The nights at the Sheraton were near and distant bursts of fire. It was possible to tell when the Americans were shooting by the rounds from the heavy guns on the gigantic Bradley armored personnel carriers. Mitch said that if we heard explosions on the hour it was the American army blowing up ammunition and if not, it was unplanned shooting. The bursts of firing were not on any hour. The American armored personnel carriers were bigger than the Abrahams tanks. The Americans surrounded the Palestine Hotel compound and the parking lot between it and the
Sheraton with barbed wire and positioned a number of tanks, creating an isolated compound isolated from 14 Ramadan Square and the nearby streets. More or less.
On the third night in Baghdad, Fatima arrived. She was wearing a long, modest brown dress and limped a bit.
She had nowhere to be. She spoke only Arabic. Mitch came up to the room and said that after an argument with the manager of the Sheraton they had arranged a place for her to sleep. A yellow dust storm had fallen on the city and blurred everything. “Four seasons in one,” said Fars. There was dust everywhere and drops of dirty rain and a cold wind. In the morning, Fatima stood in the lobby of the Sheraton. I urged her to go in for breakfast. She said that she was 16, although she looked older. I sent her to get a plate and fill it. The Sheraton dining room was a depressing place, with dim lighting and lousy food. It improved a bit after two weeks, but during the first days, or the first weeks after the Americans entered the city, the frequent electricity blackouts would halt everything.
Therefore I was glad that our room was on the first floor. The Sheraton reminded me of the gloomy Intourist hotels in central Asia. Something that is supposed to be excellent but was maintained in a shocking fashion. During the electricity blackouts the water disappeared from the faucets and the toilets stopped functioning. Baghdad during the first weeks after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue was a strange place. Not that I had thought about it otherwise when I left at the beginning of May. I had a different idea of Baghdad; not an idea, perhaps, because I have no notion of what will happen, but an expectation. The city of Haroun al Rashid, Ali Baba, Aladdin, “A Thousand and One Nights,” Shahzaman , Shahriar, Scherezade. A woman in her mid-30s gets up from a nearby table and goes over to Fatima, takes her authoritatively by the hand and seats her at her own table. She spoke fervently to Fatima and then approached the table where I was sitting with Mitch. I stood up and she came up to me and I could her breathing on my ear.
“Don’t speak to her. This girl has big troubles. Don’t meddle in what you don’t understand!” she said in good, accurate Arabic with a heavy German accent.
“Pleased to meet you,” I replied in English to the woman who was breathing into my ear. I couldn’t turn around to talk to her, because if I wanted to look into her eyes I would have to traverse that intimate distance that is traversed when there is no longer any need for words. “Tsur.”
“Suzanne,” she said in a heavy German accent, moving to English and continuing to whisper fervently and excitedly into my ear. “She has a trouble of the private sort, you understand. I can’t discuss it with you. It has to do with her society.” She put her lips up against my ear and I was almost waiting for her to lick my eardrum. Stranger things than. Stranger things happen in Baghdad. The feeble yellow light in the dim dining room of the Hilton [Sheraton??], the overly sweet tea, the metallic-tasting rolls, the terrible olives. “You understand, she had a relationship with a certain journalist, but don’t tell anyone. If they see that your friend is going with her – her relatives will come up from the south. You look like a good person to me, but don’t meddle in what you don’t understand. I will take her with me to the hospital, you understand. I’m a doctor, and I will solve her problem and teach her to be a nurse. You understand?”
“Yes,” I said. Dr. Suzanne continued to breathe into my ear. Fatima sat shyly on the edge of her chair at Suzanne’s table. I did not intend to deprive Dr. Suzanne of saving a soul. She shook my hand warmly and I was not certain what I was supposed to do for the doctor who looked in need of physical and medical treatment. Wars and battered countries attract all kinds of people.
“What was all that?” asked Mitch when I sat back down at the table. Judith was sitting next to him.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “If I’ve understood right, there’s an illegitimate pregnancy here, blood vengeance and that if her parents and relatives see you here in the hotel lobby with their daughter -”
“Yesterday I quarreled with the manager of the Palestine to let her sleep there, and here I got a room for her.”
“This is the end of you .”
“Ah,” said Mitch, “no one ever said that journalism was no-risk profession.”
On the way to one of Saddam’s palaces on the riverbank we passed the Iraqi air force headquarters that had been bombed and turned into a pile of rubble. The headquarters were not more a kilometer south of 14 Ramadan Square where the huge statue of Saddam had stood surrounded by 37 columns to indicate the year of Saddam’s birth. 1937. Though is biographers say that in fact he was born in 1939 and that the change in the year stems from the fact that he did not want people to know that the mother of his children was older than him.
The socialist monument outside the demolished building suddenly looked like a part of it. A daring, alert pilot standing with his face to the skies, his helmet under his arm and he standing on the ruins of the cockpit.
“Do you know what his story is?” asked Fadi.
“No,” said Mitch, “but you’ll tell us.”
“This is the heroic Suleiman,” said Fadi respectfully “They were two Iraqi pilots who fought against to Iranian pilots. The Iranian pilot shot down his friend. Suleiman was so enraged that he flew straight at the Iranian pilot, and without guns, without
missiles, he simply crashed into him for vengeance.”
“Sounds pretty stupid to me,” said Mitch. “Had he used up all his missiles and bombs?”
“No,” said Fadi in embarrassment. “He was a hero.”
During the coming days I would go past the monument and look at the determined, mad gaze the sculptor had given to Suleiman, the heroic, crashing pilot.
In the afternoons I would go back to the room. I was exhausted from a day of fires, or shooting, or I’d simply have come back from an archeological site on the way to which a huge ammunition dump had blown up.
I knocked on the door and I opened it and Mitch said: “We have company.” One was sitting in the armchair and the other was sitting on the edge of the bed. He was a
young man in his mid or late 20s and he was wearing a jacket over a white shirt tucked into pants with a leather belt. He had a long, white, Slavic face. I assumed, as a person should assume if someone with a European face was in Baghdad and wasn’t a soldier or a CIA agent, he had to be a journalist.
“This is Brett,” said Mitch. His blue eyes are twinkling with gaiety and his hand is smoothing and pushing aside straight black hair with a center part.
Mitch is white like Irish-Americans are and has a sharp, rich, unsparing tongue. “Brett is a parasite.”
“I have to go,” said Brett. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“Likewise,” said Mitch as he accompanied Brett and his partner to the door. I unbuckled my sandals, put the camera down on the tripod and stripped off my shirt. A
cloud of brownish red dust hung over the city and the shutters were closed. Mitch tossed his cigarette butt out to the balcony and it lay there burning next to a Marlboro packet and a crushed beer can.
“What was that?”
“That was Brett,” said Mitch, as sprawled on the bed with his shoes on, lit another cigarette and drank from a large, new can of Budweiser all at the same time. He had bought the beer from the children downstairs for $4 in cash; he got a 50 cent discount
on each can because he bought the whole carton of 20 that the boy had wanted to sell retail. “He said that he’s from New Zealand but I think he’s a Bosnian or Yugoslav. His accent is not really kiwi and his face -I’m not crazy about it. And as I’m saying this – I have no idea where he’s from.”
“Is he a journalist?”
“No way. He’s a parasite. A leech. A tick. When he heard that there were a lot of journalists in Amman going to the war in Iraq, he showed up there to sell them flak vests and helmets. His story there was that he had worn just that sort of flak jacket in Chechnya and the Russian soldiers fired at them and everyone died except him because he had a flak vest.” Mitch’s blue flak vest was gathering dust on the porch near the cigarette butts and the empty cans. He wore it all t he way from Amman to Baghdad on the first day.
Afterwards, like the rest of the journalists, he let it collect dust. I didn’t have a flak vest to collect dust. “And everyone bought the vests from him. Then he went to the border and it turned out that the Jordanians had closed the border so right away he
built a tent city there and rented out tents at $100 a night to television crews. He’s a leech. He lives off wars.”
“And what about us?”
“So do we, so do we,” said Mitch tiredly, and tossed the cigarette out to the porch. “But he’s the biggest leech of all. He is here to consult. He is a consultant now for companies that want to invest in Iraq after the war. He said that when he asked for
$50,000 for an hour’s consultation they asked what he knew. When he asked for $100,000, everyone took him seriously and when he asked for $150,000 – they began
to ask themselves if it was worth it to them. So now he is advising companies that want to invest in Iraq at $80,000 to $100,000 a shot. He says that this way
they don’t get alarmed but they’re sure he’s worth it.”
“And is he worth it?” Brett looks to me to be barely 30. A millionaire on the way to the top.
“He’s a leech,” said Mitch. He lit another cigarette and left the half-empty can of beer on the bedside table.
I left Mitch and went downstairs to sell the day’s take to ABC. Their office was on the mezzanine. I had wanted to go to Ctesiphon, to what had been the capital of the Parthians and the Sassanid Persians.
But at the southern exit from Baghdad the Americans stopped traffic. I jumped out of the car and ran forward, releasing the legs of the tripod and operating the camera as I walked quickly in the direction of a fleeing convoy of American vehicles. A white cloud rose from behind us, along with the muffled thunder of a huge explosion. I stood the camera on the tripod and an ammunition cache blew up in front of me. The Americans said it was sabotage. I filmed missiles exploding in lovely mushrooms, a
wounded American soldier and the huge hysteria that exploding missiles create. After a few days during which timing, luck and location had taken me to dramatic events, I was greeted by all the networks with great joy. I had become a favorite of the America and European television networks. They invited me to meals, to drinks, to use their telephones and the Internet, all so that at the end of a day’s work theirs would be the first office I would visit to show them whether I had gotten a picture that no one else had.
“Do you start all these things?” said Chris, the tall, skinny American producer with the dry, tired voice who was sprawled on a sofa in a dimly-lit room that APTN had rented in the shopping area of the Palestine Hotel. “How come you’re always first on the scene?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, there’s no doubt about it,” said Chris into the telephone to London. “It’s a good picture -500?” He looked at me. I shook my head. “He wants what I told you in the first place. Is their room to bargain?” I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah, it’s a really
good mushroom – he’s got the blast. No one else has it.” He nodded tiredly. “Okay, Jack, okay. ‘Bye.” He turned to me: “That’s a really nice mushroom. Let’s send it and come back tomorrow when Jeff’s here and he’ll settle up with you.”
When I went back to the room, Mitch wasn’t there. He had gone down to send a report from his spot near the Bradley between the hotel and the Tigris, or he had gone up to see Judith. Someone knocked on the door.
Nine in the evening. Judith. So Mitch is somewhere else. Maybe he had gone to visit friends at the Palestine.
“Vodka with mango?”
“No,” she said. “I’d rather have whiskey.”
“It’s not really very good – ”
“Whiskey,” she said and smiled.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’ll probably come later. But I’m not really sure – he’s nice, but I’m afraid he’s going to take this too seriously.”
“He’s also worried that you’re going to take it too seriously.”
She laughed and we both drank to chance good meetings.
“It’s all so new to me,” she said. “Is it always like this?”
“Very similar and entirely different,” I said. “It was different a few years go when you were a lone journalist or a few lone journalists in places where there were wars and disasters. Now there are hundreds here.” But still, most of the places I went, I was
alone. Maybe because I had gone to see antiquities in places where there was no news but the news cropped up along the way. News, like nearly everything else, is what you see and what you find and what interested editors decide is news. There is no objectivity in the human world.
“I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to explain to my boyfriend what happened here,” said Judith. “He couldn’t understand why I was going.”
“Were you sent here?”
“I asked to go. But when I got to Amman I wasn’t certain any longer that I really wanted to come. I was afraid.”
“Everyone is afraid, but they come. And from the moment you’re inside, it gets under your skin and begins to flow inside you and when you go back in any case you won’t be able to explain what really happened here and how you led your life within this disorderly world.”
“Is that what happens?”
“That’s what happens to me. I’m only really alive in these places.”
“From trip to trip?”
“The time here is different,” I said. “Everything happens in real time. You live inside the events, they don’t come to you. You go to them. You create news and aren’t fed by it.”
“I got an E-mail yesterday from a girlfriend who told me that my reports make up most of the newspaper,” smiled Judith. “Until now I was the agricultural affairs reporter. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to go back to the life that I left there.”
“So don’t go back,” I said. “Go for journalism in danger zones.” The greatest danger in this kind of journalism is the danger of addiction.
“I have to think about that,” said Judith. She lit a cigarette and sipped the whiskey.
Mitch knocked on the door and entered at once. “Here you are!” he said. “Should we go up to the Portuguese? They’re having a party in their room. I’ve brought beer and I’ve sent Fadi to find another bottle of whiskey,”
“Are they in their room?’
“They’re waiting for us down at the bar. We’ll go down there and go up together.”
Eleven o’clock at night. The Portuguese – Raquel, Anna, Bernardo, Roy and Pedro sat in the dim, ridiculous bar of the Sheraton.
“I hate Figo!” said Roy. Luis Figo is a Portuguese soccer player who plays for Real Madrid. Everyone who heard that Roy was Portuguese would smile and mention
Figo to him. “I love Saddam!” Roy would answer. They had come back from the hinterlands. Bernardo had got his hair cut and they tried to pay the barber. The haircut cost thousands of dinars. Not really expensive when there were 2,000 dinars to the dollar, but as the largest note was 250 dinars, the everyday counting of the dinars was exhausting. After the third time they had counted and made a mistake, Roy pulled out another wad of notes so that there would be no doubt that there was more necessary and tossed it on the table.
“It’s not polite to throw money at people like that,” said an American officer who had come in for a haircut.
“It’s not polite to occupy a country of people who don’t want you,” said Roy.
“Where are you from?” asked the American.
“Portugal,” said Roy,
“Figo!” smiled the American officer.
“I hate Figo and I love Saddam!” said Roy angrily and stalked out.
“Should we go up to the room?” asked Mitch. “I’ve bought beer.” He had a carton of ten.
“We have whiskey upstairs,” said Pedro.
We crowded into the elevator that climbed to the thirteenth floor. The Baghdad night was spread out in front of us. More and more parts of the city were lit up the whole night through. Pedro put some Portuguese music from Cape Verde on the editing system. I sat on the floor, Mitch on the sofa with a can of beer. Bernardo took out the film cylinder and crumbled Moroccan hashish as Roy shielded it from the light breeze that came in from the Tigris. Distant rounds of firing from within the darkness. Roy poured whiskey into glasses. Bernardo finished rolling the first joint and passed it to Pedro.
“Ice?” asked Roy.
“I’ve never smoked hashish,” said Fadi. “Did you know that the Iraqi pilots are the best in the world? They can land anywhere without seeing the runway.”
“To the Iraqi pilots.” Mitch raised the beer can and Fadi raised the whiskey glass.
“I’ve never smoked hashish,” said Fadi.
“I think it’s time you tried,” said Roy and passed him the joint.
“I don’t know,” said Fadi. “Will I get addicted?”
“Maybe,” said Roy. “You won’t know until you try.”
Fadi took a little drag and asked: “Does it have an effect right away?”
“You tell me,” said Roy.
“Smoke, smoke,” I said. “Did you know that in ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ there is that nice story about the hashish-eaters and the king?”
“I didn’t know that,” said Fadi and took another little drag. “Did you know that they wrote ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ here?” he looked at the cigarette he
was holding. “I read a study,” he said, “about how the Iraqis have the highest IQ.”
“Among the Arabs, you mean.”
“Yes, yes,” he said after he thought a moment. “Did you know that the scientist who invented laser beams is an Iraqi and that there are important Iraqi scientists in all the European institutions?”
“Tell us about the thousand nights,” requested Raquel. One o’clock in the morning. Mitch stretched his legs and looked around at the little late-night party that had become a big battery for the tomorrow that came a few hours after we had crawled drunk, beaten and tired back to the room.
“You tell,” asked Fadi. “I can’t remember how it begins.”
“Once upon a time three were two brothers who were kings. One was called Shahzaman and the other was called Shahriar. Shahriar was the older of the two and
he missed Shahzaman, who ruled over Samarkand, so he sent his vizier to invite his younger brother.
Shahzaman was glad of the invitation and he packed up gifts and set out. But when night fell he realized that he had forgotten one of the gifts. He returned to Samarkand to fetch the gift and arrived there at midnight. And when he entered his room, he found his wife in the arms of a black slave. His eyes fogged with anger and he said to himself, if this is what happens when I have barely left the city limits, what
will happen when I go further away. He executed the slave and the queen, made the vizier regent of the kingdom in his absence and set out again the next day.
“The meeting was joyful but Shahzaman’s heart was heavy and during the first days Shahriar thought that he was worried about his kingdom. He tried to cheer his brother up and invited him on a hunt. Shahriar went hunting nearly every day, as was customary among kings in those times. But Shahzaman refused to go with him and remained in the castle, looking out the window, seeing but unseen. And then, exactly at ten o’clock, the royal gong rang and twenty of the palace women burst into the courtyard, led by the queen. When the gong rang the second time the queen’s black
manservants burst into the courtyard and the queen, who sat naked next to the fountain cried, ‘Come, Masoud!’ each of the men took a woman from the king’s
harem as the queen enjoyed the embraces of the chief of the black servants at the palace.
“Immediately Shazaman’s appetite returned and he felt that his mood was improving because, he said to himself, what happened to me is a small thing compared
to what happens here.
“When Shahriad returned from the hunt he looked at his young brother, who appeared healthy and recovered. You look much better, he said. Tell me what made you sad
and how you recovered. I will tell you about the sadness, he said, and I will let you learn for yourself about the recovery, said Shahzaman, and he told his brother about his wife’s betrayal with the back slave. And the recovery? Tell me. And Shahzaman
told him what he had seen. I don’t believe it, said Shariar. Not until I see it with my own eyes.
“As you please, said Shahzaman. Announce that you are going out to hunt. I will wait for you here. The next day Shahriar ordered his vizier to assemble the retinue. He went out to hunt, gave the order that no one should bother him in his tent and returned
secretly to the palace and went up to Shahzaman’s room, where he was sitting by the window. At ten o’clock exactly, when the sun had climbed in the sky the gong was heard and again the courtyard was filled with palace women and servingmen and the queen with the giant black head servant. Let us leave here, said the shocked Shahriar and wander to the ends of the earth to see if there is another king who is betrayed
so. They saddled their horses and left the palace, riding day and night along the river until they reached the seashore. The sound of the waves and the sight of the sea comforted them and they unsaddled the horses and tethered them to a palm tree. In the middle of the night they were awakened by a great storm wind.
The sea sent up high waves and they climbed a palm tree so that the water would not wash them away. From out of the sea that calmed all at once emerged a giant genie. On his back he carried a splendid chest. He set it down on the sand under the tree in which they were hidden. He took chest after chest out of the large chest and finally raised the lid of the ninth chest and out of it he took a girl of unparalleled beauty.
And now my princess, said the gigantic genie, whom I have taken from her wedding party, I shall go to sleep and you shall sleep beside me. He rested his head in his arms and fell asleep at once. The girl, whose beauty enchanted the kings, lifted her eyes and
immediately saw them hiding at the top of the palm tree. Down! She commanded them. They signed to her that they did not dare, because of the genie. Either
you will come down or I shall wake him up and he will get you down! said the girl, and the two kings slid down the palm tree. Lie with me! said the girl.
Impossible! said the kings. I shall wake up the genie, said the girl, and the kings had no choice but to lie with the girl, each in turn.
After she had enjoyed them as much as she desired, the girl took from the pocket of her wide pantaloons a purse, from which she drew out a chain on which there were ninety-eight coins. These are from all the men with whom I have enjoyed myself under the genie’s supervision! said the girl. Now give me yours.
Ninety-nine, one hundred, said the girl. This genie kidnapped me on my wedding night, and imprisoned me inside the nine chests at the bottom of the stormy sea. But there is no man who can withstand the wiles of a woman, she smiled, curled up and went back to sleep beside the genie, who was fast asleep, his snores shaking the tops of the palm trees. Shahriar and Shahzaman looked at each other and went back to
where they had tethered the horses. They rode all night and towards morning, when the towers of the palace were in sight, Shahriar said to Shahzaman: If something like that can happen to such a horrible genie – then what happened to us is a trifling thing.
“Trifling or not, Shahzaman entered the palace and killed his wife, the palace women and the servants and then married a virgin, whom he executed the following day. And since then he married every night and the next day would the virgin he had married. Within a short time there were no maidens left who wanted to marry the king and those who could fled the borders of the kingdom.
“And the vizier had two daughters: Dunezade and Scherezade. Scherezade, the elder of the two, was lighthearted. She knew all the stories of the ancients, and more importantly, she knew how to tell them in a way that made you want to hear more and
more. Let me marry him, Father, she said to the vizier. If I fail, my death will be a sacrifice for all the daughters of Islam and if I succeed, I will lift the curse. The vizier argued with her and tried to dissuade her but to no avail.
“On the eve of the wedding Scherezade said to Dunezade: I will call you when the king calls for me.
Wait in the adjoining room and after the king lies with me, I will call you and then you will ask me to tell you one more story as a farewell.
“And so it was. After the king lay with Scherezade she called for Dunezade, who embraced her sister tearfully and said to her: Sister, tell me one wonderful story
as farewell. Scherezade wiped her sister’s tears and looked at Shahriar. She was beautiful, Scherezade, and wise and her stories were renowned throughout the
palace. Please, said Shahriar, who never slept well on the nights he killed his wives, and Scherezade said: Once upon a time, many, many years ago…, and Shahriar
sank into the story until the sun rose and then he fell asleep with a smile on his lips.
“And thus, for a thousand and one nights Scherezade told stories to Shahriar until Shahriar realized that he had no life without her and serenity returned to
his life. The curse was lifted.”
“I’ve never heard that story,” said Fadi. “Did you know that there is statue of Scherezade between the Sheraton and the Tigris?” Yes. I had seen it. And it
reminded of the socialist statue of Nasser al Din that stands next to the Laba-Hawaz in Bukhara that had been poured in bronze by the Communist artists of the empire. When I saw it for the fist time in 1991, a month after the Soviet empire had fallen apart and the putsch attempt in Moscow, I thought about the wise philosopher and mathematician who hated establishments of every sort and whose legends cover the world of central Asia.
“Do you know the statue of Khermane, Ali Baba’s wife?” asked Fadi. The hashish made him a bit slower, a bit less loquacious.
The statue of the beautiful and resourceful Khermane stands in a square south of the Iraqi air force headquarters that had been pounded to dust and at the entrance to which stands Suleiman the suicide pilot.
She stands in the middle of the square and pours boiling oil into the jars of the forty thieves. This story is an old story. It came to Baghdad from the other end of the Fertile Crescent, in fact from the palce where I live now, and it has its beginnings
3,500 years ago. Nothing ever gets lost between the Persian Gulf and the Nile Delta. Everything flows.
Three thousand and four hundred years ago under the walls of Jaffa, beneath the formidable ramparts that were built on the vertical rock by the sea, below
which there is a natural harbor, stood an Egyptian king who had marched along the shore of northern Sinai and was on his way to found an empire. For many years
he had been waiting for the empire and his journey of battle. For twenty years his step-mother had held the kingdom. Thutmose looked north towards the swamps
around the Yarkon River that flowed from the north.
There are no other natural harbors before Jaffa for anyone who comes from Sinai and Egypt. The king was on his way to fight an alliance of Canaanite cities that ringed the land of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. He wanted to establish Egypt’s borders far to the north.
And Jaffa, the only convenient harbor along the shore, stood fortified in his way. Each day he stood before those sturdy walls gave his enemies more time to organize alliances and harass his army’s long supply lines. He needed a swift victory that would not exhaust the army. The city was closed in upon itself, sentries at the alert on the impregnable walls and the oil was boiling, leaping nervously on a small flame.
The tar was bubbling in black circles. Huge blocks of sandstone hewn from the ridge upon which the city was built were piled up at the allotted places above the ramparts and stores of food had been prepared for a long siege. And the noise of the soldiers sharpening their arrowheads and their spear blades sawed through the warm night air. But the day that broke the next morning surprised the inhabitants of the city. It undermined their preparedness.
Already, from a distance, from the fields around the city, they could see a peace delegation, laden with gifts and conciliation, approaching the city. Messengers from the Egyptian king invited the ruler of the city for a meeting of friendship and reconciliation.
At noon, the gates of the city opened and the governor, accompanied by advisors and bodyguards, rode to the tent of Thutmose III. The gates were closed behind the royal retinue and the military commanders were instructed to fight if anything happened to the king and to slaughter the royal hostages who had put themselves into the hands of the ruler on the orders of Thutmose.
The Egyptian ruler welcomed the king of Jaffa. He gave him gold that came from Punt and silver that came from Cush, turquoise and bronze vessels from Sinai. After
the exchange of gifts, concubines brought the wine in leather skins and in ceramic and alabaster vessels.
And then the geese and the gazelles that had been hunted in the Yarkon swamps were brought in and again wine. The harpists and the flautists played and as evening fell, the king of Jaffa and his entire retinue fell into the deep sleep of those who have eaten
wonderful food and drunk heavy red wine. Thutmose set soldiers to guard the tent, and heavy baskets were loaded onto donkeys that waited outside the camp. The
convoy proceeded to the city walls, heading towards the closed gates. The guards demanded to know what was inside the scores of heavy baskets. The donkey-drivers
lifted the lids of the baskets and showed them the cotton fabrics and the gifts of gold and silver and precious stones, the mangoes that had just ripened and the stuffed crocodiles. The gates opened and the heavy baskets were taken into the city, led in a guarded convoy to the king’s palace, forging an alliance of peace and gifts between the young Egyptian king and the maritime city.
When the sky grew dark and the alleys around the palace grew dim, the lids of the baskets opened cautiously, as if of their own accord, and two hundred Nubian soldiers, dark as the night, leapt out of them.
They crept through the alleys to the gates, surprised the dismayed sentries and open the heavy wooden doors.
The surprise was complete. In the banquet tent, the king of Jaffa was sleeping the heavy sleep of the drunk. When he awoke the following day, the city had already been conquered by Thutmose’s soldiers and its gates burned.
Many years later Arabians Nights tales circulated of thieves trying to sneak into Ali Baba’s house inside jars of oil in the same way, but there the end was different and the wise and resourceful Kehrmane would reverse the story and pour boiling oil on the heads of the thieves in the jars.
“Sodade,” I said to the Portuguese. They explained to me that this song was sung by Cesaria Evora, from Cape Verde, and it meant “Longings,” that it had no precise
explanation and that these were longings for a renewed meeting during a separation.
I went down to the room and lay down tired on the bed, the lower part of which sloped on an angle. Of the Sheraton mostly the name will remain. Mitch went
upstairs to sleep in Judith’s room. I fell asleep and slept without dreaming until seven in the morning.
“Fatima has disappeared!” Suzanna sidled up to me in the Sheraton lobby. “Don’t you dare take her into your room!”
“It would never have occurred to me,” I said, trying to continue in the direction of the stairs.
“Not you. You look alright to me. Your friend, the American …”
“Ah,” I said. “I’ll warn him. Where has she disappeared to?”
“I don’t know.” Suzanne got closer and hissed into my earlobe. “But she’s in a VERY, VERY delicate situation, you know. Do you know what I mean?”
“I believe so,” I said. “If I see her, I’ll tell you.”
The following day I saw Fatima. Of the bird-like girl covered in the very modest, light brown dress, nothing was left. She stood by the roadblock of the soldiers of the 3rd Division to the west of the hotels, on the banks of the Tigris. The soldiers supervised the entry of cars into the area between the hotels. She was standing there early in the morning, wearing tight jeans, a red blouse and high-heeled shoes, with a small black purse hanging from her shoulder. Sunglasses were stuck into her black hair. She was
very pretty in the soft sunlight. Her cheeks were dusted with blusher and her lips red with lipstick. I had a camera on me. She was an excellent picture. I could not photograph her. The transition from a modest girl into someone who would perhaps go back into one sort of life or another as an American soldiers’ whore struck me hard. She was too young. When I went back to the room and woke Mitch up, he sat up in the bed all at once and said: “Do you know what the best sentence I heard about this war is? It’s a Peter Arnett sentence. He said to the soldiers: This is a nice war,
but I loved Vietnam best. I wept when the sons of bitches ended it! Probably because of the Vietnamese woman.” He lit a cigarette. “Iraq is no place for fun. There isn’t a single whore here.”
“There is so,” I said.
“Downstairs. By the roadblock.”
“You’re kidding. Where did she come from?”
“I wish I were kidding,” I said, and I didn’t feel like laughing. The war is a whore. “Do you remember Fatima?”
“She’s now a soldiers’ whore.”
“That’s how it goes,” he said. “It’s a pity about her But you can’t blame the soldiers.”
The war is a whore, I thought to myself, and in the following weeks, every time I went past Fatima she would stick her face into the air as if I were transparent and I would look down at the ground, embarrassed, as if I were the one born in Texas.