From the Editors
[Salam Ibrahim was born in 1954 in Iraq, and started his political and literary activities early in his life, which caused him to be arrested and detained more than four times between 1970 and 1980, during which he endured physical and psychological torture. He took part in the war with Iran as a reserve soldier, and then deserted and joined the rebels in north Iraq. He moved with the Kurds to the northernmost part of Iran during the al-Anfal campaign in 1988. He sought asylum to Denmark in 1992, where he still resides.
Ibrahim started writing short stories in the early 1970s, and published more than fifty short stories by 1984. His writings—narrative and critical texts—are published in many eminent newspapers across the Arab world. His published works include Vision of Certainty (1994), Vision of the Absent (1994), Life is a Moment (2010), and The Attic (2008), from which the following excerpt is taken. This novel has been published by Al-Dar editions, Cairo. It can also be found, along with some critical works, on the Al-Naqed Al-Iraqi website.
The title of this novel, "al-Irsi" in Iraqi Arabic, refers to this interstitial space found in houses across the Middle East, and which consists of the little rooms built above the kitchen and bathroom, and where people store food, oftentimes for the whole winter. Various Arab dialects have chosen to name this space differently. In Lebanon it is called Titkheeteh, in Syria, S’eefeh, etc. These terms refer to the same space. The Attic, however, comes close to these terms, but refers to a different space, designed for a different use. I wish to thank Sinan Antoon and Suneela Mubayi for their most valuable edits.]
An Excerpt from Salam Ibrahim’s The Attic (Al-Irsi)
"Will I see you again?"
Will I touch our child..hug him…hug you...will I?!
Obsessions and fears, my love, take over me. They might take you hostage.. I may die a stranger in the mountain…three months have passed with their cold nights, their pains, and their nightmares. They passed heavily, and led me to an empty and open space. I was inhabited by longings from which I couldn't break free. They accompanied my instant while I was wandering between the mountains and remote villages, separated from the fighters, distracted, sad. You are swaggering beside me and around me in the valleys and caves, in the forest's morning sonorous with birds, and in the night's mosques and dreams. I wake up on the worshipers' monotonous chanting…God is alive…God is alive…There is no god but God…There is no god but God.. I sit cross-legged on the worn carpet, wrapped in my blanket, rocking with them in the midst of piety's inebriation, I swing on the brink of wailing, until the hot effluence begins, so that the scene of the rows of the ghostly devout men mixes with the haze of the lantern's dim light, my flowing tears, the prayers' murmur, dawn seeping from the windows overlooking the valley and the oak forest. I implore, along with these souls forgotten among the mountains, the majesty of the Almighty to let me see both of you one single more time. I have become addicted to this ritual in which I found spiritual peace. Once the guard on duty found me reciting the refrain “God is alive” while I was rocking back and forth, which made me the next day the fighters' object of ridicule.
"Why not join Hezbollah?"
"He might even be praying in silence!"
How could they understand me? Only you, my life, understand my perplexity about things, people, and the world. I have become absentminded and forgetful. Imagine a fighter forgets his rifle…his bullet row…his head cover, in the mosques in the peasants' homes and the shepherds' tents. You can imagine the irony this forgetfulness has added I see in the eyes of the young Kurdish fighters, throbbing with strength and vitality, while they winked laughing whenever their eyes fell on my scattered appearance in Kurdish peasant clothes to which I have not become accustomed yet, which pushed me to ask to carry the heaviest machine gun--Afarov--that bit off my back, but slightly eased my disheveled image. I was collapsing under its weight when I carried it to the towering peaks, I was even dying, thus I derived fortitude from a dream of your vision, imagining for a moment myself rushing toward you and containing your shoulder caps with the palms of my hands, the surge of desire in your eyes while you are in my arms. I will cuddle you. . .I will squeeze you from the soles of your small feet to the top of your head. I will bury my desperate face in your long hair. I will fall to your infantile feet…I will…I will…Listen, my beautiful, my happiest moments are in the seclusion of bathing in the mud rooms attached to the mosques and where spring water runs in their basins. You would emerge, luminous, from shadows overcrowded with the vapor of bubbling water, rising from a large pot placed on two spaced rocks between which wood is burning, you stand before me nude with your firm and protruding breasts, your belly button coiled like a snail, and the firmness of your smooth thighs. You approach, walking on a row of paved wood, toward the bathing circle. You fuse with me... I plunge into your delicious maze, and I wake up to dampness and disappointment… I turn into ashes. I shrivel. I fall into muddy despair. I shake…I shake… I shake from the cold and from my fear of losing you. I creep into the mosque's courtyard with its low ceiling. I slip under a shabby blanket next to the praying niche. Before I hide my head, I glance at the fighters' bodies scattered in the mosque's corners, on the scanty light of a lantern placed on a stony shelf, protruding from the distant wall. I contemplate their massed bodies, which look like worn-out rags thrown in these forgotten corners, living sad rags, dreaming in their light doze about distant beloveds, childhood alleys, schools' and universities' morning, orchards and rivers, home's warmth, dreaming…dreaming to be killed tomorrow in an ambush, a battle, or to be hunted down by helicopters that, from time to time, make a meal out of us…One…or two. Or more. For in the "Boulqamesh" village they took with their bullets thirty fighters to the Supreme Comrade perching in the distant heavens, relieving them from the hardships of roaming, the fears, the lice's crawling, the hunger, and the agonies of their wearing longings. From the corner of my barren solitude in the darkness of the mosques' courtyards trembling in the light of a dancing lantern of the same color as a faded ember, I contemplate, my love, my fate. Not with horror, but with pity… my angel, with pity…How sad are our selves straying in the passages of mountains and valleys?
We roam and death roams with us. We outwardly mock the passing bullet, and shiver in terror within our buried depths; we shivered so much that the spirit suffered flight from feelings of dread, for death has become a solid truth, and we see it abduct one of us every now and then. Listen, my soul, hear what my fright revived. We were trying to cross a street tiled from under the army’s positions. As we were taking cover shortly before the crossing, I heard one of them whispering to another standing near him:
"As we agreed, you aim at me if I am wounded and if it becomes difficult to drag me!"
"I am not crazy; if you desist or miss your shot, you will be committing a crime against me!"
"What's with you? whenever we cross a street you repeat the same frightening talk!"
"You have not visited the vaults of hell…How can you then comprehend the scope of my horror!"
I did not attach any importance to the matter. For I heard this conversation many times, in the squad's rest areas beside springs of water, shortly before going to sleep and after a detailed account of what had happened to the narrator during his arrest. The panting narration, depicting moments of terror and physical pain, was transforming our sleep to nightmares centered around the moment we are captured, similar to what happened to a small contingent that was attacked a little before dawn while they were sleeping in a mosque in a village close to a military camp. But as soon as our feet stepped on the street's asphalt, bullets rained down upon us. I flung myself flat on the ground, hearing behind me a voice:
"Comrades, I have been shot…I cannot walk."
In the bullets' uproar, on the light of the illuminating flares, I saw him lying meters away without his weapon. He was calling upon me to shoot him with a bullet.
"Have mercy on me, comrade…have all mercy on me!"
I aimed at him for a fleeting moment, recalling details of his terrified narrative, but my finger stiffened… could not pull on the trigger. And from behind me…from the darkness of the direction to which we were supposed to withdraw a salvo came and deactivated his body. In the following morning I was inspecting the faces one by one, trying to find out who had fired the bullet, but the inflexible faces were as rigid as rocks, didn't disclose anything. I remained silent…who would believe me? And I kept obsessing about the merciful killer in each of the following nights, during which he shared my bread, my laughter, and my dream, imagining the barrel of his compassionate rifle leading me to the gate of the other world.
Is this called panic, my darling?...Or is it that the matter is preordained by celestial powers who abandoned human beings. Judicious powers who despaired from the wickedness of man, and let him do whatever he wants to his fellow humans. It is the same, my love. The weakness grows in me, but I keep hidden, and divulge in the haze of the houses of God, scattered like distant mountain villages. I reveal it while rocking and repeating His permanence entrenched in the high above, sobbing silently. You may be laughing at me, my atheist flower, passionate and enthralled by the dream of Marx who pushed you, a young woman, into my arms. Laugh as much as you like. At one moment you will remember my words. But when? The specter of my killing roams around me in every step I make in these unknown and arid lands. Listen, you who dwell in my innermost heart…listen…Death is not at all difficult when it arrives, but its roaming ghost, and the gloomy apparitions it releases are grueling.
[Translated from the Arabic by Ghada Mourad (Gaelle Raphael)]
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