Les Internationaux (a novel)

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This story is dedicated to the journalists and humanitarian aid workers who have died in conflict, giving their lives for a cause.


Felicity stepped back from the gurney where she’d pieced together a shattered metacarpal and ulna, bellowing prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medication at the nurses, and binning another pair of gloves as the patient trundled away. The next patient was brought crying, blood thickening his hair. “Irja sayidati, min qibal allah.” Oh god, please madam. It was the baker from the corner. She looked over the wounds across the upper half of his body, shone her light in his pupils. Most of the trauma was on the inside. Her neighbours would struggle to buy bread tomorrow.

Fallujah, 2004

Chapter 1

Erbil, Northern Iraq, 2008

Hasna al-Jumaili and her two small children had been searching the corridors at Rojawa Hospital after the Ansar al-Sunnar bombing, when the doctor took them aside, offered them water, and phoned around. Hasna endured a sleepless night and another agonising day before the doctor found her husband, a policeman, at nearby Sardam Hospital. He’d survived the bombing, only to be gunned down at a check-point months later. Now Hasna brought Khalil and Jasmeen to say goodbye to Doctor Beauvoir, who’d taken special care of the family ever since.

It was the last consultation of the day. Sitting down, the doctor smiled at the children before removing her hijab, so the children saw her golden hair for the first time. For Doctor Felicity Beauvoir this long war was coming to an end at that very moment. She looked at Jasmeen, whose bright brown eyes shone back. She knew that for this five-year-old, her seven-year-old brother, and their twenty-six-year-old mother, the war wasn’t over.

“How is your arm now?” said Felicity, taking Jasmeen’s arm and examining the spot where she’d delivered a vaccination the last time she’d seen her.

“Innah ‘afdal alan.” It’s better now.

“Thank you for the gift.”

“It’s just small, to say thank you for looking after us,” said Hasna, who’d taken meticulous care preparing orange flavoured basboussa sweets.

“I’m sad to go. Doctor Faraj is a good man. He’ll do a great job taking care of you now,” Felicity said, spreading eye contact among all three of them affectionately, as much to absorb as to reassure. Felicity wanted to burn this image into her. She’d dedicated the four most intense years of her life to the health and wellbeing, indeed the survival of Iraq and its people. The spectacle of these two healthy children and their strong and determined mother was desperately needed reaffirmation. In this long and senseless war there’d been children and mothers for whom her years of training and experience, and the best available resources, had only deepened the sense of helplessness.

Felicity caught Khalil eyeing the basboussa from the opposite end of her desk. Turning her attention with theatrical keenness to the carefully arranged tray of sweets she said, “Wow. These look incredible. Shall we have some?”

She held the plate out for Khalil, who looked for Hasna’s nod before reaching for the one he’d picked out. The three ladies each picked one too, and together they sat and savoured the aromatic sweet.

Memories of things that happened three years earlier came to the surface whenever Felicity saw Hasna and her children. During her time in Iraq there’d been other events as horrific as the suicide bombing that brought them together. It was different though, because at the time, Felicity had just found out that she was pregnant. Hasna and her little family made her think how things might have been. Today was her last day at the NGO’s Erbil clinic, and Felicity was especially prone to rumination.

She’d left her apartment in the city’s Araban quarter early, heading out into waking streets on her bike. Pedalling toward the ancient Hewler citadel with the swelling nostalgia of someone looking for the last time at the place they presently called home, she marvelled that people were actually stirring within its stone walls and buildings, some of them prehistoric. Straddling the mesa at the centre of modern Erbil, the citadel could be seen from just about anywhere. During her time in the Middle-East Felicity had indulged her interest in the ancient world, visiting many sites, but living amid humanity’s oldest continually inhabited settlement was profound.

Construction cranes and communications towers punctuated the surrounding Erbil cityscape optimistically, while down at ground level, parks and gardens dominated by water fountains were a particular preoccupation of the city planners.

She passed the Hewler Governate building with its muraled concrete bomb barriers. Up ahead at the foot of the citadel was a mosaic depicting Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian King Darius III at the battle of ‘Arbela’, a practically recent event in the sweep of Erbil history. Just beyond that, around the bend she could see the dome of the Salih Dhabak Mosque, a modest yellow-brick structure she’d thought reminiscent of modern suburban churches in Europe. Felicity soaked it all in one last time.

At the junction before Sultan Muthafar’s Shrine she swung down Barzani Namir Road in the direction of the Erbil International Hotel where she normally began the day with a swim. She waved to Faris, her computer guy, as she passed his store.

The Erbil International Hotel was notorious for its belligerent staff, but she could blend in with foreign patrons and it had a fine swimming pool that was generally empty early in the mornings. She lapped powerfully for twenty minutes and then cooled down at a gentler pace, relishing the gentle resistance of fluid crystal against her free-flowing limbs. Coming to a graceful halt she bobbed serenely for a minute enveloped in that elemental embrace, before climbing out invigorated.

Towelling water from her honey coloured hair, olive skin, and her ocean blue one-piece, Felicity wrapped herself before reaching into her backpack for her iPhone. Her boss, Gerome, had given it to her on his recent visit to Erbil. A former investment banker, after a ‘road to Damascus’ moment, Gerome had turned his considerable wealth and talent to humanitarian endeavours (and subsequently found himself on a literal road to Damascus). The iPhone had recently been named TIME magazine’s invention of the year, he’d told her excitedly. Tech savvy in the manner of a CEO who wanted to be known as tech savvy, he’d enthused with her about the online games, the handy navigation tool, and the quality of the camera and music. Felicity knew that it was really about the applications he’d installed to locate her in the event of emergency.

Gerome had been in Erbil for meetings concerning the transfer of their operation to a local NGO, and to discuss her team’s redeployment. Plans had firmed up in recent days with the escalating fracas in Georgia. Opening her email, Felicity responded to her mother first.

Felicity went into aid work straight out of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, much to the dismay of her Gaullist father who’d expected her to become a plastic surgeon and live in the apartment he bought her on Rue de Lancry until she married a banker or a politician, but with the blessing of her bohemian mother, who’d pictured her moving to the country and becoming a GP, tending cows and farm dogs as much as to rustic artists and vintners.

Blanche Beauvoir was thrilled at the news that her elegant, accomplished, free-thinking and spirited surgeon-daughter would be returning to Paris. Felicity had been in Iraq saving children, repairing sanitation, and virtually single-handedly turning back the tide of destruction and corruption wrought by George W. Bush and his over-bearing, blundering cohort. This much Blanche had shared with her colleagues at the Fédération Démocratique Internationale des Femme. Felicity’s presence in Paris would be an opportunity for the mesdames to hear first-hand accounts from the frontline in the struggle for global peace and justice. It would also silence that prattling Celeste Gonard, who interrupted Blanche’s reports during the monthly meeting of le Fédération’s Paris chapter, whenever they touched on the detail of Felicity’s emails.

Felicity didn’t know this precise context, but she knew her mother well enough to recognise the tone, which suggested the email was attended by some such significance. Ouimaman, I’ll be in Paris in a couple of days, Felicity confirmed. Oui maman, I would love to come to your dinner party on Saturday, she wrote, but sadly she’d be leaving again before her mother’s meeting next Tuesday.

Felicity turned to an email from the NGO’s Central Asia research team entitled “South Ossetia Briefing”. Among the lines and lines of information on that email, one short phrase in the ‘Cc’ field jumped out: “alan.steiger@…”.  Felicity scanned the email and the attached documents without luck to find out Alan’s involvement. She suppressed the impulse to phone Gerome and fish for clues. It was still too early in Paris at any rate. She put her phone away and pondered while she finished towelling off.

She pedalled up to the Qaysari Bazaar for some final souvenirs for her parents and for Madame Montagne, her elderly neighbour in Paris. When she first came to Erbil, Felicity would willingly get lost in the arcades, alleys and shops of the bazaar. Now, as in many pockets of Erbil, she had to circumnavigate construction works, where a colossal shopping mall was being built to the south of the bazaar, and another water-fountain filled parkland was being created at its centre. The noise and dust of heavy machinery did nothing to dampen the activity of the labyrinthine bazaar, into which she wandered.

Textiles, dried figs and apricots, dates and raisins, honeys and cheeses, shoes, the aroma of spiced and sugared sweets and breads, kebabs and tikka, tea-rooms with walls covered in framed photographs of heroes and patriarchs stretching back 100 years, and Kurdish music from within. Furniture stores, Chinese made clothes, toy stores and fresh fruit, Turkish made clothes, jewellery both handmade on site and imported, make-up both traditional and imported, walnuts, in some places beneath spectacular ancient domed ceilings and in other places beneath corrugated iron, where shoppers and sellers milled about like bees in a hive. Rich and fragrant spices in piles of oranges and yellows, browns and greens. Kurdish fabrics inlaid or embroidered with with gold fibres, household cleaning products, carpets and antiques, nuts roasting, gaudy clocks and watches, stationery and currency, stall holders and customers communicating in both Kurdish and Arabic, in the same conversation. Pomegranate seeds, guitars and drums, and cushions on which to sit and play them.

At a stall where a vendor enticed buyers to his syrupy sweets with cries of “kaka kaka”, Felicity heard an email ping into her backpack like some arrow fired from Paris with a message tied around it. She reached in for the iPhone, a message from Gerome, her eyes went to the ‘Cc’ field. She and the rest of the Erbil crew were to convene upon Istanbul early next week to begin stock-piling a new operation before freighting it and themselves to Georgia. Alan Steiger, named chef de mission, was already on his way to Tbilisi to make political and administrative arrangements. Like some arrow fired from across the sea it struck.

Her mind drifted to a Doha hotel room three years earlier, where she’d sat by the window looking gloomily across the skyline. Alan was packed and their few days of imagined bliss over. She’d wanted to tell him his marriage was doomed, Elizabeth didn’t love him, and was probably goading him leave her, sad fool that he was. She’d wanted to say she’d fly with him to New York, go with him to Juba, take him back to Erbil. She’d wanted to say stay with her, in that hotel room. Instead she rose, crossed the room and held him close to all that she’d given him, and kissed him tenderly.

Kaka, kaka, said the sweets vendor tentatively, to the woman who appeared lost.

 

A late July heat haze was already settling over Erbil as she left the Qaysari Bazaar. She headed back in the direction of Araban to meet Doctor Faraj at the Directorate of Health.

The Directorate was located a few streets from the NGO’s clinic in a nondescript three-storey office building typical of regional administrations throughout the world. Felicity could have been walking into a provincial medical bureaucracy anywhere, if it weren’t for the two-and-a-half metre tall muraled concrete bomb shields surrounding it, the checkpoint she had to navigate, and the guards in peshmerga camouflage brandishing AK47s at every doorway. In some places they outnumbered staff. She crossed the short foyer and signed for a visitor pass at the reception desk, where she was greeted with a familiar smile. “Doctor Beauvoir, Doctor Faraj is expecting you”.

Summoned by the building’s PA system, Doctor Faraj appeared at a corner of the foyer from an entryway framed by office issue ficus and fatigues. “Doctor Beauvoir, thanks for coming.”

She followed him down the corridor to a small room which he’d claimed as his office for the day. He apologised that he’d found two chairs but no desk. Faraj, a refugee in the 90s, had studied in the UK before returning to his native Kurdistan after the fall of the Baathist regime. Thus displaced from his family’s traditional patrons, he was so far unable to find a place in the Kurdish establishment, but found instead a place in local civil society. Felicity calculated his age at a couple of years younger than herself, in his early 30s, but he looked ten years older, with an emerging pot-belly, receding hairline, grey bags behind his spectacles, and a frown creased permanently above them. To Faraj, taking charge of the NGO’s clinic was the greatest opportunity of his life. He’d been at the clinic the past month practicing medicine with the NGO. However, transforming it into a local practice run by a citizen required endless documents to be lodged with the Directorate of Health.

“Here are the maintenance agreements and warranty for the ECG machines, the X-ray, two sterilisation units,” Felicity explained, taking several folders from her backpack. “An inventory of the pharmacy.” Faraj nodded as they both looked at the documents passing from her backpack across his lap and into his satchel.

“I’ll be around tomorrow in case you need me. You have my email and my number,” she said. A moment’s pause, and they both smiled.

“Thank you,” he said. “Your patients are in good hands.”

“I know.” She looked around the freshly painted empty room, a vessel to be filled, nothing but potential, like Faraj himself. Peshmerga fatigues, sub-machine guns, and bomb-shields suffocating government buildings were a pall over the transaction taking place.

Felicity stepped over to a window where above the concrete barriers she could see the citadel in the distance. Seven thousand years of civilisations coming and passing. Is this what she was witnessing? Had she truly been here at a moment of such transition?

“What’s the prognosis, do you think, of this troop surge, and the US election?” she asked, looking now at the deep blue sky beyond the citadel, into which she was already beginning to disappear.

“Even if Obama does win he’ll have to continue Bush’s troop surge. The other choice is a vacuum,” said Doctor Faraj distractedly, still seated, perusing documents on his lap. “As much as I hate to admit it, we need the Americans to stay.”

They looked at each other a moment, thoughtfully, and he joined her at the window. “Thank you for everything, Doctor Beauvoir. Whatever happens from now, some of it’s in our hands, and some of it is not.”

He shook her hand as she left to begin her last day caring for patients who tomorrow were his to care for.

 

After saying goodbye to Hasna al-Jumaili and her two kids with hugs and exchange of email addresses, Felicity sat down to return a call from Paris.

’ello,”

“Gerome, c’est Felicity. You called?”

“Ah, Felicity, thanks for phoning back. I just wanted to touch base and make sure you’re okay with the new mission. ”

“Thanks Gerome. I think we’re all excited at the prospect.”

“Très bien.” Gerome paused, as if considering how to continue. “This is not like 2005, you know. We’re not abandoning them, scampering back to Amman to save our skins and leave the Iraqis to their fate. We’re handing it back to them.”

“I fear this thing will escalate before it’s through, and there’ll be more bloodshed. But it’s okay, Gerome, I’m ready to move on.”

“I’m relieved.” Gerome hesitated again before continuing. “You know, he asked for you.”

There was a heavy pause.

“As I said, Gerome, I’m ready to move on.”

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