Iraqi author Azher Jirjees was born in Baghdad and began working as a journalist in 2003. His first novel, Sleeping in the Cherry Field, came out last year, and was longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction:
The novel tells the story of an Iraqi postman working in Oslo who writes satiric short stories. An urgent letter recalls him from his grief-stricken isolation to Baghdad, where he is kidnapped by an armed militia.
This excerpt is from the novel’s first chapter, with the author’s kind permission:
By Azher Jirjees
He stood on one leg, like a statue that had been hit by stray shrapnel. His features weren’t quite visible, since he wore a straw hat that slid down over his eyes, and he’d covered his chin with a white rag, flecked with a faint trace of blood. He was tall and skinny, had a long nose that nearly fell into his mouth, and his unshaven chin poked out from beneath the rag. I tried to get closer to him, but he pointed at me with a branch of the myrtle shrub he’d been leaning against: don’t come any closer.We stood facing each other across a deserted railroad track, the shrub growing out from amidst its rusted ribs. In the sky, thick clouds approached, meeting and weaving together above us in a gray, gloomy, and suffocating canopy. The sound of a nearby crow drifted in, as did the light rustle of distant trees. There was nothing around but that abandoned railroad track and a few swarms of ants carrying their winter foodstuffs, plunging into deep black hollows in the earth. Finally, he cleared his throat and said in a voice marred by grief: “Where’s my grave?” I stepped closer in order to see his features, but he moved back, leaving behind a pool of blood. He had a wide hole in his body, stretching from just below his neck to his navel, and his tattered clothing was torn and bloody, revealing major damage to his lower half. His one leg seemed to be attached to his belly without a pelvic bone, like a tower that had been torn down by a violent hurricane and reconstructed by a drunken monkey, or a wall demolished by a blind shell and rebuilt by a lame old man. I felt dizzy, and I lost control and fell to the ground. I tried to get up again but to no avail, and after his despair at not getting an answer, my father stepped away. I reached out a hand toward him, hopefully, so that he might take me with him, but he faded like smoke at the horizon, and disappeared. The crow approached, flapping its wings, and grabbed the dry myrtle branch in its beak, casting it toward me before he too turned away. I grabbed the branch, leaned on it, and rose—it was strong enough to support me. I set off walking in the direction my father had been headed, away from the railroad. I wanted to catch up with him and pull the rag from his face, but a speeding train came from the opposite direction and ran me over.
I startled to alertness: The coffee had boiled over and extinguished the flame beneath. I dumped the rest into the sink and prepared another cup. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen my father, as he came to visit me from time to time, appearing in front of me whenever I was lost inside my own head. Yet, despite his frequent visits, he had not once revealed his face. His features were always faded, his body incomplete. He’d visited me once on the balcony of my apartment, headless, his voice coming out of the black hole in his neck, and, when I’d tried to get close, he’d vanished into the wind. Later on, he appeared in front of me in a metro station, split in two halves, each unlike the other. And one evening I saw him sleeping nearby, in the form of a skinless human dough. I saw my father a lot, yet without seeing him. I begged him to reveal his face to me, but he, unhappily, would not!
Actually, I had no idea what my father looked like…before. I’d never seen him in my life, nor had I kept a single photo of him. He’d been exiled to the catacombs of limbo before I’d come into the world, and, on the night of his arrest, my mother had burned all his books, papers, notes, and photo albums. That’s what she’d told me. She’d told me one night, her voice faint, that she’d lit the mud-brick oven in a moment of fear and dismay, and she’d burned everything related to my father, any evidence of him, anything that might bring trouble. My mother burned the memories of an entire lifetime, the cursed fire becoming nothing but insignificant ash, and all trace of my father was lost, just as his destiny was wasted. He’d been part of the leftist opposition, hunted by those in power. He’d been imprisoned and released several times. Every time he’d got out, he’d had one less tooth, and so, despite his youth, he had fake teeth set into both jaws, held in with metal wire. But the last time he didn’t come home. They said that he’d died under torture; and they said that he’d been fed, still alive, to the dogs; they said that he’d been killed and thrown into the Tigris River; and they said that he was buried, in secret, in some graveyard… But they didn’t give us a body, not even a bone, not even a certificate to witness that he had left the world. As for my mother, she told me, when I was five years old, “Your father was a good man.” And when I asked her who this “good man” was, she snapped at me without explanation.
I got into bed when the night was two-thirds gone. I shut off the light and pulled the sheet over my face, hoping for a brief nap, yet to no avail—the image of my father, with his damaged body, was stuck to the insides of my eyelids. Sleep thus became an unattainable wish. I threw off the covers and went into my office. I was greeted by the empty frame hanging on the wall. I felt it was hanging slightly crooked, and I put a finger under its right corner and pushed up slightly, until it straightened. After that, I sat at my computer, trying to expel my father’s ghost. I moved down the Internet’s alleyways, shifting right and left. In the end, I found a poem of al-Sayyab’s, published online in one of the literary discussion sites. “They raise their heads from thousands of graves / Calling me, Come. / A call that cut the veins, shook the bone-tips, scattered the ashes of my heart.” I released a sigh, and al-Sayyab went on thundering in his melancholy voice: “And my mother from the grave calls / Oh my son, embrace me / the coldness of death is in my veins / Warm my bones with the flesh of your arms and chest / Cover my wounds…”
Oh God! What’s this, that the sound of the grave doesn’t leave me tonight?I was about to shut down, but then I remembered I hadn’t checked my email since last Saturday.
It had been a stressful week, and I’d had no time to sit at my computer and look at email. Now I opened my inbox and found a few messages that weren’t particularly important. Alerts to pay late bills…an invitation to participate in a workers’ sit-in for a slight increase in salary…advertisements for new things to buy… But in the end I found an emergency message from Baghdad, dated last Saturday.
Something important’s come up that can’t be put off.
You have to return to Baghdad straightaway.
For fourteen years, I’ve been forgotten here, practicing isolation like a widowed bear. The winters are long and dark in this country, with snow blowing in great generous gusts, while summer is shorter than a sip of tea at the side of the road. Usually, when my alarm went off, before going to the bathroom, I’d open up the window to see what had happened with the snow since the previous night. Each time I looked out on the same scene: a white robe covered the body of the city, and workers would be leaving the warmth of their dreams, burdened by thick coats and heads covered in knitted wool hats, and my hands would shake as, grumbling, I closed the window. The difficulty of my work at the postal service increased two-fold, as I’d have to sort through hundreds of letters and parcels under the snowflakes, in the cold dawn hours. Someone who worked as a postman in a country like Norway knew both the taste of Hell and the anger of Heaven, especially in winter, when there was the cold, and the frost, and the accidental falls. However, in my case, not only the sky was angry with me, but my boss was, too. Keri Solberg, this slender 60-year-old with wrinkled crimson skin, had a natural hate for me, and, when she saw me, it was as if a scorpion had stung her between the legs! She couldn’t bear to hear my voice, and she turned her face away whenever I spoke to her, as if I were a disgusting, scabby frog. “Ms. Keri, please look at me.” She wouldn’t answer, and she’d pretended not to hear, even when it was about work. And when I made a mistake with one of the addresses, she’d snap at me with words that would poison the body, irritate the colon, and increase hair loss in grown men.
Once, she’d said to my co-worker, Daniel, “Listen, Daniel, I can’t stand this monkey they call Saeed. You have to keep away from him during working hours as much as you can.” And even though I’m much better-looking than a monkey, the question that made my skin itch whenever I saw her was: What does this woman have against monkeys? And why can’t she stand to look at their domesticated faces? I, for one, hadn’t done anything to make her angry, even though I’d wanted to, and I’d done my work in my place, so what was the secret behind all this hate? At first glance, I thought she had a vendetta against me, but as the days passed, I realized she didn’t like strangers in general, and couldn’t stand to look at them. I realized that she lowered them all—even if they had green eyes—to the status of monkeys. I also realized that, no matter how good I was at my job, she’d always be suspicious of me, which ultimately, in the end, drove me to isolation. I’d come at seven in the morning to get the mail, put it in the small vehicle and do my rounds of the addresses until four in the afternoon, neither speaking to nor meeting with anyone. This is how Keri Solberg drove me into solitude, like a leper.
The darkness finally lifted, and the dawn began to paint a picture with the threads of the universe. I didn’t sleep a single hour. Anxiety gnawed at my skull like termites in wood, and I tossed and turned in bed, thinking over Abeer’s last message: “You have to return to Baghdad straightaway.” What was I going to do there? She must be joking. I’d written to her, asking, but she hadn’t answered, since her Internet worked on local recharge cards, and it went at the speed of an obese turtle. I went to the kitchen, drank a glass of water, and then returned to bed.
In the time I’d known her, Abeer had never once sent me a letter as vague as this. I’d been sitting at my computer one day, reading the news online, when my eyes happened to fall on an interesting news story about cemeteries in Iraq. This was exactly two years ago. When I read the report, my father’s body appeared, asleep on its back in a hole, the moon shining on him. I called out to him, but a flock of black bats blocked the light, and he faded. I tracked down the name of the journalist who’d written the report, and it sent me to her personal website. With the press of a key, personal data leapt in front of me like salmon in a river: Abeer Kazim, media worker and photographer, born in Baghdad, bachelor’s degree in Media Studies, professional photographer who’s held both local and international postings, working as a reporter for the MENA division of BBC News. “Great!” I rejoiced, then clicked on the link for a personal photo, as excited as a teenager when a pretty girl passed in front of him. And it was she who’d occupied my heart from the first breath, and sat squarely on its throne, a beauty of average height, as graceful as an orchid, as gentle as a dove. She had two honey-colored eyes, short hair, and, at the middle of her left cheek, there was a mole any bird would think was a mustard seed. In all the photos, she wore a gray shirt and a skirt that ran a millimeter above the knees, looking like a stylish student in a college uniform. I copied her email and sent her an immediate and urgent message:
“I’m Saeed, an Iraqi in the Land of Snow, and I vow that I will become Saeed the Most Saeed, or the Happiest of all, if you will respond to this letter.”
The response came the next day:
“Hi Saeed…the Most Saeed.”
Since then, we’ve been exchanging letters and intercontinental electronic kisses.
The alarm shouted me awake at six in the morning; I silenced it. I should’ve turned it off the night before, since I had no need of it now that the mid-summer vacation had begun, and I could leave behind Keri Solberg’s face for a whole three weeks. I tried to get back to sleep to no avail, as certain messages opened the door to insomnia, shattering the armor of tranquility. Why did Abeer want me to come back straightaway? Why exactly? The season for returning to Baghdad had been April of 2003. That’s when thousands of Iraqis had left their exiles, voluntarily returning. Some of the returnees were those who panted after power like a dog on the hunt, and some went back to invest their money in projects that lured them in like geese that laid tax-free golden eggs, while others felt the homeland had now become wide enough to hold them. I saw them packing their bags, leaving behind heavy years of estrangement, but I never thought about it, never asked, even for the sake of argument, “Why don’t I go home?” This, for me, was settled early on.
I knew very well that Abeer loved Baghdad even in its state of final ruination, and that she never thought of leaving it, but we’d never talked about the matter of my return before. She’d never asked me about it, not once in two years. So for God’s sake what had happened now? I shoved off the covers and went to the bathroom. Outside, it was raining heavily, even though it was summer. I took the electric razor out of the cabinet and began trimming down my beard. It was long, ragged, and ugly. Uncharacteristically, I looked into the mirror, and I saw that an army of white had been mobilized to invade my visage. The part in my hair was on the verge of going gray, while a lot more gray was hiding down below. Jesus! It was still too early for my head to turn white. Where had all this gray hair come from, and why hadn’t I seen it before? And why today, of all days, had I become interested in counting the white hairs on my head? Was it related to Abeer’s message? I didn’t know.
I finished this business of shaving and bathing, and then I walked out, naked, to the kitchen. Nudity is the only upside to living alone. Being alone means that you can undress whenever you feel like it and let the air flirt with your body. I washed the backlog of dishes that had accumulated in the sink over the last several days, then took bread out of the freezer and put it in the oven. I rinsed the teapot, filled it with water, and lit the fire beneath it. I tossed two cardamom pods into its depths and waited for it to boil. I put three teaspoons of real Ceylon tea sold by Kaka Sirwan, the guy who owned the Middle Eastern grocery at the far side of the neighborhood, and I took it off the flame so it could steep. Then I left the kitchen and went to my bedroom. I dressed, dabbed behind my ear with a subtle cologne, put the bottle back, and looked in the mirror.
The dark beaches beneath my eyes were expanding, while the graying hair was a cause for anxiety. I opened the cabinet and took out a small scissors. I snipped out a thin gray hair that hung over my forehead, and another that had been sleeping in my mustache. I plucked three of them hiding in the folds of my hair, and then I opened up the scissors and lifted it to my part, but they were useless, such a small scissors could not erase the time and exile on my face. “Everything’s clear now; you’ve grown up, Saeed. A day in exile ages you three times as much.” The mirror said she didn’t care, and I left her and went out.
The smell of baking bread filled the hall, while, as for the tea, it was ready. I took two eggs from the fridge. I set them to boil, then cut them into round slices. To their side, I put a piece of salty cheese and five olives. Of course I didn’t really count out five, but that’s what was left in the jar. I finished my breakfast by seven and sat, in style, in front of the TV. I grabbed the remote and started flipping through channels. I hadn’t liked being glued to the screen before, but I’d become that way since the drums of war had begun to beat two years ago, and the name “Baghdad” had led the news. At that time, the world had been busy with us, and I’d spend the whole night flipping channels, chasing the breaking news that appeared at the bottom of the screen. While sitting on this same living-room sofa, I’d witnessed the UN inspectors leaving Baghdad, and I’d listened to the speech by the American president, as he gave his Iraqi counterpart 48 hours to leave Iraq—or else face war. And then, after the deadline passed, I read on that same screen the breaking news that the zero hour had begun, and that coalition missiles had been launched at strategic targets in Baghdad. On that day my friend, Jamal Saadoun, had called to tell me the news, as if they’d been broadcasting the news of the sighting of the moon before Eid al-Fitr. He was happy to witness the night as it turned to day, the result of too many exploding smart bombs!
“Did you see what’s going on, Saeed? Didn’t I tell you this day had to come? It’s all over… Congrats, congrats.”
“What’s over, Jamal? And what congrats? The country is burning, man, and people are dying!”
“Nobody’s going to die. Believe you me, they know what they’re doing. And the important thing is we’ll finally be rid of this tyrant, and Iraq will become a paradise, like Las Vegas.”
I don’t know who told him that! He used to swear that global companies stood calmly at the border, waiting for a signal to enter, and that they’d turn the country into a paradise, just like the one in Las Vegas, America!
“You’re right, we’ll be rid of the tyrant, but…Iraq’s going to become a paradise like Vegas? Is this the sort of joke that’s in fashion this season?”
I added my thoughts after my friend had finished his torrent of belief.
He didn’t like what I was saying, so he ended the call, hanging up abruptly. I was suddenly struck by terrible headache, which as usual was focused at the back of my head, and I had to go see a doctor.
Translation by M Lynx Qualey. All errors, etc.
The novel is available in Arabic on Jamalon.