Two Villas in Iraq
At first, there were two villas.
DeBritish, as the Iraqi maids called him, was the boss of both. The protection business was his. He made the deals and everyone had a job thanks to him.
At the New Villa, there was Ali-foreman and Ali-paint. Fat Mohammed was the electrician. Ammar, with the thin, thin neck, dug the holes outside. They came every morning to remodel the place. Every evening they left. No one lived there except me, upstairs in the yellow room.
The contractors – jokey ex-marines, ex-paratroopers, ex-Iraqi army – slept and trained at the Old Villa. The clients lived there too, in decorated rooms. I was in one of those for a while before there were too many clients. Then I was in a container with the contractors, then in the New Villa behind the Chinese restaurant in the Greenzone.
Each decorated room came with a mini-fridge with a tall can of cold beer and two candy bars inside. It wasn’t anything like the Iraq I had seen over the last five months. Everything was clean and put-together.
At the Old Villa, Qusay was the chef. Patrick, the Filipino, was the manager and Saife did everything else. In the evening most of the Iraqi servants left, none of them lived at the Old Villa except for Saife.
The contractors smoked Honeywell cigars and wore bullet-proof chest plates over t-shirts. They wrapped their compact rifles in Sunni head clothes so the polished metal did not glint in the sun. They ball-busted in dark, dark shades – skinny rectangular lenses. They drove around Baghdad in a fleet of bullet-proof Mercedes sedans – polycarbonate thermoplastic windows, two inches thick.
That’s how they rolled.
Ambassadors, international businessmen, Non-Governmental Organization big-shots and anybody with wasta wanted them for protection.
What about the roadside bombs, truck bombs, rocket attacks and the militia kidnappers dressed as police, the big shots thought.
Protection is a money-maker in Iraq because those threats thicken the air like the fine dust on storm days. And few big shots know how to kill or when to fight back.
What if the driver gets sniped, they think.
What if it’s me, they think.
Then they contract some muscle.
All the contractors at the old villa had a good sense of humor. And except for Fingers, they were all big guys with knotted arms and sly, crazy grins. None of them were stupid or pretentious. No ilusionados like in California.
Half the contractors were Iraqis and half were from the United Kingdom. They showed me how to un-jam an AK-47 and how to find the Ukrainian brides with the good proportions.
When there was nothing to do, we talked on the wrought iron chairs in the yard. Here and there we talked about the Thai whores of Dubai but it was mostly about worst-case-scenarios and double-tapping and throat-slitting — the ins-and-outs of all kinds of death, mate.
We talked about killing so much the talk became my thoughts.
After that, everything else was unnatural.
The new villa was being fixed-up for more expats. The business was growing. Nice lawyers and articulate state-department-types from good universities were moving in to advocate for human rights. They needed protection, breakfast and a clean guarded place to sleep.
One of them brought his Nintendo Wii and a trunk full of fake Nintendo instruments.
Before the Old Villa vanished, Patrick, Saife and I got blitzed three nights in a row and played Rock Band with the expats in the air-conditioned living room, on a wide-screen television.
I was bass, Saife on the drums, Patrick played lead guitar.
“What the fuck ees dees won,” Saife asked.
Ees Aerosmith, Fatboy. “Dream On.”
In the Old Villa kitchen, under Qusay’s direction, I chopped cabbage, onions and carrots for broils; potatoes for chips.
“If you are not a soldier, why are you here?” Qusay asked.
“To take pictures,” I said.
“That’s stupid,” he said, “switch.”
“Why do you have holes in your pants,” he asked.
“That’s the style in Canada,” I said.
“Daniel is an Iraqi name too,” Qusay said, “for Iraqi Christians.”
“Are you Christian,” he asked.
“Schweyeh, schweyeh,” I said.
Qusay shook his head.
He said his name meant a point far, far away. He said that in the same voice he used to talk about Mohammed.
Qusay’s eyes changed when he talked about those things. They closed halfway.
Qusay knew who the boss was. He knew who was close to DeBritish and who must have meat and who must be served quickly so the food was hot. Qusay chose carefully when to talk about the meanings of Iraqi names and Mohammed. He knew he served a table of lightweight Catholics and atheists.
Saife heard us talking about names with his hands in the dishwater. He straightened an arm toward heaven and said his meant saber. Onion-water dripped on his head.
Saife appeared to be nothing like his name, but he was.
He was 5’10” and round like a medicine ball. Saife had a huge ass that hung out of perpetually wet sweatpants. He drove a truck on house errands because he could not fit into a car.
But beneath all that meat, bracing his Jurassic spine, there was a steel blade. The blade sang at odd times, like a pitchfork, and the sound of it scraped Saife’s brain.
In that way, Saife and Liam, the old Scottish medic, were alike.
Liam heard incoming rockets before anyone else. The brief whistle before the boom scraped Liam’s brain and pushed his body. His face tightened all of a sudden and he dove from his seat. I learned to follow.
“Doont b’daft Danny, geh’ th’fook doon,” Liam said.
It was shame made the steel sing in Saife’s head. By the time I learned that, Saife was gone and it was too late to follow him.
Saife ate his family. That was the rumor. No one had ever seen them and he rarely spoke of them.
When I showed up at the old villa, Saife had just turned eighteen.
“I love Iraqi, I love American, I love British,” Saife said, on a night we nicked two gallons of booze from the contractors’ stash.
He was not sharp – joven, gordo, ilusionado – but he was burro-strong and he had spirit.
I was into the whiskey.
Saife finished his sixth or seventh beera then showed me his purple hand.
He put a cigar out on the back of his hand when his uncle joined the Mahdi Army. He re-lit the cigar three more times before he finished burning himself.
Saife was Sunni. He was ashamed of his uncle for joining the Shi’a militia so he burned through the thickest veins in his hand and he didn’t feel anything, he said.
Saife burned himself for shame.
And he didn’t like it when he didn’t get paid.
And he didn’t like it when the Britons called him Fatboy.
“Dudeki!” Saife called back. “Motherfucker! Koosortek!”
But there were more of them than him.
They were just fucking with him.
Sometimes Saife didn’t care.
Sometimes he did.
Saife wanted to kill his uncle. Saife wasn’t afraid, he didn’t feel anything.
“Lee-esh,” I asked.
It was all very cloudy.
My brain was fat and the colored lights strung around the yard streamed across the wet glaze on my eyes.
Kill him because he joined a militia or kill him because he joined the Shi’a militia instead of al Qaeda?
Those things were always cloudy here. With the war, these were places to take cover. Now it was just
rubble baking in the sun. Now there were as many questions as there were displaced families.
Are you Sunni first or Iraqi first?
Have 150,000 Iraqi’s died or have that many Shi’a and Sunni died in Iraq?
It was all very cloudy after the war. Life was beginning again but the militias still bombed the markets
and government buildings, unarmed people. In April, strings of bombings killed and maimed all over Iraq.
The threat thickened the air like the smoke and the dust.
No one knew why. They watched the television news reporters say the militias were backed by money from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The overarching goal was to create instability in al-Maliki’s new government. Iran and Saudi Arabia were jockeying for influence over Iraq.
When those succinct broadcasts ended people returned to their cloudy lives and all the floating questions:
Are you a peaceful man or the man of the house?
If you are the man of the house you better work.
If you are the man of the house, you better defend it – the militias can help with that.
If you are the only man, where do you go?
I was drunk. I promised Saife I would help kill the traitorous uncle.
“Sadeeki,” we said, one after another.
Outside the sculpted concrete walls of the Old Villa, dumpster dogs growled over one lame, pregnant bitch. She had a matted golden coat and a broken leg that was turning black. Every night, the dogs found her.
Saife and I shook on our murder promise.
We drank some more and threw kitchen knives into the ground and listened to the dirty golden bitch squeal.
That was the night song.
Intesar was boss at the new villa. She was in her thirties and she judged everyone’s work with bright eyes, black eyelids and pursed wet-looking lips.
The doctor was her assistant. He tested the light switches and brought us lunch.
Intesar was Ali-foreman’s sister. She ran the construction company and she worked well with foreigners. When she talked to you, she always smoothed your shirt at the shoulders.
When she walked by, Ali-foreman looked at the floor because she was his sister. Ali-paint looked after her and exhaled in English, “my God that woman, oh my God.”
Ammar, whose head bowed naturally, always said a quiet prayer.
In the new villa, I slept upstairs, in a small yellow room with a huge bathroom. The bathroom had deep, deep blue tile and a western toilet. There was sand in the carpet and the faucets didn’t work. Neither did the toilet. For a long time, I used the spigot outside to wash. It was ok. I was out of money. I was stealing booze these days, not selling pictures.
Water came out of the spigot scalding, as though from a kettle. After a week, its low rumble – when Ali-paint washed the rollers – started to scrape my brain. Sometimes I flinched.
The water ran for a full minute before it cooled enough.
As it poured out, it did not pool on the ground, it disappeared instantly. The sand ate it.
In exchange for my room at the new villa, I rolled the walls upstairs with Ali-paint and I dug the holes with Ammar. Every day, Ali-paint and I sang along with the Lebanese techno-pop girls on his phone. Ammar liked the Lebanese girls too, but mixed it up with Kathem al-Sahare, the “Elvis” of the Arab world.
When the spigot was dry, we said, “makoo mai.”
There were no hammers or pliers or screwdrivers when we needed them in the New Villa. We all shared broken version of each.
“Makoo tal nefece.”
After a few days, the doctor stopped bringing falafel sandwiches.
“Makoo akeel,” we said, “Koosortek doctor!”
Saife had left us some beera, Heinekin and Tuborg, and that was gone too. There were women and beera in Baghdad, just none for the pobrecitos.
“There is no work, no money, no beera, no bitch, so the other pobrecitos in Baghdad go to the militia,” said Ali-paint. “For money.”
Twice we talked about pitching in for a woman. There was no money and no one wanted to share her. No one except fat Mohammed the electrician, he didn’t care at all. He was lying on the cool stone floor smacking his belly.
The second time buying a woman came up, Ammar moved to the other side of the room.
“Haram,” he said. He took long breaks in the shade of the villa now. He didn’t care if the doctor forgot the falafel in samoon bread because it hurt to eat.
“Makoo floos!” we sang. “Makoo nee-itch!”
That was the work song.
We stomped it out with our rollers on the wall.
“Wen beera, wen bitch? Makoo floos, makoo nee-itch!”
We sang it with our shovels in the sand.
Ali-paint always started it, skipping in place, slapping his knee.
The intro was the list of nothings:
Makoo tal nefis?
The United States was pulling out of Baghdad and Ramahdi and Fahlujah and all the cities in two months. None of los pobrecitos cared about what happened after that.
It was too hot, mang, too harra to think about big shots.
Ali-foreman was sleeping the afternoons away in my room, on the cool blue bathroom tile.
Intesar cooled the damp skin between her neck and her breasts with a red paper fan she called “my Japanese.”
Ammar’s abdomen hurt. It was hard, as though filled with water. He pressed on it with his finger tips.
As the intro finished, Fat Mohammed, the electrician, bellowed his part:
“Makoo flooOOS? Makoo flooOOS?” he sang from a room further down the hall, where sparks from the exposed wires in the wall shot holes in his cigarette cloud. Rising from tenor to alto, his voice boomed. His eyes rolled back. He smacked his belly, four smacks per measure.
Ammar twirled his wide hands on his stick-arms and bobbed his head on that piece of string. His part was next:
“Wen beera? Wen bitch? Eyahaha!” he screeched.
“Weeen? Eyahaha! Weeen?”
His part was the most joyous because without the work song, Ammar had nothing to say.
Me? I was, the wonkey cakewalker, tracking watery white latex up and down the New Villa’s stone stair case:
“Makoo floos? Makoo nee-itch! Eyahaha!”
I never felt closer to Allah and the simple truth of it all. I became epileptic.
The work song always evolved into a spastic dance-off that ended when Ali-paint fell down laughing.
Intesar always shook her head.
Viva Iraq mate, viva the sounds of the desperate dogs y los pobrecitos.
“You are not Iraqi,” Qusay said.
“You cannot know my people.”
Qusay asked me one day how I could trust a taxi driver in Baghdad.
He asked because that’s how I got around, in taxis, with my camera wrapped-up in a kefeeya or a grocery bag. He asked because he heard me introduce myself, more than once, as Canadian, Colombian or Kurdish.
The driver may kill you or sell you off at anytime, Qusay said, flicking a finger across his throat.
Everybody was about to get their throat slit in Iraq. Everybody was doing some slitting.
My taxi screening process was simple. He wanted to know, so I told him.
When a car pulled up I asked the driver—in English – who would win in a Kung-fu battle, Jesus or Mohammed.
If the driver spoke enough English to respond, he could also translate for me. If he didn’t shout haram at the idea of prophets duking it out Shaolin-style, odds were there wouldn’t be any shouting about prophets at all.
I had helped around the kitchen for a few days now.
We became friends, Qusay and I, by asking questions.
This time he didn’t like my answer. I had insulted Mohammed.
“Never speak that again,” he said.
“I am Shi’a. I love Mohammed. Say it again … say it again … you will not live.”
I said nothing. I was smoking one of Saife’s Gauloises Blondes, toying with the idea of killing Qusay first.
Earlier, I had asked about Qusay’s wife.
She was his cousin.
“Will you take another wife?” I asked.
“Man, I will take three more,” Qusay said.
His other cousins were not menstruating yet. He said he would marry them after that started.
“Can you take all four to bed all at once?” I asked.
From the dish-pit, Saife shouted, “Haram!”
“No, Haram,” Qusay said. “No Haram.”
Qusay said he will take one in his lap, one on his face and one on each nipple.
He was snickering then. It was ok with Qusay to talk about women.
Now, he glared at me through his half-closed eyes. We were no longer friends, though we shared the same patch of shade beneath the only tree in the yard. Qusay loved Mohammed. For that he should kill me, he said.
A cubic mile opened-up between us. Perhaps it was other things, I thought, a buildup of slights.
Perhaps it was because I drank in the kitchen or because I looked at the maids.
In the shade of the tree, it was a livable blue. Without the shade, the world was yellow and baking.
I cracked a false smile and laughed and asked that puta to chill-the-fuck-out but he didn’t budge.
After that, there were no more questions. He was stroking the inside collar of his chef jacket with both hands.
“Puta sucia,” I said.
He understood because I had taught him a few words in my native Colombian but there were no more jokes either.
“I can kill,” Qusay said in crisp English.
“I will do it,” Qusay said, kissing his fingers, “Ask it again.”
I thought about killing him because the idea was easy here.
It was fine.
If he came after me, it would be with a curved kitchen knife in my lower back, I knew that much. Qusay would think long and hard about when to do it. Qusay, esa puta sucia, con su cuchillo divino, would choose a time carefully.
But I’d kill him first – with my Beretta – double-tap mate. Send a round through each collarbone and pistol-whip him; lick his ear and let him know what I’ll do to his mother.
In hand gestures and broken Arabic I’d paint a spectacular picture, mate.
The sharpened tire iron would work too.
When he tries to deflect the lunge at his guts, I’ll bury the crooked point of it in his femur.
Liam said the femur is where all the blood is made.
Spear the femur all the way through, he’ll go down. Pull it out, and he’ll bleed to death. Doing it this way allows twenty minutes for theatrics while he bleeds. That’s how Liam would do it, with an improvised speech.
Twenty minutes to mock his family and his religion. Twenty minutes to watch the sand swallow gallons of his leg.
From that day until the end of the two villas, I never turned my back on Qusay.
He wasn’t scared of my thoughts.
That puta knew I could never kill anybody.
The Iraqi contractors stayed in the caravan when it was too late for them to leave the Greenzone or when they had to transport a client early in the morning.
It was a plywood box next to the Old Villa with a television and bunk beds.
Saife stayed there all the time. If he had family, no one knew where.
If they weren’t washing their cars and juggling footballs in his stomach, Fingers said, they might be in the north, maybe Mosul, maybe Tikrit.
In the caravan, Saife and I watched Kathem al Sahare sing on the television.
Kathem was singing on a neon blue stage. Behind him an orchestra of shadowy oud, qanun and darbuka players swayed with his voice. Circles of cool blue light rippled from where he stood like the stage was a pool of water.
Saife sat to my right, trading insults on the phone with his sadeeka, spitting as he spoke. To my left was a mountain of cigarette boxes and a row of water bottles half-filled with cigarette-butt soup.
The whole place smelled like tuna sweat.
It had been three months since DeBritish paid him. There was no money for sadeeka or her family, Saife said.
Kathem was singing about a woman named Ensa, a woman he could not forget. The harshness of the world was too much. Kathem wanted Ensa by his side.
His body fidgeted on the pale screen as if restrained by ropes. At the height of the longest note, Kathem’s hands broke free and opened like flowers. His head plunged backwards.
Sadeeka wants too much, Saife said at last, balling-up on his side, tilting the bottom bunk.
This was when Saife, the first to disappear, began his departure.
After Kathem al Sahare sang of Ensa, Saife stopped talking.
He smoked his Gauloises Blondes and sweated stolen booze and let his work go unfinished. You could smell the booze when he sulked by.
Blankness replaced his wide open eyes and toothy smile.
He was silent for two days. In the early hours of the third day, he spoke again, but not convincingly.
What I know, I heard secondhand from Muthana:
Saife rolled up to the check point at the edge of the Greenzone before sunrise of the third day.
There was something about Saife’s voice or his face the guard didn’t like.
Maybe the guard didn’t like fat-ass Sunnis. Maybe Saife’s bribe was chincey. Whatever it was, the guard did something very unusual in Iraq: his job.
Unlucky Saife, gordo, pobrecito.
Muthana said that guard should be promoted to Iraqi general, because he wasn’t asleep or wanking.
Qusay’s diced, deep-fried eggplant breakfast was tossed in ketchup for Saife’s birthday. The maids and the contractors nodded at Muthana with full, greasy mouths.
It was amazing: the guard checked Saife’s papers and searched the car.
Pobrecito Saife, Allah willed it.
The car belonged to DeBritish. It was one of the armored Mercedes. Saife had copied the keys in secret.
In the trunk the guard found several unregistered AK-47s; in the glove box, a heavy wad of cash; in the backseat, a hundred pounds of ammunition and medical field kits worth thousands in the states.
Saife’s plan was to sell the car and the rest of it. He was almost there. The buyer was twenty yards away, on the edge of the Fourth of July Bridge, Muthana said.
“That guy was probably going to resell to al Qaeda or the other militias,” Muthana said.
Instead of embracing and kissing cheeks with a briefcase full of floos – for his sadeeka, for Tuborg and Heineken – a cubic mile opened between the money and the fat ass.
Saife was detained by the guard at rifle-point and arrested by Iraqi police.
His buyer disappeared.
DeBritish got a phone call and the Old Villa Iraqis turned on Saife.
Muthana and the other Iraqi contractors paid police to kick the shit out of him.
No one had been paid in months – not even the muscle.
Saife was fucking it up for men with children.
“Saife is Ali Babba,” Muthana said.
“They sent him back to his family.”
Saife was the first to disappear. Before we all followed, I heard he awoke from his concussion somewhere in Karrada, with two teeth and a dozen broken ribs.
It hurt for sure, but the shame sound, the scrape, may have left his mind.
Two weeks later, the heat died down and the market people talked about the 18-year-old chunk who stole guns, cash and a car from a pack of mercenaries.
If that gordo-Ali Babba could walk, he walked a little taller in Karrada, with wasta.
Wasta of a different type, mate, not a title mate, or money; not an advanced degree and good intentions, the kind reserved for Iraqi men with bothered heads, who bet their lives against armed contractors and militia wholesalers.
Think about the burro balls that took mate, and tell me ‘fat-boy,’ ‘fat-tart,’ ‘fat-fuck’ and ‘Saif-e-licious’ don’t really mean saber.
The villas are still standing, weathering the dust and the weekly rockets from Sadr city. They are still there, just not as I knew them when I arrived the spring before last.
When I last saw the Old Villa, it was empty. No more plush couches and big refrigerators. No beds. No fancy garden swing with thick blue cushions. Makoo wide-screen TV. All that stuff was repossessed before our eyes and from under our asses.
Less than a month after Saife’s beating, mate, DeBritish, boss of both villas, retired early. He fucked-off on an early morning flight to Dubai and disappeared.
Debritish was the second to vanish. When he left, he took the clothes on his back and the contents of the safety-deposit box.
“One more Ali Babba,” Muthana said.
“Si,” said I, “Bandito.”
None of the contractors had been paid. Saife, Qusay and Patrick had not been paid. Intesar y los pobrecitos had not been paid. Los pobrecitos didn’t even get lunch.
Rent on the villas had not been paid. The plush furniture, the fleet of Mercedes and $10,000 in auto maintenance had not been paid for either.
The man who made all the deals flew with everyone’s money — between $300,000 and a million dollars by Liam’s estimate.
In less than a day, word spread that DeBritish wasn’t coming back and the old villa was swarmed by armed collectors. They wanted their money and there wasn’t any so they took what they could grab.
They started with the electronics, then the tables and chairs, then the paintings on the wall. Some Iraqi tried to run off with one of the upright toilets.
The maids were crying. I worried after them all, especially Souhaila. Now that she had worked with westerners, no one Iraqi would give her a job, she said.
Militia men had threatened her life already, she said. The make-up was sliding off her face. The make-up was much lighter than her real skin.
She had no choice but to work with westerners, she said:
“My son! He is eighteen! There is something wrong with his head! He won’t work. He won’t leave the house. He won’t open the shades and leave his bed!”
“No husband,” she said.
The lazy son is the only man.
Souhaila was round like Saife but small, with kite-stick legs. I saw shadows of them once when the wind hit her abbayah head-on and the black fabric became paint on her body.
The sticks were wobbling now. Souhaila leaned heavily on the other maids and cried until she disappeared. When the maids left, they took all the remaining food and the medicine with them.
The expats were next.
They texted, Facebook-ed and emailed their way to a new contract with different protection service.
They were sweating more than usual in their jackets and ties. It was an oven without the villas’ shade. Their collars came undone but I never really worried after them. A powerful wasta, the U.S. Department of State, was on their side. They would all find their way to decorated rooms elsewhere.
When the expats disappeared from the Old Villa in borrowed van, they took their trunks, all the fake Nintendo instruments and all the wine.
I didn’t worry much after the contractors either. The Iraqi half knew where they weren’t welcome in Baghdad and the Britons had all seen much worse.
The short end of the stick though, belonged to the Britons. All the Iraqis had jobs on the side. The Britons had become like los pobrecitos: no home, no money. They had makoo to show for the last several months but two feet in the fine, eager sand.
Perhaps they were los pobrecitos all along.
Ammar knew about being sexless and he knew the difference a little cash can make in a man’s life – he never saved enough for a wife, but before the war, when there was work, Ammar didn’t worry about sharing his prostitutes.
The day DeBritish left, Ammar was too sick to be angry about his pay. He lay on the cool blue tile between Ali-foreman and Ali-paint, far from fat Mohammed the electrician, and he recited a long prayer for the contractors.
Ammar’s body was crumpled the way it was after a few short hours of work, his hands and feet looked awkward and limp but his eyes were lucid.
In his brain, Ammar saw the contractors’ fair dispassionate wives and Ukrainian brides and their girls-on-the-side lit pale blue.
He saw the Britons return to beds as cold as the weather that fell on their homeland. The most basic principle of the universe, Ammar said, applied to big-shots and ex-soldiers and ditch-diggers the same: makoo floos, makoo nee-itch.
Ali-paint smoked Davidoffs and laughed as he translated.
Ammar’s prayer celebrated that common bond. And he asked Allah not to forget the Britons, but, maybe, show los pobrecitos de Iraq the path to money first.
“We are much closer to Mecca,” Ammar said.
I pressed on Ammar’s turgid belly through his dirty purple dress shirt with my fingertips and thought of all the lesser poets growing old in their starched, dreary suits.
It was painful to think of how clean they are.
Ammar, Both Ali’s, Mohammed and Intesar left early that day and stopped showing up to fix the new villa.
It was their turn to disappear.
The doctor had been a myth for weeks now.
Me? I said as many goodbyes as I could and encouraged the expats to take more wine. Then I went back to the yellow room.
I wasn’t ready to leave yet.
Patrick, the Filipino manager, tossed a stone at the window at dusk.
When he left the Old Villa, he took all the hard liquor with him. I promoted him from Old Villa Manager to Benevolent Genius and we invited some other Filipinos over to witness his inauguration. They all worked for different western agencies with kitchens and each one nicked a different kind of food for the party.
There was a toast and a promise. I promised to one day help Patrick find his estranged father. The father was a retired Karate teacher and part-time stuntman in Los Angeles. The father was a soldier who left Patrick in the Philippines with his mother and never returned.
“I just want to ask why,” Patrick said.
I was drunk.
“Yes,” I said, “Why abandon your family?”
We toasted more and I stopped thinking about my voice. I thought about my ears and I scanned the darkness for the night song. I was sure it was there. I was sure it knew why. There was a desperate note that would tell Patrick all he needed to know.
After the Filipinos disappeared, I resumed painting.
“Wen beera? Wen bitch?” I asked the last uncovered wall. I was stirring the water-cut paint alone.
I had to finish the big, empty living room of the New Villa.
It was my job since I stopped selling photographs.
It was the least I could do. I was the only one who got paid.
Before he left, DeBritish handed me an envelope with five-hundred dollars inside. That envelope and some ingenuity paved my way to Afghanistan before fall.
Five-hundred dollars will get a pobrecito a long way. In Karrada, a kebab and a post-war pack of Gauloise Blondes comes to a buck – you can squeeze two kebabs out of it if you act a little squirrely.
The first thing I did with it was catch a football game on Aaras Island: Karrada Vs. Sadr City.
The first thing I did was catch a taxi to Aaras Island.
I picked an innocuous corner off of Yaffa Street and waited with my head wrapped up in a dirty black-embroidered kafeeyeh.
There were kids playing between reinforced Iraqi police pick-up trucks. They were Ford f-250s with machine guns mounted in the back.
Suited men hopped the puddles and mud patches in the unpaved sidewalk. There were a hundred taxis, always compact, white 4-door cars with orange fenders.
I passed on the first seven.
One guy had an AK-47 in the back seat and gun parts all over the dash. That one was like Saife, on his way to wasta.
One guy was driving on a flat tire. Another smelled like donkey shit. None of them spoke English.
When the eighth pulled up, it was a young, sad-looking guy. Beer bottles were in a pile on the floor on the passenger side so I said hello and made small talk in shitty Arabic.
The sad-looking guy answered in sad-sounding English, so I asked him:
“In a Kung-Fu fight, who would win, Jesus or Mohammed?”
What I would have given for Qusay to be numero ocho, mate.
After the Kung-fu question I’d rip the dirty kafeeyah from my face!
“Salam, puta suciaaaa!”
I’d choke the sister-fucker with a sly, crazy grin.
No such luck.
Instead, I got Fahady: “I don’t know man … who thinks about that? It’s shit.”
Fahady was not witty.
He charged too much.
He off-gassed a powerful form of frustrated depression, that, I believe, jammed the airwaves around his taxi.
That’s why the radio never worked.
On the bright side, his English was good and he had friends in the police who called when there was an explosion.
He was it.
For the next two months Fahady took me to bomb sites all over Baghdad and to the hospitals.
The slow, folksy song he sang, quietly, something like a chant, something like a prayer, while we waited for orderlies to open up the emergency ward, was the hospital song.
It always spread down the flickering corridors, moving into from one mouth to the next like an act of hypnotism. I remember the shutter sound of my camera cutting into it in the dingy waiting areas and in every yellow-lit room.
It was breathed by all the motionless cousins and grandparents squatting on the floor, smoking with their elbows on their knees.
Fahady translated a portion of it for me, the part about a dying pobrecito trying to impress beautiful Layla.
‘I hide my approaching death from everyone,
If they knew, they would try to console me.
I know they cannot.
I walk and smile, Layla, I am stubborn.’
It’s still in my head, this long after I disappeared.