Giggling in Fallujah

War talk ... again! And the promise of massive sanctions, the killer beast dressed as an angel of mercy (compared to dropping mega bombs, that is). Perfectly respectable American politicians proposing crippling sanctions to hurt ordinary Iranians so they rise up against their regime. It sounds like a confused dream. But it isn't.

The old question is back: "Do you still have many relatives left in Iran?" and a deep genuine hope for "No, not many." I usually murmur something innocuous in response. I still can't say "Seventy million. I have seventy million relatives in Iran." I am afraid of that conversation. What if I go on: " Don't we all have several hundred million relatives in that region...not to mention the rest of the almost seven billion who are all going to get a taste of the misery caused by another insane war?" There is a way to say it, I know. Someday it will come to me.

The thing is you don't lecture your friends. They are supposed to know. And they do, in some vague general sense. Only they don't. Not the way they know you cannot starve your kid or stab your neighbor. Once I dreamt I was standing on a foot-stall in the middle of Washington University's elegant quadrangle on the hilltop campus reciting a poem by the fourteen century poet of Shiraz, Sa'di. Actually, the poem is written on the U.N. Building:

Human beings are limbs on the same body
For they were all created from the same essence
If pain is inflicted on one limb
The rest will all lose their comfort and peace

It doesn't work. Not even in a dream. It is too refined, too quiet, too distant. It doesn't have any ouch feeling, the way the sight of blood, the despair, the maimed people, the PTSD, and the smells of war do. That may be because Sa'di did not live in the age of embedded journalism and mega bombs.

Well, I have. We have. So, a few years ago, I wrote this poem called "Giggling in Fallujah" about an American Marine whose memory of small giggling Iraqi boys calmed his yearning for his lost leg. Somehow their giggling made things feel normal, as if he had not shot anyone and had not been hit by a roadside bomb. Now I am thinking: Fallujah, Shiraz, East Lansing, what is the difference?

I guess you won't be standing in Washington University's elegant quadrangle when you read my poem. That's all right. I am not Sa'di, the exotic poet from medieval Shiraz either. But we are tied together with the desperate urge not have another Fallujah! So, here it comes, all the ouch feelings I can pack into one poem for war-stricken little boys and Marines maimed for life:

Giggling in Fallujah

Thank you Ma'am, said Jake to the host "I am just fine," and took the soft drink.
He wasn't...
The new leg was uncomfortable
It made his whole body stiff as if expecting a roadside bomb to go off anytime
The coldness of the drink in his hand reminded him of the little boys in Fallujah who loved bottled water
They seemed curious about his blue eyes
Just as he, sometimes, wanted to feel their dark fuzzy hair

Once he gave a bottle of water to two who came close - within arm's reach
One grabbed the bottle, then, they both giggled and run away
Jason got mad "what the fuck are you doing getting that close to those freaking monkeys?'
Fallujah was dangerous
"They are kids!" Jake had said.
"Yah, kids of freaking terrorists. How do you know they are not wired up...and...and their dad is not sitting behind that bush waiting to push the button?"
He didn't.
Jake just liked the little Iraqi boys because no matter how bad things got, they still giggled and were - genuinely - curious about his blue eyes.

Then all hell broke loose with the big battle of Fallujah
On the second day,
They had stormed a suspicious house - Randy was in charge
He had thrown a man face down
And was pushing him to the ground with his heavy boot
Jason was holding a gun to a woman's head as the Iraqi interpreter asked about their teenage son.
"Where the hell is he?" screamed Jason in the direction of the interpreter
"Tell them we'll get the bustard, we know he makes roadside bombs, we even know where he gets his staff ... we'll get him."

"The interpreter doesn't sound as threatening," Jake thought to himself with some relief and ...suddenly ... noticed a little boy with perfectly round face and fuzzy hair frozen against the wall.
"He is frozen, totally frozen, totally ..."
That's all Jake could think at first. Then he went on:
"He is not too scared. He doesn't understand what is going on ...he can't... he is what... Four? May be five ...
O my God!" the boys pants were wet. Jake was so scared he may say something...
But he didn't
There was a big lump in his throat
He felt small like the boy
And no one would hear it, if he said something ...anyway
Jason was shouting more threats in the direction of the mother, the father, and the interpreter
The boy was still frozen against the wall
Jake imagined giving him a bottle of water and watching him giggle...

There were sounds of gunshot outside on the street
"We got him!" a head popped in and shouted "the bustard was trying to get away from the rooftop, we got him."
The mother's face twitched, the moment had translated itself into Arabic

"We're good" Jason shouted lifting his heavy boot from the father's back
"Let's go, let's go, we're done here, let's go ... we are done!"
Jake left the boy frozen against the wall in his wet pants

"Are we done?" he thought that night trying hard to fall asleep "Are we?"
Then he fantasized walking to the frozen boy, touching his fuzzy hair and saying to him in a very quiet voice "It is all right."
But it wasn't ...
And it was just as well that he had not said it.
The boy would not have understood him anyway.

Jason was not done either, not yet
Three days later a roadside bomb went off in north Fallujah
It sent Randy to a coma
Took Jake's leg
And for Jason, it was the end of Fallujah, Iraq, and life

Jake mourned.
He mourned in ways difficult to describe
He mourned in bed, sitting at the dinner table, and looking at bottled water
He just mourned
Then thought of the leg he had left behind - feeling a desperate urge to know what they did with amputated organs
Would they have given it to him if he had asked?
No, they wouldn't!

Back in the States, he decided not to think about his leg anymore
Not because he was a big war hero now
He wasn't!
But because there was too much pain in his mother's eyes when she looked at him
Sometimes she was motionless, in deep thought, frozen - as if someone held a gun to her head
And sometimes she could not keep still
"Jake would you like anything to eat?"
"Are you all right Honey?"
"I thought we could go see a movie tonight - if you like"
"Would you like to go for ...a... walk...?"

Jake thought of the giggling boys to muster a smile
"I am just fine I am!"
He wasn't!

Is Randy still in a Coma?
What did they do with his leg?
Has the boy frozen against the wall ever giggled after that night?

Does he wet his pants when he gets scared?
Is he alive?

St. Louis, 2008

Fatemeh Keshavarz=, is Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature in Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of five books including Reading Mystical Lyric: the Case of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran.