The Old Man’s Word
Ghaib Tu`ma Farman
Translated by Khaled Al-Hilli
[As a pioneer of contemporary Iraqi fiction, Ghaib Tu`ma Farman (1927-1990) may have been too geographically removed from the literary center to enjoy the critical acclaim offered to authors of his stature. Born in Baghdad 1927, he came of literary age in the 1950’s with the publication of his first short story collection in 1954 and formed friendships with other literary figures of his time such as Fuad al-Takarli and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati. He studied Arabic literature in Cairo and worked for several newspapers and publishing houses in Iraq and Egypt. After a number of perilous encounters with the state and its censorship, leading to his citizenship being revoked temporarily in 1957, Farman left to Moscow in 1960 where he spent the remainder of his life in exile until his death in 1990. While in Moscow, Farman supported himself by translating to Arabic the works of European writers such as Silone, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Pushkin.
Farman’s fiction is characterized by its brilliant artistic treatment of the turbulent and transformative years of the 1940’s and 1950’s. In their variegated portrayal of Iraqi society, his novels often feature the exiled, the downtrodden, and the poor, whose lives have been tragically and irretrievable shaped by social and political upheavals.
Very little of Farman’s work has been translated to English. The following is a short story from his collection, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf. This book, published in 1982, includes an eponymous novella and a number of other short stories written over a span of a few decades. Many thanks to Chris Stone, Beth Baron and Nova Robinson for their valuable feedback on earlier versions.]
The Old Man’s Word
He woke up at dawn; he was ready for them. He sneaked out of his bed leaving the twilight breeze behind him, and walked down the stairs leaning on the wall. As he crossed the bottom step, he raised his eyes to make sure he did not wake his wife. He walked across the rectangular courtyard, now under a waning cloak of darkness blending with old scents, and he brought a chair to the passageway and sat down to wait for them. Yesterday he stayed up and waited for them until midnight … but they never came. He did not hear their movement outside the door, nor their voices whispering. Today he was determined to be ready for them at dawn. He sat with his cheek resting on his palm. He listened attentively and waited. He would stay until he heard the rustle of their footsteps outside the door, and then he would pounce and clutch at their necks, and shout until he woke up all the neighbors. He’d show them who he really is; I’ll make them cry uncle.
The air in the house was stifling and sultry, unlike the rooftop’s twilight breeze. He wrestled with sleep and dragged himself out of bed, and now drowsiness came back as he sat behind the door. He opened his heavy eyelids and raised his eyebrows defiantly. He placed his ears against the wood of the door and examined, under a canopy of darkness, the lower level of the courtyard, the narrow windows of the cellar, part of the clay water pot, the last three steps of the staircase, the lower part of the bathroom door, the kitchen, and the bottom part of the sink. Silence enveloped everything. Darkness was starting to dissipate gradually before his eyes. Inside his chest something was itching him, an unrelenting urge to cough, which he suppressed lest he might alert them to his presence. When he dozed off again and his eyes grew heavy, he shook off this unexpected drowsiness with a jolt of his head, and he coughed in spite of himself. He scratched his graying chest as if to pluck out something scraping inside of him.
A few minutes later, he heard the bellowing of a cow. He knew it was Sakina, the milk woman, leading her cow to the end of the alley where she sold her milk. But he hasn’t heard their voices yet; he hasn’t heard their hands scratching the door. Everything went silent except for his heart, which sounded like a pendulum of an old clock. Once again, the unshakeable urge to cough came back. He clenched his teeth and smacked his thigh. A moment later, the night-guard’s whistle broke through the silence. Then he heard the rustle of the sweeper’s broom and realized that morning had arrived and that they will not show up.
The darkness in the passageway was like smoke with a smoldering glow. As he stood up, he clutched at his left knee, which was afflicted by rheumatism, and he noticed that light was starting to filter through from above. The green of the shanasheel on the upper floor appeared faded. He said to himself, “They’re not coming today. It is as if they knew I’d be here waiting for them. They know who I am. They know better than to mess with Abu Haidar.” Then he pondered to himself, “It was around this time that I heard the scratching yesterday,” and he imagined that he was hearing it now, but he could only hear his heart thumping in his chest like a broken drum. Then he heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. He knew it was his wife. As he turned around, he saw her heavy feet, then her black gown and plump body. When she came close she whispered, in a tone of gentle reproach, “You thought I didn’t notice when you woke up, did you?”
He coughed and said in a low voice, “I have to find out who they are.”
“But what’s the point? Who are you going to complain to?”
“I’m not going to complain to anyone. I have my own hands. An Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered. Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”
Then he had a coughing fit. When he looked up at his wife again, he caught a glimpse of tenderness in her eyes. A broken old man? Never, Fattouma. He stifled another urge to cough and it burst through his throat. Then he was clam. He heard a car’s engine, then another one, and he knew for certain that they were not coming. He raised his head to the rectangular sky, which the rooftop balusters seemed to penetrate. It was a glowing blue, and this added to his certainty. Behind his door all was silent, while outside, beyond the little bend where his house was located, life was returning to its daytime pace.
He could hear the footsteps of passersby, the intermittent coughing, and even the softly whispered, “Allah Kareem,” God is Most Kind, which he had heard uttered everyday by the kubbah vendor. The courtyard lit up with morning light, and things returned to their former state. He grew tired of waiting.
“So they’re not coming. All right, then. Tomorrow Allah Kareem, as Hassani, the kubbah vendor would say.” He came close to the door and glared at it with resentment. Its back with its geometrical concavities looked shaded now, with sharply defined lines. He lifted the latch with a squeak, stepped across its threshold and stared vacantly at it. With the light from the corner, he saw something occupying the upper part of the door. He moved closer and peered at it. It was a reddish smudge, the color of crimson blood. He dug his finger into it. It was still sticky.
He yelled from his spot, “Fattouma, come see this!”
She came strutting, like an old woman brought back to a younger age. She said from the passageway:
“What is it? Did they put another cat?”
“Even worse. Look at the red scribble.”
The old woman stepped cautiously over the threshold. She stood next to him and saw the writing.
“What is written there?”
“How would I know? I’m as good as blind.”
The smudge stood before him like a curved tail. He stood there with his wife staring at it, as if with some long reflection they could decipher its meaning. It was puzzling and abrupt, reddish black, wavering between an incantation and a transgression. The old man regretted that his mother and father never taught him how to read and write. He regretted this now more than any other time in his life. And as his eyes grew tired of staring blindly and pleading to the walls around him in the alley, he walked out to the street, turning left and right, pleading like a confused supplicant while people walked by untroubled by the smudge, as if they had no knowledge of its existence. One young man looked at the old man’s long underwear and smiled kindly. He started to ask him, raised his hand a little, and then dropped it on his thigh. Words of entreaty died on his lips.What on Earth does this unsightly scribble mean? It was also written in red paint, which by itself is reason enough for much anguish. The old man headed left, to Hussein al Attar’s shop. He alone could read this ominous writing, and if there were something offensive in it, he would not embarrass him in front of other people. But the metal shutters were pulled down and the old man went back to his corner. He stood before the door and the red writing appeared in all its intensity.
“How did they write it?” He asked his wife, who was sitting on the chair now.
“They just did. You can’t wait for them all night.”
“Are they going to keep messing with us like that?
“I hope they get what they deserve.”
“No, Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”
Then he coughed as he labored to breathe. She said with anguish, “Water is boiling. Come inside and drink some hot water.” But he declined, preferring to wait for Hussein al Attar to open his shop so he could learn the meaning of this writing, before which he stood flustered, helpless and agitated. One time before they had hung a dead black cat, and then a mouse. Another time they smeared his door with something putrid. They did all of that and he understood the insult and was determined to catch them and take his revenge. But now he didn’t know what they meant by this writing, which they scribbled in brazen red paint that covered the upper part of the door. How did they write it, much less in the dark? His tiny eyes kept squinting at this wretched writing.
His wife came with a glass of hot water. He sat to drink it.
Then the old woman suggested, “Should I get you a cloth and hot water to wipe it off?”
“How can I wipe it off? I need to know what it says.”
“God Knows,” the old woman rolled up her sleeves, “it could be something obscene”
“No, I need to know,” he said with determination, “but al-Attar is late today.” “Where are you, Abu Ali?” he pleaded.
His wife answered, “If our sons were here, they would have read it for us. They wouldn’t leave us in such confusion.”
The old man said with irritation, “They drove them all away, left a big empty void.”
He sank into a deep melancholy; he awoke from it at the sound of shop shutters wailing from around the corner. He stood up promptly and said with the eagerness of a child, “Hussein is here!” as he ran off leaving behind the water glass on the chair.
Two minutes later, he came back with a man of medium height, an oval-shaped face and grey hair. He bid the old woman good morning and inquired about her health, but was soon interrupted by the old man, “Let’s leave health aside for now. First, tell me what it says here.”
The man raised his head at the door and peered at the writing.
“So, what does it say?”
He moved closer to the door and pointed his finger at the writing, as if trying to spell it out.
“What does it say, Hussein?”
“What does it say? It says, ‘sheel,’ leave.”
“What … What?”
“It says ‘leave.’”
“That’s it? Just like that, leave?”
“Yes, that’s right. Leave.”
The old man fell silent, pondering to himself. Then, with a different tone, he said, “I knew it all along. They want me to leave.”
Hussein’s eyes were still fixed on the door, as if trying to confirm one more time what he had just seen. The old man observed his face with eagerness and anticipation. Perhaps he would change his mind in the end. That’s it? “Leave,” just like that! It is inconceivable that one word could take up so much space on the door. Leave!
“Leave, that’s all?”
“Yes, ‘leave.’ It’s right there, clear as daylight. L E A V E.”
“Are they in their right mind? Leave the house where I got married? The house where my father and mother drew their last breath? Leave? Just like that? It’s absurd!”
No longer staring at the door, Hussein, whose aging face betrayed visible signs of distress now, answered, “It’s best to steer away from evil.”
The old man became irritated and said, “This is not steering away from evil. This is bowing to the devil and … and … and kissing his hand. What if someone came up to you tomorrow and asked you to leave your shop that you’ve had for twenty years. Would you leave it?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Why don’t you just go back to your work? What is this, the rule of Qaraqosh, or Hulagu?”*
Sensing that he might have offended him, the old man turned to Hussein. He had already started moving, his head sunk low, “If you excuse me now … I left the shop … It will all pass …” The old man did not say anything; he stood fixed in front of the door. He saw the red word mocking him, scoffing at his old age. I’ll teach them how to mess with Abu Haidar.
“Come inside, dear.”
“If I could just find out who wrote it,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Come inside, dear. Your chest will act up.”
He entered the house following his wife. The sunlight shone with all its intensity on the courtyard, and through the green latticed windows of the upper floor. The old man and his wife climbed up the two stairs to the living room and he sat on a wooden daybed, while his wife chose to sit on the floor behind the tea heater, her same spot for almost thirty years. Back then, the living room was covered with carpets, and Hadi used to sit next to her. Then the kids came. They went to school, to college, and got jobs. Then chairs were brought into the living room, but the old woman had gotten used to sitting on the floor. She would sit cross-legged on the carpet for hours without her legs going numb. She would never think about sitting on a chair.
And it suddenly occurred to the old man to ask, “Fattouma, do you remember how many times we’ve painted the living room?”
“I don’t remember.”
“More than four times. When we got married, that was the first time. When we circumcised the boys, that was the second time. When Haidar got married, that was the third time. When Shakir got married, that was the fourth time. And right before the boys left, that was the fifth.”
The old woman did not respond. She was busy pouring a cup of tea, which she then offered to him, and brought close to him a small bowl of walnuts soaked in water. The old man glanced around the walls as if trying to decipher them. One summer he built this wall from nothing. He brought a builder and for two days was at his heels observing how every brick was laid in its place. He would tell the builder, “I want this to endure for the children of my children … I want it to be sturdy.” And the ceiling? He looked at it mournfully. It was not covered with boards before Haidar got married. When Haidar got married he covered it with wooden boards of particular shapes and patterns and painted it light green. When sunlight filtered through in the morning, the entire living room would appear soaked in emerald green. Oh, and the wedding bed used to be here, the clothes cabinet there, and the toilet table with its big mirror. That night he was too shy to enter the room. Then, after a short period, otherwise known as the honeymoon, the bride and groom moved up to the second floor.
“I don’t want your tea to get cold.”
He left the daybed and walked down the two steps to the courtyard. The sun had descended on the latticed windows of the upper floor and touched the bannisters of the hallway leading to the room where Haidar and his wife once slept. This is where he once stood as he called out to Haidar on his wedding day, “When it was my wedding night, I didn’t take that long. Oh, young people today!” And he chortled in his joy. The earth itself could not contain his happiness. Then his second son got married, and he swore to marry off his third son before he would die. He swore on his grey hair. I would even cut off this rheumatic leg of mine, the root of all my affliction and misery. Then Haidar’s wife became pregnant, and when one morning his second son’s bride kissed him on his forehead asking for his blessings, he was about to say something inappropriate but felt embarrassed. His son was watching him. He wanted him to make a mistake. But I am your father, how dare you. It was the summer season and he was sitting on the chair in the very spot he is contemplating now, between the water pot and the stairs. Sunlight had also filled the courtyard, and he shouted at him, “Get up, your bride is coming down!” Now his old bride was coming down, with her hand leaning on her knee.
As she came close to him and asked, “Is your chest going to act up on you again today?”
The water pot was still in the same place, green on both sides, and the stairs from which the bride descended were dusty, the wooden planks at the edge of each step corroded. On the other side was the bathroom.
“Fattouma, do you remember how hard I worked to build the bathroom?”
“Yes, very hard.”
“I didn’t want them to leave. The house is big enough to shelter an entire clan. They wanted a bathroom and I built them a bathroom fit for kings. I built it with these scruffy hands. I did it all with my hands. I did it all for them.”
Next to the bathroom, the kitchen was covered with floor tiles. At its center, there was the table where Haidar used to eat his lunch. Now it was deserted. For the old woman food always tasted better on the floor and the kitchen felt stifling. Here are the kitchen floor tiles, and the traces of smoke on the wall. There, on the west side of the house, where the traces were even stronger, he, Hadi al Hajj Rashid, used to cook harissa for the poor in a big cauldron that occupied the entire west segment of the rectangular yard. The house was always heaving, always bustling with its own people, and visitors would come in and out. He would stand like a chief of a clan, looming larger than life. He would say, God bless this house … I will make the smoke rise to the Seventh Sky… Astaghfirullah, God forgive me! They made me curse and it is not even morning yet.
“Fattouma, it is one more month before it’s time to cook harissa, if God keeps us alive. And why wouldn’t He? What have we done to Him? Have we stolen people’s money? Fattouma, get it out of your mind – I’ll never leave this house. I will stay here, and this year’s harissa will be legendary, and everyone will swear by my name.”
“And they will.”
“Of course they will. Who’s not going to let me stay? What nonsense is this to leave my own home? Fattouma: one’s home is one’s country.”
* In popular culture, these two names are associated with arbitrary judgement and despotic rule. The former was one of Saladin’s palace administrators who was later appointed as minster of Egypt at the end of the 12th century. He became a popular figure parodied in Arab folklore for his bizarre rulings and capricious behavior. As for Hulagu Khan, the destruction of Baghdad in 1257 earned the Mongol ruler his reputation for unbridled brutality.
[From GhaibTu`ma Farman, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf: Qiṣaṣ (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1982. Translated from the Arabic by Khled Al-Hilli]