Scoundrel Time

The Desert

Translated from Kurdish
by Basir Borhani

Hashoush’s younger sister rushed inside and spat out briskly, “Mom…! Mom, the Kurds will be moved again tomorrow.”

At that moment, Hashoush and I were sitting opposite each other, playing Dama[1]. As soon as Hashoush heard the news, he lost all interest in the game and an expression of sorrow flashed across his face. His mother froze, dumbstruck, next to the samovar and looked over at me sadly, her eyes full of sympathy. I was a kid then and didn’t know Arabic well. So, I didn’t understand the street Arabic Hashoush’s sister spoke at first, especially because she gave us the news in such a hurry.

Hashoush’s father, who, it was obvious, could hardly bear the bad news, turned to his daughter and said, “Who told you that?”

The little girl looked at me in amazement and then turned to her father again and said, “Our neighbor, Sa’diya’s family.”

“What did they say?”

“It was Abu Sa’diya.”

“What did he say?”

He said, “The Kurds will be moved from their homes tomorrow.”

Hashoush’s mother turned to Hashoush’s father with grief and sadness and, as if talking in secret, said, “She’s right. Abu Sa’diya is an army officer. He knows.”

Hashoush’s father murmured, “But, from the north to the south. Where to from the south? It’s strange!”

I saw at once what was going on; I knew that this time we’d be moved towards Iran once and for all, or maybe towards the deserts along the border with Jordan. I was on the verge of tears. My father had been talking about this for ages. I couldn’t resist anymore. I bowed my head beside the Dama styrofoam board, and like a much younger child, I burst into tears over our misery and our dismal destiny. I didn’t know why and for how long we’d been exiled to this tropical desert in southern Iraq.

In the morning in our dark prison-like room, when I remembered the scene of the night before and the way the news was broken and how Hashoush’s family was upset, I felt even more gloomy. I was sitting on a dented, rusty tin can, crying and whimpering by myself. I told myself, “This is my fault. Why did I stay at Hashoush’s last night?”

It had been exactly eleven months since we (me, my parents, and my little sister) had come to live in this desert in southern Iraq. We were about fifty families there. Ramadi’s desert! A desert endlessly uninhabited and dry!

Having lived all my earlier nine years of childhood near beautiful mountains and gardens, I had a very difficult time living in this desert. Every day when dawn broke, I woke to feel the blazing sun and hot sand of the desert that had taken the place of the cool breeze and dewy gardens. Before, I used to see squirrels, geese, and kids in the green meadow facing our house but now a yellow haze sprayed motes of burnt dust over me. The same wretchedness and misery lay there for my parents and my sister. In all the long eleven months of our stay in the desert, Hashoush’s family and another Arab family were the only people who came to visit us and helped us from time to time.

To be able to support us, my father accompanied Hashoush’s father every three or four days. I don’t know what nearby village they went to, but there they bought radishes, and sold them in the village.

And, every morning, Hashoush and I went fishing in a dirty bog far from the village, always thick with mosquitos and flies, came back home, and sold our catch. In the afternoons, me, Hashoush, and the other Arab children of the village went near Hashoush’s home and played soccer on a dry, vacant field. In the field there were only a few date palms and the villagers tied their camels there at night.

I liked soccer so much. I always had a soccer game plan with me in my pocket. On the game plan, I wrote the names of all the children who played. I had each player’s positions and tasks written with various hints and signs on a piece of paper. Attack, defend, red zone, and all. Many afternoons, when we tired of the game and night stretched its dark wings over the desert, Hashoush and I went to their home together. And there were many nights when I stayed and slept there.

My mother liked me playing soccer with the Arab children there. She said, “May he learn Arabic with Arab children.”

But, my father once—recently—got angry at me and said, “After you’re damn over and done with soccer, come home to your wreckage at night. Don’t go to the homes of Arabs!”

“But Dad… when it gets dark, I fear to come home through the desert.”

“To hell with that. Then, forget about the soccer!”

My father was right! If I went back home that night after soccer and didn’t sleep at Hashoush’s home, I wouldn’t get separated from my parents. I wouldn’t be inflicted with the misery I’m in now! It was my fault. Yes.

My heart nearly stopped in the dark damp room. I was looking out through a crack in the door and thought about my mother and my lovely little sister. I feared they’d put my family on ZiL military trucks while I was stuck in there, move them out towards Iran or Jordan’s borderline, and I’d never ever see them again!

The prison-like room where they detained me was a military base that took care of that region in the desert. It was only half an hour from our home. It was a big hexagonal room that was also dark, damp, and hot, and smelled like urine and tomatoes. The walls were made of stones and cement bricks, and in some parts of barrels and tin cans. That morning the sun was just appearing. I left Hashoush’s home early. I said to myself, “I’d better take a shortcut and go home from the side of the military base,” but, just my luck, as soon as I arrived at near the military base, the Arab officer saw me from the other side and as if he’d never seen a human being in this desert on any morning his whole life long, he pulled out his rifle, and aimed it at me from the distance. He shouted, “Stop.”

What have I done? It’s strange! It had been more than two hours since they brought me here. Why have they detained me in this room? What crime have I committed?

I couldn’t stand it anymore. I opened the door and went out. When I got to the entrance, the officer hefted his rifle at once and moved towards me. He pointed it at me and yelled, in street Arabic, “Hey… I said go inside, you spoiled brat!”

I wasn’t afraid of his yelling, but the sorrow I felt over my family’s anguish inflicted a deep pain on my soul. My heart sank.

“My parents. My family!”

“Your family what?”

“They’ll go. They’ll leave me.”

He imitated me, as if he were mocking me.

“Where will they go?”

“We’ll be moved.”

In that same manner, he returned, “Who will move you?”

I burst into tears and replied, “The government. The government will.”

“Where to?”

“To Iran.”

“You’re lying. You already said that.”

“I’m not lying. I swear to God we’ll be moved I don’t know where!”

“Go inside and wait,” he said brashly.

I knew he wanted me to wait for the chief again. The chief was inside asleep. I had to wait until he woke up and questioned me himself! Standing at the entrance, I turned my face to the officer again and begged him with my eyes in hopes of getting him take pity on me. I stretched my arm inside and said, “He’s asleep.”

“Who is asleep?” he said.

“The chief,” I said.

“Wait until he gets up,” he said.

“Can I wake him?” I said.

He was agitated.

“No… You’d better not! He’ll get up himself.”

I begged, “But… he won’t.”

He flew into a rage and cried out, “I said: go inside, damn.”

At that point, I saw another officer I hadn’t seen before (he had obviously just joined his friend), squatting against the wall and holding his rifle between his legs. He stood up, came toward the door, and turned to me, “Aren’t you in exile here?”

The officer’s remarks lifted my spirits. I said, “Yes.”

“Then why do you say you’ll be moved?”

“Because we’ll be moved again.”

“Where are you from originally?”


“Where will they move you to?”

I began to cry and said, “I don’t know…!”

Suddenly, he was angry too and said, “Where were you going so early in the morning? And what is someone like you doing out in the desert at the crack of dawn?”

He didn’t let me answer and immediately took out a grimy, crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. I saw it was mine. That same paper on which I had drawn the game plan for soccer. The other officer had already taken it and given it to him. He showed me the paper and said, in an angry, harsh voice, “What is this paper you have with you, huh?”

Then, he glided the rifle on his shoulder back, grabbed my arm firmly, and said, “You’re a spy.”

He pulled me toward himself, bent over me, and pushed the paper near my face. He put his really long skin-cracked fingers on some spots of the game plan and, with an excessive astonishment, said, “Look at this paper of yours! Attack, defend, red zone… What are these things you’ve written here, huh? ”

I thought how strange it was, and I said to myself, “These two officers speak Arabic but why don’t they see these are simple soccer terms!”

He caught my ear in a vice-like grip and twisted my head along. He curled his mustache, opened his eyes wide in anger, and said, “What’s this map you have with you? Speak!”

Tears welled up in my eyes. He said, “It’s for rebel forces, isn’t it?”

And I, feeling a nasty pain in my ear, gave a very clear and ample answer: “It’s a soccer game plan. I’ve written the names of my player friends.”

He twisted my ear more firmly, shoved my head along twice, and said, “You repeat the same damn thing every time! Attack, defend, red zone… What are these? Attack where? Defend what? What do all these strange hints mean? Speak… You’re a spy! Who do all these names belong to?”

And I didn’t know what to say. I was confused. I continuously gasped and implored them, thinking about the misery and pain that was entering my life. At last, he released his grip on my ear, wiggled my shoulder, and, pushing me towards the inside of the room, said, “Go inside. Now. Stay there for the chief to wake up.”

And I implored non-stop.

“My family will go. They’ll leave me alone.”

I went inside as I moaned, and sat on the dented rusty tin can again. I had no other choice. I had to wait for the sleeping man they called the chief to wake up and question me himself.

Little by little, waiting for such a long time in vain in this dark urine-smelling prison, I really felt that the sleeping chief was the only hope I had for my freedom, because when I thought about it, my spirits rose and I said, “The chief is likely to be a worldly, open-minded man who has a good grasp of soccer and knows that this is not a plan for spies and rebel forces but a soccer game plan. God only knows! Maybe they’ll release me and I can go back home to my parents again!”

I couldn’t stay still in the room. I thought and looked around me without stopping. It was so dark inside I couldn’t see anything but three old beds on one of which lay the sleeping chief and on the other two a heap of military uniforms, belts, and boots were thrown. There were also two curved, rickety tables on one of which was a broken fan and on the other—a basket, which, I think, had some dates in it. Mice and crickets scampered around it.

I told myself, “Strange. They have detained me here from the first cockcrow today, with all the noise and all my moaning and groaning and crying. How is it that the chief has not heard anything? How is it that he doesn’t wake up despite all this clamor?” As I was sitting on the dented rusty tin can, I looked closely at the sleeping man. He had a blanket pulled over him and only his face and mustache showed. He was still and made no noise or movement. There was no sign on his face of weariness or dreaming or even life. I began to worry.

I told myself, “I fear this man may be more maladroit and more stubborn than the two other officers because he is their chief. He is most likely the chief of the whole desert. A chief can do anything, anything he wants.” It filled me with dread when I imagined him that way, and I thought about how not only my parents would leave and I wouldn’t be able to see them ever again in my life, but I would be shot in the end for that damn piece of paper!

I spent another quarter of an hour in indecision and worry. Over the hours I was there, I heard the roar of vehicles—most like the roar of military trucks and ZiLs—three times. They passed slowly, not too close, and their hum mingled with barking. Every time I heard the hum of a truck I said, “That is my family, my parents and my lovely little sister. They’re being moved!” I had no idea to what destination, what land, what countryside.

I felt restless and couldn’t stay still. Suddenly, I stood up again, opened the door and went out. I looked around in front of the door. There was no one at the entrance. I looked around. They were all gone. The building was entirely empty. I looked into the distance and saw a number of camels tied under a date palm. All at once the eerie silence and emptiness of the desert struck terror into my heart. I felt a fatal loneliness and strangeness. I thought of fleeing and freeing myself, but this was not appealing. I wanted all of them, even the chief, to know one thing for sure: that I was innocent and had the right to be free. Beyond my control and quite unintentionally, as if a strong attachment or old bond drew me to the chief, I went back inside my prison-like room and stood near his bed. I stared at his face. Quietly I reached out and grabbed the chief’s arm and jiggled it. “Chief!” I said.

The chief made no movement at all.

I jiggled his arm once more and summoned him, “Chief… chief!”

But again, there was no movement or reply.

This time, I pulled the blanket off and raised his hand. When I released it, the hand dropped back onto his body with no movement or life. It was only then that I realized the chief was actually dead!

Inside that dark, silent room and beside the dead body I was scared to death. I wanted to scream and shout but no! I ran outside at once.

At the door, I realized I was surrounded. Four large, robust, swarthy officers, looking pale and drawn, were geared up, aiming to shoot me. They moved towards me. Their rifles were pointing at my chest. I was petrified and looked at them in terror.

A pimply man with a tattoo on his chin, wearing a blue cravat, stepped towards me from among the officers. One of the two officers from earlier told the other four, “Catch him!”

The man with the blue cravat, his ear cut off and with a deep scar on the left side of his forehead, looked like a mean pedophile I’d seen in a bad dream one night. He slowly approached me with a hostile scowl. He asked the officer, “Is that him?”

And, the officer said, “Yes. It is.”

At that point, I heard the roar of a military truck pass slowly by the village, driving farther and farther away. And I, subdued and petrified with fear, couldn’t even yell….


[1] A traditional board game similar to checkers


Farhad Pirbal (1961) is a Kurdish poet, writer, playwright, and critic. He was born in the city of Erbil in Kurdistan of Iraq. He studied Kurdish language and literature in The University of Sulaimani. In 1986, he left Kurdistan to France. He continued his studies in Sorbonne University, Paris in the field of Kurdish literature. After going back to Southern Kurdistan, in 1994, he established The Sharafkhan Bidlisi Cultural Center. This story is chosen from his collection of short stories entitled The Potato Eaters.


Basir Borhani was born in 1990 in Oshnaviyeh, Kurdistan of Iran. He has an MA in English literature and was assistant editor of fiction/essay in translation for Hamshahri Dastan magazine from November 2015 through August 2017. His Farsi and Kurdish translations of short stories, literary essays, and memoirs have been published in various literary magazines in Iran. He currently lives in Iran and works as a freelance translator of English, Kurdish, and Farsi.

Souran Kurdpour was born in 1978 in Boukan, Kurdistan of Iran. He studied medicine in Iran and now works as a radiologist. In addition to his medical work, he draws, photographs and makes short films. He tries to show his views in a simple silent form that is visible to us, whether in cartoons, photographs or other forms of visual art. His drawings/cartoons are and will be published in some countries at various magazines. They have also been selected and have won prizes in various competitions.


Image By: Souran Kurdpour