A Child Playing Between Checkpoints

By HOMOUD ALSHAIYJE
Translated from the Arabic by NARIMAN YOUSSEF

We were happy children. Fear didn’t stop us from doing what we wanted whenever we wanted. The clock had no place in our daily lives, as long as we were armed by play and by the secret weapon of Allah y-saʿdak, that Iraqi phrase that we used as a password to keep the soldiers at bay.

But when it came to rescuing me from the claws of a heart sickness that sent me to the hospital, twenty-nine years after the invasion, the password didn’t work. In truth, I don’t know what struck me. It seemed that my heart could no longer contain the force of all the memories of the days of the invasion, when I was a nine-year-old who spent most of his time playing football or riding a bicycle. The stream of images pushed my heart rate to over 160 irregular beats per minute. As doctors struggled to figure out the reason, I myself was certain of it.

Should I write the story down? The answer was immediate: If the flashbacks don’t destroy me, I’ll share them. Otherwise, I’ll be buried with them. Reaching that decision quietened the flashbacks and put some distance between me and the defibrillator.

 

Thursday, August 2, 1990

My brother and I used to compete over who got up first on Thursday mornings. There would usually be some leftovers from the previous night’s catch, and since the catch was never plentiful, the earlier bird got the worm. I had won that day, or thought I had. On other Thursdays, either Abdallah or I was up before everyone else, so the winner got to be alone with his prize, but that day I was surprised to see my mother quietly preparing breakfast. “Is it Thursday?” I asked. But it didn’t matter. I just wanted to grab my food and sit in front of the TV to watch my cartoons.

Instead of cartoons, there was a photograph of a man I didn’t know, a man in a suit with a thick moustache, smiling, and some fireworks behind him. I was upset by the absence of my cartoons and didn’t hide it. When I asked my mother what was happening, she replied with words I didn’t understand: invasion, occupation.

One week into the invasion, the invader had retracted the intention to retreat and I had learned the meaning of invasion and occupation. I watched the meaning on TV and saw it in the faces of the soldiers who carried weapons like Rambo’s. But to be inside an experience is not the same as being outside it. The black metal of their guns was in itself a source of terror, a kind of direct threat I hadn’t known before, a threat that could snatch you away from this life in a moment, or snatch someone you love away from you.

Then it was party time! I was over the moon when we moved from our house in the newer district of Al-Qarin, which still lacked in services and communication, to the home of Baba Yaqoub, my maternal grandfather. But the excitement didn’t last. My grandfather’s house wasn’t as fun as it had usually been. There were some laughing and singing faces, but there were also tears that weren’t explained to us. Everything was set up to be fun, but seemed to happen without much joy. As far as we kids were aware, the gunfire was fireworks, a bomb explosion was a soda can that was set on fire with the garbage by mistake.

 

Thursday, September 27, 1990

Baba Jaber was on TV. Everyone was frozen in place, watching. Grandpa wasn’t with the others. I sneaked into his room to look for him and found him frozen like everyone else in front of his personal TV, looking at the floor while his ears took in the words: “I bring to you the message of a peace-loving nation ….”

The late emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad managed to steal the world’s hearts, not just the hearts of his own people. The applause that followed his speech and the tears as he spoke shook my grandfather’s body. My mouth was dry.

Grandpa wiped his tears with his palms more than once. I felt lost. Do I throw myself into his arms, or do I back away like I haven’t seen a thing?

 

Lost time and a secret password

Mohammad and Abdallah: I first met them at the mosque. Mohammad wasn’t from my grandfather’s freej but from a nearby neighborhood. Abdallah, who shared a name with my brother, lived two houses down from Grandpa’s, in the same freej.

Football had brought us together in the sandy courtyard in front of Baba Yaqoub’s house. We played there from the moment we woke until the sun went down. Then we moved to Mohammad’s place, rode our bikes, and played on the swings in their front yard until the dawn prayer.

That was our daily routine: me, my brother Abdallah, and our friends Mohammad and Abdallah. Even my little brother Fahd, barely two years old, would sometimes join us. This routine was interrupted only by occasional chores, like having to stand in line outside the bakery to get our rations of bread. We went together to make sure we got enough to last our families for several days. Nobody knew when a bread shortage might hit.

Our routine wasn’t arbitrary either. Its objective was to have constant movement between our homes throughout the night. That was agreed by the neighborhood’s men and supported by its women. Even our gathering at Mohammad’s place had a reason, which was to protect his father, who had changed his name to hide his military identity. We didn’t tell our friend Mohammad that we knew that.

There was a knock at his gate one day: an Iraqi man in civil clothing, a white cotton suit, distinguished by a thick black moustache, two soldiers behind him. He asked for Anwar, and we answered in unison that there was no Anwar at the house. He nodded. Then Mohammad’s father came out and also denied knowing Anwar. Mohammad’s father, Anwar, held a high rank in the Kuwaiti military, which put him on the Iraqi wanted list, but he had managed to disguise himself with a beard and intentional weight gain.

The magic words Allah y-saʿdak were the talisman we used to face Iraqi soldiers and their weapons, as we moved back and forth between my grandfather’s freej and Mohammad’s, and whenever we passed the school, where the roof was taken over by a bunch of soldiers who monitored every movement on the ground and in the sky, aided by an antiaircraft gun.

Not a day went by without our greeting the soldiers, whether or not they noticed us passing. If they happened to be distracted by anything else, we yelled at them with the giddiness of childhood: Allah y-saʿdak!

 

The honey of Al-Aqsa Market

Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa Street is the road that separates the neighborhoods of Salwa and Rumaithiya. The stalls and floor spreads were laid out at regular intervals along the sidewalks, run by vendors of many nationalities. These spreads were a sort of daily marketplace where we used to find everything we could think of and then some.

The market people were ordered to make all transactions in Iraqi dinar, and incidents of extortion, particularly committed by the soldiers, were not uncommon. One Kuwaiti dinar was worth five or six Iraqi, but Iraqi soldiers claimed both were equal. They used their currency for buying, then sold the same goods back to other stalls in the Kuwaiti currency, sometimes even back to the same stall, with recourse to their black weapons to seal the deal.

Everyone met in that market: friends, enemies, and the soldiers who controlled the checkpoints along the long road, as well as relatives and neighbors we had lost contact with and found again at one of the market spreads. But the market didn’t just bring people together; it also helped set them apart.

My uncle, my father, and I roamed the market looking for honey. I didn’t know why until we were back at my grandfather’s house. Everyone sat in the kitchen, their eyes fixed on my uncle, my maternal aunt’s husband, as he rubbed his national ID and his passport with honey, in order to erase some of the data that betrayed his having been an officer in the air force. He had decided to depart with my aunt and cousins to Saudi Arabia, insisting that his being here put him and everyone else in danger.

The operation was successful. The data vanished from his papers, as did he and my aunt and cousins from our lives.

 

The night before Monday, December 3, 1990

My grandfather’s health deteriorated. Worrying about everyone weakened his already fragile heart. One of my aunts was due to give birth any day. No one knew where or how she would do it.

The question of leaving Kuwait was raised and caused discord between those in the family who supported the idea and those who opposed it, which escalated to an argument so vicious it nearly turned physical before it was agreed not to discuss it again until further notice. The argument scared the children. It was bad enough to feel unsafe outside the house, but feeling unsafe at home was a whole other matter. That was the first time I felt that the invasion had entered our home and went for things I considered sacred. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted someone to make it stop. My grandfather was the one who declared the question postponed, but it was agreed that the postponement was conditional on nothing happening that might force everyone to leave.

No one knew how soon such a force would come. On the afternoon of December 2, we were out with my mom, and on the way back she decided to fill her car with petrol. A soldier stopped us at the entrance of the gas station and asked Mom why she hadn’t changed her car’s license plate to an Iraqi one. When he told her that cars carrying the Kuwaiti number plates weren’t allowed to refuel, she lost it and yelled at him, “I’m not changing my license plate even if I have to use water instead of gas.”

This unexpected escalation settled the issue for Grandpa. He made the decision on everyone’s behalf: we were leaving Kuwait to avoid further complications, which would largely consist of the consequences of my mom losing her temper at every checkpoint.

Grandpa’s decision was final and wasn’t discussed. Preparations began. The women of the house had to gather all the gold jewelry they owned, and pack clothes and some food. The men had the somewhat odd task of removing the tires from the cars that we were leaving behind and hiding them in hard-to-reach parts of the house, a mission that took time and effort. Then came the task of finding hiding places for the jewelry in the cars we were taking. Someone had the clever idea of putting them inside the doors and seats. All tasks were completed two hours before the dawn prayer. Then everyone went off to make the most of their last hours in Kuwait. Once the prayer was over, we were all in the cars, except Grandpa, who was the last one out of his house. He locked the door, walked to his car, placed his heart medicine under his tongue, and drove off. We followed in the second car.

 

The savior ghorayyeba

The road was familiar to me. It was the same one we took to the beach chalet, and the same we took last year to drive to Saudi, then Bahrain and Dubai. Same road but different emotions and so many “I don’t knows” to every one of my questions: Where are we going? When will we go back? Until the stern reply came: “Be quiet.” I kept my questions to myself.

My mother shut me up because she wanted to focus on what was going on. My grandfather’s car, which was ahead of us, had come to a stop at an Iraqi checkpoint. And we had to stop too. “Iraqi control,” said my maternal uncle who, at only fifteen, was driving our car. Women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi, so my mother couldn’t drive, and my father had severe eyesight problems. My youngest uncle was our best bet.

For three hours, no one moved. The cars were ordered to stay put, and no one knew what they could face if they disobeyed. Our eyes—my uncle’s, my brothers’, and mine—clung to the road in the direction of the chalet. I think the images that ran through our heads were the same: playing football on the beach, swimming in the sea, barbecue parties, music and dancing. We might have all been remembering our last evening in the chalet, one week before the invasion, and the irony of us dancing hysterically to a song by Kadim al-Saher that went, “I crossed the sea for you.”

The flow of images in my head was interrupted by a soldier tapping on our car’s window with the tip of his index finger and, without talking, pointing to the back left tire. My uncle and my dad got out of the car to look. When my other uncle got out of the other car to help, the soldier barked at him, “Go back!” My uncle explained he was with us and wanted to help. We all got out of the car with our belongings, only leaving behind the carefully stashed gold.

The tire was fixed without trouble, and everyone got back in. Then we noticed that a soldier was talking to someone in the backseat of my grandfather’s car. Worry and suspicion suffocated us. We couldn’t read what was going on. My grandmother’s arm extended with a box she had filled with ghorayyeba cookies; the soldier declined. He was talking to Mama Asseela then, my kind, peaceful grandma. “Amany’s dowry,” she hissed. She meant Aunt Amany’s jewelry, which was hidden under two layers of cookies. The exchange between my grandmother and the soldier seemed to go on for a long time. My mother wondered if Grandma was actually bargaining with the jewelry of my bride aunt, who had been barely out of her honeymoon when the invasion hit.

Finally, the soldier pointed at us, nodded a few times, and put a wad of banknotes in his pocket. Grandpa’s car, with Aunt Amany’s jewelry intact, moved out of the long line. The soldier signaled to my uncle, who was paralyzed by fear, to do the same. The two cars set off at a slow pace until we were past the checkpoint.

The next checkpoint was at the Nuwaisab fire station. The cars were searched and all our Kuwaiti papers confiscated. Even the license plates were removed and destroyed. They wanted us to be without any identification or identity. But we were well prepared with copies of our documents that we’d hidden with the gold.

We did everything as they asked. Then everyone got back in the car. I didn’t, at the time, understand the silence that had descended. The next stop was going to be at the border checkpoint that would take us from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia. The sound of heartbeats in the car got heavier, and the December cold turned into an inexplicable heat.

Not long after, two soldiers stood in the middle of the road and signaled to us to stop. My grandfather’s car stopped, and ours behind it. One of the soldiers was speaking to my grandfather and uncle, apparently giving them instructions. Then the other made a hand signal like he was asking for cigarettes, and they shook their heads.

The car started moving, and, unwisely, my younger uncle moved our car to follow without waiting for the soldiers’ permission. They shouted at him and we stopped. My grandfather stopped too and got out of his car, his eyes on us. One of the soldiers waved at him to go back, and when he didn’t, the soldier shouted with his weapon aimed at my young uncle. No one breathed. There was no strength left in us for inhaling and exhaling. My grandfather got back into his car. The soldier asked my uncle for cigarettes, and everyone expected my uncle to reply that he didn’t smoke. But instead, he fished out some cigarettes and gave them to the soldier, outing himself to the family as a smoker for the first time.

The soldier’s face lit up, and he started repeating the instructions that were given to the other car: We were approaching a road that was full of ditches, so we had to drive slowly. When we encountered a ditch, we had to get off the shoulder of the road, but not drive too deeply into the desert, because there were landmines.

The first ditch appeared, and we had to swerve into the desert. The moment the car tires touched the sand, my uncle yelled out, “We’ve been blown up!” We laughed out of fear. An invasion-induced habit. For the rest of the road, every time we came upon a ditch and turned into the desert, we shouted, “We’ve been blown up! We’ve been blown up!” Our laughter was from the heart.

 

Homoud Alshaiyje is a poet, novelist, and journalist from Kuwait. Born in 1981, he used to work in a diplomatic capacity at Kuwait’s embassy in Belgrade, and is currently an editor at the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA). He has published a number of books and is a regular columnist for the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida and, before that, Al-Qabas. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Kuwait University.

Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born literary translator and translation consultant based in London.

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A Child Playing Between Checkpoints

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