Home: Figments: The Phone Carrier

The Phone Carrier

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Az Zaman (Iraqi News)

U.S. kills 800 in Sadr City over 3 weeks

By Farah Babani

In a campaign to subdue the Mahdi Army, U.S. occupation forces have killed more than 800 people, mostly innocent civilians, according to a leader of the Sadr movement in Baghdad. Bombing by U.S. war planes and helicopter gun ships continued in the densely populated neighborhood, while troops impose a tight embargo on the city. “Even the MPs were shocked by the scale of damage,” said Sufiyan Salaman al-Muhajer, an MP in Sadr City. “It is because of these operations and embargos, these people are undergoing horrific humanitarian conditions,” said Salaman.

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After peeking inside the cell phone store and seeing the crowd of eager teenagers huddling around the displays, she told Fred that he might as well wait outside. There was an unusually upbeat feeling to the crowd, so she doubted there could be any danger in shopping alone. Fred, one of the most laid-back guys in their organization, shrugged and offered to buy her a diet Coke. She nodded; he left.

As she pulled open the heavy glass door, she was greeted by a rush of cool, moist air. A swamp cooler, she figured, immediately grateful. The light fabric of her paisley scarf pressed softly against her neck, soothing the anxiety that had been building all morning. Get in line! She bolstered herself with confident assurance. You’ll be calling home by lunchtime. She did and so found herself looking at the back of a black and white hijab.

Minutes passed, but the line remained. Jeanne began to fidget, first shifting her weight from one foot to the other, then pacing around the small range offered by her sense of personal space. Her boundaries must have extended a bit too far, because black and white hijab turned around, revealing a gentle, friendly pair of eyes. Jeanne saw with a bit of surprise and relief that the woman was more near her age (mid-thirties) rather than an angst-filled teen.

Eager to reach out and touch someone, to find familiarity in a strange city, Jeanne smiled. “Hello,” she said, in Arabic, “have you come to buy a cell phone?”

The woman’s eyebrows rose with a look of suspicion. “Yes,” she replied. “For my husband.”

Jeanne cringed inwardly. The question had been painfully obvious. Perhaps she needed a friendlier icebreaker. “I am, too. Buying a new phone, not a husband.” She looked to see if she could retrieve the friendly face with a joke, but the woman just raised an eyebrow. Perhaps she’d lost something with her accent. Awkwardly, she stammered on. “I wouldn’t buy a husband, anyway. Who needs a man?”

Finally, the other woman chuckled. “Certainly not an American man,” she agreed. “Your men do not know how to treat a woman.”

Jeanne was taken aback. This wasn’t quite the response she expected. Was it an insult? A challenge? She felt like answering on the defensive—at least our men respect our rights—but knew this wasn’t the best time for a debate. Besides, she couldn’t completely disagree. “True… some of our boys could use a lesson in romance.”

The woman looked uneasy and turned away. Jeanne followed her gaze, which rested unfocused on a large advertisement for pre-paid phone cards. The bold lettering was printed on a photograph of blue sky, framed by two skyscrapers. “We can meet your needs, even if you aim high,” the slogan read. The phallic towers and the narrow space between seemed fitting, somehow. Buying pre-paid phone cards from this phone carrier—this international corporation—was really the only way to have a cell phone in Iraq.

Then the Iraqi woman spoke. “No. They are not romantic. My sister... they took her.  They told her that she should know special tricks. They called her names.” The beginning of a tear appeared at the corner of the woman’s eye, but she did not turn away from the advertisement, nor did she pause. Instead, she lowered her voice to a whisper.  “They told her she was a prostitute. My sister said she wasn’t like that, that she would never do anything like that. But they did not listen. They slapped her and pulled her hair. They raped my sister. They took my sister’s dignity. Before they let her go, they said she had not done anything wrong and that they had not done anything wrong either. They made her lie. And she did. But she told me.”

Jeanne stared in horror. She’d heard stories like this before, but never this close to the source. “what… what did you say?”

“I told her that she should have bit their members off.”

“But they’d have killed her. If they are going to cover up a rape, why not a murder?”

Gurjia bristled. “Why live after having your dignity stolen? Not to mention, your job, your clean water, schools for the children in your family?”

Jeanne nodded numbly. She didn’t really know what to say. “I am very sorry.”

The other woman finally turned away from the towers and looked into Jeanne’s eye. “No, I should be the one saying sorry. I have no business telling you this. It is just… I think I am going close to crazy now. My family is safe now. They left for Jordan, while my husband and I stayed in Baghdad. But it is not the Baghdad I know. It is… what is that word you Americans use? The ‘F’ one?”

“Fucked?” Jeanne offered, grateful for an excuse to say it. “I thought that word might be sort of universal.”

“Yes. I suppose it is. It is a good word. Fucked.”

Hearing the blunt English among the quick and flowing sound of Arabic made Jeanne giggle inwardly. The tension that had built with the woman’s story had finally broken. “My name is Jeanne,” she said.

“Gurjia,” offered the Iraqi woman, appearing more relaxed. “I am Gurjia.”

 “Nice to meet you, Gurjia. I am sorry if I touched a nerve.”

“No, it fine. It is me who is sensitive. Things have been difficult lately.”

“Yes, they have. That’s why I’m out here—my organization wants to try to help more.”

Gurjia looked puzzled. “But you do not belong here. We do not need your help.”

“Oh, but I’m not with the government. I’m with a private organization. We aren’t trying to impose. We’re just trying to bring food and supplies. You know, help rebuild.”

“You cannot help us rebuild. You can build your buildings and infrastructures, and fill them with your people, but that is not Iraq. Your people take money and bribes. They look the other way when they take my sister. You cannot rebuild what your armies have broken.”

“What is that? What’s broken? We’ll try to fix it. How should we be helping?”

“What is broken? Us. Our spirits, our individualities. Who we are. If you want to help, go home. Let us be ourselves.”

“What do you mean? No one is trying to change your identity. We’re trying to help your culture survive and live in peace.”

“But that is exactly why it is broken. Before the occupation, I did live in peace. I did not worry about who my neighbors were. Now I go out into the streets and I must wear my hijab. Everywhere I go, everyone wants to know, who is Sunni, who is Shiite. It was not this way before. Now, I have to wear my religion like a badge. Under all that, your people who want to study my culture will never learn a thing. They cannot know me. I am not sure I even know who I am anymore. I do not know where my future will take me.”

Jeanne was speechless. What if Gurjia was right? What if the cause she’d given up her life for turned out to be worthless? Then she wasn’t a heroine here—just an imposition. She could battle hunger, she could repair schools and houses, but she couldn’t fix a broken identity. Suddenly, she felt a little cold inside. She suppressed the impulse to run away from this strange foreign woman and this unpleasant conversation, and lose herself under the hot Iraqi sun. But then she wouldn’t be able to replace her cell phone.

KLF