Translated by JONATHAN WRIGHT
“Wait here. We’ll get in touch with you later. Don’t go beyond the confines of the village.”
The village seemed to have been abandoned, although there were still goats roaming here and there. I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. To pass the time I wandered in and out of the abandoned houses. I felt tired, but I wasn’t sure whether sleeping had a place in my new life. I went up on the roof of one of the houses and looked out over the neighborhood. The smoke of battle was rising from the nearby towns, and two military helicopters were skimming along the horizon. Fields of cotton surrounded the village on all sides. I had never before had a chance to see cotton flowers. Or maybe I’d seen them in documentaries and other films; I don’t exactly remember. I had spent my life working in a bakery, then as a taxi driver, and finally as a prison guard. When the revolution broke out, I joined the resistance. I fought to my last breath. The cotton flowers looked like snowflakes, but they would have had to be artificial or else the fierce rays of the sun would have melted them all.
I noticed a girl sitting on the roof of another house. She definitely couldn’t see me. She was sitting on a small wooden bench and running a green comb through her long hair. Her skin was burned from the sun. A woman called out from the courtyard below. “Stay in the sun—don’t move from where you are,” she said.
The girl let out a sigh and covered her face with her hands.
The woman’s eyes were puffy. She looked like she could use some sleep. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, a country woman, well-built, vigorous but on edge. I dashed across and followed her into the house and sat opposite her on a chair covered with the fleece of a sheep. She was watching the news on television. Battles still raged between the regime forces and the resistance fighters. There had been massacres, rapes, arson, and people driven out of their homes. Some had even eaten the livers of the dead.
I started wondering what was preventing the woman and the girl from leaving. Most others had fled, taking refuge in neighboring countries. The dogs were barking as if rabid. I moved outside and saw more than twenty tied up in front of the house. The woman went back to the courtyard and again called out to the girl. “Sawsan, come down. There’s rice and soup in the kitchen.”
From the parapet Sawsan watched the woman leave the house. The woman was carrying a rope. I followed her. The sound of the regime’s artillery began to reach us as it pounded the nearby towns. The woman went into the livestock enclosure of one of the abandoned houses. The only animal there was a frightened dog that was wandering around the pen frantically, as if possessed. The woman took a cold chicken thigh out of her pocket and threw it in front of the dog. The dog gobbled it down. The woman stroked the dog’s head, tied the rope around its neck, and led it out of the pen.
I went back to the girl. She put her head under the faucet in the courtyard to cool down, then sat in the shade of an apple tree and started to cry. The woman tied up the dog with the other dogs and looked around the silent village. I sat in the branches of the apple tree and thought about my people coming back to help me cross over to the other side. I hoped they wouldn’t be long. I looked at the birds and the apples and the girl’s wet hair—just fragments of the life I had lived for thirty-four years. Not a long time. But I wasn’t remorseful. I had been brave, and my name would reverberate in the memories of future generations.
The woman went back to the courtyard and told Sawsan to eat something. The girl shouted, and the birds flew off in alarm. Crying and slapping her cheeks, the girl said she wouldn’t eat, that she’d rather starve to death than die of sunstroke. “You’re a cruel, crazy mother! I just want to die and get it over with,” she said.
The woman went up to Sawsan and grabbed her arm but then collapsed in tears and sat down next to her, leaning against the tree trunk. Sawsan threw her head into her mother’s lap and sobbed. She looked to be about fifteen, slim and pretty, with a strange look in her eyes, as if she were about to dive into the unknown. I didn’t understand what was happening.
A cell phone rang. The woman begged the caller to look for her husband. I wanted to move to where the caller was and find out who he was. It was easy to move around, but they had told me not to go beyond the confines of the village. I couldn’t break the rules.
The days and weeks passed monotonously. There was nothing to keep me amused except for Sawsan and her mother. The mother kept forcing Sawsan to stay in the sun on the roof, and every now and then she would make a phone call to try to find her husband. The regime forces might storm the village at any moment, but the war and life in general no longer frightened me. I was free, and there was only one step further to go.
I finally thought I understood what was going on between Sawsan and her mother. The woman had stayed behind in the village because of her husband. He had called her a few days before the other villagers moved out and told her to wait for him. He said he was going to escape. He had been fighting with the opposition forces in one of the nearby towns, but then he disappeared. He no longer answered his phone. Sawsan’s mother was too frightened to move to another town without her husband. Her familiar life in the village where she had always lived had been torn apart and the woman was now living a nightmare. She had heard that the regime militias were committing atrocities. People called them the “ghosts” and said they raped women and girls but preferred those with fair complexions. So the mother decided to give Sawsan a suntan. She forced her to sit in the sun for hours on end. Maybe they would leave her daughter alone if her skin were the color of burnt barley bread. The woman took other precautions. She had a pistol, and she had gathered all the village dogs in front of her house in the hope that they would frighten off anyone thinking of coming close. Sawsan was as frightened as her mother. More than once she thought of running away, but she had no idea where she could go.
One night I was lying on an old wooden bench, and the woman was sitting on the carpet nearby, watching the news while tending to Sawsan’s skin. She was putting cold compresses on her daughter’s face and asking her to drink lots of water. The girl was in a bad way. The electricity went off, and the mother lit a lantern, then went out into the courtyard to make a phone call. Sawsan picked up a thick book from the television stand. There were only two books in the house—the Qur’an and a book of classical stories. Sawsan’s father had bought her the book of stories when she was ten. The mother came back and sat near Sawsan, dejected and deeply troubled.
“Listen, mother,” Sawsan said. “I’ll read you this story: ‘Shamseddin was a tyrannical king, engrossed in his pleasures and oblivious to the concerns of his subjects. He had an elephant that he loved very much. He wouldn’t let anyone upset it or stand in its way. The elephant roamed the streets and markets, breaking everything in its path. It did great harm to the townspeople, but they couldn’t do anything for fear of angering their king. One day the townspeople got together and decided to ask the king to restrict the elephant’s movements or send it into exile. Everyone entered the palace, but they were gripped by fear and terror, and as soon as Shamseddin appeared, surrounded by his troops and his guards, they all stepped back. If the guards hadn’t locked the gates behind them, they all would have run away. After a long silence, an elderly sheikh decided to speak out. “Your Majesty,” he said, “the elephant….” Then he stopped, thinking that the others would finish what he had to say, but he found himself alone. Shamseddin said angrily, “What’s happened to my precious elephant? Speak!”
“‘The sheikh tried to think of a way out of his predicament. Trembling from fear, he said, “The elephant’s feeling lonely, Your Majesty. Shouldn’t you get another elephant to keep it company?”
“‘Shamseddin laughed. “You’re right, wise one,” he said. “Ministers, bring me another elephant!”
“‘The king got another elephant, and the townspeople were even worse off than before, so they decided to go and complain to the king once again, and, as on the first occasion, they ended up asking Shamseddin to get another elephant.
“‘The people visited the palace again and again, and each time the king ordered another elephant. Eventually the town was full of elephants, and the people moved out one by one. Everyone who left accused the others of cowardice, and in the end there was no one left in the town, where the king’s elephants now had free rein.’
“What do you think of the story, mother?”
“I don’t know, my daughter, I don’t know,” she replied. “All we have is God.”
Sawsan went on reading the book to herself, and her mother went to the kitchen and came back with some bread and some apricot jam. Then we heard the sound of gunfire. The woman blew out the lantern flame, and I dashed outside, where I saw five opposition fighters chasing a pilot. They seemed to have shot down his helicopter and found their way to where he had landed by parachute. The pilot had only a pistol; the others had Kalashnikovs and were chasing him in a pickup. The pilot fired three shots and ran past Sawsan’s house. I went back inside. Terrified, Sawsan’s mother took her pistol out of the wardrobe and sat next to her daughter. The pilot ran into a house, and the fighters surrounded it and called on him to surrender. He had no choice: he had run out of ammunition. He came out with his hands on his head. The men surrounded him and kicked him till he fell to the ground. Then they told him to get up. One of the men stabbed him with a knife, and then the others joined in the stabbing. The pilot collapsed into a pool of his own blood. Another of the men brought some gasoline from the pickup, and one of his colleagues took out a cell phone and started taking pictures as the pilot’s body burned. Everyone shouted, “Allahu akbar!” Then they went back to their vehicle and started firing their rifles out of the windows in celebration.
They passed close to the house of Sawsan’s mother, and when they saw all the dogs tied up, they got excited again. They stepped down from the truck and sprayed the dogs with a hail of bullets. Sawsan’s mother thought they were “ghosts” and that they were going to storm the house. She fired a bullet into Sawsan’s head and then put the pistol into her own mouth. Because of the sound of the Kalashnikovs and the dogs barking, the gunmen couldn’t hear the bullet being fired inside the house.
When the last dog was dead, silence reigned. The men drove their pickup out of the village. Inside the house the mother was on her knees, holding the pistol with both hands. She didn’t dare turn toward Sawsan, who had a large bloodstain on her darkened skin.
The woman stayed where she was until the break of dawn. I spent some of the time looking at the dead dogs. One dog was still breathing feebly. I imagined its soul escaping and joining me in my wait. Sawsan’s mother opened the front door of the house. She had the pistol in her hand and walked forward aimlessly. She went into a cotton field and kept walking, in a daze. I wanted to follow her and find out if she was going to shoot herself, but she went beyond the confines of the village and toward the rising sun.
Many things happened in the village after that. The regime forces stormed the village, then the opposition forces regained control after fierce battles. International humanitarian organizations came looking for evidence, collecting data on crimes committed by both sides, like referees counting goals scored.
I had been fighting with the Sons of God mujahideen. I was a sniper. For a year and a half I had picked off regime soldiers. In the end they dropped a bomb on my hiding place from a plane. They dragged out my mangled body and kicked it and pissed on it. I didn’t care about my corpse being abused. I was delighted to have died in battle. I would meet the Lord with a clear conscience. As soon as I was free of my body, some former colleagues arrived with the authority to arrange the crossing-over process. They brought me to this village. They left me alone, saying, “Wait here. We’ll take you across to Paradise. Don’t go beyond the confines of this village.” I don’t know whether these colleagues of mine were also waiting.
It had been a long time. And I was still waiting. I wandered around the deserted village. I looked at the villagers’ clothes, their pots and pans, the children’s toys, and the bones of their dead pets. The cotton fields had died, too. I used to feel bored, but then boredom showed me what powers I really had. I began to move around with the birds on the branches and on the roofs of the houses. I tumbled with the leaves when they fell from the trees. I played with the wind, crawled with the worms, and gave the insects a hard time. I could do anything, without worry, hunger, or fear. The loneliness didn’t bother me any longer. My memories of my past life had started to fade. One morning, as I was sitting in the apple tree at Sawsan’s mother’s house, I had a thought that dealt a deathblow to the idea of waiting: What if this abandoned village were itself Paradise?
Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born author and filmmaker who writes in Arabic. His first book, The Madman of Freedom Square, was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The Iraqi Christ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His latest work, The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq, was selected as one of the Top Ten Books of 2014 by Publishers Weekly. Blasim was selected for the Barnes & Noble U.S.-wide Discover Great New Writers program and has been PEN-awarded three times.
Jonathan Wright studied Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic history at St. John’s College, Oxford University. For twenty-nine years he worked for Reuters news agency, mainly in the Middle East. His latest translation is Land of No Rain, by Amjad Nasser, commended for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. He was joint winner of the Banipal Prize for his translation of Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan, and he also won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim.