BAGHDAD: A Story of Survival from the First Gulf War

It was Friday night and patrons put on their well to-do, Tuxedoes and evening gowns. They stepped into in their automobiles –– their Cadillacs,Mercedes, and Rolls Royces –– high heels and tap-dancing shoes first before driving the short distance to the theatre. Women were dressed in their finely designed dresses that brushed their ankles with each click of step. Their hair was pulled back showcasing long beautiful necks wrapped in white pearls, fished from the gulf of Arabia years prior. Crocodile skin handbags swung from wrists wrapped with beautiful diamond bracelets. Broaches lined with precious jewels glistened from lapels. Men dressed in their black penguin–esque suits wore Lincoln top hats and smoked Cuban cigars as they opened up the passenger doors for their wives. Some stood by, too proud as valet came running to the rescue. The door swung open and the women emerged. Snottily, like cranes they flapped their long thin arms as they evacuated the long vinyl white bucket seats. The clicks of heels moved towards the bright glowing lights of the Art Deco facade. “ Show Tonight” , the glitzy retro sign said , illuminated with large buzzing bulbs of reds, yellows, and classic soft whites. Revving idled engines left alone became still ,giving silence sway over the heat that masked the ground. In the dark the large show lights flickered out when the switch was shut –– for inside the show was about to begin.

Immense cranberry colored wooden doors crowned with gold swung open to a carnival of opulence. Young Philippine boys took tickets and checked hoards of fur coats in deep mahogany shelled closets. Refreshments were carried on circular silver trays and rushed to the rich. Diamonds gleamed as conversations and laughter took over the bustle. The show was about to begin. A show of the times –– televised for the world to see. It was a show with many stories, critics, and political rivals pit against one another. This was to be a masterpiece theatre of war and the story of a young boy struggling to find his way home through death, starvation, and struggle to home, safety, and his beloved mother.

The patrons took to their seats as bulbs crackled and the lights around the stage came to a low dim. The maroon velvet curtains draping the stage slowly swung back away from each other to the sides. The orchestra slowly emerged as black silhouettes behind a figure that walked up to the podium. They all looked like tiny pieces of paper in front of the backdrop. Soon the figures face became illuminated as his person remained black amongst the shadows of construction paper silhouettes. He then took a bow, smacked his baton onto his perch three times and the instruments slowly came alive. First the flutes whistled softly. Then tortuous violins thrust notes with short chaotic cadences in calamity- Tension swept across the audience sitting in silence like a wave of bacteria on a soft breeze .

One single actor came on stage and with musical accompaniment began to speak:

“Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to tell you a story. A story that is absolutely true even though it might seem totally unreasonable, irrational, and maybe crazy at times. It is about a young man who had to make a choice to live or to give up and die. Caught in the middle of a war his love gave way to anger. After weeks his growl would surmount any of the sounds from any ill played instrument. All around the music had stopped but what he told me was his symphony-composed not with bars but in harmony with prosodic rules.

Whispers spread over the sands from the north of an invasion of locusts from Iraq –– insects. Rumors reflected from the melted granules of sand––mirrors and glass shattered on the morning of August 2nd,1990. Oil pumped from earthen veins as blood was about to be slashed from the wrists of the innocent like broken strings. Sweat, tears –– families were lost in the next several weeks.

Empty bottomless stomachs screamed from an abyss through clenched mandibles. Mothballs were caught in throats as vocal chords seized to strum. The hearts beating drum came to silence. The esophagus of Kuwait was about to dry out –– strep from the summer heat and an invasion. Locusts, mosquitoes, and ticks swarmed and shoaled. Treads of tanks, engines of jets, and the propellers of ships advanced in locomotion.

In chalets and mansions memories hung on cracked walls –– framed moments of happiness. The birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, and vacations were left behind by the many in retreat –– dressed in white. They succumbed as they shook their heads in disgust to surrender. But some stayed and fought back with vengeance alongside their army, some stayed and hid, and some just got left behind.”

The audience sat in silence...

“A young man; a wolf lost from his pack, walked down a silent corridor looking at pictures of a family he did not know. His thoughts were of his family as his empty stomach screamed for food. With a ravenous exhaustion he approached the kitchen and began to feed his growling stomach. Everyone had left, extirpation of a culture and now like a dog he was scrounging his territory for the necessities of life.

The wolf was a young man named Aladin Afghani in his early teens. He had Afghan roots but was Jordanian by nationality. His mother, a Christian was born in Bethlehem. His father was Muslim. “They were strong believers in God, but there were no issues with the different religions”, he said”. Born and raised in Kuwait he spoke with humility and with the fluency of English and Arabic. Standing almost six feet tall he walked with confidence. Aladin had Square shoulders, a chiseled jaw, olive skin, perfect smile, and hands that had the strength of men. He didn’t have any scars on his epidermis, they were buried deep inside –– So deep he had only told this story twice.

There is an intangible rhythm of momentum in life– –the sun rises and the sun sets, tides rise and fall, the young grow old, and empires conquer and crumble. The wolf was about to embark on a journey to the enemies beat, their movements and rhythm.

Pulses slowed and soon stopped, hearts’ metronomes seized to tick. Carcasses were shoveled into piles like accumulated precipitation–– plows drove what was once beautiful snow into piles, now melted in rigamortis as the dust collected. The smell from the streets was no longer of food but the stench of decay. 

September came and there was no food so for a short period of time the wolf worked with the hospitals burying the bodies of the deceased men, women, some pregnant, babies still-born, and many premature. A curfew was instituted from 7p.m. to 7a.m. Dreams of just walking, just walking–– he stood waiting in lines for bread only to have it snatched away by the Iraqis. The Iraqi children would kill for chocolate.14 years of age –– innocent eyes became poisoned with the images of the faces of cadavers. It was the only way to make money.

As autumn slowly died winter came and bribing the soldiers was another form of survival. A kind man, he would often go to the dungeons of homes to give food to the Kuwaitis living below ground in fear. Aladin was searching –– and what he found was to be his magic carpet home. He saw an 1960s black Mercedes-Benz stocked with electrical appliances. Below the bumper screwed in was a license plate of Jordanian origin. He stopped the owner of the vehicle and bargained with him. “ I have no money, but my family does” , he said. They eventually agreed on 250 American dollars and the migration was to be an ugly and dangerous journey. First destination? Baghdad.”

The audience gasped as a woman’s pearl necklace broke and the jewels rolled down a dark aisle-

“Months had passed and Earth moved farther away in orbit from the sun bringing cold air to the desert. At four in the afternoon Aladin and his guide, covered in soot, began their drive north towards Basra, Iraq. Over the Kuwait–Iraq border they passed burning cars. The smell of burning rubber and the sight of metallic flames of blue, green, and yellow spiraled ascending into smoke. It was then that the wolf –– the strong, began to cry, saying, “Damn you Saddam”. Even though he was Jordanian Kuwait was home to all his memories. He missed the everyday normalcy of school. He spoke of his room, his video games, and how he missed his mother the most.

The desert was bleak––cold and frozen in the absence of life as planes buzzed over-head, wasps with brutal stingers shook the air stuck in a constant note with seamless tempo. With a break in stanza a fighter-MIG was hit by an RPG. It spun over on top of itself over and over as it fell towards the khaki below. Fire broke out like hell from it’s engines. Globs of oil, smoke, and shards of metal were vomited into the air. The pilot ejected as the mechanism of death hit the ground and exploded into a fire ball of steel. The pair sat in their antique looking on as they drove past the chaos. Basra was only a short distance now.

Aladin, as he told his story spoke of the meal he had in Basra. It was his first he had had in a while and his last for a couple days to come. “It was delicious” , he said. But it wasn’t the taste. His palette had gone so long that it was just the movement of his crushing jaw and the fact that he was on his way back home that made the food so incredible.

The following day the driver, a cold man in his late 40s and Aladin had an argument. The wolf had no documentation of his nationality so he had to get to his embassy in Baghdad to procure the correct paperwork. He grabbed the man’s face and shook his head repeatedly saying, “I have to go to BAGHDAD! “

It was their 6th day on the road, January 23rd. They arrived in Baghdad after a slow but smooth ride. They then began looking for a place to stay–– a hotel of some sort in a narrow alley. He walked in and spoke with the attendant at the desk who informed him that they had no vacancies. So they walked seven blocks to another place and checked in. As the wolf opened the door they both slowly entered the room and walked to the window. He slid the curtain to the side and looked out onto hell being unleashed. Hell exploded from the dirt as the Heavens fell from above. A huge bomb exploded shaking the whole building as what seemed to be fireworks crackling in the distance. Rubble, falling, ––knees weak, he jumped back from the window. Artillery fire- clack,clack,boom- blasts from the roof were aimed towards the sky. Anti aircraft guns encircled by sand bags shot strings of bullets and munitions into the dark sky. Whistles came from above as blasts hit the ground. There were thunderclaps and lightning. Shocks of sound –– eardrum pops –– Screams erupted and echoed from the streets and barking dogs clamored in alleys. American forces had broken the stratosphere with an ugly salvo of heavy vengeance. Trumpets of anger and flexed muscles from disturbed psyches. “We are going to die tonight” , he said.

As the two travelers dropped to the carpet they exchanged phone numbers and information about their homes they had dreamed of getting to. The driver began to read the Koran with shaking sweaty palms. The fear was bigger than any. The salvo played through the night and into the early morning. It paused only to follow in encore the night ahead. For two straight nights the days and nights were in flames as then 7 blocks away there was an explosion! A building was lifted off the ground by giants and smashed with angry fists. Ripped from it’s foundation it crumbled inside a cloud of smoke. Glass shot out in all directions sending reflections of the light outwards from the blast within the heart of it’s construction.

The sun rose with slow weeping eyes, scared to see the city’s devastation. The wolf jumped down the stairwell grasping onto the railing acrobatically with a steady quickness. He put his shoulder down and rocked the door open running towards where the closest blast had taken place. It was the hotel that had no rooms two nights before. It laid on the ground in pieces. Bodies smoked, smoldered in flames and the flesh of men was buried in the rubble. Arms and legs stuck out from the pile covered in soot. Bones, skeletons, souls whispered in agony from the crackling fire. Almost 200 people had lost their lives. Some were people in the same situation as he. The wrong place at the wrong time. This was the wrong place and the wrong time. Baghdad was on fire.

By eight a.m. The wolf had made it to the Jordanian Embassy. As he spoke with the man behind the counter he pleaded with him for the paper work. “Who is your father” , the man asked.” I’m Jordanian, Please help me”! The man looked Aladin in the eye and saw the anguish, he knew he was telling the truth. “ I trust you” , the man said and issued the wolf the proper paperwork.

After Aladin exited the embassy he met up with his driver again and they left Baghdad to cross the river Euphrates. All the bridges had been destroyed by the American forces in a planned circuit break of the city. They had to return back to Baghdad and find another route. Upon arrival back into the city Saddam had commanded the launch of 40 missiles into Israel from Palestine deceived by manipulation. He wanted to be the savior of Jerusalem.

On day four in Baghdad the car was stolen. The two men looked at each other in absolute disappointment, broken and said goodbye. They were never to see each other again. But this man, his driver/warrior did later on meet the wolf’s parents. Hitch-hiking was now the only foreseeable option.

He was on foot. Paws stamped the ground as he slowly trudged west towards home. Catching the scent of the Jordanian border –– he followed. Weary and hungry night fell on the desert and the road grew dark. Sparks of light from passing cars moved in streams like fish as the sound was drained as distances grew larger. He laid on the ground flat and tried to sleep in the cold as he hummed songs by Umm Kulthum . The following day angels swooped down and carried the wolf into a car. He had walked over 50 km. Three days, shivering and hitching, it took him to reach the border where tents stood pitched on trampled grounds housing refugees. Like ants among small hills they were, people were bustling about in between the temporaries for food.

At the gate there were U.N. soldiers. He pulled out his paper work that he received in Baghdad and the soldier stamped it, and hugged him. “Well done, son “ ,the soldier said and handed him a blanket. Aladin wrapped the blanket around his torso and had his first meal in days. He said he felt so damn lucky. “ I felt free for the first time” , he said. He was almost home.

After much hardship, quiet, and reflection time had given the wolf an opportunity to call his brother. The phone rang inside his sweaty palm. It rang once more to a crackle, a click, and then a hello. It was his brother Hussein. “I’m alive, I m in Jordan” , he said. His brother ,with surprise and downright unabated happiness responded, “ I’m coming, give me a couple hours!”

The wolf hung up the receiver, walked away a couple feet and sat down on the earth, wrapped in a blanket, filthy, and carrying the odor of the wretchedness from his journey. He was just 14 years old and experienced the journey of a lifetime. Sitting with his head swelling between his knees Aladin dreamed of the reunion with his brother and family that was only a couple hours away.

After several hours his brother arrived. He handed over the blanket back to the soldier and they headed home. He didn’t say anything in the car as it began to snow. Snowflakes grabbed onto the cold windshield as they drove down winding city streets. No one knew he was on his way.

When they arrived to Amman at his parents apartment on the 2nd story flat he opened the door. Grabbed the banister with his head down and closed his eyes. He slowly paced up the steps to the door. He opened it, standing around was his whole family whose faces he had forgotten, un expecting and relieved. The wolf had made it back to his pack, evading swarms of insects to get home to his family and most importantly his mother. Soon he walked down the hallway looking at the pictures on the wall of a family he knew too well. His hands brushed the walls as he slowly walked towards the bathroom to shower. Music began to play while he hummed under warm water that washed the grime and filth from his body. “The scars will remain inside. I only told them the nice things” ,he said. The house smelled of newly cooked food and of warm company. He then walked towards a bedroom and peered out a window where snow blanketed the streets. Aladin turned towards the bed laid down and quickly was sound asleep –– safe, secure, and relieved.

Thank you and goodnight”. The actor then disappeared behind the curtain to a silent audience. The crowd slowly took to their feet and filed towards the back of the theatre. It was late and time for all to go home and walk down lit corridors past pictures framing their cherished memories.