This story first appeared in Arabic in the Paris-based Kull al-‘Arab, September 3, 1986.
The men in our unit branded me “the intellectual,” a term that connoted for them more sarcasm than conviction. They pronounced it in mincing tones, and played comically with its derivatives. This ought not, of course, be imputed to intrinsic dislike among the well-meaning fighters for intellectuals. Rather, I suppose, to their belief in the futility of making oneself attend to matters other than the tangible tasks of fighting or getting ready for combat. And being, as they said, a bookworm, I had only myself to blame.
In my leisure hours, I read whatever book I hit upon, history or economics — the discipline I wished to major in in college after the war was over — epics or folktales. I can assure you that otherwise for three years I was a model soldier and, by the testimony of all, brave and loyal. The ridicule of the men, nevertheless, did not slip by without painful consequences. I myself became infected by a certain distaste for things intellectual. I no longer brought the usual bundle of books to the front when I returned from my leave. I cultivated instead a new habit that proved to be no less annoying to my buddies, namely, falling into long silences.
My friend Sgt. Ibrahim alone could be sympathetic to my oversensitivity. That was probably because he knew me more intimately than the others, and was himself a fairly avid reader. But the pressing need to write was triggered by the object I chanced upon several days ago and the events that ensued on the shore of the lake. I wanted to relay the details and recite them to the men. I meant to ask for their pardon if I dwelt at length on my sentiments before revealing the circumstances of the incident.
It may be necessary at the outset to state that I had never expected to confront such a phenomenon — at once thrilling and frightful. I loved and feared it. I tried to toss it away, only to savor it quietly, as I would a precious stone. Something strange and inexplicable tied me to it. Something sacred and close to the heart to the point of being irresistible, like an organ of my body that had been severed without my sensing it in the heat of battle. Yet there I was trying to put it back in place as in dreams or cartoons. I am not sure why I say this, for my body remained whole, though I often saw live human organs quiver next to me or on the other side.
I was astonished, at first, by how swiftly the situation was reversed: how the sky regained its clarity and the lake its deep blue color and ineffable beauty. I cherished the simplicity and calm, and waited for them to grant my spirit solace and the strength to endure the loss of loved ones on the front.
Nor was I able to convince myself of a plausible justification for waging war in these lovely marshlands of our south. Although with the passage of time I managed, like others in the trenches, to reconcile many contradictions, not the least of which was the proximity of fire and water, the war remained for me an aberration, an abnormal event. I thus could not refrain, while I watched a dumb mortar shell splash the water, from occasionally picturing the glittering ripples the dreamy net of a fisherman might excite. The lake possessed colors and scents with which I was acquainted: water and fish, birds and sad tales. I felt it was bereft of spring this season, though; among the oleanders, mallows and damask roses poked flowers of iron.
We fighters could have declared that round to be over but for the odor. Yes, that damned odor. It alone persisted in reminding us of battle after the courageous men had exhaled a breath of relief at driving back the enemy once more. Even after they had all exerted exceptional effort to remove the monstrous piles of corpses abandoned at the lake’s edge, or floating over water like alien fishes borne by a hurricane or a powerful tidal wave, even then, the odor continued to issue from secret places in the thicket of sugar cane fields and warm water passageways. It seeped and spread through the tremulous air, like poisonous gases belched by mythic creatures that had given up the will to exist and could manifest themselves only in such raw manner. We were compelled, initially, to endure the smell because we felt it bore something other than the remains of degraded carcasses, close, perhaps, to the odor of our own bodies.
It was useless, at any rate, to try to accomplish more than we had done now. We cleansed the area with the available supply of antiseptics and disinfectants. Moreover, I personally bathed several times a day, not just to shed dust and sweat; I had to dispel the elusive odor which I sensed was ever stuck to my skin. Although I was not the only one in the unit who exhibited this baffling symptom, I must have been, more than the others, obsessed with delusions. Some of my buddies soon viewed me with slanted, telling looks, as if the spirits had taken possession of me and imparted to me such peculiar behavior. Upon spotting me in the river, the more mischievous mocked me from a distance by sticking out their tongues, and yelling “intellectual.”
Eventually my entire body was afflicted. I lapsed into a state of lethargy, lost my appetite, and became nauseated when I encountered food. My malady was, no doubt, engendered by that repugnant odor. My old intimacy with my environment dissipated, and disgust pervaded my mood. I wished our unit could be transferred far away from our positions by the lake, never mind that we had fought tooth and nail to hold them.
Were there other, unseen corpses emitting odors from their dank stores? This was possible. The men, though, denied it and insisted the area was cleared out even as they were forced to cover their noses with their hands or handkerchiefs. Was it then the curse of the dead? It was cowardice, as I always maintained, for the enemy to avenge himself with this unseemly tactic.
All this compelled me to reassess my opinions regarding the sanctity of human flesh. A sobering idea took hold of me, especially in the first days after the battle, that we were living in the midst of a gigantic graveyard with open tombs. From there the dead incessantly dispatched us messages and invitations laden with lethal odors. I failed, furthermore, to conceive how the place could be free of ghosts or influential spirits. I thought I heard their moans some evenings in the cries of canaries or the hissing of missiles, as they set more bodies ablaze.
I recall the hours of dusk when colors mingled and the air stagnated, or the damp eastern wind blew bones and shreds of flayed skin. The entire scene partook of hell. Only the niggardly moments of sleep spared us, though they themselves raged with lightning and thunder in the subterranean coils of body and brain. Whereas my general condition improved gradually, I did not overcome my queasiness until a few days before I stumbled on the object.
I was on my way back from my routine leave, in an open army truck. My small bag, snug between my feet, contained only my laundered clothes. I watched at length the silhouettes of palm trees on the horizon. In the meantime, papyrus and camel-thorn seedlings began to invade the roadsides, an indication we were approaching the front lines. I tried to lull myself into thinking that my vacation days were the medicine needed to purify the air of the odor. My two buddies in the military vehicle spent the best part of the trip fast asleep. Their recently shaved chins bumped against their chests as the vehicle hit the frequent holes in the road. Unable to doze off myself, I kept busy by fastening my eyes on the profusion of starlings and finches, geese and teal, gathered in unseasonably vast numbers. Some flocked south, others stood on the soft terrain or floated on water and within the folds of sugar cane, heedless of traffic. What unnerved me, though, were the ugly crows, an unfamiliar presence in that zone. They were perched on telephone wires, in long and mournful files, or drew lines with their wings on the ground like blind lizards.
I was also taken aback by the sugarcane stalks shaken from the root not by the wind, but by the slithering of aquatic creatures left behind in the holes, once water had abated. One could, if one desired, get off the truck and wade into water and immediately observe how the unfortunate fish had colored the small ponds a bright white. Fish used to be plentiful. Things unfortunately changed, and fishing became devoid of joy. While none of us mentioned it, there was an implicit agreement that in the innards of any fish we might catch lurked a piece of human flesh. This assessment of course was not completely accurate, yet the countless enemy corpses we witnessed reinforced our suspicion that the fish had had their fill in the latest round.
The truck abruptly came to a halt around a narrow curve, the driver’s vision being blocked by the sand barrier erected along the road. The dust storm created by the vehicle did not, it seemed, have the potency to disrupt the two sleeping men. When the driver and his aide descended, the sun was nearly sunk into the lake’s water. Its rays pierced through the sugarcane fields in orange bundles. They brought to mind the mechanical eyes that targeted us as they relentlessly rotated in the expanses of water deserts. Our pause was brief; we had to reach our fortifications before the onset of darkness. Nevertheless, I was more than ready to get down, stretch a bit, and revel in the final moments of the day.
I did not have to be told what the driver and his aide were up to. I knew they had taken up fishing in earnest. But my sight fell straightaway upon another scene, to which I was promptly drawn and inched closer and closer. A large bevy of birds had congregated. I could distinguish two crows crowding what I surmised were residues of a fish or a dead animal. The omnivorous pair retreated from the spot with difficulty, as if strapped by invisible wires. What I saw afterward was neither a dead fish nor an animal, but a human head. Yes, a human head, or more precisely a skull. Half-submerged in water, only a strikingly white portion of it was visible. The birds must have thoroughly consumed skin and flesh, except for a tuft of hair on the upper section of the skull, and some tiny cartilages in the eye sockets and nose. I did not detect any blood, though I estimated that not much time had elapsed since its owner met his end. Nor did I locate traces of other organs. That head, jettisoned by the birds, must have suffered from terrible loneliness. A decision about what to do with it proved hard to make, and time was running out. The driver and his aide, who grasped two fishes struggling for a vital breath, signaled me to mount the truck. I was puzzled at how the head caused me to grieve, and at the same time offered me an indelible satisfaction. Was it but my own — the head I sensed one day I had lost?
It was this thought, perhaps, that ended my hesitation. I dipped my hand in the water and I, too, sported my catch. I rushed to the truck and slipped it in my bag, caring less about my clean wardrobe. As soon as the truck sped up, a light and slow motion stirred inside the bag. The slumbering soldiers appeared surprised by it; one of them cracked open his eyes, sniffed, and went back to sleep, attributing the presence of the odor to our proximity to the battlefield. When we arrived at our positions, I was disquieted by the ongoing bombardment. The men who received us, on the other hand, seemed not perturbed in the least by the rising dust from artillery fire, as if their eyes were cast upon an enormous screen. I gathered it was perhaps the enemy’s last-resort maneuver in the aftermath of an unsuccessful attack: shelling us for several days and nights without respite. It was as though he wished to affirm his existence. Little did he realize that his stray missiles struck us merely as the wretched groans of a ghoul that despaired of survival. Yet what did I see? The men dispersed promptly. The intensity of firing was bewildering. Was the enemy preparing for a new offensive? Anything was possible. My bunker was nearby, and receiving no definite order, I raced to it, and placed, on a stone pedestal parked at its entrance, my precious find. I scraped the mud and sand off the head, and dried it. The skull was heavy as lead because it had absorbed much water. I did not henceforth heed the shelling. My position was secure, though the second entrance opposite the enemy fire was exposed. By the end of winter, Sgt. Ibrahim and I had chosen to dismantle some sandbags and rocks to let in the lake breeze and warmth of spring sun.
I collapsed on the floor after I had unfolded my sleeping bag, and remained so for a long while, pondering what had prompted me to haul the head all the way to the bunker. I struck a match Thereand lit the wick of a lantern hung over my head. Soon its flickering flame projected an exquisite light inside the shelter; on my luggage, on Ibrahim’s books, dusty and in disarray over his pillow, and on the barrel of his shoulder rocket launcher, snug to the wall. As I was at a loss as to what to do under the circumstances, I stretched my arm and picked up a volume of The Thousand and One Nights, of which Ibrahim was an incurable fan.
I thought I would browse through it to lull myself to sleep. The book was open at the tale of the king’s daughter and the Ifrit. In the upper part of the righthand page was a sketch of a roaring lion, the expression on his face and in his eyes akin to the features of a wicked man. The lion was assaulting a young girl, who was desperate to ward it off with a whip she seized from her waist. I guessed that Ibrahim had been reading the tale before having to put it down, in order either to eat his supper or to amuse himself with the other men. At any rate, I assumed he would be glad to discover I was in the bunker when he returned, but be dumbfounded at meeting, without anticipating it, the skull exhibited at the entrance. His shock would be eased, I hoped, if I disclosed to him the story and promised to discard it. Still, I shivered with shame, but prayed my toy would not drive him insane, and that he would, as he often had done in the past, forgive my folly. I was determined to control myself and tell him the head was not my own; nevertheless the owner was no doubt human like ourselves, and had used his head to make both love and war.
But what would Ibrahim make of the odor that infested the shelter? Was it real or, as usual, my own invention? The head was quite clean, unmarred by flesh or blood, nothing except milk-clear bones, white as the core of a freshly felled tree. Even so, I took an extra precaution I conjectured would fully purge the fictitious odor. I swept my hand through my hair, gazed at the skull and said, “O orphaned head, you are my brother!” Then I fetched two green cubes of specially treated sulfur which we substituted for coal in winter to keep warm and make tea, and ignited them slowly. I placed them in the eye cavities, deep inside the skull, and watched them glow like two resplendent pearls of phosphorous.
The sight was so gripping that I was unable — despite a keen urge to acquaint myself with the tale of the king’s daughter and the Ifrit, recounted by the wanderer to the young girl on the fifteenth night of Shahrazad — to restrain myself from glancing and marveling at it every so often.
The smoky lantern and the atmosphere surrounding it in my abode were the nearest one could get to Aladdin’s lamp. I thought, in any event, it was another night of the thousand I had weathered here; and I should do as I pleased until, like Shahrazad, daybreak surprised me, and before I might be altogether denied the privilege of living. And thus, amidst smoke spirals and in the presence of the two radiant eyes, I commenced reading the fable.
The book’s pages were worn out, and some words were blurred by cigarette ashes and burns. I could not, even with close scrutiny, follow precisely the opening section of the story. Eventually I was able to figure out the rending developments. The king’s daughter, anticipating the appearance of the Ifrit, clutched a knife inscribed with Hebraic names. She drew circles in the middle and wrote special names and riddles with the knife, and murmured abracadabras. An hour later the palace turned pitch black and the Ifrit emerged, a most grisly form, hands like poles and legs like masts, and eyes aflame. The king’s daughter said to the Ifrit, “No welcome for you here!” “You traitor, how could you renege on your oath?” rejoined the Ifrit. “Hadn’t we promised to stay out of each other’s path?” And he instantaneously charged up against the young girl.
Both my body and eyes were utterly exhausted, and I found it quite taxing to go on reading by the faint light of the lantern. Yet I sensed that all the objects in the shelter were eager like myself to hear the fable and ascertain the conclusion. I applied myself to reading again, and was startled when my eyes suddenly glanced at the human head ensconced beside me. It, too, seemed to relish the ambient where my voice echoed like a magic melody. Its luminous eyes, peering at the abyss, demanded more! Meanwhile my dulled ears heard distant sounds of shots and explosions; in my state it was not possible to be certain whether they were real, or rendered by the wind howling outside the bunker. And when I endeavored to sharpen my hearing in order to determine more definitively the location and direction of shooting, I only grew more limp and ached to pursue the story.
I shut my eyes and saw the head gleam, a circle of light like a saint’s halo forming around it. My hands itched to grab it and hurl it in the eastern sky, over the cities of the enemy, and have it scream by each door and window…why?…why? It was too late; by the time my eyes opened, the head had already crashed on top of me, heaven knows how. I reckoned I had better dig a pit the next day and lay it to rest; the men would do it themselves anyway, and think I was demented should I object.
I lifted the book, which was still in my hand, and shifted it nearer to the globe of the lantern. I resumed the tale, my voice betraying a certain agitation, as if my own fate hinged on the girl’s. The girl was captured. She plucked apiece of her own hair and murmured with her lips, and the hair metamorphosed into a keen sword. She struck the Ifrit with it and split him in half. Both the girl and the Ifrit subsequently underwent a myriad of metamorphoses, and were locked in harrowing duels. At one point the girl was transformed into a wolf and the Ifrit into an enormous pomegranate. The wolf chased it and the pomegranate flew in the air, only to plunge down and shatter. Its seeds were scattered across the marble floor of the palace. The wolf then turned into a cock and one by one pecked all the seeds, bent on devouring them all. As chance would have it, however, one seed lay out of his sight, by the water fountain. The cock cried and flapped his wings and pointed with his beak, but no one fathomed what he meant. He let out a mighty shriek that nearly ripped the palace apart, then made an about face….
At that moment a violent explosion caused the earth beneath me to quake and its blaze illuminated the entrance and ceiling of my shelter. The book dropped from my hand and things whirled in all directions before I got to the end of the tale. I lay thus among the debris, under a barren sky. Bit by bit, the clouds of dust and smoke dispersed, and the sky shone with genial stars. My head was clear, and I believed I had recovered in one fell swoop from my lethargy and delusions. I turned my eyes around to scan the bunker for the head; it was gone. The whole affair suddenly began to have the appearance of a yarn spun by the mind, another tale from The Thousand and One Nights.
I labored to ease myself out of the heaps of rubble when I discerned human voices and saw an arm extended to me through the darkness. As I stood up I felt Sgt. Ibrahim throw himself at me, take me in his arms, and stroke my head and the rest of my body. They were intact, but I feared remnants of the odor remained permanently glued to my clothes.
—Translated by Sharif S. Elmusa