Set in an Iraqi village during the Iran-Iraq war, Scattered Crumbs critiques a totalitarian dictatorship through the stories of an impoverished peasant family. A father (Hajji Ijayel), a fierce supporter of Saddam Hussein–here called only the Leader–clashes with his artist son, who loves his homeland but finds himself literally unable to paint the Leader’s portrait for his father’s wall. The novel evokes the deterioration both of the country and of the individual characters caught up in the maelstrom. As chapter 6 begins, Hajji Ijayel’s two sons, Qasim, the artist, and Saadi, an openly gay character, are thrown into prison . . .
The summer grew hotter and the war more voracious. It brought convoys of flags, medals of honor, and village youths in coffins back to us. To make good on these losses, the police launched a big campaign to arrest all deserters, so they took Qasim, Saadi, Ismael, Kamil, Nuri, and Seth and threw them behind the military prison’s bars, in long halls of cells that used to be stables for the English horses before independence. Until public attention induced the authorities to put them in solitary confinement, each hall featured one of Hajji Ijayel’s sons as its main attraction.
While Qasim gathered around him the prisoners of his hall to draw them in varied poses and to tattoo their arms, shoulders, and chests with phrases of love, freedom, and torment, Saadi’s prisoners selected their finest sheets to put under him in an attempt to regain some of the warmth of their wives’ beds at night. The guards were the first to get drawn or tattooed by Qasim and the first to lay Saadi on their sheets.
When news reached the warden, he ordered Qasim to paint a picture of the Leader, and when he could not, he was placed in solitary. The warden ordered Saadi to stop keeping the prisoners up at night, and when he failed to comply, he was isolated as well. But Saadi took off his underwear and climbed up on the shit canister in his cell, placing his behind in the little window that separated him from the rest of the prisoners in his hall so that they in their turn could climb up and get him from there. When the warden learned of this, he became infuriated and transferred Saadi to a private chamber next to his office, where he was provided with all the amenities reserved for prominent prisoners.
Later on it was said that there had been a narrow secret passage connecting the office with Saadi’s chamber, covered on the office side with a file cabinet and on Saadi’s with a closet for undergarments, including brassieres, and red nightgowns. Saadi never denied these rumors, nor did he bother to comment on them with more than an oafish smile, frozen features, and repetition of the sentence, “Yeah, those were nice days with Mr. Warden!” Qasim likewise did not bother to add that without Saadi it would not have satisfied Mr. Warden merely to isolate him. He would have tortured Qasim to death.
The war intensified, so the Leader pardoned all military prisoners and returned them to their units. He also released all political prisoners from life and returned them to the belly of their mother earth after they had impregnated the refrigerators for a period long enough for their parents to pay the cost of nooses, the importation of which would have cost the government hard cash.
On leave after the pardon, Saadi asked his mother to weave him a shoulder braid to put around his shoulder like a corporal. She did so with joy, thinking that he had been promoted and was going to continue his military service. However, that did not happen. After more than one successful attempt to fake a higher rank, even that of an officer, Saadi got bored with the military life because “It is not nice.” He fled to the cornfields where boys, donkeys and pleasure lay. Qasim escaped also after he saw ravaged cities and villages and entered houses whose owners had fled, leaving tea glasses half-full, pictures staring in bitterness, and wedding clothes in the closet. He was able to make it to the wedding of his daughter Shaima, that delicate, thin girl, submissive unlike her mother. His joy at her wedding was a genuine joy such as he had not felt since his own wedding with Hasiba, who feared that illness might assail her daughter before the wedding, and so she could not keep from dancing as she beheld her daughter in the white wedding dress. The girl looked small, beautiful, like a child’s doll, her fingers clinging to the elbow of her fat groom, whose blubber almost rent the sleeves of his suit and burst its buttons as he wiped off the sweat oozing from his flushed temples and squat neck.
The heat was intense and so was the war, so the government formed a committee of squat-necked and choleric experts to reassess the physical, psychological, and mental criteria by which a citizen was judged to be exempt from military service or flung into it. The committee was also to reexamine all the homeland’s precious lunatics, including Abood al-Ramli, whom the police put into their car after they wrestled him out of my weeping aunt’s lap as she begged them, “I swear by Allah, the boy is crazed, the poor thing.” Hajji Ijayel tried to calm her down by saying, “They’re only doing a simple test, and then they’ll return him,” although deep inside he wished they would take him into the army because the army was the maker of men. He hoped that it might remedy his son’s condition so he could fill the gap left by Saadi and Qasim. On the way he told the police the story of Abood’s life from the time that he was born a beautiful, laughing boy. He also told them, proudly, the story of his grandfather who stabbed the English officer sonofabitch, and he told them that he had another son called Ahmed who was first in his university in studying law and so the government was going to appoint him as a judge, and that he had another son called Abdul-Wahid at the front line. But he did not say a word about Saadi, Qasim, or Mahmoud.
As he stood before the committee after waiting in line with thousands of misfits, holding the sun-stroked Abood up by his collar, Ijayel repeated what he had told the police. One expert with a big bald head barked at Abood, “What’s your name?” This startled Abood and made him tongue-tied. His father repeated the request to him, reminding him of the names he had learned under the date palm, so Abood recited the names up to the tenth grandfather until the bald man said to him, “Count for us from one to ten.” Relishing the memory of the rhyming game that Saadi and the village boys had taught him, Abood began counting to the bald man, smiling and humming the forced end rhymes. “One, you’ll mount someone. Two, I’ll ram it in you. Three, you’re screwed by Uncle Ali. Four, your ass is sore. Five your father will drive. Six, we have longer dicks . . .” He ignored the shouts of his father, who set about trying to stop him. “That’s shameful, boy! Boy, shut up!” Hajji Ijayel tried to remind his son of the verses he had taught him from the national anthem, but he could not stop him. “Seven, I’ll ride you to heaven. Eight, your cock’s a dry date. Nine, your balls are smaller than mine. Ten, I’ll mount sissy men.” Then he jumped up and down, clapping elatedly as he used to do when playing that game with Saadi and his friends.
The committee did not buy this show of idiocy, or that of thousands who performed better scenes of hysteria and lunacy in the hope of saving their skin. Although the officials duly noted the strange thickness of Abood’s eyebrows, the protrusion of his forehead, his beaky chin, and dingy color, they nevertheless transfered him, like the rest, to the torture room–“the Sieve”–in which the strongest of charlatans weakened under the sting of the thick electrical cord.
Abood giggled at the fall of the first few lashes upon his skin while his father averted his eyes in pain. After a few minutes the screams rose until they shook everyone. Abood let out a wild, wolfish howl, so perfectly wolfish that it frightened the flogger himself. The committee was thus assured of his insanity and dumped him with his father on the sidewalk, where Ijayel sought help from some good Samaritans to lift Abood onto a sack in the trunk of a taxi that took them back to my aunt, who was sitting in front of the oakwood gate waiting for them under the sun.
But to her surprise, when she stood up and stepped forward, opening her arms to receive Abood, whom the driver and Ijayel had dragged from the trunk by his armpits, she instead received Warda, who ran into her mother’s arms silent, listless, haggard, parched-mouthed, and with disheveled hair. Ijayel left his son in the hands of the driver and rushed to Warda, questioning her. She gasped, then burst out crying on my aunt’s chest, “Fauzi died, Mama.” My aunt screamed, “Yiboooooooo! Miserable Um Qasim!” For a moment the Hajji stood as if pinned to the ground, then turned to the driver and said, “My son-in-law was martyred in the war fighting for the homeland.”
Although Warda gave Fauzi a daughter as beautiful as herself and insisted on naming her Warda before leaving the baby with Fauzi’s parents, she had not been able to decide during the entire period of her marriage whether or not Fauzi was a man worthy of respect. She strove to find the answer in light of what Qasim had said about the man who deserves respect. This uncertainty is what hurt her the most in her husband’s death. Perhaps he was a man worthy of respect, but his monthly seven-day leave was not enough time for her to find out. The war had more of him than she, until it took him forever.
Excerpt from Scattered Crumbs by Muhsin al-Ramli, translated from the Arabic by Yasmeen S. Hanoosh and published by the University of Arkansas Press in September 2003. By permission of the University of Arkansas Press.