The Road to Damascus
There is no God but God and Mohammed is His prophet.
There was never any doubt about what he was going to be.
"We have been warriors since the beginning of time." Grandfather would always pause, fingering the hilt of the dirk that, as the family legend had it, was taken off a corpse of British officer by Sayid's great grand-uncle in the Great War.
His father and his father's father and all the men before him. Warriors all. Serving the Turks, the King and finally the Republic.
Sayid was ten when they came for Grandfather.
His grandmother cried and clutched at him but the old man just frowned and pushed her away, glaring at the soldiers. "What is this? Where's my son?"
Ali ibn Hassan, was an officer and a good Ba'ath comrade who married a niece of a member of the Revolutionary Council that sided with the wrong faction at the wrong time.
They didn't pray. Mother had a degree in philosophy from Sorbonne and was weaned on secularism and socialist ideals. Going to the mosque? What nonsense.
Grandmother would have but the house was being watched.
They were lucky in the end. Ali came home. Pale and broken, his left hand shaking uncontrollably, he would stare at Leila with hurt, uncomprehending eyes. "I told them... I kept telling them. Comrades, I said... I told them... I would never... I would die for the Party. For the revolution. A spy? Me? I kept telling them..."
Grandmother died three days after they were allowed to reclaim Grandfather's body.
Two months after that Ali hit Leila for the first time, for calling Saddam a traitor. She fell, heavily, and he stood over her, shaking with rage and screaming vile, horrible things about her and her uncle.
Sayid remembered tugging at Leila's skirt and crying and then Ali was hugging them both and weeping too.
The next seven years unrolled slowly, every day weighing heavier as the old life receded beyond recollection.
The American Chevrolet, the great status symbol, the envy of the entire neighborhood, was the first to go.
Ali's reduced rank brought less money, and Leila was quietly requested to quit the school. No one felt easy about their children being taught by the niece of the Zionist spy.
Two weeks after his 13th birthday they left Baghdad. They left early, before sunrise and the only person to wave them good-bye was the skinny, huge-eyed girl with the careful pig-tails who used to push him into the mud, long ago in another life.
Kirkuk was dusty and alien, full of strangeness.
His 3rd day, on the way home from school he was cornered by his Kurdish classmates. The beating was silent, savage, unforgiving.
"Our land. Go home, pig-breath. Kill you next time, son of a thousand fathers."
He told Leila he fell. Ali just drew heavy, trembling hand lightly through his hair and began to teach him boxing.
There would be no Al Rustamiyah for Sayid. Instead of the military academy whose walls he would eye since his Grandfather first showed it to him when he was three, he was conscripted at 17.
The last two years of the war with Iran earned him a commendation, a pneumonia and promotion to the Republican Guard in time for the Al Faw offensive.
He made lieutenant.
He missed his father's funeral.
Kuwait fell quickly, easily. Heady days, bright future seemed ahead. Americans kept blustering, Saddam said, but were too weak to come and face them like men.
The end, the retreat along the highway of death was not the worst.
The worst was being in the tank battle. They fought bravely, they were the Guard.
But the Americans... he remembered Aziz swearing in disbelief over the radio as the tank shell hit the Abrams that finally ambled into range. Finally, after ten agonizing minutes of shredding their formation with impunity from unreachable range. One shot was all they needed. They were the Guard.
The shot was perfect, even in the dark, and Aziz whooped and then, then he swore... the shell clanging and bouncing off, the ugly turret swiveling with monstrous slowness.
He was in Basra, mopping up the last of the Shiite resistance pockets when they told him about mother.
Kurds, Mehmet spat. Kirkuk is burning.
He wondered sometimes if his old classmates were there. Watching his mother burn alive inside the house.
He never went back.
There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet.
The muezzin's voice cut through the busy Damascus street, calling the Faithful to prayer and Sayid shook his head, refraining from taking the photo out again.
His flight was leaving in an hour.
He bought a ticket to the farthest destination he could find. Without thinking, without planning. Let God direct his steps.
New life. New beginning.