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Excerpt from The Angels' Genitalia

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Samir Naqqash

From Keys to the Garden, edited by Ammiel Alcalay
© 1996 Ammiel Alcalay
Reprinted by permission of City Lights Press


7:47 A.M.

Ben Gurion Airport. The big sign welcomes me, wishing me a bon voyage. It just stands there, opposite the monument to the Unknown Soldier, coldly and monotonously saluting in reproach, arousing doubts as to its intentions, as if flattery or deceit were meant, creating a sense of transient pleasure with nothing to cover the debt. But this security barrier always divides us and shatters the calm, spreading incomprehensible shadows of fear. Here you just have to swallow your fears and keep going. Maybe you have to do this everywhere, but to a different extent. And so it has been, as well, throughout time in different ways until it seems as if this fear came down from heaven with Harouth and Marouth, the two sinful angels, to lodge itself within the human soul, as a decisive hereditary trait that you can't get rid of. This fear becomes internalized. And it's irrelevant if their blazing spirits scorch you like spooks expelled to materialize all of a sudden before your very eyes as immediate and plausible danger, or if their motives remain concealed in the very depths of your being in the form of a hidden crime that imposes itself unexpectedly before you, just as the danger of being caught in the act hovers by. You can find this fear in the air here, shrouding the invisible. And I breathe in, filling my lungs with it. Before I know it, the fear has doubled and I become a possible victim whose turn will come; at the same time, though, I have it in me to become one of the two hangmen, a decisive cause of this very monstrous intimidation. You are amazed, my dear fellow, in addition to being short of temper because your car has been stopped twice, and your astonishment grows as you see me get still all of a sudden as I take my identity card and passport out of my pocket, though they constitute one of my two fears. I draw it out fast, to finish with it. My appearance always arouses suspicion, and this happens to me "here," any time I happen to be in this place. Does my face look like that of a "terrorist?" I realize it's round and dark brown and above it there's a mane of wiry thin kinky filaments that curl and fork but I've got the nose of a vulture and, besides, I've straightened this all out before more than once. That day it was the very same guard, but his memory fails him. When they look at me, it's as if they're struck by amnesia, their faces cloud over, their eyes fill with suspicion. I can assure you that at this very moment his suspicions have gotten the better of him. He dons the role of a hawk to go after its prey. And he amuses himself with the hope that he won't come back empty-handed. In another second he'll ask for my ID, his head bent down to the window of your car, and he'll check its contents with his nose borne toward the sky; afterwards, despite all the facts recorded on my ID card, he'll refuse to believe me and order me to get out. I am not telling you a story from the collection of tales about angels that I have in such abundance, this is precisely what took place the morning of that sunny day, so awash it dispersed the very clouds of illusion.

Here comes the hawk's assault, just like I promised: "Your ID card!" He struck me with his fiery look. My countenance, for reasons whose nature is not completely clear to me, took on some metaphysical traits since I proclaimed my decision to carry out research on the angels, and it's entirely possible that I had been contaminated by some phenomenon that has no logical explanation, in a way, in fact, that counters the very principles of research. As if I had chosen what Melissa herself had chosen and was shattered along with Satan's demons. Be that as it may, I do come from the city of apparitions. And if one takes into account the influence of the environment on a person's formation, all this will seem less amazing. My face began to conceal this tremendous power that aroused a tendency towards such aggression, hidden in their chests like the germ of tuberculosis. "Your identity card!". . . No change yet. That splendid day of the discovery returns to be taught everything, down to the very last detail, at the crossroads. Better not interfere in my favor, if that's the case, it would just complicate matters even more. As if the facts written plainly in my documents weren't convincing enough by simply glancing at them; getting a good word in my favor from the cab driver won't make it any easier. You just have to wait and I feel sorrier for you than I do for myself or even them. I'll just get out before he commands me to. The morning of that day an argument flared up and turned into a fight. And this was the beginning. Which will still become the conclusion that comes before the beginning. Once again this complex problem chews its own cud as its jaws are stricken with paralysis and come to a halt before invigorating themselves again so my teeth can grind steel. This is that other complex problem which is not directly connected to the play of words and the hypocrisy of semantics and the multiplying face of meaning. It steals into the world of vague and different beings and hands over the imaginary borders drafted between the angels and the demons. And it brings me back to the question of scientific research, and compels me to whet my appetite and talents for exacting study in order to seize the evidence proving to them once and for all that the apple is not a quince and that there is a difference between a stork and a giraffe, and that conjecture alone is not truth, that holding onto illusions simply in the name of honor just in order not to humiliate yourself by having to say "my mistake," already signals a departure into pure self-degradation.

Luckily, I had gone through this experience more than once. I had already rehearsed the part that would be acted out here, in this place, until I had it down pat. And now I can appear on stage in a style befitting the part, and this should keep things short. Here I am outside. I take two steps into the fresh air, hopping like a mountain quail, but no one notices my limp. I'm already adept at covering it up and my stocky build contributes to this deceit, to the point that all the women I knew who tried to force themselves on me, or whom I myself tried to force myself onto, never managed to discover it. Now it doesn't really matter. Preferences compete with each other. They're as selfish as people and recognize neither limps nor any other limitations. They don't submit themselves to your bodily compulsions but emerge as "they" please. And then they assail you with an eraser in their hand and immediately, with absolute impertinence, begin rubbing out the oppressive circumstances . . . much to your surprise.

Nonsense. Destiny knows no mercy. And its heart already hardened and turned to stone the moment this guard began examining my ID card and upon his face the flies of suspicion and doubt and misunderstanding began to invade in great groups. In the next five minutes we will have to stand face to face with this stone-hearted fate and shatter it. And you uproot your astonished gaze stretching out over the guard's look of astonishment, directing him to me. Of course shattering destiny's heart is impossible, but we shall at least force such an impossibility to kneel. Allow me to abandon my exaggerated sense of self-confidence and reserve my opinion. Nothing is for sure. That day the sun shone brilliantly in the morning and in the evening the light and the splendor disappeared in its absence. This occurrence was certain, being a standard existential phenomenon that lost any need to prove itself for millions of years, and it's liable to remain a natural phenomenon for millions more. But I am speaking of another sun, that rises and sets within, to no set order. And at this crucial moment it clouds over the guard's suspicious look. I swear to you now that his look is resting upon the name, seized by confusion like a bee who's missed the flower and come to rest on a thistle. His look reads "Akram al-Khayyat," as if he'd been stabbed with a dagger, and then he slides over below the name and is gripped by more pain, as if he's been led astray. And the two pains meet and give birth to rage. He made a mistake. And it won't be easy for him to go back on his word and apologize. For people think retreat loathsome and often find no path to it. I went after it for three whole unblemished years until I found it. And don't expect me to get stuck here at this checkpoint for another three years until this guard finds a way to retreat. Such a supposition cannot but arouse fear, laughable, ridiculous, and remote as it may sound in the face of more pressing and logical assumptions. This guard is not guided by the inclinations of his heart alone. He is subject to those whose charge he's under, nor is he in control of his own time. It's not in his power to be generous with years or even hours. And behind us a line of cars has formed, and with it an increase in the chances -- no doubt cutting your instinctive equation regarding the speed and increase of the space in half -- that will come to determine his immediate behavior, with one simple difference. He will still search rashly after something to hold onto and a second won't pass until he erupts, since an outburst remains the easiest, most familiar way for him to act. I am reconstructing the events that took place on the morning of that day, and I see them come back and repeat themselves. Those very events drawn, or rather, chiseled into my memory as if it were a marble slab. Between the rising of two suns and their miserable setting. They're crowded and painful. Like my name and the look on this man's face. They aren't shrouded by the fog of the ethereal creatures stretched out in their graves within foolish minds hovering over legendary skies. The demonic hand of an "angel" passed through the front lines of my wit at the end of that day and wiped the dust off, then a crystalline light sparkled and faded before this beginning that still stumbles and limps appeared like my wooden leg and, despite itself, came back to the beginning of endings to pull me along with it by the obduracy of shabby words, in vanity and significance cloaked in the garments of fraud and cunning. Here it starts "in the beginning," along with the name and the ID card.

Akram al-Khayyat. Their problem and mine. And he always creates these winds that blow into tempests out of nothing. And I cling to him in pride, and the guard clings to him in order find some justification for his position and deceive himself into thinking he didn't make a mistake. Can you imagine that he actually charged me with forgery that day? No. He wasn't referring to the name but the identity and since identity is of the essence that is what he made into his object of desire. Names are of no consequence. Didn't we already reach an agreement over this? Yes ... Yes.... In this case the name assumes a legal importance and I don't think there is any need to explain or clarify the reasons for such a thing. Why didn't I change it like everybody else? Don't make me laugh. Haven't you heard the one about the donkey who put on glasses, donned a cloak and called himself "Professor?" A whole stable of donkeys followed in his footsteps. They reaped their reward by taking in a lot of other donkeys, but they never quite figured out how not to remain donkeys.

Identity is an element as decisive as fear. And "Akram al-Khayyat," despite anything I might have said, is part of that identity. He's different than all the things that have been borrowed to pull the wool over our eyes. And as for me, I wasn't born with Melissa's demons and exiles so that changing my form won't do me any good. My identity was forged a long way from here. It was fixed before I knew of it since I was born and I exist. And some of my most distinguishing features include the fact that I am a man, my religion is Jewish, I live in Baghdad and my name is Akram al-Khayyat, something that simply can't be blotted out so easily, even though the guard over there, in an attempt to maintain his honor and in fear of betraying it, persists in charging me with forgery. And in just a second or two, after an expedition through the lines of my identity card and the evaluation of that journey telegraphed through the twists and turns of his head dedicated to finding a substitute for retreat - and when the first signs of the imminent storm already strike his face, covering it in dust, and wrinkles as delicate as a baby's begin to appear we will conduct a dialogue I know by heart. My back is broken, afflicting me with pain. Here, at the beginning of my journey, dreaming in the cistern of light from my other sun. The morning of that same day, the end of the straw appeared and evolved from the guard spitting on my existence and my very identity to the spit alighting on me glob after glob until it became a river within leading to my retreat. Thus was I drawn in by its current and when I reached the end of it I found myself before this beginning. Excuse me! This is my fate, like my identity. And fates, like identities, cannot be obliterated. His thin, purplish lips quiver as he goes on asking: "Where did you find this identity card?" Making a long story short, I tell him straight off: "ID cards are issued, not found like garbage or stones left at the side of the road." Then he will say: "So where did you steal it?" No. I won't open this door for him, a door leading to an abundance of the imaginary that would make him wander between all the possibilities that have any connection whatsoever to his sole but rootless intention, so that he could create an imaginary root from one of these imaginary possibilities to grant him at least some achievement or gain some praise that might seem like the praise garnered by those considered a "success" in our time. An era fit for those who accompany others to get the interest, an era when simpletons are taken advantage of for the brilliant fulfillment of their achievements and stolen ideas. I'll still cut through his sandy, misting cords and put us at the very end of the road by asking him: "Is something not in order?" And just as it happened that day, the eyes that had been seized by such confusion as they rested on the lines of my ID card, ferociously align themselves in wait for the expected rain of words to come down. They always need the pace to be gradual in order to find the arguments justifying their random assumptions along the way, just like in scientific research. Yet you still lead them, with an unexpected burst of energy, to the very bosom of an assumption that has no basis in reality, for in this case the axiom spares itself. The flash of logic pales, clarifies, and confounds. And in such a situation you force them to confront their error face to face. Since they've kept themselves from admitting anything, their thoughts become confused and reason fails. The last chance, as it were, hangs upon the measure of gain that can be found in failed excuses. And the question then is, how can such excuses be made to come to their senses? This guy lacks the experience; after all, he's not like the donkeys who pulled the wool over the eyes of the other donkeys, he didn't even acquire a black cloak or put glasses on the way they did, nor did he specialize in preying upon innocent fools. Thus, like on that very day itself, he diligently concealed the blood rising in his face between the lines of my little ID card, when the heavy skies in his head filled with barren clouds. The excuses dry up on his tongue together with the words, but there's no way out of it. He has no choice left but to invent things, so his tone tries to reign in the tempest: "Yes ... yes ... there's something here I don't understand."

The name, no doubt. "Akram al-Khayyat." An indivisible part of me. And I will not cease pronouncing it simply to avoid obstacles and problems such as these. Once upon a time Akram aI-Khayyat shone forth, and many spoke of him, happy and jealous and proud of him, even abjuring him, but one thing was unanimous: Akram al-Khayyat was the most outstanding student in all the schools of Iraq. And Akram al-Khayyat was not simply an expression or a phrase that could be exchanged for another. In other words -- the name signified a human being in itself. An identity that has its own overt and covert characteristics: origin, age, sex, place of residence, as well as many other traits. And all these characteristic traits together constitute the most outstanding amongst all the Iraqi students. That student was ... me.

But all that is over and done with. Left behind, there, in the mist. Turned into the "heritage" of the past and plundered from me like that very past itself, and I have no right to it except in memory alone. Time circles round, despite words growing old and the deceptive turns of meaning. And here I find myself behind everyone, taking up the rear. And Melissa's words alone still ring in my ears, roaring and thundering within. These are the kind of words born by chance, but they cannot be crushed.

Of course I won't tell him this. What matters to me now is refuge from this moment, with my dissected past and identity trapped in his eyes and mind. Right now another past ripens in that head of his, another past of mine made up by prophetically inspired rumination given unto him from the text of my identity card. A new life, like my very future, drafted in their own hand;just by chance, since I announced my willingness, with such great celebration, to keep on the trail of bodies that evaporate in air, just because I was enchanted by the impression the word "angels" made. . . . Just imagine!. . . "The angels . . ." The emptying out of impossible abstract meanings into a form made of the tiniest speck. We invent the nonexistant in order to find in it something to inflate our superegos like a ball in bloom, or to strengthen the belief in our existence, reassure us, and calm our spirits. But this guard has already forced himself to take the obstacle course of invention. And he wants to invent, at the spur of the moment, a whole life, when his only point of reference is a faded word in my identity card. On that day the word was turned into dough kneaded in his hands and taken from the material out of which the bodies of Melissa's "friends" winked. And if you were looking at him that very moment, you would have thought you were looking at the Lord creating Satan in order to send him down to Hell. He was trapped by the magic of his own being just as I was trapped by the magic of my angels. And the sun's glint within my limbs in angelic glory. And he already turned nothing into a solid as he ordered me to get off the bus, and then: surprise, surprise! Isn't it odd that an illusion will battle another illusion and dispell it? I must confess. I am indebted, at least in part, to the guard for being here and putting the soles of my feet down on the threshold that I refer to as "the beginning" and you "the end." At the end of that day, a divergence from the paths of folly began and its beginning, the initial signs of the straw that broke the camel's back, struggled in the guard's eyes, appearing from his brazen wish to invent. Here the words branch off from his mute gaze yet to be forgotten or washed away before they are uttered. So I was already prepared for this well-rehearsed dialogue, imprinted upon the back of my mind with the letters of reality's own typewriter, nor did I invent this prophecy, I simply picked it up from a memory that knows no betrayal. While the guard still betrays my expectations, confoundedly and wearily asking me: "Are you traveling?". . . "Yes . . . yes. . . here is my passport." The data on both documents coincides. And I can't have pulled the wool over everybody's eyes. Now he's fallen into the trap. This poor, inexperienced fool cannot be counted, even in their elasticity, amongst "my geniuses" whose ability to maneuver, whose talent to pull things off and produce profits drawn from defeat, like water from a well, is so well known. He's been wounded to the quick again and it hurts. Retreat surprised him, heading him off at the pass, but he is still trying to reach a compromise with himself so he doesn't have to apologize in front of me. His rosy cheeks turn the color of pomegranate and his hands, stretching out to give me back my ID card and my passport, tremble. His resentful surprise bears both the echo of his rage and retreat. "Why didn't you give me your passport in the first place? You think I have time for this kind of nonsense?"

Nonsense?. . . That's how it always is. They try to loot your very being and after they're stricken by helplessness, they make you responsible and call it nonsense. . . . You, my dear fellow, this is probably unknown to you but I established a border in the middle of my life and left the tatters behind me since I intend to start from scratch. And all this because so much "nonsense" of precisely this type was piled onto my back until it broke that day. So be it. We subdued the impossible, we softened the flint of destiny, and we needed no more than two or three minutes to do it. I can see that you are lamenting these minutes in mournful silence. Perhaps, if you dare, or just to comfort yourself, you could ask for compensation. No, dear fellow! You're better off asking from heaven. I have long ceased covering the expenses incurred through the mistakes of others. And wouldn't it be just your luck to be the first one to bear the blame for acting justly towards myself. There's nothing wrong with that! The world won't rid itself of fools just because I abandoned the donkey stables; after all, the world is still full of stables and you will, no doubt, get paid back right after your car expels me that very moment that waits in ambush for me, at the entrance to the airport. And this moment has already come, in the blink of an eye. And both of us, me and that moment, quickly rush to overthrow ourselves in each other's embrace, and I don't know who was responsible for this. I had been yearning to look at this moment from the distance, but that's not what happened . . . it didn't happen! As if we all conjured together to make it not happen. The moment. And you, and me. The moment -- miserable and wretched, pulled into the abyss of nothingness through a mighty, invisible power, and you, driven by your instinctual perserverance into an endless race in the arena of time; and me, pillaged without end in a world whose thoughts push me back to a before I had finished with, but that tells me not to let my face ever turn back towards it. Indeed, in my broken back there's an alarm warning me, emitting a cry of anguish every time I try to turn my face, except the tumult of coercive thoughts that recur again and again is even more painful, swallowing up the rattle of my broken back. My thoughts are stranded on an abstemious shoal and I have come down to "here" only to see them "there," at the checkpoint, stupified at their estrangement, almost mute but penetrating as the call of a cricket, "Why? Is this the face of a 'terrorist'? And what do you expect someone who hasn't stopped running for three years to look like, following the trail of pure, white angels, just because it wasn't in his power to sustain the complexion of a person bearing the perfection of all colors?"

When creating his magnificent and autonomous realm, the Lord did not forget to make soldiers who would defend him, and their numbers are so great they cannot be counted.

There are many brigades in the Lord's bulwarks, each with a different mission. There are brigades that penetrate the human heart with a piercing coldness. And there are brigades that invade their members in terror, and others that unfurl fire upon them, and brigades that abort their illegitimate offspring, and . . .

There are those who believe that this mighty bulwark of the Lord is made up of nothing but his dutiful angels. And the widely circulated name uniting the platoons of this army with its various units exists, a name whose very pronouncement inspires awe in the hearts of people. "Angels of Terror!" A name so well known the creatures and days have studied it repeatedly. . . . Except for three years, sweet and dreamlike, of all the years of your life . . . and your mind!

So rejoice, fools and makers of nonsense!

- Translated from the Arabic by Ammiel Alcalay and Ali Jimale Ahmed.

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