The Dismantler of Men's Creations
I taste a decomposed cockroach crushing between my teeth. My blindfolded eyes look frantically upon the face of endless darkness.
The interrogator repeats the blows to my face, "Confess, traitor."
My mind drifts back to some months earlier. I was sharing a flat with my childhood friend, Ashti, a fellow medical student. The secret agents of dictator Soddahak, with a mission to identify those suspected of having forbidden beliefs, were everywhere. One of them, Amir, yet another medical student, being a member of the ruling Baath Party, knew how to wield power visibly.
One day, Ashti and I were in the teaching hospital by a patient's bed, with Amir standing opposite.
"Yesterday, you didn't participate in State organised demonstrations to support our leader...where do your loyalties lie?" said Amir, staring at Ashti."
One day, Ashti disappeared. I frantically searched for him everywhere. I missed our chats, eating barbecued fish in the Tigris riverbank restaurant, laughing under the glorious sunset.
On the final forensic exam day, Amir asked whether I felt prepared enough to face what was in store for me.
"Yes," I replied. "I've revised well."
During the autopsy exam, the professor signaled that I demonstrate my medical knowledge. When I lifted the sheet covering the corpse, my head jolted backward as if hit with a brick. Dizzy and disoriented, I tried to steady myself. The knives on the table appeared like strange entities bent on tearing up my flesh.
"You look as if you haven't seen a corpse before," muttered the professor.
I stood staring at the corpse of my friend, Ashti. Injuries on his face and neck. Genitals cut off. His head fractured. Earlobe missing. A wave of nausea washed over me.
Ashti's open eyes gazed at me. I shared many memories with these eyes. They sparkled with youthful wonder and glowed with his laughter. These once-alive eyes, the mirror of Ashti's gentle soul, had gifted me much warmth and kindness since childhood. How easy it is to drain life out of a human being.
My eyes darted to Amir, standing opposite, observing my reactions. His eyes sent poison arrows aiming to paralyse me. A wave of rage overwhelmed me. "Death to the tyrant Soddahak," I shouted. I opened the door and ran. Opening more doors and gates, I ran. Through streets and markets, I ran.
I shouted louder when I saw the faces of passers-by turning pale on hearing forbidden thoughts being screamed. Shocked people ran away from me to avoid accusations of guilty by association. Across bridges and alleyways, I ran, until there was nowhere left to run to.
The interrogator removes the blindfold from my eyes. A puff of cigarette smoke, blown onto my face, enters my nostrils. I immediately recognise Amir's face through the smoke curls.
"I'm bored, repeating the same things I did to Ashti," says Amir.
More blows follow. I turn my head towards the window, hoping to hear a bird's mournful melody before it fades.
"Give me the names of your fellow underground enemies of the State."
I hear the click of a gas-lighter. Soon they inflict burns. I tell myself that the part of me at the receiving end of it is just an actor in a horror film. I pretend to be like a screen upon which a horror film is being displayed. I convince myself that as the screen, I would remain unaffected by the horrors.
The pain so overwhelms me that I decide to shelter inside. I abandon my body to its fate. I join my bruised self within. I bond with him. Licking his wounds and bearing his ordeal for him. I soothe and cuddle him. I even give him a name, `Dil' I task Dil, this wounded sensitive artistic being inside me, with painting the landscape of my soul with the colours of spring. But he accuses me of treachery for denying the pain our body is experiencing. To regain the lost trust, I mutter in Dil's ear:
"Listen, we're in this together, so we must cooperate. I don't want to deny anything," I mutter at the ground, before lifting my head, feeling the shame one feels when caught talking to oneself.
"Did you hear him, Amir?"
"Stop the beatings. What did he say?"
"He said, "Listen, I don't want to hide or deny anything...I'll cooperate."
Amir beams with pride at his ability to break my spirit.
"Finally, cooperating? Now give me the names of fellow traitors."
"Dil isn't a traitor. He's a sensitive artist. He lives with me and suffers the blows of life with me."
Amir instructs his assistant to write down the information received:
Address: same address as the prisoner... lives with him.
Amir orders an urgent search raid to be organised. They stop the torture. I welcome the respite.
Four hours later, Amir storms in. "YOU… scum of the earth," his eyes spitting rage like lava. "If you mislead me again… I'll skin you alive before setting you on fire."
My terrified ears strangle and chop up his words before their threatening meaning reaches my exhausted brain.
Amir wields a carving knife in his hand and runs towards me so fast that I fail to notice, let alone experience his act of cutting off my earlobe. I stare at my shirt drinking my gashed blood in disbelief. I follow Amir's hand holding a piece of my flesh so carelessly, throwing it in the bin.
"Please... re-attach.... my ear... before it dies," I plead frantically.
The room shakes with chuckles.
I feel disoriented and featureless. The horror film begins to penetrate the screen. The agony of my injured self, now splashing the gushing blood of its wounds all over.
"Have you prepared it?" Amir asks his assistants.
Amir extends a cable plugged into an electric socket. He tears my clothes with a knife. Now naked, with a piece of bare wire around my groin, I oscillate like a non-material wave with each flow of electricity. Excruciating pain screws its way through my spinal cord as if carrying poison. I fall to the ground, a stream of blood coming from my lower parts. Pain pierces my brain, crashes my body. I look up in a daze. My genitals above, attached to the cable. I feel overwhelming compassion for the cut-off pieces of my body. My bleeding ear and genitals look vulnerable like newborn babies.
I briefly glimpse an instrument in Amir's hand as he moves towards my face before its sudden disappearance from my view. Things start to look shapeless. Blurred shadows, suspended in mid-air before all prevailing darkness descends on me.
"Give me... names."
My silence stands on its legs, and slaps Amir.
"I will skin you alive you worthless lying insect."
I can't see, so I touch my eyes. The sockets are empty!
My mind starts to fracture. Movements… echo of sounds… Is it time or space moving? I am in neither. Darkness.
"Stop the beatings. We need to extract important information from his rotten brain."
I have no voice, just crazy thoughts:
"I'll climb the barren winter and its snow, to extract thoughts of spring blossom"
Then flashbacks start.
"When I was a child, everything seemed crisp. My mother read me fairy stories beside the firelight. In the summer, in our garden under the moonlight, smelling the scent of jasmine…"
Crazy things happen to my mind:
"I see imprisoned eyes, full of protest, in a well of blood. Freedom is a forbidden song of a bird of paradise at which the eyes gaze with longing. The bleeding eyes are alive and in the depth of darkness are gazing at the naked sun. My brave loving eyes carry me over invisible bridges to their pain. I then embrace all cut-off bits of my body with love and tenderness. Tears flow… but from where? I become panicky and search for some lost items."
I decide to open my eyes to look at the world for the last time, then remember I don't have eyes.
I hear voices, followed by laughter.
"Would his mother recognise his now-vanished face… this swollen lump of blue flesh?"
"Would he recognise himself in the mirror?"
"I'll look into the mirror. It'll ask me, " Lump of blue flesh....who're you?' I'll show the mirror my cut-off ear, eye sockets, and my lower part, demanding it should show my cut-off bits in their original place and restore my human face, my name, and my dignity."
"finish him off."
Soon, I look down on a body carried by two men.
"Where you burying him?" I ask.
Ashti appears. I tell him that my head refused to be buried with the body for fear of being forced to reveal its contents, so they threw it in the prison rubbish bin to disappear between rotten autumn leaves.
Baghdad maximum-security prison, June 2039.
Fifteen year old Aveen walks with her grandmother, holding a stick for support. They pass the statue of General Soddahack, the feared ruler of Iraq as they approach the entrance of the prison. A prison guard stops them.
"Look! We've traveled from the north... to see my grandson. He's been detained here for a week now," says, the grandmother.
The guard, leads them through the entrance and approaches an office. He knocks. An officer cracks open the door, slightly.
"These women want to see their relative."
The guard leaves. the intelligence officer asks to see their ID. The grandmother hands him two cards. He scans them, then gestures them to enter his office.
"My grandson. Why is he imprisoned?"
"My brother is a harmless medical student," says, Aveen.
"Huh? The rebel terrorist," The officer stares at the unusually striking girl from the Kurdish northern mountains, "He was caught shouting insults against leader Saddohack," he adds, before stopping to light a cigarette.
Aveen squints at the large photo of Soddahack on the wall. The officer blows smoke out in one puff. He stares at Aveen's huge honey/green eyes. They flash in a flawless skin, tanned by the scorching sun. He moves closer.
"We gave your brother a big surprise for his autopsy exam. He didn't expect he had to demonstrate his medical knowledge on his friend's corpse."
Grandmother stares. Aveen recoils. We see the two women exchanging worried looks. Aveen stares at the officer fiercely with pursed lips. He stares back.
"I want to see my brother?" Aveen interrupts.
"Well, you can't. He committed suicide. Must give you his belongings."
Grandmother looks dazed. Aveen splays her fingers out against her heart, and gasps, before losing her balance. Grandmother catches her mid-air.
The officer opens a draw and takes a plastic bag out. He waits for Aveen to get steady, then hands her a watch, a pen, and a golden ring.
When Aveen holds her brother's ring, she closes her eyes, then appears in agony, wrapping her arms around her chest and bending down as if pain is reverberating through her spine, all in an instant. She collapses. Grandmother sits beside her, splashing water on her face. Aveen buries her face in her grandmother's chest. They lean and rest their heads against each other.
The officer, takes another puff, and blows it into the space. "Oh...his diary journal...It's been photocopied. We found it in his flat. I'll get it for you." The officer leaves the room.
"Holding his ring, I felt what he'd gone through in his final hour," whispers Aveen, still trembling in her grandmother’s arms, "They tortured him to death." She gasps for air.
Grandmother hugs her, her face frozen. They help each other stand up, then walk through the hallway towards the exit.
The returning officer sees them. He summons them back.
"Before leaving, you must pay a fee to cover the State's expenses."
"The cost of feeding the detainee, paying salaries of prison staff and rubbish collectors."
"Rubbish collectors?" Aveen interrupts.
"Your brother threw himself inside the prison's steel bin, setting himself on fire. Somebody had to be paid to empty the prison bin from his ashes."
Aveen, still dazed, is handed her brother's diary journal. The grandmother pays the fees, then asks for her grandson's remains.
"He burnt himself along with rubbish and dead leaves. His ashes mixed with burned rubbish, so we had to dispose of it."
Aveen, visibly shaking, stumbles back, away from him. She shoots him a cutting stare. He moves a step backward, then looks away defensively to gather himself, His mouth moves mumbling sounds, before defiantly staring back.
"This prison is called 'The Final Residence' for a reason. Rebel traitor Kurds like your brother are severely punished and sent to hell."
Aveen storms towards the exit door, followed by grandmother. As they leave the prison gate, they walk silently and slowly.… two figures lost in something unspeakable. They are broken. They cross the road looking dazed. Passing taxis honking their horns, startle them. They wait at a bus-stop. A stray dog barks. Heat shimmers over melting tarmac. They stare into the distance. A flock of swallows flow in waves dotting the sky above, as if writing words with letters of a mysterious hidden language, signalling that the earth is alive and its creatures are born free.
"Nana, when is this endless cycle of oppression and violence going to end?"
"Someone must start to put an end to it," Her grandmother whispers."Can’t believe that 37 years after the toppling of Saddam Hussain, another dictator, Saddohack, continues to terrorise people."
"Tired of seeing history repeating itself by sick, violent, immature men addicted to power and blood," says Aveen.
"A woman must end it…for good," says grandmother, casting an enigmatic look at her granddaughter.
"Yes, a woman must make it her life’s mission… to end this violence," Aveen wipes a thick trail of sweat threatening to run over her eyes. She straightens her back, taking a deep breath.
A minibus stops. They climb into it. Aveen, still numb, gazes at her grandmother who has closed her eyes.
Aveen turns to the first page of her brother's journal, and reads:
"Dear sister Aveen: These are our shared childhood memories. One day we will sit and read them together. Then we’ll celebrate the strength of our spirits."
Aveen turns over the page:
“Remember the winter days when I held your hand, fleeing with our parents and a million other people, who had fled towards the mountains in search of safety to escape Soddahack's army? Streaming past destroyed burnt villages, when helicopter gunships chased us on the mountain slope, while gusts of howling wind slapped our faces. Many people, walking for weeks, feet numb from frost bite, and weakened by hunger, collapsed one after another. They were mothers clutching their already frozen, dead babies across their chests. Older children carrying younger ones on their backs, fell like leaves and disappeared in the snow. Some intensive care patients, still attached to their hospital drips, howled on carts... The Kurdish genocide and exodus of 1991, repeating itself yet again. Someday, we need to revisit our memories, hidden under raw wounds inflicted on us, and expose them to air so they could heal.”
Aveen looks through the window. Memories flash...
Aged 6, Jumbled images:
... A bomb blast that makes the mountain groan. It makes the belly of the mountain vomit its content: tree roots in mud liquid; stones; worms and meshed up rabbits.
.... A helicopter machine gun hits an ancient walnut tree...birds flying to and fro over dead chicks thrown away from their nests by the blast… under it, mothers with screaming children are hiding. It falls. Dead mothers fall on their children...bones crush..screams stop… silence...
A frozen image emerges, of the wounded walnut tree, uprooted by the blast… An arm hung on its branch, still leaking blood….howling sound of artillery overhead...
More of the awakened, scattered images, emerge:
... A crowd of panicky people, trying to run in all directions. But there’s nowhere to hide. Some children, have stopped all movement, pretending to be inanimate statues like snowman…
An image advances. Picking up a tiny pale doll facing down….no...It's a frozen, snow dusted new-born baby. The image freezes..She drops it, and looks the other way. A distant range of mountains rushing by, as her brother drags her uphill, following their parents towards a rock shelter covered with a dense tree...
The minibus stops to pick up more passengers. Aveen stares out of the window. The memories intrude, as if demanding to be looked at, joined together. The raw, untold, unheard pieces, made whole.
She wipes sweat from her face, tapping on her knees. She returns to the next page.
“The fateful moment when a bomb hit a crowd fifty meters from the rock shelter where we were hiding... We saw a terrified little girl, with a wild look in her eyes, covered in blood and ash, emerge from a tower of black smoke. She ran towards the cliff to escape the helicopter gunship. It was then when I saw our parents leave, rushing towards the girl to bring her inside the shelter. That's when they were hit ….”
Aveen closes her eyes. A memory scene emerges on the screen of her mind:
... Her six year old self looking at blood-painted snow...smell of burned flesh. … shrill cries of panicky birds, escaping uprooted trees, and roaring artillery fire overhead. She sees a girl emerge from a tower of black smoke, who runs towards the cliff...
Aveen zooms in, on her little self, shaking her mum:
`"Mum… Mum… wake up..don't go to sleep. You must come back to our hiding place."
Little Aveen drops her mother's hand when she sees blood leaking from underneath her. The warm blood dissolves the snow, forming a red pool, drowning her foot. She stares with unbelieving eyes..
The smell of mum's blood and end of things... Her ears stop hearing. Things now move in slow motion...