Authors: Fadhil al-Azzawi
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 1992 by Fadhil al-Azzawi
Translation copyright Â© 2007 by William M. Hutchins
Originally published in Arabic in 1992 as
Akhir al-mal 'ika
Translation originally published in Egypt in 2007 by the American University in Cairo Press
Published by arrangement with the American University in Cairo Press
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Free Press Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The first chapter has appeared under the title “Hameed Nylon” in a slightly different form in the online journal wordswithoutborders.org and in the anthology
Literature from the “Axis of Evil,
” edited by Words Without Borders (The New Press, 2006). The second chapter has appeared under the title “Burhan Abdallah's Secret Chest” in a slightly different form in
Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature,
Number 26, Summer 2006.
The Library of Congress has catalogued the Free Press edition as follows:
Akhir al-mala' ikah
The last of the angels: a modern Iraqi novel / Fadhil al-Azzawi; translated by William M. Hutchins.
I. Hutchins, William M. II. Title.
892.7'36ââdc22 Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2007047102
Visit us on the World Wide Web:
What turned into wine yesterday is today vinegar, and never will
vinegar turn back to wine. Never.
Herman Hesse, “Der schwere Weg,”
ameed, who had yet to learn the nickname by which he would be known for the rest of his life, entered the house, which emitted a fresh country scent. With his foot, as usual, he shoved open the heavy door, which was made of walnut and decorated with large, broad-headed nails. Only at night was it closed by a bolt with protruding teeth. Verdigris had spread across this till its edges looked bright green. He climbed a few steps, making his way to the two small rooms over the entryway that led to the courtyard.
It was the first time Hameed had returned from his job at the oil company so early. It was barely eleven, and this fact surprised his wife Fatima, who was not expecting him till afternoon. He interrupted her innocent laughter as she stood on the steps discussing her nightly pleasures over a low masonry wall with a neighbor next door. Her happiness actually was tinged with bitter anxiety, since she had been married for more than a year without conceiving. She had sought out most of the better-known and even less well-known imams in the city for charms against barrenness to neutralize the magic that the many women envying her had clearly concocted to her detriment. Although she had never said so openly, her suspicions, from the beginning, had focused on Naziraâher husband's sisterâand on Nazira's mother, Hidaya, a plump old woman who made no secret of her collaboration with the devil, for her house was always cluttered with herbs and dried flowers, ground bones, and assorted chemical substances purchased from Jewish druggists in al-Qaysariya, at the entrance to the old souk.
Among the imams Fatima consulted was a blind man who charged her a dirham to write a charm. He told her, “This amulet will set on fire any devil that dares approach you.” As an additional precaution, however, she consulted another Turkmen imam, who lived in a nameless alley branching off from the Chay neighborhood. A month or two later, since her belly had not swollen up yet, her neighbor advised her to tour the tombs of the dead imams, since the living ones were not useful anymore and only wrote charms for money. Thus Fatima, enveloped in her black wrap, headed to Imam Ahmad, whose tomb lay in the center of the main thoroughfare linking al-Musalla district with the old souk. She wept and pleaded, deliberately prolonging the time she spent there so the imam would not ignore her request. A passing car almost ran into her, since in her spiritual raptureâtears streaming from her eyesâshe had forgotten she was sitting in the middle of the street. After that she visited the tomb in al-Musalla cemetery of a Kurdish imam said to have been able to converse with birds, which understood and obeyed him. A month later, when no change had occurred in her, even though she made her husband sleep with her more than once a night, her visiting mother said, “This time you're going to head for the tomb of a Jewish saint, for no one is on better terms with the devil than Jews; evil is only negated by evil.” The next morning, however, when she related that to her neighbor, the woman advised her to go to the citadel and ask a Christian household there for a hog's tooth. She said they put those, normally, in water jugs. She should slip it under her husband's pillow, since Satan fears nothing more than hogs' teeth. Perhaps because of all of this advice she was receiving from here and there, and also, possibly because she was disillusioned with saints whose blessed powers had failed, she decided to call off, at least temporarily, these unsuccessful attempts while increasing the number of times she slept with her husband, since she knew, perhaps with good reason, thatâmore than any other locationâbed was where the issue would be settled, if only because this was the resting place for the saints closest to God.
Even so, Fatima would not have paid much attention to this matter had it not been for her mother's persistent entreaties and the insinuating comments of the old woman Hidaya and her daughter Nazira, who deliberately spoke in riddles, saying, for example, “The cow that doesn't give birth is slaughtered.” On the whole she was content with her nightly trysts with her husband, who had never given a thought, not even once, to having children, since love for women eclipsed all other loves in his life. He especially wished to preserve for as long as possible his sense of being a young man little burdened with responsibilities, so that he could leave in the morning for his job at the oil company and not return home till he felt like it. He occasionally returned in the afternoon but frequently stayed out until ten or eleven p.m. without upsetting Fatima, who had no way of discovering anything about his work except from the stories he told her. She knew he drove a private car belonging to an English engineer and his wife, conveying them from one place to another and waiting for them. She grasped that this type of work might force him to work late more often than not. He was occasionally obliged to travel to other cities and areas, accompanying his boss. Then he would return home bringingâespecially during Christian holidaysâchocolates from London or locally produced pieces of sugared coconut, which she had not tasted before. The moment she saw her husband enter, she raced to him since this was the first time he had returned so early, a fact that made her feel uncomfortable and anxious. She fought to control her emotions and to keep herself from asking why he was early. He, however, spoke first, saying with a smile, “I want to lie down a little.” Only then did she find the courage to ask anxiously, “I hope you don't feel ill?” As he climbed toward their two rooms over the house's entryway, he replied, “No, not at all. I'm just tired.” This answer satisfied her enough that she said, “Fine. I'll start cooking right away so we can have lunch together.” She went off to prepare the food, feeling on the whole contented and delighted that her husband was home with her. Even if something were the matter, he would certainly tell her, she was sure of that.
Her husband kept uncharacteristically silent this time, however. In fact, he did not leave his bed to go to the coffeehouse or to visit with his friends, not even that afternoon. Neither did he go out to chat with the neighborhood youth, who met each evening in front of a shop located near the community's mosque. Even worse than that, he did not leave home for work the next day. Only then did Fatima realize that something was wrong, something he was hiding from her and did not care to divulge. It had to be something serious. Her fears led her to beg him to tell her the truth, but he merely told her he had taken a few days' holiday. She felt somewhat relieved but not entirely reassured, for he might be trying to deceive her, thinking that he should not alarm or upset her.
She knew that when he was in a good humor he would tell her one story after another about Mr. McNeely; his flirtatious wife, Helen; and the other Englishmen who worked in the Baba Gurgur region for the Iraq Petroleum Company in Kirkuk. She knew that every Englishman was called “Boss” and that the company belonged to them. Fatima and Hameed would laugh a lot when he told her how Englishwomen were not at all embarrassed about showing their naked bodies to employees and how they wore undershirts and shorts in the presence of their cuckolded husbands, who bragged about their wives to one another. In fact, he had discovered that his boss's wife had more than one English lover. He was equally well versed in his boss's affair with the daughter of Khamu, an Assyrian Christian, who enjoyed the rank of a “first-class” employee with the firm. That was not all; her father encouraged the girl to continue this relationship with the man. As for the boss and his wife, they did not attempt to conceal their affairs from him, leaving the impression that these were extremely natural. In fact, his boss's beautiful, bronzed wife would leave the home of one of her lovers and climb into the waiting automobile as if returning from prayers. Once, when they were on the lakeshore in al-Habaniya, Helen removed every stitch of clothing. When she noticed that Hameed was staring wildly and lustfully at her, she was surprised and winked at him, smiling as she sank into the water. Fatima had frequently teased him, laughing, “What more do you want? Many men would pay good money to have such enjoyable work.”
Hameed, however, did not actually find in his work the kind of satisfaction his wife imagined, for he felt humiliated most of the time as he sat behind the steering wheel, waiting for Helen to leave an assignation. They occasionally invited him inside and served him lemonade in the servants' quarters while he listened to his mistress's moans from a bed in another room where she lay with the lover she was visiting. That would drive him crazy, agitating him, although he did not dare protest or refuse the invitation. He assumed it not unlikely that she would fancy him someday and invite him to sleep with her, but that day never came. After the incident in which Mrs. Helen McNeely appeared naked at al-Habaniya and after her conspiratorial wink, he spent more than a month feeling uncertain about his standing with her, wanting her but lacking the audacity to cross the line separating them. The image of her standing naked before him never left his head, since he often thought of her while he slept with his wife. That did not, in his opinion, constitute any diminution of his love for his wife, everything considered, for Mrs. Helen McNeely was no better than a whore. He, as a man, had a right to seize this opportunity. He was sure he would show her in bed that he was superior to all her other lovers. He would thus avenge himself and erase the humiliation he felt whenever she climbed into the car to head for one of them.
Hameed never returned to work and there must have been some secret reason, which would eventually surface, even though he attempted to postpone this moment, day by day. People in the Chuqor neighborhood learned from other men who worked for the company that Hameed had been fired. Instead of trying to console him, however, they burst into laughter, and his story traveled by word of mouth until the whole city knew it. Thus he acquired a nickname that remained linked to his given name forever, as if it actually were a real part of his name. Even innocent children always called him by this nameâHameed Nylonâwhich he himself finally accepted, adding it to his given name.
The story these workers told, based on reports from the oil company, was that Hameed, who was the personal driver for Mr. McNeely and his wife, wishing to try his luck with the wife and to win her affection, had returned one day from a trip to H3 and Rutba, carrying a simple present for herâa pair of nylon stockingsâbut that Mrs. McNeely, who considered him a servant, had tossed the stockings back at him and thrown him out. Some said that she had initially accepted his present but had asked him the reason for it. Then, taking his cues from films he had seen, he had leaned over her and tried to kiss her. At that point she had slapped his face, screamed, and accused him of trying to rape her. Others asserted that she had slept with him but had tired of him and had then used the nylon stockings as a pretext to sack him. Neighborhood women asserted that he had befriended the Englishwoman and actually had given her nylon stockings but that her husband, who was suspicious about this affair, had used the stockings as an excuse to separate him from his wife and thus had fired him. Hameed Nylon remained silent for many days, refusing to say anything about the incident. Once he regained his composure he made one comment, simply this: “The only true thing in any of these stories is the nylon stockings.”
Although the people of the Chuqor neighborhood considered his termination by the firm a natural event that no one could influence, some men who worked there, and most of the neighborhood youth who trained each day in the gym they had created in an abandoned building adjacent to the house where Hameed Nylon lived, tried to incite the people of the neighborhood against the oil company. The imam of the Chuqor community even mentioned in his study sessions, which began spontaneously every night after evening prayer at the mosque: “The English have deprived one of our community's young men of his livelihood because of a pair of stockings. This matter cannot be acceptable to God or His Prophet.” Some women's zeal was so aroused that they swore at the poor kerosene vendors and snubbed them. They would open the taps of the drums that were pulled by donkeys, letting the kerosene spill onto the street. They told the sellers, who had absolutely no comprehension of the affair, “You should pour kerosene down that Englishwoman's crotch.” Once again the community's sages objected: “How are these poor fellows to blame?” Oil workers' families certainly did not want to lose the privilege of buying gas at reduced rates through coupons sold to workers. Moreover, the secret labor union that was organizing oil workers distributed a handbill that attacked the firing of Hameed Nylon and called for his reinstatement, although no one in the Chuqor neighborhood knew about the pamphlet, and that was just as well, for if the people had felt the case was political, they definitely would have been afraid. Although the Chuqor neighborhood had never at any time in its history, which stretched back at least a hundred years, participated in a protest demonstration, many residents had heard of them. Indeed, some had seen the demonstration in the great souk a few months before. There were also some butchers who had assisted the police by attacking the demonstrators and clubbing them, after they were told that these demonstrators advocated female licentiousness, once a week, every Friday.
Thus a month after Hameed Nylon had lost his job, it was decided that one Friday the neighborhood would set out on a demonstration to seek the reinstatement of their son who had been fired from his position with the firm. Everyone became excited by the idea after it was lengthily discussed in the coffee shops, which turned into free-for-all houses of debate each afternoon. The matter evolved into a quasi-religious duty once Mullah Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri declared that since all Muslims constitute a single body, when one member suffers, the rest of the body rallies on its behalf with a vigilant defense. Consequently, an aged artist, known for carving words on marble tombstones, undertook the creation of protest signs, devising the texts himself.