Hameed, who had yet to learn the nickname by which he would be known for the rest of his life, entered the house, which emitted a fresh country scent. With his foot, as usual, he shoved open the heavy door, which was fashioned of walnut and decorated with large, broad-headed nails. Only at night was it closed by a bolt with protruding teeth. Verdigris had spread across this till its edges looked bright green. He climbed a few steps, making his way to the two small rooms over the entryway that led to the courtyard.
It was the first time Hameed had returned from his job at the oil company so early. It was barely eleven, and this fact surprised his wife Fatima, who was not expecting him till afternoon. He interrupted her innocent laughter as she stood on the steps discussing her nightly pleasures over a low masonry wall with a neighbor in the adjacent house. Her happiness actually was tinged with bitter anxiety, since she had been married for more than a year without conceiving. She had sought out most of the better-known and even less well-known imams in the city for charms against barrenness to cancel out the magic that the many women envying her had clearly concocted to her detriment. Although she had never said so openly, her suspicions, from the beginning, had focused on Nazeera-her husband’s sister-and on Nazeera’s mother, Hidaya, a plump old woman who made no secret of her collaboration with the devil, for her house was always cluttered with herbs and dried flowers, ground bones, and assorted chemical substances purchased from Jewish druggists in al-Qaysariya, at the entrance to the old souk.
Among the imams whom Fatima consulted was a blind man who charged her a dirham to write a charm. He told her, “This amulet will set on fire any devil that dares approach you.” As an additional precaution, however, she consulted another Turkmen imam, who lived in a nameless alley branching off from the Chay neighborhood. A month or two later, since her belly had not swollen up yet, her neighbor advised her to tour the tombs of the dead imams, since the living ones were not useful anymore and only wrote charms for money. Thus Fatima, enveloped in her black wrap, headed to Imam Ahmad, whose tomb lay in the center of the main thoroughfare linking al-Musalla district with the old souk. She wept and pleaded, deliberately prolonging the time she spent there so the imam would not ignore her request. A passing car almost ran into her, since in her spiritual rapture-tears streaming from her eyes-she had forgotten she was sitting in the middle of the street. After that she visited the tomb in al-Musalla cemetery of a Kurdish imam said to have been able to converse with birds, which understood and obeyed him. A month later, when no change had occurred in her, even though she made her husband sleep with her1 more than once a night, her visiting mother said, “This time you’re going to head for the tomb of a Jewish saint, for no one is on better terms with the devil than Jews; evil is only negated by evil.” Next morning when she related that to her neighbor, however, the woman advised her to go to the citadel and ask a Christian household there for a hog’s tooth. She said they put those, normally, in water jugs. She should slip it under her husband’s pillow, since Satan fears nothing more than hogs’ teeth. Perhaps because of all of this advice she was receiving from here and there, and also, possibly, because she was disillusioned with saints whose blessed powers had failed, she decided to call off, at least temporarily, these unsuccessful attempts while increasing the number of times she slept with her husband, since she knew, perhaps with good reason, that-more than any other location-bed was where the issue would be decided, if only because this was the resting place for the saints closest to God.
Even so, Fatima would not have paid much attention to this matter had it not been for her mother’s persistent entreaties as well as the insinuating comments of the old woman Hidaya and her daughter Nazeera, who deliberately spoke in riddles, saying, for example: “The cow that doesn’t give birth is slaughtered.” On the whole she was content with her nightly trysts with her husband, who had never given a thought, not even once, to having children, since love for women eclipsed all other loves in his life. He especially wished to preserve for the longest time possible his sense of being a young man little burdened with responsibilities, so that he could leave in the morning for his job at the oil company and not return home till he felt like it. He occasionally returned in the afternoon but frequently stayed out until ten or eleven p.m. without upsetting Fatima, who had no way of discovering anything about his work except from the stories he told her. She knew he drove the private car belonging to an English engineer and his wife, conveying them from one place to another and waiting for them. She grasped that this type of work might force him to work late more often than not. He was occasionally obliged to travel to other cities and areas, accompanying his boss. Then he would return home bringing-especially during Christian holidays-chocolates from London or locally produced pieces of sugared coconut, which she had not tasted before. Thus the moment she saw her husband enter, she raced to him, since this was the first time he had returned so early, a fact that made her feel uncomfortable and anxious. She fought to control her emotions and to keep herself from asking why he was early. He, however, spoke first, saying with a smile, “I want to lie down a little.” Only then did she find the courage to ask anxiously, “I hope you don’t feel ill?” As he climbed toward their two rooms over the house’s entryway, he replied, “No, not at all. I’m just tired.” This answer satisfied her enough that she said, “Fine; I’ll start cooking right away so we can have lunch together.” She went off to prepare the food, feeling on the whole contented and delighted that her husband was home with her. Even if something were the matter, he would certainly tell her, she was sure of that.
Her husband kept uncharacteristically silent this time, however. In fact, he did not leave his bed to go to the coffeeshop or to visit with his friends, not even that afternoon. Neither did he go out to chat with the neighborhood youth, who met each evening in front of a shop located near the community’s mosque. Even worse than that, he did not leave home for work the next day. Only then did Fatima realize that there was something wrong, something he was hiding from her and did not care to divulge. It had to be something serious. Her fears led her to beg him to tell her the truth, but he merely told her he had taken a few days’ holiday. She felt somewhat relieved but not entirely reassured, for he might be trying to deceive her, thinking that he should not alarm or upset her. She knew that when he was in a good humor he would tell her one story after another about Mr. McNeely, his flirtatious wife, Helen, and the other Englishmen who worked in the Baba Gurgur region for the Iraq Petroleum Company in Kirkuk. She knew that every Englishman was called “Boss” and that the company belonged to them. Fatima and Hameed would laugh a lot when he told her how Englishwomen were not at all embarrassed about showing their nude bodies to employees and how they wore undershirts and shorts in the presence of their cuckolded husbands, who bragged about their wives to one another. In fact, he had discovered that his boss’s wife had more than one English lover. He was equally well versed in his boss’s affair with the daughter of Khamu-an Assyrian Christian-who enjoyed the rank of a “first-class” employee with the firm. That was not all; her father encouraged the girl to persevere in this relationship with the man. As for the boss and his wife, they did not attempt to conceal their affairs from him, giving the impression that these were extremely natural. In fact, his boss’s beautiful, bronzed wife would leave the home of one of her lovers and climb into the waiting automobile as if returning from prayers. Once when they were on the lakeshore in al-Habaniya, Helen removed every stitch of clothing. When she noticed that Hameed was staring wildly and lustfully at her, she was surprised and winked at him, smiling as she sank into the water. Fatima had frequently teased him, laughing: “What more do you want? Many men would pay good money to have such enjoyable work.” Hameed, however, did not actually find in his work the kind of satisfaction his wife imagined, for he felt humiliated most of the time as he sat behind the steering wheel, waiting for Helen to leave an assignation. They occasionally invited him inside and served him lemonade in the servants’ quarters while he listened to his mistress’s moans from a bed in another room where she lay with the lover she was visiting. That would drive him crazy, agitating him, although he did not dare protest or refuse the invitation. He assumed it not unlikely that she would fancy him someday and invite him to sleep with her, but that day never came. After the incident in which Mrs. Helen McNeely appeared naked at al-Habaniya and after her conspiratorial wink, he spent more than a month feeling uncertain of his standing with her, wanting her but lacking the audacity to cross the line separating them. The image of her standing naked before him never left his head, since he often thought of her while he slept with his wife. That did not, in his opinion, constitute any diminution of his love for his wife, everything considered, for Mrs. Helen McNeely was no better than a whore. He, as a man, had a right to seize this opportunity. He was sure he would show her in bed that he was superior to all her other lovers. He would thus avenge himself and erase the humiliation he felt whenever she climbed into the car to head for one of them.
Hameed never returned to work and there must have been some secret reason, which would eventually surface, even though he attempted to postpone this moment, day by day. People in the Chuqor neighborhood learned from other men who worked for the company that Hameed had been fired. Instead of trying to console him, however, they burst into laughter, and his story traveled by word of mouth until the whole city knew it. Thus he acquired a nickname that remained linked to his given name forever, as if it actually were a real part of his name. Even innocent children always called him by this name, which he himself finally accepted, adding it to his given name: Hameed Nylon.
The story these workers told, based on reports from the oil company, was that Hameed, who was the personal driver for Mr. McNeely and his wife, wishing to try his luck with the wife and to win her affection, had returned one day from a trip to H32 and Rutba, carrying a simple present for her-a pair of nylon stockings-but that Mrs. McNeely, who considered him a servant, had tossed the stockings back at him and thrown him out. Some said that she initially accepted his present but asked him the reason for it. Then, taking his cues from films he had seen, he leaned over her and tried to kiss her. At that point she slapped his face, screamed, and accused him of trying to rape her. Others asserted that she had slept with him but had grown bored with him and had then used the nylon stockings as a pretext to sack him. Neighborhood women asserted that he had befriended the Englishwoman and actually had given her nylon stockings but that her husband, who was suspicious about this affair, had used the stockings as an excuse to separate him from his wife and thus had fired him. Hameed Nylon remained silent for many days, refusing to say anything about the incident. Once he regained his peace of mind, he made one comment, simply this: “The only true thing in any of these stories is the nylon stockings.”
Although the people of the Chuqor neighborhood considered his termination by the firm a natural event that no one could influence, some men who worked there, and most of the neighborhood youth who trained each day in the gym they had created in an abandoned structure adjacent to the house where Hameed Nylon lived, tried to incite the people of the neighborhood against the oil company. The imam of the Chuqor community even mentioned in his study sessions, which began spontaneously every day after evening prayer at the mosque: “The English have deprived one of our community’s young men of his livelihood because of a pair of stockings. This matter cannot be acceptable to God or His Prophet.” Some women’s zeal was so aroused that they swore at the poor kerosene vendors and snubbed them. They would open the taps of the drums that were pulled by donkeys, letting the kerosene spill onto the street. They told the sellers, who had absolutely no comprehension of the affair: “You should pour kerosene down that Englishwoman’s ass.” Once again the community’s sages intruded: “How are these poor fellows to blame?” Oil workers’ families certainly did not want to lose the privilege of buying gas at reduced rates through coupons sold to workers. Moreover, the secret labor union that was organizing oil workers distributed a handbill that attacked the firing of Hameed Nylon and called for his reinstatement, although no one in the Chuqor neighborhood knew about the pamphlet, and that was just as well, for if the people had felt the case was political, they definitely would have been afraid. Although the Chuqor neighborhood had never at any time in its history, which stretched back at least a hundred years, participated in a protest demonstration, many residents had heard of them. Indeed, some had seen the demonstration in the great souk a few months before. There were also some butchers who had assisted the police by attacking the demonstrators and clubbing them, after they were told that these demonstrators advocated female licentiousness, once a week, every Friday.
Thus a month after Hameed Nylon lost his job, it was decided that one Friday the neighborhood would set out on a demonstration to seek the reinstatement of their son who had been fired from his position with the firm. Everyone became excited by the idea after it was lengthily discussed in the coffee shops, which turned into free-for-all houses of debate every afternoon. The matter evolved into a quasi-religious duty once the Mullah Zayn al-Abideen al-Qadiri declared that since all Muslims constitute a single body, when one member suffers, the rest of the body rallies on its behalf with a vigilant defense. Consequently, an aged artist, known for carving words on marble tombstones, undertook the creation of protest signs, devising the texts himself.
One day, after the Friday prayer, a procession that included women and children set forth. Athletes from the Chuqor neighborhood, along with those from other communities, carried signs written in a variety of scripts-Ruq’a, Farsi, and Kufic-“There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” “In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate,” “Traitor, Your Time’s Up,” “Hameed Nylon’s Innocent,” “Hameed Nylon Has a Family to Support,” and “Long Live Hameed Nylon!” Raised alongside these were green flags brought from the mosques. Thus the tops of their standards read, “God,” “Muhammad,” and “Ali.” When the children saw these, they rushed home and returned with any scraps of cloth they could find. They tied these to sticks, which they began to wave as they hopped about inside the crush of people or at the front. The neighborhood’s dervishes brought their swords and lances, which they brandished, striking in time to the ululations of the women or whenever anyone cried, “God is Most Great!” There were also three or four-among them the thief Mahmud al-Arabi, who broke into houses by night (naturally outside of the Chuqor neighborhood)-who brought their revolvers, since they felt responsible for their community’s inhabitants. They fired into the air until the mosque’s imam forbade them from doing that. They stopped firing but kept their revolvers in their hands. Many children had stained their faces black with soot so that they resembled Africans or jinns. Others wore goat heads attached to skins that reached down to their feet. They were butting the air with their horns. At the same time some sheikhs sprinkled rose water from small bronze vessels with long necks over the assembled people. Others carried pictures of al-Hasan and al-Husayn, the dragon-slaying saint, the child king Faisal II, King Ghazi, and Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, there was even a framed portrait of the renowned artiste Samanchi Qizzi–taken from the coffee shop in the great souk.
Finally the demonstration set off, but where was it heading? No one knew. It traversed the Chuqor neighborhood, back and forth, entering alleyways and bursting out of them. Women watching from rooftops thought the procession was a prayer for rain when they saw the soot-stained faces and the goat heads. So they started to pour water over the heads of the demonstrators for good luck. After they had crisscrossed the neighborhood, someone shouted, “Let’s go to the company and present our complaints.” Another person cried, “No, let’s go to the barracks and present the matter to the government.” Mullah Zayn al-Abideen al-Qadiri, the mosque’s imam, who was marching in the lead with the neighborhood’s sheikhs beside him, stopped to deliver a speech that everyone remembered for a long time. He said, “It is unreasonable to think we can proceed from here to the company in Baba Gurgur to present our petition to the Englishman and his wanton wife, who is a Christian. We would die of fatigue before we reached there. Moreover, God and His Messenger have forbidden Muslims from bowing their heads before infidels. If we go there, we will be forced to act in a submissive and subservient way when we appeal for merciful treatment from a harlot and her procurer husband. This approach would ill befit the honor of the Chuqor neighborhood. I have heard others demand that we head for the barracks or the palace, but how is the government involved in Hameed Nylon’s firing? It’s the English who fired him, and they’re not our fellow countrymen. Only red communists pick fights with the police and the government, and praise God we’re not communists or Muscovites.” When the Imam Zayn al-Abideen al-Qadiri reached this point in his speech, voices from enthusiastic members of the crowd asked, “What should we do then?” A profound silence reigned while the imam quickly responded. His answer was decisive and dumbfounding this time: “We will turn toward God.” The multitude did not quite comprehend the meaning of this lofty phrase. Therefore, he added, “It’s true that Hameed Nylon was sacked, but the affliction is even greater than that, for we are all threatened by the drought, since not a single drop of rain has fallen. If God does not show compassion by sending His clouds over the city of Kirkuk, we shall starve to death. So let’s all go to the open area in al-Musalla to pray to God and His Messenger for the advent of rain and the dispersal of goodness and blessings to everyone.”
Thus, to the beating of drums and the rattle of tambourines, people carrying their green flags and their placards demanding justice for Hameed Nylon headed to al-Musalla Square, which they crossed to the open cemetery, which concealed among its gravestones hoopoes and larks that took flight and soared into the air, until the human throng reached the open space Turkmen called Yeddi Qizlar, where remains of abandoned stone grist mills could be found. There everyone stood, facing God with dignified submission, raising their hands to the sky in common prayer and tearful, heartfelt entreaty for rain to fall and for Hameed Nylon to be reinstated to his job. They remained there more than an hour, asking God to cleanse their soot-stained faces with copious amounts of rain. Suddenly the sky darkened as black clouds approached from the east. Then affirmative cries glorifying God’s compassion and might resounded in thanks to Him for hearing the appeal of the inhabitants of the Chuqor neighborhood. In fact, there was thunder and lightning; the prayerful demonstrators were caught in the rain and only reached home by the skin of their teeth, soaked and nearly drowned in the torrents that swept through all the neighborhoods. The miracle that had occurred made them forget the story of Hameed Nylon, who could now joke with the others about his escapades with Mrs. Helen McNeely.
This miracle left an indelible impression on people’s memories. They debated and quarreled for a long time about who deserved credit for it. Had God answered the plea of anyone in particular, or simply their joint appeal? They reached a degree of consensus on the notion that God would not have answered the prayer of one of the few Arabs participating in the procession, for they never washed off their butts and would be regarded as traitors for ever and a day, because they had assisted the infidel English in the war against the Muslim Ottomans, fighting against their Turkish brethren without any consideration whatsoever for the religion uniting them. Since the Turkmen disparaged the Arabs in any quarrel that erupted between them with references to “traitorous Arabs” or “those shit-assed Arabs,” many Arab children began to wish that God had created them Turkmen. Some Arab children even joined with Turkmen children in their enthusiasm and support for Turkish political parties, of which many Turkmen youth considered themselves members. The portrait of Kemal Atatürk, recognizable by his lengthy face, military uniform, and medals, was displayed on the walls of most homes, whereas only Arabs dared hang a picture of the king, the prince regent, or even of Queen Aliya, who was loved by many, especially women, perhaps because she was a widow or possibly because it was the English who had killed her husband-King Ghazi-according to widespread rumors, in revenge for his campaign to slay the Assyrians who had wanted to establish an independent state for themselves in Iraq under the leadership of Mar Shamèun, who escaped with his life, fleeing to America. Women told their children with pride how the people of Kirkuk had once gone out to welcome the return of the victorious soldiers and armed men of some northern tribes, each of whom carried the head of an infidel Assyrian in his hands. The women said that the eyes in these heads were impudent and kept staring at them, casting impertinent glances their way, so that many women had been forced to pull their headscarves back around their faces, as they cursed Satan and the Assyrians.
Similarly, if the Arabs were ruled out as deserving any credit for this miracle, there was naturally no cause for the Kurds to claim a favor like this. The truth was that the Kurds themselves, the two or three families that had settled in the Chuqor neighborhood, denied playing any role in this case, which was God’s doing alone.
It would not have been possible, in any case, for them to claim the opposite, since they were not very bright and could not even distinguish black raisins from dung beetles. (Everyone in the Chuqor neighborhood knew that a group of Kurds who were served a platter of raisins mixed with dung beetles had begun capturing fugitive beetles to devour, telling each other: “Eat the runaway raisins first; the others will stay where they are.”) Would it have been conceivable for God to answer the prayer of such ignoramuses? The matter deserved no debate or reflection.
It was clear that God had answered the Turkmen’s prayer and not anyone else’s, but had He answered their communal prayer, or that of one or two of them only? It was admittedly difficult to be sure about a complicated matter like this, for opinions were totally irreconcilable. Some claimed that this miracle should be credited to the madman Dalli Ihsan, who had raised his head to the sky, as he always did, and ordered the clouds to give rain, so that it rained. These people had an irrefutable argument, namely that Dalli Ihsan was not a human being but a jinni, one of the Muslim faction of the jinn. This was no secret, since everyone said so every day. He would walk through the Chuqor neighborhood, stroll through the great souk, and stop repeatedly to scream in the faces of jinn who apparently were trying to pick a fight with him or to upset him. Then he would continue on his way only to turn round once more and curse the void. He was allowed to stop at any stall and take whatever he wanted without anyone asking him to pay, although to tell the truth he never took more than he needed for himself: an orange from here and an apple from there. At times he would sit in a deserted corner of a coffee shop and drink a tumbler of tea, without paying for it, naturally, and listen attentively to the coffee shop’s rhapsodist recite the story of Antara ibn Shaddad or Sayf ibn Dhi Yazzan or the choice exploits of Mullah Nasr al-Din. He would smile and shake his head and then leave. Then some patrons of the coffee shop would mutter, “What a lucky fellow! The jinn’s queen has summoned him.”
The story of his relationship with the jinn had come to light many years previously, and even the children of the Chuqor neighborhood knew it. What actually happened was that al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, a wholesale cereals merchant and the community’s richest man, was awakened one night by a voice, which did not sound human, outside his bedroom. He pretended to be asleep while sharpening all of his senses. Someone whispered in the dark, “Harun, Harun, are you ready?” The query came from a cat he had never seen before. Then he saw Harun-the household cat-join the other cat, which he greeted. He said, “I’ve borrowed some of my master’s clothes for us.” The second cat replied, “I was afraid you’d forgotten or succumbed to fatigue and fallen asleep.” Harun replied, “No other night’s like this one. How could I forget our annual party?” Finally they leapt quietly onto the wall and from there descended to the street. Curiosity got the better of al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, who also went out to the street and followed the pair from a distance. The two cats, each carrying a bag by the neck, set off in the direction of the souk. Then they slunk off to the right, down a side alley, and ended up on the public street parallel to the citadel. Slowly and calmly they continued on their way to the women’s baths. He saw his cat Harun and the other one change into men in front of the side door to the baths. They opened their sacks and then put on the jilbabs they had brought. Next they shoved open the door and disappeared inside. For a time, al-Hajj Ahmad heard heady, inebriating music coming from inside, from the courtyard of the baths. His heart pounded fiercely, for he had recognized one of the two men as none other than Dalli Ihsan. Al-Hajj Ahmad hesitated for a few moments, not knowing what to do. Should he enter also or not? He was terrified but recited, “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful” and then the Throne Verse from the Qur’an. [2:255] After that, he thrust open the door and entered, surrendering his fate to destiny. There he beheld a sight no human eye had ever seen before; nor would al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji ever see anything comparable for the rest of his life. The courtyard of the baths, which his wife visited once a week with the children, taking along her bundle of clothes, had been transformed into an astonishing chamber of colored glass. Hanging from the ceiling were huge chandeliers of pearls. Around the sides were pure gold benches on which were engraved magical inscriptions he could not decipher, not a word. Green, blue, red, yellow, and white birds soared through the higher reaches of the chamber, making music like jinn singing. Al-Hajj Ahmad inhaled the fragrance of intoxicating incense that made him forget he was in the Kirkuk baths. In fact, he forgot he was in this world at all. He was especially incredulous when he discovered something he could in no way explain: the chamber opened onto the shore of a vast ocean traversed by ships arriving from afar in the command of cats of every variety. These leaped to shore the moment the ships and vessels reached it and then changed into young men and women of ravishing appearance. He knew, since he had spent his entire life in the city, that there is no ocean in Kirkuk and that the Khasa Su, which runs through town, is an unusual type of river, since it dries up completely in the summer but turns into a torrential, raging river in the winter, flooding its banks at times and threatening to drown the neighborhood of al-Chay. The many people present wore the most splendid clothes. At the center of the hall sat the king and queen on a throne studded with pearls and rubies. They were surrounded by their ministers and courtiers and served by comely youths and maidens who were clad in silk and who carried around platters of pure gold containing finger foods and fruit. Al-Hajj Ahmad realized that these were Muslim jinn and that the names of their king and queen, respectively, were Hardhob and Murjana.
Dazzled by the lights and the elegance of the place, al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji mingled with the guests without anyone noticing him. When he saw people singing and doing line dances, he joined them so that no one would notice a human being had crashed their party. They were all singing in unison to a beat like a magical incantation:
I saw my Love with my heart’s eye. Then he asked: Who are you? I said: You, You who surpass every limit To erase “where”; so where are You, Now that there is no “where,” where You are And there is no “where” wherever You are And there is no image for imagination to use to imagine You So that imagination can know where You are?
Al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji personally memorized these verses, passed down from al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, and started repeating them along with the others. He learned from the partygoers that this poet, who was crucified on a palm trunk in Baghdad, was actually not a human being. Instead, he was one of the God-fearing jinn. They cherish him very highly, and his standing with them is just below that of King Solomon the Wise, who possesses limitless sovereignty over all factions of the jinn.
During the exuberant pleasure that encompassed everyone, al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji decided to make a mark that would provide irrefutable proof later on. Thus he approached Harun, who was wearing his navy-blue jilbab, and burned the sleeve of the garment from the rear with a cigarette butt that left a small hole, without Harun feeling it. Finally he found an opportunity to slip back to the street again, more than a little concerned for his safety. On the way home through a darkness attenuated at intervals by feeble street lamps, he met thieves carrying their bags on their back, sentries who blew their whistles from time to time, solitary drunks singing Turkmen folk songs as loudly as possible while drunks in other streets responded with their songs in response to the songs they had just heard when awaiting an answering song, but al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, plunged into another world, was oblivious to everything-the stealthy thieves, the night watchmen, and even the Turkmen folk songs, which he normally enjoyed. Shaking from stress and fright, he might almost have been a prophet upon whom divine inspiration had been bestowed. Thus as soon as he reached home, he slipped into bed to ponder the events of his amazing night. He tried to sleep but could not and stayed awake until dawn, when he heard Harun jump onto the wall once more, slink into the house, and then-through the keyhole in the door-tell Dalli Ihsan, who had apparently stayed outside, “It was a great night, wasn’t it?” He heard Dalli Ihsan whisper, “Naturally, of course.” Then he added, “Good-bye.” Harun replied affectionately, “May the Prophet Solomon be with you.” Al-Hajj Ahmad did not close an eyelid all night long and did not leave bed save to perform the dawn prayer, when he saw Harun stretching by the threshold, as if nothing had happened. Al-Hajj Ahmad deliberately donned his navy blue jilbab, in which he found the hole he had created with his cigarette butt. Then he turned to Harun and-to his wife’s astonishment-asked the cat, “Do you see, Harun? You’ve burned my jilbab. You ought to have asked my permission before you wore it.” Harun understood that al-Hajj Ahmad had found him out. Lowering his head, he left the house, never to be seen there again.
From that day forward, ever since al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji told his story in the coffeehouse, Dalli Ihsan acquired a halo of sanctity. It is true that most people, especially the unsophisticated and the children, feared him, but the neighborhood’s sages considered him a gift from God and a blessing for them from Him. As a Muslim jinni in human form, he could only bring them good. This madman, unlike all the other ones in the city, was quite fastidious, always wore clean clothes, and acted with admirable composure, except for his public conversations with the jinn. He naturally did not have a staff he used as a hobbyhorse the way other madmen did. Moreover, not a single child dared follow him or chase after him, even though the neighborhood was crawling with children. Not one man could think, merely think, of saying something mocking or sarcastic to him, since a matter like that could have cost him his life.
There was thus no doubt in anyone’s mind concerning Dalli Ihsan’s true nature. Indeed, they were even able to trace his jinni heritage. There was first of all the account of al-Hajj Ahmad al-Sabunji, whose piety, righteousness, and honorable actions no one could question, but this was merely one of the proofs, since Dalli Ihsan’s mother had been forced, when an elderly woman of more than a hundred years, to admit under pressure from her neighbors that a king of the jinn named Qamar al-Zaman had been her lover, visiting her secretly at night. She had married him according to the precedent established by God and his prophet Muhammad. Ihsan was his son, although she had attempted to conceal his identity from everyone. Her spouse had later been taken prisoner in one of the wars he waged against Jewish jinn and had died of grief and sorrow at being separated from his wife and son.
Clearly the madman, who would not have spoken to anyone, was responsible for the miraculous rain that suddenly inundated Kirkuk, for who else would be able to order the sky to fill with clouds and have it obey or to order the clouds to rain and have them do so? As always, however, there were people who like to wrangle and to express extreme opinions recklessly. They claimed that the rains had fallen in torrents for Hameed Nylon’s sake, since had he not been sacked by the company and had there not been a demonstration on his behalf in which the Chuqor neighborhood had fully participated, the miracle would never have occurred. This theory seemed rather logical but did not clarify the miracle. Others responded to this theory, saying: “If we were to adopt this logic, then it would be necessary for us to proceed even a step beyond Hameed Nylon.” By this they referred to the flirtatious Englishwoman, since without her affairs with men and her fickleness, Hameed Nylon would not have been terminated. They concluded, “Such an opinion would inevitably lead us to a denial of the faith.”
Mullah Zayn al-Abideen al-Qadiri was disturbed by all these views, which he considered heretical and noxious. He announced that neither the jinn nor Hameed Nylon was responsible for the miracle. God had quite simply accepted the plea of the Muslims and had caused the rain to fall abundantly on them. Truth to tell, this view appeared totally logical and was welcomed by the hearts of the inhabitants of the Chuqor neighborhood, especially since Hameed Nylon himself had joked about the idea that he had caused the miracle, saying “If I were able to cause miracles, I would have made the English whore sleep with me.” And he meant what he said.
The rain fell for three consecutive days without cease until low-lying houses were filled with water, the roofs of many homes collapsed, and the Khasa Su River flooded its banks, submerging the neighborhoods closest to it. People reached the point of praying again, but this time for the rain to stop. On the third day of what he termed Noah’s flood, Hameed Nylon lifted his head to inspect the sky and told his wife, who had seized the opportunity to spend most of the time in bed with him, “It seems the sky is peeing a lot, after having to hold it in for months.” His wife Fatima replied, nervously, “Don’t blaspheme, Hameed; it’s a miracle.” Then Hameed, laughing, answered, “True, it’s a miracle, but the sky should not get carried away.” During this nonstop torrential rain, Hameed Nylon remained trapped in the two upper rooms they rented in the home of his sister Nazeera and her husband-the itinerant butcher Khidir Musa-who lived in a large room downstairs at the end of the courtyard with their three daughters, the eldest of whom was five and the youngest less than a year old.
During these rainy days, Hameed Nylon only descended to the large room once. Then he sat on the carpet near a charcoal brazier with ash covering its embers, a plate of Ashrasi dates and walnuts before him. He affectionately told his sister to pour him a tumbler of tea, and then his niece Layla came to sit on his knee. Khidir Musa expressed his concern: “How will I be able to sell my lambs if this rain lasts much longer?” Hameed Nylon teased him, “Think of the rain as a holiday, man. Your money will last a thousand years.” Khidir Musa laughed, “That’s the rumor my sister Qadariya spreads about me, God curse her; she says I place dinar bills under my mattress and sleep on them, ironing them that way.” Hameed Nylon answered, “What’s wrong with that? They’re your dinars. Do whatever you want with them.” Then he fell silent, gazing by the lamp’s faint light at the cabinets. Their gold and silver doors were painted with red and blue peacocks, which had symmetrical tail feathers, and with boughs on which sat larks. There were flowers around the edges. Khidir Musa said, “There’s not much work left in Kirkuk. There are as many butchers here as grains of sand. I’m going to move to al-Huwayja where there’s not even one butcher.”
Hameed Nylon knew that Khidir Musa craved money and that his avarice was so extreme he only rarely patronized the coffeehouse. Indeed, Hameed Nylon thought Qadariya’s assertion justified. He did not realize that the person who really ironed dinar bills was his own sister Nazeera, who earned at times more than Khidir Musa-trading in fabrics and women’s wear. She would travel and buy her goods from other cities that no one else visited. It was even reported that she had been to Aleppo, a city women said was in Syria or Lebanon. She would bring back colored fabrics, beautiful blouses, and the famous Raggi Abul-Heel brand soap, which she sold to the women in the neighborhood and in nearby ones on credit, but for high prices. Moreover, her mother, Hidaya, a crone who lived in the adjacent Jewish quarter, ran a depilatory service for women’s faces (using ceruse), practiced magic, and read fortunes. In fact, it was said that she could turn stones to gold by reciting arcane incantations she had learned from her Jewish neighbors. The two women-she and her daughter-took care to adorn their sturdy ankles with anklets, their wrists with bracelets, and each woman’s neck with coins fashioned into a gold chain.
Hameed Nylon had barely finished drinking his first tumbler of tea when his wife Fatima came for him, pretending to be annoyed at being left alone in her house. As a matter of fact, she was concerned instead that Nazeera might be plotting to turn her husband Hameed against her. She knew also that Khidir Musa, who was incapable of opposing his wife, would join the plot against his sister-in-law. Hameed Nylon, who was tired of sitting in a darkness dissipated only by the flame of an oil lamp with a dirty globe, rose, saying, “The best thing a man can do during rain and gloom like this is to sleep.” His wife followed him. On the stairs to their pair of rooms he heard one of Khidir Musa’s lambs bleat. He answered sarcastically, “And upon you peace.” His wife, climbing behind him, cautioned him about the crumbling steps. He responded in the dark, “I know each of them by heart.” Fatima was happy they were returning once more to their suite, where he was removed from his sister’s snares. Perhaps he would also feel like sleeping with her.
Hameed Nylon stretched out on his back on the bed, but did not hear her until she asked if he wanted some tea, since he had been dreaming, and his dream had outstripped the Chuqor neighborhood and the city of Kirkuk, to reach a vast open space, a strange, limitless area he had never seen before in his whole life.
1The use of this phrase for “copulation” reflects the Biblical tone of the original Arabic. 2British oil company jargon for a location.
From Akhir al-Mala’ika [The Last of the Angels] (London and Limassol, Cyprus: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Fadhil al-Azzawi. By permission of the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.