As part of our January focus on Iraqi literature (which can be found at arablit.org/iraq), we’re sharing this short story by Zuher Karim, which originally appeared in ArabLit Quarterly’s SONG issue, translated by Zeena Faulk.
The Awakening of Abdulmonam
By Zuher Karim
Translated by Zeena Faulk
“This is a confusing experience, not intended to be comical in any way, shape, or form. I certainly do not suffer from a mental illness nor a personality disorder. Nor do I suffer from anxiety. I’m fully cognizant of my actions. But I must now pull myself together. I must hold myself firmly upright and put faith in my ability to transcend this mental block. Undoubtedly, only faith can bring clarity and sharpen the edges of that which is blurred. With faith, all doubts will evaporate—doubts that might lead to misapprehensions or fantasies. It takes only one act, one intrepid leap forward, before all is clarified. And then life will once again progress much more smoothly.”
Thus went the rousing speech to which Sheikh Abdulmonam subjected himself. Prudently, he chose just the right words, as if he were trying to thwart a trap that some other creature was busy laying inside him. His defensive, tradition-bound self was blocking another of his selves from emerging. The speech followed shortly after dawn, straight after his fajr prayers. Afterwards, he returned home, went straight to his bedroom, and locked himself in. He changed into his purple chemise and white jacket and slipped into his black leather shoes. He combed his silky hair and then gazed into the mirror to inspect his looks. Without interruption, he gazed as if on a mission to rescue a shackled self that always wanted to jump out from behind the impenetrable wall built by other people’s wishes.
Sheikh Abdulmonam was, in effect, burdened with a concern. The concern was no doubt the natural response that every self on a journey from darkness to light must feel. His concern, however, was justified, for this was the first time that Abdulmonam had become biased toward his own desire—a desire that had remained buried deep inside him, a treasure covered by the dust of an inner conflict between his father’s dream for his only son to be a mosque Imam, and his mother’s wish for her boy to be a singer, which she persistently and secretly encouraged.
What added to Sheikh Abdulmonam’s muddle was that he hadn’t worn an outfit like this for many years. Tonight, however, he successfully pleaded his case—to himself, that is—in defense of his new appearance. It was a look that precisely matched the size of his dreams. What’s more, in this new guise, he found his true self, a self that had been hiding under the sheikh’s lengthy abaya.
As soon as Sheikh Abdulmonam felt confident in his looks, he hid the white outfit under his abaya, which was woven from a heavy, dark fabric. He buttoned the abaya completely, as if shutting tight the doors from which any fears—sparked by the gazes of others—might escape. He felt his entire being had by now settled down in a safe zone where he could finally find himself.
Abdulmonam affixed his turban to his head to hide his glimmering hair, which he had carefully combed back. He felt his turban and abaya acted as an invisibility cloak, which shielded him entirely from the scrutiny of others. He then sensed an inner stability, for the white suit epitomized his true self, the self that had long gone missing. And the abaya was simply an attempt to protect that true self from unexpected surprises on its journey out of darkness into light. The abaya, he thought, was a covering that would function temporarily, until he discovered to which outlandish regions his adventure would deliver him. In fact, the confusion that Abdulmonam felt had plagued him for days, since the precise moment when the entertainment agent announced the date for Abdulmonam’s first concert.
“Surely we can live happily for a while. A little adventure will take us a long way. But this only comes with an absolute desire for adventure. We need to jump over walls sometimes. That’s all. My friend, as soon as we take that first big stride, we’ll realize that our fears were merely an illusion.”
The moment Abdulmonam felt he was ready, he knew he had to leave the house quickly. One last peek in the mirror, and he opened the door and emerged with hasty footsteps. He then paused in the middle of the living room. His mother was in the kitchen, preparing a meal. He quickly glanced at a photograph of his father that was affixed to the wall with a large nail. The picture appeared as if it were glued lightly to the wall and surrounded by its golden frame. Abdulmonam aimed his gaze at the cruel eyes of his late father, whose face now looked more serious and sullen than ever.
The look on his father’s face had grown angrier, Abdulmonam thought. He imagined his father rebuking him with this painful gaze. But then, this father had always seemed the kind of man who sent hurtful looks. The mustache of the one-time paper merchant was shaking, Abdulmonam imagined. He smiled at the idea—this joke—that his irrational fear of pouncing on a new experience had created this impression. Then he spoke these words to himself:
“The dead should frighten no one. Their mustaches certainly don’t move, and their hurtful eyes are ineffective. Nor do they cause tangible, physical losses. What is truly frightening are the rascals who dig dirt on others to expose their secrets. Those are true rogues, parasites, and lowlifes! They act as if they were the guardians of proper values. They take themselves to be some kind of police, entrusted by the divine to report to some agency that has not, in fact, hired them for the task. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll keep the singer-self tucked under the sheikh’s abaya for a while. Verily, the day when I toss aside this abaya once and for all approaches. And when that day comes, I’ll confront the whole world. I’ll proudly display my long-lost self, bravely and without compunction. I’ll have no regrets. My only regret will be the years I wasted without giving aid and succor to the singer inside me.”
Immersed in these thoughts, Abdulmonam said goodbye to his mother, his voice trembling as if it cut through barriers and walls. It was a broken, fearful voice that had no choice but to move through the tiny holes in the walls of reality.
Abdulmonam’s words dissipated in the empty space. His mother was too busy to answer as she labored in the kitchen. In fact, she didn’t even hear him. As he opened the door, he looked like a man on the run, performing all the actions that a man must when he hides from others’ eyes, or flees from a sermon constructed from whatever words come to hand.
At that moment, his mother’s eyes followed him from behind the kitchen window. She gestured to him—perhaps even saying something that he couldn’t hear. He was too preoccupied with that intense internal conflict—a conflict between a proper self that was strictly committed to society’s customs and cliches, and a chaotic self that only audacious people were thought to possess. Such thrill-seekers allowed their wishes to guide them through the fields of confrontation, he thought.
Abdulmonam dashed to his car and sat behind the wheel, where he looked as if he were trying to clarify some matters of sharia law, perhaps arbitrate and resolve a social issue, present his followers a lecture on theology, or solemnize a marriage contract. He dutifully turned the key in the ignition and set off on the nearly empty roads toward the outskirts of the slum. As soon as he hit the highway, he entered a district that was quickly falling under the cover of darkness.
A flash of qualms still found their way into the heart of Sheikh Abdulmonam. But he sensed something else that offered him power. Perhaps it was the white outfit, or perhaps the act of taking a first step toward breaking down the walls of fear, the kind that could leave a person face-to-face with fate.
An hour later, Abdulmonam shut off his engine in a parking lot. He realized that the musicians were already in the reception hall. The car was now parked behind the large building, located far from residential areas. He looked in all directions and saw that the fields were entirely drowned in darkness. The only footpath to the party hall was illuminated by a flickering light that saddened him.
He turned around once more to scan the surroundings, as if he were in an action movie, playing the role of a detective, or the role of a spy who took extreme precautions. He then removed his abaya and crammed it into a large trash bag he’d brought for this very purpose. He felt lighter and sighed, releasing a current of scorching air. He was offloading the heavy burdens that had pressed on his chest for a long, long time.
Abdulmonam promptly placed the turban inside the same bag, but in such a manner that it would be ready for him to grasp and place on his head immediately after the party. He got out of the car and walked gently away. He heard nothing but the sound of his shiny leather shoes clicking against the ground. He stopped briefly, examined his outfit one last time, and then dashed through the door into the reception hall.
The first person to welcome him at the entrance to the reception hall happened to be the agent. He looked at this nightingale, Bulbul, and admired his elegant white outfit. In fact, “Sheikh Abdulmonam” had not been able to choose the suit by himself. He was helped by a shop owner who specialized in imported designer clothing. “I’ve been hired to sing at a wedding party,” Abdulmonam told the owner. “And it will also be my first time.”
The store owner looked confused. He was unable to understand what was happening. A turbaned, abaya–clad sheikh aspiring to sing and seeking a singer’s suit! He eventually smiled and opted out of asking any questions. His eyes, however, did all the talking. He smiled as he assured Sheikh Abdulmonam that he would help him look as if he were nothing less than a Hollywood star.
The party was a wedding reception that the bridegroom’s father had put together to make his son’s day unforgettable. The father had been advised to consult a catering agent, who immediately suggested Bulbul as the ideal candidate for singer.
“Bulbul?” the father asked. “Never heard of him. A hilarious name, don’t you think?”
But the agent explained that “Bulbul” was a pseudonym that had not affected the singer’s incomparable voice. He added that Bulbul had an unsurpassed presence on stage, and that his voice would put the audience in a state of reverence—something that only happened with a truly rare talent.
The air inside the reception hall was lurid and chaotic, just right for a party in such a rundown neighborhood. Bulbul stepped into an area that looked like a bandstand. The band members were busy tuning and preparing their instruments. The agent didn’t look so good. He seemed concerned that the party would not go well. At one point, he felt as if his job were in jeopardy, but it was now too late for second thoughts.
Sheikh Abdulmonam’s decision to perform at this party had not been an easy one. No, it had been difficult, confounding, risky. But he found himself driven to go with the opportunity. He felt he was standing midway between his desire and social customs; between freedom and traditions; between liberation and being dragged down by the whiff of scandal.
Bulbul’s outfit cast him as unique and gave him an aura of artistry: a white suit, a black bow tie, and a gold watch band on his left wrist. His pitch-black hair was slicked back, as if he had been born this way. When he finally took the stage, he seemed comfortable with his look. But the agent, reading his expression, was still unsure whether Bulbul had completely cast off the role that came with the sheikh’s abaya and his other accessories: the turban and turquoise ring. The agent’s worry was in fact warranted, for as soon as Bulbul stepped onto the stage, he couldn’t help but tug intermittently at the ends of his jacket, as if he were arranging the wraps of his trusty abaya.
By now, the party had begun. Bulbul’s voice blasted from this throat as if it were the adhan as it echoed from a mosque. That was how the agent found it—at least at first. The audience might have heard it that way, too. But that was not what they’d come for. They’d come to hear and dance to the district’s pop songs, to get a thrill and be loud. They weren’t here for a party in which the audience was expected to be quiet, only moving their heads from side to side.
This was nothing like other parties in this poor district. The audience was completely dumbfounded seconds after Bulbul had begun to sing. Their silence was no indication of the “protocols of listening” that classical music concerts expect of an audience. It went far beyond that. This silence was mixed with surprise—or perhaps even a shock that put all the attendees through this new trial. It was a completely novel experience, one that had nothing in common with their prior experiences, especially of wedding receptions.
Just as Bulbul took a brief pause, a spoon could be heard crashing to the floor, sounding on the tiled flooring like a screech on a fine surface. When a child began to cry, his mother quickly placed a hand over his mouth. Only when she was sure the child would not cry again did she remove it. The child instantly looked as if he were overcome with serenity, as if he had received mysterious suggestions to cease ruining this peculiar refinement.
Throughout the reception hall, those in charge of distributing beverages suddenly stopped. They seemed to have been transformed into wax statues. Their palms nestled the metal beverage trays that reflected the light of the enormous chandeliers that hung from the finely decorated ceilings. As for the young bridegroom, he had stopped eagerly facing his bride, as he’d done before Bulbul began to sing. Now he was content to merely hold her hand. He no longer whispered words in her ear, bejeweled with a large, golden earring. The bride herself became so engrossed with the charm flowing outward from the depths of Bulbul’s heart that she didn’t care to brush aside the one tress of hair hanging down over her eyes. She was laser-focused on this performance that obviously would never happen again. Her eyes were frozen, wide-open, and she didn’t even blink.
At a table set up in the middle of the hall was a large woman nicknamed The Grinder. The Grinder ceased her masticating, and the last bitten-off piece remained unprocessed in her mouth. She was no longer able to chew. Or perhaps, in her forgetfulness, she had left a round bite inside her mouth.
Everyone at the party could say with certainty that this was the first time in twenty years or more that The Grinder had been seen not chewing something. Her behavior under the spell of whatever this was coming from Bulbul’s vocal cords was oddly against her nature.
The night’s exaggerated incandescent lights, and the enormous crowd in the reception hall, which grew after Bulbul began singing, attracted even those who were not invited. The entrances to the hall became clogged. In fact, people’s attraction to this hall could not be explained by anything other than the magnetic jolt that Bulbul had inflicted upon them. It was a great jolt indeed. His voice was so unique that, within minutes, he was able to transform an audience that had long since gotten used to a single type of singing that had been in fashion for decades.
Bulbul’s singing was the farthest thing from cheap kitsch. Bulbul was different from other singers, who seemed only to arouse bodily responses in silly and chaotic ways. His intonation felt as if it penetrated the audience members’ souls, seeping into their depths like small rivulets. In brief, the audience responded with reverence. Yes, reverence—as is always the case before a talent that strikes awe.
The name that Bulbul chose for himself was both eccentric and unequalled in a way that suited his refined voice. The name, however, was not his own invention. His mother had been the first to call him Bulbul. Only years later, after her husband rendered a strict judgment on the name, did she stop using it.
“He’s too old for such a soft name. He’s a young man now and is about to be admitted to Al-Ma‘arif Islamic Madrasa. Have you ever heard of a mosque Imam called Bulbul?”
Bulbul looked dazzling at this first performance. Nevertheless, he seemed visibly shy, which, ironically, increased the glow of his face in ways the audience found unfamiliar. In the past, even the girls in his poor district had been inflamed by this signature shyness. He would walk past the houses calmly, as he always did, as if he contained everything. This did him no harm. No, it added to his gravitational charisma at the Ma‘arif Madrasa, in the mosque, and in his later singing career.
On the night of that party he was beyond magical, and, more importantly, he established a base that had a new taste uncommon at wedding parties. What’s more, his look was completely unfamiliar, particularly with the wispy beard that he hadn’t cared to shave entirely, staking out a middle ground between a fashionable beard and the religious man’s stubble. He was actually hesitant to mess further with his beard, and he couldn’t bear to completely shave off what facial hair he had. But it best suited his bizarre character to retain the light bristles as a mirror of his personality and a sign of the lightness of his spirit, two features that great singers usually possessed.
And, just like that, the life of Abdulmonam (or Bulbul) moved on, taking things in stride but not without confusion. His two conflicting selves alternated to document the life of this singer and mosque Imam. The conflict began in the spring of the final year in the Ma‘arif Islamic Madrasa, which trained mosque Imams and orators. He passed with a distinction that his fellow students envied. Soon after, he was appointed as Imam of a small mosque near his poor, rundown district. Within three months, he had adapted completely to his new job and working hours. He knew the exact time it took to cross the distance from his house to the mosque on foot.
Within a few weeks, he was able to break the ice between himself and the mosque visitors as they listened to his sermons. He quickly got used to raising his voice at certain moments during the sermon, in order to emphasize the important parts. He also got used to his new title, which everyone called him: Sheikh Abdulmonam. He had wrapped his head around the idea that everyone revered him, even the hustlers, hookers, thieves, and drug dealers who generally had no respect for religious laws and social customs.
At the tender age of twenty-three, Abdulmonam was outstanding for his friendly, convincing manner, which left no gray area in the answers he gave his congregants to questions about their lives, their affairs, and their religious devotion. He also got used to the mysterious glances from the women he encountered on his way to and from the mosque. Even though he displayed a serious demeanor, he was nevertheless a very handsome man with a tall, attractive frame, which would have been rather elegant were it not for the dark abaya he was cloaked in.
But it was that year, on one night in the middle of March, when a woman stopped Abdulmonam on his way home after the ‘isha prayer at the mosque. She started by saying: “I happened to hear your last sermon, and I wanted to say that your voice was superb.”
The woman paused for a brief moment as he looked into her hungry gaze. With exaggerated politeness, he thanked her and, following another pause, attempted to walk off. She then carried on, composing herself as if to add something. Then she smiled. Not a peep! The sheikh found her captivating, and she aroused both his “old man” and his feelings.
“With this voice, if you sang, wouldn’t you be a star?”
She asked this appalling question, which left him confused. He was certainly not accustomed to this sort of boldness in a tête-à-tête. The Imam of the mosque, after all, was up against the walls to respond to her. The devil could take the shape of a good-looking woman, he thought.
In any case, he thanked her as though she were a devil, to save himself from evil. His steps got muddled as he swiftly walked away. Her voice followed him like a tempest shaking the trunk of a tree and stripping off its leaves. “Please, I want to hear you sing,” her voice called out. “My house is nearby—next to the candy shop.”
After Abdulmonam got home, the words of that woman defiled him profoundly. Her looks stuck deep inside him. He remembered her lips as she spoke. Rivers of arousal opened up inside his body. His cock was upright for hours. This tough experience made him feel, for the first time, that he was powerless to control the baffling stiffness in his body. Her invitation to sing filled his thoughts.
“I could try singing in the bathroom—or even in my bedroom. What would my mother think? She no longer had faith in her Bulbul-turned-Sheikh Abdulmonam. She got old, and so did I. My situation changed. What would the neighbors think? I better go to some faraway fields or somewhere in the desert to sing and test out what that devil proposed.”
Abdulmonam felt tortured, swinging between the devil-angel thoughts that continued to plague him. He was unable to verify whether the woman he met was this or that.
“She must be like that opposition found in nature: good-evil, beauty-ugliness, and angel-devil. In the end, we simply fall for temptation, except those who God shields with His mercy. Temptation! Yes, that was exactly what had happened. She aroused something old inside me. Or rather, she turned over the dirt of an abandoned field and then strewed her words in it. I now feel her rousing image as if it were a heavy cloud, and there is nothing left for me to do save hold the reins and wait for rain to fall. No one could say, in any way, that the rain was an absolute good or absolute evil. It’s just rain.”
In the days after that encounter, Sheikh Abdulmonam seemed preoccupied with his voice as he led the prayer. He made numerous errors in important parts of the prayers. He asked the muezzin to let him try the new loudspeakers that he used for calling the faithful to prayer. It was obvious that he was trying to get to the bottom of whether or not he was a singer. He even called for prayer in his own melodic way. He hoped that the torment steeping inside him—the old desire that was awakened by that devil woman (as he called her during the moments of inability) and angel woman (as he called her during moments of lust)—would come out.
Luckily, Abdulmonam had kept, along with other old items in his closet, cassette tapes of the classical giants of singing. In the evenings, right after prayers, he would seclude himself in a room, using the earphones he had recently purchased, set up the new recorder, grab a couple of other singers’ tapes, and then spend the night listening to songs until the break of dawn. Before he went home to sleep, he would lead the fajr prayer.
Abdulmonam also made sure to take advantage of the times his mother was not at home. He would try his singing, record himself, and then listen to the recording. He kept training himself diligently and even took his time learning how to read musical notation. He made an important declaration after he accidentally became acquainted with a musician in his poor district.
“I’d like to sing,” he confided in the musician. “Teach me how to keep the rhythm in a performance.”
Thus, Sheikh Abdulmonam spent the summer in training. After the fajr prayers, he’d return home to rest and listen to music. After dhahira prayers at noon, he’d leave the mosque straightaway to spend time at the musician’s place. After the ‘asr prayers, he would stay in the mosque all afternoon, meeting with a few people until the maghrib and ‘isha prayers. He would then head home to listen to music and memorize song lyrics.
One day, the musician friend told him, “I’m friends with an agent. Why don’t we try to get you gigs at parties? At least you’d have the chance to try it out. Your voice is enchanting. It’s not less than those of the giant singers’, who people still adore and respect.”
The offer was a surprise and a shock. Becoming a famous singer was not far from Abdulmonam’s dreams. His mother, after all, used to say: “You would be a true star if you would only sing, my Bulbul.”
But the problem was how to put a line between the two characters: the Imam and the singer. Would it be better for him to give up on the disguised Imam and be a singer? Or was it enough to be a singer hidden under the creases of an abaya—given all the financial stability that comes with being the mosque Imam?
Abdulmonam took two months to decide to sing, for the first time, at a wedding reception, nine months after his graduation from the Ma‘arif Islamic Madrasa. He lived a double life for a further five months. But the following year, he sang in a party held at the Physicians’ Union, in an upscale community north of Baghdad. He performed his very best—he sang so hard, he nearly chiseled the songs into the ears of the audience. He brought up troves from the very bottom of his emotions. The audience fell under his spell that night, intoxicated by his melodic voice.
However, one person in the audience that night was so enchanted by Abdulmonam’s voice that he inadvertently told a friend: “I was at a party where Sheikh Abdulmonam sang. And you know what? He’s got talent! He was amazing.”
Next morning, the news spread quickly. The administration of the Ma‘arif Islamic Madrasa heard about it first, and, a few days later, it reached the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which appointed mosque Imams. Abdulmonam was summoned for an interrogation. On the same day, he received a letter of release from his post as Imam. Then came the decision to withdraw his academic diploma and invalidate it. The decision letter said that he had defiled the sacredness of the diploma with unwarranted pleasure, singing, and debauchery.
Bulbul couldn’t have been happier with all decisions handed down that day. He had gotten rid of “Sheikh Abdulmonam” once and for all. He had a feeling of extreme lightness as he stepped out of the ministry building, wearing a white shirt, a pair of jeans, and black shoes, all in the latest fashion. His hair was slicked back and generously greased. His gold watch glittered under the rays of the sun.
Zuher Karim is an Iraqi-Belgian novelist and short story writer. He has written four novels: Qalb al-Laqlaq (The Stork’s Heart, 2011), Sayyid al-Ghutat (The Corpse Hunter, 2014), Ghuyum Shamaliya Sharqiya (Clouds from the Southeast, 2018), and Hiyut Alza ‘Fran (Safran’s Threads, 2020). Karim has also published three short-story collections, one of which was longlisted for Almultaqa Prize, Firqat al-Azifīn al-Huzana (The Sad Musicians’ Band, 2018).
Zeena Faulk is a PhD candidate in the Translation Studies program at the University of Warwick where she is writing a dissertation on recent Iraqi satire. She received her MA in Arabic Translation from Kent State University in 2016. She is currently translating a collection of Khudayyir’s short stories for publication later this year.