- In the Mosque of Imam Alwani
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This was when they lived in the eternal city. It seemed possible that the trio’s little corner of the Kurdish spring—the square chimneys of the brick kilns unfurling their listing columns of black smoke into the high, clear light, the sloped red sides of the river, secreted within the ellipses of bank woods and seething with insects in the lambent dawn before the air filled with the clattering gossip of the washerwomen and the collisions of the silver-voiced children worrying its shallows—had, since the beginning of time, continued in just this way in its sounds and habits, relying on no allegiance other than the residents’ curious sense of belief in their own perpetuity. This was when Bajh and Asti and Araz all lived there [End Page 109] together, when they were young and the fields and herds still seemed born entirely anew each spring; this was when it was still their city to have.
Bajh, Asti and Araz were all born at almost exactly the same time, though this was a fact only Araz cared about enough to note. Bajh Barzani had been born on his family’s long, retreating descent back down from the mountains after the Baathists’ Anfal campaign. When the family Barzani turned back, they removed themselves from the hundred thousand others who neither reached Turkey nor made it back over the Iraqi border, the hundred thousand Kurds who disappeared into the Toros mountain winter or the big pit graves or the pocking of the mortar craters or wherever else they may have vanished to. The Barzanis paused long enough in their defeated return for Bajh to be delivered, and one night a few weeks after he was born and they were on the move again, Bajh’s mother went down to the river for water and never came back. When he was a child, Bajh often said the wrong parent had been taken, that a widowed father was unnatural. He also claimed, at least when the three friends were still small, that he dreamed of his mother on the coldest nights of the winter, but neither Araz nor Asti believed him. After their mother’s death, Bajh’s two older brothers also disappeared, presumably to the ranks of the PPK. Bajh’s father took his only remaining son back across the Iraqi border and down through Kurdish territory, skirting the slums outside Dahuk and Erbil before turning west and following a calm, flat little river into farming country and to the hem of the town, where he could see the green fields, riven only by the coruscating face of the river, offered like two upturned palms to the spring light.
Bajh eventually grew into a set of bold, clear features; his was a face that Araz, many years later, on a rainy, nostalgic day of university classes, would think to call “Romanesque.” But when he was younger, Araz only had the distinct feeling that Bajh was the spitting image of a nameless movie star from a bygone era, his well-defined brow and high, even cheekbones seeming to have come to life straight off one of the ancient cinema posters that had once been pinned to the walls of Uncle Nuri’s shop, when they were toddlers. Bajh was taller than Araz and Asti, and his providential history was the best known of the three. Araz felt electric in his presence, as if in meeting up on the walk to school or going down to bother Nuri for Cokes or sneaking past the baying herds at night, Araz was merely joining Bajh’s ongoing story. But there were other times, walking back from where Bajh and Asti led their midnight amblings, when Araz felt it was almost celestial the way Bajh, always and ever there with them, was also so often somehow elsewhere, as if romanced by his own occluded future. [End Page 110]
It was a surprise, then, when Bajh proved to be particularly inept at school. By the time the...