The Land Between Two Rivers

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Bint Arab

Photo Credit: Adam Henning

When Hulagu Khan, Genghis’s grandson, attacked the land between two rivers, he destroyed Baghdad. The Tigris turned black with ink from the books his Mongols took from the libraries and threw into the water. Hundreds of thousands of bodies filled the alleys and paved the roads: men and women, adults and children and babies—everyone. He had to move his camp upwind to avoid the stench of the corpses. Blood flowed so thick the fighters stood ankle-deep in it. The rivers were black, and the streets were red.

The year was 1258 CE. The rivers bore witness; follow the rivers and you follow the story.

Hulagu Bush, the son, will attack Baghdad in 2003 CE. It will mark the end of the siege. By then I will be exhausted from years of rationing cups of sugar, flour, and rice. Relief will bring me to tears, not once but twice.

My scalp will prickle whenever I think of the petrol tanks on the top floor of our house, but we will not be hit by missiles.

I will stop going to Monsoor Girls’ High School one year short of graduation because Mama will make me stay home with her. I won’t know how well my school survived the bombing and the looting. My cousin Fadia, my father’s sister’s daughter, will tell me that our school still stands, though the blue tile mosaic over the entrance has gone, crushed to powder. In a casual, throwaway tone, she will say that the fountain in the courtyard crumbled and stands empty, dry as the desert. I will tell her that her haircut is old-fashioned, jealous that she will graduate though I was always smarter than her. I will feel a little guilty at the sight of her flushed cheeks and will offer to cut her hair myself.

Mama’s hair will turn white in those first three days after the invasion. She will use henna to hide it.

Abu Taif’s bakery, the little stone building a five-minute walk from my old high school, will stay open on the day of the invasion, and he will make certain that everyone knows that he has to. He will be ordered: Bake or die. Father will buy Abu Taif’s loaves, but Mama will continue to buy bread from Umm Hussein because hers are so airy and full of holes on the inside. When I go with Mama to pick up the bread, Umm Hussein will say: Whatever God decides will come to pass. In exchange for a cup of our flour, Umm Hussein will bake bread for us and wish blessings upon us. Her diamond-shaped loaves of sammoon will always have the crisp, golden patches that I love. After the invasion, her family will stay in their home a few blocks east of us, though the Hanafis next door to them will warn the Shi’ites to leave for everyone’s sake. For the sake of peace and safety. For the love of God. Leave or we will all pay the price.

Two weeks after Umm Hussein’s family moves, the Hanafis’ generator will explode.

Neither rivers of ink nor rivers of blood will mark the American invasion. Hard drives will have replaced books, and besides, the rivers will be so low that no one will bother to throw anything in them. Father, son of Omar, will say that we don’t need water from the rivers. We come from desert people. I will know that he is lying: we came from book-reading, aqueduct-building people. People who had built the walls of Mustansiriyya College six-feet thick to keep the heat out. They couldn’t think when they were thirsty any more than I can.

Poets and scholars had made Baghdad, the land between two rivers. The land between wars. Between thirsts. When the rivers finally dry out completely, surely then Baghdad will turn to dust and blow away on the wind, and no one will be left to bear witness.

When the Americans come, stories will pool in alleys and doorways, stories about bread and petrol, cement and cables and fire. Two days before the invasion, six columns of smoke from defense trenches of oil set on fire will surround our neighborhood like the points of a star. The rivers won’t turn black, but the sky will. It will make me choke and gag.

Bridges built and re-built with each new war will be bombed again: al-Sarafiyyah. al-A’immah. al-Adhamiyyah. More than I can name. For six months, the best way to cross the river will be by boat. After the invasion, the fisherman Abu Laith will not be able to make a living from fishing so he will become a ferryman. Father will pay Abu Laith a quarter of a dinar whenever he needs to cross the Tigris in that motorboat-that-used-to-be-a-fishing-boat. Because the bridges will be impassable, our stories will back up and fill the streets, a scummy green lapping against the walls of people’s houses. Sometimes the stories will run into the sewers and drip into the rivers where the waters will record them.

Often our stories will just turn yellow.

It will rain in the winter, then hail will fall, then it will rain again. And throughout the summer we will not have water.

Reeds and other wet things that grow along the riverbanks will die out. As a young man, my Uncle Tariq, Father’s oldest brother, went swimming in the Tigris one day, never to return alive. Weeds had grasped his legs and held him under long after my father, just a boy then, went home. There will be no weeds to rescue me. As an old man, Father’s eyes won’t tear up at the tale of his brother. We won’t have water to spare for that kind of thing. It will be enough that the river remembers.

The market near al-Adhamiyyah bridge that had been full of fat fish with bright red gills and clear eyes will become barren. Abu Laith’s stall will be empty. Father will say the fish are small and stinky and he won’t waste our money on them. Father will be old by then; he will have forgotten how smelly all fish were even before the Americans came. I won’t go with him to the market to judge for myself because there will be no point.

I will find light pink dust in my ears, in my hair, between my fingers. Father will think I’m too young to remember how it was, but he will be wrong. I am ancient like the rivers.

I was and always will be.

When the Americans come, the streets will stay dry. Blood won’t run here; it will burn and turn to ash before it hits the ground.

How could anyone bleed from a bullet wound if dust runs through their veins?

Faces will blacken, if you could even tell they had been faces. Hajji Majeed’s flesh will fuse with his steering wheel at the traffic circle by the fifteenth police station. They will say that he was kidnapped and forced to blow himself up or his family would be slaughtered.

The smell of burning plastic will join forces with the smell of burning garbage.

My cousin Zaid, my mother’s sister’s son, will be splattered against the wall of a bookstore on Mutanabbi Street. He will have written his name on a paper kept in his boot. His mother will wail but she won’t cry.

Our jasmine plant will stop flowering in June and dry up. Mama will not throw the woody stems out. She will say that she is waiting for the water to come back so she can revive the plant.

We will leave the faucets on so that when water trickles through, the bowls and buckets underneath will catch the drips. Whenever a drop rips itself from the kitchen spout, I will know from the deep ping that follows how full the jar beneath it is.

It will drip. Sometimes. Mostly it will just be quiet.

The house will be louder when my brother Haitham is home. He will grow four centimeters in one summer. He will tell me that his school is still there, just lacking books and windows. The plastic sheets they tape over the window frames will not keep the heat out. I will try to show Haitham some things from my old texts, but he won’t respect me like a real teacher; he will only be interested in the pictures. Even I will get bored with my old books. The green cloth cover will be faded and frayed, with grey cardboard bones showing from underneath the tears. The picture of him will still adorn the first page. One year after he is executed, I will have the courage to rip that page out and shred it.

Haitham will love the history stories Father tells. So will I, except for when Father says we come from desert people. Why won’t he remember?

Follow the rivers.

I will count the drips the way I counted spoons of tea or missile strikes near our house. I will count the neighbors who move away just as I counted the loaves of bread Umm Hussein baked for us or the empty flowerpots in our yard.

I will count the books on my shelf.

In March, the humidity will bully its way through our house and make my hair curl. I will wonder why the water is in the air instead of on the ground or in the pipes. I will not believe my Uncle Hazim, father of Zaid, when he says the river levels are low. I will not be able to imagine how the rivers could be short on water when the bridges have been repaired and our stories have sunk into the Tigris. I will remember how it rained the month before. I will think my uncle is lying.

In August, the bougainvillea will try to bloom its hell-inspired red flowers.

In December, I will beg Mama to let me go back to school. In February she will relent.

After they fix the al-A’immah bridge, the Shi’ites will use it one holy day to come to the shrine in al-Adhamiyyah. They will hear a rumor of a bomber come to kill them; they will panic and run. They will fall by the hundreds into the Tigris where many of them will drown. Haitham will see it all from the riverside. He will come home bright-eyed and talking too loud, full of stories about how he and his schoolmates had tried to help. His friend Salaam, son of I don’t know who, will be exhausted from swimming in the river to fish out survivors. Haitham and his gang will decide to become better swimmers just in case, but they will forget that resolve in a week.

There won’t be enough water in the river to make good their promise to themselves. The river will barely be full enough to hold the stories I whisper into the drain.


Bint Arab is Iraqi American, born in Baghdad and raised in Brooklyn. Today she lives in Texas, where being a New Yorker makes her more of a stranger in a strange land than being Arab American ever could. Her stories have been published in Expanded Horizons, 50 to 1, Every Day Fiction, and Absent Willow Review. She administers the writers’ forums at Bibliophilia.