Iron Cat of Baghdad
From The Autobiography of Nisreen Ahmed Aljubouri By Bruce Wallace
“I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain, But its all right now, in fact, its a gas!”
(Bill Wyman wrote most of this, including the main riff, on the piano. It was still credited only to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, something Wyman was never happy about.)
June 24 2008
I am sitting here. I cannot breathe. All orifices are filling rapidly with allergy fluids and this selfish man wants me to tell him a story.
I’ve just gotten back from Jordan; a beautiful time in
Jordan. I am changed. The atmosphere of my mind has gone from violence to
another way. There is no fear in Amman. Life is normal! This is the life I am
When I got back home to Baghdad they tell me my sister’s neighborhood is closed; surrounded by troops. So there are not open stores so I want to take some food to her. My brother wants to go, but I tell him, “I have been away. I want to go see her.” Of course this is a little lie. I am afraid for my brother; for his traveling when there are so many checkpoints, so many ways for a beloved brother to disappear.
My sister, T, is pregnant. Her husband is away, out of Iraq. So there is a need for her to have food for her and the two children. My brother buys vegetables and some canned food and some meat. They love meat! Of course we didn’t buy a lot of meat because there is no electricity so it will go bad. We bought enough for a lunch and dinner.
Two days later, I go by taxi to my sister’s house in
Gazaliyah. The late afternoon was hot and dry. My brother comes with me to the
highway so I can get a taxi. He holds the bags of food and soon a young driver
pulls up, “Do you need a taxi?”
It is not a taxi but a car; a white Toyota. It is neat and clean, but not new. Not old. The driver is in his early thirties, his hair freshly cut. He uses his car like a taxi because there is no other work for him. This is a common thing.
“She is headed for Gazaliyah.”
“Good, this is my direction. You have to know I will take
other ways because there are a lot of army, Iraqi and American, at the entrance
to the neighborhood.”
“OK. As long as you are going to take me to the house.”
He said, “That’s OK. I will charge 5,300 dinar.”
When A put me in the car he told the man, “OK. But you take care of her. You be sure to take care of her.”
“Don’t worry. She will be safe.”
I open the window and the heat comes to touch my skin. He
doesn’t use the highway. He says it is too crowded, but there is another
reason. It is too dangerous. He crosses the highway at our corner and uses the
back streets, side streets, and alleyways.
“Are you taking this food to somebody in the neighborhood?”
“Yes. I heard there are no open stores and they have no food and fuel.”
“So you are not from the neighborhood.”
“Yes, you are right. There are no shops. No stores. People
are afraid to go out…So, where do you live? Which district are your from?” to find
out if I was Sunni or Shi’a, I think.
“I live in Khadra. ” Because I live there he knows I am Sunni. It used to be mixed, but no longer. Now all of it is Sunni.
“Are you Sunni or Shi’a?” I ask. My voice is stronger than my feeling. I am a little frightened by his bold questions.
“I am from Gazaliyah. From the Sunni part.”
“Why did you choose these alleys?”
“Because it is crowded. The checkpoints are checking every
car at the main entrance.”
We drive all around the neighborhood’s edge until we reach
the far side. The shooting is very close. As we drive we hear shooting, and as
we continue the shooting becomes louder and louder. An old feeling comes again. I am back again
to the shooting and violence of Iraq. The joy and happy moments of Jordan are
no longer inside me. I am facing the same real, harsh, desolate life of
Then we enter Gazaliyah and nothing is moving except
us. The streets are empty. Everybody is
in the house. At the next corner a few young men look carefully at us. Each one
with his face covered. They are very young. Maybe they are high school age.
They wave to my driver as if they know him well and we roll slowly past side
streets in which knots of armed young men, wearing masks, holding machine guns,
run like rats from an alley to another alley. They are making signs to each
And then I jumped, like a child suddenly awakened from a
“I can see them. They are right there.”
‘Yes. And those who are shooting are in front of us. Look in
front of you and you will see them.”
I turn my face and see this bunch of young men, full of youth. I look at them and it was a moment out of time. My tears started to fall.
“How long has it been
since you visited your sister?”
“More than a month. I know the situation is horrible, but I
didn’t know the extent.” My voice was shaky and he can feel the panic in my
voice. “I saw Americans shooting. I saw Iraqis shooting, but this is the first
time I see the other side shooting at the Americans and the Iraqi soldiers.”
“Look. You can come to
my house. I have many sisters. You can stay with them.” His voice is soft and I
realize he is looking at me in the mirror and can see my tears. He must think
I am afraid; that these are the tears of fear and frustration which have become
common. But I was crying for all Iraqis. We are all deprived of life. In Jordan
I saw young men having fun; women having fun. I pity the young men in the masks.
They are young and should be enjoying their lives. They should be in school,
getting married, things like this, but they find themselves in such a horrible
situation. They are not going to cinema, listening to music, living a normal
life. I feel very sad. These are my own people; my neighbors; my brothers. They
should live a normal life. Why do they have to fight? They can be shot! Their
lives can end! We are so very, very deprived.
I say, “Thank you, but let’s just go to my sister’s house.”
“Look, we can wait here until everything becomes calm.” He
drives to a quiet alley and we sit still as we listen to the shooting. I think
he wants to take me away from the fear.
“Why are you going here?”
‘I told you. I am taking food to my sister. Her husband is not here. He is out of Iraq.”
“What is his name?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Well, I live here. I know everyone in this neighborhood. All the men know each other. What is his name?”
“Ahmed. He lives near the mosque.” As we drive and pass more armed men there are waves exchanged. He is excited to see them. They know him and wave him on.
“Ahmed Al? Does he have a brother called Abdullah?”
“Do you know him?”
“Of course I know him. Who doesn’t? He was kidnapped from the checkpoint last year.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“Does his family still ask about him in the jails and hospitals?”
“Let them quit,” he says, quietly. His large brown eyes hold mine in the mirror.
“Why do you say that?”
He looks at me as if he is certain of something. “Well many
people were kidnapped at that checkpoint and no one has come back to his
family.” His calm, general statement is a lie to his sad eyes and tight lips.
“Let them forget him now.”
I feel very sad. I know he is sure of Abdullah’s death.
he says, “I knew him very well. He was a brave man…When there is shooting we
will stop. When there is calm we will continue driving. Or you can stay with my
sisters until it is quiet. I have five sisters. You can stay until it is quiet.
If you don’t trust me I can stay outside. “
I reply, “No. Let’s continue.”
We drive on to T's house. I wish him safety. He wishes
me safety. I visit my sister and her family on another day in Baghdad.