Brian Van Reet
Ali woke from the dream about his father. Once again he had sweated through the sheets. He rolled over on his pallet, his boyish face half-illuminated by dawn glowing through the curtain over the soot-smeared window to his flat.
He kicked off the damp sheets and walked down the hall to the communal toilet. Looked in the mirror. Bags under his eyes. Skin breaking out. A lot of stress recently.
For a moment, no more, he thought about leaving Baghdad for good, taking Fatima with him, starting fresh. He could freelance as an electrician; she wouldn’t have to live in shame anymore. They could wait until the war ended, get married, and start a family. He’d always assumed he would have a son, first.
He had never not done what was expected of him, the right thing, at least when it mattered, but on that morning, staring in the corroded mirror, Ali was tempted to selfishness with an urgency he’d never felt. It gave him goose bumps, the desire to abandon responsibility, self-sacrifice, loyalty, all those virtues he prided himself in. He thought about leaving his brothers, sisters and mother, when they needed him most. The shame in turning back, the dishonor in breaking an oath. Cowardice. He wondered what it would feel like, if he could live with it.
Weakness. Enough with this womanly fantasy. He would do what had to be done. The doubt passed.
Drawing shut the plastic curtain, he squatted over the concrete depression in the stall floor and urinated into the pipe. After he poured dishwater down the drain to flush out the piss smell, he splashed his face with clean water and went back to his room, unfurled his mat, knelt and said morning prayers.
There is no God but God. He is greater.
He drank bitter coffee and ate a breakfast of flatbread, goat cheese and olives while watching his 15” color TV. Music television. A beautiful woman in a belly-dancing costume gyrated to a syncopated beat, trilling about a lost love as male dancers fawned over her.
He watched Dandana TV every morning. He liked the feeling of righteous indignation the videos provoked, and while he wouldn’t admit it, at the same time he liked how they never failed to excite him. He gave in to the urge, coming on the ripped linoleum floor as he fantasized about the belly dancer. He wiped it up with a damp washrag, feeling guilty. He had managed to keep himself clean of pornography. This was the closest he came, now, Dandana TV.
Before doing the dishes he switched to Al-Jazeera. Two more bombings, these in Najaf. More Shia killed, al-Qaeda claiming responsibility. There was video of a demolished engine block, charred corpses, blood running with fuel in the street.
He dipped the scrub brush in the soapy water, attacking his dirty dish with a vigorous, circular motion. Tendons bulged in lean forearms. He hated the Wahabbis almost as much as the Americans. The slaughter of innocents had to stop.
Around the others Ali often said he would rather die than be dishonored, and he meant it. At eighteen he had risen to the rank of lieutenant in the Martyrs’ Brigade of the Righteous Army, the Jeish al-Mahdi. He and the others had volunteered, knowing they might have to undertake the most dangerous, impossible missions. Even to strap on a suicide vest if the order came down.
The day had been like any other. He had gone to the American camp and worked at wiring their new barracks. After work he hitched a ride back to Sadr City with his foreman and ascended the stairwell to his stuffy flat. He had been working so many hours, he hadn’t done laundry for two weeks. The room smelled of body odor and cigarette smoke. He opened a window and turned on a desktop fan. The sound of translucent blue blades reminded him of helicopters landing at the American camp, raising whirlwinds of airy dust.
Shower, shit, shave. He massaged mousse into his hair, put on a new pair of slacks, buttoned up a clean white shirt and took a walk to Al-Quds Street. The shop fronts had opened after shuttering during the heat of the afternoon. Couples and families filled the wide sidewalk where vendors sold furniture, street food, used satellite dishes. People sat at café tables, sipping chai, coffee, watching other people. Everyone but the children looked wary and tired.
None of the streetlights worked, and the shopkeepers had strung Chinese lanterns over the sidewalk, powering the bulbs with generators chugging in the background, adding hints of petroleum to the cacophony of scent: sewage, baking bread, rotting garbage, roasted chicken, incense burning in perfume stalls. The pleasant and noxious, unfiltered and honest stuff of human life. Aside from the time he spent with Fatima, his walks in the early evening were his favorite part of the day.
He disliked his time on the American camp, its neat rows of portable buildings illuminated in the stark yellow burn of sodium-halide lamps. He typically arrived at work before dawn, when the camp would be lit with that harsh light, like that in dreams of being naked in mosque, at school, in front of his friends or parents.
Scrubbed clean, harsh—that was how the camp felt. The Americans had a thing about cleanliness. He had seen teams of soldiers walking on line, picking up cigarette butts from the gravel of the motor pool. What sort of fighting men did that?
Sadr City had the opposite problem. The trash service had never been reliable, but since the war it was nonexistent. What wasn’t burned was dumped on the side of the road or in vacant lots. The mounds of garbage were fifteen, twenty feet tall, breeding grounds for rats, disease, biting horseflies.
There were two million people packed into the slum’s twenty square kilometers. Unlike most of Baghdad, it had been laid out by design; gridded streets and alleys separating block after block of shoddy concrete apartments. Originally named Saddam City, after himself, the borough had been conceived as something of an ethnic housing project, a ghetto built in the 70’s to contain the population of migrant Shia workers then flooding the city.
It had this in common with the American camp—right angles, utilitarian ugliness—but it was Ali’s home, the only one he’d known. He had never been out of Iraq. And sometimes it could be beautiful, like that evening as night fell, and the bulbs in Chinese lanterns, screened by rice paper, cast an orange glow on stucco walls. There was no automobile traffic; the curfew had been in place for months. Despite the inconvenience, he found he liked this change. If you wanted to go out after sundown you had to walk. He had never seen as many people on the street before the war. It was like an earlier time.
He arrived at the internet café and left his ID with the old man at the door. He checked his email. There was an unread message, short, in code. He translated it, memorized it, deleted the email, rebooted the computer, and signed out of his account. His heart was pounding. He paid the man at the table in U.S. dollars, received change in dinars, retrieved his ID and walked back to his flat. On the way he started to laugh. He had wondered how he would feel: he felt the lifting of a great burden.
People passing on the street looked at him funny. The men slowed down, allowing their women and children to catch up; the women pulled children closer to the billowing folds of their burquas. A lone man, laughing down the streets of Sadr City, was an ominous sign.
Lately he’d begun to doubt it would ever happen, but when he’d first been recruited out of the militia to join the Martyrs, it felt very immediate. For the first time since his father’s death, he felt energized, purposeful. He used forged papers to get the job at the American camp. Then there were the months of work, wiring buildings, installing circuit breakers and outlets, occasionally taking cover from the mortars fired by his Mahdi comrades. As the months passed Ali began to worry he would remain a sleeper forever, an electrician playing spy.
But now this email. He had sent one to his commander two days before, the standard intelligence report. Estimated troop and vehicle counts, convoy schedules, casualty numbers. The Americans were planning an awards ceremony for the following Saturday. He and his crew had been contracted to set up a PA system so the Colonel could address the men. In his report, Ali recommended mortar attacks to coincide.
His commander had upped the ante, and the days following were a flurry of activity: work and gather materials during the day, build and plan at night. Ali hadn’t had time to see Fatima since receiving his orders.
Friday came and it was done, built, planned to the smallest foreseeable detail. Earlier that morning there had been the pang of uncertainty in the bathroom, but it had only been for a moment, and he told himself this was the right way.
He had absolute faith he would receive a martyr’s paradise. This was true. Unbelief was not his problem. This life was nothing, shit and pain, trial by suffering, a test of worthiness. He was ready to leave it and thought of all he hated about it. His father’s story. Drinking gasoline. Death in a fireball. It would end, God willing, tomorrow. Gloriously.
Prayers said, he buttoned his last clean white shirt and packed his tools into a grease-stained canvas bag. He went downstairs and flagged down a cab, an old Volkswagen of Brazilian make, its faux-leather upholstery ripped to shreds, like the cabbie had been ferrying cougars. Ali leaned back and looked out the window at the filthy children picking through piles of garbage on the side of the road, searching for plastic and metal.
“Can I ask you something, friend?” the cabbie said. He was an African, probably a Somali by the looks of his teeth, stained brown with khat. “Why do you work for them? Aren’t you afraid of the Mahdi?”
“I don’t fear death.” Ali glared at the back of the cabbie’s head. “I am the Mahdi.”
He knew this admission was reckless, but so what? Things were coming too soon for it to matter. He caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror; he looked crazy, like he had no fear, of death, man or cougar, like he might jump over the backseat and bite the cabbie, wrench the steering wheel and send the car off the road.
The Somali’s hands flexed on the wheel. His narrow shoulders tensed and rose. Ali sensed his fear and backed off, laughing, leaning forward: “Are you a good Muslim? Good with God?”
“Who knows. I pray.”
“So you have nothing to fear. Not death, not me.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence. The cabbie dropped him at the front gate. Ali passed through the checkpoint, and the American on guard patted him down, but only sifted through the top layer of tools in his bag.
Ali would bring it in this way, tomorrow. Camouflaged beneath the spools of solder, tubes of caulk, pliers, crimpers, wire strippers, leather gloves. He had purchased an identical tool bag, cut out its bottom, and used it to construct a false bottom in this one. The vest was safe at home, folded into a cotton pallet stored in his wardrobe, the blasting cap resting nearby in a drawer. Plug in the cap, twist and tape the wires, arm it with a nine-volt, press the detonator and complete the circuit.
The soldier finished his search and waved Ali onto camp. He walked to the headquarters building to meet his crew. Half of them would continue rewiring. He would go with the other half to set up the sound system for Saturday’s ceremony. On the way out of the building he overheard two soldiers talking. An American general would be there tomorrow. No one had killed a general yet. Thinking about it made his skin crawl.
His foreman called it a day shortly before sundown and sent the men home after prayers. On the ride back to Sadr City, he asked Ali what was on his mind: he looked troubled. Ali said it was nothing. Family problems. His mother was not well.
It was the best kind of lie because it was true. His mother had lung cancer, stage four, and the doctors had said there was nothing they could do to treat it. Best to take her home. Beds were needed for those who could be saved.
There was almost zero chance of curing it but there was a course of treatment and miracles could happen, God willing, with experimental chemo and radiation therapy, somewhere out of Iraq, a private facility in Jordan or Egypt. But Ali had no money for that. No one in his family even had a passport.
As man of the house, this lack was his shortcoming, his failed responsibility. His father had been killed the previous year, fighting the Americans in Najaf. Grandmother, mother, five brothers and sisters ages two to sixteen, all, to a greater or lesser degree, dependent on him.
Like his father he had fought for the Mahdi, at times without pay, but would be lying if he said money was not part of what had attracted him to the Martyrs Brigade. In gratitude for his performance of the dangerous duty, in the event of his death his family would receive one hundred thousand U.S dollars. In a follow-up email, the Commander had assured Ali he would get his mother a passport and help arrange for her treatment at a place he knew in Jordan. She would be made comfortable, and his family would be relocated with her as refugees. Ali trusted the Commander, and the knowledge that his mother and the others would be taken care of reassured him in the rightness of his decision, made it easier, though it was not why he fought.
Shit and shave for the final evening with her. No shower—the water pressure was too low today. He put a pail under the faucet and filled it until he had enough to clean his crotch and armpits with a washcloth. He still hadn’t done laundry. Not much point now. He ran mousse through his hair and put on the same shirt and pair of slacks from the morning.
He did not gamble, drink, or pop the little yellow triangles—valium—that had become ubiquitous in the city after war broke out, but he did have one real vice. Whores. At least, for the last few months, it was only one, Fatima. He thought he might be in love.
After the first time, she had run her nails over his back, something he liked, and did it without being asked. He decided to maybe get to know this one, and when she told him her real name, he cringed under her touch. It was also his mother’s. Fatima.
“Do you want me to stop?”
He hesitated, but said, “No,” telling himself it was a very common name. And he had always liked it, Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet by his first wife, the loyal daughter, proved by suffering. An exemplary figure, a common name.
His family didn’t have the money to attract any but the most unexemplary, poorest, homeliest girls, and rather than marry one of them he had stayed single, rejecting two offers so far. It wasn’t unusual for a man to remain single into his twenties or thirties, until he had acquired the means to get the attention of the better families, and Ali, only nineteen, thought it was better to stay focused, separate that part of his life, pay for it, enjoy it in the moment and walk away with no obligations.
He took a cab to the building where she lived. The top floor had been converted into a brothel. There were no flashing signs or red lights, nothing to suggest what was inside except word of mouth.
These things were not uncommon. The clerics knew but looked the other way, thinking it better that a few women be defiled repeatedly, than have an entire society corrupted.
Ali walked upstairs and knocked. Fatima called from within her room: it’s unlocked. He opened the door and she was naked on the bed. He went to her and kissed her long and hard. He played with her until she opened up to him. He smacked her ass and she kicked her legs, revealing little creases where ass met hamstring.
He took off his clothes, climbed on top of her and knelt, her legs between his. He reached down and cupped her pubic bone, and she grinded against him.
She rested her head in his chest hair, stroked his belly, and he told her he wouldn’t see her again. The next time, she would be a virgin in paradise, God willing.
She said nothing, only continued gently touching him.
At first he found her silence further endearing—she was good not to question the will of God or man—but as he lay there and she continued to say nothing, he began to wonder if maybe she didn’t care to, if maybe she saw him as just another customer. And he didn’t think God would let a whore be the wife of a martyr in paradise, but that was beside the point.
It came time for him to go but he was still troubled by the thought. Buckling his belt, he watched her out of the corner of his eye. He decided simply to ask. What did he have to lose?
“What do you—“
She looked up expectantly, smiling, but something had changed. She wasn’t quite making eye contact, and the smile was too friendly, like she was scared and trying to hide it.
He decided not to bother her about her loyalty again, as his final act; even though he paid for it, he could tell she cared for him some—she was just afraid because of what he’d said—she would rather be with him than lead this life. She had told him so. There were things you couldn’t fake.
He removed all the money in his wallet, $500 U.S.D in twenties, and left it on the nightstand without saying goodbye.
He went to see his mother. She still lived in the flat where he had grown up. After his father’s death, Ali had joined the Martyrs and moved out of her home, into a flat on the northeast side of Sadr City, ostensibly to be closer to his work on the American camp.
The location was convenient, but really he was more glad about leaving the crowded rooms, tired of sleeping on the floor with his three little brothers, who were endlessly crying and caterwauling while his mother, bedridden, called out orders. He was glad to be out of the house, but by no means had he abandoned his family. He stopped in several times a week for meals, to check on his mother or drop off money. There was more of it now, with his double dipping from the Mahdi and the Americans, but still not enough.
He unlocked the door to the flat and was met by the smell of braised lamb. Adawiyah, his oldest sister, had taken over the housework after their mother had gotten sick.
“How is she?” Ali asked, stealing a piece of meat from the still-cooking leg.
“Sleeping most of the time, with the painkillers. She can’t keep anything down. What she throws up looks like coffee grounds.”
Ali appreciated the matter-of-fact way she told him this. She would bring the family prestige with a good marriage. And the problem of the dowry would soon be solved.
He wiped his hands on a dishcloth and walked through the kitchen to his mother’s bedroom. In the few days since he’d last seen her she had taken a turn for the worse. She looked like she had lost five or ten pounds on an already petite, gaunt frame. She was awake. Hadn’t been last time. He sat on the bed beside her.
“Mother, I have great news. The Mahdi will pay for the treatment in Jordan. The family will go with you. They’re processing the passports now.”
“What about you? What does this mean?”
It disturbed him to see her straining against the bed in her feeble state, trying and half-succeeding to sit up. She looked like a reanimated corpse. Seeing her this way, he thought she would never make it out of Baghdad.
She had known he was in the militia ever since he had joined six years ago, but he hadn’t told her about the Martyrs Brigade. He wouldn’t have, even if he hadn’t been sworn to secrecy. But he knew she wasn’t stupid, that she might react this way. He had a lie ready.
“We ambushed a convoy yesterday and found a crate of dollars. The Commander thought of you. There were many millions there—this is just a token. He wanted to reward me for my part in the fight.”
She tried to wail but it came out more like a croak, then a coughing fit. Ali handed her his handkerchief. Afterwards she tried to hide it but he saw blood.
When she finished she composed herself and started again, her voice just above a whisper. “First your father. Then you. Now Asim is almost old enough.” Asim was Ali’s middle brother, eleven years-old. In another year he could join the militia. He was already talking about it. “By the time this war ends it will have taken all my men. Thank God I won’t be there to see it.”
“You should thank God. You are going to Jordan. So is Asim. Thank Him—this is His blessing.” He got up. “I have to go see about your passport.”
“Stay with me a while.”
“You need your passport.”
Ali went back to his flat and took off his shirt and pants. He opened his wardrobe and retrieved the vest, laying it out, inspecting it one last time. He touched a voltmeter to the wires he would connect to the detonator in just a few hours.
He knew he would be nervous working with the blasting cap and battery in the same way he had been on edge for the three nights it had taken to build it. He had not worried it might blow up in his face. He did not fear death; only the tragic irony of killing oneself before the appointed time.
He was no cleric but thought such a person, a failed martyr, would probably get the rewards God had promised. Even so, he wanted to make sure, and because of this, had insisted on building the vest himself, even though the Commander had offered to have one made. He had asked Ali if maybe he would rather take the time to make peace with God and family, get his mind right, but Ali couldn’t be at peace if he couldn’t trust the device, and so he had to build it himself.
He visualized doing it, walking from behind the soundboard toward the General who would be congratulating the awardees, pinning medals on their chests. He would get as close to him as possible.
At some point someone would try to stop him. It would be important to keep the detonator in hand. They would try to control his hands. He pictured his arms clinched tight to his chest, imagined running at the General, using the element of surprise. That would be the best way.
The wiring checked out. He would connect everything shortly. Ever so carefully insert the nine-volt. Then it would be ready. He put it back in the wardrobe. He needed a few hours rest, first, but couldn’t sleep.
It was a hot night. He lay sweating on top of his pallet. He thought about many things: more or less his whole life. He thought about the story his father had told him on his tenth birthday, after giving him his first rifle. They had taken it to the palm groves northeast of the city to zero it.
“This is not a toy,” his father said. “I’ll keep it until you’re older. This is a tool, a weapon. It kills. Be careful or it’ll kill you.”
His father had been conscripted into Saddam’s army to fight the first war with the Americans. This had been when Ali was a baby—he didn’t remember any of it—but when he got older his father told him stories. Before, they had been about seeing the warplanes, how you heard them first, sometimes only heard them, though other times if your eyes were sharp and it was clear you saw a black triangle high in the sky. But there was no way to see the bomb coming, no matter how good your vision. You could hear it, but by then it was too late. They had lasers to guide them. Hope it landed a hundred meters the other way and all you got was ringing ears and scorched eyebrows.
Ali had heard his father’s war stories before, but never the one about the boy drinking gasoline. They zeroed the rifle in the palm grove while he told him.
At the end of the war, after the Americans pulled back to Kuwait, what was left of his unit was combined with another and sent to the south to put down the Shia. The Americans had told them to fight Saddam and had promised help, air support, but it never came.
“They only look out for their own. That is the way of the world. Only trust blood.” His father paused, adjusting the rear sights of the rifle with a screwdriver. Ali smelled the bootlegged whisky on his breath. This was before he found God and stopped drinking. Ali watched as he tightened the screw, hands shaking a little.
“Our captain was a Sunni,” he said, handing the rifle to the boy. “A Sunni and a cruel man. On the way south, two men in my platoon tried to escape during the night. Their families were from Basra, where we were headed, and they refused to fight them. They were caught by the guards. It was open desert. The next morning the Captain assembled us, drew his pistol, and shot them. If one more of us tried to run, he said he would cut our Achilles tendons and leave us to die. No one else deserted. Two days later we made it to a village outside Basra. We took fire so the Captain ordered us to pull back and called in artillery. They shelled the village for half an hour, then we moved in. In the street we found a boy, fourteen or fifteen. He’d been wounded by a shell; there was shrapnel in his legs. He tried to crawl away. He was wearing an ammo belt, so the Captain knew he was a rebel. The boy kept asking for water, and the Captain told him to say where the others were hiding, and then he could have some. The boy wouldn’t say, so the Captain tied his hands and feet and cut the skin between his fingers, but he still wouldn’t talk. Finally, he told us to bring him a fuel can from the back of the truck. He told us to grab him under the jaw and close his nose. We forced his mouth open and stuffed a rag in it. Then he poured gasoline down his throat. The boy coughed it up until he passed out, but the Captain kept pouring. Then he took my rifle, walked back and shot him in the gut. The boy exploded in a fireball. He didn’t die at first.”
Ali remembered every word. He tried to imagine the force originating from within, the pressure blowing flames and gore out the path of least resistance—probably the channel made by the bullet, but also the mouth, the ass.
His own explosion would crush and twist him apart, the force travelling both out and in. Equal and opposite reactions, like getting hit by four trucks converging on a single point. He had seen the results of it, death by blast concussion. A team of Mahdi mortarmen, hit by an American artillery shell. Their clothes and shoes blown off, only shreds of fabric clinging to bodies strangely intact. But bruised. Horribly bruised, and swollen all over, the skin one huge hematoma. They had looked like purple babies, chubby, with all the hair singed off. Purple and black. That’s what the Americans unlucky enough to be near him tomorrow would look like. He himself wouldn’t look like much. Would probably be cut to pieces.
He lay flat on his back, naked under the sheets. He reached down and cupped himself in his hands as if preparing to block a penalty kick. He wondered how much pain there would be. Probably none. Maybe just for an instant. At what point would he stop being in pain and be in paradise?
He wasn’t tired and fought the urge to get out of bed, dress, go to Fatima. He wanted to lie on his stomach with arms folded beneath him and feel her fingernails running lightly over the skin of his back, comforting him in the same way his mother had when he would wake from bad dreams as a boy, nightmares about being chased by monsters or large dogs. After that day in the palm grove his dreams had sometimes been about the boy drinking gasoline, and sometimes still were. Often he was the boy and his father poured the gas. Other times it was the other way around.
He kept coming back to the question of why his father had told him. To show his young son the courage of the rebel who was also only a boy? —but Ali doubted this was his motivation.
He suspected the story had been nothing more than an impromptu confession, something unplanned and probably regretted later for its irresponsibility—if his father had even remembered doing it. A loose-mouthed drunk telling a ten year-old boy something he had no business knowing.
Listen, his father was saying (Ali could hear his voice, what he had meant to say). Listen, this is something horrible I did—no—something horrible I did nothing to stop, and I feel bad about it, have been waiting ten years to tell someone, and you’re it. You’re my son, you’re here, and I can’t wait any longer for you to get any older. You owe me. So listen.
Ali tossed and turned. Not for the first time he felt hate for his father. He hated him because he had betrayed his people out of cowardice, the fear of death. Yes, it was true he had found God, joined the Jeish al-Mahdi, eventually fought and died for something righteous in the next war, died like a lion, but Ali sometimes hated him for what he once was.
He had never been a coward. Not once. He was nothing like his father. He was more like the boy drinking gasoline. Loyal to the end, a martyr. What he would do wasn’t about proving something to a dead man. It wasn’t about money, sex, or anything of this earth.
No. He thought it was his choice. He would do it for God.
The power cycled off again. His desk lamp went dark. The fan near his mattress whirred to a stop, and the air in his room grew still. He began to sweat and kicked off the sheets. He sat up and opened his window, even though the smell from the dumpsite below his building was terrible. A pack of feral dogs ran the street, barking and snarling over a scrap of something found in the trash, their jaws clicking. The room was pitch black. In the far distance he heard the sound of turbine engines and steel track running through sprockets: a platoon of American tanks on patrol. The thought of them in all that armor almost made him laugh out loud. None of their thermal vision or sophisticated machinery could stop someone like him. They had no technology to see into the human heart. His will was stronger and more pure than the best-tempered steel.