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“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.

Ashbal Saddam

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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.

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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.

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***

 

“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!”

This is the story of “Kadhim” (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), who was in medical school in 2003 with the U.S. Armed Forces came to Iraq to topple Saddam’s Ba’ath regime.

The true story of “Mohammed” (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), who was interpreting for the U.S. Forces during the Iraq war when their armored tank was hit by an IED.

It was dark, wet, and miserably cold. Pangs of hunger growled in Baba’s stomach, and his army fatigues were drenched. With a grimace at his aching feet, he shook off the mud that caked his boots, and the same thought that had been plaguing him for weeks nagged him once again.

Of all the places in the world, this is the last place I should be.

Baba had been exchanging news with other teachers when the government vehicles arrived.

“Everyone needs to wear army fatigues and get into the trucks, now!”

There was no time to go home. Baba, like the rest of them, had been forced long ago to become a low-level Ba’athi. Refusing to do so would not only have vastly limited his career options, it would also have put his life in danger. Now, with all Ba’ath party members called upon to do their part for the regime, he and some two hundred other teachers were loaded into trucks and shipped two hundred kilometers away to Samawa without so much as a note to their wives.

With a ceasefire between the UN and Iraq, there was little to do in Samawa besides cook, eat, and hang out with the others. Their boredom was relieved only with the arrival of the Intifada a few days later. The irony of it was painful: Baba, a 41-year-old high school English teacher, fighting on the side of a regime he detested. The rest of the regime’s Popular Army was similarly half-hearted, and within two days, the city fell to the rebels. Confusion followed among the remaining teachers as the Popular Army disbanded and scattered.

“The rebels say their problem isn’t with us. They know we were brought here against our will.”

“Where should we go then? All of Iraq is falling to the rebels, and Saddam’s Republican Guard is slaughtering any male old enough to hold a weapon.”

“Some of the men are hiding in palm trees to escape the Guard.”

“What about you, Abu Ali? What will you do?”

Baba was resolute. “I’m going to Hilla to protect my wife and children.”

One of the teachers laughed. “We’d all like to do that, but Hilla is nearly two hundred kilometers away and we have no transportation.”

“I’ll walk.”

The man’s laughter stopped abruptly. “It’s too dangerous, Abu Ali. The other day a group of disbanded soldiers just like us was caught by the rebels and killed. In fact, one of the men committed suicide just so he wouldn’t have to die by another’s hand. Look at us! We’re still in our fatigues! If you aren’t killed by rebels who think you’re with the regime, then you’ll be executed by the Republican Guard, who will think you’ve defected. The Intifada is on its way to Hilla, the Republican Guard will be there to take it back, and both sides are dangerous.”

Baba met the man’s gaze head-on. “Then I’d better walk fast.”

 

Now, fourteen rainy kilometers later, Baba was soaked, exhausted, and hungry. He was walking with nine other men; some he knew, others he didn’t. Daylight had long since disappeared, and still they had not reached Rumaythah, the first town en route to Hilla. They were stranded.

***

“Ali! Mohammed! Kadhim! Come inside! Now!” Fear echoed in Mama’s voice, and for once they did not question her. They ran into the house and locked the door.

Within two weeks, most of Iraq had fallen to rebel forces. Now, only four of the eighteen provinces remained in the hands of the regime: Baghdad—the seat of Ba’athi power—and the three provinces known as the Sunni Triangle. Uncle Ehab said that most Sunnis stood to gain from the Ba’ath party remaining in power, but if they did join, then perhaps even Saddam Hussein himself would be unable to withstand the force of an entire nation.

That was before the Republican Guard came to Hilla to reclaim it from the rebels. Now, even Kadhim could not ignore the war outside his doorstep.

Heart pounding, he stood close to Mohammed as they watched out the window. Across the street, two guards entered the home of Hayder, one of Ali’s closest friends.

The Republican Guard had arrived like a plague, killing everything in its path. Suddenly, the chopped-up corpse in the park became the first of many. On their daily hunt for water, Kadhim and Mohammed were careful to step around the unclaimed bodies that littered the streets, some of whom they recognized. They made sure to be home by the state-mandated nine o’clock curfew and watched together in horror as helicopters shot at their city right in front of them, always running home as quickly as they could. But for Kadhim, the most terrifying part was still the thought that Baba was dead. Mama insisted their father would be home soon, but her tone grew less convincing with each day that passed.

“Boys! Get away from the window!”

The two brothers pulled the curtain shut and peered through the crack, unable to tear their eyes away.

Over the past week, they had watched as men were taken by the Guard, never to be seen again, and others were executed in the street. This time, the Republican Guard reappeared with a young boy in their grip, and Ali let out a blood-curdling scream.

Hayder!

Mama rushed to Ali’s side and held him as they watched the scene unfold.

Hayder’s mother was on her knees in the street, pleading and sobbing, “Please, let him be! He’s only sixteen! He hasn’t even finished school yet!”

“The mukhtar has informed us that your son is a traitor to the regime. The punishment for joining the rebels is execution.”

It was the job of the mukhtar, the malicious party official, to know and report the intimate details of every soul in his neighborhood. Behind the curtain, Kadhim’s pulse quickened, and he felt Mohammed’s grip on his hand tighten.

This can’t be real.

“Please, have mercy on him! He’s just a boy!” Hayder’s mother clung to the guard’s pant leg as he raised his Kalashnikov. He kicked her away and trained the barrel at Hayder’s skull. The boy was crying and shaking.

Mama gasped and pulled Ali close to her, trying to shield her son’s eyes as a shot rang out and Hayder’s mother screamed. Mohammed and Kadhim could only stare in wide-eyed shock as the boy’s lifeless form fell to the ground.

 

***

The farmer took one look at the nine hungry, dirty men who crowded his doorstep, and without asking who they were or where they were going, invited them in for dinner and a free place to sleep. In the tradition of true Arab hospitality, it was the guest’s right to stay for three days—no questions asked—but Baba had no intention of making such an imposition on their host.

“I’ll have to leave you here,” the farmer said the next morning, after giving them a ride to the outskirts of Rumaythah. “The fighting is still ongoing within the city, and I don’t want to get mixed up in it. Besides, you’re still wearing your Ba’athi uniforms.” He looked at them gravely. “We’ve been hearing rumors that Saddam’s thugs are capturing unarmed civilians and burying them alive.”

The men looked at each other in somber silence. This sounded exactly like something Saddam and his Republican Guard would do.

That day, several of them decided to discontinue their journey, looking for a safe place to wait out the fighting. But for Baba, the fear wasn’t for himself. His wife and four boys were alone in a city that would soon fill with violence as the Republican Guard weeded out the rebels. So, dirty and weary, he and the remaining men began to walk to the next city en route to Hilla: Diwaniya, a city still in the hands of the Ba’ath.

They spent the night in the small town of Hamza about halfway to Diwaniya, and continued their endless walk the next day, choosing small side roads in an attempt to stay out of sight. As they walked the dirt road, an old pickup truck pulled up beside them, and a young man with a Kalashnikov eyed them suspiciously from the driver’s seat. “Where are you headed?”

“Diwaniya.” Even as he said it, Baba was frighteningly aware of the fact that they were walking, unarmed, in full Ba’athi garb, toward one of the regime’s remaining cities. He and his companions stopped warily, and he felt a chill as the rebel and his passenger exchanged looks, grabbed their weapons, and jumped out of the truck, encircling the group like a large cat circles its prey.

“I see.” The rebel peered at Baba, head cocked, a strange look in his eyes. “Where are you from?”

“Hilla.” Something about the young man’s look made Baba nervous, and he tensed himself to run. Then the tips of the young rebel’s mouth twisted into an ominous smile.

“Don’t you recognize me, teacher?”

In the beginning, it was only the three of them: Kadhim, Mohammed, and the corpse.

Two of the three were sweaty, out of breath, and had hearts that were beating faster than they thought possible. Overhead, the Iraqi sun beat down through the palm trees, making wavy patterns on the sand-gritted path where the boys had been playing just moments before. That is, until their soccer ball was stopped by an elbow.

It was odd, how an elbow became almost unrecognizable when it was all by itself.

Then they noticed a dismembered hand… then a foot… then a bloody mess of intestines… and there, next to the bush, sending a breathless chill down their spines, was the severed head.

It was the first dead body the two brothers had ever seen, but Kadhim, staring in morbid curiosity, knew that it was not the work of an animal. The body had been hacked to pieces the way Mama chopped mutton, and although covered with flies, the blood around it was still fresh. Whoever this was, it had not been long since his murderer had walked the very path on which they now stood.

Ten-year-old Kadhim and his twelve-year-old brother stared at their discovery in shock; the hair rising in unbidden chills on the backs of their necks. Something felt wrong, a fear in the pit of Kadhim’s stomach that grew quickly into nausea. He was beginning to taste the bile in his throat when Mohammed grabbed his hand.

“Let’s go. Now!”

Steeling his nerves, the boy defiantly snatched his ball from the corpse and ran after his brother. The dismembered body remained behind, an unwelcome stranger in a children’s park, a premonition of the horror to come.

* * *

 

When Kadhim awoke, it was raining. Rain rarely came to the desert city of Hilla, but when it did, it was as though God, who had forgotten to water the city all year, had suddenly remembered and decided to douse it with a quick, heavy, very cold bucket of water. With every drop, the layer of sand that dusted the city was turning to mud, and Kadhim thought pityingly of the people waiting in two long lines at the gas station (one for men, another for women, as was proper) to buy gas and kerosene.

Sixteen-year-old Ali was still snoring next door, but Mohammed’s bed was already empty and in other parts of the house, his grandparents, aunts, and uncles would soon be getting up. Kadhim wasn’t used to the presence of so many relatives, whose homes, apparently, were no longer safe. He flicked the light switch out of habit, but there hadn’t been any electricity for months. So he made his way down the hall, hopping from rug to rug in an attempt to avoid the cold marble floor.

In the kitchen, Mama had lit the gas stove with a match and was making tea, eggs, and warm bread while two-year old Salih played on the floor next to her. She smiled as Kadhim sat at the table.

“Good morning, habibi, my sweetheart. How would you like your eggs?”

“Sunny-side up—without the yellow.”

She laughed. “Without the yellow, huh?”

As she cooked, Baba entered the kitchen, kissed the top of Kadhim’s head, and ruffled little Salih’s hair. “I’m going out to meet with the other teachers to see if there’s any news.”

“Again? Why don’t you just listen to the radio?” Even as Kadhim spoke, he could hear news broadcasts in the living room. Their beautiful mahogany radio enjoyed a prime spot in a room which was normally lit by a stunning chandelier but now had only kerosene lamps and candles.

Mama pulled Salih up on her hip in one practiced swoop. “Sometimes you learn more by talking to people directly.”

With that, Baba was out the door. Kadhim never thought to say goodbye. His father would be back in a few hours, surely.

 

Kadhim waited for the rain to stop before grabbing Mohammed. The tub on the roof caught rainwater, but with the number of people in their house, it was never enough. The hunt for water had become a necessity for all of Hilla, but for Kadhim and Mohammed, it was their daily dose of adventure. They gathered the empty jugs and were out the door and riding their bicycles before their oldest brother, Ali, had even woken up.

“Are we going to that cracked water pipe again?” Kadhim asked as they pedaled down the street.

“No. It’s empty, remember? Let’s just bring water from the Euphrates until they break open another tank. It’s cleaner than rain water anyways.” Mohammed grinned and sped up. “But first let’s race to that pole.”

“You started before me!” Kadhim shouted, but he laughed and pedaled as fast as he could nonetheless.

They flew past date palms and pomegranate trees, long out of season, but even in the winter, oranges could be found in many backyards, so Mohammed and Kadhim helped themselves. They stopped to stare in awe at the ruined house of a neighbor who had dared to fire at an American helicopter. They passed their school, where they used to go Saturday through Thursday to learn about Arabic, math, and Baba Saddam’s many feats for the good of the Iraqi nation.

But the school had sat dark and empty for many months now. Ever since the Americans had come to Iraq.

 

* * *

 

Kadhim’s ten years had afforded him, he felt, a wealth of useful knowledge. The Americans had come from… wherever Americans came from, to get Iraq out of Kuwait and to fight Saddam. Baba said they were bombing Iraqi infrastructure. Kadhim wasn’t sure what that meant, but electricity and water had been gone since that January, 1991, and the schools had closed as well. And so he’d learned that war meant using kerosene lamps, taking a vacation from his studies, and running inside whenever he heard a loud BOOM.

 

But that evening, when Baba didn’t come home, war started to mean something else.

Fear.

Baba didn’t come home the next day either, or the day after that, and with each passing day, the fear grew, until it became an electric current that ran through every member of the crowded household. Each day, Kadhim—like his brothers—questioned Mama even more.

“Where’s Baba? Is he coming home?”

“He’ll be home soon, habibi, don’t worry.” Her eyes were red and puffy. Something was definitely wrong.

“But when?” Kadhim knew the truth. It pounded in every beat of his heart.

He’s dead.

He’s dead.

He’s dead.

HPIM0734

* * *

 

Mama shoved a few bills in her boys’ hands and pushed them out the door with bribes of sweets from the corner store. She put two-year-old Salih down for a nap, and with all four of her boys finally out of sight, the feeling of panic she’d been holding at bay overtook her. Her breath came in wheezy gasps, her throat constricted, and she slid to the floor, her head in her hands, her body wracked with sobs. She looked up to find her aging mother gazing down at her in pity.

“It’s been a week since he disappeared,” Mama said beseechingly through her tears. “One of the neighbors thinks that he went to fight with the regime’s popular army. But that can’t be. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire a week ago. The war is over. Iraq has pulled out of Kuwait, and the American troops are withdrawing. What could the army possibly need him for?”

Something else was going on, a current of unrest was spreading throughout Iraq, and it frightened and unsettled her.

Her mother’s eyes were sympathetic. “Dear, you have to face the possibility that he may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few weeks ago the Americans bombed a gas station, killing dozens of innocent bystanders. Perhaps it was something like that.”

“Maybe not. Maybe he’s out there somewhere and can’t contact me. The phone lines have been down since the Americans bombed the…”

Her panicked voice trailed off as her mother put a gentle hand on her shoulder and shook her head.

“If he were alive, he’d come home. I’m sorry my darling, but he’s gone. And now you need to be strong for your children.”

Then the aging woman knelt on the floor and embraced her weeping daughter.

 

 

An hour passed as Mama collected herself. It seemed she had no sooner dried her tears than her sons burst into the house, shouting with excitement. And as Ali’s breathless words sank in, Mama felt her head spin.

“The intifada! It’s happening!”

The world would not let her catch her breath.

 

* * *

 

In an instant, the family gathered around the radio. Kadhim joined them, listening intently, sensing the momentousness of the occasion but unsure as to what it meant. Uncle Ehab was pacing in a circle, eyes wide.

“The Shiites in the South are rebelling against the regime! The Kurds in the North have joined, too.”

“How? Where?” Fear played with the shadows on Mama’s face, and Kadhim looked from her to Uncle Ehab, trying to determine whether this news was good or bad.

“It’s The Voice of Free Iraq,” Uncle Ehab answered. “It’s been broadcasting from Saudi Arabia, encouraging Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Even the American president has been encouraging a coup! It’s only been a few days since the rebels took Basra and already the rebellion is spreading like wildfire! The regime is weakened by war, and with the Americans on our side, we could finally—”

He stopped abruptly, silenced by a sharp look from Mama. Then he continued slowly. “The rebels have seized Basra, Najaf, Amarah… This uprising will come to Hilla soon.”

“Enough.” Mama turned to her boys. “Ali, Mohammed, Kadhim: listen to me. You be careful of those rebels. They’re bad men and troublemakers.”

Kadhim, wide-eyed, nodded solemnly. So we’re on the side of Baba Saddam. He is Iraq’s savior, isn’t he?

 

* * *

 

Within days, the rebels reached Hilla. Despite being kept inside by Mama, Kadhim could see that all the shops had closed and the streets were filled with people, though he couldn’t tell whether their shouts were of anger or joy.

Over the following days, he overheard Mama, Uncle Ehab and the other adults sharing news whenever they came back in the house from a trip outside. The rebels had raided the school and burned the Ba’athi headquarters. They were visiting all the houses of known party officials, killing and driving out Ba’athis like rabbits. For the most part, Kadhim paid little attention to the commotion. He was far more interesting in playing jacks with Mohammed. He and his brother did discover the mutilated body in the park, but other than that, there seemed to be far less fighting than Kadhim had expected. When he put this question to Uncle Ehab, his answer seemed oddly pensive.

“They have killed some Ba’athis. And some of the government officials have switched sides and joined the rebels. But it seems that mostly, there’s just no one left in Hilla for the rebels to fight. The Ba’athis have vanished.”

 

Just like Baba.

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.

 

doner-kebab

“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?”

“I’m fine.”

“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.”

Minutes passed.

“Kadhim?”

“Yes?”

“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.

 

“You’re not going to believe what happened to us the other day.”

It was a rare night off from the hospital, and Kadhim was spending it with the guys. He, his brothers Ali and Salih, and Ali’s two closest friends Omar and Yuhanna, were enjoying a tray of nuts, a collection of hookahs, and the relative cool of the night air. It was Omar who addressed them now, his voice low and hoarse, as if telling them his deepest secret. He was Sunni, Yuhanna was Christian, and Ali was Shiite, but it mattered not. The three had been inseparable since boyhood, and whatever dark story Omar was about to share, he felt that it was safe here.

“A few days ago, Yuhanna and I had to make a trip to Samarra to get some supplies for the Americans.” Omar took a deep pull on the hookah and slowly exhaled the flavored smoke, preparing himself for the retelling of the event. “We took the main road and were about an hour outside of Baghdad when we hit a fake checkpoint.”

The mere mention of the checkpoint caused goose bumps to form on the men’s skin. Everyone knew that very few made it safely through these traps, established by armed terrorists in fake uniforms to kidnap and kill as many and as quickly as possible. They were becoming increasingly common in late 2005, popping up around the country like weeds, only to disappear hours later.

Sakkaka or allasa?” Salih asked. “Trappers or Chewers?”

“That’s one of the first things we wondered too,” Omar answered. “To be honest, we hoped they were sakkaka, because we might be able to convince a Shiite militia member to let us pay a ransom and get away with our lives. They’re easier to bargain with, even if we are Sunni and Christian. But then we saw the cars—Opels—and we knew we were screwed.”

Sunni terrorists had begun buying German-made Opels by the hundreds or even thousands, perhaps because they were fast and well made, or perhaps for reasons that those present could not fathom. In fact, as the years passed, it became so common to find Sunni terrorists (the allasa) driving Opels that the Iraqi army began to stop all Opels for questioning. Civilians unlucky enough to own an Opel quickly sold it, not wishing to be associated with terrorism. The terrorists, on the other hand, did nothing to hide their identity. They drove their Opels, wore their dishdashas a few inches shorter, and grew unkempt beards with a fierce and ugly pride that instantly reflected their identity.

Not to be outdone, the Shiite terrorists also adopted a car, the official mascot of their own style of kidnap and murder. Theirs was the Toyota Mark II: fast, luxurious, and with an enormous trunk that eased the difficult task of stuffing people fighting and kicking down into it. Practical, really, but still a ride with style. In fact, that’s how the Shiite militias’ nickname had developed. Sakkak came from the Baghdad slang word for shutting something closed, and it was well known that a favorite pastime of a run-of-the-mill Shiite terrorist was trapping people in trunks in order to torture them and later extract a ransom for their release. “Rah asukkak; I’ll trap you,” was their favorite threat.

In turn, the Sunni terrorists frightened people with: “Rah a’alsak; I’ll chew you up.” At times, they made it frighteningly obvious which side they worked for, if one had the distinct displeasure of meeting them up close.

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stands guard at checkpoint near the city of Biji

“So what did you do?” Kadhim prompted. “Did you turn tail and get out of there?”

“Trust me, there’s nothing I would have liked more,” Omar replied. “But as we pulled up, an Opel full of armed men came up behind us and waived at us to stop. We were trapped. So we got stuck in a line of cars creeping through the check point, and as we got closer I saw a man sitting there holding a huge, bloody sword, as entire families were dragged out of their cars and pulled to the side.”

He took another deep drag on the hookah, and his voice shook. “They were Shiite families, God rest their souls. Women and children too. I hate to think of the fear they must have experienced.”

They sat in reverent silence for a while, the room filling with hookah smoke and thoughts of slaughtered families.

“We pulled closer, third in line, second in line, and I kept looking at this old, masked man holding a sword. We couldn’t see more than his eyes behind the mask, but he had wrinkles and age spots on his hands. He was sitting on a plastic chair, his hands resting on the sword hilt, just waiting to cut heads. He was all I could look at, him and his blood-crusted sword.”

“God help us,” Ali breathed.

“Yeah, I was about ready to piss myself at this point.” Omar laughed shakily. “My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to burst through my throat. Poor Yuhanna was sitting there in dead silence, green faced, just dripping sweat and shaking.

“You should have seen us, an unlucky pair of contractors about ready to shit ourselves with fear. I swear to God, I was positive that we were about to lose our heads like the rest of them. If they knew that we were contracting with their mortal enemy, the U.S. Army, or if they even figured out that Yuhanna was Christian, that would be it for us.”

Omar shivered despite the sweat on his forehead. Yuhanna was resting his head back on the chair, staring straight up at the ceiling and chain smoking, a potent glass of ‘araq nestled in his other hand.

“Our turn came,” Omar continued, “and we were approached by this young allas who couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old, because his voice kept cracking. And I was still scared shitless of him. He asked for my name and I.D. I told him I was Sunni and pulled out my wallet to get my I.D. I was so fucking scared and shaky that of all the I.D.’s in my wallet it was my dumb luck that I pulled out the American one.”

The men gasped out loud.

“That’s right,” Omar laughed wryly. “I’d already handed it to him when I realized what it was, and that’s when I knew we were fucked. The whole damn card is printed in English! It says “military contractor” and has “United States of America” written across it in bold letters! I may as well have committed suicide on the spot! So the kid looked at the card, and he looked at me sitting there trying not to vomit, and he looked at the card again and said, ‘What the hell is this?’

“‘It’s my I.D.’ I said. What do you say in a situation like that?

“‘It’s in English,’ he said, and he looked at it kind of funny. Then he looked at me again, and I suddenly realized that he couldn’t read a word of it.

“‘It’s the new Baghdad I.D.’ I lied out of my ass. ‘This is how they make them these days.’

“‘That can’t be right. I’ve never seen one of these,’ he said. ‘Who do you work for?’”

Omar laughed, taking a swig of ‘araq. “He suspected that I worked for the Americans, but I was starting to think that he might be stupid enough to be convinced otherwise despite the American I.D., so I told him that I worked for an electrical company.

“He wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing, so I told him that I was going to visit family in Fallujah. ‘Who?’ he asked.

“And maybe he couldn’t read English, but I guarantee he had studied names and faces and knew just about everyone there was to know in Sunni areas, and if I lied he’d see right through it, and that would be our heads. Thank God I have an abundance of Sunni relatives in Fallujah.

“I started listing names like there was no tomorrow, and eventually the kid turned to the old head cutter behind him and asked, ‘What do you think, should we let them through?’

“After what felt like a year, the old guy nodded. I was so relieved that I immediately pushed the gas pedal.

“Then suddenly the kid shouted, ‘Wait!’ He grabbed my shoulder, and I was sure he was going to ask about poor sweaty Yuhanna in my passenger seat, just ask a name, ask for any of his I.D.’s, and the kid would know that he’s Christian. Or he’d pull out that huge cross that Yuhanna always wears around his neck under his shirt and then we’d both lose our heads. Yuhanna was thinking the exact same thing—that’s it. It’s over. We’re about to die.”

Yuhanna laughed wryly.

“So what happened?” Salih prodded.

“The kid shouted at us to stop, grabbed my arm through the window and peered in at us…” Omar paused. “And then he politely handed me my United States military contractor identification card and said, ‘Don’t forget your new Baghdad I.D.’”

The men burst out laughing. “Thank God you guys are safe,” Ali said, and Kadhim and Salih echoed the sentiment. “Unbelievable.”

“It doesn’t quite end there.” Omar turned to Kadhim. “I wanted to ask you something, doctor.”

“What is it?”

“Well, a couple miles after we got away from the fake checkpoint, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and I pulled over and vomited on the side of the road. My nerves were shot. Yuhanna was just as bad. The poor guy didn’t utter a single word for about two hours. He just sat there, shaking. That night and the next couple of days I continued to feel pretty sick, so eventually I went to the doctor, and do you know what he told me?”

“What’s that?”

“He saw that my blood sugar level had spiked, and he told me that I had diabetes! Can you believe that? I got diabetes just from the fright of running into a terrorist checkpoint!”

“Wow. They can do that?” Ali asked, eyes wide.

Kadhim laughed. “It’s not that simple. Most likely, you already had a light form of diabetes, known as glucose intolerance. The symptoms typically don’t appear in someone who’s healthy, but when you go through a physical illness or mental shock like the one you just experienced, the corticosteroids spike, and the imbalance in hormones exaggerates the glucose intolerance, which then basically becomes a form of diabetes.”

“So you’re saying the problem was already there,” Omar said, slowly.

“That’s right.”

“Even though I had never experienced any symptoms.”

“Exactly.”

“Then it just appeared suddenly, literally within two miles of meeting a terrorist?” His voice was dripping with skepticism.

“Well, as I said, the condition was already present, but it was exacerbated by the experience. I’m sure the vomiting didn’t help either.”

Omar regarded him suspiciously for a while, then shrugged. “You’re the doctor,” he said at last. But Kadhim knew what he and all the other guys in the smoke-filled room were thinking.

Terrorists, when they didn’t chop off your head or throw you in trunks, brought on a bad case of diabetes.