I Am The One Who Saw
On a day like This
Monday… the first Monday of this ominous year.
I could never remember the date, let alone the day of the week, of important events of my life. This one, I would never forget.
It was early morning. My daughter Abeer asked:
--Dad, is today Monday?
Her brother Ammar laughed with derision:
--There is a smart question!
Abeer ignored him.
--In a day like this our prophet was born. Dad, is it true that nothing bad happens to children on the day of the Prophet’s birth?
I enjoyed hearing the tone of innocence in Ammar’s attempts to assert his superiority.
--Oh, so that is supposed to be news? Everyone knows THAT!
I was hurrying them out the door. The sun shone pleasantly, deliciously. I found myself automatically putting on a light, summery outfit. Ammar’s mother took exception:
--Are you forgetting that this is the dead of winter?
I smiled and let Ammar defend me:
--But Dad! You said that today would be warm. Besides, the Kuwaiti TV is predicting warm, South-Westerly winds for the entire day.
We all laughed.
--Don’t forget the money. We better not leave it behind.
She took the envelope from the top of the chair and brought it to me and asked
--Do you think he will finish building the house before the end of the month?
--The important thing is that we give him the money he is asking for. Lets leave the rest to him.
--I can not believe that we will be living in our own home. No more threats from “the colonel,” no more hassles with rented houses.
I Am The One Who Saw
The money was around two thousand Dinars.1 I put the envelope beneath the driver’s seat while waiting for the car to warm up. My wife was sitting next to me but I could feel her heart beating beneath my seat where the money was. She kept urging me not to forget the money back in the car and to remember to deliver it to the contractor. I kept nodding in fervent agreement after each drill. In the meanwhile the children in the backseat kept joyfully asking questions about the house and its size and beauty. I, however, was preoccupied with the few, not so financially comfortable, people from whom I had been forced to borrow, and about how I would return their monies and
My wife got off in the old Basra and I drove five minutes further to the Al-jazaaer circle to let the kids off near their school. Then I started in the direction of the Courthouse.
From there I had to go across the street to the coffee house, meet the contractor and go over the blueprints of the house --the blueprints for the dreams of the entire family. But he was not there. I decided to hand over the money to his assistant. I did this without counting the money as I was in a great hurry to get back to school to ratify my one-hour-leave, which I had obtained the previous day. I told the assistant that I would be back in 15 minutes.
How stunning this sun, this warmth that filled the universe. The only thing marring the day was the rain of a couple of days ago. It had covered the streets with a cake of mud that was now being pulverized by speeding cars to create clouds of dust.
In front of the Census Bureau the car started to sputter. It coughed a couple of times and died. I tried to fire it up a number of times but failed. Kaput. A dead heap of junk. I got off to push it off the road. A bunch of giggling students joined in to help while making fun of the car in whispering tones followed by chuckles. I thanked them. We were all panting.
The breeze was sweet and cool. I wiped the sweat off my forehead… Monday! The day of the Prophet’s birth! Was it a good omen? Earlier Abeer and Ammar were quarrelling over the proper honorific for the prophet. Was it “May God Bless and Greet Him” or just
“Peace Be Upon him.” I do not make a habit of sounding such depths.
I locked the car and took the bus. Standing among the crowd of passengers I suddenly remembered that I did not have the exact change for the ride. But the problem solved itself. A man with a long face and prominent nose paid my fair. Who was he? His face did not ring a bell. But there it was: a simple problem solved. Was it a good omen? Yet, the image of the dead car tugged at my heart. I would have to start looking for an honest mechanic. And what a labor that would be!
In the mirror, my eyes met those of a young female student. A student in the School of Education no doubt. A slight shiver went up my spine. Twenty years ago such an encounter would intoxicate me beyond measure. It would stroke my ego and evoke
1 At the time of this novel, 1979 an Iraqi Dinar was equal to 3.2 dollars.
I Am The One Who Saw
dreams of grandeur. But what remained today? A thinning forehead, whose severity was somewhat softened by a pair of still soulful eyes. I got off the bus.
The traffic cop in his box, with his white helmet, slightly bulging belly and falcon eyes personified the system he served as he labored to inspire fear in hordes of unruly drivers.
Then I chuckled at his nametag: Mr. Pitiful!2 My smile lingered. I felt crowded by everything around me. My lungs were awash in the tempting aroma of tea coming from the new coffeehouse in front of the Hamdaan Hotel. Then my heart sank. I had left all that money with a man whom I did not know or trust. I had not insisted on a receipt. The only proof of the transaction was his conscience. What if he denied the whole business?
I was drenched in perspiration. This was the last installment, all made up of borrowed monies. If I lost it, all our dreams would be lost. The only thing to do was to hurry and get to the contractor and his assistant before the devil got there.
I reached the gate of the school. Something, which in my haste I failed to grasp, forced me to walk in a complete circle around the gate before entering it. I had taken the permission for my one-hour leave out of my pocket. Abd el-Raheem, the janitor was smoking. He smiled and returned my greeting.
--The Dean is asking for you.
--Who? Has the Dean Edrees returned from his vacation?
He looked nonplused, as if he had been caught committing a sin.
--No. His associate, the Vice-Dean, Muslim Ali is looking for you.
--And what does he want to squeeze out of the morning?
--God only knows.
I had entered the room before the dark, foreboding tone of the preceding conversation hit me. The vice-director did not return my greeting. Instead he softly gestured toward a couple of strangers in the room with the air of performing a sacred duty for the good of all. I felt a strange charge of urgency in the air.
--The gentlemen are looking for you.
One of them was a fat, olive-skinned man with a huge belly. Next to him sat a short, compact, darkish fellow whose dead, light-brown eyes were brimming with some inner torment. I smiled again:
--Fellowship and Peace to you!
Muslim Ali introduced me:
--This is Mustafa Ali Noman.
The men stood up at once. Their faces were ashen. Why did I inspire such fear? I knew myself to be a simple, peaceful man, loved by children and incapable of scaring a kitten.
Are they preparing for a confrontation? But with whom? The fat man said:
His right hand was showing the way out. My head was racing with scenarios. May be they intended to inquire about one of the students; may be there was some property affair to be settled. I walked ahead of him. He stopped by the main gate. Abe el-Raheem the 2 ( Miskeen)
I Am The One Who Saw
janitor was still blowing clouds of smoke from his cigarette. A couple of my friends, Mohsen Abellah and Mohammad Saaei, cheerfully greeted me as they whizzed by,
skipping the stairs three at a time.
I eagerly turned to my fat interlocutor.
--I am at your service.
--Please come with us sir.
--A simple interrogation… Just a few minutes.
It was as if I had been slapped by the word. I was trying to catch my breath.
--But who are you?
I went with them toward the gate as frantic questions gnawed at me. Why shouldn’t I go with them? I am innocent. I know myself better than anyone in this world.
--Are you positive I am the one you are looking for?
--Mustafa Ali Nomaan?
The fat agent bent his head slightly indicating that I was the one and added:
--A few minutes only.
He mouthed these words in a practiced monotone as if he had repeated them many times before finally memorizing them.
--Why don’t you interrogate me here?
He forced a pale, sallow smile while pointing to the car that had been parked inches from the school’s front gate, apparently to block a fleeing suspect. This was why I had been forced to go round the gate earlier.
--We have our orders.
The smaller fellow sat behind the wheel. Then I climbed into the front seat followed by the other agent. I was being squeezed toward the windshield of the small pick-up truck from the few inches of the front seat that the fat behinds of my flanking guards had left me. I must have meant a great deal to them because the fat agent heaved a loud sigh of relief as he shut the door on his side of the car. He then extended his hand to hold my shoulder as if I was a small sparrow capable of flying out of the small window of the car.
The driver had assumed a gloomy and pallid face as if he were a thief who had stolen a sacred object. Then I noticed that the hard-breathing fat agent was wearing a fake smile to cover up what was obviously a great deal of fear. The thought occurred to me that we were all suffering at the clutches of the same dark destiny. This realization gave me confidence. I laughed and said:
--You are mixed up about my identity…
They did not hear my words. They had captured their prize game and did not see the point of speaking much. Then the fat agent asked me a question with the air of being in possession some kind of privileged intelligence:
--Where is your… umm. Red VW?
The pettiness of the question sickened me. I shot back:
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