ONE THING BEHNAM HEDAYATT COULD NOT seem to drive from his brain, whether working on a dig, talking with a friend in the marketplace, or driving in the streets of Tehran; one reality that was lodged in his consciousness like the most stubborn of splinters, digging into his spirit every moment of his life, was that he was dead.
Well, not actually dead.
It had been just two years to the day since BehnAm's friend Farid had saved him from death by faking his execution. BehnAm remembered the time.
He had been sentenced to death for an act which his country considered to be treason. Okay, well, most countries would have considered it to be treason. He had taken pictures in a top secret area, an area deemed essential to national defence, and he had sent those pictures to a foreign government. What country wouldn't consider that treason?
BehnAm hadn't wanted to do it, at least not at first. He wanted to believe the leaders of Iran were being truthful when they told the world they were only enriching uranium to develop nuclear power for peaceful uses; for helping their country to develop without exhausting their oil reserves, without contributing further to the greenhouse gases that threatened the well-being of the planet. Those were important goals.
His friend Jessica Santiago had planted the doubt in his mind, the doubt which eventually called him to question whether those goals represented the true motivation of the leaders of his country. That doubt had been planted as a seed, which when full-grown had led him to the nuclear facility at Darkhovin; and there he had found the "smoking gun," a nuclear bomb being built.
What else could he have done?
The evidence he had provided sparked new efforts to eliminate nuclear weaponry worldwide, but his action also nearly got him killed. Farid and his friends had posed as witnesses against him, and as a result were given the task of executing him by firing squad. They had been such good actors, they had even fooled Afsaneh and their American friends. Everyone had believed he had been executed with real bullets, rather than shot at with blanks. Afsaneh, to whom he was now married, even now sometimes would remember it all -- and hit him really hard.
So now he was supposed to be dead. When those doing archaeological research searched his records in relationship to possible employment, they found him listed as dead. When he sought to vote, he could not. Even in Iran they don't grant that privilege to dead people. Being dead was starting to be a considerable inconvenience.
BehnAm felt two soft arms curl around him from behind, and a small head rest on his back. He turned from the window and enveloped his wife in his arms.
"What is it that is in your heart my husband?" asked Afsaneh.
BehnAm cupped his wife's face in his hands and looked into her eyes, taking just a moment to enjoy their clearness and the rich mahogany of their hue. "Nothing, my love. It's nothing for you to worry about."
BehnAm stroked the softness of Afsaneh's long jet-black hair, as he continued to gaze into her eyes. In the privacy of their home she wore western clothing, blue jeans and a soft white sweater, and she left her beautiful hair and face uncovered. BehnAm still could not believe her beauty, and his own good fortune in being the one she had chosen. For such a long time she had followed the traditions of their faith and culture, and had hidden so much of her incredible allure behind the chador, but BehnAm had always known it was there. He could see it in her eyes. He had first seen it more fully in their mountain Eden, the timeless paradise nestled in a hidden valley by Mount Sahand, near the crystal clear river called Adji Chay. There he had surrendered his defences as a battle-hardened Iranian male, and she had dropped her chador. Two weeks later he had married her underneath the sofreh on that very spot. Now he could enjoy the fullness of her beauty each and every day.
BehnAm noticed that Afsaneh's eyes were starting to tear over. "Tears in such gorgeous eyes? What has caused this outrage!"
"They are because you have lied to me, my husband."
BehnAm furrowed his brow. "No, no, my dear! I would never--"
But it is so, my husband," Afsaneh whispered, trembling. "You lied to me when you said that nothing was troubling your heart. I know that to be untrue. I can see it in your eyes, in the way you move with so little energy, and the way you look out the window, staring at nothing."
BehnAm sighed and pulled her close. "I should have known better than to try to hide the truth from you, even though it was to avoid burdening you with my troubles."
"We are married. Your troubles are my troubles."
BehnAm nodded, released his embrace of his wife, and turned to look out the window once again. "I feel like I am no longer free in my own land."
"I, too, have this feeling, BehnAm," Afsaneh said. "I can no longer go to my home city of Tabriz because of what I did. That's why we live here on Tehran, remember? But even here I shiver when a police officer is near."
Even as his wife spoke these words, BehnAm shivered also. The time when he had rescued her from the jail in Tabriz remained fresh in his memory. She had been taken there for killing a police officer who had tried to rape her. If BehnAm had acted even one day later, she might not be alive today, and he knew that for the rest of her life Afsaneh would have to be wary of Iranian police.
"Perhaps we should have listened to our American friends."
"And escaped to a country that is strange to us and not our own?" Afsaneh asked. "I know that is not your way, my husband. Of course, I would go with you anywhere, but you are not one to run. You said we should stay here, rather than escaping to America, so we could -- how did you say it at the time? -- so we could 'clean up our own house'.'"
BehnAm nodded. "Yes, yes, I said that. But sometimes it no longer feels like my house. It feels like I have come to a house of my childhood and found it occupied by strangers."
Afsaneh picked up a sponge and started cleaning a spot of something she spied on the countertop.
"You know they are not all strangers," she said.
BehnAm gently pulled the sponge from his wife's hand. "Stop that. Must you always be cleaning?" He wrapped his arms around her again. "Besides, it interferes with me thanking you for being such a comfort to your old, neurotic husband."
His kissed her gently on the lips and smiled.
Just then something small rushed past them and attempted to jump up on the counter. BehnAm turned and saw Amina struggling to reach a container where Afsaneh kept some pastries.
"Amina, no!" Afsaneh said in Arabic. "I do not want you to ruin your dinner."
The little Iraqi girl whimpered, stomped her foot, bent her brows, and came forth with the best pout she had learned in six years of intensely studying adults. BehnAm saw an idea give new spark to her eyes, and she began undulating her arms and hands in the air, while wiggling her hips in an Arabic dance. As she danced, she smiled at her Iranian father.
"Not bad for no music," BehnAm said, again in Arabic. "Not good enough to get pastries, but still, not bad."
Amina stopped and the pout returned to her face. "I am not having a good day!" she declared.
Afsaneh laughed. "I'm afraid we are not responsible for whether you are having a good day or not! But if you play in your room until dinner is ready, perhaps your day will get better."
Amina did as she was told. BehnAm returned the conversation to Farsi.
"You know that every day she is with us will make it harder to take her back."
Afsaneh nodded, still gazing as she did in the direction of the little girl's room. "It already gives me pain when I just have to be away from her for a moment." As she turned away to tend a pot of fesenjân she was preparing for supper, BehnAm saw a tear trickling down her cheek. "Of all of us, she is the one who does not fit in here the most. The other children tease her for being Iraqi, and they tease her all the more when she tries to speak Farsi."
Afsaneh seemed to be getting more and more distracted as she struggled with what she wanted to say next. She stirred the fesenjân, an Iranian stew, more than BehnAm knew was necessary. She turned suddenly and faced her husband.
"I need to tell you that I have found and contacted some of her relatives in Iraq, an uncle and an aunt."
BehnAm felt a sudden tightening in his stomach. "Are they Shiite or Sunni?"
"Does it matter? They're her family."
"You know I don't trust Sunnis!"
Afsaneh raised the volume of her voice to a level BehnAm seldom heard.
"Yes, but if we are to be working to make Iran better, and to bring more peace to the world, as you told Evan and Jessica we would be doing, shouldn't we both be trying to trust Sunnis a little more?"
Afsaneh threw her arms up in the air in frustration, and then returned her attention to the preparation of their dinner. But she was not done with the conversation. "Besides, as I said before, they're her family; and as YOU said before, every day she is with us will make it harder to take her back! Did you not just say that?"
BehnAm returned his attention to looking out the window. A conversation which had started to make him feel a little better began to drag him down to even lower depths. "What I should have said is, it is already too late. When I heard Carmen had picked her from the battle zones of Iraq, I thought it a bad idea. But then I made the mistake of letting her into my heart. Now I think of her as my daughter! I cannot think of her as anything else."
Afsaneh looked over at her husband and her eyes softened again. "I, too, have let myself think of her as our daughter," she said. "But I was wrong. These people in Iraq are her family. Of course, we need not take her back to them right this moment, but you know it's the right thing to do."
BehnAm shut his eyes tightly as he leaned against the window. "We said we would take her back when the war in Iraq ended. It has not. You know that!" He opened his eyes again as he thought of another argument. Pointing his finger at his wife, he sought to drive it home: "And those Iraqis, they hate our American friends -- Evan, Jessica, Carmen. They would teach Amina to hate them, and that would not be fair, especially to Carmen, when she rescued Amina from the terrors of war."
Afsaneh just stood there by the stove, looking at her husband. Her look said to him you know this isn't going to work!
BehnAm still wasn't ready to give up. "And besides, how would we get her into Iraq and get back to this country? I am supposed to be dead, and you are wanted for murder. So, there, we are back where we started."
The tears returned to Afsaneh's eyes. She spoke softly. "Amir's contacts will help us, as they did before. The Fellowship of the Fish, remember?"
BehnAm remembered. He had not been present when his friends had first spoken of this fellowship, but he had been told of it on the way to the place they called Eden. It was based mostly on an old Christian symbol, a fish used to reassure persecuted Christians in the years after Jesus' death on a cross. When Christians were a persecuted minority, the fish reminded them they were not alone -- there were others out there, equally wounded, but equally dedicated to bringing about God's kingdom.
Of course, this was about Christians, while he and Afsaneh were Muslim, but it didn't matter. The Fellowship of the Fish was not a religion, but a fellowship of those willing to step beyond religion to find community. BehnAm and his friends were defining this fellowship, and they had decided that those in the Fellowship of the Fish were persons who knew what it was to be treated as an enemy because of their faith; treated as an enemy sometimes even in their own country, and among their own people.
It was also a fellowship of those fighting to bring back Eden, a place where those who were thought to be enemies didn't have to be, where life was good, where God brought people together instead of dividing them, and all of life was at peace with the life around it. This fellowship included Christians like Amir and his friends in Iraq, Jews like Doctor Carl Goldman, and Muslims like Farid, Ahmad Sahimi, and himself.
BehnAm reached for a tissue and began softly dabbing the tears still trailing down his wife's face. "Well, it would be good to see Amir again. But if we get into Iraq and find these people, and I don't like them--"
Afsaneh wrapped her arms around her husband, and finished his sentence, "--then Allah will show us both what the right thing is."
BehnAm frowned and headed toward their room. "And now I am not having a very good day."
* * * * *
SALIM RAHIM HAD ALWAYS loved coming home. Of course, that was when his home consisted of more than twisted metal. In those earlier times his home did not include concrete blown into grey powder; broken, exposed pipes, and shattered glass, all under a tottering roof. And the door in front, the door which kept out nothing because of the gaping holes in the walls to either side? Surely that was not the same door from which he had burst forth as a child as he ran to meet neighbourhood friends. Surely not.
Salim walked up to the house, stepped over a piece of twisted sheet metal, and ventured a few steps into its interior. Debris crunched underneath his shoes. Over to his left he saw a torn corner of what he knew to once have been a family picture. He could still see an image of the lower part of his left leg, as it had been when he was a young teen. He looked away. Nothing else even looked familiar. It had all been blown away, crushed or covered with parts of the ceiling that had once sheltered them.
The young Iraqi sensed movement behind him. He turned quickly, pulling out a 9 mm Beretta automatic pistol as he did. When he saw the face of the one approaching he relaxed a little and smiled.
The familiar face of the one now standing in the street in front of Salim's former home spoke.
"As-Salaam alaaikum." Salim saw that the man had gained some weight. His beard had a few more flecks of grey, too; but even in the haze Salim had no trouble recognizing the face of his brother.
Salim stepped out through the crumbling abode and gave the man an embrace.
"And peace be upon you too, Dabir," he said. Dabir kissed him on his cheek, and pulled back to arms length to look him over. "You appear well, my little brother! Your arms are like pillars of rock, your cheeks are rosy and your eyes shine as clear as the stars. Four years of schooling in the West has done you no harm."
Yes, well, I trained and studied at the same time," said Salim. "And you, you also look well. It is good to be home." Dabir gestured toward their former home. "Ah, yes -- home. It is not exactly the same, is it my brother? American bombs have taken our childhood away from us. But, then again, that is why you went away, and that is why you have come back."
"Who is left?"
Dabir shook his head. "Just me and my wife, Atifa. Mother and Father, along with our sister Fatima, were killed by the bomb that hit near the house. But you know that. Habib, along with his wife and children, were murdered by US and Shiite soldiers. It is the same story throughout Fallujah, my brother. Destruction all around. And the American infidels have robbed us of our power and given it to Shiite whores.
Salim nodded, and he began slowly strolling down what was left of the street. Dabir walked beside him. Salim could quickly see that his brother had not exaggerated. Rubble was all around him, and even in the street he had to walk around fallen utility poles, burned out cars, and debris from bombed out buildings. On a side road a few hundred meters away he saw a tank, and several foot soldiers on patrol. "Shiite whores!" said Dabir.
"Is it really so that none of our family is left?" asked Salim. "I am afraid so, my brother. Just some cousins. Oh! I forgot. It seems that little Amina is still alive. You remember her? Habib's little daughter, just a baby when you left." Salim stopped and looked at his brother as he spoke.
"Yes, I remember," he said. "Delightful little child! She is alive? Where is she?"
Dabir scowled. "Some Iranian family picked her up after the soldiers killed Habib and the others. She must have been wandering lost along the highway."
Salim showed his anger not by a raised voice and violent movement, as many in his family did. He froze in place instead, hardening his whole body as if it were a sculpture of stone. "And Iranians just took her like she was their own?" he said through barely parted lips.
"Yes! I couldn't believe it myself," said Dabir. "But when this woman told me this on the phone, I controlled my anger. I didn't let the Iranian bitch know how outrageous I thought their actions to be. She said they would bring her back to us, and I didn't want to do anything that would make her change her mind."
Salim looked askance at his brother. "Iranians will bring her here to Fallujah?" Dabir nodded. Salim's body was starting to relax just a little. "They must have more guts than most Iranians. Maybe we should let them live." "They're Shiite." The younger brother's body tensed up again.
"Then we should toast their bodies and hang them from the bridge." Dabir laughed a full-throated laugh. "I thought you would say as much!"
Salim strolled on a little further down the road, but he was no longer looking around him. Rather, he was envisioning the baby girl he remembered from his days before the university.
"It will be nice to hold an Iraqi child once again," he said quietly. "To have a family, if only for a while." Dabir nodded as he kicked some broken boards out of their way. "Yes, Allah has not seen fit to bless Atifa and me with one of our own. But to hold Habib's child, that would be good."
Salim stopped walking and turned to face his brother. He spoke in a low voice. "Well, it is good you have informed me of all these family things, but they are the past, my brother. We must talk of the future, of why I have come back. Have you and your friends found what I need?"
Dabir glanced down the road where the tank was now disappearing over a hill. He motioned for the young college graduate to follow him over to an old car Salim thought must belong to one of his workers. His brother owned an auto parts warehouse which did quite well, and he always drove the best. He opened the passenger side door of this vehicle, and reached into the glove box, and pulled out some pictures. He handed them to his brother.
Salim studied each picture carefully. A smile slowly grew across his face. "I hope you took adequate precaution when handling this, big brother." He looked into Dabir's eyes. "Because this is not like what you normally handle in an auto parts warehouse, you know."
His brother scowled. "Of course," he said. "I might not be the one with the college education, but I am not stupid about these things!"
Salim gave him his most disarming smile, and touched him lightly on the arm. "I know, I know, my brother. Do not feel offended because I urge caution. I know that with different breaks you could have been the one to go to the University of London."
Dabir nodded and looked down at the ground, somewhat ashamed by his quick outburst.
"It's just that with such things, you must use caution on every step, if you are to succeed," Salim said with continued gentleness. Then he looked at one of the pictures again, one of a substance made familiar to him by four years of study in London. "After all, highly-enriched U-235 Uranium, well, you can't be too careful. Where did you get this?"
"Iraq," Dabir said with great pride. "But of course you have heard they are signing that treaty with the US, so they were going to have to get rid of it all anyway. We felt obliged to help them out."
Salim smiled again and nodded. "How much do we have?"
The younger brother handed the pictures back to Dabir, and took one more look at the devastation around him. "That is enough, my brother. Soon, inshallah, some American city will know what it is like to have their home town turned into Fallujah!"