Ghanem Ghobash Award for a short story - appreciation / 2009
The old quarter, 1973, 7:00am
Hard knocks on the door. A group of soldiers burst in carrying my grandfather by his shoulders, his feet dragging on behind. They propped him in a corner of the house. They threw military hospital documents and a few worthless coins on the table. They shoved an envelope and a piece of paper rolled like an appreciation certificate into his hand and they left without uttering a word. About an hour later, my grandfather took a match to the documents and used the fire to light a cigarette."
The same quarter, now.
"We can’t wait too long. The worn-out body won't withstand the seething summer heat, and we've only got three more hours before the scorching heat of the midday sun. Much better to cut the thing up, or take it apart, and put it next to him in the coffin. It's the fastest and easiest thing to do before the body starts to decompose and stink. We honour the dead by burying them fast; and this way we would honour his last wish and his will."
That was what my father suggested to his brothers amidst the women's wailing and tears in the courtyard. It was his solution to the dilemma of my grandfather's will, which seemed simultaneously ancient and surprising. My grandfather always said that he wanted his chair to be buried with him when he died. And, although for a while now we watched as his condition deteriorated, my father's excuse was that death was swift even though we all knew it was close. That and the fact that the coffin maker needs two days at least to make a coffin to fit them both. But a decision must be reached quickly to preserve the old man's dignity and to avoid the curses and gossip of everyone else.
"But his wish was to be buried with the chair, not that we take it apart," said my eldest uncle.
"What's the difference? He won't be using it in his grave anyway," said my youngest uncle.
The discussion heated up as the women were left outside to deal with the funeral arrangements and to seek the neighbours for help.
I quickly left the house, tears streaming down my face, taking with me a small bucket filled with starch solution and a stack of papers on which his obituary was written.
I elegantly pasted an obituary on our blue door with the starch solution and I added another layer of starch on top. I made my way to the entrance of our quarter to announce to everyone that my grandfather has passed away.
The quarter where we live is a long street overflowing with small shops and packed with street vendors selling cheap plastic wares, and meat, vegetables and clothes vendors abound on its outskirts, and several residential neighbourhoods branch out from the main street.
Many houses in our quarter remain unfinished; with small worn and painted metal doors, and windows so low that you could see everyone inside. It's easy to recognise people's houses from the door colour and the random graffiti marks scribbled by school children on their way home.
The wall nearest the entrance of every quarter was usually transformed into a large bulletin board advertising products, announcing candidates from far away cities, concerts of third rate singers, or obituaries of the quarter's recently deceased – as a result of incurable diseases, tragic car accidents, or as martyrs of battle.
I pasted another obituary with the starch solution.
"What? Abu Kursi dead? Tut, tut. May God rest his soul," a passerby said out loud, wringing his hands in regret and surprise. He took a look at my grandfather's photo to make sure and he walked off mumbling words I couldn't understand.
"Abu Kursi", that's what everyone here called Fadel, my grandfather. A nick-name which persisted despite numerous efforts to convince everyone that he was actually Abu Shaker. It's as if everyone was convinced that people took on their names from their appearance rather than the name they wished to be called by. And so we all became Abu Kursi's children and Abu Kursi's grandchildren.
The chair in question was blue. It had four long legs and two high armrests joined together with solid wood and a straw belly my grandfather called the saddle. The chair accompanied my grandfather for a very long time. The chair was a wedding gift from a friend. My grandfather put it in the corner of the house and used it on special occasions only. But when disaster struck leaving my grandfather permanently paralysed, the chair became his shadow.
My grandfather was considered a war hero. When he was drafted as a reserve, he joined his unit on two healthy legs, but he returned with two paralysed legs after a landmine exploded under him.
I pasted another obituary on another wall in another neighbourhood.
"May you rest in peace, Abu Kursi. Who will sell watermelons now that he's gone, son?" someone asked me blinking his eyes and pursing his lips as a sign of grief.
Selling watermelons; that's how he spent most of his days. He sold watermelons to passersby from his chair by day, and by night he slept in his chair surrounded by piles of unsold watermelons. His arms got stronger from throwing these green balls and this strength allowed him to turn his chair into crutches to help him walk.
News spread. Passersby expressed their regrets. They spoke about Abu Kursi, my grandfather; about his magnanimity and his good deeds, about his strength and fortitude in overcoming his paralysis.
My grandfather paid a great deal of attention to his chair. He called it the horse and he often treated it like a person, like a permanent personal companion. He wrapped a piece of cloth he called a hat atop its wooden back to absorb sweat from his hands when he used the chair to walk. He wrapped its legs which he called hooves with metal pieces to strengthen and protect them from the muddy puddles that sprung up everywhere during winter. These metal shoes, with their resonating sound, ensured that the nickname Abu Kursi stuck to my grandfather all his life. The loud, rhythmic clicking of the hooves on the asphalt could be heard by everyone in our quarter, and it gave away his early arrival and early departure.
I pasted another obituary on the wall of the nearby cafe.
He used to hold on to his chair from behind and thrust it forward a little. Then he'd thrust his body on the armrests and drag the two pieces of flesh behind him. That's how my grandfather walked with his horse. He'd leave home walking to the rhythm of its hooves. He never needed anyone's help and he never asked for it either. When he entered a busy cafe, he'd choose any table, throw his horse forward, ride its saddle and sit there for many hours.
My grandfather's chair was also his bed. He slept on it next to the piles of watermelons, wrapped in a blanket that covered both him and his chair so that he looked like a butterfly about to emerge from its cocoon. And his chair was the carriage on which he carried his belongings. The cover that wrapped his body at night became a pouch by day in which he'd put some bread and vegetables and then sling over the saddle.
Word spread. Everyone in our quarter was talking about the news. Everyone knew that my grandfather passed away.
I pasted another obituary onto an old, worn-out wooden electricity pole.
I paused for a while to contemplate the grey faces of passersby; was it sadness at Abu Kursi's demise? Or was it their usual way of greeting the mornings of their autumn days?
I can't remember how many times I asked him to lean on me, to let me help him. He'd scold me, refusing any favours, and then he'd hold me in his warm hands, with their green protruding veins and soft brown skin carved by time.
After I posted all the obituaries I had, I ran back home to help my father with the rest of the burial rituals. I found our quarter bursting with men and women, all clad in black. I heard muffled weeping, whispers of grief, and the many sayings with which people often pepper their conversations on such occasions. Our home, too, overflowed with relatives and mourners. My father received the crowds and offered them bitter coffee. My uncles were busy arranging bamboo chairs in the courtyard to seat everyone. Some of them sprang up from their bamboo chairs the moment they sat down, as if they sat on needles or a hot metal plate, simply because they imagined how Abu Kursi used to sit on his blue chair.
I slipped away to cast a final glance at my grandfather. I wanted to see what has become of him and what has finally been decided concerning his will, but the door to his room was locked. I leaned against the door. I heard strange sounds coming from inside. I peeped through the keyhole and I saw a group of men holding cotton and a white piece of cloth. I searched the room hoping to see my grandfather for the last time. I found him inside a wooden box wrapped in a loose white robe. I couldn't see how the chair was placed in his coffin; the chair that was his companion in life, and now, in death.
Translation by: Fadwa Al Qasem