Excerpt from a
novel by Yahia al-Qaisi
Translated by Dr Omnia Amin
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
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
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
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
- What do you say to climbing the mountain of Bu Garnein? Look how high
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
You ask: “What’s the matter with you, you’re always frowning and
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
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.
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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