The confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates is called the Shatt al-Arab. On its banks, during a warm March day in 1950, Jamila bore her first and only son on a stinky carpet stained with blood and piss. The amniotic sac that enveloped him ruptured suddenly, bursting forth like a great expectoration that struck the midwife’s face, who then requested extra payment for enduring this filth. Stowed firmly away in the darkness of the womb, a caul of death hung over the child. A savvy midwife knows what to do in these cases, and she jerked him out at the proper moment, with the force one uses when pulling the rubber tread off a car tire. Then she reached for a knife, dirty from gutting fish, like Grenouille’s mother, and she severed the umbilical cord attached to the placenta. The midwife lifted him by the arches of his feet, presenting him like a sacrificial offering, stroking the nape of his neck until his blue colouring receded and he gave his first cry. It resembled a small raven’s cawing, one accustomed to spreading misfortune and bad news.
Jamila’s husband, Mansour, had been missing for six months. Signs of grief still lingered on their clay house, which was located in a small village shaded by a forest of date palms and riven with small streams branching out from the riverbanks of the city of Basra. The surrounding area was covered in small buckthorn trees and their round, hard fruits, starting to ripen and turn yellow, as well as plots of land raising different cultivars of fruits and vegetables. Outside the house, the cooing of turtle doves signalled the death of their chicks among the palm fronds and likewise Jamila started jabbering and hurling profanities at the infant newborn. “Get it away!” she screamed as if Satan had possessed her. “Get it away from me, I don’t want it!”
Elsewhere, Hamid, brother of Mansour and the child’s uncle, was in his fishing boat throwing nets into the still waters of the Shatt al-Arab, when someone told him of his newborn nephew. He ran through a thicket as a shortcut through to the house where Jamila was still in postpartum pain and cursing at her infant child. As he arrived, she asked that the child be thrown into the river. “Raven, raven!” she called the baby, blaming him for the disappearance of her husband.
The clay room had a roof of date palm trunks supporting a layer of reed thatch. When Hamid came in, the stench of labour and other fluids assaulted his senses. He was anxious and on the verge of leaving outright but steeled himself at the final moment. Hamid found his own mother there, a portly woman in her sixties, carrying her grandson wrapped in swaddling, and rocking him back and forth to quiet him. His queer cawing stopped when Hamid stretched out his hands imploringly, and his mother handed him over. He handled him with overwrought carefulness, as if he were afraid of crushing the baby. Then he saw the black birthmark on his cheek.
“We will take him with us,” he said to his old mother, who nodded in agreement.
He turned to face Jamila whose moans were abating. She was spread out on the mattress and averted her face as her husband’s brother approached her, so as not to see the raven he was carrying. “Just take it away,” she said, “and do not return until you’ve killed it!”
Hamid was about to say that the child was innocent and had only come into the world at this time by chance. He refrained, given Jamila’s obvious ill will. Then the small baby became tranquil, finding affection in the bosom of his uncle in lieu of Jamila’s, who was tormented by the disappearance of her husband. She had threatened to kill the baby and probably would actually have done so, if not deliberately, then through negligence.
Hamid took his nephew back home with him, his own mother weeping for the bad luck that had befallen her grandson, and said, “We will take care of him until she comes back to her senses.” She told her son he had to be breastfed, lest he die of hunger, so a recently widowed woman, still suckling her last baby not older than eight months, started that day. Hamid paid her with a little of the money he made fishing every week. He gave the baby the temporary name of “Shafiq,” until Jamila decided to join them and name him herself. But Shafiq ended up carrying this name his whole life, since Jamila did not want to reclaim him and then drowned six months after his birth.
For eight years, Shafiq thrived in the village at the side of his uncle and grandmother. After the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, Hamid moved to Basra to work for the Port Authority. He was entitled to a small house, not far from the Authority’s sports club, for his small family consisting of his mother and nephew. In that time Shafiq grew well, suffering from no health problems. Quite the opposite, in that he was frequently active and full of vitality, relishing that sense of elite athleticism that would one day make him a national hero.
The black birthmark on his right cheek also changed, though it always looked like something that had fallen from a basket of produce. At first, it looked like a carrot, then later a cucumber. Its third form looked like a corn kernel. Finally, at the age of eighteen it settled into the shape of a banana, like one that had been left in the freezer until it blackened. A strange, almost beastly, fur grew on the birthmark, which at first frustrated and upset Shafiq. He went so far as to try and peel it off. However, once the birthmark stopped growing, he came to accept the presence of this blot on his face, a feature he had no control over, like a dimple on the chin.
Shafiq’s father, the disappeared Mansour, had been a proponent of the theory of evolution in the last years of his life. This was the same theory Karl Marx himself had celebrated when Friedrich Engels brought him a newspaper with an account of it, which later became one basis from which his sociological and economic theories were wrought. Mansour was an erudite leftist who wanted the Central Committee of the Communist Party to take advantage of those of their membership who were teachers in rural schools to educate farmers and villagers and win them over with the motto “Workers and peasants of the Arab world, unite!” penned by one Iraq’s premiere communist activists, Fahd. Placed on a shanty overlooking the river, this would instil in them the objectives of proletarian internationalism: “Eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours refinement.”
By declaring publicly that monkeys and humans had a common ancestor, Mansour was so bold as to be reckless. He would say this in front of detractors in the village, who were of a devout nature. They, in turn, would espouse the religious idea of metamorphosis and hope that one day Mansour himself would turn into a monkey. In the presence of the entire village at the mosque, the elder Habibullah assured the congregation this would eventually happen. Whenever he ascended the pulpit at the end of Friday’s prayer, he repeated this threat in a booming voice: “That infidel Darwinist will be transformed into a monkey one day, mark my words!”
Mansour remained unmoved by the elder’s admonitions, or even by the threats of some fundamentalists to kill him over his conviction in this matter. Since reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, he promulgated the idea that monkeys and men had a common ancestor everywhere he went. He provoked such fury that his wife Jamila said she would leave if he did not give up his infatuation. However, this was just a feint and she did not really care one bit about how spreading this insight would reflect on his reputation or bring ridicule from others. She loved him dearly and they had a tale of love that the women in the village still talked about. She would make fun of him in bed saying, “I love you, you monkey.” Mansour would say, “You are the prettiest gorilla in the world.”
When Jamila was three months pregnant, she began to crave bananas of the kind that were grown in Basra at the time, but which were not quite in season. Mansour decided to infiltrate one of the gardens of the landowners, hoping to come across at least one banana in one of the few banana trees there. But to get there, he would first have to traverse a number of buckthorn orchards. Jamila was apprehensive and regretted letting him know about her craving for bananas, especially knowing how stubborn he was. He would never go back on anything he decided on, even if it was better to do nothing and there were negative effects, like the despair of a woman of whose baby is brought into the world with a shameful blot in the shape of something she was craving to eat. Feelings of fear and sadness began overwhelming her the moment he first departed the house to look for a banana, as if she knew that he would never return. Jamila cried as they lay down together for the last time. She focused only on his eyes until her little death and then shuddered in ecstasy.
Mansour did not return that night, or the following day, or in the days after that. He disappeared in one of the buckthorn orchards spread along the right bank of the Shatt al-Arab, where cargo steamers carried goods down to the port of Basra. No one saw him leave. Some thought he had drowned swimming to the opposite side and figured this was more probable a death than from a viper or scorpion bite or from any one of a number of evils said to emerge from underground and snatch men away.
But not a one of these locals bothered to look for him, since Mansour had attributed their origins to animals and told them they were monkeys. It was only his family and relatives who searched the streams, dense gardens, and neighbouring villages for some trace of him, before hopelessness befell them and they had to notify the police of his disappearance. But when that time came, the police could find nothing and concluded that drowning was the only possibility, despite the well-known fact that Mansour was a skilled swimmer.
In this respect, there are two traits which every male in the villages along the Shatt possesses, swimming and climbing date palms. Mansour’s proficiency in the second was no less than the first. There were other scenarios where excellent swimmers could drown. Most likely among them is muscle cramping in the feet, which hinders movement when swimming in deep water. There is also the possibility of vipers or giant tortoises. There are even hungry sharks that infiltrate the estuary of the Shatt on their way to the cooler waters of the Gulf, biting the foot of someone swimming, which leads to them drowning. But there was nothing to indicate that Mansour met his death in such a manner, nor of any possibility of his kidnapping by djinn or water nymphs living in the Shatt. Such creatures only existed in the stories of elderly women who wanted to scare little children on cold nights.
Jamila could not endure the shock of her husband’s disappearance. The stress and pain were worse than if he had died. Her imagination would veer towards the gloomy, the most melancholic scenario, transforming her hope of finding Mansour to one of hoping to find his body. And when there was no body, the search for a name began, a name on a register of those gone missing. And when a name could not even be found on that list, one could bite one’s fingers in mourning, pining for a ghost. But Godot never came and Jamila became intent on freeing herself from the baby, avenging herself and punishing it for the father’s disappearance. She hated and resented it, for it was bad luck and a harbinger of doom that prevented her from ever hoping for her husband’s return.
Once, Jamila flung herself from on high, almost breaking her leg. Another time, she took many pills and drank liquids that burned her guts and made her nauseous. She did all she could to pull the baby out of herself, but could not, as if it had secured itself tightly with ropes in her womb. In despair, she stopped trying. She decided that when she gave birth, she would throw it in the river afterwards, or a well, or leave it in front of the mosque. If forced to, she would hurl it into the nearest rubbish tip as food for the stray dogs. She would have done it in the end if Hamid had not snatched the child away just in time.
Just three days after Shafiq’s birth, six months after the disappearance of his father, farmers started noticing damaged buckthorn trees, branches broken from having been shaken with such great force that piles of buckthorn covered the ground, left to wither and rot or be eaten by worms. The farmers erupted in anger, certain this was a deliberate and cunning act to make them liable to the landowners for negligence. At first, they suspected it was the work of a communist cell Mansour had formed and that was known to meet secretly in one of the ruined gardens. The farmers knew about their particular hatred for the landlords and the strange terms they used, like “the bourgeoisie,” “the proletariat,” “socialism,” “capitalism,” and “Darwinism.” However, they did not finger this cell because some of the farmers’ own children were part of it. They would not do something to harm their parents, knowing that the consequences would fall on the shoulders of their families.
The farmers were determined to discover the perpetrator, so a select group of them began to patrol the orchards armed with sticks and sickles. One moonlit night, they stumbled across the cause of their angst: a large monkey, strong and bad-tempered, jumping from one tree to another, hanging from the branches, and attacking them with pilfered buckthorn pits. This convinced those not as ardent in their opposition to Darwinism that Mansour had, indeed, met a bad end. The elder Habibullah made sure of this, yet again expounding the religious idea of metamorphosis. When the elder ascended the stairs of the pulpit during next Friday’s prayers he announced, with a healthy portion of schadenfreude, the transformation of that wicked communist Darwinist.
He proposed getting rid of that mischievous monkey once and for all, and some zealots among his adherents were prepared to do just that. But Mansour’s tribe intervened before the plan went through, and insisted that he should be captured and imprisoned instead. The farmers tried to catch him, but failed. The accursed Mansour had a cunning ability to deceive and hide. He was also masterful at spitting buckthorn pits as if they had been launched from a gun and not from his mouth. Over time, monkey Mansour was disrupting the farmers’ way of life and increasing the landowners’ losses.
After stripping the buckthorn trees of their fruit, Mansour moved on to the date palms and tore up their flower stalks. Over a few days, every single one of them was destroyed, the ground dusted with their white seeds. At that point, the elder Habibullah secretly decided to assassinate him. He would use a rifle he received 36 years ago in exchange for providing accommodation for a Turkish upholsterer fleeing the battles between the Ottomans and the English. He delegated this act to one of his adherents who was an excellent marksman.
But the same day that the monkey assassination was set to take place, two Indian sailors came to the village looking for their animal, who had run away from their steamer while they were docked on the riverbank opposite the village. Accompanying them was a female monkey who they hoped could lure him back to the boat. Her name was Lucy and she was, they said, his wife.
The elder Habibullah became enraged and tried to carry out his plot regardless. But the farmers preempted him and brought the sailors to where the monkey was. Both of them pushed forward into the orchards with Lucy, who carried some bananas for her husband. The villagers were deafened by her enthusiastic chattering, which sounded like someone impatiently waiting for their husband after a long separation.
Some of the women rushed to Jamila and whispered in her ear about what was happening. And as if she were Lucy herself, Jamila became very besotted by the whole affair. She fumed, tore her dress, and covered her face in despair. Then, wailing and barefoot, she raced towards the orchard. At that time, Lucy had successfully wooed her runaway monkey husband. The two Indians grabbed him, tied him up, and carried him back to the steamer on its way to Basra, where a rich person was to construct a zoo.
Those believing in metamorphosis were distraught, their faces frowning with displeasure. They had come to believe that Mansour really had transformed into a monkey. Mansour, of whom not a trace had been found, probably because he had drowned, or maybe been liquidated by the landowners or by one of the fundamentalists who had previously threatened him, or maybe he had just been preyed upon by a wild beast, though the absence of remains refuted this theory. The days had passed, and the locals had nearly forgotten the entire incident until one farmer claimed to have been assaulted by buckthorn pits in one of the orchards and blamed Mansour for it.
Shafiq reached his second week of life already orphaned, since his mother drowned in the waters of the Shatt. She had tried to catch up to the boat the monkey and his wife Lucy were on. After Mansour’s family relinquished the child, Hamid was obliged to provide for his nephew. He was in the custody of both his unmarried uncle and his grandmother, and was not fated to abandonment. It was not difficult for them to provide for and support the small, orphaned baby. They sustained him with affection, care and overflowing love, but though they tried to protect him from his past, others would not let him forget.
Shafiq was just over four years old when other kids in the street started calling him the son of a monkey. After a year, the name-calling evolved into something more dangerous when they began encircling and taunting him as he entered school. He endured this punishment knowing that his father had been a Darwinist. Although the story of his father’s transformation was disproven, Shafiq was still called names. This pressured his uncle Hamid to migrate to the city and avoid the bitterness of life in a village where most people still believed that Shafiq’s father had metamorphosed into a simian creature.
In the city, little Shafiq found an expansive space to achieve his early dreams of becoming an athlete. He took advantage of the fact that he lived near one of the most well-established sports clubs in Iraq. He started with soccer at ten, then running, then basketball, before ending up wrestling with the national team for more than ten years. Throughout that time, he obtained many accolades. Then he finished his education, graduating from the Institute of Sports Education. Shafiq participated in the army competition while doing his military service. Then he was called up again to fulfil reserve duty at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. When the war ended in 1988, Shafiq was 38 years old, married with three children, and living in the same house that his uncle left to him. Hamid had returned to the village to live out his final days there, after his retirement and the death of his own mother.
After the war, Shafiq worked as a coach for one of the wrestling teams in the city for a short while, before becoming a sports commentator at a local radio station. Finally, he ended up as a presenter for a physical fitness program on the morning television broadcast before he himself vanished. Until that time, he had a graceful body and a blazing intellect and was active, filled with a joie de vivre, which showed in his passionate love for joking and revelry.
He woke up at the sound of the first crowing of the red rooster, which he had gotten especially to wake him up at that early hour. Then he begin his daily morning routine of jogging, lifting weights, acrobatic movements, shaving, and taking a bath. He ate his breakfast which consisted of a slice of brown bread and a cup of fresh buffalo milk that he bought from the cheese sellers at the market. He put on his tracksuit and walked to the television station to record a new episode of his weekly program that was concerned with movement and building healthy bodies, as well as presenting good advice on healthy nutrition for listeners.
Half of every episode focused on the health benefits of proper nutrition, specific fruits, and types of vegetables or nuts. Shafiq would always bring a bag of whatever food he was discussing to share with his colleagues at the station. At the microphone, he told cheesy jokes about nutrition. So after explaining to listeners the benefits of carrots, for example, he would connect them with rabbits, or explain the relationship between walnuts and squirrels and between bears and honey.
Then one day, his wife was struck by an intense craving. She was pregnant with their fourth child. While complaining about morning sickness, she asked for bananas. Shafiq involuntarily scratched the birthmark on his cheek when he heard his wife’s request. It had been a long time since he had put his hand there, and he occasionally forgot there ever was a banana-shaped birthmark on his face. However, once he heard his wife insisting that he bring some bananas to her, he started scratching it as if it were infected by skin mites.
For the past 38 years of his life, he had never eaten bananas, not even peeling one of them. They were actually a rare find in the markets since the beginning of the eighties for mysterious reasons known only to the government. He thought of ignoring his pregnant wife’s request, though her craving had become so intense he thought she might die for lack of bananas. Then a thought nagged at him. Perhaps the birthmark had appeared on his cheek because his mother had never actually had the chance to eat any. To dispel such a silly idea, he decided to go look for bananas. On his way to the market, he thought about dedicating the next episode of the program to bananas, explaining their nutritional benefits. He decided he would buy an additional kilogram to share with workmates at the station, as was his custom. But he could not find any at the store, not a trace of them. He searched everywhere, roaming from place to place and asking the greengrocers, but to no avail. He was exasperated: “It makes no damn sense that there are no bananas in Basra!”
He thought of his future child, and how he would come out into the world with a banana-shaped blotch on his cheek or his forehead, or probably his neck. Shafiq imagined him surrounded by a group of bratty kids, asking his child the same questions that he was asked when young, about whether his birthmark was really a banana or a penis, if his mom had intercourse when she was pregnant with him. He could not bear the thought.
He came back to the house with a bagful of oranges, but his wife refused to eat anything except for bananas and immediately began to cry melodramatically. “I want a banana!” She began toying with the zipper of his sports shirt, and tightened her lips, and rocked her shoulders back and forth as children do: “I want a banana now!” All the while, Shafiq was thinking about the new episode of the television program.
The following day, Shafiq went to the broadcast station. On his way, he noticed a long convoy of military trucks carrying tanks that looked recently arrived from the Soviet Union. His face paled as he counted the tanks and wondered how much just one of them cost. They passed in front of him on their way to the Kuwaiti border. In two years’ time, they would be destroyed, turned into scrap metal by American planes. Shafiq’s normal cheery countenance dropped from his face. Resentment settled in its place, drawing the notice of his colleagues who saw him arriving with empty hands. No walnuts, or carrots, or honey, or even bananas. They were befuddled when he asked them what the price was of one of the imported Soviet tanks. One of them answered: “I think it’s four million dollars …” Shafiq was immediately startled by the figure and began counting on his fingers. He almost said it out loud then and there, if not for one of his colleagues who blinked furiously to remind him of the presence of government spies among the workers.
He entered the studio and sat in front of the microphone. The director signalled for him to begin and he explained to the live audience, with uncharacteristic languor, about the benefits of bananas: “Every citizen must eat at least one banana a day!” Then, as usual, he told some jokes on the theme of the episode. “Did you know, my friends, that bananas were once grown in Basra? Monkeys love bananas. Do they eat them more than we do? And on the topic of monkeys, Descartes said they could actually talk, but pretended not to so that they wouldn’t be forced to work, haha. Picture with me a monkey talking to a farmer on the Galapagos Islands, saying to him affectionately, ‘Oh, dear farmer, could you please give me a banana?’”
“My wife is pregnant and craving bananas. If she doesn’t eat one, a birthmark will appear on the butt of my child, and you know how disgraceful that is, isn’t that so, oh, good farmer? Pick one off and throw it to me, yes, that one, like that, now. Besides, there is a myth I heard from my grandmother when I was young, when I asked her why bananas were curved. She said that bananas come straight, like carrots and cucumbers, except at the port, there are monkeys that bend them, so they come to us crooked.”
In the last minute of the show, his voice changed, as if he were tying a noose around his own neck. “Every year more than a hundred billion bananas are eaten throughout the world, and monkeys eat a third of that! Also, our government buys one tank from the Soviet Union for four million dollars, while our markets are empty of bananas!” Shafiq did not return to his home that day. He was arrested by the security forces less than an hour after the broadcast. They handcuffed and blindfolded him and then drove him in a car with tinted windows to the intelligence directorate. The agents stripped him of his clothes, and placed him in solitary confinement, prohibiting his wife from visiting him.
They denied him food to the brink of starvation. Then they started feeding him gradually. In the first week, every meal consisted of a banana with a cup of water. The following week, it was two bananas and a half cup of water; in the third week, three bananas and a quarter cup of water. And from the fourth week, it was more bananas with a single cup of water every day. There were so many bananas. He wished that he could send his wife just one, so his child would not be born with a banana-shaped birthmark on his cheek. Signs of illness had begun to show from the beginning, when he suffered from insomnia and severe diarrhoea. Then came blinding headaches and nerve damage. His teeth rotted, and his weight increased to a dangerous level before developing diabetes and coming to the edge of death.
He was dying in solitary confinement and was expected to utter his last breath soon. Then, his birthmark slowly began to spread out. It first covered the right half of his face, and then the other, before advancing to the rest of his head. The birthmark spread out completely over him, changing his entire skin. It became rough, with long, dark fur on every inch of his body, except for the buttocks and face, both of which turned pink. His face was completely transformed, his body shrank frighteningly. His hands lengthened, and his feet shortened. His nails broadened, and both of his big toes began to resemble opposable thumbs, allowing him to hold things with them.
He forgot how to speak, and began emitting noises that sounded like guffawing laughter. A snout emerged out in front of him, and his lips became delicate. The jaw broadened, incisors lengthened, his nose shrank, his eyes deepened, and his ears became large and circular. There was a small bump on his lower back that grew into a tail. His executioners observed the stages of evolution in astonishment. It terrified them, to see the gradual transformation of a man into a giant chimpanzee-shaped birthmark blemishing the face of humanity.