The Sweetest …

Cover Banipal

Listening to the radio is prohibited
Smoking is prohibited
Drinking tea is prohibited
Laughter and jokes are prohibited
Sleep is prohibited
Sitting down is prohibited
Even dreams are prohibited

The list of prohibited things is long and embraces anything new. We know nothing of permissions. Before making any movement or action we must ask which list it comes under. Things that are permitted can shift to the list of prohibitions on a whim, and they don't go back the other way. This is what life has become; rigid, fixed and as interminable as the list of prohibitions. And the place has become restricting and depressing in this wide, empty tract of land.

I take up my weapon now and take my turn on guard. The final shift. My hasty companion wakes me, snatches my dream and goes to sleep with it. He leaves me with my eyes open in shock. Every awakening here is to shock, we don't wake up to anything else. I sigh to relieve some of the anxiety that is spreading in my chest and it stops in my throat. I get up, take my weapon and go to my place of duty where the snoring reverberates in my ears like the mockery of devils.

I am trying to recall my dream. It was a fabulous dream. I don't know exactly what it was. Before the moment of shock I was in a another world completely from this roughness and coarseness. There was some woman in my usurped dream. I cannot remember her features. That idiot, if he'd left me a moment longer I'd be able to get hold of her now. She was repeating my name in a soft voice when the loathsome sound of, "Eh you, soldier boy! . . . Private! Getup! . . . Goddamn this place!" merged with her voice. It'll be nine weeks and two days today. I see nothing of the world but this god-forsaken army camp and these scowling faces. The voices are vile, the looks are crazed, the language foul, the food repulsive, the drinks worse and sleep is disturbed. Nothing but orders. Orders or punishments. And our compliance always expressed in polite, prepared utterances; memorised and hypocritical. Nine weeks two days, and I, with five others, have been sentenced to an indefinite revocation of my holiday for some unwarranted offence.

The officer is happy with these offences. He sees his importance in terms of the harsh penalties he meets out. To humiliate others gives him a sense of a certain prominence in the hierarchy of coercion and humiliation issuing from on high. He gives vent to the dejection of his spirit on our bodies and our souls, for there are none lower in the pecking order than us. Sometimes we look for the weak among us to pour what we can of the venom of our humiliation against them. Together we all eat, and together we laugh. Each one of us curses another at the slightest excuse. We take sides, we break allegiances, we steal things from one another, we plot against each other. And the humiliation remains part of us


Nine weeks, five days and everything repeats itself with a deathly boredom. It is August and we are in the desert; in a military camp in the desert. The sun and the officers ravage us by day and the night shifts and insects complete the matter at night. Nothing of our humanity is left but past memories. We combine what we can recall of these with a little patience and song, and sham laughter - prohibited of course. Here I hear daily of the failures of every soldier and the struggles of every officer. Occasionally I am nailed to the spot by the fantasisers as one of us begins to tell a story with the scent of woman in it - even if he has beautified it with lies and stuffed it with exaggeration. We listen to him closely on our evening gatherings. We wander off with his stories, wandering ever more freely if it is a story about a loved one. On such nights each one of us is Sheherezad sacrifice, and in the mornings with our orders, every one of us is the sacrifice to the homeland.

In this detention I have almost forgotten the voice and scent of a woman. I live off the false stories that I hear and the recollection of remnants of the dreams that are stolen from me. I transform the stolen dreams into my daydreams, and complete the delusion of the days.

What could be more miserable than this, this separation from women! What are we supposed to do kept away from them like this! Are we preparing ourselves for war just to be able to win for ourselves as many as possible? It is laughable. Give me my self, alone, with just one; that would be enough. I'll leave this war and weapons and destruction, and killing just for the winning of the greatest number of women possible, to you lot. Madness draws nearer, and an admission of numbness rises from tortured humanity. I have nothing left of my humanity but the weakened threads of feeling. I have become like the lamb limping before the wolf. There is no running any more. Just an attempt to satisfy the grovelling bleats and lecherous howls.
"Wake up soldier!"
The officer raps it out in a voice that makes the whole camp quake. I am next to him, about five paces away. The words pierce me and kill all that is left.


Nine weeks five days. The day has got stuck and it doesn't want to pass. It is now five pm. I go into the officer's room to submit three letters that have arrived for the soldiers. He must open them himself and read them before they can reach the boys. Maybe he'll find in them plans for a plot against state security, and thus his promotion. I find a three day permit, without a name on it, signed on his desk. Without much deliberation I shove it into my tunic pocket and leave.

I leave the camp at a run, having first checked up on the movement of traffic coming in and going out, and the whereabouts of the officer and guards. I run for three miles and then stop a lorry coming out of one of the camps. I don't know where it will head, but I jump up into it. I want to disappear and let it go wherever it wants, even if it is going back to the camp.

I'm in the back for about half an hour. The lorry driver stops and knocks on the inner window at me, asking if I'm getting down here or whether he should take me with him into the western camp. I hear him mention the word camp and jump down without replying, thanking him in his wing mirror with a wave of my hand.


I see a tree and houses in the distance. I hear the chirping of birds, and dogs' barking, and then the indistinct voices of people. I hasten cautiously in the direction of the voices. I finger the permit so that no antagonist from the military police can hinder my way and I am reassured by its presence. I run faster and then stop, suddenly, next to a school from which rises the clamour of school kids. I feel drunk on the voices of the childhood I have lost, and even more drunk when I see her. The most beautiful of all the things I see in this place; no, the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on in this world. There she is, sitting, making tea. And no one is there but an old man, a few metres away from her, who looks into nothing and sips from his cup with great slurps, enjoying the taste, day dreams and fantasies. I ask for a cup of tea.
"Pleasure, my love."
Thus she replies in a voice that makes me tremble; a more beautiful voice than this I have never heard and never shall. For she is the woman for whose sake and with whom we stayed up all those nights. She is the Sheherezad of the stories, the smile of the sad ones*. I look at her before me. Nine weeks and five days. I do not move my eyes from her face. She looks at me and smiles. The smile is for me alone. I want to hear her voice once more, so I say,
"I'd like four spoons of sugar."
"Pleasure my love!"
She repeats what she'd said in an even sweeter tone, as though saying something new. I am addicted to her voice. I search for another question, that I may hear that tone again. I find nothing. I go mute and leave the listening to my eyes. I contemplate the veins of her life, long and prominent, on the back of her hand. She wants to cover her head, and a few wisps of hair fall out from under her bedouin-worked scarf onto her forehead, enhancing her grace. She puts her hand out to me with a glass of hot tea. Intentionally, I touch the hand. I grasp the glass with both hands. At that moment I recall the dream that the loathsome soldier stole from me.

I savour the sweetest tea I have ever drunk in my life, I smile at her with a smile that speaks louder than words, and I awaken to the tones of her voice, honeyed with that tremor of the voices of kind grandmothers, saying,
"Here you are son! Is it enough sugar?"

Published in Banipal, No. 21, Magazine of modern Arab literature, London 2004.

Translated by Rebecca Porteous from "Al-Gamal La Yaqif Khalfa Ishara Hamra"
"(A Camel Does Not Stop In Red)". Short stories, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Cairo 1993.