from “Kumait”

He couldn’t help but see the school; from the time he had left the bus at the township’s station, he had never thought of going any other way. His feet felt at home on the township’s roads. So be it. Why should he take any other route? When he drew near the school, he paused opposite it, turning his back to the river. A giant willow tree rose from the center of the school’s courtyard. He really didn’t want any of the township’s residents to spot him, and that was why he didn’t pause there long. Picking up his bag, which he had placed on the ground, he set off again without looking left or right.

He walked with amazing speed. Just then he realized that he would inevitably be noticed. So let the chips fall where they would. Around him the pervasive scent of jasmine blossoms blended with the smell of the river. The breeze tugged at his shirt, bringing with it other fragrances—a blend of lily and damask rose. Kumait’s evening scents followed him to his grandmother’s house, which his feet found effortlessly. He entered it the way he did every time, gently pushing the door open, because his grandmother normally didn’t bolt it and merely placed a small rock behind it. This time he didn’t find even that stone there.

His footsteps awakened his grandmother, who seemed to be expecting him, since she was normally sound asleep by this hour. First he let his bag drop very quietly on the floor; then he made for the nearby bed in the far corner of the courtyard, and sat down on its edge. He heard his grandmother’s voice, which came from the sofa placed in the corner opposite the bed: “Salih?”

Laughing quietly he replied, “Naturally.”

When he sensed that she planned to rise, he shouted, “If you get up, I’ll be angry.”

She didn’t and continued from her spot, “I thought you would stay in Baghdad!”

He responded, “I did too.”

Then he added, “Go to sleep, Grandma.”

She yielded but only grudgingly, because she really wanted to know everything.

Salih removed his street clothes and from his bag drew a dishdasha that he threw over himself. He pulled up the blue cloth that lay at his feet near the end of the bed and stretched out languidly while his gaze wandered among the gleaming stars that hung over Kumait. He reflected: Even she asks why I’ve returned. Let the chips fall where they will.

***

It was a rough time for Salih to settle in the village. Spring vacation had just ended when he received the order transferring him to Kumait. He had no difficulty finding the township’s only secondary school, which anyone entering Kumait from the public station for intercity traffic had to pass, and the tall willow tree that rose vertically in the school courtyard served as a major landmark because it was so massive and tall.

At noon that day, when Salih walked into the classroom for the first time as teacher, he couldn’t miss the silence that his appearance caused. He stood with his back to the blackboard, busy inspecting the faces of the students, male and female, who watched him steadily and curiously, whispering among themselves.

“I’m your new teacher, Salih.”

He uttered this sentence as if tossing a stone into a deep well; he was the only one who heard his remark’s echo, because the classroom was sunk in an unusual silence. He gazed at them again and also retreated into silence. He put his hands in the pockets of his khaki overcoat, which was a bit loose around his shoulders, which hunched together like an old man’s. He persisted in this silence, which seemed natural for him—no, he even seemed to prefer it. He started looking at the faces as if searching for another point of entry to complete his sentence, which he assumed would sound ridiculous if he didn’t supplement it. What did it mean to say: “I’m your new teacher, Salih”? One of the students might actually have commented to himself, “Tuzz*." Why did he have such trouble speaking? What made him recoil into himself? Was he overwhelmed once more by a desire to unwind? Hadn’t he been the one who had requested this transfer to Kumait? What was the source of the weakness spreading now from his head to his heels? He would really have liked to close his eyes. He wasn’t actually tired. It was just that memories of his hectic day continued to ricochet in his mind, striking against the walls of his skull like wayward flies bumping against the windowpane, rapping as lightly as his nearly inaudible footsteps, which only he heard.

He moved slowly, sluggishly, as a time-worn monologue—“What have you made of yourself?”—preoccupied him. This question, which was inspired by a line he had read in a poem somewhere, had dogged him through all his crises. It was now entwined with a single idea: Kumait, his new way station. Here he would start afresh, in precisely this place, which was hard to locate on any map. He would expunge the old Salih Sultan. Oh! If it had been possible to change his name, he would have gone immediately to the Clerk of Court’s Office and said, “Brother, I’m tired of who I am. I want to change my name.”

The man would definitely think him mad. What would he say if the clerk asked for his new name? What name would he choose? How could he know that the new name had no past history? Even though he was obsessed by this plan, despair would set in and he would withdraw into his shell and content himself with the Salih whose garb he wore now and who stood here in a school, in the township of Kumait, a dependency of the city of al-Amara in a country called Iraq, in the continent of Asia, atop a rotating terrestrial sphere—didn’t he also rotate from one place to another? He stood atop the rotating terrestrial sphere, in Asia, in a country called Iraq, in a school, in a classroom, in his clothes, which didn’t seem to fit. He was terrified that his plan wouldn’t work this time, because he knew that the noose had begun to tighten and that no routes remained open, not in or out or around. He had resolved to summon all his forces to repel any chance for doubt to assail him. At that moment, when he stood there before his students, however, he heard doubt’s siren song again and found himself confronted by the same eternal question: Is this really what I’m looking for? Once again the question frightened him, and he felt perturbed. So he told himself that he hadn’t been in this place for more than a day; he ought to give it more time. Why shouldn’t he forget the story of the terrestrial globe, for example?

He stood there for a moment and gazed at the students once more, not looking at any particular individual. Instead he glanced about freely, examining all three rows and silently imploring them to speak. He had cast his stone; now they should do the same. The first student to speak would rescue him from distressing memories. But their faces were motionless, as if they were determined to make him speak. Silently and apprehensively they watched him pace while entreating him to speak. They were definitely not convinced by the phrase “I’m your new teacher, Salih.” He certainly seemed to differ from what they had come to expect from teachers. It was painful to observe his slow, nervous movements, which showed none of the customary forcefulness of their normal teachers, who at least tried to project resolve during their first days at a new school. It was galling to watch his pacing, and they thought he looked odd in his overcoat, which was a little shabby in the arms. Moreover, he obviously hadn’t shaved in several days. He showed none of a teacher’s typical dapperness, and his tired, black eyes made him look older than his thirty years. Indeed, even the smile that he had pried from his lips looked weary and artificial, inspiring nothing more than curiosity from the female students.

When Salih suddenly noticed they were staring at him, he felt uncomfortable. So he took his hands out of his coat pockets and stroked his beard, making it seem that he wanted to stake out an important position. He cleared his throat before uttering a sentence in a tired voice that lacked any special ring: “As you heard, I’m your new teacher, Salih.”

After this he fell silent. When he decided that he shouldn’t prolong his silence this time, he changed position, folded his arms across his chest, and shouted enthusiastically as if he had discovered some forgotten strength, “Listen up: what interests me is forging an affectionate relationship, for us to say: Let’s be friends. I don’t want you to treat me fearfully like a teacher and his students. I’m interested in mutual dialogue.”

He concluded his statement. He was overwhelmed by sudden delight, as if he had found a thread he had been seeking for a long time. Where did all this zeal come from, all at once? He was overcome by a desire to persevere, to cast all the stones in reach.

“Really—friends. Rest assured that nothing could be better than for us to be friends. Let’s begin by getting to know each other.”

Was he fully aware of what he was saying? What he did know was that he didn’t listen to all their names. Instead he headed to the window and leaned his elbow on the sill. He stood there, sensing that he had always known this spot. Once again his zeal faltered. Perhaps he heard only the first two names. He tried to avoid giving them the impression he wasn’t listening, even though he was convinced that his gestures seemed phony to some. That’s what the student Majida Abd al-Hamid noticed; before she rose to announce her name, she had seen that his gaze was wandering and that his eyes reflected the sun’s rays at the middle of that spring day. This awakened a vague distress in her, perhaps because she remembered at that moment the same type of sorrow she had once seen in the eyes of her brother Ra‘d, from whom they had heard nothing for more than a year. Salih was at least ten years older than Ra‘d, but the two shared something: an elongated face with deep furrows—or was it that dispirited look? She didn’t know. In fact she didn’t care to delve into her brain. It sufficed that he had turned her head and made her body quiver beneath its skin.

Salih changed position when he sensed an unusual silence. Then he saw her standing in front of him, looking directly at him. She swept back a strand of hair that had slipped over her forehead and in a loud voice, as if determined to rouse him from his slumber, she shouted, “My name is Majida Abd al-Hamid.”

Then she sat back down. She was the last one. Silence reigned over the classroom. Once again Salih sank back into silence. What had happened to make him feel warm suddenly? Was it the sun’s rays? Without meaning to, he removed his overcoat and dropped it on the windowsill. He proceeded to examine Majida cautiously. She had excited his interest by differing from the six other female students in the class of twenty students. She was the only girl who wasn’t wearing an abaya. She didn’t sit like the other girls, who wrapped their abayas around their legs for fear a foreign object or naughty rays of sunlight might penetrate between their legs. To the contrary; she sat erect, looking up with a youthful face while allowing her skirt to edge up her legs a little to show part of her solid thighs. For a time he continued to gaze at her as a secret fear gained control of him, a fear of an unknown type. Then suddenly the principal’s words, uttered just before he entered the classroom, echoed through his head: “Mister Salih, I have before me your file, which contains all the information about you, including minor details and major points. I do not wish to review it with you, Sir. You know your past extremely well. But I beg you to heed my word in this school. You know how small the township is and how everything spreads through it with lightning speed. Grasp what I am saying, I beg you. There will be no problems, no lessons on politics. History. Don’t forget that you signed a pledge.”

He hadn’t been surprised by what the school’s principal had said. He had known they would send his file to the school. Even so, he wasn’t able to suppress the annoyance that the word “pledge” aroused in him. Now the matter tormented him. Words, words, he reflected, sharing Hamlet’s agony about words, which he knew became realities on emerging from their hiding place. “Pledge” wasn’t just a word; if he deviated from it, he would be executed. What a vicious word! Could he propose to the scholarly community its removal from the dictionary? But he had signed the pledge and that sufficed. Changing names wouldn’t help in any way. Why had he been so quick to sign their pledge? How had he allowed himself to sign that piece of paper? He had not only signed the paper but had actually convinced himself to refrain from any future political activity. How would he renounce his natural role in society? How had his ego allowed him to be convinced and so easily? He was the one who had asked the education director in Baghdad to transfer him to Kumait after the man sent for him and offered him a choice between a transfer to a civil-service job in the water department in Baghdad or to a school in some remote region. At that moment Kumait had leapt to his mind as if he had been preparing this response for a long time. What drew him to this place? Was it because his grandmother had been born here and still lived here after rejecting all attempts by her children to convince her to settle with one of them elsewhere? Was it because he had decided to unwind far from Baghdad? He knew how much these questions terrified him. He had not only wanted to make a fresh start in this small city but to stop asking himself questions. He was tired and wanted to relax, to settle like a rock, to become an object, to be quit for good of this Salih, who had ceased to be Salih ever since he signed the pledge and his feet had touched Kumait’s soil and who had allowed himself to apologize to the school’s principal for his appearance, which ill became a teacher: “Don’t take offense. Due to time constraints I didn’t have a chance to get a shave or change clothes, because of the trip. This will all be sorted out in the near future.”

Wasn’t this also a tactic? Wasn’t the Front called a tactic? Tuzz. Salih moved toward Majida. A tremor swept through his body, jolting him slightly like an electric current. Fearing her gaze; he walked back to the window. Picking up his coat, he put it on and then, smiling broadly, asked, “Your name is Majida?”

Without masking her cheerful smile she replied, “I think so.”

To make conversation he asked her, “What do you like in Arabic or world literature?”

Just as she had done when she offered her name, she looked up confidently and again boldly swept aside the strand of hair that dangled over her forehead before replying, “In Arabic literature I like Gibran Khalil Gibran and the poetry of Shakir al-Sayyab. In world literature unfortunately I’ve only read The Count of Monte Cristo and Wuthering Heights.”

He didn’t comment on her reply. Instead, he reluctantly turned his head away from her. He would have liked to talk to her some more but feared he would arouse the other students’ curiosity. What did this girl excite in him? Was it because she was “slim, gay, and delectable”? Where had he read that poem? He no longer even remembered its author. Had he been carrying this image around in his brain for a long time? Wasn’t Hamida also “slim, gay, and delectable”? Why had she changed? Why had he changed? Once more he was beset by questions. Trying to escape from the snare he himself had set, he would question the students.

He saw a student in a corner of the classroom raise his hand, requesting permission to rise. Salih gestured for him to stand.

“What I like best in world literature is Dostoyevsky.”

Salih’s first reaction was to smile. Then he examined the youth. He too aroused Salih’s curiosity because he wasn’t dressed like the others. His face looked somewhat pale, and a blond pencil-thin mustache was traced above his lips. The dangling strands of his blond hair and his sleepy green eyes made him look as if he had only just awakened. He didn’t seem at all uncomfortable; indeed, he gazed at Salih with marked goodwill. He spoke his sentence calmly and even tenderly as his wandering eyes seemed to be waiting for a response from Salih.

Salih, who was rooted to his spot, actually wanted to ask why he liked Dostoyevsky but changed his mind and reserved the question for himself. Why Dostoyevsky in particular, after he had decided to live without contradictions? He still remembered how—after reading Crime and Punishment when he was a student in the Faculty of Comparative Literature—he had contemplated killing Umm Husayn, the owner of the house—in al-Haydar Khana—where he rented a room. Many a night he had sat hatching the plot under the guidance of Raskolnikov. He was infernally broke and once he had decided to act on his plot had written a letter to Sana’, his girlfriend back then. He had later been astonished to learn that he had addressed her in the letter as Sonia, not Sana’. That night he had also drunk quite a lot of arrack only to find in the morning that he had fallen asleep on the house’s threshold and that the letter was still in his pocket when Umm Husayn’s husband kicked him to rouse him before the vendors’ cries and the sun’s blazing heat did. Didn’t he remember Dostoyevsky’s characters? Did he think about them? Definitely not. Like someone pushing his way through a huge wave, he raised his head and summoned his forces to say, “Let’s drop the topic of literature now; that was simply a way to get acquainted.”

He fell silent as if preparing to launch into a matter he felt unsure of. “We’ll begin our study of history now. You know what a thorny subject history is. Although your text is rather dull, in the coming lessons we’ll try to summarize the essential points.”

He suddenly stopped speaking. He was concerned that he might have said too much. He turned the matter over in his mind. Was it right to use the word “thorny” about history? Would the school’s principal be annoyed—he must have students who spied for him?

He continued, clarifying his comment, “By ‘thorny’ I mean that there are histories that don’t need to be mentioned. The important thing is to concentrate on the content of these events and to analyze them, considering with a critical eye the roles played by certain individuals as they defined this trajectory or that.”

He paused once more; their silence had provoked him. He felt certain that any new leap he took would end with another fall. He whispered to himself: What kind of curse is history? What had led him to study history? Why had he? Didn’t he know that everything he had studied in the university and everything he said to his students was a lie, actually just trifles? It was their history, the history of the people who had dictated it to him and forced him every day to repeat it. “History”—what sarcasm the word inspired! There was no better way to define the term than to translate it to English as “his story,” his tale, his history. Where did it begin? Where would it end? He kept feeling that he was merely a history tool used by those who had forced him to sign the pledge to do whatever they wanted. Damn history! he shouted to himself and headed to the window. Once more he looked out at the tall willow. Then he extended his gaze to the rooftops and noticed smoke rising from the outdoor bread ovens. So he realized that the afternoon had reached its final hour and that women would soon be baking bread for supper. His eyes would have remained stuck there had the ringing of the bell not signaled the end of class.

* An interjection of disgust
 
From Kumait. Copyright Najem Wali. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.