When his grandpa drew a yogurt moustache on his lips, Alan dissolved into giggles. Picturing himself with real whiskers thrilled Alan who needed to grow facial hair to make up for being shorter than other boys in his class.
“Your laughter woke me up, you cheeky monkey!” Uncle Karo patted Alan on the back as he came onto the patio that opened to the yard.
They sat around a nylon cloth spread on a crimson handmade rug to eat breakfast. Alan’s other uncles were still in bed.
He laughed again. “Bapir, I want handlebars, please.”
With a chapped finger, Bapir curled the end of the yogurt moustache on Alan’s puckered-up lips and planted some of the stuff on his nose too. Alan collapsed into laughter. From the days when he would lift Alan up, holding his feet on his palm, until that June morning in 1963, Bapir had been the most amusing person on earth. Perhaps he was the reason Alan adored older people and loved to listen to their stories of mama rewi, the trickster coyotes. It hurt Alan to see that most people with grey hair weren’t able to read or write; their backs hurt, and their dry hands trembled. His dream job was to read stories into a loudspeaker for hundreds of elders who’d be thoroughly charmed while relaxing in a large meadow filled with purple and red flowers.
“Our monkey is growing up, and yet we all treat him as if he were a young child!” Uncle Karo said and bit on a morsel of the bulletproof sandwich—made with fresh honeycomb mixed with ghee, and thin round bread that Grandma had baked that morning. She was now watering the pink roses and white lilies of the small garden in the yard of their tiny compound. Alan’s other uncles were still in bed.
“One’s grandchild is always young. That’s just how it is.” Bapir wiped crumbs from his lap. He winked. “If I were you, Alan, I would make it so I never grew up.” “Growing up is a trap.” Grandma nodded.
“But I like the future,” Alan said.
Karo said, “That’s the darnedest thing to say.”
“Things only a six-year-old can say.” Bapir splashed a kiss on Alan’s face, his stubble pointy and sharp.
Still wearing his yogurt moustache, Alan frowned. “I am seven!”
They crackled. The sun of Kurdistan was shining generously over the city of Sulaimani. Behind the wall that surrounded Bapir’s compound, eight more attached brick houses sat back to back on this street, each lodging a family of nine to twelve people. Alan’s mother had been left in charge of the house in the city of Halabja, an hour away. At this time of the day, in her light mauve dress, she would be scattering seeds for the chickens. One of his three brothers would be watching over the grazing sheep on the slope across from their farm. If Alan were home, he would pick pomegranates from their trees and walk up the green hills with his brothers and their twelve sheep.
Alan had wanted to see Bapir and so had to get an A in Kurdish spelling to convince his father to let him visit. But Kurdish was not a subject taught at school: Arabic was the only language used there. Father had been trying to teach him and his two other brothers to write in their mother tongue, something Alan saw no use for. Father was now in town to find someone to publish the article he’d written with his brother to illustrate the suffering of the working class in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. He had skipped his breakfast to search the city for a typewriter—contraband in those years.
Across the yard, Grandma started soaping a stain on a white shirt, when a pounding on the wooden gate rattled the cement wall surrounding their plot of land and shattered her concentration. She rose, pulled her white headscarf forward, placed a hand on her hip and walked toward the gate. She winced.
“I’ll get it.” Alan ran to the yard to save her the trouble, but before he reached the door, six men in Iraqi army uniforms, their faces hidden by striped grey scarves, snapped the lock and directed their Kalashnikovs at Grandma’s face. “Where are they?” the shortest of them demanded.
Bapir froze, a morsel of honey and ghee still in his open mouth. Alan turned to watch Uncle Karo who tried to escape over the neighbouring flat roof. Somebody grabbed Alan and backed him toward the house.
In the safety of Grandma’s bosom, Alan watched the soldiers invade the house without waiting for an answer. Before Alan’s uncles knew what was happening, all six of them were pulled from their beds or hauled from the bathroom, the basement, a closet, and off the roof. Shaking with fear in Grandma’s arms, Alan wiped his white handlebars with his sleeve as he tried to make sense of the chaos, the jerky
movements, the incomprehensible, animal-like noises escaping people’s throats. Only if his eyes would give him weapons instead of tears. His uncles were dragged by the neck, screaming and struggling, like animals to slaughter. Neither Bapir’s questions and prayers, Grandma’s cries and pleas, nor the neighbours’ screams and curses—nothing had the slightest effect on the soldiers who conducted the raid without reply. Alan’s uncles, some still in undershirts, were marched out at gunpoint to an army truck carrying Kurdish boys and men between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Alan peeled himself from Grandma’s arms, running to the street. The men were told to squat in the bed of the truck, to place hands on heads, to shut their mouths. Alan looked back at Bapir who remained next to his smashed gate, head bowed. Along with other children, women, and the elderly, Alan chased after the lumbering truck, its huge rubber tires kicking up a cloud of dust as it carried away the men and the anxious cries of the followers. That day more young men in the city were rounded up and frogmarched through the streets before being taken to the hill. Alan trailed after the truck to the hillside at the city centre. His heart had never beaten so fast. On the hard soil, the captives were each given a shovel and ordered to dig. “Ebn-al-Ghahba,” spat the soldiers. Son of a whore. The angry bystanders were ordered to fuck off, stand back, and watch. People obeyed the AK-47s. Dirt sprayed over the prisoners’ bodies, hair, and eyelashes as their shovels cracked the earth open. Sweat dripped down their faces and tears ran over hands that muffled sobs. No one dared to guess what the next order might be. Alan looked at the pee running down the pants of a boy next to him, at the woman behind him clawing her face, calling out “God, God, God, God, God, God,” at an older man shaking out of control with a hand barely holding a crutch, but Alan wasn’t Alan anymore. The bulletproof sandwiches saved no one. Once the trenches were dug, half of the prisoners were ordered to climb down into the graves, and the rest were forced to shovel dirt up to their friends’ and relatives’ chins. Bapir finally made his way to the top of the hill, scanned the crowd and found Alan in the first row of spectators, chewing his thumbnail as he watched. Alan begged his grandpa to stop the cruelty. Bapir hugged him. “They will be released in a few days, these young men.” He pressed Alan’s head to his chest. “They will be sent back home, Bawanem, maybe with blisters and bruises, but they will be all right. Pray for them.” His hands trembled as he squeezed Alan’s. “May it rain before these men die of thirst.”
Alan searched the crowd to find Uncle Karo with a pile of dirt on his shovel. Karo’s grip released when he looked into the eyes of Jiyar, his younger brother, who stood in the hole, waiting to be buried by his closest relative, a man with whom he’d play-wrestled as a boy and confided in throughout his life. “Do it, Karo.” Jiyar’s eyes shone up from the hole. A bearded soldier dressed in camouflage saw Karo’s hesitation. “Kalb ebn-al-Kalb”— Dog, son of a dog— he barked and swung his Kalashnikov at Karo, the barrel piercing the skin under his left ear. Karo growled, almost choking, as he turned. With his shovel, he batted the Kalashnikov away and the gun hit its owner in the head, cutting through his scalp. Alan flinched. Bullets rained from every direction. Karo crumbled. His blood sprayed over Jiyar, who was screaming and reaching for the perforated body, pulling him forward, pressing his face to the bleeding cheek of his brother. Alan was not able to move. Crying out, Bapir ran toward his sons but dozens of guns pointed at his chest, dozens of hands held him back. The shower of gunfire wouldn’t cease, striking the hugging siblings, painting them and the soil around them red. At the top of the hill, Alan clutched Bapir’s hunched shoulders and felt impossibly small. That afternoon his uncles, still in each other’s arms, were buried in the same hole. Half of the prisoners were now covered up to their chins with dirt. The remaining ninety-five men were forced to enter the last holes as the soldiers finished the job. Alan stared at the rows upon rows of human heads in a garden of agony. Between sobs, Bapir had no time to breathe. His face had turned purple. The show was over but the crowd would not disperse. Intoxicated with power, soldiers kicked the exposed heads of the prisoners, knocked some with the butts of their guns and jeered at them. A sunburnt man, a neighbour with shrunken features, hugged the pale Bapir, placing the old man’s trembling arm on his shoulders and walked him down the hill. Alan wanted to go with his grandpa but he could not move. He was afraid the nightmare he was in would become real if he went home. The hubbub was dying down among the drained crowd. Eye contact with others became a solace, the only comfort, since the strangers now had a shared trauma. “Did you see what happened? Can you believe it?” But the head movements were all in slow motion, as if everyone was now hanging under the water.
Alan breathed the air of quiet horror and paused hysteria. “Calm down,” an old man tried to turn a young boy onto his side who was having a seizure in a pool of piss. Suddenly a group cried out in terror. From the road below them, several armoured tanks advanced. Gaping in disbelief, Alan took a few steps back, held a hand on his mouth. He could neither run away nor slow his hammering heart now threatening to explode. When the panicking crowd pushed forward, guns fired into the air to hold them back. “British tanks,” someone in the crowd yelled. The giant tanks moved closer and closer to the buried-alive men. Alan saw more than his mind was able to process. The screams, curses, pleas, and the devilish laughter of the soldiers made their way to his ears. It took an agonizingly long time for the tanks to pulverize the heads of the prisoners. He breathed incomplete and unhelpful breaths. The metallic stench of blood, of crushed human flesh and skull, the foul odour of death, made its way to the spectators’ nostrils and throats. The lucky ones threw up. Alan did not. While the giant metal treads ground Kurds into nothingness, Bapir lay in bed at home, tossing in anguish, a hand still on his pounding chest. His wife by his bedside shed silent tears. Although they had not been witness to the crushing of their sons, they collapsed of broken hearts, one after another. Someone had gone to find a doctor. Father arrived at his parents’ home, with his typed article tucked under his shirt, coming home via an unusual road to safeguard his treasure, and thus oblivious to the tragedy. The joy of achievement and hope for his people were glowing in his eyes when he found his parents on their deathbed. In bits and pieces, the neighbours informed him that the Ba’ath soldiers—ordered by President Aref and Prime Minister Al-Baker—had punished the Kurds for daring to demand autonomy. This desire had turned them into objects-to-be-annihilated, no longer human. Kurds, the Mede descendants by some accounts, had settled in Zagros Mountain three hundred years before Christ was born. Despite their ancient history, Alan’s people had no country to call their own. Bapir had told him how after the first World War, allies drew the map of the Middle East in accordance with their interest, cutting Kurdistan into four pieces, dividing it between Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Father ran to the hill where the children gathered and clung to each other; a group of adults wailed and cried, threw dirt into their hair, and beat their faces in terror. Another group stared away in a daze, suspended in time.
“Look. The British bastards are arming Baghdad to kill us. Look. Their planes, their goddamn firebombs and mustard gas that killed Iraqis forty years ago are now killing us,” Father said to no one in particular as he joined the women and a few elderly men who tearlessly buried the unidentifiable crushed heads and laid down, nameless stones in row after row. Alan and other children picked wild flowers and pink roses from the slope of the hill, placing them in rows too. Alan sucked on the blood dripping down his index finger, torn by the rose thorns. A wild urge dominated his soul, to be anywhere-buthere until he grew muscles and acquired weapons to revenge. “Alan!” cried a woman whom Alan did not recognize. Three other boys had turned when the name was called and one ran to the woman. Meaning “flag bearer,” Alan was a popular Kurdish name, testifying to what was expected of the children of a stateless nation who had to fight non-existence.