Summer Reads: ‘The Limping Couch’

This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This piece, by Iraqi writer Azher Jirjees, originally appeared in the summer 2020 CRIME issue of the magazine in Ranya Abdelrahman’s translation.

By Azher Jirjees

Translated by Ranya Abdelrahman

One day, I discovered I was able to fly. I didn’t have wings, but I could float in the air. I’d been caught—some time before noon that morning—by a policeman responsible for punishing fat boys who ventured out in public. I was fat, and the Obesity Control Police had spread its troops out across the streets like locusts. I tried to get away, but it was no use. The bastard grabbed hold of my hand and was twisting it backwards. I begged him to let me go, and I swore on my father’s soul that I wouldn’t step out of the house again until I’d lost at least 20 pounds. He cursed my father, then set me free. I was furious with him for this cursing of my father, but I held my anger close to my chest to keep his stick away from my backside.

I went home and filled my belly with a plate of rice topped with half a fried rooster and some almonds, peas, and currants. Then I sweetened my mouth with a huge piece of knafeh and finished off with a glass of black tea. Afterwards, I turned on the air cooler in the courtyard and lay down on the limping couch we kept out there. We called it the “limping couch” because it only had three legs and was propped up with a brick. My mother replaced the fourth leg with the brick—which she stood up on its end—when she got tired of frequent trips to the carpenter’s. The leg used to break often because of my habit of lying down on the couch.

I heard a violent knocking on the door and loud shouting outside, so I jumped up in panic to see what was going on. It was the policeman again, cursing my mother because he’d discovered from the feathers in the garbage bag that she’d cooked me a plump rooster. He tried to catch me when I poked my head out the door, but I broke loose and, in a quick, acrobatic move, pulled his stick away from him and took off. In spite of my bulk, I ran like a wild deer fleeing a hungry cheetah, while the policeman fired shots behind me and yelled, “You’re an animal! An animal! Wait up!”

It wasn’t just the Obesity Control Police. Everyone in town constantly challenged my humanity because of my weight. They called me an animal so many times that, for a moment, I thought I’d become one.

I ignored the policeman’s shouts and ran as fast as I could through the flood of bullets pouring out behind me. One of the bullets came so close to my ear that I felt it go by, but it didn’t hit me—I don’t know how it missed! Maybe it was one of those rare strokes of luck. Anyway, I kept on running and dodging bullets right and left and then I jumped. It was an enormous jump, so huge I couldn’t believe it, and it made me feel like I was flying. No, no, I really was flying. Without wings, I soared up high until I was out of firing range and the stream of bullets finally stopped. A passing crow then asked me what I’d stolen from the policeman.

“It’s none of your business,” I said. “Get lost!”

“Oh yeah? I’ll show you fatso,” the crow replied angrily.

I didn’t pay much attention to the crow’s threat. It was a despicable bird, and I’d often seen it stealing the small fish hanging from the clothesline on the roof of our house. My mother would hang out the fish until they were dry and wooden, and then she’d boil them up—in salted water—making a drink she gave us on cold winter days.

I rose up high, teasing the air with the stick, which was still in my hand. The air whooshed obligingly, and I thought it was happy. But a flying eagle cast a greeting as it went by and said, “Take it easy on the air, Sati’.”

I don’t know how it knew my name, but its warning drew my attention to the ball of fire forming behind me. I had burnt the air with that stick of mine, so I stopped what I was doing immediately. I raised the stick and waved it at the fireball, like an orchestra conductor’s baton. I directed it downwards, and it shot away like a flaming asteroid and landed on the policeman’s head, turning him into a charred stump. I started to tease the air again, forming another ball of fire. I danced it around until it grew big enough, then pointed it at the town marketplace. It descended like a meteor and lit up the market and everyone in it. I was pleased with the fiery projectiles I was hurling over the heads of those who’d stolen my humanity, making them scurry helter-skelter like rats.

I heard one of them say, “It’s the wrath of God! It’s the wrath of God!”

Another lamented, “Woe is us! The hour of judgement has come!”

And women wailed, as the flames lapped at their hems, “Oh, oh … we’re doomed.”

All the while, I stood in the air, laughing at the top of my voice and yelling, “Animals!”

At that point, the despicable crow swooped by and snatched the stick from my hand. I fell off the limping couch and woke up.

Azher Jirjees was born in Baghdad and began working as a journalist in 2003. His first novel, Sleeping in the Cherry Field, came out in 2019 and was longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. His second novel, The Stone of Happiness, made the shortlist of the 2023 IPAF.

Ranya Abdelrahman is a translator of Arabic literature into English. After working for more than 16 years in the information technology industry, she changed careers to pursue her passion for books, promoting reading and translation. She has published translations in ArabLit Quarterly and The Common. Her translation of a collection of Samira Azzam’s short stories, Out of Time, appeared with ArabLit Books in 2022.