An Appointment in Samarra

By ANNA BADKHEN

 

In the early morning, when pink Oklahoma dawn crept over the sturdy single-family bungalows and strip malls, Abu Khaled al Shimeri wrapped his left arm around the taut belly of his pregnant wife, Fatima, and had a troubled dream.

A dimly lit maze of unpaved streets ended in front of a tall limestone wall. The sky above the wall was luminescent blue, but no sunshine reached the crepuscular base where he was standing barefoot. Behind the wall were the sacred streets of al Quds. Abu Khaled knew that the gilded dome of al Aqsa Mosque was only a few hundred paces away. He could hear a busy market on the other side, peddlers hawking live chickens and honey, women bargaining over the price of lamb. But no matter how hard he looked, he could not see a gate, not even a crack in the wall through which he could squeeze his wilting, middle-aged body.

“God!” he pleaded. “Please let me into the blessed city!”

But instead of a reply, he heard gunshots, and the sandstone wall before him became black. He wanted to run away, but the darkened maze of narrow streets from which he had come also became black, and then the metallic smell of blood came from everywhere. Then, suddenly, he was in a huge hangar with corrugated tin walls, like the one that housed Mike’s Tire on Route 64, where he was a technician and purchasing agent. Abu Khaled recognized the engine fluid stains on the floor, the one at the entrance shaped like the Lion of Babylon. All the shop equipment had been pushed up against the walls, alignment lifts and wheel balancers and hose reels, and right before him, in a white armchair with gilded lion-claw legs, sat Abu Hamza al Ani, Fatima’s uncle. There were two men next to him: a young one who looked like Mikey from the tire shop, fingering the buttons of a video camera nervously, the way some men would fiddle with a set of prayer beads, and an old one who looked like Big Mike and who held in his lap a box like a jeweler’s case, except instead of diadems and tiaras the box held scalpels and pincers and pliers. Abu Khaled wanted to scream, but his breath was frozen in his chest. He buried his face in his hands and heard his own voice starting a prayer: “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.”

Abu Khaled woke up with a jolt and panting, checked his wristwatch: six-thirty in the morning. He drew his sleeping wife closer and whispered in her ear: “My dear. Shall I make you some tea?”

Fatima, his exquisite jasmine petal. She could trace her ancestors all the way back to the Abbasid kings, and she spoke like a poet. She had a double master’s degree in fine arts and philosophy from the University of Baghdad, and wrote calligraphy with long, delicate, almost translucent fingers. Although they were distant cousins on her grandmother’s sister’s side, Abu Khaled’s prospects of marrying her before the war had been nil: the al Anis never would have agreed to give her hand in marriage to a Shiite garbageman from Zeidan, an expanse of dusty soil on Baghdad’s western outskirts, partitioned into fields of rice, sesame, and wheat. The al Shimeris used to have a small triangular rice paddy there, and Abu Khaled’s late mother had spent so many days bent over the tender green shoots that sand grew in the lines crisscrossing her dark face. When he was a child, Abu Khaled would run to Zeidan each afternoon, carrying jugs of cool water and cubes of salty cheese wrapped in flatbread to the farmers.

“Habibti, time to wake up,” Abu Khaled said again, and kissed Fatima on the shoulder. She drew the shoulder upward to shrug him off, then curled away, trying to fold back into sleep around her large belly. Her stomach was so ripe with child, and her bosom with milk, that she seemed about to burst. Humming an unintelligible protestation, she burrowed her head in the pillows.

He smiled. Even after twelve years in America, Fatima remained unused to the schedule. Getting up before seven would have been unheard of in his wife’s upscale part of prewar Baghdad. The Ameriya district cherished a late-night conversation in a moonlit garden after the heat of the day had abated. Then it was nice to lounge on a swing or an outdoor couch or a creaky chaise longue and, over an apple-scented narghileh, talk about politics and engagements, and boast about the latest finds, in the crowded, damp basements of downtown antique dealerships, of baghdadiyat: copper plates etched with designs of birds and flowers, silk carpets from Herat, old leather-bound volumes from Damascus—artifacts of the times when the city had commanded the crossroads of civilizations. But after the war began, conversations about politics became unsafe. So many people had fled the country that talk about engagements became redundant. By the time she married Abu Khaled, Fatima could not tell him the last time she had seen an antique dealer unlock the steel blinds of his store.

A few minutes passed. Abu Khaled tried again.

“Habibti,” he called, “it’s already quarter to seven. My flower, I’m sorry, but it’s really time to get up.”

Fatima stirred, then rolled heavily over onto her back. A shadow of fright ran across her pale face and settled familiarly in the corners of her mouth. She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“Good morning,” she said. “I feel huge. I don’t want to get up.”

“I know.” Abu Khaled sat up in bed. “Habibti, I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that I was a sniper. And that you were married to your uncle. And that he wanted to kill me.”

Fatima stretched.

“Mhmm,” she said. “English, please. My uncle Abu Hamza?”

“Yes, him.”

“Well.” Fatima propped herself up on her elbows, squinted at him, and laughed. “Abu Hamza… he probably would have killed you, if he were alive.”

She heaved her belly toward him now, and her breasts slid to the side under her tank top. The tank top read LITTLE MISS SEXY, and when she leaned sideways like this, her nipples pressed against the letters L and M.

“He probably would have killed you twice. Once for marrying me. And the second time for allowing me to work at Walgreens.”

She reached over and pinched the fatty flesh above the waistband of his trunks.

“Ooh, look what I found. Do you know what Americans call this? ‘Love handles’!”

“It was a terrible dream. I was a sniper, and—”

“Sweetheart, no, please,” she said. “No snipers. Not today. You need to stop worrying. We are no longer there. We are here. We are here, and I am very sleepy.”

“I know, dear,” Abu Khaled replied, nodding. He took one of her slight hands in his and brought her fingers to his lips. He felt ashamed that, this late into her pregnancy, she still had to work; ashamed doubly because he knew that working in retail embarrassed her. “My queen,” he called out to her in his most tender voice, “I’ll make you some tea.”

Fatima forced a smile.

“God, please guide me and give me strength,” Abu Khaled prayed under his breath and swung his legs off the bed.

 

Three years into the war, new checkpoints would spring up near Zeidan every day. No one could tell who were the masked fighters manning these checkpoints. Men were disappearing all over the city every week, mostly young men, among them two of Abu Khaled’s nephews, who had left home together one morning and didn’t return. There were rumors that they had enlisted in a Shia militia, and that the reason they didn’t tell anyone in the family was to protect their loved ones. Maybe they were even stationed at one of the checkpoints around Zeidan. Or maybe these were Sunni checkpoints. It was impossible to know. The meager harvests were not worth the risk, and people stopped farming in Zeidan. Abu Khaled avoided driving his orange Mercedes dump truck past the neglected farmland. One evening his cell phone rang; the screen showed the number of one of his nephews, Fathul. A male voice, barely audible over the hum of the village generator, said: “Pick up your package in Zeidan tomorrow.”

The smell was worse than the landfill where Abu Khaled tipped his load, because many of the bodies had begun to decompose, but the bodies of Abu Khaled’s nephews had not yet started rotting, so he recognized them easily. Their hands were bound behind their backs. Their knees had been drilled through. Their chests had been burned. Their throats had been slit. A message was carved into the cheeks and forehead of Fathul, whose fingernails were still red with the henna from his engagement party two weeks before. Bring back Iraq, the message read. Awaken the lion.

 

“Our country is like a wounded lion,” Fatima said on the day of their engagement. It was a rushed affair, a formality the al Anis wanted to dispense with quickly, so they could move on without delay to the next step, marriage, and what was to follow, what they called “the evacuation.” Fatima’s eldest brother, Mansour, sent Abu Khaled instructions via a series of text messages. Abu Khaled was to arrive at the al Ani compound in Ameriya at eleven in the morning, for coffee and discussion; the bride was to nod her acceptance; and the bride’s family was to celebrate their impending union with a lunch of quzi.

“Sorry no frills, cuz, but circumstances,” read Mansour’s text. “Don’t worry abt the gold, our fam got that covered.”

Mansour further advised Abu Khaled that it was best if he arrived alone. The request made Abu Khaled uneasy: everyone knew that side of the family had ties to the Sunni insurgency. But in his text Mansour reasoned that checkpoints had turned what would have been a forty-five-minute drive from Zeidan to Ameriya into a two-hour-long affair, and having more people in the car would increase the delays, and Abu Khaled decided to believe this explanation, if only to calm his nerves.

Even so, Abu Khaled was late. He had to walk the last eight blocks to the al Ani compound: an hour before his appointment, a mortar shell incinerated the neighborhood’s beloved rickety fruit stand. The al Anis used to buy melons there. Now the whole neighborhood was sealed off and firefighters were hosing down the deserted street, rinsing it of blood, debris, and the sticky juice of broken fruit. By the time Abu Khaled got to the compound, the chocolates he had stopped to buy at an expensive supermarket for Westerners had begun to melt, and his sweat had soaked through his cheap white polyester robe and the underarms of a borrowed blazer. He found the compound in a kind of nervous bewilderment.

“Uncle Abu Hamza was killed yesterday,” Mansour explained when he came to the gate to greet him, dismissing the twitchy armed guard with a nod.

“May God keep him,” said Abu Khaled. “I am so sorry. How?”

“Shot by a sniper outside his house. A Shiite,” Mansour said, and glanced at the prayer bruise in the middle of Abu Khaled’s forehead, then quickly looked away. “Son of a bitch shot him from a rooftop.”

Abu Khaled gagged, pulled out an old handkerchief from the pocket of his robe and wiped his face.

“But it’s okay,” Mansour said. “We got him. He’s done for.” He flicked his hand across his throat, to illustrate. “On the upside,” he placed that same hand on Abu Khaled’s shoulder, then removed it, “my dad is now sheikh.”

He gestured for Abu Khaled to follow him into the house.

Abu Khaled had seen Fatima three times in his life, when both of them were kids, at big weddings in Anbar province, where their families had roots. Each time, she mesmerized him. There was something gossamer about her, a wispiness that made her almost unreal. During these family gatherings, she never joined the rest of the cousins in any of their mischief; instead, she would sit under a date palm with a book and read, and he came to believe that even playing hide-and-seek in a sesame field or an orchard would break her. Once, when he was nine or ten years old, he was carrying two dozen giant mulberries in the hem of his shirt and spotted her lying in the grass on her belly, reading. He sneaked up behind her and picked the largest berry and threw it at her. The ripe skin broke, and a purple streak ran down Fatima’s neck. She made no sound, just turned and gave him a look full of such immense sorrow that he wanted to die of shame. She must have been about twelve then. When he read One Thousand and One Nights, he imagined her as Scheherazade.

When Fatima came out to greet her prospective groom, she was as luminously beautiful as he had remembered; no, more. She floated into the room carrying tiny coffee cups and a longnecked pitcher on a large, round, silver tray. She was wearing white. He rose to his feet and bowed to her, and when he looked up, her lipsticked smile curved downward. “Our country is like a wounded lion, cousin,” she told him, his bride-to-be. “Vultures are feasting on the lion’s flesh, but I still remember when it was fearsome and could roar.”

Over lunch, Fatima’s father, Sheikh Abu Mansour, explained that the wedding would take place the following week right there at the house, that it would be low-key because of security concerns, and that Fatima’s dowry would consist of gold jewelry, a considerable amount of euros in a German bank in the name of a distant relative, and a honeymoon in America scheduled to begin two days after the wedding. Each ticket was one-way and came with an SIV.

“SIV?” said Abu Khaled.

“Special Immigrant Visa,” Abu Mansour said in English. “Asylum.” He switched to Arabic. “Our family still has connections, as you of course understand. But after Abu Hamza and…”—the sheikh waved his hand through the air—“I can no longer guarantee my daughter’s safety here. In my family, a young woman can’t travel alone. And all the men in our family are… let’s put it this way: none of them would make it past the airport checkpoint.”

He looked at Abu Khaled. Abu Khaled felt invisible.

“None of the other men,” the sheikh corrected himself. “So you’re a lucky guy! You get a trousseau, a honeymoon, and”—he switched again to English—“a happily-ever-after in America! Three-in-one,” he added, and no one laughed.

By the time Abu Khaled left the al Anis, the fire trucks had gone, the cordons had lifted, but the streets were still as empty as when he had come in the morning. He passed houses with gates so dusty no one must have opened them in months. He passed the shuttered windows of former bakeries, ice cream parlors, juice bars, a Syrian grocery chain. The Syrians, he knew, had left months ago. Everyone, it seemed, was leaving Iraq.

 

Fatima’s aloofness dissipated almost immediately after their marriage, and their intimacy and camaraderie grew over the years. Each wedding anniversary, she gave him a new handwritten card adorned with intricate drawings of flowers in gouache and ink. “My lion,” one card read, in Arabic, “thank you for showing me your respect and your love.” Another read: “Who can understand my complaint of love except for the king of beauty?[i]” Another: “You were honorable, and I responded with a warbling cry.[ii]” They never discussed the incident that had led to their improbable union, because they both recognized that war leaves no one undamaged. He never asked about Khaled, who was twelve now, and swallowed his pride and claimed him as his own, and they never told the boy otherwise. She was raising the children with ease and grace, and now she was full with her third, her soft body shaped once more like a succulent pear, though in his mind she remained an undeserved treasure he had been chosen to protect, and that, in equal measure, had been conjured up to protect him. He understood Abu Mansour’s words—“In my family, a young woman can’t travel alone”—to mean that he was to chaperone Fatima across the ocean and through the rest of it, till death do them part. Despite their evident disdain for his religion, his provinciality, and his social status, the al Anis had made it clear that they had judged him to be of good moral character and were grateful for his services. The sheikh had even sort of embraced him when he and Mansour had dropped off the newlyweds at the airport.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now exiting Iraqi airspace,” the South African pilot announced over the intercom forty minutes after they had taken off from Baghdad International, and a smiling flight attendant in a pencil skirt sauntered down the aisle carrying a tray of orange juice. “Thanks be to God, I’m alive,” thought Abu Khaled. He picked two glasses, and held one out to his young bride.

“To America,” he said.

She lifted her palm to decline the drink and shook her head with an impish smile.

“Morning sickness, habibi,” she said, and when he looked confused, she added: “I’m pregnant.”

Abu Khaled downed one glass, then the other.

 

He found his slippers with his feet and slid into them and shuffled toward the kitchen. At the stained-glass front door he paused, placing his hand for a second on the elegant yellow and blue pattern. For twelve years things had been just fine for them here in Oklahoma. Their jobs had benefits. They had already paid off a third of the mortgage; they had a hot rod for him, and a sensible station wagon for her; and in the backyard, where they kept a gas grill, Fatima had planted seasonal flowers and vines in such a way that they bloomed throughout the year in an uninterrupted succession of vivid colors. On weekends she would prepare elaborate dinners of mujaddara and dolma and bamia and biryani that she would set steaming on the table between the hand-painted bowls of baba ghanoush and yogurt sprinkled with zaatar and homemade hummus aquiver with olive oil so rich it was almost the hue of a field of winter wheat. Her cooking, her gardening, her anniversary cards largely subdued his anxiety that she would contract from her female coworkers—three of whom were divorced and one of whom was, the very thought made him shudder, a lesbian—the kind of American feminism that he sometimes saw on TV and that would threaten their marriage. The neighbors were mostly polite. He was mostly able to suppress the dread that occasionally still quickened when he looked at Khaled, unspooling memories of war. It helped that Khaled and Khadija were doing well in school—it was fair to say that Khadija was in fact thriving as the captain of both her elementary school girls’ soccer team and chess club—though there was a boy on Khaled’s middle school bus who often called him a towelhead and, once, a camel-fucker. Abu Khaled told the kid to ignore the stupid bully, just as he told him to ignore the two times someone had spray-painted swastikas on their mailbox, that it was nothing compared to what they would have been living through had they stayed back in Iraq. He didn’t tell the boy that if he, Abu Khaled, had stayed back in Iraq, neither of them would have been living through anything. That his and Fatima’s “evacuation” was the only thing that had made possible their marriage, their children, and their very existence. Three-in-one.

During their entire twelve years here, Abu Khaled had a single encounter that merited any concern. It was after their second Ramadan in America, when Khaled was almost eighteen months old, and Fatima said she wanted him to experience the joy and communality of Eid. They drove their car, which at the time was a leased Honda Civic, to a mosque in Oklahoma City: a bigger mosque, where, Fatima said, it would be more festive. A friend she had made at the local halal bakery had given her directions, which she wrote for Abu Khaled on a greeting card in her gorgeous calligraphic hand. The drive took almost two hours, past an unbroken sunburnt steppe and, here and there, a silo, a herd of cattle, a billboard about Jesus. Peaceful, calm. When they arrived at the mosque, most women getting out of cars in the big parking lot were in full niqab. Fatima pushed her white headscarf lower on her forehead and said nothing, but he could tell that she felt underdressed. They walked toward the mosque door slowly with the swelling congregation, Abu Khaled holding the boy in the crook of his arm and leading Fatima by the elbow with his free hand, when a man cut through the crowd and stopped in front of them. They stopped, too. The man did not salaam them. He looked Iraqi. He studied very carefully Fatima’s face, then Abu Khaled’s and the boy’s. Then he turned away and disappeared among the mosque-goers.

“Let’s go back,” whispered Fatima, and Abu Khaled agreed, and they turned around and excused themselves past all the faithful streaming to share a celebration, and never again went to Oklahoma City or to any other mosque in America, and they never saw that man again.

That was almost ten years ago. There were other Iraqis in their suburb, but after that trip to the mosque, Abu Khaled and Fatima agreed that it would be wise to avoid them beyond the obligatory polite and even sometimes warm encounters at the halal bakery: who knew whom these people knew back home? Their tangible connection to Iraq had winnowed. Fatima’s father and brothers were involved in politics now, and acknowledging the circumstances of her American existence would have compromised their chances with the Sunni conservatives at the polls, so they rarely called. Abu Khaled’s sister, when he called her, mostly evoked the name of God, assured him she was fine, and, whenever he asked if she wanted him to send her a next-of-kin invitation, swore she would never leave Zeidan, where she tended the graves of his mother and nephews daily. They simplified their life, stripped it down, until, apart from these phone calls, it felt to him as invulnerable as a fortress: work and home, school and summer camps, backyard games with the kids during the warmer months and chess in winter, Netflix in the evenings (though never war films), spring break in Myrtle Beach or, twice, Orlando, Disney World. Why, then, this fear that was growing inside him faster than their unborn baby: that any day they may come for him, take him away, torture him, kill him, that the baby would be born fatherless into a terrible war? Why was he worried about bringing another child into the world, about what kind of world it would inherit? It was as if a part of him had never left Iraq, as if the fear was an umbilicus that tied Abu Khaled to that hypothetical reality.

 

The day after discovering his nephews’ bodies—the day before his engagement to Fatima, eight days before their wedding, ten days before their “evacuation”—Abu Khaled took long strides alongside the black, putrid sewage ditch that bisected the length of a narrow unpaved street on the border of a Shiite slum. Overhead, garlands of power lines residents had strung to steal electricity from one another’s houses swung from rooftop to rooftop, slicing the tangerine predawn sky into uneven diamonds of molten gold. Black funeral banners streamed from windows and fences. Abu Khaled crossed a small square, where a large funeral tent was set up four months earlier and remained, a permanent, frequently used fixture. Because of water shortages, no one bothered to hose off the tent, and the plastic swags were brown with desert dust.

He thought of the writing the assassins had carved into Fathul’s young face. Awaken the lion. What kind of lion requires a human sacrifice? Neighbor against neighbor, Muslim against Muslim, Arab against Arab: is this what they want? His nephew’s murder awakened inside Abu Khaled a ferocious predator unfamiliar to this underpaid municipal garbage collector, the son of peasants with chubby fingers and a habit of rising before dawn. The evening he found the bodies in Zeidan, he rapped at the blue metal gate of his neighbor’s uncle, who lived on the other side of the village. Their conversation was brief.

“I’ve heard of your late brother-in-law’s sons,” the old man said as he opened the gate. He nodded somberly. “May God have mercy on them. Follow me.”

The men walked around the main house and entered a filthy chicken coop. Skinny birds dashed away from the door at the sound of their footsteps. The old man reached up and pulled a heap of straw from a high roost, exposing the dull sheen of black barrels. Deep age lines formed a question mark on his receding forehead.

“In the army,” Abu Khaled began, and his voice caught. The straw and the dust aggravated his allergies. The air reeked of chicken manure. Around the guns the birds clucked. He cleared his throat. “In the army. Up in the north. I used to be a pretty good shot.”

The next morning, as Abu Khaled picked his way along the grimy street, he was pressing a heavy Dragunov sniper rifle to his left thigh under his black robe. The uncomfortable hold on the rifle strained his arm, the loose ammunition rattled in his backpack with each step. Abu Khaled walked for another minute until, finally, he spotted the house he had been looking for. It was an abandoned, almost finished three-story mansion with gaping frameless windows and a concrete staircase that led to the flat rooftop with a clear view of a Sunni mosque two blocks away. Construction had stopped a few months ago, but the owners never bothered to put in a door or lock the green metal gate. They must have fled in a hurry, Abu Khaled thought. If he’d had the money, he probably would have run, too. Or he would have given it to his sister, his nephews’ mother, and sent her and her family away before any of this could have happened. Yes. That would have been best. He was not married, he didn’t have children, his life was not a priority. If his sister’s family had gone, his nephews would have been safe, and there would have been no need for him to be sneaking around with a sniper’s rifle under his dress.

He looked to make sure no one was following him and started up the stairs.

From the tiled, flat rooftop, he had a clear view of the city’s skyline, a jungle of power lines and satellite antennae. Before the war, satellite antennae were illegal, and the skyline was a sea of white, people’s laundry hanging out to dry. Now women hung their laundry in the gardens, because snipers had made going up to the roof too dangerous. So this is what democracy looks like, he thought. He carefully leaned the Dragunov barrel-up against the wall of an unfinished pigeon coop. He allowed the backpack to slide down his arm and drop to his feet, untied the leather straps, and felt for the sight. Its shape and weight were familiar. Abu Khaled remembered the emerald lace of spring foliage in the Zagros Mountains; the muddy stench of the trenches; the terrifying anticipation of the Peshmerga infantry. Then he remembered waiting for his shot, and recognized the calm, focused sensation.

He snapped the sight onto the gun and reached into his backpack again, fishing out ten loose 7.62-millimeter rounds. He fed them into the magazine and carefully clipped it in. He hardly had to think about this; his hands were doing it on their own. Like his sister kneading dough for bread every morning, or like riding a bicycle, he thought: you never unlearn. He mouthed a short prayer and sat down, cross-legged, resting against the shady side of the pigeon coop. He pulled a piece of salty cheese, wrapped in an oval of his sister’s bread, out of the backpack and placed the food in his lap. Then he began his wait for the imam to open the mosque’s wrought-iron gate.

On his way down the stairs, Abu Khaled leaned against the concrete wall and retched onto the steps. He couldn’t tell if he was crying or if his eyes had watered from throwing up. It was just like in the army: he’d always get sick after a kill. He must have stood there for a long time, because by the time he walked out of the building, the sun was very bright. His mouth tasted awful, and he wished he hadn’t eaten all the bread. When his cell phone vibrated in his pocket, he jumped. A text message from a number he didn’t recognize. He opened it.

“Whats up cuz, Mansour al Ani here. Long time. Good news! We are offering you my sister Fatima’s hand in marriage. Kinda urgent. Engagement tomorrow. Details l8r.”

 

Abu Khaled shuffled into the kitchen. He picked up the kettle: some water sloshing there, enough for a couple of cups. He turned the knob to the left to light the burner and lowered the flame and put the kettle on. “Magic,” he mumbled, repeating the word he told Fatima when they first arrived and their caseworker explained that lighting American stoves did not require matches. Now he could hear Fatima rousing the children in their bedrooms and ushering them into their school uniforms.

Fatima, my rock, he thought. Tenderness spilled in his chest and opened like a spring blossom. For a moment Abu Khaled forgot about the war. He stood over the stove, in love and innocent, until the whine of the boiling kettle reminded him it was time to go to work.

When Abu Khaled entered the tire shop, it was eight-thirty and Big Mike and Mikey were already inside, drinking from thirty-two-ounce QuikTrip plastic cups on an old leather sofa and sweating with the radio on. The sun was high, and the corrugated tin walls radiated oppressive heat throughout the hangar. Mikey was thumbing the lid of his cup, and when they saw Abu Khaled, both of them stood up quickly. Big Mike strode to the lion-shaped floor stain and grabbed Abu Khaled’s hand with both of his and looked him in the eye and said: “We sent you a text message, did you get it?”

And before he could answer, Mikey said: “There’s an active shooter at the Lee K-through-twelve. There’s casualties. They first said it was in the high school building, but now they’re saying they’re not sure if it’s that building or what. Ain’t that where your kids are at?”

 

He blew through several traffic lights, and when he got to the strip mall three blocks away from the school there was police tape, and he fishtailed to a stop and saw a small crowd of people, though from where they were standing you couldn’t even see the squat yellow and pink high school building or the taller K-through-eight building behind it. He hurled himself out of the car and raced toward the crowd and saw his Fatima, her belly straining against a flowered dress, her face so pale it was almost blue.

“The moment I heard the helicopters, I knew, baby, I just knew,” she said, and then he heard them, too: a low thud so ineradicably familiar it could have been his own breath, except it did not belong there; he had traveled thousands and thousands of miles to never hear it again.

 

Footnotes

[i] From “Lamma Bada Yatathanna,” an Andalusian muwashah.

[ii] “A female draws near, / long neck lowered, / responding / with a warbling cry” are lines from “Is What You Knew Kept Secret,” by ‘Alqama, a part of Mu’allaqat, translated by Michael A. Sells, as appears in Desert Tracings (Wesleyan University Press, 1989).

 

Anna Badkhen is the author of six books. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, and the Joel R. Seldin Award from Psychologists for Social Responsibility for writing about civilians in war zones. 

 

[Purchase Issue 18 here.]

An Appointment in Samarra

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