An Excerpt from Yaseen Ghaleb’s ’15+’ – ARABLIT & ARABLIT QUARTERLY

For unclear reasons, Egyptian censors halted the distribution of Yassen Ghaleb’s novel 15+; the novel has been sitting in storage since 2020, when it was meant to be launched at that year’s Cairo International Book Fair. The book’s first chapter has since adapted into a theatrical performance held in Helsinki, Finland, titled “Migratory Birds,” with another section of the novel adapted for Finnish radio, set to be broadcast this summer.

An excerpt from 15+

By Yaseen Ghaleb

Translated by the author

Chapter One

A tasteless joke, death.

The doors close with a tuut tuut tuut sound as the last passenger jumps in. The underground train shoots off like an enormous orange arrow, deep into the lower bowels of the city, from Tapiola towards Helsinki. A fiftysomething woman trembling slightly and with short white hair, who looks like a medical cotton swab tainted with an antiseptic, sits across from me. With heavy eyes behind the windows of her glasses, she scans through the free advertisements strewn across the cold orange seats. Everyone sways slightly as the train makes its sharp turn before Lutsari Island. You don’t need the illuminated monitor or the Finnish- and Swedish-speaking automated voice to know that. You can feel the coolness and dampness simultaneously with the sense of a Darwinian fish. The train dips underwater like a sea serpent before emerging as an amphibious salamander, and it resurfaces to touch land again at Roha Lahti. The cotton-haired lady prepares to disembark at the next stop, Kamppi, Helsinki’s vibrating commercial heart. It takes her only two and a half minutes to arrive, and I do what I do every day, with nobody caring or even getting attention: I start the show.

“Good morning, Madam!” I point my voice toward her; she looks at me as if she has only just discovered I am here; she removes her glasses, stares at me like an annoyed hawk, ignores me, and turns her face to the windows that overlook the gloom, but I insist on talking:

“I’ve been dead, deadly dead, for four years, even though I purchase tickets for the subway, breathe, talk, and go to work …”

I sniff at my body like a trained dog and go on talking, oh, … I don’t look like I’m rotting, do I? Am I bothering you? I’m so sorry, but I’m used to talking to someone whenever they sit in front of me on public transportation or even on the wet benches on the street. You don’t want that” bubble of privacy” to be popped open. I know that, but we who come from the East don’t have one at all.

“Joo, Joo,” she repeats with visible agitation and suspicion, then stands up and tries to pass by me to change her seat, avoiding a foreign-looking man speaking incoherent and silly things on this early autumn morning. I follow her to where she sits in the opposite row.

“You don’t believe, do you? I can see it on your face.” I direct my words at her eyes. She stands up, agitated, and hurries toward the doors. With greater agitation, I shout at her and the others:

“You don’t believe; how can you believe when you’re so full of life—human bodies, without a soul—while I am a soul without a body? Hello, why are you backing away from me? I’m not dangerous. I’m too weak to harm a butterfly.”

The passengers murmur in annoyance; one thinks I am crazy, or maybe high, or even a terrorist, while another suggests calling security or the police. Just then, a little girl smiles and whispers to her sister, “This is acting; it’s a hidden camera show,” she searches for the disguised camera crew among the passengers and buries her head inside her phone screen when she doesn’t find any.

“I am a perfectly made hologram, steam off the water of politicians’ and priests’ lies, your lies that you spew from the hole of your arse or mouth. I… I….”

My voice fades as the doors open and fresh air sweeps in, clearing the stifled breaths and smell of cold sweat. The train spews everyone out like undigested food, all at once: old and young, Estonians, Russians, Finns, Bengalis, dark-skinned and fair-skinned, gay and straight, Samsung users and iPhone users, scared and indifferent, racists and humanitarians. I continue my way as usual as if nothing has happened.

I get off at Herttoniemi metro station and walk toward my workplace, a nursing home. Still, I can’t find the building or the surrounding garden—or rather, I can’t find myself. A couple of gusts blow, and I drift away with them on an autumn morning of the sort when winds are used to toying with every yellow leaf that falls from the Tree of Life.

Four months ago…

From a window in a room, half-open so that it resembles the eyes of a relaxed tomcat, the grey daylight creeps in, bringing the scent of moist birch and pine from the backyard. White curtains flutter like torn sails pushed inward by the autumn wind. The calm is pierced by a voice from Nostalgia Radio Station broadcasting Herman’s Hermits “No Milk Today.” The voice comes out crushed, from the lounge at the end of the corridor, which is lined with the rooms of elderly residents at the Herttoniemi Nursing Home, and then it gently fades away. I approach the window and put my hand out, feeling the first drops of rain, rubbing them with my finger like a boy discovering his semen. Water is water, whether from the body or the sky: liquid life.

I see the bus pass by below, on the main street, drawing watery side arcs in the air as it goes through a small puddle formed by the previous night’s rain. With a “sloshing” sound, some cars do the same. It seems beautiful and in harmony with the cars’ lights, which are on, even during the day. Wet birds quarrel on a tree branch; a nearby dog barks, making the birds fly away; the sound of raindrops patter on metal roofs, the colorful umbrellas of passersby, and the asphalt all take me away from the grim atmosphere inside Hannu’s room. He’s lying in a coma on the bed. I sit by his side on a white plastic chair, waiting for the ambulance. Two fresh tulips sit in a vase on the table, which I brought in this morning to give a sense of life to the place, which is now funereal, near a body between life and death. Everything here is dual-purpose, depending on the situation. Casual conversations brush against the open door without entering, accompanied by the sound of the light female heels of Ella Karponen, the kind director, walking back and forth. She seems indifferent as she sips her coffee, sugarless, because of her weight. Perhaps professionalism and repetition of the death scene mitigate the shock of death or eliminate it. My focus is sometimes interrupted by the sound of the nearby lift, its doors opening with a musical “do” tone. Every time this happens, I expect the paramedics to arrive. I can’t stand it anymore. I have more memories with Hannu than with the other residents I care for. The day begins with them leaving their rooms, mostly leaning on wheeled walkers slowly pushed forward, bent over their frames like colorful snails, heading to the dining hall. Some stay in bed due to old age and limited mobility. I care for everyone on the second floor, fifteen rooms facing each other, separated by a corridor carpeted with an oblong blue rug. Potted shade plants have been placed at the entrance near the automatic glass door. The wall is decorated with posters of old Finnish films like “The Unknown Soldier” and other films produced between the 1950s and 1990s—to stimulate a beautiful collective memory, I suppose.

Hannu is still lying there, with his oblong body stretched out like a bed, pale as a dusty cloud; his hands cold and heavy like the atmosphere of the room, which seems grand and solemn with the awe of death, as if it were the interior of a cathedral dome. His fingers twitch with a light, microscopic movement, like the eyelashes of the sleeping; I rub them sadly, perhaps for the last time, to help him live a few more seconds or minutes, knowing it’s futile. Like a transparent artery, a thin tube goes through his nose, connected to an oxygen cylinder near the bed. Another tube, for urination, is inserted into the opening of his penis. I stroke the whiteness of his bald head as he lays with his head tilted, like an infant who has vomited white cream after nursing; one returns to being a fetus in the womb of the cosmic void. Melinda peeks in fearfully. She describes death as a farmer who picks a chicken every day to eat it. Anxious questions dance in her eyes: who is next? Her lips tremble with white saliva surrounded by fine blonde hair.

“I expect him to be cremated in the Espoo Municipal Cremateries. He doesn’t have any family to arrange a grave or to visit him, what a pity” the young staffer Sara notes as she eats her cold pasta with sauce. At the same time, Sinka prays before her wooden cross. The other women do the same, crossing themselves, while Ella, the director, is busy inventorying his room’s contents, which she will close off until another resident arrives.

As I leave the building towards the metro station, the ambulance speeds by with its blue lights flashing splinters of light against the surrounding trees and buildings; its sirens’ cries are shrill, provocative. It seems now more like a hearse than an ambulance rushing to save a patient. A woman crosses the street with her dog; two teenage boys tease and push each other, laughing loudly; a squirrel jumps from tree to tree; the ropes of Finnish flags clap violently against the flagpole; a street-cleaning machine hums; and car horns blare incessantly. I thought that life wouldn’t care about someone’s departure … so it’s wise not to care about it either, not to grieve over one leaving it or rejoice about one staying in it. After turning the corner, the ambulance is beside me; I imagine him smiling at me through the rear window. I silently reply, “Farewell, Hannu”

He was eighty years old, tall and hunched like a crescent moon, bald, with yellowish skin and teeth. When we would sit in the back garden, he would lean on the armrest of a wooden bench and recount his unforgettable memories and oddities to me. I kept up with him, and he knew it, but he continued to unload his visual and auditory archive into my head daily:

“In my first year, I met death. It came disguised in heavy brown Soviet military uniforms to the village in the dead of winter, on New Year’s Eve, between 1939 and 1940. This was in Karelia. They told me the full story later: Teo, Roha, and others. I will introduce them to you one day. I bluffed fate, convinced it I was too young to die. Sisu helped me.”

He stopped his recollections to ask a question: “Do you know what “Sisu “is? Never mind… the important thing is that you meet both of them. They are kind and real, not bound by the lie of logic, Aristotle’s lie, do you know it?”

“Hannu, I don’t understand much of what you say; honestly, I’m not interested in literature and philosophy.”

“Well, you’re still too young to understand all this.” He turned his face to the blueness of the sky.

Yaseen Ghaleb, a prominent Iraqi poet, dramaturg, and novelist, has found his creative home in the vibrant literary scene of Helsinki, Finland. He published his first novel, 15+, in 2020 and a collection of poems, Baghdad Throne, in 2021.

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