Sometimes I'm Happy

Entry by: Perstimmons

29th September 2022
Mr Aqil will hack open my body next Friday and insert a ceramic knee replacement. I'll be fine china.

I once knew someone else with that name. Except he spelled it A-K-E-E-L. He came from Iraq and he was nineteen.

It was when I was married to Saleh and we were living in Amman. Saleh wasn't the name he was going by then. It was his real name but since to leave Iraq he'd needed a passport and he wasn't eligible for one because he hadn't done his military service, he'd assumed a different identity. Having older brothers, always an irritation, suddenly became an advantage and one who'd done his time and had two kids loaned his name. Don't ask why Saleh had to leave Iraq. This story is about Akeel.

We had a flat in Sweileh. For two people to occupy a whole two bedroom flat was practically unheard of. The rent took most of my wages. I worked at the Conservatory, writing textbooks, teaching. Saleh wasn't allowed to work as a doctor. He was paid to translate what I wrote into Arabic. It was a symbiotic relationship: I wrote, he translated more exactly than anyone else could have and the Conservatory got two for the price of one and a few extra dinars.

We celebrated Christmas with my British friend and her two kids. I roasted a chicken in our useless oven. I'm not sure why I chose to do that because it took ours and the shop on the corner had chickens permanently spit roasting in a rotisserie cabinet outside. Tradition, I guess. I'd made a pudding a couple of weeks earlier. Saleh went with me to the butcher to buy suet. He was embarrassed because they usually threw the suet in the bin, so he asked for kidneys with the suet as an extra. I could tell from the way he prepared the kidneys, cutting out all the nasty bits, that he'd be a brilliant surgeon. The mixture had looked very white, so I put some of his mum's date syrup in it, jumped in a taxi an went over to Julie's house so the kids could stir it and make a wish. The chicken was pretty underdone, but the pudding made up for it. Afterwards we went to the cinema, a rare expensive treat.

For New Year, Saleh invited his friends, eight of them, all Iraqi men. He wanted a traditional roast dinner, so I bought some chickens and stashed them in the oven, served them up with mash, carrots and frozen peas. No roasties but nobody was any the wiser.

After dinner, without warning, Saleh announced that I would read tarot for everyone. They all had glowing futures, asylum, wives and families, money, fancy cars. Of course. But one man did have a bright future: that man was Akeel. We saw the New Year in with a Michael Jackson concert. Everyone, except me, danced.

The next day Saleh quizzed me about the readings and after teasing him a bit I confessed it was Akeel who was going to have a good life; he was the lucky one.

Akeel began to come to our flat regularly, usually when I was at work. Sometimes he'd still be there when I got home, more often there'd be a couple of istikhans, thickly coated with sugar, in the sink or on the coffee table. Once I came home early and found Akeel putting his shirt on, strange marks on his back, Saleh screwing the top back on a jar of antiseptic cream. When I asked Saleh later he eventually told me that Akeel had been tortured with hot screwdrivers in his back. When they released him, he fled, like so many, to Jordan. I didn't need to ask why. I'd lived in Iraq and seen the fear on people's faces. I knew something of the abuse of power, how the police would arrest young men to augment their pathetic wages and demand money from the families for their release. Akeel's family obviously didn't pay up in time.

One day in February Saleh told me Akeel had gone to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR. I'd seen the queues outside their building and didn't hold out much hope for Akeel, but we learned they had put him in their hostel while they investigated his case.

Everyone thinks of the Middle East as being hot all the time. It isn't. If Jesus was born in a stable, it was most likely freezing, draughty and it might have been snowing. Somehow in our heads, our Christmas is a Victorian snow scene and in the Middle East it is a balmy haven of sunshine. In Iraq, Jordan and Israel, when I spent Christmases there, it rained most of the winter. My birthday is in February and Saleh sold his leather jacket to buy me a present and a cake, and went around shivering.

We needed a treat and on 27th I knew I'd be paid the next day, so I spent all but the busfare to work on some fruit and a tin of Heinz baked beans.

Around 4pm there was a knock at the door. I answered it and there was Akeel, smiling. No words were needed. I was looking at a man about to start a new life. How do you welcome someone like that into your home? With tea, and food, lots of food. Akeel said he was fasting in gratitude to Allah for granting his wish.

When the athan sounded, Saleh and Akeel went to wash and pray; I knew what would be needed afterwards. I ran down to the chicken shop and I'm quite sure they never expected me to say:

Ureed dejarge.
Markoo felooz.
Felooz bukra.

I need chicken.
No money.
Money tomorrow.
Thank you.

I walked home with a chicken, bread, rice, salad and two bottles of Coca Cola.

That was in 1997. My life took a strange direction in 2011 when set up a charity in the UK for asylum seekers. It's always a huge pleasure when someone gets leave to remain. We have cake and candles. It gives people hope. They think: me, I'll be next. I always think of Akeel and soon Mr Aqil will give me a new life, a fresh start.

So, sometimes, I'm happy.