Written by Cairo-based writer and photographer Youssef Rakha, this is the third of six fictional short stories we will be publishing as part of our inaugural fiction series. While diverse in both content and style, these narratives share an interest in the ‘fate’ of the Middle East, and use fiction to make conceivable seemingly farfetched and unachievable possibilities for its tomorrow. We hope that their imaginings might spark a very real debate about what kinds of future Middle Easts are desirable and attainable. Youssef Rakha’s story is illustrated by the talented Beirut-based Jana Traboulsi.
When the bomb-scarred man started undressing, I hadn’t had time to reflect on ending up alone in a shelter pod with him. It occurs to me now that it should’ve disturbed me: a mutant undressing for no apparent reason in what was, after all, a public space. Perhaps the shock of being caught in the cross-radiation overshadowed the incongruity of the scene. Perhaps the air-base city of Ibra, the capital of Dun, seemed like a place where even stranger things could happen.
I remember thinking there would be no way out of the pod until who knew when but that my communication chip was connected and that I was safe for now. I remember thinking I should’ve heeded the warning not to travel here, even if it was only for an hour. I remember thinking I was lucky not to belong in this part of the world.
The battle had broken out while I was in transit, knowing nothing of Dun: who the Qafs were and who the Nids, for example, or why Ibra felt so desolate compared to other ports of call. Reluctant to be alone anyway, I resigned myself to the company of this hobbling creature. Casually I asked what was going on. It was then that he stood up and took off his shoes as if in response to my question, beginning the laborious strip show and talking at the same time. I saw heavy socks, then it was too dark, and already he was taking off his pants. All I could think of was that his accent reminded me of somewhere, though where I could not tell.
I started wondering whether you could be this thin and stay alive.
He undressed very slowly as he kept up the talking. Layer after layer of fabric came off his legs, then his torso. Every time I thought I would finally see skin, there was still more fabric. I started wondering whether you could be this thin and stay alive. He never stopped. He bent over and straightened up in turn to peel his hides, and even when he raised a tunic over his head, its neck chafing his mouth, he would go on talking.
In all this time his voice remained level: a hardy wheeze above the muffled nuking and shrieking outside. He had positioned himself so that the light fell on his stomach, and in the surrounding dimness I could not make out his face. I had noticed it was too disfigured to show expression anyway, but at times, listening, I was still moved to look.
When the oil dried — he said, and it became gradually clear that the tale he was telling unfolded over decades, not years — the Qafic tribes that had prospered on the toil of Nidic drudges broke up and became lone operators. Once the idle keepers of the land’s uncontested faith, which even then was an offensive set of anachronisms, they were now a minor sect with a reputation for undeserved privilege, hounded by the rising fanaticism of the Nidic mob.
Democracy stripped them of political and economic as well as religious ascendency, and they initially presided over the nascent crime scene as robbers, embezzlers, pimps, and assassins, mastering the surgical trades for which they became notorious only later.
The Qafs took to speaking and dressing like their former vassals to blend in. When there was no more money in the land to keep the prostitution mafias in business, they embraced neo-revolutionary sexuality. They did so not as a gesture of defiance, the way some of them had done in the past, but as a matter of expediency. They were in a true urban environment at last, but it seemed as though all that had passed in the Oil Age was a brief reverie.
Unreal history: as of the time the first Nidic Congress of Dun was elected, when the term “The Qafic Problem” first came into usage, only insane Qafs took any pride in their allegedly noble lineage. For too long they had lived by the sweat of their brow, and they knew by now what cities were about: solitude, danger, want, and the interminable struggle to keep out the encroaching desert.
Much as they tried not to, the Qafs remembered the days when they used to dive for pearls out of straw huts in tiny fishing villages on the shore. The memory was many generations old but it pained them so badly it drove many of them into penitentiary and psychiatric confinement. They were homesick. It registered as a searing shortness of breath with olfactory illusions of the sea and spasmodic undulations of the pelvis, a symptom cluster so unique that the Global Council medical team brought over to investigate thought they had discovered a brand-new mind-and-body disorder. NMS, they named it: Nostalgic Maritime Syndrome.
The Qafs were homesick not for the futuristic Babylon that they had made the Nids build for them — after all, that was still there even if they no longer had charge of it — but for the sand and the foam and the jerrybuilt sailboats they had called ships, for the wriggling abandon with which the legs of a face-covered virgin parted for her lover in a derelict tent, the gentle sway of treading rock on camel back, the taste of tea brewed on the fire in a palm forest, the joyful green of the rare river valley, fresh-picked mangoes, and the sound of prehistoric reed flutes accompanying ballads in the old tongue.
The fact that they had never perceived those things did not make their yearning for them unreal, just as their awareness of being different did not make them any less eager to seem the same. They wanted to be among the Nids or at worst among others who were neither Qafs nor Nids but had long since become sovereign inhabitants of Dun.
The Qafs were homesick not for the futuristic Babylon that they had made the Nids build for them — after all, that was still there even if they no longer had charge of it — but for the sand and the foam and the jerrybuilt sailboats they had called ships…
By then there were far fewer Qafs, and the more they dissolved into the Dunian ocean the more those who remained self-consciously Qafic grew isolated and distinct. Before long the Nids stopped calling themselves by their original name. The government and the media and even the Global Council discouraged the use of the word in favour of Dunian, and for a long time there was no reason even True Qafs, as the pure bloods now referred to themselves, couldn’t become Dunian in the fullest sense.
They were not particularly oppressed, but their being poor and on the wrong side of the law made them paranoid, and their sense of predestined doom prevented them from seeking a more comfortable place in society. Gradually ghettos formed, and it was in them that the Prophecy of the Renaissance first spread. The Qafs would rise again, prophets whose grandfathers had been body-part smugglers declared. True Qafs and good Dunians must unite to resist the Nidic Conspiracy by force of arms and prayer.
At first the Nids didn’t take it to heart. Left-wing Nids even sympathised with the Prophecy of the Renaissance, allying themselves with seemingly moderate representatives of Qafic rights in the political sphere. Before too long, however, the death toll from Prophecy attacks on public, then private property began to look terrifying. Whole neighbourhoods of Ibra were wiped out.
Many prophets were incarcerated, but the police work this involved hit millions of innocent Dunians, Congress statements recalled the Nidic fanaticism of a bygone age, and in time large-scale protests against the cruelty and imperiousness of the Congress broke out. They were suppressed so brutally that Dunian dissidents unallied with the Qafs too bore arms, unwittingly bolstering up the Prophecy and bringing the Global Council into the affairs of Dun.
That was only three years ago. While expressing their support for Dunian unity and peace, Global Council countries that had watched the Nidic takeover of Dun with trepidation many lifetimes before saw an opportunity to right what they still saw as a historical wrong, and in a matter of months the prophets and the militants were provided with arms and manpower.
Through predictable power scuffles, they were set against each other as well as the Congress, and in the ensuing chaos self-consciously Nidic Dunians have set up killing squads too. In fact, I believe the crossfire right was initiated by a Nidic squad. It’ll take a while before the Congress sends in forces to clear the area, but—
Do you see what’s going on?
By then the bomb-scarred man was on his last layer of clothing, finally, as I would discover with a gasp. It was as if he timed things so that the soliloquy and the strip show would end at the same moment.
The light was still turned on his stomach. I remember nodding vigorously in answer to his question, wondering with unexplained terror whether he would go on talking after all, and adjusting my position on the seat several times to look again. I remember him sighing briefly to draw my attention as the last pair of pants hit the floor with a thud, his hands gathering up the last tunic and raising it over his head.
At first I thought it was simply too dark, but the closer I looked the more real it became. I got up and fiddled frantically with the light. I walked up to him and switched on the fluorescent flash in my wallet. I squinted, I peered, and I gasped only when it was no longer doubtful that what I saw when the pants came down was what there was to see.
Below the clothed parts of the bomb-scarred man’s body there was nothing
Below the clothed parts of the bomb-scarred man’s body there was nothing. Through the temperature-controlled air of the pod rose a single, upright pole with a wheel at its lower end and two discs. On the higher disk rested the head, surgically attached to a complex system of wiring that spread out of the pole and connected it to the lower disc where the light gleamed on what I took to be the battery powered control device with a disposable oxygen tank.
By moving his lips as he talked, the bomb-scarred man could manipulate the wires to hold up the clothes and mimic the movement of limbs.
None of this is holographic, he was saying. It is Qafic craftsmanship. I’m real alright, a real true Qaf of mighty Dun. All that is left of me is the head.