TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY OSAMA HAMMAD
There was a man called Hazzaa, but no one called him Hazzaa. They called him Bu-Saud, even though he never had a son named Saud, it was simply the name of his martyred father. It had started as a joke; he confessed one time, that whenever they called him Bu-Saud, his brain would prompt the image of his father as he was in the black and white portrait hanging on the wall in the living room. His father had a long nose, protuberant eyes, long ears, mole on the right cheek, and pursed lips. That face was the pivotal point to the name. The very notion of a son never really materialized since he wasn’t married yet and had never seriously considered it. For that reason, he was terrified of the idea, of being father to his father. This meant for him a dent on the surface of logic.
When he got married, selecting the name of his first born was out of his control. Despite that, he wished for this Saud to come along and put an end to the absurdity, to forget the fact that Saud referred only to his father. His mother betrothed him to his cousin Manifa, who became pregnant after only two months of their marriage. When the sonographer declared that she was carrying a boy, Hazza stood up and kissed Manifa’s head, stuttering happily: Saud was finally coming! Lying in bed, Manifa was able to see the smile on Hazza’s face gradually fade into signs of horror. She still remembers to this day particularly the shiny drop of sweat that formed rapidly on his tanned temple, but never attributed meaning to it. The lengthy summer passed. Hazza remembered naught of the boy. He would simply allude to the child tersely. Manifa did not notice that he was avoiding mentioning the boy’s name. She noticed though that he took down his father’s portrait in the living room, saying that he was going to replace the frame. The wall remained empty. She examined his long furtive glances to her bulging belly while they were sitting on the couch watching television, as well as bolting out of the room every time she took her clothes off.
In one of the rooms of the maternity ward, in Al Hady hospital, the news finally arrived. The reception was bustling with visitors. “Masha Allah, he has your father’s ears and nose, may god have mercy on his soul”, these were the first words Hazza’s mother spoke upon seeing the child. Hazza trembled upon hearing those words. Did he just beget his father? His mother handed him the baby swaddled in clothes. He was sleeping; red head, tender, with a wet ringlet stuck on his forehead. He gazed upon the small face which had features bigger than its boundaries. His father had died twenty-three years ago, he couldn’t recall his exact visage, except through blurred pictures in the family album and that ancient portrait he took down in the living room. So, he placed his trust in his mother regarding the resemblance, mainly when his aunt -Manifa’s mother – vouched for this notion.
When he fled the reception room to the hospital corridor, he saw a group of men sitting on the waiting chairs, staring at him. They seemed to be fathers who just had new-born children. Although they were not sitting next to each other and no one would think they knew each other in any shape or form, he felt apprehended by their conspiring looks, afraid that he was involved in some sort of a crime, that he was now a member of an alliance for men who begot their fathers, spinning the wheel of time backwards. It was now their duty to keep the secret between themselves.
He fled hastily before any of them could talk to him. He wanted to disappear, to reflect by himself. He hopped down the stairs, skipping four at a time, as his mind was doing in his head, thinking. So, his father had returned to life, as if grandchildren were their malicious way to return once again, to sneak up on their children and slyly monitor them.
Saud had died when Hazza was seven during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, His little head could not store any memories of him. It was always a bizarre notion for him to have a father; that intimate form of authority. Would his father be pleased with him if he saw him in this state? Saud was a martyr, a hero; his heroism was the ghost that haunted Hazza all his life. Even his name instinctively became Bu-Saud. His brother Mansur was never Bu-Saud, he stayed Mansur, even though he was his son too, but only Hazza had to carry this burden on his shoulders, he was the older son. His entire existence became an indication to someone else, a trace of someone long gone. To be the son of a hero implied that the caliber of his success was completely different. People would demand something more impressive. Hazza thought— ‘What is more impressive than death?
He walked out of the hospital’s main door. It was a few minutes after the call for Isha prayer. He smelled the benzene odor in the air, pondering the river of cars flowing before him along King Faisal highway. Yellow neon lights drawing near and the bright red lights fading away. He took the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, pulled one out and started smoking. Smoking and thinking. Hazza repeated the question once again: ‘What is more impressive than death? Let’s see’. He had gone to the university, studied in the faculty of science, specialized in geology, was working in the oil sector, married to his cousin and had a child. What else? Nothing. But what were the mistakes? His father wouldn’t know about many of the things that had happened. He would not know that he insulted his mother once because she had to attend the parents meeting at school which was filled with fathers. He wouldn’t know that he was framing his brother Mansur and his friends to have his mother’s and teacher’s attention. He wouldn’t know about all the women he invited to the house for sex, telling them, ‘I’m the man of the house, I do whatever I want’. But the times of mischief had gone, and he had become a reasonable man, ready for his father to see and evaluate him.
Here was Hazza, seeing his young father, helpless, crying before him, soiling himself. He wiped his little red bottom, bought him diapers, and cleaned his slender penis, while smelling his crap the whole time. Though what perplexed him the most was hearing the constant crying, which never stopped until his wife placed her nipple in his father’s mouth, he suckled, then fell asleep in her arms. It wasn’t enough for his father to steal everything from him since he was a child, now he was stealing his wife’s arms.
When his brother returned from his travels, his face lit up. He carried the child and cheered, ‘Welcome Saud, welcome Bu-Hazza’, only to see Hazza jerk in his place. He stood up, walked towards the guest room, and locked himself in. He sat on the floor cushions, gazing with wide eyes at the window where the orange sun rays slipped through. Damn, would his son beget him? Would he come back again when his son had a son? He felt dizzy. What was going in here? But when his father came back to life, he was already dead. He himself might still be alive until that moment when his son begot a son. How was he going to come back, if he was still here? Was he going to turn into two people? Or was he going to die, to make sense of the situation? Damn, what logic could be achieved in all of this?
He gazed at the amber sunlight coming through the window, how he loved this withered color! He did not know what was more terrifying, becoming two people, or knowing beyond any doubt that he would die in his forties, that his death wouldn’t be natural, but intrusive, by a disease or an accident. His joints trembled. The person’s own death was just a concept, unnoticeable and hard to be imagined. To have it materialize in such an obvious way was harrowing, to have it live with you, feed it, raise it and call it your son.
He was aware, as a geologist, that this phenomenon was natural. Layers of earth could shift in certain areas; an old layer could emerge from the belly of a young one, in ancient maneuvers where the old revealed itself on the surface, and below, the new lay buried forever. It was the earthquakes, and it seemed that an earthquake had hit his lineage.
He watched his son Saud grow day after day and year after year, but he only watched the seed of his death ripen before him. Manifa accused him of being a bad father, who did not spend time with his child. She dared to say, ‘You can’t bear looking at him’. Manifa wouldn’t forget that one morning when Saud was in elementary school, she heard the screeching sound of a car coming from the street. Her heart sank when she realized that Hazza and her son had just walked out of the house. She wore her shawl and bolted down the stairs, running barefoot to open the door and found Saud lying on the ground, being checked by the driver who had stepped out of his car. Her voice receded. She started looking for Hazza in the scene. He was standing on the pavement to her right, next to his Chevrolet, looking at the incident in a neutral absence. Perhaps for more than a minute, the same period that Manifa took to get out of the house. He gained back his senses only after seeing Manifa run in the street toward her son who was lying on the ground, her shawl on the ground. He then ran after her in shocking coldness.
He did not care when Saud failed in math in middle school and had to retake the school year, it only meant an extra year added to his life. Delaying the inevitable of marrying the son, or the father, whoever he is. When he finished high school, Hazza suggested that his son should study in Britain or America. Hazza knew that his son would have to register for at least one semester to study the language, which meant more free months added to his life.
However, the inevitable finally happened. Eventually, Saud got married, and Hazza entered the dangerous phase. It was only a matter of months until Hazza the grandson came along, tough months! At that point, his behavior had made his wife and son suspicious; he started eating dates abundantly, not worrying about diabetes. He drank tea after his meals despite knowing that he could develop anemia, slept in the coldest temperature without considering the possibility of osteoporosis. And smoked excessively, to the point that he was always seen shrouded in clouds of smoke.
Saud was given a son, and as the traditions dictated, he named him Hazza.
Hazza was lying in the guest room, resting on the floor cushions. Before him was a tray of tea and coffee pots and packets of cigarettes. At these hours of the day, he preferred to turn the lights off and allow the rays of the stooping sun to fill the place through the enormous window.
His mobile rang piercing the silence around him; it was none other than his son Saud. His voice came elated through the speakers, ‘Father! Hazza has arrived safely!’ Hazza hung up, tossed the phone aside and carried on sitting quietly in silence. He closed his eyes and waited for a few seconds. His heart was still beating. He waited for it to stop, but it pounded even louder. He sighed, the prospect of him dying was eliminated, and now only the other surreal option remained, self-mitosis. He did not panic. All he did was remain in his place like nothing had happened. He lit a cigarette, blew out the smoke taking pleasure in the burning sensation of the nicotine in his lungs. Mitosis did not seem to be as awful in theory as death. At least he would remain here, even if only in name. He poured himself a cup of tea, the sound of the burbling tea gave him a pleasure he had not experienced before, the cardamom had a refreshing smell as if he reminding him about a forgotten human sense called the smell. The space in the guest room was filled with the orange rays of the afternoon, as if the whole room and he were at the bottom of the warm teacup. What next? He concentrated, trying to capture the moment his soul would split, or he would lose part of his consciousness to the new baby, whichever. There was something grave about to happen, he should stay awake to seize it, and perhaps understand it.
He leaned on his scrawny hands that had started to wane, stood up and rushed to the bathroom mirror. He chose the mirror in the bathroom over the one in his bedroom since it was clearer and more personal. He shut the door behind him and leaned against the sink bringing his face closer to the mirror until his eyes could only see itself blinking horrifyingly. He drew himself back a little struggling to slow his breath. When did he start breathing this fast? He closed his eyes and kept them shut. He was scared to open them lest he saw his reflection split into half a body and half a head. Panicking at the idea, he opened his eyes, and all he saw were two halves of a body and two halves of a head. He opened the tap and washed his face with cool water. He sighed deeply in relief and looked at the mirror in calm suspicion. So, nothing. He went back to the guest room and before he sat back on the floor cushions, Manifa entered through the door interrupting his peace cheering, ‘Congratulations! Congratulations!’. He looked baffled as if he didn’t know what was going on.
Manifa went before him into the reception, while he stood in front of the door unaware of what he was going to face. He heard voices coming from inside but could not recognize any of them. He pushed the door, it was filled with people he didn’t know, rather didn’t remember. They called on the nurse to bring little Hazza, while he sat on the farthest chair in the corner. Surrounded by everyone, congratulating, kissing his head and smiling at him, he kept his eyes fixed on the door, where the nurse would appear at any moment. Who were these people? What was he doing there? It was a puzzling scene to him. It was the beginning of something, he felt, something resembling senility and regret. The door was knocked, his eyes, dilated, as he saw the nurse entering and pushing the baby’s bed, as if she was pushing his coffin.
When he glanced at the baby for the first time, he felt wind blowing on the gooseflesh of his arms. As if they wanted to provoke deliberately, all of them gathered to look at the catastrophe, muttering, what was this collective vigilance about? But all that they saw was a little calm baby, sleeping in the middle of a small bed, his soft tufts covering his forehead, and a blue ribbon surrounding his tiny little wrist, written on it, Hazza Saud. His erected arm hair didn’t understand why his heart was pumping this sudden huge amount of blood, neither comprehend the reason behind his dry eyes since he could not blink for several seconds. Without understanding much, the child went back to sleep. Under the bewildered gazes of the mother’s family, Hazza sprung out of the room as fast as his weak body could afford, Manifa explained that he had done the same when she gave birth to Saud, that he was terrified of maternity wards, or babies, or both.
When he rushed out of the room, he saw a group of men sitting on the waiting chairs, looking at him. He could swear that these were the same men who were waiting for him after Saud’s birth more than 20 years ago. The only difference was that he was older and aged now, while their faces remained clear without any wrinkles. He figured them out this time. They operated this brotherhood, not only to bring fathers back to the present, but to ensure their own return in the future; to ensure immortality. It was the damned cycle of history.
‘I died yesterday’, he told his wife the next day. She said, ‘We all have nightmares these days, seek refuge from Satan and go pray two rak’a’s to Allah’. The days followed and he got sick of his flabby body. At night, he would hear the baby crying, in the upper floor where Saud and his wife lived. Once, he woke Manifa up and pressured her to knock on their door and ask them to let the old man sleep. Either way, he couldn’t.
The cries were something too beautiful to bear. The resilience of the cries was an indication of a new life within his grasp, but he was unable to seize and harness it. He wanted to shift to that Hazza, the new one, with his little pink body, and the infinite future possibilities within his small fist. If he died, would his consciousness be transferred immediately to the baby? It seemed like an utterly digital concept, but he lacked the ability to think the way things could actually happen, it was a supreme system beyond him. He went back, once again, processing the idea digitally to seek comfort. No one could withstand the heaviness of not understanding. After all, a wrong explanation was more genuine than ignorance. He reformulated the question, how could he transfer his consciousness to the baby? Even if he managed to do so, it had already been a month since the baby was born and it did not seem fair. Even though he would not remember this period of his life, at least he would live through it, feel it and it would remain lodged in the head as incurable flashes. When grownups would tell him stories about this period he would smile and believe it. Therefore, every moment in this yielding body was a waste of life for the new body. But how? What was the mechanism for this identity jump? Maybe he should communicate with the child to find out. Ever since he was born, Hazza had only seen the child once. Looking at oneself was terrifying if it was not in a mirror or in a photograph. He wanted to take the risk, to meet the newcomer, alone, big Hazza and little Hazza, face to face, to discuss this fractured identity they shared as two grownups. There was a bargain that must be made. It was difficult to find the infant alone at these times. He was always surrounded by strange, ugly faces, making odd terrifying sounds thinking it was adorable. He waited until the afternoon when the guests would usually leave; the baby would be in the living room, in his cradle, with the new babysitter. He would get the baby alone in the room only be for a few minutes after relieving the baby sitter. He had to be quick.
He was sitting in the guest room when the call for the afternoon prayer flowed into the space. He asked his god for forgiveness, stood up, and headed to the ground floor. The prayer could wait. He wanted his next worship to be in his new body, new soul, with a clean slate. He entered the living room, where the nanny and the baby were wrapped in majestic silence. The squeaking door made him worry that he might have alarmed the baby. The lights were switched off, but the window made way for the afternoon sun rays to fill the space with intimate light, revealing the flying dust particles. He could still hear the call for prayer hailing from the window, when he looked at the nanny sitting in silence, looking back at him, as if she was looking at a dead man. The new creature exuded a compelling smell, an amalgamation of from baby powder, milk, cereal, turd, and the prevalent fragrance of visitors’ perfumes. He thought that new humans had potent smells, like new devices and things. He looked in the eyes of the tanned nanny who was examining him without blinking. He asked her to leave for a food break. Once she left, Hazza started staring at the small bed with apprehension, as if staring at his coffin.
His heart almost halted when the baby sneezed in one end of the room. The faint sound made him want to get closer, to see, exactly like when one hears a certain clang in the dark. Hesitant, Hazza approached the bed; he was surprised to see the baby awake, as if it was waiting for him.
However, the baby was not looking at him, as if he was not there, it seemed to be looking at the ceiling with the absurdity of the infants, not focusing on any specific object. Hazza was upset that he did not attract the baby’s attention; he thought his existence was denied by the only person fighting him for his identity. At that moment, the child moved his eyes towards him, and suddenly, Hazza existed. He was filled with anxiety; he felt he was in a predicament. It really looked like him, everybody would notice that.
He did not know how he should look at him. How could one look at an infant who was also a killer? He thought he would be right to kill it; after all, this creature had not developed an identity yet. Still didn’t have a solid form, nor had reached the stage of forming a character, otherwise, his own self would have splintered when this thing was born. It was still a small animal unaware of its existence, just a bulk of throbbing meat. Slaughtering it could be considered self-defense, so killing it was permissible. Suddenly, the baby laughed. Hazza turned his head, it is laughing! It is taking a form! How could a killer laugh with such innocence? It laughed again, the scrambling voice coming out of its laugh was the sweetest thing he had heard in his whole life, and the most terrifying too.
If he was unable to kill the child, what else should he do? He had to do something, anything. He thought about saying something to the baby, but what could you say if you saw yourself materialize in a different body before you, except punching and beating yourself? Maybe he could divulge some of his fatal mistakes so he would not repeat them. That would lead to a better life this time. At the end of the day, it was his own identity, even if it was in another body. He looked at it as if looking in a mirror through time. This idea allowed him to make peace with what he was seeing, to wish for it what he wished for himself, perhaps he would comb the little one’s hair in the way he liked, change the colors of his clothes to colors he preferred, and never receive visitors, because others are always an imposition. Yes, he had the right to do that because these were his own desires, big Hazza, little Hazza, even if the bodies and names were different.
Should he tell him to be wise, to be just and to study more? No, he wanted to tell him about real things. Mistakes?! But which mistakes should he start with? There were a lot of them. He wouldn’t be able to erase them all. But this was a blessing, to have the chance to reduce the regrets in his upcoming life. Or maybe he should leave the child to his ignorance. He realized how dangerous it could be to mess with the past. He was afraid to do something wrong that could disrupt the process of Saud’s birth, and consequently his own. How could he stop the eternal reoccurrence of the past, while these were laws here?
He started thinking about his life, and everything that this little boy would go through. He wanted to replay the most important stops in his life to have something of a value, something that deserved to pay the horror that living demanded as a price. He was confused when he could only remember the endless afternoons, where he sat in the guest room, lights turned off, the drowsy sun rays slipping through the giant window; sitting on the floor couch, drinking tea and coffee, smoking and thinking about nothing, as if he was waiting for something to happen. Perhaps if the little one asked him now, how was life going to be? He would reply, numerous empty afternoons and waiting for somethings that would never happen. ‘This is depressing’, the child would say, ‘is this what came out of your life? Is this what is waiting for me?’ Hazza would tell him that one does not come out of his life with anything, it was just the little moments that one remembered at the end, just a memory of sitting alone somewhere, just a memory, it could be a fantasy, one could never be sure. Moments and visions so fragile, so indistinguishable. ‘And when you die?’ the child would ask. Hazza would say that they taught him about that in middle school, there were many stories, but none were reassuring. Either way, he could barely remember them. What would happen? The child would insist. Hazza would answer that he did not really understand what was in store. There would be two angels, few questions, a snake for those who did not pray, a wide grave for the Muslim, a fire for the infidel, then you wait for the judgment day, a horrifying horn sound, creatures made of light, creatures made of fire, a judgement court large enough for all humans, since the beginning of time, and an eternity waiting. Things like that. The child would be silent and try to imagine, but he would fail. He would then make peace with the baffling ability of the humans to believe in anything.
Hazza could see from the window that the sun was about to set. Usually, at this time, he would be at the guest room drinking tea and coffee. But he was here now, after being alienated most of his life because of his father’s legacy, he felt at that moment that his own presence was more intensified than ever. He remembered his father, and he figured out what was more impressive than death. It was the doubling of life, this very spectacle. The idea made him smile and he felt a tickling in his chest that resembled victory. He started to laugh, and his laughter got louder and filled the silence around him. He laughed and laughed and laughed. Tears filled his eyes and his muscles shivered. He lost his breath, and his chest almost tore. The baby started to cry. The cry of the infant blended with the laughter of the old man in synchronization that formed a rhythm, echoing in the drowsy corridors of the house.
Both of them stopped verbalizing their innermost. The silence returned to prevail over the situation. Hazza started to wipe his tears with the sleeves of his dishdasha and started to panic at the idea of going back to life, of sitting in guestrooms in a series of afternoons again. Guestrooms forever? Who wanted that? Not him. He couldn’t let such a thing happen.
He didn’t know what was happening exactly, but everything suddenly started to terrify him. He rushed out of the room and into the guest room, leaving the child behind, he asked everyone to stay away. No one was innocent anymore, he thought. He started to avoid the nanny who used to bring him the tea and coffee, and the plate of white rice and yogurt after the noon prayer, and the sandwiches after the Isha prayer, he would lock himself inside the bathroom of the guest room to avoid his wife.
He remained in his solitude in the guest room for the rest of the days. Manifa didn’t see him anymore because he started to sleep on the floor couch. He stopped talking and started eating less. His body waned and lost a quarter of his weight. He was always distracted, playing with his beads wondering how many Asr prayers he must catch up with. He was no longer comfortable with the sunset rays, he started to believe that he himself had become a setting sun, something in between, he was devoted but the wait never ended, and he started to go in circles at the Maghrib prayer, staring at the wall where the darkened red sun rays poured.
One day the nanny’s voice woke Manifa, telling her that mister Hazza had soiled himself, and was unable to speak a word. Everyone freaked out, and whenever anyone tried to talk to him, he cried, and then fell silent. When they asked him his name to ascertain that he was not insane, he panicked and hid his face with his hands. Who could blame him, who knew who he was then? The doctor said that Hazza suffered from destructive obsessions because he was oppressed and alienated in his childhood, so now he did whatever he could to have the attention he lacked all his life, and everyone was content with that explanation of his condition.
As for Hazza the infant, no one remembered when was the last time that he cried.
Also, read A Book Review of Asylum and Other Poems by Oudarjya Pramanik published in The Antonym: