IT’S CLOSE TO the 9 p.m. curfew when Rizgar drops me off, grumbling about how he’ll hardly make it home in time, how he should have let me take a taxi. A few days ago, I began to ask him to drop me at least two blocks from my house, because after all, there’s no need for everyone to see me getting dropped off each evening in a chauffeur-driven car. People will wonder why I never came home in this fashion before. Baba warned me not to tell anyone who doesn’t already know that I’m working with Sam.
The neighborhood is dark and silent. It used to be that everyone would have their televisions on at this hour, but there is no electricity tonight, like the night before. I guess people are cooking on gas stoves or talking quietly near their propane lamps or making love by candlelight or telling stories to their children. We are doing many things at home in the evening these days, but watching television is not one of them.
I walk towards our house, open the front gate and close it quietly behind me. I hope that Baba bought a small generator like he said he would so we can watch television again and hook up the new satellite dish I bought with my first week’s salary and do something else at night, something other than just sitting by the dim candles and listening to the radio.
And just as I’m passing the car park, I have a feeling that something isn’t right but now it’s too late because I hit a pole, except there’s no pole here, and I haven’t hit anything but something has hit me. And then I realize that it’s a man’s hand that’s slammed across my mouth and his other arm is across my chest and I start to squirm but then I feel the cold metal pressing into my temple and am conscious that there’s another man with him and the sound of the safety lock being released is like a deafening rush in my head that smothers my ability to breathe, to think, to do anything at all.
“Don’t move,” the man with the gun against my head says, and he could never know that my real fear is that I will faint and he’ll think that I moved and that will be the end of it. “If you say a word we’re going to distribute your brains all over your baba’s nice big Mercedes over there.” The gun is cool against my head, like ice on hot skin on a sweaty day, and I feel oddly thankful for the low resting temperature of metal because it may be the only thing saving me from melting.
“Listen, Amari.” It is another man now, and though I cannot see him I can suddenly picture him: one of the thug-boys from middle school, grown fatter and thicker. “We suggest you stop working with all foreigners. Particularly the Americans.”
I’m coming to hate this label – the Americans. As if Sam represents the Americans as a whole, as if she is the same as the soldiers who dropped bombs on our homes and rode into our cities on their tanks. I think I could bite the man’s clammy hand and hurt him, but I realize the futility of this, as the gun presses even harder against my temple.
“Do you understand?” The man with the gun hisses in my ear. Then the other man lifts his hand from my mouth and pushes me up against the car park wall. Unlike the gun, the concrete is surprisingly warm against my face, as though exhaling all the heat it has reluctantly accepted throughout the day. “If you turn around in the next sixty seconds, we’ll shoot you in the head and you’ll be gone so quickly, even doctor-baba won’t be able to help you.”
I hear clicks again and I wish I knew something about guns, to at least know for sure whether he is switching the safety lock on or off, or maybe rotating the revolver a few times just to scare me.
I hear the man who is holding my hands mutter something in the other’s man’s ear.
“Yes, and your friend,” the man with the gun says, poking the barrel hard against my temple before pulling it back a bit. “We’ll get her, too. She’ll go back to America in a pretty coffin with a red, white and blue flag draped on it. Would you like that?”
I feel a quiver in my neck but stop it, I will stop it from swelling into a flinch, a palpable shudder. The thought of something happening to Sam feels worse than something happening to me. And then, the second man rearranges his grip to hold me at my elbows, which sends a bolt of pain through my shoulders, and then he pins my hands in the small of my back and finally lets go. I can now feel the gun against the back of my head.
“They are just innocent journalists,” I say. “They don’t agree with their government.” Sam told me this is true, that most of the American journalists here don’t even agree with their government’s policy, and that most of them didn’t vote for Mr. Bush. But neither did we vote for Saddam, and did that make the Americans think we were innocent? I have been fighting the urge to struggle against the clamp of their arms holding my arms, their hands stronger than my hands. But once they let go, I have to fight my instinct to twist and run. But to where? To my father, inside the house? I am practically inside my house. They know where I live.
“No! Not just journalists.” It is the man who slammed his hand into my mouth, the one without the gun. Between my tongue and my lips I taste blood, sweet and salty, and I draw my mouth in on itself and hope the bleeding will stop before the thought of it starts to make me nauseous. “They’re Americans. We in the neighborhood resistance committee have ruled that no one here should work with Americans. Do you understand, Amari?”
I wonder if they even know my first name and if they know Sam’s name or whether they just heard something about me or about her, a picture not quite complete, and as I’m thinking this, the man with the gun puts the barrel into the hollow of my right cheek and pushes harder.
“The infidels are only here to occupy our country and exploit it. They’re here to steal our oil and defile our women. No collaborators will be tolerated.”
It is pointless for me to say another word. The one without the gun has a sandpaper voice, and he leans in towards me, hangs an elbow on my shoulder and puts his mouth up to my ear. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I murmur.
You know, you might think of joining the resistance, too,” he says. “We could use English-speakers like you. Think about it.” I can feel the heavier one, the one who first jumped on me and clamped my mouth, moving away and heading for our gate, whispering for his friend to hurry up. I can sense the gun being tucked into the front of the man’s trousers, and the sound of a half-laugh, as though amused by my compliance, waiting there for the next order.
“Sixty seconds,” says the man at the gate, the gunman.“Start counting.” I hear a small explosion somewhere to the south and it makes me feel insignificant. Somewhere in Baghdad, someone else’s house or car or store or Bradley Fighting Vehicle is getting blown up. Why would anybody care if there’s a man holding a gun to my head just outside my doorstep?
And I do, and I can hear them run for the gate, leap over it without using the door. When I get to twenty-five and can’t hear them anymore, I stop counting and rush to the gate, where I can see the soles of their trainers rising and falling, growing faint somewhere at the end of my street.
“Baghdad Fixer” by Ilene Prusher
copyright © by Ilene Prusher 2012
Published by Halban Publishers, London
Ilene Prusher was a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor from 2000 to 2010, serving as the Boston-based newspaper’s bureau chief in Tokyo, Istanbul, and Jerusalem and covering the major conflicts of the past decade: Iraq and Afghanistan. She is now an independent journalist in Jerusalem. She also teaches Reporting Conflict for NYU-Tel Aviv, runs creative writing workshops, and writes Primigravida, a popular blog about motherhood.