Intro: This is part of my work: Maqam Iraq (Cairo, 2005), it draws on a traditional Iraqi form which alternates between folk and classical poetry and prose narrative. The book consists of seven sections, each revolving around a central figure or object whose significance is related to Iraq in the Arab imagination. The excerpt below is a tentative translation of my own along with some changes introduced to the original Arabic text rendering it comprehensible to non Arabic speaking readers.
Omar Ibn el Khattab, the prophet’s companion and the Muslims’ second Caliph, known for his legendary justice, once said: If I am told that a goat tumbled in Iraq, I cannot sleep, feeling guilty because I did not level the road for her”
It is said that Nebu the god of wisdom in ancient Babylon fell in love with a goat. She was scared when he approached her; he tried to catch her, she started running. The goat could not understand what the god wanted, and even if she did, how could the god of wisdom give her little goats? How could he fight the other rams for her? And how could he give her up to the strongest ram in the herd when he grew old? The goat didn’t want the god, and the god wanted the goat…. the council of gods was in disarray:
Enlil: What a scandal! What a disgrace!!! That crazy brother of ours will be the end of us all. We, the Ones only seen in dreams, approached with fear even in imagination; we have to collect him every night from doorsteps and backyards, chasing a goat! And hear those yellow teethed peasants’ jokes!!!! What should we do with him? A god chasing a goat! What remains of his esteem, his authority, his divinity?
Anu: Don’t talk about divinity; dear brother…you know that if it were not for the kindness of those people’s hearts we would not have existed, we are their hopes and their fears; meaning: we are theirs, they are not ours, you know what our divinity is all about, brother, we are nothing….
Enlil: Watch your words! We make the seas flow, the winds blow and plants grow in a rock’s heart, we command the fire in the cloud and the rain in lightening, and you say we’re nothing, what’s the matter with you?
Anu: brother, you know better, the seas flow, the winds blow and plants grow in the hearts of rocks…and you cannot even make your breakfast! We are nothing
Enlil: You are wrong, I swear by their bowing heads and open palms! We are their hope, their theory, their guess; do you know what a guess can do? A guess is what blows the winds and moves the waves. Nothing fills the space between the brown rug and the blue tent. But that ‘nothing’ is what keeps it from crashing down on the heads of men. We are the air that holds the water that holds the land that holds the sons of men…brother!
Enlil: fine, a bubble called the world my friend! And that crazy brother of yours is placing it on a goat’s horn! A speechless mix of hair and dust!
Anu: We are nothing while the goat is something. She is right in rejecting our brother the professor, the goat is of a higher rank than us; we are a guess, we are words, we are language, does language bite? If you put language in a field of barley, will you have less barley the next day? Tell me, Enlil, have you ever protected your worshipers from a flood? Have you ever given them water in times of drought? Have you ever granted them victory against an overwhelming enemy? Have you planted love in the heart of a poet’s beloved, when the poet was about to commit suicide because she was in love, not with him, but with the garbage man? Tell me Enlil, have you done anything other than distributing names, like candy in weddings and cups of black coffee in mourning services? You called the flood your wrath and the drought a war between you and me, you called the girl’s rejection a sin for which she had to be burnt at your altar and the poet a martyr over whose shrine a temple should be built for you. You are just distributing names, Enlil. We are but names and name givers, good brother, and if it were not for names we would have been reduced to unemployed statues of granite. Yet a goat is a goat, call her a parrot, a monkey, a wave, a dream, a crisis, a blessing, a curse, an offering, I swear that would not change the sound of her bleating, nor the movement of her jaws as she chewed on grass, nor her bad smell, nor her lust for rams. The goat is a goat whatever you call her; the goat is of a higher rank than us!
Enlil: You’re a god who knows not what he says. We might be a metaphor but we’re not a lie, we’re images but we’re not idols, we’re silent but we’re not meaningless. Think of the priests at Ur and Lagash, what would happen to them if we left? Think of a woman who believed that her ten year old child, who never got older, became a young palm tree in your temple! What would happen to the men who fought the war and lost, fasting so that you’d make them win the next? What would happen to those who fought and won for no other reason but for your sake? What would happen to the besieged when all the roads to their city were blocked, except for the one leading to the stars…we are the geometry in the walls of palaces, the seasons in the fields of grain, we might not exist, but without us, the world would crumble.
Enlil: It is through us that the spell can be reversed, the roads will be leveled, the temples built, the defeated will rise and the victors will fall, after all, this is what gods do.
Enlil: a crime maintained is a crime forgiven…love your crime and it will be your message, a sin only becomes a sin when you regret it, if you embrace it, it becomes your creed, a crime maintained is a law itself; a crime maintained is a crime no more; be patient brother, the tapestry of history is unfinished, we have a job to do!
Anu: Why wait, history is an epic written on an hour glass, you read it once upright and once upside down, and you cannot tell the difference. Why wait, your brother is already chasing a goat through piles of garbage, no wonder he is the god of wisdom, it was not love that befell him when he opened his eyes, it was knowledge, the knowledge of the ignorant, the sight of the blind, the type denied to gods. He knew of those besieged, of those who won and those who lost. You saw their piety, he saw their blasphemy, you saw their fear, he saw their anger; do you want to wait for people to stone us, on that day you’d wish you were a goat!
Anu: Answer me, could you be a goat, a lion, a cow, a donkey, a plow, a lock, a key, a pair of shoes,
At this point, we are told, Anu left the council of the gods and when people from UNESCO searched the remains of the Museum, they did not find any of his statues. Some reappeared in museums beyond the sea, He had given up. Enlil’s statues also were not found, though he had chosen not to leave, knowing that he was still operating somewhere in Iraq, the occupation forces went on searching every house, looking for him…
My life is a gift
Given to me
On my zero birthday.
Today I pulled out the ribbon,
Unwrapped the Box
And found lots of things,
But also wonder-full:
A watch of gold,
And of gold
Is every hour in one’s life;
A jack-in-the box
Which makes you laugh
Or scares you to death, it depends;
Two beautiful baby-dolls,
The first a toy,
The second is not;
A prisoner’s crown and the shackles of a king;
I also found a Jack of Spades
You turn him upside down
He stays the same;
I found books;
I found a long video tape labeled
‘Fifty years of conflict between the Zionists and the Arabs’;
I found hell in an inkpot,
And heaven in an inkpot too;
I found an Arab horse on a race track
Covered with glue;
I found a stove with no flames;
At the bottom of the box,
I found a white card with my name on it,
The rest has not yet been written.
I did not know what to do with all these things!
Oh, God, thank you,
But why the trouble?
I put them all back in the box,
I closed it,
Tied the ribbon,
I threw it skywards and up it went,
The gift turned into a host of flying doves
That I will follow forever.
Why did I do that?
I really do not know!
© 2001, Tamim al-Barghouti
© Translation: Radwa Ashour