The bugle call would bring us together and the same bugle dismiss us — young soldiers stationed in the units of the first division attached to the Basra infantry training centre.
That morning the bugle brought us together but did not dismiss us. We marched on the double in military order under the orders of a NCO strutting like a duck to the weapons store, where he issued us with loaded rifles topped with gleaming bayonets. We were happy with the superior power we would enjoy in any clashes. That sunny day we did not fight, though. We only realised the purpose of our power less than a quarter of an hour later when the NCO, the ‘duck’, brandishing his swagger stick, dragged us to the training ground, where we were split up as we marched into two sections, to surround a group of pitiful, shaven creatures. They were sitting or standing under a blazing sun, waiting for hours to be sent to jails or the gallows in different parts of the country: regions that no one could identify because they were numbered and not to be found on any map except in the geography of the minds of some career secret officers who did not much care for any investigation of their beliefs about the meaning of punishment and its implementation — a matter that surpassed in importance and finality the creation and construction of the universe.
We had made a large circle around the victims, which no one could break through except for the extremely fat camp commander with a ring of gleaming stars, to deliver a short speech about bravery and cowardice. If some brave soul – a prisoner, no doubt, since he had no weapons – objected to the commander’s concept of bravery and weakness, he was rewarded with a fist that knocked him to the ground, an attack by kicking and blows with the butts of automatic rifles that made him beg the army boots to lay off him, even if he had to sleep with his mother. Unfortunately for him, it would only end in a far off place in which the last sounds of his death rattles and entreaties disappeared – entreaties that had made not a dent in a dark, disturbing, stony silence.
The prisoners had no names, only numbers. We were also numbers, with weapons. This made us praise our Lord for our happy fate and for our fortune as soldiers in the service of the pot-bellied commander who tended us just as he tended the spoiled cow that wandered around the camp. We were often forced to scoop up its dung from the camp yard and deposit it in the back garden of the officers’ mess, so that the soil would become richer and more fertile with the manure.
The thing that made us even prouder was our gleaming helmets, plus our sturdy state of health by comparison with the jaundiced creatures with features almost erased, in their torn khaki rags and worn out shoes, or dirty, bare feet that aroused pity. Yes, men without shoes aroused pity with their bare feet. That is what stuck in my mind when I saw people sitting with their legs stretched out as if to beg and plead for mercy.
We sorted and classified the prisoners, one after the other. Each military guard was assigned a single prisoner, it being his duty to escort him to his jail or to the gallows. At the same time, we were issued with neat, silver handcuffs. I remember reading ‘Made in Germany’ on their gleaming surface. I was approached by a thin prisoner with red, wandering eyes, who walked with difficulty, his hands groping for the air like a drunkard. His face was dark and his teeth were yellow. He stared at me meekly as if I was his father or master. What made him slower (as I found out) was his ripped, leaking shoes. He stretched his hands out to me and I handcuffed them with a guard’s enthusiasm.
His feeble, diseased appearance, his languid face, his slow movements and lack of energy, plus my own bodily energy and youth by contrast, made me feel more confident of taking him wherever I wanted and of getting the upper hand over him if he tried to resist or to disobey my orders. I was a soldier, full of love for his homeland and a remorseless eagerness for the fight, even a fight with ghosts if necessary. It was an illusion that quickly disappeared only hours after I’d entered the first battlefield, and fled from it at the first opportunity that came to me.
I led him to the office room as he stumbled along with head bowed. The idea occurred to me that I should undo his handcuffs. I could see that he was unbearably lonely. The man could hardly hold himself together, indeed, he collapsed more than once, and he was either ill or so worried as to be in despair. It seemed to me that handcuffing him was depriving him of the air’s support and his balance.
We entered a narrow brick room after a long wait in a longer queue, made up, strangely, of guards and prisoners. Each one was awaiting his turn to complete his papers. My turn came. A soldier was waiting behind a table with files and papers piled up on it. After questioning me, he began to register my number and the number of my prisoner. He handed me my commission on a printed piece of paper prepared in advance.
“Who should I deliver him to?” I asked.
“The instructions on the paper you’ve got are quite clear,” he said in a precise voice, looking straight at me.
“I meant, to whom exactly . . .” “To the responsible officer in his unit,” he replied nervously, “in the headquarters command to be precise, as in the address you’ve got.” Then he added ominously:
“The responsibility if the detainee escapes, whether you know it or not, will rest on your shoulders and you will have to take responsibility for the consequences – the same punishment as your prisoner has been sentenced to.”
The sun as I went out was bright and cheery, and the soldiers’ barracks on either side were like enormous tombstones sparkling in a quivering mirage.
I made my way with my prisoner to the front door of the organisation. There were military trucks lined up there, which took us all to the Suq al-Hunud bridge in Basra.
* * * *
I got my prisoner down from inside the army truck. He was so weak and feeble that I thought of carrying him. We walked towards the lorries going to the fortress railway station.
From time to time he would stop and stare at me indifferently. Finally, he leant against the wall of a house, almost bent double. I thought that he was going to fall or that he was struggling not to. He was incapable of going on, his legs were shaking. I undid my handcuffs and hung them on my belt, while my rifle rested loosely on my right shoulder.
“I can’t walk,” he whispered.
“Are you ill?” I asked him, quite upset.
A weak sound slipped from his throat. I thought he said: “It’s an emotional disturbance!”
His torn shoes were stopping him from walking. It seemed impossible to leave him to walk barefoot in this summer heat, for the ground was baking hot. I thought of taking him to a shoe shop and buying him shoes like helping a friend in trouble. At that moment, though, I wasn’t certain how friendly my feelings were – although I was certainly aware that my task was difficult and that I couldn’t be that negative. But that’s the way things are – buying shoes for a prisoner is like writing a poem while killing someone.
I chose the easiest way to resolve my conflicting feelings: to hire a taxi to the station. And that’s what happened – an ancient vehicle whisked us off to the fortress station with a long series of stories doled out to us by the driver about punishment and fate and all sorts of other nonsense. The station was almost empty, except for a few shadows, and the building was locked and in darkness. The rails gleamed, and the concrete floor appeared like squares of loneliness and death. We had come early, for the train left at eight in the evening, and the Iranian shelling on the city usually began just before or after this time.
What should I do with my hostage? I looked at the cabins set up near the building and arranged like roadblocks protected with sandbags. I noticed that they were dirty and empty, so we preferred to remain outside, occupying a green bench in need of repair by the station door, smoking as the silence enveloped us. I didn’t want to talk about the crime of this obscure companion of mine, or how severe his punishment was. Reminding him of them would make him feel even more miserable and desperate. I asked him the name of his district in Basra, though, to make him feel some slight affection that would tinge the last hours with him with a human touch. He replied, coldly and warily:
“I am from Mahallat al-Khandaq, and I killed an officer.”
I was surprised by the fullness of his answer. I knew that he had been found guilty of murder without knowing any details or the important stature of the victim.
“Why?” I asked, startled by his words.
At this point he cut the conversation short. It was a story that had now been forgotten.
“A long story, my friend!”
I gave him a cigarette. His hand was shaking as he gazed into space, seeing, perhaps, his story of murder.
I propped up my rifle beside me. I was fed up. I secured his right hand to the arm of the bench and began walking up and down, bored. Anyone seeing me would think that I was on guard duty. I wasn’t so much bothered about that as about finishing my duty. My prisoner dozed off, I felt thirsty and wished that a drinks seller would come, then began to look seriously for a tap to quench my thirst. I knocked on the station door, but no one opened. I knocked again. A young man in railway staff uniform opened the door and asked shyly: “What’s up?”
“I want a drink.”
“No. I’m on a job.”
He stretched out his viperous head, then disappeared inside his stone cubby hole, to re-emerge with a plastic cup full of tepid water. I sipped half of it, then woke the prisoner and asked him if he was thirsty. He shook his head, shut his eyes for a moment, and asked weakly, scarcely breathing: “I want to go to the toilet.”
I released his hand, and led him to one of the sandbagged cabins. I pointed to him where to go. He went behind the sandbags and I waited for him. When he re-emerged, he didn’t look at me but just went back to the bench like someone in a daze. He raised his hand for me to handcuff him again, while his eyes clouded over as if he had fainted. He soon dozed off again, his legs trembling slowly like the remnants of a spirit that was slipping from a body in the throes of death.
I was overcome by a deep distraction, preoccupied by questions of how this creature would meet his death, how he would face the death squad, and how this frail, flabby body would be crushed by the mass of blazing bullets.
I turned over my thoughts about the meaning of death without quite absorbing their significance. They were obscure and unintelligible. My charge snored, either in a deep sleep or unconscious, I don’t know which, as I stared at the first batches of travellers: soldiers on leave, soldiers being called up, villagers, merchants, whores, students, NCOs, and people just on the move.
Evening had descended like an enormous, grey bird. Tiredness, wariness, anxiety were all apparent on the faces of the travellers, as the train slowly sank into the station with its colossal bulk, dragging after it green carriages behind whose windows could be seen tired, thin faces that got off and disappeared quickly into the crowd as if wanting to escape from the station. The travellers prepared to get on silently, as if expecting the screech of air raid sirens from one moment to the next. No one turned around. Everyone looked ahead of him, rushing towards some obscure force as if it would decide his fate.
I urged on my prisoner, and he began to understand me instinctively. We plunged into the crowd. I helped him to climb into the carriage and followed blindly behind him. I grasped him by his shirt in the narrow corridor between the seats, and chose two empty seats at random. I sat him down and fastened him to the arm of the seat.
Eyes stared at us, and the yellow lights in the carriage gave me a feeling of relative calm. The carriage shook. We shuddered a little, then the metal of the wheels and the rails rubbed together in time with the sound of a long whistle, which gloomily announced that we were leaving the Basra fortress station. I was watching my lifeless companion beside me from time to time – quite unconcerned with his fate, so he seemed. His flabby lips were affected by traces of an apparent impediment, perhaps a disorder resulting from an illness.
I thought that the handcuffs were irritating him as he fidgeted about, looking for a position that would make him comfortable before he could get to sleep properly. I thought that I would give him a bit of relief for a time, for he was now confined by the sides of the carriage that was rushing on with incredible speed. This was quite apart from his thinness and his deathly movements. After he had dozed off completely, I undid his cuffs and slipped quietly towards the lavatory to relieve myself. I went in with my rifle hanging still on my back. The moment my bladder had finished emptying itself, I was staring from the little window at a darkness rushing backwards with the speed of lightning, sweeping deserts and villages along with it.
I was shaken by a powerful jolt, then the train suddenly stopped. I was afraid. I rushed out into the midst of the carriage. Agitated passengers faced me, with some military policemen, an officer and the ticket collector looking askance at me. A man who appeared to be a witness shouted out, brimming with fury: “The man who was with you ran away!”
Even before this tense announcement of his, I had realised that my companion, the murderer, had disappeared. The empty seat told me what a foolish, unfortunate position I was in. The window beside our seat was open, betraying alarm and treachery. The “witness” went on, in his morbid voice: “He threw himself from the window!”
The eyes stared at me. The officer shook his stick threateningly. I could hear a scream and a commotion flaring up in my head. My temples caught fire as I stared stunned into the chasm of the void. I seemed to be here by chance. I had to leave this circle of yelling.
“We used the hand brake to stop the train!”
I felt a powerful shove. The officer was reproaching me and pushing me. A civilian pulled at me with a swagger. I realised that he was from military intelligence as he piled in, shouting: “Throw him behind his dog!”
The carriage door was opened and I was kicked out. In front of me was darkness, and behind me the train. Above me was my rifle, and a ringing sound surrounded my shattered brain. The train moved off with its melancholy whistle, and strange, pitying, agitated, insane eyes examined me through the glass of the carriage windows, then disappeared with astonishing speed to continue their journey beyond the darkness that had descended over, around and under me with an oppressive finality.
I shuffled my feet, fingered my rifle, and slung it over my shoulder that was stinging me after the bruising to my back. One thing only drove me to go back: to find and arrest the fugitive. Otherwise, I would suffer the same fate as him. Fear came over me, as I considered all the possibilities, pushing the darkness from me, trying to banish it from the lights of my hopes.
An hour went by as I walked on, parallel to the track. There I found him lying on the ground, curled up in a ball like a sack, like a hope that appears after a lost struggle. I ran towards him, and turned him over. Blood was pouring from his nose.
“Get up,” I ordered him. “Get up, you wretch!”
He didn’t reply, just threw me a distant glance, reflected in his bloodshot, tearful eyes. The pain he was suffering was more than he could bear. I heard him, stifling the urge to scream in pain, say again: “My leg.”
I felt his legs. The right one was broken. My hands were wet with his blood, and the bone of his leg was protruding from his calf. He whispered: “You won’t leave me here. Death would be more merciful.”
I gritted my teeth without thinking: “No . . . never. You’ll be dead in either event.”
I lifted him onto my back and walked off, trying to find my way in the impenetrable darkness. From time to time I sat down to regain my breath and rest.
Should I spend the night walking, bearing my misfortune? Where was the nearest station, village or town? Or a military base or shepherds’ hut?
There was nothing here except night, desert, silence and fear. I had a mad idea: to stay near to the track and ambush the next train.
I waited more than two hours before I heard a loud noise approaching, and a rhythmic mechanical clanking hit the walls of the chasm of darkness. My companion was whining and writhing on the ground, curled up on himself like a child. I pointed my rifle.
The lights of the train appeared in the distance like a halo of light borne by an angel of mercy. The train approached, its noise grinding on my ears. I calculated the distance before it reached me precisely. I let off a long burst of gunfire in the air, before the train enveloped me in its enormous mass, making the darkness spin.
I fired a second burst but it continued on its way, dragging with it the air, the night, the noise and my last attempts, leaving behind silence, desolation and a ringing in my ears, with my curses running after it like a child racing madly after an uncaring father, always alone. That was my life. I thought that it was a good, fitting ceremony of mourning.
I threw the injured man over my back as if he was my fate and walked on. My rifle clung to my neck, hanging down over my chest, knocking against it gently as my steps wandered, reminding me that I was lost. The noise and light that appeared after I had walked for a time desperately searching for a glimpse of rescue, was not just a dream, or imagination, or delusion, but was actually real. I collapsed on the ground with my prisoner, while above us a strange shape surrounded us with a circle of light. A helicopter was hovering, watching us and enclosing us in a circle of blazing light. My feelings were confused, part amazement, part surprise, part relief that I was no longer lost.
We froze on the sand, bent double under the mercy of the sharp light. After a few stubborn minutes a vehicle approached, eating up the paths of the night with two blazing ribbons of light. It stopped beside us, and an officer and some soldiers got out. I stood up, greeted the officer, but he forestalled me and slapped me. Then the soldiers attacked me with their rifle butts. The injured man was kicked and trampled as the helicopter gathered up its light, and its buzzing dissolved in the folds of clouds touching stars that were bursting apart. The officer hurled his words furiously into the naked, leaden sky: “Soldiers or highwaymen! Dogs, sons of a bitch!”
Powerful hands seized me and put me into a sack. I think the same thing happened to my companion. Then they threw me onto a rough, metal surface that was the floor of the military truck. I felt a shudder, and the roar of an engine reached my ears. Then I felt a blow on the back of the head before losing consciousness.Translated by Paul Starkey
“Hallat Sa’at al-Massa Ta’ieran Ramadiyan” [Evening descended like a Bird] is a story from the author’s collection Kul ya Tawoosi hatta takbar, Dar al-Manfa, Sweden 1999.