Short Story: Bushra’s Crisis [Archives:2008/1170/Culture]

July 7 2008

Zaid Muttee' Dammaj
Translated by Shaker Al-Molsi

– Hello. Who's speaking?

– Uncle!

– Hi, dearest Bushra!

– My father is wondering where you'll chew qat today?

As usual, I told her the place. She always called from their neighbor's house because her father had no telephone.

Thus did my relationship with the little girl, Bushra, continue by phone. I didn't know her in person, but my familiarity with her from her voice on the telephone was almost daily, as her father would send her to ask me the qat chewing location with essentially the same friends every day.

We were a host of friends connected to each other via a harmonious cultural, literary and political bond, as well as reason, respect, unending friendship, unstoppable affection and constant eternal love. We scarcely disagreed about important issues, but even then that didn't affect our profound friendship.

Nevertheless, in the beginning, as much as possible we were reserved about exposing our political identities, even hiding it from each other for fear of sleuths and “the walls.” Bushra's father was the only one whose capricious political identity we knew because he was frank and fearless, so perhaps he was affecting us in that way.

However, his audacious stubbornness sometimes hurt us and we'd become angry with him whenever he mistook our advice. While his newspaper and magazine writings weren't undeserving of a bit of criticism, it was no business of ours.

He'd been subjected to several random campaigns by semi-fundamentalist scholars and mediocre thinkers, researchers and academics. He used to call them “local Europeans,” or sometimes, when angry, “colonial Orientalists.”

– Hello!

– Yes?

– Good morning, uncle.

– Welcome, you wisest and cutest girl in the world!

– Thank you, uncle, for this flattery. I don't want to trouble you, but my father wants to know your chewing place today.

As he sat opposite me at our usual qat chewing location, I pondered deeply about him, watching as he shouted, raising his right hand and then lowering his left. Sometimes, he nearly even stood up, with his chest out and, as usual, laughing invariably after each statement to mask his skewed logic.

The other qat chewers were excited, exerting themselves in an effort to stop him so they could talk and explain things to him, but to no avail, as his voice often became even louder as he asserted his often more feeble illogical arguments!

He glanced at me from time to time because I was the only one silent. He felt my agony at his relentless controversy, which, as my countenance displayed, I deemed unpalatable. He then would remain silent for a few seconds, giving my friends a chance to express their opinions in opposition to his.

– Hello, uncle!

– Yes, my clever darling. Why is your voice weak?

She paused and sighed.

– My father asks where is today's chewing location?

I don't know why, but I felt that she was writhing under some sort of pain, so I asked,

– How is he? Is he tired?

She was late in replying before saying,

– It seems so.

I was irritated.

– Is he sick?

– No.

– Has anything bad happened?

– No.

– What's happened, little darling? Ease my mind.

– He returned yesterday in pain. He didn't write like usual, instead plunging into a discussion with my mother about “necessaries,” as she said, and then going to bed earlier than ever.

– Is that everything, my dear?

– There's nothing else; I just didn't want to tell you.

– I know, just as I know he'll overcome it as usual.

She sighed.

– I know that, uncle.

– Your father is a hero.

– I know that, uncle; he's always a hero.

He greeted us collectively and then sat opposite me, beginning to talk right away while looking at me.

– All of you are flatterers to the extent of exaggerating common sense issues that hardly require interpreting. All of you are against democracy and for dictatorship and intellectual terrorism, dreaming of a fair tyrant and slaughterer who will unite our homeland through blood, not democracy!

He stared at me reflectively and found me frowning painfully at the aggressiveness with which he'd inaugurated our qat session, while all were engrossed in listening to news of the crisis on their small handheld radios.

Some responded to him quietly and some with more tension in their voices, while others responded with a bit of toughness. However, remembering Bushra's words on the telephone, I remained silent, never uttering a word throughout the entire session.

I was waiting restlessly when the telephone rang as usual. I grabbed the receiver anxiously, not waiting for the second ring.

– Uncle?

– Yes, Bushra?

Without allowing me the chance to inquire about her father, she asked,

– Uncle, which birds do you like?

I wondered at her unexpected question. I paused awhile before answering her question, which had made me suspenseful because I didn't really remember my favorite birds or those I'd liked since my childhood days in the village up until today. However, I smiled impulsively and replied with convincing hesitancy,

– I like sparrows nd colorful birds nd nightingales nd turtledoves.

– Just those, uncle?

I was at a loss and nearly laughed at the notion of saying “crows, kites and Egyptian vultures,” but I remembered the names of birds that might please her, as I added,

– Penguins wans ucks nd parrots.

– So you like only these birds, uncle?

Without awaiting my response, she continued,

– I admire eagles nd falcons – and oh, I love the Suspenseful Falcon!

I almost laughed, but I was extremely curious, as I said,

– I've never heard of a “Suspenseful Falcon.”

– How come, uncle?

– Maybe do you mean the Sad Heron?

I awaited her answer for some time, believing her to be astonished. She then asked with surprise,

– Is there such a bird as a Sad Heron?

– Yes.

– Why is it sad, uncle?

– It's like the suspense of that favorite falcon you admire!

She laughed, but asked me entreatingly,

– For God's sake, why is your bird sad?

I expounded to her what I knew about the Sad Heron, remembering much old information as she skillfully unearthed it. I then surprised her with a question.

– Why are you so happy today?

With a laugh, she answered,

– My father returned home proudly yesterday. I saw him caress my mother merrily and tenderly, his arms moving up and down. Hugging her in his arms for the first time, they twirled around twice until they were nearly dizzy. He then went to his room to read and write, as was his second nature.

I was indeed glad about that, as I asked with a laugh,

– Any other statements?

She laughed and said,

– Oh, my father always utters this to us as he leaves home every morning. You didn't tell me, uncle, where you'll chew today

Thus, he dove into our qat chew with a smile, greeting us almost laughingly; however, we paid him no attention, some doing so deliberately. Some held transistor radios in their hands as they surfed the world's radio broadcasts. News of the crisis had developed for the worse.

The radios were switched off and we started chewing qat. All of us were silent, but he barked as usual,

– Didn't I tell you? What's the justification for this silly adventure?

We didn't answer him, so he continued,

– It's a conspiracy against our homeland!

Receiving no response from anyone, it was a chance for him to express what he wanted, just the way he liked it.

– Enough of this farce! I swear by God that what you've written about our history is empty and false! What you've chronicled in your articles is bullshit and foolish randomness, if your opinion of the crisis we're experiencing is so superficial!

Being excited, one friend suddenly declared,

– From here on, I'll never attend a qat chew where you're present, so long as you persist in this annoying sadistic style!

Likewise, harsh words came at him from the rest of my friends in semi-unanimity.

The telephone remained the only connection between me and Bushra concerning the qat chewing location. The crisis exacerbated gradually, nerves were set on edge and thinking was inconsistent. International and local media coverage was deceptive, misleading and unstable, which drove all of us into confusion, frustration and despair.

– Yes?

– My father asks where you're chewing today.

I thought her voice indicated that she was unwell and suffering pain.

– Why is your voice unusually sad and anxious, dear daughter?

– Oh, just tell me where your damned qat chew will be today?!

At the peak of the crisis in its last days, my friends were irritated by his presence at our qat chews and his enthusiasm against our opinions.

The situation became unbearable due to his presence, although all of us told him the crisis had become a national issue, a matter of life and death for our nation, and that it was unjustifiable to repeat his incredibly boring remarks about democracy, dictatorship and a fair tyrant.

At one of our sessions, I was surprised when most of my friends blamed me for the fact that he found out the location of our qat chews through me, whereas the rest had been lying to him about its location.

That night, I stayed up until dawn grappling with my conscience and my soul. Should I lie to her like my other friends did? Even though I'm one who strongly believes that lying is an unforgivable crime, even if it's meant to prevent calamity.

– Hello

– Yes?

– Where's your chewing location today, uncle?

I'd never experienced a situation as embarrassing as this one. I searched for a cigarette to light, hoping it would soothe my tension, but couldn't find one. I felt her breaths in the telephone receiver as she awaited my response.

– I'm sorry, my darling, I've been sick and languid since early morning.

– I wish you a speedy recovery. So, where will you chew?

– I don't know aybe in the east of the city r in the west; perhaps in the south or in

I abruptly hung up before I had stopped talking.

I arrived unusually late to that afternoon's qat chew, pensive and upset, but not because of the sorrowful developments concerning the national crisis. I neither said hello, nor looked at my friends' faces. Despite their attempts to draw me from my utter speechlessness, I refused to exchange small talk or smile at them.

– Hello?

– Yes h

Her voice was sad, trying hard to hide her sobbing tension and forcing her voice to be strong to overcome her mental agonizing weakness and disappointment.

She said carefully,

– I never expected that you would lie to me like others did because I knew you through your voice. Thank God, I never knew you by face!

– Listen to me, daughter

She interrupted me.

– My father is great, my father is respectful, my father is noble, my father is honest and my father is patriotic. My father is a hero and a struggler great intellectual and historian

I tried to interrupt her, but she gave me no chance, continuing,

– My father doesn't need to sit or chew with you because he's greater than you!

She hung up, her excited breaths stinging my ear.

I waited beside the phone for several days, anticipating her usual call. My tension and anxiousness were observable to my wife and children. Pensiveness and tension accompanied me daily, both with my friends and at home as well.

Days passed and missing his countering opinions at our qat chews, our topics of conversation became repeated and hackneyed. We missed him indeed. We missed his mulishness, his shouting and his provocation because he used to stir up controversy at our sessions and excite our emotions. While indisputably, he may have been wrong, equally as indisputable was the fact that he was goodhearted. We may be bothered by his presence, but likewise, we missed him if he was absent.

I was extremely delighted to see during some of our more recent qat chews that my friends were asking about him, wondering where he was, inquiring about his home address, his neighbor's phone number and our contact medium, his daughter Bushra.

My qat chewing mates unanimously believed it necessary to look for him, being convinced about finding him and having him attend our permanent chewing location and being among us with both his good and his evil points.

Thus, my fellow chewers assigned me to search for him and bring him back to our specified chewing place. I was happy with this assignment. Being unfamiliar with his address, I was told that his home might be in the new Al-Nahdain residential city, where he was lucky enough to get a home after much toil and a lengthy wait.

I became exhausted trying to find his home in Al-Nahdain city. I wanted to find him early in order to attend my mates' qat chew promptly. I finally found it, whereupon I rang the doorbell and waited, not anxious about meeting him, but rather at seeing the girl, Bushra, for the first time. I was certain it would be she and nobody else who would open the gate.

I rang the bell again, hearing light footsteps approach from inside.

– Who is it?

– Me!

The gate opened very slightly for a careful view. Although I don't know why, I eagerly asked,

– Bushra?

She retreated a little, managing to lessen the gate's opening, and looked at me. I thought surely she knew me by my voice – that was definite.

– What do you want?

– I want to see your father.

– What do you want with him? He's busy reading and writing. He doesn't want to see anybody.

– Tell him that uncle wishes to see him.

– All of my uncles are in the village and I know them.

– My dear daughter, I'm sure you know me. Maybe I'm now the “Suspenseful Falcon” or the “Sad Heron!”

She opened the door and turned her face from me after pointing out her father's whereabouts. I tried to hug and kiss her, but she shied away like a rebellious little dear.

I entered. He was seated, leaning sideways on a madka with trimmed qat in front of him, a cigarette in his mouth and writing on some papers in his hand. Before him was a cluster of both old and new history books, references and pictures. Seeing me, he rose to his feet to welcome me with a smiling face. He seemed astonished at my arrival, as he hadn't anticipated my coming for it was the first time I had come to know his home.

I didn't talk much and he didn't delay going outside with me to the yard, where I was anxious to see Bushra. She was beneath a grapevine, playing with some pebbles in her hands. She looked at me askance, as though she was “suspenseful” or “sad,” but perhaps she just didn't want her father to go out with me.

We headed for the gate, which Bushra had to come forth to close behind us.

He walked alongside me as I watched her. Not shutting the gate completely, she left a slight crack from which to look out. She watched me reflectively, to which I returned looks filled with love and affection.

Little by little, she began to smile, until her smiles burst into merry laughter. I waved to her with both of my hands, as did her father. She in turn received our greetings with both of her hands as her countenance was nearly engulfed by mirth.

Zaid Muttee' Dammaj (1943-2000) is Yemen's foremost novelist and short story writer, having authored Yemen's most famous novel, “The Hostage.”