Short story and photos by C August Elliott
The sun was setting over the stony hills and the goats were bleating an accompaniment to the changing of the light. The day was almost through and from where she sat in the notch of an acacia tree she could see beyond the hilltops, right to the jagged horizon. Bathed in the glow of day’s end, the distant chain of mountains was alive with colors of orange and rose-pink – colors that made her feel warm and happy and thankful.
In the foreground, a pair of shallow wadis split the open ground, the parallel cataracts like the deep ruts tracked out by a convoy of pickup trucks after heavy rain. Today though, the valley was dry. Tendrils of dust slithered across the rocky ground and the trees that dotted the hill-scape were withered and desiccated. For as long as the little girl had known this place she had never seen either of those wadis in flood.
In the dusty plains beneath and behind her, the villagers of Yakla – the tiny hamlet in which she had spent much of the last four years – were readying themselves for the evening routine.
The muezzin of Yakla’s tiny mosque was calling the faithful to salat al-maghrib – the prayer that is prayed in those crucial moments when the sun has dipped below the horizon, before the last red thread has disappeared from the sky.
“Ash-hadu an-la ilaha ila Allah,” came the muezzin’s just-as-bleating accompaniment over the loudspeaker. “I witness that there is no God but God”.
Then, after he had acknowledged the Prophet Mohammed as the last and greatest prophet of God, the muezzin’s voice grew louder. “Hayya ala as-salah!” he was shouting. “Hie ye to prayer!” “Hayya ala al-falah!” “Hie ye to success!”
The little girl knew of course, that she must go back down to Yakla when the muezzin began calling the ummah to prayer. And she did not resent that. There was much to do and to look forward to in the evening before her bedtime. It was always her favorite time of the day – the only time of day, really, when her mother was not bossing her about.
Still, when she was up here, sitting in her favorite tree, with the mountains in the distance and a cool breeze blowing gently across her face, tussling the locks of her dark black hair and mingling with the warm breath in her throat, she sometimes felt that she would like to stay up here forever, that everything she could possibly want and need from Him could be found up here if only she had the courage to linger a little and look for it and once she had found it, just reach out and take it.
Sometimes she was jealous of the boys whose fathers were goatherds. Some of those boys – some of them as young as she was – would spend the whole day up here with nothing to worry about except for the animals and the open air. And sometimes they could be up here for days. They would leave Yakla with little more than a small faggot of firewood and a goatskin full of water and they wouldn’t come back until the firewood was all gone. Yes, she was jealous of the young goatherds when she thought about it. There were no chores to do up here.
From her tree perch she trained her eyes away from the mountains and towards Yakla. Down in the walled compound where she slept, she could see her mother Maryam looking around for her in the yard. No doubt she would be wondering where her daughter had gone – calling out her name, beside herself perhaps. The little girl would have to make up some excuse for her absence.
She wouldn’t lie of course (lying was forbidden by God), but if she came back with dates from the grove perhaps there was a chance that the boon would please her mother – enough, at least, for her not to ask any more questions. As long as she was diligently attending to chores of some kind, the woman couldn’t hardly complain.
With the muezzin’s call to prayer complete and the hills now silent but for the wind, the little girl dropped to the ground and gathered up her things. Then, with the jagged horizon darkening behind her, she moved quickly down the rocky ridgeline. She passed a trio of goats without a herdsman and gave one of them a little pat on the back. Then, flitting down through the moraine to the bottom of the hill, she found herself on flat ground again and she ran quickly to the date grove with her basket held firm in the crook of her elbow. It took her minutes to gather what the lazier girls might gather in an hour and then, once she had finished, she hitched up the hems of her long frock and moved through the dust to the outskirts of town.
Reaching the wall of the first building she looked to her left and paused for a second. A hundred meters away a man was standing just beyond the edge of the settlement.
Fahad was tall and eighteen-years-old, and with his dark-skin, kind eyes and birdlike face he was both handsome and severe-looking at the same time. Fahad was on guard duty tonight – as he often was in the early evening – and so he would not be going to the mosque with the others to pray. Instead, he had placed his Kalashnikov on the ground beside him and he was rolling out his prayer mat on the rocky ground. After the mat was rolled out in the direction of the qibla, Fahad would reach for the little bottle of water on the stone wall next to him. Then Fahad would conduct his ablutions. And after that, she knew, he would pray. By himself.
“Every mujahid his own imam,” as her uncle Abdulraouf might say.
Fahad had caught her sneaking up to her favourite hilltop perch on many occasions before and he had come to know her well for it. Often, he would quietly chide her for these indiscretions but he had never stopped her before. The little girl thought that perhaps Fahad secretly wished to marry her because he always treated her with a particular gentleness that belied a secret approval for her free spirit. She liked Fahad.
Irrespective of all that, Fahad hadn’t seen her and so she slipped by, unnoticed. Verily, by the time she reached the door of her mother’s house, she had done so without being seen by anyone at all.
Her mother was waiting in the sitting room when she entered and even though Maryam looked like she was about to explode when she first laid eyes on her daughter, once she saw the basket of dates in her child’s arms she relaxed a little, bridling her wrath. A chiding for being late would suffice.
“Yallah Nawar!” she said to her daughter. “It is time to pray.”
Nawar, preferred to be called Nora, and her mother knew this and would sometimes oblige her if she was in a good mood. When Maryam was playing the role of disciplinarian however, her child’s birth name was her child’s only name and since Nora had come back to the house later than expected, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. She was Nawar for now.
By the time she had finished praying with her mother the house was still empty and so with little fanfare Maryam ushered her into the kitchen so that she might help her with dinner.
“Your uncle and his guest will be home very soon,” said Maryam.
Nora nodded and carried on preparing the food.
Abdulraouf Al-Dhahab – Nora’s mother’s brother – had called ahead to say that he would be home in an hour with a colleague and as was always the case when Abdulraouf called ahead, it was Maryam’s intention to have everything ready by the time the men arrived. Abdulraouf was the most respected man in Yakla so it was incumbent on Maryam to preserve this reputation with her cooking.
To outsiders, Abdulraouf, and his brothers Ilah, Sultan and Ahmad were the last of the menfolk of the Al-Dhahab clan – the pre-eminent clan in the Rada’a district.
Five years earlier, after Nora’s father was killed by the Americans, she and her mother had moved to Yakla to live with Maryam’s brothers. Nora was three at the time so she remembered very little of it but by her mother’s account it was a very tense period.
When Ali, the eldest of the Al-Dhahab sons was killed in 2011, his next of kin – Tariq and his half-brother Hizam – had fallen out.
Nora and her mother were already living with Tariq and the rest of Tariq’s full brothers soon moved in as well. In time, Tariq’s home in Yakla became the base of operations for the coming feud. Hizam, meanwhile, had taken over Rada’a, the district capital.
Tensions between the two groups escalated and eventually skirmishes broke out. Soon enough, those skirmishes escalated into a protracted conflict. By the time the fighting was over Tariq, Hizam and all of Hizam’s supporters were dead and Tariq’s surviving brothers were left to pick up the pieces.
Thus, with the worst of the violence now in the past, Qaid, Tariq’s younger brother quietly took over and for a time, things settled down. But the calm would not last. Shortly after Nora turned four, Qaid was killed by the Americans. Nabil, the next oldest, took over. Then he too was killed by the Americans.
There were four of Tariq’s brothers left now and it was Abdulraouf’s turn. At first, he was a reluctant leader but with some coaxing from Ilah, Ahmad and Sultan – his younger brothers – he agreed.
In assuming the chieftancy, he assumed also the leadership for the Organization in Al-Bayda province and under Sheikh Abdulraouf Al-Dhahab, operations continued as normal. The money flowed in. The Americans’ spies were shot. Things quietened down in Rada’a and things heated up in the cities.
Nora was very young when her uncle came to power but she had observed Abdulraouf’s rise both in the district and within the Organization with genuine curiosity over the years. She had a keen pair of eyes and a keen pair of ears as well. She watched closely the comings and goings in the house, taking note of the new faces. In time she knew all the key players – who they were, what they did and occasionally what they were planning to do. Sometimes she would even eavesdrop on her uncles’ conversations in the sitting room.
“She is a clever girl,” Abdulraouf would often say of Nora to her mother – “like her father,” he would add.
Certainly, since moving to Yakla, the little girl had learned a great deal about her uncle and the Organization he ran. For the last three years, it seemed, Nora’s uncle had asserted control over the Organization in Al-Bayda province with a natural acumen. A born politician by all appearances, Abdulraouf was very good at exerting influence over subordinates but also very good at knowing where and when to delegate responsibility. Making good use of his younger brother Ilah’s own diplomatic talents for example, Nora’s uncle would send him as an emissary to neighboring districts, building relationships with other clans throughout Al-Bayda and, in so doing, expanding his clan’s influence and prestige within the Organisation.
On the whole, compared to someone like Hizam, Abdulraouf was known as a harsh but not wholly unreasonable man – unflinching but not unfair. It was this quality, Nora supposed, that had contributed more than anything else to Abdulraouf’s firm grasp on the leadership for the last few years.
Elsewhere, Abdulraouf had proven himself to be a master of minutiae. While Rada’a was the clan’s official seat of power, the village of Yakla (just a few parasangs to Rada’a’s north) was where Abdulraouf slept – surrounded, as always, by his family. So, when Ilah brought the chiefs of neighbouring clans to meet with Abdulraouf, they would be brought to Yakla for elaborate bestowings of fine food, gifts and encomium before the sheikh’s own family. A personal but wholly political touch.
Yesterday, Abdulraouf and his brothers had gone to Shabwa for a special occasion – to wed three daughters of the Awaliq tribe – and today, with the festivities over, they were bringing home a guest who had attended the reception.
“I do not know much about this guest,” said Nora’s mother as they finished the preparations. The dinner this evening would be a delectable platter of lamb mandi cooked in ghee and served over rice with lahoh flatbread for dipping and a large pan of honey-drizzled sabayah with dates for dessert. “But I do know that he is Saudi,” Maryam added. An afterthought perhaps – though it registered with Nora.
It took Nora and her mother another half an hour to finish the dinner and lay all the accoutrement out in the sitting room. Then, presently, when the door opened, they were ready in their burqa to hide their nakedness from the foreign guest.
Nora’s uncles Ahmad and Sultan were the first to enter the room, and like Fahad, they had a rather aquiline appearance – stern and hawkish expressions; slender in their tribal robes; sharply-dressed with the blade-hilts of their jambiyya tucked into their belt-sashes.
Twin-like, Ahmad and Sultan smiled at Nora, ignored Maryam, then walked past both of them to take their places in the sitting room.
Next came Ilah and behind him Abdulraouf and his guest. They were side-by-side when they came through the door. Entering, Abdulraouf stopped and with a nod towards Maryam, introduced “Sheikh Seif Al-Nims Al-Joufi, a member of the Organization in Saudi Arabia” and passed into the sitting room.
The women were alone in the foyer now and once they saw that the men were seated, Nora and her mother moved into the kitchen. As she had done many times before, Nora piled the lamb, rice and bread onto a giant platter, and then, with her mother, carried it out into the sitting room. They lingered for a moment while the men served themselves and then, with a “tsssk!” from Ahmed, they returned to the kitchen to eat their portions.
As she ate her supper, Nora mused about her uncles and their Saudi guest. As always, she was happy when her uncles came home from business trips. Her mother, she supposed, was happy to see them as well. At the very least, she seemed relieved to see them. Abdulraouf and his brothers were not tyrants like the fathers and brothers of some of her friends. Nora had nothing to fear from the menfolk of her house.
That said, affairs in sheikh‘s household were not always as rosy as Nora’s cheeks. Nora knew, for example, that Abdulraouf would hit her mother from time to time because she would often see the aftermath on her face the following morning. As much as anything else, those bruises were the emblems of her mother’s sadness.
To their Nora though, they were always very kind – “bint Anwar” (“the daughter of Anwar”), they would call her. It was not uncommon for Nora to receive little gifts in the form of dolls and other playthings from time to time. Sometimes, when she went to visit her grandfather in Sana’a, Abdulraouf would ask her about her visit to the big city and ask after “Abu Anwar” and ask cheerfully after the kinds of things she would say to the old man about her uncles’ activities.
Of course, her grandfather was her absolute favourite out of all of her menfolk relatives. He was also the only man she knew who did not work directly with her uncles in the Organization. Still, she liked all of her uncles well enough.
Once they had served dessert, they returned again to the kitchen and then, a little later, they heard the men laughing and getting up to leave. Then, in time, Ilah exited with Al-Joufi to show him to the guesthouse, and now with all the plates and dishes put away, Nora and her mother removed their head-coverings from their brows and went to sit in the sitting room with Maryam’s brothers.
When they entered, Abdulraouf was sat at the centre of the room with a short-wave radio – antenna fully extended – tuned in to the broadcast from Al-Jazeera. With Ilah and their guest absent now, Ahmad and Sultan lay sprawled about the room, relaxing on the long low divans lining the walls.
“There is a new President in America,” said Abdulraouf, listening to the last of the broadcast over the radio.
“Yes,” nodded Ahmad. “President Trumb, I believe they call him.”
Abdulraouf nodded in kind and, turning off the radio now, he added. “Yes President Trumb. That is his name. Sheikh Al-Joufi has told me that he has it on good word that this man has begun executing Muslims in America.”
“Nauzubillah!” Maryam placed a hand over her mouth. “Why such horror?!”
“I hear that he is yehud,” said Abdulraouf, using the word for “Jew”. “He wants to give Palestine to the Jewish State and then give all of that land to his daughter who is a Jewess as well. And then he will kill all of the Muslims in America.”
“Nauzubillah.” Maryam again. “I seek refuge in God”.
“Nazubillah,” nodded Abdulraouf.
“I think this man Trumb is worse than the last President,” added Ahmad.
“Yes,” said Abdulraouf. “Because the last American President was murtadd from Kenya,” he explained, using the word for “apostate”. “And his father’s father was a Muslim. So the murtadd knew that he could not kill the Muslims without first killing his own family.”
“And yet the murtadd has still killed many Muslims,” added Sultan as an afterthought.
“Yes.” Abdulraouf again. “He has killed many, many of our brothers.”
“We shall defeat the Crusaders yet.” Ahmad. “And we shall kill them all as they have killed our sons and brothers and fathers. We will kill all of the Americans – by Allah I swear it… and Trumb and the murtadd – they shall be the last to die.”
Abdulraouf nodded again. “Insha…” . “If it is the will of….”
His voice was cut short by a low droning buzz coming from outside the house. In the sky and in the distance.
Unfamiliar with this new sound, Nora looked to her elders for clarification. Even as she shifted her gaze from face to face however, she could glean nothing. Nothing, except for the obvious – that the calm expressions of men at home with the family had been replaced with anxious looks. Worried looks. Looks that were fearful even.
Silence now. Silence except for the buzz.
“What is that?!” Abdulraouf said in a quiet voice, but he said it in a tone that indicated he knew already what it was.
Ahmad reached for an assault rifle in the corner of the room and was up and out the side door, jogging into the compound yard. Ilah was out there and so was their Saudi guest.
The buzzing noise had become louder now and everyone knew – including Nora – that the buzzing was from an engine because it sounded like the bwerrr of a motorcycle without a muffler.
“Al-zinana,” said Abdulraouf at once. “Drone.”
Without warning, a shockwave blasted through the room and everyone was thrown off their feet. The boom of a very close-by explosion and dust falling from the ceiling.There was a moment of silence while everyone collected themselves. Nora’s ears were ringing.
Ahmad had returned inside now, stumbling, and he had with him a report that the guesthouse which had been obliterated and it looked as if Sheikh Al-Joufi and their brother was dead as well and though he couldn’t be quite sure that they were both dead it seemed highly unlikely that anybody could have survived such devastation.
“Yallah!” Abdulraouf was shouting at his sister now. “Bring me the arbijy!”
At her brother’s bidding, Maryam ran across the room, turned a corner, disappeared for a moment and then came back with a long tubular weapon. Nora knew from listening in to her uncles’ conversations that this was the weapon called an “ar–bi–jy” and she knew also that it fired explosives.
“Where are the rockets?!” shouted Abdulraouf. He looked angry as he ripped the rocket launcher from his sister’s grasp.
Again Maryam disappeared and in an instant she was back, fumbling with a trio of silver-tipped rockets as if they were juggler’s clubs.
“Go!” Abdulraouf shouted to her now, pointing at another assault rifle lying at the far corner of the room. “Find Arwa and fight!”
Arwa was Maryam’s friend. A Saudi who had married one of Abdulraouf’s fighters. Arwa and Maryam had both learned how to use weapons.
“Gooooo!” Abdulraouf was shouting now, lashings of spittle catching in his moustache.
Ahmad instructed Nora to remain inside the house, and then he was gone and everyone was gone now and there was gunfire now as well, and more gunfire, and the sound of missiles and the chatter of a machine gun and then there was the rumble of helicopter rotors somewhere in the distance accompanied by the bwerrr of a louder, more powerful machine gun coming from somewhere off in the sky and then there was the sound of a rocket and another rocket then more gunfire and all of a sudden there was a loud bang and the grind and splutter of a failing engine and then another fizz of a rocket and another bang – a bang building into an explosion – and then a crash as a helicopter or an aircraft or indeed a V-22 Osprey (though Nora did not know it) landed hard in the middle of Yakla.
More gunfire. Grenades. Screaming. Gunfire.
Then Nora’s mother had re-entered the house and she had a Kalashnikov tucked up against her shoulder and Abdulraouf was coming back through the door as well with his rocket launcher all out of rockets and Fahad – the birdlike youth – was right behind his leader. And now Abdoulraouf had discarded the empty rocket launcher and he had run into the adjacent room and he was already back with a Kalashnikov and now they were ready for a stand-off inside the room and the only thing said by anyone now was “Ummi!” or “Mama!” from the little girl and her eyes were filled with tears because she didn’t understand what was happening.
Then, without warning there was a bright flash and a bang and Nora was blind and there were explosions all throughout the room and then something sharp slammed into her throat and all of a sudden she was lying on her back on a divan and she turned her head to the side and saw that Abdulraouf’s stomach was open with his innards pouring onto the floor and her mother was crumpled in a sad little pile in the corner of the room like a bundle of disheveled laundry. And Fahad – there was no more Fahad.
And now there were two strange men in the room – clad in camouflage and wearing body armour and helmets and carrying fearsome looking sand-colour-painted assault rifles. Both of them had a presence in the room which was dominating and even though Nora knew that these men were men they could just as well have been some strange race of cyborgs for the quad-tubular goggles dangling in front of their eyes.
“Clear!” one of them shouted in a language Nora did not understand.
“Fuck! Those two are women!” Shouted the other one.
“Check for vests!” shouted another.
Nora watched as the first man lifted the strange quad-tubular goggles off his eyes and reached down to frisk her mother’s corpse. “Clear,” he stated, emphatically, after a few brisk movements. The strange man moved to Nora now, and looking at her tiny form – the form of a little girl with blood seeping from her neck – she could see that there was remorse in his eyes and he gave her a quick pat before he said “clear” again and then he stepped away with an ashen look, flitting his head from Nora to her mother and then back to Nora and then back to her mother as if he was trying to make sense of it all.
Silence for a moment. Then. “Fuck!” shouted the second man. “Owens is down!”
It seemed that a third man had come through the door during the battle and he had taken a bullet just like Nora had taken a bullet and the bullet had gone straight into his neck in a very similar location to where the bullet had entered Nora’s own neck.
And from where she lay on the divan, spluttering, with a torrent of warm, dark blood springing from the bullet hole, Nora could see the man they were calling Owens and she could see too that he could see her as well. And he was looking at her. He was looking at her and she could see his eyes. Owens’ eyes.
This man has gentle eyes, she thought. Gentler eyes even than her grandfather. She quite liked Owens. Owens hadn’t shot her after all. Had he?
With eight years of life behind her now, Nawar Al-Awlaqi was old enough to know that none of these men had come here to kill her. Why would any man, least of all a man with eyes like Owens’ eyes – come all this way from wherever he had come from – America she supposed – just to kill her? Why would anyone come all this way for her – the little girl from Yakla?
She knew of course that none of these men had chosen to come here. She was old enough to know that much. Their coming here was somebody else’s decision.
And yet… and yet here they were. And here she was. And she knew that she was dying because it hurt too much to mean anything else. And the two strange men were speaking to each other now in that same language – the one she didn’t understand – and they were speaking into their radios now and they were moving now but she didn’t understand what they were doing or what was happening or where they were going except that one of them had put Owens’ body on top of his shoulders and the other one had his gun up as he stepped out the door.
There was a lot going on but she didn’t understand much of it. Really, all she understood was that she was lying in a pool of warmth on a divan and that her neck hurt very much. Too much. And it was hard for her to breathe. That much, she understood. The rest though… the rest she just couldn’t understand.
Chief Petty Officer William Owens