‘What do you say we raid her house?’ said Donovan, my new captain in the Green Zone, one hot July evening. I thought he was joking.

            In July, water boils in the jug, as the Baghdadi saying goes. That’s why we were sitting on the edge of the artificial lake with our feet in the water. The lake was no longer fit for swimming now that weeds had started growing in it and green-blue spots were floating on its stagnant surface. The soldiers who’d arrived here at the beginning of the war told us that the palaces were like something out of the Arabian Nights. There used to be an army of horticulturalists whose job it was to cultivate and maintain the garden, and they’d brought rare flowers and plants from all over the world. The lakes used to be as clear as glass, wild geese and river fish roamed in them. Then the new government officials and the members of the new ruling council arrived with their guards and wreaked havoc in the place. Gone were the specialists in roses and jasmine. The water fowl were barbecued.

            At first I didn’t get Captain Donovan’s drift. I was asking him about the possibility of visiting my grandmother, whose house was just half an hour away by car from the Zone. So he suggested we raid her house, and it turned out he meant what he said. He didn’t oppose the visit but worried about drawing the neighbours’ attention, and so implicating my grandmother and putting her in danger. He argued she’d become an easy target for terrorists if anyone suspected that her granddaughter worked with the Americans. ‘So what do you suggest?’ I asked.

            ‘If you want to see her, there’s only one way: we can raid two or three houses on the street. Her house will be one of them, and it’ll look like a normal search patrol.’

            At dinner that same evening we discussed the plan with the rest of the unit. We would run investigations in the neighbourhood, under the pretext of looking for suspects, then we’d raid her house. A raid usually takes over two hours. So I’d have plenty of time to get my fill of my grandmother, while the soldiers rested on the sofas of the lounge, ate watermelon and looked at the icons of saints. We had our plan, set the date and carried on drinking Coke and devouring glasses of jelly in an attempt to cool down. The more we ate and drank, the more we sweated.

It’s time for me to step away from the keyboard and into the scene. I want to live this visit outside the text, play my true part which lies beyond arranging words. So I’ll let the writer describe, in her high style, what happened during that pretend raid. She’s visibly relieved at my withdrawal and starts to write:

            The turquoise ceramic piece still hangs in its usual place at the entrance of the house, warding off evil with its seven eyes. The smell of the oil lamp welcomes the arrivals and announces yet another power cut. The darkness of the night and the noise of the approaching armoured vehicles have turned the neighbourhood streets into a ghost town. The same darkness is a convenient cover for Zeina and her friends. One of the soldiers knocks heavily on the door, and it’s opened by Rahma herself. Three soldiers go in first, followed by Zeina, who quickly shuts the door behind her and, despite the darkness that is broken by nothing but a lonely candle, rushes to make sure the curtains are also drawn. The rest of the unit stay behind, in the safety of their armoured vehicles.

            At the heart of the living room, a big picture of the grandfather hangs in the middle of the wall. A beautiful old picture, with him in his military uniform and his colonel’s stars. But because Zeina only knew her grandfather with white hair and a receding hairline, she thinks that the picture is of her youngest uncle, until she picks up the lantern and moves closer. The grandmother has been prepared for the raid. Her American granddaughter explained the plan to her on the phone. She objected at first, couldn’t see what interpreters would have to do with the search operations of the occupation. Zeina replied that monitoring raids was an integral part of her job. Rahma’s longing to see her beloved Zayyoun blinded her into believing and accepting. But despite all the preparation and anticipation, the old woman screams and slaps her own cheeks the minute she sees her granddaughter in the distinctive light-coloured camouflage of the US Army. She doesn’t recognise her right away, not until Zeina has removed the helmet from her head. And Rahma still wishes that the woman standing before her was only wearing these clothes as disguise, that she’d only borrowed the helmet to protect her head from the stray bullets that fill the Baghdad air. But she knows that her eyes are only confirming what her heart has been telling her for some time.

God damn you, Zeina, daughter of Batoul I wish I had died before having to see you like this.

The granddaughter squirms with embarrassment in front of her comrades, but none of them understand what the old woman is saying anyway. She goes up to her grandmother to embrace her, but Rahma pushes her away and goes inside. Zeina follows her to the bedroom, that large rectangular space that’s filled with memories and laughter, the echoes of family arguments, the prayers and lullabies of the past. Rahma has collapsed on the old low chair with the wide wooden armrests. With heavy eyelids she looks at the soldier standing in the doorway and wishes again that her eyes were deceiving her. She wishes she’d go blind, or the girl would point to something behind the curtain and say, ‘Smile, you’re on Candid Camera’. But it isn’t Candid Camera. She knows it’s not. And Zeina isn’t removing her disguise. She just shuts the door behind her and becomes a ghost moving in the darkness of the room. She throws herself into her grandmother’s arms. Clings to her. Persists in holding her close. Even as the old woman resists the embrace like a sulking child. Zeina holds on to her grandmother and rocks her back and forth. She starts singing …

            Dil dil dilani

            To Baashika and Bahzani

            Baba went to old town stall

            Brought us chickpeas and raisins …

The girl steals her grandmother’s lullaby. Out of the same memory well, she pulls the words, the tune and the rhythmic movement and claims them for herself. Two women in a familiar pose, and the roles are reversed. Rahma fights with the little strength left in her, but soon surrenders to the hands that caress her head and face and wipe the tears from her many wrinkles.

            ‘Shame on you, Zayyoun. You’re lost, my child. My heart is broken over you.’

            ‘Grandma, listen to me, don’t take it like this.’

            ‘And how do you want me to take it?’

            ‘We’re doing a good job in this country. Believe me.’

            The old woman pulls her head away and looks contemptuously at her granddaughter.

            ‘Don’t you dare say these things in the room where your grandfather’s soul ascended. Have some respect for his memory at least.’

            ‘He died here?’

            ‘Here on this bed. It was a mercy from God that he died before witnessing the occupation, before witnessing you.’

            Zeina can’t see the old woman’s tears in the dark, but she could smell them. She can see her grandmother’s voice, and it’s pale and trembling.

            ‘Here on the same bed, where you used to play as a child. When they took you away from us, it made us ill and old. Your grandfather and I felt like orphans.’

            ‘Why do you cry now, when I’m here with you?’

            ‘If only they’d known how to raise you properly when they took you away, my daughter’s daughter.’

            ‘I’m the way you made me. I haven’t changed.’

            ‘You have changed. You belong to the Green Zone now.’

Previous Years

You can find a complete history of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction here. Information on all the winners, shortlisted and longlisted...

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    One of the main aims of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is to encourage the translation of Arabic literature into...

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