The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Love and the Demonstration

Someone knocked on the door. Outside I found Abd al-Wahhab, who—extending his arms as far as they would reach— exclaimed, “As of today, I’m the happiest man alive! I’ve scored the greatest triumph of my life with her; we are going to the movies.”

This meant he was inviting me, and “her” referred to Anbar, with whom he was madly in love. She had caused him to wander around like a lunatic, exposing himself to blows and punches; he had even changed his name for her. The triumph he referred to would be something huge, and he would reveal it to me today. I shouldn’t rush him. The best way to handle him was to play along till he revealed what he had bottled up inside. We headed east toward al-Sarjkhaneh, where his father’s shop was located. He turned toward me, delightedly explaining, “I’m going to see my father to get enough money to cover the film and supper. What do you think?”

“That’s fine with me, but I can’t stay out any later than eight.”

“We’ll be back before then.”

He took sixty fils from his pocket and said, “Take this and put it in your pocket.”


“My father will search me. He gave me a hundred fils this morning. So he’ll ask, ‘How much do you have left?’”

We were fifteen. My daily allowance was only ten fils, but Abd al-Wahhab received between one and two hundred a day. He was his parents’ only child, and I knew his father never turned down a single one of his requests. I laughed. “You’re lucky,” I commented, putting the coins in my pocket.

Abd al-Wahhab described the way he had gotten to know her. I was eager to hear what she had told him. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at the sky joyfully and exclaimed, “What a beautiful day! A clear sky and a gentle breeze!” Then he pointed toward a towering tree and commanded, “Listen to the chirping of the birds!” Pirouetting, he shouted, “I’m so happy!”

Admiring the blissful radiance of his face, I thought, How lucky he is! When we reached Bab Lakash, where the new Butcher’s Market started, we heard the chants of demonstrators rising to the heavens from in front of the Central Police Station at Bab al-Tub. We saw countless throngs of people assembling there, just a few hundred meters ahead of us. Most of the shops on the street had closed their doors. Traffic had come to a standstill; there wasn’t a single horse-drawn cart or vehicle. People blocked the square; they were shouting, “Down with Abd al-Ilah! Down with Nuri al-Said! Down with Britain! Stop ruining students’ lives! Death or Nationalized Petroleum!”

This was the largest demonstration I had ever seen. I had participated in another, small demonstration two years earlier but don’t remember anymore why I joined it or how. I was thirteen then, and we walked out of school chanting, “Down with the Portsmouth Treaty! Down with Nuri al-Said!” Most of us knew nothing about the treaty, which prevented Iraqis from enjoying their nation’s wealth, but we knew Nuri al-Said, because adults had a lot to say about his subservience to Great Britain. We had gone only a hundred meters farther toward the Central Police Station when we saw that police had surrounded us and were beginning to beat the oldest boys. Some of them fled, and others were driven by force toward our school. When we returned there, the scowling headmaster, who was furious with us and our unruly behavior, put us in detention. There he humiliated us, threatened us, and beat three students with his short, sturdy cane, making their heads bleed. He was content, however, just to scorch the palms of younger students like me with a stout cane. We leapt in pain, and tears came to our eyes. More than one of our teachers helped beat the students. When we entered our classroom, the Arabic language teacher, Ya‘qub Yusuf Hanna, made us stand while he denigrated us a second time. He hit each of us on both palms several more blows and copied our names into a small notebook he drew from the pocket of his worn, brown blazer. My classmate John Nissan was despondent about that. When I asked him why, he replied that this would ruin his future, because the teacher, Ya‘qub Yusuf Hanna, would pass the names on to the Petroleum Company where they would be placed on the firm’s black list.

“They put the names on their black list! So what?”

“You don’t know anything about your future. The Petroleum Company pays its employees a salary five times as much as the government. This means that none of us will ever be hired by the Iraq Petroleum Company.”

I yelled, “How do you know?”

“Every week, after the Sunday service, I see him conferring with Mr. W.W. Doll, the personnel officer of the Ayn Zalla Petroleum Company.”

“Perhaps they’re friends.”

“Yes, they’re friends, but he has enlisted him to spy on us. Many of the parishioners know that he collects information for his firm. They ingratiate themselves with him in hopes that he will offer their children jobs with astonishing salaries.”

I ignored all this, because the idea of employment following graduation was too far in the future to occupy my young mind back then.

Most of the demonstrators now were men, mostly young men older than us, but I did see some guys my age—no older than fifteen. We would have to cut through this terrifying mob to reach Abd al-Wahhab’s father’s shop in al-Sarjkhaneh. I suggested taking a detour to avoid passing through the huge, densely packed mass of demonstrators, if only because it would be difficult to force our way through that awesome crowd, but he insisted on continuing through the demonstration.

“What do we care? Let’s hear what these childish orphans are saying. There’s plenty of time. We can at least hear their chants.”

It upset me when he called the demonstrators “orphans.” So I asked tensely, “Why ‘orphans’? Don’t you think they have principles and want change?”

He shot back sharply, “Do you think they can force the government to obey?”

“No, but they’re trying.”

“So, join them!”

“I don’t understand many of their slogans; otherwise I would.”

I understood, “Down with Abd al-Ilah,” “Down with Nuri al-Said,” and “Down with Britain.” I didn’t get the point of, “Stop ruining the students’ lives.” (Later I learned that the faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy had decided to expel students who failed even one year-end exam.) The slogan about nationalizing petroleum wasn’t very practical, especially after reports had been circulating about what had happened in Iran with Mossadegh two years earlier, about the anarchy and bloodshed in Iran, and about how chaotic everything had become there. All the same, adults in the souk repeated the assertion of Sadiq Shanshal as an accepted truth: “If Iraqi petroleum were nationalized, every citizen would receive one whole dinar from it every month.” I was surprised that they were using this slogan. It seemed there was a lot I had to learn about politics. All of this was on my mind as the chants resounded forcefully and violently, shaking all of existence: “Down with Nuri al-Said! Down with the puppet cabinet! Down with, down with, down with. . . .”

Then we heard a loudspeaker from the Central Police Station, one so powerful it could be heard a kilometer or more away. It bellowed: “Please, Brothers. That’s enough demonstrating. This is anarchy. Please disperse. Return to your homes. Stop demonstrating. You have blocked the streets. Allow ordinary citizens to go home to rest and see their children.”

The demonstrators ignored this plea, however. The chants grew even more fervent, and some demonstrators responded to the request from the bellowing loudspeaker with raspberries and trash talk: “Son of a bitch, you bastard, your mother’s the whore, Nuri al-Said, you pimp.” Then other demonstrators laughed.

Soon the loudspeaker resumed, “Brothers, please, please, please listen to the voice of reason. Disperse!”

“Tweet, tweet!1 Nuri al-Said is a tweet. Down with Nuri al-Said! Tweet.”

I don’t know how one of them happened to have a mizmar—a folk oboe—and started playing the word “tweet” as if it were a musical phrase. So a group of demonstrators began yelling, “Nuri al-Said,” and the mizmar player responded: “tweet.”

“Down with the regent!”


“Down with Britain!”


Then the chanting, music, tweeting, and merriment became feverish.

Abd al-Wahhab started to laugh uproariously, egged on perhaps by the victory he had scored with Anbar that day.

He suggested, “Let’s sing.”

“Don’t waste time. Let’s go to your father before he closes his shop. We’ll sing on our way back.”

“No, I’m going to sing now.”

“What shall we sing?”

Abd al-Wahhab began to mimic the demonstrators:

When evening falls, my lover Nuri al-Said plummets.


When evening falls, my lover, the regent plummets.


When evening falls, Great Britain plummets.


I don’t know how, but a few people near us heard him, and one of them dashed into the heart of the demonstration. He returned with a muscular, blond giant in his thirties. This giant shouted loudly at Abd al-Wahhab, “Comrade, why haven’t we discovered you before now?”

He grabbed Abd al-Wahhab, placed him on his shoulders, and carried him away. Then Abd al-Wahhab was seen by all the tens of thousands of demonstrators. Stopping only a few meters from the gate of the Central Police Station, the giant shouted at the top of his lungs, “Listen up, Comrades! Please listen up!”

They all fell silent while the giant exchanged a few words with Abd al-Wahhab. I couldn’t hear, because I was too far away. Then Abd al-Wahhab began to sing in his lovely voice, “When evening falls, my lover Nuri al-Said plummets.”

The giant added, “The people will celebrate the victory.”

Abd al-Wahab sang this as a refrain, “The people will celebrate the victory.”

Everyone there applauded, and the fellow with the mizmar repeated the musical phrase that sounded one hundred per cent like “tweet.” Then hundreds of voice responded, “Tweet.”

“When evening falls, my lover Nuri al-Said plummets.”


“When evening falls, Great Britain plummets.”

The demonstrators started to discover Abd al-Wahhab’s vocal gifts, which were artistic, revolutionary, entertaining, and provocative. Perhaps involuntarily and unconsciously, Abd al-Wahhab had become the first artistic director for the first enjoyable political demonstration in history, but the loudspeaker interrupted our enjoyment: “Brothers, I warn you: if you don’t disband, we will fire on you. We will count to ten. If you haven’t dispersed by the count of ten, we will fire on you with live ammo. A person is excused when he has given prior warning. Please disperse. Please!”

The demonstrators’ only response was: “Tweet. My lover Nuri al-Said. Tweet.”






“Tweet. . . .”





“We will fire!”


Then suddenly a dreadful, resounding burst of gunfire ripped through the air, causing my whole body to tremble. Abd al-Wahhab was the first to fall, still singing. Where did the bullet strike him? I don’t know. His back was to me. But I saw him collapse on the giant’s shoulder. The giant was leaning forward and then both of them fell. Was he killed too? I don’t know.

The square was a conflagration of bullets, chaos, blood, shoving, screaming, pleas for help, cursing, and cries of pain. Shots crackled. Bodies fell atop other bodies. People were running, pushing each other aside, and trampling on the bodies. They were screaming. They were weeping.

My legs went slack as the square in front of me emptied, and bullets rained down indiscriminately. Their dreadful sound shredded the stillness of existence. Had I remained where I was, I would definitely have been killed along with Abd al-Wahhab. But a brown-skinned man, whose chic clothes and red necktie showed that he was an educated person, came racing as hard as he possibly could toward where I stood, dazed and shocked, not knowing what to do as I brooded about Abd al-Wahhab, who had been silenced by a murderous bullet. As this man of about thirty rushed past me, his shoulder clipped mine so hard I lost my balance and almost fell. He clutched me by my jacket and dragged me along, saying “Run with me! Are you shell-shocked? Do you want to die?”

All at once I snapped to and started racing behind him till we found cover in a narrow alley nearby. Then he stopped, gasping for breath, his face as yellow as turmeric. He said, “Run as fast as you can. The police will spread out and arrest anyone they find—even a mouse. If they catch you, they’ll destroy your future. They’ll torture you. They’ll demand that you rat on whoever was with you on pain of death. Run!”

Then he ran off and I did too.

I saved myself, but the image of Abd al-Wahhab was stuck in my mind. Could the life of my dearest friend have ended so abruptly on the best day of his life?

“Today, I’m the happiest man alive! I’ve scored the greatest triumph of my life with her; we are going to the movies.” Wasn’t that what he had said? The words resounded in my ears.

Do you suppose he was dead? I couldn’t bring myself to think about that. I started to try to gull myself. Perhaps he was wounded. He would recover. He would marry Anbar. He would accomplish everything he had dreamt of doing. But what should I do? Should I tell his family what had happened? I didn’t know. I couldn’t reach a conclusion. I’m never able to bring people bad news.

I returned to Bab Lakash, a safe district far removed from the theater of events. People were gathering in groups of three, four, or five. They were stunned, devastated. They were cursing Nuri al-Said, the regent Abd al-Ilah, and Salih Jabir. But I could not reach the house.

I saw a barefoot boy about two years younger than me. He wore a tunic made of threadbare, brown linen; it was cinched with a yellow, hemp rope. He was riding a small brown donkey and leading another similar one. I caught up to him and asked him if he was going to Bab al-Tub. He nodded his head yes. I asked him, “If I give you ten fils, will you let me ride there on the other donkey?

He laughed suddenly. “Let’s go.”

He stopped the donkey, which I immediately mounted. He prodded it with his stick, and it started off, carrying me. The smell of onions and vegetables crammed in the packsaddle overwhelmed me. So I discerned that the boy was transporting vegetables from the fields to the shops. Riding on the donkey was the best solution my little head could devise, because the police wouldn’t be able to arrest anyone who hadn’t participated in the demonstration but was merely riding on a donkey to deliver vegetables. I wanted to have a look at Abd al-Wahhab and see what had become of him, even if from a distance.

The boy turned toward me and asked, “Do you like riding the donkey?”

I did not reply and just nodded my head. My anguish made it impossible for me to speak. At the beginning of the Bab Lakash Butchers Market I heard someone hailing me loudly. When I turned I saw my friend Hazim standing at the door of his father’s carpentry shop. He was laughing to see me astride a donkey and perhaps thought I was just fooling around. He motioned for me to go to him. I couldn’t help but smile and gestured back to him to be patient—I would return shortly. Most people had stopped work and stood in front of the doors of their shops. Their faces showed the misery and pain they felt for the victims felled by police bullets.

The street in front of the police station was empty except for dozens of policemen armed with long British rifles. They had placed bayonets on their muzzles to make them seem even longer. They stood a few meters away from each other. When they saw two donkeys heading toward them, one of the police sergeants, who was dark-complexioned, wheeled around—and when we were three meters away—shouted, “Stop! Where do you think you’re going? This area is forbidden. Go back! The road is closed.”

But the boy was only able to stop the donkey a meter from the policeman. Then he and I both dismounted. I looked around. There were a few ambulances on the street, and there wasn’t a single corpse lying on the pavement.

I felt certain that Abd al-Wahhab was in one of those ambulances. Since we always carried our student IDs with us wherever we went, they would know from searching the victims’ pockets who he was and would inform his family.

The boy told me, “I’m going to turn back and go another way to the railway bridge. Will you come with me?”

“Thanks. This is far enough.”

Abd al-Wahhab continued to preoccupy me for a long time like any dear friend whose life ends with a tragedy. My fond memories of him have forcefully repelled the rot of forgetfulness. I have never been able to forget his request, which at the time I thought absurdly improbable. I don’t know when that was—perhaps in June or July of the past year. Looking me directly in the eye, he asked, “Will you come with me to the Personal Records Bureau to help me change my name?”

The news struck me like a bolt of lightning, and I froze in my tracks.

We had passed our year-end exams for the second year of junior high—in other words we had just turned fourteen—and it had never crossed my mind that a person would try to change his name for any reason. So I froze in my tracks and stared him straight in the eye.


“I want to.”

I smiled. “To what?”

“From Lazim to Abd al-Wahhab. Any objection?”

I was astonished. I laughed. It was true that he loved the music of Abd al-Wahhab and could imitate him to perfection. But he had never mentioned changing his name before. He hadn’t even hinted at it.

I laughed. “No.”

“Why are you laughing then?”

“You surprised me.”

That was a competitive era. So when I thought of a possible motive, all I could think of was a rivalry between two different camps. In every area of the arts, two rivals dominated the field. In Iraqi poetry, the two greatest poets were al-Rusafi and al-Zahawi. In Egypt the poets Ahmad Shawqi and Hafiz Ibrahim were renowned. The top Egyptian male vocalists were Abd al-Wahhab and Farid al-Atrash, and the country’s top female vocalists were Umm Kulthum and Asmahan. Iraq’s best male vocalists were al-Qubbanchi and Nazim al-Ghazali, and the best female vocalists were Zakiya George and Salima Murad. The top dancers were Tahiya Karioka and Samia Gamal. The best Arab actors were Imad Hamdi and Muhsin Sarhan. The two leading political parties in Iraq were the National Democratic Party and the Independence Party. The monarchy’s two iconic figures were Nuri al-Said and Salih Jabir—and so forth and so on. Perhaps the people of my city are born competitive; you always see disputes flaring up between supporters of two rivals.

My cousin Abd al-Sattar loved Abd al-Wahhab while my friend Ghanim loved Farid al-Atrash. My friend Lazim loved Abd al-Wahhab whereas our friend Malullah ibn al-Arbanji loved Farid al-Atrash. Whenever we met, a fierce debate would burst out between them every time and escalate until they almost came to blows.

I thought that Lazim wished to change his name to Abd al-Wahhab in order to lend weight to Abd al-Wahhab’s side of the argument and to put his muscle where his mouth was, becoming perhaps the only person in the city to change his name—something no fan of Farid al-Atrash had done—surrendering his name to lend weight to his favorite singer’s cause, but I was wrong. The motivation ran much deeper than that: he confessed that he had fallen in love with a beautiful girl. He had begun to dog her heels from the moment she left her house till she reached her school. But he had never accosted her or addressed so much as a word to her. For her part, she ignored him and acted as if he didn’t exist. After a few months of this exhausting pursuit, as she walked along, she had dropped a folded-up piece of paper. He picked up the paper, feeling that he was the happiest person in the world. Then he started to dance, thinking that the piece of paper would hold a confession of her love for him or at least a flirtatious remark. Instead, what he found was just the question: “What is your name?”

He imitated her method but felt ashamed to admit that his name was Lazim. So he wrote, on the same piece of paper, “My name is Abd al-Wahhab. What is yours?”

She did not reveal her name then. In her next message she said she was delighted his name was Abd al-Wahhab, because she was a fan of Abd al-Wahhab and liked him much better than Farid al-Atrash.

He was overjoyed when he came to me and announced, “I’m going to perform some of Abd al-Wahhab’s songs for her.” He continued to hope for another message and did not have long to wait. From the next piece of paper that she dropped for him he learned that her name was Anbar, but she added a prohibition against telling anyone.

He folded this sheet of paper, almost mad with delight, and I found him waiting for me at the end of the school day. He grabbed my hand and pulled me away, gleefully exclaiming, “I could almost fly!”

“I want to fly with you.”

“Close your eyes.”

I closed them.

“Open them.”

On opening them, I found before my eyes a paper with a single name inscribed on it in small blue letters: Anbar. I grasped that this was her name. It was the first time I had heard this very beautiful word used as a woman’s name.

He laughed resoundingly and said, “Come! You’re invited to a movie.”

“It’s still early.”

The school day ended at four, and the show started at six-thirty. He came with me when I took my books home and then we went to the Garden of Martyrs. Blessed with a lovely voice, he was able to imitate Abd al-Wahhab’s singing perfectly, and among his special favorites were the great songs “When Evening Falls and the Night’s Stars Scatter Across the Sky,” “The Gondola,” and the sad, tender lyrics of Aziz Sidqi:

O you who are my soul’s dearest wish and inescapable lure

Now that you have carried my soul into distant sorrows. . . .

He also liked “The Night is Calm,” and when the song “Mount al-Tubadh” was broadcast, Lazim memorized it at once and started singing it to me as we walked home from our distant school. In the Garden of the Martyrs, which was near the cinema, he began to entrance my ears with a few songs by Abd al-Wahhab. Then we went to the King Faisal II Cinema on Aleppo Street. The film was “I’m Not a Child Anymore” starring Gregory Peck. American films of that era were amazing because of the directors and the astounding Technicolor.

Lazim began sneaking out of school during the fourth period so he could drop notes on Anbar’s route home, because her school day ended ten minutes before ours. I didn’t know how he managed to persuade the school messenger who manned the exit to let him skip out early. Later I learned that he had discreetly given the messenger a cigarette each time, even though he didn’t smoke; he bought cigarettes especially for the messenger. Then without any warning, a catastrophe occurred: the messenger was transferred, and another replaced him. This was a tall, powerfully built giant with rippling muscles, a mustache, and a sullen expression. Trying to curry favor with him, Abd al-Wahhab handed him a cigarette. The messenger took the cigarette, crushed it between his fingers, scattered the tobacco, threw the remnants on the floor, and stamped on them. Then he stared hard at Abd al-Wahhab and, gritting his teeth, said, “If you ever try to bribe me with a cigarette, I will light it and poke it in your left eye, leaving you as one-eyed as Nefertiti. Then I’ll hoist you with one hand and dump you in front of the headmaster.”

His explosive scream caused Lazim’s face to crinkle like a washboard: “Scram!”

After this giant school messenger refused the bribe, Lazim transferred to an evening school; then he had plenty of time to intercept Anbar.

Love bloomed between Lazim and Anbar through this series of messages. When the school year ended and the results of the junior high exams were released, she unveiled her plans for the future to him. She said she had passed the junior high exit exam and was enrolling in a two-year training program for future bankers. If he was serious, he should prepare to propose to her at the end of her training course. He was wild with delight once more and began to make preparations to change his name officially. How could he let Anbar discover that his name was Lazim—which means “must”—after he had claimed to be Abd al-Wahhab? “That will make me look like a liar. She’ll lose her respect for me.”

I went with him to the Bureau of Public Records, which at the time was called the Population Bureau, even though I had severe misgivings about the matter, because all names seemed equivalent to me.

There were twenty people in line in front of us. When it was our turn, we confronted a civil servant of about forty. On his old table there were hundreds of applications, sheets of writing and carbon paper, inkwells, and pins. (I still remember that government official today. He had a Qubya pen behind his ear and another pen in his hand; his fingers were stained with ink. Whenever he wrote out a document or application, he put a piece of carbon paper under it to create a second copy to save for official records. It was stifling hot in the office and corridor, and people were sweating profusely. Above the official’s head a ceiling fan revolved with a grating sound but did no good, because the air it pushed around was hot, dry, and absolutely not refreshing. After more than an hour, our turn arrived. Then the official raised his eyes inquisitively but said nothing.

So Lazim said, “I want to change my name.”

The official asked, “Must you change it?”

“Yes, it’s a must.”

“What is your current name?”


The civil servant tossed down the Qubya pen and glared at Lazim. He seemed flustered, perhaps because of the unbearably hot weather. “Son, Son: what is your current name?”


The official groaned and tried to calm himself. “By God Almighty, you must tell me your current name.”

I intervened. “Uncle, his name is Lazim, and he wants to change it.”

The man seemed dumbfounded and froze for a moment. It was clear from the expression on his exhausted face that he was brooding about the matter. A few seconds later he smiled, and I realized that he had understood the situation. “Why do you want to change your name?”

“I don’t like it.”

The clerk laughed, and everyone standing behind us laughed too. I was so embarrassed that I wished the earth would swallow me. Still smiling, the man said, perhaps because he found the matter entertaining, “That’s not a sufficient reason. Many people do not like their names.”

He paused for a moment, and his face brightened. Delighted that he had devised a clever phrase, he declared, “Mr. Must, changing your name isn’t a must.”

Everyone standing there laughed at his bon mot, but Lazim grew even angrier and affirmed, “Must!”

The laughter broke out again. “Son, why a must?”

Lazim insisted courageously, “Yes, I am Must and must change that.”

His complexion was normally brown, but he was so agitated that blood rushed to his face, which turned the color of dried beet. His eyes narrowed in rage, and the official took pity on him. “Fine! What will you change your name to?”

“Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab.”

The people behind us created a row, laughing and shouting. One man started to sing, “What he told me; what I told him.”

A second person objected, “Know-it-all, that’s not an Abd al-Wahhab song; that’s by Farid al-Atrash.”

A third started to sing, “Rose of true love. . . .”

More than one man commented, “Yes it is by Abd al-Wahhab.” The commotion grew louder, and more than one voice could be heard singing a song by Abd al-Wahhab as people’s comments and laughter increased.

The clerk yelled furiously while glaring at the crowd, his anger peaking, “That’s enough! Show some respect. This is a government agency. Let us do our work.”

Everyone fell silent, and the official turned toward us. “I doubt that the law allows for a name consisting of three words to be recorded. The law stipulates a name of no more than two words.”

Lazim asked earnestly, “What’s the difference?”

“It’s a question of law, not of logic. I need to be certain.”

“How long will that take?”

The queue behind us had grown longer, and as it lengthened, the comments multiplied. One man behind us said, “This is silly and shouldn’t waste the time of civil servants and applicants.”

Many of the others waiting in line supported him.

The clerk rose from his dilapidated rattan chair and headed to the front of the room. He took out a book, opened it to a specific page, and read from it for a few seconds. Then he came back. Staring at Lazim and shaking his head, he said, “I think not.”

“Does anything in the law forbid it?”

“I don’t have time to read all of the section, but it’s clear that nothing prevents me recording a name of just two words.”

I squeezed Lazim’s arm to pressure him to agree. So he consented, “Fine. Just Abd al-Wahhab.”

The official smiled and sighed with relief. “So far so good, but your name cannot be changed here. You must go to court and take your father’s written consent, because you’re still a minor.

Everyone in line behind us guffawed, gloating at our tribulations. We withdrew, and I could have died of shame. All the same, Lazim glared at me and yelled, “How does he know I’m a minor? I could marry ten women.”

When he asked me to accompany him to court, I refused. “It’s bad enough having some of the people laughing at us; I don’t need all of them doing it.” Later I changed my mind, though, and accompanied him to see my mother’s cousin Jalal al-Qubtan, who is an attorney specializing in family law. I knew where his office was in al-Dawasa. When we entered, he was enjoying his siesta, and his feet were propped up on the files and legal papers on his desk. He was sweating profusely, even though the ceiling fan was turning. Near him sat a small tray with leftover onions, celery, and sumac and an empty plate slightly larger than a tea plate. So I knew he had eaten kebab for lunch.

When we came in he opened his eyes sleepily but left his feet on his desk. “Good news?”

I explained Lazim’s problem to him and said that his father wouldn’t object to the name change but couldn’t come to court because he was ill.

Rubbing his face to drive away drowsiness, he explained, “He needs to obtain the right certificate from the court and have his father sign it beneath the clause that says he has no objection to his son changing his name and that he is unable to appear in court due to ill health.”

He said Lazim would need some other documents as well. When we left, Lazim told me, “You got me into this mess; so now you need to get me out of it. There’s no way my father will sign, and I’m no good at imitating signatures. You’re a good calligrapher; you should imitate my father’s signature.”

I didn’t try to reason with him. He was his father’s only child, and I assumed that if he had been up front with his father, his father would not have had the heart to reject his request. In any event, I did not drag out the debate. I respected his decision and bowed to his will. So, for the first time in my life, I forged an official document, although my heart was pounding. At the court we were dumbfounded by a coincidence we would never have believed if the clerk of court, a thin man wearing a secondhand suit coat that was patched with wide squares of leather and that could be bought in the used-clothing market called “Bales or Bundles,” had not told us while pointing to the documents. He said, “You are the second person I have seen change his name from Lazim to Abd al-Wahhab.” Then he picked up a folder that was in front of him. “Just yesterday we presented his case to the judge.” From his father’s name I was able to identify him. The fellow was the same age as me and Lazim and had been my classmate at the school in al-Khalidiya before I finished elementary school. I knew exactly who he was and knew his father’s shop in Souk al-Saray. I also knew his brother Mufid. The world twirled around me for some moments on account of things I had never at all expected.

Abd al-Wahhab emerged triumphant from the first truly significant battle of his life, although he suffered defeat in a subsequent battle when news of his pursuit of Anbar reached her paternal uncle’s son. I don’t know whether he was acting out of unadulterated jealousy of all our generation or whether his motive was personal jealousy and a desire to marry her himself.

Anbar was walking along and Abd al-Wahhab was a few steps behind her, clearly following her. Suddenly four young men blocked his path and asked him what he was doing. Before he could reply, one of them punched him in the nose. Then they all fell upon him, punching and beating him. This upset Anbar, who rushed toward them, trying to rescue him. She was screaming and calling out the names of two of them. So Abd al-Wahhab learned that they were her relatives. He was forced to go to a clinic.

The practice then was that clinics and hospitals were forbidden to treat anyone who had been assaulted if he didn’t bring a paper from the police establishing that he had lodged a complaint against his aggressor. At the police station Abd al-Wahhab said that four men had attacked him but that he didn’t know any of them. When they asked him to specify the location, he mentioned another place and submitted a complaint against persons unknown.

Abd al-Wahhab stayed home for about three days while his mournful mother cared for him. He went back out onto the street then, even before his wounds and bruises had healed. He just couldn’t bear not to see Anbar but proceeded very cautiously. The moment he saw a person in the alley, he would take off running, without that person knowing why he had disappeared. This situation seriously affected his studies and his health. He grew emaciated from his brooding, anxiety, and fear that someone would attack him again. Insomnia almost killed him, because her image filled his night and all its empty space as well as his dreams. This was the worst period of his life, and I felt really bad for him. I once told him, “Try to console yourself; otherwise you’ll die.”

He replied plaintively, “Dying would be better than being prevented from seeing Anbar.”

He took me to see her once, and I learned that she had started attending school again. We stood in the shadow of an alley, and he looked to the right and left every second, his eyes not focused on anything. He was so anxious that I reconciled myself to receiving a licking.

He told me more than once, “Stand behind me. Don’t let her see you. I don’t want her to discover that I’m showing her off to people. She might think I’m disgracing her.” He also warned me against letting anyone come up from behind and give us away.

When she appeared in the distance, she was all wrapped up in her abaya, showing only her eyes. I asked him, without thinking, “What do you see of her to make you melt with love?”

He didn’t reply. Instead he closed and then opened his eyes as if to say: “Wait.”

It was the end of autumn and the beginning of a school day. When Anbar appeared in the distance, his expression changed; his face turned all the colors of the rainbow. Blood rushed to each cell of his face. Two eyes glowed so brightly they could have lit up the whole world.

The world was no longer the same; it had become a paradise. Abd al-Wahhab was no longer the same; he melted. He was beyond physical existence. He faded away. Standing in his place was a creature more delicate than a breeze and clearer than a cock’s eye. Creatures were no longer the same; they were bathed in magical colors. Everything in the world was changed to fit the mold of paradise.

He began to sing one of Abd al-Wahhab’s songs in a low voice: “Water quenches thirst.”

When she drew near, about two meters away, her abaya parted to reveal the top of her face. Then wide, magical, extraordinary eyes with high contrast shone forth, bathing not only Abd al-Wahhab but the whole world with her charm.

Abd al-Wahhab closed his eyes. I couldn’t tell whether he was breathing or not. I did not see a human being’s features; he had changed before my eyes into a statue. Then in a few seconds he opened his eyes and asked in a low voice like a moan, “Did you see?”


I didn’t realize that she had dropped something, but he was used to her style. A minute later, since he was sure she had certainly dropped a piece of paper as she walked off, he said, “Come.”

I walked along with him, and we actually found a small piece of paper folded up till it was no bigger than an inch. He snatched it and told me, “Hurry!”

I raced along with him as he galloped until we reached a thoroughfare. I waited for him to tell me what was on the paper, but he didn’t inform me then, perhaps because he was so touched that he was no longer in control of his words. When I saw him two days later, he clarified the matter for me.

She had asked to see him where the lectures for the training course were held after the end of the normal school day in al-Sharqiya Secondary School in Mahallat Nabi Seth before she transferred to her new location opposite the Military Club. She asked him to propose to her there. That motivated him to begin to think about the future. “What will I do? How can I propose to her when I can’t support myself? Should I live as a burden on my family? No. I’m not the sort of person who would do that.”

He met with the man in charge of the training course before the students arrived. After hearing about the benefits of working in banks, he decided that would be a good choice for him. Banks are located in large cities; that means a banker wouldn’t be humiliated by being stuck in a village or some rural area like a schoolteacher or a soldier. Banks also paid a year’s salary in thirteen installments instead of twelve. The workday offered a cool working environment in the summer and warm in winter. For these reasons, he decided he would definitely enroll in the program to train bank employees. Besides, he could see Anbar without her abaya when she sat in class with him.

“I’ll fill my eyes with her as best I can. We’ll find a way to talk. I’ll propose officially to her, and we’ll get married once we have jobs—my father has promised. Could there be any greater triumph?”


Then he grabbed me by the collar and asked, “Are you paying attention to me?”

Laughing, I replied, “I am. Speak!”

“How many children do you plan to have if you get married?”

“You are out of your mind!”

“No, I’m not. This is a normal question. Tell me: how many kids?”

I smiled. “I haven’t given any thought to the matter.”

“Fine; think about it now.”

“Not even one child. I don’t want any children.”


“I agree with al-Ma‘arri. It’s better to live without children. I’m afraid my child would be poor like me and see things he can’t have or enjoy. I don’t want my child to suffer from poverty or exploitation. I don’t want other people to treat him badly. I love children. I don’t want to cast a child into the world without any guarantee of security.”

Frowning at me he yelled, “You’re a freak! Too much reading has ruined you. That’s enough philosophy.”

I smiled and answered, “You asked for my opinion.”

“Fine. That’s enough from you. I want exactly twelve children—no more, no less.”

I guffawed. “Twelve? Why?”

“I’m my parents’ only child. If I die, they’ll have no descendants. If they had a second boy, that would make their suffering more bearable.”

I felt uncomfortable. “What a pessimist you are! Where did you get such stupid ideas? If everyone thought like you, they couldn’t live.”

The night after the demonstration I lay awake for a long time. I had difficulty falling asleep. Was it possible he had foreseen his death? I don’t know how late it was when I dozed off, but I woke up feeling out of sorts. At the end of classes that next day, I headed to al-Sarjkhaneh only to find his father’s shop closed. The thirty-year-old man who ran the neighboring shop that sold sewing and art supplies, silk ribbons, assorted types of beads, spools of thread, and many other things including kaleidoscopes said, “I don’t know. He didn’t open the shop today. I don’t know why.”

So I knew they had learned about the tragedy.

Tears rushed to my eyes. I wanted to make sure and proceeded to Abd al-Wahhab’s house in Mahallat al-Nabi Jirjis. When I reached the alley, I heard the voice of the Qur’an reciter Salahuddin. He was reciting the Qur’an in his sweet but mournful voice. I started sobbing but didn’t dare enter the mourning tent. Instead I returned home.

 My conscience tormented me a lot and after the reception for mourners had ended I rushed back to Abd al-Wahhab’s house, where I found the door closed. I didn’t dare knock. Then I noticed an adolescent my age and asked if he knew what cemetery Abd al-Wahhab was buried in. He affirmed that he was buried in his family’s plot in Bab Sinjar. I thanked him and started off toward that cemetery, but he stopped me and asked, “Do you know where in the cemetery?”


“The cemetery’s big. You won’t be able to find the grave by yourself.”

“Do you know where it is?”

He opened his eyes wide. “What do you mean? I helped carry the coffin.”

“Are you his friend?”

“His relative. What about you?”

“He was my friend.”

“But I didn’t see you in the tent for mourners.”

My eyes teared up. “If I had come, I would have wept in front of everyone. He was my closest friend.” My voice quavered; I couldn’t control myself.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m the same way; it doesn’t take much to make me cry.”

He wiped away his tears and added, “I’m Mu‘tib, his cousin on his mother’s side.”

He moved closer and inquired, “Do you know his friend he called ‘The Calligrapher’?”

“Why do you ask?”

“He frequently talked about him. I do calligraphy too.”

“Do you want to meet his friend?”

“I wish I could! I would really like to show him my work because my late cousin said he is a great calligrapher. Perhaps he could give me some tips.”

“I’m the calligrapher.”


He paused and embraced me, squeezing my hand.

“I guessed you were, because you wept. I was expecting you to come.”

“I can’t control myself.”

We went to the cemetery; it would have been impossible for me, if Mu‘tib hadn’t been with me, to locate the grave, even though its dirt was fresher than that of the others.

Later Abd al-Wahhab inflicted yet another wound that lacerated my feelings and sent me into a deep crisis that took me a long time to work my way through.

In 1981, about seventeen years after his death, I entered al-Rashid Bank, opposite Baghdad’s Shurja Market, when I was planning a trip out of the country and needed to change some Iraqi money to a hard currency. These transactions required the signature of the head of the department. I waited for my turn; there were a few people ahead of me. A table there had a brass plaque on which was inscribed in lovely Neskhi script the name of the head of the exchange unit: Anbar Abd al-Muni‘m. At first the name meant nothing to me, but seconds later I felt something like an electric jolt from deep inside me—perhaps because it was an uncommon name. There was something about it. But who? When? How? I didn’t know. I left the line and looked at the person seated in the director’s chair. I saw a woman wearing a pistachio-green jacket made of fancy velvet. Her hair was dark brown. I couldn’t see her face, because she was leaning forward to read each document carefully before signing it. When it was my turn and her eyes looked up at me, I was plunged back almost two decades, seeing not the eyes of the head of department but the eyes of Anbar for whom Abd al-Wahhab had been waiting that day. They were extraordinary, enchanting eyes with a sharp contrast of black and white, large enough to encompass the world and everything in it. Their flash, which penetrated my depths and illuminated an old nook of pain lurking in the recesses of forgetfulness, exploded into flame. Yes, that was who it was and not anyone else. I was certain now. Had she married? Did she have children? Should I ask her? How could I ask? What would I say to her? Should I say, “I’m a friend of Abd al-Wahhab. I’m the only person who ever saw you with him. I am the only person with whom Abd al-Wahhab shared his deepest secrets.” Could I ask her, “Do you still love the singer Abd al-Wahhab?” No, that’s a silly question. She must have noticed my inflamed emotions from the expression on my face, because two sharp looks sparkled in her eyes for a moment like a gleaming flash on a winter night presaging lightning as if to ask me: “Is there some problem?” But professionalism finally won out, and after signing them she held out the papers with a lovely, amiable smile exactly like the one that Abd al-Wahhab was prepared to sacrifice no end of treasures to watch sweep across her face.

I quit her office awash with memories. So it occurred to me to ask an employee in the back whether she came from Mosul or not. That kind of question wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. I stopped to observe the employees and noticed a young man in his twenties standing by himself behind a marble counter. He was writing in a ledger. I stopped near him and pointed toward the office of the person in charge of currency exchanges to ask him the question I had devised. Looking at me, he nodded his head and said, “Yes. From Mosul. She transferred here some months ago. She’s an extraordinary lady.” I thanked him and left the bank nourishing other questions that were trying to emerge from the flask of forgetfulness. I found no rest that day or the next day. I was like a man with a troubling sore on his chin who is forced to scratch it constantly. It seemed to me that since he was her first love, she had a right to know everything about him, about his suffering in his love for her, about the pains he had gone to in order to slip out of school, about transferring to night school, about his desire to enroll in the same training program, about his wanting to have twelve children, about, about, about everything she didn’t know about him. But I couldn’t think of a fitting way. Finally, under the influence of drink, I decided to send her an anonymous letter. But I dismissed that idea. Then various other ideas that hadn’t reached maturity floated to the surface, and the memory of Abd al-Wahhab remained a sore that forced me to scratch it from time to time, until eventually time healed it sufficiently to allow it to rest in peace in my memory basket.

1. The Arabic word is teet, in which both consonants have subdots.


Mahmoud Saeed, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins

Mahmoud Saeed, a prominent Iraqi novelist, has written more than 20 novels and short story collections. He was imprisoned several times and left Iraq in 1985 after the authorities banned the publication of some of his novels, including Zanka bin Baraka (1970), which won the Ministry of Information Award in 1993. Mahmoud is currently serving as the first writer-in-residence at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, Kurdistan.

William Hutchins who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni's novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal Magazine, and here in InTranslation. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translations released in 2012 have been The Diesel by Thani al-Suwaidi (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim (revised edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers), The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson: African Writers Series), and A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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