Haidar Haidar's "Hymns of Death": Translation by Allen Hibbard and Tadween Editor Osama Esber
After the split announced by Aziz Al-Haj in the middle of September in the name of the central leadership, the cadre distributed a document printed on the roneograph, sharply criticizing the split and calling for a restoration of party unity.
In Baghdad, the leadership of the Leninist cadre convened a meeting to appraise the general situation after the split and after disputes with the united leftist faction and the pullback from Amin Khayoon’s base in the Jabayesh Marshes. At the end of the meeting, it was decided to establish a new base in ‘Amara Marsh in the Abu Ghareeb region, rebellious, wild, and covered with dense thickets of papyrus.
After finding the place, Mihyar and Abu Sabri set out to explore the area with three others from their unit, one who had fled after the defeat of the Al ‘Arafa’ uprising in Baghdad and made his way to the Marsh, and the other two who were farm workers from ‘Amara. After a month of preparations and reconnaissance, recruits were called in to join the base, now equipped and armed with Russian rifles, a Degtayryov machine gun, a Sterling machine gun, a 9 millimeter Browning revolver, a hunting rifle, and a mashoof—a slender, shallow, papyrus marsh boat.
Most of the first half of April, Mihyar, Abu Sabri, and Barood busied themselves with reconnaissance work, once they had built the cane hut on the hills of Abu Ghareeb Marsh, equipping the new base with basic provisions and food, avoiding the deficiencies of the original base, destroyed due to the hot-temper and rashness of Amin Khayyoon who believed the party could be restored to lead the ship of history by setting fires that would sweep across the country from north to south in the blink of an eye.
During that incomparable adventure, at the point of breakup and chaos, like leaping into a void from a great height, the distance between Mihyar Al-Bahili and Amin Khayoon seemed to shrink, not only because of their cooperation making preparations and establishing roots, which Al-Bahili called the firm rock and a means of gaining popular support, but because of this zealous spirit aspiring to do something extraordinary that couldn’t be done but through sacrificial death. Thus, they set out to the east on an eerie night, rowing without let up for ten hours, exploring the Abyadh region midst cold winds and brakes of tall rushes that rose as high as twenty meters.
The patrol proceeded in this strange world, surrounded by immeasurable risks, ranging from the possibility that the boat would capsize to possible attacks by wild boars or smugglers.
“Where are we and what is this?” Al-Bahili asked, somewhere between dream and reality, when they had proceeded beyond the groves of papyrus, facing a thick stand of rushes that seemed like a wall of ice blocking the horizon.
“The world of Abyadh lies beyond the rushes,” Sabri said. He then spoke about that watery expanse filled with ducks and perch, the hills of Yashan, slumbering listlessly since the time of the Sumerians.
“But how can we get through the thick walls of these damned rushes?” Mihyar asked.
“We’ll have to cut the cane with daggers and make our way through it,” Abu Sabri replied, pulling out his knife.
Twenty years later, in streets and nights of cities that coiled round him as he searched for the heart of his wasted life and the revolution he had dreamed of, Mahyar Bahili would recall that magical, wondrous image of the white expanse—amazing as a dream—as he passed through the wall of ice.
A bright white expanse stretched farther than the eye could see, studded with desiccated tree stumps and hills of cane huts scattered about, wind rustling through them, midst squawks of ducks and storks as they rose from the water then drift slowly like clouds above this body of water that lay like an old Sumerian god whose solitude had not been disturbed by mankind for millions of years.
They proceeded slowly and apprehensively as Mihyar tried to grasp the scene he had fallen into like a child falling from a plane above the sea, not knowing where he was or how he would get out. He was amazed by the boundless expanse stretching forever, as the boat advanced through this morning whose sun was hidden by rushes rising up like afrit and djinn in the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights.
They had gone no more than three miles in this mythical maze when Abu Sabri spotted a fishing net covered with algae and water grass. It quickly disintegrated in their hands when they tried to pull it up.
Abu Sabri said the wind had born the net from where it had been left by fishermen about a month ago.
Before nightfall, Barood was seized by a cry of hunger: “We have to hunt for something to eat besides just bread.”
“Barood, stay with the boat in the rushes,” Abu Sabri said as he loaded two cartridges into his gun.
The sun fell calmly over the plain of water, blanketing things with an array of colors—saffron, the green of rushes, and a deep purple beneath undulating shadows drawn by the hand of a young child-god playing whimsically with this fading flood of color, scarved with majesty.
Flocks of birds crossed the dusky horizon, squawking. Mihyar nudged Abu Sabri with his fist, urging him to fire, but Abu Sabri said they were too far away and the shots would lose themselves in the intervening space. Like a hunter who over the past twenty years had become familiar with the marshes and learned the secrets of its birds, he began to make strange sounds imitating the calls of wild ducks.
Mihyar said that this place would serve as their rear headquarters, for prisoners, equipment, supplies, and reserves of munitions.
“It’s not possible to turn back,” Barood said. “We’ll sleep here.”
“Yes. We’ll cut some rushes to sleep on.”
Just then shots rang out. Abu Sabri had been monitoring the sky with his sharp eyes and keen ears. He placed the rifle along the side of the boat, quickly stripped off his clothes and dove into water. “I think it’s a goose. Get a fire going for a greasy meal.”
They watched him as he hit the water, strong as a young man not yet over forty. He surged forward expertly, cutting through the water with the passion of a seasoned hunter procuring a tasty meal for his companions after a hard day.
Mihyar and Barood began to cut leaves and stalks of cane with army knives and pile them up on the bottom of the boat.
“Did you hear something after the shots?” Barood asked.
“We were paying attention to the sky and ducks,” Mihyar said. “I didn’t notice anything other than the sound of the shot.”
“Abu Sabri is crazy. Is this goose season?”
“But he’s a son of the night. Believe me. When I’m with him, I feel like I’m with a whole battalion. Imagine a man who sleeps during the day and stays up all night til dawn!”
“I was talking about shooting and hitting the target.”
“Night taught him how to shoot at the source of sound and motion.” Mihyar told Barood about staying with Abu Sabri, how one evening they went out together on one of their night patrols, soon finding themselves far from home. They practiced moving about at night, scouting out remote areas. They passed through small rural villages, staying up late past midnight, and then walked back the stretch of ten miles. Abu Sabri never parted from his rifle—not out of pride, but because he always anticipated treachery in those areas beyond the reach of law. “That night, as I was talking with him in a desolate area, beyond Yashan Hill, he suddenly grabbed my shoulder and pulled me with him to the ground, then aimed his rifle and fired. It all happened like a dream. I came to my senses and heard him yelling, ‘It’s down. We got it.’ We then rushed forward. There behind the canebrake was a wild boar, large as an ox, snorting and bleeding profusely. He finished it off with another shot between its eyes.”
Abu Sabri was shivering from the cold as he grasped the side of the boat, a wet goose drooping from his clenched teeth. He flung the bird onto the bottom of the boat, stammering: “Fire. Fire. Hurry up or I’ll die.” Once he was in the boat, Mihyar covered him with an army blanket, but he continued to shiver as a stench wafted from the white bird that had traveled from icy regions of the North Pole.
“All this cold and suffering just for a goose!”
“A huge funeral for a dead dog!” Barood said sarcastically.
“My eye. Your shitty luck,” Abu Sabri snarled. “Get the fire going. Get back to it, guys, and stop fooling around. Come on, you numbskulls. Come on!”
The glee at discovering the tropic of whiteness, that Mihyar called the tropic of ice or the sixth continent, dissolved when the patrol returned, after a stormy night, through torrents of sleet and bouts of nausea from the rancid taste of the scrawny goose. A fire of bullets and voices suddenly rang out midst thickets of rushes. “Surrender, thieves. You’re surrounded, in our crosshairs.”
They had been taken by surprise, surrounded in the early dawn, rifles aimed at their heads, as three masked men led them away, accusing them of stealing the fishing net and throwing them into a pen for keeping water buffalo where they remained locked up until evening.
That night at the interrogation session and trial, Al-Bahili was anxious, for this wretched turn of events was wholly unlike anything they had expected as they set out on the venture. But when he saw that Abu Sabri was calm from the start, like a wall, unperturbed, he felt a strange sense of serenity, inspired by the experienced man sitting beside him, smoking.
The brief silence was broken by a demand for tea, as though it was the final request granted prior to execution. “We want tea, you fellows, before we face our lord, Azrael.” He joked as he talked with the men sitting in wait for the trial, who, because of the narrowness of their horizon and the remoteness of their world, thought they had would seize a cache of weapons and money those strangers had stashed away somewhere in that watery jungle.
The wife of the man who owned the home entered with tea to serve the ill-fated detainees. She scrutinized Abu Sabri’s ruddy, bearded face as she set a cup of tea on the mat before him. “The prayers of Mohammed be upon your head!” her voice rose suddenly. “Aren’t you Musa Atyya, Al-Doobiyya’s husband?”
Abu Sabri was surprised, as if his head had been doused with a bucket of cold water from high above. “Yes. What is it, sister?”
“I knew your wife in our village, Al-Doob. How is she?”
“She bestows her life to you,” he said, with a deliberate display of grief.
“God bless her soul. How good she was! Did she bear you any children?”
“Yes. A son, Sabri. He, too, passed away. Memories. Don’t mention this, please—God bless your parents—before I burst out in tears.”
Their conversation proceeded around memories and details that had been blotted out by time, while others looked on, baffled by this surreal surprise that transformed the spectacle of a trial into a celebration of old acquaintances and memories shared between the wife of the home owner whose imagined treasure had taken flight and Musa Atyya, the grieving widower, who acted as though he was about to cry.
And when the woman’s husband, worried about losing the cache of weapons and money, asked his wife who these men were, she introduced him to Musa Atyya, the husband of a woman who had been her friend and a good, generous neighbor and had left the village twelve years ago, before she had married him.
This woman—who Abu Sabri now remembered like an apparition from his visits to his wife’s village because of her sharp tongue and the blue tattoo on her forehead—would save him and his two companions, crowning the memory of her deep affection for Um-Sabri, his deceased wife, with a fitting meal of turkey and rice, which they eagerly devoured after the rancid goose they had eaten the night before.
* * *
Before Khaled Ahmed Zaki and other new recruits arrived at the base headquarters, the faction’s leadership had already gone ahead and decided in protracted meetings to unite with the central leadership led by Aziz Al-Hajj under two conditions: Dissolution of the August line and recognition of the popular armed struggle front led by Khaled Zaki, Hussein Yassin, and Madhfar Al-Nawwab. Once Khaled and Hussein arrived in mid April, bearing weapons and money, a decision was made to move from Amarah Marsh to the Nasiriya Marshes in the Alawaina region, to break out from the isolation that had settled in at the base in those remote areas separated from the fellaheen. It was also decided to retain Al Amarah base as a backup position, for retreat or to serve as a decoy.
The arrival of new leadership, recruits, and weapons raised morale, and the move to the new base began with renewed enthusiasm. Weapons, equipment, and boats were transported by truck from Al-Shattaniyya to Al-Awaina. At noon they arrived at Al-Dawwaya in the district of Al-Shatra, and from Al-Dawwaya, they began to row for six hours until they reached Al-Awaina, where they spent the night at the home of the local party chief.
The base was more secure in this new location given the party history there, stretching back to the time of its founder, Fahd, the martyr, who had been executed by royal decree after a farcical military trial that he and his two rebel comrades, Zaki Baseem and Ibraheem Naji, had turned into a communist celebration that continued to reverberate deep within the rebels as they were led to the hangman’s noose, shouting along with Fahd, fortified by the death sentence: “Communism is stronger than death and transcends the scaffold. If I were to live my life over again, I would choose this same path. It’s an honor to be executed here in this place, the starting point of popular demonstrations.”
* * *
Khaled Ahmed Zaki, the political officer of the base leadership who had now adopted the name “Dhafer,” told his comrades that the tensions within the party had not yet been resolved, however the situation was now better: “We have to apply pressure from here, away from the grip of cities in order to give birth to the party, through armed force.” In the evenings, he spoke with prophetic radiance about small sparks that had set forests on fire: strikes, insurrections, and uprisings in the Kurdish north. “Light must emblazon the dark skies of Iraq, from north to south.”
On those evenings, the conversation revolved around two main issues: how to create solidarity with the fellaheen, and how to attain weapons and supplies. Abu Sabri, who was busy shoring up the foundations of the cane hut, showed the group how to cut the rushes, transport them by boat, then tie them tightly in bundles to protect the rebels’ home from the ravages of water, frost, and cold winds.
During the long period of time he had spent building these huts, starting from when the first base was established, Abu Sabri had become expert in the enterprise. During breaks he told Mihyar Al-Bahili that he had abandoned the sunny images of Basra’s streets, and that so long as he remained alive, he would pursue the task of building houses deep within the marshes. “It’s a simple task, Brother Mihyar. A sharp scythe, plenty of rope, and skillful hands. That’s how we can protect ourselves from the curse of poverty that has dogged us from the beginning of time.”
Al-Bahili laughed at the simplicity of this man who, in the midst of the temporary work, forgot that his present situation was no more than a way station between a life of poverty and the prospect of death. When Al Bahili reminded Abu Sabri that in the coming days there would be more important things than building cane huts, Abu Sabri asked him whether they would move yet again, to establish new bases in other, safer places.
Deep down, Abu Sabri was concerned and troubled by these moves, like migrations of gypsies in months before war. Nonetheless, bases were set up, huts were built, and training continued, fighting delayed.
“Brother Mihyar, listen,” he whispered privately, trying to make his feelings clear, pointing out the price of political bickering. “I’m a simple man with little education, unversed in ‘strategy and tactics.’ What I know is that I’m a poor communist with nothing to his name. Life and death are the same to me. Officers, merchants, feudal lords, and government officials are our enemies. Is that right, or not, comrade?”
“Right,” Mihyar said.
“Just like all communists fighters I must kill those enemies without mercy. Isn’t this right and just, comrade?”
“It’s right and just,” replied Mihyar.
“And if we keep moving and building huts and keep on jabbering about ‘strategy and tactics,’ they’ll gain time. Right or wrong, comrade?”
“For a million years, man, we’ve been wandering about, lost like madmen in this damned mud. Give us orders to attack them and we’ll cleanse the earth of their foul stench. Look into my eyes, Mihyar! People are tired, downtrodden and overburdened. As the saying goes, “Light yogurt doesn’t contain butter.”
In these magical times, blazing like meteors, Mihyar Al-Bahili beheld the inner character of this man, in whose gleaming eyes, his nose—hooked like a falcon’s—and his knitted eyebrows, he perceived the cry of a people, trying with all their might to wrest themselves loose from the boulders of subjugation and humiliation pressing down on their breasts.
The night stretched out magnificently, outside the hut, bowing over a green expanse forever isolated by a forgotten flood. The outspread expanse echoed with desolation, the rustle of rushes, sounds of birds, and the murmur of waters inhabited by millions of djinn and obscure ghosts. This magical space awakened slumbering feelings deep within Mihyar Al-Bahili, stretching back to the dawn of man.
In ancient times humans had been created from primordial elements, emerging, after cells had formed, from clay, air, water, and sun. Now it seemed as if billions of years of life evolving toward human perfection and the construction of an edifice of freedom had disintegrated, reverting to its primal state. The beastly, brutish human had struck all this progress with his claws in a maniacal, bloodthirsty moment. So, these years of evolution had collapsed, and a new beginning was now needed.
From streets, squares, and chambers for detaining prisoners in London, Khaled Ahmed Zaki saw, along with others, the deep collapse and destruction of the order, a collapse as broad as these Sumerian marshes whose early legends related the story of Ghudea, representative of the goddess of earth, and how he dreamed, during times of restraining floods by rebuilding ruined structures, that he saw a giant with a crown on his head and wings of a huge bird whose tail tapered off in a flowing curl. On his right and left, were prostrate lynx and lions. The giant commanded Ghudea to restore the ruined structures, then suddenly dawn began to glow on the horizon and Ghudea beheld a woman erasing the old structures, holding in her hands a gold pen and a clay tablet on which she drew signs of the zodiac. This woman who looked as though she was the goddess of the city of Ur was mourning for her city, on the verge of collapse and utter ruin: “I was then totally overwhelmed with sadness and despair, anticipating the violent day that was fated for me, ordained for me, overwhelmed with tears and crying. I, a solitary woman, had no escape from that fateful day. Fear of the violent destruction, like the deluge, pressed down on my shoulders. All of a sudden, there while I was in bed, all of my dreams were punctured and all ability to forget was annihilated. And because this bitter weeping had been destined for my country, and because even if I wandered about the earth like a lone cow searching for its lost calf, I couldn’t help my people; even if I spread my wings like a bird, and flew to my city, I couldn’t spare it from being razed to the ground. Ur couldn’t have been spared utter ruin, no matter what. Even if I had screamed at the winged, appointed, violent day, ‘Go back to your desert, you violent day,’ the storm’s oppressive burden wouldn’t have been removed from my chest.”
For a long while, Gudia attentively regarded the woman, in amazement. He saw a soldier carrying a chrysolite tablet on which he was sketching outlines of a house. On his left, he saw blocks of baked bricks, baskets, and men in the shape of birds, pouring water ceaselessly. Then, to the right of the giant, he saw a donkey, striking the earth impatiently with its hoofs.
When Gudia woke up from his strange visions, the meaning of the dream came to him: he was being directed to create a new order.
Dhafer—this slim, gentle man, whose blond hair and mustache were dyed black in order to blend in with the surroundings; a lieutenant in the army with his fresh military uniform—this man inspired by experiences of revolutions he had read about and uprisings in Latin America—spoke and reflected upon Mao’s Long March and the procession of Luís Carlos Prestes, who had traversed twenty thousand miles with eight hundred men, slogging through the swamps of Brazil for about four years, dogged by fatigue, sickness, disease, hunger, and ghosts of death. Then, he went on to talk about the Revolution of 1920, in this very place, consecrated with the blood of fellaheen and Bedouins; so it was a cry to build on the ruined order rose within his blood. This man, midst a group of twelve fighters who vowed to fight to their deaths, was like a thundercloud containing tempests. He now dreamed of restoring lost power and glory to his country after its heart had stopped beating.
The country and its downtrodden citizens needed an infusion of new blood since the blood of the old body had been drained by the fangs of dogs, thieves, marauders, packs of sons of whores, and the scum of what now was called the divinely destined nation.
The Promethean spirit thus guided him with the glow of its fires as he traversed spaces, descending from the pleasant, white mountains of the gods toward this watery plain subsumed by papyrus, rushes, and silt, possessed by plans and schemes to destroy the rabid military state and establish the communist order of the twentieth century Ghudia.
* * *
On the twenty-sixth of May, after two months of training, the decision was made to attack two positions in Al-Ghumooka Marshes--mobile police stations, with well trained military units. It was also decided that after the attack they would retreat to Al-Hammar and Al-Abiyadh marshes. A week before, a reconnaissance mission on the positions had been conducted by Abu Sabri, Mihyar and Muhaisen Naif, one of the marsh thieves from the Bani Saeed tribe.
This fugitive was known in those parts as the Marsh Lion. Thirty years before, he had disappeared into the depths of these marshes, a murderer and fugitive, after shooting down, with a Mauser, the chief of the Bani Zabd tribe, enemy of his own tribe. He had fired two shots, one of which tore through the man’s left ear then into the brain, while the other tore open the artery of his heart. Muhaisen Naif thus fled from authorities and became an outlaw, satisfying his empty belly and requisite needs through the seasons by relying on his rifle that never failed to hit its target, be it heart or head.
At the evening gathering held at the base, as they were sipping wine and tearing meat from the sheep that had been prepared in his honor after he had been summoned, the Marsh Lion spoke about his harsh and secluded life and his personal triumphs as lord over this region, forsaken and floating over a world of forgetfulness, ignorance, and savagery, for which he believed he was its armed god. When Abu Sabri asked him why he had at first refused to come, he said, “I, Muhaisen Naif, who makes the skies and marshes of Iraq shudder in fear, refused to be a guide for children!”
Once they began to get drunk, they disclosed the concealed purpose for which he had been selected, and he was shocked. At first, he didn’t believe it, then the wrathful furrows of his brow tightened, as he shook off the wine’s wooziness, and leaped up, howling like a wolf, rushing to embrace Abu Sabri and the other comrades, delighted to be deemed an important person whose true value had been recognized in critical times.
Nine o’clock at night on Thursday was zero hour for setting out for the attack.
Five small boats and a large boat would be there to transport twelve fighters to the two nearby positions on hills above the village.
With the current of the broad river, the boats would take nearly two hours, beneath a clear night lit by stars whose reflections on the water looked like white birds dancing beneath the river’s silver plane.
They left the boats hidden in the tall grass along the banks before arriving at the village.
The chirping of cicadas and a sense of sleepy serenity that had fallen over the villagers indicated that the group could proceed cautiously and confidently.
As he proceeded, crouching behind a hill of dry clay, Lieutenant Dhafer thought he was dreaming when he saw a man wearing white garments suddenly appear before him. “Stop. Who are you?” he shouted at the man, startled.
“The post commander. Who are these men?” The man in white asked, astonished.
“An inspection patrol.”
Dhafer was now facing the man, and three fighters approached, surrounding him.
“What’s the problem, sidi?” The commander of the police station asked Lieutenant Dhafer.
Speaking in the manner of a government official, he began to upbraid the man for being slack and neglecting his duty. “Communists have seized control of Al-Diwaya and Al-Shatra districts while you have been paying no attention, loafing around in your civilian clothes.” The police station commander was taken aback by this unexpected jolt. “Come along to the police station. Come along, father of knights,” he said with a hint of sarcasm. Covered in a cold sweat, his knees knocking, and his eyes straying, the sergeant proceeded toward the station in front of the armed men.
They took over the police station easily with a dramatic move, improvised without any advance preparation for the operation, without any tragic results—no gunfire or blood. A few guards were installed outside, under Mihyar’s supervision, while Lieutenant Dhafer entered the station with the second group. The government military unit welcomed the inspection patrol, then hastened to slaughter a prime turkey and make tea. The head of the station apologized, for the millionth time, for his unintentional neglect for the security of this region that for many years had been safe and seen nothing more than minor frays between fellaheen or a few thefts committed by the fugitive thief Muheisen Naif.
During the evening gathering, congenial midst the steam of tea and smoke of cigarettes that they had long gone without, Lieutenant Dhafer began to talk about the political situation, aberrations, and ruin that had befallen the country and its people. When he broached the idea of revolution and class conflict, saying that Castro and Guevara had transformed the face of history in Latin America and that this is what we must do here, one of the men from the police station became wary, realizing, since he had come up through the ruling party, that a snare had been laid for them. He swiftly grabbed his rifle and rushed out to scale the mud wall of the station. Outside, Mihyar’s group of guards surrounded the station, on the alert. Suddenly, they saw the soldier jumping from the top of the wall and opened fire. One shot hit the man in his arm, and he fell to the grass. He tried to scream, but they muzzled him, after seizing his weapon, and led him back into the meeting room.
After they bandaged his slight wound, the curtain was pulled back on the drama, with a condensed explanation by Lieutenant Dhafer about the launching of the oppositional front for struggle, the armed wing of the communist party, the front that had now begun its revolutionary war throughout the Marshes in order to rescue the people from the oppression and suffering they had endured from time immemorial.
“You’re not our enemies, and we don’t want to harm you. We’ll confiscate weapons and ammunition. Once we leave, you’ll be free. But bear in mind that thousands of armed communists are now spread out over these Marshes.”
By the time they had taken over the second post, detained its seven personnel, and transported the weapons along with the police to the first post, dawn had begun to break, violet and calm as a child, suspended above the green cane and hills.
Morning thus came upon them as they approached the boats with twenty-eight weapons along with ammunition after they had left the soldiers in the first outpost free, but unarmed.
Later, Mihyar Al-Bahili would recall, with some fuzziness and much residual grief, what had happened that day. He had been at the helm of the last boat, while Dhafer steered the middle one and Abu Sabri guided the lead boat. A strong eastern wind had set in between Ghammukah Marsh and the open Hammar Marsh, slowing their progress. The boats spun in place like tops set spinning by children in an open square. That was at dawn on the second day, after they had realized that the venture had taken three times as long as planned, leaving them no choice but to press on through the bright white light of day in this exposed crossing until nightfall.
By dusk the cursed wind had subsided. They rowed on the river connecting the two marshes. The decision to cut across the strait, a kind of bottle neck, was a gamble, like reaching out for a safety rope, less than a mile away, at the entrance of Hammar and Abyad Marshes, open as the sky.
The shout snapped Abu Sabri out of his daydreams, however he ignored it and continued to row with the zeal of a man finally heading off to a war he had anticipated, then far beyond toward a time when this war would be no more than jumbled dreams bursting within the nerves and cells of his head whenever he became agitated and recalled his son’s crying and the miserable nights he spent in these hellish marshes.
The voice shouted again, shouted for the boats to stop. The group’s leader heard it, but ordered them to carry on, not to stop.
Two bullets whizzed across the boats, and Dhafer returned a shot.
The night’s crescent moon cast its diamond nets over the river’s face and over the boats hugging the shore, exposing them. Shots poured down on them from the banks above, scattering the boats, driving them closer to the shallow shore.
They abandoned the boats under that blaze of unexpected fire, and reached the riverbank, scurrying for cover behind hills and rocks. It then dawned on them that this might be an ambush, the beginning of a battle.
Dazzling searchlights crossed the wide expanse between them and the banks above the river, leaving them exposed, breaking illusions, waking them from drowsiness and dreams.
The ambush hadn’t given them time to determine the best positions or movements. For an hour gunfire rained down on them, creating chaos and confusion and depriving them of any ability to affect the battle’s course.
“Retreat! Retreat!” Hussein Yassin and Abbood yelled. “Where to? Where to?” They trembled beneath the blazing light. Shots buzzed above their heads and reverberated in their nerves. Shalash, who was carrying the Degtayryov, collapsed, unable to load the gun, clogged with water and mud.
Now the chance of ever using the boats again, without the prospect of certain death, had passed. Beginning to wake from the nightmare that had suddenly seized them, Dhafer proposed the perilous plan of retrieving weapons that had been left behind when they had abandoned the boats under fire. With lightening-like speed, Abu Sabri, Said Dira’an, Aqeel Habash, and Jasem Tuaij took off to retrieve the weapons, while the others covered their advance and return with heavy fire.
As they returned with the weapons, Hussein Yassin was still shouting for a retreat, pointing to the heights above the river. Hundreds of lights shone over the hills and above the reeds, seeming, in the dark spaces of his trembling heart, to indicate thousands of enemy vehicles and tanks. In a moment of panic, he pressed the trigger of his rifle, pointed toward the glaring lights.
“Aye ! I’ve been mortally wounded,” Said Dira’an cried out. A crazed shot had smashed his lower jaw and passed into his left armpit.
During a lull in the fighting they began to move, after wrapping the man’s wound with Mihyar’s kufiyah, carrying him with them toward the papyrus rushes along the riverbank. Until dawn they crouched there among the reeds, in the mud and shallow water, like ducklings, shivering from the stinging cold of night.
Now far from their original position, they heard sporadic shots behind them. They remained in the mud, careful not to make any sound or movement, except for the wounded man, who at dawn became feverish and began to shudder in Abu Sabri’s arms: “Let me be. How can I repay you, ya habibi, Abu Sabri, Mihyar, and my family. Deliver us. I’m done for. Leave me and save yourselves. My eye. I’m completely done for.”
As dawn began to break they found themselves exposed, without cover. What they had tried to discern through the veil of night, the siege, and branches of papyrus was but a small, grassy swamp, no more than a hundred meters from their previous position.
Yet the fishermen who passed close by did not see them, and began to gather up their fishing nets in fear as they spoke about the war between the government and the Communists, the raids on police stations, and the theft of weapons from government soldiers in Ghammukah who had peed their pants when they had been attacked by surprise.
At nightfall on the third day—with no food, midst the constant churning of fear, the siege, and the search for an escape—they began to find their bearings. They walked along the bank of the river beneath the stars, the Evening Star glistening brighter, illuminating a possible route through the marsh. It was Abd Al-Jabbar who suggested that the star be their guide. This young man had studied astronomy and astrology in old books, and learned how to foretell the future and the Judgment Day from manuscripts his grandfather had locked in a trunk before his death, for his grandson to open and explore when he turned sixteen. Abd Al-Jabbar told this story dozens of times at the base, with slight variations that no one, in their misery, noticed. When he related this story about his childhood and youth, he shook his head, their current situation perforating waves of nostalgia. “Oh,” he’d say. “How things have changed!”
Thus they proceeded in that silver dusk, throughout the night, the light of Abd Al-Jabbar’s stars guiding them and showing them the way as they took turns carrying the wounded man, enduring hunger, exhaustion, the collapse of Hussein and Abbood who remained silent under Abu Sabri’s threatening admonitions, and air pockets in the cursed sludge into which they sank with no warning.
At dawn, they were surprised to find the river on their left and to discover that they had been winding with the river’s bends so the distance they had covered had brought them no closer to the marshes. Yet before them opened a smooth plain, once a ravine that had held water but now was dry. No more than five hundred meters away, on a hill, were scattered houses of an unfamiliar village, built of rushes and mud.
The decision was made to take refuge in this bare, gravel-strewn ditch and begin to make individual holes to hide in before they were detected. In the face of this fresh calamity into which they had fallen prey, Al-Bahili whispered into Abu Sabri’s ear, saying that the stars of Comrade Jabbar and his feeble-minded grandfather’s manuscripts had misguided them and led them into peril. Wiping off sweat from his brow with the cuff of his uniform, Abu Sabri replied that neither the stars nor the manuscripts were to blame.
They didn’t know where they were now. The river was behind them. Before them was a crumbling wall of gray clay, behind which lay the unfamiliar village visible through branches of a clump of willows. Thirst and fatigue burned their throats, heads, and empty stomachs as they began digging in the gravel. Orders were issued with the threat of firing on anyone who returned toward the river, in search of water. There were two military canteens from which everyone drank in small swigs until the veil of night fell.
The image of them finally rushing to the riverbank at nightfall—him swimming and plunging deep into the river then lazing in the water until he felt his pores open like lotus blossoms in this soothing wetness, from which the universe burst forth—would flash on the white screen of Mihyar’s memory during evenings in Buna and other cities where he would later seek refuge until the fated hour when a bullet would catch him or he would die, sad and alone.
Cherished, old memories passed by like ciphers for an hour as he lay on his back on the gravelly, muddy banks, gazing at the stars and the vast heavens. He forcefully resisted the power of their nostalgic appeal, and they soon faded away into distant regions as this strange bewildering situation fell upon them so surreally, inexplicably.
The fragile sliver of time, hazardous as a minefield, allowed no discussion about the past and miscalculations. The moment was like an eternity, permitting nothing more than taking orders and swift, concise moves to extricate themselves from the siege.
The leader charged three people, led by Abu Sabri, to sneak into the village to buy food and check with fellaheen about the possibility of renting boats and hiring a guide to take the group to Hammar Marsh. The three would vanish forever, never to return, leaving Dhafer, Mihyar, and the other seven men wondering—from when they had lost their tracks until the end of the play and the final curtain fell—whether they had been captured, killed, or routed.
The fourth evening came, and Abu Sabri and his two comrades had not shown up. A feeling of disappointment and alarm weighed on everyone. That night Khaled Ahmed Zaki was more downcast than he had ever been in his life. It seemed to Mihyar as though the man was suffering from the onset of a nervous breakdown, as well as from gloom and despair. “We’re completely lost,” he finally burst out. “It’s over. This is our grave.” In a moment of empathy, Mihyar regretted the fateful decisions to dispatch their friend and guide Abu Sabri, who hadn’t returned, and to put credence in Abd Al-Jabbar’s misleading stars, that had amounted to nothing more than a mirage in a desert for the thirsty.
It occurred to Mihyar, during the first quarter of that night, that their only means of escape, their last chance, was to cross the river, in order to get farther away from the exposed area and closer to the marsh. Thus, with knives they began to assemble bales and bundles of papyrus and reeds to make rafts. In the middle of the night, with weapons and ammunition, they set off into the calm, open river, floating on primitive, green rafts beneath the moonlight like in a scene from the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, led by Bahili’s hunches that aligned now with the current pushing toward the entrance to Abyadh Marsh, secluded and hidden by dense, wild rushes in which a whole army brigade could become lost.
At dawn, their rafts landed on fresh grassy banks lined with willows, but they still could not see the marsh.
They then realized—through an undertow of despair, the morning fog, and this dizzying maze—that they had become easy prey as a result of a series of mistakes that could be traced through Dhafer’s long-winded lectures at the outpost, letting the soldiers to go free, Abd Al-Jabbar’s stars, Abu Sabri’s disappearance, Mihyar’s hunches, and futile astrological calculations.
While they had been wasting this time, a group of soldiers from the outpost that been attacked had gone to the judicial headquarters of the district of Shatra to inform authorities there about what had happened. Telegrams then flew from Shatra to Basra then to Baghdad: “Widespread armed Communist insurrection in the southern marshes.” Immediately the areas of Basra, Nasiriyya, Amara, and Kut were proclaimed war zones.
A strike force and paratroopers, reinforced by military vehicles and police from the surrounding districts, poured in to confront and crush the insurgency.
Mihyar Al-Bahili would later bitterly regret that he had not stood up to Comrade Dhafer’s orders and insist that they turn away that outlaw who had sprung up before them on his gray horse like a mythical specter. On the morning of the fifth day, that strange creature had surprised them with a question that concealed suspicion and betrayal: “Aren’t you the Communist revolutionaries of the marshes? My name is Abd Alai’al, a friend of Muhaisen Naif, the Marsh Lion. For ten years, I’ve been pursued by and rebelled against the state. I’m with Communism, heart and soul. Give me weapons to fight with you and I’ll get you out of this jam.”
Exhaustion, hunger, and despair had already begun to take a toll on the band of nine. They had gone more than a hundred hours without food, wandering about these waters and muddy banks, looking for a breech through which God or the devil would deliver them from that interminable, spiraling passageway.
When that strange knight appeared, it seemed as though at last the devil had answered their wishes, just as the burning bush had been revealed to the wandering Moses.
In order to prove his good intentions, the man shot off on his horse like an arrow and disappeared. He returned later in the afternoon bearing sacks of bread, dates, chicken, and sweets, along with a jug of cold yoghurt drink.
“Listen, Comrade Dhafer. My heart fears this sly fox.”
“Strange. What makes you suspicious?”
“These fishy, dramatic acts. How did he so quickly determine we were Communists?”
“He’s under our protection and we need him as a guide.”
“I don’t trust him. I suspect he’s informing on us.”
This exchange took place privately between the two men in the calm of the afternoon among small willows whose wisps drooped along the riverbank.
Although Dhafer made him worry that he was prey to paranoid conjectures due to the delirium of fatigue and a jittery nervous system that gleaned particular things then enlarged them on its screen beneath the fever of this sudden shock, Al-Bahili continued to harbor misgivings and tried to make sense of all the strange things that had transpired in this maze into which they had been cast in this miserable time.
All these doubts, confusions, and anxieties would shrink and become resolved the day that strange man, who had appeared so suddenly, returned with advancing forces that surrounded the group, forming an arch open at the river.
They were now dispersed along the banks among mounds of clay and clumps of rushes. In front of them—steep bluffs of the river behind which enemy forces were arrayed; behind them—silt, then the muddy river.
“You’re surrounded,” blared loudspeakers. “There’s no way for you to escape. Allahu Akhbar. God is the greatest. We’re all brothers. Surrender and you’ll be safe.”
A burning radiant wave reverberated deep within the men who had been dreaming of being rescued. They then woke up.
“So, there will be no boats,” the wounded Said Dira’an said.
The loudspeakers provoked a barrage of fire midst the night fog. One of the shots jolted the earth and sent flying a clod of clay from the bluff. This seemed as if it would trigger a decision to start fighting, however Dhafer screamed, “What’s this? They’ll find out where we are.” The mood reverted to its initial state of confusion.
“Why do we have these damned weapons then?” asked Shalash, who had fired the shot. “Are we to die like dogs, weapons in our hands?”
“How stupid!” the leader shouted, trembling nervously. “Don’t you see the sons of whores’ armies? The Day of Judgment is upon us and will wipe us out!”
Reinforcements kept arriving in trucks and military vehicles, amassing to confront the marsh insurrection, led by hundreds of revolutionaries who had become immersed like snakes deep within the marshes. Their unit formed the first line of defense. Military helicopters circled in the air above, trying to detect their rear lines and support positions.
Khaled Ahmed Zaki and Mihyar Al-Bahili disagreed over whether to negotionate terms for surrender or to plunge into a lopsided battle, so the leader and his aide solicited views from the seven fighters dispersed behind mounds of clay and trunks of willows, in small burrows scattered along the river’s edge.
In view of the maze, siege, and disarray, they were left with the choice either to surrender or to fight. They chose to fight, and just as Khaled submitted to Ubaidah bin Al Jarrah to fight under his banner, Al-Bahili gave in to the leadership who won out to lead a wandering band of Tareq bin Ziyad’s soldiers, their boats lost and means for escape cut off, in those straits where they had been taken by surprise and ambushed. An area of more than fifty miles was under surveillance, under siege, and under fire—from the riverbank to the outlets of the marshes and the distant green plains. They were exhausted, and near their last breath—depleted, panic-stricken, and desperate, clenched between the attacking monster’s teeth. Yet blood still blazed and surged, pulsing powerfully through the networks of their veins. The touch of fingers upon weapons at this moment of confrontation lifted spirits, making the men feel strong, filling them with a burst of life that cast death to the most distant reaches so long as bullets held out.
Fighting orders boiled down to two imperatives: improving positions on the ground as much as possible, and conserving ammunition.
Mihyar had been thinking, deep down, of holding out until nightfall. Then they would attempt a fresh retreat to escape the noose tightening around them. The plan seemed impossible—like grasping hold of ropes from heaven and climbing them in order to escape this cursed hell. Yet Mihyar believed in man’s capacity to break through barriers, and kept the idea alive until it was snuffed out by the river, the cursed mud, and gunfire whizzing above and all around them.
The clamor, echoes, and voices from the loudspeakers in the midday sun, the white expanse, and the churning water rattled nerves. In the eyes and bodies of those who wished just then they could dive deep, deep into the hard ground to protect themselves from that brutal force bearing down on them, all of this blossomed into a blind specter of death. Dhafer crawled amongst the men who were accosted by death, to slake their thirst, calmly and sadly patting them on their backs and encouraging them. He realized deep down that what they had done, everything from the beginning up until that moment, had been a grave mistake. Like a bolt of lightning flashing across a night no dawn would follow, a cloud of grief exploded in his sky, shattering dreams of Sierra Maestra, the attack on Santa Clara, marches toward Battista’s stronghold, and the fall of Havana.
Scorching summers. Scorching summers. Prayers and never-ending banquets of death.
“Oh. We’re doomed,” he said to himself as he approached Jabbar who was lying down behind his machine gun, to give him water. Suddenly the man burst out singing the Internationale, the hymn he had sung with the chorus of inmates in Hallah Prison before he escaped with Mudhaffar and his comrades through the tunnel that had taken an entire month to dig.
“Jail isn’t for those with honor. It’s for tyrants. Tomorrow is ours. Tomorrow is ours.”
* * *
Late in the evenings, as Bunah faded and shadows came to rest like a rock on a broken back, visions would travel across waves of memory and birds of longing, landing on Mihyar’s rock, hooting like an owl. Their echoes rent the heart, as one by one, mutely, their images appeared on the screen of night, falling like pelicans onto the gray plain of mud and silt.
Those visions would unroll: the image of Jabbar rushing toward a hand grenade that had been thrown from above, grasping it, and trying to throw it back toward the soldiers just as it exploded in his right hand, sending free the hand, a fountain of blood spurting from the slaughtered wrist—a flying chicken, its neck severed by a sharp knife.
The image of Shalash followed in its wake. “Comrades,” he was saying, in a tragic sorrow full of life just on the cusp of death. “We barely know one another, so let’s get to know each other better.” Members of the group, one by one, began to learn about one another’s lives during this rare lull between two long stretches of fighting. During that moment outside the province of reason, Al-Bahili would slip away, crying and trembling, wondering what premonition had possessed them when they gave him letters to their families. It was like they were making confessions to a priest who would remain alive and be a witness, just before going to the guillotine or a firing squad. Why did they think they would die and he alone would survive to bear those letters?
Six of the enemy advancing toward the edge of the river were killed and twelve were wounded. The enemy at first had called on them to surrender and give up their weapons, yet when they saw their dead and wounded, they pulled back, thinking they were facing a detachment of sharpshooters who never missed their targets. The unit allowed the army to retrieve their dead and wounded, displaying their confidence. “We’re not murderers or thugs,” Mihyar had announced. “Come and take your dead. We won’t fire.”
Late in the afternoon, helicopters arrived, roaring above the river and its banks, making the earth and sky shudder. The men now observed them, beneath the glistening sun, rending the open air belligerently, soon swooping down like monsters from the heavens, flattening the water, rushes, and rocks along the banks.
In the flood of the first attack that ripped through like a hurricane, the helicopter operator felt a vibration and loss of equilibrium. He tried to turn to avoid the gunfire, but the fuel tank exploded loudly, then broke into flames. The wreckage of the aircraft was seen slicing the gray sky, streaking like a flaming rock, exploding on impact with the water and mud, and shooting plumes of murky water more than thirty meters into the air, as its propellers, like claws of a lobster, upside down on its back, continued churning above the marsh.
The crash put the enemy into a state of chaos, halting the ground assault and dispersing the helicopters.
Cries of victory rose deep from within the unit.
Death had been deferred.
Just then Mihyar, who had been apprehensive about the approach of night and the retreat beneath its wings, began to feel the impossible dream move toward the realm of possibility, despite cries of pain from Jabbar, whose hand had been severed. “Kill me, kill me,” he kept pleading. “Death is better than this pain.”
Mihyar and Dhafer crawled about checking on personnel and the wounded. Aqeel Habash was to the left of their position, leaning against the trunk of a leprous tree, its branches in the mud, trembling and raving, terrified, as he wiped off his binoculars and uncaked mud from his clothes. Aqeel laughed loudly and madly as he spoke. Mihyar shook his shoulder. “What’s with you?” He laughed again, pointing to the sky, then immediately set down his binoculars and waved his arms like a bird flapping its wings, preparing to fly: “They flew. They flew. Jabbar and Hussein flew. They flew away with the choppers. Abu Sabri told me.”
“What did he tell you, you crazy bat?” Mihyar asked, slapping him lightly, toppling him over like a sack of straw. Aqeel’s eyes bulged as he gazed into a sky where he beheld millions of planes in the form of sea gulls tearing apart circling fish.
Pain suddenly gripped Dhafer’s body, an inexplicable pain that took root in the lower spine, then rose to the back of his head, and lodged in his temples. He, too, was exhausted and disoriented, yet dreamed then of possessing lethal weapons to crush these enemy forces, then afterwards establish a Communist utopia and green gardens on their ruins. He realized, however, more than ever before, that this dream was distant as the stars, and that he and his comrades had fallen by mistake, prematurely, from a strange planet, landing, through a foolhardy journey, in this perilous, barren place.
They lifted Aqeel up and propped him against a tree trunk. Dhafer doused his face with water and Mihyar tried to shake him from his stupor. “Brother Aqeel, wake up,” he said. “We’re in trouble, and you’re a brave man. We shot down a chopper, and morale is high. Didn’t you hear the wounded Jabbar’s hymn!”
Aqeel opened his eyes for a second, raising his head, as Jabbar’s name rang out in a soundless night. “Jabbar went to bring planes. He raised the white flag and flew off.”
The man teetered between their hands, raving about planes, his wife, his children, his mother, and all the other muddle of things that plagued the depths of his being: “Here is my mother saying, ‘Take your blood and go to Moscow. What will this Moscow give you, Aqeel?’ I’m a foolish man. My wife and children are gone, and you’re drowning in the mud, Aqeel. Where is Moscow and its pimps? Where is it, oh creatures of God, where is it? It knows nothing about our predicament. And where are Abu Sabri and the boats?” He cried out, hitting his head against the trunk of the tree, cursing the sons of whores who had given up and fled—from Aziz Al-Hajj and Khruschev to Abu Sabri, right up to his father who gave him life only for him to die like a dog here in this mud. He clawed his fingernails through the mud, smeared it on his face, and tore open his jacket. Abu Muhaisen rushed forward, springing like a tiger, to plant the mouth of his rifle in his chest. “Aqeel, brother of a whore,” he shouted. “Shit, by god. Shut up or I’ll blast open your guts. Damn your parents!”
Mihyar pushed away the barrel of the Kalashnikov from the chest of the man moaning deeply like an animal being slaughtered. “Wake up, Aqeel. My eye, wake up.” He whispered in his ear plans of the retreat after nightfall.
The man calmed down and asked for water, which they got for him. He then asked for a cigarette, which they lit for him. He coughed, then his stomach growled from hunger. With the sleeve of his jacket Dhafer wiped off a stream of yellow mucous running down his chin.
After this delirious scene, they quietly questioned him. He raised his index finger toward the enemy positions: “I saw him take off his jacket and hold it up. I saw him, as if it were a dream, flying like a green duckling. He flapped his wings and headed off over the river in the blue sky. He was sad, tired, hungry, and wounded. ‘Good bye, Aqeel,’ he said. ‘Give my greetings to our comrades. I’ll report on our situation. I love life and drinking milky arak, and my fiancée is looking out for me. We made a mistake, and this catastrophic situation is the doing of the devil and Lord of the Universe.’ He told me that we can’t depend on Moscow and that the leadership of our party is doing fine, living comfortably in Moscow, eating caviar and fish, drinking vodka and singing the Internationale while we are here dying in the mud like dogs. ‘Aqeel,’ he said, ‘Hussein isn’t a traitor, however the world and people—they’re all shit in this brother-of-a-whore time devoid of real men.”
Aqeel Habash, a man over forty, cried like a baby sobbing in the warm arms of his mother. The simple, well-kempt fisherman had slipped into Abu Sabri’s cell before the base had been established. He had been charged with smuggling weapons from Basra in a boat among baskets of eggs, brooms, fish, balls of silk, and sacks of sugar and tea.
From the open expanse an ominous, silent calm fell upon the rushes, waters, and muddy banks. Warm waves the color of a silver butterfly, tasting of sulfur and bearing lustrous swarms and clumps of gnats and stinging marsh insects, pulsed from the panting of the earth, sweating from the sun and rising mist. Beneath this calm, laden with landmines, were bodies —burning and drenched with sweat, mud, and blotches of blood, awaiting the violent resumption of battle.
They now became aware that Hussein Yassin was missing. Caving into the crushing fear and despair that cast him into the abyss of pain, he had surrendered under the flag of shame, crawling toward the enemy camp to meet a fate perhaps more honorable than death, in these straits narrow as the neck of a clogged bottle.
The sun began to set, suspended like an orange just above the western horizon, and the loudspeakers boomed again, calling for them to surrender, to lay down their weapons and approach with their hands up within half an hour. (It was now half past four.) The thunderous voice permeated the pores of space, crossing over them to beyond the river, promising them a fair, legal trial if they surrendered and laid down their weapons—before the area was bombarded by ground artillery and air fire.
As Mihyar hurried to take up his position and lead the renewed fight, leaving Aqeel next to Abu Muhaisen and under his observation, a choking bitterness rose to his throat, then ascended to form a black fog that darkened his eyes. It hit him: There will not be another night.
They were now at the edge of the shallow water midst clods of mud, tree trunks, and rocks. There were eight men, including two who were wounded and one who had collapsed, facing more than two thousand soldiers backed by all kinds of weapons and helicopters.
During the final quarter of an hour, the enemy called out their names, so as to identify their positions, and called on the two wounded men to abandon their positions and approach, unarmed, so they would be safe, before the time expired.
“There’s no hope for you. No hope. Why die in vain?”
Not more than a thousand meters separated the government encampment—with its zealous troops—from the small insurgent force. In that gaping space, rays of life and death met and clashed as in an outdoor theatrical performance. The leadership of the government forces held sway, initially determined to capture the rebels alive, as the besieged unit was holding out until nightfall to begin their retreat scheme. During this period, like the ticking of a time bomb, Mihyar hatched the idea of sending the wounded Jabbar, raising the flag of surrender, fastened with a kufiyah, at dusk, as a ploy to distract from the retreat.
These old events would burst forth as waves of pain or nightmarish screams, sometimes bloody, other times wrapped with the sun’s dazzling whiteness or saffron in the nights of the man who had survived, there with two wounded soldiers in the mud. His dead comrade and friend was in his arms, eddies of blood swirled around him, and corpses were lodged in the mud, half afloat.
He would keep dreaming of a handful of fighters shaking the skeleton of history in the very spaces that witnessed the fighting, concluding that the fatal mistakes made in the past could have been avoided. He would recall how Abu Muhaisen fired a shot that struck Jabbar in the back as he was climbing up the slope, holding a white flag, how the man let out a blood-curdling scream as he rolled down the hill, covered with dust and blood, to within a few meters from their feet.
“Dogs. Dogs. Sons of whores. Communists may be slaughtered, but they will not surrender,” Abu Muhaisen exclaimed, provoking a renewed outbreak of shooting that unraveled Mihyar’s secret plan, conceived and stitched together in an inspired moment.
The final hymn of death thus commenced beneath the pale yellow light of a sun just slipping behind the hills on the horizon.
Helicopters appeared from the west as the enemy began its all-out assault, releasing the fiery hell of its machine guns and artillery.
Midst the barrage of fire, orders were given to pull back toward the river in a final, desperate attempt to retreat after the enemy had discovered their positions. They pulled back through the mud and water as they fought. The attack intensified, becoming fiercer. The drone of aircraft deafened their ears and blinded their eyes, hurling things into a vortex of sounds, explosions, and a murky glow.
The retreat into the silty plain heightened their feeling of exhaustion and a sense that the siege was tightening. The silt became stickier and thicker, making it difficult for them to extract their sinking feet.
Twin fears surfaced at this moment of vulnerability, exposed like a sky of despair: bullets and mud.
The fighters now came to a standstill, buckling beneath strenuous trudging through this damned mud, thick as cement.
The bullet that tore through Abu Muhaisen’s chest passed right into the mud. “Ow!” he cried, reeling and toppling like a bird over his machine gun into the mud. He tried to grasp the barrel of the gun to pull himself up, but gunfire from aircraft overhead riddled his spine. He then realized it was impossible to get up.
The assault reached its highest pitch as bullets hailed down from the attacking aircraft that circled back on them in new formations, closing off the possibility of a retreat to the river’s depths.
Midst the powerful attack, the retreating fighters were pulled into this magnetic field as though they had been thrown into a vortex in a sea. In the saffron twilight, bathed with mud, they seemed to twist slowly within an alluvium womb, into which they had plunged for protection like threatened children, only to find it slowly swallowing them as they pushed further into its depths. In a moment outside the bounds of rationality, a magnetic, magical ghoul appeared to them, created and evoked by life, death, childhood, and djinn of the river, forests, fog, and chasms of the earth. It rose from the depths of the mud, drawing them toward its hold.
Things now suspended in the balance, opposed though dark, murky, submerged and intertwined: life and death, papyrus and the body, feet and mud, dizzying gunshots and eyes, blood and water.
Sinking like upright statues, they now fought within visions of death and despair that merged with this devilish realm, their human features vanishing. At five o’clock, the attack was launched. Bullets began to tear through chests and heads, lodging in the clay and mud. Above the small ring in which they were besieged, helicopters attacked with their machine guns, at very close range. The Degtayryov operator was enlisted to counter the aircraft, however the mud, up to his navel, deterred him. A helicopter opened fire on him, a rapid vertical downpour, and he spun around in a slow spiral, clasping his weapon in his arms like a child, coming to rest deep within the mud.
“We’re done for. There’s no hope. No hope,” exclaimed Khaled Ahmed Zaki or Mihyar Al-Bahili, or both of them together, or the blazing earth and sky.
Khaled now struggled with all his might on the alluvial plain. He gave out a wild cry of despair, fighting to overcome the collapse of his body as he made his way towards the Degtayryov after his machine gun had run out of ammunition. His feet sank forever, deep within that magnetic clay.
He staggered, flashes and sparks raining down on him. Blurry flashes and sparks. A shard torn from times of childhood and youth. Visions of distant cities. Colorful butterflies swimming in blue expanses. Voices and prayers seen on a screen, laid over its whiteness, the night, sea, blood, mud, dogs, and bullets. Birds, flashes, or fits of dizziness came and went, seizing his mind in a blinding, feverish dream, like the burst of light in the eye of an infant crying as he leaves his mother’s womb. He wiped his face to dispel the nightmares, and saw blood. All around him now were chunks of their heads and severed limbs—arms protruding from the mud, lifeless eyes, and the moaning of the wounded Mihyar.
In a moment of self-reproach he blamed himself for their deaths. Their blood was on his fingers, his face, and his clothes. He let out the soul’s last cry: “Ay. Ay. Forgive me. Get up. Get up, my dear ones. Alone. I’m all alone.”
One by one, he would call out their names, looking amongst them like a madman. “Ay. Ay. . . . Oh-- !”
A bullet suddenly struck his shoulder, and he slumped over slightly, clasping his wound. “—Mihyar.” He tried to move but was too drained.
From land and air, at close range and in rapid succession, bullets pelted him in the head, back, and waist. He writhed, trying to get up and regain his balance, however his stricken body failed him. He lost his balance, and slowly fell on his back into the arms of the bleeding Mihyar.
As he cooled in the mud, in his comrade’s arms, he beheld through his blurry eyes, above the mist, an outspread night, its stars falling and fading.
* A Syrian novelist.
** “Hymns of Death”
A Banquet for Seaweed: Hymns of Death
By Haidar Haidar
This chapter, its title serving as the novel’s subtitle, tells the story of a small group of Communist rebels who set up a base then participate in an insurrection in the marshes of southern Iraq. Chief among the characters is one of the novel’s protagonists, Mihyar Al-Bahili, who—along with his compatriot Mahdi Jawad—finds himself in exile in Bunah (Annaba), Algeria during the time the novel is set, following this siege and battle. The actions described here, culminating in a tragic, devastating defeat, are at the heart of the novel. Herein lies the basis of the trauma Al-Bahili carries with him to Algeria. The events of the marsh massacre continue to haunt him in exile in the form of involuntary, vivid, painful memories. Rather like Ishmael in Moby Dick, or Job, Mihyar alone escapes to tell the tale.
*** Allen Hibbard is Professor of English and Director of the Middle East Center at Middle Tennessee State University. From 1985-89 he taught at the American University in Cairo and from 1992-94 he was a Fulbright lecturer (in American literature) at Damascus University. He has written two books on Paul Bowles (Paul Bowles: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1993, and Paul Bowles, Magic & Morocco, 2004), edited Conversations with William S Burroughs(2000), and published a collection of his own stories in Arabic (Damascus, 1994) translated by Osama Esber with whom he has been working to produce a translation of A Banquet for Seaweed, a novel by contemporary Syrian writer Haidar Haidar.
 Iraqi colloquial expression meaning lot of fuss over something trivial, or much ado about nothing.
 Iraqi proverb, meaning people hear only words, not action.
 Khaled ibn al Walid routed Ubaiyah bin al-Jarrah, companion of the Prophet and military commander, at the Battle of Uhud, in 625, then later converted to Islam; Tareq bin Ziyad was the general who led the Muslim conquest of southern Spain, from Morocco, in 711 to 718 A.D.
 References to Castro’s successful Communist revolt in Cuba, from 1953-1959.