Fiction from the Magazine: Raghad Qasim’s ‘Hair or No Hair’

The judge decided, however, that the fine was not high enough. Me: No. Who am I to go against evolution? To be imprisoned inside a house was much better than being in one of what I called the “white houses” of the government apparatus. Yet I could not let go of my hair, no matter how hard I tried to be one of the “no-hair people,” as they called themselves. That frightened me. But worry began to seep in after children completed their first year with no sign of hair— and I mean not one single hair—on their heads. Nonetheless, I insisted and loudly vowed that I would keep my hair. I was one of the first to hold a no-hair baby. They are cold, colorless, and devoid of all taste. It was a strange, bright whiteness that would actually harm the vision. The interview was as simple as one question: “Why don’t you shave your head?” Then, blood and hair samples were obtained from me, although for what purpose I do not know. Qasim works as a medical laboratory technician in Baghdad; the story is based on her observations of increasing hair loss among the patients. The authorities claim that the evolution of mankind began only after humans lost the hair on their bodies. By growing my hair, maintaining it uncut, and spending large sums of money on its upkeep, I helped nobody except those with capitalistic interests, who transformed people into avid consumers—consumers who would waste wealth on goods that enriched no one and did not feed the poor. My trial, and those of a few “hairy” women like me, were broadcast live. Zeena Faulk is an Iraqi-American literary translator and a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Warwick. And now, after all these years, I drag behind my tall figure thick white hair that sweeps the floor. I decided then to cover my hair and, from that day, I went outside only sporadically. Every lawyer I spoke to said I was lucky to be jailed in my own home and not in a prison cell. 

They were right, I thought. With her dimming no-hair head, she continues to sit at the threshold of the gate, gazing into the emptiness. And that is a problem; when music stops, life comes to a standstill. I had often listened to my family—particularly my mother, my husband, and my daughter, who endured bullying at school—and agreed to cut it. The mother wanted the doctor to prescribe some drug that could help seed some hair on his head. The doctors who examined the men and women who experienced hair loss suggested that the condition was caused by worry and stress, not least because of the frequent wars and psychological stressors of that time. You could not find a single Iraqi man pushing forty with hair left on the head. Over the next five years, there were only about thirty cases of no-hair children all across Iraq. I stood as a catalyst that gradually and persistently weakened the constitution of society. My charges were read to me in court and they included—alongside those mentioned earlier—unambiguous lack of sympathy towards others, a lack that robbed me of the desire to give up on this filth that we called “hair.” The charges also alluded to my obvious failure to understand the extent of oppression that no-hair people had experienced throughout our history. When the judge saw my hair, he asked only one question:

Judge: Will you shave your head? You cannot even hear music, as it was banned long ago. *

Raghad Qasim is an Iraqi medical technician, writer, and translator. Meanwhile, I hum old songs that I remember from the past and weave or unweave my hair without any boredom. 

*

Sha’ar Aswad..Sha’ar Abiyadh was the original title of this story that Raghad Qasim wrote in 2019. They say that the Iraqi people suffered such dreadful circumstances in the past century that they lost their hair. Shortly before the trial, I lost my husband and my only daughter in a car accident, which made the judge show me a little compassion. I do not understand why judges care more about my hair than about the grave issues facing the nation. That’s what I remember from my childhood and youth. 

These days, hair products are simply unsaleable stock. I tried to appeal the sentence, but there was no attorney willing to defend my case. They even fell for patchiness-covering tresses, and finally to wigs. As long as the child’s health was in good shape, she continued, there was no need to be concerned. But that number has since changed steadily. I feel as if I am a tree and my locks are my deep, thrusting roots. But they are not enough to fill me. The no-hair phenomenon certainly has a backstory. I felt he was particularly fixated on only me, of all the medical professionals in the birthing room—staring intently at my hair with such anger that I felt like a pitiless felon. Today, sixty years later, you cannot find ten children in the whole country who were born with hair on their heads. We continue to be a burden on the state as long as we refuse to shave our heads. I was told that his sentences were usually more severe. Fearing the looks of the covetous would jinx me, she urged me to put on a headcover, but I declined. No one falls for such scams any more. His poor mother wailed nonstop. She also works as an on-site interpreter for criminal courts and medical clinics throughout the United States. I cannot say that I miss them because I never was a good reader. 

The female guard continues to watch me all day, and she gives me three small meals every day. It was rare, I should add, that I lost a single hair.  

I was first to see that hairless newborn and to carry him to the nurse whose job it was to look him over. I answered his question calmly. 

The judge immediately ordered an end to my retirement and put me under house arrest until death. I am not allowed to pop my head out, not even from the main gate. This little oddball did not loosen his gaze from my hair as long as I held him. I was just two months short of my nineteenth birthday when we began training in the maternity ward at Baghdad University Hospital. I weave all day long until the day ends. All this is for free, following the judge’s order to end my retirement benefits. It is no longer possible to hear the noise that people make on the streets. But I always went back on my word at the very last minute. I explained that I, like everyone else, hated capitalism and consumerism, and that I had been wearing the same shoes now for many years. The guard herself appears more exhausted than I do as time passes. The white houses were truly horrifying—coated inside and out in bright white. The doctor explained that she was unable to give anything to a child of his age and condition. Everything was white: the walls, the ceilings, the floors, the chairs, the outfits of the workers, the color-correcting eyeglasses that they wore to avoid blindness due to the excessive whiteness of everything. Women are no longer coerced into wearing headscarves as long as they shave the remaining strands from their heads, a development that rendered some of my friends exceptionally content. She was recently shortlisted for the Gabo Prize in Literary Translation and her translated works have appeared in   Banipal,   ArabLit Quarterly,   Lunch Ticket,   Passa Porta, among others. It is easier for those with a small quantity of hair to simply shave it off. But I have no doubt that tomorrow will be more miserable than today. He was still giving me that bizarre look, a prolonged stare straight at my hair. Nothing concerning about it at all. He tried to reach out an arm to touch my hair—maybe to uproot it all by himself. I was seen as immoral and, at the same time, a threat to civic peace. Neither were the women spared—to the point that they spent their entire salaries on hair-strengthening treatments. And thus one person turned to accuse me of wasting water at a time when the nation was suffering from drought. She was concerned about how early he had begun to speak and about his no-hair head, the gleam of which hurt the eye. The no-hair progression had not yet laid its hand on me, and my hair looked healthy and grew like weeds. For some damn reason, I refused to let go of my hair, a decision that shocked me before it did other people. The judge decided I had only two options: either I shaved off my hair or I covered it completely, because of how greatly it disturbed the city’s residents. Ironically, another judge came to preside over the courthouse in my city, and my case was re-opened, set for a new trial. But not me! Yes, it grew crazily, as quickly as other people’s hair fell away. Against this logical backdrop, my determination to keep any hair that did not fall from my head was in violation of the rights of the no-hair advocates among the men and women of my country. That day, I was standing next to the doctor who examined him in order to record his medical data. We didn’t think it was an extraordinary occurrence, since many newborns have very little hair at birth. Calls from angry people were also live, and they cursed us directly on air. Fiction from the Magazine: Raghad Qasim’s ‘Hair or No Hair’

This short story originally appeared in our CRIME issue, and we re-run it this August as part of Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth):

Hair or no Hair

By Raghad Qasim

Translated by Zeena Faulk

I witnessed the birth of their first, or at least we think it was their first. Young children used to peek through the windows to take a look at the “evil witch,” as they called me. I showed the judge the receipt for the fine I had paid five years earlier, which gave me the right to keep my hair. The guard also gives me summer and winter garments obtained at second-hand stores, free of charge. He looked downright wrathful as he whimpered with fright. I felt he was odd, with his relentless, angry staring at my face from the moment he emerged from his mother’s womb. The next day, I go back and undo all the thin braids, and then re-weave them again until nightfall. In a few rare cases, newborns may come out with some hair, but it vanishes before they turn ten. She whispered to the doctor that the boy gave her the creeps and was always shooting her angry looks. However, the doctor prescribed an antidepressant for the mother and, after they left, informed me that the mother was suffering from a classic case of postpartum depression. 

I did not agree with the doctor. And this is why the gates of hell have opened wide before me. 

But on the afternoon of that day—when I was on the birthing ward—my hair was short.  I had it always cut like a boy to please my mother. Every month, I was dragged out of my home for only one night, for a night-time interrogation with my female guard. Nothing in the world could persuade me to cut my hair. The only difference is that I have a bit more freedom than a tree to move around in my own spot. At the time, I was still a student in the Department of Obstetrics at the Higher Institute of Medicine in Baghdad. This newborn was already judging me, even before the mess of afterbirth had been wiped from his body. 

One year later, the child’s mother brought him back. And here is our species, once again evolving by losing the hair on our heads. There used to be books around here, until they were banned. I have been living under house arrest for the past fifteen years. They have now forgotten my existence. As a punishment, I was forced to retire and made to pay a high fine. 

Five years later, I was summoned to court as, once again, another party filed a lawsuit against my hair. In fact, the import of these products has ceased altogether. In response to the charges, I explained that I washed my hair solely with water and that I did not waste any sort of fortune on its maintenance. And on people went, continuing to spend all their wages on hair products. I realized then that I would fail to convince them no matter what I said. That’s all. 

When I hit forty, I was forced to retire, after I had refused to shave my head, which was a violation of the country’s new laws. I was even accused of discriminating against people who had pale, hairless heads. I could see clearly why the mother was concerned, and since that day, I never again had my hair cut. It feels like it is impossible for us simply to die. I spend my day weaving my hair into long, thin braids. He also appointed a female guard to give me food and make sure I did not leave the house for any reason. Today, I have no idea what is going on in the outside world. It did not matter what people said about me or what rules the country followed. Her previous work includes managing editor and translator positions with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. I am not allowed to turn on the television, nor to use the internet. By now, there is nobody left with hair in the entire city, outside myself and a few old women who I occasionally see when I am taken to these interrogation sessions. They put us under house arrest so we would not scare the young with our animal-like appearances.