Artwork by Ahmed Almheiri
Wretched in Basra
By Dana Khalil Ahmad
Ali was rotten.
Suha had given birth to him between the palms near the banks of the Shatt al-Arab. Her water had broken and mixed with the mud and weeds underneath her feet. She found a cluster of palms and rested her back against it. She remembered Nawar. He would follow her home after school. She would pay him little attention at first, but soon became attracted to him. He was a zinji. His father was a descendent of black slaves who was a sailor at the ports. They lived in a small mud brick room near the shore. Every day he would sell his father’s fish at the market and then follow her home from school. She was intrigued by him. He was six or seven years older than she was, and his arms were well-formed and his back wide. He had asked her what her name was, and her answer was barely audible. Her father would kill her if he knew she was talking to him. Still, they spoke more and more, and he brought her hot bread with beetroot pickles from the street vendor. They walked through the date farms where nobody would look at them. She constantly thought of what her mother had told her, that when a boy and a girl were alone, the devil sat between them. Maybe that was true. He certainly wasn’t between them when their bodies were entwined between the long grass and palms. The sound of the flowing river had mixed with the sound of their breathing. They had become part of the soil that was beneath them. Pigeons cooed in the palms above them.
Afterwards, they had realized the gravity of what they had done. Things began to change. Suha’s stomach grew as the world around her changed. Summer came and the house turned into an oven. Her father didn’t notice the growing bump under her sundresses for the first few months. He was busy listening intently to the radio as his world was transformed. The monarchy had been overthrown. The king’s body had been dragged down the streets. New words were thrown around the house - inqilab, coup, shoyoo’iyeen, communists, jumhooriya, republic. One day, as Suha was retching in the bathroom, her father realized why his daughter’s stomach had grown. He beat her until they were both exhausted. He would no longer speak to her. He again became engrossed by the radio.
Nawar no longer walked with her in the palm farms. He avoided her at the market. When she told him that she was pregnant, he walked away.
“Nawar, you did this! Please! He’ll kill me!”
“I’ve joined ittihad al-‘ummal,” he had replied. A labor union. “There is no way for me to be with you, Suha.” She thought for a second about what her father had said about the labor unions. He said that the wretched zunooj, blacks, and fellaheen, farmers, were taking this country to hell. He said that his family’s Ottoman blood couldn’t save them from what was coming. She let Nawar go.
She was relieved that nobody could hear her screams when she forced Ali out of her. As she pushed, digging her nails into the soil underneath her, black crows screeched and circled in the palms above her. Briny tears streamed down her face and she cursed her existence and the creature inside her. She was there for six hours before it finally emerged. He was found lying in the blood and afterbirth between Suha’s legs. Her face was distorted, yellow, and lifeless.
He was an orphan and a bastard. An idiot too. He did not go to school with the rest of the children. He played between the palm trees near the river, climbing up to eat the dates. The farmer had let him do so. The farmer let him sleep in the palm-frond roofed room on the outskirts of the farm. In return, Ali would pick all the farmer’s fruit. He had taught him how to climb up the palms using a piece of muslin to fetch the sugary dates. His time was spent wandering. He spoke to the palms. He listened to the whisper of the running river and the swimming fish. Birds sang and he hummed to their rhythm. He understood the earth and it understood him. He knew when the birds would arrive from the other side of the river. He sensed when the river would flood. He smelled when rain was coming. By the time he was a teenager, he had become an asset to the farmer.
“The rain will come in two weeks,” he had said.
At first the farmer was bewildered, but then he came to trust Ali with the land. But he never told him that. He rarely even called him by his name. He either called him lak, a word meaning ‘hey you’ or ‘look here’, or he casually cursed him. Msawdan, mindless, athwal, idiot, or muti, donkey. It was the beginning of more to come.
At night, he lay in his bed of dried palm fronds listening to the howl of the wawi, the wolf. When he was a child, he had strained his eyes in the pitch-black shack so that the wawi would not eat him when he fell asleep. But he did fall asleep. And he dreamt of the wawi. He dreamt that the wawi watched over him during the day and that when night came the wawi howled his name. He dreamt of the wawi sprinting through the farm, jumping over the farmer’s house, over Ali’s shack, over the river, over all of Basra. When he woke up, he was no longer scared.
He sometimes wondered where he had come from. He had not known any women. He was forbidden from entering the farmer’s home, and so only glimpsed the farmer’s wife and daughter coming in and out of the house from a distance. He was once sweeping the hosh, the central space of the house, and glimpsed through one of the windows the farmer’s daughter’s bare back. When she turned around, their eyes met. She stared at him and he fled before she could scream. He didn’t see her again for a long time.
Sometimes he walked to the center of the town and watched the children in the market, holding on to their mothers’ abayas. He began to notice the way people talked – the way they bargained, gossiped, and scolded each other. Children stared at him. He wore the farmer’s old striped dishdasha and washed it in the river. The children were beginning to wear starched shorts and buttoned shirts. He cautiously approached a group of playing children.
“I play with you?” he had asked. “What is this?”
“Tiyal,” was the answer. Marbles. “Don’t you know them?”
He picked up the game, but was ridiculed for the way he sat, the way his sentences were broken, and the coarseness of his hair. One of the boys noticed Ali’s hands. His palms were worn from the farm work; dirt lined his fingernails, some of which were bruised deep blue. The boy called the group’s attention to them and they all laughed. Ali looked down at his own hands, which he had never hated before then. He sat silently, unable to respond. He was dumb. Insults continued raining down on him and he absorbed them silently. That was when they began calling him Ali Athwal The boys chased Ali away from the market, chanting his new nickname. Long after they stopped chasing him, he kept running. He ran to the river and then followed the currents back to the palms of the farm. He was different. He understood it then.
He lay breathless between the palms, his thighs aching. The children’s chants reverberated in his head. The sun was withdrawing back beneath the Shatt Al-Arab, taking all life with her. He withdrew into the earth and stared at the deep blue sky. His nails dug into the soil beneath him as he began to weep.
“Ya Allah, why am I alone in this world?” he begged the sky.
Tears streamed down the sides of his tightly shut eyelids. Something ached deep inside his gut, and he could not let it go. His skin blended with the earth underneath him. He felt the energy in the earth channel its way under him and push against him. He did not resist, letting it engulf him. He was surrounded by this great power. He was scared. Then suddenly, it lifted him above the earth. The dirt slid off him. A new feeling grew in him and around him – love. He no longer felt wretched.
A minute later he was back on the ground. The crickets around him chirped. A cool breeze brushed against him and the tall shrubs and the palm fronds whispered. The wawi howled to him from miles away. The crescent was smiling down at him. He got up and walked back to his shack peacefully. He dreamt of a woman that night. She had skin like gaymar, cream, and a name that sounded like a sigh. She hummed as they sat beneath the palms.
He kept working on the farm, and the farmer became wealthier. The farmer now wore a bisht sometimes. Ali was sent to purchase the rice, vegetables, and meat. The children who had called him Ali Athwal continued to do so. He became accustomed to this name. One Friday morning, the farmer sent Ali to the market to pick up some okra and tomatoes. Once he reached the town, he saw a dense, loud crowd. In unison they shouted things he did not understand. They were all dressed in tattered clothes like him. He avoided their eyes, but soon a dark man emerged from the crowd and walked towards him.
“Aren’t you sick of being worked like a mule?” the man asked Ali.
Ali stared at him. Though the man was not young, he held himself proudly and projected his chest forward as he walked. His unruly white hair sprung out wildly from beneath his gahfiya. His black eyes were grave and probing. His dark, full lips were chapped and had white particles on them; they reminded him of the salted fish sold at the market. In fact, the man smelled strongly of fish. He lifted Ali’s chin up and stared at him. Something flickered in the man’s lifeless eyes. Then he lifted up Ali’s hands and looked at them.
“Look at those overworked hands. Overworked for whom? Have you been paid a day in your life?” the man asked Ali. Ali looked at his own hands and remembered the boy who had pointed them out. “Join us, we will help you.”
Ali had reluctantly followed the Fish Man back to the crowd. He had listened to him explain the group’s purpose – that they were the abased struggling against their oppressor. He watched the man. He lectured Ali every day. Ideas totally alien to Ali came from the man – he spoke of “the masses,” “comrades,” and a very strange word, boorjwaziya. The man would stare at the ground as he spoke to Ali, only momentarily looking up at him to see his reactions.
Soon, Ali was attending their meetings and marches. The farmer eventually found out from somebody who had seen Ali at the market. The farmer came into Ali’s shack one night and asked him if he had been striking with the ‘ummal, the workers. Ali could not lie. The farmer beat him with his cane.
“I raised you on my land and asked nothing of you, you dirty ibn gahba, son of a whore!” he roared as he thundered down on Ali with his thin wooden cane. Ali accepted it all.
He stopped going to the market. He washed his sore body in the cool river and put on his old dishdasha again. He climbed up the palms and picked the dates. He made the dibis, date molasses. A week later, the Fish Man came to the farm. Ali begged him to leave him in peace.
“Where have you been, Ali? Your comrades need you.”
“Please go away. He’s going to kick me off the farm.”
The Fish Man first pled with Ali to leave the miserable farm and come to the city. When Ali refused, he began shouting at him about his ignorance of his own oppression. They were interrupted by the farmer, who strutted towards them in his brown winter bisht. The Fish Man reached calmly for his back. In the next second, Ali covered his ears and dove for the floor as the loudest bang he had ever heard burst through his ears. He looked up. The farmer was now lying tragically on his back, his bisht spread out around him, his white dishdasha stained with a bright red circle. Ali’s eyes were transfixed on the body. A hard date fell on the farmer’s face.
The Fish Man took Ali by the arm and the two ran through the palm trees. Ali could not speak. The Fish Man, for once, was silent too. Ali only came back to the farm sometimes at night, when he missed the howling of the wawi and the sound of the river. He sometimes climbed up to pick the dates, placing them in a neat pile in the hosh. He moved in with the Fish Man, whose name, he learned, was Nawar. He became a member of the Communist Party. He never dreamt again. But he was no longer rotten.
Dana Khalil Ahmad is an Iraqi-Kuwaiti student in her final year of undergraduate study at the American University of Sharjah. Currently, she is majoring in International Studies and minoring in English literature. Upon graduating, she hopes to pursue a graduate degree that will combine her research interests in women in the Arab World, modern Iraqi history and politics, and postcolonial literature.