An extract from Paul M.M. Cooper’s new novel, All Our Broken Idols, published by Bloomsbury on 28 May 2020.
Katya lurched awake when the plane touched down. She blinked and looked out of the window onto the flat beige landscape rushing past, at the rain, the forests of weeds bursting through cracks in the runway, the shapes of tower blocks lost and far-off in the haze. So this was Baghdad.
The line for passport control took forever, and Katya listened to the hubbub of other languages as she waited. Soldiers with dogs and guns watched her from the corners and she realised her mistake: she rummaged through her bag and got out the black abaya she was supposed to wear from the plane, pulled it over her hair. It felt like stocking fabric, and she adjusted it constantly as she waited in line.
‘Welcome to Iraq,’ a sign above the walkway said. She tried to calm herself. Salim would be there. He’d have a board with her name on it. When she reached the desk, the guard tapped his finger on her Iraqi visa – six months, expiring in 2014 – and asked her name.
‘Where did you fly from?’
‘London, via Istanbul.’
He nodded and motioned for her to take a seat on some plastic chairs nearby. Minutes passed. The man went several times into a nearby office, returned with different papers and stamps. Katya sat and felt her stomach churn as the other passengers went through without incident, and the queues thinned. Something seemed wrong. While she waited, she looked up and saw that a family of small birds had got inside the airport building, in defiance of security. Rain pattered on the roof, and her fear rose gradually: fear that her visa had a mistake on it and she would be sent home; fear that her baggage would be stolen while she waited; fear that Salim had forgotten to meet her. Soon the queues emptied completely and she was the only one left.
Finally, looking a little irritated, the man waved her over. He gave a bang-bang-bang of his stamp, handed her passport back and waved Katya through. The handlers had already taken her luggage off the carousel. In the arrivals lounge, she held her breath, and scanned the signs people held out, in English and Arabic. Then she saw it: ‘Katya’. The man holding the sign wore a crisp white shirt and had a few days’ stubble. Closer up, she noted his curly hair and striking grey-green eyes.
‘Hi,’ he said with the hint of an American accent, and shook her hand. ‘Welcome to Iraq, Miss Katya.’
‘Thanks. Nice to – great to meet you.’
Salim was better-looking than his photo. Katya felt conscious of her heavy outdoor boots, her cargo trousers and old hoodie. She wasn’t sure they had the effect she’d hoped for: tough, unfussed, prepared for anything. Outside, the rain was still sizzling on the ground, so they ran across the carpark with coats pulled over their heads, and into a battered white Volkswagen faintly smelling of tobacco.
‘I hope you don’t mind the clutter,’ Salim said. Junk filled the back seat and foot wells, and Katya noted the familiar accoutrements of a field archaeologist: the weather-proof clipboards and trowel, the folding rulers, rubber-palmed gloves and old boots, all of it at odds with Salim’s crisp shirt and polished shoes.
‘No, I don’t mind at all.’
When he took a pair of old-fashioned glasses from his toiletry bag, Katya saw the knurled grip of a pistol hiding among his toothbrush and safety razor. She tried to pretend she hadn’t seen it, but he caught her look.
‘For protection,’ he said, almost embarrassed. ‘It’s Baghdad, you know. But we’re only here for one night.’
Katya nodded, and caught herself tucking her hands into the sleeves of her hoodie.
‘Oh, and you don’t need to wear that with me,’ Salim said as he started the engine. He kept his eyes on the road, and it took Katya a moment to realise that he meant the abaya.
‘Oh, thanks,’ she said, and pulled it back. ‘It itches a bit.’
‘Yeah. But put it on when we go out, and at the checkpoints. These are difficult times.’
Salim drove carefully. They pulled out of the airport, past black armoured vehicles topped with guns and along an endless concrete wall made of prefab pieces.
‘Is it what you expected?’ he said.
‘I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think it would be so wet.’
‘It’s the season. The Iraqi winter. It always takes foreigners by surprise.’
Katya felt stung, even though she knew that’s exactly what she was.
‘I’m not completely foreign,’ she said. ‘My dad was from Iraq.’
‘Oh yes? You don’t have an Iraqi name though.’
‘No. My mum’s English. They couldn’t decide what to do with their surnames, so they promised if they had any girls they would get my mum’s name, and all the boys would get my dad’s. And then they just had me.’
‘Sounds like the typical luck of an Iraqi man. So you must know some things already. Where was he from?’
‘From here, from Baghdad. But he didn’t talk about it much. And he died when I was young.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
‘No, it’s fine.’
‘Well,’ Salim said, shifting in his seat. ‘Welcome home.’
Welcome home. Katya looked out the window at a family pushing a stalled car through the floodwaters, forests of razor wire collecting colourful scraps of plastic bags, and the Tigris’ golden expanse bounded by concrete banks. Everything was new; everything she saw tingled with electricity. Every time she became accustomed to where she was, they passed through a checkpoint, each one a small fortress. Soldiers peered in through the windows, opened the trunk and rooted around so the smell of mud and still water filled the car, looked underneath with mirrors. Katya pulled on her abaya each time and handed over her passport without meeting any eyes. She realised with a shiver that all of this was what her dad must have seen growing up here as a boy, then a student, finally as a journalist – and it was what he must have seen too in the days and weeks before he disappeared.
‘There were some bombs yesterday,’ Salim said as they pulled away from the checkpoint, speaking with the same sad embarrassment as when she’d seen the gun.
‘Bombs?’ Katya said. He just nodded.
‘In a market and a mosque. Terrible things. After an illness you don’t recover just like that, you know. You come back in stages. And Iraq has been ill for a long time. You must promise me: don’t ever go outside alone. You’re safe if you’re with me. And always keep your passport on you.’
Katya nodded, determined not to seem afraid. She brushed her palms on her jeans. Then Salim softened his voice.
‘It’s been hard to get good people out here. I was glad you accepted. Your paper on the archaeology of plant life in Italy was impressive.’
Katya had spent that summer in Tivoli getting sunburnt, piecing together the planting patterns of Roman fields, mapping the irrigation systems of ancient gardens, sketching the imprints of vine leaves left on clay basins. She didn’t tell him about the other jobs she’d been offered this time round, the digs in Greece and Peru.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘You can tell a lot from plants, if you learn to speak their language.’
‘Well I’m excited to see what you can bring to our site. My speciality has always been anthropological. Bones and stones. We’ve probably missed a lot you would’ve caught.’
They arrived at their hotel as the sun started to go down. It was inexpensive, with high steel gates set well back from the street, a bright red carpet in the lobby and fluorescent lighting. Salim shook hands with the owner like an old friend, their hands staying together as they talked together over the reception desk.
‘We’ve got a long drive back up to Mosul tomorrow,’ he said to Katya. ‘Once we check in we should call it a night and start early.’
Checking in, like everything else here, took a long time. Katya went and sat on a faded sofa in the lobby beside a family watching news reports on an old television, their son playing with a toy fire truck on the floor. The boy came and sat beside her, used her arm as a road. The British newsreader was saying, ‘Explosions occurred at around the same time on busy streets in the districts of Shaab, Tobchi, Karrada…’, and Katya looked at the boy to see if he understood. He just looked back at her.
‘We used to watch the English channels when I was a kid too,’ Salim said, handing her back her passport. ‘I used to think they called it “breaking news” because there was always something getting broken.’
In her room, Katya lay awake and listened to car horns hooting softly in the distance, wondering if she would be able to hear a bomb if it went off in the city. She thought about what it would be like to dig the earth in this country. She thought about trowel shapes and mapping techniques, the beauty of a perfect soil profile with all its multicoloured layers, the feel of a sharpened pencil on paper. She thought about the sensations of clay on dry skin, and the sounds roots make when they pop beneath the trowel. She watched a yellow gecko dart across the wall, the wings of a moth jackknifed in its happy jaws.
The roads were still flooded in the morning. Salim wore fake Ray-Ban sunglasses and another starched shirt, knife-pressed trousers and polished wingtip shoes. He looked like he was going to an office. She tried to gauge his mood, but the sunglasses made him inscrutable and he seemed distracted as they pulled off through the city. She began to wonder how much she really knew about this man, alone in his car in a strange country. She stared out of the car window at the mosques and radio masts, the bundles of wire hanging like creepers from corners, and thought about the other Katyas, the ones who chose one of the other jobs. Just now, one of the other Katyas would be flying off to the snow-capped mountains of Peru to uncover Inca tombs.
‘Do you like books?’ Salim asked, out of nowhere. She hesitated.
‘Do I like them?’
He nodded, stopped the car and made a motion for her to pull on her abaya. She got out, unsure, and noticed he took the bag with his glasses and gun with him. He led her to a narrow street near the river, and she followed, feeling her heartbeat rise a little. When they turned the corner, she saw crowds of people among piles of books lying out on tarpaulins, on tables and shelves and rotating magazine racks.
‘My favourite place,’ Salim said. ‘I like to give people a good experience of Baghdad before they head north. So you can tell people when you go back home that Iraq isn’t all rubble and ruins.’
They walked along the street, and Katya saw books in all languages: textbooks, novels, poetry, encyclopaedias, Qurans with silver emboss.
‘At night they leave the books out here on the street,’ Salim said. ‘That’s what I’ve heard. Because readers don’t steal, and thieves don’t read.’
‘Is that true?’
‘I don’t know. Do you want a souvenir?’
Katya shook her head.
He called out to one stall holder and picked up a book, handed over some notes.
‘Here. A welcome present.’
Its cover was an image she knew: ancient Assyrian carvings from seven centuries before Christ, of a king hunting lions in his chariot. Gilgamesh, it said.
‘Oh. Thanks. I read this in university. Not this edition, but…’
‘The world’s first story,’ Salim said, a serious note to his voice as he led her into a busy café at the head of the street. ‘Written on tablets of clay five thousand years ago, right here in Iraq. This is where all stories began: The garden, the flood. All our battles with monsters.’
Katya noticed that Salim always spoke in fragments, bursts of information that seemed to crumble away the moment he said them. They sat down on the worn wooden benches and he ordered a couple of cardamom-flavoured coffees, but they didn’t linger.
‘Let’s go,’ he said after necking the rocket-fuel tar at the bottom of the cup. ‘It’s about five hours on the road. But Mosul awaits.’
Once outside Baghdad, the flood waters dissipated and Salim drove faster, one arm slung over the rolled-down window. Pebble marks on the windscreen glinted like stars when the sun hit them.
‘So your family weren’t worried,’ he said, ‘when you said you were coming to Iraq?’
‘Yeah. They were worried. My mum didn’t want me to go.’
‘But you came anyway.’
‘I wanted to see where my dad was from. I thought I’d learn something about him. About myself.’
‘Archaeologists are all the same,’ Salim said. ‘They always think the answer is in the past.’
As they headed north, the land became dryer and looser on either side: a spinal landscape, sensitive as exposed bone. As the hours passed, Salim told her about the dig she was joining, a joint Iraqi and international initiative designed to protect the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh from organised looting.
‘The ruins are right in the middle of Mosul. You’ll see them soon enough. But that makes them hard to protect. We’ve seen looting gangs going out at night, digging into the earth, probably stealing things to order. So wherever they dig, that’s where we go. Every day they get braver and more organised. And Mosul is only a two-hour drive from Syria. With the war over there, it’s like the Wild West. Lawless. Whole cities under the control of militias.’
‘So the looters have more funding than we do.’
‘Aha yes. That’s right.’
As they drove and talked, Katya noticed that Salim preferred to speak only about the future: about the development of Iraq, solutions for the corruption in the government, grand schemes for hydroelectric power on the Tigris and rebuilding the old railway from Istanbul to Baghdad. He deflected questions about his family, or the recent history of his country. It made Katya think of when she was a kid, how her dad had always changed the channel if the news came on.
The road ahead pooled like mercury. At each checkpoint, lorry drivers lounged on carpets laid out in the shade of their queuing vehicles, smoking and playing dominoes. Katya looked out over the dry, undulating land and thought about a paper she’d once read on the physics of sand dunes, their height and position an emergent property of the amplitude of the wind’s wavelength and the size of the grains of sand. When she looked back, she saw that her dad was driving the car. She couldn’t see his face properly, but she knew it was him. He was dressed like the ancient Kings of Assyria, the way they always looked in their carvings: a tall crown and beard in seashell curls. But he had her dad’s scars, the constellation of purple rings and crescents running up his right arm.
‘Dad, why are you dressed like that?’ She tried not to laugh; he looked ridiculous. He turned to her and opened his mouth.
‘You’re not going to find me, you know.’
She was going to ask what he meant, but she couldn’t find the words. He raised his finger to point straight ahead. In the distance, black smoke rose over the mirror glaze of the horizon, flashing orange with the light of unseen fires.
Katya woke with a start, her head banging softly against the window.
‘Ouch,’ she said, massaging the cramp in her neck. Salim chuckled, eyes crinkling a little.
‘Tired? We’re nearly there now.’
Katya blinked. It was evening, a city, a fog of dust in the air. Salim was driving slower, already more relaxed than in Baghdad.
‘This is Mosul,’ he said. ‘The city of prophets; the hunchback; the mother of two springs… it has many names; depends who you ask.’
Butterflies fizzed in Katya’s stomach. Had her dad driven down this same road too, ten years before? Had he looked out at the same slender white asparagus of minarets, the blue eggshell domes and satellite dishes?
‘It’s big,’ she said. Salim nodded.
‘We’ve had some trouble getting you proper accommodation at the site. I tried, but I’m afraid we’ll have to put you up in the museum for now. We’ve got an office set up, with a mattress. Pretty basic.’
‘The museum…’ Katya said. ‘That’s okay, I love museums. So long as the exhibits don’t come alive at night.’
Salim didn’t laugh.
‘Everything comes alive at one time or another.’
The museum was a sleek, modern building on an intersection of roads near a park, a bridge over the river and a heaving bus station. It had high ceilings, arched doorways, floors marked by scuffs, and two guards with hennaed moustaches standing outside. It was closed to the public after the years of unrest that had followed the American War, so the statues lining the walls were all wrapped in blue plastic sheeting, ringed with sandbags. Katya followed Salim into the echoing entrance hall, flanked by two large stone lamassu. Scaffolding was up in places, the dust of recent building work.
‘Your room’s up here,’ Salim said, leading her up the stairs. She followed him past the concealed statues and exhibits to a disused office that smelled like varnish, a mattress on the floor beside a desk and an old filing cabinet. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling, with a single fly in orbit.
‘The Mosul Hilton,’ Salim said, checking his phone. He showed her the small staff kitchen lined with humming refrigerators, the toilets and showers. Then he took her back to her room and handed her a sheaf of papers joined with a staple. ‘Here, just some forms to fill out for tomorrow. Risk assessment, medical. I’ll come and pick you up in the morning.’
‘You’re leaving?’ The words came out in a higher pitch than she would have liked.
‘Yes, sorry. I wanted to show you around properly, but there’s been more looting at the Nineveh site. Have to check in with the others. I’ll be back here tomorrow and we can do a proper tour. You can meet the museum’s curator in the morning too, Dr Malik.’
‘Of course. He’s famous.’
‘As famous as an Assyriologist can get, I suppose. He’s a little strange, by the way. I apologise in advance.’
Katya stuck out her jaw and nodded.
‘Sure. See you tomorrow.’
‘Just one more thing.’ He led her back to the main door and showed her the locking mechanism. ‘Don’t ever open this at night.’ He handed her a bicycle chain. ‘Put this through the handles too, just to make sure, and don’t unlock it till morning.’
‘There are guards outside.’
‘That’s what I’m talking about. Don’t ever open this door. I’ve got the only other key.’
Then he left, and Katya was alone in the museum. She turned the lock and slid the chain through the handles, but as she fumbled with the key, the lights went out all at once, and she dropped it.
Salim had warned her about the power cuts. She fished around on the floor. There was a reddish gloam about the place, a kind of auxiliary lighting that kicked in slowly and cast strange shadows. Once the door was locked, Katya ran back to her room with her footsteps echoing. She wedged a chair up against the door, feeling silly. She found that her mattress springs were broken in one corner, so she used the book Salim had bought her to prop it up, making sure the lion’s sunken eyes weren’t showing.
The internet didn’t work, but Katya had some browser tabs open on her laptop already. She clicked over to one that had been open all week, there in the background of everything she did, as she’d packed her bags, handed in the notice on her flat, said goodbye to her mum. The news story, dated ten years ago. The picture was of her dad, the one the Home Office had asked for, that had flashed on TV screens for weeks afterwards. He was wearing a flak jacket that said ‘PRESS’ and a helmet, smiling mysteriously at the camera. The text, which she knew by heart, was infinitely detached: ‘British-Iraqi journalist missing in Nineveh Province… No trace… Presumed dead… No ransom.’
Katya took one of her pills. She lay on her back and tried to stop her body from shaking. She listened to the city outside and thought of the dream she’d had in the car. She ran her fingers over her face and thought about her mum, and what she’d told Katya when she first brought up her offer to join the Iraqi dig. The way her hands shook as they sat in their kitchen with the empty third chair between them.
‘Kat… If you want to go there, that’s your decision. But don’t do it for him. God knows, he was hard enough to rely on when he was alive.’
Katya rolled onto her side and felt the museum dark press around her, full of hidden movement, the car horns outside, the breeze outside picking up and buffeting the windows. She thought about one of the other Katyas stepping off their plane onto their Greek island, visiting hillside monasteries and white pebble beaches on weekends, drinking ouzo and retsina. A sensation passed over her like the restless motion of leaves in the wind.
‘You idiot,’ she said, tucking her hands back into her sleeves and curling into a ball. ‘You fucking, fucking idiot.’