Jaber Alwan’s Life – by Luigi Martini
In Iraq it is a year without sugar, a year in the second half of the forties. At Al Bed Al Sarhir in a house near an orchard where waving palms tower over a river, with shallow but clean water, the younger of Alwan Salman’s two wives announces the imminent arrival of her third child.
Asle is a beautiful young blonde woman. The fear of her condition makes her even paler; her face is framed by the fair and slightly ruffled hair that made Alwan choose her as his second wife. Her first two babies died not long after their birth, so Asle has not yet given Alwan any children.
In the courtyard there are a lot of cows and sheep; Alwan’s first wife’s children are there too, and the midwife is called to help Asle. It is dark when Jaber comes into the world, turning labour pains into happy maternal fulfilment. His fair hair marks him as a man who, if he lives, will charm Iraqi women.
Date of birth
The beneficial effect of the night is already vanishing in the intense heat of that 1st. July 1957, when Alwan Salman gets on his horse to go to Babylon. There are 6 kms. between Mahawil and the city and when he dismounts in front of the state office, the heat is oppressive. The dust off the road has settled lightly on his clothes, on his white jacket and on the lower part of his tunic, making the sinuous folds of the cloth more evident. In this way Alwan, father and estate owner, non-violent man of faith, appears before the clerk in charge of the Iraqi census, who asks him: ” how many children have you got? ” ” Ten “, Alwan Salman answers.
“When was the eldest of Asle ‘s children born?”
“In the year when we had no sugar”. So Jaber Alwan Salman’s name is written in the registers and his date of birth becomes 1st. July 1948. All his brothers and sisters were born on Ist. July just like him, and a lot of other Iraqi people too. It is a brief meeting. The business is over in the short time it takes to remember the special events of the different years: the year of the great wheat harvest, that of the flood, etc., all of which make it possible to determine the year of the birth of each of Alwan ‘s children.
After this mental effort, Alwan Salman leaves the state office, goes to call on some relatives, then pays his taxes – 20% of his income – to the religious institution, before going back to his big square house. There the rooms open out onto a central courtyard, his two wives are busy looking after their children, preparing food, filtering river water with amphoras to serve it at table.
Jaber’s mother who is, as we know, the younger of the two wives, rouses the other’s jealousy.
Disagreements between them are frequent, whereas the children mix friendship, affection, and teasing. Three of them – two boys and a girl are playing games near the river, they are building wheels of clay and even whole cars; two others are competing with each other throwing stones, Jaber is swimming in the river after hunting with his catapult in those open fields that have already yielded rice and wheat, and where tomatoes are still growing. Jaber doesn’t like staying at home with his family, he prefers to be with his friends, go hunting with them in the orchard where under the palm trees, loaded with dates – of 160 different kinds – oranges and other fruit trees grow.
Jaber reads books on the way to school, while walking or when on horseback. Already in his third year he draws with fervour. Elementary and secondary school include two art lessons a week.
In 1958 the ideas of the left begin to arise, Jaber likes that torch, symbol of the revolution and he draws it. His paper is dirty, so he tries to clean it but, by mistake, tears it.
The torch has turned out so well though that he gives it to his teacher. He receives no praise, only resolute slaps. He doesn’t understand why his teacher beats him (only later he will understand that it was because he, who came from a wealthy family, had dared give a torn symbol to a revolutionary school – master.)
The revolution shakes the country, starting up new processes, but it takes away the large-landed estate from his father and leaves him with only a small piece of land to feed his family. But intellectuals, and even more so, poets and other artists, are supporting the revolution.
When Jaber reaches the last year of elementary school there is a” coup d’état ” in his country.
The left-wing teachers are moved from town to country schools or to the suburbs.
Jaber and his classmates are sent a very good art teacher, who encourages him to do clay sculpture. He creates a composite work, representing his father in movement, and is awarded the first prize. This strengthens his already firm belief that he must continue his study of art.
Jaber is now 13 years old. He meets Soat at school when one day in the classroom she takes off her chador and lifts her eyes to his fair hair, so rare and sought after. The following days are full of glances and smiles. Her beloved sweet face is impressed on his memory.
Sex, adultery, and violence
Alwan Salman’s house is already enveloped in darkness. Inside they are sitting at table, the mothers are cooking dinner and the children are playing their last games of the day, although almost ready for the peace and calm of the night. Sudden shots break in on the almost absolute silence. As if catapulted by the elastic of a child’s weapon, the whole community run in the direction of the shots. A big man is lying on the ground, his face violated by a bullet.
Jaber guesses what has happened, the rumour is on everyone’s lips and is spreading everywhere.
The men confer, the women utter piercing shrieks of despair, as in a theatre tragedy.
Here and there Jaber collects the words, strings them together, and in so far as his young age permits him writes in his mind, one of the key stories of his precocious maturity.
Sami is 17 years old, Leila, the wife of Ali, a distant relative living nearby is 31.
By chance, or perhaps better, as fate would have it, while Sami and Leila’s bodies are mingling and their movements are a whirlwind of passion, Ali opens the door.
Before Ali can open his mouth or lift his hand, Sami feels the earth running under his feet. He stops only when he reaches the bar where his uncle sorts out the village problems.
He is so eloquently breathless that in a moment they are going back home, to the gun.
In those few metres they meet Leila’s brothers, words are useless, the gun fulfils what tradition requests. But it is his uncle to fall, and Sami begins to run again.
Leila’s brothers run too, and they catch up with him at home, where a knife completes the necessary justice. After some time, Jaber will learn that Leila ” was dangling with her head backwards like a strung – up bird; ” Leila ‘s son Mohammed tells him this one day on their way to school.
The colour red
Betrayal is the very highest of risks – adulterers have to be killed – but many old men’s wives – the young ones and others too – seek passion and comfort in their young relatives ‘ arms. So Jaber plucks up courage. He is already 13 years old; he must prove to himself that he is a man and face the risks. Young Fatima ‘s house is welcoming, her untied chador opens in front of Jaber, her breasts are white, her sweet perfume wavers to his trousers. He must decide quickly, he knows neither the coves nor the obstacles he has to overcome, he conquers a weak resistance and finds himself in front of the origin of life, though hidden.
It is the line of a broken up poem, a hollow unknown pleasure, not even completely memorized, so much is it both feared and desired at the same time.
The encounter is short, he unfastens his trousers, runs to the bathroom, and finds his penis covered in blood. Young Fatima introduces the fair haired Jaber to sex and from then on he collects intense memories of furtive meetings.