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Declining Freedom

Translator’s Note:  In Wajdi al-Ahdal’s novel Donkey in the Choir, Tha’ira, the rebellious wife of a Yemeni politician, has neglected work on her master’s degree since her marriage to Ali Jibran.  Morning excursions through Sanaa provide her some relief from the boredom of her sequestered life. Meanwhile a serial killer has moved into the Hulqum neighborhood of Sanaa. Once the killing spree begins, the subsequent police investigation quickly identifies a series of suspects.  Each is summarily executed, one after the other, and then proven innocent by another murder after his execution.

In this extract Tha’ira’s routine excursion turns violent.

Tha’ira donned her black coat, covered her face with a sheer black veil, and quit her jail to see the world on a long morning excursion, which she would begin with shopping and end with a brief visit to a girlfriend.

At approximately nine a.m. she and her ten-year-old servant, Umar, reached Hulqum’s expansive market, which she found moribund, with little pedestrian traffic.  She knew that most trading was conducted before sunrise when the owners of grocery stores in nearby neighborhoods flocked there to purchase the produce they needed from wholesalers.

Grasping Umar’s small hand in her broad palm, which was as soft as a silk pillow, she began to comb the market.  She made her way between corrugated metal booths that sold any used object you could imagine—clothes, furniture, carpets, electric appliances, metal pipe, plugs, and actually even shoes, combs, scissors, tweezers, handkerchiefs, and similar personal care items.

Tha’ira felt depressed when she considered these accursed vendors who offered other people’s lives for sale, exhibiting them publicly like this, with no regard for privacy.

She didn’t need to purchase any of these used items, because in her well-stocked handbag she always carried enough money to buy the newest and most fashionable products on sale in upscale markets, but curiosity and the sad feelings that the public display of these housewares stirred in her inspired her to satisfy an inchoate drive in her spirit to linger over rusty sardine cans.

Over the course of time she had become skilled at discerning the provenance of objects offered for sale.  Merchandise displayed within easy reach came from impecunious people who needed a few riyals to ward off calamitous hunger.  Goods placed out of reach but where they would catch the customer’s eye had been stolen and then purchased from the thieves, who broke into houses.  Idiosyncratic items placed well away from even the vendor’s line of sight, items he wouldn’t touch unless forced to, had come to him in some very clandestine manner, because chances were that their ownership could be traced back to people who had recently died.

The sun sent down its hide-searing rays with generous euphoria at this early hour when cold winds competed with them to create dust devils varying in height from dwarves no more than a meter or half a meter high to giants that struggled to rise tens of meters into the air.  One of these giants passed near Tha’ira and its dust invaded her mouth, nose, and eyes, afflicting her with a bout of coughing and a shortness of breath that made it hard for her to walk.  So she sat down on a stone bench and wiped her forehead with a tissue.  She sensed that the whole surface of her skin had been soiled by the dust, even areas shielded by multiple layers of clothing.

Feeling out of sorts, she continued on to the chicken market, where its shops, boutiques, and passageways were formed of cages of various sizes.  She traversed this maze quickly, almost suffocated by the disgusting stink of the chickens, as she searched for the corner where rural women sold local poultry.

The sight of the ground covered with countless white feathers enchanted her, and she smiled when the thought crossed her mind that if pens had not been invented, she would have been able to select whichever quill she wanted to write, at last, her MA thesis on governance in Sabaean civilization, a thesis that she had neglected since her marriage to Ali Jibran three years earlier.

The racket made by the chickens’ clucking, the vendors’ yells, and the haggling of the customers reminded her of the tumult of the massive student demonstrations she had joined to protest a rise in the price of fuel.  A faint laugh escaped from her when she remembered her suffering back then when one day she had carried a video camera to film repression by the police, who were combating her comrades’ uprising with electric prods and tear gas.  Once they noticed what she was doing, they had chased her and fired shots in the air to frighten her.  Then she had hidden in a group of women comrades, removed the tape, and concealed it between her thighs.  When the soldiers had reached her, they had confiscated the camera, but one of her women comrades, an agent for the security forces, had ratted on her; then tens of coarse, rough hands had explored the recesses of her body.

The tape had been torn into extremely small bits and her white underpants had been ripped in the worst possible way.  For a month after the demonstration she had itched from the scratches their filthy fingernails had left on her skin.

She squatted opposite an old country woman in her stall, which had a few dark-colored chickens that stood firm-footed and erect in a dusty basin.  She chose three hens with pupils that sparkled with the glow of health and wellbeing and handed them to Umar.  Then she paid the old woman, whose clothes were as dark as her chickens’ feathers, a sum slightly higher than the price agreed upon.

Umar preceded her to the area where adolescents, who had set up shop in the open, offered to slaughter, pluck, and dismember chickens for a paltry fee.

Swarms of cats, dogs, kites, and crows circled this primitive slaughterhouse, where the heads of hens and cocks littered the ground like precious gems that no one had yet discovered.  The soil had turned a black that was almost purple from all the blood it had absorbed.  Even though it smelled nasty, this place fascinated her and inspired in her a hard-to-describe amalgam of conflicting emotions as her heart beat faster and blood boiled in her veins.  Her inner eye began to swing into operation.  She had read a number of books about reincarnation but hadn’t been at all convinced.  Despite her scientific bent, the sight of the chicken hanging by a foot from the butcher’s rope while his knife chopped it into pieces conjured up in her imagination the memory of murky historical events sunk in the gloom of time as she sensed that the area around her was tottering and taking on characteristics it had enjoyed centuries earlier.

Noticing a cloud that resembled a white ewe running toward the sun’s disk, she waved to it.  Then she turned and sighed deeply after assuring herself that no one had noticed her harebrained gesture.

Flies were landing by the millions, congregating on the offal and cadavers of chickens that Azrael had “purchased,” before the owners intervened and sold the flesh to customers.

She saw that Umar, who had relieved himself of the burden of carrying the hens by handing them to a butcher two years his junior, was amusing himself by playing with the flies.  As he bounded first here and then there, they fled from him like a blue-and-black mosaic wall that made a loud buzzing like the drone of aircraft.

Umar’s delight in his ability to terrify these insignificant insects kindled a philosophical sensitivity in Tha’ira’s head, and she told herself: These creatures are crushed and despised, and I’ve never heard anyone praise them, but they’re quite content to live like that . . . without any prophets or social reformers.  They’re lucky to be forgotten.  We too should forget, so our lives can develop the way they ought.

She turned into the vegetable vendors’ bivouac, and young boys with handcarts raced toward her, arguing violently with one another, because they knew she paid liberally.  She was forced to scream and use her fist to end the struggle to the advantage of the youngest boy, who was only seven; he was barefoot, had thick, coal-black hair and wide eyes, which were clouded by tears, and wore filthy rags that emitted a nauseating stench.

She bought the fresh vegetables she needed, asked Umar to escort the boy and his cart back to their house, and instructed him to urge Sa‘diya, the cook, to boil the three chickens right away, before she did anything else.  After telling him she was going to visit a girlfriend, she sent him on his way.

She walked along a street that no one had taken the initiative to name and scanned the windows of the residential apartments, finding all of them closed and the curtains drawn tight to protect their inhabitants from prying eyes.  Even if these windows were opened for ventilation on rare occasions, the curtains would remain closed, as if they formed part of the wall.

She told herself that she lived in a country where everything is screened from view and that she resided in a society that is so afraid of itself it is paranoid;  houses had become prison cells and windows no longer served their original function, because they had become solid, like skylights used for the most part only to illuminate rooms by day.  She considered writing an essay in which she would analyze the reasons for this alarming decrease in the use of windows by human beings.  In her essay’s introduction she thought she would point out that the window is a house’s lungs and its inhabitants’ eyes on the outside world.  Then she would clarify how a window’s benefits had turned into handicaps because of the sexual repression prevalent in society and how the window, instead of acting as the house’s residents’ eye on the outside world, had changed to the outside world’s eye on the house’s inhabitants, used to keep track of what they did and didn’t do.

Even air’s entry through windows was no longer guaranteed, because other inappropriate things might get in, the least significant of these being obscene comments.  She would conclude the essay with a hope for the future.  This was for the day to arrive when she could push back the curtains and open wide her room’s windows to look down on the street without any cheeky fellow vexing her by wiggling his eyebrows or any silly rogue upsetting her with his whistle and catcall, which masqueraded as love songs.  Then she would be able to stand for hours breathing in the fresh air and enjoying gazing at the sky and earth without anyone roiling her serenity; and then she would know for certain that her country had been cured of its chronic disease and that it had finally become a normal land where a person could satisfy his basic needs, simply and easily, enjoying at least a minimum of life’s pleasures, one of which is surely looking out of the window.

A young man driving a Jerry-Can Special (a Toyota Land Cruiser),  his face as round as the full moon but disfigured by the traces of smallpox, interrupted her line of thought when he began to shower her with vile insinuations, inviting her to climb into the front seat with him.

She ignored him and continued on her way, but he kept following her, waving a wad of money at her and gradually increasing the amount.  When he noticed there were no pedestrians on the street, he hopped out of the car brandishing a revolver and grabbed her arm, attempting to force her into the car at gunpoint.  A callow youth of about twenty, he had curly hair and was clean shaven except for a slender mustache.  Powerfully built, with sturdy arms, he looked stupid and impetuous.

Tha’ira, who wasn’t intimidated by his weapon, screamed for help and resisted him ferociously.  At any rate she wasn’t a wisp of a girl he could hoist with a single hand.  In fact, she weighed almost seventy kilos, and her body was full-figured and gushed with vigor and health.  That young man, who was shorter than Tha’ira, would not have been able to carry her in his arms, no matter how strong he was.

The fish leaped about in the fisherman’s net for almost seventy seconds without him managing to land her; then the hand that held the revolver received a crushing blow that rocked the youth’s entire body.  A jolt of pain shot to his brain’s cerebral cortex and the revolver fell to the ground.  With his other hand, he lifted his wounded forearm to his chest and, without looking behind him, hurriedly leaped into his swift car.  In just moments he had disappeared from the street as if he had been a ghost.

Tha’ira was gasping for breath and her cheeks had turned as red as a glowing sunset.  Her entire body was trembling  with fear and rage as she looked at her rescuer, who was holding a metal pipe.  Her eyes blinked nonstop from emotion, but her tongue was paralyzed; so she didn’t offer even a word of thanks to him.  She felt all the more distraught when in the blink of an eye—after the would-be kidnapper had fled—she was surrounded by a drove of men, women, and children, all speaking at once.  She didn’t notice she was barefaced until a scowling male volunteer plucked her black veil from the ground and handed it to her, although he had watched everything that had happened to her from the end of the street and hadn’t moved a muscle while she fought off her assailant.  So she realized that the assailant had pulled the niqab from her face during the struggle.  Then she felt ashamed, and tears clouded her eyes on account of the disgraceful unveiling she had suffered.  She covered her face with the veil as best she could to shield her deep emotions from the eyes of the curious onlookers.

A girl with sleepy eyes presented her with her handbag, which was grimy with dirt and which she reclaimed apprehensively.  When her rescuer sensed that she was preparing to depart, he offered her the assailant’s revolver, saying, “Take this pistol.  Please wait till I write down his car’s tag number.”

She didn’t understand a thing he said.  She saw all her surroundings as if they were lost in a fog.  Without any particular objective in mind, she accepted the gun from him and thrust it into her pocketbook.  She watched as he moved away and disappeared into some shop or other.  The next thing she knew, she was heading in the other direction, quickening her pace to return home.  She would have liked nothing better than to be able to run at top speed but feared she would attract attention just when she felt an enormous anxiety about every person who glanced her way, suspecting he knew what had happened to her.

She was panting for breath by the time she reached the villa; without greeting anyone, she climbed to her room in a daze.  The moment she had locked the door, her eyes flooded with tears, which continued flowing for most of the next two hours, and her temperature shot up as if she were suffering from a relapse of malaria.

She sank into a deep slumber.  When she awoke, she felt that the whole world was spinning around her, and the gloom obscuring the room troubled her.  Once she pulled herself together, she realized that she had slept from noon till after dark.

Because she had slept soundly and hadn’t been troubled by her recurrent nightmare, she felt vigorous and ravenously hungry.  She looked at the wall clock but couldn’t make out its hands.  So she rose and parted the thick curtains a little.  The neon lights outside furtively illuminated the room, and when she looked at the clock she found that it was seven-thirty.

Drawn to the opening at the window, she stood watching the vehicular and pedestrian traffic, her mind preoccupied by thoughts of the attempted kidnapping from which she had been miraculously rescued.  She blamed herself for neglecting to get the tag number of that heedless idiot and wondered whether she should tell her husband about the incident or not.  She finally decided not to tell him anything, justifying this with her phrase: There’s no need for scandals.

Once she had reached this decision, she emerged from her shell and headed to the kitchen, where the cook, Sa‘diya, had left her supper on the stove.  She warmed up the chicken stew and the sautéed greens, which she ate greedily from the pans, because she was so very hungry.  She finished her quick meal, which she consumed standing, by drinking the thick, rich broth left at the bottom of the pan. 

After quenching her thirst, she went down to the basement, where she found Umar in his cramped room lying on his side doing homework.

She sat on his cotton pallet on the floor and, looking up, noticed--dangling from the ceiling--a wire that ended in a noose with a yellow bulb at one side.  She was distressed that these gallows should hang day and night over the head of this small boy, whose father had died.

She cleared her throat and asked him affectionately, “Tell me: Did your uncle Ali eat here today?”

Umar raised his head and stopped chewing on his pencil’s eraser.  “I don’t know,” he said. “I had lunch at noon and then went to school.”

Tha’ira felt conscience-stricken because she had never thought about Umar’s eyes, which definitely must tire from reading school books by this feeble, yellow light, and resolved to buy him on the morrow a floor lamp with a bright bulb so he could read without having to stick his face in a book to see the letters.

Umar’s exhausted eyes glanced craftily at her askance and he asked, “Are you two quarreling?”

She smiled and reflected that her husband hadn’t dined at home and that Umar, whose belly was swelling like a balloon, had polished off his master’s food.

Gazing inquisitively at the grammar book perched in his hands, she asked, “What are you doing?”

Umar sighed and replied peevishly, “I’m doing the grammar homework; could you help me?”

Playing with the lock of hair that hung over her forehead, Tha’ira replied, “What’s the question?”

Umar said enthusiastically, "'Freedom is the subjects' right': how is 'freedom' infected . . . ?"

Tha’ira’s face flushed red, and a laugh escaped from her, although she was quickly able to suppress it and recover her judicious appearance.  In a trembling voice, she supplied the word: “Inflected . . . spell the word the way it sounds.”

Umar plunged his face between the covers of his book and, after his enthusiasm had flagged, said as he corrected his work, “Oh, i . . . n . . . fle . . . ct . . . ed.  Fine, I don’t know what inflection actually is.”

It occurred to Tha’ira that freedom in this country really was infected, as Umar had unintentionally described it—perhaps he had intended some mischievous play on words, but the political implications would certainly have escaped him.

Probing the reddish scar on her left knee, the reminder of a fierce quarrel that had taken place years earlier when she had objected to fraudulent elections in the student organization at Sanaa University, she commented, “Inflection means that you decline the word’s last vowel.”

Umar raised his eyebrows so high that the green veins beneath them were visible and asked, “What’s the relationship of ‘freedom’ to this predicate?”

This dialogue, which reminded her of her quarrels in the History Department, fascinated Tha’ira, and she asked, “Do you know what freedom is?”

Umar replied in a low voice, “No . . . you tell me what freedom is.”

Tha’ira bit her right index finger; she felt uncomfortable as a result of this self-inflicted crisis, because she herself didn’t possess a coherent concept of freedom.  So after hesitating, she responded, “Listen, Umar, don’t do this question and instead ask the teacher to explain the meaning of ‘freedom.’  Tell him this is more important for you and your classmates than messing around with declension.”

Umar twisted a meager strand of his short, wavy, black hair around his index finger in unconscious imitation of Tha’ira’s gestures and said absentmindedly, “I can’t ask him.”

Tha’ira was surprised by his shrewd reply, which would have been appropriate for a member of the central committee of a proscribed political party.  She asked, “Why?”

Looking at her out of the corner of his eye, Umar replied, “Freedom might turn out to be something iffy.”

Caressing the bubble of his repressed fears, Tha’ira suggested, “Try asking him.”

Umar looked at her for a moment, imagining that she was setting a trap for him with his teacher--to punish him for being fresh with her.  Then, drawing a line in the air with his hand, he said in a hoarse voice, “The teacher has a stick this long and doesn’t like people who ask questions.”

Tha’ira smiled in a way that was almost hostile, because she was outraged that even children were forbidden free speech and prevented from asking for explanations.  The stick sufficed to deter troublemakers!

She reflected that the phrase “Freedom is the subjects’ right” contained an obvious error, because it wasn’t something a ruler granted but something citizens wrested from him by force of law.

She snorted with disgust at the vile exaggerations that pervaded the instructional curriculum and bade Umar good-bye with a gentle rap on his head.  Then she climbed upstairs, forgetting to tell him how to decline “freedom.”

From Himar Bayna al-Aghani. Copyright 2004 by Wajdi Muhammad Abduh al-Ahdal. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.