The Monk’s Hell by Shakir Noori

 Excerpt from the novel
Translated by Robin Moger

Iraqi writer Shakir Noori

Father Sharbel: the book priest. So Father Joseph called him. Running the library had been his overmastering passion for years now, only rarely sleeping in his room (his cell) due to his habit of sitting up surrounded by books till late into the night. He’d left Mosul after the torching of the cathedral’s library and the reek of burning books had curled up to his nostrils and creased his face with rage. Had he by some chance stumbled across the perpetrator, he would have eaten him alive. He would wake to the ghosts of books and manuscripts and when such visions visited him he’d scream like a man possessed, repeating the same phrase over and over:

“Barbarians! Mongols!”

It was after this incident that he wrote to Father Joseph in Lebanon, asking that he might come to the Monastery of the Icons, enclosing a report that listed the rare manuscripts and documents that had been destroyed since the Abbasid period. There were the fertile dialogues and debates with the Abbasid Caliphs from the time of Patriarch Timothy. Yes, indeed, Father Joseph, he wrote, muttering to himself: Timothy I, famed as the pioneer of Islamic-Christian dialogue. Timothy’s debates with Al Mahdi, Al Rashid, and Al Ma’mun, his recommendations on how to resolve the conflict between the Alawites and the Hashemites, documents on the good relations between the Church and the Abbasids, most particularly Al Ma’mun, who repeatedly visited the monasteries of Mosul with his retinue, and whose arrival once coincided with Easter and so he stayed fifteen days, ordering the monastery to be rebuilt. The chronicles of the Eastern Patriarchate, texts by Bar Hebraeus and the Unknown Edessan, an important document from Sultan Abdul Hamid recognizing the authority and influence of the Chaldean patriarch…

Reading Father Sharbel’s letter, Father Joseph was overcome by gloom and sadness and felt that some part of his city’s history had departed along with the burned books and would never return. He wrote to Father Sharbel, asking him to come to the Monastery of the Icons, and to try and save what volumes and manuscripts he could through restoration.

Then he asked him to establish a library in the monastery, which boasted a collection of the most important early works. Father Sharbel continued to upgrade the library, asking Lebanese, Arab and Western publishers to donate a single copy of all their titles, and families even began to donate the collections of deceased relatives. Sharbel dedicated himself to restoring the books and manuscripts. He even asked the monks and nuns to read them and to memorize sections of the Holy Book, the Lord’s Prayer, and the greater part of Psalms, and made novices learn the “ascetic’s ABC”: the virtues and duties of the monastic life. As for free time, the monks were obliged to spend it in reading from the Holy Book, which was memorized, by and large, and compulsory at the monastery.

While telling us about something written in one the manuscripts he suddenly burst out laughing.

“A funny story!”

Then he fell silent.

“And what is the story, Father Sharbel?” asked the monks and nuns. His hands waved and gesticulated.

“The physician to Caliph Abu Jaafar Al Mansur… Do you know who he was? He was the Nestorian Jurjis bin Jibril, who cured the Caliph of a chronic illness which had played havoc with his stomach. Upon being rewarded he delivered a famous speech in the Caliph’s presence in Farsi and Arabic. The Caliph permitted him to drink alcohol and, when he learned that the physician was intending to depart to Elam to visit his wife, who had grown old and housebound, Al Mansur sent him three thousand dinars and three Byzantine slave girls in the care of the eunuch, Salem. But Jurjis returned the girls to the Caliph, saying, ‘O Commander of the Faithful, these girls cannot reside with me in one house, for as Christians we may not marry more than one woman. As long as my wife is alive, I shall marry no other.’ The Caliph was amazed that a man could turn down three beautiful Byzantine girls. Anyone else wouldn’t have hesitated to bed them together.”

The monks and nuns roared with laughter. Some covered their heads with their sashes out of embarrassment and delicacy.

Then the knockabout, merry Father Sharbel went on:

“There’s another amusing story about this physician. The Caliph had once invited him to convert to Islam. ‘Convert and I guarantee you Paradise,’ the Caliph told him, but the physician was bold enough to answer: ‘I am content to join my forefathers, whether in Heaven or in Hell.’ The Caliph marveled at him and praised and rewarded him, saying over and over: ‘O Christians, you are the dearest of all people to us.’”

Father Sharbel would debate with the other Assyrian monks about the origins of monasticism and the memorization of the Psalms and the New Testament, which had been the basis of a Christian education in the early and medieval periods, though was not a process of rote learning, but a contemplative, intellectual exercise undertaken by the student.

“That’s true, Father, I agree with you about that, and it’s proved by the fact that they rejoiced in the words of the Lord and took pleasure in reading The Monks’ Garden as they sat to eat in the monasteries.”

Then he turned to me:

“Father Ishaq, during the Byzantine period, the monasteries became repositories of ancient knowledge; indeed, they were responsible for preserving the heritage of the past, fearful lest it slide into lightless anonymity.

“Saint Pachomius himself, the first to draw up rules for the monastic life, made laws to protect the books and libraries, and copying rooms sprung up in the monasteries. He regarded copying the manuscripts as a sacred duty in which monks and abbots must work together.”

“Have you heard of the monk copyists?” asked Father Joseph. “Ibrahim, Herax, Marallus and Saint Melania?”

“The copyists are blessed and their work is sacred, which is why a special prayer is said for the copyist, The Copyist’s Chamber: ‘O Lord, look kindly on and bless this copyist on behalf of Thy servants, that when they read or write out any holy text, they might understand it and benefit from it.’”

Father Sharbel was no ordinary librarian, but a voracious reader into the bargain, reading ceaselessly day and night, offering advice on what to read, and helping researchers. I shall never forget the assistance he gave me over sources for my thesis. He encouraged some of the monks to copy torn books and rebind and decorate them, and taught them the art of restoration. The keys to all the books were in his hands and the monks would record their titles in the records and registers. But more than that, he transformed the monastery into a great pyramid of the tales and stories that lay between the library’s four walls, tirelessly probing the hidden caves and tunnels of its books and the spirits of their authors. He wrote and numbered and catalogued, staying up till dawn, spilling his pale lamplight onto the pages, wrestling with their shaky handwriting, and asking himself, in cheerful scholarly spirit: Were the authors magicians who transformed into bishops and priests and monks and angels and shut themselves away in this corner, repeating in our earshot: “Close your eyes a moment. You shall see Jesus in the letters of the books upon the library’s shelves!”

There was no solitude in the library, as Father Sharbel would say. The monk’s solitude was in his cell, and without these books he would never see further than the end of his nose. Those poor wretches who grow old, not one of them knowing what to do with his time or his life. The retired government worker might be kept occupied by family. The monk, meanwhile, leaves his cell to pray and eat then returns to sleep, hoping Christ’s shadow will pass through his dreams. It was possible he might catch a sight of this shadow in the innards of his books, should keep reading—and Father Sharbel never hesitated to make this point to the novices, to encourage them to read and study and keep their young minds alert and open. These dust-covered tomes wait only for hands to pluck them out and eyes to break the code of their tangled letters and restore them to life: as though the pages were a lonely woman, caressed by the hands that came to turn them.

I would spend hours in the monastery’s library until I’d notice Father Sharbel standing over me and saying, “Reading is the only way to dispel cold nights of sleeplessness, worry, and nightmares.”

I would lift my face to him and reply:

“You’re right, Father Sharbel. You live among treasures whose value no one knows but their readers.”

“Those who do not know the value of books know nothing of the value of life.

And just like that, Father Sharbel took himself off amongst his books, scratching away in his large-leafed register with the Parker fountain pen that he’d kept in his pocket since his Mosul days.

“Father Ishaq,” he said, “We don’t know what would become of the monastery if Father Joseph left us. We’ve no idea where the wind would take us. A ship sinks without a captain, wouldn’t you say? Why do the monks and nuns avoid reading?”

Like the other Assyrian fathers, Father Sharbel knew nothing of life outside the monastery. His father had died when he was fifteen, and his mother widowed. Her new husband had refused to take him on, sending him to the monastery against the wishes of both himself and his mother, who wept for him without pause, day and night, and would travel more than two hundred kilometers to visit him and bring him food and fruit. Because of this, he’d never sat at a school desk: everything he learnt, he learnt in the monastery and he held to his vows with utter devotion.

“Did you know, Father Ishaq, that, ‘there is a magic in books, like that in water’? I often dream of the letters, rising and falling on a blue ocean. I read the books from the ocean’s surface.”

“Lovely, Father Sharbel: you have a lovely imagination.”

“And you are more lovely still, Father Ishaq.”

He was briefly silent, staring into space as though reading letters that had been lost there. He sighed.

“Did you know that following the American invasion of our country, the church there has splintered into twelve branches? Baptist, Protestant, Lutheran, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses… Even the priests have changed. Now they’re only interested in wealth and position. What’s the point of the Christianity we build our hopes on here, in the Monastery of the Icons? We’re just a bunch of crazy Assyrian fathers exiled from Iraq.”

“What can we do, Father Sharbel?”

“The answer is that Assyrians must not emigrate from Iraq and abandon it to the extremists.”

“Haven’t you seen yourself how they murder the scientists, doctors and academics, burn the libraries, abduct the monks, and demolish the churches?”

Shakir Noori the Monks hell cover
The Monk’s Hell in Arabic

Father Sharbel had paid a visit to Iraq, returning with painful memories which found their way out at the slightest opportunity. Those close to him said that he had tired of life in the monastery and wished to return to Assyria; that the spirit of the place had taken possession of him, like the ghost of a spell lodged deep within him, and turned his dreams into terrible nightmares. Did he want any help? Never, he would say: “No one can help you find your destiny. You must face the towering waves alone. The monk has no one, not even the Lord.” These were the doubts and emotions that assailed him. He couldn’t throw them off. It was clear he could not go on like this, his head stuffed with books, and his life split into two parts, one dominated by the books, the other by daily existence, and between them, this torment: the sharp contradiction between the two.

Just days later we awoke to a great uproar in the monastery. The monks and nuns were clustered at the entrance to the library screaming in anger, “A crime! A crime! A crime!” Father Sharbel had been stabbed in the back with a knife and lay stretched out on the ground, stained with blood. His last book was gripped hard in his hand, testimony to the agony which he had tried, or so it seemed, to offload between its lines. Everyone was craning forward to read the two pages that had lain open before Father Sharbel’s eyes as he was taking leave of our world, grief-stricken that he would never see his dream fulfilled. Father Joseph ran hurried up and the monks and nuns surrounded him, anger flaring in their eyes. “Let’s call the police!” one shouted. While Father Joseph tried to calm them, he was staring at Father Sharbel’s face, as if trying to read the last word that had crossed his lips. Perhaps he might work out the name of the killer, uttered by Father Sharbel, ot the last word he’d spoken before he breathed his last. The monks and nuns insisted on calling the police and having the pathologist go over the body, but Father Joseph said, “We’re Christians. We don’t believe in dissection.” Then added: “Let us wait until evening. Maybe the murderer will come to the confession chair.”

They rushed to clean his body and, having placed him in a coffin, to lay him out in the church’s crypt to wait for evening. But no one came to the confession chair. Father Joseph leant against the altar, waiting for the killer to show: maybe his conscience would nudge him into that illuminated corner of the soul where a man encounters himself for the first time. A terrible silence possessed the four corners of the monastery. No one could guess who the killer was. Was he still moving among us, hovering around the scene of his crime? But he must be still living here, keeping up his calm and his prayers and his silence, because no one had run away. The killer had remained here, hidden beneath a monk’s cowl, but no one could point to him.

Everybody turned their attention to the eternal question that usually grips people in such circumstances: What was it Father Sharbel had done to be murdered? The question started hovering over people heads and mixing with other questions, for he had never harmed an ant, nor spoken ill of anyone.

Evening was the appointed time for Father Joseph to give orders for Father Sharbel’s funeral according to the Assyrian rite and for his burial in the monastery’s graveyard. He insisted that the body not be washed, for according to the Assyrians the murdered body has been washed in its own blood: the gore taking the place of water. It was as though a drop of blood had signaled the collapse of the whole monastery.

Father Joseph stood at the altar and in a loud voice, proclaimed:

“Taska Deshiga…”

The words rang in their ears and they opened their eyes wide, as though seeking to recover forgotten words from their lost vocabulary: Paradise lost begins with the loss of words and the inhabitants of the monastery sensed this. His words signaled the first day of the funeral rites, when the body of “the conveyed” was washed with water sanctified by the blessings of the priest. The washing was performed by anyone with experience, whether a simple monk, a bishop, an archbishop or a patriarch and the Assyrians referred to the dead man as the “the conveyed”, because it was in this state that he was moved from one place to another. Then they said prayers over him and bid him farewell, in hope of meeting him on the Day of Resurrection in Christ’s presence.

Then Father Joseph spoke again:

“Qalla Dawerkha…”

The prayers for the dead. They carried him in a coffin with Father Joseph leading the way, making for the monastery’s graveyard where they would perform the Qala Dawarkha prayers. These were solemn rites: taking the coffin to be covered by soil. They body was laid out on its back, head to the West to ensure that when he rose again his face would point East, following the Assyrian belief that when Christ returned he would approach from the East, as he did when he ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. “Ah, from thee, O Mount of Olives!” So spoke Father Joseph, and us not understanding the reason for these sighs and lamentation. Then they heaped soil on the polished wooden coffin and the soil made a sound like rain falling. When the dirt covered every visible part of the coffin, Father Joseph chanted the words that addressed the dead man as vanished from the face of the earth.

“You come from dust and to dust you return. The holy sacraments you have received shall remit your sins and cleanse your face on the Day of Resurrection.”

The following day, Good Friday, Father Joseph spoke again:

“Taska Dasweya…”

The monks and nuns gathered in the church to say the Ramsha prayer—the mourning rite—accompanied by prayers and psalms to console the living for losing one of their number: no matter how worthy a soul, everyone must taste death, as the great ones and the men of the Holy Book, as Christ himself, tasted it.

Father Joseph concluded the rite by reading the benedictions:

“We ask God to grant solace to the relatives of the conveyed and bless those who have come to mourn him.”

On the third day, the rituals of mourning were concluded, marking the end, too, of the Mass for the soul of the dead, the mentioning of his name, and the holy mysteries of the resurrection of the dead.

Then they broke bread in the church and everyone chanted:

“Farewell, Father Sharbel. Christ encompass you with His holy word and great mercy.”

The monks and nuns walked two-by-two from the church, nervous and anxious, acting as if they were strangers to one another, terrified by the thought of another victim: the perfidious killer might not stop at Father Sharbel!

Some knelt, supplicating themselves before the Cross and repeating, “Mother of God, do not abandon us to dread of crime and murder.”

With grim faces, sad hearts and tear-filled eyes, they wondered why Father Sharbel had been killed.

The police came to the monastery for the first time. None of us knew who had informed them of the incident. Addressing Father Joseph, the commanding officer said in amazement, “How can you all be living here on Lebanese soil without official permits?”

Father Joseph was unperturbed:

“My dear officer, we live on territory that we regard as an extension of Greater Assyria. And then, the monks and nuns never leave the place. What would they do with permits?” The officer burst out laughing and just shook his head:

“Seems you’re a state within a state.”


“So who’s responsible for assassinating this Father Sharbel?”

Father Joseph had not the faintest idea and nor had any of us.

“My son,” said Father Joseph. “The Lord will exact His punishment.”

At that instant I feared that we’d all be arrested, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the officer made do with a guided tour of the monastery then left with his men.

With the passing of the days, Father Sharbel’s murder became a riddle to be solved. The monastery no longer felt safe, its atmosphere darkening until the monks and nuns would glance left and right as they walked the corridors as though afraid a phantom would suddenly appear, knife gleaming in the darkness, and stab them in their backs. From that day on the library was closed. Dust gathered on the Assyrian symbols that decorated its door and the books returned the darkness of their cave, waiting to be dusted off once more.


Published in Banipal magazine, issue 53 summer 2015