My city—Mosul—was economical even in its delights. During its unhurried spring, which was fragrant with the scents of grass and wild flowers, there were only a few places for people to go on excursions. When they were unable to enjoy an outing, they would tell the following story.
A young woman wished to leave her house for an outing, but her husband objected: “What can a person find outside that he doesn’t find at home?”
The woman replied, “Grass. I want to lie down on the grass.”
The man left for an hour and then returned, trailed by a porter, whom he led to the dwelling’s roof terrace. Then he asked the laborer to empty the sack he was carrying on the roof. It was filled with grass, which he spread across the terrace. Then the man told his wife: “You wanted grass. Here is some grass for you to lie down on.”
What a sagacious story! A husband could tell his wife this story and she would abandon her persistent pleas to go out after being convinced or pretending to be convinced. A mother would tell the story to her children, even if she failed to convince them. A child definitely wants grass that is growing, grass that rises vertically from the ground and sinks its roots down into the earth, grass that resists a hand that attempts to pluck it, grass that doesn’t wilt after an hour or two, and grass adorned with tiny flowers.
In the old houses resembling forts, roses didn’t grow, but huge mulberry trees did. There were two giant trees in our house. One reached across the street to form a bridge over it, extending its branches to the neighbors’ roof. It violated human laws, recognizing only arboreal ones. Every now and then there would be a knock on the door; someone would be asking us to prune these branches. This tree provided only skimpy, white mulberries. The second tree spread its leaves over the expansive courtyard of the house. These fell in the autumn, and we would scarcely have finished sweeping them up when new leaves sprouted here and there. In summer it stained the earth with purple and black spots. My brother would climb it and shake one of its branches. Then it would rain down heavy, juicy, black berries. The moment these hit the ground their juice would leave a stain. Occasionally a branch would collapse from their weight and sink into their sugary blood. This would happen once or twice when the mulberries were at the peak of their ripeness. Whoever shook the branches would climb them one after the other, gathering berries to fill oval containers lined with grape leaves. Then we children would take them to homes in the quarter. On other days, there would be a knock at the door, and a woman carrying a container would look in. “I want some mulberries for my children.” Occasionally children we didn’t recognize would come. No one stopped them from entering the courtyard to gather the berries that had fallen. It was everyone’s tree. Our tree was more than thirty years old. Only my mother knew when it had been planted. Even she didn’t know the day or year—but she could place it in a sequence of events. Many new trees in nearby houses had been propagated from this one; it would take many years before they topped the roofs of the houses and formed a canopy across the street.
Flowers were not grown inside the house until a later period. In those early years there were enough flowers in the open countryside to satisfy all the children. The story of the man who carried grass to his house notwithstanding, women used to go out on excursions with their children to a few nearby places like Qadib al-Ban and al-Ard al-Siniya. The latter was a strangely level field. It was an extensive area all of the same green. It had no rises or dips. It was just a green field so level that it seemed to have been graded. In my early childhood, before I started school, I saw this place once or twice. I carried home from it a wound that has never healed and a pure, deep sorrow that no adult facts could wash away. At the time we were to return home, a big, round moon appeared at the edge of that level expanse—just grazing it or slightly above it. I thought I could stretch out my hand and take it. I ran toward it but had only gone a short distance when my mother called me back or ran after me and grabbed my shoulder. Everyone had risen and collected their belongings—rugs, containers, and tea glasses—and they were preparing to leave. The moon hung there at the edge of the earth; it was so low and close that I could have touched it—but I wasn’t allowed to.
In the few other places suitable for outings, little clover blossoms perfumed the spring. Small white, yellow, and pink blooms were announced by their unmistakable scent. They spread modestly through the grass. There were also bright yellow melilot flowers in great abundance; we picked them and then abandoned them. What I loved best of all were the anemones. We found them on the slopes of the Nineveh Tell and on the level ground surrounding it. Colored a dazzling red, they popped out of the grass, laughing at us. When we touched their petals, they would fly away. So we would search for flowers that had opened only that morning. We would collect a small cluster of them, but they would have wilted before we reached home. We carried them back with us all the same and soaked them in water. When we realized that they wouldn’t regain their beauty, we tossed them out. Even so, we would have brought back something from our excursion. Those wilting flowers had distributed their fragrance, the scent of the outdoors, through the reaches of our house.
In the more distant places where we went on excursions, it was possible to discover narcissus—that most precious flower of all. Even though Muhammad had never reached these faraway areas outside our city, its inhabitants believed that the narcissus had first grown when God’s Prophet sat down to a meal of bread and hard-boiled eggs. When some of the yolk and white fell to the ground, the narcissus grew in that place with the same yellow and white. These flowers of the Prophet had a dizzying fragrance that rose from blooms scattered through the grass. Finding one here would mean there were others waiting to be found. Here’s another! I search around me and suddenly find a field of narcissus in bloom and an unforgettable delight explodes inside me, but it is a delight that turns to dejection in the breast, to a pure, overwhelming grief. These flowers refuse to be possessed. I pluck some of them and then stop. I want all of them. I want this whole field of narcissus. On the way home, a vehicle stops, and all the children jump into it, carrying bouquets of narcissus. You could buy a bouquet or two for ten fils. In the city, mounds of these flowers piled up on the sidewalk beneath the post office clock.
All I remember about Qadib al-Ban is the name. Perhaps I never went there or perhaps I saw it when I was too young for memories to stick. What I do recall is a story packed with sorrow that we heard time after time, because its grim nature deeply affected us. Not even the happy ending could restore our childish delight.
A girl made yet another trip to fill a pail of water from Qadib al-Ban, a tomb and deserted mosque out in the country. In the courtyard water taps were arranged in a long row like faucets at a school. The girl performed this task all day long, carrying buckets of water to the house, because her cruel stepmother forced her to work harder than an adolescent girl could. This time, though, after she filled her pail, she discovered that the outer door had locked behind her. She pounded on the door with her fist, calling out the names of everyone she knew, but no one heard her cries. She wept, but the door did not open. Now evening had fallen, and the murky gloom, the frightening darkness, was creeping inside. The girl searched the rooms, one after the other, without finding anyone. In the last room, she saw the sleeping prince with a fan near his head. She remained there seven years rotating the fan without cease. On the last day of the seventh year, a woman in black came and volunteered: “No doubt you’re tired; let me help you.” No sooner had the woman picked up the fan and set it in motion than the prince awoke.
He asked, “Are you the person who has been fanning me all these seven years?”
The prince decided to marry this woman, assuming it was his destiny. He planned to go to the city the next day to purchase for his princess everything she desired. When he saw the teenage girl, he asked her, “How about you? What may I give you?”
The girl requested, “A doll of patience.”
A patience doll is a companion for solitude, a toy for a person who has been abandoned and has no one to defend him. With no one else to complain to, this person confides in the doll, because it has a greater ability than he does to swallow cares. The prince purchased a companion doll for the girl, and the vendor advised him to hide behind the door after he gave it to her. “Once the girl finishes her confession, rush to the doll and remove its head.” But the girl’s cares were too huge for the doll to bear. While it listened, the doll swelled up. As it continued to listen, it swelled even more. The moment the girl concluded her story, the doll’s capacity was surpassed and it exploded.
The prince understood what had happened. So he threw out the evil woman and married the girl.
We never paid nearly as much attention to this ending as we did to the way the patience doll exploded from sorrow and to the abused girl’s suffering, because sorrow has a longer afterlife than quick, happy endings. Sorrow grows with a story and sinks its roots deep into the heart.
We listened with great interest as well to the exchange between the girl and her stepmother in another story. “Go bring us a live coal from the neighbor woman.”
We followed the girl as she entered the house of this woman, who was eating. She gave the girl a burning ember and some of the food she was eating to take back to her house.
Then the stepmother told the girl, “If you go back a second time, she’ll give you more. Throw the ember down on the road and return to her.”
The second time, the neighbor told the girl, “Don’t come back again. We slaughtered what was dearest to us to prepare this food.”
The girl reported these words to her stepmother. The evil inside her was awakened, and she ordered the girl, “Go call your brother.”
The girl went back out on the road, stood some distance from the Qur’an school where her brother Muhammad was studying, and began to call him, “Muhammad—come, but don’t come close. They have sharpened the knives at the doors of the shops. Muhammad, come, but don’t come close.”
This cry wounded our hearts. Then we experienced the type of sorrow that isn’t dissipated by weeping while we anticipated apprehensively what would happen next.
The girl continued calling out, because she could not disobey her stepmother. The boy went back home, where the evil woman slaughtered him and threw his bones down the well. With his flesh, she made a tasty dish of shifte—spicy grilled ground meat with onion and parsley—that her husband ate and praised. When she told him what she had done, he wasn’t upset. The young girl, however, tarried by the well, weeping for her brother.
The story didn’t end there, because no story ends like this. Everyone was gone one day, and only the girl had not abandoned her vigil by the well.
This time she heard a moan. She asked, “Who’s there?”
She heard a voice coming from deep inside the well: “I’m Muhammad. Throw me a rope so I can climb out.” Muhammad had returned from the dead, resurrected from the bones that had sunk in the well. Then he avenged himself on his father and stepmother.
We long thirsted with them for vengeance and celebrated his righteous revenge. All the same, what we loved best was her despairing cry, “Muhammad, come, but don’t come close.”
We would sit quietly near my mother listening to the same stories day after day without ever feeling bored. My mother didn’t know many stories by heart—five or six at the most. We could, however, often listen to an elderly neighbor woman narrate some of her tales. We sat in a circle around her early in the morning in the house’s courtyard. We would collect ten children, or perhaps more, and listen. She told stories we hadn’t heard, long stories, and almost all of them introduced another tale as they neared the end. We would listen without growing tired. Whenever we began to listen to a new story, we hoped it wouldn’t end. The sun would rise over the wall, advance to one side of the courtyard, and continue its march, lighting new stretches of the earth. When we felt its heat on our heads, the woman would conclude her story. We would protest noisily, “It’s not over!”
“No, it’s done.”
“Tell us another story then.”
The woman would say, “That will be tomorrow morning. Wait till then. The sun has found us.” We would look around, and the courtyard would be almost glowing with light and the bright line creeping toward the shade would be a few steps from us. We would rush to my mother and find that she had our meal ready. The next day we would wait for our elderly neighbor to tell us her tales, those long, tumultuous stories that we weren’t able to memorize. My mother’s stories, however, were more sorrowful. My older sister heard them before us and had a greater skill at inventing details. She was faithful to the stories, though, and would not allow any tinkering with them.
I would say shyly to my mother, “Tell us the story of ‘The Doll of Patience.’” Then she would hesitate. She could not believe that I actually wanted to hear it, but would respond to my urging. She would begin her story with just the same hesitant voice, the same serious delivery, and the same neutral inflection. But I would discover that she had forgotten many details and that I remembered more of it than she did.
My father’s stories were less morose. They were stories of knights who crossed deserts on horseback, charged into battles, and performed noble deeds, even if they died alone in the desert or were ill-fated. Then “the donkey’s colt would pee on the head of the lion’s cub,” who was an exile in a strange land, struggling against death, and unable to move.
Out of my school textbook, I once read to my father a chapter from the story of Khawla Bint al-Azwar, and my voice filled with enthusiasm as I repeated:
We are the daughters of the Tubba‘ and of Himyar,
And the stroke of our sword cannot be denied.
I don’t know whether my father was really paying attention to me or listening to his own internal dialogue.
© Salima Saleh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.