Short Fiction in Translation: Mahdi Issa al-Saqr’s ‘The Return’

Mahdi Issa al-Saqr (1927-2006) was born in Basra and published his first short-story collection, مجرمون طيبون  (Criminals with Kind Hearts) in 1954. That same year, he and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab founded Modern Art Group, which published new Iraqi writing. Al-Saqr brought out a second collection in 1960, after which he stopped writing. He started again in the 1970s, becoming one of the most widely acclaimed Iraqi writers, continuing to publish up until his death in 2006. His 1998 novel رياح شرقية رياح غربية  was translated into English as East Winds, West Winds by Paul Starkey and published by AUC Press in 2010.

This story, written in 1994, appeared in al-Saqr’s 2000 collection, شتاء بلا مطر, (Winter Without Rain).

The Return

By Mahdi Issa al-Saqr

Translated by Hend Saeed

Mahdi Issa al-Saqr

He sat and stared, dazed, unable to grasp the reality of her sudden departure. The Quran reciter’s voice stretched inside the speakers and then flowed into the surrounding space, buzzing in his ears and suppressing the low intermittent hum of those who came to console him.

They sat in his garden, showing their respect. He stared absently at their shiny shoes as they settled in different positions, on the grass and between the chairs’ metal legs.

He had known such a day would come, inevitably. There was no running away from it. It was either she would leave first, or he would, but he hadn’t known that separation would be so painful.

Once, while they were drinking tea, she told him, “I can’t grasp the idea that, when a man leaves this earth, he never comes back, ever again.”

“No one,” he said, “and nothing leaves this earth as long as it stands here. Creatures keep going in circles, and that’s why they come back again and again. All they change is their shapes.”

She felt a little relieved, and asked, “Do you mean that I’d come back again, if l left?” And she waited anxiously for his answer.

“You’ll come back. We all will, but maybe in the shape of a tree throwing its shade on the ground, or a bird flying cheerily in the sky.”

She seemed pleased with his answer and said, “I’ll come back as a bird hovering around the house, and I’ll settle in one of the trees in the garden.  No, no, let me think. I don’t want anything to stand between you and me, so I’ll come back as a cat that be with you wherever you go, and who rubs her fur against your legs when you read or are staring at nothing.”

He laughed. “May your life be longer than mine.”

“Father.” His eldest son, who was sitting beside him, touched his arm and brought him back from his thoughts. He stood up, grasped the hand that was stretched out in front of him, and shook it. It was one of the people who had come to console him, and he murmured something before he sat back down on his chair.

Many faces went by him that day; he couldn’t focus on any of them. Some came along when he went to bury her. There, it got dark, and a young boy brought a lantern that lit the silent faces who were standing around the hole, waiting, while the gravedigger worked hard to deepen the black hole in the ground.

One of these grieving faces split from them. Then he heard a sound: threads of water pouring down in the darkness behind him. He was annoyed by this jarring sound, which interrupted the silence of the sleepers, but he didn’t turn toward it. After a while, the face came back and joined the silent waiting faces.

While they were throwing the wet black dirt on her body, the city lights shone from afar and the cars’ headlights penetrated the night in pairs on their way to the city; one after the other, like ghosts bearing torches, they entered the city streets that were full of life.

That was how she changed from a warm human who brought happiness to his life to just a beautiful memory. As for the others, her departure was a social event; in few minutes, they would leave the majlis and go on their own way.

He wished that they hadn’t come; this act of continuous standing and sitting exhausted him and pained his legs. But he had to follow tradition, so that he wouldn’t be accused of being unfaithful to her memory.

They say that such traditions keep the stricken person busy so that he can forget his sorrow. But nothing can make him forget the agony of losing her. There is an emptiness, like a deep hollow inside his soul, and a boundless loneliness.

They lived together for long years, until they shared the same thoughts, at the same time. There was no need for words between them; a glance at each other was enough.

“Don’t be sad, we’re all on the same road.”

He stood up and shook the hand that was stretched out in front of him. There was a truth in the man’s words, no one could deny it, but facts of life were painful and cold—incompatible with the soft fragility of easily seared human feelings.

He heard some of the soft chatter that was going on in the majlis all around him. They were talking about the latest news, and some were making deals. Life didn’t stop when one person left, even if that person was so beloved. He felt bitter.

Oh God, how tired he was, how lost. His son noticed how defeated he looked, and he stopped asking him to stand and welcome the attendees or say farewell, and he left him with his wandering mind.

He apologized on behalf of his father, telling people that his father is suffering from his heart condition. His son didn’t lie; his heart truly was suffering.

He kept staring, staring in front of him, unable to believe that she was gone. To grasp the reality of her not being here.

At that moment, he saw her walk in. He hadn’t seen her in the neighborhood before—a small white cat walking confidently through the green grass.

She walked between the chair’s legs and then the men’s. His face lightened; he watched her as she approached. When she walked under his chair, his heart began to leap. She sat calmly on the grass. Moments later, he felt her rub her whole body against his legs.

He smiled, bent down, picked her up, and stood.

He ignored the astonished eyes all around him; he also ignored the worried eyes of his son.  He turned his back on them and walked inside the house, holding her in his arms.

Mahdi Issa al-Saqr was born in Basra. He achieved writing success young with a collection published in 1954 and another in 1960, after which he focused on his work as a translator with the Basra Petroleum Company and later as personnel superintendent of the Marine Transportation Establishment. He resigned in 1980 to devote himself exclusively to writing. In addition to several collections of short stories, he is the author of seven novels in Arabic, two of which remain unpublished. He died in Baghdad in 2006.

Hend Saeed is an author and translator and the Iraq editor at ArabLit. Find more of her work at