The Time Wanderer excerpts from a novel by Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi


Fadhil al-Azzawi

When I learnt that my military unit had received marching orders to the front lines in Abidjan, where fierce battles had been going on for months, I somehow became aware that if I went to the front I would never come back. I got the sense that if I was not killed or wounded by a bullet or a cannonball from the enemy, the death squads standing behind the soldiers, guns pointing straight at their backs, would surely shoot me down when forced to retreat for one reason or another. Retreat always equalled defeat in military jargon. Defeat was forbidden and would be punished by death. There was also the possibility that I could be wounded or taken as a prisoner of war. Then there was the possibility that I could be accused of cowardice and executed at the end of the battle in front of my own unit, with bullets whose cost would be paid by my family for their failure to bring me up a hero.
But suddenly, something happened that saved my life. As a young writer, I had been publishing poems, short stories and articles for years, in the local newspapers and magazines, under the pseudonym “Shakespeare of Baghdad”. The name caught the attention of military commanders, who were looking for writers and journalists to work in their propaganda wing, and began looking into my whereabouts, until in the end they found me and pulled me out of the hole where I had been buried. The editor-in-chief, who received me in his office, was a four-star general, known as General Tiger because no one had ever seen him without his tiger, which not only guarded him wherever he was, but would also sniff out the visitors in his office, for security reasons. The tiger would squat in front of his master, eyes wide open.
The master said to me, as though he was blaming me: “I have read some of your works, Mr Shakespeare, such as Romeo and Juliet and I liked them very much. That’s why I asked our intelligence service to find you and bring you to me. They have searched high and low for you, scouring the land. Tell me, where have you been hiding all this time? You know how much we need people with talents like yours right now.”
I tried to tell him that he was mixing me up with the famous English playwright, but it was in vain. Words faded from my lips as I saw his tiger leave its place, draw closer and flare its nostrils to smell me. Trying to conceal my apprehension, I replied, my voice faint and trembling: “I was at the front, sir.”
Noticing my fear, he laughed and yelled at me: “A brave soldier should not fear lions or tigers. It is not difficult to learn how to deal with even the most ferocious of beasts. Put your hand inside my tiger’s mouth as a gesture of trust. Then you will see just how kind, how sentimental, he is. Rest assured he only goes for cowards – he recognizes them easily by their stench. You’re not a coward, are you, Mr Shakespeare?”
“No, sir.”
Trembling with fear, I pressed myself against the back of my seat and pretended to be in control in the presence of the tiger, which opened its jaws expectantly, waiting for me to put my hand in his mouth: “Please, sir, don’t make me!”
General Tiger, who had noticed how afraid I was, clapped his hands twice and ordered the tiger to leave me in peace. The tiger slowly turned his head aside and began to roar, staring at me straight in the eyes, as though to threaten me. Then it lowered its body close to the ground, flexed its legs and crouched.
General Tiger stared at me awhile then said: “I had imagined you differently, Shakespeare. Whoever reads your books would think you’re a valiant warrior, even a hero perhaps, but from what I have seen so far I would have to disagree. You have disappointed me.”
With my mind on the tiger in front of me, I kept silent, not even daring to open my mouth.
General Tiger continued: “Even so, I’ll give you another chance. I want you to write an impressive editorial, about the holy war against the Persians, our enemies of old.”
He rang the bell; somebody came in and led me to another empty office, put a stack of papers on the table before me and said scornfully: “Now’s your chance to prove just how great a writer you are, Mr Shakespeare.”
It was, of course, not difficult for me to write about the war. I remember beginning my article with “Every war is a dirty war” and finishing it with “All the wars of the world, throughout human history, have been no more than bloody crimes, committed and planned by criminals and killers”.
Reading the text, General Tiger seemed confused, or perhaps surprised, not believing that somebody like me would dare write such a thing about his holy war. Then I saw him put the essay aside and look at me, not knowing what to do with me. Leaving his seat and putting his hand on his tiger’s head, he asked me: “So you think our war is a dirty war, do you?”
With my mind on the tiger, I hurried to say: “No, sir. From our side, the war is a holy war and from the enemy’s side, it is dirty.”
“So it is, then.”
After pausing a while, he said: “Goddamn what the world thinks! I am considering the best way to punish you. In fact, you deserve to be thrown to my tiger, for him to gnaw at your limbs, but I don’t want you to turn into a hero of western imperialist propaganda. I don’t want them to say that I fed Shakespeare to my tiger. What do you think?”
“Very wise, sir.”
So he sent me to prison, not knowing that he was sparing me from certain death at the front.
There would be no apple to eat this time.


I turned left, walking back along the road that I had come down before, looking at the Assyrian girls sitting on the balconies of their apartments, reading detective novels, or waving at young men down on the street. I thought I saw one of them smiling at me. I smiled back.
“What are you doing, Adam? What are you doing, old man?” I said to myself.
“Oh, thank God! I am still capable of love, of forgetting all the torments of the years spent in eternity. Time has passed and passed, but nothing inside me has changed. Only the time grew older and older and older.
When I left the prison, a policeman asked me: “How old are you?”
“I suppose I am a million years old,” I replied. The man looked at me and smiled, then wrote in his register “25 years old”. I kept silent, knowing that the written number was lacking many zeros, but I was glad to get rid of them; they were of no use to me. I am who I am, with or without zeros.
What’s more, it makes me laugh to be the father of all these people, crazy mankind. I am in fact no more than a creature, like all other creatures, here upon the earth. The question is why someone wanted me to be a witness in a time without witnesses? I am like the clown who stands on the stage and warns the audience that a fire has broken out in the building and asks them to leave but instead the people continue to clap and laugh, thinking that he is performing a new sketch. What more could I say? They would cheer and laugh at anything it seems, enchanted by the role they have assigned to me.
What a strange and meaningless film it is, in which I am obliged to play this role!


I think it is very important for me to tell you this story, so that you may understand my loneliness and confusion in this world. Once upon a time, during the reign of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, there lived a holy man called al-Khidhr, who accompanied Alexander the Great to the remote land of the Spring Water of Life. There, one sunset, without knowing what would happen, he washed himself and became immortal. He was once strolling through the bazaar when a beggar asked him to give him some money. Al-Khidhr told him: “Unfortunately, I have no money to give you, but hold my hand and sell me in the slave market.” The beggar held his hand and sold him for four-hundred dirhams.
I know they will sell me too, no matter if I am immortal or not, even for less than four-hundred dirhams. But fortunately, they have forgotten me, after all these years on Earth and, to be sure that I was forgotten, I too forgot myself; I forgot who I was. Nevertheless, I kept laughing and lying on my back each time I met one of those figures pretending to play a role in the history of the world.
When I was still young and strong, I used to go out every day, wandering the old track of the windmills in Kirkuk, where I often met Sancho Panza, who bowed in reverence and greeted me as though I were a country squire. To tell the truth, he excited me more than his lanky, hard-faced fool of a master Don Quixote, who never ceased from gazing at the dunghill of glory, until the bitter end. Oh God, how many times had I also told Gilgamesh to forget his companion Enkido, who went down to the underworld and never returned. He refused to listen to me, drinking wine and weeping, afraid of his own death! But so what, Gilgamesh, even if we had all lived forever? Do you think that would have changed the world? Surely not. After all, the world would be turned into a huge old people’s home, crammed with elderly men and women.
Oh man, give up all these silly thoughts! Now you are raving at passers-by, like the old madman on the train, from Gomorrah to Sodom, to whom you were chained. He never stopped raving the whole time, afraid of falling into the well that appeared to him in his dreams, until you too saw the bottom of the well and began to rant, just like him. For, if he fell into the well, he would drag you in with him. A political prisoner and a madman, falling down together into an ancient, abandoned well, and nobody would ever hear your screams. The two policemen, sitting opposite you, were asleep, their guns in their hands.


From Banipal magazine


An excerpt revised and translated by the author, with thanks to Emily Danby, from the novel Komedia al-Ashbah (Comedy of Ghosts), published by Dar Al-Jamal, Cologne, 1996

* “Leave this madness, my son! You cannot be Adam. Our first forefather Adam – God will have mercy on his soul – was eaten by a dinosaur when he left his hell and went hunting.”