Abdel wakes me on his way to the bathroom, the hiss of his slippers against the sandy floor. There is always sand; it seeps in under the door, gets carried in on our feet and clothes. We used to sweep daily and dust and mop on Thursdays, the start of the Muslim weekend; but now, with just a month to go, like most men who cohabitate, we have begun to neglect our domestic duties. Our concerns have shifted to exit visas.
Abdel is slow in the mornings because of his drinking in the evenings. The cognac disrupts mind-body coordination. He fumbles with the knob on the bathroom door. Then his first words, “fucking bugs,” followed by Arabic curses that hang like pronouncements in the cool morning air. “I fucking hate you cockroaches,” shouts at them as though if they only knew how much they are not wanted they would not just scatter when he flicks on the overhead light but choose never to return. They showed up about two months ago, the cool wet spring, when the desert turns to mud. We feed them poison, and they disappear for a few days then slowly reoccupy the space, their nest somewhere in the wall behind the toilet. Yesterday, I told Abdel, “Our efforts are useless; they are conspiring with the rats to achieve world domination and put an end to our warmongering species. We will never defeat them.”
He said, “Don’t think so deeply about them.”
I was just trying to be funny. I don’t despise them the way he does; in fact, I take pleasure in how they provoke the indecipherable poetry of his curses.
For eight months now, we have shared this one-bedroom apartment, the lower floor of a small two-story concrete building. Behind it and buried in millennia of sand is the ancient wall of Nineveh, the world’s first empire. From the kitchen window, I can see it roll away into the infinite desert. From its top, I have waved to the archaeologists at work, the site you see at the beginning of The Exorcist, where they find the demon. The landlord lives upstairs, the elderly Mr. Mohammad, who graciously apologizes every day for the bugs. He promises they will be gone by June but, then again, so will we, as long as we get the visas.
The living room is spacious, perhaps 20 by 30, with one large front window that looks out on the crushed stone of the front yard. A low wall with its iron gate separates us from the quiet street in this new development on the east side of Mosul, a city divided by the Tigris. Our house is just a ten-minute walk from campus. Like the desert, the houses are beige. All have walls. A few have orange trees that have recently borne fruit. Our neighbor, Mr. Majid is amused that I pluck an orange from his tree on my way to the university. When I asked permission he nodded and smiled then apologized. “No good kind. No sweet.” And they are as sour as grapefruit, but the warm globe fits in my palm like a tiny sun and bleeds its syrup onto my fingers as I struggle with the peel.
This morning, as I sit on the side of the bed and wait for Abdel to complete his shaving and cursing, I prepare myself for the exit visa interrogator. I must present a respectable and grateful self and conceal the irreverence I will be feeling for the officer with his mustache and ribbons. To honor the Father of the Nation, they all have a mustache. The officer will glance at my now thick file to confirm who I am and what I am doing in Iraq. It contains records of correspondence sent and received, reports from Mosul University Security, the Languages Department, the Office of the Academic Dean, previous interviews. If he believes Canadians are the same as Americans, he will make me wait all day for the seal and his signature. I will not look at my watch. I will not ask questions. I must not be seen to corrupt the progress of the state.
Abdel is a modest Muslim and will not like that I am bare-chested. He may admonish me once again; “This is not the Roman Baths.” He knows I could always respond, “What do you expect? Unlike you, I do not enjoy the privacy of a bedroom,” but I won’t because my lack of privacy is part of the deal. For 125 dinars, he gets the room with its bed and closet, and for 75, I get the narrow cot that occupies a corner of this sparsely furnished living room: the bed, a three-drawer dresser where I store my clothes, and a rectangular table, where we eat our meals, prepare our lectures, write our letters and plan our escapes from the land of Saddam. Like the sand, Saddam is everywhere and we carry him with us, his framed photograph in every room at the university and his omnipotence occupying our thoughts.
The table is the only important thing in this room. I could sleep on the floor if I had to. Aside from the orange trees, there is nothing worth seeing through the window. The table is where we meet each evening and where Abdel instructs me on how to survive. He is my trusted friend, an older man, a respected Egyptian scholar, Dr. Abdel Suleiman Ismail, Professor of Translation, and my life may depend on his faith in a common humanity. Each of us is the foreigner the other supports, justifiably paranoid in this nation with its recently ascended president and would-be emperor, armed with his Baath Party, Republican Guard and vast security web. Saddam will not be denied his empire purchased with oil revenues and sustained by his security network, a nation of spies who spy on one another. That is how loyalty is maintained.
Last night, at this modest table, Abdel instructed me on what not to say to the security officer who hopefully today may grant me the exit visa. Only then am I allowed to purchase the Air France ticket to get from Baghdad to Paris then Air Canada to Montreal. The long journey home starts at this table. Abdel turned on the ten o’clock News of The Middle East, broadcast on the BBC World Service. The Western World is enraged at OPEC and the price of oil and the hostages held in Tehran. He turned it off and muttered, “not so good but we should be okay” as he fumbled through the box of cassettes. To succeed, our serious talks require Om Kolthoum. I listened for the three-four beat of the drums then the squeaking and wailing of the violins, the Arab scale making them sound out of tune, all part of the slow build-up to Om Kalthoum.
The theme of this speech would be what not to say. Then, what to say will become clear.
“So, my friend, you heard the BBC news. Now you know why students of Iranian descent have disappeared from your classes. Saddam wants war with the ayatollahs and will not tolerate those who may betray him. Saddam needs access to the Persian Gulf, and he knows the Americans will look the other way.”
He paused as he tipped the short brown bottle with its green label to the rim of his glass and sipped deeply before continuing. “Tomorrow, show no sign of wondering what has become of the Iranian students,” he advised. “Now they are disappeared so assume they never existed. If he asks about them, tell the officer instead how much you enjoyed your interactions with the Iraqi students, so eager to learn, and how much you learned from living in the land of Nineveh. But say nothing, my friend, of Saddam’s dream to become another of its cruel Babylonian and Assyrian kings. Instead say how beautiful is the desert now, the fields of purple and yellow flowers have exploded from the beige and endless sand. Don’t mention the bombs that will explode over Baghdad. Also, you love the mountains but know nothing of the Kurds, whose villages are occupied by Iraqi soldiers and enclosed by barbed wire. Tell him you could not tell a Kurd from a bottle of beer. Pretend they too do not exist. Smile as you speak but do not smile or speak too much.”
Then the pause as he turned the glass in his hand. “You understand?”
I nodded yes as we listened to Om Kolthoum rouse the souls of a Cairo crowd. The recordings are always live, her concerts heard in their moment by the entire Middle Eastern world. New radios have been purchased and extended families and neighbors gathered round. “Like The Beatles,” I once suggested, not knowing better. “No. Nothing is the same,” Abdel replied, so offended at my profane comparison, that he hit the red stop button and left the room. Abdel once quipped that had the Arab peoples been so united in 1967, they would have defeated Israel and not been humiliated in a six-day war, a war he fought in. If only Om Kolthum instead of Nasser had led their forces. Then, as if possessed by a spirit, Abdel rose from his wooden chair, swayed his body and moaned “Yelah, Habibi,” at one with Om and that Cairo crowd, the hundreds of thousands who applaud and sway and moan in hysteria at the way she beseeches and seduces them to feel the hopelessness of impossibly soulful love.
“Yes, I promise,” I said.
Then he wrote his letter to Hannah who is waiting in Berlin and I wrote mine to Nadine waiting in Ottawa. He wept as he folded the sheet and inserted it into the envelope. His tears no longer upset me. He wiped them with toilet paper, which I made sure to throw in the garbage before going to bed as he was too drunk to remember and would be ashamed to witness the wadded balls lying there in the morning. The only time I will cry in front of him is the day I depart with the exit visa stamped in my passport.
“Soon, you will see Hannah” I said. “She waits for you.”
That is really all he needs from me in exchange for guiding me on my long journey home, the one that begins at the table. My nightly assurances and compassion are genuine, a moment of trust and truth in this dusty apartment with its cockroaches.
Now it is morning, he does not speak of Hannah or cry. When I return from the bathroom, I say, ”All the cockroaches have run away. Perhaps you only imagined them or maybe this time they listened to your curses and fled.”
“Funny man this morning, aren’t you? Maybe you should try to joke with the interviewer. Tell him you think Saddam is a boorish tyrannical pig. and he will grant you a visa for a first class flight into Hell.”
I smile as I remove a blue shirt from the top drawer. He has made the strong Turkish coffee required to clear his brain so he may give his lecture. The copper pot with its long spout curved like the neck of a swan sits in its position of prominence at the center of the table. To its left is bread from the local bakery; to the right, a jar of apricot jam. They and last night’s letters belong on the table, the only important thing in this room.