I used to see him about once or twice a week when I waited for the school bus on the highway across from my house in Baghdad. I didn’t know who he was. Actually I knew nothing about him. I found myself curious about him each time I saw him.
He always wore the same shoes. They were brown and well-polished laced shoes. His light blue, white, and sometimes pink shirts were always very clean and pressed. His well combed short hair was reddish and straight. I liked the freckles on his shiny face. They reminded me of “Jamal” of one of the cartoon figures that I enjoyed watching when I was a child. He was not handsome but there was something serious about him that made me like watching him. Sometimes when I left my house, I saw him passing by and we walked, as if together, to the highway. I enjoyed those moments of being next to him with only a short distance between us. His perfume was charming!
Each one of us knew the location where we had to wait. He stood on my same side of the highway carrying some books in one hand and a brown leather bag in the other. He usually waited about 20 or more steps ahead of me which made it easier to look at him. If our eyes met accidently I pretended to look in the school bus direction. From time to time he raised his left arm, bent his elbow, and looked at his silvery watch. He was in his early thirties. He might be few years younger than me. I wondered about his occupation; maybe he was a teacher like me. Or a doctor carrying his equipment in a bag. I did not see him every day. He might work part time, or he might come later some days. It was strange for me to think of him, expecting his presence, and waiting for him when he was late. Whenever I saw him I felt some kind of excitement.
I got worried sometimes that something bad might have happened to him when he didn’t show up. And why not? Everything could happen in the days of war. Sometimes I had to get on the school bus before he arrived. I would sit at the window to see him coming late to his location. Then I released a sigh of relief.
It was a joy to see him on that day. My school bus was late for some reason and I had to change my spot because there had been an explosion on the highway the day before. The street was filled with pieces of broken glass and the rubber of damaged and burnt cars. I had to move backward a little bit and closer to his spot where there was less debris. The waiting for my school bus became boring and the moment I turned around I saw him coming. The pieces of glass on the black street were glowing under the sun like small stars. He was walking with a straight back and wide steps, his head was moving up to have a look then down to watch his steps. He walked slowly and carefully avoidingthe shiny pieces of glass and stood ten steps away from me. He murmured something I couldn’t understand. Then he raised his face, looked at me and smiled. I smiled back then turned in the opposite direction of the highway. I felt a heat rising slowly up to my face and was too embarrassed to make that beautiful moment longer. What if he started to prompt a conversation? How would I respond? He must have seen me before or noticed me watching him somehow. I wished the delay of the school bus would get longer. I wished he would say something or complain about the glass fragments under our feet just to start a conversation with me. H he might ask me about my new location. Then, the conversation would turn into exchanging phone numbers and then meetings. Who knows? But this was all in my mind. Oh, I was too shy.
Two shots awakened me from my day dreaming. I saw people running fast, away from the highway. I turned around back and forth in a quick move to see what was going on. In just a few seconds people emptied the highway on both sides and went to safer positions by hiding in the alleys leading away from the main road. Hearing gun shots was something normal at that time. I didn’t move but I turned around to see if he was there, or hiding somewhere just like the others. He was there, laying on the broken pieces of glass. His books were scattered on the ground. His face turned to me and his eyes were wide open. Blood was gushing out of his head as if somebody was stepping on a hose and then letting it go, over and over.
I couldn’t walk or even budge. I looked at him. My mouth hung open. My eyes did not blink. I was totally paralyzed the moment I saw the blood coming out of his head making a dark red circle grow beneath him. The glass fragments were no longer glowing. They were covered with his blood. Then I realized it was only me on the highway. I looked at him again in doubt of what just had happened. What should I do? For a second, he moved. I was positive that he was alive. His right hand was turned over and his up turned fingers were opening and closing as if he was trying to hold on to something. I wanted to shout for help or scream but my voice wouldn’t come out. I was not able to take one step toward him. Or at least help him by calling the ambulance to rescue him. I was totally numb! Then I remembered that it was impossible to help him. It was too dangerous to approach the injured or dead people or even come closer to them. In the time of war one should know how to protect himself only. Otherwise, the killers would shoot you with no hesitation. To help was to die.
I left the highway and walked home with small fast steps, my eyes filled with tears. I opened the gate of the house and sat on the ground. I burst out crying. I heard my sister-in-law’s cold voice coming from the kitchen, “Help her, they shot another one out there.” My brother, Ala’, came out quickly, knelt beside me, and asked what had happened. I couldn’t say anything but “Let’s try to help him, he still alive.” Ala’ hugged me tightly and with a voice filled with sorrow and said, “You know we can’t. No one can! Come in to drink some water.”
I walked heavily to the kitchen and sat at the table, speechless. Ala’ wet a towel and wiped my face gently. “Do you want to eat something? I think you should go and rest in your bedroom.” “No, the school bus will be waiting for me on the highway,” I stood up, steadied myself with hands on the chair, took a sip of water, and said goodbye to him.
I walked slowly and heavily as if my feet were chained with heavy weights. I was crying and sobbing like a child while focusing on the now motionless body at the side of the highway. The school bus was waiting for me. It was filled with students and teachers looking with horror through the window at him. Many people on both sides of the highway came back to wait for their transportation, looking at him from a distance. Unfortunately, I was one of them. I had turned into a spectator.
I sat in the school bus quietly while teachers and students were wondering who he was and why he was shot. Some said he might be a spy, or a murderer, or an innocent intellectual. The further we drove up the highway, the more I cried. I couldn’t stop my tears from falling down.
Later that day, Ala’ told me that the dead body of the unknown young man was left under the sun for about four hours and no one dared to approach him. Only the American soldiers were able to evacuate his body from the highway when they passed by later that day.
I waited for the school bus in the same location every day. Eventually the street was cleaned of rubble. Eventually the rain washed the blood away. Eventually people stopped thinking about what happened that day. But I, never.