Short story by Luay Abdul-Ilah
“I will tell you an important secret that will turn your lives upside down,” Hadi said in a serious voice which made our ears prick up in deference to him, and instead of revealing it to us he remained silent, letting his eyes wander among our dusty faces blazing with the July swelter. “There is one condition you must meet before I say another word,” he added, making us burn for the knowledge of that secret which no one knew except him. Involuntarily we crept toward Hadi, narrowing the circle our young bodies had drawn around him, and he grumbled about the smell of our stinking sweat. He collected his thoughts for a long time, intent on our torture. “Now you must buy me three bottles of ice-cold Coca-Cola, if you want to hear the secret.”
The “condition” Hadi had made was nothing but a means of taking revenge on us for our disloyalty to him, we were his old friends in collusion (so he thought) with his enemies, who had thought up a nickname for him unsuited to his unique personality; a second name which came to be joined to his had spread in our alley a few months before. Its origin was unknown and it seemed to have no significance, nevertheless it had spread like an epidemic all over our neighbourhood and people no longer mentioned his name without adding his strange nickname: Hadi “Powder”.
We exchanged swerving glances, seeking to flee the power of that mysterious secret dwelling behind a magic door which only three ice-cold bottles, we had to buy, could open. This meant we had to spend all the pocket-money obtained from our mothers for several days. One of us stood up suddenly, and we rose behind him. Another said to Hadi with agitation, “keep the secret to yourself, we don’t want it,” and we stuck up with him indignantly, “yes, we don’t want it.”
We broke away from him, and were followed by the smells of the soap and natural oils Hadi had taken to using, since his face had been invaded by acne. How we felt repulsion for him then, as if he had not been one of us only one year before. He had led us on all the raids, from sneaking into the orchards spread out around us, and climbing their trees loaded with all kinds of fruit; to entering into fierce battles with the boys of the neighbouring suburbs. We used to trust him, as he was, as well being the eldest of us, distinguished with a rare courage, and an exuberant spirit all of us loved. It must be mentioned that he had a creative spirit, as thanks to him a new way was discovered to make the amazing belts, from plastic-covered electrical wires. By intertwining those coloured cords with each other he provided us, for the first time, a rainbow in the form of a belt. In order to procure the raw materials, Hadi led us on extensive raids through the alleys of “the enemy” to pull out the wires for strengthening the radio reception, which were fastened to the roofs of their houses. We made our climbs at the time when people were enjoying a summer siesta after a substantial lunch.
But these abilities had begun to disappear ever since sudden physical changes came upon him, from a vast increase in height which made us seem like pygmies around him, to a deepening in the tone of his voice, and the swelling of his arm muscles. What aroused our resentment was that these changes did not make him more exuberant than he had been, rather they made him self-conscious and hesitant. It was not long after that when he came to us one evening, carrying all his treasures, to share them out among us: his bag of large marbles, and his wire belts, and his notorious sling-shot… and he didn’t ask for any money in return for these exceptional works of art. The sad tone of his speech gave us the impression that he was bidding us an everlasting farewell, and that he was about to move away with his family to a faraway town.
It was as if getting rid of his treasure had allowed him to finish us in one stroke. We were dazzled by his numerous endowments and ever submissive toward him. But Allah gave him a worse punishment for his pride and conceit, as He stripped that effusive vitality from his body and replaced it with weakness and enervation, and snatched from his face the captivating gleam of delight, to leave instead a pallor and spiritless sorrow, then He attached to his large boils for which there was no cure, and they increased his isolation and despair. In retaliation for his ignoring us, we began to feign roars of laughter whenever he paraded in front of us, or to pretend to exchange whispered remarks to spite him, but that didn’t provoke him into fighting with us. Rather, he went to extremes in ignoring us, until one day he surprised us with the story of his exciting secret.
Each of us went back to our own house after night fall breaking the intensity of the July heat with the wafting moist breezes of the North wind. My mother was extremely anxious when she saw my face bursting in scarlet, and my father set her mind at rest, repeating,“it’s only the heat of summer.” From my bed the stars seemed much larger than they had been before, since each of them hid, behind their pulsations, a mysterious secret. I remembered what my Science teacher, had said about how there are men living like us on some of the stars, and about the possibility of going to them when flying saucers would be developed in the future. But that evening I travelled to them without difficulty, the colour of their skins amazed me, its blueness tending to green, and their immense houses, surrounded by luxuriant orange gardens. They knew everything about us, and when I asked some of them about the secret which Hadi hid, they laughed maliciously. One of them said to me that they had made a pact with him not to divulge it to anyone living on the Earth, and then I began to scream curses at them, raising my fist in their faces. I awoke to my mother’s invocations and appeals to Allah for my protection, and she was holding my rigid arms. My father brought her a bowl filled with cold water, and a piece of white muslin, and she began to dip it in the water, from time to time, to spread it out over my forehead and my hands and feet.
In the morning I learnt that all my friends had suffered the same symptoms, and we had to spend a week in bed. In rare cases of illness the family took special care of us, making us regret the speed of our recuperation. No sooner had the fever slipped away from our bodies than we went out apprehensively into the street, looking for Hadi, as we had saved enough money to fulfil his condition. But he confronted us with half-closed eyes, and with deadly coolness he announced a change in his demand, “I want a packet of cigarettes, Rothmans King Size.”
The summer holidays must have been behind our crazy attachment to Hadi’s secret, as we had spent the hours of the day crammed together in the short street, over which our houses extended on both sides like two trains facing each other, and when the sun moved across the sky, the asphalt under our feet changed to black putty, and the walls into hellish oven, so we kept escaping from one shadow to another. It was as if the summer school holiday was a punishment for everyone, for those successful and those failing, without distinction, making us, after a few weeks, eager to return to the school benches, where the sticks and continuous slaps of the teachers awaited us.
At Makarim School we learnt reading and arithmetic; addition and division of decimal fractions. There we learnt about what happened to prophet Moses, after his mother consigned him to the river in a small basket. But it must be said that our school, which was considered one of the best educational centres in the capital, was unable to subdue the element of wickedness inherent in us, despite hundreds of sticks being broken over our palms, since no sooner did the daily endurance end than we divested ourselves of the angle’s wings to pursue exploits of trouble attractive to the soul. Was there a dog passing in front of us we did not pelt with stones? Or a bird passing over our heads we did not hurl pebbles at? A dragon’s spirit, mighty and bold, with seven heads, materialised within us, to make limitless heroics and miracles come true, until the arrival of the secret which Hadi placed before us. How incapable we felt of resisting its increasing power, or of being interested in any subject. It was as if it had become a body orbiting our young heads day and night, and whenever we met, it jumped up among us even if we had not exchanged one word about it.
The decision to sell our toys at a very low price came only after they had lost their value to us, as we no longer thought of them, or even spread them out just to look at them. With the money we collected we bought, at last, the packet of foreign cigarettes for Hadi.
After dinner we went with him to the stream crossing the fields of vegetables which surrounded our town, before brick and concrete had swallowed them up. We sat on its dusty edge raised a little from the surface of the ground, and scores of possibilities began to soar in all our imaginations about the nature of the secret which Hadi had kept hidden from us for such a long time. Was it about finding a new way to make the Karkhi[i] pigeons sing like the nightingales of Aywadiya[ii]? Or was he going to tell us how he made his magic lamps from cardboard boxes and convex lenses?
The fragments of light coming from the Milky Way and the lights of the town were enough to discern the proportions of derision and melancholy on his face mottled with dark hollows. He gulped deep puffs from his cigarette, and his eyes set on the unknown point in that gloomy secluded orchard. Suddenly his voice came to us, brazenly, making us shudder. “Did any of you ever ask your father how you came into this world?” It did not occur to us that his question had a connection with the secret, so we began to fling about for him all the lies the adults had planted in our heads. Tariq mumbled, “my father appealed to Allah that he have a son, and so He answered him.” Qassim whispered, “my aunt said that my father kissed my mother on her forehead on the wedding-night, and so Allah planted me in her insides.” And Fadil followed, “ my uncle said that the heat that’s made when the husband and wife sleep together in bed mixes with the mother’s blood and so the embryo is formed in her belly, if Allah wills.”
Behind our acceptance of the explanations of our family and relatives at that time must have been a simple understanding of women, defining their place in two columns: The virtuous mothers who had no interest except caring for their sons, and had no reward in this world, but in the next, where paradise was placed under their feet. Then there was the harlot, Rihab, and those like her who offered their bodies to men for pleasure- the nature of which we knew nothing about, despite our propositioning Rihab whenever we ran into her in the street, repeating like parrots the clichés of inviting her for sex, using vulgar expressions which we talked about constantly without being aware of their meaning. Sometimes she would turn around to hurl torrents of abuse at us, increasing our excitement, and sometimes she would open her chador for us with delight so that we stared dumbfounded at her dress, satin, short, bright red, its edges decorated with a white fringe. The world of Rihab was enigmatically attractive and alluring, but it aroused contempt, slimy and provocative. It was as if there were two completely separate worlds in our innermost selves: the world of light, purity and innocence represented by our mothers, and the world of depravation and squalidness, represented by Rihab and her companions, who were impatiently awaited, in the everlasting abode, by the Hell angels.
Hadi proceeded to explain the facts in detail, which made our teeth chatter involuntarily, and caused our bodies to shake in spite of the July heat. We interrupted him, protesting from time to time against his lies, but in the end, we surrendered to his overwhelming logic armed with irrefutable evidence. At that time each one of us was bathed in sweat, crowned with shame, embarrassed for his mother, furious at his father. I called out to Hadi, in a final attempt to salvage the old image of the truth from collapse, “give us a proof that what you say is true,” causing him to sigh wearily from our stupidity:”You are nothing but overgrown tadpoles..” He reached his hand inside his white robe, to a place unknown to us, then his body began to tremble agitatedly, and his acne began to band together horribly above his face. Suddenly, he drew his fist from his pocket, then opened it in front of us. How astonished we were to see naked phosphorous creatures floating in the palm of his hand. Each one of us was able to find his likeness in the middle of that large crowd, despite the thick gloom, and despite the fever which then raged in us again.
Translated by Peter Daniel
[i] Karkh is the west bank side of Baghdad
[ii] Aywadiya is a neighbourhood in the east bank side of Baghdad