Day and night, bombs, rockets, and missiles crashed into Baghdad, erupting in clouds of fire. They watched it on tv, they heard it on the radio, and they saw it from the roof and when they ventured into the street: soldiers and civilians, arms and legs roasting, broken by falling stone, intestines spilling onto concrete; homes and barracks, walls ripped open; Ba’athists, Islamists, Communists, Social Democrats, grocers, tailors, bakers, nurses, and teachers all scurrying to hide in dim burrows, where they wait to die—as many died, some slowly from infection, others quick in bursts of light, thickets of tumbling steel and halos of dust, crushed by the might of the world’s greatest army.
Maha sat in her room listening to Britney Spears, wishing she was anywhere else. This war was going to ruin her life, she knew it, it was going to ruin her chances for marriage, it was going to ruin everything. Her skin was breaking out, her hair frizzing, ends splitting. She stood at her window and looked through the slit between the two pieces of plywood nailed over the glass and watched smoke drift over her city, and the smoke was her future fading into haze. She started hitting Nazahah, hard. She hated how her sister kept praying, stupid praying to stupid God, like it would do anything. She hated her mother and father, her sick cousin Qasim whom she had to keep nursing, creepy old Othman, her sisters. She hated her mother’s patience and stillness. She hated Warda’s incessant singing and Khalida’s watchful eyes. They were all conspiring against her: none of them understood how terrible it was for her, beautiful seventeen-year-old Maha, to have her fabulous life ruined. She stood at her window and looked through the slit between the two pieces of plywood, watching flames burn along the skyline, longing to see it devoured.
More bombs fell on the city. Day and night, smoke darkened the sky and the sun blazed like blood. Sometimes air raid sirens would break the heavens with wailing, and all across the city people would look up, drop [End Page 40] what they were doing, and hide. Then the sirens would subside and no bombs would fall. The all-clear would sound, or not, while aa guns hacked at the empty gray. What people grew to depend on was the mosque. After every bombing, out from the many minarets across the city, the muezzin would sound: Allahu akbar—la illaha ila Allah. And more bombs fell on the city.
Warda kept herself busy. She could not bear to be still; as soon as she stopped moving, her mind bloomed with thoughts of her husband and boys, of the horror their deaths held. She could not think of her little Siraj torn and lifeless, or Abdul-Majid, who cried and fussed so much, falling quiet forever—it was an emptiness the depths of which Warda refused to look into. To lose her beloved Ratib, whose skin she adored, whose hips and back and shoulders she clung to, whose lips and cheeks and eyebrows she loved so dearly she ached when she looked at him—after all their struggles—would be losing the world. She couldn’t bear the thought of it.
So she mended. She cleaned. She baked. She’d watch movies sometimes with the family, a little, but her mind wandered and after a few minutes she’d get back up and find something to do. She reorganized the kitchen and the closets. She dusted behind the tv. She sewed, swept, wiped, scrubbed—the hours of her days a hole that would not be filled, a thirst that could not be quenched.
And while she struggled to fill the emptiness opening up beneath her days, Warda sang. Quietly, songs from her childhood, her soft and lilting voice sounding through the rooms and soothing the family. Her manner was so patient, her songs so serene, the house grew calmer because of her. But they could not see through her gentle face and had no idea her songs were only noise to hush an endless silence.