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Zayd Mutee' Dammaj (1943-March 20, 2000) was a Yemeni author and politician. He is best known for his short novel The Hostage which was selected by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century.
Dammaj was born in As Sayyani District of Ibb Governorate. His father Sheikh Mutee' bin Abdullah Dammaj was a committed revolutionary activist against the rule of Imam Yahya and went on to establish a political party Al-Ahrar. The young Dammaj was educated in the village Madrasa and at home, before his father sent him to a school in Taiz. In 1958, Dammaj went to Egypt where he studied in schools in Bani Suwayf and Tanta before enrolling in Cairo University in 1964. He studied law for a couple of years before deciding to make the switch to journalism. He had already started to write political articles and short fiction that was published in the New Yemen periodical. In 1968, still in the middle of his studies, he was summoned back home to participate with his father in the anti-royalist movement.
In 1970, Dammaj was elected to the Shura Council, regarded as Yemen's first elected parliament, as a representative of his native district of As Sayyani. His political rise continued. By 1976, he was appointed governor of the Mahweet governorate and in 1980, he became Yemen's ambassador to Kuwait. In 1982, he cemented his place in the political hierarchy when he was elected to the Permanent Committee of the General People’s Congress, the ruling party in Yemen.
Parallel to his political career, Dammaj also pursued a career as a literary writer. His first volume of short stories was published in 1973, while Al-Rahinah (The Hostage) was published in 1984. It went through multiple printings in Arabic and has since been translated into French, English, German and Hindi among others. It is widely regarded as a classic of modern Arabic literature.
Dammaj died on March 20, 2000 in London.
The village calmed down as night fell just like all the villages on the mountain, at its foot, on its plains and across the valleys. There was no sound of any living creatures except the barking of some hungry dogs as though to tell their masters we are here and get some scanty left-over of some dry sorghum bread. There was the sound of beautifully sad songs coming out of ground floors of the homes, sung by women who were grinding sorghum on their stone grinders in dim light of their rusty oil-fueled lamps.
The village looked depressed; its ancient mosque standing alone at a spot outside the village added to the depression with its stagnant water contained in a qadad[i]-cemented tank that emitted a stinky odor.
The cleanest and the nicest thing in the village was its clean air, clear sky and shining sun as well as the bright moon that threw its cool, beautiful , poetic light that made it lovable.
Homadi came out of his room which was attached to the mosque, at this time of the night as usual. At this moment of temporary silence, he conducted ablution on the edge of the tank, splashing admiringly the green smelly water; then he lay down on the stone-paved qadad-cemented yard which was over one century old. The yard was as cold as his brain.
He started praying but with funny movements; that was his usual prayer. Then he went out closing behind him the door of the mosque. He did not go towards the village but towards the threshing-floor; he was all ecstatic and jubilant. It was a still cold moonlit night that cooled his chest, heart, and slim body.
Harvest season was over in the villages of the mountain, its foot, plains and valleys. The threshing-floors were full of grains of all variety and colour, sorted in piles. The piles were different from each other in size, which indicated that some people owned much land and the rest, who formed the majority, had smaller tracts of land.
The weather was fine and people dreaded rain which might suddenly come down and spoil the piled harvest or might stimulate the growth of grains on the ears exposed to sun heat and wind blows, a drying method necessary before threshing.
The village's threshing-floor was a part of an endowed graveyard, as broad as a large square, covered with stiff cultivated green grass; the villagers had taken the trouble to clean it from some pebbles that were stuck onto the green grass so that it became clean, clear of dry leaves and soil grains.
In the threshing-floor, all the land produce of the people was gathered at the same time and each farmer had placed his harvest in a specific place on the threshing floor as per the inherited custom. Each pile was surrounded by bands of grain stalks so that each pile stayed separated from the rest. The smaller piles were more in number and more prevailing; the large ones were a few but they outsized the numerous small piles.
In the threshing-floor, there was selected types of ears with their stalks arranged beside each small or large pile. They had hooked stalks. The farmers would use them as seeds for the coming year. They are selected from the beautiful large and healthier ears.
In the village, there was a sheikh and his pile was remarkable for it was large and occupied a large area. There was also the Adl[ii] whose pile was almost as large as the sheikh’s.
There were also the Aqil[iii] and other social figures who were big landowners. Their crops were second in size to the sheikh’s and Adl’s. Another distinctive person was theFaqih[iv] who was teaching the children. He had a good deal of crops which he in turn piled on one side of the threshing-floor.
These people occupied the second largest area in the floor; the rest of the floor was for the small farmers, landowners, or shareholders; their piles were small and varying in size.
At the corners of the threshing-floor were small piles, perhaps hardly visible, and they belonged to the class of mazayinha[v], akhdam[vi], and dervishes[vii], who earned them from their services to villagers throughout the year.
At this time of the year, the village threshing-floor looked like an Othman mosque in Istanbul with its numerous domes, large, small and tiny.
Homadi, the madman, was the son of the venerated faqih; his late father used to be a teacher and a reliable notary public; being famous for integrity and honesty, he was the best of all faqihs in the village and the nearby villages. His fame extended to farther parts of the district and the documents he drafted were accredited by all government and judiciary officials.
However, after his death, the villagers were ridiculing Homadi wondering at the irony of a wise man having a mad son.
The night was now clam and approaching its end; every farmer sat inside a tent made of sorghum canes, guarding his piled produce from his neighbors, the dogs, the wolves and the awful spike-armored hedgehogs.
At the end of the night and the beginning of dawn, all farmers were tired and slept for one hour after the dawn prayer and awoke before the sun sent its rays onto the threshing-floor.
Some of them might have slept intermittently during the night; yet nobody would admit that to his companions lest he appeared negligent and became a subject of laughter.
At sunrise they got up to spread their plies flat to expose them to sunrays in order to dry whatever drops of dew that fell on them over the moonlit night.
At sunset, all would start to gather the piles again and turn them into coned shapes to protect them from the night frost or possible rain drizzles.
Night was receding. Homadi was still vigilant inside the shrine of the blessed saint who was proverbial for his piety, good conduct and miracles. The shrine overlooked the threshing-floor of the village. It has been coated with qadad for hundreds of years. On the domed shrine were shrubs that grew from seeds dropped by birds and now they have cracked the dome and the walls which let in trickles of rainwater. Some birds were nesting in the crevices or built their own nests. Inside the shrine, stood the tomb of the saint and besides it, folks said, was the tomb of his pure chaste beautiful young wife.
On top of the dome, small trees had grown giant; in the yard of the shrine was a qadad-cemented tank as old as the dome itself, filled with rainwater; roses, basils, and sweet-smelling plants grew around the tank.
The shrine yard is circled with a stone wall on which thorny trees and wild roses crept. ers, basils and sweet-smelling plants.
Homadi was sitting inside the shrine beside the saint's tomb, chewing qat. Before him was a carved marble oil lamp, with a dirty funnel on top, emitting black smoke.
He smiled with and sometimes without reason. Smile never left his lips. For villagers, that was his redeeming feature. The shrine was his life. He made it his abode and shelter, where he thought and contemplated. Often, he would draw on the walls Quranic verses and magnificent decorations. He dutifully kept the shrine entrance and annexes clean.
On a rainy day, it rained from morning to evening. Homadi felt that the shrine, although displaying originality and craftsmanship, might not survive collapse. Continuous rainfall widened the crevices with the result that much rainwater entered the shrine. It sustained other damages, most notably the big crevice in the front side of the dome positioned over the door. The entry and exit by the door was like risking one's life. Homadi instinctively took note of that and made sure to repair the damages diligently and industriously, forgetting not to smile.
He admiringly remembered this work which was now an old memory. It gave him a sense of pride whenever it came to his mind.
The moon was shining and Homadi was going towards the threshing –floor still smiling. His hands clapped in a dancing movement and his slim body was shaking as it dancingly walked in coordination with the movement of his hands. His hands were clapping in a dancing rhythm. He was turning around many times before he fell onto the ground with his strong knees. Then he would stand up with the smile growing into a loud laugh, with high and low cadence.
Presently, he was at the entrance of the threshing-floor. Everything was in a dormant. His face was still carrying a smile mixed with surprise as though he has just discovered a goldmine or an oilfield.
He moved in full thrust into the threshing-floor.
The sheikh had assigned the trustworthy faqih, Homadi's father, to bring grains from his deep and spacious underground midfan[viii] that was full of grains and sell it out to the hungry and the needy according to the price put by the sheikh.
The midfan had been a garnering store for the sheikh's harvest of sorghum for two years. At that time, Homadi was a child accompanying his father wherever he went, never parting with him.
The faqih dislodged a heavy square-shaped stone which blocked the midfan's mouth; he made sure to see the sheikh's well-known seal at a corner of the stone.
Homadi's father, the faqih, went down into the belly of the midfan with a rope only to sell out the abundant grains of the sheikh at the price stipulated by the sheikh.
Beside the domed structure, Homadi liked to contemplate the movement of the ants as they were bringing home their provisions of food on a long path they paved through impediments.
He remembered his father. He was like one of those ants. He slipped into the belly of the midfan and never came back; he was suffocated due to lack of air as the sheikh and his retinue lodged the seal stone back.
The air was still. When Homadi was in the center of the threshing-floor, dogs were sneaking to get sorghum ears but did not bark. They were afraid of punishment. Every dog would take a sorghum ear with his mouth and run away towards the hideouts along the watercourse, the terraced farms and rocky heights. The moon was shedding its silver light. No cloud blocked her light. The sky was clear and the stars were almost luminous stages in the background of the moon. He was still wearing his favorite smile on his lips, looking around the differently sized piles of sorghum ears.
This pile is big; that one is small; there are even smaller and smaller.
With all his might, he started to shove the dispersed piles with his bare hands and mingle them into one pile.
Absorbed in his task, he was heavily sweating; the veins of his hand swelled, he was panting and his eyes were goggling. Yet, the favorite smile was still on his lips.
After exerting a good deal of effort, he stopped to look at the threshing-floor now having one single pile.
At dawn, Homadi had taken his position to watch the threshing floor closely. Some dogs, foxes and hedgehogs with awful thorns were doing the same.
The threshing-floor had become one single pile of sorghum ears. The favorite smile was still on his lips. He was annoyed by the cries, the hurly burly, weeping, and quarrels too. Suddenly, Homadi looked at the threshing floor which was bustling with the villagers, all of them, young and adult, the children, women and old women. All of them were astonished at the state of the threshing-floor and wondered what had happened to it. Homadi's smile grew into a loud resounding laugh that was wonderfully echoed by mountains, plains and valleys as though it was prayer tunes in a mosque or church or temple or music hall.
*Translated by Shaker Al-Molsi
[i]Qadad or noorah is a white powder made from limestone and used in the past as a cementing material in construction.
[ii] Adl is a title for a social personality in a village who comes second to the sheikh and is involved in solving people's problems.
[iii] Aqil is a title for a social personality in a village who comes third to the sheikh andadl.
[iv] Faqih is a title for a usually religiously educated person in a village or other places who was a children teacher, preacher and notary public.
[v] Mazayinah (sing. Muzayin) is a reference to a social segment arbitrarily considered among the low class and works are barbers, butchers, etc.
[vi] Akhdam (sing. Khadem) is a reference to a dark-skinned social segment arbitrarily considered among the low class. They usually work as street cleaners, etc.
[vii] Dawasheen (sing. Dawshan) is a reference to a social segment arbitrarily considered among the low class. They usually work as pipers, singers, etc.
[viii] Midfan is an underground chamber in which grains were garnered for years in the past.
A Disorderly Tale*
Deliberations between the two sides moved to another prestigious hall. My eyes roamed around the exquisite and luxurious hall, opening widely at the rare masterworks and scintillating chandeliers suspended from the ceiling.
* * *
Sitting face-to-face at the table, the arms of the two delegations were extended. I huddled myself among my colleagues to look on. The papers were still in front of them, at their hands, with pens still lying on the papers. The faces were cheerful and mouths were smiling. My goodness, happiness surely must come, that’s certain.
I clasped my sweaty fingers. I was jubilant and proud because the head of my nation’s delegation could convince our brothers tactfully. At this moment, final endorsement would be executed. It would be a fruitful accord bringing about welfare and prosperity. Many a road would be paved, many a city would be illuminated, many a school and hospital would be erected, many…, many…
* * *
The two delegations consisted of high-profile figures, all of them ministers, and even their companions bore the title of “minister.” The luxurious hall where we were still attracted my attention, perhaps because it was my first time abroad. I was accustomed to our dim, humble and neglected halls, which tell visitors, “Leave, please.”
Soft, white hands prepared to take up pens. There was no talking, just wide smiles, some of them boring and artificial. The head of their delegation pulled himself up and looked at the head of our delegation sitting beside him, who became entirely happy and glad at this noble gesture.
Suddenly, the head of their delegation ordered photographers and cameramen exclusively from his nation’s press and news agencies to be let in. A flood of dazzling yet confusing flashes of light overwhelmed the hall, as cameramen and photographers selected the best angles to shoot the head of their delegation, following his silent movements, while the head of our delegation gathered his saliva in order to wet his lips.
The cameramen and photographers left and silence prevailed in the hall – complete silence.
Suddenly, a sound snapped, deafening the ears and being amplified by the echo of the luxurious hall.
It was a fart, whose stink reached the nearby attendees. I perceived that the face of their delegation’s head displayed confusion mixed with embarrassment and anger.
To my horror, a laugh burst from a fellow delegate like a bomb. He couldn’t hold it back because he hadn’t expected it. He had tried to suppress it, but in vain. He rushed out of the hall, which echoed his suppressed laughs. Some of the attendees involuntarily joined him A solemn moment of silence prevailed, during which I and some others tried to busy ourselves – with anything.
The session ended after the head of their delegation left with quick steps, surrounded by a retinue and bodyguards…and the members of his delegation. None remained in the hall except the head of our delegation, his fellow delegates and companions. The lights were turned off and the papers remained blank in front of them.
* * *
The next morning, the situation grew critical and the press, radio and TV had no news about the important meeting.
At the end of the day, the members of our delegation were seen at the airport, shading themselves under the wings of an old airplane as they prepared for departure.
* * *
The BBC quoted a variety of news reported by its correspondents about the release of mutual accusations between the two brotherly nations.
* * *
The news broadcast by the BBC developed, as it reported a severe crisis between the two countries. Diplomatic ties between them were cut; however, the BBC did not explain the reason.
* * *
An important BBC news story reported that the borders between the two brotherly countries had been closed and according to the BBC, only foreign newspapers featured photos of both sides’ diplomatic missions, homeward-bound well before the completion of their set terms.
The BBC commented that, with apparent wounds and heavy bleeding, it seemed from the photos that officers from both embassies were assaulted somehow. A BBC correspondent observed a member of our mission with his clothes torn and blood flowing heavily from his left eyebrow, while his wife and children were in a poor psychological state.
* * *
Events developed, with the BBC reporting conflicting news about the eruption of border clashes between the two countries, each party accused the other of their initiation.
* * *
The situation exacerbated to the point where the UN. secretary-general dispatched a mission to deliver urgent letters appealing to the two brotherly nations to exercise self-control and hold peaceful negotiations under U.N. auspices.
* * *
The BBC recently quoted its regional correspondents as saying that airports in both nations indeed had been shut down and lights had gone out in all cities and villages. They later reported that the U.S. had begun evacuating its nationals from the region aboard its giant airliners.
* * *
I switched off the radio and went out into the street to look for my fellow delegate who had been unable to control himself in the face of laughter.