Azizi has seen three years of rotations. The cycles are the same. A squadron of immature, gun-happy boys arrive. They get their training, are sent out on their first mission, and in a week, grown men emerge, toothy grins gone from their faces. They see each other die and lose limbs and grow very skilled at survival. The training kicks in and their eyes narrow, brows furrow.
Williams is with the South Carolina unit. That group is ready to go home. Azizi wonders what they go back to - TV and big cars? The United States has plenty of its own rich Cairos. Yet he knows some of these boys also live in backwoods poverty like the roof dwellers of Egypt’s filthy poor. Over the years some have shown him photos of young American wives, dogs, mothers and fathers, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter. Home should be a place where you can return.
“I thought we were done with that case,” Azizi says, following Williams inside.
“The father keeps them agitated. Too many losses for such a small village. And now his child. Jesus!” Williams pours strong coffee into two mugs, and beckons him toward the mess table.
“He hasn’t been paid yet, that’s his problem,” Azizi murmurs. He feels Williams’ eyes sweep over him.
They lapse into silence watching men dressed in combat fatigues shuffle through the breakfast line.
Only three years in Iraq, and violence, killings and suffering are the norm. Azizi is careful where he moves, and trusts only the experienced soldiers. He does favors, barters and negotiates. He earns a little extra by finding small comforts for the men.
Williams leans on his elbows on the table. “How’d you get this job anyhow, Egypt?”
Azizi lowers his cup, and leans back. “I left Cairo after university to go to Kuwait to get rich. You know how kids think. Big shots.” He grins and takes another sip of coffee. “Then Iraq invaded and the Gulf War started. The Brits and Americans needed an interpreter.” He shrugs. “I was cursed with languages.” He doesn’t say how much he likes their easy, friendly manner, their brave determination. That war ended, but not the affiliation, and another war began.
“You got family left in Egypt?”
Azizi feels uneasy with personal questions. Americans have no problems asking. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. He nods.
“How about a sweetheart? Leave anyone behind?”
He shakes his head, lowering his eyes, feeling transparent.
Aziza remembers the girl his father chose for his intended bride. One of six sisters in a wealthy banking family, nearly invisible in their silent docility. Even then, most women seemed wordless and uninteresting to him. Only Zala, his little sister, had the chatter of a free little bird. What had become of her? Like many Muslim women, had she remained in his father’s morose house until a husband appeared? Azizi couldn’t remember even saying goodbye to her.
“Here they come,” Williams says, rising. They walk outside.
A Humvee driven by a smirking private first class peels up to the mess tent. Azizi sees an old Iraqi woman in abayah sitting in the vehicle, folding and unfolding a small dirty handkerchief. Her veil hides the lower half of her face, but her stony gaze finds him. He doesn’t need to translate anything. It’s like looking into the eyes of a crocodile at the edge of the shore. Words are unnecessary.
Inside, she screeches her story, gesturing broadly during the interview. Azizi softens her shrill allegations in his translations while Williams takes notes. She isn’t a relative of the dead girl, only a neighbor, but the girl called her Auntie. She vents rage more than fact—and her testimony will likely be ignored. The military has eyewitnesses already. Her fury is operatic, and Williams’s jaw clenches and reclenches as Azizi carefully chooses English words. He knows she’s just venting but her whole demeanor screams insurgent. Daily women and children are strapped with IED’s and sent to the Green Zone. It’s Azizi’s job to interpret more than words. He knows how much power he holds. And she is powerless. A wrong word could harm her.
When it is over, the Private escorts her back to the Humvee, and as she walks away, she makes a fist and shakes it, without looking back at them.
“This must be hard on you, knowing the language,” Williams says as the vehicle pulls out. A soft drift of sand settles slowly back to the road.
“It’s my job. It’s not me she hates.” Azizi shrugs.
Williams proffers a pack of Camels. Azizi takes one and leans to light it off the Zippo in the soldier’s hand.
“You gotta feel for them. I got a little sister back home,” Williams says. “I’d be more pissed than that old auntie,” jerking his thumb toward the departed Humvee, “if anything happened, I mean.”
Azizi takes a long drag on his cigarette. “It’s all political, you know.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It was a girl. Not a son. You probably wouldn’t understand. It would be the same if she had been a goat.”
A knot forms in Williams’ jaw. “Oh I understand, all right.” He looks at Azizi through the smoke that rises from his nose. “You got a sister, Azizi?”
The cigarette tastes like dung. Azizi grinds it out under his shoe. He squints and stares out at the flat horizon. The barque floats high on the river, and Zala’s silent little form sits erect. The sun plays on her long black hair and dances on waves that lap at the boat. How else can she get away?
“No,” Azizi says. “No sister.”
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