Blog Post

Egg-hunting in Baghdad

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

February, 1991

 

Since war broke out, our daily routine has changed drastically. My morning shower, for instance, was now reduced to pouring a few cups of water over myself. The first splash of the near-freezing water left me gasping in pain and trembling, even after I’d finished washing and left the bathroom. Each cup took a long time to collect from the low, dripping faucet in our garden. All the taps inside the house had gone dry.

Every morning, rain or shine, I ventured out into the cold, putting on as much clothing as I could and carrying empty plastic containers that I’d place alternately under the rusty faucet. As little as two or three liters was a treasure for me that I held up triumphantly and hurried to empty into a larger container in the kitchen, and went out again to accumulate more droplets, and so on. I still recall the panic I felt when the dripping ceased one day, and how I was so ecstatic to see it resume its extremely faint ooze that I jumped up in the air in celebration. I also remember the vicious allergy attacks that left me with itchy swollen eyes and a runny nose, and the painful headaches that ensued. I tried to distract myself by indulging in recollections of my decadent baths in the good old days; the way warm water sprang effortlessly from the showerhead to create rich foam and release soothing scented vapors in the air.

My sinful fantasies would often be interrupted by the noise from a passing horse-drawn cart that sold kerosene; I had to drop everything, run to wave it down, and negotiate with the driver for a lower price on his precious commodity. Or the persistent banging on our door by a visiting neighbor, who wanted to share his or her confusion and fear, as well as the latest news they’d heard on this or that radio station. The daylight hours passed very quickly. Before we knew it, night had fallen, signaling another period of air raids and missile attacks, whose intensity varied from one night to the next for reasons unbeknownst to anyone.

Our evening meal consisted of bread and whatever dairy products—mainly canned cheese—remained in our pantry. It was quite different from lunch, where we usually had chicken, cooked on the kerosene heater in our living room. After a week or so of power outages, the freezers were hardly cold and their stock of meat started changing taste, as did our bread. The shops had run out of proper flour and all bakeries were now selling weird-tasting and -smelling products. We still had to line up for hours in front of the neighborhood’s baker’s window to get only a few loaves. That was the point where we decided it was time to end our months-long boycott of all the food stolen from Kuwait that had taken over the Iraqi market shelves after the invasion. The price has been paid, we reasoned. Beggars, as the saying goes, can’t be choosers. Our only remaining choice was between life and death. It’s ironic that we ended up spreading our repulsive gray-brown bread—rumored to have sawdust in the dough—with Danish Lurpak butter and fancy European marmalades that were sold for only a fraction of their original price. We had our shame-dipped snacks while listening to the news updates on BBC, RMC, and VOA. After that, we’d retire to our presumably safe shelter, that is, my parents’ bedroom on the ground floor, unroll our mattresses and struggle to get some sleep despite being rattled by consecutive explosions that hardly eased off before the break of dawn.

I almost forgot that I was a university student, much less that I harbored any future plans or vocational ambitions. My only concern was to provide myself and my family with enough water and food to keep us going and withstand another day of this ruthless war. Every once in a while, we’d hear the popping noise of shooting, accompanied by loud wailing screams, announcing a fallen soldier’s arrival home. Neighbors rushed to support the bereaved family and offer their condolences. People were keen to show up at the three-day mourning session to discuss the rumors circulating about a coming overthrow of the Ba’ath regime in Iraq and its prospective ramifications on our lives and future. Some seemed optimistic and argued that it could bring our long-awaited freedom. The majority, including me, were apprehensive and decided to keep their vigil until the storm had passed.

Walking became my favorite pastime in those confusing times. As soon as I’d finished my daily chores, I was off to the streets to walk for long miles and scrutinize whichever grocery store I found for fresh vegetables or fruits, even if that entailed consuming an extra amount of the hard-earned water to wash them. We’d finished listening to the news bulletins on the radio one night, and were waiting for a round of concentrated shelling to end, when a thunderous roar shook the ground, and a massive flash turned the darkness into light. The communications center that was less than a kilometer away from us had been targeted. The window frames clattered and their taped-up glass cracked. We instinctively cowered and covered our heads with our arms, expecting the roof to come tumbling down at any given moment.

A profound silence prevailed after what seemed like forever. With blanched faces and shocked gazes, we rose up slowly, but our adrenaline-laden bodies kept shaking long after the danger had passed. What if the bomb had missed its target by only a few hundred meters? The next morning, I went upstairs to check and clean up the broken glass in my room. I looked through the window and noticed a disturbing vacuum in the skyline. The tall, steel-structured antenna tower had disappeared. I hurried outside and saw many flocking toward the location to inspect the damage. A hill of rubble, topped with a crushed tower was all that remained of the center, built a few years before by a foreign construction company. The air-raid siren that perched on the building and had hardly stopped howling since the beginning of the war—not this time, though!—was silenced forever. We had to seek out meat alternatives for protein. Eggs had become scarce due to the high demand. It was an exceptionally cold winter, and they needn’t be kept in the fridges, which we now used as storage cabinets, leaving their doors open to prevent mold.

One afternoon, while walking in our neighborhood, I stumbled upon a man selling his chickens’ eggs on the street. I unhesitatingly purchased all the remaining cartons without really thinking about how to transport such a valuable yet annoyingly fragile catch to our house, a few kilometers away. I only realized the bad situation I’d stupidly gotten myself into when the vendor stacked the cartons, one on top of the other, on my arms. I started walking cautiously and had to stop when passing drivers unrolled their windows to ask where I got the eggs from and how much I’d paid for them. I would have been happy to trade one of the cartons for a short drive, but was too embarrassed to suggest it. I gritted my teeth and kept walking until, finally, I got home with stiffened, nearly paralyzed arms. When my family helped me lay down my heavy load on our dining table I screamed in agony. Nonetheless, the smiles I saw on everybody’s faces made the excruciating trip worthwhile. I decided to reward myself for completing my impossible task with a comfortable night’s sleep in my bed, which I’d totally abandoned. My weeks of sleeping on the floor had taken their toll on my bones and joints. I threw myself on the fluffy surface and basked in its smoothness for a while and then covered my whole body with a warm duvet and a blanket. The slightly slower-than-usual pace of the evening shelling felt reassuring, and I fell asleep right away.

Abruptly awakened by a bad dream after just a few hours, I dragged myself into the bathroom to wet my face with some of the remaining water in the plastic bucket on the floor when the walls lit up and the earth shook under my feet. I held tight to the sides of the sink to avoid falling, and heard the noise of more windows breaking. They’d bombarded the nearby communications center for the second time. Once more, we had survived. I should have felt relieved, but I didn’t. What’s the point of targeting a destroyed building? I didn’t visit the hit site. What was there to see other than the same pile of debris? I made up my mind that I was going to sleep in my bed no matter what. Death does not discriminate and we cannot hide from it, I was now convinced. … My spirits plummeted visibly, which affected the duties I was expected to perform. I was exhausted and could barely muster enough energy to collect our daily water from the rusty dripping faucet in our garden. How long will this last?

A translated excerpt from Saddam and I, and the Stockholm Syndrome by Ali Shakir (Dar Elthaqafa Elgedeeda, 2018). The book tackles Saddam’s growing posthumous popularity among thousands of young Arabs and Iraqis, and is told in two parts: The first, a memoir of growing up in Ba’ath-ruled Baghdad and witnessing Hussein’s rise to power and its impact on people’s lives over nearly three decades of his reign. The second part begins with his controversial execution in 2006, and attempts to track the symptoms and roots of longing for the days of dictatorship; a phenomenon observed not only in Iraq but also in other Arab countries that were, and still are, subjected to the violent vicissitudes of what became known as the Arab Spring. The above translation first appeared in ArabLit on the 27th anniversary of the Gulf War.

Iraqi-born, New Zealand-based architect and author, his articles and essays—in Arabic and English—appeared in several newspapers and literary journals in the Arab world, England, the United States and New Zealand.