I lay on my mattress tossing and turning. I have been restless ever since I talked to Sundus. The family’s return to Morocco complicated life for me. Their departure was abrupt; my father came home early one day and unceremoniously announced that we were going back to Morocco. The war had been raging for some time now and relationships between old friends were unraveling. Rivalries flared, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and vengeful violence. Dubious alliances sprouted like weeds after a rainy season. The Iraqis quickly turned against the non-Iraqi Arabs living amongst them who benefited greatly from the welfare system set up by Saddam’s regime.
It was obvious that when my father came home that night, he had reconciled himself to never be at home in this country again – after thirty years of toil.
“Pack what you can,” he said, his voice stern, his face the grayness of a full moon. “We are leaving at dawn.”
Neither my mother nor my sister and I objected. Not a word was uttered. Like Baghdad, the candles cried while burning.
“Haj, what’s the matter?” my mother inquired.
“Let me sit!” he simply answered.
The candle lit room all of a sudden seemed darker and a pregnant silence weighed on us. Questions lurked about; how are we going to leave? Where are we going to go? What to pack? And school? And friends? My father said not another word and my mother was never the one to object to anything my father said.
“Rest a bit! I’ll get the dinner ready,” she simply said as she stood up to leave the room. My sister, as if mimicking her, stood up as well and walked in her wake. I got up to leave, but he directed me to sit back down with a wave of his hand. His clothes were sullied and his trousers bore tear marks at the knees. He slipped off his shoes and eased out of his jacket. He rolled the sleeves of his shirt up and hobbled to a corner of the room. He stood there a moment with sweat beading on his brows, his eyes haggard, and his shoulders slouched, as if unable to decide what to do next. He finally crumpled on the divan and simply said: “I saw death with my own eyes today.”
I have never seen my father so shaken. A frail and vulnerable old man, who although seemingly in control, was shackled by fear. His lips constantly and silently trembled the way they always did when he fingered his prayer beads. Except this time, his trembling hands rested empty on his knees.
“Ba! What happened?”
He winced and softly moaned as he shifted in his seat.
“Get me a glass of water, may God protect you!” he said barely catching his breath.
When I came back with the glass of water, he was fast asleep. His head was cocked backwards and rested on the pillow behind him; his mouth and eyes were halfway open. Not daring to wake him up, I put the glass of water on the table and covered it with a napkin. In the flickering light of candles, my father’s face looked ghostly, and if it weren’t for the rasp sound of his breathing, I would have surmised he was dead. I pulled a black and white wool manta over his body. I blew out the candles and stepped outside the room. Downstairs, my mother and sister were busily preparing dinner with whatever was available in the market, but not expensive.
For many months now my father had been without a job. The only driving jobs he was able to find were too dangerous to engage in. “Suicide missions,” he called them. Many of his colleagues, strapped financially and desperate to work, took on such “suicide missions” only to be kidnapped and killed and their cargo plundered by marauding mobs roaming the dusty highways of Iraq and the streets of its cities like packs of wild dogs fighting for ascendancy over territory control, or shot without commiseration by overly skeptical Americans who suspected they might be suicide bombers. My mother made a reputation in Baghdad cooking delicious Moroccan pastries and dishes for Iraqis celebrating a wedding or some other happy occasion; but since the war started, she had not been solicited.
I climbed the stairs and walked onto the roof. The night was made fresh by a cool breeze blowing from the east. The city was cloaked in darkness. Silence was interrupted by booming tank or artillery rounds and the incessant crackle of small arms fire. Every now and then, the towering fireball of a thundering explosion in the distance would illuminate the night. As quickly as it appeared, the fireball would disappear and darkness would cover the swath of destruction wrought by the war. Only the flame of Al-Dora refinery could be seen flickering in the distance unthreatened.
I pulled a pack of Pine I had tacked in my sock and lit one up. During the hotter nights of summer, when the air conditioners sat useless, mute, and darkness filled the dejected homes and streets of the city, the whole neighborhood slept on the roof to stay cool. Mothers baked samoun on wood fires for their children. The children directed their mesmerized gaze into the sky where the stars competed with colorful flares that looked like fireworks shot by helicopters flying overhead. The men sat forlornly nearby smoking, brooding, and brewing. Sometimes, someone died from a gunshot wound inflicted by a stray bullet. Nobody ever claimed a bullet and nobody ever asked whose it was. Wailing filled the night, but the loss was irrevocable. After a while, silence, on and again, settled over Baghdad to allow it to lick its wounds and recover, to brace itself for yet another round of killings. Everyday, raw pain welled in everyone’s eyes. But never did the residents of Al Amel spit their bitterness on each other’s face. Until now.
Past the expressway skirting the neighborhood, Sundus’s house. Everybody in the neighborhood knew bint doctor Putrus. People tended to swoon when she walked by them. The boys and I spent hours talking about the roundness of her buttocks and the fullness of her breasts, the lusciousness of her lips and the curliness of her long hair. Her beauty provided fodder for our fantasies. Those who tried to talk to her were met with a cold shoulder. She always kept to herself, but she was not aloof. The neighborhood kids crowded around her and she always had sweets for them. I saw her often bantering with her girlfriends. I saw her almost everyday of the week at the university where she was studying English or on the bus we both took to get home, but fearing that she might reject me, I never dared approach her. One afternoon, as I was sitting on the top deck of the bus taking me away from the university, I noticed her straining to climb the stairs of the vehicle. Her heavy school bag, laden with books, weighed on her right shoulder. Her left arm balancing more books while the bus jerked as it left the stop, an opaque black smoke trailing behind it like a cape. On the seat next to me, I had put my two notebooks. I did not remove them for her to sit next to me. The bus was empty. She sat across from me and sighed as she dropped her bag on the seat to her right and the books on the seat to her left. She adjusted her brown leather jacket and flipped her hair from in front of her sweaty face and fanned her hand in front of her nose. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and strings of it cascaded along her cheeks like vibrant curling tendrils. I looked over Al Jumhuriya newspaper I was reading to see her almond eyes looking at me and her angelic face beaming with a disarming smile. I smiled back and resumed my reading matter-of-factly trying to mask my excitement and puzzlement that Sundus, the girl the neighborhood boys secretly coveted, was sitting so close to me I could touch her if I extended my hand.
“What’s all this black smoke?” I heard her asking no one in particular. Her voice was warm and radiant.
“It’s from the exhaust pipe of the bus,” I explained, pointing a disengaged finger towards the back of the bus.
She seemed more relaxed now.
“I know! Why so much? It’s not healthy,” she said looking around. Two girls sat at the front chatting energetically.
“This bus runs on charcoal,” I said. “The embargo is straining our country’s oil resources and there is no fuel left. From now on, all public transportation will run on charcoal.”
She looked at me dismissively.
‘What are you reading?” she asked in a saccharine tone.
“Al Jumhuriya,” I answered.
“I can see that. What are you reading about?”
“It says here there is no sugar in the markets.”
“Oh! Why? Is it because of the embargo too?” she asked her brows accented in dismay.
I leaned forward as if to tell her of a secret and she leaned closer bringing her head next to mine. She smelled of heaven.
“Because it’s sitting right here in front of me,” I responded smiling charmingly.
She laughed out loud her cheeks blushing and her eyes twinkling as she sat straight. The two girls sitting upfront turned around to look and then turned back to their hushed gossip.
“Thank you,” she simply said looking away.
“No need for thanks. It’s really not a compliment. I’m just stating a fact.”
She smiled again. We sat there for a while in silence her legs crossed and mine too. I folded my paper and put it on my lap. We both swayed with the motion of the bus as it drove on Abu Nawas past Al-Mua’alak Bridge.
“Where are you going?” she asked next.
“Why?” I asked surprised. “You are carrying enough books to fill the National Library.”
She laughed at that. She had beautiful pearly teeth.
“These are my last year’s course books. I am going to sell them because I don’t need them any more. And you?”
“I’m running an errand for my mother. She wants me to pick up phyllo pastry sheets from a bakery close to Al-Mutanabi.”
The bus stopped at Al Rashid place and we both stood up. She struggled again with her heavy bag. I offered to help her carry the books and she accepted. We turned into Al Mutanabi and started walking toward the Tigris River. The street and its cafés and stores were bustling with life. The sidewalks were carpeted with dust covered books and magazines. Up and down the street, people walked, some carrying a book or two, some squatting by the books reading the titles, and others flipping the pages of the outdated magazines. Some of the booksellers animatedly engaged in conversations with their clients about the availability of this book and, in hushed tones, about the scarceness of banned ones. Sundus walked to the first bookseller we came across, a balding man with bushy eyebrows and small darting eyes. He was sitting at the door of his store pursing his lips while the voice of Oum Kelthoum singing Al-Hawa Sultan serenaded from an old gramophone inside the store. He seemed unconcerned about the people milling about and entranced by the enchanting voice of the cantatrice. A glass of tea comfortably sat between his fingers.
“Uncle,” she called making him jump and almost drop his glass of tea. “Assalamu Alaikum!”
“Wa Alaikum Assalam!” he answered through tight lips, his voice barely audible.
“I brought the books I talked to you about yesterday.”
She emptied her bag, discharging all the books at his feet and took the ones I was carrying and stacked them in front of him. He put his tea glass underneath his chair and donned a steel framed pair of glasses, then he reached out for the closest book to him. He held the book as if it were a precious crystal glass he was afraid to tarnish or worse, break. He read the title out loud – Moll Flanders – and attentively inspected the covers and then moistening the tip of his right index finger, flipped the pages.
“You scribbled and highlighted all over these pages,” he commented somewhat irritated.
“Those are my notes … so that I don’t forget the meanings of certain words and concepts.”
He cast a quizzical look at both of us as if asking “Don’t you have notebooks?”
“You filled the margins of these pages with garbage and left no room for anyone else to scribble on them. Why is it that you, young people, treat books with such cruelty, such disdain?”
He tossed the book to the side like a Frisbee and took another one that he subjected to the same deliberate scrutiny. Oum Kelthoum’s voice filled the silence Sundus and I stood in.
“How much are you asking for these … books?” he finally asked.
“How much will you pay for them?”
“You won’t find anybody to give you more than five thousand for these,” he said with a shrug.
He took a wad of banknotes from his pocket and pulled five bills that he handed to her. She hesitated and then took the money.
“Come on!” she said to me as she started walking off down the street toward the river. It was only then that I realized I had forgotten my notebooks and newspaper in the bus. I cursed myself.
“Don’t worry!” she said. “The price I got for the books was decent.”
“I forgot my notebooks and newspaper in the bus.”
She looked at me not knowing whether she should sympathize with or laugh at me. We both laughed.
“Let’s have some coffee,” she offered.
We entered a small café, squeezed past two tables where old men sat playing backgammon, and settled for a secluded table in the back, next to a window overlooking the street. The waiter took our order. Al-Mutanabi vibrated with a jocular and unsparing atmosphere as more people, their eyes darting from one book to another, their feet shuffling from one seller to another, seeped into it. Sundus put her empty bag on a chair, and fixed her hair with quick but gracious gestures. Except for a thin gold bracelet on her right wrist and a gold cross hanging from a small gold chain around her neck, she was not wearing any jewelry. Her smiling eyes were full of wonder and bespoke an inner peace that put her at odds with our frenzied surroundings. The waiter came with the Turkish coffees, put them on the table and left. With a superbly indifferent confidence, she pulled a pack of Royal Menthol cigarettes, pulled one out, and lit it shamelessly. Then she put the pack and the lighter on the table, in front of her. She blew the smoke out with dignity, her head cocked back, her elbow on the table while the cigarette was slowly being consumed between her thin white fingers. She looked at me through the curtain of smoke, her luscious lips parting for a ready smile. I hang at those lips. I drowned in those brown eyes through which the Tigris flowed and whose lids looked like rose petals opening up in reverence for the sun. I didn’t think anybody in the neighborhood knew Sundus smoked. I felt I was ushered into the inner sanctum of a world that in the past I have only imagined.
“Are you shocked that I smoke?” she asked as she took a sip of her medium sweet coffee.
“No! You can do whatever you want to,” I said faking nonchalance.
“Do you smoke?”
“No! And certainly not menthols,” I retorted a bit annoyed. “But you know smoking can kill you,” I added
“This embargo is stifling me and you and everyone you see around here. So smoking is a way for me to know that I am still breathing. If it doesn’t kill me first, the Americans with their embargo will, or maybe Saddam,” she said in a tone shrouded in resignation.
“Hush, Sundus!” I pleaded. “Someone might hear you.”
“I never told you my name.”
“We live in the same neighborhood. You think I wouldn’t know your name?”
“I thought you never cared. You never talked to me or even looked at me. I saw you sometimes with the guys at the university and in the neighborhood. I know your sister Iman”
“There just was never an opportunity to do so. I didn’t want to talk to you in front of everybody so as not to embarrass you, but I always wanted to talk to you.”
“Now there is nobody. So you can talk to me all you want,” she said boldly undismayed.
I pulled my pack of cigarettes and reached across the table and grabbed her lighter. I lit one up and looked up to find her gleaming eyes following my every movement while silently laughing.
“So, you’re still breathing too!”
Time went by quickly. Words flowed from us in a gush, like cattle being freed from an enclosure into the open pasture. Her voice was harmonious and soothing. Her speech was poetic to my ears. The stories we told each other, over three more cups of coffee and many more cigarettes, brought gales of laughter from both of us. It was close to dusk when we took the bus back to Al Amel. As the bus entered our neighborhood, she stood up.
“Get off at the next stop!” she said
“When will I see you again?”
“Tomorrow! Take the 5 PM bus for Al Ahrar Bridge.”
She shook my hand. Hers was moist and I held it a bit longer. She squeezed mine and smiled. The bus stopped and she left. I got off at the next stop. The streetlights were on and the streets were serene as I walked with a lighter gait towards my home where my mother was waiting for the phyllo pastry sheets. I kept thoughts of Sundus loitering in my mind like I would keep chocolate slowly melting in my mouth. I could not explain how I’d lived so long without talking to her, nor could I imagine how I could survive the following day without being with her.
“Come down to eat.”
My sister’s voice shook me off my reveries. I flicked the cigarette over the wall and blew out the last puff of smoke toward the sky.
“I’m coming,” I said, not looking back. “Is father up?”
“I am going to wake him up,” she said, turning on her heels. “Don’t let him smell cigarette smoke on you,” she cautioned.
I hid the cigarettes in the usual place and went downstairs. My father was not in the room. The candles were burning again and a tajine sat in the middle of the table with pieces of bread surrounding it like sharks ready for an assault. My mother and sister were sitting around the table.
“Where is my father?”
“He is praying,” answered my mother.
I sat across from my mother. The steaming tajine made with potato wedges, tomatoes, onions, and olives smelled delicious and looked tempting. My mother always knew how to make the simplest yet most succulent dishes. “Sh’hiwat” she called them.
“What’s the matter?” I heard her asking.
“Your lips are pouting and I see you frowning. You know I don’t like it when you’re frowning.” Her eyes attentively scrutinized my face.
“I’m just thinking.”
“Whatever you’re thinking about, don’t vex you father with it,” she ordered with a voice dripping with sheer authority. “We should have left a long time ago, before the war.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You think you can hide things from me? I am your mother,” she reminded me. “And I know you like the back of my hand.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about and I have nothing to hide,” I retorted defensively.
My sister sat between us like a spectator in a tennis match, her head turning from my mother to me, and back to my mother as the escalating verbal exchange continued.
“Forget the nasraniya who has you like a ring around her finger. She is not for you, and you’re not for her.”
“Why are you concerning yourself with my private life?”
“Stop yelling! My father is going to hear you,” my sister warned.
Our tormented exchange died into silence. When my father finally walked in, I was brooding and sullen. He had changed into a clean white shirt and a navy blue pair of pants. His wet gray hair was combed back. I moved my feet to let him squeeze through and around the table to sit at his usual place.
“Bismillah!” he said breaking a piece of bread with hands that had not stopped shaking since he came in earlier.
My sister, mother and I came closer around the table and we all started eating silently.
“Did you start packing?” he asked.
“Not yet!” my mother answered. “After dinner we will start.”
“I almost died on my way back from the mosque,” he said between two bites.
“What mosque?” I asked.
“Al Haj Ali!”
“Um Al Tubul Mosque is just around the corner. Why did you have to go so far?”
“I went to a café there to visit with some of my colleagues and talk about the work situation.”
“As we were drinking tea and talking, a young fellow came in and announced that a curfew has just being announced and check points will be set up on the expressway, the Sultan street, and Al Tijari street in an hour. Everybody in the café got up and left. Some didn’t even pay. The owner of the café started asking people to leave as he wanted to lock down and leave himself.”
“And then?” asked my sister.
“My friends lived not far from there. The house of Haj Brahim and mine are the furthest. But we figured that it will take us less than fifteen minutes to get home walking leisurely. Besides, I figured Seba’ Nisan street, which I usually take to come home, is not going to be blocked. So we all decided to go to the nearest mosque, pray, and then head home before the curfew is in effect. One hour is plenty of time. The mosque looked like a refugee camp. You have to hop over sleeping people and their bags to move around. Where are all these people coming from? Al muhim . . . ”
“After a quick prayer, we walked outside the mosque, said our goodbyes, and split. It was dark by then. I walked for about five minutes. The streets were deserted and the wind swept through them whistling like an invisible flute player. I was about to make the turn into Seba’ Nisan street when I heard a whisper coming from a dark corner.”
“What whisper?” asked Iman who by now stopped eating.
“Someone was calling my name.”
“Bismallah arrahman arraheem! Who?” asked my mother.
“That’s exactly what I wondered too. I looked around and I couldn’t see anyone. I started reading the verse of Al Kursi. “Haj Mouhajir! Stop!” the voice said. “Who is it?” I asked. And from a dark corner, a tall man walked out. I recognized him immediately. It was the eldest son of Germouni. What’s his name, the eldest son of Germouni?” He asked looking at me.
“Abdelkader,” I answered.
“May Allah give you health! That’s him.”
“And then?” prompted on my sister.
“He said in hushed tones: “Don’t go that way, Haj. They’re stopping people on that street.” I said: “they started already, my son? I have all my papers with me and the police have nothing to reproach me.” He said: “they’re wearing police uniforms, but they’re not doing police work.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. “Follow me,” he said. “I’ll show you what I mean.” We went back up the street I came from almost to the mosque. We engaged into a passageway between two houses. It was a dead-end.”
“What happened then?”
“We stopped by the cinderblock wall at the end of the passageway. I couldn’t see a thing. He said: “We jump the wall.” I said: “I can’t! I don’t have in me what it takes to jump this wall at my age, son.” He said: “I’ll help you, haj.” He clasped his fingers together and signaled for me to put my foot in his hand. I stepped into his hands and grabbed his shoulders. He pushed me up and I held on to the edge of the wall and pulled myself up as he was lifting me. He told me to straddle the wall and wait for him. He stepped back two, three steps, and then charged the wall. Like a cat he climbed it and before I knew it, he was sitting next to me. He jumped down to the other side and asked me to slide down the wall. I did as he said. He reached for my feet as I hung from the wall and eased me down.”
“And all this for what? What’s he afraid of? Aren’t they Iraqis?” my mother asked, pushing a piece of lamb meat from the middle of the tajine toward my father. Then she added: “It’s the Americans you have to worry about. The Iraqis are our brothers in Islam and we can reason with them.”
“Let me finish the story and you’ll understand. Be patient!” he said as he put the piece of meat in his mouth.
The tajine was by now empty. I had stopped eating a while ago, not so much because I was full. I had no appetite. My sister asked if everybody was done. My father sat up. Iman picked up the tajine and left for the kitchen. She quickly came back with a steaming teapot and glasses. A towel a corner of which she wetted with lukewarm water from the kettle hung on her forearm. She handed it to my father to clean his hands and mouth.
“What happened then?” she asked as soon as she sat down.
“After we jumped the wall, we found ourselves in a construction site. The terrain was rutted and I tripped many times. Abdelkader, may Allah bless his heart, would pull me back up to my feet every time I fell. He seemed to know the area very well. We cut across the site and came on a lot awash with sewage and strewn with trash. The stench was nauseating and the buzzing of flies upsetting. Across the lot, less than a hundred meters away from us, I saw them. They had set up floodlights. We were so close that I could hear the humming of the generator hitched to one of their pick-up trucks. They had three pick-up trucks that they parked in a serpentine fashion on the road. Two white vans were parked on the pavement. They were seven policemen armed with assault rifles and pistols. Three civilians were with them. The civilians wore black cargo pants and jackets and had their faces covered with ski masks. Their presence made me very suspicious. We got to a wall that was parallel to the street and squatted by it, just as a car coming from the expressway pulled up to the checkpoint. The checkpoint was so close now that I could hear the policemen chattering and laughing like schoolboys. The civilians in black immediately boarded the vans. One of the policemen, who seemed to be the officer in charge, signaled for the car to stop. The driver rolled his window down and greeted the policeman walking up to him. The policeman approached the window and asked the passengers to open all the doors and step outside the car. One of the passengers was Sheikh Hassan.
“Who’s Sheikh Hassan?” inquired my mother.
“The owner of the mechanic garage. You know him. You have seen him many times before.”
“And then?” my sister asked turning to my father.
“Then the policeman demanded their national identification cards and citizenship certificates. He inspected each document and examined the face of each man while two scrawny policemen searched the vehicle. The rest of the policemen were carefully keeping an eye on the three men. My attention was momentarily distracted by the scratching sound of a rat scurrying in the trash not far from where we were hiding. Suddenly, I heard the policeman ask a question that chilled my blood. I looked up and I saw him facing one of the passengers who by now are clearly shaken and uncertain what to expect next.
“What did he ask?” my sister inquired.
“I heard him say: “Are you Shi’a or Sunni?” The three passengers looked at each other, their eyes wide with fear. “What?” they asked in unison. The policeman stepped back and calmly pulled his gun from its holster, his unblinking eyes tracking the men’s movements. “You! Are you Shi’a or Sunni?” he said pointing his gun at Sheikh Hassan’s head.”
“Is he Sunni or Shi’a, Sheikh Hassan?” my sister asked.
“When did anybody ever ask if someone’s Shi’a or Sunni?”
“What did he say?”
“He squared with the policeman and said: “I’m Moslem. It’s in my ID card as you can see. And Iraqi, just like my father and my grandfather.”
“Well said!” my mother commented.
My father all of a sudden grew silent. He lowered his eyes as his thumb slowly massaged the palm of his hand.
“And then … “
I sensed the timber of his voice different than usual. It was no longer sure, not his usual thundering voice. This new voice exuded inconsolable visceral indignation and brimmed with tremendous fear. His hands that I grew up to know mighty and steady shook worse than earlier.
“Al Haj! What’s the matter?”
Iman’s eyes started watering, and she quietly wiped them with her hand. He stood up and left the room without saying another word. We all sat holding our tea glasses, perplexed looks on our faces. My father’s tea glass sat steaming on the table untouched, as if it, too, was waiting for an end to the story.
“Are you going to check on my father, see what’s wrong with him?” I asked my mother.
“Just leave him alone for now.” Then she turned to my sister and asked her to start packing for the trip to Morocco.
I was getting tired and started dozing off.
“Are you sleeping?” she asked, her tone accusatory, her disdain barely disguised. “Start packing what you’re going to take with you.”
I hurriedly left the room, avoiding eye contact with her, my mind made up.
“I will not leave Baghdad,” I surprised myself saying loud enough for her to hear me.
It was already past midnight.