Maysaloon Hadi’s The Brotherhood of Mohammed is on the longlist for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction:
The prize’s shortlist is set to be announced tomorrow. Before that, you can read an excerpt from the beginning of Hadi’s longlisted novel. The novel carries within it two stories. The frame — the first few chapters and the last one — is a conversation between a nameless author and Orshina, her new neighbor. In between is The Brotherhood of Mohammed, a novel that’s been written by Orshina and is presented to us by the writer, who adds her own notes.
In this section, near the beginning, the nameless author arrives in her new neighborhood and meets the eager Orshina.
By Maysaloon Hadi
My head was reflected in the rear-view mirror. This reflection showed my messy hair, while giving no indication of whether the head held any knowledge.
The woman who reflected back at me from the mirror was ugly, with a face no one would notice. Thank God, I was older now — that was something that couldn’t be denied. And, if I were older, then men would run from me, and so would the writers and poets who once had gathered around.
I did thank God that I was older, although I also covered my face’s flaws, and my sunken cheeks, with wisps of hair. Old age had one particular sign: the skin deflated, and it needed a pump to go back to how it had once looked.
The car thunked when it dropped off the pavement. There stood a beggar, one hand scattering tree leaves, and a woman whose high-pitched voice seemed to be coming up out of a deep hole. I heard it chattering before I even opened the car door.
“Welcome, Professor, am I your neighbor? I can’t believe it… I can’t believe it!”
The first thing I did was to straighten my back and hide the hunch I’d developed from writing for long hours. The poet Fadhil al-Azzawi has warned us against wearing a mask, lest it slip from our face as we walk. Indeed, my hunchback reappears every time I forget to straighten my back, even if I try to keep good posture.
But what’s the use of a straight back when I’m wearing such ragged work-clothes in front of this girl, who’s welcoming me with great respect? Anyhow, I’ll know her secrets within the day.
Before me, a cat washed her face with her paws, and the disabled beggar moved away, showing off his amputated hand to anyone who would look. The dust filled all our noses.
“Welcome, Professor, welcome.”
I’d grown used to no one recognizing me — not in the clinic, nor in the airport, nor on trains — except for a few times, back in the days of the sanctions, when I wrote a column for a weekly magazine. Back then, my skin was still in its place, and had not yet sagged. I’d been recognized only a handful of times: at the dentist, or buying books on Mutanabbi Street. So I found this strange: that a woman in her thirties, who was wearing hijab, was welcoming me with such a delighted face, all while shouting, “Professor, professor.”
My clothes are usually simple, wherever I go. A good friend of mine says she can’t imagine herself in a suit, or a silk dress, or wearing gold. She says that people are being decimated in the Amazon, and around the gold mines of Darfur, so how could she allow herself to support the companies that are invading and destroying the rainforest, as well as the indigenous peoples and local communities?
The habits and beliefs of writers are easy to recognize, even within the circles of high-ranking academics and critics. But how could one of these writers be recognized when driving a car full of useless junk?
I’d gone back to the old house, then returned here in my work-clothes. My fingers still smelled of the orange I’d eaten quickly, while loading the car, after I’d carried out some of the fragile antiques from the old house. I didn’t expect or imagine anyone would give me such a welcome here. Thank God for everything.
I looked at myself in the mirror, now, before I stepped out of the car. Horrified by what I saw, I pretended I was turning off the radio, while I flipped my hair to one side and fixed it in place with a hair band. But what was the use of this rubber band now that I looked so shabby? What was the use of noticing now, when it was too late?
It’s easy to make eyes turn toward you, but it’s hard to make hearts do the same. I consoled myself with this proverb after the young woman introduced herself to me as one of my neighbors. She insisted on helping me carry a carton of cups and plates from the car. She seemed surprised that I had no one to help me in this mission, and she showed her willingness to step in, even if she had to carry my bureau.
“I didn’t know who’d bought this house,” she said. “Oh God, it’s you. You, Professor, you bought it.”
“I’m so lucky I was born in this alley,” she went on. “Let me go around the car so I can help you take down these boxes.”
I was bit embarrassed, and I found it hard to give a sarcastic reply, as my husband usually would. I didn’t know if this neighbor was my good luck or bad, or what had happened that led her to welcome me in such noisy way.
My attention drifted, and I told myself that I should avoid making mistakes that might lead to some nightmare scenario that couldn’t be revised. After all, it’s only in writing that you can revise. In life, once you break someone’s back, it’s too late.
“Yes, we bought the house a month ago.”
“Will you be alone in the house?”
“Yes. I’m in Baghdad most of the time, but my children are with my husband, who’s abroad.”
“Wow, you remind me of Maria.”
“Yes, Maria. She was the wife of the man who owned this house before you.”
“I met her once, when I came to see the house. I’d heard that she refused to leave Baghdad with her husband Abdelmalik. Is that true?”
The woman didn’t even listen to my question — her eyes were so full of tears from this happy event. It seemed as if she were singing, Who loves her like I do, like I do, and her face transformed, as if to flatter me, before she strongly pinched her nose. I felt as though I were her youngest child.
And now she stared into my face, seeming to think of something, as if she could see in me the very theory of evolution, the transformation of a monkey. Or maybe she was thinking of something else.
Maybe she wanted to inherit my wealth, or she wanted to kill me and steal my manuscripts, like in the movie Dead on Arrival. There was nothing charming about my looks, but this young woman didn’t change only her face to impress me, she also insisted on helping me, and she started to arrange the glasses in an odd pyramid shape in my kitchen cupboard. Not only that, but she turned over the empty boxes if she found the writing was upside down. The kitchen was organized now, and I’d started to help her, when she said:
“There’s no water.”
“That means we have to stop, dear.”
“Don’t feel down when there isn’t water from the tap.”
“Down? I’m not down. My problem is I’m infected by hope.”
Her mouth fell open in shock at what she’d heard, and she almost fainted.
This is how nations develop, I thought.
Then she came closer and suggested she could show me how to style my frizzy hair. She walked around me, as if she wanted to cast a magic spell to transform me from a monkey into a wild gazelle. But, after a while, she retreated and said, “No, no. Keep it like that. It’s like Alia, and Beethoven, and Einstein, and all the other great crazy leaders in the world.”
“Who is Alia?”
What did this crazy girl want from me? The Christians had left, the Jews had vanished, the Sabeans were scattered, the Sunni and Shi’a fought each other, and soon there would be vicious wars over who controlled the water.
The invisible fighting was moving toward new military targets, and, in a few years, an electronic war would break out, leading to the greatest-ever loss of life and property. All of humanity might vanish with less effort than it took to move a single solider.
So what was wrong with this girl, who was moving around me like a sunflower, chasing me as if she were on a racetrack? How was I to deal with this strange neighbor who, it seemed, was going to take my most precious possession: my solitude?
Also read, interviews from the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist:
Reviews from the 2019 longlist:
And the 2019 longlist:
Translation by Hend Saeed and M Lynx Qualey.