The walk was unchaotic, without the typical energy of a New York day. There were no throngs and, but for the man selling ‘I ♥ NY’ T-shirts, the noise was mostly just the sedate hum of buses starting and stopping as they traveled down Fifth Avenue, the odd radio blaring from a pretzel stand.
She looked around for a man she’d befriended, Nawaz, who ran a halal cart near the Empire State Building. He had gleaming dark hair and called himself Joe when people found his name too difficult to pronounce. In Baghdad, or in Islamabad, they wouldn’t have been friends, but in New York, with their darkish skin, their Mohammedan names, and their Eastern accents, they were vaguely the same. He wasn’t there, so she assumed he must have been further uptown, maybe close to Times Square.
Huda’s legs started to slow as she tired. She stopped in front of a TD Bank, where she encountered a poster of a woman with a satisfied smile. The woman, with bombshell blond hair, seemed content, sated by the fullness of her life. After surveying the grooves and indents in the woman’s face, Huda carried on walking.
One or two roseate buildings reminded her of the night shifts as a housekeeper at the Rotana. A tribute to the earthen ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the Rotana was a beautiful building that overlooked the boundary walls of the rarefied Green Zone and reached up into the night, punctuating difference in every brick; difference between Sha’ab and Karrada, difference between mangled corpses and lithe bodies receiving hot stone massages, difference between wilting Jericho roses and stately date palms.
However much the Rotana seemed like a conceit, she preferred it to the maternity ward at Al-Qadisiyah, recently rehabilitated by the World Bank. She did her rotations there during the day. Her face would knot at the smell of fetid flesh that came from across the hall on violent days; or at the sight of Dr. Abra, the surgeon with a cigarette burning perpetually between his lips and sex perpetually in his eyes. Things always seemed frenzied on the ward, whether because nurses were frantically pulling out women’s bloody insides and laying them on wheeled tables during emergency caesareans or because of families of twelve pacing around and waiting for a sound, the singular sound of a Baghdad baby’s cry.
She was on her way to the Pritzker building, to sign up for a new trial. It was the third she’d enrolled in, and the one with the best benefits; free lunches, three hundred fifty dollars, and maybe even some relief from her chasmic feeling of emptiness, from the perennial insomnia or what the first of many psychiatrists referred to as her blunted affect. According to one, she had post-traumatic stress disorder with mood symptoms. Another thought she was clinically depressed. Another told her that moving to the United States had resulted in an adjustment disorder.
Whatever it was, she was becoming better at naming DSM criteria. Dysphoria and anhedonia were taking the place of words like sadness and fear. And the trial seemed to at least be a way to relieve herself of the burden of poverty, if not to actually add meat to the bones of her new life. At the end of the last trial, one of the doctors looked at her with woe and sympathy in his eyes, and told her that if the drugs didn’t bring relief, maybe the money would.
“Inshallah,” he offered, with an empty smirk.
“I’m not sure Allah lives here,” she said, forcing him to back into a blur of clinical jargon.
Huda passed Greeley Square and then circumnavigated the entrance of Penn Station, where a man who seemed to hear voices was congregating with friends whom no one else could see. She continued, on to the proud and monstrous towers of Hudson Yards. Her phone vibrated in her pocket as she looked up at what seemed like infinite steel.
The call was muffled and stilted, and the transmitted image of Shohreh’s face was occluded by a circle of darkness, penetrated only by the single lightbulb of her nightlight. Their morning/bedtime routine meant that everything Shohreh said had the spent, languid quality of midnight. Two continents away, Huda felt the sun only beginning to glow, like it was coming out from behind a curtain of clouds, so her speech carried the weight of the day ahead.
Huda didn’t know how to answer Shohreh’s question. She didn’t know what she would do if she didn’t make rent. She thought about moving farther out, to Hackensack or Secaucus or Newark, but everything, all places, seemed out of her reach.
“I don’t know,” she answered in English. She stood still at the entrance because she wanted to finish the conversation. The breeze made her long skirt stretch in and out like a denim accordion.
“Call Aisha this weekend. She misses you.”
Huda took a raspy breath.
“I will. . . . Tomorrow.”
She said goodbye impersonally, tailoring her statements to not sound anxious that something, a cloud of noise or a burst of violent light, would pull them even more apart. Saying Tomorrow was better than saying Don’t die just yet. I want to talk to you again.
“Tomorrow,” Shohreh said. Her greeting was followed by the sharp, cutting sound that ended every call.
The mention of Aisha’s name made Huda feel weary and yearning. Before putting away her phone, she looked through a few pictures as she stood inside a loose clot of people but separate from them. The way cellphones house albums, the way they sequence from newest to oldest, puts the most recent photos first, leaving the distant past to ebb at the end. So she looked at herself first, haggard, in the office at Camp Banzai, then at snippets of the sun as it ceded to the night over empty dunes, then at Aisha, in her grey knee-length skirt, with her upswept hair and her high heels on her first day at Al-Iraqiya.
Looking at the photos reminded Huda of what her mother used to say. Nothing lasts. Wa-htiyālu l mar’i ta’tī ‘alayhi. She only recited it halfway, as though the other line was just ballast, especially before she was preparing to die.
When their mother did die, a quick and pragmatic death from an untended embolism, the three sisters inherited the house, with a small garden that boasted a lemon tree and a coriander plant upon which they relied to flavor their food. Each winter, they thought the latter might give in, succumbing to the arid soil the way the grass had, but it never stopped growing. When Huda came home from the hospital one night with the stain of an infant’s unscented urine in the shape of a small coin on her scrubs, Shohreh and Aisha were chopping its leaves for dolmas.
“Come eat,” Shohreh told her as they sat at their kitchen table, darkened by fits of light that seemed too frightened to intensify.
“I will. I need to take a shower first.”
Huda came out in her navy Rotana dress as Aisha recounted the news on the wires. It was the day Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesperson for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, told reporters that the Syrian peace plan was “on track.”
“Nothing is on track. This is the beginning. Iinahum maris aljins.”
“OK, they’re fucked. But we’re fucked too. Let’s just have today,” Shohreh told her, unaware of the speck of torn vine leaf sticking to her two front teeth. It brought a momentary mirth, a smile at Shohreh’s expense shared between the other two.
When she entered the Pritzker building, with its whitewashed walls and attractive receptionists, it felt like she’d entered a Zarathustrian universe, an amoral elsewhere where the threat of an ailing economy and the animus of politics didn’t exist. Here, capital decided whom it liked and whom it didn’t, determined only by the prospects of its own multiplication. There was no conservative, no liberal; no right, no left; no good, no evil; just a promissory whiff of something better in the air.
She signed a half dozen waivers and read a few disclaimers. She’d been asked to wait on a blue woolen couch, overseen by burly security guards whose job was to intimidate, and so she sat there, contemplating the scent of dandelions that traveled through the lobby like a song traveled through a body as it danced.
A woman with a broad grin and long silken legs that were exposed below the knees came to collect Huda.
“My name is Erin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Erin escorted Huda upstairs, where she would be interviewed. She gave Huda a few more details, pointing to the restrooms and telling her about the free doughnuts like a kindergarten teacher tempting a child with treats to behave.
When she reached the room with bare walls, a man who looked to be in his forties with limpid blond hair introduced himself to her as Robin. She said hello and sat down across from him, observing the light line that circled his ring finger, searching his face for signs of his happiness or his discontent, examining the fabric and shade of his clothes, how they signified a lifetime of decisions in their brightness or their dourness, in their looseness or their stricture. His shirt was uncreased, but it seemed suffocating. His clothes were light in color, but there was a heaviness in his expression.
He had a yellow notepad in front of him, and started to fashion questions as if he were reading from a teleprompter. He asked her age. She was forty-four. He asked her origin. She was Iraqi. He asked her profession. She said she didn’t have one, that she was a cashier.
“And, sorry—I have to make sure I ask this—you speak English, right?”
As a girl, she’d read Jane Austen, thinking it was an antidote to how unromantic and parochial Iraq was. When she left, Shohreh, thinking it was a good introduction to American life, had gifted her a copy of Light in August, so, yes, she understood English.
“OK, great,” he said, more intimate, with a paper-thin smile, as though she were more than just a study subject, more than just a dot of data on an infinite map of pain and sadness. “Now, it would be great to hear more about why you’re here.”
On the morning of July 23, 2012, as Huda prepared to go to the hospital, she encountered Aisha, who was leaving for the newsroom. Al-Iraqiya was on the TV, in the background. The proud news anchors, in their crumbling studio, were reflecting on the war with the same cadence as their anticipatory reflections on the London Olympics.
“Sawf ‘arak lahiqaan.”
There was no strong feeling in their greetings, just a quick See you later, a momentary glance at Aisha’s strong face and winter-black eyes. Huda walked to the hospital, through streets with shuttered spice shops and wrinkle-skinned fruit traders hoping to sell a plum or an apple. The dust pelted her face as she neared the entrance. One of the new Red Crescent ambulances had a massive dent on the front fender, after an overzealous driver, rushing through old Assyrian streets, sped into the wall of what might once have been an aqueduct, but was now just a mass of stone jutting out from the ground.
That morning at Al-Qadisiyah was fairly routine. Along with her cohort, she learnt about identifying febrile seizures in newborns, assisted with labors and with the disposal of placentas and took breaks, drinking fig juice outside while gossiping with her friends about the handsome paramedics. Midafternoon, an unlucky mother labored for a few hours while Huda assisted. The woman was dazed into an unhappy trance. According to the notes scribbled by an ACF psychologist, she’d spent most of the previous two months in a dissociative state, haunted by the sight of her husband’s arms being blown off and, from her infrequent accounts, by the booming sound that rang like repetitive drumfire in her head. Huda cut the umbilical cord, and sent an orderly away with a nothing, an almost human, with veins that looked like tree roots.
When the car bomb exploded, there was a blast of sound that frightened a few of the nurses into crouching and sent others scurrying to cover the newborns in their cots. There was a second of limitless noise, like a thousand bursts of thunder in an instant, followed by a rush of attendants from the other side of the building, all seemingly looking for the last roll of gauze in Baghdad.
Few of the victims survived. Some had been incinerated by fire, while others were gutted by shrapnel. Those that were in the cleft between life and death were transported to the emergency ward. In their freneticism, nurses and doctors, and even some family members, waded around in patients’ insides for pieces of metal. Most of the patients who were conscious screamed from the pain because the hospital had run out of morphine a few days earlier. In the maternity ward, a few babies were born.
There was a knock on the door, apologetic in its register. Before Robin could say anything, the handle turned and a frumpy woman in a pink cardigan entered. She asked Robin to step out to take a call. He apologized to Huda and said he’d be right back.
Huda looked around, up at the light above her that seemed piteous, at the unfriendly walls. A few minutes passed, and she started to get fidgety. Finally, she pulled out her phone to continue looking through her pictures. Against the backdrop of a stage surrounded by strobe lighting, there was a picture of her, Shohreh, and Aisha in a garden with dead grass, waiting for the Myriam Fares concert. There was another, of her friend Ridwan, his sylvan bearded face in a black-and-white keffiyah. She used to think she’d marry him one day, in a sunlit courtyard overlooking the Tigris.
When she had looked through all of the pictures, she started to look for tickets to Baghdad, through Dubai and then Amman. It was a regular pastime, to fantasize about it, to imagine that she could taste the juice of wild pomegranates and see the laugh lines in Shohreh’s face firsthand, without the bluish tint of the phone screen. She’d walk in and find Aisha in her bedroom, sleeping peacefully. Only at first, she imagined, it might be a little heartbreaking, but eventually it would seem altogether normal, wouldn’t it, to watch Aisha’s mouth contort uncomfortably to speak, to see the reddish line like a lightning bolt across the side of her face stretch with every word, to watch her hands flail and her body struggle when she walked, to have to pity her and to have her recognize the pity as though it were her next-door neighbor.
As she toyed with the price aggregator, the door opened, and Robin reentered, apologetic for the interruption.
“Now, where were we?”
Before that day, there had been bullets and bombs, but they were abstractions, strangers. After the bombing in Yarmouk, those explosions, with their savage sound and their fierce heat, started to elicit the familiarity of family. Shohreh had called Huda first, knowing that Sadr City had already seen an explosion. Although they were less than a mile apart, there was a static that interrupted most sentences.
“Madha ean eayishat , hal hi bkhyr?”
Maybe the bomb went off just as she was asking about her sister.
“Sa’atasil biha alan.”
Shohreh tried repeatedly to call Aisha, but there was no answer. Huda didn’t make it to the Rotana that evening. The sun was starting to fade and the whisper of the wind was drowned out by cries and screams when she reached Al-Wasiti Hospital. She stood in a crowd of worried people, their faces white and deserted as they awaited news of their relatives. Some, their voices crackling with rage, shouted at no one about the Americans, about ISIL, about the UN.
Two hours later, when it had transitioned to night and the blare of sirens became infrequent, a woman with a face that seemed blank with fortitude came with a tray that carried some belongings. People congregated around her, praying that whatever was in the tray might signify at least the presence of their loved ones, if not proof of life.
People picked up necklaces and wallets, rings and spectacles, some bursting into uncertain tears. Huda searched quietly until she found a silver earring, in the shape of a lily, with a pale quartz Dur Al Najaf in the center. Aisha had bought that pair with her first paycheck.
When Robin sat back down, his feet peeped out from underneath the desk. She was struck by his black leather loafers. They seemed brand new, and glistened in the vacant light of the room. Perhaps, she thought, he had bought them as a sort of good luck charm. But in the ridges of his face, and in the arc of his voice, she could tell that he didn’t believe in luck, that he just thought that somewhere in the cosmos was a shred of hope, inexplicably tied the way a twin is tied to its counterpart, to the soles of his Crockett and Jones shoes.
Huda responded to Robin with sparse details about her experience as an immigrant. She mentioned the fact that she worked part time at the CVS near Borough Hall, but she didn’t say that she was once almost a nurse. She mentioned that she had been in New York for about a year now, having arrived straight from Iraq, but he already knew that.
“Huda,” he said with vague temperance, “if I may, I think what matters most is just to understand the way you are feeling rather than the details of your transition.”
She stayed stiff, resolute in a way, because she couldn’t really bring herself to reckon with his question. There was an unsteady silence, in which he appeared to wonder about the silk scarf on her head, with its imprints of vines and flowers, or perhaps he was just taking in the feeling of being with her, understanding her not from her words but from the absence of them. Eventually, he spoke.
“I know it’s hard to know where to start, but sometimes just starting to talk can be freeing.”
In the wake of the messy, feral disorder of the bombings, Aisha’s brutalized body, barely alive, painted with bruises and shredded in places, was awaiting surgeries to repair her pelvis, to partially reconstruct her face, to restore at least some of her hearing. It was in those weeks that Huda stopped sleeping altogether. Even on the nights when she wasn’t working, she would sit upright in her bed, sometimes with sweat trickling down her back, and recall the moment she saw Aisha’s face, so red from the exposed corpuscles and ripped away skin that it glowed under the fluorescent lighting.
She was carrying towels in the corridors of the hotel one night when she overheard pieces of a conversation about the bombings. The CIA and MI5 were known to frequent the lobby lounge when they wanted to have clandestine conversations that couldn’t be had in the Green Zone. So when she saw two tall white men conversing furtively, she collected a bucket and a mop to clean the tiles in the lobby and to listen to them raising suspicions, feeding on intel as though they were buzzards sharing a kill.
“They’re not sharing what they have. It’s making me wonder what they’re not telling us.”
They were talking about the Iraqis, who’d become uncooperative, intransigent.
“Maybe they don’t have anything?”
They talked about a mosque in Sadr City, Al Qudrat, where one of them, the Englishman, sometimes met an informant. Huda recognized the name, and remembered that it was on a side street en route to the hospital. After that, she would hover around there each morning on her way to work, not sure what she even wanted to come of it, only certain that she could not do nothing.
On a cloudy day in August, as she bobbed her head into the street while pretending to sample oranges, a black SUV stopped beside her, and the face of the man she’d seen in the lobby lounge, the American with the flecks of Arabic in his accent, emerged as the window rolled down.
After that, it was a simple proposition, couched in the language of choice but interlaced with the tenor of a threat. By the following afternoon, she’d been unenrolled in her nursing course, and recruited to translate for the CIA. Her job at the Rotana, for the sake of pretense, remained the same.
Despite his best attempts at sounding authoritative, each word Robin said made him sound like a schoolboy, every sentence jumpy and unnerved. It was the same harried sound that most men’s voices seemed to carry recently. Whereas not so long ago, the intonations and the tempo signified valor and bombast, now each word was shrinking and nervous. Everything, even language, was tentative, like the ground underneath it was made of smoke and salt.
Huda hesitated before sharing more than mere content about her life. She scanned Robin’s face, searching for a humanity that she wasn’t sure she’d find. But there was a feeling of being undone that she seemed to share with him, a sense that, alien as she was, Robin too had not quite found his place.
“It was the war that led me here,” she began.
“I’m sure that must have been a harrowing experience.”
Huda appreciated the sympathy in his voice, and that he had some abstract understanding of what she was talking about, but he couldn’t hear the cries of screaming babies in his sleep, nor could he taste the acrid flavor of death in everything he ate.
“There was a lot happening. It became. . . . I became part of it.”
“Part of it?”
He leaned in, the way a priest leans in when a confession is told in hushed tones. The light bounced off his forehead, and his blue eyes darkened.
Agent Morgan had wide shoulders and a large chest that protruded like a wrestler’s underneath his polyester suits. He told Huda, in minute detail, who it was that she was spying on, whose interrogations she was assisting with, who the authors of the letters she was translating were.
“We will find them. I promise,” he told her one day, when she described to him, also in painstaking detail, Aisha’s rehabilitation, how the words were coming out of her in puzzling, disjointed patterns because her bottom jaw was still unreconstructed.
“I know you will. But what then?”
Agent Morgan was unromantic, and told her that catching a bomber or a gunman wasn’t likely to end the war. If anything, he said, it would prolong it.
“But someone will be spared the pain that your sister has suffered.”
Huda’s face curdled with grief and conflict when he said that. She could see that he thought himself a protector, not an apparatus of suffering. Had she not been threatened, had agent Morgan not said in his dulcet and yet portentous tone that he couldn’t be sure of what she had and had not shared with Shohreh, she may have walked out of their operation, skulking out of Camp Banzai with a conviction that no one was right in this. There were no good guys.
“Yes, I was part of it.”
Robin’s face became pallid, like he’d been invited somewhere that he was too scared to go.
“You mean you were a fighter?”
“I wasn’t a fighter. I was a translator, for America, for you.”
It made him uncomfortable, hearing her say that she’d become this shell, this residuum of a person, in his defense. He had a sunken look about him, but it wasn’t just that Huda was telling a story that required it. The inside of him, the fabric, the tissue, seemed to her to function only for necessity rather than for joy.
“I imagine that must have been very traumatic. You probably heard some very scary things.”
Huda wanted to scream rather than to wilt. The sound, the fury, the chaos, resided in a place that was not yet safe to arrive at, but they were there, and they gave purchase to her nightmares, gave weight to her footsteps, gave Pritzker a case study from which to draw axiomatic conclusions. It was as though her joining the trial had been the closing of a perverse circle.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she muttered, head half bowed.
She looked up at him, her expression hard.
“I didn’t have a choice.”
On a Friday afternoon in December, on a thoroughfare that led to the bus station, she heard someone mention, in an ululating cry, the name Abu Al’Aman—father of the safe. She recognized the name from a few of the letters she’d been translating. Hesitantly, she turned around and saw a man with a graying beard and a learned face, speaking with what seemed like abandon. It wasn’t clear what he was talking about.
Huda, shaking with suspicion and fear, followed him for a few minutes, until he reached a shuttered door in between an old juice shop and a small electronics store. Only by the feeling of revelation and vengefulness rather than any action or intimation on the part of the man, she sensed that it was he who’d listed the locations of bombs in Taji and written of the fajjar jadid, the new dawn that would follow the attacks. When he turned to see her, she thought that he took note of the contours of her face in the dusk light and the ripple of dark hair that peeped from under her hijab.
“You did the right thing,” Agent Morgan told her the following day. “We never know who’s a threat, so we have to remain vigilant.”
After a moment’s silence, in which she thought only of Aisha, and of the possibility of someone else’s life taking the intractable shape of her sister’s, he said something else.
“You know this means you’ll have to leave Iraq? And soon.”
He explained to her the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Special Immigrant Visa, the remainder of her life.
When Huda narrated to her sisters the sequence of events that had led to her imminent departure, Aisha’s face couldn’t register the necessary emotion, nor could her speech express it. As they said their goodbyes, Huda could only hear what sounded like bitter moans that curved in places as if to say I’m sorry. Shohreh released a single, terminal tear.
Robin sat quietly, struck by the simplicity with which Huda told him the sprawling details of her experience. There was not a single whimper, let alone a tear or a rageful shriek. But in Robin, the shakiness seemed to intensify. Whereas before, he was standing on smoke and salt, now he was sinking in it. His gaze had turned away.
“That is—er—that is quite something. . . . I can see why you’d have the sort of symptoms you’d have—the insomnia, the lack of interest. . . .”
When he said the feeling of sadness, his eyes finally met hers. There was a lifetime, and an entire world, between them, but his consolation, or maybe the sense of atonement in it, was a moment of consort.
“I’m sorry, um, I’m so sorry that you had that experience.”
“I am sorry too,” she said.
He was surprised.
“What do you mean?”
“Just, for whatever it is that strains your voice the way it does.”
He snickered in a show of bravado, just for an instant, but then he fell silent, signaling the truth of her statement, that despite his position and his profession, despite being some purported paragon of well-being, he was instead just a shadow of her, the way we are all shadows of someone else. She could see that he wanted to say something more, but instead, he cleared his throat, and began to speak stoically.
“So, as you know, the trial you’re entering is for a drug called Vaxoprone. It’s what’s known as an SNRI or a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, which is a type of antidepressant. It may very well shift certain aspects of your mood.”
“But it may not,” she retorted.
“I understand,” she said, as if to relieve Robin of the obligation to reassure her.
“Well. . . . I really hope it does help you.”
He was sincere in his wish, and in everything else that it carried. She knew it, because it was perhaps the only time that there was an actual feeling of settledness between them.
“Do you have any questions?”
Robin’s body rose briskly, suggesting that the interview had ended, that Huda would be getting a check if not any other recompense. There were two thank yous, both equally meant, followed by just the piercing separation of a closed door, a litany of statements left unsaid, two lifetimes decoupling from each other.
As Huda left to take the subway back to Brooklyn, she looked upward. The clouds moved wildly, savagely. While walking, she retrieved memories, little streams of thought, that slowly flowed into just one rivulet whose swelling current spoke the words of the poem her mother used to recite.
“Wa-htiyālu l mar’i ta’tī ‘alayhi, sā’atun taqta’u kulla htiyālī.”
One’s cunning shall be overcome, by an hour that will cut through all cunning.