Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Blue Curtains: A short story*

 I can't say living in Iraq was ever easy but for a child born in uncertain times, my life was not that different from you.Yes, there was fear which I could gauge from my parents eyes and even I knew that violence was always lurking in the shadows. But there was laughter and family and despite the chaos, our lives had a rhythm, a routine filled with cousins, twice removed or three times over, neighbors who became closer than relatives and school.

 I was also one of the lucky ones whose life remained relatively turmoil-free during the Gulf War. My father, an archaeologist, had recognized the signs months before the war and had made arrangements to spirit his family away to safety. All I remember of the night I left Iraq was that my mom, my eldest brother Khaled and sister Nadia were staying behind while Baba (dad) was taking Karam, my second brother and me for a 'holiday'. We were so excited! My dad enthralled us with stories about the pyramids, the mighty Nile and the crocodiles languidly sunbathing on its banks with mouths that could swallow hippos! We couldn't wait. My mother hugged me and my brother and I couldn't understand why she was crying. My dad told me it was because she would miss us. We  would be driving to Cairo and my father in hindsight,  was almost manically upbeat. He encouraged us to sing songs while he regaled us with the mysteries of the pyramids. By the time we arrived at the Syria-Iraq border our minds were inflamed with visions of pharaohs and mummies and we could barely contain our excitement. At the border, my father told the suspicious sentry that he was taking his youngest children to see the pyramids before school started again. Our naive exuberance was perhaps enough to allay their suspicions and we were allowed to cross. Little did I know that in those days paranoia was at its peak and the government fearing a mass exodus, had made leaving Iraq a difficult and protracted ordeal.

My father, a professor was considered"intelligentsia" to be monitored and watched. It had long been whispered that the soldiers were instructed to observe the reactions of the youngest children and use their fear to identify suspected families who wanted to flee. If the children exhibited fear, the solders had orders to arrest the parents and haul them to the notorious jails reserved for traitors. No one had ever come back the same from those.

We made our way to Egypt via Syria. My mother and 2 eldest siblings followed a month later via Jordon. They left Iraq on the pretext of visiting a sick relative. My mother doesn't talk much about the journey but till today, Khaled's face tightens and my sister has a streak of fear in her eyes every time any one mentions their time crossing the Jordan-Iraq border.

Life in Egypt was uneventful. My father had a secure teaching position and he insisted we become fluent in English and at the least, acquire our bachelors. I grew up loving archaeology and much to our father's delight, I chose to  pursue my PhD in archaeology. In my second year,  I was invited to present my research at the University of Iraq and after my talk, I was taken aback when they offered me a teaching position as a lecturer. There was optimism in the air. Saddam and his oppressive regime was gone and there was hope of revival and peace.The visions of progress inflamed us young, expat Iraqis. Against my father's better judgement, I stayed behind for the interview and met dozens of young, enthusiastic professors keen on making a difference. I was swept away in their euphoria and dreams of restoring the fractured and stunted society. One of them, was Suleiman. Tall and broad shouldered, his Phoenician lineage evident in his copper-toned hair and gold flecked hazel eyes. Those beautiful eyes crinkled when he laughed and made my heart skip beats every time he spoke. His booming laughter and gentle teasing of my Egyptian accent made me blush furiously, which made everyone laugh even more. Before I knew it I was deeply in love with the son of a legendary academic. Suleiman's father, Rahim Mustafa, was a literary giant who wrote the definitive tome on Islamic art and his idealistic son grew up listening to tales of past glory. Suleiman dreamed of restoring Iraq's place as the center of knowledge and culture and envisioned a society where discourse and ideas were free. He wanted utopia and I was enamored by his vision. 

 I started teaching in Iraq while finishing my thesis on ancient Mesopotamian antiquities.Teaching was hard with no resources but gradually, more and more students signed up. I was the youngest lecturer on campus where the average of faculty was in their 30s. It was an exhilarating, heady time and I was overjoyed when Suleiman's father called on my parents to inquire about a possible match. My parents, already upset about me living in Iraq would only give their consent on the condition that we would return to Egypt. They even offered to get Suleiman a job but his whole family had lived through the war and were tied to the land. So despite my parents very vocal reservations, Suleiman and and I got married.

I slipped into married life quiet comfortably. Suleiman was an easy man to love and we settled into an effortless partnership with long debates over endless cups of coffee. Our strong opinions made for interesting and heated arguments which made making-up all the more sweeter. Suleiman's mother had passed away before the war so it was only his father a who lived with us, while his older brother had immigrated to Canada. His sister Reem, a doctor, was married and lived a few kilometers away. I  instantly became a part of this close knit family. I, who was the apple of my Baba's eyes and missed him terribly, found a loving father with a wicked sense of humor and a resounding love for Pavarotti. My sister-in-law filled the void l felt being separated from my own sister and despite the economic hardships, life was simple and happy for us. Two years after our marriage, I found out I was pregnant and we were blessed with a baby girl. I still remember how Suleiman  distributed sweets to the entire neighborhood and the joy on his face when he held our daughter, Haya for the first time. Haya also brought with her a tearful reconciliation with my family who finally accepted Suleiman and gave him his proper place as a beloved son-in-law. Yunus was born a 1.5 year later and I was content with my stance in life.

They say that misfortune has a way of catching up to you and sooner or later we all bear the weight of that burden. While I had built my own little world, I wasn't immune to the the crumbling social order around me. Living all these years in Iraq had perhaps blunted my initial euphoria as we found time and again, that our dreams  and aspiration for Iraq would never be allowed to flourish by monsters who profited from war and destruction. An unstable Iraq was too big of a business to lose and bunch of idealistic academics were defenseless and insignificant to bring about any meaningful change.

 We learned quickly that it was best to keep your heads low and we clung desperately to the belief that if we played by that script and lived our little lives, then the horrors closing in all around us would be kept at bay. But little by little the edges started fraying. The newspapers were full of stories of people disappearing, never to be heard from again and ironically they were the lucky ones. The butchered remains of others were delivered to their homes to scar their children and terrify the families into submission. Many of the young professors in our circles had either already left or were in the process of leaving There were whispers of terrible things and yet I stubbornly believed that we were too insignificant to be noticed. We were very careful to never speak out publicly on political issues. We kept our opinions to our selves not trusting anyone besides our closest families. We epitomized the ordinary man and felt invincible in our ordinariness. We were just teachers teaching art and archaeology for God's sake, we were the keepers of our shared, glorious history. Why would they harm us? Both of  us clung to that rationalization with tenacity. It almost became a mantra which we would repeat to our selves over and over, until we were both convinced that it was true.

My faith in our insignificance did not waver even when I noticed a strange man loitering outside our house, and the same man following us when I went to the market.The man who would melt into the crowd when I turned, but whose menacing presence loomed every where I went. I dismissed it as a coincidence and focused zealously on trying to keep our lives as normal as possible. I was determined to redecorate our living room.There wasn't much we could do for furniture. A thriving furniture industry was not exactly a priority in Iraq when most of the stores were shuttered up. Fabric on the other hand, were readily available. I became obsessed with finding blue curtains. As child I always had blue curtains in my room and I craved that peaceful feeling I would get when the first morning light peeked through the blue curtain and created dancing shadows on the wall. I searched high and low but nothing came close to what I envisioned.

Until one day while hurrying through the bazaar before curfew, I walked passed a a hovel in the wall, which I would normally overlook, had it not for the the glint of a blue fabric peeking through the half- opened window. It took my breathe away. A deep, peacock blue with flashes of aquamarine only found in the depths of the sea. It reminded me of the color of the water at the seaside resort we would visit as children. As the cloth fluttered in the wind, I was instantly transported back to the beach, feeling the sand between my toes, hearing Karam's laughter, teasing Nadia or playing hide and seek with Khaled, while my parents watched bemusedly. I paid a lot more than what it was worth but it represented something happy and happy was in short supply in those days.

I came home brimming with excitement. The tailor has solemnly promised he would stitch the curtains and have them delivered to my house in a week. There wasn't much to do at work since the university was as good as closed as despite our valiant efforts it was deemed too unsafe to teach. Baghdad had devolved into a chaotic, violent maelstrom with many areas becoming inaccessible and almost impenetrable. Our neighborhood was one of the last remaining cosmopolitan areas where race and  religious affiliation were considered archaic concepts to be tolerated but certainly not followed. Our neighbors were doctors, lawyers and professionals who just wanted to live their lives even though the violence was just a hair breathe away.

Every night, the blasts seemed to be getting closer and closer. Not trusting the police, the men in our neighborhood started patrolling the streets while their wives and mothers wilted away the nights in watchful vigils, sickened with terror. Sleep had become something of a stranger to me at and its silly really, but the only thing that kept me going was the thought of my blue curtains. I imagined how they would look fluttering in the cool December breeze and how they would magically keep the negativity out of our little sanctuary. My sister-in-law and her husband moved in with us as their neighborhood had been taken over by a rebel fraction and since it was safer for all of us to be together, Suleiman insisted they move in with us, much to my delight. Reem and I were kindred spirits. We know what the other was thinking wordlessly and with a single glance. She had a way of making me laugh even when I was in the foulest of moods. When we all were together the instability around us seems a little less menacing and a little more distant. I still remember our last supper. Sitting in the dark, surrounded by the glow of twinkling candlelight. Haya snuggled next to Reem Ammo (Aunt), Yunus sleeping contently in Baba's arms while he gently hummed Caruso. Reem mercilessly teasing her brother on his expanding waistline.The warm memory of that evening lingers like sweet perfume in my mind. If I had only known what I know now I would have made sure I told Reem and Baba how much they meant to me and how their loss would irrevocably change us.

On that ominous Tuesday there was a malevolence in the air. I could intuit the advent of a dark storm but could not articulate it. Suleiman, Baba and Reem left together that morning. Reem wanted to check on her patients and the men were going to go to the bazaar to get groceries and essentials. Reem waved from the car and that goofy smile of her made me laugh as usual. I waved back and blew her a kiss. Not knowing this would be the last time I would see my beloved sister of my heart. They stopped at the market and were about to head to the hospital when Suleiman as usual forgot to buy diapers for Yunus. He quickly looped out of the car to the store while Baba and Reem waited in the car. As he was running back,  there was a loud ear-splitting boom and the last thing Suleiman remembered was seeing the car engulfed in a huge ball of flames and hot, burning metal ricocheting and melting everything it touched. The piercing pain in his head jolted Suleiman back to consciousness. He couldn't see clearly and eyes felt seared and raw. He had landed on something soft and he turned around to see a bloodied and torn bag of diapers. He absentmindedly picked them up and put it in his tattered satchel not realizing that it was the blood from his own wounds seeping through the cotton. His ears were ringing and everything around him was muted, almost detached, until the smell of burning rubber and flesh assaulted his senses and brought him back to reality. He could barely stand and staggered through the maze of dazed, bloodied people, tripping over body  charred, blackened body parts. He stumbled to where our car should have been, but instead found a smoldering mangle of steel and two people who he loved dearly, burned beyond recognition. Suleiman stricken by grief tried to get them out of the wreckage and till today his hands bear the testimony of his futile desperation. He was pulled away to safety by strangers themselves bereft with grief. He sat at that pavement for hours, numb and crushed beneath the weight of his own broken trust.

Six kilometers away the force of the blast rattled our widows and inexplicably my legs buckled violently as the world around me spun out of orbit. I was staring at a deep abyss pierced with an intense foreboding of doom.  I knew without a shadow of a doubt that something terrible had happened. I could feel it in my bones that my family would never be the same again.  I tried calling Suleiman, Reem, Baba frantically, only for it to go straight to voicemail. The next few hours were spent in terrified agitation. I tried calling every one we knew for any information and no one could tell me anything. A few hours later my neighbor's young son came home ashen-faced and told us that a car bomb had detonated in the bazaar. I left my kids with our neighbor and dashed to the hospital with my brother-in-law bracing for the worse. After two terrifying hours, I finally found Suleiman clutching a bloodied satchel with  tattered diapers. When he saw me he wordlessly handed me the bag while the doctor tended to his wounds. Suleiman looked terrible. His hands were burnt and there was so much blood. His own mingled with the blood of countless others caught in the blast. But the look in his eyes was what was what scared me the most. It was a look of a man who had finally been broken. Of a man haunted by betrayal. There was a police inspector there who warily informed us that the bomb was deliberately placed and that my family had been targeted. I  saw my brother-in-law crumple to the floor in sheer agony at losing his precious, vivacious wife. I could not process that Baba and Reem were gone and that we had been the victims of a senseless, heinous crime. We were ordinarily people damn it!  It turns out we were the wrong kind of ordinary and that made us targets. The inspector resignedly informed us that there was nothing they could do to protect us. We were on our own. Pariahs in our own country.

Suleiman and I limped back home that evening too distraught in our grief to even speak but we knew what we had to do to protect our children. We had to leave Iraq. I somehow got through to my parents and Suleiman's older brother. For the next few days after the funeral, we held prayers at our home and I used that opportunity to sneak out to the bank, camouflaged from prying eyes by the mourners  constantly streaming in and out. I managed to get all our jewellery and thanks to a sympathetic bank manager transferred a reasonable portion of our saved money to my account in Egypt. We had to be careful as to not arouse any suspicion. There were many unfriendly, spying eyes in the bank waiting to sniff out if money was leaving Iraq. We intended to leave after the last rites and packed light. We left behind many precious things  and it was difficult to leave behind our memories but I could not bear to leave Baba's precious Pavarotti records. I knew we would have to forsake our house and that there was a good chance that once our absence was uncovered, our house would be usurped. But that was a price we had to pay for our safety.

On the eve of our departure the door bell rang. I wasn't expecting anyone so we were naturally suspicious. I looked through the peep hole and it was the tailor. I had forgotten about my blue curtains! I retrieved the package and my hands shook as I gingerly unwrapped the crisp, brown wrapping that contained my long-awaited curtains. They sapphire luminescence  of the cloth was flawless. The color was reminiscent of the ocean on a warm, sunny day and even more vibrant than I remembered and they utterly broke my heart.  I had not cried or even had time to process my loss, broke down clutching those curtains. I cried for all that was lost:our family, our lives that we had so painstakingly built, our dignity, our safety. They were perfect and I had to leave them behind. I lovingly packaged them again, put them in the linen closet and shut the door behind me and along with my brother-in- law and a bevvy of like-minded neighbors, melted away into the night as far away from Iraq as we could.

Our time in Egypt was one of reflection and healing. My family fiercely embraced us as only family can do. My brothers came to Jordan to escort us back to Egypt and I once again became the sister of two protective brothers who were forever ready to defend their sister. I will always be grateful to my parents and sister who enveloped my two children in so much love that they barely remember their time in Iraq. Egypt was good to us but everything reminded us of our home. The smells, the hustle bustle of gossiping neighbors, the haggling vendors. It was all too familiar. While I found safe sanctuary with my parents, Suleiman become a shell of the man he once was and it quickly became apparent that we needed a drastic change to restore my husband's withering soul.

Then the unrest in Egypt started and although it was never to the degree of what we experienced in Iraq, it dredged up traumas that completely paralyzed Suleiman. He started having debilitating nightmares and I knew that he would not be able to survive another upheaval. So when his brother offered to sponsor us, we jumped at the opportunity and that is how we came to Canada. A land of ice and snow, so different from anything we have ever known but also of warm hearts and big smiles where we restarted our lives again. We don't know many people yet but our kids are safe and can walk to school without fear of reprisal or violence. Suleiman has started to smile again. Especially after our twins Reem and Rahim were born. Even Pavarotti is back in our lives and Suleiman and the kids spend hours enthralled by the voice of a malak ( an angel) while my husband lovingly tells our kids about their namesakes

 Life in Iraq became intolerable and we got word that our neighborhood was eventually engulfed in the flames of alien discord. Last I heard, it has been taken over and all the remaining occupants had been driven out. New families of the 'right kind' had moved into our homes and carried on living our lives. On a whim, I asked an acquaintance who was visiting Iraq to see if my house was still there. He did one even better and took a picture of our house. When he emailed me the picture, my heart skipped a beat. There on the second floor window, shimmering in bright sun, were my lovely blue curtains.

I am often asked if am I angry at the people who moved in and after much thought I know I am not.  It's a vicious cycle. Today it's them, tomorrow it will be someone else.They too must have been forced out of their homes just like I was so I cannot bear them any malice. It gives me a measure of comfort seeing my curtains because as long as they are hanging in that home, a piece of me stays there too.

 * Blue Curtains was inspired by a conversation I had with my neighbor about some of her experiences fleeing Iraq.  All characters appearing in this short story and the story-line are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental . 

©Madmomdent@blogspot.ca 2016

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