Salman Nazari sits behind the wheel of his taxi watching a roadworker break up concrete with a jackhammer and the sound sounds like the sound of the machine guns that rang out all over the city where he once lived far from here, far from this city called Auckland where he’s jammed in traffic again. But Salman doesn’t care that he’s not moving because he could sit here all day and watch that jackhammer and listen to it because it takes him back to that place where his life was good and he was happy and his son was still alive.
Something up in the sky catches his eye and he looks up and sees a kite being blown about by the wind, lost, and sunlight hits Salman’s eyes as he looks through the windscreen at the kite and he flips down the sun visor and there, rubber-banded to the visor, a 12-year-old boy smiles out from a photo taken on a balcony overlooking a neighbourhood in a city where ancient buildings are bombed-out and he thinks again of that day when he ran harder than he’d ever run, towards the teenage body on the ground, his feet hitting the dust, soldiers swarming.
Salman looks in the rear view mirror at the businesswoman in the back seat who’s reading articles on her iPhone about Hollywood scandals and why the bees are dying but nobody really knows why and Salman looks out the windscreen at the traffic ahead of him and knows they won’t be moving an inch any time soon and he pauses the taxi meter just as it clicks over to $14.60.
The woman notices Salman pause the meter and looks at the back of his head wanting to say something like ‘thanks’ or ‘you don’t need to do that’ but she doesn’t because she doesn’t want to have to talk to this clean-shaven, exhausted-looking man from West Asia because what if he tries to have an actual conversation with her? What if he won’t shut up? She’s not in the mood for it, not now, not with someone like him, and she goes back to her iPhone where she adds a comment on her Facebook page about bees and how terrible and sad it is that they’re mysteriously dying and she offers her theory to the world that it’s because of global warming.
But Salman never feels like talking to anyone anymore anyway so he’s happy to just sit still and listen to the jackhammer and keep thinking thinking and thinking about all those things that happened that forced Zahra and him to leave everything behind and come to this place on the other side of the world, to this land whose name begins with ‘Z’. You can’t get any more far away from ‘A’, his son would say. You can’t get any more far away from home, his son, Luqa, the boy in the photo behind the rubber band, would say.
12 MONTHS EARLIER
“His unit wiped out two rebel bases”, says Ra’id to Salman, who’s standing outside the O/R in his surgeon’s scrubs staring at an intubated soldier from Denmark whose left leg has been mangled by shrapnel from a mortar. Salman knows the risks to his and his family’s safety that come with operating on this soldier and trying to save the life of someone who’s killed members of the old regime that’s fighting in the city and trying to take back what they lost to the foreign invaders all those years ago.
“Maybe we let this one go. We’ve got our families to think of”, Ra’id says as he walks off to change out of his scrubs expecting Salman to follow, but Salman enters the O/R to do what he took an oath to do more than 15 years ago when he graduated from the medical school here in this city that’s now being rocked by mortars fired by rebel soldiers whose commanders wait patiently in the mountains confident that their time to rule again will come soon.
Salman puts the defibrillator paddles on the soldier’s naked torso and tells the other medical staff around the bed that he’s going to shock the patient in three... two... one... clear… and the soldier’s back arches and another doctor starts doing chest compressions while Salman waits for the CPR cycle to end while holding the paddles and looking at the soldier’s face and thinking about Zahra and how she must be home by now and is probably eating dinner, probably lamb, with Luqa.
Salman asks a nurse to turn the defibrillator to 320 and a hospital orderly enters the room and walks over to the soldier and, before anyone can stop the orderly or even realise what’s happening, the orderly slits the soldier’s throat and runs from the room, dropping the knife which hits the floor by Salman’s feet and blood pours from the soldier’s throat and soaks into the sheets and there’s nothing anyone can do to save him now.
Salman leaves the hospital and heads home, walking through the narrow streets of his usual route, past buildings riddled with bullet holes and in the distance, closer to the mountains, he can hear bursts of crackling machine-gun fire and see sparks in the night sky and he thinks about the bullets ripping through organs and limbs and smashing into bones and exploding out the backs of heads.
He sees a man wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses standing in a doorway with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and Salman holds the man’s gaze as he walks past him, and a few paces on Salman looks over his shoulder and sees that the man is following him and staring at him with cool eyes that remind Salman of the time he watched his father calmly strangle a soldier from the Black Roads to death with his calloused hands and didn’t try to stop him.
Salman stops and faces the man ready for a fight, ready to show that he has courage equal to his father’s. They don’t take their eyes off each other as the man walks right up to Salman and flicks his cigarette to the ground and grinds it out under his boot and walks on and Salman watches him and realises he’s been holding his breath and he sucks in air.
Salman climbs the stairs to his second floor apartment where his wife and son are unaware that their lives are now in danger because he tried to save the life of a soldier whose throat was cut and nothing will ever be the same again. He starts to run through in his head the options for how to make sure his family is safe and he knows that they will probably have to flee, like his wife’s brother who, 22 years ago when the old regime ruled, was given 24 hours to pay one hundred thousand dollars or be killed and he took his family to the other side of the world to stay alive, all the way from A to a new land that starts with Z to stay alive.
Salman unlocks the front door and steps inside and hears the TV going in the lounge and sees the crucifix on the wall at the far end of the hall and he says a prayer in his head: Please God, protect my wife and son from evil and I will always continue to do your work. He sees Zahra in the lounge watching a game show on TV and he sits with her and kisses her and asks how her day was and she says her day was good, and a game show contestant wins a shopping spree worth more than what Salman earns in a year pulling bullets and shrapnel from the flesh of babies and children and their mothers and fathers.
He goes to Luqa’s room and watches his son sleep and strokes his boy’s hair as if this 13-year-old is still a baby, still his baby boy. Zahra steps into the doorway and asks him when he’s coming to bed and he can’t look at her and she knows something is wrong and sits with him and takes his hand and Salman sees in his mind blood gushing from the soldier’s throat and the rage he felt in that moment returns and he looks at Zahra and says the words he knows she fears the most, the words that mean they will have to flee to save their lives and the life of their son, the same words her brother told his own wife 22 years ago: I’m being watched.