New Iraqi Fiction: Muhammad Khudayyir’s ‘The Tunnel’

As part of our ongoing “In Focus: Iraq” section, curated by Hend Saeed, we have a story from Muhammad Khudayyir’s 2021 collection Almihjar, translated here by regular contributor Zeena Faulk.

By Muhammad Khudayyir

Translated by Zeena Faulk

As the police closed in, the protesters began to retreat, individually and in groups. Some took shelter in the back streets that forked off from the square where the later October Uprising was to take place. Others ran into a rounded tunnel at the center of the square. The police were equipped with batons and armored glass shields, and after they tightened their grip around the square’s exits, it made a last-minute withdrawal difficult for those who had stayed put, chanting and throwing rocks at the armored shields.

One young protester found himself at the northern entrance of the tunnel, where he became ensnared in a further underpass that ran deep into an internal garden. The protester was wearing a leather jacket and rubber shoes, and he’d covered his face with a gas mask with a short spout. In the meantime, smoke had enveloped the square’s main roundabout, the tops of the high rises, and the bronze creatures that formed the nasbu al huriyah, or freedom monument—that massive sculpture that faced the tunnel.

That protestor was cut off completely as the flow of demonstrators and activists that had begun in the early hours of the morning began to die down. The shoulders of protesters that earlier had seemed fused together like surging human waves had by now been separated. The incoming riot control squads launched tear gas straight into the chests, mouths, and eyes of the protesters and succeeded in driving their way into groups and dividing them.

The isolated masked protestor listened carefully from inside the tunnel. He couldn’t hear anything outside of a light swarm of people and the peculiar sound of them brushing up against one another as they crept through the smoke. Then he heard birds swooping down, suffocated by the gas. He went farther down, past the tunnel entrance that was layered with paintings, drawn by other protesters who had been there. He realised that the internal passageway was lit up with dim ceiling lights. He stood against a mural that bore the title “Autumn Weather,” contemplating the figures of various painted personas that flew over a scantily clad body of a man stretched out on the ground. From a hole in the body’s forehead, a slim wisp of smoke eerily rose.

The painting captured one of the sacrifices that the protesters had offered day after day over the span of the past two months, since October 2019. The victims had fallen like tree leaves in autumn. The pits of the tunnel continued to lure the remaining protesters, who insisted on pushing forward against the armored glass of those in all-black uniforms. The protesters had continued their marches relentlessly, without succumbing. Today, however, they confronted the most ferocious anti-protest squadrons, which became like walls of fire and gas that compelled the protestors to furtively slink and fade away, leaving no clue as to where they might have vanished.

The tunnel’s rounded mouth allowed for some light and air to penetrate its spaces. The shrubs in the square’s middle garden surrendered to the blankets of smoke that billowed down from the skies. Quickening his pace, the masked protester walked all through the open garden and past the closed doors of the commercial shops. He uncovered something strange that he hadn’t noticed in the past, when he’d spent a few nights in the passageway. At that time, he’d enjoyed the light from the stars that shone down through a round hole. But only today had he made out some doors off their hinges, which led to secret exits from the tunnel, into a lower circular perimeter.

Deep depressions in the ground were suddenly revealed. These hollows were different from the four known exits, and they gradually expanded toward the surface pavement. This finding deeply frightened the young man, who now had a hunch that more revelations would soon unfold.

The protestor thought that others had been here before, in these deep subterranean tunnels under tunnels, which branched out from the tunnel’s lower perimeter. He also wondered whether his activist group might have been crushed into one of these sub-tunnels. Would he be the first to find his fellow protesters?

The protester quickened his pace across the next stretch of the tunnel. He was fleeing a shadow—the shadow of someone he thought was following him. The shadow, he felt, was also wearing a mask. It was prodding him to slip through one of the underground exits that he’d encountered on the lower side of the tunnel. He lurched far into the exit, where an arrow painted on the wall pointed toward the word “riverside.” He thought this would be the shortest way to the Tigris. But he withdrew, recoiling into the passageway and walking toward the next exit. It had an arrow pointing to the word “palace.” 

He entered this passageway and walked a few more steps before a sudden fear forced him to retreat. The arrow at the third exit pointed toward a place he had never heard of before: “city wall.” This one seemed like the farthest and most mysterious of them all. He took a short break now, before continuing to the fourth secret exit. The arrow on this last exit was labeled “cemetery.”

The thought of going in the direction of the graveyard frightened him, as it was far off, too. He guessed he would emerge at sunset, when darkness would have enshrouded the tombs and graves. He recalled the time when he had harkened to a light emanating from an ancient shrine said to belong to one of the enlightened Sufis. The shrine was topped by a conical dome erected during the reign of the Seljuks. Year after year, the dome crumbled and tilted. But the guard of the shrine remained in his place near the relics of the ancient city wall.

Just in the past few days, before the anti-corruption protests began, this young man left his house to explore the uncharted borders of the city. He ended up at that shrine in the middle of the graveyard, which is to this day called al-Wardiyah Cemetery, after the Sufi Umar Suhrawardi. This time, the protester decided to reach the shrine through a passageway that snaked deep beneath the streets, buildings, and markets of Baghdad.

He pondered this thought as he stepped out through the mysterious hole in the tunnel’s cavity. He ran toward the first exit, the “riverside,” since it was the shortest way to freedom. He looked at the edge of the hole and imagined he could see through the smoke that had thickened over the street above the helmeted heads of policemen that were peering down to the passageway below. The police were lying in wait, expecting the protester to suffocate from the gases shot out from their weapons above.

The protestor stopped for a while in front of the “riverside.” He then turned back toward the “cemetery.” He was thinking that perhaps the arrows pointing toward the named sites concealed another meaning. He thought that the sub-tunnels might have swallowed fellow protesters up in an unknown underground cavity. He wondered whether these exits might be intentionally mislabeled. Perhaps he would end up at the river if he took the cemetery exit. The palace tunnel might take him to the wall. There was no way to know the actual exits from this underground maze that the police had pushed him into. If he were close to the shrine of the “man of the true knowledge,” Sheik Suhrawardi, then he would be safe from delusion and wandering.

But now he was searching for an actual light at the end of the deceptive tunnels. He thought that perhaps an engineer might have adapted the original design of the famous Tahrir Square tunnel. With this sinister act, the engineer might have served the persistent authorities of suppression and terror. The engineer might have taken for granted the trust that people placed in him by creating, through his plans, an undefined future that aided successive regimes by confusing the people. 

The masked protester ended his frenzied thoughts the way he ended lines he read in the book of the enlightened Suhrawardi. He decided to enter the subterranean tunnel that pointed toward the site of salvation. To do this, he would head toward the “riverside.” But his intuition told him he was heading toward the “cemetery.” He chose the most complicated way as he focused his attention on a flickering light that came from the cone-like dome of the shrine at the end of the tunnel.

The sub-tunnel was lit up with closely placed ceiling lights. Rather than walking and continuing his thoughts, his feet turned into wings. They hovered around the ceiling lights for some time and swooped downward. During his endless running, he would pause to listen, hoping to spot a sign of something that ran before him or behind him. But silence prevailed. The passageway narrowed and twisted and drove farther downward, like a many-hundred-year-old snake.

The young Baghdadi protester thought he would’ve outrun the end of his twentieth year of life, if only he had gone through the tunnel and witnessed the distant light earlier than the other protesters, who had disappeared before him. He ran as fast as the narrowing walls and the heavy silence would allow. He could hear the sound of his rubber shoes moving over the passage’s ground, like a sharp whip lashing a bare human back, or like the flapping of wings in search of light.

*

Muhammad Khudayyir is an Iraqi author from Basra, where he still lives. He was trained as a teacher of Arabic and worked in that capacity in southern Iraq for thirty years. His first short stories appeared in Al Adeeb Al Iraqi in 1962. In 2004, he received the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Award for his contribution to literature. Several of his short stories, as well as his 1996 novel Basrayatha, have been translated into English, among other languages.

Zeena Faulk is an American-Iraqi literary translator and a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick. Her translated works have appeared in BanipalArabLit Quarterly, and Passa Porta, among others. 

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