this is a blog for short stories and other things which we may call short writings. for now the writings are mine, but if you are willing to add yours short stories or comments, please do.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


By Hassan Bahri

When you ask somebody to describe a beautiful village, I think many people might say it’s a cluster of small country cottages, set in a wood with tall trees, resting on the bank of a small river, and sheltering amongst mountains.

And maybe not far from the sea, which can be seen from the doorsteps of the houses.

I remember when I was still in primary school, I used to draw villages like this on my sketch pad, but I used to add some farm animals to the view.

Now, it is all far away, just a distant memory, but this was reality. It was a village, a Mediterranean village. It used to go to bed, if there were any beds, early to wake up with the birds. Its inhabitants, who number no more than two hundred, were in the habit of gathering to follow with their eyes the long white trails, which the airliners leave behind over the sea, high in the late afternoon sky, just before sunset. Moreover, their hens could make them happier by laying more eggs, or their cows could do the same by giving them a little bit more milk.

If it happened that you met one of them, he would revive everything true in your human nature, simply by the way he would greet you and ask about your health, by insisting that you have a rest and a cup of tea or coffee, or maybe even spend the night with him. He would tell you about his land, and his children.

Like all countrymen these villagers were hardworking people, and they had been so for generations; at least since the early days of the century before, when they were still under a feudal system. Their landlord owned their land and all the land around it, as well as all the other villages around. All the villagers worked hard for him, ploughing his land, planting it, growing crops and harvesting them. They did all this just to see him smile, when he paid his visit to them, once a year.

He was a good landlord; they said so, and they liked him.

Years went by. They worked and he collected, the more they sweated the more he smiled, and both sides were happy.

But the evils of the first half of the last century touched most people in some way, and this village was no exception. For a couple of years there was not enough rain, and disease also made their lives more difficult.

Moreover, a few years before, all the men in the village had been forced to take up arms and go to unknown fronts, to fight unknown enemies. They never returned. However, rumours spread everywhere about defeats, and about blockades of the ports, and about massacres against the Armenian people. Within days, the villagers had to believe most of the rumours, especially when they began welcoming Armenians fleeing from the north, starving, naked, and desperate.

But bad things, like good ones, never last.

The cycle reversed, with plenty of rain again, bigger harvests, more weddings, and more smiles on the landlord’s fleshy face.

The villagers had been told the landlord was coming to the village and wanted to see them in the house of the village Chief.

He came, riding a white horse, and before and after him two men riding mules. As soon as they arrived they met the assembled villagers. They ate much, and smoked even more, before they got down to discussing their plans for the next year: what would be the best harvest to plant, and where to plant it. The village had many odd pieces of farm land, but they were scattered on the flanks of the surrounding mountains and in the deep valleys. And every piece had its name, derived from its location or from some event that had happened on it or round it. So you would hear names like ‘Distant’, Deep’, or ‘Rocky’ popping up in their conversation.

One of the farmers started talking about the various tracts of land and suggested planting some kind of fruit tree in ‘Rocky’, because it had too many small stones and rocks on it for arable plants, but its site was good, protected from the frosty northern winter winds. His reasoning was good, and the landlord, happy to embrace the idea, interrupted him, saying:

‘You know the land better than I, and I have no orchards in this village. So let’s plant ‘Rocky’ with peach trees and plum trees, half and half.

Then another farmer, rolling his cigarette meticulously between blackened fingers, said:

That kind of tree is very sensitive, and’…

But the landlord cut him short, saying:

‘Then plant native (more vernacular, ‘indigenous’ unlikely in dialogue) strains, they yield less but withstand the climate here better. Their fruits fetch high prices on the market. When I was in Europe I saw hundreds of acres of land planted with these trees.’

The second farmer felt he was losing his argument, so he added, still trying to light the cigarette:

‘Even if we do plant them, I think Khatoun will not leave any fruit on them. She will eat them to the last fruit.’

‘Who’s that? Asked the landlord, with enraged contempt.

‘Khatoun, my lord.’

‘Who is she, this Khatom? Bring her to me!’

Khatoun was a desperate woman, sorrow on two legs, an Armenian whose black fate had thrown her onto roads she did not know, fleeing alone from the indiscriminate killing far to the north. She hurled herself at the first door she reached in the village. She was starving, and her clothes were decayed rags. Although she was still young, her hair was already snow white.

She arrived carrying a little bundle over her left breast. The villagers gave her food to eat and clothes to wear, and she stayed there a week or so, but she would never be parted from her bundle. Nobody knew her true story. They tried to speak to her, but she did not speak their language. Moreover, she was crying all the time, hugging and lulling the bundle, sometimes whispering sad songs, sometimes yelling aloud.

After a week she left, though everybody wanted her to stay. She left, but she kept coming back to the village from time to time, carrying her bundle. Everybody there felt sympathy with her. She came, ate, got some rest and some clothes, and went back to the valleys. They knew she was sleeping in the forest on good nights but in shrines or in ruins around the place when rain came. By day she used to pick plants and collect fruit from the farms to live on, and she began to understand some words of their language.

She was the local mystery. She and her bundle nourished the villagers’ imaginations; they began to figure out her story, and they were generous with their speculations

where there were gaps in their knowledge. Some said she was a mother of two and she had survived some massacre. Her husband, one child and all her family were killed. When she returned from their distant farm carrying her little baby, and saw nothing but a huge fire consuming the village houses, she ran there, only to find her people killed. Thereupon, she lost her mind, and fled with her baby. The rest of the story was too painful even for them to ask her about, or to fill in with something from their own previous griefs.

And this black luck even dragged her now to the village, to appear on the landlord’s wanted list. Soon she was standing in his presence, surrounded by his men. He asked her straight away:

‘Is it true what they say, that you would eat my peaches and plums if we plant them in ‘Rocky’?

From his entire phrase she understood one word, ‘eat’, nothing else. It was hunger, which had thrown her at the doors of strangers, and ‘eat’ was the magic word, which was the first she would, understood. So she hurriedly replied:

EAT, yes! Yes!’

Then the landlord, his face even redder, found a new use for his walking stick. In a fit of frenzy he lashed her again and again, repeating his question, would she indeed eat the peaches and plums he planted?

The last century faded away.

The landlord died long ago, the farmers are still there sweating to please different landlords, but Khatoun with the bundle still refuses to leave their stories.

Even though she left this world, with her bundle, not long after she had cause to regret learning the word ‘eat’.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Swearing at the President

by: Hassan Bahri

“That ‘ s him! Sitting on the balcony as usual. Great! "
"Who? Don’t tell me Maussaub?”
"Yes, that’s him. That’s his apartment on the third floor, behind that white building."
"And I suppose you want to stop walking and invite yourself in, as usual."
"Come with. You know he’s squats on that balcony, watching people go past, just waiting for friends to turn up."
"But it looks as if he’s got company up there already."
"So what. They’re just having a drink. "
"And we’ll be parasites, I suppose. I don’t want to..."
"Don’t worry we’ll take something in, we can split the cost."
So five minutes later we were there, carrying a bottle of Arak and some fruit.
"Good evening."
"Hey! Fancy you turning up! And what a surprise, the great novelist is with you! This is a big moment! "
As we carried our chairs out onto the balcony, our host went to fetch glasses and ice.
"Good evening."His guest welcomed us, smiling.
"What? Have you already introduced yourselves?"
"No we’re waiting for the host to do that – in his own inimitable fashion!"
“ No problem. Let me introduce the stupid prisoner, for one entire decade, the one you were just asking me about. And here we have the greatest novelist on the street where he is living, and this; this is the self-admiring poet. And me, I’m just the host."
We laughed and everyone was in a hurry to get drinking and numb our skulls, though we knew the outcome was entirely predictable. The poet would recite a poem, half of it, we were sure, stolen verses from, TS Eliot or some such poet. And when everyone was tipsy, every thing would appear dazzling to us. The prisoner, who thinks his experience in prison is unbelievably interesting and deeply fascinating, in spite of the fact that there are no women in his stories, would reiterate, as usual, his memories of his fellow prisoners. The novelist would take up a thinking posture, smoking and watching the others trying to create a fictional world for himself to exploit, before he would start blathering and making wise and witty comments. Between now and then the host would try to stoke up all these hypocrisies.
And as the bottle emptied everything would become heavenly and beautiful and we would just speak for the sake of speaking and laugh only because we felt sometimes we had right to do so or because when we talk we release some of our blocked energy, or just because we are hedonistic creatures, and to talk and shout like that is a pleasure by itself, and pleasure is utmost aim. It is always like that, but when there is a woman siting with us, she would fuel everything and every body would trie just to attract her attention, and All our hypocrisies would reach their height and then...

But that day was different. As soon as we had drunk the first glass, our host said, as though he was broadcasting:
"The poet was recently in prison for six months. Why ? Maybe he is ashamed to tell us. Anyway I know why, and I promise you my lips are sealed - at least until we finish the next bottle”

"He is a poet! I bet he let his filthy hands stray onto somebody`s wife."
"Damn you ! You’re a novelist and he’s a poet and there is always a deep mistrust between you. That’s not what I was getting at. I’m thinking of something that comes under the category of economic rather than moral misdemeanour in the penal code and surely not a deed of pride like that ..."
"O.K. O.K. I’ll tell you about my time in prison, ..."
"You mean ordinary prison, prison for criminals?”
"All right, yes if you must know, . but stop blathering on and listen, this is an unbelievable story, and it’s not about killers, or drug-dealers or..."
“You’re sure? Because otherwise ,we’d prefer to listen to one of your stolen poems."
"All right, all right. Listen this happened after I’d been in prison for a while. It was hot, the middle of the summer . They’d just let us out into the yard and there in front of us were two gaolers standing over a young man collapsed in a heap on the ground. One of the gaolers shouted at us to stand in line.

"Do you see this vile scum , this dirty dog , this intellectual?” he shouted, kicking him on the back with his great army boots. “He cursed, God forgive me, our leader, our great president ..."
and the two of them started beating him with cables.

"He swore at our great president. Now all of you will take turns to come out here and spit on him, to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget."

And we stood there, waiting, not unenthusiastically I might add, lined up in a long queue - criminals, drug-dealers, smugglers, me and others. You know none of these people ever stand in a queue for any thing good, only to do evil to others. And the young man was just lying there, like a lump on the ground, submissive, with the sun was burning down and the noise of the street just behind the outer high walls of the prison calling every one of us to do what ever we had to do or could do in order to return once again to the streets outside... I was at the end of that queue. Every one was sucking and chewing, preparing a big mouthful of spit, preparing to ejaculate it on that scoundrel lying on the floor like a big lump of meat. Who knows maybe Big Brother was watching us and would reward those who did a good job!. Everything was compelling us towards this act, everyone had his reasons and was ready to pour out the violence accumulating inside him . So there I was, collecting my own spit as carefully as possible and thinking about all these things, determining to profit from all these possibilities - maybe they would release me before my term, may they would allow me to have a job again, maybe they would turn a blind eye on my prison record because of good behaviour, when the gaolers spat on him again, kicking and jeering. "You so-called intellectual! If you are so vile, and disgusting and stupid, how are the students you teach going to turn out? If was it up to me, I’d kill you... "

My turn had been delayed, so I was compelled to swallow my carefully collected mouthful of spit, and begin anew, milking another one ...After a while my turn came and I found myself standing over him. He was still cowering on the ground, a lump of flesh, naked from the waist up, the baking sun streaming down onto his bald skull. His head was bent and every thing about him was pitiful. I aimed at his face, poked at him with the toe of my worn-out slipper, to make him lift his head up, and as he did so I spat on his face...Don`t look at me like that, I am telling you what happened, I feel guilty about it to this day but I’m confessing it to you now, confessing because I’m sure you’ll have it in your hearts to forgive me, to understand. Believe me when you’re in a prison like that surrounded by criminals, you’re ready to do anything. In such inhuman conditions you can`t expect me to behave humanly, OK?...".
"Sorry, but we can’t help identifying not with you but with that poor bastard the teacher. We’re more like him, after all, he pays his taxes like us, he’s….We can`t put ourselves in your place, I’m afraid."
"What happened to him ? Did they release him ?"
"Every day he had to walk up and down on his own, repeating with a loud voice over and over again “I am disgusting, I am insane, I am an idiot ........" They kept him under surveillance the whole time and forced him to keep saying these words aloud like some kind of mantra . They beat him everyday and made him clean the toilets with his bare hands ...".
"That’s awful! Just try saying " I am an idiot " to yourself for one hour and you’ll really become an idiot...".
"You`re an idiot already without having to say it. Do you remember what you did last Friday?" "It`s good that Nadia doesn`t know anything about her future husband."
"Don`t worry, he behaves like an angel in her presence."
"You know her, if she knew what I was really like , she would think twice before tying her future to such a good for nothing as me!"
"But she thinks she’s met a novelist with a big head."
"A big empty head !..."

Monday, June 19, 2006

All happened at Oxford Circus

All Happened at Oxford Circus

by:Hassan Bahri

One afternoon she phoned me on my landline asking directly:
- Hi, still at home?
I answered her in the same way without beating about the bush:
- And where are you phoning from?
- From home, I’m wondering if we could meet up today?
- Wonderful! Come straight away. Could you?
- Fine, but let’s meet in the street, I don’t want to go inside your place.
Trying to persuade, her I ask:
- Even if I have a great bottle of wine?
- No, I’m not interested in anything but a walk and a talk.
- Well, we’ll sit and talk.
- Drop it; you’re more interesting in the street than at home.
- I could be interesting at home as well…
- No, no, you are one of those men who’ve developed their brains and forgotten about other parts of their bodies…
I interrupted her before she could take it any further:
- And are you saying I’m not interesting as a man?
- Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that ….
- But you were about to say it?
- All I wanted to say was I like walking with you because you have many things to talk about, and I like that.
- And for my part I want to develop other parts of my body.
- It requires daily practice; you can’t make up for all the days lost
- I can try.
- You can’t, it’s like eating. If you stop eating for a week and then start eating again, you no longer need to eat as much to satisfy your hunger. You can’t eat all the food you missed out on.
- Okay, that’s enough. We’ll meet at Oxford Circus.
- At the same place, in an hour.
- See you there.

On any street in London you meet representatives of most countries in the world. English streets, the buildings with their beautiful facades, the attractive shop windows with their displays, red buses and pavements swarming and buzzing with crowds of people of every colour human genes can mix, wearing both modern and traditional clothes, like a continuous carnival of colour on those city streets. Three hundred different languages on London’s streets, and English is the common one. About the same number of religions, mostly reflected in the clothes of their adherents. And on every street there are dozens of different restaurants, snacks and coffee shops, stretching from American fast food to West African couscous and Indian curry. Everybody comes here with his or her own distinctive food and clothes. It’s a never-ending multinational parade.

London is the answer. London accepts all people as they are. London asks everybody to be proud of what they are and of what they have…

I came from the other side of the Mediterranean sea and she came from not far from the Baltic sea. She separated with her husband who is from Latin America and managed to stay in a council flat London had given them before. I got mine from London as well. We met in London, talk in English, we both love this city.

I arrived at Oxford Circus first and I stood there. A pretty girl gave me a phone card; she was distributing them to everybody who passed her. A middle-aged man with a loudspeaker in his hand determined to recruit more people into his religion. Gazing directly into the faces of the crowd, with oily hair and a face painted with a sarcastic smile, he kept preaching through his loudspeaker which he held firmly to his mouth: ‘You are sinners, and yet God loves you..’ I kept looking directly at him, at his humble, faded clothes and his slightly parted legs, one in front of the other. He gave the impression of being ready to launch a merciless attack on me, but something held him back. Or maybe he was waiting to finish his current stream of oratory: ‘Death will happen to all of us. Let’s think before we die…’

It started drizzling again; very tiny drops of rain were tossing and bouncing down so you never knew which direction they would hit you from. It wasn’t rain, but something between rain and fog; maybe you cannot find it except in London, like many other things here.

I stepped back and took cover under the awning of ‘Ashley’s’ shoe shop. People here seemed not to be bothered about this foggy rain drizzling on them. The preacher was still calling the passers-by to follow him, and not far from where he stood there was a young man in smart clothes with a handsome face holding a few flowers in his hand; he had the other hand in his trouser pocket, he looked a little bit nervous. He got a cigarette, lit it and started puffing out clouds of smoke. Now and then he looked at his wrist-watch. Everything was perfect about him except his long nose, which, I don’t know why, reminded me one of my friends and his nose. He was a good friend; we used to tease him about his big nose by saying:
Your beak is so big that while you are singing in the house and he, your beak, is roaming on the street…” (!)

He would respond to our words with a gentle smile and a quick touch of his nose. Apart from that he was a nice and handsome man, and thanks to him I, and a few other friends, started learning English in our early days in prison.

I remembered, watching the young man waiting at Oxford Circus, how one day, a long time ago, a gaoler opened a heavy door and pushed me in. He had brought, or chased, me there after three months of solitary confinement.

Suddenly I found myself in a big room between four of my friends and another four I did not know before. One of the first four was He, the friend with the big nose; he was there, and his nose as well. I was utterly surprised. They hugged me a lot, and I remembered kissing his big nose.

It sounds strange, but how relaxing it is to find your friends are in prison with you!

Imad, my friend with the big nose, was lucky when he was a child. He was from a big village where there was a school; it was a “mission school”; that kind of school which was opened and run by missionaries from European countries early last century or late the century before. He went to this school for his elementary schooling and he learned good English there, as it was an English school. Then Imad grew up and forgot most of it but still, when we met in prison, he had enough to give us a start.

So after a week or so, we asked him to give us what he had of words and phrases…

Every day after that we would lie on our backs, legs high on the wall, and he would say one word which we should repeat time and again after him; every day our ration was five words. After ten days he gave us the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to do’, and then he looked at the wall and pointed to a fly on it. It was a lovely fly, small, black with transparent wings and tiny legs with which it never stopped caressing its head. In our language, ‘fly’ is a feminine noun and when you talk about it you must say “she”. She was the sole female thing living in that room. Imad said:
- Here is she!
- What is that?
- That fly.

We had to follow her movements, and say what “she” was doing in English. It was fun, and as if “she” knew our game, “she” kept moving from place to place. We followed her not to silence her, but to find out and report what “she” was doing.
- She is on the wall.
- She is cleaning her wings.
- Where is she flying?
- She is flying away.
- She is eating our food.

And so on…

Here she came, not my friend or the fly, but the girl the young man was waiting for with his flowers. His smile was brighter than hers; he kissed her, gave her the flowers and they walked away.

I felt sorry for myself; I wished to be him, waiting for a girl with three flowers, poetry and love. Who says big cities kill love!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Never Bury Your Shit Too Deep

by:Hassan Bahri

More than sixty people, all men and most in their thirties and forties, rubbed shoulders – literally - in a space of less than 150 square meters and in heat of more than 45 degrees centigrade. They had been there for three years.

Living together like that meant sharing not only one hole in the ground called the loo, but their views, aspirations, meagre and repulsive rations, cigarettes, and body smells. Within two years they became all alike physically: pale faces, staring eyes, long uncombed beards, and ill tempers. You could have counted how many bones every one of them had, if you were one of the few who still won’t believe that every man has the same number. So we ate the same food, had the same aspirations and the same yellowish colour, and we had to share the same influenza when it hit one of us; but still we were different! The tongues refused to be the same! Most of us anchored their ships deep in the ocean of pessimism where nothing positive can come of any part of life. They loved to call it ‘realistic pessimism.’ They loved to say and re-say their views about big issues as well about the trivial ones. They insisted on the gloomy future awaiting the whole of human kind, and that people are making it worse by ignoring that fact and holding optimistic views. But down to us they kept saying: “We would not be free again, and would be there forgood.”

There? Where?

Sorry, I forget to tell you, it was somewhere in a desert. We didn’t know exactly where; they brought us there blindfolded in closed trucks, and pushed us out of the trucks to open our eyes before a huge gate above which was written, “Who enters here is lost, who emerges will be reborn.” Nevertheless, we knew we were not too far from some interesting and important ruins. As far as concerns the place, or the cell we were in, it was like two boxes sharing one side, with a door between them and another door to another unit of the prison. It’s hard to imagine, unless you were there, but if you were there, you will have been reborn to tell. Anyway, one of the two boxes was without a roof. It had been replaced with barbed wire, and two gunmen, called guards, were watching us all the time. The roofless box was the square where we could spend the day enduring the rays of the baking desert sun in exchange for a breath of fresh air.

Along the long side of the open box there was a ditch, half a metre deep and about a metre wide, full of soil; yellowish soil. It did not take long for one cellmate, a civil engineer, to announce, with scientific serenity, that the ditch was for a sewage canal, and that canal was buried under this soil. Then he turned our attention to the morning moisture of the soil. He said it was because, in the desert, the temperature decreases very much at night, and the water vapour which has risen during the very hot day before, condenses as moisture in the soil of the ditch.

The ditch, which masked the sewage, was the only place full of life and changes, if you omit our presence in the other box. All along the ditch there were holes; rats’ hole and insects’ holes. We used the open box by day, and they used it by night.

To return to the pessimistic group, you discover that not all its members held the same views on everything. But, as usually happens, you find one of them taking the lead, one who, just hearing you speak, would say a big “NO”, before he even had a chance to disagree with whatever you were going to say. It was his principle, in this life, to oppose.

One day a sergeant-gaoler came, called over to one of us by name, and ordered him to dress and follow him out.

Here was a big, very big issue worthy of analysis from every angle. Where he would be taken? Why now? Why him and not somebody else? Would they release him? Would they beat him? And what for? Or maybe they would transfer him to yet another prison?

Most of us hoped for a better outcome for him, if only because worse than his current situation was impossible to imagine.

But of course, the king of pessimists said his ‘No!’ with a full mouth and deformed face with a smile of scorn, adding ‘But even between methods of execution there are big differences…. a bullet is the most painless one…’ This was as near as he could imagine to a hopeful resolution.

After an hour or so our comrade returned, escorted by two gaolers, smiling and carrying many bags and boxes.

He had had a visit. His wife had managed to get an exceptional permit to see him. She had brought a lot of food and clothes, as she knew we were many, all living together.

He recited every detail, from the moment he had left to the moment he was brought back. Details about his visitors, and the way he was led through the visiting room. What his wife told him, and what was happening in the world outside. He told and retold everything, and even embeded his optimistic views into the words he ascribed to his wife and his brother, who had accompanied her on the visit. We heard every word with relief, but not without jealousy. He was the celebrity. ‘Why he, not me?’ That was the main question, deep in every heart.

Home made food! And many other things. That day was different, even fewer disputes than usual. We ate, talked, and had better dreams that night.

While we were emptying the bags and boxes with high expectations, the king of pessimists was standing aside, bending one leg and stretching the other with both hands at his waist and a sarcastic smile on his face, and throwing his sour phrases at us, decrying our unfaithfulness to the pessimistic creed.

‘Just one worthless event, and suddenly you’re all happy stupid optimists….!’

And he did not forget to add that he was afraid for our political views, because, as he believed, the human being is a solid unit, a single entity. “If he changes much, even his clothes, he will change his views as well”. He was, like Lenin before him, suspicious of the intellectual caste from this perspective.

But before long he knelt down and started searching the emptied bag and boxes and shaking them. This produced a handful of soil mixed with small pieces of onion and garlic peelings, and a few tiny seeds. He blew away the peelings and picked up the seeds, holding them gently in his hand, and with his distinctive, equivocal smile he left his eggy face with thick bunches of hair over his ears and bold skull up, glanced carelessly at the few who were watching him, to say in firm voice:

“You will eat from these seeds.”

A situation like that needs a person like him, who will utter aloud thoughts others fear to confront, and hold inside themselves. But it would be very destructive for the group to take him seriously, or to have more than one like him. Otherwise, what is the point of staying alive, if you believe you’ll be locked up in such a horrific prison for the rest of your life, enduring humiliations and bearing every kind of insult, every day?

‘But where will we find a big enough pot to cook them?’ one asked, looking at the tiny pile in front of him.
‘You will eat their fruits! …Not all of you, of course. Some will die before then,’ was his answer.

He moistened the seeds with water overnight, and the next day, as soon as the door of the inner box, the ward, was opened, he took the seeds, and the soil he had found in the bags, to the ditch. He dug several holes in the soil of the ditch, then he put one seed, with a small amount of soil, in every hole. He covered them meticulously with ditch soil, watered them, and planted a small stick with a sign beside every one.
As people stood watching him, one said:
‘You should be more optimistic, if you believe so in life.’
‘My father once said to me: “Others planted, and we eat; we plant, others will eat….” ‘ he muttered, looking at his planted sticks.
“So you hope the next generation of prisoners will eat from them - not us.” somebody said.
“You, and the next as well” was his enigmatic answer. And he added:
“I am making a shade for you.”
“A shade, what kind of a shade?”
“Imagine yourself sitting under a pomegranate tree, in prison.” he answered.
“I like linden trees better,” another one said.
“Seriously; these are pomegranate seeds’, he said, pointing at his newly planted orchard.

A week or so went by, before he declared to us, with triumphant voice and self-confidant smile, that three buds had appeared from the soil. And he closed his announcement by saying: ‘It is the life force!’

All day long there were groups of us around the buds, discussing the best ways to take care of them. The three buds became a subject of debate. One morning we found one of the buds was missing. The rats were the culprits. We declared a merciless war on the rats. We made many traps for them, and killed dozens of them. We also saved the other two buds by covering them at night. Another died a few days later, but the surviving one began growing quickly, healthy and strong, as if it intended to fulfil its master’s wish very soon. As it grew higher it grew more quickly, and more strongly. In contrast, everything around it was withering and weathering away. Our bodies grew thinner with malnutrition and bad treatment, and our hopes with narrowing prospects. The pomegranate tree was the only positive sign that all life was not degenerating. (It’s true that we also had an opportunity every day, around sunset, to hear a distant donkey braying, but we could not be sure if he were laughing or crying for the passed day).

When the roots of the pomegranate reached the sewage stuff it began to grow like crazy, and every day it added numerous leaves to its canopy.

One day the king of pessimists came along with an idea, saying that he would cut short the main stem, so the tree would grow in width. He did so, and his tree became a thick bush with stems in every direction.

Months passed, and it became possible for more than one of us to sit under its shade. Late the following summer the pomegranate gave a birth to several, huge, red and passionate wide open flowers, ‘jull`naar’, which told us life is beautiful, no matter where you are or where you grow.

It was the first and last time we saw its flowers. Soon after, they transferred us to anther prison. At first nobody knew where they would take us. Nevertheless we were happy to be ‘reborn’, even if only to be ‘lost’ in another prison. Nowhere could be worse than where we were. At least, that was what we thought. A change might bring luck. We left the place but not before every one of us took a few leaves, a branch, or a flower from the pomegranate. We felt heavy hearts and acute sadness at leaving the only living thing in those two boxes, the only living thing which gave us inspiration and shade.

‘Next year it will bear more Jull`naars, and maybe fruit!’ The pessimist uttered these words as if speaking to himself. He was sad to part with his pomegranate.

Then he took a branch from it, cut it carefully, and put it in his pocket saying: “Where we go there may be a place to plant it.” Needless to say, he was quite sure they were taking us to yet another prison.

He was right. We were transferred to another prison. That prison was concrete everywhere, he could not plant his pomegranate there. But he did foster a newly hatched sparrow that fell into the ward while its mum was training it how to fly. It was a small bird, hungry and fidgety. He kept it, fed it and released it ten days later.

The next year a new wave of prisoners was transferred from the desert prison. He traced them, asking every one if he knew anything about his pomegranate. They told him that one day two gaolers came, cut it down and uprooted it because they hated to see prisoners sitting in its shade.
‘I can well believe it; they hate even the trees!’
He said it with obvious bitterness, ate little that supper that night, and smoked a cigarette, though he had stopped smoking since being put in prison. But before he put out his cigarette, he said: ‘But if they had not cut it down, and we were there still, you would be eating pomegranate fruits now’.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Right To Dream
by: Hassan Bahri

They called it ‘Palmyra’, a land of palm trees, with a big oasis. The ancient Palmyrians were a proud desert people, and the location of their kingdom, at the midpoint between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, gave them thriving trade routes to the far East and west as far as Britain. But Rome was not happy when their queen Zenobia crossed the Nile with her army, heading for North Africa. The Romans destroyed her palace, and Diocletian, the victorious Roman emperor, pitched his camp on its ruins.
Not far from Diocletian’s camp is another camp, built by the French army at the beginning of the 20h century, to house their horses and foot-soldiers. Like the Romans before them, the French eventually left. The relics of the ancient past became the most picturesque ruins in Syria, a magnet for tourists. But the more recent - and less picturesque - relics of the French camp were turned into a big prison, where political detainees are locked in the former stables, behind heavy doors and walls pierced with small windows, under a faint yellow light.
In that black abyss many lives withered away unconsoled, and thousands of vigorous dreams vanished, shattered against those yellow walls as they tried to reach loved ones far away, in cities and villages of broken dreams. But in there, more than two years after we arrived, we finally had access to some books from the prison ‘library’.
Prison, the master of annihilation, can kill even books. It gave these books its muted yellow colour. Mites feasted on their pages, and moisture eroded them. Nevertheless, the great thoughts captured in written words refused to die away, resisting many years of oblivion, waiting for us, as we waited for them.
If the importance of books can be measured by their impact on the reader, those books were the best. Three books, three breaks in the walls, gave meaning to our empty days, and a new horizon to our shared existence, already losing its pulse. The first book was from the Andalucian philosopher Ibn Rashid (Averroes), the second was ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ by the Bosnian writer Ivo Andric. And the third, ‘Adrift in Soho’ by the English writer, Colin Wilson.
We were about seventy men in there, in a stable re-named a ‘ward’, half of us teachers and doctors, as many graduates of foreign universities. All eager to read whatever was readable. At first, when we arrived, everyone was eager to talk, to exchange ideas, to show off their relative wealth in the currency of the mind. But after a year of full-time lectures and heated disputations, when all the information had been exchanged in all directions, from personal details to every fact we possessed, we settled down into stagnation. You speak – I know what you’re going to say. I have a thought - you know what it is. All knowledge has been evenly distributed, everybody knows everything everybody else knows.
Eventually, we were even dreaming alike. Dreaming of each other. Even in your dreams, the others are you, are inside you and there with you. In dreams you visit your family home with your fellow inmates, and after the visit you can’t forget to return to the ward. The freed souls are reminded of their earthly bodies behind bars. So people killed time looking for new discoveries, new information anywhere. ‘Okay, I’ll read the lines on your hand, on your face, I’ll even interpret the intricacies of your dreams’. A kind of struggle against death.
When the books came, it was a new injection of life, of air, to refresh our stagnation. Everybody tried to read as into them as much as possible, to get out of them everything he could – even things the author didn’t know were there.
Three books – seventy readers. We divided up the days from six in the morning until twelve at night, and made a schedule for who would read which, in what order. And suddenly a change came over our lives; they centred round those books. Lucky the man who was ten pages ahead of another; he knew better, and more. We ran seminars about the books, and suddenly people who worked in their previous lives as teachers or professors – and as I said, there were many of us – found a way of reminding the others how successful they’d been in their careers.
And always there were people competing to get ahead. A group of us would take a nap by day, and wake up at three or four in the morning to win a book and two or three hours of free reading, while the others lay, rolled up in their military blankets like long rows of mummies, or sardines in a huge can .
In that mysterious air with its faint yellow light, I opened the doors of prison to find myself hand in hand with Colin Wilson, walking in the heart of London; being introduced to the mysterious streets of Soho. Sure, I still remember that corner where I sat, a breath of blue in my mood, with my friend Colin. And we smoked, and he invited me to watch the passers-by, and wonder why they go where they’re told, and what freedom can mean in this pointless life.
So when, finally, for the first time ever, a plane touched down on the runway at Heathrow with me among its passengers, London was a place I knew. I was eager to see Soho, to kill my dream with reality Eager too to be in the freest place in the world, Speakers’ Corner, eager to see the theatres, and the museums which still house most of Queen Zenobia’s treasures. I thought my reference point would be Speakers’ Corner. I would recognise it as soon as I saw it. It must surely be huge, long and wide and crowded firebrands. And Soho would not be far from there. I knew the Soho streets, I had strolled them before, with him, when my body was still locked up. I knew London through a lover who wrote about her with that touch of bitterness, that sense of deception and failure, of a great romantic who somehow cannot get satisfaction from his beloved.
That was the dream. In reality, I spent the first year looking at underground maps, drawing and connecting grids of lines between refugee centres, the Home Office, solicitors, tube stations and my hostel. The second year added some colleges and schools, and new hostels, changing the points where the lines converged. But the third year forced me to forget all those places and map London all over again, with new lines leading from Councils, housing agencies, yet more solicitors and benefits offices to ever-changing addresses in bad-smelling hostels.
Even letters had difficulty in finding me. And some of them eventually gave up. I was adrift indeed, not in Soho with Colin, but on the way to yet another hostel. And London rejected me, before I had a chance to add my name to her neglected lovers.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Reporter Who Died From Obesity

by: Hassan Bahri

Late in the Sixties of the last century, many wonderful things used to happen. People lived with big dreams and believed in what they dreamed. The Beatles imagined, and a whole young generation shared that dream – even Prince Ali, as we used to call him, felt a touch of that common dream. He spent year after year carrying a small transistor radio close to his right ear, which unspooled fairy tales deep into his mind.

About me, the narrator, who spent his moments of relaxation watching others, there’s nothing worth saying, just that I was then a student, a school student, at a secondary school, in a poor part of my city. I lived not far from the school. The narrow street where I lived was dirty, in summer dusty and in winter muddy. On the left side of it there was a shop where neighbours exchanged news and views, as well as looks, before they made their purchases.

They always used to arrive in the shop all together, as if they were coming to share their rumours, and not to buy whatever they could afford. You could sometimes tell from their looks what they were swapping, and you could even guess the phrases they were whispering in low voices, as if they were sharing highly guarded secrets. Something was about to happen or going to happen, at least they believed so, and were waiting for it. Even the sudden surges of the late autumn wind, whirling dust and yellow leaves on the street, seemed to be tipping them off that something was around the corner.

There, waiting was the main drive to live.

‘Surely God doesn’t forget those who humbly follow him
- Be patient and God will reward you.’
It was the most uttered phrase on this street.

Prince Ali had spent his days wondering why this life didn’t want him around its table, and why it was pushing him away from its shops.

These questions were tussling in his small head, and might even have exploded it. But before that could happen, just as in the old fairy tales, a miracle occurred.

One day while he was strolling alongside the motorway, a car, yes a car stopped by him. A woman opened the car door and addressed him, smiling, in a language different from his. She tried to explain to him with words and gestures what she wanted. Prince Ali caught the word ‘Turkey’. He was very happy to have understood this unknown language. He lifted his own hand high pointing northward, and shouted in his own language:
‘Turkey… yes in this direction…’

Before the car disappeared in the direction to which prince Ali pointed the pretty woman gave him a small transistor radio, or talking machine, as he used to call it, and a bunch of strange brown sticky fingers. Everything was beyond him, he was totally bewildered by what the road brought to him.

His way back was different from his way there, only a few hours before. He felt excited. A woman - with a car! - had spoken to him in a different tongue and he had understood what she wanted …She had given him all these things just because he knew what she wanted… he was`t so useless, after all!

Half way back to his dusty street, after he’d used most of his senses on the brown fingers without discovering what they were for, he decided to bite one of them. When his gappy teeth bit into one of them. It crashed easily and melted away with a flash of sweetness that filled his mouth.

That was a big day for him. He dreamt that night of a big world full of that brown sweet stuff, and hundreds of beautiful women giving it away to everybody, as much as everybody wanted …

The next day prince Ali was waiting for me at the end of our street as I came back from school. He showed me the radio. I was a schoolboy, a student, so I know everything, at least he thought so. But For me, as well, it was something new. then after a few minutes of fiddling with it, sounds came out of it. Prince Ali was transfixed, and before he took it back from me he muttered some holy verses to keep all possible genii and evil spirits away from all around the place.

Then every new day brought some curious neighbours to him asking him the latest from his radio. Through this magic box prince Ali became a focal point on this street. And soon he found his new career in this stagnant community.

Prince Ali was always on the alert, waiting, his mouth half opened and his transistor pressed to his hungry ear, as if he wanted to minimise the distance the news would have to travel between the radio and it. He was trying to make sure that he would hear the latest from the BBC Arabic Service before anybody else. Or maybe he just wanted to squeeze the last drop of news from his magic box.

Our reporter was short. His legs were slim and one was shorter than the other was. I always wondered how they carried his small body so quickly. Nobody knew his exact age. even he had no idea about it. They told him that he was born when his mother was collecting olives fruits the year after the drought and famine struck the whole region. But he looked middle aged man, about fifty years old at this point. His face was circular and his cheeks were sunken, his clothes shabby and his hair scruffy. But what was most striking about him his rounded, reddish frightened eyes, which always reacted to the news coming from the radio pressed against his ear.

He had nobody waiting for him. No job to do, no family to care for, no money, so he was happy to become the community’s sentinel. Waitting not on the top of the hill but at the furthest end of the street, dying to break all kinds of news to the customers in the shop. As soon as he heared anything, you would see his bowed legs snatching nervously at the road between his listening-post and the shop, on his face a frown or a smile, according to his evaluation of what he heard. At the shop there were always some customers, and they never failed to see Prince Ali coming. He loved the BBC; it was his source of news. Words coming from nowhere, and even tradable. At the shop! And for food! All this began to be reflected in his demeanour and self-confidence.

Since he had got his transistor, he enjoyed a new kind of life. People needed him. He was happy to notice how others started to listen to him – something that had never happened before - every time he broke the news. He was happy with all of that, and even happier when someone would ask him for details regarding some event far away from their small world.

He would never forget that day when he told them that the Russians had sent Yuri around the earth. And all of the shoppers asked him: ‘Who is this Ury?’ His answer was full of confidence: Yuri Gagarin, Russian astronaut. He was brief and curt, as if this Yuri was one of Prince Ali’s good friends, and astronauting was something the prince did every day. The shoppers were impressed, but divided in their reactions and everybody had an opinion.

But they were more divided on the day Prince Ali broke the shoe news:
‘Khrushchev banged with his shoe on the desk in the United Nations!’

Prince Ali had started to learn the secrets of his food-rewarded career.
He had begun rephrasing the news and holding back details that he would then be asked to explain, so he could get more and better food and higher status among his growing audience.

This particular news was a big event for him. Everybody wanted to know who were this Khrushchev, United Nations, and the shoe…
Prince Ali explained everything to them; they were impressed by all of it, from Prince Ali himself to the United Nations, to Khrushchev, and most of all by the Shoe…

Our reporter Prince Ali got more respect and food, even sweets, for this life-changing news, but not before some heated discussions about Khrushchev’s shoe. First, every one of them had a look at his own shoe and then at the others’. Most of them were in awe of Khrushchev’s brave act, but others were not happy with it. It’s not good, they argued, to put a shoe, no matter how new it is, on a table. After all, maybe the shoe was dirty! But Prince Ali was quick to answer that Khrushchev’s Shoe could not be in any way like theirs:
‘It’s clean, and expensive…’
‘Did you see it?’
‘No, but Khrushchev is President, he can buy a new Shoe every year, not like you, or me, every ten years if we’re lucky’
‘Look, my shoe is new, I bought it not last summer but the one before, but if it were me I would never put it on a table… just imagine how much dust would fly off it… No, no I would not do it…’

After Khrushchev, or let us say with the Shoe Effect, Prince Ali became the most sought-after man in his community. Even some of the women there started to look at him with different way. He felt it. Before they glanced at him with some kind of sympathy mixed with indifference. Now their looks were more fixed and more mysterious. All that filled him with more energy. Some men even began to feel jealous of him. A certain level of danger brings respect. He felt this. But He had no more difficulty selling his news and getting better food for it, and he began reshaping or even adding some flavour to his news, to please his audience. The more he did this, the more food and respect he got.

It was exciting for him, he began to toy with them more, and this community of waiting-people was hungry, from its part, for more and more news…

They were still waiting for something to happen. For Some big event. They did not know what it was exactly, but they felt it would be a big event. Why should it be big? They didn`t know, but they had spent their lives in waiting for something to happen. And the more, and more often, the news came, the more they were excited, and nurtured an amorphous feeling that what they were really waiting for was ever more imminent.

Sometimes Prince Ali found no major news in this world, no surprises, no big disasters, no matter how hard he pressed his transistor to his right ear - which became gradually flatter than the left one as a result.

What to do? His reputation was at stake!

Having worked so hard in his career as a reporter, he had got to know what kind of news would please his public gathered in the shop, and he was aware how generous they were when they were pleased. So in the fallow periods of the news market, Prince Ali began to bring more flying saucers to the earth and more signs of salvation for believers in God. He found his audiences were delighted and reassured by such news, and his rewards were accordingly better.
With a stomach stuffed all the time, our reporter also discovered gradually the pleasure of leading others by the nose, even of using or misusing the power of his knowledge to control the main tap… and of asserting his superiority with an unconscious and uncontrolled desire of revenge. Especially towards those who had been until recently talked down to him as hungry, dirty and useless.

Along with this new pleasure he savoured another one, that of his self-transformation from just a reporter of the news, to its pudgy creator. He was selling them hope to keep them alive for another day, and giving them an opportunity to pass on the virtues of waiting to their offspring.

The wind still whirls the dust and papers there, where our reporter Prince Ali died long ago from obesity, leaving room for more sophisticated newsmongers.