…Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators...
-F.S. Maude, Lieutenant-General, Commanding the British Forces in Iraq, 1917
Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster...
-Ex.Lieut-Col TE Lawrence, The Sunday Times, August 22, 1920
Mr. Wahld rests on the balcony. His head peaks every so often over the railing, but most of the morning, he has just been laying there. It is getting hot, though. His breath comes in quick pulls. Every few minutes Wahld reaches to his right side and touches the Henry-Martini single-shot target rifle that rests on the floor. Just to make sure it’s still there. It is, by the way. His khaki shorts are dirty from the thick clay dust that covers the balcony.
There are beginning to be signs of life on the street below his perch. Street vendors are preparing their stands, the first of those who will strain to see the grand entrance have arrived and are taking their places on either side of the street. A few British soldiers saunter down the middle of the road, half-heartedly furthering their duty to be suspicious.
A frightened bead of sweat congeals above Wahld’s right eyebrow. Loathe to remain, it absconds down his cheek and leaps to its death on the stone floor of the balcony.
Wahld is feeling it now. Imminence.
I can see the wheels turning. He is fighting the first wave of panic. The immensity of what he is about to do. Words are forming in his head. As he remembers the words, his lips dance with the syllables. Ever so slightly.
Well then! I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy ;
And they, methinks, deserve my pity
Who for it can endure the stings,
The crowd and buzz and murmurings,
Of this great hive, the city.
Why does it comfort him so? He is visibly calmed, and I can hear the slowing of his pulse. It’s a work by Cowley, of course. His heart is grateful for the clam, and the memory of some moment of bliss which it reminds him of. I cannot tell what it is. I wish to know so much more about him.
Most of all I wish to understand his motives for this act. It is clear to me that his ideological commitment to the cause is paltry, at best. And he is not a killer by nature.
Remember, it was just last week that he committed to this. It was dark, and he was waiting by the river. The tiny sajah rested on the bank, and, after some hesitation, he stepped on to it and sat down. The boy rowed and Wahld simply sat in silence as the sajah snaked its way through the reeds in the darkness. Halfway across he lit a pipe. This was the first time I had ever noticed Wahld. He is not a beautiful man, by any means. But there was something in his eyes that drew me. Some intensity was hidden here, I was sure in an instant. So I followed.
When they reached the far bank, Wahld stepped out and said something to the boy. It was a name. Al-Rumaydh, he said. The boy pointed and Wahld gave him a coin. Wahld walked for a few minutes until he spotted what he was looking for, a large mudhif under a willow tree. The mudhif was made entirely of reeds, reed mats over reed bundles curving over one’s head and meeting in the middles and creating a yellow tunnel 40 or 50 yards long. As he entered he saw al-Rumaydh, fat and glistening in the night heat, next to a fire of great willow-logs, directly in the middle of the tunnel. A man stood next to him and prepared coffee. The blending odor of the willow-smoke, the coffee, and the warm reeds was transporting. Outside of the fire the light faded until it melted into complete darkness. Wahld couldn’t even perceive where the mudhif ended and the outside began. But he may have seen a small movement or a reflection of light, because from the very beginning, he knew something was lurking in those deep shadows. And watching him.
He sat anyway, after saluting al-Rumaydh, who just grunted back at him. The coffee maker left at a signal from the giant man.
“Next week the British are having a parade.” He wastes no time, the fat one. He is Arabic, but he speaks the language of the empire without accent.
“They are planning to sell us to Faisal.”
Over the next hour, he speaks to Wahld of the planned visitation of the British defense minister himself. The man, primarily, at whose feet rest the bodies of the thousands of victims of the aerial bombing campaigns. The man who must be killed. It is clear that the issue of compensation, or whatever it is that Wahld seeks by agreeing to this murder, has already been discussed. I learned nothing of his motives from their conversation.
Wahld was instructed to gather his rifle and await the procession. Above the library, al-Rumaydh assured him, he would be left alone. When the carriage carrying the defense minister turned the corner from the marketplace and passed beneath the library, Wahld would shoot him.
I think Wahld already understood one thing: that this was one murder that the sheikh’s followers would not claim, and could not do themselves. This was too large.
I stayed after he left. Wahld’s instincts had been right. No sooner had he left the mudhif than a man emerged from the shadows at the far end of the tunnel. As he stood up from the dark, patterned cushions on which he had been seated, al-Rumaydh placed coals on the nargile. The man sat next to him and both began to smoke the pipe and talk. They spoke of a fatwa against the British occupation and all those who cooperated with it. At one point al-Rumaydh said the man’s name. I heard only part of it: Khalasi. He also called him marja several times, which means scholar, but I do not know why he calls him this, if he is approbative or mocking. I learned much of their reasons for violence. But nothing of the British hired assassin.
And here he waits on the balcony. The crowd has grown. It is almost noon. It won’t be long now. He is humming softly to himself. I do not know the tune. I perceive some of his thoughts. He does not see himself as hero, that is sure. I think that mantle would take far more conviction than could exist in 100 Wahlds. There is fear, but no guilt. I see no greed, but anger, properly sublimated and unreadable, simmers somewhere deep. I am reminded of what Nietzche said: “Ye are not great enough not to know of hatred and envy. Then be great enough not to be ashamed of them!” Wahld has much hatred buried in there somewhere, like so much pirate treasure. And he is much ashamed of it. At the sources of all hatreds lie shame, I think.
Down on the street the soldiers can barely keep the street clear. There is an alley that spills into the parade route. On the corner of the building two men exchange furtive instructions. One is the man called Khalasi. He commands respect and obeisance from the other, who nods and dashes off. I wish I could tell Wahld that this man is here, that he is not alone. But perhaps he already knows. He must suspect that it cannot end with a single shot, with everything he understands, with the patricide he is about to unleash on his native country. But there is little doubt at this point.
And indeed, the sound of hoof-beats and marching begin to echo off the walls of cramped stores and residences. Wahld slowly grasps the rifle and places the muzzle on the railing. The first cohort of British officers marches around the corner and proceeds towards his lofty hideaway. Wahld’s nerves are so alive! I can feel the excitement radiating from his body. In an effort to calm himself he begins reciting the Cowley poem again, his lips again tracing the words in the air as he leans into the weapon and squints down the sight.
Hoe happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
I should have then this only fear:
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
And so make a city here.
But the time for calm is past. For ‘round the corner comes the carriage. The horses clip clop along and the man in the seat rises and waves his foolish little top hat. He is balding and dumpy; the body screams leisure and frivolity. What could he be thinking parading like a conquering hero in the city of his vanquished enemy?
Wahld is shaking now. He takes aim at the ground one hundred feet before the carriage. Though his rifle now peeks over the rail, no one on the ground is looking up. The marching soldiers pass through his aim. Only 50 feet remain.
Has a more useful phrase than destiny ever been created? Wahld thinks this word now. He wills his dependence. In a moment, he is no longer an agent, but a vessel. A passenger he has become, and destiny is the driver. He pulls the trigger.
In the chaos that follows the peal of the shots no one notices for a moment that most of Churchill’s head is missing.
Wahld is running down the stairs to the back exit of the library. His body is pumping adrenaline but a single point of irritation sticks to the wall of his mind. I fired only one shot, he thinks, Only one shot was needed. And yet there were two fired. Mostly, it is a point of pride. He wishes he had been trusted at his word. There was little chance he would miss.
He throws open a door and emerges into the sunlight and nearly into the arms of an officer of the empire. A single pistol shot and Wahld continues running, leaving a second body in his wake.
I can’t keep up with him. I am very old and he is young and fleet.
I only saw Wahld one more time. When I reached his home (for I knew the way well by now), he was sitting on a chair and reading a worn letter. His focus was intense and he did not hear me come in (although few do). I read the first few lines of the letter before I made myself stop. And what I read I will not tell to you. Some things must be kept close. There is a sin called trespassing even on a well-traveled road.
They found him very soon afterwards, in a store down the block. He spent the night in jail that night and was shot and killed the next morning while being transferred to a place of better security.
His last word, I heard later, was “Fate.”