An eleven-year-old boy is preoccupied by video game villains and real-life dictators in this accessible story about the everyday realities of growing up in Iraq during the Gulf War, perfect for fans of A Long Walk to Water and I Am Malala.
At the start of 1991, eleven-year-old Ali Fadhil was consumed by his love for soccer, video games, and American television shows. Then, on January 17, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein went to war with thirty-four nations led by the United States.
Over the next forty-three days, Ali and his family survived bombings, food shortages, and constant fear. Ali and his brothers played soccer on the abandoned streets of their Basra neighborhood, wondering when or if their medic father would return from the war front. Cinematic, accessible, and timely, this is the story of one ordinary kid’s view of life during war.
Wednesday, January 16, 1991—Day 1
The afternoon the bombs start falling, I get my highest score ever on my favorite video game.
“Boys!” Mama yells. “It’s time!”
I ignore her, too busy taunting my brother Shirzad.
“I am the champion of the universe!” I tell him. Shirzad reaches out, trying to grab the controller from my hand. But I don’t let him have it. Not yet. First I need to put my name up as the high score.
A-L-I. I maneuver the stick and buttons and then hit Enter. My brother’s initials drop down to second place.
“Give me that,” Shirzad grumbles. “It’s my turn and I’m going to take you down.”
“Boys! What is wrong with you?” Mother appears in the doorway. “Put that garbage away and get to the safe room. It’s almost time for the war.” She turns and is gone.
The war. It’s really here. The adults have been talking about it for weeks and weeks. It had seemed about as real as the virtual war I was just playing onscreen.
Until now. The United Nations deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait has expired. It’s time for war.
I throw the controller into the box that holds all our game stuff. Shirzad shuts down the Atari console.
“Race you,” he says, and takes off running. I’m right behind him. It’s hard to run on the tile floor when I’m just wearing socks, and just before we reach the “safe room” I slip and slide. I crash into my brother and we land in a heap on the floor.
Right at the feet of our father.
“What kind of example are you setting for your younger brother and sister?” he says. “Stand up and stop acting like animals.”
“Yes, Baba,” we say together.
Shirzad and I get up. At the last moment, Shirzad stretches his longer legs and steps ahead of me into the room.
“I win,” he whispers to me. But it’s a hollow victory, because the first person in the safe room is the first person Mama puts to work. She tells Shirzad to help Baba move the bed away from the window.
I’m tasked to shut the remaining windows and close the curtains. I go over to a window that looks over the side yard. Baba has already removed the metal air conditioner from the window. If a bomb hits nearby, flying glass will be bad enough, but a flying air conditioner would be worse. A warm breeze is blowing in. Even in January, the weather is mild.
The sun has set. I can still discern the outlines of the date and palm trees in the yard and the gray stone privacy wall that surrounds our house. Beyond the wall is our city of Basra, wrapped in an eerie silence, waiting.
“Mama!” My younger sister, Shireen, bursts into the room. “When will the war start?”
“They said on the radio it will start sometime during the night,” Mama says. “Where is Ahmed? He was just here.”
“I’m back,” my younger brother says, careening into the room. “Shireen made me go get this heavy basket. What’s in here, anyway—?rocks?”
“No, it’s a picnic,” Shireen says. “Flatbread, tomatoes, olives, hummus, and Coca-Colas. And date cookies for dessert.”
A picnic for a war? Shireen is only six. She doesn’t really remember what war is like. I’m eleven, and I know all too well. This is already my second war.
I go around shutting the windows. Normally, at this hour we kids would be getting ready for bed. It should be a school night, not a war night.
“Ahmed,” says Mama. “Stop fooling around.” Ahmed is clutching a small rolled-up rug, running into the wall and bouncing off. Run! Bash! Fall! He comes to a halt and walks over to a pile of small rugs stacked against the wall.
My job is done, so I go over and help Ahmed lay the rugs around the room. Five rugs for Mama and four kids. One bed for my father.
“I still can’t believe that we are at war with the United States of America,” Ahmed says. “What could Saddam be thinking?”
“For sure he is not thinking about his own people,” I say.
Saddam Hussein is the president of Iraq. George Bush is the president of the United States. The United States of America is the most powerful country in the world. Iraq, my country, is the most foolish.
Last August, five months ago, Saddam ordered our army to invade a neighboring country, Kuwait. Everyone knows you can’t just go and take over someone else’s country. But my president did it anyway.
So President George Bush and a bunch of other world leaders have formed a coalition to stop Saddam and take back Kuwait. Iraq is an ant compared to this coalition. They will crush us like a bug.
“I hate Saddam,” my sister, Shireen, says loudly. “He’s ruining my life.”
“Shhh . . .” My parents shush her. What Shireen said would be amusing if it weren’t so important to be cautious. Yes, we are inside our house, among family. But we were taught to never speak against Saddam Hussein.
He is evil. If he heard what my little sister just said about him, he would probably cut out her tongue. Or his henchmen would do it for him.
Saddam’s people are everywhere. One of the members of his government lives on our street. We have to be extra careful. A cloud of paranoia hangs over our neighborhood games.
“Children,” Baba says. “Find a place away from the windows and settle down.”
I claim an orange and brown striped rug and lay it out next to Shirzad’s gray one. The younger kids sit closer to my parents. I have two brothers and a sister. It goes: Shirzad, me, Ahmed, Shireen.
We all have dark hair, olive skin, and big brown eyes. My siblings look like a mix of both sides of our family. But me? I am a copy of my mother. I look like my mother in boy form.
People remark on the resemblance all the time. “Your son,” they’ll say to Mama, “he’s exactly like you!”
“On the outside, yes,” my mother will respond. Serious and stoic, she is a respected professor of mathematics.
I hate math. And school in general.
"What strikes are the mundane aspects of the brief war: going out to play and explore a familiar but ruined neighborhood, the boredom and fear of awaiting scheduled airstrikes, living with uncertainty about loved ones returning home. Still, there’s room for optimism and humor despite Fadhil’s harrowing experience."—Booklist
"Roy (Jars of Hope) and Fadhil, an interpreter during Hussein’s trial, offer a window into what Ali calls “the true Iraq” and a disturbing but accessible portrait of a civilian child’s perspective on war."-Publishers Weekly
"This blending of biography, historical fiction, and realistic fiction paints a vivid portrait of daily family life in Iraq and the trials many faced."--School Library Journal
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