N.B. Fiction with mature themes.
By Juan Cole |
Adib was winning at cards again. Bashir was already out, sitting in a corner with his French novel.
Soliman hated losing, even though they didn’t play for much in the way of stakes. They only had their share of the neighborhood protection money — greasy, taped-together old notes proffered by the housewives and pensioners. They were the miserable souls who didn’t have enough in savings to get a ticket to a neighboring country and escape this hellhole. The neighbors paid willingly to have the militia patrol, and keep out other militias.
Adib, Soliman, Bashir and a couple of other guys went out sometimes, wearing khaki and ski masks and hobnail boots they’d bought at the Thursday flea market for almost nothing, Kalashnikovs at the ready. There was only so much surveillance you could do. It wasn’t like their neighborhood was worth looting, or had tall buildings. Guerrillas prized tall buildings, like soldiers loved hills in the old days of conventional warfare. Get a mortar emplacement up on one, you controlled a quarter of the city.
Their office used to be someone’s luxury apartment, but those people lived in Paris now. They had better, too. Amber bulbs flickered on ornate lamps like flowers hanging off a bush. Louis XIV chairs showed off ankles with sexy curves. A militia, Bashir always said, had to have an office.
Bashir looked up from his book, grey streaks in his mustache. He stared at beaming Adib, a cat that had gulped down a rat whole.
"You smile too much, Adib. A commando should have a straight face, a little menacing, a little bored. Like you might put one right between the ribs, just at random."
Soliman was glad to see him upbraided for gloating. Adib was just a teenager. He should be playing video games. Who would be afraid of him? Artillery howled in the distance and the lights blinked.
Bashir pointed at Soliman. "And you. You have no guile. You’re no good at cards."
"I’m good at other things."
Bashir shook his head. Adib laughed. A militia office was no place to laugh. Adib had caught his drift. They both had their eye on Leila. They had gone to her apartment to collect a donation and were met by the mother. The old lady had run out of money so she dumped a bracelet into their rucksack. She kept sweeping her hand behind her, gesturing to her daughter to stay hidden, in the back room. But the girl had peered out and they caught her eye.
Leila sneaked out and came by the office sometimes. They sat around talking about what they would do when the war was over. She stared hungrily at their khaki, like she wanted to make a meal of it.
Adib raked in the bills he had won, then downed some milky arak, a licorice-tasting drink cut with water. "You only dream of being good. Me, I’ve been more practical."
Soliman looked up sharply. "What do you mean by that?"
"You should hear the sounds she makes! We did it under the overpass a couple of nights ago."
"Somebody’s mouth is bigger than his other organs."
Adib pursed his lips. He unsnapped the front pocket of his shirt and pulled a pendant out. It was Leila’s.
Bashir swiveled around, alarmed. "She’s just a girl, Soliman. They’re a lira a half dozen. They like the sound of boots and the flash of gun barrel. Lots more gazelles in that desert, boy."
Soliman stood and swung his Kalashnikov around. "Take it back! You’ve insulted her honor! Admit you’ve never been near her!"
Adib was grinning again, swinging the pendant. "Inside her, it’s like holiday sweets."
Bashir shrugged and went back to his novel. "If you boys want to off yourselves, be my guest. But my advice is to change the subject. She’s not worth it."
Soliman put his finger on the trigger to show he meant business. "Take it back!"
"If you could get it up, you could have been there first." Neon white teeth.
Soliman took a step forward, but tripped over his own glass of arak and lost his balance. He tried to brace himself and his finger pulled the trigger.
Adib flipped back, flinging Leila’s pendant against the wall. A red tulip was blooming in his chest. His eyes, quizzical, flickered out.
Soliman ran to his friend but his head was heavy and there was no breath on his lips, which smelled of licorice. He looked at Bashir through watery eyes.
The older man had not bothered to rise. His black unibrow undulated like a cobra. "You idiot!"
"It was an accident! What can we do?"
"It was a moronic accident. But all our efforts are for the party. Go see Hani at the photocopy shop."
The next day the city’s walls and light poles were plastered with pictures of Adib. Underneath his smiling portrait, large cursive letters spelled out the word "Martyr."