The sun was setting over the stony hills and the goats were bleating an accompaniment to the changing of the light. The day was almost through and from where she sat in the notch of an acacia tree she could see beyond the hilltops, right to the jagged horizon. Bathed in the glow of day’s end, the distant chain of mountains was alive with colors of orange and rose-pink – colors that made her feel warm and happy and thankful.
Beneath her, a pair of shallow wadis split the open ground while beyond tendrils of dust slithered across the hill-scape. The trees dotting the distant ridgelines were withered and desiccated and a dry evening breeze was blowing gently, tussling with the black locks that fell across her face.
In the plains behind her, the villagers of Yakla were readying themselves for the evening routine.
From the minaret of the town’s tiny mosque, the muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer before the last red thread had disappeared from the sky.
“Ash-hadu an-la ilaha ila Allah,” came the muezzin’s lowing accompaniment over the loudspeaker. “I witness that there is no God but God”.
Then, after he had acknowledged his Prophet, the muezzin’s voice grew louder. “Hayya ala as-salah!” he was shouting. “Hie ye to prayer!” “Hayya ala al-falah!” “Hie ye to success!”
The little girl knew of course, that she must go back down to Yakla when the ummah were called to pray. This was the way things were and she was happy to oblige.
Still though, when she was up here with the mountains in the distance and a breeze blowing gently across her face, she felt she could stay forever. Surely everything she could possibly need could be found up here if only she had the courage to just reach out and take it. Sometimes she was jealous of the goatherds. Many of them spent days at a time up here with nothing but the animals and the open air to think about.
“Awwah! What a life!” she thought to herself. There were no chores to do up here.
From her perch she trained her eyes away from the mountains and towards Yakla. Down in the walled compound where she slept, she could see her mother Maryam looking for her in the yard. By now she would be wondering where her daughter had gone. The little girl would have to make up some excuse for her absence.
She wouldn’t lie of course but perhaps if she came back with dates from the grove there was a good chance her mother would be pleased. As long as she was attending to chores of some kind, the woman couldn’t hardly complain.
The call to prayer was over and the little girl dropped to the ground, gathering up her things. The jagged horizon was darkening behind her and she moved quickly down the rocky ridgeline, flitting through the moraine to the bottom of the hill.
Now on flat ground, she ran to the date grove with her basket held firm in the crook of her elbow. It took her minutes to gather what a lazier girl might gather in an hour. Then, her basket full, she hitched up the hems of her long frock and moved through the dust to the outskirts of town.
Reaching the wall of the first building, she looked to her left and paused for a second. A hundred meters away a man was standing just beyond the edge of the settlement.
Fahad was tall and eighteen-years-old, and with dark-skin, kind eyes and a birdlike face he was both handsome and severe-looking at the same time. Fahad was on guard duty tonight so he would not be going to the mosque to pray. Instead, he had placed his Kalashnikov on the ground beside him and was rolling out a prayer mat on alone.
“Every mujahid his own imam,” as the little girl’s uncle liked to put it.
Fahad had caught her sneaking up to her hilltop perch on many occasions and he’d come to know her well for it. Sometimes he would chide her for these indiscretions, though always with an unusual gentleness.
She liked Fahad and she knew that he liked her back but Fahad hadn’t seen her yet, and so with her homeoming long overdue, she slipped by, unnoticed. Verily, by the time she reached the door of her uncle’s compound, she had done so without being seen by anyone at all.
Her mother Maryam was waiting in the sitting room when she entered. At first the woman looked angry but when she saw the basket of dates in her child’s arms she relaxed a little, bridling her wrath.
“Yallah Nawar,” she said. “It is time to pray.”
Nawar – ever the daughter of her late father – liked to go by the Americanized “Nora”, but since she had come back to the house later than expected, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. She was Nawar for now.
The house was empty when they moved to conduct ablutions and by the time they had finished praying the house was still empty. So, with little fanfare, Maryam ushered her daughter into the kitchen.
“Your uncle will be home very soon,” said Maryam.
Nora nodded and began preparing the food.
Abdulraouf Al-Dhahab – Nora’s mother’s brother – had called ahead to say that he would be home in an hour with a guest. As was always the case, it was Maryam’s intention to have everything ready by the time the men arrived. Abdulraouf was the most respected man in Yakla so it was incumbent on Maryam to preserve his reputation with her cooking.
Abdulraouf, and his remaining brothers were the last of the menfolk of the Al-Dhahabs – the pre-eminent clan in the Rada’a district – and since rising to the chieftaincy Abdulraouf had also assumed leadership of the Organisation in Al-Bayda province.
Though she was very young when her uncle came to power Nora had observed Abdulraouf’s rise within the Organization with genuine curiosity over the years.
For the last three years, it seemed, Nora’s uncle had asserted control over the Organization’s Al-Bayda arm with a natural ability. A talented diplomat and negotiator, Abdulraouf was very good at building alliances, proving himself, time and again, to be a master of the minutiae. When visiting with the chiefs of neighbouring clans, for example, he would bring them back to Yakla for elaborate bestowings of fine food, gifts and encomium. A personal but wholly political touch where no detail was to be left unexploited.
Yesterday, Abdulraouf and his brothers had gone to Shabwa for a wedding and today they were bringing home a guest from the reception.
“I do not know much about this guest,” said Nora’s mother as they finished the preparations. The dinner this evening would be a platter of lamb mandi cooked in ghee. Served over rice. With lahoh flatbread for dipping and a large pan of honey-drizzled sabayah for dessert. And dates as well. “All I know is he is Saudi,” Maryam added.
It took Nora and her mother another half an hour to finish the dinner and lay the accoutrement in the sitting room but when the door did open, they were ready in their burqa to hide themselves from the foreign guest.
The men entered all at once – Ahmad, Sultan and Ilah first with Abdulraouf and the guest following closely behind them. Much like Fahad, all the Al-Dhahab men had a rather aquiline appearance – stern and hawkish expressions; sharply dressed in tribal robes with the blade-hilts of their jambiyya tucked into their belt-sashes.
While his brothers walked right past Nora and her mother, Abdulraouf – with a nod towards Maryam – stopped to introduce “Sheikh Seif Al-Nims Al-Joufi” – then he too passed into the sitting room.
The women were alone in the foyer now and once the men were seated, Nora and her mother moved into the kitchen. As she had done many times before, Nora piled the food onto a giant platter, and then, with her mother, carried it out into the sitting room. They lingered for a moment while the men served themselves and then, with a “tsssk!” from Ahmed, they returned to the kitchen to eat their portions.
As she ate her supper, Nora mused about her uncles and their Saudi guest. As always, she was happy when her uncles came home. Abdulraouf and his brothers were not tyrants like the menfolk in the houses of some of Nora’s friends.
That said, affairs in the household of the sheikh were not always as rosy as Nora’s cheeks. Nora knew, for example, that Abdulraouf would hit her mother from time to time because she would often see the aftermath on her face.
Once dessert was served, Nora and Maryam returned again to the kitchen and then, a little later, they heard the men laughing and getting up to leave. Then, in time, Ilah had exited with Al-Joufi to show him to the guesthouse, and now with all the plates and dishes away, Nora and her mother removed their head-coverings and went to sit in the sitting room with Maryam’s brothers.
When they entered, Abdulraouf was sat at the centre of the room with a short-wave radio – antenna fully extended – tuned in to the broadcast from Al-Jazeera. Ahmad and Sultan lay sprawled about the room, relaxing on the long low divans lining the walls.
“There is a new President in America,” said Abdulraouf, head tilted towards the radio.
“Yes,” nodded Ahmad. “President Trumb.”
Abdulraouf nodded and, turning off the radio now, he added. “Yes President Trumb. Sheikh Al-Joufi has told me that this man has begun executing Muslims in America.”
“Nauzubillah!” Maryam placed a hand over her mouth. “Why such horror?!”
“He is a yehud,” said Abdulraouf, using the word for “Jew”. “I have heard that he has plans to kill all of the Muslims in America.”
“Nauzubillah.” Maryam again. “I seek refuge in God”.
“Nazubillah,” nodded Abdulraouf.
“I think this man Trumb is worse than the last President,” added Ahmad.
“Yes.” Abdulraouf again. “He has killed many, many of our brothers.”
“We shall defeat the Crusaders yet.” Ahmad. “And we shall kill them all as they have killed our sons and brothers and fathers. By Allah I swear it.
Abdulraouf nodded again. “Insha…” . “If it is the will of….”
His voice was cut short by a low droning buzz coming from outside the house.
The sound was unfamiliar to Nora so she looked to her elders for an explanation. The calm expressions of men at home had been replaced with anxious looks. Worried looks. Looks that were fearful even.
Silence now. Silence except for the buzz.
“What is that?!” Abdulraouf said in a quiet voice.
Ahmad reached for an assault rifle in the corner of the room and was up and out the side door, jogging into the compound yard.
The buzzing noise had become louder now. The sound was surely from an engine – Nora realized – because it sounded like the bwerrr of a motorcycle without a muffler.
“Al-zinana,” said Abdulraouf at once. “Drone.”
Without warning, a shockwave blasted through the room and everyone was thrown off their feet. There echoed the boom of a very close-by explosion and dust was falling from the ceiling. A moment of silence while everyone collected themselves. Nora’s ears were ringing.
“Yallah!” Abdulraouf was shouting at his sister now. “Bring me the arbijy!”
At her brother’s bidding, Maryam ran across the room, turned a corner, disappeared for a moment and then came back with a long tubular weapon. Nora knew from listening in to her uncles’ conversations that this was a weapon capable of destruction on a theatrical scale.
“Where are the rockets?!” shouted Abdulraouf. He looked angry as he ripped the rocket launcher from his sister’s grasp.
Again Maryam disappeared and in an instant she was back, fumbling and juggling with a trio of silver-tipped rockets.
“Go!” Abdulraouf shouted to her now, pointing at another assault rifle lying at the far corner of the room. “Find Arwa! Fight!”
Arwa was Maryam’s friend – a Saudi woman who had married one of Abdulraouf’s fighters many years ago. Arwa and Maryam had both learned how to use weapons.
“Gooooo!” Abdulraouf was shouting now, lashings of spittle catching in his moustache.
Ahmad instructed Nora to remain inside the house, and then he was gone and everyone was gone now and there was gunfire now as well – the chatter of a machine gun – and there was the sound of missiles and the the rumble of helicopter rotors somewhere in the distance accompanied by the bwerrr of a louder, more powerful machine gun coming from somewhere off in the sky. Then there was the sound of a rocket and another rocket then more gunfire and all of a sudden there was a loud bang and then another fizz of a rocket and another bang – a bang building into an explosion – and then a crash as a helicopter or an aircraft or indeed a V-22 Osprey (though Nora did not know it) landed hard in the middle of Yakla.
More gunfire. Grenades. Screaming. Gunfire.
Then Nora’s mother had re-entered the house and she had a Kalashnikov in her hands and Abdulraouf was coming back through the door as well with his rocket launcher but he was all out of rockets and Fahad – the birdlike youth – was right behind his leader. And now Abdoulraouf had discarded the empty rocket launcher and he had run into the adjacent room and he was already back with a Kalashnikov and now they were ready for a stand-off inside the room and the only thing said by anyone now was “ummi!” or “mama!” from the little girl and her eyes were filled with tears because she didn’t understand what was happening.
Then, without warning there was a bright flash and a bang and Nora was blind and there were explosions all throughout the room and then something sharp slammed into her throat and all of a sudden she was lying on her back on a divan and she turned her head to the side and saw that Abdulraouf’s stomach was open with his innards pouring onto the floor and her mother was crumpled in a sad little pile in the corner of the room like a bundle of disheveled laundry. And Fahad – there was no more Fahad.
And now there were two strange men in the room – clad in camouflage and wearing body armour and helmets and carrying fearsome looking sand-colour-painted assault rifles. Both of them had a presence in the room which was dominating and it occurred to Nora that these strangely-dressed men could just as well have been some strange race of cyborgs for the quad-tubular goggles dangling in front of their eyes.
“Clear!” one of them shouted in a language Nora did not understand.
“Fuck! Those two are women!” Shouted the other one.
“Check for vests!” shouted another.
Nora watched as the first man lifted the strange quad-tubular goggles off his eyes and reached down to frisk her mother’s corpse. “Clear,” he stated, emphatically, after a few brisk movements. The strange man stood above Nora now and when he saw the blood seeping from her neck she could see that there was remorse in his eyes and he gave her a quick pat before he said “clear” again and then he stepped away with an ashen look, flitting his head from Nora to her mother and then back to the little girl and then back to her mother’s body as if he was trying to make sense of it all.
There was silence for a moment. Then a – “Fuck! Owens is down!”
A third man – “Owens” – had entered the room during the battle and he had taken a bullet just like Nora had taken a bullet and the bullet had gone straight into his neck in a very similar location to where the bullet had entered Nora’s own neck.
From where she lay, spluttering, with a torrent of warm, dark blood springing from the bullet hole, Nora could see the man they were calling Owens and she could see too that he could see her as well. And he was looking at her. He was looking at her and she could see his eyes. Owens’ eyes.
This man has gentle eyes, she thought. She quite liked Owens. But why was Owens here?
Eight years wise now, Nawar Al-Awlaqi was old enough to know that none of these men had come here to kill her. Why would any man, least of all a man with eyes like Owens’ eyes – come all this way from wherever he had come from – America she supposed – just to kill her? Why would anyone come all this way for her – the little girl from Yakla?
She knew of course that none of these men had chosen to come here. She was old enough to know that much. Their coming here was somebody else’s decision.
And yet… and yet here they were. And here she was. And she knew that she was dying because it hurt too much to mean anything else. And the two strange men were speaking to each other now in that same language and they were moving now but she didn’t understand what they were doing or what was happening or where they were going except that one of them had put Owens’ body on top of his shoulders and the other one had his gun up as he stepped out the door.
There was a lot going on but she didn’t understand much of it. Really, all she understood was that she was lying in a pool of warmth on a divan and that her neck hurt very much. Too much. And it was hard for her to breathe. That much, she understood. The rest though… the rest she just couldn’t understand.