Authors: Hassan Blasim
E WERE MEANT TO CAMP IN AN OLD GIRL'S SCHOOL,
and some of the soldiers decided the best place to spend the night was the school's air-raid shelter. Daniel the Christian picked up his blanket and other bedding and headed out into the open courtyard.
“Of course, Chewgum Christ is crazy,” remarked one of the soldiers, a man as tall as a palm tree, his mouth stuffed with dry bread.
“Perhaps he doesn't want to sleep with us Muslims,” suggested another soldier.
The young men were monkeys. They didn't know the truth about Daniel. They were too busy masturbating on the benches in the classrooms where the girls used to sit. Just one missile and they would shortly be charred pricks. In absurd wars such as this one, Daniel's gift was a lifesaver. We had been together in the Kuwait war, and if it hadn't been for his amazing powers we wouldn't have survived. Aside from his gloomy nature, Daniel could hardly be considered ordinary flesh and blood. He was a force of nature.
I spread out my blanket close to him and lay on my back, like him, staring into space.
“Go to sleep, Ali, my friend. Go to sleep. There's no sign tonight. Go to sleep,” he said to me, and started snoring straightaway.
Daniel was always chewing gum. The soldiers had baptized him Chewgum Christ. I often imagined that Daniel's chewing was like an energy source, recharging the battery that powered the screen in his brain. His life's dream was to work in the radar unit. He had completed high school and volunteered to join the air force, but his application was rejected, maybe because his father had been a prominent communist in the seventies. He loved radar the way other men love women or soccer. He collected pictures of radar systems and talked about signals and frequencies as though he was talking about a romp in the hay with some girlfriend. During the last war, I remember him saying, “Ali, humans are the best radar receivers, compared with other animals. You just need to practice making your spirit leave your body and then bring it back, like exhaling and inhaling.” He had tattooed on his right arm the radar equation:
After Daniel's hopes of joining the air force were dashed, he volunteered for the medical corps. But he did not give up his passion for radar, and anyone who knew him would not have been surprised by this obsession, because Chewgum Christ was himself the strangest radar in the world. I remember those terrifying nights during the war over Kuwait. The soldiers, as frightened as ducklings, would follow him wherever he went. The coalition planes would be bombing our trenches, and we wouldn't be able to fire a single shot back. We felt like we were fighting some ultimate, almighty force. All we could do was dig more trenches and scamper from place to place like rats. In the end we camped near the desert. All we had left was our faith in God and the powers of Daniel the Christian. One night we were eating in the trench with the other soldiers when Daniel started complaining of a stomachache. The soldiers stopped eating, picked up their weapons, and prepared to stand, all of them looking at Daniel's mouth.
“I want to lie down in the shade of the large water tank,” Christ said finally.
The soldiers joined him as he left the trench, jostling to keep close to him as if he were a shield against missiles. They sat around him in the shade. Just thirty-five minutes later three bombs fell on the trench. It wasn't the only time. Christ's premonitions saved many soldiers. In Daniel's company the war played out like the plot of a cartoon. In the blink of an eye, reality lost cohesion. It fell apart and you started to hallucinate. What could one make, for example, of the way a constant itching in Daniel's crotch foretold that an American helicopter would crash on the headquarters building? Is it credible that three successive sneezes from Daniel could foretell a devastating rocket attack? They fired them at us from the sea. We soldiers were like sheep, fighting comic book wars.
I heard many rumors that reports on Christ had been submitted to the Supreme Command. But the chaos of those days and the defeat of our army, which was crushed like flies, prevented the authorities from paying any attention. There were many stories about the President's interest in magicians, the occult, and people with prodigious powers. They claim it was at his suggestion that so many books on parapsychology were unexpectedly translated in Iraq in the eighties, because he had heard that the advanced countries were developing telepathic techniques and using them for espionage. The President thought that science and the occult were one and the same; they just used different methods to reveal the same secrets.
Christ was not boastful about his premonitory powers and did not consider them unusual. He used to tell stories from history about mankind's ability to foretell the future. I came to the conclusion that Daniel's melancholia made it impossible for him to take pleasure in the talent he possessed. Even his interest in radar did not bring him pleasure. His ideas about happiness were mysterious. I understood from him that he was frightened by some inner gloom. He thought his talent was just another sign of how impotent and insignificant we are in this mysterious world. He told me that at an early age he read a story by an Iraqi writer whose personality was simultaneously sarcastic and fearful. The hero in the story was swallowed by a shark after a fierce battle in the imaginary river of time. The hero sits trapped in the darkness there and thinks alone, “How can I reconcile my private life with my awareness that a world is collapsing in front of my eyes?”
“That's a question that has weighed on my life. It has kept me awake like an open wound,” said Christ.
When we woke up the next day the American forces had reached the outskirts of Baghdad. A few hours later they brought down the statue of the dictator. It was a surreal shock. We put on civilian clothes and went back to our families. It was just another war of the blind in which no one in our squadron fired a single shot.
After it was all over, I met Daniel several times. He had gone back to live with his elderly mother. When chaos broke out in the country, I visited him in their house in Baghdad. I wanted to speak to him about going back to the army. He said he had hated the dictator, but he would not contribute to an army under the auspices of the occupier. After that I didn't meet him again. I myself returned to the army, and Daniel went back to looking after his mother. He had two sisters who had migrated to Canada years before, and his other relatives had left the country one by one, driven away by wars and the madness of sectarian fanaticism. Of his large family, only his mother remained. I found out that Daniel spent most of his time at home reading novels and encyclopedias, following the news and caring for his mother, who had lost her hearing, her sight, and her memory. Old age isolated her from the world. The old woman was incontinent. Christ would change her diapers every few hours. His mother's death would sever the thread that tied him to the place. He didn't plan to emigrate. In a long letter, his older sister implored him to leave the country, but Christ was as stubborn as his mother. Both of them rejected the devil's temptationâto abandon their lost paradise.
After mass one Sunday, Christ took his mother to a local restaurant famous for its kebabs. He liked the cleanliness of the place and the way it set aside seats for children. The restaurant had changed greatly. He couldn't remember the last time he had been there. Christ chose an empty table in the corner and helped his mother to sit down. The waiter's good humor cheered him up. The man would mix up the names of the dishes with the names of daily instruments of slaughter. The customers laughed and loved him. He would call out orders such as “One explosive, mind-blowing, gut-wrenching kebab. One fragmentation stew. Two ballistic rice and beans.”
Christ asked for one and a half orders of kebab with hot peppers, a glass of ayran,
and a cold juice. The waiter came back with the order and made a joke about inquisitive people. Christ smiled politely. He picked up his mother's fingers gently and placed them down to feel the hot kebabs and the grilled tomatoes. Then he put them back in place on the edge of the table. He picked up a tasty morsel and pressed it into her mouth, smiling at her with extraordinary, selfless love.
A young man asked if he could sit down at Christ's table. Stocky in build and with a hard expression on his face, he was probably about twenty. He ordered a kebab with extra onions. He was actually quite handsome but was scratching his neck incessantly, like someone with scabies. His eyes shifted from table to table. Daniel moved the plate of salad closer to his mother's fingers and left her to feel out the vegetables on the plate. He prepared another mouthful for her. The young man watched them stealthily. He seemed eccentric. He kept chewing his piece of meat and trying to swallow it, as tears streamed from his beautiful eyes. Daniel was wary of him. He leaned forward and asked if he could help. He repeated the question, but the young man kept his eyes on his plate and did not seem to have heard Daniel. He kept chewing, and his tears flowed. He took out a handkerchief, wiped away his tears, and cleaned his nose. He looked around the restaurant, then stared into Christ's eyes. His features changed to reveal another face, as though he had taken off a mask. He grasped the flap of his jacket and pulled it aside like someone baring his chest.
“It's an explosive belt. One word from you and I'll blow myself up,” the young man said, with a threatening glance toward the old woman.
I was killed by friendly fire, myself. We were on a joint patrol with the American forces after the invasion. Someone opened fire on us from a house in the village. The Americans responded hysterically, thinking we had opened fire on them. I was shot three times in the head. I met Christ in our next world, and we were overjoyed. He told me how he was inexplicably drawn to that young man in the kebab restaurant. It wasn't just terror that had paralyzed him, but also some mysterious desire for salvation. For some moments he stared into the young man's face. The man leaned toward him and asked him to stand up and go to the bathroom with him. At first he didn't budge from his place, as if turned to stone. Then he kissed his mother's head and stood up.
The young man led the way to the toilets. He closed the door and kept the tip of his finger on the button on the explosive belt. With his other hand he pulled a pistol out of his belt and pointed it at Daniel's head. The young man was practically hugging Christ by this point, wrapping his arms around him because the space was so tight. He summed up what he wanted: Daniel should wear the explosive belt in his place, in exchange for him saving the old woman's life.
The young man was in a hysterical state and could hardly control himself. He said there would be someone filming the explosion from outside the restaurant and that if he didn't blow himself up they would kill him. Daniel said nothing in response. They started to sweat. One of the customers tried to push open the restroom door. The young man cleared his throat. Then he again promised Christ he would take the old woman safely out of the restaurant, but if Daniel didn't blow himself up he would kill her. Half a minute of silence passed, then he agreed with a nod of his head and stared blankly into the young man's eyes. The young man asked him to undo the belt and wrap it around his own waist. It was a difficult process because the room was so narrow. The young man withdrew cautiously, leaving Christ in the bathroom with the explosive belt on. Then he rushed toward the old woman in the corner of the restaurant. He tapped her gently on the shoulder and took hold of her hand. She stood up and followed him like a child. The restaurant had started to fill up, and the noise level was rising, as people laughed and the cutlery clattered like a sword fight.
Christ fell to his knees. He could hardly breathe, and he pissed in his trousers. He opened the bathroom door and crawled into the restaurant. Someone met him at the door and ran back shouting, “A suicide bomber, a suicide bomber!”
Amid the panic, as men, women, and children trampled on each other to escape, Christ saw that his mother's chair was empty, and he pressed the button.
At noon Jaafar the referee was waiting at the end of the lane, his army binoculars around his neck and a soccer ball in his lap. The boys arrived one after another and surrounded him, joking with him and talking excitedly about the striker on the Sector 32 team. Jaafar reassured them. “We have Allawi al-Saba. He's the Messi of Sector Twenty-nine,” he said.
The boys took turns pushing Jaafar's wheelchair. One of them said, “The Sector Thirty-two team might bring a referee of their own.”
Jaafar wasn't bothered. He told them he knew how to handle that. They reached the field, Jaafar threw the ball, and the boys ran after it.
Jaafar was forty-five years old, but he was still young at heart. With his passion for sports, his dynamism, and his determination, he amazed his friends and his few enemies. He had been the most famous pool player in Sector 29, and when he was an army deserter the military police couldn't catch him. He was like a fox, but his addiction to pool halls was his downfall. One evening the military police surrounded him at the Khorasan pool hall in Karada, where he used to take on the most famous players in the area. They sent him off to the Kuwait war, and when he came back both his legs had been amputated. Jaafar was a good lad, one of the boysâthat's how the people of the sector saw him. But some of them found fault with his passion for soccer and the way he hung out with the local youth at his age. Jaafar didn't take much notice of such talk, because the young had to learn the basics of the game. He would organize matches for them and act as referee. He would remind his critics of the famous national squad player who came from Sector 29 and whom he claimed to have trained, adding each time, “A miracle that will save the whole country will be my doing too!”