This is a fictional account of Ibrahim, an Egyptian man who finds himself living in a dystopia where the city around him is being torn down, bit by bit. It is also the story of arugula, and of surviving through the darkest of times.
The Kuwait Towers are burning. There are blazes on different sides of the towers, burning every few days. Iraq’s special forces are torching different parts of the towers, in an attempt to erase Kuwait’s history. The interior spheres on two of them are barricaded with cement bricks, blocking out vision – except for the small peepholes the Iraqi soldiers would use to shoot through if foreign forces came to try and free Kuwait. There are pieces of broken glass in the mosaics, once symbolising Islamic patience and universality of ideas. The towers stood as a Kuwaiti pillar in its heyday; locals and tourists alike would visit and look up to its magnificence. It was an architectural and social marvel, known the world over.
Ibrahim always looks at the spheres before going to the entrance to start work, hypnotised by their towering heights and colourful designs. He most specifically stares at the stems that root up the towers, like mosque minarets about to call worshippers to prayer. Like rockets about to launch towards God.
A faceless Iraqi soldier checks his new Iraqi identification papers. The soldier is new. Ibrahim never knows who might check his papers, because the soldiers are rotated. So seeing a new face is not a surprise. Ibrahim hands him the five pages of bureaucratic details; stamps and signatures is what the soldier usually checks for.
Ibrahim has recently been employed by a Baghdad ministry to watch over the towers as haras, the person overseeing daily building maintenance and security. Usually the haras would live on the premises in a small room, free for him to use. If it is a residential apartment or an office building, he might get an extra sum here and there from washing residents’ and clients’ cars. The monthly salary is otherwise minuscule. But much better than what the haras could find back in Cairo or Alexandria, or in farming areas in rural Egypt.
Ibrahim’s room is inside the base of the biggest tower, right at the bottom, gutted in the bark of the concrete. There is a window the size of a pigeonhole.
A large number of foreign workers who lived in Kuwait has been allowed by Saddam Hussein to leave the country. But many have not come further than the Jordanian and Turkish borders, where they live in refugee settlements, known as tent cities. Many Egyptians working in Kuwait have given up as well, and started their journey home, traveling through Iraq and past the refugee camps, waiting to be picked up and flown home whenever the Egyptian government can send planes to repatriate them.
Alexandria is Ibrahim’s home of birth, but when Egypt saw political and financial problems in the eighties, Ibrahim heard from cousins and friends that getting a job in Kuwait was easy and the money generous. Kuwait at that time was going through an oil and social restructuring boom. It welcomed people of the world, including their beliefs. Ibrahim landed an easy job at a construction site as haras. From then on, he has shifted jobs from one employer to another. To whoever would hire him.
Every place he was hired, he would grow a tiny garden patch somewhere on the premises for his own use. Back in Alexandria, he had learned how to cultivate the land from his father and mother, both of whom were avid farmers before the city started sprouting into a metropolis. Tomatoes and cucumbers were his usuals. Rocket, or arugula, with its mustardy, peppery taste, has always been his favourite.
Inside the Kuwait Towers, Ibrahim checks the cylinders, gauges and water deployment in the engine rooms. He is not an engineer, but after working at numerous buildings and construction sites, he understands a little about the mechanics behind holding up a building. He tries his best. That is all he can promise to the ministry and soldiers who have secured his services. When something is too complicated, he immediately tells his bosses he cannot service it. Such honesty is respected by the alternating soldiers, even though they sometimes poke fun at him with Egyptian slurs.
But they never get to him. In Egypt, being a Copt is worse than being a Muslim, so Ibrahim resorts to thinking back at that whenever anyone smears his impoverished Egyptian background. The Iraqis think he is Muslim anyhow. His name helps a lot in hiding his Christian roots.
Even in his small room, Ibrahim has to hide his beaded cross every day when doing his rounds around the towers, just in case the soldiers arbitrarily would check his room, as they sometimes do to see that a large photograph of Saddam Hussein is hung squarely above the bed. The soldiers also check for any potential evidence that may object to Saddam’s rule. The most lethal punishment is implemented if any form of collaboration with Kuwaiti resistance fighters is found. Ibrahim does not want to put himself in any strife with the forces who have given him a job. Politics have never been important to him.
His employers have allowed him to have a small, beat up television in his room. He is rationed a short amount of time in the evenings to watch TV for passing entertainment. The severed antenna makes it difficult to catch any channels though, so Ibrahim has had to use tin foil as a make-do antenna. Two channels are the only he can watch if the reception is bearable. One is a Baghdadi channel; the other a Kuwaiti one taken over by Iraqi television. Most programmes are about the Iraqi military expansion, how they have been conquering supposed infidels in Kuwait and resisting Saudi troops along the southern border. A few other shows are Iraqi dramas about hardship and patriotism for the homeland.
Ibrahim misses Egyptian comedy shows. Sometimes an Iraqi soldier might trade him VHS tapes that he stole somewhere in the city for a pack of smokes. Ibrahim then sneaks in a few minutes in the evening to watch an episode. He would read, but he is illiterate; he never went to school when he was young. Farming was supposed to be his future.
Each and every time some general or another arrives from different areas of fighting in Kuwait, they instruct lower ranking soldiers to demolish or burn something from the Kuwait Towers. “Burn that Kuwaiti filth to the ground!” one says. “Smash the glass windows!” another says. Or, “Tear apart all the furnishings.” A few of them say, “Bring me those gold-enamored picture frames and décor pieces,” when they want to personally strip away and take some of Kuwait’s wealth back home.
All the generals that Ibrahim sees come with an unnecessary entourage of vehicles. They arrive, give orders, make a few senseless remarks and then disappear. Destroying portions of the towers, bit by bit, is a painful way to remind the Kuwaitis that Iraq is here and that Kuwait’s short history, in the eyes of Iraq, is being justifiably erased.
Smoke and dust plumes give off a discouraging sign to the rest of the nearby areas populating Kuwait City. Citizens see them, and feel overcome and defeated. This is the aim at least.
Sometimes, a special bomb squad explodes ordinances around the towers, deliberately not hurting anything or anyone. The loud sounds shake the entire city. They are supposed to scare anyone from resisting, making them submit to the new Iraqi province.
There have been times when Ibrahim saw resistance fighters tied to poles and shot, execution style. Then, the bodies would be left there for the occupied to see, withering for days in sweat and blood, in th Kuwaiti sun’s gruesome heat. Rats from sewage holes come up at night when Ibrahim does his final rounds. The rats munch and nibble at the carcasses.
Ibrahim thinks it is all senseless. Muslims killing Muslims – this should not happen, nor Arabs killing each other, regardless of religion. To Ibrahim, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived side by side for millennia in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, albeit there have been religious turmoil between the different groups. He has always despised man’s absurd desire for power, especially when it involves killing others to get it.
Whenever such human debasing occurs, Ibrahim tries to head to his room, then secretly collects and firmly squeezes his cross, plays with the beads, mutters a few phrases to God. Then, he enters his small garden plot to check on his tomatoes, cucumbers and rocket. Peace is what he senses in the midst of the crops; crops he himself has given birth to and which, in turn, have given birth to and sustained him.
His rocket always captivates him. The way it grows from simple seeds, the way it protracts in its slim and leafy design. Every day, Ibrahim checks on this plant. There is something about it that mystifies him. Perhaps it is the way it peaks through the heavy soil, stalking its soft roots in the direction of the sky, pushing against grime and dust to flourish, carrying on even when fresh water is so far away, so hard to acquire during war.
Reining in green.
Weeping in fertility.
Tasteful in delivery.
Every time the plant is ripe, it delicately looks straight up towards the towers. The stems. The spheres. The delicate but resilient postures they uphold, regardless of who or what tries to break them down. Upwards and beyond the towers aim, seeking peace in the skies.
Ibrahim even shares some of his tiny harvest with the kindest of the soldiers, the ones who would rather not be fighting. Who would rather be back home, toiling their own lands and feeding their families from their hard-earned, brittle hands.
Destruction has its limits. Instruction is boundless. This is what is essential to Ibrahim. Nourishing instruction is the ultimate face he seeks to hold up. The arugula plant is a testament to life in harsh terrain. To life during warring pain.