If I Forget You, Baghdad

Chapter 5

It was the day we picked out our uniforms.

I pushed my cart forward and took my place in the long queue of women and men. We might have been in a supermarket but were heading toward stacks of clothing, not scrutinizing aisles of canned foods and milk. Tables had been placed next to each other in front of shelves stacked high with folded garments: khaki trousers and shirts, shoes and socks, belts, and wool underclothes, as if we were brides and the army was responsible for our trousseau. I imitated those ahead of me as each person took items from a shelf and placed garments his size in the shopping cart. They had taken our measurements the day before so we would know what to choose.

We had five days to prepare to ship out.

When we first arrived at the base, they did a roll call in a commanding voice and pronounced my name Zayna Bihanayim. I stepped forward then, and they checked my identity first before issuing me sheets, a pillow, and a blanket. I stowed my gear under my arm and headed to the dormitories, where we would sleep four or five to a room. The next day was devoted to physical exams. These were conducted by military physicians, and the only thing different about them was their uniforms. Then there was a day for filling out official forms with our personal data. Had I done enough in my life to justify all these questions about it?

We had arrived at the military base on a civilian plane from Detroit and found a military bus waiting for us. Only at the moment I put my right foot on the first step of the bus did I realize that I had said goodbye to all my former life. A new page had opened before me, and my life would never be the same again.

The girl who had grown up chasing dreams that exploded like the balloons released at Christmas was heading off to war. The disappointed girl who had wept once or twice over a lost love had enlisted in the U.S. Army.

I didn’t surrender to my thoughts for long. This was no time for daydreams. My companions on the bus were venting their tension by being rowdy and laughing at anything. I was certain that their guffaws were, by no means, a sign of happiness. Benyamin, the janitor at the Assyrian Christian Club in Baghdad had laughed nonstop when his son was killed in the war with the Kurds. After a few days, I didn’t see him anymore, because they had taken him to the mental hospital in al-Shama‘iya.

I had as companions on the bus two other young women. Judged by their accents, the first seemed to be Egyptian and the second Lebanese. The Egyptian, a born prostitute, dominated the scene and attracted everyone’s attention. She later told me that—from her window—she had dazzled an American visitor to Alexandria. He had then married her and brought her to the United States. She acquired American citizenship but separated from her husband after becoming pregnant by a Cuban who delivered pizzas. She had enlisted as an interpreter, leaving her infant with her husband. She was brown-skinned and plump, with long hair and nervous gestures. I liked her candor and felt we might become friends.

The Lebanese had brought with her two suitcases, each the size of a city, and they were filled with beautiful clothing and cosmetics. She told me that her name was Rali. She sat elegantly in the bus, her legs crossed, as if heading to a honeymoon in Paris.

Nadia, the Egyptian, whose whole body quivered when she laughed, as if an invisible electric current was passing through her, told Rali that she wanted to be billeted in one of the fabulous palaces in the Green Zone. (Everything she discussed was “fabulous.”) I heard Rali reply that the only place she would agree to stay was the Baghdad Hotel—I don’t know where she had heard about it. She drew back her upper lip and said, “Even if they force me to pay for the hotel out of my own pocket!”

A dreamy imagination can certainly misrepresent an adventure!

How could this spoiled girl know that we were going to sleep in the arms of death blanketed by our shrouds? I myself didn’t know that, nor did Sahira, Captain Donovan, or Brian, whose corpse was later found covered with scum from the Tigris.

The fifth day we woke at dawn for roll call. By now we were under military discipline. Everything around us was rough and masculine, but we hadn’t been trained yet to act like men. It was pointless here to attempt to hang onto your femininity. You were either a soldier or a call girl.

We, the girls from the bus, fell in line with the troops, who wore their khaki uniforms, while we were in civilian attire: tight jeans and high heels. When I glanced at the other women, I noticed that some had found time to apply lipstick and mascara. At what hour had those dagger eyes awakened?

The next day I received my uniform, after they had stitched my name on it. They had given us permission to choose either our actual family name or any other, if we needed to conceal our personal identity. The tight jeans and high heels disappeared, and it was no longer possible to tell us from the base’s soldiers. This made me feel good, because it was a palpable indication of my new persona: Zayna, the bold, going off to war.

Then, the next day, we shipped out.

Chapter 6

Words clump together in my head and then quickly speed off only to dash against each other before blending into one another, like white clouds that immediately flee. Then these words pause once more and pour through my fingers like a deluge as I try to type fast enough on the computer keyboard before the images disperse like those white clouds, chased away by the wind.

I write knowing full well that a mine may destroy me at any moment. An incoming shell may fall on my head in the Green Zone and turn me into a charred pole. Will I live to complete this story, which is not so much about me as her, my grandmother, who has become my beloved enemy and a preview of me as an old woman?

That is why I don’t want to respond to this relentless writer who crowds next to me at the computer, sitting beside me, shoulder to shoulder, as if we were a duo forced to perform on a single piano. With four hands and twenty fingers, she wants us to knock out the story of an American granddaughter who returns to her ancestral home in Baghdad. I, however, don’t want this writer near me. I push her away and reject her advances. Instead I delete what’s on the screen.

The writer has upset me ever since I saw how she has changed course, maneuvering and inventing situations in order to write a patriotic novel, at my expense.

This foreign author wants to destroy me to arouse the admiration of stupid critics, armchair politicians, and patriots yearning for the Ottoman era.

She wants me to be the damned, evil villain and wants my grandmother to be the fine, courageous heroine, along the lines of Amina Rizq in the film “Nasser 1956,” in which the actress plays a virtuous, peasant lady who refuses to accept condolences for her grandfather, who died digging the Suez Canal, until Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal July 26, 1956.

The author sees me as a tool of the Occupation and my grandmother as a gem of the Insurgency.

I am the querulous sinner, a young woman who deserves stoning, whereas my grandmother is an eighty-year-old virgin experiencing an immaculate conception.

She portrays me as the prodigal daughter who returns on board an American tank, like a female Rambo who resides in the Green Zone. I am fettered by the base character that the writer is trying to hang around my neck, expecting me to surrender to the nationalist imagination she has inherited without any revision. Hers is a black-and-white imagination with the sepia tint of an old photograph. She has a wretched imagination that doesn’t understand the color retouch possibilities of Photoshop.

I don’t like this trap and want nothing to do with it. It’s a tightly constrained plot for a novel that is designed to choke me and to deprive me of any right to an opinion of my own—especially about the country where I, my mother, and my father were born. Why would the writer forbid me from participating in my own way in the novel, with all my convictions, rather than have a prompter sit before me in the theater’s orchestra pit?

I bet that all this author has ever known in her whole life is the words of prompters. She has never created a sentence of her own and hasn’t tasted the pleasure of expressing out loud what’s in her head without the fear of creating a disturbance or of having a rough hand rise to fall on her cheek. She opposes reason’s dictates and believes in the heart’s rumors. She thinks that eloquence unlocks these hearts and that poetry waters them.

How can I tell her that I’m stronger than she is? That I almost pity her naïveté and bewail her outmoded patriotism, which actually multiplied before changing into a rotten jelly, like pickles swimming in vinegar that’s gone bad? I’ll withdraw the writing commission from her and tell her frankly that her passion for slogans makes me die of laughter along with her myopic vision and embrace of a lofty mission that goads her to compose novels as if marching in a noisy demonstration and repeating previously drafted chants: “Long live ______! Down with _____!”

I won’t respond to her.

Let my author go wherever she wants….

In fact I’ll also reinforce my grandmother’s resolve. My grandmother is wise and doesn’t fall into traps easily. She won’t be happy wearing the Virgin Mary’s sash or Amina Rizq’s galabia. She definitely won’t agree to place her patriotism in the custody of a writer shaped by eras of revolutionary coups and by nationalistic parties that have turned her into a megaphone. Certainly not! I won’t allow my grandmother to give her my grandfather’s history.

My God, how that history has shaped me even while I’ve rebelled against it!

But it’s my history and antedates my birth. I am the product of it and its rightful heir, no matter how alien and hostile to it I seem. Does this callow writer think I’ll relinquish my legacy to her, even if flimsy patriotism, which is a currency that was devalued long ago, no longer seems to be worth much?

Chapter 7

On the laptop, from the Rhein Main Air Base near Frankfurt, I wrote Calvin my first message since leaving Detroit.

We’re in Germany, and I’m thinking of you because the airport lounge reeks of beer. Don’t drink too much. Don’t worry about me. Don’t forget to water my plants. If I’m gone a long time and you want to love someone else, don’t choose another Iraqi woman. One hell’s enough for a lifetime.

A civilian plane brought us to Germany, and from here military aircraft, which were always shuttling back and forth, ferried us to Iraq. Each took as many of us as it had empty seats.

It was the first time in my life that I had climbed into this type of plane. C-17 cargo planes load from the rear and have a broad snout like a fish’s. I paused to stare at it and would have taken a photo of its front had a strong hand not pushed me toward the steps.

Where were the seats? The aircraft’s interior was a huge cargo bay, and the seats, which were next to each other, circled its walls. Our luggage was piled in the center and secured by straps to prevent it from shifting. Even our bags didn’t resemble civilian luggage. We had stuffed our belongings into khaki duffel bags with a long zipper.

I looked at the people around me and counted twenty-nine. There were five women on this exhausting, shitty trip, and the rest were men. They gave us small, yellow, foam balls to place in our ears to reduce the roar of the airplane a little. We didn’t exchange any words during the five hour trip and rode in anxious and anticipatory silence. Even when someone tried to lessen the tension by conversing, he was reduced to being an actor in a silent film, because his voice was drowned out by the roar of the engines.

A hand gave each of us a Styrofoam box. When I opened mine, I found a sandwich, bag of potato chips, a Coca-Cola, and a cookie. We ate like primitive beings. Once we had finished, the captain announced that we would refuel in the air and warned us that we might feel queasy. Then another plane arrived and perched on top of us for half an hour. I started to feel nauseous as soon as the other plane united with ours, causing a vibration like a violent downdraft.

I thought the name of this film might be “Five Scared Women with Even More Terrified Men.” No one tried to play Rambo. That was another film. I feared that pumping aviation fuel would cause an explosion at any moment, but the operation went without a hitch. Most important of all, I didn’t throw up. I wasn’t the only person who took a deep breath once the nightmare ended and the second plane headed away. We all exchanged smiles, because we weren’t able to shake hands.

And then we arrived.

Despite my anticipation and exhaustion, on entering Iraqi airspace, I experienced a strange sensation of being transparent as I imagined that I smelled the penetrating scent of bitter-orange blossoms from gardens and the appetizing fragrance of smoke rising from grilled fish. This state lasted no more than a minute. Then the plane’s lights were extinguished, because we were beginning to circle Baghdad. The darkness seemed oppressive and unjustified. The curtains had been lowered, and I couldn’t catch any glimpse of the city. I remembered how terrified my mother had been after she read about rockets targeting planes that land in Baghdad. If she had been with me then, she would have ordered me to pray: “Virgin Mary, allow us to arrive in peace. O Mary…”

Once the plane had landed and the roar of its engines ceased, I felt I had suddenly gone deaf. I stood up like a statue that had just been brought to life, but my sense of balance had been affected and I fell back into my seat. I rose a second time and followed the others. The great rear door opened slowly, and my eyes followed it, panning from right to left like a movie camera so I wouldn’t miss the first look at Baghdad. But then a red curtain seemed to have covered the plane’s door from the outside. What I was witnessing was a sandstorm unlike any I had ever seen.

I wanted to probe this red abyss with my eyes, but they were squinting, and it was hard to make out the infernal scenery in which we had landed, because we couldn’t see any farther than our feet. It was also extremely hot, and we were wearing our winter uniforms, which were made of thick wool, because the plane that carried us here was not fully air-conditioned. I spontaneously grabbed my jacket’s collar and pulled it up to shield my face from the sand.

At that moment, with the penetrating scent of the dust, I smelled Iraq, and the whole country seemed to be concentrated in my nostrils. I distinguished its perfume, which I recognized as its warm air seared our faces. Nadia, the Egyptian, was trembling, and Rali was coughing as if she would die. I reached out and pounded her on the back, accepting responsibility for what was happening. This was my land, and Rali was my guest. Her comfort concerned me.

I’ll call this film “The Delayed Return.” In it the heroine returns to the land she left fifteen years earlier, not as a homesick visitor, but as a soldier in a warzone.

Virgin Mary…help me.


Inaam Kachachi

Inaam Kachachi was born in Baghdad in 1952. She worked as a journalist for the press and radio of her country until she moved to Paris in 1979, where she earned a Ph.D. in Islamic civilization at La Sorbonne. A press correspondent for Arab magazines and newspapers in Paris, she was the editorial director of the Arab edition of Marie-Claire. Kachachi has published two nonfiction books: Lorna, Her Years with Jawad Selim (Arabic, Dar el-Jadid, Beirut, 1998), and Paroles d’Irakiennes (Le Serpent à Plumes, Paris, 2003). In 2004, she made a 30-minute documentary about Naziha Al Dulaimi, the Iraqi physician who, in 1959, was the first woman to become a minister in an Arab country. Her debut novel, Sawaqi al-Quloob (Streams of Hearts), was excerpted in Banipal 26 and published in Arabic in 2005 by Al-Muassassa al-Arabiya lil-Nashr.

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing). His translations have appeared on wordswithoutborders.org and in Banipal Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. His recent and forthcoming translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press) and Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), Yusuf's Picture by the Iraqi author Najem Wali (MacAdam/Cage), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni.

If I Forget You, Baghdad (originally The American Granddaughter). Copyright (c) Éditions Liana Levi, 2009. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2009.