INTRODUCTION BY MARGARET OBANK
Hadiya Hussein is an Iraqi writer, born in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad in 1956. She started writing short stories in the 1980s and published two collections before leaving Iraq in 2000, with her husband, a well-known Iraqi writer Abdul Sattar Nasser. In 2001, her first novel Bint al-Khan (Girl of the Lodging House) was published. Over the next twenty years she published several novels, and the short story collection, Kull Shai ala Ma Uram (Everything is Fine) from which the story below is taken, .
Like many other Iraqi writers forced into exile during the time of Saddam Hussein, Hadiya Hussein wrote about her experiences of living under the regime. The story “No One Knew That” follows an Iraqi woman, now battling cancer, returning to her Baghdad neighborhood of Madinat al-Thawra (Revolution City) after 30 years away. She is hoping to be buried in Najaf. Al-Thawra City is now known as Sadr City, home to over a million inhabitants. It was originally founded by Abdul Karim Qassim in 1959 to house the thousands of poor Shia Iraqis who had come up from the southern marshes. Saddam Hussein renamed it Saddam City, and following his overthrow, it became Sadr City, named after the Shia Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr. In her story, Hadiya Hussein poignantly evokes the fear and tragedy that befell the neighbourhood under the Ba’ath regime, and the terrible alienation the returning protagonist feels.
We published “No One Knows That” as part of a three-part Banipal series on contemporary Iraqi literature in 2003 and 2004. Banipal is an independent magazine that showcases contemporary Arab authors in English translation, from wherever they are writing and publishing. I founded Banipal with tIraqi author Samuel Shimon in 1998. Since then we have published three issues a year, opening an ever-wider window on the rich kaleidoscope of poetry and fiction from all over the Arab world by both established and emerging Arab writers, most translated for the first time into English. Hadiya Hussein was one of 60-plus authors whose works were included in issues 17, 18 and 19. Later issues have also featured Iraqi authors, such as issue 61, A Journey in Iraqi Fiction, which celebrated Iraqi fiction writing from the last 15 years.
I hope Banipal will be able to publish more of her work in the future, perhaps even a novel. I hope, too, that this story will resonate with you as it still does with me.
Co-Founder, Banipal magazine
Where Is Revolution City?
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“No One Knew That”
by Hadiya Hussein, translated by Paul Starkey
I sat down, after thirty years, on a wooden bench with crumbling edges. The square in front of me seemed empty and the colour of the buildings was fading . . . My clothes bag was opposite the bench, by my side was a bag with remains of food inside it. I looked at the still leafless bushes (despite the fact that we were in mid-spring), turning over in my mind the pictures my memory had retained. I could find no clear resemblance or similarity to what I was seeing. Everything had become old and worn out. I was coming back after thirty years with a skin whose cells no longer renewed themselves.
The bus that had carried me from Amman to Baghdad had dropped me in this place. Most passengers had got out, though a few stayed on. I had hesitated before getting out, staring from the bus window.
“I want to go to Madinat al-Thawra [Revolution City],” I said to the driver.
He looked at me without comment. I repeated what I’d just said, as perhaps I’d got the name wrong. When his eyes carried on staring curiously, I got out in a quadrangular square.
A number of men were offering their services. Drivers, porters, and children selling mastic and water. Everyone was talking quickly, using vocabulary that hadn’t found its way into the dictionary of my memory before, so that it was difficult for me to distinguish the letters. The faces were strange and emaciated, and the place that was supposed to be the al-Alawi Bus Station bore no resemblance to its previous layout. The driver’s assistant got out all the luggage. After the passengers had gone off in their different directions, I started looking carefully at the place.
Four entry roads led into long streets that ended I knew not where. Entry no. 1 had a number of policemen standing by it and the way to it was blocked by concrete ramparts. I picked up my case and did not look at anyone, for I had uneasy feelings about the suspicious faces.
There was a woman about to get into a taxi. I hurried up to her and started to ask her: “How can I get to Revolution City?”
She looked at me without replying. Her look suggested that she hadn’t understood the question, so I repeated it a second time, but she had already got into the back seat and shut the door hurriedly as if she was running away from me.
The square had a low barrier around it, from behind which buildings could be seen – restaurants and cheap hotels. After a few minutes, the north corner filled up with skinny soldiers, smoking furiously. They sat down in a row on the barrier. They didn’t exchange any conversation, as if they had already said all they had to say on the way there, and were just waiting for the lorry to take them off – or perhaps they were too busy talking to themselves. Were they returning from their units in the far north and wanting to get to their homes in the south? Or were they on their way to those units?
I noticed a boy around ten years old, wearing coffee-coloured trousers torn at the knees, and a shirt that was too big for him. He didn’t say anything. I opened my bag and gave him an orange and a piece of biscuit. He carried on looking at me for a few moments before stretching out his hand and snatching what I was holding, then running off in case anyone saw him, as if he’d just committed a robbery. From time to time, people would come out of one of the entry roads and cross the square towards the other entries. Sullen, twitching people. Two of them started a fight, while a woman wearing a shiny dress stood beside them, her long red hair reaching to her waist. While they were trading blows and insults, she slipped into the entry labelled no. 2. Time was passing quickly, and night was slowly advancing, to cover the sky and everything else.
I said to myself: “I must find out where I am. To find that out, I shall have to walk a few metres to check the right way. And if I’m to avoid laying myself open to undesirable consequences, I shall have to avoid asking questions.”
I picked up my bag and walked towards the entry road that the woman with the red hair and shiny dress had disappeared into. I had to pass along some narrow paths before I arrived at a wide street lit by lanterns suspended from medium height poles. I don’t know whether the light they gave out was from paraffin, or if they were electric lamps in the shape of lanterns. I saw several signs invoking blessings on ‘Adherence to Principles and Great Victories’. The poles and house fronts were adorned with pictures of a single man with stern features, and decorations of palm branches and coloured paper. Some of the windows in the houses were lit but most were in darkness. While I was trying to take in the scene, a dog barked behind a mud barrier and threw fear into my limbs. I took a couple of steps back so as to be prepared if it attacked me, though I am not very courageous in circumstances like this. I was thinking of going back to the square when a middle-aged man came out of one of the houses. I was about to call him, but he quickly went back into the houses he’d come out of as if he’d forgotten something. A long time passed but he didn’t re-emerge. That meant that he hadn’t forgotten something. Perhaps he just preferred to stay in that house until morning.
The number of soldiers had increased, and others arrived a few minutes later. New passengers were getting off a bus, heading either for the entry roads or for the taxis lined up on one side. I walked towards entry number 3. As soon as I had passed through the stone-sided passageway I found myself in front of some wretched houses made of corrugated iron sheets, from which revolting smells were being given off. Smoke from stoves was wafting out from between the cracks. I walked on several metres, wondering: “Could the driver have made a mistake and dropped me at the wrong place?” But I remember my voice was quite clear when I told him I wanted to go to Revolution City.
It’s true that he had looked at me curiously, which led me to repeat what I had said in case the man was hard of hearing, but his assistant quickly unloaded the baggage, which meant that it must have been the last stop, as I knew it thirty years ago. The roads branched off from it to the smaller cities, including Revolution City. Nothing in the place had any connection with the al-Alawi Bus Station, or with anywhere I’d known before. Cities, like people, become old and worn out and change, and I knew that what had happened during these years was enough to obliterate what had been there before.
I ventured into a corridor that was almost dark, ending in a desk behind which was sitting a youth with unhealthy looking features. I had already read the sign ‘Memories Hotel’. The youth was surprised when I went in and even more surprised by my request. “A room, please!”
I didn’t enquire about the price for a night or the services offered. I simply wanted to rest my body after several hours’ exhausting travel, and save myself from the night that had found its way into every inch of the place.
“It’s not allowed to take women . . . This is a hotel that just gives quick service for soldiers.”
I couldn’t think of a reply, but he continued: “It looks as if you’re a stranger, so you can stay until morning, even though it’s against orders and I could face dismissal as a punishment.”
I was about to say that I wasn’t a stranger, I was a native of the country, but as soon as I started to speak, he started coughing violently. When he finished, he said: “Payment in advance . . .”
I took out a hundred-dollar bill. He looked at me, but before he could open his mouth I said: “I’ve just arrived and I haven’t had time to change it.”
He put out his hand and took the bill with trembling fingers. Then he got up from behind the desk to escort me to the room.
Ever since the Dutch doctor had told me that a malignant disease was creeping through my body, I had resolved to return to find myself a grave beside the graves of my family. Until this moment, I hadn’t fallen into the trap of nostalgia. I hadn’t carried photos with me when I left my country. Photographs sharpen the pangs of memory, and I wanted to start my life far from the sufferings of the past. I’d succeeded in keeping heart and mind away from everything that would make me prey to a slow death. I became acclimatised to the strange people in a strange country, and later began to boast of how well I could speak their language. I worked and loved. I dreamed of starting a big family to compensate for my own family that had perished beneath the rubble of their house during the second Gulf War. Ten years passed which I spent with my husband, but we stayed just the two of us, despite repeated attempts with the most famous doctors.
God was not satisfied with that, but took my husband to him and left me to turn my memories into food to sustain me later. Despite that, I didn’t fall prey to the past. I launched into life after every fall with a stronger will. My life was punctuated by warm friendships and lots of journeys. The homeland used to come into my mind like a beautiful dream that didn’t stop for long and didn’t ask anyone to stop. It passed as men’s faces pass, brought together by the friendship of a journey which soon ends. In this way I trained my feelings and perfected the game of forgetting, or pretending to forget, in the crush of other years whose days I could not count. But, from the time the Dutch doctor told me the truth about my illness, memory opened its doors and cleared away the debris slowly, so that nostalgia arose from its resting place and announced its scourge of fire. The graveyard of Najaf began to appear to me as if I had left it yesterday, the day the corpses of my mother, father and younger sister were buried. I didn’t want my body to find rest amongst strangers. That is the decision I made, and this is what has brought me here. The driver must have got the wrong place. Tomorrow morning, when night disappeared, I would investigate the matter.
I pulled the cover over half my body and shut my eyes. The noise of soldiers going up and down the stairs. Whispering and singing getting louder and softer. I slept fitfully, and when the light of the sun came down on to my face, I was startled for the first few moments after waking, for I had been suffering a terrifying nightmare. A man was pushing me from a mountain peak to throw me to the bottom of a valley, while I screamed, but no one heard me. “Thank God, it’s the morning!”
The soldiers came down the stairs yet again. Their voices rang out without my being able to pick up a single word. I hurried to the window and opened it. I was shocked by what I saw. The window looked out over an enormous, unending cemetery. The graves had no gravestones. I rubbed my eyes so as not to be still dreaming.
I wasn’t dreaming. I don’t remember a cemetery that big. Could all these people have died in Baghdad alone during the last thirty years? That means that the Najaf cemetery – the biggest cemetery in the world – must also have got larger. Perhaps it had stretched as far as the streets and houses. My God! Where could I find the graves of my family? And what about my other relatives? Who could bear the burden of a woman who had come to die amongst them?
I went back to the square. It was the only thing that would enable me to get my bearings. Women were scattered in the corners, serving tea and sour cream while crowds of soldiers continued to throng around. Fast food carts, cigarette kiosks, children selling mastic, and dervishes carrying copied prayers and begging people to buy them. Faces, faces, faces. Pale and yellow, gaunt and dusty. Accents of every colour and kind.
I sat down beside an elderly woman. I drank some tea and asked for a sour cream sandwich. There was no time to question her. Her fingers worked astonishingly quickly, and the soldiers drank the tea in a hurry. A military lorry came out of entry number 4, and the soldiers swarmed round it. It filled up and carried them off. Where to? I don’t know. A second lorry, and a third . . .
When the woman had finished, I asked her: “What’s the name of this place?”
She answered me with another question: “Are you a stranger here?”
I hesitated, then replied: “Yes.”
“It’s the Revolution Bus Station,” she said.
I didn’t remember any bus station of this name, so I asked again: “Do you mean Revolution City?”
She looked at me in surprise, then said: “You are talking about a place that no longer exists.”
She turned round as if she was afraid of something, then said: “Since you are not from these parts, I’ll tell you a secret. I am from Revolution City. Or, to be more precise, I’m one of those who escaped the massacre.”
“What massacre?” I asked her, as terror gripped me.
She pursed her lips and began to pour tea for a passer-by. She remained silent until he had finished and gone. She put her head to my ear and said: “Hasn’t the world heard? That is an incredible pity. We lost our lives and died before we were dead.” She turned around again and whispered: “I was out of town when the ruler’s men surrounded it and dropped poison on it from planes. Everything was over in a few hours. You’re quite near now to the city that was . . . Today it’s just a cemetery stretching further than the eye can see.” She pointed with her hand: “It’s behind that hotel. Graves that do not bear the names of those inside them.”
She was silent again. Her furrowed face seemed even more sorrowful and her eyes were sunken. Then she looked at me and said: “It’s a lucky man who finds a grave with a name on for himself.”
“Why did they do that to you?” I asked. This time she did not turn round. “The poor are always firewood for the rulers – despite the fact that they come to power carried on their shoulders.”
The graves there are decorated. They are shaded by trees and surrounded by plants that flower with the change in the seasons, so that the cemeteries seem like lush gardens. Wouldn’t it be wise to find myself a place near a tree, beside my husband? With my friends that I had lived among for thirty years?
I had buried my husband between two trees whose branches were linked above, as if making an agreement to protect him. I enclosed the grave in a frame of flowers and engraved on his tombstone ‘We will meet in Heaven’. Contrary to the hopes that I had in that strange country, it seems that I have gone to hell.