A JEW ABANDONED IN BAGHDAD
fiction by mati shemoelof
To Almog Behar
Salah has to be late on the one day when I didn’t take my mobile, and this crumbling café doesn’t have a single working phone. Of course it’s today that I have an exhausting headache. It wipes me out. It wipes out my ability to communicate “Allāhu Akbar” calls the muezzin, and I pray quietly, “Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for helping us to reach this day.” I take out the apple flavoured red tobacco , which is really just disguising the deeper sweetness of strawberries with its apply flesh, spread some hashish over it to give it a kick, and return my head to its nonexistent body. I imagine the rich sweet scent carried through my head, threatening to cut short the joy of fresh air. But where is the narghile. I call the waitress, but her name twists away in the muezzin’s cry. Time is lost in my passion and the Tigris River opens in my mind, ready to flow. Another chakra is ready, but where is the shisha. And where is Yasmin. In the background frozen echoes of a headache threaten to strengthen like a pneumatic hammer beating in the distance, in an abandoned city.
On such a hot day even a sandstorm won’t stir. Instead of Salah, her beauty reaches me. The truth of her words. So direct. It’s a shame we haven’t met again since then. Even now I can still hear her words like an echoing bell. It is a shame we cannot meet alone. I’m drying up completely in this desert. And I doubt if anyone, ever, will be able to give me something to drink. A Jew abandoned in Baghdad, or anywhere else in this desert, and when he speaks from within me he is thirsty, abandoned. Yasmin gave me meaning. After she left I wander through memories of her, but can’t. I can’t express myself, even for a moment. Ya wayli wayli my Kurdish father has died. And my Baghdadi mother, she only does what I ask her to do. She gave me something. But even that I destroyed. I am a man without boundaries, hatred in torrents of graceless acceptance. I’m tired, trying to remember the terror that consumed grandfather when he went to visit Syria. There he met grandmother in Halab and fell in love. He didn’t know that in Baghdad his daughter would find my father in a half-Kurdish, half-Baghdadi family. Owing to my father we traveled to the borders of the Iraqi nation and got to know the soul circling the city’s boundaries. Yasmin is still not here. Nor is Salah. I cannot understand what is really happening to me.
I try to imagine his black eyes, his long black beard, his T-shirt with the Nazem Al-Ghazali print on it, the stone wash jeans, but I cannot. Baghdad is burning in my headache. Yasmin. Waitress. I call, neither answer. In fact, there is only one. Only one. Yasmin, Yasmin who used to love me, I call again. But to sit in this crowded café, on the edge of the ancient river, is a nightmare. I am lost, more so if I still love her, this waitress – my Yasmin. No one knows that she is the most driven woman in a café that lacks any flair for moving forward in life. But how can she love me, when I have no place, no work; when I am restless, running from poetry to a literary evening, only Allah knows why. She is right, I swear, I wouldn’t go out with me either. Now she won’t even come, won’t bring me a glass of water, because I said what I shouldn’t have said, and the same words that burnt with love fanned the hatred.
A great heat now settles on Baghdad. I’m tired of waiting, tired of life. I have a headache that is destroying me. I want to lie down in a cool basement. To distance myself completely from this giant sun that cloaks my city. Sometimes I feel as if we’ve waited thousands of years just to find one another. Something about our ways that didn’t necessitate questions. I try to remember how one day he emerged from the depths of his curls, but none of the systems in my head function. I only remember his first story, ‘Ana Min Al-Yisrael’,” that won the biggest literary prize in Iraq. That was the story that sent me to him. I wanted to shout with him so the entire Iraqi nation would hear that we are part of the Iraqi people, but would never abandon our heritage, just as we would never forgo our demand to be part of the Arab nation. Today I sneer at myself, and my heartfelt commitment. Particularly right now, when I am holding a flight ticket to Abu Dhabi, as if I’d go, a coward who never leaves his rooftop and air conditioner, which comes min Allah. This heat encloses me like a piece of burning toast the chef has no strength to remove from the grill. The pain tears out my organs, I want to pull its metastases away from my stomach, to extract the sick nerves from my brain, throw them in the Tigris River, and find shelter in the void, to be hollow, shaken, shallow, and get ready for something new.
If he doesn’t come soon, I will go. He knows that. He likes to leave me hanging until the very last moment. Until my fingernails shake with anger, until my inner nerves are shot. Then he’ll come with his loving hug, and we’ll return to his mission. He is bound to have an undertaking. Maybe something in cooperation with the Kurdish, to read poetry for multiculturalism; maybe a new anthology meant to raise interest in the growing class battle that is gaining momentum since the oil wells have dwindled; maybe a festival for liturgical Piyut in the new synagogue in the Tatran neighborhood. Maybe he has once again found a way to discuss his identity as an Iraqi in this society, as an Iraqi, and not as an Iraqi-Jew. Maybe I’m trying to get closer to an identity that is his, and it seems I’m probably not like him because this headache keeps getting worse.
I want to tell him that I will no longer partake in any collective literary activity. It is about time I changed my ways. I want to go and do something else, anything but literature. I’m tired of it. I need to find my independence. And literature won’t give you independence. Especially not poetry. Poetry can be recited to God for comfort. But reciting to people won’t get me anywhere. I left university, Allāhu Akbar. I want to walk away from this world of literature, from myself. But if I tell him that, Oh, what a headache. He won’t let me alone for days, months, years, and the weight of obligation will be so great I won’t even be able to stand because I am a haifen, a coward. He’ll force me to try not to write for a month, or a week. Once we made a bet. He told me, try not to write. I tried and couldn’t. I lasted six days, on the seventh day; I woke up and insisted on writing, because I couldn’t stand those words dancing their perverted jig in my head, imprisoned like a fly on the kitchen window, craving an exit. I wish the headache were invented, like the migraine I invented in the first weeks of my military draft to avoid participating in the Iraqi massacre in Kurdistan. For years I used to watch my mother suffering from migraines, and now I really suffer from them as well. Go tell the anti-war migraine that it was an invention; the war is over but the migraine still lives. The invention slowly became truth, even after I was discharged from the army. There is no Yasmin and no doctor, for the moment I sit here and wait. A real headache in lieu of a body waiting.
Salah knew I was sick. Even so, he still wished to unsettle me. This is how he gains his strength. He surrounds himself with soft guys like me, and he asks each one of us about a little part of his plans. I wonder what he is thinking about this time. He was one of those talented literary men, who were public relations agents as well as distributors, vendors, and organizers of literary events like the crusades; traveling from Baghdad to Basra, Mosul, and Najaf with a suitable mailing list. All his lectures are satellite broadcast throughout Iraq for whoever is willing to listen. I don’t know why he loved sitting with people like me. Maybe in order to feel the muteness, the inability to write. By the time he had finished his third play, second poetry book, fourth book of prose and first collection of essays I hadn’t even finished complaining. Apart from that, we never agreed on most of the things we discussed, though he seemed to enjoy that. I criticized him for the failure of his great ideologies. Multiculturalism cannot be created in an area of such conflicts, especially not with the Kurds who simply want to avenge the last massacre at Irbil. I didn’t like the idea that everything has to be in his books. He didn’t mind my criticism about his books. He told me he wrote them that way for Jewish-Arab culture. That he collects all his stories and poems, into book after book. In the name of this social and literary category, and under a cultural umbrella, he was permitted to include both old and new stories. I was not afraid to critique him, to tell him that I disagree. But all of my comments and particularly my conceptual path didn’t match his world view. And in the end, my road always ended in a long lecture from him about conceptual and literary principles that in actual fact, do link his prose and poetry. I was jealous of his principles. The truth stands between us, I’m certain, or not certain, that he’ll listen to me. I wanted us to celebrate an agreement and maybe even be stoned some time. But it didn’t happen. He doesn’t run from reality, reality only runs from me.
Now that we’ve broken up and there is no chance of a wedding, my mother wants me to leave Iraq for Abu Dhabi. Truth be told, I won’t hear of it, and I don’t really have a flight ticket to Abu Dhabi. I can barely afford the tuition to the university I am planning to leave. I am Iraqi. I was born in Iraq and I will die in Iraq. My father wanted me to die in the business management faculty, so that I would join him in a heaven of calculations of profits and loss. I had just started my B.A., and he was already disappointed because I left after a year. And then, when I returned, he had already passed away. Now that I’ve left, I have no one left to argue with. I am only disappointed with myself. As if he still stands within me. Only my mother came with me to receive my graduation certificate. I was an only child with a single mother, and she forgave the fact that I’m the only poet in a family that withdrew from religion. Faith used to be a source for so many poets and supplied headaches for their families, because God does not pay rent. Just like now. I can barely afford rent, or a doctor’s visit to find medication for this headache. I should have drunk less yesterday, or drunk more water. But what water, barely glands, and instead of saliva I ruminate in the gastric juices of constant sickness.
Salah claimed that if I was born to an Iraqi and Jewish family, then I should remain faithful to my origin. I claimed that there is no origin. Even if I am recognized as a Jew, I should not reply to that question, but instead proceed as a part of the Iraqi nation and just by doing so; I can transform the boundaries of the nation and its identity. I’m sunk knee-deep in a foreign culture. A culture that has penetrated me by using my computer. Salah didn’t object to seeing me doing what I do, but he made me agree to a new identity, that was driven by his body and soul. When I joined I believed it, even if I was sunk in a swamp of comics and electronic music searching for words for my rhymes
Slowly I felt emptied of all political discussion about Jewish and Iraqi culture, and couldn’t tell Salah that. I was like a guy raped by a new, different, culture. Not that I didn’t give in to that rape a little bit. But the pain, my God, the pain, I am an artist, not a politician. An artist without art, an ill-expressive politician without fiery speeches. I preferred to live with the Jewish trauma rather than try and solve it. That is my curse and that is my blessing and in the faithfulness of passion for sin I live. To live inside my memory my being and my reality without acknowledging origins and whosoever recognizes me and how they recognize me, and how I should recognize processes of recognition that approach my identity. Detached. Jewish, I already said. But Iraqi, and aware of my detachment. Aware of the headache, that comes and goes like little waves in the Tigris River. An aching head inside a headache. That is the feeling and so I dissolved in the sensation of a Yom Kippur that never comes and I doubt ever will. Searching for “Tantal”, the demon who chases me from Heavenly Baghdad to the intoxication of the netherworld.
Here it comes, in all its glory. A stick, a round bottle with water dissolving in smoke bubbles and on it special anise nectar, glowing smoke rings, fumes rising over the capital of the East. Rising on to consciousness like the Tigris River, soon to be flooded by the dizziness that this migraine and its horses give me. Like a hangover, I’m pushed backwards, the hashish, the migraine, the sweltering heat all exhaust me, and I sink into the chair, holding my head. Bells of Anise flowers ring in my head, flowers that wish to swallow you and digest you with their sophisticated juices – as they mix with the tobacco and hashish. Again I am mistaken. I look at the café around me, and start crying. I don’t know whether it’s the headache, or the joy of his coming, or maybe I’m just dehydrated.
“Who are you talking to, you stoner,” asks Yasmin with dismissive hand motions.
I could not open my eyes, so full of tears.
“He promised to come and meet me.” I wiped my eyes and tried to raise my head, which was as unstable as a watermelon on a child’s neck. “We’re planning a new project; it’s a secret that I can’t reveal to you.”
“Take this pitcher of water and drink all of it, then get out of here you wreck!” she said and started off in the direction of the other customers.
“Do you think you have a future, but what is this future?! Where are we and our identity? Where will your baby girl, who will be born Jewish, place herself, how will she find a place in this strange society? We need to think about everything politicians don’t discuss, so people will come to us to hear it.” I was talking, but she’d already left, long ago she had become tired of hearing my lectures. It seemed that only the sun’s rays remained listening, for they surrounded me with lust.
Yasmin returned. I was joyful. Like the Milwaya, the path of a snail, the spiral of the remarkable building close to Samara. Swirling, like a walking mosque. And her beauty moving in and out, rising to the top, without sharp edges, she is all wisdom, directness, and circular penetration curling until she reaches far away. Maybe she will be the first minister of culture of Jewish origin in Iraq.
“Salah was here, saw how high you are, and left,” she said.
My head was about to explode. I took a sip of the water, and did not let go of the pitcher until I had drank it all, and I felt like a pitcher of water with a foggy head. Maybe he gave up on me because I’ve become too much of a stoner. Like rock bands that fire their drummer because he still thinks he’s in the seventies and does not understand that years have passed and today there is no point in self-destruction; instead we must go forward. I am totally stuck. Perhaps the Iraqis erased me as a Jew and I need to get passed them to discover my identity. But it’s enough of a reason to stay there, to find the place where they delete identity, to draw conclusions and find insight. I tried when I went with him, to think about it like this, but I went back to my old habits. Sometimes I dream that I’ll write and write all the time and publish and publish. But I am trapped in my erased thoughts that bring headaches without end.
I am filled with despair. If only I had the courage to change my life, to leave the migraine prayer for the simpler sound of a muezzin. The water reach the deserts of the ghetto of my body, spray drops, waves awaken like sprinkles in my soul, my spirit dances naked in a sea rising in golden sands. I feel something else. The headache drowns and stands in the corner like a punished schoolboy, awaiting its turn, knowing that the sun will dry the water soon; that this celebration, this great joy in the unending night, will leave me. But at these moments where I swim, I rise and move towards the house, I make decisions. I will stay in school, and once it ends I’ll look for a small place in the north, there in Kurdistan, and I will tell them about what I’ve seen. I will be poor, but will help those poorer than me. I will be a Jew beyond the margins and the borders of Iraq. The sun is blazing and again requests the headache dance, which rises, and my decisions dissolve as my feet barely carry me to the mattress that my mother turned over, after she prepared the food, did the laundry, sent my sisters to school. If only I was half as good as her. The family has given up on me already, as did he, and Yasmin. One day, oh Yasmin, I’ll be able to rise and twirl like a prayer, inside and out. Like Allah who sees me, asking me to rise with him, climb the sunrays to the top, but I am not ready yet.
This story was first published on the Levant Notbook. Thanks to Prof. Rachel Harris