Qismet by Hawra Al-Nadawi

Translated by Alice Guthrie

Chapter One

The regulars of the riverside café told of how they spotted Qismet that night when she came hurrying along the riverside path, accompanied by a two-year-old girl and a baby. They said they could tell she was not in her right mind when they saw her stand at the river’s edge and take off her shoes and then her abaya, clearly revealing the swell of her heavily pregnant belly, now covered only by her simple striped robe. Some of the café customers shook off their late-night stupor at this, and paid her their full attention. But she was fast: without giving them so much as a moment to ask what she was doing she simply threw the infant into the river and then – while the late-nighters were still stunned, before any of them had thought to rush towards her – she had thrown the toddler and herself into the water too. 

Two days after this incident the death of Queen Alia was announced in Baghdad, but none of the residents of the house – neither the owners nor their tenants – heard the news. Nor would they have cared, even if they had heard. They were all completely consumed by the three-day wake, during which the big house thronged with female mourners, day and night. They flocked there from all over al-Dahana and Bab al-Sheikh and King Ghazi Street to pay their condolences. Everyone who heard about the catastrophe came. Some came out of compassion, hoping to console the bereaved, but some came to satisfy their curiosity about the father and mother who had lost their daughter as well as their grandchildren. Everyone had nosy questions for Qayem and Shazi but posed them as if motivated purely by concern; the answers they received were stilted and short. The wedding of Qismet’s younger sister Furset  had already been postponed once, because of their uncle’s death several months ago, and when her sister committed suicide the wedding was automatically put off once again. Furset watched the nosy mourners with an empty look in her eyes, and remained silent. She seemed obstinately calm; she hadn’t found anyone in front of whom she could cry freely, and no one hugged or comforted her. Everyone was busy, all their energy and focus consumed by the packed days of the wake, and the anxious looks they shot back and forth at each other made no attempt to show mercy. Furset loathed the wake. She was gasping to get some time alone. Although she hated the female mourners’ rituals, she was obliged to join in with some elements of them, the sound of her mother’s wailing reaching her all the while, sometimes loud and fierce and other times soft, closer to a murmur, but always intensifying the grief Furset was laboring to suppress. She absolutely detested the women’s lunch gatherings, which were held to earn prayers for the spirit of the deceased.[1] In their identical black clothes and headbands the women looked like aubergines packed into a box. Their cheeks were red with embellished sadness and fevered emotion, their eyes swollen and bloodshot from the force of their dry-eyed imitation crying. The sudden switch they made from weeping to eating and chatting was extremely upsetting for Furset. It struck her as almost unendurable that she, stricken by the loss of her sister, had to serve food to a council of gossiping women and be taunted by the sound of their scoffing laughing voices.

What were they crying — or pretending to cry—over? Was the death of her sister Qismet really what was making them sob this much? Hadn’t many of the women present been envious of Qismet’s beauty? Hadn’t her good-heartedness, that sleepy dreamy way she had of looking at people, her childish behavior, all provoked their scorn?

On top of all this Furset felt an immense terror, and there was no one to reassure her. Her father was busy with the men’s wake. He had buried her sister when the river spat out her corpse the day after the incident, and he was still preoccupied with the search for the bodies of the two children (who would never reappear). Her mother had flung herself into one of the upstairs rooms of the house like a madwoman when she heard the news, and hadn’t emerged since. As for Furset, she had to wash dishes and help with the cooking and cleaning, her hands trembling, while the anguished tears she was crying deep inside formed a lump of agony in her throat. It was as if a knife had been plunged into her chest and could not be pulled back out. She worked in silence. She imagined her sister Qismet suddenly coming in to join them, how her olive eyes would open wide in amazement at her sister’s obvious signs of distress, how that innocent expression would spread over her kind face. She imagined her sister’s comforting embrace, and how she would only let go of Furset to take off her abaya and throw herself into helping her serve the mourners.

During the successive days and nights of the wake, Furset experienced insomnia so intense that she barely slept at all. She would lie down in bed with her two little sisters beside her and in her mind’s eye she would watch Qismet drowning. She saw the water fill her older sister’s lungs so that she could no longer draw a breath, and she saw her eyes closing for the last time. Her long thick hair had become the only sanctuary allowed to her, the only thing she could have held onto in numerous terrifying dark places, but she froze motionless, making no use of it. Furset imagined her splayed hands flailing, gropingaround for the two children, her belly big but no longer taut like it had been the last time she saw her — it seemed to be empty of any fetus now, huge and flat as if she had miscarried right then, unintentionally expelling her child. Then Furset imagined her sister’s striped robe as the water inflated it until it was a giant ball with a head on top surrounded by undulating hair dancing in the current, Qismet’s little feet just about visible on the other side of the ball. Where were the children? Furset didn’t see them; perhaps they had already gotten lost in the murk. Before she was momentarily defeated by sleep’s merciful power, she wondered whether Qismet had felt regret during those moments before death stole her soul. Had she kicked and thrashed around as she tumbled through the depths? Had she searched for her two children in the water around her as the strands of her hair spread and tangled, as if they too had been driven mad? Did she squeeze her belly with her hands, trying to reassure herself that her fetus was still alive in there?

  Did she let out a cry that was stifled by the heavy waters of the Tigris?

At the end of the third day of the wake, once the house had finally emptied of mourners, Furset announced rebelliously that she would be leaving the rest of the work until the following day. Assuming, wrongly, that her aunt Qayem would be looking reproachfully at her for this, she deliberately avoided eye contact with her, and set off for the top floor to see her mother Badriya. Her mother had withdrawn to a small room and stripped it of its bed and covers. There she lay on the bare floor in the December cold, as if telling herself that she shared the cold discomfort of her deceased daughter’s resting place. She had refused to eat or drink since her daughter’s death. Her eyes were closed and her hand was under her cheek on the bare floor. Furset called to her in a whisper:

 – Da?

Her mother didn’t answer, but Furset was relieved to find her calm and still. She shut the door gently behind her. During one of her mother’s panic attacks they had found her rolling around on the floor, having torn open her robe, and the little girl Peri had run screaming for their father. He came rushing in from the men’s wake, accompanied by their uncle Reza, and began calming his wife’s terror. Everyone in the house gathered around her, including her two youngest daughters: Peri, who was six years old, and Mariam, who had just turned one. The two little girls were trying to wriggle their way between the adults crowding the room. Peri watched her mother intently, alert and alarmed, whilst Mariam, who had taken her very first steps just a few days earlier, seemed full of curiosity despite how little she understood of anything. The two men carried Badriya to the bathroom in the courtyard and the Mullah washed her face in the hopes that the water would restore something of her wits. But as soon as they let her go she grabbed a brick that was propping up the tap and beat herself in the chest with it over and over until she almost passed out. When they took her back to her room they removed from it anything she might use to hurt herself. They also tried to force feed her, but she resisted them. Furset felt a great weight of responsibility for her mother and her younger sisters since her father Mullah Ghulam Ali had left the house and spent the nights of the wake at the khan where he worked. His younger brother Reza stayed there with him, in a futile attempt to lessen the misery of the disaster.

That final night of the wake Furset slept fitfully and dreamt of Qismet’s children. She saw herself and her two-year-old niece in that very same room where she was actually asleep in real life. The little girl had her infant brother in her lap and was rocking him so vigorously that he almost fell, before Furset swooped him up in her arms and hugged him close against her chest, full of tenderness and grief. When Furset asked after the toddler’s mother her niece answered in a voice so mature it terrified her aunt. Then she laughed a weird laugh that was totally at odds with her innocent expression. Then suddenly the scene was gone. Furset opened her eyes, the laughter still ringing fresh and raw in her ears. She felt as if when she turned her head she would find her niece right there where she belonged; but all she found was Peri and Mariam sleeping beside her and her brothers Mossadak and Mowaffak stretched out in a distant corner. They were all fast asleep. She tried in vain to remember what the little girl had said in the dream. The first lines of dawn had begun appearing at the window, the house still submerged under the desolate silence of death. She murmured the Quranic ayahs she knew by heart, trying to lull herself back to sleep, but she felt Peri get up from beside her and go sneaking down the back stairs to the courtyard. Frayed and worn rugs had been spread around the edges of the ancient floor, and the few domestic items that her mother and Qayem usually kept in the courtyard had been put away in the attic, making the outside space seem extremely big and empty in Peri’s eyes. She leant against the wall. She was dressed in a simple long-sleeved robe made from heavyweight black fabric which had been sewn for her in the month of Muharram and was unexpectedly of use again now, given the catastrophe of this sudden death. Her body was slender, and seemed too small for a six-year-old. The black robe was too wide for her and almost slipped off with every movement. 

She started slowly counting to herself:

  – Yek, do, seh . . .

And then she sprang away from the wall and hurled herself headfirst onto the rug, turning her little body upside down and sticking her thin legs up in the air, showing the long underwear which covered her thighs, her robe almost falling off completely. Panting, and stifling her giggles, she decided to do it again. She turned and looked around, and saw no one, even if she did begin to hear whispered voices, and her mother’s muffled groans coming from the furthest room. She launched herself once again to repeat the move, and once again her robe almost fell right off her as she snorted with momentary happiness – but as she tumbled onto the rug she suddenly felt a sharp slap land on her thigh. She had hardly even made out Furset’s face before she’d been dealt a harder blow to her shoulder. As she yanked Peri to her feet Furset snapped:

– Is this the right time for playing? This tragedy is bigger than you realize, you silly girl!

Then she whispered sternly:

– Help me gather up the rugs.

And so Peri began moving between the heavy rugs, folding them with her tiny hands before rolling them up tightly, until she had them all neatly arranged and ready for her sister. Furset then carried some of them up to the top floor rooms, but left her uncle’s wife Shazi her fair share of the task by depositing a pile of them by the door to her room. After checking on her mother, Furset went back to the courtyard, carrying her little sister Mariam in her arms. She found Shazi sitting in the kitchen preparing lunch earlier than usual, due to the arrival of some unexpected mourners. Annoyed at the sight of Peri roaming around with a look in her eye like she was still in the mood to play and joke, Furset pulled her by the hand and shoved her into the kitchen, hissing through her teeth:

– Stay here.

Then she turned to Shazi:

– Mimi Shazi, Da is very tired and Peri won’t stop bothering her.

Then she let out a sudden sobbed complaint, her head in her hands:

– O God, what have we done to make you this angry with us?

Shazi wasn’t much older than Furset. Although Shazi was probably no older than seventeen, Furset had grown accustomed to calling her mimi. This was because when Shazi became their uncle’s wife and moved into their home, Mullah Ghulam had advised his sons and daughters to address her and treat her with the utmost respect, despite how close in age she was to them. Furset couldn’t think of any other word than mimi by which to address her. But once Furset grew up a little, and had breasts that bounced and a fiancé-to-be, it started to bother Shazi that she used a word like that. From time to time she would hint at her annoyance about it. As if unintentionally mocking her she would say, in her shrill voice:

– Mimi?! As the Arabs say, did I rock you in your cradle?

But during these current days she was making sure to be patient and considerate, and to hold her tongue rather than snapping, so she turned to Peri and said evenly:

 – Peri, get a clean towel from the cupboard so we can wrap the lid of the pan in it.

Peri was disappointed that the fleeting bit of fun she had wrested from the death-infused atmosphere of the house had been cut short, but she didn’t dwell on it, turning instead to the cupboard as she had been told. Just as she opened it there was an ear-splitting scream followed by wailing of such horrible intensity it made her heart pound in her chest. She grabbed the towel and looked to Shazi and Furset, who were both up from their places already and heading out of the kitchen. They stood together in the courtyard just outside the kitchen door. Despite the noise, the rental tenants from the rest of the big house had not emerged from their rooms; perhaps they had tired of being embroiled in hosting grief as a guest. Perhaps they had felt drawn instead to seclude themselves, leaving the rest of the rituals to the inner circle of the truly bereaved. Peri rushed out of the kitchen after Furset and clung to her robe, still gripping the towel in her other hand. Some new female mourners had arrived early, perhaps to better fulfill their duty of offering condolences. Peri stole some quick glances at them. Then she spotted Qayem, who had darted into the middle of the courtyard so that she and Shazi could begin welcoming each of the new arrivals with the customary light slap on the cheek as they looked down at the floor in ritualized desolation. Shazi raised one eyebrow high, the other staying in place, and Qayem pursed her lips as if she were angry rather than sad. The skin on their feet was so dry it was cracked, and their black robes gleamed, and both of them had wrapped a band of traditional shiny black cloth around their headscarves as if they were getting ready for a Kurdish folkloric celebration. As soon as Furset saw their great aunt Nazareh among the women coming in she let out a sudden involuntary shout and wriggled out of her younger sister’s grip. The news had reached Nazareh by chance when she heard that her nephew had come to the Wadi Salam cemetery two days previously to bury his eldest daughter. She had immediately interrupted her regular seasonal visit to Najaf city and traveled back to Baghdad. The sight of Great Aunt Nazareh unleashed a pain in Furset so overwhelming that before she knew what she was doing she was shrieking at the top of her lungs, revealing the constant agony that had all but stolen her breath away these last few days. She was consumed by tension, fear, stress, and grief: her heart was a tight ball of pain and she didn’t know how to soothe it. So she stood now in front of her great aunt without greeting her, just screaming, the sleeves of her black robe rolled up to the elbows. She may have been only thirteen years old but she had already learned how to usher sorrow and grief into her home, and exactly what the rituals required of her. She had witnessed a lot of mourning ceremonies relative to her young age, among them the wake for her young uncle. He had passed away just a few months previously whilst traveling, meaning their current wake was even more anguished and grief-stricken than it otherwise would have been. Intensive successive doses of grief had taught Furset how, faced with these tragedies, it would be shameful not to conduct the mourning ceremony in the right way, or not to show appropriate distress in proportion to the scale of the catastrophe. 

But she had not yet learned how to genuinely let her grief out without embellishing it with a formulaic cry, or with words she had memorized and did not really mean:

 – Wai kouashka (Ahh, my sister . . . )

And then she launched into a wailing stream of eloquent folkloric lamentation, in a Kurdish mountain dialect so authentic and fluent it was as if she had not been born in Baghdad and lived the entirety of her short life there. For her part, Nazareh abandoned her usual lofty poise for the first time in a long while and responded to the girl by improvising a long wailing lament detailing their calamitous misfortune; it sounded like a traditional mawwal sung by a wounded Kurdish woman descending from the peak of a mountain and letting her voice ring out and echo as she went. 

The sight of her big sister losing her composure just like her mother had before her drove Peri back into the kitchen in fear. These words she was hearing were horrifying! She felt as if she was about to start hyperventilating and shaking. She tried to cry but couldn’t: she was suffocated by the fear that her sister was about to collapse. She was paralyzed, unable to show any reaction. She sat down on the bench by the hearth where Shazi had put the pan of food, with the towel on her lap. She felt a cold wind whip around her back, as if she were naked before the chill of the fear. A sudden urge came over her to wrap herself in a quilt and go back to sleep. She yawned, opening her little mouth as wide as it would go. She had tried her best in the last few days to leap over all this sorrow and gloom that was bearing down on their home, while she waited for this new situation to be over. When her mother had fallen unconscious and the whole household had turned to wailing, Peri had known that her sister Qismet was dead and that she wouldn’t see her again. After that, Qayem had sat Peri in her lap and told her – her stern face softening with her words – that Qismet had gone to be with Khoda[2] and had taken the children with her. So those two little ones who had made Peri feel such jealousy would not be coming back to this house. She would not see them ever again. Then she witnessed the awe-inspiring sanctity and solemnity of the wake. She saw women sitting on the ground in the courtyard and getting to their feet every time a new woman arrived to pay her respects, casting their eyes down and slapping their cheeks, repeating the terrifying cry over and over: ‘Wai, wai, wai . . ‘ She learned to stand up when they did and do what they did – in fact she took to watching out for the arrival of more mourners so she could practice this terrifying game. Sometimes things would get out of control. Some sights and incidents were truly atrocious and made a tremendous impression on her. When Qismet’s mother-in-law entered their home like a storm cloud, glowering and fuming, it had a huge impact on Peri. The woman’s head was wrapped in many layers of cloth, and she kept her abaya on indoors, thrashing around in agitation like an unstable black pyramid. She threw open the courtyard door and slammed her way into the middle of the mourners. Then she began shouting in the Bairay accent that strong powerful women are known for, moving her hands and staring into the women’s faces:

  – Badriya, where’s Badriya? Where’s she hiding? Did you see what her wicked daughter did –took my grandchildren from me! That crazy daughter of hers, nothing but an affliction for us all!

Then she cursed and swore and called down evil on the people of the house until a group of women managed to throw her out. She was angry, loud and shrill, but at the same time there was a troubling edge of calm to her voice, as if her heart wasn’t quite in all this raging and swearing. As she was dragged out of the door by the women, Peri heard her shriek:

– She’ll spend an eternity in hell for killing my grandchildren. That nutter. She’ll know the burning agony my heart is in right now when she roasts in Khoda’s eternal hellfire!

Peri ran after her and found her standing right outside the door of their house, her stream of invective still going, her head thrown back now in supplication to God on high to wreak His vengeance on them all. So Peri spat at her, twice. She wanted the gobs of saliva to fly at the woman with great force, but they came out gently, and she blinked hard with each attempt as if she couldn’t bear the force of it. The wild ranting woman’s eyes met Peri’s, and when the girl didn’t flinch the woman was forced to turn her eyes back to the sky, cursing all the while. Peri was overcome by a mixture of childish rage and defeat, as she saw the woman off around the bend in the alley, shooting defiant looks after her as she disappeared from view. And then her little heart was lit with something akin to pride, and began to swell. She had first felt this way a few months earlier, when the neighborhood kids discovered that they could send her sister Qismet into a long fit of laughter simply by showing her a little picture of a certain cartoon character. Sometimes – if the kids were lucky – the picture would trigger an attack of laughter so wild and raging that Qismet was utterly possessed by it and could not be calmed. That potential outcome made Qismet the naughty children’s absolute favorite source of entertainment. A strange sensation would grip Peri’s heart whenever this happened. She knew that her gentle, tranquil sister, with her innocent face and her long hair, older than her by thirteen years, did not deserve to be mocked like this. So she would pretend to be upset about something else, tug at Qismet’s abaya and feign tears, insisting they go back home. She would drag her sister – completely lost in gales of laughter she didn’t even try to stifle – away. 

And now here she was, sitting on the bench in the kitchen, suddenly overcome by a wave of drowsiness that swept over her as if it were early morning all over again. Her ears had grown accustomed to the sound of wailing and crying; it seemed as if it would go on filling the house forever. Suddenly she felt a woman’s hand caress her, and then gently take the towel from her lap, wrap it around the pan lid, put the pot on the burner and turn down the flame under it. Peri noticed that the woman’s robe wasn’t black like those the rest of the women in the house were wearing. As the woman walked out of the kitchen Peri looked up to see who she was, and saw her dead sister Qismet. Peri blinked. She was unable to process what she had just seen. She felt cold. Then fear engulfed her and she hunched over, concentrating all her senses on her back, which felt vulnerable to attack. Noticing the sudden silence in the house she stood up and stepped hesitantly out of the kitchen door into the courtyard, to find it empty. She stood in the doorway and called out to Furset, but no one answered. She called out to Qayem, feeling like her heart would burst with fear now, and began to cry. The courtyard seemed wider than it had done before and she felt it would swallow her up if she moved from where she stood. Suddenly she realized that she could hear muffled weeping and she called out once again at the top of her voice, sobbing frantically in great distress. After what felt to her like a very long time, and was in reality just a few moments, she heard the door of an upstairs room open. Furset looked down at her with puffy eyes.

– What’s the matter? 

  She said reprovingly. 

– Why are you shouting?

  Then, less sharply, seeing the tears streaming down her little sister’s face:

– We’re all in Mum’s room . . . come up here if you like.

And so Peri hurried upstairs to her sister, drying her tears as she went. 

[1] In Islamic tradition, especially in Iraq, the bereaved family gives food to guests or even strangers and asks them to pray for the soul of the deceased.

[2] Kurdish and Persian word for God

Born in Baghdad in August 1984, Hawra Al-Nadawi immigrated with her family in 1992 to Denmark, where she grew up. She published her first novel in Arabic Under the Copenhagen Skyin 2010, which was longlisted for the IPAF. Her second novel, Qismet, was published in 2017. Both novels deal with matters of identity and alienation, which are major themes in her works. Critics have pointed out that her works combine a poetic Arabic language with a Western structure in the novelistic framework, conceivably because of her mixed upbringing and culture.

Different mixed cultures were essential in her upbringing and education, as she was homeschooled in Arabic by her Arab and Kurdish parents, alongside her education in Danish schools. She studied linguistics and English literature and is fluent in four languages, in addition to three other languages with intermediate proficiency; yet she’s particularly interested in the Middle Eastern languages and their literature.

Alice Guthrie is an independent translator, editor, and curator, specialising in contemporary Arabic writing. Her work often focuses on subaltern voices, activist art and queerness / queering (winning her the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize 2019). She is currently compiling the first ever anthology of LGBTQIA+ Arab(ic) literary writing, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions. She teaches undergrad and postgrad literary translation at the UK Universities of Exeter and Birmingham, and her translation of the complete short stories of the maverick Moroccan gender activist Malika Moustadraf is out now from Feminist Press NYC and Saqi London

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