Syria

Mikhail Nuaymeh's
Dignitaries
أكابر

ميخائيل نعيمة

(1988 ~ 1889)

Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed stayed up to a late hour in the night discussing a very important matter, without reaching an agreement. They have received word that the "mister" is coming tomorrow to divide up the harvest. And so, there is no choice but to prepare him the customary lunch. So what should they prepare? The mister's deceased father was illiterate, like them; his clothes, habits, and words were simple. And when he used to come at the end of each summer to divide up the harvest, he refused to sit anywhere but on the ground, under the big oak tree next to the granary, where Omm-Rasheed used to bring lunch served on a straw tray. As for lunch, no matter how lavish, it did not exceed a few eggs fried with pickled meat and some yogurt, with lots of pita bread and a little bit of onion and cucumber, and some honey if available.

But the mister's father had passed away the previous winter, and as he passed, so did his vast properties; passed onto his son. And with property come partners, among them was Abu-Rasheed, who was the closest and dearest to the mister's father.

As for the "mister," he was a lawyer living the life of big shots in the capital, and so was his wife, of the upper class, and they had one daughter as old as Rasheed – in her seventh spring. And surely, the mister won't visit them by himself. His wife, daughter, maid, and driver will accompany him. So what would be the most appropriate way for Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed to receive them?

And where in their tent, made of tree trunks and branches, would they have them sit? Should they have them sit on cushions? Or should they stretch out their mattresses for them to sit on? And what food and beverage would they serve them? And how would they serve the food and beverage? They are fancy people; they only eat with forks and knives and in china plates, and none of that is at Abu and Omm-Rasheed's, not even a table. All what they have of such utensils are some metal plates, a ceramic pitcher, some wooden spoons, and a pallet.

Those were the things that worried Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed's anxious minds that night. Whenever they reached an agreement, new obstacles and problems appeared. This is how they agreed, at first, to slaughter their spoiled little goat which had not yet reached the age of weaning. Then as soon as their son, Rasheed, heard that, he lost his mind and began to cry, beating and trampling himself on the ground like someone possessed by a demon; for the little goat was the dearest thing to him in the whole world. The result was to spare the little goat and use the rooster in its stead. Abu- and Omm-Rasheed did not have any birds but three hens and that rooster. And here, too, Rasheed went into a frenzy of crying, moaning, clothe-tearing, coughing, and sharp pain, so his parents feared for his life. Rasheed used to love his red rooster, and to feed him off his hand and often carried him on his shoulders, cherishing his beauty, strength, and melodious voice, especially the sweet sound at the end of his cooing. Thus, his parents cancelled the plan to kill the rooster. Their son fell asleep after he had wet his pillow with his tears. Finally they agreed to slaughter one of their three hens.

And as the couple reached this conclusion, Omm-Rasheed sighed and said with a great flame in her chest:

My son! He slept with a choked up throat, a choke up that will return when he wakes up in the morning to see that we have slaughtered one of the three hens, for he loves all of them.

Abu-Rasheed replied:

He will cry a little then forget her. What can we do? You want the mister to come here for the first time and we don't do our duty towards him?

Leave him out of this. Each drop of tear from my son's eye is equal to all what that man owns! Did you forget that we have buried three of his brothers and we have no one else but him? And that there is no hope in birthing another after him? To me, his finger nail is worth the whole world.

Woman, don't forget that we are partners, and that we owe the landlord three thousand piasters. It is very worthwhile to receive him and host him very well. If we knew that he would be gentle with us like his father was it would have been much easier, but we do not know his inner thoughts.

May his father rest in peace. He never even asked us for interest.

Yes, may God's mercy be bestowed on his bones. He was a sweet heart. But times change quickly, woman. And so with time as with men. We do not know what our fortune would be with the son.

My heart tells me it won't be a good fortune.

And in the early morning, Um Rasheed got busy looking good, cleaning her tent, and preparing lunch for her guests. It was not easy for her to calm down her son's terror after he had got up from bed and saw the hen's blood and its plucked feathers near the tent! As for Abu-Rasheed, he shaved his beard and wore his best pants, then took off to the granary and swept it with his pitchfork, then sifted the unsifted wheat grains and placed them on the already-existing pile in the middle of the granary. He then walked around the pile with sorrow-filled heart, because it is not even half the size it was the previous season. The sky's rain was miserly when it was needed, then was generous when it wasn't. That was drought, not to mention the massive amount of weeds among the wheat. All this was proof that his days with the "mister" will not be as blissful as the days with the mister's father, for a book's contents are known by its title.

Abu-Rasheed then grabbed a handful of grains and began to count them one by one, saying to himself: "if the number comes out even then we're staying on this land, and the mister won't ask me for the interest. And if the number comes out odd then he would ask me to pay the interest, and if I can't pay it he'll expel me and get a new partner in my place." And the number came out odd, which led Abu-Rasheed to become extremely anxious, but then he quickly reprimanded himself for his anxiety, and began to entertain himself with singing.

Abu-Rasheed returned to the tent to find his wife exhausted in arranging the metal plates and wooden spoons on the pallet. She had already spread out the cushions around her in a nice geometrical pattern. He found his son playing with the baby goat, whom he called lovingly Afreet, sometimes running after him, other times carrying him over his shoulders, and yet other times grabbing its front legs as they whirled together like it was the best of artful dance. Then the boy would let go of the small goat and call onto the rooster, whom he had named Sultan, and Sultan runs over to him at once. The boy would bring him some grains which he eats off of his hand, or even from between his lips. Then Rasheed would throw him up in the air which leads the rooster to aggressively flap its wings, before it lands on his head or shoulder, unleashing its marvelous voice so loud and so far-reaching. The boy then would hold him in his hands and land a kiss on each one of his eyes then let him go free, and the boy's face would be overflowing with happiness.

The clock approaches two, and Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed have almost given up hope on their guests ever arriving.

And suddenly the roaring of a car engine came from a distance. Minutes later, the car stopped on the main road at a stone's throw from the tent, then a man, a woman, a maid, and a little girl stepped out of the car and began walking towards the tent. Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed hurried up to meet them, both shouting from afar:

Welcome! A thousand welcomes! Greetings to the mister and his missus, and the little bride!

Once they reached the guests, Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed overwhelmed the hands of the mister and his missus with kisses, and they tried to kiss the mister's little daughter, but she would run away and hide behind the maid in fear. As for Rasheed, he didn't care the least about the guests, and continued to play with Afreet for sometime, then with Sultan, back and forth.

When the posse reached the tent, after a great deal of trouble and disgruntling from the mister's wife, with continuous apologies from Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed, the latter stood by the door, bent forward and rubbing her hands anxiously, saying in a wavering voice:

Come on in... come on in... How ashamed we are... please forgive us. There is nothing here worthy of your status. "A small house fits a thousand friends." Come on in, please.

The mister's wife turned to her and said with obvious contempt:

Come in where? Where is the house?

Omm-Rasheed choked, then answered with a stammer:

The house, madam? This is the house, madam – this tent you see before you is our summer house in these mountains...

At that point, the mister interrupted their conversation and spoke to his wife in French:

This is how these farmers live in our mountains, in tents like these during the summer, and after they have collected their harvest and planted their seeds for the next season, they retreat to their villages where they spend the winter in simple yet warm and clean huts. The village of these particular partners is about seven miles away from here. We already passed it on our way.

His wife answered him in French:

They live like wolves in the summer, and like bears in the winter. And where does this old hag want us to sit?

Inside the tent.

Inside the tent?! On the ground?! No, dear. I will not risk ruining my dress and my shoes. Do whatever you want, but as for me, entering this tent is absolutely out of the question.

But they have prepared lunch for us, and we are hungry, especially our daughter. And if we don't eat from their food they would consider it a great insult.

Let them consider it however they wish. I am not prepared to eat from their food, and I won't allow my baby, Nunu, to eat from metal plates and with a wooden spoon. What's wrong with you? Did you lose your mind?

I did not lose my mind, but I cannot stab these people in their hearts.

Tell them we have already had our lunch on the way, and don't stay long, for I cannot see a chair I can sit on. Let's get out of here as soon as possible.

And that was what happened. The mister apologized to Abu-Rasheed and Omm-Rasheed, an apology that struck them like thunder. Their tongues got locked, not knowing what to say. Their faces changed so much that they had preferred death over a slap like this. Finally, the mister took Abu-Rasheed aside, far away from everyone else, and reminded him of the debt he owes to his father, and asked him to pay it back with interest for a minimum of five years. Abu-Rasheed's heart cringed, and he began to rub his hands nervously and spoke without knowing what he was saying:

I swear to you, on the graves of my three sons, on your father's grave... may God blind both of my eyes... I did not forget the debt. I will pay it to you, God willing, with interest. But my share this season, this year, is not enough for me and family. And I don't know where to get the money from to even buy our share of wheat...

Figure it out in your own way, Abu-Rasheed. As for my money, it is my right to ask for it.

It is your right... yes sir... your right. But God has not bestowed upon me a season equal to my hard work. Should I fight Him? Should I hurl rocks at Him?

That is your business, Abu-Rasheed, not mine. I will send you my driver tomorrow and he shall divide up the harvest. As for now, we really must go back to the city right away, for we have so many appointments. Please don't mind us.

God forbid... God forbid, sir. We have received from your visit more honor than we deserve. We are not worthy to break bread with, mister.

During all this, Nunu was playing with Rasheed's toys, goat, and rooster. She tried to get closer to Rasheed and his two friends, but he repelled her harshly. And when her dad was getting ready to leave, she looked at her mother and spoke to her in French:

Mama! I want this goat and this rooster.

Her mother answered her:

You shall have whatever you want, Nunu.

Then she ordered Abu-Rasheed to carry the goat and the rooster to the car, and he obeyed in humiliation; his heart was about to explode with rage. At first, Rasheed did not know his father's intention of carrying his two beloved friends to the car on the main road, nor did Omm-Rasheed.

The car roared and took off eating earth and gravel. Abu-Rasheed returned without a goat or a rooster. At that moment Rasheed realized what had happened. He awoke like someone who awakes from a coma, and began to run behind the car's trail with all the power and speed his legs could muster, while screaming like when one screams for his life:

Afreet! Afreet! Sultan! Sultan! ...

The sky was listening to his screams, and the valley was echoing it back.

1956


Translated by Oday Baddar, October 7, 2012.


Syria