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When Bilal was a little boy, he had these nightmares. Dreams of torture and killing, of death and sadness, of separation and pain. These are the kind of nightmares that are so terrifying that they render you forever changed in their wake. His mother used to hug him close to her chest and tell him that everything would be okay, but at seven years old, Bilal knew that it wouldn’t. He had the intuition of a man seven times his age, and if there was one thing that he knew, it was that nothing would ever be okay.
Even as a little boy, he understood what most adults cannot. Bilal knew that there would always be war. There would always be criminals, lawbreaking, torture, pain, suffering, sickness, starvation, poverty and sadness. But as he understood it, as long as there was smiling and happiness, all of this could not dominate. It would always be there, but it could never win. Evil could exist, but it could not outnumber the good.
Fifteen years later, Bilal Habib Abdulhassan was a man. He had attended as much school as his parents could afford, he had worked in the market, he had fallen in love and he had fallen out of it. Fifteen years later, Bilal was still having bad dreams. He never told Mother of his dreams, certainly not Father either, who would be disappointed in how little of a man his son was. His brothers Jalal and Jafar had never seemed to notice or care before either, but his sister Noura had heard him crying out at night before and tended to him well. If he ever were to be disturbed in his dreams, he could be sure that when he opened his eyes, Noura would be there with a damp rag, wiping the beads of sweat of his face and feeding him sweets. This reassurance helped him get through the years of dark and depressing nights. Though Noura was just sixteen, she had more wisdom than any other any other girl her age; not to mention Jalal or Jafar, who, despite being eighteen and twenty respectively, had maturity and smarts far less comparable to Bilal and Noura, though each with their own individual strength.
On the eve of his twenty-second birthday, Bilal realized that he was trapped into a life that he had too much potential for. It was not that he didn’t want to grow up to be like Mother and Father, as much as it would be unfair to them to waste what gifts God had given him working in a bazaar for the rest of his life. It was then that Bilal realized his choices were limited. He could join the army, get married, leave his family behind, or go back to school. One of these ideas didn’t pop out to him immediately, so he decided to do all of them at once, in a typical Abdulhassan family fashion.
How to combine these things into one plan came to him one night as he lay in bed, awaiting the oncoming nightmare that had become regular sleep. He closed his eyes with determination to sleep a pure, dreamless sleep of exhaustion, but once again found himself dreaming of war, blood and sweat. He dreamed of the blast he had heard about in the bazaar last week, and about the American soldiers that were killed in the roadside bombing. Though Bilal didn’t believe in the Iraq war, and strongly disapproved of American politics, he found himself wide awake in the midst of the dream with an idea to change his life. He called for Noura desperately, and when she didn’t come right away, he rushed to her bedroom for her advice. He found her praying by her bedside with a handful of prayer beads and her Q’oran in her lap. His eyes met her and at the same time they both knew that his life would never be the same again.
It took three months for Bilal to learn English once more, and he regretted not paying more attention to it when he was in school. The family sat cross-legged in a circle every night, quizzing him and testing him to the breaking point, catching and exaggerating any flaws in his speech, grammar or pronunciation. By the end of the third month it was apparent that Bilal’s English was as close to flawless as it could be. He was ready. He penned a letter to the head of the American Military Base in Baghdad and put on his best pants to deliver it. The man who received it at the door was unenthusiastic about the idea of hiring a local to be one of their linguists, but he promised to relay the letter to a higher authority as soon as he could, and Bilal, prepared for anything, planned on returning the next day to give him another copy of the letter. Sometimes, he thought to himself, persistency is more important in getting what you want than the actual skill is.
One month and five interviews after his initial drop-off of the letter, Bilal was the new resident Arabic-to-English translator at the American Iraqi base. Father and Mother were happy with his dedication and his high-ranking job, though it displeased them that he was working for the opposite side. Deep down, it displeased him too.
Six months later, at the military base, Bilal awoke in a thin film of sweat, legs sticking together, fresh with perspiration, hands dank with odor and dirt. He struggled and fought against the vice grip of disorientation, hit with the haze of hallucination. His sweat soaked t-shirt clung to him like a second skin. His nose was pinched with the rancid smells of the room. What room? He fought off questions for a minute and attempted to ease himself upright, off the bed and onto his two feet. His eyes burned with the thick air, full of antiseptic and rot, and in a panicked fervor, worrying he might not recover from these moments of doubt, Bilal ran to the water basin in the corner, swathing his pallid, damp face in cool liquid. He traced his features with his fingers, slowly regaining sight, smell, the ability to swallow and his memory. All the memories.
Work at the base was hard. He had initially been impressed by the mannerisms of the Americans and the swift, business-like manner in which they conducted all affairs. If he were not a translator, he would have soon longed for the cordiality and respectful characteristics that make Arab interactions so much more fluid, yet he spoke to men of his own kind each day, and never had the chance to miss his culture.
He wished he had the seniority to tell his superiors everything he knew, for he felt it would end the war, and all conflict with the Middle East. Some days he just wanted to walk into the barracks and yell at the top of his lungs, yell that these people were not, are not, can never be, terrorists. That they are in the wrong place, that Iraq has done nothing to deserve this. If they could have just admitted that they were only in it for the oil, then Bilal could have respected their honesty. But when it came down to it, though he paid respects to the American government, his employer, he really had no respect for them at all. The last time he had gone to visit Father and Mother, they had told him that in this way, he was worse than the Americans. In this way, Bilal was a traitor to his own kind, watching them be exploited and falsely put through pains just to justify the whims of a much larger democracy. In this way, Father had told him one night, Bilal was ten times more evil than any of the Americans for not standing up for his country.
Ever since he had heard the words leave his father’s mouth, Bilal had had nightmares far worse than anything he could ever have imagined beforehand. Words can’t describe the horrors that raced through his mind in the dark, empty military base. He was no longer able to distinguish what was and wasn’t real. He didn’t know how those who actually fought could deal with the mental pain, how they could stand it. He was just a lowly linguist, and he was slowly self-destructing. Bilal was losing his mind after only six months of service.
He stood there, next to the basin; mind reeling with these thoughts that he usually had no access to. He felt as though for the first time in months, he could think and feel and be free to have his own opinions. It was as though a sector of his mind that had been off-limits, or forgotten, had opened up again. The most important things in his life came rushing back to him, and he reached for his sandals at the foot of the bed, putting them on quickly and making his way to the telephone.
In this moment of livelihood, he knew he’d have a short period of time to remember the good in his life before he sank down into the bad again. He had done this before, he had remembered these thoughts before, and as soon as he heard gunfire or a bomb drop, as soon as he even thought about the death of the last civilian or soldier, the memories were gone. He would search the very depths of his mind to retain them, but it was impossible. It was as though the wind had blown them away. In this way, it was as though Bilal had a special sort of dementia that reacted especially to his war related efforts. It wasn’t a real diagnosis of course, but something similar. Even he knew that he was missing pieces, that his mind wasn’t all there, but when he tried to make it better, he didn’t know how to. He wanted to go back to where he came from, but he couldn’t remember where he lived, or if he had a family. His memory wasn’t there when he depended on it.
It was this moment of clarity of mind that he had to seize, and he dialed a number on the telephone by memory, not sure whose number it was, but knowing that if he had it memorized it was important. He heard the click of the call going through and the ringing.
“Hello?” said a beautiful voice on the other end of the line.
“Hello, Zeina.” He said, without thinking. It was only now that Bilal realized that he was in love.
“Bilal?” He could hear the tremble in her voice on the other line, and dreamed of her soft skin. How easy it would be to leave the base right now and run to her side, just to stay there forever. He would have done it if he hadn’t thought it might endanger her life.
“Yes. Yes, it’s me.”
“Ya Bilal,” the softness in her voice was replaced by a sound that he could have mistaken as firm and strict. “Do you remember me?”
“I could not forget.”
An hour later, he hung up the phone, with a piece of paper in hand, dictating the events of his life. He would not forget. He would not forget his wife, he would not forget that he had a baby girl on the way. He would not forget.
Struggling to write quickly enough, he reached for the telephone again, closing his eyes and pressing the buttons that felt natural. This seemed to be the way to get in touch with whom he needed to get in touch with.
“Yes?” came a quiet whisper on the other end of the line.
“Noura,” Bilal said, and the words were out of his mouth before he could know if they were correct. “Salaam Alaykum.”
There was a long pause on the other end, and if he hadn’t heard his sister’s shallow breathing, he would have thought she had hung up.
And he didn’t have to think twice.
Bilal sat at home on his daughter’s first birthday, holding her in his lap and feeding her dates. He was a smart man, and one with potential, potential that was impossible to waste. He planned on using his potential to raise a smart, strong daughter. He called her Zahra, after Mohammad’s daughter. Zahra had been the most important person in Mohammad’s life and now his Zahra would be the most important in his.
Though some of the gossips in the town considered Bilal a failure for leaving the military when he had such a high rank, but in his mind, he was simply a survivor. He had given in to the many temptations in life and had misrepresented his people, and betrayed their trust by siding with the enemy for the betterment of his own political and social status and ranking. He was lucky that God had given him another chance to try again and to do what was right for his family and his people.
There was still a war in Iraq, and nothing had changed. There would be another man in his position, suffering, as he had to bridge the gap between the American and Arab cultures, the most difficult job in the world. People were still dying, and there was still bad in the world.
He held his Zahra, his habibi in his arms, tracing her jet-black eyebrows with his index finger. Evil could exist, but it could not outnumber the good.