The Sky and Two Bridges
Kuwait, July 1990
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself whilst your still in the pink. Hagar spent her first month in Kuwait tuning into foreign TV channels, Nigerian comedies, Chinese folk dancing, American cartoons. This one was British, a music show screened at midnight on New Year’s Eve and that one line of song had remained in her mind. Enjoy yourself. That’s all Hagar desired since her exile from Iraq.
Saddam imprisoned her for it, for believing that her life was anything more than a patriotic flag wave of the state and her body, a pregnable lump of flesh for its reproduction. But she tried to forget that now, the burning fire she felt in her stomach at the student protests, the appetite she once had to eat kubba after a long day of studying, and that one guard, Iraqi like her, who dropped his trousers and perforated the only layer of skin between the character she had created and her country. Bastard.
She switched off the TV, threw the remote on the sofa and walked towards the window. Shards of light beamed into her eyes from the newly built shopping mall below. She opened the window, letting the weight of the summer air sink into the cold-conditioned apartment. Ugly, she thought. Kuwait to Hagar was a city reborn from equal burnings but dampened by modernity. Nothing like the glowing banks of the Tigris.
Hagar closed the curtains and made her way into the bedroom, turning down the air-con as she passed through the hallway.
Enjoy yourself, la la la la la la.
She lay on the unmade bed, body sticky from the heat, stroking the white lines across her light brown belly from under her T-shirt. It was skin that was once so rounded and tight that she could hardly see her feet. Why did Fahad want to marry her with such embodied reminders of her past, she wondered?
Hagar rolled off of the bed and onto the tiled floor. The white cotton sheets crumpled as she moved. On her knees, she reached her hand underneath the mirrored wardrobe that stood opposite the side of the bed that she slept on. Tap, tap, tap, her fingers disturbed the dust. A notebook, wrapped in a cheap purple scarf and wedged into the perfect sized gap between the back of the wardrobe and the wall. Black leather, thick and almost in pieces, but all hers: her words, her memories, the world she once was. She opened it and flicked through.
now I rest a slave
to a dry bed
no drop of oil
Hagar heard the elevator door open outside the apartment. She closed the notebook, wrapped it again, and skidded it with force across the white tiled floor. It disappearing underneath the wardrobe just before Fahad entered.
‘Habibti, hello, why is it so warm in here?’ Fahad was a rich man, a government bureaucrat, a cousin to the ruling Al-Sabah family. He changed his shoes whilst pointedly pressing the blue button on the aircon. ‘I pay for this place you know, you just have to keep it cool.’ He smiled after catching a glimpse of his immediate frustration in the mirror. ‘What are you doing in the bedroom anyway?’
‘I was watching TV and the…’
‘And did you visit Mohammad today, about your papers?’
Hagar stood up from the bed, subtly checking to see whether the notebook was out of sight. ‘I went, but he wasn’t in the office.’
‘Tut that man, a donkey would be more reliable.’ Fahad took off his agal, throwing it onto the bed. ‘And did you cook something, my dear?’
Fahad met Hagar on the Iraqi border, on her second attempt to leave Iraq. At that point he was working as an Army officer, controlling the lower ranks; Bedouins who were given temporary citizenship due to the shortage of nationals who were willing to defend the country. Fahad thought Hagar was one of them, a nomad, the daughter of a Bedouin.
‘I’m Kuwaiti, I was travelling to Basra to visit family.’ Hagar lied when Fahad first stopped her. She was a woman, had perfected her Kuwaiti dialect, she could get away with it.
‘Do you need a lift to the city? I’m returning soldiers in ten minutes,’ Fahad replied, brushing off his uniform. That was another benefit of being a woman, outlawed from driving, free lifts are offered. Hagar accepted the ride and said her thanks.
But during that journey, Hagar’s tongue slipped. One word, quzzurqut, unmistakably Iraqi, spoken in instantaneous reaction after the soldier sitting beside her burped. And it was then that Fahad realised where she was from, began feeling sympathy for her, saw her instead as a victim of his country’s corrupt neighbour.
‘I have a place to stay’, Fahad whispered just before Hagar stepped out of the army truck, ‘and don’t worry, I know you’re Iraqi…’
So of course Hagar had cooked something. Except the rare nights when he felt eager for her, Iraqi recipes were the only thing she could offer Fahad in repayment for helping her gain Kuwaiti status.
‘Usually it takes five years for a woman to get status but I know a person who will help you quicker,’ he once told her.
And a cooked meal was a mutual exchange in Fahad’s eyes too. Besides, he had saved her, given her another chance to enjoy it, making her soon to be the first Iraqi to be granted asylum in his oil-rich homeland. Hagar a refugee for now, certainly, but soon to be married, comfortable and safe as a Kuwaiti and the wife of the Emir’s cousin.
‘Quickly, they’ve seen us!’
Bader threw the last of the oranges into the back of the pick-up then jumped in. In a cloud of yellow dust, the truck pulled away and him and his cousin Nassir headed North towards the desert. It was dusk, too late and dark for the police to follow them out of Al-Jahra and besides, the money they’d gain from fining another two fruit sellers was a small sum against their wages.
Bader climbed over from the back and into the passenger seat from the side-window, unknowingly chipping away a flake of white paint from the edge of the truck door.
‘That was close,’ Bader said as Nassir continued to drive.
Nassir looked over to Bader shaking his head as he had done a thousand times before. As the older cousin, it was easy for him to blame Bader for their risky escapes. Nassir then pulled out two cigarettes from the pocket of his dishdasha and passed one to Bader. Bader accepted, without looking. Hardly shaken by the event, Bader remained silent for the rest of the journey.
The truck passed under the two bridges that marked the edge of Al-Jahra. It then pulled off of the road and onto the desert, slowing whilst nearing a spot to park. It was their usual place, the wadi where they had gone to watch stars together since they were children. Nassir then turned off the rattling engine leaving only desert silence looming in the air between them.
‘Nassir, will you ever leave Kuwait?’
Nassir turned, surprised simply by the fact that Bader decided to speak.
‘What?’ But Nassir heard him the first time.
‘Will you ever leave Kuwait?’
‘Stop dreaming, we’re stateless. Anyway, uncle Salman's ill, these thoughts only waste time.’
Bader took a long breath then returned to the silence. Only the sound of the desert winds through the truck window soothed his mind.
‘But aren’t you tired of all this?’ Bader flicked his half-finished cigarette out of the open window leaving embers on the sand beneath.
‘Being illegal, running away from police for selling a box of fruit?’
‘It’s the life Allah gave us, what are you going to do about it?’
And it was with this question, just as the evening stars above brightened, that Bader burst from silence and into a thousand fractured pieces.
‘God or no God, it’s suffocating Nassir, I mean look at us! We’re young, but have nothing, and I want to work, you know, have a real job, earn money, have choices, this government treats us like shit!’
As though they were still driving, Nassir remained staring ahead. ‘Your anger will conquer you one day brother, you should think slower and act faster.’
‘Sure Nassir, I will.’ Bader then lit another cigarette and stepped out of the truck to urinate. ‘I will.’
A month before their wedding, Fahad was working away in Bahrain. Urgent calls for support from the Bahraini government had arisen due to the recent awareness of underground leftist organisations planning to protest. Hagar remained at home, watching television, writing, satisfied with never needing to fling the notebook into the dusty gap beneath the wardrobe. She took out her pen.
of lonely toy towns
war is a whore
and so am I
Not enough. Scribble out.
‘Words’, she muttered, ‘how can they capture death?’ Hagar couldn’t remember when she first started talking aloud to herself. She never used to as a child. She remembers singing to herself when she was in prison, in the early mornings when the guards would leave for salat and the other women in the cell were asleep. But even then, cold and alone, she knew that someone was listening. An older woman maybe, drifting peacefully through a dream of natural wonders. Or her children who she felt, only hoped, were so close to her, somewhere in the adjacent block. ‘My boys.’ Again, Hagar tugged the hem of her grey T-shirt. ‘Bastards.’ She started again.
of a home and
in toy town
dust filled dreams
to him despondent
war is a whore
and so am I
Useless, turn page: a blank page, to start over.
war is a whore
let go and quit
‘Bury?’ Hagar placed down the pen and turned to the first few pages of her notebook. To her first poem.
death to words
death to death
that left unsaid
‘None of this was supposed to survive.’ As though a ghost to herself, Hagar suddenly closed the notebook, wrapped it up the purple scarf, and placed it in her bag. She then pinned in place her hijab and then slipped on her leather sandals. She took the remaining money Fahad had left for her on the kitchen side, and the keys, and then quietly left the apartment as though once again, escaping a land that had betrayed her.
Ding. Ground floor. Bus 103, evening rush hour, traffic.
Daily life passed so quickly outside of the bus window – fruit sellers on the streets, school children crossing, galabiyahs, gold chains, Philippino, Indian, flat caps, people everywhere, what happened to the pearl divers, the pre-oil fishing port? – so quickly that Hagar almost missed her stop: Fursa coffee shop, Al-Atraf Street.
Ding. Bus doors open.
The bus driver nodded in response.
Hagar wanted to reach the border, the same sands that she had grown from, but Al-Jahra was as far north as the bus would take her. She began walking, tilting her head backwards into the evening air that was cooling and tainted by a pale orange filter. Ethereal, she thought, a colour that reminded her of her younger days, walking to mosque, bags of dates in hand, talking of small things and school lovers with her older sister.
‘Focus Hagar,’ she told herself. She walked under the two bridges, out of Al-Jahra, and onto highway seventy, the road heading towards the border.
The city landscape emptied. Small birds chirped and flitted into the few shrubs that had managed to grow their roots wild enough to grasp onto the fine grains of desert sand. Some birds had feathers that were beige and others, feathers that were grey, the same colour as Hagar’s T-shirt, she realised, and the backing of mirrors. Funny, Hagar thought, such slight variations, such small differences in natural circumstances.
She continued walking north for almost an hour, until the highway faded into a thin line and the two oil towers, only etches on the horizon. She peered back to notice them. They were her only markers of how far she had come, reminders of where she really was: a wild place, forever beyond her control. Her stomach churned. She heard it but ignored it, instead concentrating on the warm air that arose from the day’s sun-drenched sands beneath her feet.
The evening sunlight was sinking behind Maliya church. Dusted pigeons cooed on the surrounding rooftops. Bader sat alone on the roadside, watching people of all nationalities enter through the open, oblong doors.
‘Maybe everyone desires what they can’t have.’
Unlike Hagar, Bader remembers the first time when speaking aloud to himself became a normal thing. He was eleven years old, walking home from the park and talking aloud, he realised then, offered him a distraction from wondering why, unlike his other friends, he was unable to attend state school. He assumed it was because of his poor skills in maths, not that he was the son of a Bedouin man, born without citizenship.
Walking alone that time, he planned an entire adventure: an extravagant mission for him and his best friend to secretly escape Al-Jahra and spend a whole day exploring the city centre. First, he said, they’d ‘tell their parents they were going to mosque.’ Second, they’d ‘ask the local shop owner to drive them into the city to collect important medicine for their uncle.’ Then third, well the rest was unplanned: ‘an adventure.’ Maybe they’d walk back or even better, Bader considered, never come back. Maybe he imagined, the two giant gulf balls, the ones that he’d only seen on roadside advertisements, would fall on him and his best friend after a big gust of sea breeze knocked them off the two pointy towers. And then, they’d be forced to spend the rest of their lives in there, trapped inside, like they’d landed on another world… imagine! Or maybe, just maybe, they’d get caught by some familiar family face, before they even got to the city and sent straight back home to... ‘No!’ Bader said aloud, ‘that can’t happen.’ All young Bader knew, and said with confidence was that they would go, him and his best friend, and someday soon, and nothing, nothing, could stop them. And talking about it to himself, aloud, felt good, gave him hope that one day, when he was old enough and after enough planning, he would be able to escape again, but that time further, and maybe, really, forever.
More bodies entered through Maliya church as the evening breeze cooled over Bader’s salted forehead. He watched one woman, Malaysian he guessed, taking a photograph arm in arm with another younger woman, wearing a red dress. Mercy, pray for us was written above them both in gold, on a large plastic banner. Bader wondered whether unlike him, they felt at home in Kuwait, under the house of their God, working, smiling, settled for what they have already, for heaven or else.
‘For heaven or else’, this one Bader liked and made a note of it on the screwed receipt he had in his top pocket. He felt that, just as the fleeting image of those two women, those words may one day help him on his journey.
A white Mercedes pulled up to the roadside, near to where Bader was sitting. A Kuwaiti driver, Bader noticed and could tell by the Armani sunglasses and dishdasha he was wearing. Without greeting the man, Bader opened the side door and got into the back of the car.
‘Assalam alaykum, sloonach?’
The radio was playing loud, so loud that the driver didn’t hear Bader. ‘Rahalta, Rahalta,’ it was a recent Abdullah Al-Rowasheed song. Bader liked it, the lyrics, my journey, my journey: a coincidence, he thought.
This time Bader waved his hand in the reflection of the rear-view mirror. They the driver was still unresponsive and instead continued nodding to the Khaliji rhythm.
‘Ahlan?’ Bader repeated.
Without turning to Bader, the driver opened his hand and gestured with his fingers. Bader, giving up on talk, pulled out the wedge of folded Dinars from his side pocket and passed them to the front. The driver then instantly began counting.
A sudden glance into the rear-view mirror signalled the driver’s approval. ‘Good luck my friend, may God be with you.’ Still without turning, the driver then passed over a white envelope to Bader and put the car into gear.
‘Many thanks brother, take care.’ The Mercedes already began moving as Bader opened the door to leave. He stepped out to return to standing on the roadside.
So quickly, the church crowds had now disappeared through the wooden doors but still Bader double checked that no one was around before opening the sealed envelope. Then finally, there it was, in his hands – a passport, fake but official-looking, and spoiled enough not to appear suspicious to border guards. And the photo inside? Perfect. It captured the most obvious features of Bader’s face: long, high cheek bones and a nose which hooked slightly over his thin moustache. He looked at his new portrait as though a small mirror. Definitely Kuwaiti, he thought, certainly passable.
The sun had finally vanished behind the church steeples. Bader pocketed the envelope close to his chest and began walking home as the cool evening winds awakened him to what lay ahead. When would he leave, he wondered, tomorrow? That didn’t matter. What mattered, he thought, was that for the first time in his life, he had the choice to. That now, all of a sudden, he had the freedom to leave whenever he wanted and to wherever he liked. He looked up, smiling. The moon had appeared, so whole and complete. Bader, louder than he realised, was singing past the small patch of green that his childhood-self once played upon: ‘Rahalta, taraktini shamata, taraktini shamata.’ My journey, you left me gloating.
Daylight was defeating Hagar. She had sat for an hour, staring at the hole she had carved into the sand, a chasm deep and significant enough for her words to be lost forever. However, her notebook remained wrapped in the purple scarf and tightly held within her fingers. Dusk had approached and both her and the desert knew that it was now, or never.
‘Ok, one last thing.’ She reached into her bag for her pen.
to breathe the air
of what is dead
chokes the chance
of surviving now
a tongue in exile
buries and bleeds
amongst the fallen
sand of her children
‘Done,’ she said, tearing the back page of the notebook, folding it, then placing it into the side pocket of her bag.
Then, with a few tears clumping together the grains of sand between her legs, she placed the notebook into the hole and with eyes closed, pushed the surrounding sand on top. ‘And breathe, and gone.’ She placed three flattened stones on top, a security that no desert animal would ever dig up the discarded leather. She patted it, right hand, and bade farewells to her words. Although still, she noticed as she began walked away, a familiar emptiness resided in her lower stomach: a void she so wished she could also entomb.
Fahad adjusted his agal, ‘sir, you know a good place to eat around here?’
Fahad had only visited Bahrain once, on another government trip and with the city’s absence of ring roads, he found Manama compared to Kuwait difficult to navigate.
‘We’re going to the Golden Tulip, for Japanese food, sushi.’ Bassam’s rounded face was sharpened by the angles of his beard.
‘I’ve never tried. May I join?’
Bassam, the soon-to-be Bahraini Minister of Culture, looked up to Fahad from his phone screen, pushing his sunglasses onto his face as he did so. ‘Welcome!’
Fahad was distant, tired from the early flight. His eyes wondered towards the two Japanese men who, head’s down and in calm composure, were preparing the men’s ordered dishes. Sushi, Fahad wondered, is it warm, spicy?
‘And how’s Kuwait these days, Fahad?’ Bassam asked.
‘It seems your mind is too concerned about food!’ The two other Bahraini’s scoffed in agreement.
‘Good, I mean, progressing. Oil prices have increased since last year.’
‘And Iraq? I heard that Saddam is still in debt to Al-Sabah?’
Fahad again adjusted his agal. He was given strict orders from the Emir to keep Iraqi relations confidential.
‘Sure, but that’s old news, since the day when Britain drew the border between us.’
‘Ahh, a Kuwaiti blaming their problems on Britain, now that’s old news.’ Chuckles circled the table again as the smells of fish from the kitchen intensified.
‘What does that mean?’ Fahad replied, leaning forward.
‘Well I never hear a Kuwaiti blaming Iraq, Saddam is an ass.’ Bassam’s voice lowered, ‘have you seen what he’s doing to Shia’ in the south?’
The waitress began laying the dishes on the table. Conversation paused in order for the four men to decipher whose order belonged to who. Fahad leaned back in his seat, ‘looks good,’ he said, ‘b-il-hana wi-shifa.’ He was hoping the arrival of the food would change conversation to lighter topics.
‘But Saddam could easily enter Kuwait, don’t you think? I mean, he claims it is under American influence anyway.’
Fahad inhaled deeply, obviously. He wished that he had never agreed to sushi. Besides, it was hardly satisfying his hunger.
‘Yeah,’ another man joined in conversation, ‘and Kuwait certainly can’t match against Iraq’s forces. Isn’t Al-Sabah still getting weapons from the West?’
Fahad wiped his hands on his serviette then took a sip of water. ‘Look gentlemen, I worked on the border for three years. I have met Iraqis, Shia’, Sunni, we are all against Saddam.’
‘Are you sure Fahad, you’re not one of Saddam’s faithfuls?’ Sniggers arose again. Luckily Fahad’s ghutrah covered the sweat that ran from his thinning hair. Did the men know about his marriage to Hagar? Her face came to his mind. He wondered what she would say to these men.
‘I hold everything against Saddam and nothing against Iraqis and gentlemen, I suggest you do the same.’ Fahad took a sip of water. ‘Shall we enjoy this food now?’
The table eventually quietened, giving way to the Japanese music.
The sun was small and floating, the last of daylight bleeding into the desert sands. The smell of frying onion and garlic thickened the evening air, a sign that Al-Jahra oasis, as dry as it usually was, was still fertile enough for crops to reach the outskirts of the city. It’s a temporary magic, Um Dalal thought as she stood outside of her house for air, falling in perfect amounts like the first sight of rainclouds after a long hot summer.
It was Friday, Iftar. Um Dalal and Bader’s sister, Amina, were preparing Machboos - rice, mutton, almonds, in a spicy tomato sauce – another of Um Dalal’s family favourites. From a covered pot into two small aluminium dishes, she spooned two bigger than normal portions of purple chutney: an Afghani recipe, taught to her ten years ago by a woman she befriended in the local market. It was sweet delight and Um Dalal had made a promise to herself to never to reveal the secret ingredient.
Amina checked the rice and then turned to Um Dalal, ‘will Uncle Salman join tonight?’
‘No, he’s ill, remember? But Abbas and Ilaf will come.’ Um Dalal was standing over the aluminium pots, debating whether to serve four dishes of chutney instead of two.
‘And Bader, where’s he?’
‘God knows,’ Um tutted, ‘that boy’s useless, twenty something and not even married, shame!’
‘Um, it’s because of his short legs and skinny arms.’ Amina laughed, joking as sisters do.
‘Enough Amina, now pass me the lid.’ Um Dalal had finally decided that two dishes of chutney instead of four would be enough.
The yellow ball on the horizon eventually sank and Abbas arrived just after along with two other unexpected family members. It was for this reason that it was the most exciting part of the day for Amina, the only time when anyone could walk into the house, the only time she could imagine strangers, boys and girls her age, wandering through the back gate, asking her half-romantically if they could join her, praise her for helping Um Dalal with her cooking. Amina then heard the corrugated metal shake, the sound of their back-gate opening.
‘Bader, where have you been?’ Amina asked, ‘we are about to pray.’ Bader joined the men as the women separated into the other room. Then, just before they’d finished, Amina laid the dishes onto the carpet of the men’s room.
‘B-il-hana wi-shifa’, Amina said as she placed the last dish of chutney onto the carpet. ‘But not you, donkey,’ she whispered, turning to Bader and playfully hitting him on the shoulder.
‘Sure,’ Bader replied half noticing and still sweating from the walk home. ‘And you enjoy your meal too, sister.’ Amina then shook her head as she left the room, trying to hide her disappointment that Bader, as usual, didn’t feel like having fun.
Before tucking in, Bader checked his pockets for the envelope ensuring it hadn’t fallen out during prayers and moreover, assuring himself that what happened in town had really happened.
‘Lost something?’ Abbas, Bader’s uncle said, sitting next to him.
‘Just cigarettes,’ Bader replied, finally feeling the rectangular outline of the fake passport. ‘Anyway, how are you doing these days,’ he asked, ‘how’s Ilaf and the children?’
‘Everything’s fine, thank God, Ilaf is looking after the children, and you know Ahmed? He lost his job yesterday.’
‘Really, why, I thought he only just started?’ Bader reached for the bread in the centre of the room.
‘KOC are employing cheaper labour, Pakistanis, Indians, it’s the same everywhere, bidun are being treated like the cockroaches of this country.’
‘Bidun? Like bidun jinsayya?’
‘Yes, the withouts, well, that’s what the newspapers call us now.’
Bader dipped his bread into the purple chutney. ‘You know the police chased me and Nasser again last week, I swear it never used to be this bad.’
‘You’re right,’ Abbas replied, ‘when I was younger, the government wanted to give us jobs, I mean look at your father, he was in the Army defending Kuwait. Imagine that now! A stateless police man chasing another stateless man for selling a bunch of bananas!’ Abbas laughed, his madly waving arm shedding crumbs of bread across the carpet.
‘You think it’s the Americans, or British?’ Bader tore another piece of bread, this time pausing for an answer before dipping it into the chutney.
‘Neither!’ Abbas lit a cigarette, then offered Bader one.
Bader shook his head, almost aggressively, ‘who then?’
‘Who you do think?’
‘Al-Sabah?’ Bader replied, mouth full.
‘He shoots, he scores!’
‘Exactly, you should have seen the old days. Kuwait was for everyone, pearlers, merchants, even us Bedouin traded inland. You know Safat Al-Safah? That was a Bedouin market, amazing! And the British never really had as much control as Al-Sabah, well at least since the oil days. Anyway, it was only in the seventies when the British left, that Al-Salim brought all the land and moved people out of the city. You know immigration laws only came in the year 1961, after independence?’
‘But they’ve been here so long, right, I mean, the rulers, Al-Sabah? I thought they were good, I mean, destined to rule?’
‘That’s what they want you to believe young chap.’ Abbas flicked his cigarette, missing the metal ashtray. ‘Sometimes men use the word of Allah to excuse them of their greed, remember that one.’
‘I will,’ Bader replied, feeling for the screwed-up receipt in his top pocket. ‘You have a pen?’
Abbas reached for his top pocket. ‘Here, keep it, for when you one day take over the country.’
They laughed, Bader pushing the empty dishes in front of him and refolding the tatty receipt.
Hagar spoke into the winds that pushed her back towards the desert. ‘Ha-ga-ra, she repeated, ha-ga-ra.’
It was the root of her name – meaning to take flight, abandon, flee – her only strength to continue walking towards Al-Jahra without thinking of what she had left behind. Although soon enough, with the desert winds strengthening and her hijab failing to cover her eyes from the sand, her voice became lost and thoughts of her past arose. She remembered her mother’s wrinkled lips, moving slowly, telling her the story of her name, Hagar, the wife of the prophet Ibrahim, the mother of Isma’il.
‘Allah ordered Ibrahim to take Hagar and Isma’il into Faran desert and leave them there under the only tree in the land. They had only a little water and no food, it was Allah’s test on them and, peace upon them, they accepted.’
‘But wasn’t Hagar scared and didn’t she die without any food?’
‘Habibti, slowly, slowly!’ Hagar’s mother patted Hagar on her head. ‘But you’re right, after all that time in Faran, Hagar did run out of water and baby Isma’il began to cry so much that Hagar worried and became thirsty herself. And so, Hagar left the tree and started to search for water.’
‘And did they die?’ little Hagar asked again, raising her head.
‘Slowly Hagar! But no, they didn’t die. With faith in God, Hagar ran seven times between two hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwah and then…
‘She ran out of breath and died.’
‘No Hagar, stop now or I won’t finish.’ Hagar apologised, slumping back down against the wall, her head resting on her mother’s shoulder.
‘So, Hagar ran between the two mountains and then on the seventh time Allah sent an angel to Hagar. Then, with a little tap of his heels he created a beeeautiful spring for Hagar and Isma’il and so they did not die Hagar… When our countries fixed and you’re a little older, I will take you there.’
‘To the spring? You mean it’s real?’ Hagar remembered her excitement, how her curly hair flicked up, brushing her mothers’ face.
‘Yes, of course! The Zamzam well, it’s as real as you are my darling.’
Hagar’s dry eyes began watering. The evening sky had darkened and the wind had dropped. She could hear the rumbling of oil tankers on the tarmac ahead, a sure sign that she had almost reached the main road. Hagar looked up hoping somehow, magically, the emptiness of the night sky would soak her tears. ‘Ha-ga-ra’, she repeated once more but again, her mind drifted, this time revealing the faces of her two sons. They were beautiful, as clear to Hagar as her mother’s voice, yet as distant as the stars above.
Bader and Nassir were driving from the market to Al-Jahra, the back of their truck rattling with half-filled boxes of fruit.
‘I’m leaving next week.’
‘Ay?’ Nassir turned down the radio, ironically Abdullah Al-Rowasheed’s song was playing, a synchronicity that confirmed to Bader that it was the right moment to suddenly admit his plans.
‘I’m leaving, I bought fake I.D.’
Nassir switched off the radio, ‘you’re joking?’
‘No, I decided to act fast as you said, to travel West.’
Nassir pulled over to the side of the road, the sharp turn almost throwing out a box of oranges from the back. He then turned off the engine.
‘And what about Uncle Salman, your mother?’ Nassir turned to Bader who was looking into the wing mirror, checking to see if the fruit was still there.
‘I’m doing it for them, to earn money, get a proper job.’
‘You think the West has money Bader, how do you think they function their machines? With our oil and anyway, look at us, we’re stateless, not peasants!’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Bader finally looked to Nassir whose elbows were locked and hands gripped firmly onto the steering wheel.
‘It means you’re stupid to think that money will save us.’
‘But the pursuit of our freedom might.’
‘Your freedom Bader and anyway, that’s a reason to give up is it, the pursuit of your freedom? You selfish ass.’
‘You’re jealous’ Bader retorted, surprised by the actuality of his own words.
‘Of what, ignorance, not caring for my family?’
‘I care, I just… Nassir, look, a woman…’
‘What?’ Nassir turned to see a woman, tall and slim with a strand of dark hair showing from her hijab, gently knocking on the half-open window of the truck door.
‘Shame on you both!’ Nassir cursed, his hands surrendering to the sight of the darkening road ahead. ‘Look Bader, just go for all I care but don’t expect a welcome back when you realise your happiness was here all along.’ Nassir then rolled down the rest of the window, ‘and what do you want woman?’
‘Is this the direction to Al-Jahra?’, the women asked, pointing ahead.
‘Where are you going?’ Nassir replied, his temper slightly calming in the strangers’ presence.
‘Al-Atraf street, to take the bus.’ The woman noticed the strand of hair falling from her hijab and tucked it within.
‘Get in,’ Nassir ordered, already turning on the engine. The woman thanked him.
Nassir turned on the radio and lit a cigarette, tapping every one of his fingers madly on the steering wheel. Then, trying to forget the conversation with Bader, he glanced into the rear-view mirror.
‘Woman, where you from?’
‘Kuwait,’ the woman replied.
‘Funny, your face looks Iraqi.’ The woman nodded her head and remained silent.
‘You like Abdallah Al-Rowasheed?’ Nassir turned the radio up a little.
‘I prefer traditional songs.’ The women spoke louder so she could be heard yet tried carefully to tame her conversation.
‘Oh, my friend here likes traditional songs too.’ Nassir turned smiling wildly at Bader, ‘isn’t that right travelling man? You especially like patriotic songs about Kuwait, don’t you? Go on, why don’t you entertain us with one of your favourites?’
‘Sure,’ Bader replied, knowing fully well Nassir’s intentions. Then waving his hand in the air and lowing his voice, Bader began recalling the national anthem.
‘Blessed be my country, a homeland for harmony, Kuwait, Kuwait my country, fencing us all fairly, with warm love and verity, Kuwait, Kuwait… How’s that?’ Bader turned to the woman, ‘traditional enough for you?’
With a smirk on her face she nodded, ‘very nice.’
‘Well at least someone likes this country.’ Nassir then glanced again into the rear-view mirror, ‘woman, you’re stateless too?’
‘No, I mean, why?’ The woman was obviously thrown off by the question.
‘I was just wondering what you were doing in the desert so late?’
‘Visiting friends,’ the women replied.
‘Who, the desert rats?’ Bader and Nassir laughed, temporarily forgetting their earlier disagreement.
‘Leave me! I’m tired,’ the women hastily replied, turning her head to face the side window. She noticed the street lights ahead, a sign she was close to town.
Nassir turned up the music again and lit another cigarette, the white truck increasingly submerging into the pools of orange street lights.
‘By the bus stop, right?’ The inside of the truck darkened as it passed underneath the two bridges that connected Al-Atraf street, the road into Al-Jahra with highway seventy, the road heading west to Iraq.
‘Yes Al-Atraf street, here is fine.’, The women then said her thanks and hurried to the bus which was just about to depart.
‘Wait!’ Bader shouted, already opening the truck door. He had noticed something fly from the woman’s bag as she ran towards the bus stop.
‘And you can walk from here too’ Nassir yelled, leaning his head out of the window, ‘it’s preparation for your travels!’
Bader, carelessly waved his hand behind him to Nassir. He then caught the drifting paper and continued running across the road. But the doors had already closed and bus was pulling away. The woman, adjusting herself in the back seat, looked out to see Bader standing the other side of the dusted window, holding onto the very last words she had written.
Hagar was certain that she remembered what was on the paper and wrote it down as soon as returned to the flat. She then switched on the TV and using the remote, scrolled through the channels. Sudanese music, a young man playing a tanbour and singing of his lover’s pearly teeth. Click. She then rested her head on the cushion beside her and fell asleep almost instantly.
‘Darling, Hagar, good morning.’ Hagar awoke to see Fahad’s legs in front of her and feel his hand shaking her waist. ‘You slept all night with the TV on and the window open.’
Hagar knew Fahad was returning from Bahrain but didn’t expect him to arrive so early. ‘What time is it?’ She asked, her eyes swollen from the humidity of the room.
‘Close to eleven, what time did you sleep?’ Hagar noticed a sudden sternness in Fahad’s voice.
‘I don’t know,’ Hagar replied, truly uncertain of how long it had taken her to return from Al-Jahra.
‘What do you mean you don’t know? And anyway, what were you doing to make you pass out like that?’
Hagar finally sat up, rubbing her eyes with her hands and then moving them to touch to her abdomen. ‘Lover I’m sorry, it’s the time of month, it’s tiring in this heat.’
‘Yes, and that’s why most people close the window Hagar. What are you going to do when we have children? Are they going to have to wake you up for lunch?’ Fahad threw the keys onto the kitchen side and poured himself a glass of water. Hagar remained silent, sitting on the sofa. They’d spoken about having children two months before but now, with their wedding only a few weeks away, the reality of it suddenly felt inescapable.
‘And what about when you are a Kuwaiti, when we finally start living a normal life and I can carry on with mine instead of dealing with yours?’ Fahad continued after sipping the water, ‘what time are you going to wake up then?’
Hazy and weighted by yesterday’s emotions, Hagar remained irresponsive. Instead she stood up from the sofa and walked over to the window. She hoped to find a sight from below to distract her thoughts.
‘Talk to me Hagar.’ Fahad slammed the fridge door, finishing with the water.
Hagar looked down, outside of the still open window, to see two men outside of the mall talking, waving their arms at each other as they exchanged words. She tried to imagine their conversation.
‘I told you I’m sorry and you know that I love you.’ Then suddenly her stomach tightened, making her lips curl under her teeth. Fingertips dug into the muscles of her shoulders. She closed her eyelids, hoping they would encase her composure as Fahad’s breath cooled the skin of her jawline.
‘Then show me it.’ Fahad jolted his arms, causing Hagar’s spine to stiffen and eyes to open. She was sure Fahad would never hurt her but not enough for her to fully surrender to his presence. He loosened his grip and walked into the bedroom, speaking louder to her as he disappeared. ‘Anyway, I need to visit Mohammed again today, to ask him for your papers, then I’ll be back at maghrib for dinner. It looks like you need to visit the market.’
‘I will,’ Hagar responded, her mind unexpectedly drifting, questioning whether she could really undergo the experience of childbirth again.
‘And you’ll cook?’ Fahad was changing his clothes in the bedroom, getting ready to go out again.
‘The bedroom could do with a sweep too,’ Hagar heard Fahad scuff the tiles with his foot.
‘I know.’ Hagar walked to the front door and neatly arranged the four pairs of shoes beside the entrance mat.
The market men stood silent – thick, black moustaches, sturdy – behind their stalls looking proud of their arrangements. It was late afternoon and crops were being restocked, piling high in ways which defied natural orders. Aubergines, oranges, pomegranates all tilted upright, upheld by the cardboard boxes and wooden crates beneath them. The stall owners, with enough daily practice, had come to know the exact angle to steady their colourful displays, considering even the most fastidious of their customers.
Hagar passed the fish stalls which were similarly arranged in ways which fascinated her. Fins and tails fanning the edges and fish bodies, slumped over one another forming beds of wet scales. She bought three mackerel from the usual stall, knowing it was Fahad’s favourite.
‘Here you are, Miss.’
What else, Hagar wondered. The usual, she guessed. She added the fish to her larger shopping bag and walked on towards a fruit and vegetable stalls.
‘Sorry, no coriander.’ She moved ahead, onto the next.
‘Excuse me, you have coriander?’ Thinking through a recipe, Hagar was oblivious to other customers bustling around her. On request, the stall owner pointed her to the greens on the other side of the stall.
‘We meet again!’ Hagar, unaware, continued to count the change in her hand.
‘Hey, lady,’ Hagar finally sensed the presence beside her, ‘I have something of yours.’
Hagar looked up and turned to see the familiar face. His moustache thin, hooked just slightly over upturned edges of his mouth.
‘I added to it, it’s nice writing.’ The man passed her the folded paper and continued smiling.
‘Thanks,’ Hagar responded, still adjusting to the unexpected occurrence. ‘You write too?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said, seeming embarrassed. ‘Well, I make notes.’ They laughed in mutual understanding. ‘And writers also have to eat!’ The man looked towards the stall owner who was stood, hand out, waiting for Hagar to pay.
‘You’re right and greens are good for the mind.’ Hagar smiled then held up the coriander and passed the stall owner the money. ‘You’re shopping too?’
‘Getting fruits from this good man, Asif,’ the man in front of Hagar flicked his head towards the shorter man standing behind the next stall. His hair was greying and the skin around his eyes was thick and creased. ‘He’s a good friend, gives me a good deal, then I sell them in Al-Jahra.’
‘Ahh, that explains the oranges in your truck,’ Hagar replied, again laughing with the man in similar minds. ‘Anyway, thanks for this.’ Hagar flashed the folded paper then tucked it away in her bag.
‘My pleasure and really, it’s beautiful.’
Hagar held eye contact with the man for longer than a woman should in public. His eyes seemed gentle and his words, honest.
‘They’re nothing, only notes. Anyway, nice to meet you.’ Hagar smiled then quickly turned away.
‘One second,’ the man darted around the side to catch her, ‘what’s your name?’
‘Ah, the one that fears.’
‘No,’ Hagar replied, ‘the one that flees.’
‘Well I’m Bader, the full moon.’
‘Well take care Bader, nice to meet you.’
Hagar turned again, leaving Bader hanging in the air between them. ‘And you, stranger.’
Mohammad shuffled the files that were on his desk. His teeth were stained yellow by the large quantities of coffee he drank. ‘We’re almost there Fahad, all you need now is something to prove that she’s been living with you for over three months.’
‘And how am I supposed to prove that?’ Fahad was rubbing his hands together, a sure sign of impatience.
‘It’s a tough one,’ Mohammed replied, ‘especially as you are not married yet. How about some sort of letter from the Emir, or your landlord’s recognition?’
‘You know I own the flat Mohammad and I’m trying to keep her origins a secret.’
‘You’ve made your life difficult Fahad!’ Mohammad quietened his laughter as he quickly came to realise that Fahad was not humoured. ‘Ok, what we have already should suffice, I’ll see what I can do.’
‘And make it quick this time, please.’
‘How is she anyway?’ Mohammad asked, trying to soften Fahad’s agitation.
‘Fine, well, things will improve once all this is over.’
‘Yes, that’s what most engaged couples say!’ Again, Mohammad paused, realising Fahad was not in the slightest mood for joking. He changed the topic. ‘Does she ever talk about Iraq?’
‘I’ve found notes she’s written but we’ve never talked about it.’
‘It must weigh.’
Mohammad sipped his coffee and reached for the pot realising that Fahad’s glass was already empty. ‘You want another?’ He asked.
Fahad tutted and shook his head, ‘what weighs?’
‘The past, the dead children, Saddam.’
‘Possibly,’ Fahad replied, suddenly wondering about Hagar and where was at that very moment. Mohammad took another sip from the small glass.
‘And you know, last week, I had another Iraqi woman who was trying to get citizenship. Her case was terrible, she claimed to have been raped by Saddam himself.’
‘And she got status?’
‘Without a Kuwaiti man to help, wouldn’t dream of it. You’re doing a good thing Fahad.’
‘My friend, you’re kind.’ Fahad reclined upon the sofa chair, releasing a breath, ‘I just wish it was easier.’
‘If God permits, another week, it will be done.’
Nothing, not even a window. Unpolluted, air-conditioned, passionless. No ornament or trinket to mark a special occasion, no photograph to stain the wall or mind. Their bedroom of impersonal love, filled with artificial light, sterile, several pin-pricks of spotlight mounted perfectly into the ceiling and reflecting on the white tiles beneath. A cold and empty laboratory of modernity to research post-oil family life.
Hagar reached her arm underneath the wardrobe. Dust had collected there despite the absence of her notebook and the constantly renewing air of their bedroom. She cupped her hand, sweeping the cloth in curved motions, creating small piles of grey matter and dry brown hair. She wondered just how many times she had reached under the wardrobe, aching to write, insensible to the dust.
‘I added to it,’ she thought, recalling what Bader had said to her earlier that afternoon. What did he mean? She abandoned her grey formations, leaving the yellow cloth crescent shaped under one corner of the wardrobe. She opened her bag and unfolded the letter.
they once sang of he
who permitted greed
and the forgotten who
never ceased trying
Hagar reread it then, inspired, she took the pen from her bag and began to write, adding to his words.
rebuild rebuild higher
they scream her freedom
is so close…
Hagar ran to the kitchen, leaving the unfolded paper on the arm of the sofa. The kitchen walls were dirtying with stream as the cooking rice continued to burn. Hagar saved the edible remains, wetted the pan with water, and already began scraping off the blackened layer on the bottom. The damage was retractable, concealable she thought. If only… Her head turned; the door opened.
‘What’s happened?’ Fahad entered the kitchen still wearing his shoes.
‘And look at the walls!’
‘They will clean, I’ll clean them.’
‘You’re mad, woman.’ Fahad retraced his steps back to the front door and slipped off his shoes. He was too exhausted from the day to show further concern.
‘And how was it, seeing Mohammad?’ Hagar saw it as a chance to quickly change the subject.
‘Useless,’ Fahad replied, taking rest on the sofa, ‘still no papers and he told me he’ll sort it out next week, always next week with that man.’ Fahad picked up the paper resting on the sofa armchair. He recognised Hagar’s hand writing. ‘Did you write this?’
Hagar stopped scrubbing the pan and without drying her hands, walked into the living room and took the paper off Fahad. ‘It’s nothing, just notes.’ Her wet finger marks trailed down the paper, already smudging the pen ink.
‘But did you write it?’
‘Yes, a while ago, really it’s nothing.’ Hagar folded the paper and again tucked it into the side pocket of her handbag. Heart racing, she returned to the pan soaking in the sink.
‘And who else wrote on it, Hagar?’ Fahad stood up, furtively tracking Hagar’s steps and retrieving the paper from her bag.
‘What do you mean?’ Hagar turned to see Fahad again holding up the paper.
‘This,’ Fahad pointed, ‘who wrote this part?’
Hagar stumbled, noticeably showing her lack of confidence.
‘A friend from Iraq, a woman, my friend.’ Hagar’s heart throbbed; she worried Fahad could hear it.
‘And why is it in your bag?’ Hagar kept her head down, eyes on the dish, hoping this would hide her colouring cheeks.
‘It’s old, I just wanted to remember...’
‘Remember the man that raped you? Mercy on you Hagar! Do you know how much I have done for you and how much you are still stuck in your own mind?’ Fahad screwed the paper and threw it into the charcoaled water of the sink. Hagar’s salvaged it instantly, hiding it behind the dishes on the side. She heard Fahad in the bedroom.
She then remembered the cloth and the tiny mountains of dust that she had abandoned. Leaving the pan, she walked into the bedroom.
‘Fahad, what are you doing?’
The blue abaya Fahad had brought her, the scarf she wore on her journey from Iraq, her grey T-shirt. Fahad was pulling items of Hagar’s clothing out of the wardrobe.
‘Take it and get out.’ Hagar’s eyes widened.
‘I can’t! What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’ve had enough, get out.’
‘Can we not talk, the letter, really it…’
‘No Hagar, get out.’
A flash of Fahad’s eyes and a searing sting that marked only an instance of time. Hagar silenced, too stunned to look away from the shining silver pen that was hooked upon the top pocket of Fahad’s dishdasha.
Hagar picked up the plastic bag that Fahad had thrown onto the floor and, on the cold tiles of their bedroom, she began packing away her clothes.
Step by step, box by box. Bader hadn’t known any other place better than he knew the market. Since the age of eleven, stacking and re-stacking, he doubted that his hands could be useful for anything else. And he will miss it, he thought, as he turned to see Nassir waving his hand, agreeing with the Bedouin woman who was selling homemade perfumes and jewelry. He’ll miss the chaos of it, the police runs, the awkward mosaics of Kuwait’s newly developed landscapes, layers upon layers of unfinished foreign foundations, architecture that had flattened the mud houses of the old port and the small twisting alleyways beneath. He wanted to see his country grow, as though it was his own child. To witness the disappearance of the very last glimpse of the organic logic of the old city and watch Kuwait become smothered by the alien blueprint of progress. A miracle, he thought, of uncertain change. Although certain, that he would miss it.
Nassir returned with something in his hand, a small item grasped in his fist.
‘For you.’ Nassir passed the item to Bader, ‘for safe travels and protection.’
Two silver scorpions, each enclosing upon a sharply cut black stone, their tails hooking back on themselves and facing the other. Bader pushed the ring over the knuckle of his middle finger. It was a perfect fit, heavy yet in place.
‘Thank you, it means a lot, really.’
Nassir placed his hand onto Bader’s shoulder. ‘I’ll think of you, promise you’ll keep safe?’
In silence Bader nodded, smiled, then returned to loading the last of the fruit into the back of their truck. Nassir turned on the engine whilst Bader closed the truck door, leaving behind more white flakes of paint upon the gritted grounds of the market. They drove home together, windows down, smoking Nassir’s cigarettes, for what they both knew would be the last time.
The shoreline was expanding, growing golden as the sun lowered behind the tower blocks. Rising to the east, setting to the west, cyclical, holy. And the colour of the sky was so gently melting into the blues of the ocean. Hagar felt comforted by it, to realize that despite everything, the rivers of the Tigris ran endlessly into the Persian Gulf, the salted water that now softened her feet.
It was unusual to see a woman alone on Mahboula beach but that didn’t matter to Hagar. She was alone, it was a weekday, she imagined that the other women in the suburbs were preparing food, like she too would have been, only in another universe.
She wriggled her toes. Small shells emerged around them as the waves inhaled, cradling her ankles. She was surprised at how sensitive they were, assuming instead that by now, taking her body across the border of her homeland, they would be tougher, stronger or numbed, at least. She splashed them, her feet flicking, sprinkling ripples across what otherwise would have been calm evening waters. She wondered if she could sleep there for the night, on the beach, safe under the stars, in the romance of herself, drifting away to natural sounds, more consolatory than the breathing of a man.
Her stomach rumbled. Could only the sea appease this moment of solace wondering, a moment so raw and tender just as the night she first escaped Iraq? Beyond the shoreline the was a radiance, now shining brighter than the twilight sky. Hagar walked out of the sea lowering, with grace, her skirt and slipping on her sandals. She looked up to notice it, there, glowing wholesomely, the full moon and once again, she felt a bittersweet confidence emerging inside of her.
The market was dismantling. The cool evening air was a time to enjoy. Stall owners were stacking away what remained to be sold, placing the carboard boxes beneath the wooden frames. Rhythmically, with clanks and squeaks, the working day was ending.
Bader caught sight of Asif on the corner of his stall. He was crouching over a box, sorting the rotting bananas from the ripe.
‘Asif, my brother.’ Bader surprised him, interrupting his final duties. He stood, pulling the waist of his trousers up with him. His legs were thin and bowed but usually unnoticeable, hidden under his loose fitting izhar.
‘My friend you’re late! I’ve packed away already,’ Asif replied in haste.
‘It’s ok, we have stock,’ Bader replied, ‘I came to say goodbye and thank you for helping me all these years.’
‘In the name of God, don’t mention it.’ Asif crouched back down, turning to continue sorting the bananas. ‘Anyhow, where’s a stateless man like you going?’
Bader looked around then squatted, helping Asif to sort the bananas. ‘I’m going west, Turkey then maybe even the UK. I bought myself a fake passport, I’m going to find a real job.’
‘Mashallah! It’s good to travel, I remember the feeling.’
‘You travelled too?’ Bader stopped sorting the fruit, amazed and almost disappointed by Asif’s lack of surprise.
‘Of course. Before I left Yemen, I tried for Germany. It was exciting, especially in the seventies.’ Asif stood to collect the next box of bananas.
‘And what happened, you didn’t make it?’ Bader shouted to him as he walked away.
‘No, I made it. Anyway, it was easy back then, borders were like garden gates.’
‘So why didn’t you stay?’
‘It wasn’t what I expected, the money wasn’t good and no one believed my story.’
‘That you were Yemeni, you mean?’
‘No, that I was a human, that I did good things and bad, fell in love, got angry! I was becoming what western people wanted me to be, a victim or a thief, and that wasn’t me. Well, not all the time – ha! So I left and now look, I’m sorting rotting bananas and talking to an adventurous young man like you, the dream.’ Asif smiled wildly, displaying the two gaps which over time, had replaced his canine teeth. He looked up, noticing the sudden distance in Bader’s gaze.
‘You think I should leave Asif?’ By now Bader had forgotten about sorting the fruit and was sitting, holding a banana in his hand, eagerly waiting for Asif’s words.
‘That one’s not my story to tell. Anyway, I thought you came here to say goodbye?’ Asif winked then stood up before Bader had time to reply.
Bader grinned, his heart filling, understanding exactly what Asif implied.
‘Words cannot express my thanks, Asif. You’re a good man.’
‘And a bad man too, remember!’ Asif saluted Bader with his right hand as though an army cadet and Bader’s, yet for him to realize, remained wildly grinning.
‘Hey, are you driving to Al-Jahra?’
Bader turned, his senses still glowing from Asif’s words.
‘Well peace be upon you too, stranger!’
Hagar knew she’d find him there, at the market. The full moon, everything in alignment, too perfect for the circumstance not to manifest what she needed.
‘Are you, or not?’
Bader was pleased to see her, himself also elated in his own spirit and ready for the world to enter.
‘Well Hagar, stranger, I am taking the bus.’
Hagar laughed, almost rudely. ‘You don’t drive? I knew you were young!’
‘I’m stateless, it’s difficult to get a license.’
Hagar was jarred, less by his words, more by realizing her own abrasiveness. ‘Sorry, I’m in a rush.’
‘To meet the desert rats?’ Bader winked.
Bader, stroked down the thicker hairs on his upper lip.
‘Well ok, let’s take the bus,’ Hagar claimed before Bader had the time to suggest anything else, ‘anyway it won’t…’
‘Wait,’ Bader interrupted, ‘I’ll ask Asif.’
‘Just here.’ The truck pulled over on Hagar’s request. Asif saluted Bader for the second time, again flickering a wink. Bader smiled and left the truck, swinging his legs off the leather seat as though a boy leaving the bus at the school gates.
‘What are you doing?’ Hagar turned as she heard the truck door close.
‘No, I need to do this alone.’
But already Asif had pulled away, only a silhouette of his waving hand could be seen now shrinking into the distance. Hagar breathing heavily rubbed her forehead. She then meticulously tucked in the several strands of hair that were again escaping from her hijab and into the eastward winds.
‘No Bader, please leave me.’
Bader kicked the sand underneath his feet, the grains emerging then uniformly falling.
‘Well, at least tell me where you are going.’
Hagar turned and began walking, unwilling to respond to his calls. ‘I can’t, please go now.’
‘Just tell me, then I will go.’
Hagar turned to see Bader’s skin lightened under the moonlight, his eyes were wide and eager. ‘Why do you care, I’m a stranger to you?’
‘Because I feel you are hiding something that will help me one day.’
Hagar closed her eyes, gathering the strength to locate herself amongst the stars. She inhaled the stillness of the desert night.
‘Ok come, but please don’t speak.’
‘Sure I...’ Bader then paused and slid his thumb and forefinger across his lips. He then began following silently in Hagar’s footsteps.
The desert muted their tread yet their pace was rhythmically in sync. Right, left, right, left: a metronomic ticking beneath them and beyond their conscious thoughts. Never did Hagar turn to face him and, following his promises, Bader never spoke. Their only quiet company was the moonlight that illuminated the surrounding land and of course, scurrying desert rats: sundevall's jird.
Hagar peered into the distance towards the two oil towers ahead. Sixty degrees to the right of her, she measured. They were close. And the highway? Hagar turned to check. Only a faint sight of the two bridges at the edge of Al-Jahra and the distant sound of oil tankers, rolling across the tarmac of the roads. Bader then noticed her after, head down, scanning the surrounding land.
‘Can I help, have you lost something?’ Bader thought it was an appropriate time to break the silence. Hagar seemingly agreed.
‘I’m looking for three stones, in a triangle shape.’ Hagar responded, still inspecting the sands around.
‘There?’ Bader pointed towards a dark lump on the near horizon.
‘No, too big, they were flat.’
‘Three flat stones, in the desert, in the night,’ Bader laughed, the sound quickly absorbed by the surrounding silence. ‘Are you mad, stranger?’
‘Possibly, but you’re crazier for following.’
‘I’m following the moonlight,’ Bader turned over a stone on the ground. ‘If the moon be with thee, thou needest not care about the stars.’ Bader flipped the stone back over. ‘You know this saying? Its Egyptian I think.’
‘Yes, and who wants a thing is blind to its faults. Yes, I know it but now’s not really a good time for poetry.’ Hagar gestured for them to keep walking north, further from the main road.
‘But I thought you were a writer, what writer doesn’t enjoy poetry?’
‘I do, but not right now.’
‘So, what are you searching for again?’
‘The same thing as you,’ Hagar replied, ‘three flat stones and the right words.’
‘Take my hand.’
‘What?’ Bader knew that Hagar had heard him.
‘Just take it!’
‘No, I’m looking…’
Bader walked in front, pausing Hagar in her tracks. He looked into her eyes. He felt them mirror, everything in his life that had led him to standing there with her, a stranger in the desert, and all it could mean amidst his own journey. He saw before him, the comfort of familiarity, all that had made him yet never belonged to him, or anyone, and the pain of confronting it, letting it go: departure, growth, another soul searching for the place that he too desired.
‘He who fled from death, fell into it. You know that one?’
Hagar’s breath slowed. ‘No, I don’t, Egyptian?’
‘No, my own.’ Bader looked down towards his still open hand in front then back towards Hagar. She placed her hand gently in his, their fingers at once curling tight around each other’s palms.
‘Now let’s keep looking.’
The sand had remained warm from the daytime heat yet the night air was cool, enough for their exposed skin to become dry. The three flat stones had been forgotten. Instead Bader and Hagar sat together, crossed legged under the stars, rubbing their fingers through the fine grains in front of them. It made their hands dusty, as though another’s skin.
‘There’s over a hundred thousand people who are stateless in Kuwait,’ Bader told her, ‘young, old, families, children, so many.’ Hagar was unaware of just how many, or in fact any. Bader told her that before these people, like his father, had served in the army and were bought-out like cattle by the ruling family, in times when they needed extra political support against the merchants. ‘But now we’re useless to them,’ he said, ‘they call us illegal, position us between the sky and the earth.’
Hagar too spoke about her life, the stories she admitted she had so recently buried. She told Bader about Saddam, what he had done to the Shi’a, her mother and sisters, in the South. How his guards had imprisoned her, raped her, just because her father had some minor political standing in their village. She told him the pain of giving birth to the twins knowing only minutes after, they would be taken from her, never hers but instead the vessels of the Ba’athist regime. She felt shame, shed tears which her hand immediately wiped away in reticence. Nothing could give her comfort and Bader knew that no words, poetic or not, would suffice.
But Bader listened, so intently, and placed his hand on Hagar’s once her emotions ebbed and the back of her moistened hand eventually rested upon her knee.
‘And what will you do Bader?’ Hagar, caught up in her own stories and the skin on her cheek tightened by tears, almost forgot Bader’s presence. That he too was navigating a life, whole and separate from hers. ‘You think you can continue your life like this?’
‘Actually my plan is to leave Kuwait in a few days.’
‘Really, where will you go?’
‘I’m going West, to start again.’
‘Brave!’ Hagar suddenly noticed a lightness in her words, how they could slip so easily from the mind to tongue. ‘Are you scared?’
‘Of forgetting who I was, the people who created me, the face of my mother.’
‘They will travel with you, undoubtedly, your memories. I mean look, even an empty desert didn’t allow me to escape them!’
‘And what will you do if we don’t find it, Hagar, your diary?’
‘Write it all down again, exactly what I just told you. Write it all down.’
‘Yes! And then bury it. In fact, I will spend my entire life doing this. I will start my own business, call myself the mortician of memory, and don’t worry, I won’t be tearful like this. I will feel free and hopefully become rich doing it too.’
‘Paid by the ruling family?’
‘Of course! And I will bury the Al-Sabah’s memory quite happily, wrapped neatly in the flag of Kuwait and you will return just to see it, to sing the national anthem in your best voice…
‘Blessed be my country a homeland for harmony, Kuwait, Kuwait, Kuwait!’
They laughed loudly, knowing only the small desert creatures around them could hear. Just them and the creatures, witnessing their unity at the crossroads of their lives, together, silently, wondering whether these moments really should happen to people like them and whether strangers really do meet for a certain reason, just at the right moment, as though destined by some greater force.
‘How long until the sunrise, do you think Bader?’
Bader jocosely held his fist to his chest and then turned to face the moon that was hanging to the east.
‘Oh full moon my brother, when will the sun brighten your skies?’
Hagar cracked in giggles, seeing a face so kind suddenly pretend an unnatural seriousness.
‘Shh!’ Bader joked, ‘he’s speaking to me, he says… he says three hours! Three hours until the sunrises and he also tells me that, in the morning, you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’ Bader opened his eyes and smiled. ‘If the moon be with thee, thou needest not care about the stars.’
‘Thank you, Bader and thank you for listening.’
‘And thank you Hagar, for letting me join you.’ Bader lay on his back, arms raising behind him then reached for the packet of cigarettes in his top pocket. ‘We’ll continue our search in the morning, right stranger?’
‘I will and you’re welcome to join, stranger.’ Hagar joined Bader laying. She rolled over to face him then kissed him on the cheek as he drew from his cigarette. ‘Goodnight.’
Bader turned to see her, the side of her body adjusting into the sand and curving out from the barren flatness that surrounded them. It appeared too sacred to touch, he realised, a womanly figure, so grounded and whole even without his presence. Bader rolled over again onto his back to face the stars above.
‘Awake to goodness Hagar.’
Glinting, was it dawn? The stars were falling from the sky. But really, were they stars? Hagar rubbed her eyes. They moved above, freckles of light, like small flies, hundreds of them buzzing, no, thousands, helicopters. Thousands of helicopters, flying southward, their noise dissecting the inaudible air that blanketed the cityscape ahead, a city of awakening bodies and the humming of more engines in the distance. How many had already passed over their sleeping minds, their fleeting dreams, without them realising? Hagar sat up to see more flecks of light on the horizon. Unholy phosphorescence, she recognised them instinctively: tanks, Iraqi, machined ghosts floating in the distance. She rubbed her eyes again to see them, metallic insects gliding along the highway and underneath the two bridges that marked the entrance to Al-Jahra.
‘Bader,’ Hagar shook him, his sleeping face holding the same gentle demeanor he holds when awake. ‘Bader, wake up, I think it’s a war.’
‘A war, what?’ Bader stretched his body in the sand, the words not yet settling into his still unconscious mind.
‘Look, near the bridges, I think it’s Iraq.’
Bader’s eyes finally opened, squinting into the twilight sky ahead. ‘Are they, tanks?’
‘I think it’s Saddam.’ Hagar stood and at once and began walking North, her black abaya flapping like the wing of a bird with each footstep.
Bader noticed fire ahead, flames arising from the two oil towers in the distance. The smoke from them tainted the glow of morning light. ‘Hagar!’ A jet plane flew overhead, dipping its flight path as it neared the city. Bader ran to her, covering her with his body, causing her to fall onto the sand beneath them. She pushed him away, deafened by the noises of the increasing helicopter rotors above.
‘Leave me, Iraq’s already killed me!’
Hagar walked faultlessly, mission-like, as though she knew exactly the destination she was heading, the very place she had longed to be all along: not the diary, or the stones, or her children, but the place where the fire burned within her stomach, the very feeling that once told her to press pen to paper, to leave Iraq, escape the prison, bury her words, to find Bader at the market on yesterday’s moonful night. And she saw the flames ahead, like Bader did, and the jet planes in the distance that were still coming but still she continued, headstrong and not in spite, only certain, for the first time in her life, that everything that had happened to her, belonged precisely to her. Every decision she had made, suffering felt, smile, all hers. And it was untouchable, indestructible, a sanctity that not even time nor any fire could ever reach.
But then, ‘Hagar!’ She saw deep purples suddenly filtering behind her eyes. She could still hear Bader, faintly in the distance behind her. Was it dawn now, she hoped? Her heart slowing. Bader felt her neck, her arm twitched and her blood was pouring onto the golden sand of morning’s sunrise. The fading of a stranger in front of Bader’s eyes, why, he wondered, not him?
And all because of one distant decision made by a man, once a boy – ‘bastard!’ – who like anyone with enough training could be, was, manipulated by the angst of attack. Fueled with enough armed emotion to react with a neurotic urge to tense his forefinger around the trigger of a gun. ‘No!’ And what’s more, it just happened to be that solider, who in the same day took a cold shower, ate spiced bread and molasses, who unknown to them both, was the friend of the man who had once raped Hagar and in that split moment saw beneath him a moving black moving spec. An enemy, he thought, running wildly with such conviction, yet cowardly escaping his targeted aim.
And still, if only the true voice of that one man’s instinct had not been inebriated by the same chemical that had caused that black speck to birth now orphaned children and flee the country of its birth, it would live, presently in peace as an Iraqi citizen, as a human, just like that soldier so too wished he could. And maybe, with just a second more of thought, or if only on another night, just one afternoon on the banks of the Tigris river, they would have spoken, that black moving spec and the soldier, laughed, even held hands to mark the beauty of event that lead to the unexpected meeting of two strangers, and exchanged their own stories of freedoms and morality, shared the essence of the inevitable suffering that resides within every earthy life.
‘I’m here Hagar.’ Her vision was now fading beyond the outline of Bader’s body ‘I’m still here and I’ll find the stones, your story.’ Bader leant down to her, stroking her forehead and returning the kiss upon her still warm cheek. ‘You know more than anyone that they can’t kill you that easily.’
to breathe an air
of what is dead
chokes the chance
of surviving now
a tongue in exile
buries and bleeds
amongst the fallen
sands of her children
they once sang of he
who permitted greed
and the forgotten who
never ceased trying
rebuild rebuild higher
they scream her freedom
was so close to dying.
‘Good morning. As of this hour, Kuwait has been liberated from Iraqi control. Over six hundred people have been recorded dead however Iraqi ambassador to the United States reaffirms that Iraq harbored no special objectives and had only wished to establish neighborly relations. The president today has met with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to discuss the need to continue the defense of the region.’
It was August and dawn: the only time of day cool enough to travel. With the same fearlessness as the stranger he had met, Bader walked underneath the two bridges heading west. He sung to himself, Rahalta, the words echoing across the walls as the shadow of his body stretched in front of him with the rising of the sun behind. He stopped to turn, to face Al-Jahra for the last time. He had packed Hagar’s diary and his fake passport into his rucksack and he knew, certainly now, that he had found the freedom he was searching for: the courage to leave behind the world where his story had begun.
Note: The two bridges referred to are the two bridges where ‘The Battle of the Bridges’ took place in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion in 1990. The battle took place in the early hours of the morning on the 2nd of August and resulted in an Iraqi victory. It is recorded that four Kuwaitis died and a further twenty were injured, whilst the number of Iraqi deaths is unknown. The area now marks the meeting of the sixth ring road that borders Kuwait City and the start of Highway 70, the road that leads West to the Iraqi border. On another note, it is also true that in Kuwait, there are over 100,000 ethnically Kuwaiti people who are recognized as stateless – ‘bidun jinsiyya’, ‘without nationality’.