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Chapter 8: A Thousand and One Nights
Translated by Phoebe Bay Carter.
Once upon a time there was, or there wasn’t, a kindhearted individual named Jawad. One morning, he awoke to find himself transformed, as though possessed by demons, into a monster – a filthy, unwelcome monster. Once upon a time, there was a kindhearted individual named Jawad who gave up his dreams and ambitions in order to provide for his family, who knew precisely when he would die, and knew he would die for his family’s sake.
The day following his metamorphosis, Jawad awoke to his mother’s scream and the clatter of her incense holder hitting the ground. He opened his eyes and saw fear etched into her wrinkly face and a sea of pain in her eyes. Frightened, he sat up. He wiped his hands furiously on his pajamas. He was relieved when the blood came off and he realized it was not his own, but then was all the more frightened by the thought of where the blood might have come from.
His head ached terribly. He pressed his fists into his temples and closed his eyes. Then he wrapped his arms around his head, curled his knees up to his face, and let himself fall sideways onto the bed. It took all his might not to cry out in pain. He bit his lip to silence himself and began shaking and trembling. Several minutes went by before the seizure stopped as suddenly as it had started. He lay on his back, face covered in sweat, spittle dripping down his cheeks. He noticed broth stains on his pants but had no memory of the meal they’d come from. In fact, he realized he could remember nothing at all that had happened after yesterday morning’s events.
He saw Hind coming, so he sat upright again and pulled the covers over himself. She entered and deposited his breakfast by the door. Then she drew the curtains to let in the fresh breeze and sprayed the air with perfume. He could sense her racing heart and bated breath, and how she gulped in air as soon as she left. He didn’t try to speak to her or interfere. He did try to produce a word of thanks when she reached the door, but it came out too late, after she’d already left and closed the door.
The rest of Jawad’s days will pass in much the same way. He will awake to find he can remember nothing beyond the morning hours of the previous day. Everything he did after that will have vanished from his memory completely. Yet he awakes in the morning exhausted, as though he’s spent the night performing manual labor. Sometimes he wakes up wearing clothes he has no memory of putting on, or finds strange marks and scratches on his hands that he couldn’t possibly have gotten without leaving the house. And yet, he’s sure he hasn’t even left his bedroom.
Despite the cloud of mystery hanging about him, he is sometimes filled with a feeling of blissful calm. He begins to feel a new kind of freedom. This newfound freedom from his responsibilities to his family leaves him as light as a butterfly in springtime, flitting from flower to perfumed flower. But such thoughts are always followed by guilt, and he casts them aside whenever he sees his mother’s grief and exhaustion, plodding from faqih to quack faqih. Or whenever his sister returns from work after their father forbade her from attending her university classes. From his room, he sees the harassment she endures at the café – how one day a customer ogled the youthful breasts peeking out of her work uniform, and how that same customer, just before leaving, wrote his number on a blue bank note and tucked it into her cleavage. He swore he would cut off those fingers that had felt up his sister’s chest. That night, he dreamed he did just that. Another day, he saw a customer grab the waitress’s ass and then laugh, as though he were just having fun with her. So he promised to cut off that hand, and he had no doubt he really would.
It pained him to see what his sister endured, though he was sometimes plagued by the nagging thought that she was somehow bringing these situations upon herself. But then he would push that thought away and recall his graceful, kind sister – the nimble butterfly, the diligent student, the promising writer. Suddenly he remembered her latest short story, which she’d given him to read and give his opinion on. That had been before his curse made him forget all about it. He got up excitedly and retrieved the story from his desk drawer. He contemplated the title for a moment – “the Sands War”  – and then started reading:
We heard the gunshot and watched us fall.
We had spent the night out in the open, wrapped in a blanket of stars, under the icy desert sky. We were in a race against time, building the wall of sand day and night and we watched ourselves from the other side day and night building the wall of sand.
We came from the University of Oran and we came from Mohammed V University. We came sporting our lieutenant’s badges from the Royal Military Academy we came sporting our lieutenant’s badges from the Combined Arms Military School we volunteered from the streets of Annaba and Rabat and Setif and Tlemcen and Fes and Marrakesh we were taken by force from our houses in Tangier and Tetouan and Kasantina and Batna and Agadir.
It was our first day here and the sun’s thorns scratched our still-tender skin. It was our fifth year here and the sun tanned our faces and the desert cracked our palms and the sand tilled furrows in the soles of our feet.
We grew feverish and vomited through the night. We vomited when the mines exploded and sent our feet flying we vomited when our bullets hit our hearts we vomited when we buried our bodies left behind by their souls we vomited when we ate our expired foods we vomited when the scorpions stung us and snakes bit us.
We grew feverish and stayed up all night shivering. We shivered when our fingers touched the cold of our guns for the first time we shivered when we touched them for the tenth time and did not feel their cold.
We talked about our sweethearts waiting in the college auditoriums our pregnant wives waiting in our parents’ houses our sleepless mothers whispering prayers in the night to the creator of night and day to return us to them in one piece. We talked about Camus and al-Bayati and al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Malaika and Bint al-Shati’ and al-Aqqad and Taha Hussein. We talked about makes and models and horsepower. We talked about football and hashish and dominoes and card games in the sleepless cafes by night.
We stood there laughing stood there crying stood there bruised stood there hoping stood there praying. We stood there as we fired our bullets and fell. One moment we were standing there the next fell to the ground. We pulled a single lever and the body fell all at once. It was and then it wasn’t.
We grabbed a fistful of sand and let it run through our fingers like a mirage we fixed our eyes on the red twilight into the sun drowning in her own blood.
We said we would finish our studies when the war was over said we would return to our fields and to our mothers’ breast and the alleyway gossip we said we would get our degrees at the finest military colleges in England and America said we would go back to start our own businesses we would go back and write a book about the ugliness of war and poems about the savagery of war and short stories about the absurdity of war that would begin at the moment we heard the shot and watched us fall and would end with us scattering before the sinking sun a fistful of sand slipping from our fingers.
He read her story quickly, then went back to the beginning and read it again. He wasn’t usually so inclined towards stories that waded into experimentalism and drowned themselves in symbolism. But here, he thought the topic called for this kind of expression. The chaos of war. Wars without winners or losers. Wars without angels or devils. Everyone loses, aside from those few who trade in the misery of others, amassing wealth and climbing the rungs of power.
He set down the story and closed his eyes with a sigh. He’d brought his sister whatever books she wanted, and several months ago he’d begun setting aside part of his own savings to be able to register her in a novel-writing workshop. He’d been planning it as a gift for her next birthday. But the winds don’t follow the ships’ desires.
Once upon a time there was, or there wasn’t, a kindhearted young man named Jawad who turned into a hairy, monkey-like dwarf and was locked in his room, which he believed he had not left since the curse had struck him.
Most of the mornings he could recall were the same: he opens his eyes and checks his extremities to see if anything has changed. Three months go by and nothing does. Not even a single hair grows longer on his abundantly hairy body. He retrieves the empty glass jug from under the bed and fills it to the brim, then gulps down the yellow liquid as usual. He does this once a day for three months. He drinks no other liquid, but each morning he fills the jug to the brim. After that, he gets up and goes to the door to eat the breakfast his sister has left for him. In the beginning, she would bring him a glass of milk like he always used to like, but he can no longer stomach it. He eats the egg and cheese and slices of smoked meat. For a while, his sister would leave him the leftover bones and fatty bits of meat from their dinner as well. But as the days pass and she grows tired from the responsibilities that have fallen on her shoulders, she begins to lag in her service to her brother. Sometimes she wakes up late and runs straight to work without preparing breakfast for him or for herself. She’d begun to prefer the free breakfast she can get at the café. Sometimes she returns home in the afternoon exhausted and goes straight to bed, not getting up until the next morning. He doesn’t complain. He sometimes hears his belly grumbling in complaint, but his hunger is always gone by the next morning and he wakes up feeling full. After breakfast, he opens his closet and squats there for a few minutes. One of the things that his sister puzzles over, without every finding an explanation, is that the terrible smell that fills the room with such insistence never escapes through the bedroom door or window, and you can’t smell it at all outside the room even when the door is open.
In addition to his morning exhaustion, he is filled by a feeling of emptiness. As though some fundamental part of himself has gone missing – melted away and evaporated. After feeding himself and relieving himself, Jawad goes back to bed and lies on his back. Sometimes he mutters to himself in vague words which reach the living room in a low buzz without anyone being able to make out a single word, and sometimes he occupies himself by painting the ceiling with streams of multi-colored spit, which he loudly launches until his father gets annoyed by the sound and comes to knock on the door and yell at the devil within to be quiet. Usually, Jawad will stop immediately, but every so often he puts on a mocking smile and continues his game. Sometimes he’ll remember his favorite hobby. He’ll go to his desk to pull out the panels he decorated with calligraphy and, filled with nostalgia, read the verses of poetry he’d drawn there every time he found one he loved, and the sayings and aphorisms he’d memorized as a child. Sometimes he takes out a fresh piece of white paper and grabs a pen. Then he freezes in front of the page, not daring to let his hand budge. A tear falls onto the page so he grabs it, balling the paper in his fist, tearing it up and throwing the pieces over his should, then goes back to bed to practice one of his new favorite hobbies – spitting, or mumbling in his strange language, or singing songs from his childhood, rewriting their lyrics to rid them of all their moralizing content.
Later, after his father starts renting out the spare room next to Jawad’s to foreigners, he discovers a new hobby: focusing his gaze on the wall between them to see what their guest was up to. He enjoys this the most when it is a husband and wife (at least supposedly – his father never bothers to ask for marriage papers). They’re Christians, his father says, as he says of all foreigners, before adding that they’re animals, so the men can sleep with their wives or their lovers or their whores or even their sisters for all he cares.
On the weeks when Hind works the evening shift, she wakes up in the morning radiant and energetic, belting out her favorite songs as she helps her mother around the house. This grows increasingly rare as a permanent frown begins to overtake her countenance, never to leave. But on the days she does sing, Jawad sits in bed, snapping his fingers to close the window against the bustle of the street, and closes his eyes to enjoy his sister’s magical voice. He feels then, as he floats in the clouds, that he has regained that part of himself he’d lost, and that the void inside himself shrinks. He also feels this when his mother sits after breakfast in her favorite armchair, folding her legs under her and lacing her fingers as she recites the short surahs he helped her memorize, in a faltering voice that robs him of his smile and stirs his memories and fills him with longing. And that longing fills the emptiness that has taken over his insides, and two tears fall from his eyes, which he quickly brushes away and lies down to resume his game of spitting at the ceiling, now with his hands over his ears to block out the sound of his mother’s recitations.
 This chapter begins, in the Arabic, with kan ya ma kan, a phrase which, like “once upon a time,” is used by Scheherazade and other storytellers at the beginning of their tales. Its literal meaning, signalling to listeners that what they are about to hear may be truth, or fancy, or some of both, is “there was, or there wasn’t.”
 The Sands War was a conflict between Morocco and Algeria that took place in October, 1963, over dispute of border territories. It led to lasting tensions between the two countries.
 This list includes both Moroccan and Algerian universities, academies, and cities.
 The “Arab poet” here is 6th-century poet Imru’ al-Qais, and the line is from his muallaqah, one of the seven “hanging odes” of pre-Islamic poetry, which are among the best-known and -loved verses of Arabic literature. The English translation is by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych.
 Albert Camus (1913-1960): French-Algerian existentialist author; Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati (1926-1999), Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), and Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007): Iraqi modernist poets and pioneers of Arabic free verse poetry; Bint al-Shati’: the pen name of modern Egyptian author Aisha abd al-Rahman (1913-1998) (her penname translates to “daughter of the riverbank”); Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad (1889-1964): Egyptian poet, journalist, literary critic, and founding member of the Diwan group, which sought to revolutionize Arabic poetic form; Taha Hussein (1889-1973): Egyptian writer, intellectual and literary critic (whose three-part autobiography al-Ayam –“The Days” – lends its name to Hind’s chapters in this book).