Behind a Latched Window

The seventh night, anxiety hit the top of the gauge when the meeting between the Crown Prince and that government minister ended without an agreement…or a threat to drive us beyond anxiety into fear. Thursday morning, friendly broadcasts, hostile, gloating broadcasts, and repetitious broadcasts brought us all the events of the previous black night. For the first time ever the name of Kuwait was coupled with words we had not even imagined in a nightmare or a feverish delirium: “infringement,” “usurpation,” and “suppression.” I was not even sure of the precise meaning of these terms, but expressions like “incursion,” “occupation,” and “the entry of the Iraqi Army” I understood, because they were part of the standard vocabulary of ordinary newscasts.

I summarized for my mother what I had heard on the news, shouting straight into her ear so she could understand. The dumb, nervous fear that showed in her eyes suggested that she had been struck by lightning. I motioned to her, and when I was sure her eyes were focused on me, I ran my hand across my neck as if slaughtering an animal. Her fear intensified and her gaze became glassy and frozen. That’s what I wanted: for her to be too afraid even to consider leaving the house, no matter what the reason. With many gestures and a few words I informed her that we had enough food to last several days and that there surely would be some solution, since these people could not just grab our country and pretend we didn’t exist. The two of us needed simply to wait. I gathered from the drawn-out sounds produced by her heavy tongue that she feared we wouldn’t have any money and that I wouldn’t draw my salary, since I would be too afraid to go to work.

I explained to her by word and gesture that I (trust in God) who worked as a staff assistant in a school, which was on holiday, had received my monthly salary the previous week. Before the beginning of the next month and the next payday God would surely bring relief.

The shadow of a crooked smile showed on her withered lips. She sat cross-legged, staring at her lap, praising God in a steady rhythm but with words that defied comprehension. She seemed to be using a special language known only to her and her Creator.

Naturally, I did as I had instructed my mother to do, so she would find no excuse to disobey my orders. I sat beside her, switching back and forth between the radio and the television and looking out the nearest window at the principal street. Even if words streamed from the radio and the TV, the main street and all the side streets leading into it were almost entirely deserted. Every now and then a police car, an army vehicle, or an ordinary automobile would shoot by, but I didn’t see any Iraqis. I wondered what they would be like. I had seen some before, in different circumstances. Some of them had daughters in the Baghdad School, where I worked. The men would stand near the gate of the school to wait for their girls or else lean against their cars, which had the windows down, exactly like Kuwaiti parents. I couldn’t see any difference. A woman wrapped up in her cloak might come to request her daughter. She would stand there politely and modestly. When she used the word ‘ayni, I knew she was Iraqi. I would fetch her daughter for her. After this “suppression,” however, especially since I didn’t know the precise meaning of the word, I wondered whether those Iraqi men would lean against their cars or Iraqi woman would call me ‘ayni.

I stayed up all night long, surveying the street from the window. I looked at the clock on hundreds of occasions to see if it was time for the dawn prayer yet, for I wondered if anyone would dare climb the nearby minaret to raise his voice with the call to prayer. During the night I didn’t see any of the “suppressors.” Thus I continued searching my memory to try to figure out the defining characteristics of the Iraqi, but I was unable to find any difference, except for a few words they considered choice, pleasant, and indicative of good manners, like: aghati, ‘ayni, and baba. Even though the fiery edge of a the red disk, resembling a molten electric saw, appeared, the muezzin for the dawn prayer did not ascend the minaret. My mother had fallen asleep where she was, and I had not thought it necessary to cover her, since it was hideously hot. I had decided to turn off the only air conditioner in our house, since I might not be able to scrape together enough dinars to pay the electric bill next month and the government might have difficulty supplying us with electricity. Every Kuwaiti was duty-bound to stand behind his government, even if he was afraid of the Iraqis. Of course they would not know I had turned off the air conditioner unless they searched people’s houses, and this hadn’t happened. Indeed, I hadn’t even seen them yet. I wondered what the Friday prayer service would be like. No matter how strong the Iraqis were, would they dare thumb their noses at God and forbid the Friday prayers? What would happen, however, if Kuwaitis were so afraid of the Iraqis that they didn’t attempt to go to the mosques to perform the Friday prayers? I could always tell when the appointed hour for the Friday prayers was approaching, even if I was running the washing machine or giving my elderly mother a bath. It would start with an “Allahu Akbar” from one direction and a “Praise the Lord” from another. Then the different muezzins would call back and forth to each other with “Allahu Akbar” and “Praise the Lord” and passages from the Qur’an, and it would seem that the gates of heaven were thronged with angels chanting hymns. At that time, even though I could not understand what all these voices from all the different loudspeakers were saying, I would sense that my body had become light. It would float, soar, and fly. I would feel that I saw more and knew more, that I loved people I had never seen and never met…more and more. This Friday there was not the usual buzz of life in the area. There were just a few intermittent sounds from the hive, not even bits of the same tune, but the type of calls back and forth that would rise from the ruins of a dwelling that had collapsed on its sleeping inhabitants.

All at once my ears were startled by a hideous sound, and my skull felt as if it had been cracked open by a hammer. The whole house shook, and my fear ran rampant. I rushed to the window. Oh! It was a tank—there could be no mistaking it—exactly like the ones in ever so many movies. Yes, and painted on it and flying from it was the flag of Iraq, just like the one on the TV screen. I hid behind the curtain and peeped out, with half an eye: would an Iraqi climb out of it? If so, would he say, “Baba, aghati, ‘ayni…”? Or, would he fire the tank’s gun at people? Had he come to prevent the Kuwaitis from attending prayers? Would God be happy if the Kuwaitis were not allowed to attend the Friday service? Would He keep silent about that? If only they fired on the men saying their prayers and attacked the mosques, in that case God would settle accounts with them, but we know there is no telling what will happen if God Himself takes charge of settling accounts with a person, no matter who.

The house was still shaking, and the tank circled around, at the entrance to the small square, trailing a storm cloud of black fumes behind it. The gun stuck out from the top and turned, as though threatening people on every side. When the thunderous sound ceased and the smoke dispersed, a small car could be seen, preceding the tank. The tank’s hatch was lifted and a man jumped out. He quickly approached the small car and saluted. He had to be an Iraqi. I scrutinized his physique, features, and clothing. Had he not crawled out of this “suppressor” tank, I would have said he was Sallah, who had grown up in our former community and who was now our neighbor and an adjutant in the Kuwaiti infantry. That’s what they told me when he considered marrying me ten years ago. Then my mother fell ill and I refused to consider matrimony, so that no man could vex her. The soldier saluted once again, and the little car turned around and drove off, just as two other soldiers jumped down from behind and stationed themselves in front of the tank. Then the first soldier leapt atop the tank and lowered himself inside, as if jumping down a well.

I wondered where Sallah was. Was he going to disappear now and leave us confronted by tanks? The last time I had seen him had been yesterday before sunset. He was slinking along in a white dishdasha, which clearly had not been ironed, and was missing his head cloth. I realized for the first time that he was bald, but I was overwhelmed by fear, thinking: if a soldier flees in a civilian’s long shirt, without a head cloth, who’s going to defend us? I asked myself now: has he been collecting a large monthly wage and wearing shiny metal and colored stuff on his shoulders and arms to do what he’s doing at present?

A boy appeared at the far side of the square. He circled around it, keeping as far as possible from the tank. He was keen to convey to the Iraqis that he was heading to the mosque and would stay as far away from them as he could. One of the soldiers took two steps toward him. The boy thought he would walk or run back in the direction from which he had come, but the soldier called him. I heard the call, even though I could not understand what he said. All the same, the boy walked toward the soldier with short, hesitant steps. When the soldier started to walk his way, I observed the revolver attached to his belt and a huge knife on his other side. The boy stopped. He spoke and gestured with his hands. The soldier returned to the tank, while the boy remained nailed to that spot. The soldier consulted his comrade who was lurking inside the tank. The boy had both hands on his head. The soldier went back to him, holding something I couldn’t make out in his hand. When they were close to each other, the boy waved a hand in thanks and the soldier held out something I couldn’t identify to him. The boy retreated gratefully, his face pale, and almost fell over backwards. The soldier was laughing. He ignored the boy and headed to his companion with whom he divided something. They ate it and continued laughing.

Now I remembered who the boy was. I hadn’t thought he was such a wimp. What had happened to all our men in the course of one day? Sallah was bald and as addled as if employed in a smoke-filled den. I knew this boy’s mother, and he was her only son. She had gone to London to deliver him there, fearing for his life. His father was an official in the Cooperative Association and his mother an attorney for the municipality. He strutted like a peacock when he went out walking with the other lads. If they played ball, he needed to be the captain. Now he was like a cat that had fallen into a toilet. The time for the Friday prayer came and went without voices blending at the gates of heaven. The men who prayed did not congregate at the entries of the mosques or in the streets. They slunk away silently, as if returning home from a funeral. Meanwhile the tank stayed put.

I was busy fixing supper for my mother when night fell. I was also brooding about how to obtain food for the coming days. Suddenly, something reverberated. That was followed by a crash, as if there had been a wreck. Red flames were reflected on our window and traced forms on the wall opposite. Before I had time to look outside, three shots rang out in answer to distant firing. A searchlight at the front of the tank was switched on, turning night into day. People were using walkie-talkies, and there was a lot of shouting before it was calm again. I noticed a white heap lying where the boy had stood before the noon prayers. It stayed there and no one approached it. A vehicle came and departed. Another came and departed, and finally yet another one. Then a truck arrived with supplies. They gathered around the tank, and welders’ torches sent out tongues of red and green flame as they cut and welded, but it was clear the tank was out of commission or would require major repairs. Early the next morning, before sunrise, the burned part of the tank was visible as well as the welded patches, but the boy, the young peacock, the captain of the team, the only child, the babe born in London, was crucified on the side of the tank. Written under him in awkward lettering on a piece of a carton that had been the box-lid for a child’s game was: “This is the recompense of anyone who thinks of lifting a hand.”

Before the sun rose, another tank reached the square and took up its position behind the disabled tank, creating a breezeway between the two tanks. I didn’t pay much attention to the new tank, for the head of the boy plastered on the damaged tank was hanging down and the breeze was playing with his hair. I noticed that his eyes were staring at me reproachfully, for I had called him a peacock. I wondered what would happen to him next and where his mother and father were.

The area between the two tanks became a lounge where the soldiers drank tea and ate. They stretched a damaged tarp between the tanks to create an awning. I kept an eye on them and was amazed that they could sip tea and snack with the young man’s body rotting beside them. I asked myself what condition the boy would be in by the next day. What would be left of him the day after that? Would I dare look at him?

The following day I tried to avoid looking at the place where the crucified boy was, especially since the soldiers were not standing around nervously the way they had been the day before. They were laughing, cracking jokes, and looking at things piled up in front of them. They would rip open something from the pile or kick it aside. They gathered to look at other things with astonishment and put those things aside to take inside the second tank, but what of the first one and where did they get these things they had piled up in front of them? At this point I couldn’t prevent my neck from turning toward the original tank. My throat went dry, my heart pounded, and my body cringed before I could look. The surprise was that where the boy’s corpse had been there was, instead, a green bird with its head hanging down, as if its neck had been slit. It wings were nailed to the sides of the disabled tank. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I rubbed them and bumped my head against the glass of the window to make sure I was awake and not dreaming. I was awake and the boy was a green bird with nails in its wings, which had been his hands before their transformation. I repeated to myself that I was imagining things. How could a boy turn into a green bird with exactly the same meek eyes I had seen the day before on the corpse plastered across the tank? It was not just because I was hungry, for I had satisfied myself with a quarter of a normal helping so that I could have more food to serve my mother. It was not just that I was afraid and expected them to break in upon me and drag me down the stairs, crushing my head and dismembering me, for I told my mother at the top of my voice that there was no cause for fear, since they were just some Iraqis who were stationed in front of our house and that this could happen anywhere. It was not just because I was sad about the boy, who only the day before had been heading off to Friday prayers with cautious embarrassment. The key fact was that I was awake. I saw the bird, its meek eyes, shattered neck, and tilting head, exactly where the boy had been, on the same spot. Then there was another shock, which I didn’t wonder at.

The color of the disabled tank was starting to diverge from that of the second one. They had both been painted with a camouflage pattern that was a mixture of yellow, green, and brown. The second tank kept these colors, but the one to the side of which the green bird was pinned was losing its colors and turning to such a revolting pus color that I felt nauseous just looking at it. I dashed to the basin and spat. Then I opened the refrigerator, searching for something to change the taste. All I could find were three grapes, which were hidden at the side of a drawer that had begun to empty of its contents.

I too felt nailed to the spot by the window. I couldn’t move my eyes from the green bird and the festering tank. I don’t know when I slept, how I was able to close my eyes, or who could have moved me from the window to a prone position beside my mother in a corner of the living room. I didn’t know I had been asleep until I went into convulsions at the onset of a wave of explosions. It seemed the sky was raining rocks that were striking the water tank on the roof. Before I could rise to find out what was happening, everything went silent for a minute or two. Then the soldiers’ sirens and the horns of ambulances rang out. There was a roar of engines, and a bunch of small cars came in a line. The soldiers gathered around the flaming tank. They had fire extinguishers in their hands with black hoses spewing vapor and gooey foam that oozed hideously down the skeleton of the tank, but the fire, which was blazing smartly, was nowhere near contained. The soldiers feared for their lives, since the ammunition stored inside the tank might well explode. I understood this after the explosion had actually taken place. Although I was trembling, I laughed when I saw them flee in terror, after dropping their fire extinguishers to run as quickly as possible, far away from the circle of danger. They didn’t return until the explosions had ceased. By that time the fire had abated and the second tank had turned black. It remained crouching in the same spot: black, misshapen, like a terrifying ghost. I didn’t know what had happened, but this black hulk gave evidence of the force of the blow directed at the tank. I whispered prayerfully and delightedly: “Bless your hands!” Had his hands escaped injury or had they felled him the way they did the boy? Who had it been? There was no need to wait long, for when the sun spread and expanded its fiery tent above us, it was easy for me to ascertain that it was Sallah himself. I recognized him by his bald head, which I had seen for the first time in my life only two or three days before when, not in uniform, he had crept by, heading toward his house. I could not make out the features of his face, for it was destroyed. His wrinkled white dishdasha was dappled with red blotches. His weapon dangled from his neck, and his body hung by its arms from the gun of the burned-out tank. During this hot summer day some small storms blew by, now and then. There wasn’t a dust storm out of the desert, but the sky wasn’t clear either, and dust-filled breezes moved the suspended body so that it swung back and forth in the air at times, like a playful child hanging from a tree. At other times, when dust swirled around him, he seemed a person hemmed in by fire and surrounded by smoke—attempting, but failing, to leap clear of this flaming barrier. A third tank came and parked. They didn’t even attempt to repair the burned-out one. It was clearly done for. The third tank was stationed at an appropriate distance from the second so that the soldiers would have a place to lounge. They drank tea there as before and devoured the cans of food that appeared now in plentiful supply, since the warehouses of the Cooperative Association had been pillaged. I no longer imagined that they used polite Iraqi expressions like aghati or ‘ayni. How could they, when they were eating my food while I watched from behind the window and tried to quiet my hunger with a handful of rice that I had discovered in a box that I had stored away and forgotten. I had not opened it for years, not since we moved to this house. Perhaps I had saved it from provisions we had had in our old house out of a sense that I ought to preserve this handful until God directed me in its use.

Before sunset that same day I noticed that the burned tank was gradually changing from black to that pale greenish-yellow, the hateful color of pus. I could not believe my eyes. I said: “That’s impossible. Perhaps it looks different because the position of the blackened tank has changed and the rays of the setting sun are reflecting off it.” This thought led me to spend some time at the window so that I could observe closely. I scrutinized everything very carefully. I told myself: “Perhaps it’s leftover foam from the extinguisher.” It became clear, however, that what I perceived as the festering of the body of the tank was actually the process by which Sallah was being transformed into a green bird with wings attached to the tank’s gun. I ascertained that it was Sallah himself, since his plumage was dappled with smudges of blood and his head was plucked free of feathers.

My attention was distracted from the front window when I started hearing muffled knocks from time to time at the rear window. The hand of an unseen person would stretch through the window with bread one time, some dinars another time, a box of sugar once, or cooking oil. I began to wonder what I could offer them in return. They told me they had a wounded comrade who needed a hiding place and care and that since our house overlooked the checkpoint it would serve nicely, since the soldiers didn’t suspect houses close to them. I didn’t know what to do. All they asked of me was to leave the rear door unlocked between the sunset and the evening prayers.

I did not find that hard to do. I left the door unbolted and went back to my mother to cradle her in my arms. I was trembling but never even considered sliding the bolt shut again. As the muezzin was saying “Allahu Akbar” to announce the evening prayer, two girls in voluminous black clothing entered. Before I could rise to greet them, their wraps fell to the ground, revealing two young men. The body of one of them was covered in many places by bloodstained bandages. He said I could call him al-Hakam, although that was not his real name, that he was the proprietor of a cleaning establishment and had been wounded when he thought it his duty to cleanse his community of rats and stray cats, and that my only duties were to provide him with a room and to put ointment on the burns on his back and neck, where he couldn’t reach, twice a day. I embraced this mission, considering myself a freedom fighter because of my task. For this reason I became very happy, despite the intense suffering. I won’t neglect to confess that this was the first time I had ever seen a man’s back. For the first few days I felt hesitant and fearful, and my hand shook when it held the cotton soaked with ointment and reached toward his skin. He would encourage me and tell me not to be afraid to press down on the wound so as to remove all the pus from it. This word reminded me of the festering tanks at the entrance to the square. They were no more than fifty meters from our house, but now I was too busy with the task I had assumed to watch the square.

I don’t know how long it took, but eventually al-Hakam’s wounds healed. He was able to move about and had removed all the bandages. He decided to return to his comrades. Before leaving me, he gave me a present to remember him by. I still have it and consider it my most precious souvenir. It was the gloves he had worn when mixing explosives to distribute to the resistance fighters. They had an atrocious chemical stink, but to me they smelled like musk and ambergris.

The house was left with only me and my mother in it once more. So I started thinking I would spend some time watching from behind the locked window, but I felt I really ought to go out to search for al-Hakam and his group to offer to undertake some new assignment of their choosing for them. I saw something, however, that I shall never forget, for all of eternity, and it made me burst into the street, trilling, shouting, and dancing. When I peeped out of the window cautiously, I was astonished to see that the line of devastated tanks had increased considerably. Perhaps there were seven, perhaps seventy tanks. I wasn’t able to count them all, since the window wasn’t situated so I could see to the end of the line. They were all festering with pus, and green birds of different shapes were fastened to them: some female and some male. There were even some children. On this cold January day, a breeze started up and crackled through the air before it lighted on the row of tanks, which merged together to form a single, enormous, terrifying caterpillar, nauseating and festering. Its appearance seemed to have been deceptive, and disgust had led us to fear it, because the cold breeze’s arrival destroyed its swollen frame and its skin fell where it stood, like a snake’s discarded skin with which desert winds toy, bouncing it back and forth between thorny bushes. Meanwhile, the green birds had shot off into the sky, where their heavenly refrains rang out so I could really hear them and every corner of our community resounded with their singing.


Fatima Yousef al-Ali

Fatima Yousef al-Ali, a Kuwaiti author, was born in 1953. Her thesis at Cairo University dealt with Kuwaiti women and the short story. She has published, in Arabic, a novel, Wujuh fi-l-Ziham (Faces in the Crowd), that is recognized to be the first by a Kuwaiti woman, and several collections of short stories: Wajhuha Watan (Her Face is a Nation), Ta’ Marbuta (A Feminine Ending), Dima’ Ala-l-Qamar (Blood on the Moon), and Lismira wa-Akhwatuha (Lismira and Her Sisters). A collection of her short stories has appeared in Iran in a Farsi translation, and a book-length study of her work, written by Hasan Hamid in Arabic, has been published in Egypt.

Fatima Yousef al-Ali is known for her stories about Kuwaiti women. She praises her father’s encouragement for her career and says that she is happily married, but few of her characters are. She portrays women’s lives from different strata of Kuwait society, whether the school assistant in “Behind a Latched Window,” the schoolgirl in “Nothing Shameful,” or the wealthy sophisticate in “A Woman’s Pains Never End.”

Although many of the situations treated by Fatima Yousef al-Ali are grim, she exhibits a lively sense of humor also, as in her stories “Harem Boys” and “Aunt Banana.” Since her career in writing developed out of work in broadcasting, she has felt that the author has a duty to entertain as well as instruct.

Of her four collections of short stories, Blood on the Moon is devoted entirely to tales of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. These stories have a literary and emotional impact but also a political one, given the American involvement in the region. Writing political commentary in fable form, as in the story about the romance between the frog and the hedgehog, is an approach with a long history in Arabic literature, going back to the first translation of the Indian origin story of the jackals Kalila and Dimna.

Being a pioneer Kuwaiti woman author has meant a degree of marginalization, evidenced by a need to improvise publishing arrangements. One benefit of writing beneath the radar of public scrutiny, though, has been her ability to describe and discuss human sexuality in a candid fashion.

Fatima Yousef al-Ali’s short stories open a window on a world that seems a bit mysterious to some Americans. The heroine’s spouse in “Vote for Me!” is not overtly abusive but will certainly not be voting for her. The administrator of public grants detects so many flaws in the applicants that he decides to award all of them to himself. Lismira, in her story, is stranded in a gloomy city far from Kuwait and from her lover and her spouse. The heroine in “A Woman’s Pains” is as much a predator as the self-righteous religious admirer who climbs in bed with her in a hotel room in Asia and scratches her with his beard. It is hard to strike the right balance in considering the status of women in Kuwait. Fatima Yousef al-Ali with her depictions of women from many walks of life helps the reader better understand the challenges facing them and thus helps us learn more about ourselves, too.

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing). His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders and Banipal Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. His recent and forthcoming 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) and Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), Yusuf's Picture by the Iraqi author Najem Wali (MacAdam/Cage), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni.

Behind a Latched Window. Copyright (c) Fatima Yousef al-Ali. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2009.