A Little Explosion
The American embassy in Baghdad, 2004. Adnan, Laith, and Intisar are Iraqi translators. Bill Prescott is a State Department official.
Adnan leans over and looks at Laith’s work.
Adnan: That is not the right translation for “capacity-building.”
Laith: Keep it simple, stupid. You think that imam with the big nose would understand what Bill Prescott was telling him?
Adnan: Next time Bill should bring me instead.
Laith: And the imam will say, “A Sunni interpreter! Nice! I’m sorry, I have to run and pray.”
Adnan: Please help us, Intisar. What does your dictionary say about “capacity-building”?
Intisar: (Looking it up) “Capacity-building . . .”
While she looks it up, he watches her.
Adnan: I remembered you immediately. It was the last year at Baghdad University.
Intisar: Yes, English literature, my favorite class.
Adnan: You loved Emily Brontë more than anything.
Intisar: Oh my God, how can you remember that?
Adnan: I remember everything.
Laith: He can tell you what was on the front page of Al-Sabah two weeks ago, word for word.
Intisar: It’s true, I loved Emily. I read Wuthering Heights three times. I didn’t come out of my room. My family thought I was having a nervous breakdown. (Quoting, a little shy and embarrassed) “Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
Adnan: Very beautiful. And I remember the day Saddam came to the Jadriya campus and we all had to stand in lines and shout and clap our hands. You stayed home that day. You were pretending to be sick.
Intisar: No, I was really sick!
Laith: You can admit it. Saddam is history now, he’s toast.
Intisar: Because I hated to be a hypocrite so much. I was afraid I would be the only one not clapping. Maybe I would even shout something.
Laith: Like what?
Intisar: “How many years of my life are you going to steal from me?”
Laith: Thank God you stayed home.
Adnan: It was obvious, just from your eyes.
Adnan: You were like me. Another non-belonger.
Intisar: You say incredible things. Everything from your tongue is a little explosion.
Laith: He’s a suicide mouth bomber.
Adnan: Aren’t we free now?
Intisar: Are we? I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t feel very free. Maybe we will be free five years from now.
Adnan: How do you see yourself in five years?
Intisar: On a bicycle.
Adnan: Be serious.
Intisar: I am very serious! Okay. In five years? (Smiling, indulging her dreams a little) Working at UNESCO, in Paris. Bringing English literature to Arab countries, especially the books we were not allowed to read.
Intisar: Cooking French dinners in my apartment. My brothers and sister will come on holidays, and with my salary we will all learn to ski together. And I will be the first one down the mountain!
Laith: You will be married to some French guy named Jacques.
Intisar: Not so fast. I will be married to my career, at first, anyway.
Laith: Why don’t you marry an ambassador? You can have the benefits without the work.
Intisar: Thank you so much for the advice! You wear the jacket and necktie but inside you’re just like your tribal cousins, eating chicken with their fingers and giving the bones to their wives.
Laith: Hey, don’t be draggin’ me down! You don’t even know me yet.
Intisar: I know the type.
Adnan: What about you, habibi? In five years?
Laith: Political consultant to the prime minister. The Iraqi James Carville.
Laith: Don’t you watch CNN? (Putting on a southern drawl) “Don’t get mad. Don’t get even. Just get elected, then get even.”
Intisar: I’m working with two crazy people. Maybe it isn’t safe here.
Adnan: It’s safe.
Intisar: How do you know? Anyone in this office could talk about anyone else. You could say, “She loves Emily Brontë.” Or I could say, “He wants to be the Iraqi James Carville.” Or he could say, “He is a non-belonger.” Just like that, one of us is dead.
Adnan: But that is exactly why it’s safe. The person who says something will also be dead.
Laith: It’s a “Mexican standoff.” Trust, or we all go down.
Intisar: You didn’t say for yourself.
Adnan: Five years from now? Maybe I will be the editor of a famous liberal newspaper.
Adnan: Maybe I will be listening to jazz in New York City.
Laith: Super cool.
Adnan: Or maybe I will be selling books again on Mutanabi Street for cigarette money.
Laith: Not cool.
Adnan: Anything is possible now in Iraq. Maybe all of us will be somewhere hiding from militias and insurgents, in a spider hole like Saddam, or in a smuggler’s truck going to Syria.
Anything is possible.