One Hundred and One Nightsby Benjamin Buchholz
After 13 years in America, Abu Saheeh has returned to his native Iraq, a nation transformed by the American military presence. Alone in a new city, he has exactly what he wants: freedom from his past. Then he meets Layla, a whimsical fourteen-year-old girl who enchants him with her love of American pop culture. Enchanted by Layla's stories and her company, Abu
After 13 years in America, Abu Saheeh has returned to his native Iraq, a nation transformed by the American military presence. Alone in a new city, he has exactly what he wants: freedom from his past. Then he meets Layla, a whimsical fourteen-year-old girl who enchants him with her love of American pop culture. Enchanted by Layla's stories and her company, Abu Saheeh settles into the city's rhythm and begins rebuilding his life. But two sudden developmentshis alliance with a powerful merchant and his employment of a hot-headed young assistantreawaken painful memories, and not even Layla may be able to save Abu Saheeh from careening out of control and endangering all around them.
A breathtaking tale of friendship, love, and betrayal, One Hundred and One Nights is an unforgettable novel about the struggle for salvation and the power of family.
Benjamin Buchholz's brilliant debut offers a powerful look at life in war-torn Iraq. Stocked with finely-drawn characters and political intrigue, One Hundred and One Nights blows down the highway with all the furious momentum of an army convoy while delivering its real prize: a heart-wrenching story of love and loss and redemption."Zoë Ferraris, author of City of Veils "
An eye-level view of war-ravaged Iraq with a story that centers around lost relationships, longing and regret....[Buchholz] clearly has an eye for detail; the book boils with observations on the culture and daily life of the residents of Safwan and Baghdad. The author is an astute observer, turning sights, sounds and smells into eloquent snips of the lives of a people who have sustained great loss and devastation. Buchholz's prose is vivid."Kirkus "
[One Hundred and One Nights] is an intimate view of the war in Iraq as seen through the eyes of one deeply troubled man. Beautifully written, it is a complex yet simple tale of friendship and love, betrayal and sacrifice, and hatred and evil. An important glimpse into a world few of us know or understand."Booklist, Carol Gladstein"
A seductive, compelling first novel that depicts war as intimate and subtle. [Buchholz] captures the distant rumbling of a Humvee, the dappled shadow left by a passing soldier and the ordinary dramas of sibling rivalry and unrequited love....This novel carries a strong sense of place and time that comes from personal familiarity....[It] draws readers deeply into the suffering that has colored the country's recent history."Masha Hamilton, The Wall Street Journal"
Tell the world about this book.... [ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS] is undeniably a moving, evocative gem....Behind brutality of war and inescapable violence of Hezbollah and jihadists is the demand of lovethe main impetus driving this story....It is amazing how a story set in the Middle East but written by an American can feel so real, as though every scene depicted is a scene witnessed and then etched in Buchholz's mind, there to be concocted with many others to form this novel....So eloquently does it depict the lives of ordinary Iraqi people, so lyrical is its prose, and so mysteriously engaging is its story that I can't call this book anything other than a true gem."Abby Wong, The Star Online (Malaysia)
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One Hundred and One NightsA Novel
By Buchholz, Benjamin
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2011 Buchholz, Benjamin
All right reserved.
One Hundred and One Nights
Layla first visits today, in the evening, like most evenings hereafter. She stands in shadow under the awning of my little store, my shack, as a golden sunset reflects its light against the overpass where the highway from Basra to Kuwait and the even larger highway from the port of Umm Qasr to Baghdad intersect. Here, the American convoys pass around the outskirts of the little town of Safwan, crossing the border between Iraq and Kuwait. They pass north and south and I count them as they pass, a hobby, a private game, relieving the boredom of work in my store. This girl Layla is, I guess, ten years old. Or something like that. A girl. A small girl. Her appearance coincides with the closing echo of the evening call to prayer, so that among the kneeling, quieted people, she is the only object seemingly alive.
Today is not only the first day of Layla’s visitations but also the nineteenth day of business for me since I moved to Safwan. A good day. I received a shipment of used and new mobile phones to sell, so now it is not just phone cards with minutes for the people to buy, but also actual merchandise.
As the sun dips lower, I see on the edge of the road above me the guard for the overpass leaning back on his three-legged chair. He smokes a cigarette with deep concentration while his Kalashnikov rests against the tent behind him. The day has been a windless one. A trail of smoke from the guard’s cigarette rises through the sunset, mirroring plumes from oil fields behind him, where gas by-products burn above the scattered derricks and refineries of the Rumailah oil fields, staining the sky.
Layla arrives from the direction of the guard, as if emerging from the smoke of the oil field. Gradually her apparition then mingles with and breaks free from the thinner smoke of the guard’s cigarette. This distortion wafts over a patch of scrubby, littered desert toward the market, toward me. The guard is a lazy man, letting a little girl cross the highway unnoticed and without reprimand. I tell myself to remember to speak to Sheikh Seyyed Abdullah about his laziness.
Layla wanders into the market and eventually comes to my store. Eventually, but not immediately. Having seen her cross the road, picking her way between prostrate figures of men kneeling on prayer rugs, I watch her. She talks to Jaber, who sells whole plucked chickens or kebabs of chicken from a shop even smaller, more pathetic, than mine. Jaber shoos her away as he rolls up his prayer rug. She runs a stick along a row of empty propane tanks at the tank exchange point, skipping to the rhythmic hollow-shell sound. She passes my stand, heading into town, then passes more stands lining the way between my store and the town gate: Rabeer’s used-car lot fenced with barbed wire; the lot where some of the Shareefi cousins, Maney’a and Ibrahim, sell parts of houses, doors, sinks, siding; a concrete vendor, Wael, whose bags of powdery mixture lie in the open, stacked on weathered wooden pallets. Layla blends with the trash that fills all the space between and around our shops—faded plastic bottles, napkins, bits of paper and plaster and mortar and clothing. She steps on, over, through these items. As she passes each shop, the vendors or their hired thugs stare through her even as they look at her. She is a part of the landscape, a rag doll in dirty clothes amid dirt and dust, debris and decay. The guards pay her no more attention than they pay to the roving mongrel dogs.
At the town gate Layla stops beneath a poster of Muqtada al-Sadr recently plastered over a mosaic of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad bin Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, whom Saddam Hussein killed just before the American war. The gate is a relic of more prosperous years, twenty feet tall, its two solid pillars tiled in beautiful blue-and-gold faience with the ayatollah’s white turban luminous in the center. In the poster, as in all his posters, Muqtada al-Sadr includes his father, the two of them standing nearly side by side, the son hoping thereby to share some of the aura of his father’s respect and eminence. The mosaic beneath had been made in days when workmen took pride in their art. It evidences patience, the piecing of so many little fragments into a whole. It evidences care. As I think about it, I find it suddenly comical that the mural should be covered with the poster’s ridiculousness, its flimflam politics jockeying for attention, the two images of the ayatollah juxtaposed in faience and in flimflam. But neither the poster nor the mosaic is really in accord with Islam. They are idols: art, advertising, politics—pictures of men serving only to distract from the contemplation of the Compassion and Mercy of Allah. A trail of little machine-gun holes peppers the mural, breaking through the luster to reveal plain, skin-colored adobe. The holes brutally underscore my point about impiety while also providing a flavor of the history of this town.
Layla looks up from the mosaic, back across the market. Perhaps she has heard my involuntary sigh of disdain over the poster’s symbolism. When she sees me, some hundred feet away, and when our gazes meet, she moves steadily toward me, shop to shop, retracing her footsteps. Her approach can mean no good for me, nor can it mean anything good for my business. I begin to close my store, putting away mobile phones I’ve unpackaged, returning phone cards to their plastic cases. I step out the side door and look into the shade under the awning, expecting to find the girl there, frowning with an expression of practiced piteousness. I do not see her, and I breathe a sigh of relief. One less beggar to fend away. As any good man does, I pay zakat, the yearly religious alms that go to support the poor and the needy. Perhaps this girl’s father and mother already have benefited from my money. Anyway, I need not tithe every beggar girl or boy who chances into the market.
I reach up, under the awning, and unfasten the corrugated tin cover I have made for my shop window. It swings down, and I lock it in place with a padlock. I run my hand over the front of my dishdasha to return the key for the padlock to my breast pocket. But I miss the pocket with my hand, and the key falls to the ground. Bending to retrieve it, I see the girl standing very close in front of me. First I see her bare feet, then blue jeans that end in tatters just below the hem of her flowing caftan. There, where the jeans end, I notice a length of yarn with bird bones and little dollhouse keys tied around her left ankle.
“I have no handouts for street children,” I say.
“I don’t want handouts,” she says.
This should end the conversation but for some reason it does not. Layla stands still, as if sprung freshly from the ground. I put my shop-window key into my pocket, patting it for extra certainty. I feel a touch of remorse for having spoken harshly, for having assumed the girl would ask me for baksheesh—money or food or water or some little trinket.
“My name is Layla,” she says.
“Mine is Abu Saheeh,” I say.
If this were a business deal between men, we would clasp hands, kiss cheeks. But I know of no rules to govern a meeting between a forward little urchin of a girl and an old man like me. Or no rules I wish to follow. Doubtless she is a street child, but I can’t bring myself to speak the harsh words that would send her on her way to beg from the next stall in the market, to steal from the next unwary businessman. Instead, I stand there, looking odd, my stomach anxious for me to begin my walk into Safwan, where I will go to my favorite café and order tea and hummus and falafel.
“Have you been to America?” she asks. “I haven’t,” she says, “but I watch TV, and I talk to the soldiers sometimes, and my favorite is Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“He is not a real soldier,” I say.
“I know,” she says.
Again, this should end it. I stand a little straighter, look past her toward the gate and its mosaic of the ayatollah, past the mosaic toward the town, the café, my dinner.
“Do you believe in robots?” she says. “Arnold Schwarzenegger is a robot.”
“Only in the movie,” I say.
I wonder why I am arguing with her about robots, about movies, about American actors.
“So you don’t believe in them?”
“No. How silly.”
“But the Americans have them; the British, too. I’ve seen them blow up a bomb with a robot near the az-Zubayr al-Awwam Mosque up near Basra. I think the Americans are robots and the British are becoming robots. I think they have skin over their metal, and they send their old robots that aren’t shaped right for skin coverings to blow up the bombs, to do the dirty work.”
She leans closer to me. She puts a hand to her mouth as if to shield her words, her secret words, from being overheard by others in the market. She whispers, “I think it is a conspiracy of robots, anyone, everyone. I think they all might be robots except for you and for me.”
“I think you’re funny,” I say.
She laughs, a snorting little falsetto laugh. I notice that the tendons of her neck are tight, nervous.
“I like you,” she says. “I will come back tomorrow evening.”
At that, as quickly as she had come, Layla leaves. I lock the side door to my shop. When I close the door it emits a deep thump that reminds me of the sound a hand makes when slapping an empty oil drum, an empty shell. The wind, absent all day, gusts in from the north, across the oil fields, bringing with it the stink of burning crude and causing my corrugated window covering to rattle so that the shop continues to resound, tinny clanging over a deep and fearsomely sad undertone of emptiness.
I shrug, look up toward the road, to where the guard still lounges on his three-legged chair. I take my time walking through the gateway that has the mosaic of the ayatollah on it, and as I pass under it, I touch one of the blue fragments of mosaic tile. It is cool and rough along its edge.
When I arrive at the café in the main downtown market of Safwan—a place owned by a man named Bashar, a friend of mine from university—I am greeted with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek and a handwritten menu. I read the menu for a while but I order only tea and hummus and falafel, my usual dinner. The evening is warm and pleasant and empty around me, even though it is filled with myriad voices, people everywhere, people passing in the street, haggling, ordering food from the café. The noise washes over me like an outgoing wave, while beneath it I hear a darker undertone, a shell of a town, perfect for me, resonating yet hollow.
Layla visits in the evening, this second evening, just as she said she would. She stands in shadow under the awning of my little store, my shack, as a golden sunset reflects its light against the overpass where the highway from Basra to Kuwait and the even larger highway from the port of Umm Qasr to Baghdad intersect. As always, the American convoys pass around the outskirts of the little town of Safwan, wreathing it with the commerce of war, so much merchandise, so many things required to maintain the American troops and the Iraqis who work for them. The convoys head north, and I see them filled: everything ranging from low and sinister M1 Abrams tanks loaded on big green flatbed trailers to butter and Gatorade in plain white civilian refrigerator trucks. These same convoys return south after a week or two, their trailers and flatbeds empty, except sometimes for damaged items, things exploded in the main battlegrounds far to the north of this sleepy little border town. I count the convoys as they pass, a hobby, a private game, relieving the boredom of work in my store. Eighteen of them go north today. Twenty-one return southbound. A normal day, about a thousand vehicles in all, thirty per convoy.
Today marks the second day of Layla’s visitations. Also the twentieth day of business for me since I moved to Safwan. A good day. I sold the first mobile phone from the shipment received yesterday. The more mobile phones I sell, the more customers I will have for mobile-phone cards. At this rate of increase, I will soon be as wealthy as a Saudi.
As the sun dips lower, I see on the overpass the flaps of the guard’s tent closed firmly against both wind and sun. The guard has already gone into his tent and has been asleep for at least an hour. Will he wake for evening tea? A meal? Will he wake for the call to prayer? Did he have company on his lonesome cot last night, making him weary and moonstruck today? I tell myself to remember to speak to Sheikh Seyyed Abdullah about him, for his habits are not conducive to good order and safety in the market or on the overpass he has been assigned to guard. I, as a merchant, should be concerned about such things.
After I rise from my prayers and roll and store my rug on an upper shelf in my shop, I start to put away my wares, turning my back to my shop window. I count phone cards. I slip them into plastic jackets to preserve them from the desert dust. I count phones, returning them to their boxes and sealing the boxes with clear strips of tape. I arrange everything on the shelves and then stand back, wistfully, to admire the neatness, the simplicity, the order I have imposed on at least one little section of the world.
“If you don’t believe in robots,” Layla says, “what do you believe in?”
Not having seen her coming, I spin around. She notices the surprise on my face.
“What?” she says. “Don’t look afraid. I told you I’d come back this evening.”
“Does your mother know you are here?” I ask.
Layla leans inward over the sill of my shop window. She shrugs off my question about her mother by continuing with her thoughts.
“Do you believe in genies? Do you believe in aliens? Do you believe in rock-and-roll music? Birth control? Do you think animals can talk to each other?”
“You have a lot of questions!”
“Yes, I suppose.”
I think about her questions one at a time. She watches me, scrutinizes me.
After a moment, I say: “I believe in Allah, but His ways are many and often unknowable. I believe in rock-and-roll music because I have heard it so I know it is real, but I don’t like it; instead, I prefer Umm Kulthum, the classics. No, I don’t believe in birth control; it’s immoral, humans making such decisions. And, yes, I suppose animals do talk, in their own way.”
“Alhumdu l-Allah!” she says. “You only forgot about the aliens.”
“Alas, you should have no great expectations of a poor mobile-phone salesman like me. How could I possibly remember them all, so many questions? And anyway, what silly things to talk about, genies and aliens, robots and rock and roll!”
“You are a mobile-phone salesman?” she asks, looking at the phones and phone cards. “That’s not what you are. Not really. Aren’t you something better? Something more romantic? A soldier? A pirate? An Internet hacker? A singer or a dancer or an acrobat?”
“Well,” I say, “what self-respecting Iraqi cannot sing a song or two, do a dance or three?” I puff my chest out good-naturedly. The conversation has no logic to it, no rules, no reason that I must be particularly polite, particularly stoic, particularly friendly, or even particularly truthful. No reason other than the fact that this girl, this Layla, entertains me. And, because she entertains me, I am somehow predisposed to be kind to her in return, to engage in this sort of small talk with her. She makes me laugh inside myself.
“I will sing you a song,” she says, “but it must be rock and roll. I listen to pop music and stuff like that, not Umm Kulthum or fuzzy grandfather songs. Britney Spears is my favorite.”
“Okay,” I say. I do want to hear her sing.
She growls a first note and then launches into the song:
Oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know
That somethin’ wasn’t right here
Oh baby baby, I shouldn’t have let you go
And now you’re outta sight, yeah
Show me how you want it to be
Tell me baby because I need to know now, oh
My loneliness is killin’ me
I must confess I still believe
When I’m not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign, hit me baby one more time.
“That is good,” I say. “Very good! I like the little dance move at the end the most.”
“You believe in dance moves?”
“You believe in mobile phones?”
“Why not? Of course I do. They work. I sell them. They provide money so I can live. What’s not to believe?”
“I believe in mobile phones and dance moves and pop music,” she says. “I believe in almost anything. My mother says I dream too much and believe in things too much. My mother doesn’t like me hanging around with the American patrols because she says they give me ideas.”
“You should listen to your mother,” I say.
“Bah,” she says. “The Americans are interesting. They all live next to Sharon Stone. They have in-ground swimming pools. Each American is a prince.”
“I thought they were robots,” I say.
“Robot princes,” she says.
She should laugh as she says it, a nice little joke, tying up all her bits of scattered philosophy in one neat bundle. I smile but when I look at her I see she is not joking. She speaks in earnest, her teeth clamped shut. Her eyes, I notice, are blue rather than the usual shades of brown and sometimes green common to the people of southern Iraq. The blue pierces through the dust-streaked and darkly tanned skin of her face like a desert wind piercing a traveler at night, a traveler exposed at the top of a dune ridge.
I realize Layla stares at me. She knows I have drifted away. To cover my lapse, I start to ask her for another song or dance, or both if she knows more, even if it must be pop music. But, as if she has heard a sound in the distance, a call for her to come home, she turns and says over her shoulder: “I’ll come see you tomorrow evening once again.”
Then she runs toward the north, across the road into the desert on the far side of the highway overpass.
I finish shutting my shop and I walk into Safwan. I mention Layla to my friend Bashar when I reach his café. He laughs, sits at the table with me for a moment, clasping my hand.
“Do you believe in genies?” he asks, one eyebrow raised.
“She’s no genie, Bashar.”
“Perhaps you need a companion tonight. I know any number of widows in town. So many widows now. Many have been eyeing you from afar—an eligible, educated man like you makes quite a catch.”
I smile, pick up the menu, scan it to the bottom, and order tea and hummus and falafel. When he brings my food, only a few minutes later, the image of Layla’s pop-music dance disappears from the forefront of my mind. I eat, enjoying the noise of the crowd in the evening and the passing of cars and carts and scooters and bicycles on the main street. The heat of the day dissipates into the night sky, rising above the noise of the town, passing through the tangle of electrical wires and clothes-drying lines that loop and arch over the street, freeing itself at last to journey up to the empty and quavering stars.
Somewhere a few doors away, from a balcony overlooking the street, a man sings in a fine gravelly old-fashioned tenor. It’s something sad, filled with longing and distance and loss, but I can’t quite place the words. Farsi perhaps, a Persian song. Too much of that language slipping into the dialect used by these far-southern Iraqis. Certainly it isn’t a sacred song, or I would hear somewhere in it the warbled and elongated sound of the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful, Praise Be Unto Him.
Layla visits in the evening, this evening, just as she promised. She stands in shadow under the awning of my little store, my shack, as a golden sunset reflects its light against the overpass where the highway from Basra to Kuwait and the even larger highway from the port of Umm Qasr to Baghdad intersect. The convoys do not rest today. Just as always, they slow as they approach the off-ramps and the on-ramps between the north-south highway and the military bypass around the western edge of Safwan. Three Humvees accompany each convoy: one in the front, one in the middle, one to bring up the rear. From my store in the market, at the next highway intersection southeast from the American bypass, I can actually see the faces of the American soldiers in their vehicles. They wear dark sunglasses and helmets. They stare into the desert and into the town as they turn the corner away from me, heading north to Baghdad or south to Kuwait. Each Humvee has a big machine gun and small machine gun mounted on a turret on its roof, manned by one of the soldiers whose body protrudes through the turret opening. Some of these soldiers I name in my imagination, a little game I play with myself to take my mind off the boredom of my work. However, I quickly run out of suitable American names, so I have Dave and then I also have Dave Junior and also Dave-Who-Is-Shorter-Than-Dave-Junior and additionally several Patricks, a Robert or two, a Winston. Maybe Winston is more of a British name? I wonder.
My feelings toward the Americans are mixed. I don’t hate them. I feel sorry for them, exposed and prominent as they are, noticeable as they are. Giving them names makes them seem more real to me, more human. I know that naming them is something I shouldn’t do. It will only increase my feelings of guilt. I should cling to the various jihadist slogans—Evil Empire, Great Satan, etc. But my mind, so lulled by the rhythm of the days in this market, cannot help but indulge in this name-giving diversion.
Today marks the third day of Layla’s visitations. Also the twenty-first day of business for me since I moved to Safwan. A good day. I sold four mobile phones and fifteen mobile-phone cards with a hundred minutes apiece on them. One man, a Shareefi, inquired about purchasing a satellite dish for his niece’s home. The inquiry calls to mind certain hints that Sheikh Seyyed Abdullah has made, to the effect that I could easily expand my business to sell satellite dishes and other electronics. The extra profit from such sales would be most welcome. The conversation with the man from the Shareefi family seems promising. I resolve to order some satellite-dish sales brochures.
The guard for the overpass goes into his tent for tea. He is not as tired today as he seemed yesterday and he has spent most of his time pacing from his tent across the intersection and back. At the farthest point in his patrol he is only about fifty meters from my shop. His tent is much nearer, maybe only fifteen meters, perched like the nest of a roc on a little flat space between the precipice of the overpass embankment and the road itself.
The guard at last ceases pacing. He enters his tent to make tea. As he fools with his tea set, a British patrol approaches, four dun-colored Land Rovers brimming with soldiers. The British bring more soldiers with them than the Americans, wherever they go. The Americans have more stuff; the British bring more people—different styles of war. Maybe all the British are actually robots, which would mean they have the same amount of stuff as the Americans, just more cleverly disguised so that they might fool a simple mobile-phone merchant into considering them people. Meaningless speculation, robots and whatnot. I chide myself and bring my mind back into focus. The patrol moves off the road from Basra into Safwan, taking the exit ramp that passes just behind my shop. I guess they are on their way to a meeting with the town council down near Bashar’s café in the city center. The guard on the overpass does not even notice the vehicles as they turn in succession before him. After all the pacing and watchfulness today, he does not notice. He just continues making his tea with his back turned toward the patrol. I can hardly believe it. It fits with all the other negative things I must report to Sheikh Seyyed Abdullah.
When the British patrol clears through the market and passes beneath the blue-tiled arch into Safwan, it disappears from my view. I look down. Layla stands in front of my shop.
“Hello, girl,” I say. “Masah il-kheir. A fine evening!”
“It is,” she says. “Do you have a son?”
“No,” I say. “Why?”
“The honorific,” she says. “I am calling you father of someone. Who is this Saheeh you speak of when you tell me Abu Saheeh is your name?”
“No son,” I say. “Just a joke.”
Layla looks disappointed but she does not reply. She merely turns her head to the side as if examining me. I come out the side door of my shop. Expecting her in the shade under the awning, I find nothing there.
I turn around and look back into the stall, where the shelves now display several styles of phones and headsets, stacks of brochures for calling plans, and new phone cards in their plastic sleeves. A Shasta orange soda on the storefront sill attracts a swarm of bluebottle flies. Layla has vaulted through the window and over the counter. She stands inside the shack. Brushing flies away from the soda, she picks up the can and shakes it. Some liquid remains in the bottom. She looks at me and I nod to let her know she may drink.
“What will we talk about today?” I ask. I lean in through the sill as though I am the customer and she the owner of the store. “More stories of America and Americans? How about the soldiers you’ve met? Let’s talk about them.”
She shakes her head no as she drinks.
“TV stars?” I say. “Arnold Schwarzenegger?”
“No,” she says, wiping the corner of a lip now colored brighter orange than any henna. “No. Not Americans. Not TV. Not movies or aliens.”
She puts the can on the dirt floor, raises a small bare and calloused foot above it. I notice the same circlet of bird bones and dollhouse keys around her ankle as I had seen the first day we met. Maybe my initial guess at her age was wrong. She is older than ten. Maybe twelve, maybe even thirteen or fourteen. Too old for a street urchin. Too old to run wild. Nearly ready for the hijab. Nearly ready for marriage. She is just small-boned. Malnourished. A waif. It makes me feel uncomfortable to see her up close, and to better comprehend her true age, this nearness to womanhood.
With her bare foot Layla crushes the can, retrieves it from the dust, and stashes it into an inside pocket of her caftan.
“I want to talk about you,” she says. “About Abu Saheeh. About Father Truth.”
“Me? You think I am more interesting than Americans? More interesting than Arnold Schwarzenegger?”
“Yes,” she says. “I think you’re a spy.”
I laugh, heartily. More heartily than I have laughed for months.
“Like Peter Sellers?” I ask.
“The Pink Panther.”
She frowns, doesn’t get it, hasn’t seen the movie. Probably hasn’t seen the cartoon, either. Not in vogue for the youth now. Certainly not shown on our local broadcast TV, the Egyptian station Nile Drama. She waits until I have finished laughing and wiping my eyes. I feel young for laughing, still suppressing giggles that threaten to surge from belly to throat. But I feel old for thinking of Peter Sellers. I am forty-two. I vaguely remember that a new Pink Panther movie has come out from America, a remake. I wonder who stars in it? Arnold Schwarzenegger? I try to think of the names of other, more modern actors. Tom Cruise? Jack Black? Rufus Wainwright?
“Peter Sellers is an actor,” I say. “I’ve always thought I look a bit like him, the mustache. Or maybe he looks a little bit like an Iraqi. But he’s no Schwarzenegger, no Tom Cruise. Not handsome. Not someone you’d like.”
Suddenly a little angry, Layla strikes a pose far too mature for her, hip thrust forward, chin high. It reinforces my opinion that she is likely older than I had supposed. Is it fourteen? Just a frail, bird-boned fourteen-year-old? Her mother should be ashamed, letting her out of the house at such an age and dressed in nothing more than rags! Rags, when she should be veiled to preserve her family’s honor!
A ray of sunlight catches Layla’s face, the last of the day, now long and trembling as it passes on an almost impossibly flat and honey-colored route over the crest of distant Jebel Sanam, the Camel’s Hump Mountain, then between the western buildings of Safwan. The ray enters the market. It flows around hastily strung electric wires, antennas for the shops, it aches and yearns and tunnels and breathes and darts this way and that way until at last it pierces through my open shop door to perform its final and glorious mission: outlining Layla in gold.
She’s beautiful, more beautiful than anything I’ve seen for months. Not a warm beauty. Not a beauty that makes the heart melt. Hers is, instead, a cold calamitous tragedy of beauty. I sober in the presence of her, my good humor irradiated as if the belly laugh I gave myself had met its opposite in her slightly troubled and impious gaze. She is not tall; shoulder height for me. She is not yet shaped like a woman; no womanly curves. She hasn’t eaten enough to suitably fatten herself. In fact, she may never have curves. From afar she seems the very avatar of the Iraqi street urchin I initially thought her to be: gangly, dirty, barefoot, wearing frayed blue jeans and an even dirtier greenish knee-length caftan. An accent of blue trapunto stitching on the hem of the caftan shows that it was nicely made, most likely an import from Kuwait, one of the many that flow across the civilian border station to the east of the American military crossing point. Layla has a small sharp nose set between rounded cheeks. Her face, darkly bronzed from sun and dust, merges into a mass of curly hair bleached from brown to the same hennaed honey-gold the sunset casts into the market. Most striking, though, as I noticed before, shining through that grubby facade, are those blue iceberg eyes.
I wonder if she might be the bastard girl child of an American soldier from their first war here. Not impossible. The war ended with a treaty of peace signed just outside this very town. Not impossible for an American soldier to have met and to have known her mother in that way. But impossible to ask, impossible for me to determine; rude, even, to mention the idea of her foreign eyes in this conservative and hierarchical society.
“I am no spy,” I say at last, breaking the spell.
“But what if you were?” she says. “What would you spy on?”
“Not a market like this. Not a town Allah has forsaken like this, three wars in two decades. No men my age left, except those who were wise enough to flee to Iran during the latest troubles. I am a commodity here.”
“So many widows,” I say, remembering Bashar’s hint.
“Ah,” she says.
She doesn’t blush or turn away. Like every girl, she has grown up around the conversation of women, around the jokes and veiled references. She knows what I mean.
“You’re looking for a wife.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t know if I’m looking for anything at all, other than customers for these mobile phones. I know it is time for me to shut shop, though. And time for me to get my dinner. And time for you to run home.”
At that, as quickly as she had come, Layla leaves. I reach under the awning and unfasten the tin shutter. It swings down and clicks into place over the window. I lock the side door and the tin shutter. Then I take my time walking the few hundred meters of road from the market into Safwan proper. I reach Bashar’s café, order tea and a flatbread with tomato and shawarma and hummus and oil, and sit among people who enjoy the coming night and the noise of the streets and the same song of a hot summer wind, though tonight without the meditations of that lonesome Persian song.
Later that night, I lift the bottle to my lips.
Memories from the very earliest days of my life churn and boil in the blissful vapidity that soon overwhelms me, flowing outward from the heat of the drink. These are sensory impressions: polished mahogany woodwork; the aroma of cigars and my father’s narjeela, his water pipe, in his private rooms, his salon, his study; arguments or laughter piercing outward into the silence of the other chambers of our big old house, places where I played amid warm shafts of light, rooms where I hid and spied and tried my best to orbit my father in the nearest possible ellipse.
This was Baghdad in the 1960s.
Vaguely and strangely, among the earliest of my memories I recall bits and pieces of discussions far too political to belong among a young boy’s formative remembrances: the names of the leaders of the coup of 1968—General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Salah Omar al-Ali, and Saddam Hussein; hot words about a nationalist movement to unite all Arab lands under a single banner; varied expressions of hope and dismay over the possibility that the Baathist party’s control of Iraq might ensure all Sunni Muslims continuing prosperity in a land where the less affluent Shia formed the vast majority.
More clearly than these things, I remember myself a year or two later, dressed in a starched school uniform: white shirt, pressed slacks, thin straight necktie. I remember that I was a good student, not from any particular award received from school itself, but from the impression my older brother, Yasin, left on me.
Many nights after school he would be summoned into my father’s bedroom, upstairs on the colonnaded second floor of our big empty house, and my father would beat him with a cane or a belt or with his hand. School wasn’t Yasin’s best subject. At fifteen years of age, he failed his entrance exams for secondary school, a shame on our family.
On the night Yasin brought home the news of this failure, my governess, Fatima, sent me upstairs to wait outside my father’s room with a warm rag so that I might apply it to Yasin’s back. The beating lasted five minutes, maybe ten, but it seemed like an eternity to me as I listened in the darkness of the hallway from behind the locked bedroom door. I was amazed that Yasin did not cry.
I knew I would have.
When the door at last opened, before Yasin came out, I heard my father say to him, “Allah’s blessing that I do not have two such failures as you to scourge my name. Your brother, praise be, has no such handicap.”
Yasin exited the room, back bowed. I offered him the warm towel but he stiffened, gazed directly into my eyes with his flat black expression, and spat on the floor before walking away from me.
He didn’t take the towel.
Layla visits in the evening, again this evening, as is becoming quite usual. She stands in shadow under the awning of my little store, my shack, as a golden sunset reflects its light against the overpass where the highway from Basra to Kuwait and the even larger highway from the port of Umm Qasr to Baghdad intersect. As always, the American convoys pass north, pass south, just far enough away from me that they shimmer from the heat. The wheels of the lumbering vehicles disappear in this mirage so that their chain of chassis looks like a snake gliding over the road. The noise from the convoys reaches me through the mirage, distant and rumbling. Twenty go north. Sixteen return south. One convoy passes over the bridge of my intersection, much closer to me than the bypass. It heads southeast toward Umm Qasr and the big American prison called Camp Bucca that is located just off the road between Safwan and Umm Qasr. The convoy is made up of buses rather than semis. The buses are guarded by the normal three Humvees, one in back, one in the middle, one in front. A short convoy, four buses in total, compared to the normal thirty-plus semis. A different sort of convoy. I make a little notch on the doorpost of my shop, the fifth such notch since I arrived here and began my game of convoy counting.
Today marks the fourth day of Layla’s visits. Also the twenty-second day of business for me since I moved to Safwan. A good day. The toughs from Hezbollah have stopped at my shop, as they have at every shop in the new market here on the north side of town. They are a gang of youths with green headbands, though their leader, Hussein, is close to my own age, maybe forty. He has a hawklike face, the classic Semitic hooked nose, and deep-set eyes underscored with purplish semicircles. He is a short man, though wiry, and the young men in his gang are all short and wiry as well. It seems to me that Hussein has collected a half dozen imperfect copies of himself.
Hezbollah performs three functions in the market and in the town. The first of these functions I applaud: providing a sort of social welfare, distributing assistance to the poor, setting up some services—like vaccinations—that neither the Iraqi government nor the American or British military regularly provide. But the other two functions I deplore: coercing merchants and citizens to pay for their protection and conducting a campaign of moral policing.
The Hezbollah gang’s arrival could easily become an ugly scene for me, for I neither want, nor feel like paying for, their protection. And, as a new man in town, my moral qualities are—I am sure—still somewhat suspect in their eyes. Fortunately, they do not bully me very much, Allah in His Mercy be praised.
“It is your first month,” Hussein tells me, eyeing my mobile phones. “We like to encourage new businesses, so no fees for you yet.”
I give him a phone to try for a week or two. He repeats his line about the importance of protection for businessmen in the Safwan markets, especially in this newer market, where, if I haven’t noticed, I am inside the on-ramp loop of an overpass, ground that is officially government property. Hussein doesn’t go so far as to call it a black market, as some townsfolk do. Nor does he tell me that I have taken up my place in the market illegally. And I do not go so far as to tell him that I have already made special arrangements with Sheikh Seyyed Abdullah for the privilege of the location and for the privilege of better protection than his band of scrubby youths could ever hope to provide. I want to say, “Seyyed Abdullah guarantees my business.” I want to say that very much. But I remain perfectly cordial with the man.
As the muezzin wail of the call to prayer dies in the evening air, the guard for the overpass wanders along the edge of the quarry on the far side of the road. It is an abandoned quarry, a place where the local people dump their household trash. The guard can see the bridge from his position, so he hasn’t completely abandoned his post. He prods at mounds of garbage, stoops to pick up objects from wind-tattered black trash bags. Goats and a crow graze through the refuse behind him, more closely inspecting what he has overturned and discarded.
“My mother asked me to check on the tomatoes in the market today,” Layla says.
“Tomatoes?” I say.
I don’t want to look startled at her abrupt arrival this fourth day, so I keep watching the guard in the trash pit at the edge of the quarry. I should not be surprised at her anymore, at her sudden appearances and her sudden departures. I should be at ease around her. I am a man of business. I am a man. I should be unflappable, stoic, a model of sobriety and confidence. I should not panic.
Layla steps in front of me, making sure I do not ignore her.
“Yeah,” she says. “You know…red, round, squishy inside. Tomatoes.”
“Is she making a salad?”
“No. She doesn’t eat salads. We don’t eat salads.”
“What?!” I say. “All mothers like salads. Or is she a robot or something? Maybe an alien?”
I laugh at my joke, this theme of robots and aliens and genies. I expect Layla to laugh. She does not.
She says, “We farm tomatoes. She wanted to know the price for when we go to sell them. I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I wonder that Nile Drama TV allows such a thing, such a show to air, where the U.S. isn’t destroyed by aliens at the end, like in the movie Independence Day. Such a movie the imams certainly approve! Independence Day! I like to see the U.S. destroyed, the White House being exploded by death rays from the sky.”
“I have not seen this film,” I say. “I do not pay much attention to the cinema.”
“You don’t? Alhumdu l-Allah!” she says. “I love movies.”
“They are idolatry,” I say, but only halfheartedly, as I ponder again my list of movie stars: Tom Cruise, Schwarzenegger, Jack Black. Maybe Rufus Wainwright doesn’t belong in the same list…I take him off the list but I add Fred Astaire and Cary Grant and Gary Oldman, who played a splendid Beethoven. I admit to myself that I know a lot about American movies, certainly more than a mobile-phone merchant should.
Layla’s words continue over mine, drowning my objection on the grounds of idolatry in a fine flow of enthusiasm: “He’s drawn out to the desert, Neary, the hero in Close Encounters who confronts the aliens, like Muhammad is drawn to the desert when he says he has seen the breaking of the light of dawn. It is the same. They climb a mountain of light, Jebel an-Nur. He has visions. He is persecuted by the men of his tribe but escapes. Just like the hero Neary in the movie. Then he hears the voice of Allah.”
“But Allah is no alien,” I say.
I begin to take offense at her comments. I tell myself I should visit this girl’s father. I tell myself that the man must be convinced to use whatever means necessary to banish such wild thoughts from her. They will not do, such thoughts, such travesties. They will not.
“And Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him,” I say, “Muhammad hears the voice of Angel Gabriel when he is on the mountain, not the voice of Allah, not the voice of aliens.”
“It is one and the same,” she says.
This is blasphemy for sure.
I anger and say, “Girl, you should not speak in such terms!”
As if bowled over by the force of my irritation, Layla closes her eyes and sits cross-legged on the ground in the dust in front of my shack, positioning herself as an unmovable object. She puts her hands to either side of her body, bracing herself. In the street behind her, cars pass, honking and screeching and rumbling as always, the nearest lane only a few feet from where she sits. The drivers do not notice her. A bit of tissue paper—colored, like the wrapping of a present—tumbles along the road in a draft of air behind a truck. Layla sways back and forth and then starts to hum. Between the notes of humming I hear bits of words, snatches of sound, like the distant lonesome Persian song I had heard from my seat outside Bashar’s café, yet even less comprehensible, even more elusive, more wonderfully foreign.
I cannot make out the words beneath and between the humming. Perhaps they are Quranic. Holy. Perhaps they are the talk of devils or of genies who have taken possession of her body and possession of her voice. I come out of my shack. I mean to shake some sense into her. Instead, my arms go out to her. I mean to grab her but I am incapacitated by the sound of her voice, by the shield of her voice spreading around her, and I never truly touch her. I kneel, first one knee and then the next, holding my arms toward her like a supplicant in some Eastern religion who has prostrated himself before an idol or before a fasting holy man in the shade of a thorn tree.
“What are you singing?” I ask.
She doesn’t reply. She just keeps singing. From the shop beside mine, where Sadeq sells oils and lubricants for cars and machines, a few men emerge, grubby men. They stand around me as I kneel. More men come from other shops, shopkeepers and their guards and people browsing through the market.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
She sings, then stops, then sings and hums and speaks between the humming and singing, words that aren’t words at all. I can feel it in my bones, the high fluting resonance of her voice conducting a call-and-response with something I cannot pretend to hear, cannot pretend to know, something distant and angelic. The sheer beauty of it banishes the idea in my mind that she might be possessed by evil, by the Devil. But I’m convinced, utterly convinced, that she is possessed by something.
“The music,” I say again. “Beautiful.”
The group around me grows larger: an old veiled woman with a basket over her arm; a gaggle of schoolchildren in buttoned vests, pants, and dresses; two traffic policemen in blue shirts with white gloves and batons holstered at their sides. I try not to notice them. I focus on Layla.
Layla strikes a last long note, the loudest of all, then looks up at the sky and stops. She stands and looms above me. Her shadow crosses the ground in front of me. I am shaken.
“Abu Saheeh,” she says, “that is the music the aliens sing when they come to the mountain. That is everything I remember of the song Neary hears as he watches the alien ship descend. He communicates with the aliens by singing back to them and making mountain shapes in his mashed potatoes.”
Her voice returns to normal and she asks: “Do you believe in aliens?”
“It is beautiful,” I say again. “Alhumdu l-Allah.”
Layla reaches down and touches my forehead, lifting me from the dust where I have bowed down. When I am on my knees, we are more closely the same height. She looks at me directly, her blue eyes searching and holding mine. Then she releases me.
“I must check on the tomatoes,” she says.
At that, as quickly as she had come, Layla leaves, running to the south, toward the vegetable market at the center of town, just past the town hall behind Bashar’s café. I realize I am facing Mecca as I kneel. I say a prayer, touch my head to the dust once more, as if to atone for any blasphemy I may have unwittingly committed in kneeling to the song of a girl rather than to the song Allah has put in my heart. I know they must be different, the two songs, the spiritual God-reflecting song and the song of a little beggar child, stolen from an American movie. But do not all things reflect the majesty of Allah? And, maybe, sometimes some of those things reflect His majesty and wonder more perfectly, more clearly, more purely. Perhaps worship in any form leads the mind and the spirit toward Allah in His Oneness. Perhaps that is so. Or perhaps I am an old fool of a man, an old fool of a kafir.
When at last I rise, the men from Sadeq’s shop and the others who have gathered still look at me.
“You have had a vision?” one asks.
“Yes,” I say.
I am not blaspheming in answering them with this answer. The vision, and her voice, the song of the mountain, have gone, not into the wilderness, but into town on a common pathetic errand to find tomatoes. I look up. I look around me. Through the crowd I see the guard on the lip of the quarry using his Kalashnikov as a crutch or a staff, prodding at the body of a dead goat decaying in the mounds of trash beneath his feet. If he were Moses, the prodding of his staff might cause a spring to gush from the earth. The guard, however, has no such luck. He picks his way from mound to mound, looking up at the overpass only every once in a while.
Tonight I do not go to the café of my friend Bashar. I go, instead, to the mosque, where the silence inside allows me to hear more clearly in my mind the remembered notes sung by Layla’s aliens. I stay there, in the mosque, through the last of the day’s calls to prayer, the fifth call. Yet, all that while, and despite my best efforts to both exactly remember and completely forget, the song Layla sings never wholly returns to me.
My brother, Yasin, continued to live in our father’s house for several years after his expulsion from school, up until the time I reached twelve years of age.
“Maggot,” he would call me, daily, like a term of endearment, as he descended the back staircase into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, tired, just catching me on my way out the door to my school. “You look like a maggot in that prissy shirt.”
I tried to ignore him, but from the very start he knew the most cutting words to say, the most hurtful things to do to me. I was happy when he started spending most of his evenings out on the town with a band of friends he was smart enough never to bring within my father’s sight.
My father’s friend Abdel Khaleq as-Samara’i was among the important men who sometimes visited our house. He would give his coat to the doorman and then he and my father would seclude themselves in my father’s parlor, smoking and talking.
Sometimes Abdel Khaleq brought his daughter, Nadia, and her nursemaid with him. Nadia’s nursemaid and Fatima would cook for the men and talk to each other as they boiled tea and made pastries in the kitchen. No one paid attention to Nadia and me. We were free to roam where we wanted. I was happy, very happy, to spend the evening with a companion, even a girl. I was happy to have a friend of any sort, especially one less cruel than Yasin.
I remember Nadia as a roly-poly button-faced child, shorter than me by more than a head, a thing that was natural enough, since I was twelve and she eight. We had been engaged to marry when she was born, my father hoping to cement his place in the Baath party by tying our family to the family of as-Samara’i, who was one of Salah Omar al-Ali’s close associates. I thought nothing of it at the time, the idea that at such an age my future bride had already been chosen for me. We knew no other way.
These nights of her father’s visits, Nadia always wanted to play house, to pretend we had already gotten married. I wanted to climb trees in the walled pavilion behind our kitchen or to make forts in the garage, where my father kept his cars. Usually my ideas won, and I persuaded her to play my games. But usually, also, she changed the rules just enough to accommodate her plans.
When I suggested that we make a fort, Nadia agreed but said, “Only if I can set up tea inside the princess part of your fort.”
So we slipped into the garage through an open side window and crawled down from the window over the workbench, where my father’s chauffeur oiled and retooled various parts of the cars. We slid from the workbench onto the earthen floor of the garage and fumbled around in the dark until, reaching for the pull-cord attached to a light above my head, I found Nadia standing on tiptoe just in front of me, the smell of her breath warm against my face.
“Kiss me,” she said.
Quickly, as quickly as I could, I turned my face away from her, saying, “No, that’s disgusting.”
“All married people kiss,” she said.
“But you’re like my sister.”
“I’m your fiancée.”
The statement was true enough. I had no recourse. So I kissed her, though I didn’t want to. A small peck of a first kiss, our lips brushing against each other and our hands stiff at our sides, unsure where we should put them.
If Layla visits in the evening, as she has on most evenings, I am not there to see her. She may stand in shadow under the awning of my little store, but I do not know.
Excerpted from One Hundred and One Nights by Buchholz, Benjamin Copyright © 2011 by Buchholz, Benjamin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Benjamin Buchholz is the author of a book entitled Private Soldiers about his Wisconsin National Guard unit the year-long deployment to southern Iraq. He was stationed with his family in Oman from 2010 to 2011 and currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in Middle East Security Studies. One Hundred and One Nights is his first novel.
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