The Wild East, Part 3: Hell Freezes Over
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“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
— “Richard II,” Act 3, Scene 2
Soundtrack for this story:
When an outsider says the word “Iraq,” here’s the mental imagery: Desert. Mountains. Cinderblock shacks. A palm tree or two. Definitely guns. Jeeps, rocket launchers, and maybe tanks. Long-bearded guys in camo carrying AK-47s and waving black flags.
There’s plenty of that in Iraq; especially in the southeast, the part most people picture when they hear the word.
Erbil, though — it’s mostly tree-lined suburbs; apartment blocks; that goofy-looking yellow clock tower. A park with fountains and ferris wheel; a shopping mall with bright 1960s architecture. Then of course there are mosques and minarets, and the call to prayer five times every day, including the one at four in the morning. But squint a bit, and you could almost mistake it for small-town Florida.
Ryan, the young Washington Post reporter, was circling the old Toyota pickup parked on the street of apartment buildings, kicking the tires like he was thinking about buying it. The kid’s fidgetiness was starting to get on Davidson’s nerves.
When they’d picked him up from the airport yesterday morning, Ryan had given them a quick rundown: he’d been reporting on refugees in Istanbul when the Post had sent him out here to follow Davidson and his crew on a border run. As soon as he’d heard the word “smuggling,” he said, he’d bought a ticket for the next flight to Erbil. Now he seemed to be second-guessing that decision.
“Is that where you stash ‘em?” Ryan asked. “In the tires?”
“We’ll show you when we get there,” said Camilla. She and Ferhat, the translator-slash-driver, were triple-checking the route on Ferhat’s shock-protected tablet. She was starting to lose patience with the kid, too; Davidson could tell.
Ryan glanced up the block again. Davidson remembered the feeling from his early days here: the fear that any moment, a tank or jeep full of hostiles could come rolling up the street. Today, though, their only company was a gaggle of boys in sweatpants kicking a battered soccerball next to the sidewalk; their headscarfed mamas and grandmamas watching from the apartment windows above: the world’s oldest and most dependable closed-circuit security system.
“You think we’ll make it to Kalak by dark?” the kid asked, probing along the truck’s fender with his fingertips.
“Ma nede ku!” Ferhat snapped at him.
“He says to quit touching his truck,” Camilla clarified. “Ferhat’s very particular about his truck.”
Davidson fought back a smile, trying to figure out how old this kid was. Twenty-two? Twenty-four? A couple of years ago he must’ve been groping sorority girls in the dorms at Berkeley, or whatever upper-middle-class playpen he was from.
“What about that stretch of road?” Camilla asked Ferhat in near-flawless Kurdish, tapping a spot on the driver’s tablet. “That’s mined, isn’t it?”
“Everything south of Qushtapa is mined now,” Ferhat said. “The only other main road is Highway 80, and that’s way too far south. We could take that dirt road in between, but there are even more mines there; plus the Islamic State controls that whole stretch of river.”
She nodded. “No, you’re right; let’s stick to Al-Mosul Highway…”
Ryan sidled up next to Davidson. “I’m not getting this,” he said, squinting as if he’d taken some Kurdish in high school but was just a little rusty.
“He’s saying there are mines on the road we’re taking,” Davidson said.
“Landmines?” Ryan’s eyes widened a little, though he tried to hide his apprehension.
“I think so,” Davidson said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Unless they mean goldmines; in which case our luck is looking up.”
Ryan swallowed. “How do we avoid the landmines?”
“Generally,” Davidson said, “we stay on the road. They’re usually on the shoulders.”
“Generally?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, generally,” Davidson said.
“What about non-generally?”
Davidson shrugged. “One way or the other,” he said, “you’ll find out.”
Ryan stepped back and fixed Davidson with the sharpest glare he could muster. “What’s your — you know, role? What’s your job, on this mission? ”
Davidson chuckled. “Mission,” he said. “I like that.”
“You said you were a translator,” Ryan said. “But Camilla speaks fluent Kurdish. So what — I mean, no disrespect or anything, but what do you do?”
Davidson tapped his lips with a finger, holding back a grin. “Has anyone ever called you ‘plucky?’” he asked. “You don’t hear that phrase much anymore: ‘plucky reporter.’ I always liked it.”
The kid’s narrow-eyed glare didn’t waver. He didn’t scare easily; Davidson had to give him that.
“I can see why they sent you,” Davidson said at last, clapping the kid on the shoulder. “You’re right; I’m not here to translate Kurdish.”
The kid stroked the thin hint of beard on his chin. “You translate the cargo. What we’re picking up.”
“A better word is ‘assess,’” Davidson said. “I look through the cargo; determine how much it’s worth. I negotiate. And I log it for the flight out.”
“But you won’t tell me how you smuggle it,” Ryan said, glancing over at the truck.
Camilla and Ferhat had concluded their meeting, and were already climbing into the front seat. Children had been called inside for breakfast and the sun had risen behind the apartments. The opening aria of the call to prayer began to echo from on high.
“You’ll see for yourself,” Davidson said, popping open the truck’s door.
“After you, my plucky friend.”
Al-Mosul Highway wound northwest through the rocky land southwest of Erbil. The truck bounced along cracked asphalt, over gravel and potholes, past villages of tiny cinderblock houses and fields of flat green grass, or tall stalks of wild wheat — Middle America in the Middle East; aside from the mined roads, the rattling suspension and the insistent feeling that any minute now they’d see jeeps with black flags creeping up behind them in clouds of pale dust.
Every half hour or so they arrived at another checkpoint: a cluster of cinderblock shacks and barbed wire, where suspicious young Kurdish men in camo, cradling old Soviet AKs, asked where the travelers thought they were headed. At the first checkpoint, the soldiers were suspicious. At the third, they were curious. By the fifth checkpoint, they were openly incredulous.
“Ma tu bawer we dê?” a kid cradling an Uzi asked Camilla: Where do you think you’re going? He couldn’t have been a day over nineteen. He wore a keffiyeh; a patterned scarf; a tattered Van Halen t-shirt under his camo jacket.
“We’re headed for Kalak,” Ferhat said in Kurdish.
“Kalak?” the guard’s eyes went wide. “That’s the other side of the hills. That’s ISIS country.”
“Almost,” said Camilla in her barely accented Kurdish. “Not quite, though.”
“What are you, Red Cross?” the guard asked. “No, can’t be. You don’t look like doctors.”
Ryan nudged Davidson, asking what was going on. Davidson shushed him.
“Journalists!” the guard exclaimed. “Journalists, right? I knew it! Take my picture. Come on.”
He mugged for a camera no one was holding up, crossing his arms and making a tough face, like a gangsta rapper.
When he realized no one was reaching for a camera, he waved the truck through, dismissively.
Once they were on the move again, Ryan asked, “Why’d we have to go all the way down to Kalak to get the cargo?” His first real question of the evening.
“Kalak was the farthest into Kurdish territory our source was willing to come,” Camilla said. She frowned slightly. “Didn’t you research this, like, at all?”
Ryan frowned. “I did. A lot’s happened since then.”
“My friend laughs,” Camilla said, “because today has been a blessedly uneventful day. So far.”
Ryan shook his head. “Life’s strange, isn’t it? All this secrecy; you’d think we were smuggling… I don’t know; bricks of coke or something. But none of this stuff is even technically illegal, is it? It’s just ancient writing.”
Davidson smiled. “There are pig farmers in France who’ll murder their neighbors over a truffle.”
Ryan’s brow furrowed. “Truffles — ?”
“Never mind,” Davidson said.
“But your source,” Ryan persisted. “This archaeologist. Smuggler. Whatever. He doesn’t want to leave ISIS territory?”
“Even a quick run like this is a big risk for him,” Davidson said, trying to drizzle tobacco into a cigarette roll that the wind would probably put out as soon as he lit it. It was something to do, anyway. “Once he’s out, he might not be able to get back in.”
“Or maybe he’ll never want to,” said Ryan. “Once he gets a refresher on, you know, civilized society.”
Camilla and Davidson both shot him sharp glances. Then Davidson laughed, because Davidson couldn’t help it. “What fishbowl did they pull you out of, Ryan?”
The kid looked confused, so Camilla clarified. “ISIS aren’t the only ones with roots here.”
Ryan pondered this. “You mean the Peshmerga.”
Davidson finished rolling his cigarette and tried to light it in the dry wind rushing in through the window. “The Kurds have been here for a while,” Davidson said. “Maybe about as long as anybody, depending on who you believe. But I’m talking about even older stuff than that.”
“What, like… Babylon?” Ryan’s brow furrowed.
Davidson managed to get his cigarette lit. “Sure. And its ancestors. Akkad and Sumer.”
Camilla smirked. “Oh, here we go.”
“Hey, but listen.” Davidson chuckled. “The continuity around here is unbelievable. People were still worshipping ancient Babylonian gods as recently as the Middle Ages.”
Ryan’s eyes widened. “I read something about that! In Turkey. There was a temple in — where was it? Harran, I think.”
“The last functioning temple of the Babylonian moon god Sin and the sun god Shamash.” Davidson nodded. “Smashed by medieval Crusaders, who probably had no idea what they were destroying. And that’s just the beginning.”
“Yeah. Yeah!” Ryan snapped his fingers as if trying to remember something. “I read about these people, the Mandaeans, who live in the swamps south of here.”
Davidson grinned. “I’ve met some.”
Ryan laughed in amazement. “What? You’ve talked to Mandaeans?”
In the front seat, Camilla glanced at Ferhat. They rolled their eyes.
“I heard they’re super secretive,” Ryan said. “Like, completely closed off to outsiders.”
“They usually are,” Davidson agreed. “Though they’re more willing to open up when you speak fluent Aramaic and come bearing medical supplies.”
“That’s just wild to think about,” Ryan mused. He shook his head. “God. I mean, those swamps where they live — that’s what Mesopotamia must’ve looked like thousands of years ago.”
“Not just the swamp,” Davidson said. “The lifestyle, too. We’ve dug up some ancient burial sites — I mean really ancient — with reed huts and wood boats that look basically identical to the ones you’d see there today.”
“And the religion, right?” Ryan asked. “It’s like, at least as old as Babylon.”
“Older.” Davidson smiled. “It may be a late-stage form of Mesopotamia’s indigenous paganism. Probably older than the Sumerians themselves. It’d be like if we could find real clans of druids — not modern neo-pagans, but the actual original druid tribes — still hiding away in the Scottish forests. But here in Iraq, this isn’t some fantasy. It’s real. Those people actually live out there in the marshes, right now.”
Ryan blew out a long breath. “That’s — I mean, can’t even frame that. The spans of time. How do you even process that? It’s like temporal vertigo.”
Now Camilla and Davidson were both laughing. So was Ferhat.
“Oh, he’s got his hooks in you now,” Camilla cried.
“Does he always talk like this?” Ferhat asked her in Kurdish.
“Every trip,” Camilla answered, cracking up.
Davidson raised his hands, palm-out: the universal sign for all right, I’ll shut up now. He threw the charred stub of his cigarette out the window.
Ryan looked from one of them to another, as confused as he was excited.
They rode like that for a while, the dusty wind blowing in their faces. They tried not to think about the mines.
They pulled into Kalak about three hours later, when the sun was touching the flat horizon.
“Now this,” Ryan mused, “looks like Iraq.”
Against a backdrop of low purplish mountains, flat green fields dotted with siloes and industrial plants dissolved into dirt-paved streets honeycombed with squat mud-brick shacks and half-built concrete apartment blocks. Only a few treetops, watchtowers, and mosque-domes interrupted the flatness.
The truck turned down a few packed-dirt roads until they reached the Kurdish base on the outskirts of town. It was surrounded by a concrete wall with barbed wire along the top, enclosing buildings of cinderblock and corrugated metal topped with thatched roofs and blue tarps. A dozen or so Pershmerga fighters hunkered behind stacks of sandbags, playing dominoes to stave off the boredom.
Inside a small warehouse of bolted steel, they shook hands with a Peshmerga officer, lieutenant Bashur. A young footsoldier in camo plugged in a hotplate, and poured small glasses of strong black tea for the visitors as the officers placed folding chairs around their desks for them, muttering to each other in clipped Kurdish.
“There’s sugar on the shelf somewhere, Talan.” Bashur, the short, sharp-eyed, mustached officer gestured to the young man, who retrieved a paper box of sugar from a wooden shelf on the wall.
As Talan set the Arabic-printed box on the table, Bashur stroked his beard and added, “We don’t put sugar in our tea. We keep it here for, maybe, Western academics and journalists.” He smiled tightly.
“You get a lot of those?” Camilla asked. “Western academics?”
Bashur shrugged. “We had a team of three a few months ago. Wanted to interview Islamic State fighters. We introduced them to a few of our prisoners.”
Ryan took a tape recorder out of his pack and flicked it on.
Bashur made the universal gesture for shut that damn thing off. “What you think you’re doing?” he asked Ryan in accented, rolling English.
“I’m a journalist,” Ryan said, a bit too slowly, over-emphasizing the pronunciation. “I’m here for a story.”
“Just what we need,” Bashur muttered in Kurdish. “A journalist.”
He pointed at Ryan. “You want to know what happens in Kalak?” he asked. “Every few days, the IS fighters shoot rockets from the hills, and smash my walls to shit. My men shoot back into the rocks. But it’s a waste of cartridges, because the twelve-year-old jihadis have already run off. Unless we get lucky and kill one.” He took a sip of his tea, which was still too scalding for the visitors to drink. “Next morning, we rebuild the walls and do it all over again. Now there’s a story for you.”
“Actually,” Ryan said, “I’m doing a story on Dr. Davidson. That’s why I’m along for this ride.”
“Ahh, your precious cargo.” Bashur nodded. “I’m afraid there’s been a problem.”
“Problem?” Davidson tried to keep his voice even. “What do you mean?”
Bashur shrugged. “You know how it is. The fifty kilometers between here and Mosul is the most dangerous stretch of road on earth. It takes time.”
“All right,” Davidson said, “but he’s on his way, right?”
“We hope,” Bashur said, spreading his hands.
“Just tell me one thing,” Camilla said. “Where are we spending the night?”
Bashur made a pained gesture. “It’s up to you. He may arrive tonight. You could leave in the morning and be back in Erbil before noon.”
“Or make the trip back now, with nothing,” Ryan said. “But not, you know, have to spend the night on the front lines.”
Everyone glanced over at him. Bashur looked downright amused.
“I wouldn’t call this the front lines,” Bashur said, with Kurdish delicacy. “More like the back office.”
“What I’m saying,” Bashur said to Ryan, “is that you might die if you spend the night here; but then, you might die anywhere in Iraq. Here, it isn’t extraordinarily likely.”
Camilla turned to Davidson. “What do you think?” she asked.
Now everyone was staring at him. Davidson had no idea how it’d suddenly become his decision. Way too many variables; too many unknowns. But it had to be someone’s call, and apparently that person was him.
“Let’s stick around a while,” he said at last. “At least until sundown.”
Bashur glanced out the window. “It’s sundown now,” he said.
“Well,” Davidson said, “let’s wait a little longer.”
After they finished their little glasses of tea, Camilla and Ferhat went out to walk the perimeter.
Ryan and Davidson joined two of the guards playing dominoes on a plastic folding table, beneath brightly photoshopped memorial posters of their fallen comrades.
Davidson and the guards chatted idly in Kurdish as they played, which Davidson felt just a little bad about, since it left Ryan sitting there in silence. The kid didn’t seem to mind much, though. He knew how to play dominoes, and in between his turns he eyed the posters or stared out the window.
After a while, he nudged Davidson, nodding at the posters. “Those are, like, their friends, right?” he asked.
The guards saw where they were looking and told them the names and ranks of the men in the posters, and where they’d died. Davidson knew the names wouldn’t mean anything to Ryan, but he told the kid anyway.
Ryan nodded sadly. “Kurdan bêdost,” he said.
Davidson and both guards looked up at him in surprise. Cautious smiles spread across the guards’ faces. One of them reached over and gripped Ryan by the shoulder, jostling him in agreement.
“Where’d you learn that?” Davidson whispered to him.
Ryan shrugged. “‘The Kurds have no friends.’ Sort of an unofficial motto, isn’t it? Packing around the Middle East, you pick things up.”
“Hûn Kurdî biaxivin?” the guard asked him: You speak Kurdish?
They’d forgotten about the dominoes. Ryan had suddenly become a three-dimensional person.
He shrugged apologetically and said, “Ne baş.” Not well. “Ez li Tirkiyeyê bû…” He turned to Davidson. “Sorry; I’m trying to say, ‘I was in Turkey, so mostly I learned Turkish.’”
Davidson started to translate, but the guards both nodded, saying they understood. They asked Ryan where he’d traveled in Turkey; what he’d been doing there. He told them, briefly, through Davidson. One of the guards dug a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket; pulled a butt partway out and offered it to Ryan, who accepted it — and a light — with a nod of thanks.
“And now you’re here,” said the guard who’d jostled him, in Kurdish. “What, to do a story on the fighters of Kurdistan?”
Ryan tried to make out the Kurdish; shook his head; turned to Davidson, who sighed and translated again.
“Actually,” Ryan said, “I’m doing a story on Dr. Davidson here.”
The guards got that one without any translation. They threw back their heads and laughed.
Davidson scanned his dominoes, looking for one that’d fit somewhere in the sprawling maze on the table. “Turkey’s more like ‘Middle East Lite,’” he said to Ryan. “Wouldn’t you say?”
The kid laughed softly; rolled his eyes. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You’ve been out here in the Real Shit, while I — well, all I’ve been doing is living in refugee ghettos in Istanbul.” He dropped a domino into place. “And what is it you do here again, Dr. Davidson?”
“You better watch that tone, kid,” Davidson said.
Both guards looked up from their dominoes.
As Ryan opened his mouth to answer, Bashur burst in, Camilla and Ferhat close on his heels. He strode toward the table with careful calm.
“We got a call on the radio,” he said in Kurdish, leaning in toward Davidson’s ear. “They’re alive, but they’re pinned down on the highway, near Sherkan.”
Davidson rose from the chair. “That’s just the other side of the river,” Davidson said. “Can’t you send somebody out there?”
Bashur frowned. “In the middle of the night, to fight an unknown enemy, to save non-military personnel?” He spread his hands apologetically. “You must understand.”
Davidson was already shouldering his bag. “It’s less than fifteen klicks.”
“Fifteen klicks into IS territory,” said Camilla, raising a hand to stop him.
Ryan stood from the table, glancing from Davidson to Camilla to Bashur. “I heard ‘radio,’ ‘river,’ and ‘IS,’” he said. “You guys aren’t planning to go out there, are you?”
“‘We guys’ aren’t planning anything,” said Camilla. “The esteemed doctor here wants to do something stupid.”
“I am not driving across that river,” said Ferhat.
“That’s fine,” Davidson said. “I will.”
He shouldered past Camilla and Bashur, heading for the door.
Camilla sighed; ran her hand down her face. “Tony,” she called.
Davidson turned around, face expressionless.
She ran to catch up with him. “You can’t do it by yourself. Come on.”
A hint of a smile crossed his lips. They headed outside.
“With my truck, eh?” Ferhat cried, stomping after them. “You don’t even ask me before you drive my truck to its fucking death.”
Ryan caught up with them outside the bunker. “I want to come, too,” he said.
Camilla barked a laugh.
“Out of the question,” said Davidson.
“Look,” Ryan stopped, raised his voice. “I know you think I’m some pampered upper-class kid with no practical skills.”
“That’s about the long and short of it,” said Davidson.
“I was ranked first in my class in marksmanship at West Point,” he said.
Camilla raised her eyebrows. “You went to West Point?”
“We don’t have time for this,” said Davidson.
“I can hit a moving target at fifty yards with a .45,” Ryan said. “Two hundred yards with an M40.”
“You’ve shot an M40,” Camilla said, an incredulous smile crossing her lips.
“Jesus Christ,” said Davidson. “I don’t care!” He turned to Ryan. “If you get killed, I will be in a world of shit. All of us will. It’ll be the end of — of all of this. Everything we’re doing. Now. We’re wasting time while they’re out there getting blown to pieces.” He tugged at Camilla’s sleeve. “Let’s go.”
“And what are you going to do?” Ryan called to Davidson as he turned away. “Publish essays at them? What are you a doctor of, anyway?”
Davidson turned around slowly, his face glowing with anger. He marched toward Ryan, who stood his ground. Camilla rolled her eyes.
“All right, you little prick,” Davidson snarled. “You want to see what I do?” He was right up in the kid’s face now. “I’ll show you what I do. Come on.” He grabbed Ryan by the collar, marching him toward the truck.
Ryan caught Camilla’s eye and grinned. She rolled her eyes again, grinning right back.
Camilla jumped in the driver’s seat and started up the Toyota’s coughing diesel engine. Davidson and Ryan clambered inside and slammed the doors. They peeled out of the parking area. The guards reluctantly opened the gate, with the expressions of men watching prisoners on their way to the gas chamber.
The truck’s headlights cast a pale glow out in front; a tiny slice of visibility in a universe of pitch blackness. They crossed the concrete bridge that sprawled over the Zab River, through the flat-roofed town of Aski Kalak; then rattled westward along the gravel and dirt of Al-Mosul Highway.
Davidson drove carefully, leaving plenty of space from the minefields; plains of invisible, instantaneous death that stretched away on both sides. The truck’s engine chugged; the tires crunched on gravel; the shocks squeaked as they bounced through potholes. All else was silent.
A sudden burst of automatic rifle fire crackled in the night air. Then the explosion of a grenade; a pop and flash about fifty yards up the road.
Davidson stopped the truck and killed the engine.
Two pairs of headlights swung up the road, bearing down on them.
“Shit,” Davidson hissed.
They scrambled out of the truck, ducking low as they slipped around the sides. Davidson was making for the truck-bed. He heaved himself over the side and into the bed where he handed a canvas duffel bag down to Camilla.
She set the bag on the ground; unzipped it; pulled out an AK-47; checked the magazine. She lifted out another of the old Soviet rifles and handed it to Ryan.
“Close enough to an M40 for you?” she asked.
The kid’s eyes were wide. “Who are you people?” he whispered, checking his own clip and locking it back into place.
Davidson pulled out a matte-black sniper rifle nearly as long as he was tall. “We’re very bad people,” he said. “Stay here.”
He ran for a nearby pile of rocks, barely visible in the approaching headlights.
“What do we do?” Ryan asked Camilla.
“Like he said.” She shrugged. “Stay here.”
More automatic rifle fire up in the distance. Shouts; pops of handguns.
Then, from Davidson’s rifle, a crack so loud it made Ryan’s ears ring.
A full second later, the clang of metal on metal. A scream above the commotion.
Ryan heard Davidson unchamber his cartridge and chamber a new one. His rifle cracked again.
A blindingly bright column of flame unfurled upward from one of the trucks. In the flash, Ryan saw men’s bodies and shreds of steel fender hurled into the air, amidst swirling smoke.
Now men were yelling in Arabic. Another truck engine started; headlights swung around and pointed straight at Davidson. He scrambled up in the whitish glare and ran for cover behind the truck.
He collapsed next to Camilla, panting. “Your turn,” he said.
The headlights bore down on the truck; the men’s rifle fire crackling above their screams and the roar of the engine. It was impossible to see them, though; the only thing visible was a blinding white light.
Without a word, Camilla tucked and rolled away from the Toyota, into the shadows.
The ISIS truck swung by them. Ryan ducked; the headlight beams swung past.
From just off to Ryan’s left, an ear-piercing thunder of automatic fire. One of the ISIS truck’s tires exploded; a pop like a bomb. The driver lost control; headlights swung wildly. Men were screaming in Arabic, banging on the truck’s roof as the driver tried to swing it around, kicking up clouds of dust.
An explosion shook the ground. Ryan dove for cover. His ears rang. Lights danced in his eyes. Terrified, he pawed at his face, fully expecting to be missing something. Everything seemed intact — except that he couldn’t see or hear a thing.
As the blinding whiteness began to fade, Ryan saw that, where the ISIS truck had been an instant ago, a column of fire now roiled up into the night sky.
Forms resolved out of the night. Davidson and Camilla were running back toward the truck. Davidson climbed inside and turned on the cabin light. He was laughing wildly; his face exultant. Ryan and Camilla joined him in the cabin.
“Is it safe?” Ryan asked. He couldn’t hear his own voice; only the ringing.
Davidson leaned back and said something. When he saw Ryan didn’t hear it, worry crossed his face; then he ruffled Ryan’s hair and kissed the top of his head — actually kissed it, hard.
“Landmine.” Davidson spoke slowly, so Ryan could lip-read. “They drove over their own goddamn mine! Fuckin’ idiots.”
Ryan still couldn’t hear a thing. He was trembling, unable to stop. He’d never even fired his weapon. He couldn’t see much, either; but as Davidson swerved the truck toward the location of the commotion, bright flashes in the darkness showed that the survivors were finishing off the attackers. The Toyota’s headlights lit up an old military-green Soviet transport truck, its rear section covered with canvas, wrapped in a tangle of camouflage netting and tarps.
The driver, an oil-stained Kurdish fighter in full combat gear, hopped out of the front, covered in pale dust and clutching a pistol. Camilla and Davidson jumped out to wrap him in back-slapping hugs.
Meanwhile, another man was climbing out of the truck’s back section and struggling to maneuver around the camo netting. He was gray-haired, a bit on the pudgy side, clad in shalwar-kameez of dark gray cotton. Davidson ran to him and lifted him up in a bear hug. They planted cheek-kisses on each other in the glare of the headlights.
Ryan watched the old friends greet each other; still trembling too hard to move. He saw the man in the gray garb catch his eye, smile and nod. He managed to nod back.
Davidson and Camilla climbed back into the front seat. The driver of the old Soviet truck was climbing back into its cabin, too. Davidson swung the truck around, and they drove the fifteen kilometers back to Kalak, which seemed to last much longer than the drive out, as return trips always do.
By the time they arrived at the gate in the concrete wall, and two stunned Kurdish guards had swung open the gate to let them through, Ryan had started to gain back his hearing. Words still sounded like mumbles, but it seemed he wouldn’t be deaf for life.
“Come on,” said Camilla, reaching for the AK-47 he still clutched tightly. “Let’s put the toys away.”
Davidson parked the Toyota in the staging area, while the driver of the old Soviet truck swung it past them, driving it carefully through the door of a long, low warehouse of white corrugated steel.
When they’d parked and packed the guns away, the man in the gray shalwar came strolling out of the warehouse, his camo-clad driver in tow.
“Who’s brewing the tea?” he asked in near-accentless English. “I could die for a glass of hot Kurdish tea.”
“Don’t joke about that,” Davidson said.
“Oh, believe me,” he said, “I never joke about tea. And who’s this?” he asked, strolling over to shake Ryan’s hand.
“Ryan Greenwald,” the kid introduced himself.
“Pul el-Rihani,” said the gray-robed man exchanging cheek-kisses with Ryan. “And what brings you to the Abzu, Ryan Greenwald?”
“The Ab — ?” Ryan shook his head; glanced at Davidson, who shrugged. “I’m here covering Dr. Davidson’s work,” he said.
Pul threw back his head and laughed. “Work! Is that what we’re doing, Anthony? Working?”
“Well, what word would you use?” Ryan asked, his brow furrowing journalistically.
“Thievery,” said Pul, still laughing. “Anthony is a thief, and I’m even worse: a thief who steals from his own people. Now how about that tea?”
They strolled back to the guards’ bunker, where the footsoldier Talan had already put a kettle on to boil, and set out a tray of six tiny tea-glasses on metal saucers in preparation.
“Your people,” Ryan asked Pul. “You mean the Iraqis?”
Pul made a sort of half-shrug, half-wince. “‘Iraqi’ — such an over-simplistic word, don’t you think?”
“You mean,” Ryan said carefully, “before the Hashemite monarchy in the ‘twenties, there was no such thing as Iraq.” He pulled his recorder out of his bag; set it on the table; looked at Pul questioningly. Pul smiled and gestured for him to continue. He started the recording.
“I mean,” said Pul, “there was never such a thing as Iraq. Well, perhaps under Hussein there was, for a while — but that’s another story. What I mean is, long before anyone drew artificial borders around this place, it belonged to many kingdoms. Many peoples. And of course, it still does, no matter how much those ISIS — what is the word? — troglodytes try to destroy the evidence, the truth is already known. Even if I have to steal from my own people to protect it.”
Talan poured the tea. They settled around a long folding-table to sip it, and to eat a dish of cumin-spiced mutton stew with flatbread. Ryan hadn’t even realized how hungry he was until he smelled it. Now he dug in ravenously.
“I was thinking about something, when I was in Istanbul,” Ryan said through a mouthful of stew.
Pul nodded for him to go on, tearing off another piece of flatbread and grabbing a handful of mutton with it.
“Well, the Ottomans and the medieval empires and everything,” he said. “In America we call that the Old World, but it’s really not that old, is it? I mean, not when you think about the Greeks and the Romans.”
“And the Persians,” Camilla said, smiling.
“Exactly,” said Ryan. “All that stuff is a thousand years older than the Ottomans, or even Islam itself. It’s like… that’s the real Old World.”
Pul smiled. “Have you heard the story of Xenophon at the city walls?” he asked.
Ryan picked at his flatbread. “Xenophon — I think I’ve heard the name. Wasn’t he a Greek writer?”
“And a general,” Pul said. “Back in the days of Plato, Aristotle and their friends. He commanded part of a mercenary army called the Ten Thousand. They were marching all across the Middle East, trying to escape from an enemy army, getting dragged deeper into this quagmire — the Abzu.”
“You used that word earlier,” Ryan said. “What is that?”
“Abzu,” Pul said. “It means ‘abyss’ — perhaps the oldest word in the English language. Apropos, I think, since it is a word for a very old place. It was probably an inland sea at one time, where the ancestors of the Sumerians gathered to worship. There they built Eridu, which their descendants claimed was the very first city on earth. They believed all knowledge and civilization sprang forth from the depths of that sea.”
“So Xenophon and these mercenaries,” Ryan said, grinning.
Pul gestured for him to be patient. “Right. Xenophon and his army were marching past the ruins of all these old cities, and nobody could remember who built them. Even to the Greeks and Persians, these were truly ancient places.”
“The Really Old World,” Davidson said.
Pul hummed in agreement. “Well,” he said, “the army came to a place with huge walls. I mean, miles around. The ruins of a whole city. And Xenophon asked who’d built it. You know what that place was?”
Ryan spread his hands. “Eridu?”
Pul raised a finger, grinning. “Oh no. Eridu had been dust for two thousand years by that time. Xenophon had discovered a city built by my people, in the place where Mosul stands today.”
Davidson shook Pul’s shoulder. “The place you very nearly died today.”
Ryan stared at Pul, who only smiled back. “So you’re — what?” he asked. “Babylonian?”
“Assyrian,” said Pul.
“Assyrian,” Ryan said. “Like, Syrian?”
Pul shrugged. “‘Syrian’ is what the Romans called everyone around here. Just like people around here call outsiders farangi; ‘French.’ But just as France is much older than the U.S., we Assyrians are far older than Syria.”
“Back when Europe was just a wild jungle,” Davidson said, “the Assyrians were carving out the largest empire in the world.”
Pul shrugged. “To be fair, they were infamously cruel and misogynist. But they also built some wondrous things. I’m named after an Assyrian emperor, in point of fact; a king who was a patron of the arts, and a collector of ancient texts. The very king who built those walls Xenophon saw.”
“In Mosul.” Ryan scratched his cheek.
“Except there was no Mosul then,” Pul said. “The city was called Nineveh, or Ninua. And in days long ago, it was the most magnificent city on earth.”
Ryan shook his head, processing this. “Mosul is Nineveh?” he asked. “Like, the wicked city of Nineveh, from the Bible?”
“Wicked?” Pul shrugged. “In some ways, certainly. As I said, my ancestors weren’t exactly popular around here, for good reason.”
“And Mosul isn’t much of anything anymore.” Davidson sighed. “Ever since the ISIS wrecking crew moved in.”
“Not on the surface, no.” Pul grinned. “But this — as you say — wrecking crew: they are careless. They leave important things behind.”
Ryan nodded. “Your cargo.”
“The words I steal from my own people.” Pul smiled. “But I think, perhaps, my ancestor and namesake would’ve wanted it that way. He even says as much, in his inscriptions.”
“Well, I mean,” Ryan’s brow furrowed. “That’s the question, isn’t it? Are you preserving your culture’s legacy, or just looting?”
Pul smiled. “You ask the tough questions, Mr. Journalist.” He spread his hands. “All I know,” he said, “is that every day those tablets remain in Mosul, they are in greater danger of being smashed to dust.”
“And we’re not selling them for profit,” Camilla added. “We don’t deal with private collectors. We give everything we smuggle out to museums; mostly Cairo and Istanbul. All we ask in return is enough cash to keep running this little venture.”
“But, I mean,” Ryan asked, “Have you ever asked, you know — what gives you the right?”
Davidson laughed. “The right? I’ll tell you what gives us the right: the fact that the people who’ve taken over Mosul want to smash history with sledgehammers, and we want to save it. The fact that if we fail to save it, they’re going to erase it forever. That is what gives us the goddamned right.”
“That’s a good quote, eh?” Pul grinned. “You can put that in your story.”
“Yeah,” said Ryan. “I guess I can.”
They finished off the stew, and ate a few pieces of sweet baklava from a tin the soldiers brought out. Then they had another round of tea and cigarettes. And then another.
Once the evening was winding down, Ryan asked, “So, when do we take a look?”
Camilla grinned. “I was about to ask the same thing.”
Fluorescent lamps cast harsh shadows around the bunker, across the old Soviet truck that held the cargo they’d risked their lives to protect.
Davidson and Camilla opened the canvas flaps at the back of the truck, revealing a small stack of wood crates tied down inside.
“You know,” Ryan said, “I feel kind of stupid saying this — but I totally feel like Indiana Jones right now.”
Pul threw back his head and laughed. So did Camilla. Davidson chuckled too, not really sure why he was so annoyed by that comment. What the kid said was true; there was something unreal about all this — what he and Camilla and Pul did — not to mention the reasons they did it. Like living in a novel.
“You know what I was doing this time last year?” Davidson asked Ryan, who shrugged.
“I was living in a ground-floor studio in Brooklyn,” Davidson said. “Working for Sotheby’s, appraising,” he rolled his eyes, “Victorian candelabras and Ming-dynasty vases. Artifacts of the Not-Very-Old World.” He climbed into the truck-bed; grabbed a hammer and pried the lid off one of the crates. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Sometimes real life is even weirder than a movie.”
Pul had climbed into the truck-bed now, too. Together, he and Davidson lifted a canvas-wrapped package out of the wood crate and set it down carefully at the rear edge of the truck-bed.
“You’re going to like this, Anthony.” Pul grinned.
Davidson unwrapped the canvas, revealing a soft Turkish rug rolled up inside. He unrolled the rug even more delicately. As he lifted the last fold, he laid bare a hard, cracked tablet of pale clay, about the size of a — well, a tablet. Like an iPad. He lifted the tablet from the cloth, like a father lifting a baby from its cradle.
The tablet’s surface was covered with clusters of tiny wedge-shaped markings, packed so densely they almost looked like rough skin. But they were aligned in neat rows; every bundle of tiny triangles pressed neatly and clearly into the clay.
A smile spread across Davidson’s lips. He bent in close, scanning the lines of markings; his lips forming silent syllables as he read.
“That’s — cuneiform, isn’t it?” Ryan whispered, peering in to get a better look at the tablet.
Pul nodded. “The shape you get when you press a reed stylus into soft clay,” he said. “A method used for many writing systems, for many languages, across thousands of years. Just as you might call your Roman letters — hmm — ‘line-and-curve writing,’ no matter which language they happen to encode, or which culture inscribes them.”
Now Davidson was smiling broadly, his face close to the symbols. “What have you brought me, my friend?” he asked, glancing up to meet Pul’s eyes before turning back to the tablet.
After a few moments of careful reading, Davidson raised his face from the tablet. He looked from Pul to Camilla, to Ryan. His eyes were wide. He was trembling.
“It’s a poem,” he whispered.
Pul smiled; placed an arm around Davidson’s shoulders, careful not to brush the tablet’s surface.
Davidson tapped the bottom of the tablet, ever so lightly. “It says here, ‘This is a poem of old Sumer, from long ago.’” He covered his mouth, trying to steady himself. “It’s a Sumerian poem. Even to the ancient Assyrian scribe who translated it, it was already thousands of years old. That’s what it says at the bottom: ‘For the sake of far-distant days.’ That’s us.” He closed his eyes. “He saved it for us.”
“And those sons of bitches want to smash it to dust,” Camilla said.
“I’d put a bullet through every last one of them.” Davidson was trembling hard now; a hiss in his voice. “Every man, woman and child who wants to get rid of the past. I’d stop every last one of their hearts, and I’d sleep with a smile on my face.”
They were all staring at him now. Tense silence reigned for a long moment.
“If you did,” Pul said to Davidson, “I suppose you wouldn’t be so different from them. Or from my own ancestors.”
Davidson sat on the edge of the truck-bed, breathing hard, his face in his hands.
“What does it say?” Ryan asked after a time.
Davidson looked up, empty-eyed.
“The poem,” Ryan reminded him. “How does it go?”
Davidson slowly uncovered his face. His eyes were red. He turned back to the tablet. A hint of a smile played on his lips.
Those days were indeed faraway days. Those nights were indeed faraway nights. Those years were indeed faraway years. The storm roared, the lights flashed. Heaven talked with Earth; Earth talked with Heaven.
Ryan fell silent again. Then he said, “I’ve never heard Sumerian poetry before. It’s beautiful.”
Davidson nodded softly. “It was already an ancient poem twenty-six centuries ago, when the Assyrians added it to their library. It’s talking about a legendary time. The dawn of mankind’s childhood. Eridu. The first city in the world.”
“Maybe that’s why they called it the abyss.” Pul sighed. “Everything you find here pulls you deeper in. Further back.”
“As long as you don’t smash it to dust,” Davidson said.
They fell silent for a while after that. They sat on the edge of the truck-bed under the fluorescent lights, staring at the tiny clusters of markings on this ancient piece of clay that all of them had just risked their life for; that their enemies had been eager to kill for the right to destroy.
Part of Ryan wanted to ask if it was worth it, but he wasn’t sure how one measured the worth of such a thing.
Outside, a Jeep started up, heading around the perimeter for a night patrol. As it passed out of hearing range, the songs of desert insects swelled again, filling the night.