For three weeks, time was at a standstill. I wandered the streets aimlessly, sometimes walking into a park that I used to visit with Saadia when I was younger. What else could I do? Those almond eyes, they burned through my memories. I don’t know how AQI knew, but they called a few days later. My mother pleaded and cried. She asked me to think about what I was doing, what I was doing to my family. How could this help Saadia? What was I proving?
I agonized over my decision. I had strayed from my religion, they told me. My wife would have never been violated like that if I had joined their cause. This was a message from God.
I was there now, waking up at the crack of dawn with them every morning, prostrating on the dusty floor. They took me in like a brother. All of them had stories. Sameer told me he had known my wife in elementary school, and that he could understand my pain. His brother had been killed at a checkpoint. The American soldiers had put out their hands telling him to stop. He had mistaken it for a wave, and continued on driving. They shot him, seventeen bullets coming from five M16 Assault Rifles.
There was also Salman, whose mother had died of a heart attack when his brother was taken away by God knows who. All that was clear was that they were soldiers. “They kicked my mother to the ground,” he told me, shaking from anger. “They are worse than dogs.”
Men in Kufiyas and turbans walked in and out of here continually. The compound was small and heavily guarded, but inside was a world of its own. No American could enter here. This was a headquarters of sorts, but the men here also found therapy in the violence.
Allah-u-Akbar! they shouted whenever a comrade was killed. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.
“Verily we belong to God, and to God we return.”
There wasn’t much else to do here. We prayed, we ate, and we waited. Sometimes we listened to the music we found on iPods dropped by the American soldiers. One song always stuck with me.
We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker burn.
They all looked the same to me, the Americans. They wore heavy uniforms and large boots that thudded hundreds of feet away. One American wore more protection than all of my brothers wore combined. This was the difference between those godless Americans and my god-fearing brothers. They didn’t want to die, because were afraid of what awaited them. For us, we looked forward to the moment.
My mission was simple. I was to kill one of the three soldiers manning the checkpoint in front of Muhammadiya mosque. His name was Timmy. At least that’s what I called him. I don’t know his real name, but I make stories about the American soldiers’ lives in my head. He lived in a small house in Texas, where he held barbecues sometimes in his backyard. I think he wore a red baseball cap too, when he didn’t have his helmet on. His tall, blonde wife loved to hold his hand. And he had two little beautiful blonde children. One boy and one girl, Tom and Kate.
Saadia speaks to me in whispers. “Qasim, help me.”
I follow Timmy the captain with my eyes from behind a wall of the compound. Should I shoot him? I think he had a game going on with his buddies. I used to watch them smoke cigarettes, Marlboros, 4 or 5 at a time. He sucked in the cigarette smoke with such concentration, as if grasping for his last breath. They were filling their lungs with smoke to see who could inhale the most. Sometimes I wanted to go over to them and exchange a smoke too.
Qasim, help me.
I can hear the horns blaring – the line of cars is especially long today. One of the men in a musty Corolla has forgotten his identification papers, and the soldiers won’t let him through. Timmy is yelling at his interpreter, who is yelling at the Iraqi driver. Someone is pointing a gun now, but I can’t tell who. I feel the coldness of the trigger on my finger. They say that when you die, two angels, Munkar and Nakir come to your grave to ask about your belief. Who is your Lord? Who is your Prophet? What is your religion?
Qasim, help me
Did Timmy wake up at dawn everyday too? I imagine he did, to put on his uniform and his gear. His fellow soldiers woke up with him, rushing to get to breakfast, where the chaplain led a short prayer. Perhaps Timmy wrote a letter to his wife, telling her how much he missed her. I can see Timmy furrowing his brow from my binoculars. Something is troubling him. Does he know what is about to happen?
The cars are gone now. The roads are silent again, and Timmy is smoking another cigarette. John and David are sitting on chairs while Timmy paces the floor.
Qasim, help me.
I always thought about his children, Tom and Kate. Did they miss him back home? It is Kate’s birthday, and all the kids are singing to her. A small bandage covers her cheek; she fell from her tricycle yesterday.
Qasim, help me
Only God can help you now, Saadia.
Verily we belong to God, and to God we return.
Mehdi Bundeali graduated from Stanford University in 2010, where he founded Avicenna Society, a student think-tank focusing on foreign policy in the Muslim world. He is currently pursuing a J.D. at UC Berkeley School of Law, and also helps direct Berkeley’s Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.