Ghada Alatrash’s translation of Fadi Azzam’s Huddud’s House — long listed for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction — is forthcoming from Interlink Books. We share this excerpt of the novel, which follows a Dr Annis as he returns from London to Syria in 2011, just before the revolution, to mark the 12th anniversary of this struggle for freedom.
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From Huddud’s House
By Fadi Azzam
Translated by Ghada Alatrash
Artwork by Yaser Safi
The Guard of the Booth
The house turned into a beehive, its doors wide open to youth, activists, and intellectuals. Dialogue sessions were held in it to keep abreast of the events in Egypt, Tunis and Libya; and with the start of March, the relationship between Anis and Samia was at its peak.
Upon Sami’s arrival, the father and son found themselves standing together face to face with the astonishing discovery of their roots. . . They[i] journeyed through Damascus, revisiting the streets that Anees had once walked when he was in school and university. Sami was happy to see his father in high spirits, filled with pride and nostalgia.
. . . Sami was not only discovering the city and its wonders, he was also discovering a spirit in his father that he would’ve never imagined him to have.
As they passed the Citadel of Damascus, nearby Souq Al-Hamidiyyah, the noon calls to prayer resounded in a dome of melodious and intertwined sounds. The clamour of a crowded city, clouded with fatigue, faded away as heartfelt calls to prayers were heard. They entered the small Mosque of Abi al-Dardaa that was built into a wall and lit with bright green lights. They prayed together and left the place, their hearts filled with their indescribable feelings. As they continued lightly on their walk, it was as if they were following the rustle of their wandering souls in the bustling city.
The son’s insatiable curiosity devoured the city, and the father’s overflowing joy unsparingly opened its doors one after another. In Al-Buzuriyah Souq, fragrant with its delicious aromas of spices that invade the senses, Sami said to his father in English, “Now I know why you’re stuck here. Thank you for inviting me. Had I not come, it would have been impossible to understand you.”
. . . At Huddud’s House, Sami attended several information sessions . . . In the third session, a recorded lecture was presented on the ancient gods of Damascus, with an emphasis on the God of thunderbolts and rain, Huddud or Adad, the protector of Damascus. Dr. Raymond explained that Damascus was the oldest capital and oldest inhabited city in the world, and that it is mentioned in most of the manuscripts of the ancient civilizations, including Egyptian ones that date back to the fifteenth century BC as well as Aramaic, Assyrian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Phoenician documents, among others.
Huddud’s House was shaking off the dust of history and regaining its soul. Its walls looked younger and its rooms warmer. Camera crews flocked in and documented its details and almost brought it to speak.
During this same time, in Daraa, a city not too far from the house, four children were playing, the oldest of whom was no more than sixteen years old. They bought red spray paint and, passing time, they sprayed several phrases on walls in the street. They felt a desire to be mischievous and leave an impression while expressing their confused emotions. They drew red hearts and sprayed their names and their initials in the spirit of naughtiness and childishness.
In a fleeting moment, in the midst of the absurdity and foolishness of teenagehood, one of them sprayed an unmeaning phrase in poor handwriting on a wall that was filled with scribbles, “It’s your turn, doctor.”
Once the paint ran out, one of the four would-be rebels used a piece of metal to etch another phrase he had heard on television as news poured in from Tunisia and Egypt, “The people want to bring down the regime.” The same boy would come to admit later that, when he wrote the phrase, he did not understand its meaning. Along with his friend, he was basically filling his time with small jobs or wandering aimlessly in the streets after having dropped out of school.
Many people passed by the two phrases for several days without paying any attention to them, until that ominous day when another group of children who had nothing to do with the spray-paint came to play in front of a military parking lot near a guard’s booth.
The bored guard, for whom time passed slowly with heaviness, sat as lifeless as a leper. As he tried to find ways to outsmart the slow and cold passing of time during his shift, he placed a tea kettle on an electrical heater and read the prior week’s Al-Baath Newspaper. He then became drowsy and fell asleep but was startled awake in horror when the children’s soccer ball hit his booth. Enraged, he picked up the ball, grabbed a knife that he usually used to open food cans, slit a hole through the precious ball, and threw it at the children threatening them, “This time, I’ve flattened your ball. Next time, I will skin every one of you who kicks it here.”
Angry at the perforated ball, the children retreated. They lit a bonfire in a nearby barren field, cursing guards and booths. When their burst of anger subsided, and they were about to leave, one of the children carried one of the remaining embers in a tin can and went towards the haughty guard who was pleased, not for having caused fear in the hearts of the children, but for breaking the monotony of his day, and had decided to reward himself with a tenth cup of tea.
The child threw the burning embers at the booth and ran away. One of the embers landed directly on the guard’s hands and burnt it. The guard took a few steps back in panic, tipping his tea kettle and spilling it on his heater, which caused it to short circuit as his newspaper burst into flames. Trying to extinguish the fire by kicking the heater out of the booth, it fell back on him and his pants caught on fire. Terrified, he ran out and tried to save himself, his rifle empty of bullets. He managed to put out the fire on his pants but stood helpless as he watched his booth in flames, his hands and feet burned, and his eyebrows singed off. In utter shock, the children realized what they had done and ran away as quickly as they could, the heels of their feet touching their bottoms.
The guard called his immediate supervisor who came rushing along with a Mukhabarat patrol. A swaggering officer appeared, and after a brief interrogation, he ordered that the guard be taken away, not to a hospital, but to a prison, and commanded that his hair be shaved as a preliminary punishment prior to medical treatment.
The supervisor lit a cigarette and contemplated the burnt booth. He turned to the wall of school that was sprayed with the names of ten scribblers, and he caught glimpse of the phrase that had been sprayed in that moment of recklessness and laughter, “It’s your turn, doctor.”
In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, the supervisor examined the rest of the scribbles and put the pieces of this conspiracy together, concluding, with his genius, that those who wrote the phrases must’ve been the same children who burnt the booth. He then quickly summoned the principal of the school and demanded, “I want a list of names for every son of a bitch whose name is written on the wall.”
Within a few hours, the principal assembled his staff of teachers, administrators, and janitors and they prepared an inventory of all the names written on the walls. The list was then sent to the Mukhabarat who mobilized all its members to roam the city with their cars, raiding homes to arrest children!
The irony was that some of the names had been written years ago by students who were now in their twenties; but it didn’t matter, all were arrested and taken to detention.
In a matter of days, prison cells were filled with dozens of children. A torture party was prepared for them and gradually only about twenty children between the ages of twelve and sixteen remained detained.
One of the Baathist fathers who provided services for the security forces for years extracted confessions from his own son who had not even been included in the initial list of detainees. When he found out that his son was indeed one of the players in the ball game next to the guard’s booth, he handed him over to security forces and told them, “Teach him a lesson so that he never does this again.”
The security branch was steeped in corruption, often harvesting profits from Customs Enforcement and deceitfully confiscating lands, stripping more than a thousand framers of their properties, all at undervalued prices. To divert attention from his corruption and appear loyal to the regime, the branch manager submitted a false report claiming the existence of organized networks that were working to stir discord, and that he had crushed the conspiracy by catching the first of its groups. He turned the children over to the Sweida Branch, who upon reading the accompanying report deemed the matter to be far beyond their authority and transferred the children to the main branch in Damascus.
While all of this was going on, a group of youth civilian activists who belonged to what remained of leftist parties were following the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen on the internet. They wanted to take to the streets and bring down the corrupt governor of their province, with the ultimate goal of being able to participate politically.
Some of these youths were partisan, and some were simply enthusiastic activists. Most never wanted to overthrow the regime but simply to assert their presence. Their numbers did not exceed one hundred and fifty, and since most had their eyes glued to the internet, most were not aware of the children’s arrest.
In Stockholm, Sweden, there was a young man in his twenties who was born outside of Syria to a father who was part of the Muslim Brotherhood and a mother who had no power but to obey the father’s orders. In his cold room, the young man tried to create a unifying webpage similar to the Egyptian page “We are Khaled Saeed” which had served as a compass for people in Cairo.
The first headline that he posted, which resulted in a lot of noise but little action, was titled, “The Syrian revolution against the Ba’ath Party,” and called for demonstrations. He then changed the name of the webpage to “The Syrian revolution against Alawites,” but this was met with a lot of disgust and dismay at its sectarian implications and no one took to the streets. Attempting to then find a more appropriate name, he tried a phrase that seemed very naïve but found greater acceptance particularly within Islamic groups who had been exiled from the country for decades, “The revolution against Bashar Al-Assad,” and called for demonstrations on March 15, 2011. Dozens of youths responded to it and this resulted in the second documented demonstration in Damascus, with other undocumented demonstrations to follow in Banyas, Douma, and Homs. All of the demonstrations were spontaneous and chaotic and had no central organization. They were simply acts of light defiance and attempts to feel out the pulse of the beast.
On that historic Tuesday, March 15, 2011, the youth in Daraa were not able to gather. Their written banners remained hidden under layers of clothes as throngs of security officers greatly outnumbered them and made it impossible for them to gather in any public space, including universities, schools or public squares. The one place where they could gather, however, was the mosque at the Friday prayer. Most of the young men were not mosque-goers, although they were brought up in Muslim environments and understood its rituals and sacred meanings. And so, they divided into groups and dispersed across three large mosques. Security forces suspected that something was brewing.
Meanwhile, families of the detained children were desperately looking for answers, but only received a shockingly callous response from a security branch officer: “Forget about your children. Go and make other children.” Indeed, a rumor circulated that this same response came from the actual head of the political security branch who happened to be the maternal cousin of the President, known for his short fuse and stupidity.
At Hamza bin Al-Abbas Mosque, worshippers lined up in rows, including young men dreaming of a demonstration, relatives of the detained children who were hearing horror stories about their children being tortured, the helpless poor whose lands were stolen, and a crowd of worshipers who believed in the slogan, “A just ruler is better than plentiful rain.”
Adhering to the guidelines he had received from the political security branch, the Imam finished his Friday sermon. As he made his concluding remarks, the worshipers dispersed and began to leave the mosque. Just then, one of the men dared to raise his voice and shouted, “Allahu Akbar. Freedom.”
The outcry caused the bulk of those present to rush out in terror, while others slowed their footsteps, gathering exceptional courage to overcome a fifty-year legacy of oppression and fear, and echo the contagious chants.
The outcry was enough to liberate and spread the voices of the people. Shoulder to shoulder, they departed together, bewildered in a space that had become unintentionally theirs.
They emerged feeling the pulse of the day, becoming braver with every step. Young men were excited to voice more chants, and one of them shouted, “The people want to bring down the governor. We want our children out of prisons. God, Syria, Freedom, only.” It was an uprising against a fifty-year legacy of accumulated injustice and pain. The crowds walked along in the face of the astonished and retreating security men and were joined by demonstrators from other mosques. People lined up on both sides of the streets watching and documenting how a spark had been ignited and spread slowly in confrontation of tyranny, corruption, anger, and arrogance. It was a moment in which time and place exploded simultaneously.
In the governor’s office, a security committee made up of Baathists and heads of Mukhabarat branches was summoned for an urgent meeting, only to find themselves unable to come up with any containment plan except for one that they (and others like them) had mastered throughout history. The plan was to crush, with an iron fist, all rebels who dared to stand up against them. Instead of thinking things through calmly, their hatred poured like tanks of gasoline on a spark of fire. All it would have actually taken to extinguish the fire was a water bucket of understanding and respect.
In the streets, fear was mixed with courage, and oppression was mixed with the air of change. The fact was that the subsequent downpour of hateful bullets never would have succeeded in forcing people back into the swamps in which they were living. And so it happened that the first martyr fell and ushered in a new era for the country and its people: it was the beginning of a bloodbath.
Inside Huddud’s House, a group of those who had witnessed the first days of the revolution sought refuge. Samia brought them to hide them away from the eyes of security. They narrated what had taken place to Sami and Anees, and relayed the news about the army’s siege of the city, a city that had declared its anger.
[i] The details narrated above are based on stories as told by Syrians who lived the events in Syria.
You can also read another excerpt from the novel on ArabLit.
Fadi Azzam is a Syrian novelist and writer, and is the author of Sarmada (2011), longlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as Huddud’s House (2017), longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. He was the Culture and Arts Correspondent for Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. His opinion columns have appeared in the NY Times and a number of newspapers across the Middle East and Arab Gulf. His piece, “If you are Syrian these days” was recently published in Gutter magazine.
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 her PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree is in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.
Yaser Safi lives and works in Berlin. He studied Fine Arts at the University of Damascus. He later taught in the Engraving Department of the College of Damascus before becoming a lecturer at the Adham Ismail Institute of Printmaking and a supervisor on Graphic arts at the Sharjah Institute of Art in the United Arab Emirates. His painterly, graphic and sculptural work has been shown internationally in solo and group exhibitions, including Damascus, Beirut, Qairo, Dubai, New York, Paris and Berlin