City on the Heights Chapter One

Oct 28, 2008: Mosul, Iraq


I hated being woken up in the morning. That’s probably why my father seemed to take particular pleasure in doing exactly that. He was an unusual man. While others mourned their predicament and cultivated their anger, he seemed to feed off of his own endless wellspring of joy. He was always smiling, and it wasn’t an act.

Somehow, he always found, or made, the happier path. Others might insist it didn’t exist, but he always proved them wrong. Others would see a desert mirage, but he would see water. And because he was the one looking, the water would materialize.

Of course, my father didn’t wake me for school. Only a few schools were open. They were madrassahs and built like fortresses; even children weren’t off-limits when it came to violence. But those few schools that were open were only for boys. There was nothing for girls. There used to be, my father told me, but the dangers had become far too great. That’s why my father taught me. In the afternoons, we’d read and talk. He could discuss everything – and he spent an enormous amount of time filling my head and then testing me on topics as random as physics, the Koran and biology.

But that was only in the afternoons.

The core of my education started in the mornings. It started when he woke me – despite my protests.

As soon as I had a single eye open, he would hurry me along as I slipped into a dress. He’d time me as I did a few pushups and sit-ups and some jumping jacks. He called that spurt of early morning exercise “coffee for kids,” but I called it ‘torture’.  Then he’d rush me out of the house and into his Land Rover.

There would be some breakfast there, waiting. Most often, it was hummus and some pita.

And then we’d drive somewhere in the city; going to do something.

He never told me what we were going to do, or even why. And I knew not to ask. Figuring out the answers was part of my education.

I did ask him once why he wouldn’t just tell me what we were up to. But he just smiled, like he always did, and said, “What do you think?”

The answer annoyed me. I’d wanted a real answer, not another mystery. Nonetheless, I noodled over his reply for months. And then, finally, it came to me. I went to him and announced, without any sort of introduction: “Because if I figure it out for myself, I’ll never forget the answers.”

Somehow, he knew what I was talking about. It was like we were just continuing the earlier conversation, and there had been no months-long break.

He was like that.

But even then, he didn’t respond. He just smiled.

It was as close to a confirmation as he ever gave me.

I never forgot that answer – or any of the others.

He was right, figuring it out for myself was the surest form of education.

That particular morning, my father seemed even more chipper than usual. He was barely suppressing an extra-wide grin as I moaned myself into consciousness. I really didn’t want to get up. I felt even more tired than usual. But I knew I had no choice.

I lifted my head and noticed that it was still dark outside.

“This early, ab?” I asked plaintively. I was more tired than usual.

He just grinned even wider.

I didn’t like going out in the dark. Everybody knew it was dangerous. Trucks driving at night were more likely to be deemed suspicious by any one of the four major forces operating in the city.

But my father didn’t seem to notice these things. He’d always insisted that nobody would kill him.

But, as with most things, he never explained how he knew this.

It was my job to figure it out.

I didn’t like this kind of puzzle. I knew he was right, of course. Nobody ever tried to harm us. But when I saw the darkness outside, all I could think of was the horror stories of people who left their homes at night and were blown to smithereens by drones, kidnapped by Al Qaida, torn apart at checkpoints by machine-gun wielding federal soldiers, or summarily executed by the Kurdish secret police.

I suppose most nine-year-olds might have been ignorant of what was going on, but most nine-year-olds didn’t have my father.

My father, despite everything that was going on and everything he told me, was still smiling.

He was smiling like he expected me to learn his joy, despite knowing why I should not be happy.

Reluctantly, I climbed out of bed and got dressed and did my exercises. And then, as always, he rushed me out to the truck. I barely caught a look at my pregnant – and worried – mother before we escaped out the front gate of our house.

We lived in the Althaqafa district of the city, on the left coast of the Tigris. I’d seen every nook and cranny of the city, and I can assure you that ours was the nicest. The homes were large and surrounded by high walls. The ancient ruins of Nineveh were only blocks away. And our neighbors were all important people.

I got the sense my father was also important – but he was different than them. Whether they were politicians, imams, priests, or criminals, they all seemed to keep themselves away from the physical dirt of the city. Whether they wore suits or robes, their garments were always spotless. On the other hand, they seemed to wash themselves in another kind of filth.

My father wasn’t like that. He was Mosul’s municipal handyman. That’s why, most days, when we went out, we’d find ourselves wading through sewage, wrestling with pipes or securing downed power lines.

The neighbors were different in another, critical, way. They all had their own people. They were leaders of particular slices of our society. But my father had everybody. Arriving at an overflowing berm, my father could assemble a work crew in minutes. Sunnis, Shiites, Assyrians, or Yazidis – people who had become incompatible through the long years of ethnic conflict and war – all of them would come out, together, when my father asked.

He used to joke that that’s how our family earned its name: Al-Mosuli. The city was pulling itself apart, but we still belonged to it and it to us. We were Mosuli, first and foremost.

As we drove, the streets were dark. Power was intermittent, despite the massive electrical dam that continually threatened our lives. The dam was, predictably, poorly maintained. The street was roughly paved, and so our headlights bounced along the walls that bordered it. I saw, here and there, the one-eyed smiley face of the letter nuun.

It marked the houses as Christian – Nazarene. We weren’t Christian. Nonetheless, it scared me.

Everybody, even other nine-year-olds, knew that Al Qaida had recently told the Christians of the city to convert or die. Thousands of homes had been marked. Over a dozen Christians had already been killed. By that dark morning, the dust that regularly blew through the city had collected around those houses’ gates.

Every one of them had been abandoned.

At that moment, even my father wasn’t smiling.

We drove past the University and headed north, across the Khosr river and then out of the city. We passed checkpoint after checkpoint with only a wave. Soldiers saw my father’s truck and they let us pass. We probably passed roadside bombs with unseen people effectively waving us by as soon as they knew it was our truck.

North of the city, we passed a small village. I’d forgotten what it was named, but it seemed to be overflowing with people – extra cars were parked akimbo in the small spaces between the homes, and tents were pitched everywhere outside. The village was bordered, north and south, by checkpoints. The checkpoints weren’t manned by Federal troops, but by scared-looking villagers. They were Christians. But when they saw us, they waved us through.

My father still wasn’t smiling.

We kept driving north. The road narrowed to three lanes. We passed streams and farmland and more overflowing villages. The road narrowed to two lanes, divided from one another by a sandy strip.

There was no traffic.

We passed between low mountains and into an area covered with lush farmland. It had grown brighter, and I noticed, for the first time, that the sky was covered with clouds. I felt like I hadn’t seen clouds in months. They almost looked false, like they had been painted above me as a joke from on high.

I looked up, watching them shift in the sky, as our highway widened to four lanes and we arrived at a major intersection.

We turned right, towards Mahad.

I’d never heard of the place.

About seven kilometers later, we reached the turnoff for Mahad itself. But instead of turning towards the town, my father turned in the other direction, and up a tiny dirt road.

Before long, we’d stopped – next to a massive arrangement of carefully cut and perfectly placed stone blocks. It was a ruin, but a sizable one.

My father stopped the truck. And without a word, he got out.

He was smiling again. The grin he was trying to suppress at our house had finally broken out completely. He was almost laughing with joy.

We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. But I knew where we were.

It was the Jerwan Aqueduct. It had been built thousands of years before, in the days of Sennacherib. It was the oldest surviving aqueduct in the world. It was a massive 75-foot-wide water bridge. It was only a small part of the 90-kilometer water delivery system that Sennacherib had constructed. It had all been capped with a series of retaining ponds – intended to modulate the rapid flows from the spring melts.

The whole thing had been built for only one reason – to sustain the ancient city of Nineveh. It was built to sustain what we now called Mosul.

Just then, it began to rain.

As the water ran over and between the stones, and the musty smell of reinvigorated life filled the air, my father looked at me. And then he said, in a voice somehow both solemn and delirious with joy, “Maryam al-Mosuli, this is who we are.”

A moment later, I answered the question he’d implied: “We exist to sustain the city of Mosul.”

Somehow, he managed to smile even more.

And then I saw it, the unbroken chain of my family extending back through time.

We were the ones who sustained the city. Working on its water and its sewage, on its power and its streets, we were the ones who had spent countless generations intertwined with it.

Whoever came to rule Mosul recognized that we were the key to their success. It was why he was always safe. My father had no party or sect, he threatened no one.

He belonged to the city. And in a way, the city belonged to him.

As we stood in the rain and watched the flow of water over the broken stones of the aqueduct, I smiled. I smiled like my father did.

I knew who I was, and I knew why.

That day remains the fondest memory of my life.

June 4th, 2014, six years later

At 1:29 a.m., a car bomb had targeted our house. It was the very first attack the Islamic State had launched on Mosul.

For the first time, my family had been a target.

My parents were killed instantly, and my five-year-old younger brother was struck in the head by shrapnel. He was alive but unconscious.

I remember grabbing a bolt of fabric to carry him with and slinging him over my shoulder and then running. I was panicked and scared. We left the city, heading north with other refugees. He became extremely heavy.

As we traveled further and further from Mosul, I realized just how lost we were. We existed to sustain the city, but we were no longer a part of it. I could imagine my father had set the whole thing up. I could imagine the questions he wanted me to answer.

The first was, “Who am I now?”

The second was, “Why had they tried to kill my family?”

And the third was, “How can you find joy?”

As we run, I try to hold the memory of my father’s face.

But, gradually, all that remains is his smile.

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