Abu’s car became another vertebrae in the street’s metal spine. Exhaust clouds swirled with graceless, malignant freedom. Ebony fire stains surrounded shattered windows beside bullet holes in grey, upright, concrete cadavers.
The traffic coiled past black-fabric death notices that covered a white wall. A faceless, ebony woman, floating before the whiteness, resembled a black ghost before a marble tombstone.
Green palm fingers sat above the fabrics, like beings issuing last rites.
A wheelchair man pumped himself past the advertisements of pinned-up inevitability.
Another ebony specter glided before the sunlit wave of remembrance.
I want to get close, Jim thought, and I don’t. Common sense drives me back, but curiosity sucks me in.
A soldier, like a khaki reptile, stared, with dry ambivalence, like a fed beast, from a tank’s machine-gun mount.
Another form of death, Jim thought.
A helicopter had appeared above his head as he had been waiting on his hotel room’s balcony for Abu’s call. Almost within touching distance, without warning, silent, right there, rotating, blades, and silent.
The helicopter’s silence, Jim thought, epitomized how many people get it.
Sudden realisation – then gone.
A vacant lot was packed with trucks. A sign read: Slow down: Excessive speed could lead to the use of excessive force.
Traffic meandered around waist-high, concrete barriers, on either side of the road, the footpath shielded off by sandbags and barbed-wire.
A bored soldier behind a machine gun on a tank’s top mirrored the surrounding desert’s languor, the soldier like a creature produced by that hazy agitation that was writhing like exhaust fumes on the horizon.
Blood-red reflectors on a Humvee’s back resembled glassy wounds. A comatose soldier in the Humvee’s machine-gun mount looked as if all feeling had been sucked out of him by war.
An Iraqi soldier, wearing black sunglasses, and slouching on one leg, was beside his American commanding officer whose face of piercing eyes spewed out: “Move that truck!”
The Iraqi was doing translations.
“Move that damn truck!” the American screamed.
The smug grimace on the Iraqi’s face was a demented smile. The guy looks nuts!, Jim thought.
Abu edged forward.
“Stop!” the American yelled.
Abu continued edging forward. The Iraqi, with a laughing-skull grimace, was screaming in Arabic.
“Stop!!” the American screamed again.
Abu stopped; jerked forward, stopped, the Iraqi screaming.
“The Iraqi is telling me to go!” Abu said.
“Listen to the American!” Jim screamed.
“Get out of the car!!” the American screamed.
The Iraqi was now pointing his gun.
Jim was pushed against a wall, palms against brick. Gun-barrel shadows fired dark rays over mortar. Survival’s bird lifted Jim’s soul out from its cranial shell. Debilitating possibilities had fluttered, like crazed angels, inside his head, before fluttering worry had yielded relief’s smoother flight.
“My passport’s in my shirt pocket,” he said. “I’ve got a seat on Airserv.”
The American, a fireball of jumpy stress, studied the passport. Frenetic concentration burnt in his eyes. Crystalline belief in great schemes, based on rights, had been shattered in the American’s head by survival’s yelp.
“Park in the lot and wait there,” the soldier said. “Someone’ll take you to the airport.”
The grimace of smug delight remained on the Iraqi’s amused face, like a stain of crazed titillation.
“That’s why people die at checkpoints!” Jim said. “Because of translators like him.”
A new development in cruel entertainment, crueller than nature. Was it calculated to show greater will through savage madness? Or was this suspected infiltrator a lone actor, delighting in violence without being under threat?
“Stop the car,” Jim said.
The car was pointing at forty-five-degrees across the road, holding up traffic. The Humvee soldiers lifted their heads as horns blew, comatose corporals receiving injections of life, their wild-eyed commanding officer striding across the road, Jim’s head out the window, the commanding officer screaming: “I told you to move!”
Jim pointed at the Iraqi soldier and yelled: “He’s telling people to keep going!”
“He’s saying the opposite to you!!”
“Yes! Yes!” Abu added, bending forward to look at the American. “He told me to keep going while you were saying STOP!!”
The American forehead lines of disbelief disappeared. Clarity stretched facial skin. Speculation became fact in a clearer whole.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll deal with it. Park in the lot.”
Brown dust hovered where men were waiting for their vehicles to be inspected. Most are ignorant of how creative life is in producing death.
“That guy is an infiltrator or he’s playing live computer games,” Jim said.
New possibilities flooded new cerebral territories, like eerie lava.
“Mad,” Abu said. “Mad!”
He smacked the steering wheel. The source of Abu’s dismay was now apparent to Jim – at last clear!
“You know,” Jim said, “that discoveries are inevitable, but you can’t imagin…”
“What a crazy fucker!” Abu seethed.
Jim’s need for discovery now felt irrelevant, something far greater having risen above it.
“More madness!” Abu hissed. “That other madness replaced by this!”
“Unbelievable!” Jim muttered.
“I thought I was a disaster tourist,” he added, “but that…that’s….”
“That,” Abu said, “is a new war for a new era. Look what the Americans have brought here! They’re so innocent!”
Jim now believed that he felt what ordinary Iraqis feel. The moral concussion that had been hammering Abu’s mind for months was now shaking Jim’s soul.
Jim rested an elbow on the roof of Abu’s car. Rust had mauled metal around the headlights. A gap existed between the grill and the bumper where the metal had died, the car rotting like Iraq.
Abu lay on the bonnet, staring vacantly upwards at the vacant heavens. This incident was another appalling discovery in a creative vat of troubling occurrences; the vast, muted, flat desert, spread out like a disk of indifference, mirrored the ambivalence of the immense light of radiant impartiality that capped the world.
Men huddled in the shade produced by trucks. Human shadows lay, like black omens, on dust.
Jim felt the amorally ubiquitous heat touching his nose and earlobes. Hot air baked under a blue blaze. Jim felt Abu’s vulnerability, his eerie hopelessness, his morbid ineptitude, the belittling that cruel impunity produces, new feelings – breakthroughs in sympathy – unexpected rewards of eccentric curiosity.
And these feelings aren’t sporadic, he realised; they accumulate like long-term scars.
A loud swat had made him rush to the balcony when he had been in the hotel room. A flame had risen over the buildings on the other side of the road. Intertwining currents of black DNA smoke had ascended, dissipating into blue. The shallowness of the hollowness of that swatting explosion had been so shallow that it had had no pitch. Just volume – unlike thunder’s complex euphony that resembles percussion in climatic symphonies.
The smoke, like a black soul, had melted into an azure skylight, as if the space above had considered that ebony gas to be irrelevant. Jim’s telephoto lens had brought the incident closer. Gas veins had twirled upwards, like interlocking spectres of amoral ascension.
Jim had thought: Those fumes lack a cloud’s grace. Sporadic violence in a steamy soup of languor. One extreme or the other.
He had lowered his camera. The sporadic had returned, back to safe-distance illusion.
Then the helicopter’s shadow had swept over the balcony. Then another helicopter – unannounced – faint engine hum heard briefly, fast shadow, then gone, like a black bird of death.
A soldier said: “Are you Jim Holmes?”
“Follow about eighty yards behind us. Don’t get to close, okay?”
The hand that fell away from Abu’s face was sweaty. He now had to drive down that death road – and back – his head simmering with accumulated possibilities. His reward: some desperately needed dollars.
The armoured vehicle, dwarfed by celestial sapphire, in front of them along the long road resembled a dot of insignificant steel. Nothing looked secure or strong in Baghdad – even steel – everything turned to vulnerability by towering circumstances.
White lines curved around an interminably long bend, as if the road’s destination was perennially being shifted to the horizon.
Palm-tree explosions sat on the tops of brown, tornado timber. A concrete fence lined one side of the road; a military barracks on the other. Barbed wire topped a wall over which protruded a lookout tower. Twenty-four hours on alert.
“When you’re young,” Abu said, “you don’t know about all the ways of dying…. Later you know there are many ways, but not until you’ve been in a war do you realise how many ways there are. Each day brings another.”
Accumulation sometimes made his hands shake.
“I can imagine,” Jim said.
And partially he could, too.
“While I was waiting for you on my room’s balcony,” he said, “a helicopter appeared above me – just like that! No sound! I didn’t even hear anything! They could have shot me. I was holding a telephoto lens that probably looks like a weapon. People with guns in tight situations don’t have a lot of time to think.”
The road became a car park. Metal containers faced a hangar where soldiers were unloading an arms’ shipment. More possibilities for killing.
Abu parked in front of the airport’s main doors where sandbags faced a timber board. A sign on the board said: Remove magazine and clear all weapons prior to entry of terminal. Bullet holes adorned the sandbags. Such was the unpredictable nature of things that a gun had once gone off accidentally in the departure lounge, a briefcase getting speared by lead. Now no loaded weapons were permitted in the airport.
Abu opened the boot and removed Jim’s bags. Abu’s rapid movements, emphasised by the silent shimmering of the surrounding desert, made Jim assume that Abu had to be in another place to do another job.
Jim handed over the money and they shook hands. Abu dashed into the car, fleeing after a quick goodbye, his car shooting behind trees and then disappearing.
Jim entered the terminal, his relief enhanced by achievement – by the satisfaction of having been able to feel what they feel. He even felt proud. And now he was returning to where death only comes after sedate stretches of indefinite time, back to where people engage in the slow accumulation of limited knowledge, where the crawling attainment of information allows you to feel comfortable. Very few awful surprises existed where he was going back to; where he was going there were usually just positives, like a child’s world.
He decided to go back outside to experience a level of heat that he had never known before, a new climatic experience in which the sun’s fury covered him in a fur-like sheath. A humid languor had stumped the world into abeyance, as if nothing had the audacity to move under the sun’s ferocity. It was so quiet that it was impossible to imagine that anything had ever happened in that place whose natural changes had the snail’s pace of evolution. What a facade!
The desert titled up to where blue emptiness touched lighter horizon edges, colour concentrated at the zenith. The thick sapphire above the lighter horizon blue seemed to be denying gravity, like inverse reality.
The focal length between Jim’s eyes and the computer screen he was looking at later that day in Amman contracted and expanded as he read: Baghdad Airport attacked with rocket propelled grenades.
He felt a reducing enormity, as if he had no control over anything. It was just chance that he wasn’t dead! He could have been there, the first victim! Of course! That’s why Abu wanted to flee! They’re so innocent….
Every day, he thought, brings more ways…. Death at any moment. While you’re eating; lying in bed; outside airports! Especially if you have worked for foreigners…
Pride rotted into shame. Imagine, he thought, always learning about new ways of dying – and doing it with imagination!
Base fear just climbs; this was accumulation’s real impact, the peaks just rising and rising – until?
Abu charged back down the road, speed his only security. Palms flashed by. The desert’s immense space caused a worrying sensation of unwanted exposure. He half expected, from the unguarded expanses, to see rocket-propelled grenades coming his way, his eyes roaming on full red alert.
The checkpoint’s congestion emphasised how suicide bombers can cause mayhem. Knowledge was making life worse; knowledge the beautiful thing that had once turned daily life into an adventure. Now it was psychological poison. There are so many ways….
The future was contracting, temporal claustrophobia caused by having worked for foreigners. The resistance could get him any time, his days finishing with drilling headaches, the bags around his eyes like the rotting metal growing around his car’s headlights.
Fusing days became dreary, perturbed wads of sameness, like waiting for something liberating that seems increasingly unlikely to arrive.
Each car bomb sent ripples of shrilling vulnerability through the swamp of insipidity that he was trudging through towards a destination that appeared increasingly remote.
The future was deterioration.
He collapsed on the living-room floor, clutching his head. His brother had been shot by the Americans who had returned fire after their passing convoy had received a round from within the same building that his brother had been visiting. The savage impartiality of that unpaid-for death triggered off a vengeful need to break the inaction that had been murdering him internally. Even the soldiers knew when it was going to be over for them. They had dates.
His mother’s tears didn’t stop him from planting his first roadside bomb, the work done under a million-light sky whose magical stability created a feeling of false, promising permanence. And why not plant bombs? The future was non-existent, an adolescent failure of temporal perceptions charged up by fear and resentment.
The accumulation peak was now so high that only kill or be killed or kill yourself existed. A tightening fist of awareness had squeezed out from existence’s pulp these three hard pips of possibility, an outcome the innocent occupier had been unable to envisage.
The innocent occupier called this outcome terrorism; some of the occupiers may even have believed it.
Abu believed he killed someone from the same unit that had killed his brother.
Profile: Kim Farleigh