Iraq, 1979

Nasir Uddin raised the hood of the car and his face exploded. The mechanic was showing Nasir Uddin the work he had done on his car, which had been damaged recently in an accident in Baghdad. Mina peered inside and saw a colorful network of wiring like child’s box of crayons, red, green, blue, all over the place. She didn’t understand what the original problem was, or what the mechanic had done wrong. But she was straining to understand.

“You call this fixing?!” Nasir Uddin was outraged. She was afraid of her father’s temper. He picked a fight wherever he went, at department stores, on the street. His temper made her timid. She wanted to hide away from the world. She wished she had stayed at home with her mother and two brothers.

The mechanic began to explain what he had done, pointing with his fingers, which Mina noticed ended in blackened nails. Nasir Uddin snatched the mechanic’s hand away. The mechanic stopped speaking abruptly.

“You trying to fool me?” Nasir Uddin inquired savagely. He yanked the wires out, screaming madly, “I am a mechanical engineer. I teach at Mosul University. I know about cars.”

“You’re a mad man,” the mechanic said quietly. At this Mina’s father indeed transformed into a mad man. Taking the man by his shoulders, Nasir Uddin began to shake him and yell at him.

Mina clutched her stomach and moaned dramatically, looking at her father to see if he had noticed and if he would leave the screaming and come and help her. But he wasn’t paying attention. She couldn’t even see him anymore. She felt that the world had opened up and anything could happen now. Anything was a possibility.

Her father had left her by the car. He ran up and down the road, screaming. She tried to understand, why was he so angry? Perhaps because labor was costly and car repairs cost a lot of money. Perhaps because he couldn’t stand someone cheating him. Because he was determined nobody would ever get away fooling him. She understood this complex mixture of reasons even though she didn’t know the details for sure.

The mechanic, a fat man with wrinkles at the eyes, stood dignified through all this. He watched in fascination as if he were watching a clown in a show. He was unperturbed. Mina ran after her father. She caught up with him and pulled his hand, “Baba, please, I am scared. Let’s go home.”

Two boys played on the road, chasing a rubber tire with a stick. The same boys who often gathered behind a parked car and punctured a tire as a game. They had faced her father’s wrath before. A small child in a dress licked a homemade popsicle, savoring the ice. A woman in a burkha walked by, her pockets stuffed with cigarettes, a lighter, small change. The streets was dusty and a few cars drove by.

Nasir Uddin did not respond. She thought he couldn’t even hear her. Presently two well-dressed men came along. They were strolling down leisurely. When they saw Nasir Uddin, raving mad, running up and down the street, they said, “What’s the matter?” They spoke English.

Both Nasir Uddin and the mechanic turned to them to present their cases, “This man was supposed to fix my car . . .,” Nasir Uddin explained. “Just wires, wires. He thinks to fool me.”
The mechanic shrugged and spoke rapidly in Arabic. The men looked incredulously at her father, shocked by what they had heard of his behavior.

Mina thought that the two men did not know this car was her father’s baby. He washed it everyday. He had gone all the way to Syria to buy it. Her father had deep feelings for the car. He had had an accident driving it back and nearly gotten himself killed. Her mother had had a dream that very night, at that very moment, that her father was in an accident. The men did not know that this car was like a family member. That her family had traveled in it all over the country. It had a life of its own, it held their memories, it was like someone living.

They did not know about the way the car raced the school bus almost every other morning. How her father woke her in the dark and she ran to stand by the kerosene heater. He taught her to drink her milk in one gulp, and fly with the samn and syrup sandwich, munching in the car, the sticky juices rippling down her shirt, so that the teachers always scolded her for the stains. In spite of their haste, by the time Mina and her father reached the bus stop in Majmua, the bus was pulling out, speeding up. They chased it all the way to school.

The two men also did not know the last thing about the car. That it had been in an accident in Baghdad. An accident that had killed Hassan, her baby brother. He had been five years old. She racked her brains to find more reasons for her father to be angry. They did not know her father. He could not stand to waste anything. He fixed everything with his own hands.

Replacement was not an option. He fixed the commode in the toilet once, digging deep inside with a bare hand, saying you had to face the muck, always in life. She used to have a red leather bag that was torn in places, which her father sewed with a large needle every night, and every morning, while she waited for her father at the bus stop, she tore it again. Her classmate Pijush said she should be ashamed of herself.

“You undid all the work?” the men said incredulously; “You tore out all his labor?”

“LISTEN!” Nasir Uddin explained with great patience; “I am an engineer. I know all about machines. Nobody knows about machines better than I do.” Again, his eyes began to smoulder.

“Where do you work?” the men asked.

“I am a professor at Mosul University.”

“You are a professor?” Both the men repeated incredulously; “You should be ashamed of yourself, behaving like this. You do not deserve to be a teacher.” After admonishing him, they walked off.

Nasir Uddin shouted to Mina to get in the car. They drove off with Mina sobbing in the passenger seat. Tears streaked down her face and made it dirty. Fascinated, she watched her eyes grow red and puffy in the mirror attached to the sun visor. She felt instinctively that her father was wrong, her father who was never wrong, who would tell her the way world way, who would show her the way to live. She felt that the world could topple over now because her father had just done something for which someone had taken him to task.

“You think I am wrong?” Nasir Uddin asked a little later. She looked at him. He had lost the vertical frown of his anger. His flash had fused. She knew that he was contrite inside, just as he was when he was mad at her for doing something wrong, like rough handling another child, or when she nagged and pulled and drove him out of patience. When he judged her without knowing the story, without knowing that indeed the other child had pinched her first or that when she nagged she was suffering from a stomach pain. When he was sorry later, he held her and carried her, walking through the night under the star-lit sky on the lawn in front of their house, bearing the burden of his guilt.

“Do you think I should go back?” Nasir Uddin asked her now; “Maybe I can find them.” She nodded.

By the time they returned to the garage, it was evening. They drove through the gates of the garage and parked inside. They made their way past the rusting cars and found the mechanic. He was fanning his long flowing Arab dress, drinking a clean glass of water.

“I am sorry,” Nasir Uddin said, over and over again, shaking the mechanic’s hand. The man smiled kindly. Mina realized then that he really had done the best job he could, that he represented the world of camels and donkeys, the world that was still slowly giving way to machines. That his inability was not stupidity at all, although she did not know by what name to call it. It was just a different world. The mechanic made her father drink a cup of tea and gave her some Jordanian sweets, the kind that were egg shaped, with a single almond inside, like a jewel. Nasir Uddin explained again what he wanted done and left the car in the mechanic’s care.

When they came out, they found the two men from the street again. Nasir Uddin ran up to them. He shook their hands. He said sorry. It seemed miraculous to Mina that they should find the two men again. The men smiled back and said it was “okay”. They hoped the car would be fixed, “By a miracle, Insha Allah,” they said.

Mina felt lucky that they had found the two men, that her father had been able to apologize for his behavior, so that he would not carry the burden for his life, long afterward, when other machines would enter Iraq, ones even more obscure and formidable than the innards of a German car. She thought that she loved her father and his courage and his ability to say sorry.
“Let’s go, Ammu,” her father called her.

She climbed in the Peugeot again and closed the visor with the mirror. She thought she would never forget this day, that she was changed inside forever. She knew that she wouldn’t even be able to describe the incident to her mother because she didn’t know how to describe it. She didn’t know exactly how she felt. At home, in her pretend games alone on the lawn, when her mother slept with her brothers, and the world was silent, she was a hero with a turban on her head. She saved the child whom she had seen lost in a market once, she saved the hungry children of the world, she saved children in wars, she flew over the earth and took care of everyone, fought every injustice. She was powerful. But now she knew that she would go home and be mute and remember how she had also been mute at the garage, how she would always be mute, a coward, the mute observer of world events.

Gemini Wahhaj has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Cimarron Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, and Northwest Review, among others. She attended the University of Pennsylvania for her undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering and Princeton University for a Master in Public Affairs.