Salman and the Mule Suicides

My acquaintance with Salman extends back to our military service, to the winter of 1984, I think. In that year I began to serve in a series of units that fought in the mountains, cities, and canebrakes of Kurdistan. Till then, before being ordered to serve in the logistics battalion in a suburb of the city of Sulaimaniya at the Dukan Dam, to be precise, I had served in the Division of Military Veterinary Affairs under the command of the Third Army Corps in Basra. The Iran-Iraq War was still at its most intense, and bombardment from artillery, airplanes, and warships was a daily routine on the Southern Front. It is true that Iraqi forces had penetrated deep inside Iran’s territory, but the goal announced in Baghdad was always first to gain control of the city of Abadan and then to launch an offensive from there to take control of the entire oil-rich region of Khuzestan. This would have been a grand objective, to be sure, had it not been a form of suicide. Just as we planted mines in the regions we knew the Iranians would cross when they advanced toward Basra, they planted mines in all the areas around Abadan. To nullify the effect of our mines, which impeded their advance, the Iranians sent large groups of young boys, each holding a key to paradise, to walk over them. The Iraqis could not do this, because what paradise could they promise when a secular party ruled the country?

I don’t know who came up with the brilliant solution, but someone suggested that the best response to the Iranians was to substitute donkeys for adolescent boys, naturally without handing then the keys to paradise. Don’t laugh, I beg you. Not even donkeys are exempt from war. At any rate, since most of the donkeys that had once roamed freely along the Iran-Iraq border had fled to the Gulf States immediately after the outbreak of the war, they had to be forced to return. Thousands of donkeys were brought to us daily from those states and especially from Kuwait. Our unit’s mission was to screen those donkeys and pick the ones that were fit enough to send off to walk over the landmines. Some were exhausted and would die after going only a few meters. For more than a year our unit traveled up and down the fronts, dispatching one donkey after another. No statistics were kept on the number of donkeys that died there, but this was certainly a massacre. You should have seen them—many would kick and bray as if they knew what awaited them in the next few hours.

When the war’s course changed, or as a transfer when there were no more donkeys left in the country or in the Gulf states, the Ministry of Defense decided to reassign us—especially those of us officers who had degrees in veterinary science—to the military units fighting the Kurds in the North, to the First Battalion in Sulaimaniya and the Fifth Battalion in Erbil, in the triangle of Iraq bordering Turkey and Iran. This time we were charged with stopping the incidence of suicide, which had suddenly become prevalent among mules in Kurdistan. This task was futile too but preferable to the previous one—not because of the danger of combat on the front lines with Iran, especially from the southern fronts to the central front at Wasit and Mandali, because the war in the North was no less dangerous, definitely not, but because at least this time I was restoring life to animals instead of ending their lives in the evil way we did in Basra. You know: unlike the other university graduates who weren’t party members and who had to be content with the rank of corporal, I was an officer. Unlike my fellow officers I did not obtain this rank because of membership in the ruling party but because of my family name and birthplace. I acquired this distinction because I was not from the South. I could be rebellious within certain limits. Have you forgotten how I would take turns visiting my Communist friends, who were holed up in their houses, bringing bottles of arrack to them on March 31, the anniversary of their party’s founding—defying the security men who were watching them? I knew I would not be arrested—unlike my friends. A secret policeman once dared to question me, but when he read my name on my ID and learned where I was born, he apologized. In fact, I saw his face turn pale. He may have feared me.

Today everyone knows this, but no one admits it. Everyone talks about the differences between people today. They forget that the operative rule everywhere during all those years, especially in the army, was that university graduates like me who were not from the South and weren’t Kurds enjoyed advantages envied by both Southerners and Kurds. Apparently our loyalty to the authorities was taken for granted. Anyone who went too far, anyone whose loyalty was suspect, exposed himself to risk, but only within the limits of being censured and chastised. Veterinary medicine graduates who belonged to the ruling party and therefore were officers, for example, were not sent to serve on the front lines either in the South or the North. A large percentage of them cared for the livestock of the ruler’s sons. Someone like me enjoyed the distinction of serving as an officer and was not subject to arrest but had his hands slapped for refusing to join the ruling party and for associating with too many friends from the South. A security officer of the Third Corps once sent for me when I was on the Iran-Iraq front in al-Haritha and said, “Your file says that all your friends are shin to the third degree. Can you tell me why?” Should I tell him that, despite my surname, since childhood I have lived on the banks of the Euphrates in western Iraq with Shrugis, who are not necessarily Communists? They are simple folk, and most had fathers who came to work for the British army base there. Should I tell him that my father explained to me that because of a shortage of labor in the early 1940s they built both the Shi‘i Husayniya and the Sunni mosque? Sunnis and Shi‘is worked together on Fridays and other holidays to build these sanctuaries. Should I tell him that I noticed that the muezzin for al-Husayniya (who also recited chants there on special occasions) was a Sunni named Kamil—simply because he had a beautiful voice rather than for any other reason? Should I tell him that in al-Habbaniyah, which was a small city near our even smaller community, all Iraqi communities were represented, every type of Iraqi Christian—Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Catholics—and that there were even some Mandean Sabians? Would the officer understand this or think I was making fun of him? And how about his post? Should I explain to him that he would not have been named the corps security officer if he had not belonged to the ruler’s tribe?

My knowledge made me feel angry all the time. I kept aloof from my fellow officers and instead searched every military unit to which I was assigned for a corporal who was a university graduate to befriend. Naturally this was not easy because, especially in the Army, caution was essential; it was difficult to trust anyone. Talk of personal concerns was rare, even among fellow officers. So how awkward would any conversation be between an officer and a soldier, even for someone who was a university graduate and a corporal?

At first I encountered problems with some soldiers. Eventually I developed my own personal strategy. I would search for corporals who drank arrack or who, even if they didn’t drink it, at least had graduated from the Faculty of Arts, because my interest in reading went back a long way—to my university studies in the 1970s and to hanging out with culture buffs back then. We would go out to drink together in the bars of Abu Nuwas Street or at the Writer’s Union in Baghdad. No matter which strategy I used, the process usually took some time, except the night I met Salman.

I think a week after my transfer to the logistics battalion in Dukan, I had to quit the unit’s headquarters, on being told that the mule carrying supplies to the radar squadron at a guard post on the summit of the mountain had tried to kill itself by casting itself down into a ravine. I had to rush to see if it was still alive. I remember that it was a cold night with a clear sky in which stars glittered and that their light projected a blue light on the snow. The mule that had tried to commit suicide had landed on a narrow talus, near a small cave the light did not penetrate. I heard a voice reciting, “Executioner! Go back to your little village. We kicked you out today and eliminated this position.” That night I did not realize that these are the opening lines of a poem by an established Iraqi poet, who at the time was living in San Francisco. I certainly didn’t; that did not interest me. I did not even ask about the poet then. All that mattered to me was that I had stumbled upon a soldier to befriend this time, and he didn’t even have the rank of corporal. Here was a soldier I knew would become my friend, without me having to search or exert any effort. The poem’s words showed that he didn’t belong to the ruling party. I was so delighted at discovering him that I didn’t notice the mule on the outcropping below. Actually I made straight for the soldier reciting the poem.

That was more than a quarter of a century ago—my God!—almost twenty-seven years, but I still remember clearly every detail as if it had happened yesterday or was happening now. Salman sat on a nearby rock with a cigarette in his mouth. Even though he was shivering from the cold, he didn’t toss it down till he saw me standing near him. He seemed startled by my arrival. He did not even have time to wipe away the tear that had fallen on his right cheek and that showed clearly there, where it gleamed and trembled in the light. Agitated, Salman rose and saluted. His teeth clattering from the cold, he said, “Sorry, Sir. The suicide is down there in the bushes.” I liked his choice of the word “suicide.” He did not say “the animal” or “the mule.” Why not? I wondered. Mules in this country had become conscientious objectors and no longer were willing to transport loads on their backs or to endure this unnatural life in military camps and on lines of engagement—surrounded by weapons on every side instead of by grass and vegetables. I don’t know if anyone kept records of the number of human suicides. I don’t know if we had comparative statistics, but certainly any comparison would confirm that twice as many mules killed themselves. On the Iran-Iraq front I saw even donkeys kill themselves while poets on the Eastern front were inflaming chauvinistic zeal with their poems. Their throats never grew hoarse reciting patriotic anthem after anthem, and their hands never tired of beating the drums of war.

I smiled, but that tear, which stood its ground, excited my curiosity. I thought it a reaction to the cold or to the winds that were blowing briskly at the time. I asked him to relax and held out my hand, introducing myself without mentioning the title “lieutenant.” I asked him his name, and he replied with his rank. I objected, “No, your name.” So, after some hesitation, as if unaccustomed to this, he said, “Conscript Salman Madi.” I inquired what he was doing now that the mule had died and how he would make it back to the guard post without it. He studied me as if he did not believe my words or as if he did believe them but wanted to be sure that the officer before him was flesh and blood rather than a figment of his imagination. He replied, “But you, Sir, haven’t examined the animal.” I smiled and invited him to come with me. The Jeep was waiting for me below in the valley. Salman did not utter a word the whole way back, nor did I. When people meet, you know at times there is no need to ask the other person what he is thinking, because—simply put—they understand each other, because they are thinking along the same lines. This is what happened to the two of us that cold winter night.

I handed him my overcoat once we entered my private room at the unit and asked him what he wanted to eat. I didn’t ask him about a drink, because I had quite enough of that—three bottles of arrack or possibly more. I told him, “Ask the driver to bring us kebab and mezze from the canteen.” Then I threw an extra log on the fire. I knew that we had a long night of conversation ahead of us. I knew I was in the presence of an unusual conscript, one who would become my friend for life.

Naturally my hunch was correct, because after the third or fourth glass, while Fairuz’s low voice was singing, “Bird flying on the edges of the world . . . would you tell the lovers what is happening to me . . . Bird. . . ” I asked him the name of the poet who wrote the poem he had been reciting not long before. He stared at me as though astounded by the question. Then he said, “That’s strange—don’t you know him?” I replied, “Frankly, I don’t.” He retorted, “If you had read any Iraqi author, perhaps you would ask if I knew him personally. An exceptional poet like him—it would be hard not to know him.” So I replied, “I know one author: Harun Wali. Quite frankly, I read him because he always talks about what is papered over and all the injustices visited on man.” I didn’t realize that he would know Harun Wali, whom I mentioned and with whom I had had a longstanding warm relationship, but the delight that shone on his face when I mentioned this author told me everything about this man, especially when I heard him tell me, “It’s true that Harun hasn’t published much, but I admire his persistence in continuing the novel about the hell we’re currently experiencing. He went into exile early on to provide himself the opportunity to write freely about our suffering. That’s how I knew he would leave.” He added, "Oh, how close to us he seems now!” Then he continued, “I have frequently heard him recite a phrase of our Italian friend Italo Calvino, a statement he loved wholeheartedly: ‘We are living in hell. We have two choices: we can become a part of the hell around us, or we can find those things around us that are not hell, and give them a form that will allow them to endure.’

I remember that after he finished his tribute to Harun, we drank at least an entire bottle of arrack. We drank a toast to our mutual friend the novelist and spoke a lot about ourselves, as if wanting to get to know each other quickly to build trust. Perhaps this was what motivated him to tell me, late that night, that he was happy to meet me and hoped his past or present would not create any problems for me. When he saw me look at him, he added sarcastically, “You should know that, because I don’t want you to get into trouble with me or because of me.” Then he lifted his head and pointed to a dent on his brow and another on his chin. He explained that one day they had taken him to the Intelligence Agency in the Ministry of Defense in Bab al-Mu‘azzam, behind the mosque they built there to camouflage their torture chambers. They asked him to confess to his relationship with the Resistance and to inform on his friends, whom they considered Communists. When he told the truth, which was that he had no ties to anything they were accusing him of, they opened wide the gates of hell for him. The marks of this torture were still visible on his body. He said that he had signed a confession that he was a criminal and that he had revealed everything he knew about his friends. “I left there feeling disgraced. They destroyed my honor and humanity. I felt despicable and started living like a dog whose sole concern was to avoid being tortured again.” He asked me, “Do you know that they could summon me tomorrow and ask me about my relationship with you?” I reassured him that he should not be concerned about this and that while we remained together he would not be subject to arrest. At least at that time, because of my uncle, I was confident of what I said.

Even today I don’t know how we were able to wake up early the next day. Perhaps we didn’t sleep or slept in bouts: drinking, sleeping, waking, drinking, talking, and then sleeping again. Perhaps I forgot about sleep. But I didn’t forget that before he went to bed he told me, “I must tell you why I was weeping down in the valley. That was from a feeling of guilt—nothing else.” Then he explained that everyone knew that the grade at that stage was very steep. “I should have been extremely careful,” he said in a mournful, broken voice. He had been heading for the first time by this route to the guard post at the summit of the mountain with that mule. He told me remorsefully, “I was busy thinking.” This was not the first time that thinking had distracted him from saving someone—but he would tell me that story another day. He added, “Now I will have to live with my feeling of guilt again.” Then I heard him recite on his way to bed a phrase I subsequently learned was from Hamlet: “Why does thinking make ‘fools of nature’ of us?” I said that people around us were busy killing each other while he was upset that a mule had fallen. “What’s the difference?”

The next morning I rose before he did, washed my face, and hurriedly donned my uniform. I went directly to the battalion’s headquarters to ask the commander to assign Salman to me as a messenger, and he agreed.

The war ended August 20, 1988, and we were discharged from the army a month or two later. I suggested to him then, “How about coming to work with me in a slaughterhouse in Baghdad? Given our long experience working with animals, I think we should. I don’t have any other calling, and your profession won’t earn you a living. Why are you going to al-Nasiriya?” I knew he was worried about returning to his hometown, where he expected he would be arrested on arrival. He replied, “I take your gist. That would benefit us and the animals.” Then he turned toward me and recited: “‘Executioner! Go back to your little village. We kicked you out today and eliminated this position.’” I laughed and retorted, “Never mind. The profession of executioner will never be abolished in this country, and he will never return to his little village.” When we stood in the bus station in the produce markets of al-Hilla I did not know that this was actually what our real executioner would do—the nation’s executioner, whom they dubbed “the historic leader” or “the necessary leader.” This criminal did return to his village where he had tended his flocks when a child, but far too late, after he had devoured people and stones, poisoned books and streams, torched the whole country, and garbled children’s imaginations. Late that evening Salman left for al-Nasiriya—just to see his mother he told me. After that two-day visit, he left that city at dawn. During the first days he did not sleep at my place as I requested. Instead he got a room at a hotel in al-Bab al-Sharqi. Two weeks later we began working together again—at a government slaughterhouse in central Baghdad, near al-Nahda Square. 

***

The damage to my memory does not matter; I’m not the only person suffering from memory loss. This is a chronic Iraqi malady that will take centuries to treat. I do still remember the period we spent together from the time we were discharged from the army in September 1988 until we were called back to active duty again in the summer of 1990—in September as well—four weeks after the occupation of Kuwait, no more than that. I went to the Ministry of Defense and he went back to his unit, which had remained in Basra. Subsequently it was moved with other troops to the Southern Kuwait front at the border of the Sa‘udi Kingdom south of the Samawa Desert in Iraq. They granted us only two years to live a normal life. At that time he asked me, “Do you see how execrable fate is?” Then he added, “This time there are no mules or donkeys for you to protect or to protect us. Instead there are armies and destruction—the armies of thirty-four states have descended with all their ammunition and weapons, trash cans and porta-potties. On the other side there is the executioner, who instead of giving up his profession and returning to his village has sent his army to occupy a neighboring land, assuming that his deed will go unpunished.” I do not remember very clearly the day Salman came to bid me farewell—because he didn’t think he would come back alive this time. Even if he did return, he wouldn’t be the same person, the Salman I knew. He seemed to be prophesying what would happen to us and the country. My memory can be depended on for the many memories it retains from those two years we worked at the slaughterhouse, exactly two years. I must have believed his prophecy that he would return devastated, solitary, “shattered like a pane of glass” (as he put it in a subsequent poem when recalling fondly the nights he spent in the desert there, in the barren land), counting up his losses, the friends who had perished, enumerating them one by one—as if what had happened to him had forced me to recall what we had endured. I was his witness—as he liked to call me—or the notary public for both me and Harun Wali, for our trustworthy concord, as he used to say. “Novelists work externally; poets internally. You, my friend,” he told me, “carry the lantern that lights the way for us.”

No matter what mission they assigned me then, during the days I spent in my office in the Division of Military Animal Affairs in the Ministry of Defense, in al-Maydan, I worked on recording everything we had experienced together, especially during the last two years of our life together, as if wanting to document his life. I gave up smoking and handed him my last pack, telling him, “Perhaps you won’t find another cigarette.” I knew how addicted to smoking, reading, and tippling he was. So why did he marry and have a child? He would say, “Here you see, my friend, how the bearer of the lantern does not need to smoke.” I replied, “Take this last cigarette pack of mine—Baghdad cigarettes,” and slipped it into his pocket. He said, “Thanks. Each time I smoke a cigarette from this pack, I will remember you.” How horrible! What a separation! For about nine months, perhaps a few more or less, I did nothing but sit at my table writing and recording, as if I feared I wouldn’t see him again, not conscious of the passing time. The new war was knocking at the doors. The length of time it would last did not matter, because it would be a different war from the others that the country had known. No one would return from it the way he went—at least that was the case with my friend Salman.

The next to last day before he left, I began recording how he appeared suddenly at the slaughterhouse. He was scheduled to report to his squadron that day but typically had begun his new tour of duty AWOL. “They can throw me in prison when I arrive if they want,” he said. “Prison or sitting in a trench in the Iraqi desert—what’s the difference?” He was right, as always. How could I express my concern for him and ask him to keep in touch when I would be sitting in Baghdad? What kind of executioner was I? I asked myself then. I heard his voice at the entrance of the slaughterhouse. This time, defying me, he did not recite his beloved verse: “Executioner! Go back to your little village. We kicked you out today and eliminated this position.” Instead, I heard him shout at the top of his penetrating voice from the entrance, “Pull in your testicles, Comrade, and grab your tool, because we’re going to war to hunt for whores.” I remember that this refrain was commonly heard during the French Resistance and repeated by French Freedom Fighters on their way to fight the Germans. We had actually read that in a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Chemins de la liberté, but for Salman to proclaim this loudly in the slaughterhouse was dangerous for both of us. Even if I weren’t arrested, he probably would be. Fortunately for us, no one else was there that day except for a young, deaf worker—at least that was what I thought at the time.

"What enrages me, my friend,” Salman told me, “is that I’m being forced to go to the killing fields.” I didn’t ask him, “Why don’t you kill yourself like a mule?” because I realized I had no right to say anything along those lines; I would be reporting to my desk in the Division of Military Animal Affairs in the Ministry of Defense and would be sent to serve as an inspector in some government or private slaughterhouse. There were many of them in those days. I remember that he hugged me tenderly and said good-bye quickly so I wouldn’t see a tear fall from his eyes, one like the tear I saw on his cheek the day we met. “Anyone who is preoccupied by life should be preoccupied by death,” he told me just before heading out the door. I wrote that down two weeks later.

Many of his statements were packed with wisdom. Fortunately I still remember some of the sentences I recorded. Once when we were drinking arrack together on the riverbank at Abu Nuwas Street, for example, I asked, “Who’s the best poet you’ve read?” Instead of answering directly he asked, “See that wave?” But there wasn’t a wave; the river was still and motionless. I too was still, but when we rose to leave, I heard him call out loudly to the river, “Why don’t you turn, River, and give my friend the answer he wishes?” I also made note of his asking me one day why the slaughter of human beings normally occurs at night, whereas that of animals commences at 4 a.m. “Why are festivals of human annihilation and animal slaughter synchronized? Did you all study that in the College of Veterinary Medicine? While you were a student there did you find an answer to this question?”

I looked at him—we were sitting in the Ankido Bar on Abu Nuwas at the time—and wondered what the connection was. “Is there some rite that begins its ceremonies at that hour?” I asked him. He replied, “I thought you were the expert executioner.” I remember discussing with him then a poetic portrait by the Russian Boris Pasternak: “And the dawn was gray like prisoners’ whispers in the night.” He retorted, “Pasternak should have said, ‘Like the clamor of men condemned to death.’” Then I noticed that he was gazing at me. “Have you forgotten the clamor in the slaughterhouse at the hour you issue your sentence: ‘Begin slaughtering’? Then the blood starts to flow while you make the rounds in your lab coat. Do you realize that at dawn at those moments I remember my every dawn in the army? Then I feel my heart bounding from my body and becoming a bird. Will you slaughter it one day?” I wrote down that I can imagine him turning into a bird at the hour that the slaughter of the animals begins.

I searched for him but didn’t find him. When I walked out of the slaughterhouse I saw him sitting by the lone palm tree in the garden there. As I approached he asked, “Don’t you agree with me that massacres dominate this place? Even this garden in the middle of the inner courtyard of the slaughterhouse is nothing but fallow land—although the Tigris is nearby—except for a single palm. Yes, a single palm to which an animal that has a premonition of danger and breaks free of its executioners’ ropes is tied.” Pointing to himself while standing smoking a cigarette there, he said, “I love this palm tree, which bears witness to my destiny and to the death that awaits me or all of us.”

© Najem Wali. From Baghdad . . . Marlboro: A Novel for Bradley Manning (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 2012). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Willilam Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.