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The Sirens of Baghdadby John Cullen
Every morning, my twin sister, Bahia, brought me breakfast in bed. “Up and at ’em,” she’d call out as she opened the door to my room. “You’re going to swell up like a wad of dough.” She’d place the tray on a low table at the foot of the bed, open the window, and come back to pull my toes. Her brusque, authoritative movements contrasted sharply with the sweetness of her voice. Since she was my elder, if only by a few minutes, she treated me like a child and failed to notice that I’d grown up.
She was a frail young woman, a bit of a fussbudget, a real stickler for order and hygiene. When I was little, she was the one who dressed me before we went to school. Since we weren’t in the same class, I wouldn’t see her again until recess. In the schoolyard, she’d observe me from a distance, and woe to me if I did anything that might “shame the family.” Later, when I was a sickly teenager and the first few scattered hairs began to appear on my pimply face, she took personal charge of keeping my adolescent crisis in check, scolding me whenever I raised my voice in front of my other sisters or spurned a meal. Although I wasn’t a difficult boy, she found my methods of negotiating puberty boorish and unacceptable. On a few occasions, my mother lost patience with her and put her in her place; Bahia would keep quiet for a week or two, and then I’d do something wrong and she’d pounce.
I never rebelled against her attempts to control me, however excessive. On the contrary, they amused me—most of the time anyway.
“You’ll wear your white pants and your checked shirt,” she ordered, showing me a pile of folded clothes on the Formica table that served as my desk. “I washed and ironed them last night. You ought to think about buying yourself a new pair of shoes,” she added, nudging my musty old pair with the tip of her toe. “These hardly have any soles left, and they stink.”
She plunged her hand into her blouse and extracted some banknotes. “There’s enough here for you to get something better than vulgar sandals. Buy yourself some cologne, too. Because if you keep on smelling so bad, we won’t need any more insecticide for the cockroaches.”
Before I had time to prop myself up on my elbow, she put the money on my pillow and left the room.
My sister didn’t work. Obliged to quit school at sixteen in order to become betrothed to a cousin who ultimately died of tuberculosis six months before the wedding, she was fading away at home, waiting for another suitor. My other sisters, all of them older than Bahia and I, didn’t have a lot of luck, either. The eldest, Aisha, had married a rich chicken farmer and gone to live in a neighboring village, in a big house she shared with her in–laws. This cohabitation deteriorated a little more each season, until finally, refusing to bear any more abuse and humiliation, she gathered up her four children and returned to her parental home. We thought her husband would turn up and take her back, but he never appeared, not even to see his children on holidays. The next sister, Afaf, was thirty–three years old and had not a single hair on her head. A childhood disease had left her bald. Because my father was afraid her classmates would make fun of her, he’d decided it would be wise not to send her to school. Afaf lived like an invalid, shut up inside a single room; at first, she mended old clothes, and later she made dresses my mother sold all over town. When my father lost his job after suffering an accident, Afaf took charge of the family. In those days, there were times when her sewing machine was the only sound for miles around. As for Farah, who was two years younger than Afaf, she was the only one who pursued her studies at the university, despite the disapproval of the tribe, which didn’t look kindly on the idea of a young girl living far from her parents and thus in proximity to temptations. Farah held out and received her diploma with flying colors. My great–uncle wanted to marry her to one of his offspring, a pious, considerate farmer; Farah categorically refused his offer and chose to work at a hospital. Her attitude caused the tribe deep consternation, and the humiliated son, followed by his mother and father, cut the lot of us. Today, Farah practices in a private clinic in Baghdad and earns a good living. It was her money that my twin sister put on my pillow from time to time.
In Kafr Karam, young men of my age had stopped pretending to be horrified when a sister or mother discreetly slipped them a few dinars. At first, they were a little embarrassed, and to save face they promised to repay the “loan” as quickly as possible. They all dreamed of finding a job that would allow them to hold their heads high. But times were hard; wars and the embargo had brought the country to its knees, and the young people of our village were too pious to venture into the big cities, where their ancestral blessing had no jurisdiction, and where the devil was at work, nimbly perverting souls. In Kafr Karam, we had nothing to do with that sort of thing. Our people think it’s better to die than to sink into vice or thievery. The call of the Ancients drowns out the sirens’ song, no matter how loud. We’re honest by vocation.
I started attending the university in Baghdad a few months before the American invasion. I was in heaven. My status as a university student gave my father back his pride. He was illiterate, a raggedy old well digger, but he was also the father of a physician and of a future doctor of letters! Wasn’t that a fine revenge for all his setbacks? I’d promised myself not to disappoint him. Had I ever disappointed him in my life? I wanted to succeed for his sake; I wanted to read in his dust–ravaged eyes what his face concealed: the happiness of seeing the seed he’d sown flourishing in body and mind. While the other fathers were hastening to yoke their progeny to the same laborious tasks that had made their own lives a torment, like those of their ancestors, my father tightened his belt to the last notch so I could pursue my studies. It wasn’t a sure thing that this process would lead to social success for either of us, but he was convinced that a poor educated person was less lamentable than a poor blockhead. If a man could read his own letters and fill out his own forms, he thought, a good part of his dignity was safe and secure.
The first time I set foot on the university campus, I chose to wear spectacles, even though I’ve always had excellent vision. I think they were the reason why Nawal noticed me in the first place; her face turned as red as a beet whenever our paths crossed after classes were over. Even though I had never dared address a word to her, the least of her smiles was enough to make me happy. I was just on the point of declaring myself and unveiling to her the prospect of a bright future, when strange fireworks lit up the sky over Baghdad. The sirens echoed in the silence of the night, buildings started to explode in smoke, and from one day to the next, the most passionate love affairs dissolved in tears and blood. The university was abandoned to vandals, and my dreams were destroyed, too. I went back to Kafr Karam, wild–eyed and distraught, and I didn’t return to Baghdad.
I had nothing to complain about in my parents’ house. I could be satisfied with little. I lived on the roof, in a remodeled laundry room. My furniture consisted of some old crates, and I put my bed together from an assortment of lumber I salvaged here and there. I was content with the little universe I’d constructed around my privacy. I didn’t have a television yet, but there was a tinny radio to keep my solitude warm.
On the courtyard side of the upper floor, my parents occupied a room with a balcony; on the garden side, at the end of the hall, my sisters shared two large rooms filled with old stuff, including religious pictures picked up from traveling souks. Some of these pictures showed labyrinthine calligraphy, while others portrayed Sidna Ali manhandling demons or thrashing enemy troops, his legendary double–bladed scimitar whirling like a tornado above their impious heads. Similar pictures were all over the house—in the other rooms, in the entrance hall, above doorways and windows. They were displayed not for decorative reasons, but for their talismanic powers; they preserved the house from the evil eye. One day, I kicked a soccer ball and knocked one of them off the wall. It was a lovely picture, verses from the Qur’an embroidered in yellow thread on a black background. It shattered like a mirror. My mother almost had a stroke. I can still see her, one hand against her chest, her eyes bulging, her face as white as a block of chalk. The prospect of seven years of bad luck would not have turned her so thoroughly pale.
The kitchen was on the ground floor, across from a closetlike space that served Afaf as a workshop, two larger rooms for guests, and a huge living room with French windows opening onto a vegetable garden.
As soon as I had put my things away, I went downstairs to say hello to my mother, a sturdy, open–faced woman whom neither household chores nor the weight of the passing years could ever discourage. A kiss on her cheek transferred a good dose of her energy to me. We understood each other completely.
My father was sitting cross–legged in the courtyard, in the shade of an indefinable tree. After the Fajr prayer, which he dutifully performed at the mosque each morning, he would return home to finger his beads in the patio, one arm hanging useless under the folds of his long robe; the collapse of a well he was scraping out had crippled him. My father had suddenly turned into an old man. His village–elder aura had vanished; his look of command had no more vigor and no more range. In days gone by, he’d sometimes join a group of relatives and friends and exchange views on some subject or other. Then, when malicious gossip started overtaking good manners, he’d withdraw. Now, he left the mosque right after the morning prayer, and before the town was fully awake, he was already installed under his tree, a cup of coffee within reach of his hand, listening intently to the ambient sounds, as though he hoped to decipher their meaning. My dad was a decent man, a Bedouin of modest means who didn’t always have enough to eat, but he was nonetheless my father, and he remained the object of my greatest respect. Every time I saw him at the foot of his tree, I couldn’t help feeling enormous compassion for him. He was certainly a brave and worthy person, but his unhappiness torpedoed the appearances he tried so hard to keep up. I think he'd never gotten over the loss of his arm, and the thought that he was living off his daughters was driving him further down.
I don’t remember having been close to him or ever nestling against his chest; nevertheless, I was convinced that if I should make the first move, he wouldn’t push me away. But how could I take such a risk? Immutable as a totem, my father let none of his emotions show. When I was a child, he was a sort of ghost to me. I’d hear him at dawn, tying up the bundle he carried to his workplace, but before I could reach him, he’d already left the house, and he wouldn’t be back until late at night. I don’t know whether or not he was a good father. Too reserved or too poor to give us toys, he seemed to attach little importance either to our childish tumults or to our sudden lulls. I wondered if he were capable of love, if his stature as begetter wasn’t going to transform him into a pillar of salt. In Kafr Karam, fathers were convinced that familiarity would detract from their authority, and so they had to keep their distance from their progeny. On occasion, I thought I caught a glimpse of a sparkle in my father’s austere eyes; then, suddenly, he’d pull himself together and clear his throat, signaling me to get lost.
That morning, although my father, sitting under his tree, cleared his throat when I solemnly placed my lips on the crown of his head, he didn’t pull his hand back when I seized and kissed it, so I understood that my company wouldn’t annoy him. But we couldn’t even look each other in the face. Once, some time previously, I had sat down beside him, but during the course of two hours, neither of us had managed to pronounce a syllable. He contented himself with fingering his beads; I couldn’t stop fiddling with a corner of his mat. Had my mother not come to send me on an errand, we would have stayed like that until nightfall.
I said, “I’m going out for a bit. Do you need anything?”
He shook his head.
I seized the chance to take my leave.
Kafr Karam was always a well–ordered little town. We didn’t have to go elsewhere to provide for our basic needs. We had our parade ground, our playgrounds (vacant lots, for the most part), our mosque (you had to get up early on Friday morning if you wanted a choice spot), our grocery stores, two cafes (the Safir, frequented by the young, and El Hilal), a fabulous automobile mechanic capable of fixing any engine, provided it was a diesel, a master blacksmith who occasionally doubled as a plumber, a tooth–puller (an herbalist by vocation and a bone–setter in his spare time), a placid, distracted barber who looked like a carnival strong man and took longer to shave someone’s head than a drunk trying to thread a needle, a photographer as somber as his studio, and a postal worker. At one time, we also had a cheap eating place, but seeing that no pilgrim ever deigned to stop in Kafr Karam, the restaurateur transformed himself into a cobbler.
For many people, our village was nothing but a hamlet sprawled beside the road like roadkill—by the time they caught a glimpse of it, it had already disappeared—but we were proud of it. We’d always been wary of strangers. As long as they made wide detours to avoid us, we were safe, and if sandstorms occasionally obliged them to take refuge in Kafr Karam, we received them in accordance with the recommendations of the Prophet, but we never tried to hold them back when they started packing their bags. We had too many bad memories.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2007 by Yasmina Khadra
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