Phantoms


One day the advertisements were not there and then the next day they were there and they were everywhere. We heard it said that their presence signaled the beginning of the new economy.

Only two years had passed since they tore down the statue in Firdos Square, since the Americans called to us on loudspeakers—using both Arabic and English—and instructed us to act as if they weren’t there, to help make history. The photos of this day soon appeared in the papers and in them we saw a crowd that was much larger than we remembered.

Our memories had betrayed us, we were told.

Like a cloud of smoke, the first of many wide billboards rose above the uneven rooftops of Baghdad, obscuring the trembling rays of the white desert sun. Back alleys that only the day before even brave men wouldn’t dare walk down alone were now lined with wheat-paste posters displaying jeans that no one could afford, watches that no one would ever wear, and hairdryers that no one needed. The city’s scorched and bullet-flecked pylons were quietly covered with poorly photocopied images of cellphones and cigarettes.

The advertisements were both dull and bursting with color, impossibly at odds with the crushing brown smear of the surrounding desert. There was one for expensive and small containers of honey and there was one for small red cans of cola.

It seems they were trying to sell the idea of a regular life back to us, in bits and pieces, to those of us who hadn’t left yet. And that would have been just fine if we’d cared to know how to go about buying it back, or what do with it once we had it in our possession.

Soon enough a group of young men tore the advertisements down. The Americans stood and watched and held their heavy black guns, bored and youthful and uninterested as always.

Those who have lost limbs say that they still feel what is no longer there. They say that where once there was no feeling there is now a pain whose depth cannot be uttered.

We learned how to wire a grenade and cache it in the wall behind a poster, a mechanism commonly referred to as a victim-operated improvised explosive device. The idea of a victim, of a person, being held responsible for their own death is not unthinkable to us.

Iraqi Kurds do not typically speak Arabic and most Iraqi Arabs do not typically speak Kurdish. Despite what they might tell you, many of us were taught English at a young age—a language whose usefulness is often preferred by the Kurds to Arabic, by the Arabs to Kurdish. When they first arrived, we’d pass the Americans in the street and jeer and hold up two fingers and say peace and they would look right through us like they couldn’t hear us speaking in their own tongue, their eyes scanning the horizon.

Working together we put up posters that depicted the face of Moqtada al-Sadr looming large over the city’s skyline, the silhouettes of brave insurgents beneath him in the foreground, and then we waited for the Americans to do their duty and to go about taking them down. Some nights, the muffled pop of a grenade blooms in the distance, an abyss of silence jarred loose within its tremendous echoes.

There is a belief held by some of the men that the desert—the entity that engulfs us all—is a sentient being, a mythical monster that seeks only ruin for the world.

Few forces of nature rival the sheer awesomeness of sand and wind. Sweeping one’s doorstep is useless. When your time has come, the sand will find entrance to your home through the smallest of cracks, the thickest of walls. The sand will cast you out to wander its endless yellow seas, where it will then find its way into your shoes, slowing you down, where it will crust your open eyes, occulting all light.

I remember reading a cartoon strip when I was a child, finding the discarded newspaper blowing in the street like so much refuse, taking it home, hiding it away from the others, deciphering its English. Where it came from, I never learned—but there it was, all the same. The cartoon depicted an unclean boy, an American boy, and he referred to his uncleanliness as the dust of ancient civilizations—such an un-American idea.

The dust of our world has hidden us away from the eyes of the Americans. They no longer take us in, see us as human. If they see us at all they see us as monsters. We are monsters to them. We are phantoms.

Press a single grain of sand between two fingers with all of your strength and still you will fail to crush it. The harder you press, the more the grain of sand will fortify its strength. A man buried up to his neck in the sand, however, will be pulled in and crushed unmercifully. His death will be slow but his death will be sure.

Talk has begun of ambitious construction projects in the areas surrounding the city—paving the streets, building an elementary school, more billboards—but securing licenses for such endeavors is difficult, despite the opportunity provided by the so-called new economy. The corruption of the local governing bodies is in so many ways like so much dry quicksand: easy to be wary of, impossible to discern.

One of the ancient prophets decreed that genuine men have always dwelt as the lords of the desert, that in the towns dwell well-fed men—draught animals all.

When the safety pin of a grenade is withdrawn, the lever releases and the striker will rotate into the primer. When the primer is struck, heat will flash and ignite the fuse. The igniter then sets off the charge. The grenade is filled with what is known as preformed fragmentation, small steel spheres. Spheres are used because cubes take up too much space. These spheres are then released with such force that they rip apart the grenade’s cast-iron casing—a storm of biting metal.

The term they so often use to describe this new economy of ours, or so I have seen it said in some of the foreign papers, the way they have so often chose to describe it, with such disdain for the ferocity of carefully chosen words, is to say that this new economy is booming.

A grenade doesn’t so much as explode as it pops. There is very little smoke, no flame. It is nothing like what you’ve seen in films. It is the fragmentation, rather than the force of the explosion itself, that is deadly. Of course, if the grenade goes off so close to your body—and this should always be the goal—then the distinction is not necessary.

Nobody tells us where the weapons come from and we do not question their presence. Nobody tells us what to do with them because we already know. When pressed by the Americans for information, nobody knows anything. Nobody has a name. Nobody is scared. There is so much beauty and strength to be found in knowing these things.

Nothing lights up the nighttime sky quite like the spectacle of tracer fire as it arcs over the rooftops. I imagine it to be not dissimilar from the way the starry corpse of the universe will appear as it pulls itself apart, light stringing into spaghetti strands, a hungry black hole swallowing all of creation.

All throughout the city streets, the dogs bark. Animals know something that we do not. Animals know a hunger that we do not. They sense something that we believe to not be there at all. The dogs know. The noise of their pain is a dream whose clutches cannot be escaped.  

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