The Iron Grasshopper: A Childhood Autobiography – Michigan Quarterly Review

The Iron Grasshopper: A Childhood Autobiography

Ahead of the launch for Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa, a special Spring issue of MQR dedicated to the documentation of political, social, and cultural transformations of the past three decades, MQR Online is featuring additional non-fiction, poetry, and fiction not available in the print issue. We have gathered work here that, as Guest Editor Huda Fakhreddine writes in her introduction to the print issue, confronts the Middle East and North Africa as a bind, one that the writing presented here and in print might “begin to unravel in the mind, by some rearrangement, some association or unexpected juxtaposition, some turn of phrase, some wild metaphor.”

An excerpt from Salim Barakat’s autobiography, “The Irony Grasshopper,” appears here translated from Arabic by Mahmoud Hosny.

Chapter 1: Geometric Violence

We were young, my friend, as young as goslings, standing on the sides of the street like writing lines. And there was a big commotion, a huge commotion. The teachers who were jumping through the lines, waving their sticks like terrified cats, were screaming: “Pay attention, wave your hands when the president passes” … And the president passed, he passed amongst us, waving his hands, then the geometric lines mixed behind the parade, and converted to rolling black blocks, violent in its chaos.

I fell repeatedly, crashed by bodies and legs struggling to get out of that human lake. And when I went home, my face was more like dust than that of a child.

That was the beginning of the violence, my friend, a beginning that extended for two weeks in a small town adjacent to the Taurus Mountains; the beginning of violent official celebration. So, we had to cheer all the time, inside the classrooms and outside. We had to decorate the walls several times, whether there was occasion or not. We had to hang tiny flags on our chests whether there was occasion or not, and we had to paint a mysterious smile on our faces, without a glance to what was in our souls.

The violence of “official” celebration was beyond the endurance of an “unofficial” child. But I had to endure it with overwhelming obedience, and consequently, I too had to become violent, violent beyond the endurance of a child.

That was the beginning of violence, my friend, the beginning which pushed me to steal the colorful chalks from the school and fill the stonewalls of the public garden with the letters of my name and the letters of my pencil brand “H. B.” The two names were my first step in breaking with “public behavior,” the behavior of the “clean ones,” and their public “cleanliness.” But the violence, which I thought was only mine, sneaked into our house since that violent passing of the president, taking gradual manifestations in a family of eleven.

Our house yard, my friend, the yard, which was very large, surrounded by a high fence, was gradually reaching a desolation it hadn’t known before. The guests – both strangers and friends – who used to stop by frequently without a reason, decreased one day after another following the diminishing of our property, and my father became more shrunken and sullen. A silent violence was growing inside him, but it only appeared in the town markets where desperate merchants clash over their bid for grains, and hundreds of fists rise holding steel hooks, and then pummeling, and scattering flesh.

That was the beginning of the violent official celebration, and the beginning of violent public poverty. A beginning that ran from the school to the markets and entered the houses but didn’t leave them.

And I was a child, my friend, I wouldn’t leave home in the morning until my father left so I could get the chance to scream in my mother’s face: “I don’t like tea. I don’t like teeeea.” Then I’d kick the jug to spill it all. I’d throw the cup as hard as I could against the wall and run away to the school. I’d then run away from school to Qasamu swamp to watch the water snakes.

That was my habit every morning, my brothers’ habit too, ever since my father filled the house with ghost-like men carrying steel hooks, mad ghosts, their heads wrapped with scarfs smeared with dry blood.

And the beginning expanded, expanded like circles of water in a pond into which a stone was thrown. The crocks which were placed on wooden stands inside the house started falling one after another, falling and shattering. And new crocks came to fall and shatter. We (the brothers) understood that that was not enough to abate our anger, and so we started throwing stones at the house windows. We’d stay away from the house for a day or two until our mother calmed down. We’d then go back to break a crock or to pull a rose shrub out of its roots and run away again.

And the beginning expanded, the hate expanded, the animosity between us and our mother escalated. We ran away from home a lot, and when one of us fell in her grip, he lost his consciousness. It wasn’t enough for my mother to hit with a stick. She hit with anything she could grasp, stone or steel. And we, the children, bled. Once, I was able to escape from her, my friend, so I ran to a corner in our yard where she kept her rabbits. I took off the metal net around them, and I pummeled them with the sharp circular base of a copper jug. The rabbits floundered, stretching their rear legs and shivering until they were absolutely quiet.

Twelve rabbits were the outcome of this massacre, and twenty days of hanging around our house without a bit of courage to go inside, sleeping among the cotton shrubs in a near field, eating whatever my brothers stole for me.

And the beginning narrowed, became as tight as a halter. The small town adjacent to Taurus Mountains was narrowing. People spoke to each other in a kind of murmuring, and my father looked older. Only the carriers, to whom my father, in his glory days, gave generously out of his supplies of wheat, stood by him. They were ignorant and violent in their striving for food. They said: “Whatever… There will never be a deal without a portion for you.” They even threatened the truck drivers. But eventually, only the government controlled how everything was sold. And the carriers turned on each other, each of them on his own, each of them snatching food out of the other’s mouth by the hook.

We, the children, were seeing all of that, sharing the violence, snatching it as we snatch dirty sweets from dirty hands. Our kingdom is the farthest from heaven, our kingdom is of dust, joy of swimming in Qasamu swamp, or running through the wheat stalks leaving them ruined behind us. We competed in snipping stray hens in the fields with our slingshots: The hens floundered and fell, ran and fell. They struggled to stretch their wings that were stuck to the ground. They opened their beaks, full of dust, and then they were still.

We were children, my friend, children who loved describing animals in their slow death. We loved putting lottery papers up our noses until we bled. We took pride in who bled the most, who had more bruises, or whose face or hand wounds were deeper. How many times we stood at night under the pale light of streetlamps waiting for the vegetables or watermelon carts to arrive in the town market from the nearby villages and fields. We hid waiting until we heard the mule hooves and the screeching of wooden wheels. We hid waiting until they passed us, and behind them we ran barefoot, always carrying small knives or razor blades to cut the ropes and let the loads roll down. We’d carry as much as we could and run away. No one could catch us when we were barefoot. We ate a little of what we stole and threw the rest at each other.

We were young ones, my friend, staying late at night under street lamps; young ones who didn’t think of anything but stealing, snatching, or smashing, who hated school, notebooks, and teachers, who shivered every morning when the headmaster passed by to check nails and hair. We were always afraid, afraid of home, school, and the police. We dreamt of waking up one day to find a wasteland, nothing around but only us.

We were children without a childhood. The adults were proud of our brutality. They liked cruel youngsters and savage men. Athletes captivated us. We looked up to bullies. There was no youngster without a knife in his pocket or a steel chain around his waist. Everyone could make a slingshot of hemp, or a whip from thin electric wires. Everyone was obsessed with collecting copper scraps because they could be sold. Anyone could smash a car to take a copper piece whose price bought a ticket to the cinema.

We liked Kevork because he beat six gunmen by himself. We liked Kanaan because he could enter any cinema theater for free. We liked Shru, the carrier, because he got paid from every grain merchant without carrying a single bag on his back, and he was stubborn and quick to show his dagger. He was imprisoned seventeen times. These were our idols.

…And childhood tightens, the beginning tightens; I began to realize something new that wasn’t on my mind before, violent and outrageous: You are Kurd. Kurds are dangerous. It is forbidden to speak in Kurdish in the school. This is new because you know that three-quarters of the people in the adjacent Taurus Mountains town are Kurds. But here you are getting it: The teachers excessively insult and beat the students. Bedouins, who support any new government, flood into the town, watching everyone. You are a child but not blind. They hate you in advance, but you don’t know why. The teacher hates you. The government employee and the policeman hate you. This is a new condition, so I will be violent, more violent than necessary in the face of this infernal storming.

In contempt, you look at the Bedouin children in the school making fun of their strange haircuts, the blue tattoo that covers their noses, cheeks and hands, and their extreme naivety. But you don’t know why they prefer them to you. Day after another you wait for them at the end of the school day and pick a fight for any reason. The headmaster asks you to bring your father, so your father comes to the school. The headmaster insults him for his foreign accent in Arabic, but your father is violent and has pride. He says to the headmaster: “Who are you to talk to me like that?” The headmaster replies: “The god of your god…” My father leaves in anger, and on the same day, two carriers show up at the headmaster’s house and drag him by his legs into the street. The headmaster complains to the police. The policemen come to our house but my father refuses to go with them. The bullies and the relatives gather in overwhelming anger. The matter reaches the district manager, who is major. He arrives in a luxurious car; Husain Agha comes out to him, screaming, “I will trample your cap if you would take this man.” Thus, everything is handled quietly, and quietly the headmaster stops being hostile, but the issue doesn’t end for me. Thus, childhood becomes hell, and so does the beginning, from the moment you waved your small hands to salute the president.

And things accumulate; you become more excessive in going to the cotton field at night to collect its green buds that hadn’t bloomed yet. You become more persistent in pulling out cucumber plants and aubergine shrubs, more persistent in climbing rooftops to smash bird nests and break their eggs. You even sneak with a group of your friends and steal the gun from the neighborhood guard who’s always asleep. The gun puzzled you and so you threw it in Jaghjagh River. The guard went to prison for three months while you laughed and made fun of the matter. As for your father, he immersed himself in a new game: Hunting. He shot one bird with a 12mm bullet; the bird was completely torn. You realize that’s not “hunting,” so you begin your own hunt, in the heart of childhood that is not a childhood anymore. You make traps here and there; you hunt birds and starlings. Every time you catch a bird you pluck its feathers and bury it alive. But you madly yearned to catch a chaffinch; it was the only one you never caught. It’s cunning and it doesn’t stay a minute in the same place: The chaffinch was the real challenge, and you swore to boil it alive if you ever caught it.

You were a child without childhood, and the beginning tightens, and with the beginning the snow comes, the snow of the same year in which you raised your arms in a violent salute for the president visit. For five days, you climb the neighbors’ rooftops and block the chimneys of their fireplaces with snow. They chased you sometimes, but you were clever in escaping exactly like your cleverness in making your own ice cream out of mixing snow and grape molasses.

You love snow, you love that overwhelming color that dominates all colors. You love its expansion and the expansion of your footsteps on it. But snow complicates things a little bit, because when you go home with your shoes full of snow and your socks wet, you try to trick your mother by putting the socks directly on the heater. But after only a few minutes you find them burning. And here, also, you run away from the house in fear of punishment. You run to the cold snow shivering and shivering and shivering until the color of your skin becomes engorged blue. You curse the snow and love it. You curse home and don’t love it. You hit your brothers because in their play they mess up the smooth surface of the snow in the house yard. Eventually, you shrink in a corner, deeply sad, and when you can’t find a reason for your sadness, you go back into the house in surrender; the hands grab you there and out of the nose you bleed, you, the child.

You get a little quieter. Your eyes are reddish. You think of doing something, something furious and destructive. You approach the heater opening the oil tap all the way. The heater becomes hotter and redder like the head of your father’s cigarette. In that moment, you wish that the heat would go up and the heater would explode and burn down the house, but nothing happens, rather it is you who is exploding; your childhood explodes into mud and naked dead birds, your childhood explodes into steel hooks, knives, broken crocks, blood-stained clothes, traps, guns and red watermelons smashed on pavements.

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