Liana telling the story in a nutshell

Love is the twin of a beautiful dream that survives birth to reality; but my love was a reality that survived arduous parturition only to remain a beautiful dream

Blog Archive

March 07, 2005

20. God, What Are They Doing Here At My Doorstep!

The torrent of love, comfort and reassurance that my parents showered so generously upon me, along with my twenty-first birthday, which was just around the corner effectually contributed to the swift fadeout of that vile incident of submitting our applications. I found myself in a relatively short time overwhelmed by a long list of hectic preparations that permitted no other thinking beyond being on track for this occasion. In just over two weeks’ time, I expected most of my girlfriends to be gathered at my place to celebrate my birthday. It was to be the third birthday in a row that the whole bunch would attend in less than a month. The event was marked by loud, vigorous and cheerful merriment that sounded pretty much like Soug Al sufaffeer—Baghdad’s traditional market and the Mecca for tourists, who seek beautiful Iraqi souvenirs, most renowned for its day-long collective hammering and beating, and for the copper that’s shaped into wonderful patterns for souvenirs, which the tourists find quite appealing and which they buy and pay for munificently. That birthday, in particular, felt somehow different, perhaps because it was the first to arrive after my graduation, with the taste of success and the sense of achievement still warm in my mouth. The girls seemed like celebrating their graduation once more. Discussion and speculation about employment opportunities were rife at the party, and were interspersed with exhibitions of raw hidden talents in singing and belly dancing, which would have made any artistic agent fight tooth and nail to sponsor. The partying went on for nearly four hours, and abounded with fun and mouth-watering dishes, and concluded with exquisite presents and tons of sincere wishes, hugs and kisses.

The last of the girls left around eleven. Then followed a couple of laborious hours during which I helped mum tidy up some of the mess left by the party. I was so exhausted when I retired to bed around one in the morning that I instantly dozed off.

Next morning I woke up around ten. I had my morning shower and a light breakfast, and attended, as was common during the holidays, to some tedious daily household chores. The morning round of communication began with Ban and Mai calling me, and with me calling Fury and Sumer. I gave mum a hand here and there, and finally went upstairs to my room to clear the remaining mess of the previous night. It seemed as if a massive earthquake had hit the place and dispersed things all around. Sorting things out and putting them back where they belonged took over an hour.

Early on in the morning, my two brothers had gone out swimming with some of their friends, and they weren’t expected to return before seven. Mum, as was common for Iraqi wives who spend most of their day in the kitchen, was busy preparing lunch. Bored, with not much to do, I grabbed a magazine, leafed through it for a few moments, and then I threw it aside indifferently. I returned to the kitchen. Mum was still in the middle of her culinary creations. I toured the house aimlessly more than once, peeped out through the windows, and stood for a few moments watching my tigerish cat Nousa, lying on her back in a corner, dead to the world, hands and legs wide open, relishing the coolness of the tiles. I went down on my knees and tickled her belly and neck, but she was way too lazy and drowsy to care. Nousa worked night shifts in summertime. She would sleep all day long, but once the night set in, and the torrid heat subsided, she would start mewing and frantically moving back and forth towards the door, begging for release and eager to start her leisurely roaming of the neighbourhood. Her early morning return would only be announced through her meowing and clawing at the main door, hungry and exhausted.

The intensifying heat rendered venturing out of the house sheer foolishness; the house seemed like a prison with unbarred doors. I have never adapted to hot seasons. The paradox is that I was born at the hottest time of the year, early August, a Leo, a king of the jungle. ‘What? King of what? In such heat? The jungle is decidedly kingless then’. Somewhere I read that cats are born from the mucus of lions, meaning that they are fierce and mighty predators, but in such harsh weather, even if she’d be starving to death, a mouse could prance intrepidly by Nousa, certain the coast was pretty much safe and clear.

My boredom mounted high. Sequestering myself in my room and curling up with a book seemed a most judicious prospect. I was just in the middle of the stairs when the doorbell rang. I flew down, taking two steps at a time, and glided through the family room to the small corridor leading to the main door, hoping for anything that would exterminate such repulsive ennui. The door swung open to reveal three men standing at the gate. These were faces that I had never seen before, not friends, or neighbours, and definitely not relatives. ‘Some passers-by, who have possibly lost their way to someone in the neighbourhood or perhaps some nomadic salesmen’, I thought, since such sort of sojourners had stopped by before. With both my hands above my head to form some sort of an arch to shield my squinting eyes from the assaulting sunlight, I sauntered across the front lawn to the well-nigh two-meter high, white iron gate, and stood a few steps behind it. One of the three men was quite old, whereas the other two were somewhere in their thirties.

‘Marhaba binti, Hello my daughter, are you Liana Mikhail Yousif?’ The old man asked politely. I nodded apprehensively, thinking how on earth did he know my full name. While the old man did the talking, the other two men were looking hard at me. One of them made me uneasy, with his lewd gaze fixed on my bare arms, making me feel like naked. I hugged both my arms with my hands seeking to shield myself from his offensive look.
‘I’m Abu Mohammed, Al-mukhtar, the neighbourhood chief’, the old man introduced himself. ‘The gentlemen here are from Laamen Alaama. They have a few questions for you regarding a job you’ve applied for’.

My heart raced. A chill crept down my spine. And I sensed fear rising in my throat and spreading its pale wings all over my face. ‘Jesus’, I thought, ‘what are they doing here at my doorstep?’ Having introduced himself, Almukhtar stepped aside, and hushed up.

Al-mukhtars are respectable adjudicators whom people resorted to for resolving various social and domestic disputes or disagreements. In the modern history of Iraq, Al-mukhtar was a vital necessity in every neighbourhood and numerous official transactions required his stamp and signature. He was usually chosen from among the most well thought off, especially from those with a laudable and honourable familial background, and long residency in the particular locality as to make him acquainted with the majority of the residents. Al-makhtara constituted an honourable legacy, for certain families, that was passed on from one generation to another. Things changed, however, during the dictator’s era. Rather than being selected by the neighbourhood, Al-mukhtars were appointed from among those who were most loyal to the regime, and they functioned more like informants, who provided governmental bodies, mainly security, police and intelligence, with reports, records and information, serving thus as additional instruments in the further tightening of the regime’s throttlehold over entire neighbourhoods.

One of the other two men who accompanied Al-mukhtar was stocky and dark-skinned, with scary brown eyes, surrounded by yellowish white. Thickly mustached as usual, not dissimilar to the rest of the dictator’s intelligence and security men, whose moustaches functioned as signs of their identity, he wore some sort of safari jacket, and seemed to be in charge of the interrogation. He sounded as if he had learned by heart all the questions, no doubt by dint of repetition. The other guy was smaller in size, with relatively more appealing features. He carried a folder and a pen and seemed all geared up for documenting.

The interrogation focused for the most on my family’s political history. The questions I was plied with were a replica of those in the questionnaire that I had filled out earlier. Then came the decisive question: ‘What’s your “Kawmiyah”, ethnicity?’

I just couldn’t remember the meaning of the word. It just seemed to evaporate. I did remember answering the same question in the application form, and, had also studied a whole chapter on the subject in school. But with those chilling eyes trained sharply on me, eager for any slip of the tongue, my brain went blank. I tried hard to stifle the state of fear that paralysed my recollection. ‘But I must give an answer’, I thought, ‘or my silence would lead to a risky interpretation’. And instead of ‘Chaldean’ I replied, ‘Christian’.

The guy documenting stopped writing, raised his head, and looked at me. He grinned and moved his head seemingly towards his ‘boss’, and shot him a glance fraught with meaning. Al-mukhtar shook his head, grinning too, but he maintained his silence. The ‘chieftain’ acted pretty much as if everything was normal.

I knew I had blundered. Muddled as I was, I had no time to review what I had said. Apprehensive about what was to come, I was busy waging a big war upon my unruly panic.

The interrogation advanced. As if to further complicate matters, the next question was, Shinno Intimaa-ich Al-seyassi, What is your political affiliation?’ The Arabic jargon that they employed was overly complex, and too intricate for someone as politically illiterate as I was.

I retained the silence of the dead for a few moments, thinking, and digging despairingly deep for an answer. My eyes were abstractedly fixed somewhere around the centre of the iron gate. Overcome with a sense of stupidity, I raised my head and looked first at the assistant, desperate for guidance. I, then, moved my eyes, imploring the compassion of the venerable sage with white hair. I suppose I must have seemed quite thick and dull that they perhaps pondered upon my qualification. But I reckon it would have been easier for me to excel in science and other branches of knowledge than in the politics of dictatorship. Nonetheless perpetrating another mistake didn’t seem the least bit wise. So I thought it would be better if I returned the question with another. I asked, forcing my voice into normality, ‘What do you mean, please?’
‘What political party…’, seemingly empathizing with my woolly state of ignorance, the guy who was documenting clarified. The ‘chief’, however, cut him in mid-sentence, ‘Musttakkilla, Independent’, he ordered him to put down with a firm tone, ‘If “Christian” is her ethnicity, do you expect her to have a political affiliation?

I guess, with such blunders, he must have thought that, perhaps, someone had lent me a hand to fill out the application form, a not unknown occurrence. In any event, the three smiled and apparently their mission was accomplished, or they literally pulled the plug, as I came to realize later.

Besides my young age, and the fact that the repulsive politics of the Baathists was never among my list of favourite interests, there were the words of wisdom that vigilant Iraqi parents imparted to their children from their tender ages. They repeatedly admonished them to keep their distance from politics: “Politics bring disastrous consequences, simply because it involves taking sides. It is delusion to imagine that one can please one side without upsetting the other, irrespective of how prudent and tactful one could be”. And this was the precise sapience that my parents had instilled into me. I suppose it was extreme fear and infinite caution that were subconsciously steering me, and which were behind my clumsy and maladroit, but nevertheless fitting, performance for such an unpredictable situation as I had encountered.

Al-mukhtar thanked me, ‘Shukrann Bnaytee, Thanks, kiddo’. Well, after those errors, Al-mukhtar apparently brought me one rank down. I was daughter at the start but ‘kiddo’ at the end.

The three marched together towards a car parked a few meters away, opposite my house. I returned to the door that I had left open. It seemed to take me ages to cross those seven or eight meters of the front lawn. I went inside, and with one sweeping glance I saw them driving off. I closed the door and dashed like a thunderbolt into the kitchen with a piercing shriek.
‘Mum, mum’, I cried, pointing to the door and babbling breathlessly, ‘here, door, forms, Almukhtaar, three, here, gate’.

Mum was startled and dropped the strainer she held in her hand. Not getting much of my incoherence, she ran towards the door, thinking some danger lay out there.
Laa Mamma, Laa, No mum, no, don't, I cried out. I ran after her, and caught up with her halfway through the hall, and grabbed hold of her from the back, untying the strings of her apron.
She stopped, white as a ghost, bewildered and lost, undecided what to do, whether to move towards the door, or away from it.
Ma-eeth what? Ma-nni who? e-kkaa where?' she started jabbering, in Aramaic now.

On realizing the frenzy I had caused, I gestured ‘halt’ with my palms. Paranoid about being spied on, and despite seeing them drive off, I cautiously hid behind drawn drapery and peered through the window, making certain no one was at the gate sleuthing or eavesdropping.

Terrified, disorientated and her fear skyrocketing, mum tailed me, seizing my shoulders. Having ensured that our secrecy and privacy were secure, I grabbed her by the arm, walked her to the living room, and got her seated on the couch.
Lamm-en… Al-aama … were here… at our gate…’, I whispered breathlessly, while I stood in front of her gesturing with my hands. ‘They asked me… questions… about…’ Having become entirely feeble and incapable of carrying on, I slumped onto the couch next to her and sobbed my chest out.

To Be Continued.......