Studies in human psyche and human behavior under political and social pressure: the recent literary works of Fu'ad al-Takarli.
Fu'ad al-Takarli began writing in the early Fifties and his first short story, "Uyn khudr" ("Green Eyes"), published in 1952 in the magazine Al-Usbu (The Week), both shocked and attracted Iraqi readers. It is about a character well-known in French and Russian romanticism, but, at that time, quite new for Iraqi society, the virtuous or loving prostitute. It becomes increasingly clear in this and in his other short stories, as in his novels, that he is interested in psychological problems, even to the point of psychological deviations. These are manifested in a sexual behavior that is not approved by society, but, nonetheless, is conditioned by special social and political circumstances. He often depicts characters who identify with French existentialism portrayed in works of authors like Camus and Sartre, works which, as far as I know, were translated into Arabic from the Fifties onwards. Or perhaps the author was also able to read them in French.
I have spoken and written about some of al-Takarli's works, amongst them his great novel Al-Raj'a al-Ba'id ("The Far Return" 1980),(3) during a conference on the subject "Love, Marriage and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature," organized near Nijmegen in the Netherlands in April 1992. My paper, "Distant Echoes of Love in the Narrative Work of Fu'ad al-Tikirli" was published in the conference volume entitled Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature (London 1995).(4) In my article "Recent Developments of Modern Arabic Narrative and Dramatic Literature," published in the Supplemental Volume of the Grundriss der arabischen Philologie ("Outline of Arabic Philology") in 1992,(5) I gave my original understanding of the title as "The Distant Return" without knowing at that time the allusion to the Qur'an, Surat al-Qaf (50:3), which a Muslim perhaps already realizes: Wa idha mitna wa kunna turaban dhalika raj'un ba'id, "When we are dead and have become dust (shall we be brought back again)? That would be a far return!" This was a hint given to me by the author himself in a letter about two years ago.
This hidden symbolic meaning of the title makes the contents of the novel more lucid. It characterizes the events and moods of behavior depicted in it and the aims of the author and places them into the context of symbols included in this verse and the following verses of Surat al-Qaf. So certainly one has to understand that conditions of life and human relations like those depicted in this voluminous novel in a brilliant, many-layered and sensitive way should, if ever, return only in the very distant future. Fadil Thamir characterized this novel in a profound analysis as a "polyphonic novel of the highest artistic quality."(6) And when, after many complicated conflicts and events near the end of the novel, its female protagonist, Munira, utters in deep agony and resignation to 'Abd al-Karim, her cousin who loves her, "You're not weak, you're like me and everybody else here: you're sick, a mutilated person!" (anta mu insan 'ajiz, anta mithli wa mithlu kull nas huna: anta marid, insan mushawwah). This clearly connects with the title of the novel and the verses following verse 3 of Surat al-Qaf, verses about the beauty of God's creation and men's destruction of it. It reminds the reader of becoming dust after death, mentioned in the first half of the verse. Although al-Takarli is not a religious writer, he is, of course, molded by Islam and its linguistic symbols. The novel concludes that outdated social standards in connection with intolerable political conditions (the plot of the novel is situated in Baghdad during the last months of Qassem's regime in 1962/63) can destroy the individual. As long as a society is unable to free itself from its obsolete social traditions, it will be unable to organize a life of political freedom.(7)
Published first in Beirut in 1980 by Dar Ibn Rushd, The novel was again published in 1993 in Beirut by Dar al-Adab with slight revisions of the dialogues. They are written in Baghdadi dialect in the first edition and are somewhat approximated to the literary language in the second, understandably so because the author had lived outside Iraq for nearly thirteen years and was addressing a different "implied reader."
In the meantime the author has published two small volumes of Hiwariyyat, ("Dialogue-Plays"), or Masrahiyyat, ("Plays"). The first entitled Al-Sakhra ("The Rock"), 1986 in Baghdad, contains six Hiwariyyat; the second entitled Al-Kaff (literally "The Palm of the Hand"), in Tunis in 1995, contains five very short Masrahiyyat, or one-act-plays. These Masrahiyyat are very similar formally to the Hiwariyyat, but perhaps characterized as Masrahiyyat because they are published by the Dar Sihr li al-Nashr in its series Sihr al-Masrah. His rather small novel Khatam al-Raml (literally "The Ring of Sand"), which, in fact, must have the meaning of "Being Bound to a Deceased," appeared in Beirut in 1995.
While his short novel Al-Wajh Al-Akhar ("The Other Face") was republished in Tunis in 1993, his short stories were republished under the title of one of its stories, Mau 'id al-Nar ("An Appointment near the Fire"), in Tunis in 1991.(8) In comparison to his first collection, which was published under the title Al-Wajh Al-Akhar and contained both, "Al-Wajh Al-Akhar" and the short stories, this volume contains only the stories, but it is extended by three further stories, written in the Eighties in France. Two rather new short stories by the author were published in the literary journal Al-Adab, in Beirut in 1994, and in the London newspaper Al-Hayat in September 1996, the first entitled "Tatimma" ("Completion"), the second "Qashshat al-Hayat" ("Straw of Life").
The three new stories published in Mau'id al-Nar seem to be influenced by the author's living in a quite new environment, in exile. They, too, however, reveal his interest in unusual psychic conditions, but none of them deals with "the investigation of the dark side of sexuality," which Sabry Hafiz defines as the author's "main theme."(9) I would prefer here to speak of the ambiguity and tensions in gender relations.
The first one, entitled "Al-Azhar" ("The Flowers"),(10) finished in Paris in April 1984, is a narration of a nasty brawl between a man and his wife, which has a terrible end. The narrator is the husband and it becomes clear from the accusations of his wife that he married her because of her money. They have no children and she accuses him of being impotent and having destroyed the years of her youth, and is now playing the role of a casanova. The husband is the narrator in the first person singular, but when he speaks about his preparation to remove his wife, the author has him slip suddenly into the third person singular as if speaking about another person, like a man with a split personality. As they are on their way home, already quarrelling heavily, he enters a restaurant. Pretending to have to buy cigarettes, he asks some people to come to his flat. A little bit later, two big men knock at the door. The husband opens it and falsely warns them that his wife is concealing a knife under her clothes. As they attempt to forcibly take her out of the flat, she realizes her situation and sarcastically utters to her husband, "And I thought you would order me flowers!" In trying to free herself, her head is flung against the wall. The two men continue to push her violently toward the door, and leave the address of a hospital with the husband. It becomes apparent that the husband, who is the guilty one, has ordered his wife to be taken to a psychiatric hospital. In the third person singular, he confirms for himself that nobody would blame him because he had no choice except to let others die.
The symbolism in the second story, entitled "M. A. R. S.,"(11) finished in the same year, resembles some of his short plays, which I will discuss later. A man, who is the narrator, is driving his blue Toyota into the center of Baghdad, not far from his house, to buy for his little daughter a doll which she was said to have seen in the shop window. But when he comes to a certain square, from which eight streets go into different quarters and directions of the town, he is somewhat bewildered to see a street that he does not remember having seen before. He chooses the street he feels certain must be the one with the shop his daughter had mentioned. As a man who is born in the years after the Iraqi revolution in 1958 and who has experienced several terrible developments and happenings in the country, he is astonished that the street is dark and has no people. When he decides to turn his car, he is unable to do so. He finds himself in a dim mist and it seems to him as if his car is sinking slowly into a stifling gloom. But suddenly it stops in a totally dark place. He hears what seems to him to be a male voice speaking, but it doesn't seem to be a hostile creature. The man speaks mechanically, slowly and disjointedly, with an iron and scratchy voice. It becomes clear then that he has suddenly entered a strange, unknown world. After some investigation of this person and a dialogue with this voice, he recognizes a rather small bald-headed man with no hair on his face. The man seems to be naked, with a rubber coating over him and with a box tied around his waist. This man, after wondering about his Arabic dialect, explains that they are in the beginning of the second millennium after the atomic war that his contemporaries had fought, and that the hero's era has vanished long ago just as Baghdad had. Life is possible only beneath the earth in "M. A. R. S." People have become rats, the rats of mankind, living under the surface of the earth to protect themselves from death. They do not know light, do not know flowers, do not know fresh air. They have made some scientific progress, but cannot restore the earth as it was before. After being under the earth for hundreds of years, people have lost the enjoyment of life. For more than ten generations, mankind in its ratlike existence has been stricken by what came close to being another atomic war: they have even lost their desire for relationships with women. Everything has lost its meaning. All the wonders of art, books, and literature have been eaten by big rats. Almost ten generations ago, one generation nearly perished because of the number of suicides. Men lost everything. They became beasts that were raised to produce a certain amount of vital fluid, yet the women did not loose anything. Women now produce life by merely using the men. Men revolted several times, but without any results, they became hopeless.
However, women would be glad to find a man like the hero. The hero screams from fear and asks to be brought back to the surface of the earth, but he is told that the earth has perished and the people beneath the earth are submitting him to an investigation to be sure that he is not polluted with deadly rays. The hero begins to weep. But then he hears a rustle, and a light brightens. A female voice full of joy asks him what the whisperer of death had said to him. He recognizes in a crystalline mist a smiling seductive woman in a transparent cloth who threatens the man with whom he had spoken. She turns to him, apologizing for the mistake that happened in welcoming him and graciously and seductively receives him in "this happy town." Although it becomes clear from what she says to the man that his testimony was right, she declares to the visiting hero that all which he had been told was wrong, and that they suffer from many people having mental diseases. Feeling and fearing her growing seductiveness, he asks her to take him back to his wife and his daughter in Baghdad and explains that he only wanted to buy a doll for his daughter. Astonished, she asks, "You gave birth to a child?" She urges him to trust her as the responsible person there. The man with whom the hero had spoken is still standing there and warmly bids him farewell from M. A. R. S., which now is explained by him as Al-Madina allati rahala 'anha al-surur ("The town from which joy has departed"), and disappears. The seductive woman pulls him gently, whispering, "Come!" He recognizes her perfume. This somewhat misogynistic utopian story about the collapse of the world and the time thereafter may be influenced by European models and also can be read in non-Arabic parts of the world. But the sudden transfer of the hero from an existing square in Baghdad to the world under the surface of the earth, that existed for many generations after the last atomic war and the destruction of the earth, including Baghdad, is somewhat perplexing.
The last story in this volume, entitled "Dhaka al-Nida'" ("That Call"),(12) was finished in August 1985. Here the hero is the narrator, too. The story begins with the hero suddenly finding in a puddle on a Paris avenue a wet fifty Franc banknote, which he rapidly stuffs into his pocket. It becomes clear that the narrator is a poor beggar without a flat or even a room or a small place for himself, sleeping in the streets or in the Bois de Bologne, and indeed is glad to find a bit of bread in the garbage bin. Passers-by do not care at all for a person like him, even when he complains to them that he will die of hunger. So he decides not to buy even a little bit of bread, remaining hungry all the time, but instead will have one meal he can normally only dream of - a piece of chicken breast and a cold beer and afterwards some sweets in a fast-food restaurant. He describes how he goes to the Jardin du Luxembourg by the metro without buying a ticket and how he, again and again, admires the new glassy telephone-booths, which he circles around. From a dialogue with an old cynic beggar whom he despises, although he is actually the only person who cares for him, it becomes evident that he is of Iraqi origin. He has to pay more than thirty-one Francs for his meal and chooses a table for four persons near the telephones. Suddenly, while enjoying his meal, an old man and his wife, whom he rightly regards to be tourists from the United States, ask him whether they could join him at this table. He agrees and the man kindly begins to ask him where he is from, how he is living, and whether he has a family. He tells them that he came from Iraq and has been living in Paris for a long time. He explains that he came here, originally, for only a few days, but has been here now for many years and that time may be running out for him to live here much longer, at the edge of time with no place or country. The American does not quite understand this, but when the man asks him about his family, he tells the American that some time ago while sitting at his desk on a sad autumn afternoon, he received a call from his wife. She asked him how he was; he asked her where she was now, but she gave no answer to his question. She promised to call him again but he has been waiting for her call ever since. He had to sell everything, but in the end he was driven from his flat and his telephone was disconnected. The tourist kindly asks him where his wife lives and he eventually has to admit that she died before he came to France. The couple look perplexed and abruptly start to go, leaving their meals on the table before him. The hero considers taking the leftovers with him for his next hungry day and reflects on fast-food restaurants, which sometimes have agreeable meals and nice company, but one has to be careful when choosing a meal.
This moving story about the fate of an Iraqi emigrant in Paris whose only hope in his wretched life is the call he is waiting for from his dead wife. She seems to be his sole connection with human beings. The story seems to be a despairing mental play about the possible ending of an emigrant's life.
A short story consisting mainly of a long telephone conversation with a terrible end, characterized by the author as "Mahzala fi Hiwar" ("A Comedy in a Dialog"), was published in Al-Adab in 1994 under the title "Tatimma" ("Completion").(13) Here a theatrical director jokingly reveals to a friend of his, who is another leading director, about a dream he had had the night before. In it he, acting as Prime Minister, with a cabinet of 5 other acquaintances lead a revolt. A traffic constable from the next corner was his Minister of Defense; a scribe of petitions in his office was his Minister of Justice; a man with a veil over his face, who did not want to speak lest somebody could recognize him, was the Minister of Interior; and an Armenian street photographer who did not know Arabic very well was the Minister of Propaganda and Photography, and so on. His narrative is interrupted constantly by his laughter, or better yet, by the author's commenting yadhaq ("he laughs"). For him it seems to have been a funny dream. His interlocutor asks him about the reality or the background of dreams, but he stresses that dreams are dreams, no more. Then he returns to read his files. After some time he hears noisy voices from outside his room. When he orders his clerk to bring him some tea, a group of armed men wearing khakis enter the room. One of the men first threatens to have him siezed and then shot. The leader of the group phones to another person explaining that they have captured all of them except the Minister of Interior. So the man realizes that they "blended things" and utters sarcastically to his clerk who is protesting, "Behave yourself! That is nothing but the completion of a dream, Khamis!"
The heroes of his short story "Qashshat al-Hayat" ("A Straw of Life"), published in the London newspaper Al-Hayat in September 1996, are Iraqi emigrants, too. An Arab couple, living abroad in another Arabic country, recognizes that an elegant young lady is staring fixedly at the husband. She follows them in such a way that the wife becomes jealous, but the husband seems unconcerned. Eventually, the young lady dares to address them in a restaurant, or rather addresses the husband, who pretends, however, not to know her when she introduces herself to him as a former neighbor who played as a child near his parents' house in Baghdad. She tells him that she remembers her early childhood in Baghdad like a far away dream, but thinks she must have been kidnapped as a child during holidays with her family in another country. From that time on she has spent her life with a very wealthy family in another Arab country, a family who pretend to be her own and who care for her a lot, but who watch her constantly. The Arab couple realizes that in the beginning this lady who addressed them had been accompanied by a man in livery. She asks the man to help her regain her identity, to confirm her memories, but he remains very cool and rebuffs her. Disappointed and full of despair, she leaves them, and it becomes clear by the words to his wife, who regards the lady as probably a lunatic, that he does actually recognize her and remembers her story. But he feels she had found her luck in her wealthy new family, that no doubt she is better off being a member of this family. What becomes evident is a certain calousness in the behavior of the couple. Resulting perhaps from their own unhappy fate, there seems to be little interest in careing for a person who needs their help and whom they could help.
While the novel Khatam al-Raml deals in a gripping and compressed way with psychic problems and the difficulties which ensue under special social circumstances, the majority of the Hiwariyyat or Masrahiyyat reveals what is stated in the title of my paper. I do not know whether either of the plays has ever been staged. They seem to be written for being read more than for being staged, but this does not mean that they are unfit for the stage. The contents of most of them may be regarded or explained as highly explosive, although they are shaped surreally or at least symbolically.
I will concentrate here on those which I consider to be the most important and the best. In the title-play Al-Sakhra (The Rock) a big blue-grey rock stands floor to ceiling in the middle of a room in the house of a man named Muntazir Rahmat Allah ("Waiting for God's Mercy"). Muntazir Rahmat Allah sits in an armchair to the left of this rock while five of his neighbors sit willfully and vexedly on the right side of it on a mastaba, a wooden bench. According to the stage directions, they must fall down to the ground when speaking after every rigorous motion they perform. It becomes clear from the following dialogue that the rock suddenly sprang up into existence in the center of the house of Muntazir Rahmat Allah and is growing so quickly that Muntazir now asks his neighbors for help. They, too, like the "hero," are characterized by their profession or attitude, rather than by names. That means they are conceived by the author as types, not as individuals. They are The Engineer (Al-Jar al-Muhandis), The Artist (Al-Jar al-Fannan), The Planner (Al-Jar al-Mukhattit), The Scholar (Al-Jar al-Alim), and The Neighbor Who Understands Everything (Al-Jar Alladhi Yafham Kulla Shay'). The surrealistic character of the play is stressed by the date given in the beginning, a date which is mixed between the Muslim and the secular names of the months and a nonexistent calendar day, the 32nd min Hayzuran ath-thani or ab al-awwwal. The characters exchange some rather vain ideas about how to handle the rock, ideas which characterize the different persons and their positions: The Artist's consideration of carving it and his self-complacent stress on the importance of arts; the rather unrealistic consideration on the part of The Scholar about making a chemical analysis of the rock; the repeated stress on the importance of law by The Neighbor Who Understands Everything; the (fruitless) attempt to leave, because of the uselessness of the presence and participation by The Planner; the polite consolation by The Engineer who hints at the huge number of his tasks that sometime exceed the narrow regional events and stresses that this difficulty is a quite individual one for The Neighbor Who Waits (or has to wait) for God's Mercy.
Muntazir agrees with this opinion, which is shared by the others, too, but explains his call for their help. He had lived with his family, as all the others did, a life free from care and sorrow in which death was something for other people, not for him, till suddenly one morning when he entered this room, he saw this black plague in the middle of his house. At first he tried to live with this uninvited monster that had appeared in his reception room. He paints it the same cheery, bright colors as the furniture in this room, but every night the rock would lose these colors. Then he emptied the room of all its beautiful furniture, closed the windows to the world outside, painted the walls the same color as the rock, and prepared himself for an exceptional battle. He told himself that this was only a rock, without any life, any emotion and any thought, similar in this respect to some people, though this rock was not even recognized as a beast. He tried to destroy it with an axe while his wife took two pictures, one before and one after his first stroke of the axe. But the rock, or the creature which took the shape of a rock, withstood every attempt to destroy it. More than that, every square centimeter he chipped off in the evening grew tenfold by the next morning.
While his neighbors are shocked, he tells them what this means: total loss, the ruin not only for him but for all of them. Then his wife remembers the existence of an electric saw, but when he begins working with it, the palpitation of a clock could be heard from inside the rock like the palpitation of a time bomb, a palpitation which came from nowhere and everywhere. The Man Who Waits for God's Mercy then defines the rock as everything black in human existence, everything that is evil, non-human, against life, as sickness, ugliness, crime and perfidy, as "everything that we do not want but that is existent between us" (p. 18). Finally, after some helplessness, The Scholar, whispering, suggests using the strongest force of power available to destroy it, dynamite. The Planner, after refusing The Artist's objection that this might become very ugly, recommends a scientific way to solve the problems, i.e., to use a medium quantity of dynamite. But, of course, The Man Who Waits for God's Mercy protests against this proposal, too, because he does not want to lose his house. He warns his neighbors against the possibility that their houses, too, could be threatened by the same misfortune after the destruction of the rock and his house.
When he remembers the electric saw and reminds them of the shortness of time, some of them suddenly again hear the tick of the hidden clock. The Engineer regards it as the beating of his heart. The neighbors whisper and gesticulate. The Planner hears the stroke become stronger and faster and begins screaming. All the neighbors leave the stage running. The Man Who Waits for God's Mercy remains alone on the stage, commenting on the behavior of the others: in spite of his best efforts, they had found the only solution which he had tried to prevent them from finding. He deplores, "What a kind of free wretched (unhappy) people they are!" Then he again turns to the rock asking it, "Rock of ruin, shall we begin the battle again?" The last stage order describes him as standing there heedlessly while the strokes of the clock become stronger and end some moments after the ringing down of the curtain.
A handwritten remark by the author ends this short play with "Baghdad, 1968." This remark can be interpreted, of course, in different ways. The big rock must not, in any case, be the symbol of political pressure, but perhaps is more of a danger that threatens even death, which can be defined in different ways. What remains, after sophisticated and sharp dialogues, is the impression of the helplessness of men, their carelessness lest they are afflicted personally, their inability to come to a necessary decision.
A second play in this volume is full of highly-developed political symbolism. "Al-Tauf' ("The Journey"), finished in Baghdad in 1969, is a play with six characters, as is revealed by the information given under the title. Each character's name is respresentative, like the protagonists in the former play: The Aristocratic Young Man, The Digger of Wells, The Curious Person, The Unknown Person, The Fighter, and The Second Unknown Person. The stage directions describe the scene as a sky, an ocean and a boat, and seven (not six!) persons in it. Two of them, The Unknown and The Digger of Wells, have their hands bound together and their mouths muffled, lying at one side of the boat. The seventh character, who is not mentioned on the title page of the short play, is Sahib al-Minzar, The One with the Telescope. He is standing in the middle of the boat, and The Young Aristocrat stands besides him trying to peer in the direction to which The Owner of the Telescope turns his spyglass. While The Fighter walks slowly to and fro, all the others are talking, but it seems as if everyone is speaking only to themselves. The Young Aristocrat asks The One with the Telescope to let him look through it to see the world, to give him some hope and make him happy. But The One with the Telescope only asks, "Who says that I am happy?" and does not give The Young Aristocrat the glass, stressing his own heavy burdens that do not allow him to be glad and hopeful.
It becomes clear from the following dialogue that the characters in the boat have escaped from an exploding steamer and that The Fighter promises to bring them to "the coast of safety" on the condition that they all stick together and help him. Water and bread are abundant for all of them, he stresses. He swears that he will not give an order to chain any other people than the two who are already in chains, the two who were considered a danger for all of them. Most of his windy rhetorical phrases are questioned by The Curious and The Second Unknown Person. The Curious utters an urgent wish to relieve nature near The Digger of Wells, but The Fighter implores him to wait. In this way and with phrases well-known from political demagogues, uttered by The Fighter, such as the appeal "Belief! Total Belief in Our Just Cause!" The Curious One takes a muzzle from the mouth of The Unknown One, who immediately begins crying "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! 0 you Infidels and Atheists!" By order of The Fighter his mouth is quickly muffled again. The Fighter eventually proposes to the others to tie up and muffle The Second Unknown One because he is a danger to all of them. The only one who does not accept this and tries to defend him is The Aristocratic Young Man. But The Fighter shouts at him to stay in his place, to stay within his limits. "The evaluation of a position and the decision about the destiny of traitors is amongst our special tasks," he explains. Finally, The Aristocratic Young Man, after repeated questions, takes the telescope from The One With the Telescope only to find to his great astonishment that it has no lenses. "Only a symbol, a symbol to deceive us!" he cries. The One with the Telescope asks who said that it must have lenses and The Second Unknown One only comments ironically, "Wherefore might we need them?" When The Aristocratic Young Man utters the suspicion that they will never reach shore and will never see their beloved relatives again, The Fighter distrustfully asks him about his relatives, and he confesses that his mother is a foreigner. This arouses the mistrust not only of The Fighter, but of even The Curious One and of The Second Unknown One. Suddenly The Fighter proposes to tie up The Aristocratic Young Man and The Second Unknown One, but the latter urges The Fighter to give an explanation for this. Finally, however, The Second Unknown One unmuffles The Digger of the Well, while the others are sitting or lying carelessly in other places. The Digger of the Well asks to be untied, too, so that he might regain his former strength to give every person his right. The Aristocratic Young Man asks him how he will do this, and he answers that he will dig his wells, and so every person will become rich. But he urges them to untie him, to free him. Then he begins to boast and to prattle so that he reminds The Second Unknown One of some predecessors and thus begins to doubt The Digger of the Well. Eventually, however, he frees him. Now The Digger of the Well begins to work with a white axe with a brilliant blade which he picked up from nowhere. He begins to dig to the bottom of the boat while most of the others are sleeping.
The author himself has given the date of finishing this rather transparently symbolic play as 1969, but some of the phrases and cliches refer to those of the First Gulf War, especially the word ma'raka, "battle." The Digger of the Well, on the other hand, is the symbol which I consider the biggest danger of the Communists, bigger than The Fighter, who will bring unrealistic ideas and the rapid destruction and ruin of everything. This seems to refer to an earlier time.
Here, as in the first-mentioned play and in most of the others collected in these two anthologies, using concise and appropriate dialogue and sparse stage directions, al-Takarli shows his ability to categorize typical human behaviour in special situations and under conditions of political pressure.
All of the short plays in his second volume Al-Kaff ("The Palm of the Hand")(14) are written, according to the information given by the author, between 1989 and 1992. In their economic and dexterous depiction of human behavior, which is done here by "speaking names," they are an astonishing mixture of surrealism and realism.
The title-play "Al-Kaff,"(15) which is perhaps better translated as "The Hand of a Child," depicts an upsetting situation in the time of the First Gulf War in Baghdad. The recent inhabitants of a house hear a terrible agonizing scream, like the howl of a wolf, which they cannot explain. So they go to the flat of a middle-aged couple immediately beneath the roof from where the howl can be heard every morning. 'Abd al-Sahib, who did not hear anything, does not understand why he is disturbed before daybreak by his neighbors. But when the cry starts, they cautiously climb up to the roof to find a neighbor of theirs, 'Abd al-Hamid, a man about fifty, standing there, near the edge of the roof, howling in this terrible way. When they ask him the reason for this howling, he rejects them harshly. Therefore, they all leave except 'Abd al-Sahib and his wife. 'Abd al-Sahib tries intelligently to soothe him, to understand the reason for his behavior and, eventually, he discovers that the man has lost his whole family during the last few weeks except for "a little hand, polluted with ink." This little hand had tried to write to "the biggest supervisor" that he should stop all these cruelties. But now he has even lost this little hand and does not want to live anymore. 'Abd al-Sahib tries again and again to convince the man to give up his plan and to try to persevere because they all must stand together. Otherwise he would end up going to "the biggest supervisor" to congratulate him and to bow submissively to his ideas and activities. It is evident who must be "the biggest supervisor." 'Abd al-Sahib eventually takes two steps in the direction of his neighbors, "and the light of the dawn reveals three persons facing each other in shabby clothes." The meaning of the title, which includes also "refraining, desistance," gives the moving play a deeper sense. The theophoric names, especially that of "Slave of the Praiseworthy," the man who lost his whole family, seem to be chosen deliberately.
"La'bat al-Ahlam" ("The Game of Dreams," 1989)(16) seems to me a highly explosive political satire, directed against a special, very important and well-known person. It consists of a short prologue containing the stage directions, a dialogue between two men, and the depiction of the place. It is "The office of the wealthy parvenu job-manager (or 'man of actions') 'Abd al-Maujud ('The slave of the existent'), crowded with splendid furniture and carpets, with big mirrors on the walls and many colored telephones on the desk. There are sculptures everywhere and pictures on the walls which do not betray a good taste." 'Abd al-Maujud is characterized as a man over fifty, small and fat, waiting for something or somebody. He picks up the receiver of the ringing telephone. He does not answer at first when his female secretary wants to speak with him, but then allows her to introduce a visitor whom he had expected, Kazim al-Bahlawan ("Kazim the Tightrope Walker") is characterized by his first name as an Iraqi Shi'ite, e.g., he belongs to the majority of the Iraqi population and is from the lower social layers. Kazim likewise as a word makes the allusion to kazama ghayzahu "to conceal his fury." From the dialogue between them it becomes evident that they know each other from former times or at least that 'Abd al-Maujud had known the identity of his visitor before he had invited him. They both had worked in a Beauty Club, the visitor as a cleaning person. 'Abd al-Maujud, according to his former name which he mentions to his visitor,(17) was responsible for the connections and the enticement of the customers. The visitor is now the director of a big "Institution for Human Services" while 'Abd al-Maujud is the director of a huge "Company for Unworn Clothes," which is in fact a company that sells used clothes as new ones. The director boasts of his being the wealthiest man in the country, of his being the big chief of innumerable companies, of his merciless behavior towards his former enemies, the majority of whom he had killed, and of his ability to convince people of things that are untrue. He reveals to his visitor the most important dream of his life from his early childhood on, a dream which he sometimes fears will cause him to die, but which he characterizes as normal and not very unusual. He experiences once in his life a huge crowd of journalists who are enthusiastically clapping for him in appreciation and admiration as he enters the big hall and takes his seat before them. His visitor asks 'Abd al-Maujud whether he wants to preside before real journalists, a question which he affirms, and he adds that he wants microphones, photographers, bright lights, and cameras to produce a video-film about his presentation.
But Kazim al-Bahluwan warns him: he could arrange everything for an adequate amount of money. The difficulty would be that real journalists would ask real questions and that he would have to give answers to them. It could happen that an unimportant journalist would enter the room incidentally and ask him before this huge public audience in front of the cameras, "Who are you?" And then everything would be over. The big 'Abd al-Maujud would burst like a soap bubble. 'Abd al-Maujud does not seem to understand why the other wants to destroy the dream of his life, why he characterizes him as the one who flees from himself. And, finally, when Kazim wants to leave, before becoming mad, he speaks about the bill he will send to 'Abd al-Maujud, and draws a big revolver and shoots. It is known from German history during the Nazi-rule and then again, in Eastern Germany, beginning from the Fifties, that vain political spectacles like the one described here, are to be arranged, have been arranged with vast, applauding audiences. But the short play ridicules in a bitter and impressive way "the big dictator." Al-Takarli's short plays, in my opinion, in their dense and economic way of presenting appropriately explosive political and social situations, accomplish what the Syrian dramatist Sa'dallah Wannus described in the beginning of the Seventies as Masrah al-Tasyis ("Theater leading to political awareness").(18)
His last novel, Khatam al-Raml ("The Ring of Sand"), published in Beirut in 1993, is much shorter than Al-Raj'a al-Ba'id and deals with psychosocial problems rather than with political ones. But I would not characterize it, as the Iraqi critic, 'Ali Jawad al-Tahir, does in his review in the Baghdad newspaper Al-Thawra, as a non-Iraqi or non-Arabic novel.(19) Similar to the Najib Mahfuz' novel Al-Sarab ("Fata Morgana"), published in 1948, its male protagonist feels himself bound so much to his mother that he is unable to love a young woman. But the novel does not seem to be influenced by that of Najib Mahfuz. The problems depicted here, the way in which they are depicted, and the figure of the young man all greatly differ from those in Al-Sarab. The plot is situated in Baghdad in the early Seventies and is narrated from the point of view of Hashim, a successful architect in his early thirties. Like the heroes in the short stories analyzed above, he tells the story himself.
But through flashbacks of his childhood, especially of his beloved mother who died when he was nine, and dialogues with other people, especially his mother's older brother, Ra'uf, Hashim reveals to the reader differing points of view and outlooks on life. With an artistic mingling of chronological layers of the immediate past and what happened years ago, these memories and conversations reveal step by step why Hashim did not appear at the celebration of his betrothal, but instead left his young fiance, the educated daughter of a well-to-do-family, alone. He also left her family, as well as his own family, without any explanation, without any excuse.
Not until the middle of the novel does the reader learn that on that rainy afternoon Hashim left everybody under the pretext of picking up his uncle. However, he never did so. As he got into his car, Hashim suddenly wanted to drive to the cemetery to visit the grave of his mother, and he remained there until late in the night, even during a cold, pouring rain.
Hashim believed his father was responsible for his mother's early death because, as a child, he had witnessed ugly scenes between his parents. He knew his father was an aggressive man, one who tormented his beloved, loving and tender mother and eventually killed her during such a quarrel. But his uncle, his mother's older brother, informed him that his mother had been ill from her early childhood on, and that after his birth, she rejected any relationship with her husband, including their conjugal relationship. What seems to me quite unintelligible is Hashim's refusal to give his fiance her freedom in spite of urgent requests from her family and in spite of long talks with her cousin, a young woman physician who aroused Hashim's sexual interest. Since he did not honor this intelligible request, he first receives death threats of a car accident and is badly beaten by people unknown to him. They evidently belonged to the family of his fiance, or, as the physician told him, to the clan of a man who was interested in marrying his fiance. Finally, he is killed by these people.
The author describes a growing social pressure, presented in a quite understandable perspective of those creating the pressure, but it contrasts, for example, with the social pressure on the young hero in al-Takarli's story "Al-Tariq ila al-Madina" ("The Way to the Town"), exercised by the mother and her sister. They force him to kill his sister because the girl is supposed to have lost her virginity before marriage. Here the reader feels the pain of the young man, who does not understand why he should be the murderer of his sister. The young hero in Khatam al-Raml, however, seems not to care about his fiancee whom he wronged. He does not care about the threatening pressure, about his life being in danger because of his own guilt. He does not care about other people at all, therefore, finally, he has to die.
The author tells a rather exciting story about the psychogram of a young egotist, including his image in the mirror of other critical persons whose opinions the reader shares - an egotist whose profession is designing houses for happy families. His life style, certainly, is influenced by existentialist ideas. But in France and every other European country, a woman in this situation has the possibility and the ability, more than that, the human right to break the engagement with her fiance. Even according to Islamic Family Law, to the Shari'a, a woman has the right to ask the court for a divorce when her husband refuses to have sexual contact and rejects the common life they have shared for a long time, if this can be proven as easily as is the case here. The marriage had never been consummated and everyone was able to confirm this. But perhaps this psychological constriction of an exciting plot, narrated in a very economic and skillful way, stresses its uncanny character and makes the psychogram more attractive.
And when 'All Jawad al-Tahir claims that this novel is not Arabic, I am reminded of an anthropological investigation performed by a French author in North Africa, Camille Lacoste-Dujardin's "Mothers Against Women: Matriarchy in the Maghreb,"(20) which concludes that the only heterosexual, psychic relationship possible in North Africa is that between mother and son. In Khatam al-Raml it is an insoluable psychic tie that leads, finally, to the death of the son.
Fu'ad al-Takarli, according to a letter he wrote to me some months ago, is about to finish his next novel, which he hopes to publish in London. One should expect to see a continuation of this critical and skillful literary discourse.
1. Qadisiyyat Saddam was the term used by Iraqi newspapers and journals to define the First Gulf War, alluding to the battle of Qadisiyya, near Hira, in the year 636 (?) in which the Arab conquerors defeated a Sasanid army, which opened to them the rule over Western Iraq and Iran.
2. The names of the members of the jury are to be found and, the examples being regarded as the best in this competition, can be studied in numbers of the Iraqi literary-cultural journal Al-Aqlam ("The Pens") from 1980/1981.
3. French translation "Les voix de l'Aube" (Paris, 1985).
4. Edited by Roger Allan, Hilary Kilpatrick and Ed de Moor (Saqi Books), pp. 131-39. The title of my article "Distant Echoes of Love in the Narrative Work of Fu'ad al-Tikirli" was formulated by the editors, not by me, perhaps because they considered it more fitting to the title of the volume than the title I gave to my paper originally, which spoke of love and sexuality under political pressure, and, certainly, because none of the editors has ever known a totalitarian political system as I did when living for many years in the German Democratic Republic (although there were, of course, differences between the living conditions in East Germany and in Iraq under Qassem). Besides this I consider that none of the editors had, really, read the novel.
I did not know then that al-Takarli pronounces and writes his name this way, not at-Tikirli (for which I decided after the consultation of a Turkish dictionary). One reason for this formulation of the title of my paper by the editors must have been that I translated the title Al-Raj'a al-Ba'id as "The Distant Echo," because I had read this translation or explanation somewhere.
5. Edited by Wolfdietrich Fischer (Wiesbaden, 1992), pp. 209-42, esp. p. 233.
6. Cf. "Al-Raj'a al-Ba'id: dhirwat al-saugh al-fanni li al-riwaya muta'addidat al-aswat," in his book Al-Sawt al-Akhar (Baghdad, 1996), pp. 79-93. I am very much obliged to my friend Najm M. Mustafa from Iraq, living for many years in Hanau, who provides me with articles like this one and others from Iraqi or Arabic newspapers and journals and also provides me with books from Iraq which are not extant in the Tubingen University Library, although it has become an excellent library for Arabic and Islamic studies since about 1970.
Cf. also Fadil Thamir's articles mentioned here about al-Takarli's stories, are printed originally in the journal Al-Aqlam and then in the volume Fi Ishkaliyyat al-Naqd wa al-Hadatha wa al-Ibda', (Baghdad, 1987).
7. Cf. Walther, op. cit., pp. 138-9.
8. 197 pp. There had already been a reissue newly edited of the whole collection under the title Al-Waj al-Akhar in Baghdad in 1982.
9. In his article "The Modern Arabic Short Story," in M. M. Badawi (ed.), The Cambridge History of Modern Arabic Literature (Cambridge, 1992) p. 321.
10. Mau'id al-Nar, pp. 165-70.
11. Ibid., pp. 171-84.
12. Ibid., pp. 185-97.
13. Al-Adab 11/12 (1994), pp. 19-21.
14. Pp. 117.
15. Al-Kaff, pp. 15-42.
16. Ibid., 43-59.
17. "Judi Abu Linkat" which I suppose can be explained as derived from the feminine imperative judi "Be openhanded, lady!" and the English word "link" with the Arabic plural; i.e., a kunya-name in the meaning "Father of Connections" to characterize the man as likewise versatile and corrupt.
18. Cf. My article "Machtspiele: Von der Humoreske zum masrah attasyis. 'Die Geschichte vom erwachten Schlafer' and Sa'dallah Wannus' Al-Malik huwa al-malik," in C. C. Burgel, S. Guth (eds.), Gesellschaftlicher Umbruch und Historie im zeitgenossischen Drama der Islamischen Welt, Beirut 1995, p. 281-95.
19. From 9 October 1995.
20. Original title in French "Des meres contre les femmes"; German title "Matter gegen Frauen. Mutterherrschaft im Maghreb" (Zurich, 1990).
Allen, Roger, Hilary Kilpatrick, and Ed de Moor. Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature. London: Al-Saqi Books, 1995.
Al-Tahir, Ali Jawad. Al-Thara. (Baghdad) October 9, 1995.
Al-Takarli, Fu'ad. Al-Wajh al-Akhar.
-----. Al-Kaff. 1989-92.
-----. "Tatimma." Al-Adab (Beirut) no. 11/12 (1994): 19-22.
Lacoste-Dujardin, Camille. "Des meres contre les femmes." (Zurich, 1990).
Sabri, Hafiz. "Modern Arabic Short Story" in Modern Arabic Literature. Ed. M. M. Badawi. London: Cambridge, 1992.
Thamir, Fadhil. Al-Saut al-Akhar. Baghdad: n. p., 1996.
Walther, Wiebke. "Machtspiele: Von der Humoreske zum masrah at-tasy_s. 'Die Geschichte vom erwachten Schlafer' and Sa'dall_h Wann_s' Al-Malik huwa l-malik," in C. C. Burgel, S. Guth (eds.), Gesellschaftlicher Umbruch und Historie im zeitgenossischen Drama der Islamischen Welt, Beirut 1995, p. 281-95.
-----. "Recent Developments of Modern Arabic Narrative and Dramatic Literataure." Supplemental Volume of the Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, 1992,
Wiebke Walther is an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Tubingen, Germany. She has published extensively in German and English. She does research on Islam, Iraq and has published, among numerous publications, Die Frau im Islam.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Modern Iraqi Literature in English Translation|
|Publication:||Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
|Previous Article:||Nazik al-Mala'ika's poetry and its critical reception in the West.|
|Next Article:||Stirring words: traditions and subversions in the poetry of Muzaffar al-Nawwab.|