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Vancouver, Washington, United States
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Sunday, June 11, 2006

"The house still stands", a short story I wrote

The story below was inspired by my visit to the memorial of Al-amerieh shelter in Baghdad in late 2000.  This is one of a precious few attempts of mine at fiction writing, and it uses the short story format, a genre I’ve always been fond of.

In 1991, the US air force bombed the Al-amerieh shelter, which was housing scores of civilians, under the disguise that it housed military targets, probably the same ones they went looking for and never found in 2003.  I watched the carnage on TV in 1991, and was vividly reminded of it almost ten years later.

I wrote the story in 2002 but never published it.  This is the first time I’ve ever shared it with the world.  The story is entitled “THE HOUSE STILL STANDS”.


It was a dark and gloomy night, a night I will never forget.  Never in my life have I seen so many contradictions come together to put me where I am today.  The weather was very beautiful, a cold and gentle breeze blowing through the city, trying to clear with it the waves and waves of smoke which covered it, hoping desperately to expose the beautiful blue sky above.  The silence which loomed over the city was ear piercing, only to be interrupted by the sounds of explosions so far away.  The darkness was blinding, so much so that flickers of what resembled lightening could be seen from parts of the city so distant I never knew even existed.  There was no electricity, since all generators in the city were destroyed by the war which has been going on for well over two weeks now.

I lay on my bed, restless as I have been every night, with my parents and siblings scattered around me on their half broken beds and little matrices, so peaceful in their sleep, so wrapped up in their innocence.  My youngest brother, Ahmed, is so happy that school is closed, so he does not have to wake up early, put up with his teachers, and most importantly, not have to worry about my mother nagging him to do his homework.  My older sister, who was about to be married to the man whom my father chose for her, was very happy that the wedding was called off because of the war; she did not want that man anyway.  She hated him, she could not stand to see him, but my father would not hear of it.  “He is the right man for you Salma”, he always used to say, “He has money, he has connections, he will get you out of this misery you live in” he used to tell her.  Well, this is nothing to worry about anymore.  The war is here, and strangely enough, she is more comfortable with the war than she would have been with that man.  My parents, now old and frail, do nothing all day, as there is nothing to do anyway.  My mother spends her day praying for us and for our welfare, and my father sits in the corner smoking his cigarettes, cursing his luck every now and then, angry because he can no longer provide us with the good living we grew up with.  I swear that I have sometimes seen him cry, but I know he would not admit it.  “Men do not cry, son”, he always used to tell me.  “If you see a man crying, know that it would be easier for him to die than to do that.  Always have compassion for him in your heart son, and feel sorry for him”.  Now that he is old and crippled, he can do nothing but sit in the corner all day, remembering what once was, hoping that one day it will return, knowing full well that it will never happen.

Growing up, I always hated my father.  He was always tough with us, and was especially tough with my mother.  I was especially baffled by the contradictions in that man’s personality.  Whenever we wanted something, he would do his best to bring it to us.  I remember full well how we all used to get new clothes during the Eed, and how he would be the only one without new clothes because we did not have enough money.  When my mom would urge him to get something for himself, he would always say “my Eed is to see my kids happy”.  He was, on the other hand, very difficult to get close to.  He never really played with us.  We always looked at him from a distance, even when we were sitting next to him.  None of us would dare to anger him, lest his wrath fall upon us, and he really had no mercy.  That all changed when I took his place.  When my father became ill and lost his legs a few years ago, I had to leave school to work and provide for the family.  Having no degree and very little experience, I was never paid much, just enough to buy bread and butter for my parents and siblings to eat at the end of the day.  I knew then, and I know now what he used to go through.  I love this man now more than I love anyone else.  With his compassion, he taught me what giving meant.  Through his toughness, he taught me how to deal with the monstrous and merciless world out there.

I continued to shift in my bed, with my mind flitting from thought to thought, tossing and turning, watching the innocence on Ahmed’s little face on one corner, and the apprehension on my mother’s face, a feature which has become part of her appearance, on the other.  I can safely say that if it was not for her faith, my mother would have killed herself a long time ago.  She instead gave prays to her creator constantly, trusted in him, and asked him to keep an eye on her children everyday.

Ever since the war started, I have been worried about my family and about their safety.  The Americans tell us that they have smart weapons, weapons which hit their targets with pin point accuracy.  They tell us that they are after our leaders and not after us.  They tell us that they have no qualms or quarrels with us, that it is only our leaders that they have the quarrel with.  They are liars, yes they are liars.  Our neighbors, Dar Abu Sally, had nothing to do with the leadership.  They hated Saddam Husein and his regime.  Their father and their oldest son were both killed by Saddam and his cronies, and they are as desperate as ever, and what do the Americans do to them?  They destroy their house and kill the rest of them.  I remember how I used to play with their little daughter Sally when we were little kids.  We used to play mom and dad, and we even talked about how we were going to get married when we grow older.  Sally is now no more, she is dead; and the house which used to stand wall to wall next to our house is gone, yes it is gone.  It went away with Sally, and with our hopes and dreams, the hopes and dreams witch never went beyond our little innocence.  And then there is the house of Dar Abu Saleh next door to us on the other side.  Saleh, the oldest kid, left the country to study abroad, but the party agents shot him in his residence in London, only because someone told them that he said something bad about the president.  Dar Abu Saleh hated Saddam Husein, but the Americans bombed their house and killed them all.  Yes, they killed them all with their smart bombs and pin point accurate missiles.  I am worried to death that they will kill us all, I know they are going to do it, I know they are, and therefore we must go to Al-amerieh, where all the rest of our neighbors went.  Al-amerieh is the safest shelter in Baghdad.  It is built underground, very heavily fortified, and there is only one small entrance which leads into it.  This shelter can withstand anything, literally anything.  We must go, we have to go, but my mother would not hear of it.  “I don’t want to leave this house, son.  This is where I had you, this is where I raised you and your siblings, and this is where I will die”.  But the thought of my mother and father and the rest of my family dying was one I did not want to entertain.  I cannot just let them stay here, the Americans will bomb us, I have no doubt.  I talked to my father, and I got nowhere.  Since he became ill, he made no effort to make any decisions in our house, it all rested on my shoulders.  My sister could care less, all she can think about is that she is not going to marry that man and that is it.  I don’t know what to do.

The following morning, my mother woke me up to ask me to go out and buy some tea so that she can pour it on the bread to soften it and make a breakfast for us.  We have been eating this bread for two days now, and that is all that we had.  It has become dry, and my mom started cutting it into pieces and putting into a plate, pouring some tea over it so that we can eat it with a spoon.  “I don’t want to”, I said.  “What”, she asked?  “Yes mom, I am not going to.  That is it.  We are out of food, we have no money left, we must go to Al-amerieh”, I said passionately.  “I don’t want you to get killed, and I am going to do all I can to save you, and because of that, you must go to Al-amerieh today.  They have food there, and we will all be safe”.  I was not telling the truth; after all, I did have some dinars in my pocket, probably enough to buy us some tea, but I had to pressure my mother into going to Al-amerieh, and this seemed like a good way to do it.

My mother turned her face away from me, and raised her hands up and prayed, as she always did.  “alright son”, she said.  “If that is what we have to do, that is what we have to do”.  She sat in the corner next to my father and started crying.  My father did not look.  He continued to face the wall in front of him, clutching tightly with his lips on the last cigarette he had.  I could not stand to see this.  I wanted to back off and go out and buy the tea for my mother and keep her here for just another day and make her happy, but making her safe was more important to me.  I held my tears and looked the other way and waited.

Ten minutes later, my mother awoke my brother and sister, and asked them to help her pack.  “We are going to Al-amerieh today” she said to them.  “it will be safer there, after all, you have seen what happened to Dar Abu Sally and Dar Abu Saleh.  We must go to the shelter so that we may stay alive if this house gets bombed”.

My brother Ahmed seemed very excited at the prospect of leaving the house.  He is a hyper kid, and staying in the house without going outside for days was not something he was particularly happy about, even if it saved him from going to school.  Salma could care less, she just followed where everyone else went.

We talked for a while about what to take and what to leave, and I told them that, beyond the basics, everyone was allowed to bring with them only one item of sentimental value.  My sister protested, but I had to make it clear to her that if she wanted to bring any extra items with her, that she would have to carry them herself.  After thinking about it for a while, she reluctantly agreed to bring only one item, and took out her dress which my Mom made her after she graduated from high school.  Ahmed brought with him his fake gun, and my father elected to take his pipe with him.  When we were about to leave, I noticed my mother’s tears again.  “Mom, you know it is for hour safety that we are doing this, don’t you?” I said with a firm and somewhat angry voice.  “Yes son” she said, “I know.  I just hate to leave this house behind, and this rug which my grand mother made me a long time ago.  This rug means so much to me, but I realize that we cannot take it with us, it is just simply too heavy”.  I cringed inside and I felt like my heart has just missed a beat.  I know how valuable this rug is, and I know how much it means to my mother.  I know, however, that we will not be able to take it with us, because the truck taking us to Al-amerieh will refuse to take it.  My mother is very sentimental, and losing this rug will make her sad – I have no doubt.  While wondering what to do, a thought suddenly came into my mind.  After I drop my family at the shelter, I will go back and pick the rug and surprise my mother.  The shelter is only five miles away from our house, so I can probably ride the truck back to the house, pick up the rug, and walk back with it to the shelter and surprise her with it.  She would be so happy!

The truck, which made a habit of picking up people who wanted to go to the shelter everyday, started its round.  The driver was surprised to see us packed and ready to board since he actually approached us several times before offering to take us to the shelter.  “So, you finally decided to go?” he said with a cheerful voice.  “Yes, it will be safer for us there, don’t you think?” I said.  “Yes, absolutely.  I was hoping you would come to that conclusion soon”.

We loaded our belongings and wrote along with some other strangers we did not know.  The drive to the shelter lasted only seven minutes, and we quickly unloaded and brought our stuff inside.  My father pointed out a corner for me and asked me to put him there; I reluctantly obliged.

The shelter was a very big place packed with people.  Built for maximum protection, it was fully underground, and thus had no natural light in it.  There were people from every age and place, children, men and women, young and old, sick and healthy, far and near.  Sanitation left a lot to be desired, since taking a bath was a luxury in that place.  As I helped my family settle there, I felt a wave of comfort and ease come over me.  “now they are safe.” I thought to myself.  “I don’t have to worry about them any more”.

My mother looked for and had no trouble finding some of our neighbors, who were quite surprised to see her there.  “We thought we’d never see you here,” said Umm Ali, the neighbor from across the street, “what changed your mind”?  “My kids you know,” my mother sighed.  “It is safer for them here”.  “Well, we told you so,” said Umm Alaa, “but you would not hear of it”.  “Well, one must come to one’s senses eventually,” my mom said with tears in her eyes.

Ahmed had no trouble finding company either.  He blended in with kids his age, and ran around doing what little kids do best, play like nothing is happening.

I had to find a good excuse to get out of the shelter.  I figured if I could finish my mission before dark, I will be safe from the bombing.  The Americans used to like to drop their fire after dark, and it usually went on well into the early morning hours.  Not only did I have to come up with an excuse to satisfy my mother, I also had to get the guards to let me out.  The best thing to do was to volunteer to bring food from outside.  Although they pay for the food, someone has to go out and get it, and they always asked young men to go out and volunteer to bring in the food.  They will allow me to go out, as long as I go out with an authorized group, and as long as we all come back before dark.  I figured I’d go with them, get off at the closest place to our house, get the rug, and, if necessary, walk back to the shelter.  They were not very strict about people coming in, they just did not want us to go out.

The truck was just about to pull out when I caught it.  I jumped in and sat in the front seat, as it was the only one available.  “Well, we’re going to the super market on Felisteen street.  You will have only ten minutes to pick up what you are supposed to pick up, and then you must be back.  If you are not back, we will leave without you.” The driver yelled in a firm voice.  “Ten minutes?” I thought to myself.  “I guess I won’t be going back with them”.  Felisteen street was about a mile away from our house, and there was no way I could walk there and back in ten minutes.  “Well, it will have to be walking back all the way,” I thought.

It was early afternoon when I got to the house.  The rug was laying there near the corner, wrapped as if it was ready to go, just waiting for me.  As I picked up the rug and started out, I heard the sound of planes, and a very large explosion.  “Well, it looks like the Americans are starting early.” I thought to myself.  “I have nothing to worry about, since my family is now safe.  I’ll just stay here if necessary, and will start out as soon as possible”.

The bombing continued well into the evening , and I became uncertain whether it would be wise for me to walk back to the shelter.  I knew that my mother would be a little bit worried, but since they were safe, I did not think too much about it, and she may very well be talking to the neighbors and not notice my absence anyway.  There were so many people crammed in that shelter that it was not unusual for people to be lost there.

I lay on my bed waiting for things to calm down.  The sound of aero planes and bombs was so close that I was beginning to worry that it may hit our house.  I was very happy that my family was not here.  “As long as they are safe,” I thought, “I’ll be OK”.

A couple of hours passed and the bombing ceased.  I decided to turn on the radio which my father elected to leave behind, and listen to the news.  “The American aggressors have committed a crime of the greatest magnitude,” the announcer said with a loud and monotone voice.  “Tonight, and around midnight, the aggressors threw a laser guided missiles straight into the entrance of the Al-amerieh shelter, killing everyone inside”.

I felt the world around me stop.  I looked around in shock and disbelief, hoping that I was dreaming.  I looked for my mother, for my father, for Salma and for Ahmed, but they were not there.  They were at Al-amerieh.  They are gone, all gone, but our house, the house which had all our memories in it, still stands.

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