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A Portal in Space

The Friday bombardment started a little later than usual, at 8:30 a.m. The sound was loud and clear. Umm Anwar sighed, and her pain showed clearly in her expression. Furrowing her brow and ready to explode, she exclaimed to herself loud enough for the others to hear: “The downpour has begun, O Conqueror, O Provider.”

Her son, Anwar, straightened up and rested his elbow on the sofa. He looked at his sister to check her reaction. Then he remarked calmly, “At the end of al-Junaynah, near the Shatt al-Arab—isn’t that right?”

His sister agreed, nodding her head: “Yes, there.”

Their mother continued her preparations for breakfast, setting the table. About fifteen minutes later they heard the noise of a second bomb; it was louder than the first. Nur at once called out, without waiting for her brother to ask, “Near al-Mawani Secondary School. It’s the twentieth time they’ve bombed the area around the secondary school, but no bomb has hit the school.”

“Fortunately!”

“I don’t know why they haven’t bombed the secondary school at al-Ashar.”

Anwar laughed. “That’s because it’s for girls. Like my father, Khomeini likes girls.”

They all guffawed, and the father and children headed to the dining table. They were still laughing when they sat down. Nur looked at her father and asked, “Is it true that you like girls?”

Mundhir chuckled. “Yes, I love not only girls but all females.”

His wife confirmed this, saying seriously, “This is true. He loves even female mice.”

They all continued laughing except the mother, who was busy bringing in their food. Anwar applauded warmly. “Father, something new has been revealed about you today. Is it true that you love mice?”

“Ask your mother if she’s a mouse.”

His wife paused beside him, the bread in her hand, and demanded defiantly, “Tell the truth: don’t you love mice? Who refused to kill that female mouse during the first months we were married?”

His children looked to him for an explanation; so he realized that he would be forced to tell the truth. He looked at Anwar and replied, “Back then, your mother was pregnant with you. I was out in the garden when I heard her terrified screams—as if a murderer or wild beast was threatening her. I dashed into the house and saw her point toward the bathroom with great trepidation. She screamed: ‘In there! There!’ I immediately raced into the bathroom but found no killer or wild beast. So I came back out and saw her standing terrified in the distance, near the door to the garden, ready to flee. I told her, ‘I don’t see anything.’ She approached me apprehensively and pointed toward the bathtub with her forefinger. She was too frightened by the beast to speak its name. I walked toward the bathtub and noticed a small female mouse five centimeters long. She was very lovely: gleaming gray fur, two large black eyes, a beautiful red mouth, and a graceful tail. She was gazing at me with tender affection. I turned to your mother and asked, ‘Is this the problem?’

“She could not answer; she was too afraid to speak. But she nodded yes.

“So I picked up that lovely creature, which made no attempt to escape. She surrendered to me; I don’t know why. After I went to the garden with the mouse in my hand, your mother found her tongue and crowed, ‘Kill her! Kill her!’ I searched for a clump of grass and released her there. Your mother began to squeal: ‘You’re a coward. What kind of man are you? You can’t kill a mouse?’”

Anwar proclaimed, “This occasion calls for a dance.”

Nur agreed, “Let’s dance!”

Their mother protested, “The food will get cold.”

Anwar shouted, “Let it!”

The two began to dance like professional artistes. Nur jiggled her midriff like an excellent belly dancer, and Anwar did a Western-style dance while clapping happily. “Daddy won’t kill a mouse. Iran’s bombs kill us. Hee, hee, heeee! Daddy won’t kill a mouse. The neighbors’ bombs kill us. Hee, hee, heeee.”

Their father said, “That’s some dan—”

The third explosion interrupted his words and their enjoyment. It silenced all of them; the two young people stopped dancing and returned to their seats. Their mother stood near them like a statue, the hot bread in her hand. She said mournfully and sorrowfully, “Who knows what innocent victim has perished!”

A heavy silence reigned. This explosion was nearer to them than the two previous ones. Anwar observed, “This bomb fell on the edge of al-Junaynah Road. It can’t have been more than half a kilometer from our house.”

His mother looked inquisitively at the eyes of her daughter, who agreed with what her brother had said: “Exactly.”

Anwar said, “Can’t we have a single moment of peace! I want a portal in space so I can escape to a world where I feel secure and can travel safely, holding my head high without feeling afraid.”

His sister said, “Find it, and I’ll be right behind you.”

He cast her a warning look. “I want to live alone.”

“Never fear. The moment we reach a secure place, I’ll leave you. I too want to live free; I would like to walk down the street safely. Why are we—out of all God’s creation—singled out for His wrath?”

After breakfast they all moved to a narrow room that overlooked the small garden. The empty side street lay before them on the far side of the garden. Anwar stretched out on the sofa, resting his head on his mother’s lap. A breeze arrived, stirring the branches of their jujube tree, and some small birds flew away. Anwar closed his eyes for a time and then opened them again. He exclaimed, “I love Friday!”

His sister asked, “Why?”

His mother laughed. “Because on Friday I fix the foods you like best and crave.”

Nur endorsed that view. “Yes, this is a bit of the truth, but what is even more important is the way you spoil Anwar on Friday.”

Anwar suggested, “You are starting to become jealous.”

Nur laughed. “Is telling the truth a symptom of jealousy? Don’t you see where your head is?”

Anwar changed the subject. “In all of the world’s developing nations—except for here—school is five days a week. We attend classes six days a week in the shadow of daily shelling and—”

His sister interrupted: “You should say in the shadow of senseless death every day.”

“That’s true, but when will we become human beings?”

Nur asked, “Do you know why?”

Anwar lifted his head from his mother’s lap and glanced defiantly at his sister. “Why, Ms. Know-it-all?”

“Because they study eight hours a day, and we study only four.”

“Where did you obtain this information?”

“Dr. Hanan subscribes to two monthly magazines, one American and one British. She shares them with us when she has finished reading them. Occasionally when she’s busy, she gives them to us before she reads them. I also listen to the BBC in English every day. Do you know why, you backward illiterate?”

Her mother looked at her sharply, although with a slight smile. “How can you call him a backward illiterate when he will graduate as an architect in a few months?”

“A degree doesn’t ensure culture. Your son, Madam, is eminently illiterate. He has never read a book that wasn’t on a course syllabus. He resembles the barefoot doctors in China who only know how to treat one ailment.”

Anwar replied nonchalantly, “Today we enjoy both Friday and Spring Break.”

They were gazing at the small garden where various flowering plants were arranged in circular, square, triangular, and rectangular beds to form a colorful, Oriental carpet.

Anwar’s mother toyed with his short black hair as his head leaned against her thigh. Nur and her father were drinking tea.

A zeita bird landed on the ground. Noticing it, Nur pointed and said, “Look.”

The zeita moved across the garden’s grass with little hops: captivating beauty, an attractive counterpoint of black and white, graceful movements, a spectacular, long tail that flicked up and down to create an impetus that helped it move. Nur said, “Do you know that the zeita has been neglected like the rest of us Iraqis, but no one pays any attention!”

Anwar asked, “How’s that?”

“I think it’s the most beautiful bird in the world—Iraq’s national bird without any competitor! But no one acknowledges that. No author mentions this bird in any school text, and there’s no scientific monograph about it.”

Anwar laughed sarcastically. “Why should it be Iraq’s unrivaled national bird? I have seen lots of unusual birds in the lakes. What about the khudayri bee-eater? Have Iran’s bombs driven you crazy?”

“No, they haven’t. The bee-eater is a seasonal migrant. This bird lives here year-round and is found in no country except Iraq. It’s one hundred percent Iraq’s national bird.”

Anwar chortled. “How do you know all this, Great Scholar?”

Nur was exasperated. “Because I checked out a guide to the world’s birds from the university library. I looked it up in the guide but didn’t find it listed. So I wrote to the National Geographic Magazine in America and sent some photos to them several months ago, giving a description of this bird. Look at him. He’s more graceful and beautiful than most of the world’s birds—more graceful than the swallow and more beautiful too. See how intelligent he is?”

Anwar interrupted: “How do you know it’s intelligent?”

“Look at him. You don’t ever see him stand completely still. He advances extremely cautiously. When he senses any danger, he soars away. Some of my classmates told me one time I was discussing his unique characteristics that when they were young, one of their favorite pastimes was throwing rocks at birds. They killed many sparrows, bulbuls, the wild ba‘i‘i, bee-eaters, desert hoopoes, and ringdoves. But they were never able to hit a zeita. Moreover I suspect that the zeita’s beauty provides strong protection for it, because who would want to hunt it? He would be stunned by its beauty, his hand would tremble, and he would miss.”

Anwar applauded. “Sister Philosopher, you’re right! A profound analysis!”

Her father commented, “Since moving to Basra, I too have wondered about the secret of its beauty. Could it be attributed to the ebony-black and snow-white lines that divide its body at regular intervals, its extraordinary grace, or its black eyes, which are surrounded by a gleaming white?”

Anwar smiled and asked his sister carelessly, “Are you serious? Did you send information and pictures of it to an American magazine?”

“Yes.”

He snickered. “That magazine must have ignored you—saying: ‘Here’s a lunatic, one of those deranged people from the starving, backward Third World, which is wracked by wars.’”

“No, they didn’t ignore me, Mr. Development! They sent a letter thanking me and telling me they were surprised by the description and proud of my achievement. They will publish the pictures and study in next spring’s issue. And they are going to send me five hundred dollars. I replied, asking them to keep the money in any account in my name rather than send it here, because our government punishes anyone who receives money from outside Iraq. So you see, Mr. Anwar, which of us is backward and who is civilized.”

Her father clapped enthusiastically while laughing wholeheartedly. Anwar sat up and applauded and laughed along with his father. Their mother merely smiled with pleased satisfaction.

Straightening up, Anwar looked at his sister and said, “Listen, Philosopher. The most beautiful thing in nature isn’t your little zeita bird; it’s the sunset. The space before us is endless. If, like me, you look West, you’ll see the most beautiful colors in all of existence forming in the sunset.”

Nur chortled. “You’re a knucklehead, Mr. Sophist. It’s morning, and we’re talking about twilight?”

Anwar laughed and asked his mother, although he was looking at Nur, “Why do you love me more than Nur?”

They laughed again, and his mother protested: “I love you equally.”

“No, you love me more than her.”

Nur agreed, “For the first time, this genius makes a true claim. You do love him more than you love me. See how you fondle him like a baby. You put his head on your thigh every Friday. You caress his head. You’ve never done that for me my whole life.”

Her father drew her to his breast and started to run his fingers through her hair. “Don’t fret. I love you more than him.”

She laughed wholeheartedly. “This is true. This is only fair.”

Her mother said, “I don’t put your head on my lap because your hair is long and thick.”

Nur escaped from her father’s embrace and dashed upstairs. Then she returned with a pair of scissors. “Here: cut my hair short like his.”

They all laughed again. Then Anwar said, “Adil claims that his mother loves his four sisters more than him. Who would believe that?”

His mother shot back: “That’s not possible. He’s the only boy in the family. How can his mother love his sisters more than him?”

“He says he can’t remember her ever hugging him. She has never kissed him. Yet she kisses and hugs his sisters every day—when they leave for school and when they return. She fondles them and whispers to them. When he arrives, she blocks his way, as if hoping he won’t come in. Then he almost goes nuts.”

“That’s because he has grown up.”

“It was the same when he was young.”

“Who can say?”

“He has invited us to a large banquet today.”

His mother said, “Don’t go. Don’t you see that the Iranians have grown too big for their breeches with their shelling today? They began during God’s own morning. O Conqueror! O Provider! I beg you: Stay home. Ask for any type of food, and I’ll fix it for you. Stay home with us today.”

“Adil’s mother has fixed everything: stuffed vegetables and roast fish—birzum! She’s an expert cook.”

“We have stuffed vegetables and birzum. I’ll fix them for you. My heart tells me that something will happen today. I beg you: Stay here.”

“No, we are all meeting there.”

His father objected, “Your mother has a prophet’s heart. She sees what no one else does. Listen to what she says.”

She turned toward him, “Are you being sarcastic?”

He laughed loudly. “No. God forbid.”

 

Nur rose and yelled, “I have something amazing to show you.”

She raced upstairs to her room and returned with a large bag filled with something. The moment her mother saw it, she yelled, “Don’t open that. Whatever falls out will soil the carpet, and I spent two hours cleaning the house before you woke up.”

“Just two things.”

Her father said, “Let her.”

She opened the bag and brought out a paper envelope dated January 3, 1980. “Who can guess,” she yelled, “what’s in this envelope?”

No one spoke. So she opened the envelope and pulled out a colocynth seed. She explained cheerfully, “It’s from al-Athal.”

Anwar laughed, “What an idiot! Who collects colocynth?”

Her father objected, “It’s an excellent idea. Collecting something that others overlook is a rare trait.”

“Even something as ugly and bitter as colocynth?”

“Yes. Don’t you see that they give awards for worst film, ugliest face, and strangest customs?”

Pointing to the colocynth seed, Nur said, “Look: a perfect sphere, as if newly minted at the factory. What a beautiful color—yellow with a touch of green. This comes from our last trip to al-Athal. The war has ended excursions; so let’s remember them!”

Her father called out, “You’re magnificent!”

Her brother agreed. “She is more than magnificent.”

Nur asked, “Are you being sarcastic?”

“No, by God.”

She put the colocynth carefully back and pulled out a flask filled with alcohol. It bore the date September 4, 1978, but she held her hand over it. She cried out, “What’s in here?”

They all looked at the flask but said nothing. Hearing no response, she placed the flask before her father. Inside it there was a small, phosphorescent frog an inch long with a turtle the same size. She exclaimed, “See how beautiful they are!”

Then a bomb exploded loudly nearby. Anwar sat up and looked at his sister. “The end of al-Junaynah near the place the first bomb landed. Isn’t that so?”

His mother stared questioningly at the eyes of her daughter, who agreed: “Right.”

Anwar continued, “Usually they don’t shell the same place more than three times; why are they shelling more today?”

Nur added, “Something else is new. Between the first and second bomb a quarter of an hour elapsed. Between the next bomb and the last about five minutes. We’re used to bombs coming at intervals of less than five minutes. Have the Iranians changed their tactics today?”

Anwar’s mother looked at him. “Didn’t I tell you my heart is telling me: ‘Don’t leave home today’?”

Anwar’s father and sister laughed, but Anwar’s eyes stared gravely at a point in the garden. A few minutes later, he saw an automobile stop. He stood up. Then everyone heard the bell; they were all startled. Adil’s thin, medium frame appeared in the street in front of the house. His right hand was on the fence.

Umm Anwar said, “If all of you are invited to Adil’s house, why is he here?” Frowning, she exclaimed, “O Preserver! O Concealer!”

Anwar rushed out to the garden, and they hurried behind him. They heard him say to Adil, “Come on in. Why are you standing there?”

Adil opened the garden gate and quickly entered. He looked terrified, and his face was pale. They hurried toward him. Then he said, “They bombed Sa‘di’s house.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Anwar turned toward Nur, “That must have been the first bomb.”

When Nur did not respond, Anwar asked Adil, “How do you know?”

“Twenty minutes ago I telephoned to remind him to come to our house. Then I heard his sister, who was crying. She said, ‘They shelled us’ and hung up.”

Nur objected, “Why didn’t the explosion take out their phone? If they bombed us, nothing animate or inanimate would be left in our house. Since she was still alive, why was she crying?”

Anwar stared at his friend for a moment and then said, “OK, let’s go see.”

Umm Anwar shouted nervously as she glared at her son and Adil, “No, don’t go. Stay here. This is a safe place. Let’s learn the facts by phone.”

Adil asked, “Why is this a safe place? Is any spot in Basra secure? It’s all within range of their bombs. They haven’t spared an inch of it.”

Abu Anwar interjected, “First of all, because this is a military base. Secondly, officers’ houses are located here. Shelling this camp would guarantee a counterstrike against their military camps and officers’ houses.”

Anwar ignored this entire discussion and insisted, “We must go. Come on.”

Umm Anwar begged both of them with all her heart, “Please, don’t go. If they have shelled Sa‘di’s house, what else might they do there? Telephone!”

Adil said, “It’s an idea.”

They entered the house, and Anwar began dialing the number. He waited for a time and then looked at them. “The phone is ringing but no one picks up.”

Then he made a dash for Adil’s car, and Adil followed him.

His mother followed them—she and his father—but then she stopped and turned on her husband, casting all the blame on him. She shrieked, “Why don’t you stop him?”

He gazed at her, smiled to try to calm her, and opened his arms. “Is he a child? He’s twenty-two.”

“So?”

“No, I won’t.”

She did not wait for him to finish his sentence. She raced instead toward the street, wishing to reach the car before it left. But she failed. When she emerged from the garden to the street, the car was already fifty meters away. Then she saw Anwar’s hand through the rear window. He waved to her as he looked back smiling. She retraced her steps, looking angry and sad.

Inside the car Anwar told Adil, “My mother’s always pessimistic. She says something will happen today.”

“All mothers are like that. No one can prophesy the future—that’s superstition.”

“The war has ended life in Basra. We need to face the fact that we’re all condemned to die sooner or later.”

“But we all dream of being survivors.”

“Dreams alone keep us alive, nothing else. Otherwise we would be dead.”

They approached al-Mawani district and heard clearly in the distance the noise of emergency vehicles heading south. Their car approached Sa‘di’s house. The alley was crowded with people—women, men, and children—but there wasn’t any ambulance. Adil decided that his car wouldn’t be able to navigate the crowded alley and parked it on the street near its intersection with the alley, away from the congestion halfway down the alley. When they left the car, their nostrils filled with the abrasive stink of gunpowder. They witnessed a plume of smoke rising from behind the house—evidence that a fire was still blazing. The house’s yellow façade and teak door were unscathed.

The laments and screams of the women assembled were at a crescendo. Adil and Anwar knew all of Sa‘di’s brothers and sisters but—in the midst of the massive congestion and agonized cries, screams, and chaos—couldn’t pick out any of them. Anwar approached one of the women. Bareheaded, in her forties, on the plump side, she was wiping her red eyes repeatedly with a small white handkerchief embroidered with red roses. He asked her, “Were there any casualties?”

She burst into tears, “The poor darling—just Sa‘di and his cousin. He was in the garden with her. His uncle’s daughter came from Baghdad yesterday to spend the mid-year break here. She wanted a change of air. The rest of the family was in the house. The bomb fell at the intersection of the fences of the four gardens, and everyone in the gardens was killed.”

“How many?”

“No one knows precisely. Eleven were taken to hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

“I don’t know—al-Mawani, the Military Hospital, al-Kabir—I don’t know.”

The alley was growing increasingly congested with every passing moment, and the women arriving began to scream and wail the moment they entered it.

Anwar and Adil moved away, and Adil suggested, “Let’s go to al-Mawani Hospital; it’s the closest.”

“Let’s go.”

The vehicle had only gone about half a kilometer before the shelling began again. Adil stopped the car, feeling quite nervous, and asked Anwar, “Did you hear what I heard?”

Anwar nodded his head: “Yes. Near Umm al-Brum Square.”

“On the Corniche—near our house.”

“Yes.”

“Let’s climb out of the car to hear the next shelling clearly.”

About a minute after they got out of the car, an ambulance shot past, heading toward the south of the city. Anwar said, “They have lengthened the period between one bomb and the next. Let’s go to our house and wait there.”

“Let’s go.”

Before Adil could start the engine, they heard the second bomb. He yelled anxiously, “Just as I expected—near our house in al-Tuwaysa on the Shatt al-Arab.”

“Let’s wait for the third strike.”

Adil objected, “No, let’s go now. I’m afraid for my family.”

“We shouldn’t go now. I won’t move till the shelling stops. There’s no reason to risk our lives unnecessarily. The result won’t be different if we wait five minutes.”

Adil’s eyes looked away as he reflected. “You’re right.”

They were almost at Anwar’s house when the third bomb fell. They reckoned that it had fallen in the same district as the first two. Anwar explained, “I’ll tell my family where I’m going. Then we’ll head straight to your house.”

Anwar did not offer his family any opportunity to ask him about Sa‘di. Instead he swiftly told Nur, who was in the garden waiting for him. When his mother saw him from the window, she sped toward him, almost out of her mind. She grasped his left forearm with both hands and begged him in a crazed scream, “Don’t go!”

He laughed as he freed himself from her grasp with difficulty and departed without uttering a word.

The streets seemed to be emptying of vehicles and pedestrians. Emergency vehicles had the scene to themselves. The two young men entered empty Dinar Street, traversed the Sinalco Roundabout, then the Intelligence Bureau Roundabout—opposite the flour mills—and then Party Headquarters. They did not meet a single vehicle coming from al-Ashar; everyone must have been influenced by the magnitude and severity of the shelling on this Friday. They passed the City Hall in al-Ashar and raced off toward al-Tuwaysa. Before reaching Bait al-Muhafiz Street, which connected with the Corniche, they were surprised to find groups of policemen, first responders, and firefighters blocking the street and preventing people from heading toward al-Barada‘iyah. Anwar and Adil continued on foot, their eyes focused on a house next to al-Rafidain Bank. The garden gate was wide open. Huge hoses that dangled from a red fire truck standing on the pavement there snaked into the house. Water polluted with soot and the fire’s scorched debris gushed from both sides of the gate of the fence onto the sidewalk and flowed into the street. The air of the entire district reeked of gunpowder and of burnt wood, plastic, and clothing. Adil approached a youthful police officer, a man in his thirties. Swarthy and handsome, he seemed to be in charge. With tears streaming down to his chin, Adil pointed to the house and said, “That was our house.”

Pointing to the fence, the officer asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

When Adil uttered this word, weakness overwhelmed him and he began to weep loudly. Anwar interjected, “Do you need to see his ID?”

The officer glanced at them sadly and then looked away as he replied, “Unfortunately. This was one of six houses damaged.”

Adil didn’t stop weeping. Then he suddenly made a run for it and dashed toward the house door at top speed. The officer was caught off guard but quickly gained control of himself and pulled out a large silver whistle. He blew on it so forcefully that his cheeks swelled. A number of policemen standing beside the fire truck near the fence’s gate responded. Staring at them, the officer pointed toward Adil. They rushed him, and two policemen beside the vehicle seized him in their arms in the wink of an eye. He tried to evade them but failed. The first policeman punched him in the face. Adil lost his balance but managed to kick the policeman in the stomach. The policeman felled Adil with a lightning punch to the jaw and began to kick him. Expecting that he would hurt Adil, Anwar stared at the officer and begged, “Please!” The officer blew his whistle loudly a second time, but the policeman’s kick landed before he could restrain himself, and it propelled Adil a few feet away. Then the battle stopped. Three policemen hurried to lift Adil, who wept as blood flowed from his mouth. Anwar hugged him.

© Mahmoud Saeed. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.