Finally, I lost my temper. “Why all this disorder?” I shouted in Arabic. “Why are we late? Why aren’t we leaving? Why are we split up in three taxis?’’ The commotion attracted the depot supervisor, and finally everything got sorted out. A fourth passenger showed up, and when I offered to pay the fare for a fifth, we were finally on our way. The sign on the depot wall listed the fare for Amman as 460 lira, or about $9, but the driver charged us each 500, plus 200 more for my luggage.
When we reached the duty-free store near the Jordanian border, the driver asked for my fare, in dollars. While we waited in the car, he ran in, soon emerging with four cartons of Marlboros and Winstons. These he distributed to the passengers before we crossed the border, and then collected from us once we cleared Jordanian customs. A few miles inside Jordan, he pulled over at a grocery store and money exchange, and sold the cigarettes, netting himself a five-hundred-lira (ten-dollar) profit.
From the taxi terminal in my sister’s adopted home of Amman, I called Ali and Hassan Jaber, sons of a friend of mine. Haji Jaber, originally from Nasiriyah, lives now in Fridley, and he asked me to deliver gifts to his boys, whom he has not seen for seven years. They met me at the terminal, gave me a ride, and helped me check in at a hotel. Then we spent the next few hours trying to find my sister Bushra, her husband Atta, and their six children.
They had emigrated from Iraq to Jordan in 2001. After two of their children died in infancy during the period of the sanctions, Bushra and Atta had scraped together enough money to pay the exit fees. But her old phone number in Amman no longer worked, and after several futile attempts to track her down, we gave up. I entrusted Ali and Hassan with the money I had planned to give her in person. When they finally found her, days later, she cried and cried, sad to have missed me. (After I returned to Minneapolis, I learned from Haji Jaber that, a few weeks after I saw them, Ali and Hassan were robbed at gunpoint of all their belongings in their Amman apartment. Penniless, and with expired visas, they had no choice but to return to Iraq.)
We broke the Ramadan fast at a small restaurant near the taxi depot, run by an Iraqi from my hometown of Najaf. The flavors were rich with memories: juicy ground lamb kebabs dripping with fat, aromatic Iraqi rice, eggplant, lamb shank served on bread soaked with gravy. The bread was the flat Iranian-style bread of my youth, before Saddam kicked out all the Iranians, when nearly all the bakers in Najaf were Persian. Our dinner ended with chai sangeen, strong sweet tea, and I was the last to leave the table.
I had already paid for a room for the night, but since we couldn’t find my sister, I was eager to get on the road, as soon as we could find a trustworthy driver. Ali and Hassan suggested their friend Kareem, but he was already booked; he recommended his friend Uday. I joked and said, “I thought Uday was dead.” Kareem laughed and said, “That’s a good one.”
“The regular price is $180,” Uday told me. “But I am only going to charge you $150.” Later I learned that the going rate from Amman to Iraq is $80 to $100. Drivers that are in Jordan from Iraq usually have customers in the outbound direction, and they are forced to return empty. So if they get a passenger on the return trip, they are lucky.
We called my youngest sister, Samiah, in Karbala to tell her that I was on my way, and she begged me to wait until dawn so that I would travel through Iraq in daylight. In the background, I heard her husband, Sayed Jamal, saying the same: “Make sure he doesn’t travel in the dark!” (Sayed means “mister”; we always call him that, because he is a direct descendent of the Prophet.) But I was impatient. I asked Uday, “Do you mind if we leave now?” And he said it was up to me. I couldn’t wait. I believe in my fate. I believe it is written.
Uday, an Iraqi from Nasiriyah, was about six feet tall and in his twenties, energetic and a good driver. The first four hours of the drive to the Iraqi border were uneventful, and with my American passport, we cleared Jordanian immigration quickly, while hundreds of others waited for permission to leave the country. Once inside Iraq, Uday maneuvered the ’91 Chevy Caprice through three lanes of eastbound traffic like it was an obstacle course, swerving sharply to dodge debris and road kill (which, he explained, might be booby-trapped), and staying as far as possible from the shoulder, to avoid roadside mines that could be detonated by remote control.
Before we’d left, Uday had advised me to conceal my cash, in case of armed robbery. There was a calculated risk here—I didn’t know whether I could trust Uday, and hiding the cash somewhere in the car would do no good if robbers stole the vehicle. So I taped half my cash to the inside of the brake light in the back window and kept the rest in my pocket. Robberies are frequent on the Amman-Baghdad highway, so cars often travel in convoys at very high speed to reduce the risk.
Most of the robberies are in the eastbound lane, because travelers headed into Iraq often carry large amounts of cash and valuable gifts and merchandise. But when you leave Iraq, you have nothing, so they don’t rob you. They are clever. If you have an SUV, you pretty much get robbed no matter what. A barrier divides much of the six-lane highway, so some cars race east to Baghdad in the westbound lanes. That reduces their risk of robbery, but it increases the risk of accidents, especially at night.
As we raced along at up to 90 miles an hour, Uday assumed the role of a tour guide. This pile of wreckage was the remains of a Syrian bus struck by an American missile; those bright lights in the distance were a coalition air base. Coming up on our right, the city of Ramadi, Khaldia, then Fallujah, and on the left, Abu Ghraib, home of the infamous prison. I wondered why we saw no coalition forces on the highway, and Uday said that since the attacks by the Iraqi resistance began, they no longer patrol this highway after dark.
Uday was robbed once himself, not on this highway, but farther south, on a stretch between Bat-ha and Nasiriyah, where the freeway has not been completed. The road curved to the right, and he had to brake suddenly to avoid a palm-tree trunk lying across the road. Two gunmen jumped out, pointing their machine guns at him, and ordered him out of his car. Next they ordered him to lie down on his stomach, tied his hands behind his back and searched him, taking his wallet and everything in his pockets and his car.
Cars kept coming; drivers saw the robbery in progress and honked their horns. Then farmers in the area heard the noise, so they started shooting. That made the two robbers flee. They must have been farmers from the area, said Uday; nobody would attempt this kind of robbery on foot unless they had a hideaway nearby. Somebody from another car untied him, then they moved the tree trunk, and he drove to the next village. When he arrived there in his car, which had been spotted at the crime scene, some of the villagers suspected he was one of the robbers.
In Karbala, my sister Samiah, her husband, and my nephews and nieces greeted me with hugs and tears, and a homecoming feast that was all the more abundant because it was Iftar, the meal that ends the fast each night of Ramadan. In the old days, the tradition was to kill a lamb to honor a visitor, but because of the war and the sanctions, they couldn’t afford a lamb. Instead my sister killed a chicken, and following tradition, I jumped over it. Samiah was my kid sister, the youngest in the family. Because my father was away when she was born, working in Kuwait, I had the honor as the oldest son of naming her, and I named her Samiah, after myself. When I had last seen her, she was ten years old, and I remembered her as a beautiful young girl. Now she looked weary, haggard, much older than thirty-nine.
Our Iftar feast began with burek—savory meat pies filled with ground lamb, onion, and spices, followed by kubeth hameth, dumplings of ground lamb and bulgur cooked in a sour lemon-flavored soup. Then came the sacrificial chicken, fried Kentucky-style in my honor, and a masgouf, a whole carp, baked in the oven, and tepsi, eggplant with lamb and tomatoes, aromatic Iraqi rice, okra cooked in tomato sauce, pickled vegetables, and fasenjoon, an Iranian dish of chicken with walnuts and pomegranate juice, all washed down with dogh, sour buttermilk.
Samiah’s kids, Leila, Lubna, Luma, and Mustafa, asked a lot of questions about their cousins. I told them about my son Saif, who is studying at the National Technical School for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. My second son, Saad, is in his second year at UMD, and the youngest, Tarik, is a freshman at Spring Lake Park High School.
The next day, all seven of us piled into Sayed Jamal’s ’94 Hyundai for the hourlong drive to Najaf, where my other sisters live and where my mother is buried. Samiah, Leila, and Lubna sat in the back seat, while Luma and Mustafa fought over who would get to sit in front—in Uncle Sami’s lap. Unlike the two older girls, the two youngest, born during the time of the sanctions, are tiny, with thin, fragile bones. There are no seatbelt laws in Iraq, or seatbelts, either, and traffic accidents are a daily event.
As we entered Najaf, we saw a sad sight. In the seventies, the government had planted a green belt of trees around the city. After the war, when there was a lot of looting, the trees were all chopped down for firewood. Now all that remained was a forest of stumps. The air in Najaf is smoggy, reeking of diesel exhaust and sewage. There are flies everywhere.