This story was written on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the second Iraq War.
I’ve seen Bruce Willis outrunning explosions many times. But even he would not have seen this one coming.
I am at my market stall. Air is sucked from my body, as I am hurled across the stalls. A clatter and tangle of limbs and metal and wood. A roar, as if the gates of hell have opened.
I am covered in blood and flesh: I do not know how much is mine, how much other people’s, or if it is from animals. A dead bird is lying next to me, the head not quite separated from the body.
Staring at the concrete, throbbing. DVDs from my stall clatter down on me, around me. A pirate Hollywood falling from the sky. And then, feathers, floating. They confuse me. I am staring stupidly at the feathers, the DVDs, and money – someone’s purse, fallen open – and something is spreading around them. Blood, mixed with: what? Later I think it must be vegetable oil from Ra’isa’s stall.
Someone is lying across me, and I am lying across someone. I see bone protruding from a leg, and I realise it may be my own. My hearing returns, in a rush: some cries and screams. Helpless calls that make no sense. Boots and shoes rushing past, stepping carefully over me.
Faces and hands are now everywhere. Hands touching me, holding up my head, pressing against my thigh – I don’t know why. A face stares earnestly into mine, a stranger’s face etched with concern. Men in uniform lift something wooden that partly covered me, then many hands take hold and rush me through the debris, out to the street. I am clutching a DVD to my chest, and will not be parted from it.
This hurts. I am rattled and shaken, nearly dropped, and laid down next to a truck. If any bones were left in place in the explosion, they cannot be now. Many hands are bandaging me: tourniquets and drips applied. The noise and confusion is now immense, and I drift to another place.
It is ten years since I kicked the hollow head of the evil giant. I was there when they dragged his statue to the ground, mocking him, crashing a giant hammer against his effigy with a reverberating clang. We acted fast: looted his palaces, ransacked his offices. A strange elation, edged with fear. We did not know where the giant was hiding. We had punctured his tyranny, yet we feared he’d be back.
I am floating. My friend Ali walks awkwardly down the street. A shadow of the man he once was, walking with crutches and one leg. Together we had watched CNN, transfixed as bombs rained down on our own city. It wasn’t us they were after, but all the same they took Ali’s family, and bits of his own body too. He took comfort in the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as we helped him to bury both his son and his parents. Where is Ali today? I cannot recall.
A man is talking to me, and I don’t understand.
Through a crowd of legs I think I see Ahmed my son, and begin to call out wildly. Inside, I know it is not him. The Mahdi militia took him, and left him by the roadside. I still don’t know why. When their mosques were bombed, I felt no sympathy. It becomes hard to keep the hatred from one’s heart.
At the hospital all is noise and motion: doctors, nurses, victims, families, army, police, passers-by. A young woman doctor is railing against the wicked who would do such things, against the authorities who never exercise authority in time, against all the powers of the world. She sees to my injuries with skill and tenderness.
Gently she prises the DVD from my grasp, and reads the words on the cover with a sardonic smile: “ ‘The Golden Compass.’ Oh, nice title. ‘There are worlds beyond our own. The Compass will show you the way.’ Show me, I’ll go there!”
A fight has broken out in the hospital lobby. Voices are raised, tempers are frayed. Blame and accusations abound.
My mind wanders and returns to the giant statue of the tyrant who used to rule us all with fear. The pain that racks my body is telling me the truth I have been unwilling to hear: the only thing worse than being oppressed is to be free.
And our tragedy is that we have been liberated to be – ourselves.