A Good Old American Breakfast
by Barbara Mujica
Jamali didn’t want to work with the Americans, but he needed the money. He had plenty of reasons to detest the foreigners. His sixteen-year-old cousin Zaid had been caught in the crossfire at an American checkpoint and lost an arm, and Jamali had lost his livelihood because now nobody bought the fine wooden cabinets he made. Americans had brought war to Iraq, and war had left the country in shambles. Jamali thought about it a long time before he accepted the offer from Lieutenant Montez.
“You have to be practical,” Jamali said, sighing.
His cabinetry shop, where he and Zaid worked together, lay practically dormant. With Marines kicking in doors and bombs going off all over the place, no one ventured out, either to work or to buy. Jamali sat in his shop with his saws and lathes, his bits and sanders, and waited. No one came because no one had money. Besides, how could you think about fancy breakfronts with graceful curlicues and arabesques when you knew your house could be rubble in the morning?
“The Americans will pay fifty dollars for information about a weapons cache,” Jamali told his wife, Amira, “and a hundred for information about an Al-Qaida operative. More, if the guy is important. American money, not dinars. Zaid thinks I have to do it. ”
“It’s dangerous,” said Amira. “If you get caught, Al-Qaida will kill you.”
Jamali looked around the shop. His handiwork filled the place. Ornate dressers with drawers exquisitely carved in intricate floral designs. Picture frames with trompe l’oeil geometric patterns. Tall, sturdy wall cabinets trimmed with wooden spirals that reminded you of the whirling vortices of a sandstorm. Jamali was a master craftsman, as his father and grandfather had been before him and his cousin was becoming before he’d lost his arm. But what good was such skill and talent if you couldn’t put food on the table? Amira couldn’t stew and season fine furniture for dinner.
Jamali’s three sons—Abrahem, Gaban, and Gabir, age seven to twelve—spent the day in the workshop learning to whittle and carve or sweeping up sawdust. His eight-year-old daughter Aasera sewed by her mother’s side. The madrassas were closed. Even if they had been open, no reasonable father would send his children to school. The streets were too dangerous.
“We are decaying here,” Jamali told Amira. “What will the children eat if I can’t sell anything?”
“But informing for the Americans…” She looked down at her hands and pursed her lips. “Look where that got Hakim the baker.”
Jamali stifled a moan that sounded more like a sob. Hakim had collected enough money from the Marines to buy a new oven. One morning he opened his front door to find the body of his oldest son bleeding into the gravel of the front path, his hands tied behind his back and his throat slit. Hakim’s screams brought Jamali and the other neighbors running. That afternoon, they heard one final gut-slashing cry. Hakim had thrown himself into the oven.
“I don’t know what to do,” whispered Jamali.
“You scout and I’ll give them the information,” said Zaid. “That way, if Al-Qaida takes vengeance on anybody, it will be on me.”
“I can’t do that,” said Jamali.
“I have no wife and children,” countered Zaid, “and now I can’t work. I’m no good to anyone. I might as well do what I can to help.”
“They say Montez pays fast. He checks out the tip, and if it’s good, he hands over the cash right away. Very businesslike. Very dependable.”
I was glad to hear it. Ignacio Montez is my son, and I’d heard he was respected not only by the Marines, but also by the Iraqis. Not that he ever told me much about what he experienced over there, but the men he served with sometimes take me aside at events for military families and tell me stories. Some even send me emails. Once Ignacio invited a bunch of Marines over for breakfast, and I caught snippets of their conversation while I was in the kitchen. They were talking about Jamali and Amira.
“It was so awful when Zaid lost his arm,” someone said. “I hate when something like that happens at a checkpoint.”
Then I guess Ignacio realized I was eavesdropping and hushed them up.
“We haven’t had a breakfast this good since that time back when…”
Suddenly the room was quiet. Then, after a pause, they started talking about football.
I spend long hours imagining the stories people tell me about Ignacio, replaying them in my mind over and over like beloved videos, first changing this detail, then changing that. I envisage Jamali in a dishdasha, the ankle-length robe I’ve seen on men in pictures, white or maybe cream, a red-checkered kaffiyeh on his head. I imagine his stone-gray eyes squinting at the hem of the sky, his jaw tensed in pain. I imagine him in his workshop, sanding rough wood into a smooth surface, the morning’s work on his sandaled feet. He is wondering if anyone will buy the pretty little chest he is making just to keep busy. I hear the groans in his anguished heart. I visualize Zaid, his arm like the stump of a branch hit by lightning. Skin like sandpaper. Mustache like a black-bristled toothbrush. A gaze as intense and piercing as an eagle’s. And Amira. What does she look like? A spindle-shaped specter in a flowing dishdasha made of cotton, but silky-looking in the sunlight that filters through the pane. She wears a hijab like a vaporous aura over her hair. A phantom of a woman trapped between the terror of starvation and the savagery of war. A woman exhausted by anxiety and sleeplessness, just like me. Two mothers, Amira and I, worlds apart, but caught in the same nightmare. She fears for her children, as I fear for my son. The difference is, for her, the violence is in her yard. For me, it’s in my head.
Ignacio had met Jamali one day when he kicked in his door. The Marines had heard that there were Al-Qaida hiding in the area, and they were searching all the houses. Surprisingly—to me, but not to the young Marine who told me the story the first time I heard it—Jamali asked Ignacio and his men to stay for tea.
“Tea?” I said. “But you’d just kicked in his door!”
“That’s the way they are, ma’am,” he said. “Once you’re in their house, you’re their guest.”
Jamali assured the Marines that he wasn’t interested in politics. He didn’t like Al-Qaida, but he didn’t like foreigners occupying his country, either. So no, he told Ignacio, when my son first broached the subject, he wouldn’t help the Americans.
But things had changed. The money situation was dire. Jamali had to find a way to feed his family.
“All right,” Jamali told Ignacio, “but just for a little while. Just until I get back on my feet.”
By then, Ignacio had drunk tea with Jamali many times. He had seen his workshop and met his family. He had even given him a few small gifts of meat and cheese. Ignacio thanked Jamali in Arabic—he’d made it his business to learn a bit of the language—and told him he’d be back.
“It will look like a regular patrol,” said Ignacio. “I’ll kick in the door so no one will suspect you of collaborating.”
Jamali and Zaid kept their eyes open. Within days, they had tips for Ignacio. An IED planted during the night. A weapons cache hidden under a school building. Jamali could once again buy essentials for his family, but Amira stirred the lamb and barley stew with a nervous hand.
“I’m only doing it for the money,” Jamali told her. “It’s a short-term arrangement.”
Amira didn’t believe him. She could tell that her husband was beginning to like the Americans—or perhaps, he was just growing more disgusted with Al-Qaida. The insurgents were becoming more vicious. They called themselves Sunnis but, Jamali told his wife, their barbarous acts had nothing to do with Sunnism. Look at what they had done to Ali, the rich businessman who had investments in England and a large house with two wives. Ali was a self-confident man, used to speaking his mind. Once, at a town meeting, he’d protested the way the insurgents used women and children as shields when the Americans attacked their enclaves. The next day, neighbors found Ali’s naked and tortured body tied to a post by the road. It was headless.
“These people are repulsive,” Jamali told Amira. “They are worse than animals.”
“Stay out of it,” she said.
She’d noticed that Jamali was pursuing information to give to Ignacio Montez with increased energy.
“The American lieutenant won’t save you if you fall into the wrong hands,” said Amira. “And Allah forbid that they get any of the children.” She burst into tears. “I’d kill myself, that’s what I would do. That’s what any mother would do.”
Jamali was passing actionable information on to Ignacio nearly every day now. A bomb planted in the souk. Explosives under the mosque. A high-value target in an abandoned house. Ignacio either dealt with it or passed it on to his commander, Colonel Chang, who got the Marines any additional men or material they might need. Thanks to Jamali, Ignacio and his men were able to make real progress cleaning up the precinct. Chang was delighted. The Marines were delighted. Jamali breathed more easily now that he had an income. Only Amira still floated through the house like a spirit, her face turning ever paler with every new bag of rice or wheat that Jamali brought into the one large all-purpose room in which the family lived. She’d taken to keeping the children within view at all times. She didn’t even let the boys go into the shop with Jamali, even though it was right next door and attached to the house. No playing in the street. No soccer. You couldn’t take a chance. As for Aasera, she sat by her mother sewing, just as she had since they’d closed the schools.
Jamali still had no customers, but every once in a while, neighbors saw him carrying a hen or leading a bleating, tethered lamb down the street. Perhaps someone reported him, or perhaps one of the goons spotted him. It’s clear that someone suspected something.
One day, as Abrahem stood by a window pouring water from a jug, a murky shadow appeared on the wall. Amira shrieked. The other children rushed into Jamali’s shop. Just as Jamali passed through the passage between his workspace and the family’s living quarters, three hooded men pushed through the door and grabbed the child. A black-clad arm pressed against his throat. Then two black-gloved hands popped a sack over his head and yanked him through the door.
“Say good-bye to your baby,” snarled the intruder.
Paralyzed, Amira saw her youngest son disappear, as though in a hallucination. Her legs were suddenly stumps. Her eyes were bulging like hardboiled eggs. Then, suddenly, she erupted like a mortar round, howls and screams piercing the air.
“I told you!” she shrieked. “I’d rather eat wood than have this happen! Allah! Allah! Anything but this!”
I imagine her cries, like sirens wailing through the city. I feel her agony in my own gut. My own body quavers and quakes. What can she do? What would I do?
Jamali took off for the base to get Ignacio, but the Marines already knew what had happened.
“I need the best intel available on where those bastards are hiding the kid,” screamed Ignacio into the radio. Chang was barking data to bases in surrounding areas.
“They won’t take him far,” he said grimly. “Not if they want to kill him and make a spectacle of it in order to set Jamali up as an example. If that’s their plan, and it probably is, they’ll do it tomorrow, in broad daylight. That gives us less than twenty-four hours to find the kid.”
By nightfall, Ignacio had information about where Abrahem might be—six or eight possibilities, a lot of territory to cover in one night. He divided a portion of his platoon into four teams. The teams would check out the leads, while the remainder of the men carried out their regular duties.
One spot on Ignacio’s list was an abandoned mechanic’s shop just out of town. It had been empty for a while, and sand had piled up along the side of the building, partially blocking it from view. Ignacio approached the building with three other men. A guard was leaning against the front door, smoking a cigarette. Just one, which was unusual. Undoubtedly, there would be other armed men inside.
The Marines snuck around the side of the building and hid behind the chassis of a rust-eaten vehicle. Ignacio waited for the right moment, then, in a single stride, moved to behind the guard and stuffed his fist into the man’s mouth while pinning his arms behind his back.
“Don’t speak, just nod,” whispered Ignacio.
The man tried to bite Ignacio’s hand, but then spotted three other Marines, their pistols trained on his forehead.
“Are there other guys in the house?”
The guard nodded no, but Ignacio assumed he was lying.
“Is Jamali the cabinetmaker’s son in there?”
“Do you know where he is?”
The man hesitated a moment. He seemed overcome with indecision. He was young, maybe eighteen, still almost beardless, perhaps not yet a hardened rebel. Finally, he nodded yes. His head barely moved.
“Radio for backup,” Ignacio told one of the men. “We don’t know what we’ll find inside.” Then he turned to the guard: “Where’s the boy?”
Ignacio lowered his hand slightly so that the guard could answer.
“If you want to live,” snapped Ignacio, “show us where the kid is.”
The guard led Ignacio and two others to a small, dim room attached to the back of the mechanic’s shop. Ignacio found Abrahem with his hands tied, whimpering, and sprawled out in a pool of his own urine, but alive.
One of the other Marines handcuffed the guard to take back to the base. The rest searched the shop and, to their surprise, found it empty. Ignacio picked up the boy and carried him back to the Humvee.
Ignacio climbed into the passenger seat and threw a blanket over his knees. Then he lifted in the sticky, smelly child.
“Are you okay?” Ignacio whispered.
Abrahem was too dazed to answer. He continued to whimper softly, until finally he dozed off on Ignacio’s lap.
Back at the base, Ignacio stuck Abrahem under the shower and made him wash his body and his hair. The boy squealed as the water trickled down his back, over his head, into his eyes, but he allowed Ignacio to dry him with a towel and slip a Marine T-shirt over his tiny, seven-year-old body. Then he ate two MREs—Meals Ready to Eat, the prepackaged, high-calorie dinners American soldiers live on when they can’t get regular food—while Ignacio did the paperwork. Ignacio would have liked to send him home with a clean set of clothes, but the souk had been closed for months because of the violence, so he washed out Abrahem’s shorts and shirt and let them dry in the hot sun while the boy slept.
Ignacio hid Abrahem in a large sack, which he slung over his back. Then he went to Jamali’s house and kicked in the door, now so splintered at the edges from frequent boot blows that it would soon have to be replaced.
Jamali and Amira stood there staring at the Marine, certain that he brought grim news. Then Ignacio opened the sack and handed the boy to his mother. For a moment, Amira stood speechless. Then she began to rock back and forth as though she were going to faint. She gasped and held her hands against her temples, blinking hard. She must have thought the image before her was an illusion. Suddenly, she let out a squeal and began to sob, only this time, she shed tears of joy. Finally, she regained her bearings. She ran her fingers through Abrahem’s hair, touched his cheek, lifted his face toward hers.
“Allahu Akbar!” she said softly.
“My friend,” whispered Jamali to Ignacio, kissing him on both cheeks. “Thank you. Shukran jazīlan. Please come to the house tomorrow morning with those who helped you so I can show my appreciation. And,” he added, “enter the usual way.”
One day at breakfast, months after Ignacio had returned from Iraq, I mentioned the incident to him. It was the only time we ever spoke of it.
“Oh, that,” he said. “All in a day’s work, Mom. But you should have heard Amira bawl when she had her kid back.”
“Well, I should think so. And what was that business about a breakfast?”
“Huh? What breakfast?”
“Once when your friends were over, they said something…”
“Ah! You were snooping!”
“No, no…not really.”
“Well, the day after we brought Abrahem home, we went over to Jamali’s and kicked in the door, like always. To our amazement, Amira had laid out the most amazing American breakfast for us—like nothing I’d ever seen over there. Eggs and toast, cereal and yoghurt, coffee, juice. No bacon, of course—Muslims don’t eat pork—but everything else you could imagine. Pancakes, syrup. I have no idea where they got that stuff! They were such kind people. They wanted so much to show their gratitude.”
I imagine Jamali, Zaid, and the Marines sitting on the floor, steaming cups of American coffee before them. I imagine Amira laying out all that food and then disappearing into another part of the house. Yes, I know it’s unfair that, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to take part in the celebration, but the most important thing is that she got her little boy back, and for that I am profoundly glad.
“Around then, Colonel Chang was getting ready to redeploy back to the States,” Ignacio went on. “The men really loved him, and they wanted to give him a nice present. I asked Jamali if he could make a plaque for us with the Marine Corps emblem—you know, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. I gave him a picture to copy.”
“Did he do it?”
“Mom, you wouldn’t believe the magnificent wall hanging he made for us—a huge circular panel of fine wood, with the most intricate carving. A perfect eagle, with every feather, every claw in place. A globe with all the continents. He wouldn’t take any money for it! We tried to pay him, but he said, no, it was a gift.”
“What happened to them? Do you know?”
“Well, right after that the Sunni Awakening started. All the Sunnis started helping the Marines, and so then it wasn’t so dangerous. Jamali and his cousin became regular collaborators, and that allowed us to bring Al-Qaida under control. By the time I returned to Iraq the second time, the area was so peaceful we could spend our time rebuilding.”
This is the story I want to replay in my mind—the rare and beautiful story with a happy ending. I don’t want to think about ISIS and what they do to people who helped our soldiers, like Jamali. I don’t want to think about where Jamali and his family are now, or to ask myself if we are responsible.
Barbara Mujica is the mother of a Marine, a novelist, a short story writer, and an essayist. Her novel Frida (Overlook Press, 2001), an international bestseller, appeared in eighteen languages and was a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. Her 2007 novel Sister Teresa was adapted for the stage and premiered in November 2013. I Am Venus won a 2012 Maryland Writers’ Association competition in the category Historical Fiction, and her newly completed novel, Lola in Paradise, was a winner in 2016. Mujica has also won several prizes for her short fiction, published articles in many newspapers and other venues, written several scholarly books, and received a number of awards for her work on behalf of veterans and for her teaching.