from “Dreaming of Baghdad”

His life was short but rich, crammed with events. He was arrested at the age of seventeen, released five years later, and executed when he was twenty-four.

At the foot of the mountains, the bushes burn and the vines are trodden. Herbs are burning, villages are burning, huts of leaves and branches are burning.

Young men take refuge in caves. After the danger has passed, I hear his laughter. Has he ever stopped laughing?

I try now, as I have tried in the past, to forget his mutilated features as I saw them at our final meeting. I want only to remember his relaxed face with its smile directed at his comrades, his friends, his country.

When I first met him, the note I received was short and precise: "Fouad, three p.m., in front of the Iraqi Museum." I approached silently, three minutes late, after checking the rendezvous point twice to make sure he was the right person. He was of medium height and build, wearing a white shirt and a pair of gray trousers. His hair was red; his fair skin was reddened by the burning sun. He moved restlessly, though his face was relaxed. He was not carrying anything.

"Hello."

"Welcome."

Then silence. Since he was my superior, I awaited his orders. He walked quickly with short strides, and I could not keep up with him as he crossed the street. The unbearable heat made everyone seem tired, as if they were sleepwalking. I felt like that, too. I asked him sarcastically, "Why don't you run?"

He turned around as if he had only just noticed my presence, and laughed. I thought, at last, a comrade who can laugh and not feel guilty about it, or think his revolutionary image is threatened by levity. Perhaps it was because he had left school early and didn't consider himself an intellectual. He was arrested before he had had time to read Kafka's Metamorphosis, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Camus's Stranger, or even Colin Wilson's Ritual in the Dark. He retained his spontaneity.

When we were far from the crowd, he told me briefly that I would be in charge of certain activities: the students' union and the women's organization. I said I was willing to do whatever he ordered me to do. Then he suggested taking me to meet another comrade. We waited fifteen minutes for a bus. The heat was incinerating everything in the city. I could feel sweat running down my back and legs. Although few in number, passersby were unable to disguise their curiosity. A man and a woman standing together: how suspicious! At last the bus came. It was a double-decker and we went upstairs. A conductor followed us. In addition to their usual duties, bus conductors are guardians of public morals. Fouad wanted to pay both our fares, but I stopped him, saying he should pay his and I would pay mine. He looked at me incredulously, as did the conductor. A year later, Fouad laughingly reminded me of this, saying, "I was very pleased with your independence, but why did you refuse to pay my fare?"

The base was our home. As time wore on, there were fewer books to read, less hobnobbing in cafés, less time to sit together and endlessly chew words. Newspapers were scattered all about as we sang old songs; singing is often enjoyed at gatherings. Our voices were urgent, enunciating signals, images, and illuminations with but one dimension: the future. The future is our daily preoccupation. What is to happen? What will we do? What will our future society—our dream—be like? The future is our horizon. How vast will it be?

Fouad was arrested at noon on a hot day.

The heat had enough force to keep people in their houses. Noon was the ideal time for secret meetings, for making plans, but it also meant that if you were in trouble or about to be arrested, there was no one around to help. Two days before, I had met Fouad on my way back from Kurdistan. He told me two of our comrades had been arrested, and advised me to keep a low profile for a while. As for him, well, he had to leave Baghdad for Kurdistan. His presence in the city was too dangerous for him and his comrades. He was sad to have to leave the base. He wanted to remain in the city he considered the center of his life and political activities. When I told him how sad he looked, he made himself regain his cheerfulness. After all, he said, this would be an ideal way to rid himself of Baghdad's heat and dust.

I looked at him with deep sadness that day. Had I, too, caught the germ of anguish? Would this moment remove the veil of our real emotions? I looked intently at his face, trying to engrave his features into my memory. In this, I succeeded. I, who can sit for hours trying to recall the features of a close friend, have no such problem with Fouad's. Sometimes I try to forget, but I fail. Was he handsome? I do not think so. But his presence was calming, even to those who had only just met him. Often they would leave wondering where they had met him before. A first meeting with him was like picking up an interrupted conversation with an old friend.

I did not know then that it would be the last time I would hear his laugh. When he was arrested, he was on his way back to pick up his suitcase from a friend's place. He did not foresee any danger. He had the false sense of security of a man who is paying his last respects to his city. His instincts failed him, this man who regularly traveled from city to city, refuge to refuge, base to base. He walked naïvely into their trap. The security men were waiting. They had to gun him down. That hot summer's day, Baghdad's back alleys witnessed four men chasing and shooting at a young man who thought he knew his beloved city as well as he knew himself. He fired back before collapsing to the ground, covered in blood. A week later, one of the Qasr al-Nihaya torturers pointed to his own bandaged head and arm and said, "One of your party's bastards did this." He was pointing to Fouad's final protest.

"Sit down."

"Thank you."

"Are you hungry?"

"No."

"Do you want something to drink?"

"No."

"Now, since you are comfortable, tell us everything you know."

"I don't understand."

"I already know your answer. You are all the same at the beginning."

He sighed with boredom, revealing how tired he was with my stubbornness.

"Let her confront the others."

My interrogator signaled to the man standing at the door to let the first terrorist in. They brought in a disfigured mass of flesh, carried by two men as if it was not able to support itself. I recognized the torn clothes covered in blood and filth. The confrontation was brief, but I recognized Fouad's voice. He did not look at me; perhaps he was avoiding my face, or maybe he could not see properly. He did not say much except to confirm my identity and acknowledge our connection.

I think now, as I always have, that when I die, I will take with me something of this world. That thing will be the image of Fouad's tortured body. The image of a young man transformed in ten days into a mass of unseeing, unhearing flesh. The image of an idealistic, beautiful dreamer disfigured by torture.

Three months later, Fouad and two of his comrades were executed. Before his execution, at Abu Ghraib, he managed to send me a note: "My dear neighbor, I have been in the death cell for two months. They have allowed my family to see me, as I shall be executed very soon. How are you? Best wishes, and don't laugh at my spelling mistakes."

Now, whenever I meet comrades who survived, they are burdened like me with the guilt of still being alive. We spend our evenings talking of the past. I address them as if they are not there, and they talk about me as if I am somewhere else. They speak of a girl in her twenties. I talk about them as young men. The only living presence amongst us is the past. "What has happened to…? Do you remember…? I wonder if… is still alive?" These repetitive questions underline our feelings of exile. We see each other through a thin veil, an unremovable veil. We stretch out our arms to push away our past lives, our faces, but they stay where they are. The questioning is a new habit we have acquired. Will we be able to create ourselves afresh, behave in a different way, rekindle our dreams? Will we ever again enjoy the life we learned of in school, lessons the authorities then tried to make us forget? Will we play similar roles in similar cities in different times?

Until now, history has striven to repeat itself by rotating around a single axis: humans. Is there any guarantee that we, too, will not wear the faces of the torturers in the future?

From Dreaming of Baghdad, to be published in 2009 by The Feminist Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.