Ajam Media Collective and Elsewhere Lit are bringing you #Banned Literature, featuring stories, essays and poems from Trump’s seven banned countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. If you are interested, see our call for submissions and guidelines here.
Shawk Alani was born in Baghdad in the aftermath of the Gulf War, escaped the sanctions with her family in the 90s and lived in eight cities before calling Toronto a chosen home. In the mornings, she is a graduate student writing about personal narrative, storytelling and translation. In the evenings, she tends to a deep passion in her heart, The Iraqi Oral History Project, and indulges, often excessively, in Arabic literature.
***His feet were puffy because they were full of water, my mother told me. They were long and the size of my feet five times. The bottoms of them looked smooth, with barely visible arches and creases that ran the width of the sole where the skin was squashed up against itself and looked the way sand dunes sometimes looked when we drove deep in the desert after a windy day. The tops of his feet were a pale beige, the same as the color of my skin at the end of winter. I was mesmerized by the curly hairs that were sparsely protruding out of his skin. I imagined them dancing, curling and uncurling, touching each other, tickling my grandpa’s feet and coiling tightly at night when it was time for sleep. He always had his feet propped up on an Ottoman, crossed left over right, at the end of his armchair. I sat somewhere near his full-of- water feet, and looked at them, and looked at him. He was immersed in a television newscast the way almost every adult had been these days. I tried to focus on the television to earn my right of passage into some sort of respectable grownup-hood.
Who is Saddam, jidoo? Immediately I regretted repeating the name that every person inside the television screen was repeating, but that no person outside the television screen and inside the living room would utter. The name had a different weight as it came out of my mouth and fell onto the tiny train track of soundwaves that carried words from one person’s mouth to another person’s ears. But this word was one I was never supposed to speak or maybe even think about. The railway screeched, the cargo wobbled and fumbled. Immediately I regretted repeating the word Saddam and hoped my mother did not hear me and that I would not get into trouble. The words moved past his feet and almost exploded all the retained water in them; the train collided with his ears and he became still.
He was a nobody. Wait, what? Is jidoo really answering my question! What did he say? He was the least intellectual among us, just a troublemaker. Nobody.
Can you please tell me if I am shi’i or sunni? I said without thinking, because if I thought I would feel too scared, and so I sat in the backseat of the car watching the traffic, and let only courage, and a little bit of anger, overwhelm me. A delivery motorcycle hauling two boxes filled with Yemeni mandi whizzed by, almost smashing the red car beside us. The driver made the car honk, pulled his window down, gestured with his hands, spit something white and creamy, and my stomach turned. People keep asking me and I don’t know what to tell them. My parents were in complete silence, the most familiar sound that came in response to my questions. I glimpsed dad’s eyes focused on me in the rearview mirror, but when I pulled my own eyes up to ask him again with them, he shot his to the left and pretended he was checking traffic, which was still a sight of disordered tightness. Tightness squeezed the walls of my abdomen, a bad taste rose up from somewhere near the rolls of fat I was ashamed of, and into my throat. It’s not important. Sigh. How can you say that, baba? Maybe the bad taste was more anger than courage. Why are you wasting your time thinking about these things? Focus on being an A student. I’m already an A student. The bad taste burned in my throat, then it sent small parcels of itself to the corners of my eyes, and they streamed down and I licked them into my mouth
and into my throat again, and I learned that the bad taste was also salty, and that it lived inside me and coursed between my throat and my eyes and had nowhere else to go.
Our car too had nowhere else to go between other cars flooding the deteriorated road, but dad’s anger finally escaped, unlike mine, out of his throat and in the form of impulsive words about some guy’s lower class or his mental incapacity, and my dad’s word, or maybe his anger, sounded damaged like the bumpers and windows of the grey car which was now beside us, ahead of the red car.
Zeinab and Mariam and I stopped skipping rope in eight grade because suddenly we all had grown breasts over the summer and it showed on the outsides of our blouses when they awkwardly jiggled, so we started sitting quietly under a palm tree on the far end of the school grounds at recess. When we skipped rope we learned to protect each other and never circle our arms faster than the person in the middle was able to bend their knees, and of course we protected each other but now it seemed the world was more dangerous even though we were not skipping rope and we were just sitting quietly under a palm tree on the far end, doing algebra. Not in algebra class, but in religion class yesterday I had to protect Zeinab and Mariam because our teacher said that it was haram to marry a shi’i and that the people who executed Saddam were going to go to hell. Without thinking, because if I thought I would feel too scared, I pulled out my jump rope and strangled my teacher with it, and strangled her statements and whipped the rope, which made a loud sound, and I told her that she couldn’t say that I couldn’t marry Zeinab if I wanted to, and she couldn’t say that Mariam’s mom who executed Saddam in her dreams was going to go to hell.
I wasn’t sunni before but now I was sunni, and I learned that the grown ups laughed when I said I was from the sunni triangle but I didn’t know why it was funny because some people who were apparently sunni in Fallujah were being shelled with white phosphorus and because some people who were apparently sunni in Baghdad were wearing belts with explosives in them and killing babies in the markets. So why it was funny that I was from the sunni triangle I wasn’t sure, but I kept repeating it because the grown ups had such a strange sense of humour and they all looked sad when they laughed. I told Zeinab what my mother told me, that there were no shia in Jordan, so our religion studies teacher did not know what she was talking about, but even I did not believe my mother’s story because yesterday I did not know a shi’i or a sunni, I only met them today but we sat and ate together and we were in heaven, not hell. I told Zeinab my mother’s lie because I didn’t have a story of my own yet and I told Zeinab my mother’s family tree because I didn’t have one of those yet either. Zeinab mama is a descendant of imam Husain so of course you’re my friend. and Zeinab maybe we can get married? but Zeinab only looked at me with heartbroken eyes, and I never married Zeinab so I think I was heartbroken too.
I believed jidoo that Saddam was a nobody. He was not a body. He was a ubiquitous atmosphere that crowded our breath, sometimes coming into our lungs when relatives visited from Iraq and brought old family photos with them, black and white ones where people dressed like dolls and always had their heads tilted at the most flattering angle, and colored ones often of young people laughing and holding each other’s shoulders and waists. Saddam was breathed out of our lungs when the laughing and touching translated from the photos into the present moment, but he lurked in the horizon always threatening to bring dark clouds and turn the laughter into sighs, and make hands softly slap thighs, snap us out of the dream, smiles disappear, bodies un-touch, and eyes all gaze into space, into the sinister billow approaching. But the grim weather never rained, and rain did not fall from our eyes either and we never said Saddam and we never comforted each other from the anticipation of thunder.
I believed jidoo that Saddam was a troublemaker. But what kind of trouble did this Saddam make that our whole lives became full of water like jidoo’s feet and that we had all become so protective of the water, never probing it, never poking it, just living with its full heavy weight that made every footstep we took burdened with murky, still water, like the stuff that pooled on the corners of streets when the sewage failed and collected plastic and mud.
Photo provided by the author.