The Last of the Angels: A Modern Iraqi Novelby Fadhil al-Azzawi
From a legendary writer both beloved and banished by Iraq a fine work of Arabic literature in the vein of Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a magical and moving comic novel about the birth of modern Iraq.
Kirkuk, Iraq, the 1950s. The day Hameed Nylon loses his job, and gains an unfortunate nickname, is the day that his life/i>/b>
From a legendary writer both beloved and banished by Iraq a fine work of Arabic literature in the vein of Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury, and a magical and moving comic novel about the birth of modern Iraq.
Kirkuk, Iraq, the 1950s. The day Hameed Nylon loses his job, and gains an unfortunate nickname, is the day that his life begins: dismissed as a chauffeur when rumors surface that he propositioned his British boss's posh-tart wife, Hameed finds his true calling as a revolutionary in an Iraq that is destined for a sea change. Also bent on bucking the system is Hameed's brother-in-law, the money-scheming butcher Khidir Musa, who runs off suddenly to Russia to find two brothers who have been missing since World War I. And the key to their fate is held by a seven-year-old boy, Burhan Abdallah, who stumbles upon an old chest in his attic that allows him to speak with three white-robed old men, beings who inform him that they are, in fact, angels.
Al-Azzawi left Iraq in 1977 for exile in Germany. This 1992 novel about 1950s Kirkuk was banned in Iraq: it covers a series of hilarious, surreal and sometimes horrifying adventures in a neighborhood of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds during the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the Ba'ath Party. Hameed Nylon-a nickname born of rumors that he lost his job with the Iraq Petroleum Company after offering his English boss's wife a pair of stockings in exchange for sex-becomes an unlikely leader of a people's revolution. Khidir Musa, a butcher suffering midlife crisis, has a vision that starts him on a quest to find his two brothers, missing in the Soviet Union since WWI. A barber killed by an errant bullet during a demonstration becomes a saint whose mausoleum attracts worshippers from afar. Young Burhan Abdallah comes upon three angels who promise to bring rebirth to Kirkuk: he waits for them to keep their word through the rise and fall of one cruel tyrant after another. With comic coincidence as a major plot device, Al-Azzawi explores politics, religion, culture and self-interest with very little inhibition (except where it comes to women, who are mostly absent) in this rollicking, bittersweet satire. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Because this book was originally published in 1992 (and promptly banned by the Iraqi government), neither the Gulf War nor the war in Iraq appears in its pages. Instead, we get a wondrously crafted story, set in the 1950s, of the author's birth city of Kirkuk. Al-Azzawi's writing embraces the coffeehouse, the mosque, the back alley, and the royal palace, telling a story that is comedic-but not at the expense of any of the large cast of characters. The premise sounds like the opening of a joke-a poet, a madman, a Communist, a hero, a bodyguard, and the personification of Death make a pilgrimage to the king to stop a British oil company from plowing a road through the town's cemetery. Narrative flourishes like the golden wheelchair and flying zeppelins or sayings like "It is always better to address the head rather than plead with the tails" lend a unique richness to the increasingly complex tale. Readers of Ngugi Wa Thiongo or Orhan Pamuk will recognize this novel's mix of slapstick, tragedy, and the fantastic and will look forward to further translations of al-Azzawi's work.
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Hameed, who had yet to learn the nickname by which he would be known for the rest of his life, entered the house, which emitted a fresh country scent. With his foot, as usual, he shoved open the heavy door, which was made of walnut and decorated with large, broad-headed nails. Only at night was it closed by a bolt with protruding teeth. Verdigris had spread across this till its edges looked bright green. He climbed a few steps, making his way to the two small rooms over the entryway that led to the courtyard.
It was the first time Hameed had returned from his job at the oil company so early. It was barely eleven, and this fact surprised his wife Fatima, who was not expecting him till afternoon. He interrupted her innocent laughter as she stood on the steps discussing her nightly pleasures over a low masonry wall with a neighbor next door. Her happiness actually was tinged with bitter anxiety, since she had been married for more than a year without conceiving. She had sought out most of the better-known and even less well-known imams in the city for charms against barrenness to neutralize the magic that the many women envying her had clearly concocted to her detriment. Although she had never said so openly, her suspicions, from the beginning, had focused on Nazira her husband's sister and on Nazira's mother, Hidaya, a plump old woman who made no secret of her collaboration with the devil, for her house was always cluttered with herbs and dried flowers, ground bones, and assorted chemical substances purchased from Jewish druggists in al-Qaysariya, at the entrance to the old souk.
Among the imams Fatima consulted was a blind man who charged her a dirham to write a charm. He told her, "This amulet will set on fire any devil that dares approach you." As an additional precaution, however, she consulted another Turkmen imam, who lived in a nameless alley branching off from the Chay neighborhood. A month or two later, since her belly had not swollen up yet, her neighbor advised her to tour the tombs of the dead imams, since the living ones were not useful anymore and only wrote charms for money. Thus Fatima, enveloped in her black wrap, headed to Imam Ahmad, whose tomb lay in the center of the main thoroughfare linking al-Musalla district with the old souk. She wept and pleaded, deliberately prolonging the time she spent there so the imam would not ignore her request. A passing car almost ran into her, since in her spiritual rapture tears streaming from her eyes she had forgotten she was sitting in the middle of the street. After that she visited the tomb in al-Musalla cemetery of a Kurdish imam said to have been able to converse with birds, which understood and obeyed him. A month later, when no change had occurred in her, even though she made her husband sleep with her more than once a night, her visiting mother said, "This time you're going to head for the tomb of a Jewish saint, for no one is on better terms with the devil than Jews; evil is only negated by evil." The next morning, however, when she related that to her neighbor, the woman advised her to go to the citadel and ask a Christian household there for a hog's tooth. She said they put those, normally, in water jugs. She should slip it under her husband's pillow, since Satan fears nothing more than hogs' teeth. Perhaps because of all of this advice she was receiving from here and there, and also, possibly because she was disillusioned with saints whose blessed powers had failed, she decided to call off, at least temporarily, these unsuccessful attempts while increasing the number of times she slept with her husband, since she knew, perhaps with good reason, that more than any other location bed was where the issue would be settled, if only because this was the resting place for the saints closest to God.
Even so, Fatima would not have paid much attention to this matter had it not been for her mother's persistent entreaties and the insinuating comments of the old woman Hidaya and her daughter Nazira, who deliberately spoke in riddles, saying, for example, "The cow that doesn't give birth is slaughtered." On the whole she was content with her nightly trysts with her husband, who had never given a thought, not even once, to having children, since love for women eclipsed all other loves in his life. He especially wished to preserve for as long as possible his sense of being a young man little burdened with responsibilities, so that he could leave in the morning for his job at the oil company and not return home till he felt like it. He occasionally returned in the afternoon but frequently stayed out until ten or eleven p.m. without upsetting Fatima, who had no way of discovering anything about his work except from the stories he told her. She knew he drove a private car belonging to an English engineer and his wife, conveying them from one place to another and waiting for them. She grasped that this type of work might force him to work late more often than not. He was occasionally obliged to travel to other cities and areas, accompanying his boss. Then he would return home bringing especially during Christian holidays chocolates from London or locally produced pieces of sugared coconut, which she had not tasted before. The moment she saw her husband enter, she raced to him since this was the first time he had returned so early, a fact that made her feel uncomfortable and anxious. She fought to control her emotions and to keep herself from asking why he was early. He, however, spoke first, saying with a smile, "I want to lie down a little." Only then did she find the courage to ask anxiously, "I hope you don't feel ill?" As he climbed toward their two rooms over the house's entryway, he replied, "No, not at all. I'm just tired." This answer satisfied her enough that she said, "Fine. I'll start cooking right away so we can have lunch together." She went off to prepare the food, feeling on the whole contented and delighted that her husband was home with her. Even if something were the matter, he would certainly tell her, she was sure of that.
Her husband kept uncharacteristically silent this time, however. In fact, he did not leave his bed to go to the coffeehouse or to visit with his friends, not even that afternoon. Neither did he go out to chat with the neighborhood youth, who met each evening in front of a shop located near the community's mosque. Even worse than that, he did not leave home for work the next day. Only then did Fatima realize that something was wrong, something he was hiding from her and did not care to divulge. It had to be something serious. Her fears led her to beg him to tell her the truth, but he merely told her he had taken a few days' holiday. She felt somewhat relieved but not entirely reassured, for he might be trying to deceive her, thinking that he should not alarm or upset her.
She knew that when he was in a good humor he would tell her one story after another about Mr. McNeely; his flirtatious wife, Helen; and the other Englishmen who worked in the Baba Gurgur region for the Iraq Petroleum Company in Kirkuk. She knew that every Englishman was called "Boss" and that the company belonged to them. Fatima and Hameed would laugh a lot when he told her how Englishwomen were not at all embarrassed about showing their naked bodies to employees and how they wore undershirts and shorts in the presence of their cuckolded husbands, who bragged about their wives to one another. In fact, he had discovered that his boss's wife had more than one English lover. He was equally well versed in his boss's affair with the daughter of Khamu, an Assyrian Christian, who enjoyed the rank of a "first-class" employee with the firm. That was not all; her father encouraged the girl to continue this relationship with the man. As for the boss and his wife, they did not attempt to conceal their affairs from him, leaving the impression that these were extremely natural. In fact, his boss's beautiful, bronzed wife would leave the home of one of her lovers and climb into the waiting automobile as if returning from prayers. Once, when they were on the lakeshore in al-Habaniya, Helen removed every stitch of clothing. When she noticed that Hameed was staring wildly and lustfully at her, she was surprised and winked at him, smiling as she sank into the water. Fatima had frequently teased him, laughing, "What more do you want? Many men would pay good money to have such enjoyable work."
Hameed, however, did not actually find in his work the kind of satisfaction his wife imagined, for he felt humiliated most of the time as he sat behind the steering wheel, waiting for Helen to leave an assignation. They occasionally invited him inside and served him lemonade in the servants' quarters while he listened to his mistress's moans from a bed in another room where she lay with the lover she was visiting. That would drive him crazy, agitating him, although he did not dare protest or refuse the invitation. He assumed it not unlikely that she would fancy him someday and invite him to sleep with her, but that day never came. After the incident in which Mrs. Helen McNeely appeared naked at al-Habaniya and after her conspiratorial wink, he spent more than a month feeling uncertain about his standing with her, wanting her but lacking the audacity to cross the line separating them. The image of her standing naked before him never left his head, since he often thought of her while he slept with his wife. That did not, in his opinion, constitute any diminution of his love for his wife, everything considered, for Mrs. Helen McNeely was no better than a whore. He, as a man, had a right to seize this opportunity. He was sure he would show her in bed that he was superior to all her other lovers. He would thus avenge himself and erase the humiliation he felt whenever she climbed into the car to head for one of them.
Hameed never returned to work and there must have been some secret reason, which would eventually surface, even though he attempted to postpone this moment, day by day. People in the Chuqor neighborhood learned from other men who worked for the company that Hameed had been fired. Instead of trying to console him, however, they burst into laughter, and his story traveled by word of mouth until the whole city knew it. Thus he acquired a nickname that remained linked to his given name forever, as if it actually were a real part of his name. Even innocent children always called him by this name Hameed Nylon which he himself finally accepted, adding it to his given name.
The story these workers told, based on reports from the oil company, was that Hameed, who was the personal driver for Mr. McNeely and his wife, wishing to try his luck with the wife and to win her affection, had returned one day from a trip to H3 and Rutba, carrying a simple present for her a pair of nylon stockings but that Mrs. McNeely, who considered him a servant, had tossed the stockings back at him and thrown him out. Some said that she had initially accepted his present but had asked him the reason for it. Then, taking his cues from films he had seen, he had leaned over her and tried to kiss her. At that point she had slapped his face, screamed, and accused him of trying to rape her. Others asserted that she had slept with him but had tired of him and had then used the nylon stockings as a pretext to sack him. Neighborhood women asserted that he had befriended the Englishwoman and actually had given her nylon stockings but that her husband, who was suspicious about this affair, had used the stockings as an excuse to separate him from his wife and thus had fired him. Hameed Nylon remained silent for many days, refusing to say anything about the incident. Once he regained his composure he made one comment, simply this: "The only true thing in any of these stories is the nylon stockings."
Although the people of the Chuqor neighborhood considered his termination by the firm a natural event that no one could influence, some men who worked there, and most of the neighborhood youth who trained each day in the gym they had created in an abandoned building adjacent to the house where Hameed Nylon lived, tried to incite the people of the neighborhood against the oil company. The imam of the Chuqor community even mentioned in his study sessions, which began spontaneously every night after evening prayer at the mosque: "The English have deprived one of our community's young men of his livelihood because of a pair of stockings. This matter cannot be acceptable to God or His Prophet." Some women's zeal was so aroused that they swore at the poor kerosene vendors and snubbed them. They would open the taps of the drums that were pulled by donkeys, letting the kerosene spill onto the street. They told the sellers, who had absolutely no comprehension of the affair, "You should pour kerosene down that Englishwoman's crotch." Once again the community's sages objected: "How are these poor fellows to blame?" Oil workers' families certainly did not want to lose the privilege of buying gas at reduced rates through coupons sold to workers. Moreover, the secret labor union that was organizing oil workers distributed a handbill that attacked the firing of Hameed Nylon and called for his reinstatement, although no one in the Chuqor neighborhood knew about the pamphlet, and that was just as well, for if the people had felt the case was political, they definitely would have been afraid. Although the Chuqor neighborhood had never at any time in its history, which stretched back at least a hundred years, participated in a protest demonstration, many residents had heard of them. Indeed, some had seen the demonstration in the great souk a few months before. There were also some butchers who had assisted the police by attacking the demonstrators and clubbing them, after they were told that these demonstrators advocated female licentiousness, once a week, every Friday.
Thus a month after Hameed Nylon had lost his job, it was decided that one Friday the neighborhood would set out on a demonstration to seek the reinstatement of their son who had been fired from his position with the firm. Everyone became excited by the idea after it was lengthily discussed in the coffee shops, which turned into free-for-all houses of debate each afternoon. The matter evolved into a quasi-religious duty once Mullah Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri declared that since all Muslims constitute a single body, when one member suffers, the rest of the body rallies on its behalf with a vigilant defense. Consequently, an aged artist, known for carving words on marble tombstones, undertook the creation of protest signs, devising the texts himself.
One day, after the Friday prayer, a procession that included women and children set forth. Athletes from the Chuqor neighborhood, along with those from other communities, carried signs written in a variety of scripts Ruq'a, Farsi, and Kufic "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God," "In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate," "Traitor, Your Time's Up," "Hameed Nylon's Innocent," "Hameed Nylon Has a Family to Support," and "Long Live Hameed Nylon!" Raised alongside these were green flags brought from the mosques. Thus the tops of their standards read, "God," "Muhammad," and "Ali." When the children saw these, they rushed home and returned with any scraps of cloth they could find. They tied these to sticks, which they began to wave as they hopped about inside the crush of people or at the front. The neighborhood's dervishes brought their swords and lances, which they brandished, striking in time to the ululations of the women or whenever anyone cried, "God is Most Great!" There were also three or four among them the thief Mahmud al-Arabi, who broke into houses by night (outside of the Chuqor neighborhood, naturally) who brought their revolvers, since they felt responsible for their community's inhabitants. They fired into the air until the mosque's imam forbade them from doing that. They stopped firing but kept their revolvers in their hands. Many children had stained their faces black with soot so that they resembled Africans or afreets. Others, who wore goat heads attached to skins that reached down to their feet, butted the air with their horns. At the same time some shaykhs sprinkled rose water from small bronze vessels with long necks over the assembled people. Others carried pictures of al-Hasan and al-Husayn, the dragon-slaying saint, the child king Faisal II, King Ghazi, and Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, there was even a framed portrait of the renowned artiste Samanchi Qizzi taken from the coffeehouse in the great souk.
Finally the demonstration set off, but where was it heading? No one knew. It traversed the Chuqor neighborhood, back and forth, entering alleyways and bursting out of them. When they saw the soot-stained faces and the goat heads, women watching from rooftops thought the procession was a prayer for rain and started pouring water over the heads of the demonstrators for good luck. After they had crisscrossed the neighborhood, someone shouted, "Let's go to the company and present our complaints!" Another person cried, "No, let's go to the barracks and present the matter to the government!" Mullah Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri, the mosque's imam, who was marching in the lead with the neighborhood's shaykhs beside him, stopped to deliver a speech that everyone remembered for a long time. He said, "It is unreasonable to think we can march from here to the company in Baba Gurgur to present our petition to the Englishman and his wanton wife, who is a Christian. We would die of fatigue before we reached there. Moreover, God and His Messenger have forbidden Muslims from bowing their heads before infidels. If we go there, we will be forced to act in a submissive and subservient way when we appeal for merciful treatment from a harlot and her procurer husband. This approach would ill befit the honor of the Chuqor neighborhood. I have heard others demand that we head for the barracks or the palace, but how is the government involved in Hameed Nylon's firing? It's the English who fired him, and they're not our fellow countrymen. Only red Communists pick fights with the police and the government, and praise God we're not Communists or Muscovites."
When the Imam Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri reached this point in his speech, voices from enthusiastic members of the crowd asked, "What should we do then?" A profound silence reigned while the imam responded. His answer was decisive and dumbfounding this time: "We will turn toward God." The multitude did not quite comprehend the meaning of this lofty phrase. Therefore, he added, "It's true that Hameed Nylon was sacked, but the affliction is even greater than that, for we are all threatened by the drought, since not a single drop of rain has fallen. If God does not show compassion by sending His clouds over the city of Kirkuk, we shall starve to death. So let's all go to the open area in al-Musalla to pray to God and His Messenger for the advent of rain and the diffusion of goodness and blessings to everyone."
Thus, to the beating of drums and the rattle of tambourines, people carrying their green flags and their placards demanding justice for Hameed Nylon headed to al-Musalla Square, which they crossed to the open cemetery, which concealed among its gravestones hoopoes and larks that took flight and soared into the air, until the human throng reached the open space that Turkmen called Yeddi Qizlar, where remains of abandoned stone grist mills could be found. Everyone stood facing God with dignified submission, raising their hands to the sky in common prayer and tearful, heartfelt entreaty for rain to fall and for Hameed Nylon to be reinstated to his job. They remained there more than an hour, asking God to cleanse their soot-stained faces with copious amounts of rain. Suddenly the sky darkened as black clouds approached from the east. Then affirmative cries glorifying God's compassion and might resounded in thanks to Him for hearing the appeal of the inhabitants of the Chuqor neighborhood. In fact, there was thunder and lightning; the prayerful demonstrators were caught in the rain and only reached home by the skin of their teeth, soaked and nearly drowned in the torrents that swept through all the neighborhoods. The miracle that had occurred made them forget the story of Hameed Nylon, who could now joke with the others about his escapades with Mrs. Helen McNeely.
This miracle left an indelible impression on people's memories. They debated and quarreled for a long time about who deserved credit for it. Had God answered the plea of anyone in particular, or simply their joint appeal?
They reached a degree of consensus on the notion that God would not have answered the prayer of one of the few Arabs participating in the procession, for they never washed off their butts and would be regarded as traitors for ever and a day because they had assisted the infidel English in the war against the Muslim Ottomans, fighting against their Turkish brethren without any consideration whatsoever for the religion uniting them. Since the Turkmen disparaged the Arabs in any quarrel that erupted between them with references to "traitorous Arabs" or "those shit-assed Arabs," many Arab children began to wish that God had created them Turkmen. Some Arab children even joined with Turkmen children in their enthusiasm and support for Turkish political parties, of which many Turkmen youth considered themselves members. The portrait of Kemal Atatürk, recognizable by his lengthy face, military uniform, and medals, was displayed on the walls of most homes, whereas only Arabs dared hang a picture of the king, the prince regent, or even of Queen Aliya, who was loved by many, especially women, perhaps because she was a widow or possibly because it was the English who according to widespread rumors had killed her husband, King Ghazi, in revenge for his campaign to slay the Assyrians who had wanted to establish an independent state for themselves in Iraq under the leadership of Mar Sham'un, who escaped with his life, fleeing to America. Women told their children with pride how the people of Kirkuk had once gone out to welcome the return of the victorious soldiers and armed men of some northern tribes, each of whom carried the head of an infidel Assyrian in his hands. The women said that the eyes in these heads were impudent and kept staring at them, casting impertinent glances their way, so that many women had been forced to pull their headscarves around their faces as they cursed Satan and the Assyrians.
Similarly, if the Arabs were ruled out as deserving any credit for this miracle, there was naturally no cause for the Kurds to claim such a favor. The truth was that the Kurds themselves, the two or three families that had settled in the Chuqor neighborhood, denied playing any role in this case, which was God's doing alone.
It would not have been possible, in any event, for them to claim the opposite, since they were not very bright and could not even distinguish black raisins from dung beetles. (Everyone in the Chuqor neighborhood knew that a group of Kurds who were served a platter of raisins mixed with dung beetles had begun capturing fugitive beetles to devour, telling each other, "Eat the runaway raisins first; the others will stay where they are.") Would it have been conceivable for God to answer the prayer of such ignoramuses? The matter deserved no debate or reflection.
It was clear that God had answered the Turkmen's prayer and not anyone else's, but had He answered their communal prayer, or that of one or two of them only? It was admittedly difficult to be sure about a complicated matter like this, for opinions were totally irreconcilable. Some claimed that this miracle should be credited to the madman Dalli Ihsan, who had raised his head to the sky, as he always did, and ordered the clouds to give rain, so that it rained. These people had an irrefutable argument, namely that Dalli Ihsan was not a human being but a jinni, one of the Muslim faction of the jinn. This was no secret, since everyone said so every day. He would walk through the Chuqor neighborhood, stroll through the great souk, and stop repeatedly to scream in the faces of jinn who apparently were trying to pick a fight with him or to upset him. Then he would continue on his way only to turn round once more and curse the void. He was allowed to stop at any stall and take whatever he wanted without anyone asking him to pay, although to tell the truth he never took more than he needed for himself: an orange from here and an apple from there. At times he would sit in a deserted corner of a coffeehouse and drink a tumbler of tea without paying for it, naturally and listen attentively to the coffeehouse's rhapsodist as he recited the story of Antara ibn Shaddad or Sayf ibn Dhi Yazzan or the choice exploits of Mullah Nasr al-Din. He would smile, shake his head, and leave. Then some patrons of the coffeehouse would mutter, "What a lucky fellow! The queen of the jinn has summoned him."
The story of his relationship with the jinn had come to light many years before, and even the children of the Chuqor neighborhood knew it. What actually happened was that al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, a wholesale cereals merchant and the community's richest man, was awakened one night by a voice, which did not sound human, outside his bedroom. He pretended to be asleep while sharpening all of his senses. Someone whispered in the dark, "Harun, Harun, are you ready?" The query came from a cat he had never seen before. Then he saw Harun, the household cat, join the other cat, which he greeted. He said, "I've borrowed some of my master's clothes for us." The second cat replied, "I was afraid you'd forgotten or succumbed to fatigue and fallen asleep." Harun replied, "No other night's like this one. How could I forget our annual party?" They leapt quietly onto the wall and from there descended to the street.
Curiosity got the better of al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, who also went out to the street and followed the pair from a distance. The two cats, each carrying a bag by the neck, set off in the direction of the souk. Then they turned right, slunk down a side alley, and ended up on the public street parallel to the citadel. Slowly and calmly they continued on their way to the women's baths. He saw his cat Harun and the other one change into men in front of the side door to the baths, open their sacks, and then put on the jilbabs they had brought. Next they shoved open the door and disappeared inside. For a time, al-Hajj Ahmad heard heady, inebriating music coming from within, from the courtyard of the baths. His heart pounded fiercely, for he had recognized one of the two men as none other than Dalli Ihsan.
Al-Hajj Ahmad hesitated for a few moments, not knowing what to do. Should he enter too or not? He was terrified but recited, "In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful" and then the Throne Verse from the Qur'an. After that, he thrust open the door and entered, surrendering his fate to destiny. There he beheld a sight no human eye had ever seen before nor would al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji ever see anything comparable for the rest of his life.
The courtyard of the baths, which his wife visited once a week with the children, taking along her bundle of clothes, had been transformed into an astonishing chamber of colored glass. Hanging from the ceiling were huge chandeliers of pearls. Around the sides were solid gold benches on which were engraved magical inscriptions he could not decipher, not a word. Green, blue, red, yellow, and white birds soared through the higher reaches of the chamber, making music like jinn singing. Al-Hajj Ahmad inhaled the fragrance of intoxicating incense that made him forget he was in the Kirkuk baths. In fact, he forgot he was in this world at all. He was especially incredulous when he discovered something he could in no way explain: the chamber opened onto the shore of a vast ocean traversed by ships arriving from afar in the command of cats of every variety. These leaped to shore the moment the ships and vessels reached it and then changed into young men and women of ravishing appearance. He knew, since he had spent his entire life in the city, that there is no ocean in Kirkuk and that the Khasa Su, which runs through town, is an unusual type of river, since it dries up completely in the summer but turns into a torrential, raging river in the winter, flooding its banks at times and threatening to drown the Chay neighborhood. The many people present wore the most splendid clothes. At the center of the hall sat the king and queen on a throne studded with pearls and rubies. Surrounded by their ministers and courtiers, they were served by comely youths and maidens, who were clad in silk and who carried around platters of pure gold containing finger foods and fruit. Al-Hajj Ahmad realized that these were Muslim jinn and that the names of their king and queen, respectively, were Hardhob and Murjana.
Dazzled by the lights and the elegance of the place, al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji mingled with the guests without anyone noticing him. When he saw people singing and doing line dances, he joined them so that no one would realize that a human being had crashed their party. They were all singing in unison to a beat like a magical incantation:
I saw my Love with my heart's eye.
Then he asked: Who are you? I said: You,
You who surpass every limit To erase "where"; so where are You,
Now that there is no "where," where You are And there is no "where" wherever You are And there is no image for imagination to use to imagine You So that imagination can know where You are?
Al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji personally memorized these verses, passed down from al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, and started repeating them along with the others. He learned from the partygoers that this poet, who was crucified on a palm trunk in Baghdad, was actually not a human being. He was, rather, one of the Godfearing jinn. They cherish him very highly, and his standing with them is just below that of King Solomon the Wise, who possesses limitless sovereignty over all factions of the jinn.
During the exuberant enjoyment shared by everyone, al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji decided to make a mark that would provide irrefutable proof later on. Thus he approached Harun, who was wearing his navy-blue jilbab, and burned the sleeve of the garment from the rear with a cigarette butt that left a small hole, without Harun noticing. Finally he found an opportunity to slip back to the street again, more than a little concerned for his safety. On the way home through a darkness attenuated at intervals by feeble street lamps, he met thieves carrying their bags on their back, sentries who blew their whistles from time to time, solitary drunks singing Turkmen folk songs as loudly as possible while drunks in other streets responded with their songs in response to the songs they had just heard as they awaited an answering song. But al-Hajj Ahmad al- Sabunji, plunged into another world, was oblivious to everything the stealthy thieves, the night watchmen, and even the Turkmen folk songs, which he normally enjoyed. Shaking with stress and fright, he might almost have been a prophet upon whom divine inspiration had been bestowed.
As soon as he reached home, he slipped into bed to ponder the events of his amazing night. He tried to sleep but could not and stayed awake until dawn, when he heard Harun jump onto the wall once more, slink into the house, and then through the keyhole in the door tell Dalli Ihsan, who had apparently stayed outside, "It was a great night, wasn't it?" He heard Dalli Ihsan whisper, "Naturally, of course," and then add, "Good-bye." Harun replied affectionately, "May the Prophet Solomon be with you." Al-Hajj Ahmad did not close an eyelid all night long and did not leave bed save to perform the dawn prayer, when he saw Harun stretching by the threshold, as if nothing had happened. Al-Hajj Ahmad deliberately donned his navy blue jilbab, in which he found the hole he had created with his cigarette butt. Then he turned to Harun and to his wife's astonishment asked the cat, "Do you see, Harun? You've burned my jilbab. You ought to have asked my permission before you wore it." Harun understood that al-Hajj Ahmad had found him out. Lowering his head, he left the house, never to be seen there again.
From that day forward, ever since al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji had told his story in the coffeehouse, Dalli Ihsan wore a halo of sanctity. It is true that most people, especially the unsophisticated and the children, feared him, but the neighborhood's sages considered him a gift from God and a blessing for them from Him. As a Muslim jinni in human form, he could only bring them good fortune. This madman, unlike all the other ones in the city, was quite fastidious, always wore clean clothes, and acted with admirable composure, except for his public conversations with the jinn. He naturally did not have a staff he rode like a hobbyhorse the way other madmen did. Moreover, not a single child dared follow him or chase after him, even though the neighborhood was crawling with children. Not one man could think, even think, of teasing or taunting him, since a matter like that could have cost him his life.
There was thus no doubt in anyone's mind concerning Dalli Ihsan's true nature. Indeed, they were even able to trace his jinni lineage. There was first of all the account of al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, whose piety, righteousness, and honorable actions no one could question. But this was merely one of the proofs, since Dalli Ihsan's mother had been forced, when an elderly woman of more than a hundred years, to admit under pressure from her neighbors that a king of the jinn named Qamar al-Zaman had been her lover, visiting her secretly at night, and that she had married him according to the precedent established by God and his prophet Muhammad. Ihsan was his son, although she had attempted to conceal his identity from everyone. Her spouse, who had later been taken prisoner in one of the wars he waged against Jewish jinn, had died of grief and sorrow at being separated from his wife and son.
Clearly the madman, who would not have spoken to anyone, was responsible for the miraculous rain that suddenly inundated Kirkuk, for who else would be able to order the sky to fill with clouds and have it obey, or to order the clouds to rain and have them do so? As always, however, there were people ready to wrangle and to express extreme opinions recklessly. They claimed that the rains had fallen in torrents for Hameed Nylon's sake, since had he not been sacked by the company and had there not been a demonstration on his behalf in which the Chuqor neighborhood had participated fully, the miracle would never have occurred. This theory seemed rather logical but did not clarify the miracle. Others responded to this theory, saying, "If we were to adopt this logic, then it would be necessary for us to proceed even a step beyond Hameed Nylon." By this they referred to the flirtatious Englishwoman, since without her affairs with men and her fickleness, Hameed Nylon would not have been sacked. They concluded, "Such an opinion would inevitably lead us to a denial of the faith."
Mullah Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri was disturbed by all these views, which he considered heretical and noxious. He announced that neither the jinn nor Hameed Nylon was responsible for the miracle. God had quite simply accepted the plea of the Muslims and had caused the rain to fall abundantly on them. Truth to tell, this view appeared totally logical and was welcomed by the hearts of the inhabitants of the Chuqor neighborhood, especially since Hameed Nylon himself had joked about the idea that he had caused the miracle, saying, "If I were able to cause miracles, I would have made the English whore sleep with me." And he meant what he said.
The rain fell for three consecutive days without cease until low-lying houses were filled with water, the roofs of many homes collapsed, and the Khasa Su River flooded its banks, submerging the neighborhoods closest to it. People reached the point of praying again, but this time for the rain to stop. On the third day of what he termed Noah's flood, Hameed Nylon lifted his head to inspect the sky and told his wife, who had seized the opportunity to spend most of the time in bed with him, "It seems the sky is peeing a lot, after having to hold it in for months." His wife Fatima replied, nervously, "Don't blaspheme, Hameed; it's a miracle." Then Hameed, laughing, answered, "True, it's a miracle, but the sky should not get carried away." During this nonstop torrential rain, Hameed Nylon remained trapped in the two upper rooms they rented in the home of his sister Nazira and her husband the itinerant butcher Khidir Musa who lived in a large room downstairs at the end of the courtyard with their three daughters, the eldest of whom was five and the youngest less than a year old.
During these rainy days, Hameed Nylon only descended to the large room once. Then he sat on the carpet near a charcoal brazier with ash covering its embers, a plate of Ashrasi dates and walnuts before him. He affectionately told his sister to pour him a tumbler of tea, and then his niece Layla came to sit on his knee. Khidir Musa expressed his concern: "How will I be able to sell my lambs if this rain lasts much longer?"
Hameed Nylon teased him, "Think of the rain as a holiday, man. Your money will last a thousand years."
Khidir Musa laughed, "That's the rumor my sister Qadriya spreads about me, God curse her; she says I place dinar bills under my mattress and sleep on them, ironing them that way."
Hameed Nylon answered, "What's wrong with that? They're your dinars. Do whatever you want with them." Then he fell silent, gazing by the lamp's faint light at the cabinets. Their gold and silver doors were painted with red and blue peacocks, which had symmetrical tail feathers, and with larks sitting on boughs. There were flowers around the edges.
Khidir Musa said, "There's not much work left in Kirkuk. There are as many butchers here as grains of sand. I'm going to move to al-Hawija, where there's not even one butcher."
Hameed Nylon knew that Khidir Musa craved money and that his avarice was so extreme he only rarely patronized the coffeehouse. Indeed, Hameed Nylon thought Qadriya's assertion justified. He did not realize that the person who really ironed dinar bills was his own sister Nazira, who earned at times more than Khidir Musa trading in fabrics and women's wear. She would travel and buy her goods from other cities that no one else visited. It was even reported that she had been to Aleppo, a city that women said was in Syria or Lebanon. She would bring back colored fabrics, beautiful blouses, and the famous Raggi Abu al-Hil brand soap, which she sold to the women in the neighborhood (and nearby ones) on credit, but for high prices. Moreover, her mother, Hidaya, a crone who lived in the adjacent Jewish quarter, ran a depilatory service for women's faces (using ceruse), practiced magic, and read fortunes. In fact, it was said that she could turn stones to gold by reciting arcane incantations she had learned from her Jewish neighbors. The two women Hidaya and her daughter took care to adorn their sturdy ankles with anklets, their wrists with bracelets, and their necks with coins fashioned into gold chains.
Hameed Nylon had barely finished drinking his first tumbler of tea when his wife Fatima came for him, pretending to be annoyed at being left home alone. As a matter of fact, she was concerned instead that Nazira might be plotting to turn her husband, Hameed, against her. She knew also that Khidir Musa, who was incapable of opposing his wife, would join the plot against his sister-in-law. Hameed Nylon, who was tired of sitting in a darkness dissipated only by the flame of an oil lamp with a dirty globe, rose, saying, "The best thing a man can do during rain and gloom like this is to sleep." His wife followed him. On the steps to their pair of rooms he heard one of Khidir Musa's lambs bleat. He answered sarcastically, "And upon you peace." His wife, climbing behind him, cautioned him about the broken steps. He responded in the dark, "I know each of them by heart." Fatima was happy they were returning once more to their suite, where he was safe from his sister's snares. Perhaps he would feel like sleeping with her, too.
Hameed Nylon stretched out on his back in bed, but did not hear her until she asked if he wanted some tea, since he had been dreaming, and his dream had outstripped the Chuqor neighborhood and the city of Kirkuk to reach a vast, open space, a strange, limitless area he had never seen before in his whole life.
Copyright © 1992 by Fadhil al-Azzawi Translation copyright © 2007 by William M. Hutchins Originally published in Arabic in 1992 as Akhir al-mal 'ika Translation originally published in Egypt in 2007 by the American University in Cairo Press Published by arrangement with the American University in Cairo Press
Meet the Author
Fadhil al-Azzawi is the author of many volumes of poetry, novels, and criticism. A member of the avant-garde Kirkuk Group of poets during the 1960s, he left Iraq in 1977, after being imprisoned for three years by the Baath regime for his political activities. He lives in Germany.
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