As part of our Winter 2021 series on Iraq’s diverse literary scene, in Iraq and in the diaspora, Hend Saeed translates a section from the opening of Abdullah al-Sakhi’s acclaimed Pathways of Loss (2013):
By Abdullah al-Sakhi
Translated by Hend Saeed
That day, Ali Salman went to watch the first public execution in al-Thawra City.
He woke when the first light of dawn was filtering through the window that overlooked their small road in the Dakhel neighborhood, and this pure transparent light reflected down on his mother, Makia al-Hassan, and his sister, Madiha Salman, who were asleep on the floor beside his bed.
His mother shifted as he stepped up beside her, lifting her head from the pillow and then putting it down, her eyes half-closed as she looked through the door that her son had opened on his way to the yard. Light shone into the house, which was open to the sky.
He washed his face and came back to the room to dress. Through the dampness of her sleepy eyes, she thought he was getting ready to go to work, as this was the time when the builders left for work in areas around Baghdad.
She reminded him to take his tools, and not to forget them like last week.
“I’m not going to work,” he said, while combing his long hair in front of the wardrobe mirror. “I’m going to watch the execution of “al-Khushi,” Naif al-Sa’adi.
Her body gave a shiver, and she felt guilty for not remembering the event, which she had known about since yesterday. The authorities had announced two days before that they would execute Naif al-Sa’adi in public, on that April morning, early in the seventieth decade of the twentieth century.
She sat on her bed, thinking about Najia Shiya’a, Naif al-Sa’adi’s mother, who would lose her son in a few hours. Her heart trembled in fear at the thought of losing her own son.
As she tied and knotted her charghad over her forehead, she told her son that she wanted to go with him, but she had a headache. She hadn’t slept until late last night, as she had been helping Madiha carry water from the main pipe. Those days, on summer mornings, drinking water was cut off, and they could only get it at night by using the manual pump.
“The water was delayed last night, and it came on only two hours ago. And still, we have two more months of summer.” She pulled her charghad even more tightly over her forehead, trying to ease her headache.
With the first signs of the dawn that stretched across the clear blue sky, Ali Salman left the house in a hurry, while his mother, with her eyes up to the sky, shouted a prayer and good wishes after him.
In the main street, which connect the Dakhel neighborhood in al-Thawra with Bab al-Sheikh in Baghdad, Ali Salman joined crowds of people who were going toward the football field near Abu Dalef coffee shop, which was where the execution was supposed to take place. It was the same spot that had witnessed the assassination of six intelligence officers a few weeks before.
Old men with pale wrinkled faces and long or short white beards came out from the side roads and the empty fields, along with women covered in black dragging their children behind them, or pulling them by their hands, and angry young people with red eyes bulging from lack of sleep, and craftsmen, laborers, students, the unemployed, and boys and girls walking quickly to reach the field before the execution of that young man, who had created a panic in the security apparatus, as they feared he would spark a rebellion in the city.
Both his admirers and those who were afraid of him considered him a supporter of the weak, the oppressed, and the persecuted, and a man who had challenged the security men, who had frequent nightmares during the campaigns to arrest opposition politicians. As for the policemen, they impatiently awaited the execution, in a hurry to achieve victory over a man who had dared to humiliate them and their power.
In the streets around the football field, crowds of people streamed in: from the first al-Thwara area, The Company area, al-Qayara, al-Chawader, the Kurdish neighborhood, and from every forgotten area on the outskirts of the city. The residents of Sector 55, which overlooked the football field, went to their roofs to watch the execution.
Breastfeeding mothers stood outside their homes, holding their babies in their arms, and every now and then they took a step forward, toward the field, when they felt the time had come.
The crowd increased in number and everyone was waiting. The authorities wanted to make sure that the execution took place in front of a huge crowd of people from all over the city, as proof of its power over them, and to remind them that whoever disrespected its intelligent and security apparatus would be punished by death. This was why they chose Friday, the only weekend day at that time, so that everyone could attend.
Ali Salman tried to find Alwan Aziz amongst the waiting crowds, but he failed. He thought that he might be in another part of the field, leaning on his crutches or on someone’s shoulder.
The crowd was shoving against each other to find space or just an opening to look out toward the area where they had set up the wooden gibbet, supported by 18-foot iron poles. The rope was made of silk and linen, designed so that the accused would die after a minute or two.
Ali Salam noticed that the gibbet was surrounded by officers and civil servants armed with Kalashnikovs who surrounded the black-clad executioner, who seemed very active, making quick movements, checking the rope and its knot more than once. It was said that a doctor was being sent to the field to watch the execution and to later confirm the death, but no one from the crowed had seen the doctor.
Ali Salam saw men setting up wooden poles for the thick plastic fence that they would set up a few minutes before the execution, to protect it from those who were watching.
None of Naif al-Sa’adi’s friends remembered anyone ever beating him in a fight or during a quarrel in his childhood or teen years. When he was twelve years old, he fought with kids his age, and when he managed to defeat them all, he started to challenge the older boys who attacked or provoked him, or even those who avoided him. Every day of the year, his clothes were torn in more than one place, except on the first day of Eid.
When he was thirteen years old, with his enemies increasing, he started to carry a rusty knife wherever he went. In the beginning, he put it under the elastic of his underwear, next to his skin, but it annoyed and cut him, so he sewed a pocket from old shoe leather that he had picked out of the garbage. But that fell off every time he moved quickly, and it was visible to others, when he wanted it to be hidden, so he could surprise his enemy. For that reason, he wore a dishdasha with a long side pocket that he used for the knife. No one was able to see it, except for a few of his close friends who were loyal to him and his leadership, and it was easier for him to pull out and unsheathe it.
All that happened with the encouragement of his father, who considered it important as training for when he got older, in a world that was full of violence and was controlled by power. His father didn’t pay much attention to his elder son, who was quiet and shy, and hardly anyone remembered or knew him, unlike his brother, Naif al–Sa’adi.
His father worked serving tea at the Al Jumhurya Hospital. Early one morning, when his wife Naji Shiya’a tried to wake him up as usual, she found him dead.
During the funeral, her elder son visited her for the first time since he had gotten married and moved to the Chawader neighborhood. His parents weren’t happy that he had married a woman from another tribe, who they called a “foreigner.” To their surprise, he ignored their anger and went ahead with his married life and his new job as bulldozer driver’s assistant in a company that built roads.
In front of the mourners, he apologized to his mother for his absence, kissed her head and hand, and promised to visit her once a month. He then said, while patting Naif’s bare round head, that his father had left a man in his place. His mother thought this was an excuse for his absence, but she accepted his apology.
She looked at Naif with eyes of love, sure that the boy would defend her against any enemy when he grew older. He would protect her and provide for her in her old age. She thought that she wasn’t a widow as long as she was with him. Her struggle with him started after he hit his teacher in the classroom and was expelled from school. After that, he spent his time wandering the streets on the outskirts of the city, where the unemployed youth sat in circles in the open land, smoking hash and watching for any policemen who might come to arrest them, or having masturbation competitions while exchanging smuggled pornography.
Naif al-Sa’adi formed a group of boys to attack the others, bringing them under his control and making them steal fruit from the market. Then he started a new kind of fight, where he sent his group to fight other groups in a nearby neighborhood; these were bloody fights that lasted for days. This brought his mother many problems, and she had to apologize every day to the families whose sons he beat up. Yet despite this, she always thought he would soon stop this behavior.
When she gave up on him, she told a group of women: “I can’t do anything. Let them beat him up as he’s done to them.”
Even when she was frightened of his anger and his quick, vicious reactions, she was pleased with his courage. That’s how Naif al- Sa’adi grew until he reached adulthood, which was when he surprised everyone with the changes in his behavior; he was then at peace with the people in his neighborhood—and he loved, helped, and protected them, both men and women—although he was still vicious and violent toward others.
On one Friday evening, five security men in civilian clothing came to Sector 55, accompanied by a policeman holding a Kalashnikov. When they got close to the football field, Um Ibrahim, who was watching her son and other boys playing football, thought they were after her neighbor, Kathmia Mohammed. A few days previous, Um Ibrahim had seen strange men walking around the field and on the nearby side roads, watching Kathmia Mohammed’s house and staring at the faces of passersby. They would disappear for an hour or two and then come back, and they would change regularly.
Based on her experience, she knew these were security men. She told Kathmia Mohamed, who asked her to watch them, too, and to tell her as soon as she suspected they were going to make a move. At the same time, she took her own cautious steps.
Then Um Ibrahim went inside the house, breathing heavily and calling out to Kathmia Mohammed in a panic, and climbed up on the metal box to look over the fence that stood between her house and Kathmia Mohammed’s, who rushed out to the yard. No member of her family was at home at that time, and Um Ibrahim told her, stammering, that the security men were outside. She gestured to her to go to the roof, quickly.
Um Ibrahim seemed to imitate the actions of Jabar Khanouba. Jabar Khanouba, the owner of the coffee shop that was called by his name, for a while had taken the responsibility of defending hunted politicians without showing his hatred of the authority. He would inform these politicians when the security men were in his coffee shop, using different methods every time; sometimes by singing or by shouting a word they had agreed on, or with the blink of an eye. As soon as these secret signs reached the concerned person, he would run, hiding in the houses adjacent to the coffee shop or taking the stairs and walking across the roofs.
If the coffee shop was crowded with the informers, Jabar Khanouba would get on his old military motorbike and drive through the nearby roads, warning the wanted or their friends against coming to the café.
The security men arrested him, held him for a few days, and then released him. It was said that he was released in exchange for agreeing to stop supporting and helping the wanted men, after the officers had failed to get him agree to work for them as an informer.
Um Ibrahim went back to the football field to tell as many people as she could, thinking that would thwart the operation. She saw Naif al-Sa’adi and told him that Kathmia Mohamed’s life was in danger. His mind lit up with a crazy affection. Um Ibrahim felt relieved that there was a man who would take over the situation, so she went back home.
During that time, Kathmia Mohamed was skillfully crossing the fences between the low conjoined houses, via the high secret ways, and she took nothing heavy that might slow her down. She took only her abaya and a pair of rubber shoes.
At sunset, while moving through the passages that surrounded her, she stopped a few times, listening carefully and fearfully, as hundreds of adjacent roofs were in front of her. She had to pass eight of them to get to the backyard behind her house, and then it would be easy to find the gateway road. The city had been designed in such a way that it would allow her to take a shortcut via the elevated stairs that couldn’t be seen from the ground.
She stopped to decide which way she would take—hiding under the thick shadows of the clothes hanging out to dry. Her heart was beating fiercely, as she had to hurry up; maybe they would surround the area and arrest her.
She knew that if she was arrested this time, it would mean her end. She smelled dinner cooking, the sound of plates, a baby crying, a fight between two women, the voice of a beggar far away, and from another house, she heard a child laughing. But the last thing she heard before she was gone was the sound of a shower of bullets.
As soon as she stepped onto the secret road under the darkened sky, Naif al-Sa’adi was standing in front of her house with fierce, ready heart, watching the police detachment arriving. He walked toward a policeman until he was right up next to him, and he whispered to him while winking and jerking his chin to the left. “It’s better for them to go back the way they came. Otherwise, a lot blood will be shed.”
The policeman laughed, mocking him and calling his mother ugly names before he turned toward his friends.
Naif al-Sa’adi, quick as a tiger, pulled out his knife from behind his neck, where it was sitting under a belt atop his spine, and with a movement sudden as thunder the knife went into the policeman’s arm. His rifle fell, and Naif grabbed it with a trained hand that had used arms during his compulsory military training. It was a shocking surprise to the security men, to the extent that they looked around, as if asking for help from each other, or from the people around them who thought what they had seen was a miracle or a myth.
And before the security men could defend themselves under the early sunset in the open area, a hail of bullets came down on them, and the six bodies fell down in their own blood. Naif al-Sa’adi disappeared like smoke.
The security men and their spies heightened their search to arrest him, but they failed in the first few days, as he kept changing his residence. Soon, though, he considered hiding as an act of cowardliness, so he went back to his home, walking among the people, some of whom received him as a hero, while others described his return as the act of a crazy man who wanted to die.
His mother’s warnings and pleas to go to any of their relatives in the other cities, since they would search and raid her house at any time, didn’t stop him. She told him that if they arrested him, they wouldn’t let him live, but he didn’t care, and he said he don’t want to live a life of humiliation.
A few days later, security men raided the house, gripping pistols that were ready to fire. It was midday, and he was asleep. His mother woke him up with a loud scream. He got up and stood in the middle of the room. Finding himself surrounded by security men, he put his hands up, surrendering to the handcuffs that the policeman were holding.
They searched the house for the rifle, scattering his few items, and they found it in a pile of old used clothes. But they didn’t find any bullets. They took him to the police station in Chawader.
The news spread and became the talk of the city, talk that was accompanied by astonished amazement, as no one understood on that day, nor in the years to come, why he had surrendered so easily, just as they didn’t understand why he had shot the security men, whether it was on purpose or it was a mistake made by a man overcome by fear and disappointment.
The day after his arrest, his eldest brother came to take his mother to his home. He had disappeared for all the years after his father’s death, and he hadn’t fulfilled his promise to his mother to visit her once a month. She said, while trying to avoid her embarrassment, “At last you remembered you have a mother.”
He said nothing, but lowered his head in guilt and regret. She put her clothes in a small bundle and walked out with him, using such small slow steps that he had to stop a few times, waiting for her to catch up. His wife welcomed her, hugged and kissed her, and brought a bowl of water to wash her feet. But she refused, just as she refused the food that was offered her. The daughter-in-law was embarrassed, but excused her mother-in-law, as she knew that sadness had driven her husband’s mother away from everything.
That was how Najia Shiya’a spent her first few days at her eldest son’s home, in isolation; she even didn’t care about her grandchildren, who she had never before seen. She was busy with what would happen to her son, and she spent the hours remembering his life from childhood until the moment he was arrested, gathering her power in order to face her coming ordeal, gathering from his power and his courage.
Hend Saeed is an Arabic literature & cultural consultant, literary translator, reader, writer, and life coach, and also an editor-at-large for ArabLit. She also contributes to other publications and has published a collection of short stories.
This post was first published in ArabLit: From Abdullah al-Sakhi’s ‘Pathways of Loss’