THE UMBILICAL CORD

by

Samira Al -Mana

English translation by the author

(from the original Arabic),

edited by Charles N. Lewis

Five chapters from the Novel

___________________________________________________________________

 

Chapter 1

All That Jazz

 As soon as the patient felt somewhat restored to health, following
treatment in London, he asked me, as his interpreter, to accompany him
on a visit to one of his acquaintances, if he can get hold of him on
the phone.
 - Let’s go and see him. He is one of those.
 - What do you mean?
 - He is under suspicion, so I’ve been told.
 - And what’s the purpose of our visit?
 - To see how he lives, who keeps company with, what his latest
political opinion is. Let’s pretend we’re just eager to see him. As a
matter of fact, he was a neighbour of mine. We went to the
same school. You can say we were friends in a manner of speaking.
The Man was Surprised to receive a phone call from my patient and so
much pleased to discover that he was in London. He fixed a date for us
to come round to his home.
 He was waiting for us with his wife and three children. we were
greeted  warmly and ushered us into the smartest room in the flat,
Beckoning us into chairs. They started to inquire solicitously after the
health of the patient and his relatives at home in Iraq, and kept
repeating kind words of welcome.  The children gathered happily around
us, clearly at ease with visitors whose appearance resembled their own
and that of people at home.
 The little girl slowly made a move towards my companion legs, in order 
to sit near him and be noticed.  He helped her up onto the chair beside
him without hesitation, and her little legs hovered in mid-air.  The two
boys stood by, waiting to fulfil their role of pleasing the house
guests, but their opportunity was delayed as the guest was involved in
other affairs, his interest in their father: how was London to him, did
he like living there, what did he think about what was happening in the
Middle East?  The questions took some time as the inquisitor showed
himself a master of the art of manoeuvring, more skilful than the doctor
who grilled him when giving him psychological or physical treatment. And
it was all hidden behind a friendly smile, no more, no less.
 While everyone was engrossed in listening, commenting and moving about,
all of a sudden, a distinctive and delicious aroma wafted towards us
from the kitchen.  Immediately I recognised the smell of Eastern spices
being fried or grilled.  The wife was hard at work preparing a meal for
us, making local dishes which some of the womenfolk in our country
prefer to offer their guests.
 Would we like a drink before dinner?  The glasses were circulated by
the eldest boy. He is about nine.  As soon as the round was finished, he
stood by his brother, ready to sing a song which they both knew.
Sensing what the two boys wanted, their father clapped his hands in
approval:
Yes, okay, go ahead! Stretching their necks, the boys launched into a
nursery rhyme which they had evidently learned at a British school, and
which had become part of their verbal culture:

            Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
            Yes, sir. yes, sir, three bags full.
            One for my master and one for my dame,
            And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

 The little girl age three, the youngest member of the family, sat
listening to her brothers with rapt attention.  We clapped when the two
had finished, and they sat down like a pair of tame animals.  There was
a short silence, as if to invite their sister to follow suit.  She
twisted her head round towards her father, conveying her desire to make
a contribution.  His assent gained, she got down from his lap, where she
had settled for the last few minutes, and sang an Arabic children’s song
which she must have learned from her mother independently.  It went
something like this:

            squeak, squeak, oh mama,
            Our lovely mummy-o,
            She span with her yarn-o
            To pay off what daddy owe...

 Receiving vigorous applause and several pats on the back, she ran to
her father with extra shyness and humility, and buried her face in his
chest.  We asked if she knew any more "squeak" songs like that, and
repeatedly assured her that it had been a marvellous performance.  We
found out later that she delights in just listening, either to her two
brothers and whatever comes out of their mouths, or to songs performed
on TV, as well as to her mother’s stories and songs in Arabic before
going to sleep.

*     *     *

 While everyone was out of the room and we were still at the dining
table, I whispered in my companion’s ear:
 - My dear fellow, stop your probing and inquiries now. think of his
wife and children, their warmth and hospitality... It would
be a great shame to hurt them in such  manner .
 - Don’t worry, don’t worry. All I want to do is find out a bit about
his life in London so I can write a report for my superiors. Then it’s
up to them.
 - But suppose they don’t like his attitudes  ? What if he’s against
them? Don’t you think he’ll get into trouble?
 - No, no, he’ll come to no harm. He’s in London, far away. All they’ll
do is put the report in his file. That’s what happens nowadays.
 - And if he goes back to his country?
 - God will be there. Let’s hope He’ll save him.

*     *     *

 Our visit over, we returned to my companion’s flat.  He spent the last
few remaining days of his recuperation there, completing all his medical
tests and making sure he was quite rid of the lumps which had pervaded
his body.  Satisfied that everything was just fine, he began preparing
to go back to his own country at last, hoping that he would not need to
return, either to the hospital or to London.
 Months passed.  I heard nothing of him until two days ago, when I
learned that he had departed to his permanent abode and gone to meet his
Maker.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The greetings were barely out of their mouths as they met on the tube
train, when he exclaimed in surprise:
 - Goodness, Madeha, how old you’ve grown, much older than your age!
 - (No, no, no, idiot, this is something you don’t say to a person’s
face.) Time has aged me. (And if you want the truth, you’re no better
than me. Look at your grey and bald head, what more do you want? You’re
the one who’s old.)
 - What’s the news? I mean the trouble in the area, the war and all
that?
 - I don’t know. My news as good as yours. Only what we read in the
papers and hear on the radio.
 - Oh, no, I don’t call that news. Most of it’s doctored and designed to
divert attention from the real news. That’s not what I call news. Don’t
you agree?
 - (You fool, you want me to give you my candid opinion, to reveal
what’s hidden in my heart, to tell you what I think is behind the
trouble and the war?) I don’t know, it’s my only source of information.
 - It’s impossible, you can’t get any urgent news from Arab radio when
it keeps on about what has happened to Amir so-and-so, King so-and-so or
President so-and-so before giving any items of news.
 - (The devil’s trying to lure me into the trap.) Everyone says
different things.
 - Why do you dodge the issue? Why not tell me, for example, what your
family have written in their letters: Was the city hit by missiles, did
anyone get hurt, what does the general public think about it all?
 - (What a disaster, he won’t let go.)  There’s rumoured to be some
damage.
 - Your relatives, your people, they live there, don’t they, Madeha?
 - Yes.
 - What do they say in their letters? Are they okay? Is there enough
food in the shops? Has the Government arrested anyone you know?
 - (This pressing points to an ulterior motive.) Their letters are
brief.
 - Of course, they’re frightened, poor things. That’s only natural, your
relatives are excused. And their letters are censored, anyway. It’s
different for us, nobody on the train knows our language. We’re far from
home, here in London.
 - I know, I know. (May God smite your face! You want me to talk with
all these people around? What if one of them understands Arabic?)
 - How are your sons? They’re over here with you, of course. You have
two, don’t you?
 - Yes, they’re fine, thank God. (He knows a lot about us, far more than
he should.)
 - Just as well you brought them to London after their father died. Did
they finish their studies?
 - The eldest is qualified as a doctor and works at the hospital. The
other one’s still a student.
 - At least they’re with you. Do you ever go home?
 - (The sly dog.) Sometimes.
 - You come and go so easily?
 - We have residency in Britain. (When will he be done with his
interrogation, my God?)
 - Lucky for you. Otherwise you wouldn’t escape their clutches.
 - People have always inflicted harm on others. It’s been going on since
time began.
 - No, certainly not, not like today, it was never as severe as it is
now. The Government used not to reach people so easily, but now it’s
different. There’s a lot of fear about because people know it has the
scientific means to spy on them, very accurate instruments capable of
identifying them individually on computer, tiny things which can even be
put in a wristwatch. And where money’s involved, there’s no shortage of
mercenaries. Do you remember when we used to work for the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, your late husband and I? He was in debt all his life,
and I wasn’t a lot different myself. We never cared about money. There
are more interesting things in life.
 - Do you remember the table we bought in Cairo after falling in love
with it? At first we thought it was a rare antique from the Mameluke
period (better change the subject) but we found out later that it was a
fake.
 - Oh, yes, I remember. You almost gave up the idea of buying it, didn’t
you, after seeing something like it in a rich man’s house and thinking
it must be too dear? A week later I found lots of them in Khan Al
Khallily bazaar at the cheapest prices imaginable. I’ll never forget
your face when I took you and showed you a whole pile of them in the
shop. Did you know our other former colleague, Hassan Beady, who came and
saw it with me? He became a millionaire almost overnight.
 - What does he do?
 - Oh, yes, what does he do? He’s either in oil or arms dealing. I don’t
know, but it’s all the same. My God, it doesn’t matter as long as he
gets his commission. But, you know, he still goes on in front of others
about how wonderful it is to live in the socialist countries. And we all
know that he once went to one of them only to rush back, worrying that
he’d lose his permanent residency in Britain. Of course, if he did, he’d
be deprived of the benefits of ownership, of buying and selling shares,
and other things provided by the Capitalist system. To my mind, he just
wants to make up for his greedy nature by trying to demonstrate how pure
he is. There are many others like him, as you know. My God, we’ve been
hungry and deprived for centuries, and now all of a sudden we’ve found a
running tap yielding a limitless supply of money: oil money. It’s so
tempting, and there’s nothing to guide us. What’s to become of us, my
sister?
 - (Oh, I’ve become his sister, too!) God be with us all.
 He reached excitedly into his briefcase and took out a package.
 - I’ve bought a present for one of my English friends. Something
funny...
 - What is it?
 - A teapot in the shape of their Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher.
 He unwrapped the parcel. The teapot was made of china and had Mrs
Thatcher’s face painted on it. It was a good likeness, capturing her
features in a very delicate and precise design: the lips, red as always,
the eyes and the golden hair.
 - That’s democracy, whatever they say. Mrs Thatcher sold in London’s
department stores as a teapot! Her opponents laugh at her and take
revenge. Politics can be humorous as well as serious, otherwise it would
be a disaster, master and slave relationship. Think of our state,
we panic if we’ve taken our rulers’ names in vain, and we sit there
submissively with their pictures above our heads. For us politics is calamity .
 The train’s doors opened at that moment. He asked her anxiously:
 - Are you getting off here?
 Madeha hurriedly took her leave of Talal Al Kafaf and strode towards
the door, making her way past the standing passengers and stepping down
onto the station platform.  Breathing with difficulty, she waited a
while before glancing back at the moving train behind her.  She saw him
sitting near the window, bowing and raising his hand to wave farewell,
but he received no real response from her.  (Who knows, he might be an
informer... Perhaps that’s what he is now. I don’t want to get any
closer to him.)
 The roar of the train subsided, and quietude returned. For a moment she
was lost in reverie, then her thoughts slowly turned to the old and torn
collar that had moved up and down with his Adam’s Apple as he talked to
her so persistently. She stiffened, remembering it, and suddenly was
suffused with a feeling of extreme happiness and peculiar relief.
 The collar proudly proclaims: He is one of the innocent.
 He had seen her by chance and wanted to share his grief, a grief which
she knew was filled with loneliness.  Talal Al Kafaf was still a friend,
a former colleague of her husband’s, kind and candid, a bit of a
chatterbox, and his interest in her sons was sincere.  There was an old
warmth. (He’s not what I thought, for sure).
 He’s a genuine, respectable man.  That’s what the shirt collar says,
whatever else it might say.
 Madeha clutched her handbag tightly and wandered across the wide street
absent-mindedly. Two huge cars came roaring from either side as if to
run her down. She slipped between them in a strange, silent way.


Chapter 2

Looking at Things

 She would see him sitting on the wooden bench under the huge elm tree
by the riverside; lolling there, talking to himself in a loud voice,
emitting noises as if vomiting or spitting on the whole world, scoffing,
making threats.  At times she heard him moaning, weeping, begging for
help.  It was not her concern, she had her own preoccupation’s and was
not to be deflected.  As far as possible, she preferred not to excite or
provoke him, trying not to take notice. It takes all sorts to make a
world, she thought, remaining steadfastly neutral.  It did not shock her
when he pulled out a bottle from under his elbow, caressed it with both
hands, admired it, turned it round and round, patted it lovingly and
finally pressed the opening to his anxious mouth.  Sudden and desperate,
the rapidity of his last movement was matched only by the gulping of the
ravenous chicks nesting in the heart of the tree.
 It was his own business, and could not be helped. She was a practical
woman with few real worries, she knew what she wanted, and while others
looked askance at him, she passed by imperturbably on the quiet
riverbank.  The river in the morning is loveable. The way it looked and
felt as if it were pulling her gently, although the scene kept replaying
in her mind with precise intuition like the hands of a clock whenever
she came near him: how she had tried, once, to sit beside him on the
bench one day, how the brown bottle had come out like a gun from a
holster.  She was completely unnerved and taken aback.  It blew away the
dust which had formed over old wounds: the shock of her husband’s death,
the self-pity, the hurt, the reason she sought solace in the natural
beauty of the river.  It was as though she had been stung by his
ceaseless worries, the loneliness of the vagabond, the demon of the
unknown.  She was troubled and unsure of herself, felt panic and shrank
from him.  When would she get up?  He leered in her face, triumphantly:
Yes, you are my guest, and this bottle is the perfect glass.  He urged
her to take a swig.  No, thank you, I’d rather not.  He was
flabbergasted (What?) and disgusted (Why not?)  And the bottle stood
there waiting, scolding, admonishing her sudden retreat.
 Now she was nearing the spot, how could she elude him?  By skirting
around him and ignoring him, or by patience and endurance?  No doubt as
always she would end up by leaving him, deserting him, knowing how
unbearable it can be for drunkards if their feelings are hurt.  All this
she had anticipated before she glanced at the seat.  She couldn’t
believe her eyes: Was it possible? No sign of the drunkard today.  The
place was suffused with happiness, a big, wry smile on its face as if to
say: Here I am, enticing, charming, pretty to look at.  The whole scene
was in tune, joyful, laughing, peaceful, secure, an array of colourful
yachts bobbing along, and spellbound ducks gliding over the wide breast
of the waves.  No laughing or crying, no railing at the world, no chip
on the shoulder, no painfully slow disintegration.
 She hurried to the empty bench, hoping for once to sit and enjoy the
harmony and tranquillity.
 - Good morning.
 It was five minutes later. She turned her head to the masculine voice.
 - Good morning.
 A middle-aged man with olive skin came up to her.  She had seen him
before on the embankment.  People here knew each other by sight only,
most of them lovers of this beauty spot, aware of one another’s Achilles
heel because of it.  He settled on the bench beside her, taking refuge
without introduction.  The beauty all around provided a legitimate
excuse for him to greet her like a friend:
 - I saw you coming over here. I’ve often noticed you rushing along.
 - Sometimes I’m in a hurry.
 - Are you going to work?
 - No, shopping.
 - There’s not much work about.
 - Do you go out to work?
 - No, I stay at home.
 He opened his right hand to reveal a strange palm.  The thumb was
missing, and in the middle there was scar tissue of a darker colour, as
if from another hand. He explained:
 - An accident at work. The machine fell on my hand and cut off the
thumb. I might have lost my whole arm if it hadn’t been for the speedy
rescue and excellent medical attention I received. This part of the hand
has been stitched up, as you see. It’s stiff, I can’t hold a cup in it,
can’t catch anything, but it’s better than nothing, doesn’t look all
that bad, could be worse.
 - That’s true.
 He kept twisting and turning the dead palm with his other hand, shaking
it as if trying to rouse it:
 - What country do you come from? Your accent is foreign.
 - Guess.
 - Well, you’re not Indian, you don’t look Indian.
 - Try again.
 - Greek?
 - You’re getting warmer.
 - Spanish.
 - No, further away.
 - Where are you from, then?
 - The Middle East.
 - A prosperous region, but the people aren’t happy, though there’s
money there, lots of money.
 He gestured with his healthy hand.  A shower of imaginary coins poured
through his forefinger and thumb.
 - You’re a foreigner here yourself, aren’t you?
 - I’m Italian, came over here after the war. We were on the losing
side, as you know, and afterwards we scattered all around the world. The
20th century is the century of migration, did you know that? Since the
two world wars, a tremendous number of people have migrated.
 - Probably due to speedy transportation among other things.
 - I guess so. Are you married?
 - Widowed.
 - Do you have any children?
 - Two sons.
 - I haven’t any. Our first child died at birth. My wife couldn’t get
pregnant again after that. We’re both middle-aged now, but we’re still
together.
 - Does she have a job?
 - She works in a pizza factory near where we live. She’s had the same
job for 20 years. The owners are Italians, they make the best pizza in
London. You like pizza?
 He laughed and carried on talking without waiting for her to answer:
 - Italians without pizza! It’s impossible, we couldn’t live without it,
the stomach is staunchly patriotic. But we’re okay. The factory
compensated me for losing the use of my hand, and I’ve got my pension.
We’ve grown used to life here, we accept what’s around us, otherwise
we’d always be in tears.
 Suddenly, in the midst of their brief conversation, they were startled
by the drunkard popping up from nowhere.  He sat down moodily beside
them on the bench, which could hold four people, and shook his arms and
legs until he was settled.  He threw a disturbing sidelong glance at
her, petrifying her.  The Italian winked at her privately, as if to say:
Don’t worry, he won’t do anything, he’s just miserable.  She stayed
where she was, encouraged but struggling to fend off anxiety, groping
for the peace which had been shattered.  Eventually the drunkard broke
the silence by pulling out the bottle hidden in his coat, the usual
rust-coloured bottle, wiping it gently, patting it stubbornly as if to
irritate his foes, and finally offering it to them:
 - Come on, have a drink, for friendship.
 The Italian hesitated, reluctant.  Assuming that she would do likewise,
the drunkard added sarcastically:
 - For the lovers.
 Then:
 - Come on, for the first kiss.
 He repeated this last phrase several times with heavy irony, and held
the bottle over them in an obnoxious and aggressive manner. The Italian
stood up to calm him down, putting his healthy hand on the drunkard’s
shoulder:
 - Okay, okay, we’ll drink with you, but some other time.
 He beckoned to her lightly and swiftly (Get up now if you want to), his
other hand still on the drunkard.  She stood up hurriedly and moved away
without saying goodbye.
 The Italian spoke again after they had walked a little way along the
embankment together:
 - He drinks to forget. He must be very troubled.
 She answered slowly, a little distressed:
 - But he’s not the only one with troubles, is he?
 - He’s just weak. Some people can’t face their problems.
 - Why does he always come and sit in that place?
 - The river. The river has a tremendous effect on some people. It’s as
if it restores their balance. And you, don’t you think it has an effect
on you?
 - Of course, I forget everything when I see it. It’s like a weight
being lifted from my chest, I don’t know why.
 - I think it’s the clarity and colour. It somehow washes away the
hatred and ill will from people’s hearts. When I look at it, I forget
the wartime days in Italy, the killing, the destruction. I forget my
adversaries, even my worst enemies. They became weak and poor, like all
of us human beings. The effect of the river is like a really good
night’s sleep, without nightmares. When I wake up in the morning I find
I’m purified, clear, and I say to my wife: Now I feel happy, all my
troubles have fallen away from me, I don’t feel any hate, I love all
mankind. To my mind, all feelings of hatred and ill will are no more
than a state of exhaustion and fatigue. Sometimes I wonder, is it
because of over-exertion that leaders hate their people? Is it because
they’re exhausted that they dislike others, and make dreadful,
oppressive laws and decrees, with all sorts of repercussions? Don’t they
need their share of relaxation and leisure? Isn’t a vacation just what
the doctor ordered for them to rediscover their lost feelings of mercy
and love? I’ve even wondered, is it simply because they’re tired that
world leaders pick quarrels and start wars?..."

*     *     *

 Madeha put down her papers and fell silent.  Afaf looked up and asked
anxiously:
 - Is that the end of the story?
 - Yes, that’s it.
 - It finishes abruptly, you didn’t give it a proper ending
 - What do you mean?
 - The characters are two-dimensional. And you neglected the woman
completely. I thought you’d say something about her ideas. She’s really
negative in all her behaviour, no liberated woman can accept that.
 - What you’re saying is a matter for Women’s Lib. In this story she
can’t be any different from the way I’ve written it.
 Madeha tidied away her story with a feeling of slight disappointment.
She awaited her friend’s comments expecting the worst, having
unconsciously let herself become involved.  Afaf continued:
 - In theory, as a modern writer you should try to help women change the
status quo. Don’t forget you’re a woman, too. (What a thing to say!) We
mustn’t wait for men to write about us. I was expecting you to make the
woman courageous, understanding, willing to listen to the drunkard, feel
his pain, perhaps sit beside him on her way back or miss him when he’s not there.  The important thing is for her to sympathise with
him, whereas in your story she’s timid and cowardly, no more, no less.
 - Cheap propaganda won’t benefit women’s cause. Why can’t she be weak
if that’s what she is?
 Afaf helped herself to some pistachio nuts, and threw the shells in the
ashtray as if to register her protest (You writers!) at what she
considered an untruthful representation of the new woman.  Madeha was to
blame, it was up to her to alter her stance, the matter was in her
hands.  Afaf voiced her feelings:
 - I wish you could have portrayed the woman differently.
 - Wish what you like, why should we crown her with false laurels? The
story is built on the premise that each person has a different point of
view, and that’s why I’m calling it "Looking at Things".
 - You give the Italian the lion’s share in airing his views, describing
things the way he likes or you like. Why don’t you let the woman express
her ideas?
 - She doesn’t have many.
 - The Italian is conceited and complacent, he preaches, he
philosophises, he’s full of himself.
 - Well, what if he is? Why do you hate him so much? Because he’s
contented with his lot? I think personal temperament plays a large part
in whether we like or dislike people, in stories and in real life too.
What do you think?
 - You like the Italian because he’s your mouthpiece.
 All right, all right.  Madeha laughed and sipped the fruit juice which
Afaf had given her. It’s an interesting accusation, she might be right.
Let’s see where it leads.  No need to beat a hasty retreat.  We’ll
finish the round at least:
 - His thoughts amuse me, it’s true, but they’re not my whole
philosophy. I don’t believe wars are solely caused by tiredness, as he
imagines. But this is his diagnosis, give him a chance. He has his own
opinion and we must respect it.
 - What matters is that you don’t pay enough attention to the woman or
the drunkard. You’re biased.
 Having had her to say, Afaf got up to prepare supper for them.  They
visited each other regularly and had developed the kind of love and
understanding that could sustain any number of disputes, upsets and
blunt remarks.  Many times one of them had sought the other’s sympathy
and cried on her shoulder, and just as often they would meet to laugh at
each other’s jokes.
 Left alone in her friend’s sitting-room, Madeha sat there worrying, her
mind full of depression and doubt about the fate of the fictional
character in the story.  What is this pain? she heard herself asking.
Why the hurt?  Stop it!  Finally she put the manuscript away in her
handbag: That’s enough.  No more invented pains and distress.  It was
time to eat, drink and be merry with her friend.  Real life was more
important, and they were living it.  She decided to busy herself with
something.  She glanced at the pile of newspapers, magazines and letters
scattered on the table beside her, and shouted to Afaf:
 - Letters, fresh, from Iraq!
 - I got them yesterday, they were delayed in the post for two months.
One’s from my mother congratulating me on passing my driving test here
in London, the other’s from Shakir Al Melhis. Read it, if you want. You
know him.
 - Is that the one who divorced his non-Iraqi wife in compliance with
Decree number 196 in 1968?
 - You remember the decree and its date?.
 - My late husband often talked about it. He received the text of it
while he was working in the embassy, and he felt ashamed and bewildered,
worrying about how he was going to pass the information to Iraqi
students with foreign wives. I even remember how it started: "From such
and such a date, any Iraqi marrying a foreign woman will be disqualified
from holding official or semi-official posts."
 - Meddling like that in the most intimate matters!
 - There wasn’t enough of a rumpus about that decree.
 - It’s like the other notorious unpublished Decree that came out while
we were in Moscow, do you remember? It was the reason I came to study in
London, I told you about it, didn’t I? I got a letter from my mother one
day, advising me to move from Moscow to London, or to any other Western
country where I could continue my studies. Iraqis who’d graduated in
socialist countries were not getting work, she told me, because the
Government had changed its policy and was refusing to acknowledge their
qualifications.
 - I know, I know. Imagine the punishment inflicted on someone who
ignores Decree no 196 and doesn’t marry an Arab girl, as if she’s unable
or unworthy to be married for her own sake without bullying and
persecution.
 - That sort of Decree suits Shakir Al Melhis and his ilk. He divorced
his Russian wife on the spot and married Sania all too easily. Some
people are purely selfish, they have vested interests and no real
feelings. Read his letter and you’ll see what I mean.
 Madeha opened the envelope, took out the contents and read:

"My dear ‘Doctor’ Afaf,
 It’s a long time since we were last in touch (only feast times and New
Year cards). We hope this letter will prompt you to write to us and tell
us all your news.
 We’re pleased to report that Sania is in excellent health apart from
being overweight. The medical committee granted permission for her to
fly back to Britain for some general tests, having just returned from
there to Baghdad with our three sons.  The results were encouraging and
everything is fine.
 Sania thought she had set up our son Yarab in the best possible way,
but unfortunately he was unable to continue his studies under the
pressure of life in Birmingham, in spite of his success in the exams,
which allowed him to progress to the second year of his science and
technology course. Sania and I asked him to return home, and he arrived
on 6th January and enrolled at Baghdad College of Technology.
 Our second son Mo’ad passed the baccalaureate in Baghdad last year,
getting 77%. He intends to go to the University here and study for a BA
in chemistry. It’s a four-year course. He also passed his English
language GCE, and got six subjects at Advanced Level including
chemistry, which he took with the British Council. He’s going to be 17
on 5th February.
 Rageed got 85% in his intermediate baccalaureate, and also passed his
‘O’ Levels in Baghdad last year. He’s in his fourth year at a good
secondary school and hopes to become an architect.
 Qaada passed her primary school exams with distinction, and is
outstripping all her classmates in the first year at her secondary
school. In the first half of last year she got 93%.
 Your humble friend Shakir, too, has enjoyed his own share of success.
The passing of his "finals" was marked by his appointment as a senior
official in the Ministry of Education, and there is every hope that he
will be a Deputy Minister soon, and, with God’s help, perhaps he will
even become a Minister.
 We have a new home, a modern building in the Firdowsi district. We’ve
recently built on a second kitchen above one of the rooms that was
previously a single storey. There are four large bedrooms plus a huge
reception room where we entertain our guests, and I sincerely hope that
one day they will include you.
 My best regards,
 Your friend,
 Shakir Al Melhis"

 - My God, no wonder he divorced his foreign wife. He’s not going to be
"disqualified" from employment, he’s going to be a Minister!
 - That’s him all over. I got to know him when he came to London. We
sympathised as fellow strangers do in a foreign country, and I accepted
him with all his faults.
 - A man like that won’t feel the slightest twinge of conscience even if
he finds the streets full of corpses, as long as he, his children and
his money are safe.
 - You’re right there.
 - Are you going to answer his letter?
 - No, never. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Before he left London
I asked him to send me news of my family in Baghdad and their situation.
I heard that the Government wanted to deport my brother-in-law because
of his Iranian origin. They may well have thrown him out by now. I’m
extremely worried, and Shakir Al Melhis knows that. But he doesn’t care,
his letter is packed with nothing but news of himself and his children’s
achievements. He just loves to blow his own trumpet. And if he thinks
his invitation to visit them is magnanimous, it is not, it’s just
another form of bragging: Come round to my place and see how well I’m
doing. I don’t regard such an invitation as a kindness
 - His nature is like an animal’s.
 - Not just any animal. Look at my dog Lulu, her love is unconditional,
she’s devoted to defending me should anyone cross our threshold. I feel
she gets depressed when I do, and she wags her tail so happily whenever
she sees me or my friends when they come round.
 Afaf whispered some sweet nothings to the black bitch, which kept
coming and going with her from the kitchen to the sitting room. The
smell of food meant the possibility of getting a bone.  Madeha walked
over to the table:
 - What a lovely meal. Your food looks delicious, you’ve learnt a lot
recently.
 - Cooking is my hobby at the moment.
 - It’s the best hobby. Your future husband will forgive your extreme
opinions and faults.
 - And where is he, the poor thing?
 - Joking apart, what’s your news? Anything exciting?  Are you going to
remain a divorcee, or have you found a suitable husband? Any scandal at
all?
 They sat down to eat, laughing at each other. It was the laugh of
healthy spices.  Afaf spread a napkin in her lap, and grumbled:
 - God forbid, I tried marriage once, that was enough.
 - Don’t dodge the issue. These long, dangling ear-rings, the new
hairdo, your British driving licence... All these are going to bring you
scores of men, they won’t leave you alone. They’ll follow you, ring you
up, try to meet you, sniff, sniff, sniff, till someone finally gets you.
 - Lord, deliver me of the lot of them!
 - And that’s further proof of your interest.
 - Almighty God!
 - It’s true. When you hate someone, you think more about him.
 - Your psychoanalysis is rubbish. I’m telling you for your own sake:
once bitten, twice shy. I’m not getting bitten again!
 - Maybe so. But is there a scorpion? That’s the question.
 Afaf felt restless. She stopped chewing her food, longing to tell
Madeha what was in her mind (oh, boy, if she only knew!):
 - God protect me from your wickedness and conspiracies. Be pious,
woman! If you want the truth, the person in my thoughts now is nothing
like a scorpion. He’s sweet, very sweet and kind, but I’m afraid he has
one flaw. Oh, this confounded world, nobody in it’s perfect!
 - What’s wrong with the poor fellow?
 - Drink.
 - Don’t tell me he’s an alcoholic?
 - Precisely. But he’s not to blame, he got dragged into it by a wealthy
old hag in Paris, to keep him near her. He’s a real Adonis. He
eventually abandoned her, but he couldn’t shake off the drinking habit.
He cries when he’s trying to persuade me to be his wife, he holds my
hand and weeps like a child. He wrote to me last week begging me to
marry him next month.
 Afaf had opened her Pandora’s Box wide, heedless of the shock it might
cause Madeha.
 - This is all complete news to me.
 - I don’t want to spread it around in case it doesn’t happen.
 - And will it happen?
 - Never, impossible, it can’t be.
 - Because of the drink?
 - Of course, or must I be hurt all over again? No! Never again will I
sacrifice my liberty and peace of mind.
 Madeha laughed loudly and bent her head low near her friend’s, almost
whispering:
 - Now I understand, now I know what all the fuss and nonsense was
about. Remember the story I read a few minutes ago? The whole thing is
clear to me now.
 Afaf’s blouse jolted, she gasped and shook her head in vehement
denial.  She raised her arm, wanting to strike Madeha, silence her, make
her go away, and began loudly protesting and remonstrating with her:
 - You mean tormentor, you could make the woman in your story a bit more
kindly and sympathetic, and accept the drunkard with all his flaws. Why
don’t you allow him the small mercy of a relationship? What harm would
there in that, you cruel creature!
 Madeha avoided the crazed, outstretched hand. She had no quarrel with
it, nor did she wish to be hurt by these delicate fingernails, whose
owner was threatening a game of hit-and-run in which there was no hope
of her ever admitting defeat.

 

Chapter 3

The Umbilical Cord

Places age much like human beings.  Gloucester Road tube station was no longer what it had been in 1970.  It had become old, grey and wrinkled.  There were swellings, some features were faded, a lot of touching up was required.  It needed to be revitalised with exciting colours and polished marble, and dressed in fine wood.  Places may even vanish altogether, leaving only traces like the fingers and arms of rivers which have run dry.  Such was the sight that had greeted Afaf on flying back to her native Iraq ten years earlier.  From a distance the ‘Dark Land’ seemed to consist only of parched trenches and grooves, meandering without end.  Most of it is known once to have been covered with rivers, lakes, streams, channels irrigating the fertile land, their banks teeming with people and clustering dark green plants: hence its title of the ‘Dark Land’.  The population is said to have reached more than 30 million.  At the last count the figure was barely one third of that; how much less still if you subtract the dead from the Iran-Iraq war? wondered Afaf.  Today there is more concrete and the climate is crueller.  Aren’t the heat and dust enough?  No, it seems there has to be a war as well. “Congratulations, our great nation,” says the official announcement.  But the land is there with its features, and though its people are displaced and scattered in the wide world, they cannot let go.  In spite of everything, their heart beats as one with it.  They are tied to it like children still attached by the umbilical cord.
 Several agricultural crops had disappeared, some colours and parts of the scenery had vanished, regions had become fragmented, arid and empty, like the Zobeir desert.  The slender dry fingers feeling their way between the earth, long and interwoven, stretched from Mosul to Basrah city, as if looking for something lost.  As the plane reached the outskirts of the capital Baghdad, the two great arms, the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, burst open, having longed to embrace each other since time immemorial.  Tears welled up in Afaf’s eyes like a mother’s milk.  She flicked them away as the plane began its descent to the airport runway.
 The two rivers flow with unwavering dedication, irrigating everything they meet without discrimination: Babylonian civilisation, Sumer, Ashour, the Abbasid dynasty.  The two rivers are generous, as is the habit of rivers anywhere.  Suddenly man-made objects appeared on the banks of the Tigris: buildings and new, modern roads, the pride of Baghdad.  Over there, pointed a passenger sitting behind her in the plane; that’s prohibited, no one’s allowed to walk there or there.  The finger swiftly marked out an inch, representing an area several miles wide.  The river glistened and sparkled below; its quiet wave, unmoved by what it heard, shrugged its shoulders and carried on flowing.  No one’s allowed to walk on this side of the river for many miles.  The reasons are not your business, they’re matters of state security.  The fate of rivers is like that of human beings: some of them run dry, shrivel up, are buried, become polluted or twisted in their course.  So what did she expect?
 The landing at Baghdad airport felt like a fall, causing her to cling to her seat.  She was getting nearer the “prohibited” area.  She didn’t know what it was exactly, but she had heard about it from others, who had counselled and admonished her: You must only look, only look without comment.  But the immediate task was to search for her luggage, most of it presents.
 Now she watched the passers-by in Gloucester Road station.  This one looks like Kadeja, this one walks like Salah.  In the old days, Afaf and Kadeja used to spend their leisure time sitting in the shanasheel window of their home in Basrah, hoping Salah would be among those passing by.  And when they caught a glimpse of him through the tiny wooden holes, Kadeja squeezed her hand in excitement and longing.  Sometimes they would see him on their way to the Indian Market, and one look at him was enough to raise Kadeja’s temperature.  Why the “Indian” Market?  Before 1950 Basrah was filled with every kind of nationality and sect, all the different religions practising their rites and customs side by side.  Afaf remembered their neighbours and their Jewish dressmaker, Toyah.  Why continually resort to comparisons?  Subconsciously she missed her relatives and friends in her homeland, and her mind had found a kind of solution, a trick.  Thinking about resemblance’s and similar traits, how ridiculous!  This one approaching from afar looks like a girl I knew from Abu Alkasseb district, what’s her name? Oh, it’s on the tip of my tongue.  She’s still shy and hesitant in the way she walks, her skin yellowy brown, handsome in a way, but she needs more confidence.  Whatever became of her, I wonder?  They say Abu Alkasseb is empty after the shelling of the war with Iran.  And this one’s the spitting image of Auntie Bahia, the same size, the same slow, hump-backed walk.  She’s just come down the station stairs, will she say hello?  You should be ashamed of yourself, move your bottom a little, let her sit down beside you if she wants to.  What happened to her, I wonder?
 Afaf hardly ever heard from them now: Kadeja, Salah, Auntie Bahia.  With the Iran-Iraq war they had become like ghosts, phantoms belonging to her memories.  Travel was prohibited, letters went astray.  She wanted to find some trace, some vestige of them, even if only through British TV personalities calling to mind cherished features and gestures. Doesn’t the actress Glenda Jackson look like Zadeha?  And the stern gaze of this other actress, isn’t it just like Safea’s stern look?  She looked at others, and in them saw her family, her people, her country.  She remembered eyes, laughter, a bald head, movements.  Now she had a British passport without the word “prohibited”.  How magnetic these comparisons were!  She fastened onto the strange woman sitting on the station seat behind her, bending her head, patting something on her lap, tending to it.  Is it a baby?  It can’t be, it’s too small, it’s inconceivable.  Well then, why the scarf to hide it?  She could not guess.
 Afaf’s attention was caught by another woman standing nearby, taking a handkerchief out of her handbag and using it to mop her brow.  Afaf thought of her mother before her death three years earlier, and how she had received the sad news by telephone in London.  Its wires had become the sole means of communication, and even they had become a luxury since the war began.  Direct lines are still impossible; all calls have to go through the operator, and the recorded voice automatically pipes up: “Please wait, your call will be answered soon, thank you.”  Don’t mention it, or as the bus conductor in Baghdad always says: “God be thanked.”  Okay, we agree.  She would wait half an hour, one hour, two hours, half a day and more for an open line, as promised by the operator: “Please wait, your call will be answered soon, thank you.”  For the thirtieth time the recording repeated the same sentence, as if the real operator in Baghdad were saying: “Stop crying, heart attacks are commonplace here, travel is prohibited, prohibited, prohibited, prohibited, our young are being cut down in their prime, victims of the war in the flower of their youth. How many demands you make, you who are so far away.”  All this, and Afaf was still waiting for her call.  She wanted the details.  It was her mother’s death.
 According to her memories and old photos, her mother was more on the plumpish side.  She would sometimes take out a handkerchief to wipe her brow.  Afaf remembered her handbag, which always contained dozens of small objects: a small purse the size of an ear for dinars, along with some letters and crumpled papers.  She would get it out every now and then to check something, then put it back, keeping things if she found them useful.  The last item was the scarf, a headscarf.  Her mother used to be so frightened of the cold, she wore a headscarf like the one in the woman’s lap behind her.  Is it a baby?  Afaf started guessing again.  No, it’s too tiny, it’s impossible.
 As a light drizzle set in, the pigeons of Gloucester Road station checked their flight and came to earth almost under the feet of the travellers standing or sitting on the platform.  A man eating a sandwich gave them some crumbs.  The pigeons looked up at the faces without prejudice, not knowing them, and helped themselves to any food that happened to fall between their legs, or perhaps had become trapped in the old, unswept corners of the station.
 Tired of comparisons, Afaf turned and spoke to the woman sitting behind her with something wrapped up in her lap:
 - How tame the pigeons are. It’s almost as if they want to talk to us.
 - Yes, and look what we’ve done to them.
 The woman lifted part of the scarf.  Inside, sheltering in her lap, was a grey pigeon.
 - Here’s what we’ve done.
 Afaf needed no description.  The pigeon had one eye tightly closed and bleeding.  Its neck craned forward as it peered out of the other eye.
 - Someone threw a Coca Cola tin and hit her smack in the right eye.
 - Who did it?
 - A young hooligan, maybe a 14-year-old, deliberately threw an empty can at her and walked away.
 - What did you say to him?
 - What could I say? I wonder if he’d like it if someone did the same to him. He threw the can and sauntered off just like that. I’m taking her to my local vet.
 She showed the pigeon to Afaf. The right eye was totally smashed in, the left eye gleaming and hot, the neck extended and gulping.
 - I’ll take her with me. I can’t leave her.
 A simple, kind soul, she hugged the pigeon with obvious expertise.  The crushed eye poured out blood like fine needles, while the left eye, strong and healthy, peeped up at the sympathetic woman with its clear pupil.
 - She must be in terrible pain.
 - I’m sure you’re right.
 - She can’t say anything. All she can do is look. I saw her going round in circles because of the pain. She went round and round, and her head kept moving faster, even her wings were drooping on the ground. She started walking like a baby on all fours, using her wings like hands. She can only look, only look.

 

Chapter 4

Mackenzie

 If there had been someone reciting the Qur’an, one would have thought it was a wake.
 The scene: a house on the outskirts of Damascus in 1985. A sad-eyed young woman sat in a chair with a small child in her lap, surrounded by other women dressed in black.  She had recently been widowed, her husband having died of leukaemia in London.  Silence reigned.  Every now and then one of the women would say something to her neighbour, and others around her would briefly show interest before returning to their positions.
 The bride came and sat among them, bent double.  They could tell she was crying. The weeping started gradually, then steadily grew louder and more dolorous.  One of the women pulled her abaya over her face until it virtually disappeared from view. The majority, it later transpired, were crying for their own reasons.  Few of them knew why the bride herself was in tears on her wedding night.
 The bridegroom sat in another part of the house, around him male faces etched with fatigue and distress, mostly relatives or acquaintances of the women sitting with the bride.  All had been deported from Iraq in the 1970s or early 80s because of their Iranian blood; “persons of Iranian descent”, as they were called in Iraq.  Now they sat there, so bewildered and troubled that no one would have guessed it was the wedding night of one of their number; for all were aware of the unremitting shallowness of their roots, on this and every other night.
 The little boy got down from his mother’s lap and went over to the bride to ask why she was crying.  She smiled at him, took hold of his outstretched hand, and lifted him up onto her knee.  A single phrase rippled round the onlookers: “She is his aunt.”  He kept playing with her necklace, a cheap, artificial one made of coloured beads, but enough adornment for a marriage taking place at such a difficult time.  The child grew bored, asked to be let down, and returned to his mother’s lap.  After a while he went out of the room with her.  One of the women spoke when they were out of earshot:
 - Did his father ever see him?
 - No, he died before they got to London.
 The rumours began spreading among the women, each of them relating part of the story to her neighbour, with similar details: the woman is an Arab who got separated from her husband when he was thrown out of Iraq because of his Iranian ancestry, one of thousands forced to go to Iran and leave behind a trail of broken social ties after many centuries of mingling, growing up side by side, intermarrying, sharing food and going through crises together.
 The reluctant deportee, having left a heavily pregnant wife with her family in Baghdad, kept pining for her from a distance.  He tried to contact her embassy, which had been his own embassy only a year earlier, intent on persuading her country, likewise his own country only a year earlier, to accede to his request: either permit him to return or allow her to leave Iraq with the son who had come into this world in his absence, so that they might meet up in one place or another.  He had to wait a long time, and they kept on promising one day, holding back the next or showing indecision.  Eventually he began to attract attention and suspicion with his regular comings and goings to and from the embassy, seen as the enemy’s embassy by the Iranian Government, especially after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war.  Diplomatic ties were not severed even then; instead, doubts and misgivings were increasingly sown by the respective embassies which remained in place for years while hostilities raged, quite contrary to normal practice in wars.
 Finally the man was arrested by the Iranian security apparatus, and the investigation and interrogation began.  What is the meaning of all the hours you spend waiting outside this embassy, the reason for your contact with it and the time you spend inside?  Are you an Iraqi spy?  And so it went on.  He was humiliated, abused, and had to suffer a lot of pain and accusations, all in an effort to squeeze a confession out of him and expose his crime.  They got nothing from him, only that he wanted his wife and child from this embassy, and all the visits and hours spent outside the building were in pursuit of that sole purpose.  The pressure on him persisted, and in the end he told one of them that he only went there to see his son’s face in the faces of the embassy staff.  This only made matters worse for him, and while under arrest he developed leukaemia due to his distress.
 It was at about this time that Amnesty International took up his case, but by then things had clearly gone too far.  The Iranian Government responded to the intervention by allowing him to seek treatment in London, his last place of abode.  He spent three months in hospital to no avail.  Again Amnesty International intervened and managed to persuade the Iraqi authorities to let his wife and son to join him in London.  They got there three days too late; he was already dead and buried.  There was only his flat, left empty for them to occupy.  It was a horrid moment when they opened the door to find nothing but his watch, pens and papers, some bearing a distinct aroma.

*     *     *

 Nowadays people don’t care about their neighbours.  They care only about avoiding problems, and persist in hoping that their neighbour’s behaviour will be all the better if they keep themselves to themselves.  Afaf’s English neighbour in London had seldom seen her, let alone knew anything about her life.  Now and then she could be seen bending down in her small front garden, greeting passers-by with the briefest of glances.
 Afaf’s cheery “Good morning” caused her to sit up and stretch her back.
 - Oh, my dear, how are you? We never seem to see much of each other.
 Seeing the dog with Afaf, she came to the fence and tried to reach over and pat it.  The phenomenon of “love me, love my dog” is beyond the pale for many Arabs; to the majority a dog is worthless, and that makes it very hard to claw back the respect it deserves.
 - I’ve just been to the doctor...well, the vet actually.
 - Oh dear, what happened to your dog?
 - Poor bitch, she’s sick.
 - What did the vet say it was?
 - Tummy trouble. She ate a lot of food that didn’t suit her.
 - I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure if you treat animals nicely you treat human beings the same or better.  Some animals are superior to people, don’t you think.
 - I agree. At least they don’t talk about you behind your back. They’re guides for the blind and protectors for the isolated. It’s well said that “the dog is better than the clothed.”
 - Is that an Arabic proverb?
 - No, it’s the title of a book written in the 10th century, as I recall. In the Golden Age of Arab-Islamic civilisation people were understanding and forgiving; afterwards, not a single good word for dogs.  Things have gone downhill, as you can see - now they’re envied for their comfort and security.  The situation is very bad.
 The memory of seeing off her worried, miserable sister and the smiling, fatherless child at London Airport was still fresh in her mind.  The boy and the dog had almost been forgotten after the father’s death.  They played busily together, he feeding her, she wagging her tail at him and devouring everything offered by his tiny hand: hence her sickness.  He had accidentally lighted upon the many national sweetmeats which his mother brought with her from Baghdad: zalabea, manesema with hazelnuts, bakhlava stuffed with pistachios.  Intended for the father in the belief that he would eventually recover, these gifts had been neglected and left scattered around, having lost their meaning.  There was nothing left in the world to interest Afaf’s sister after her husband’s death.  There was only the return journey whence she had come, Damascus, a compromise between London and Baghdad.
 Afaf was just about to break off the conversation with her neighbour and go, when she heard twittering sounds, individually and in groups, coming from the small window above their heads.  The Englishwoman lifted her head in surprise and delight.
 - Oh, they’re calling me, they must have heard my voice, I’m sure of it.
 - Who is “they”?
 - My birds. I keep lovebirds, budgerigars, didn’t you know?
 - No. Really?
 - Would you like to see them, then? Come on.
 She took off her hat and mud-stained gardening gloves, and led the way inside the house.  The dog followed patiently on the lead.  Apologising for the messy state of her house as they climbed the stairs, the woman explained that she had seized the chance to do some gardening while the sun was shining.  She went on to talk about herself and her life, as if the joy of going to her birds somehow eased her British reserve and shyness.
 - I married young. My husband died twenty years ago.  I have two sons and one daughter, all of them married now and scattered all over the place, no doubt engrossed in their new lives.  But I prefer not to trouble them, anyway. I have my birds, they’re my chums. I can’t leave them alone for more than one night at a time. I put the corridor light on so they won’t be in the dark.  I sometimes hear them flapping about in a panic, disturbed by the sudden light, even if it’s only the lights of a car going round the corner.
 Several colourful cages had been carefully arranged along the wall.  The birds began to jump around.  Some of them, sensing imminent danger, swiftly snuggled up to their lover’s honeyed legs.
 - I made most of these cages myself. I spent a lot of time doing it. They’re better than the cages you get in the shops.
 - How many birds are there?
 - Ten. They’re all paired off. I don’t keep bachelors!
 She laughed, and leant against the door with a sigh:
 - Well, let’s just say they’re like us. I’m an incurable romantic, maybe, but this is the real thing. Look at the two yellow ones. They’re inseparable, they’re impervious to what’s going on around them. Look at Mackenzie, I got him in a pet shop a year ago. There was a play on TV at the time about a man called Mackenzie who was proud of himself and puffed up his chest out when he stood up. I named this budgie after him because he does the same. The poor thing was fretful and weak for a whole week after I bought him. He didn’t seem to want any food. I thought he’d die. It turned out that he was homesick, it nearly killed him, in fact, but mercy was at hand...
 - How could you tell?
 - The same thing happened again when I moved him from cage to cage and he lost his friend, this one over here. They’re like us, as I said, although you might laugh.
 She pointed to his fellow creature, who was blue apart from the neck, a mixture of yellow and white, whereas Mackenzie himself was yellow all over.
 - There now, Mackenzie’s gone to his love, he never leaves her now.  He couldn’t stand her at first, whereas for her, I’m not kidding you, it was love at first. He ignored her and wounded her with his indifference, but she remained patient and undaunted, busily trying to attract his attention. She flew around him, fluttered her wings, but he wasn’t interested, didn’t care a fig. Then finally the relationship took off and got better and better until now their undying love is plain to see.
 She went from cage to cage, freeing some of the seeds which had become caught in between the bars, gesturing while she talked:
 - Look, he can’t leave her alone for a second. He goes with her to their niche, you can see it in the corner of the cage. He dotes on her, brings food to her so they can eat together, and won’t leave her side unless it’s absolutely imperative.  They’re completely wrapped up in themselves, no outside world exists for them, they live only for their love the whole time. They’re like us when we fall in love: the one we love represents the whole world to us, and we see the world through that one person alone. This is what we feel, anyhow, but unfortunately we’re not free. The outside world watches us, counting our movements, following us, we can’t get away from it, caged or not.  We human beings can’t be free. I’m sorry to say people aren’t free, freedom is impossible.

 

Chapter 5

The Uncle

 She made sure the car was locked, then hurried into the house to find that he had already arrived.  The variety of plastic bags piled up in the corridor indicated that he had been out shopping and had bought large quantities at different stores.  She heard him calling:
 - Afaf!
 - Yes, Uncle?
 - You’re late, aren’t you?
 - My job is from nine to five. That’s the normal working hours here in Britain.
 - I was expecting you at two, as in Iraq. I was worried.
 Surprised at his remark, she came into the room and saw him lying on the sofa. Instinctively she put her hands to her waist and stood with arms akimbo.
 - Uncle, what do you mean? I’ve been living alone in London for 20 years, and now you come for a few days and you’re getting worried. Whatever for, Uncle, God bless you?
 - Of course, you’re right, my child. My mind’s still over there. Forgive me, I know you’re a brave girl.
 - Thanks. Now, tell me what you saw and what you bought.
 - I saw many wonderful and astonishing things. In short, God creates all temptation and man suffers. Alas! for my wasted youth. Your uncle today isn’t the man he was yesterday, or I wouldn’t have got back to the house until four in the morning, I swear!
 She laughed loudly, knowing of his adventures before she came to London.  He remembered his salad days when he lived the life of a playboy, and wanted to defy the inexorable march of old age which had long ago crept up on him.  He always gave his age as 70 now, regardless of whether he might in fact have reached his eighties, a reality to which he was oblivious where women were concerned.  He still dyed his hair jet-black, wore fine shirts, and seldom forgot to have a coloured handkerchief bulging from his top pocket like a rooster’s crest.
 As Afaf came nearer, he said:
 - Forgive me, dear, my legs are tired. Oxford Street is so long.
 - Did you get everything you wanted?
 - Yes and no. I bought dresses for your auntie and your cousins. They asked me to get anything I could lay my hands on, even cotton thread. Because of the war, as you know, prices are ridiculous. There aren’t even any goods in the shops in Baghdad.
 - I know. Did you buy them overcoats?
 - Overcoats? No, tomorrow.
 - And what’s in these bags? All dresses? It looks like more than that.
 - Two suits for your uncle. After all, I deserve my own share, don’t I?
 - Naturally!
 - From now on I’ll concentrate on getting what your auntie wants. She and the girls gave me a long list: “Don’t forget this, don’t forget that.” Later on I’ll buy her a suitable present, something of my own choice, just between me and her.
 Afaf wanted to go to the kitchen, but hesitated. She enjoyed teasing him:
 - Is your relationship the same as ever?
 - More so, if you must know.
 He spoke emphatically. He had fallen in love with Aunt Latefa, his wife, in the 1940s when they were studying together in the Faculty of Law in Baghdad.  She was a pioneer at the time, one of the few women to be found in a mixed college, undeterred by a conservative society which prohibited its women from learning to read or write and segregated them from men like an infectious disease.
 Afaf took off her shoes and began laying a small dining table at the end of the room. She flitted to and fro like a ballerina, setting plates, going into the kitchen to take food out of the fridge, and returning to the cooker.  Everything had obviously been prepared earlier, even the salad.
 - Afaf, my girl, I don’t want to be a burden to you. I had something to eat while I was out shopping.
 - Come on, Uncle! You’re my dear guest and everything’s ready, so do come and have some, please.
 He tried to get up with difficulty, groaned in pain, then drew up a chair, leaned on it, and managed to propel himself to his feet.  He visited the bathroom before sitting himself down next to Afaf.
 - You remind me of my mother. She was a beautiful flower before my cruel father took another wife.
 Afaf felt he was about to embark on a story, as he was constantly unravelling his past life.  He had come to London two days earlier despite the travel restrictions imposed owing to the war with Iran.  Few civilians had been allowed to travel lately by the Iraqi Government, but he had an import business which demanded direct access to markets and agents abroad.  He enjoyed a comfortable living, with a nice house in Baghdad, and a Mercedes car.  He was regarded as a member of the wealthy class which had steadily increased its numbers in recent years by seizing social opportunities, making the most of chance and luck, and by exercising the political cunning which can bring such rewards in countries where success has seldom been built on honesty, skill and seriousness of purpose.
 - Have you got a cigarette, Afaf? You don’t you smoke, do you?
 - I have got a cigarette, but the doctor says you’re not allowed, you told me so yourself.
 - The doctor doesn’t understand human beings. He understands the stomach, the throat, the heart, the kidney and so on. As for the human being, that’s another subject altogether. I’m dying for a smoke, Afaf, so please, give me a cigarette.
 It was a skilful piece of begging, and it duly won her sympathy. My God, she thought, the old man still has the power to charm his way along.
 - All right, just one, no more.
 He took the cigarette excitedly, got up from his chair and switched on the television. The news had just begun:
 “The two sides in the Iran-Iraq war continue to focus their attacks on urban areas. Iran claims to have used 90 missiles against Iraqi cities, while Iraq says it has fired 170 missiles and will maintain its bombardment until Iran accepts the call for peace in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 598.”
 - Poor souls, where can they go? Afaf, my girl, switch it off. No more, it gets on my nerves.
 - How do people sleep, I wonder?
 - I’ve found the only way is to say our prayers and prepare to meet our maker.  Your Auntie Latefa, poor thing, doesn’t get any sleep at all, missiles or no missiles. Mothers are hardy creatures who can endure any pain except the pain suffered by their children. That’s a general rule, and it applies equally to both your mother and your grandmother.
 - Shall I bring another chair so you can put your feet up?
 He accepted her offer gratefully, and she continued:
 - In what way did Grandmother suffer? Nobody ever came and took her children from their beds. At least, there was no war like this one in her day.
 Lifting his legs from the floor with another groan, he settled back on the cushion behind him.  He sent a puff of smoke high in the air and straightened his posture.
 - She had her own wars, conflicts and worries. To give you an example: I was the only male child, as you know, and like any young boy I laughed at anyone who stood in my way. So my mother and my two sisters took great care to protect me from my father and his threats when I disobeyed him. They were like a shield, keeping me from harm, always on the alert as if there was a war on. I exploited their willing sacrifice so that I could have fun in whatever way I wanted without having to think.  I used to stay up late in the gambling houses, night clubs and bars of Basra, which were little more than brothels for dissolutes and pleasure-seekers. This was after the First World War, during the period of hiatus between the defeat of the Ottomans and the mandate of the victorious British. It was a time of confusion, the bewilderment of the old and the new, of lost values and morals, the arrival of one system, the departure of another. In those troublesome years, Basra was in turmoil. A quiet and decent city became filled with scores of imported harlots and rakes, in what was then called “teatro”. I think it’s either a French or Italian word, I don’t know. What I do know is that the suppression of my sisters and my mother reached its height - by the way, wherever there is corruption in men, the suppression of their women increases. They never went out except maybe once or twice a year to visit our relatives in the Abu Gzeb district, and then they were heavily veiled and taken in carriages drawn by two horses and draped with sheets for security and discretion. I remember once going with some of the women of our family to our orchard in the Abu’l Khasib district. Naturally the trip called for a lot of security arrangements, and was planned weeks, if not months, in advance. While they were at their midday prayers on the patio, I took all of their slippers one by one, and threw them into the nearby stream. They didn’t realise what was going on until they’d finished their prayers and given their parting greetings to the angels on both shoulders. I quickly hid behind a huge Barhi palm tree, laden as it was with seasonal fruit which dangled down in large bunches, like the breasts of a suckling mother. But it couldn’t conceal my suppressed laughter, which was bursting to be let out, so much so that I began making sounds like a howling dog. It gave me away and revealed both my hiding place and my guilt, which they soon forgave. Those obedient, moaning, pious women got pregnant nearly every year, and their husbands could divorce them so easily, or take another wife on the slightest whim. As for me, I was 11 years old at that time, and at that age you’re unusually unaccountable, aren’t you?
 He kept his eyes on her face while he spoke. Seeing her pouring tea for him, he quickly reminded her of his preference:
 - One spoonful of sugar, please, my daughter.
 As she handed the cup to him, a nagging question voiced itself:
 - Did they blame you when you grew up?
 He sipped at the tea, moaning and groaning, as always full of regrets for what had happened in his past.  She was determined to find out the truth, however, and would not allow him to hedge.  She wanted a proper answer.  It was though she felt it was her only chance and he was the last witness.
 - Ah, what happened later was execrable...! I’d prefer to forget it. As I said before, I was full of myself, always bragging about my prowess for hunting and chasing in those damned bawdy houses which had recently sprung up I would return at 3 or 4 in the morning, so tipsy that I couldn’t see their shadows behind the window shutters, though I was sure they’d be waiting for me so as to open the door before I knocked and prevent me from waking my stern, inscrutable father - all we knew of him was that he would turn our world upside down if he saw me in this state and at such a late hour. As soon as they saw me approaching from afar, one of them would rush to let me in, barefoot, moving light as a feather. The big door always squeaked when they opened it, but it was a far nicer noise than the banging of the huge iron knocker which echoed ominously as if to admonish sinners.
 - You mean Grandmother let you carry on like this at the expense of her and her daughters’ comfort? Didn’t she ever scold you at all?
 - Just once. Poor thing, how simple and ingenuous she was. She and the girls were illiterate, as you know, on account of my family’s objection to women’s education. This was just after the First World War, don’t forget, when very few women could read or write, though a few lucky ones could read the Qur’an. So my mother saw me as a scholar, comparatively speaking, since I read and wrote letters. She respected me in spite of my faults. But then she didn’t understand what went on outside her world, or she had no more than a vague and confused idea. But I’m sure she loved me dearly, and I know she was never hard on me.
 - How patient she must have been. But what about the one time she did scold you?
 - One evening she came to my room when I was lying in bed exhausted and drowsy after a late night out.  She leant down and whispered in my ear so my father wouldn’t hear, and said, “My boy, how long must you go on consorting with evil men and women like this? They are the fuel of hell, as the Qur’an tells us.” I opened one eye, keeping the other tightly shut, and replied without hesitation, “What a shame, Mother, that all those beautiful and marvellous faces will go to hell, while your morbid, miserable faces go to paradise.”  Her advice fell on deaf ears, and when my father took a another wife we became second-rate children as happens in certain countries. I made the most of whatever chances came my way, and absented myself from the house with a group of companions, most of them good for nothing. We used to rendezvous in one of the many shady, green orchards of Basrah. You couldn’t hear anything but birdsong, between the palm leaves and the grape vines - in stark comparison to today’s sound of missiles. Alas, these and many other things we took for granted. A curse on all those who invented war and the means of destruction! That’s how it was in those days: we were accountable to no one, watched by no one, and spent our time with beautiful women whom we fancied. I’d come home to find my father preoccupied with his new wife, who was soon to give birth to one baby boy after another. He became so indifferent that he barely noticed me, and that’s how I escaped his questions as to where I’d been and what time I’d got home. For the first time in my life I began looking deeply into my mother’s face, and I found that, after all, she didn’t look miserable and morbid as I’d made her out to be that night. Indeed, she had a mild, bland expression, quiet and humourless, but not completely still. I began to notice the extent of the injury and hurt inflicted by my father’s new marriage. Her face was often filled with torment and conflict, which she tried in vain to hide from us. She didn’t know where she stood concerning her rights. She was naive, as I explained, and lived by intuition and instinct. Gone was the natural sparkle which for me had once been her hallmark, especially when she talked to my father in that confident way. Gone was her authority and flair for housekeeping, her sole daily occupation in the past. Now, instead, her only way of keeping herself busy was to drink tea, dark, bitter tea, and crouch silently by the stove with a cigarette permanently hanging from her mouth.
 He paused, then continued:
 - Morning, noon and night, she remained rooted to that spot of hers, sometimes listening to the other wife and her children laughing happily as if being tickled.  On arrival, my father would discharge his duty towards her by passing through and gently stroking my younger sister’s head with feverish anticipation. Then he would head straight for the other wife’s bedroom, the “new wife” as she became known to all including my mother.  It was a name which secretly and light-heartedly pointed to the saying which promises that “all things new must have an end”, meaning the novelty would soon wear off.  But my mother had a sudden death-wish, apparently, wanting her life to end sooner rather than later. Many times she was seized by fits of depression. At that time she must have been about 45, an age when a woman requires some care from those around her to regain her confidence - so your Aunt Latefa says, and she knows about these things. As she crouched by the fire, however, my mother used to overhear the new wife reading tales from A Thousand and One Nights to my father, or the biography of Abu Zaid al-Hilali, or the adventures of Antar and Abla, and she would sense the thrill it gave him. The new wife was on a par with men in reading and writing, and this was no doubt a source of great pleasure to my father, who was over 60 at that time.
 He paused again.
- What’s the time now? It’s getting late, Afaf.
 They both looked at their watches.
 - It’s half past twelve.
 - Well, Afaf, tomorrow you have to go to work, so it’s time to go to sleep. Oh, Mother, why did you die so soon?
 With a sigh, he slowly raised himself out of his chair.
 - She died three years after his second marriage. Give me another blanket, please, Afaf. I couldn’t sleep a wink last night, I was frozen. It’s so cold in London.
 She made his bed hastily, then left him and made her way to the back door to allow her well-trained dog, Lulu, out into her small garden, having spent much of the evening at her side. The dog satisfied the call of nature and returned indoors.
 After finishing her ablutions, Afaf passed by her uncle on her way to her room.  She found him wrapped up and fast asleep.  He sounded very fatigued, breathing in and out monotonously, almost like a child.  She looked at his sleeping face for a while, and thought: How like all those officials in Iraq and neighbouring countries he looks, all those dozens of functionaries in the Foreign Ministry, or the Bureau of Educational Exchange, or the General Post Office.  All these faces resembled her uncle’s face: they all had the same tanned cheeks, the nose, the forehead and most of his features.  All full of abundant unfulfilled wishes, desires, whims.  However different their allegiances, all these faces are one, she thought. They’re all cast in the same mould, fighting for party slogans, nationality, religion.  How oppressed they are, and how much they have oppressed others, inflicted cruelty and in turn suffered from cruelty. How warped they are, contenting themselves with mere power and position.
 She tucked the blanket around his bed, carefully covering her uncle’s feet.  She left him as if leaving Iraq, to get some rest.