The Reluctant TerroristIt's noon and the market is packed. Men in simple clothes carry bushels of produce, meat, and fish and baskets of dry-goods. Women, some veiled, others burka-ed but most simply wearing head scarves, haggle from both sides of rickety, make-shift tables. Incessant streams of people slowly squeeze past one another in every direction; many holding satchels or babies, with an occasional goat in tow. Buyers wave, sellers holler. The chaotic white-noise makes speechless thought unnecessary if not impossible.
Amal works his way through the crowds. Wearing a baggy wool coat, hands buried deep in its pockets, elbows straightened with high, tight shoulders. His chin tucked low he assumes a chilly posture though he's sweating like a team of malarial oxen in full yoke. He's a tiny man made even smaller by his slouch. The face on his large, balding head is all sad, sagging features and big glasses. His mind is elsewhere.
“What am I doing?” he mumbles to himself, a dynamite stick chaffing his right armpit. “A silk lining; now is that too much to ask?! Allah forbid I'm comfortable in my moment of martyrdom,” he fumes under his breath, tugging through the jacket pockets at the suicide vest hidden under his shirt. “One size fits all, my foot! It figures. They can recruit thousands of militants from a global network and not one decent tailor.”
Bumped hard from behind, Amal throws a startled glance backward, then a disgusted one forward at a heavy, scarved woman blocking his way, her arms full of raw fish. “Ugh. I feel nauseous,” he complains aloud, shouldering his way around the woman and her slimy, odorous load. “I should have guessed something was up at the Baghdad job fair. Never pick the only employment booth without a line.”
“Opportunity for advancement! they said. Paid on-the-job training! Company car! What baloney! I feel like such a rube. Any time a company fronts its 'excellent death benefits' in the placement ad it's not a good sign.”
A large man passing close in the other direction glances inadvertently at Amal, double-taking in quasi-recognition. Instantly he stops and turns, grabbing Amal's shoulder with gape-mouthed expression of disbelief. Stooping and crouching to catch Amal's downcast gaze, he thrusts his face close. Grabbing both of Amal's shoulders the man stands fully upright squaring himself at arm's length. He towers over Amal, and tucking his chin into his neck, smiles down at him. “I thought that was you! Allah Acbar! It's been ages! Tell me! How've you been?!” he asks ebulliently, a dark beard framing his warm, broad, toothy grin.
Frightened at first, Amal smiles and nods nervously. “Oh. Yes. Allah Acbar. Allah Acbar to you, too.”
“It's Hallish,” he reminds Amal, shaking him by the shoulders slightly as if trying to physically jog his memory.
“No, I know. Of course, I know,” Amal lies.
“From the old neighborhood? Remember? Rock fights? Street ball?”
“Yes, I know. Street fights. Rock ball...”
“You were such a terrible goal keeper!”
“It's been years. How have you been?”
“Oh, you know...”
“It's so funny because I just ran into your aunt.” Hallish raises his gaze, scanning above the crowd for a moment. “She was over by the laying hens...”
Amal looks tentatively in the same direction while simultaneously shrinking even lower into the crowd.
Waving now, “If I could just catch her eye I'll wave her...”
“NO!” Amal startles, then changes tone, “No. No, she's busy shopping. Don't bother. I... I see her all the time. Really.”
“Hmm... She had a hard time remembering when she saw you last.”
“Oh? Well, you know aunts. They always want you to stop by more often. Right?” Amal covers adding a nervous laugh.
“Of course, of course. Anyway, she said she heard from your mother you landed some great new job.”
“Oh? Well, you know... I... Great? I don't know. Maybe...”
Interrupting, “And how is your mother, by the way?”
“Fine. Fine. She's good. You know.”
“I remember those wonderful cakes she would make. Does she still?”
“Cakes? Sure. From time to time. She...”
Again interrupting, “Well give her my best will you, Arfan? Listen, I've gotta get going but it was great bumping into you. Oh, and tell that brother of yours, Amal, he still owes me fifty dinar from backgammon six years ago. I haven't forgotten. That guy really is a piece of work, you know? Well anyway. Take care. Allah Acbar!”
As Hallish plunges back through the crowd Amal fumes, sweating even more profusely now. “Hallish. What a jerk! I had half a mind to punch him in the face. Didn't even recognize me. And I don't owe him a cent. Not a cent... Certainly not fifty dinar... Not a cent over twenty. And it looks like he could have used a few less cakes over the years.” Craning his neck he scans over the crowd for a moment, slouches back down and pushes forward, anonymous again.