A Scene from Daily Life in al-Najaf, Iraq
The expanse of the sky overhead revealed no sign of a coming storm. The weather was so clear she felt like sitting outside and gazing at the sky. So she decided to spread a mat on the ground as she did almost every day. She placed a book beside her together with a notebook in which she recorded observations about everything she read—as if she were a professional writer or a critic striving to bag sentences. From time to time she fell into reveries as she contemplated meanings that lurked between lines recorded on the page. During one such moment she felt she was seated on a flying carpet, because the mat began lifting off the ground on every side. Only the weight of her body, which grew lighter by the minute, pulled the mat toward the earth.
Astonished, she looked up at the sky and noticed that some pages had pulled out of her notebook and were spiraling into the heavens. Her eyes widened as she gazed at the sky, which gradually turned yellow, then orange, and finally gray. Even so, she did not want to flee the grains of sand, because they filled her pores with a soothing effect that calmed her.
It’s summer, and this wind is merely a gust that will quickly blow by. A woman like me shouldn’t be defeated by nature’s fleeting sigh.
She convinced herself with this logic and actually felt rather smug about being a woman who bravely confronted a storm. She imagined herself a heroine facing down a frightful tornado. She felt so courageous she even imagined herself taming and then riding this cyclone.
She became intoxicated by this fantasy, and her body steeled itself in the face of tons of dust carried from far away by the wind. She simply closed the house’s windows and doors hurriedly. Then she emerged again, unarmed, to confront the sand’s troops. Eventually something hit the house’s main door—perhaps a stone the winds had picked up. This alarmed the woman enough to ransack her memory, where a blurred image of her two children, who had gone to buy sweets from a nearby store, sketched itself, showing them lost in the storm.
She was so shocked her teeth started chattering in alarm and all her bones began to shake. She brooded: What’s happened to my kids? With extraordinary difficulty, because the wind’s fingers were determined to rip it off, she was finally able to pull her abaya over her head. Then the woman yanked her abaya forcefully from the wind’s grip and wrapped it round her body.
It took a long time for her to reach the house’s door, because the wind may have sensed that the woman had defied it and for that reason wished to show her that any such challenge was doomed to failure.
She pushed herself by brute force to the door, planted her feet firmly on its stoop, reached for the doorknob, and pulled on it with more force than she knew she could summon. She managed to open the door, but the storm shut it in her face repeatedly.
Once it was obvious the woman would not change her mind, the wind weakened a little, and the woman was able to leave the house. All the same, the wind did not welcome this decision and expressed its opposition by slamming the door shut so violently that it almost fell off its hinges.
The woman opened her eyes but could see nothing, because the air had turned into an undulating piece of leather with layers of sand piled on it.
Where are my kids?
This question nearly drove the woman out of her mind and cast her to the ground. She raced down the streets’ arteries, which were clogged with sand. She saw nothing—no children, no shops, no vehicles, and not even any streets. The wind seemed to have issued an ultimatum to everything: “Hide! I’m coming.” Headlights appeared in the distance, looking like a thief’s flashlight or a signal that the world was void of life.
Suddenly streets of sand spread before her eyes; she had never seen space so extensive before; thickets of fear proliferated till they reached her soul’s deepest reaches. A bereaved mother, she was totally alone, and echoes of her screams foundered on the wall of sand—sand that absorbed her cries after filling her entire mouth, where only the reed of its oboe obstructed the sand flowing into her belly.
She could no longer rely on her eyes in her quest, because her eyelashes had become little rods of sand that prevented the least glimmer of light from reaching her eyes, which were sunk into a profound darkness after her numerous attempts to see had failed.
The questions looping in her head included: Where can I find them? Where could they have gone? These threw the woman for a loop. Her right hand was attempting to find a way to slice through the void that extended endlessly before her. Her left hand clutched the edges of her abaya.
This woman was trying to keep herself from crumbling, but the whirlwind wanted to smash her to smithereens. Her body whirled around with the wind; then the galloping sand twirled the body and dropped it in a remote corner.
The sound of her bones colliding with the wall mixed with the echo of the noise of the tiles, and her pain became an antidote for her despair. She moved back very, very slowly and rolled into a ball inside her abaya, which was decorously impregnated with sand and dirt. The whirlwind paused momentarily—like a warrior who had readied all his weapons for a decisive battle, which, however, was quickly postponed once the storm saw the woman’s sandy ghost attempt to rise, steadied by her hands on the walls. This phantom began to lift its devastated body from the earth, bit by bit.
The first step was the hardest. Conscious of her body’s weight, the woman placed a foot on the surface of the street, attempting to walk.
How do I walk?
She pressed her feeble memory before the answer finally came: We push the earth behind us while propelling ourselves forward. This voice came from her distant past when someone had explained walking to her. Now she attempted to shove the earth back.
Instead of the earth helping to push her forward, her foot slipped and she fell. This attempt was repeated several times, but no head could drag a body forward by itself, not even her own head. So the woman raised herself on all fours and began to crawl.
The storm had not dissipated, but a layer of air had cleared away the sand clinging to the sky’s skin, allowing light to shine through. The woman’s eyes welcomed it with a torrent of tears.
“Where are they?”
Her voice became a wail and began to reverberate with the muffled sound of her crawling through time and space blended together. Her heart turned toward the walls, which were coated with red dust, and her eyes fell on the door of their house.
She crawled hastily, driven by mixed feelings of fear at the possibility of loss and of hope for a reunion. The sandy wind was still wailing like a jackal that was declaring war on anyone left standing in order to force him to bow and kneel.
She knocked on her door. No one answered.
This time she banged on the door with both hands. She repeated this attempt several times. Finally the door opened. Holding a towel over his nose and mouth, he screamed in her face: “Why did you go out? They’ve returned! Come inside!”
She grasped the doorknob and lifted her head. She watched him dash back into the room. Then she dragged herself ever so slowly inside the house.
The children scampered to her, and the woman thrust her whole body toward them. The sand on her abaya became soaked by her tears as their barrage of hugging commenced.
“Mommy, you’re barefoot?” the younger girl shouted after staring at her mother’s feet. She herself hadn’t realized this.
Another version of this story says the woman went out to search for her two children, but that the Sand King waylaid her. When he invited her to accompany him to Wadi Abqar in Yemen to reign there as his queen, she vigorously rejected his proposal.
A different account says she threatened to reveal his secret to water. When he asked her to leave him some souvenir of their meeting, she refused to give him her abaya or even a passing glance. So he stole her shoes.
It is also reported that the woman next door overheard their muttered conversation and has called her “Sandy Cinderella” from that time till now.
Faleeha Hassan, who is currently residing in New Jersey, was born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967. She earned an M.A. in Arabic literature and has published several collections of poetry in Arabic: Being a Girl, A Visit to the Museum of Shade, Five Titles for My Friend-The Sea, Though Later On, Poems to Mother, Gardenia Perfume, and her collection of children’s poetry, The Guardian of Dreams. Her works of Arabic prose include Hazinia or Shortage of Joy Cells and Water Freckles (a novella). Her poems have been translated into English, Italian, German, French, and Kurdish. She has received awards from the Arab Linguists and Translators Association (WATA) and the Najafi Creative Festival for 2012, as well as the Prize of Naziq al-Malaika, the Prize of al-Mu’tamar for poetry, and the short story prize of the Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation. She serves on the boards of Baniqya, a quarterly in Najaf, Sada al Nahrain (Echo of Mesopotamia), and the Iraqi Writers in Najaf association. She is a member of the Iraq Literary Women’s Association, The Sinonu (i.e. Swift) Association in Denmark, the Society of Poets Beyond Limits, and Poets of the World Community.William Maynard Hutchins
WILLIAM MAYNARD HUTCHINS, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005 - 2006 for his translation from Arabic of The Seven Veils of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing) and again in 2011 - 2012 for a translation of New Waw by Ibrahim al-Koni (the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas). He was the co-winner of the 2013 Saif Ghobash/Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet). He won the 2015 Prize for Prose Translation of the American Literary Translators Association for his translation of New Waw.