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from the July 2011 issue

Founding Fathers

Author’s note: The Iraq in the novel is an imaginary Iraq, and I tried to use it as a symbol for all the Arab countries. Most of the characteristics of the four dictators in the novel are derived from different Arab dictators. The one who wants to modify the axis of the earth and organizes a world conference for that is clearly related to Gadhafi. Each one of them represents a certain type of dictator.

“That’s really them! Who would have believed it?”

Adil Salim al-Amir rested his elbow on the sill of the half-open window overlooking a spacious garden that extended far into the distance. The once-deceased military dictators were down there and he was up here, writing their story. But he still didn’t know where to begin or end. He came day after day to record their living history for future generations—as it had been put to him—even though he had no interest at all in these future generations, since he could form no clear idea of them.    

He felt that he himself had also become the protagonist in a tale told by the nothingness and forgetfulness from which they had emerged. No sooner had they slipped back into their old palace wearing their star-studded military uniforms than they had remembered everything they had left behind. The fires of hatreds long extinguished by time’s oblivions had suddenly flared up in their hearts, and they had been drawn back into the gloomy realms of their past glories, obliged to live in solitude as they had been in the days of their bygone might, of which now only their victims’ memories remained.

Each of them had his own wing to which he would retire angrily, snarling about what he would do if he ever met one of his foes strolling down a path between the eucalyptus trees, beneath the endless green arch that was formed by their interlocking branches, which were transfixed by occasional rays of light. He observed them row leaky boats back and forth in the crashing waves of their thoughts as they traversed the garden of their famous palace on the bank of the river with their hands clasped behind backs that were bent under the weight of all the momentous events of a century that had continued to flash lightning and explode with thunder for a long period, grinding its victims’ bones beneath its millstone till everyone forgot about it, pretending it had never existed. Only they were its last witnesses now that people had sealed their memory of that time, deleting even memories of happy days that they had suppressed from a history they refused to acknowledge—treating it as someone else’s.

They strolled along individually, smiling to themselves like demented old men, astonished by their mysterious, supernatural powers, casting affected glances from the sublimity of their heavens at everything that crept across the face of the terrestrial sphere, loading one scheme after another into bald heads that gleamed in the rays of the setting sun, continually turning these projects over in their minds like a slab of veal in a frying pan and then sniffing their penetrating aromas and plotting out their most minute details like arch-conspirators, until these schemes had fully gelled and were ready to execute under the cover of darkness. Only then would they sigh deeply, consoling themselves that next time everything would be different. Then they would look at their surroundings and mutter to themselves, “This really is the end of the world!”

When they met again in this historic palace that the municipal council had placed at their disposal, and that had been, in any case, the same palace that had once served each of them as his storm-tossed seat of power, and when they inhaled sovereignty’s scent, which was mixed with the smell of blood shed long ago in the execution yard located behind the music chamber, countless events that no one could have anticipated occurred. The first day they sat in the dining room to have lunch, the soldiers seated on benches at the entrance heard a noisy row and rushed in, weapons drawn. Then they stood there with mouths agape, because they saw that the four old men, who wore colorful, carefully pressed military uniforms with countless medals, decorations, and ribbons on their chests, were beating on the dining room table with their sticks. They were cursing, threatening, and abusing each other with the foulest language.

The young soldiers stood there astonished by this raucous clash that made them burst into laughter, because they found the generals recalling very ancient events, which no one referred to anymore, and abusing each other with words found only in dictionaries. The screams of these aged generals was heard from a distance while they exchanged slanderous invectives and barbed insults. The troops didn’t intervene to calm them down until the old men began striking each other with their sticks, which they had trouble grasping. Then, noticing the soldiers who had surrounded them, each of the generals ordered: “Arrest them!”

The soldiers, however, instead of withdrawing when faced with the attacks launched against them by the old men, who were as frenzied as old junkyard dogs, responded in a way these reincarnated dictators never would have imagined--ramming the butts of their rifles into the old men’s fragile ribs. In fact, the sergeant who led the counterattack fired into the air, causing them to tremble with fear. Even so, they continued to abuse the soldiers, ordering them to obey mandatory military orders. The battle didn’t last long; the old men, who were coughing incessantly and choking on their tears, surrendered into the youthful clutches of the soldiers, who bound their hands behind their backs and led them to their darkened rooms. They locked the doors and put the keys in their pockets, leaving the generals alone with their hatreds, in the world they had always occupied.

“They must think we’re statues in a museum!”

That evening when the soldiers came and opened the locked doors to invite them to dinner in the dining room, they continued to sit in the dark, refusing even to reply. The soldiers merely shrugged as if the matter did not concern them and went off, laughing scornfully, to the guardhouse, which was located behind the garden, to continue playing cards, deliberately forgetting their guests and saying of them insolently and impolitely, “It won’t hurt you to fast eternally! Mummies don’t need food or drink.”

On the night when the four old men began their renowned hunger strike, which following their longstanding practice they dubbed an “Honor Strike,” the wakeful soldiers at the palace saw by the light of the full moon--a shadowy figure open the window of a room, sit on its sill hanging his legs over the edge, and then deliver a long oration to the night. This was the general known as “The Saint,” whom people in his age had referred to as General Moonbeam, because he only felt like giving speeches when the moon was full, as if he were one of those vampires who are roused from their tombs by the scent of blood flowing through their victims’ veins.

The final speaker on that long, gloomy night was the fourth general, a rustic fellow with a mustache that covered his lips. In a state decree, he had given himself the title of “The Leader Loved by Two Hundred Million Arabs,” but people preferred to call him “The Poet,” on account of his rhymed, rhythmic orations. He composed and sang these as maqamas, abodhia quatrains, and love poems in rhymed free verse. Even the most resistant hearts yielded to the explosive projects of his policies.

The speeches that these old men addressed late that night to the city, which had not heard an oration in this old style for a very long time, attracted thousands of young men with long hair and young women who were searching for love. They secretly slipped away from their beds and followed the current of hot air that eventually led them to the Palace of Memories. At first they attempted to storm its locked gates, but the soldiers repulsed them and prevented them from entering, fearing an unfortunate outcome. These young people actually didn’t harbor any hostile intentions against those old men, who complained to the city throughout that long night about how time had betrayed them. The young people simply wanted to get a look at them and double-check what they had read about them in old books. None of this swayed the alert guards, who contacted the minister of defense. In response, he issued stern orders that they should prevent any outsider from entering the place, for fear the generals would escape again and flee to the mountains to hide among the gorges or that the spirit of revenge might drive a grandson of one of their many victims to make an example of them. Killing time by cuddling, the young men and women stretched out on the damp grass in the fields that surrounded the palace and refused to leave before they caught a glimpse, even if only from afar, of the past leaders who had returned from the grave.

Starting with the night that the generals delivered their addresses to the sleeping city, history became a continual festival, open day and night. Folks came from everywhere to listen intently to the past. At first the speeches seemed boring and monotonous, but that inspired the young people to add emotional appeal to them with background music. They used the jazz and rock-and-roll recordings they had brought with them for this and danced to the beat, which they skillfully slowed down or speeded up to fit the pace of the orations and maqamas that faded away into the profound darkness. Once the great palace became a point of destination for people arriving from the most remote cities on the globe, McDonald’s turned up as usual, quickly bringing its white trucks and brown laborers to build stands to sell burgers and Coca-Cola. Then the minister of tourism contacted the international firm Novotel to negotiate for their architects to build a five-star hotel, because he had received many complaints from foreign tourists, who were occasionally forced to spend cold nights out of doors. He also instructed the local transportation authority to establish a line with ten buses to link the Palace of Memories with the city’s downtown.

Jamal al-Sahir, as one might have expected, categorically rejected the idea of opening the locked gates of his palace to queues of people wishing to set eyes on the old men, who had been sequestered in their quarters of the palace since the failure of their hunger strike, which had only lasted one day. They hoped to gain back the hearts of their followers by means of their nightly orations, which incited people to rebel in a swift revolution that would return to them their lost sovereignty, which a perfidious age had wrested from them while they were momentarily distracted. The director actually was afraid that his senior statesmen wouldn’t be able to tolerate the shock of the new world with its stealth aircraft, mobile phones, talking computers, spaceships heading to the farthest planets, and girls whose specialty was sucking the last drops of life from the dry veins of old men on water beds reminiscent of a stormy sea. Better than anyone else, he knew that the generals were in thrall to a world that existed only in their imaginations and that its twisting corridors tunneled through their dementia and senility. For this reason and because he remained pessimistic and concerned about their health, he felt obliged to share his fears with the nation’s president, who had suddenly invited him to discuss turning the palace into an historic landmark open to tourists. Jamal al-Sahir asked and almost begged the president to allow his elderly statesmen to enjoy their solitude, but the young president, who possessed the cunning of a fox, replied with unexpected coolness, “In the past, we paid dearly for their solitude. Today, they should pay us dearly for our solitude. Don’t worry: it won’t kill them.”

Many announcements were posted on the walls of the city and appeared in local newspapers as colored supplements proclaiming joyfully that the locked gates of the Palace of Memories would soon be opened to admit visitors six days a week—like any other national museum in the world. These advertisements were actually quite clever. In one, the saintly General Moonbeam was depicted swimming through outer space. Another showed the general known as “The Poet” shaking hands with the major twentieth-century poet Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi. The caption read: “The president rhymes too.” Most remarkable of all, however, was the advertisement featuring a commemorative photo of the four former dictators with open mouths and fiery eyes. The slogan was: “Future, wait for us; we’ll be back!”

Jamal al-Sahir didn’t know what he could show visitors. He said to himself, “Damn! They’re not lions or leopards or even rabbits that I can place in cages for people to stare at.” They were definitely not stone statues in a museum that observers could inspect without them batting an eyelash. They were human beings of flesh and blood, even if they themselves refused to admit it, considering themselves a unique phenomenon.

In the beginning they were reluctant to meet with Jamal al-Sahir and holed up in their quarters, feeling that something was being covertly plotted against them. Moreover, they were unwilling to accept any mediation between them that would lead to their forgetting their past differences. Jamal al-Sahir, however, visited one after the other in their quarters, kissed them on the shoulders the way people did back in their day, and informed them that what he wanted was for them to sit again on the cozy chair of sovereignty and thus to return to the fatherland, which false prophets of liberty had ravaged, the now extinguished glow of dictatorship. He concluded his remarks with the fervent chant that had frequently sprung from the lips of people in their era:

Fire, fire, fire!
Long live our sire!

His cunning actually succeeded in drawing them to a peace conference, which pumped lots of fresh water through their old channels and motivated them to share power among themselves rather than shed more blood and--in the long run--accomplish nothing. They agreed to rotate power on a weekly basis, taking turns.

“This is all there is to it; I’m not asking for anything impossible.”

His suggestion was actually quite simple. In the new era of shared power, each of them in succession would sit on his throne--in his quarters or on the balcony--and wave to the general public, who would pass before him, holding flags and banners and loudly wishing him a long life. This suggestion immediately revived them.

The next morning the Palace of Memories opened its gates to visitors, who filled it to bursting to see the former leaders who had once proved disastrous for the country. Most were schoolchildren accompanied by their teachers, and they received stern warnings in the entry vestibule to stay calm and quiet when passing beneath the former dictators’ balcony. Jamal al-Sahir feared that some zealots opposed to past eras might launch an attack that would ruin the whole project. For this reason, in his statement in the guide that was handed out free of charge, he belabored the point that these former leaders were historical artifacts of great significance and that public should refrain from touching or harming them. Thus throngs began to pass before these elder statesmen silently as if marching in a funeral procession, even though the ex-dictators continued to wave to them from time to time, astonished by the public’s silence and suspicious composure. Despite all his precautions, exactly what Jamal al-Sahir had feared did occur when some visitors responded to the waves of the leaders of yesteryear by giving them the finger. Fortunately they seemed not to have noticed these obscene gestures, because they were near-sighted. After standing on the balcony for half an hour they grew tired and withdrew to a bullet-proof glass chamber where they sat drinking tea and coffee and playing chess, oblivious to the queues of people on the tour. Then these visitors would stop and glare silently at them. Some fathers carrying children on their shoulders would pause and point at the reincarnated generals, exclaiming, “Look! Those men were evil dictators! They killed millions.”

To the children, however, they looked like mild-mannered old geezers who smiled at them from afar. So some children yelled, as they waved to the old men, “No! They look like Grandpa.”

Other children, who escaped from the hands of their mothers and fathers, pressed their faces against the glass to see the dictators up close. Then the elder statesmen would stick out their tongues at them, teasing and kidding with them. That caused most of the children to panic and race back to their fathers and mothers for cover, charging that the leaders wanted to eat them. Their fathers would laugh and reply, “No, they’re nothing but senile old men.”

Actually the first day was really rough. The palace director had doubted that they could take all the exertion involved in humoring the curiosity of the masses, who paused beneath the balcony, waiting for them to emerge from the glass chamber. When that didn’t happen, some visitors started to shout loudly, “Hey! Come out here, you evil old men, so we can see you.” But the guards intervened and moved them away.

It was a truly tiring day for Jamal al-Sahir, who deliberately stayed close to them in order to supervise matters at close hand. Thus he noticed things he hadn’t consider before. He saw, for example, how difficult it would be for them to continue their familiar daily routine in the Palace of Memories surrounded by these human torrents. He thought it wasn’t right to imprison them all day long in that glass chamber. How about their siesta, which they needed, and their walks in the garden? It was obvious to him that he would need to alter the schedule of visits so it wouldn’t exhaust them.

Actually, as soon as he met with them that evening at the dinner table and asked about their reactions to the first day, they started to complain. “It was a truly exhausting day. Matters can’t continue like this. We should respect the desire of our people to see us and offer their allegiance to us once more, but there must be some limits, because they may grow too familiar with us and thus lose their awe of us.”

So Jamal al-Sahir asked, “What do you suggest then?”

The general known as “The Saint” replied, “Wouldn’t it be good if we met the people only on holidays and festivals and addressed them the way we always have?”

The palace director replied, “That’s a really good idea, but what can we show the general public on the other days?”

The general known as “The Poet” said, “We agreed from the start that we would take turns, ruling a week at a time. This should relieve all the others of any duty toward the public during their off weeks.”

So the time they stood on the balcony was limited to only half an hour, beginning at ten a.m. The periods allotted to sitting in the glass chamber were from ten-thirty till twelve and in the evening from five to seven. This solution allowed the elderly statesmen to continue their daily walks in the garden and to enjoy sleeping in their quarters, far from the eyes of curious visitors. This schedule also gave them what Jamal al-Sahir called free time, when they could meet journalists eager to conduct interviews with them in exchange for large sums of money.

The initial onslaught soon subsided as people eventually grew accustomed to them and the problems of daily life distracted potential visitors from any discussion of the aged generals who had lived long ago. Then the only visitors were sullen foreign tourists, who wanted souvenir pictures of themselves with the ex-dictators. They themselves enjoyed their new life as retirees so thoroughly that they stopped plotting—in the dark--new rebellions against each other. Finally they abandoned the official schedule that obliged them to stand on the balcony and sit in the glass chamber. Then Jamal al-Sahir was forced to substitute plastic mannequins that looked just like them. These stood on the balcony all day long and waved nonstop. Others sat in the glass chamber and played chess. He added a striking feature when he installed throughout the palace numerous speakers that broadcast to the visiting public the generals’ speeches from recordings loaned by the secret archives of the Baghdad radio station. These were interrupted at times by the revolutionary anthems they had normally used to start their revolutions. He also set aside a special room to show film and TV footage of them, recorded in bygone days. Thus the elderly statesmen were relieved of all the exhausting burdens that had been forced on them.

From al-Aslaf (Köln: Al-Kamel Verlag, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Fadhil al-Azzawi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.

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