I was teaching a piece of Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” when I heard the news of the new teacher’s arrival. Finally, the school responded to my request for an assistant. I finished my class and went directly to the teachers’ chamber to introduce myself and discuss the curriculum with her.
The moment I entered the room looking for a new face I found her sitting quietly in the corner. Her face was turned away. She was looking through the window at the school’s front yard. She turned her face when she felt somebody approaching her, smiled, and said, “Noor!” while she stood to hug me.
“Oh my Lord, Nadia! Ten years after the graduation! What a wonderful surprise! How have you been?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said with a fading smile. “No surprises anymore! The real damn surprise is to see our country occupied and the American soldiers everywhere…who would expect that!”
Back in 1995 Nadia was one of the ten best students among the many who graduated with me from the English Department. She was the kind of person whose shyness prevented her from having many friends. She blushed and felt intimidated and sometimes even cried in unexpected situations. Despite that, she had a sense of humor that made students like her. Once, she told me that she preferred burying herself in books about European and American life than going on trips with the class. Her purpose was to avoid any social contact with students, especially men. She was a small woman whose shiny black hair was set in a simple pony tail. She always wore long sleeves and long dresses. We encouraged her to put on some makeup but her response was just a smile. She looked much younger than her age and if you saw her then you might think she was a high school student.
Now, as I got to know her again, I noticed that she rarely smiled. Even if she did, her smile would leave quickly. She usually sat by herself, and avoided getting involved in the normal chit chat of the teachers’ room. You couldn’t feel her presence. It was as if she lived in her own world. Something had happened to Nadia and I couldn’t guess what.
During these unbearable days of war, teachers were ordered to accompany students in all school buses; to provide comfort and security when things got bad. Nadia sat next to me in the front seat while 20 students sat behind us. During our trips we heard shooting and explosions. Almost every day we had to sit for hours because of the traffic. Sometimes American troops blocked the roads and we had to look for other possible ways to take the students safely to their homes. Many times we heard sudden shooting very close to us and this created chaos and fear inside the bus. Some students were scared and cried while others cursed the war and the soldiers. The driver used to tell everybody not to worry and that all would get home safely. It was impossible not to be scared or to worry! We could be casualties at any second if the American convoy was attacked or a shooting exchange happened. But there was nothing you could do. Baghdad was a battle field and you never knew when shooting or explosions would take place. Anything could happen in a second and stop in a second as well, leaving dead innocents in the street.
Teachers and students rarely reached school without crying or complaining among each other about how bad the situation was. Daily explosions, assassinations, abductions, and missing people made school attendance a deadly risk for all. Except for Nadia! She never complained or showed any reaction. I was curious about what was going on with her. When I asked her, she replied coldly, “We live in war. Anything might happen!”
In the morning of the first day of the final exam the temperature had not climbed. People were heading for work. We picked up the students and as they quietly studied we headed for school. When we reached the main street a convoy passed and the bus had to stop. Rush hour traffic was now jammed with many cars that had to halt and then obey the orders of the American soldiers. It was scary and a silence filled the moment with apprehension. American troops blocked the street as usual and we had to wait. Some students were still studying, but the conversations had ended.
Nadia and I were concerned about the safety of the students. I was nervous but quiet. Nadia on the other hand, was relaxed but alert. She was watching the students and the soldiers at the same time. We were totally stuck in the middle of the road. The civilians were waiting in their cars with eyes filled with caution and concern about the situation. They were trapped in all directions.
“That’s it, I am going to talk to them” Nadia said. The school bus driver asked her not to go; it was too dangerous. She ignored him and went out quietly. I could see her walking between the cars heading to the American Hummers. I was frightened to death that she would be shot. I saw her approaching a Hummer and talking to the soldiers with a straight back, looking into their eyes, and her hands were moving confidently. A scary silence prevailed in the bus. I was saying to myself, “What is she doing? Has she lost her mind? She used to be very reluctant and fragile. Where did she bring such strength and courage from?”
Getting on the bus she said, angrily but quietly, “I told those bastards that the students should be at school for their final exam. Otherwise, they should ask everybody to go home.” That day we arrived at school late. All were safe.
A couple of days later I asked Nadia, “Do you still desire to go abroad and explore the Western world?” We were in a cab heading to her house after spending a few hours shopping during the weekend. “Oh, No. No desires any more. Things are changed.” She said while she was rolling down the window. There was a pause. Nadia closed her eyes and felt the hot breeze. “I was fooled by their lies. They are human beings just like us after all…and can be crushed easily when their time comes.” I could feel the bitterness in her voice while she was watching the road.
“Can you feel the silence?” she asked.
“Usually something bad will happen after such silence. I am not afraid. Are you?” I replied.
It was a very hot afternoon and the taxi driver seemed to be very cautious. The driver broke in, “You sisters live in a dangerous spot. This highway had been always a spot to target Americans.”. “ Yes, that’s true but we live there. What can we do? The….” She couldn’t finish her sentence.
The shooting started and we couldn’t find a way to escape the highway. All the cars on the highway started to turn back against the flow of the traffic. The silence changed in a moment into chaotic beeping and shouting. The noise filled the air and it was difficult to hear the driver’s voice.
“I have to take you back, I can’t continue. The shooting might get worse. The soldiers will be here very soon and for sure they will block the area. We might be killed, if…”
Nadia interrupted him and told him to drop us right there. It was a short walking distance anyway. In his hurry to leave he didn’t even bother to convince us to stay in the car and leave with him. He took his fare and disappeared with the other cars.
Nadia asked me not to worry and said everything would be alright. We walked together for a while on the shimmering highway in the noonday furnace of Baghdad. I looked at Nadia. Her face was dripping with sweat. She squinted because of the intense sunlight. We were both walking fast until we passed under the pedestrian bridge. The surprise was there.
Tens of soldiers were scattered on both sides of the highway. Nadia and I kept walking straight until we reached the long alley, on the opposite side of the road that led to her house. The troops were bunched at each alleyway. But we had to cross the short concrete wall that separated the lanes. I looked around to find that we were surrounded by many soldiers. “Do you think they will let us pass?” I asked. “Ignore them. They are more frightened of us than we are of them,” she said.
We were alone among the scattered soldiers. A helicopter was hovering above. “It seems that a battle had just finished a while ago. Someone was wounded and they are trying to evacuate him …can you see that?” she said. “Yes, I can” said I.
The soldiers were watching us approach them. Some of them targeted their weapons on us. “Stop and don’t move,” a soldier shouted from behind us. Nadia pointed across the street and said, without turning her head, “We live across the highway, please let us pass.”
We stood beside each other facing tens of soldiers. I could feel her bosom moving up and down. There was something larger than fear or anger in her firm voice. The temperature was too high. I was sweating and the sun rays distorted my vision. A voice came from behind, “If you move, I will shoot.” We stood there without moving. I could hear some soldiers in front of us talking and pointing at the neighborhood while others focused on us with their targeted weapons. I could wait no more and thought I would faint.
All of a sudden the shooting started again. The soldiers scattered in different directions in a blink. Some taking cover at the edge of the road, some behind the low concrete wall to our backs. The highway turned into a haunted spot. I sunk to my knees telling Nadia to lie down on the ground even though there was nothing around to protect us. She shrugged her shoulders.
The roaring of the gunfire increased as the helicopter began to shoot. I put my hands on my ears and closed my eyes. I couldn’t see any more. Time had stopped.
And then silence, until Nadia turned to the soldier behind us. “You used me as a shield, coward!” By this time I was trying to stand up and saw Nadia impatiently yelling at the soldier. “Can we go home now?” “No, not yet,” he said. After a few minutes we were allowed to cross the highway. We walked by soldiers who kept watching us.
“Weren’t you frightened?” I asked Nadia while she was opening the gate to the peaceful garden of her house. We walked in slowly. She looked at me and said, “The three of us were in the car. The explosion happened. It was last year. They found me thrown on the pavement. They couldn’t save my child and my husband…there is nothing left to worry about or be frightened of… such things happen fast. I won’t feel it anyway.”
Thoughts were rolling inside of my head. Now I knew the reason behind Nadia’s “courage”.
June 2015 by Nisreen Aljubouri