Shi’a By Day, Sunni By Night

I received twelve calls from strange numbers today. One was a man asking me to fix his water tank since today was Thursday, as we’d apparently agreed, so I told him I’d sold the tank. Then I tried to explain to the next angry caller that I would send my son Ghlim to finish connecting his water heater. Flash fiction from Iraq. Three calls were from elderly people who cursed at me, then hung up. Another was from a sleepy woman who apologized for dialing the wrong number. Some customs official named Hamid called to let me know the permission slip for my car was ready to be picked up. All these people must have been eating that funny barley-fermented bread for diabetics, because they were laughing – that’s the only thing that would make them talk like that. One took a deep breath, paused for a moment, then said: “Did you think we wouldn’t see you?” and hung up. The next guy made me listen to the sound of running tap water, then splashed the water and said, “Hey, I hid it for you under the planter.” That last one made me turn off my phone and stop answering these bizarre calls.

I turned my phone back on two hours later and saw seventy-two missed calls. People were going outside into the streets and gathering in groups, exchanging phone numbers. The refrigerator repairman asked for my phone number, and I told him that I had forgotten it just like he and everyone else had. The truckers on the bridge were causing a terrible traffic jam, fiddling with their phones and answering wrong-number calls. A veiled beggar pulled a phone out of her pocket and asked if I could help her figure out her own number, because she needed to find someone missing in all this confusion. The circles of people were splitting and regrouping in the streets; the traffic cops had left their posts in all that commotion, one of them overcome with laughter. A man in a National Vegetable Oil Company uniform pushed me out of the way, got into his car and shut the door. Keeping his eyes on one of the storefronts, he whispered to his daughter in the backseat: “Hey, write this down, write this down. That tire shop’s number is the only one that hasn’t been zombie’d.”

Seven teenagers were taking down the tire shop’s storefront and hiding it from the people reaching for it, that being the only phone number unaffected by the haze of forgetfulness that had fallen upon our city this morning. After that people started tearing signs off of apartment buildings, chasing after any stray numbers. The laughter-stricken police officer advised everyone to just laugh it off – even fake laughter, like his, distracts you from the forgetting.

When I answered my phone again I heard from a doctoral student studying caudal anatomy, and I thought it was funny; I didn’t know what caudal anatomy was, but the way she said the word “caud-al” made me think of a sex position I liked. I heard from the caretaker of a hussainia mosque, who apologized for not being able to offer me more than four thousand to sing during the Mourning of Muharram services. I heard from a wide variety of people through these misplaced calls, from purveyors of illicit beverages and grandmothers to mothers-in-law and hospital nurses, and we began to get to know one another. To them I became Christian one time and Mandaean another, five times head of the Hajj Magtouf tribe, Shi’a by day and Sunni by night, a member of various organizations and of different families. They ask you how you’re doing and remind you to get that day-old khishni fish from Thamer Hawata on your way home from the dry cleaners… As though they knew you, or as though they didn’t!

Translated in English by Claire Jacobson

Mortada Gzar is a novelist, filmmaker, visual artist based in Iraq. He has an engineering degree from the University of Baghdad. His animated “Language” won the Doha Film Award. He has written three novels: [Broom of Paradise] (2008), [Sayyid Asghar Akbar] (2013), and [My Beautiful Cult] (2016)

Artwork by Indu Bhandari

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