“I can never tell if they like me or if they’re laughing at me.” Kadhim glanced at the threesome of giggling girls who were staring at him from a few seats away. Next to him, Anwar shrugged.
“Who knows what girls think.”
The schools had been segregated since middle school; the only time that boys and girls mixed was on the bus. As he started high school, it seemed that the more Kadhim’s interest in girls grew, the more unapproachable they became. Luckily, Mohammed, who had never been shy, had given him a few pointers:
“Some guys stand in the street and make comments as the girls walk past. Don’t. You’re better than that.
“If you find a pretty girl, just tell her that you like her eyes or something. If she smiles, it means she likes you.
“Be careful when you call her house. If a man answers the phone, hang up immediately.”
As the bus pulled to a stop and the girls filed out, one of the gigglers dropped a piece of paper in Kadhim’s lap. On it was scribbled her name, phone number, and a short note: “Call me tonight at 8:00.”
Sometimes, the bolder girls made it easy.
After lining up in the schoolyard for a recitation of the national anthem, Kadhim and his classmates—all around sixteen years old—were called to their first lesson of the day: Nationalism. Usually, they read from a Ba’athi textbook extolling Saddam’s many feats. There was nothing that could put Kadhim to sleep quite like Saddam’s implementation of the first state welfare system in the Arab world, the best healthcare in the Middle East, the National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy, and mandatory education funded entirely by the government through graduate school.
Today, however, they were taken outside to train on Kalashnikovs, and Kadhim found himself standing in a field with an assault rifle resting awkwardly in his hands.
“Now, take the butt of the gun and rest it against your shoulder.”
“Like this?” Learning to shoot a gun was a standard part of the boys’ curriculum, and Kadhim was so excited that he barely noticed as the regime’s fingers reached into his life and slowly tightened their grip.
“No, a bit more like this.”
At the age of twelve, he and the other boys had been offered the chance to join “Saddam’s Cubs,” the Ba’athi version of boy scouts, which gave young boys extreme physical training and groomed them to join the ranks of Saddam’s Special Forces. There were parents who were proud to have their children join. At the age of sixteen, he was forced to become a party member, albeit the lowest level of “loyal.”
“Now when you have the rifle properly positioned, aim at the target, and shoot.”
Feigning confidence, Kadhim squinted his eyes and pulled the trigger. The force of the assault rifle flung him backward, and in his shock he was unable to remove his finger. The Kalashnikov, set to fully automatic, sprung up and hit him in the face as it sprayed bullets in the air.
As soon as the other boys overcame their surprise, a wave of laughter rippled through the group, and Kadhim’s face grew red. A faint but growing divide had begun to split the boys who aspired to climb the Ba’athi ladder, who bragged about their increasing rank, the rank of their fathers, and their connections to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, from the boys who did not. They were annoying and haughty, but Mohammed had warned Kadhim about them.
Mohammed, with his bullheadedness and hot temper, rarely had good advice when it came to fights, but in this case, his words were solid. “Stay away from those Ba’athis. Whatever you do, DON’T pick a fight!”
“I have a new assignment for you boys today.” It was the last class of the day, Islam, which had recently been taken over by a new professor, who was apparently an imam himself and far more religious than his predecessor. “Your assignment is to attend the Friday prayer every week, write a report on what was said, and turn it in the next day.”
Kadhim cringed. He never attended Friday prayers. No one in his family did, although he wasn’t sure why. For a moment, he envied Christian students, who weren’t required to attend the class. He had learned all he wanted to know about Islam from his mother, who taught religion in elementary school.
The Quran was the third and final installment of three holy books, preceded by the Torah and the Bible. In fact, it maintained that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worshipped the same God and that Moses, Jesus and others had all been God’s prophets. The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, had come simply to complete the divine message. The word “Allah,” which seemed so divisive, simply meant “God,” and was the same word used by Arabic-speaking Christians. Why did so many think that “Allah” was a different god entirely?
Whatever. Kadhim refocused his thoughts on the assignment, feeling rebellious. He brought it up with Baba that evening.
“Tell him you don’t attend Friday prayers.” Baba’s response was short, his smile oddly cryptic. “He’ll understand.”
“That’s it? What if he asks why?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll know what it means.”
“Know what what means?” Uncle Ehab walked in on the end of their conversation, grabbed a handful of nuts from a bowl on the table, flung himself on the couch, and changed the topic before they had time to respond. “Did you hear about the Al Shuwairi boy down the street?”
Baba glanced at Kadhim out of the corner of his eye and seemed to hesitate for a moment. “What happened?”
“Apparently, he was out not too long ago, had too much to drink, and started to curse the Ba’ath in front of the wrong people. Except that he didn’t know that they were the wrong people. So yesterday, some Ba’athi police came to his house and dragged him, his parents, and all of his siblings out onto the street. Then, right in front of the whole neighborhood, they cut off his tongue.”
“God help him.”
“And the worst part? They forced the father to clap and the mother to trill while they did it by threatening to kill the other children too.”
Trilling was a sound of joy, saved for engagements and weddings. The image of parents being forced to cheer as they watched their son’s tongue cut from his mouth was chilling.
Baba looked at Kadhim pointedly. “He got off lightly. He’s lucky he isn’t dead.”
Kadhim thought of the boys at school who bragged about their fathers’ high rank in the party, and his father continued gravely. “Kadhim, you should understand that anything that’s said in this home should never ever be repeated.”
Gone were the days when, fearing the words that might slip from their children’s mouths, his parents had praised the Ba’ath and referred to the leader as “Baba Saddam.” Slowly, a new picture of his government was beginning to form, and a new lesson was internalized for Kadhim, as it had for those before him.
Hide your true feelings; fake your love.
It was evening before Kadhim remembered the slip of paper in his pocket. He couldn’t remember if the girl who had passed it to him was cute, or even which of the three had tossed it, but who cared? She was a girl, and she was interested in him. Tentatively, he picked up the phone and dialed, praying not to hear a male voice.
“Hello?” She sounded just as nervous as he.
“Is this Maryam?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Hi, I’m Kadhim…” He wasn’t sure what to say, and Maryam seemed a lot less confident without the presence of her friends, but they managed some awkward conversation and agreed to meet for a few minutes the next day after school. When Kadhim at last returned the phone to its receiver, it was with a sigh of relief and a heady flush of excitement and embarrassment.
He had a girlfriend.
Friday was Kadhim’s only day off, and it came and went without a visit to the mosque, which his teacher was quick to point out the next day.
“Kadhim, where’s your report of the Friday sermon?”
“I didn’t go this week, sir.”
“Next week then.”
Next week came and went, and several weeks after that, and still Kadhim did not attend the Friday prayer. Much to the amusement of their friends, Kadhim and Maryam had several brief, innocent meetings after school, which was as far as a high school relationship ever went. They confessed their feelings for one another, made plans to attend the same university, and eventually, the relationship fizzled out. They both knew that their futures would largely be determined by their score on the final Baccalaureate exams at the end of high school.
The assignment, however, could not be ignored forever. Things came to a head the day Kadhim dared to ask a certain question in Islam class.
“Sir, why is it that Muslims can’t eat pork?”
“Because it’s haram.”
The answer was frustratingly uninformative. In a world where extremism came and went like waves, Baba—though a devout Muslim himself—had warned his sons: “If something doesn’t make sense, question it. Don’t just accept it blindly like sheep.”
“But sir, why is it haram?”
“Because it says in the Quran that pork is forbidden.”
The professor turned to change the subject, but Kadhim’s hand was still raised. “Sir, I read that during the Prophet’s time, pigs had diseases that made people sick. Could that be the reason?”
A look of annoyance grew on the professor’s face. “If the Quran says that pork is haram, then Allah Himself has forbidden it. Who are you to question Allah?”
“You don’t know why pork is forbidden, do you?” The words slipped from Kadhim’s mouth before he had time to filter them, and the professor’s look of annoyance quickly turned to anger.
“Kadhim, you will stop talking and stay after class.”
Kadhim stayed in the classroom as the students filed out and cringed under the professor’s reprimand, but to his relief the professor soon changed the subject.
“Kadhim, in the past month I haven’t received any Friday sermon reports from you. Why is that?”
“Sir, my father sends his regards, and says to tell you that we don’t attend Friday prayers.”
“Ah. You’re Shiite.”
“That’s what I hear, sir.” Kadhim wasn’t trying to be flippant. The truth was, he had only just learned that he was Shiite. “I barely know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites,” Kadhim confessed, his cheeks reddening slightly. “I’ve heard that Sunnis don’t visit the shrines of saints like we do, but that’s all I know.”
“I’ll tell you the difference. Don’t worry about the homework. You’re exempt. As for the Friday sermon…” He paused and raised a finger. “By the way, this conversation is just between you and me. People can be killed for these words.”
“The reason that you, as a Shiite, don’t attend the Friday sermon is because Shiites hold to the principle that as long as the leader is unjust, the Friday prayer must be shunned.”
The implications of this knowledge were a revelation to Kadhim, and he felt a swell of pride. In a land where opposition was quickly muted and destroyed, they had a code, a way of speaking out against the regime without using words. They would abstain from Friday prayers until their voices were heard and their needs justly addressed.
And suddenly he knew.
Shiites would not go to Friday prayer until Saddam was gone.