I turned to the left, to the biggest window in the classroom. The strong Scottish wind was slapping the tall proud trees and leaving them reeling, their branches swaying in all directions like Arabic women mourning someone dear. The panicked birds were drifting at random in the middle of the cruel gusts, struggling to fly away from their threatened nests.
Who can give me an example about how psychological trauma affects a person's health in the term of health models? the teacher said. Nobody answered. OK, I'll give you an example. One day when I returned home from college, my mum told me that she was worried about my little brother. She was not sure that he had spent the previous night in his bed. When I entered his room later, I discovered that he had hung himself in his cupboard.
He continued, ignoring the students’ astonished sighs; I kept crying for days, staying in bed, avoiding my friends and missing college, and so, such trauma led to a nervous breakdown or collapse and affected my behaviour, in other words, my behaviour model.
I felt that everything stopped at that moment, even the storm, and that another storm had broken inside me. There was something stronger than a rope around my neck, choking me, pulling me far back to Baghdad.
* * *
I woke up earlier that morning with a strange taste in my mouth. The dust was everywhere inside the house, on the floor, the furniture and the beds, as it was one of the many dusty days of summer. Footprints were everywhere on the floor. I didn't find any water in the tap to wash my face, as usual, so I took a plastic bucket and went out to the old reserve water tank in the back yard. I walked to it down the narrow path formed amongst the thistles that grew there and opened the lid, but I didn't find any water there either. I returned with my empty bucket and some injuries on my naked calves. When I entered I saw my mother carrying a small bowl of water. I followed her to the kitchen and washed my face in the kitchen sink. I reached for the towel but she was faster. She took it from the hanger and handed it to me. I stared at her in surprise.
She said:- Your wife told me yesterday.
Me:- I do not have any choice, Mum. I have been jobless for 2 years.
She:- This does not mean that you must expose yourself to the risk of working in the US bases. Be patient: you may find a job in the near future.
Me:- I'm not going to lose the chance this time, even if the workplace is hell. And I'm not going to participate in any of new political parties of today in order to get an official job.
She:- You have a son, a family, you must take care of yourself because of them.
Me:- There isn’t a single Dinar in the house today. (2000 Dinar = 1 pound) How can I take care of you or my family?
She removed the gold ring from her finger and gave it to me.
Me:- Mum, that will not solve the problem.
She: – You are going to create a worse problem, son. I prefer to die starving than you hurt yourself.
At that moment my 3 year-old son, Omar, entered the kitchen, running to his grandmother. She held him, kissed him and lifted him up while still looking at me. I avoided her eye and left to get dressed. I hurried to avoid further discussion. When I reached the main gate I saw my wife carrying my son. Her eyes were begging me. I took my son from her, kissed him and opened the main gate. I took two steps and stood on the walkway. I was very confused.
I was sinking into my thoughts when a voice lifted me up. It was my neighbour's voice.
Sadik, waving:- Good morning, Abu Umar.
Me:- Good morning, Sadik.
Just like me he was carrying his son, Montathar. He put him in the front seat of his official minibus then he got in and drove the short distance between our houses. He stopped beside me. The bus window was open, maybe since the day before, and dust had filled the inside of the bus. Our kids were smiling at each other.
Sadik:- I couldn't sleep yesterday at all, either choking or sneezing all night. You know about my chronic sinusitis. I don't think I can go to my office today but I have to drop Montathar at his nursery now. Are you going anywhere?
Me:- I have to go to the city centre to do some shopping
Sadik:- You don't need to go this early. Get in. I will drop you at the main road.
I returned my son to his mum, closed the door and took my place behind the driver's seat.
Sadik:- Did you find a job yet?
Me:- Not yet.
Him:- As I told you, there’s no need to bother yourself by going on searching with no result. My offer still stands. Remember: such chances will not last forever.
Me:- You mean by joining one of parties?
Him:- Like thousands of people who are doing it now. You don't have to do anything. I can help you to join the same party I joined. Then you will receive a letter confirming that you were persecuted or discriminated against by Saddam's regime. You will get a job the week after. So simple, isn't it?
Me:- You know that I never joined the only party that was allowed before and I cannot join any party now. Believe me, I cannot.
Him:- I understand you. But such a decision will not feed your family. You can't even pay the nursery fees for your son. That's why you kept him at home this month too.
Me:- Thank you for your advice. It's not a decision. I'm just not able to.
Him:- Well, I didn't expect that I would ever join a party. It has become one of the necessities of life now. This is what I call ‘riding the wave’. Remember, the vacancies are decreasing day by day and soon my advice won't be worth anything.
Then he turned to me for two seconds and said: We didn't have any choices before; we don't have any now either. I couldn't see the expression in his eyes through his old thick rectangular glasses, but his smile was pale like the dust on his face.
I took a deep breath, filled my chest with the dusty air and raised my face to the sky, the pale deprived sky, searching for the face of the defeated sun which was shamed and hidden. Who could believe that its wild burning whips can disappear just like that because of tiny grains raised by strangers’ feet?
The slow old minibus stopped near the nursery. We couldn't get any closer because a lot of concrete barriers had been put randomly about.
Suddenly: we were shocked by a number of masked armed men who surrounded the minibus and pointed their guns at us. I turned back quickly and saw two new grey BMW cars stopping behind our minibus and cutting off the road. The bus door was kicked open by one of the gunmen. He put a gun to Sadik's head, pulled out the car keys and shouted:- Get out now, traitors!
Montathar started to cry, jumped into his dad’s arms and hid his face in his chest. I couldn't stand up; my feet were nailed to the floor. Then the gunman pulled me by my shirt and kicked me towards the door, and then did the same to Sadik. They dragged us towards one of the barriers that formed a half circle around us and kept looking in all directions. I started to feel dizzy when one of them searched Sadik's pockets. He took Sadik's mobile. When he turned to me, one of them said from behind: He is his neighbour, Abu Umar. I thought I’d heard this voice before.
They tore Montathar from his dad's arms and threw him to me. I held his small shaking body. He started shouting to his dad. Sadik and I stared at each other. His eyes, hidden behind the thick, wet and dirty glasses, expressed something I couldn't understand. His trembling lips whispered something I couldn't hear. The grains of dust became another concrete barrier, but between us. Time cracked into many fragments and stopped moving.
I was kicked from behind by one of the masked men. He said:- Take this dirty pimp away.
My feet started to run fast towards the nursery. I heard Sadik shouting: Somebody help me! They will kill me, Abu Umar! Abu Umar! I didn't answer him but entered by the nursery's main door and threw myself on the floor, still holding his screaming kid. He asked me:- Where is Dad?
Then I heard two gun shots.
Time, which had stopped, began to move again, in circles, repeating to me what had happened. I was wondering how to escape such a world, even how I could lose consciousness, but no, it was not the time.
I saw hands approaching Montathar's body and raised my face. They were the teacher’s hands, her face amongst several of the other silent, distraught and drawn faces of the female nursery staff. She said:- Give me the poor child.
She took him immediately while I was still holding him. She was trying to do something to help but I felt like I had lost the excuse or justification to be there. I stood up, supporting my back against the wall, then walked slowly to the main gate where one of the staff gave me an old piece of cloth and said:- Cover him.
When I was on the road I turned right towards the concrete barriers, to Sadik or to his body. I saw my footprints on the dusty pavement. I went to him slowly on the same footprints as if walking in a minefield, or amongst thistles. I looked at him: there were two shots, one in his heart and the other in his head. He was still wearing his dirty glasses. There was a long line of blood which was mixed with the grains of dust and starting to dry. I touched his wrist. There was no pulse. I covered him with the piece of cloth but left his face exposed. I was trying to say something to him but I remembered that the time for words was over. I thought, maybe now is the time to cry, but I couldn’t. There was something inside myself strangling it.
His brother appeared suddenly from behind the concrete barriers. It seems that he came running from his house using the short cut. He threw himself on his brother’s body, yelling and crying. Then the rest of his family came, running, breathing fast. They gathered around his body, checking him, crying and slapping their faces. His mother fell to the ground. She started to put the dust from the ground onto her head and said to Sadik in a loud crying voice:- Am I your enemy? I'm your mother, Sadik! I'm your mother! When I told you to return this piece of junk, (she meant the minibus) you didn't pay attention. This is what you get for helping people. Where were they when you were lying on the road? Who protected you? I'm your mother, Sadik ................... . At that, my thoughts took me back like a wild horse.
As usual: We started to collect the many empty gas cylinders. Sadik had told our neighbours to put them in front of their gates in the morning and I was helping him to roll them and put them inside his minibus in order to exchange them for filled cylinders at the fuel station. Omar and Montathar were sitting in the first seat playing together with their toys. Sadik and I kept talking and laughing while steel cylinders kept knocking each other, making a noise like a Chinese festival.
Then he said, joking:- What if a fake police control stopped us now? What should we do?
Me, laughing:- Pray our last prayers!
Him:- Come on, guess.
Me:- What do you want me to say?
Him:– If they are a Shi-ite military group they will leave us because I will give them my ID. And if they are Sunni they will leave us because you will give them yours. He laughed.
Me:- But how will you know whether they are Sunni or Shi-ite? Sadik, you are pure stupid.
But I laughed too.
Our frantic neighbours started to appear one by one. Someone who had arrived by car went quickly to the mosque and brought the old white-wood coffin which was used for everyone for free. When his family saw the coffin they started to cry with one loud voice. We helped each other to put him in the coffin. His drops of red blood merged with the dry black ones on the bottom of the coffin, then we raised it up and put it on top of one of the neighbour's cars. We headed to Yarmuk hospital to get a death certificate.
There were two long parallel barriers in front of the main entrance. The policemen asked us to unload the coffin and take the car back because there was no place inside for it. They searched the coffin for bombs, then allowed us to enter.
There was a great mass of blood and a bad smell, and uncovered bodies were everywhere on the floor in the emergency waiting hall. Sadik’s brother and I left to find someone for information. We found a nurse in the corridor.
Sadik’s brother:- My brother has just been killed.
He couldn’t go on because he had started crying. I began to talk on his behalf about how to issue a death certificate.
Nurse:– You have to go first to the police department to determine the cause of death, then to the morgue and then come back tomorrow to …
She was interrupted by Sadik’s brother who was shouting:- I'm not going to leave him here ...
Nurse:- Why? The electricity is 100% 24 hours in the morgue. He will be safe.
Him:- I want my brother now. Tomorrow means one month ...
Nurse:- He will not be killed again.
Then I interrupted, saying to the nurse:- Please, we have a long journey to Al Najaf. We don't have time and you know the roads will close at 6 clock so … how much?
Nurse:- How much what ?
Me:- How much will it cost us to have the death certificate now?
Nurse:- 100 Dollars. I have to pay many people. You will see everything. But you will be lucky if we can make it in one hour.
I was thinking it would be a much better way than someone who is killed far from his family, spends couple of weeks in the morgue, then gets buried in an unknown grave with many of the bodies that surrounded us.
When we got out of the hospital carrying the coffin, there were several of the neighbour’s cars waiting. The sad procession moved to Sadik's house for the final farewell.
We took the same road as in the morning. I remembered our conversation and looked at the car roof where Sadik's new place now was. How could I tell him that we were the same now, no longer taking care of our children, but were we the same? I felt a couple of tears on my cheek, so I wiped them fast because it was not a suitable time to break down.
There were many people standing in front of Sadik's house, the rest of his family, his parents, relatives and neighbours. Many hands reached for the coffin before the car had even stopped. They untied the rope and carried the coffin inside the house in only seconds. The people stood handing the coffin from one to another; there was no space to walk. The women started to yell with such loud voices! I felt very tired so I sat on the curb stone. There were many armed men amongst his relatives.
One of his brothers started to yell in the middle of the road: What did we do? Did we hurt any one here? Tell me!
There was a silence as if we were afraid to disturb the birds.
He went on: They phoned us now to tell us to leave the house, like they’re not satisfied with killing my brother. Did we hurt any body? Please, somebody, tell me! We don't know where to go!
He was talking to the Sunni majority in our neighbourhood. Then they gathered around him and tried to calm him with promises of protection. They started immediately to bring out their old barrels, cut tree trunks and big stones to put as barriers in the middle of the roads leading to our neighbourhood.
The mosque was calling for the noon prayer as the coffin was put back on top of one of cars; the women’s voices had dried in their throats and they cried then without a voice. I was trying to get into one of the cars when his brother told me: We may stay the night in Najaf. The road will be cut off soon and we need you here to help with setting up the condolences tent. The procession left in a hurry because they had to travel about seventy miles from Baghdad to reach the Najaf cemetery, the biggest cemetery in the world.
I thought that it was better for me to pray in the mosque then. At least there was a chance of finding some water.
I was coming back after the prayer ended when a brand new car stopped beside me. It was X's car.
X:- Get in, I will drop you near your home
When I got in beside him I started to feel very tired.
Me:- I have to help Sadik's family. Poor Sadik. I think you heard.
X:- You are the poor one. You don't know anything. You were two feet from death because of a person like Sadik. You don’t know anything about Sadik's participation in one of the parties, one which is a creature of the occupation.
I felt like my tongue was freezing in my mouth. I couldn't say anything to him.
When we reached my home he said:- Our neighbourhood will be safe, don't worry.
I was confused and trembling in such dusty roasting weather. I asked myself: Who is killing the people when everyone claims protection? I think that Sadik's mistake was to work for someone who works for the occupation, but for me, I will work for the occupation itself and, of course, I will keep my own secret. My mouth will shut tight and my tongue will freeze over.
The strong, Scottish wind still blew the birds about. Some of the students started to yawn when the teacher said:- The last subject now, before we leave, is the religious model.