Just as the thirteenth year of my life started, the Iraqi-Iran war began. Before it was even a year old, my oldest brother was killed and one of my cousins was taken as a prisoner of war. That is when I began hearing my father curse “Mr. President” whenever he found himself alone with my mother in the orchard, kitchen, or bedroom, or as she milked our cows in the pen. I was irremediably confused as I sat torn between these obscene curses and those beautiful pictures and songs they taught us in school, praising the president, the great teacher, the hero, the valiant, the genius, the powerful, the necessity, the inspired, etc.—among other names and attributes in a long list of big words. We did not understand all of them at the time, yet we began dreaming of seeing him even if only in our dreams. There were those among us who claimed that this wish had come true for them.
Meanwhile, I used to hear my father curse him after midnight when I would get up to drink or pee. I would pass near him as he sat in the living room with my mother and aunt, the mother of the prisoner of war. She used to visit after everyone in the village went to bed in order to listen secretly to the Tehran station with my father. This enemy station used to air a daily program with messages from prisoners of war to their families. As the program ended without any mention of her son, she burst out crying joined by my mother. At that point my father would spit on the floor behind him in anger and bitterness. Sometimes he would pull out his slippers and start slapping the spot where he spat, hatefully, as if it were a scorpion. He would curse, he who used to punish us for uttering a single bad word. This is another confusion that my father’s personality caused. At the same time, I cannot deny how proud of him I was for being the only one who owned a small box that talked and sang, called “radio,” even though he never let it sing. As soon as he heard music he rushed to search for news reports or Qur’an recitation. He was good at turning its red dial and knew its stations and the schedule of their programs. This is why he became the pivotal point during gatherings, and the shining star in the village coffeehouse in the morning. There, men flocked around him asking for news of the remote world, and for his opinions. He was also good at crafting his own special style to impress his audience with the breadth of his knowledge and his eloquence, for which they bought him glasses of tea and coffee. All of this aroused Jalil Haddad’s envy, which prompted him to make a similar metal box. However, he was not able to make it speak. My father had bought that radio on a trip to Nineveh to sell the surplus tomato crops one season. He continued to let no one touch it. He hid it in his personal box with the big lock. I do not recall touching it except once when he said to me as he left the house in a hurry, “Carry it to your mother and tell her to lock it up well.”
That was an unforgettable event. I examined it with quivering hands and put my eyes on its holes to see what was inside. More than looking, I imagined.
Our village was small. There were no more than fifty houses, among them a mosque and a school. They were all built from mud and rock on a small plain between Mt. Makhoul and the Tigris River. This is why traveling to and from our village was rare. We were all relatives. We married each other, we constructed homes, harvested, and held funerals and weddings together. Sometimes we fought to the point of murder for reasons that might have to do with a chicken or an egg. But we also made up quickly.
The only one who lived far away from the village in one of the cities was Mrs. Layla, who fell in love with a traveling perfume salesman who passed by our village on his mule. Her family refused to let her marry him because he was a stranger, so she eloped with him. Our customs dictated that any of her relatives who saw her within two years could kill her. If this time passed without this happening, she would be able to return and her marriage would be acknowledged. This is what happened in her case. She started visiting the village with her perfumer husband. They both appeared wearing elegant, colorful clothes and drenched in perfumes that charmed us all. Her awaited visits were the best thing about the holiday season. Other than that, we only ate candy, sipped tea, and visited the cemetery, exchanging the same formulaic holiday greetings. All the families used to compete to have her over for dinner. In addition to her perfume and the jingling of her bracelets and necklaces, she used to captivate people with her riveting stories about city life and other things. They were completely different from the ones we heard from our grandmothers at bedtime about sultans, princesses, djinns, angels, wizards, talking animals, and flying serpents. Layla’s stories spoke about ordinary people like us, with nothing miraculous or supernatural, yet she created suspense because of the relationships and behavior she described. The whole village stayed up late, gathered around her in a living room or a courtyard, while the host went around offering everyone tea and homemade sesame or date cake with a big smile.
Layla herself was the holiday for us. Women sought her advice on winning the hearts of men, and men on winning the hearts of women. Children approached her because she constantly kissed and patted the heads of those who sat near her. Later we understood the secret behind this kindness and these stories. She was sterile, unable to bear children, so she spent most of her time in front of the TV while her husband was away roaming on his mule from village to village.
We learned this in the second year of war when “Mr. President” gave each family that did not own one a TV. That was after he visited a Kurdish village where people ran away and hid when his helicopters landed in the village square. When his bodyguards brought him some of these escapees he asked them in surprise, “I am Mr. President, don’t you recognize me?!” Their eyes darted about in fear and they shook their heads. Right there and then he issued his decree so that all of the homeland’s offspring could see and know him. TV sets arrived with silver-colored aluminum frames inscribed with a statement indicating that this was a present from Mr. President the Leader, along with his name, his picture, the Iraqi flag, the motto of the Republic, and pamphlets of his speeches instead of the operation manual that had originally accompanied the TV sets. In order for the TV sets to function, he decreed that electricity be extended to reach every village, even the tents of the Bedouins in the desert that we used to see far away on the horizon behind the opposite riverbank. Because they were nomadic, he gave them portable power generators that they could carry on the backs of their camels along with the TV sets wherever they went.
That was when everything changed. Everything. Our scalps said good-bye to the lanterns that burned them while we did our homework around them, vying for their light with insects and moths. Our noses took respite from the stifling smoke of their wicks. The electric light extinguished Layla’s light for good when we discovered that the stories with which she used to mesmerize us were no more than the films she watched on TV. Her visits lost their holiday flavor, especially since the government now was broadcasting the best films, songs, and dances during the holidays. During the rest of the year, it mostly broadcast the excursions and speeches of Mr. President, snapshots from the battlefield, war movies, images of the corpses of the enemies, the faces of their frightened prisoners of war, the flags of the homeland fluttering on the hilltops of deserted, desolate lands. The old tales were bit by bit relegated to oblivion, and eventually to the graveyard with the elderly.
My father died a month after TV entered our village. My mother kept saying, “Grief killed him.” We do not know what kind of grief she meant exactly. Was he grieving my brother’s death and my cousin’s capture? Or was it because he kept seeing the images of Mr. President and getting more and more incensed, spitting at the mere mention of his name or the sound of his voice on the radio? Or did he grieve because he, too, lost his luster after everyone began watching and listening to the news in their own homes and no one asked for his updates at the coffeehouse in the morning anymore? At any rate, my mother never stopped taking the radio with her on every visit to my father’s grave. I recall too our neighbor Abu Hassoun after he watched a program on SeaWorld and its many amazing creatures followed by news of demonstrations against the war by millions of people in the streets of their capital. His eyes bulged and his mouth opened and he said, “What kind of temperament do you have, God, what a variety of creatures and humans you’ve created! I can’t stand my own children or even my own self sometimes. How can you stand all of these?!” Immediately after, he asked for God’s forgiveness for what he said, and acknowledged Him as the greatest, the biggest, and worthy of being the Lord for being able to tolerate all of those humans and raucous creatures. And then he quickly changed the subject by asking, “If all these people are against the war, why are they fighting then?”
When he realized the significance of his question he picked up his walking stick and his cloak and went to the Imam of the mosque, who answered him, “War is not between people, oh, Abu Hassoun. It’s between their heads.” When he saw that Abu Hassoun did not understand what he meant, the Imam went on explaining to him during the entire period from the afternoon prayer and the evening prayer, saying that the illnesses are in the heads, not the bodies, and that the leaders are heads as well, and they are the ones who light up the wars, and those people are merely the kindling.
The one person whose star really shone with the advent of TV was the Imam of the mosque. He set himself as its fiercest opponent, and dedicated all of his Friday sermons against it to the point of confusing all of us with his propositions to this day. At some point he would say this box was the window from which the venoms of hell came in, and at another point he would claim it was the spoiler of minds, families, and nations. Sometimes he would convince us that it was the Antichrist, and the evidence, as ancient books described, is that it is one-eyed, readily seducing people to corruption, especially women. Accordingly, he started calling it “corruptision,” for the unadulterated and authentic Arabic language, the language of the Holly Qur’an, declined to offer it a name, forcing it to continue living among us in its foreign name, “television.”
“Some of you claim it is the giver-of-vision—what vision is this, oh people! It is the giver-of-blindness that has blinded you from seeing one another, from seeing yourselves, the truth, and the righteous path! How do you accept being guided by a one-eyed thing, you who see with two eyes?”
That was when people started giving personal names to their TV sets, the way they named their kids, dogs, or cows. It was in order to avoid calling it by its foreign name that intruded on our native language. In return, TV began giving the children of our village strange names that were not common before. For example, when his wife gave birth to twin boys, Jalil Haddad, who was notorious for his roughness and stubbornness, named them Rambo and Tarzan to show how much he admired their strength. But when he took them to the Civil Affairs Department to register them, the clerk refused, saying that the law prohibited foreign names, especially since these are names of characters created by the American enemy. Jalil was angry and insisted on the two names while the clerk insisted on refusing. Right there and then Jalil laid his two infants on the table in front of the clerk, pulled out a knife from his pocket and put it on the neck of one of the infants. “You either register them with the names that I want or I will slaughter them and leave their corpses here for you. I am their father and I am free to name and do with them whatever I want.”
The official was forced to give up. This is how our village acquired its own Rambo and Tarzan who, since their early youth, were two of the naughtiest and fiercest boys, and the most skilled in stealing eggs, chickens, and field figs. Jalil was the one who once said to Tarzan, after he flipped through all of the TV channels one evening and found nothing but documentary films about animals of the African wilderness, “Son, go check if the antenna has fallen into the barn.”
On the first day, we, the children, circled around those boxes searching for the feet of the news reporters and the rest of their bodies. The grownups scared those who were younger than us and threatened them, telling them that the symphony orchestras were gangs with grim-faced members who were sharpening their swords and waving their sticks, emitting strange noises that rise and ebb suddenly. If an opera singer accompanied them, they become even scarier with this loud screaming, making the kids terrified and obedient, quickly going potty and being tucked into bed.
My aunt began staring at all the faces that appeared on the screen. Her heart quivered whenever she saw someone who looked like her prisoner-of-war son. She treated the TV set innocently, taking it for a living creature. She gave it food and talked to it. As long as it could talk and move, she thought, it must also be able to hear. She used to cover it with a blanket when it was cold, and wash it with water and laundry detergent, until it was damaged.
As for the Imam’s religious, prudish, shy wife, whenever she entered a living room with a TV set in it she would cover her face with the burka and say, “I’m embarrassed to sit with male strangers, and the whole family of the TV set is here.” She meant the news reporters and the actors, as she did not distinguish between TV people and guests because she avoided looking in their direction and only listened. This is also why she sometimes answered the TV thinking that someone in the room was talking to her.
As for the young women, they stopped asking Layla how to win the hearts of men and took to imitating the ways TV women dressed, talked, and walked. Pregnant women began placing a glass of water on top of the TV when a good-looking news reporter or a beautiful actress appeared. Afterward they drank the water hoping that the newborn would be as beautiful as the person they just saw. Some women placed bouquets in front of the screen whenever their favorite singer appeared. Most of them sewed, from the scraps of their old clothes, a beautiful embroidered cover to tuck the TV set in after turning it off for the night. They took better care of it than they did of their homes and husbands. Girls began singing and talking about love rather than marriage and people started finding young men in street corners at night or in the fields kissing each other on the mouth, a thing that was unheard of before, or at least not so openly.
This is how the Imam’s campaign intensified against his foe, the “corruptision,” epitome of ruin and obscenity, this “Antichrist” that lures our offspring and makes them deviate from the righteous path and good morals. This is why he began urging parents to hurry up and marry off their sons and daughters. More men joined his campaign and sought him out obediently to ask, “Oh, Sheik, we ask God’s forgiveness and to him we repent. What shall we do?”
Deliberations intensified and suggestions proliferated for months on end as everyone racked his brains to find a solution to rid the village of this calamity? Some said, “Let’s throw them into the river.” But some answered, “They will contaminate the water from which we and our animals drink, and spoil its fish and frogs, and even the fruit of the orchards on the riverbank.” Another one said, “Let’s burn them,” but the Imam answered, “Trial by fire is only for God. No person or creature has the right to punish another creature or person with fire. God alone punishes by fire and hell. In this box are creatures that talk and move, even if we do not comprehend their nature and essence, for they are from a different rank much like angels, djinns, and devils.”
“Let us break them with canes or stone them,” it was said, yet some warned against that because “if the authorities found out they would take all of us to prison, execute us, or bomb us because these TV sets carry the name of Mr. President and his image.” Others said, “Let’s sell them then or donate them to the city folk.” The objection here was, “In our customs ‘gifts cannot be gifted away or sold.’”
Confusion and arguments continued until it was agreed to delegate the matter to the Imam so he could entreat his God and pray for guidance to the righteous solution. The Imam took his time to get back to us with the solution, saying that he was still asking God. He began secluding himself more, praying, reading scriptures, and oversleeping, because the solutions that God may inspire to his worshipers either came in dreams or suddenly appeared in one’s thoughts and judgment with perfect clarity.
The day of the fatwa arrived. The Imam gathered the people in the mosque and said to them, “Thanks be to God, I had an epiphany last night. As I told you before, this ‘Antichrist’ is the one that will wreak havoc on the whole of the Earth and after it God will send us the ‘Savior’ who will fight it and emerge victorious. He will spread peace and goodness everywhere until Judgment Day. It is God’s will and one of His signs. Therefore, we have no choice or will before this Divine choice and will other than submitting completely. Keep your ‘corruptisions’ so that God may hurry up with his Savior that will fulfill His will. The believer is on trial and this is a test for believers. If God had willed it, he could have prevented the human brain from inventing this thing. He has a wisdom in this.” He then concluded his sermon with one of the rhymed lines that we were accustomed to hearing from him, “Oh, locust creator, you have the will of the maker.”
This is how the wild ways of life entered the seclusion of our homes and TV became our constant companion to this day. We stare at it day and night. Some even installed more than one, in each bedroom, and in the kitchen and the bathroom so that the programs do not get interrupted and no one misses a scene, and also so that God may hurry up and bring his “Savior.” Due to watching and listening much more and talking much less, the nature of our relationships with ourselves, each other, our animals, our trees, and our river changed. People’s eyes bulged in idiotic stares. They stuck out of their sockets like headlights. Their ears grew longer like donkeys’, their tongues grew shorter like birds’, and their behinds became more square from constant sitting.
The Imam’s first wife, who was shy in front of the TV at first, leaked a secret among the women, later, which in turn leaked to the men in the bedrooms, who of course turned their heads and slept on the other side of the bed saying that she was badmouthing the Imam and that it was nothing but the jealously of women. She swore that she was telling the truth, although she did not deny her intention to avenge herself from her husband who took a second wife after TV entered their home and she forgave him. He took a third wife and she forgave him again because she was less smart and beautiful than her, she said. Yet now, after he married the fourth, she was marginalized because the latest one is the youngest and most beautiful, and she looked like the women on TV and kept him to herself at night, whereas she had no entertainment except TV.
She said to her neighbor, “Listen, Sister, he did not have any dream or any of that nonsense. The night he claimed he had that epiphany we didn’t sleep in the first place. We stayed up in front of the ‘corruptision’ and watched some stuff that I’m embarrassed to describe. You know what I’m taking about. After watching, we had a wild night. We hadn’t tasted anything so sweet, not even on our honeymoon, and I don’t think we’ll taste anything like that for the rest of our days. After that the marriage obsession took hold of him. The TV took him from me, so I took the TV from him.”
© Muhsin al-Ramli. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Yasmeen Hanoosh. All rights reserved.