When Naima’s elephant appeared in our street for the first time, people finally believed what Nuwayra, Ghurab’s wife, had been saying all along regarding the annoying patter up on the rooftops, which is that it was caused by a small elephant that Naima recently acquired. But Nuwayra, despite the precision of her intelligence reports, did not advance a satisfactory explanation for how Naima acquired this elephant, and she was just as confused as everyone when asked where this elephant had come from.
And because we are a city that readily mixes fiction with reality, some people believed Rahi bin Hanun’s words when he claimed to have seen a small elephant with wooden wings descend upon Naima’s roof a year and a half ago. Similarly, others believed the tale of Mr. Flea the Cheetah, who declared that Naima’s husband, Bajay, had not actually gone to Syria, as Naima claimed, but had been transformed by God into an elephant on account of all the false oaths he took in the names of prophets and imams.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that there are many stories about Naima’s elephant. Personally, I’m not interested in all that gossip. What does interest me is the entertainment afforded by the presence of an elephant in Thawra City. Our deprived children thronged around it. This elephant was their own roaming zoo, and in their delight, they bubbled over with songs, whistles, and jokes. As for Naima, despite the relatively high cost of the elephant’s living expenses, she insisted on taking care of it even though her own conditions were difficult.
If we had known that Naima’s elephant was an armored vehicle that couldn’t be scratched by the largest bomb, we would easily have found an excuse for Naima’s decision to raise this gigantic animal. The elephant began wandering around Thawra City from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon. Then it would go out again at six in the evening and stay out until curfew, and sometimes even an hour or so past curfew. After all, the police were afraid of it, and no one could prevent it from doing so.
In her annual visits to shrines during this past month of Sha’ban, Naima was seen riding in a howdah on the back of her elephant amid crowds performing the collective rites of marching. The elephant stretched out its trunk to clear a path, while Naima drifted off to sleep on its back, as comfortable as if home in bed. The clashes between the terrorists and the pilgrims on that occasion became known as “The Battle of the Elephant,” since people sought cover behind Naima’s elephant, which blocked the bullets. A few other times, Naima was also seen boarding her elephant for shopping trips, visits to friends and relatives, or whenever she went to the local clinic. There are eyewitnesses who saw IEDs exploding under the feet of the giant elephant without Naima suffering the least harm. Such explosives that would have destroyed the strongest American Hummer, but the elephant didn’t even notice.
The government got word about the elephant, and it sent a delegation to negotiate with Naima about making use of its services to transport some officials who were deprived of seeing their people. In the face of everyone who raised the subject with her, Naima repeated a single sentence. She declared that this elephant was a divine providence to protect her from the danger of terrorism, which was harvesting the souls of everyone.
President Jalal Talabani offered Naima, her family, and her animals a stay at his splendid resort at the Dukan Dam up north if she would just let him use the elephant for one month to stroll among his people like any elected president. Naima agreed and went to live for a time at the resort. The elephant entered the Green Zone amid the jealous envy of the speaker of parliament, the prime minister, and all the other officials toward crafty Talabani, that fox who was able to obtain the services of an armored elephant.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went to Talabani’s house, which was not far from his own, and begged to accompany him on the elephant’s back for a joint tour through the streets of Baghdad. Speaker of Parliament Mahmoud al-Mashhadani heard about the arrangement, and he went and made the same request to Mam Jalal. And because Talabani has a generous heart, he agreed to both requests. The three of them mounted the back of the elephant, and when it took them across the bridge into Jadriyah, Sayyid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim saw them. His heart was filled with such envy at what he saw that offered to cede his goal of a federalist state for the center and south of Iraq in exchange for getting up behind them.
The other three agreed to the deal, and Hakim joined them on the elephant, where they sat encased in a box of bulletproof glass. The elephant set right off, and the four of them toured the Rusafa district on the east bank of the Tigris amid the surprise and confusion of the people at this strangest of things they were seeing. The greater part of their surprise was not on account of an elephant in the streets of Baghdad, but that the four evangelists had left the Green Zone and come among the people without their bodyguards!
During this blessed tour, Mashhadani asked his brother Talabani about the direction he had given this elephant. Talabani laughed and said, “This is a Kurdish elephant! It used to fly above the mountains of Kurdistan, hunted by members of the Peshmerga.” Mashhadani laughed, as did Maliki. Hakim heard Talabani’s words and laughed as well, which the elephant found disgusting. It raised its trunk up high, spread its wooden wings, and flew into the sky amid a crowd of onlookers, whose eyes followed that marvelous sight until the elephant disappeared among the thick clouds that were rapidly gathering in the sky above the city. The people did not disperse until a severe thunderstorm broke out, the likes of which Baghdad has never seen before.
On the morning of the next day, after the rain had stopped and the sun rose once again, Dr. Ali Aldabbagh, the government spokesman, went on Al Iraqiya to announce the elephant’s flight and the disappearance of the founding fathers of the nation. His statement opened with a noble verse from the 105th sura of the Qur’an, “Have you not seen what your Lord did to the masters of the elephant?” He concluded by saying that the joint forces were investigating the suspect, Naima, Mother of Elephants, on a charge of plotting a coup against the democratically elected government.
From Shalash the Iraqi, copyright © 2023 by “Shalash.” Translation copyright © 2023 by Luke Leafgren. Available May 2023 from And Other Stories. By arrangement with the publisher.