Green Eyes

by Barbara Mujica

 

ll you could see was her eyes, green as a fresh pasture, gleaming through the slit of her burka. Sergeant Lindgren tried not to look directly at her. The woman was obviously hostile—perhaps resentful, perhaps frightened, perhaps both. She knit her brow and contracted her eyes into a squint.

“Tell her we’re here to help, Saddiq,” Lindgren told the interpreter.

“She won’t believe you,” he answered. “Last time the Marines were in this village, they kicked in every single door and searched the houses. Maybe they took away her husband or her brother, for all you know.”

Lindgren sighed. “Tell her it’s different now.”

Ever since the surge, the dramatic increase in troops that took effect in 2007, more and more Sunnis had been cooperating with the Americans. As a result, many neighborhoods in Ramadi and nearby villages were calmer than they had been in years. People were beginning to venture out to the markets, children played in the streets, schools were reopening. Still, there were pockets of resistance. Some locals still didn’t trust the foreigners, and the woman with the green eyes was clearly suspicious.

“Tell her I’m female, just like she is,” said Lindgren.

Then, turning toward her, she added, “I’ve brought some supplies. Water, rice, that sort of thing.” She knew that the woman couldn’t understand her, but she wanted her to hear her voice.

The burka-clad woman jerked her head like a skittish colt, then disappeared behind the drab door of her drab house. The whole village was a dull sand-color, which is probably why the Marines, with perverse irony, called it Hollywood.

“This is pointless,” said Saddiq. “We should talk to the elders, but, of course, they won’t deal with you.”

They tried three more houses. Even though Sergeant Lindgren caught sight of shadows behind the curtains, no one answered.

Sunlight fell implacably on the dirt road from the motionless sky. It beat down on the soldiers’ helmets, giving Christine Lindgren an excruciating headache. She wished she had an aspirin and a glass of iced coffee. She wiped the sweat from her temples with her sleeve.

“Isn’t it unusual for an Iraqi to have eyes that color?” she asked Saddiq as they walked toward the truck they’d left at the edge of the village.

“It’s unusual, but not unheard of.”

On the way, they met up with two other Marines. “Any luck?” asked Saddiq.

“None,” said Corporal Wang. “Sergeant Lindgren, if you’d permit me to make a suggestion, I think we should try to meet with the women in groups. Trying to approach them one at a time isn’t working at all.”

“Sonya, you’re welcome to make suggestions, but I don’t know how we could pull it off. We’d have to find a female interpreter, and even if we did, it doesn’t seem like these gals want to have anything to do with us.”

“I think they’re just scared. They still see us as the enemy, even though the men seem to be coming around. Could you mention it to Lieutenant Montez, at least?”

Lieutenant Montez listened to Christine Lindgren’s report with his usual poker face, which is why his response surprised her.

“I’ve been thinking about this a while,” he said finally. “We’re not getting through to these women. We’ve tried talking to them individually. Now let’s try something else.” He paused and swallowed. “What we need is a female representative at the village council meetings. We need to know what’s on the women’s minds. They need to be able to express themselves freely to someone they trust, someone who’s a friend…or a neighbor. Someone who can then tell us what their concerns are.”

Wow, thought Christine, and I thought Sonya’s suggestion was radical!

“With all due respect, Sir,” she said, “there’s never been a woman at one of those meetings. Not in all the thousands of years since the Garden of Eden.”

“The thing is, women make up over half the population, and we have no idea what they’re thinking. I bet I could convince the elders that this constitutes a security risk.”

“Well, if anybody has the wasta to do it, you do, Sir.” She used the Arabic word that means something between “connections” and “clout.”

Montez smiled. “In the meantime, I want you and Saddiq to go back tomorrow. Take Wang with you.”

Christine sighed and looked at the floor. “Yes, Sir,” she said.

Collapsing onto the battered sofa in the next room, Christine tried to shut out the drone of Montez’s voice. Her head still throbbed. She felt as though a bell were clanging inside her brain. Montez was talking to one of his assistants, a sergeant named Pantelis, about medical equipment. Only twenty-four years old and with no hospital management experience, he’d been ordered to revive the local medical facility. Semi-dozing, she caught snippets and phrases: “dinars…     clinic… shambles… surgical tables… unusable… shortage… stethoscopes, syringes, bandages…” And then, a complete sentence: “We’re starting from scratch, Pantelis… We’ll set up a makeshift medical center until we can make the hospital serviceable.”

Christine got up and fetched a bottle of water, then sat down again to sip it. Her mind wandered to her little daughter, Eva, only two years old and already talking in sentences. Christine and her husband had deployed at almost the same time, he to Afghanistan, and she to Iraq. They’d left Eva with Christine’s mother. Thank God for e-mail, thought Christine. At least she could get photos of her baby regularly. Her attention suddenly snapped back to the conversation in the next room. Pantelis was clearly getting on Montez’s nerves.

“Why do we have broads here, Sir?” said the sergeant. “They can’t fight and we’re not allowed to fuck them.”

“They can do all kinds of things that we can’t,” answered Montez drily.

“Like what?”

“Like talk to other women and find out what they’re thinking.”

“But we’re not,” whispered Christine.

Christine Lindgren and Sonya Wang returned to the village they called Hollywood a few more times, but the green-eyed woman remained hidden. They decided to wait until market day, hoping that now that things were calmer, she might dare to go out shopping. It’s true that the stalls were still mostly empty, but after the months of violence, many Iraqis were anxious to get out of the house and visit the souk.

At last, they saw someone trudging down the road, a shopping bag on her arm, a small girl scampering behind. They couldn’t be sure this was the green-eyed woman. She wore the same black burka as nearly every other woman in the village, and she kept her head bowed and her eyes lowered.

“Salaam!” called out Christine, as the woman approached the house. Christine and Sonya bowed.

“Tell her I just want to ask her something,” Christine told Saddiq. “And tell her that Corporal Wang and I are both women!”

Saddiq hurled the words at her just as she disappeared behind her door, dragging the child behind her.

“She’s not going to cooperate,” said Saddiq. “Let’s try somewhere else. There will be plenty of women returning home from the souk.”

The three of them stood there deliberating.

Suddenly, the door opened a crack. The green-eyed woman stared at Christine and Sonya, her gaze wandering from the helmet to the camouflage uniform to the heavy combat boots, and resting first on the gun and then, with an intensity that would have been rude back home in the States, on their breasts.

“They really are women?” she asked Saddiq.

He nodded.

“Tell them to take off their headgear.”

“She wants you to take off your helmets,” he said. “She wants to see your hair.”

Christine knew she was breaking a rule by removing an essential part of her uniform, but decided that compliance with the request was vital  to her mission. She pulled off the helmet to reveal a short, blond bob. Sonya did the same, exposing a tight black chignon at the nape of her neck. The woman stared at the two young Americans, as if trying to figure out how these lovely creatures, with their soft skin, girlish features, and modest hairdos could be soldiers. Her penetrating eyes were as green as the Garden of Eden must have been when its lush vegetation covered the Tigris and Euphrates Valley. Christine smiled, but the woman did not smile back.

“Ask her what her name is,” said Christine.

Saddiq complied. “Her name is Rana,” he said.

“Tell her she has beautiful eyes.”

“That would not be appropriate.”

“Tell her…”

Rana interrupted with some words in Arabic.

“She wants you to come into her house,” said Saddiq. “This is an honor. She is beginning to trust you.”

The women moved toward the door, but Rana held out her hand to indicate that Saddiq should stay outside. Christine shrugged, and she and Sonya followed Rana into the one-room house. A few mats on the floor for eating and sleeping, a shelf for cooking utensils, and a rickety table were the extent of the woman’s possessions. The child they had seen earlier and two older girls who looked to be around ten and twelve years old hovered by the wall.

Rana went over to the table where the shopping bag lay and emptied it out onto the table. A few vegetables—eggplant, okra, courgettes, onions, and tomatoes—as well as small bag of barley constituted the entire contents. She pointed at her purchases and then at the children and lifted her hands in a gesture of despair. An avalanche of words followed. The Marines understood she was frantic over the lack of goods in the market.

Christine stuck her hand in her pocket and whipped out a photograph. “Look,” she said.

The women gaped at the image of the bouncy blond child, her lips parted in a giggle.

“Eva,” said Christine. “My baby.” She pantomimed a mother rocking her child.

The Iraqi woman opened her impossibly green eyes so wide they looked like enormous emeralds. “Eva,” she whispered. She shook her head. She clearly didn’t understand what Christine was doing in Iraq when she had a child back home. She looked at Sonya and raised her eyebrows.

“No,” said Sonya. “No babies. Not yet.”

They signaled for her to follow them outside.

“Tell her that we’ll be back tomorrow with rice,” Christine told Saddiq.

Rana and Saddiq spoke for longer than it would have taken the interpreter to relay the message.

“She says she cannot feed her family with what she can buy at the souk. She has five children—three daughters who stay home with her, and two sons who go to the cobbler’s shop her husband owns with his brother.”

Rana stood staring at the ground, bowed in desperation. Christine took some candy out of her pocket and gave it to the children, who huddled around their mother.

“She wants to know where your baby Eva is,” Saddiq added.

“Tell her that she’s at home in Grand Marais, Minnesota, with her grandma.” Christine felt as though she had a wad of wool stuck in her throat.

The next day, the Marines returned with a large bag of rice. Rana signaled for the women to sit down on a mat, then brought a pot of tea and three cracked cups that had once been pretty. For the first time, she smiled at the two Americans.

Her gaze went from Christine to Sonya and back again. Finally, she pointed to Sonya’s eyes and made a questioning gesture, with upward turned palms.

“Corporal Wang’s family was originally from China,” explained Christine, fully aware that Rana didn’t understand a word she said. “Americans are from all different ethnic backgrounds. Corporal Wang is from San Francisco, where there is a large Chinese population.”

Rana shook her head and smiled. Christine and Sonya both shrugged, as if to say, “That’s just the way it is.”

Christine pointed to their hostess’ green eyes and made the same questioning gesture. Rana laughed and nodded to show she understood. Then she shrugged, as they had done. “That’s just the way it is.”

“We need a female interpreter,” Christine told Lieutenant Montez when she returned to base. “We’re making progress, but we need to be able to speak with Rana.”

“I’m meeting with the elders this afternoon,” said Montez. “It’s a long shot, but I’m going to ask for a woman representative on the council. See if Saddiq can get Rana to meet with other women to find out what they need and to elect a spokesperson.”

“A meeting of women,” said Christine. “That’s just what Sonya Wang suggested.”

A week later, about thirty women from the neighborhood packed into Rana’s tiny house. In their black burkas, screeching and squawking all at once, they reminded the Americans of a flock of blackbirds. In spite of the furious pecking and snapping, by the end of the afternoon, they had chosen an envoy named Marjani and made a list of three wants. Christine and Sonya were present at the gathering, and although they understood no Arabic, they knew from the smile on Rana’s face that it had been a success.

Rana pushed Marjani toward them. The newly elected delegate wore a long, thin abaya over her dress and an asha over her hair, but her face—as beautiful and evocative as a poem—was bare.

“I, Marjani, speak for women,” she said, grinning widely.

“You speak English!” exclaimed Christine and Sonya in unison.

“Little bit.” She shook her head and lifted her hand, pinching her thumb and index finger almost together to show that her English was very limited.

The first council meeting that Marjani attended was something of a shock to the elders’ systems. Montez had used all his wasta to convince the sheiks that their failure to consider the women’s concerns could seriously undermine stabilization efforts.

“We need to integrate the women and get them on our side,” he told them. “Otherwise, they could harbor resentments and work against us.”

“This has never been done!” objected some.

But one old sheik, a heavy-faced man with the eyes of a seer, challenged his brothers. “The young American is right,” he said. “Women can be treacherous, and there’s no way to know what they’ve got in their heads. Give them a voice. It will avoid problems in the long run.” Montez understood enough Arabic to chuckle at the reasoning of the eldest of the elders.

Marjani began to enumerate her neighbors’ requests. The women needed some kind of public transportation, she explained, because they weren’t allowed to drive and had no way to get their children to the doctor or wherever else they had to go. They also wanted a park, since it was now safe for youngsters to play outside. The council members nodded. So far, the women’s wishes sounded reasonable. Montez said the Marines could organize a jitney service from Hollywood to Ramadi without much difficulty. Working with Iraqi engineers and laborers, they could also build a playground with swings and slides and other playground equipment. It was the third of the women’s requests that left the sheiks dumbfounded. Marjani explained that the women wanted to work, to start their own small businesses, selling the products they made or grew. However, that required capital—for thread and yarn, for seeds and tools—that they didn’t have. What the women really needed, Marjani explained, was cash.

The sheiks began to grumble. They were strapped for funds themselves, and they certainly were not going to lend the little money they had to a bunch of women who, in their opinion, should be at home tending their babies. “Women starting businesses! Whoever heard of such a thing?” groused several of the men. Montez remained silent, but when he got back to base, he turned on his computer and looked through his contact list. The year before, he had met a State Department representative who was knowledgeable about the Grameen Bank, which made collateral-free microloans to impoverished people anxious to start businesses. He wasn’t sure how much wasta he had with the U.S. government, but that afternoon he shot off an email to Kelly-Lou Grotsky, explaining the situation in Hollywood, the little village on the outskirts of Ramadi.

To his amazement, she answered almost immediately. She had a colleague named Cynthia Lerner, she said, who was in Baghdad working on the reconstruction effort. Kelly-Lou was sure Cynthia could help. Montez was encouraged, although he knew the government bureaucracy was a lumbering animal, a cross between and elephant and a snail, and that besides help from the State Department, he’d need the approval of the elders.

Montez managed to assemble a fleet of jitneys to work the Hollywood-Ramadi corridor faster than he was able to secure a meeting with Cynthia Lerner. By the time she roared up to the gates of the base three months later in her Army-issued Jeep, the jitneys had been running for several weeks, and the sandlot designated by the elders for the children had been turned into a playground. It was, admittedly, like no playground any American had ever seen before. There was no grass, only sand—one massive sandbox surrounded by all-weather, rustproof jungle gyms, slides, swings, and monkey bars, as well as a playhouse with (and this was quite incredible) an aquarium. The sign on the gate, which the old sheik had made, said, “Lt. Ignacio Montez Playground” in English and Arabic.

Cynthia Lerner climbed out of the jeep and blinked the sand out of her eyes. Her red-blond hair glistened in the sunlight, and if Montez had bothered to think about it, he would have realized that she was pretty. However, Montez would be leaving Ramadi in eight weeks, and Marjani had made it clear that the women were still clamoring for stalls in the souk. His mission was to get them the microloans they needed, and there could be no distractions.

“I’ll be a couple of hours,” she said to the driver in Arabic. “Go have lunch.”

“You speak the language!” exclaimed Montez. He could feel his spirits lifting, but he knew better than to put too much faith in a bureaucrat. He called for Christine and Sonya.

When the two Marines arrived at Rana’s little house with Cynthia later that afternoon, they noticed something unusual. Instead of her usual black burka, Rana was wearing a long, flowing, turquoise dishdasha and a matching headscarf, both exquisitely embroidered with tiny yellow flowers. Her face was bare, and her dazzling green eyes glowed as she jabbered with her neighbors.

Cynthia introduced herself in Arabic. The women stared. Her bare head. Her spectacular ginger-colored hair. Her ruddy, freckled face. And her eyes, as bright and emerald as the Euphrates at sunrise. She smiled at Rana.

“We have the same color eyes,” said Cynthia.

“Yes, we do,” said Rana, beaming. “We are sisters!”

Cynthia listened and took notes. It was the first time any of them had met an Arabic-speaking Western woman or had a real conversation with an American.

“We can do it,” Cynthia told Lieutenant Montez and Christine after she had met several times with the women she now called the Hollywood Stars. “It will take a while, but we can do it! These women are smart, energetic, and ambitious. I want to help them.”

Montez took the news to the elders.

“Yes,” said the old sheik. “Let them have their businesses. It will keep them busy and also bring money to their families.” Montez breathed a sigh of relief.

Two months later, while he and his men were preparing to turn the base over to the next division, word came that Cynthia Lerner had received approval for the microloans.

“Wow,” said Pantelis. “The broads made it happen! I can’t believe it.”

“Told ya,” growled Montez.

*     *     *     *     *

Ignacio Montez—now Captain Montez—sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. California sunlight streamed through the window and fell in patches all around him. The base was a beehive, as new platoons prepared to deploy. Montez poured himself a coffee and opened his e-mails. One caught his eye.

Dear Ignacio,

I hope you’re readjusting to life in the States. No more tiptoeing through the streets, dodging roadside bombs! I wanted you to know that I was back in Hollywood last week and visited Rana at her shop in the souk. She had an unbelievable assortment of kaftans and scarves that she designed, sewed, and embroidered herself, and now that the economy is picking up, she is beginning to sell them. She gave me a lovely purple scarf, which I will send to Christine when I get home. After all, she’s the one who really made this happen. Rana and Marjani send their regards. Whenever I mention your name, they say, “Now there’s a man with wasta!”

Best regards,

Cindy

___

As the mother of a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, Barbara Mujica is particularly interested in issues involving veterans. At Georgetown University, where she is a professor of Spanish literature, she serves as Faculty Adviser of the Student Veterans Association.  Much of her short fiction derives from stories that veterans have told her. “Green Eyes” is based on a true incident.

    In addition to short stories, Mujica has  written several novels. Frida (Overlook Press, 2001) was published in seventeen languages and was a Book-of-the-Month alternate. Sister Teresa (Overlook Press, 2007) was adapted for the stage; the play premiered in Los Angeles in November 2013. Mujica’s  novels, I Am Venus and Lola in Paradise, were winners of the Maryland Writers’ Association novel competition in 2012 and 2016.

     Barbara Mujica’s other published books include Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), Women Writers of Early Modern Spain: Sophia’s Daughters (Yale University Press, 2004), Shakespeare and the Spanish Comedia (ed.) (Bucknell University Press, 2013), and A New Anthology of Early Modern Spanish Theater: Play and Playtext (Yale University Press, 2014).


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