Green Desert: Excerpt
Accidental Spy Iraq Prequel novelette
“Riveting story with powerful message!” Meredith Carvin
“This story will rock your world.” Bill Tillman
“A powerful, gripping and entrancing story. The author’s ability to take a topical subject and combine it with talented descriptive writing and creativity always thrusts the reader into the very heart of her books.” J.J. Collins, Author, Famine to Freedom, The Irish in the American Civil War (London, UK)
One day, the Iraqi desert will be a garden…again.
Mohammed al-Tikriti, suicide bomber, former University of Baghdad student
He looked up and wiped the sweat streaming down his face with a trembling hand. Eight a.m. Baghdad sun knew no mercy even at this hour. He must concentrate, just a few more minutes! He stood next to his shabby, dusty Corolla, with faded taxi markings on it. The alley was deserted and deathly quiet, as expected. But just down the hill, barely thirty meters away and fully visible from his vantage point, was the intersection of the busiest road in the city.
Almost time. They should be here any moment.
He took an envelope out of his pocket and almost decided to leave it by the gate of the nearest house, securing it with a rock, when he saw an American press crew – a cameraman and a tall, slim woman, disguised as a man (who was she kidding?) – setting up their camera next to the intersection.
He simply couldn’t believe his luck! Allah is merciful, he hasn’t deserted him in this hour of judgment! He cast a quick glance around, and another stroke of luck! A young boy, no more than eight or nine, rounded the corner, carrying a heavy jug of water, and made his way through the alley.
“Hey, boy! Come here, little boy,” he called, waving temptingly his last two dollar bills. “Want to make some real American money?”
The boy set his water jug on the ground and cautiously edged closer.
The man handed him the envelope. “I want you to give this after the explosion to that pretty lady dressed as a man. Do you see her?”
The boy’s shrewd eyes shot in the direction of the American press crew, and he nodded, giggling. Then, another thought made him frown.
“What explosion?” he asked suspiciously.
“You’ll see,” said the mysterious man. “The most important thing, stay hidden right here until after it happens. Understood?”
The boy nodded.
The man gave him an encouraging smile and got into his Corolla. Time!
He started the motor and quietly rolled closer to the intersection. Immediately, he heard the rumbling noise of a huge American truck, then he saw it. Praise Allah! Yet another stroke of luck – the monstrosity was full of soldiers. A big man with sergeant’s insignia sat in the cabin, next to the driver. Good! He’ll aim right at him. An officer is even better than mere soldiers.
“Allaaaaaaaaaaaah!” He slammed his foot on the accelerator and with a desperate cry launched his car forward, like a missile.
The big sergeant in the front seat turned his head towards him. The last thing the man’s mind registered was surprise in sergeant’s blue eyes.
Being in the right place at just the wrong time is my specialty. I mastered this fine art to perfection. My name is Jade Snow, I am an international journalist, and four days ago I arrived to Baghdad together with my crew to do a documentary about the Iraqi insurgency.
The first two days here normally feel like your lungs are about to explode from the ever-present thick yellow dust. Then, you get used to it. The key is to cover your face and drink lots and lots of bottled water. Bottled, because you obviously can’t trust what’s coming out of a tap.
In four days, I’ve seen enough Green Zone to last me a lifetime, but little else. The Green Zone is by far the nicest place in Baghdad. Some of the palm trees have been toppled by explosions and you can still see traces of shelling on the walls of the opulent former Saddam’s Palace, presently, the US military headquarters.
But our luxury hotel’s swimming pool area is always full. You can get a chilled beer or a margarita served by the pool side, blond American women strut here in bikinis, and American businessmen shake hands on the latest reconstruction deals.
My hot-blooded Latin cameraman, Alejandro, has not been wasting his time. While I’ve been trying to figure out how to get us out of the Green Zone and into action, he’s been spending quality time in the company of a confident-looking brunette, a reporter for one of the networks, and a smiley army PR specialist. Later, I spotted him whispering little nothings to a cute, blond Private, who kept blushing and throwing adoring glances at “the glamorous media man.” I didn’t mind. Let him enjoy himself today. Work starts tomorrow.
It’s very different outside this heavily guarded area – desolate, dangerous, ugly, and hard to breathe because of the desert dust. It’s highly advisable, especially for women, to stay inside the Green Zone. Many journalists here are satisfied with the daily military briefings, in which we are told only what the military wants us to know.
But I can’t settle for that. I came here to shoot, what I hope would be, an award winning documentary. I am suffocating behind these walls. I have to know what’s going on out there, in real Baghdad! All I need is transportation.
“Fine,” surrendered the captain in charge of transport. I’ve been besieging him since day one and, finally exhausted, he gave up.
“Keys. Your jeep is over there,” he pointed at a bunch of cars in the nearby lot. “The green one.”
“Thank you, Captain,” I said, feeling the happiest I’ve been since arriving to this inhospitable place.
“Don’t mention it,” he responded grouchily. “But I must advise you that you are venturing out there at your own risk. I suggest you at least wait for the convoy. It’s leaving in an hour. Two Humvees and a truck. Better travel with them – safety in numbers.”
“Can’t do that, Captain,” I said brightly. “Another day perhaps. Today, the plan is to shoot some footage of real life: streets, people, marketplace… It won’t work with soldiers around. But I appreciate your advice all the same.”
“All right,” he gave up. “But at least, dress in man’s cloths. It’s safer. This world is not very favorable to women, especially pretty Western women,” he added, attempting a smile and failing miserably.
It seemed like a sound advice, so I quickly borrowed a pair of cargo pants, safari shirt and khaki cap from Alejandro. I found a silk scarf and tied it around the pants, because Alejandro’s belt didn’t have enough holes in it. The scarf did a satisfactory job holding up the cargos and added some bulk to my form. After rolling up the pants so they wouldn’t drag on the ground, I checked my new look in the mirror, and satisfied, got into the jeep.
We found a good vantage point, a busy intersection, next to a marketplace. Deciding to do some general footage first, we started setting up the camera on the corner. I had a good feeling about this particular spot, hoping we might be able to get some good angles here. The camera started rolling.
“Pan right, Alejandro. Now, a tad to the left. Try to catch that family with those cute little kids,” I directed my cameraman periodically.
“Very good,” I went on, and was going to add that now I needed him to focus on the marketplace, when we heard the rumbling noise.
“It must be the convoy, the captain was talking about,” I murmured. Sure enough, moving towards us was the leading Humvee, followed by a huge armored truck, with at least fifteen or sixteen soldiers on board, two of them manning machine guns trained on both sides of the street, and followed by another Humvee. The truck was now almost parallel with us, a mere twenty feet away.
“Get this!” I mouthed to Alejandro through the deafening noise. But he was already focusing his camera on the convoy. I lucked out with Alejandro as my cameraman. He was experienced and I really didn’t need to remind him of such things.
As the truck passed us, the broad-shouldered sergeant in its cabin nodded to me and I saw a smile in his blue eyes. I waived back at him. At that very moment, I heard a noise coming from the quiet alley behind. Both Alejandro and I turned to see what was going on.
Like a bullet, an old Corolla shot out of the hidden alley, and went straight for the truck. Some kind of package was tied to the car’s front, where during weddings they usually tied wedding dolls. Alejandro, a consummate cameraman, immediately trained his camera on the charging Corolla. I only had the time to think, but it’s so tiny compared to that giant truck… when I got that urgent gut feeling, which I usually referred to as “my well-honed intuition.”
“Run!” I yelled, and quickly dragged Alejandro into the alley. We barely had time to duck behind a protruding rock, when the soldier with machine gun on top of the truck started firing. But it was too late; Corolla rammed into the truck at full speed, smack where the blue-eyed sergeant sat. A huge explosion rocked the intersection.
The noise was deafening, fire raged, panicked and bleeding people ran in all directions. Alejandro and I were about to dash to the site of the explosion, hoping we could help. But at that moment, a new explosion rocked the street and we had to duck again.
It was hopeless. No one over there could have survived these two explosions, plus the fiery inferno. We stood, watching the flames, wiping sweat, dust and soot off our faces, hoping against hope that someone had survived, and not knowing what to do next.
And that’s when someone tugged on my sleeve. I looked down, surprised. A small Iraqi boy stood next to me.
“Did you just tug on my sleeve?” I asked.
In response, he silently handed me an envelope. I took the envelope and my jaw dropped as I read: Why I became a terrorist. Inside I found several pages, written in a small, tight hand writing in what appeared to be decent English. I looked up to ask the boy where he got this letter, but he was gone. I couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hand. It was the story of the suicide bomber, whose deadly act I just witnessed first hand!
My name is Mohammed al-Tikriti and if you are reading this letter, it means that I am dead and that I’ve taken as many Americans as I could with me to the grave.
I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I was a biology student at the University of Baghdad. Flowers were my passion, especially daisies. European flowers, they don’t grow here, in the desert. I had a poster of a huge field of daisies in my room. Every time I woke up in the morning, I’d look at them and dream.
I became obsessed with an idea. What if, I thought, I could invent a way to make the Iraqi desert bloom, like those incredibly lush fields of wild flowers that grow everywhere in Europe? What if I could turn the desert back into a garden?
It wasn’t always a desert. In ancient times, Iraq, then Mesopotamia, was called the “Cradle of Civilization.” The mighty Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations prospered in the fertile Tigris-Euphrates river valley. They built the world’s most advanced irrigation system, which lasted for nearly ten thousand years, created the world’s first writing system and for the first time ever started recording history. Mesopotamia prospered until the medieval Islamic Golden Age, when Baghdad was the cultural and scientific center of the Middle East. Extensive gardens bloomed everywhere, but the desert had already begun its relentless march.
The fact is…people never appreciate what they have, until it’s too late. And so, people of Iraq fell prey to their own success and prosperity. They overused water from the rivers, until they dried up, depleted the rich soil, until gardens turned to saline desert dust. Mongol invasion did the rest. Much of the irrigation system that sustained the area for many millennia, was destroyed. As the gardens disappeared, so did prosperity.
My biggest dream was to bring gardens back to my people, to make my country prosperous again. And several years back, when we still had Saddam, I honestly thought that my dream was a reality. I worked hard on my degree and practiced my English, German and French. One day, I hoped to study in London, Berlin or Paris.
My father was a taxi driver. He owned two cars. One of them – a Corolla – he drove himself, another – an old Ford – leased to the man named Abdul. The income from two cars was enough to send me to the university and to keep a household, consisting of my mother, my favorite sister, Aliya, and my two younger brothers.
My father was, perhaps, a bit loud and short-tempered, but generally, a good and optimistic man. He was also considered something of a free thinker. Under Saddam, let’s just say, it was not encouraged. Once, in a company of close friends, having been drinking, he remarked that Iraq would benefit from free elections. The next day he was arrested and taken to prison. He was interrogated and beaten there, but because he was a Sunni and because he had some connections, after a week they let him go.
After that incident, father never spoke about politics again and forbade us to ever mention it, as well.
And so, we lived quietly in our family home on the outskirts of Baghdad until Americans came. That’s when everything changed.
One day, father received a phone call, asking him to pick up a couple of people from an area considered dangerous. At first, he said no. But the man offered him four times his usual fare. Times were bad for taxi business. Fewer people got out of their houses, many had no money to pay for a taxi and Baghdad streets oftentimes resembled a battlefield. But father still needed to feed the family. So, he said yes.
Turned out, the two men were “high value targets,” as Americans call them.
When father brought them to their destination, American soldiers ambushed them. In the shooting, father was wounded. Not seriously, just a flesh wound. But because he was there, he was taken together with the other men, to Abu Graib.
We started getting worried when he didn’t come home that night. The following day, I went to look for him, but found nothing. I kept looking, and the next day, I stumbled upon father’s Corolla. It was sitting by the curb, abandoned, windows broken, dashboard crushed, tires flat. I towed it back home, using our second car, the Ford. It took me two weeks to fix it.
Meanwhile, father had just vanished. We diligently checked all the hospitals and prisons and finally found him at Abu Graib. They told us that he was an insurgent and that visits were not allowed. Mother started getting chest pains and often she would lie down for hours, moaning. Aliya, who was only fourteen at the time, took over mother’s responsibilities. I left the university and started driving father’s Corolla in order to feed the family. We continued trying to get to see our father, but months passed and they wouldn’t allow us near him. Neighbors suggested we should hire a lawyer. The lawyer turned out to be very expensive, but he brought us new hope.
Then, one day, seven months later, they let father go. They said, the others admitted that he had nothing to do with insurrection and that he was just their taxi driver. I suspected his jailers knew father was innocent since the beginning, but only let him go after our lawyer threatened them.
He came home a different man; all black and blue from beatings, his left wrist broken, his kidneys shut. Sometimes he coughed out blood. But worse than that, father wasn’t himself. For days he would sit in a chair and stare at the wall. His eyes became dull and unseeing, breathing shallow, appetite non-existent.
We called a doctor, who prescribed rest, good food and a lot of expensive medication. I worked sixteen hour days to pay for his medication, to feed everyone and to keep this family afloat.
At least mother was getting better. Of course, every pair of hands was now precious. Someone had to look after father, someone had to take care of the house and cook. Aliya, at fifteen, did the lion share of housework, as mother’s heart was still weak.
Then, father’s health started deteriorating, but the medication he needed more than ever was getting more and more expensive. What I was making was no longer enough. We started selling whatever we could. The time came when there was nothing else to sell, except our house, our cars, and ourselves.
Abdul, the driver of our Ford, has been asking us to sell it to him. He couldn’t offer much, but that money would still be a big help until hopefully father got better. But I resisted selling the old Ford. After all, it still was additional income. Plus, I was hoping father would get better and he’d drive the Corolla again, while I could drive the Ford.
Aliya, who was about to turn sixteen, and who was blossoming into a beautiful young woman, proposed that she find a job. Mother started yelling at her that a decent young woman from an honest, Allah fearing family, should stay home and think about a husband, not a job. Aliya said nothing and neither did I. But after everyone went to sleep, Aliya and I sat quietly in the kitchen.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked.
“Rashid, you know him, the one who owns that big clothing store, with all those pretty dresses, has offered me to be a nanny for his children. He has three boys and a girl. His wife is pregnant with their fifth. She has a difficult pregnancy and she needs help. They like me and I could work several hours a day, then get back home in time to start dinner.”
“Maybe it’s not such a bad idea,” I said, “we need the money badly. But how are you going to get there and then back home? You know I have to work all day and would only get home late at night.”
“Rashid’s house is only thirty minutes by foot from our house. I could walk,” said Aliya excitedly. It appeared that to her, a short walk twice a day sounded like a great adventure. Unfortunately, life of a young woman in Iraq offers few opportunities to venture out. I woman is supposed to stay home, cook, take care of her family and be obedient. I understood Aliya’s yearning. But there was nothing I could do. I was now the head of the family. It was my job to uphold tradition. I had to be firm.
“No,” I said sternly. “That won’t do. You shouldn’t be walking alone. A beautiful young woman like you should never go out of the house unaccompanied. You know that, sister. Besides, it’s too dangerous.”
“So, what do you propose, brother?” asked Aliya, and I heard a hidden note of impatience in her voice.
“Well, I can’t believe we are even discussing this. Mother will not like it. But if you are going to work there, I’ll drive you in the morning and pick you up in the afternoon. End of discussion!”
“Yes, brother,” agreed Aliya, demurely lowering her large, black eyes.
“Whatever you do, don’t leave Rashid’s house until I arrive, understand?” I reiterated, to be absolutely clear.
“But what if you have a well-paying fare at that time?” remarked Aliya reasonably. “I am a grown woman now,” she added proudly, “I could manage on my own.”
“No,” I shook my head. “You will only work there on one condition. You’ll wait for me to pick you up. Promise!”
“Of course,” said Aliya, again lowering her eyes obediently. She was an exemplary woman – hard-working, meek, respectful. She’d make some man very happy one day. There were many suitors knocking on our door already.
Still, something in her posture didn’t seem very obedient. I looked more closely. She’d always been a good sister and a good daughter and did what she was told. But I grew up with her. Underneath this front she had a curious and independent heart. I’d watch her carefully and try not to be late, I decided…even if I had to refuse a fare. My sister’s safety came first.
And so, it was decided. The next morning, I took Aliya to Rashid’s house, a large mansion with white columns, a fountain and a gleaming, tiled courtyard. They seemed like a very nice family. I was sure that Aliya would be happy working there.
The money Aliya earned was godsend. For about three weeks everything went well and we were now able to breathe a little easier. But it proved difficult for me to pick her up in the afternoon. Sometimes it meant refusing a perfectly good fare because that would have made me late.
That fateful day, a man asked me to drive him to the vicinity of the Green Zone. I looked at the clock and was about to say no because I was cutting it too close. But he waived a bunch of dollars in my face. I shook my head again, but he offered to pay triple the usual fare – in dollars! We needed this money so badly that I said yes. I thought that if I drove fast, then quickly turned around and took a shortcut I knew, I would be only thirty minutes late. I knew Aliya was impatient, but she would wait for me – she would! That was our agreement!
And so, I let the man out near the Green Zone. After he paid in full, I turned the car around and drove back as fast as I could. Reaching the shortcut, I congratulated myself on making good time, when I heard the explosions. People were running towards me, yelling that there was an ambush and that the Americans were shooting.
“Don’t go there,” yelled a man, running past my car. “It’s too dangerous, you may be killed.”
“What’s happening?” I asked, stopping the car.
“They attacked,” The man yelled. “Several people had been killed. It’s very bad, don’t go!”
I couldn’t get anything else out of anyone, as the crowd just kept running past me in a panic. It took me thirty minutes to get back to the main road because of all the running people blocking my passage. Now I had no choice but to take the long way.
“Whatever you do, Aliya, don’t leave by yourself,” I kept murmuring under my breath, holding on to the wheel for dear life.
When I finally reached Rashid’s house, I was one hour and twenty minutes late.
“Aliya left almost twenty minutes ago,” said Rashid’s wife, who was getting so big, that she could hardly stand on her feet.
“She said that you were probably busy and that she was worried about dinner. She didn’t have enough time to make it and you would come home hungry. She also said she was worried that your father needed to observe his regimen and mother wasn’t feeling so well. I offered her to wait until Rashid got back home so he could drive her, but she said that it was only a thirty minute walk and that she’d like to stretch her legs.”
I got into the car and drove home, like mad. I had a really bad feeling about this, but I waved it away and concentrated on the road. If Aliya left twenty minutes ago, then she would be close to home by now. The red sun set on the horizon, blinding me, so that I almost drove past a female figure, crouched by the side of the road.
The last moment, I managed to slam on brakes, raising a huge cloud of brown dust. The figure on the ground lifted her head. Staring back at me was a tear- and mud-stained face – my sister’s face.
“Aliya! What happened?” I rushed to her. She got to her feet and I saw that her lip was swollen and bloody. Her traditional long dress that was supposed to conceal her entire form from the prying eyes of strangers, was torn and dirty, as if she rolled in it on a dusty road. Her hair was an entangled mess, and – oh, horror – in the open for everyone to see, as her black headscarf slipped off her head and was now dangling off her shoulder. Aliya threw herself at me and started crying.
“What happened, Aliya?” I hurriedly covered her hair with the headscarf, while she silently trembled in my arms. I started getting really worried.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” I asked.
“I… I j…just wanted to get d…dinner ready on time,” she said quietly.
“Aliya,” I looked her straight in the eye. What happened?”
“D…don’t be mad, please, Mohammed. Promise you won’t be mad at me?” she looked at me pleadingly.
“I won’t, I promise,” I said. “Now tell me, what happened to you?”
“I was attacked.” She whispered.
“Attacked?! By whom?”
“American soldiers. They drove past in one of those huge, metal things that look like tanks, but are more like trucks.”
“You mean a Humvee?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “When they saw me, they started whistling and yelling something. Then they stopped. Some of them got out of this hum… hum…dee and tried to get my dress off. I resisted, and one of them started beating me. I pulled at my dress to get it back and that’s how it got torn.”
“Oh, merciful Allah,” I managed to whisper. “Did they do anything to you… Did they… Tell me you are all right.”
I held her by the wrists and shook her slightly. “Tell me, tell me!” I repeated.
“You are hurting me,” she cried. “It hurts so much.”
I released my grip and that’s when I noticed that her wrists were all bruised.
Her eyes were full of tears. “I was so scared,” she murmured, looking at me pleadingly. “So scared.”
“Aliya,” I said, my teeth clenched. “Did they violate you?”
She just kept crying, her face buried in her hands.
“Did they violate you?!” I repeated in a dangerous voice.
“Ooohhhh,” wailed Aliya.
“Do you know what this means!” Rage filled my brain and colored everything red. I lifted my poor sister by the shoulders and shook her. Her head bounced back and forth.
“Mohammed, you are hurting me,” she moaned. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
I came back to my senses and let her go. All of a sudden I felt incredibly tired.
“What have you done?” I said bitterly. “Why did you have to leave Rashid’s house? You should have waited there, as I told you to. And now, look what you’ve done! Now, no one will ever want you as a wife. No one will even look at you. Our family will live in shame forever!
Aliya said nothing, but huge tears streamed down her beautiful face.