Waltzing Matilda

All I have left from this story is a white Caribbean suit, a Panama hat, and a cassette tape that I've carried persistently in my left shirt pocket. And a pair of white shoes which, if I hadn't lost them in the course of my journey, would complement the suit, which I'm wearing now.

It must have been in the autumn. October, to be more exact. Spring doesn't tend to go on for very long in Basra, and one could wear clothes such as these only in a moderate season. It almost had to be October twentieth, in fact, since I recall now that I heard a particular sentence coming from Mathilda's mouth, words that ring in my ears even now.

"Thirty years, as of today--you've gotten that far. Time to leave this graveyard, and you've got to do it."

Our unit had come to Basra twenty-seven days before. Unlike other units, we weren't sent directly to the front. Ours was of a different makeup and mission: we were a collection of airborne storm troopers, one of those new squads that had emerged with the war. And since chemical weapons hadn't yet been used (in all probability), they had kept us in the city, waiting for an appropriate time to deploy us.

At that time Basra was packed solid with military units, so much so that they couldn't find any place to lodge us; neither the naval base nor the Abu'l-Qasim camp had any space at all. They did not want to send us as far away as the air base in Ash Shuayba or Az Zubayr; clearly, they thought it important to keep us near the Shatt al-Arab, the broad waterway formed by the Tigris and Euphrates, and the borders. So they bivouacked us in al-Watani Street, in a dormitory belonging to the University of Basra that had housed Arab students from outside the country, most of whom had disappeared after the breakout of war. Any remnants of this throng were sent to the new residential buildings erected for the students near Karmat Ali City.

That's why we were only a ferry ride away from the other side of Basra. Every quarter hour, as long as there was no bombing, the ferry crossed the wide expanse of river. In that direction--toward Tannumah--the border was no more than twenty kilometers away.

But that was the pre-war geography. Once the battles had started, the front began right at the Shatt, down from the corniche, and with this scenario we were separated from the war front by only a trench filled with dirty water, which one could cross swimming if things came to that.

That was the time when visiting Mathilda became part of my routine. I had known her since my university days. Mulhem, my friend from Baghdad, and I used to go to her late in the afternoon, after classes were over for the day. Or we would walk down directly from the residential quarters. But this time I couldn't visit her unless the battalion had gone on exercises and scouting duties. I was placed with six other soldiers. They called us the "hall watch" because the battalion adjutant, after studying our files which had come from the security authorities in our cities and towns, believed that we--assuredly--comprised a danger to the Iraqi army as long as we held on to our weapons. He didn't know what to do with us, until he came up with the idea of handing that duty to us. We--the "magnificent seven," as we called ourselves--stayed behind to mount guard over the two large halls where the soldiers slept as well as a smaller chamber allotted to the officers. When my duties were done, I would leave without anyone taking notice.

Mathilda was, in some sort of way, my own special secret. Even at night we soldiers couldn't be there because of the officers' presence, for they were there to drink away every evening. I slipped away to her every day between noon and two P.M. I would rap on the windowpane twice, hard, then once lightly, followed by three more quick taps. At that, she would push aside the red curtain and, when she had satisfied herself that it was I, she would open the door for me. I would come in to the tavern which wasn't normally open by day.

Mathilda was in her early sixties as far as I know, and I was just turning thirty. As I said, it must have been October, precisely the twentieth, because as I remember, she was the one who, a week before, had decided on celebrating my birthday.

"Don't you remember," she asked me, "it was your friend Mulhem who gave me the task, one time, of procuring a bottle of champagne."

She laughed and went on. "He told me it was for the sake of celebrating the birthday of our stubborn, heedless friend."

I'd be the first to admit that Mulhem had taken me by surprise on countless matters. My impending birthday wouldn't have passed through my mind if it hadn't been for his repeated reminders. I had remembered it only once--and that was in his presence. Joking, Mathilda had proposed that we consider the first of July an Iraqi national holiday, since it was entered as everyone's birthdate on all Iraqi IDs.1

"Wednesday, the twentieth of October, at 10:33," I said almost automatically. My mind was wholly taken up by the image of my grandfather, inspector of date production in the Basra environs, who in his entire life had committed but one good deed, which was to record the day, month, year, and indeed the very hour in which I was born in his own private register, which he carried in his vest pocket as long as he lived.

At the time, as I recall it, Mathilda (to whose joking we were accustomed) had a ready response. "So was your grandfather sitting between your mama's thighs, with a stopwatch in his hand?"

Mathilda spoke formal Arabic with us. It was that sort of Arabic, she claimed, that she had learned effortlessly. But whenever the alcohol rose in her head she would start reminiscing in the Basran dialect. Had it been up to her, that's the only Arabic she would have spoken. But as she would say, she spoke formal Arabic "automatically," ever since first hearing the interminable commentaries of high officials in the presence of her husband, back in the fifties, as they warned him against his partiality to Basra. Her husband had been the minister of date production in the forties. He had brought her with him to Basra after one of his trips to Greece, during World War Two.

Though she was perfectly aware that countless stories swirled about her person and had since her arrival in Iraq, she did not tell us the whole story in one sitting. She related it in installments to pique our interest, luring us into a state where we sometimes believed we were living in a world of the imagination.

Thus had the people of Basra woven their many stories about her. Indeed, my grandmother even insisted that Mathilda, and no one else, was a peasant's daughter who'd been snatched away by an Englishman, and now she had returned married to a government minister! But my grandfather made fun of that story, even as he retold her story to me on different occasions. As usual, he remembered the very day and hour, the month and the year, for he had remained faithful to his profession as an accountant even in matters that had nothing to do with numbers and sums.

So it was that before he embarked on his story, he would pull his little notebook from his vest pocket and read the date. On the eighteenth of April in the year 1945, at 9:17, the three inspectors of dates, who were in the midst of counting and inspecting trays of premier-quality dates stuffed with almonds and walnuts and destined for China and Great Britain, had to leave work, leave the storeroom of the International Railroad Station where the trays were stacked, and go to the district authority building to supervise the array of dates and milk under preparation for presentation to visitors, and to be present among the delegation collected there to welcome the minister and his madame.

On that spring day--my grandfather would say--we saw a young woman in her twenties, of medium height, thin but elegantly so, her eyes large and black, arm in arm with the minister, who was dressed in a white suit, panama hat, and white shoes. The young woman was carrying a white parasol that hid her dark blonde hair, which he described as having a lighter streak, worn in a short cut. Resembling the hair of Greta Garbo, would add my father, devoted filmgoer, who was dogged about adding his beloved phrase every time he heard my grandfather telling the story. And that would draw my grandfather to comment. "Hero from Gabo land . . . may your future be promising . . . discoverer of penicillin."

In any case, my grandfather did not stint in describing her beauty, swearing that her eyes were full of a magic he had seen only once in his life, in the eyes of a sea nymph who appeared to them in the Gulf as they prayed the dusk prayer on deck, en route to Mecca. Otherwise--he would say in response when I expressed my doubts about what he had said--what could have made the second bowl of milk, which she requested from him because she loved the milk and dates given as a gift to the delegation, drop from his hand when he looked into her eyes as he passed the bowl to her?

On that day it had been exactly two years since their wedding, and for the occasion the district put together an anniversary celebration. That evening they drank and danced to exhaustion--the tango and the salsa. At that time only a few knew the source of those dances; or her origins would have been guessed from the start.

She seemed insistent on keeping her origins a mystery. In front of us she was adamant about calling herself a citizen of the world. She said she had left her village of Macondo, surrounded by sites where the dolphin played, long before. But the world citizen settled upon her future that evening, and allowed herself to choose, this time. She chose Basra as the place she would remain in forever, and because she was so tired of departures, as she admitted to us one time.

And in the middle of the night, said my grandfather--for Mathilda had no desire at all to relate these events--the customers at the Shtura Hotel, where the minister and his wife stayed, woke up to Mathilda's screams. Those who rushed to the room found the minister dead. The doctor who performed the autopsy reported that he had eaten a great number of dates that evening, and because of his high cholesterol level his body (he was a man in his fifties) could not handle it. There was no logic to this official cause, since dates contain no cholesterol.

In the course of the next two days, the minister was buried in the Cemetery of Hasan al-Basri in Zubayr. Mathilda stayed on for a week, sleeping at his grave, only to surprise everyone with her decision to stay in Basra. With the money she inherited, she bought the tavern opposite Mary's Bar and in front of the national playgrounds. Mathilda wouldn't comment on the story when I told it to her. The only thing she said came in response to my question: "Why did you decide to stay in Basra?"

"I fell in love with Basra, love at first sight, habuubi."

When I didn't leave the subject easily she gave me another answer. "I'm a citizen of the world, and Basra is the Macondo of the East."

I would insist. "I don't think Macondo exists except in the mind of García Marquez."

She would laugh at that. "Macondo is what created García Marquez, not the other way around." She stared into the distance and added, "Isn't Basra a reality?"

So I ask her again. "Is that why you're so fond of its people?"

And at the time a sort of wonder glints in her eyes. "Basrans have something of the Caribbean soul in them. Departures, traveling--that's destined for them. If not on the high seas, they're sailors roving across the land." After a short silence, she adds, "The city lacks only dolphins to be a Caribbean city."

It seemed to me that the story of the dolphins might be the most legendary of the stories, as opposed to what Mulhem thought. He insisted on the truth of the whole story. And before Mathilda launched her story, she brought out a small chest to show us a lovely group of pictures she had collected.

"Pictures are your traveling case," I told her.

"No, they're the essence of my life," she said.

In more than one of them we saw the image of a man in a white Caribbean-style outfit, wearing a Panama hat and white shoes.

"Pablo." She was pointing to the man. "That's how we rested after dancing to 'Guantanamera.'"

She was stretched out next to him, in the same costume I've seen on that woman in some painting or other, but I can't remember which one. (Could it be a Gauguin?) Dark skin, tall, dark blonde hair with a yellow flower to one side. In the photo, they're lying close together, laughing, a clear blue sky stretching above them, its far reaches touching an endless sea, small waves showing here and there. And the swaying palms on the shore cast their branches to both sides, brown sands yielding beneath their bodies and white sea flowers above.

"What's 'Guantanamera'?"

"Originally a Cuban song, in which a man's speaking to his Caribbean love."

Mathilda showed us more than thirty photos of herself with Pablo. She looked happy in all of them, and Pablo's face was positively alight.

"Pablo came from Spain after the collapse of the republic."

So she was the Caribbean love and Pablo was the fine Spaniard who had come to Macondo, encumbered with his country's collapse.

Silent, she noticed our wonder. "Actually, he came to the island, as he told me later, to join up with the armed peasants."

She put the photos back into the little chest, and we could see a wistfully tender look on her face.

"Once the soldiers chased him for an entire night. They followed him from Cartagena de las Indias until they surrounded him in the outskirts of Macondo, where the dolphin sites are. In that area and precisely on nights when the moon is full, the female dolphin came onto the shore searching for handsome males."

She laughed, and then her voice became more serious.

"That evening I was in the Macondo suburbs. The sea was still clinging to my skin when I saw him, wearing a Caribbean suit, Panama hat, and white shoes."

She turned her back on us, as if she was fully occupied in putting the little chest back on the table next to the wall. But to tell the truth that sea smell had never stopped emanating from Mathilda.

And so that is how Mathilda would take us with her to worlds of which we had absolutely no knowledge. And why not? For when we first came to her, my friend Mulhem and I, it was another era. There was no war going on. Mulhem wasn't a prisoner. I wasn't a soldier in the airborne storm troopers division. Basra was at its most splendid, its evenings resplendent and alive. Mulhem was studying English literature, his mind occupied with Byron and Yeats and Coleridge. And I was studying Spanish literature, all caught up in Lorca, Machado, and Alberti. Mathilda's tavern was crammed with sailors coming from everywhere. In a word, I'd say that her bar was the center of the world as far as we were concerned, and before time bound us with its storm and tossed every one of us into a different corner.

I wasn't the only one having these thoughts. She was thinking the same. When she talked of those days everything came to life all at once, as if things had happened yesterday rather than ten years or more ago, as if she was determined not to get old.

"We age only in relation to others."

I would tell her that she hadn't changed much. She would shake her head and laugh, and say to me, "Thanks for your flattery. But then, you were always different from the others."

I hadn't said it to flatter. She really hadn't changed very much, especially in her personality. When she opened the door, she still would say to me, "Come on in, lo-o-o-ve! Habuubi!"

She pronounced that sentence the same way every time, knowing that I loved her Basran habuubi. I would find her in a kitchen apron, her hair every which way, as if she'd just gotten up from sleep. She'd have a kitchen knife in one hand, and at the bar there would be a large plate of peeled cucumber, sliced tomatoes, peeled yams. She was in the midst of chopping onions on a wooden cutting board. To be fair, I should mention that she always stopped working for a few minutes, when I arrived. She would pull out a bottle of something she had made herself. Anything but araq.

"Araq is the Iraqi suicide drink." That's what she would say, jokingly, alluding to a comment I had made to Mulhem in front of her the very first time we had come to her tavern. Ever since that night, she'd remembered that I don't drink araq. I might not have been so persistent about visiting her throughout those years had I not known of her distinctive liquor supply, varieties that her friends among the sailors brought her from all over or that she made herself from grapes or dates.

"We'll put it on the bill?"

Again, jokingly, reminding me of the never-ending period when I was always broke. She would put a small glass on the table for me, and another for her, and pour into both, but she didn't drink while I was drinking. She just clinked her glass against mine saying sahha! To your health! In all languages. Yamas. Saluta. Salud. Cheers. L'chaim.

L'chaim always came last. "I know you are a good fellow, different from the rest," she would say to me.

And then I could take my first sip, while she continued to slice yams and tomatoes. She would take a drink only when she heard the distant voices of the battalion chanting, "Oh, you cub of Zayn al-Qaws, greet the Al-Qastal, tell him we've come, we've come and not gone."2

She knew it was time for me to leave. She put on the cassette tape that Mulhem had given to her at the beginning of the war. She raised her glass to knock it against mine, and we drank in silence and quickly. A secret, shared gloom enfolded us, Mulhem's absence mingled with the coming of the battalion.

"I've gotten tired of those wretched songs," she would say. So I teased her a little. "Your sentence is an appeal for destruction, like that l'chaim. Annihilation." After a sigh, she would answer. "Is there an annihilation greater than the punishment of hearing these songs?" Mathilda sounded sad; she truly seemed to want to leave everything behind, this time.

"I'm tired. Everything has changed. My tavern is no longer what it was, and Basra is no longer Macondo."

That was the refrain with which she ended her conversation every time, and so ran the course of our days. Nothing except repeating the stories of the past. Did we have anything else left to us? She was the one who talked, more than I did. She complained about the situation in two or three sentences, no more, but she showed no real desire to leave, and appeared stalwart in front of events, or as if she was struggling to hold on--stubbornly--to whatever determination she possessed. At least, that's how it looked to me. Until the day came when she let me know that she simply could not bear it any longer.

"I'll leave. I can't stand the officers in my tavern any more, or the sounds of the streets being hit, the big guns strafing, airplanes circling up there."

Sensing that my dejection was getting the better of me, a grief she could easily make out on my face, she would say as she accompanied to the door, "Maybe you need to go away, too. Tomorrow you'll be thirty, habuubi."

I would just shake my head, confused, and at that she patted me on the shoulder. As if she knew exactly what was going through my head, she asked, "Are you thinking about Mulhem?" Seeing that I didn't know where to turn, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and added, "You're a good fellow, you're different from the other young men, like him, the two of you are made of different clay but with one spirit. He also wanted to leave." Then, as if a crazy idea had occurred to her, she added, "I've got some special champagne for you here. Tomorrow we'll celebrate your birthday." As I went out, the words of the song accompanied me, all the way to the hall, where soon enough the anthems of the squadron would assail me.

Wasted and wounded . . .
I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alley
And tired of all these soldiers here
No one speaks English and everything's broken . . .
Old Bushmill's I staggered, you buried the dagger . . .
To go waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
You'll go a waltzing Matilda with me . . .

Mulhem arrived in Basra before I did. He was attached to the missile battery. Actually, their unit had bivouacked in Al Faw. One day he claimed to have an illness that could only be treated in the military hospital in Basra. Luckily for him the physician who examined him was a young fellow, a recent graduate. The doctor found out his pretense and said right out, laughing, "Tell me the reason you're here. A girl?"

Mulhem laughed too, and told him candidly that he longed to visit Mathilda and to give her "this cassette," taking it out of his pocket.

Mathilda was so happy to see him. "Do you know that the two of you are completely unlike the rest of the students and soldiers, I don't know why!" she said to me when she had me listen to the tune for the first time. I answered her teasingly, "Maybe because Mulhem's aunt is a poet, like our famous Nazik al-Mala'ika. And me, well, maybe because my grandfather told me about you."

She laughed. "Even though you are different, there's something the two of you share, a sort of mysterious transparency." Then we'd start in nostalgically on the old days. Or rather, she did most of the talking. She always translated the lyrics to the song because she knew that my English was too rudimentary to help me understand what the song was talking about. When she joked with me, saying, "Mulhem knows English better than you do," I would counter with, "My Spanish is better than his." And then she would recall her mother tongue, to which she hadn't alluded at all. But I was sure l knew it.

"Hala."

"No one says this 'Hala,'" I would tell her, "unless they've known it since childhood."

With a seriousness tinged with sarcasm and traces of pain, she asked, "How would you know?"

"Mathilda, you know that I was in the Spanish department at the university, and you know that Mulhem's degree is in English."

"Listen to me," she said with a sigh. "Concentrate on what I'm saying. And tell me if what you were saying is true." So I listened, as she seized my arm as if to prepare me for the next scene.

I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alley . . .
Now the dogs are barking and the taxi cab's parking
A lot they can do for me . . .
Your silhouette window light
To go waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
You'll go a waltzing Matilda with me

And when the song filled me with melancholy, even if I didn't know exactly what the words were saying, I knew that what I had said was bunk.

So then I confess to her, and she says, "Forget it." Then she begins talking about the song and its history, and about Tom Waits. "Did you know that originally it was a song sung by the first Australians? Before the English came in, the native Australian would leave home with a bag on his shoulder, and when he stopped to rest on the road he would set a fire and start singing to Matilda, who was really his traveling bag."

I ask her if these were the same words we were hearing now.

"No." She began to sing the original lyrics.

"So, what is the difference between that and the new song?"

She told me that Tom Waits, a white singer of the blues, had revised it to say something, this time around, about the soldiers coming home from the Vietnam War.

I told her I felt the song was talking about all soldiers.

"That's why Mulhem gave it to me."

We're quiet. She tells me a secret, shyly.

"Do you know, the last time he was here, before leaving for his last trip and disappearing . . ." She was quiet for a little. "He asked me to waltz with him. He told me he couldn't take it and was going to turn himself in."

I drained my glass, and asked her if we could rewind the tape and dance together. She opened her arms and leaned toward me across the table, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said, "I have another song here that's for you, and that's what we'll dance to."

That happened on the last day I saw her. Her cheeks went rosy when she said it, and there was a shine in her eyes, a flash like you see in the eyes of teenagers. Then she was as before, sitting across the table from me. She turned up the sound, and at the same time, with her other hand, she adjusted the yellow flower fixed to the left, among her blonde curls.

"Do you like this dress? I put it on specially for your birthday."

She was wearing a blue ensemble, embroidered with birds and waves and white sea flowers. I nodded. She pushed over the glass of champagne, perhaps the last one, from the first bottle on the table.

"We'll kill the second bottle!" she said, pulling another bottle from the refrigerator. "We'll drink everything we have, today. The bar is reserved for us, and only for us, today."

I laughed and remembered the little sign that she had hung on the door: Bar closed temporarily due to illness. As I drank the new glass rapidly, I said to her, "Yes, we'll drink everything today, even araq."

My voice must have sounded sad, because she put down the glass that was already between her lips and looked at me. I looked down. "Don't tell me, as he did, that it's your last day here!"

Mathilda, of the intuition that never gets it wrong, knew that we were on the point of leaving. She had noticed how I came to her that noontime, not my usual self. I nodded, while my fingers stroked the glass that both palms gripped. She poured me a new glass.

"We got orders to move. We're leaving."

She gave me a gentle look and said something in Spanish. "Tienes el carino de Pablo." You have Pablo's gentleness. I didn't say anything, because I knew that it was she who would talk this time. For a moment we remained silent, though, drinking and listening to Tom Waits, until I saw her moving suddenly behind the bar, in the direction of her room. She disappeared but was back in moments, in her hand a travel bag made of treebark. She set it down on the table. She gazed at me, and then opened the bag to take out a white Caribbean suit, a Panama hat, and a pair of white shoes.

"Pablo's suit. I still have it. A birthday present for you." She pushed it across to me. "Take it. Wear it tonight. It brings luck."

I took it.

"Pablo didn't want to wear it, that night when we were in the harbor at Piraeus."

I didn't understand her meaning. I figured it was a hallucination brought on by the stuff we were drinking. Until I remembered the story she had told us about the two of them.

Pablo had fled after the revolt of the fishermen and smugglers in Macondo and Cartagena de las Indias had fizzled. He'd gone to Greece. And she carried his small treebark case and crossed the ocean with him. Fifteen months he fought at the side of the partisans against the royalist forces supported by the English army. She moved with him all over Greece. No matter; she herself didn't go into battle, except that Pablo's comrades insisted she accompany them, because she brought luck with her wherever they went, "like the female dolphin," as they said over and over in her presence.

One day Pablo came to her saying that his comrades had decided to send him to Italy to fight with the partisans in San Remo. She didn't understand these things but he told her that his Spanish origins would help him to move freely in the areas under the control of the Italian government, since Spain and Italy were allies during the war. In any case she wanted to follow him again, and she would follow him to the ends of the world. For, "this is the destiny of the dolphin female when she loves."

The port was in an unbelievable state of chaos that evening, as a result of the bombing by the Allies. The two of them had to get to a foreign-registered freighter that would be going via Italy. But that voyage did not happen. They lost each other in the crowds.

Mathilda did not despair. It seems, though, that she ended up in a different ship, one that carried dates. When the bombing ended, she was standing with the little traveling case in one hand, and an elegant man whose features had a touch of Caribbean was standing in front of her. At first she thought he was from somewhere in South America; later on she learned that he was the Iraqi Minister of Date Production. He asked her in English, which she had a difficult time understanding, what she was doing there. She told him the story. The man smiled and told her that it was too late to change the course of things now. The ship had already begun to move. She couldn't find anything to say; she asked him where the ship was headed.

"Basra."

He asked her politely to accompany him, and so it was that she moved from the spot she had occupied, the little bag still in her hand, the case that contained the little chest carrying pictures, the white Caribbean suit, the Panama hat, and the white shoes--that bag she had carried with her on every journey.

And when she told the story, Mathilda always insisted, over and over, that because Pablo wasn't wearing those clothes, they'd had bad luck that evening.

"But the minister was wearing that very same suit when he died," I said to her lightly.

"Ah, your grandfather's story," she exclaimed, as she always did. And sighed heavily. "Forget about it, and take the suit."

I was prepared to do everything. I knew one thing only, which was that I would not walk into the university residential quarters where the army slept ever again.

As if Mathilda knew my thoughts, she said, "In war, nothing has meaning except escape or imprisonment."

I spoke with a childish stubbornness or perhaps because of the alcohol in my veins. "So did Mulhem take the other suit?"

"He was right when he called you the pigheaded one."

Her fingers stroked my temple. "Don't think of anything now except leaving. You have to get out of this cemetery." She smiled. "Tonight, Pablo's coming. One of the Argentinian sailors. An old friend, whose ship arrived a few days ago. They loaded it with dates today, and they're leaving at dawn."

To all appearances I was listening carefully, but I guess I had drunk enough to make my head spin, and certainly she noticed it. She led me to her room in back. I didn't see the round table on which sat a platter of pineapple, coconut, and other Caribbean fruits. I didn't see the old iron bed over which pictures of the saints and the white dolphins hung above the silk pillow. I didn't see the photos of the ports hung there: Bombay, Barcelona, Lattakia, Tripoli, Limasol, Agadir, Marseilles, Liverpool, Hamburg, Sao Paolo, Porto Allegra, Cartagena, Rotterdam; nor her photos with Pablo in the Caribbean suit, the Panama hat, and the white shoes. And I didn't see the two large posters of Macondo. I didn't even sense Mathilda getting me to lie down, or hear her saying, "I'll wake you up when Pablo arrives, so you can leave." I was in a stupor, from Mathilda's drinks, from the fragrance of coconut, the scent of the Caribbean that lay over the place, and the sounds coming from the record player that sat near the bed, which she turned on before she went out.

"Guantanamera . . . guajira . . . Guantanamera . . . Guantanamera . . ." As if the song was coming from very far away, while through a tiny window above my head, I saw clearly a small island swimming in the light, dolphins playing near the shores, and the palm fronds swaying, heavy with fruit. A female dolphin swam near to where I lay, by my side a mulatta woman reclining close to me, in the depths of a ship carrying dates, where I lay, in the white Caribbean suit, Panama hat, and white shoes.

Florence, 1996

1By order of King Faisal II, whose birthday was July 1, all Iraqis born before 1958 had this date as their official birthdays.

2Zayn al-Qaws was a border town belonging to Iran until September 22, 1980, when Saddam Hussein raised the Iraqi flag there. Al-Qaztal was an Arab military commander in the battle of Al-Qadisiya in the time of the caliph Umar bin al qatab against the Persian Imperium. The soldiers are saying that they have come to liberate this place and will not leave it.