Shalash Speaks . . .

Credit Harriet Yakub

OCTOBER 8, 2005

Plato’s Block

As you may or may not know, a block in Thawra City is a square residential division of a thousand homes. On the map, the eighty or so blocks that comprise Thawra City resemble each other like so many peas in a pod. So let me invite you, as my guest, I make you my guest to take a closer look at ours. Our block has more philosophers than Athens ever had. Our block has more politicians than all the countries of the European Union. Our block has more radicals than the Irish Republican Army; more priests than the Vatican; and more gangs, petty thieves and armed robbers than all the mafias of Italy. Our block has more civil-society organizations than appeared in all of Iraq after the fall of the regime; more political parties than Latin America; and more noble and exalted descendants of the Prophet Muhammad than the actual number of people residing in said block.

There are more tribal sheikhs living on our block than there were Sheikhs of Araby before Islam – and after. We have more journalists on our block than are employed by Reuters, and more poets than Mauritania. We have more tabla players than Atatürk’s Turkish Republic, just as we have more singers on our block than all of Sister Egypt. Just one subdivision of our block contains more children than a whole province of China. Our block has more communists than Poland did before perestroika, and our block contains an arsenal of small arms whose combined firepower more than matches that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our block boasts a number of martyrs far exceeding all the martyrs of Algeria. Our block houses more political prisoners than could be found in Stalin’s gulag.

Our block has more radicals than the Irish Republican Army more priests than the Vatican: and more gangs, petty thieves and armed robbers than all the mafias of Italy.

Our block also has a run-down elementary school built in the early 60s. It’s now a clinic that can boast more patients than medicine or staff to treat them. There’s not even a single doctor, just one trained nurse, a pharmacist-by-intuition (that is, with no training), and one ‘nurse’ whose mother was a licensed midwife and bequeathed her daughter that profession when she died. Oh, there’s also the woman who mans the door – sometimes she delivers medicine, and sometimes she tries her hand at treating light wounds.

Our block has a barber, Papa Spittoon, who, with all the power outages and water shortages these days, uses his saliva as shaving cream. It works fine, okay? One way or another he’ll get your beard off. And our block has a TV repairman, which makes us the envy of all the neighbouring blocks, even though his expertise is limited to sending our televisions fifty years back in time. That is, he loves to watch things in black and white, and thanks to his unique brand of ingenuity, he’s able to restore even colour sets to black and white – and sometimes just black. And our block has a butcher who does his slaughtering on the roof and his selling in the street, and of course our block also has the Rosanna Supermarket, where you can buy all the Pepsi anyone could want – as long as you don’t mind it being bottled exclusively right here in our block.

Our block has a mosque that was silent for forty years – now it’s making up for lost time by constantly beating us over the head. Besides the calls to prayer, we hear chanting all year round, as if someone’s a little too enthusiastic about flagellating themselves raw and bloody, as during the festival of Ashura. There are also those rushed prayers they’ve started conducting before the main prayers get going (such an innovation in piety!), plus religious poems, call-and-response venerations of the Prophet’s martyred grandson, Husayn, and teachings from Sayyid Muqtada’s office. And the mosque’s antique, trumpet-like speakers parcel out weeping even on happy festival days.

Our block has a satellite-dish shop, Mahdi’s Dish Receivers, which sold out of everything the first week of the month and then closed down because Mahdi got ‘too busy’. Our block has a woman selling beans who’ll also throw in a little fortune telling free of charge if you just agree to sit at her door for a few minutes.

Our block has so many horses as to embarrass the Royal Mews in Britain, and the noble residents of our block happen to own more Afghan mules than all the farmers of Afghanistan. Our block can boast more open sewers than the city of Venice with all its hundreds of rivers and canals. Our block has more pictures of ugly turbaned men hanging on its walls than we ever put up for Saddam. And then, the apartment buildings in our block put up more flags, particularly during Ashura, than the United Nations. (Flags of every sort of colour and shape, though not a single one is the flag of Iraq.)

In our block there’s not even half of a Ba’athist. The sons of our block have no clue what that word even means! Our sons were never signed up for Saddam’s Quds Force or for his paramilitary fedayeen. Our sons never wore the uniform of the People’s Army, and, in fact, none of us has ever in our lives laid eyes on that olive colour in which party comrades would strut about in the old days. In our block, we’ve never had one of those tribal bards who would raise streaming banners before Saddam and lead the call of ‘Hail, Mr President!’ According to the testimony of no less a personage than Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN, our block is entirely clean of Ba’athists, and all those we unjustly used to call ‘comrades’ have turned out to be partisans of Ahmed Chalabi or Ayad Allawi, members of the Sadr movement, or followers of the exalted religious clerkship (or perhaps one that’s not so exalted). Or else we merely dreamed those fantastical creatures up for so many years. Now that the regime has fallen, we’ve woken up and can’t find a single trace of them!

Still, between you and me, our block has lots of other things too. Secret things. And if those things came to light, believe me, the stink would be so bad that it would reach the Eskimos and make them sneeze in their igloos.

But mum’s the word!

OCTOBER 5, 2005

Hassoun the Dane Spends His Vacation in the Nation’s Heartland.

My neighbour Hassoun just got back from Denmark. He’s staying with his family here in Thawra City. The first person to report on his reappearance was Khanjar, that meddlesome son of a meddlesome man, saying ‘What?! He shaved his moustache right off!’

All us neighbours crowded together inside Hassoun’s place, turning this novelty inside out with our stares. Some of the women called out blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad and the Prophet’s household so that Hassoun would be protected from the evil eye; others took this opportunity to find fault with his fancy clothes and his new, pretentious way of talking. ‘Look who’s gotten too big for his boots,’ said one.

That wasn’t what interested the men and the older boys, though. They were waiting for Hassoun to finish with all the welcomes and all the see-you-soons so he could spill his guts to them about his sexual adventures abroad – for Hassoun had undoubtedly indulged himself with plenty of young Danish women, not to mention Danish divorcées, as the spirit had moved him.

Whereas all Hassoun could think about was how miserable he was to have come home. He was in agony, let’s not mince words. There was the climate – the temperature here felt simply lethal to him now. And then the filth of it! He couldn’t bear sitting anywhere dirty, and the house wasn’t exactly clean. There was no way, absolutely none, that he could reuse cups or dishes that hadn’t been washed. Anything less than what he’d gotten used to in Denmark was unacceptable. Likewise, he had a throbbing migraine from the constant roar of the generator. But he could hardly admit all that; he could hardly say anything without being cut short: ‘Hey, who do you think you are, anyway? Why do you keep blabbering on about this Denmark? What, you think we haven’t been around the block a few times ourselves?’

Khanjar – that despicable son of a despicable man – led the charge. He couldn’t wait to find something to hold against Hassoun. He brooded there like a knife in his side. Every so often he would say something like, ‘Hassoun, you’re not the only one who’s travelled, okay? We took a trip to Iran to see the shrine of the Eighth Imam once, remember? And we’ve been to Syria to visit the tomb of Zaynab bint Ali. And in a few days, we’re even going to go to Turkey!’

Luckily, Hassoun’s aunt, Umm Jabbar, was there too. She was a nice lady who worked at the government food bank in some official capacity. She had a sense of how much Hassoun the Dane must be suffering, particularly as she was used to dealing with cheeses. Yes – as it goes with cheese, so goes it with men. Umm Jabbar could as easily judge the worth of a man as compare Egyptian cheese – with which Saddam used to poison us during the days of the sanctions – to the soft, delicious Danish cheeses that Hassoun now resembled. That’s what prompted her direct request, delivered in an imperious tone: ‘Come along, then, all of you! Let the boy get some rest! You’re killing him! Nephew Hassoun, go to your room. Relax a little, take a nap.’

Hassoun couldn’t believe his luck. He obeyed: got to his feet, hitched up his jeans, headed off into the next room. But back he rushed in alarm only a few seconds later.

‘What’s wrong, my son?’ asked his mother, reaching up to caress his face. ‘In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, what’s the matter, my child?’ But Hassoun didn’t so much as look at her, just stood there stock still, his mouth hanging open. ‘What’s wrong with you, child? Speak!’

Hassoun could only point mutely toward the room he’d so quickly vacated. His mother of course rushed over to find out what on earth had so spooked her son. Hassoun’s sister-in-law and a few other women I didn’t recognize accompanied her.

Hassoun’s mother grasped the problem at once. She came back and laughed in her son’s face. ‘What’s wrong with you, child? Why so scared? That’s only your brother’s rocket launcher and your brother-in-law’s old machine gun. The other stuff, the explosives, rifles and grenades, those are all ours. Look, child, we’ve all joined Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, didn’t you know? What, you never heard about the Mahdi Army in Denmark, my dear, sweet child?’

This was one blow too many for poor Hassoun. Here he’d come to visit the home of his honourable family only to find that they’d become a detachment of fifth columnists while he was away! And yet, even still, Hassoun allowed himself to be convinced to stretch out on the bed and close his eyes for a bit amid all those guns and bombs. His mother tucked him in with a beauteous smile upon her face.

At which point the well-wishers saw the fun was over and decided to leave. I’d like to report some of the comments I heard as people passed me at the door, intending to go their separate ways:
‘It’s no wonder he was shocked. He’s probably never seen a gun in his life. The boy’s been a draft dodger as far back as I can remember.’

And yet, even still, Hassoun allowed himself to be convinced to stretch out on the bed and close his eyes for a bit amid all those guns and bombs.

‘Give him a break, guys, he’ll come to his senses eventually.’

‘Hey, it’s not like the Danes don’t kill people like anyone else. They know plenty about guns over there. Denmark even had troops in the attack on Al-Suwaira in the ’91 war, remember? But what can I say, Hassoun’s always been a bit . . . you know.’

‘The way Hassoun jumped! Like a cat at the dog pound!’

‘Hassoun off to Denmark while we’re stuck here being eaten alive by bugs. Sure as hell didn’t see that coming.’

But that rat and son of a rat Khanjar didn’t leave with everyone else. He stuck around Hassoun’s house, trying to ferret out information, since he still hadn’t gotten answers to his many questions . . . Questions like:

‘How many dollars did he bring back? How long’s he going to stay? Does he support Sadr? Or is he with Sistani? Is it true he’s going to marry a local girl and take her back to Europe with him? Is it true he’s already married an old Danish widow? Will he be visiting the shrines of the Imams while he’s home, particularly Al-Kadhimiya Mosque, or is he going to spend the whole time drunk? Is he spending his whole vacation with family, or is he going to move into a fancy hotel at the first opportunity? That’s what Farhan, the quilter’s son, did when he came back last year from Australia . . .’

But that’s only a sampling! That rogue and son of a rogue Khanjar had plenty more shots in his locker, and no intention of giving up till he got what he was after. For that reason, among others, Khanjar held firm despite all the hints from Hassoun’s mother and sister, increasingly brazen, that it was past time for him to get going. Khanjar pretended not to notice. Pretended to be deaf and blind both.

Meanwhile, it transpired that the crowd who’d left the Hassoun house hadn’t gone home either. They were still outside, standing around, burning for news from their spy, Khanjar, who was taking so long to come out. It took till long after half the rooster slaughtered for Hassoun’s arrival had flown down his gullet for Khanjar to come out for an audience, smacking his awful lips and sucking his greasy fingers. He made no statement apart from a single sentence delivered in passing:

‘Uncles, don’t tell me you really fell for Hassoun’s theatrics? The weapons in that room are actually part of a crooked deal with the Danes. Our very own Hassoun the Clean-Shaven brought them into the country with the intention of hand-delivering them to the minister of defense, Hazim al-Shaalan, as part of al-Shaalan’s latest profiteering scheme.’