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from the September 2010 issue

Visiting the Morgue

Am I really being pursued?

Where is my corpse?

When he reached the coffeehouse at the entrance to Bab al-Mu‘azzam Square, Yusuf changed his mind and didn’t enter, even though it had begun to open its doors and even though he had been eager to drink a morning cup of tea.  Sensing that two men had been tailing him since he left home, he decided to continue on his way.  Then seeing two officers in sunglasses and helmets emerge from one of several military vehicles lined up in front of the coffeehouse, he chose to leave the area immediately.  He didn’t want to have to think about a surprise incident —a bomb exploding, an unexpected attack, or an exchange of gunfire—but hated seeing soldiers even more, regardless of their nationality and appearance.  That was why he had tried as best he could since leaving home to traverse back alleys to avoid seeing any troops, local or foreign.  Yusuf thought he would take a detour around the parked vehicles to check his hunch that he was being followed.  He would have liked to turn around to see what the two men looked like but feared that the movement would provoke them.  They might well be armed; except for him, who wasn’t nowadays?   The best plan was to walk forward and not look back, just letting what would happen happen.  He decided to head straight to the Medical City complex to check in the coroner’s office to determine once and for all whether his brother’s corpse had in fact been received at the morgue—as he and his family had been told—more than ten years ago.

The idea of checking at the morgue was an old one that he had postponed more than once, so often that it had seemed a long-range plan till now.  When he had left the house two or three hours before, this idea might have seemed stupid or futile.  Even if it were a good idea and he found the name in the records (if there still were any records), who could guarantee that this evidence would convince anyone?

At the end of Bab al-Mu‘azzam Square, just before the access to the 17th of July Bridge (al-‘Aywaziya Bridge), Yusuf entered the Medical City complex and headed straight to the coroner’s office, passing vendors selling flowers, bottled drinks, or tea and merchants with shops or small tables where they displayed their wares: sweets, bottles of juice, personal care products like cosmetics, soap, razors, and shampoo, and cigarettes—all counterfeit brands.  Beside the walkway, which was lined by scattered trees, water sellers clustered near a crush of young men pulling medium-sized generators.  Each was loudly hawking his wares, with the exception of a small group of youngsters who sat in a distant corner and clutched small pieces of cardboard as if waiting for something.

This sight astonished Yusuf.  He hadn’t been here for at least twenty years, and back then he hadn’t entered, but had simply looked from outside when he left the prison of the security agency’s directorate in the Ministry of Defense, which had been opposite the hospital back then.  He remembered the hospital’s clean façade and its green paint.  The building had changed completely and turned into a small bazaar swarming with customers.  It was hard to tell whether the people assembled there had come to shop or to visit the Medical City.  Despite the area’s transformation from the small, more orderly bazaar of the past, he was struck especially by the presence of villagers sprawled on the ground, smoking.  All the same, Yusuf hadn’t forgotten his way around.  He walked forward on automatic pilot, as if he had long known the building.  He suddenly remembered that he had worked here for a week or two, a month or two, or even a year or two but could no longer remembered exactly when, despite his habit of recording dates.  As best as he could recollect, that had been during the war years.  (But which war?  The nation had endured wars ever since it was established.)  In those days he had been transferred frequently from one government bureau to another.   Those temporary positions were actually the ones he found most terrifying.

Yusuf shoved the revolving door of the entrance to the inner building of the Medical City.  When he reached the hall that led to the offices, he stopped as if struck by lightning.  The scene boggled the mind; people packed the hall and their clamor was deafening.  Yusuf made his way with difficulty through this crowd.  He was surprised to find himself proceeding as if he were an employee there and knew the place like the back of his hand.  Without consulting anyone he entered the office of the clerk in charge of death certificates.  The other people there allowed him through, as though they considered him an employee in the Medical City complex, or were accustomed to seeing him there.

These were all men.  It was difficult to imagine a woman there.  All signs indicated that these men had been stationed there for a long time—“from even before the Medical City complex was built” or, as Yusuf told himself sarcastically, “since the beginning of time.”  Their appearance confirmed his suspicion.  Their faces were tired, dusty, and old.  Their clothes were threadbare and some of their garments were torn.  Most of these men had bare, cracked feet.  Their hands were dirty and their bodies stank of sweat and filth.  The way they were clustered together there, they seemed to be combating misery, squalor, and solitude.

Yusuf soon noticed that they appeared to be taking turns standing there, as if by a time-honored agreement.  One group stood at the forefront, nearest the employees’ door.  One group slept stretched out in the middle of the hallway.  The ones behind them sat and leaned against the wall.  Others were squatting and also leaning against the wall.  The last group was closest to Yusuf.  As he looked at them, he heard someone accost him.  It was the last man squatting there.

“Please sit down,” the man invited him in a feeble, hoarse voice.

Yusuf gazed at the man, who was actually a youth in his late twenties.  His face was pale, and although he had long hair, Yusuf could see that his ears had been cut off.

“I hope you have plenty of time.  You can wait here for days on end.  It’s not like our experience at the hospital in al-Shama‘iya.”

When he squatted down beside the man, Yusuf heard him ask, “Do you still smoke the same cigarettes?”

Yusuf apologized with a nod of his head and tried to ignore what he had said, because the man was speaking as if they had met previously.

“That’s better for you.  Smoking is bad for your health, and a man needs to safeguard his health in times like this.”

Yusuf didn’t know whether the young man was joking or not, but then the big-framed, sallow-faced man who was squatting beside him,  and who had a strange mark on his brow, like a cigarette burn—or something like that—entered the conversation.  “That’s what I always told the soldiers in my unit: Don’t smoke.  The enemy will detect our positions from the flaming tips of your cigarettes.  But they were stupid and didn’t listen to me.  They all died in the battle.  I might just as well have pissed in a river!  I believe treachery was involved.” 

The youth replied, “Please forget treachery.  The current matter is more important than anything else.  Your problem is well known.  Ever since you were admitted to the mental hospital you haven’t wanted to forget.”

The burly man responded scornfully, “Every remark you make contains a reference to some obscure problem.  You talk about my problem and say I don’t forget.  But you should think about yourself, especially since we both come from the same hospital.  The moment a man forgets something, the next moment he needs to remember it to think about it.  The case is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg—a case that’s very hard on a military commander like me who doesn’t accept defeat.” Then he began to cry like a baby.  He grasped Yusuf’s arm and entreated him to look as he gestured with his chin toward his shoulders to show Yusuf the two stars and a crown on the epaulettes of his shabby military uniform.

Then he added, “Although I believe we’ve known each other for a long time, allow me to introduce myself.  I’m Colonel Salih Abdallah Mutlak al-Jiburi, Commander of the First Company in the Second Infantry Division.”

He rose, stood at attention, and then sat again.  That all happened as quickly as if they were performing live on a stage, in the midst of the turmoil of the petitioners.  For a moment, Yusuf reflected: what if these two are the men who have been tailing me since I left home this morning?  They spoke as if they had known him for a long time, and their persistent talk of forgetting was suspicious.  How could they know he himself was committed to forgetting?  Yusuf felt surrounded.

The man who had said he was a colonel suddenly began to speak as he pointed to the throngs of people there. “These are my soldiers, the soldiers of the First Company of the Second Infantry Division.  We’re here because for us the war hasn’t ended.  Just as the war began early for us, sixteen days before its official start, it didn’t end for us with the fall of our beloved capital.  It’s possible that it will last for years more.  Ever since that day, since the wise leadership asked us to withdraw from our front in Kirkuk and to move toward Baghdad, we’ve been fighting, searching for the enemy who hasn’t shown himself to us yet, even though we’ve lost many from our ranks.  We moved under the cover of a sandstorm and succeeded first in reaching the northeast of our beloved capital with only limited casualties despite the air raids to which we were subjected.  We began to feel the actual, fiery, terrifying might of the attacking forces.  The attack to which my unit of four thousand was exposed resulted in the death of eight hundred soldiers.  But our remaining forces stood firm and blocked the attack of the enemy’s infantry three days before the fall of our beloved capital.  During the last two days of the battle about two thousand of my soldiers fell.  Then an order reached us from the command to lead our forces once more to our base in the north of the country.  Why?  Only God and the Leader know.  The former created us and walked away.  The latter got us into trouble and stayed.  He said: ‘Retreat.’  We said: ‘We are God’s and are retreating to God.’  We retreated but on the way were attacked again.  More than half of the remaining forces fled, exchanged their uniforms for civilian attire, and headed to their homes to protect their reputations, wives, and daughters.  As for me, unfortunately, I was overwhelmed by an instinct of self-preservation that erased my military discipline.”

The huge man paused, choked by tears.

The young man said to him consolingly, “I’ll make you forget everything.  You just need to be patient.  I promise that one day you’ll forget that one of them tortured.”

The man wiped his snot on his shirtsleeve and continued, “When our beloved capital fell, the beautiful capital, our heart’s delight, we were crushed.  The battle ended then.  I told myself: We don’t know what we can do.  A person can’t decide what’s a plus or a minus.  Then I asked my heroic troops and the valiant officers to head to their homes and to protect their honor there and not to leave their women alone ever again.  It doesn’t matter if the country is lost, but it’s disgraceful if cunts are.  Everything except personal honor is negotiable.  The Prophet said: ‘Honor, then honor, then honor.’  When I remember that day, I feel despicable even now.  When I asked a military driver, a Southerner, to take me to my house in al-Huwayja, what would this Shuruki1 call me? A coward?  The moment I reached home I took off my uniform and headed to my bedroom.  I stayed home for seven days feeling devastated by everything that had happened.”

He fell silent and bowed his head as if he actually felt disgraced.  The young man with no ears patted his shoulder and told him, “I’ll make you forget.  Don’t worry.  I promise you'll forget that one of them tortured you.”

The huge man lifted his head a little and gently touched the young man’s hand.  “Thanks, Ali.  You’re a loyal soldier.  I know.” 

Then he turned toward Yusuf.  “Always loyal.  Like a lion, even though he’s a Shuruki.  Can you imagine—that week when I was in my room, whenever I desired my wife, the driver’s image came to my mind, and I couldn’t carry through.  I was thinking about what he would say about me.  What would he tell the others?  The moment I left the house, I found him sitting where I had left him, in the Jeep at the door of the house.  He had waited seven days to tell me, ‘Let’s go to Baghdad and fight the enemy.’  As you see: we’re here.  We’ve assembled our forces.  The rest we’ll find in the morgues.  We’ll recruit volunteers there.  How about you?  You seem to be considering a bold move.  Don’t tell me.  You’re thinking of deserting the army?”

Before Yusuf could say a word, the young man with no ears commented, “Colonel, leave him for now, Sir.  Everything in due course.  His turn will come.  He’ll learn the drill.  But when he realizes who is the executioner and who is the victim, it will be too late.  He’s going to turn into a permanent resident here, in the morgue.”

Then he concluded, as though the huge man’s comments didn’t refer to him, “Everyone here wants to confirm the names of their dead relatives.  Some have been here for years, and their problem is not that they don’t know the fate of their dead but that they’re unwilling to forget.  I’m actually here to encourage everyone to forget.  First I’ll collect the names of the departed and then I and the colonel will lead the last holy war: the mother of all battles—against forgetfulness.”

Suddenly he turned right and left and then brought out a small box.  Holding the box before Yusuf’s eyes, he quickly opened and closed it.  Yusuf barely had time to see a small apparatus like a transistor radio with two dry things like desiccated shoe leather beside it.  The young man continued to fiddle with the box while he began to speak, his eyes gazing off into space. “I believe that Colonel Salih touched on the heart of the matter.  A soccer player who misses a penalty kick will never forget so long as he lives.  He’ll remember those goal posts to the end of his days.  A single man, alone in his house, will never forget his words that caused his wife to leave him.  But these are insignificant matters compared to the military deserter with his ears cut off.  He’ll always remember his ears.  If a girl is raped, she’ll remember it for the rest of her life.   A child who has seen the eyes of the man who killed his father will see that color wherever he goes.  A torture victim will never forget his pleas to the torturer who successfully forced him to utter them.  All these people always say, ‘I remember the things I want to forget and forget the things I want to remember.’”

The colonel responded, derisively, “The colonel whose troops have fled will never forget what they looked like.  I remember the man who has forgotten me and have forgotten the man who remembers me.  Long live ‘Major General’ Mohammed Abdel Wahab,2 who commanded our heroic forces in the battle that didn’t take place, and long live mankind, which will not allow itself to be saved.”

The young man, however, seemed to ignore this comment.  Still fiddling with his box, he continued his train of thought, asking Yusuf, “Sir, do you want to forget too, to forget some offense you committed?”

The large man intervened. “You’re wrong this time, my son.  He needs to be reminded.  Our brother’s face reveals that he has forgotten enough.  The time has come for him to remember.”

Yusuf didn’t know whether the young man’s next statement was in response to the colonel or a continuation of his own last sentence.  “I have the solution and will save you from death by using this small apparatus that I’ve worked on secretly for years.  I’ll help people solve the problem.  This apparatus erases the part of the memory that stores unpleasant memories and empties all the nervous baggage there.  It tosses all that emotional stuff in the trash, in a trash can, and recycles it into life.”

The big-boned man interrupted, “What if the reverse happens and you erase some excellent memories, our happy memories?”

The young man replied dismissively but uneasily, “Are you accusing me of deceit?  How could I be guilty of that?  I desire happiness for my people and am sure I’m right.”

Then, turning toward Yusuf as if appealing for support, the youth said, “As a matter of fact, my original occupation was as a veterinary nurse, giving animals inoculations.  My experience with animals is the basis for my confidence.  This procedure’s success rate will be one hundred per cent.  If the operation succeeds in separating sweet memories from the bitter ones stored there, I will help all mankind sleep happily, because thanks to this procedure the brain’s memory will become a blank page, ever empty.  Whenever new, troubling memories arrive, they’ll be subjected to an electric shock from this apparatus—an electric shock every second, but not a strong one.  Then the subject will be able to stretch out and fall asleep problem free, because pain ends when memories end.”

He hesitated a little but then asked Yusuf, “Don’t you agree with me: no memories, no pain?”

Then he turned toward the massively-built man, gave him a hand up, and told him, “Colonel Salih, now you may talk our brother into coming to join us in the battle.”

When the huge man rose, Yusuf saw that he also carried a box, which he had hidden beneath the hem of his disdasha, to which it was attached by a short rope.  His box, however, was larger than Ali’s.  Yusuf caught a quick look at the box’s label: “Container for Cut-off Ears and Earlobes.”

Before the two men left, the huge one observed, “If we were Japanese, we’d do what they did when routed at the end of World War II.  We would kill ourselves. But we’re Muslims, and the Leader won’t allow it.  So we’re forced to cut off the ears of the defeated.  But never fear; we’ll triumph and our battle continues.  The ear is an encumbrance in our eternal pursuit of our sacred battle.”

The young man suddenly turned toward Yusuf. “I advise you to leave, because you could stand here for years.  Whenever there’s an unidentified corpse, they either throw it in the dumpster or report it to the next of kin.  Remember that whatever you can flee from will pursue you till you die.”

Yusuf didn’t understand what he meant but heard him continue as if he had remembered something, even after he had begun to pull his companion away. “Mark my words.  Before you remember, you need to forget first.  Similarly, before you forget, you need to remember first.  No one will resolve this problem, because God has left us and moved to China.   Similarly Iraqi pills are distributed free, and no one can tolerate aspirin.  If you need us, you’ll find us at the bar . . . at a bar you know by name.  This will be your last chance to. . . .”

The young man didn’t finish the sentence because his companion yelled, “Who has memories to sell?”

He remembered a similar call bottle merchants repeated in the alleys when they passed by, asking housewives if they had any glass to sell.  They would resell these bottles to hospitals where patients would put medicine in them.

Yusuf thought he remembered these two faces somehow.  But where had he seen them before?  They said they came from the mental hospital.  Could these men have been following him all this time?  Were they the two who had been pursuing him?  What bar were they talking about?  Why did they refer to a story of torture, the interrogator, and the victim?  He saw them disappear down the hall as if resigning their existence, as if erasing themselves, as if reinforcing the day’s first lesson: no memories, no pain.  He should forget them too.  But what about the memories of the crowd still standing here?  How about his own memories?  When could a man tell himself, “Now I’ve remembered”?  When could he tell himself, on the other hand, “Now I’ve forgotten”?  As he stood then in the morgue’s hallway in the Medical City complex in the city of Baghdad—was he remembering or forgetting?  Would he forget that he had remembered or remember that he had forgotten?  Would he remember or forget as Yusuf, or as some other persona from whom Yusuf had been created?  What about the corpse that was supposedly lying there: Was it his brother’s corpse, his own, or that of some third party named Yusuf?  If the corpse was Yusuf, where was his own corpse?  How could he be dead when he was conscious of his own weight as he stood there?  But weight meant nothing.  Weren’t corpses heavier than anyone would suspect?  But for a man actually to be dead, he would need to lose every sense, and he didn’t believe he had lost all his senses.  He could still hear, smell, see, taste, and touch.  But what did he hear, smell, see, taste, and touch?  Whenever he gazed around him and reviewed what he had experienced and done all these past years and even these last moments, he felt convinced that he heard only the voices of the dead, smelled only the scent of corpses, burning flesh, and air polluted by carbon dioxide and mustard gas, tasted only food even more bitter than death, and touched only dead bodies, corpses that blocked the road for him—not merely that day in the coroner’s office at Medical City in Baghdad but even before that in all the official agencies where he had worked, either in Baghdad or other cities.  Isolation had pursued him, and he had never felt that death was too distant from him.  To the contrary; and now, what should he do?  Should he make his own way toward death?

Yusuf was suddenly roused from something like a reverie when he heard a racket and an unexpected clamor.  Gazing around him he saw a man, who wore dark glasses in a vain attempt to look elegant, approach from the hallway’s far end, carrying in one hand a collection of files and in the other a plastic bag with the well-known Marlboro logo.  The huge fellow and the young man were also hastening toward him, but at some distance behind the bureaucrat, who seemed to be in a hurry, as if he were fleeing from three boys who had almost caught him.  Two were children who had been sitting in the hall of Medical City with pieces of cardboard.  The third was a youth with a generator.  Yusuf saw the two boys rush at the employee, one from the front and the other from behind, waving pieces of cardboard like fans.  The third boy started to push his medium-sized machine, which seemed too heavy for him.  He tripped and it veered off course, grazing Yusuf’s feet.  Forced to react, Yusuf decided to help the boy push this cart.  So they went in together and made their way easily through the swarming crowd of patients, who were shouting and appeared to have all awakened from a sound sleep.  They also began hurrying after the employee, who accelerated his speed as if racing or fleeing.  He shoved aside their hands, which were stretched out toward him to plead for his assistance, till he reached the end of the hallway and stopped before a massive door.

Through the crowd Yusuf could just barely see the employee open that huge portal.  He heard the young man with no ears say, “The morgue,” as he and his companion raced toward the door and were lost in the crowd.

The clerk invited the people to enter and then went into his office, which was next door.

A person needs chance moments of this kind in order to shape the course of his day and the outline of his life’s story, which he fashions on a daily basis.  Yusuf told himself that life is nothing but a series of chance occurrences.  Just moments before he would never have believed that he would find himself in that room with the employee.

This elderly clerk was seated and the two boys stood, one to his right and the other to his left, waving pieces of cardboard.  The other boy was busy starting up the generator.

Turning toward Yusuf, the employee said, “Yes?  I see from your face that this is your first visit.”

Summoning all his reserves, Yusuf told him, “I’ve come to ask you about an unidentified body you received.”

The employee responded, a tad sarcastically, “An unidentified body?  Do you think we regularly receive identified ones?  Sir, why do you think all these people come here?”

Then he rose and—as if he had been awaiting this opportunity for a long time—began pacing the room while he remarked, as if delivering a speech or dictating a statement, “Everyone attributes his statement to someone else.  It’s like a virus; everything is contagious.  Life and death are contagious.  Memories and forgetfulness are contagious.  Joy is contagious; sorrow is contagious.  Everything is contagious, even terror and murder.  Your neighbor kills someone and you ask yourself: Why shouldn’t I kill someone?  Your neighbor dies, and you say:  Why shouldn’t I die too?  The problem in this country is that your neighbor doesn’t say—for example—‘I’m delighted’ or ‘I’m getting married.’  No, in this country some neighbors are always up for any calamity.  And so on—my neighbor, O my neighbor, or ‘The neighbor woman in the valley’—or consider the Prophet’s admonition to this unhappy nation: that each of us is responsible for his seven closest neighbors.  ‘And so forth,’ as leading figures like to observe.  Everything is ‘and so forth.’  Everything is contagious.  Perhaps that’s why this swarm of humanity comes here in great waves, entering and leaving whenever they want, flipping through the documents, examining the corpses.  They’re not satisfied with one corpse.  They scrutinize all the corpses as if they weren’t searching for their relatives’ bodies but the bodies of their entire tribe.  They come back the next day and resume work, prowling through the cadaver chambers.”

He stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a black object, which Yusuf recognized as a cell phone.

“Selling and buying are also contagious.  Centuries ago half the population sold baqsam—rusk.  In all your life, have you ever seen traditional Iraqi rusk?  Today they sell satellite dishes, bananas, and cell phones.”

He paused before continuing, “Before you say, ‘I have the corpse’s name,’ would you like to buy a mobile phone in its original packaging?  This is a valuable opportunity that you shouldn’t miss.”

The man displayed the phone, and Yusuf felt at a loss then, not knowing what to say.  Suddenly he remembered something and asked the man, “Since when do we have a cell phone network?”

The man tossed the phone on the table and looked at Yusuf through his glasses.  He replied impatiently, “Are you a hibernating saint from a cave?  Where have you been all this era?”

As if ready with an answer, indeed as if certain of what he was saying, Yusuf replied, “If we’re referring to this time as an era, then I’ve been searching for a relative’s body.”

“You too have caught the contagion.”  Then the man asked, “How close a relative?”

“My brother.”

The man asked, “What’s his name?”  As if indifferent, or as if the name did not interest him at all, he stood up and headed to a nearby cabinet.  Picking up a large register, he blew the dust off it and commented, “This is the only old register.  The new ones are in the cadaver room with the other men.”

He placed the register on the table and asked again, “What did you say his name was?”


The man commented, “There are thousands of Yusufs.  I want his full name.”  He began to flip through the papers rapidly.  Then his hand stopped suddenly at the middle of a page.  He looked up, leaving his hand at that place.

“Did you say Yusuf?  It’s here in the register.  Come look.”

Yusuf approached the register, leaned over to check, and read his name at the middle of the page.  There was a brief note beside it in red ink, “The body was taken directly to the cemetery.”

Yusuf asked rather anxiously, “I’m not sure this is the body I’m looking for: Yusuf Mani.  You know there are thousands of others by this name.”

“Like the others, you don’t want to believe.  You want to return like them.  Didn’t I tell you?  Everything is contagious.  Even you—it’s no use.  You seem to be a cultured person, unlike the others,” he told Yusuf.  Then, turning his attention to the two boys, he shouted, “Why have you stopped waving the cardboard?”

The youth who till that moment had been busy starting the electric generator said, “The electricity is ready.  Turn on the fan.”

The clerk rose and pushed the button to start the fan.  Yusuf looked very carefully this time, but the clerk struck his head with the side of his palm as if he had suddenly recalled something.

“I remember that a week ago a person who looked just like you came in.  He was clearly an influential member of the new regime and picked up a corpse.  He quickly wrote out a death certificate and said he would take the body himself to bury in the cemetery—the Abu Ghraib Cemetery.  I remember he said then that—poor fellow—he was an orphan whose only living relative was a maternal aunt living alone in al-Kazimiya and that she would die of grief when she heard the news.”

Yusuf brooded for a long time, saying nothing.  Then the clerk told him, “Strange, it seems that even you don’t want to admit you’ve found the body.  You want to return like the others, because you have some picture in your head.  Images of the dead don’t differ in any way from other images.  Didn’t I tell you that everything is contagious?  Even you, you’re infected.  I told myself you couldn’t be like the others and that you appear to be cultured, unlike the others from al-Shama‘iya.  But I hope you won’t mind if I warn you to be careful, because everything is contagious, even insanity, which is an actual virus, a fatal, local virus more powerful than all the weapons of mass destruction.”

Then as if he had suddenly remembered something, he asked, “Tell me: Did they find them—I mean the weapons of mass destruction?”

Yusuf didn’t respond.  He said nothing but merely slipped slowly away.   He heard some parting comments but did not know whether they were addressed to him or to the two boys, who had apparently completed their mission now that the generator had come on and who followed him out.

Before Yusuf shoved open the building’s door and emerged from its hall, he heard the two boys warn him breathlessly, as if they had raced to catch him, “Uncle, don’t believe the story about the graveyard.  That’s what he tells everyone.”

Before he could question them, he saw they had headed off to ask people if they wanted to be fanned.

Yusuf reflected that the man was right: everything could transmit some contagion.  Take the air for example.  That was transmitted when the two boys flapped their pieces of cardboard.  A narrator does the same thing; he transmits the contagion of his narration to his listeners.  That makes it easy for us to become convinced of something, to believe there was a rationale for it and a sensible cause for everything, especially when a narrator speaks in an emotional way that can arouse zeal or grief in order to promote solidarity the way the huge bloke and the pale youth did.  How many stories did a person hear every day, especially if a man lent them an attentive ear, as Yusuf did?  How many stories do we tell every day?  The air is rife with stories.  A person merely needs to arrange these stories as if placing books on a library shelf: one book atop or beside another and one story beside another.  Which story should a person believe and which should he reject?

Had everything Yusuf recounted during his forty-six years of life been fraudulent?  Had the claims of the massive man and the skinny youth been fraudulent too?  To counterfeit something, a person had to possess some starting point, some basis he could rely on.  Joseph Karmali—Josef K. —claimed otherwise.  He didn’t call the identity papers he forged “counterfeits.”  To the contrary, he considered them authentic, and those provided by the state counterfeit.  That’s what he had told Yusuf when, at Uncle Asim’s behest, he asked Josef to create a new identity for him.

Fraudulent or authentic, the truth or a lie, a discovery or a concoction, a denial or a confession, amnesty or punishment, memory or forgetfulness—all depended on where a person sat, on the angle from which he saw things.  Here in Medical City, in the coroner’s office, each person told the story that fit him.

1Shuruki, Shuruqi: an abusive term for poor Shi‘i migrants to Baghdad from southeastern Iraq. The term has also been used by some Shi‘is with positive connotations

2An ironic reference to the famous Egyptian singer/composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab (d. 1991) who was named an honorary general by President Anwar al-Sadat

From the novel Yusuf’s Picture, forthcoming from MacAdam/Cage Publishing of San Francisco. By arrangement with MacAdam/Cage. Translation copyright 2010 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.

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