The year is 2050. The city is Baghdad. The following is my contribution to The Book of Men, an anthology of short fiction curated by Colum McCann, Esquire, and Narrative 4. Other contributors include Khaled Hosseini, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. To purchase the entire volume, click here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Book-Men-Eighty-Writers-ebook/dp/B00DA6XLYI
It was the hottest summer on record, the streets of August usually empty for fear of the heat. But as he traveled north on Haifa, Faris saw a crowd on the bridge: a cluster of buses, the scorched faces of beggars and protesters lining the sidewalks. To his right was the swampy crawl and the dead fish steam of the Tigris River, or what was left of it. Across the bridge was the Palestine Hotel where President Hussein was scheduled to give her speech in an hour.
“Suicide just selling a soda out here,” said Donovan Hunt from the back seat.
“Out there, you mean,” said Faris.
Hunt tapped at the tinted window with his wedding ring.
“Right,” he said. “Out there.”
Donovan Hunt was a forty-two-year-old American businessman with cold angular features, a dark mustache, and laser white teeth, the sort of man who gave you the impression that he wanted you to know that not only was his smile fake, the product of money, but so was the world, so you’d better get on board and play your part if you wanted to keep his valuable attention. Hunt wasn’t Faris’ favorite client, for sure, but he was far from unusual. He worked for “the investment firm,” Mitchell Wesson. His life was driven by money. In my opinion he was a typical American man of his time.
Faris was driving. He turned right onto the teeming bridge and came to a stop. He took a deep frustrated breath. In front of him was another day doing the work he’d come to both need and loathe. When he was younger, working for his father’s security firm had seemed a novelty, a fascinating invitation to “the real world.” Now, a year away from his fiftieth birthday, Faris felt past that age of novelty, those dangerous feelings of innocence and curiosity.
People were always talking about how “Baghdad is back” in those days, and to some extent this was true. Haifa Street was no longer “The Purple Heart Highway” and the high rises were no longer the gutted ghosts of refugee wealth. But even fifty years after the American invasion and the chaos that followed, there was still a certain mistrust of American men like Donovan Hunt, an awareness of their greed as the driving force of the world, and Faris, although largely detached from such futile frustrations, was not entirely immune to the way one of Hunt’s smiles could seem like salt in the wounds of a beggar or a protester, the people on the bridge.
Faris looked into the faces of the people, the ones who still cared, the ones who greet heat with heat, the angry students lining the bridge, the children of the revolution in their tattoos and bandannas, American flags burning like semaphores for the stalled traffic, one woman wearing a black bra and a red hijab with a sign that read:
I am Palestine!
“How the hell do people keep getting a boner for the same old story?” Hunt asked.
There was that smile. A protester slammed a hand against the door, the contact with the vehicle sending an automatic photo to our database.
“I gotta get outta this city,” Hunt said.
“You and me both,” Faris said.
And now let us apply a little echo to this comment: “You and me both.” For this is who Faris was at that stage of the game: an indifferent American protecting another indifferent American, two tired souls in a small air conditioned pod seeking a larger air conditioned pod where they would hear the standard array of platitudes from the local politicians before the podium would be handed over to the star of the world: Iraq’s first female President: The Mother of the Revolution: Amani Hussein.
As I’m sure you know, Hussein was a hero of mine. She was Iraq’s answer to revolutionary American leaders like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Just as your Kennedy, for a brief time, threatened to dismantle the military industrial complex and splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces, so did Hussein seek to change the culture of war in the Mid-East. But Hussein knew she was vulnerable to critiques of weakness, so, of course, she did what politicians always do: she used the language of war to fight for peace. She built a bomb as a way to convince you to give up your bombs. Faris radioed in:
“Six eight eleven.”
This was a coded message for me, back at the office, and for Richmond Dicer, who, along with two other Eagleman employees, was directly behind Faris in a black Mercedes. It was a request for an alternate route for the drive home. Such requests were encrypted for a very simple reason: we did not wish to worry the client.
“Hey,” Hunt said. “Let’s go to Skyhorse for chow.”
Faris wondered whether Hunt had deciphered the code. Skyhorse, located in the northeast section of Baghdad, the new “investment corridor,” was the most decadent gentleman’s club in Iraq. There were choose-your-own-adventure game rooms. There were rooms with men, rooms with women, and everything else in between, and on the top floor, under the stars and a lifelike canopy of fake palm trees, was a beach where the men could swim with the women and look down through a glass floor at the dancers beneath, the effect a sort of surreal aquarium like you might find in one of Faris’s early movies, only the surreal was real at Skyhorse—if you had the money.
“Need me a Baghdad massage,” Hunt said. “My third leg is killing me.”
All of a sudden a young girl with spiked hair and a shredded burka poured fluid all over her body, as if a wet t-shirt tease for the eyes of Donovan Hunt. Only it wasn’t water that revealed her youthful features. She screamed a brief speech to the world, something about riba before lighting a match to a dollar which ignited the skirt of her burka, the two black Mercedes of our convoy framing the first burst of her flames.
Rarely do you see women like this light their faces first, right? But maybe for the deeply intentioned, this evasion is not about fear so much as effect, for if the anguish of the face can be preserved, as it was that day, then the symbolic act can maintain a true humanity right until the end.
“Jesus Christ!” Hunt said.
There are photos of Chou Lin, the Asian photographer, capturing everything, which, to me, is the real picture—these people like me who keep their distance and take pictures of people dying. Faris slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the Mercedes, removed his coat and gave chase. He spun the burning girl around in a moment that would later strike him as something like a dance, the mad pirouette of the doomsday prophetess suddenly a duet in which he felt the heat of her anger bloom in his coat. He wrapped his arms around her, felt the strange shiver of her life while Donovan Hunt remained in the car, muttering to himself:
“Are you kidding me?”
The traffic jam was now a life or death situation. They needed to get this woman to Ibn Al Bitar, the nearby hospital. But the traffic wasn’t moving. Luckily, an extremely dark African with a gray poodle in a baby bjorn pulled up on a purple scooter. Faris left his ruined jacket on the road. He placed the girl on the back of the scooter and screamed “It-har-rak!”
Faris would later wonder whether he’d done the right thing, whether perhaps it might not have been better to let the burning girl follow her urge to send a fiery message to the world. But as he toweled himself off in the cool cabin of his car, he felt good about what he’d done. He’d saved her life.