Brad Loberg

12/17/2004

Economic Development Seminar

 


I. North of the Husaynyah

 

 

            A patch of date palms was located northeast of Old Karbala, on ten acres of land falling on either side of the Husaynyah River, a Euphrates tributary.  The arable and fully irrigated land and the climate of long, hot summers and low humidity provided an ideal situation to farm khalas dates, whose sweet, yellow fruit was in high demand.  Each tree could produce up to one-hundred kilograms of khalas which were a valuable commodity either fresh in the markets of Baghdad and Karbala, or sold to refineries for processing.     

            From the age of ten, Akil was permitted to bring a schoolmate to the date farm twice a year.  First, to help with the hand-pollination of female trees at the beginning of the growing season and, in July or August, to help harvest the fruit.  On one August occasion, possibly Akil’s last visit to the farm before he and his mother fled Iraq, he and his friend Husam had spent the morning helping his father’s workers with the harvest.  They were responsible for shuttling dates harvested on the far side of the river to the Karbala side using an inflatable inner tube, keeping the sheep from under the feet of the workers descending from the trees, and providing tired workers with cold water.             Following a Saturday afternoon of relative toil, the two boys crossed through the date trees north of the Husaynyah and headed over a few short hills where they discovered a rural village.  They threw poorly aimed stones and yelled mild obscenities at each other, drawing the attention of a few villagers washing clothes in the shade of a lean-to.  At the intersection of the two roads in the village was a concrete structure whose dirty windows were just above Akil’s line of sight.  Husam, taller, peered through one smudge-free corner and saw the remnants of a defunct store.  Irritated with his inability to see what had so exited Husam, Akil ran around to the rear of the store, Husam close at heel.

            A sign riveted to the wall next to the rear entrance informed that the store had once sold sundries and pharmaceuticals under the proprietorship of Fawwad Ibn Assan.   Opening the unlocked door, Akil stepped softly into the store and was met with a dusty haze, broken only by the scant light entering through the dirty windows.  Overhead hung bare halogen tubes mounted to shoddy tin reflective frames.  Lining the walls were dilapidated wire shelves, many of which had collapsed to the floor.  In scant piles and scattered about the floor were various newspapers, leaflets, advertisements, and coupons.  The boys cocked their heads to the various angles in which the text was arranged on the floor.   

            The more gaudy papers, those with pictures, served as the mouthpiece for the Baathists and proclaimed the dawn of the Arab renaissance through the beneficence of Saddam.  Others argued for a return to a broad Muslim coalition of states united under Islam with the rule of a caliph, each claiming a different, true descendant of Muhammad.  Many photocopied leaflets depicted the Shrine of al-Abbas, one of the great Shiite holy sites, which, because it was located at the heart of Karbala, the boys knew well.  The text highlighted the atrocities of Saddam toward the Shiite majority and promoted self-rule in Iraq.  Still more leaflets proclaimed a common bond with the Palestinians and a duty to expel the Jewish infidels from Palestine.  Many claimed, for varying reasons, that there was no god other than Allah, and no law other than Islamic law.  Others suggested that external friends would help rid Iraq of Saddam’s Baathists, which would pave the way to individual prosperity for all Iraqis.  There were colorful depictions of the history of Islam: Mohammed’s move from Mecca to Medina; the second caliph ‘Umar’s conquest of much of the Middle East; the shift of the caliphate to Baghdad under the Abbasids and the resulting intellectual boom; Saladin’s conquest of the Western Crusaders; the dominion of Arabia by the Ottomans and Imperialist West.  Each of these demanded a specific interpretation of this history and the impact it should have on Muslim worship and governance.  Scattered throughout was the simple slogan, “Death To The Infidels.”  Mixed around the varying political and religious messages were ads for Azhar Halal Meats and unbranded consumer goods including olive oil, sugar, flour, rice, and soap. 

            While Akil’s gaze remained fixated on deciphering the meaning hidden amidst the scattered papers, Husam had stealthily retreated to the entrance of the store.  He sprang forward and leapt onto the papers, sliding a few feet over the tile floor, startling Akil from his study.  Akil quickly followed suit and challenged Husam to better his distance.  Laughing and shouting, they repeated this act until the bulk of the papers lay bunched and crumpled against the far wall and the red tile floor showed streaks where years of dirt had been dislodged.  Catching his breath, Husam licked the front of his T-shirt it in an ill-advised attempt to clear his mouth of dust.  He reached into his pocket, pulled out two plump khalas, and received a dirty look as he tossed one to Akil. 

            “These belong to my father,” Akil reproached as he sunk the whole date into his mouth. 

            The two slid down the wall to sit amongst the tattered papers and were quiet as they relished the taste of the sweet, yellow juice that filled their mouths.  Still chewing,  Akil jumped up and ran behind a makeshift counter in the corner of the store, excited at the chance of discovering a new diversion.  Husam lingered, contemplating his next bite, having chosen a more meticulous, piecewise approach to his snack.  Akil scoured the area behind the counter, but any remnants of the shop’s active days had long since been discovered and removed.  The racks on the walls behind the counter and shelves beneath were covered with dust and rodent droppings.  With his index finger, Akil flicked a few of the pellets from the countertop, which fell soundlessly to the tile floor and rolled aimlessly about the room. 

            Behind the counter, sitting ajar, was a heavy, wooden door with a circular, brass knob that fell away under Akil’s grasp.  He tossed it over his shoulder, inadvertently drawing Husam’s attention, and grasped the door by its swinging edge.  Akil pulled with all his might, but the hinges had settled and the door was lodged in the floor.  Husam joined his friend and the two counted, “One—two—three,” and pulled in unison, further opening the door by a matter of inches.  They tried again and again, guided each time with an emphatically yelled “one—two—three,” to no avail.

            As it stood, the door had opened satisfactorily to allow Akil, the smaller boy, to wedge his way into the adjoining room.  Inside, the room was very dark, but in a matter of moments Akil’s eyes adjusted to the light, and he recognized that he was in a small, storage closet, empty, but for a broad cast iron sink spot-welded to the floor.  Attempting to follow, Husam became trapped in the narrow opening and wailed for help.  Akil first tried to pull his friend into the room, but as his efforts only succeeded in increasing the pitch of Husam’s wails, he gently extricated an arm and a leg, freeing his friend to return to the outer store.

            Ignoring Husam’s disconsolate pleas to be included in the treasure hunt, Akil ran his finger along the cold, burnished edge of the sink.  He noted the sink was not plumbed for running water as was his home in Karbala.  He squatted down and felt the corroded iron pipe that led through a sluice tray and through the floor to wash out into the street.  Under the sink, partially surrounding the pipe, he saw the vague outline of a heap of soiled cloth rags.  He began to sort through the rags, immediately discarding those whose oily mess felt too unappealing to consider any further.  He reached behind the pipe, pushing the filthy rags aside, worming his hand into the depths of the pile, and discovered a smooth wooden object.  He tugged at it, but the bulk of the rags prevented him from extracting it.  Maintaining his grasp on the object, which warmed in his hand, he rapidly pulled rag after rag from beneath the sink and tossed them aside with his free hand.  Husam was arranging newspapers on the floor and sliding along them in an attempt to redirect Akil’s attention, but his efforts were fruitless when Akil suddenly realized what he held in his hand. 

            To his disappointment, Akil had to release his prize and move to the side of the sink to pull it out lengthwise from behind the pipe.  He stood with a gun, an Enfield .303 rifle, and held it up to his eyes to examine it in the dim light.  Its bolt-action chamber was rusted shut and the wood casing was decaying in areas.  A large section was missing from the wooden stock, leaving only rotting shards as a brace.  Akil held the weapon to his shoulder and grasped the wood sheathing the barrel, which felt softer and more pliant than the rest of the gun.  He peered down its length at the small sighting bead that glowed slightly red in the darkness.  Beyond that, he could see nothing.  He pulled the trigger, but the ancient gun didn’t respond.  Akil nonetheless muttered a slight noise as if the rifle had discharged at whatever may have lurked in the darkness.  He called out to Husam and, hearing no response, returned the rifle to the pile of rags beneath the sink before rushing out of the closet, out of the store and onto the street to tell his friend of his discovery. 

            Husam was bent over, picking up rocks, which he had been throwing against the side of the building, each one striking the concrete in a cloud of dust and shards.  He looked up at Akil with a guilty look and a mouthful of khalas.  Akil, pretending not to notice, quickly turned and took his time firmly shutting the door behind him.  A rock exploded against the wall and Akil turned to see Husam’s expression washed of guilt, his mouth empty, but his lips still shining with juice.  Husam didn’t mention that extra date he consumed, nor any others that might be in his pocket.  Akil, content that both he and his friend held a secret from each other, did not mention the rifle. 

            They raced back over the hills and across the river.  Husam reached the far side first and declared himself the winner, while Akil demanded that the finish line had been on the other side of the river where he had been ahead, and further accused Husam of jumping the start.  As the boys intensified their insults, Akil’s father called them to the far side of the grove.  The workers had departed, but for one.  A squat man in a plain cloth shirt folded a modest pile of 250 dinar notes bearing Saddam’s image into his shirt pocket and got behind the wheel of a Nissan pickup, whose cargo bed was laden with khalas destined for Baghdad.  Next to the car were two  heavily burdened mules his father had borrowed from a neighbor in exchange for a sheep.  Akil, his father, and Husam would walk the mule back to their home in Karbala, arriving well after dark.  The following morning, the great bulk of the khalas were to be sold in the souk extending between the Shrine of al-Husayn and the Shrine of al-Abbas. 

            It was one of few memories Akil could recall with any narrative structure, the rest remained only as vague sensory perceptions, their meaning fallen away to time. 

 

II. A Promising Graduate

            Akil al-Shari, entering his senior year of college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, wore a full, neatly trimmed beard.  He had excelled at computer programming and systems management, and, in his final year, he was designing secure protocols for corporate information exchange in a “Complex Systems” seminar.  Ridgemond, a professor of computer science and engineering, occupied a small, static-free laboratory and wore a ceaseless array of cross-hatched flannel shirts over a rail thin frame.  As the two were friends, albeit of a professional nature, Ridgemond had joked with Akil about the necessity of wearing a full beard to earn recognition in the field of computer programming. 

            “You know the corporate guys go nuts for the full beard look.  They can pull junior level programmers, you know, the beardless guys, into their offices day and night, pay them the blue collar wage awarded to LAN administrators and applications managers.  But at some point, when they, these corporate guys, need a secure, quick transfer of information, when they need reliability, they know they have to get a beard in there.  And probably a beard full of tuna fish or something, something really repellant that shows that the guy’s head is so full of computers that he doesn’t have the time to wipe his meal out of the great bushy mess on his chin.  As soon as the corporate brass catches sight of a beard full of tuna, they know they’re going to pay through the teeth.  The more tuna the merrier.”

            Akil forced a smile in response to the slight, balding professor, who, contrary to his opinions, did not wear a beard himself.  “I guess it’s something about a bald guy trying to compensate by wearing a beard that is somehow offensive,” Ridgemond had quipped in an overly jocular fashion, but his face was soft, almost pulpy, and did not look as if it required shaving more than once a week.  While Akil did not mind his professor’s forward behavior, and wasn’t exactly offended at the hypothetical hunk of fish in his beard, the notion was repellent.  That his financial success could be dependant upon something as superficial and backwards as poor hygiene seemed a perfect example of the ideology of image that both repulsed and entranced him. 

            Beyond his high school primers, one of the first sources of written material through which Akil had struggled with the English language was a free WPI humor newspaper circulated twice a year.  Picking up a copy in the student center on the way home from class, he scanned the headline in the top left corner.  He did not immediately understand what he read and put the paper in his backpack to decipher its meaning later.   In time, the headline, “Cult Of Personality Files For Tax Exemptions,” a small phrase in an apolitical college newspaper, came to stand as a significant source of Akil’s feelings toward America. 

            Since his high school civics classes, Akil had felt that the American separation of religion from government was awkward and faithless.  He wondered how Americans, who he knew were widely devout, could support a government that stood only for the secular prosperity of the individual, the power of fame, and the amassing of riches.  When he learned that religious organizations didn’t pay the government taxes that other organizations and individuals were forced to pay, he understood that the headline suggested that the minor philosophy of wealth and status had grown to such dimensions in America, that it had supplanted religion and stood as the closest path to godliness.  Intuitively, as he understood the headline without the intended sarcasm, he hated this system and that hatred galvanized his faith in Islam, perhaps beyond the bounds of the beliefs he had held in Iraq.

            But in his senior year, the promise of wealth did not seem quite as offensive, and Akil viewed wealth as a tool to win him friends and recognition.  He had been ostracized throughout much of his college life, treated as an oddity, potentially a dangerous oddity, who was appreciated more as a sociological curio rather than a classmate.  It seemed that the rare conversations he had with classmates generally involved three or four students circled around him asking questions about his past.

            “What was it like under Saddam?” a shy, brown-haired freshman asked, her cheeks reddening as Akil stumbled through an answer.  Further into his college carreer, as the conflagration in Iraq reignited, others, generally larger types with close-cropped hair would ask, “What was Baghdad like when the Americans bombed it in ‘91?”  Akil initially would answer that he had not been in Baghdad and couldn’t relate the explosive power of American military might to enthusiasts of that sort.  Later, as it seemed that the most often repeated questions were those about the American might on display in the Gulf, Akil stiffened and would reply with his own geo-centric question, “What’s the view like from the top of the Empire State Building?”  He only meant to draw parallels between the false American assumption that all Iraqis are from Baghdad and its international counterpart that all Americans are from New York.  No one understood this parallel and, because Akil had mentioned a tall building in New York City, the question that followed was fairly uniformly, “Are you a fundamentalist?” or a similar, tactless question designed to determine if Akil was a threat.  Akil would quickly answer that he was not.

            In a school of high-tech hopefuls, by his senior year Akil had earned a position in the top third of his class.  His intellect offered him his first forum of recognition.  His projects were often discussed by his classmates and he had tutored underperforming freshman in nesting structures in various programming languages.  He credited the American system with granting him the ability to succeed on the basis of his intelligence and began to foresee monetary rewards.  He had interviewed with a series of Boston and New York based consulting firms, but felt that each appeared lukewarm about his chances.  Professor Ridgemond assured him this standoffishness served no purpose other than to drive down his asking price.  With a month of school remaining before the graduation ceremony, Akil had completed the great bulk of his school work.  Only a multivariable calculus exam stood in the way of his graduating with honors, an exam that his professor insisted was, “a formality.” 

            Despite his academic success, and the scholarly demeanor and pious image Akil had constructed, he remained deeply lonely.  He had found students interested in two aspects of his character: his past and his computational ability.  Yet, toward the end of his senior year, Akil managed to go on two dates for dinner in the Worcester suburbs with one woman studying in the math department, and another he found shelving books in the library.  On both occasions, at least initially, he had enjoyed himself, talking at length about his projects and theories, in fact blurting out his talents and successes that he hoped would win their affection. 

            The first, a second-generation Lebanese girl, Lihla, had laughed and encouraged him.  She had dark hair that curled up where it fell to her shoulders.  She wore make-up that darkened her eyes and brightened but did not color her lips.  Akil found her wildly attractive and enjoyed the conversation primarily as an opportunity to prove that he was the equal of his male classmates, and figured that he would eventually have the wealth to prove it. 

            In fact, Akil attributed his eventual failure with Lihla to his lack of wealth.  Operating only on the stipend that was afforded by his scholarship and the scant money his mother was able to send from New Jersey, Akil took her to a local chain restaurant that he had thought was fairly nice.   He had dressed in a pressed shirt and wore his maroon and white WPI necktie cinched tight to his collar.  His beard, neatly trimmed and oiled, sat rigidly above the Windsor knot Professor Rigdemond had taught him during his freshman year.  As he ate a grilled chicken breast, Lihla stared at his beard moving in a repetitive arc against the white background of his shirt.  She had waited patiently for thirty minutes after their dinner while Akil searched the street up and down for one of the few taxis operating in Worcester to return them to campus.  Lihla, to Akil’s great embarrassment, eventually called a friend on her cell phone to ask for a ride home.  Akil sat in the back seat of a small sedan and stared out the window as the two girls conversed briskly over the rhythm of the radio.  Rachel, the driver, looked in the rearview mirror and asked Akil if he was going to the upcoming Senior Brunch.  Akil had barely heard the question, the volume of the speaker behind his head and the sound of the wind racing through the slightly open window drowning out her voice.  Assuming that Rachel had inquired about his lack of a car, Akil replied, “It’s just that cabs are really hard to get in this part of town.”   

            Akil called Lihla the following day, muttered through an apology and suggested a subsequent date.  He was irritated but not greatly surprised when Lihla declined his invitation and, lambasting himself, questioned the type of girl who would want to date someone like him, someone who couldn’t manage to complete the simple task of transporting a woman home from dinner.  Wincing, Akil noticed the maroon and white tie hanging over the back of his desk chair.  A WPI tie, bearing the University colors and crest, had been given to all male students on their first day of class.  He had worn it out of pride on every warranted occasion since that first day, and he now realized that he had not seen any of his classmates wearing theirs.  He figured that all of his attempts to impress the other students came out second-rate and contrived in their eyes.  He considered returning to the prayers on which he had relied through his first years of college, but instead buried himself in preparation for his exams.  As he struggled to concentrate on his solutions, he thought of Lihla and how foolish he must have sounded over the meal.  Lihla would not be impressed with piety or mathematics, but with deep sips of wine over dinners at dimly lit restaurants, cars with supple leather seats, and parties where fashionable people danced.  

           

           

            On a warm Sunday afternoon, Akil was alone in the computer lab where he had spent the morning studying for his math exam and reviewing the sample networking structure he had helped his professor establish on the WPI server.  After briefly visiting a Muslim charity website he had set up for a friend of his mother’s, Akil read online Arabic language newspapers which discussed the current conditions on the ground in Iraq.  The major U.S. military forces had withdrawn in bulk about a month before, purportedly leaving behind only aid workers, political advisors, and oil and banking consultants.  The newspapers claimed that, regardless of American statements to the contrary, a small American plainclothes paramilitary force continued to seek out and destroy any remaining radical Iraqi factions who chose to express their beliefs by force rather than politics.  The elected Iraqi government was headed by Chalabi, always the masterful politician, who had returned from international political exile to popular Iraqi prominence by providing an avenue for the disarmament of al-Sadr’s Mahdis. He now held the unified support of secular Shiites, the majority of Kurds, and, surprisingly, a large number of moderate Sunnis.  The newspaper also claimed that he held the support of al-Sistani and somewhat looser support of the more Islamist clerics. 

            International pressure had forced the erasure of Iraqi debt, and signs indicated that Iraqi economic growth through a market system was foreseeable.  Through US aid programs and private investment, Iraqi engineers were upgrading and restoring the power grid and running miles of sewer lines.  The cleanup campaign was in full swing with bulldozers and graders running through most daylight hours to remove the rubble of air strikes, and plans were drawn by architects throughout the world to restore the Iraqi city of Baghdad to prominence.  Roads, paved and bridged, were in the process of construction that would connect rural Iraq to the eventual prosperity of Iraqi cities.  Social institutions and infrastructure were moving slowly from the planning to construction stages and raw materials were flowing into Iraq at the rate oil was flowing out.  That was the good news. 

            Of a more troubling nature, the Iraqi state was still under the dire threat of a full blown insurgency comprised of both fundamentalist Shiite radicals and Sunni hardliners.  While it once appeared the two theoretically disparate sects were operating in tandem against the American military, the departure of Western forces turned these two factions against one another, even as they maintained the unified goal of disrupting a secular Iraqi state.  Operating amongst the two factions were a series of loosely unified terrorists and criminals.  Road-side bombs, hijackers, and snipers were the measure of the day, and full- out offensives in remote Iraqi enclaves were not quite considered a rarity.  The newspapers did not purport to know whether the number of insurgents was growing or diminishing, but did offer lurid pictures and descriptions of some of the more brutal killings.  There was also talk of trouble on the broader political front.  Israeli soldiers were training Kurdish incursion forces in Northern Iraq, a practice that enraged the newly founded Iraqi state as well as their Turkish and Iranian neighbors. 

            Akil considered this information with barely a hint of affection or apathy for his former home.  He had not heard from his father since his flight from Iraq almost ten years ago and knew nothing of his whereabouts or disposition.  His young friends were now little more than faces recollected without an ability to place those faces within the structure of place and time.  As a graduating senior from a formidable technical school, Akil thoughts centered primarily on his future as a successful American.  Yet, from time to time, the thought of a young Iraqi face flashed into his mind as he read the news from his former home.  Akil considered the face and recognized that it could have been his own, maybe that of a friend, but the grimace could not be mistaken.  He pictured this young face, distorted with the pain and fear of combat and strife, climbing hills and waging war solely to earn the rights to a future entirely opposed to the one Akil expected.  He didn’t dwell on these thoughts and, ostensibly, read the papers only to inform his world view.  For the most part, he was all too content with the potential for his future to concern himself with the strife that absorbed most of the world’s attention.  The completion of four years of secondary education would be the springboard to a career of hard work for one of the consulting firms with which he had interviewed, hopefully MacPherson in Boston, and a comfortable, satisfied life.  Yet, every Sunday in which he could find an hour to spare, he would head to the old, mostly unused, computer lab to read the Arabic news.  Thoughts of his father and the images of Iraqi turmoil did not distract him, but nor was he entirely capable of striking them from his consciousness.                          His mother, whom Akil spoke with frequently, intentionally ignored the media reports and deflected her son’s inquiries about his father and the entirety of the Iraqi situation.  Akil would usually call on Monday afternoons which, at his mother’s hotel, fell at the end of the pay week, when her hotel gave all employees the day off to avoid paying overtime.   

Considers mother’s perception of Iraq.

            Because of his loneliness, Akil had devised a  meticulous schedule to occupy his day from which he did not usually deviate.  While unwritten, it operated to satisfy every hour of his week so as not to leave him with open hours of unwanted contemplation.  Twice a week, generally Monday and Thursday, Akil went to the WPI gym to lift weights and circle the indoor track for about forty-five minutes.  Other than a weekly meeting with Ridgemond and stolen moments to read the frequent letters from his mother, the remainder of his time was split fairly evenly between rigorous study, meals, sleep, and the occasional extracurricular reading of American history texts.  On a rare friday afternoon, Akil would go to the Islamic Society of Greater Worchester in an attempt to recapture the rigorous prayer that had fueled his young college career.  These had grown more infrequent as his work intensified and he grew dissatisfied with the practice.  Sunday’s now presented Akil with leisure time, which, because it was so thoroughly regimented, he had come to appreciate.  Often he would watch television in the student lounge of his dormitory, sitting with a few students who drank immeasurable volumes of soda and cracked jokes at the screen.  A walk around the campus was pleasant on Sunday’s when the weather was nice, and, once, he had gone with a WPI Outing Group for a hike through a state park in Central Massachusetts. 

            The group had parted ways in groups of twos and threes, Akil tagging along with the group leader, a guy in a ragged Red Sox hat and a sophomore girl.  The two became quickly distracted with each other, leaving Akil the opportunity to fall behind and wander off on his own.  He enjoyed the hike immensely, rising and falling over short hills feeling his legs strong beneath him and, leaving the trail, he felt the crisp air in his lungs as he traversed back and forth across a narrow stream.  While he wasn’t lost, Akil had paid little attention to his direction and quickly lost track of time.  As the sun lowered, light sparkled through a pair of lush green-leaved trees silhouetted on the horizon.  Akil recognized that he been wandering through unknown woods for quite some time, and turned to follow the stream in the direction he had come.  Reaching the van, he found the regrouped students sitting at a picnic table adjacent to the parking lot feeding on a bag of mixed peanuts and raisins.  The leader stood to meet Akil halfway as he crossed the greenway, and curtly said, “We’ve been waiting forever.  Hope you had fun.”  He then shouted for the group to pile into the van.  Akil entered the van first and sat in the back.  The sophomore girl entered next and offered him a short apologetic smile. 

            The group talked and laughed a bit on the way home, making suggestive comments about the leader and the sophomore girl.  While he enjoyed the conversation, no one said much to Akil, and he made no effort to join in.  The group arrived home long after dark and managed to persuade the cafeteria to provide them with bag lunches.  Akil returned to his room and, eating little, tried to read a novel, which was a practice he didn’t generally enjoy.  He fell quickly asleep and did not again venture to join the Outing Group.

            On this Sunday, Akil left the computer lab and headed down a grassy, gradual hill toward the WPI playing fields where the mens’ lacrosse team was playing Clark University, their cross-town rival in the final game of the year.  The game was in progress and a moderate collection of students from the two schools had gathered on the sideline bleachers.  The game, which Akil did not understand, was progressing at a rapid sprint toward the Clark goal.  While still a good distance from the field, Akil, his view partially obstructed, watched the WPI team members raise their arms in the air as the crowd erupted into cheering applause.  He quickened his pace toward the field.             

            Following his failure with Lihla, Akil had pondered the easy social success of a few of his classmates whose names he had heard mentioned with regularity in the student center and the cafeteria.  A close knit group of friends, all seniors, played soccer and lacrosse had gained notoriety at WPI primarily for their clownish antics.  Quiet by nature, Akil found the gregarious group to be obnoxious show-offs, but he was nonetheless intrigued by the attention they were able to garner.  During the winter trimester, the notorious students had filled all of the archways connecting the various campus quads with snow, which had caused many of the more studious to be late for class.  Recently, they had recently wheeled the cafeteria salad bar out into the parking lot, where they jokingly tried to sell vegetables to passers-by, declaring, Cut rate prices.” 

            The WPI faculty and administration viewed them as a harmless actuality of college life that could never be fully stamped out.  Wherever young adults tasted their first breath of freedom from their parents’ authority, there were bound to be those who approached that freedom immaturely.  The WPI administration had tried to discourage other students from following the example of the reckless minority by doling out embarrassing punishments. These seemed only to further pique the admiration of the student body and led to participation in childish stunts by a greater percentage of the student population.  Many WPI students were aware which girls were dating members of this social elite, knew that they were leading members of the Pike fraternity, and could identify them when concealed by their lacrosse helmets. 

            Akil, fearing that college could represent his last chance at friendship, was determined to incorporate himself in the social life of the student body in the few short weeks of college that remained.  He had no illusions about the possibility of joining the group, and, in fact, had no desire to befriend them.  He found the overheard retelling of their exploits to be reinforced with such hyperbole that he figured the actual nature of their doings must be fairly lackluster.  Regardless of Akil’s perception that they lacked tact, he saw an inroad to social acceptance through ingratiating himself with the broader group of hangers-on who reveled in the retelling of their antics.

            The game was exhilarating.  The teams’ best players began by crouching down over the ball at the field’s center while the rest of the team was restrained at the sidelines. At the whistle, the two at center, in different, brightly colored jerseys would wrestle over the ball, vying for position with their webbed sticks and smashing the sturdy wire masks of their helmets into each other.  Simultaneously, the restrained players on both teams would rush toward the fray, waiting for one player to prove his dominance and arise with the ball or to kick it free for a teammate to collect.  The team in possession of the ball, Clark, raced toward the WPI goal, and the crowd of mixed allegiances roared in anticipation and dismay.  The Clark players ran in crossing patterns and flung the ball from one to another to elude the checks of WPI midfielders, which increasingly appeared in vein.  Clark entered their offensive zone and settled the pace of advance to establish an attack perimeter around WPI’s goal.  The WPI defenders, wielding sticks larger than their attacking counterparts, shouted coded instructions to one another as they repositioned themselves according to the Clark attacker’s movement of the ball about the perimeter. 

            Akil’s first moments watching the game coupled with the shouts of encouragement and instruction from the sideline led him to consider the game theoretically straightforward, at least regarding its physical properties.  The player’s sticks were constructed of composite metals and each had a molded plastic head webbed with leather straps, which created a fairly deep pocket.  The ball could be thrown with great speed over long distances by using the stick as a lever.  Holding it with one hand at its base and the other about halfway up the shaft, the players applied rapid force in opposing directions.  The ball picked up speed as it moved up the inclined plane of the leather basket and, essentially, was propelled forward by a whipping action.  The defensive players used their sticks to poke, prod, and slash at the player with the ball.  To thwart these attempts, the ball carrier used his wrists to turn his stick back and forth, cradling the ball in the webbed pocket.  The centrifugal force created by this mechanism, forced the ball deep into the pocket, allowing the ball carrier to move with speed without losing it and better deflect the checks of defenders.            

            Akil stood amidst a group of students, half-interested in the game, who had gathered on a grassy area to the left of the bleachers and busied themselves with jokes and gossip amidst periodic sips from red plastic cups.  The group was comprised mostly of students from Akil’s senior class and he recognized a few of them from his calculus class.  One of the students Akil recognized, Ben Yeats, received a number of laughs by suggesting that any school having either of the words “polytechnic” or “institute” stitched on its jersey, even in acronymic form, had little chance of playing field dominance.  Seeing that his comedy was appreciated, he broke into cheers of, “Come on polytechnic” and “hit ‘em hard institute” saying the first words of each phrase in a jocular and aggressive fashion and the name of the school in an astute, academic tone.  Akil laughed along without drawing attention. 

            Some of Ben’s peers imitated him as the Clark players picked up their pace of attack.  They had spread apart within their offensive zone to isolate defenders and create space to open up greater geometric lanes of attack.  As the ball moved briskly around the attack perimeter, Clark players sprinted through the open spaces and circled the WPI goal, dragging their increasingly stolid defenders in tow.  The spectators from Clark could sense the eminent kill and cheered as an attacker appeared unguarded just to the left of the goal.  He received a crisp pass and, as he steadied himself for a shot, a WPI defender moved across the goal mouth.  The Clark attacker released his shot just as the defender delivered a vicious body check, some of its vigor undoubtedly spawned from his frustration at having been eluded.  As the smaller attacker tumbled to the ground, his stick pinwheeled into the air, and an visceral crunch reached the sidelined spectators.  The attacker gingerly stood and celebrated with his teammates as they returned to their sideline. The only damage done was to the scoreboard.  The WPI goaltender plucked the ball from the net behind him and dejectedly hurled it back to center as a few Clark players approached the bruising WPI defenseman and assured him of reprisals.    

            Akil joined the crowd in groaning in a patriotic display of disapproval over the success of the opposing team.  The game was still close, but the spectators collected near Akil had already begun composing concession speeches, demurring over fourth quarter prospects, and generally relegating victories to brighter days.  As the teams squared off at center to resume play, Ben took a deep quaff from his red cup, tipping it perpendicularly to the ground, and sighed loudly.  He explained to a friend whom Akil did not recognize of his mounting stress over his upcoming final exams.  This was to be his last free afternoon before he began the arduous task of learning the entirety of his course material in the remaining weeks of school.  Ben collected a number of cups from his friends and turned to walk under the bleachers where the remainder of their refreshments were stashed. 

            “Hey, you’re in my calc class, right?”  Akil pretended to be startled from a deep concentration on the game.  Ben stood before him with a friendly look on his face that was comically accentuated by red stains jutting from the angles formed where his upper and lower lips met. 

            “Yes, with Professor Hagenfeld,” Akil responded.  He wished he had worn the WPI baseball cap that he had recently purchased from the bookstore.

            “Hagenfeld.  What a bear, huh?” Ben asked, and clarified, “the exam I mean,” when Akil looked quizzical.  Akil felt he had a good understanding of the topics to be tested on his calculus exam, and but for the review of some of the differential rules he had scheduled for the upcoming week, his preparations were complete.  Nonetheless, Akil commiserated with his classmate, a student whose work he assumed was sub-par.

            “Yes, I think Professor Hagenfeld could put some surprises on the test.”

            “Surprises?” Ben questioned, “a surprise would be if Hagenfeld called the whole thing off and bought us all luxury cruises to the Galapagos.  On the other hand, I don’t think I’m going to be all that surprised when I see the test for the first time and don’t recognize a thing on it.” 

            Akil laughed and said with a degree of irony, “Yes, I see what you mean.  A surprise is certainly conditioned by expectation.”

            Ben smiled slightly and continued slowly, “Well, I guess that’s exactly it, and, unfortunately, I’m expecting to get slaughtered.  But hey, all I need is to pass and I can get outta here with decent grades and pull some paltry wage doing some thing or another until I turn 30 and…”

            From behind him a large, clearly drunk individual shouted out, “Hey Yates, enough chit-chat with the fans.  Your presidential campaign can wait.  How about those drinks?”  The student held his arms wide and titled his head at a questioning angle to emphasize his exasperation. 

            Ben turned back to face Akil, “Well, I’d better get to these refills before this gets ugly.  Anyway, what was your name?” and he followed his question with another before Akil had a chance to answer, “You’re the guy from Iraq, right?”

            Akil tensed.  While he held no secret fanatical beliefs, he was wary of the appearance of such, and employed subconscious tactics to prevent revealing secrets that did not exist.  In fact, while first caused by a deep shyness, Akil’s loneliness was very much constructed by his somewhat paranoid belief that he was surrounded by detractors, bent upon discovering his past and classifying him as an enemy.  His tension was built  not on the simple fact that Ben knew he was from Iraq.  While most of their families had lived in America for generations, many WPI students were of Arab descent, and, as such, there was nothing unusual about Akil in that regard.  Rather Akil was immediately consumed with the fear that Ben knew not only of his origins, but that Ben knew everything—knew how difficult his emigration, how difficult, perhaps impossible his adjustment to America had been, how he had clung to his mother’s skirts, shunning the assistance of the Arab-American community, how desperate he was to find a place for himself, and most concernedly, the truth of his father’s potential fanaticism.  Akil’s concern was that Ben may have the information to label him, “more than just any other Arab-American.” 

            Regardless, because he had little choice, and because Ben seemed friendly enough, Akil introduced himself, careful to insert the reflexive caveat, “I haven’t been to Iraq for a long time.”  He was careful never to use the word “home.”

            Ben noted the brief pause preceding Akil’s answer, and trying to settle him, said, “Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it.  I’m just asking your name.”  Behind him, Clark scored another goal, drawing another boisterous response from the audience.

            “Crap.  Well, historically, there’s been only one way to soothe crushing defeats.  You want one of these?”  Ben held up the cups in his hand and, when Akil didn’t immediately respond, motioned toward the bleachers, suggesting that Akil follow him to a red and white cooler hidden beneath a pile of jackets.

            Akil followed him and Ben spoke over his shoulder, “Anyway, Akil, I haven’t seen you down here before.  I mean, you like lacrosse?”  He did not intone his question so as to suggest that someone like Akil could not appreciate lacrosse, but seemed genuinely interested.

            “Well, I don’t really know much about it.  I was just finishing some work and was walking across the quad when I saw everyone collected down here.  From what I’ve seen,  though, it’s exciting.”  After Ben cleared away the pile of jackets and lifted its lid, Akil looked into the cooler.  Inside, filling half of the rectangular tub, was a mass of thick red liquid.  As Ben shook it to mix its contents, the viscous liquid sloshed up the white interior wall of the cooler, and slowly ran back down the sides, returning to the pool.    

            “Yeah, lacrosse is a good game…fast…good, wholesome violence, but our team sucks.  They make nerdy, tech-kids everywhere look downright unathletic.”  He looked back at Akil who didn’t respond, but stared uneasily into the red liquid at what appeared to be, at best, inconsistencies in the liquid, and, at worst, chunks. 

            Ben continued, “No offense or anything about the nerdy, tech-kid thing…I mean, I only wish I had the brains of some of the kids here.”

            “No problem.  I don’t think I’d have any success at...” Akil trailed off as he was captivated by the contents of the cooler.  “What the hell is that stuff?”

            Ben laughed a little, and more deeply as he realized that Akil wasn’t joking, but was actually confused and a little disgusted with the prospect of consuming the red sludge.  “Ah, don’t sweat it.  It’s bloody marys, which can be unpalatable at first glance, but, trust me, they’re really tasty and, more importantly, vodka based.”      

            Using one of the red cups, Ben scooped a serving for Akil, the dipping edge of the cup remaining coated in the volatile beverage.  He wiped the base of the brimming cup on the grass to clear it, but succeeded only in spilling more over the edge.  Red in the face he stood and held it out to Akil, simultaneously apologizing for the unsanitary nature of his serving method and encouraging Akil to give it a taste.  Akil did so without any reluctance beyond the unpleasantness of subjecting his hand to the red mess coating the cylindrical surface of the cup. 

            Akil had drunk beer before.  During his freshman year he had managed to get drunk on a few occasions, but feeling guilty and uncomfortable, he had stopped drinking long before the more exacting freshman lessons about over-consumption had a chance to inform.  He was now distanced enough from his religion that the prospect of drinking did not present the same obstacle and it had become increasingly clear that alcohol was an intrinsic part of the culture he had once so abhorred, and now sought to engage. 

            The sip he took did no more than wet his mouth, but it tasted about as he had expected—thick, laden with pepper, and other unpalatable, indiscernible flavors, texturally inconsistent and, contrary to what he expected, lukewarm.

            “Not bad,” was his prognosis in the face of Ben’s encouraging smile.  He took another sip, slightly larger, and felt it burn in his stomach.  Ben busied himself with his friends’ refills and the necessary attempts at wiping the residue from the cups.  Akil watched as the WPI team moved the ball about the midfield, and moved his cup in a circular fashion in an attempt to mix his drink.  WPI managed to capitalize on a defensive error and, a lanky player scored an easy goal that did little to improve its position on the scoreboard. 

            Readying himself to follow through on his plan, Akil questioned, “Was that one of the Pike guys?”

            Ben looked over his shoulder, contemplating the collection of WPI players congratulating each other as they jogged back to center, and said, “Had to be one of those assholes.”

            “You don’t like them?” Akil was surprised.  He had figured that the student body largely appreciated the lacrosse playing fraternity.  He thought they were the focal point of the antagonistic relationship between the WPI administration and the student body, and that the student’s would surely side with the antiauthoritarians. 

            “Those guys?  Are you kidding?  They walk around this place thinking they’re beyond it all, like they own the place.  But without each other they’re just the same as you and I.  Talk to anyone of them individually and you’ll find a much different person then when they’re all gathered together.  I find it pretty amazing the bravado that comes from any assembled group.  And in this case, when you put a bunch of macho, egoists under the same collection of Greek letters, its not all together surprising that the bravado is manifested as entitlement.  Anyway, if you’re friends with them or something, forget I said anything.” 

            “No.  I really don’t know them at all…just of them, I guess,” Akil followed, somewhat incredulous that Ben could possibly believe that he was a member of that crowd. 

            “Well, in my opinion you’re not missing much unless you have a preference for conformist tastes, weird, obsessive rituals, and indoctrination to everyone with a similar haircut.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are times when I love the trouble they give the deans.  That’s all great.  The shirts need some grief now and again, you know nothing wrong with irking the administration.”

            Because he had planned on nothing but acclaim for the Pikes, Akil was quiet in the face of Ben’s description to the contrary.  In the silence that followed, Akil nodded his head in a gesture of understanding, and coughed harshly in response to a deeper sip of drink than he had intended. 

            Ben laughed, “Hey, forget it.  Come hang out for a bit.  I’ll introduce you to some other folks.” 

            The two walked down to Ben’s collected friends and Akil introduced himself to five individuals, laughing and slightly drunk, paying little attention to the game.  Akil talked, and the group listened and laughed along as he offered his loose understanding of lacrosse as a game played by brutes with little need for tact or consideration.  He talked further with Ben, mocking Professor Hagenfeld’s affinity for chalk-covered corduroy jackets with elbow patches and the pipe he kept perched on his desk, which neither of the two figured he ever smoked.  They talked about the shoddy living situation in most campus dorms, and the unfairness of a recent expulsion of a student for failure to pay his final semester’s tuition.  Akil drank only one of the pulpy bloody marys and headed home after the game feeling elation enough to quell the tumult in his stomach.

           

            After his breakfast the next day, Akil lay on his bed with his calculus text before him and felt excitement for the weeks to come.   Working through logarithmic functions that were, for the most part, second nature, Akil replayed the events of the lacrosse game, and found it hard to differentiate between the thrill of having actual conversations that didn’t give him the impression of scrutiny and that of the crushing violence of the game.  Satisfied with his work, he closed his book and headed across campus to the school gym.  Because the year’s classes had concluded, allowing for a week long study period before exams, the gym was more crowded than usual for a Monday afternoon. 

            Students wearing gray WPI t-shirts hurled their bodies forward to no avail on treadmills and others grunted as they moved dumbbells in the arcs prescribed by the health and fitness posters tacked to the walls.  Generally unobtrusive in the gym, Akil often paid deference to those using the better equipment and opted for exercises other than those he preferred.  But today he engaged others, asking if they wouldn’t mind sharing the equipment.  He worked out for longer than usual, lifting heavier weights and took time to appreciate his muscles in the mirrored walls.  He then ran circles around the indoor track until the front of his t-shirt was soaked in perspiration and then walked an additional brisk lap to cool down.  Breathing heavily, dizzy in the harsh fluorescent lighting, Akil thought of his future—he would be a well paid consultant in Boston, he would spend weekends jogging along the Charles, drinking coffee with coworkers, and taking women on dates.  He sprinted a final lap of the track before heading to the showers.  

            Walking home across campus, Akil had felt a gratifying fatigue in his back muscles and legs.  His desk, generally clear of debris, was piled high with the books and papers representative of his exam preparation and final systems management programming project.  In the upper left hand corner of his small, institutionalized mirror on the back of his dorm room door was a letter from The Brekheun Group, a letter he had received three weeks ago and read numerous times over that span.  He retrieved it and read over its contents once again. 

           

            Dear Mr. al-Shari,

 

            We at Brukheun Boston enjoyed meeting with you last week.  At Brukheun, we pride ourselves on maintaining the hardest working and brightest corporate roster in the business.  Our edge on the competition is forged through long hours, honest appraisal of client needs, and the understanding of the most efficient means of implementation.  Your academic transcript and your success on our testing regimen show you as capable of becoming a member of our team.  For the next phase of our hiring procedure, we ask that you meet with our Corporate Directors for a question and answer session.  A schedule of available dates and a list of the Corporate Directors is attached.  Please contact us by telephone or e-mail to schedule an appointment or with any questions.  Congratulations.

 

                                                                                    Sincerely,

 

                                                                                    Margaret Hollins

                                                                                    Human Resources

                                                                                    The Brukheun Group

                          

           

            Akil had scheduled his interview for the Thursday after his graduation.  He had received similar letters from other consulting firms, but Brukheun was the most impressive.  Professor Ridgemond had smiled broadly when Akil showed him the letter and said, “Going to be pulling some freight, huh?”  He laughed again when Akil looked confused and explained, “Akil my friend, some of those guys, the higher ups, have so many zeros on their paychecks, they look like the wheels of a passing freight train.  You’re going to be rich if you land this one, pal.”

            Rigemond spoke in this familiar fashion notwithstanding the fact that Akil rarely responded in kind.  On this occasion, Akil beamed and, in a dismissive fashion, said, “Well, I guess great riches sounds okay.  I mean I’ll  probably have to get some really nice things, and that’ll take a great deal of my time.  But I guess I could make up that time by driving really fast in a nice car.”  Akil laughed as Rigdemond returned the letter.

            “Seriously, Akil, you’ve worked very hard and it’s clear to all of us that it hasn’t been easy for you.  You deserve this.  Well done.”  Rigemond pulled his hand from his pocket and shook Akil’s hand.  Academically, Akil had succeeded and he was earning appreciation from that effort, recognition from others and, potentially, great wealth. 

 

            Akil received Ben’s e-mail as expected on Monday evening.  At the close of the lacrosse game, Akil had offered to help Ben prepare for their calculus exam.  The offer had followed a long litany of expressions of helplessness that were not quite as subtle as Ben imagined.  Bemoaning his impending failure, he had spoken to his friends while stealing glances at Akil.  “I just can’t figure out how I’m going to put all this together in such a short time,” quickly evolved into, “this is going to be ruinous,” and eventually, “man, they’re going to feed my diploma to the hounds.” 

            Without drawing the attention of Ben’s friends, Akil had unceremoniously offered his help.  Akil recognized that Ben was requesting help in a surreptitious way, and while he didn’t appreciate his methods, he wasn’t troubled by Ben’s potential motives.   He  was excited to help, and had even managed to grow impatient with Ben’s failure to directly ask for a tutor.  So long as he would have the opportunity to continue what he hoped could blossom into a friendship, Akil would sacrifice far more than a few hours of his day.  

            The two met every day over the course of the exam prep week.  Their studies began in the library, but met with the unwanted distraction of intruding peers.  Akil hadn’t minded the interruptions, and was pleased with the opportunity to socialize with a wider circle of students.  Ben, on the other hand, his dedication forced by the direst of necessity, became the perfect embodiment of the irritated scholar.  He went as far as to interrupt Akil’s conversation with a girl to whom he had just been introduced.  “Look, Akil, we’ve got to find a place where we can get some work done.  Sorry, Selma, I just done have the time.”  Ben displayed more irritation than he’d intended and quickly apologized to both with, “It’s just that I’m pretty stressed.”  He ran his fingers through his brown hair, which flopped back over his brow in heavy clumps when released.   

            Akil suggested they continue their studies in the unused computer lab in the physics building.  They met the next day, Ben unusually excited for one ostensibly settling in for a long lesson in the differential functions.  He sat down across from Akil with what Akil defined as, “a big dumb grin.”  Akil dropped his pencil into the fold of his open text at the words, “now don’t get too excited.” 

            Ben continued, building the suspense as only one with interesting news about a woman can.  “So, guess who asked about you?”

            Akil stared blankly, but his heart raced.

            “That was not simply the prelude to my telling you who asked about you.  By ‘guess,’ I meant you ought to try and figure out who it…ah, never mind…it was Selma, the girl I introduced you to yesterday, you know, the conversation I cut off.”

            “She asked about me?  Like what?” Akil blurted out with more interest and enthusiasm than he had expressed since opening the Brukheun letter, and that he had done in the privacy of his room.

            “Nothing big. Nothing overt, you know nothing about whether you were seeing someone, but still, she asked about you…even said she’d seen you before, noticed you that is.  It’s good news, anyway.  So whaddaya think?” 

            “Think?  Well, obviously I’m fairly pleased, but I don’t really know what I think beyond that.” 

            “Fairly pleased?  Come on!  Have some balls.  Lay it out there.  Fairly pleased is for victories at board games and parking spots right in front of the restaurant.  This is an attractive girl asking about you.”

            Akil found Ben’s ability to analogize amusing and laughed openly when his excitable friend found reason to exaggerate.  “Alright.  It’s great.  You’re right.  It’s just…well, this will sound pathetic, but I have not dated much and I don’t think I’m very good at courting women.”

            Akil recounted his recent experience with Lihla, mentioning that it was the only real date he had been on in college, and detailing the experience with adjectives like, “disastrous,” “embarrassing,” and “demeaning.”

            “Whoa, whoa, relax a second, Akil.”  Akil didn’t realize he’d gotten carried away and quickly quieted.  “Look, what was the big problem.  So it didn’t work out.  So what…you can’t declare the end of civilization because of taxicab unavailability.”

            “But she didn’t call.” Akil interjected.

            Yeah, and…that’s going to happen on occasion.  And sometimes it’s even worse.  On one occasion, and trust me, one occasion out of many, that I’ve embarrassed myself, I actually managed to find myself dancing with a very attractive girl.  Sounds good right?”     Akil nodded.

            “And what did I do, but actually, and I mean literally, head butt the girl.  I knocked her down.  Flat down on the ground.  Now given, the inability to dance is one thing, but when one is so arrhythmic as to deliver a crushing head butt in the midst of a drum and bass tune, you know the evening is going poorly.  But you forget and wait for the next opportunity, which in your case is a golden one.”

            “You knocked her down?” Akil laughed in earnest. 

            “Yeah, KOed.” Ben made a swooping, circular neck movement and pounded his palms together.  “That was that.” 

            As they settled into their work, Akil began another day of the painstaking task of leading Ben into a greater understanding of calculus.  The work was slow, but neither shirked the task.  Ben was expressing rudimentary differential functions and had the beginnings of a working understanding of the logarithmic function.  Regardless of the steady improvement his pupil had showed over the preceding days, Akil was amazed that Ben had made it this far in his study of mathematics. 

            Initially, Ben put forth profound efforts to hide his lack of ability.  He let Akil do most of the talking, simply nodding his head agreeably in response to the explanations he was offered.  When pressed to provide answers to posed problems, he would work his pencil slowly across an open page of his white, lined spiral notebook, drawing the axes to perfection and placing neat, darkened arrowheads at their ends to denote their infinite nature.  He meticulously copied the problem from his text in deep, slow strokes, managing to rewrite the assumptions that applied to the entire problem set for each new problem. 

            Making some uninformed measures to solve the function as presented, Ben, contrary to his generally garrulous character, kept still and quiet.  Akil did not interrupt him, allowing his charge to attempt each complexity on his own.  Eventually, Akil would be forced to speak, subtly at first, offering the barest hints of where to begin, and how to recognize operational modes of solving complex equations.  Minutes later, when those hints proved ineffective, Ben still staring blankly at the paper, moving his pencil in an attempt to appear thoughtful, Akil became more assertive.  His directions became more heavy handed, a coach positioning his players about the court rather than simply instructing upon the theories of basketball.  With this methodology, Ben was able, for certain introductory problems, to take Akil’s lead and find the correct solutions. 

            This afternoon, their first day in the computer lab, Akil presented Ben with a challenging problem requiring a multivariable approach to a differential.  The two sparred in their usual fashion, Ben striving in earnest to appear as if the solution was merely a few strokes of his pencil away, and Akil waiting patiently with full knowledge that, with a problem of this degree of difficultly, he was going to have to solve it in its entirety before Ben understood.

            Akil began, “You see, you need to express the limit of n in terms of the solution of the x squared binomial.  If you take x as your given…”

            “This was my dad’s idea,” Ben bluntly interrupted, looking up from his page for the first time.  His pencil, it’s tip still sharp, rolled a short ways across the desk.  “Math.  It’s useful. Practical is the word that he uses.  But I don’t get it, never really have.  Now, given, I don’t think I’ve put the required work in, but no matter what, no matter the hours I could have, or should have set aside to learn this stuff, I’d be in over my head.  Now it feels a lot like futility, a whole bunch of too little set beside a generous margin of too late.”

            Akil had never been one to challenge any other, never had forced his viewpoint on any other with whom he internally disagreed, but he became slightly angered at his friend’s fatalism.

            “What’s the point of this?  What good is whining?”  Akil did not intend to sermonize or even guide a faithless student back on track with a pep talk, or its like.  Yet, how someone could quit so easily, could be so gutless and supine before a challenge sincerely irked him, and, because he had spent the time working with Ben, he spoke passionately. “So you think you’re in over you’re head?  Maybe.  But now isn’t the time for crying.  You’ve got one exam left and the fair chance to prepare for it as best you can.  I’ve worked hard and I’m ready to take it.  You may not have the time, but you can have the inclination.”

            “Okay, Akil.  Wow, I wasn’t jumping ship.  You know, just sort of adding perspective to the challenge.  Alright?”

            “Of course it’s alright, but at this stage, the least productive thing is to sulk over missed opportunities, or what you sacrificed for your father.”  Attempting an air rapprochement, Akil softened with this last intimation, desiring a return to their studies and fearing a natural segue to questions about his own father.  “So let’s get back to task.”

            The rest of the afternoon was spent in study, excruciating at times, rewarding at others.  Ben lacked an overwhelming amount of the required information, but approached the material in earnest, willing to put in the work necessary to improve his odds on exam day.  With the books closed on the desk before them and the room darkening with the approaching evening, Ben leaned back in his chair and pulled his course brown hair back from his brow.

            “So, what’s your move, Ben asked as he loaded up his backpack.

            “My move?”

            “Yeah,” Ben said with a slight smile that showed he knew of Akil’s discomfort, “you know, your move with Selma.  If she’s asking, you’ve got to assume she’s expecting some sort of answer.”

            Akil shrugged, “I’m not sure.  What do you think?”

             

            The two left the lab and headed up the hill to the path that served as the central artery, connecting the dormitories on the north side of campus with the administration and classroom buildings surrounding the quad.  Ben wasn’t as fit as Akil and struggled slightly with the hill, his breath laboring under the weight of his pack.  They discussed what options were available to Akil, each seeming either too brazen or too paltry to be effective.  To each breathless suggestion, Akil would respond either embarrassingly, “I couldn’t do that,” shaking his head at the notion of a direct approach, or laughingly, “come on, she couldn’t possibly buy that.”

            As they parted company, Ben to his off-campus apartment, Akil to an early dinner of cafeteria chicken and rice, it was determined that Ben would try to get more information about Selma’s potential attraction to Akil, without, as Akil stressed, “being too obvious about it.”  Their studies were to resume at eleven the following morning.

 

            It turned out to be quite simple, not worth the stress under which Akil had labored.  Following a period of encouragement, and the imparting of the few phrases Akil was to remember to say, he had made the phone call.  Selma laughed at Akil’s easily perceived anxiety, but readily agreed on a lunch date as Ben had assured Akil was a given. 

            As they deliberated over how Akil should approach the lunch date, where he should go, how he should act, and dress, Akil’s nervousness grew.  Again, he began to relive his failure with Lihla, relegating all future attempts to a similar fate.  

            Ben quieted him.  “Look, it’s as guaranteed to work out as the mean value theorem,” Ben said with a grin, impressing Akil with his recollection of the material. 

Akil smiled knowingly, “Sure, sure, not bad…but recall that mean value only applies to functions both continuous and differentiable, and there’s no guarantee that I can be so expressive.”

            Ben’s eyebrows lifted.  “Akil,” he paused, “that is absolutely terrible.  Perhaps the worst I’ve heard.  Honestly, you can’t go around talking like that.  Sure, I’m as game as the next guy for an interesting play of words, and I know I may have somehow opened up that opportunity, but…wow…you just can’t.”

            “Alright, I get your point, but you asked for math help, and you’re going to get it,” Akil replied embarrassed by Ben’s good-natured rebuke.

 

            Akil left Ben with a problem set that they would review later, and headed to Selma’s dorm with Ben’s car keys in his pocket.  Akil had driven before, but was unlicensed and unpracticed.  But Ben had insisted that Akil at least give it a try and, after some cajoling, Akil had agreed to take a few laps around the athletic center’s parking lot.  While thankfully an automatic transition, the shifting mechanism was not without its idiosyncrasies.  After revving the car in neutral in a few misguided attempts, Akil learned  that the brake had to be depressed to the floor when shifting the car into drive.  If the brake wasn’t fully engaged, the dashboard indicator would show the car in drive, while the transmission, in actuality, remained in park.  After a few minutes spent in the lot, Akil had pulled into traffic and cruised the neighborhood while Ben assured him that everything would be fine and, if something went wrong, it didn’t much matter because the car was junk. 

            Akil drove toward the student center where he was to pick up Selma, feeling confidant with the operation of Ben’s Buick sedan.  But this was the full extent of his poise.  Beyond his understanding of traffic signals, rights of way, and the operation of the headlights, Akil was extraordinarily nervous.  He was still preparing his dialogue when he pulled into the student center parking lot, killed the engine and exited the car to kill the fifteen minutes before he was due at the entrance to Selma’s dorm…only a matter of yards away.  He bent forward and checked his reflection in the side mirror.  Ben had advised against wearing his tie, and in its place, Akil wore a dark sweater that he felt was too tight around his shoulders.  He thought that he looked good enough, his black hair and dark beard were well kempt and square, and the sweater, in fact, fit his frame well, but he was nonetheless uncomfortable in its confines.  Standing upright, he pulled at it, twisted his frame, and pushed the sleeves up his arms hoping to find more room.  He leaned back before the car mirror and, stroking his beard with his fingernails, neatening and aligning its tight weave.  He exhaled heavily enough to bulge his cheeks and stood to see a smiling Selma crossing the brick patio adjacent to the parking lot.  She was earlier than expected and, because Akil had not yet fully readied himself for the initial encounter, he spoke somewhat sharply.

            “You’re early,” were the first and only startled words out of Akil’s mouth.  He  didn’t seem pleased with them, and would have preferred to say, “hello,” or a similar introduction, but before he could correct himself, Selma, looking a bit taken aback,  quickly responded, “Well…so are you.”       

           

            Akil and Selma sat at a small restaurant slightly outside of Worchester, Akil having relaxed following an uneventful drive, during which he had been pleased that nothing regrettable escaped his mouth.  He hadn’t mentioned any of his academic accomplishments, which Ben had thought may have accounted for his failure with Lihla.  Inquiring about her interests and past, Akil felt like the quiz show hosts to whom his mother had grown so attached upon arriving in America.  But she seemed appreciative and, as the two drove along tree lined streets, the sun glinting through the windshield, Akil learned that Selma was of mixed heritage, having some Jordanian blood which she laughingly described as, “heavily diluted.”  She was a physics major who spent most of her time as a research assistant to a demanding, grouchy professor who had gained some notoriety for some seminal work on photon mechanics, that Selma argued, “gave him the  belief that he was deserving of immortalization in gold leaf.”  Thankfully, she did not offer any hint that she was friends with Lihla or had heard of Akil’s failed courtship.

            Selma ordered a Mediterranean salad, feeling that a light lunch would be satisfactory for such an unusually hot spring day.  Akil opted for a turkey club, and the two sipped at glasses of water, and joked about the possible uses for the bread plate covered in lemon wedges the waiter had placed on table.  Ben had been right about the quality of the restaurant.  It wasn’t too crowded, the tablecloths were starched white and pulled crisply across the tables, and a single flower sat in a small, pale blue vase at their center.  Akil was all too aware, with a single glance at the menu, that he was to be without any pocket money for weeks to come.

            But this thought was fleeting, Akil figuring the volume of consumer goods and trinkets he would forgo in exchange for this experience would need to be measured in raw tonnage.  As their meals arrived on intricately patterned plates and the water glasses refilled, Selma asked of Akil’s plans following graduation.

            Recalling Ridgemond’s description of his potentially heroic salary, Akil wanted to tell of his plans with the most important aspect first.  At WPI he had geared himself toward nothing but a lucrative future.  He wasn’t sure that he even liked systems design and hadn’t really questioned whether liking it was even a factor.  The fact was that he excelled at it and that excellence could reap him rewards.  All else was secondary.  Yet, it didn’t seem as if touting his potential earnings was appropriate on such an occasion. 

            “Well, I’m not sure yet, but I hope to find work, preferably in Boston, as a consultant.  I’ve interviewed with a few places and Professor Ridgemond seems to be encouraged.  But I’m not sure.  I’ve gotten a call back interview from Brukheun in Boston, but I’ve scheduled it for after graduation.  I’d definitely accept pretty much any position they’d be kind enough to offer.”

            “What do you think of Ridgemond?” Selma asked after wiping her mouth with her cloth napkin, a gesture to which she seemed accustomed.

            “He’s well meaning enough, I guess.  Why?”  Akil’s sandwich remained untouched.

            “Nothing really.  I’ve heard that he’s a stickler.  Hey, why aren’t you eating, not hungry?”

            “Oh,” Akil smiled, “I guess I’d forgotten about the food what with all the…” Akil took a small, demonstrable bite and chewed as Selma told a story she had heard about Ridgemond’s grading policies.  At its conclusion, she forked a slice of cucumber into her mouth and smiled.

            “He’s never given me any trouble with grades.  It’s probably just a matter of certain students working better with certain professors.”

            “I’m sure, Akil.  Judging from the number of appearances you’ve made at parties, I doubt very much that you have any real gripe about grades.”  She squeezed a lemon wedge into her water, saying, “Well, that’s one down,” referring to their speculation of moments before.

            Akil kept pace with the conversation, learning that Selma had plans to take a little time off before considering either a career or grad school, which she declared would definitely take place on the West coast.  He finished his sandwich and paid the bill after convincing Selma away from her suggestion that they split it, a position to which she did not seem firmly attached.

            All said, the two had enjoyed themselves and Akil felt great pride in his driving ability and what he perceived was the contentedness of the smile on Selma’s face sitting in the sun warmed passenger seat of the Buick.  They returned to campus, parking in one of the few available parking spaces along the university access road.  That he would have to parallel park the car had been beyond Akil’s expectations, but with a few attempts guided by self-depreciating comments, Akil killed the engine and the two sat in a brief silence.

            “It’s too bad we didn’t meet sooner,” Selma said thumbing excess denim where it bunched along her thighs.  “I mean, it’s too bad that we’re graduating in a couple weeks.”

            Unsure of her point, Akil replied, “Yes, too bad,” in a vague, but agreeable tone. “I’m really ready to graduate though, maybe move into Boston, start making a living.”

            “No, of course I’m ready to go to.  I’d had enough after last year, but what I mean is that you’re a nice guy and I wish we had more time to get to know each other.”  Selma laid out the terms of their relationship with regret.  “It was a really nice lunch, though.”

            “I had fun too.”  Akil was not distraught that his first successful date was not to spawn a relationship.  Understanding the constraints of time, he did not make any attempts to persuade Selma to extend their relationship beyond the confines of their college years.  For him, his desire to date had not been because he wanted a relationship.  If that had turned out to be the case, so much the better, but taking Selma to lunch had been important to Akil simply because it was an ability he wanted to have before departing for his broader professional life.  What he desired most was practice, so that when the occasion arose, when he was making money and working hard, he would know how to talk to women. 

           

            Akil opened his door and, ducking his head under the door frame, began to exit the car. 

            “Akil. Wait a sec.  I want to ask you a question that’s somewhat direct.”  Akil closed the door, and waited with a pallid expression that expected bad news.

            “I just wondering…I guess, well…you’ve been kind of a loner over these years.  I recall seeing you on a few occasions early in our freshmen year.  Then nothing.  You just disappeared.  I guess I heard your name mentioned on occasion, and saw you making the trek from the dorms to the computer labs, but that’s it.  Never in the cafeteria, never at parties, never anywhere really.  I don’t mean to be forward, but, I guess, why is what I’m asking.”  She stopped and waited.

            Akil considered his options and, for a moment, believed honesty could be the most viable avenue.  He wanted to tell her of his loneliness, how he had only recently come to understand this culture, how he had removed himself from the student body out of psychological necessity.  Figuring he could win her long-term affection through the rendering of his deepest emotions, he thought about telling her how enthusiastic he was about his upcoming career.  Perhaps, if he could extend his answer long enough, he could tell her of his recent feelings of social acceptance, of his job offer, and what he felt was a friendship with Ben, and, of course, how important their lunch had just been.  He could tell her the story of the culling of his childish alienation, his self-imposed devotion to solitude and study, and his emergent maturity.  In the end, the intimacy was pointless because of the condition their relationship, and, thankfully he sidestepped the question. 

            Starting with an uncomfortable chuckle, he said, “Well, I don’t think it’s all as complicated or heroic as you may think.  I just found work that I really enjoyed and put all my effort into it.” 

            “Nothing wrong with that,” was Selma’s accepting reply.

            But because he was uncomfortable, Akil supplemented his answer.  “You know, most people never get an opportunity like this.  I wanted to work the hardest in a culture the rewards hard work.”

 

            Akil walked Selma back to her dormitory on the north end of campus.  Ben’s experience with dating suggested that women liked to be touched as some minor symbol of recognition, appreciation, and affection.  He had stressed that this touching should be very minor, and friendly rather than aggressive.  The warning had been, “you’re going to have to judge the situation for yourself.” 

            Selma immediately stiffened when Akil lightly, yet awkwardly lay his arm across her back.  He smiled when she turned toward him to gauge his intent, but his arm grew suddenly heavy and he couldn’t match her stride as they walked.  Akil badly wanted to retract his gesture, but he figured that so doing would only further complicate the situation, and further reveal his inexperience.  His arm remained in place as the two awkwardly stepped across campus in relative silence, their strides discordant and plodding.  At the entrance to Harwick dormitory, they briefly discussed the potential of getting together after exams, perhaps with Ben and some other friends, and Selma told Akil to give her a call.  They shook hands gently and she turned to enter the building.  Akil watched her through the glass paneled door until the inner door of the entrance vestibule closed behind her. 

 

            The day of the calculus exam arrived with the skies appropriately clouded over.  The ground was wet from overnight showers, and worms lay dead and bloated on the footpaths onto which they had washed.  Over their final days of preparation, Akil had praised Ben on the areas over which he held a good grasp, and told him to approach the other areas with an open mind and confidence.  Ben wore galoshes as they walked toward the math building, the soles squelching underfoot.  The two had mulled over and rehashed Akil’s date and had determined that, regardless of the potential for a longer relationship, it had been a success, “a good confidence boost,” as Ben described it.  Akil had rang Selma a few days after, but she had been busy, having to run off to make photocopies for her research assignment.  She apologized and promised to call back when she found the time, but Akil had yet to hear from her.

            “Don’t sweat it,” Ben suggested.  “For now, you should be focusing on the exam, if, that is, you think you need to focus.”  He laughed and nudged Akil with his elbow.  While Ben tried to appear jovial, Akil figured his friend’s veneer to be thinly applied, for Ben was not satisfactorily prepared for the exam and his nerves must have been in tumult regardless of his jocosity. 

            The two sat next to one another, Akil offering Ben luck as the exam, only a few pages deep, was placed before them.  Akil placed his name in block capitals on the cover page, and signed his name beneath the required WPI honesty statement, stating that all work within the exam would be his own and that he would report and knowledge he had regarding the integrity of the work of his classmates.  He then set quickly to task, reviewing the entirety of the exam, ten problems in all, and began his computation with the sixth, that which he believed to be the most challenging.  For an hour and a half he worked, measured and neat, arriving at what he believed were the correct solutions.  He had only strayed from the correct course on one occasion, which he quickly recognized and rectified.  With only two problems to go, those that he believed were on the test only as a perfunctory measure to ensure that certain formulas could be put to use, Akil raised his head check his available time on the wall clock and survey the room.  He leaned back in his chair to stretch his back and neck, and noted that the room, oddly, smelled strongly of white-out when the students were to be using only pencils on their exams.  Akil noted that Professor Hagenfield’s teaching assistant who was administering the exam, a squirrelly graduate student who wore thickly framed glasses, was paying little attention to the room.  He was bent heavily over a set of papers spread fairly thickly over the desk, and was hastily applying the pungent error-concealing chemical in enough volume to rejuvenate a suburban picket fence.

            Akil glanced over at Ben, and to his absolute shock, he noted Ben, red-faced and absorbed in his efforts to hurriedly obtain hints toward the correct solutions from Akil’s exam.  His pencil worked furiously over the mostly blank fourth page of his exam, his eyes darting back and forth between Akil’s test and his own, dragging his chin in tow.  Reflexively, Akil lurched forward to conceal his exam, perceptibly moving his desk across the floor, a slight screech drawing the attention of the proctor.  Akil met his gaze,  offered an apologetic smile, and ostensibly returned to his work.  The proctor followed suit, Akil surreptitiously glancing upward to determine whether his action was to draw further observation, or at worst, suspicion. 

            Ben seemed aware of Akil’s stolen glances in his direction, but his eyes remained awkwardly plastered to his exam.  He wasn’t working through solutions, and seemed dumbfounded, entirely distracted by his embarrassment at having been discovered.  With ample time, Akil tried to concentrate on the remaining problems, but worked dizzily, his concentration increasingly drawn to Ben’s apparent malaise.  By all outward appearances, the difficultly of the exam, more challenging than Akil had expected, coupled with the discovery of his fraud, had bankrupted Ben.  He face was blotchy, red scattered amongst the emptiest of white, a picnic tablecloth with no discernable pattern.  His eyes opened and closed unpredictably, and he wavered perceptibly in his chair as if his moral perturbations could evolve into a physical cataclysm. 

            Akil returned to his work, the room reaching a stillness that coincided with his conclusion that Ben was on his own.  Completing one of the two final problems, Akil noticed Ben lift his pencil briskly into the air, and he hoped that his student was reinvigorated to give further efforts.  Ben’s arms were sweaty and the thin paper exam adhered to his arms.  Akil watched solemnly as he peeled it away.  Ben returned to his dismay and the proctor remained steadfastly entrenched in his corrections.

            Akil finished and closed his exam, placing it on the center of his desk, the cover page displaying the educational integrity statement facing upwards.  Akil read it again and concluded that what had occurred had been a direct affront to those words.  The work produced on the pages of Ben’s exam was not Ben’s and, according to Akil’s sworn oath, he was obligated to report the irregularity to the proctor.  But the oath was one thing, one factor in a myriad of potential moral relativities that Akil contemplated.  The weeks of their study had been uplifting to Akil.  Ben had been the conduit to his lunch with Selma, without which his lone experience with women would be his failure with Lihla.  Akil considered that day, while it hadn’t worked out to perfection, to be amongst the finest in his life.  He was very much aware that much of the confidence in his eventual success was contingent upon his now proven ability with women.  Ben fidgeted in his chair and swallowed audibly.

            Lacrosse players surely faced a similar oath.  They were presented with the rules of the game, which explicitly stated that each player would be penalized for infractions. And there were those infractions whose stigma went beyond the penalty box—some actions, some hits so brutal, some behavior so unsportsmanlike that ejection from the contest was the only adequate result, and other, more egregious situations could result in league sanctions or broader collegiate disciplinary action.  Yet, with these strictures clearly in place, the reality and stringency of penalties clearly defined, players took action outside of these rules with regularity.  Players slashed at each other viciously with their sticks.  The intensity of the melee led to shoving, swearing, and the occasional fistfight.  And most importantly, Akil remembered the hit in front of the WPI goal mouth, and remembered the response of the Clark players, who stood in defiance of the rules, shoving the WPI defenseman and threatening him with vengeance, standing before their fallen comrade.  They players broke the rules when necessary, particularly to help a teammate.  They hoped not to get caught, yet acted with full awareness of the consequences they potentially faced.  Akil questioned how the classroom could be any different. 

            Ben stole a pained glance toward Akil, meeting his eyes briefly and then turning his gaze to Akil’s desk and the closed exam.  Just as Akil had an obligation to his school, and to his own sense of right and wrong, he felt a similar obligation to his friend.  While he deliberated for some time, as the clock counted onward, Akil concluded that he did not want Ben to fail.  He didn’t want his friend’s hard work over the last weeks to amount to naught.  He didn’t want to send Ben home to his father with the prospect of returning to WPI to repeat what he had been too inept to complete.  He didn’t want to face Ben after the exam, to face him with what he would deem the failure of their friendship, and mostly, he didn’t want to lose Ben as a friend—his only friend.  Friendship was what he had been missing in college, and now that he finally had it, or the beginnings of it, or even some loose form of it, and he was not about to risk it to satisfy school rules or a boilerplate statement of integrity.  He was not sure to what lengths he would go to get what he needed in life, but what had initially appeared a moral travesty seemed inconsequential.  Akil opened his exam, ostensibly to check his work, work which he knew to be complete to his satisfaction, and as he meandered across his work with the point of his pencil, he tipped the lower right hand corner of his exam in Ben’s direction.  The proctor inhaled deeply over his scattered work, absorbed in his hunt for the one page which seemed to elude him.  Ben took what remaining hints he needed, Akil hoped with the intelligence to incorporate subtle, well-placed mistakes.                           

            Akil dropped his exam in the cardboard box lid next to the proctor’s perch, and headed from the building.  While subject to notions of right and wrong, it seemed to Akil that there were things in life that people both wanted or needed, things they could not do without.  Akil figured that considering those necessities, people would do what they had to in order to survive…they would go to great lengths, defy their morals, forgo any faith they may hold, partake of any degree of inhumanity to get what they desperately need.  Cheating on a math test was an expedient, a means to an end.  Akil had a friend.

 

            The WPI senior class graduated on a gratuitously blue spring day, and, arms around each others’ red robed shoulders, they held their diplomas open for smiling snapshots.  Their valedictorian, a student with Iranian heritage, who studied computer modeling of the genetic code, had been the subject of Akil’s unspoken jealousy in their later college years.  Akil had not been an overt competitor with him, and the two had not spoken much, but Akil had long watched him from afar, trying to keep pace with his exemplary work.  It was widely known that the valedictorian was immediately entering a PhD program at MIT, a fact that he managed to mention in his graduation address.  Following the generous applause for his future plans, he spoke words of encouragement for an educated elite facing the challenges of a tumultuous world, and stressed the difficulties to be faced by Islamic Americans in representing modern Islam in a critical Western world.  Throughout the speech Akil had searched for ways to find fault with his classmate’s words.  Egotistically, Akil wanted to discredit his well-spoken foe, but found himself begrudgingly enjoying a discreet pleasure in the potential to serve in the new vanguard of Arab Americans whose mission it was to be to prove to the world that Islam and the West were not incompatible. 

            The valedictorian continued, “Even in the face of the most disastrous of potentialities: should the world witness a continuing escalation of hostilities between Islam and the West, if the violence abroad blossoms, if our civil liberties dissipate in a cloud of proclaimed necessity, if shouts of hegemony and imperialism arise from streets home and abroad, if the stakes of the international terror campaign rise, tragedy generally reserved for television becoming the norm on our very streets, if the push and pull of our faith and the push and pull of our government suggests an erosion of our stake in democracy and freedom, we must stand strong—stand strong in the face of the very worst.  We must remember that, no matter the duration of our American history or heritage, whether we’ve been here a week or ten generations, we are Islamic Americans, and therefore have a stake in both—Islam and America, and we must continually strive to make one understand the other so that both may prosper.”

 

            Akil’s mother, Ahlam al-Shari, had been unable to attend his graduation.  In fact, her inability had been how his mother had phrased it, but Akil did not believe that she had made any effort at all.  Over the phone she, offering her regular excuse, had said that her employer was unwilling to offer any time off from work, that the hotel was facing a very busy period during which all employees were required to work full shifts.  She had never mentioned how secure she felt in Morrisville, how she had compiled herself a close network of friends and neighbors without whom she quickly succumbed to her more abstract fears.  Nor did she mention how little she liked to fly.  Rather than press the issue, Akil had told her of his recent news.  She was immensely proud of his upcoming interview in Boston, but had offered mixed feelings of his date with Selma.  She had not understood Akil’s explanation that it had been a great lunch, that they had enjoyed each other’s company, but that no further relationship was to follow.  He regretted telling her.            In turn, Ahlam told her son of the recent details of her life, how her work was laborious, but rewarding.  How she enjoyed walking to the nearby coffeehouse after work, where she chatted with neighborhood ladies and drank dark, lemon-sweetened coffee… “only one because any more makes my heart pound.”   She had cooked a dish for a community meal the mosque had organized, which had been heaped with lamb, sweet raisins, and, eventually, praise.  She grew momentarily quiet, and when Akil tried to fill the silence with other details of his college experience, she quickly inserted, “I received a message from your father.”  She was scant on details, but said he had been released from prison and had remained in Iraq throughout the conflict.  Akil agreed to return home after his interview, where she promised to impart more information. 

 

            Akil did not see Ben over the week between the exam and graduation, and there had been no accusations of impropriety from Professor Hagenfield.  Akil had earned high marks on the exam and assumed, given his methods, that Ben had passed at the very least.  Most of the senior class had used the week to celebrate their completion of four years of work.  Akil had gone to a few of the functions and chatted excitedly with a few classmates, but he never saw Ben or Selma, which had been his intent.  He spent the bulk of his week meeting with Ridgemond, who worked with him in preparation for his interview with the Brukheun Board of Directors. 
            “It’s all about professionalism at this stage.  You’ve gotten the right marks, aced their problem solving aptitude test, and shown them your skill with systems management.  It’s not about that anymore.  These guys are the brass.  They’ll have a history, you know, experience with that sort of stuff, but now, these guys are business,  Ridgemond explained. 

            “So what do I do?”

            “They’re going to meet you, get a sense of your character, your abilities that don’t show up on tests.  There’s no real way to prepare.  You can’t study statistics or review case histories.  But you can have confidence.  You can feel the conviction of your abilities, and be proud, but not arrogant.  That all starts with a good handshake.”

            While the two proceeded to engage in a series of forceful handshakes, Ridgemond showing him of the possible variations that the Board members might employ.  He showed him how one, with his free hand, might grasp Akil’s forearm.  He showed how another might place his free hand on top of their clasped hands.  Akil wondered if he might use one of these practices, but Ridgemond assured him that these measures were generally done only in situations of either familiarity or by one holding a great degree of power over another. 

            They proceeded through a range of potential applications of the handshake that grew progressively unlikely to occur during a job interview, and the two laughed over the notion of a Board member asking for it, “on the flip side.”

            Suddenly serious, Akil broke the frivolity with a question, “What should I wear?  I don’t have a suit, or really anything that nice at all.  I don’t even have a blazer.”

            “I don’t think that matters too much.  Sometimes it can help if a prospective employee were to march into the interview wearing a nice suit.  It looks professional, sure.  But it also has the potential to make one look fat on the land.  If someone your age, just out of college, already has the money to dress himself in the finest clothes, then these guys may ask, ‘how bad does this guy want this?’  On the other hand, you walk in there looking lean and hungry, like you not only want this job but you need it, and they see a guy whose going to be at his desk over weekends and holidays, the first one in and the last one home, then they see a tiger, and the generally like tigers…well, fighters they can tame, that is.  They don’t expect you to already have what you’ve come to them to get.”

            Ridgemond offered him some additional words of encouragement, saying, “if you  be yourself, be confidant, recognize that you’ve come a long way, farther than anyone else whose going to come through their offices, and be respectful of what you’ve accomplished, and respectful of their business, you’re pretty much guaranteed an excellent position that’ll give you everything you’ve come to want.”

 

            Akil took the MTBA train into Boston.  Brukheun had told him to make whatever accommodations were necessary and that he’d be reimbursed for his expenses.  After a quiet ride, during which he had stared at the passing suburban scenery, Akil arrived at South Station in an enthusiastic mood.  He weaved through the throngs of daily commuters, holding his backpack in front of him as he boarded the escalator up to ground level.  To his right, a woman clipped shut a small mirror after applying her lipstick and checked her wristwatch.  She pretended she did not see Akil staring at her.  Reaching the top of the escalator, Akil paused to contemplate his direction, drawing the ire of those behind him, one of whom offered the suggestion, “Keep moving, pal.” 

            In the terminal, people rushed in every direction, crisscrossing the gleaming tile floor, exiting in mass through the Atlantic Avenue and Summer Street exits.  Others raced from the commuter rail platform, up one escalator and down another, to the Red Line to take it northwest to Mass General or up into Cambridge or southeast along the harbor.  Those less pressed queued for coffee and pastry or McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches while reading the daily news. 

            Fairly uniformly, the commuting public held fancy looking leather cases, or had them strapped, crossing-guard style over their shoulders.  Many spoke rapidly into cell phones, entirely unconcerned about airing their matters for all to hear, primarily because the all in question didn’t appear interested in the conversation.  Akil grew more anticipatory with each passing moment: a man sitting on a high throne having his shoes polished, a woman darting past, her shouldered bag striking Akil in the arm, another with a cord leading to her ear, talking to the coffee stand attendant and into her phone simultaneously, Thanks. How much?” as she grasped her hot coffee, and then, “No, no, that’s just not going to work.  I’ll be in soon.”  Akil smiled as the coffee attendant didn’t look confused for a moment.  Her change clunked into his tip jar. 

            Akil had left himself plenty of time and reviewed the directions he had printed out from an e-mail he received from the human resources director at Brukhuen.  At the busy Summer Street intersection, Akil waited as directed by a glowing red-handed traffic signal, while cars raced past.  When the traffic ceased and the signal facing Akil changed to the glowing white effigy of a striding man, he headed across the intersection as part of the commuting public.  A similar throng crossed the street in the opposite direction, and the two groups shuffled and sidestepped to allow their counterparts to pass.  High Street was sided by an array of shining tin, food stands, their trailer hitches resting on cinder blocks, and their propane-fed griddles pumping out small amounts of cooking fumes through cone-topped stacks.  Construction workers hammered away at Big Dig girders as pedestrians shuffled behind the congested tunnel that skirted them around a set of scaffolds. 

            Turning left onto Federal Street, Akil faced the same turmoil.  He considered purchasing some breakfast from one of the storefront shops, but recalled Ridgemond’s suggestion of the “hungry look.”  Akil recognized that he was taking the advice too literally, but, in fact, was too excited to be hungry.  Nonetheless, he anticipated the days when he would be a paid part of the corporate workforce, and pictured himself waking early to allow time to sit on a low wall fronting the sidewalk to enjoy a leisurely breakfast as the world rushed past.  He would have a huge array of expensive ties, bright red and deep blue, and they would stand out sharply from his starched shirts.  As he approached the end of Federal Street, where Brukhuen’s offices occupied one of Boston’s premier addresses, he was thirty minutes early.  He walked into the lobby and read the list of corporate offices in the building.  Brukhuen occupied the entirety of the sixteenth floor.     He sat down in a comfortable armchair in the lobby and watched as workers filed into the building through automatically revolving doors.  To the left of the elevator bank was a raised, half-circle desk, where the workers scanned their plastic ID badges and numerous couriers queued to sign the delivery sheet.  A uniformed officer stood against the wall behind two red-jacketed security guards and surveyed the lobby. 

            Fifteen minutes before his scheduled interview, when the crowd around the security desk had thinned, Akil approached the desk, stated his name, and produced his Massachusetts ID card when prompted.  He began to sign his name and the nature of his business on the visitor sign in sheet, while the one of the red-jackets punched up some information on the computer.  “Mr. al-Shari,” Akil looked up from the clipboard, “I’m sorry, but we’ve been instructed that you’re not to be admitted to the building.”  She turned and handed Akil’s ID to the uniformed officer who quickly stepped around the desk to deter Akil from any thoughts of ignoring the order. 

            “I don’t understand.  I have an interview with Brukheun,  He named a number of the corporate officers with whom he was to meet.

            “Yes, Mr. al-Shari, I see that here, but that interview has been cancelled and we’ve been instructed to bar you from the building.  That’s all I know and I have no option to deviate from those instructions.”

            “Wait, just wait…if you could please allow me to speak with Mrs. Tilley, the HR director, I’m sure this can be straightened out…this is just some kind of mistake.”

            The uniformed officer’s hat sat low on his brow as he moved a step closer to Akil.  Others in the lobby began to take note and stopped what they were doing, some talking amongst themselves, their mumblings of “Arab guy,” reaching Akil’s ears.  The red-jacketed woman stood behind the desk with her arms firmly crossed, while the other guard, a lanky guy, still seated, picked up the phone and signaled for additional security. 

            Akil, confused and embarrassed, continued, “Mrs. Tilley can straighten this all out.  I don’t know what’s going on here, but she will.  Please, just call her up.  I took the train from Worcester this morning.  I have an interview up on the sixteenth floor…an interview with Brukhuen.”  Toward the end of his request, he began to get irritated, more from embarrassment than anger, and without thinking had raised his voice.  The red-jacketed woman glanced at the uniformed officer and the latter closed on Akil and grasped him firmly by the shoulders.  With a degree of commotion, some people in the lobby headed for the revolving doors.  While the officer held Akil’s arms behind his back, the lanky red-jacketed guard came from behind the desk and took Akil’s backpack.  Akil struggled briefly, saying, “Let me go.  You’re making a mistake,” while his backpack was briskly searched and declared, “clean,” by the lanky guard.  After the police officer released him and his bag was returned, he was marched back to the entrance of the building, his upper arm in the firm grasp of the officer.  The female guard who remained behind the desk pushed a button, and a door adjacent to the revolving door slid open. 

            Tripping over a potted plant, he was forcefully deposited back onto Federal Street into the frightened glares of onlookers, with the words, “Sorry, kid.  I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve got to do what I’m told.”  The officer reentered the building and the door closed behind him, leaving Akil on the street amidst the awkward stares of those who had witnessed the scene.  With little option, feeling ruined, tears welling in his eyes, he shouldered through the crowd pulling his backpack behind him and walked slowly back to the train station.  The streets were far emptier than they had been on his way in.  The managers of the food stands were wiping down the detritus of their breakfast business and restocking their carts for lunch.  A man with a garden hose was watering a series of flowerbeds in the small seating area in front of an office building.  From a phone booth, Akil called Mrs. Tilley’s direct number, but, after one ring, met with the voice of the Brukheun receptionist, who informed him that Mrs. Tilley was not expected in the office that day.  When he asked about the reason for what had happened in the lobby, the receptionist plainly responded, perhaps a bit bored with the ordeal, “I’m sure I have no idea what it is you’re talking about.”  Akil didn’t press the issue and returned the phone to its cradle.

            The Purple Line schedule affixed under plastic on a wall in South Station informed Akil of a thirty minute wait before the next train would depart for Worcester.  He purchased a cup of coffee and a muffin and sat down at a small round table with uneven legs, which wobbled drastically when he leaned on his elbows.  Hunched forward in his chair, he stared alternately at the passing crowd, now leisurely in the mid-morning, and the electronic departures board.  Time passed slowly, each train departing before Akil’s was listed in order by departure time and classified by status.  Each was first listed as, “on time,” then, “arriving in station,” followed shortly by, “all aboard,” and finally and briefly, “departed,” before the train vanished from the top of the board to be supplanted by the next in line.  Akil watched the board as a reflection of the trains briskly coming and silently going deep within the bowels of the building in which he sat.  They passed by, deep and guttural, with roaring momentum, on tracks long established, headed for predestined locales.  When the outbound Framingham/Worcester train was listed as “all aboard,” Akil coldly and steadily stood, pushing his chair out behind him, and headed down the escalator to Track 6.  His coffee and muffin stood untouched on the table, steam slowly rising from the Styrofoam cup.     

            Over the hour and twenty minute train ride, the scenery peeling away in reverse, Akil thought of killing Ben.  He envisioned himself pushing open the door to Ben’s apartment, then corrected his thoughts and saw himself kicking it down.  He would interrupt Ben and whatever Ben was doing.  His roommates, their ballcaps turned backwards, would run from the room, stumbling over each other’s heels, while Ben cowered on the couch.  Selma, leaping up from the couch, would stand screaming by the far window, light streaming in through her frantically straying hair.  He would pull Ben up from his reclined seat in front of the television.  Akil saw his own knuckles, white and clenched, grasping Ben’s lapels, dragging him around the room, profanity and hatred leaping from his mouth, booming through his ears, reverberating around the room.  He would shake Ben, his former student’s veins beginning to stand out from his forehead, blue and thick, matching the shade of his terrified eyes, which flooded with a slow coating of glistening fluid.  His lapels still firmly in Akil’s grasp, Ben’s shoulders would smash into a wall, crash through the plasterboard, a skin of plaster dust lifting into the air, culling the light, clarifying his rage.  Akil envisioned throwing Ben on the floor, where he would allow his terrified friend to cower and beg forgiveness.   There would be no charity.  By the dirty bulk of his shaggy brown hair, Akil would pick him up and pull his plump face close to his own.  He pictured the spittle of his own rage sitting and glimmering in his beard as he swore out threats of violence, plaster dust still pinwheeling in the air, catching and dulling the light.  Selma would keep screaming, her pretty face contorted in fear, her high pitched voice rattling the coffee cups hanging from hooks in the adjacent kitchen.  Through her tears she would beg Akil to stop, swearing oaths of love and promises of affection, but Akil would be callous, unfazed.  He would calmly, venomously, tell her to shut up, and she would not disobey.  He would then tilt Ben’s head back by yanking his hair and force Ben to his knees.  A thin stream of blood would trickle from the corner of his mouth, running deep red across the heavy, white plaster dust coating his face.  Akil laughed in recognition of how the blood, deep red, sitting on his round, flabby face matched the shade of the bloody marys they had shared upon first meeting.  Talking slowly, directly into Ben’s face so that Ben could taste his anger, Akil heard himself say, Do you know what you cost me?  Do you know what this means?  Because you have to cheat…because you’re too stupid to do it on your own…because…” And he pictured himself, suddenly short on words, choking Ben to death, spittle forming on bluing lips, while Selma resumed her wailing, her face now satirically disfigured by the horror of Ben’s impending death. 

            Sitting on the train, Akil’s arms tensed and his neck muscles bulged and his teeth were firmly clenched and he couldn’t control his thoughts and the train was not going fast enough.  He ripped at the top of his shirt, loosening his tie, and tearing away the uppermost button.  Passing by, the conductor asked if he was all right.  Akil curtly answered, wide eyed, that he was not and the conductor, after considering his options, let it go at that and continued down the aisle.  Akil replayed the scene of his rampage over and over in his head, reeling through numerous variations, each more unforgiving, more violent than the last, but none was vivid enough to soothe his rage. 

 

            At Ben’s front door, Akil heard the bell sounding inside, and when there was no response, he stiffened, but eventually paled at the prospect of forcing his way inside.  Rather, he walked quickly back to campus, his hands buried in his pockets.  He found Ridgemond seated behind his desk, his lunch half-eaten before him.  The office was cluttered as usual, a dead plant on the book-shelf to the left of the desk.

            “Akil,” he spoke through a mouthful of turkey on rye, “what are you doing…”

            “It wasn’t my idea.  I had nothing to do with it.  I just sat there and didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late,” Akil interrupted, well aware that he was telling only half-truths about the calculus exam.  “So, why?  Why did you let me go all the way out there?  Why did I graduate, if my diploma was only to be used to mock me?”

            Ridgefield was understandably taken aback, but collected himself while wiping his mouth with a napkin.  Holding his hands up before him to try and calm Akil, he rolled his chair away from the desk and half stood when Akil continued.

            “What did Professor Hagenfield say?  How did he find out?” He took a step forward, circled one of the cloth covered chairs facing Ridgemond’s desk and collapsed into it. 

            Ridgemond returned to his seat and leaned forward over the desk.  “Whoa, Akil, calm down.  Before you say any more, and let me assure you, you haven’t said too much, I must tell you that I have no idea what it is you’re talking about.”

            Akil looked slowly up and met Ridgemond’s concerned gaze.  “Seriously, Akil, no clue at all.  Now just calm down and tell me what’s going on.”

 

            At Ridgemond’s suggestion, Akil sat behind the professor’s desk and used his computer to check his e-mail, Ridgemond excusing himself to the men’s room.  Just as he had suggested, there was mail from Brukhuen.  He opened the message, whose subject line read only, “Urgent,” and read the message inside that suggested that he read the attached letter, which would be kept on file at Brukheun’s offices.  The attachment was a formal letter on Brukheun stationary, signed by Mrs. Jennifer Tilley, Human Resources, and dated with today’s date.  It had apparently been scanned into a computer. 

 

Dear Mr. al-Shari:

 

It has come to our attention of this late date that you have been placed on the US Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist watch list.  I’m sure you understand that we cannot allow you into our offices under these circumstances.  I would have liked to inform you of this turn of events before you took the time to travel to our offices, and for my inability to do so, I sincerely apologize.  It has been recommend by the US government that you contact the Department of Homeland Security to resolve this matter.  Following a successful resolution, please feel free to contact us regarding your employment.  The Brukheun Group would be glad to pay any travel expenses you’ve incurred as a result of these events.  Please respond to this e-mail with the amount you’re out of pocket, and we will remit payment promptly.   

 

 

            Ridgemond reviewed the letter which Akil had printed out, and opened his mouth to speak, when Akil preempted him with, “Your guess is as good as mine.” 

            “Jeez, Akil.  I don’t know what to say.  I’m sorry.  If you need someone to vouch for you, let me know.  But I think you’ve got a long road ahead of you.”

            The two briefly considered Akil’s recent activities, but could arrive at no conclusion as to what could have prompted Akil’s inclusion on the watch list.  Akil’s rage melted away into disbelief.  He laughed a little bit to himself and said to Ridgemond, “I was close.  It was right in front of me.”  Ridgemond wanted to help, but he too was powerless, confused, and with no advice to lend in the face of this impasse. 

            Akil wandered across campus, the letter folded in fourths and deposited in his back pocket.  The country to which he had been forcefully extirpated, that in which he thought he had finally found a place for himself, considered him an enemy, a threat.  He had been collected and massed with the black and white photos on the news of people with names that sounded like his own, with those in the loose fitting black clothing running through monkey-bar exercises in unknown mountainous lands, with those who had turned planes into missiles, those who had sent America to war.  He was the nameless, faceless enemy, and, as such, he kept his head down on his way back to his dorm and left for his mother’s house the following morning.

           

            The shutters to his mother’s low slung house were flung open wide, which would have looked inviting, a nice suburban home, but for the barred windows.  She had managed to purchase a suitable single-family home with two loans, one secured by her employer, a relatively generous man, and the other, by the leadership of the mosque she attended.  She had been uncomfortable living in an apartment with communal hallways and lobbies.  “It feels like I’m crossing through the neighbor’s living room to get to my own,” she had said to a friend, and, to Akil, “There are too many distractions,” when he wanted to wander the building looking for playmates, “too many ways to get in trouble.”  Once he tired of his mother’s stories, he had amused himself with homework, reading, and the fuzzy PBS signal their tin foil coated antenna picked up.

            The house, freshly whitewashed, had a wrought iron railing guiding the way up a set of four concrete stairs, to an inviting front entrance.  A brass knocker was set at the door’s center, amidst a sea of unblemished navy blue paint, thickly applied.  The small lawn was green and well kempt and the water in a small concrete birdbath offered a clean, reflective surface.  As arranged, Akil’s ride from the Trenton bus station, a friend of his mother’s from the Mercer County Islamic Circle, had politely introduced himself and inquired of Akil’s well being.  The remainder of the trip progressed in relative silence, the driver listening to an Islamic language AM radio broadcast.  Akil was delivered over a short distance along the Delaware River and then, departing from the river, into the low suburban hills just on the Pennsylvania side of the river.  He had handed Akil his single duffel bag with a smile and the English phrase, “see you soon,” in a manner that suggested he hadn’t known Akil spoke Arabic.

            Down the block, two garbage collectors were leisurely walking along side a large, open-ended truck, which rolled along next to them, its brake lights flashing in an attempt to meet their pace.  Facing away from the al-Shari house, and over the clattering of the diesel engine, Akil could hear the two men discussing the weekend’s football games as they plucked the rubber cans from the curb, emptied their contents, and carelessly flung them on their respective lawns.  Akil picked up the single empty can from his mother’s lawn and walked to the rear of his house, where he set it next to the low slatted post and beam fence.  His mother’s voice called to him loudly and sharply, a single, pronounced “Akil,” from the rear kitchen window, through which she had spotted her returning son. 

            She hugged him firmly, and then held him at arms length to appraise his looks.  She had not seen him since he had left New Jersey the summer after his sophomore year.  Summers and holidays since that time had offered him the excuse of research with Ridgemond.  Ahlam al-Shari was elated to see her son, and as she seated him at the head of her wooden kitchen table, the chair leg grunting slightly as she pulled the chair across the linoleum, she beamed with pride. 

            “So, Boston was good?  Yes?” she asked and answered, while lowering the heat under a long-handled, double-sized brass ibrik, in which she was brewing a large portion of  coffee.

            Akil was quiet, admiring his mother’s collection of wall coverings and trinkets that dotted the kitchen.  He was initially surprised to see how his mother had aged, but just as quickly realized that he had perhaps jumped to unnecessary conclusions, his mother moving spryly around the kitchen, placing small, delicate cups on matching saucers, setting a slice of lemon rind on each, and apportioning almonds and dried fruits on a single plate.  Nonetheless, Akil perceived a weariness to his mother’s face, a lined condition, that he had not before seen.  It frightened him, and to rid himself of the thought, he said, “You’re looking well, mother.” 

            She turned and offered Akil a bright smile, her eyes deep-set and walnut brown, saying, “Thank you, Akil.  The years do catch up, though.”  She approached the table, and set the plate of fruit and nuts on the table before Akil, and returned to the stove where she dipped a spoon into the crema frothing atop the ibrik to test the coffee’s consistency.  Akil noted the intricate pattern of her brightly colored hijab, the loose fitting, full body gown which matched her head scarf.  He plucked a dried apricot from the table and briefly contemplated its texture, squeezing it between his thumb and forefinger before sampling its taste.  He badly wanted to pull the Brukheun letter from his pocket, to exclaim with misery that all was lost, to find the badly needed comfort of his mother’s consolation.  Remembering how he had clutched the excess fabric of her garments as the school bus rolled to a stop at the end of his block, Akil refrained, figuring instead that he had matured a great deal since those days and had no taste for atavism.  He watched his mother pour the coffee delicately into the two cups, and the sweet juices of the apricot lolled on his tongue. 

            His mother placed the cups on the table, hers at the seat adjacent to Akil, and returned to the refrigerator where she pulled a sheet of paper from beneath its magnetized perch.  “You always were the smartest,” she said, sliding Akil’s report card across the table and herself into a chair.  Reviewing his marks, Akil was pained, knowing they were meaningless.  Rather than respond, he chose to offer her a charming smile that barely cloaked his guile, and immersed himself in the task of selecting the perfect almond from the plate.  The morning sun crashing through the easterly kitchen window, casting a mottled orange light on the reflective linoleum floor, the two waited for the grinds to settle to the bottom of their coffees.  His mother held her lemon rind under her nose and breathed deeply. 

            “Nice isn’t it,” she said perched upright in her chair, posture perfect. 

            “Of course.  It’s nice to have this time, and,” after he sipped his coffee and emitted the necessary groan of appreciation, “I haven’t had good coffee in a long time…all we have it gritty, tasteless drip.”  His mother laughed and took a small sip of her own coffee, placing her lips on a napkin afterward.

            They continued to exchange pleasantries and enjoy their midmorning meal.  Afterwards, as she instructed, and reinstructed, he rearranged the furniture in her bedroom, moving the bed away from the window to offer her a reprieve from the early morning light of springtime.  He listened attentively as his mother walked him through the house, describing each of the pieces of furniture and décor that she had accumulated over the last years and how she had come across it.  She and her friends had become avid explorers of the yard and garage sales organized by the Islamic Society of New Jersey, visiting locales as far south as New Brunswick and a far north as Newark in search of Middle Eastern antiques and curios. 

           

            Akil changed into a plain white t-shirt and a pair of mesh shorts, tied his running shoes tightly and left for an early afternoon jog.  His mother suggested the tow path that ran along the canal that traced the course of the Delaware.  It was a longer run than Akil had contemplated, but upon consideration, he agreed that it would be ideal, secretly relishing the chance it would offer him to collect his thoughts.  He had intended to tell his mother of the recent bombshell that had left him incapable of entering the corporate workforce, but the steady, slowness of the morning, his mother’s complacent smile, her house full of curios left him unsure of how to proceed.  The issue of his father’s sudden reemergence was also a matter of great curiosity and expectation.  His mother, he was sure, would reveal the import of the communication when she was ready.  It would have been impolite for the two to discuss matters of such grave importance before they’d had a chance to settle into each other’s company.  Running would allow him the time to place into perspective the morning’s ease, how he had approached, for the first time, his mother as a man, and how he would approach the difficulty of requesting the help needed by a child.

            The path, heavy in clay deposits, was the reddish-brown color of brick and made a repetitive noise with each stride, a crunching as his heel struck, and a ripping as his toe peeled away.  It was a steady noise, reverberating across the deep canal basin and intermingling with Akil’s easy breathing.  The air was crisp and the sun warm, his skin burning slightly in the chill before his body warmed with the exertion of running.  He ran under small, colorful bridges, some of which were constructed of wood, and past rusting steel pulley mechanisms that had once harnessed the flow of the Delaware and dominated the industry of the area.  Recent spring rains had risen the level of the canal, which ran at a leisurely pace in the direction Akil ran.  

            The tow path ended at a small parking lot, at which point his run continued, on the far side of the lot, along a single-track dirt path carved by use out of tall grasses.  The canal became more stagnant and marshy, reeds shooting out of the surface at angles, and moss covering the surface in areas.  The air grew humid and the intermittent road crossings ceased.  He passed a fisherman sitting in a lawn chair, each nodding in recognition of the other, and continued along the path.  On his side of the canal, thick foliage bordered the path, offering only sparse glimpses into the surrounding deciduous forest.  On the far side of the canal, the underbrush was mostly cleared and, every so often, Akil caught sight of the back porch of a modest residence.  The backyards were cluttered with the debris of jungle gyms, lawn mowers, barbeque kettles, and other collected evidence of lives of comfort.  Akil ran hard, his lungs stretching and his heart pumping quickly, but he did not tire, his legs feeling strong beneath him.  He continued forward, racing toward what appeared to be a wall of green overgrowth, but turned out to be a sharp bend in the river, which he took at speed leaning hard to his left.  His eyes were on the ground to ensure his footing, and when he looked up, he stopped dead in his tracks, from a full run to a dead stop, his feet skidding beneath him. 

              Standing in the shallows of the canal amidst assorted aquatic flora was an enormous bird with long, spindly legs jutting out of the water, and an equally long s-shaped neck, which ended in a doorstop-shaped beak.  Mosquitoes buzzed around Akil’s head and a frog jumped from the bank to plop in the canal, but his eyes remained fixed upon the enormous bird, what he later learned was a great blue heron.  Akil viewed its head in profile and it seemed its one visible eye was fixated on him.  In the quiet, Akil could hear traffic passing at pace on the nearby road that shadowed the Delaware.  He couldn’t fathom what this bird was doing here, sitting in what must have been one of the lone marshlands sitting amidst the outer, urban edge of Trenton and the suburban sprawl of Philadelphia.  The surrounding area was a miasma of concrete, high tension wires, commercial enterprises, high rise apartments, crisscrossing streets, and residential developments, and here, standing tall and unfazed, in this narrow plat of land, was a bird, suited to the bountiful fishing of the wide-open Midwestern and southern Atlantic marshlands.  Akil subconsciously took a slow step toward the bird, which, while appearing preoccupied with scouting the placid waters for fish, immediately alit from its perch, spreading its huge wingspan.  The grey bird, shaped somewhat like a canoe paddle, crooked his wings at the elbow, stirring his mass from the marsh, flapped its wings once and fixed them wide to soar away low over the water.  Akil watched it, dumbfounded, considering the incomprehensibility of such a beautiful, unusual bird in the midst of New Jersey’s comfortable squalor.  It was at this point that he recalled finding an Enfield rifle wrapped in dirty rags sitting beneath a cask iron sink welded to the floor of a decaying dry-goods store, an equally fascinating find.  He felt the quiet thrill of discovering the improbable, of beholding the unexpected, and, when asked later, he would cite the experience as having planted the subconscious idea of a return to Iraq.  He headed back along the trail the way he had come, quickly attaining his former pace.   

            Later, he sat with his mother and before an elaborately spread dinner table and finished what they could of a meal of red lentil soup with lamb and eggplant stuffed with onions, garlic, ground beef, and a variety of spices.  Ahlam had prepared the meal while Akil had been running and put together a green leaf salad with a light olive oil dressing while he showered and dressed.

            As the two sat, Akil laughed at the immensity of the portion before him.  “Mother, I’m really hungry, don’t get me wrong, but this is too much.”  His mother joined him in laughter.

            “I know, but I can wrap up the remainder for tomorrow.”

            They ate slowly and talked leisurely of Ahlam’s life in Morrisville, Akil complementing some of her perceptions with his impressions of Worcester.  Akil, contrary to how he had remembered her, found himself enjoying his mother’s company, and readily engaged her in conversation.  She told anecdotes from her trips around New Jersey and Pennsylvania, about her trip to a mosque function on the Jersey Shore and the excursion she and a friend had taken by bus to the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit of the late Abbassid period.  They had wandered through the wing, looking at intricately patterned ceramics, the evolution of the use of dyes, and turquoise glazed lamps and incense burners.  She commented on the Hellenic motifs throughout much of the work, and amazed Akil with her recollection of the printed material describing the era.  Her job at the Trenton Marriott was laborious, but offered her much needed time away from home and, “paid the bills.”  A friend who owned a Honda picked her up five days a week, and the two drove across the Calhoun Street bridge into Trenton.  They worked in the laundry together and argued over what was too be played on the radio.

            “I like Sahar.  She is nice, pleasant enough, and the only other Arabic speaker in the laundry, but, plums, does she ever enjoy terrible music.”  Akil laughed as he remembered his mother’s tendency to replace potential vulgarities in her speech with fruits.  “And…Akil, you’re not the only one with good news about his job…yes, me too.  Mr. Carson, the manager is considering putting me at the front desk to check in guests and answer the phones.  He says he’s never seen such quick progress in the English language.  I guess it’s the classes at the Circle.” 

            Akil immediately offered his mother congratulations, standing to hug her shoulders from behind.  “That’s great,” he exclaimed, “and he’s right, you’re English is as good as mine.”  But Akil knew his mother could be cagey when necessary and, because he was not yet ready to disclose the truth of his trip to Boston, he preempted her from the natural segue into inquiries of his employment options. 

            Akil slapped his stomach, and questioned, “Have you been eating like this regularly?”

            “Did you like it?” his mother questioned back with a twinge of suspicion in her eye.  “I guess I eat a good meal more often than not, usually cooking with friends, but, surely, on occasion I find myself taking the easy way out.  But for the most part.”

            “Well, then I’m envious.”

            As the plates were rinsed and placed in the dishwasher, Ahlam pulled a canister of pulverized coffee from the freezer and scooped numerous teaspoons into the ibrik.  Drinking the coffee in the living room, the conversation of Arabian art turned to modern day Middle Eastern politics.  Ahlam was very well informed.  She expressed great distaste for many American policies, generally disliked the modern presumption that warfare was unavoidable, expressed disdain for a callous Presidency, and held deep sympathies for those remaining in Iraq.  She told stories she had heard from amongst the tens of thousands of innocents dying at the hand of violence they were powerless to prevent or evade.  She read the papers, both Arabic and English language, and watched cable news programs.  Yet, she admitted that she had not been entirely against the invasion at its outset, stating, “I have prayed for the day that tyrant would toppled with his Baathists in tow.  And now the remnants of this evil are claiming a stake in the new Iraq…as if these scum are part of the Iraqi future.  They deserve what has come to them and more.  I feel sorry only for those who lay in the path of their destruction.” 

            With great surprise at the his mother’s vitriol, Akil simply said, “Yes, I’ve been following the news as well.” 

            After a small, appropriate silence, when it was clear that Akil had nothing further to add to the political conversation, Ahlam spoke softly, but curtly, “Your father is there.  In Iraq.”

 

            Her long soliloquy told of Fadil al-Shari’s release from prison immediately preceding the US invasion.  He had managed to convince the guards into believing that he was incarcerated as a common criminal, a thief, rather than a political prisoner, accused of and jailed for conspiring to overthrow Saddam at the fall of the 1991 Gulf War.  Once freed from prison, Fadil had supplied the invading US forces with tactical information of Saddam’s forces stationed south of Baghdad, and operated for a short time as a liaison between the US military forces and the impoverished Shiite masses.  After the Baathist government had been disbanding, he organized work groups to perform the task of rebuilding their cities, determining and allotting the duties of restoring the power grid, roads and infrastructure, clearing rubble, and building schools and community centers.  He ducked and dodged amongst the chaos, watching the dead as they were carted away, watched myriads of compatriots running in the streets, taking chances, risking their lives to plunder and steal much of Iraq’s wealth, monetary and cultural.  Fadil had negotiated with American authorities over aid money allotments, and worked hard under the management of American military and civilian consultants.  Ahlam, had learned all of this from a single letter which had passed to her through an aide to the imam at the local mosque.  She couldn’t know for sure how Fadil had managed to locate her, but she figured that he had traced the course of the money she periodically sent back to Iraq, money that she had ceased sending upon the invasion. 

            “So everything sounded pretty good, yes?” Ahlam asked Akil.  “He’s alive anyhow, and like him, Iraq is to be reborn, and so the two will be reborn together.  He was always a strong man, a man I loved very much.”

            “I don’t remember much about him beyond what you’ve told me.  He was devout, pious, a hard worker, and a good father,” was all Akil could muster in response.  His mother smiled, acknowledging the truth of his recollection.  “And,” Akil continued, pausing, “that you don’t really know if he was involved in the plot to overthrow Saddam following the invasion of Kuwait.” 

            She twisted her mouth, stretching one corner toward her ear, fumbling with her hands in her lap, saying tersely, “That too is correct.”  She looked at an intricately accurate bas relief of the golden dome and spiraling minaret of the Shine of al-Husayn where it hung on the wall, and felt the texture of thin braided ropes hanging from a lampshade sitting on a cherry-inlaid end table next to her cushioned armchair.

            “The letter gets angry, Akil.” She turned her gaze back to her son.  “At a section dated later than the first, your father spoke with great hostility about the American’s coming in and ignoring the Iraqis on the ground, ignoring him.  All the jobs that your father had organized, the effort he put in, and the hope he held for the future of Iraq appears to have vanished with the ink in his pen.  That’s all I know, but for the fact that he wrote that the US nothing but a better armed Saddam.  I am scared for him, Akil.”

            Akil nodded slowly, frozen to his chair. “I wish I knew him better, but I don’t…I mean I can’t understand, I can’t relate to this,” he paused, “but I would like to know him again.”       

           

            The night grew late and Ahlam headed up the wooden staircase, her hand resting on a finely carved, yet gouged balustrade.  The stairs creaked heavily as she began her ascent.  Akil watched her with growing dismay as the words approached his lips.  Up until the last moment, he was unsure if he was to reveal his recent inclusion on the watch list, or speak the words that eventually came, “I was considering returning to Iraq.”

            His aging mother halted on the stairs for a long moment and, without turning, said only, “I’m too tired.  We’ll talk more tomorrow.”  Akil remained silent, only moving when he heard his mother’s bedroom door close.  He then stood to look at the picture that had just captured his mother’s attention, the Shrine of al-Husayn, the golden dome that highlighted his childhood home of Karbala.  

 

            Akil’s old bed was uncomfortable, and he had slept fitfully kicking at the sheets tightly tucked into the foot of the bed.  Alham sat at the kitchen table with the morning light filling the room.  She drank a coffee mug of hot water, telling Akil, “I don’t like caffeine in the morning, but I need the heat to get my hands moving.”  She was working the crossword puzzle in the Trentonian, which helped her with her English and kept her brain fresh.  She had yet to complete one, but found the task fulfilling regardless.  She wore a oversized shirt, striped in white and light blue, with matching pants.  A gold-faced nametag bore the insignia of the Marriot corporation above her name, “Ahlam.”  Her hair was covered in a colorful cotton scarf. 

            “I think that returning to Iraq is a good idea,” Ahlam said, starting right in.  “I don’t like to talk about these matters so early in the day, but I stayed up most of the night thinking about it.  I think part of me may have wanted you to suggest a return.  I don’t know how to get information about your father, which I very much desire.  And it is your home.”

            Akil had not contemplated his mother’s acceptance of what he had said, in part, only to draw her outrage, which believed he could advantageously parlay into sympathy when he revealed that he had somehow managed to be listed amongst the most feared people in America.  He figured that her sympathy was better than her anger, and, given their long separation, he was not entirely sure that his mother would entirely believe his protestations of innocence.  But the prospect of returning to Iraq did have an appeal independent of a public relations coup.  He was earnestly interested in discovering his father, learning his history and, at a basic level, to see if he they looked like each other.  He could learn a great deal about himself, the link to his heritage that had long been missing, which, he believed, could offer him greater strength in facing challenges.

            “What are your plans?” Ahlam asked in the face of Akil’s surprise. 

            “Well, I have a great deal of skill in computer networking and infrastructure, and Iraq is facing what could be a booming economy, a great opportunity.  That’s the basis of it.  Yes, I could be successful here, but in Iraq I could be wildly successful, from the ground up, from the top down, it would be me, my own business, my own success, my own name.  And, as you say, I am an Iraqi…” Akil stated, and continued under his breath, “of which I am frequently reminded,” and louder, “I’m tired of hearing of Iraq on the news, in the papers, and on every American’s lips as a place that is only backwards, full of violence, and intolerance.”   

            “It’s dangerous.”

            “Yes.” 

            Not hearing the assurance she was looking for, Ahlam supplemented his answer, “But it’s getting better right?  The elections.  The economy.  The US guns have gone. Oil’s flowing out.  People are rebuilding their lives.  Yes?”

            “Yes, but there is still danger.  Bullets are flying, explosions every day, and people dying.  But I’m not scared of that.  Risk is the nature of opportunity.  I will be safe.  It’s worth it, for me and for Iraq.  It’s going to take people like me to get the country going, and if it holds together, well, I’ll be rich.” 

            “Promise me that you will be safe.”

            “I promise.”

            “And smart.”

            “Yes.”

            “And you will not forget me.”

            “Mother,” he said incredulously.

            “Or what you’ve learned here…and not just the computers.”

            “I promise.”

 

            Shortly, Ahlam left for work and Akil felt sick to his stomach.  He lay on the couch, sprawled face down, and buried his face into a pillow.  It was not that the prospect of going to Iraq did not excite him.  He had contemplated the idea periodically throughout his college years, but it had always seemed a secondary option.  Shuddered, he realized that with the Brukheun fallout, he was, in fact, in a secondary situation.  His tremors, the taste of acid in his mouth was not the fault of his determination to head to Iraq, but rather deriving from the lies he told his mother, that he had taken his few abstruse thoughts of a return and coalesced them, improvising as if he had a well thought out plan.  And now he had received his mother’s inadvertent approval for a plan which had not existed when he proposed it.  The only thing that strengthened him was the lone thought that the plan had not sounded all that bad…a business in Baghdad, his name synonymous with the growth of the Iraqi economy, he an Iraqi again.  That he had no business experience did not dissuade him, for he carried the grandiose convictions of the foolhardy, and expected the road to rise up to meet him.    

 

            That day, he walked to the Morrisville public library and signed up for time on one of the half dozen internet-ready computers it maintained.  He looked up a series of telephone numbers for various State department offices that may put him in touch with those individuals responsible for publishing the watch list.  Pocketing his own list, he solicited directions from the librarian and headed down the street to a 7-11 where he bought a twenty dollar phone card and a large cup of coffee.

            At a quiet telephone bank on a nearby street, Akil called the first number on his list, an 800 number for a State department information hotline.  He expected a long list of options narrated by a recording, to which he would have to numerically respond.  Instead, he received a plain voice, “State Department, how may I direct your call.”

            Akil hesitated, “Ah, I’m not exactly sure.  I guess the department that generates the terroritst watch list.”
            “There are many such departments, sir.”

            “Well, how about the department that one needs to speak with to figure out why he’s on the watch list, and needs to discuss how to get off it.”

            “Please hold.”

            He expected a long wait, but quickly met with a soft, female voice, “Homeland Security, Internal Threats.”

            “Yes.  My name is Akil al-Shari and I’ve recently learned I’ve been added to your watch list.”  The words came awkwardly out of his mouth.

            “Just give me a second.” Akil heard the rattling of keystrokes in the background, followed shortly by, “Where are you Mr. al-Shari.” 

            “In New Jersey, but before we get into details, I’d like to know why I was added to the list.”

            “Well, to be straightforward with you, we don’t consider you as a violent risk, or we would have picked you up in Boston.  Rather, we wanted to speak with you before allowing you to begin work in any sensitive area, which we consider any higher-level operation of computer protocols to be.”

            “Okay, but nonetheless, I’m calling from a payphone, but only because I don’t want to concern my mother with any of this.  I’m staying with her for the short-term.”

            “That’s fine.  I’m reading here that you established a website, nothing big, for a Muslim charity site with a domain name registered in Newark.”

            “Yes. But I didn’t know any of the individual’s involved.  I just did it for a friend of my mother’s.”

            “Well, we’ve linked an element of that organization to financial transactions with foreign terrorist organizations.  We need to question you regarding your degree of involvement or any information you may have,” and she continued ominously, “even if you don’t know you have it.

 

            Akil was shocked, but was satisfied to finally know what had caused this turn of events.   Feelings of guilt, which he had not actually recognized that he harbored, that he may have actually done something overt, something just outside of his recollection that deserved his inclusion on the list, began to dissipate.  Over an additional half-hour on the phone with various officials, Akil managed to convince the American government, that, at the least, he was not involved with the organization, nor had knowledge of the individual’s behind the web site.  They could not remove him from the watch list without a face to face meeting, and a lengthy, stepwise procedure requiring lawyers and magistrates, but when Akil suggested an alternative, the officials conferred and, after a few moments of blank silence, accepted his proposal to leave America for Iraq.  He would have to be subjected to an additional search before boarding any aircraft, but was then free to fly from New York to Baghdad, connecting in Heathrow and Amman.  Oddly, when he was placed back on the phone with the lady with whom he had original spoken, the government offered to pay his airfare.  He did not question why, but was confused by the gesture over his walk home.  Regardless, he was happy to refuse his mother’s offers of money she could little afford to offer, and casually allowed her to assume that he had money of his own.  He was to leave in two days.  

 

IV. An Insurgent Iraqi

 

            Baghdad International Airport, as recently renamed, was fully militarized.  Iraqi Guardsmen patrolled the corridors, eyeing travelers warily, M16 rifles slung over their shoulders.  Entrances to off-limits areas were cordoned off with sawhorses and soldiers with leashed german shepherds.  The soldiers wore beige and green camouflage and, when asking passers-by for cigarettes they left it largely unclear whether requests or demands were being made.  The volume on departing flights had long since thinned; those capable of leaving by air had long since done so.  Few commercial airlines were operating, but those that did received great amounts of money from Iraqi government subsidies.  Iraqi exiles from across the world were beginning to return home.  Their individual motivations varied, but they each had big plans for the Repatriation Allotment one received upon registry with the Iraqi government.  The Iraqi Council, newly elected, had made it its first order of business following the drafting of a constitution, to encourage Iraqis from across the world to return, and they were willing to offer a carrot beyond simple nationalism. 

             Akil’s flight had circled low over the city of Baghdad to approach from the east.  As the aircraft banked between the earth and the sun, its light touched briefly off of reflective surfaces beneath, winking and vanishing.  Smoke rose in trickles, barely discernable, from areas around the city, and passengers argued vociferously over whether the smoke was the byproduct of industry or wreckage.  “It’s two dark to be from manufacturing.”  “Yes, but look at the plume…it’s too narrow, too contained to be from an explosion.”  It was agreed that they would soon find out the truth.        

            The majority of the incoming flights had distended bellies laden with industrial and humanitarian cargo.  Forklifts maneuvered carefully amidst the general chaos on runways, off-loading cargo from the planes and depositing on heavy flat bed trucks.  Men, sweating heavily on the sun scorched tar, shouted instructions and destinations to one another, and small amounts of money changed hands on the runway between truck drivers and airport personnel.  In the passenger terminal, passports were checked and stamped, and customs interrogations were rigorous, but the line of tired travelers progressed forward at a steady clip.  Many were pulled aside and led away for a more thorough examination of paperwork.  Once passengers cleared immigration, a longer line awaited.  At the Bureau of Repatriation, uniformed officials recorded the names of returning Iraqis, and handed them a slips of paper that had become widely recognized as having a value between thirty and fifty dinars, once stamped with a government seal.  Finally exiting the inspection and naturalization process, passengers, mostly men around Akil’s age, with little talk amongst them, shuffled toward the exits.  Those with few possessions headed out the doors into the bright light of day, while others sought information about their belongings.  Passengers awaiting the arrival of their luggage at first looked perplexed, questioning any person appearing to have information, but soon scouted out the few fixed plastic chairs or made do with the floor. 

            Many of the recent arrivals spilled out into the ground transportation area of the airport as if expecting an immediate mortar attack.  Shielding their eyes, they exited from the doors, and stayed close to the building, huddling near the walls as they made arrangements for transportation into the city.  Others, who appeared to have been in Iraq throughout the recent ordeal, moved more confidently toward the waiting busses.  Akil, following suit, queued for the busses and handed the driver one US dollar.  The driver, unable to make change, pocketed the fare, and soon after the bus filled, luggage placed on rooftop racks and strapped to the back, it left the airport and headed off on the long, paved stretch into the city.   

            Tall concrete girders braced the road on each side and sandbag and barbed wire entrenchments were manned at most intersections.  The bus moved slowly, keeping its distance behind a long military supply convoy, bracketed at its ends by machine-gun mounted jeeps.  Passengers had dropped the sliding windows, offering a film of swirling dust amidst the hot, blowing air.  Views of the landscape were largely blocked by the walls, but Akil glimpsed a small enclave as the bus lolled past a break in the wall.  Brightly colored cloths flapped in the slight breeze and a small boy carried a pail, leaning heavily against its weight.  Drivers of small sedans, more brazen that the bus driver, raced past the convoy, surely risking a machine gun burst. 

            Akil felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see a man, slightly older than he, holding out a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, which he was offering in exchange for Akil’s repatriation monies.  Akil declined, “No. I don’t smoke,” to which the stranger extolled the quality of Marlboro, ending with the phrase, “like a cowboy.”  Like all the passengers, the young man was sweating visibly at his brow.  He wiped his face with the loose fabric of his shirt collar, and said, “You see.  You will not find a better deal in Baghdad.  Your paper is useless there.  No one will make change.  I can give you this deal only because I work for the government, and I return them to the Repatriation bureau in bulk for a percentage.”

            “Sorry, friend.  I’m not interested in your offer.”

            The man stood, gruffly appraising Akil, and prepared to head to the rear of the bus when he noticed Akil’s Adidas running shoes.   He pulled a crumpled Repatriation slip from his pocket, which Akil noticed was unstamped and suggested a trade for the shoes.  The stranger wore sandals. 

            Akil smiled, saying, “You just told me these papers were valueless and now you want my shoes for one?” The man did not appreciate Akil’s bargaining tactics and headed toward the rear of the bus, his eyes searching for those more inclined to nicotine.  Soon after, a loud argument erupted, which the uniformed driver quickly quelled, commanding over the intercom system that the trader return to his seat.  The man did so, opening a packet of his cigarettes, which surely devalued the carton and lit up.  As the first plume of gray-blue smoke billowed and quietly snaked out the window into the passing breeze, the driver offered an additional rebuke.  The driver pointed to a list of rules painted in fine lettering to the interior wall of the bus.  Passengers were not permitted to smoke and, because the driver did not appear ready to make any exceptions, the man stubbed his cigarette on the sole of his sandal, and placed it back in the packet.  Apparently accustomed to having his desires thwarted, the man stared sullenly out the window at the passing wall of concrete.   

           

            Shortly thereafter, Akil changed buses on the outskirts of southwest Baghdad at ‘Um Al-Tabul Square, which fronted the Um Abbatoul mosque.  In the uneven stone courtyard, numerous people busied themselves with trade while others washed their hands and feet in a fountain, drying themselves on small, white squares of cloth handed out by a large man.  Many passengers, those hungrier than others, hurried into the fray to find what small meal they could before transferring to another bus.  Akil purchased a map of the city and, speaking with a few idlers, determined that the bus to the Suq al Jadid section of the city was rolling away even as he received the instructions.  He hurried after it, pounding on the glass pane of the folding door.  After an exchange of facial gestures and hand waving over the clattering engine, the driver begrudgingly pulled the bus to a halt and received a shower of honking from cars in his wake.  In a large circular interchange just feet ahead of where Akil got on the bus, uniformed officials directed traffic, halting cars on occasion for violations, issued penalties, and accepted payment on the spot.  One, waving his arms and blowing a whistle, appeared ready to issue such a citation to the bus driver, who merely laughed, closed the door and continued on his way.

            Driving northeast across the city of Baghdad, Akil encountered his first glimpse of the new Iraq, the city the world had advertised as the hope for a future of democratic Islam in the Middle East.  At each landmark, he checked his position on his map, locating himself in the city as he moved across it.  In the outer areas of Baghdad, the slums were recently fabricated two storey cinder block hovels, each apartment within having a single window.  The bus moved slowly through a snarl of traffic, automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian.  Akil felt an unsettling pang of regret over his decision to return to Iraq when he witnessed a man with two roped goats become entangled with the bumper of a BMW.  The goats brayed and the BMW honked as the red faced shepherd unwound his charges.  Drivers ignored traffic signals wherever possible, winding their way amongst each other, turn signals mostly unused, throughout the Baghdadi sprawl.  With a small break in oncoming traffic, a small Nissan hatchback raced around the bus, its engine belt shrieking in disrepair.  The bus skirted Al-Farris Al-Arabi square, overlooking the Arabian Knight Monument and, finding some room to motor, it accelerated along Dimashq Street, which ran between the Parade Grounds to the south and the concourse housing Saddam’s mosque to the north.  Leaving the tightly packed residential and commercial outskirts of the city, the bus coursed through the wide open malls and around the towering menhirs of central Baghdad, where the city lunged into the pocket formed by a curving Tigris.  Plastic bags, tin cans, and other assorted garbage lined the streets, strewn about in the wind.  Rubble, the remains of buildings destroyed in the recent, perhaps ongoing, conflict, pockmarked the landscape, and the structures that remained standing were scarred with bullet holes and charred with ash and soot.  Construction crews labored with hydraulic equipment, loading heavy trucks with concrete slabs, rebar jutting out, rusted and bent.  Iraqi citizens with wheelbarrows circled for scraps, whatever cinder blocks that remained intact, scrap metal and copper wiring that could be banged back into shape. 

            The bus crossed July 14th Boulevard, a road so named in homage to Saddam’s perceived military victory against the Iranians.  Akil’s map showed the area to the south of Mathaf Square in a shaded green hue, which stretched all the way to the Tigris from the recently reconstructed Arbataash Tamuz Bridge in the south to Al Ahrar bridge in the northwest.  The scene outside the window did not seem to match the decorative, gentle coloration employed by the map.  The Green Zone, recent home of the departed American occupying force was guarded by heavy concrete walls, fifteen feet tall and steel reinforced.   Sandbagged fortifications bookended rugged, concrete-footed sawhorses which blocked all access road.  These were monitored by machine gun nests, guard towers, stiff chain link topped by concertina wire, and heavily armored and well armed troops bearing the flag of Iraq on their camouflage-clad shoulders.  A long line of Iraqi citizens queued to gain entrance to the area.  They waved papers and opened their satchels for inspection, stating their business with the Iraqi secular bureaucracy newly situated within.  All of this they did, sometimes huddled en masse, under the nervous gaze of black-booted soldiers with faces hardened to  the jeers of “traitor” and “infidel,” that reached Akil’s ears as the bus inched past.  Akil stiffened in recognition that the Iraqi Business Registry lay beyond this cordon.  

            The bus reached its destination at a depot situated on the west bank of the Tigris on the road approaching the Shuhada bridge, the first bridge north of the Green Zone.  Disembarking, Akil found himself situated amongst a mass of people and luggage, shouted instructions, and the reacquainting embraces of friends and family.  Feeling disoriented and alone, Akil’s slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and searched his surroundings for a direction, a sign of where to go next.  Through the Islamic Circle of New Jersey, his mother had arranged for him to stay a few days with a family of a distant relative.  It was unclear what had become of the broader group of his relatives, but he hoped to learn of their whereabouts from his father.  Ahlam had sent word of her son’s return to Akil’s father through the mosque, but there was no way of knowing if Fadil had received the message.  Akil’s interim plan was to scout out Baghdad, get his bearings, and discover the requirements of getting his business underway, but that broad plan did not suggest a first step.    

            As it was only approaching noon, Akil had a ample time before he was due in the Al Wahdah district of Baghdad, southwest of the elbow of the Tigris, where he was to meet his mother’s friends for a meal.  Part of him wanted to queue up immediately to enter the Green Zone where he hoped he could meet with an administrative representative of the Iraqi government.  Yet, by the look of the melee at the gate, his chances of getting inside were slim, and of accomplishing anything once inside, perhaps slimmer.  Figuring it better to determine the lay of the land, Akil shouldered his pack and headed across the Shuhada on foot, the Tigris flowing steadily beneath.  At the middle of the bridge, Akil stopped, resting his elbows on the heavily lacquered wrought iron railing.  On the banks beneath, children were tossing rocks in the air, and hitting them with sticks into the water.  A short makeshift barge with a small outboard motor was headed upstream, its outer rails padded with tires to serve as bumpers.  The two passengers were scouring the shores for salable junk, and arguing over whether to take the time to head ashore for a mostly rusted-out oil drum.  As they were sailing just north of the Green Zone, a New Iraqi Navy cutter approached quickly from astern, shouting instructions through a bullhorn and brandishing a bow-mounted machine gun.  The scavengers quickly forgot their argument over the potential value of their rusting prize and motored north while signaling the guardsmen of their lack of malevolent intentions.  The children clanked a rock off of the aft panel of the Army vessel and cheered vigorously, but briefly, the stern admonitions of the guardsmen sending them scattering up the bank.

            On the west bank of the Tigris, along Rashid Street, everything was for sale.  Bicyclers peddled slowly past, milk crates wired firmly to the handlebars filled with cigarettes, eggs, legumes, sunglasses, and all sorts of odds and ends in between.  In bartering with potential customers, they seemed willing to ride away to locate anything else that customer might require.  Those with more fixed establishments, from single folding chairs, to clapboard and two-by-four stands, to pole-fixed lean-tos, to open-faced storefronts, were more specialized, selling lunch, textiles, vegetables, clothing, meats, and other assorted merchandise.  Beyond that, there seemed a more shadowy element, the stubble-faced older man in jeans sitting on a pile of cinderblocks, a younger man in a full dishdasha with no visible goods on hand, discreetly hailing only those customers whose business they appeared to have come to expect.  There was no telling exactly what they may have in stock. 

            A hand on his back spun Akil around, and were quickly followed by the words, in English, “Young man, do you wish to try the fruit of Iraq?  You are American, yes?  These are our finest.”  The man’s pale brown eyes were sun scorched and his chin was hidden by a twisted, graying beard.  He held nothing in his hands, but suggested Akil follow him to his wife’s nearby stand.  “In Iraq, you must try the khalas.” 

            “Khalas,” Akil responded in American-accented Arabic, “I remember khalas.  My father’s family has grown them for generations.”

            “Yes?” the trader said with surprise, “There are khalas grown in America?”

            “No.  Well, not that I know of, but I am an Iraqi.”

            The man eyed him up and down, lingering long on his relatively new Adidas sneakers, prescription eyeglasses, and the designer label on the breast of his shirt, concluding his examination with the question, “What part of Iraq?” 

            Akil laughed slightly at the expression on the trader’s face, seeing that he imagined some far away corner of Iraq where consumer goods were of a very different nature.  The trader, introducing himself as Kadir, joined Akil’s laughter, but perhaps only in an effort to encourage his potential sale.

            “No, no, sorry,” Akil continued, “I am originally an Iraqi, from Karbala, but I’ve lived in America for the last twelve years.  I’m here to…”

            Kadir cut him off.  “And you came back?  To this?”  He flipped his chin toward his shoulder. 

            Akil’s smile grew thin.  “It doesn’t look that bad.”

            “And when did you get here?” Kadir asked with a wrinkled brow, paused, and continued, with, “Just give it time, my new Iraqi friend.  Give it time.  But for now, you will come and see my khalas and we will compare their taste to your father’s.”

            The two took a short walk south along Rashid Street, Kadir deflecting other potential suitors of Akil’s pocket money.  His stand was deserted, but for an old woman sitting on a stool next to the stand, in the shade of a blue tarp strung up between her stand and a neighboring stand that sold figs, apricots, and heavily burnished brass pieces.  The old woman stood, offered Akil a warm smile, and removed a light cloth covering from three baskets of yellowish-brown dates sitting on the top platform of Kadir’s stand.  She ate one with a practiced shudder to show her appreciation of the flavor. 

            “My wife, A’mal Anbar,  Kadir said, guiding Akil toward the stand.  “A’mal this is…I’m sorry,” he turned back to Akil, “I don’t know your name.” 

            “Akil al-Shari.  It is nice to meet you.” 

            “And you Akil.  So, you would like to try our khalas?”

            “Yes, well I don’t have money to spend right now, but I may purchase a few.  As a said to Kadir, my father used to grow khalas on his family land just north of Karbala.”

            A’mal held out a khalas, which Akil sampled.  He took his time with the large date, feeling its mass between his thumb and forefinger.  As he held it in the light of the sun, thin veins showed through the translucent yellow skin of the fruit.  Akil had not realized his hunger before placing the date in his mouth.  The thin skin of the fruit was textured with folds, and yielded quickly to pressure from his teeth, freeing sweet yellow juices to roll over his tongue.   It was the first he tasted since leaving Iraq and the taste was unfamiliar, yet delicious.

            “These are really good,” Akil complemented, not having recognized that A’mal and Kadir had stepping into a side alley and were conversing quietly.  A man sitting on a milk crate next to the adjoining stand interjected, “Of course they’re good.  They are imported from Oman.  Kadir likes to say they are Iraqi khalas, but there are no Iraqi khalas here…not now.  His nephew drives them up from Nizwa, and he must half-dry them to make the trip.  If you have a fresh Iraqi khalas, you will know the difference.  I have plums, full and fresh, from the Tigris Valley.  If you want good fresh fruit, sweet fruit, you must have my plums.” 

            Akil showed surprise, saying, “I think these taste like the khalas I remember.  I haven’t had any for a long time, but the flavor is very familiar.  Why are there no khalas growing in Iraq?” 

            “No power.  The date trees need much water.  They have tall trunks, trunks that steal water from the fruit.  This requires heavy irrigation and the power for irrigation is gone.  It is coming back slowly…not fast enough for this year’s khalas crop.  Now plum trees are flat and square, low to the soil…the fruit gets all the water it needs without much power.”

            The trader was an old man, his voice slow and labored, and he held his arms folded in the broad, loose cloth of his shirt sleeves.  Covered baskets dotted the dirt street around his perch, and brass decanters hung by their handles from a looped string nailed to a door frame behind him.  The trader seemed dismissive in his attempts to sell plums to Akil.  It was as if the sale, even in the unlikely event it could be pulled it off, would make little difference to his life under the scorching sun. 

            “So would you like to buy a plum?”

            At the offer, Kadir returned and countered the elderly trader with vituperative offers of his own.  “You old thief.  I walk away for a moment, and like a snake, you are bothering this young man?”

            The old man laboriously stood, and with one dismissive wave of his hand, walked away down the road, saying to Kadir only, “Watch my stand while I am gone.”

            Kadir turned back to Akil.  “Don’t mind him.  My friend is angry.  He has lost much and he is too old to get it back.”

            Kadir looked over Akil carefully during a lapse in conversation.  A bicyclist forced from the road nearly collided with the two and shouted a brief apology over his shoulder as he continued on his way.  The din of urban life filled the air and was coated by a vaguely palpable sheen of dust.  Traders coursed the thoroughfare, shouting the nature of their wares, weaving amidst light automobile traffic, and advertising low prices.  The crunch of rubble being heaped upon rubble, the movement of machinery, and, vaguely, the subtle mechanisms of armed conflict, the secret exchanges and whispers, resonated throughout the street, weaving over the low roofs of adjacent structures, and through the panes of broken glass.

            “Akil,” the trader of khalas said in a soft, yet urgent tone, “It is difficult to know who is who and what is what today in Baghdad.  Everywhere is motivation and counter motivation, grievances, desires, histories…ah, the whole thing.  It has all broken down into rivalries, overlapping and adjoining.  Look this is not the place…you are just off the bus, yes?”

            Akil nodded slowly.

            “Well,” Kadir continued, “You must come with me, back to my house.  It is close and A’mal has gone ahead to heat tea.  There is much to discuss.”

            “Discuss?” Akil questioned.  “I am not interested in purchasing many khalas or anything else really.  I have just arrived and I…”

            “I am not looking to sell any khalas Akil al-Shari, but I thought you may be interested in hearing of your father, Fadil.”

            Akil grew silent, stunned with the mention of his father’s name. 

            “So you are his son,” Kadir concluded, appearing to become fully convinced only upon Akil’s silence.  He searched up and down the street and, locating his quarry, he called out to a young boy, “Kaji, come here.  You will watch my family’s goods, and you may have two khalas.  If you sell three dollars worth, you may have two more.  Anyone suggests a trade, and you send a friend to fetch me.”         

                 

            Kadir’s home was a compilation of corners filled with thinly veiled squalor.  Everything was in order, but precariously so.  There was a good deal of amassed materials standing in free piles around the home.  Under the kitchen table, a hearty slab of teak, were piles of newspaper and scrap plastic of various composition.  Milk jugs containing liquids, oils, and water lined the hallway leading to the living room.  An open fire burned atop the gas stove.  Kadir explained, “The gas is back on, but we have found no way to regulate its flow.”  Pieces of copper piping peaked out through the opening of a iron-banded wooden barrel.  Horded cinder blocks stood floor to ceiling surrounding the living room, stealing square footage from the living space.  The linoleum floor in the kitchen was curling at its edges and a heavy thumping from the apartment above sent narrow threads of dust trickling to the ground. 

            Kadir and Akil sat at the kitchen table in metal folding chairs, sipping a clear tea from unmatched ceramic cups.  Akil’s read in English, “PBS Pledge Drive” in large block print, and in smaller, cursive letters, “Thanks For Giving!”  The mug’s handle had broken off, and the extreme temperature of the tea prevented Akil from handling the cup for any prolonged period of time.  A’mal had poured the tea and retreated into the bedroom. 

            Kadir took an overly large sip of his tea and he pursed his lips and waved his hand in front of his mouth in response.  The two had conversed about the condition of Kadir’s home, a state that Kadir had claimed was, “improving,” after most of his belongings had been looted.  There was talk amongst Kadir’s family of moving north to Kirkuk as the former Baathification of the Kurdish city was reversed. 

            Akil mentioned the plum trader’s claim that Kadir’s khalas were imported from Oman, a claim that Kadir readily admitted, but adamantly countered that, “This accusation is not something that is a secret.”  After a long drought, his tea having cooled, Kadir returned his mug to the table with a dull thud.

            “Have you heard anything about your father?” Kadir began.  “Do you know where he is?  What he is doing?”

            “Very little.  My mother received a letter in America that mentioned his release from prison, and some meager details about his work with the Americans…but, that’s really…”

            “Your father has returned to Karbala,” Kadir interjected.  “He was here, but the government under the Americans was losing traction and the violence was growing, so he gave up and returned home.  He was very angry with the slow progress of the country.  Everyone wanted something, and everything was contradictory and the conflict intensified on all sides.  Nothing was getting done, and slowly people gave up, peeled off, and went off on their own.  The whole thing was a mess, no one had a clear picture of where the entire country should go, and there was no communication from the Americans.  We just kept—”

            “I’m sorry, but you say my father has returned to Karbala?  And you know this to be my father, Fadil al-Shari?  How do you know?”

            Kadir stood and pulled a hermetically sealed glass jar half-full with rolling tobacco from the top shelf in the pantry.  He brought it to the table and pulled a packet of gum-edged rolling papers.  He looked over his shoulder before rising again to retrieve a box of wooden matches from a shelf above the sink.  “It’s A’mal…she gives me grief every time I want to smoke.  She says, ‘Kadir, tobacco smoke is Khamr, and to take Khamr is haram, a curse to Islam,’ and she doesn’t stop no matter what I say.  So now I must smoke in secret.  Would you like one as well?  This tobacco is good…not harsh and dry, not Arabian tobacco, but the good, sweet American tobacco.”

            “No thanks.  I do not smoke.” 

            “I thought all Americans smoke cigarettes…you know the cowboy, saying, ‘real men smoke cigarettes,’ no?”

            “No, but I thank you.”

            Akil was quiet as Kadir smoked one cigarette and rolled another.  Excusing himself from his habit of smoking, Kadir told Akil of his general temperance for food, and his abstinence from alcohol and narcotics.  He told stories of the American military, stories that would have pleased Akil’s classmates in Worchester.  According to Kadir, the American presence was a mixed message.  He gave some soldiers credit for working with the Iraqis, making clear the nature of their mission.  But he also admitted being angry and frightened at times. 

            Late one night a heavily armed contingent arrived outside his apartment complex and a handful of soldiers stormed up the stairs while others remained in the courtyard, aiming strong lights and heavy machine guns at the building’s windows.  Kadir overheard shouting, muffled shuffling, followed closely by two short, heavy thuds, which blew out the upstairs windows sending a shower of glass clattering on the concrete courtyard.  Kadir peppered his telling of the story with emphatic descriptions of might.  “Up close, it is loud and spectacular, all of that power, jackets and helmets, huge guns, all sorts of equipment strapped to their bodies, there was no getting in their way.  Very powerful.” 

            On this night the American soldiers removed Kadir’s upstairs neighbors, a group of men who Kadir admitted with a shrug, “may have been fighting,” and pulled them into the courtyard with their hands bound behind them in nylon zip ties and their heads bagged.  Kadir had opened his front door to ask some questions, but loud instructions were shouted in English, that he had assumed were commands to remain in his house.  He did so, but watched the scene through his kitchen window, responding to A’mal’s questions with stern admonitions, and made her return to the bedroom.  Men in normal street clothes wore ski masks to conceal their identity and questioned the kneeling suspects in Arabic and Farsi.  Kadir expressed disgust at the behavior of the Iraqi interrogators, calling them cowards, tools of the Americans.  “You see, Akil, there is a clear difference between staying out of the Americans way, just waiting for them to leave, and helping them…these men are criminals, just like the killers they help to hunt down.”

            “You haven’t gotten involved?  You can just sit and wait? ” Akil asked.

            “See, you can choose sides here…yes, many choose sides.  Each can have his motivation, his goal.”

            Kadir paused, and then with a slap of the table, continued, “make the Americans leave, that was a popular one—establish an Islamic government—many want this—some work towards the elections—the American’s handed out leaflets—many wanted the Baathists to pay—some Kurds wanted the North—some want close relations with Iran—with the mullahs—others want ties with the Syrian socialists—and there are many in between—and many have come here just to kill—referring to Americans as ‘the Jews,’ and working and fighting only to kill.  And that’s just it.” 

            Kadir grew short of breath, smoking feverishly, and continually looking into his empty teacup, but he continued.  “But this is not all, not everyone.  There are a great many…” he coughed and apologized, “many who want none of this…who don’t care who has what power and what control.  Many just want their lives, to sit and drink tea from time to time, like we are now.”  Kadir gestured to Akil and then himself. 

            “Many want to work for some wages, to have a nice meal and a nice wife.  This is not hard, not too much.  But all this killing, all this killing of Iraqis, that is the story of Iraq…everyone killing everyone else…and because all this killing goes on, because heretics and swine, infidels on all sides claim the truth, and are killing everyone, these middle people, like me and A’mal, who just want to be alive and happy, many like us, are not finding work and their friends and relatives are dead, killed by who?  Everyone and anyone…and so these people are choosing, just like you said…choosing who must pay, who hasn’t paid, who are the powerful, who is responsible...and these people who would be just as happy with a cup of tea, they attack…they kill Iraqis.  You are here…you will see…the Americans have left, but there is still much killing.” 

            Kadir stared at his ceiling, opening and closing the box of matches slowly, and thumbing the sulfurous tip of a match.  He ran his toe along the dust on his floor, which was thick.  He struck the match and lit yet another cigarette he held between his lips, and, laughing, he said, “Would you believe me if I told you we swept every day?  Well, I do not lie.  Every single day…sweep it up and it comes back.  I don’t know where it comes from, or how but this war is making a lot of dirt.” 

            He looked back in the direction of the bedroom and whispered, “A’mal pretends she…”  Kadir did not continue.

            Akil begin to speak out of a feeling of obligation, that something Kadir was considering made him silent, but as soon as he opened his mouth, Kadir looked up and continued in a strained whisper, “To be honest, I don’t know what it would take, what they would have to do, what would happen, but I assume everyone eventually can be driven to fight.” 

            Kadir grew silent, picked a teaspoon off the table, and wiped the convex side on his shirtsleeve.  Akil heard a slight rustle at the end of the hallway and, looking in that direction, he watched the door to the bedroom close slowly, pulled from the inside.  Kadir watched Akil’s eyes. 

            Resuming a normal conversational volume, perhaps slightly too loud, as if his audience included parties other than Akil, Kadir continued.  “A’mal is a good woman, a good Muslim, she is strong and she loves Iraq.  Her family has been here longer than mine, some of her family has been killed, and she weeps at night, sometimes in the day.  I am sorry for telling you all this.  A’mal, when she cries, sometimes calls me a coward…asks me why I will not fight…why I do nothing…why I will live like this, in this squalor, with no job.  I am sorry.  I know you are not my family, but if you are going to meet your father, you must hear what Iraq is like.  I know your father, or I used to.  I know he is a powerful man, a quiet man…the ones who are comfortable, calm and composed, always talking quietly with others, sitting in the mosque for long hours—men like this are powerful men.”

            Akil had listened patiently, tea leaves having dried to the bottom of his mug, an old, rust-faced refrigerator humming heavily and clicking intermittently.  A cat had wandered in through the front door, which Kadir had left ajar, and padded silently across the linoleum.  It pawed around the rubble heaps, scratched at loose piles of carpeting in the hallway, and returned to the kitchen to sniff along the wooden molding.  Kadir scooped a teaspoon of clotted cream from a jug on the table onto a saucer and placed it on the floor.  He said, “It is odd then when men are hungry, when they kill each other, is when cats grow fat.”

 

            The two discussed the political geography of Iraq, Akil learning that the most dangerous areas were in the area just south of Baghdad, and to a lesser extent in the North.  The borders with Syria and Iran had ostensibly been tightened in international agreements initiated by the United States, but foreigners still managed to flood into Iraq undetected.  These various ideological forces had managed to maintain a loose non-aggression agreement, which, Kadir insisted, they would surely scrap if they ever managed to succeed in their primary goal—removing the newly elected Iraqi government from power, which consisted largely of Iraqi and returning ex-pat Shiites,.  Regardless of the relative safety of Baghdad and the Shiite South, incursions and attacks were not rare, and lives and civil infrastructure often suffered the toll of car bombings and mortar attacks. 

            As Kadir mentioned that the Iraqi government had incentivized and encouraged Iraqis who had emigrated to other Middle Eastern nations and the West to return, Akil smiled and pulled his neatly folded Reparations note from his rear pants pocket.  Kadir said only, “If I were you I’d get something for that as soon as possible.”

           

            The sun had fallen and entirely filled the kitchen window, harsh light flooding the small room.  Kadir stood, having to return to his stand to collect his goods for the evening.  Akil joined him and the two walked east through narrow, shaded alleys, and busier thoroughfares, back to Rashid Street.  The late-afternoon air had cooled slightly, which was pleasant, but this comfort was offset by the swarms of insects which made use of the diminished breeze.  During the walk, which the two made in relative silence, each stared up occasionally at the sun glinting off a window or a pigeon alighting from the gnarled branches of a lemon tree.  Kadir jokingly chastised, “You’re supposed to use your feet,” when a young boy walked by with a soccer ball under his arm. 

            Akil became slightly irritated over the course of the walk when Kadir, on multiple occasions, said, “Just give me a moment,” and headed off to speak with individuals who he noticed in passing.  Akil was left on one side of the street, as Kadir jogged across to the other, or leaning against a wall while Kadir conversed in a doorway.  Akil could not tell if Kadir was speaking of him, but each of the men Kadir encountered on the street looked at Akil over Kadir’s shoulder during the conversation, appraising Akil with emotionless stares, or perhaps just glancing in his direction.  Akil could not tell, but he soon recognized that if Kadir continued these sorties, he was going to be late for his supper with his arranged host family.

 

            Akil helped Kadir load his baskets of khalas into a wheelbarrow he had borrowed from a neighboring stand.  The plum trader had not returned and Kadir’s appointed underling sat between the two rickety stands wrapping a length of twine around his index finger and enjoying the resulting purple numbness.  Two other children stood nearby, eyeing the situation, jealous of the responsibility bequeathed on their friend.  The child stood as Kadir returned and pulled a wad of mixed bills and coins, new Iraqi dinars and US dollars from the pocket of his colorful vest.

            Kadir turned briefly to Akil and said, humorously, “There can be no doubt of a country in turmoil when the money has palm trees and animals printed on it.  There is no face to put on our dinars.”   

            Returning his attention to the small boy who had waited patiently, Kadir showed his appreciation.  “Well, Kaji, you have a voice for this work, huh?  And you sold them at full price?” 

            Kaji nodded, glanced at his friends and said in a shallow, uncertain voice, “They wanted to buy, but they didn’t have enough money.  I told them ‘no.’”

            “Alright Kaji, you take these, and make sure you share them,” Kadir said, handing Kaji five khalas. 

            As the child started away, certain to become the hero of the afternoon, Kadir called after him, “Kaji, you must watch Faris’ stand until he returns.  I will see that he comes back before long.” 

            Kaji intoned his understanding of the situation and continued towards his friends who gleefully met him halfway to receive the prize they had awaited. 

 

            Kadir affixed bungee cords over the top of the wheelbarrow to secure in place a royal blue tarp and stood.  He kicked the barrow’s tire and muttered under his breath. 

            “Akil, I will be going to Karbala in three days.  My nephew, Hadi, has a car.  We drive down with it empty and return with provisions for market.  There is a spare seat in the car, which you are welcome to.  I haven’t seen your father since he left Baghdad, but rumors suggest that he is still living there.  We will need your help with the load, but I’m sure you will have time to inquire about your father.  So?”

            Akil had been quiet for much of the discussion with Kadir.  As the latter told Akil of his father’s recent history, he had not offered any solid details, or the nature of his relationship with Fadil.  Akil did not know who Kadir was, and Kadir’s demeanor had been heartfelt, yet something still struck Akil as slightly wrong. 

            Akil’s hands were in his pockets as he spoke.  “I am very interested in meeting my father, I’m just…I guess that I’m amazed that I arrived in Baghdad, got on a bus and walked not fifty paces through the Rashid souk before I encountered a man, you, who knows my father.  This just strikes me as too fortuitous.”

            Laughing a little, Kadir responded, “Yes, yes…there is nothing quite like Iraq to bring about coincidence.  This happens and that happens, everyone is a relative or an enemy.  Iraq is like that.  I sell khalas, your father grows khalas.  That is that.  It is amazing, lucky, but, so what?  Why would that make any difference?  I don’t know your father, but I know about him.  I am headed to Karbala.  I could use help with my purchases.  I am asking you to come. The fact that I was the first person you’ve spoken with in Iraq may not add up, but that I need help with my khalas certainly does.”

            Thinking it over, Akil chewed the skin from around his fingernails, a habit he had not succumbed to since his early college years.  “Yes, I will probably go with you, but I want to talk to some people about starting my business here.  That is why I came to Iraq, and Baghdad is the place where the beurocratic stuff gets done.  I doubt three days will be enough…but I want to start looking into it.  Do you always sell your khalas here…I mean at this location?” 

            “Yes.”

            “Well, I will visit over the next few days, once I figure out my plans and we can make more concrete plans.” 

            Kadir picked up the handles of the barrow, and stood oddly stooped over, as he thought for a moment.  “What business are you starting?”

            “Well, I learned about computers in America, at a good technical school, and I want to start a computer consulting company, a sort of outsourcing firm that will set-up and administrate computer networks for other companies.”

            Akil had stumbled through his description, recognizing suddenly that he did not know the language of computers in Arabic and, as such, had been unable to sound astute in describing his plans.  As he spoke, he had to translate the English into Arabic, which made for a stilted, passive description.

            “Huh.  Well, I don’t know anyone who would know much about that, but I will speak with some friends to see what they may know.  I must hurry to find Faris, that stupid seller of plums, so that Kaji will not receive a scolding for missing his dinner.  I will see you soon.”

            The two shook hands, and Akil headed north, the direction he had been heading hours ago.  Over the walk, he found that he was pleased to have met Kadir, a man whom he felt could be of assistance, but he nonetheless grappled with the unlikelihood of a chance encounter with an acquaintance of his father’s.

 

            Taysir bin Othman and Lama Ahmed lived in the Al-Wahdah district of Baghdad, just south of the Tigris.  The streets were newly paved and the overhead lamps came on just as Akil approached the entrance to the Ahmed home.  In the driveway was a Peugeot sedan and bicycles were visible through the open door of a garage.  A small unkempt yard fronted the house; the grass was brown, stunted, and flattened in areas.  Short hedges running along the side of the house were mostly without foliage, and the lone tree in the yard revealed green, pulpy threads where branches had broken off.  The Ahmed family welcomed him profusely and Taysir showed him to a spare room they were able to offer him with the clear proviso that his stay could not last more than a week. 

            His host had allowed Akil the opportunity to acquaint himself with the room, prepare for dinner, and suggested that he use the time to pray if he had not yet done so that evening.  The door closed behind him, Akil briefly lay down and found the bed to be firm and comfortable.  Carpeting stretched across the room and a finely polished maple bedside table and a matching dresser furnished the room.  A highly burnished brass plate hung on the wall, apparently serving as an upscale mirror.  Akil checked his reflection and saw that his eyes were heavy with fatigue.  His skin and hair appeared darker and more lustrous in the soft, golden reflection, but even with the imperfect image, Akil recognized that his beard appeared disheveled.  Leaving the room, Akil encountered a man of about his age and introduced himself, asking for direction to the bathroom.  The young man, Ayman, pointed him down the hallway and specified a left.  Akil thanked him with the promise that they would speak more over dinner.  On his way to the bathroom, Akil smiled over the fact that, the finery in the Ahmed home aside, one would be hard pressed to make ‘a left’ anywhere in Kadir’s apartment. 

            The bathroom was well lit and the fine chrome plated plumbing fixtures shone.  The spigot spilled forth warm water on command.  Akil engaged the drain and the sink filled with water and the mirror fogged over at its base.  He washed his face with liquid soap that dispensed from a plunger operated plastic vial.  Just as he finished smoothing and drying the droplets of water from his beard, he heard a female voice declare that dinner was ready.  He changed his shirt and headed downstairs quickly so as not to delay his hosts. 

            The meal was served to more people than could be comfortably seated at the Ahmed’s broad dining room table.  The dining procedure was an ad hoc arrangement of individuals queuing for a plate, which Lama piled with roast chicken, tarragon potatoes, and wild asparagus.  Lama, beaming, said, “It’s the first I’ve seen in a long time.” 

            Akil was seated at the dining room table with the immediate family members, much to the chagrin of an Ahmed cousin who was a few years younger than Akil.  He was banished to a folding card table set-up in the kitchen.  Taysir, a man striding confidently into his sixties, was educated in Jordan as a engineer and worked as a repair specialist on drill presses and other heavy machinery in the manufacturing district south of Baghdad.  He was a Shiite who had been a Baath party member, but even during the height of the party he had disparaged the party amongst friends, and following the US invasion, he was quick to rid himself of official membership.  The more perturbed elements of the Shiite faction, while they understood Taysir’s innocence under the Baathists, were pressuring him to issue a public denouncement.  While Taysir was more than willing to tell individual Shiite’s that he was a Baathist only out of necessity, because his job required it, a public denouncement would make he and his family a worthy target of terrorists.         

            Before the meal, the paterfamilias had introduced Akil as a good friend of a relative living in America, and cited Akil’s academic accomplishments as if he were encouraging the other diners to wager the family jewels on a thoroughbred.  Akil smiled and nodded at each person to whom he was introduced, some faces beaming, some dour.

The man he had encountered in the upstairs hallway, Ayman, was Taysir’s eldest son.  He had been studying the Koran in Syria, but had returned to Iraq through legal channels during the American occupation.

 

 

 

Plot summary:

 

Akil runs into great bureaucracy inside the Green Zone, with many new Iraqi administrative agencies stringing red tape, and redirecting Akil to other agencies, without anyone having the apparent authority to register a business.  He does manage to speak with someone in the Ministry of Information, who offers him a staff position.  He considers it, but is generally disinclined because of his anger over the governments inability to speed his business.  Talks with Iraqi National Bank about a loan which he cannot collateralize.  Further scenes of Iraqi militarization and fear of an insidious, hidden insurgency.  American and international civil servant, NGO, advisors, etc. presence is prevalent.

 

Akil, Kadir, and Kadir’s nephew Hadi, and Hadi’s friend, Imran drive to Karbala…100km car ride is slow, with the engine requiring periodic stops to replenish oil.  Outside of Baghdad, Akil gains first glimpse of carnage.  A patrol convoy of Iraqi soldiers was ambushed with roadside devices and machine gun and mortar fire.  Loss of life.  One insurgent is captured and Akil witnesses his questioning, which is performed with some measure of brutality.  Other Iraqi troops question the car full of troops at gunpoint, and when Kadir’s explanation of his date trades does not accepted by the troops, Akil steps in, asserting his American citizenship.  The troops accept this and Akil wins favor with the others.  Hadi and Imran are Akil’s age and he comes to know them better.

 

            It was mid-afternoon when the group reached the outskirts of Karbala, the Nissan pick-up coursing through rows of sun-shaped citrus trees surrounding the desert town of Al Musayyib.  Stout hills bracketed the highway as they crossed the broad, stanchion-buttressed bridge spanning the Euphrates.  A military checkpoint at the far end of the bridge had stopped traffic and traders walked amidst the quieted cars offering iced tea, pre-packaged food products, and silk-screened t-shirts.  What Akil initially considered a great frustration, barricades halting his progress, slowing and stultifying his reconnect with his father, suddenly progressed very quickly when the soldiers quickly mounted their vehicles and sped away in the direction of Baghdad.  Their faces were just visible over the low guard rails of two large troop convoys, rifle tips pointing upward, leaning against helmets embossed with Arabic lettering, as a two-man jeep plowed the bridge of pedestrians with furious honks and frenetic hand gestures.  Akil watched as the rear escort jeep stopped long enough to purchase a bag of potato chips, bargaining with the trader to the fraction of the dinar.

            Kadir spent the remainder of the trip detailing their course of action over the course of the next days.  He listed numerous encounters with various friends and relatives in the date and citrus markets, beginning in the souk between the Shines of  Al-Husayn and his younger brother, Al-Abbas, continuing through a number of smaller markets and residences, and ending up in the palm tracts northeast of Karbala.  Upon leaving Baghdad, Kadil had made it clear that Akil’s passage to Karbala was for the primary purpose of assisting with Kadir’s purchases.  As such, Akil did not question the fact that Kadir did not mention when or how they would encounter Fadil.  Hadi glanced briefly in the rearview mirror at Imram, but both appeared uninterested in the discussion.

            Hadi steered the Nissan from the highway, exiting along an access road, along which was carved a narrow, coursing irrigation canal.  The outskirts of Karbala, known as the New City was in a much better state than the similar districts of Baghdad.  Trees, while sparsely arranged with foliage, lined the streets.  Police, appearing at ease in their position, were posted at various intersections.  A sidewalk cafe was bristling with customers seated at umbrella shaded tables with loose, colorful dishdashas, headscarves, fine cotton shirts, and darkly tinted sunglasses.  Stopped at a traffic light, Akil could hear the gentle clatter of cups returning to saucers and spoons swirling through ice cubes through the customers’ muted chatter.  An old man carrying a finely engraved sterling silver pitcher with a long, curved spout weaved through the tables, filling glasses and talking with his customers.  As the light changed, the Nissan’s engine revved as Hadi was late in engaging the clutch.  The old man looked up and caught Akil’s eye briefly with a disconcerted glance before Hadi got it right and the truck lurched forward.  The street was neatly paved, bright lines showing at their midsections, and traffic flowed smoothly, pausing reverently at intersections signals and allowing pedestrians to pass.  Trash was bagged in black, reflective plastic and placed at the curb.

            The Nissan entered a slowly arcing rotary that encased a brass non-functioning fountain, merged with traffic, and exited 180 degrees later.  As the road ahead was closed to vehicle traffic Hadi turned onto a side street and parked the car.  The four walked the six broad blocks to the great souk between the shrines commemorating the fraternal sacrifices of the Ashura massacre in 680 BCE.  In the distance the golden, bulbous dome and trellised minaret of the Iman Husayn shine stood out sharply against the pale blue sky.

            The Old City was still heavily pockmarked with the battles waged by US forces against local Mahdi Army militia.  The remnants of structures that had been damaged beyond repair or razed entirely had long since been carted away and new foundations had been dug and poured.  Three individuals wearing hard hats leaned over a folding table on the sidewalk, first aiming fingers at various points along unfurled schematics, and then gesturing at the empty sky with swooping gestures.  Scaffolding was erected which covered the facades of buildings facing the narrow streets and workers clamored about buttressing structural damage and reworking intricate tile designs.

            Entering the open courtyard at its northwest corner, the three Baghdadis and Akil were in the immediate shadow of the Shrine of Al-Abbas.  Early in the afternoon, the entrance to the memorial was not crowded, only a few visitors ambling in and out.  Akil became quickly interested in the calligraphy etched deeply above the door, and the intricate blue tiles tracing the arc of the entrance.  It read, “For the Blessings of the Water Bearer.” 

            Akil ran his fingers over the tiles, feeling the texture of their irregular placement and size and appreciated the labor that the evenly spread grout implied.  He heard his name called and turned to watch Kadir gesture in an easterly direction, sending Hadi and Imram on an errand.  The trader then turned to Akil, shouted his name again and waved Akil in his direction.  Akil skirted a small pool where a middle aged man in a raised, circular skull cap was washing his feet, and met Kadir in the meager shade of a stout palm tree planted in a square patch of soil deposited amidst the cobblestones. 

            Akil declined Kadir’s silent offer of a small pile of leaves that Akil recognized as khat.  Kadir shrugged and placed the leaves in his mouth, rolled them around his mouth, and stuffed them between his cheek and gum with his tongue.  As Akil waited for Kadir to complete this complicated maneuver, he found himself close to laughter as the trader’s cheeks contorted and bulged with the effort.  Kadir returned a small leather pouch to the breast pocket of his loose fitting button-down shirt, wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve, and said under his breath, “Yes, I know, it is a dirty habit.  Come, let’s get out of the sun for a moment.” 

            Kadir scanned the courtyard and, spying a side street with an empty wooden slatted bench protected by a green vinyl awning, said “There, that bench over there.”

            As they walking in the direction suggested by Kadir, the trader continued, “I have not tasted khat in a long time, and,” the trader broke into a small laugh, “I had forgotten.  I will have to thank Imram for this invigorating find.” 

            Akil laughed a bit, raised his brow, and said somewhat sardonically, “You look very happy.”

            Taking adjacent seats on the narrow bench, the wooden slats creaked heavily and the two waited a moment as if they might fold before leaning their weight back against the vertical slats.  The sun had dropped over the west side of the courtyard and the sun shone brightly into the alley, disbursing some of shade the awning provided at other hours.  Akil sat comfortably in the warm sun, while Kadir huddled into the shaded corner.    

            “Akil, you are young.  You have no use of such things, but a for an old man like me, this khat gives me such a feeling…like I understand many things which often so befuddle me, like I have explanations for the unexplainable, but mostly, you are right, it makes me happy.”  Kadir smiled brightly, his eyes shining. 

            In the short silence, Akil watched the elongated shadows move across the far wall of the alleyway in time with courtyard pedestrians passing the mouth of the alley.

            Kadir breathed deeply, slouching on the bench with his arms crossed over his thin midsection.  He appeared deep in thought, swollen with notions of his age and the hardships of his life.  Akil thought that Kadir may have been thinking about the piles of cinder blocks in his living room, the spires of copper piping jutting from the barrel in his kitchen, the ragged tin scraps cluttering his entrance hall—as if Kadir were thinking about all the tough edges that blunted the comfort of his life.  Akil thought that Kadir, may have thought of his wife, about how all of her gentleness, how all of her caring had been stolen, how Kadir felt guilt over his inability to abate the tough conditions of her life. 

            Akil’s new Iraqi acquaintance, stoned on khat, leaned forward and extended his right arm so that only his hand burned in the bright sun, while the rest remained in shadow.  He held his fingers wide, his thumb jutting crookedly out to the side, and turning his hand in the light, he contemplated the harsh lines carving through his light brown palm, and the long pink scar tissue running across his three larger fingers and diagonally across the remainder of the back of his hand.  The tufts of hair sitting above his knuckles were dirty, twisted, and thickly massed. 

            Akil allowed the man a moment of reverie, speaking only when Kadir balled his hand, his knuckles standing out sharp and white in the sun.  “Come on Kadir, you are not that old.”

            Kadir laughed, “Akil, you are an American, are you not?  Listen to you with your, ‘come on.’  As they are not commonly spoken, it is odd to hear these phrases in Arabic.” 

            “Yes, well, you should try speaking in one language with the expressions of another.  It’s difficult to keep everything straight…I feel like I have too many dictionaries open in my head, but to all the wrong pages.”

            Kadir smiled before he hooked his index finger into his cheek and rolled his balled khat to his other cheek, and squashed it in place with his tongue. 

            “Akil, soon you must go and find your father, but I wish to speak for a moment before you go.”

            “You do not need my help with the khalas?” Akil interjected.

            “No…no…I have sent the other two in search of bargains, and we will make no purchases until tomorrow morning.  We will pray together tonight with al-Husayn and then we will dine with friends…a big meal.  Today is for relaxation.  It is difficult to relax in Baghdad.”

            Akil nodded. 

            “Akil, you will be quiet for a moment to allow me to speak.  Please do not interrupt, as what I will say will not make sense unless you allow me this time.  And you will not interrupt even if this khat makes me wander in my thoughts.”

            Akil nodded again and Kadir, loquacious with khat, began a long soliloquy. 

 

            “Sitting here on this quiet day, I want to tell you about my family, of my father and my mother, of my brothers, and of my wife.  This is what the future Iraq must recapture.  Many suffered under Saddam.  There are many cases of horrible atrocities, many cases of repression, many imprisonments, tortures, and inequalities.  And this is what our families, you and me, Akil, have in common.  That we together have suffered disproportionately is not a question.  My father was a wise man.  He was born in Shiraz, Iran, near the Gulf, studied briefly before coming to Karbala to continue at Ibn Fahid.  He became a learned man, one who was consulted on aspects of Sharia.  He had brought my mother with him from Iran, and she quickly gave birth to my oldest brother.

            “His name was Abdul-Haqq and he and my other older brother, Mahmud, only three years older than I…the two were killed.  Now it is claimed that they died like so many Iraqis, in the retaking of the Al-Faw peninsula, which the Ayatollah had captured.  As Saddam had sent many for service at the front, this is not inconceivable, but certain inconsistencies make this highly unlikely.  My father had hidden me with relatives in a horrible, squalid basement in Najaf.  I was taught to walk with a limp that my legs still remember to this day, and learned not to speak in public.  I was to act dumb, disfigured and crippled, so as to appear without use to the Baathists.  I became very lonely and received no information about my family’s well being.

            Akil’s attention wandered.  The commotion of traders in the courtyard was intrusive, drawing his interest, and the redolent smell of lamb cooking over coals wafted from an unknown direction.  The city of Karbala, the city of his childhood was bedecked by a cloudless day, and Akil wanted nothing more than to forgo this history lesson.  Listening to the history of a khat chewing, khalas trader, a man who had no measure of Akil’s education paled in comparison to Akil’s desire to wander the city.

            “Akil, you are not paying attention,” Kadir admonished.

            Akil had not realized that his mental wanderings were apparent, and quickly jerked his head in Kadir’s direction.  American educated, under the purview of public educators, he instinctively repeated the details of what Kadir had just said as proof that he had been listening.

            “Akil you must pay attention.  I am laying the foundation for matters to follow which will be of the utmost importance to you and your future.  Iraqis have their first real chance in decades to decide their own destiny, to make a future suitable for our people.  You must pay attention—for, in fact, you must make a decision that concerns the future of all Iraqis.” 

            Akil hid his feelings of disbelief.  How Kadir could possibly offer him a choice that could impact the future of Iraq escaped him, but he did not protest or allow this feeling to manifest itself physically.  Kadir, satisfied that Akil understood the importance of what was passing between them, continued.    

            “With the days of war dwindling, I returned to Karbala, only recalling my former stride and speech when on the road home.  My brothers had both been killed, my father had been imprisoned, a declared conspirator with the Ayatollah, and my mother had fled our home.  I shortly learned that she was living with a friend…Akil, this was you father, Fadil and his new wife, your mother, Ahlam. 

            “Akil, I was not honest with you in Baghdad.”  Kadir spoke with his eyes intensely fixed on Akil’s. 

            “Now do not interrupt.  I am sorry for keeping the truth from you, but it was necessary.  This you will see in time.  But please, allow me to continue.”  Kadir paused, giving Akil a chance to interject even though contrary to his instructions.  When Akil did not speak, or rather, did not particularly care about Kadir’s dishonesty, Kadir continued.

            “The truth is that I know your father well, and our meeting, as you had guessed, was not as fortuitous as I made it seem.  Your father received your mother’s message telling of your arrival, and your plans for a business in Iraq.  He is very proud, your father…”

            Akil’s comportment quickly changed when he realized Kadir’s intent in telling his story.  The letter his mother had received in New Jersey provided the details that Kadir did not.  The sound of the active exchange of goods in the square softened, the lamb and potatoes wafted away, and Kadir’s bulging cheeks, stern and apprehensive, were all Akil focused on.  He quickly rose to his feet and walked to the far wall, where he leaned, resting his head against the crook of his elbow.  But for only a moment.  He turned rapidly and stared at Kadir, angry, but unsure exactly why he was angry.  It was all just too much to comprehend.  He had been exiled from his home.  The Department of Homeland Security had tagged his name.  This complexities of his childhood home confounded him, presented substantial obstacles to his goals enough without having the additional burden of dealing with this confusion. 

            A myriad of question presented themselves.  Akil opened his mouth to ask them all, and stood momentarily with his mouth agape before saying only, “I came here to help with the khalas.  I was to drive out here…you said…you told me that I would come to Karbala…I would help locate good khalas at good prices, load them in the car…and perhaps have the chance to inquire about my father…you said…”

            “I know what I said Akil, but that was not true.  You are here for a much more vital purpose.  Khalas may be the reason, broadly—for what they represent—but you are here to help your father build Iraq into the place we all envision—a free nation for Muslim people, devoted to the peace of Allah.  But you will see.  Please—hold your anger.  All will be revealed and your questions will be answered in time.” 

            “Help my father?” Akil practically screamed, before quickly quieting in surprise at the sound of his own voice.  While the affairs of his life had often left him angry over the past months, he had not felt that anger, as now, so thoroughly manifested in feelings of violence.  Even on the train home from Boston, his visions of killing Ben, which shortly thereafter had seemed so foolish, did not compare to his present feeling of a desire to cause physical harm to Kadir. 

            In the face of Kadir’s silence, Akil affirmed the fact that his question was not rhetorical, “What to you mean, ‘help my father’?—Kadir, what do you mean?”  Something cold and sharp was burning in Akil’s throat.  The more often he asked Kadir the question and the more hardened and calculating Kadir’s expression became, the easier it was for Akil to provide his own answer.  Akil stared at the passivity of the khat chewer, whose jaw moved perceptibly and his features hardened, cheekbones jutting out.  Kadir sat, relaxed, leaning back against the bench with his hands folded easily over his stomach with a coolness that further raised Akil’s ire. 

            “I don’t…” Akil’s hands were shaking.  “I can’t…” and reverting to English, “this can’t happen again.”  Akil turned back to the wall and once again leaned against it, burying his arm in the crook of his elbow.  His shoulder blades lurched spasmodically up and down, but he did not make a sound.  The shudders that racked his body were not indicative of tears.  Akil did not cry, but something terrible was implanted within him, some great premonition that instructed him that a decision, perhaps not his decision, but a decision nonetheless had already been made.  He turned to see Kadir looking towards the opposite end of the alley, calmly flicking his hand away from him.  At the far end, Hadi and Imram, turned and walked away in the direction from which they had come. 

            “Akil.”

            Akil did not respond.

            “Akil,” Kadir said more authoritatively.

            This time, Akil turned around, with composure enough to thinly veil his rage.  Whatever anger, whatever worldly frustrations that were within him, Akil managed to repress.  His rage was so complete, his hostility so profound, that he could find no means to express it.  The truth his mother searched for, the abscess in her heart over the loss of her husband, the hurt so profound that she would send her son to war to cure it, was at hand.  Akil had the truth and, suddenly, wondered if his mother knew all along.  Perhaps she was in better contact with his father than she had let on.  Was she so diabolical as to keep the truth of a father’s whereabouts from his son?  Was she involved in this grand masquerade?  The final question that surfaced in Akil’s head pained him the most: Would his mother go as far as to encourage him to create a website for a Islamist organization that supported terrorism?  Would she ensure her son’s expulsion from America?  Akil greedily assumed that she would, and promptly resigned himself to his circumstances.  It was easier for him to absolve himself of the responsibility of determining his own fate.          He didn’t want to fight anymore, and became quite willing to do whatever was asked of him.  While Akil knew, or supposed that he knew of Kadir’s motives, he did not want to reveal that knowledge.  He wanted to Kadir to be the first to breach the gap—be the first to speak the words, the first to vocalize that Akil’s father was an instrumental leader of the insurgency.  Akil would not let Kadir off the hook by asking the question.  But this was simply for the sake of Akil’s demand for a full reckoning on Kadir’s part.  He was simply too tired, too terrified of the deluge of tears, and of the potential for his fists to react if he was to say it first.   Regardless, without an overt request, Akil, then and there, became resigned to the fact of his eventual participation in the insurgency.  But he badly wanted Kadir to ask.  He wanted to hear the words tumble from Kadir’s khat soaked lips: “We need you Akil.”    

            Kadir was passive.  Akil assumed Kadir was similarly waiting for a final emotional exposure, for Akil to lose his last remnants of self-possession in his frenzied need for the truth to be resolutely told.   Kadir smiled to himself and continued as if nothing monumental had passed between them, as if Akil’s angst was only a manifestation of his displeasure at having been lied to.  

            “Do not tell your father I told you, but I have not seen him so content, so proud in his life.  Fadil has faced many difficult days, and he is not one to act in any other than a very serious manner.  He has been stern, stubborn at times.  But now, he smiles in the mosque of all places, forgetting himself at times…so proud.  Drinking coffee after meals, just he and I, sitting on his porch overlooking the Husayanah, overlooking the tops of the palms, he is like a child.  He says the initials, ‘W.P.I,’ in English, as if they were some long overlooked insight from the Koran, like he has just deciphered their holy meaning…his English is poor and he does not know them, but he has made them his own…but, I am speaking too long.  Do not forget the khat…a man grows wistful.  But Akil, your father is very proud that you have seen things that he has not seen, and learned things that he will never know.  You will meet him very soon, but you must allow me to finish my story, so that you will meet him with your heart open.”

            Akil returned to the bench, sat on its lip, and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, grasping his beard in both of his hands.  The sight of his sneakers, laces pulled tight and bowed, furthered his emotional discomfort, and he twisted his feet over some loose gravel sitting atop the cobblestones.  His right shoulder, feeling the full brunt of the sun, caused sweat to trickle from his brow.  He sat back with a start, his shoulders slumping, and, not able to stand the unspoken any longer, started, “I just don’t under—.”

            “Akil,” Kadir spoke slowly, calmly, “please do not become angry.  This is to be a great moment for you, do not be concerned with your confusion.  You are a young man, and this is a difficult time for young men, particularly in Iraq, but you must be calm…you must listen to me, you must trust me…I am your friend.”

            “I am not angry, Kadir,” Akil managed to say with a marginal degree of believability, “but I am confused about why you did not tell me sooner.  Why does my encounter with my father necessitate such a prologue?  I have not seen this man, my father, for many years, and I do not know him—I know nothing about him—and now you say that I am to help him build—”

            “This is exactly the point, Akil.”  Kadir rolled the bolus of khat over his tongue and deposited it back in its crook.  “It is unwise to encounter anyone of great importance, particularly a relative, who has been missing from a young life for a long time without first hearing of his nature.  This is the reason for my subterfuge.  If I were to have met you, fresh from the airport, on the streets of Baghdad and told you all the details of your father’s great life, you would have been scared, more confused than you are now.  You may have spit on me.”  To emphasize his point, Kadir disgorged his wad of twisted leaves onto the cobblestones and sighed deeply in his narcotic comfort. 

            “So I must continue.  Your father, as a young man, was introduced to my father and mother, while I toiled away as a cripple in Najaf.  I felt that I returned as a coward, my brother’s having been killed, my father vanished, and my mother a burden on the home of another.  But I quickly learned that your father is a great man, a man who, even if with his wealth stretched to its edges, he would not show any strain.  He was powerfully charismatic, even as a young man.  He inspired calm and security…one look at my mother’s face, and I knew that your father, only years older than I, had earned an eternal debtor.  My mother’s comfort in the face of her family’s devastation was worth everything I would be able to offer over the course of my life, no matter how long or successful.  Do you see?  Do you understand what this man, Fadil, your father, did?  The risks he took…mercy on the prophet…in the face of Saddam’s power?  All could be lost simply by extending kindness to the family of an accused enemy of Saddam.  But your father was not afraid.

            Akil was returning to his rage of moments before.  It was now clear, beyond the violent emotional response of his earlier discovery, now, in fact, it was intellectually clear, that Kadir was recruiting him to participate in the insurgency.  Knowledge of Kadir’s motives made his methods untenable and Akil labored, nearly exhausted, with the exertion of allowing Kadir to set the scene as he felt necessary. 

            As if unaware of Akil’s anxiety, Kadir continued, fully in the glow of the palliative effects of the khat, coursing through the details of a meticulous recruiting effort with a clarity and methodology that Akil did not require to be convinced of his father’s plight.

            “Your father and I became good friends.  He and I studied together, he always slightly wiser, more knowledgeable of the Koran than I.  He introduced me to my wife, A’mal, so many days ago.  She and your mother were friends as well.  Through your father’s contacts, we came to understand that my father had been imprisoned and eventually executed for providing information and support to the Iranians throughout their summer offensive.

            Kadir paused here, acting shaken, or so Akil surmised, by the clarity of his recollection of events.  He stood, angrily kicked the wad of khat across the alley and almost fell from the exertion.  Returning heavily to his seat, Kadir cause the short, iron legs on his side of the bench to slide gratingly across the cobblestones.  Akil almost smiled with the hilarity of the situation: this man, Kadir, fully thinking himself to be seducing Akil toward the insurgency, piquing his interest and anger step by step, when in fact Akil was only bored, and practically resigned to participation regardless of Kadir’s machinations.

            Kadir apparently had no such perception of the situation.  “And this is why it is clear that Saddam killed my brothers as well.  If my father was collaborating with the Ayatollah, fighting for Islam against that man and his despotism, then there can be no doubt that my brother’s were doing the same.  They would not fight against their father’s wishes.  Abdul-Haqq and Mahmud would not pick up arms against my father’s beliefs.

            Kadir nodded sternly at his suggestion that a son should not defy his father, and Akil followed suit, encouraging Kadir of his progress toward recruitment, if only to speed the process and release him from his purgatory.

            Apparently satisfied that Akil understood the importance of familial allegiance, he continued.  “I do not know of your paternal grandfather…Fadil has not spoken of his father, so I cannot be sure of this, but your father reminds me a great deal of mine.  I think that when my father was taken away, your father recognized the indignity and strived to replace him as a political figure.  I was angry for a time, angry that Fadil was taking my place in my father’s footsteps…jealous.  This memory…the memory of my jealously is the only point of shame in my life…” 

            Kadir paused and placed his hand on Akil’s shoulder and smiled before continuing, “And trust me Akil…we have all been young men and we have all made many mistakes.  In retrospect, each of these mistakes has had its purpose.  Each of them taught me something, but those months of jealousy, when I first saw your father’s greatness, still taunt my memory.  I owe him all that I have, and my initial response was immoral.  I apologize to you as I have many times to Fadil.”

            While he didn’t feel any apology was due, Akil wished Kadir would get to the point, but nonetheless recognized the earnestness with which the old man had spoken and grasped the older man’s outstretched hand.  With their hands tightly clasped, Akil accepted his apology, and suddenly placated, said, “I sure that my family has much to thank you for in return.”

            Kadir beard was thinner than Akil’s and the lines of his cheeks were clear from within the sparse covering as he smiled full and bright. 

            Kadir was strongly stirred with emotions from within the khat induced haze and, as such, Akil, intuiting that Kadir was failing in his efforts, took hold of the conversation.  “I too have made many irreversible mistakes.” 

            “Yes—there are things—actions that cannot be undone and there is no course but forward.”  Kadir nodded dolefully. 

            From the peak of his anger, Kadir, through his wistfulness, had somehow calmed him, if only through inspiring boredom.  In this boredom, he suddenly forgot much of his present circumstances, and for some reason recalled his friend Ben and the calculus exam.  As Kadir continued his discussion of his young Iraqi life with Fadil, Akil though about the oddity of thinking about Ben and the calculus exam at this juncture, when so many other issues were at stake.  Regardless, there it was, stuck in his head.  He pictured the look on Ben’s face, red, blotchy, staring without fixating on the problems before him, entirely lost, without hope.  

            “Sorry—Kadir?  I don’t mean to interrupt...but…” Akil cut short something Kadir was saying about his wedding to A’mal.

            “Yes?”

            “I have made such a terrible mistake, Kadir.”

            Kadir stared plainly in response, but his eyes invited an explanation.

            “I was very lonely in America.  I guess there were plenty of other Muslims around, plenty of Arabic speakers, but I shunned them for reasons I do not quite understand—gave up my prayers.  But I studied hard with the belief that this would give me satisfaction…and it did.  I enjoyed excelling at my work.  I enjoyed the mutual respect I shared with my professor.  But I became very lonely, isolated from others my age.  I had no friends, but those in the periphery, idiots who wanted constantly to hear of life under Saddam, militants who wanted to hear nothing, but the might of American power, and the occasional student who was interested in my work—but no one else.

            Kadir was nodding and spoke when Akil looked up with an embarrassed glow in his cheek visible above his beard.  “You should not be ashamed, Akil.  That is America… so much wealth, all of this high philosophy, all of this freedom…it is the lotus, the khat…” Kadir gestured in the direction he had booted his narcotic wad, “all of this, acting as a collection of disparate individuals, with no respect for god or family, everyone is famous and everyone is notorious, everyone is collecting power with every purchase, in the supermarkets and these huge stores, those piles of goods.  We have heard of these things here.”

            Kadir tapped his brow and continued, “We are not so thick headed.  We understand these things, but we do not desire them.  You say you were lonely…I say, ‘of course you were’—that is America.  You can have all these things, all of this pleasure, instant gratification is just a moment away, you can buy it.  America is a constant advertisement for curing the individuality it imposes.  You heard this call, yes?  Did you feel that it was all about to happen for you?  If you worked hard, then you would get it?”

            Akil nodded, “I was very close.”

            “And if you got it?  If you captured all this happiness, what then?  Do you think it ends?  Do you think the loneliness ends?  All of a sudden you are complete, and you would be given this great understanding in the form of a nice car and a big house—is this the cure for this loneliness, or does it inspire more?  America offers many things, Akil, but it takes far more away.  Everyone in America is lonely by degrees.  They are taught this…to be separate and distinct, taught that the very fact of their individuality is their eventual salvation.  But it buries them deeper.  And this belief, that people should be separate and distinct, this belief is broadcast throughout the world.  Even if unintentional, even if this idea has no choice but to migrate to the ends of the earth, if economic principles demand it—it is unwanted.  We do not share this belief.  But Akil…you must respect the fact that your loneliness is no fault of your own.”

            Akil was inadvertently moved by what Kadir was saying.  He had not realized how deeply his collegiate loneliness had pained him, and how much his rejection from Brukheun and the entirety of the United States had aggrieved him.  Over the course of Kadir’s lecture, he had focused on those feelings, and they rested heavy on his shoulders, but Akil suddenly remembered what he had wanted to tell Kadir moments before.

            “Kadir, I must finish telling you of what I did in college, about my mistake.”

            “Sorry, please continue.”

            “I found a friend toward the end of my college years—Ben was his name.  He was as American as can be.  Bright and funny, but entirely undisciplined, slow in his studies, and slovenly.  Anyhow, I agreed to tutor him—in truth, I placed myself in a position where I would increase my chances of meeting a friend, acted like someone I was not—I guess I was desperate in a way.  But I met this Ben and we became friends, real friends, I think—and so during our calculus exam, for which I had tutored him over the preceding weeks, I caught him taking hints from my work.”

            Kadir was nodding slowly, his brow furrowed.

            Akil continued his story begrudgingly, wishing he had not begun.  “At first I covered my exam, preventing him from this action.  I had signed an oath on the front of the exam that stated I would report any knowledge I had of work within another’s exam that was not his own.  I did not know what to do.  My dilemma is clear, right?”

            “ ‘Right,’” Kadir intoned, “I love these expressions.  But yes, I understand that you were forced to chose between the school rules and the obligation to aid a friend in need.  And, Akil, whatever you do in that situation is both entirely wrong and entirely right.  There is no means to determine how such things should be considered.  In fact, it does not matter what you did—for the moment, you must keep your choice to yourself, you must determine what it means.  No one can direct you to right and wrong in matters such as this—right and wrong is based on circumstances and you and your community values as important.   

            Akil showed his disappointment that Kadir did not want him to reveal his cheating on the exam.

            “What is important,” Kadir clarified, “is that you recognize that your feelings, in this regard are nothing more than a symptom of America.  That right and wrong in that instance are indistinct is another weakness of American society.  Too many competing interests blurs morality, and all actions can be legitimized by competing fabrications of human nature.  Now do not misunderstand me—I have no problem with America acting as America wishes in America.  But they have no right to assert their system of loneliness and divergent morality on others.  Any system of government that takes the faith of Muslim is not for Iraq.”

            Akil had grown largely tired of waiting for Kadir to overtly suggest that he join them in their quest to rid Iraq of false Western ideals, but the concept of loneliness intrigued him nonetheless.  As much as he wanted to directly broach the subject, he was tepid toward the idea of doing so himself, and further, found himself without any real basis to consider his own feelings toward Western systems of governance.  He thought of his great desire to become, in essence, an American, and to receive the fruit of being an American.  His decision to attempt to bring that desire to Iraq and reap those rewards in so different had been patently fruitless. 

            Between Akil’s feet, in the gap between the cobblestones, certain species of grass and moss grew, presumably suited to the arid environment.  Barely able to obtain the sustenance they required, the plant life survived, but did not flourish.  Nestled between the bulging oblong squares of the cobblestones, the small grasses had no room to spread, had no mechanism to reproduce beyond the confines of the narrow gap.  In the middle of two comparably large, infertile masses, the plant life had no hope and were destined to defeat.  If either of the abutting cobbles were to be dug up, the grasses would gladly spread into the nutrient rich void left in their place.  But stones don’t vanish of their own regard. 

            Akil recognized that he would have to choose between American democracy and communal Islam.  America would not have him, and his desire for capitalist rewards bore no fruit in this environment, and found no favor with the government.  Tangible anger coursed through him, finally and triumphantly, focused not on Ben or WPI or Brukheun, but the system that bred the three of them.  And he was offered the contrary option.  The other mode was availing itself.  It was just a matter of moving in the direction he was offered.         

            Steeled to his decision with a coldness that belied his new found belief, Akil surprised himself, saying, “I feel nothing for America, but the mother I left behind.”

            Kadir calmly questioned,  Nothing?”

            “Nothing.  You are right about America.  I’m glad that I find myself back where I belong.”

            “You are amongst family Akil…this is the nature of Iraq—of Islam.  There is much to discuss, but you must understand your absolute importance to the cause of Iraq.  With your help, your father’s Iraq will blossom.  Without it, there will be much more bloodshed and loss of Iraqi life.  If you join us, you make Iraq the pride of Islam—Islam as intended without the tyranny of small men.”

            Kadir looked at Akil in profile.  Unwilling to meet his eyes, Akil stared blankly across the alley. 

            “Akil you have grown quiet.”

            “Yes.”

            Kadir exhaled audibly through his nostrils, and again grasped Akil by the shoulder and turned Akil toward him. 

            “Akil, that you think, that you contemplate these issues reveals your grasp of principle.  You are a man in the mold of your father.  And, yes, I can see it within you—you have come to understand the importance of this conflict, that the very future of our people and our family depends upon it.  And the principle you share with your father will not betray you.”

            Without turning his head, Akil perceived Kadir’s eyes receive a signal from the behind him from the courtyard, but when he did look in that direction Akil found no one there, but pedestrians passing by with varied pace.  No one seemed at all interested in the two Iraqis sitting on the bench.

            “Akil,” Kadir began strongly, with a voice that sounded more deeply mellifluous, than it had during their prior conversation, “you must go.  Your father is waiting—at the Shrine of Al-Husayn at the far end of the courtyard…pardon me, I’m sure there are some things that a man does not forget.  But you must hurry, your father is a busy man.” 

            Akil rose and stood with the late afternoon sun behind his head, an autumnal orange ball casting its light directly into Kadir’s eyes, the awning no longer providing a reprieve.  The older man squinted, and used his hand as a visor to shield his eyes.  In silhouette, Akil looked imposing and Kadir twisted and turned to improve his sight.  Akil said nothing, but simply stood still and stared at Kadir as revealed in the light.  Kadir finally stood, matching Akil’s height. 

            “What is it, young friend?”

            “I will join you.”

 

            People were massed on the cobbled courtyard, conversing and milling about amongst the traders.  Many made preparations for the evening prayers, women were washing their hands and feet at the central basin, while men made use of a smaller pool on the far side of the courtyard.  Akil made his way through the crowd in the direction of al-Husayn, his mind racing through the details of his conversation with Kadir.  Across the uneven cobblestones, Akil progressed forward, ducking his shoulder at the approach of a collection of veiled women heading in the other direction.  He felt entirely in control, smiling at passersby as if he thought that through that smile he was conveying the message that, yes, it was true, he was to provide the final conduit to their salvation.  

He was excited to meet his father, a man who he knew nothing about, who he had not seen for many years, a man who, at one point, he had assumed was dead. 

            His senses were wildly attuned to his surrounding.  Akil vividly noticed and appreciated every child shouting at another as they chased each other through the square.  He saw women laughing lightly, sitting amongst each other.  Men, shaking hands or bargaining over goods, admonishing these same children, or walking past with carts—each of these Akil perfectly perceived.  Nothing went unnoticed.  He noticed a North African in a purple skullcap sitting on a low stool under a palm, who appeared to be paying Akil special attention.  The man watched Akil pass, but made no move to stand or hail him.  Suddenly, it appeared that everyone was watching him, that somehow he was expected, that he had a purpose in crossing this square, that all was preordained.  Eyes everywhere were evaluating him, considering him to be an important individual. 

            He walked proudly toward the Shrine with everyone and everything moving in the periphery, discerning and calibrating his every step.  The golden dome came into full view just as the muezzin began his great, undulating cries.  They echoed off the square and everyone broke from what they were doing, leaving Akil suddenly alone, his overseers distracted.  He had forgotten the beauty of the call to prayer, somehow misplaced the feeling that now coursed through him.  Laughing to himself, Akil felt as if he had no control over his emotions, and that this loss was his final liberation.  This past was something he had tried in earnest to forget, and, in coming back to Karbala, he recognized that he had never reconciled with the past or his attempts to forget.  Briefly, he felt was guilt, the guilt of his betrayal of the call to pray while in America, a devotion that he suddenly held most dearly.

 

            Many men were gathered outside the mosque.  Some were queued before a circulating pool to cleanse themselves before prayer.  Others slowly shuffled inside.  Akil removed his shoes and sat on a low, stone-carved stool to collect water from the pool in his cupped hands.  Performing the wudu, the ritual ablution that he did not consciously recall, Akil squatted before the pool and stated that he was about to perform acts of worship and purity.  He then rinsed his mouth, his hands, the back of his neck, his nostrils, his face, and arms, each three times, before wiping his wet hand, a single time from his brow through his hair to the base of his neck.  Finishing, he stood with his shoes in his hands and began to walk inside. 

            “Hey, Adidas,” a man to left called out, mispronouncing the brand.  “Hey.”

            A short man, so hairy that his beard covered his cheek bones, approached at a jog and joined Akil in line.

            “Hello.  Adidas, yes?” the man gestured to the shoes Akil held, “I used to have shoes like these.  Where did you get them?  They are comfortable shoes, yes?”

            “These shoes—” Akil lightheartedly responded, “since I have returned to Iraq, all I have heard is of my shoes, these shoes.”  Akil held his sneakers up next to his face at eye level.

            The man’s smile evened.  “I am sorry.  I did not mean to be rude.”  As he turned to go, Akil reached out and grabbed him by his shoulder.

            “Friend, I did not mean to suggest that you were being rude.  I have been in Iraq a very short time, and I mean only to comment on how often Iraqis have noticed my shoes.  Come, stand with me in line.”

            The man returned, introducing himself while stealing another glance at the shoes in his hand.

            “I am Akil al-Shari and I have returned to Karbala where I lived as a boy.  I have been in America for the last 12 years, and I have returned to find my father, Fadil.  To announce my return, I request that you allow me to trade you—my shoes for yours.  You must allow me this honor of my return home.” 

            The man looked down at the leather shoes he held in his hand, the rubber soles worn nearly through, and again at Akil’s new running shoes.  “This is not fair, my new friend.  I will gladly welcome you home, but if you are the son of Fadil, I cannot allow you to make this trade.”

            Akil had been surprised at the official tone of his words and found it odd that he sounded like the popular guidebooks gracing the shelves of bookstores across America, “Exile from America and Returning Home to a Third World Country for Dummies.”

            The remnants of his American sense of sarcasm aside, Akil continued, “A fair bargain is not my concern.  This is a gesture of my forswearing of American ways, my desire to be an Iraqi once again—and as for my father’s influence, he will not hear of this, and I’m sure that he would ask that you would accept my offer.”

            The man with the loafers looked wary, but the suddenly beatific look on Akil’s face appeared to give him solace and he held out his worn shoes before him, while accepting Akil’s. 

            He said only, “I thank you, my Iraqi friend, Akil al-Shari,” as if highlighting the smarmy empathy of the scene. 

            The two waited in line together discussing their histories and entered the mosque before parting company.  The interior space was huge and multileveled, with spiral staircases winding up on either side of the entranceway.  The walls were intricately carved, yet piously plain, and heavily brocaded red felt hung from the walls in places, adorned with gilded lettering.  Akil’s emotions were running high, the power of the vast interior space heightening his fervor, as he scanned the room for a familiar face.  Incredibly high ceilings, equaling the sky, demanding recognition of the abilities of mankind, the art of producing something so profound, had always inspired awe in Akil.  He looked up, craning his neck at various angles to appreciate the immensity of the whole thing. 

            From behind Akil heard a patient voice say, “If you could please keep moving forward sir.  I must get my uncle in from the sun.”  Akil turned and apologized to a man of around his age who held a very old man by the elbow.  The old man nodded his thanks as he passed.  Moving along the rear wall of the main room, Akil placed his new shoes on the floor and queued to receive a prayer mat.  While in line, he was approached by a young boy, who grabbed him by the sleeve and, without a word, pulled him toward the front of the room.  Many people had already begun their prayers, and around the room there was a gentle blurring of voices over one another, a very calming noise, and the barely discernable shuffling of individuals rising to a standing position, returning to a kneel, or supplicating themselves, nose to the floor. 

            Akil did not know what was happening, but felt that he could not use a voice above a whisper to find out where the boy was taking him.  Problematically, the boy was not listening to Akil’s whispers and continued to drag him forward, looking over his shoulder with an irritated scowl in response to Akil’s obstinacy.  With little option, Akil followed obediently to an empty mat at the front of the room, to which the child extended his small hand.  Next to the empty mat, an old man raised from the kneeling position, a man Akil immediately recognized as his father.

            Akil stood before his father, motionless, without any notion of what to do.  He remembered him instantly, but very differently than he now appeared.  His father now wore full, white cloth ceremonial dress, brocaded in golden patterns, and his beard was gray and frazzled.  Wide, wire-rimmed glassed were perched on his large, bulbous nose.  Recognizing Akil’s awkwardness, Fadil, kneeling, reached up and grasped Akil’s lifeless hand.

            “Akil, my son, pray with me.  There are not words to describe this moment…just pray with me,” Fadil spoke in earnest. 

            Before walking off to resume his duties, the boy pushed Akil toward the empty mat, leaning against Akil’s dead mass with all his weight.  Akil blinked suddenly, collecting himself, stepped forward and fell to his knees next to his father.  Fadil stood to his feet to begin his prayers anew. 

            Akil faced the front of the room, oriented toward Mecca, and stood with his thumbs behind his ears, elbows jutting out to the side.  Without looking toward his father, Akil said, weakly, “I have not prayed in a long time.”

            Fadil responded softly, “But you remember how.”

            “Of course.  I am your son.”

            “And my son has cleansed himself.”

            “Yes.”

            “Then you are worthy in my eyes and worthy in the eyes of Allah.  And we will thank Him for his blessing.  Now, pray with me for we have much to discuss.”

 

            Fadil and Akil performed the salaat together, putting the cares of the world behind them together, and, while standing, they intoned their individual dedication to Allah, stated the greatness of Allah, and, kneeling with their left feet beneath them and their bare soles of their right feet exposed behind, they affirmed the compassion and mercy of Allah.  As one, they bent slowly at the waist, pressing their foreheads, noses and palms to the floor, while leaving their elbows jutting into the air.  They repeated their belief in the greatness of Allah.  They completed four rakats and concluded the prayer in a seated position asking for Allah’s blessing on the people of Mohammed and the people of Abraham.  They then looked over their right shoulder toward the angel signifying their good deeds, Fadil’s eyes passing over Akil, and said, “Peace and blessings of Allah be upon you.”  Following this they looked over their left shoulder toward the angel recording their wrongful deeds, Akil’s eyes passing over his father, and repeated phrase, “Peace and blessings of Allah be upon you.”

 

            Outside, the light had thinned, and a cool dusk had settled over the courtyard.  Palm fronds were rustling in a comforting breeze, clattering lightly over the sound of friends saying their farewells.  Fadir and Akil stood side by side, while passersbys wished Fadil well, and introduced themselves to Akil.  Small dark birds swooped in the deep, purple tinted sky, crying out to each other in sharp chirps and trills, searching the night sky for insects, and racing across each other’s path, alighting occasionally on the palms and trellises of surrounding walls. 

            “Akil,” Fadil said as the crowd thinned, “I can say nothing more important than welcome home to your Iraq.  This is the Iraq that I had hoped for you.  Here in Karbala, where I was your father so many years ago, in this sweet, evening air, the warblers overhead, chiming the hour—this is the home your mother and I had hoped for our son.”

            “It is beautiful, and exactly how I’ve remembered it—I—I don’t know where to begin…it has been so long.  How…how have you been?”

            “Akil…do not worry about our beginnings.  A father and his son have no need for beginnings.  Time has lapsed, too much time, but this—Karbala—is our beginning.  We should not feel pressured to discover our histories.  There is time for that, but for now, we will walk to the road where Kadir is waiting with the car.  The people of Karbala are preparing a great feast to honor your arrival.  Come.”

            Kadir gestured for Akil to follow and the two ambled slowly across the square, Fadil with his hands clasped behind his back, and Akil wearing shoes a size too small.  Their footfalls sounded dully on the cobbles, the square emptying rapidly, and the sudden quiet of the evening made that sound, step by step, sullen and aloof as it echoed off the stone walls.  Akil glimpsed a man disappear down an alley, and with his purple skull cap dimly visible in the fading light, Akil thought he may have been the same North African he had seen earlier, the man who Akil had thought was watching him.  He made no mention of it to his father. 

            Kadir had been discussing the historic brothers Al-Husayn and Al-Abbas and their dual sacrifices to modern Shiism—how they had fought and died in a slaughter to preserve the caliphate, an effort that failed. 

            Somehow, Kadir perceived that he did not have Akil’s full attention, and he changed the subject.  “Kadir is a fine friend, somewhat impetuous at times, sometimes histrionic, but he remains one of my oldest friends.  He has suffered much, and often needs to be forgiven for his adamancy.  As blood relatives here have become few for the al-Sharis, I hope for you to treat him as an uncle.  Ah, but look at me—one moment I ask you not to worry yourself with the past, and here I am outlining the future.  It seems a man can study a great deal, acquaint himself with the learning of the ages—he can be respected in his community for his reverence of study, and reverence of Allah, he can be a grown man with gray whiskers who has prepared words in his head for hours and days—and when the moment comes for those words, that same man can appear foolish.”           

            Akil smiled in return to his father’s embarrassed grin.  “You are not foolish, father.  It is clear you are a man deserving great respect.  We will both have to proceed slowly.”

            “Akil, from what your mother tells me of your schoolwork, and the demeanor I see before me, you have grown into quite a man—which is no small achievement given the circumstances.  And here you are encouraging your father, ensuring him that he is not the fool he thinks he has become.”

            Clasping Akil by the shoulder, Fadil continued, “This will all come in time.  But come, Kadir is waiting with the car.”     

    

            Dinner that evening was as Fadil had suggested.  The table was lavishly spread, the women elegantly dressed in fine silk garments, and the walls adorned with carvings, etchings, and fabrics.  The far wall of Fadil’s large dining room contained a glass sliding door which opened up onto a poured concrete porch with a wrought iron balustrade.  The door was ajar and a humid breeze filled the room, moisture from the twisting Husyanah filling the room with the smells of arable earth.  Smoke trickled from an enclosed brass incense burner situated beneath the firm leaves of an imported sansevieria.  The smoke  accumulated under its broad leaves and was released to the ceiling in plumes. 

            The dinner guests were uniformly well-off Karbala citizens.  Some were Shiite scholars, associates of Fadil’s from the many Koran universities and mosques situated about the city.  Many of them had no qualms about discussing their hope, and in some cases, their participation in the attempts to unseat the elected Iraqi government.  Many younger men, around Akil’s age were more distant, but were nonetheless happy to meet Akil.  No one overtly mentioned his agreement to join their cause, and Akil was unsure if it was widely known.  Akil was kept busy describing his time in America, and repeating the nature of his study with computers to many interested parties.  An older woman said, “You look like your mother.”

            Fadil overheard this and, with a laugh, said, “Come Farah, that Akil is good looking is without question, and that he must take from his mother, but you must give me some credit as well.”

            The dinner was lavish, the food having been prepared at numerous kitchens around the city and brought in tow by the guests.  Lamb, chicken, and beef were well represented, and simmered in numerous sauces spiced varyingly with cumin, chili, aniseed, nutmeg, and paprika.  Freshly steamed red potatoes sat in a large ceramic bowl amidst roasted red peppers and billowed steam into the air.  Tall glasses of freshly brewed iced tea were poured over quartered limes and sweetened with sugar.  A plate stacked thick with arabi bread sat next to a veritable cistern of pine nut infused hummus with a pate of olive oil slicking its surface.  The old woman who had commented on Akil’s common appearance with his mother had cooked brown crusted falafel and baba ghanoush.  Everyone ate with great relish, while discussing religion and politics.

            Though hungry, Akil ate little.  He was uncomfortable with his surroundings, and quickly tired of listening to the recounting of politics and the failure of the government to account for Sharia.  Their was some discussion of a series of governmental reprisals against insurgent factions situated in the North that had resulted in a great deal of bloodletting.  At mention of this, the table exploded into both angry accounts of promised vengeance and concern over similar attention paid to the south.  Those who financially supported Fadil’s mission, but were not physically involved were concerned over the potential for government to raze the newly rebuild Karbala.  Through all of this discussion, which made up in volume what it lacked in substance, Fadil stared at Akil, as the latter watched each conversant put his point forth. 

            Fadil placed his sterling silver fork down on his plate and said, “Come, come…we are here to celebrate the arrival of my son, Akil.  Discussion such as this is not pleasant before food as magnificent as this.  This lamb speaks for itself.”

            The table responded with spates of laughter and nods that Fadil indeed was right.  Regardless, Akil became aware of what, in fact, he was entering and the type of behavior in which he was soon to participate.  Even with the gentle breeze and the resplendent meal, the hum of cicadas, and the pulsating incense, Akil could not shake the notion that out in the dark, throughout Iraq, in hovels, mansions, dirt streets, and paved thoroughfares, Iraqi men like him were plotting the deaths of others.  He had enlisted to serve as a killer.  The cause had won him.  Kadir’s intonations of the nature of Iraq and the West were accurate, and the importance of saving Iraq for Islam was not overstated.  But the methods turned his stomach away from the lamb. 

            Akil assumed that for some, those who chattered away over a perfect meal, those who had witnessed and participated in open, violent hostilities, this bout was simply another iteration, another situation when conflict was the only means of obtaining a desired resolution.  That life would be lost, for them, was not a disaster, it did not imperil their consciences.  The means of bringing about the perfect Islamic state could not detract from those ends.  This was not something that Akil disagreed with in concept, but the killing lingered problematically in his mind.  Akil could not see himself killing, and while the guests happily coursed through lemon pastries, Akil’s envisioned himself killing other people in varying degrees of proximity. 

            Imagining killing Ben had been a superficial fantasy.  He had later laughed about how his thought process, disturbed and irate, had managed to place Selma within the scene of his revenge.  With his new palate of images, Selma was nowhere to be seen.  Images of a knife wielded by his hand twisting through the sinews of another, of the crack of a rifle, the clean discharge of a bullet coursing through flesh, the whistle of a mortar of his positioning cracking through the roof of a bunker or worse, a residence, the images of shrapnel of his design ripping people into irreparable shreds were no longer a fiction to quell an anxious train ride.  He had agreed to kill people and around him other killers were sipping coffee and speaking of Allah. 

            Akil’s name was called and his looked up with the great apprehension that his first mission awaited.  Instead, his father, from the far end of the table looked at him with a concerned expression.

            “Akil, what is wrong?” his father earnestly questioned.  “You appear pale and you have not answered Adiva’s question about American universities.”

            “I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear the question.”

            From a seat halfway down the table on his left, a slight woman said, “Oh, please, Akil, make no matter of it.  You have been through enough today without having to answer so many questions.”

            Rather than offer an answer in spite of Adiva’s understanding, Akil only looked slowly down to his plate, feeling entirely flushed, and without recourse to remove himself from the table.  A full plate of food sat before him, which a neighbor announced to the table.

            “What, Akil, you are not hungry?” his father asked.

            “I can’t…” Akil watched as his fingers grasped at the tablecloth, “I told Kadir I would, but…” His chest heaved with the effort of breathing.  The guests all stared at him, trying to discern what he was saying.

            Some delicately muttered amongst their neighbors, and one guest loudly said, “Fadil, something has come over your son.”

            Releasing the fabric of the tablecloth, Akil inadvertently toppled his neighbor’s delicate tea cup, sending rich, aromatic coffee into his lap.  The man jumped up in surprise and some degree of pain, the hot coffee soaking through his linen pants.  The table again erupted into commotion, two ladies rushing to the man’s assistance with their napkins.

            Akil muttered, “Sorry,” while his father appraised him without revealing an emotion.    

            One of the ladies put her hand on Akil’s shoulder in an attempt to forgive him his clumsiness.  In a quick jerk, Akil shook her hand from his shoulder.  The woman lurched back, pulling her hand up under her chin, and the table loudly protested Akil’s behavior.  Fadil sat with equanimity, not revealing if he was even appraising the situation. 

            Akil sat with his palms flat on the table, one of which sat in a quickly cooling coffee stain.  His eyes were on his lap, and he could think only of how to get out of this situation, how to escape the clutches of the woman’s consoling hand, his father’s even gaze, and his obligations to Iraq.  In a panic, because he could think of no more subtle way, he cried.

            “I can’t.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but it’s too much.  It sounded fine before, to meet my father, and help him build Iraq…but the killing.”  With that he broke into deeper sobs and the table grew desperately quiet.  Akil perceived that his cries could be heard out over the river.  He didn’t realize that he’d been speaking English.

            Another hand fell on his shoulder, more firmly this time, and did not desist when Akil tried, once again, to free himself.  He looked up to find his father standing over him wearing the same unperturbed expression.  The rest of the guests remained in place, observing Akil, some with smiles that attempted understanding.

            “Perhaps we should have a talk, yes?” Fadil said.

            Having returned his gaze to the plate full of food before him, Akil nodded, too embarrassed to speak.               

           

            Akil heard the sliding glass door seal and his father leaned his palms atop the wrought iron rail next to Akil who stood similarly situated.  Fadil said nothing immediately and Akil did nothing but stare down into the lush foliage abutting the concrete foundation of Fadil’s home.  The Husyanah was audible in the background, and the light of the moon reflected from its surface. 

            From the continuing silence, Akil finally spoke.  “I am sorry, but this is too fast.  I’ve only just returned, and…I’m sorry and embarrassed to be your son, but I cannot do as Kadir has asked.”

            Fadil still said nothing and, following another short silence, Akil continued, “I believe again, and want to continue and strengthen my belief, but I cannot give you the help you want…please…I want to be your son, but I am too weak to do this.”

            Fadil kept his silence, leaning forward over the rail, apparently enjoying the serenity of the river.  This silence drew Akil to exasperation and he succumbed to more childish measures.  His face crinkled as if he might return to the tears that he had quieted at the dinner table. 

            “Please listen,” Akil pleaded, “please help me…I have nothing—nowhere to go.  I cannot return to America, you and my mother have brought me here, and I cannot return, but I also cannot do as you ask.  I am alone and you must help me…please.”

            “You are not alone, Akil, and neither you mother or I has brought you here.  You are here because you have remembered Iraq and you want to find it again.  This is noble, but it is also difficult.”

            Neither father or son looked at the other, the river and the night sky provided an easy means to keep from finding each other’s eyes.  The silence fell heavy again, Akil waiting for his father to continue, to absolve him of responsibility as requested.

            Fadil continued, “Do you remember this river?  The dates?  That is why I moved out here and built this house.”

            “Yes, I remember.”

            “But you do not remember a time when Iraq was the country we all envision, and that is because it has never been that country…not for a long time.  I have never seen it, and finally we are close.  You were a child and, thankfully, youth hides much of the ugliness of the world.  But now you are a man, and you must justify what you see with your beliefs.  This is the burden of faith.”

            “Yes,” Akil impatiently spat, “this I know.  And I know it is wrong, what is happening here, how the chance to have our Iraq will soon pass.  I have been in America and I have not lived in an environment like this for a long time, and I lost all cares for Iraq.  I am ashamed, but this is what has happened.  It comes back strongly, but I cannot…what Kadir asks of me—the only means available to rebuild Iraq in the vision of Islam—I am not capable of doing.”

            Kadir finally turned to look at Akil, placing his hand on the side of his head.  “What is it you will not do, Akil?  What concern has left you like this?”

            “I cannot kill.”

            The moment’s silence presided, Fadil nodding in contemplation before responding.

            “This is, of course, the difficulty of what is we are doing.  It takes a trick of the mind to justify the killing of another.  To recognize the jihad at hand is but one step, for even then, a true Muslim will find, even with the religious authority, some troubles remains.  And it is something that each must encounter on his own.”

            “But I have thought about it, and I just can’t.  I’m am afraid.”

            “That this is so is for each man to decide, but, Akil, in your case this is not an insurmountable problem.”

            Akil was quiet.

            “You are not being asked to kill anyone else.”

            “No?”

            “No,” Fadil managed a smile, “you must have more respect for what we are trying to accomplish here.  Do you think it makes any sense to have someone with an American degree in computers operating in the field?  Your mother has told me that you had interviews with some of the top American computer engineering firms, and you think that this movement will survive if it considers each individual, no matter his skills, to be simply one amongst a group?”

            “I…,” Akil started, but had nothing to say.

            “You see?” Fadil continued, “There are those in our organization who are highly skilled at, as you say, ‘killing,’ and that regretfully is what they do.  Others are organizational, some provide the necessary finances, others are good and communicating with others in distant lands, some have access to the materials we need.  You, Akil do not recognize the essential nature of your participation in this effort.”

            Akil had calmed considerably, even began to enjoy his father’s praise.  He smiled slightly, but still felt ashamed of his prior antics.  “What am I to do?” he asked.

            “What you do better than everyone else, Akil.  You will help Iraq by joining me, by being my son the way you used to be my son.  And you will sit in a small room, just like the labs I’m sure you sat in during college, and you will do things very much like you did in college.  You have been swayed,” Fadil laughed, “by what you see on American television. You think our efforts are disorganized and ineffective.”

            “That’s not true,” Akil countered.

            “Well, you see my point, anyhow.  So with our computers, you can help us far more than you could with a rifle.  Yes?  And we will once again have our Husyanah.  And when the time is right, we will bring your mother home to live in the peace she deserves.  You will kill no one, Akil.  You must join me.  Because you believe in Iraq, you must join me.”

            Akil looked at his father, saying only, “I will,” before embracing his father.     

 

            Hadi and Imram escorted Akil from Fadil’s house on the far side of the Husyanah, across the river, and into an elegantly maintained section of New Karbala.  The car was parked in the driveway of an apartment complex, and the engine quieted.  They crossed the white-line segmented parking lot, Hadi and Imram wearing sunglasses and surveying the hedgerows at its periphery.  Reaching a side entrance, Hadi rang the buzzer for the basement apartment, and received a prompt, yet curt, “Yes.”

            “It is Hadi, Imram, and another.”

            “And the words of the water carrier?”

            “Ride on, may I be your sacrifice.”

            “How will history will prefer you?”

            “History will prefer my brother over me.”

            The harsh buzzing of the door following this exchange jolted Akil.  He became immediately aware that this was real.  Rather than his individual integrity involved in the performance of a math exam, life was at stake.  That buzzing alerted him of what he was to encounter, but his father’s words still tugged at his heart.  They were words that he believed.  Hadi pulled the door open and stepped aside to allow Akil room to enter.  The interior was dark, lit only by a single exposed bulb that hung at the top of a descending stairwell.  Akil looked over his shoulder longingly at the empty parking lot and weighed his options. 

            Before he had progressed far down the list, Imram, the larger of the two said, “Akil.  We cannot stay out here—not on the street.”  His voice was not quite threatening, but, at the very least, it was deep and urgent.  “Inside.”

            Akil entered and stepped aside to allow Hadi to lead the way downstairs.  Imram gestured that Akil should follow Hadi, which he did with Imram close at heel.  The staircase emptied into an open foyer, well lit with fluorescent lights, and furnished with a two coffee tables at the ends of the room, surrounded by what appeared to be comfortable couches and lounge chairs.  Scattered across the tables were magazines in both Arabic and English, and operational manuals for light weaponry, communications technology, and written descriptions of the ways to blend in with Americans.  Two tape decks with large stereophonic head phones were positioned on each table and a collection of audio cassettes were strewn about.  On one wall were pictures of American icons: Michael Jordan, Madonna, and President Bush amongst other less prestigious members of the public eye.  On the other wall, were tapestries engraved with Islamic slogans, and pictures depictions of luminaries of the faith.  Thin, woven rugs lay on the floor.  To Akil’s relief, there were no weapons in sight, but to his dismay, there was not a telephone either.

            Two young men, looking pleasant enough, considering their trade, picked their heads up at Hadi’s entrance and nodded their greetings.  Akil followed closely, the men appraising him coldly.  Hadi noticed this and said, “Jafar, Ishaq—come, this is Akil al-Shari, son of Fadil—you have heard.  He is here to help with our communications, to run our computer network.  Come, make your introductions.”

            They stood and crossed the room with speed enough to raise Akil’s nerves.  But on reaching him, they smiled minutely, and the one introducing himself as Jafar said, “We have heard of your arrival, and we appreciate your help—here will all prefer our brothers over ourselves.  And you will be our brother.” 

            Ishaq began a similar introduction, when Hadi interjected, “Enough, enough— ,” his smiled, “give it a little rest for now.  Akil is new and must encounter our ways slowly.  This is all very new and we need not have expectations so soon.  But in time—Akil—,” Hadi turned to Akil, and continued, “he will be our brother.”

            Inside the door, which Hadi opened with a key, lay a long sparsely lit, concrete hallway long enough that Akil reckoned that it ran beneath numerous buildings above.  He could easily see himself exiting from a different building.  Hadi opened a door midway down the hall, again selecting from his key ring, and led Akil inside.  Imram had remained in the entrance room with the others.  The room, contrary to the sparse hallway, was well lit from overhead and a gas powered generator sat in the corner ready to power the room in case of electrical interruption.  Two high speed computers sat against one wall with bare wires running down behind the desks on which the sat and disappearing into a hold drilled in the wall.  A telephone sat on an end table that Hadi recommended that Akil not use until he had familiarized himself with the appropriate protocols.  A radio, with knobs suggesting a great deal of band width, sat next to the phone, and was connected to a large pair of headphones.  The walls were spattered with maps: topographical, geographic, detailed maps of urban centers, and broader maps of modes of travel across the country.  Smaller footpaths, washed out wadis were drawn in marker, and numbers penciled in beside, which Akil later learned indicated either instances of safe travel, and installation of explosives depending on the road in question.  Old Soviet satellite pictures were similarly tacked to the wall depicting mostly different depictions of Baghdad.   

            Akil had expected to work with a series of other communications personnel, but the room was empty at the moment and the computer screens were darkened.  Hadi quickly informed him of the situation, “You will monitor this room in shifts.  You must leave promptly at the end of your shift unless I, personally, tell you otherwise.  Your replacement arrives ten minutes after you leave and you are not to encounter each other.  Do you understand?”

            “Yes,” was Akil’s only reply.  Though he certainly understood the command, he did not entirely understand the reasoning.  But with only two computers available he could not see how another pair of hands and eyes could be all that useful.  Hadi switched on the computers and plugged in a operators password, which he told Akil he would be given shortly. 

            Smiling wryly, Hadi supplemented his statement with, “We’re hoping you may be one of those guys who doesn’t need one.”  

            Akil nodded in understanding and shook Hadi’s hand and headed toward the door, saying, “Someone will check on you every thirty minutes.”  He then exited, locking the door behind him.  There was no mechanism to operate the lock from inside.

 

            Over the course of a few short weeks, Akil familiarized himself with the operation of his confines, met his iterant caretaker, received the necessary instructions on the use of the phone, and came to understand the nature of the group of his affiliation.  They were a smart, dedicated bunch comprised mostly of men his age and slightly older.  Their communications were done primarily verbally, with runners sent throughout the country, their families in tote, with instructions for other sects.  When Akil did use the phone, he spoke to an unknown individual who did not ask his name, but only the operational number he was given by Hadi.  Their computer infrastructure was advanced, with large portions of it kept from Akil, portions that he made no effort to access. 

            His primary function was to monitor the radio for governmental transmission that he might be able to discern with the computers.  He quickly established a more efficient program for scanning the multiple-channel signals from the radio, and set about his task primarily in a state of boredom.  Hadi returned to the bunker on two occasions and spoke to Akil only briefly concerning progress he was making.  Regardless of Akil’s assurances that it was safe to transmit materials to other factions using the protocols he established, Hadi’s method of hand-delivered communications was preferred. 

            Quite unexpectedly, on his third shift of his third week, an shift taking place late in the evening, Akil managed to isolate a communication of a sort he had not heard before.  He was just returning from his bathroom break, the lock engaging behind him, when the computer interrupted the task Akil had assigned, and a message was displayed on the monitor that his protocols had randomly intercepted.

            While much of the message remained indecipherable, he was able to make out a series of coordinates, which he vectored on a wall map.  He did not know the import of the coordinates, but the program he had designed indicated they had originated from governmental military channels and they indicated a crossroads between a highway and a smaller road outside of Kirkuk.

            Never having obtained information of a potentially useful form, he was highly excited and looked around for someone to celebrate with.  He considered knocking on the door to call the attention of his attendant, but, recognizing the length of the hallway, decided that would be fruitless.  Rather, he simply did as instructed, and picked up the telephone, which automatically connected him to the usual voice. 

            “I’ve got something here.”

            “Go ahead.”

            “I don’t know if it’s anything, but I’ve managed to get some coordinates that were sent in a coded military transmission.”

            “Yes.  I am ready.”

            “I can’t guarantee what they are, but it seems they could be important.”

            “What are the coordinates?” the voice asked without the passion Akil had hoped for.

            Akil read them into the mouthpiece and the line went dead.  He cradled the phone and returned to his seat to spend the remainder of the day upgrading and allocating the computers resources to better hunt out meaningful transmissions.

            Hours later the radio exploded with no regard for encoding.  One voice, broken by static and tremendous background noise reported that a detachment of the Iraqi II Corps stationed in the North was facing heavy casualties.  The coordinates he called in were very near to the area Akil had reported.  The voice pleaded for reinforcements, going as far as to specify an armored division.  The sound of detonations and gunfire were tremendous, broken by the static-free, measured responses from command center personnel. 

            The soldier’s transmission ended in mid-sentence and another voice picked up where the other left off.  The radio was silent shortly thereafter, matching Akil’s operations room.  The halogen bulb hummed overhead and the door was locked from the outside.  Akil had not wanted to kill anyone, and that fact that he ostensibly hadn’t gave him some solace.  But he sat in his map draped room, his eyes plastered to his screen, his ears piqued to the radio for some indication of what had happened.  But everything was silent. 

            His attendant came thirty minutes later, asking if Akil was all right, but had no information about what had occurred and quietly told Akil to ask no questions about occurrences outside of his room. 

            Akil’s protestations of, “It was in this room,” drew no appreciation and the attendant departed without waiting for Akil to make any other requests.  Akil had done it.  He had done his job.  He sat thinking to himself, “That’s it.  I’ve done it.  I’m it.  I’m in this insurgency, and I’m effective.”   He looked at the map of the North and contemplated the dead, men who would not be dead without his efforts. 

            Akil slowly approached the door knob and, once steeling himself for the effort, tried to turn it.  It was locked and the insurgent Iraqi had no place to go and all the time in the world to contemplate his actions.