Our NeighborsBy Faleeha Hassan, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins
I always closed the door when my father entered our house, but this time I left it open as I looked for a long time at two huge pots on black iron tripods beneath which flaming pieces of wood had been placed to turn to live coals.
Two men stood beside these cauldrons. The first was stirring chick peas and meat in a pot with a ladle as big as a shovel while the second added wood to the fire beneath the other one, in which broth was boiling. The scene stopped me in my tracks, because the glowing red coals and tongues of flame, the smell of burning wood, and summer’s stifling heat all corresponded to my image of hell—inspired by what my grandmother told me when she described it as a giant cauldron—boiling over flaming wood and coals—in which divine agents punished the damned who had neglected to perform their prayers.
One of the men stared at me, and his eyes flashed intensely red, not because they were red, but because they were flaming coals. I closed the door with a trembling hand and raced quickly to our living quarters and hastily drew the Qur’an from its high shelf, hugged it, and squatted in a corner, trying to draw some support from God to help me forget that terrifying man and his demonic gaze.
But I failed and started reciting short Qur’anic surahs I had memorized—so quickly that my heart beat even faster. I had barely finished reciting the Qur’an’s final chapter, which is called “al-Nas” or “Mankind,” when I heard my mother scream.
I galloped to her, clutching the Qur’an. I found her and my grandmother beating their chests and screaming “Dad!” Then my father walked through the door accompanied by another man. He was carrying my younger brother whose scorched flesh had fused with the cloth of his white dishdasha.
I was dumbfounded and raised my hands to my mouth, attempting to quell the scream that tried to escape. Then the Qur’an fell to the floor.
I don’t recall what happened next. All I can remember of that day before I fled to the dwelling’s roof to hide was seeing the door wide open and my father rushing outside wearing two mismatched plastic sandals, which weren’t the same size or color. He was carrying my flaming younger brother as a man stood by the door of our house mumbling words I didn’t hear. My mother and grandmother beat their faces and chests while screaming wildly. The Qur’an lay on the floor. I raced to the roof with such extraordinary speed that I don’t know if I climbed the steps of the ladder one at a time or leapt up all at once.
Even now I have no memory of climbing to the roof. What I remember is the excruciating midday heat that burned my feet wherever I stepped. I examined the terrace with sore eyes but found no place that would shelter me from the horror of the scene, from my family, from the eyes of the man I had seen spying on me, and from the heat of the roof, which I found totally devoid of shade. I leaned against the wall, and its heat immediately spread through my body. Then I crumpled to the terrace.
My heart beat faster and faster. Then I felt something that almost strangled me from inside. I didn’t know what it was, but it penetrated my spirit and began to squeeze it brutally. So I screamed with a voice that flowed from some source loudly enough to blanket the entire area. It reached my grandmother’s ear. I saw her at the door to the roof terrace, bareheaded without her long, black scarf. Her breast pocket was ripped too.
She approached me, took my hand in hers, and lifted me to my feet. I walked, clinging to her, afraid I would fall into the abyss opening before me. I shut my eyes and walked, hoping that everything I thought had happened moments before had merely been a terrifying nightmare that would vanish the moment I opened my eyes.
I don’t know how long I slept, but when I opened my eyes I found the man with the red eyes in front of me. In fact, his eyes had grown even redder. He stood beside a cauldron in which blood was boiling. When he extended his hand toward me, I saw his long, hideous, black fingernails, which were so long they almost grasped the edge of my thawb as I crouched on the roof. I tried to move my body away, but his hand kept coming closer and closer. I pressed my back against the wall repeatedly, attempting to push through it and evade that terrifying hand but didn’t succeed. So I started screaming: “Granny! Daddy! Mommy! Help! He’s going to set me on fire! Help! He’s going to burn me!”
“Calm down. Calm down. All power and might are Almighty God’s. What’s afflicted us, my Lord?”
I heard my grandmother talking to herself as she tried to wipe the sweat from my brow. Trying to pull myself together, I opened my eyes with difficulty and found my father standing by my head. He asked, “How is she doing today?”
“Not as well as could be hoped. We need to take her to the doctor,” Granny told him.
“Her mother hasn’t improved, either,” my father in a voice as sad as my grandmother’s.
“Listen, son, may God assist you in your suffering, but this is fate. You and your wife are still young. I am confident that God will compensate you for your little boy with one even better. So don’t weep too much for him. Accept the calamity with a believer’s heart, and God will compensate you, my son. Wait till tomorrow morning, if the condition of your wife’s health hasn’t improved by then, put her in the hospital and stay with her. As for your daughter, I’ll care for her till she recovers. Don’t be angry with her, because it’s not her fault that she left the door open and that your son crawled outside and what happened, happened. Everything is determined by fate, my son. Don’t let your anger at your daughter make a bad situation worse.”
I didn’t hear my father utter a word. Instead I heard his slow, mournful footsteps leave the room. I tried to fall asleep again. Then I found myself standing in the courtyard, facing my brother. Our house didn’t have a roof, and the sun’s rays started to scorch my head, almost vaporizing me.
My brother was sitting in some shade, but I had no idea from what. I raced to him delightedly and tried to pick him up; but I was alarmed when I saw the door to the house open wide. A tall man entered and headed quickly toward my brother. He took him in his arms and left.
Both door panels slammed shut behind them, and I was alone again. I screamed after the man, “Thief, thief! My brother—return my brother to me. Don’t burn him.”
But a cold cloud came and rained on my face. I woke up in alarm and found my face wet with cool water. My grandmother had washed my entire face. I opened my eyes and tried to look at her but could only see a blurred image of her features. I closed my eyes again and opened my mouth. As drops of water fell into it, I experienced a new taste for water.
I mumbled some words; I don’t believe she heard them. I wanted to tell her I hadn’t killed my brother. She ignored me, however. She picked up a glass of water and held it near my mouth. So I began to drink.
I didn’t know how long I had slept—three days or a week?
Later I heard that my mother spent a full week in the hospital, where my father stayed with her. Meanwhile my grandmother left me only to pray or go to the bath- room. I wasn’t convinced by the story I heard about my brother’s death. They summarized it by saying he had seized a moment when my mother was busy in the kitchen and quickly crawled to the door, which I had left open, and gone outside. He had tripped on his robe and fallen off the stoop into the flaming coals under one of the cauldrons. So he burned to death without anyone noticing. I knew his death had been caused by the terror that had overwhelmed me when I saw that man stare at me. Then I fled from him without taking the time to make sure the door was shut tight. When my brother found the door open, he stuck his head out. One of those men spotted him, pulled him outside, and threw him beneath the tripod, where he burned to death. Yes, I’m sure of that, because our Shi‘i neighbors, as my grandmother says, are thieves who destroy our happiness for no reason at all.
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.