We are born with two feet, one to sustain balance and the other to venture into the unknown.
I yelled rather rowdily when entering this world, for I was being born not quite gently into a neighborhood of Baghdad that was just a little bigger than the size of a pea called Al-Anbariyin. I was beautifully bred and grew up looking forward to leaping into the future. I spent my childhood and somewhat belligerent youth amid the historical walls of the wooden houses with stained-glass windows and mashrabiyas embellished with carvings overlooking the street. To this day, the smell of those narrow alleys follows me wherever I go. It’s a place that has been loosely portrayed in several sagas, of those which get to be passed down generation to generation, as cloaked in mystery under a magic cloud formed by the smoke the chimney of each house belches in the afternoon, the steam rising from the bath houses to where Queen Alia used to take her son Faisal II, the former king of Iraq, to get relief from his asthma symptoms, and the coo of the local doves, which tell the secret about how to disentangle fact from fiction.
At sunrise, the call to prayer let out by the Shrine of the Two Imams, Imam Musa Al-Kadhim and Imam Muhammad Al-Jawad, peace be upon them, starts belling away. A few hours later, the stalls in the old market roll up their steel gates and some women in black start roving the nearby alleys, one of which the social scientist Ali Al-Wardi was born in, whilst touting the health properties and delicious flavor of the gaimar they make at home and sell in small plastic bowls they carry in a tray on their head.
The morning in Al-Anbariyin is alive with the feistiness of its residents. The men wake up to go to work, while the women tend to the house and the children try and discover the purpose of life. They promise to study hard in order to become someone one day. Pigeon flocks cruise the skies and the shrill whistle their owners let out to summon them back makes the Christ’s Thorn Jujube and orange trees shudder.
Those who have worked hard in the morning find their well-earned rest in the popular cafes around the neighborhood, where they then potter about over a domino match and a pot of fresh-made tea reminiscing over the adventures they embarked on in the days of yore.
I used to pass by one of these cafes on my way to and from school. One day, my eyes fell on a wad of cash that was lying seemingly abandoned under one of the outdoor chairs. I must have been no older than ten. However, I already knew back then that things were only worth the sacrifice that one made to acquire them. I hadn’t earned that money, and hence, it didn’t mean to me what it was supposed to mean. Therefore, I tapped one of the men sitting outside on the shoulder to draw his attention toward the notes. He stood up immediately, picked up the wad and readily stashed it away in one of the side pockets of his white tunic. He said he would take care of it and kindly asked me to scram.
I don’t know whether the money was ever returned to its rightful owner. However, that episode triggered my still quite unripened mind to explore another key issue relating to my understanding of the world around me. I suddenly came to realize how big of a role chance plays in our lives as human beings. I recalled Gilgamesh’s pursuit of immortality and arrived at the answer I was looking for: everlasting life. That was going to be my primary goal, my quest, not for the one obtainable from some concoction of magical herbs or a sip of some fountain waters, but for the one that is attained when the name survives the body. That is when I discovered how resourceful pen and paper can turn out to be.
Written by Rasha Al-Saidali.