Read Haneen

Excerpt from Part I

Before Kamaran’s arrival the square of sky above the courtyard had been the horizon of Leyla’s world. Now, as spring came and the mud dried, she was allowed to play with him in the passageway outside. To start with every foray thrilled Leyla as if it were a bold adventure in an alien land but with time the web of alleys came to be as familiar as the house. Five lanes, linked by a tangle of passageways, branched out from the little square. The dwellings that surrounded it were still in the hands of the old families but the square itself was the province of Abu Adil – a gossiping newspaper vendor with hair like a sheep – and the vegetable barrow-boy who everyone called Ibn Potato.

To the north lived Poor Jasim the Cobbler, honoured for his soft kid leather slippers, his wooden leg and his broken heart. The passage beyond was the lair of ancient Um Salma, who sat in a sunless window hawking camphor and ‘old man’s hair’ from a hoard of dusty jars. Her apothecary marked the limit of the children’s expeditions, for the narrow lane doubled back and joined a wider alley which led west towards the suqs and the river beyond.

When the wind blew from the south, the smell of cardamom and toasting flour drifted into the square from Hussein al Rusafi’s Kek-al-Sayid. His shop had an illuminated sign – the only one in the neighbourhood – which said ‘Pastries as Light as an Eastern Breeze’ in letters of pink and blue. The layers of his baklava were as thin as an onion skin and the dainties arrayed in his window were all made to family recipes, perfected over centuries and guarded as fiercely as a pretty girl’s honour. Wealthy strangers, enticed by the famous sweetmeats, nudged their cars into the cramped alleys round his shop and got stuck fast. They were shepherded out again by hollering children under the vigilant gaze of the women – the moral guardians of the Mahalla.

Scandals great and small, tragedies, romance and farce were repeated down the generations in a saga as intricate as any related by the sly Scheherazade. The lunatic who roamed the square like one possessed, wild-eyed and muttering, was on no account to be mocked out of respect for the heroic part his father played in the floods of 1914. The doctor, on the other hand, was shunned. Not because he bought pork chops from the Assyrian butcher when his wife was away. Nor because he shouted at his children, but for some far worse transgression which, despite being unrepeatable, was universally known. Ranked somewhere between these two was the smelly Magic Lantern Man. He spent his days in the suq and shuffled back at nightfall, still croaking as he turned the handle of his box: ‘Behold the Ziggurat of Ur – home to heathen kings of old! Behold the Turkish harlot – three coppers and all will be revealed!’ His gaudy promises floated across the twilit square as he vanished down a narrow, stinking passage littered with vegetable scraps which seemed to have been left as a monument to the infamous flood. Here fetid water lingered in the gutters even during the conflagration of Baghdad’s summer, and the walls of the houses had a tidemark traced by tiers of crumbling brick.

Excerpt from Part II

An owl screeched somewhere in the wood and Kamaran turned to look back at the cabin. The slender birches in the wood behind it shone white in the gloom. The grassy path that led to the door was silvery with dew and soft golden light spilled from the windows. It looked like a cottage from some European fairy tale. Through the curtains Kamaran could see Erin’s shadow as she walked here and there, getting ready for bed. His heart was full. He felt exhausted by loneliness, the weight of his memories, the weight of his life. As he recalled Erin’s face, so tender in the firelight, he was seized by longing. He need only take that silvery path and open the wooden door to step into a different life, a simple life, a life that held the promise of happiness.

He turned away and went back to the water’s edge. Three pine cones glowed in the embers. He kicked the ashes and watched the sparks take flight and disappear into the sky. Far across the lake, a bright patch in the eerie blue, he could see another blaze and the people gathered round it, capering stick-men against the flames. They had spotted him, too. For as he stood there a plaintive cry drifted across the water.

‘Hei! Hei! Hauskaa juhannusta! Hauskaa juhannusta!’
‘As-Salaam-Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah,’ Kamaran murmured, raising his hand in reply. Then he walked back to the cottage and went inside.

Excerpt from Part III

About fifty miles south of As Salman the armoured units rumbled off the highway, heading southeast. A short while later they bumped off the road themselves and cut out across the open desert. Soldiers from another brigade were already hard at work throwing up entrenchments in the stony ground. Clouds of ochre dust puffed into the damp air and everywhere they could hear the chink of metal hitting rock. Two signalmen ran alongside them for a few yards, unrolling a spool of wire like boys bowling a hoop. An entire company stood in formation amidst a jumble of boxes that had been left to get wet in the rain, while a morose warrant officer paced up and down before them waiting for someone or something to arrive. Elsewhere soldiers were already queuing to get their rations from the quartermasters’ vans, or heaving baggage from the lorries and lugging sandbags across the stones. Beyond them the desert stretched to the horizon, a stark expanse of stone and sand laid out beneath a lowering sky. A few rocks punctured the yellow plain like bones, and the men that crawled about its surface looked no bigger than flies.

By the time they came to a halt dusk was falling. To the east and north spangles of yellow pricked the gloom as soldiers lit their stoves to cook the evening meal, or shone torches across the darkening ground. Starred by the rain, the glistening chains of light stretched for miles as if an entire city had decamped to the desert for the night. Chilled, hungry, tired, their limbs aching after the bone-rattling journey, they climbed out of the lorry and looked about them in dismay.

The position had been occupied before, though drifts of sand now choked the trenches. Their officers had told them the base was a three day walk from Saudi Arabia. They had been travelling due south all day, however, and Kamaran calculated the border couldn’t be much more than ten miles away. They were, in fact, on the front line. But in place of the defenses the words ‘front line’ suggest, they found themselves looking at a puny maze of trenches no better fortified than the holes they had scraped in the rock three months before. Narrow and completely straight, they offered no protection from the flanks and the heaps of spoil on either side meant they would be visible from the air. A swathe of barbed wire, some ditches filled with oil and a shallow belt of unconcealed mines were all that stood between them and their foes.