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 Mahmoud Saeed


The four of them walked together, carrying backpacks like school children, except for the eldest, maybe a twelve-year old, who was dragging her wheeled luggage behind. They would walk a little, then rest. They paused, mesmerized by the big station with its pale lights. They stopped, their inquisitive eyes wide at the sight of a wheeled cart stacked with hundreds of souvenirs – playing cards, balloons, key chains, toys, dolls and small stuffed animals.
“Look…a dinosaur…a gorilla…a dog…what a beautiful car…a Gannon…”
“Come on, we’ll miss the train.” The big sister hurried them along. They ran while looking around, pulling on her dress to get her attention. “Sana, can we find stuff like this in Mosul?”
I smiled. Children are the same always, everywhere. I didn’t hear Sana’s reply.
She headed quickly towards the train beneath the pale yellow lights, clasping the hand of her youngest sister, who was only three or so. It didn’t occur to me to wonder who was escorting them to Mosul – once old age hits, one falls victim to mental lapses. Then I noticed a woman lagging behind them. I slowed and then stopped. This was the first time in forty years that I was taking a train to Mosul. I checked the numbers of the rusted wagons – the metal letters were falling off and clumsily patched with white paint. Aha…this is wagon 235. I got on.
Things were different from forty years before – the seats were wooden then, while these were leather and more comfortable, though tattered. The clamor of a dozen or so young men filled the cabin. Their red, black and white patterned shirts suggested they were an athletic team. In the two seats to my right were Sana and the little girl. In front of them sat the other two, a five year-old girl and a ten-year old boy, who had taken the aisle seat. It so happened that my seat was directly across the aisle from him, while an elderly man wearing an old military coat sat to my left, his face shrouded with a ragged black bishmag. I couldn’t see his features – I couldn’t tell if he was fast asleep or just trying to be. The three children sounded happy with this adventure – riding the train for the first time. They gazed out of the windows at the dirty platform, what lay beyond it, the sky. They sat erect, thrilled by everything, convulsed with mirth at a single word. But Sana seemed sunk in thought.
Then I remembered the other woman; where did she sit? I didn’t see her. Could it be she was a stranger to them? I looked to the right, towards the door of the wagon, and saw her standing there, crooking a finger at me, sad eyes pleading. She repeated the gesture, and I was about to ask, “Me?” But she put the finger to her lips, indicating to me to keep silent, so I stifled my response and got up. I drew close to her. She was in her fifties, thin, with traces of a beauty worn down by negligence and countless tragedies – a faded cloak, a dotted white baza dress, two gray braids resting on a full bust. As soon as I got close to her, she stepped carefully down off the train. Then she turned to me; I went down after her. Her eyes brimmed with tears. “You seem like a kind person,” she said.
She grasped my hand. I smiled, interested. “A small favor for me, please. I beg you…” she whispered.
“What is it?”
“Before anything, promise me you’ll do it…”
“Before I know what it’s about?”
“It’s easy. Just stay with the children when the train gets to Mosul, until their uncle Saleh shows up…”
“That’s easy.”
“Will you do it?”
She drew a small Koran from the pocket of her black-dotted, white baza dress. “Swear,” she insisted.
I smiled. “No need to swear, I’ll do it.”
“No, swear.”
She reached to kiss my hand.
“There’s no need for all this.”
“Swear.”
I swore.
“You won’t leave them until their uncle Saleh receives them?”
“I will not.”
She smiled. “You sound kind. My hunch was right.” Then she added: “Their mother died three years ago, giving birth to Hana. It’s the sanctions-- the country is out of sterilizers. Their father had cancer the same year, from sorrow or maybe from the depleted uranium shells. No one really knows. He was an engineer at the Taji base. You know, it was destroyed during the Kuwaiti war. He passed away a few months ago and the landlord wrote off six months’ rent. We sold all they had. They have nothing left in Baghdad.”
“Do you know their uncle?”
“No, but he’ll come pick them up from the station.”
“Are you sure he’ll come?”
She spread her arms wide, in her faded cloak. “Why not? I called him three times. The phone calls alone cost me ten thousand dinars. I went through hell to find his phone number. I searched for it for three months until I finally found it, with God’s help.”
Then she bowed her head, appealing for sympathy, tears welling in her eyes. “You know today’s problems…children kidnapped, bombs, killing… You deliver them to uncle Saleh by hand.”
***
The train’s departing whistle drew them to the windows, but soon disappointment set in, as there was nothing worth looking at. The lights of Kazimiyya reached us dimly from afar. The tops of palm trees shone needle-like in the blackness. Soon the light of the street lamps was cut off as we left the suburbs of Baghdad. The children turned away from the windows. The monotonous motion of the train would have put them to sleep, if not for the smell of food wafting by – grilled kabab, shawarma, eggs, pickled mangos. The athletes took out their sandwiches, chewing, joking, chuckling and exchanging toasts with Pepsi and Seven-Up.
The two children looked back at Sana and whispered, while the little one sitting next to her looked at her, imploring. She got up, reached for her bag stowed on the overhead shelf, and brought it down, the children’s eyes riveted on her movements. She took out a cup and unfolded a small towel, revealing four equal pieces of a bread loaf that she had prepared for this moment. She gave each of them a piece of bread and wrapped hers up again. She returned her bag to the shelf and went to the restroom and filled the cup with water. She came back, and the children began eating bread dipped in water.
“We’ll eat tomorrow at uncle Saleh’s,” the boy said.
“We’ll drink Pepsi,” the girl sitting next to him replied, watching the athletic team drink soda.
“Seven-Up.”
“Orange juice.”
“We’ll play with his daughter.” Then, she turned to Sana. “What’s her name?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s name her ‘I don’t know’,” the boy suggested.
They all laughed.
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let her age be ‘I don’t know’,” he said. They laughed once more.
“She goes to the ‘I don’t know school’,” the five-year old added.
I was watching them discreetly and enjoyed how they laughed with jubilant innocence.
“Listen to Uncle Saleh,” they repeated in unison, as if they heard this statement tons of times. “YES. Listen to his wife, YES. Don’t vex his daughter the way you did with Zaina, Auntie Kawthar’s daughter, NO!” Then, they all burst into peals of laughter.
They shared common features – light chestnut hair, pure white skin, big bluish-black eyes rimmed with green, and thin rosebud lips. I started reading the magazine that I had with me. The boy, who was the nearest, turned towards me. “My father used to read the same magazine: Modern Science.”
I smiled. “And you? Did you try to read it?”
“It’s hard. I’m only in fourth grade. I just look at the pictures.”
“Diya, don’t bother the man with your questions,” his sister interrupted.
“No, it’s no bother.”
Sana got up, holding the little girl’s hand, and went towards the restrooms. When she came back, she gave the five-year old girl, who was dozing off, a gentle nudge on the shoulder. “Raja, come on, come with me to the restrooms before you go to sleep.”
Afterwards, it was Diya’s turn. “You too, come with me.”
“I’m not little. I’m a man. I go when I want to.”
“Come on,” she insisted.
“Go,” I said.
“Have you been to Mosul?” he asked me when he returned.
“Forty years ago,” I replied, smiling. He giggled, intrigued, as though he didn’t believe one could live that long. “Forty years?”
“Yes.”
“You must have forgotten everything!”
“I don’t know. Maybe everything has changed. Maybe some things have stayed the same. I’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Did they have soccer fields like in Baghdad?”
I smiled. “No, we used to play outdoors in the open space.”
“And now?”
“There must be some. In schools at least.”
“I’m the best soccer player in my class – top offensive player. I’m going to be on the Iraqi team in the future.”
I smiled. “No doubt about that.”
“How can you tell?” he asked me seriously. “Have you seen me play?”
“No, but you can achieve anything you want if you’re persistent.”
“My father used to say that,” he whispered quietly. He turned to me. “I didn’t want to leave Baghdad,” he said seriously. “I have lots of friends there. But where can we stay? We can’t pay rent.”
“Who’s that woman with the cloak? The one who saw you off at the station?”
“She’s auntie Kawthar, our neighbor. She used to be a teacher. Her husband is a retired teacher, too.”
“Is she a relative?”
“No, we don’t have any relatives except for uncle Saleh. We’ve never met him. Are there bomb blasts in Mosul like in Baghdad?”
The question hit me in the face. “Yes…like all over Iraq.”
He said nothing. His eyes went vacant with the stark reality. He yawned, fighting slumber, and soon fell asleep. His yawning was contagious, and between waking and sleep, I saw Sana check on her siblings, cover them one by one, adjust their positions while asleep, then close her eyes.
“A donkey.”
I don’t know exactly who shouted that word, but I heard guffaws coming from the athletes along with the children’s giggles, before I could hear the braying of the donkey. I opened my eyes: The children were up, swarming the windows; a donkey was braying, then he disappeared; clay houses, they disappeared; arid hills followed in succession, with luminous white alabaster on both sides. I heard the words ‘town of Hamam al-Alil’, and then the train entered a tunnel. The lights went out, darkness prevailed. The three-year old wailed. “Don’t be afraid, honey,” Sana said in a tremulous voice. Maybe she was afraid herself. “Don’t worry, we’ll be outside the tunnel in a few minutes,” I said, to comfort them.
“What’s a tunnel?”
I placed Diya’s voice. “Ha… A road under the mountain,” the laughing voice of a man replied from the front, maybe one of the athletes.
“We’ll be in Mosul within ten minutes,” I added. Silence reigned. Suddenly the train emerged from the tunnel. Soft light flooded the cabin. Closely packed one-storey houses loomed in the distance, lamp posts, lingering dust.
“We’re in Mosul, uncle Saleh will come!” The children’s features lit up with glee. “Will uncle Saleh come with his wife and daughter, or alone?” Raja asked.
“I don’t know.”
“‘I don’t know’ won’t come with him, she’s at school,” Diya said. They laughed again with exuberant joy, and then went on making comments and giggling until the train stopped. It was seven in the morning.
The athletes rushed to the door while Sana gathered her siblings to her, spreading her arms wide, encircling them, to keep them from getting down. I respected her wish, and got off quickly. I stood in the station entrance, watching them from afar. The main gate is the only exit to the city. When I was little, before the roads between Mosul and Baghdad were paved, the train was the only means of travel. Back then the station, though it was small, radiated glory with its shining alabaster walls, but now it is dirty, neglected, tumbling down and literally shocking to the eye.
The minute I got off the train, I felt the bitter cold of Mosul bite at my skin. I left the station to seek the slight warmth of the sun. The children couldn’t leave. They were fighting the cold, huddling together, each of them holding up a piece of paper. I don’t know when Sana took out those papers; each of them had one word only: Saleh.
No welcomer entered through the gate. A fifty-year old man arrived, wearing a traditional zaboun – which I thought no longer existed – with a wide belt, a black bishmag and a shining silky ikal. He waited outside in the sun and smiled at the sight of a young pregnant woman, wearing the hijab and walking with an old lady who tilted to the right in her stride. Then a big military man with a sullen face joined them, accompanied by a teenager who seemed to be his daughter. They all stood outside and welcomed a woman and two young men with exchanges of hugs and kisses. A few minutes later, the station was empty except for us. It appeared utterly forlorn – the alabaster flooring pitted with holes filled with dry mud, and a single wooden bench with only one slat, two centimeters wide, remaining of its back. The children sat on the bench – Hana on Sana’s lap and Raja to her right, Diya standing, their eyes riveted on the open gate, the Saleh signs drooping.
It was bitter cold despite the shining sun. I sought the electric heater and held out my hand, but there was no heat. Forty years ago it used to be red hot; everything was going downhill…this was our way of life. Suddenly, a limping man, with a broomstick in his hands, began to sweep the pitted floor of the lounge. He seemed to be a villager, unrefined by civil life. “Get out. No more welcomers. Get out,” he snarled in broken Arabic.
The children’s eyes dimmed, their self-defense instincts kicking in, and moved close to each other as a pack, without saying a word. Their eyes flitted between Sana and the limping man. I was outside the gate. I approached him and offered him a foreign cigarette. “It wouldn’t bother you if they stayed here a bit longer, would it?” I whispered to him in order for the children not to hear us.
He rested the broom against his chest, “The inspector will be here soon,” he said.
“We’ll deal with it then.”
“Are they with you?”
“Yes.”
I lit the cigarette for him. He drew the smoke in deep. He closed his eyes and opened them, and looked at the cigarette with contentment. He slipped out to a side hallway and disappeared.
Half an hour went by. The little one wept. “When will uncle Saleh come? I’m hungry,” she cried.
Sana opened her bag and took out the piece of bread. The three of them gathered around it, eyes transfixed on the small piece. She divided it among them. “And you?” Diya exclamed.
“I’ll eat at uncle Saleh’s.”
“What are we going to eat?”
“I don’t know.”
“Kaimar…and honey?”
“I don’t know.”
Diya laughed. “We’ll eat and ‘I don’t know’ will eat with us.”
Suddenly the limping man appeared from nowhere. “You’re still here! Get out… Let me clean,” he grumbled.
I was still standing outside. I went in, smiled and took out the pack of cigarettes. I gave him a cigarette that I lit for him before he even opened his mouth, and placed some money in his hand without the children seeing me. He disappeared once more.
“You listen to…”
They completed, “Uncle Saleh…”
I remained standing, my back to the children. I sat down to smoke…
Sana got up and carried her younger sister to the restrooms, where she washed her sister’s face and patted it dry – she was very pretty. Then Sana went to Raja. “Come on,” she said.
“Not now.”
“No, now, before uncle Saleh arrives. You didn’t wash your face after sleeping on the train.” She grabbed her hand and pulled her along. No sooner had she come out than Diya went towards the restrooms before she even called him. “No need to go with me,” he said. She waited for him to come out and then began brushing his wetted hair with a small comb, while he whined.
It was past nine o’clock. The children began to play – they held each other’s hands and spun around, singing, “O, our beautiful land…”
Sana got up and went to the restrooms. They noticed her absence and stopped playing. She came out, eyes reddened, her beautiful features strained by the gnawing of inner anguish, but trying to keep her composure. They gathered around her. “Will Uncle Saleh come?” Raja asked her. She didn’t answer. It was past ten thirty, and Sana was looking towards the gate, and they looked with her. She went again to the restrooms. I guessed she would weep there and then come back.
“Let’s play,” Diya shouted. The little one cried. “I’m hungry,” she wailed. Sana got up and shouted, “We’ll play together, me included.” They made a big circle and started to spin around, with uncle Saleh’s papers in their hands: “O, our beautiful land.” I smiled and went out. The dance lasted a long time. I went back in. Desolate tears shone in Sana’s eyes once more. She couldn’t continue. She pulled back to the bench and put her small hands to her face, breaking into deep, bitter sobs. They all ran to her, Uncle Saleh’s papers falling from their hands, hugging her and weeping.

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