Book 8: The Morning of the Mogul Serialised Novel, by Hichem Karoui
Extracts From Chapter Three: The Indian Showed Up
That afternoon, I went to the graveyard with Mr Houssine and the driver. Then I learned that Dalila was visiting my ailing mother and had been permitted to stay the night with her when the hamlet was attacked. Standing in the middle of the cemetery under the shade of a palm tree, I felt everyone in ‘Ouja had left their homes, stores, and enterprises to come and grieve their dead. The graveyard was on the outskirts of the village. A low white stone wall surrounds it, beyond which agricultural fields extend. I spotted the Islamic Militia members strolling along the fence, rifles on their shoulders, and questioned Mr Houssine:
– Did they come by night?
His tiny brown eyes twinkled in the sunlight, and his lips twitched as he wiped the sweat and dust from his tanned face with a green handkerchief. His face seemed thinner and bonier than it had been a few months previously, and he scowled:
– Who do you mean?
– I mean the killers.
– I’m unsure exactly when, but they probably came at daybreak or earlier. They rushed into the police station and the National Guard Headquarters, killed everyone, and then turned their rage to the stores and shops. They broke the doors with explosives, plundered, looted, and thrashed, while others broke into our homes randomly. They raped, robbed, killed whoever resisted, and rampaged relentlessly for hours. It had been a very long nightmare, my son.
– I’m still baffled about how this could ever happen in a country whose people pray to God five times daily and say there is no God but Allah. Has God abandoned us to those bloodthirsty terrorists?
– Don’t blaspheme, son. It’s His will. Accept it.
– I accept God, but I don’t understand his will. The criminals seem to take advantage of it more than those who pray, fast, and do everything to please God, like you, Mr Houssine. They’re the reason we’re here.
He remained silent, fixing an imaginary square between his feet. I asked him:
– Do you think they’re who the TV says they are, Mr Houssine?
He pondered. His eyes sank deep into their sockets. He was obviously hesitant, and his hand shook as he reached for the cigarette I was handing him.
– These are the former president’s crimes, he said. He did not accept being ejected from power.
– You hesitated.
– No, I didn’t. I am certain. The terrorists were dressed in long robes and sandals, with long beards and masks on their faces. They presumably attempted to imply that they are Muslims, but I know they are not. We recognised one of them.
– Really? One from ‘Ouja? What’s his name?
– No, no, you’re misguided. Don’t say such rubbish. The terrorist is from a nearby hamlet, and we know his clan. He was a lieutenant in the previous president’s army.
I gave him another cigarette, took one for me, and lit them. I looked around and saw some women weeping on the graves, whereas the men accompanying them displayed perfect, woebegone, vapid faces. In such a sad time, we weren’t the best people to gaze at. Some men were seated cross-legged on the matted ground, reading the Quran. I overheard their voices droning pathetically, like a long, lingering complaint. I felt depressed and gloomy, and the sky, vaulting its wistful blue high over our heads, seemed wholly unconcerned by our grief. That smiting coldness and unruffled beatitude irritated me. I told myself, “This is perhaps the hour of the Scoundrel. He is probably enjoying his meagre victory and wandering across the desert, intoxicated on blood, like a lone wolf licking its fangs after the gloomy feast. O Lord! Please assist us at this time. Let us continue to trust in your kindness and mercy (…)
I went along the dusty streets, wandering aimlessly in the sluggish tottering of the dusk. No children were playing and shouting; no coffee shops were open; no men and youth were playing cards and smoking gurgling nargileh; no women were hurrying muffled in their veils, their mysterious eyes gleaming like colourful rainbows in the forlorn desert of our lives, and their ample gowns floating around them. Instead, abandoned dogs and cats chased remains on the wastebins, and armed young militiamen strolled along the street. They are all strangers to the village and are clearly as taken with the gloom that hangs over it as the locals were. I saw them lazing in little groups of three, four, and five, sombre and sad, dressed in long dishdashas or blue denim, as if they were only promenading to greet the sweet twilight of September. The bulk of them were relatively young, maybe under the age of eighteen. Without their weapons, one would mistake them for schoolboys on a field trip.
They looked at me indifferently, and some even hailed me with the traditional Islamic greeting: “Salam Alaykum!” “Wa Alaykum Assalam,” I responded.
They have taken over the National Guard headquarters and the police station, as well as the regular army. However, I only saw a dozen soldiers, one of whom was a sub-officer, and they appeared to be on good terms with the militia. After the armed forces split into two parts, one of them loyal to the scoundrel and the other to the new masters of the country, I thought they had much to do with combating each other. That’s why they sent the Islamic militia to maintain order in ‘Ouja after the disaster.
When I crossed the main street and engaged in a bifurcated one to join the building where I lived, I saw them chatting on the pavement before the broken gate of ‘Ouja Bank. It was just a ten-minute walk from the bank, but I postponed my visit to my mother’s house until another day since I was exhausted. I travelled all morning in the scorching heat, then spent the afternoon accepting and delivering condolences and speaking with strangers. I needed a clean wash and a good night’s sleep to recuperate. Mr Houssine had tried to keep me for supper, but I politely declined, blaming my indisposition on exhaustion. He didn’t insist.
I ascended the steps of my seven-story building to the second level and opened my apartment door. I hesitated for a few minutes at the doorway as if I couldn’t quite believe I was back home. “Home?” I muttered to myself, “Where is home now?” The location of a man’s birth is not that important. What matters is what a guy does to improve himself and his life. I shut the door and traversed the little hallway to the living room, where I paused for a second in the middle of the room before entering the two other rooms, the kitchen and the bathroom, with the same unplaceable sorrow. It was no good to be back home. I was an outsider in my hometown. The brickwork, furniture and paraphernalia, I could get anywhere. What I can’t find now is my family’s love and support. Nothing is the same as it was when I left (…)
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Extracts From Chapter Seven: The One-Eyed Boss Vanishes
He burst into tears. The sight of this strong man sobbing on the threshold of his wrecked shop, like an orphan child, depressed me to no end. I attempted to calm him down.
– Don’t let hopelessness take over your mind, Mehrez. This is God’s will. Furthermore, this is not the first disaster to strike the country. You may have some memories of other calamities, natural or man-made. The war for independence, for example, was bloody and cruel.
He brushed his tears away and answered:
– No, Mr Bassam, sorry, but it wasn’t like this.
I looked at him dumbfounded. He went on:
The Britons killed or imprisoned the nationalists who fought and killed their soldiers. That’s war. They were, after all, protecting themselves. We battled them because we desired independence. So it was kill or accept to be killed. Yet, the conflict had a sense of purpose for them or us. Now, look at what we’ve done with our independence! Is this a fair and legitimate struggle? Is it just, logical, and acceptable that we slay each other simply because we disagree on power-sharing or the regime kind? What about individuals who have no interest in politics? What about the women and children who have no idea who are the bastards controlling this horrible country? Is this our independence and sovereignty, Mr Bassam? Is this our freedom? Is this even what our religion teaches? If this is the case, I wish we stayed under British rule. Because if this is the free country for which so many martyrs have given their lives, then let them hang me for betraying such freedom – the freedom to accept enslavement to a local thug.
– I understand your outrage, Mehrez, but please calm down. The walls have ears.
I looked around, terrified, and noticed a lorry of the Islamic Militia passing by. It was carrying a dozen armed men. The coffee shop had opened on a street corner, and a few customers were sipping their drinks on the terrace. Other merchants and traders have opened their shops. Children had gathered to witness the wreckage, and the men yelled aggressively at them, threatening to beat them with a stick. They dispersed and ran down the street like a flock of scared birds.
– Let them hear, said the grocer. I mean that they hear me. What should I worry about? What would I lose more than I lost? Where were they when the terrorists massacred the village? They are now heroes and saviours! Hah! Who the hell are they? Where did they come from? Who invited them? Where are the police and the regular troops? They sent us a militia! We are tired of those inept rulers, their greed, corruption, lies, and hypocrisy, Mr Bassam. I express what I think, and if they want to jail me or kill me, let them do it. I’m not better than those who died (…)
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