Please Do Not Bomb, A short story by Yemeni writer Lutf al-Sarary, translated by Samira Kawar

Translated by Samira Kawar

Lutf al-Sarary

On the fourth straight day of air raids, Burkan Sahabel went to the market and bought three medium-sized cans of yellowish green paint and brushes of various sizes. He set the cans down in the small sitting-room of his house, which overlooked his small farm. He was a farmer in his fifties, and this was all he owned. He believed that if a person did not trick his fate, he would not manage to stay alive. He put that principle into practice when dealing with his family problems, his petty quarrels with his neighbours, and most recently with the warplanes that had just bombed a wheat-laden truck on the road near his house.
When Burkan Sahabel had decided to quit his job as a soldier, he bought a field equal in size to the one he had inherited from his father. He bought it from his two sisters, drilled a well and surrounded the smallholding with a fence of barbed wire and triangular iron railings. On the small hill that had served as an irrigation point for his father’s two fields, he built a house out of black stone, covered it with a layer of cement and a coat of khaki-coloured paint that was the same colour as the ground. But he quickly repainted the house green.
The first road he had built up the hill was barely wide enough for a donkey, one that would be carrying bags of cement, and later bags of wheat and other necessities of daily life that were too heavy for Burkan to carry. Now, thirty years later, his son had a multi-purpose Dyna truck. Sometimes, he attached a water tank to it that he would use to water the qat in winter. At other times, he would place the open container behind the driver’s cab.
Burkan had a spiritual relationship with green paint. The walls of his house were painted green, both on the outside and on the inside.
The water tank of the truck was also painted green, as were the triangular iron railings surrounding the farm, the cooking pots, the ashtrays, the water pipes connected to the well, the tea glasses and everything else.
The main reason for his preference for green, as he was always quick to explain, was that it was the colour of paradise. After he quit the army, his farm and family turned into the reassuring epitome of heaven on earth, while his faith in green increased following the sense of reassurance that came over him after the Houthis took control of the area. He felt proud that the group’s fighters respected him merely because of his celebration of the colour green.
He did not participate in any fighting or support any of the group’s activities. He did not provide them with food, water or a bunch of qat. None of them spoke a syllable to him to ensure his loyalty to them. It was enough for them to pass the green house, and express their enjoyment by guffawing loudly and sometimes pointing at it and at the green flag that he had raised on top as an extra gesture of goodwill towards them.
Burkan showed even more goodwill by giving the house a new coat of green paint and whenever the fuel crisis intensified, they would provide him with diesel for his farm and the truck.
For five days, he had heard Saudi aircraft bombing a camp in a neighbouring area. And two days ago, a truck carrying wheat had been bombed just a hundred and fifty metres from his house. He sensed that danger was approaching, and increasingly felt that the colour green spelt trouble, particularly after he heard on television that the aircraft were targeting homes whose owners were thought to be Houthi activists. The day after the wheat truck was bombed, he went to the market and bought three cans of white paint.
He had to buy supplies for his family’s daily needs at home, but gave priority to the paint, buying the supplies with the money that was left over. He lowered the green flag and painted the exterior walls white. The paint in the last of the cans ran out, leaving an area measuring one metre and thirty centimetres on the right side of the back wall that had still not been painted. He looked at the water tank resting on the thick branches of the sidr tree, which he had cut down a few years before to protect the tank from being dented. He recalled the past sense of safety that the truck, the water tank, the well and the farm used to give him, and his enthusiasm for life. His gaze moved vacantly between the green patch on the wall, the water tank, the window bars and the greenery stretching across the fields.
At that point, Burkan moved to the front left side of his home, and surveyed his farm. He was seized by fear that his farm would also be bombed, and began to think of the difference between his farm and the farms of others.
The colour of the fence, the pump room and the uncovered pipes were the most noticeable differences he could see. He desperately wondered if anyone else would notice those differences. The sun was setting behind him as he watched the dark shadows of the hill, with the white house at its top. He looked intently at the shadows that were growing darker along with the blackness of the asphalt as nightfall neared. His youngest son, who was playing with the leftover white paint in the cans, drew close and stood next to him as he rubbed off the paint between his fingers.
“Dad, why isn’t our house the same colour as the shadows?” the boy asked. The perplexed father did not make a quick reply. He stared intently at the shadows of the hill and the house, and he wished he could get hold of paint the colour of the shadows. He squatted down till his face was level with the boy’s.
“Let’s hope we can find paint the same colour as the shadows,” said the perplexed father. The boy laughed and suggested his father phoned his older brother before he came home and ask him to bring with him some shadow-coloured paint.
Burkan was enthusiastic about the idea. He grabbed his mobile phone, which was tied with a chain to his belt, and made the call.
“Bring some paint with you that has a colour between black and white.”
“You mean grey?” asked the older son.
“No, not grey. Let’s just say the colour should be like shadows.”
An hour later, his older son called to say that he had not been able to find paint that was the colour of shadows, so the father asked him to buy both white and black paint.
“Buy black and white paint with all the money you have,” said the perplexed father.
Burkan Sahabel spent the whole night in the sitting-room trying to mix black and white paint to create the colour of shadows, but failed. The whole family participated in the visual exercise, although they did not know its purpose. They thought it was one of his fits of obsession with paint, but the youngest son blurted out the secret.
“Dad wants to protect our house from the planes,” said the boy.
Everyone laughed at what the boy had said, except his father, who showed respect for the only person who had understood his fears, but he did not confess them to his family.
He used up two cans in his mixing experiments until it was almost dawn. He took turns with his wife and older son to carry the younger children, who had fallen asleep, to bed. He decided that in the morning, he would repaint the house in both white and black. His wife asked if what their youngest son had said was true, but he denied it once again. She did not seem convinced by his answer, but she went to sleep. Faraway explosions shook the ground beneath their feet, then blended in with the same sound as the explosion when the truck carrying wheat was hit.
In the morning, he suggested to his wife that she take the children and go to her father’s house in the village. He did not even wait for her to agree, but ordered his eldest son to drive them there with the supplies he had bought the previous day. He spoke so decisively that his wife sensed the looming danger and did not try to change anything in his plan. He bade farewell to his family as they left the house, then brought out the cans of paint and painted all the exterior walls of the house and the window bars black. He painted everything black: the water tank, the sidr branches, the bathroom pipes, the donkey stall – even his mobile phone and his wrist watch with the silver strap.
After that he went up on to the flat roof of the house and painted it with a thin layer of black paint. It then occurred to him to try again to remix the colours for the roof. He spent the noon and early afternoon hours beneath the scorching sun as he tried to create the colour of shadows, but each time he tried he would get grey.
He repainted the roof, this time white, and then went downstairs to the house, and on to the farm. He spent the night on the roof of the pump room so that he could hear clearly the sound of bombing. He could see flashes of light made by the aircraft, and knew they were bombing the neighbouring camp. He also knew that the anti-aircraft guns, which were blasting off all over the place, would not bring down any aircraft. The former soldier’s confidence in the superiority of the aircraft that were bombing all colours and rectangular shapes was growing, and his confidence in the ability of the army of which he had once been a member was diminishing. Whenever a truck, any truck, drove along the road between the farm and the house, his feeling of impending danger increased. Morning broke and he had not had a wink of sleep the whole night.
He folded up his bedding and went downstairs to sleep amongst the pipes, screws and smell of motor fuel. The smell was one of the details that had been part of his old sense of safety, and he still found it comforting. While he was falling asleep, in the last moments of his exhausted thoughts, the idea of communicating directly with the pilots flashed into his consciousness. He wanted to tell them that he was not a Houthi, or a soldier, and that he had nothing to do with any of the targets the “Storm” spokesman had said the Saudis were searching for to destroy.
Prompted by his faith in the technological superiority of the warplanes, he thought the pilots would be able to read any word he might write in thick, broad letters.
He got up immediately, went up into the house and brought out the cans of black paint, hoping that what remained at the bottom of the cans would allow him to paint on the roof of the house what he wanted to tell the pilots directly. From one end of the roof to the other, he wrote “Please do not bomb”.
Then he considered his plea was unclear because it did not include any reason for not bombing.
A small area was left above the phrase, and another below it. Neither was enough for the large letters that he thought were needed to be clearly visible to and readable by the pilots. He looked at the bottom of the cans and decided there was still enough paint left to paint over the phrase, to repaint the roof in black, and then write on it in white. After repainting the roof, he tried to write again, but his feet were picking up the wet paint, leaving behind black smudges.
He was forced to wait, and so went downstairs to have a nap in the house. He lay on his bed, but woke up to successive bangs on the iron door. It was his son, bringing him lunch from his grandfather’s house. He had two friends with him.
He opened the door, and noticed for the first time it was still painted green. He shouted at his son for not painting it.
“You depend on me to do everything,” he said, complaining about his own forgetfulness and the exhaustion that was getting the better of him.
His son responded, unable to hide his surprise and annoyance at his father’s behaviour in front of his two friends: “Do you really think the planes bomb houses based on colour?”
The father responded with a look of disapproval, and began to eat, while the son ushered his guests into the formal sitting-room.
After Burkan had finished his lunch, he asked his son to help him write clearly on the roof of the house.
“Let’s benefit from your education for once. Bring some ashes with you,” he said as he hooked the chain of his mobile phone to his belt and walked out. His son grew even more surprised when he saw his father’s mobile phone had been painted black, but did not object.
He followed his father onto the roof, and Burkan began to outline the message he wanted to write, using the ashes.
“What exactly do you want to write?” his son asked.
“Write here: This is a citizen’s home, please do not bomb,” he replied with the anger of someone defeated by despair. He had waited a whole day to add the phrase “This is a citizen’s home” to his plea to the pilots not to bomb his home.
As the young man slid the thick brush over the remaining ashes, his movements betrayed a kind of enjoyment of the idea. It was an enjoyment that was devoid of any security derived from a few words in wavy handwriting that were intended to save their home from missiles.
After finishing the job, neither spoke to the other. The son stayed in the house with his two friends, and the perplexed father went off to his farm as usual. Dawn drew near as Burkan lay on the roof of the pump room. Although he could hear the buzz of the aircraft, unlike on the previous days, he was overpowered by sleep. He had done his level best to avoid being bombed by the planes, but he grew panicky whenever he remembered that his son and two friends were still in the house. The last time he panicked was when the muezzin in the faraway village invited the faithful to “salvation”. He sat up on the spongy mattress and stared towards the house, rubbing his eyes. He removed the thick blanket that covered his feet, and got up to pray. After prayers, he folded up his bedding, and went downstairs to sleep near the pump, where a sense of security merged with nostalgia for a time that had only ended a few days ago. He was still struggling against the brutality of the new phase, which had taken him by surprise a few days before, threatening to change his life forever, but once again he was overcome by sleep.
An hour later, his farming equipment that was usually kept on the shelves and the roof of the pump room lay scattered over the pile of earth that had fallen on top of him from the ceiling, but he had no idea how. He had not heard any explosions. He shook away the pile of earth and iron that was on top of him so that he could get up. He hurried out of the pump room and looked towards the hill, but he did not see his house.

Al-Raja’a ‘Adam al-Qasf
(Please Do Not Bomb),
published by
Arwiqa lil-Dirassat wal-Nashr, Cairo 2016

Lutf al-Sarary was born in January 1975, in the district of Mawiya, Taiz province, central Yemen. He studied in the village school until he migrated to the city of Ibb, drawn by an urge to explore city life. There he went to school by day and by night worked in a garage repairing car radiators. Two years later he was forced to return to his village after pressure from his religiously conservative uncle, finishing his two remaining years of high school there and then completing his military service as a teacher at the same school. In 1994, he joined the University of Taiz’s Faculty of Education to study English. Two years later, he was employed by the university administration, and after graduation continued working there, holding various positions over a number of years: head of cultural activity for eight years, then head of student services for four years. In March 2009, he published his first collection of short stories entitled Like Someone Smoking a Long Cigarette in One Puff with Dar Junun in Cairo.
Later that same year, he was invited to edit the culture page of the weekly magazine Hadith al-Madina (Talk of the Town), which had just been launched in Taiz City. Two months later, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, where he remained until December 2010. In late December 2010, he moved to Sana’a to work as an editor in the newly established daily newspaper al-Ula. He became the newspaper’s editor-in-chief two months later until the newspaper ceased publication in May 2015 due to the war in Yemen. In March 2016, he published his second collection of short stories, Please Do Not Bomb, with the same publisher, now renamed as Arwiqa, – it was shortlisted for Kuwait’s Al-Multaqa Arabic Short Story Prize the same year. In February 2017, because of the ongoing war and its resulting deteriorating living conditions, he left Sana’a and returned to his village in the countryside of Taiz province.

First publish in Banipal 56 Summer 2019

Republished here with agreement