Ghaib Tu’ma Farman and ‘The Old Man’s Word’: ‘What Is This, the Rule of Qaraqosh, or Hulagu?’

Last week, Jadaliyya published “The Old Man’s Word,” a short story by Iraqi writer Ghaib Tu’ma Farman (1927-1990) that, although written half a century ago reads as a contemporary look at exile and belonging:

Farman, from Jadaliyya.
Farman, from Jadaliyya.

It was a topic about which Farman knew: His citizenship was temporarily revoked in 1957. A few years later, the author left for Moscow, where he spent the rest of his life.

According to translator-scholar Salih Altoma, writing in Banipal, it’s unique in the Iraqi context, that all of Farman’s novels were published while he was living in Moscow. Although Farman was little-translated, and remained outside the core of the Iraqi literary conversation, “Some critics maintain that no other Iraqi novelists have thus far matched Farman’s vivid, detailed and realistic portrayal of the period he presented in his novels.”

As the translator of “The Old Man’s Word,” Khaled Al-Hilli, notes, 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.”

He doesn’t make note of the sharp humor Farman brings, although it’s evident throughout the story, particularly below, where the illiterate protagonist brings a nearby shopkeeper to read the graffiti that’s been scrawled on his family home. From Jadaliyya:

“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?”

Read the entire story.>>