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Excerpt from a novel by Yahia al-Qaisi
Translated by Dr Omnia Amin


 

Every morning

I used to walk from Alhabeeb Bourkiba Street towards the old city avoiding the pedestrian crowd, the sound of car horns, the clattering noise of the metro with its squeaking rails, birds flapping their wings on the dense trees in the middle of the street and the chattering of those at the cafes and bars. I used to go into the narrow, shaded Arabic Souq where the sound of the coppersmiths’ hammerings mixed with the shouting of leather sellers, the smell of the tanners, the decorations of the potters, the allurements of the skilful cloth merchants whose tongues twisted with every language. They were able to draw foreigners who seemed fascinated by the arts of the East. They got dizzy by the smell of incense as they climbed up towards the shrine of Sidi bin Arous and Al Zaytounah Mosque. Close by the smells of tasty foods rose from the restaurant in the corner: the cuscus made with fish or meat sprinkled with raisins and dipped in a paste of hot pepper!
Many a time did I wander with the crowd which led me to discover a new market for saddlers, shoemakers, tanners, and tailors of traditional outfits before I took a turn into the street of the spice dealers where the National Library stands filled with ancient manuscripts. One time I had no option but to drift into the alley of Sidi Abdullah Kash as I heard so many stories and enticements about it. That alley is crowded with prostitutes, people searching for secret pleasures, vagabonds and many things that would take pages to record but here I have no chance of mentioning them.

I no longer know

what kind of changes occurred to me, to my circumstances, condition, where lies the outer from the inner and the dream from the reality!
All what I know is that something happened to me when I entered the library and got addicted to reading the manuscripts that were stacked up and kept for a thousand years or more!
That strange manuscript turned my head over. I cannot find a way to describe it except to take out some extracts or copy from it. I have become so confused and I no longer know if what I am writing here is taken from the original or from what has been added by copiers and translators who originally found it written in an ancient language . I do not know the limits of my own words, what I have imagined, what has been whispered inside of me, what has crept in from the other manuscripts I had a look at, or what actually happened to me then in the lands of Tunisia and Houran. But I invoke God against a pen for atheism, apostasy and profligacy, against that which was written in the righteous heart by the hand of the wicked writer, with letters that have the potency of fatal poisons. I also am extremely amazed that I read in it the levels of faith, asceticism and benevolence by which a person gains the satisfaction of the Compassionate who can place him in Paradise if he follows them. After that, many strange and suspicious events happened to me as a result of the overflow of this manuscript which I will mention when it is time for them!

There is no escape then

from what has happened to me. I no longer know how to return to what I used to be before. I did not desire to know all what I have known but this has happened and the matter is over. That is why I sometimes hallucinate and I am overcome with fever every now and then.
Hadia Alzahery came to me in my flat and saw my papers scattered on the floor and the bottles thrown here and there. She told me that I have exhausted myself with drink, staying up late and reading a lot. She asked me about the text I was writing and whether someone had seen it or read it before her. I assured her that no one had seen it except her and that I would like her to sit beside me and read some of it in her own voice.
She said, as she gathered the scattered papers and placed them carefully in her handbag, that she will do so the next time. She bid me to come out of my habitual isolation and depression and join her for a walk to Sidi Busaeed to drink some green tea with mint in the cafes by the sea. I had no choice but to follow her. After one whole hour I discovered that I was just sitting next to her and gazing where the water meets the cloudy horizon and was inhaling fresh air that revives the heart. I started to expel what was inside of me. At one time I would scream with outrage and another time laugh. Meanwhile, she listened to me overcome by surprise from my story about the time before I came to Tunisia, drowned in the depth of its sea and learnt something about its people’s customs.
I told her that once I am overtaken by ecstasy, memory storms inside me, sorrows scrimmage with me and the earth becomes too narrow for what I accommodate. At that point I like to climb a lofty mountain and once I reach the summit, I desire listening to Indian music played on the sitar, or the Qawali of Nasrat Khan, the singing of Shajrayan on the beatings of the saunter, Andalusian music, or the grief of Saliha . You might not believe that I also wish to listen to the praises by Nakhshbandy and the Chapter of Mary in the Koran in the voice of Abdel Baset. At this point Hadia I start to sob, then cry then scream in such a loud voice that all creatures get to hear and cry with me and for me until the stones, trees and birds mellow towards me. When the fit is over I feel peace, serenity and purification as sorrows, burdens and the oppression of time disappear from my chest!
She told me: You are strange, real strange and your condition perplexes me but despite everything I want to remain beside you and she added in jest:
- What do you say to climbing the mountain of Bu Garnein? Look how high it is.
I told her: Under one condition that I go alone!
She fell silent for a little while then said with a ringing laugh:
- I said from the beginning that you will drive me crazy. All right go alone you scoundrel.
I told her:
- Believe me I don’t know what is happening to me. I sometimes feel that I am a scoundrel for real or I am like an accursed Satan and sometimes I see that I am one of the purified angels. Am I crazy or what? I am really tired and I am bored don’t you say so?

I can never ever

erase thirty years of war or of waiting for it. You do not know Hadia the meaning of waiting that has no reason before it and no hope after it!
You ask: “What’s the matter with you, you’re always frowning and worried?”
But there was not enough time for joy and happiness and for this reason our facial expressions froze and hardened from lack of laughter!
You have no idea how we used to wake up to the sound of soul stirring war songs: “They say that the Jordanians are always frowning…..”
The pompous speeches at school and in the barracks. We used to sleep on their sound and drink them with the morning tea:
“Welcome our dear armored warships…, our tanks,…. are you off to Ramallah…, we are ready for death, ready for the sword…., the Jordanian red troops…, hey, hey come on Abu Abdullah ( King Hussien) we want to go to war…”.
The group of the Islamic Brotherhood used to chant the songs of Al Turmuzi and Abu Rateb and say: “Come on brother to jihad”… and “Rise nation of Islam” and they distributed out to us the ten commandments of Sheikh Al Banna!
A pair of heavy black boots swung over my shoulders on my first day in the compulsory military service. I received on that day my military outfit, a helmet, a rain coat and empty cases for military supplies. There was no other way for me to carry the boots together with all this load except to place them over my neck and leave them to swing from their strings. It was a surrealistic scene. Believe me I used to spend many hours in polishing their surface, I mean the boots, in order to save my face in front of the officer. I discovered from the previous soldiers new ways for polishing by using burnt kiwi and a spoon so that each of us could shave his beard in front of its shiny polished surface. There was a high level of discipline and training. But I did not fire one bullet at them… I mean the Israelis… we waited a long time for the war and it never happened. When it happened at one point I was a child. By the way the idea of killing terrifies me. How can a human being kill another human being?
How can any of us turn into a cold blooded killer as if he were slaughtering a chicken?
This is what I witnessed with my eyes on a dingy day under an olive tree that was neither facing east nor west. The killer was telling the young man who was stretched out underneath him and begging for mercy: “Forgive me. There is no way out of killing you. There is no might except through Allah.” After that he slit his throat with a knife and furthermore pierced his head with a bullet!
He killed him twice. Nightmares kept chasing me in my sleep, repeating fragments of the scene. I used to rush to my mother who made me drink water from “the bowl of fright” to calm me down. The people who lived close by the grave kept hearing in the solitude of the night screams that gave one Goosebumps!
Forgive me Hadia for I am confused and perplexed. I know you will not understand much of what I said or what I am saying now but I want to open my heart over here and no one will listen to me except you I swear by the sea of Sidi Busaeed. Put up with my ravings and let me continue telling you what happened after the coercive awakening and its strange rituals at the end of the night. This took place just before the break of dawn as the voice of the corporal screamed out: “Praise God soldiers… get up” and of course there is no way we would wait for another call from him else the cold water would splash our faces.
We used to start the day by running until our hearts reached our throats from panting, from tiredness rubbed in with scowling phrases. When our bodies got worn out from running, we found one boiled egg and a piece of halva waiting for us with a cup of boiled tea with added camphor. According to the recruits the camphor was added to curb our desires so we would not get excited! You ask me what camphor is like? There is no way you could even imagine what it is like!
I once asked the pot-bellied cook, who wears a white vest painted with tomato juice and marks from wiping his hands, about the story of adding camphor to the tea. I remember that he gave me two conflicting answers. He once said that the matter is true and on another occasion he swore by the Koran and by God the Compassionate that the whole thing is no more than a rumor that the soldiers had spread around because they are afraid for their masculinity and their wasted semen in the toilets!
I used to perform my morning prayer in a group let alone the other daily prayers before the readings and controversial discussions destroyed my fragile serenity. I constantly prayed that God would make us victorious over our enemies who are the non-believers and Jews but the war never took place. The state signed a peace treaty and they told us: “Everything is over… there is no war or fighting…” I felt at that moment that everything went with the wind as if they had made fun of us and poured cold water on top of our heads. But thank God the war did not take place, do you know why?
Because what would have happened to us would have been the same as, or even worse than, what took place in the two infamous years in 1948 and 1967. Don’t think that I am a pessimist or a defeatist coward!
We are killed by the emotional blackmail, sermons and the ruminated prayers. Now Hadia we have to admit that we are a defeated Arab nation with an extinguished message. We should not be stickling or promising the self with lies. Maybe after this we can start anew for once the reason is known there is no blame. I feel that I have now started to mix things up and you will not understand me but I swear to you by God that I myself no longer understand anything I say!
She said with a great deal of surprise on her face:
- God forbids. I don’t know how to rid you of these nightmares. You East Coasters your lives are full of wars. By God please forget the matter and let us hope for something good. Forget the story of the Moslem Brotherhood we do not need any more headaches. Let us talk after that. Ca va?
I said after her own manner: Ca va but I know that I am not ca va!
She gave me a close hug while her playful laugh got lost in the noise of the sea and said:
- You want to say ca va pas. My dear you really don’t know French?
I muttered: Not even English!

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