A Short story by Simko Ahmed 2006
Based on a real story that happened in Basrah City in Iraq, in the aftermath of the
US-Iraq War 2003
He was staring with his dreamy green eyes at the circular movement of the bicycle tyres and listening to the sound they made. His deep suntanned skin made him very handsome. It was his only dream to have one of those gleaming brand new bicycles, especially one that had gears; one they called a “mountain bike”. Baba Ali was the name his father gave him thirteen years ago. Sometimes his friends in the camp called him Ali Baba. He hated that name.
Ali was born in a shabby Iranian refugee camp in southern Iran. His parents escaped from the Iraqi government’s brutal revenge after the first Gulf War. They fled Basra in 1991 when the uprising against Saddam’s army was crushed.
“Can I have one ride round with your bike? I can give you money for that!” said Baba Ali. “You don’t dare even touch it, you filthy Iraqi”! Replied the Iranian boy, who was dressed much better than Ali or any of the other boys in the camp.
Ali had both hands under his chin with a few coins sweating inside one of them. He was dreaming about how to decorate his bike if he ever got one. He loved the idea of having a fake foxtail hanging from the cover of the back tyre.
“It should be the colour orange!” These few words came out from his mouth spontaneously.
Ali’s father was a short overweight man with a typical Muslim look: long beard and dressed up in one long white cloth as dirty as the canvas of their living tent.
“Allahu akbar “God is greatest”! he shouted as he entered the tent with his small broken radio in his hand, fastened with the same rubber that he used for his trouser belt. “They arrested the Devil Saddam! They found him like a rat in a hole in his hometown of Tikrit!” With a big smile on his face, you could see his yellow teeth from end to end. The sound of the women’s “ halhala” (middle eastern women‘s expression of happiness) began and moved like waves across the refugee camp.
It was a sign of going back home after decades of refugee life in Iran.
“It is over! Saddam’s era is gone and that devil will never come back!” a man shouted from the camp. “Now he can feel what we have all felt for decades in Iraq! His sons were killed and he is a prisoner now. Shame for you and shame on you Saddam Hussein! One day for you and one day on you ” said Ali’s father.
“Where do you go back to Daddy?” screamed Ali. “To home, to home my Son, to Basra!” his father replied with a big loud happy voice.
Home and his world was this camp to Ali. This was where he was born and first opened his eyes. From his young eyes, the whole world was the camp and the small Iranian town outside. It was here in this shabby dusty tent camp he planted his childhood memories.
Within a few months the camp disappeared. Most of the occupants spontaneously returned to their homeland. The poorest of the poor were still waiting for aid from international agencies in order to move back home.
Baba Ali ‘s family resettled in the poor suburb of Basra. It was a totally new world for Ali: the street, the trees and the people were all new for him. He didn’t know a single person. The most important thing to him was to find a bike shop or a place where he could rent a bicycle for a few minutes.
His father was busy with religious Imamas and the country was in chaos. Every party and the Imams were struggling for power in the city.
Ali was helping his mother clean up the open sewer that was along the street in front of their house. Suddenly a small boy passed by on his bike shouting “Yalla Bread, bread, fresh bread!” Ali followed him as he passed by them and shouted, “Wait! I need bread!”
When the boy on his bicycle stopped, Ali began to touch the bike as he bought a few types of bread from him. “Where did you get this bike?” asked Ali. With gleaming green eyes, he admired every inch of the bicycle. “I bought it last year; it is my Great Horse!” the boy said with a laughing voice. “How much was it?” asked Ali.
“Three hundred Iraqi Swiss Dinar” the boy answered, referring to the old Iraqi Dinar not the newly copied one.
“How much is that in Iranian Toman?” asked Ali. “What the hell do I know about Iran? Are you from Iran?” answered the boy. “No, yes, we just came back last month. Do you want to be my friend?” Ali asked with a begging voice. “Yes. why not? As long as you promise to buy bread only form me.” replied the boy. “Deal!” Ali said with a very happy voice, for he had been able to find a first friend who also had a bicycle.
From that day on, Ali and Faris became very good friends. Sometimes he could get a free bike ride for helping Faris in his business. One day Ali asked Faris to help him to find a job so he could buy a bicycle and sell bread.
“Do you know that the British troops in Maidan (the main square) hire people to load and download goods from their trucks? They pay in U.S. Dollars. I bet in ten days of working there you could buy a brand new bicycle.” Faris said with the air of a teacher or very sophisticated person.
That night, while Baba Ali was dreaming, feeling that his old dream might finally come true, his father entered their home with an angry face. “Those British are sons of Devils too! They are not keen to leave soon. They want to stay in this city for good, those people! Allah damn them! They are Satan!”
At that moment Ali realized that working for British troops would not be welcomed by his father. He didn’t understand what was going on, whom to hate and whom to love. He was too young to understand all those complicated political and religious thoughts.
When the next day the two boys biked to Maidan, they saw people lining in front of the British military base. It was a really long line of mainly adults and older men. “I’m afraid you might have no chance of getting a job today. They always choose the biggest guys.” Faris said with a disappointing tone. “But go to the line anyway, and if they came to you tell them, Sir, I want Job please. Don’t be afraid. It is all small boxes and not very heavy. I worked in the beginning but later they kicked me out when they found out my real age. They don’t hire people under eighteen years old. Tell them you are eighteen, ok? Don’t speak Arabic to them because they don’t understand a word. Remember those English words I told you. When I was here someone told me the same thing.”
Firas was still talking as he rode off on his bicycle. “I will be back after two hours. The line is long. It takes time!”
Ali stood in the line with a heart full of fear: fear of not getting the job and his dream fading and fear of suicide bombers who were targeting foreign troops on a daily basis. He had been in the line for one and a half hours when the door opened. Two British soldiers came out. The line vanished as hundreds of people gathered around them. Ali tried to make his way to get close to the soldiers, but he couldn’t make it. The soldiers quickly picked about ten men and then went back to the base, closing the gates on the faces of the rest.
For the next few days Ali stood in the line. He didn’t even get close enough to the soldiers to talk. As soon as they appeared the big guys and older men gathered around them. One day, however, there were not many people waiting because of the seriousness of suicide attacks that happened in various part of the city. He took his chance to talk to the solder. Before the solder could open his mouth, Ali shouted: “Sir, I want job please, I’m eighteen years old!”
The solder asked him for his ID card. Ali had never had an Iraqi ID. He didn’t even exist officially in Iraq, but he today he was lucky because the line was thin, and the soldier waved him across the gate.
Ali received a five-dollar bill for the first time in his life. He was very happy but he still needed ten times that that to make his dream come true. Unfortunately that was the first and last time he would cross that gate. He didn’t have any identification and the competition with bigger and older men was too hard for him.
He used his five dollars to buy breads and sell them in the early morning to make some money. Since he was walking and was slow compared to the boys who had bikes, he reached the families too late. They had already bought breads from the bike boys. His unsold breads dried up and he lost his only five dollars.
One night he asked his father to buy him a bike so he could do the same work as the other kids. Unfortunately, his father’s monthly income in his new job as a guard of one of the Muslim Imam politicians amounted to the same price of a bicycle. Baba Ali found that the distance between his dreamy green eyes and the bicycle of his dreams was getting long and longer.
That longing sadness grew bigger after his visit with Faris to the bike store. There were bikes in all colours hanging from the walls and ceiling. This was like a dream of paradise for Ali. The image of the store was there beside his pillow whenever he went to the bed. His room wall was full of photos of bikes of all kinds, from small baby bikes to the motorcycles. He had a huge poster of Tom Cruise riding a motorcycle. His mother always told him “You look like him, you have the same eyes. One day when you become a man you will have one of those.”
Visiting that store became part of his daily life. The storeowner, however, was not happy with his visits because he knew that Ali could never buy one. He was kicked out many times, but he never gave up. He always went back, sometimes helping clean the dust on the bikes for free, just to touch them. It gave him pleasure just to feel close to the shining bicycles.
One day he was busy cleaning the dust from the bikes for free. Those that had been hung so high were hard for the fat owner to reach. He was always using Ali to dust those. Suddenly a huge explosion occurred in front of the store. The entire front of the shop flew to the sky. The screams of people and pillars of smoke covered the shop inside and out. Ali ran out of the store and saw a police car on fire. There were many dead and injured people screaming and lying on the ground. He run to the storeowner and found him unconscious with blood on his face.
At that moment looters entered the store and each of them grasped bikes or motorbikes and took them away. Ali ran for the beloved orange bicycle, grabbed it and started to cycle through the smoky street. He hadn’t gone two hundred meters when Shiite Militia guards caught him. They threw him with the bike into the back of their military pick up. With a gun pointed to his head, along with two other boys, he was driven away to the suburbs of the city. There they took all the bikes and then drove the three boys to the militia groups’ prison, which was a normal house with thick iron bars instead of windows.
Ali ‘s father was called to the Grand Ayatollah ‘s office. He arrived there to face the old man with a long white beard and a book of the Quran in his hand. When he saw Ali’s father, the Ayatollah lifted his head and began to speak Arabic in the same dialect as the Quran’s.
“Are you the father of Ali Baba?” he asked him.
“Holy Ayatollah, his name is Baba Ali not Ali Baba,” he answered while he was on his knees bending to him.
“Your son has committed the crime of stealing and was arrested on the spot. We would like you to tell us his age. You should tell us the truth because God is now hearing us and you cannot lie to him. For the sake of your faith and your eternal life you had better to tell us only the truth!” replied the Ayatollah.
“Holy Ayatollah he just turned fourteen years old last week” Ali’s father answered as if he was indeed in the court of God.
“Then based on the Sharria law, your son should be amputated. Both hands should be cut off. That is God’s punishment for the sake of you and him”. He continued: “We will give your son back for two days. Let him do what he is wishing with his hands before he receives the capital of God. Mr. Hassan, we know you are a strong believer and you will do what God has asked. I request you to bring him back twenty four hours from now and don’t give him any drug or medicine because feeling that pain is part of God’s will”. He ended his speech with another line of Quran.
Ali’s father, along with his son left the court of the Holy Ayatollahs who had never felt the cold winter or the hot summer, who ate fresh fruit and slept in a clean, warm bed. They had never lived in the shabby tents of Iran, nor experienced suffering, even when they were refugees in Iran. They didn’t know what dreams were, or what life means with no limbs in a country in which it was hard for people with limps to survive.
Ali’s father, despite the big pain in his heart, like other simple minded people in his society, didn’t see any other way out from this crisis but to follow what the sharria and ayatollahs were demanding.
On their way home, his father, with tears in his eyes said: “Ali, I don’t need to ask you what you would like. I have a surprise for you”.
Ali was unaware of what was going on. “Father, why are you crying?”
“nothing, don’t worry” cried his Father.
A few minutes later Ali’s lifetime dream came true. His father took him to a bike store and he got an orange bike. Firas his friend was there too, he had found the store for Ali’s father.
That day Ali rode around the city with a smile on his face until the evening. When he went back to his room he looked up at Tom Cruise’s picture on the wall and felt deep happiness in his heart. He spent the next day the same way. Firas showed him around the city that he had never seen before. Neither of the boys knew that it woud be the last time that Ali’s hands of youth and his eyes of the future would grasp the frame of that toy.
“The city is so big and nice, I want to cycle around the entire country of Iraq when I am bigger!” Ali said with great excitement.
Twenty-four hours later, the court of Sharria took the boy to a room where his father and few long bearded nurses with knifes and towels in their hands where waiting.
Very soon the screams of the boy covered the deep silence. “You sons of bitches, you devils! Let me go!” The cries and screams rose up to the sky. The pain of losing youth and dreams collapsed under the weight of the knife of ignorance. The smell of the Dark Ages, stones and the old paper of a book that belonged to 1,400 years ago gave the order to kill his spirit that day.
The silent punisher came out, sweating, with a bloody hand and his bloody knife in his hand. “He is bleeding too much. I think we should take him to the hospital. The other two boys were easier, but this Satan was hard to cut ”
The wind was playing with the curtains of the window in the early afternoon. The last orange colour of the warm sun was still on the top wall of the building across the window. Pigeons were cooing and making love on the roof; their voices could be clearly heard. The drops of water from the tube dripped through his vein steadily.
Firas opened the door slowly. “Are you awake?” he asked him quietly.
As Ali lifted his head, his flat, lifeless green eyes gave him the look of an old man.
“They took my hands! ” He started to cry quietly and turned back to the window.
Firas jumped to the bed beside him.
“ I want to tell you something very important. We have just bought a satellite dish! Finally is not illegal to buy it. Last night I saw on a European channel a new brand of bikes. They only have one tyre! You don’t need hands at all!”