An Excerpt from Azher Jirjees’s IPAF-shortlisted ‘The Stone of Happiness’

This excerpt comes from the start of Azher Jirjees’s second novel, The Stone of Happiness. His first, Sleeping in the Cherry Field (2019), was longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and is forthcoming in English translation by Banipal Books.

The 2023 IPAF shortlist is set to be announced at 8 a.m. GMT on Wednesday, March 1. Also find more Iraqi literature in our special section, “In Focus: Iraq.”



A Hitman

Winter 2018

And so it was that—after a lifetime spent as peaceable as a hen—I found myself face to face with a hired killer.

Like you, I didn’t know this sonofabitch, nor his reasons for killing me. And until the day he appeared in front of me, I thought I would have a quiet death, in my bed, without even a cat to mewl for me. I didn’t know that my end would be such a mess nor that my life, which I always thought more insignificant than cigarette ash, was important enough for someone to lurk around and try to snatch it away. But there are moments of disillusionment that a person must someday reach, no matter how long it takes to get there.

I was driving back to the house, the camera resting by my side, when suddenly a motorcycle shrieked out of the depths of the darkness behind me. I glanced up at the rear-view mirror, but to no avail: a mask hid the killers’ faces, and the city’s lights were as pale as the cheeks of a sick man. I rolled up the windows, flicked on the radio, and went on driving, listening to the sound of the oud. This was Baghdad’s music, and I could never hear it without being swept away by a wave of nostalgia. Finally, I got to my neighborhood, and slowly turned into the fourth alley on the right. There were only a few meters left before I would reach the doorstep. But the murderer’s patience was shorter than a stick of tobacco in the fist of a teenager, and he moved to cut me off, his eyes locked on mine as he brandished his pistol and silencer. 

This was enough to make me panic. My limbs shook, and a feeling of numbness washed over me, followed by a strong urge to piss. I drew in a slow breath and started to think, as my life neared the finish line, about how people would remember me. No doubt my name would be in the headlines, and photos of my dead body would be passed around by café-goers, housewives, and dental-clinic visitors. They would dig through my journals with needle-sharp curiosity, and I would be the talk of the town for at least three nights. It is one of the ironies of fate that news of your death is a reason for people to get to know you! But just then, a specter appeared behind the killer and shone something—something that silenced the loud panic in my heart and proved the foolishness of my suspicions. It was the specter of the kindly guard of the gardens, with his majestic white beard, whispering to me in his melodious voice, which is still engraved into the tinplate of my memory:

“The rabbits come first.”

In that moment, the night melted away. The face of day appeared as clear as the hopes of small children. Here, there were boats making their way downriver, fishing nets in their hulls; and here was Raimon, throwing pebbles off the cliffside with his small hand. Now, I saw my father’s wife tearing at her dress and rolling in the mud, unbothered by the eyes of the men all around her, and I heard Janet’s shouts knocking on heaven’s door, scolding the Lord for what He has written. I was haunted by angry looks; dogs barked behind me. The face of the guard of the gardens appeared as he whispered again:

“The rabbits come first.”


Guard of the Gardens

I was eight when I found my way to the Gardens of the Djinn. This was in the summer of 1962, after some foolishness of mine in the herbal medicines market. That long stretch of the market was lined with medicinal-herb shops, and the sellers of raisins and spices, and it gave off a smell of bay laurel mixed with curry and incense. My stepmother used to sell straw brooms and scrubbing loofahs to the shopkeepers there, in order to buy oil, sugar, and salt with the proceeds. But she had no real role in those deals, without which we would have been thrown out on the street. My older sister Janet made the brooms and wove the loofahs, and I carried the goods back and forth.

I used to follow my stepmother around like a dog, so that she’d buy me a sweet zalabia. And it was pitiful to look at me, salivating at the sight of those golden sweets stacked neatly one on top of the other. But I never saw a single act of pity in that market. The sellers scorned me, treating me with violent distaste, as though I were a pebble stuck in the heel of a shoe. Not only that, but some would ask my stepmother about my younger brother, indifferent to me and my feelings!

“And how is Raimon?”

“Why don’t you bring him with you to the market?”

“Ay ay, they say he’s a blond!”

His hair wasn’t blond, you fat salesmen. It was a pale yellow, and his teeth stuck out like a rabbit’s. But all of you were hypocrites, or so I kept repeating in secret. As for her, she feared the evil eye on him, so she answered that he was sick and didn’t sleep through the night, and then she didn’t forget to buy him sweets. She would buy them for him and him only, while she stuck cheap gum in my mouth and said, with devilish cunning:

“Finish what’s in your mouth first, and then I’ll buy you what you want.”

She knew full well that what I wanted wasn’t hard to get; it was just one piece of zalabia. 

It bothered me that tricking this woman wasn’t easy. It was one of the seven impossibilities, for every time I got smart and swallowed the gum, telling her, “It’s finished, Auntie!” she would answer with a false tenderness, “Oh, sweetheart! It looks like we’ve run out of money.” 

Then she would falsely promise: “Next time, I’ll buy you a zalabia.”

And so the day would drag by as I watched the sweet in my brother’s hand, waiting for it to fall and be eaten by ants. I loved my brother, but their cruelty made me prefer the ants to him. 

One day, I saw her buy him pink cubes of Turkish delight, squirreling them away in her bag. I tugged at her abaya to remind her that I existed: “And me, Auntie? And me?” 

She turned and told me the same lie: “We’re out of money. Don’t be sad. By Christ, I’ll buy you zalabia next Friday.” The promised Friday came, and she didn’t. Then the one after it—and again she didn’t. And so on and so on, until I’d had enough and decided to make some mischief that would later lead me into the Gardens of the Djinn.

On that day of scorching-hot days, my stepmother had sold her merchandise and stopped to chat with the sweets-seller. They were so deep in conversation that they lost all sense of my existence. So I climbed up onto the bench, reached out a hand, and stole. I snatched a piece of zalabia right in front of their noses and hid it in my pants pocket, without them even turning around. As soon as the conversation had ended, and she bought what she needed from the market, she had me carry the bags. I followed behind her, afraid she would turn around.

As we walked, I had the feeling that, because of the intense heat, the piece of zalabia had begun to melt inside my pocket and was sticking to the cloth, which made me slow down and wait for an opportunity to take it out and check on it. But my stepmother noticed my strange behavior, and she turned to scold me, saying, “Get a move on, dummy.”

“Yes, Auntie.”

Finally, we got to the house, and I threw the bags down in the kitchen and ran up to the roof, with the excuse that I had to check on the pigeons and give them their water. I hid in the pigeon coop and pulled out the sweet. It was in bad shape, with little threads, hair, and dust stuck to it. I didn’t know where all this dust had come from, settling into the corners of my pocket. Still, the sweet’s poor condition and bad taste didn’t prevent me from wolfing it down. I ate it in two bites and then rubbed my stomach, the way rich people do after a big meal. 

But because I have enough bad luck to burn a piece of straw—one that’s floating in the water on a rainy day—I was found out. I don’t know how it happened, but this cunning woman hurried to snitch on me to my father. And then it was all over. She sat down at lunch with a frown, her posture twisted toward the left, showing she was unwilling to eat.

My father asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you eating?”

And she said, in a tone heavy with sorrow, “I don’t want any food. I’m too full up on humiliation.”

“Humiliation? From what?!”

“Oh nothing, it’s nothing. Just leave it and finish your meal, I don’t want to bother you.”

He bit the head off an onion, which he’d paired with bread. “Say what you have to say, woman. Humiliated by what?”

Slyly, she lowered her head and sighed. “Humiliated by your son. Your son is a thief, Toma.”

Ahh, how cruel that short sentence was!

Toma stopped moving the food around in his mouth and slapped me with his heavy palm, the hum of which still rings in my ear. Then, without any understanding of the reasons that had driven me to snatch that trivial sweetmeat from right in front of the seller, he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me like a captive to the courtyard of the house. There, he hung me on the trunk of a eucalyptus and began to whip my skin with the punishment stick. The sting of that bamboo stick was harsh. Nothing was crueler, except the look of schadenfreude in the eyes of that woman, who had won an Olympic medal in deception. 

In the end, he took me down and threw me out into the street, calling after me, “Shame on you and your mother, you sinful little shit!”

Until this day, I still don’t know why my father used to call me sinful, knowing full well I wasn’t old enough to have practiced any sins. I also don’t know why he was always angry with us, since his friends described him as a kindly man who never failed to spend long, happy hours with them. What’s the point of fathers being cheerful only outside the walls of their houses?

Yes, mine was one of those fathers who takes off their coat of good cheer at the front door and replaces it with the robes of solitude, irritation, and anger. With his first step into the house, and the first ahem, his mood would darken, his furrowed brow making him look miserably grumpy, with no energy left even for breathing. He wouldn’t stay among us for more than two hours. He was jobless, going out in the morning to a coffeeshop, coming back at noon to eat lunch, and then lying down in his bed for a quick nap, which was a time for irritability and an acidic stomach. This short period would end with the slam of the door and his return to the cafés of the unemployed. As for the evening, he’d spend it in a secret bar in the city’s back alleys, the door of which was guarded by a fat, jowly dog that knew the customers as he knew his own children.  

Once, I went out barefoot and followed him. Then I saw with my own eyes how they snuck like thieves into that bar, and how the dog jumped up to greet them one by one. But I didn’t dare get any closer until the day I was forced to do it. On that day, the fever was about to take my older sister, Janet, so I went to tell him. I remember very clearly how that damned dog barked at me, and how one of the drunkards came out to scold him, and how—without that—I wouldn’t have gotten in.

To me, the place was a shock. Its stone walls were painted red, and yellow lamps hung from its low ceiling, their light falling over worn wooden tables. Men gathered around the tables, some of them gambling, while others were satisfied with eating pickles and drinking arak. The clinking of glasses mixed with the rumble of music from the gramophone in the corner, which kept the night from being boring. At the far end, there was a high table with bottles of wine and glasses so graceful they looked like the bodies of dancers, behind which stood a clean-shaven man with reddish skin and dancing eyes. He was strange-looking, his movements quick. One of his ears was smaller than the other. 

He wriggled his brows and told me, “Come on in, little chick.”

I flinched, so he smiled and added, “Oh, I won’t bite. Tell me, what do you want?”

“I want my father.”

“And who’s your father? Tell me quickly now.”


“Ahh. You’re Kamal, then?”


He turned his small head right and left, muttering, “Toma, Toma, Toma…” His eyebrows danced as he gestured with his hand. “There, at the table in the corner.”

I hurried over to the table that was buried under a cloud of smoke and the sound of the music. I found my father sitting with three of his friends, smoking cigarettes and drinking arak as they played cards. In my father’s hand was a cup that was nearly empty, and it was clear to anyone watching that he’d lost, as usual, and that he was drinking arak to forget the world around him. I walked up to him and whispered in his ear, “Baba… Baba.”

“What do you want?”

“Janet is sick.”

No groan came from him, nothing that suggested he had any paternal feeling. I tried again, raising my voice a little: “Baba, you have to come with me. Janet is sick.”

He finished what was left in his glass and lifted his head slightly. Then he jabbed a finger toward the door. “Go on. I’ll be right behind you.”

But he wasn’t. By God, he wasn’t. Instead, he came back after midnight, staggering, his mouth letting out intermittent wheezes. He stood in the middle of the house to belch five thousand times before he made his way to bed, then fell asleep, his snores drifting up. And when he woke in the morning, he cursed Janet for being sick!

It pains me to say that my father was a frequent customer at that bar; he went there every night to partake in the drinking, the gambling, and the laughter, the results of which were eternal poverty and a place in hell.

And on that day, he didn’t just hit me. If he’d done that, the matter would have passed without tears. But he also spat on the memory of my mother, so I sat crying on the front stoop. The sun was scorching hot, and there was no shade by the door. As for going inside, it was forbidden, so long as the executioner was behind its walls. I thought about the archway outside, and how a person could enjoy the shade of its stone roof until the face of the sun started to blush and turn away. Perhaps whoever had built these lanes had considered the scorching Iraqi sun, and so had endowed the alleys with a few archways. 

But I had no luck when I went there, since there were some nasty boys playing with marbles, and if anyone got too close, they would bash his head in. Just then I saw a little boy holding a bird trap in one hand, and walking, like any weak creature, close to the wall. He passed by the archway very carefully, so he wouldn’t disturb their game. I knew him well—he was a little orphan who lived in the back alley, in a house that looked like a ruin, with his mother and his blind grandmother. I followed him at the same pace, even after he left the neighborhood and headed toward the Gardens of the Djinn. 

There were only about six hundred meters between the Al-Mayassa neighborhood, where we lived, and the Gardens of the Djinn. But none of us dared go there, because if a person did, he would burn, or at the very least lose his mind. The old men of the neighborhood told tales of how five children, more or less, had been possessed by djinn when they set foot in the gardens, while three others were burned to a crisp, their bodies charred. It was rare to find a child who dared to go near the fence, which was made of stone and amulets. 

In the past, it hadn’t been like that. It had just been an abandoned orchard that had no heir, scattered with withered mulberry trees. People passed right by it without fear of suspicion, and without any kind of fatwa to legalize their passage. But an accident turned this into a forbidden place, giving it the name it has now. It happened when one of the farmers buried his little daughter alive, under a mulberry tree, after discovering that she was a bastard. According to gossip, she had come into existence through an illicit relationship between an unfaithful wife and a horse groomer who worked for one of the rich livestock dealers and, when they were exposed, the couple fled. The scandal then flew around, prompting the jealous old goat to kill the poor girl, his departure covered in shame. 

It wasn’t long before people were surprised to hear sounds like those of a child crying coming from the orchard at night. And because this was a strange event, such that Mosul had not seen before, people’s interpretations of it differed. Indeed, the city was divided in two. One group claimed that a curse had befallen the orchard because of this bastard child, who polluted its soil. The other group claimed it was a sign from God—evidence of the girl’s purity and the innocence of her runaway mother. The two groups continued their interpretive battle, and curses rose up and insults flew until in the end, as was the custom with every petty disagreement, the imam of the Khatoon Mosque came, and extinguished the spark of war that all parties had predicted would be a fierce one. The imam gathered the people and ascended the minbar to issue a ruling: “The matter is not related to the burial of the girl, you careless lot, but to the djinn. A tribe of blue djinn took advantage of your thoughtless indulgence in lust and vice, settling in the orchard and making the sounds you now hear in the dead of night. There is no solution but to come together and confront the danger that threatens the city.”

When he had finished his sermon, he ordered them to get their shovels and follow him, so they could build up a fence of stone and mudbrick around the orchard. Once the wall was in place, they tucked some amulets beneath it, and he issued a fatwa prohibiting entry, in order to preserve the safety of the country and its people.

I saw the boy slip into the orchard through a secret hole made by dogs and foxes. I was afraid, but this boldness—in a boy just as skinny and insignificant as me—pushed me to get over my fear and step inside. I was surprised by the sight of vast, green orchards, filled with a scattering of mulberry, pistachio, and olive trees. A canal cut through the middle, and ducks swam in it. On its banks were ants and colorful ladybugs.

Sparrows nested among the branches, and crows hopped here and there in excessive peace, gathering their livelihood from the fallen, unpicked fruit. The grass was dense and shiny, and at the middle stood a very large, very lush mulberry tree. In front of it stood a small hillock, and narcissus grew all around it. The boy turned to me and smiled.  

“Come on, don’t be afraid,” he said, waving a hand at me.

I followed him to the canal and asked, quietly, “Aren’t there any djinn?”

“What djinn? Grownups are liars.”

I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand and sat under the shade of the mulberry tree, staring in fascination at the fate of these strange Gardens of the Djinn, wondering: Is the reason for all this beauty the djinn who live in the orchards, or is it the remains of an innocent girl who fertilized the earth and brought forth its goodness? As for the skinny boy, he was busy setting his bird trap of two iron brackets on a small plank. It seemed like he often came here to catch birds.

He set out his trap and covered it with a little earth and leaves, and then took some grains of rice from his pockets and scattered them quietly over it all. After that, we got behind some trees and watched the birds, wondering which one would have a shortened life!

I asked him, in a whisper, about who had told him that there weren’t any djinn in the gardens and that the people had lied. 

“My grandmother,” he said.

“Isn’t she blind?!”

“Yes, she’s blind, but she cooks for us, and spins wool, and knows the difference between what’s true and what’s false. They lie—there are no djinn here.”

“But… how can a blind person tell the difference between what’s true and what’s a lie?”

“By the smell.”


“People who tell lies stink. But forget her now—pay attention.”

A sparrow was hovering around the trap. It was only moments before he was making a fuss, causing a commotion among his colleagues in the branches above. The boy ran toward him, released him from the iron brackets, and tied his leg with a string before putting the iron brackets back in place. He repeated this several more times until his rosary of birds was complete. He would then carry them, flying toward the bar. 

“That’s enough. Let’s go,” he said, shaking his loot in the air.

The sight of these little birds, headed for the bellies of drunkards in the bar, pained me, and I was about to object. But then, as we were getting ready to leave, we heard the sound of heavy feet moving through the grass behind us, and we ran. 


Azher Jirjees  is an Iraqi writer and novelist, born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1973. From 2003 onwards, he worked as a journalist in Iraq and published a number of articles and stories in local and Arab newspapers and periodicals. In 2005, he wrote a satirical book about terrorist militias entitled Terrorism…Earthly Hell. As a result of this book, there was an assassination attempt against him and he was forced to flee the country. He went to Syria, then Casablanca and finally to Norway, where he now lives permanently. His published works include two short story collections, Above the Country of Blackness (2015) and The Sweetmaker (2017). His first novel, Sleeping in the Cherry Field (2019), was longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and is forthcoming in English translation by Banipal Books. The Stone of Happiness (2022) is his second novel. He works as a literary editor and translator between Arabic and Norwegian. 

M Lynx Qualey is the founding editor of ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly.


Also read: An Excerpt of ‘Sleeping in the Cherry Field’

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