In the dim bathroom, Dalya smoothed her hair once, then twice. It had been a summer of seclusion. Her parents, fearful of kidnapping, had mostly kept her inside. But today, 11-year-old Dalya would see her best friend, just back to Baghdad from the safety of Cairo and Amman, Jordan.
Dry, heavy heat and the drumming of military helicopters overhead had enveloped Dalya in her sleep the previous night. But in the morning she was excited and dressed carefully in white jeans, a pink sleeveless shirt, a multicolored hair band and gold earrings.
In a long, broiling, empty vacation, Dalya eagerly awaited the return of her 10-year-old cousin and confidante, Marwa.
Since the American invasion of Iraq, Dalya's world has turned upside down.
In the past year, two of Dalya's cousins had been kidnapped and one 13-year-old relative had been killed in a crossfire. Concerned for Dalya's safety, her parents no longer allowed her to play with the neighbors, and they asked that the family not be identified by name in this article.
Like other children from middle-class and wealthy families in her neighborhood, Dalya has been hemmed in by lists of prohibitions laced with conditions. No going down the block; play only in the yard. No riding your bike, except in the driveway. No leaving the house without a parent. No visiting the local swimming pool, just the inflatable baby pool at home.
So Dalya played "Pea Shootin' Pete" and other video games and watched "Oprah" and "Friends" and "Tom and Jerry" dubbed into Arabic. In July, she enrolled in a painting class.
More complicated than the new household rules were the new things to believe. Dalya was raised to respect and trust her president, Saddam Hussein. She had been taught all her life to follow the rituals of Shiite Islam. She was also raised with affection for her mother's American friends, made long ago at pharmacy school in Mississippi.
Since the U.S. invasion, those values have been completely rearranged. Her teachers told her to rip Hussein's picture from her schoolbooks, and television images exposed his mass graves and torture chambers. At the same time, compatriots of her mother's American friends have shown up firing from tanks and helicopters. And Dalya is haunted by images of beheadings in the name of Islam.
As the outer layers of almost every aspect of her old, familiar life have been peeled back to expose violence, Dalya is no longer sure whom to believe, how to interpret events or even what to be afraid of.
Just after 10 a.m., Dalya's mother hustled her into the car and sped her through angry, lawless traffic to painting class. In the two-room gallery, Dalya quickly, intently began to copy a Scottish landscape from a glossy guide to worldwide resorts.
Dalya used to draw warplanes, her mother said. After the first beheading of a hostage, another child she knew drew people being hanged and having their heads cut off. So it was a relief that her daughter had taken up European landscapes.
"There's nothing pretty in Iraq," Dalya said.
"We have to take them to a nice place with color and light and beautiful things," said Kareema Husseini, the art program director. "They are still young. They can forget this war."
But as she spoke, from outside, just down the street, came the dull thud of a bomb. No one looked up from the easels. Intense shooting broke out a few blocks away, but Dalya's black eyes were locked on Scotland. Then a girl beside her dropped a pencil, startling Dalya, who jumped and covered her ears.
Back at home after class, Dalya set out the plates for her favorite lunch: spaghetti.
"She never goes out," said her father, a quiet man from a respected, established family. "No place. No place. Unless she's accompanied by her mother or me."
"She's alone," her father said. The power and the air conditioning were off, and the heat was rising. "Our friends' sons were kidnapped. They paid $150,000 in ransom."
Dalya fiddled with her spaghetti, which had left an orange ring around her mouth. Suddenly, she looked up. "Did George Bush hurt you like he hurt us?" she asked a visitor.
Dalya once accused her mother: "This whole war is happening because of your friends. Look what they're doing to our country."
Her mother answered that people like her friends in Georgia and Texas and Mississippi might disagree with their government's policies. "No one can agree with killing," she assured Dalya. But she struggles with how to answer e-mails from her American friends.
After lunch, Dalya went to her room, where a matching antique copper bed and wardrobe set are carved with peacocks inlaid with red and off-white stone. It's not safe here, she said. The house is on a main street of Baghdad, and the family is building a new one in a more remote neighborhood.
Time for prayer, Dalya's mother reminded her, before leaving to see Marwa. In the bathroom, Dalya sped through the ritual preparation, holding her hands under the tap, then patting her nose, eyes and mouth, slipping off her flip-flops and running her wet hands along each ankle. She threw a shawl over her shoulders and bent in prayer in her room.
"Those people killing hostages -- that is not Islam!" Dalya's mother likes to say. But Dalya still asks questions about why people's heads are being cut off.
Sometimes Dalya just begins to tremble. "I have to hug her really strong," said her mother. "Every child in Iraq needs a psychologist."
Arriving at Marwa's house, Dalya jumped out of the car and ran inside. Marwa came out, her hair in a ponytail, a sheen of sparkles on her face. The girls climbed into the back seat and grinned at each other.
"In terms of blood relationships, we're not that close -- but in our souls we're close," said Marwa. The girls cupped hands to each other's ears, and Marwa told Dalya about her birthday party at a McDonald's in Cairo. "You can walk in the street in Cairo," she said, "like in Amman."
The electricity was out and a military helicopter was thundering overhead when Dalya's mother dropped them at the home of another relative to play. Marwa picked up a high school history book published in 2001. Just after the invasion, the text had been scratched out; it was a time when all Iraqi children were made to tear Hussein's picture from their books and cross out his interpretations of history.
"I scratched it out so much, I didn't leave any blank space to read it," said Marwa. "I was relieved."
Long ago, Dalya's father had raced horses with a young Hussein. Although he had since distanced himself from Hussein and his government, his daughter was no opponent of the former president.
"I just made an X, because my teacher told me to," said Dalya. "I didn't know before that he was bad."
"He killed my uncle," Marwa interrupted.
Marwa said that as far back as she could remember, she had known that Hussein had killed her father's brother. She also knew that she couldn't tell anyone, not even Dalya.
But everything changed after Hussein was deposed. The first time that Marwa saw Dalya after the U.S. capture of Baghdad, she divulged the secret of her uncle's killing.
"Now I made up my mind," said Dalya, firmly. "I know he's a criminal. This is right. I'll never change my mind again."
"But he's our second father," said Dalya a few minutes later. Her mother would later report that Dalya has told her: "Sometimes, I miss him, Mom." What she misses is the old security and order, her mother said.
Dalya's parents said they were happy for a few days after the invasion but soon became angry when they saw no clear American plan for managing their country.
Convoys of Humvees and tanks lumbered down Baghdad's freeways; Dalya served as backseat driver, pointing them out so her mother could keep a safe distance. Just 10 days earlier, Dalya's mother recalled, insurgents across the street from her pharmacy fired a rocket-propelled grenade at American soldiers, killing two. The Americans responded with tank fire. Bullets ripped through cars, cement walls and the window of her storefront.
The pharmacy is just big enough for a desk and a few chairs. It's not big enough for two girls, plus a customer, and so the girls are allowed to run free when Dalya's mother is working, their only chance to do so. They can go anywhere on this block.
Dalya and Marwa dashed out of the pharmacy. Swathed in heat so intense that clothes seemed to weld to skin, the street looked unpromising, with a scattering of stationery stores and mini-markets. But Dalya, an expert on this block, can locate any toy she wants, along with art supplies and ice cream.
Dalya's mother has been opening the pharmacy so infrequently that her clients don't even know she's still in business. In a few hours at work, she had earned 1,000 dinars but spent 3,500 dinars on ice cream and colored pencils for Dalya.
It was already dark by the time Dalya's mother fastened the six locks on the pharmacy door. Past the curfew she set for herself, past the time she wants to be on the highway heading home with Dalya. In the back seat, Marwa and Dalya softly sang a song about spaghetti as the car stalled in a traffic jam; at this hour, everyone in Baghdad wants to get home fast.
"I think our new leader will be better than Saddam," said Marwa.
"Me too," Dalya said. "Marwa, who's our new leader?"
Back at the house, the girls retired to Dalya's room. They stretched out on the pink brocade bedspread on their stomachs, kicking up their feet as they talked. Usually they play games, such as doctor and patient, or mother and baby. They also have a favorite game they invented themselves: Mr. Ahmed. In the game, they are prisoners and Mr. Ahmed is their torturer.
"We say, 'Please, give us food,' but he never gives us food," said Marwa.
"He beats us and we say, 'No, please stop, my children, my wife!' " said Dalya.
Today, though, the girls had too much to catch up on to play. When Marwa and her parents left the house dangerously late at night, the front door slammed shut. The noise startled Dalya, who put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut.