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I don’t know how long I was awake in the night. I was lying on my bed wrapped in the darkness which was all over the country since the outbreak of war forty days before. I was listening to the silence as a beautiful song. I kept listening and listening, untethering my thoughts and fantasies to fly with the wings of imagination as far as they could and leave their jail forever.
Was it right, what everyone had been saying, that Saddam and his regime had suddenly disappeared? It was hard for me to believe that a kidnapper like Saddam, who had taken us hostage for thirty years and ruled us by fire and iron, could leave his chair and disappear as simply as that. Nobody expected that, at last, he would use the brain in his head and avoid using his weapons of mass destruction, so was that true? I didn’t think so. Maybe some of his military officers had wisely decided to prevent the impending massacre.
Every night in the last forty days I’d tried to fall into a deep sleep to hide from the death-voices of missiles and explosions. They started with the whispers of the far-away fighter aircraft and were followed by huge explosions. But now everything had changed. I couldn’t sleep because of my dreams. I felt that everything would change again soon. The well-known maxim, TODAY IS BETTER THAN TOMORROW, would not apply any more. We wouldn’t be alone. The global power would be with us to rebuild the country. We would be like the surrounding countries; new houses instead of these old ones cracking with age, new cars, new services, equal opportunities, and a normal life with no more war.
I opened my eyes and looked towards where my certificate hung on the wall, but couldn’t see anything in the gloomy darkness. I remembered when I’d taken it to the Ministry of Culture and Arts immediately after my graduation five years ago. I was so proud when I showed it to the Personnel section. But they told me that if I didn’t have a partisan reference I could only use my certificate at home, to hang on the wall. I hadn’t joined the Ba’ath party before and I didn’t intend to then, so I took my papers, returned to the debris which I called my home, hung my certificate on the wall and gave up my dreams of being a sculptor. For me, this was better than beautifying an ugly face by representing a dictatorship.
It was not so hard to find a job – any job – to survive. My neighbourhood, which was popular and in the heart of old Baghdad, had hundreds of blacksmiths’ workshops. I went to Uncle Abraham, the most famous smith in the market, who was sympathetic and helpful to me. I learned the skills of a smith swiftly and used my artistic creativity to develop new designs. When I used these instead of the traditional forms which had been around for ages, I broke the deadlock all over the market. Smiths started passing through our alley every morning just to take a look at my work. My designs became the new style in the market. They called me Ahmed the Surrealist. I specialized in manufacturing the main gates of buildings; not just because the clients paid generously for them, but because I could easily read the characters of my customers and turn them into design forms and put them on their gates or the facades of their buildings.
‘But now, no more of this,’ I thought. ‘From now on I will have the chance to represent my own character, my own feelings. I will show my own face, not theirs’.’
Sunlight started to fill the room. I left my bed and looked out of the window. Nobody was in the alley yet. Many people that I knew had left the neighbourhood for other, safer places. I hoped they would return gradually when they heard the news and we would celebrate the end of this war together. I looked at the tall lonely date palm surrounded by the old stone jungle. It was as if it didn’t belong there, or had grown up by mistake and stayed alive for many years, growing without hope. But maybe it was born to be here, and only here; to witness, to hear, to breathe, to suffer and to dream about another world, even if only on the last day of its life. To challenge by staying alive.
I felt I should go out to see what was going on. I walked from alley to alley but saw nobody, so I decided to go to the workshop. When I opened it there was dust everywhere. It had been closed for more than a month. I looked around at the tools hanging up. ‘Soon I will be able to apply for a job, join the arts department in the Ministry and say goodbye to this life,’ I told myself, and I took a chair, wiped the dust from it, put it in front of the workshop and sat. Soon I saw Uncle Abraham walking toward the workshop. We embraced: I gave him my chair and brought another for myself.
‘At last we will breathe freedom,’ I said.
‘Is that what you think?’ said Uncle Abraham.
‘I don’t think anyone would disagree,’ I said. ‘What do you think?’
‘We were prisoners in our own jail, but from now on we will be prisoners in another; the foreigners’ jail. There is no freedom to be breathed, son.’
‘Come on, Uncle, please, stop analysing everything according to your conspiracy theory. Think positive. Do you remember how the Americans rebuilt Al Kuwait after liberating it? They returned the electric power within a week!’
‘One week?’ he said. ‘OK, that’s not long. Let’s wait and see who’s thinking in the right direction. By the way, I bought an electric generator for the workshop. Sooner or later customers will return to the market. We’ll need electric power to serve them.’
‘I hope that wasn’t a bad decision. For me, I’m planning to visit the culture and arts ministry to apply for a job again. I don’t think they can refuse me now.’
‘If you’re looking for success, you already have it,’ he said. ‘You know that you’re the artist of this market. But if you’re looking for a new start in another place, I wish you the best.’
‘I need to find myself,’ I said.
‘We will all need to find ourselves soon.’
I preferred not to understand him. His words were killing my hope.
‘I saw a crowd gathering in front of the left gate of Republic Palace,’ he said. ‘You know where? Beside the planning ministry. I think they’re applying for jobs.’
‘Thank you for telling me. I’ll go immediately.’
‘Do you want my car?’ he said. ‘You won’t find any taxis. You know all the fuel stations are still closed.’
‘No, thank you, I prefer to walk. It’s not far.’
‘Take care, son.’
I walked quickly, taking a shortcut, threading the alleys until I reached the wide Abu Saifan Shrine passage. It was nearly empty too. I don’t know why my feet slowed as I neared the shrine, as if I was seeing it for the first time. I walked to its closed gate, grabbed the ancient handle and looked at the dusty words engraved on the wall above. I closed my eyes. There was a scent coming from the shrine which I hadn’t smelled before. It really is a strange city: there is no limit to life or death, where the dead and living have shared the same space for hundreds of years. But why is that? What were the circumstances that led to such intertwining? Maybe there was no intertwining at all? – for many believe that the righteous live another kind of life in their graves. But what kind of righteous man had Abu Saifan, ‘The Man with Two Swords’, been? I didn’t know. Was he one of the knights who had fought for freedom? The iron clanking, the noise of hammers and the sound of the forge, echoing the clamour of war, had meant something to him which I wouldn’t understand. That’s why he was here in the iron market. I hoped he was like us and smelled freedom too. I raised my hands to my face, mumbled Al Fatiha for his soul, and left.
The roads became wider and wider as I left the capillaries of the tired Baghdad heart. There were few cars but many pedestrians in Al Jumhoria, now Republic Road. The cars were full of families returning to their homes, luggage on top of their cars. The pedestrians were acting strangely; aimless, looking in all directions, as if searching for something they didn’t recognise or seeing Baghdad for the first time.
I kept walking straight, passing through Al Shorjah, the main wholesale market. The shops were still closed. When I passed the Caliph’s Mosque, I saw an American tank for the first time. It cut across the road like a huge brown stone, close to Al Wathba roundabout. The soldier sitting on top was completely covered except for his white cheeks. He wore sunglasses and a helmet on his head, a thick vest on his chest and had something at his mouth. He kept talking and smiling. Maybe that was a mobile phone, something prohibited by our wise past leadership?
I was wondering which way I should go to reach the Republic Palace, when the main gate of the Electricity Distribution Corporation building suddenly opened. The building was across the road, directly in front of me. Many people started to emerge, carrying the company’s instruments, tools and furniture. That was all Saddam has left for us; the criminals he’d released just before the outbreak of the war, to destroy the few of us remaining who he couldn’t destroy himself.
I stared at the solider on the tank, hoping that he would react and stop this farce. But nothing happened.
But what did I expect him to do, run them over with his tank, or shoot them? He was probably calling whoever was responsible for catching them and putting them in jail again. These people were very organised.
I thought I’d have to use the nearest shortcut to avoid the tank and save time, so I started walking through the alleys behind Caliph’s Mosque, passing through the Al Dahana neighbourhood. When I reached the Mosque of the Crucifixion, I saw some of Saddam’s commandos from one of his private armies, the ‘Sacrificers’, at the bottom of one of the dead-end alleys. They sat together, palms on the mouths of their guns, chins on their hands, looking into each others’ faces, trying to understand what kind of hopeless calamity had targeted them and how big it was, only their sad eyes speaking. Maybe it was their final farewell before they disappeared. They were like a granite monument, a statue, with their black suits, as if they didn’t care about the few passers-by like me.
I kept walking, full of hope for a better tomorrow. Their sorrow was false and cheap.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Al Sadrya Market road was open. Passing through Al Wathba roundabout I saw the same thing; bandits carrying stolen luggage, walking in front of the tanks which spread onto the Republic Road. The soldier in the nearest tank was also talking, talking on a phone.
‘This is the least that might happen in such circumstances,’ I told myself, ‘but surely the US army will stop the looting soon?’
My feet were sore as I crossed the Liberals Bridge – Stanley Maude Bridge during the British occupation. Why had they changed the name of the bridge and left the name of the next roundabout as King Faisal the First, though he couldn’t have been king without the help of the British? I didn’t understand this city; there were no limitations or distances … but what about the Americans who had just saved us from the injustice of the Saddam regime? Maybe they wouldn’t stay long, but they would help us to build and rename.
As I approached the Republic Palace I heard yelling behind me. When I turned, I saw four or five armed men in civilian dress. They carried their guns aloft in one hand like Rambo, swearing and spitting on the returning civilian cars, chanting one word loud: ‘Traitors, traitors, traitors!’
Their accents were not Iraqi: they were the Arabic volunteer fighters who came just before the outbreak of the war. I guessed that soon they would tire of spitting and go back where they came from.
The Freedom Bridge and Planning Ministry were damaged, but what arrested my attention were the huge gates of the Republic Palace: open for the first time in my life.
Near the gate people gathered beside a long table on the walkway. There were three or four American soldiers sitting on the far side of the table.
This must have been what Uncle Abraham saw this morning. I decided that I’d better join them and find out what was happening.
Crossing the first lane of the road, my attention was caught by something on the middle island: piles of soil surrounded by short wooden wedges and barbed wire gathering them together like a circle. These words were badly hand-written on a piece of cardboard fixed on the barbed wire: THE MARTYRS OF THE REPUBLIC PALACE BATTLE.
So, here lay those who had preferred to die, rather than escape like the others, in the last few minutes of what they’d thought they were protecting: freedom. In the end they’d just deceived themselves. Poor guys.
After two hours waiting with the group while the soldiers sat in silence, I began to feel thirsty, and guilty. I didn’t like to stand with my back to the dead soldiers when their blood wasn’t yet dry.
Then a soldier came from inside the building and whispered in the ear of one of the sitting Americans. The seated soldier stood immediately.
I was very surprised when he started talking to us in a clear Iraqi accent: ‘Please brothers, what we need today is translators, so if any one of you feels that he can do that work, stand to the right. For the rest of you, we are very sorry. Come tomorrow and there may be other jobs available.’
I had to find someone inside who might help me. It was better than returning empty-handed, so I stood on the right.
Inside one of the palace halls there were many military officers who started interviewing us immediately. My English was terrible, but I managed to explain that I’d graduated as a sculptor but had been denied employment because I hadn’t joined the regime’s Ba’ath party.
He was very sympathetic, but sorry because it was too early to decide about these things: some of the institutions, he said, would be shut down, like the Iraqi army, Internal Security offices, Military, Industry, and Culture and Arts ministries, as many of their staff were still loyal to the old regime. But in the meantime I was welcome to work as a translator, if I wanted, for the US troops.
On my way out I stared at the big iron spears on top of the palace gate, pointing upward to the sky, like an old battalion pulling out and leaving the battlefield. I felt I knew nothing about this city where I had lived all the days of my life.
Making my way back, I stood again in front of the piles of soil where the soldiers lay in their final rest, my fingers grasping the barbed wire. This is what has always happened in Baghdad over the centuries; limits disappearing suddenly, perhaps for a reason, perhaps not.
I raised my hands to my face, reciting Al Fatiha for their souls, and went away.
Kusay Hussein is a writer and civil engineer from Baghdad, Iraq. He escaped to the UK in 2006 and lives in Scotland. He writes in English in collaboration with Sue Reid Sexton. They are now co-writing a novel. One of his stories was read in the Scottish Parliament in 2008.
Sue Reid Sexton is the author of Mavis’s Shoe, a novel about a young girl’s experience of bombing. She lives in Glasgow but escapes whenever she can. She led a previous existence as a psychotherapist and another working with homeless teenagers. She believes the world is made of stories, not atoms.