The streets were suspiciously empty.
Al-Khalil was an incredibly old city with incredibly proud residents, but they were not acting so tough now that there was fighting rather than just strong words.
Musa walked along in broad daylight carrying his black market M-16 in his arms and his shemagh hid his face. There was a warrant out for his arrest in another city but it simply didn’t matter. The wide road he was trudging on was usually loud with slow-moving traffic honking at each other and pedestrians going every which way. Musa could still hear some stray shots fired in the distance, but the fighting going on actually was not anything to speak of, just the routine feuding between clans and governments except this time a mob was hyped up the other day calling this the final battle for the survival of this city. That day these streets were mobbed with so many people Musa thought the whole county had shown up for the fight, but now they were all nowhere to be found.
All those people, soldiers, civilians, ghazis, revolutionaries, clan militias, women, and children alike were all undoubtedly hiding inside the drab shops and houses Musa walked past in the scorching desert sun. Musa wanted no part in the clans vs government battle either because he was genuinely unsure who was fighting who. Some said the Jabari clan was making their final move against the Awiwi clan in revenge for an earlier murder and/or to seize control of government office buildings in al-Khalil. Others said the conflict was national, and that al-Aqsa was moving against the Commerce Bureau. However, everyone was contradicting each other about which clan was affiliated with which party. In any case, people in this city were only affiliated with armed parties in the loosest way possible. Others said that all or most of some clans were foreign settler infiltrators, an allegation that persisted against all the clans in the city and an allegation that Musa disregarded. What was known was starting the previous night a mix of government forces and armed men in civilian clothes went through towns arresting everyone with the last name Awiwi calling them all spies.
Musa turned onto a narrower street and thought of his own enemies and the many other suspicious characters hiding in the buildings on every side of him. At any given time he was undoubtedly only a few feet away from hostiles, but yet Musa knew the danger was minimal even if his heart rate and sweaty hands acted otherwise. Musa was no one of importance despite his late grandfather’s status as a Mukhtar, but all that left Musa was an inheritance of a big house his mother could not collect and no help from their neighbors even when they missed meals. People simply assumed Musa’s family was loaded with money since his grandfather pretended to have all these friends in high places, but Musa knew better. All his grandfather’s wastas (connections) had done for Musa was to put a stolen M-16 in his hands that he dare not show in public and didn’t even know how to use correctly.
Louder sounds echoed out, an explosion as a mortar or a grenade. They stopped Musa for a moment but realized it was far away and continued his march. That may have been a suicide bomber, a landmine, or some idiot wasting ammunition firing at nothing. It was often hard to tell even when there were news reports on the matter, but it was far more interesting when everyone simply ignored it. It was better for Musa to stick to the narrower streets, as it was easier to hide from possible roaming soldiers.
Musa looked at the doors on the beige buildings of cheap stone as he passed, so uninviting as if it were a crime to knock upon them. Behind each door was either a scared family, or men with reason to fight, and it was often hard to tell which was which. Everywhere he passed there were graffiti and posters claiming the area as the territory of this party, that politician, this clan, or that family. Those signs were as empty as the pledges to fight made just the other days, and now everyone hid in their homes as if besieged by invisible armies.
Those armies would become very real in the press later. Before leaving, Musa saw on television a report speaking of entire brigades fighting in the streets of the city battling over every block, and that was Musa’s clue that the fighting was being deliberately exaggerated for show. How many were fighting and how many had been killed Musa did not know, but Musa knew that most bullets were wasted in street battles like this with men firing into the air or firing blindly at suspected targets. Since only the occasional distant shot was heard now, Musa judged it was safe enough to do his business.
Musa rounded a corner, then jumped backward hiding in the side street. He saw his first real danger of the afternoon: Some uniformed soldiers blocking a crossroads about 50 yards away. The street corner had a pile of gravel and other rubbish so Musa could peek and look at the soldiers unseen. Musa adjusted his shemagh to ensure it concealed his face and saw the soldiers were not even paying attention. Two he saw in the truck looking at their hands (probably on their phones) while another leaned on a wall smoking while one last guy sat on a security barrier looking the other way. Apparently, these men knew it was a whole lot of nothing and were eager for their long day in the sun to be over.
Musa considered his stealth options. He did not need to pass through the checkpoint, as he could simply go around by narrow streets, but he would still need to cross the wide street and Musa would be in plain sight of the soldiers. He could not simply make like a civilian and walk by as he had no way to hide the M-16 and the soldiers were likely paranoid enough to detain a random bystander just for being there. Running would generate noise, and even if he wanted to Musa could not stealthily take down a whole squad of soldiers unseen because that only happened in the movies. A mad dash would likewise make noise and attract attention.
Musa simply reminded himself he should never overestimate the competency of people in this city. He stood up and walked across the street as if the soldiers weren’t even there. After passing the danger area he hid behind a dumpster and listened, but the soldiers didn’t notice a thing. Typical.
The final leg of the journey was upon him, as it was just in the next neighborhood over. He was near where his uncle and his family lived and he was the object of his journey. Musa finally arrived at a house slightly taller than the rest with a modestly decorated courtyard. Musa went to the familiar door and did not knock as he knew it was unlocked, he simply undid his shemagh exposing his face and open the door. He gripped his gun tightly as he looked around the front room, his first cousin was a baby sitting in a car seat and he ignored him. Musa walked to the open kitchen door and found his uncle and his wife making dinner.
The uncle spoke first and was surprised and angry: “What do you think you are-“
“Shut up!” Musa yelled. “You know what’s up, gather your things and go.”
“You have no right-“
“Go or I will shoot you and say the Awiwi did it!”
Their faces became gravely serious and muted as they stared at him comprehending his intentions. Musa’s grandfather (the uncle’s father) had let them stay in his house for many weeks before his death and now they were refusing to let Musa’s mother live there despite the uncle being specifically disinherited.
They continued staring at each other, and Musa took a bag off the floor and tossed it at his uncle. They did not have much to pack up, and silently and contemptuously they gathered their stuff. After a few minutes of gathering with Musa looking on they had everything with the wife carrying the baby and a tote bag and his uncle carrying a backpack and many grocery bags and a basket. They filed out silently, but both looked back at Musa with intent. Musa knew he would be hearing from them and their friends later.
Musa pulled the cheap phone out of his pocket and called his mother telling her what he had done. She didn’t understand how he even managed to get through the streets in one piece. After a lot of arguing, she agreed she’d start gathering her things and come after the streets were back to normal. As if normal streets were somehow safer, given all the muggers and street hecklers around these parts.
Now Musa really was besieged in this house, knowing that at any time his relatives could come back to wreak their vengeance. It was also not lost on Musa that he had simply solved his family's problems by passing them onto someone else, but his enemies were doing the same to him. Musa kept his weapon close and stayed out of sight in his new home, his own little kingdom that he had conquered.
Al-Khalil was an ironic name for a city, as it meant “the Friend.” An ancient and strange name, where strangely deserted streets and fighting over empty houses and office buildings were just business as usual.