The pair of children wouldn't stop crying. Their wails pierced the chilly morning air and made Walid feel like he was at a funeral. He had half a mind to hit them. Their parents were slowly loading their car, as if in a daze. He didn't know why they were surprised. They had been given a warning a week ago, yet they ignored it.
"Abdullah, make sure there's no police or Americans," Walid pointed to the street.
Abdullah gave him a prolonged stare then walked out. Abdullah had called Walid weak when he refused to allow any physical harm come to the family. Walid yelled at him, and in the end Abdullah backed down, but in the silence that lingered, Walid felt he was going to lose his grip on his group. Walid would have to keep an eye on Abdullah. The man liked violence for its own sake, grabbed ideas and found violent ways to back them up. He was dangerous and Walid didn't like him. He sent Abdullah to the street because he had been pushing the couple around.
Walid watched the other members of his gang lounge around the house. None of them seemed to have their heart in the matter. Some of them picked off assorted items they liked. But with Abdullah there was a certain relish that seemed improper.
This family was Sunni. Walid had known them before the invasion. They were nice people. But they were Sunni, and these days they couldn't be trusted. Who knew if a relative, who worked with terrorists, was to come by? Then another Shiite marketplace would be torn to shreds. Walid was still filled with anger whenever he thought of the marketplaces being bombed and the Golden Mosque being destroyed.
They were in Hurriya and Walid had made a promise to clear it of any Sunnis. He knew what the great Al-Sadr was saying, it wasn't the Sunnis, but he didn't believe the words coming out of that man's mouth. Not this time.
He turned to Haji. His friend seemed to shrink in size, as if he was scared of Walid's eyes.
Ever since he had shot that police chief, the police had been ceding them way. No one tried to push the group around at checkpoints. They were invincible in this area. And everyone in the group looked at Walid with a newfound respect, especially Haji. But even with that respect Walid felt the need to keep finding new ways to impress them.
Haji was holding an old pistol in his hand. "He has a gun that he wants to take," Haji shook the gun in his hand. "He says it is to protect his family."
The man stood behind Haji with a look of a dog. Walid felt some sorrow for him. He was right; it would be almost murder to let the man go without a weapon of some sort in this country. But his entire group was looking on. Walid couldn't appear weak. He felt as if even Abdullah, out on the street, could hear this.
"Please, we have nothing else. My family,"
Walid reached out his hand with all the fingers touching at their tips to make the man stop talking. "How can we be sure you will not use it against us, or some innocent people?"
"No, I don't do such things. Rajaan, Please," the man clasped his hands together.
Walid looked him over. He was frail, with a bent back and shiny thick hair. He was groveling in front of his woman. This was not right. Walid felt a wave of exhaustion come over him. No matter how hard he pushed the world wouldn't budge.
"Keep it then," he felt everyone look at him. He would not dance to their eyes.
He had restarted the checkpoints after he shot the policeman. They learned to take the car, take everything of whichever Sunni they caught. His distaste for what they did wore off, but it still left an aftertaste. He handed the killing and dumping of bodies to the others in the group. Everyone in his group owned a car and they were now selling the extra ones to gain money. Other young men in their neighborhood, cousins of men in his group wanted to join up but he had to be careful about who he let in.
"You let him keep the gun?" Abdullah asked in a sneering tone, the rest of the group shifted to his words. They were in Haji Salaam's living room again; a new carpet and new furnishings filled the room with shiny surfaces and singular polished smells. They were all smoking out of a hookah pipe, celebrating the money they had taken from the Sunni family they had kicked out earlier that day. What was supposed to be a meeting about the future of the group and how to let new people in, was now becoming a confrontation.
In their silence he could see they agreed with Abdullah. The man was acting too brazen, Walid would have to step up again.
"Minoo, who is the boss here?" he leered at Abdullah, squinting his eyes.
"Why would the boss give Sunnis their gun back?"
Walid paused as he thought about what he was going to say. He would rather have been dealing with other issues; he could see Abdullah gaining stature in the eyes of the group. "How dare you say something like that? Who ordered the house be taken? Whose idea was it to take a person's house? It was maltee, mine," he jabbed his finger at himself then his accuser. "You are nothing but a kelb, dog, let me show what we do with dogs," he stepped forward aggressively.
To his credit, Abdullah didn't flinch. "Okay, so the first house we took was your idea, but ever since that you have avoided it. Admit it. We would not have gone to this house if I hadn't made us," Abdullah pointed his thumb at his chest and looked around. The eyes of everyone in the group went back and forth.
At least they hadn't taken any sides yet, thought Walid. He didn't have much more time to squash this little semi-rebellion. Abdullah seemed to have been able to smell his fears from the get go.
Walid knew Abdullah was itching for a fight. It wasn't the worst attitude to have these days in Iraq. Abdullah was wiry and full of energy. Walid also knew that Abdullah had a cousin killed in a market bombing; it was entirely reasonable to want to kill as many of them as possible.
"Please, we should not fight amongst ourselves," Haji Salaam pleaded to the two of them.
Walid waved him off with his hand.
"You are a fool Abdullah. And an ungrateful one at that," Walid stepped towards Abdullah until their faces were inches away from each other. With one hand he reached for his handgun stuffed in the waistband of his pants. "I am the boss, you are a dog. Remember that. I have come up with the idea and will choose to go as I please. Do you understand that?" as he spoke he knew that he shouldn't bother trying to explain himself or admit his weaknesses, he should just push until Abdullah bent. And no matter how much bravado Abdullah had, he still hadn't done much in his life. And he did not have the backing of everyone else in the group.
"The gun," Abdullah spoke with a hint of softness in his voice.
Walid pulled out his gun, he was only a foot away from Abdullah. "What gun? This one?" he turned the barrel so it grazed Abdullah's cheek. Walid saw him flinch and knew he had won. "Are you calling me a coward?" Walid stepped back and looked around the room, everyone was too scared to move. He pointed the gun back at Abdullah. "Are you?"
"No," Abdullah said, barely above a whisper.
Walid smiled. He had won. "Then sit down," he pointed at the coach with his gun. Abdullah stared at him for a few seconds, his eyes full of venom, before he sat down. Walid looked around again, every relaxed slightly. "So you're not a coward?"
"No," Abdullah said in a deeper voice.
"You talk too much Abdullah," Walid stared at other people in the group to make certain that he had their attention. "You remind me of a policeman I once knew," Walid paused as others in the group chuckled. "His last words to me were 'no' as well," the group burst out into furious laughter. Walid felt that it was slightly forced, but he still liked it. "But don't worry, you are in my army. We call it jaish al-Walid," the men continued to laugh. Walid could see that Abdullah was forcing a laugh too.
"This is why I am the leader," he waved the gun in the air. "I think with my head. I don't think with my balls," he grabbed his groin with his other hand. "Like you do," he pointed the gun at Abdullah then tucked it back in his pants.
Some of the men in the group nodded with a strange air of sagacity and cigarettes were passed around. Walid let them talk before sitting down, all the while he kept his eye on Abdullah, who seemed to be sulking.
"There is the issue of us having too many people join us at once. Everyone here," he gave a sweeping gesture, "is now a leader. I will allow you to recruit people but be careful of who you let in. They should be people you completely trust with your hayetkum lives. Because, in the end, your life is in their hands."
Everyone nodded, but Walid wasn't certain if he was getting through to them. "There are many informants for the Americans, the police, the army, that we need to be careful of. They are everywhere. Understood?" he took in his men again. Eight of them. And he had to make certain that they were under his control. His survival required it.
"What about the Americans?" asked Abdullah, his voice still tense.
"What about them?"
"Aren't we going to hit them? What are we telling the people in this neighborhood if we don't attack them?" Abdullah looked around trying to gather some support.
"Don't talk to me of Americans. What have you ever done to fight them?" Walid wondered if Mahmud had ever been doubted like this, in front of people from the neighborhood.
Abdullah raised his hands as if in surrender.
At least he was being respectful thought Walid.
There wasn't much else that Walid could do about the question; it had been on his mind as well. Not because he particularly wanted to attack them but because he knew it would be asked of him soon. That attacking the Americans would be absolutely necessary to do so unless he wanted to lose the respect of his men, lose the fear of the others in the neighborhood. There was always Mahmud, those dreams. Walid pantomimed smoking at cigarette at Haji. He threw Walid a cigarette. Walid lit it and sucked down some nicotine. The complete silence while he did this soothed him, as it indicated he had some control over them—over their minds. That's what he wanted to have.
"Good question," he shook his finger at Abdullah. "That is the main reason I called this meeting," he kept his eyes on Abdullah who seemed not to believe his words. Walid looked over at Haji who was also looking at Abdullah.
"Your cousin in Sadr City, right?"
Haji seemed to take a second to break out of a daydream. "Ye...yes."
"He knows people high up in jaish al-Mahdi, Mahdi Army?"
"Good, then tell him we will need some weapons. Some of those Iranian bombs we've been hearing about. Got it?"
"Yes," Haji nodded, squirmed under Walid's gaze. "Now?"
"Now. We'd better find out what all the obstacles will be," he sucked in more nicotine and looked at the rest of the group. "Anyone else know of how to get weapons? We will get our hands on as many as we can and keep them in safe places. Not," he raised his finger. "In anyone's house. If you know of some people willing to help we can keep the weapons in safe places and that way if they are caught they will never be traced to us. Okay?"
"What if they rat us out?"
"They won't. We will frighten them. But we need to know some people in the police, and some people in the Army. It will help us in time."
"And the Americans?"
He waved his hand, annoyed. "They will only arrest the men and lock them away. We won't be touched," again he could see everyone agreeing diligently. He had them. They believed in him. The thought made him feel elated.
"Walid," Haji walked back into the room. "My cousin will help if you will meet him."
Walid paused. He knew it wasn't going to be easy, but neither did he want to walk into a trap. Jaish al-Mahdi wasn't exactly the most disciplined group in the world. After all, he claimed to be a member to gain credibility, but it wasn't based on any vetting. "Where?"
"Sadr City. I know where he lives so we can go whenever you like."
"He'll be ready today?"
"Then we will meet with him," he looked at the group. He didn't want anyone in the group to see him stutter or show nervousness. So he would take only one more person.
The short man with a slight paunch perked his ears up. He looked as if he had been daydreaming the entire time. That was how Mohammad had been since he was a child. Walid had grown up with him, Haji and a few others in the group. He might have been in a constant daze but he was smart and always down for a thrill.
"You will come with us."
Mohammad groaned out loud and everyone laughed. Walid smiled. At least the car ride over would be full of jokes. Though at times, Mohammad could get on his nerves.
"Everyone else," Walid barked, he enjoyed giving orders more and more. "I want you to ask as many people as you know how many weapons they have, and if anyone has connections to 'abowa nsfa, bombs and also," he raised his finger a long with his voice. "Places to hide them," his eyes moved over to Abdullah. "You," Walid pointed at his nemesis who seemed to jump. Walid remembered a small lecture given to Mahmud and him the day before Mahmud had died. It had been given by a Sadr militia captain. "You will find all the best palm groves where we will be able to dig and hide things. Make sure it's where the soil is soft. Then find large plastic bags and shovels. Got it?"
Abdullah looked around. "Nam, yes."
Before they got into the car, the other two hid some guns in dug out holes underneath the seat. Walid had everyone in the group install them after he had almost been caught by a random American checkpoint. It was a good idea. Today, however, he had an overwhelming feeling that some Iraqi was going to shoot him, so he kept his gun in his waistband. He could always hide it in a pinch. In the car Haji drove and Mohammad sat in the back, his eyes closed.
"What are we doing this for?" Haji asked.
"Because it must be done. We can't just rob other Iraqis, as bad as they maybe," Walid light a cigarette. He wasn't in the mood for more arguments. The confrontation with Abdullah had drained the energy out of him. At least he knew Haji wasn't thinking of usurping him. His dear friend Haji wouldn't dare take a piss without asking first.
"La, no, it musn't. You know what will happen if we are caught driving back with bombs? This isn't an extra magazine; they won't just take it away. They will throw us in jail forever. If they don't kill us first. Come on friend, you know that it won't work out this way."
"Be quiet Haji. If you are not man enough to fight against the Americans you should have said so in front of everyone else. Then everyone would know where your heart lies," Walid looked over and could see his words had hurt his friend. He shouldn't have been so harsh. This was a childhood friend, not Abdullah. Besides, his friend raised some good points.
"You shouldn't say such things. You know where qelbee, my heart lies. Haven't I always helped you?" Haji spoke, his voice rusty with a tinge of fright.
Walid took a deep breath. The people he had here were his closest friends. The men that he could trust no matter what happened. He looked back to where Mohammad sat. Though his friend appeared to be sleeping, there was a slight crack in his eyelid, movement of his eyeball; he was faking it, listening to everything. That was Mohammad since birth. A fly on the wall. Never voicing an opinion. Walid felt slightly uncomfortable that he didn't know exactly where Mohammad stood on most matters. His friend always just shrugged his shoulders after some traumatic event and said: "Baqeat Allah, God remains."
Walid placed a hand on Haji's shoulder. "I did not mean what I said, azizi, friend," he patted him. "This will be done carefully, I will make sure none of us will get caught. All right?"
"How can you promise that? No one knows how these Americans work. Not you. Many men have died. Men better than y...us. Are you doing this because you think Abdullah will think less of you?"
Walid clenched his fists, but held himself back from striking his friend. He was trying to be nice, but the questions were out of hand. The car smelled of smoke and cologne, the smell made him want to spit. "I am not doing this for Abdullah!" he yelled, reaching for his gun reflexively. He could see Haji flinch. Perhaps he had to be mean to everyone.
"Take it easy you two," Mohammad spoke up, leaning forward in his seat.
"What do you have to say?" Walid turned around.
"Well that you two are fighting over nothing. You," he pointed at Walid. "Shouldn't listen to that clown, Abdullah, so easily. He's just a loud mouth who will get us into trouble. And you," he pointed at Haji who had stopped at an intersection and turned to listen. "Should not be so scared. We can be careful then we can get away with a bit. We are men, how can we stand by and watch these Americans get away with what they do?"
"That's not my problem. If you don't fight they won't come after you," muttered Haji.
"Then why were you angry the day they came to your mother's house and touched her in front of you?"
Haji turned back and started to drive, his jaw muscles tightened.
"And now you will remain quiet? Walid, t'arif, do you know what you're doing?"
Walid knew his friend was trying to be helpful but he didn't need the help, it sounded condescending. "What do you know about fighting Americans?" Walid laughed sarcastically. He tapped Haji. "The great Saladin here wants to tell me how to fight. What have you ever done in your life Mohammad?"
"That's not the point."
"Then be quiet. There are too many things here that you don't know anything about. Let me take care of everything. And please, don't think for us."
He looked back and could see Mohammad looking off into the Baghdadi street as they drove by. This wasn't the anger Walid wanted to see, but he didn't really know what he was doing. It just felt right to have control over his friends, the people around him.
Mohammad looked at the street passing them by. This one was filled with people going everywhere, markets full of goods. He normally loved coming here just to browse. Up front Walid and Haji rode in silence. They were close to crossing the bridge and getting to the East side of Baghdad, where the infamous Sadr City lay. Mohammad lit a cigarette. He had been able to afford more and more. In that way they were lucky. Few people were making money these days, and just like under the Saddam, those who made money were close to the government. It disgusted him how it worked. But people would always be like this. His father had told him as much.
Though he was happy to be part of Walid's group, whose enterprising attitude made them a lot of money, he was getting sick of how Walid pushed him around. He had done it since childhood. Sooner or later Mohammad was going to have to make a stand. But not now. Walid was stronger than him. Mohammad would have to think of a way. Usually he made a smart-ass remark. But not these days. Ever since Walid had killed the policeman he had been ultra serious. Taking any joke as a threat and reaching for his pistol.
Even when Walid had returned from Karbala, told everyone that Mahmud was dead, he hadn't been so mean. He only spoke less and stayed out of trouble. Then the Golden Mosque got bombed and it seemed to switch something in him.
"Turn on some music, will you?" he leaned his head between the two of them and grinned facetiously. "I don't think I can take much more of this solemn drive. You two are like old men," he looked up to Walid who seemed to be reaching for his gun again, like a child reaching for his mother.
"tahchee, you talk too much Mohammad," Walid grunted.
"And you need to play music," he entertained the thought of pushing Walid as far as he could, see if he would actually snap. But he remembered the story of the police chief. Haji had been so scared that day, as if he had seen a ghost. He was certain Walid was going to go on a killing spree. Mohammad had known better, he knew his friend's demons. Now, he was not so sure.
Haji pushed in a tape and it started to blare out some Lebanese pop that Mohammad wasn't fond of. He preferred American music, but he could never say that here to these men. As time passed, they seemed to lose all the humor of their youth. Perhaps it was time for him to do the same. No matter how he felt inside, or how he tried to remain that way other forces pushed him. If you swim in blood, it gets inside you sooner or later. No, he thought, he had to fight this craziness. What else was there to hold onto?
He leaned back and listened to the nonsensical words of the singer. He had always wanted to visit Lebanon.
The car was drenched in Walid's cologne. They went to a market the other day and his friend had purchased the cheapest kind, a lot of it. Mohammad had tried to warn him, but didn't seem to get through to him. He may have been tough, but Walid could not dance well with money.
They were coming up to a bridge when a fleet of Humvees and small tanks turned and started to roll out barbed wire. "Damn it. The Americans have started another nukta tefteesh, checkpoint," Mohammad groaned and pulled out a cigarette. He had been caught in one before and had been treated roughly after he had smiled and tried to make a joke. "I hate Americans. They have less humor than you two," he blurted and caught Walid's glare, though Haji managed to smirk.
"Isn't that right old grumpy man?" he patted Haji on the shoulder.
"Will you shut up for a second? You are more use when you're sleeping, you know that?" Walid spoke, though there was some nervousness in his tone.
Mohammad looked his friend over. It was so sad how rough he had become. Always snapping, always looking for ways to push others. Something bad must have happened in Karbala. After that day Walid wasn't so full of praise for Al-Sadr. Still, whatever Walid's issues were, Mohammad had to stand up for himself. His wife had been telling him as much. There was a gnawing feeling that Walid was shorting him of his rightful amount of money.
"Well how about you hide your gun, Saladin. If they catch you with a handgun they might use it as an excuse to shoot you. Then where will you be?"
Walid turned and pointed his finger at him, then shook his head. He turned back and pulled his handgun and stuffed it into the secret compartment under the car seat.
Mohammad threw his cigarette out. He lit another one. He was getting sick of being treated like this. They were about three cars out from being checked. "Hide your money. My cousin said he was robbed of all his cash at one of these American checkpoints," Mohammad muttered.
Haji looked in the rearview mirror with a crinkled forehead. "Really? I have usually don't problems with them. It's only the Iraqi Army that's no good. They took my cash a week ago."
"Both of you shut up. They don't like it when we talk too much."
"What happened to the great Saladin?" Mohammad muttered. "If you're too quiet they'll think you're a Sunni going to bomb them."
"Be quiet, please?" Haji murmured.
Mohammad looked at Haji. He was nervous. Mohammad would stay quiet for him. Haji he liked, though he could be too much of a lamb, especially in front of Walid. "Yes, I'll be quiet. Because you asked nicely," he blew some smoke to the front of the car. "You should take some lessons from him, Saladin."
"Don't call me Saladin," Walid said, though the anger had faded from his voice. Perhaps the Americans scared him. "And you're wrong about the Americans. They're not all thieves. Only some."
Mohammad took the measured tone like a hit. He wasn't certain why. Perhaps inside his friend a kinder man was trying to break out.
"Hello," an American wrapped in a helmet and digitized uniform smiled at them. He looked nice.
"Hello," Mohammad peered back at the face. It was chubby, young. He wondered if the kid liked what he was doing.
In the front an older American soldier stood next to an interpreter who covered his face with a piece of cloth. They peppered Haji and Walid with some questions about insurgents. What a way to find out. As if anyone would say something in a car in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Sometimes these Americans didn't think. He looked at the young soldier who seemed like he didn't want to be there. Mohammad reached for a cigarette and handed it to the soldier. The soldier hesitated for a second before taking it. Mohammad felt the jolt of a connection. In his periphery, he could see Walid eyeing him.
The older soldier, in front, turned after the soldier had lit his cigarette.
"What the hell are you doing soldier?!"
"No...nothing sir," the soldier stammered. Mohammad couldn't understand everything that was being said, but he could tell from the body language. The older soldier was probably a leader and probably was as big an asshole as Walid. When the older soldier finished yelling, the younger one walked away. Mohammad felt bad. Walid was giving him evil stares when they were waved through. They drove past the older soldier who was looking at the next car.
They stopped at the last roll of barbed wire. The younger soldier was there. He stopped the car and tossed in a short can of soda before waving them past.
Mohammad smiled; he caught the blue eyes of the soldier. They were soft. The Americans weren't so bad after all. But what a way to spend a youth. Especially if you didn't have to.
"You had better beware, the soda could be poisoned," Haji spoke, still with a sense that he was scared of what the world had to offer.
"Don't be a child, it's fine," Mohammad retorted.
Walid turned. "You just can't be quiet for a single second, can you? What if you got the Americans angry enough to strip-search the car. Did you think about that?"
"No. I didn't," Mohammad said, with a taste of disgust in his mouth. He opened the soda and drank it. It was an odd taste of orange and a bite of bubbles. But it went down smoothly. He offered his two friends a drink but they refused. "These Americans can make a great drink," he finished it. "Too bad they didn't come here with drinks and no guns. Maybe they would have gotten all their oil."
Mohammad felt some pleasure when Haji laughed, and even Walid smiled, though he shook his head.
The streets narrowed and they entered the infamous Sadr City. There were stalls selling a plethora of food; the smell of cooked fish overpowering the vegetables. Mohammad's mouth watered. Rolling past what seemed to be a makeshift militia checkpoint he could see some young men stare at their car. They were foreign here. There must have been alarms going off. Jaish al-Sadr was not taking many risks with all the Sunni attacks lately. Haji's cousin had better know they were coming or else they risked coming under fire.
They stopped when there were too many people to drive through. One of the young men with an AK leaned on their car.
"Where are you from?"
Haji had pulled out his cell phone and must have reached his cousin because he handed it to the young man. The man paused, then took the phone and started talking to it. Mohammad observed Walid, he didn't seem to be nervous. He looked at the young man after he was done with the phone and said: "We don't have time abu shebab, young man, let us go through."
"No cars are allowed beyond here," the young man sized up Walid.
Walid stared at him, cigarette smoke veiled, and tsked.
"But you can park there," he pointed to the side. "Then you and your friends can come in."
Haji pulled the car over and Walid turned around. "Stay with the car, we can't have your silly ways jeopardizing what we need to get done here."
Mohammad opened the door and stepped out. Silly ways. Anger floated to his head, he was sick and tired of his friend. He avoided Walid's gaze, pretending to take in the surrounding area. The buildings leaned over the car as if they were about to topple. He liked this place. Thousands and thousands of people living on top of each other. The hum was relaxing. He watched his two friends enter a building, with young men in front of them and some behind. Walid needed to tone his attitude down. There was no way the militia was going to allow him to act like a boss here.
He looked around and tried to count the young men on rooftops and in the streets who were just standing around, observing. It annoyed him seeing them here. Even if it was their neighborhood just their presence was overbearing. He reached for his cigarettes but realized that he didn't have any left. He looked for a store. Some of the young men seemed to be eyeing him. They had a right to protect themselves, he reminded himself. Too many attacks. After all, wasn't that what they was doing in Hurriya? In the end Sadr had done so much good, given the Iraqis pride. He lumbered over to a stand.
"Anything," he smiled at the vendor. "How's life here?"
"Not bad," the vendor eyed him suspiciously. "Where are you from?"
"Hurriya," Mohammad placed down some money. The vendor visibly lightened up.
"Ah, how are things over there?"
"Not bad, getting better," not certain if that was ever going to be the truth, or why he would talk so well about his neighborhood, one that he hated, and yet there was the need to make sure this vendor in medeena sadr, Sadr City wouldn't look down on it.
"Good to hear," the man nodded his head, looking around. His actions were off.
"Good, good," he turned his attention to another customer.
Mohammad walked back to his car. It hit him: he was an errand boy. That's what Walid wanted him for. He kicked one of the car tires and lit up a cigarette. His wife had been getting on him about the amount of money he had. Not that they didn't have enough—they had plenty. But that Walid and the others seemed to have more than he did. She had chided him for not having enough money. Told him he had to push for more. He had ignored her, told her to not mind what the men were doing. Now, here watching the car, he bubbled with anger at his friend. There weren't too many things he could do. He could ask, but he would only get ridiculed. Like he had been when he offered his advice to Walid.
There really was only one other choice. He shuddered at the thought and reminded himself that there were easier ways to die. Besides, weren't they were doing great things that he should have been glad to be a part of it? Walid was his friend since they were kids. He would talk to him, he would reason with him.
After what seemed to be an eternity he watched Walid and Haji walk out. They were hand in hand with two men in black suits, no ties. They didn't seem Arab. As they came closer Mohammad could hear their Persian accents. He was surprised; he thought jaish al-mahdi hated the Iranians. After all, Al-Sadr had even mocked Sistani's Persian accent in the early days after the invasion. It was one of the reasons Sadr tried to kill the old man, wasn't it? The men shook hands with Walid and turned back to the building.
When they were in the car and driving away from medeena sadr Mohammad took note of the silence.
"What are Iranians doing in medeena sadr?" he leaned in for a look at Walid's face. He would try to understand his friend more. It was the least he could do.
"Nothing that concerns you."
Another barb. Mohammad steeled himself. "Why not? Am I not part of this group? Are we not friends?"
He watched his words hit Walid. Walid tsked.
"Well?" he looked over at Haji who was making an effort to stare straight ahead.
"We have all the information we need from them. And them from us," Walid did not turn around. Something was wrong. Something in that building scared him.
"And I can't know?"
"No, you cannot," Walid said tersely.
Mohammad waited for his friend to break down and tell him something but the rest of the car ride transpired in silence. Thoughts of injustice, then revenge bounced around his head. When they got back to Haji's place Mohammad knew what he had to do. He was sick of his friend, and he would start showing him tomorrow. Only he wouldn't know. No one would know.
Walid kissed his wife as he entered his house. There was the smell of fish cooking, reminded him of medeena sadr.
"How was your day?" she asked him as she walked back to the kitchen.
"Good," he lied. The meeting he had just been through had taken everything out of him. This was the life he had chosen? He looked at his son who was resting in his crib. One day he would have to pass on something to him. He hoped it was nice. The smell of his wife's perfume, newly bought, entered his nostrils and he felt a surge of appreciation. This made it all worthwhile. He had bought new furniture as well. New rugs for the floor. He wasn't sure if he liked that, the living room with its new sofa and television was foreign to him. The smells were not his, his family's. His wife, however, loved it. He hoped that this wasn't all there was to it.
Those Iranians had been tough, cool. He had never thought it would come to that. The Iranians helping them out. Then again, he never thought that the Americans would invade Iraq either. He lit a cigarette. His son coughed. He put it out.
There was still something about the Iranians that rubbed him the wrong way. They were too cocky. But they were willing to pay him for planting their bombs. He shouldn't have trusted them, but the amount of money was great. He would lie to his men, except for Haji, about how much it was and keep the rest for himself. He deserved it; after all, he was taking most of the risk here.
Haji had been extremely nervous with the Iranians, but he had warmed up to them. That was good. Haji was going to be his right-hand man. He was certain of that now. And if he was going to be a right-hand man, Walid would have to trust him with more and more information. Friends for life.
Then there was Mohammad. His jokes had been getting more and more incisive. What was he getting at? Though Mohammad had been a friend since childhood, perhaps slapping him down was needed. He had to learn his place.
That night he didn't touch his wife as he lay down in bed. He was worried. The Iranians said they would give him some quick training on how to use the bombs. Yes, he would learn some methods while using the man the Iranians would hand over. That way he would maintain control of his group.
He turned his back to his wife. He wondered how long before they could attack. The Iranians had given him a whole list of things to complete: He had to send his men out, to various roads and have them write down how many American patrols drove by and how often and at what times. Then the hit would come.
His stomach rumbled. This was it. He had to do this. There was no way out. He had stopped drinking at his wife's behest, but now, more than ever he wanted a sip of whiskey. Maybe more.
Tomorrow he would send all his men out and they would start taking notes. The first step to revenge was here. He smiled, more to make temper his worries than anything else. They were on the way to being an army. He felt a surge of pride. They would do it the smart way, they wouldn't get caught. The Iranians had assured him of that. This was the way to making his soul feel better, like a man.
Qassem sat down after telling his apprentice to go grab him some food. He liked the local food here in Sadr City. The place was alive. No wonder it had headed the resistance against Saddam and the Americans. The heart of the Shiite people. He knew it wasn't true, but it was what he told the Iraqis when he wanted to fill them with pride. Their job here hadn't been easy, but more and more they were gaining successes. That was a good thing. The things he missed about home he could count on one hand. And of those things he only cared for long walks he took in the parks of Tehran with his woman, Jannat. The only way to see her quicker was to get more done here.
Finally, his bosses in Tehran were listening to him. They had balked at some of his requests in the beginning of the war. But now, this far into it, the slaughter of the Shiites being apparent, they had consented. Then there was the need to give it to the Americans. Show that they weren't going to have it easy in Iran's neighborhood.
Qassem picked up his pistol lying on his table. This was their meeting room, austere; he liked that. Never cared to hear the older men's stories about how great Beirut was. Give him dirt huts any day of the week.
"Here boss," he took the bread and the spicy meat from Ahmed. He was a large man, thick, but not dull. But he knew how to talk to these Arabs.
"What do you think about the men we just saw?" Qassem asked. Ahmed was new to the force. He had to learn how to tell the good from the bad apples immediately. Money was tight, so they had to make use of everything that they had at their disposal. If they used it well, they would be able to give the Americans an extremely hard time. Ahmed only had a short while to learn how. Otherwise he would send him home for some desk job like the last sap.
"One I didn't like. The fat one. The other, the one who talked, was good. He seemed to know what he wanted. Like he wouldn't back down. He also looks mean, like he can get what he wants. His face was like a rat," Ahmed chuckled at his comment and took a bite from his shawarma sandwich.
Qassem watched, disappointed that his apprentice was so superficial, and that he was allowing his food to drip down his shirt. If the Iraqis saw him act this undignified they would start to lose respect for him. "That's your analysis?" he said in a mocking tone. Ahmed stopped eating and looked at him like he wasn't sure of what to do next.
"You think the fat one has potential? And the rat-faced one was not strong?" Ahmed asked, his words coming out as if they were delicate eggs.
Qassem sighed, angry. He had been taught never to lose his cool. It never helped anyone but your enemy. But Ahmed wasn't a lost cause; at least some of his instincts were right. "No, that part was all right... your character analysis isn't completely off. Your error lies with how you let that character breakdown affect your overall analysis of how we can use these men," he looked at Ahmed with his eyes, never taking them off him. He had been told that his dark brown eyes could tear a hole into a man's heart. It was his strength, when questioning others, when asking the odd men of the world to step over a line and do the unthinkable.
Ahmed squirmed and looked down on his sandwich, which was dripping its contents onto his dress pants. "Then what would you do with the fat one?"
"First," Qassem raised his voice and finger at Ahmed. "Stop calling them by their descriptions. If my instincts are right we will have a long working relationship with both of these men. And even if we didn't," his voice got louder, he wasn't angry with his apprentice, but he also was trying to teach him a lesson. Ahmed was smart and that was the most important thing that was needed in this job. "You should treat everyone who comes here with respect. They are all placing their lives in our hands. What do you think would happen if the Americans got a hold of them?" he drew his finger across his neck then pointed back again at Ahmed. "So don't make light of their situation. Got it?"
"Got it boss," Ahmed said in soft tone.
"Good. Now remember what we're here for. We want to help our Shiite brothers fight the occupation. That is their right and our duty as Muslims. But we cannot lose sight of a bigger picture."
Ahmed nodded. "Tehran, what they want."
"Yes, what they want. They didn't send us here so that we could arm a bunch of madmen. We need to arm men that can also see the bigger picture. Got it?"
Ahmed nodded like a child. Qassem could see sweat spots forming on his armpits. The smell of sweat and cheap cologne hit him. It was an odor that he should have been used to for a long time now. But Ahmed's sweat was tainted with something sharp, focused. Was it fear, or was it a more sinister pheromone he was emitting? Qassem took another drag from a cigarette.
"We need them to push just enough that we can show the Americans we mean business, and when we need them to ease up, we need them to do so quickly, to show the Americans we aren't barbarians, we have control of these men. These soldiers."
Ahmed's nodding was a seemed more focused. "Our job is to balance the two."
"Exactly," he was certain Ahmed could become one of the good ones. "I'm sure you haven't forgotten your training?"
"Of course not."
"Then I'm sure you remember all the ones who served in Beirut?"
They both smiled. "Yes, crazy indeed," Qassem grinned as he thought of the instructors during the course who had initially scared him. Even when he had left the training in Iran for an easy mission in Lebanon he had thought they were crazy old men, their psyches destroyed from the war. It wasn't until he had come here to Iraq that he saw the need for their train of thought. Going against the Americans hadn't been easy. Especially at first when no one in Tehran wanted to make waves. Perhaps that was for the best. All they did was meet people and make friends and keep friends from before. And it didn't take long until the Iraqis' patience with America had worn thin.
"Now what would you do with these two fellows?"
"I don't know what you see in Haji," Ahmed paused, taking the question as an excuse to eat his sandwich. "I'll agree," he raised one hand up vertically. "He's not useless, if we get him to do things on his own we could have a very willing dog."
Qassem smiled, it felt good to watch a newcomer achieve so much on his own. In Ahmed's eyes, he saw the satisfaction of playing this subtle game of gods. "Yes, very willing."
"But, boss, though he is a dog he has one hand that feeds him. Walid seems like a good leader to me."
"He does," Qassem nodded his head. "But I still don't think that there are many ways to get around the fact that he has some weaknesses," he spoke and tried to dig through his mind to come up with the reason he had felt Walid was on edge. Nothing about him in the first moments of their meeting had rubbed him the wrong way. Yet, there was in the millisecond pauses, the eyes darting to unknown ghosts, something that seemed like it could snap.
"Like what? He's the one Haji lives for. Anyone can see that. I think the other men in his group that he mentioned will be the same. The man outside also seemed scared of him, but also willing to listen," Ahmed took his question as another opportunity to eat the rest of his sandwich and lick his fingers.
"Well..." Qassem tried to gather his thoughts as well as block Ahmed's actions from his mind. The man was a pig. A smart pig, but a pig nonetheless. As far as Walid's actions were concerned there was no way for him to put it in words. If he did he would sound like the crazy old men who had trained them. Such things could only be learned. "We'll keep an eye on him. Everything he asks for, he shall get. But we will try to get into the group and see where the fissures lie."
Ahmed gave him a blank look.
Not so smart thought Qassem. "The cracks in the group," he sliced his words out, Ahmed opened his mouth and nodded. There was still food in his mouth. Qassem didn't know how someone so smart could be so unaware of a few good habits. "You know the training plan for them, correct?"
"Yes," Ahmed said, with a hesitation before and during his agreement.
"Then I'll let you do this entire training session. Just keep me informed all right?"