Short story by Luay Abdul-Ilah
Her voice was soft and trembling with childlike delight, when she whispered in his ear: “wake up Mustapha, we’re going out,” and her gentle hand rested on his shoulder, rocking him slowly.
After a long wait Eid had arrived at last, as if coming from a faraway land, and his grandmother had promised to take him with her to visit his father, who had departed from them when he was a year old. Today he remembered the features of his father’s face precisely because of the many times he had scrutinized the picture his aunt still secretly showed him now and then, of his father and mother sitting on a comfortable sofa. He wondered if his father ever took off his round spectacles which made him burst out laughing whenever he looked at the picture.
The darkness was still heavy in the sitting room where his three uncles were sleeping on the old Kashan carpet. The head of one of the snakes appeared to Mustapha between the black matting of the ceiling, spilling from a slit in the middle of it. He heard its loud laugh. “ Aunt, does the snake know Eid has come?” But Sa’diya didn’t hear his question. She was preoccupied with gathering up his bedding and putting it inside the large wardrobe, avoiding making any clatter which might awaken one of her brothers, because he would hasten to scold her, and she didn’t want to spoil her joy at the start of Eid.
“Aunt, I’m cold,” Mustapha said. “Shh…Don’t shout. You will soon be warm,” his aunt whispered. In the courtyard the nabk tree crouched without moving, a black mass darker than anything else around it, stretching five arms to the sky. The tree seemed to him a lot bigger than it had been yesterday, and that thought drove fear into his blood. He whispered in a trembling voice: “Aunt, the sparrows are still asleep.”
His grandmother was sitting in the kitchen on a bamboo mat, combing her long hair slowly and deliberately. She wore a deep blue dress, and it was rare to see her without a headscarf or in clothes other than black. The smell of aniseed coming from the gum she chewed and the sweet- smelling scent of her hair drew him close. He rushed toward her eagerly and sat in her lap. Rubbing his eyes, he said to her:
“Nana, all your hair has turned white.”
“When you get old your hair will be the same.”
“Nana, I want it to be white now.”
“It won’t be.”
His grandmother laughed until her eyes were bathed in tears, and she hugged him to her chest. He wished that sitting in her soft lap would never end. Her presence reassured him. Everyone in the house was scared of her, but he was the only one with whom she softened, rather it was she who was very much afraid of him, fearing his annoyance with her. He had clung to her since his mother’s marriage. Indeed, these days he did not want to stay long in the mansion of his mother and step father Khalil, in spite of the fact that they did their best to take care of him: he had a beautiful room, with many toys, and his half sister was devoted to him. But he felt nothing of freedom and warmth except in his grandmother’s house, with his aunts and uncles. Passing his fingers over his grandmother’s face, Mustapha said:
“Nana, your face is full of holes.”
“When you get old your face will be the same.”
“Nana, I am not going to grow up.”
The feeble light of the naked lamp spread unevenly over the kitchen floor paved with yellow brick squares, and over its walls painted with cracked white plaster. Mustapha used to draw on them anything he saw outside or in the house: the public bus, the carts, members of his family, the neighbour’s palm tree, the afternoon sun. Sometime he spent hours following the lines of ants, moving from one place to another, helping any of them to return to its family, if it chanced that it lost its way or was hampered by some obstacle or another. He felt great affections for the delicate red ants, and he detested the large cavalry ants. “We must go now,” his grandmother said resolutely. When they slammed the thick wooden door behind them, the alley confronted them with its gloom, and coming from its end was a faint glow, enough for them to avoid the patches of clay heaped on the cracked asphalt.
“Where are we going, Nana?”, Mustapha asked when he found his grandmother and aunt crossing the main street, and going down toward the river. At its edge small dinghies tied to wooden posts sunken in the shore came into view. It was difficult to see the face of the boatman his grandmother stopped in front of, with the exception of his white robe, because it seemed lighter than the cloaks of his two companions. He heard his coppery voice, rattling with coughs, blending from time to time with the voices of the few other boatmen. “Hijjeya[i], I’ll take you for twenty pence.” And his grandmother sharply objected to the fee, the boatman said good-naturedly, yet deceptively: “Today is Eid, Hijjeya, and prayers upon our prophet .Mohammad.”
The boatman untied the rope, then shoved away from the bank with one of his oars, and proceeded to cut the surface of the river with those wooden arms, leaving behind every break a monotonous splash, in the middle of a silence which hung over them. His grandmother was sitting in the rear, Mustapha was sitting with his aunt in the middle, and facing them was the boatman. He imagined his father living in a crystal palace, its colour like the sky at dawn, and floating within it were stars like the morning star, scattered and suspended above them. “Nana, does Papa still wear his cap?” His grandmother laughed loudly, then put her hand over her mouth to hold back a cough filled with tobacco smoke which erupted in her chest. His grandmother said: “May this laughter bring good news.”
The pale lights of the Old Bridge were sliding over the surface of the river, forming trembling sparks on it, extending as contorted streaks. Mustapha saw them as snakes of gold, creeping towards the depths. Before they alighted from the boat onto the shore of the other bank, a sharp continuous shot burst forth in the sky: sorrowful call of a migrant bird, making the blood flow fiercely in his veins. He imagined a giant white and black stork with long beak, carrying in it lost children, moving them from one town to another. His grandmother said: “May this be a good omen.”
They climbed the stone steps leading to the shore, up to the street which looked down on the river. They walked into narrow streets, surrounded by gloomy alleys. They came to a wide street with oleander seedlings and electricity poles in the middle of it. Despite the gloom, Mustapha’s grandmother remembered the route in every detail because of the many times she had passed through it. The silence and her heavy breaths accompanied them. Mustapha observed, astonished, this new world which had not struck his eyes before. It was his first journey across the river. He felt as if they had been transported from one planet to another, very far from their house, and felt the time which it took them to reach this place was very long indeed. It was the world in which took place the events of the stories his grandmother told him every evening, about fairies and devils and demons. And when he saw the three-storeyed state building, with numerous flags hanging above it, and illuminated with hundreds of coloured lights, he thought that ‘Eid’ lived inside it, strutting with clothes of silk, on his head a crown studded with diamonds and pearls, with a radiant face, and a white beard like cotton.
A high wall appeared, and looming up from it palm and nabq trees, together with tiny sparks from the gleam of the streetlamps dispersing of their tips. They stopped at two latticed iron gates of green. Mustapha thought that they arrived at his father’s magic castle. A lush garden would meet them, with silver lakes, with magnificently coloured parrots springing from trees full of all kinds of fruit. But instead his eyes came upon open space, desolate and lonely. Lying unevenly and sparsely on the land were scrawny palm trees, and candles glowed around him, beside grey concrete benches, scattered everywhere. Sounds of wailing and weeping came to him from all sides, as if there was a choir taking part in repeating monotonous eternal song. He noticed those small domed chambers, with the brilliance of the candles from around them, and surrounded by women swathed in black clothes.
His two companions stopped beside a palm tree near two benches; one of them was low, making it easy to sit on. His grandmother lit several candles, and placed them on the two mastabs, then she lit the incense. At the same time she began to murmur mysterious words. She knelt in front of the high mastaba, she touched its surface with both hands tenderly, then began to converse loudly with an illusory companion. She apologised for the interruption of her weekly visits to him because of her recent illness, and she reassured him of the improvement of her health. She told him about the circumstances of their sons one after the other, she brought news to him of their eldest son’s success in his university studies, she reassured him that everyone missed him, remembered him everyday, and every Thursday they lit incense in the house for him. Her voice was interrupted by her sobs, and she began to wail, repeating words with a mouthful, monotonous musical rhythm. Sa’diya joined her with weeping and wailing.
Suddenly a spectre in white clothing appeared, his shoes thumping on the dense earth, carrying in one of his hands a lantern, and in the other, a book. When he came close to them the features of a young man whose moustache was still tender became clearer.
“Aunt, shall I read for you?”
“No, we don’t want.”
“Aunt, dawn is going to break in a little while.”
But she didn’t pay attention to what he said. Every year she used to meet Salman the blind man, who knew the Qur’an by heart, not like those adolescents who recite the Qur’an without proper ablution, and devour many lines, in order to earn more money. Then they would spend them on the forbidden in the days of Eid. This Eid she would give him two twenty pence coins and ten pence extra as an Eid present for his children. When Salman arrived with his eldest son, it seemed to Mustapha that he smiled at him.
His grandmother turned to him after the recite had finished the sura Yeassin , and had gone to the others:
“Did you see Papa?”
“Where is he Nana?”
“You are sitting on his chest now…”
The darkness of the night drifted away little by little. It began from the lowest part of the horizon, rising to the middle sky, then the colour of the sky changed to a deep azure. It hid all the stars except the morning star which was on the point of being extinguished. From that time he could see many people around him, gathering in small circles here and there, exchanging greetings and laughing boisterously. Some of his relatives and their neighbours had come, and they gathered in a circle around them greeting one another. His grandmother gave him a piece of candy, and lit a cigarette.
The purple colour had forced its way into the extreme east, opening the way for the ascent of the orange disc of the sun. “We must go back now,” his grandmother said to Sa’diya. “And Papa?” said Mustapha. His grandmother hugged him: “Papa has returned to his house in heaven.”
On the way home, Sa’diya and her mother became engrossed in a never ending conversation about what they would do that day, happiness and relaxation flowing over their faces, following the sights of Eid: the children in the new clothes everywhere, the decorative arches in the streets, the strikes of the drums and the ring of cymbals in front of the houses.
But Mustapha remained silent and despondent the whole time. A deep uncertainty seduced him then, the Eid had truly arrived
[i] An expression of respect for old women
Translated by Peter Daniel