when the sisters heard the roar of U.S. military planes overhead, they clambered up the wooden steps onto the roof of their uncle’s mud-brick farmhouse. “Maybe they can see us!” cried Nunu happily. She shouted to the sky, for once not caring who heard: “Go! Good luck! But don’t kill any innocent people.”
Zia laughed with her, glad to have something, at last, to celebrate. The Americans were here to free them from Saddam. She watched her little sister waving at the distant black specks, skipping over the mud and straw in her fancy shoes. A few days ago, Nunu had overheard on her shortwave radio that American troops were marching through Iraqi villages, going door-to-door, and ever since then she had been getting up an extra hour early in the morning just to do her hair and makeup. So far, no war heroes had shown up, but it was so good to see Nunu happy that Zia hadn’t even teased her for it. They could feel the electricity in the air: after years of oppression, the government was about to be overthrown, and Iraq would be free—a “freedom” they had only ever known through their mother’s stories of Iraq’s glorious past. After weeks and months of waiting, these military planes were their first, welcome sign of that immense promise.
As the sound of the planes died away and Nunu scanned the horizon for more, Zia’s own thoughts grew darker. In her mind she followed the bomber planes to Baghdad, 115 miles to the east, where her father, stubborn as ever, had insisted on waiting out the invasion to protect their house from looters. As a child she had heard bombs falling around their neighborhood during the Iran-Iraq war, and she remembered the terror, as she moved through adolescence, of the American bombing raids on Baghdad in 1991 and 1998. She couldn’t bear to imagine anything happening to Baba, or to her beloved city—though she tried to tell herself that some destruction was necessary and understandable. Her throat tightened as she remembered Baba’s admiration of the “incredible precision” of American bombs, and his insistence that the Americans weren’t interested in targeting civilians. That had been three weeks ago, though, and they’d had no news from him since. Though she knew it was forbidden to doubt her own father, she still whispered a silent prayer, under her breath, that he’d be safe.
Nunu skipped toward her across the roof. “Zia, let’s go tell Mamina! Now that the Americans are here, soon we’ll be able to go home!”
As they climbed down the ladder into their uncle’s home, Zia wished, again, that women’s lives would change with the Americans’ arrival. She was tired of being an outcast. As the eldest daughter, Zia had unconsciously stepped into the patriarchal role usually assumed by the eldest son, earning income in her job, driving the car, tutoring Nunu, and even handling financial matters with her uncles. She liked being in charge, even though she knew her outspokenness had earned her a reputation as “unmarriageable” around the neighborhood.
“The Americans are advancing toward Baghdad!” Nunu cheered when they found Mamina, folding her prayer mat in the bedroom the women shared downstairs. Their mother’s darkly lined eyes lit up, and she gave them a tight, perfume-scented hug. Even with her hair hidden under a veil, Mamina radiated the warmth and beauty of a woman twenty years younger, Zia thought. This time, they all felt sure, the Americans would get the job done.
Mamina sighed contentedly. “Like he parted the sea for Moses, we pray God makes a smooth path for the Americans. Then, my dears, you will know how it feels to be proud of your homeland—you’ll see the progressive, cultured Iraq your father and I loved so much when we were young. Iraq was once a paradise for women, and the Americans will help us restore that. I dream that you will be able to live as you wish from now on.”
Zia caught Nunu’s eye and they both collapsed into excited giggles like children, unable to believe this fantasy would soon be real. Clapping her hands, Nunu cried, “Mamina, when the American soldiers see us, maybe they will fall in love and want to marry us!”
“Shhhh!” Mamina scolded, though her eyes belied her joy. “Keep your voice down. Remember we are in Hit.”
indeed, living with Uncle Jalal, the women were all too aware that not every Iraqi was celebrating the end of Saddam’s twenty-five-year rule. Although their uncle’s family had agreed to shelter Zia, Nunu, and Mamina because Mamina’s sister, Sahra, was married to Jalal, the imminent invasion had awoken dormant religious tensions across the country. They, like most of the other townspeople of Hit, were conser- vative Sunni Muslims, while Sahra and the rest of Zia’s family were Shia. It was a divide that had arisen in the seventh century, over which group held true claim as descendants of the Prophet’s rightful successor. Saddam and his government were mostly Sunni, and during the quarter century he’d been in power Saddam had deepened the distrust between the two groups by overtly favoring Sunni villages, granting them more reliable electricity and public funding. Although in recent years most residents in the educated areas of Baghdad dismissed infighting between religious sects as backward, and intermarriages like Sahra and Jalal’s had become common, there was still strong religious feeling in conservative tribal centers. As the American invasion neared, politics had begun to increasingly break down along these religious lines, with provincial areas like Hit remaining deeply loyal to Saddam while the more urban Shia were suspected, often rightly, of supporting and even helping the USA with the imminent invasion.
these tensions were certainly making the evening meals increasingly awkward. That night, as Mamina, Zia, and Nunu sat cross-legged on the floor around the embroidered tablecloth, they tried not to betray too much of their excitement. Inevitably, though, as the family began to eat, roughly tearing off pieces of flat bread and using it to spoon the stuffed onions, rice, cucumbers, and kebabs, the discussion turned to the war. Everyone had heard the planes overhead that afternoon, and knew that the long weeks and months of suspense would soon be over, for better or worse.
Jalal’s mother, eyeing her guests, openly praised Saddam. “He is a strong man who will stand up to the infidel Americans.” She looked around the room bitterly, her fierce face swathed in a black abaya. The tribal tattoos on her wrists were visible as she waved her arms in defiance. Mamina glanced in alarm over at Zia, knowing how hard it was for her daughter to keep her opinions to herself when she was angry, but Zia just shot their hostess a hostile look and swallowed hard. Nunu, who never said anything in public anyway, kept her eyes downcast, refusing to risk anyone’s disapproval. Mamina hurriedly tried to move the conversation to safer ground. Saddam’s secret police could be anywhere, and no one had dared criticize the dictator for more than two decades. It wasn’t yet safe to start.
Luckily, Jalal’s sister, who was far less interested in politics, soon dominated the conversation. She wanted to gossip about the woman next door, whom she considered “barren” because she had only two children: “I have sixteen children, mostly sons,” she haughtily reminded her city cousins, and the dinner discussion soon settled into a polite appraisal of these young men’s virtues.
After dinner, Nunu and Zia retreated to the bedroom to listen to the news on Nunu’s little shortwave Sony radio. Although most channels were government-controlled and spewed pure propaganda, the girls had found an international station, Radio Monte Carlo, where they could get reliable outside information. They listened anxiously for news about their Baghdad neighborhood, praying nothing would happen to Baba and their neighbors, but there wasn’t much information available. “Do you think our relatives are listening to these same stations too, from London?” Nunu asked.
“Maybe,” Zia mused. The family had little contact with their family members who lived in exile. They suspected their phone calls were monitored by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, so they didn’t dare speak openly with them on the rare occasion when they called them. Letters addressed to foreign countries were also opened and screened, and Iraqis had no access to the Internet or email. “I hope our uncles are not too worried. I wonder if they’ll want to come visit, now that Iraq is going to be safe again.”
As snatches of broadcasts interrupted the static, the sisters talked about how different life would be once Saddam was defeated: Zia would finally get her medical degree, and Nunu would “marry Redha al- Abdullah”—a famous Iraqi singer—and “have seventeen children!”
“And they’ll all be boys!” Zia added. They laughed. These impoverished, aggressively conservative villagers were looked down upon by the well-educated city girls, who had grown up among much more liberal attitudes, even under Saddam’s brutality. Baba generally let them wear pants and makeup, if they wanted to, but here the old women’s abayas covered their faces, hands, and feet. Barefoot young women and their dirt-smudged children carried urns of water alongside the roads. Few of the women in the village had gone to school beyond elementary, while Zia had graduated from university and Nunu would too, in a few years. These villagers’ lives were not governed by the modern strictures of Parliament, police, and the court of law, but instead by a small band of tribal elders and Islamic clerics whose families had ruled the region for generations.
Still, Hit and Baghdad did have one thing in common: the center of town had a monument to Saddam. Every town and city in Iraq was peppered with government-ordered murals and statues of the dictator. There was “Uncle Saddam,” the loving patriarch; “Muslim Saddam,” shown in religious attire to underscore his devotion to Islam; and, most frequently, the armed “Warrior Saddam,” perpetually victorious against the modern-day evils of America and Israel. Everyone knew these symbols, but it had been a long time since any of the government’s rhetoric held even an echo of truth; Saddam had stopped caring for or protecting his countrymen long ago. Nunu and Zia found the statues both ridiculous and terrifying—even the smallest act of vandalism to one of these images could mean a painful death.
Mamina came into the bedroom and found her girls gossiping about Saddam, Jalal’s family, and the backwardness of Hit. Nunu looked up at her mother. “Saddam has done nothing but steal from Iraqis for two decades, and yet they are still loyal to him over the Americans. How can they defend him?”
Mamina settled on the bed between them, curling her fingers absentmindedly through Nunu’s glossy hair. “Did you know Aunt Sahra and I grew up in a world very much like Hit? There were twelve of us children, and your grandparents were very poor. When we were young, Iraq had few roads, and no cars or airports. Most people in these rural areas traveled by donkey or walked, married their cousins to preserve family unity, and never ventured beyond their villages. The old ways are deeply ingrained, and there was never a lot of reason to change. You can’t call them backward just for carrying on the ancient traditions—after all, Iraq is famously known as the cradle of civilization. All great history and culture began here. The epic of Gilgamesh was first told by Mesopotamians more than five thousand years ago; the ancient tales of Kahlila and Dimna inspired Aesop’s fables, and, as you know, the story of the Arabian Nights is set in a Baghdad neighborhood right near our apartment. We have much to be proud of.”
“But Mamina,” Zia pointed out, “you left your village, and you’re not like Uncle Jalal’s sister. And you’re always telling us that women can be as good as men at some things. These people certainly don’t believe that.”
Mamina sighed. “One of the things I loved best about Iraq, in the years before you girls were born, was how we led the Arab world in culture, education, and women’s rights. Iraq had the best of both worlds—the ancient heritage and modern, secular policies. When I was in elementary school, General Kassim overthrew King Faisal the Second. He was just a puppet for the British government, which had been running Iraq for almost forty years. We adored General Kassim. For him, Iraq’s women and children were just as important as the men. When an interviewer asked him why he wasn’t married, he said, ‘Iraq’s old women are my mothers, the young women are my sisters, and the baby girls are my daughters.’?” Mamina laughed. “That made us all want to marry him! Under his rule, the public schools gave out milk, yogurt, and vitamins, the government tested children’s health annually, and medicine was free. In the winters our headmaster gave the poorer students pieces of thick material and dinars to take to the tailor for jackets.”
“That’s what Saddam should be doing if he wants to have those statues of him as our ‘uncle,’?” Nunu interjected. “Instead we have nothing to be proud of—no nice shampoos, no fancy cheeses, no fruits, bread, or milk half the time, and the markets have nothing to sell.”
Excerpted from Sisters in War by Christina Asquith. Copyright © 2009 by Christina Asquith. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.