NIGHT DRAWS NEAR : The American Invasion: A Family's Fears
The Eyes of Amal
Sunday, September 4, 2005
BAGHDAD First of three parts
In March 2003, a long-awaited war had arrived in Baghdad, and the apartment of Amal Salman, a vivacious girl who would turn 14 that week, was quiet.
She was gathered with her mother, Karima, and her four sisters, all of them reluctant to leave the relative safety of their home, which was off a busy, four-lane street in the working-class district of Karrada. Their three-room apartment overlooked a sagging brick sidewalk and was entered through a dented, rusted steel gate. Rats scurried underneath discarded furniture stacked in the hallway, and wires hung from the ceiling.
Inside, the monotony of wartime isolation ordered their lives. They shared sweet tea in the morning with neighbors who, in turn, shared feverishly traded rumors of an American army that had begun advancing across the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. At night, at the top of each hour, they tried to pick up Arabic-language broadcasts of Radio Monte Carlo to hear what they considered unbiased reports on the war -- the mere mention of southern towns and cities like Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, Basra and Najaf bringing fear to those whose relatives were soldiers or residents there. In silence, they scoured the broadcasts for any detail on fighting near Mosul, in the north, where their brother Ali, a shy and gaunt soldier, was stationed at an antiaircraft battery.
"He wasn't scared," Fatima, at 16 the oldest of Amal's sisters, said proudly.
Her mother shot Fatima a look of disapproval. "Of course he was scared," she snapped. "He's anxious. And we're anxious for him. But God is present."
At times, as they sat together that night, Amal and her smiling sisters broke into a reflexive chant for President Saddam Hussein, reverting to the slogans they had so often heard. They seemed to do this more out of fear or habit than fealty. "God protect Saddam," one of the youngest daughters would begin. The others would join in: "The president is the nation, and the nation is the president." Though they expressed hostility toward the Americans and the war, they seemed to be repeating what they had always been forced to say and believe. Their zeal seemed ersatz; sometimes it simply masked confusion. As so often in Iraq, they were spectators in a drama not of their making.
Of them, the precocious Amal was the most enthusiastic. Still awkward, she would put her face in her hands, her shoulders hunched. Her adolescent giggle concealed a sharp intelligence and curious mind. Like many her age, she was a member of the Baath Party youth group. More than her sisters, she said what was expected, in the language she knew.
"If a foreigner wants to enter Baghdad in peace, we will welcome him like a brother," she said. "If a foreigner wants to enter as an enemy, every family will go out and confront them, even with stones. If they don't throw rocks, then they'll throw dirt."
Her mother looked on, a little blankly.
'Crying for Everything Precious'
Before the war began, Amal had started keeping a diary, which she tucked in a drawer in the family's apartment. Its passages are a tale of war seen through the gradually opening eyes of a bright but isolated girl. In daily entries -- some chronology, others reflection -- she narrated her family's experiences in her capital and tried to bring some sense to her world, perched as it was between an imminent end and an uncertain beginning.
The diary's binding was soon broken, its tattered cover held together by newspaper. The words were scribbled in the handwriting of a child, the sloping script of her not-yet-confident Arabic. Often, she wrote while lying on the floor, her dark, braided hair falling across her back as she hunched over the paper, her head a breath away from the words she wrote. Her work was illuminated by flickering lights or -- during frequent blackouts -- by a paraffin lamp or cheap candle pouring out black smoke. Her message was not political; during the war, she wrote Hussein's name not once. In her entries, she portrayed the conflict in the simplest, most human of ways, simply as a struggle to survive. She feared war's arbitrary and unappealable verdicts.