Jihad. The billboard portrayed a masked ISIL fighter dressed in black, carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. Alone in the rear seat of the silver Hyundai sedan, Karim grimaced. Reminders of ISIL’s martial grip on his town were everywhere. Slim, an
d in his thirties, Karim had a penetrating gaze and light brown eyes. Since ISIL, the Islamic State in the Levant, pushed out the Iraqi Shia controlled by Iran and Baghdad, Karim grew his beard longer. Beards with too-short a measured length warranted flogging.
Karim’s position as the petroleum engineer and drilling manager at the nearby Iraqi oilfield merited chauffeuring to and from work. Black gold funded ISIL’s military operations by smuggling most of the production through Kurdistan and selling the crude in Turkey. Karim’s vehicle passed a long line of lorries, oil traders waiting to receive crude, fuel oil, or petrol. Subsequent delivery could be to an Iraqi gas station, a smaller truck for wider distribution, or a mobile refinery in Syria. Cash in advance set the allocation priority.
The Hyundai maneuvered around a traffic circle. Karim gasped at the sight of three beheaded men in military-green khaki, bodies lying crumpled on the pavement like piles of dirty clothes, their heads impaled on spikes stuck into the ground behind them like tombstones. Papers pinned to their chests detailed their offenses, the corners flapping in the breeze. ISIL’s imposition of Sharia law prescribed extraordinary punishments. Karim averted his eyes. Such horrifying exhibitions had become too-frequent reminders of ISIL’s brutality. A man or woman could be grabbed by patrolling religious police and severely punished, even executed without trial or appeal. He hoped that his wife, Farrah, and the children hadn’t seen the display.
Although he’d received her father’s blessing, he had still knelt before Farrah to profess his love and to elicit her answer. Farrah relished his wooing. Karim smiled at the memory.
With a coy expression, she repeated, “Tell me again how much you love me.”
To which he replied, “You complete me,” then added, “I love you in all the little things, like when you bow in prayer.
“I love you and trust you more than I love and trust myself.
“I’ve always loved you, and I always will.”
Karim’s voice cracked, and his knees almost gave out before Farrah relented.
Only the birth of his son Omar, then his daughter Leyla, competed with their wedding as his favorite day.
Inside the Hyundai, Karim’s face became determined. He’d focus on keeping his family safe during this unending war. The fighting and bloodshed had to end.
Before entering his modest concrete-walled home, Karim ensured his family had full and flowing water tanks. Precious water. He’d cleaned the grease from his hands with sand before leaving the rig site. Farrah greeted him with a kiss. The tenderness belied her troubled expression. Without her niqab, her dark-hair, fine features and a small cleft chin were revealed.
Farrah’s voice was strained. “I kept the children home again. While I helped Leyla dress, she told me that an ISIL fighter gave her class a lesson in weapons.” She clutched her forehead. “He actually put a pistol into our daughter’s hand.”
Karim inhaled sharply. “That’s insane. Jihad has no boundaries for these people.”
“What are we to do? ISIL wants to turn our babies into suicide bombers.” Tears edged her beautiful eyes.
Karim squeezed her hand and softened his tone. “That won’t happen. We can’t insulate Omar and Leyla, but we can counter negative guidance. I’ll speak to Leyla.” Karim comforted Farrah in his arms. “Allow them to attend school. Otherwise, their absence will be noticed, and we don’t want the authorities appearing at our door.”
“Leyla’s frightened by the explosions.”
Karim repeated the counter arguments he’d raised before. “Our home’s here. We can’t exist as refugees. My work. Where could we go? How would I support us?”
Farrah asked, “How long can we go on like this?”
It was a question Karim struggled with himself. He said, “We must stay strong for the children. If the fighting moves closer, we’ll have an excuse to keep them home.”
“Will our lives ever return to normal?”
Karim puffed out a long breath. “Insha’Allah.”
Omar, wearing an iridescent-green Nike football shirt, and Leyla, in a purple dress, entered the room and ran to kiss their father. With a hopeful expression, Omar grabbed his soccer ball.
Karim looked to Farrah, and she nodded. Hugging his son’s shoulder, Karim smiled. “Okay,” he said, “let’s see if you can get a goal past me.”
They kicked the ball around the dirt until Farrah called them inside for dinner. Before eating, the family recited Maghrib prayers. They sat on a black and blood-red carpet. Karim and Farrah’s eyes met in unstated agreement, they’d maintain an aura of calm. On an aluminum platter, Farrah served plates of hummus, a mix of wild greens, dates, khubz flatbread, rice, and a pitcher of water. Karim hugged Leyla close. He helped her reach food. She smiled, and he kissed her forehead. After dinner, Farrah and Leyla carried the plates to the sink, Farrah washed up. Karim approached his wife and put his arms around her.
Out of earshot of Omar and Leyla, Karim said, “Something else is bothering you. I sensed your nervousness in front of the children.”
Farrah turned and said, “The morality police stopped a woman today for immodesty. She had a hole in her sock exposing a tiny bit of skin. She protested, and they whipped her. Karim, the woman’s cries. Pitiful. I fear that I’ll be next. I won’t uncover my eyes even to bake flatbread at the compound’s oven.”
Karim said, “ISIL is bad, but the Shia were worse. Have you forgotten the midnight interrogations, our neighbors who disappeared? Since the Shiites took control of the government in Baghdad, they serve Iran’s interests, and their militia pursue Sunni genocide. The government refused us weapons for defense. ISIL is our only alternative.”
Farrah’s voice was agitated when she said, “Politics have destroyed our lives. Without your engineering training, you’d be conscripted as an ISIL fighter. How long before they grab our son?” She grasped Karim’s hands. “I dread the day that one of these bullies demands our daughter for his wife.”
Karim took Farrah into his arms. How could he console her when his fears matched hers? He said, “Our children are too young to be taken without our permission.”
Farrah nodded, tearfully.
Karim forced a steady voice. “Try to stay calm. Obey the rules. At least we have food to eat. Most have it worse.”
“We’re living a horror.”
“Be strong for the children.”
Farrah wiped a damp cheek. Her face remained troubled.
Karim said, “Let’s go to bed. We’ll feel better in the morning.”
“If I can sleep.” Karim kissed her, and she nodded. “All right, I’ll prepare the bedding.” Reluctantly, she left the comfort of his embrace.
At midnight, the housing compound turned off the electricity generator. For relief from the oppressive heat, the family would sleep on the roof.
A cigarette might steady his nerves. ISIL prohibited smoking, but Karim’s status gave him access to Hazar, a Turkish brand. He stepped behind the building, out of sight of the street, and lit up.
An odd buzzing in the sky overhead roused Karim’s dread, and he looked up, dropping his cigarette. Too late. The exploding drone missile’s compression blast flashed blinding yellow and knocked Karim to the dust. His head smacked against a rock, and he blacked out. He awoke fifteen minutes later groggy, head throbbing, hair matted with blood. Karim fingered the five-inch gash in his scalp and winced. A projectile struck his face, leaving a second slash extending from his brow to his cheek, across his left eye. He blinked and found that he could see, although he felt like he’d been punched in the face. He smelled of singed hair, his torso burned raw.
Where were Farrah and the children? Fear shoved aside pain. Karim struggled to rise, faltering three times before he held himself erect on trembling legs. One white canvas shoe had been blown off his left foot. He glimpsed the drone missile’s target, a mangled black Kia Soul that lay alongside the dirt road and burned brightly enough to light the night. Even at a distance, Karim felt the heat on his exposed skin. Smoke and dust from the blast still hung in the air. Over the ringing in his ears, Karim heard crying, punctuated by screams of horror, rising from the ruined homes around him. The odor of nitrates and the sickly-sweet copper smell of blood entered Karim’s nostrils. He limped toward the pile of tumbled and broken stones, the ruined structure that once was his home. Blood stained the cinder blocks. He spotted a severed arm in the powdery dust. He fell to his knees. The hand’s finger wore Farrah’s silver ring. “Oh. No.” Karim’s heart chilled. “Allah, no. Please. Not this.” Tears welled. He rose and moved quickly. Within the foundation square, Karim discovered the twisted, semi-naked remains of Farrah, Leyla, and Omar. They’d been thrown by the blast, strewn like discarded department store mannequins. Karim’s hands clutched his face wishing to blot the images. He babbled their names. Karim knelt to Farrah first. He pleaded. None would awaken. They were gone. He wanted to cover them, but nothing remained. His body shook, and he collapsed, prostrate, pounding the ground with his fists.
Excerpt from Joe Giordano’s latest novel, Drone Strike, an Anthony Provati thriller. Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novels, Birds of Passage: An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story (2015) and Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller (2017), were published by Harvard Square Editions, http://joe-giordano.com.