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.

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’.