The wooden door is ancient. Dust has piled atop the misshapen roof give off a stench and slip between the spider’s threads. Its right-hand side is planted in the ground sloping down towards the narrow hall. The hall is dismal and gloomy, clung to by the smell of shoes and chicken excrement.
The boy stood in front of the entrance, terrified, taking in the ancient iron engravings on the upper half of the door until the pressure of his father’s hand on his back increased, forcing him to enter this strange house. He gulped and advanced behind him with faltering footsteps.
Behind him was the narrow alley with its ground of dust, filled with passersby, neighbours who were watching him and father attentively and curiously. The shadowy hall veiled his father’s piercing eyes and betrayed the ghost of a long white beard. The old man’s breathing was heavy and deliberate, and echoed off the crumbling walls from right and left. The boy followed him quietly, climbing behind him up the steep, narrow staircase to the third floor. His father stopped at the last apartment, coughed twice and knocked on the door.
A peevish female voice rises from inside, ‘Who is it?’ His father gives his name, with ‘Sheikh’ appended to it as usual. A voluptuous woman opens the door, with bronze skin and a sweet smile, and she leads them to where some dilapidated old chairs rest. The two of them become entangled in a discussion, neither long nor short, as a result of which the Sheikh reaches into his pocket to take out a certain amount of cash and the woman takes a key out of her bag. The boy is absorbed in gazing at the objects around him and isn’t aware of anything until the Sheikh places a hand on his shoulder and leads him outside. The woman brings the two of them to a halt to explain the absence in her second apartment, then she brings out a piece of chocolate from her pocket. She places it in the boy’s hand, who remains aloof like any respectable child and looks with secret hope into his father’s face.
‘What’s his name?’ asks the woman.
‘Rushdie.’ The father replies in a deep, husky voice. He smiles slightly, indicating to the boy to take the small, shiny, colourful square from her hand.
‘You seem tired,’ the woman says.
‘We came here from the main train station.’
‘Where did you come from?’
The old man fixes his gaze on her face and replies briefly, ‘From the land of God, where we will return.’
Before the woman replied, the man drew the boy outside. He turned his head at the last moment to look at her, sitting and smiling.
He stood in front of the wall as if nailed to the spot. Sweat consumed him unhurriedly, and the cold breeze that slunk in from the window brushed him lightly. He felt the weight of his short galibeyya on his body and began to shiver, violently at first, then with calm regularity. Tears glistened in his eyes but they didn’t leave the rims of his eyes. Outside, his father was still practicing the rituals as usual, unaware of what was taking place inside. It was difficult for anything to escape his father, but this is what had happened.
The strange drawings were still on the wall.
The boy sees a small city, a woman, a young boy like himself. He sees a house, men, and a small fire. He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he knows it relates to himself in some way. He cries when he sees a man die quietly on his bed, a boy and a woman next to him. He revisits this scene many times, and cries each time he sees it.
His breathing had quietened completely now. He knows that he will feel limp after a few moments. His eyelids will become heavy and he’ll feel a need to sleep. He will sleep and the drawings will return to a new wall tomorrow, just like it had been in every house he and the old sheikh had been in. The day will come when he won’t cry or be scared. He knows this well.
He wrapped himself up in a blanket, carefully, and suffered the thunderous shock of his skin touching the wet galibeyya. He heard the sound of the Sheikh’s coughing and crossed the hall in front of the door to his room. He began to feel drowsy.
The weather is harsh and the wind batters the devastated tree trunks outside. He looks at the white sky behind the wooden window frame. Birds are hovering in infinite, intersecting circles. He shifts his gaze inside the classroom, austere yellow paint dripping from its walls. The blackboard is covered in black filth and has rusty edges. The teacher stands next to it, and his strangled, accelerating, nasal voice draws out the vowels of his speech like Punch. His neighbour, a dirty-clothed, long-legged student, looks at him disdainfully from time to time. This boy has annoyed him since he arrived a week ago. He remains silent as is his habit, casting his eyes far away.
A sudden feeling of hatred hits him. It rises up from inside him with satanic violence. He wants to leave this cursed place in as short a time as possible. He remembers the complaint to his father which went unregarded, as usual. His hatred turns to frustration burning his eyes. He clenches his jaw so he won’t cry. His eyes are fixed on an imaginary point but they don’t see anything.
He hears the teacher’s strangled voice from far away. An image of the school, a sombre castle in bygone days, pursues him. Slowly, slowly, its dome comes to him, a dome covered in branches of ivy. He saw a bird hovering around it and he trembled, thinking it was a bat. He gripped his father’s hand, dragged behind him as was the custom.
‘Answer, you animal.’
The words pierce him, and he found himself in front of the repulsive teacher. His breath emanated a hateful odour, and his eyes were knife-like. The boy increased the pressure on his jaw and he saw the thick cane which had pierced his field of vision. He remained mute, and the teacher asked him for the last words he said. The filthy student must be laughing at him by now. He didn’t look to the side.
‘Stand up. Open your hand.’
He stood. Without intending to, he looked beseechingly at the teacher, who hit him on his right arm and repeated his instruction to open his hand. The blow hurt him but he remained silent. He presented his palms, and the teacher rained four blows upon them as hard as he could. Pain consumed him and he struggled not to cry. His vision blurred a little.
He knocks on the door as befits a polite child. The voluptuous, bronze-skinned lady opens it. Her sweet smile drowns him, and he extends his hand to give her a small envelope. She tells him, ‘Wait.’ She leaves for a moment, then returns with a plate covered with sheets of newspaper and tells him the traditional holiday greeting. He responds in a whisper as she laughs because but he hasn’t entered, as usual. He gives her a pale smile and turns to leave.
She bursts out, ‘Are you having visitors?’ She waves a hand, pointing downstairs.
‘Could you tell your father I’ll visit you in an hour?’
He nods, yes, he will. She thanks him cheerfully and closes the door, locking it behind her.
He walks the crooked staircase carefully so he won’t fall; he’s still not used to it. He carries the plate protectively. It’s a short distance but the staircase is deceptive.
Silence lingers in the hall of their small apartment despite the overcrowding. He creeps quietly through the doorway. He casts his eyes on the people sitting in fierce silent. Three women and one man. The women were piled on the couch, which had been green a long time ago, and the man sat on a seat which groaned underneath him.
Several plates are crowded on the table opposite them covered in sheets and plastic bags. He puts the plate next to its brothers. They won’t need to eat for three days. It’s better this way. He mumbles to himself without noticing. Only Ahmed, the young man who likes doves, smiles when he sees him on the rooftop. Ahmed, yes, but not the others. He won’t need to face this for three days.
It was daytime, but the hall was always dark. The shadows turn their faces into pools of expectant cruelty. Statues turning deliberately; motivated, perhaps, by fear. He takes more and more opportunities, like this one, to be away from his elderly father for a little while. Slowness transforms into a panting rush towards the door.
He steps quietly towards his room. The three women remain on the sofa while the chair enjoys a temporary respite; the man had sauntered into his father’s room without any fuss. A bead of sweat fleeing the brow of one of the women glistens in the meagre light that the window lets in. He slides a glance to where his father’s room lies, its door silenced on both sides. He won’t tell him that the woman is coming, and he won’t care. She will arrive and enter, like her, like the rest of the alley’s people and their faces. He opens the door to his room and would have entered had a voice not followed him, quavering: ‘Will the session take a long time, son?’
It was the last of the women, and she was looking at him anxiously. The reply left his mouth that he had learned by heart. ‘It depends on the circumstances, ya Hagga.’
The shattered silence gathers up its parts quickly. His room contains him and he shuts the door behind him.
Father’s room always wears an air of watchful stillness. An unbroken circle of ancient cushions is to be found around the large incense burner, laced with strange embellishment. Father, of course, retains the place of precedence, facing the door. His comfortable cushion is a dusty purple colour, placed slightly higher than its sisters in a genuine declaration of superiority. The room always closes its shutters on that cheap concrete balcony overlooking the stink of the alleyway which is too narrow for its wandering souls. Night and day, this room swims in the light (which is closer to shadow than light) of a cheap electric lamp. At the beginning of the rituals on which the Father bestows the years of his long life, seven candles are lit around the circle. Each candle carries the same ornamentation as the gigantic cushion.
He doesn’t see this every day, but he knows it to be so.
He moves slowly, sweeping the floor with the broom. He hunts dust, settled in provocative calm on top of the furniture. His roams his eyes over the room. It is an endlessly-repeated copy of the every room that his Father has ever had. He remembers days not too long ago. Eternal journeying. More faces than are countable. Dusty streets. Women immolated with the desire to provide succour. He is scared of dogs, and his father says they are scared of him as well. In every city there was a room. In every room, an incense burner, cushions, candles. In every room there was this idol, a weird idol with a form impossible to define or describe. He wipes it with a piece of cloth, in fear. His hands quiver but he regains control of himself. He rests the idol on its table and continues to sweep slowly and carefully.
He looks at it. It appears that an eye is looking at him; an eye engraved onto this idol. He sees an abhorrent radiance resting in the depths of that eye. That feeling drowned him in hatred. Fear, and hatred.
His father lifted him up to confront the mirror. He smiled and looked at his face, and said, ‘Look.’
‘At what, Dad?’ he whispered.
‘I’m looking at your eyes. They are my eyes, like brown almonds. I had coal-black hair like you only yesterday.’ His father smiled at him, he couldn’t help smiling. ‘The idol is like these, my son.’
His father said he had inherited it from his father; he must pass it on to his son. And his son must pass it on to his grandchildren, along with eyes, hair colour, blood type and intuition. His father smiles.
He doesn’t want this idol. He doesn’t want it.
He looked into the evil eye again, and imagined that he saw a mouth. The mouth smiles. Its smile is evil, loathsome. The smile of a wolf before the attack.
He knows he won’t break it. He won’t throw it to the ground to be smashed into a thousand pieces. He will pass it down to a son in hatred, who will preserve it in hatred; he can’t break it. The mouth smiles. His eyes howl.
… silence invades things gently. Tender silence. Silence is a friend which does not accompany banishment with screaming. Silence sits beside him and smiles. Rivers of blood melt on the surface of the wall. Crows are flying, racing over distances far and near. Mountains behind mountains. Contours dissolve to form a woman’s face. He doesn’t know these features but he recognises the intimate companionship of silence. Quiet, regular breathing envelops him tenderly. His bladder consoles him and bulls watch him, inscribed with a look of anger. There is a man between the bulls. A man with a black coat and long, soft, coal-like hair. His shadow comes nearer, on the wall. Dust rises, forming a smile. He is not scared of the eyes of the bull, but he is scared of the gleam of that smile. Silence’s fangs and claws overbear him. Silence’s breathing snaps at him. Whirlpools of dust form a wide smile belonging to a strange man. Warmth flows over his thighs.
The scissor blows rain down as fast as they were able, as delicately as they were able, and the silver tufts of Father’s hair collapse like ancient stones abandoning a mountain.
The barber seems frightened; a submissive fear shows in his eyes. He rubs his nose and wipes his hands on his trousers, glancing here and there. The boy knows he is torn between a violent desire to finish his task as quickly as possible, and a steady, careful madness, calling him to perfect what he does. A sheep’s complacency is to be found between these poles.
The old Sheikh closes his eyes, his back turned. His arms lie recumbent on the arms of the chair, solemn and immovable. His hands are flat, collapsed beside the arms of the chair. The sound of his quiet breathing mingles with the scissors’ squeak and the sound of the barber’s diffident footsteps.
The hair forms a circle of snow around them; an uninterrupted circle, as if one of them had arranged it that way. There is a slight, hidden struggle between the sanctity of the circle and the footsteps of the barber. Austere light pours onto the Sheikh from the window, left open on shaving days like a holy tradition; the Sheikh is a well-crafted idol. The Sheikh raises his hand slowly. The barber understands the signal and finishes the meticulous combing needed to clip stray hairs on the sheikh’s chin. Another couple of minutes and the barber is sitting in a corner.
The old man bends down, ripping the sanctity of the circle with greedy hands. He gathers the strands rapidly, and those that stray a little are throttled. The boy knows he is next. He waits until the circle is history, like usual, then calmly sits on the chair on which the barber has placed a wooden plank. The old man leaves without saying a word; the boy ascends the chair. The barber advances with his scissors, whose sequence of blows resumes. The warmth of fear creeps from the man’s hands into the boy’s skin; the boy’s fear was cold, drawing in the barber’s warmth. The scissor crunch echoes in the boy’s ear. He has a horrible misgiving that these scissors will clip his ear. The Sheikh’s chanting resounds from within, mixing with smoke that slinks into the room like a fox. Sweat pours down the barber’s face, and a drop hits the ground. The boy felt, for a moment, strange refreshment spreading slowly through his veins.
First seven chapters of my novel The Idol- Published in 2008 by Al 'Ain Publishing.
Translated by Leri Price