To my face
"I'm good," I told my son over the phone, who was calling from Canada. What was I supposed to tell him? I was in Baghdad – the land of the forgotten- pacing the flat roof of the house anxiously. It was a pitch-black evening with no moon in sight. There were no signs of life anywhere. The clanking and humming of the neighborhood's diesel generators masked the deathly stillness of the city. It was barely 8 p.m. in the middle of June, the height of a six-month summer where temperatures regularly reach 50°C. In 2010, after a seven-year absence, I arrived from Toronto in early March to work for the New York Times.
Since 2003, the state-maintained electricity supply had continuously declined. That evening, the privately hired generator line was churning unsteadily. I took to the roof despite howling winds and a raging sandstorm. Inside was suffocating. The lesser of two evils, I suppose. I noticed that I was leaving footprints in the mounting sand. Earlier at dusk, with the wind gathering strength, it grew so dense that the whole world was nothing but a yellowish-orange color. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. Dust and grit worked their way inside. Into every crevice, into closets and floors and cars, leaving everything coarse to the touch. It took everything to hold back my tears. With none of modern life's essentials about me, except for a dying cell phone and a small torch: I lied.
As bad as it was, the climate was not the source of my anguish. That afternoon I had an appointment with the Director of Mansur Municipality for an article I was writing. I went to meet the Mansur Municipality Spokesperson, Zahraa Abdullatif. I still remember how polite the security guard who guided me to her office was. He was a tall, thin young man with big brown eyes. I heard someone call him by Ayad or Imad. "I would have escorted you madam," he humbly apologized, "but I cannot leave my post."
The interviews went smoothly without any waiting, as is often the case. During the interview, the Director-General vehemently lamented about how municipalities are usually 20km² plots while Mansur was a massive 120km². "We simply cannot control it with the staff and withered equipment we have" she grumbled.
To circumvent suicide bombers and targeted assassinations, cars were not permitted to park in front of municipality and government buildings or crowded service centers. My driver explained that he had to wait across the road. The interviews were more than I had anticipated. Though, I was frustrated with the miserable state this country was in because of systemic malice and incompetence. I noticed a sign saying "Cafeteria" adjacent to the Mansur Municipality entrance as I walked out. It was no more than a shabby, paint-chipped kiosk offering falafel, tea, non-refrigerated beverages, and melted chocolates.
A few minutes into the drive back, I heard a bang. I jumped up in my seat and looked around. Neither the driver nor the escorting security officer claimed to hear it. Maybe it was me. Perhaps it was my paranoia. But I know that Iraqis have either become entirely desensitized to the chaos and carnage, or they bear a self-appointed responsibility to calm others. Maybe they were just calming me. In any case, I dropped it.
As soon as I arrived at the newsroom, I read “Explosion at Mansur Municipality leaves two dead, one injured”. With a heavy heart and shaking hand, I dialed the spokeswomen's number. She explained that it was a magnetic bomb hidden by the cafeteria counter. That same cafeteria I had just walked past moments ago. She speculated that a terrorist must have put it in the trash bin, killing a guard and the cafeteria owner's son while injuring the father. I asked her, "Was the guard tall and thin?" “He was” came her response. It was Imad, that sweet gentle soul who couldn’t leave his post. He was barely 25 years old, leaving behind his wife and two children, and a mother entirely dependent on him. I thought of them. How on Earth will they survive?
It hurt. Less than an hour ago this person was alive. He was well. I wondered if he came to work knowing that death was around the corner. What did he think of in those last little minutes, those few final seconds? For months now, I covered tragic news of explosions and fatalities in Baghdad. Today was different. Today it had a face. It was hard to swallow.
I could not share this devastation with my son. He was already worried about a bombing by a supermarket in Mansur, not far from where I was living. With all this panic and tragedy and fear swirling around in my head, I told my son, "I'm good". With all of that, I lied. I had to. A white lie.
The last time I saw my parents was in Baghdad, at the end of November in 2019. The 2003 invasion and its aftermath forced millions of Iraqis to flee their homes and take up residence in neighboring Jordan. My parents were no exception. But they made it clear to the rest of the family that this was the furthest they will go from Baghdad. And that it was only temporary. To them, home was love. Baghdad was home. And no amount of pleading or begging or even blackmail was going to convince them otherwise. For better or worse – and in Iraq it only ever gets worse – they would not abandon their heritage. Their legacy. They would see this through to the bitter end.
Two years and two months later, amidst the pandemic, I started to really worry about my parents. Calling them from the calm of Canada, my mother said something to me that unnerved me. Those three words sent a cold chill down my spine. “We are good”, she had said when I had asked how things were. I knew that line. I knew that lie. The things we do for our kids. My father's persistent cough in the background was hard to ignore.
My father, an accomplished psychiatrist, is a master of disguising infirmity. Some years ago, with no warning symptoms, he was admitted for open-heart surgery. The surgeon had told us that "Doctors make the worst patients”. My father is the very picture of loving kindness, grace, and virtue. He will sacrifice anything – everything – for his family.
I remember angrily asking the cardiologist, "But why didn’t he tell us? We are all adults!” The doctor responded "Regardless, you know that parents will always try to protect their children. To him, you are still children no matter how old you get. He did not want you to worry. Besides, it’s a white lie!" To me, there was no white in this lie. I felt so powerless.
In 2010, explosions and bombs were a daily occurrence in this once-quiet city. The municipality blast did not so much as even make the headlines. It was overshadowed by a more catastrophic explosion which quickly followed. No need to mention it to my son, it will just worry him. That was my justification.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how parents will break every single barrier and go so far as to leave livelihoods behind, just to shield their children from horror. And Iraqis have learned to live with the true meaning of horror. I thought of the security guard’s’ survivors. I still do. Who protects them now from the terrors of this life? His soft look haunts my soul to this day.
By the end of the call with my son, my eyes were itching as the sand was mixing with my tears. I could not hold back anymore. There is only so much I can take. I coughed, spitting particles of a salty sand grains to the floor. Days like this leave a bitter taste. One minute you're a name, the next you’re a casualty. Like my mother and like my father, I tried to hide my desolation. Again, my son asked, "Mum, are you OK?". Again, I said, "I'm good."
I am guilty of breaching what I preach. Out of love I lied.
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