What We Have Seen Waiting for the War to End
Robert M. Detman
The Americans know what they are doing, even if we confuse them a little. They are the first to offer you money before you tell them the fare, and if you look at them a certain way they hesitate—they are almost reluctant to give you the money. They say, Salaam Aleikum, and I smile. Does my smile bother the Americans?
I believe they try to read faces.
I know that, if I do not respond, the Americans will look at me strangely. This must be their custom—they are used to taxi drivers talking back to them. But I say in my best English—I am also here for money.
I have learned to smile in the American’s faces, but when I drive past the burning armor plated trucks, blackened and on their sides, I feel some justice is being done. Yet I’m ambivalent. I wonder how I didn’t become one to take up the religious cause. At home, Nashima, as if reading my thoughts, corners me and asks, “Is that the example you want for the boys?”
It is still not safe—in the outskirts of Baghdad—and the reporters rarely want to risk their lives for the familiar story. Sometimes I take the same route to avoid the known dangers, and arrive slow to the checkpoints as is advised by the guards there.
I once saw, from behind my wheel, my Shia neighbor getting harassed by the Americans. I feel safer than he must, as the soldiers I have passed in my taxi for months now wave me through.
Of course I am a suspect, as much as I am a target. After a few months, the guards come to recognize me; in the meantime, I must acquaint myself to the replacements at the checkpoints all over again. Many of the soldiers want to be my friend. They say, you remind me of my neighbor back home. It must be that way in America: they take possession without thinking.
Once, when my car broke down, I had to wait for twenty minutes with my arms in the air. Dozens of Americans put their guns on me—I called out to them, “If I was going to fight, I would have done it already, Praise Allah!” They laughed at me.
Now I walk to the car with my head down. It is a habit. I do not look around as I get into the car and get it moving.
The fighting is now between brothers, and I am neutral, or try to be; if they know that you are working here, they may respect that you have a family to support, and they will leave you alone. This is not always the case, of course. The truly desperate, the outsiders, who are the most dangerous, involve everyone. They are not wanted here.
I will admit I do not want to live in a country of people who I do not recognize. At least here, even my so-called enemy looks like me, my Shia brothers. But the Americans in Iraq are not my enemies, they are an infestation. Their time will pass. If I am too accepting, it is only because I choose to not see them.
I have stayed in Baghdad because of my wife, also because of my brother. Should I be grateful he left me the car? It made the decision an easy one, but one that I considered temporary.
It is years since my first arrival in Baghdad, on a bus, at night, the first time I left home. I went away from Al-Qa’im to attend University. The trip took forever as the lights appeared before us, the domes of the Khadimain mosque glowing like pearl eggs. For months I anticipated an exciting new life. Within a year at University I met Nashima, who was studying to be a court scribe. We were married the following summer.
After graduating with my baccalaureate degree, I was on track to become a lawyer, and eventually, if all worked out, a judge. It was slow going. I decided to defer the remaining apprenticeship of my lawyer training when the war began. We were endangered. I knew that my wife, as a Shiite, and I, as a Sunni, with an uncertain position in the courts, would become targets. Thus, so would my family. The pressure was too great for me. I have since neglected my education and have taken up my more anonymous, yet perhaps no less dangerous, job. Those who know me from my life before the war sometimes call me judge. I cringe a bit to still hear it—as if I have betrayed myself.
In all this time, Nashima kept to her work. Which of us could know that in a few years she would sit in the same room while Sadaam was brought down before the world?
I was proud then and feared for her as that dog’s eyes, and those of his betrayers, breathing the same air in the courtroom, saw her every day. The sentence was certain, it was only a question of when it would be delivered. And there was my daily fear as Nashima was driven under security to and from the courts. The dog’s own lawyer was threatened with death into quitting. A week later a judge was assassinated in the light of day. What would anyone have to gain by being so openly opposed to him who still had his faithful ready to die for their arrogant leader? How could I know if they were not marking my wife? Returning home each night she would tell me the details that all the world was finally learning. Maybe this will end soon, I said. But Nashima held her urgent rage in check, determined to see justice served.
From our second floor apartment, we cannot see directly outside, only the light that enters the interior courtyard surrounded by concrete on three sides that rises up five floors. I try to discern what the day will be like from the sounds echoing up from the street, the brave vendors, the frequent cries of grief, the muezzin call. I hear dogs that wander into the courtyard and square off prepared to tear each other to pieces. When I sleep late the bustle out there overtakes me. Then, the play of light on the curtain is often enough to rouse me. At times it is like a shadow play, Plato’s cave, where what goes on is merely an illusory suggestion.
I feel an urgency then to leave the darkened room and go into the world. But as soon, the reality of the country’s disarray comes back to me.
I used to go to the roof and mark out my route. This was folly of course, but wherever I saw smoke plumes I planned to avoid. It wasn’t always a guarantee that my route would not encounter roadside bombs or sniper fire, but in the early days it gave me a sense that I could work around the war. Then came the road blocks, the all out street battles, and the suicide bombers who have now shaken every corner of the city.
One day recently, Nashima received an e-mail from her brother which she would not sit down to read.
Opening the file took a long time as the picture of a cityscape on a white beach with blue water and sky unrolled across the screen. The picture was partially cut off below my relative’s heads, a troubling image.
But a phrase stood out for me.
“We have extra room for the entire family,” Jadir wrote.
I could see my wife’s eyes when I considered this. Perhaps my interactions with the Western reporters and their optimistic rationalism has conditioned me. I made arguments to my wife. I said, as a way of compromise, “What of going across the border?” Nashima coldly replies to me, “So we can never return?” She will not abandon our homeland to become an immigrant in Syria or Egypt. So we stay on here.
Staying is Nashima’s pride. She is angered by her brother. She looks to the future so as to forget what she knows. She believes, above all else, that a better life will return, making her brother and his family fools. All to have to return with their false self-congratulations for not having suffered under it, if they return at all.
They have made a life in Miami, they may never look back. They consider themselves pioneers. They tell me, “You must leave, Nabil. Just look. We now live in the land of the free.” They are hypocrites. They have turned away from their own country. Who will remain? Besides, I have a duty to my family.
I have stopped thinking of our old life. I let dreams be for my children, who may see peace here, one day. And, at the very least, I will do all that I can to see that they still dream, as my dreams have fled and died a dog’s death on the sandy lots of Basra.
I realize that once I leave I will not come back.
I too tell everyone a calmer day will return. But if you ask me about the beginnings, what we have seen of the Americans, I do not hope. I am doubtful of an Iraq I will still recognize. Now in my churning gut, I only want to return to life under Sadaam. It can seem far preferable to the horizon—or the lack of a horizon, as we now cannot remember it. Even as my dear brother had to go into hiding for critical words about the Baathist regime, the threats against him were preferable to seeing him cower under the American flag.
On an uneventful day, though rare, I may forget the siege that holds my country hostage.
There is a shame and pride that comes with our daily small victories; we have little else to gauge our position. When the bombs go off, despite myself, I invoke Allah. I have seen the innocent die horribly, the road craters left behind, the pools of blood and oil. It could all be avoided. My countrymen raise their fists and tear out their hearts for the freedom lost to us, and yet they are killing each other to get it.
But it wasn’t better under Sadaam. He would kill your entire family before your eyes. He would rape the youngest girls first, and prolong their torture. His soldiers would step on the stomachs of babies, slice the throats of the children, behead the fathers. Everyone knows this, even if they have not witnessed it with their own eyes. But do they forget now that the American president has created this war for them? They are lost people. The Sunnis are no longer my brothers. The Iraqi soldiers act no better than they did under Sadaam. No one asks anymore why this is so. We saw Uday and Qusay, we cheered. We saw Sadaam, like the snake he was, curled up in his snake hole. Still, with their heads on pikes we deceive ourselves.
I can tell you this. It’s almost as if we want an excuse to fight. We fought the Iranians for eight years, and we need a fight. This war is returning us to our origin. In time, this war will make no sense to my children, or to their children, but we will find just cause and fight it all the same.
My mechanic is a Shiite. We have known each other for twenty years. We are much like brothers; he was the one to first identify my brother’s battered body.
When work is required on the car I feel I must stay there and watch. We have a running joke with each other. “Nabil, are you waiting for me to rig the car?” he asks. “What I don’t know won’t hurt me,” I say. It is our way of making light of a situation that we are both terrified to acknowledge. He smiles to my face but in fact, I know his loyalty to me could be questionable.
He suggests I let him come with me, as he will allow us easy passage in Shia areas. I think that this will only make us a target on the routes I usually take, but worry that I will offend him. I tell him, “I will make less fare.” He seems to accept this justification.
I will often hear bombs in the distance, but the war does not linger in the immediate neighborhood, at least not like in the early days. I tell the children the noise is construction for the rebuilding. They probably have no idea what I am talking about but when they look back at this time I don’t want them to think suicide bombs. The oldest will know soon enough, or does already.
Of our boys, the younger, Sadiq, has an active disposition. He seems little bothered by what life presents to him—most of his life all he has known is this war. It is the older boy, Zafir, whom I worry about. Knowing full well that I take responsibility for allowing him to witness the war first hand.
I had picked him up from school early because of a special delegation that was to arrive one afternoon. I knew there would be numerous foreign journalists looking for transportation—it was one of those occasions where I might risk my neck but could name my price to take someone on the treacherous road to Karbala. So I picked Zafir up after lunch recess, and as we returned past the al-Ghazl market, a bomb was detonated. We were a block away and for several seconds, after the first shock wave, debris rained upon us. Sand and larger chunks that would knock one out if they were hit by them, and a thump as of a dog running into the passenger door. The road was then blocked and I stopped the car. Stunned, my ears were ringing. For a confusing moment I thought, I must gather the pieces and put them back in place. I checked to see if Zafir was okay—he was as white as a priest’s robe. The smell of gasoline filled the air around us. Or it was blood. What could I do in the commotion? I needed to attend to the injured. What had hit the car I later realized was one of the victims. Zafir had noticed right away.
Before the war, we let Zafir play in the park with his balsa airplane; now he will not leave the apartment, let alone to go to the courtyard where we consider it somewhat safe.
To this day Nashima blames me for the boy’s terrific sensitivity, his never playing in the courtyard with his brother, his hiding away in his room at the slightest distant rumble.
He awakes often in the night, screaming that I can hear through the courtyard window. The neighbors do not speak of this to me. His younger brother tries to comfort him. This should convince Nashima that we will be better off resettling. But in the dark, with Zafir’s torment, I can see Nashima’s judging face, pinning to me my negligence.
After dealing with this for a year, I find my wife’s nightly unease with me now nearly unbearable.
In the days of our courtship I sensed Nashima was the stronger willed of us both. She sees only that her former lawyer husband has turned patsy to the Americans and lost his will.
For a long time Nashima spoke of wanting more children. The idea naturally troubled me as the war continued on. And yet if I suggest we wait she reminds me that she is not young anymore. I use Zafir as an example, which she does not like. “How dare you use the children in this,” she says. Yet, then she points to Sadiq.
I push her too far at times, yet I am miserable by the situation. We have to relearn everything for a new world we do not know the shape of. Nashima does not regard the additional strain she puts upon me; yet were I to complain, my capitulation would be my shame. I will not pretend to be a Shiite. She does not accept that for a Sunni like me, I live doubly in fear. I have felt the despair for four years and often imagine getting caught in the blast of a bomb. But for my bad conscience, the misery I would leave in my wake for my wife and children, they say it is over fast.
Yet what of the Americans, and their ways? I doubt that I could live there.
Many years before the war, I had gone to America. We had no children then, and the possibility of going to live there was much more justifiable than now. I had gone for the interview through the efforts of a young reporter I had met in Baghdad; his family are lawyers and he vouched for my credentials.
In the Kennedy airport I felt the people there were all looking at each other with such indifference and hostility. You begin to realize this is how the American soldiers look at you as they search your house: smiling while they clutch their weapons. In New York City I felt even more alone, isolated, knowing my wife was praying to her dead brother-in-law for the last of my good sense.
I was offered a sponsorship, but I had to withdraw my application. It was a menial position for someone of my stature, although there was a real possibility of securing a future for us in America. The process seemed unduly complicated. The choice was mine. Nashima said finally that she would not leave Iraq.
We are not yet immune from trouble. The initial Marine raid occurred just one morning as I was trying to sleep off a long and difficult night (I had passed by two separate roadside attacks in one twenty-four hour period, though I cannot say who struck whom); thankfully the children were in school.
In that half sleep, my room’s curtain was bathed in a celestial light—I’d thought I was dreaming or that I had passed to the other side but for the voices and shouts that as soon shook me from my soft torpor. The Marine’s Bradley lights poured a corona’s beam into the courtyard. I heard them pounding doors; the wall of the bedroom rattled, as the windows did, from the diesel roar of the vehicles. From between the cracks of my curtains I saw my neighbors gathering in the courtyard floor. Some were pushed around by the Marines, unnecessarily so, I thought—my anger was rising.
They struck hard at my door with their gun butts until I ran to it so they would not break it down. I showed them my identification papers and mentioned Williamson—one of the Marine sergeants whom I’d become familiar with in my travels to the green zone. This just as easily might have also made trouble for me, but eventually they took my word.
As a saving gesture for the building inhabitants, I vouched for one and all.
Although I really had no idea of everyone who lived there presently; I simply wanted the Marines to leave. To discover that they were wasting their time.
I believe it is true. We have made our own peace here, Sunni and Shiite, in the building, perhaps in the neighborhood; I do not know.
I later learned that they were looking for an insurgency stronghold that had just been formed in a neighborhood south of us.
We have grown accustomed to listening only for survival. To hearing the warning signs. The fast moving convoy of Bradley’s. The errant gun fire.
Still, I lately hear birds.
And yet again, I hear children, too, playing in the courtyard. The innocence that I insist can never be taken away. A child becomes aware eventually, then innocence leaves of its own accord. Where I drive, in some neighborhoods the children play ball as if the last few years have not happened. Some of them may have been shielded from the war. And the soldiers leave them alone. Believe me that it never fails to bring me some solace, a smile. You might say it is that smile that has languished too long as we have waited for the end of the war.
People will begin again to bring their children up with the future in mind. For so long it has all been about survival. Children were not allowed to be children anymore. Yet I still hear the words parents use with them, and a pain goes through me. I hope that I have not become this insensitive to my children, but know out of fear and necessity, the justification I make in this time of uncertainty, that I possibly do.
It does not matter, really, for we have all seen these things now. The damage, the scars. The wonder, after so long, that it could be any different. What I hope for will change nothing.