THEMES

Summer Culture
July 4, 2016
Summer Culture
Our first summer culture bouquet features fiction from Syria and Iraq and poetry and art from Palestine.
Our first summer culture bouquet features fiction from Syria and Iraq and poetry and art from Palestine. Annie Weaver translates "Oh Damascus,"  a short story by the undertranslated Syrian writer Ghada Al-Samman. Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jacquette translate excerpts from "Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog," a novel by the Iraqi writer Abdul Hadi Sadoun. Sinan Antoon translates eight poems by the Palestinian poet Zakaria Mohammed. John Halaka reviews "Eltifaf-Bypass," a series by the Palestinian artist Rafat Asad.

Send us your comments, questions, or submissions by email: [email protected]
"Oh Damascus" by Ghada Al-Samman
[Ghada al-Samman. Image from wikipedia]
[Ghada al-Samman. Image from wikipedia]

‪“Oh Damascus” by Ghada al-Samman‬‬‬‬
Translated by Annie Weaver‬

As I chew on the remnants of fog in my mouth (If only I would find him inside waiting for me, then this nightmare would end), eagerly running up the age-old stairs, I feel an irresistible desire to cry a long, bitter cry somewhere, anywhere, in this city. Anywhere, because I know no one will hear me. The rain never stops, and if it did stop its loud weeping for a moment, the fog would gush out from pavement and from windows, from eyes and from mouths. It would envelope all of us in a cocoon that language cannot penetrate neither with its eloquence nor its wailing.

My throat is a nest that boils over with gluttonous ants. If I don’t find him in the room, I’ll cry like a shackled man would cry, watching them strip his lover naked in front of his own two eyes. For a long time, a long time, I will cry. (“Aren’t you ashamed of crying, Hassan?” My father had just returned from the Friday prayer and I kept blubbering as my mother rushed out from the kitchen. “Dad…Akram hit me.” I latched onto his long body and rested my head on his knee, begging for his affection as he shoved me away and yelled at me in a tone befitting only the chief of the Al-Shughour neighborhood, “take the gun and follow him…don’t ever cry again in your life…shame on you.”)

My desire to cry has faded away and a dry cactus sprouts in my throat. I cry a cold sweat out of my pores and stop in front of the door to the room, searching for the keychain.

If only I would find Akram sitting by the tape player, listening attentively to the cassette whose price was meant to pay for dinner. We would stay up late together feeding on music instead of jambon. (Son, don’t eat pork or else your face will turn black.) If only she saw how white the skin is of those who eat jambon…if only she saw Suzanne.

(When I called Suzanne complaining that Akram had disappeared three days ago, she ridiculed me, “Oh you funny Easterner…why do you think he always has to be bound to you? And why does he always have to report his whereabouts to you? Sometimes a few weeks pass before I see my family and they never call the police or roam the streets looking for me.”) I didn’t know that she was capable of not understanding me to such an extent. I called her twice over the next ten days and was at great ease when I couldn’t reach her.‬

I open the door to my room and, before rushing towards my bed like an extinguished shell, I see in panic that his bed is still empty! It’s just as he left it this morning, never to return—hollowed out in the outline of his giant body.‬

I collapse on my bed. The insane hours of panic and fatigue intensify in my head and I feel like I’m still wandering from street to street looking for his black head amongst a thousand blond heads.


(“Don’t be scared, don’t look back or you’ll fall…keep your eye on my head and follow me.” ‬At ten years old, we were climbing Mount Qasioun searching for the hidden treasure our mother had told us about. At halfway, I was scared. At two thirds of the way, I said that I was scared. And when I saw Damascus way below, beautiful and innocent, I screamed. Akram, the leader of our gang, whispered firmly, “don’t look back…keep your eye on my head.” During the demonstrations, I looked for his head when I heard the bullets. I kept going.)

Ten days. I wander from one bar to another, from one of his friends’ houses to one of his favorite spots…and no trace of Akram.‬

Ten days. I forge a response to his father’s letter. This was perhaps the sweetest letter I received from Akram’s father since he left Damascus. As for my father’s letter, I didn’t respond. ‬

Ten days. The first three nights, I was still able to sleep intermittently. I would wake up terrified, hearing the picture of his lover Siham blubbering faintly and continuously inside her picture frame facing his bed. It reminded me of the wailing wind in our house’s narrow alleyway (with the wailing wind during gusty nights, I would tiptoe into the house at dawn, taking comfort in the sound of my father’s snoring and cursing at the hissing wind that I knew kept my mother up. It wouldn’t be long before I heard her voice, “Hassan, do your morning prayers before you go to sleep” and then I would throw myself on my bed without taking off my lipstick-stained shirt.)‬

Ten days. On the third day, I contacted the police.

Ten days. On the fourth day they asked me to examine the unidentified corpses.

(“Go ahead. What’s the matter? Scared? Remember that they’re just dead bodies. You’re the only living thing here.” The officer left me alone and returned to the door. I found myself among tens of corpses lying on stone tables—some of them partly disfigured and some of them missing limbs. I wandered around the huge slaughterhouse stunned. I had never met death before in such a naked and defenseless way. Blue gazes, puffy features, and a cold rotting smell. Dead with no names, no ceremonies, no feasts, no graves…nothing but a lowly death without glory and without poetic sublimation.)

Ten days. The last seven of those days, I roamed around the slaughterhouse.‬

On the second day in the slaughterhouse, I didn’t feel any fear.

On the third day, I was submerged in extraordinary numbness when I noticed expressions of disgust on the mouths of the corpses.‬

On the fourth day, I started getting used to seeing them. I had missed some of the faces that had caught my eye and I enjoyed the harsh defiance that arose from their stiff, firm muscles…‬

On the fifth day, I rushed to the slaughterhouse. An invisible power drew me to the naked death there—death without masks, without rite.

(Akram, somehow I know you’re here and that I too am lying on one of these stone tables like a cold, blue corpse with its face to the ground. And if I try touch its face or turn it towards me, I’ll only see my own face in it.)

On the sixth day, I felt that the city that I roam looking for Akram was just a big extension of the slaughterhouse. The smell of decay spreads from the rain and the fog and maybe even from Suzanne’s perfume.

(“Suzanne, I love your perfume! What brand is it? Is it Carven?‬”

“Yes, you always praise my taste.‬”

“Actually, I like it because it reminds me of a dear lover that I left behind in Damascus. People like things like music and perfume because they recreate the atmosphere of the past. It’s like art, a way to fight against the death of the moment, a way to bring it back to life, to evoke its shadows and echoes if even for a moment…‬”

“Is her name like mine too?‬”

“Yes! Her name is Sawsan, Suzanne!‬”

“Her temperament, her personality, her ideas, are they like me too?”‬

“Yes! She has your stubbornness and your pride, your ambition and the strength of your personality—all of the qualities that I love in you.‬”

“Are you going to marry her when you go back to Damascus?‬”

“Of course not.‬”

“Why?‬”

“Because she’s all of these things!”‬

“Oh you conflicted Easterner…”)‬

On the seventh day, I entered the slaughterhouse as if I were returning to my hotel—with the firmness and resignation of someone who had realized the truth. I was wandering among the bodies talking to them in silence while they talk back to me in disgust and defiance.‬

Akram still hasn’t returned. Roaming from street to street, I can’t look away from the moving band of heads except only to glance at the red and green traffic lights or to peer into the entryway of the metro in the fog. The heads float and then sink in the fog again.‬

Ten days. I walk and walk and walk. I’m so tired. If only I could sleep. What happened to you Akram?
I close my eyes and relax for a moment. I fall into a pitch-black well. Akram’s head is laid out under wheels pulverizing it. Akram’s head is cut off on a silver tray that a nearly naked blonde dances for. His head rolls between the feet of millions of hurried runners. His head falls into a machine fit to chop iron. It’s chopped up continuously. I scream. I hear my voice screaming and I wake up panic-stricken. I had dozed off maybe for a few minutes but not more…‬

I turn on the light next to my bed and pick up my father’s letter that I hadn’t responded to. He says, “Ramadan is here so don’t stop fasting, son. And ask your neighbor to wake you up for the pre-dawn meal and maybe she’ll share it with you.” Why don’t I just tell him what I’m going through? Why don’t I tell him that my neighbor has a boyfriend now and that millions of my neighbors here don’t know what Ramadan is and that if I were dying of starvation, no one would offer me food when I don’t even have the money to pay for salt and water like I would in Damascus?‬

This sweet world that we grew up in, why does it only exist in our imagination? (“What are you reading Hassan?‬” “Geography, dad, they say the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.”‬ “The sun, my son, rises from Ghouta where we cut off the necks of the French and it sets behind Mount Qasioun near the minaret where your grandfather was a muezzin and where I vowed to the Merciful that I would make the call to prayer every Friday when He granted me success in my business.”)

I feel like I’m suffocating. I crawl towards the window. I stick my face to the cold glass. Nothing but fog outside. No answer but a glass prison and the silence of the fog that boils over with the malice of suffocating gas. I am just an imprisoned fish. I brush myself against the glass (“Did you feed the fish Hassan?” “Mom, they’re not hungry. I don’t know what’s wrong with them.” I observed their big, sad eyes attentively while they tried to push their heads against the glass of their tank. I tried to carry the fish tank and run to throw them into the Barada river so they could swim to the river’s source and see where the sun rises, but I couldn’t carry it. It was too heavy and much larger than me. So I decided then that when I grew up, I wouldn’t leave a single fish imprisoned.) ‬

I’m lonelier than I’ve ever been before. Akram is gone and along with him, the Damascus we tried to relive in the heart of London. And now I’m alone, wandering around the slaughterhouse, far from everything. Where are you Damascus? My precious, you’re sleeping in the embrace Ramadan as if you’ve already accomplished all of your life’s tributes. I see you now. One light after another is cast on your narrow alleyways. They’ll wake up for the pre-dawn meal, open their windows, and welcome the moon as a myth. But the moon is no longer a myth. It’s a strategic place that they now compete to swallow.

The voice of the muezzin rises with the cold, fresh breeze as the smell of food diffuses with the supplications and prayers. And my father with his clean face as my mother wakes up my siblings. And the serenity of our small, innocent world—if only they knew it was in the mouth of a crocodile. If only they let us understand this and stand up to it so we could save the city before the crocodile chews up its gods and its values since the city isn’t strong enough to defend itself.‬

Where are you Damascus, my docile and noble Damascus? Why didn’t you grow out your claws without distorting your affection and pride that we were raised on and to which we can only remain loyal? Why don’t you understand that we only rejected you because we loved you? Because we realized our inability to belong to anything other than you? Because transplanting us in foreign land would be impossible. Despite us, we worship that human goodness in you. And for that purpose, we revolt against you? Oh, Damascus, Qasioun’s source, and its treasure. Oh, docile night and the pleased, reassured faces that happily wrap around the dinner table now.

(“Your fossilized breast, Damascus, my disloyal mother whom we worship nonetheless!” Akram would repeat this bitterly, giving me the impression that he would bang his head against the wall. If only they believed with us when we said the iron beast is present and that we can’t fight it with primitive amulets, no matter their good intentions.)

I keep pacing in the room as the old wood floor creaks below my feet. I feel like I’m walking on a coffin that will open up under my feet any second as I fall inside of it. A cold shiver fills me. I bump into the small desk with all of our cassette tapes and CDs. I bend over to pick them up. This is Brahm’s first symphony.


(Its tunes filled the room as Suzanne lay by my side. Akram had not come back yet. I felt as if the minarets of Damascus were collapsing on top of my head. Stone by stone, Damascus collapses in my eye. I love Damascus. I love it and I refuse to abandon it. Suzanne is rancid and sickening just like the remains of fish on a plate. “What’s the matter? Are you thinking about Sawsan?‬” I jolted with a sting. It bothered me that she uttered Sawsan’s name in this sticky room, smelling like drugs that will lose their effect on us in a few moments. “Don’t utter her name in this type of setting.” She turned over in bed mocking me indifferently. Sarcastically, she whispered, “You’re all conflicted…you hide your eyes with one hand so you can’t see what you do with the other.” I once talked to Sawsan in that harsh of a tone and she spent an entire week not eating and probably not sleeping.)‬

I look through the scattered collection of cassette tapes. I had almost forgoten this one, my father’s last gift to me.

(He gave it to me at the airport and said, “I recorded the call to prayer for you in my voice. Make it your last resort. It will open the locked gate, God willing.” When I arrived at London’s gate, I hid my papers in my wallet and took out my passport and money. The rest of the world runs on a different kind of logic and you can’t escape trying to reason with it.)


I put the cassette back on the desk and leave the room. I’m going to continue looking for Akram, the companion of my struggle, the companion of my loss…‬

Once again, I float in the sea of fog. I feel it gush out of my head, from my chaotic and scattered ideas, from my loss and bewilderment, and my sharp detachment from humans.‬

(Where are your eyes Sawsan? Lucid and truthful without the fog, their clarity used to bother me! Where is your absolute fusion to my being—you used to eat when I was hungry and wail out of pain when I would be holding aspirin, about to swallow it, as you whisper, “your head is hurting me, Hassan.”)

I’ll get on the bus, where I’ll meet a group of people who are all forced to exist in the same space for at least one stop.‬

The old conductor takes my money and turns her small steering wheel. Fatigue is apparent in her old age, which doesn’t have mercy on her work. She looks like my mom, she’s surely the mother of some girl or boy—how do they let her work like this? Maybe she was Suzanne’s mom. Just like Suzanne said, she doesn’t call her family for a month or more. If she fell dead right now, someone would carry her to the slaughterhouse while her family asks about her. There are several things that I hate about it here, just like there are things I hate about Damascus.

(I’m on a bridge between two worlds and fog is flooding the bridge, Sawsan. I was amazed by you when you were talking and I was angry at this amazement. Maybe I’m like my father, but my tragedy is that I’m aware of this, whereas he isn’t.)


I feel the wide-eyed gaze of the girl sitting next to me cut through my face. I turn to her with the pride of an Arab knowing that he’s the only brown man on the bus, maybe even in the whole neighborhood. She looks like a cat with her long silky hair falling down over most of her face.‬

There is a refreshing, tired defiance in her blue eyes. I turn my head to the window and then find myself gazing at her again. Maybe it was something else that made me to return my gaze to her face, because all of the women here look like cats. Maybe it was that light shade of blue that runs below her complexion, distorted by old smallpox scars. Maybe it’s because I thought her distortion was hideous, or maybe it’s because she looks like the woman I saw in the slaughterhouse who they say had been electrocuted.‬

I found myself looking to her clothes to understand her identity. She’s not a student—her taste is cheap. Her calming blue eyes captivate me with their greedy defiance. They have an insatiable hunger to be absorbed. I feel like a drop of ink that has yet to be turned into legible lines by a pen. If only I were somehow finished with all of this, something would absorb me, any blotting paper. Her blue eyes have the hunger of enough blotting papers to absorb an entire sea.

(Sawsan…honestly I loved you but I was afraid of you as well. I felt you were somehow unable to absorb me, unable to destroy the control that my father has over my mother. Now I realize how comforting it is that you absorb my alienation and my sorrow. With you, I feel the comfort of a healthy relationship. The numbness won’t let up…the numbness.)

The numbness. The woman next to me approaches me. The bus suddenly stops and she seizes the opportunity to grab my hand. I give her what’s left of a man’s hand.

(Your hand was drowning in my hand in the darkness. It was hot and quivering with a prostitute’s audacity and the palpitations and trembling of a virgin… “Sawsan, what’s with you?‬” Her hand was still affectionately holding my cruel fingers. There’s no limit to my bitterness. She whispered, “I’m wondering when the other hand will be there. I wonder if, in a few years, I might find my hand in the hand of another man sitting in this very seat, treating him with the very sincerity that I treat you with right now? It’s insufferable. This war between time and our sincerity isn’t equitable.”)

Akram, where are you? I’m so tired, maybe because I haven’t eaten in a while. Her blue eyes still defy me. What do I have to give her (Akram said maybe a handful of cash)? And what do you have to give me besides a few minutes of numbness? My hand is still in her hand. I feel it get cold suddenly and it turns into a sticky, dead hand. I snatch it away as the bus stops. Without knowing where I am, I get up and get off. I walk. I turn around. She’s behind me. And then she blends in with all the other women. A million question and exclamation marks fill the fog. Which table in the slaughterhouse does she see you on, Akram? I need a chest whose commiseration I can bury my weary head in.

(Sawsan, I was so unfair to your chest when you let me bury my head in it as I suffered through the troubles that pushed me here. I grabbed you violently, with the cruelty of my father when he asks my mother for his hookah. I asked you, “what are you doing? Are you a child?” Bitterly you whispered, “I thought that it would be a moment of great love to take refuge in my chest, filling you with feelings of childish tranquility.”)

She is walking next to me. I can’t see the smallpox scars on her face anymore. The street is dark and empty and the cold is insufferable. She looks like a luscious feminine shadow with her long hair and lean, agile build. (Akram whispered before picking a prostitute up from the café, “a dose of extraordinary drugs.”) I give into obeying her. I’m so tired and lost and everything is the same to me. Oh Damascus, where are your nights and wanderings through your streets? Where is your unpolluted source?

(The night was a black tulip on the shoulder of the Barada. We had just left Adnan’s father’s restaurant and walked to Bin Azar’s coffee shop. We ran into Kamal sitting with the cactus salesman and he joined us. We checked on the balconies of our sleeping lovers and surrendered to our absentminded fault. With each stone in the sidewalk, each building, and each grain of dust in the wind, something beloved charged with genuineness and kindness flooded Damascus.)

There’s something in this city that kicks me. Perhaps it kicks all of its people so they jump from one place to another with cruelty on their faces and abrasiveness in their friction. Oh Damascus, which of your secrets draws me to the tightest alleys in Al-Shughour? Which of your treasures in Mount Qasioun directs us home wherever we are? Which of your pure sources do we hope explodes? The blond turns into a neighborhood I’m unfamiliar with. We move from alley to alley, the fall of our steps dreary and exhausted.

I walk, submissive to her. I feel thousands of veils of fog falling on the image of Damascus in my mind. I feel them inside of me sailing to distant, far away dimensions. Let me belong to this world that assails the waves of its own shores with the cruelty of a crocodile’s teeth. Let me at least try. I approach the woman and I take hold of her arm forcefully, picking up my pace. Suddenly I don’t see the amazement in her eyes anymore, but I know it’s still there. With my other hand I feel my chin, which I haven’t shaved in ten days. She needs some cash. No matter my arrogance, I would have never expected any girl to just come my way so quickly at first glance, me looking like Robinson Crusoe.‬

One of the stores still has its light on. She whispers, almost looking for sympathy, “let’s get some food and wine.” She wants the money beforehand. So be it. She’s quite sedated in the darkness and I’m planning on leaving before dawn anyway, before I see the leftovers on the dining table. I told her to choose whatever she wants. She turned to the shelves and the refrigerator and picked up some bread, wine, and a big fish.

(The fish was on the desk, delicious and hot…and Sawsan at my side, delicious and hot as well. After a few minutes, there was nothing left of the fish but a bare, boney skeleton exuding an irritating, rancid smell. Sawsan looked for the servant to collect the remains of the feast and then gazed at the Barada, which was silently flowing through that lovely spot at al-Ain al-Khadra’. Suddenly, she whispered sadly, “I hate seeing endings, seeing the remnants of beautiful things that we deface just so we can savor them. We don’t actually own anything unless we’re disgusted of it…‬” “What do you mean?‬” “I won’t ever be yours unless you were sure that you loved me. I don’t want to find myself one day laying on your couch rancid and sticky like this fish. Nothing ever makes me delicious on your plate, never fresh or nice-smelling, never love.”)

Love, Sawsan. For that, I’ll leave tonight before the dawn breaks before I see the traces of what used to be. Love, Sawsan. I rose against you that day because of, you know, your experience that I love and am jealous of. Today and yesterday and every day before that, I was hunting fish greedily and insatiably in this city. Suzanne is right, I’m conflicted…‬

We stop in front of a building whose façade dangles like the cheeks of a prostitute in her 50s. She leads me to the narrow stairs that almost collapse under us. Its worn out walls remind me of the card houses I would with Akram. I follow her. I want a drug that makes me come back as an animal in the forest that doesn’t care at all about where the sun originates or Qasioun’s treasures or Damascus’s source or Sawsan’s blameful eyes. I’m so tired, as if I were digging to the bottom of my chest to reach its foundation, where I’ll rebuild my city from scratch.

(On the morning of his disappearance, Akram screamed, “I’m going to leave this agony, all of it, for the island of the lotus-eaters. I’ll swim in a sea of hot wine. I’ll latch onto the coral reefs and like sedentary sea creatures, I’ll surrender myself to the tickle of the deep currents.”)

In front of the door to a room upstairs, we stop for a moment before opening it. I muse over her legs. They’re pretty and firm. She definitely earns quite a bit from this “job” of hers. She’s youthful. I don’t understand why she lives in such a poor, wretched place like this. (Where are you Akram? In a wretched place like this…maybe in an adjacent room…maybe I’ll find you inside!)‬

She unlocks the door and goes in ahead of me. I quickly follow her. She closes the door quietly and slowly without turning on the light. She moves around somewhere in the room and I hear her dropping her bags on a wooden desk. The atmosphere of the room emits an abhorrent smell. My throat is dry. The sound of a dog howls in a hoarse, human way. I shudder. I don’t know the name of this drug. My throat is dry.

(“Did you drink your coffee Hassan? It’s homemade.”‬ With all of the sarcasm that I possess, I answered, “Sawsan are you trying to convince me that you’re a good housewife?” ‬I sip the coffee. What’s most delicious about it is the scented drops of rose water you added. I savor it while I make fun of you, your infatuated, complacent, teary eyes carefully watching my face because they know I’m savoring the coffee!)‬

My throat is dry. Where did my drugs go? I hear breathing beside me. Her hand touches my arm. The darkness of the room captivates me. The atmosphere of the room stirs up my panic, as if I were at the slaughterhouse among the corpses with the lights turned off. A voice breathes loudly. Maybe it’s my voice. I let it go. My eyes start to get used to the darkness. She sits on the edge of something that I figure out with difficulty is a bed. I let myself fall beside her.‬

I hold her to my chest out of disappointment, disgust, anger, and the trembling that an addict endures over time when he doesn’t take his dose. She’s solid, stiff, and cold.

(When I nestled you into my chest for the first time, I didn’t dare kiss you. You were hot, fluttering like a bird that had just been fatally shot. You had trouble breathing and I was afraid I would suffocate you if I kissed you, that I would melt you, that you would crumble because you’re supple like that, fragile and genuine. Sawsan, where’s your tenderness?)

Like hungry flies, I doze off with my lips looking for the origins of forgetfulness. She comes over me with an amazing coldness. She touches my back with the skill of an actor who has mastered his role so well that he starts practicing it in his sleep out of routine. Her lips are cold and twitch like a cadaver.

(I’m in the slaughterhouse on a stone table. They’re throwing remnants of decaying fish skeletons on top of me. They hit my face and my head with them…I try to get up…but I can’t…piles of them cover me…I try to resist but they’re heavy on my chest, their smell is suffocating me.) I’m still kissing her and a poison-like blue ice grows between our lips and for nothing, I light the fire. (I run, fading away, confused on a bridge that has started to drown in the fog…I need drugs.)

Her expertise in embracing me evokes my aversion to her, it reminds me of Sawsan’s skilled fingertips that excite me as soon as I get high off of her dexterity.

She buried her head in my neck and warmth came between us. (Sawsan, why won’t your picture stop blubbering? I hear you here in my room, let me calm down.) I want to break something and figure out what is coming over me. The decaying fish are still raining on me. I lose the ability to smell and think. I want to attach myself to something, to anything. I’m so lonely and desperate.

(Your walls tower above, Damascus. Sawsan waves from behind the transparent stones while I’m smiling at the slaughterhouse. I get up and go to the neighboring stone table where the corpse of the woman who was electrocuted lies, I cling to her…our child will be born dead!)

I fall into a sticky sea and surrender to the currents of its depths out of delight like a lazy animal. Everything drowns in the fog and the fog floods the bridge and I, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what I am, nothing but a lowly creature craving to be drugged…nothing but coming down from drugs that I travel with to far away ancient cities that the sea swallows and that settle at the sea floor.

I roam among the rusty doors and old churches with the suppleness of a willow tree swaying in the wind…nothing but the lethargy of the lotus eaters…‬

Suddenly, I think I hear a voice. My muscles grow tense. The instinct of a cheetah awakes inside of me. I sharpen my hearing, open my eyes, and scrutinize everything around me. The movement becomes clear…so I wasn’t delusional. For the first time, it occurs to me to ask, where am I? What am I doing in this darkness? A broken voice sounds like it’s gasping; it sounds like the moans of a muzzled human. Her hands are still in their drugged trip on my shoulder and back. I remain still. Didn’t she also hear what I heard? I whisper in her ear, “listen…who else is here?” In an affection-less voice, she responds, “No one…that has nothing to do with you…come on, keep going! ‬”

Everything dies—even my desire for drugs, even my desire to get out. I find myself listening with sensitive caution. The breathing voice is no doubt a human…thick incessant breaths in a muffled muzzle. I yell out in a voice that I couldn’t lower, “turn on the lights!”

“Shut up!‬” she hisses.

In a voice that I think sounds like a scream, I repeat, “turn on the lights!”

“Shut up!‬”

A child starts crying. The drama ends suddenly. Her hand loosens up. She waits. The child’s cries get louder. The cries of another child join him. She gets up from the bed, perhaps fumbling for the light switch. Light suddenly fills the room. I look around me, feeling bits of foam on my lips that turned cold all of a sudden. I jump in my seat and almost don’t believe what I see. A man is in the bed next to me. I expect him to get up and say something. He doesn’t move, his eyes are glued aggressively and hostilely to mine. I think he’s dead. I get up from the bed and collect my things. He keeps gazing at me with two cold eyes whose whiteness is tainted by a terrifying reddish blue. I walk to the door to leave but he doesn’t move. He doesn’t say anything. Maybe he’s her husband. I try to look away from his face to look for her, but something terrifying in his still face wants me to continue scrutinizing it—it’s full of the paralyzing and ugly bitterness from an entire generation of masculinity.

The screams of the child start to quiet down. She’s in the corner lulling him. The other child coughs hoarsely and woundedly, recalling images of a tortured prisoner whose wounds they poured saltwater on. Some breadcrumbs are scattered on the cheap desk. I see everything in a flash of light, then my gaze returns to the corpse-like man’s prison of blue gazes. She noticed me panicking, so she whispers with extraordinary indifference, the same indifference that she was holding me with, “don’t be afraid, he’s my husband and he’s paralyzed!” I feel bad for the man because his humiliated masculinity crushes me. He remains still. He’s still breathing as if he were groaning. His gaze is still emitting hostility like the plague, like the last glance his killer casts at him.

(“I coughed and sickness started eating away at me with its flames, Sawsan, if I fell sick what would you do?‬” From the depths of your silence that I know too well, with your clear, loving eyes, you faced me without speaking. After a few minutes, you whispered with difficulty, “what do you expect me to do?‬” I answered you cruelly “commit suicide, kill yourself. You didn’t say anything and I saw the determination in your eyes. I know you believe that everything I say to you sarcastically is the truth. No doubt about it. You’re like some Indian women, maybe you’ll burn yourself alive with your husband’s corpse.”)
She hisses again, “don’t be afraid, I told you he’s paralyzed!” She takes her breasts out of her shirt and starts breastfeeding her child to calm him down.

I’m in the slaughterhouse, alone and desperate and the fog gushes out from underneath the stone tables like a toxic vapor blinding my eyes. I wander from table to table running between the corpses. I reach my hand out to them turning their faces towards me screaming, Akram! But I only find my own face! Another corpse—this is me deformed. A third corpse—this is me with smallpox encasing my malice. A fourth corpse—this is my face with the body of a decaying, mangled fish. I keep running and running. The toxic fog suffocates me. I want to run away. 

(As our neighbor’s wife took off her clothes in the corner of our shared room, Akram whispered, “I’m stunned.” I didn’t take my eyes off the cassette of the call to prayer that my father gave me. The source here is poisoned, my Damascene belly refuses it, but it’s an incredible drug.)


A terrifying mindfulness fills me. I am alone in the field of a battle that finished just a few minutes ago and nothing remains around me but the dead and the smell of blood and wildfire. (I didn’t think about you Sawsan, I’m so jealous of you that I desecrate you.) I want to escape from nowhere and go nowhere. I run, ripping up the bridge outstretched above the fog river sinking into the fog of outer space. I run up the ancient stairs and I run through the winding neighborhoods. I run. I stumble. The fog is flooding everything. It floods the walls of Damascus, it floods the echo of Sawsan’s wailing, it floods Akram, missing in some slaughterhouse…‬

If it rained, I would cry…‬


[Translated from the Arabic by Annie Weaver. From Ghada al-Samman, Layal al-Ghuraba (Night of Strangers). (Beirut: Ghada al-Samman Publications. 2007) pp. 94-109)]‬
Zakaria Mohammed: Eight Poems
Eight Poems
Zakaria Mohammed
Translated by Sinan Antoon

[Zakaria Mohammed. Image from author]
[Zakaria Mohammed. Image from author]

1
I am a star, a tiny star
Light seeps from my body
No, I am an ant
an ant carrying the dictionary’s words in its jaws
to nibble at them
in its house



2
There is no death
There is only a tiny cloud that passes and covers your eyes
Like a friend who comes from behind and blindfolds you with his hands
There is no death
There is a black goat and a tattooed hand milking an udder
White milk fills your mouth and flows in your eyes
Again, there is no death
There is a Raspberry tree
It holds your shoulder and hurts you
because it wants to open the way for turtles
There is no death
There isn’t
at all



3
Don’t make anyone suture your wound for you
The wound is yours
The thread is yours
Blood is your thought bleeding between them

Don’t wet your lip with water
Your lip is taken prisoner with wine
and ransomed by it



4
The murdered are in the morgue
We ascend to the refrigerator to identify their corpses
Each points to his murdered
and his pursed lip
As for the souls
They’ll never be found
Bullets burst them like soap bubbles



5
A flock of birds fly in the evening
In search of a tree to perch 
and spend the night on its branches
I am a tree, a dark tree, in the evening
That’s why the birds will perch
on my elbow, shoulder, hair, and heart
The noise they make as they perch is unbearable
But I can’t chase them away
This big flock is the souls of my brothers
and I am obliged to be its house

A large, lost, and shivering multitude
I am the only tree in this dreary plain called night
The shivering hands want firewood to warm themselves
And I, who appear to be a tree, am obliged to feed the fire my branches

This is what they call memories


6
Words are of no use
Six of them are for mourning
Only one for joy
Nay, ten are for mourning and only one for joy
Ah, if only we could send them back to God
Who threw them like a grenade in our mouths and throats



7
The poem starts with desire
There is no idea, words, or rhythm
Only a vague nameless desire 
Then you climb dark stairs
As if they are not there, or yet to appear 
You climb fearing that you might trip and break your heel
But when you place your foot on the last step
light emanates
As if a shut door was suddenly flung open to the sun
You see the stairs you climbed
the stairs you built
Then you come down happy
to count the steps you made and climbed



8
One day I will reach the house
Take the weight off my shoulders and place at the door and go in. No one will be there. I will push the door, enter, and sit in the silence. The setting sun divides the house with its sword into two halves: one dark, one lit. I will sit between the darkness and the light. The past flows behind me like a brook. The future wriggles before me like a snail. And I am without time. There, in the silence, between darkness and light, I will become stone, a statue on a huge sculpted boundary stone. With the chisel, the sculptor’s hand will engrave my thigh: This is the boundary. This is the dam. The past’s waters flow to the past and the future’s the opposite direction.
One day I will be a statue with a broken neck: A hand eaten by darkness and another gnawed by light.

[Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon. From Zakaria Mohammed, Kushtuban, Amman/Ramallah: Dar al-Nashir, 2014]
 
Between Home and Homeland: Reflections on New Paintings from the series Eltifaf-Bypass by Rafat Asad
The tension between home and homeland is an ever-present subject that informs the work of many contemporary Palestinian artists. Since the beginning of the uprooting and fragmentation of the Palestinian people by an extended and expanding settler-colonial occupation nearly seventy years ago, the Palestinian experience of home has become largely diasporic and transportable, while their vision of a homeland, appears and disappears like a promising mirage that seductively lays just beyond reach.

[Detail of Rafat Asad's
[Detail of Rafat Asad's "Bypass #13." Image courtesy of Gallery One, Palestine.]

Rafat Asad’s new paintings investigate the chasm between home and homeland with somber images that reflect on the current state of a forced odyssey that continues to be imposed on the Palestinians. Although his artwork is by no means the first to consider the existential crisis caused by catastrophic displacement, Asad’s current paintings are at the forefront of an evolving pictorial tradition that investigates themes of loss, resistance, delusions, and responsibilities, in the epic journey of Palestinians. His images of roads, road barriers, and inaccessible vistas raise numerous timely questions regarding the endgame that may be looming just over the “next turn in the road.” By eliminating the use of figures, recognizable spaces, and overt political symbols Asad’s parsimonious compositions compel the viewer to soberly reflect on a critical juncture in the Palestinians’ historical journey on the “Trail of Tears.[1]

Unlike many of his creative predecessors and contemporaries, Rafat Asad’s new paintings, examine the Palestinians’ troubled crossing between home and homeland from a perspective that deliberately avoids conventional tropes of repression and resistance. His compositions are completely devoid of representations of heroic struggle in the face of tragic suffering and are intentionally absent of personal narratives, intimate histories, national nostalgia, or theatrical gestures. Although several of the paintings are purposely commanding in scale, they are deceptively designed to initially look pedestrian in their compositional structures, and predominantly appear to prioritize formal objectives. At first glance, the viewer can easily mistake Rafat Asad’s paintings as formalist compositions that employ the geometry and the subdued color palette evident in the structures of guard rails, the curves of roads, and the physically imposing silhouettes of billboards and power transformers. In Asad’s paintings, the ubiquitous utilitarian structures that clutter highways are strongly contrasted against the shifting lushness and organic sensuality of landscapes that lay in the background of his compositions, just beyond the immobile barriers. 

                                                                    
  [Rafat Asad, Bypass (2015). Image copyright the artist. Courtesy of Gallery One, Palestine.]

First glance observations of Asad’s paintings are intentionally misleading and have been orchestrated to disarm the viewer’s preconceptions and expectations. The formalism of the paintings allows viewers to gaze at the images without immediately pondering the narrative interplay of familiar similes, imbedded symbols, and intended messages. While the meaning of the paintings is calculated to reveal itself gradually, the pictorial weight of the black fields expedites the viewers’ emotional recognition of the content by imposing a mournful tone on the images. The black fields dominate the shallow foreground of each of the compositions and govern the viewers’ visual, emotional, and intellectual engagement with the paintings.   

Asad’s visual compositions act on the viewer viscerally and are accessed emotionally before they can be analyzed intellectually. It is at the intellectual stage of perception that the viewer begins to reflect on the tension that separates home from homeland, and to perceive the cyclical interplay between the metaphorical representation of national desire and political denial. The compositions that Rafat Asad arranges in his paintings deliberately tease the viewer with the possibilities of open space, distant travel, and the ability to envision a field of dreams that transcends predestined limitations. But the strategically placed barriers in the paintings deny the viewer access to the promised possibilities that deceptively appear just within reach. The barriers compositionally trap the viewers in the unambiguously lifeless black fields that define the shallow foregrounds. The overbearing black foregrounds dominate all of Asad’s compositions and serve as recurring mournful stanzas, demarcating the cyclical progression towards a repeatedly obstructed future.

Asad’s paintings prompt a litany of questions: Where did these roads originate? Where do they lead? Who built them? Where does one stand in this journey? Are the barriers designed to protect or to restrict? Why is access to the landscapes repeatedly denied? Has the land become an open-air-prison? Are the blatantly imposed barriers that restrict and control movement perceived as normally occurring structures by inhabitants/inmates who have grown habituated to their presence? If the nomadic concept of home is where the refugees happen to temporarily settle on their forced “Trail of Tears” then are Rafat Asad’s narrow and sterile black fields a metaphor for the tiny slivers of land that remain of the so-called Homeland/Bantustans/Reservations that the Palestinians have been driven into? Does Asad deliberately place the viewer in the shallow black foreground space so that we become psychological participants in the physical and emotional abyss presented in the paintings? Are the imposing barriers and guardrails metaphors of denial that prohibit access to the desired homeland? Are the blurry and distant landscapes metaphors of an increasingly vanishing homeland? Has the dream of Palestine become as unattainable as the land has become inaccessible?

Rafat Asad’s new paintings are his most ambitious, subtle, and sophisticated works to date. Their conceptual complexity and pictorial intelligence are directly informed by the fact that the images are created by a forty-four-year-old Palestinian artist whose entire life has been defined by the seemingly routine, yet utterly abnormal, daily encounters with the violent restrictions and repressive manipulations of a militarily enforced settler-colonial occupation.

Asad’s new paintings offer a mournful assessment of the actual outcomes of the numerous so-called peace strategies that have been foisted on the Palestinians. The images remind us that the various internationally imposed road-maps-to-peace have deliberately driven the Palestinians deeper into the black hole of occupation while deceptively promising them the normalcy of a homeland. Rafat Asad’s paintings of roads-to-nowhere, offer no opportunities to exit or to turn around. They provide no signage, no road markers, and no accessible information. The slivers of roads depicted in Asad’s paintings present little more than a freshly re-paved “Trail of Tears.” 
                                                 
 [Rafat Asad, Bypass #15 (2015). Image copyright the artist. Courtesy of Gallery One, Palestine.]

In each of the paintings, the road and the landscape presented are fundamentally disconnected from each other through the use of colors, surface treatment, clarity, and focus. There is also a deliberate confusion in the perception of motion in the paintings. This momentary misperception is calculated to further distinguish the static nature of the journey. At first look, Asad’s compositional arrangement of the guardrails and other immobile structures seem to suggest that the viewer is moving forward on the highway. But a closer look reveals that the sharp-focused depictions of the guardrails, fences, and silhouetted billboards identify the viewer as standing still on this highway. Adding to this misperception is the fact that the blurry landscapes appear to suggest forward motion. The indistinct landscapes look like cinematic projections of moving fields that are being screened behind a stationary prop, in order to imply a sense of forward movement from the vantage point of the viewer. But in fact the opposite is depicted in Asad’s paintings. It is the landscapes that are moving away while the vantage point of the viewer is completely stationary. The fixed vantage points conveyed by the thin slivers of foreground spaces communicate an absolute stillness of movement, advancing the metaphor of being increasingly trapped in a devastating political black hole. The black fields represented in Asad’s paintings are airless, sterile, and vacuum-like in the disturbing pictorial power they exert.

In Asad’s illusory journeys to a homeland, what at first appear like ordinary representations of roads, guardrails, and barriers, serve fundamentally as metaphors of constant and seemingly accustomed restrictions. Asad’s paintings are presented as ordinary scenes that comment on the unordinary existence of indigenous inhabitants who continue to be herded into disconnected “reservations.”
Corralled onto a highway to nowhere, the displaced and trapped travelers possess nothing but their dreams and imagination to transport them beyond the rigidly imposed barriers, and carry them from nomadic homes to a desired homeland.

*Eltifaf-Bypasswas on view at Gallery One from 4 April until 19 March, 2016.
 

[1] “The Trail of Tears” is a term first used by the Cherokee Nation to describe the genocidal removal from their native lands, of all indigenous tribes living east of the Mississippi River, in the southern United States.
To facilitate the flood of white settlers who coveted the fertile lands of the Indigenous People, the forced removal of Native Tribes was repeatedly and brutally implemented throughout the Americas. President Andrew Jackson’s signing of “The Indian Removal Act” into law in 1830, made the genocidal removal of the Native Tribes that constituted the Indigenous People of North America, an officially sanctioned and militarily enforced policy of the settler-colonial government of the United States of America.  
Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog

Abdul Hadi Sadoun. Photo from author

An Excerpt from Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog

(Translated by Andrew Leber)

(Reviewed and Edited by Elisabeth Jacquette)

[Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog, a novel by Madrid-based Iraqi author Abdul Hadi Sadoun, comes after more than ten collections of short stories and poetry, a novella, and dozens of Arabic- and Spanish-language essays and translations by the same author. The story is told by an Iraqi dog named “Leader,” harkening back to traditions of storytelling from the perspectives of animals. Yet the book retains the form of a modern narrator, while its style approximates that of a picaresque novel as it follows the life of one person from birth until the end of his days. Likewise, there is an intertextual relationship with the novels of Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes, particularly those which examine the affairs of humans through the watchful eyes of animals. The difference here is that the animal (here a dog) has become the principle focus and indeed the main character of a set of personal memoirs.

Over the course of 28 chapters, the protagonist tells of the strange and wonderful events of his life. He begins with his birth on the banks of the Tigris, to an Iraqi Seluki-hound father and a Spanish Sabueso Scenthound mother, and the companionship of his master, a teacher politically opposed to conditions under Ba‘athist rule, who teaches the dog how to read and write. He recounts the many hunting trips he took part in, including one with the President’s son – a trip which would try him against the political circumstances of the time, leaving him homeless, imprisoned, separated from his owner.

He experiences the loss of his family, the forced migration of his brothers, and the death of his teacher, felled by an unknown hand after suffering in the prisons of the previous dictatorial regime. At the same time, he explores the conditions of his country after the fall of the tyrant and sees the impact of an international military intervention that has swept through the country. His many peregrinations from one location to the next, bring him into contact with many other dogs: gangs of dogs, siblings scattered to the winds, friends and dire enemies, love deferred and permanent loss. He wanders until his final flight from the country, whereupon he takes up residence in another land (“I’d rather not say the name”, he says), and from there lives from moment to moment, concentrating his energies on writing down his canine memoirs, that he might leave behind some trace for those who wish to follow in his pawsteps.

The protagonist is a wise dog, fluent in more than one language thanks to his owner, the teacher, who loves to read and observe humans. He is a skilled hunter who comes to hate killing, eventually becoming a vegetarian after he starts to loath the taste of blood. He realizes after the course of his life, in all its vicissitudes, that each of us plots his own course, a course that we must follow despite all the setbacks and changes we are bound to face in our short lives.

Preface to the Memoirs

In a country whose name I would rather not mention, I sit here today and so shall remain until my dying bark, setting down these recollections of my life. As you know, dogs of my species do not live longer than twelve human years, or about ninety of our dog years, though I certainly do not aspire to reach such an advanced age.

I sit now in the corner of a dilapidated old house, thanking God that I have found shelter from the scorching sun and the driving rain, on a stone bench near the storeroom where I can spend my final days in relative comfort. I am sure you have realized that I was forced to leave my home country, Iraq. Since I have witnessed nothing of note in the year and a half since I arrived in this country (whose name, as noted, I would rather not mention), you will not hear a thing in these accounts about my current residence.

The canine species is known for being quite physically active, so you may be surprised to find me quietly devoting my remaining days to writing these memoirs, one bark after another (as the critics would have it). Let me repeat that, dear reader – this account contains no empty bragging, nor is it an elaborate joke at your expense. No, the aches and pains of old age, along with hunger and poverty (not to mention the open wound of leaving my homeland, Iraq), weigh on me too heavily these days- too heavily for me (or you, for that matter) to joke about what I will come to describe.

You must know that I am not the first of my kind to put my recollections in writing. Still, I may be the first to write them while in exile, as I have not had the pleasure of reading the memoirs of a dog far away from his home. I have heard of cats, goats, and cows who have described long days of travel or adventures abroad in their writings - but a dog? I might be the first, then.

I must admit, though, that I have benefited greatly from the animals who preceded me in chronicling their unusual experiences. As you know, none of us ever writes something completely new – it is all so much repetition and plagiarism, with a little corrective addition here, or a few digressions there, with some omissions or embellishments to round it out. I cannot say my own experience has been all that different, aside from the fact that these barks are my own and no other’s.

I do not exaggerate in saying that my main inspiration has been the novel Colloquy of the Dogs, by Cervantes. I had no idea who Cervantes was before my first master, a teacher, mentioned him. He was always reading Cervantes, telling me bits and pieces of the man’s long and difficult life, but I did not bother to learn more about him at the time (and certainly will not bother now!). Yet as soon as my master mentioned this “exemplary novel” of Cervantes, I barked and barked for more; from that day on I never tired of hearing the story, and had soon learned all of its details by heart.

Still, dear reader, know that there is no deception here - I relied on that novel solely as a vivid example of what I might be able to write, and not once did I copy it outright. Everything I write of truly happened to me, and (aside from their mention here) bears no relation whatsoever to those two tailless dogs invented by a one-armed man.

I recall hearing that someone, I know not who (forgive me – my memory fails me more and more these days) advised writers in my position to recount their memoirs in the first person, for two reasons. First of all, these are private, personal recollections. Second, and more importantly, I should make these lines cling to everyone who encounters them, close as the eyelid to the eye (as the Iraqi folk song goes), as gripping as if they were the reader’s own personal experiences. I do so in the hopes that this can be an example for dogs of the future, should they wish to write out the chapters of their own lives.

I have nothing else to add, save the following: I say simply that I am called “Leader,” that I am writing these memoirs of my own free will, and that my sole intention is to review the details of my life, running them through my mind like a cassette tape, to relive both their bitterness and their sweetness. Our lives may amount to no more than scribbles such as this, stamped with an unknown seal, as the Bohemians put it – yet the writings we ourselves find unworthy of attention might, for others, prove more than mere testimony of having survived life’s vicissitudes.

I have not seen you since the teacher gave me to a friend of his. He thought I was done for, no longer good for anything. Yet the truth was that my shattered paw and the fact that I was lame left me ready for anything. The man into whose care I now fell, he could see that. He would leave me alone, starve me of food or water for long stretches of time, then present me with easy prey, and I would tear it apart in minutes. In the beginning he offered me chickens and other kinds of birds, and from there moved on to sheep, rabbits, goats – even wild boar, from who knows where. Clearly, he was training me to fight. Days of starvation, then the thrill of combat. Fight after fight, until that decisive moment when you saw me face-to-face with a stray dog. He barely lasted a minute with me. The wretch died between my fangs before he could even put up a fight.

After a long period of training, and many bouts with dogs of all shapes and sizes, my new master drove me to a place far outside of the city. There, in a remote farm that belonged to some important state officials, I took part in my very first official fight. It would lead to many more like it, there and in other places much like it. As my fame grew, so did my brutality, and with it my victories. I watched my beaming master lead me from one arena to another, with nothing for me to do but add to the list of dogs wasted beneath my feet, their blood staining my mouth and body. They called me “The Killer Cripple,” all of them wishing their own dogs had my agility and my fierce drive as I circled my victims. My fame grew, and not a week went by that I didn’t find myself in a fighting arena, facing a new challenger. So many broken bodies and snapped necks have passed between my teeth that I have lost track of how many dogs I faced in those rounds. I cannot even remember their faces, stretched out at my feet.

Still, all that begins soon comes to an end!

In those last few days, my master brought me to fighting rings at the mansions of important people - even the mansion of the president himself. People from all levels of society were there. I noticed the President’s son at the front of the pack - I was to fight his dog in one of my bouts. I could knock him down as easily as I had the other fierce dogs, I thought - though I felt a strange current moving through the crowd around me, one that my master was soon a part of.

He and several others took me to a side room, where they tied me to a column and beat my left paw fiercely, crippling me further. They thrashed my neck and back until I heard the bones crack, then stuck a tube in my rear and blew into it. They spread a strange paste on my teeth, then left me. After a quarter of an hour, my master came and untied me, dragging me towards the arena to face the largest dog I had ever set eyes on. I was broken in every sense of the word: drugged, barely able to move or even stand. As I faced that beast, I knew he belonged to the President’s son, and I saw the man puffing out clouds of cigar smoke as he eagerly waited for his dog to pulverize me. I understood then what they had done to me, drugging and beating me, all so that I couldn’t defeat his precious dog.

That beast of a dog didn’t even let me catch my breath before he was upon me, slamming his body into me and hurling me against the chain-link fence surrounding the ring. I had no chance to get out of this alive - everyone there had already decided that I would be the sacrificial offering. Yet something within me refused to play along. I remained calm, despite his bites and kicks raining down, and when he relaxed his neck, thinking that I was all but dead, I found my opening, my one chance. I spun around, freeing up my body as much as I could, and made that lame jump known to anybody who had seen my previous fights. A jump so nimble it surprised the dog in front of me, just as it had surprised so many other dogs who had died between my teeth. It was a movement so precise, the other dog did not know where I had gone until he felt my sharp fangs sinking into his throat. My paws clung fast to his fearsome body, locking him in place, and from then no power on earth could save him from me.

Without relaxing my muscles, I watched the son’s dog sputter and cough. Around me, the scattered crowd was screaming all manner of words, but nobody would cheer me on before the son’s crazed gaze, as he watched his dog die between my teeth. In the moments before I released the dog, his spirit gone, I noticed the son signaling to several others. And then I saw that I was suddenly facing three massive dogs, each as big as the corpse that lay drowning in its own blood before me. I felt the sting of defeat. I could not see anybody objecting, and I myself was not about to, though I did not for a second believe that I could win out against three dogs at once, dogs trained like me to fight and kill. I tried with all my might to get up, but I failed. I was being bitten, bloodied and tossed around by the three, who savored tearing at my limbs and licking up my blood until I lost consciousness entirely. I was thrown to the earth near the body of the beast, and I thought I was finished. Dead. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep, departing this world forever.

I must have been unconscious for hours, before I felt my body tossed onto the garbage heaps outside the city.

It was hard to move. Open wounds still oozed blood all over my body, my neck half-crushed, my paws broken. Yet I was still alive, there atop a garbage pile as tall as a large building. I figured my master or somebody had driven my bloody corpse out here. Maybe they knew I was still alive (though clearly no good for anything), but still tossed me here without a second thought, leaving fate to determine whether I lived or died. To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t finish me off with a single bullet. Could anything have been easier?

What followed was a months-long journey of pain and recovery.

Hidden from sight, I slowly regained my strength, and began to see things in a new light. My primary concern was treating all my wounds, and I barely went out save to obtain what I needed to stay alive, like a mouse in a hole. I hid from sight as much as possible; No power of heaven or earth could force me to make an appearance – my only concern was staying alive.

During those months of recovery, I began to understand life differently. Life wasn’t simply a dog-fighting ring, but so much more. Yet on the other hand, if life itself decreed a certain path for you to take, who were you to think otherwise? I began to march to the beat of a different drummer during those months, as I slowly began to recover from my wounds of the body and the mind. I started to think that life might have something new in store for me, yet the fates had new confrontations in mind.

And now you see me leading a gang of canine bandits. Yes, bandits – for what else could we be amidst such insecurity and lawlessness? My options were to let the gang tear me to pieces – resistance would have been impossible – or, within a few moments, dig up everything I had tried so hard to forget during those long months of recovery. I chose the latte

In an instant, I regained my sense of killing and fighting, and brought the group under my control. It all happened without a bloody confrontation to speak of. It was as if they had been waiting for me, in need of my leadership, and I was happy to take control of the gang. From then on, I led them under the title of “General,” a delusion my gang would defend unto death.

Today, owing to the recent events, I rule a large fiefdom near the border - none of my flock rejects an order from me, or dares oppose me. I act alone, more convinced with each day that I am a true general to my troops, destined to achieve a great victory or die a cruel death. But let me tell you, my brother, I am convinced that my last day will come from one of my aides, or one of the stronger gangs that multiply around us, competing for profit. All that I have done before, and all that I do today, will mean nothing. Yet fighting is the only thing I have known since I was a whelp, the only thing I have been taught - I have no choice but to stick with it until the very end. No choice but to put the best face forward (or the worst face… who knows?) and carry on until the end. The final round.

[From Mudhakkirat Kalb Iraqi (Memoirs of an Iraqi Dog (Thaqafa lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi`, 2012)]

(Reprublished with permission of Jadilliya ezine).