They say that, sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, a woman came on a wooden ship from Najd, married a wealthy man from the island, and, when she didn’t conceive, had a maqam built on the ruins of a pagan temple near the cliffs of the shore. Having had a dream where a man holding a staff spoke to her, the woman then named the maqam after the mystic Al-Khidr.
In those days, everyone had the right to have feelings.
It was natural to feel things, and the right thing to do about your feelings was to make them known. Feelings were plenty, but broadly they were segregated into two groups: Love and Fear.
In those days, there was only one way you could sin: by faking your feelings.
The city overwhelmed us. We’d moved to it from a smaller part of the country, fairly rural, though it’s true that even rural parts of the country had by that time much in common with urban centers. In our small town there was a Walmart and high-speed internet and a bar that boasted craft beers from across the region. An intimate and well-known musical venue often featured prominent artists, and, as the woman I lived with always found loudness distasteful, I would attend these shows alone. Being at one, the gathered fans swaying together, made it easy for me to feel like there could be nowhere better. But also, circling the edges of the town, fields ran hundreds of miles in all directions, lush with the green stalks of corn and soy undulating over a landscape that, in winter, shriveled and turned dead, brown, and brittled.
Even not-happily-ever-after endings are preceded by a certain amount of speculation about what is to come. As a matter of course, all the important changes in organizational structure and relevant administrative decisions take place on the last Thursday of each month, ushered in by a few days heavy with anticipation and flare-ups among the employees.
Sabah sits in front of the computer screen, Americano in hand, trying to concisely respond to customer queries.
Whatever you believe, know this: Teodoro Ramirez’s dog could see into the spirit world. Teddy, as he was called by everyone in barrio La Zavala, never shared this with anyone. Of course, the only people he could have shared this with would have been his co-workers or his tíos and tías, who only came by his house occasionally now that his mother, Josefina, had died, que en paz descanse. He probably could have told la Señora Izquierdo, the nice old lady who lived alone next door and brought him tamales every year when it was close to Christmas. She may not have believed him, but she would have listened.
Teddy believed lots of things his mother, Josefina, had told him and sometimes heard her voice even now that she was gone from this earth, the diabetes she’d had trouble controlling taking her too soon, que en paz descanse. Like if you went outside and got either your head or your feet wet, but not the rest of your body, you would catch a cold. If you ate hot flán or cake, your stomach would get sick. “Mi hijo,” she would say, “don’t eat that or you’ll get empachado.” If you pointed at a rainbow and then touched yourself without washing your hands, you would get pimples wherever you had touched yourself. But the one thing that helped Teddy comprehend how his dog was different was Josefina’s teachings about spirits. She had often said that any place—a house, a church, even a whole barrio—was imbued by either good or bad spirits that had influenced the events there. Teddy had even accompanied his mother on several limpias of homes, where she and the comadres from church anointed doorways with oil, waved bundles of burning sabio in hallways to clear the home of bad memories or mal espíritus that had plagued the families therein.
I feel the wall with my bare hands, the peeling paint, the cracks along its surface…. They’re just superficial and haven’t impacted the solid masonry. There’s no light coming through.
The soaring, towering wall is solid; it is two lights and one darkness long. This is how I measure the passage of time in the endless enclosure of this space, either as glaring light or as pitch darkness…. Once, to figure out how long it was, I hugged the wall, reaching its farthest edge after two lights and one darkness. Truth be told, this exhausted me, and I may have slept one or two lights without knowing it.
We were happy children. Fear didn’t stop us from doing what we wanted whenever we wanted. The clock had no place in our daily lives, as long as we were armed by play and by the secret weapon of Allah y-saʿdak, that Iraqi phrase that we used as a password to keep the soldiers at bay.
But when it came to rescuing me from the claws of a heart sickness that sent me to the hospital, twenty-nine years after the invasion, the password didn’t work. In truth, I don’t know what struck me. It seemed that my heart could no longer contain the force of all the memories of the days of the invasion, when I was a nine-year-old who spent most of his time playing football or riding a bicycle. The stream of images pushed my heart rate to over 160 irregular beats per minute. As doctors struggled to figure out the reason, I myself was certain of it.
The cold stings your skin as you walk out of the hotel. It’s your first visit to Europe. You’re with a cultured friend who knows these countries well and, most importantly, is an art enthusiast. He immediately suggests, with a friendly and zealous shake of the head: “How about a museum?” And you think it’s a great idea. Restaurants, cafés, streets, tourists, crowded squares… they’re the same everywhere. But if you go to a museum, you’ll be able to show off about it to your co-workers. And it’ll be a conversation starter with Sarah, the woman you can’t stop staring at, who has an odd-looking painting in her office and who once told you that it was by someone called Dalí, although you’ve already forgotten the rest of the name.
The CV was impressive—though littered with old language. The candidate crammed his opening letter with words like “abreast,” “canonically,” “mammoth,” and other unusual— no, very un-African turns of phrase. For example, in the summary of his academic paper, Malpractices in Traditional Authority Leadership, he wrote: “…for the chiefs to gain community trust, Caesar’s wife must remain above suspicion.” As you can imagine, the candidate stood out. He astonished the interviewing panel at St. Thomas Secondary School in Malowena. It made them picture their old president Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, addressing the nation in Received Pronunciation. Why should a Malawian man of twenty-seven speak of former duties being “orchestrated with much aplomb?”
The following is a translated excerpt from the novel Antes que desaparezca by Sylvia Iparraguirre, published in 2021 by Alfaguara.
Unannounced, the past invades the Russian literature class one autumn morning in Buenos Aires. I’m facing one of the windows of the museum library, talking about Pushkin. It’s raining outside and I allow myself a few seconds’ pause—after all, I’m the one teaching the class—to linger on the beauty of the rain falling on the sculptures in the modern interior courtyard, the clear water sliding down the bronze.