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I Was Shot in the Head, But I Refused to Die- Aalia’s Story

September 27, 2013
Good thing our hostel was in the middle of nowhere.  It meant we were away from the touristic part of Amsterdam.  April 2013

The Amsterdam park in which I met Aalia.

I met Aalia when we chased the same cat in a park in Amsterdam.  My friend V was rolling a joint on a park bench, but she wasn’t very good at it.  She muttered under her breath. A beautiful calico crossed my path, and I decided to try to make friends.  It trotted around a bush, and so did I.  That’s when I collided with Aalia.

She was a short little thing, wearing an all black dress, and had wispy nut brown hair that looked inexpertly dyed under a floppy black hat. Her eyes were shiny and bright brown, like an inquisitive squirrel’s, and her face was lined with wrinkles.  She had a white scar on the right side of her face, just under her cheekbone.  She was smiling like a child when I nearly ran her over.  The cat darted under a large bush with an angry meow to show us she wasn’t pleased at being hassled.

“Couta awlad goed, bis bis baby, sa’ah?  Inti tchoofee?” I stared.  It didn’t sound like Dutch, or English, and I thought I understood… but I heard bastardized Arabic in the wind those days, because when you study a language everything reminds you of it.  “Bitacki Arabi?” I asked cautiously, not wanting to scare the nice little Dutch lady.  She let out a gasp of happiness.

I didn’t understand everything, but in rapid, pleased Arabic she announced she was from Iraq, she lived in Amsterdam now and had for many years with her only son.  She was chasing the cat because she wanted to see if it had babies hidden under the bush so she could steal a kitten and take it home and care for it.  My friend came over, seeing that I had been accosted.  Aalia asked us then if we wanted to come over to her house for tea.  And my friend and I, after sharing a barely perceptible shrug of ‘why not?’ agreed to follow her.

It was a lovely amalgamation of the globalized living room.

Aalia’s living room.

She chuckled all the way home, interrupting herself with a stream of happy Arabic about her neighbors and their little children.  She loved babies.  She sometimes used Dutch words instead of Arabic ones, and occasionally even threw in an English bon mot.  My friend V, I found out later, had no idea what was going on but was game for an adventure.

We reached her tiny house, square and boxlike in a neighborhood of identical boxlike homes.  Firmly, she placed her black hat on the hook next to the door and welcomed us inside.  Inside the house there was a man who looked to be in his thirties.  His eyes already held an expression of slightly worried amusement.

“More people, Mama?” he asked politely in English after he ascertained we weren’t locals and introduced himself as Kaliq.  Aalia shook her hands at him with a ‘tsk tsk’ noise as she simultaneously ushered us into her living room, placed biscuits on the doily-covered table in front of us, and asked if we wanted tea with a lot of sugar or only some sugar. Her age spotted hands nimbly placed small glass tea cups in front of us.  She darted in and out of the kitchen frequently during the next two hours, bringing out garlic flavored pretzel bagels, frozen strawberries, little cookies and other food stuffs.  ‘No’ wasn’t a word in her vocabulary in any language we tried.

She kept apologizing for the size of the house.  She slept in the living room on a twin-sized bed, and her son slept in the bedroom.  The house was too small.  Inshallah, she would one day have a bigger one and then could give us a better welcome.  We told her it was a lovely house. It was crammed full of reminders of the wonders of globalization; a prayer flag hung next to a Dutch poster, a tea pot warmed on a fat votive candle, and Russian dolls fought photographs for eye-catching supremacy.  Aalia pointed out various photos of babies, of her son.

April 2013.

Her teapot and candle configuration. Notice the tea cup in its glass.

V and Kaliq started to drift into the other room; Kaliq wanted to show her a short film he made.  He was in the film industry too, or at least he was trying to be. Aalia and I sat next to each other on the couch bed, momentarily alone.

Aalia wanted me to understand.  She was so happy to meet someone she could talk to.  I asked her why she lived in Amsterdam now if she was from Iraq.  Everyone spoke Arabic there and could talk to her.  There she must have family, friends…. Her mouth puckered into a distressed moue.

She pulled the top of her blouselike collar aside, revealing a white pocked scar there too.  She had been a teacher at the Bagdad High School of Arts.  She had been just married to a handsome general in the Iraqi army. Aalia strokes her shoulders, miming a general’s raised shoulder insignia. Her husband was very kind. But then they came to her house.  They came to her home and took her general and shot him in the head.  Aalia makes a gun shape with her small fingers.  They took her and shot her in the head. Aalia traces the scar lines on her shoulder, following the imaginary trajectory of the bullet to the scar on her right cheek.  They took her mother and father and shot them in the head.  All in the head by soldiers in 1978. She was three months pregnant with their son when she was shot.

“Dead,” she said in English.  She knew almost no English but she did know that word. She held her hands over her heart.  “Bad, bad.”  Neither of us spoke for a moment.

April 2013.

The clothes covering the living room windows.

“How did you survive?  If they shot you in the head, how did you live?”

Aalia looked at me, and shrugged, frustrated at the language barrier.  Finally, using her son to translate, she told me the answer. “I refused to die.”

In bits and pieces, some of the complicated fragments of her story came together- somehow she survived the firing line.  She took blood and rubbed it on her face and clothes and pretended to be dead.  They left.  She managed to get herself and her swelling belly to Jordan.  There she gave birth to Kaliq.  They lived in Jordan for some time, maybe about ten years, before immigrating to the Netherlands.  They had lived in the Netherlands for twenty years in various regions; both were Dutch citizens.  They moved to Amsterdam about a year previously, from Haarlem.

As Aalia continued to bustle in and out of the kitchen, turn on the TV to Al Jazeera and force more sugared tea on the already sugar-high V, Kaliq quietly told me that his mom wasn’t all there, you know?  She could never forget.  She told this story like it was a children’s book with the same intonation, same words.  The motions were ritualistic, the shoulder lapels, the gun out of fingers, the fingering and touching of her thin scars.  He lived with her because how could he not?  He had tried to go to multiple universities, but dropped out of all of them.  He tried to go to school for film.  For a while, he was even enrolled in the police academy, and his mother was proud of him then, because he was like his father, but he washed out there too.

He loved his mother.  He did.  We watched her from across the room as she looked at his black and white baby photo stuck in the frame of the mirror.  She sighed as she touched its yellowed edge.

The DC metro system, red line, can be a morose and scary place.

Talking with Aalia was like seeing through a scanner, darkly.

I don’t know why Aalia and her family faced a firing squad in Bagdad in 1978.  I don’t know who Aalia actually is.  The ghost of the young woman who had been shot overlays the modern reality of who she could be.  Part of her seems stuck in the past; she lives her experience, and in so doing, cannot move on.  But I do know she is person who when she meets a stranger in a park, invites her over for tea.  She gives more of herself to a random girl with shoddy Arabic than many people can give to their friends they’ve known for years.

Aalia can see the good in people like that after seeing the worst of humanity laid bare. With only my petty first world worries weighing me down, I can surely try to do the same.

***

Authors Note:  Kaliq and I still keep in touch, having exchanged information on that day. For this article, I contacted him getting permission to print it.  At his request, names have been changed, and for security reasons, I cannot show any photos of Aalia or Kaliq.  Some information has been altered slightly to protect their identities, though the material details of this article are fact.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2013 4:35 PM

    Hey I really like this one, keep posting and keep rolling 🙂

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 28, 2013 9:30 AM

    You write well, telling the story of your experience in Amsterdam, meeting a family from Iraq, visiting their home, sharing tea and experiences, and learning that the lady from Baghdad had been married to a General who was assassinated and she had been wounded. Your tale was detailed and presented beautifully.

  3. September 28, 2013 4:56 PM

    Alluding to Philip K. Dick alluding to the bible?

  4. April 12, 2015 5:55 AM

    Your writing is so fluent!

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