By Daisy al-Amir
Translated by Hend Saeed
Translator’s note: “The Tale of the Oil Jug” comes from Daisy Al Amir’s collection The Country that She Loved. Reading the story, we can’t help but think of her 1996 article on the great poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, “What did he give and what did he take?” published in Abda’a magazine, in which she recalls her time at the Higher Teacher Training college of Baghdad, where al-Sayyab was a fellow student. We can imagine from the pain and the continuous, failed one-sided love stories that al-Sayyab was the Love Poet.
The young Sadoon came running with a smile on his lips, his cheeks, and his eyes. He looked at me eagerly, waiting for his daily share of dirhams.
“Do you want me to tell you the story of the oil jug?”
“Either you ask me for the story or you don’t. Shall I tell you the story of the oil jug?”
“Yes, please. Tell it.”
“Either you asked me to tell it, or you didn’t. Shall I tell you the story of the oil jug?”
“As you wish,” he replied submissively. “Either you said ‘as you wish’ or you didn’t. Shall I tell you the story of the oil jug?’
The young Sadoon looked perplexed and shot me an accusatory look as he opened his mouth, then closed it, then put his index over his lips as a sign that he wouldn’t speak further, staring at me in silence.
“Either you kept silent or you didn’t. Shall I tell you the story of the oil jug?”
When he got tired of my answers, he laughed to cover his uneasiness. But with no mercy for this young boy’s weakness, I asked again.
“Either you laughed or you didn’t. Shall I tell you the story of the oil jug?”
Sadoon gaped at me blankly, and I stared back with a feeling of victory. Then I saw his eyes were full of tears. The young Sadoon, son of our watchman Saeed, failed to keep up with me in wordplay. And I, the daughter of this big house, let myself enjoy a victory over this poor child.
I was so ashamed I felt like slapping my face, so I hugged the young boy. He startled and gave a loud sob. Now that I’d let go of the reins, he felt he was allowed to express his feelings.
At that point, I was ready to give Sadoon whatever I could, just to see him laughing again. To see him as happy as he’d been before I started. After all, I was the mature girl, the college student who had used his innocence and weakness to show off.
How could I do that, using his ignorance of these Lebanese stories to show off what I’d learned while traveling to Lebanon? It was wordplay that every Lebanese child knew. He was a clever boy and no less knowledgeable than any Lebanese child who knew the story; but because he hadn’t visited Lebanon, he didn’t know it.
Sadoon stopped crying. He had good heart and he forgot cruelty quickly. I opened my purse and gave him double what I usually did. The smile came back to his face but didn’t reach his cheeks and eyes. The tears filled his eyes and ran down his cheeks.
I walked away to run from his gaze, but his image stayed with me all the way to the university. I wished I could shake off my guilt. I was ready to pour out my bag—my whole wardrobe—and give it to others, if that would clear my conscience, and I was ready to be nice, to give a compliment to everyone, if that would ease the heavy burden on my shoulders, from the hurt I caused Sadoon.
I came close to the large gate of the university and saw the students walking in the courtyard. I wished I was one of those who hadn’t hurt Sadoon. I walked by the gardener, quickly I greeted him with a “good morning” before he could greet me, as he usually did. He replied with a smile, and I stopped to admire his garden and flowers while I wondered: Would that satisfy Sadoon?
I continued walking, and Sadoon’s tear-filled eyes kept appearing in front of me wherever I turned.
I took the stairs and, beside the window that overlooked the large courtyard, my friend Sameera was shouting at Karim as he tried to calm her down. But she didn’t want to listen or calm down or understand.
I continued up the stairs, thinking about Sameera and Karim. Sameera had done it at last! She had been getting letters from Karim, telling her about his love and his yearnings. Asking her to look at him while he waited for her at the entrance to the library, to accept his letters without anger, and not to glare at him when he followed her down the university hallways.
He asked only for her to let him continue to love her, but she was the daughter of an old rich family, and how would she let this unknown boy—someone whose family name no one had ever heard, and who was ashamed to talk about his father’s job—continue to follow her so boldly?
She had asked our opinion about these letters and got us to read them, both to show us how much boys liked her and also to prove that she was conservative girl and would not let men chase her. She asked our advice; should she take the matter to the assistant dean of student affairs to stop him? Of course, we all agreed with her wise opinion and good thinking, announcing our agreement in loud voices to prove that we, too, were conservative.
And today, when I saw Sameera scolding Karim and him begging her to listen while she didn’t, instead crying and shouting so others could hear her, I knew she had carried out her threat.
Today, I felt sorry, I felt pain for Karim. Was he to blame if he loved a girl from a rich, old family with deep roots while his family was unknown and poor?
The image of me torturing Sadoon came back to me. Should I interfere between Sameera and Karim and tell her off in front of him? Would that help Karim? What good would it do if I told him that I saw Sameera humiliate him? I would only add insult to injury with my interference.
Was I really in pain because of Karim? Or did I want to ease my guilt toward Sadoon by trying to make everyone happy? Did I feel sorry for Karim because Sadoon’s silent accusation had raised things from my subconscious that I had suffocated to keep up outside appearances?
I decided not to interfere between Sameera and Karim. I walked away, heading into the lecture hall and taking my usual seat in the first row. As usual, our professor entered, leaning on his secretary’s arm, as he was blind. I knew he was blind and I had been seeing him for the last three years. So why did it hurt me today?
His secretary looked as though he had surrendered to his fate unhappily. This poor man had to read what the professor wanted to hear and to repeat whichever sentences he wanted him to speak. He also had to go the events to which the professor was invited. I imagined the professor at an event, sitting on a chair for guests, and the secretary stepping away after making sure he had settled comfortably. Then the secretary would sit in the corner, waiting until the event was finished to continue his boring daily tasks.
It could be that the secretary had ambition and dignity and didn’t want to be the eyes of another or to record what others wanted him to write and not what he wanted.
I felt sorry for both of them. At the end of the hour-long lecture, the only notes I had on my notebook are an image of jug and eyes filled with tears.
I left the lecture hall, and we walked to the student lounge for women while the other girls told me about the new crush of the Love Poet, as we had called one of our class poets, who flirted with most of the girls in the university.
Every now and then, he imaged himself falling in new real love. But after few days or weeks, or sometimes maybe a month, he’d discovers that he was falling for someone else. He used to say that he was in a state of perpetual love. There was no difference for him if the love was new, old, or a repeat.
Discovering the identity of his new lover was fun for us as we witnessed the cleverness of the girl as she found out, sometimes because she’d received the news from a male colleague. Usually, she wouldn’t admit it, afraid for us to know her connection to that young man, knowing she would be the new love story that we spiced up with our imaginations.
The beloved of the Love Poet usually denied the accusation, trying to rid herself of this connection.
Or that’s how we understood the Love Poet and his many loves, until today, when Wa’aeda told me about Azza, for whom he had written a poem.
Azza went to the poet while he was with his friends and asked him to recite the poem. The poor man couldn’t believe his ears and was confused and went red in the face. He thought it was a joke his friends were playing on him, but Azza confirmed that she wanted to hear the poem written for her.
After she heard the poem, she patted his shoulder with a pale, elegant hand and asked him to read her every poem he wrote. Now the Love Poet was really in love, and it was the big event of the day—the month, even. The Love Poet had fallen into a real love.
This sentence went around the university hallways, and I heard it today from Wa’aeda, who laughed about it, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in a mood for laughter.
Before, I’d enjoyed hearing new stories the poet, but today I felt he would get hurt if he had a real, deep love—since at the same time, I knew Azza and her dignity. She didn’t care about the poet, she only wanted to have fun.
Should I ask her to stop messing around with people’s hearts? What would she think about me? She would say that I was jealous of her. But the poet—the poor poet who I knew suffered even when he fell in casual love. What if he was in a real love!
Sometimes, when he’d recite a few of his poems at university events, he would cry. How was he going to recite his poems when he was so deeply in love?
While thinking about this, the image of Sadoon’s young tear-filled eyes came back to me. I don’t want anyone to cry. I would stop the Love Poet’s crying.
I would ask Azza to tell him that she didn’t love him, or I would tell him about Azza—but maybe a long-term real love would deepen his poetry and refine his uncertain soul. I thought maybe real tears would make him produce better poetry and hoped the young Sadoon would forgive me for not stopping the flow of his tears.
I walked into the girls’ lounge, which was crowded and noisy. I threw myself down on a chair, watching the others as they came and went between the basins and the mirrors. Each stood combing their hair and tidying their clothes and looking at themselves; some admiring themselves and some gazing at their reflections in despair.
I don’t know why my thoughts went to the Coca Cola bottling factory that we’d visited with our professor. The bottles were lined up one after the other in a long row, and the row moved and moved the bottles with it. Then it stopped for a few seconds, enough to sterilize the bottle in one moment and to fill it in the second, and then to close the cap in the third. These bottles were under control: they couldn’t run from their places or change the system of sterilization, filling, and closing. I saw the girls as if they were the Coca Cola bottles, one entering through the door, dropping her books on the table in the middle of the room, going to the washbasin then the mirror, putting on makeup and tidying herself and going back out through the same door she’d entered.
I smiled while I was watching the bottles in front of me coming and going. For a while, I forgot the tears of young Sadoon, but then I heard the word oil, and it was the bell that woke me up. I sat straight up, turning my head around, trying to pinpoint where the word had come from. I heard a student next to me telling her friend about the effect of oil on her hair and how it became soft and shiny, reeling off the benefits of the oil. I touched my hair and found it dry. I made a promise to Sadoon that I wouldn’t use oil to make it better, even it was becoming as dry as wood.
I was still feeling the dryness of my hair when I got to class. A new student from Algeria came up to me and asked about a word in English. He was good in Arabic and French, but English was a new language for him. I told him what it meant, and I saw him writing it down while bringing the notebook close to his eyes even though he was wearing glasses.
I thought maybe his glasses were no longer good for him, but he couldn’t afford to update them. I thought of offering to write the word in his notebooks, but I stopped immediately.
What? Did I want to hurt another person? Wasn’t what I’d done to Sadoon enough? Did I want to tell my new colleague that I knew about the weakness of his eyes and his useless glasses and how he couldn’t afford to change them? I wished I could do a good deed today—something that didn’t harm anyone.
Later, while working at a school, I remembered that day. I was reading the news about Saeed’s promotion to a general manager. Saeed is the son of our watchman, Saeed, and he is Sadoon’s older brother. The news was published in a newspaper owned and edited by Karim, who once loved Sameera, who considered his love for her a humiliation.
Karim became the owner of the most popular newspaper and was able to change people’s lives with a word: to raise their profile or ruin it. As for Sameera who he loved, and to whom he wrote in one of his letters, “Don’t ask me why I loved you, love for me is like dying or like being born; it’s from God. It’s fate; we don’t know when and how it gets to us.” Sameera married a rich man after she graduated from university and he died; rather, he was killed in the savage events that happened in his city.
Speaking of Sameera and Karim leads us to the others of that day—the day that I can’t forget. The day I made Sadoon cry. As for the Love Poet, he became a political poet after Azza married the university dean. He decided to enter the political scene to change the social situation and to erase the distinctions between social classes. At last, it seems that he found his calling. Today, he is one of the most famous political poets and married to the only woman who loved him, and who he couldn’t love back.
The blind professor is teaching at the university and has gone through a number of assistants after his secretary left him and went to the States on a scholarship to study acting. I read recently that he had achieved success in the theater in New York.
Our Algerian colleague went back to his country after graduation and participated in the struggle, but he was killed a few weeks before the declaration of independence.
As for the others, I haven’t heard about them. I don’t know even know about Sadoon, but I’m sure he’s no longer crying.
Daisy Al-Amir was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1935 to an Iraqi father and a Lebanese mother and moved to Iraq when she was a few weeks old. After studying at the Teachers’ Training College of Baghdad, al-Amir went to Cambridge write her thesis on Arabic Literature. After that, she lived in Beirut, returning to Iraq in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. She authored a number of short-story collections; one collection of her work has been translated to English, The Waiting List, tr. Barbara McKean Parmenter.
Hend Saeed is an author and translator and the Iraq editor at ArabLit.