Friday, March 30, 2007

The Corner of The Doomed

Baghdad, like many of the world's big cities used to be alive, day and night. In spite of wars, economic sanctions, brutal regimes, Baghdad used to compete with cities like New York, which is known as the city that never sleeps. All kinds of goods were available and all kinds of shops can be reachable. Pharmacies, shops, bars, bakkeries, clubs, offices, you name it, many stay open till late night and some close around sunset, but open very very early. The baghdadis have a habit of teh desire to go out and socialize with each other around the year. There is no speific season for that, and no specific age group for taht either. The afternoon time, before sunset is regarded as the peak. Women go for visits, they either sit together in the garden of their host, or in the living room. Neighbors go for short visit to each other, many have a habit of standing at the outside door of the house and keep on having different conversations. Young girls and boys used to go for a walk in twos or threes or fours to the shops near by and spend the time talking while walking around in the neighborhood. Kids used to gather in small groups too, each group play their favorites games at a corner of one of the houses at the cross-road of two branch streets in the neighborhood. The same goes for teenagers and even adults who made their own meeting points at similar corners close to their houses. In many neighborhoods, the corner of a certain group became like the property of that group. Everyone in the neighborhood knows that this corner is where that group always meet. It was not hard for mothers to look for her son, in this case, because she knows that her son is with his group at that particular spot. During secondary school, I had my own group too, and we had our specific corner to meet, talk and spend time with each other from the afternoon to late hours of the night.

We used to call it ‘the corner of the doomed’, or ‘the corner of guys with bad luck’. The reason for me and a number of boys from the same neighborhood used to call our meeting point like this simply and generally because we considered ourselves at that time to be possessed with bad fortune regarding life and future. We had dreams of the future, but we were certain that our dreams were far from being reachable. However, we never considered ourselves as pessimistic or desperate or anything similar to such, and we were determined to enjoy every minute we spend with each other. One of the main events took place, which made an impact on the way our group made was when we graduated from secondary school. In Iraq, joining university in certain study field depends on the grades someone makes in the final baccalaureate exams. All of us studied very hard, and we had our expectations of the grades we might get from the final exams, but none of us did get the study field we dreamed of.

The person who came up with the name ‘corner of the doomed’ or ‘corner of guys with bad luck’ was the most outspoken guy among us, Hasan. He was a very tall, had a dark skin, with very tired dark brown eyes and curly hair. His father died during the Iraq-Iran war, an event that devastated him and his family altogether. He was not only the most outspoken person among us, but also the one who always comes with the most hilarious jokes. In fact he used to throw jokes in the middle of any conversation that made us explode laughing.

Omar was another guy in the group. He was a very short thin guy, as if he is ill or something. When people see him they wonder if he ever ate food in his life, but in fact Omar was a guy with a huge appetite. He was Hasan’s closest friend, we all had great friendship with each other but Omar and Hasan were like blood brothers. They also laugh a lot, and find any opportunity to have fun. Omar was an extreme person in the way he really manipulates any kind of conversation to make it laughable.

Mazin, was the contrast to Omar and Hasan regarding size! He was the fat boy with baby face, and he was known for his bad temper. He was a type of a guy who likes to show off and tell strange stories which for the rest of group were a little bit over the top of reality – sometimes exaggerated. Despite that, everyone loved him, because there was no harm coming from him with such stories.

The fourth guy was Zyad, a very handsome blonde guy, with little freckles on his cheeks and under his eyes, which made his blue eyes like glowing because of the shades these dark freckles were making. He was always with roasted sunflower seeds in his pockets. Zyad was a new guy in the group, one year only before joining our group since his family moved to our neighborhood. His father is Iraqi, whom I have never seen him, only once – he is always out for work, and his mother was from another country. Mazin and Omar introduced Zyad to the group and from the first moment he was like we know him for years. However, Zyad was most of the time busy with his family, so we don’t see him that often compare that with the other guys. His family depended on him a lot for shopping or bringing them from a place to the other. Sometimes he sneaks minutes before going out of home, and have a little talk with us while his mother, sister and little prepare to get out and wait for him in the car.

In addition to the five of us, there was a boy called Nebeel who used to join us for a little period of time. He was the neighbor of Zyad. From the beginning we all realized the real reason behind Nebeel’s desire to join our group. Nebeel used to hang out with another group of boys, much younger in age. He wanted to prove to them that he is a man and has been accepted by older guys like us in the neighborhood. In addition, Nebeel was the eldest among his brothers and sisters, and his father has put a lot of ego in him, which turned into a sort of arrogance, too much for a boy in his age! It didn’t last that long, unfortunately, for Nebeel to realize that he was not welcome, and gradually he started to pull himself out of the group and get back to his old group. He hated us for that!

There were other guys from the neighborhood who joined us and didn’t like our company. Some stayed longer than the other, but the five of us remained as the permanent members of the doomed boys!

After the end of the final baccalaureate exams we thought that we should take care of our health and do some sporting: by go jogging, doing exercises using weights and other types of exercises. I noticed how Mazin was the most motivated among us, because he was thinking of losing weight. Omar and Hasan were doing it for fun more than anything else, Ayad did not like the idea that much, but he joined us. There were two other guys from our neighborhood, both named Mohammed, wanted to do the jogging part with us, and a cousin of mine who is obsessed with sport and fitness also joined. Every night, at around 10 or 11PM we used to meet at the door steps of my house, with shorts, t-shirts, tracksuits and sport shoes. We used to go jogging from my house towards the main street, run outside our neighborhood and around it for one hour (sometimes more) then back to the same spot. Each one of us managed to bring fitness tools and gadgets with him. We used to put all of them together in the garden of my house before the jogging and when we finish jogging we take them out and begin doing exercises. We kept on doing that almost for the whole summer before stopping due to being occupied with the papers and procedures of enrolling ourselves into university.

Omar was very proud of his father’s new car, a big American milky Chevrolet. One evening we decided to go for a ride around Baghdad at night. It was the five of us, plus other guys from the neighborhood and a cousin of mine. In that case, Omar’s father car was not enough for all of us, so I took my car, Zyad took his car and we drove through the gorgeous streets of Baghdad. We went to Al Karrada, to Al Mansoor, through the highways around Al Ghadeer. We lost each other somewhere near Zeyyone district, but we found each other on Palastine Street where Omar parked his car. Zyad was parking behind him. All of them were out of their cars, the music of Adel Ugla’s ‘choby’ was coming out loud from Omar father’s car and all of them were dancing. I stopped my car behind Zyad’s and joined the dancing party till the song finished and like children we jumped back in our cars after deciding on the next stop. We went to a small café in Al Wazeerya, which opened recently at that time. It was around 1am and all of us decided to drink fruit cocktails. It was refreshing on that hot summer night. Afterwards we decided to take another ride in Al Adhamiyah, some thought of having a mixed grill in the open area opposite the mosque of Abu Haneefa, but we decided that it was too late so we continued our way back to our doomed corner. Each one of us parked their cars in the garage of their houses and rejoined the group for another hour before one after the other start yawning and the chitchat becomes less and less.

We love music, so much! We used to exchange audio and video tapes of different kinds of music. Mazin and Hasan shared with me love for hard-rock and heavy metal music, but they were not die hard fans for such music genre as I am. Zyad loves Turkish music and pop music of bands like A-Ha and Modern Talking. Omar was more into pop Iraqi music, such as of Adel Ugla, Ismael Al Farwachy, Raed George and others. We used to sit either in one of our cars and listen to an album or someone brings a small stereo player (mostly it was Omar) and listens to the music we love. Sometime, we used to go to each other’s houses when all family members are out. We spend a nice evening together listening to music and chitchatting about everything till we hear the main door open or notice the lights of the car signaling us to call the night off. I remember how Hasan once asked us to come to his house after his family went out to visit his aunt. Omar has just got a copy of the first Adel Ugla album and Hasan wanted us to go to his house and listen to it. While the music was playing we were staring at each other with astonishment because of the nice music arrangements and the melody of the songs on that album. The same thing happened on a number of occasions at Omar’s house, especially when his father is out with his new wife – Omar’s mother died in an accident when he was a little child.

Speaking of music, Hasan was very thrilled when he bought his new guitar from a relative. He was so eager to play western music such as of the Eagles, but he also wanted to play Iraqi songs of Adel Ugla and Ilham al Madfay. He asked me one afternoon to bring my guitar and meet at Mazin’s house with the rest of the group. We sat in the garden and we tried to play. After a little, Hasan could not hide his great frustration when discovered how bad quality his guitar was made of. He stopped playing, turned the guitar quickly on its side, and began playing with his fingers the rhythm of the song I was playing on my own guitar. We laughed very loud of the speed he turned the guitar into a percussion, he shrugged, a big smile on his face and said “why I am not surprised? Aren’t we the guys with bad luck?”

During summer we decided to go to the forests of Mosul, in the north of Iraq. We decided to go by train. This time, two other friends from the neighborhood joined us. It was a wonderful trip in the meaning of the word. At night we took taxis to Baghdad central station, we wanted to take the night train so we arrive early in the morning, take a tour in central Mosul and from there we go to the forests. There were no empty seats, because the train was packed with soldiers either going back on leave or re-joining their units somewhere. We sat on the floor between two compartments, the seven of us, like in a small cage, no one was comfortable with the positions each one was taking, but we didn’t care, we were just happy. It has been years, many years since that trip, but I will never forget our happiness. The boys’ eyes were sparking with joy, with the feeling of freedom, and of friendship. We started talking; making jokes, sharing the food we took with us, laughing at each other. Then we started singing and clapping, our voices became louder and louder when suddenly the glass door of one of the compartments opened, and a huge guy storming into us. He had a thick long moustache to each side of his chin and wearing dark olive military uniform. His face was steaming with anger, and with his teeth showing the level of that anger he said: if you are not going to stop making noises, I will wipe each one’s head with this metal floor. WE WANT TO SLEEEEEEP, for God’s sake!” we looked at each other with shock, silennnnce, and when the angry soldier left, we started singing again, but the singing was like whispering and the clapping was like touching the tips of fingers, which even made us laugh hysterically.

We arrived around 6am in the morning. We were so hungry and wanted to have breakfast. We went to a small public café. There was an old man wearing traditional dress sitting at a very small metal table drinking tea. He looked at us with disgust, I don’t know why! The guys noticed him too, but didn’t pay attention to him, but from time to time one of the guy’s checks out the old man: he was still staring at us with hatred! We asked the man standing and working behind the counter if he has any breakfast to serve. Immediately the old man snapped at us and said: we don’t have anything, go away! We realized later that the old man maybe the owner of that café and maybe seven people coming at once on an early morning is something the café couldn’t handle. Maybe we were wrong and the man didn’t like strangers!! We went to another café and ordered what we call in Iraq “laham ib ajeen” (like a small pizza with minced meat on it and rendered with some spices). We had to wait for 20 minutes till the fist batch came out. We were seven and the order at least two or three of Laham ib ajeen for each. However, no one did like the food, neither the tea they served. We didn’t care because we were hungry.

After some time roaming the streets of beautiful Mosul till the afternoon we decided to go to the forests. The Mosul forests are a huge area alongside the river Tigris with scenes beyond imagination. We walked for almost an hour trying to find a nice place to sit. We found one on the banks of the river, and we could still see from a very long distance the many trees of one of Saddam’s palaces hiding in between. We decided to go for a swim before eating. One of the guys who joined us on that trip didn’t want to. He decided to sit and enjoy a nice cold drink, and watch for our stuff while we were swimming. After few minutes I had enough of swimming, splashing water at each other, and doing water-wrestling, came out of the water, took a t-shirt and sat opposite my other friend. We heard a movement and tens of cows came out of the forest’s trees heading towards the river and alongside its banks. Some of the cows remained in the water for a few minutes, cooling down or something and the guys were in the middle of all this… we could see from a distance how there eyes were wide open staring at our direction and around them. They didn’t know what to do. They were like paralyzed inside water covering them till chest. They didn’t move until the whole flock passed by entirely after around ten minutes. The big laugh began when they came out; the water at that spot became dirty because of the cows, so when Omar came out there were some ‘strange objects’ stuck to the sides of his thighs. We were laughing at the bad luck that made us swim at that moment in time and at that spot in particular.

Anyone knows Mazin knows also that he sometime disappear for a day or two. Sometimes he just disappears for a week, especially when he has exams. However, one time no one saw Mazin for almost a month. We got worried so Omar and Zyad decided to go to his house and ask his family about him. His mother came out, she told the guys that Mazin is at a relative house outside Baghdad. Yet, no one of us did buy that, especially with the strong feeling all of us had that Mazin didn’t go anywhere, not even didn’t leave the neighborhood. Even one of the guys told us a couple of days later that he saw Mazin in the car with his father! They even said that Mazin was trying to hide himself from the rest of the group when the car passed by! We were like between laughing at the situation and angry because we didn’t know why he was behaving in that way. After almost two months (I think it was more than that) Mazin suddenly appeared! It was not Mazin we know, as one of the guys put it “this is half Mazin”, because of the enormous weight he lost. We realized that he wanted to come out with a different look, and surprise everyone with this new look. In fact, Mazin did not only change physically, he is also changed the way he talks and deals with things. He was calmer and more subtle. In the beginning such a change was strange for us but later we got used to it, especially when from time to time he is back to his hot temper.

We used to talk about everything and anything. We used to talk a lot about English language and translation or words, especially related to songs lyrics or sentences from a certain movie. We used to make fun at the way some movies were subtitled. Politics and criticizing the regime of Saddam was also one of the topics, but it was a sort of hush-hush discussion.

We used to talk about girls, but we never talked or discussed or shared issues about our own girlfriends. We knew that Omar was in love with a girl, but he never mentioned her, not even let us knew where she is from (our neighborhood or lives in another). We were sure that Mazin had no girlfriend, and he was the most outspoken about that subject among us. However, everyone in the group knew about Hasan’s love for a Kurdish girl used to study with him at college. They were very close friends, even after their graduation, they kept on seeing each other from time to time till the moment she was engaged. It looked like love from one side! He couldn’t do anything about her engagement, especially that he was not ready for any commitment like marriage at that time, in particular after joining the army, so financially was not possible to marry a girl and make a family.

Part of our dreams were fulfilled by doing different crazy, funny and sometimes childish things, but like many guys on this planet, we had many more dreams and things we wanted to do, but sadly most of them were shattered, especially when we graduated from the university: we had to serve in the army. The corner of the doomed came to end gradually when some of us, in my case for example, had to join units very far from Baghdad, where I can only be back home for 7 days leave every 21 days. The army service period marked the gradual end of the corner of the doomed, indeed. We tried to fight the situation and be there when we can, but it was not complete like before, it was either one or two guys from the whole group were missing. We complained about it and we talked about it. We tried to find a solution, but there was no solution. At the end, the distance became greater. After a year in the army, the burden of reality started to show on our faces. We used to meet from time to time, but the eyes could tell; there was the same spark of hunger for life, but like before. We were not the same young men we used to be. Sometimes I thought that the daily meetings in the afternoon hours were the driving force that kept us together, and when these meetings became less and with less people, the whole group began to fall apart. But when I think of it more deeply, I come to the conclusion that we all shared dreams and when we began to see each dream of each person vanish one after the other, we realized that it was over. Our dreams were shattered because they were replaced by nightmares created by reality. That was our fate.

After I left Iraq, I kept in contact with some of the guys and with others who can bring me news about the doomed boys. Last I heard was that Mazin have been busy arranging his papers to leave Iraq, later I heard that he settled down in Amman, Jordan, but years later, I heard from some people that he went back to Iraq and married his cousin, and that he is still living with his parents in the same house. Zyad and his family moved away from our neighborhood shortly before I left Iraq, and from time to time he used to come and visit us. Years went by before I heard that he and his family are living in Turkey. Omar, gradually stopped coming to the doomed corner. Even no one heard of him after the second year followed graduation from university. The reason was that with the help of his father, he managed to serve his military time in a military industry institution on the outskirts of Baghdad. He used to serve long night shifts often, so he comes back at dawn time and sleeps for the rest of the day till the afternoon, wears his uniform and before sunset join his unit again.

The last person I saw from the group before I left Iraq was Hasan. It was on one night while I was driving my car. It was dark, so I couldn’t recognize him in the beginning. I stopped and asked him to get in. He was very happy to see me after that time, but he looked extremely tired and horribly sad, like someone with great burden possessing him. One thing didn’t change in him; throwing jokes in the middle of the conversation. He told me that his unit was in Baghdad, luckily, but he was threatened of a transfer at any minute because of some issues. However, that was not the real reason made him looked so stressed. Hasan was in love with the “wrong woman” like he put it! He met that “gorgeous woman” on street when her car was broken. He helped her and they became good friends, which was developed into a relationship, very deep one. It was like going through a beautiful dream in a harsh reality, but when they realized that reality, the impact was painful. In fact the consequences for this relationship coming out of its secret nature were extremely hazardous, because the woman was the mistress of one of the closest aide to Saddam Hussain himself at that time, and have one of the highest positions in the government political hierarchy! I was shocked, I couldn’t believe my ears, and I asked him if this story was one of his jokes, or that woman was pulling his leg, but he swore on his father’s grave that his lover was not lying, he even went with her to ‘her house’. After hours of talking he told me that he doesn’t know what is right and what is wrong; on one hand he loves her, and on the other he is so afraid of the situation. At the end of our conversation I asked him to keep in touch, to see each other more, and to think rationally about the whole situation. That did not happen, we didn’t see each other again, but I heard years later that he is still living with his family

The corner of the doomed was not only a place where young boys used to meet and have fun, making jokes and talk about things they love. Now and after all these years, the corner of the doomed became part of my memories, a reference to how our personalities and habits developed. Sometimes I wonder what my feeling will be if I travel now and go to that spot!! If the five of us meet now, at that spot, after all these years, will it be the same?

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