The Archivist of Baghdad by T.L. Khleif
One day in April, 2003, shortly after the war began, Muhammad Dalman arrived at the National Library to find it burning—the manuscripts and royal letters and old newspapers he had catalogued turning to dust, the pages scattering into the street, everything gone at once. Six nights later, he awoke from a troubled sleep and scribbled this line on a scrap of paper:
Send one thousand horsemen
The archivist read the words again and tried to ignore the stirrings of a new fear. The week the first bombs fell on Baghdad, he had been studying the works of Ibn al-Dhakira, the chronicler and theorist of a hundred and twenty subjects. Ibn al-Dhakira had witnessed and survived the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu and his Mongol horde in 1258: a time when the streets were said to run red with blood and the Tigris bubbled black with the ink of books torched and tossed into the river. Ibn al-Dhakira recorded his account of the horror, interspersing fragments from lost manuscripts he had read and recalled—treatises on astronomy and optics, translations of Greek philosophers, maps of the world. His memory bequeathed half a sky, arguments never concluded, continents that neither began nor ended. That manuscript, preserved in the archive, had been lost in the latest blaze.
Alone in his apartment, Muhammad waited—for what, he could not say. For six days, he had lain still in his bed, breathing out the smoke that had seared his lungs and eyes, sensing, with dawning ambivalence, that he would live. The street remained dark through the blinds. Cars honked and backfired; a soldier yelled a command in English; a shrill pop song faltered on a distant radio. Then, as Muhammad had hoped and dreaded, the next line came to him:
On the matter of the shape of the planet’s orbit
A wild fluttering rose up in him. The sentence, which he’d copied just below the first, appeared both strange and immediately familiar, and at once, despite himself, Muhammad understood: in 1258, as the library burned, Ibn al-Dhakira had breathed in what he had called “the strange fire of blood and ink,” capturing and salvaging the words that dwelt there. The chronicler’s disciples, and scholars of subsequent generations, had documented the event. When the next great fire came, they said, someone else would breathe in the smoke and set down whatever passages and lines might be preserved. God grant me sufficient strength, Ibn al-Dhakira had written in the inscription, and for the first time, Muhammad glimpsed the range of the chronicler’s fear.
No one knew who had struck the first match. Muhammad had not believed the sight at first: the smoke pouring through the windows, the young men and boys dancing and whooping around the flames as they gathered up stray parchments and puckered leather bindings and shoved them into their pockets. “What’s the matter with you?” Muhammad shouted at a teenage boy scuttling away with what looked like a charred bundle of letters. “Don’t you care about anything?” The boy faltered, frightened, then wriggled out of Muhammad’s grip and ran. The pages all seemed to disappear before Muhammad could touch them, crumbling into ash or wafting high into the air as if grasping for a heaven beyond the roiling blackness. Call the police, people shouted, call the army; and then they remembered the police were gone, and the army; and the foreign soldiers, the Americans now roaming the city in tanks and armored trucks, were nowhere to be found.
It was impossible, Muhammad thought, forcing himself from his bed; it was absurd. He gazed around his apartment as if seeing it for the first time: the slanting shelves crammed with books, the discolored cinderblock walls, the table tilting with ragged notebooks and texts. He was forty-six years old, a bachelor librarian who had written no works of note in scholarship or art. His distinguishing talent lay instead in knowing where to place the works of others: when he ordered and catalogued wax-stained letters between sultans and emirs, or when he paged through flaking manuscripts on poetry and astronomy and mathematics, he felt himself part of a great tide that would only lift and swell with new discovery. He saw now how foolish he had been.
But in the next days, he braced for new words—afraid to move, afraid to stay still. He scribbled down whatever lines whispered at him, uncertain whether they belonged to Ibn al-Dhakira’s treatise or the works of a hundred other scholars or his own impatient mind. He lay back on the frayed green carpet in the middle of the room, straining to keep himself alert as he smoked cigarette after cigarette and lingered in the space between dreams and waking. What if this is all wrong? he asked. What if I can’t know? The smell of gasoline and burning blacktop seeped through the door. There were altercations in the street; someone smashed a bottle against his wall. Slowly, Muhammad learned to distinguish between the rustle of his own thoughts and lines from the old, lost texts—not simply from the strangeness of the verses or the suddenness with which they struck, but from the peculiar pressure that opened in his lungs and skull, as if living creatures were writhing inside of him, demanding to be born. When no new lines came to him, he tried to recall all the pages he had read during his years in the archives: the Mamluk servant al-Faridi’s cure for his master’s baldness, a recipe that included green figs and feathers from the wings of a hawk; the philosopher al-Musalli’s theory of time, which claimed that moments flowed not in a straight line or a wheel, but existed as the surfaces of a finely cut stone. In the proper set of conditions, the philosopher said, a man may watch himself travel down the street and in turn glimpse himself, the observer, staring from a distance . . . But the rest was lost to Muhammad.
When at last he laid his collection on the table, his worst fears took shape in front of him. Stunted chapters on medicine and geography and Quranic interpretation, gap-ridden letters from the sultan’s court in Istanbul, poems stripped of rhymes. The texts were grotesque, half-formed. For days, he had been keeping at bay the idea of seeking missing pieces on the streets. Disciples of Ibn al-Dhakira had written of the chronicler collecting fragments from strangers—bakers, textile merchants, beggars who recited broken verses without knowing what passed from their lips. But outside Muhammad’s apartment, everything had changed. He remembered the crowds from the days just before the library had burned, shattering the windows of electronics shops and banks, racing away with arms full of cash registers and cables. His sister, whose daughter had died in an air strike the first week of the war, talked constantly of leaving Baghdad. His uncle’s house east of the river was gone. And in the last days, a new dread had awakened in him, that he had waited too long to collect new fragments, and whatever lines he might have been able to recover on the streets had dissipated already; so he waited longer, until words ceased coming, and he had no choice but to set out.
But where to begin? Sunlight assaulted him the next morning as he stepped into the street. He hurried past shops where men had once sold tires and sesame pastries, sandwich stands where boys laughed and jostled each other about, houses with the windows newly bricked over to keep out thieves. You will learn our names, said letters spray-painted on the side of a wall by a garage. The air smelled of sewage and singed plaster. Boys wove and ducked between cars; motorbikes spit plumes of exhaust. Women lined up outside of bread ovens, children tugging on their arms. American trucks roared by, spraying up dust.
The streets seemed to expand and multiply as Muhammad walked. Ibn al-Dhakira had never explained how he had met strangers with verses to give—perhaps the chronicler himself had not known how. He had only noted, with a bewilderment Muhammad understood now, that the smoke had seemed to drift and scatter over the city; at times, Ibn al-Dhakira said, it had seemed to settle inside people who might have found themselves nowhere near the library when it burned. Muhammad visited the homes of friends and other archivists, who embraced him and invited him in but said nothing that fulfilled his hopes. When he returned home, his legs were numb, and the sky had changed from pinkish-gray to black, but he had nothing to show. A week passed in this way. Then one afternoon, resting on the steps of the Wihda Hotel, Muhammad looked up to find a woman standing over him. Her dark hair was coiled up in a bun.
“We have rendered the slave a master,” she said. “And in his steadfast loyalty and faith, he shall remember his place in the Circle of Justice, where we are all servants of the Most Just.”
“Wait.” Muhammad sprang up from the steps and copied the lines, which he recognized—he was sure of it—as a passage from the correspondence between Sultan Ahmad III and Hasan Ibrahim, a newly appointed military general in Baghdad, three hundred years before. He turned to speak to the woman again, but she had already hurried off down the street.
The next day, in front of the boarded-up bank in Muhammad’s neighborhood, a man with a graying beard grasped his arm. “We attempt to mirror the perfection of God,” he said, “in the conjugations of this most sacred verb form. So laughable, so exalted are we in our love.” The lines, from the writings of the seventeenth-century mystic and grammarian Ibn al-Mushtaqi, ended in mid-verse, but Muhammad recorded every word.
“To the refined heart of the beloved, the separation of days is both a lifetime and a breath,” said a slick-haired young man lounged against a barbershop wall on the city’s southern edge. He smoked and eyed Muhammad with a look of volatile excitement, as though he were set to push off the wall and take flight at any moment; and Muhammad realized, as the young man bounded away, that he had captured a line from al-Basri, the fourteenth-century philosopher and theorist on love.
In a neighborhood east of the river, a teenage girl with heart-shaped earrings broke away from a boisterous crowd of well-dressed women and girls laughing and singing in front of a house. “Let us gorge ourselves,” she said, “on the wondrous creatures who people our city. The pious, the conniving, the avaricious, the traitorously beautiful, the virtuous who worship God, the virtuous who worship themselves.” Muhammad believed he detected the lashing cadences of al-Kamali, a Baghdad satirist from the fifteenth century.
A few days later, in a market in the city’s north, an elderly woman stopped him. “We already have the records,” she said. “It’s best if you acknowledge your crime.” With a chill of recognition, the picture came to Muhammad: the sealed door to a section of the library he had never visited, where the newer files were stored.
After that, Muhammad set out each day at dawn. Each night, he returned to his apartment and spread his findings on the table and copied phrases on the walls and door, searching for any pattern that might unlock hidden connections or spawn missing verses. Did an unfinished mathematical equation evoke, in its rhythms, the elusive end of a stanza of poetry? Did a description of a calligrapher’s brushstroke trace the journey of a geographer’s ship three centuries earlier? Cars hummed and shivered along the street. Distant cracks of gunfire shook his windows. The answers floated somewhere outside, but the city at night warded him off: the army had dissolved, and gangs of men roved about the streets, and there were stories of kidnappings and robberies and bodies turning up by the banks of the river, their faces unrecognizable. The electricity hissed off again, and Muhammad lit candles to read by as the family next door moaned and rustled in the heat. Some nights, when he had stared too long at his pages, the shock seized him anew: weeks and months of work for this wretched pile. He sensed, in those hours, more lines and verses disappearing in the city around him, even as he sat at the table, frightened of the outside, trying to make sense of the scattered pieces he had managed to collect.
One night, he could no longer stand himself. He slipped out after the curfew. The air was warm and tasted of dust and scorched electrical wires. His heart raced as he hurried along. It was ridiculous to continue—but the thought of returning home with his pockets empty left him with an enclosing dread. A few cars slowed near him as he walked, and he waited for a door to open, someone to pull him inside. He passed a squat apartment building where American soldiers were streaming in silently, rifles pointed in front of them. In a darkened house, a child coughed and muttered a complaint; a woman sang softly. Beside a closed police headquarters, three men broke off from a small, murmuring crowd and followed him, laughing faintly behind him but never catching up—a game, he realized with relief and fury, when they turned away again. Trucks rumbled past him on the highway. He let himself wander far east of the river into neighborhoods where the pavement vanished, and the houses seemed patched together with cardboard and scraps of metal, and he no longer knew where he was.
Past dawn, in one such neighborhood, Muhammad glimpsed a dark-haired boy of around fourteen idling with two younger boys in front of a low-slung row of shops. A few stores were open, and appliance sellers and snack vendors lounged in their doorways, balancing old rifles in their laps and batting away flies as they smoked and chatted with customers. A trail of foul water snaked along the dirt-packed square. The boy was laughing about something with his friends. His green eyes darted as he spoke. A memory flashed at Muhammad: the child’s face ecstatic and lit with flames as he yelped and scurried about the debris of the library.
“Where are the pages?” Muhammad asked, catching up. His heart thrilled at the thought of holding real parchment in his hands, even just one ruined page that might have escaped.
The boy glanced up at him, bracing for a fight or some new entertainment. He looked over at his friends and then back at Muhammad. “Excuse me?” he said. His friends laughed.
“The pages you stole,” said Muhammad. He could not tell if the boy recognized him or if he was merely playing a game. He could feel people slowing down and watching: the shopkeepers, a few boys carrying plastic sacks and trays of tea, a laborer hauling a bent saw. The stench of the air made him faint. He slapped a fly from his sweat-damp hair. “Where are they?” he said.
“Oh, right—the pages.” The boy threw a quick glance at the onlookers. “I buried them. No, wait—I put jam on them and made a sandwich. It was so good.”
Muhammad grabbed the boy’s arm as he tried to pull away. “There was only one of what you took,” he said. He felt as though he were made of some fragile, eruptive substance. “Do you understand that?”
The boy’s friends cried out in protest. A merchant with thinning gray hair rose from his seat. “Okay, easy now,” he said with deliberate calm as other shopkeepers followed him. “Ramzi’s a good kid.”
The boy stared at Muhammad as a crowd grew around them. “What do you want?” His voice, for the first time, let slip a keening, childish note. He tried again to shake free, and Muhammad tightened his grip. The boy’s friends wailed with fury. “He’s a spy!” one of them told the men.
Muhammad felt a hand on his back. “What is it you’re asking for, brother?” It was the gray-haired shopkeeper, a new tightness in his voice. “We can resolve this, I’m sure.”
The younger boy repeated the accusation before Muhammad could speak. The shopkeeper ignored him and quieted the others. “Ramzi,” he asked. “Did you steal something?”
“No—no.” The boy, still now, threw a bewildered look at Muhammad, and Muhammad suddenly saw himself, how monstrous and unwieldy he must appear. At last, he let go. One block over, on the other side of the buildings, a hoarse-voiced man was shouting at someone. A car idled; a second, shrill voice rose in argument. The crowd around them was dispersing slowly. The boy hesitated. He opened his mouth to say something, then slumped. “I don’t have anything,” he told Muhammad after a minute. “Okay? Whatever you want, I don’t have it.”
He was telling the truth. Muhammad could see that he had nothing to give: no parchments, no scraps of bindings, no remains he could touch.
A hint of regret, or pity, seemed to dart across the boy’s face. Perhaps he was planning to say something more. But the next moment, the shouting heightened on the next block. A burst of rifle fire sounded from behind the buildings. The men from the crowd scrambled around the corner, angling their guns as new shots peppered the air in back of the stores. The boy and his friends whooped and ululated, as if cheering the groom at a wedding, and then they bolted down a side street, away from the noise, as Muhammad and the rest of the crowd raced behind them. A fiery pain spread through his chest. The air seemed never to reach him but to remain somewhere just beyond his lungs. Still, he forced himself on. The boys grew smaller in the distance. He watched them slip onto a wide thoroughfare, where they bounded into the tangle of stalled cars and buses. When he looked up again, gasping in an alley by an auto shop, the boy was gone.
Muhammad did not return home that day. He crossed through the western outskirts of the neighborhood and then out beyond, where the streets stank of the river’s burnt decay. Had he merely imagined the boy’s expression, the faint apology? He could not shake the absurd feeling as he walked, that he had bidden goodbye to an old friend. But perhaps it was only the new emptiness settling on him—the awareness that time was fleeing and could not be reeled back. He passed the old cafés in the bookstore quarter, shawarma stands where men sat smoking on plastic crates, mosque courtyards where shrieking girls and boys kicked up dust as pigeons scattered into the air. His back smoldered, and his legs felt like dry rope. Everything around him would vanish; was it possible to hold onto even one piece?
Darkness was sloping down when Muhammad returned to his neighborhood. At the entrance to his street, American troops had set up a checkpoint between two trucks with illumined white headlights. Six soldiers were searching men for weapons. A Jeep had exploded a few blocks away, a squat, sweating man in front of Muhammad said as a soldier shouted for quiet, and there were whispers of more blasts to come.
The men in line around Muhammad were muttering and restless. The troops seemed to take an unbearable amount of time with each man they examined, one soldier patting him down while a second stood guard and the others trained their eyes over the crowd.
When Muhammad’s turn came, the soldier frisking him—tall and gangly, with an air of harried distraction—slapped him hard around the ribs. Something jerked inside Muhammad.
“Get away from me!” he snapped. “Now — get away!” The day wandering in the sun, the boy, the stench of the city streets, and now this. He was spinning with exhaustion. He felt as if he might say anything, even reach out and strike the man, or attempt something equally senseless, and it would no longer matter what came after.
The soldier, startled, reared back. His partner beside him pointed his rifle at Muhammad. The second soldier was perhaps twenty-five, with a squarish nose and dark stubble poking through his chin. He scanned Muhammad’s face, then said something in English. “Up,” he ordered in Arabic, nodding at Muhammad’s hands. “Up, up.”
Muhammad stared at the gun, and a feeling swooped over him, unsettling in its warmth—relief, he realized, the prospect of darkness and a long sleep where he would be freed from scraping for fragments each day and failing, and failing again. But just then something in the soldier’s face changed.
“Why do you deceive me?” he said. “Most beguiling, most elusive of stars, who marks the passing of my happiest season.” He then proceeded to recite three lines from the lost corpus of the poet and astronomer al-Samarri. When he finished, he looked as if he had just woken up in a room he had never seen. He stared at Muhammad. “Go,” he said in English after a minute. He spoke carefully, as if testing his voice. “Go,” he said again, and Muhammad understood.
When Muhammad reached his apartment a few minutes later, he dropped into a chair and lit a candle at the table. His hands were trembling. Pale light was dragging itself through the blinds. He was alive: the fact buzzed in the air, petulant and mocking. He paged through the few scraps he had managed to glean. “Only upon the remotest seas did I hear the songs of home”; “. . . trees which, in place of leaves, sprout ghastly human hands”; “If a pious man, wishing to divide his property beyond his immediate kin . . .” Had Ibn al-Dhakira known this feeling? With each piece he gathered, another seemed to slip from his grasp. In a way, it was worse to spot these glimmers as they bobbed to the surface: like trapped swimmers seeking air, reaching for his hand and disappearing again before he could free them.
Outside, the street was awakening. A motorbike stalled. Two men shouted greetings from opposite sides of the road as a garage door slid up on its hinges. Muhammad trimmed another candle and dozed with his head on the table. After a while, he awoke and smoked a cigarette and gathered together his papers and waited until it was time again to set out.