No one said anything when, for the sixth night in a row, they dined on bread and fried tomatoes. The bread tasted funny and they never had eggs anymore, but the boys knew not to complain. Perhaps Kadhim and Salih were still too young to fully understand why their dinners of hamburger or kabaab had been replaced by potato sandwiches, or why their breakfast was now just bread and tea, if they had breakfast at all. But Mohammed knew why.
Shortly after the rebellion, Baba had pulled every string he had to circumvent Saddam’s edict that no one from the rebelling districts was permitted to move to Baghdad. They sold their home in Hilla and moved to the capital, looking to start afresh. They were met with the grim face of an economic embargo.
Mama’s part-time teaching job brought in 2,000 Iraqi dinars per month, and Baba’s full-time position as an English teacher brought 12,000 to 15,000 dinars. Between the two of them, their total monthly income was no more than $20. With the cost of two kilograms of meat at $7, feeding their family of growing boys was quickly becoming impossible.
A lot of staples, in fact, were in short supply. Eggs, cooking oil, milk, and butter were rare. Flour was nowhere to be found, and much to the boys’ disgust, Mama now baked bread using a crude brown flower that a dishonest salesman had mixed with plaster. They ate the very substance their walls were made of.
The boys watched as their home was gradually stripped bare. Their good Ukrainian furniture, chandeliers, paintings, all three A.C. units, and even their camera were all sold for less than they were worth. Baba began to stay at school until nine o’clock every night to teach private lessons to more affluent students, which earned an extra hundred dollars or two every month. And Ali—in his final year of high school—began to drive a taxi in the evenings. Anything to make ends meet.
Still, for all the stress of poverty, it was the birth of Firas that pained Mohammed’s parents the most.
There could be no doubt about it. Firas was a blessing, a delight, and a complete surprise. He was their fifth and final son, and he came to them in 1993, in the midst of the embargo. Without access to prenatal testing, their new baby brought with him a few extra surprises.
The first came within a few days of his birth, when the doctor sat down with the parents and informed them that their son had been born with a congenital heart defect. Extra precautions would have to be taken his entire life. They came home that night stricken, fatigued, and fearing for the life of their newborn.
When Firas was three months old and still did not have the strength to hold up his head, they took him to the doctors once again. Tests were run, and the physician’s look was grave as he revealed the news.
At first, Mama and Baba didn’t believe it. “But how could that be? He looks completely normal!” Surely there was some mistake.
“Not everyone with this condition looks the same. The results, however, are conclusive.” The doctor set down the papers, and his eyes met those of the stricken parents. “This condition varies from individual to individual, and while it will affect his I.Q., he may still be able to maintain a good quality of life. He will be prone to many health problems, however, such as hearing loss, vision loss, and obesity. For those with a heart defect, like Firas, there is only a fifty percent chance of living to the age of thirty.”
Mama and Baba were stunned. When Mohammed saw them that evening, they seemed to have aged a decade. Mama couldn’t stop crying, and Baba looked heartbroken. Their four other sons crowded around them, concerned and frightened.
“Mama, what’s wrong?”
Baba answered in her stead. “Your little brother Firas is Mongoloid.”
“What is that?” Salih was only five years old and didn’t understand, despite the fact that this would be the only term used in Iraq until the medical schools finally received new textbooks around the turn of the millennium. But Mohammed knew.
Firas had Down Syndrome.
With this twist of fate, baby Firas transformed their lives. On that day, all the calculations their father had made for his own life and the lives of his children were changed. The fear that he might live to see his son’s premature death haunted him every day. Though they ached for the loss of what could have been, they accepted that their son would always need extra care, for they had all fallen completely and irreversibly in love with the warm, cheerful spirit that now lived amongst them.
With the addition of their seventh family member—not to mention frequent visits from relatives—the household budget became even tighter. It was through careful saving and great sacrifice that they celebrated every Ramadan, as they thanked Allah for His many blessings and enjoyed festive evening meals with family and relatives. As was tradition, they shared what they had with those less fortunate. Even with the assistance of governmental welfare, there were those around them who were dying of starvation. The Al Baghdadi family had much to be thankful for.
During the summers, they went to Grandfather’s date farm. There the children played with cousins, fished, harassed the livestock, swam in the Euphrates, and ate an inordinate amount of dates.
In his third year, Firas learned to walk. He was gradually learning to talk and understand them as well, although as time passed, his tongue thickened and it became increasingly difficult to understand his speech. His eyesight was poor, and he often held objects very close to his face in order to see them properly, but he was loving and playful, and his innocence endeared him to the entire neighborhood. The family settled into a new normal. There was nothing they could do to change Firas’s fate or their own, so they accepted life as it was, and thanked Allah for it all, the good and the bad.
“Do you ever go to the Shurja Market in the evenings?”
His peer’s whisper came at the end of the school day, just as their teacher was detailing their evening assignment.
“Sometimes, I guess. Why?”
“Teacher Haitham sells socks there in the evenings.” The boy smirked.
Mohammed looked at his teacher’s worn pants and outdated shirt and felt a flush of embarrassment for him. So what if the man sold socks or drove a taxi in the evenings? It was better than the neighbors who received $300 a month from Saudi Arabia to convert to the extremist Sunni offshoot of Wahhabism. This was so much money that even Shiites left their sect, discarded their Western clothes for short dishdashas, and grew long and unkempt beards. The offense was punishable by death, and Saddam’s guards came quickly for such men.
Mohammed was saved from responding to his friend’s remark by the sudden screeching of chairs as the bell rang. In the hallway the younger students ran gleefully for the doorway, and although Mohammed felt the same sense of relief, he was in tenth grade and was too cool for such antics. He was gathering his books when a familiar shout stopped him in his tracks.
It was Kadhim, whose cries filled the hallway as a teacher beat him.
The sight of his slight little brother being beaten by a man three times his size incensed Mohammed, and rage took over. He charged at the teacher, nearly knocking him down as he hit him, and began punching him as hard as he could. Mohammed was one of the tallest, strongest boys in his class, and his blows came as a painful shock to the older man.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, beating my brother?”
“Your brother?” The teacher tried unsuccessfully to fend off Mohammed’s punches. “Stop! Look, I’m sorry!”
“You’re sorry? He’s only in seventh grade!”
“He was running in the hallway!”
“So what if he was running in the hallway?” Mohammed pummeled the teacher with another series of painful blows. “All the seventh graders run in the hallway! Why do you have to pick on him?”
“I’m sorry!” The teacher gasped. “I didn’t know he was your brother!”
“MOHAMMED! What are you doing?” The shout came from behind him, as the principal ran to the scene. Kadhim, meanwhile, watched in awe of his older brother as he wiped the tears from his eyes and checked his fresh bruises.
“You wait till we tell your father!” The principal pulled a struggling Mohammed away from the teacher. “We could have you expelled for this!”
Baba’s look was no less angry as he faced Mohammed that evening. “Perhaps that teacher should not have beaten Kadhim, but Mohammed, your actions were inexcusable. They’re talking about expelling you!”
Mohammed crossed his arms and stared defiantly at his father. “Nobody hurts my family! I don’t care what the consequences are!”