House of the Interpreter
Christopher J. Sivert was awarded First Place in Essay in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Sivert is currently incarcerated at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in West Virginia.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.
House of the Interpreter
I reach down into my cargo pants and pull out the camera.
The killers left the doors of the house open. The air of the room swarms with flies.
Blue-dressed girls in pools of red blood. Nearby their parents’ hands conjoined in death.
A captain from Al-Kadhimiya police station squats near the body of the eldest girl, rubbing the knees of his khakis and discussing the killings with his lieutenant, who sits in one of the dead family’s high-backed chairs. Smoking. Nodding. Coolly indifferent. Our lieutenant glowers next to the officers, waiting for our company commander to arrive. Moyet, our interpreter, quietly translates to him what is being said, unconsciously keeping his hand to his throat, with steady eyes focusing on the dead girls. Subdued and nervous, other Iraqi police officers mill around near the bodies of the parents.
Outside the house the rest of our squad stands ready, waiting for support units to arrive on scene. Flowers near the roadside contrast dirty-green Humvee camouflage parked in overwatch positions within them.
A fly crawls fat and languid across the back of my hand. It trails a red smear as I hold the digital camera recording the scene.
It is the latest killing in this sector. Nothing will be done.
This is the day.
It will soon be night.
Exhausted and sick, I lean across sandbags of the station’s rooftop bunker peering into the forbidding black beyond the lights rigged to the gateway and high wall of the compound. Al-Kadhimiya has been without power since West Baghdad came under our control. Around and inside the station the few existing lights are ran by generators. In the low circle of the largest light above the entrance, sandaled feet jut out as a policeman sits on a wicker chair in the dark keeping tired watch of the street. At the north end of the station, rows of smashed police vehicles line the walls. Among the wrecks, on the periphery of illumination, dozens of small yellow orbs dart across the ground. Rats move quickly from cover to cover, evading cats who hunt and ravenously eat their meaty prey.
Al-Kadhimiya is a puzzle of mysterious jumbles hard to discern in the day; vast blocks of gated alleyways between apartment buildings, shops, office buildings, bookstores, and Islamic councils. Lepers wrapped in stains stand outside free clinics smelling of dapsone and corrupted flesh. At a large women’s clinic lines of old women wait with mothers and young daughters. All intersect into streets abounding with an ever-moving, ever-present population.
Driving through neighborhoods in Al-Kadhimiya, one can see sun-blanched vehicles of ancient make flowing in traffic or lining curbs broken down like nubby teeth. Men on scooters and bicycles run haphazard through traffic and crowds, and the rare boy on a homemade skateboard coasts the sidewalks. Along every street and open space, throngs of people go about daily affairs. Older men in casuals or suits and young men in knock-off soccer and basketball jerseys do business with street vendors hawking everything from fresh vegetables and sodas to needful fans. Traditional men wearing vests and dishdashas, the common “man dress,” fingering sabhas, long strings of prayer beads, stand conversing in small groups. Women in light pantsuits, casual, or more often the conservative burka and hijab smothering them from head to foot walk the streets. Held hands of children. Chatting friends. Other stifled women follow behind their husbands carrying large baskets piled high with items balanced with one hand on their shoulder while their men walk unburdened. Café patrons drink chai, lazy blue smoke idles at tables and long benches. The idle chat. The idle game. The watchful eye us with intent or varying degrees of concentration. Families with belongings piled high onto carts of which their miserable donkeys struggle to move block the odd intersection as they plod away along the streets. Cars honk and drivers berate them from behind.
There is a small mosque near the station compound. Its minaret is plain, weathered, handsome brick and much older-appearing than the building and sports a small PA horn near its top. We have never been inside any of the mosques around Kadhimiya. We are prohibited. Military necessity might call for it. Sporadically, small groups of people enter and exit the mosque. Muslim clergy fill a small corner of a courtyard with clustered pockets of people, speaking with energy then listening with solemn expressions to men and women rant. They are pounding their chests with fury (or sorrow). The muezzin’s voice begins loudly calling adhans from the tower, summoning the faithful to worship. Smaller mosques in the area begin to call their own prayers echoing divination through the neighborhoods. The considerable noise in Kadhimiya seems to lessen at these times, wounded by piety.
Rising over all: the Al-Kadhimiya Mosque. Its large structure visible from the rooftop. Two large domes flash gilded in the bright sun between its tall minarets. We hear adhans from the towers in the distance which are considerably louder, fluid in their spread like street waves through the air above Kadhimiya. Against the dirty, sallow hues of the buildings around it, the central mosque stands out pristine, sanctimonious. And opal amongst offal.
Al-Kadhimiya retains the veneer of a city suburb going about ordinary business.
Now the night.
This one without a moon. Low brilliance of stars, darkness within the blackout and the city-wide curfew, Kadhimiya is ominous, unknown, a creeping silent wave breaking around and against the walls of the station. It is a vast unbroken obsidian cage making mimicry of a cityscape. I stand on the roof peering into the neighborhood beyond the lights. Connotations reel in my mind: Al-Sadr heard black . . . bomb strike moment black . . . gas mask shell military black . . . steel flash O-gape mouth black . . . Big Oil black (Name of the Game Black?) . . . lined up for the shot black marble black . . . sector landowner plotline black . . . dog-tag silencer black. Where the roar of the mingled masses of people and machines had been, now a complete and uneasy silence hanging dry and still through the air. Combined with stillness the blackness compresses my heart and strangles off all light to the mind.
In the distance the central mosque changes into nightwing identity. Glowing neon green in the darkness, domes like hives fill with radiation. Minarets festooned with electric white webs. Oz’s Emerald City of terrible power. Omnipresent. Ancient. A magnificent force.
My eyes draw to it this night. Perhaps they will every night. Weary eyes haunting into the dark night.
“How do they have power over there at the central mosque?” I asked Moyet, standing with me that first night of duty on the roof.
“I assume they have generators of their own. They will make sure to have power to the mosques,” Moyet said.
We have yet to see the central mosque up close. There’s a common suspicion that much insurgent activity goes on there. The business of resistance runs more than verbal condemnations from its pulpits.
Al-Kadhimiya is the very essence of caution and vigilance. The total noise in the neighborhoods creates a din loud enough to be heard over the engines of our Humvees. Occasionally, there is gunfire of a celebratory gesture heard in the neighborhoods, which immediately sets off the nervous edge of every soldier. We pass piles of trash that have been set on fire hours before, steaming and smoking on lots and street corners, which are eyed with serious concern for possible I.E.D.’s. We cannot look everywhere. Unable to process visual sounds for aberrations or breaks in patterns fast enough, we ride along on wavelengths, raw nerves, dowsing rods sensing for hidden dangers amongst the buildings, vehicles, and people on the streets.
In everything we see.
In everything we feel.
Located beside the position of the 3rd Brigade combat team, we find ourselves targeted for hit-and-run shootings. Some nights Kadhimiya station is mortared. We hear sudden thumps somewhere in the darkness. Mortars falling and detonating on and around the building, embedding shrapnel everywhere. At times I lie at the bottom of this bunker with my face down in the leaking sand from bursting sandbags while barrages go on. Our medic patches up injured policemen when the attacks cease.
The Iraqis see the police forces as complicit with the American occupation, and so they are subject to naked aggression. Police officers have been murdered with cold, stark choice. They’re attacked in their vehicles and shot to death. Ambushed and shot while standing in traffic posts. Angrily shot while searching buildings or vehicles. Some at Kadhimiya have recently been killed in suicide bombings and by explosive devices hidden in the streets. They are beaten with three fists: disenfranchised Sunni, vengeful Shi’a, and us trying to rein in this swelling chaos.
We share this in common. These factions have centuries of invested animosity. Situations of aggression toward us in Al-Kadhimiya (and anywhere else) in Baghdad are dealt with swiftly and brutally. Our leadership has made many provisions for exigencies in this sector, but the lynchpin to the tactical picture is the trust in the capabilities of leaders in the battle space. We prefer our methods of war. The responses we can give to any face-to-face fight are considerable. An armed enemy soldier is an aim point, something to knock down. Enemy vehicles can be disabled and destroyed with the press of a button. The insurgency is well aware of our tactical advantages. It’s become insidious. Non-warfare. Hit-and-run strikes, I.E.D’s, and sniper activity are the normal tactics against us. Our casualties are steadily beginning to mount.
Many nights on the station rooftop I stand here thinking of the dedication on this side of the lights: the soldiers in our squads, interpreters, sleeping Iraqi policemen barefoot and prone in the courtyard. We stand on one side. Then I look out toward the glow of the mosque. A beacon in the black to what waits in the shadows. Vigilant and complete in its dedication, no less powerful than our own, older by far, waiting for the invaders to make the wrong kinds of moves.
This night, there is no moon.
Stars are in full force interspersed by pulsating red lights high above. Circling Blackhawk gunships fly low over the airspace of West Baghdad blowing rotor wash across the station roof. The veil over Kadhimiya lifts slightly with starlight revealing street edges and the buildings near our station. The darkness remains impenetrable beyond that. In the distance the green light of the mosque keeps ghostly watch over its neighborhoods. I wonder what goes on beneath those marbled domes at night. Those things that our vaunted high technology—satellites and lasers—could not detect, yet.
My Kevlar weighs down chin to chest. I have scrubbed the skin on my hand where the fly made its smear with sanitizer. I can still feel the residual red trail in the dark. I can see the dead family laid out side-by-side in body bags beside the truck that would take them away. I wonder if they were taken to the hospital morgue at Al-Yarmouk. Most likely to a Kadhimiya mortuary parlor in four coffins arranged side-by-side.
Do they even have those here: mortuaries and parlors?
The air coalesces: funereal and paused. Sweat pours. Lips taste of dusty stained glass. I drink water from a hot plastic bottle.
The oldest daughter has a gold necklace with a pendant with Arabic letters raised in a design on the front. Left around her neck even as they were cutting her throat. I wonder if Moyet had noticed it. Maybe I’ll ask him. Maybe I won’t. Maybe it went into the pocket of one of the policemen, morgue technicians, or some random passerby who saw an opportunity. Maybe it adorns another girl’s neck by now.
There are no spoils for the poor. No regard for the dead.
The youngest daughter had a sparkling watch too large for her wrist. It more than likely went into some pocket as well. How long had it taken her to tell time on it? Her face had hinted of that vibrancy violently forced from her living body. A throat’s wide slash—a mockery of a child’s smile.
She had her father’s cheeks and chin.
Mother and father lying dead near the girls. I wonder at the last desperate energy to touch hands. Had they reached out in reflex to protect? Did they witness the slaughter of their children? Who was the last to succumb, the last to slip numbing fingers through another hand that no longer felt? The blood much too fresh to put myself in their shoes—a most immodest prying. Profanely soon for morbid introspection.
Lethargic, viscous, the auras of the station lights dip in and out of fat darkness. My head sinks in red static, rank discharge of electric rheum, of one too many hits through the long crush of the day.
Tooth by tooth grinding down into one sere bone.
Embrace the Suck. Not to choke. Skeletal dance of de-fleshed forms on bullet tips like white bees on pistils.
I rub my eyes beneath my ballistic lenses, feeling nascent throbs of a headache sweeping behind them.
Beneath me, Earth free falls through space.
Again, the dead girls.
Another fly among flies comes to mind, crawling across the youngest daughter’s frozen, sightless eye. What god of swarms, of withering organs, of crocus-bedded death and murder did its thousand points of vision commute with in that instant?
It will not stop nor is it going to stop. The constant dialogue composing their obituaries whispers and beats in my temples. Ready death cinches into rolling metaphors. My mind settles broken, suffused with darkness. Night. Night. Night.
How long, I think, until sights like today turn generic; the routine of constant horror dulling nerves? Sick accounting of bodies produced in this war already . . . how many more? Will my own be in this tally when the last American boots walk from this place?
There it is: commonality of truth behind crossed words. I accept the harsh possibility of my own death in this war. I willingly signed on the line to serve and knew the risks that would run with this army life. I have already fired in anger and then been fired upon. Seen enemy deaths produced by deliberate machinations of death. Acceptable and crude, but steadfast logic behind combatants in warfare. Enemy . . . Exigence . . . Enemy . . . Combat . . . Death.
But today . . .
. . . but now.
What is being seen cannot be so easily labeled.
With low voices the soldiers in our squads are gossiping about what has already occurred in our sector. Early on this rising death toll had been male dominated; however, through a shared norm, we could not accept such brutality against women and children. Seen in the harsh light of presence we could not bear easy witness. It is vicariously easy to pass over things that happen in other places. Insulated from advent atrocity by media and chance geography, digesting dead women and children is easy.
Facing the live feed of the flies none could shy away.
Sunni or Shi’a . . . none in our squad questions the ideals behind the carnage. It seems diaphanous, almost imperceptible, between bodies and those landing, rising flies. Swallowed in the disgust, the abhorrence, it cannot be understood. These imprints in every mind are easily discernable like grisly boot soles tracked on white carpet.
My stomach roils hot and coppery as the scene replays its photo stills with graphic clarity.
I do not doubt these will stay while I live. I think about the others: the younger men in our squad enveloped in the same red veil. They will have more years to carry what was seen today. In this sense I am grateful.
What would be said of this day in years to come? How long until the disgust becomes one with acedia in varying degrees until numbness becomes dominion and senselessness pervades becoming dull reaction to confronted life?
All the war-mouths telling battle stories: bombs, sortics, trigger fingers typing novels swelling the genre of war literature—fictions, nonfictions, memoirs with contemporary accounts filled with bloody gore, thumped numbers of regiments, battalions. Company logistics punched through like body shots to a reader’s defense. What will be today? One more backdrop to support one more tale of just another day in war? Dead girls, their parents . . . a dead family becoming just another story within a sensational and sanitized expression of “it happened over there.” In a long tale of bloody tales, barstool fodder and dark living room confessions.
No lakeside chats on boats.
Not on benches while cars drive by on the way to VA hospitals.
Outside rooms where prosthetics are fitted. In lines waiting for pills, treatments, and appointments.
In psychiatric offices.
Who in retelling the story will remember that a father had given his eldest daughter a gold pendant? Who else relating the abhorrence of today would remember that the youngest girl resembled her father?
No one will remember them wearing blue as they died.
I lower my body until my Kevlar’s rim rests on the weapon’s feed tray. Night’s somnolent weight presses in.
Moyet is a Kurd.
Moyet is also Christian.
He is our chief interpreter and travels with us through Kadhimiya wearing a ski mask and dark clothing in the stifling heat to disguise himself. We have developed a bond in these first days of his working with us. Learning that I have been college educated and am not an army officer is puzzling to him. We have much in common. We both studied to be teachers. We both worked as private tutors. We both play instruments. I play guitar. Moyet plays the oud (a guitar-like instrument). Prior to the U.S. invasion, he worked as a proofreader to a state-sponsored newspaper.
He has never been a member of the Baath Party even when it was the only way of belonging. His knowledge of Baghdad is extensive and comprehensive.
Moyet and I stood by the old ventilation cubes on the roof behind the fighting position, looking out toward the mosque on our first night at the station.
“The mosque,” I said. “What faith is it? Sunni? Shi’a?”
“That is one of the holy sites for the Shi’ites. That mosque contains the tombs of the 7th and 9th Twelver Imams.”
“The Shi’a had recognized 11 Imams. The 11th had a son that was hidden away, which they call the 12th Imam, the Madhi. They believe he remains on Earth, walking into the dreams of the faithful, and will reveal himself at the end of time to deliver the world into the hands of God.
“I have a basic understanding of Islam, but not the reason behind the infighting between the Sunni and Shi’a.”
“The source of conflict between the Shi’a and the Sunni is that the Shi’a believe that, upon the death of Muhammad, the caliphate . . .
. . . the leadership of the Muslims should have passed down to Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, instead of the three caliphs that were selected, that it should have remained in the family of the Prophet. There was a large conflict that grew between the Sunni and the Shi’a. The Shi’a suffered injustice, suffering . . . even the grandson of the Prophet was murdered.”
I looked at Moyet. “Hussein is Sunni . . . Tikrit, the Sunni Triangle . . . his tribe. The Sunnis held the power here. Over the Shi’ites, right?”
“I imagine it was pretty brutal here then.”
“With Saddam it was more or less contained. By his methods, of course. A hand on all throats. But now, that hand has been cut off. For better, for worse . . . who will be able to say once the real killings begin?”
I look up to suddenly see Moyet squeezing through the slight turn into the bunker.
He sits on a stack of sandbags making a seat against the wall. He takes off his glasses and pinches the top of his nose, breathing deeply.
I look over at him from behind the weapon. “I have Motrin in the front pocket of my pack. Help yourself.”
Moyet laughs. “They are absolutely impossible to please,” he says, rummaging through my pack and pulling out the pills. He pops a few then takes a pull from the water bottle. He smiles. “With your leaders it’s always ‘you’re not telling him what I want you to,’ and ‘you need to tell them to hurry up, Moyet, and translate this and that.’ Captain Montadar yelled at your squad this evening, saying ‘wouldja-theze.’ I would not tell what it meant.”
“What’s it mean?”
“In English, ‘your face, my ass.’”
We laugh. Moyet pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs sweat off his brow.
I say, “Montadar sounds cranky tonight.”
Moyet’s smile fades slightly. “Montadar has four daughters.”
I move to one side of the bunker where I cannot be viewed from the street and light a cigarette. I hide the cherry in my hand. “I’ll ask a shit question . . . isn’t he used to things like that? I mean revenge killing. You Arabs wrote the book on that, right?”
He laughs easy. “You know I am a Kurd, Gehaham.”
His face becomes pensive. “But to answer your question, no. He is not used to such things.” Loud voices rise up from the courtyard. I look over the edge of the bunker. Two Iraqi warrant officers are engaging in a small argument. Moyet leans forward and listens a moment. “Everyone is on edge. Captain Montadar and the watch lieutenants have been in conference with your lieutenant and squad leader. They are planning something to be done tonight.”
“Tonight?” I take a large drag from my cigarette, exhaling slowly. “This’ll be good.”
“Foot patrol into Kadhimiya.”
I laugh. Moyet nods, chuckling softly. “I thought that you would like to know before they called you down.”
“Foot patrol of Kadhimiya in the fucking dark.” I think about the ill-fitting bracket cinched to my helmet to hold my night-vision scope to my eyes. “I inspected my night vision two days ago and replaced the batteries. They work.”
“It should not be a problem. He has a battery-powered searchlight with what he says is a million watts of candle-power.” Moyet says. He smiles sadly.
I share a look with him before bursting into genuine laughter. He chuckles, not sure of what to make of my reaction. A few moments later we’re silent.
I look into Moyet’s face. A dark look has replaced his smile.
“The necklace around her neck, the pendant . . . it was her name. Farrah.”
I nod. “Pretty.” I sigh deeply though a plume of smoke. The voice through my mouth sounds alien. “There’s a TV actress we have by that name—”
“The camera,” Moyet interrupts. “The footage that you took today . . . who sees it? What is done with it?”
“I think it’s taken to Battalion. From there, I don’t know . . . probably goes into a report or a presentation, maybe to Intelligence and then it gets taken and seen elsewhere. I’m not sure what they do with it.”
“I gave your squad leader what was said by the police at the scene. I told him they were Shi’ite. I told him their names. I told him her name was Farrah. He took notes. Will they know the names when they see the pictures? Will they know more than it was a Shi’ite family murdered today?”
“I don’t know, Moyet. All I know is that when I’m told to take pictures, I take pictures. Other than that I’m not sure what information matters to where or to whom.”
He is silent for long moments. He rubs his mouth with his handkerchief and stares at the ground. “It matters,” he murmers, “because I say it matters.”
Standing he snaps out his trance. Slipping his handkerchief back into his pocket he walks to the other side of the bunker. Steeped in darkness, he stands gazing out into the neighborhood.
I crush out my cigarette and then step back behind the weapon. “Stateside, when this type of murder happens, it makes headlines, makes tabloids or smut TV, then it goes away. Replaced by something heavier, usually worse.” I smile briefly. “My wife watches CNN constantly. She tries to see if they’ll have me on some random war footage. Of course I’m never on. She says that anymore most domestic crimes are on a little news bar scrolling at the bottom of the screen.” Another Blackhawk flies through the air above us, blowing dust through the bunker. It passes.
I look at Moyet. “It isn’t something that’s taken lightly. In the local scheme of things, people demand some form of retribution. Justice when something of that magnitude occurs.”
“Then why is it so hard to believe that a family being murdered would not have the same reaction here?”
“Because this is a war zone.” I say, suddenly unsure of my answer. “This place has been, is now, and will be a place of violence. It’s in everything here.”
Moyet’s face hardens. “Then what good was it for you to come here to begin with? Where is the change, that freedom that is supposed to happen with you being here?” He sighs, resting his head on his arm against the bunker wall. He stares into the dark. “Reprisal killings in this neighborhood have increased, yes . . . but for children to die like they did today . . .” He slowly shakes his head with noticeable disgust. “Maybe it is because we have bled for so long, bled from others . . . Ottomans. British. Iranians. Americans. We’ve bled each other. Kurds. Saddam. Sunni. Shi’a. Blood over everyone. So many people have come and gone over this place. They burn it down. We rebuild. Burning down . . . rebuilding. Over and over. The world believes that we could not know what to do with peace.” He looks at me. Then wearily, “Little girls would not die the way they did today, for one thing.”
I stare questioningly at him. “Why did you stay, Moyet? Why didn’t you leave with your parents when they left Baghdad? That’s where your family is, right? At Zakho, up north?”
“You remembered.” Moyet says, genuinely touched. “Yes. They are with my uncles and their families. They were grieved that I was not going to join them.”
“You’re educated.” I say. “I would think your level of knowledge would benefit your people better on their own turf. Become a professor . . . open a school . . . start fresh.” I shake my head. “I try to wrap my head around you. Around the policemen here. Getting bombed and shot at like we are. You don’t have to be here.”
He takes a sip of water. “I have not told you I have cousins who have fought with the Peshmerga against Saddam. The Kurds were treated badly under his regime. There are many who wish for an independent Kurdish state, carved from Iraq. True that it would be wonderful to have a true homeland. A country. However, it is really simple: I have a homeland. Baghdad is my home. I consider myself an Iraqi first.” He looks at me now very serious. “Does that sound hard to believe? Perhaps. Would you believe the majority of the policemen working here work for a peaceful Iraq? Sunni . . . Shi’a . . . even Christians working alongside each other. To them it does not matter. What matters to them is Iraq. Of course, there are policemen suspected of being secret radicals for both sides; Sunnis being part of the insurgency, the Shi’ites being members of death squads. Mahdi militia and the like. It is like that everywhere.”
“And what we saw today?”
He looks out again into the darkness of Kadhimiya. “There are many who believe that the Americans should have removed Saddam and left, leaving us to take care of our own house. Instead, you came and stayed. The Sunni were disenfranchised. The Shi’a have taken their places in power. Now scores are being settled only to be returned . . . back and forth. Then, many join the insurgency because they believe you will rebuild Iraq in your own manner and not in accordance with our wishes. All sides fear for their rights, for their ideologies, their collective safety. What was seen today was the beginning of worse days. More children will die . . . maybe another family . . . families. More pictures taken for presentations made to people to whom little else matters but the accomplishment of whatever it is they believe will complete this task of freeing us. But from what, who is to say?”
His eyes ice over. “But do not doubt for a moment that what happened today is not so easily passed over, that it is seen, then forgotten. Not for a minute. Not by the officers. Not by me.”
I nod slowly. “You said once that you felt closer to the Shi’ites than to the Sunnis in all this.”
“Yes.” Again, he sighs wearily. “I had friends who were Shi’a that had disappeared after speaking out against the Baathists. They worked for an Iraq that would one day not include Saddam. They were as badly treated as the Kurds, and they too consider themselves Iraqi, even going so far as to support Saddam’s war against Iran. It is a paradox.”
Looking toward Kadhimiya, his eyes seem far away. “But it will not be resolved by you. It will be eventually solved by Iraqis for Iraq, and by no others.” He nods slowly, with resolution. “And no more children will die the way they did today.”
We hear his name called loudly by several voices. While they are calling a wrecked police truck on the north end of the courtyard suddenly bursts into a ball of light by a powerful beam shot from the station entrance from the courtyard. Caught in the light around the wreck the rats quickly scurry away. The hardness in Moyet’s face softens into a sad smile.
“I think your lieutenant is almost ready for our walk into the neighborhood.”
My team leader calls out my name from behind the bunker. I chuckle, adjusting the sling on the machine gun and lifting it onto my shoulder.
“After you, Moyet.” He bows mockingly as we exit the bunker.
The lights in the courtyard and along the wall are shut off. Our departure is masked as we quickly move our teams through the gate crossing the street into the neighborhood. Moyet and a dozen police officers come with us. Even in the dark, Moyet wears a tan ski mask and a black turtleneck. The lights are turned on again after we cross over.
There has been a decision made not to don the ill-fitting night vision goggles. I carry a radio mounted in a backpack. I remain close by our lieutenant. Another soldier in our squad has the thankless task of carrying the light. He illuminates whatever our lieutenant directs. Our squad leader follows on the opposite side of the street with the others. All of us are heavily armed. Nervous tension flies over now: man to man-like synapsis. We keep our spacing close as we move into the neighborhood.
Darkness twists in hot snakes back onto itself. Deeper and deeper it coils through the steaming, squalid air. Obsidian mirror tossing starlight away. Metal tastes of nerves and stomach acid in mouths responding to the sheer ongoing idiocy. The gated alleyways on each side street are inimitable mouths of fell creatures in secret substrata earth; agape in slumber easily broken by the footsteps of unwary men.
A yawn, an inhalation.
8-ball black . . . blood poison black . . . mahogany black . . . coffin black . . . coffin . . .
Connotations spin in the record grooves, repeating in the sound of boots striking the pavement . . . black on black on (shit) black . . .
A thinking man runs through the viscera of the dark.
Moving on the sidewalks our boots catch small mounds of rubbish that pull like driftweeds as new garbage smells fall heavy and oiled against our faces. Here and there, small movements of unknown creatures scramble quickly and low along edges of the buildings near us. Their night vision excels as ours fumbles in the blackness.
Buildings rise to canyon heights of negative space. We move in short bursts of speed, crouching low besides vehicles, empty carts, and large piles of trash swarming with squeaking, startled rats. I swim beneath my body armor, soaked and greased as the heat increases the deeper we penetrate into Kadhimiya.
Captain Montadar and Moyet speak low and hurriedly. Our lieutenant calls for a halt.
“They think they saw some movement to the right of our position here, across the street on the rooftop,” Moyet whispers quickly to our platoon leader. The lieutenant whispers orders to the light bearer.
Quiet cursing then a click.
White-hot luminescence cuts through the blackness illuminating half the block and destroys what night vision we had. Dropping down in crouches with weapons poised. Policemen down beside us with AKs raised in uncertain directions
A beam focuses on a rooftop to our right. Kids stand loosely grouped holding hands to their faces, blinded. LT. whispers urgently to Moyet who then quickly speaks Arabic to Captain Montadar who begins yelling at the kids. They quickly break away from the edge of the rooftop. The light shuts off. Darkness returns, blacker than before. We rise up and continue fumbling forward. In only moments shattering glass breaks the silence behind us all. All freeze in mid-motion then one of the Arabs curses loudly.
Moyet laughs and with a nervous whisper to me: “A parting shot from our rooftop snipers.”
I cringe. “Don’t fucking say the words ‘rooftop sniper’ right now, Moyet! Christ!” We move on. I squint through my glasses trying to see as more trash catches my foot in the darkness. Another block. Loud squeaks and a startled cursing from across the street by a soldier. I hear our squad leader nearby growling curses at him as we continue our patrol.
In the distance, above the rooftops of the buildings, a slow green glow begins to part the darkness. I whisper hard to Moyet. “Where the fuck are we going?”
“Do you see the green glow? We are going there.”
“To the mosque?” I say loudly with a voice suddenly separate from my mouth. The LT. mutters “Keep quiet!” I move closer to Moyet. “We’re not going inside it, right? We can’t just enter a mosque!”
Suddenly the beam turns on again. Again we quickly crouch. The light shines down a deep gullet of an alleyway. A few yards down, a large black dog chewing something in a trash pile is frozen in the beam. Our squad leader curses. Moments later a piece of broken concrete lands with a crack near its front paws. It yips and now runs, vanishing into the dark.
We walk again. Moyet moves beside me.
“We will not enter the mosque. The officers will be conducting searches on the grounds outside.”
“Search of what?”
“You will see.”
The green luminescence becomes more brilliant the closer we get, diffusing above the buildings like jade rain.
Despite a clinging apprehension, I feel that any minute we could be fired upon (or pelted with more bottles). An odd giddiness is growing.
Gradually curiosity begins to get the upper hand over the sense of disgust lingering from events of the day. We approach the mosque and the teacher I had been before joining the army takes over. Intellectually, I realize that within the moments I will be seeing something few Westerners have ever seen. I think about the allure that Orientalism has held over the Western mind, how much mystery this area has exuded for hundreds of years. I know that another enigmatic layer will be peeled off by what I am about to see.
I decide that this sight will be worth the risk. In this moment I feel my fear dissipating.
Our group turns into a short alleyway glowing electric-green at the end. A few moments later we emerge onto a wide street before a large open courtyard.
My eyes bathe in green light.
We have arrived.
The masjid, tall and immobile Atlas, as Antiquity, as History before us in wondrous light.
I grapple with the pieces and the whole. My eyes will not stop roving, sliding, grasping at images racing in like heads dipped into a headlong canyon rush. The mosque stands high in its open space. The buildings around it are magnetized. Pulled by an almost gravitational attraction toward the edifice. A true center circle: ornate and pristine. Its facade sporting large calligraphy in green and gold, glowing in sure neon electric illumination. Marble and tile sides of the mosque are colored black with whites and gold lifted in arabesques winding upward to large and golden domes. At their pinnacles hang two black banners with white Arabic letters. Four minarets tower above us glowing at their tops with the same green illumination as the building itself. Chained cables are festooned with strings of white lights.
I have never seen anything so rococo. So spectacularly elaborate. I cannot imagine how long it has taken to construct such a place. Dedication and drive were no doubt complete and total. Arabic comes to mind: salada . . . to worship. This place is a devout treasure house. A storehouse of fervor and adoration. An emerald illumination casting itself skyward toward the great all-seeing eye of the God it serves. A jeweled heart for a people within religion. As an outsider looking in (at dynamics I barely understand) they are as intricate and mystifying as this building that serves as a center in its world.
“One of the holy sites for the Shi’ites.”
I’m thinking about the hardships of the people whose place of worship this is. I empathize that in dark times such a place provides succor and aid to the afflicted masses who seek walled sanctuary.
I know this is truth almost immediately.
The true picture of their situation is in the courtyard.
Completely covered with sleeping bodies.
It is impossible to count the myriad bodies arrayed on blankets, crushed boxes, tarps, or on the bare brickwork of the mosque courtyard. Men and women sleep separately or as couples. Entire families together: fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters from infancy and young adult. Aunts, uncles, cousins are side by side, curled inward in natal safety. Elderly couples nestle together in dependency of one another’s existence. Here and there piles of clothing are arrayed in nomadic keeping. There are some families with dogs on leashes and cats in cages sleeping uneasy alongside their owners. All sleepers bathe in the green light radiating from the walls of the mosque. In that light they all appear one color, one mass belonging to one faith whose power is called upon to dispel the darkness around, to safeguard their lives against the sufferings of the war.
I stand transfixed at the edge of the courtyard. Captain Montadar comes up to Moyet and begins talking quickly to the LT. Moyet translates fast. “There are just as many inside as there are in the courtyard. Captain Montadar has instructed the officers to begin searching the outside grounds for weapons.”
The LT. called our squad leader over and orders us not to enter the courtyard near the mosque. We are to stand in overwatch nearby to provide support to the police officers as they search. Our squad leader orders us to spread out across the street and watch for any signs of movement.
Policemen slowly spread out over the crowd stepping carefully around the sleeping bodies. Moyet walks with them. A couple of dogs begin to slowly bark but are silenced with sharp, quick words. Some rouse from sleep, sensing movement near their bodies. Rising on elbows and knees, rubbing eyes and craning necks, they look up at the policemen. Officers bend low and speak softly. Some are shaking their heads slowly as they are spoken to, while others shrug their shoulders. After a few moments the officers move off. The people lay back down to sleep.
Moyet walks back to the LT. quietly translating what the police are saying to those who are awakened. He tells him they were being asked if they are in possession of any firearms and whether or not they know of any on the grounds. The LT. steps around me lifting the mic from the pack and radios our operations center to report our location and status.
Moyet speaks quietly to me. “Quite a spectacle to take in, is it not? Hundreds of years, and it has stood through blood and bone and bombs. And the people have remained rooted to the ground and let winds blow where they may.”
I nod slowly. He then points out a string of black banners with yellow and white calligraphy hanging along a wall near the edge of the courtyard.
“You have seen the mourning banners around Baghdad. Those are here in the mourning for those Shi’a who have been killed in the area recently. The one at the end was put up today. It is named for the Yasem family.” He looks at me with eyes that, in the green light, seem cast in jade wax.
“It’s for Farrah and her family.” He walks back toward the searching officers.
I reach down into my cargo pocket and pull out the camera.