Editor’s note: The following three vignettes are taken from Daniel C. Britt’s experience during the U.S. withdrawal from cities in Iraq, up through his overland zig-zag from Baghdad through Iran to Bagram, Afghanistan. He’s been traveling at ground level in the region since 2009, and was joined by videographer Max Hunter in 2010, the two of whom are chronicling the experience with a documentary film scheduled for independent release in 2013.
Smoke from the grass fire is in the space where the wall cradles the door.
It’s stinging my eyes. It’s burning a black line down the edge of the dry, craggy lot across from the apartment.
Trucks cross the lot with the long dust tails that belong to comets. The dust falls down and settles in the unfinished Kurdish houses. Most only have windows and a door on one side. They look like giant gray heads. The window side is the face. The taller, wider doorways are the mouths. Each has three or more eyes. Fat Bangladeshi day-workers and delivery men are lollygaggin’ in the eye sockets.
The heads look crazy or dumb, depending on the way the Bangledeshis lean.
I cut through the lot the last time Sandra Romain died on me, on my way back from Ainkawa with whiskey to pay our landlord with.
The bottle’s clanked together as I pushed her up the sides of all the ditches onto the dirt road. Her back tire had been patched on the side but it was alright otherwise. The front was bald and going flat. I hadn’t fixed any of her yet.
It was Grant’s and Teacher’s whiskey, a bottle of each. The Christians at the liquor store sold plastic bottles too but today those were light in color for whiskey, more like Listerine. And today, the kid behind the counter looked especially guilty.
I didn’t want to be too cheap with our landlord this time. Since the videographer and I moved in with our crumby microwaveable chicken steaks, ants have been forming clusters in the kitchen and the front room.
Sandra Romain had a leaky carburetor. I took the scenic route down the street covered in broken green glass. She died because the carburetor let out slowly all over my boots and the road. I didn’t see it coming and drove further than I should have because I liked the wind and the way the light swam on the shards.
Now it was only the sun and the hot rocks.
You heavy bitch.
Two miles to go.
The houses weren’t as freakish up close. Ivory knobs and green swinging gates explained everything.
Up close, most of the Bangladeshis weren’t lollygaggin’ at all. They were stirring tar in the heat and stomach-sick, leaning out of the eye sockets, vomiting down the cheeks. The fumes got them. Without a motorbike, there’s no such thing as wind here.
Smoke is all over the flat and the black line has grown to a hundred meters long.
The more my eyes water the funnier it gets.
Chickens run away from it.
Cinders dance in the window frame.
The smoke dips into my glass of water.
Burn the grass in a country plagued by dust?
Men, douse it in benzene. Light it at noon. Iraq isn’t hot enough at that time of day.
It’s been done like that for years, during shelling from Turkey and two decades of war with Iran and America.
To keep it up takes strength.
We don’t let trouble bother our routines. We don’t fix anything. We go to work and vomit every day.
When I walked into the Christian liquor store, the door banged at my heel and the guilty-faced kid behind the counter automatically went for the plastic bottles.
I pointed to the Teacher’s and the kid froze and blinked at me a thousand times.
Kirkuk, August 11, 2010
It was certain Besam was dead.
Besam? Besam jethith … he was a good man.
The shirta with the close-together eyes mimed it all out.
The shirta’s two fists met in the inch between his eyes with his square knuckles facing the sky and his thumbs lined up side-by-side over his nose. He opened his hands together as though freeing a captive bird.
“Infajar,” the shirta said.
The sun hit his palms.
“Shrapnel,” the shirta said, “Besam…”
The shirta pointed to his heart.
“Shrapnel, Besam, inside.”
Yeah. I got you.
The shirta let his head fall on his shoulder as though it rested on the limp neck of a dead man.
With one eye opened and his tongue hanging out of his mouth, the shirta said, “Besam,” and the others nodded and sighed and lit cigarettes.
Two of them stopped nodding and played Turkish porn for me on their cell phones. They pointed at the girl’s greasy pussy and said, “very, very good.”
We all drank ice water under a wet canopy outside the police station. They hosed-down the striped cloth to keep it cool. Dinged-up blue and white buses rounded the traffic circle with a baby in every window. There was the sound of vibrating metal. Up the street, the prickly bodies of four exploded sedans rested side-by-side in the median.
The empty lot on the other side of the circle was where girls walked up and down in the dust on weekend nights until they got picked up by someone with a window to their room, someone who did not share the sleeping space floor with a brother or a sister.
We sat around talking about Besam and the bomb that killed him and about the Shirta’s wives and babies and some of the whores they have had.
The ice water froze my throat so it felt separate from my body, the way the flat yellow earth was razor-cut from the white sky without a single shared thread.
Dead Besam, the good man.
I thought about my own breath and the path of the ice water into my guts.
In the doorway to the family home, Besam’s atheist half-brother Dudeh greeted me with a 2-year-old, Mustafa, at his feet. Dudeh wore a black leather bandanna. Mustafa wore the pleased and vacant expression you see on 80-year old enlightened men.
After an hour, Besam came out of his bedroom and sat in his chair. It was Friday, he was sorry, he was sleeping he said.
Besam didn’t know he was presumed dead.
Two months ago there was an explosion at the checkpoint. He was burned and a jagged piece of metal buried itself an inch from his heart. Besam wasn’t wearing a flack vest. It was too hot for that.
An Iraqi Army Huey lifted him to Baghdad Hospital where he awoke with two new scars.
Besam was alive.
He roasted a chicken for Dudeh and I even though he observed the Ramadan fast.
Dudeh ate on the floor across from me.
It was good to see him excited. The girls would be in yellow lot in a just few days.
“So many ficki-ficki,” he said whistling.
The word “free” was tattooed in red across the inside of his left bicep.
“Visa Sweden, how much?”
Dudi didn’t care much for Ramadan. He was eating all the greasy tomatoes with torn-off pieces of flat bread and sweet chicken skin.
“How much Australia, how much Amreeka?”
“You have to be a refugee.”
“How much, how much?”
“Leave with $10,000 American.”
Mustafa was already a good Muslim.
He didn’t touch the food although I could see he was curious about the cigarettes. The sounds of our eating bounced off his circular face. The act reflected in his brown-black eyes.
Besam’s eyes flicked between the boy and the television. His mobile phone rang with texts from shirta command.
There were two bombings today. The nodding shirtas who were certain Besam died cleared the bodies from the first two hours before I arrived.
The other explosion happened while we ate.
Besam’s mobile phone said jethith 7, jarhah 45.
“How long before Iraq is for safety,” Besam asked.
“Maybe two years,” I said.
It will never be safe. Death and God’s will are accepted too easily for that. There is too much nodding and sighing.
The pangs in my stomach from the day’s ride struck deeper then, and I choked myself on greasy chicken, tomatoes, and bread.
From late August 2010, Zahko, Iraq.
Eid in Zahko is sundrenched. The hills could be California. The colored globes that surround the lake must be California. I’m homesick looking at them.
Our tents are set above the Nawroz gas station on the twisting road that leads north to the Zahko café strip and eventually to the Turkish border.
Fuel pumps, a carwash and the station’s mosque-restaurant are below us. The rich Kurds who own it all let the videographer and I sleep on the soft grass at the edge of their man-made lake.
The water reaches half a mile back into the mountains. Grapes grow in the small vineyard on the east side, watermelons and kumquats and peppers are ripe in the garden on the north end.
Every morning, a dog pack sneaks down from the mountain to sniff at our hanging laundry, twelve of them.
Each day the gang chooses a different dog to maul in the vineyard before sunrise. After that, they scraggle around our tents, the tore-up lottery-winner too, and they look in on us while it’s still dark.
I lie on my back, silent, looking back at them through the mesh, counting their heads. The pie-faced dogs with the chewed-off ears look like old thieves. The narrow-faced dogs quick enough to save their ears are the young thieves.
They are hungry. Ramadan hasn’t ended for them like it has for good Muslims, who fast by choice.
The streets are empty because the good Muslims are celebrating the end of suffering with family. They are feasting on lamb.
One pie-face turns away to eat my hanging T-shirt. Another swallows a sock.
The rest wonder if they can kill me. They don’t know.
They aren’t mad yet, although many are diseased with bald expanses on the neck and hind legs.
I have a wrench in case one of them freaks, because the rest follow.
These are unclean animals according to Islam.
When you gently slit a dog’s – a chelb’s – throat, blood squirts out like a fountain. The blood of a clean animal – a lamb, a calf – flows over the hand like a stream.
The difference between clean and dirty, it was decided long ago, depends on the strength of the pulse and the swiftness of the butcher.
The dogs leave me one by one, tramping down the hill to snog the ditches for garbage and dead things.
When the sun rose I stole kumquats and peppers away in my chewed-up T-shirt.
We are bound by hunger, the thief dogs and I.
Also, I hope, by the ugly strength of our pulses.
The groundskeeper came afternoons with his son, Kamal, and a bucket of balled dough to feed the lake fish. The children that belonged to the owner’s family came shortly after to swim in the turquoise pool, built on the rise above the lake.
Kamal didn’t speak with the other boys. The others said he was poor. He was not their brother.
While the other boys tumbled into the pool and pissed behind the bench, Kamal fed the fish dough. He halved a watermelon from the garden. He and I shared it. We threw the bulbous rind to the fish as well.
The groundskeeper moved the rocks in the garden to allow certain plants more water than others andhe used wire to bind the grapevines.
We watched the fish swarm the rind for an hour. There seemed to be a profound quality to the scene so I made a video:
Melon hollowed by voracious Iraqi bass.
This was the second day of Eid and Kamal’s father fed the fish extra and ran the hose over the plant roots longer. The father worked on Eid but he did good work.
The other boys arrived in new holiday clothes, especially brash, cutting their hands on the tile, trying to drown one another.
It wasn’t long before Kamal ducked away. He went to the lake’s edge, out of sight. He knew where the biggest fish hid. To draw them out, with food and the noise he made by sucking on his teeth was better than swimming. The groundskeeper saw his boy crouched on the rocks, let him be, and walked toward the vineyard to pray.
Kamal was gone until the sound of feet on the sheet metal, brotherly goading, the scream and the splash drew him out.
He peaked over the side of pool to watch the other boys dare each other up the warbling sun shelter, onto the edge of the corrugated roof they gripped with curled toes until releasing themselves into the air.
Kamal was transfixed by each falling body.
The turquoise splash.
There is nothing better than swimming, nothing more profound.