New Fiction: An Excerpt from Alia Mamdouh’s IPAF-longlisted ‘The Tank’

Alia Mamdouh’s The Tank has been longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The novel follows four decades of exile, when the narrator imagines her return to Iraq:

Chapter One: First Snap of the Clapperboard

By Alia Mamdouh, translated by Hend Saeed

Mr. Samim, surname unknown

Much as in old photo albums, we the undersigned—the Ayoub A.L. family—gradually appear either standing together, or behind one another, or in front, or a little further off. We thought it better to let our mother Makiah sit on a chair, as she can’t stand for long, even if it’s for a photo. Beside her is Auntie Fatihiya, and then the younger auntie, Saneea. Our grandmother Bebe Fatim has no place among us; she stayed upstairs.

Good. As is preferable, and to preserve our reputation, we men stand behind them. I am the father Ayoub, and beside me is my brother Mukhtar. Here, it’s better that we leave a place for Hilal, our eldest son, and our daughter Afaf, whose case we assigned to Mr. Samim.

Come now, brother, take this responsibility off my shoulders, and let me go back to my place in the album.

Good. Now, just as I write your name, the shadow of Miss Afaf appears.

Dear Dr. Karl Falino,

I am Samim—or that was my working codename. I am the one who came with her, in 1986, to your private clinic on Jasmine Street in the Sixteenth Arrondissement.

I do hope your memory will not fail you as she, Miss Afaf, walked ahead of us with her short skinny frame. In her hand was one of her square paintings that she gifted you without a word. And there was my wife, Tarab, the sculptor, a friend of hers and a colleague at the academy.

There was also Maath Al Alousi, my friend and her engineering adviser, the architect, about whose initial design of the “Cube” she was so passionate, and who had been the reason she’d enrolled in the Faculty of Engineering, studying there two years before she changed her focus, moving to the Fine Arts Academy in Al Wazireya. This Maath might have ruined her when he told her one day:

“We’ll design the ‘Cube’ together, and we’ll invite those we fall in love with to come to it.”

Perhaps the path to the Cube, and to the arts in general, and to the whole framework of the city, was the Miss. And here I insist on adding that title to the front of her name, as it puts my nostalgia for her, and for anything that attends her, at the beginning of speech.

Then there was Mukhtar, the lawyer and her uncle, who could provide us with legal advice and administrative consultation in order to help us find consolation in the archives.

And Hilal, her brother, who had not yet replied to our letters, despite our continuous urging that he answer. Who knows? Maybe, in the final hours, before we close the curtain on the last of our faces, he will show up and become a part of this manuscript, or whatever you’d like to call it.

Maath said: “Younis’s smile has changed of late. It’s become odd and confusing.” He asked: Would he like to join us? He can tell us what is going in his mind. Maath added: ‘These notes will have an important role. Perhaps not now, but after a while.” If we’d known Mr. Yassin’s address, we would have asked him to join us.

We will also provide you with a few footnotes, additions, and documents that lack titles.

Our letters might be of interest to auntie Fatihiya, and, if that happens, her voice will be heard in public. But we will manage the situation. And you, Doctor Sir, who kept part or all the truth to yourself, now you will share it with us and with her family, as they are waiting for us to search for her before it’s too late.

You will be asked to tell everything you know, everything you heard, either by accident or intentionally. You will admit who is responsible: you, or us?

Each of us will direct their story toward the traces of her and avoid undermining what we have with a sham innocence. Of course, we know about some chapters of her life, and what she’d achieved, and her influence on us. Everyone from everywhere will criticize you, and us, and they’ll accuse us of betraying the origins of the facts in the process of a temporary or final explication of events both secretive and public.

You will notice all this, Sir.

All of our traces, and we surprised ourselves before surprising you. We preferred to keep the secrets between us. But today, we will find ourselves both in hardship and in danger, each as they see it, and we place ourselves in your hands and in our own. The traces of her is all that is left in our hands, on our clothing, and, most importantly, in our minds.

We thought perhaps this was the only way we could reconnect with her, or to have her back in person. That if we captured ourselves in all our legal, linguistic, intellectual, religious, artistic, sexual, and political thoughts, we could recover ourselves from drowning.

Then perhaps she will have the same dream we had, and she will show up without notice or waiting.

Ohh, how much we all thought of keeping some secrets and disclosing others, each according to their circumstances.

Maath gave me the responsibility of writing this manuscript. So, in an echo of his friendly voice:

“Yes, you have a strong and clear handwriting, and your letters are perfectly formed. That will make it easy to read during the process of translation. I will provide you with scraps of paper, perhaps you can print or copy out my bad handwriting.”

And Tarab!

She still hesitated and was cautious about disclosing all the secrets, saying:

“Some of us create and burden themselves with secrets, just to feel important. Some take them to the world of art and literature, which then takes another unexpected path.”

Uncle Mukhtar supported our efforts in his careless way, which she liked. She brought him into our group. He doesn’t have conversation skills and he’s a drunk, or that’s how she likes to see him. It’s possible that if he used new and different tools, he would overcome his stammering, and perhaps his parallel story about her will overtake ours. Perhaps the Ayoub A.L. family doesn’t like all these narratives, as they might narrow the search for her, or perhaps it’s to the contrary. Doctor, we don’t know.

The family has one urgent matter, echoing through all of our heads. Yalla,start telling the story now: search for our daughter.

The time of her disappearance can’t be measured, neither by the cycle of youth, nor by health or the illusion of sickness. Come, start singing like her or whispering like us, and let the echoes reach out to the pessimistic foreign land that misled our daughter. Come, move to that place—have you seen her yet? Is she our daughter herself, or is she just a character inside the pages of a book you want to write? A character, then, that doesn’t represent her. Don’t ask questions to which you will never find answers. All you have are words and a cluster of dried colors on paintings that are scattered between her friends.

But all of us are evidence, are we not? Excellent, we are, beyond all doubt. But don’t hesitate to take us into consideration. Stop here and talk to us; stop where you are or where others are. We don’t know your plans. Are you going to open an interrogation, like the one the police conducted? Or you will be satisfied with an advertisement?

Is she dead? What don’t you go to other lands, eh? Only headaches. And her head plays the role of a killer.

This isn’t a legal problem, as her uncle Mukhtar says, and we her family disagree on how it should be titled: Is it a crime? Or a horror show that moves between capitals and continents?

We didn’t see a drop of blood on our daughter clothes as she was vanishing from our sight. And oh, she is far from us now. Yes, yes, and the lines and roads to her have been severed for some time now, and it isn’t only because of wars. We miss her a lot, and we don’t know: What do we do with that feeling?

How can we manage it between us? Where should we put it? How can we distribute it? Did any one of us take a larger portion than the other? Can we delay it, or can we speed it up—so we can be done with it? This feeling has sucked up half of our lives, and we don’t know where all these years have gone.

The foreign doctor might be in good health, and his heart may have stopped longing for her. We don’t know the reasons, perhaps, for how he makes his living.

And you’re like him when you say: ‘What’s the use of longing?’ and then feel relieved. It’s true. It is irritating. Your doctor doesn’t even bother to find the diagnosis to the correct disease: longing.  Yes, this disease isn’t registered in most medical dictionaries, but it is both a fatal disease, and it is the only way we can warm our blood.

Come, tell me what you’re doing with all these pens, papers, cups, and drinks when our daughter is late? Mr. Samim? What are we going to do with all that conveys of bitterness, when the road to her isn’t safe and some roads are cut off, and everyone knows the reason. We can’t hold on to her and we don’t know: How old is our daughter today? Every day our longing for her grows heavierthan the day before, and it will be heavier on the day after.

We don’t know how to get around these things, and with whom? And how are all these things connected to one another: the disappearance, the longing, the closed roads, and the wars?  I thought you knew the reason, and you would be able to tell us.

Oh, you are searching here. All the roads to her are cut off and there—there is no hope in healing. So who will search for her? You can’t manipulate us, lie to us, or play the hypocrite.

The way you’re going about this will not bring her back to us or to you. Even if you were to move around and take all the references and the books until you went blind, you would not be able to find any trace of her.

Don’t you all realize that she left before the roads were cut off? She left Tarab, Younis, Yassin and you, Mr. Samim, and that engineer who considers her his secret-keeper; she left him and took his secrets with her.

And we, the aunties…yes, I am Auntie Fatihiya. My sickness worsens as I formulate these simple sentences that she loved, in the hopes that she will come back. I have started talking to her every day and calling her, much like how stories usually start, or how we want them to.

We can get her to stand here, and we can bring the camera closer to the face of each of the family members. Remind me, Mr. Samim, if I have forgotten one of us.

Your doctor will smile. She was the youngest in the family when we moved to Tank Street. Yes, I am the one who divided her name into two, as soon as I lifted my head up and see her in front of me, and I called her again:  “Afo, clean the ashtray, as maybe one of the khanims and khowateen will come to visit us. Neighbors here aren’t like the people in Al Safina. I made my own search of the people in the street and the notable families and recorded everything in my diary, ya noor ayani.’

As soon as we’d settled in the new home, I took her hand and told her. “Come with me to discover the streets, villas, and strange palaces. Walk and record in your mind the color of the sky, the land, the mud and how the naranj smells when it snaps off on the tree. Smell well, Afo, and then sit down and draw and color.”

Yes, Mr. Samim. Afo didn’t respond to my calls, so I repeated myself, my voice growing louder as I stretched my tongue out to tease her, Afooooo.

She didn’t reply; she knew what I wanted. I talked to myself, and she was standing behind me. “Come Ayeni, draw them all. I prepared them for you in all their different looks and clothes: the fina, the sidara, and some have turbans on their heads. Yalla, I want to see them at their best. Let their shoes shine like their bold heads, their new suits as if they’d just come from the tailor, and the collars of their shirts clear white. Okay, daughter. I think you should have an art exhibition for the Iraqi ministers.”

Ha ayeni, I took the photos from the book of the Establishment of the Iraqi Ministries and enlarged them at Al Sabah Bookshop at the top of Road 20. Can you see how fashionable they were, how well they dressed? Abdul Muhsin Al Sadooun, the prime minister, with the sidara and the bow.

You know Afo; they were so clean I could even smell the cologne off their clothes and moustaches. Ha! In those years, they had good manners in eating, dressing, the movement of their hands, and when standing in front of the photographer. They were real men.

She kept silent while I repeat Afo…Afo. She would get annoyed, but kept silent.  Was it bothering her, and was I the only one who didn’t know it? Did shortening her name make her feel diminished or smaller? This was faulty communication between different generations, because I thought it was a compliment or a favor, and wasn’t it, Mr. Samin?

One day, I made her stand in front of me, and I explained to her that the matter was like this: “Don’t believe them. Your mother chose the name Afifa, after our mother, but your father, with his good judgment said: No, Afaf is nicer.”

When I’d sit in silent thought, smoking, she’d release her voice in song. I, along with the rest of the family, would wipe my tears and blow my nose—it was always like that when she sang. Then we felt the responsibility of saying a few kind words to praise her, although we were even unable to voice the family’s foolish and simple words. It was a natural thing to do, but something we weren’t able to express fully in words, but by being silent, and by tears.

Afo endured a few pains at a young age, but I don’t think they affected her vocal cords. Hilal, Saneea, and Uncle Muktar told us about her depression and her fits of anxiety.

Yassin mocked her singing, and she’d likely told Tarab, and perhaps told all of you.

I deceived her and myself, repeating: “This is my responsibility.” As for her, she was drifting away from us even while she was still with us.

I am here in front of you, Mr. Samim. I came to your house of my own will. Look at me. I’m wearing the clothes that she liked: a gray fitted suit with golden buttons that can’t be fastened. I put the collars up to hide my flabby neck. The skirt’s zipper doesn’t fasten, so I put a pin in to hold it, and the shiny leather shoes have medium heals, and I cleaned them with dry oil to make them more shiny. And the shawl, can you see it? Look well. Can you remember it? This was years ago. Tarab brought it from there. Yes, this is from her, and Tarab send it to me with you, do you remember?

Do you see me all dressed up with no perfume apart from my sweat, and with the old handbag under my arm? I am in front of you as we use to go, all of us family members, to give our condolences and do our duty.

I’m here on behalf of all of the family members. Perhaps you will see, every now and then, Saneea sticking her head out and saying good evening. Mr. Samim, do you want anyone to correct the feelings? Are you talking about sadness yet?  Come now. Call me anytime you want.

Her mother Makia, used to cook feasts for you and for us, and these were the best feasts without any feeling of her being burdened. Perhaps our hunger for food is same as the hunger for her. For all of us, women and men: her brother Hilal, Uncle Mukhtar, her father Ayoub, and the people of this street and this neighborhood. Oh! And if Bebe Fatim, her grandmother, knew that I’d forgotten her name, she would not forgive me. Bebe Fatim’s longing for her made her ready to go into her room and stay in it, after a crazy cleaning campaign, while listening to the tapes recorded while she was singing Sayed Darwish, Abudwahab, Suad Mohammed, and Asmahan. That doesn’t say anything about her, but she was almost twenty-three when the age and the stories stopped.

For eight years, Tarab went on traveling to Paris to see her, and, when she came back, she would neither confirm or deny anything, while she’d say:

“Listen Samim, the story can’t end at a hospital, or in a lobby, or in the clinic of that doctor. She goes in and out from there, the situation isn’t dangerous, and she still mocks everything.”

Then she’d add in a sad tone: “There’s a possibility that she thinks we’ve let go of her. We also stopped missing her and looking for her. We’re being stubborn, angry with her and for her. Are we the reason for her sickness? No, no I don’t want to decide now.”

Doctor Sir, Maath is inviting you to visit us. Yes, in our country, the one we mention in our narrative, fearing that the characters and family members in our story will run away from the pages before they get to know you – starting with Uncle Sami, the brother of Hilal and Ms. Afaf.

Whenever the story stops suddenly for political, military, or religious reasons, we grant ourselves a few rewards and cook a good meal in the backyard and drunk and toast the family.

You come in, Doctor, and put your feet on the ground of the Cube and study us all. You laugh, but you don’t comment. We won’t offer you a piece of her, or of her clothes. We won’t offer her to you as though she were a newborn mare. No, in short, here we are negotiating with you, taking turns in telling the story. We don’t know who will come in or go out, and who will be provoked, come for a few minutes, and leave. Who will tell us horrible tales to scare us, and who would like to live with us, such that he will show off, saying, “Oh, I was with them all, one by one, enjoying the hunting and the hurting.”

They probably present themselves to you so that you will cooperate with them. Of course there is the possibility of doubt, and of mistaking what we’re about to say. We are not as you think, theorists analyzing crimes, but instead the abundance of crimes and the different ways in which they are committed may lead some people, such as our Miss, to the idea that life itself is useless.

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Alia Mamdouh is an Iraqi writer and novelist, born in 1944. She studied Psychology and graduated from Mustansiriyah University, Baghdad, in 1971. For more than ten years, she edited the weekly Baghdad paper Al-Rasid. After leaving Baghdad in 1982, she lived in various cities. In 1973, Mamdouh published a short story collection entitled Overture for Laughter and this was followed by eight novels. Two have been translated to English: Naphtalene, by Peter Theroux, and The Loved Onesby Marilyn Booth.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She has published a collection of short stories and is also a translator, book reviewer, and an editor for ArabLit and ArabKidLitNow!