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Looting in Irak


Robyn Rose

The sun scorched the bitumen. A luminescent glow turned the road into a river. Misty vapours rose up and mingled about knee height. Yassir felt each footstep plunge into the haze, drag out and push in again. His arms ached with the weight and sweat dribbled down to pool in his hands, loosening his grip. Buckling at the knees, his usually equine strides were more like an old milk-horse’s cantor. He tightened his grip. He pictured the skyline behind him with the familiar green tinged dome of the mosque, Suddam Hussein’s towering statue, and flames engulfing buildings, red and black.

Sounds of market squabble and anxious bargaining, replaced with peppered gunfire, explosions and screams. Burning smells, sour sweat and something else that was unfamiliar to Yassir -- the smell of fear and flames mingled with rosemary lamb and sweet pipe-smoke. This fear was different to knowing a punishment was inevitable, different to memories of bullies and blood noses, different to the shame that accompanies wrongdoing; it did not belong to him alone but was shared. He could no longer turn to his grandmother or grandfather for reassurance. He could not sit in the mosque with the same certainty that good behaviour kept Allah pleased with him. The enemy changed all that. Some whispered they agreed the enemy should drop bombs on them. How could this be? Did they need this communal punishment? Could it be the will of Allah? Some talked of liberty but only in secret and he was not allowed into the inner circles where men gathered to drink coffee and smoke. His grandfather told him to be a good boy, to stay in doors and help his grandmother.

But he didn’t want to think about any of these things. He ran with his load, jumping and tripping to balance, trying not to drop the box when an explosion boomed close. He passed neighbours, each with something new to take home and truckloads of strangers whooshed passed pushing him sideways. Their trucks loaded with furniture and people all higlty-piglty in the back. Where were they going, to the border with known enemies and uncertain futures? Leaflets dropped from the sky asking the people to stay in doors. Telling them the war would be short and freedom assured.

Yassir was tired when he felt the familiar rough stones under his feet marking the narrow lane that led to his house. Still he didn’t risk resting. A few more houses and his home came into sight. His grandmother bent over a broom pushing the dust from the stoop to rest amongst the stones until the next breeze dispersed it to the front doors where they lived. Along a small strip of unsurfaced road, in flat roofed dwellings, joined wall to wall with nothing very much distinguishing one from another. The sounds softer and less threatening and the sight of his home, made Yassir’s heart slow and his feet walk with more assurance.

When the foreign soldiers entered the city, in trucks with guns, some citizens turned their guns on them, others rejoiced and shot their guns in the air. It was confusing and chaotic. The noise disturbing.

‘Keep away from trouble, Yassir,’ his grandfather scolded.

‘Stay with me, Yassir,’ his grandmother cried.

But he had to go out, to go to school, to go to the mosque, to run the errands, to work in the market. How could he do these things keeping away from trouble or staying with his grandmother?

Well he was in trouble now, or was he? It was a sin to steal. He was certain of this. He was not so certain that what he had done was stealing. Everyone was doing it. His neighbours gathered as many treasures as they could carry, men and women coming out with trolleys and trailers. Some with cars and trucks. Grandfather’s friends simply nodded at him as they passed. Mr. Sulieman carried a vase almost as big as him. What use could he have for such a vase? Television sets and computers were popular but Yassir had wasted a lot of time deciding the right or wrong of the situation so by the time he gathered the courage to enter the building’s rubble, the only thing left was the small square freezer. So, he took it. He had not thought of the soldiers, or the other people or his grandparents. He did not worry that Allah was watching. He looked about, then, bending to scoop the great white box into his arms, he ran like a cat with a fish from the market bucket.

Yassir motioned his grandmother away from the door. He spoke but his parched throat growled the sound. She stepped aside her eyes wide with curiosity. She didn’t remove her burqa but began examining the white box with the electrical cord.

‘What is it, Yassir’?

‘A freezer I think, grandmother.’

The old woman picked up a cloth and wiped the dust from the box. Yassir leant against the sink, filling up a glass and guzzling down water, one glass after the other. He washed his face without drying, leaving droplets to cool his skin. He dropped into a chair allowing his legs to stretch toward the white box. His grandmother went into the kitchen. She had removed her burqa and tied a scarf around her head. If Yassir closed one eye and concentrated on his grandmother, then this was a night like any other, but when his eyes were pulled to look at the white box his mind filled with dread. He allowed himself to drift into sleep, grateful to be relieved of his guilt while he slept.

‘Yassir, Yassir, pst, Yassir come, come.’

Yassir woke to the loud whispers and hissing sounds, his grandfather was making through the open window.

‘Come, next door,’ the old man used his thumb to indicate which direction he was meaning before rushing away. Yassir looked toward the kitchen, his grandmother was busy preparing the evening meal. He rubbed his eyes, threw a glance toward the white box and left the house to go with his grandfather.

Leaning forward to avoid cracking his head in the doorway of his neighbour’s house, Yassir saw the men gathered around the new television set. One was holding an aerial, moving it this way and that, to clear the picture. Two others were giving contradictory advice about which way the aerial should point. Grandfather was straining to see around the men so he could watch the newsreader. Now and then, the newsreader’s voice bellowed.

‘Arghh,’ the men reeled back.

‘Ohhh,’ they sighed when they realised the picture was fuzzy again. And so, it went on, the arghhing and ohing, sipping coffee, words of condolence and advice, discussions on the small pieces of information they were glimpsing from the television news program, until they all had enough and returned to their own homes. Yassir followed his grandfather into their house.

‘What is this?

‘A freezer, grandfather.’ The old man raised his hands to Allah.

‘You too, Yassir,’ he said, his hand rubbing at his beard. ‘Yassir, Yassir,’ he walked up the stairs whispering, before shouting back, ‘If you are going to sin, Yassir, you should think to make it worthwhile.’

Nothing more was said about the white box. His grandmother plugged it in and placed a tablecloth over the lid to keep it nice. When Yassir returned from the market with some fish, she dropped it into the white box, smiling so the spaces in her back teeth showed. The neighbourhood women came around, wanting to know if she had anything new.

‘Mrs. Rusheed,’ Mrs. Arman screamed through the window. ‘Mrs. Rusheed, what have you, new? My Mohamed brought two canvas chairs to me.’ Mrs. Arman turned her ear toward the closed door to hear Mrs. Rusheed’s response. Even a sigh was not to be missed. She waited. ‘Did your husband tell you already, he was sitting on them until quite late last night?’ Still no response. Mrs. Arman tut-tuted and spat as she turned to walk back.

Yassir’s grandmother was standing in the shadows of the kitchen, her small frame concealed in the thick doorway. Looking through the window, she could just make out her neighbour’s black burqa as it swept into Mrs. Sulieman’s house. Yassir’s grandmother hung her head in defeat, certain Mrs. Arman would persist with her inquiries until she felt satisfied her neighbour had nothing of worth.

Later, Mrs. Arman did return with several other women and knocked until the Mrs. Rusheed was obliged to open the door. They pushed passed the little old woman, through the doorway to look in amazement at the white box. They jostled and giggled, examining the box without waiting permission. Mrs. Arman took the tablecloth off. She opened the lid and roared with laughter at the little frozen fish in the bottom of the large box.

’It’s very cold,’ she said. ‘How will you fill it?’

The other women giggled, covering their mouths and placing their veils on ready to leave. They had seen Yassir’s treasure. Yassir, the good boy, had succumbed to temptation like the others, but unlike the others, his grandmother did not receive anything worthwhile.

Yassir noticed his grandmother had not cleaned the stoop for sometime and that she was not going to market. She hid out of the way when the men came over for a game of cards around a stool in the back. During the game, the talk was of the white box. The friends offered as many uses for it as cards in their hands. ‘You could fill it with earth and grow tomatoes,’ was one, and, ‘The dog could sleep in it,’ was another from Mr. Rusheed who roared with laughter. Yassir’s grandfather was happy to laugh along too. For his part, Yassir saw his friends huddled until one looked up to see him approaching and silenced the others.

Friday came around and together the men walked to the mosque in the early morning. The sun was thin at that time of day but the air smelt fresh. They arrived at the mosque stepping over sandals and shoes on their way to join the others kneeling on their prayer rugs making their devotions to Allah.

A crashing boom shook the walls of the mosque and lifted small boys several inches in the air. Panic swept through the mosque like locusts through a cornfield when someone shouted the explosion was in the direction of most of their homes. Men pushed through the open doors, some claiming shoes, others running barefoot toward their wives and daughters. Fire raged, smoke billowed, thick and black. Yassir looked around for his grandfather but he was gone. He made his way toward his home but was frozen where he stood when he realised his street had taken a direct hit. His feet glued to the bitumen, his heart pounded in his head, his throat felt constricted. His stomach churned until its contents flowed out of his mouth. Sweet and sour mixed with the airborne smell of burning rubber. Yassir wiped at his mouth, he spat and spat again. He tasted salty tears, feeling them run down his cheeks but still he couldn’t move. The sun was in his eyes, his name rung in his ears -- familiar and comforting.

‘Yassir, Yassir.’ He squinted to see his grandfather emerge from the dust, stumbling toward him, his cloths smudged, his voice choking. The old man caught hold of Yassir, steadying himself to catch his breath. Sirens roared and ruins capsized, making thunderous sounds. Cries and screams could be heard in all directions. Yassir felt his grandfather’s grip tighten. He could smell it. Fear.

‘Yassir, Yassir, a miracle. She is all right, your grandmother, she is all right.’ The old man dragged Yassir to the rubble, talking and panting.

‘When the first bomb dropped she was so frightened she jumped into the white box and closed the lid. That is where they found her.’

A crowd had gathered blocking any evidence of Yassir’s grandmother. His grandfather shouted and pushed his way closer. There she was, her scarf rearranged on her head, a few women shielding her face, one rubbing the cold from her shoulders, a medic attending to a cut on her head and her legs resting inside the upturned freezer.

‘Yassir,’ she whispered reaching out for his hand. ’Good boy, Yassir, you saved my life.’

Robyn Rose©

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