The Slaves

By GHALIB HALASA
Translated by THORAYA EL-RAYYES


At the borderland between the desert and the plains, Emirate of Transjordan, early twentieth century

 Two men sat near the round threshing floor in the western fields. Each with his rifle on his lap. “What a goddamn year,” Tafish said. He had a skull-like face. Small, sunken, deep-set eyes. Emaciated cheeks with protruding cheekbones. A broad forehead with dark blue veins at the sides. Skin like an aged tortoise. His hair and lower jaw were hidden behind a white keffiyeh, held in place by a black fleece cord around his head. His frame was tall, straight, lithe. He rubbed his nose with his hand, letting a low whistle out of his nostrils. By the time he lowered his hand, a pensive expression of disgust had formed on his face. Staring straight ahead, he spoke, as if to himself: “What a goddamn year.”

Apart from the two men, in the middle of the threshing floor, the new sheikh sat among stalks of wheat arranged in a circle, dressed in a colorless robe. His keffiyeh was wrapped around his head and tied in a knot in the middle. He kept his rifle at his hip. He had reddened eyes and a tiny nose in the middle of his hairy face. His gaze was fixed on the black men who had been tied to the threshing board in place of the animals, and the boy, Huwaymel, standing atop the wooden board they were pulling, snapped his whip in the air, then brought it down on their backs yelling, “Heeh!”

The black men would shoot forward for a few steps, then continue their slow, stumbling pace, as the sheikh watched them with a face as rigid as if it had been carved from flint. Tafish shifted in his place and cleared his throat, staring at the threshing floor. They could hear the monotonous lamentations of the women,

Oh, our sheikh, you whom we leaned upon                you left us, a house without a column
Oh, our sheikh, we reproach you                                you left us with no one to turn to

Then came the women’s sharp wails, fading to moans.

Tafish turned his head and nodded toward the row of tents that looked—from this height, this distance—like a black ribbon with smoke gathered above it. He said, “I don’t like this.”

Samhan replied, “Women.”

“They’ve been wailing for two days.”

“Women.”

Then they were silent. Six black men had been tied to the threshing board, backs and legs bent, pieces of straw stuck to their torsos. They were panting, nostrils flared; yellow mucus mixed with sweat and straw poured from them. When the whip came down on their backs, the slaves let out a short, sharp hiss. The men working the threshing floor usually tied mules or old horses to the wooden board and stood on it, holding the reins of the animals who rushed forward, dragging the wooden board behind them.

In the distance, a harvester’s singing rang out: “Circle the field, red steed—pretty as an apple cheek.”

“No news of the slave?” Tafish asked.

“News from where? He’ll be in the valley now, lost among the locals.”

“A slave killing a sheikh—who heard of such a thing?” Tafish said.

Samhan stared ahead and said that any man who is pushed will fight back, even a slave.

The harvester yelled, “Heeh! Heeh!,” brought down the whip, and the black men shot forward.

“A slave killed our sheikh, and a common peasant killed Sahlul.1 It’s unheard of. What’s left? It’ll be the women next.”

But Samhan wasn’t listening. (When he got home from last night’s gathering, his wife was still awake, in tears, whimpering. He drew her in toward him, and she told him, “Samhan, not while your uncle is still lying there!” The dead man lay in the tent where the men would gather, eyes closed and mouth slightly open. As Samhan sat among the men, he thought about the women who came from deep within the desert, riding camels loaded with salt, their bodies covered only in ripped, flimsy clothes and overcoats. They had the same heavy smell that came from the dead man. They’d been the first women he had known. The morning of the death, his young daughter, who had been sleeping next to her mother, had asked him, “Where did old man sheikh go?” “He died,” he had told her. “I asked where he went,” she insisted. He explained to her that the sheikh had died, and that they were going to bury him. “Be careful not to die, Father, be careful.” He told her that when he became old, he would have to die. “Be careful not to get old and die, Father,” she said tearfully. “Alright then, I won’t die. Whatever you like.”

His wife had looked at the two of them with wet eyes. She had also cried last night, after he had finished and moved her away with his hand. A faint dizziness had come over him when he was about to finish, and as he came, nausea swept over him, to the top of his throat. He saw images of the men washing their hands after eating their meal in the tent. Their serious, severe faces full of blame, surrounded by an ominous silence. He had not been able to sleep. He felt filthy, disgusted by the body of the woman lying next to him, and got up. He dressed and went out into the darkness. He entered the men’s tent and sat among them, filled with fear. The corpse’s mouth was a little open, his yellow teeth showing through as if listening to someone tell a far-fetched story. His face was blue and swollen. Samhan had inhaled the stench, knowing vaguely that he had come here to smell it. To bring back the distant memory of a woman who had come from inside the desert, who had returned his glances and left her camel behind a hill of sand to lie with him. A dizziness came over him, and longing for the body of his wife, for her tear-stained face. . .)

“Why are you so silent?” Tafish asked Samhan. They could hear the faraway voice of the harvester singing, “Circle the field, red steed—pretty as an apple cheek.”

(…and now Samhan reached out to Huwaymel—“I’ll take it”—and held the whip, striking violently the black men’s backs, the whip rising, then leaving behind streaks of blood. He channeled the weight pushing down on his chest into the whip, that fear that cinched his body like a leather belt. He extended his hand—“I will take it; rest a little.” Tafish’s voice reached him: “Why are you so silent?” He raised the whip, and with all his strength, all his desire for the desert woman, he brought it down. . .)

Samhan turned to Tafish and said, “The youngest asked me, ‘Where did the sheikh go?’ I told her he died.” He suddenly felt terrified and murmured, “Allah take her.”

(. . .And he felt the horse galloping under him and the wind filling his lungs.… He reached his hand out to Huwaymel—“I will take it”—and he took the whip. The whip that leaves streaks of blood behind. And the dead man was lying there, around his forehead a white cloth covered in dried, blackened blood. The large man with the magnificent beard, his voice like a barrage of bullets, was open-mouthed, telling the folktale about Arar and Amir. He realized that he looked at the dead man with horror, and wanted his wife’s body as if he was about to know her for the first time.)

Tafish said, “Hah, I see Suwaylim.”Old man Suwaylim walked toward them leaning on his stick, left palm above his brow, blocking the sun, his sharp, small nose pointing the way. A light wind blew from the west, creating whirlwinds of sand and bits of straw. The harvesters stopped to shield the straw from their eyes with their brown palms as they cursed with creased, miserable, black faces. The women’s lamentations reached Samhan and Tafish as if descending from the sky in large, faint circles. Suwaylim came nearer, feeling his way with his stick, and in a haunted voice called out at the new sheikh, Alayan. Miraculously, the statue turned his head and said, “What news you do have?”

“The man’s stench is spreading. Get up, son, so we can bury him. A dead man should be dignified with a burial. And that slave, how on earth are we supposed to find him?”

Alayan replied firmly, “In the morning, Allah willing. In the morning.”

Suwaylim’s aggravated voice deepened, sharpened. “His smell has filled the air. I say bury him, son, and leave the slaves alone. They haven’t done anything wrong. You are our sheikh now; you should know what is good for us. Get up and bury him; leave the slaves alone and go sit with the men.”

Alayan responded abruptly, ending the exchange. “In the morning, in the morning. Allah willing, in the morning.”

“Suwaylim is right: a dead man should be dignified with a burial, and this is not the first time we’ve come up against a dead end,” Tafish observed.

Samhan suddenly felt angry. “Everybody is exhausted; we need to go back to our work, our families. But our new sheikh keeps us tied up in mourning. Make him bury the man and let us rest. These small men spend their whole lives acting like children.”

 

Samhan was still talking. And here were the threshing floors, the piles of hay and chaff, the new sheikh with his rigid posture, the black men charging across the stalks of wheat, the harvesters, the heads of the harvesters, the donkeys and mules and horses pulling the threshing boards and the cloud of smoke rising up from the valley. To Samhan, all this looked like a painting composed of images, the colors of the sunset rotating in a monotonous circular motion.

To realize that the painting is composed of parts that move and others that are fixed in place, an observer must focus. The sounds cannot be heard until your gaze lands on the image. From the corner of his eye, Samhan saw the painting shake. He felt anxious and slowed his speech. When he heard a faraway harvester yell, “Heeh, heeh, heeh,” he resolved to continue his monologue about the new sheikh. But he saw Tafish’s eyes dart, then saw Tafish lift his rifle from his lap with both hands and lean forward. The thought of standing up irritated Samhan, and he started talking again, when a sense of danger jolted through him like a flick of fire. When he turned to look, the scene left him paralyzed.

He thought, at first, that it was a mistake, something that could be made right. But everything had happened so quickly that he couldn’t act, couldn’t understand. He heard the harvester yell out but could not see him. The harvester’s board had flipped over, and the black men had fallen against each other and were trying to get up, dyeing the hay red. Samhan wondered if this was blood. A black man raised a piece of bloodied wood over his head, as the sheikh hunched over, hands on head. When the piece of wood came down on the sheikh’s head for a second time, a bullet exploded to Samhan’s left—deafening him—the smell of gunpowder filling his nose. He saw the black man fall at once, without a sound, as if he was not human. Blood flowed from the black man’s forehead as he dropped on his back, twisting to the right. It occurred to Samhan, “So this is how black men die.”

Then another black man ran toward the sheikh and reached for his rifle. The sound of a bullet rang out, and he slowly fell towards the sheikh. The man’s face was tense, his body quivering. And then Samhan saw an unbelievable thing: the black man and the sheikh hold each other in an embrace. Another bullet hit the black man, and his body jerked many times, as if being tickled. He swayed sideways, still holding the sheikh. Later, the men would work hard to pull the two apart. The black man’s fingers were laced together behind the sheikh’s back, and when they couldn’t disentangle them, they would cut his hand off.

Samhan aimed his rifle and started to pull the trigger, to pull and pull, his ears readied for the sounds of the explosions, his shoulder muscles tense in anticipation of the recoil. But the bullets did not fire. He heard many loud sounds coming toward him, screeches and yells and the sound of bullets growing louder. A bright light flashed before his eyes, the pain infiltrated his head like a sharp knife, and at that very moment, he remembered that he hadn’t released the safety, and everything was over.


Footnotes

[1] The peasant who killed Sahlul the Bedouin is from Ghalib Halasa’s story “The Peasants.”

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 11: Tajdeed.]

Ghalib Halasa (1932–1989) was a writer, literary translator, revolutionary, and influential Arab cultural figure of the twentieth century. Born in a small Jordanian village, he later became a member of the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Iraqi communist parties and fought alongside Palestinian militants in the 1970s. For his political activities, Halasa was variously jailed by the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Egyptian authorities. He lived a life of exile, spending many years in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Halasa is the author of seven novels and two short story collections, the best known of which are Laughter (1971); Sandstorms (1975); Sultana (1988); and Slaves, Bedouins, and Peasants (written in 1957, published in 1976). As a literary translator, he brought J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye into Arabic. Halasa died at the age of fifty-seven in Damascus, Syria.

Thoraya El-Rayyes is a Palestinian-Canadian literary translator and political sociologist living in London, England. Her translations of contemporary Arabic literature have received awards from the Modern Language Association and the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas. Thoraya’s work has appeared in publications including World Literature Today, the Kenyon Review, and Words Without Borders.

Isabel MeyersThe Slaves

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