By Yasmeen Hanoosh
Translated by Levi Thompson
Anas was the man of the house now, so he left school when winter came. He took a job as night watchman at the mural of the President in Saad ibn Abi Waqqas Square at the end of the first semester of the fifth grade. The Party cadre appointed him after receiving direct orders from central command to immediately begin guarding the posters, murals, and billboards of the valiant President from riots and vandalism throughout the southern district. The officer who appointed him to this extremely important mission, which included fighting off the mob, warned him to protect the mural from the schemes of the schemers, the machinations of the machinaters, and the aggression of the aggressors, as the President himself had called them during his solemn address on the television.
At first, the work shift was long and boring, but it wasn’t hard. None of the rabble made it into the square, though his job was to immediately report their appearance to the relevant authorities. In fact, no one had given him any particular descriptions of what they looked like so he could differentiate them from ordinary passersby in the area. None of that was actually necessary because the square was relatively deserted—long sidewalks in whose shade garbage piled up, around which trucks and taxis flew without stopping, no words and no signals. The unemployed, the squatting street vendors, and the day laborers looking for a job no longer occupied their usual places around the trojan victory monument after being led into the battlefield time and again. With that, shoppers stopped passing through the dusty square. More often than not, Anas would find himself alone with the President’s mural, breathing in the odors of feces from stray cats and dogs.
His mother gave him a small radio that his father had left behind when he joined the army so he could distract himself with it during the long hours of darkness. He started spending most of his time switching between stations: popular music, Qur’an recitations, military proclamations, and speeches by the Great Protector, the President of the Nation.
The weeks of winter passed by slow and cold. All throughout, the radio never told him about the bombing campaign on the Highway of Death, the six lanes of which saw legions retreat from Kuwait. But he did hear quite a bit about the “chapter of treason and betrayal,” the mobs, the infiltrators, and the pro-Iran fifth column.
“Schemes of the schemers!
Machinations of the machinaters!
Agitations of the agitators!
May God protect us from their evil.”
He kept himself busy by chatting with the oil painting of the President, whose right hand was raised to bless the people and the country on the square ceramic tiles. He would repeat the words of his famous speeches. Sometimes he would sing them, on others he would chant them out of tune or with obscene gestures. One time, he was bouncing up and down in front of the mural when the first rays of dawn broke on the horizon. He did not hear about the retreat of thousands of defeated soldiers in the southern district or the momentum gathering behind what would later be referred to by some as the “Sha’ban Movement”, yet a new feeling with the flavor of legend loomed despite the repetition of the monotonous scene around him.
A young man in military uniform appeared from afar, approaching him. He wasn’t bothered by his staggering body or his face bleached white under the layers of dirt that had accumulated between streams of sweat. Initially, Anas figured that the soldier was carrying a large bottle of Sunbulah beer in his hand, but he soon realized—as the thing grew with the soldier’s advance—that what he was carrying was an old, worn-out Kalashnikov machine gun. Then, as the young man got nearer to where Anas was, it became clear that the thing was nothing other than a dilapidated Soviet T55s tank, the cannon of which followed under the man’s armpit as he advanced. The young man was muttering rebukes and complaints in anger, directing them at the mural. Anas tried to make out what he was saying but could not. Then, lightning quick, a shell was launched destroying the mural, all traces of Anas’s body, and the stray animals around him.
In a flash, Anas lost track of how he began to recall this tremendous history or from where, exactly, he was observing the events that followed this incident that took him by surprise. He quickly took stock of his changing situation: he was hovering over everything with indescribable lightness since that decisive moment. From this new height, he studied the growing crowd of people, finding among them the children of various tribal networks, the families of young people who had been executed by the ruling authorities, the prisoners of war who had been subjected to torture across the border, the army deserters, the members of suppressed opposition parties, and the ghosts of multitudes of soldiers, a hundred thousand or more hungry, exhausted soldiers defeated by ongoing wars, all of them brought to life all of a sudden.
He followed the clamoring crowd as it grew thicker, gathering together to break the barrier of fear that had been repressed for a century now coming to its end. South of the salt-caked horizon he saw them hurrying toward the square. They came from around Basra, Maysan, and the Hawizah Marshes. He saw exhausted faces and emaciated bodies rising up together, all their worries becoming intertwined. They gathered in squares similar to his own and shot out fiery cries with volleys of bullets at hundreds of paintings depicting the same Legend-Man. He looked out from the middle of the sky to see them spreading into public squares in all directions: Najaf, Karbala, Samawah, Dhi Qar, Sulaymaniyyah, and Kirkuk, where they brought down dozens and dozens of the Legend-President’s statues and tore apart his image by the hundreds.
In the climax of their brilliant anger they also crushed the young guards who had been appointed by the party cadres under their cracked heels. Their ghosts took off to join that of Anas in space, which filled with the smoke of burning oil wells in the south. That night, gunfire rang out in a sky fraught with clouds of black rain and the spirits of young guards. That was the beginning of the uprising that has not subsided to this day.
As for the guardians of heaven, they still hover over the terrifying scene of death, watching the successive plantings of depleted uranium around the living, those bare Iraqi lives walled off with millions of land mines and deprived of electricity and drinking water. With their angelic eyes, the young guards also keep watch over the mass graves to which the insurgents were led in the springtime and their subsequent departure from the graves to refugee camps in Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, whence their muffled maledictions spread to the four corners of the world.
Yasmeen Hanoosh is Iraqi-born fiction writer, literary translator, and professor of Arabic literature at Portland State University. Yasmeen is the author of the monograph The Chaldeans: Politics and Identity in Iraq and the American Diaspora (I.B. Tauris, 2019), and the short story collection Ardh al-Khayrat al-Mal’unah (The Land of Cursed Riches, Al-Ahliyyah Press, 2021). Her second collection, Atfal al-Jannah al-Mankubah (Children of Afflicted Paradise) has been translated and excerpted in English, Spanish, and Italian. Yasmeen’s English translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in various literary journals and publications, including World Literature Today, Banipal, ArabLit Quarterly, and The Iowa Review. Her translation Closing His Eyes (Abbas), received the NEA translation fellowship (2010). Her translation of Scattered Crumbs (al-Ramli) won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Prize (2002) and has been since excerpted in a number of publications and anthologized in Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations (2006).
Levi Thompson is Assistant Professor of Persian and Arabic literature at the University of Texas at Austin, where his research focuses on modernist literary developments outside of Europe. Levi’s first book, Re-orienting Modernism in Arabic and Persian Poetry, will appear with Cambridge University Press. He has published translations of poetry from Arabic and Persian with UT Austin’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies publications program, Inventory, Transference, Jadaliyya, and ArabLit Quarterly.