By Alexander Hong
America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a war of choice that led to the incalculable loss of life and well-being, as well as ancient artefacts documenting human civilization, and led directly to the rise of ISIS. But involvement in Iraq started decades before this, during the political tumult of the 1960s. This was in reaction to the mere presence of a communist movement in the only country in the Middle East known to have both significant amounts of both water and oil reserves.
It is in this wider historical context that Salah Niazi’s Scion to a Strange Tree (غصن مطعّم في شجرة غريبة) takes place. The story of how he and his family ended up in the UK is at once a part of contemporary patterns of forced migration as well as its own unique tale. It is also a story of what it means to create art and be creative despite whatever life may throw at you.
This excerpt comes from a quarter of the way through the book, as Niazi is traveling by train from Iraq to London.
By Salah Niazi
Translated by Alexander Hong
I returned to the compartment and found my seat, which a Syrian now occupied. Beside him was a jolly-looking young man with a hunchback. In the seat across from them was an old woman wrapped in an old blanket, constantly sighing.
The Syrian ordered me to look for another seat and threw my suitcase into the passageway. I begged him, abasing myself in the process. He didn’t bat an eye.
Only the old woman cut in with an emaciated voice, asking her hunchbacked son to sit beside her legs.
The Syrian said, “When you talk to the customs officials at the border, tell them that those three suits are yours,” and he pointed to them. They were in the luggage compartment, along with two sleeping Syrians.
It wasn’t the Syrian dialect of Arabic I was enchanted with, inlaid with such delicateness. It was the offhand banter that they were steeped in. Their eyes also gave the misleading impressions that they must have been estranged, even from each other. I imagined that this cultivated an air heavy with suspicion.
The old woman, all covered up, continued her groaning without interruption. Between the moans and whimpers, she scolded her sons and invited evil upon them, finishing her call outs with, “Up yours.”
The young son was in chic clothing, with vitality in his ruddy face, smelling of aftershave, and constantly fidgeting. He began ambling between the compartment, the passageway, and the toilet, chatting with two Syrians who looked odd, in the Syrian dialect, and also conversing with the Turkish salesmen with ease. I sat in dazed silence. At times, I would look out from the train windows at the retreating landscape, to ward off the awkward atmosphere in the compartment.
This young son with the hunchback tried to entice me into small talk, peppering me with questions to become acquainted with my political views. First, he asked my name, which I did not see as relevant to factional or political matters. Then he asked where I was born and raised, and then, increasing my bewilderment, about my studies and occupation. And while his blather about his adventures rained down upon my head, his wrapped-up mother would also rain down, “Up yours.”
From the his very first sentence, I knew that he was a member of those who had done away with Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1963. He was puffing himself up, no doubt. But as the conversation went on, I became quite alarmed at his story, even if he might have made it all up. The young son told me that, during the revolution, “We went from house to house, arresting this person and that person.” Among the names of people on the list were many friends of mine. He said that they had all confessed, but that “we had cauterised them with fire anyway, burning their skin.” The young son claimed that he himself. with his own hand, had scorched theabdomen of so-and-so, the secretary of the Communist party, until he had died.
I wasn’t as despondent as I should have been. My hopelessness had already sunk to its lowest level, and I felt like anything could happen. I told him that violence always begets more violence, although not in so many words. He shouted, “Traitor. Iraq has to be cleansed of them.” From the way he said the word “traitor,”the silence that followed it, and the gaze that drilled through my face, I knew that he wished the same fate for me. The tension only eased when his mom shouted at him again, “Up yours.”
The train stopped several times between Aleppo and Turkey. We would hear gunfire grow louder and then fade away. People knew that there was sporadic fighting between the border police and smugglers along the frontiers of the two countries. As we approached the Turkish border, the train stopped, like a kneeling camel.
The Turkish police boarded, and their expressions pre-empted any sort of protest.
Three policemen towered over our compartment, examining the faces within. I felt calm. Not because they ignored me, in the end, but because not knowing Turkish was a barrier that held fast.
They gestured at me to stand and took me off the train. After some minutes, the three other Syrians and the hunchbacked young son also came down. The four of them went to the police checkpoint. I remained standing. While I was in between the train and the police checkpoint, a strange sensation of deja vu overcame me, of being uprooted, of my own path forward seeming insignificant, tawdry, and frivolous.
I stood there between the train and the police control station for about four hours. The weather was chilly, and the frigid air began to heighten my fear and diminish my hopes.
A policeman then came, smiling broadly, his upper lip burdened by the load of a stubby moustache that was two fingers thick. He said a few things in Turkish and gestured for me to get back on the train.
I entered the compartment and was surprised that everything had changed. The two policemen were still there, completely engrossed in prying up the wooden planks. Through the train window, they were rapidly conversing with the police at the checkpoint in loud voices. Dozens of lengths of cloth fabric were being offloaded, which was why they had stopped me from entering the compartment at Aleppo. They pointed to the three suits, and I indicated that they were not mine. Only the old lady, wrapped up, still remained. Her plaintive moaning grew louder as she began her chorus, “Up yours.”
The three Syrians did not return, except for the young son with the hunchback, and he had an expression of deep disappointment. He persisted in going into the compartment to plead with the police, pointing at his mother, who had at this point withdrawn her head into the interior of the blanket. Her wails became truly heartsick, like she had decided to die in her own special way. The police left the train and it started moving forward. The young man with the hunchback looked devasted. He stopped and looked out into the corridor, then told his wrapped-up mother, “C’mon, now.”
Before standing up, she said, “Up yours,” in a stinging manner. She spun around in place several times, all the while removing coils of smuggled cloth that had been wrapped around her body. The woman was actually slim and vigorous. After that, not a word after was exchanged and, when we finally left the train, nothing was said between us.
Salah Niazi is an Iraqi poet and translator from the city of Nasiriyah currently living in the UK. IN addition to publishing poetry and memoir, Niazi has also translated notable works of the English language, including James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Alexander Hong is a writer, translator, and Arabic teacher based in London. He has translated for Strange Horizons magazine, and The Book of Ramallah, from Comma Press. Even though he has moved on in life, there will always be a Dune-shaped hole in his heart. He wishes good luck to all fellow travellers in the journey that is learning Arabic. @AlexLondonander