Monday morning. I am nursing a bad cold but I go round to see Maude anyway because it’s a long time since we’ve just hung out, the two of us, all the kids off to school.
Fiona* is there too. Maude decides that, although it is noon, I need to eat “breakfast” and she serves me an egg fried with green peppers in a lot of oil, and toast with cream cheese and jam. “It’s very nice,” she tells me, pointing at the cream cheese. So during the following conversation, you have to picture me eating, drinking tea, and occasionally flinging up my hands in horror, while the two of them encourage me to eat more, to taste the pastries, to finish the bread.
Fiona is fasting so she doesn’t eat. Maude doesn’t eat either. I feel mildly uncomfortable but not entirely, since I am sort of used to being the only one being fed. We sit round the table. For some reason, Fiona decides to talk about her past, and she launches into story after story. Her first language is Kurdish, her second language is Arabic, and her English doesn’t get much past the “Hi” “fine” and “thank you” stage. “I am learning English,” she said to me proudly the other day. I agreed, but she has a long ways to go yet.
Maude isn’t used to being a translator, so Fiona will talk on and on and on and then Maude will say, “She is saying that they walked for 4 days. In the mountains.” Then Fiona talks for another 5 minutes with Maude making noises of shock and horror. “Sorry, Isabet,” says Maude, and adds another single sentence. Thanks to my cold, I am only mildly frustrated, because I am so tired with it. But it is obvious that Fiona’s story is gripping, full of pain and horror and woe.
I have no idea what has prompted these recollections, but for some reason, Fiona’s topic today is living in Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein, when, as you may remember from reading the news, he decided to wipe them from the face of the earth. She likes to talk, and she’s is full form today. She begins by telling about how they fled to Iran, her family and 2 others. Her daughters were barely walking, her son had to be carried. (She has 9 children; I have met 3 of them. The others are scattered around the globe) After a 3 to 4 minute discourse, Maude breaks in to translate for me. Maude’s English is not that great, in spite of the hours I have spent with her working on basic tenses, how to form questions and negatives, the importance of modals. “She say walk 4 days, no food. They no carry food, they carry babies. They eat (motion of finding food; prob plants). In mountains. Snow. Mountains. They, babies, all covered in salt,” she tells me.
“Salt?” I say. Maude looks blank. I pick up the salt shaker. “Salt?”
“OH. No,” says Maude. “You know, what you put plants in…” “Dirt,” I say, my face clearing. “They were covered in dirt.” Fiona takes off again for about 5 minutes. Maude makes horror stricken faces and noises. Finally, I say, “What? What?”
“They were those things,” says Maude. She makes a pushing gesture than the universal explosion gesture. “Rockets?” I guess. “Yes,” agrees Maude. She tells me how Fiona watched as a rocket took the head off one of her neighbours, who was carrying her baby on her back. Both were instantly killed.
Maude and I are both horrified, but Fiona is only warming up. She tells of her nephews, 3 brothers who were taken captive because they were Kurds and tortured. She counts them on her fingers. Ahmed was never found; the others were eventually freed by American soldiers years later. She tells of mass graves, of 150 people buried alive. She tells of boys and girls taken as sex slaves for Saddam’s army, used and then killed. She tells of people shut up in jail cells and tortured; her uncles, her nephews, others who weren’t released and wrote their tales of suffering on the walls in their own blood, to leave a record of what was done to them. She tells of germ warfare–”you know,” she says to me, and I do know, I remember. I read about it from halfway around the world, in the years just after the First Gulf War. She tells of poisoned water that made people break out in bloody blisters. Worst of all, the thing that made her flee over the mountains to the questionable safety of Iran, was watching in horror through a slit in her door as soldiers took a baby from her neighbour’s house and fed it to their dogs.
Maude and I are horrified, shocked, dumbfounded. “Where was I?” she says in Arabic. I feel the same way. But it turns out that Americans came in and helped, and also the French. “They brought food, small items, soap, oil,” she tells me. I figure out she is talking about the UN. Now we are sitting on couches, and she is telling me that many French men wanted to marry Kurdish women, and even converted to Islam. One neighbour married a daughter to a French convert, but Fiona wouldn’t allow her daughter to marry a Frenchman even though he asked to. (This is the daughter who hosted the Eid party)
Finally the conversation turns to other topics. Maude wants me to go with her next day to a parent-teacher conference for her daughter, who is in Head Start. She wants me to give her a ride. I agree; we can finish before class, and then I’ll have a cup of tea with her before I go to pick up the others.
I say I must go and we kiss our goodbyes and I head out into the frosty air, looking at trees looming up out of the fog, their leaves still bright. I drive home, still sort of stunned. I am only home about 30 minutes before I head off to see another Iraqi friend, teach another English lesson. I hope, as I drive, that she doesn’t share her story with me. There is only so much I can carry.
* not their real names. I change them for their privacy.