr holiday was upon them. Uncle Nasir al-Khashshab’s visit was repeated three more times, but even so Yunus noticed that they did not set the money aside to buy a car. When he reminded them that Yusuf wished to save the money to purchase a vehicle in twenty years, his parents laughed at him.
His father smiled and replied, “Don’t you know what Yusuf is like? He changes his mind all the time.”
Some months later Uncle Marzuq came alone, weeping. As he sobbed and wiped away his tears with his yashmak, he said, “Yusuf drowned. I warned him more than once, but no one can control young people. They enticed him to go swimming. So they ran away from their parents and plunged into the Shatt al-Arab.”
He and little Hasana were the only children left in the reed hut. They ate together, kidded around together, and played together before heading to bed.
When Yunus and his father reached the highway leading to Baghdad, they could see the capital’s buildings through a haze that was sketched in predawn lines of light, which cast shadows over the entire arc of existence. The first structure to appear was the great bridge linking New Baghdad to the capital. There he thought of Yusuf again. He could hear his brother exclaim, as if he really were there, “Look! This bridge is very long. If we walked across it for the next two days, we wouldn’t reach the far end of it. But now we’ll cross it in fifteen minutes.”
“We’ll buy a car.”
Yusuf laughed heartily. “You’re crazy! Aren’t we buying a car?”
“We’ll set aside a quarter dinar every day.”
“When will we buy that car?”
“In twenty years.”
They both burst out laughing. Twenty years—that was a long time. He was ten. What would he be like in another ten years? In twenty? He did not tell his brother that he could not imagine how long twenty years would be. If he were only with him now, he would enjoy his sense of humor.
The crescent on the minaret of the mosque in al-Sayyidiya caught the first pale yellow rays that the July sun cast at it. He walked more than twenty paces with his eyes fixed on the minaret’s crescent. He heard Yusuf’s voice again asking, “Why is that minaret so tall?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“So birds can light on it.”
Yusuf’s forceful chuckle burst out, filling existence. “Have you see a bird perch on it?”
“So why say this?”
The sun’s rays blended with the gray color of the crescent, but the yellow of the rays dominated. Then the crescent looked as if it were painted yellow. “Don’t try to squirm out of answering. How could you say that?”
“Fine. I don’t know. You tell me.”
“So the muezzin can be close to God. God’s in the heavens. So the higher the minaret rises, the closer the muezzin is to God.”
Whenever he saw a minaret, he would remember pondering Yusuf’s cryptic words, which he had not asked his brother to explain when Yusuf had not offered to.
Soon the world around him was dominated by the smell of petroleum. Then the flares and smoke of the Daura Refinery came into sight. Suddenly, as if in a dream, the morning’s radiance elucidated everything. There was an endless stream of vehicles, houses, closed stores, and people, who added to the flow. The first vehicle he saw was a red Brazilian bus heading toward al-Hilla. So many children were crammed into its back seat that he could not make out their features or count them. All he could see were faces with gleaming eyes that gazed at their surroundings. At this time his father was walking behind him uncharacteristically slowly and with difficulty. He stopped from time to time to take a deep breath. Had he known he was dying? Was that why he had brought Yunus with him? If he did know, why did he prefer to die far away from the reed hut? He remembered that his father had told him, once they had walked a few meters from the hut, “You’re a man. A man doesn’t beg or weep.” Why had he said that? Then he had looked at his son and smiled. “Don’t pull the rope too tight around your belly. You’ll soon forget about being hungry.”
The yellow hemp rope almost cut him in two. He stopped and loosened it. His father knew he was hungry, but Yunus would be patient, as he always was, because he was a man. Pickup trucks passed them laden with cartons of eggplants, tomatoes, squash, green beans, broad beans, apples, ripe dates, grapes, watermelons, etc. These vehicles were accompanied by a clamorous rumble that drowned out his father’s words: “God won’t abandon us on this seventh day. Would God abandon His people for seven days in a row? I haven’t found work for seven days. Did He create us for us to die of hunger? No, God forbid!”
Yunus’ father appeared confident that he would find work now, and his confidence proved contagious, spreading to Yunus. Although he agreed with his father, he did not understand the meaning of his words “God won’t abandon us.” Before the embargo, it had been easy to find work, and he and his family had never suffered from hunger’s tyranny. The past month had been different, after they were compelled to sell their food allotment to pay for medical care for Hasana, who had fallen ill and almost died. Things had really changed a lot. If Yusuf had been there, Yunus would have asked him what “embargo” meant and why there was no work to be found after it. He was carrying his large basket, which his mother had patched, weaving in and out between the palm fronds, as best she could, fabric swatches that seamstresses had discarded. He had protested, “It’s new! Why are you mending it?”
“It’s better this way. The patches strengthen it and prevent it from pulling apart so easily.”
Yusuf had taught him where to await shoppers. “When one of them steps out of his car, approach him. Don’t harass or harangue him. Just walk along beside him. Then if he needs you, he’ll make the first move and invite you to accompany him.” He had taught Yunus how to circulate calmly through the passageways of al-Sayyidiya’s market, even when the heat was almost unbearable, and where to stand in the shade in order to watch for vehicles. Even before all this, Yusuf had taught him how to carry the kawshar on his head in a way that would guarantee his customer’s purchases stayed in the basket and did not fall to the ground, where they would be soiled by dirt or muck. If anything fell out, he would not be paid and might receive a strong slap. Yusuf counseled him to smile and gesture toward the basket with his hand to invite his patron to help place it on his head. The distance was not far to the parking lot—no more than a hundred paces. That was on normal days. When he was lucky, an old lady or a gentleman would come on foot. Shoppers like these needed a young porter like him. Even patrons like these, who needed him to tend to their needs while shopping for all sorts of things, would become as annoyed as the others if a porter insisted on helping them. He should walk along with them at a slight distance. Then, if they wanted him, they would ask him to carry their goods. These pedestrian shoppers would pay handsomely, but now there were few of them.
Yusuf lived on with him through his instructions, statements, and conduct. He had sent them money from Basra and then disappeared. His mother had not forgotten him; only little Hasana had. She could not remember Yusuf, but Yunus recalled his older brother with every step he took. I wonder what happens when a person drowns. He had heard Uncle Marzuq whisper to a man he knew in a voice he did not want them to hear, “They never found the body. The Shatt al-Arab is deep and wide, and at ebb tide, everything is drawn out to sea.”
In the evening, shops in the market closed their doors, and its lanes emptied of people—except for him and the other young porters. They galloped around and competed with each other, gleaning whatever shops had left behind: lettuce leaves, peppergrass, parsley, celery, dill, barbin, onions, dates, thin, little clusters of grapes, and even a few individual eggplants, squash, or peppers that were half-eaten or half-rotten.
The day before he had been very lucky and had discovered half a watermelon that was fit to eat and not decomposed. He could not believe his eyes! Why had they left it? What did they do with the other half?
With the coins he had amassed during the previous week he had bought flour so his mother could make bread, but that had not been enough to feed them all for the six days that his father had not been able to find work. So they had eaten the half watermelon without any bread. After the watermelon was finished, Hasana said, “I’m still hungry.”
His mother hugged her and pressed on her chest, saying, “Never mind, beloved Hasuna. You’ll fall asleep and forget about being hungry.”
Had his father brought him along today because he was certain that God would not deny him work for seven days in a row—or because he knew he would die?
They reached al-Sayyidiya’s main intersection, and he spontaneously glanced toward the distant vegetable market. Hunger was tormenting him. He looked away from the market and remembered his father’s words: “You’ll forget about hunger.” Yes, he would forget it. He would force himself not to think about it.
They sat on the sidewalk in front of the sign pointing the way to “The Arab Gulf.” Then a tall, plump, brown-complexioned young man walked up and greeted his father but did not sit down with them. His father asked him the time, and this attorney replied, “Five to six.”
The weather was pleasant; the heat had not become stifling yet. The man stood a few meters away, clenched his fingers and cracked his knuckles. Yunus’ father pointed to the man and whispered respectfully, “He’s an attorney.”
That final word fell into the gloom of obscurity. What does “attorney” mean? He appeared to be an elegant, respectable man and wore bright green gabardine trousers and a clean, white, striped shirt that was freshly ironed.
Then two teachers, four government employees, and many manual laborers arrived till thirty men were present. They seemed to know each other, and most greeted his father. They started conversing, joking with each other, and chuckling. So the commotion, clamor, kidding, and joking intensified.
In less than half an hour a dilapidated pickup, which had patches of paint missing, appeared, and the men sped toward it at breakneck speed. The bald driver started staring at them deliberately, scrutinizing each of them. They crowded around the driver’s window, forming a cohesive mass, shouting, shoving, and all speaking at the same time. Only his father did not push his way forward. Instead, he told Yunus, “Shout in a loud enough voice for everyone to hear: Two for the price of one!”
So Yunus shouted, “Two for the price of one!” He jumped in the air and screamed again: “Two for the price of one!” He continued to yell till he grew so hoarse he could not utter a single syllable and air came out of his throat soundlessly. He felt he had damaged his windpipe, and it hurt to salivate. Yunus leapt in the air so the driver would see him, but the throng stood between them. His father simply waved the shovel, hoisting it up and then dropping it down as if to remind people of his existence.
The pickup started, and four workers, including the attorney, jumped agilely onto its bed as delight swept over their faces and the gleam of victory flashed in their eyes. The other men stepped back with disappointment plastered over their visages; one of them was on the verge of tears. One thin young man of no more than eighteen, however, mocked Yunus’ father, if only to mask his own disappointment: “Two for the price of one!”
Another youth his same age burst out laughing loudly. He was stocky and a tawny brown and wore a maroon shirt with vents on the shoulders. The other fellow, who was tall and slender and rather dark, was barefoot and had wrapped his left foot with white muslin that had become so dirty on the bottom that it was as black as the street’s asphalt. One of them asked loudly enough for Yunus’ father to hear, “Why don’t we also say, ‘Two for the price of one’? It’s Friday; there’s not much work today.”
Yunus looked at his father. His head was bowed, and his eyes were closed. He seemed lost in his own world, as if in some alternative valley.
Yunus did not feel any antagonism toward these young men. He did feel extremely hungry, as if his intestines were twisted out of shape. Why? Was it because he had jumped up and down and shouted a lot? He had heard Yusuf say more than once, “Motion inflames hunger.” If he headed now to al-Sayyidiya Market, which was nearby, he would arrive there in very little time—no more than five minutes at the most. Then he could surely find a tomato, eggplant, or wormy apple or catch a date seller off guard and steal a few dates from him.
Yusuf grasped his arm and shook him. “Come with me.”
They went outside the market, far from any nosey-parker, and Yusuf whispered to him, “I’ll teach you how to steal dates and fruit. You can keep your stomach busy with anything, say a few dates, when you’re hungry.”
In his hand he held a stick two feet long. Then he pulled out a small knife. When he saw the clear, insistent way Yunus was looking at the knife, he guessed his younger brother wanted to know where it had come from.
“Never fear. I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it from Halim, the watermelon vendor.”
He began to whittle down the end of the stick till it resembled a sharp arrow. He started to walk along, staring straight ahead, but then stabbed an imaginary object to his right. He turned to explain to Yunus, “This is what I do. I don’t look at the dates, figs, fruit, or vegetables. I simply aim the arrow toward the target, out of the corner of my eye. The arrow plunges into it, and then the prey disappears suddenly into the basket. That’s what I do when I’m hungry. Practice till you’re skillful enough to steal a tomato, a few dates, an eggplant, a cucumber, or a gherkin, and so on.”
As the sun’s rays ran amuck in the street, the heat intensified and sweat began to stream from the pores of his body. With the heat’s dominance, his scalp, which was matted with dirt, started to itch. He remembered that his mother had wanted to wash his hair but controlled himself, as his mother had instructed him. He did not scratch his head. Most of the men seeking work could not withstand the heat’s intense waves. One of the teachers looked at his colleagues as he placed his hand over his eye to block the sun’s rays. “The best description of our condition is what Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati said: “A wait that comes but does not come.”
Another teacher wiped the sweat from his brown forehead and observed, “You should say rather: the disappointment of a wait that comes and does not come.”
He did not understand any of this. The group began to break up. He hoped his father would feel as bored as the others and return home, leaving him to go to the nearby vegetable market. Perhaps he would find something to eat there.
Two men in their sixties turned up and set up a wooden stand on which they displayed various packs of cigarettes. Then they retreated to the wall with the sign for the Arab Gulf, squatted in the shade, and launched into a seemingly interminable conversation. In less than a minute, however, a teenager parked beside their stand his handcart, which held cans of motor oil, funnels, and wrenches. He began to shake the dust off his work clothes, which were covered with oil from top to bottom. The only men left from the group looking for work were the two sarcastic young men. Then his father asked him to fetch some water, gesturing to a house across the street with a massive façade composed of two very high columns that were faced with bright yellow bricks. These columns attracted the attention of passersby and served as a landmark. The house was new, and on either side of the gate, which was painted blue, two lamps were burning, although their light was overwhelmed by the flaming sunlight. His father cautioned him with concern: “Press the bell only once. Don’t upset the people who live there.”
He did not need this advice, because he frequently stopped there on his way back from the market to quench his thirst from the flaming summer heat.
A woman in her fifties opened the gate. She seemed to be chewing a morsel in her closed mouth. She was fair-complexioned with radiant features—beautiful. Her hair was cut short and chestnut-colored. Her dress was a light coffee color and adorned with red and yellow flowers. The walkway leading through the garden to the door of the house was a mosaic of colored tiles. It was sparkling clean, and the water had not dried yet. He felt a strong urge to lie down on it. There was a flower bed on either side of the walk. One bed was large, and the other was only a meter wide and ended at the neighbors’ fence on the right. These two gardens dozed in a refreshing coolness beneath the luxuriant shade of four fig and orange trees and two small date palms. From the palms hung clusters of yellow dates that glittered in the sun’s rays. At the far end of the walk sat a clean, gleaming, yellow rattan chair.
Everything was clean, sparkling, and lovely, but the woman was the most beautiful creation in all existence. Her eyes were wide and chestnut-colored. The beauty of her features was a sea of affection, and her smile was gentle. He was flustered and could not speak. He swallowed, but that hurt his throat as result of his vociferous, prolonged shouting that morning. He gazed at her without saying a word, forgetting about the drink of water. So she said, “Come. Close the gate behind you.”
Then she disappeared behind an immaculate, teak door, which was a gleaming orange color. On either side of it were narrow, vertical panes, which were framed by wide windows. These were shielded from the world outside by green curtains, which had beautiful, pure maroon stripes. I wonder why she’s asked me to enter. Why has she disappeared inside? But he felt confident. Yusuf’s words reached him clearly: “When you reach your patron’s house, absolutely do not enter it, unless she is a woman. If it is a man, then no!” Her features were affectionate. She would not harm him. But why had she invited him to enter?
He sat down on a colored, square, clean tile, and a delightful, delicate chill spread to his thighs. He wished again that he could lie down and doze for an hour or so. Two feet away from him were a red damask rose bush and a yellow one. He stretched his neck toward the rose nearest to him and inhaled the fine fragrance. Then he exclaimed in a low voice, “God!” He closed his eyes and sensed a pre-slumber numbness. He breathed deeply. He felt the hemp rope that was bound tight around his belly chafe him and stretched out a hand to loosen it. Hearing the teak door open, he sat up straight. He saw her coming with a small tray in her hand. His hunger was awakened in a sudden burst. His pupils grew wide. What’s on that tray? She leaned down and placed the tray on a colored tile. With the speed of lightning his eyes caught sight of a complete loaf of pita bread, a plate with four pieces of white cheese, appetizing, freshly washed basil sprigs from which gleaming drops of water fell, and a tumbler of tea.
She gestured with her hand and smiled sweetly. “Go ahead. Eat. Help yourself.”
Then she straightened up. He could not believe his eyes and almost asked, “Is all this for me?”
But he restrained himself. So she repeated, “Eat up. Dig in. Help yourself. Eat.”
She smiled to encourage him and then turned toward the house door. He continued to gaze at her until she disappeared once more.
Her disappearance made it easier for him to feel at ease. So he drew the small tray toward him, up to his dishdasha, almost laughing from delight. He did not know how he ate, with what greed and appetite! How delectable! He had never had a better meal in his entire life. He was so hungry that he bit his tongue. The pain was excruciating, but he did not stop eating. Even when he felt the first morsel strike his throat, which had been injured by all the shouting, he kept on eating. In a few moments he discovered that half the pita loaf had vanished along with half the cheese. Then he stopped eating. He would take the remainder to his father, who was as hungry as he was.
He placed the two pieces of cheese and the remaining basil on the bread and began to wrap it up. Then he saw her coming back toward him, though. She had a clear, plastic bag in her hand and said, “Let me put that in a bag for you.”
He put the small bag in his left pocket. Then he closed his eyes as he drank the delicious tea, which had a magnificent red color. He trickled small sips into his mouth time and again so he could enjoy it for the longest time possible. When he finished the tumbler of tea, he remembered his thirsty father, who would be delighted with the bread and cheese but unfortunately would not be able to taste the tea. There was nothing like this delicious tea in their hut or even in all of Baghdad. He wished he had the audacity to ask for even half this breakfast every time he came to the vegetable market. But that’s impossible. What’s happened just now is a chance occurrence. Perhaps it will never be repeated. He noticed that she was sitting in the chair and had begun to smoke. He turned toward her. Then he looked at the ground. Before he left, he summoned the courage to ask, “May I have a glass of water for my father?”
She smiled and brought him a beautiful glass unlike any he had ever seen. He took it and said, “I’ll return the glass directly.”
She nodded affectionately but said nothing. She walked along behind him. He heard the gate shut as he continued down the street and saw his father sitting in the same spot on the far side of the street. Nothing had changed. He saw the two old men with the cigarette stand; they were leaning against the wall that bore the sign for the Arab Gulf, shaded by it. Near them, the two young men who had mocked his father had begun to smoke.
His father was still seated by himself on the sidewalk in the sun. His arms were on his knees, and his forehead was propped on his arms. His bare feet rested on the shovel. Yunus wondered why he, unlike the others, had not moved to the wall’s shade to escape the sunshine. He sat down to his father’s left and held out the glass, saying, “Drink this glass of clean water.”
His father did not respond. His head continued to rest on his arms. Yunus switched the glass to his left hand and shook his father. “I’ve brought you water and a breakfast. Take this and drink.”
His father did not budge or lift his head. He did not seem to hear Yunus, who shook him gently. Then his father swayed, and Yunus sensed that his father had lost control of his body. So he said urgently, “Daddy! Take the glass and drink! Clear, cold water!”
Yunus shook him again more forcefully, and his father fell toward him and crashed against Yunus’ chest. The man’s weight almost sent the boy to the ground, and some of the water spilled. He drew back from his father a little, but the man’s concave body slid toward him even more. Had Yunus not been sitting there, his father would have fallen to the earth. He cried out loudly, “What’s the matter with you?”
Yunus shook the man again, hard. “Daddy! Sit up! What’s wrong?”
The others heard his piercing cry, and the two young man came over and asked, “Is he sick?”
Yunus stared at them but said nothing. One of the youths approached and lifted the man’s head with both hands, from around the ears. Then he screamed as loudly as if he had been stung, “He’s dead!”
The two old men rushed to them, and one shouted emotionally, “Let’s take him to the hospital!”
He looked sadly at the boy and asked, “Do you have enough money for a taxi?”
Yunus did not answer and looked at the man with total confusion. One of the young men volunteered, “There’s not a single penny in his pocket.”
“I’ll contact emergency services,” the other youth said, wiping away his tears. He raced to the nearby branch of the Bank of al-Rafidayn—about fifteen meters away. The first young man started weeping and screaming. People gathered around them, and Yunus grew even more confused. People were shoving each other, and some were screeching. A few mumbled, “All power and might belong to God,” but others were struck dumb by the event. They all gathered in the angry atmosphere of a violent wave of existential protest.
When the ambulance arrived, the two young men—as tears welled up in their eyes—insisted on going with the boy and his father.
The physician’s hand was still perched fondly on the boy’s shoulder, and his stethoscope, which hung down his chest, continued to oscillate between his clean white scrub and the boy’s chest. The doctor’s voice drew Yunus out of his reveries by whispering affectionately, “Look at me. Don’t waste time. It’s hot. He must be buried today.”
The boy’s eyes clouded over. What’s the relevance of heat to the burial? He did not know what to do.
Suddenly one of sarcastic young men burst out weeping. This was the same one who had sobbed that morning when he learned that Yunus’ father had died. Now that the father had been pronounced dead and the medical examination had been concluded, and as the physician continued to urge the boy to bury his father in this intense heat, people began to gather around the boy just as they had that morning. Holding the father’s shovel, the ironic young man sobbed loudly. Everyone was mournful, and some were also shedding tears. Yunus, who felt all alone, looked with his wide, empty eyes at all this commotion. He was unable to speak, incapable of uttering a single syllable, because he did not know what to say or what to do. He wanted to ask what the first step was. But what is the first step?
William Hutchins who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni's novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal Magazine, and here in InTranslation. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translations released in 2012 have been The Diesel by Thani al-Suwaidi (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim (revised edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers), The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson: African Writers Series), and A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet).Mahmoud Saeed
Mahmoud Saeed, a prominent Iraqi novelist, has written more than 20 novels and short story collections. He was imprisoned several times and left Iraq in 1985 after the authorities banned the publication of some of his novels, including Zanka bin Baraka (1970), which won the Ministry of Information Award in 1993. Mahmoud is currently serving as the first writer-in-residence at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, Kurdistan.