In this excerpt from writer Nadia Al-Kokabany's Ali Muhsin Market, a silver-tongued young man lives to regret convincing his brother of a scheme to earn a few extra bucks in the midst of the Yemeni Revolution of 2011–12.
18 March 2011
With all his smooth talk about making money, Mehdi Al-Rimy convinced his younger brother to work Fridays in the bustling revolutionary square, which throbbed with visitors and men going to prayer. On those days, it was easy to collect the many plastic bottles littered across the square to make some quick cash. Mehdi’s mother, like most of the women of Madhbah, said that the square is full of vandals who take drugs and sleep with girls in the tents, that the protestors are paid to be there, that they are armed and their revolution isn’t peaceful like they claim it is. She’d forbidden both of them from going there, even after Mehdi tried to convince her he was only interested in earning money—whether in the revolutionary square or elsewhere – but this did nothing to curb her anger.
Mehdi’s brother was excited about the prospect of working one day a week. He’d make more in that one day than he did with his usual odd jobs: selling nearly expired goods on a street cart for discount prices in Ali Muhsin Market, calling out to passers-by through a bus window to attract passengers, collecting copper from discarded wires in dumpsters and selling it, and picking through the bags waiting for the garbage truck to find plastic bottles, tin cans, and used wires that he could take without guilt. Mehdi also convinced Younes to work Fridays, tempting him as he had with his brother. The money would bring Younes a little closer to fulfilling his dream of owning a live poultry shop—all he had to do was tell his mother he was going to Friday prayer, then to hang out with his friends, and that he wouldn’t be back before sunset.
The two started their new job, dropping by the wheat vendors to collect plastic bags. They sat in a corner and began to take them apart, sewing them into two large bags for collecting bottles, and then headed to the square. Mehdi met them there with the bottles of cold water he was going to sell the worshippers, to be collected by his brother and Younes as soon they’d been emptied. He told them to keep working after prayer ended—into the late afternoon, passing by the tents to collect what they could from the groups of men sitting inside chewing khat. He showed them a good place to flatten the bottles with rocks so they could fit more in their bags before heading to the recycling depot.
That Friday afternoon, things were different. The square was suffocated by cement walls surrounding it from three sides. Earlier, the pro-regime neighborhoods around the square had built walls up over the asphalt to stop the tents from creeping into their areas. Gray cement blocks piled on top of each other, six feet high—inducing claustrophobia and the fear that they could collapse at any moment.
Mehdi walked between the rows of worshippers, selling water. Mehdi’s brother gathered the empty plastic bottles. Since the beginning of the revolution, more men had come to pray at the square with each passing Friday. That Friday, small children walked in front of their fathers, carrying their prayer rugs on their shoulders. Most of the men wore white shirts and black coats, with small, decorative janbiya daggers at their waists. The children were small, radiant copies of their fathers, whose stern features on that afternoon—glowing with the fire of the sun and the revolution—betrayed fear and anxiety.
Some took out umbrellas to protect themselves from the merciless blaze of the noon sun as they listened to the sermon and prayed on the asphalt. Others could not find shelter and drizzled water onto their heads and those of their children to quench the sun’s rays, providing relief from the scorching heat, even if for a moment. The worshippers packed themselves into jubilant rows to listen to the Friday sermon: the Friday of Dignity. The protestors had taken to giving every Friday protest a name representing each phase of the revolution. Last week had been the Friday of Anger, before that had been Friday of the Beginning. The preacher finished his sermon and called the congregation to prayer. Stillness swept over the square and people submitted themselves in prayer. As prayer ended, fumes of thick smoke burst into the sky and the worshippers looked toward their source—they came from behind the grim cement barrier to the south. The smoke rose until it overtook the neighboring buildings, tongues of flame rose angrily fanned by gusts of wind. People took off in all directions, afraid the wall would collapse on them as young men jostled to save those behind the wall.
To everyone's shock, the square was pierced by the sound of bullets aimed at the worshippers’ chests. Death opened its jaws wide to consume them; it had no need to hide behind excuses like it did on ordinary days. It was blunt, definite, let loose by people who wanted nothing else, who would not be satisfied until they saw those bodies—draped in white clothing and the purity of worship—covered in blood. No one realized what was happening until blood began to flow on the asphalt and people collapsed onto the ground. The crowd started looking for other walls to hide behind, to escape the death pouring down on them from the smoke-filled sky overhead, brought by rooftop snipers whose faces were concealed by masks, save for their eyes targeting the hearts and heads of people below.
Mehdi’s brother rushed toward a startled Younes who was looking for him. He was the only face he knew in the crowd, a guardian to tell him what was happening, what to do, how to survive. Something he didn’t recognize leaped in front of him. It might have been his heart, or his mother’s heart visiting him in that moment—that no one could see but him. Mehdi’s brother didn’t know how to explain the panic overtaking him just then and settled for silence—his expression itself a cry of terror and fear. Where is Mehdi? Where do we escape? And in the space of a moment his features transformed completely: became calm, smiling, serene as if looking at his mother—her arms open to hold him, not angry as he expected but stroking his back, arms around him as he gazed at his crazed father who waved as if to say good-bye. Behind the window, he saw the neighbor’s daughter—a year younger than him—looking desolate in the corner where they used to meet, yelling something in Mehdi’s face that he couldn’t hear. In the distance, he imagined he saw the sister who died on her wedding night, arms open, hand beckoning him to come, to go with her.
Mehdi’s brother couldn’t explain all this to Younes, couldn’t think of an explanation other than the serene look he gave him. They searched for an exit to save themselves, or a wall to shelter them. Younes left the unsold half of the water carton behind, and Mehdi’s brother carried the bag of bottles on his back. As they were about to enter a side street to the main route, Younes felt something. And when they stopped in front of the small house that opened its door to shelter them, Mehdi’s brother dropped to the ground. Younes turned to look at him, asking what was wrong. When he didn’t get an answer, he knew he had been shot. But where? Not a drop of blood spilled from his body.
Mehdi’s brother put the bag down and pushed his back up against the wall to rest. He looked at Younes with a dazed expression. Was it because of what happened to him? Or what was happening around him? Or was it that something overtook him in that moment, something he couldn’t express? His small body rolled off the wall, his legs kicking the bag of bottles away. He slowly closed his eyes, and went into a deep sleep. A terrified Younes shook his body to move him, held his eyes open to wake him up. And when he failed to save him, he despaired and began to scream, clasping the small body against his own. Strangers around him chanted:
There is no God but Allah
The martyr is beloved by Allah
Younes rejected their words: “No, not a martyr. He’s not dead, just dizzy from fear and the sound of gunfire.” He asked them to help move him to the field hospital. The owner of the house—his door open for those seeking safety—threw him a black blanket he could use to move the young body to hospital. Younes quickly found help amid the spirit of solidarity surrounding them—others, too, carried those who had fallen, rescued those who were bleeding but alive. The sniper’s bullet was clever and precise, hitting its target on first attempt and choosing targets—head, heart, neck—that could only end in death or tragic disability.
Younes wanted to charge forward with the small body lying in the heart of the black blanket, the body he carried with a stranger toward the field hospital. On the way, he saw a panic-stricken Mehdi heading in the opposite direction and called out to stop him. Mehdi looked around for the voice that was calling him and when he saw Younes, jumped across to him. He looked at him pleadingly, scared and apprehensive, trying not to ask anything about his brother. Younes was silent. Mehdi al-Rimi wanted to tell Younes about all the horrors in the world, but instead he said: that is the body of my brother. Mehdi took the place of the stranger, holding the edge of the blanket, and they headed toward the field hospital. They wanted to move quickly enough to defeat time, quickly enough that he would still be alive when they arrived.
The mosque at the beginning of New University Street, near the protest stage, had been converted into a field hospital. In the mosque courtyard, medical equipment had been installed and toilets had been built for visitors. Mehdi did not know where to go, where to turn for help. He stood stunned in the doorway. In the front courtyard, the constant ringing of ambulance sirens grew louder as more and more wounded arrived and their families flocked to see them. When Mehdi and Younes approached the stand for receiving the wounded, a nurse asked Mehdi if the person in the blanket was injured or a martyr. When he couldn’t find an answer to her question, she asked him to follow her. Mehdi placed his brother on the ground, shocked at the number of bodies around him. Some bleeding, others writhing in pain, some completely motionless. The nurse asked a doctor to examine the new arrival. It was obvious to the doctor that the body in front of him was dead. The cowardly bullet that had pierced his heart made sure he would no longer peddle bottles of water or return home to his mother.
The nurse tried to calm Mehdi and asked him to notify the family of the deceased, if he knew them. She wrote the number 18 on a body tag and placed it across the small corpse, using a white string to tie his hands together atop his chest. A cloth and another piece of string were used to hold his jaw together. His eyes remained closed as if he were in a deep sleep.
Outside, bullets continued piercing bodies, making no distinction between revolutionaries and those who had nothing to do with the revolution. Tall and short bodies, thin and fat, big and small: from noon until sunset, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced a state of emergency in Sana’a. State television announced that over forty had fallen victim to unidentified snipers from nearby neighborhoods opposed to the protests in the square. After the state of emergency was announced, a revolutionary cry shook the square: There is no God but Allah, the martyr is beloved by Allah.
Mehdi lay still beside his brother’s corpse, tears falling thick, a storm of contradictions raging inside him. He held his head in his hands, burying it between his knees as if trying to preserve what was left of his mind, trying to hide his tears. His guilt over bringing his brother to the square added to his pain—he had met his death having done nothing wrong, only trying to earn a living. Incredulous and without words, he watched as more bodies continued to pour into the hospital.
Younes asked Mehdi if he could leave—there was nothing they could do for the body lying covered there before them except shed more tears. He had no means to console Mehdi, so he held him and stroked his shoulder before leaving the square, heavy with pain. As he arrived home, he tried to leave the pain at the front door so the horror of what had happened wouldn’t show on his face. Walking through the door, he started to tell his mother about the day he’d spent with his friends and went to bed early to avoid giving further explanations. Given the chance, she would have certainly have more questions: Why did he look so tired? What was behind his absent stare? Where had the dirt on his clothes come from, why did they look as though they’d been dyed in black smoke? But he could not sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed, trying to wrest those hours from his memory, those moments when death had clung to him like an unwanted friend shadowing each step that he and Mehdi’s brother had taken.
From Ali Muhsen Souq. © Nadia Al-Kokabany. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Thoraya El-Rayyes. All rights reserved.