Thirteenth Birthday

Two Women, Two Nations at War

War began on my thirteenth birthday, alien blue tracer fire arcing over the minarets and round curving buildings of Baghdad. I sat cross-legged on the couch with an open notebook in my lap, not studying for final exams. There were too many journalists swearing comically into gas masks for such things.

Since then
Between the first Persian Gulf War and last Wednesday, I graduated from high school (“Did Kerry say I sent Tim a note? I never sent Tim a note!”) earned two college degrees (“Did Kerry say I let Tim buy me a shot? Tim can’t buy squat when he’s face down in a puddle of Yaegermeister! Go ahead, email him!”) and completed a Master’s in nonfiction writing (both Kerry and Tim were published in The Atlantic the same week Newsweek gave me the brush-off; I sat and smoked and mourned the clearly imminent downfall of Western civilization).

I boarded turboprops. I ordered extra cheese. In later years I moved to Florida, unmarried and unchaperoned. My parents waved good-bye. “Find a good church,” my mother said. I was paid to watch space shuttles leave and the waves of the ocean return.

It was her birthday too
And somewhere in another hemisphere lives a woman whose homeland came under fire on her thirteenth birthday. The wailing air raid sirens drove her under cover but she had no scrawled study sheets to ignore; she left school several years ago because the cost of supplies?pens, paper, tape, things I mislay on an hourly basis?became too dear. Her mother was tossed from her secretarial work in Saddam Hussein’s government shortly after the end of Desert Storm.

Her days are occupied with hunting down fresh food and clean water for her family, a task once punctuated with the discovery of the head of her obstetrician displayed on a spike in the marketplace. Last year her sister was raped by an Iraqi intelligence officer as her brother-in-law watched from a few feet away. She has no idea where her younger brother is?he was taken in the night by the Republican Guard under suspicion for having warmish feelings for Iran. When her father is asked how many children he has, he names only the boy.

Not Afghanistan but?
Although my counterpart is not forced to wear the head-to-toe burqa that swathed the women who lived under the Taliban, she is draped in the heavy knowledge that if someone, anyone, so much as whispers the word “adultery” in connection with her name, she will be stoned, beheaded, maimed, or, if she’s lucky, merely suspended by her hair for a few weeks.

She fears the day her sons become men, when what little protection is offered by their youth will vanish?if one falls into Saddam’s disfavor, chances are good that he will be shot before her eyes. The soldier performing the honor will then turn to her and demand that she pay for the cost of the bullet.

Here, I take a hot shower and dive into my little car to attend a NASA-provided therapy session designed to help me withstand job stress. There, she faces south, shading her eyes against the desert sun, nervously awaiting the first glimmer of American tanks. She has heard reports of Saddam’s banners destroyed in Umm Qasr, rumors that Hussein himself may be dead, he and his sons with him. If it is true?that the Americans have come at last?she will celebrate, tentatively, with her friends. She will search for her brother, maybe move to the northern country, find a nice mosque somewhere.

But first, she must find water.