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from the July 2017 issue

The Collapse of a Cellar

When her high-ranking husband disappears and is presumed murdered, a widow protects the life of her vulnerable only son, Tha'ir.
 

There was nothing unexpected about it. It wasn’t a coincidence, or something that just ended up happening in that haphazard way things sometimes can in life. Nor was it something done on a whim by a young man who suddenly decided to start living in the dark for some capricious reason of his own. No, this was a plan carefully thought out and put into action by my mother, a martyr’s widow and mother of five fearful about the fate her only son would meet above ground. She began work on my cellar kingdom the moment I handed her my high school graduation certificate in the summer of 1986—I had been placed on the literary track and earned a 95.5 percent grade average. She forbade everyone who lived in the house from going anywhere near the long hallway that led to the big wooden door of the cellar, on the pretext that she didn’t want us to disturb the spirit of our late father. She explained that he had chosen the cellar as his barzakh—his place to rest in after death, before he met his maker. She convinced my sisters that the spirits of the dead had ugly faces they only showed to their close relations, and if any of the girls in their family looked at them, even accidentally, they would get hexed and go mad and would therefore remain spinsters forever.

I don’t know why I believed my mother’s tales about the barzakh. I was too engrossed in our family’s collective mourning sessions for my father, all the wailing and face‐slapping, to really notice the noise of the builders, carpenters, and plumbers working beneath us. I would sit with my sisters and my paternal grandmother and we’d chant the traditional dirges together, like a group of widows at a graveside, “O you, the one who has gone and left us! O you, the one who has gone and left us!” Our eyes were full of tears but they stayed steadily trained on the picture of my father that hung in the living room with all the sanctity befitting a shrine to a general in the Republican Guard.
 

***

 

It took two months and seven days to get the cellar ready. By the time I began my first year of studies at Mosul University Faculty of Law everything was in place for me to avoid the fate my father had met in the Iran–Iraq war, a blazing fire that was then in its seventh year, still raging ferociously all along the eastern border of the country. Even though I was over eighteen by that point, and would therefore be considered an adult according to the criteria used by both the Department of Civil Status and the Department of Child Services, my mother and my grandmother insisted that I was still a child. They weren’t bothered by the fact that I was now the tallest person in the household—they treated my height as if it was just another normal stage in a child’s development, like losing baby teeth. And, hemmed in as I was by this strict female leadership, I didn’t have room to explore my masculinity, which was tentatively unfurling before me: locked in the bathroom after midnight, I had to make do with a few surreptitious sweaty spasms.
 

***

 

We lived in the center of Mosul, in a neighborhood that most of the military officers called home. I didn’t have any friends there. As far as the neighbor kids were concerned I was the spoiled son of a snobbish family, so on the rare occasions I attempted to slither out of my mother’s grip I was an easy target for them. Not even their parents did anything to discipline their crazy children or condemn the kicks and slaps they directed at me as I fled. They would pound along behind me shouting “Sissy! Weed!”

At primary school I wasn’t lucky enough to make any friends who could restrain themselves from laughing at my stammer and the fey and extremely delicate way I had of expressing myself. It was only the girls who treated me like a human being and accepted me just as I was, transcending what appeared freakish to others. The female teachers noticed this, and in the fifth and sixth year of primary school they let me carry the flame with the girls’ division of the Vanguard Cadets at the school’s annual spring festival.

When I moved on from primary school to begin the next phase of my schooling at al-Dawahi Middle School and Eastern Preparatory School, neither of which were co-ed, I stuck with my usual seat at the front of the class. I was considered the brightest pupil, and I was by far the most attached to the blackboard. I was always eager to answer the teachers’ questions, and I posed a lot of them, too, and would then wait for the answer with a look of urgency on my face. I constantly had my forefinger raised to request the teacher’s permission to speak, and I would ignore my classmates’ fits of laughter at my stutter and the froggy way I leaped around at the front of the class. My beautiful handwriting would carve out bright white solutions on the smooth black surface of the board, and I took it upon myself to write the date or the subject of the class or whatever the teachers dictated to me. I was famous for being the only person who would burst out crying if he earned anything less than ninety percent on his written exams.

The route from our house to school and back was the only one I knew. I wasn’t allowed to do any housework, or to even have an opinion about it. My only duties were to do my homework and to listen to my grandmother’s stories. She told long tales of my father’s heroic deeds and the battles he’d fought for the sake of our nation, and others about my grandfather’s work to preserve the true history of our country and save it from being falsified.

I surrendered absolutely to my mother’s affection and acumen. She would do my thinking for me and make decisions on my behalf, feed me and bathe me and choose my clothes and toys, draw me to her and hold me close like a newborn every night. So it was only natural that I would talk like her, walk like her, laugh and eat just like her. Maybe that was what made my sisters feel like I was one of them, so much so that they drew me in to the games that boys didn’t usually play: counting games, word games, singing games, plus hopscotch and musical chairs. They also let me use their crayons to draw flowers and practice printing teddy and rabbit designs on pillow covers. Perhaps it was also my girlishness that made them tell me all their secrets; I would blush and curl up in a ball like a hedgehog to hide my erection.

My mother was the commander of the battlefield in our house, as the saying goes—she was in charge, and she was the brains behind everything that went on, because my father was always busy making war. After his empty coffin was carried out of the house draped in an Iraqi flag my mother’s authority became absolute: she was the sole decision-maker now, only occasionally conceding to my grandmother the minor standby role of deputy, or consultant, on a limited range of issues. Even before that she had always treated my older sisters Sandas, Shams, Nasma, Israa, and Suad like puppets she could jerk about with the strings of her authority as she pleased, so they had grown up to be identical copies of each other, stuck in the house for years on end, stagnating like unused amulets hanging on a wall. The hand of a suitor never reached out for any of them, so in the end my mother got a magic charm made by a fortune-teller from al-Rashidia to lift the curse of spinsterhood from Sandas, the eldest. But she was divorced and back in the house with her two children just two weeks after my father's wake.

 
   

Things carried on as they always had when I became a university student, except that my mother and grandmother began teaching me how to live in the dark. I was forced to complete this additional homework every Friday, blindfolded and half-naked, in the concrete storeroom in our back garden. It was a weekly training camp that they took turns leading, and it took place at dawn, out of my sisters’ sight. To motivate me and instill in me a determination to learn the art of staying in the dark like an owl they made sure that I watched the program “Scenes from the Battle” every day without fail. It was normally broadcast on Iraqi state television, but it carried on being shown on a video player in our house even after the war had ended and I had reached the third year of university. My mother and grandmother had easily achieved their desired result: I would panic if I even heard the theme tune, and start to gnaw at my fingernails, terrified of the presenter’s voice as he bellowed his commentary over the rolling footage of mutilated Iranian corpses and their destroyed weapons, their helmets and army boots shredded by bullets and shrapnel.

Two ceaseless sirens rang inside my head for over four years, shrilling their twin warnings of war and the death sentence for evading it, both of which would lead to exactly the same outcome: my death. Martyr, traitor, whatever—it was all the same thing as far as my mother, my grandmother, and I were concerned, and the only possible deliverance from it was to hide me away completely and turn me into an invisible creature of the underworld until some miracle might bring me back up to the surface.

Until I entered the cellar, I believed that when the Ba’ath Party and security force squads, the secret police and the military staff discipline enforcement officers repeatedly raided our house without any warning, sometimes late at night, it was just the actions of a nation checking that a martyr’s family was doing all right. I never believed—contrary to the gossip our malicious neighbor Om Yaqoub used to spread about us—that they were actually searching for my father’s soul.

The first raid took place in the middle of 1985, the day after my mother declared my father missing in action. According to the army’s previous announcement he had been martyred, but she rejected this verdict as there was no physical proof. The sudden raids continued throughout the following year, including one that took place just a few days after my mother and grandmother announced that they were now convinced, on the basis of what a conscript who had served under my father told them, of my father’s death.

The men spread out all over the house. They searched under the beds and beneath the sheets, tearing away bedcovers and pillows. Then they looked in the cupboards, in the kitchen, and in the bathroom, the front and back garden. They went up onto the flat roof, down into the cellar, and out into the storeroom. Then they began firing questions at my mother and grandmother and writing their answers down in a big notebook. Then they left.

Every time government men raided our home I would squeeze into my sisters’ bedroom with them and we would all recite the fear prayer together while we watched the soldiers torture our nightclothes and toys. We tried not to let them catch us staring at their angry faces. When they moved on to the other bedrooms we would be so anxious to hear what was going on that our ears would be out on stalks. Mainly all we could hear was their pounding footfalls in their heavy army boots as they crashed around barking and grunting at each other; even if we’d been able to make out their words, we wouldn’t have understood them—but we knew from experience exactly what those sounds meant. On two occasions my mother came and took me out to the soldiers: them with their red berets and their thick mustaches, and me with my civil status card and my student card in the pocket of my al-Baza brand pajamas. They mocked the way I repeated my full name and school year. I clearly remember one of them saying, as my mother was taking me back to my room, "Tha’ir, you’re Nestle spunk."*
 

***

 

Before my father disappeared in the war our house was a place of pilgrimage: friends, relations, and acquaintances flocked to it day and night. They often brought files with them, and military applications for the transfer of certain soldiers from the first line of fire to the rear section; or they might be trying to find out what had happened to someone of whom they’d had no news during the battles. My mother would gather up the requests and wait for my father to come home on leave. She would emphatically refuse to accept any of the gifts the visitors brought her in an attempt to gain my father’s favor. During my fourth year of preparatory school I walked in from a math exam one day to find my father in the kitchen tearing up paperwork in a frenzy, thousands of scraps of paper strewn around him on the floor and all over the chairs and the worktops. My mother sat at the table scooping the flesh out of an eggplant and trying to stifle her sobs. Jabbing his finger at the name on a file he was about to tear up, my father said to her:

“I told you not to accept any documents from those dogs, Ahlam, and to chase them away from the door.”

My mother snorted back her snot and tears, and my grandmother’s head came into view as she leaned forward to watch them from where she was sitting in the living room.

“I’m a military professional, a self-made man: I built myself up from nothing. We are at war, don’t you understand? Think of my reputation!”

Then, stomping on the torn paperwork, he said, “These cowards want special treatment, do they? So what makes them better than all those other youngsters who’ve given their lives on the frontlines?”

After the news of my father’s death was confirmed everyone stopped visiting us except for my uncle Ziad. Uncle Ziad was a carbon copy of my mother—minus the long hair, mustache, and breasts. He’d always maintained his special connection with his twin sister and was by her side in her joys and her sorrows, even though he himself was very unlucky, a constant object of life’s calamities and catastrophes. At the beginning of the war he had been hit by two shrapnel shards: one of them had severed his right metatarsus and the other one had taken out his left eye. He was also unable to have children, but he left the matter in God’s hands rather than consulting a doctor.

Our neighbor Om Yaquob’s sudden visits weren’t really any different from the government forces’ raids—they were full of questions, and blatant visual surveillance of everything that went on inside our house, big or small. She was fully primed and ready to report back on it all to her husband so that the party subdivision in our neighborhood could, in turn, be reassured that nothing was happening behind its back. The gardener who usually came round once a month to prune and train back our trees and cut the grass stopped showing up, and the local imam excluded our household from his seasonal alms-gathering plan. My grandmother counted this as a blessing—peace and quiet sent straight from God, an exemption from what would usually have been costly and onerous kitchen toil. But my mother thought more carefully than my grandmother about the implications of this social isolation and feared for my sisters’ chances of ever marrying.

Eighteen minutes past one in the afternoon on Friday, January 11, 1991. At that exact moment I was descending the nine steps down to the cellar with my mother. I was rigid with fear. My senses were shutting down one after the other. My mother was reciting the Verse of the Chair in her gonglike voice and dragging me along like someone being led to the gallows. Nothing could have helped me at that point, not even her last hugs in those rapidly dwindling final moments of my freedom. Sobbing, she said to me:

“Tha’ir, don’t hate me, I’m doing what your father told me to do.”

I didn’t answer. I stared into space as she inhaled deeply, savoring my scent, and stroked my face. Then she began murmuring something with her eyes closed and blowing on my hair and chest. After that she grabbed me by the arm to take me on a tour of my new home. The thought of staying down in the cellar all by myself for an unknown period of time terrified me, and that terror was mixed with a fear of seeing my father as a disembodied and disfigured spirit. I said nothing of this to my mother, but she understood exactly what was going on when I stopped stock still in an attempt at protest.

“Don’t be afraid, I won’t be far, and”—gesturing over her shoulder at the door—“I’ll stay just on the other side of that, all the time.”

After a brief pause, she continued:

“I won’t be able to come down and see you during the first month unless things calm down. I promise I’ll come down after that every Friday at midday, like we agreed. Maybe things will be over soon, and Saddam’ll announce a pardon.”

Stammering like someone vomiting up letters, I said,

“I’m scared.”

“I’ve told you a thousand times: they will take you from me if you stay up there with us. You’ll either be martyred or thrown in prison.”

She was silent for a few minutes. Then, looking over at the stairs, she took a deep breath, and said:

“The war is real, there’s no way round it. You’ve got to stay out of sight of the military intelligence corps, the security forces, and the party comrades. They’ll search everywhere for you and if they find your hiding place they’ll kill you in cold blood: you mustn’t ever forget that.”

She hugged me once more, then she whispered in my ear,  “Always remember that they execute people who evade military service. They shoot them right outside their front door and then send their folks a bill for the bullets.”
 

***

 

My mother spread the rumor around our neighborhood that she had kicked me out of the house because she couldn’t stand the thought of a draft dodger living under her roof. She told anyone who would listen how she now considered me not only disobedient and recalcitrant but so ungrateful to my homeland that I didn’t deserve to live in it. She made an announcement in front of Khalil’s grocery shop, on behalf of the late martyr General Salim Abu Deraa’s whole family, in which she disowned me and denounced what I had done. She said my cowardly actions were a stain on my father’s name and an insult to the life he’d led—a life that had been so full of bravery, as celebrated by the nation in the many decorations and medals he received for valor. She took some women from the neighborhood with her to the headquarters of the local Ba’ath party branch, including Om Yaqoub, whose husband was a senior local Ba’ath party official, and she stood in front of it and read out a letter supposedly written by me:

“Mom, Granny, and my darling sisters, by the time you read this letter I will have crossed the border at Zakho and entered Turkey. From there I will cross the sea to Greece. I’m sorry that I took your money without asking and I’m sorry I didn’t leave any of it for you, but I promise I’ll pay it back as soon as I get settled somewhere in another country. I know I’ve betrayed you all and I know you will never accept me back into the family after what I’ve done. But I’ll always carry on hoping that one day you will be able to forgive me. Farewell kisses to you all, your son Tha’ir Salim Jamil.”

Hamming it up like an actor on stage, my mother tore up the letter and cried out—in the middle of a crowd of astonished party comrades—that she didn’t want anything from that spineless traitor and that she regretted every drop of milk and every moment of motherly love she’d squandered on vermin like me. And that she hoped I drowned in the sea, because if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that I couldn’t swim.

Despite my mother’s skillful performance as the perfect patriot, a role she played without a single slip-up, our house was raided that very evening by members of the military intelligence corps and party comrades accompanied by the neighborhood mukhtar. They searched every last inch of the house, with one major exception: the cellar. Abu Yaqoub, the mukhtar, and two ordinary soldiers in their red berets got as far as the passageway leading to the cellar, my mother and grandmother quaking in silent terror behind them. But at that point they were faced with a ten-foot-tall picture of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Saddam Hussein in his field marshal’s uniform blocking the far end of the corridor. That stopped all of them in their tracks. Abu Yaqoub, who seemed especially tense, and kept looking twitchily from side to side, rounded on my grandmother and demanded, “Um Salim, where’s your cellar gone?”

“We couldn’t cope with it—it leaked, it was so damp, and it was swarming with cockroaches and mice, it just got too much for us. So we closed it up.’”

And because no one dared to look behind Mr. President—not even Abu Yaqoub, the Secretary to the Leader of the Eagles Brigade of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party—no one ventured to dislodge the huge portrait. Abu Yaqoub made do with informing the women that Tha’ir would be sentenced to execution for desertion if he was captured, and that the senior Comrades had now bestowed on our family the official title of “Spineless Traitor’s Kin.” And that we would no longer have any privileges, benefits, or rights.

After everyone else had left, he leaned in close to my grandmother and whispered in her ear:

“If I hadn’t vouched for you in front of the Brother Comrade Member of the Leadership of the Nineveh Branch then only God himself knows how you would have been punished for Tha’ir running away.”

Then, turning to go, his usual festering stink hovering in the air around him, he added, “The pain of being kicked in the head twice by the same family will be felt, that’s for sure.”
 

***

 

The cellar occupied about half the footprint of the main house, and consisted of several rooms, but I didn’t initially explore it as I perhaps should have. I didn’t care what was inside the four interlinking rooms that took up the central two-thirds of the space. I didn’t even set foot inside those inner rooms at all during the whole of my first seven days underground, limiting my movements to the area outside them. To be precise, I stayed in the little L-shaped passageway that began at the steps down from the cellar door, made a sharp bend to the right round the wooden partition wall of the inner rooms, and ended at the back wall under one of the cellar’s two tiny and remote windows.

During the first few hours after my mother left the cellar and locked the door behind her with a key almost the size of a kitchen knife, I sat at the far end of the passageway, cowering in the corner of the cellar furthest from the door. I sat on an old cushion stuffed with wool that time seemed to have turned to stone, my left side jammed up against the wooden planks of the partition and my right against the cement wall. I was so bundled up in clothes I felt swollen with them—long cotton underwear and two pairs of tracksuit bottoms, three woolen jumpers worn over one another, and a military jacket lined with fur. On my feet were two pairs of thick woolen socks my grandmother had knitted especially for my time away. She’d intended them to keep out the winter cold of the cellar—which could drop to zero Celsius on some days—and also to muffle the sound of my movements.

I tried to trick my mind by training myself to hold my breath, using my black Casio digital watch to count how long my lungs could manage without any air. With my eyes shut I felt like my whole body was on pause except for my heart, which began protesting inside my chest once I reached forty seconds without taking a breath. When I reached the fiftieth second I felt like I now had lots of extra hearts pounding all over my body—my lips were beating, and my neck, my palms, my feet. Eventually my whole body fused into a single heart thumping out the sixtieth second. Despite numerous attempts I never managed to break my own record of sixty-six seconds, set in the storeroom on the last Friday of training. This was not because I wasn’t athletic, or at least the owner of a young set of lungs strong enough to cope without oxygen for a full minute; it was because despite my desperate efforts to occupy my mind with something other than what was happening to me and what lay ahead I couldn’t stop the long list of terrifying things playing through my head. Some of these things were quite familiar to me, some I had to imagine, but it didn’t make any difference to the clarity of the footage playing in front of my eyes like a video I couldn’t reach the off switch for. My father’s head is on fire and he carries his severed right arm in his left hand as he wades through a pool of blood, trying to reach me. Saddam guffaws and points toward me with his fat Grotto cigar, announcing his discovery of my hiding place. My mother and grandmother and sisters wail over my grave. Black dogs drag me along by my legs. Hundreds of snakes slither over each other, flicking out their forked tongues to lick my naked body. Ghosts with sheep’s heads and cat’s eyes dance around in a boisterous dabke circle that expands and contracts then disintegrates to spawn endless other circles. Cringing and clammy, I gulp as I try to recall my grandmother’s words of encouragement: “Boys become men in the military, and in the darkness.”

 

***

 

I didn’t change my sitting position until my butt and both my legs had started going to sleep. I stretched out on the smooth concrete floor for two or three minutes, panting like someone who had just run a marathon. I rested my head on the musty old cushion with the rock-hard wool stuffing covered in a linen cloth that had turned yellow in the damp. And then, to avoid an inadvertent daytime nap, I went back to my original position and carried on testing my capacity to resist suffocation.

Night fell all at once, or that was how it seemed to me as the darkness erased any visual sign of life around me. When I held the fingers of my left hand up in front of my wide-open eyes I couldn’t make them out at all. I touched my nose. I tapped at my forehead with the tips of my fingers. I held the upper and lower lids of my right eye wide apart with my forefinger and thumb, then repeated the test on the left side, confirming that my eyesight was completely shot. The darkness of the cellar was different from the darkness of the storeroom: it was as heavy and sticky as concentrated black paint and made me feel like I was shrinking and disappearing. In the state I was in, trying to fight back at the enveloping darkness without a lamp, a lantern, a candle, or even a box of matches was quite simply a waste of time, and would only drain the patience I so desperately needed to conserve.

After I had made sure that any sounds drifting in from the street outside had completely died down, I shifted my body—now completely numb from sitting—over onto the floor. I lay spreadeagle on my front, the right side of my face stuck to the cold damp-smelling floor. Then I fell asleep. The television channel in my brain carried on broadcasting its usual programs, but with less terrifying effects than it had on me when I was awake. I found myself in front of a large photo album. I took hundreds of animated dream photos out of it, photos of my classmates in various eras. They were smiling and kind, unlike they’d been in reality, their expressions affectionate and welcoming, accepting of my presence among them. I moved the photos around, and then I stepped right inside them, into the scenes they showed. I wanted to say something to Yasmin as she walked past me with her girlfriends. I ran along with a group of girls including my sisters, Sandas, Shams, Nasma, Israa, and Suad—we were wearing our Vanguard Cadet uniforms and we were trying to catch up with a parade massing alongside the Nineveh wall in Republic Street. I put a heart-shaped letter into Yasmin’s civil law textbook. She waved at me during our graduation ceremony in the student center. My father was bleeding from a hole in his right shoulder but he was smiling. The buses swept us along from Mosul army recruitment center toward the infantry training camp. Snakes climbed up me. My dancing sisters chanted “Lay out the best rugs for him, in the heart of our home” over and over, and at the Ardaat Square training center Saddam angrily completed the chorus of the song as I lay on the ground in front of him, my hands and feet bound: “Our enemy died of envy, turned green and ceased to roam.”
 

***

 

The muezzin's voice woke me: “Prayer is better than sleep,” each word stretched out and slowed down, and propelled across the neighborhood from the nearby mosque by a loudspeaker. It seemed as if he was shouting from inside the cellar, and his voice hummed and buzzed in my ear like tinnitus. I took up my place in the corner once again. I felt as if my head had been wound in a thick bandage so tightly that it hurt. I had to acknowledge the reality of my situation, as my birdlike attempts to escape the idea I was in a cage hadn’t worked. I found myself staring into space, fearful and all alone in pitch-dark solitary confinement. Neither I nor anyone else knew how long I’d be in there. Incarcerated, imprisoned: those two words would suddenly reveal themselves in moments like these, coming up out of the darkness to slap me in the face as if trying to awake me from a deep sleep so that I could understand the difference between them. In my years of studying law, they’d been nothing more than two inky words staining the pages of my textbooks, but in the cellar they sprang alive, two addresses for a fate I had just taken my first steps toward. I asked myself, without expecting an answer, how my incarceration would be classified in the Iraqi Penal Code 1969 Article 111: “minor”—defined as a sentence between one day and three months, or “serious”—up to five years. Or would this prison carry me away to even more distant reaches of time than that? In any case what I did know for sure was that I was not like the inmates of ordinary prisons, who were granted the mercy of serving only nine months for each year they were sentenced to; the time I would serve in my prison would contain a full complement of temporal detail, every single moment in place and included. Each of my years would consist of 365 days, each day would be made up of the full twenty‐four hours—and I had no idea how many leap years would pass while I was stuck underground like a worm.

I tried to find a legal way out that I could use as a glimmer of hope to counteract all this darkness. I thought about the possibility that the charge of evading conscription would eventually lapse, or be dropped, and wondered how many years I would need to hide in order for my record to be cleared. I asked myself how it worked—was it charges that could get dropped, actually, or judicial rulings? But I didn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, as everything I’d studied in the Faculty of Law had evaporated and nothing remained of those four years except my classmate Yasmin’s face. Thousands of pictures of her were stored in my memory, and every single one showed her looking at something other than the lens of my soul.
 

***

 

During my first week in the cellar, I limited my movements to the L‐shaped corridor outside the central rooms. And even those movements were very restricted and only happened during the daytime. I scheduled most of them around my feeding needs—getting a date and sesame kleeja cookie or a coconut sweet from the big aluminum foil bundle of them my mother had put on top of the old A/C unit under the stairs; pulling a dried fig off the two big string loops of them that hung on a bent nail in the wall between the cellar door and the bathroom door; filling my cup from the earthenware vat of drinking water that stood beneath the fig loops on a rusty stand covered by a stainless steel tray; reaching up for a large dry disc of raqaq bread from the pile in the red plastic bowl balanced on top of a barrel half full of hardened cement. These basics were all I had to eat during the entire month that passed before my mother came back down to the cellar again. Of course it was all nutritious food that would take a long time to go off, which was why my mother had chosen it. Dull and cheap though this food was, at that point it wasn’t yet part of the family austerity plan the economic sanctions forced us all into, when they were imposed on Iraq by the United Nations four days after the occupation of Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

The other part of my movement regimen concerned emptying out what was inside me into the squat toilet. The tiny bathroom area was squeezed into a small space dug out of the wall in the corridor, exactly underneath the bathroom of the main house. When the usual gloom of daytime intensified into full darkness with the onset of night I would become paralyzed by my fear of bumping into something and making a noise that would reveal my hiding place in the cellar, and so I would lie motionless on the floor all night long. As I waited for morning, I had to bear my bladder’s spasms and pacify my large intestine with some controlled releases of wind. With the first rays of morning light I would set off across the room on my tiptoes like someone performing an archaic dance routine and then crouch over the toilet hole and strain until I was as tense as a marble statue. I would remember my sisters and think of my lost freedom, my darling Yasmin, and Corporal Amanaj, and weep silently.
 

***

 

My eyes needed several days before they acclimated to the feeling of utter isolation that crept in as the meager daylight crept out through the thick decorated glass and the old metal screen of the cellar’s narrow, remote windows. Not only were they far away from me, tucked in under the ceiling at the very top of the back wall, but the wall was so thick that they were set in almost three feet deep. My mother hadn’t wired the cellar up, heeding my grandmother’s warnings that an electrical fault could easily cause a fire and devour me along with the little wooden rooms and their contents. Or perhaps they imagined that in a moment of madness or stupidity I would turn on a light and give away my presence down there. I needed to remain alert at all times and allow my instinctive fear to prepare me for the worst to happen at any moment. As far as I was concerned, any noise, however small, represented a threat, and I would be seized by panic at the slightest sound. I would crouch in the corridor, my heart pounding violently. Voices from outside, especially in the evening, were enough to keep me on high alert for a long time, my ears working like radar. Even the normal daytime sounds of the hawkers selling paraffin, gas, vegetables, and antiques, the muezzins’ calls to prayer and sermons, would all tug on me with invisible threads that only slackened once I was a gibbering wreck. And the theme tune to “Scenes from the Battle” played on in my head without pause, like a neatly looped tape.

I would be defeated by the new depths of isolation that evening sank me into, joining forces with the overall isolation of life in the cellar to torture me night after night. It wasn’t just the darkness that scared me but the things I imagined it ushering in, the things that lurked there and watched over me without moving, throughout the long hours of inky night. I had to make a huge effort and force myself to accept the presence of the mice, the lizards, and the insects, and to share my living quarters with them. With the passing days I watched them transform into gentle creatures whose funny quick movements slightly lifted the fog of sorrow from me—until in the end my old fear of them was dispelled and I took to deliberately leaving out scraps of dry bread in one of the corners and then waiting impatiently for the inevitable rodent raid. As soon as I heard the carefree, giddy little sound of bread being scattered around and crunched, I would spring up like a tomcat, delighted by the way the mice darted off at rocket speed and vanished into thin air. I would go back to my place with a smile on my face, utterly convinced that they were watching me from somewhere and were moved to an immense animal affection for me by the realization that I was playing with them.

I wasn’t all that afraid of death itself exactly. After all, my grandmother had drummed a deeply held conviction into me of its twin characteristics: inevitability, and eternal reunion with my father and grandfather. What I definitely did fear, however, was the specific way in which I might meet my death. I would often imagine angry-looking people in military uniform standing in formation with the muzzles of their Kalashnikovs all pointed at me. I shut my eyes and hold my breath. After that I hear the command to shoot, and feel the indescribable yet unmistakable sensation of burning bullets smashing holes right through my head. The characters in my execution scenario don’t change, but the small details do, every time. I control whether the shots are all fired at once or whether they come in quick succession. Sometimes I add the smell of gunpowder to the scene, sometimes the smell of hot, viscous blood gushing out of my head and running down my face. I add a blindfold over my eyes, and let my ears imagine the entire scene by themselves, or I lift it off and I see the whole thing. I turn the volume of the command to shoot and the shots themselves up and down—my mental state at the time of imagining all this determines those last two aspects. And even though I was executed in this way thousands of times during my early years in the cellar, I never ever reached a level of pain I could bear. Every single time I would feel a unique pain, distinct from the time before. I was overcome by total despair and I surrendered to my fate: execution by firing squad in front of our house for evading military service.

 

*A local vernacular term for a spoilt or privileged child: under sanctions only the rich could eat Nestle products, so an indulged child from a privileged background was said to have been conceived using Nestle ingredients. The soldier is also derogating Thaʼirʼs fatherʼs virility—as represented by his role in the childʼs conception—because he is known as a deserter.

 

Originally published in Arabic by The Arab Foundation for Studies and Publishing © 2015 by Nawzat Shamdeen. Translation © 2017 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.

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