Jul/Aug 2000 Nonfiction

The Road to Basra

by Lois Peterson

As the Gulf War rages through the summer of 1991, I am often awakened by the high, wild cries of Bedouin women, greeted by the memory of flocks of them at the hem of the desert.

I recall my mother, cool beside the women's dark warmth.

Recently she told me this story.

"It would not have been proper for an Arab man to drive in a car alongside a British woman. So for my driving test, the instructor followed in another car."

I imagine that journey, my mother, bare-legged in Swiss cotton, her foot trembling on the brake. I believe her intent gaze followed the line of the road cutting a clean scar through the desert. I follow my mother's eyes as they search the horizon, seeking the bloom of tents.

In the summer of 1991 I often wake, seeking the place I longed for, longing for a hint of perfume, the drift of robes against bare feet.

I find only cool air, clear and fresh, unclouded by sand.


Twenty-five years ago, I stood, thin and pale, squinting into sunlight. Leaving the plane through its high doors, the ground quivering below, I was assailed by heat and light, by a rush of smells so strong it almost shoved me back, like a clenched fist. I can close my eyes still, and conjure up the memory of dust and sweat and fruit and wood fires and steaming dung and the heat of animals. I hear the cry and cheer and jeer and snort and wail of boys on legs as thin as sticks, and women in dark tents of clothing, and men in pale cotton clothes like pyjamas, and goats, and dogs, and the slap of a stick against a thigh, and wailing music that sings in my blood.


For the British and American oil company families, Iraq in the 50's was a time of cool drinks around the club pool, carried by uniformed waiters who bore brass trays to the pale crowds gathered under the trees.

The men wore dark suits with satin lapels to evening dances in celebration of Robbie Burns Night and Christmas. The women glowed in satin the colours of jewels. Their children watched the parade of glossy parents and did not recognize their mothers who in the daytime were creased and limp, rolling cool glasses across their sweating brows, or the fathers who came home in the early afternoons to sleep in quiet rooms with slow fans turning overhead.

During the school year, only the smaller children stayed behind with their parents. Their older brothers and sisters were dispatched to boarding school in Milton Keynes or Beirut, or to stay with Grandmother or Aunt Gillian. The younger ones were wild and rough, barelegged, and flush-cheeked. They fought and spat and lunged at each other in the cool morning shadows behind their houses, or in the dark corners of the schoolyard.

Every few weeks they sent notes to England with their parents' letters, in an attempt to convey what their siblings had left behind.

"Dear Penelope. We have silkworms in a jar and Mohammed brings mulberry leaves but they don't make silk. I found a record in the wadi. David the driver has a monkey."

"Dear Philip Minor. Daddy says don't cry, even if you miss us all. We had sports day and I won the red ribbon for hopping. We went to the mountains in Turkey to fish but daddy left his rod at home and he got sunburn instead."

"Dear Lorna. I hate you because you took my best bear. But Mummy says I can have rabbits, and Hugh has a gazelle."

The children left behind remembered England only as a quiet place where Grandmothers sat beneath ticking clocks while rain washed against grey windows.


When the locusts came, we were sitting outside on the parched playground, crouched under bushes with the lunches our mothers had packed. I remember apples, peeled and quartered in wax paper folded at the corners.

I had never seen locusts and could not see them now as the teachers flapped around us, hurrying us indoors. We ran inside, into the big room which was used for prayers and gym. Its tall French windows were draped with deep red curtains, which the teachers closed behind us. We wanted to see the locusts, so we crowded forward and parted them to look outside. But all that was visible was a great thick cloud, like the grey blankets houseboys slept on in their courtyard rooms.

The teachers closed the curtains again and the room took on the color of blood.

Some locusts had gotten in. Some were in the room with us, and I watched one climb the curtain, clambering up the thick ropes of fabric. It was not beautiful or frightening. just dry and complicated. I shook the curtain folds and the locust fell to the floor. The sound it made was dry and thin, like a wisp of paper across the dusty earth.

I peered past the curtain again, through the windows. Locusts covered the ground, that dusty patch where we sat to eat our lunch and where we played and ran. There were no trees, but many bushes--acacia, the kind that camels chew. The locusts shrouded these, and the ground was dark with their great numbers.

Soon they began to shift. Like a cloud's shadow changes its shape across the flat desert, the dry earth and the sparse acacia branches were revealed again as the locusts shifted and rose and became a great cloud and were carried away to their next feeding place. We were used to the dry landscape, but now it was leeched of everything.

The locusts had left behind one patch of green. When we were allowed outside again we were quiet as we crowded around that bright color. It was a child's shirt. Someone had left it lying there when we'd all been sent indoors. It was all the locusts left us.


The day the older children came back for the summer holidays, the young children, washed and ironed, with clean knees, stood with their faces pressed against the mesh fence as the plane lumbered across the shimmering tarmac.

The fretting mothers smoothed their children's hair and checked their own lipstick in compacts that opened with a click. The fathers, off work for just a few hours, were flushed and restless in the mid-day heat, missing their cool offices. They stood with one hand on a child's shoulder to steady themselves.

The pale, bulky children were disgorged from the plane. They swept down the stairs in a tide and washed across the tarmac.

"Look at them," my father said. "Like fish out of water."

From that day, I thought of my sister and the others as Summer Fish, always out of their depth, gulping and blinking in the bright, sharp air.


In the summer of 1991, places I had known and loved appear on TV maps, illuminated by colored pointers. Before, I'd had only spoken vaguely of having been raised in the Middle East. Now, everyone knows of Iraq, but I cannot speak the word. Instead, I roll it around in my mouth like a nut that will not crack.

I close my eyes against the landmarks on those maps - Basra, Kirkuk, Baghdad, Barjesiya. When I hear these names I try to remember only palm trees and bicycles, blood oranges, water buffalo, a favorite swimsuit.

I try not to think of the Arab women, dark as crows, or of the men with sinewy arms who exclaimed over my paleness in the suq and pinched my cheeks and pressed upon me sweets and steaming bread and honey and beads, or of the children who laughed and sang out to me when I passed their houses. But I speak their names in my sleep. Bethani and Luli, two small girls who lived across the street in a mud house. Zayah who took me on the cross-bar of his bike to buy the new season's figs in the market. Meyra who kept a monkey on a rope in ker kitchen. Miryam. Mohammed. Fatima. Ahmed.

I name them as I would recite the names on a grave.


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