The Iraqi Nights

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In the first year of war, they play “bride and groom” counting everything on their fingers: the faces reflected in the rivers, the waves that take them and disappear, and the names of the newborns. Now the war grew up and created a new game: The winner returns from the journey alone, full of stories of the killed ones, of the flutters of wings passing over their broken trees. He has to pull their hills of dust so lightly nobody should notice it. The winner wears a necklace of half metal heart and the task after that is to forget the other half. The war got old and left the letters and calendars and newspapers getting yellow with the news, the numbers, and the players’ names. Five centuries have passed since Scheherazade told her tale. Baghdad fell, they took me to the underworld. I watch the shadows as they pass behind the wall, not one of them looks like Tammuz. He will cross thousands of miles for the cup of tea I will pour by my hand. I don’t want the tea to get cold. Worse than death is a cold tea. I would not find this cracked jar if I was not lonely enough to think of every glitter a gold. Inside the jar is the magical herb always sought by Gilgamesh. I will show it to Tammuz when he arrives. We will go as quickly as a camera’s flash to the seven continents of the world. Everyone who smells the herb will get cure or liberation or the secret word. I don’t want Tammuz to come too late for my urgent song. When Tammuz arrives I give him also all the lists I collected to pass the time: lists of food, books, lost friends, favorite songs, cities one must see before death, lists of ordinary things with notes to prove we are alive. As if I hear music in the arch of the boat. As if I smell the river the lily the fish. As if I touch the skies falling from “I love you.” As if I see those small notes to be read again and again. As if I live the life of birds carrying their feathers only. The earth rotated again around the sun, and no cloud, no wind, no countries passed through my eyes. My shade imprisoned in Aladdin’s lamp reflects a picture of the world and you in it, light passing through a needle’s eye, scribbles in cuneiform, hidden ways to the sun, dry clay, Ottoman still cup, gigantic pomegranate with seeds scattered all over Uruk. In Iraq after one thousand and one nights, someone will talk to someone else. Markets will be open for regular customers. Little feet will tickle the giant feet of the Tigris River. Birds will spread their wings and nobody will shoot them. Young women will walk in the streets and nobody will kidnap them. Older women will not look back in fear. Men will say their real names without danger. Children will go to school and come back home. Chickens in the village will not peck human body parts on the grass. People will argue without suicide attacks. A cloud will pass over cars that go to work as usual. A hand will wave to someone leaving or someone coming back. The sun will rise equally for those who wake up and for those who never do. And every day something ordinary will happen under the sun. Dunya Mikhail, born in Iraq in 1965, worked as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer. Facing increasing threats from the Iraqi authorities, she fled to Jordanand then the United States. In 2001 she was awarded the un Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. Her honors also include the Kresge Artist Fellowship (2013), Arab American Book Award (2010), and pen Translation Fund Award (2004). Mikhail has six books in Arabic. In English, she has The War Works Hard and Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (both by New Directions). The Iraqi Nights (New Directions) is forthcoming. She currently lives in Michigan and works as an...

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