HE SUN'S LOW ORB RESEMBLED a mosque’s dome in the east. Smoky columns, from fires, rose between widely-spaced palm trees across the flat desert.
The sky, like a gargantuan roof, topped those timber and smoke pillars, like the final piece of a vast temple whose dimensions were belittling my sense of destiny.
We cut through the palm-tree-dotted, yellow desert, the horizon pink, Tariq beside the driver, Marwan behind Tariq, James and I on the third seat, only the driver aware of where we were going.
“I wonder,” James said, “if the other driver was really sick.”
A dead dog’s snout was facing away from its front paws, the carcass splayed out on the road like a trophy from the night’s fighting.
A town sat on the straight road’s converging edges. More dead dogs, expunged of will, decorated the road.
High palms towered over the town’s low buildings. Black smoke rose above the treetops.
“I think,” Tariq said, “it’s Fellujah.”
Fire-orange flashed behind a hole in a concrete fence. Smoke veins, swirling upwards, without vapour’s grace, formed streams of ugliness so fast-moving that they seemed to be being sucked up by an invisible force, pulled up into nothingness.
Low houses lay behind low fences, the street without people; then blue, red, yellow and green doors were suddenly facing an intersecting road where men were in white and women in black. Bodies were rimmed with morning gold. Multicoloured minarets. Rusting cars. Bleating horns. A long traffic island. Criss-crossing pedestrians. A street furious with life. Honk, honk, bleat, bleat, honk. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, bleating.
I gawked through a crack between the curtains, my nose against glass. Ivory corneas made slithers of surprise in a girl’s face. The white lakes around her irises expanded. Black dots, like mica islands, sat in her snowy eyes. She stared, shocked. Don’t say anything! I thought. Perleeeeazzz! I regretted my curiosity – immediately. Why the hell had I stuck my stupid face against this damn glass! Her brother was probably the head of the local resistance! And what the hell were we doing in this joint anyway?!
She was on the traffic island with a baby in her arms. James drew his curtains. The baby was wrapped in the same fabric being worn by the girl, like a reference to a sealed future. We sat in gloom. Metal glittered outside.
The girl looked away. My temples ceased pumping.
“It’s Fellujah,” Tariq confirmed.
Wars put places on the map by blowing them of it, and Fellujah was again on the map.
Traffic lights lay ahead. Solvent tablets were fizzing in the lake of hope that aspiration had inserted into my head. The lights were green. We should not have been in Fellujah! Who the hell was this driver!? The normal driver had been replaced in the morning because of sickness.