Ascent Phase by Tariq al Haydar
I was in fifth grade when I heard missiles explode in the sky for the first time. During the Gulf War, it became commonplace to hear that air raid siren, which indicated that we had to run to the basement. I was only scared the first time it happened, before we had cleaned the basement, when I thought something bad might happen. After the SCUDs and Patriots collided in mid-air, after the loudest sounds I had ever heard, after we emerged from among the dust and cans of corn and abandoned exercise equipment, we watched CNN. My father told me that everything would be fine and that there would be no school for a while, which made me happy.
Aside from that first day, it wasn’t bad. People would go up to the roof to watch the missiles explode like fireworks. The only difference between them and the dragon eggs, chrysanthemums and Roman candles we bought from Souq el-Hamam was that the missiles sometimes went off during the day, which seemed like a waste. The sirens became a nuisance, one that interrupted our satellite television and Super Nintendo.
The only time I was grateful that the siren interrupted our games was when we were playing soccer at my grandfather’s house. My cousin Ali and I were on the same team. He never meant to pass the ball, but it ended up at my feet. I kicked it with everything I had, but instead of going forward in the direction of the goal, it went up. We thought it might disappear into the air. Instead, it broke a window. Our ball was lost. That’s when the siren sounded, and we all ran to the basement.
Once, a friend of mine was on his way home from my house when the siren sounded. His mother called, and wept when she found out that her boy was in a car. I didn’t understand why she was so concerned. They were just missiles that exploded in the air like fireworks. My friend was listening to Rashid al-Majid’s new album on the way home. He never even heard the sirens.
Everyone went somewhere during the war. We went to my grandfather’s farm in Kharj, which was next to a desert. My cousins fought over the four-wheel motorcycle. My uncles divided us into teams for soccer. Everyone was there. Even Fahad and his parents drove from Dammam. Fahad always had new issues of Tintin or Asterix. A book in my uncle’s bag was full of dirty stories, with bananas and whipped cream and hot fudge and cherries. Instead of eating the food, grown-ups put it on each other. When he caught me reading it, he told me that it was exclusively for grown-ups. I thought he said that because the book didn’t have pictures. He didn’t know that I liked books that didn’t have pictures.
Every day, my other uncle took us to the dunes. He would divide us into two teams and stand between us holding a sock. Then he’d whistle, and whoever grabbed the sock first won. Most of the time, Ali got to the sock first. My other cousins accused my uncle of cheating, because his son always won. He laughed and said that the Prophet had said that whoever cheats us is not one of us.
Ali, who was a year and a half older than me, loved ibri, tiny fruits that were not quite apples. I preferred sugar canes, because they tasted like candy. One morning, I found a couple of ibri next to where the motorcycle should have been. My aunt asked me where Ali had gone.
My uncle and I looked for him in the desert. He told me that we would play our game as soon as we found Ali. There were motorcycle tracks in the dunes. That was the first time I had gone past the dunes on the edge of the farm. After walking for five minutes, I could see nothing but sand. I held my uncle’s hand tightly. He wiped his eyes with his fingers, but he wasn’t crying. There was just sand in his eyes, or at least that’s what he told me.
“Have you ever gone into the desert with Ali, alone?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Don’t worry,” he said with shiny eyes. “I won’t be angry. Just tell me where he went.”
We walked for a long time. The sand was getting cold. For a long time, we saw no animals or people. Only sand. It all looked the same to me. The dunes looked like mountains made out of that powder you scooped into milk to make it chocolate. As night fell, it became harder to see them.
Finally, we saw a fire. My uncle told me to play soccer with the children while he talked to the grown-up.
“You can be the goalie,” said the fat one.
“I’m a striker,” I declared as I tried to juggle the ball with my right foot.
“Are you any good?” asked the one with the thick glasses.
“Yes,” I lied.
“What’s your name?” asked the one who looked like he could play.
“Sari,” I said.
Nobody would pass me the ball. At first, I put the end of my flowing thobe in my mouth to keep it from dragging on the sand. That wasn’t working, so I hoisted it up and tied it around my waist. I pulled up the legs of the cotton white pants I had on underneath, so that it felt like I was wearing shorts. When the ball ricocheted off of the four-eyed boy’s knee and bounced my way, I kicked it as hard as I could. It hit the fat boy in the face, and he started to cry. Luckily, the grown-ups weren’t paying attention.
“You shit,” said the fat boy as he wiped his eyes. “That’s a foul.”
“No,” said the kid who could play. “He kicked the ball. He didn’t kick you. That’s not against the rules. It’s not his fault that you got hurt.”
As they played on, I glanced at my uncle, who was talking to the man and gesturing at the open space all around us. He opened his arms, as if he were embracing the desert, which was now black and cold.
When the ball came to me again, I tried to pass it to the kid who could play, but the four-eyed boy slapped the ball with his hand.
“Penalty!” I cried.
The kid who could play placed the ball ten steps from the goal, which was just two sandals, five steps apart.
“You can shoot if you want,” I said, trying to appear nonchalant.
“No,” he shook his head. “You caused it. It’s only right that you shoot it.”
At that moment, my uncle called me.
“I just have to shoot the penalty!” I called back. But he walked over, grabbed my arm and dragged me away. The kid who could play scored and then celebrated by dancing like Roger Milla at the corner flag.
As the two of us walked back, my uncle waved his flashlight around in a circle, so he could see everything. To me, it was just brown powder everywhere. When we went up a dune, I couldn’t tell when we’d reach the top. I wished I hadn’t worn sandals; I kept clutching them with my toes, trying to make sure they stayed on. Sand filled the spaces between my toes, and I was a little afraid that snakes would bite my feet. Of course, snakes didn’t live in the sand, but because I couldn’t see, I couldn’t be sure.
“Do you think Ali will come back?” I asked my uncle.
He didn’t answer, but in the glow of his flashlight, I thought I saw his Adam’s apple getting bigger.
I don’t know how we got home, but the desert ended. At first, there was a spot in front of me that wasn’t brown. I wouldn’t have seen it if my uncle hadn’t trained his flashlight on it. The spot grew, and after a few minutes, the desert was behind us. I looked back at the dunes, relieved that there were no snakes in the sand.
When we walked through the gate to the farm, past the palm trees and into the little patch of grass where we played soccer, we saw my aunt standing in front of the house. She had her hands on Ali’s shoulders, and both of them were facing us. My uncle ran to him, making a strange sound, almost like boiling water. He fell to his knees and hugged Ali, and then kissed him on the cheek. My uncle then jumped up, pinched Ali’s ear and dragged him inside the house. Ali looked funny walking at a 45-degree angle, his ear attached to my uncle’s fingers.
Ali never even went to the desert. I snuck in and hid next to the refrigerator so I could listen to my uncle as he scolded him.
“Why did you go to the neighbor’s farm?” my uncle demanded.
“I wanted to see Mabruk,” said Ali.
“Who is Mabruk?” asked my uncle in a frightening voice.
“Mabruk is their camel,” said Ali. “They told me they were going to eat him. I wanted to see how he would turn into food.” That was when I discovered that living things could become food.
When my uncle laughed, I knew that the trouble was over. My uncle took away Ali’s little motorcycle. We never played the sock game again, and my uncle threatened all of us: if anyone went into the desert, he would hand us our teeth in our palms.
A week later, my mother and father, my uncles, aunts and some of my older cousins were watching television. I saw a picture of my school on CNN, but my school was broken.
“Look,” my mother said, turning to me. “Your school got hit by a missile.”
I didn’t understand how a missile could hit a building. “I thought missiles just exploded in the sky,” I said.
“They do,” my mother laughed, “but a piece of shrapnel hit your school.”
I didn’t know what “shrapnel” meant, but decided that it was probably the pointy part of the missile. Sharp objects were dangerous, which is why we were told never to run with scissors or butter knives. I was happy that my school was broken, because that meant that we wouldn’t have to solve geometry problems in math class.
At night, my father and uncles went up to the roof and played a card game they had invented. The best part was when it was Abu Sarah’s turn. Abu Sarah, my father’s uncle, was an ancient man whose jowls looked like socks filled with marbles and whose voice sounded like a car that wouldn’t start. He’s the one who named their game Razeelah, or Despicable. Everyone hated playing against him, because he enjoyed it too much when they lost. I looked forward to going up to the roof and watching the men play cards, but I missed the fireworks.
After the war, we went back to Riyadh and I went back to school. I missed having lots of people around. It was just my mother and father at our house. When we visited my grandfather’s house, where all my uncles lived, my other uncle—not Ali’s father—pulled me aside.
“Did you break the window?” he asked in a scary voice.
It was the window of a room on the second floor that nobody used, in front of the little tile space where we played soccer. Ali must have told on me.
“No,” I said.
“Tell me if you broke it and I won’t hit you,” he said, stroking his thick mustache.
“I might have kicked the ball through the window,” I admitted, “But that was a long time ago. I can’t be punished for something that happened so long ago.”
“Sari,” said my uncle as he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, “You know that we don’t have gas masks. Imagine if they had used chemical weapons on us. Do you know what would have happened, with that window broken?”
I didn’t, but I nodded solemnly. I really didn’t want anyone to shoot chemicals at us. Ali said that they had just started taking chemistry, and that it was a very difficult subject.
For dinner, my aunt had prepared lamb and orange rice with dried limes. My uncles were happy because the Saudi national team had finally beaten Kuwait in the Gulf Cup.
“Qatar will win the tournament,” said Ali.
“Just eat,” laughed one of my other cousins.
“This Gulf Cup is weaker than the old tournaments,” said Ali, “because Iraq isn’t there anymore.”
My mother said that she wanted to go to the hajj that year, and my aunts started talking quickly. Sometimes, when women talk quickly, they sound like birds and I can’t understand what they’re saying. They all talk at once, and it sounds like French or geometry. I looked at the platter of fruit: grapes, pomegranates, mangoes, kiwis, watermelon, cantaloupe and ibri and thought about how living things could become food.
Tariq al Haydar has published a novella in Arabic titled Hellat al-Abeed (The Slave District). His work has appeared in several publications, including The Atlantic, down out and Jadaliyya. He is a lecturer at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia and a Ph.D. candidate at the George Washington University, and has been a contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Original artwork by Jessica Santillan.