The Helmet House by Mortada Gzar
Translated from Arabic by Yasmeen S Hanoosh
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The school principal sends the naughty students to me, the ones who don’t prepare their lessons or don’t do their homework. My room is without a door and next to the bathrooms. It’s not like a horizontal hole because it is a horizontal hole where the minor wrongdoers fall, screaming and crying for their mothers to come rescue them from the pain. In my room, no one cries for his father. Fathers are phantasmagorical creatures that exist only inside the frame of the martyr’s picture hung on the wall at home.

 

All the pupils remember my room. They never forget its stench, which will cling to their noses even as they graduate, get married, and proliferate.

 

As for me, for the rest of my life I will remember the last two kids who stood before me waiting for their punishment. As the assistant to the principal and the secret punishment agent at school, I had asked them to close the door and enter.

 

Usually students respond to this order, while wiping their tears, by saying, but there’s no door, Sir. I then order them again to close the invisible door, whack them with their notebooks, and begin the punishment.

 

Things were different with these two siblings. I told them to close the door and come in. The older boy pushed his younger brother. The younger boy grabbed the air with his palm and pushed it as if it were a door.

 

The principal’s complaint was that the two pupils were turning in their homework blank. They claimed they were turning in all the correct answers where in fact they were turning in blank pages. In fact, their entire notebooks were blank since the beginning of the school year. They see something we don’t see or feel. This is what the two brats are claiming. Bad manners and delinquency, Sir! The principal commented as he introduced them to me.

 

After fifteen minutes of torture from my famous cane, the elder confessed the following: we write our homework everyday but it doesn’t appear. We write it with our father at night. Father wakes up at dawn, puts his combat helmet on the bed and helps us with the homework. Mother watches us from a distance and cries. She doesn’t say hi to Father. She doesn’t see him, just like the rest of you. And like the rest of you, she doesn’t see the homework, but we see it. When we wake up, Father is gone and so is our homework. Only his helmet stays. As for the door, mother always repeats: we became doorless after you. To be honest, my brother and I are really good at closing doors that you don’t even see.

 

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Mortada Gzar is an Iraqi novelist, filmmaker, and visual artist. He has an engineering degree from the University of Baghdad, and has been a participant of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has written, directed and produced a number of films that have screened at international festivals. His animation, Language won the Doha Film Award. He is the author of three novels: Broom of Paradise, 2008, Sayyid Asghar Akbar, 2013, and My Beautiful Cult, 2016, and is a regular contributor to the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir al-Arabiandis.

Yasmeen S Hanoosh, Associate Professor of Arabic Studies at Portland State University, received her PhD in Arabic Language and Literature from The University of Michigan. She specialises in Iraqi literature and Arabic literary translation. Her English translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in various literary journals and publications, including World Literature TodayBanipal, and The Iowa Review. Dr Hanoosh’s translation of Luay Hamza Abbas’ Closing His Eyes, First Edition, 2013, received an NEA translation fellowship in 2010. Her translation of Scattered Crumbs by Muhsin al-Ramli, University of Arkansa Press, 2002, won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Prize in 2002, and has been since excerpted in a number of publications and anthologised in Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations, The New Press, 2006. Dr Hanoosh’s teaching interests include modern Arabic fiction, Arab cinema, the politics of minority in the Middle East, and Applied Arabic literary translation. Her current research projects focus on the contemporary intellectual scene of southern Iraq.