If You Were a Sack of Cumin

In the midst of the Syrian Civil War, three grown siblings attempt to fulfill their father’s final wish. The journey is dangerous, but that’s no surprise; nowadays, death is always hard work.

Khaled Khalifa | translated by Leri Price | an excerpt from the novel Death Is Hard Work | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | February 2019 | 18 minutes (4,899 words)

 

Hussein soon suggested that they toss the body out on the roadside, asking his brother and sister how confident they were that they would pass other checkpoints without trouble. They would be right back where they started if the next checkpoint agents discovered that their father was a wanted man. He added that the dogs were eating plenty of bodies nowadays, so what difference did it make? Why didn’t they just leave it or bury it anywhere and go back to Damascus?

Bolbol could tell that Hussein wasn’t joking this time; he wanted an answer, wanted his brother and sister to make a decision. Bolbol wanted to ignore him, but suddenly a great strength welled up inside him, and he declared he wouldn’t abandon his father’s body before his last wish was carried out. Fatima agreed and asked Hussein to speed up, even though it would be impossible for them to arrive at Anabiya that night in any case. The highway came to an end a few kilometers before Homs, and they would have to use the side roads, which were dangerous at night; no rational being would even consider traveling them in the company of a dead man.

Whenever Bolbol saw trucks crossing checkpoints with ease, he wished his father’s body would turn into a sack of cumin; it was hard to see any downside to such a transformation — in fact, reaching a state of mutual understanding with a sack of cumin would be easier and far less dangerous. He deeply regretted promising his father to do as he’d asked. Forget about changing Abdel Latif into a sack of cumin — Bolbol would have been content to see himself transformed into a man with a little less sympathy.

The night before, he had sat on the bed next to his father while Abdel Latif told him in a feeble voice that his death was very near. Bolbol tried to divert his father’s attention from these forebodings and thought briefly that his father was just having a nightmare, thanks to the death all around and the bombings that hadn’t been silent for three years — that Abdel Latif was entering one of his states of delirium, which had become more and more frequent in the past month. Of course, you didn’t have to be sick to have the same problems. Everyone suffered from insomnia and interrupted sleep these days, from panic attacks and nervous breakdowns; everyone spent entire nights discussing sleep aids, such as chamomile flowers brewed with rosemary, milk mixed with crushed garlic, or Faustan-brand sleeping pills; Bolbol, too, liked to talk over the recipes he’d tried, or to discuss with his colleagues how best to cover their windows with plastic wrap so that the glass wouldn’t become shrapnel when it shattered. Recipes and helpful hints were also frequent topics of discussion for the people stuck at checkpoints for hours in the scorching afternoons and under the pouring rain. Taking naps was good; it helped the dreary evenings pass a little more quickly. Small things like that could cheer people up… or, alternatively, could destroy their lives and drive them out into the unknown, as in the case of this corpse, which had begun to turn rotten. When they left the hospital, they hadn’t wondered what would happen to them. All three were too busy calculating how long it had been since they had last spoken to one another. Their throats were clogged with words that would rust and waste away if they weren’t finally let out. Fatima at least wanted to regain some tenderness in her relationships with her brothers, but Bolbol had no desire to concede a thing to his siblings. Certainly there had been times when he wanted to return to that old familial harmony, but usually he felt that there was simply too much distance between them now. Getting away from them was the only positive thing he’d accomplished in the last ten years, he thought sometimes. And if they were honest, his sister and brother felt the same way, painful though it would be for anyone to admit — all believed that they had already done more than their duty for the family. Now it was time to consider their own lives.

Whenever Bolbol saw trucks crossing checkpoints with ease, he wished his father’s body would turn into a sack of cumin; it was hard to see any downside to such a transformation.

Yes, the previous night, their father had felt keenly that he was dying. He had done everything he wanted to do in this life and had said everything he needed to say during his stay with Bolbol. But despite the illness, Bolbol hadn’t believed his father would really die. It wasn’t credible that anyone could still die of natural causes in this day and age. Even his neighbor Um Elias had been mur dered, though she was in her eighties. A young relative and his friends conspired to break into her house and force open her strong box, which everyone said contained millions of liras and several kilograms of gold. She put up a fight and recognized them, so they killed her. The police were even forced to follow it up and do a little actual police work so the killing wouldn’t be recorded as a sectarian crime. That would have sent the Christian inhabitants of the quarter into a panic.

Not that the neighbors were too upset about old Um Elias, who had made a living selling miserly amounts of watered-down alcohol to them, but nevertheless they came as a body and spat at the young man in question, barely twenty years old, as he was forced into a police car. The police took him to the apartment in Rukned dine where he’d hidden the stolen goods in a well next to the graveyard. His two accomplices lived in the same building, and they didn’t try to flee but surrendered and confessed in full. The following morning the three criminals were quietly brought before an examining magistrate. He was frustrated, as the crime of murder no longer called for such caution and care, and the criminals’ easy confession increased his irritation. They would all find a way to avoid prison anyhow, the easiest route being to accept a position among the murderers of the regime militias, though there was always the chance that the resistance might storm the prison, knock down the walls, and destroy their files regardless.

In recent months, when people died, no one bothered asking after the hows and the whys. They already knew the answers all too well: bombings, torture during detention, kidnappings, a sniper’s bullet, a battle. As for dying of grief, for example, or being let down by your body, deaths like that were rare — and no one lamented a death that didn’t have any outrage attached to it.

Before Bolbol and his siblings left Damascus, he had called his office and requested a leave of absence. He received the indifferent condolences of his colleagues over the phone and asked that no one take the trouble of condoling with him in person, or indeed trouble themselves with helping him arrange the burial. He was still feeling the same deeply rooted fury as when the young doctor on duty told him his father’s heart had stopped. If his father had died three months earlier, when he was still in the village of S, then everything would have been easy. The cemeteries there were large and plentiful, and any one of the people still living in the town could have buried him with all the consideration due to the great and illustrious ustadh, their comrade in revolution from its first day to his last. They would have considered him a martyr. Bolbol’s only responsibility would have been to hear about it — and then pass along word to Hussein and Fatima and spread the news by calling their few relatives still in Anabiya, some of whom would certainly have supported Bolbol to carry out his duty of looking mournful and organizing a small ‘aza for a few close friends. But that body lying on its hospital bed, and the glances of the on-call doctor they only made Bolbol feel trapped. Death had become hard work. Just as hard as living, in Bolbol’s view.

The doctor had instructed the orderlies to cover Abdel Latif’s face and carry him to the morgue, and then asked Bolbol to sign for the body and get it off the premises before the following afternoon. If not, they would be forced to deal with it themselves. Priority in the overcrowded hospital morgue was given to the bodies of soldiers.

When he used to think about it, Bolbol hadn’t reckoned on his father’s death being such a disaster for him. He had half hoped that if Abdel Latif needed to die nearby, it would be somewhere closed off by a siege or while Bolbol was traveling far away. In such a case, he would have been absolved from the duty of arranging everything, and responsibility for his father’s last wish would have had to be shouldered by Hussein, who wouldn’t have hesitated to ignore it.

It wasn’t credible that anyone could still die of natural causes in this day and age.

One night, three days before Abdel Latif died, Bolbol took his father to the hospital after his pains grew worse. It was lucky they stumbled across a taxi by the all-night fuul restaurant. Finding a driver willing to cross the city from east to west, not to mention finding a vacant bed in the public hospital, was such a stroke of luck that God should have received their utmost thanks — and Bolbol really did do his best to feel grateful. He gave the taxi driver the fare he had requested plus a tip for helping his father onto a stretcher; he insisted on staying with Bolbol until he was assured that Abdel Latif wouldn’t get abandoned by the hospital staff in some corridor. Then again, the driver, too, probably preferred to be in the hospital than on the dangerous streets at night. Bolbol didn’t ask him why he didn’t go home; he was afraid of the answer. On an earlier occasion, trying to make small talk in a taxi, he had been unwise enough to ask the driver when his shift was over and he could go home, but the driver had sneered and described his house in Zamalka in detail, including the fact that it had been bombed and his wife lay dead beneath the rubble. In the end he had asked Bolbol, “So what home do you mean, sir?”

For months, Bolbol had avoided talking to anyone he didn’t know or even leaving the house. Going outside was hard work. He was content to travel back and forth from work and read state news papers ostentatiously on the bus. On his days off, he watched black and-white Egyptian films on cable and grieved for this golden bygone era. He didn’t know why he put himself through this, but at least this was a pastime that no one could possibly find suspicious; everyone was mourning for the beautiful days that they’d lost. Longer holidays such as Eid he spent making different types of pickles. He liked the new strategies he’d developed in order to keep himself sane, even though they were all strictly short-term arrangements. He didn’t dare acknowledge that his life was a collection of trivial acts that would sooner or later have to come to an end.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


One day, his isolation was punctured. One of his father’s neighbors’ sons — an engineering student turned combatant in the Free Syrian Army — called Bolbol and informed him that his father’s health made it very difficult for him to remain in the besieged village. Bolbol couldn’t bring himself to say anything in reply, not out of shock from hearing about his father’s deterioration, but from fear of being arrested for speaking to a person who lived in S. The caller didn’t have a lot of time and said that they had been fortunate enough to manage to smuggle the ustadh out to the abandoned gas station at the edge of the village. He asked Bolbol to arrive at six o’clock that evening to take him away.

The call had come at three in the afternoon. Bolbol couldn’t chance saying a word to this person calling from an unknown number. What if the line was tapped? He was absolutely certain that the regime monitored every word coming out of the village. He had to think of a way out of this terrible mistake. Suddenly one of his rare bursts of self-assurance led him to decide to resolve the matter. He thought he would call Hussein. His brother should help in a situation like this. He dialed Hussein’s number and was overcome with frustration when he heard that phone service had been temporarily interrupted. There was still time, though. Hussein would probably get back to him when he saw the missed call. Bolbol sat in a neighborhood restaurant in Saruja and asked for beans and rice. He contemplated what he was about to do to himself: his father was going to come and live with him in his small house. Well, maybe his father wouldn’t be able to endure being in a district loyal to the regime.

Bolbol had worked hard to gain the trust of his neighborhood. The details on his identity card marked him out for suspicion; for four years now, similar details had spelled catastrophe for many others. Thousands of people disappeared without a trace, simply for being born in areas controlled by the opposition, just as many regime supporters had disappeared in those same areas. Kidnappings, ransoms, and random arrests were widespread and tit-for-tat responses meant they only escalated in frequency. People’s movements were tightly controlled. Any error could be very costly.

Bolbol minimized his time in public. To get to work he took the special bus for public employees, and to get home in the evening he took the same route back — like so many others whose identity cards and official documents happened to list the names of various now burned-out towns under “Birthplace.” He abandoned his few remaining old habits, such as visiting a coffeehouse every Friday, or loafing around Bab Tuma. He cut short any burgeoning friendships with his colleagues; all they ever did together was repeat the same conversations about rising prices anyway… and by the time they started furtively discussing indications that they had gleaned which pointed to recent regime losses, using code words familiar to opposition sympathizers, Bolbol had already taken to ignoring them. He didn’t want to venture so much as an ambiguous comment — he simply acted as if he hadn’t heard anything at all and then returned to the subject of his pickling projects, grumbling about the rising price of eggplant.

He liked the new strategies he’d developed in order to keep himself sane, even though they were all strictly short-term arrangements.

Three months before the long drive to Anabiya, there was a knock on Bolbol’s door at dawn. Three young men came in, boys from the neighborhood, all armed, accompanied by a local official who treated Bolbol with something like contempt. They ignored all his questions and overturned everything in the house. Not even the big portrait of the president in the middle of the living room won him any favor. Bolbol was offended, but kept quiet. He’d already scoured his home of everything that might have caused him harm in this situation: purging each and every suspicious belonging and even canceling all the television channels that regime supporters considered “biased,” such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and filling his “Favorites” list with pro-regime channels: first came Al Manar and Al Mayadeen (the satellite channels run by Hezbollah), followed by Alalam from Iran, the Syrian News Channel, and then various other innocuous choices, like National Geographic, some food channels, and so forth. He’d gone over every inch of the place dozens of times to confirm to himself that the house was “clean.” He only wished he could change his ID number and his place of birth. Anyway, the soldiers searched the house carefully and left without apology, letting Bolbol drown in the chaos of his scattered possessions. They cursed him and his hometown, as usual, but Bolbol did his best to ignore it; he told himself they were just goading him into reacting so they had an excuse to kill him. Of course, if they shot him, his blood would be spilled for nothing. Defending himself against some mild abuse would hardly make him a martyr. When they were well and truly gone, he congratulated himself on successfully passing this thousandth security check. After this he gradually gained the qualified approval of his poverty-stricken neighbors, who likewise used to curse his birth place loudly whenever he walked down the street. He had chosen to live in this poor neighborhood after his divorce from Hiyam; she had made it a condition that he leave all their furniture with her to pay off the balance of her dowry and in exchange for her raising their only son — another Abdel Latif. The boy had been named after his grandfather, as though to prove that Bolbol still had strong links to his family, in the absence of any other evidence.

Really, all of Bolbol’s behavior was an imitation of his father’s, an attempt to live longer in his shadow. That respected gentleman, weighted with idealism, lived in the past, a remnant of some dreamlike former age. His vocabulary and habits dated back to a different world and would not conform to standards of the present day. Bolbol’s father boasted of belonging to an era of “the greatest values and elegance,” as he called the sixties, adding that it had been quite lovely to boot. Bolbol often caught himself using the same flowery old words as his father. And he still remembered his father’s hysterical reaction when Hussein dismissed his precious 1960s as just a mirage — announcing that everything people said about those days was a lie that should finally be put to rest, and that those years were in fact the era of all the Muslim world’s defeats. His father had been furious for the rest of the day. That was probably the first time any member of the family had dared to contradict him or sully his sacrosanct memories.

As Abdel Latif had aged, he only became more attached to those memories of his youth, down to the tiniest details: a certain way of shining his shoes, a particularly elegant necktie, a way of speaking concisely and listening respectfully, making witty comments and telling anecdotes whenever his old friends were gathered. It was important to him to be charming, to hold a constructive and enjoyable salon. He considered his duties sacred, and the town of S never saw a funeral in which he wasn’t a participant. He remembered all his friends’ birthdays and other special occasions and shared the few supplies he was able to see brought in from Anabiya. According to his students, he was a strange man, though likewise a respected inhabitant of their town for more than forty years, who had arrived to teach in the school and soon became one of them. They originally called him the Anabiyan, in reference to his hometown, but everyone forgot this nickname with the passage of time, and he became, simply, Ustadh Abdel Latif.

Bolbol couldn’t get through to Hussein. He felt cold to his bones. There was no choice but to go alone to pick up his father. The sheer density of the checkpoints between him and the rendezvous point meant the length of the journey was out of his control, but he still managed to arrive at the appointed time. When he saw his father leaning on the wall of the abandoned gas station, Bolbol felt empty inside. His father was somewhat dazed and had lost a lot of weight; his face was haggard, his breath was foul, and it was clear that he hadn’t eaten for some days. Even so, he was clean shaven, wore a tie, and his clothes were spotless.

He kept telling Bolbol about the siege, as if asking him not to forget, but Bolbol wanted very much to forget everything that had happened over the past four years. He felt like someone else — a stranger.

Abdel Latif smiled when he saw Bolbol coming toward him. Bolbol squeezed his father’s hand. A group of armed young men appeared from nowhere, some of whom Bolbol recognized, and they all raised their hands in farewell to their comrade as they passed. Abdel Latif refused to lie down in the back seat of the taxi. Bolbol asked his father not to talk to the driver; he might be an informer, and Bolbol knew the sorts of things his father was likely to say — open praise for the people of his rebel town and curses for the regime. Bolbol didn’t say a word, praying that everything would work out. He asked Abdel Latif what medicines he needed, but his father just shook his head and proceeded to glower at every checkpoint soldier with overt resentment.

When they got home, Bolbol laid him down on the bed and went out to find a doctor. He reflected that the doctors of this neighborhood might also be informers who would consider Abdel Latif a terrorist if they knew where he’d been these last few years, stubbornly clinging on inside that besieged village. But there were rumors about a back-street doctor named Nizar, who had been thrown in jail at the beginning of the revolution, and who’d had some public clashes with the rest of the neighborhood when he refused to give up his home in it. After tracking him down, Bolbol more or less explained the situation, and the doctor — who turned out to be a kind and conscientious young man — accompanied Bolbol to his house as soon as he was finished with one more consultation. On the way, Bolbol told him that they were originally from the town of S, a veiled reference to where their sympathies lay. The doctor caught it at once, and the name of the town was all it took to rouse the young doctor’s fervent respect.

The doctor was assiduous in his care. Abdel Latif always used to say that the children of the revolution were everywhere, which was why they would, in the end, prevail. The doctor was surprised to find a portrait of the president hanging in the living room but made no comment about it on that first visit. The next day, Bolbol explained his position in the neighborhood, implying that he himself was a clandestine revolutionary. The doctor didn’t care for this obvious dissimulation, considering Bolbol’s tack to be little better than collaboration with the regime, but he well understood Bolbol’s anxiety and felt reassured as to his basic good nature when Bolbol gave him a couple of jars of pickled cucumbers and peppers. The doctor brought over various drugs free of charge and became a firm friend of Abdel Latif. He visited every day, and the two would whisper together. Their eyes would gleam when Bolbol’s father told his doctor friend stories of life inside the siege; they laughed and spoke vehemently and with great hope of victory.

But on the third day of his father’s treatment, Bolbol returned from work to find that the president’s portrait had been removed from its usual place on the wall. Abdel Latif gave him no opportunity to ask about it, and Bolbol didn’t dare object. He put the picture in his bedroom, but there it kept him up at night. This was odd; it was just a picture, after all, but spending night after night in the same room with it caused Bolbol’s worst and most terrifying preoccupations to resume. He covered up the portrait and propped it in a corner of the living room, behind the metal cupboard where he kept his plates. He didn’t dare to throw it out or tear it up; he would need it as long as he lived in this neighborhood. Between Bolbol’s unwillingness to challenge his father directly, and Abdel Latif’s studied avoidance of the topic, they both eventually forgot about it entirely.

Bolbol insisted on closing all the windows in the house for fear that the laughter of his father and the doctor would leak out and catch the attention of someone passing along the alley, who might then stick around to hear their conversations or the revolutionary songs they sang together between bouts of exchanging news from the battlefronts and commentary on political developments. The two of them were agreed that it was a revolution against the entire world, not just against the regime. Abdel Latif still loved big words, and he used plenty of them when describing the things that had happened during the brutal siege, when those who had remained behind had been forced to cook the leaves off the trees and to eat grass. They made bread from chaff, and shared what little they had left.

What did his father’s body mean? It was a harsh but justified question that night. All three of them were wondering it, but none had a clear answer.

Their conversations about their inevitable victory conveyed nothing to Bolbol. His only thought was of his father’s illness particularly, how he might rescue himself from the predicament it had caused. Bolbol offered to help his father bathe but was refused; Abdel Latif didn’t like seeing himself as a weak old man. Blood analyses showed that his illness was worsening and that hope of recovery was slight. Behind the siege lines, there had been whole months when he hadn’t taken his medicine, whole days together that he hadn’t eaten. He kept telling Bolbol about the siege, as if asking him not to forget, but Bolbol wanted very much to forget everything that had happened over the past four years. He felt like someone else — a stranger. His father deserved a true son of the revolution, someone brave like Dr. Nizar. The doctor wasn’t afraid of being associated with the revolution and had refused to flee the country even after he was arrested and tortured for three months. Bolbol couldn’t bear to hear him telling the details to Abdel Latif, who in turn regaled Nizar with tales of the torture undergone by the many other detainees he had known. These prisoners had returned hating the regime more than ever; when they spoke of what they’d endured, it was as though they were implying that revenge was the very least they could do in response. Bolbol’s father described in exhaustive terms how, in prison, many had transformed from peaceful revolutionaries to advocates of the utmost violence against the regime and its troops. He added, “Prison can kill you. The person who leaves is not necessarily you, even though they have your appearance.” Few retained their self-control and their reason; few remained loyal to their initial ideals. The terrible pressure of each successive story told in Bolbol’s house made him wish he were deaf — but he despised himself when he tried to avoid listening. It was only in the final weeks that he really began to worry that his father would die. The day they went to the hospital was the first time that Bolbol really thought about the chaos that could surround a body after death, given the state of things. It didn’t even occur to him that his father had been serious about that last wish he had repeatedly extracted Bolbol’s solemn promise to carry out.

Bolbol, Hussein, and Fatima successfully made it past the third checkpoint after the town of Deir Atiya, but the bleak road ahead didn’t exactly inspire them with confidence. Night was falling, and they had only gotten a quarter of the way: they were nowhere near Anabiya. The same mysterious number from which Bolbol had received his instructions as to where to collect his father on the outskirts of S had called his phone a number of times since that awful day — and now Bolbol was regretting that he’d never picked it up again. He was sure his father’s friends wouldn’t have let the ustadh be buried so far away from them. Perhaps they were even more resourceful than he’d ever guessed, these children of the revolution — they had managed to infiltrate everywhere, communicating by way of a system of secret codes. Maybe those men could have collected the body from anywhere at all and brought it anywhere with no problem. Maybe they should have been tasked with arranging the burial. Bolbol was suddenly confident that Abdel Latif’s friends could easily have spirited his father’s body away from the hospital and buried him in the new cemetery he had himself laid out during the siege in S. Then the dead man would have breathed freely, so to speak.

What did his father’s body mean? It was a harsh but justified question that night. All three of them were wondering it, but none had a clear answer. Silence had settled over the minibus. Hussein stayed silent to stifle his anger; Fatima was trying not to breathe, so they would forget she was there. The sounds of missiles and anti-tank bombs were getting closer; Hussein said dispassionately, “They’re bombing Homs,” before retreating back into his silence. They were all hoping for a miracle to come and save them from this desolation, the fear they couldn’t put into words, which burrowed into them all the same. These lulls offered a rare opportunity to talk but always came at inappropriate times, when no one was capable of speaking.

* * *

Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964 in a village close to Aleppo, Syria. He has written numerous screenplays and is the author of several novels, including In Praise of Hatred, which was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2013. He lives in Damascus, a city he has refused to abandon despite the danger posed by the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky