"We were on this rooftop and it was at night. Most of the time in Iraq nothing happens, like I said. I was on the rooftop behind a Designated Marksmen Rifle, which is kind of like a sniper rifle but not really. A kid ran out in the street, and I shot him center mass."
"What happened after that?"
"He fell down. Sawyer- the guy that was spotting me, said it was a good shot. I could see him through the night vision. I could tell it was just a kid, I mean, someone pretty young. And he didnt have a weapon."
"Were you not supposed to shoot him?"
"No, I mean, I was inside the rules of engagement. What they said was, at that time in Fallujah, there was a twenty-four hour curfew in effect. All the civilians had been supposedly evacuated, and we had free fire rules for anyone running around in the street. Especially if they were a insurgent age male. The idea being, anyone left over in the city was a bad guy."
"And, I mean, there was the chance that the kid was a bad guy. An insurgent. Maybe he was a dumbass and left his AK propped up against the wall while he ran across the street. Or maybe he was a runner and relaying a message to his terrorist buddies. Or maybe he was a straight up decoy, and his friends sent him on a suicide run just to see what would happen. I've thought about all of this. But it doesnt justify what happened next."
"Our Staff Sgt. came over the radio and asked, 'is he still moving?' and I said, 'affirmitive.' and he said, 'hit him again.'"
"Which was totally outside our rules of engagement. I mean, if the guy was wounded, we were supposed to take a corpsman down there and see if we could help him. Detain the fucker and send him packing to Gitmo, maybe get some intel off him. But instead, Staff Sgt. said, hit him again, and I did. I shot him in the head."
"And that round pretty much exploded the guys skull. I couldnt see it all the way with the night vision, but in the morning there was blood and brain matter everywhere."
"So what do you think about that?"
"it sounds like you were only following orders."
"But what kind of cop out is that? And lets say we just go ahead and say; yeah, it was Iraq. Everything was fucked up in Iraq. Whipe the slate clean. I'm the one that has to think about it. I'm the one that cant stop thinking about the fact that I gutshot a kid and blew his brains out. I have to live with this. And what I'm asking for, is some way to forget, forget the whole thing ever happened. Because I'm pretty sick of living on that goddamn rooftop, in between one of the worst thirty seconds of my life."
There were a few things in life J'mal Al-Rhawari loved more than his guitar. It was a Fender Stratocastor, American made, based on Eric Claptons specifications and bearing his signature on the back of the headstock. Together with his Marshall tube amp he could bend the notes
And come up with a fine impersonation of Slowhand himself. After that he would play with the dials, and cook up a little Stevie Ray Vaughn, or Jeff Beck. Some newer stuff by John Mayer, maybe. If he tried really hard he would go for Zeppelin, but the Strat didnt have the heavy Les Paul pickups, and couldnt really approximate. When he really started to feel it, he would stand next to the window in his bedroom, and imagine the music floating over Dubai.
His family apartment, his father's apartment was on the seventy-first floor of the Burj Dubai. The city glistened like a jewel at night, except when the sand blew in. Things were changing all the time below. He imagined what he would call his band. He wanted it based on his name and showmanship, like Jimi Hendrix. The Al-Rhawari experience, maybe. When music was allowed to be openly played in Dubai, which couldnt be too far off in coming. Not that it would ever happen in Saudi, but Dubai was different. Just straight blues-based rock and roll, with possibly a little native influence, but no more than the Beatles had already added with the Sitar. His sister barged in and interrupted the session.
"Are you dont with that nonsense?" She asked.
"Its music." He retorted.
"Father is talking." She left. He sighed and put the guitar up in its tweed case.
In the main room of the apartment J'mal's father was intoning with regularity over a cup of hot chai. He was wearing the fine english suit he always wore from work, that J'mal never saw him do without. His mother and his sister was sitting on the sofa listening to him intone. "And so you see, " He said, "That we say In'shallah, God wills it, when something happens that we dont understand. A common practice."
His mother nodded wearily. J'mal noticed that she had been letting a single streak of grey come through her raven black hair. It fit her, somehow, with her cream colored suit that her mother wore to work, although the hijab would cover all that hair, mostly. Her mother worked hard running the family charities. Widows and orphans and that sort of thing. Palestinian refugees. His father worked hard to keep up the family name, and a philanthropical front.
"In some of our neighboring countries." J'mal's father went on, "Arabic countries, they have men who cross traffic without looking. They go through these intersections, head straight ahead, eyes forward, regardless which direction the traffic is coming from. They refer to themselves as In'shallah walkers, and believe that God and the prophet will keep them safe, or take their life if it is their time. Now tell me, my family, is this the correct meaning of In'shallah?"
"Of course not." J'mals sister said.
"And why is that, lovely daughter?"
"God gave them a brain."
J'mal's father clapped slightly. "And there you have it. God gave these men the ability to delineate which direction the cars are coming from, and where safe crossing can be had, or not. Man has more thinking ability than any computer, did you know that? We are capable of such profound revelation. To turn our minds off and leave everything to chance, God does not, most emphatically not will that. Nor does he endorse it. What is willed, in submission to God, is the most ardent application of our abilities."
"What if you are robbed of that chance?" J'mal's mother said. J'mals father smiled and acknowledged her. "Lets say that you have something. A home, a family, a career. And the west comes and takes it all away. Or Isreal. You are robbed of your home. Your son is killed and your husband is beaten. You have nothing left and nowhere to turn. Can you be blamed for simply throwing up your hands, and giving your meager remains to God?" J'mal was annoyed by his mother, and not for the first time. She was always going on about something or other.
J'mal's father smiled and wagged a finger.
"And now we come to it." He said. "The reason behind the phrase, In'shallah. Not to give up your reasoning for things you can change, but to accept God's reasoning for things you cannot. In the case you were reffering to, dearest, of the person who has lost everything, that individual holds responsibility to use what he possesses and make due what he can."
They talked some more, and J'mal left and went back upstairs to his room. A few minutes later, he heard his father's footsteps. The older man smiled, and invited himself into his sons room.
"You were talking about me." J'mal said.
His father raised his eyebrows. "Why would you believe that?"
"You saw my test scores." J'mal said. "You know I didnt make it as a pilot."
His father sighed. "If I was talking about you." He said. "Wouldnt it be more because you refused to go to University, and joined our meager armed services? I wasnt aware that I showed a preference, in whether or not that army let you fly a silly airplane."
"Air Force." J'mal said. "And if I passed the test, they would have let me fly F-16s."
"An American plane."
"Their letting me be a Crew Chief."
"What is that?"
"Aircraft maintenance. A sort of mechanic." He could feel his fathers displeasure. "I'm going to a school in America, to train."
"Just now, you are going to America?"
"Do you think that's wise?"
"I have orders. And why wouldnt it be?"
His father sat on the bed, next to him. "When I look at you, I see bits of myself, and your mother." He said. "When others here look at you they see a fine, handsome young man, from a good family. But when an American looks at you, and hears you speak, they see an arabic man. An Islamic man. And many of them will be quick to judge accordingly."
"Its not like that."
"Its not? Why, have you been there?"
"No, but all Americans arent that stupid."
"Thats probably true." His father said. "But people everywhere are mostly the same, quick to fear or hate, if you give them a reason."
They sat there for a minute, not talking. Finally J'mal asked, "Have you been to America?"
His father nodded. "Many years ago." He said. "For school, and then several times for business."
Several days later J'mal found himself and three of his fellow Airmen who had been chosen for the program in a holding area at the George Bush intercontinental airport in Houston, Texas. He looked them all over, sizing them up.
Omar was from a small village. He was short and dark skinned. Said was from a family somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, and he spoke arabic with a thin, nasal accent. He was also the oldest, almost forty, and spoke five languages. Hussein, on the other hand, barely spoke any english at all. Hussein was from the city like him, and also a drunk.
"What is taking them so long?" Omar said, nervous.
"They found out my first name." Hussein said, but no one laughed.
"Its just a check. Nothing to worry about." J'mal said.
"What sort of check?" Said asked.
"Our papers were right!" Omar said. "Do you think they sent the wrong papers?"
J'mal grew worried himself. "Speak in english." He said.
"Why?" Hussein asked.
"That way they can hear you, and know that we have nothing to hide."
The door opened up, and a red faced US airman came in. "Sorry folks!" He said. "Sorry about the wait! They didnt know you were with us. Uh, asalam alakuhm." He said, in a country accent. "I'm Sgt. Cartwright."
Sgt. Adam Cartwright drove the rest of the way from Houston to the Browning Air Force base, chatting happily the whole time. "There isnt really that much to do here." He said. "Just the Air Force base and the Homeland Security complex. Things would be pretty depressed, otherwise."
"Are you from Texas?" J'mal asked.
"Gosh no!" Cartwright said. "From Utah. My dad was in the Air Force. But I got out of Utah as soom as I could, it wasnt for me. I'm going to tech school with you fellows."
"Have you just joined?"
"No. I'm changing jobs. I was a Crew Chief for heavies, and now I'm going to be a Crew Chief for fighters. Its just going to work out different. Tell me something, have you guys seen Bonanza?"
"Good. Thats good."
They were put up in a hotel on base, and J'mal managed to tune his guitar while Hussein downed the last of his liqour stash. They were set up in joining rooms, Hussein and J'mal were roommates, and Said and Omar in the other. The setting was J'mals idea. He was finding out that, horribly, the group deffered to him. They were all the same rank, but somehow he was the de facto leader.
The first day of class went about as dully as could be expected.
There were four other airmen taking the class besides the four from Dubai and Sgt. Cartwright. All of them looked almost impossibly young. They managed to sit on the far end of the classroom, and sometimes stare over at the four. Everyone was nervous and not wanting to say the wrong thing. The instructor was a fat man, which made J'mal wonder about american air force weight standards, but he gave the lesson in a cheery tone. The first month went by in much this manner, and they did not see or touch an F-16, or any other aircraft, during that time.
It was cold in this part of Texas, in spring. Not all day, and not everyday, but sometimes there was frost on the ground. There were no jackets issued with the Dubai uniform, and they huddled together, arms in armpits, teeth chattering.
The four had discovered, that while they were not completely confined to the base, their lack of an automobile was a crushing setback. There was a bus that took them out to town, and what town consisted of was a mall, that seemed to be known for only its movie theater, and a strange sort of nightclub that tried to combine hip-hop, country, and eighties music for older people all at the same time. The foursome went and Hussein and J'mal drank (Said was religious and Omar was from a small village, and distrustful of alcohol) Sometimes J'mal would smile, and introduce himself to a girl, but inevitably she would look over and ask, "Who's your friends?" And he would feel himself being sunk with that noose. Back at the hotel he would wait until Hussien went to sleep and masturbate furiously. These American women, with the way they dressed and the way they smelled and the colors of their hair!
He called his parents, and dutifully reported in to them, leaving out certain details.
Everything came to a head at the end of the first month.
He was playing the guitar outside his door. He couldnt remember why he hadnt thought of that earlier- most likely the cold, and the notes seemed to catch in the air, and blow past the rooms. He started with a standard blues riff, and then launched into Layla, from the Derek and the Dominoes album. When he looked up two women were smiling at him. The prettier, blond one, asked him, "How long have you been playing?"
"Since I was twelve." He said.
"Your very good."
"It is hard sometimes." He said. "In my country its not allowed."
"Where are you from?"
"An arabic country. Where are you from?"
He gave her his most winning smile. "Are they all as lovely as you, in Ohio?"
The womans friend laughed, and so did the woman, but to her credit she also started to blush. "That was my, song, you were playing." She said.
"Your favorite song?"
"No, my names Layla."
"Ah. A beautiful name."
"Do you know the story? Behind the song."
"Please, tell me."
She sat down next to him. "So, Eric Clapton was in love with George Harrisons wife."
"The Beatle. I think her name was Patti. But she didnt love him back. And so the entire album is about her."
"Thats very sad."
"But there's more. The story of Layla, is actually an old Persian love story about the same thing. Majnun, this guy named Majnun, he was in love with this girl Layla. And she didnt care about him."
"Like Clapton and George Harrisons wife."
"Exactly. So he ends up going mad with grief, and dying out in the middle of the desert."
It sounded like one of his father's stories, J'mal thought. And it made him feel funny to have that mixed up in music, in his good thing.
"I've got the album." Layla said. "We can listen to it, if you want."
So J'mal listened to Layla and other Love Songs for the first time in his life, having only heard the title track from a bootleg compilation of Eric Clapton hits. And it turned into sort of a party. The other three saw that he was talking to a woman and shied away, possibly from past experiences in the nightclubs. Hussein barbequed some kabobs, out in the patio, and drank beer. At the end of the night he slow danced to Bell Bottom Blues with Layla, and he thought it was the best day he had spent in America so far.
The group graduated from the first month of instruction and tests and went over to a large hanger on the far end of the flightline. The flightline at Browning was entirely non-functional, J'mal had learned, and the planes there were for training purposes only. But here at last, they were allowed to check out tools and work on actual F-16's. It was a beautiful piece of equipment, an American machine, with sleek curves and a powerful engine. There were more written exams, but they were all multiple choice, and easy. J'mal aced his way through, and in the exam room the four of them spoke arabic to each other to find out the answers. Of the three F-16's in the hanger, one of them was a Thunderbirds model, painted red, white, and blue, highly polished.
During this time the group met their pilots. They were older, of course, and bearded, and had been taking exams of their own. "Have you been to Houston yet?" One of the pilots asked J'mal.
"We dont have a car."
"So have one of the Americans drive you. Its more to do there than in this little town. They have arabic clubs."
And so J'mal managed to convince Sgt. Cartwright to drive them to Houston, to the address the pilot had provided, which had halaal food that was somehow not as good as home, and only made them think of home some more. Cartwright had grown stubborn. J'mal could tell that the airman thought he was being upstaged, in the class. So he spent a little extra time getting the American drunk, happier, and the five of them ended up in a dance with traditional music, but by the end of it Hussein had gotten too drunk and was vomiting in the parking lot. "He really has a problem." Omar commented.
They graduated the entire program in July, newly fledged F-16 Crew Chiefs. The four had the highest scores in the class, and J'mal recieved a certificate for being the Honor Graduate. His commanding officer called him on the phone. "Were very proud of you." He said. "You'll be recieving a promotion, when you return." At the ceremony Sgt. Cartwright was tight-lipped and glowering.
There was nothing to make them think that anything had gone wrong on the flight home, or that anything was out of the ordinary.
When J'mal awoke from his nap on the plane he had a splitting headache. There was a funny smell in the airplane. Things were different somehow. He was sitting next to Omar, when he had been sitting next to Hussein. There was a peculiar smell somewhere on the aircraft. When he looked around, all the women were dressed in Hijab, except for a few in burqas. That floored him, he had never seen a woman in a burqa before, not once in Dubai. Many of the men wore traditional garb as well, and as far as he could tell, every single person on the plane was arabic.
"When did we change planes?" J'mal asked.
"At Heathrow." Said told him.
"I dont remember."
"You were drinking with Hussein." Omar said, without taking his eyes from the window.
"What are you staring at?"
"Something is wrong outside."
"Let me see."
A car was on fire at the street next to the airport. The flames were bright orange and yellow, and seemed to reach upwards into the nearby palm tree.
"Someone will call the fire department." J'mal said. "What airport are we in? I dont recognize this."
"Its been burning for twenty minutes." Omar said.
"Thats not possible."
"I have my watch. We landed twenty minutes ago, and it has been burning this entire time."
"You are mistaken." J'mal turned toward the flight attendant, who he saw to his displeasure was also wearing a hijab. "Miss? Can you tell me what airport this is?"
"Baghdad international." She said curtly."
"Are those americans?" Omar said. "Near the car, over there. They look like Americans."
At that moment there was a tremendoes explosion. J'mal felt the pressure wave shove him over in his, seat, and he fell into the aisle. When he got up he could see the aircraft window Omar had been looking through was cracked. What was once one burning vehicle was now four or five, and the palm trees next to it had turned into fierce torches.