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from the April 2016 issue

Mass Grave

An Epitaph for all our Friends Denied a Tomb and especially for my Cousin, whose Body was Dumped in a Mass Grave

They found my cousin’s body in a mass grave. 

Our truck wasn't the only one turned away by this prison because it was overcrowded. Actually, many trucks, which were so crowded with men they swayed, were rejected by this prison. The guard repeated respectfully to each driver, “If I could, I would make room for your load.” Then the truck bowed submissively and hauled itself to al-Radwaniyah Prison. The name, “Radwaniya,” means satisfaction, but this prison has never been satisfied with any living person and has never satisfied anyone alive.

The truck approached the prison and vomited us out—like a woman suffering morning sickness during her first weeks of pregnancy. We were grabbed by one khaki man after another. Khaki is a color that was long favored by ladies in our city. All the same, when they returned from the frontlines many soldiers divorced their wives upon finding them wearing khaki skirts.

This was my first time to wear khaki garb, which I hated. I assumed it felt the same antagonism toward me, because it really didn’t fit. I was a slim young man and had just turned eighteen. Before I left her care, I had frequently implored my mother: “Pray I don’t grow up too fast!” 

She, however, would lull me to sleep or slip away when I was quiet to clamber to the roof terrace. There she lifted her long scarf, unbuttoned her dishdasha, and recited, “God, allow me to see him a man soon.”

I really used to feel that time was grasping me with both hands and stretching my body taller with each passing day.

I remember perfectly how much I screamed. They would ask, “Why is he screaming?”

They didn’t realize that I was exercising my vocal freedom before our masters sealed our mouths. I couldn’t wear my khaki uniform, because I hated it, and it truly hated me, as if our two hearts communicated directly.

Even my father, as he fastened the army belt around my waist, sighed remorsefully: “Damn the man responsible for conscripting you!”

I resented the uniform, belt, boots, and beret, because all these khaki burdens restricted my movements.

The teacher who flunked me in Geography prophesied my fate: “You’ll be forced to dig a lot, feel awful, and die a soldier.”

For her part, my mother had prophesied I would revert to crawling, because one time when she put me down to sleep, she returned to find me standing up—a child of seven months as upright as a mountain. Then she raced quickly to my grandmother, shouting in a trembling voice, “Look! Look! My child is standing!”

Grandmother, to calm her down, replied, “What’s the matter? You’ll upset him. Instead you should be saying, ‘What a good little boy!’” The door of the metal building opened, and they pushed us inside. Then its door closed again.

We couldn’t see, but voices shrieked insults that slid beneath our feet.

“Son of a bitch! Can’t you see? Are you blind?”

Blind, huh . . . . Being blind would be better than whatever we are now. At least a sighted person can see the blind man and avoid him. We are layers of blind men swimming in a deep sea, where darkness and more darkness piles atop yet more darkness.

People were screaming for help, and we had no idea where we were heading.

Since I’m compassionate, I tried not to step on the creatures below me. I had read a lot about “metaphysics” without ever being convinced that alternative universes live alongside us—until they put us in this steel building.

Then I started to crawl. Why not?

All types of crawling had been deferred to this time.

At some moment I started to crawl on all fours. Once I realized that the black void before me kept expanding, I sat on my haunches and began to scoot like our neighbor. In the 1980s he was disfigured by burns. Then he began to beg for bread, brandishing his amputated leg—which had been gored to a pulp during Operation Badr—and his time-furrowed face.

I did not continue scooting along, either, because there was no room to go farther. When I became fully aware of my circumstances, I asked myself: Where to?

This was a magical question, because the moment I articulated it, my whole body froze, and I focused my attention on a limited area. Time stretched toward infinity and very gradually everyone fell silent as a foul stench began rising around us while we attempted unsuccessfully to deaden our noses to it.

Everyone around us was vomiting, and this continued, with no end in sight. Woe is me! Perhaps: woe is us! We can’t liberate ourselves from these undesirable circumstances.

With remarkable ingenuity, I was able to distract myself from my desire to vomit by asking: Where am I? Who is beside me? Have I been walking on human beings?

Feeling that I couldn’t rely on myself or on those sharing the darkness with me, I tried unsuccessfully to poke my foot forward. Something blocked my way and kept me from stretching my foot out freely.

I repeated this experiment and collided with the same obstacle. Then I bunched up my body and tried to force myself to fall asleep. Why not? But dreams are part and parcel of sleep, and isn’t the whole point of this darkness, which has developed from the night’s sperm, to induce us to fall asleep?

I shall fall asleep and then sleep and sleep some more. Perhaps then our eyes will open to the morning.

At first my senses responded to my orders, and I slept. I slept and then slept some more, but hunger began to pummel my belly, tying my stomach into knots.

For the first time since adolescence, I was at odds with my vital functions, which issued a bogus invitation: “Sleep, hungry ones, sleep.”

How can natural antagonists like hunger and sleep join forces?

Hunger buffeted my head, and the pain rose like searing steam.

Having nothing to eat, or—to put it more succinctly—being unable to see anything to eat, I adjusted to the cries of pain I heard because our captors wanted us to think we were blind. For fear this scheme might succeed, I tried the power of positive suggestion. I would convince my belly I was a sack of suet. Then hunger could stretch its hand out to grab this fat and gradually melt it.

This inspiration proved successful after numerous tries, and I began to think that I had just finished eating and started to burp. I was consumed by a desire to find some water. Fortunately my mind channeled the image of the brackish water that rain deposits between the washboard ruts of our streets. So I overcame the fantasy after visualizing the reality. I remembered the song “The Young Girl’s Escape,” in which a girl cautiously asks a youth to pause when he walks by a girl like her: “Let your lover’s tears moisten the earth.”

Today, at this moment, or perhaps yesterday or long before that, there was no water and no place for water. So what point is there in clinging to any hope of quenching my thirst?

I fell asleep once more, or tried to, but didn’t succeed.

“I’m flabbergasted!” barely described my condition when the metal building’s doors opened and a wall of light crashed rudely against the photoreceptors of our eyes, which tried to protect themselves by closing resolutely as the skin of their lids puckered and their lashes fell. All the same, the light gradually softened as our eyes adjusted to it.

I immediately glanced at the door, which was wide open. I could see the shadows of phantoms. They kept approaching me, approaching us. So I started looking to the right and to the left.

No one seemed to know who was approaching.

Who are they? This astonished question oozed from my pores and began to encompass everyone who was beside me or in front of me, and even those I heard breathing behind me.

A phantom bellowed: "Out!"

So everyone rushed out en masse—running, crawling, scurrying, rising and then falling, as some of us leaned for support on others.

What mattered was that we emerged with bodies that waiting had caused to stink and spirits that anticipation had fettered. We’d forgotten our hunger and our thirst when—with a child’s delight—we embraced this explosion of light.

. . . .

. . . . . .

So it was daytime, and the sun was shining. Outside the metal building it was noon.

There were hundreds of us who had been held against our will inside this metal building, and we stood waiting for something.

For the first time I wept from joy, but my tears were salty. We stayed there for more than . . . . Who can guess the time after losing all sense of it?

I asked the person who was walking beside me and trying to avoid bumping into me, “How long have we been here?”

He replied, “I remember that when my clan was swarming around me I had a radio with me, and it began to announce the date as Monday the —. So is it still that same day, a day later, two days, or a year?”

“Attention!” came the order issued to us by a mouth born to command. Our feet and shoulders responded obediently. The officer stood before us—or perhaps I should say we stood before him, gluing our two legs together with the mucilage of fear so as not to be singled out.

This band of khaki-clad men included officers of various ranks that, as a soldier who had only served in the army for two months, I had never seen. Most of us had sweaty faces, and some men’s bodies were trembling. For my part, I tried my hardest to master my feebleness by standing ramrod straight. Internally I was collapsing while I made a show of being steadfast—like a clay wall that's expected to stand firm even though its base is flooded.

“Stand at attention, you damn idiots!”

Another khaki man approached the screaming mouth and whispered to him. Then his expression, too, turned furious, and he yelled, “They have compassionately ordered food for you!”

Then he did an about-face, and we couldn’t tell which chamber swallowed him. At the same time other khaki men placed in front of us cauldrons filled with rice and a few mediocre dates.

Without pausing to reflect, we clustered around that food, which tasted delicious to us since our hunger was ferocious. I had scarcely placed a first handful of rice in my mouth, though, when I heard a khaki man yell, “One, two. . . .” I surmised the count would run at least to ten and thrust into the rice my left hand, which grabbed all the rice it could hold. I dropped it beside my body, making sure that none of the khaki men watching our mouths saw me. Meanwhile my right hand quickly popped some food into my mouth, which wolfed it down without chewing. I gulped down as much as I could before the khaki man reached ten.

Then he yelled: “Finish!”

Our faces looked inquisitively back and forth, and our bellies added extra anxiety to our glances. We protested wordlessly to each other: “But we haven’t finished eating yet!”

We had no idea where these khaki men had come from, but they raced away to some room, hastily carrying off all the pots still filled with rice and dates.

One of us—a man who didn’t grasp the rules of this game—leaned over and picked up a date that had fallen as the khaki men rushed off. The man who had been counting came to this fellow, grabbed him by the shirt collar, raised a hand and let it fall on the man’s face with a resounding slap that could be heard far away. The victim spun around twice before he could right himself. At that moment I opened my hand and allowed the food to fall. As grains of rice scattered over the earth, I realized that our hands could not grip anything as long as their hands gripped our lives.

Three days later, on the fourth day—at least that’s my best estimate—the metal building’s doors opened, and scores of soldiers brandishing whips rushed in. These began to land on whatever parts they wanted of our bodies, which were totally sapped of strength. Then one body sought shelter behind another, because there was nothing else to shield a person. There were only screams—screams of pain. These grew louder whenever this lightning scourge of lashes drew closer.

The more they lashed us, the more feverishly we retreated to the corners, which became chockablock with prisoners. Then we started to climb on top of one another, fleeing toward the ceiling while the troops laughed.

This mountain of bodies reached the top of the metal building, and I was at its summit. At the base of our pyramid were the bodies of old men unable to climb even one rung of life’s stairway without a cane or a hand for support.

But whatever we least expected is what always happened. At a time when reality abandoned its place to nightmares, nightmares became real, and we experienced their full force in exquisite painstaking detail.

My head was parallel to the metal building’s ceiling, and I pressed down on bodies that stuck together and screamed as loudly as they could. Meanwhile the soldiers gritted their teeth and savaged us with endless whips for an endless amount of time.

Was our collective time cyclical or did it extend in an infinite straight line?

They departed, leaving us to stew. Feeling vanquished, we collapsed in desolate piles on the floor of the hangar. Then we sorted out our mangled bodies.

Till now I hadn’t had time to weep, and this proved the only consolation for a pampered child like me who was accustomed to joy and who was feeling humiliated in the dark of this metal building.

Once the door closes, allow your tears to flow for as long as they want.

My tears descended in a long line, and my choked sobs radiated outward. Cyclical days followed in succession, affording no corner for shelter save a veil of tears.

We screamed and groaned as khaki men ruined our lives in multiple ways, whether they were supervised by a major, captain, sergeant, or even a corporal. I couldn’t tell one from another. The key thing was the hatred our spirits felt for khaki.

This time they sat us down at an interrogation table. The reports had been filled out in advance, and they always asked two questions: “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?”

They knew who we were. If they had already decided to kill us, were they interrogating us merely to remind us we were idiots?

Once, one of them changed his question and asked, “Do you know so-and-so?” Then he spelled out a name we didn’t recognize. When one of us hesitated momentarily, they dragged him out the door. Then all we heard was the shot that killed him.

Oh . . . you know a situation is calamitous when a gunshot is the reply to momentary hesitation!

Finding no answers for their questions, we relied on hunches while the khaki men recorded whatever they felt like.

Words were still scorching the air between the interrogator and another prisoner when I screamed. I seemed to want to tell myself the answer to their question—not them. I screamed the name of the guy being interrogated: “Azkia!”

He was no more than a boy, and I could see his dishdasha’s pocket was full of marbles.

The silence that followed was framed by astonishment and spread until it collided against the interrogation room walls. Wide, glowing eyes glared at the reckless loudmouth (me).

The reply was shouted back at me even before I heard the echo of my words: “Wise guy, your goose is cooked!”

I was so angry I could have leapt at the man's throat; they could see that from the sparks flying from my eyes. I became concerned about the man who yelled, once I wrestled free from anger’s grip.

They may have been about to take me out as well, but another voice delayed my death: “Leave him alone!”

Then that man turned toward me, his expression so sarcastic that everyone could see. “Here’s a jackass who wants to be a hero!”

A number of emotions swept over me as I watched them abbreviate our lives with terse, flagrantly simple questions—while they concealed the catchphrases they would pounce on so they could scream: “Imperialists! Traitors! Agents! Rabble-rousers!”

When they shouted these insults, we stared at each other, wondering if we really were these things they were calling us.

They concluded the interrogation when they had obtained whatever they wanted from us and left us to our thoughts, which were punctuated with question marks. Our simplest concern was where they were leading us in the uncharted territories of this cyclical time to which we were confined against our wills.

I wished to retreat inside my psyche, even though I was packed full of unexpected notions. I could have called myself “A man of many possibilities”—not to mention hunches. I couldn’t discern what was real.

I futilely cling to the furniture of the interrogation chamber. Even the small drafts of air provided by the fan’s blades and the daylight splattering the windows seem a luxury compared to surviving in the metal building . . . the hangar with zero amenities into which they cram us: no view, no air to breathe, no room to sit down, to dream, or even to vomit . . . .

The gloom lasted for a long, rubbery time without a tic or a toc. They didn’t let us sleep upright as we had customarily done after every interrogation session. Before slumber could creep into us, the metal building’s throat opened wide, and a khaki octopus rushed inside. Its arms coiled around us, squeezing bodies decimated by thirst, hunger, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and hunches about what they wanted from us.

They dragged away those of us they wanted, and I was among the chosen. I didn’t want to surrender and didn’t wish to resist, but we had no choice in what was happening.

Herded by their shouts, lacking any place to hide, we climbed into a truck just like the one we had come in. Any hope of seeing our cities again vanished when we saw the truck make its way through the desert with nothing above it but those luminous blisters people refer to as stars. We thought of them as vacuous, because they involuntarily betrayed our lives. The truck carried us off and passed all the landmarks from which we might have been able to return.

So this was what they had planned for us: that we would leave the metal building’s rectangle for the desert’s circle, as if geometrical figures were the vessels of death for us.

“Will they allow us to watch death arrive with our eyes wide open?” This question constricted our throats when we saw the truck stop, still in the middle of the desert.

As if they were reading our thoughts, they had an answer ready for us: “Jump!”

This was their last instruction to us. Then they began to shove us into a pit large enough to serve as a tomb for all of us.

Like a jovial host, the backhoe began to dance merrily, slamming us down on the earth’s face. Then grains of sand started to cover us like a blanket for sons shivering from the cold.

He said of the star guarding the tomb and of the sand covering him: “Once the khaki men had traveled some distance away from the heart of the desert, they saw a hand rising from the sand to show I was still alive.” How this hand was plucked from the sands of death to return to this world I leave to the reader’s imagination.

© Faleeha Hassan. Translation © 2016 William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.

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