Wild Mulberries Excerpt

          As he does every year, my father begins with insuring the white mulberry fields in the villages surrounding ours. The square-shaped, three-story haaras transform into a huge workshop for two whole months. The eastern side of the middle haara is emptied of its beds and furniture, which are relocated to the colder western side. That is where my father sleeps and where my aunt does the washing and cleaning, with help from the Kurdish woman, Maryam. The western side becomes more intimate than before. No guest ever enters this part of the haara. Only women, people who live in the house, and Ibrahim ever enter it. During the silk season, my father receives his guests in the inner courtyard under the walnut tree. They stay outside and do not enter the house. That way they cannot go into the rooms to see how the silkworms are growing and maturing. They are afraid. Whenever my father does insist that one of the men come in, that man will begin praying that the season will bring all that the shaykh desires.

          They repeat these prayers to ward off the evil eye. It is said that a person is affected by the eye through no will or intention of his own. My father’s visitors stand to take their leave and empty out of the haara’s courtyard with the first cold breeze the night carries in.

          During the silk season, our things are scattered all around. We sleep on the floor: in the dining room and the liwan whose doors open onto spacious, high-ceilinged rooms that branch off of its entire length. The last and lowest haara is located beneath a courtyard that serves as much of its roof, and beneath which its rooms are lined up like compartments on a long train. The men who come from distant places to work in the wide-open fields sleep in these rooms. My father gives them rooms to sleep in, food, and a little money in advance of their hard labor, to which there is no end.
          “They are strong and their bodies are solid,” he says as they walk by, and he goes on, “Just like donkeys, they’re not good for anything but tilling the fields. Village boys aren’t good for anything.”
           He fears them, for they are quick to anger. They shout aggressively, throw their pickaxes on the ground, take their few possessions and leave right at the height of the season. They know how and when to threaten to leave. My father is then forced to ask them to spend the evening with him in the courtyard between the two haaras, which overlooks the faraway coastline and from which the sea looms up, a thin blue ribbon, encircled by a thick green forest of pine-nut trees. Sometimes he offers them a bit of oil to light the lanterns in their rooms. When he is sure that they are all contented and have decided to stay, he stops all of this and goes back to his usual harshness.
           Ibrahim, the year-round permanent worker, comes to the haara with a box of silkworm eggs and spreads them out in a warm corner of the first room in the upper haara. The room is then heated and its walls cleaned and coated with lime water before the eggs are spread out on new layers of straw. Sometimes they spread them out on the inner bark of the mulberry tree trunks and hang them above the heater to hatch them quickly. Maryam helps my aunt light the fire and get ready to raise the silkworms by covering the windows of the rooms with a thick cloth that prevents sunlight from burning them. The eggs hatch, transforming into small worms. Ibrahim, with the help of others, cuts up small pieces of soft, moist, green mulberry leaves and spreads them out for the hungry worms. “Yellah, raise them up high before dark!” my father says in his deep voice while walking between the doors of the upper haara, so Ibrahim starts moving the small worms from the layers of straw and tree branches to elevated spots that are prepared on planks of wood and distributed among the haara’s many rooms.

          As some of the rooms are being emptied of their furniture for the silk season, my aunt summons Ibrahim to come upstairs and help the others carry the iron stove out. It is a big black stove, which Maryam cleans out, removing the deposits of soot and ashes remaining inside it from the winter. The men carry it far away and put it down at the end of the inner courtyard. My aunt always covers it with an old rug and hangs brightly colored, shiny tassels from it. In the summer, the stove transforms into one of the many seats scattered near the low wall, which my father leans against while sitting atop the stove’s edge, observing the workers’ families and shouting at their children if they raise their voices louder than what he considers appropriate.
           The workers of the lower haara live in a long row of separate, dark, gloomy rooms. The inhabitants of these rooms keep candles lit during the small amount of time they spend awake sprawled out on their mattresses, singing mawals that they brought with them from their villages. They lift their voices in songs of passion and exile, which mingle with children’s screams and mothers’ curses as the weakening sun begins to disappear behind the faraway thin blue line.
          At the end of the corridor separating the doors of the rooms and the dawwara, the outhouse stands in the sun. Near it in the midday heat, you can hear the sound of grasshoppers buzzing amid the wild trees that surround its door and small window.
          ‘Ayn Tahoon lives off the silk season. It takes out loans in bills of exchange. This way, the children go to school and their fathers wait for their wages, then pay back their debts until after the season’s sales. Everyone waits for the season. Work begins as does the countdown, and the opening of accounts that will last the entire year.
          “Three hundred okas of cocoons!” my father intones radiantly, continuing, “The season won’t be so bad… isn’t that so, Ibrahim?”
          He claps his big hand on Ibrahim’s shoulder. Ibrahim lifts up the scraps of worm excretions and mulberry remains. He gathers them in canvas sacks and puts them aside for animal feed.
          “Three hundred okas, this season really should bring enough to feed the whole village,” he says proudly, “This time, Ibrahim you will have a share in the season… A big share… You can set up your own household and marry Shams.”
           Ibrahim nods his head at the speech given to him every year which never materializes: a share of the season and marrying my aunt Shams, who is more than thirty years old. He mutters incomprehensibly, while his body remains crouched over the canvas sacks. A share of the season and marrying Shams. Two promises the shaykh makes every year, which mean nothing—except to silence Ibrahim and keep him in the haara. The shaykh puts my aunt’s life on hold year after year just as he puts my brother’s life on hold. It is as though time for him includes no life but his own.
          Visits by merchants and silk brokers increase a few days before the cocoons are harvested. They come and they go but do not start the auctioning. Everything depends on the quality of the cocoons, how white they are. One of these men holds a cocoon and squeezes its sides between his fingers. If it’s soft, this means it’s no good. Ibrahim stands with my father. They both talk to the merchant, telling him the cocoons are high quality this year, they are as hard as eggshells, and he shouldn’t worry. Meanwhile, my brother spends the silk season in the valley. He pitches a tent in the lower part of the field and we do not see him at home during the whole summer. He divides his time between the tent and his mother’s house. This is the best way for him to avoid my father. They rarely meet without arguing.
          In the beginning, my father did not raise silkworms. He started this at the end of the First World War, a few months before I was born, when my grandfather—who was my father’s age—read about a decision issued by the French, allowing the importation of silkworm eggs to resume. He brought this news to my father, who quickly used my grandfather’s money to rent the lands rich with mulberry trees. He also started farming the land to care for these mulberry trees, betting that the cultivation of silkworms would make a comeback, flourishing once again.
          The workers relax and turn their attention to the fields during the silkworms’ fasts. The worms fast three times and three times break their fasts, all before the beginning of the red, or last, fast, when each worm excretes a silk string that it wraps around itself in a cocoon. Ibrahim comes with the workers and picks up the remaining pieces of mulberry leaves and cleans everything, including the wooden shelves, so that the silkworms do not succumb to illnesses like deblan, or qiyah, or other diseases whose names I do not even know. These diseases frighten my father, who every morning comes into the rooms where the raised wooden shelves are. He observes the silkworms eating and thriving beneath his very eyes and assures himself of how clean the place is. He observes them in order to be sure that their sizes are adequate and consistent with one another. This is so that after the last fast they can all move at one time up to the tree branches suspended on the wooden shelves and begin spinning their cocoons.