The pounding came at their door at nearly ten o’clock at night, and almost before they knew what was happening, two armed guards burst into the entranceway. At the sound of his aunt and mother’s screams, Mohammed ran into the living room with Kadhim close behind.
“Where is the young man who was just outside?” The guard’s shout made Kadhim tremble.
Grandfather raised his hands in protest. “No one was outside. All of us were here, inside, before curfew.”
“Don’t lie to me. We saw someone in the street, and he entered this house. Where are you hiding him?”
He raised his gun and pointed it at Grandfather’s head. Kadhim heard someone gasp and turned to see the color drain from his mother’s face.
“It was me!” Uncle Ehab stepped out of the hallway’s shadows. “Please, don’t hurt him!”
Instantly, two long Kalashnikovs were pointed at the young man.
Kadhim froze, but he could not look away. A voiceless prayer formed itself in his heart. Baba, Baba, we need you! Baba, help us!
Mohammed put a protective arm around Kadhim, and they braced themselves as they heard the clicks of weapons being readied.
“Don’t you recognize me, teacher?” The words rang in Baba’s head, and he stared, uncomprehending, at the young rebel.
“I’m afraid not.”
The young man grinned. “I was one of your students in Hilla. One of many, I guess. Look, if you guys keep walking around dressed like Ba’athis, you’re going to get yourselves killed! Get in the truck and I’ll take you to my place for the night.”
The men hesitated for only a second before jumping in the back of the pickup.
“I’ll have to get you a change of clothes,” the rebel shouted to them as they drove away. “And it’s way too dangerous to go to Hilla. I’m taking you to Baghdad.”
Baba’s heart sank. What about his wife and sons? Were they okay? Were they alive? It seemed that the more he tried to reach them, the farther away he ended up.
“Please, please don’t kill him!” Mama’s hands shook as she found herself in the same position as so many others.
“Only enemies and those hostile to the Ba’ath are out past curfew.”
“But we’re not enemies!” Mama cried. “Look at the pictures!” Fear had seeped so deeply into their personal lives that they, like everyone else, had long ago hung pictures of the dictator on their living room walls as if he were a beloved uncle. They never knew when to expect a visit from the mukhtar or another unknown informant. “Besides, he wasn’t out—”
“I was, I was outside,” Uncle Ehab interrupted. “But I’m not an enemy. I’m loyal to the regime, I swear.”
“I don’t believe you,” a guard growled.
“I shouldn’t have gone out, I know! But I heard a shot, and I went outside just for a minute, just to see what it was!”
“You went out to take part in the rebellion, traitor.”
“No! I swear I was only outside for a second! I’m sorry!” Ehab’s voice cracked. “I’ll never do it again!”
For a moment, as Uncle Ehab teetered on the thin line between life and death, time stood still. The Republican Guard had been shooting suspects on the spot, rounding up any men old enough to fire a gun and executing them on the mere suspicion that they might join the rebellion. Mohammed and Kadhim watched, frozen in place, as the Republican Guard’s guns remained trained on their uncle. Only Mama’s tears cut through the silence.
“Please,” Uncle Ehab pleaded softly. “It was a mistake. I’m loyal to Saddam, may Allah keep him safe and raise him high. I’ll never be out past curfew again.”
The guards exchanged looks, then lowered their weapons.
“You’ve been warned,” one snarled, and they stomped out the door.
A week had passed, and the atmosphere in the Al Baghdadi house remained somber. In the flickering light of an oil lamp, Kadhim and Mohammed were attempting an evening game of cards, repeatedly frustrated by little Salih’s efforts to play with them. Meanwhile, bits of the adults’ conversation floated in from the living room.
“…It’s over. It only took three weeks for the Republican Guard to crush the uprisings.”
“I need to go back to the farm.” That was Grandfather. “I have crops and animals that need to be cared for, and we’ve all heard that government forces have sprayed toxins over Iraq’s landscape, drained southern marshlands and felled thousands of palm trees in order to flush out the rebels. God only knows what shape my farm is in.”
His voice was drowned by protests from the others that it was too soon, too dangerous.
“Over one hundred thousand killed, raped, and ‘disappeared’… Refugees fleeing… Land mines everywhere…”
Then Uncle Ehab’s voice, loud and angry: “Where are the Americans? For all its rhetoric, America did nothing to stop this bloodshed. But what really boils my blood is the lack of support from Sunnis. With their support, the rebellion might have succeeded. Instead, they just stood by and watched as Shiites and Kurds were slaughtered by the thousands. How could they do that to us? Our Sunni ‘brothers’.” He spat the last word out angrily.
Although Kadhim did not know it then, beneath the surface, born of a regime that favored one sect over the other, the fault line separating Sunnis and Shiites was widening. A far more destructive eruption brewed below, lying in wait for his own generation.
A pounding at the door brought the conversation to an abrupt standstill.
“Come on!” Mohammed whispered, and he and Kadhim dashed into the living room.
“Boys, stay out of the way!” Mama ordered.
“Ali, go get my gun.” Uncle Ehab made his way to the front door and cautiously undid the lock, opening the door just a crack. Then he emitted a gasp and flung the door open.
There, under Hilla’s starry night skies, stood Baba.
The house erupted into trills, cheers, and tears of joy as each fought for their turn to embrace the man who had been presumed dead for four long weeks. But Kadhim was first, throwing himself into his father’s arms, breathing in his familiar smell and taking in the comfort of his strong embrace. Mohammed was right behind him, then Salih and Ali and Mama.
“Thank Allah a thousand times for your safety!” She kissed him repeatedly on both cheeks. “Where have you been?”
“It took me about a week, but I finally borrowed a car and drove home from Baghdad.”
Baba laughed. “Give me a cup of tea and I’ll tell you the whole story.”