FLOWER OF SAND

FLOWER OF SAND by Manuel Lourenzo González

It is several years since the events of Brother of the Wind, the prequel to Flower of Sand, and Amrah, the daughter of the mayor of Qhissa Hanni in the mountains of north Iraq, has adapted to her new life in Kirkuk. Her father has gone from being mayor of a small village to becoming a pivotal figure in the oil business, an intermediary between foreign corporations and local companies, and an aspiring politician. He has betrothed his daughter to his business partner, the governing judge Jemaa Lefta. Amrah, however, has not forgotten her childhood sweetheart, Khaled, or her wish to study architecture at university and design buildings in the new Iraq. Her studies bring her into contact with a local resistance leader, Haytham al-Taleb, and when her father falsely accuses her mother of adultery and divorces her, she agrees to provide Haytham with information about his business activities. Her involvement with the resistance will go much further than that, however, taking her down a road she would never have imagined, and ultimately salvation will take the form of the most unexpected person in her life.

1

From the tallest peak of the highest mountain I looked around

with an eagle’s eyes to the line of the furthest horizon,

and all I saw was

vast deserts of sand and loneliness

and miraculous valleys of green grass crossed by tame rivers,

cities of men sown out in the open

and more mountains, scattered like sleeping dragons.

What I didn’t see, my love, and this is what I long for,

was the sea travellers talk about in their chronicles

and poets in their verses.

They talk of it as if it were

a vast plain of water and loneliness

with miraculous islands of green grass crossed by harsh winds

and ships carrying men out in the open

and more water, scattered like a restless ghost.

I sometimes wonder, my love, if that sea they talk of

isn’t just an illusion to escape a reality

that is far too overwhelming.

And yet I want to discover it and take you sailing one day

between the banks of our two souls.

 

The last time I saw Khaled was in the warm dawn of 28 May 2006 opposite the entrance to his farm on the outskirts of Maskiwa, where I had gone to visit him. He accompanied me to the car and, having checked that nobody was watching, gave me a soft kiss on the forehead and another on the cheek. He opened the car door and helped me in.

Assalam alaykum, Khaled.’

Alaykum assalam, Amrah.’

Through the open window, I managed to enjoy the frank smile with which he meant to give me his blessing and best wishes for my upcoming marriage. I may have let a tear slide down my cheek, I can’t remember. The still burning sensations of the night of love we had just shared and his beautiful, adolescent face were all that occupied my mind at this moment of farewell, which I couldn’t believe would be forever.

It was the start of the good spring weather. I was seventeen back then and would turn eighteen in October. At the end of that month, coinciding with the end of Ramadan, I was due to marry my fiancé, the governing judge Jemaa Lefta.

Terrible events happened in those weeks, within the context of the nightmare we had endured ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the American and British armies. The announcement, so often delayed, about setting up a constituent assembly comprising well-known Iraqis with a view to the organization of elections had provoked the noisy manoeuvres of political and religious groups keen to find a good place for themselves in the future government: the occupying forces stubbornly fought to have people in the assembly who would be open to their influence, while, on the other side, nationalists, radical clerics and figures from the previous regime put up their own struggle.

In this political context, my father, Dimas Ber al-Halabi, was feverishly busy consolidating the position of the company he directed, Al-Minah, importer of electrical goods, and attending to the numerous requests he received from foreign companies that wished to expand their commercial networks in the country. He had created the company Al-Minah in 2001, in collaboration with an important partner who happened to be my fiancé, the judge Jemaa Lefta. In the postwar situation, he had doubled his activity, opening up branches to supply, almost without competition, the numerous works going on in the region and in particular the new infrastructure being set up to transport the oil from Kirkuk as part of the strategic relationships established after the war. At the same time, both partners obtained succulent profits by acting as obliging intermediaries between powerful foreign investors and provincial and local authorities. Apart from the oil wells, there were the large works of reconstruction of our cities, which had been devastated by the war and the years of the blockade the country had been subjected to under the rule of Saddam Hussein. The companies that had benefited from these contracts – mostly from the United States and Britain, but to a lesser degree also from other states that had supported the invasion – were beginning to establish themselves so they could build roads, erect buildings and provide us with all kinds of services. Their plans also included using this opportunity to extend their tentacles and create new markets within the world they called the Middle East. So my father threw in his lot with the new, powerful class that emerged from businesses linked with the war, a class that replaced the aristocracy that had once benefited from Saddam Hussein. His partner, Jemaa Lefta, from his influential position as provincial governing judge of At-Tamim, acted as a battering ram against the wall of administrative bureaucracy to clear the way for foreign investors. Nor did he miss the opportunity to share out favours among Iraqi businessmen growing in his shadow. In the midst of this society formed by the two of them was me – the daughter of one and future wife of the other – a kind of seal that went beyond the formality of documents and economic interests.

I had learned of my betrothal in 2003, at the age of fourteen, when we lived in a small village in north Iraq called Qhissa Hanni, where my father was mayor. It was the time of the invasion, when bombs rained down on the country and dead filled the streets and fields. Dimas Ber, who was of Syrian origin, enrolled in Saddam’s militia along with other young men to fight against the invader. But when he glimpsed the direction the war was taking, he gave up his patriotic convictions and decided to be practical, which led him to join the circles of those who were clearly the victors in this conflict. One step he took was to cement his alliance with Jemaa Lefta, a lawyer who had made a name for himself in opposition to Saddam Hussein and had proved himself a skilful and promising politician. My engagement formed part of this pact. As I discovered from my mother, Dimas Ber presented me as a clever young girl and a great beauty who would give Jemaa a certain added gloss as he entered the new high society of Iraq.

In a short while, we moved to Kirkuk and settled as guests in one of Jemaa’s luxurious apartments. Later, my father purchased a house and garden in the district of Al-Iktimal, inhabited mostly by owners of large businesses and chief executives. I attended secondary school and, in the autumn of 2005, signed up for a university preparatory course in the branch of science and technology, with a view to studying for a degree I had chosen much earlier: architecture. My school was in an area next to various higher education institutions, so it was pretty easy to meet up with older students. In Kirkuk, as in the rest of the country, school buildings and the educational system as a whole, once a model in the Arab world, had deteriorated woefully owing to the neglect of the new government. All the same, I was able to make new friends and to grow with them in the face of adversity, finding common ground in intellectual activity that enabled us to analyze the political situation and the progress of society, which gave rise to ideas and reflections that enriched me and helped me bear the burden of an empty existence in the luxury of my nouveau riche house.

All this served to bring me closer to my true love, Khaled ben Sayiam. A year and a half older than me, he had been one of my best childhood friends on the beautiful, distant slopes of Lemikush, where the village of Qhissa Hanni is located. When we became teenagers, there arose between us a strong attraction, though, as is usual at that age, it was timid and unconfessed. I loved Khaled, and I knew he loved me too. But events tore us apart. My parents dragged me away from the old mountains, and from him, and betrothed me to someone I didn’t even know. Personal circumstances forced my friend to undertake a heroic journey through the whole of Iraq to try to find his father, who had gone missing in action. On this journey, he was obliged to commit an act of aggression against the American army, which left him little choice but to hide in anonymity and to disappear from public life. Before disappearing completely, however, he came to live secretly in Kirkuk for a time. He arrived on his horse Ahu al-Rih with the intention of persuading me to go with him. He wanted to fulfil his dream as an adult leading his life far away from his family, which consisted in setting up a horse farm in some abandoned village. Khaled wanted me to go and live with him. He asked me repeatedly to do this. I wasn’t sure: I had to balance the natural love I felt for my family, a certain respect for the engagement my father had undertaken on my behalf, a desperate desire to study for a degree in architecture and the bond I felt with my new friends, which enabled me to broaden my horizons on the threshold of maturity, with a desire to live with Khaled despite the darkness of the life he offered me, far away from the world, on his horse farm. I decided not to go. At the end of August 2003, he mounted his horse and departed from Kirkuk. I was so sad to see him leave that I spent days crying my eyes out at home.

After that, I became even more devoted to the political cause with my group of progressive friends. In the beginning, with the naivety of youth, we attempted to convince ourselves that the fall of the dictatorial regime that had subjected us for decades offered us the chance to start a new life. We had all suffered painful losses, both among our acquaintances and in our personal lives, but were capable of discerning an opportunity to organize ourselves a new future for our beloved country. As time went by, however, and reality showed its face, we saw quite clearly that the change of regime had not brought freedom or justice, but subjection to tyrannies far worse than those of Saddam. He had imposed blind obedience to laws he himself enacted; the current regime controlled us with uncertainty deriving from the absence of laws and the terror of merciless struggles between factions that aspired to power without the least respect for human life. After a while, frustration at not being able to change the direction society was taking, together with other circumstances in my life, led me away from the group and shut me up in a feeling of loneliness and disenchantment.

A particularly bitter moment came in February 2005, when my parents got divorced. My mother, Taghrid Radwan, although to begin with she had participated actively in my father’s mercantile career and approved my betrothal, soon opened her eyes to the misery that lurked behind all the luxury and social ostentation she was surrounded by. She began to understand that the benefits of some imply the misfortune of others, the money on hand was stained with blood and pain, and it wasn’t possible to acquire power without betraying principles that had once been sacred. Proud mountaineer from Lemikush, belonging to the Koblai ethnic group, she felt unable to pass through all of this. At a certain point, a struggle arose between them that was worsened by several factors and led to their divorce. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Taghrid threatened to denounce her husband in the courts if he continued to block contracts with small local businessmen that wanted him to act as an intermediary with large promoters. In his immense greed, Dimas Ber was unwilling to give up the gratifications he secretly received from foreign suppliers and as a result, wounded by what he considered a betrayal of his interests, he hired some ruffians to set a trap that allowed him publicly to accuse his wife of adultery. He then demanded a divorce and patria potestas over their four children, which included banning us from having the slightest contact with our mother. He even dared to add, in outraged terms, that Taghrid was lucky sharia law was not applied in Iraq because otherwise she could have been sentenced to death for her crime. Mother was forced to leave Kirkuk at once, in a cloud of shame and disgrace, and we became utterly subject to our father’s guardianship. Although I had other reasons, this was what caused me to swear eternal hostility against Dimas Ber.

Early in 2006, several months before my planned wedding, I began to realize the full significance of the decision others had taken over my life. I had matured as a person and as a woman, and felt the obligation to link my future to that of a man I didn’t love in the least terrified me almost as much as the violence in the streets. It was true that my fiancé, Jemaa Lefta, had shown himself to be a good person from the first moment I met him and had always been more than attentive. He was forty-one and quite handsome, taking into account his age. His manners were refined, his look was intelligent. He had lived in Europe for a while to escape Saddam’s persecution. He had studied economics and law, and claimed to have acquired the open character of westerners and to share some aspects of their culture. For example, he was aware that the difference in our ages made it unlikely an attraction would arise spontaneously between us, and assured me he would never accept a marriage in which the husband and wife didn’t love each other.

‘But you will love me, I’m sure of that. Because you are destined to become my wife, it is the Lord’s desire. I knew this from the moment I set eyes on you. You won’t remember,’ he confessed one day before my look of astonishment, ‘but I met you when you were still a little girl. It happened in the winter of 1997. I had gone to visit your father when he was mayor of Qhissa Hanni. At that time, some colleagues and I were trying to create a coalition of mayors against Saddam’s tyranny, and it fell to me to travel to the villages of Lemikush. I was just talking to your father, who proved to be a real patriot and progressive, when you turned up, proudly wielding the marks your schoolteacher had given you that day. At that moment, even though you were still only very small, I can say I saw something special in you, a kind of glow, which moved me very deeply. From that moment on, I kept up my friendship with your father, which led to us becoming partners. One day, Dimas, who didn’t approve of the amorous anarchy of my bachelorhood, offered me your hand. I was reminded of the emotion I had felt when I saw you as a girl and understood this to be a sign from Allah that showed I was to take you as my wife. This is how things are, Amrah. You’re surprised, am I right? The Lord’s ways are intricate, but they always lead to the right place. Blessed be his name.’

I said I didn’t believe the tradition of arranged marriages was very much in line with the European education he claimed to have received, to which he responded that, while he greatly admired their culture, he wasn’t European, he was Iraqi and Muslim, and one of our customs afforded him the opportunity to try to make his betrothed love him and wish to be the mother of his children. On the other hand, he added, it didn’t do to think only about love, since, while the soul’s health was important, so was the health of the body, and for a woman in Kirkuk few destinies could rival that of becoming the wife of the president of Al-Minah, a governing judge and quite possibly future governor of At-Tamim.

When we started meeting up, since there didn’t seem to be any motives for me to hate him outright, I readily agreed to his suggestion that we endeavour to get to know one another and allow space for love to flourish. I was convinced this would never happen and, given that the date of the wedding still seemed an age away, relied on having enough time to clarify my ideas and persuade my parents to renege on the engagement.

But, as time went by and the inauspicious day drew ever closer, there began to grow in me a feeling of terror that overwhelmed me and embittered my existence. My repeated attempts to get Dimas Ber to break off the engagement had ended in failure – he even threatened to shut me up at home for the rest of my youth if I refused to obey him. It was frustrating to have to admit that this situation, which might be considered normal in other Muslim countries, would never have occurred in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, since the rights of parents over their children didn’t encompass such obligations. But the rise of Shiites in the government of Baghdad had given parents new prerogatives, such as disposing of my life as they saw fit.

I have to say that my refusal counted on the firm support of my two younger sisters, Nadjia and Saali, who thought Jemaa far too old for me, and I was also backed up by my older brother, Eddar, although he wasn’t quite so forthright as they were.

‘He’s just a selfish so-and-so,’ roared Nadjia, ‘he can’t fool me with that charming expression.’

Eddar, in need of stronger arguments that didn’t go against the education he had received, admitted our family’s generous financial situation should by rights allow us girls to live without such ties, but nonetheless he believed it was the head of the family’s decision that should prevail.

More courageous had been my mother, who, after a period during which she agreed with all her husband’s decisions, when their relationship started to deteriorate, suggested more than once the need to revise this agreement in view of the fact I showed not the slightest desire to proceed with it.

This led to one of the most violent altercations they ever had, in which Dimas Ber even threatened to hit her. The argument began when Jemaa communicated his wish that I should give up all idea of attending university; once I was married, I should devote all my attention to husband and hearth. I remained quiet before him, but back at home let my feelings be known.

‘My daughter,’ protested my father, ‘what do you need a degree for if, with the life that awaits you, you’re never going to have to work? You’ll live like a sultana, with your own palace, your own servants, your own cars, jewels, credit cards that never run out. Come, let us forget all about studying for a degree. That is for unfortunate people who have no other way of earning their daily bread.’

‘But it’s my great passion,’ I confessed. ‘I want to be an architect and am making a real effort to get into university. Nobody ever told me I wouldn’t be able to do a degree.’

‘There’s no way back. Your future husband has taken a decision, and you must respect it.’

At this point, Taghrid intervened on my behalf, as had become usual:

‘I think Amrah’s right. She’s a very good student, and I’d like her to get a university qualification. It would be an honour for us, who come from modest families. You should do your best to persuade Jemaa to change his mind.’

‘I said a decision had been reached. As for you, woman, don’t meddle in my affairs.’

‘Dimas, our daughter is not your affair, she is both of ours. And her own person – she is grown up by now.’

‘I’m warning you, I will mark your face with this belt if you keep on insisting.’

After my mother’s departure, I was left without her crucial support and could rely only on my own determination and an extreme hatred for my father, which increased daily. But this wasn’t enough to prevent what was happening – I would need a more consistent argument that allowed me to escape such an absurd destiny.

At this point, I went looking for Khaled. My friend’s company and raising horses suddenly struck me as a much more attractive prospect than all the wealth and privileges of Kirkuk. I still loved him, despite the various distances that had pushed us apart, and fully expected him still to love me. Although I felt ashamed at having refused to go with him when he came to fetch me, I was convinced he would open his arms and allow me to remain at his side.

But it wasn’t so easy to find Khaled. He was sure the Americans would look for him, because he’d dared to stand up to their sophisticated army, and had done his best not to leave any traces among his acquaintances. I imagined only his immediate relations, his mother-in-law and his cousin Eimel, would know his whereabouts. So, taking advantage of a trip my father made to Qhissa Hanni to sell off his remaining land there and distance himself from his rural past, I visited the family home. I felt sad to see his grandfather, venerable Hadras, slumped on a bench at the entrance to his house and almost blind. What with those who had died from bullets and disease, his family had shrunk during the war – the only ones left were Hadras and a hard-working Zulaid, Khaled’s mother-in-law, who was raising by herself the son her husband had deposited in her womb shortly before he was killed. Zulaid assured me she had no idea as to Khaled’s whereabouts, so I went to visit Eimel, now a tall, but still innocent young man. The first thing he told me was that he was in dealings with the old village tavern-keeper to take over his business in exchange for a monthly rent, so he could fulfil his life’s dream, which was to serve the local farmers their drinks and teas, and while away the hours playing cards under the tamarinds and gazing at the peaks of Lemikush.

Eimel tried hard not to tell me anything about Khaled, but I could see he knew something because, at the same time, he felt an irrepressible urge to confide in me.

‘Khaled doesn’t wish to see you. He’s deeply saddened. All you’re going to do is hurt him.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘He knows you’re getting married. He’s known ever since you left Qhissa Hanni.’

‘It isn’t my will.’

‘He knows that too, but that doesn’t change anything. I think you should keep away from him, he’s trying to rebuild his life.’

‘I’d like him to say that to me himself.’

‘If I tell you where he is, he’ll never forgive me. I love my cousin, I couldn’t do that to him. Why don’t you just try to forget him? Your relationship is doomed, let it lie.’

Within the context of our youthful playfulness, Eimel had loved me as well. It hadn’t lasted long, though, once he discovered Khaled’s own feelings.

‘You liked me too, didn’t you, Eimel? You never said anything.’

‘Eh? What’s that? It’s not true, I…’

‘We women know these things.’

‘Everybody liked you, you were very pretty.’

‘Really?’

‘Though you were a bit conceited. Far too conceited. And far too big for your boots. Women should conduct themselves more modestly.’

‘I don’t want to marry Jemaa Lefta, I wish I didn’t have to. Eimel, please understand. I don’t wish to hurt Khaled. I want him to know I still love him and, if he loves me as well, then I’m prepared to run off with him.’

‘Khaled’s been running for years. From his enemies, from you…’

In the end, he told me. Khaled ben Sayiam had changed his name to Sarif al-Awal ben Gaisha. He had obtained false documents and retired to live a modest farming life on the outskirts of Maskiwa, at a distance of about forty kilometres from Kirkuk. He hadn’t gone far, and I surmised he’d done this to be close to me, in case I ever changed my mind and went looking for him. This gave me confidence.

Back in Kirkuk, I got behind the steering wheel of the Mercedes sports car my father sometimes lent me and headed straight to Maskiwa.

My re-encounter with Khaled was highly emotional, so much so that we could barely say any words of greeting. He opened the gate so I could park the car and led me into his house. Inside, in the warmth of a fire burning in the open fireplace, we gazed at each other for a long while.

My friend had changed. If the adventure of crossing a country at war at the age of fifteen, with only a couple of things in his bag, and the obstacles he had to pass, the fears, emotions, horrors and possibly also enjoyments, had hardened his character, now the need to confront life without the slightest help, together with the changes to his body that came from reaching adulthood, had turned him into a full-grown, strong, confident young man, still very handsome, with those deep eyes and curly locks under his turban. Perhaps the only thing that hadn’t changed was the kindness in his expression and his charming, ever-ready smile.

Words came back to us finally.

‘Amrah, what are you doing here? How did you get here? Why…?’

‘Always asking questions. You haven’t changed, Khaled, my dear Khaled.’

‘I’m glad you came, Amrah.’

‘It wasn’t so easy to find you.’

‘It wasn’t so easy to let you go.’

‘Oh, really? I kind of had the impression you were waiting for me to arrive.’

‘I’m in touch with Eimel from time to time by mobile phone. I may be poor, but I have a mobile phone. He told me you were coming. I never thought you’d get him to give you my address.’

‘It was hard. He’s more your friend than mine.’

‘Amrah, do you have your fiancé’s permission to talk to me?’

There was a hint of bitterness in his voice. Such irony was not in keeping with his character.

‘I see you’ve achieved your dream. Your horse farm.’

‘Not yet, I only have seven mares and two stallions. Between November and February, four colts are due to be born. It was tricky getting started, I had to work as a day labourer just to get the money.’

‘Do you still have Ahu al-Rih?’

‘Of course, he’s my own personal mount.’

‘One day, you wrote you’d come looking for me on Ahu al-Rih and would take me far away, “where the mountain meets the sea and there are beaches of golden sand and the freedom to walk on them.”’

‘I was young. And in love.’

‘Are you not anymore?’

‘I’m not so young.’

‘Liar.’

‘Besides… I met this girl. She lives nearby, her parents grow maize and vegetables. We go out together, I visit her house, go to the tavern with her brothers. Once my business affairs are more settled, we’ll get married. I love her.’

‘Really? What’s her name?’

‘…’

I watched him closely. He turned away. I mused:

‘You’re lying, Khaled, you don’t have to stay away from me, I…’

‘You’d better leave, please. It would be best for both of us.’

‘Don’t say that. I came to ask your forgiveness. I want to stay with you forever.’

‘Please…’

I put my arms around him. We were sitting on cushions on blankets in front of the fire, the only furniture in that country house. Khaled’s resistance crumbled and turned into a passionate embrace that drew me closer and closer to his heart. Our clothes fell to the floor as our bodies intertwined and staggered under the weight of caresses, kisses, beautiful words born of love and desire.

We slept in the same place, on the red marks that had stained the cushions and blankets, embracing like a single being.

When I awoke, Khaled was no longer by my side. I found him in the stables, feeding the animals. I went up to him and embraced him from behind. He turned around, pushed me away softly but firmly and said:

‘Her name is Dunia Wahhab, she is seventeen, she’s a hairdresser in Maskiwa. We have already slept together. I will marry her.’

I felt bewildered. He didn’t appear to be lying anymore, but it wasn’t this that bothered me, it was the cold air he had adopted. He didn’t seem like the same Khaled who had embraced me the night before, next to the fire.

‘Do you want me to leave?’

‘You must leave. We made a mistake, now you won’t be a virgin when you get married, and that could have fatal consequences for you. Please forgive me.’

‘Forgive you? Is that all you can say?’

‘You have ways of getting around that. Your father has money, he can make you a virgin again.’

‘Khaled, why are you doing this? I thought you loved me.’

‘I do, but that doesn’t change anything. Please leave straightaway.’

He accompanied me to the car. He had his hand on my back and guided me with the same mixture of courtesy and steadfastness he had shown ever since our cruel awakening. I tried to work out why he was pushing me out of his life, why, after he’d admitted he still loved me, after we’d shared such intimate moments, the likes of which neither of us would ever experience again, he was throwing me out. In a sense, I thought I could understand him. Khaled did not believe we had a future together. The problems before us were so large and yet so different, in such a hostile world, there was no chance of finding a paradise where we could shelter from the onslaughts. Perhaps, on our own, we could – or at least we could pretend we had attained a degree of happiness. He was pushing me out of his life because he felt this was the best way to show me his love.

Assalam alaykum, Khaled.’

Alaykum assalam, Amrah.’

As I drove along the dirt track, I tried to catch a glimpse of him in the rear-view mirror, but his figure was lost in the lines of poplars, and his kisses and smile were swallowed up by the chaos of my contradictory thoughts.

 

Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    FLOWER OF SAND by Manuel Lourenzo González, the twelfth title in the series Galician Wave devoted to the best of Galician young adult fiction in English, is available for purchase through your local or online bookshop

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-075-5

    Publication Date: 19 October 2017

    Language: English

    Paperback: 272 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm