The Arab Altar

The last thing on our minds was celebrating our wedding, after we had waited so long, to the sound of air raid sirens and the reverberation of Dushka guns targeting the Iranian airplanes attacking Baghdad. Maryam had done everything she could to postpone the wedding, using arguments and excuses I found totally unconvincing. I was doing an MA in contemporary literature at the University of Baghdad. Once I was accepted there, Maryam volunteered to help me check sources and references for my thesis. She suggested that this would be a way for us to spend time alone in my library. Under this pretext, we slipped into our adjacent bedroom, with its large bed, and studiously devoted ourselves to kissing and hugging each other while panting with desire. Eventually Maryam would stop me, whispering in my ear, “That’s enough! We need to stop here; otherwise, what will be left for our wedding night?”

I would respond bitterly, “Praise God that you still remember we have a wedding night in store for us.”

While we were busily kissing one day, Maryam—as she slipped from my arms and drew away from me—whispered, “I think your mother’s calling you.”

I froze where I was and listened. Then I raced out of the room and looked down over the stone railing at my mother, who gazed up at me. She said reproachfully, “God Almighty, you’re so preoccupied with your doings that you don’t notice when the world around us turns topsy-turvy. Didn’t you hear the air raid sirens?”

Then I noticed the intermittent wail, which I had only heard during drills. It rose and fell in a way that terrified the soul.

“What’s happening?” I heard Maryam ask. Then she followed on my heels as I rushed toward the staircase, leaping down the steps before I crossed the courtyard to the outer door, where the alley was crowded with our neighbors. Women’s faces were peering from shanashil windows. All eyes were focused on the blue autumn sky, which was dotted with gray clouds, the edges of which the sun had clad in gold. Everyone was talking passionately about the Iranians launching their first attacks on Baghdad in response to the Iraqi army’s violations of the international boundaries of the two countries. Voices rising from here and there admonished, warned, and cautioned everyone else to take shelter beneath sturdy roofs, because what was happening was serious and unprecedented. I went back inside, sidestepping my mother and Maryam, who were standing behind the door, trying to discover the secret of what was happening.

“War’s broken out with Iran,” I said, entering the nearby diwa khanah. I quickly pulled the page for the day— September 22, 1980—from the wall calendar. It contained lines of poetry by al-Ma‘arri.

We laughed, and this laughter was foolish on our part.
Residents of this earth ought rather to weep.
Time’s fate smashes us like a glass that can’t be re-smelted. 

Following me there, my mother asked, “How do you know the war’s with Iran and not some other country?”

“Now who’s not paying attention, Mother, even as the world turns upside down?” I asked, turning on the television, which had taken the radio’s place a few years before. “How can you doubt what I say when boundary skirmishes between Iraq and Iran have lasted for months?” Then the room echoed with the roar of a patriotic anthem, accompanied by video clips of airplanes attacking, artillery guns firing, and troops advancing in full battle gear. Suddenly an announcer’s face filled the screen as he began repeatedly belting out a military release from the Iraqi Armed Forces, announcing the army’s haste to regain control of the two border areas of Zayn al-Qaws and Sayf Sa‘d. 

“Are you clear now that war has broken out with Iran and not with any other country?” I asked my mother, while the outside door creaked as it opened and then closed again before my father appeared, entering the diwa khanah with a flushed face.

“War with Iran has broken out,” he shouted. “I heard that on my way to the alwa; so I had to come back.” Panting, he was trying to catch his breath. Then he collapsed, throwing himself on the nearest sofa, ceding to my mother the task of removing his cloak, iqal, and kaffiyeh, although he retained his white cap on his shaven skull. While watching the images spread across the screen, he added sadly, “The war’s flared up. There’s no might or power save God’s.”

“It has been expected since the Shah of Iran fell and al-Khomeini succeeded in his religious revolution,” I remarked in turn, watching my father apprehensively. He had recently developed high blood pressure, and his face became flushed like this whenever his emotions were roused, and when he walked between his wholesale firm and the house.

Turning down the television, Maryam said, “I’ve been expecting this war since last July. Once President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakir granted the top military rank to his deputy Saddam Hussein, I’ve believed that war is inevitable. In response to the Islamic Revolution’s victory in Iran, the authorities here have deliberately substituted young leaders for older ones, with an eye on the Islamic forces mobilizing in Iraq.”

* * *

Days flowed by without any end to the war. The number of air raids on Baghdad increased as the month passed. The intermittent wail of air raid sirens preceded them, causing the streets to go dead. Vehicles stopped in place, and their occupants hurriedly took cover under the closest roof, casting anxious eyes toward the sky. Once a continuous wail erupted to signal the end of a raid, life gradually returned to the streets, where the roar of thousands of vehicles exploded all at once. The raids were always like this except for one time. I was heading home when I observed distant explosions accompanied by the flash from Dushka guns, which were lighting up the sky to the west and south of Baghdad, even though no siren had wailed. That night, people spread a rumor, which was soon verified, that the Israelis had seized an opportunity afforded by the war to launch a squadron of their planes to the Iraqi nuclear reactor at al-Tuwaytha. It was scheduled to begin tests in a few days. In this way they had made good on their threats to prevent Iraq from ever possessing nuclear power, even if it were solely for peaceful purposes.

So the war continued unabated while my mother waged another undeclared and one-sided war against Maryam, as if she was no longer her friend who helped with the household chores. She began to display her annoyance with Maryam over her excessive flirtatiousness and her exploitation of me as well. What could justify postponement of the wedding all this time? Why did she plant herself in our house for most of the day if she felt reluctant to wed? If she was so attached to me, she ought to compromise and marry me instead of closeting herself with me on the pretext of helping me with my studies and other such tomfoolery that did not deceive my mother, who understood the real reason behind her daily visits to our house. My mother would conclude by warning, “Don’t forget that she’s almost thirty. Women can only bear children during a limited period. After a certain age she won’t be able to conceive.”

Somehow my mother succeeded in enlisting the help of Maryam’s aunt, who would advise me we needed to accelerate our wedding plans, because her sons and her nephews were beginning to feel uncomfortable seeing their cousin with me night and day. So I was forced to bring Maryam up to speed, alerting her to what was transpiring around her without her realizing it. Caught off guard, she declared her willingness to set a date for the wedding at the earliest opportunity with the proviso that it would be very simple and quiet. Astonished, I told her, “Amazing! I would have thought a woman would naturally desire to pull out all the stops when announcing her wedding.”

“Aren’t the black death notices we’ve started to see at the corner of every street and alley sufficient reason for us to show restraint in celebrating our wedding?”

The number of martyrs had increased over the past months, ever since the Iranians had begun a major offensive against the Iraqi forces, which had failed to gain control of Sawsankard, pushing them toward the international boundaries. September brought more Iraqi losses when the troops were driven from Abadan, even though Iraq suggested a Ramadan ceasefire, which was rejected by the Iranians. The TV screen kept airing the most atrocious scenes following each battle, displaying the war’s harvest in the form of thousands of lacerated, bloated, and eviscerated corpses—with swarms of flies hovering around them—tossed on hunters’ blinds or barbed wire in the midst of green cane and the lakes’ blue waters. As the months swept by these sights became part of life’s routine, images that might attract our attention while we ate lunch or supper. 

Our wedding was celebrated amid this funereal atmosphere, which depressed people. In keeping with Maryam’s wishes, it was extremely simple and not at all noisy. When the bride’s group reached our house, however, that changed, because the bride was welcomed in the most spontaneous and boisterous way. My brother’s wife had rolled up her sleeves, drawing on the talents of a troupe composed of her daughters, female relatives, and neighbor women, to demonstrate the extent of her familiarity with popular folklore, which had been handed down from generation to generation. She alternated between trilling ululations and a swaying of hips to the beat of tambourines, elaborating on this routine by handing out pieces of candy.

I was with my brother, male relatives, some friends, and Suhayl al-Khalaf in the diwa khanah, watching and listening to everything that happened. Plastered across my face was a diplomatic smile suitable for the occasion. My father sat facing me on his sofa, sporting new clothes that he had ordered especially for this occasion. He cast me sympathetic glances to show his tolerance for my guests’ expressions and gestures. He no doubt realized that matters would have taken a more impudent and licentious turn, had he not been there. Maryam’s aunt insisted on joining the men, scorning the clamorous women in the courtyard. She sat down on one of the carpets to smoke assiduously while showing her happiness with what was happening. She had demonstrated her solidarity with her brother Isma‘il by caring for his daughter Maryam until she could transfer custody of her to trustworthy hands. It was time for her to free herself from this trust now and to return to her normal rotation between the families of her sons and daughters, spending a month with this family and two with another, as ever enjoying her cigarettes while seated on the doorstep of the house and keeping an eye on passersby.

  ***

The war dragged on and assumed a noticeable daily rhythm that controlled our lives. Whenever the family gathered in the diwa khanah after supper, the TV screen confronted us with such bloody scenes that my father would leave, asking God’s forgiveness with his every step.

The battles reached their apex in May 1982, because the Iranians had succeeded in expelling the Iraqi army from the city of al-Muhammara. They retreated to the international boundaries while retaining control of a few pockets west of Dezful and around Qasr Shirin. On the sixth of June a new war broke out, in Lebanon this time. Maryam’s concern was divided between these two fronts, hundreds of kilometers apart, and her anxiety assumed alarming proportions. Much as she feared that Baghdad would again become a daily target for Iranian planes and missiles, conditions in Lebanon were a constant source of anxiety, because her two brothers Muhammad and Fu’ad were there.

***

My mother would choose moments like these, when she was alone with me, to ask whether I had normal relations with Maryam. When I asked her what that meant, she would mutter as she moved away, “Nothing, nothing, Son. I just want what’s best for both of you.”

She seemed to be preoccupied by something she was uncomfortable discussing openly. I was sure it concerned Maryam, whose ministrations to my father, similar to those for her own father, I watched admiringly. She made a point of helping him avoid foods that would raise his blood pressure and would surprise him by bringing him tea at an appropriate time. Then he would look at her gratefully and appreciatively. He frequently felt frustrated by being confined to the house. So Maryam, using the pretext that she needed to sweep, would make him get up and sit on a chair at the house’s outside door. Then minutes later, she would bring him his prized nargileh. After making it bubble by drawing a few breaths from it, she would smilingly hand it to him while releasing a delicate cloud of smoke from her beautiful nostrils. At times I would see them chatting happily and intimately about matters that were none of my business. At that time, the war reached its most dangerous stages, after Iranian forces, in July, succeeded in crossing the frontlines and reaching high ground near Basra, where vicious battles raged between the two sides, which suffered the loss of many lives. The dispatch of more Iraqi units to the south was in full swing. I would certainly have been drafted had I not been exempt as a graduate student. 

***

My mother’s cryptic dialogues evolved; she told me that a long time had elapsed since my marriage to Maryam. One day, when I replied that I knew that, she exploded, “So why isn’t she pregnant yet?”

I calmed her, downplaying the matter by saying, “Be patient, Mother. We’re in no hurry. Our whole life lies before us.”

Then, losing control of herself, she shouted, “But we, your father and I, are the opposite. We’re in a hurry to see our grandson.”

Lowering her voice, she added, “Don’t you see how your father’s health is deteriorating, Son? His blood pressure lately has risen till he’s occasionally forced to perform his prayers seated, because he’s afraid he’ll fall when feeling dizzy.”

I looked at her anxiously, because what could I do—I had no control over the affair. She, however, quickly came to my rescue by asking, “Isn’t your wife educated?”

When I nodded yes, she asked, “Then what harm would there be in her consulting a gynecologist to learn why she hasn’t become pregnant yet?”

I saw nothing wrong in her suggestion. In fact, I soon brought the matter up with Maryam. When she threw me an angry look, I quickly added in the gentlest possible tone, “My mother is growing old. What’s the harm in humoring her by honoring this request?”

One afternoon a few days later I returned to the house and was surprised to find my mother and Maryam missing. When I checked on my father, who was lying in bed in his room, he told me that they had gone out hours ago. Minutes later the two women entered the house, one after the other. Maryam, who shrugged off her abaya with a flick of her head before folding it over her arm, passed by me with a frown, followed by my mother, whose face was radiant with good news.

“Relax. The physician said she’s fine and it’s only a matter of time before she becomes pregnant,” she told me, smiling.

When I asked why in this case Maryam was frowning, she replied, “That’s the way girls are, Son.”

During the subsequent months, the two of them tirelessly consulted numerous female physicians, who subjected Maryam to various examinations and tests that all yielded the same results, the gist of which was that everything was normal. Then my mother would wait a month or two before leading Maryam to a new doctor, without being dissuaded from this by the fact that the daily bombardment with rockets had been extended to Baghdad and therefore walking about on the streets had become quite dangerous. After Iran occupied the Fao Peninsula, to the extreme south of Iraq, Iraq increased its pressure on Iranian cities, using the most technologically advanced weapons. Iran had begun, since August, intensifying its attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers, causing in this way an internationalization of the war. So Iraq responded by employing French Super Étendard aircraft armed with Exocet missiles and attacked many returning oil tankers. America decided that this was a favorable opportunity to intervene, using the pretext of protecting the tankers, and raised its flag over them.

In this confrontational climate, one night I was startled to hear my mother and Maryam shouting below. I rushed downstairs, thinking that my father had been taken ill. To my surprise, I saw them shouting at each other in the kitchen. Their hands were struggling over something Maryam did not want to release. She yelled at my mother, “Leave me and what concerns me alone. You have no right to meddle in this.”

“How can that be, when the matter doesn’t just concern you but my son too?”

My mother succeeded in wresting the item from Maryam. Then she rushed to thrust it into my hand. Gasping, she shouted, “Here you are! See what she was doing while we consulted every woman doctor in Baghdad during the bombardment.”

My mother had placed in my hand a strip of small pills, which I examined without understanding anything. Meanwhile Maryam continued to repeat that she was free and could do whatever she wanted about this matter.

“All the time she was going with me to one doctor after another, she was taking birth control pills,” my mother explained.

Maryam shouted at my mother, “That’s none of your business.” Then she yelled at me, “None of yours, either. I don’t want to get pregnant. Do you both hear? I don’t want to become pregnant.”

She had begun to weep, moving her luminous eyes back and forth between me and my mother. She added, “I don’t want to present you all with another victim to be slaughtered in a later war. I have no desire for a son who will one day become a bloated corpse for flies to swarm over.”

“What’s happening in this house? What’s the reason for this racket you women are making at this hour of the night?”

We recognized my father’s voice. Turning, I saw him coming from his room, steadying himself against the walls. The two women immediately quieted down. Maryam withdrew posthaste, her head bowed. At the same time, my mother hurried toward my father to walk him back to his room, whispering soothing words. The tense atmosphere continued to hover over the house for weeks, while the two women tried to avoid each other. If they did meet by accident, one of them would dart away, pounding the floor with angry steps. My father watched unhappily as they practiced these maneuvers. Then he would turn to me, and I would grant him an apologetic smile, accepting responsibility for what was happening.

I grasped the depth of Maryam’s suffering. The war’s hideousness surpassed every formulation. It became the norm—while we ate lunch or supper for example—for the television suddenly to interrupt its customary programming in order to broadcast a short battlefield film. These were normally presented after each attack with the title, “Pictures from the Battlefield.” With each bite we swallowed, we would observe courtesy of the camera’s lens heart-rending images of the corpses of young soldiers who had been in the prime of life. Guts ripped open, these men lay in verdant meadows rife with spring flowers.

***

Once a ceasefire was announced, the flood waters separating my mother and Maryam quickly returned to their banks. The end of their mini-war coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq war. They rushed hopefully to the diwa khanah to watch that exceptional event’s details on the TV screen. Each affirmed to the other that she had almost renounced any hope that this incredible war would ever end. Even though we were delighted, the political climate during subsequent months quickly began to suggest that things were not going well.

In that atmosphere charged with anxiety, what I feared did happen. One afternoon, as the setting sun’s last rays stained the branches of the jujube tree, where dozens of sparrows were raising a racket by chirping to bid the departing day farewell, I saw my father complete his ablutions and enter a room, his small prayer rug under his arm. Only moments later I was startled to hear something heavy hit the floor. I darted into that room and found my father stretched out on his rug, which was spread facing Mecca, taking his final breaths.

My mother arrived right after me, shouting to ask what had occurred. Then Maryam appeared at a run to begin immediately her heartfelt, heart-rending lamentation. My father’s death stunned me, and I was unable to handle matters appropriately. I began to grope around like a blind man, as if searching for something I had lost. I was tormented, tasting the bitterness of losing a parent when I was in my forties. I repeated to myself that my fears had been realized and that submission to reality was inevitable.

This notion put things into perspective for me and granted me the strength to telephone my brother and some merchants right away to give them the news. I needed to contact my father’s old colleague Suhayl al-Khalaf as well; he alone would know how to make all the necessary arrangements. And that was how things played out. This man in his sixties, after forty years in the alwa, took care of everything. A large tent was erected in the alley, where the voice of the Quran reciter Abd al-Basit Abd al-Samad reverberated with the Quran’s words. Then neighbors began to file into the tent where they recited the Quran’s opening prayer in honor of the deceased and then tasted the bitterness of funeral coffee.

These men arrived with despondent faces and distributed themselves on chairs in two facing rows. After paying the necessary respects, they left to make space for others to perform the funeral ritual, which they had grown accustomed to over the past eight years, during which most of them had lost a loved one in the war. Increasing the weight of their sorrow was a shared sense that a new tragedy, which would forever change life as we knew it, was about to occur. Since the war’s end, harbingers had appeared on our life’s horizon, and these suggested that the global evil yet to come might be far more dreadful than anything that had occurred to date. 

***

Conditions continued to deteriorate, and Iraq began to accuse Kuwait and the Emirates of economic warfare by flooding the oil market with oil in excess of their OPEC quota just when Iraq needed the full dollar value after this long war.

During that period I was awakened most nights by Maryam’s sobs as she wept in her sleep. I would wake her up quickly and ask, while handing her a cup of water, what was the matter. She would tell me she had dreamed about her mother, father, or another family member in their stone house in the Saraya al-Sitt section of old Jerusalem. She was begging for their help, but they ignored her, usually because they were watching Israeli fighter planes fly low and break the sound barrier.

The Iraqi army’s Special Forces began to mass at the Kuwaiti border. This news was accompanied by reports of a decision by Iraq and Kuwait to send delegations to Jeddah to meet there in hopes of addressing the issue. So there was renewed hope of an imminent resolution of the crisis. Then the news from London confirmed that the most recent satellite images showed that Iraqi forces had changed their positions and that their tanks had advanced to the border. The artillery had been positioned behind the tanks, indicating that a final order to attack had been given and that the zero hour was known. The next two nights I did not sleep a wink until the muezzin made the dawn call to prayer. Thursday, August 2, 1990, arrived, and Maryam woke me to tell me, pale-faced, that Iraq had occupied Kuwait. 

From Maqamat Isma‘il al-Dhabih. © Abd al-Khaliq al-Rikabi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.