please notes read a sign taped to the front door of the Al-Hamra. guns must be left at security desk. thans for your cooperation.

Inside the hotel, a man wearing a camel-colored turtleneck sat at the hotel’s reception desk doing a crossword in Arabic. On his desk were a pocket watch, a security wand, and a Kalashnikov, the barrel of which lay aimed at my groin as my brother Sami and I lifted our arms to be frisked.

Through a pair of heavy wooden doors, the journalists’ Christmas party was already under way. The restaurant’s red walls, red tablecloths, and dimly glowing wall sconces all suggested a supper club in purgatory. In one corner, two waiters in bow ties stood quietly at attention, the fabric of their shirts so thin you could plainly see the outline of their tank tops underneath. In another corner, a third Iraqi sat playing big band standards on a piano. The instrument was a blond old upright that faced into the room, its crisscrossed innards partly veiled by a floral-print curtain that matched those on the windows. Although: it was dark outside, and the hotel’s windowpanes had been reinforced with dense argyle iron grids; there might as well have been no windows at all.

In the center of the room a crowd of correspondents, cameramen, photographers, and contractors mingled festively, pouring drinks and cutting cigars. Most of them were men, although there were also a few women present, including one in tight white jeans being cornered by a man who, in a French accent, was explaining how the situation was not unlike Vietnam. You try to crush the resistance and in so doing you inflame the neutral population. We found Alastair out by the pool, sitting at a candlelit table cluttered with bottles and ashtrays and talking to a young American man whose hat identified him as with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Each man was working his way through a cigar, the American rather less adroitly, and because Alastair was no longer wearing his keffiyeh I saw now that while his beard was real, the black was not.

Anyone who was paying attention in the nineties, he was saying – anyone who learned anything from Yugoslavia, Bosnia, and Somalia – would have anticipated this. If you disband the military, if you fire everyone who ever worked for the government, if you take away people’s jobs, their income and their pride, what do you expect? That they’re going to sit around playing Parcheesi until you show up at their door and hand them a ballot? And if they know where the old munitions are hidden, and you aren’t guarding those either – is it really a surprise when they turn them against you?

In the pool, a series of fluorescent deck lamps reflected like a row of shimmering moons. A chin-ups bar had been installed on the far side of the water, where, as we talked, an impressively muscled silhouette strode over, sprang up, and began vigorously pistoning himself into the air. The UNHCR man, who had a Southern accent and continuously shifted his cigar from one hand to the other as though even its unlit end were unbearably hot, said:

Well, what choice did we have?

For that matter, said one of the other Americans, why wasn’t anything done sooner? Like when Saddam was murdering Kurds and Shiites for staging a rebellion at our own not-so-subtle suggestion? Leading to thousands of them being killed right under our noses, because our troops were under inexplicable orders not to intervene? Even though they were there. Even though the attack arguably breached Schwarzkopf’s cease-fire treaty. Why didn’t we do anything then?

You sound like an exceptionalist, said Alastair.

So? said the American. Exceptionalism is only a problem when it’s used to justify bad policies. Ignorance is a problem. Complacency is a problem. But to aspire to exceptional behavior – exceptionally generous, judicious, humane behavior – as anyone lucky enough to have been born in an exceptionally rich, exceptionally educated, exceptionally democratic country should do . . .

The man in the UNHCR cap nodded sagely and blew smoke rings that stretched oblong before dissolving into the collective haze above the pool. Less than two years later, the same pool would have the body parts of suicide bombers floating in it, but on this night, an Iraqi Christmas of relative calm, Saddam had been captured and it was impossible not to hope that the arc of the moral universe was not, after all, so very long and unyielding. I watched my brother light a cigarette without taking his eyes off the man on the pull-ups bar and thought maybe he wasn’t listening to the conversation, or listening but dismissing it as unworthy of his own participation. But then, still with his eyes on the exercising silhouette, Sami exhaled and said:

Isn’t it possible that what the West really wants is simply not to be inconvenienced by the Middle East? Not to be terrorized, not to be charged too much for its gas, not to be threatened with chemical or nuclear weapons? And otherwise you couldn’t really care less?

No, said the man with the UNHCR. I believe the average American is sincere when he says he wants Iraq to become a peaceful and democratic nation. A free and secular nation. Though we understand this may not be possible for some time.

But you wouldn’t want us to become richer than you. More powerful than you. To have greater international clout and the same seemingly boundless potential.

The man in the UNHCR cap looked nonplussed.

Well, Alastair put in quietly, it’s hard to imagine. But it would make for an interesting development, geopolitically speaking, yes.

Inside, the journalists, cameramen, and contractors were sitting around one long table now, carving up a Honey Baked Ham someone’s mother had FedExed from Maine. I sat down with Alastair at one end of the table, where two plates of meat were passed down to us and Alastair ate them both. While he did, I noted that he seemed more alive than when I’d last seen him, which had been in London five years earlier; his body now appeared more charged and alert – as though, casualties aside, he really rather preferred life in a war zone. I asked whether it didn’t occasionally feel hypocritical to be censorious of a war while at the same time drawn to its energies. Still chewing, Alastair nodded and said, Yes, it’s true, there’s something thrilling, addictive even, about the idea you’re living every moment only half a step ahead of death. But if it weren’t for those willing to do it, those willing to risk their lives to witness and record what’s happening, how would the rest of us know what our governments are doing in our names? I pointed out that the very proliferation of pseudo journalism these days, the cacophony of conjecture and partisan agendas and sensationalism that seem orchestrated above all to provoke and entertain, tended to leave me feeling as though I know less than ever what my government is doing in my name. Drinking, Alastair shrugged and nodded as if to concede: Yes, well, there’s always the moronic inferno.

It was also on this night that Alastair told me about how, eight years earlier, in Kabul, he and his crew had been packing up after a segment when an Afghan boy darted over and snatched his cameraman’s bag. A few minutes later a policeman happened by and Alastair stopped him to describe the boy: five foot seven maybe, fourteen or fifteen, wearing a light-blue shirt and a dark-green shemagh. Went thataway. A few minutes later the policeman returned with the boy and handed Alastair the bag. Alastair thanked him, and the policeman told the boy to apologize, which the boy did. Then the policeman drew his pistol from his holster and shot the boy in the head. You can imagine, said Alastair, the number of times I’ve replayed that scene in my mind and regretted my unwitting participation. And if it’s violence driving up your employer’s advertising revenue and you’re the one reporting the violence it’s hard to see how in that respect, too, you aren’t one of the ones perpetuating the violence. So, no, I don’t always sleep soundly at night. But if I quit, which I considered very seriously after that day, I think I’d go mad from the alternative. When I’m working, when I’m high on adrenaline, I’m not exactly in what you would call a contemplative state. But when I go home, when I go out to dinner or sit on the Tube or push my trolley around Waitrose with all the other punters and their meticulous lists, I start to spin out. You observe what people do with their freedom – what they don’t do – and it’s impossible not to judge them for it. You come to see a mostly peaceful and democratic society as being in a state of incredibly delicate suspension, suspension that requires equilibrium down to the smallest molecule, such that even the tiniest jolt, just one person neglecting its fragility with her complacency or self-absorption, could cause the whole fucking thing to collapse. You think about how we all belong to this species capable of such horrifying evil, and you wonder what your responsibility to humanity is while you’re here, and what sort of game God is playing with us – not to mention what it means that generally you’d prefer to be back in Baghdad than at home in Angel with your wife and son reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If I am unnerved by peace and contemplation, if something biochemical in me craves the stimulus of violent spectacle and proximity to conflict, where am I on the spectrum? What am I capable of, under another set of circumstances? How different am I, really, from ‘them’?

I didn’t know you believe in God.

I don’t. Or rather, I’m agnostic. A foxhole agnostic. There’s a Mandelstam poem that goes: ‘Your form, agonizing and fleeting / I couldn’t make it out in the haze / – God! – I said by mistake / Without having thought to speak.’ That about sums it up. You?

Yeah.

As in Allah?

I nodded.

Alastair lowered his beer.

What?

Nothing. I just . . . You’re an economist. A scientist. I didn’t know.

Beside us, four men in flak jackets sat down with a deck of cards. It was one of those military-issue packs, with ranks comprising the fifty-two most-wanted Ba’athists and Revolutionary Commanders; the game was Texas Hold’em and Chemical Ali led the flop. Designed and distributed to familiarize American soldiers with the names and faces of those they’ve been charged with capturing or killing in a raid, the concept is a descendant of one also employed in the Second World War, when air force pilots played gin rummy with cards sporting the silhouettes of German and Japanese fighter aircraft. It’s a curious tactic, this teaching of whom we should target and exterminate through a medium traditionally associated with playtime entertainment; one wonders whether the instructional advantage isn’t undermined by the incendiary implication that, to the Americans, war is akin to a game. In the one under way beside me, Saddam was the ace of spades, his sons Qusay and Uday that of clubs and hearts, respectively, and the only woman – the American-educated Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, aka Chemical Sally – the five of hearts. Thirteen of the cards, including all four deuces, had in lieu of a photo only a generic black oval that resembled the outline of a head wearing a hood like the grim reaper’s. And yet it was these cards, I thought, as the man nearest me laid down a flush – the cards without faces – that had the most humanizing effect. Maybe because their featurelessness more readily suggested that you, too, could have been born Adil Abdallah Mahdi (deuce of diamonds) or Ugla Abid Saqr al-Kubaysi (deuce of clubs) or Ghazi Hammud al-Ubaydi (deuce of hearts) or Rashid Taan Kazim (deuce of spades). If only your great-grandfather had met a different woman. If only your parents had taken a later flight. If only your soul had sparked into being on a different continent, a different hemisphere, a different day.

Meanwhile, the din of laughing and clinking and drunken caroling had begun to compete now with a slow but steady crescendo emanating from the piano in the corner. I looked up to see my brother there, sharing the instrument’s bench with its hired player, each man looking after his own half of the keyboard while also carrying on a conversation that made their cigarettes bounce between their lips. The music was no longer Cole Porter and Irving Berlin but instead a sort of jazz fever that had no beginning, middle, or end – just a cycle of surges, looping swells and contractions, long frenetic improvisations that managed to sound both triumphant and apocalyptic at once. It reminded me, in places, of the sort of music that accompanies a silent-movie brawl, or a Charlie Chaplin chase, or the headlines of history being peeled away one by one. And it went on late into the night – long after the ham had been finished and most of the journalists and contractors and cameramen had gone up to bed, long after the waiters had cleared the soiled tablecloths away and the camouflage-backed cards had gone back into their box, long after the cerulean pool had settled into a state like glass and the tiny column of ash on my brother’s cigarette had grown long enough to bow downward and drop off.

 

The above is an excerpt from Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmtery, available now for order.

Photograph © Sgt. Scott Wagers

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