By Nelson Lowhim
Copyright 2011 Nelson Lowhim
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead or otherwise, is purely coincidental.
Walid woke up with sweat gluing his shirt to his skin. In the dream he sat at a table across from Mahmud. All Mahmud did was look at him, shaking his head. None of Walid’s apologies worked.
Walid looked at his wife who slept beside him. She stirred to his movement but soon returned to her steady breathing. He swung out of bed and walked outside to the lawn. He listened to the helicopters in the distance. He was tired of the sound. The steady beat of an American machine gun started up. Either someone was standing up to them or they were shooting at shadows again. Walid lit a cigarette and shivered as cold Baghdadi air leaked into his blood. The Samarra Mosque had been bombed earlier that morning, and though he still felt anger, he wasn’t certain what to do about it.
“Walid, they’re coming!” Haji Salaam yelled
Walid turned. They had just set up a checkpoint, and he wasn’t certain if it was a joke. It was late morning and he was still thinking about the dream he had last night. Smoke from fires thickened the air and blurred the street.
“The Americans,” Haji yelled as he got into his car.
“The bridge to Azamiya,” Haji started his car.
No way, thought Walid, he had promised to get at least one. Not a promise to anyone but himself. But that was all he cared about. They were parked on the side of a road that was regularly used by people who tried to avoid the traffic elsewhere. They had plenty of ways to drive away he reminded himself. Besides, no one in this neighborhood would help the Americans.
“Get back out, they are at least five daqeeqa minutes away,” Walid yelled. He tried to stop his voice from quivering. Normally he would have done exactly what Haji did.
Taking a deep breath, he pulled out his handgun, pointing it at the first car that came down the potholed street. He hoped it would stop; he knew he wasn’t going to shoot.
“Identification. Where are you from?” Walid asked the driver.
“What is this police checkpoint?” the man asked, scrutinizing him with a look of disdain as he handed over his ID.
Walid looked at the man, surprised that he had obeyed him so easily. “Us?” he looked back at his group and felt more powerful. “We ask the questions here, where are you from?” Walid asked, the ID checked out.
“Hurriya, azizi, you?”
Walid smiled. One of their own. “We are only looking for Sunnis, drive on.”
The driver hesitated, looking at Walid, Haji and their entourage, before swallowing his words and driving on.
Walid pointed his gun at the next car coming along.
“Walid, they’re getting close.”
He tried to slow his breathing down, he didn’t know whether to start driving away or try one more car. He had only decided to do this because of the dream with Mahmud. Yet he still felt as small as when Mahmud had been around. Did actions change a man?
The car came to a halt.
“Identification please. Where are you coming from; where are you going?”
“Where are your uniforms?”
Walid pointed the gun at the driver’s face. “No questions, just answer.”
“Azamiya. I’m going to the market.”
Walid’s heart jumped. This was his moment to act, to prove Mahmud wrong. He looked over the man, who had beady eyes and a large nose. Walid felt quesy. He was not certain if this was right. He turned to Haji and the rest of his group and they came at the car.
“You are Sunni, n’am yes?”
The man’s eyes darted to the other men and he nodded uncertainly. “But I am a good man, I work with Shiites, azizi you must not…”
Walid opened the car door and pulled the man by his shirt, again the man was surprisingly compliant. It all seemed so unreal.
“No please, I have a family, what are you doing?”
Haji opened his trunk and they stuffed the man in. When the man gave him another look Walid felt like crying.
They all jumped in the vehicle and drove away. Walid looked behind to see an American Humvee slowing down near the car. Two soldiers cautiously approached it.
“They think it’s a car bomb seeyara mufakhakha!” Walid forced out a laugh. The rest of them laughed with him.
They drove a little ways until they got to Salaam’s house. They had decided on using it since no one else was staying there. They pulled the man out of the trunk and dragged him into the house. When they had him on the living room floor the man got on his feet and started to beg. Walid tried to stand as tall and steady as he could. He could feel the eyes of his group on him. He fought the urge to shit. He hated the man for not making this easy.
“Please, why are you doing this?”
Walid stepped forward, his hands shaking, sweating, and gripped the gun as tightly as he could. “You think you can destroy our mosques and murder our women and not expect us to fight back?”
“No, no, I have never done anything, I don’t know anyone who does that. These are Arabs from other…”
Walid stepped forward, steadied his hands and shot the man through the face. The sound jolted everyone including Walid. The man crumpled to the ground. Walid realized he had hoped the gun would jam, any excuse to let the man go. A pool of blood spread. He told the group to clean up and dump the body near a Sunni neighborhood. They stared at him in silence. He decided it was awe.
His wife was giving him that look again.
“What is it?” she shouldn’t have been complaining, they finally were getting more and more money to live on. After he shot that man, Walid had been drinking more whiskey to dampen his nerves. A good night’s rest was all he wanted. He was scared of killing again, so he found other things to do. Quite a few Sunnis lived in Hurriya. He took his group and started to harass them to leave. They managed to collect taxes from some of the people or take some of their possessions.
His wife pulled out a poster that had his picture on it. Wanted, for 500,000 dinar. He was shocked; first that he would be on a wanted poster, then that he would be worth so little.
“Where did you find this?”
“At the market. They are everywhere. I tore them down, but then there were shorta police everywhere.”
He smiled, he loved that his wife would do that when she saw his poster. Other women would have just run away. He kissed her and caressed her smooth skin. But again his stomach started to churn, wondering if the police would knock his door down at any moment.
“Is dinner ready?”
She didn’t reply and walked into the kitchen.
Later that night, after they had made love, she stared at the ceiling in a way that let him know that he needed to say something.
“It will be fine zian honey, don’t worry about it.” He of course hadn’t stopped thinking about it. Again he felt small, foolish.
“You have one son and another on the way, in sha allah, what will we do without you? Think about it, Walid, please?”
He wanted to slap her, but she was right, he had to think about his family. He could not get arrested. He knew what happened in those prisons; sometimes people never returned. Then his family would most certainly starve. Of course she was concerned with him turning out like his only brother, Mahmud.
“I will,” he said to calm his wife down.
“But what will you do now? Your face is everywhere and people need money.”
She was right, he knew it; he had been a fool trying to be the big man. What would he do now? He looked around their room; the house had been theirs since they married. They recently bought a new heater, but the cracks in the wall were still growing.
“You could live with your relatives in Karbala until things got quiet again.”
“Walid! Don’t become like your brother, you are not him.”
“Ooskut, shut up,” he hissed, angry that she would dare to say such a thing. “I will take care of this.”
When his wife fell asleep he wrestled with the sheets before he got up and walked to his son’s room. The little one was asleep.
Mahmud would have known what to do. He had fought with Mahmud after their father was killed in a missile attack during the invasion. But he could never stay angry with his brother for long. Mahmud had always been the one everyone in the neighborhood looked to for guidance. After the invasion, Mahmud had told them to wait and see what the Americans were going to do. He always thought about some greater good that Walid couldn’t see.
Walid walked into the kitchen, then put on a coat and stepped outside. Winter was slowly giving way to spring but the air still bit. He could hear the helicopters again and, in the distance, some shooting. He lit a cigarette, sucked in the smoke to warm his insides. “Mahmud, Mahmud, Mahmud,” he muttered to himself. He missed him, missed the guidance he provided. It was Mahmud who, when Al-Sadr rose against the Americans, decided to fight. We cannot lie down like dogs. Walid followed his big brother to Karbala and they fought against the Americans. Mahmud fought without fear, firing clip after clip against the Americans. Sitting in a dilapidated house they found themselves overwhelmed as the Americans returned fire. Walid began hugging the ground, his stomach churning. He remembered the look Mahmud gave him, the look that he had given him throughout his life whenever Walid had disappointed him by being too weak.
Mahmud had been shooting from a break in a wall when Walid, who was looking for a way to get out of the house, heard a grinding splat. He looked over to see Mahmud, half his head gone, falling to the ground.
Walid finished his cigarette and threw it into the street. He walked back inside the house. He remembered lying there and thinking about how to escape. He managed to hide as the Americans came through. He crawled away when night fell. He came back to Baghdad, and everyone thought he had been a brave warrior. People stood in awe of him, of Mahmud. He didn’t tell them how wrong they were. But he did lie to them about how many people he had killed. In reality, that man in Haji Salaam’s living room had been the first person he slayed. The man’s face was still etched in his brain.
The next day Walid awoke to his cell phone ringing. “Yes?”
“Walid, your pictures, they are everywhere. Abdullah was stopped at a checkpoint today, and they asked about you, if he knew who you were. I think you should lay low right now.”
Walid felt his stomach acting up immediately, damn his weakness. He wondered what would happen if he did lay low. Would the police forget him and chase someone else? No, he was being a small man again. It was his time to stand up.
“We will not hide, we are protecting our neighborhood. Have the police done that for us?” he fought to keep his voice from cracking, from showing Haji how scared he really was.
“No,” Haji said tentatively.
“Of course not. Drive here now, we’re going to settle this once and for all,” he reached for his gun but remembered that it was in the bedroom. He had the urge to drink again, to stop his trembling.
He hung up and put on his clothes, though it felt like someone else was doing it for him. He checked his handgun, then grabbed the wanted poster. His wife was cooking breakfast and he rushed out when she called him. He did not want to stop, but she called him again. He poked his head back through the door. “I will be back in a few hours.”
Haji pulled up in his car and Walid jumped in.
“The police center, where else?”
Haji stared at him. “But…”
“Are you deaf? Drive!”
If you want to read more to find out what happens, you can click on the link to the side for "The Struggle" as well as The Struggle Knows Not (the sequel) and soon The Logic of Morals.