The City that Shares the Fate of Saada

Finalist of the “Two Thousand Nights and Awakening” literary contest

Idlib, a city located in the North of Syria, was once famous for its thriving ceramics and olive industries. However, since it got caught up in the maelstrom of war, it is constantly threatened by air strikes.

The door stands ajar and through it a small chink of light streams into the otherwise dark room I find myself in. Suddenly, I realize that I need to believe that there is still a faint hope that the story of my city won’t end like Saada’s story, to wit, tragically and mysteriously.

Saada was an almost sixty-year old woman of unknown origin who had become a reference point for the people of Idlib. The skin of her face was as pitted as the moon’s surface. A few strands of gray hair that looked as if they had never met a brush before peeked out of the dark piece of cloth with which she covered her head. She cared for over fifty cats, while all she owned was the shanty she lived in. When she got lucky enough to lay her hands on some coin, she immediately made it disappear within the folds of her robes. Although everyone had their own theory, nobody really knew where it went after that.

One day, the authorities decided to erect a new building where her shanty stood. They sent a demolition squad with a bulldozer to raze it to the ground. Saada wasn’t at home. She had gone out for a stroll, as was her wont. People gathered to witness her frightened cats meet their dreadful fate. The bulldozer treated her shanty with roughly the same compassion a ravenous tiger would show for its prey. Its thin walls collapsed with the first strike. All of a sudden, money started to fly, which resulted in the crowd jumping at each other’s throats in order to grab hold of as many greenbacks as possible.

Saada spent that evening crying over the debris from her shattered home and the remains of her dead cats.

Later, she set up a home in a tent south of the bazaar’s square, which nowadays is called the Clock Square, together with the cats that had survived the demolition of her old dwelling. She used old pieces of fabric and a tall log to build it. People thought she had gotten over what had happened to her, and started spying on her and harassing her again from time to time.

One winter morning, she was found dead in her precarious tent. The mosques didn’t announce her demise over its loudspeakers.

How had she passed away? Several versions of the story circulated around.

Like teacher Abdu’s. He told his colleagues at the high school were he worked that he believed she had died of asphyxia. According to him, since that night had been a pretty cold one, she had probably shut down her tent, made a fire, fallen asleep and suffocated on the smoke. When teacher Hazem heard what teacher Abdu thought had happened, he refuted his theory by stating that, since her tent was made of rags sown together, it had far too many leaks for the concentration of smoke inside the tent to rise to a life-threatening level.

The dressmaker’s assistant told her clients, while biting off a thread with her incisors, that she concluded Saada had died of hypothermia. After all, temperatures had dropped like a brick that night, or didn’t they remember how the hanging laundry had frozen stiff on the clothesline? Nuhad’s mom, in turn, commented that she remembered the previous nights to have been even harsher.

Darwish, the guy with the goatee, also had his own version of the story, which he made public when he sat down on the sidewalk to ask a street vendor for a falafel sandwich:

“You wouldn’t want me to starve to death like Saada, would you now?”

Abu Abdoo then wrapped up the falafel sandwich, handed it over to Darwish and announced with a reproachful tone:

“She most certainly did not die of starvation that night, because I treated her to three falafel sandwiches.”

Darwish didn’t bother to retort because he was entirely focused on devouring his sandwich, which he was holding with both hands, in the fear that someone might want to steal it from him.

Everyone seemed not only to entertain their own suspicions, but to be more than happy to share them with the world. Everyone, that is, except Zakariya, who was nicknamed the Mooch, because he was always running short on cash. Apparently, he preferred to keep his for himself. At some point, his wife asked him:

“What is it? Why don’t you want to speculate like the rest of us?”

He bit his lower lip in an attempt to bite his tongue, kept quiet for about a minute, and finally, broke the suspense, “I don’t need to speculate. I know exactly what went down. She was killed because of what she said right before giving up the ghost.”

His wife was too dumbstruck to ask any further questions.

He then began his account of the events leading to her death, relieved at being able, finally, to get it off his chest, “On her last night on earth, I was sweeping the street where she had set up camp when I saw a beefy young man approach her with a rifle strapped to his shoulder.”

His wife gasped, “Oh, my God! Then what?”

He continued:

“The man began to taunt her with remarks about her cats. At first, she tried to humor him, in the hope that he would eventually get bored and leave her be, but, suddenly, he gave a kick to one of her cats. The assaulted cat cowered in pain and began to whimper. Saada took it into her arms and threatened the stranger:

“Tomorrow, you will get what’s coming to you. After all, I am the cousin of the president of the Republic!”


The author, Mostafa Abdulfatah:

  • Syrian dentist and writer
  • Member of the Arab Writers Union
  • Has published numerous works of literature and articles in several Arabic newspapers and magazines
  • Won the literary contest hosted by the Japan Center for Academic Cooperation
  • Won the Shukri Faisal Prize for Literary Criticism
  • Won the Nelson Mandela Prize for Studies on South Africa
  • Won the Qatar International Award for Arabic Children’s Literature
  • Won the Literary Award of the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States
  • Has published several books.