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I entered through the palace gates, leaning against my stick as I walked. The garden was the largest piece of land I had ever seen. An expanse of manicured grass stretched as far as the eye could see. In one secluded corner, by a waterfall, an armed guard sat on a folding chair with his head tilted backwards and his eyes closed, although his mouth hung open. His brown cap had fallen to the ground. A large blue carpet had been spread out in the center of the garden. Fans and contraptions that sprayed water vapor lined the perimeter of the carpet. Everyone, almost a hundred men, sat on the ground, leaning against rough pillows we called markas. Not so the Prince, who sat on an antique chair that faced the entrance of the villa. A computer flashed the fluctuations of the stock market by his side. We were all there to offer words of flattery in exchange for whatever the Prince would give.

There are two types of people: qibeelis and khadheeris. As the name indicates, qibeelis belong to a qibeelah, or tribe. Everyone else is a khadheeri. Unlike qibeelis, we can’t trace our lineage all the way back to Adam. Hundreds of thousands of years of names of men. At some point, we lost our link to our tribe. We forgot. Some say we were forsaken because one of our ancestors committed a crime at some point in our history. Or that an ancestor had adopted a profession that the tribe deemed shameful, like carpentry. Or maybe an ancestor was forced to migrate, to drift away from the tribe, to turn his back on the nomadic way and settle in some ancient city outside the Arabian Peninsula.

An officer from the National Guard stood in his brown uniform and red beret, but could not capture the Prince’s attention. The officer recited his poem, in which he lamented the loss of his car in an accident, while the Prince played with his phone. When the poem ended, the Prince gave him the same slip of paper he gave most of the poets; a check with plenty of zeroes.

A line had formed, and when each man’s turn came, he would step up and recite a poem that depicted some form of misfortune while praising the Prince’s generosity. Every poet boasted of his tribe. So many tribes: Bani Thaleel, Wajh Maraq, Trara, Shihatha, Fisheelah and countless others. A servant poured the Prince some tan Arabic coffee in a little ceramic cup with no handles, which the Prince held with his thumb, index and middle fingers.

Sindah al-Tha’lab, the great poet of the Tha’lab tribe, stepped out of a gleaming green Range Rover holding a bottle of water in one hand and a stack of papers in the other, his great belly protruding outwards. His eyes met mine for only a moment. I immediately looked down and stroked my white beard. The poet walked past the gate of the villa and took off his sandals at the edge of the carpet. He scanned the faces of the men who had come to watch and to beg. When Sindah cleared his throat, the Prince put down his phone.

Of course, his poem, like the others, was not in classical Arabic. We all composed poems in the Najdi dialect. Nabati poetry. I appreciated Sindah’s wordplay, how he used the word “qosoor” to signify both “palaces” and “need.” Sindah ended his poem with an image of his fellow tribesmen in battle, their swords dripping with blood. When he fell silent, the Prince applauded wildly and cried, “Give Sindah a Bentley!”

“May you live long, Son of Kings,” said Sindah with a flourish.

A servant walked to the center of the carpet and asked, “Are there any more poets?”

It took me a moment to raise my hand.

“Oh,” laughed the Prince as he shook his little cup, indicating to the servant that he did not want a refill. Although it was after dusk, the Prince wore dark Aviator glasses. His receding hairline made his forehead seem as expansive as the garden, and his long, unkempt hair bounced whenever he laughed. The Prince was the only one who wore nothing on his head. “Who is this brave wordsmith who will follow the great Sindah?” he asked.

I cleared my throat, took a deep breath and said, “I am not a poet—”

“You’re not a poet?” The Prince raised his eyebrow. “Then what are you doing here?”

“I am here to tell a story,” I mumbled. “I am a khadheeri—”

“—A khadheeri storyteller!” The Prince clapped his hands. “You’re a 110? And what story will you tell?”

“I will tell the story of how we lost our origin,” I said.

Many of those in attendance laughed. “Are you serious?” The Prince seemed amused. “Well, let’s hear this tragic tale!”


* * *


I always hear that we “misplaced” our lineage, that magical chain of names. They talk about it as if it were a set of keys that you forgot somewhere. In reality, I can trace my lineage farther back than many of these qibeelis. My ancestor was Ishaq the Butcher, who died at twenty-two.

When Ishaq the Butcher was a child, his right eye filled with pus and glowed a bright red. Some say it was the result of a scorpion sting. Others say he was possessed by devils. Whenever the sun was in the liver of the sky, and the day was at its hottest, Ishaq the Butcher’s eye would water. Wayfarers who saw him mistakenly assumed that he was weeping.

Ishaq only became the Butcher toward the end of his life, when he entered adolescence. Before puberty, he was just another boy, slow of foot and slight of build. All that changed when the Abbasid Caliph Sfooq II whipped his father for stealing a loaf of bread. Shortly thereafter, weeks after his seventeenth birthday, Ishaq emerged from the deserts of Najd with a pack of only three hundred men, most of whom were twice his age, and headed toward Mecca. The siege lasted for seven months. They say that the city’s inhabitants survived by eating bark and leaves. Those who lived until the end of the siege came to envy those who did not. That’s when my ancestor achieved his nickname.

Power meant nothing to Ishaq the Butcher. His men fought for the spoils of war, but the Butcher did not care to partake. He traveled from Mecca to Medina to Jeddah and back to Medina in pursuit of Sfooq II’s foot soldiers, whom he dismembered and skinned alive. Although the Caliph, far away in Basra, only considered the Butcher to be a minor annoyance, there were times when he dispatched small armies to crush his “rebellion,” as they called it. During those times, the Butcher did not stay and fight, but vanished into the deserts of Najd.


The most infamous of the Butcher’s many sieges was his last: the siege of Yamama, when he was twenty years old. The city withstood his onslaught for only a month, but the memory of its aftermath lingered for centuries. The Butcher’s brother, who was thirty-five at the time, never raided again after he saw what he saw. They say he worked as a blacksmith for the rest of his days.


Upon the death of Sfooq II, his successor, Kathab the Eloquent, momentarily suspended the numerous wars his predecessor had been waging against the Romans, Persians and Greeks. He therefore had more resources at his disposal to pursue my ancestor, and promised a thousand dirhams to anyone who could bring him the Butcher’s head. My ancestor went into hiding, surviving by raiding the odd caravan, but otherwise remaining out of sight. For over a year, he was like a ghost, spoken of but never seen. Every few weeks, reports could be heard of the Butcher re-surfacing as far south as Yemen and as far north as Damascus, but these reports were never accurate. Bandits called themselves “Butcher” to strike fear in the hearts of their victims, but none had the same apathy as my ancestor, who apparently found neither pleasure nor discomfort in any of the atrocities he performed.


One day, a squadron of the imperial guard broke into a hut where the Butcher was sleeping. A carpenter had informed them of his whereabouts. The guards wore armor from head to toe, and carried swords, spears and shields. The Butcher had a piece of cloth wrapped around his waist and another covering his shoulders. As soon as the intruders burst in the door, the Butcher leapt from his bed and unsheathed the dagger he kept at his waist. The guards stopped and trembled, each one waiting, hoping for one of his comrades to make the first move. The Butcher eyed the perimeter of the windowless room, but saw no way out. He decided that he did not want to die at the hands of the new Caliph’s henchmen, so he lifted the dagger with both hands and stabbed himself in the stomach.


* * *


The Prince, whose mouth had been hanging open, clapped his hands. “What a tale!” he cried. “So that’s where you get your family name!”

I nodded and looked at the ground.

“Your ancestor was a great warrior,” said the Prince. “A bandit and an outlaw, but nevertheless a fearsome warrior.”

“They say,” I said without looking up, “that when the guards presented the Butcher’s head to Kathab the Eloquent, the Caliph clutched his chest and fell to the floor, dead as a stone.”

The Prince threw his head back and laughed so hard that you could see his molars. “Give the son of the Butcher a hundred thousand riyals!”


I walked out into the street, toward the yellow dumpster where I had parked my Toyota Corolla. When I passed Sindah al-Tha’lab’s green Range Rover, he jumped out of the passenger seat and called for me.

“O khadheeri!” He waved his hand.

“My name is Ismail,” I said.

“Ismail,” he smiled, “I enjoyed your story.”

“A mark of your kindness.” I looked at the ground.

“We are brothers in the art,” he said, “and brothers in the profession. Our paths will surely cross many times in courtyards and palaces, so I offer a word of advice. . .” He leaned into me, and I felt his breath against my nose. “Never follow me,” he said through his teeth.

“You don’t want me to follow you?” I looked into his black eyes.

“When Sindah recites,” he stepped back. “Poets fall silent.”

I nodded and looked down at the ground.

He patted me on the shoulder and said, “I enjoyed your tale, old man.” Then Sindah climbed back into his green vehicle.

A cat was resting on the roof of my car, but it jumped up when it sensed my presence and fled, vanishing into the giant yellow dumpster. I stood for a moment to listen to its scratching before throwing myself into my little Toyota. My elbow hit a can I had forgotten in the cup holder. I picked up the can of warm 7 Up and examined it. Never before had I gazed so intently upon a can of soda, the word “7 Up” scrawled on the sides in both English and Arabic. Until that moment, I had never realized that, because we don’t have the letter “p” in our language, the manufacturers had been forced to borrow the letter from the Persian. A “b” with three dots underneath instead of one. The red dot which separated the number “7” from the letters glowed a bright, murderous red. I opened the can and swallowed its contents, trying to hypnotize myself into believing that the liquid was cold. I opened the window and flung the empty can at the dumpster. It spun in the air, a whirl of white, green and red, before disappearing into the pile of garbage.


Tariq al Haydar

Tariq al Haydar's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Down & Out, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Threepenny Review and others. He is an assistant professor of English at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

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