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.
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!”
“Wait here. We’ll get in touch with you later. Don’t go beyond the confines of the village.”
The village seemed to have been abandoned, although there were still goats roaming here and there. I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. To pass the time I wandered in and out of the abandoned houses. I felt tired, but I wasn’t sure whether sleeping had a place in my new life. I went up on the roof of one of the houses and looked out over the neighborhood. The smoke of battle was rising from the nearby towns, and two military helicopters were skimming along the horizon. Fields of cotton surrounded the village on all sides. I had never before had a chance to see cotton flowers. Or maybe I’d seen them in documentaries and other films; I don’t exactly remember. I had spent my life working in a bakery, then as a taxi driver, and finally as a prison guard. When the revolution broke out, I joined the resistance. I fought to my last breath. The cotton flowers looked like snowflakes, but they would have had to be artificial or else the fierce rays of the sun would have melted them all.
There once was a man who left his home every morning at about six or six-thirty after shaving his face. He sprinkled heavy golden droplets of cologne onto his palm and then patted his cheeks. His cheeks tingled, and he experienced the subtle scent of lemon. The sting and aroma made him feel as if he were passing by a fruit orchard whose scent was dispelled in the air. Next, he put on a clean pair of shoes, one that he had polished as the final chore of the previous day, just before going to bed. He quietly stepped out of the house. In wintertime he encountered the first beams of the rising sun. In summertime, everything was lit already. He picked up a pebble from the sidewalk nearby. He used to choose one carefully, scooping up and inspecting a handful until one special pebble called out to him and his heart was pleased with it. Now he automatically put a pebble in the pocket of his pants, feeling it from time to time. The mute texture gave him comfort, and the solid roundness made him feel that he was carrying something unique and precious, something whose value was not diminished by the fact that it was picked up from the sidewalk.
You may wonder how old this sleepless face is. You may put him to bed in a long-gone mountain garden. Or revive him in the gardens of years to come, centuries from now. That’s where I live, in a dimension unseen by your future eyes, where feather-light cars drive by, and words freeze in the air.
This face appears on the other side of the table from me, in a bar suspended at three hundred meters. We sip our drinks in their feather-light glasses: neither raising them up nor setting them down nor clinking them together makes a sound to be heard. We hear no motors grinding or jet engines screeching on the trails wrapping around the mountain lodge. We are immersed in what scientists call the hush void, a space of near-utter silence. Here, voices fall mute when they pass beyond the scant inches of one’s hearing range. In the hush void, words can always be heard by the ears of the person meant to hear them. But if they escape beyond the void, into the vastness below, even a softly-spoken syllable could set off an avalanche in a solid rock face.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, clicking my turret around. The truck swung wide right. On the side of the road, the debris was nothing more than a pile of rocks and broken up concrete. Two years earlier, two hundred miles away, that might have warranted a bit of anxiety. The headphones pressed to my ears were silent as the convoy waited for an answer. I flipped the switch down to announce my verdict. “Clear, left.”