This is an excerpt from “The Awakened Memory,” a short story featured in Salima Saleh’s collection The Flower of the Prophet. It is part of our ongoing “In Focus: Iraq” section, which you can find at arablit.org/iraq.
The Awakened Memory
By Salima Saleh
Translated by Hend Saeed
I turned to find a huge hill behind me, obscuring everything on the other side. The hill was covered in grass, its color a pure springtime shade of green. There was a smattering of people walking down.
‘They’re coming back,” my mother said. “They’ve buried their dead.’
I wished my mother had let us take a different route and allowed me to climb that hill.
We stopped at a waterfall in one of the northern villages then continued for a few more meters towards the flowing water. We climbed three steps up to a square plateau that resembled a theater.
Where was that?
My mind’s capacity for forming memories hadn’t quite developed enough so as to place and frame each image accurately. The memories took up residence outside of any time period and remained there; nothing could change that, neither the passage of time nor the change in circumstance that followed.
I remember another waterfall—how we left the dirt road and walked down towards the shore. Clear water flowing over the pebbles deepened in the middle of the river, so that leaving the shore became an adventure, and made the small island packed with trees appear distant, despite how close it actually was.
We continued to walk against the tide on the shore that gradually grew rugged until there was no clear path to tread. We found ourselves cautiously climbing over and around large rocks, their sharp edges scraping our bare, pained feet. We began to hear the rumble of the waterfall more clearly as we walked on, until we could no longer proceed without undertaking a great risk.
By now, the waterfall was very close, gently spraying our faces as its rumble turned into a roar. In the deep silence of the mountain, only the rushing water could be heard. The mass of white froth fell vertically and then formed a bubbling foam that eventually calmed and flowed into the river.
In these first few minutes of being so close to the waterfall, I was overcome by an intense feeling of awakening. I was mesmerized by the awe of it. Then slowly the sound of the water sent me into a meditative transcendent state—a state that I had once felt when I was feverish, when the body becomes sluggish, the senses give out, so that the inner voice that had been locked up, emerges.
I had witnessed this trance once before when I was a child but I didn’t comprehend it then. A group of women had sat in a circle and started swinging their bodies to the rhythm of the drums. Some of them stood up and started dancing along to the music, moving faster and faster until they grew tired and stopped.
I followed the swaying movements of one woman that became more chaotic until it resembled something close to madness. She continued dancing even after the drums had stopped. The other women tried to calm her down but failed, and even after they managed to grab hold of her and sit her down on the floor, she still didn’t stop. By now, she was moving less violently but remained in her tranced state.
At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening to the woman. I had initially thought it was some form of entertainment, but then I became scared when I realized that she wasn’t performing. Now I’m more familiar with this ecstatic and revelatory state.
The uproar of the water doesn’t have the same impact as the sound of the drums. It becomes a barrier, blocking the painful reality of the world until it vanishes and tosses you to the edge of the dream.
A person might encounter a number of forgotten waterfalls somewhere in the deep valleys and forking pathways of the mountains, where the ground tires from extending horizontally. Finding these small, forgotten waterfalls constitutes a new discovery.
Famous waterfalls like Kali Ali Beck don’t have the same effect. The small café where the falling water meets the ground is full of tourists eating and drinking as they chat about the previous year’s trip. They check their watches and wonder whether it’s time to return to the vehicles they arrived in, with their experienced drivers at the wheel—drivers who are accustomed to the narrow roads winding through forks in the mountain that can be seen from the road, which extends a little further until it disappears behind the mountain.
All this clamor impacts the solitude of the place, spoiling this symphony that reaches its peak with the water’s rumble.
The southeastern desert isn’t a place for dreaming; it is an emptiness a person can become lost in as they search in vain for any recognizable sign. It’s not a sense of oneness with the place that the silence of the desert promotes, but a loneliness. The only escape from this feeling is at night when darkness engulfs the endless parched land and the sky seems closer, forming a tent of stars. No voice can be heard apart from this person’s own. They won’t attempt to protect the silence of the desert but will try to break it, for the desert’s silence may awaken the soul but it doesn’t always encourage a deep state of reflection.
Before the crossroads near the famous church clock, a long line of large vehicles carrying soldiers was parked, some of them seated and others standing and chanting in unison:
Oh Mother, dry your tears and wait for me to return.
I can’t remember who I was with or when that was; time had no meaning for me yet. But this was one of the first images that had begun to assemble into one larger vision: the homeland.
The song hadn’t lost its glory, reaching the souls of those who heard it, and tugging at their heartstrings. We memorized it later at school, and even though we chanted it many times, it remained magical and continued to excite us. Other songs formed the heritage that taught children aspirational values, that faith in the future.
Sleep my son, and live an honorable life.
I still see that house in my dreams, that heavy, sliding lock of the door to the room, that has to be pushed all the way in during winter nights. The fear of darkness, of burglars, angels and Jinn, all in equal measure. And the peace of my mother’s presence, as if she were a mythical being who could defend us from harm and protect us from danger.
My mother knitted wool in front of the burning coal of the brazier. Needing to head out to the grocery shop for something, I reluctantly left the drawing pad. When I returned, I saw that my drawing had been finished off by my brother, who thought he could help. I asked my mother to tear out the page so I could start drawing it from scratch. We used my father’s fur as a cover, hiding under it, running our fingers through its white, warm wool, or using it to build a den.
A cave within the mountainous rock that can’t be reached by chance, or without searching for it: “Here is where the tailor’s son took refuge, and in this hole, he placed his inkwell.”
It is almost nighttime and the green hill is surrounded by plains. From the top of the hill, the village seems closer and smaller. A clump of houses in rows makes me lose track of the narrow streets that we had passed through a short while ago.
The girls organize themselves into a dancing circle. I sneak to the edge of the hill where the sky is close to the plains land and I am in the middle, happy with this absence, like a drop of water adrift in the ocean. There is a secret hanging in the horizon; whenever I try to catch it, it escapes. I feel it filling the horizon but I can’t reach it.
I try to jump over a rivulet; a piece of orange peel beneath the water shines through, along with a furry salamander that I’ve never seen before outside of books. It stops, unaware of my surprise and my eyes staring at it. The water flows gently over it. I want to watch it as it crawls away. I wait and I grow weary but it never tires.
I jump over the rivulet and head toward the city that hasn’t revealed its secrets to me yet. I had seen its houses from below; in horizontal rows one above the other, making them seem like one joined-up white mass on the mountainside.
I see it in my awakened memory exposing itself to the light; unaffected by time or destruction.
Salma Saleh is an Iraqi short story writer and translator who was born in Mosul, Iraq, in 1942. She has published and translated novels, short story collections and non-fiction books, including The Year of Cancer (2017), The Flower of the Prophet (1994), and The Transformations (1974). Her most recent novel, The City Painter ( رسام المدينة أو اليرقد) , was published in 2021 .
Hend Saeed is an Arabic literature and Culture Consultant and Adviser, a literary agent, a literature and cultural event curator, translator, writer, moderator, and Editor-at-Large & contributor to Arablit.org. She is also a mindfulness consultant and curator of mindfulness writing programs.
Thank you for this wonderful excerpt! I love the image of the inkwell in the cave. I found so much peace with this line: “I sneak to the edge of the hill where the sky is close to the plains land and I am in the middle, happy with this absence, like a drop of water adrift in the ocean.” Your writing made my day. I dream of going to Iraq – it has been in my heart for years.
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