Beams of light pour in through the dusty windows of the boarded up schoolhouse and stir me from sleep. It’s morning again. I pull the sleeve of my parka folded pillow over my eyes to escape the sunlight. Millions of dead fly eyes stare at me from the ringlets of flypaper hanging from the ceiling. I bring my arm up over my head and press the button on the top left side of my watch. Blue Indiglo says 0656 hours. I have a few more minutes.
“Vic?” I say with a froggy morning rasp. Dry desert air. Wonderful for the asthma. Not so much for mouth breathing sleep. “You up yet?”
No answer from my left. I flop my head to the side and take in the rolled up sleeping bag at the foot of his cot. Mosquitoes dance on the netting covering his vacancy and then, as if taking commands from insect traffic control, one by one, they taxi away and fly around the room strafing cots, crashing into doors hanging on one hinge, and bumping down, down, down to the ground. They continue to swirl around the room and then head skyward towards one of the dozen broken windows and out into the Iraqi sunshine. Dust floats in the glow of morning and the alarm on my watch starts beeping.
Sitting up, I reach down into my slick, green flight bag and pick up my English to Arabic dictionary. Thumbing through the well-worn pages, I search for the words I will need today. Hospital. Doctor. Medicine. Yesterday, I helped translate a story of how a young boy had come across an old signal flare in a field. As he dusted it off to show his sister the new toy he’d found, it sparked to life like Aladdin’s lamp and burned his hands, his legs and the legs of his sister standing close by. They screamed all the way home. Their father only brought him to see me when infection started to fester.
They said it happened three days ago. We had a medevac fly in to take the boy before he lost his legs. He didn’t bring his daughter because she couldn’t walk. Or he didn’t want to expose her to us. Religious customs were ruining these people for me. After imploring the man for the better part of an hour, he promised to return this morning and lead us to his daughter. I only hope he accepts the invasive attention his daughter is going to get from us.
At 0730 hours, I step out from behind the walls of the guarded war-torn building and make my way to the Humvee where Vic should be waiting. Bullet holes and spent shrapnel have pockmarked the wall between where I sleep and where I work. The country is full of these walls, every building protected from view. Is it modesty, desert architecture, or religious zeal? I wonder. Or maybe just a combination of all three. Every building covered from foundation to rooftop, just like the old women who come to the check points to collect the non-potable water in fifty gallon drums, covered from head to toe in black cotton customs, their faces brown and wrinkled by the desert sun. Trailing behind them a slew of young girls, petite frames and eyes of fire that suggest otherwise. I think it is these eyes that build the walls.
Vic stands at the rear of the hummer loading his combat medic’s bag when I rest my M-16 against the back passenger door. He is in deep concentration and trying to ignore the bead of sweat forming on his upper lip.
“Hot enough for you?” I say, repeating my daily morning greeting to him.
“I don’t know how these A-rabs stand it,” he says, pulling the zipper tight on his bag. “This whole place is screwed up. March isn’t supposed to be hot.” He lifts up his bag and throws it in the bed of the cab and closes the tailgate. “It doesn’t even feel like a month since we were both freezing our asses and now it’s Daytona Beach.”
“This is no beach, friend,” I say, pulling a rag from the back of the hummer. Vic hands me my weapon and opens the back door to get his own.
“So, what do you think our chances are this morning?” he asks. “The old man going to let us see his daughter?”
I pull the tailgate down, lay the rag out flat, and set my M-16 down, ejection port up. “I wish I knew. Things are so different here.”
We both stand silent for a moment dusting off our weapons. So far, sand has been more of an enemy than the people. Every nook and cranny of everything I own is covered in a light dusting of pollen-filled grit.
“What kind of father doesn’t bring both of his children to get help?” Vic asks. “I’d be breaking down your door, you know?”
I shake my head in answer. I have almost two years of Arabic training and culture under my belt, and I still don’t get it. Back in the first few months of training, I was lazy and didn’t study as hard as I should have, electing to spend my nights in downtown Monterey with friends, watching movies or just hanging out. Then I failed a test. And then another. Failing a third would have me cut from the program, possibly to be sent to infantry school, which was the worst fear for every newbie at the school. The Army was testing me, and I was failing. But the senior instructor, Mr. Canaan, was not a General, or ranking officer of any kind. He was a foreign national from Lebanon: here to give his family a better life, and best of all, he liked me. He thought I was funny, routinely making him laugh with imitations of my instructors.
“I don’t mind telling you,” I would say with a heavy Egyptian accent and a straight face, “I have two houses in Georgetown, and I am a gift from God to all women.”
So even though I was well on my way out, having failed two tests, at a point where he was required to counsel me and set me straight or send me packing, Mr. Canaan had something else in mind. There was a test coming up on a Friday, so on a Wednesday, he called me into his office to figure things out.
“Mr. Farris,” he said, using the name I had been assigned at the beginning of class. Literally translated, it means the horseman or knight, and it was the closest sounding equivalent to my own name that my first instructor could think of at the time. I liked the idea of being compared to a horse, so I was glad to have it.
Mr. Canaan sat behind his metal, government desk smiling at me. “I like you. You are good guy. What is the problem?”
The problem was my first time away from home. Seconded by my lack of any semblance of self-discipline. I joined the Army to avoid going to college. I was under the impression I had a say in what I did, and that say had me flushing my future down the toilet, because clearly, studying Arabic had not made my top ten list on how to survive a military enlistment. It should have easily been in the top five at least, somewhere between steering clear of enemy fire and avoiding Vietnamese hookers in Saigon. All the bonuses I had signed on for were all contingent upon my learning Arabic, and I needed a wake up call. Instead, I got Mr. Canaan, a people pleaser.
“I tell you what, Mr. Farris. You pass next test? I give you clean slate,” he said sliding his hands together. I needed a lesson in accountability, instead of what I took away from the encounter—which was that I could always get by on just my charm. Eighteen months later, I’m sitting on the tailgate of a Humvee being all I can be.
Vic is methodically removing all the sand from his M203 grenade launcher, the neck of his undershirt soaking up the sweat that is busy spreading from his upper lip to the rest of his body. Without looking up, he keeps talking about the girl. “He said she couldn’t walk, right?”
“That’s the gist I got,” I say, working on my own weapon. “He said she was worse than her brother, but he was talking really fast. It’s hard to understand sometimes when emotion is involved. I got a lot of pleading and begging. I could only honestly understand half of what he was saying. I just wish I was better at the language.”
“Hey, we’re here aren’t we?” Vic says. “And trust me, something is better than nothing.” He pats me on the back. “All I know how to say is urtfa yedik, or some shit. And I don’t think having him put his hands in the air is going to help his burned kids, right?” Vic says, smiling.
“You do have a point,” I say.
He reaches up and pats his hair down jokingly. “Really, I thought I fixed that with hair gel.” Who doesn’t love old man humor?
Down the street, people are starting to come out of their houses for the day. From a distance, heat ripples and rises making them all look like desert visions of vibrant oasis life. But the reality makes its voice known; cars engines idle, dogs bark. It’s every day life in an Iraqi border town. The old man should be along any minute now.
“What time we looking at?” Vic asks.
“Sa’a thamania,” I say.
“Ocho?” I ask, raising my eyebrows, and seeing no recognition in his eyes. “You no speak a Spanish in West Virginia?”
Vic stares at me deadpan.
“Eight. He said he’d be here at eight.”
“And the escorts?”
“Excellent.” Vic picks up his Kevlar helmet and puts in on his head. “Because that instant coffee’s starting to do a number on me,” and he shuffles quickly back behind the walls.
At quarter after eight, the old man appears in the distance, shuffling through the heat like a lone drifter in a western movie. He wears the same clothes from yesterday. At least we have that in common. Three other Humvees full of MPs arrived twenty-five minutes before and were starting to get annoyed. I am glad the old man has kept his word. As he reaches the vehicles, his smile fades as the military police start unloading. When I was convincing him yesterday, I neglected to tell him about the escorts.
“These men for safety. We go to strange place. They must come with us. Our rules, okay?” I say. A year and a half and that is the best I can do, clean slate or no.
“Yes. Yes. No problem. Let us go. My daughter, she waits,” the old man says. He still seems nervous, and I wish I could forget about war and the need for armed security. Who wants a fury of men with weapons coming to see his daughter?
“No worry,” I say. “Just Mr. Vic and me to see your daughter.”
“Yes. Yes. No problem, come. Ya’Allah,” he says.
I nod and give Vic the okay. As we make our way through town, people duck in and out from behind the walls of their homes. Mothers shoo children and hide their faces from us. They judge our vehicles and uniforms and fear the 50 cal mounted to the top of every other vehicle. The animosity is palpable, the roads going silent as we pass. Motherless children run along side screaming water, bebsi, smoke as we rumble on by, and then they shake their dirty feet at us in retaliation of empty hands. I used to throw candy and water to the kids, feeling sorry for their third world upbringing. I wanted to make friends.
“Quis umik!” One little boy said to me as I filled his hands with chocolates engineered to withstand the desert climate. He smiled at me as he said it. The look in his eyes didn’t betray that he had just said the equivalent of “fuck your mother” as thanks.
I ignore the throngs of children as they run in a wake of powdered sand kicked up by our convoy. The chorus of quis umiks gets lost in the diesel drone of tactical vehicles. I eat my own candy now.
As we round the corner near the old man’s house, he starts waiving his arms with enthusiasm. He’s smiling now, pointing at his castle of sand. His walls are like all the others: tall, blank, and foreboding. Yet he is excited to see them. Paint swatches at Home Depot might call the look Moroccan Casbah rather than what it actually resembles, Apocalyptic Holocaust.
The vehicles grind to a halt and the old man jumps from his side of the cab, motioning for Vic and I to follow. In the twenty-five minutes of tardiness this morning, the MPs went back and forth about their desires to clear the house, but I argued that fathers don’t burn their kids as decoys. I had to beg him to bring us. I hope I am right.
I grab my M-16 and my dictionary and head off after the old man. As I step inside the stone walls, my breath is still, and my nose takes in a familiar scent of green. Grass. A space of lush, verdant fields runs from the stone wall to the doorway. I want to take off my boots and savor it, but the man disappears inside. I look at Vic and he shakes his head in disbelief. The man returns and pokes his head out of the door.
“Y’allah, amshi,” he says, and I nod my head at Vic as we follow the old man inside. I pass pillows lining the walls and the deep pile of dusty carpets muffle the sound of our combat boots. I am Alice falling down a rabbit hole of Persian rugs caked in iron and minerals. The living room gives way to a darker hallway and suddenly we are in another room. We have stopped in the doorway, and all is quiet save for the shallow breathing coming from the mound of pillows in the corner.
“Hello,” she says in English. I cannot see her face in the dark, but I can hear the fear in her voice. “Hua tabeeb?” she asks her father.
“No. I am not doctor,” I answer. “Ana mutarjim.” Translator.
“Then, he is the doctor?” She says in Arabic, referring to Vic.
“No, but he knows about burns, from war.”
“You have no women to help me?” She pleads.
“No women are with us,” I say. “It is not allowed in war.”
“But he is man,” she says, no longer afraid.
“Yes, but he is like doctor,” I say. “He will fix you. Nothing more. Okay?”
“No. No. He cannot see me. I am woman!” she says, repeating herself. “Ana mara’!”
“What’s wrong?” Vic asks. I was afraid this would happen. I hoped I misunderstood the day before when the old man had told me. Her legs aren’t the only place burned. The flare burned off her underwear taking with it skin and pubic hair.
Without turning away from her, I hold my hand up to Vic to stop him from talking. “She doesn’t want you to see her,” I whisper.
“Why not?” Vic he whispers back.
“It’s the whole religious thing. It’s really backward—”
“Tell her that if I can’t see her, I can’t treat her.”
“And if I don’t treat her, she could lose her legs, or even die.”
“It’s not just her legs. It went,” I pause, looking for the words. “Farther up. She burned, everything down there.” The old man is next to his daughter, kneeling, not saying a word. I ask him her name.
“My name is Aisha,” she says. “And you both are forbidden to see me.”
“Aisha. Listen to me. If he cannot see you, it is possible that you could lose your legs. Do you want that?” I ask.
“No, but I am a woman. If he sees me—“
“Yes, yes. I know about your religion. This man, he is married. He has daughters that are your same age. He wants to help you like he would have your father help his daughters if he could,” I say, trying to convert years of Muslim indoctrination.
Suddenly, the old man is in the conversation, speaking faster than he did the day before. I catch a word here and there, but the multitude of sounds coming out of his mouth is too much for me to understand. My head hurts and I want to be free of my own language, and swim in the thick, salty ocean of glottal stops and diphthongs crashing over me. Then the old man’s voice changes, the way my own father’s would when I wouldn’t listen to reason.
“Ana abuk! Sawfa ataa’ni!” he says, ordering her to bend to her father’s will, but Aisha does not sway. What had begun as fear is now stubborn anger.
“What about your father?” I ask.
“He can see you, yes?”
“He is my father. He cleaned me as a baby.”
“Then he can clean you now,” I tell her. I motion for Vic to bring his bag. “We’re going to give the gear to the old man,” I say.
“What?” he asks.
“Just go with me here,” I say. To Aisha as much as to her father, I explain the plan the best I can. “He will tell me, and I will tell him, and we will not see.”
Aisha does not answer right away, but I know she will accept the terms of her healthcare.
“Yes,” she says. “It is the only way.”
Vic doesn’t like the arrangement when I tell him, but he understands it can be no other way.
“This is one fucked up culture, Man,” he mumbles, reaching into his bag to pull out supplies.
“I’m only going to translate. We will not see,” I say to her as we begin. The old man positions himself in between Aisha and us and begins describing the wounds to me, and I, to Vic. My eyes grow accustom to the darkness, and even though Vic still blocks most of the light coming through the door, Aisha is becoming clearer. The burns on her leg rise up like sunbaked mud and continue up into her vaginal area. I try to focus on the translation and avert my eyes from her blistered skin, keenly aware that I cannot look away.
“Try to move closer,” I whisper to Vic between translations. “When she is talking to her father.”
Vic drops his bag and steps in a little each time he reaches in to get tape, or scissors, or gauze and handing them to the old man. As he bends down, light seems to pour into the room from nowhere. Paisleys line the rugs and pillows. Purple and green and pink paisleys. Each pillow an accented design of the rugs. And suddenly there is a window I hadn’t seen before, a heavy drape of paisley covering the light trying to get in. Aisha’s dress is black and wrinkled and covers everything but her eyes. Eyes that are suddenly staring back at me. How had I not noticed it before? A rush of heat spreads over the back of my neck and Aisha looks away as I do the same. I open my dictionary and translate injuries and salve and gauze maintenance. Slowly, the old man finishes the work we came to do.
“Alhamdu Allah,” the old man says. Praise be to Allah. “May God have mercy on you both.”
I am standing back outside of the forbidding wall shaking hands with the old man. Vic receives his praise from the father and although he doesn’t understand a word the old man says, he smiles politely and nods his head up and down. I respond in like fashion, as is the Arab custom. Bless me? No, Bless you, and so forth. The old man releases his small grip on my hand and I head back to the passenger seat of the Humvee waiting for me.
As Vic starts up our vehicle, preparing to fold into the police escort for the short trip back, I hear the loud clank of the courtyard door slamming shut. I turn to look, but miss the glow of green grass hidden behind the old man’s walls.
“What are you grinning about?” Vic asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “Just looking forward to going home,” knowing that my smile won’t last.
We have some things in common. Not the cop/sex crimes/homicide stuff, but the veteran/writer stuff. I liked your memoir here. The first time I was at the DLIWC (only you and I know what those initials mean, right?) was in 1971. I went to visit a buddy who was a Marine, learning Vietnamese. He later made the mistake of sitting up in his sleeping bag suddenly in the dark while on patrol, and a jumpy fellow Marine opened up on him thinking he was the Viet Cong. He was badly wounded, but that was his ticket home. While I was in Monterey, I came to understand what a beautiful place it was. I put the Presidio as first choice on my “dream sheet” of duty stations (dream sheet as in “in your dreams”), but coincidentally the Sergeant Major from the Presidio was at my training base and asked to see the roster of grads in my MOS, and I’ll be damned if that wasn’t where I ended up 1973-74, permanent party. A lot better than Vietnam. I haven’t been back to Monterey since, but I’d love to go. I’m sure it has changed since then, like every place has. This writing is good, intense, honest. I hope you keep it up. Strangely, I finished up my military career as a medic like Vic, but not in the Army. I retired from the Air National
Guard. This is what I would have been doing, had I been activated. Great work, helping those kids! My hat goes off to you, brother! Keep writing.
Thanks John. It’s good to hear from other Vets when it comes to writing. Fortunately for me, The Gulf War was no Vietnam. I can’t wait to see the writing that is soon to come from the Warriors we have fighting right now.