Here it is!! A bed time story I guess.. (hahaha 😄). Don’t hesitate to share your opinion,,
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Falling in love across enemy lines: It sounds like something out of a fairy tale. But nothing in war is simple. As this American soldier and his Iraqi wife found out, love in a war zone is difficult, it’s dangerous, and it really pisses off the brass…
Sergeant Sean Blackwell has been in Baghdad for two weeks when he meets the girl, and there’s really nothing more to say about that particular moment. Oh, he’ll learn to gloss it up, spin it into something magical. In a few years, when his daughter is old enough to believe in fairy tales, he might even tell her there was romance in that moment, that time stood still and bluebirds sang and stars fell from a blazing sky and he knew, right then, that he was in love.
But that’s not how it happens, for the simple reason of where it happens and when it happens…
It is May 2003, and the girl finds him at a checkpoint near the Ministry of Health, which Blackwell and his mortar squad are guarding because their part of the war—mortaring things—is supposed to be over. The girl speaks English, and she says she’s a doctor and could she have a job? She’s very pretty, with eyes the color of chocolate and hair that is long and dark and softly curled. Blackwell flirts with her, but he won’t remember exactly what he says. Why would he? He has seen other pretty faces in Baghdad, and each is no more than a passing distraction from everything else he sees.
He sees corpses. Sweet Jesus, he sees a lot of dead Iraqis. Blackwell and his men are posted on a curve in the road outside the ministry, and all the bodies, the dead and the almost dead, pass them by. Rigored limbs poke from plank coffins strapped to the roofs of sputtering sedans, and moaning lumps wrapped in sheets rattle past on gurneys. He sees a dozen on a good day, twice that on an average one, more than a hundred on the worst. The morgue is overflowing, and grieving Iraqis keep threatening to kill the attendant when he tells them they’ll have to pay to get their dead kids processed, kids whose bodies are starting to rot because the power is out. He sees a truck behind the ministry stuffed with corpses so charred that when a couple of grunts finally open the rig, they name the first burnt skull Kabob. “Get it, sir?” they say. “Ka-bob?” No one pays to process those bodies. Stray dogs chew off pieces and carry them away.
The living come in swarms, too, a buzzing calamity every new morning. There are the relatives of the dead, fathers and wives, an old lady, screaming, her face so close to Blackwell’s that he can see every wrinkle and crease, the flecks in her irises. Her husband had tried to stop at a roadblock, but the brakes on his car went mushy and he didn’t slow down, so the Americans opened fire and now he’s dead. It isn’t Blackwell’s fault, and maybe it’s no one’s fault, but he stands there and takes it. There’s nothing else he can do.
He sees an Iraqi soldier, young, maybe 19, hobbling up the road and propped up by a friend because there is a festering stump where one of his legs had been. When the war began, the soldier gave up and went home just like the Americans told him to, but the whole city was a battlefield, and a bomb exploded close enough to blow off his leg. But he’s not angry. He understands that terrible things happen in war, and sometimes a man is unlucky enough to get in the way. Blackwell commandeers a wheelchair from one of Saddam’s storerooms, and the soldier almost weeps with gratitude.
And he sees a child, a girl named Zena. She comes every morning with her little brother and a cooler of sodas to sell to the Americans, and she sits on the curb all day watching the bodies go by. Blackwell teaches her to count to ten in English and wonders what will become of her.
Someday, Blackwell will tell his own little girl about Zena. But will he tell her the rest, about the corpses and the dogs and the soldier with one leg and the widow who grieves for her husband? Will he tell her those things?
No. He will tell her only that he met a doctor one morning when he was a soldier in Baghdad, and that he flirted with her because her hair was long and softly curled and her eyes were the color of chocolate. That will be the truth, and there will be nothing else to say about that particular moment.
Ehda’a is 25 when she meets the soldier, and there are many things to be said about that particular moment. In her short life, she has already lived through three wars and a decade of sanctions and international isolation. When she was a child, there was war with Iran, eight years of Iraqis and Iranians grinding each other into the sand for…well, for what, exactly? She doesn’t know, but she has been taught that the Iranians started it. When she was not quite a teenager, Saddam invaded Kuwait, which was a good war because every Iraqi knows the emirate is rightfully theirs and the Kuwaitis are such arrogant people, anyway, until it became a bad war when the Americans came and bombed everything—the power grids, the water mains, the phone systems, the occasional bunker quivering with civilians. She feared the Americans might kill her for having the bad fortune of being born in a country ruled by a tyrant.
She is afraid when this war begins, too. I am always a coward for war, she says. Fedayeen hide behind her house and fire missiles from the street in front—surely the Americans will find them and try to kill them, and Ehda’a will die in the crossfire. Or maybe Saddam will wait until the Americans have taken the city and then poison everyone with a cloud of blistering gas. Maybe the Americans are so certain Saddam has those weapons because they had given them to him when he was fighting the Iranians. Would that be ironic? Maybe, but Ehda’a does not ponder such things when she is sleeping beneath the stairs in her mother’s house.
Then the bombing stops and daylight comes and her mother is telling her, “The Americans are in the streets.”
“No,” she says. “It can’t be.”
But it’s true. The Americans are in the streets. The war is over. It is over, yes?
Ehda’a believes this war will end well. The Americans have gone to the moon! What is Baghdad compared to the moon? They will rebuild the city, scrape the sand from the desert and raise a new Manhattan on the banks of the Tigris. And she will help them. She is a doctor, and surely the Americans need doctors. One morning in May, she goes to the Ministry of Health to ask for a job.
She introduces herself to a soldier who looks like every other soldier, except he appears to be in charge. She tells him that when the war started, she’d been working in a village hospital in Kut, in the south. She was a secular Sunni among fundamentalist Shia, and with rumors of war, of liberation from Saddam, the zealots had become emboldened. They told Ehda’a a woman shouldn’t wear a harlot’s makeup, that her Western clothing was scandalous. They threatened to kidnap her, so she left Kut before the bombing began.
“Well,” the soldier says, “I’d kidnap you, too.“
He speaks quickly and turns his face away as he does. It takes a moment for Ehda’a to understand what the soldier has said.
She smiles. “So you think I’m pretty?”
“I didn’t say that.” He looks away again. “But yeah.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks. She does not care what the answer is—Ehda’a is a doctor, a professional, and this American is a mere soldier—but it is all she can think to ask.
“I’m divorced,” he says. “But if I were to get married again, I’d marry you.”
And so it goes, innocent questions and flirty answers. But to Ehda’a, it is more than that. In the spring of 2003, the Americans are good, the Americans are welcome. Iraqis are putting chairs in the streets so soldiers can rest, and women bring food from their kitchens to feed them. And she is speaking with one of them. An American! In that moment, Ehda’a glimpses, for the first time, a future that is not dreary and miserable.
Yet there is no romance in that moment. When she goes home, she tells her mother, “I talked to one of them today.” Her mother asks who, but all Ehda’a can say is a soldier, because she has already forgotten his name.
Ehda’a returns the next day and meets one of Sean’s superiors in Saddam Auditorium, where his platoon is bunked not far from the Ministry of Health. The officer is nice to her, and they have a pleasant conversation that has nothing at all to do with giving her a job. So she comes back the next day and the next and the one after that, too, hoping the Americans will hire her to treat the sick and the wounded. They never do.
While she is waiting for the job she will never get, Ehda’a talks to the soldiers. She likes the Americans, and she likes to use her English, and really, what else is there to do in a city looted to the cornerstones and carved up by checkpoints and barbed wire? There is no particular soldier she comes to see, but Sean is almost always posted in front of the ministry. He is her default American, if only because he was the first and he is the one at the gate.
Sean likes talking to Ehda’a. He has no woman to write to, no one waiting for him back in Florida, no one else to occupy his thoughts. And he is genuinely curious. Before this war, he did two tours in Korea, with the 2nd Infantry Division, where he discovered the world is so much bigger than Pensacola. If he’s got some downtime in Baghdad, he figures, he might as well learn something.
So they talk. About the war, which Sean believes was a good thing because Colin Powell said so in front of the United Nations, and Sean believed him because he once met Powell in Korea, shook his hand and looked him the eye and decided that the general was an honorable man. They talk about Islam, about Sunnis and Shia, about the Koran and the Bible. Ehda’a asks if his uniform is air-conditioned (no); if his boots can detect mines, because Americans never seem to step on them (caution and luck); if his sunglasses can see through clothing, an Iraqi myth that explains why the women in chadors are so uncomfortable when soldiers look at them.
She tells him she is the daughter of a Shia merchant who left his wife, a Sunni teacher, and his two children when Ehda’a was a toddler. Her father is wealthy, so he kept Ehda’a and her brother housed and clothed and fed, but, still, she believes he was cruel to her mother. That’s why she became a doctor, to reward her mother with her own success.
“I did two things in my life,” she tells him. “I studied and I studied.”
She got her degree—though it took an extra year because she refused to join the Baath Party—and her mother was proud and she was proud, but the pride was fleeting and pointless, because Saddam would not let doctors leave his country, and he didn’t have the money to pay them, anyway. Before the Americans came, she expected to be trapped for the rest of her life, earning $25 a month and probably married to a Sunni doctor from Mosul. She didn’t love him, but he was better than the other doctor courting her, a Shia who wanted her to cover herself.
“I will kill myself before I am covered,” she tells Sean. “It is a stupid and ignorant thing.”
Sean tells her about growing up in Florida, the son of parents so addled by drugs—one using, one selling—that he was raised by his grandparents and an aunt and uncle until he was 10. His parents split up, and his mother remarried and moved to Alabama. Sean tried to stay in Florida with his father to finish his senior year in high school, but the old man, in and out of jail Sean’s whole life, was busy growing hydroponic weed in his house outside Pensacola. So Sean went to Alabama, graduated, met a girl, and started college on a baseball scholarship that paid part of his tuition. He worked at a Sam’s Club to cover the rest, but his grades tanked and he lost his scholarship after the first semester. At the end of 1995, he joined the army and then married the girl. It didn’t last: They divorced after the army sent him to Korea.
He reenlisted and wore the uniform for more than seven years, all told. When he finally mustered out in November 2002, a National Guard recruiter told him he could pocket his GI Bill, let the Guard pick up his tuition at Pensacola Junior College, finally get that degree he couldn’t afford when he signed up the first time. As a guardsman, he’d be required to do only one weekend a month on the home front. That was the deal. Guardsmen didn’t invade foreign countries. Guardsmen didn’t overthrow dictators.
Six weeks later, the day after Christmas, the Third Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment, 580 sons of Florida, was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Damn the luck.
Ehda’a comes to see Sean now not because he’s the soldier at the gate, but because he’s the one she wants to talk to. The other guardsmen notice, too, can’t help but notice a pretty woman on a bench in the concourse, legs crossed under a skirt that barely reaches her knees. They hear she’s a doctor and, when Sean’s not around, stumble toward her clutching their guts in mock agony.
“I’m sick,” they moan. “Will you examine me? Please?”
Ehda’a smiles at them. I know they don’t think dirty like Iraqis, she tells herself. An Iraqi man would say such things only to a whore. But these American boys, from the land of sexual freedom, are being playful, sweet. She doesn’t understand that most of them would hump a stuffed bunny at this point.
First Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, one of Sean’s platoon leaders, sees her, too. He’s not pleased. Sure, a woman is a welcome diversion for bored and lonely men, but so is a television set or a case of beer. He’d rather have the TV. Part of his job is to maintain morale, keep his men focused. This isn’t Vietnam, he thinks. No one gets to go back to Saigon and get shitfaced and bang the hookers. They’re all stuck in Baghdad on an indefinite tour, hopped up on adrenaline and testosterone. A woman is a variable he doesn’t need. Anytime you bring a woman around that many horny guys, he knows, it’s bad news.
It doesn’t matter that Sean and Ehda’a are only talking, that they are only friends. What matters is what everyone else sees, what they think. Word’s already out that the lady doctor is Blackwell’s find. One guy gets to have a girlfriend? Even a chance of a girlfriend? That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Almost two weeks pass. Sean and his squad have a day off, so he decides to take his men to the Republican Palace, the proconsul headquarters in the Green Zone, where there are phone lines and Internet connections and better chow. He asks Ehda’a if she wants to come along. Saddam’s palaces are fantastical places, ornate and gaudy and, only a few weeks ago, utterly forbidden to Iraqi citizens. Of course she wants to go.
Ehda’a dresses for the occasion. She’s wearing heels, and the ground is slippery as she walks with Sean through the gardens beyond the pool, toward the bank of the Tigris. She grips his arm, and when she slips he catches her waist. She touches his hand, lets it linger…and suddenly she is holding hands with an American soldier on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s palace in a free Iraq. It is nice, she thinks, to live a dream like this.
Is this a date? Someday she will say yes, it is their first date, but not now. She believes Sean is kind and gentle and has beautiful eyes, but he is still a soldier. Soldiers leave. It is very good to convince myself that I am a doctor and he is a soldier, she thinks, because then it is impossible, and you don’t have to break your heart. And when he mentions the future, when he says, casually, that maybe someday he will see her in America, she smiles and shakes her head.
“No,” she tells him. “That is impossible.” Then she squeezes his hand, and they walk down to the river.
The war drags on, a low and constant grumble. Every morning, Sean and his mortar squad sweep each floor of the Ministry of Health, walk the perimeter, then set up at the gate and watch over the parade of the dead. Some nights he volunteers for foot patrols through the neighborhood.
Ehda’a eventually gets a job at the Baghdad Hotel, interpreting for the American contractors who’ve turned the place into a fortress on the Tigris. When she gets time off, she heads north along the river to Saddam Auditorium to see Sean. She brings food her mother has cooked, and they sit in an outer concourse and eat and talk. The other soldiers don’t seem to mind much. If they’re not too hot and tired to care, it’s more fun to bust Sean’s balls about his hajji girlfriend. There’s another guy they can bust on, too, a grunt named Brett Dagen who’s talking with another pretty Iraqi doctor. Rieckhoff’s not happy about those two, either, but he lets it go. No sense creating a real problem where only a potential one exists.
It’s been almost a month of talking on the concourse, long enough that Sean would like a little privacy with Ehda’a, a place away from the other guys. His captain tells him they can sit in the auditorium’s theater, where it’s cool and dark and quiet except for the breathing of soldiers sleeping on rows of red-velvet seats down below. They settle into two chairs near the top. Sean slides his arm around her shoulders, and Ehda’a tilts her head, nestles it on his shoulder. Sean leans over and kisses her on the forehead. She turns away, but only for an instant, and when she turns back Sean kisses her cheek.
This is all very new for Ehda’a. She has been kissed before, yes. She has had suitors, those doctors she didn’t want to marry, and a boyfriend in college. But romance in Iraq, even among secular students, was tame: Boys and girls were segregated until they enrolled in universities, and even then she saw her boyfriend off campus only once, as his guest at a wedding and chaperoned by her mother.
Now she’s nuzzling an American soldier in a dark theater? There is a romance, she thinks. But where does it end?
“I know I’d have to convert,” Sean whispers.
Is he serious? She doesn’t know, and Sean doesn’t know, either. He likes Ehda’a. Maybe he’s even falling in love with her. Or maybe there’s just a war outside. Maybe he’s tired of standing on a curve in the road in front of the ministry waiting for a pickup full of fedayeen to drive past and machine-gun his squad, and maybe he’s tired of sleeping in a large building with a glass facade that one good truck bomb could blow all to hell. Maybe he’s tired of looking at dead people. Maybe he’s weary and scared and wants to stay right where he is, in the dark, with his arm around a pretty girl, and believe he’s in love. Is it the same thing, being in love and believing he’s in love? Would he know the difference?
A few days later, Sean’s unit packs up. There is little warning, only abrupt orders that the two platoons in Saddam Auditorium are moving north to the Ministry of Labor.
Two days pass, and Ehda’a doesn’t come. Sean wonders if she’s okay, if she’s safe, if she knows where to find him. He knows where Ehda’a lives with her mother and her brother, so he organizes a patrol for the following day. He’ll ride into her neighborhood, knock on her door, make sure that she’s alive and well, and then he’ll go to the Ministry of Health and find the little girl named Zena. When he’s done that, he’ll go back to being a soldier.
Morning comes. Sean’s getting his gear ready for the patrol when he gets a call from one of the guards at the gate: There’s a woman there to see him. Sean goes out front. Ehda’a is there, standing at the gate, with that long brown hair, the chocolate eyes.
Damn, he thinks. She really does care.
And again: Damn, so do I.
To come: “part 2” ✔