New Short Fiction from Syria: Ibrahim Samu’il’s ‘The Bathroom’

This short story is a companion to Samu’il’s “The Stench of Heavy Footsteps,” also translated by Ghada Alatrash. It’s set to appear tomorrow.

The Bathroom

By Ibrahim Samu’il

Translated by Ghada Alatrash

Author’s note: When this story was first published, its title was changed from “The Bathroom” to “A Sad Man Near a Window,” despite my objection.  Upon its second publication, it was titled “The Plan,” once again without my permission. I still wonder what might have been wrong with the title “The Bathroom.”

Translator’s note: In a prison dormitory, prisoners share one bathroom that is located within the dormitory. According to the author, a prison dormitory housed a minimum of forty to fifty prisoners on average. In the story below, the roof of the bathroom happens to stand approximately about half a meter below a window.

*

Cautiously, we came up with a plan.  We studied it from all possible angles. We considered all the odds and maneuvered a way around each one. We kept in mind the lessons learned from previous prisoners, the schedules of the guards and the timing of their shifts, as well as the distance between the prison cells and the nearest public street, taking particular note of where pedestrians were permitted to roam. As for the specifics of the plan and how to relay it to those on the outside, including the date and time, it was kept confidential and shared between only a handful of trusted people, for if anything were to leak, the whole plan would be ruined.

Art by Najah al-Bukai.

What made things even more complicated was that forty to sixty men were packed together for the entirety of a 24-hour day, in a dormitory that was no more than twenty meters in length and six meters wide.  But we found ways to keep ourselves busy.  For example, we would spend days on end trying to come up with ways to secure a razor blade or a pair of scissors so that we could trim our beards. We looked at everything as a possible resource, like the handle of a frying pan that we could hammer and sharpen and turn into a razor.  We had to carefully calculate when it was safe to make noise, when to keep quiet, and where to hide our equipment.  We knew that if anything were discovered by the prison administration, the consequences would be dire for every prisoner in the dormitory without exception; not even their families on the outside would be spared.  

And so, when we first came up with our plan, it was kept a secret between me and Arif Aldoumani, who was known among the prisoners as “uncle” because of his age, length of stay, and wisdom. 

The plan was conceived during a night while I was lying on a mattress next to Uncle Arif when he startled me with a slap on my thigh. I jumped as if someone had poured cold water on me.  

He said, “Enough, man! You are always absent-minded.  Where are you wandering off to?” 

I smiled.

He continued in a gentler tone. “I know, I know.  You don’t have to say anything.  One and a half years without a visit would drive anyone insane.”

I nodded in agreement. Trying to keep myself collected, I replied, “Perhaps it could be worse, uncle, but you know…” 

He interrupted laughingly, “Yes, I definitely do.  I felt the same way after having been detained for an entire year without one visit.  Look, I’ve seen a lot in the last ten years. Frankly, for as long as the name you use in this investigation is Tayseer Abed Alghani instead of your real one, neither will your wife nor your family be able to visit you. The truth of the matter is that you’ll probably never get one visit, no matter how long you are detained.”

His words felt like salt on my open wound, and I pleaded, “For God’s sake Arif, leave me alone.  I already have enough to deal with.  Do you think I don’t know all of this already?  What am I supposed to do?  Put in a request and say, oh by the way, I lied to you, my real name is Qusay Alaswad and not Tayseer Abed Alghani, as it says on my forged ID card, and by the way, would you kindly consider re-opening the investigation? And, on that note, would it be possible to allow me visitors?!”

He raised his eyebrows in disagreement.  

Trying to make sense of what he was thinking, I asked, “What then? Are you suggesting that I should find a way to escape?”

He laughed loudly, “For God’s sake, if escaping was worth a try, do you think I would be sitting here next to you?” 

Then he lowered his voice and whispered in a serious tone, “Long story short, I am thinking of arranging a visit for you.”

“A visit?”

“Yes, a visit.  I know that no matter how much news you receive about your family from the outside, nothing will quench your thirst, for as the saying goes, seeing is believing.”

“Okay, but how?  From above the roof?”

“That’s exactly right,” he said, and then he began to present his plan. Together, we sat to examine the possibilities and risks.

***

The bathroom was the cornerstone of our plan.  At the far end of the dormitory, across from the door and at the far top corner of the wall, were two large widows with bars. The windows were the only entry point for the blueness of the sky and for beams of light. The right window was located approximately a meter above the roof of a small bathroom that seemed to have been randomly built in that location.  The bathroom’s wooden door panels were loose and broken with gaps in-between, which denied an occupant any privacy for a much-needed moment of solitude and imagination.

For a long time, the bathroom roof was the only platform on which the prisoners were able to stand and look out onto the outer world, a space that awakened what lay dormant in their souls amidst the darkness of the four walls. When the prison administration discovered our scheme, they gave warnings, tightened measures, and punished.   

And so that prisoners could overcome their desperate and gnawing desire to peek through the window, they decided to turn the roof of the bathroom into a storage space where they piled dishes, boxes, luggage, shoes, bags, and all sorts of other items. So much was piled on the roof that the window was covered and the sunlight obstructed.

It was on the roof of the bathroom that Uncle Arif’s plan was going to take place.

Uncle Arif promised that at the first chance during his next visit, he would set up a date and give my address to his family members with the exact location of the window of our dormitory, explain how to best locate it from the outside, and pinpoint the closest point to the window from the public street.  He decided that it was best to set the time for 8:00 a.m., while the administration was busy assigning shifts to the guards.  It was the during the morning hours when sunlight was brightest on the prison windows.  

He finished explaining his plan by saying, “As for your part, our dear groom, all you’ll be asked to do is climb up on top of the bathroom and meet them.”

His voice grew faint, and his eyes widened as he asserted, “This is the only way you’ll be able to see your family and feel reassured. What do you say?”

I was smitten by his plan.  

“What do I say! It doesn’t get any better! When do you expect your next visit to be?”

“The day after tomorrow.” 

And so we began to arrange for the visit.  I kept the matter secret, as he insisted.

He met with his family and reassured me that everything was set as planned.  

All that awaited was the coming of the anticipated hour.  

***

At midnight, on the day of the visit, sleep was nowhere to be found. My eyes felt like two lit lamps swinging back and forth between the window and the roof of the bathroom, wandering through the silence of the night and among bodies with shattered dreams; bodies that were stacked next to one another, crowded under two large windows through which a blackened sky peeked but carried no promises and no light.  

I wonder who will come to visit me tomorrow, I thought as I stared at the mute window.  Will my mother actually come?  I wonder if she’s died. But even if she were to come, how would she be able to see me from a distance that is divided with bars. I wonder what Sa’ada has told little Ghassan.  Actually, he’s not little any more.  He’s now a year and a half older, and so is Sa’ada. And so am I! Sa’ada must have lost her mind when she learned that she could visit me.  I’m sure that she’s also probably driven little Ghassan out of his mind! 

I felt a sudden worry—But how will I speak with them?

Yawning on his mattress, Uncle Arif asked, “Haven’t you slept yet?”

“I have a question.  How will I . . .” He interrupted, “Come on, man, you’ve already asked a thousand questions. What’s left to ask?  Her majesty will be coming along with the heir, and so will your honorable mother. Who knows, perhaps your entire family will join, and possibly your close and distant neighbours.  Do you feel better now?”

He went into the bathroom, flushed, and came back to lie down, covering himself with a blanket.  

Hoping that I wouldn’t annoy him, I whispered, “I was going to ask about how I’m going to be able to speak with them.”

He smiled solemnly. “Well, Let’s see—with loudspeakers, and with hugs and kisses!  What kind of question is this, Qusay?  For God’s sake, just go to sleep.”

But neither the questions nor my body surrendered to sleep.  I lay amidst the sleeping bodies as though they were tombstones in a giant burial site.  

Seriously, what kind of question was that, and what could I possibly do aside from waving to them? I felt a sudden sense of excitement at the thought of waving and began to imagine the possibilities.  In the beginning, I will stretch out my hand and wave it right and left so that they can tell which is my window.  Then, I will stretch out my arm and flex my muscles to indicate that I am well.  Next, I will bring my fingers to my lips and blow kisses at them. When they ask me if I am in need of anything, I will stretch out my arms and wave my hands indicating that I am not.  I will point my index finger at them and twist my hands to ask about them. Then I will twist my hands and move them downwards to check on the little one.  I wonder if she will bring him along. And if he does come, I wonder if he will call out my name.

The blackness of the sky was beginning to turn blue.  My eyelids began to feel heavy. but my eyes remained fixed on the roof of the bathroom.  I may have never been able to see them if it weren’t for this bathroom. Surely, whoever designed it must have been a prisoner himself.

Despite my sleepiness, I couldn’t take my eyes off the bathroom’s roof, or to be exact, that half-a-meter long space that separated its roof from the edge of the window.  It was half a meter that separated a well from the surface—from the houses, the streets, the beautiful crowds, the stray cats, the lively noises, the rendezvous, the warm beds, the hot cups of tea, the whistling of the trains, the fresh loaves of bread, the wild laughter, and hysterical cries; a space of waiting . . . of abscen[ce]…

I felt a number of hands shaking me awake. The dormitory was boiling over.

“For God’s sake, Qusay; today is your visit and you are in your seventh sleep.”

“Get up man!  If I were you, I would have not been able to sleep.”

Fatigued, I got up and began to bounce all over the place, like popcorn kernels.

“The razor, Saeed.  Where is the razor? Ahmad, hand me the pants and shirt.  Do you have any cologne, Ma’en?”  Overwhelmed, I dunked my head under the water of the faucet and began to spin it aimlessly. 

Abboud’s laugh rung in my ears, “Your friend has gone crazy, people! He’s shaving and spraying cologne for visitors who will be standing 500 meters away.”

I laughed. “You are just jealous.”

Arif’s voice interrupted the laughter, “We don’t have time, people!”  He took me aside, “Listen to me carefully, Qusay.  This is no joke.  You have to act with great caution while at the window. They’re always waiting for the smallest mistake.  If they catch you, do not confess.  Whatever the consequences, do not confess.  If you confess, we will all have to pay severely.”

His solemn tone caught me by surprise and brought me back to reality.   

“Inshallah all will be well, Uncle.  I am not that naïve!” I assured him.

“Naïve or not, I know them better than you.  They are always on the lookout.  You can stay at the window for as long as you wish, but you must be very careful.  And don’t climb over the roof until I tell you.  Now, get into the bathroom and get ready.”

He left and walked towards the cell door, where he peeked through the keyhole.  He checked the time.  Others were busy bringing down luggage, bags, and boxes that were stacked on top of the bathroom roof.  

I went into the bathroom and felt a sudden burst of joy.  The feeling of being in the bathroom was different this time.  I lathered my beard and began to shave it off.  Sa’ada’s face suddenly appeared. Memories flooded back. I remembered how she teased me, how I splashed her face with soap lather and ran away, and how she chased after me; I remembered the laughter as I ran away half-shaved, wishing those moments would never end.  

I took off my pyjamas and put on my shirt and pants.  I brushed my hair.  It felt like I was about to leave prison.  I had forgotten the pleasure of feeling a shirt and pants on my body after having spent a year and a half in rotting pyjamas.   

A torrent of voices penetrated the walls of the bathroom, “Get out Qusay.  Get out. Hurry.”

I rushed out of the bathroom and felt everyone’s hands raising me up, like in a demonstration.  The voices hailed, “Say hello to them, Qusay.” “Tell them that there are a lot of abandoned people here.” “Remember, the visitors are yours, but the gifts are ours,” they joked.

I found myself on top of the bathroom roof, at the window, stooped in the corner.  The entire world appeared at once.  The silver light, streets of asphalt and dirt, welcoming shops, and trees draped in a flirtatious tenderness. Women, men, and children were heading wherever they wished; they were shopping, chatting, or simply strolling the streets, leaping from one spot to another, free as stray deer.

I skimmed the faces of the people and caught sight of Sa’ada holding my mother’s hand on one side and a little boy’s hand on the other. I felt a burning sensation of longing. I stuck my face in between the bars. The world widened.  

A voice shouted from within the cell, “Do you see them?”

I nodded with my hand while my face remained glued to the bars. The buildings were distributed at the bottom of the mountainside, amidst the narrow and intersecting asphalt roads.  But all roads met at one asphalt street which, at its entrance, was occupied by a guard’s booth. This road zigzagged and ended at the main prison gate.  

Sa’ada stood between the nearest two buildings, next to my mother, and she lifted Ghassan up in her arms.  Their eyes were desperately searching for me, and I, like a hungry animal in a cage, was forcing my face in between the bars, moving it from one slot to another.

They raised their hands, hesitantly and aimlessly. My yearning intensified.  I stuck my hands out from between the bars and began to wave at them.  My voice broke free, “Sa’ada.  Sa’adaa.  Sa’adaaa.”

Panicked, the prisoners murmured , “Qusay! Don’t yell!” 

“God damn you.  Don’t yell.”

“Pull your hands in.”

A shrill, hoarse, and ear-splitting shout erupted from outside of the prison window, “Get off the window, you animal.  Get down, you dog.”

I drew back my hands and voice, while everyone began to warn, “Get down, Qusay.  Get down.  Quickly!”

I jumped to the floor.  They pushed me into the bathroom and closed the doors.  A deafening silence overcame the place.  

The guard with the shrill, hoarse, and ear-splitting voice stormed into our dormitory.  I stood as still as the dead.

“God damn you animals.  Who was at the window? Huh? Tell me?”

He continued to yell as he neared the bathroom, “For God’s sake!  What is it that you can’t understand?  You claim to be intellectuals and politicians and you can’t even understand the simplest of instructions! Damn you!  We’ve told you a thousand times, you are not to climb this damn thing.”

The lashes of his bamboo stick fell violently on the wall of the bathroom.

“Do not climb it!  Damn it, what is it that you’re looking at out the window?”

Someone shouted back, “We want to smell the scent of our Lord!  Is that too much to ask?”

“God damn you.  How about some shisha as well?”

The hoarse voice began to stretch out, as did my anxiety.  Did they already leave?  I wonder what they’re doing now.  Did they find the window? Did they see me?

“If you dare do this again, I swear I’ll teach you all a lesson you will never forget.”

My anxiety returned.  I’m sure they must be still waiting.  Hopefully they saw my hands waving at them.  If they did, then surely, they’ll still be waiting.  Unless! Unless they thought that the visit was over.

Approaching the bathroom again, the guard with the hoarse voice shrieked, “And how did these items come off the roof of the bathroom? Surely not on their own!”

His foot kicked the door of the bathroom. I held in my breath.

“You think you can outsmart us? I swear next time I’ll separate all of you and disperse you into solitary confinement.”

I felt the walls of the bathroom closing in on me.  Sa’ada, don’t leave.  Just a few more minutes.  Oh, how I wish I could escape and get to you through the hole of this toilet.

The guard’s foot slipped away from the bathroom door, and his voice began to fade once again.

“I swear, this will be the last warning. You’ve seen what happened to the third and sixth dormitory, and all because of a window. Try this again and you’ll see!”

I wanted to say, I am also here, your honor. Enough with the nonsense and get the hell out of here.  

I wonder if they’ve left or are still waiting?

My patience had run out.  I held the doorknob, trying to control my impulses. I heard the slam of the door amidst the deafening silence and the clamor of my excitement.  

“Qusay.  Qusay.  Get out. Quickly.”

Like a pebble in a torrent, I rushed out.  The hands swept me up and onto the top of the bathroom.  I looked out.

They were turning around.  I squinted my eyes. They were heading downhill, and so was my heart.  My mother’s back was hunched.  Ghassan was throwing a tantrum while Sa’ada was trying to calm him down.  She grabbed his hand, but he escaped her grip and began to run back up the hill, aimlessly.  My heart fell.  Sa’ada ran after him, calling out his name. From in between the bars on the window, I let my hands as well as my voice fly, yelling, “Sa’ada.  Sa’adaa. Sa’adaaa.”

The shouts stormed from within the cell, denouncing and warning, “Don’t shout Qusay.  Get down.  Are you crazy?!  Get down.”

Meanwhile, Sa’ada got hold of Ghassan’s little rebellious body.  I could no longer bear it.  I lost my mind and began to yell at the top of my lungs, “Sa’ada.  Sa’adaa.  Sa’adaaaa.” 

February 1988.

*

Ibrahim Samu’il is a Syrian short-story writer and a former political detainee.  He has published five short story collections, some of which have been translated into Italian, French, Bulgarian, and English. He holds a BA in Philosophical and Social Studies from Damascus University.  He currently lives in Jordan.  

Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds a PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.

Najah al-Bukai is a Syrian painter who was held as a political prisoner for one month in 2012 and for eleven months in 2014 for his participation in peaceful protests that took place as part of the Syrian people’s uprising. After his release, Najah al-Bukai engaged art to document what he had seen, lived, and experienced in Syrian prisons–prisons that have been described by Amnesty International as Human Slaughterhouses https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/hu… Najah al-Bukai has had his work featured in several international news and media channels, including The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/wo…

mlynxqualey

One thought on “New Short Fiction from Syria: Ibrahim Samu’il’s ‘The Bathroom’

Leave a Reply