The Paradise of Ghost Village

Chapter 1

He didn’t how the operation had started. What he knew was that it began just before dawn when everything was swathed in darkness: loud voices, the crack of weapons, weeping, shoving and kicking, shots shattering the stillness, searchlights he thought were stars that had fallen from the sky, shouting in a language he didn’t understand, and the roaring engines of various machines.

He was still rubbing his eyes after waking up terrified and didn’t know if he was dreaming or if this was some incomprehensible reality.  When a strong hand grabbed his arm to eject him from the circle of light, he realized he wasn’t dreaming. He didn’t know whether the hand was his father’s or his older brother’s. He did feel sure that whoever had grabbed him wanted to liberate him from this inferno, wanted him to flee, to take refuge somewhere, and to think only of himself and not to worry about any of the others. Should he run like crazy? But where? From his position in the dark he saw what was happening in the circle of light. Soldiers bristling with various weapons had grabbed his sisters, brothers, mother, and father and were hurling them forcibly onto a truck parked by the gate of the house. The soldiers were striking members of his family with their fists and with the butts of their rifles and also kicking them. A tank rumbled across the earth like some legendary beast and then broke through the building’s wall, which was made of mud bricks, and leveled the family’s dwelling to the ground. They intended to take his family somewhere. But where? Why? He didn’t know. When he sensed that the tank’s powerful searchlight was about to fall on him, he leaned forward and hid behind the chicken coop.

He reflected that the mukhtar, the village headman, had previously warned the village’s inhabitants that they would be evacuated, but no one had taken his warning seriously. Was that the mukhtar‘s fault? Were the residents of the village to blame for not taking his words seriously? The mayhem increased even more and mixed with the howling of the dogs, which quickly fell silent after shots were fired at them. He first thought that the operation targeted only his family. Once he heard the hubbub, the wailing, and the roar of the engines’ motors from every direction, he realized that this catastrophe had befallen the entire village, not just their household. He continued to crouch behind the chicken coop, frozen and paralyzed, not knowing what to do. The operation was conducted with extraordinary speed–at a pace faster than he could think. He was waiting for something to happen, something that would restore him to his normal condition, which he had lost. He was trembling, but not from the cold, which he was used to. Some strange entity was penetrating his body from all sides–from his fingers, which were ice cold, from the soles of his feet, which were riveted to the ground, from his head, which was so empty it could have been used as a drum, from his heart, which could almost have leapt out of his dry mouth, and from random points on his scrawny body. He wondered whether he could rescue his family. He raised his head with difficulty but was unable to raise a prayer to God. Meanwhile the stars twinkled securely in their mansions.

He didn’t know how long he remained there or whether he had dozed off or lost consciousness. He was aware, however, that silence was blanketing everything and that light was flooding existence, even though the sun hadn’t risen yet. Poking his head out from behind the chicken coop, he scouted the area. He looked all around but found no one. Soldiers had destroyed the houses and torched some of them.  Smoke was still rising everywhere, and its pale blue clouds floated over the village. He started to search the house, thinking he might find a member of his family–dead or alive–but to no avail. The soldiers had even carted off the livestock, including their mules, and all the house’s contents. After searching every part of the house, he headed to the gate next to the garage. Three stray goats that had escaped from the flock, which the soldiers had taken, had sought refuge there, and the tractor was untouched. He knew why it had been left:  There wasn’t a drop of fuel in the gas tank. When he hobbled out of the gate, he caught sight of their black dog. Dead, it was stretched out in a pool of blood, its unblinking eyes staring at the sky, its paws thrust into the air. At that point he lost control of himself and burst into hysterical weeping and weird shrieking. He struck his head with his hand and yelled as loudly as he could, “Daddy! Mommy!”

No wall had been left standing to send his words echoing back to him. So his voice sounded muffled and soon dissipated in the distance without anyone hearing it. He felt that his legs weren’t strong enough to bear his weight, even though his body was scrawny. Then he fell to the ground–unconscious.

When he opened his eyes again, the March sun was streaming down, warming the air. He sensed a ghostly shadow falling on him; a specter standing near him was shielding him from the sun’s warm rays. He had strayed into time’s lost reaches, and his sense of time had become warped so that he didn’t know whether it was morning or evening. The man standing near him was old. His back was bowed, and his sparse beard was white. He could scarcely stand without leaning on his stick. One of the sergeants had intended to slay him, but a young officer had intervened, ordering: “Leave him alone! His elderly wife needs him.” The soldiers had taken all his children and grandchildren. This aged man had been combing through the rubble together with his elderly wife, searching for any neighbors, living or dead, in their village since early that morning. His wife had stumbled along behind him, a few steps back, weeping, wailing, and beating her head and chest with her hands. She kept repeating, “They took all of them! They took all of them! They’ll never return! They’ll kill all of them! May God avenge them!”

From time to time the old man would glance back at her and chide her calmly, “Hush, Woman. Calm down. The matter rests entirely in God’s hands.”

His wife asked now whether the boy was alive or dead. As he urged the lad to stand, he replied, “He’s alive, praise God.”

The scrawny lad was only fourteen. His head was shaved and his face was oval. Sprawling on the ground, he gazed at the empty air with unblinking eyes and looked dead. The old man had observed, though, that he was breathing noticeably. This old man knew the boy’s family just as he knew most of the village’s other inhabitants. He realized that the boy must have suffered a shock and had no doubt escaped from the soldiers’ grasp through a miracle like his own. Up to this point, despite prowling all around the village, he hadn’t found a single person alive, or dead. The aged man took a rag from his pocket and tore it into narrow strips, which he tied together till they stretched down for approximately a meter. Then he squatted in front of the boy. His wife, who had caught up with him, said, “Man, do something for the boy!”

Without looking her way, the elderly man protested, “Don’t you see I’m busy with him. See if you can fetch a cup of water. That’s quite enough wailing!”

“I’ll look for water, Man. I’ll look for water.”

Shaking the boy, the old man said, “Try to look me in the eye, Son. Be a man.”

The boy rotated his eyes in their sockets with difficulty–as if they were wet glass globes. Then he focused his gaze on the old man’s face rather plaintively. Grasping the boy’s right hand, the elderly gentleman said, “That’s good, my son. Now take this strip of cloth and try, in the name of the Exalted, to wrap it around your left hand.”

The boy accepted the strip of cloth from the old man’s hand and began to bind it slowly and laboriously around his hand.

The old man was encouraged by his response and–while praying that God would guard the boy against every evil–asked him to wrap the entire strip of cloth around his right hand this time.

When the boy had finished wrapping the strip around his hand, he asked for water in a faint voice that was barely audible. As he rose, the old man asked him to unwind the cloth and then wrap it around his hand once more. He reassured the boy that he would bring him water straightaway.

The boy would have liked to explain why he was so thirsty, but his tongue didn’t comply. The old woman was still searching for water, even though she stood in front of a clay jug. The old man reminded her that the object before her was the container where they stored water.

The old woman commented incredulously, “Is this a water container? What a numbskull I am! I was looking for a girba, not a hibb.”

Heading to the boy with a cup of water, the old man said, “The age when people stored water in girba jugs is long gone, Woman.”

The boy had finished binding the strip of cloth around his hand. When he caught sight of the cup, he thought he was dreaming, and some invisible power caused him to sit back down on the ground. When he sipped the cold water, he knew he wasn’t dreaming. Then he began to look back and forth blankly from the old man to the old woman. The elderly man patted the boy’s head and remarked, “Be a man, my son. We must bear whatever fate decrees. Wash your face with what’s left of the water in the cup.”

The absentminded boy volunteered censoriously as he struggled to wash his face, “They took them and beat them.”

“They took everyone, my son. We’re the only three who escaped from them.”

The boy began to regain his normal composure and, remaining seated there, remarked, “They killed our black dog. Have they killed other dogs?”

“They didn’t spare a single dog in the village, my son. These soldiers aren’t human beings. We must do something and think about what is to become of us.”

Once the boy was able to stand up, the old woman embraced him and said, “Praise God, my son. May God grant you good health and a long life.”

Bios

Zuhdi Al-Dahoodi

Zuhdi Al-Dahoodi is a Kurdish Iraqi who writes in Arabic and German and lives currently in Germany. He was born in Tuz Khormato, Iraq, in 1940. In 1956, he was forced to move to Kirkuk to continue his education after leading a student strike in his hometown against the Tri-Partite Aggression. He attended a Teacher Training Institute in Kirkuk from 1957 to 1959, and then taught in the village of Mama near Kirkuk. He was imprisoned in Kirkuk, Baquba, Ramadi, and Hilla from 1964-66, and then studied at the University of Leipzig, Germany, from 1967 to 1972. He received his doctorate from that university in 1976. Between 1976 and 2005, he taught in universities in Iraq, Libya, and Germany.

He began publishing in 1954 in newspapers and youth journals, and at one time coedited a clandestine newspaper called Sada al-Wa’i (“Echo of the Attentive”).  “Two Friends” was included in his first short story collection, which was published in Arabic in 1962. He has published numerous other collections of short stories–including al-Zanabiq allati la Tamut (“Lilies that Do Not Die”; 1978). The novella Usturat Mamlakat al-Sayyid (“The Legend of the Master’s Kingdom”) was published in 1990.

His Arabic novels include Rajul fi kull Makan (“A Man Everywhere”; 1974), Atwal ‘Am (“The Longest Year”; 1994), Zaman al-Hurub (“Time of Flight”; 1998), Wada’an Ninawa (Farewell Ninevah, 2004), Tahawwulat (“Changes”; 2007), Firdaws Qaryat al-Ashbah (“Paradise of the Village of Specters”; 2007), and Dhakirat Madina Munqarida (“Memory of a Dead Village”; 2010).

His books in German, which represent both original works and translations of his own novels, include: Die Kurden (1987), Tollwut Kurdische Erzählungen (1991), Das Längste Jahr (1993), and Abschied von Ninive (2000).

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni's novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal Magazine, and here in InTranslation. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translations released in 2012 have been The Diesel by Thani al-Suwaidi (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim (revised edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers), The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson: African Writers Series), and A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet).

Firdaws Qaryat al-Ashbah. Copyright (c) Aras Press, 2007. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2014.