‘The One-Eyed TV’ by Muhsin al-Ramli


Photograph by Ian Lennox

From Words Without Borders:

Just as the thirteenth year of my life started, the Iraqi-Iran war began. Before it was even a year old, my oldest brother was killed and one of my cousins was taken as a prisoner of war. That is when I began hearing my father curse “Mr. President” whenever he found himself alone with my mother in the orchard, kitchen, or bedroom, or as she milked our cows in the pen. I was irremediably confused as I sat torn between these obscene curses and those beautiful pictures and songs they taught us in school, praising the president, the great teacher, the hero, the valiant, the genius, the powerful, the necessity, the inspired, etc.—among other names and attributes in a long list of big words. We did not understand all of them at the time, yet we began dreaming of seeing him even if only in our dreams. There were those among us who claimed that this wish had come true for them.

Meanwhile, I used to hear my father curse him after midnight when I would get up to drink or pee. I would pass near him as he sat in the living room with my mother and aunt, the mother of the prisoner of war. She used to visit after everyone in the village went to bed in order to listen secretly to the Tehran station with my father. This enemy station used to air a daily program with messages from prisoners of war to their families. As the program ended without any mention of her son, she burst out crying joined by my mother. At that point my father would spit on the floor behind him in anger and bitterness. Sometimes he would pull out his slippers and start slapping the spot where he spat, hatefully, as if it were a scorpion. He would curse, he who used to punish us for uttering a single bad word. This is another confusion that my father’s personality caused. At the same time, I cannot deny how proud of him I was for being the only one who owned a small box that talked and sang, called “radio,” even though he never let it sing. As soon as he heard music he rushed to search for news reports or Qur’an recitation. He was good at turning its red dial and knew its stations and the schedule of their programs. This is why he became the pivotal point during gatherings, and the shining star in the village coffeehouse in the morning. There, men flocked around him asking for news of the remote world, and for his opinions. He was also good at crafting his own special style to impress his audience with the breadth of his knowledge and his eloquence, for which they bought him glasses of tea and coffee. All of this aroused Jalil Haddad’s envy, which prompted him to make a similar metal box. However, he was not able to make it speak. My father had bought that radio on a trip to Nineveh to sell the surplus tomato crops one season. He continued to let no one touch it. He hid it in his personal box with the big lock. I do not recall touching it except once when he said to me as he left the house in a hurry, “Carry it to your mother and tell her to lock it up well.”

That was an unforgettable event. I examined it with quivering hands and put my eyes on its holes to see what was inside. More than looking, I imagined.

Our village was small. There were no more than fifty houses, among them a mosque and a school. They were all built from mud and rock on a small plain between Mt. Makhoul and the Tigris River. This is why traveling to and from our village was rare. We were all relatives. We married each other, we constructed homes, harvested, and held funerals and weddings together. Sometimes we fought to the point of murder for reasons that might have to do with a chicken or an egg. But we also made up quickly.

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