By Katharine Holstein
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The Spring Baghdad Fell
IN THE LOW LIGHT OF LATE AFTERNOON, A BOY AND A MAN raced up a sloped field in the Shingal region of northern Iraq. Arms pumping, they dashed between tight rows of sprouting onions: soft new leaves ankle high, the ground hard and the gusting air cool. All around them, the cultivated land stretched on for acres and acres, planted rows like a multitude of rail tracks running into a wavering atmosphere of flickering sun and falling mist. The sky was as pale as an empty canvas, and crested larks cut across it, their birdsong loud and high. In the faraway distance, gentle foothills rippled out like great folds in the boundless blanket of earth spread before the blunt summit of Shingal, which rose like a vision right across it. It was past those soft peaks somewhere, my father had told me, that the first man was born.
Haji ran hard, towering like a dark-haired giant, shirt flashing. Only the big brown satchel strapped to his side held him back. I was the boy a pace or two ahead of him, mismatched sneakers, long-limbed and thin, laughing out loud as I sprinted. I could always feel Haji thudding just behind me like a heavy shadow; at twelve years old, I was a full seventeen years his junior. For all my youth and speed, I was always methodical in my stride—never took a step that wasn’t planned well in advance.
Reaching the crest of the field, we stopped and turned, and I leaned into the steady wind that spat bits of dry soil in my face. Even over the howling air, I thought I could hear the lambs baying in their pens. At the foot of the slope, in a small spooned-out dip in the endless plains, I saw all that we were. Our little house, a lonely thatched shoebox, front door wide open. Farm buildings scattered like crates between crippled wooden fences, a mess of dirt roads that seemed to lay strewn like dirty ropes. The farmstead stood as though it had sprouted from the very ground out of which we’d built it. And from that simple snapshot of tranquility that I can see even now in minute detail, I felt the full embrace of home—it didn’t really matter what was happening anywhere else.
OVER FOUR HUNDRED miles south of our heedless wasteland, a line of tanks, Humvees, and armored personnel carriers of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines pulled out of the gates of their base and thundered across the flat heart of ancient Mesopotamia. They were on a two-lane paved road and headed in a steady beeline for the battered capital. As the contingent roared over the floodplains, my fellow countrymen, watching from ditches and pockets of marshland along the way, gasped. Some in wonder. Others in terror.
Once the procession was out of view, those people rushed back to their state-owned concrete houses. By nightfall, the details would spread mouth to ear again and again, thousands of times over, in endangered whispers, from one impoverished town to the next. Not a single satellite television for a hundred square miles around my speck-of-dust village—that was how we got the news. Never before, in its long history of wrath, had our battle-seasoned country borne a military force of such capable and colossal ferocity. Entering the main drag of the city, the 3/4 Battalion moved slowly. It was April 9, 2003, and America with all her might was on the ground in Baghdad.
Exhalations from the Tigris river drifted along the jumbled streets, cooling the choked air mere moments before dissolving into a hot shroud of carbon and soot. Mighty twin of the slow Euphrates, the current had flowed over a thousand miles from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey to get there, winding down through the arid alluvial plains of Iraq, cutting gorges out of bedrock and rushing past forests of pistachio. It had snaked by sheep farms and mud-hut villages, great dams and military bunkers, flashed under the gaze of falcons and long-abandoned gods, before splitting into the river delta of Shatt al-Arab, whose tangled tributaries once cleaved whole tribes and set realms to war, even before they’d divided Iraq from Iran—all in a never-ending race for the blue sweep of the Persian Gulf. Those mythical waters once irrigated the first civilization of Sumerians and had witnessed the many invasions of Mongols and the six-hundred-year rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire; its rushing current carried vessels of the ancient Greeks and, well before then, had gently rocked the cradle of humanity.
The bombed-out capital now rose right from those muddy banks, buildings still smoldering and sending up furious columns of black smoke. Trapped in swirls of current, clumps of garbage accumulated and then floated lazily along like small ramshackle rafts. In that very place, human beings had lived and thrived for millennia, and the marble palace of fallen Arabian kings—and later our once indomitable dictator, Saddam Hussein, now in hiding—sat looted and empty.
WORLDS AWAY AND looking over the plain face of our house, I could see the window that always stood wide open like a small door into a dream. Past the sill and unseen, my old father was fast asleep, alone in his bed. Those days he slept far more than he did anything else. In the morning, I shaved his face as he lay back against the pillows. The skin of his face slackened, eyes set deep inside their caves, the lids half-open and flickering. Those noble blues that he said had witnessed a whole lifetime before I was born, just so he could teach me, were dimming under cataracts. I combed his hair, carefully changed his clothes. When he moved with my touch, I could feel those old bones slip and clack under his paper-thin skin. After that, I brought him spiced chai and a soft-boiled egg. Sometimes I’d feed the egg to him slowly, sometimes just wait there if he was strong enough that day to use the spoon himself. From time to time, he’d look over at me sitting against the wall, and shrug. I’d look back and give him a faint smile. We were exchanging a sure knowledge about the pointlessness of any sorrow and the brevity of all things. Then he’d drain the last of his cup and close his eyes awhile.
We also talked in that room, for small stretches through the day, like crossing a line of stepping-stones over his endless river of sleep. He had no sense of the time anymore, which seemed to stop and hold its breath between those walls. My mother said that in his dreams he spoke with the Seven Angels, one God-given to us for each day of the week.
Past the house, on a fifteen-mile concrete plate poured over the open moonscape, stood our village of Khanasor, meaning “the Red Bar,” some said for the Yazidis’ appreciation of watering holes and wine. It was but one of dozens of planned villages the central government constructed in the 1970s and built for the same purpose as all the others across the province: to contain and control the mountain-dwelling and nomadic people.
Not long after taking power, Saddam Hussein rounded up the Yazidi tribes and forced them down from their tiny huts on sacred Shingal and into soulless towns erected at its feet. Over thirty-five thousand people, including a handful of Sunni Muslims who taught at our government schools, all packed into cinderblock homes, each one exactly like the next: just enough to keep us warm, but not enough to fill our heads with bad ideas—like expecting free elections, for one. Still, in Saddam’s dream of a homogeneous Arabized nation, we were just a hangnail among cancers of Shia, Christians, and Kurds.
Yazidi people have never asked for much, except to be left alone to live off the land they’ve inhabited since the days of Adam, from whom they believe they are the first descendants. Their beliefs are both ancient and guileless: no saviors or prophets—they worship one god, and the sun and angels, especially the Peacock Angel, Tawusi Melek, who is the deity through which God attends to the infinite universe. Because the Peacock Angel was once said to have fallen from heaven, many have mistaken him for a devil, and Yazidis as devil-worshippers. It is this confusion alone that has made us targets for millennia—over seventy genocides so far, and counting.
Above all things, the Yazidi are pacifists—never wantonly killing a soul—and no matter what anyone did to us, we would only bow our heads and pray for peace. It’s the Achilles’ heel our enemies have always counted on, and one of the reasons why there are so few of us left. In eight thousand years we’d gone from 8 million to 650,000. In a half a blink, we’d be gone.
Still sitting on the hill next to my brother, Haji, I held a hand up against the desolate horizon and blotted Khanasor out.
MEANWHILE, THE GUTS of Baghdad burned and car horns blared. Later, people said you could hear the wild glee of gangs looting government buildings of tacky furnishings. Marble lamps and velvet curtains. Boys ran out from the narrow alleys and along the sides of the road to watch the parade of approaching invaders. The column lumbered toward the city center. Some people cheered and jumped on the banks of the river. Others only stared as they stood in their torn and dirty clothes. In most parts of the city there was no running water, and electricity was scarce. Everywhere the stench of gasoline and smoke seemed to have set fire to the air that shimmered in the bone-dry heat. There was an atmosphere of a carnival, but with an unmistakable knife-edge. After all, this was a war.
Smiling Baghdadis rushed out of crumbling buildings to offer the Marines cups of chai and slices of sweet cakes. Many wept openly, hands on knees or holding up the photos of loved ones: mostly fresh-faced young men and women captured in their hopeful prime and never seen again. Since taking power in a coup d’état in 1975, Saddam Hussein and his Baathists had ordered targeted arrests and killings by the hundreds of thousands, whether in secret underground prisons or in summary executions out in the desert. On more than one occasion, he ordered the gassing of whole villages of Kurdish people, the bodies simply left to decompose right where they fell.
At one end of Firdos Square, the massive bronze statue of Saddam, an open hand beckoning the city and a bird perched on his shoulder, rose sixty-seven feet into a polluted sky. Erected to commemorate his birthday, the statue cast a long blade of shadow over the paved ground. Within plain view of the seventeen-story Palestine Hotel that flanked the open space, a crowd of Iraqis was swarming the statue. Heads thrown back, they shrieked and ranted at the molded face. Already demoted from dictator to fugitive, the actual man was long gone.
STILL STANDING NEXT to me, and out of breath, Haji let his clinking bag of tools drop. Rummaging around in that old satchel, he was like a magician planning his next trick. Haji could make anything from the things he kept in there, and my family was never really sure how. My father often said that if Haji didn’t hurry up and find himself a blue-eyed Yazidi bride, then he should just get out his kit and make one out of the earth.
As soon as we sat on the lip of the hill, Haji would hand me things that he would need: a hammer or tin of oil. We’d talk about my day at school: the books I was reading or which kids gave the teacher trouble, and how to stay well out of it myself. On that day, our talk turned to the war and the strange and perilous times we were living in—no fighter planes overhead, no bombs, but whole platoons of rumors. In school I was taught that terrified American soldiers were blowing themselves up at the gates of Baghdad, but somehow Haji knew it wasn’t true. All around us for miles under a thin reef of cloud, the world stood still, not a soul in sight.
A HULKING BAGHDADI figure stepped up to the statue. Wielding a sledgehammer borrowed from an American soldier, he set to work at pummeling the solid concrete plinth. All sweaty in his muscle top, his hairy arms were like cinderblocks. I learned much later, in one of the countless stories people told again and again, that he was a national champion wrestler. Even he could do no more than crack the surface.
Finally, an American soldier helped to tie a metal cable like a noose around Saddam’s neck, and hooked that to a Hercules M88 crane that was used for towing armored vehicles across the fields of battle. Chanting and clapping sounds rose over the mounting drone of the crane’s engines.
One tug from the Hercules, and the statue of Saddam Hussein slid against the base and toppled over like a toy soldier. Once it heaved to the pavement, the crowd instantly fell onto it with the frenzy of savage animals before a kill. Hurling shoes, kicking and screaming bloody murder. It didn’t seem to matter that nothing they could do would bring back the innocent legions of dead. Somehow, the horde separated Saddam’s big head from the torso, and by a rope fastened around his neck, they hauled the thing through the streets like a sled. Men and boys took turns riding on it.
From the balconies and windows of the Palestine Hotel, the scores of Western journalists occupying its three hundred rooms captured that unfolding historic scene in real time, and projected it around the world. Photographs of the toppled statue covered front pages of newspapers from one end of the planet to the other. So many believed that the war that had only just begun twenty-one days before was all but over. Still, the spring Baghdad fell, we Yazidis were the last to know.
YEARS AGO, AFTER too many crops were lost to drought, my brothers dug down, two tall men deep, until they hit precious mud. Together under the bright broil of June, they built walls of brick up from the well bottom, and then they carved out a tiny pump room next to it. Finally, in that little subterranean space, Haji assembled a mechanical hand pump as though he’d done it before ten thousand times—and saved us.
“Here it comes!” Haji always hollered.
Seconds later, in a gift that kept our family of seven sons and three daughters clothed and fed through the bitter rainless months, a fusillade of cold water burst from the pipe and splashed into a man-made canal. The faucet gushing, I jumped barefoot into the trench and the rising waterline crept like a chill up to my knees before overflowing the lip and rushing straight down the sloped field.
When Haji came back up, he stood, clothes dripping and his brow splotched red, and watched the progress of the stream he’d muscled and drawn up from its cavern. Within minutes, the resurrected soil turned to a rich dark mud. In that moment, I watched and worshipped my brother, and yet he just stood there on the crest, Shingal rising far behind him, not saying a word. His water was enough.
Then, I dropped down and floated in the drink cold as stone. Buoyed on my back, I stared way up into the bright and endless sky, listening to the chitter of the larks and the gentle splash of the spill, and felt a perfect calm on the water that held me. I didn’t even know yet that that afternoon we’d all been set free.
AFTER SUPPER, WHILE the others went about their business in the house, I stepped out into the farmyard and gazed over the purpling slope of our land. All was tranquil. My brother’s hookah smoke wandered past from the front room; and I heard his low voice as he spoke to our mother. She didn’t want to hear what he was telling her; she didn’t like to hear anything about the senseless happenings beyond Khanasor, and she hushed him.
Haji laughed at her: “Only you would be afraid of good news, Daki!”
“News is like fresh fruit, Haji. Eventually, it always goes bad.”
I shut the door softly and made my way across the empty yard. Before me, the silhouette of the barn stood out like a tall ship anchored to the starry night. With a tired hand on the wooden latch, I listened a moment to the muted bawling of the lambs.
Inside, the ewes that knew me bayed loudly as I made my rounds; the newborns only stared as though I were some prophet walking by. In a back pen, I found one pushed up against the wall, alone, black markings like ink stains over her dust-covered fleece. She’d been my first ewe mother and I called her just that—“Daki.” Digging at the ground, she heaved her backside into the wall in distress and I could tell that she was too tired for much more. A tiny pair of hoofs poked out from the birth canal—everything in its proper order, no breech. We’d been through this before many times, she and I, and I’d grown an instinct to know when to step in and pull, and when to stand back and wait. As much as you could, you let the mothers look after things themselves. But something was different now. When she shook out a high call from deep inside her throat, I knew it for what it was and went to her fast. Taking the quarter-born babe by its flimsy shanks, I yanked the animal right out over the ground and wiped the film away from its passages.
Then I got down with the mother, who could move no more. I sensed the working of a second labor like a separate beast within, there only to take what was left of her. I quickly put my hand in—the animal inside was twisted the wrong way. The sack of amniotic water and dark clots of blood gushed down my arms as I pulled hard, and the scent made me gag. Finally, the unborn tore away from the canal covered in a mess of plasma. One quick look and I tossed the thing down. It was already long past dead.
On the ground, the ewe was doing nothing; I put a bloodied hand on her head and felt my skin steal the last of her warmth. Then her eyes left all things behind and she was gone. There was nothing more to be done. A long time ago, my father warned me that it wasn’t good to come to love a living creature that was destined for the slaughter.
And I remember well how Haji, standing behind him like a shadow, had cackled without smiling and said:
“That’s a very odd thing, Babo, to teach a Yazidi.”
After the Torchlight
THE ONLY GOOD THING SADDAM HUSSEIN EVER GAVE US WAS our school, a cluster of three concrete buildings rising like giant cinderblocks from the eastern rim of Khanasor. Painted in a bright mural of green grass, blue sky, and flowers as big as my head, a high wall surrounded the grim-looking courtyard. Every time I walked through the doors and felt our stalwart Madam tap my head, an instant peace overcame me. I never noticed the stained plaster or crumbling ceiling tiles that wept sour-smelling water over my desk. Within those walls I listened to poetic tales of Arabian kings and studied the mechanics of the universe. I found out that the world was round, clouds were made of water vapor, and that the tide comes in and goes out again because of gravity. We read from our history books and recited aloud the forged history of the nation, in which our fearless ruler vanquished every enemy—Americans, Persians, the Zionists, and NATO.
Gracing the central corridor, a massive painting of a smiling Saddam Hussein sat in a gilt wood frame: white dove perched on his elaborate epaulet, glinting sword at his side. I routinely bowed my head, but I never paid him much mind. And when his effigy in oils disappeared and just the dirty outline of its frame remained, the fact went largely unremarked. A few shards of glass on the floor told us many things—mostly that the rumors sneaking around Khanasor were true.
When we got to class, every child stood in unison to greet our Madam and then sat as she read aloud from one of her many religious Arabic texts. We all listened with guarded solemnity to the words our pious teacher uttered, but I had no idea what she was saying or why. Sometimes, Madam could sense the shallows of our passions. After all, these quiet children, some of them as pale as porcelain creatures hewn in a kiln, were not of the Huma, “the Book”—which was worse than being a Shia, or even a Christian. All of us were simply of Adam, and the earth.
Indoctrination and propaganda aside, we were lucky to be there: over thirty wide-eyed Yazidi kids, the progeny of ancient nomads and so-called heretics, sons and daughters of laborers and co-op farmers, all of us living happily in varying degrees of concrete poverty, and the unsuspecting beneficiaries of “Compulsory Free Education in Iraq.” Underground, Saddam Hussein had hacked out bunkers, secret prisons, and state-of-the-art torture chambers; aboveground he’d erected marble palaces, bronze statues, and brick-and-mortar temples to higher learning. Between ethnic cleansings, wars of attrition, and arbitrary hangings, Saddam achieved the unprecedented in the Middle East: a near 100 percent literacy rate. By the time the Coalition Forces started to clear the catastrophic heaps of rubble, it was the dawn of 2004, and I was a twelve-year-old student in middle school, reading books of ancient Arabic proverbs, practicing my penmanship, and learning to speak conversational English:
“Hello, my name is Shaker. I am a boy.”
OFTEN IN LATE spring, mud coated my shoes—the same pair of tired sneakers for two, maybe three years. Threadbare socks, if any at all, covered my callused feet. Most of the time, I had to roll my patchwork pants up at the cuff. When you have an army of older brothers, there’s never a shortage of hand-me-downs, but nothing ever quite fits. It didn’t matter much; we had what we had, and things were just things. It was impossible to covet what none of us even knew existed. In time, that would change.
When I started primary school at the age of six, my father taught me about being fastidious: “Hair as smooth as a raven’s wing,” he’d say through a gloom of tobacco smoke. In those days, Babo was never without a cigarette smoldering between his long, earth-scarred fingers, and every word he uttered came out dragging hot puffs of Baghdad King Size tobacco with it. As a child, I believed he must have a flame burning in his throat, and that God had put it there for some special reason, perhaps to secret it away from Seytan, the sultan of devils.
To the Yazidi, every element—earth, wind, water, sunlight, and fire—is hallowed, and we revere each one in turn. But above all, feeling the sun’s rays is to stand before the eye of God’s first angel, Tawusi Melek. Even now, and despite everything that’s happened to us, my Daki still wakes each morning to worship the dawn. My father said she prayed enough for them both, but I could always see stars flickering within his dull cataracts and believed God had placed those there, too—every time Babo cast his torch-lit gaze over me, I felt the gift.
Trekking the six village blocks to school from my cousin Khairi Aezdeen’s house in spring was like wading a narrow riverbed. Sometimes it rained seven days straight, and chutes of water poured from the spouts draining the flat rooftops. Flanking the streets like a grim cliff face, long strips of single-story dwellings stood all linked together under a grid of limp electrical wires. Every now and again, you’d encounter a facade of color to indicate that there was a business inside.
During the school week, I often lived at my uncle’s four-room house located in the center of town, so that I could sleep more and walk less. Khairi always welcomed me, his open hands ready to give whatever he had, even when times were hard. Nothing that happened to us afterward would rob my cousin of that virtue. Often, my brother Samir, who was just two years older, came there with me. In the morning, we all got up from our shared mattress on the floor and slipped on our socks, not bothering to check whose were whose. I still remember how clean that house was, but also how spare: music from the transistor radio on a shelf over the hot plate; the melody of a sitar, beat of a drum. A tambour guitar tucked in the corner. Floor mats. Khairi’s constant laugh.
In the cool blur of daybreak, I reached for my shirt and sensed Samir doing the same. Then we waited our turns at the bathroom sink, behind eight cousins, all standing in a row like chattering birds on wire, always right next to Khairi with his big eyes full of lashes, blinking.
Crammed satchels strapped to our backs, we made for the open threshold. Sometimes my grandma, Dapîra, would be wandering the courtyard in her blue shawl, feeding the birds and offering soft prayers to the sun. As I walked out, she’d reach up and tousle my hair, laughing. Seconds later, I stepped into the unpaved street, felt the squish of fresh mud, and remembered to be grateful for the rain.
Up the road and one by one, other children came out of their cement boxes, as though each door was part of a strange factory that disgorged Yazidi schoolchildren every morning. Some kids loped along still in a disheveled state of half sleep, puffy-eyed and tucking in their shirts, the voices of their mothers calling after them. Usually after a few blocks, we joined up with my crew: Barzan, Saïd, and Tarfan. Tethered to me by blood, Samir remained a pace or two ahead, glancing back every now and again.
Out flew Barzan, furtive glances left to right, and an all-knowing crooked grin. Filthy coughs of molten smog and the metallic sounds of machinery at work always trailed him into the street, as though some mechanism had only just melded his sturdy limbs together. Of us all, he often had the best shoes, but once he stepped in the mud that fact was quickly forgotten. The proud son of a successful welder, Barzan had more money than any of us. Each Friday, he would come leaping out of his house with a small packet of dinars held high. Sure enough, before the first bell rang, he’d already doled out a little cash to each of us.
Up another block, Saïd took his time making an appearance. He’d stand awhile in the doorframe in his wayward shoes, hand holding out a half-eaten stub of cucumber or whatever he could scrounge from his father’s unreliable co-op. Then by some tacit arrangement, Barzan or another one of us asked him to get down to business:
“Tell us a joke, Saïd.”
Mouth full of breakfast, Saïd stopped in his tracks and held court in the muck; it never mattered if we’d heard the gag many times before.
TEACHER: Children, what does the chicken give you?
TEACHER: Very good! Now what does the goat give you?
TEACHER: Yes! And what does the fat cow give you?
Rounds of belly laughs, and we continued on our way.
No matter the weather, under his white shirt Saïd was always clad in a red jersey for the English soccer team Arsenal, and when he wasn’t proffering punch lines, he was talking soccer and making up teams for afternoon matches.
“Who’s in?” he’d say and point his cleft chin at us. “After school.”
“I have to go back to the farm. My father is unwell,” was my routine answer, though it pained me to miss a game. My father frowned at my playing:
- "A compelling, poignant, and mesmerizing account of the Yazidi people of northwestern Iraq, as seen through the eyes of a young man who experienced the hopes, heartbreaks and tragedies of the past two decades in the 'Land of the Two Rivers.' Shaker Jeffrey and his coauthor Katharine Holstein chronicle Shaker's experiences brilliantly. His innumerable battles with extremists, serious wounds, and ultimately infiltration of ISIS are nothing short of epic and make Shadow on the Mountain an incredible read."—General David Petraeus, US Army (Ret), former commander of US Central Command, and former Director of the CIA
- "A heartrending book that takes us right into the midst of the Yazidi tragedy. This story of one young man offers a powerful insight into what it's like to lose the person and place you love most. A must-read for anyone wants to understand ISIS."—Christina Lamb, award-winning chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and coauthor of the bestseller I Am Malala
- "In Shadow on the Mountain, we follow the harrowing journey of a young Yazidi man fighting the painful ancient destiny of his people. Shaker Jeffrey's spellbinding story of a gruesome era is told in raw and gripping detail. A vital and powerful chronicle of one of the great human tragedies of contemporary history--the savage genocide of a 5,000-year-old peaceful minority in Mesopotamia, the ancient land where humandkind itself was born. A powerful voice that deserves to be heard."—Mirza Dinnayi, international human rights activist, Founder of Air Brigade Iraq (Luftbrücke Irak), and the 2019 recipient of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity
- "[Shaker Jeffrey's] story, powerfully told with coauthor Katharine Holstein, is an incredible saga of selfless and courageous service to his [Yazidi] people and his adopted American brothers as he provided invaluable intelligence and coordination--often personally leading missions behind enemy lines--to help rescue Yazidis from the mountain and the clutches of ISIS. The details that Jeffrey shares about this genocide will bring the toughest reader to tears, and he also illuminates the little-known history and culture of his people. An invaluable look into a still-unfolding tragedy."—Booklist, starred review
- "A spellbinding tale woven with gorgeous phrasing, compelling you to finish its journey at a breakneck pace along with Shaker Jeffrey, a hero of Promethean proportions.... [Shadow on the Mountain] is a class-ten whitewater trip through the cruelties of war, terrorism, and how humanity still rises above the darkness and sadism found in men at war time.... It takes a strong stomach to read this memoir, but the journey is worth it."—New York Journal of Books
- On Sale
- Feb 18, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Da Capo Press