This excerpt of Shalash the Iraqi appears with permission from And Other Stories. It is (probably) fiction.
Translated by Luke Leafgren
Umm Da’bul was a bit taken aback when she discovered one day that her youngest, a child of ten, was peeing oil. Her surprise increased when she discovered that the boy could pee quantities large enough to meet their daily fuel needs, and with a fair surplus even still. She kept the matter quiet at first, especially since it’s winter now, and we’re suffering from an oil shortage even worse than all the previous ones we’ve suffered through. In any case, whenever Umm Da’bul needed to light her oven or get the heater started, she would call out, “Da’bul, my son, come here!” And little Da’bul would stand in front of the oven or the heater, and he would begin the process of dribbling systematically into the appropriate receptacles until the fire blazed high.
But Nuwayra, wife of Ghurab, discovered what was going on when she saw the boy peeing on a small garbage fire at the end of the street. Da’bul was laughing with delight as he made the flames shoot up. Nuwayra began her work of prying into this strange phenomenon, particularly since she had just the kind of personality that happened to take particular interest in observing and recording precisely this sort of fascinating anomaly. In the end, Nuwayra obtained a sample of Da’bul’s urine and brought it home to her cutting-edge laboratory, where she arrived at an explanation: “Oil!”
The news spread quickly, and soon women were crowded together in front of the house of Umm Da’bul, carrying cans of various sizes. Da’bul found filling their cans to be an entertaining game, one that restored the psychological balance he had lost on account of long neglect by his mother and the rest of his relatives. He began working vivaciously and cheerfully to meet the needs of the block’s residents, who were overjoyed at their access to this miraculous child, the solution to one of their most complicated problems, which even our illustrious Minister of Oil, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloom, hasn’t been able to solve with all the degrees he brought back from London.
Then Khanjar showed up with his black cap and his exploitative mercantile mentality. He offered a mind-boggling sum to Umm Da’bul in exchange for a percentage of the yield of her son’s bladder for a period of ten years, making clear to her the importance of the deal, which was entirely consistent with the ongoing project to privatize essential national resources. Impressed by Khanjar’s boldness and rapacity, Da’bul’s uncles on both his mother’s and his father’s side likewise staked their claims, angling to acquire the lion’s share of the dividends of the future arrangement.
The uncles on the father’s side said, “Seeing as Da’bul is a boy, he necessarily comes from our blessed line. Therefore, his bladder is an inheritance to which our claim has the greatest legitimacy. We’ve seen this before, of course, when our grandfather, Shadhan, went through a period of pissing oil back in the 1920s.”
“At least two-thirds of the boy comes from the mother’s side,” argued the maternal uncles, which is to say that they were claiming two-thirds of the profits.
It wasn’t only a financial disagreement, for the maternal uncles were party members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, which was affiliated with Hakim, while the paternal uncles were in the Sadrist movement. As such,the maternal uncles sought the support of the religious clerkship, which announced that the question, being a wholly political matter, was outside its jurisdiction, always providing that its share of the profits would equal the traditional fifth part. As for the paternal uncles, their backers rejected the notion of any sort of federalist division of the spoils hailing from the boy’s bladder and proclaimed that the proceeds were wholly subject to their authority, given that Da’bul and his bladder fell within their geographical sphere of influence.
At last the principal factions—by which I mean the heads of the primary blocs and coalitions in the National Assembly—had to have a sit-down to hash the question out. They decided that any profits originating in Da’bul’s bladder were legally the property of all the people of Iraq and would be distributed among them equally. A technical commission was formed to draft the Da’bul Law, and they proposed installing a precise little meter on his wee-wee, which would then be put under rigorous, twenty-four-hour protection by the American forces.
But that only made things more complicated, and the rivalries more intense. With the Americans now involved, international corporate interests came in to study the reserves hidden in Da’bul’s bladder, with Halliburton’s report stating, “The quantities discovered reach approximately one hundred and twelve billion barrels. Including the probable reserves, Da’bul holds claim to being the number one producer in the world.”
Da’bul—held captive in the Green Zone in the company of his mother as well as an American woman, acting as his tutor, and then a team of oil experts—threatened to cut off production if he wasn’t set free to go out with his friends to play in the streets of Block 41. When all parties refused to grant this ridiculous and irresponsible demand—since the boy could hardly be expected to administer his bladder on his own—Da’bul made a critical decision. After a few hours of preparation, he began putting his plan into action by loosing the reins on his “tap” and letting a new and refined form of oil gush out. It was believed to be the kind of gas used as airplane fuel. The Green Zone became an inferno, as did the neighboring areas. The fire kept mounting, and all the efforts of the great nations of the world were useless to stop it. So many helicopters filled the skies of Iraq, but they could not put out the fire.
The boy’s mother screamed, “Da’bul! My son! Enough! Enough of this cursed black gold!”
Surrounded by flames, Da’bul, that innocent child, laughed as he sang, “Pee on it, pee on it, let it all burn!”
More about the collection at the And Other Stories website.
The Book’s Preface, Penned by Shalash and translated by Luke Leafgren
“Looking Back from Iraq,” a Shalash-focused episode of BULAQ