“Are you American?”
The little boy with the big brown eyes was sitting at the couch next to mine in the lobby of my hotel in Najaf, Iraq. He was dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers. He peered at me over the edge of his iPad. I looked up from my email.
“No, I’m Canadian. You Iraqi?”
“I’m Lebanese but I live in Syria. We move back to Lebanon now.”
“Your English is good.”
“I go to the international school.” He held up his iPad. “I’m looking for games.”
“You find any good ones?” I asked, smiling.
“Yeah, you want to play?”
There was something about this kid that reminded me of my own son. Maybe it was the obsession with video games. Maybe it was because he was bilingual. Maybe it was because I was missing my son so much.
“Sure,” I said.
He came over to my couch and plopped down beside me. I logged off my email and put away my laptop. He shook my hand – an oddly adult gesture – and told me his name was Mohammad and that he was 9 years old.
“I’ve been to Syria,” I told him. “I liked it a lot. Where are you from in Syria?”
“Sayyida Zainab. Want to see it? It’s on Youtube.”
Then he showed me this video – bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets being buried in a mass grave.
“They’re dead,” he said in a low voice.
I couldn’t think of what to say. This kid was 9 and this was his reality. I’ve spent the past seven years protecting my son from the ugliness of the world. Mohammad’s dad probably did the same thing until his country fell apart. After a moment I turned the video off.
“Don’t watch that, it’s sad,” I told him.
“OK. Want to play some games?”
The speed with which his mood changed shocked me. I was still numb from what I had seen.
“Sure, Mohammad. Let’s play some games.”
Yes, Mohammad, be a kid.
He’d downloaded a bunch of free apps. We played one where Obama and Romney shoot ping pong balls at each other. I played Obama and won. It was close, though. Mohammad was obviously experienced at video games.
One of the hotel employees passed by.
“See that man?” Mohammad said. “I hate him. He do this to me to tease me.”
He crossed his eyes. Suddenly I felt protective. Some guy was teasing Mohammad? For a moment it felt like someone had teased my own son.”Can you do that?” he asked.
I crossed my eyes and wiggled my nostrils at him. He smiled.
“My brother can move his ears.”
“I can’t do that. Can you do this?” I rolled my tongue. He did the same.
We searched for more apps as the massacre at Sayyida Zainab replayed in my mind. One app took my photo and Mohammad used a razor to shave me bald. Then we played a game where a cat and dog throw bones at each other over a fence. I tried to let him win while he tried to let me win. I eventually won at letting him win. To assuage his sense of Arab hospitality he fetched me tea. Then we played a parking game.
“My father had a car but somebody take,” Mohammad said, his voice going low again.
I flashed back to the video. What else did his family lose as they fled Syria?
He wasn’t so good at parking. He kept hitting other cars. Eventually he gave up and got onto the app store to look for more games. One ad showed a woman in a bikini. He put his hand over it.
“Don’t look, it’s bad,” he told me.
Mohammad’s two teenaged sisters, jeans showing under their abayas, sat at another couch nearby and occasionally added to the conversation from a distance. They told me they’re on pilgrimage here. Najaf and the nearby city of Karbala are sacred to Shia Muslims. I was here seeing the same shrines.
“How long you stay in Najaf?” Mohammad asked me.
“I leave tomorrow.”
His face fell.
“Oh. Let’s play another game,” he said.
My group was already gathering to visit the local shrine of Imam Ali, which Mohammad’s family had already visited. They were soon headed off to Karbala.
“You’ll love Karbala,” I told him. “The shrine is very beautiful.” Like Syria used to be, I wanted to add.
“You not going to Karbala again?” he asked.
“No. Sorry, Mohammad.”
Everyone was boarding the bus now. Reluctantly I got up and said goodbye. Mohammad looked sad.
“Keep practicing those games, kid,” I said, forcing a smile.
Then I got on the bus and never saw him again.
Sometimes you meet people on your travels that stick with you long after you say goodbye. The 9-year-old boy who likes video games and survived a massacre is going to stick with me for a long time – that and the fact that a couple of those bodies were smaller than he is.
Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.
Coming up next: “Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam!”