Translated by Jonathan Wright
April 2013 issue
Before the egg appeared, I would read a book about law or religion every night before going to sleep. Like my rabbit, I would be most active in the hours around dawn and sunset. Salsal, on the other hand, would stay up late at night and wake up at midday. And before he even got out of bed he would open his laptop and log on to Facebook to check the latest comments on the previous night’s discussion, then eventually go and have a bath. After that he would go into the kitchen, turn on the radio and listen to the news while he fried an egg and made some coffee. He would carry his breakfast into the garden and sit at the table under the umbrella, eating and drinking and smoking as he watched me.
“Good morning, Hajjar. What news of the flowers?”
“It’s been a hot year, so they won’t grow strong,” I told him, as I pruned the rose bushes.
Salsal lit another cigarette and gave my rabbit an ironic smile. I never understood why he was annoyed by the rabbit. The old woman Umm Dala had brought it. She said she found it in the park. We decided to keep it while Umm Dala looked for its owner. The rabbit had been with us for a month and I had already spent two months with Salsal in this fancy villa in the north of the Green Zone. The villa was detached, surrounded by a high wall and with a gate fitted with a sophisticated electronic security system. We didn’t know when zero hour would come. Salsal was a professional, whereas they called me duckling because this was my first operation.
Mr. Salman would visit us once a week to check how we were and reassure us about things. Mr. Salman would bring some bottles of booze and some hashish. He would always tell us a silly joke about politics and remind us how secret and important the operation was. This Salman was in league with Salsal and didn’t reveal many secrets to me. Both of them made much of my weakness and lack of experience. I didn’t pay them much attention. I was sunk in the bitterness of my life, and I wanted the world to be destroyed in one fell swoop.
Umm Dala would come two days a week. She would bring us cigarettes and clean the house. On one occasion Salsal harassed her. He touched her bottom while she was cooking dolma. She hit him on the nose with her spoon and made it bleed. Salsal laid off her and didn’t speak to her after that. She was an energetic woman in her fifties with nine children. She claimed she hated men, saying they were despicable, selfish pricks. Her husband had worked in the national electricity company, but he fell from the top of a lamppost and died. He was a drunkard and she used to call him the arrack gerbil.
I built the rabbit a hutch in the corner of the garden and took good care of him. I know rabbits are sensitive creatures and need to be kept clean and well-fed. I read about that when I was at secondary school. I developed a passion for reading when I was thirteen. In the beginning I read classical Arabic poetry and lots of stories translated from the Russian. But I soon grew bored. Our neighbor worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and one day I was playing with his son Salam on the roof of their house, when we came across a large wooden trunk up there with assorted junk piled up on top of it. Salam shared a secret with me. The trunk was crammed with books about crops and irrigation methods and countless encyclopaedias about plants and insects. Under the books there were lots of sex magazines with pictures of Turkish actresses. Salam gave me a magazine but I also took a book about the various types of palm tree that grow in the country. I didn’t need Salam after that. I would sneak from our house to the roof of theirs to visit the library in the trunk. I would take one book and one magazine and put back the ones I had borrowed. After that I fell in love with books about animals and plants and would hunt down every new book that reached the bookshops, until I was forced to join the army.
The pleasure I found in reading books was disconcerting, however. I felt anxious about every new piece of information. I would latch onto one particular detail and start looking for references and other versions of it in other writings. I remembered, for example, that for quite some time I tracked down the subject of kissing. I read and read and felt dizzy with the subject, as if I had eaten some psychotropic fruit. Experiments have shown that chimpanzees resort to kissing as a way to reduce tension, fatigue, and fear among the group. It’s been proven that female chimpanzees, when they feel that strangers have entered their territory, hurry to their mates, hug them and start kissing them. And after long research, I came across another kiss, a long tropical kiss. A kiss by a type of tropical fish that kiss each other for half an hour or more without any kind of break. My memory of those years of darkness under sanctions is of devouring books. The electricity would go off for up to twenty hours a day, especially after that series of U.S. air strikes on the presidential palaces. I would snuggle into bed at midnight and by the light of a candle I would stumble upon another species of kiss: by insects called reduvius, though they don’t actually kiss each other. These only like the mouths of sleeping humans. They crawl across the face till they reach the corner of the mouth, where they settle down and start kissing. When they kiss they secrete poison in microscopic drops, and if the person sleeping is in good health and sleeping normally, he’ll wake up with a poisonous kiss on his mouth the size of four large raindrops put together.
I ran away from military service. I couldn’t endure the system of humiliation there. At night I worked in a bakery. I had to support my mother and my five brothers. I lost the urge to read. For me the world became like an incomprehensible mythical animal. A year after I ran away, the regime was overthrown and I was free of my fear of punishment for my earlier desertion. The new government abolished conscription. When the cycle of violence and the sectarian decapitations began, I planned to escape the country and go to Europe, but then they massacred two of my remaining brothers. They were coming back from work in a local factory that made women’s shoes. The taxi driver handed them over at a fake checkpoint. The Allahu Akbar militias took them away to an undisclosed location. They drilled lots of holes in their bodies with an electric drill and then cut off their heads. We found their bodies in a rubbish dump on the edge of the city.
I was completely devastated and I left home. I couldn’t bear to see the horror on the faces of my mother and brothers. I felt lost and no longer knew what I still wanted from this life. I took a room in a dirty hotel until my uncle came to visit me and suggested I work with his sect. To exact revenge.
The summer days were long and tedious. It’s true that the villa was comfortable, with a swimming pool and a sauna. But to me it seemed like a palatial mirage. Salsal took a room on the second floor, while I was content with a cover and a pillow on the sofa in the middle of the large sitting room where the bookcase stood. I wanted to keep an eye on the garden and the outer gate of the villa, in case anything unexpected happened. I was stunned by the size of the bookcase in the sitting room. It had many volumes on religion and on local and international law. Along the shelves, animals made of teak had been arranged in shapes and poses reminiscent of African totems. The animals also separated the religious books from the law books. As soon as it fell dark, I would grab a bite to eat and go and surrender myself to the sofa, reminisce a little about the events of my life, then take out a book and read distractedly. The world in my head was like a spider’s web that made a faint hum, the hum of a life about to expire, of breaths held. Delicate, horrible wings flapping for the last time.
I found the egg three days before Mr. Salman’s last visit. One day I woke up at dawn as usual. I fetched some clean water and food and went to inspect my friend the rabbit. I opened his hutch and he hopped out into the garden. There was an egg in the hutch. I picked it up and examined it, trying to understand the absurdity of it. It was too small to be a chicken’s egg. I was anxious so I went straight to Salsal’s room. I woke him up and told him about it. Salsal took hold of the egg and stared at it for a while, then laughed sneeringly.
"Hajjar, you’d better not be pulling my leg,” he said, pointing his finger toward my eye.
“What do you mean? It wasn’t me who laid the egg!” I said firmly.
Salsal rubbed his eyes, then suddenly jumped out of bed like a madman, firing curses at me. We headed to the villa gate and checked the security system. We inspected the walls and searched the garden and all the rooms. There were no signs of anything unusual. But an egg in a rabbit hutch! Our only option was to think that someone was playing tricks on us, sneaking into the villa and putting the egg next to the rabbit.
“Perhaps it’s a silly stunt by that whore Umm Dala. Damn you and your rabbit,” said Salsal, but then went quiet.
Both of us knew that Umm Dala was sick and hadn’t come to visit us for the past week. We were doubly afraid because we didn’t have any guns in the house. We weren’t allowed to have guns until the day of the mission. They were worried about random searches because the Green Zone was a government area and most of the politicians lived there. We were living in the villa on the pretense that we were bodyguards to a member of parliament. Salsal threw a fit and asked me to slaughter the rabbit, but I refused and told him the rabbit had nothing to do with what had happened.
“Wasn’t it your bloody rabbit that laid the egg?” he said angrily as he went up to his room.
I made some coffee and sat in the garden watching the rabbit, which was eating its own droppings. They say the droppings contain vitamin B produced by tiny organisms in its intestines. After a while Salsal came back carrying his laptop. He was mumbling to himself and cursing Mr. Salman from time to time. He looked at his Facebook page and said we had to be on alert 24-7. He asked me to spend the night in his room on the second floor because it was good for monitoring the gate and the walls of the villa.
We turned off all the lights, sat in Salsal’s room and every now and then took turns making a tour of inspection around the villa.
Two nights passed without anything suspicious. The villa was quiet, sunk in silence and calm. While I was staying in Salsal’s room I learned he was registered with Facebook under the pseudonym War and Peace and had posted a charcoal drawing of Tolstoy as his profile picture. He had more than a thousand Facebook friends, most of them writers, journalists, and intellectuals. He would discuss their ideas and pose as an intelligent admirer of other Facebook people. He expressed his opinions and his analysis of the violence in the country with modesty and wisdom. He even tried it on with me, rambling on about the character of the Deputy Minister of Culture. He told me how cultured and humane and uniquely intelligent he was. At the time I wasn’t interested in talking about the deputy minister. I told him that people who work in our line of business ought to keep their distance from too much Internet chat. He gave me his sneering professional look and said, “You look after your egg-laying rabbit, Hajjar.”
When Mr. Salman finally visited us, Salsal exploded in anger in front of him, and told him about the rabbit’s egg. Mr. Salman ridiculed our story and dismissed our suspicions of Umm Dala. He assured us the woman was honest and had worked with them for years. But Salsal accused him of betrayal and they began to argue, while I sat watching them. From their argument I gathered that in the world of sectarian and political assassinations, people were often betrayed because of greater interests. In many cases the parties in power would hand over hired killers to each other for free, as part of wider deals over political positions or to cover up some large-scale corruption. But Mr. Salman denied all Salsal’s accusations. He asked us to calm down, because the assassination of the target would take place in two days. We sat down in the kitchen and Salman explained the plan to us in detail. Then he took two revolvers with silencers out of his bag and said we would be paid right after the operation and that we would then be moved to somewhere else on the edge of the capital.
“A rabbit’s egg. Ha, duckling. You’re a real joker now,” Salman whispered to me before he left.
On the last night I stayed up late with Salsal. I was worried about the rabbit, because it looked like Umm Dala would be on a long holiday. The rabbit would die of hunger and thirst. Salsal was busy with Facebook as usual. I stayed close to the window, watching the garden. He said he was having a discussion with the Deputy Minister of Culture on sectarian violence and its roots. I gathered from Salsal that this minister had been a novelist in Saddam Hussein’s time and had written three novels about Sufism. One day he and his wife were at a party at the home of a wealthy architect overlooking the Tigris. His wife was attractive, stunningly so, and cultured like her husband. She had a particular interest in old Islamic manuscripts. The Director of Security, a relative of the president, was a guest at the party. After the party was over, the security chief gave his surveillance section orders to read our friend’s novels. A few days later they threw him in jail on charges of incitement against the State and the Party. The Director of Security bargained with the novelist’s wife in exchange for her husband’s freedom. When she rejected his demands, the security chief had one of his men rape the woman in front of her husband. After that the woman moved to France and disappeared. They released the novelist in the middle of the nineties and he went off to look for his wife in France, but could find no trace of her. When the dictator’s regime fell, he went home and was appointed Deputy Minister of Culture. The story of the novelist’s life was like the plot of a Bollywood film, but I was surprised how many details of the man’s life Salsal knew. I felt that he admired the man’s personality and sophistication. I asked him what sect the man was. He ignored my question. Then I tried to draw him out on the identity of our target, but Salsal replied that a novice duckling like me wasn’t allowed to know such things. My only task was to drive the car and it was Salsal who would fire the shot with his silenced revolver.
The next morning we were waiting in front of the parking lot in the city center. The target was meant to arrive in a red Toyota Crown and as soon as the car went into the lot Salsal would get out of our car, follow him inside on foot and shoot him. Then we would drive off to our new place on the edge of the capital. That’s why I had brought the rabbit along with me and put it in the trunk of the car.
Salsal received a text on his cell phone and his face turned pale. We shouldn’t have had to wait for the target more than ten minutes. I asked him if all was well. He shouted a curse and slapped his thigh. I was worried. After some hesitation he held out his phone and showed me a picture of a rabbit sitting on an egg. It was a silly Photoshop job. “Do you know who sent the picture?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“The Deputy Minister of Culture,” he said.
“The deputy’s the target, Hajjar.”
I got out of the car, my blood boiling at Salsal’s stupidity and all the craziness of this pathetic operation. More than a quarter of an hour passed and the target didn’t appear. I told Salsal I was pulling out of the operation. He got out of the car too and asked me to be patient and wait a while longer, because both of us were in danger. He got back in the car and tried to contact Salman. I walked to a shop nearby to buy a packet of cigarettes. My heart was pounding like crazy from the anger. As soon as I reached the shop the car blew up behind me and caught fire, burning the rabbit and Salsal to cinders.
Translated by Jonathan Wright
The Iraqi Christ
Comma Press, 2013.
Hassan Blasim (born 1973) is an Iraqi-born film director and writer who lives in Finland. He writes in Arabic.
Blasim went to Finland as a refugee in 2004 after getting in trouble when making the film The Wounded Camera in the Kurdish area in northern Iraq. He made four short films for the Finnish broadcasting company Yle. His short story collection The Madman of Freedom Square was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. His book The Iraqi Christ, translated from Arabic to English by Jonathan Wright, and published by Comma Press in 2013. A selection of his stories was published as The Corpse Exhibition by Penguin US in 2014. It won a number of awards including one of four winners in the English Pen's Writers in Translation Programme Awards. In 2014, he became the first ever Arabic writer to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Iraqi Christ.
Jonathan Wright is a British journalist and literary translator. He joined Reuters news agency in 1980 as a correspondent, and has been based in the Middle East for most of the last three decades. He has served as Reuters' Cairo bureau chief, and he has lived and worked throughout the region, including in Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the Gulf. From 1998 to 2003, he was based in Washington, DC, covering U.S. foreign policy for Reuters. For two years until the fall of 2011 Wright was editor of the Arab Media & Society Journal, published by the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo.
He has translated two titles for Comma: Hassan Blasim's The Madman of Freedom Square (2009) and The Iraqi Christ (2013). In 2014 he was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize alongside author Hassan for his work translating The Iraqi Christ.