Fiery Curses A short story by Qatari writer Noura Mohammad Faraj

Translated by William M Hutchins

noura faraj content copy
Noura Mohammad Faraj

I can say that I forgave my father each time he slapped me.Why do I forgive him? He is my father; if he didn’t discipline me when I misbehave, who would?
I can still feel the heat of these blows fresh on my left cheek – but not on my right cheek, which didn’t experience this type of suffering – it seems to be a secret mark that only I can detect. I must admit that a mark like this doesn’t delight me but I am delighted that no one else knows about it, because this is a less than glorious event in my life story.
Right – anyone listening to my statements will think I had a miserable childhood – reeling from one slap to the next – but actually during my life they have been infrequent – till now – and perhaps almost nonexistent, because I only recall one slap.
The story behind this slap was that once I picked up an illustrated magazine and felt inspired to don an outfit that made me look awe-inspiring and grand. Then I sat in the huge leather chair in my father’s office and placed my feet on the desk with their soles facing a number of volumes that were lined up there.
I admit that this wasn’t a comfortable position for reading. At any rate, I don’t think I read or tried to read, because I was preoccupied by that pose and how to make it seem even more awe-inspiring either by puffing out my chest or by smiling in a blasé fashion.
My father suddenly walked in on me and saw me in this pose. This was a calamity. All my awesomeness fled, leaving behind only fear. That slap landed on me, accompanied by a paternal command to conduct myself more respectfully.
I naturally became angry, and wept, and then felt ashamed; many other emotions also afflicted me in quick succession. Finally, inevitably, life returned to normal, but a question lingered in my heart: What should I respect? Should I show respect to my father because this was his office, to the desk which was meant for hands not feet, or to the book that my foot had approached?
Some books were placed on high shelves, but only a single multi-volume title was lined up on the desk, and I had taken the liberty of raising my foot toward it. The book comprised nine or ten massive tomes. The sight of those bound volumes was associated in my childhood memory with veneration and arabesque decorations, and I could only decipher the title with difficulty. For a long time I continued to doubt whether I had read it accurately or not. It was a huge book with an elegant, thick leather binding. I scratched its surface inside and out and then reached a conviction, the gist of which was that this book was one of those read only by tall, broad-shouldered people with massive heads. Thus it would not be possible for me to read it when I was only as tall as Tom Thumb. The book’s title was al-Marajim or “Curses”.
I think that “abuse” and “hot embers” became associated in my mind. For this reason I frequently saw myself in cartoon form, chased by my father, who was pelting me with flaming embers as I fled. Whether he actually hit me or not when he threw them at me did not cross my mind. The image remained embedded. Oh, how monstrously miserable childhood is! Whenever I sat at a desk, I would lean my elbow on it and rest my cheek in my palm. Where there was no desk, I would repeatedly rub this poor cheek with my palm as if caressing it. I would commiserate with the other cheek to reassure it that it would never know the pain its brother had suffered.
There was another slap that wasn’t an actual blow. This time I experienced it in a dream. My father and I were standing before a spiral staircase. He was scolding me, and when his rage reached its peak, he slapped me because I had dared to descend the staircase!
Why do I remember the slaps and hot embers, the dreams and stairs, now? Because I have seen that stairway for real now – not in a dream – after growing up and learning to respect many things.
I entered the public library a few days ago to research an essay I am writing and asked the librarian for the room where the books I needed were shelved. He pointed me to a downstairs room accessed by a spiral staircase.
I could not believe my eyes, which opened wide. It was the very same staircase from my dream!
But my father wasn’t there – was he? He certainly wasn’t.
Even so, I did not descend the staircase; instead I left the library.

* * *

I returned some days later, after convincing myself that I wouldn’t find my father there and wouldn’t receive another slap because I was no longer as short as Tom Thumb and it would embarrass both of us if he slapped me – naturally assuming he was there.
So I went down the stairway, which rocked with my steps and made a disturbing, grating sound every time I descended a step. I walked downstairs with extreme caution, because the stairway appeared to be fastened together with small, rusty screws, which did not seem strong enough to bear my weight. Worse still – my knees were trembling too.
When my foot touched the solid floor, I praised God for my safe arrival; I hadn’t fallen nor had anything else. I glanced at the rows of books spread before me. They were dusty, imposing old books. I decided to start by examining the books systematically, beginning with the first row and continuing in sequence. Just as soon as I ran my eyes over the titles on the first row I found that this time my eyes – not my feet – were facing al-Marajim.
My father wasn’t there, and without any hesitation I pulled the book off the shelf and glanced inside it; perhaps my cultural literacy had improved by now. I finally established that my initial reading of the book’s title, Al-Marajim, had been accurate.
Consider my astonishing courage: I took the first volume and the final one, which contained the indices, to a nearby table!
I was suffering from my fear of the earlier burning embers and imagined that I was holding a fiery book with its burning coals and that when I opened it I would proceed directly to the Resurrection. The abuse, however, wasn’t with live coals but with invective. This abuse was verbal and referred to curses. (I was so disappointed!)
Why had the author chosen to write about curses? Had he really run out of other topics? The author, whose distinguished name was Abu al-Fadl al-Tashti, says in the book’s introduction, where he discusses his methodology, that he chose this topic because it affects all people without exception. “No tongue is innocent of cursing and from it you will learn who is the abuser and who is being abused along with the traits of each group.”1 Therefore, he devoted pages of his long book to mentioning the curse, the person cursing, the person cursed, and the occasion of the cursing. To book’s message he added reports that had reached him about the curser and the cursed and the other curses they had uttered or been exposed to and their reactions to these curses. (May God reward al-Tashti!)
When I flipped through the book’s indices – especially the index of proper names – I encountered everyone I had ever heard of from the time of our author: poets, philosophers, caliphs, and judges. Naturally there were people I hadn’t heard of. Curiosity overwhelmed me – I wanted to learn the curses that had been applied to these worthy gentlemen. I found a large, diverse group of men whose families had been cursed, a section about those whose morals had been abused, a section for those whose lineages had been abused, and an especially interesting final chapter.
Al-Tashti was obviously proud of this chapter. “It is the broadest chapter and contains a variety of stories. If we had not reined in the tongue, ordering it to keep secrets, these pages would have harvested for us a fortune by narrating them, distinguishing their protagonists, and subsequently our heads would have been harvested, along with everything we hold dear, because every king and ruler has had his lineage insulted. For those who died a long time ago we mention reports of their abuse and lineage and what people remember about that. As for the people who have died more recently and have a family and children and zeal, whose brutality is to be feared, silence is better. With reference to a person still alive, know that a seemly lineage is attributed to him in public and faulted in private and that reports about him are whispered between two people but suppressed in the middle of a group. For this reason, we keep our silence out of respect for our heads until God executes a deed that has been done. . . .”2 (May God reward him with the greatest reward!)
I sat for some time reading the reports of cursing that were laid out before me. To tell the truth, I experienced many shocks as I read, because the tongues of emirs, poets, and muezzins were indistinguishable from those of barflies. In al-Tashti’s opinion: “No one’s tongue is innocent of cursing – neither the good man nor the bad man – because their ability to curse is equivalent.” I, here and now, am asked to accept and lend credence to what al-Tashti says or to call him a liar. How can I do that? I don’t know. I wasn’t present when these people uttered their curses.
I remembered my father’s slap as I read words I thought were only written on the walls of stinky WCs or internet chat-rooms.
I closed the book and returned it to its place. Then I went back to my seat at the table. I visualized a dignified man with a turban and white beard sitting cross-legged in a corner of the market, his ears open to people’s discussions, his heart leaping ecstatically at every offensive word he heard before leaning over his page to classify a new victim. What eyes, what a smile, what delight!
I picked up my papers and pens and climbed the spiral staircase. This time I enjoyed climbing it with quick steps that I deliberately took to cause the stairs to creak annoyingly.
On my way out, I asked the librarian if I could borrow the volumes of this book, but he said the book was considered an important reference work and was not for borrowing. I noticed that he was looking askance at me as if I were someone who didn’t know the worth of a valuable book. I smiled and told him I hadn’t finished with it and would return tomorrow to complete my work.

The title story from the author’s collection of short stories
Al-Marajim, Doha, Qatar, 2011

1 Abu al-Fadl Hasan ibn Walid al-Tashti, al-Marajim, (Published by Dar Al-Haqa’iq Publishing House) IX, 15.
2 Ibid., p. 22.

First published in Banipal magazine 56 Summer 2016
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