Of all my letters, there was one that I read again and again.
It was a love letter. Of all my pictures,
there was one that I stared at for long stretches:
Mazin and I at college, with two of our friends.
Arwa and Hassan introduced me to Mazin
when he was visiting from the battlefield in Al-Faw.
He had clipped some of my poems from newspapers
and saved them.
Mazin gave me the letter when we were walking in the rain
from the College of Liberal Arts to Baghdad’s Central Library.
While we walked he repeated the first line of Al-Sayyab’s poem
“The Song of the Rain”: Your eyes are two palm-tree forests in early light.

When I left Iraq, I didn’t know if Mazin was alive or dead.
His picture was pale like an old moon.
He had to join the army when he graduated, like all Iraqi men.
He would come back on leave and I would skip class to meet him,
especially the boring class on national culture
that enforced the ideology of the Baath party.

I always gave him books to bring back to the front lines
where the army was fighting the Iranians.
Once I bought them at the Baghdad International Book Fair.
The day of the fair, people were so eager to get in
that they pushed down the door. Journalists complained
that they, and other writers, “needed books more than everyone else”
but could not reach any because of the endless lines.
So the government dedicated one day of the fair
for anyone with a membership card in a writer’s or journalist’s union.
I had the luxury of filling my cart with any book I wanted.
There were many signs with propaganda and one without:
“Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, and Iraq reads.”
“Reading is the most luxurious activity at the front,” Mazin told me.

Both of Iraq’s tv channels showed the exact same programs every day.
Nobody knew why there were two.
One daily program was called “Scenes from the Battle”
and showed images of dead soldiers covered with dust and flies,
scattered helmets, and body parts. You couldn’t tell
which corpses were Iraqis and which Iranians.
They were mixed together, in the zone between countries,
covered with blood that was all the same color.
The next program showed images of prisoners of war.
They were lucky, though tired and dirty.
After that was the Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Mazin told me stories of the soldiers.
One of them who discovered he had lost
both of his legs, turned to the nurse and asked
if his penis was still okay.
His friend Hassan would ask questions like:
“How can we not sense the movement of the earth?”
“What was God doing before he created us?”
“What is more important, your homeland or your freedom?”
“Are stupid people happier?”
“Are the tears from onions the same as the tears from pain?”
“What is the meaning of yas-yam (left-right)?”
Hassan did not want to be part of a chorus, part of the herd
or even part of the march.
He said the sounds of music were like the sound of explosions
both making the same tense shape. He said
that sleep was best because it was horizontal.
It was the vertical position that caused problems.
Even being in the street required a vertical position
and that caused annoyance if not a dilemma or even a tragedy.
Perhaps God loved birds best, Hassan said,
because he always let them move above everything
in a horizontal way.

One day, as Hassan was walking along
in the problematic vertical form
a man in uniform stopped him and took him away.
After a long investigation they sent him to hell,
and he went. In that place, bones
are planted in the earth, skulls are
raised from the bones, and always
there is a ticking bomb
that could explode at any time.
Luckily the dove that landed on the bomb
flew away at the right moment.
Arwa could not calm Hassan
or get him to stop covering his ears
for fear of the explosion.
She yearned for the time before all this,
when there was college and no front.

Once, at college, the four of us went to an art exhibition
at the Saddam Arts Center.
Wings without birds reflected on a river;
a lonely gaze from behind a window;
a collage of a clock divided into halves
on a wall full of advertisements from another time.
In another hall there were folklore paintings
of horses, marsh reeds, and palm leaves
of men in kufiyas and women in abayas
sitting around a big coffee pot in a black tent made of goat hair.
A special hall was dedicated to portraits of Saddam
wearing various costumes and hats:
military, civilian, Arab, Kurdish, Gulf,
a helmet, a cowboy hat.
The war was touched by the brushes of the artists
directly and indirectly
through surrealism, cubism, realism, expressionism, and abstraction.

In Al-Khadra’s café, we talked about how computers were
changing the whole world except Iraq.
Personal computers were not yet allowed.
Hassan was the most excited about this technology,
and told Arwa that he wished the smart computer
would replace the stupid human who resorts to weapons
and orders you to get in line
and yells for no reason
and urges you to kill people you don’t even know.
Arwa asked, “What about joy and sadness and human emotions?”
Hassan answered, “Machines would gradually learn
to feel just like a human
but without his selfishness, meanness, and weakness.
Machines will be the pure innocence of human beings
without wars and ideologies and speeches and disputes.”
Arwa asked, “But don’t you think humans are more advanced?
At least humans have imagination. Computers
can never experience a coincidence, cannot explore
the unknown or achieve great discoveries.
A computer would never discover gravity
by having an apple fall on its head. And what about our
dreams that distinguish us as humans?”
Hassan answered, “There will be no need to dream.
We will be in the dream, in the beyond-human dream
without birth or death.”
Arwa asked, “How then will there be life?”
Hassan answered, “There will be a new life,
to be lived by this advanced being
that does not have certainty
is not linked to any fate
or any one idea.”
Arwa asked, “What about the sensual human pleasures?”
Hassan answered, “The electronic advancement will evolve
untraditional pleasures beyond these exhausted ones.
Every pleasure will be experienced only once and never repeated,
never interrupted by outside influences.
It will be a life completely pure, without governments, enemies,
hatred, hurts, disappointments, pain,
without religion, victory, or loss.”
Arwa said, “Then this is a world without art
for there can be no art in such nothingness.”
Hassan said, “It’s in this very nothingness that art can be created
free and transparent. We would leave this place, to go Elsewhere
to the borderless point where we emerge
like the sun and the moon. We would
ride the clouds to an uncertain place
and exchange the stars like words.
From afar we would rain down on those
who cannot see beyond their own noses.
We would look at the earth through the eyes of birds.”

Mazin had tears in his eyes when he talked about the death of Hassan.
“He was scattered in the air right in front of me.
They rolled his corpse in an Iraqi flag
and took it to his parents in Zakho.”
“Does Arwa know?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said,
“The last time he returned on leave,
her parents refused him when he asked for her hand.
His father said he would not give his daughter to a Kurd.
I am going to escape this war, through the north,
to Turkey first and from there to wherever I can reach.”
“What if you get caught?” I asked.
“I don’t care,” he said. “Every day
I see death, injuries, and disappearances.
If we get married soon,
maybe someone can smuggle us outside the country.”
But I refused.

After a few weeks, I realized I had made a mistake.
His absence preyed on my mind, and the Wednesday
meeting of the Writers Union seemed bleak.
Mazin was not there. The phone still rang,
but he was not in the other end.
“It seems that he truly loves you,” said Lutfiya
when she read his letter.
They have never met
though they are together in the plastic bag.
In my bag of pictures, all my friends are close
to me and to each other
no matter how far they were in real life.

Reprinted with permission of New Directions. All rights reserved.