An old, fragmented story, published here for the first time in its entirety.
Finally, at 11:50 on the clear desert night of February 26, his wife closes the door behind her and leaves the room. He remains motionless, sitting on the edge of the uncomfortable wooden chair, surrounded by semi-darkness, yet able to see through the narrow gap between the heavy curtains an airplane taking off from Amman International Airport. He could have been on that plane, Akef figures, on his way to London. Or maybe even to New York. And therefore to freedom. But instead, in exactly ten minutes, the black telephone – resting so ominously beside him on the small Arabian coffee table – would surely ring.
“Five rings, no more,” his wife Layla had said before she left to her bedroom (where he is no longer welcome). She urged him to stay put, and alert, before leaving him alone. On purpose she did that, tightening the noose she had already looped around his neck beforehand. Five rings – enough time for him to pick up the phone and confirm the deal. And seal his fate.
At the other end will be her father, his father-in-law, and the father of all the people of Iraq. He would fulfill, by speaking to him personally, the one condition Akef had set and vehemently demanded. He had stood his ground stubbornly like his old village mule, refusing to budge on that. He wanted to hear his familiar voice, not that of his son, his sworn enemy – the head of the Ministry of Internal Defense – and the leader of all the murdering squads. Akef will be able to deduce, he is still convinced of that, if her father would be lying to him; even without seeing his false, deadly smile. But, if Akef won’t pick up the telephone, if he will let it ring through – the deal will fall through as well, and he may never again see the sad old eyes of his mother; may never again kiss the full, warm lips of his mistress; may never again touch the hard, ancient ground of his beloved homeland.
It is now nine minutes before midnight, and the perfect time for him to light a cigarette. Enough time, he is sure of that, to smoke it all the way through before the telephone would ring. He feels how his whole life – past, present, and future – is crystallizing in this small Camel cigarette. An American cigarette it is, of course, yet depicting and selling the allure of the Arab world. The same cigarette he had smoked, he now shivers in remembrance, on that fateful morning, after he was jolted out of a terrible dream, covered with a blanket of cold sweat. In his dream, he was walking with Layla in the marketplace of Baghdad when suddenly – while she seemed to be gaining ground on him, chatting loudly with the other women there – someone touched his shoulder lightly. He halted and turned back, facing so very close to him her father: the Supreme Ruler himself. He smiled his big sinister smile at him, allowing the full effect of this shark-like smile to terrorize him for a long moment, before saying: “Meet me in Baghdad at sundown.”
And only after her father had turned and left, disappearing among the crowd at the marketplace like a phantom, that it became clear to Akef who in fact he was: The angel of death.
But as he kept lying in the big bed, awake and shivering with fear, careful not to wake up his wife – who slept peacefully beside him, oblivious to his tormented state of mind – he could’ve sworn that in his dream he was actually in Baghdad, in the marketplace, and couldn’t figure out this riddle. Yet it was then that the misty road ahead of him began to clear up, and together with the creeping morning light it dawned on him that the time had come for him to flee. He had to leave his beloved city behind, he felt certain of that, and head for the border.
Akef was, after all, the executioner of so many lives in Iraq. He had made his way to the top – heading the Ministry of External Defense – by stepping on countless corpses. He knew too well, and too much, to be easily fooled. And therefore, he was absolutely sure that the Great Executioner himself, who was, in fact, the one to order all these killings Akef had carried out, had decided already whose head would be cut off next: that of his son-in-law.
Akef takes a good, long drag on his cigarette, now at eight minutes before the expected, dreaded phone call. He then tastes for the first time the black Turkish coffee in front of him. Layla had prepared it for him, so considerate suddenly, after the much trouble and crying she had inflicted on him lately. But the taste of her coffee is still good, and unlike her, warm and strong. And she is right, he is forced to admit, she always was her father’s favorite daughter: the olive of his eye. And she knows him best, too. To her, she had said, he never lies. Nor ever will. All is forgiven, then, and the letter of remorse and unconditional surrender is accepted without conditions. Even her father – who danced merrily after so many funerals, those of his enemies and those of his friends, and who drank their blood as if it were but sweet wine – even he wouldn’t hurt his own daughter, his own flesh and blood, and his own grandchildren and their father. After all, he and Akef have been through so much together, at war and at peace. And if not for his snake-eating son, the cold-blooded murderer who would readily, if the opportunity were to present itself, kill his own father without a second thought, this whole sad affair – their defection to Jordan – would never have happened. As the son, Akef is sure of this, was the one to convince his father to get rid of him.
But now, Layla promised him, her father himself is losing all trust in his son and his days are numbered. She spoke with him by phone and got all the right assurances. As a matter of fact, her father had said, Akef is needed now more than ever before. His “baby” – the biological-bomb-for-mass-annihilation – is in deep trouble. Only Akef, by taking charge again of these mad scientists, can resurrect it now. At the same time, the damn Kurds are gaining ground again, up north. And who else if not her husband, so he had told her, would be able to suppress and eradicate them once and for all. And after that – Jerusalem!
And suddenly, at seven minutes to midnight, for the first time in these long six months of exile that Akef feels at peace with himself. He is almost happy it is all going to end pretty soon. Even the splitting headache that follows him everywhere and the deafening whistle in the core of his brain have mysteriously disappeared. He won’t be in need anymore of those amateurs who call themselves doctors, over there at the Royal Hospital of Amman. Oh no, he is confident again; he is ready for action; he is resolute once more. Most probably he will be able to sleep tonight, after the telephone conversation, for the first time in a long time. He won’t be surprised, even, if his wife will join him in bed. And just as he is thinking about that he feels – no, he is not dreaming – an erection coming on. It is a sign of life he hasn’t felt since leaving Baghdad. And it feels so good, oh Muhammad son of Allah, so normal again – even if, after the short moment of elation, it quickly wilts down.
He sucks on the cigarette as hard as he can when only six minutes remain, then releases the rings of smoke as slow as possible. He promised in his agreement letter to reveal all the contacts he had made here in Amman, name all the names of the people he had met, and disclose all the places he had visited. He swore to reveal where they hide, all these traitors who call themselves patriots, the “saviors of the homeland.” They had called him a “war criminal” to his face, his hands still dripping blood of comrades, they had said. He will show them a pool of blood, an ocean in fact. They refused to name him their leader, refused to crown him the next king. Work with us, they had told him, here in the marketplace of the old city, here in the darkness of the narrow alleyways. Be one of us: a foot soldier. Then we shall see. But he wasn’t ready for that: then, now, or ever. He wasn’t, still isn’t, a foot soldier. He is a general! He will personally command the unit of brave men that will penetrate their ranks and kill them all. In one swift move. The same way he had used to cut wheat with his scythe, back at the village of his lost childhood and youth.
He now drinks the rest of the coffee in one quick gulp and, angrily, gets up at five minutes to midnight and crosses the room. He stands close by the window, in the shadow of the cold wall, and looks outside at the lights of the majestic city of Amman. The smooth desert breeze, which plays so gently with the curtains, takes the cigarette smoke away into the dark Arabian night. Maybe it will reach the old king, so safe and cozy in his big palace, and he too will smell it. He remembers the spacious rooms with the high ceilings; he remembers the comfort of soft chairs and large beds, and he remembers the servants. Thinking about it, he is boiling with rage all over again at the old desert hawk, who after a while had removed him and his family from the palace, away from the hills overlooking the old city, and moved them down here into this crummy apartment on the way to the airport. He will pay heavily for that one day, the king. When Akef – so isolated and poor now, deprived of rank and dignity, without any troops to command – would be the ruler of Baghdad, the ruler of the desert and the ruler of the whole Middle East.
He bitterly throws the butt of the cigarette out the window, doubtful of his own grandiose schemes and illusions. His eyes follow the tiny red sparkle as it parachutes down onto the street, wondering whether that is to be his fate as well. He prays for the telephone not to ring as of yet, and turns back quickly to find the green electronic digits of the clock signal that, mercifully, four minutes still remain.
He retreats back into the room and, though he doesn’t feel any urgent need to use the bathroom, he steps inside anyway and turns on the light. He looks at the mirror, where he finds a stranger staring back at him. And then – so unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason – he smiles. Most probably, it is his first smile since his arrival here at Amman. He looks straight into his own tired eyes and wonders why this silly smile has appeared so suddenly on his face. And then, with the sharpness of a knife slicing clear water, he realizes what a fool he was, and still is: a fool to believe in false promises, a fool to trust the wolf to squat quietly beside the lamb. He knows now that he has lied to himself as of late. He knows, as well as he knows these dark brown eyes of his staring back at him, that the “Butcher of Baghdad” – as the papers in the west had labeled the Supreme Ruler – will eat him alive. How can he of all people, Akef Abd al-Aziz, believe in this fairy-tale of a deal? How can he, with all his experience and knowledge, even for a minute deceive himself that his fate, with absolute certainty, would be any different from the fate of the lamb: a quick and brutal death. The shark will close his jaws the moment he, his biggest fish yet, will enter his mouth. A shark is a shark, after all. It’s in his nature. His own wife would be ordered to spit on his head (he had seen that happened once to a close friend) when the favorite son will bring it to the table on a silver platter. And she will obey, of course she would. And will watch without protest how the crown prince will dig out her husband’s eyes (he had seen that happened, too), and how he will throw his tongue to the dogs.
He turns off the light and steps back into the living room, realizing that only three minutes remaining before the dreaded telephone would start ringing. What should he do, then, if the picture is so bleak and so clear? And if the picture is indeed so, why is he still pacing the small room so nervously to and fro? Why is he so restless, so indecisive? Is it because he is afraid he would be left alone, without his wife and children? Or is it because he will soon run out of money?
He is unable to find satisfying answers to these troubling questions. Helplessly, he drops down heavily on the hard chair, while his mind is drifting towards the American option. He is certain, though, that he will end up in jail there, accused of “crimes against humanity.” And as for London, or any other major city in Europe, it will be more dangerous than even here. The gang of murderers will be after him day and night. They will get him in the end, he knows that for certain, just as they got to all the others. They will pee on him, then cut him to pieces. And if that is to be his fate, well then, he would rather die in his homeland.
Only two minutes remain before midnight when Akef thinks about the two women in his life. His wife, who in fact had encouraged him to leave Baghdad, is no longer on his side. She is on her father’s side. She can’t live for long without all the amenities and privileges she was accustomed to since childhood. It is like second nature to her now. And all the promises and vows to stick by him no matter what, to kill herself if he would be killed – are worthless. He is certain of that. Absolutely worthless. She begs and cries and terrorizes him constantly with her quest to go back. She is ready even to sleep with him again, like in the good old days when he, not her brother, was the chosen heir to the throne. And this willingness on her part is a sure sign, above all else, that something is wrong here. Very wrong.
And at the same time he knows, with the same certainty but without any proof to support it, that the one real woman in his life, his young mistress – is dead already, a victim of gang rape and brutal mutilation. (Recorded on videotape, no doubt, for the enjoyment of his enemies.) He was allowed to keep her only because everybody else – upon reaching a certain position of dominance and influence – was allowed, required almost, to do so. It was a sign of maturity and power, a privilege of sorts. But it was, still is, no secret; as there are no secrets at all in this barbaric, if modern regime.
He longs for her so much, misses her so terribly, but at the same time he knows deep inside his heavy heart that it is futile: she is in a different world already.
And it so happens that when only one minute remains till midnight, Akef still can’t decide what he is going to do when the telephone would finally ring. He finds himself caught between the hammer and the anvil, as the elders used to say back in his village, and can’t see a way out of it. But, as he looks with dismay at the peaceful, yet so menacing black instrument, and then stares fearfully at the electronic clock, as if trying to prevent it from moving forward, he suddenly thinks about Allah: the one and only God. He must put his trust in Allah, and in his son Muhammad, to guide him out of this dark tunnel. After all, Allah is the real Supreme Ruler, and in his name he did all those terrible things he was forced into doing. He just obeyed the damn orders, anyway; he was always an obedient servant. And suddenly – as if it were not so much by his own volition, but rather he is forced into it by a power much greater than himself – he falls to the floor and puts his head on the rug in the direction of the window, and hopefully Mecca. His eyes, however, are full of tears; he is praying silently for forgiveness and guidance, for…
The telephone rings while Akef is praying and catches him by surprise. He raises his head from the rug and glares at it, just when it rings for the second time. He crawls on the floor towards it and stops by the small coffee table, as the third ring sounds. He then raises his hand above the telephone, hesitating still, his mouth dry like the mouth of a dead man, when it rings for the fourth time. It is as if Akef didn’t expect this call at all, as if he didn’t anxiously waited for the telephone to ring for the last ten minutes, the last six months – since that terrible dream in Baghdad. Or, as a matter of fact, waited for it his whole life.
His wife, Layla, picks up the receiver on the fifth and final ring. He did not hear her opening the door, nor did he see her coming in. But now, as she stands above him smiling, reminding him of her father more than ever before; it seems so right, so befitting, so natural – the telephone cord resembling a hanging rope – that she would be the one to hand him the receiver. He takes it from her, his hand shaking heavily, even though he knows with absolute certainty who, carrying what message, is waiting for him at the other end: The angel of death, instructing him to meet him in Baghdad at sundown.