[Madinat al-Suwar (The City of Images, Amman: Dar Azmina, 2011) is the latest novel by Iraqi author Luay Hamza Abbas (b. 1965). It is narrated in flashback by a boy growing up in Basra through the seventies and eighties before and during the rule of Saddam Hussein with memories of his childhood and the people he grew up with. The political developments that he lived through and their impact on those around him are blended in with the travails of adolescence and memories of everyday events, both amusing and painful, that stand out in the narrator’s memory. The narrative is a nonlinear one based on the narrator’s associations and accordingly jumps back and forth in time. As indicated by the title, the theme of photographs and images plays a major, if not pivotal role in the fabric/construction of the novel. They are the building blocks of his memory and the muse for every tale that the narrator tells us. Abbas masterfully manipulates this interplay between the written and the visual by focusing on the photograph both literally and metaphorically throughout the novel; the passage below (pp. 22-30) is a prime (and entertaining example) of this.]
Yasin did not live in the house adjoining ours in al-Ma`qal. The fences on the roofs of the two or three houses in between did not prevent us from flying to each other like two birds. Two stray, free birds soaring in the daytime sky. Either one of us would climb over the rooftop fence of his house, then come forward lightly with open arms. With wings unlike those of a hornet spread out, we hovered over the fence’s edge, taking care that our shadow did not fall inside any of the houses. At that instant, an insult would ring out cursing parents that feed their children instead of disciplining them properly.
An insult that would be repeated louder and louder from any house with the fleeting shadow on the wall, to the point that I imagined that discipline was served with food. A hot dish with chewy white and yellow grains and two tender strips of meat and a light orange-ish gravy.
“But this is kidney bean gravy,” I would complain.
My mother would stir the dish: “Its discipline gravy. Taste it, you’ll find it doesn’t taste like kidney beans.”
I take a little bit on the edge of my spoon and smell it. I cannot discern its odor. I then taste it on the edge of my tongue the way I taste medicine, dissolving it in my mouth. It is bitter, so I spit it out. I throw away the spoon and run off.
“You’ll remain incorrigible,” my mother would scream. “Insults will follow you all your life.”
I bound up our wooden staircase and climb onto the rooftop fence. I spread my wings, take off and land on the roof of Yasin’s house above the clothes hung on the clothes, dress after dress. I throw a couple of stones on the surface of the corridor’s ceiling within a short space of time. The instant the second stone stops clattering, Yasin is in front of me. From underneath my striped pajama top, I pull out the photo album with its cardboard cover with the multiplication tables printed on the back and faded map of Iraq on the front. Saddam Hussein’s image, with his round, youthful face as it smiled a broad, hopeful smile and wearing his elegant blue suit and thick striped tie, had not yet landed on school note books. I browse through it page by page as if displaying the photographs to Yasin’s eyes for the first time.“
A new photograph?” he asks.“
A rare one on his sickbed.”
I open the note book, and turn over its pages, upon each of which was stuck a photograph of Abdel Halim [Hafiz]. Among them was a small photograph of my maternal uncle with his military sidara and his slanted, radiant face and pictures from magazines and newspapers. I pass over a postcard in which Abdel Halim, long past his youth, was sitting on a chair. Some are glossy color photographs and others unpolished black and white. I had clipped some of them with the caption, and others without. I contemplated them for a long time before I wrote down a caption underneath with a magic marker that suited the original captions.
The Kiss of Spring
The Dark-Skinned Nightingale in the Sunset’s Forest
Melody and Sorrow
In the new photograph, Abdel Halim was laid out in bed, his body covered by a shiny blanket with tiny stars, small dark dots that I would have liked to be stars.
Underneath it the phrase “the sick-bed” was printed, as I told Yasin. His face – Abdel Halim’s, not Yssin’s - had become paler. His eyes had sunk into two deep holes surrounded by dark halos of disease, even as his long hair remained carefully combed, parted to a side.
“Pictures lie,” I said in a low voice as I closed the note book.
“Did you see how his hair looks combed?”
Abdel Halim’s photographs were our obsession before Yusif Hanash’s pictures descended upon us like a captivating spell.
There are types of friends who maintain their faint presence in the life of the group like a near-invisible thread. Like the lining of a curtain, transparent and perforated that neither blocks light nor repels wind, awaiting some moment that will move it. Yusif Hanash was of this sort. He was the group’s lining, with his perforated presence. Its delicate thread. Maybe it was his strange voice that brought him closer to us the first time; his voice that rose up with a clear, deep tone like the voices of religious education teachers. But it would break quickly with a surprising softness that would force him to swallow his words. He would pause briefly, then scrape the heel of his shoe on the ground, as if occupied with stamping out a cigarette butt that no one but him could see. He would drag his shoe backwards, blink his eyelids and try to speak. But he would remain silent, guarding himself from the students’ eyes, ashamed of the girl that lay in his vocal chords. At the end of the school day, Yusif shouted out to him from the noise of the children: “Hanash!”
There was no other Hanash in al-Rashid middle school. He turned around with a faint smile on his lips, and the eraser hanging from his neck on a string, like a cowbell for goats, swung, maybe because it was the first time someone called him by his father’s name; a meaningless name. What was the point of a man being named after a great black snake that is not poisonous? Yasin opened the Ṣaḥḥaḥ dictionary (the bounded edition for schools) and used a pencil to underline the definition, with a line crooked like the track of a snake on the paper. Yusif’s voice was not what cemented his presence among us, nor was it his father’s name, nor the pierced eraser hung around his neck on a string. The stolen items from his brother’s paradise were what changed his status in our lives. They lifted him up with magical fingers from his place in the last row of desks, where one could hardly see a tuft of his hair, and put him on center stage, face to face with the camera; a spot more like a dream.
My maternal uncle was not lying down in the damp darkness awaiting my footsteps. I was coming forward, captivated by the voice that filled my head and reverberated in the room. My footsteps moved as I breathed the humid air of the room and heard him speak to me. His face was radiant and his odor emanated strongly. His odor did not resemble the odor of any other man. He opened the window and we looked out at my mother and grandmother. My grandmother had become tired from standing up, so she sat down resting against the wall as her head swayed from drowsiness.
Her eyes shut and her mouth open.
Her eyes open and her mouth firmly shut.
Her eyes two fissures, open and shut.
She stopped moving and turned around toward my mother.
The two were face-to-face and my grandmother’s eyes open.
Yusif leaned his bicycle on the edge of the bridge and jumped before us on the riverbank. With every leap, he opened his legs to avoid the thorns. Yasin held my hand and we rushed forward toward him. My feet were stumbling around and I could feel the thorns break under my shoes. Yusif lifted the edge of his shirt and with a nimble pair of hands pulled out a foreign magazine from behind his belt. We had never seen a naked female body before that moment. Women’s bodies would jump from the screen into our heads at the Port Sporting Club’s cinema. Full figured live bodies that shone under the sparkle of desire and moaned under its whips. Bodies of dancers in the thick smoke of cabarets; bodies of heroines on the beach. In black and white or in color, stirring up our blood every time the film reached its golden moment; the moment where the heroine would flop about like a fish in the hero’s hands. The moment that we would never see, for as soon as the lips would touch each other and the bodies begin to writhe, the picture would be cut off, as if an enormous mouth had swallowed the shot with its heroes and heroines, leaving us writhing over hot coals. Yusif was leafing through the pages of his magazine and turning over the layers of its worlds. Layer after layer the worlds opened up, and the deleted scenes illuminated in front of our eyes all at once, glistening with their supple, smooth bodies, shining flesh and soft, moist peach fuzz. It went beyond our dreams and too intense for our imagination. Bodies that made us dizzy. The words were stuck in our throats.
The images were alive and luscious inside my head. They had smell, taste and a warm, strange touch. The women did not remain. Their women did not remain at rest in one position, but varied from day to night. I opened the magazine, after I had rented it from Yusif for a day or two, and would see the same women: the slim blondes and the full-figured, dark-skinned ones. The one riding the shiny motorcycle and the one lying down in the sand. Yet they would assume different positions. I would close the magazine, then immediately open it only to be sure that they were fooling around with me, just like the sea behind them, that changed its colors and the sand upon which they lay languidly.
I held my member and beat it upon the wall after it startled me and emitted its sticky ejaculation, staining the magazine.
S`ud was Yusif’s eldest brother. He worked as a mechanic on one of the pulleys in al-Miʿqal’s port. He was short, stocky and broad-shouldered like an athlete, with thick, upright hair that seemed as if every single hair had been implanted on his scalp hair by hair. When he returned at the end of the day, it was not only with his hands stained with grease, his uniform enveloped by its color, and the overpowering smell of sweat. Under his uniform, touching his skin, were the magazines he took from Indian and Pakistani sailors in exchange for quarts of arak that he concealed in the pockets of his loose uniform in expectation of the moment when one of the ships would enter the port. As the ships neared and the noise of the engines became louder, the sailors would begin to wave faster and more frenetically, as they leaned over the railings. Their cries would grow louder in melody that was both eloquent and funny: “Zahlawi! Zahlawi!”
After about five years, S`ud would die from the first rocket launched by Iran on al-Ma`qal’s port. He was not yet thirty or married. His short frame was fragmented, for the rocket hit him directly, as if it were meant for him. His corpse could not be identified except by the scalp of his head, which was found stuck to the wall.
Yusif’s voice burst forth like the voices of religious education teachers. It had been horrified by the sight of more than one of the magazine’s pages wrinkled and its color faded after I tried to wipe off the ejaculatory “rocket” with water. I knew that they would not return to their original condition and that I would never be able to rent a magazine again, so I heated up the clothes iron and carefully ran it over the pages. There did not appear to be a single fold on the women’s wet bodies, but I continued ironing until I noticed that the pictures’ colors had started to lose color, as if I had been heaping dirt upon them. Yusif was silent, staring with disgust. He was imagining me as I came directly on the photographs, after I had rubbed my member over the bodies. Touching them one by one. Pausing on their pliant caverns. I tried to make him understand that the “rocket” had been fired involuntarily against my will, and that I had been thinking of the pictures telling lies and the bodies replacing themselves and changing their positions. That they looked unlike themselves. Yasin laughed. I knew from the silly way he laughed that he was thinking – as I was – of the days that would go by without our being allowed to rent a magazine or look at a picture. With the girl’s voice that lay in his vocal chords, Yusif lowered the curtain on the paradise of photographs and extinguished the lights of the golden moments.
“You will never see a magazine again,” said the girl.
He gave us the sharp glare of a religious education teacher, without paying attention to his voice as it betrayed him, as was his habit. He put/the magazine under his belt, directly on the skin and tucked in his shirt. He climbed onto the riverbank, avoiding the thorns. He then mounted his bicycle and rode off into the distance.
I stayed with Yasin, as we looked at the direction in which he disappeared, waiting for the moment he would change his opinion and come back. As the wait lengthened, Yassin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled out as loud as he could: “Hanash!”
[Translated from the Arabic by Suneela Mubayi]