Excerpt from Yusuf’s Picture

Chapter Seven

The happiness of sharing a table with one’s wife of a lifetime
With a pack of cigarettes, a cold beer, and a dose of the erotic

“I’ve really hated my name even though it’s uncommon. Every night, whenever I went to bed, I would imagine that I have the name Sarab all to myself, that I am the literal meaning of the word. It’s a counterfactual fantasy that overwhelms you till you can’t shake it off. When I wonder why I have this name, I recall the angels and remember that my grandmother used to say that there are nineteen thousand angels and that they have no names, that they’re just angels. They watch over children, care for the aged, and do good deeds, but don’t want anyone to give them a name. When I got my first doll, I didn’t name her anything. I believe I had about twenty dolls. My father would always bring me back new dolls from his long trips. There was only one doll that had a name. She had long arms and thin legs. My grandmother sewed some hair on her from wool she had spun on her spindle. Her name was ‘Second Wound,’ and I think my grandmother gave her this name. When I asked her once, on a winter night as I remember, when we were sitting around a charcoal brazier and she was spinning, why this was the only doll that had a name, she replied that this doll was the only one with hair and a small slit where her heart was, as if it were a wound in each of our hearts. So it is our second wound. Then I commented, ‘Actually I don’t have a slit where my heart is,’ at least I didn’t back then, ‘although I have hair.’ My grandmother laughed and asked, ‘Do you think we’re bald gourds?’ If I hadn’t loved my grandmother, I would have found this name distasteful too, but perhaps I accepted it because she called me that as well. I liked that, because I used to feel that I was a second person, another girl, or because I got used to it the way a person becomes accustomed to the smell of old furniture and houses. When I grew up, I told myself, I’ll go to the clerk of court and ask to change my name. But I didn’t do that as a child or an adult once I learned that I had the very same name as the young girl with the green eyes, blonde braids, and blue shirt.”

He didn’t know how long he had sat in the living room listening to her. He didn’t know whether he had dozed off a little or merely felt out of it. At some stage his ear no longer heard her.

He felt his torso slouch in the chair briefly, but then a hand touched his shoulder and landed next on his forehead. It was the hand of a woman he knew. “What a beautiful hand!” he told himself. “It wants to be neutral, like a doctor’s hand that checks his patient’s temperature, presses on the forehead, and rests there for some minutes or seconds without moving even a little.” He almost seemed afraid the hand would move. He closed his eyes as if wanting to seize the memories that had begun to pass before his eyes and that the touch of this hand had sparked. Only when he felt this hand move was he conscious of his fever. When he sensed that the woman had turned her face toward him and was looking at him in a questioning way, his temperature rose and a lump formed in his throat, stuck to his tongue, and plugged his mouth.

“You’re feverish again, as though they hadn’t given you thousands of shots, pills, and serums. When will they stop torturing you?”

He heard her ask this before she moved toward the window, pulled back the curtains, and stood there, her back toward him.

“Why don’t you speak? Have you stopped talking forever? I’m here. I’m not the ghost you saw at the movies.”

“Certainly you’re not a ghost,” he wanted to tell her. “Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, you would be the ghost of that young girl who shares your name. Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, you would epitomize the angels of this earth. Your hand is a dove of peace that brings the dead back to life and that restores everything that was destroyed and exhausted in this spirit. Come closer and discover the beauty conveyed by your presence, the glow displayed by your eyes in the gloom–the gloom of this world, the gloom of all the wounded spirits–and the scent that your skin releases into the air of the room, into the air of the world. Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, you would be an angel from lost paradises. Your breath is a blend of an eternal spring breeze and the fragrances of fields of herbs and orchards. Your saliva is the perfume of citrus blossoms and nectar. Your physique is more svelte and agile than a gazelle’s, and your arm and wrist more sinewy. Your fingers are ruby pens. Your eyebrows are beautiful arches and your eyes large and black. The movement of your feet is like dew drops falling on a glistening dawn. Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, you would be the girl whom the boy, your playmate, wouldn’t want to stop dreaming about, because he would know that his death would arrive when he stopped seeing her. Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, you would be the air he breathes, the eye with which he sees, the heart that throbs inside him when he resists relinquishing you after all this lifetime, after all this journey, after all this devastation. Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, then after all is said and done, you would be that young girl with whom he played, the girl they took from him by force, the girl with whom he never tired of playing. You’re the young girl, the primary school pupil, whose name he carved on garden benches during school trips and on the bark of trees, to whom his footsteps led wherever he ventured. You’re the young girl to whom he wrote his first love letters, for whose sake they dismissed him from school one year, whose arrival from school he awaited so he could follow her like her shadow to the door of her house, whose portrait he drew on the asphalt of the street and on the walls of houses and the school, and whose photo he stole from her school records. When they caught him, they dismissed him for another year on account of her. Certainly not; even if you were a ghost, you would be the picture he always carried in his top pocket or hid under his pillow when he slept. What do streets, stations, museums, public gardens, trees, cinemas, and bars offer me, indeed what do cities, books, houses, sanatoria, medical clinics provide, if I don’t find your image in them, my darling? What do friends, comrades, relatives, newscasts, plays, and isolated words convey if they don’t mention your name? Embrace me, and preserve my image with you just as I have preserved yours through all these years. Kiss me and then preserve and remember the taste of my kiss just as I have preserved the memory of the first kiss that I remember the young girl with the green eyes, blonde braids, and blue shirt imprinting on my cheek, that angelic girl who didn’t want me to give her any other name because I was afraid she would actually turn into a mirage. Do you remember, Darling? There, beneath the lofty jujube tree, the ancient tree that our grandmothers reckoned to be three thousand years old, the ancient tree that retained its youthfulness, in the fields that stretched behind the nearby mill, behind the school building, where the miller’s ancient house was located, where we would flee from the boredom and vexation of school chairs–we would go to play there like butterflies frolicking in the morning sunlight. I can still feel that kiss on my cheek. Those words, the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard, linger in my ear even now. Do you remember our lips moving closer while our eyes drew nearer? Darling, Darling, Darling, hear our hearts beating in time to the repetition of this word. Even if you were a ghost, you’re here and all you need to do to learn the truth is to turn. Darling, turn around. I beg you, turn: just that.”

But she didn’t. She remained where she was, where he had seen her when he began his silent monologue. She stood with her back to him, looking out of the window, into the distance, as if she too was engrossed with an interior monologue. From his location he could see the sunset begin to overwhelm the garden, which spread away from the window. He could imagine her looking very far away.

“Do you know?” he heard her take up the conversation again, although her voice seemed calmer this time and rather earnest, as if she were whispering to herself rather than speaking to him at the table.

“The more I look through this window at first light or in the evening at sunset, the more I remember that story that you have told me repeatedly, the story of the young girl, the primary school student in fifth elementary, with the green eyes, blonde braids, and blue shirt, the slender, delicate girl who bore my name and whose young friend, a boy, wanted to give her a cake that his mother had made, not knowing that he was giving her the wrong cake, the fatal cake his brother wanted to give to the neighbors’ dog–or so he claimed. I keep imagining that girl here, sitting with me. It doesn’t matter whether the story is fabricated or true, it doesn’t matter whether you read it one day in a book or magazine or whether it actually happened to you and you were that boy who fell in love with that young girl and thus angered his brother Yunus. Ever since she had arrived at your school with her father, the teacher, she had been the only girl in the class. Do you know? Don’t be surprised if I say this. Ever since you told me the story, I have posited her here, with us, with the two of us. The story stopped being a bygone event as soon as I heard you recount it the first time. When we met, you didn’t come alone. You came to me with that young girl, who had green eyes, blonde braids, and a blue shirt, and made her my spiritual twin. Throughout all those years when you feared losing me because my loss might mean a renewed loss of her, you were afraid of being distracted even for a moment and would turn at times in alarm, as if she had left you or as if you had handed her a fatal cake again. You would say, ‘My God, how could I have gotten these cakes confused? How could I have taken the wrong one?’ Throughout all these years, while you have been fleeing from the world, more every time, locking yourself up in the house and seeking refuge in solitude to prevent anyone from spoiling your world that you have built from memories and desires, you have wished to remain in that initial stage despite all the devastation, destruction, wars, and killing that have occurred around you. You wanted all this to have no bearing on you, for everything to remain in its place. You seemed to fear causing someone’s death. Through all these years, to which you’ve been oblivious because you have continued to live in that moment, you have decked your brother in the killer’s garment, because you believe that he’s the one who put the tacks in the cake to kill the girl and you don’t want to be one of those people who celebrate killing each other, war after war. You imagine that death and murder surround you and still quake with terror because you imagine that you might actually have been the killer. You want to dispel the notion that you were guilty of involuntary manslaughter. I know how anxious this idea makes you. I know your anxiety and fear as clearly as I know I have ten fingers. How many times have I had to tell you that, like you, I love the young girl and that the past is merely a memory that survives to the morrow?”

He saw her bend suddenly and pick up two petals that had fallen from a bouquet of flowers there. She crushed them in her hand and threw them out the window. The night outside–like black outlines–was defending the garden and the house against the heat and the unknown world beyond. In the room, the scent of jasmine was pronounced. He reflected that the flowers in the bouquet were jasmine. He knew that other young women, not just Sarab, used jasmine. He remembered how many times he had smelled this fragrance in his family’s house, through the bedroom window of his brother’s wife, Maryam. He remembered that this scent had reached him in bed from the garden and that he had frequently wondered whether Maryam used a jasmine perfume or whether this was her natural scent. He closed his eyes and heard her voice again.

“How long have we known each other? Twenty-five years? More? Less? It doesn’t matter. Years no longer mean anything when death envelops everything, even the air we breathe in this wretched country, the land of the triumphant and downtrodden, as you say. The important thing is that the young girl grew up with us. Believe me: I saw her in front of me: a mature woman who had long black hair, not blonde braids. Her eyes weren’t green; they were large and black, gleaming under the window here. She was slim and svelte, her lips were full, her teeth white and neatly aligned, and her shirt blue, like the shirt I’m wearing now. Look at me! My God, every aspect of this girl is perfect; nothing is missing, not even the name. Imagine: she has her own special name–Sarab: Mirage. How I envy her! She must be happy, because you love her; I have never heard her complain. I would like to take her place and become the young girl who romps with you at school and thumbs through comic books with you. Would you like me to remind you of the stories we used to make up by looking at the pictures, because the comics were in English? I’ll tell you one you know.”

He saw he leave her place by the window and head toward the table. Now, by the pale light coming from lamps outside, he discovered that her calm, serious face made her look even younger.

She sat down opposite him, took a deep breath, and began the tale.

“Once upon a time, long ago, there was a young prince, around eleven years old. He was a very diligent pupil at school and was always the first in his class. They pinned the class champion medal on his chest and named him…”


Najem Wali

Najem Wali was born in al-Amara, Iraq, on October 20, 1956, and earned a degree in German literature from Baghdad University in 1978. In 1980, he left Iraq and settled in Hamburg, where he earned an M.A. in German Literature in 1987. From 1987 to 1990, he lived in Madrid, where he studied Spanish and Latin American literature. He also lived in Oxford for six months in 1993, and in Florence for six months in 1995.

In 1989, his novel, Krieg im Vergnügungsviertel ("War in the Entertainment District"), was published by Perspol Verlag, Hamburg in the German translation of the author's friend Jürgen Paul. The Arabic original, Al-Harb fi Hayy al-Tarab, was first published in Damascus and Budapest in 1993 by Dar Sahra and reissued in 1995. His short story collection Laylat Mary al-Akhirah ("Mary's Last Night") was published in Cairo in 1995. His novel Makan Ismuhu Kumait ("A Place Called Kumait") was published in Cairo in 1997. A French translation by Marianne Weiss, Une Ville nomée Komeit, was published by L'Esprit des Péninsules in 1999, and a Swedish one appeared in 2002. Tall al-Lahm was released in Beirut and London by Dar Al Saqi in 2001. In 2004, Hanser Verlag published the German translation, Die Reise nach Tell al-Lahm. Wali also has published the short story collections There in the Strange City (Hamburg: Verlag Am Galgenberg, 1990) and Valse ma‘a Matilda ("Waltzing Matilda," Damascus: Dar Al-Mada, 2001). Surat Yusuf ("Yusuf's Picture") was published in Beirut and Casablanca in 2005, and then in Cairo in 2008. The novel's German translation was released in hardcover by Hanser in 2008 and in paperback by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag in 2010. His recent novel, Mala'ika al-Junub ("Angels of the South"), was published by Dar Kaleem Publishing in Dubai, UAE, in 2009, and the German translation is forthcoming in 2011 from Carl Hanser Verlag in Munich.

Najem Wali now lives in Berlin, where he works as a freelance journalist and cultural correspondent for the largest Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat. His controversial Israel travel book was published in German translation as Reise in das Herz des Feindes : ein Iraker in Israel ("Journey to the Heart of the Enemy: An Iraqi in Israel") by Carl Hanser Verlag in 2009. English translations of some of his stories have appeared online in Words Without Borders and in print in Banipal Magazine. His short story "Wars in Distant Lands" appeared in the February 2008 issue of Harper's. An excerpt from the translation by William Hutchins of his novel Yusuf's Picture appeared in the September 2010 issue of Words Without Borders.

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 and Banipal Magazine. 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.

From Surat Yusuf. Copyright (c) Najem Wali, 2005. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2012.