The Man Who Hates Sneezing, a story from Syria


By Zaher Omareen
Translated from Arabic by Alice Guthrie

––Why don’t you and Mom have any photos from your wedding, Dad?

––Because no one dared have a wedding in those days. This was at the height of the uprising in ’79. All you’d hear was “They killed so and so today,” and “They blew up such and such a place today,” and “They took so and so’s son away today,” and “Today so and so’s corpse was released to his family.” Anyone who held a wedding right then would’ve been spat at by the rest of the community. People were going to five or six funerals a day, every day. So, it really had to all be hush-hush: me and your mom got married on the quiet.

––What do you mean? How can you get married on the quiet?

––Me and your grandma, God rest her soul, went and picked your mom up from her parents’ place—in those days your Uncle Yahya had a taxi, one of those rounded-looking old Mercedes we used to call “doughnuts,” so he took us over there. And it was cool, actually, because when we got there and I pointed the house out to him—that was the first time he’d been there with me—he said “Hey, this is my buddy’s parents’ place!” So I said “What are you talking about? This is my fiancée’s place!” And he said “No way, don’t tell me you’re marrying a relative of one of my closest friends?!” You see how life was back then? No one told their friends, even their closest friends, that their sister was engaged or had gotten married—it was seen as very shameful, it would have been really frowned upon. And even today, actually, the father of the bride and her sisters aren’t supposed to attend the wedding—it is still all kept very private.

––But one day, when my sister gets married, I want to be there!

––It’s not done, son, it’d be shameful. Just the girl and her mom go over to the groom’s house, no one else. Anyway, listen, let me tell you the rest of the story . . . It turned out your two uncles—my brother and your mom’s brother—had been friends since school.

––No way! Which one of Mom’s brothers are you talking about?

––Your Uncle Abdul Rahim, may he rest in peace. You never knew him. He was exactly the same age as my brother Yahya, and they were “two asses in one garment” as the saying goes—such good friends! But, God rest his soul, they took him away during the Events.

––Why did they take him?

––The army came for every man between fourteen and fifty, Son, every single one of them. But your grandfather, your mom’s dad, he didn’t let any of his sons flee the house ahead of raids like the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. He used to say to them “It’s better to die in your own home than to die out there in the street.” He sorted out a few hiding places for them in the house. Yeah, your grandpa lived in one of those slightly tumble-down old houses that’d been patched and bodged over the years and had all these funny little nooks and crannies, you know, holes and places that your uncles could dart into and hide in as soon as there was a raid. So, anyway, as the three of them—Suleiman, Abdul Rahim and Saeed—were sitting there one evening having supper, suddenly there was a knock at the door. Your uncles leapt up and hid, quick as a flash. Suleiman, the eldest, was engaged at the time. Abdul Rahim was the youngest, in 1982 he’d have been about twenty-three. Anyway, so those two both hid in the little loft above the kitchen—one of those ones they have in old houses, you know, like a big storage cupboard, really. Your other uncle Abdul Qadir, who we call Qadru, flew like the wind to hide in some piles of old junk up on the flat roof. They’d been taking turns going to the different hiding places each time, you see.

Then the patrol stormed into the house, shouting “Search, search!”

The officer in charge of the group came in with a poisonous look on his face and started laying into your grandpa and calling him names – you effing this and you effing that, who are you hiding in here? Where are the criminals you’re harboring? We know you’re hiding some scum in here somewhere.

Your grandpa said to him “I swear to God there’s no one here but me and my good wife who opened the door for you.” The soldier looked down at the cloth laid out on the floor where they’d all been eating supper just moments before, and saw three glasses of tea. He said to your grandpa “You old liar! Who are those three glasses for then?” Your grandma can tell you what happened next: how the soldier grabbed the kettle that was boiling away on the stove and poured it straight over your grandpa’s head. Your grandpa didn’t make a sound. He didn’t want his sons to hear him cry out and come down to defend him and then get caught by the patrol. To this day, if you look closely at your grandpa’s face, you can still see the burn scar on his forehead.

––And what happened after that?

––The soldiers absolutely ransacked the house—they turned it upside down, looting as they went. Your grandma says they even took the little metal coat hooks, thinking they were silver—she was such a zealous cleaner, your grandma, she’d polished them ‘til they gleamed and sparkled!

And all the time, as he crashed around the house, the officer kept saying to your grandpa “Where’s that criminal you’re setting a place for at dinner and then hiding from us?” and threatening him with horrible things, you know, telling him he’d do this that and the other to him, and that he’d leave him in all sorts of terrible states. And, meanwhile, the patrol—the rest of the soldiers and security forces under the officer’s command—were searching the whole house . . . and the officer just carried on breaking everything he could get his hands on. And your grandpa still didn’t say a word.
Well, you know who was hiding in the kitchen loft while all this was going on, don’t you? Your Uncle Saeed and your Uncle Abdul Rahim. One of them was inside an empty cooking fat crate, an old square wooden one, and the other was wedged in between the sacks of grain and lentils, with some old rags pulled over his head.

Suddenly, an unmistakable sound was heard by everyone in the house. Someone in the kitchen loft had sneezed. The officer signaled to his troops, who instantly reloaded their Kalashnikovs, but they didn’t move towards the loft: they didn’t dare to actually go up there.


––Well in those days, even though the soldiers were so heavily armed, they were actually total cowards. Not one of them would dare walk down the street on his own. And on top of that, they would’ve been even more scared now, knowing that the person hiding might be armed or have a bomb or a grenade or something. Your grandpa says how the officer stood at the bottom of the ladder to the loft and shouted up to your uncles, “I’m going to count to ten: either you get down here or this whole house comes down on all your heads!”

And he started to count.

Your Uncle Saeed still remembers the sight of the lid suddenly lifting off that cooking fat crate . . . Out climbed your uncle Abdul Rahim, God rest his soul, and down he went to give himself up to the officer. Your grandma was wailing and crying and slapping her hands to her face; your grandpa was kissing the officer’s hands, and his legs, begging him not to take his son away. Your grandma says the troops gathered up all the young men in their neighborhood that day—they dragged out about thirty of them, and chucked them all in a garbage truck, and took them away. They were never seen again. People say your Uncle Abdul Rahim was killed in the massacre at Tadmor Prison. Apparently that bunch was taken to al-Daharia, near the Deedban river, and shot, and then buried in some out-of-the-way place no one knows.

Well, so I’m sure you must’ve noticed, haven’t you? You’ll very rarely see your Uncle Saeed sneeze, and if he absolutely has to sneeze, he’ll do it silently.

––He doesn’t sneeze?

––Course not! Because it turns out it wasn’t Abdul Rahim who sneezed in the loft—it was your Uncle Saeed. But Abdul Rahim, may he rest in peace, he knew his brother was scared, and he sensed him hesitate—and that boy always did have nerves of steel: he went down there instead of his brother. Your Uncle Saeed says Abdul Rahim whispered to him as he went, “One’s better than two. It’ll just be a few days before they let me out again—you stay here, it’s nearly your wedding day.”

You see how life flows on? After that your Uncle Saeed got married, as planned, and he named his eldest son Abdul Rahim after the brother he’d lost in the Events. And today his son’s fifteen . . . time passes, life moves on.

Right, come on then love, time for bed . . . your eyes are getting red and you’ve got school tomorrow.

-This story is included in the collection Tales of the Orontes, forthcoming in illustrated bilingual edition from The Operating System in February 2018



Zaher Omareen is a Syrian researcher and writer who has published articles and short stories in the Arab and English press. His short story “First Safety Maneuver” won a prize awarded by the Danish Institute in Damascus and by the 2012 Copenhagen Festival of Literature. He has worked on independent cultural initiatives in Syria and Europe, and co-curated exhibitions on the art of the Syrian uprising. He studied media, journalism, and theatrical and dramatic arts in Damascus, and holds a MA in media and cultural studies from Sussex University. He is a PhD candidate in contemporary documentary cinema and new media at Goldsmiths College, London, and is completing Tales of the Orontes River, a collection of short stories drawn from the collective memories of the 1982 Hama massacre. Zaher recently co-edited and published Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (Saqi, 2014) which discusses the artistic and culture outcomes of the Syrian uprising.

Alice Guthrie is a British translator, editor, journalist and event producer specialising in Arabic-English literary and media content. Since 2008 her work has appeared in a range of international publications, with an increasing focus on Syria, where she studied Arabic between 2001 and 2003. She is literary producer for Shubbak, London’s biennial festival of Arab arts and culture, and bilingually edits Arabic-English translations for various literary presses. A former Translator in Residence at London’s Free Word Centre and American Literary Translators Association Fellow, in 2015 she was a recipient – with Syrian writer Rasha Abbas – of the Omi International Translation Lab fellowship.