Short-story writer and Iraq + 100 contributor Jalal Naim Hasan shares a new work in translation:
By Jalal Hasan
Translated by Mohsen Beni Saeed
The sundown call to prayer was raised in Aleppo and its outskirts. A father asked God to protect him and his family from the one-eyed, long-fingered Satan. Brothers dropped before the hand basin, one by one, to perform the ablution. A boy, Husam, witnessed all of this with alert eyes and a shivering heart.
“God is great,” the muezzin shouted on TV. “God is great,” the echo resonated. Every day, Husam felt embarrassed as he watched these strange rites, which he’d long dreamt of practicing. What should he do? Everyone was praying except him. They told him, “You are still little.” He asked, “What’s wrong with that?” They said, “You still wet your bed.” He asked, “What is wrong with –” But they didn’t give him a chance to finish. They said, in a single tone, “When you grow up, you’ll know.” He wanted so much to grow up fast, in the blink of an eye. He told his mother, “I want to grow up.” She said, “Don’t think about it, you’ll grow up someday.” He said, “Now! I want to grow up now.” She told him, “The Grower will grow you up.” He wondered, “And who is the Grower?” His mother answered, “God. It’s God, son.”
Once, he tried—in his imagination, of course—to draw the features of the merciful God, about whom he’d heard so much. He hoped to meet Him, so he imagined Him in different shapes: his mother’s oval face looking down past her white veil as she knelt, praying in an eternal sorrow; the features of the mosque’s sheikh, who had once visited them, and they’d slaughtered a sheep at his feet; and some other face that he conjured up with the help of TV cartoons. But as soon as he mentioned what he’d done, they confronted him with their frightening eyes and silencing voices: “God is not a person, and does not resemble people.” He said, “I want to see Him.” Angrily, they answered, “God is unseeable.” He wanted to ask with his small mouth, “Why?” but the angry faces made him withdraw and run away, filled with sadness because he couldn’t see Him and because He had failed his expectations. He didn’t look like his mother’s face and didn’t have the features of the mosque’s sheikh. “Who does He look like?”
Husam tried once more and imagined God as a tree. “Yes, a glittering Christmas tree, like the one they show on TV.” He grew impatient and asked his brother, who pretended to be many centuries older than him. The brother scolded him severely, pointed his finger at Husam’s head, and said prophetically, “In this boy’s head, the devil dwells.” Husam gave a sharp shiver, as if he were having a bout of epilepsy. For a while, he felt the one-eyed, long-fingered, doomed devil was living in his brain. When he dreamt, he was not surprised to see the devil open his right ear with his middle finger, as if it were a door, and slip into his brain.
Despite all this, Husam did not give up his imagination, as he sincerely wanted to know or at least imagine the image of God, who had created him and given him life. This was the God who had granted him food, drink, clothes, bags, bicycles, desserts, school, and the teacher who gave him a warm hug whenever she saw him. He also wanted to blame God, because He had created the neighbors’ dog that had once bit him, after which the woman next door gave him an injection that hurt his backside. He wanted to see Him so he could cry in his lap and ask Him why He’d taken the soul of his friend, Haitham, that scorching noon.
Sorrow visited him again, but this time it was sorrow twinned with persistence. “I must know the secret. Why are they hiding Him from me? Why can’t I see Him? They must be meeting secretly.” Husam thought his father and brothers were meeting God outside their home, so he decided to watch them as much as he could, especially when they went out together. Once, on a Friday, Husam followed them. When they arrived at the mosque, he sneaked in behind them. He found out the mosque was crowded with people who looked like copies of his father and brothers. They had the same beards and the same white dishdashas. When they bowed, they bowed as if they were one man with the same appearance, reflected by endless mirrors….
The call was repeated. “God is great.” And the echo resonated. “God is great.”
Husam didn’t know why he shivered every time he heard the name of the One he longed to meet. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him—a thought that lit up his soul with a sudden internal light. “Could God be that sheikh who leads the lines?” However, when he approached the sheikh and stared at his face, the light that had sparked inside him promptly dimmed, and he lost hope. The man was none other than Jabbar, the sheikh who’d spit in his mouth to heal him from a sickness that had afflicted him, and without a doubt God does not spit into the mouths of children!
Husam resumed his daily life. He went back to jumping around here and there, mimicking Sinbad, Suzuki, and Ali Baba. He went back to playing with the children of his neighbors and watching cartoons and gangster movies. Still, this issue did not leave his mind. He remembered Him at every call to prayer. He felt bad, because he could not see Him and ask what he wanted from Him.
One night, he saw his unveiled mother beseeching God while beating her chest in tearful grief. She was looking at the moon engulfed by the darkness of night and chanting “Oh, God.” At that moment, the secret puzzles were solved and revealed before his eyes. He thought he’d reached the happy ending, just like the one that appears in movies. Either God was the moon itself or He lived there, on that great moon that lit up the lonely nights. He’d finally found out the secret.
He was so excited that he decided to keep the secret to himself. He spent nights thanking God when he got candies or when his mother bought him new clothes. He’d also blame Him whenever he lost a game or was assaulted by someone. On an unknown night of horror, he woke up to the screams of children, the weeping of mothers, and the prayers of fathers. On that unforgettable night, he went out with mixed feelings of horror and anger. He saw the sky clouded with warplanes shelling out different-colored lava. Husam rushed to the empty front yard, taking no heed of his mother’s cries and frightened pleas. Once he reached the center of the yard, the ground shook beneath his little feet and he fell down. The universe was then lit up with a cloud of fire, followed by the thunder of a powerful explosion that brought him flat against the ground. He lay on his face, and his tears mixed with dust. The ground felt soft beneath him, as if it were a used-up sponge.
At that moment, Husam wiped off the dust mixed with his tears, raised angry eyes to the sky, and looked at the moon with hatred. The moon looked full, shining, and serene—completely serene.
Jalal Hasan was born in Baghdad 1968. He published his first story, “Five Travelers by Five Paper Boats,” while still in secondary school. He graduated from University of Baghdad’s Spanish language and literature in 1994. He was jailed for seven months in 1992 by the Saddam Hussein regime because he published a 98-word story published in Al-Adab, a Lebanese Magazine, in the same year.
He fled to Jordan in May 1997 and worked in Amman as a freelancer writer and journalist until he came to US, as a refugee, in 1999. He has published two collections of stories in Arabic: The Last Day for Rain (1998) and Meanwhile in Baghdad (2008). He contributed a story to Iraq+100, an anthology of “stories from a century after the invasion” published by the UK’s Comma Press in 2016 and the US’s Tor in 2017. Since 2000, he has lived in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids.
As always, any errors in the translation are the responsibility of the editor.