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Leaving Baghdad

Sinan Antoon

I put my bag next to Roy’s big bag close to the front door and went to the hotel restaurant, a small room with four tables and a door that led to the kitchen. Abed, the waiter, saw me from inside the kitchen and we exchanged greetings. I sat down at a table on the right, turned my cup over, took a Lipton teabag from the plate in the middle of the table, and put it in the cup. If it had been real tea, from a teapot and flavored with cardamom, the breakfast would have been perfect. In America I had stopped drinking tea, especially after I moved out of my family’s house and switched to coffee. Two minutes later Abed arrived, carrying a tray with a small bowl of clotted cream, another with date syrup, and a blue plastic basket holding two loaves of sammun bread. He put the tray on the table in front of me, then went back to the kitchen to fetch the hot water for the tea. He hadn’t said much, except for the first day we had breakfast, a week earlier. He asked me at the time about my traveling companions.

“Excuse me, sir, but the group you’re with, what’s their story?” he said.

“They’re married and they’ve come to shoot a documentary,” I replied.

“Really? A month ago there was a group of French people staying here who were making a film too. Very well, and you would be the director?” he asked.

“No, I just came with them to translate for them and help them.”

“Do you live abroad?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“In the U.S.” I said.

“How long have you been away?”

“Since 1993.”

I asked him about his work.

“I’ve been working in this hotel for four years,” he replied. “Our house is in Camp Sarah but for the last few months, since the fall of Baghdad, I go there only once a week. I sleep here.”

We didn’t speak after that. He was always busy with his work, and over breakfast Roy, Laura, and I had discussed the day’s schedule and the places we were going to film. As he poured the hot water into the cup, he asked, “It looks like you’re leaving today, sir?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Hope you have a safe trip. Which city do you live in, sir?”

“In Boston,” I said. “But in one week I’m going to move to a state called New Hampshire,” I added for accuracy.

“I’ve never heard of it, to be honest.”

“It’s on the border with Canada. Very cold,” I said.

“The cold’s easier to take than this damned heat. What do you do there?”

“I’ve got a job at a university,” I replied.

“Congratulations. I hope it goes well.” I expected him to ask what my discipline was, but a voice called him from the kitchen. “Excuse me, sir,” he said politely.

I put two spoonsful of sugar in the cup of tea and stirred it. I took a sip that almost scorched my tongue and put the cup back. I took a loaf of sammun, split it open along the side, and spread the cream inside, adding two spoonsful of the date syrup. Abed didn’t come back. I ate slowly to enjoy my last breakfast. I had tasted this gaymar back in America on a visit to San Diego, where many Iraqis live, but it tasted different there. This cream reminded me of Umm Jalil’s cream, which she used to leave in a bowl on the stoop of our house early in the morning. I remembered how a stray cat rubbed its nose in the cream one morning and made off with some of it. Would Umm Jalil still be alive? I examined the sole painting hanging on the wall opposite. It was an attempt to draw a traditional Baghdadi backstreet. There were women in abayas carrying baskets with the dome of a mosque, a minaret, and a sunset scene in the background. The colors were garish and there were unintentional mistakes in the perspective and the proportions. An attempt to reproduce a sense of authenticity, but it fell into the trap of self-Orientalism. I reproached myself silently for the way I was overanalyzing. There I was—thinking like an academic even before I officially started my new job. I had seen many of these paintings in the city, sold to journalists and newcomers. I remembered that the department chair had asked me in an email to decide what course I planned to teach, apart from Arabic, so that it could be added to the curriculum, and I had to decide quickly. The woman who had held the position before me had taught a class on Andalusian literature. The chair suggested I teach that too, and then I could propose another course for the following year. I didn’t have enough time to prepare a new course, and Andalusian literature would be an opportunity to reduce the number of questions on terrorism and jihad, which had intruded on every class and lecture since 9/11.

I began the rituals of preparing another piece of sammun and cream, but Roy’s voice called from the reception. “Hey, Nameer. Laura’s ready and the driver’s waiting.” I finished making the sandwich, wrapped it in a paper napkin that was on the table, put it in one of the pockets of my backpack, and drank the cup of tea, which wasn’t quite so hot.

Mullah Abbud al-Karkhi wasn’t in the driver’s seat, just Abularif, the Jordanian driver who had been with us throughout the visit and who worked on the Amman-Baghdad route and knew Baghdad well. Roy and Laura sat in the front seat next to the driver, while I took the back seat so I could stretch out and sleep.

Baghdad was still sleepy and yawning. Most of the shops had their eyes shut. There were some people on the sidewalks, but the streets were semi-deserted. A car drove past us from time to time. American tanks and armored vehicles were lurking at the junctions. Someone had written “US Army Go Home” in red paint on a wall. I was the one going back to the country that the U.S. Army came from, while it looked likely to stay. I was going back to a country that was not yet “home” even after a full decade. I had read expressions of gratitude to the Americans on other walls that made me sad. I wanted to see the Tigris and say goodbye to it. I didn’t know when I would come back, or whether I ever would.

From The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon, translated by Jonathan Wright. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, and translator, and an associate professor at New York University. Born in Baghdad, he left Iraq after the Gulf War. He is the author of several books, including The Corpse Washer. Jonathan Wright is an award-winning translator of works by authors including Ahmed Saadawi, Saud Alsanousi, and Youssef Ziedan.


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