The day of the incident was a warm Fall afternoon in Baghdad, and all the boys wanted was a bite to eat after class.
Kadhim and his medical school friends drove through dusty, palm tree-lined streets, passing beautiful, swanky riverfront restaurants adorning the Tigris, and smaller, equally respectable cafés dotting the nicer areas of town. At last they reached a street full of greasy food vendors and mini-fast food joints with prices that were kind on a college student’s budget.
They fought their way through the crowd of people waiting to order, and eventually sat down—trays in hand—at a small table surrounded by talking people, the smell of fried food, and a few persistent flies. Kadhim gazed in astonishment at Malik as the boys moved aside to make room for him.
“Wow, Malik. What did you order?” He stared at the paper bag in Malik’s hand, filled to the brim with something… lumpy.
“Falafel.” Malik settled himself contentedly into a small plastic chair and pulled out a container of tzatziki sauce.
“Are you bringing some home for the family too?” Mahjoub laughed.
“No. Why?” A bit of food sprayed from Malik’s mouth as he looked at them in confusion. Farouq’s jaw dropped.
“Malik, you can’t seriously be planning on eating that entire bag of falafel by yourself. I mean, look at it!” Farouq reached out and touched the edge of the full brown bag. “The entire thing is soaked in grease!”
Malik studied the greasy bag for a moment, then looked up at the boys and grinned. “Yum!” A large piece of falafel was stuck in a gap between his teeth, and the boys burst into laughter.
“It’s not like your food is any healthier,” he added defensively.
“The man has a point.” Mahjoub looked dismally down at his tray, which was covered with soggy fries and a large shawarma wrap whose grease had dribbled down the sides and soaked the napkin. “This has to be the most unhealthy food joint in all of Baghdad. I feel like I’m just taking this sandwich and shoving it straight down my arteries! And Kadhim, what is your kabaab even made of?”
“I’m pretty sure the dark part is just your basic mix of beef and lamb. These little white bits, however,” Kadhim poked at his kabaab contemplatively, “I have no idea what they are!”
“Could be fly larvae,” Mahjoub remarked casually, shooing a couple flies away from his tray. A sudden explosion of half-chewed kabaab from Farouq’s mouth caused them to startle.
“I said could be, Farouq. Calm down.”
“Let’s leave the list of possible ingredients until after we’ve finished eating, for all of our sakes,” Kadhim said.
“Seriously though, you guys,” Farouq said, wiping his mouth. “Look at this place: flies all over, cooks back there dripping in sweat that most likely is all over our food, probably a cockroach or two in the corner…”
Suddenly, Farouq’s face went white, his eyes grew wide, and he jumped up out of his chair. “Guys, we got to go! Now!”
“What did you see? What’s going on?” Kadhim and the rest of the boys gazed around in a panic, half expecting to see someone wearing a suicide vest. Their thoughts went immediately to car bombs and terrorists.
“I just watched the biggest rat I have ever seen run across the floor!” Farouq hissed, “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”
“Oh shit!” Malik jumped up, spilling little falafel balls all over the table. He was trying desperately to grab each falafel and throw it back into the bag while the others dashed for the door.
“Leave them, Malik!” Mahjoub called out, “There’s no time!”
Malik grabbed the last few falafels, squeezing the bag to his chest in a red-faced panic, and barreled out the door. Customers looked up in surprise to see four young men sprinting out of the restaurant in terror. Peering around in panic for a suicide bomber or a suspicious vehicle, many other customers left as well.
The boys gathered outside when they’d covered a small distance from the restaurant, out of breath, laughing, and thoroughly disgusted.
“I am never going back there again!” Malik said between wheezes, his voice a high-pitched squeak. “I hate rats!”
Their appetites gone, it wasn’t long before the boys went their separate ways. As Farouq’s house was on his way, Kadhim offered his friend a ride, and the two were soon cruising in the direction of the Tigris. They talked for several minutes, in equal parts amused and disgusted by what had just happened; then Farouq grew quiet. After several moments of silence, Kadhim heard a slight moan and glanced over to see Farouq clutching his stomach, his face pale and sweaty.
“Are you okay, man?”
“Okay.” Kadhim was unconvinced, but he kept driving and didn’t push the issue. Some minutes later, as they were leaving the commercial part of town, he heard a strange rumbling noise to his right and looked over again. His friend’s face had gone from white to a pale green, and he looked miserable.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Farouq? You don’t look so good.”
“It’s just a little indigestion. No big deal. I don’t think that food agreed with me.”
“Do you want me to stop? We just passed a café, if you want to go inside…”
“No, I’m fine,” Farouq snapped. “I just want to get home.”
“Alright.” Kadhim drove a little faster, and once again the car fell silent. Within minutes, a strange and ghastly smell filled the little vehicle. Farouq did not say anything, but surreptitiously opened his window and gazed out innocently. They kept driving.
As they pulled onto the expressway, the terrible smell once again filled the car, this time accompanied by a long, wet, trumpeting fart that was impossible to ignore. Kadhim opened his window and tried to hide his smile.
“Kadhim, I’m not feeling so well,” came a small voice from the passenger seat.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m getting you back home as fast as I can.” Believe me. He pushed the gas pedal a little harder and tried to breathe through the window.
There was that sound again, like a water monster bubbling up through the pipes and getting ready to explode. Sweat began to drench Farouq’s shirt.
“I think I might be getting sick.” At last, the confession.
“We’ll be home soon.”
“Kadhim, I think we need to stop.”
“Stop where? There’s nowhere to stop, Farouq. We’re almost home. Just hold on.”
Silence. Outside, palm trees flew by as they kept up their steady pace toward the bridge that would cross the Tigris River and take them to Farouq’s neighborhood. Once again, the sickly smell and trumpeting noise filled the small car, this time with a wet bubbly sound that gave Kadhim the distinct impression that air was not the only thing escaping. He pushed harder on the gas pedal. A groan erupted from the passenger seat.
“Kadhim, Kadhim you need to stop right now!”
“I can’t stop the car here, Farouq.”
“Kadhim, stop the car!”
“Farouq, I’m telling you, there’s nowhere to stop! We’re on an expressway! Just hold it ten more minutes!”
“Kadhim!” Farouq looked at him suddenly, his eyes widened in panic, and he shoved his hands under his butt. “Kadhim, I swear to God! If you don’t stop this car right now, I am going to shit all over your seat!”
That was all it took to convince him. Kadhim pulled over to the side of the road and slammed on the brakes, coming to a screeching halt next to a large bridge. Vehicles honked and swerved around them as Farouq jumped out of the car. Clutching his buttocks, he sprinted awkwardly, butt clenched in desperation, to a shady spot beneath the bridge. Kadhim burst into laughter and did his best to avert his eyes as his friend pulled down his pants and released a gush of explosive diarrhea onto the banks of the Tigris River.
It didn’t always take a suicide bomber to empty a Baghdad restaurant. Sometimes it was just a simple matter of grease, a rat, and some fecal incontinence.