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Early evening. A doctor’s private surgery in Baghdad. A day-bed in the corner sealed off by a white curtain. An exhausted woman in a white-coat is slumped at her desk, her head resting on the large table. She is fast asleep. The buzzer on her desk rings. She sits up, puts on her spectacles, smooths […]

Tigris and Euphrates

by Tariq Ali

Early evening. A doctor’s private surgery in Baghdad. A day-bed in the corner sealed off by a white curtain. An exhausted woman in a white-coat is slumped at her desk, her head resting on the large table. She is fast asleep. The buzzer on her desk rings. She sits up, puts on her spectacles, smooths her hair.

DR. SORRAYA: Who is it Humaira?

VOICE ON INTERCOM: Its Mrs Khalidi, doctor.

SORRAYA: Send her in and..Humaira. I know your children are alone at home don’t bother to wait tonight. I promise you I’ll lock the surgery and put out the lights..I promise.

VOICE: Thank you doctor.

Mrs Mona Khalidi walks in. She is in her late thirties, dressed in a smart black skirt and blouse. The two women embrace lightly.

MONA: You look tired.

SORRAYA: Tired of waiting for you.

MONA: You didn’t come to the funeral.

SORRAYA: He was your husband.

MONA: You were his doctor.

SORRAYA: If I attended the burial of every cancer patient I’ve treated I would have little time for anything else. Doctor, my father is ill. His joints ache. He has a high temperature. He tires quickly. He vomits every day. Will you come to our house and see him, doctor? I think its just a bad flu, but your presence would reassure him. Please doctor? It rarely is a bad flu, Mona. Do you understand what I’m saying?

MONA: I see. (Moves away and looks out of the window)

SORRAYA: Don’t sulk. Please. (Pause. Then she follows her and strokes her neck) I haven’t seen you for a whole month. (kisses her nape) I want to hold you again. Run my hands down your naked back. (touching one breast and then the other) Play with Tigris. Play with Euphrates. Kiss your nipples. Lick your estuary. MONA: (moving away) You’re shameless. Shameless. I only buried him yesterday. How can you at this time. Please don’t. Why didn’t you come, Sorraya? Why?

SORRAYA: I never liked seeing you with him.

MONA: I wanted you there for me. Not him.

SORRAYA: I never liked seeing you with him.

MONA: But he was dead.

SORRAYA: You were burying him as his wife.

MONA: I felt so deceitful. Terribly deceitful as he lay there dying and asked me if I had ever betrayed him with another man.

SORRAYA: (smiling) Well you didn’t, did you?

MONA: You hated him because he was in the Army. It wasn’t his fault. Everyone had to join. You know that. He wanted to be an architect.

SORRAYA: Every mother-fucker in Baghdad wants to be an architect.

MONA: How can you talk like this? So heartless.

SORRAYA: (getting angry) Yes, yes. I’m heartless. If I shed a tear for every child who died from malnutrition in my care, every woman suffering from tuberculosis, every cancer-ridden man, do you know how many tears I would have lost over the last five years. Guess? Come on. Guess.

MONA: I can’t. I won’t.

SORRAYA: Nine thousand, three hundred and fifty-nine. Imagine 9,359 tears. Men, women and children who died after passing through this surgery. I had no medicines for most of them. At first I used to sit her every evening and weep and weep and weep, but that made me weak. I couldn’t deal with the patients who were still in the queue. There were times I thought of killing myself. That surprised you. There was a time in this city when, however bad the situation, suicide was unthinkable. Last week an old schoolfriend of mine, I think you know her, Nafisa Aziz, the novelist. Yes, her. She took her own life, but she also took her sixteen year old daughter with her. I understand her. I can feel her desperation. Sometimes its easier to die than to live.. I used to feel that more often than you can imagine. Then you walked into my life. Remember that day, Mrs Mona Khalidi.

MONA: (weakly) Yes

SORRAYA: Just the sight of you excites me. (feeling her pulse) Feel it. Come on. Feel it. (MONA takes her pulse and smiles). I told you. At night sometimes, half-awake I call for you. Mona. Mo-oo-nn-aa. But you never reply. So I get up and drink a glass of water, pleasure myself and then sleep returns.

MONA: I haven’t had much time to think about us.

SORRAYA: I’m sorry your husband died, Mona. Nothing could have saved him. Not even the most advanced chemotherapy in Washington. His body was so rich in uranium, they could have mined him. I shouldn’t say that. Someone might be listening. They have no imagination. They would inform the monster and he might think it a good idea. Order to scientists: Dig up the bodies of all our people who died of Gulf War cancer and extract the uranium. (Pause) Life in these conditions is a torture. Then someone arrives from Jordan with a crate-full of antibiotics and other medicines and I can breathe again again. What do we physicians tell our patients? We tell them that there is no cure today but maybe there will be sometime in the future. We encourage them to be strong, even as they face unbearable pain. We help them to prepare for death by encouraging them to be at peace with themselves, their families, and their friends. Sometimes we even give them good news that perhaps one day, their children will be able to benefit from a cure made possible through improved medical research and development. We tell them in no uncertain terms that they must not surrender to the disease. They should fight it with all their strength, and with all the air that is left in their lungs, and with all the blood that is running in their veins. And they should fight with dignity. They cannot die as the newborn son of Mrs. Aziz did yesterday. (Pauses) I’m tired. You’re angry. Do you want to go back home. Perhaps you need a rest from me. A few weeks on your own and I might appear in a different light, you know the light just before sunrise. Go if you want. I’ll be fine. Mona softens. She hugs Sorraya. The two women embrace and disappear behind the screen. Music. They undress. Darkness. Silence. On a screen we project UN figures of the number of people who have died as a result of sanctions, including Albright statement in response to a question: Do you think the price of 300,000 dead children was worth it? ‘It was a price worth paying’. Figures of the amount of bombs dropped on Iraq by the US and Britain. Simultaneously Sorraya and Mona in a carefully-lit shadow dance: the love-play of puppets. Music. They dress. MONA’S VOICE: There’s something I haven’t told you.

SORRAYA’s VOICE: (ultra-soft) What? You told him about us?

MONA: No, no. Never mind. (she walks back into view followed by Sorraya).

SORRAYA: Tell me. I don’t mind what it is.

MONA: I’m pregnant.

SORRAYA: You’re what? Its impossible. How? I thought you weren’t. But when? Where did you go for a check-up? Why? Are you crazy?

MONA: He insisted. I agreed…His last wish. What could I say. Anyway it happened.

SORRAYA: (cold) It happened. It happened. OK. He pumped his sperm with a high uranium count straight into you. And all for a moment’s pleasure. Or was it longer. Or was it preceded by love-play. Did he stroke Tigris and Euphrates just like I do.

MONA: He’s dead and you’re still jealous

SORRAYA: I see. I see. He died. You jumped on the corpse. It impregnated you. Praise Allah for this miracle.

MONA: Stop this. Please. Its insane. (stroking Sorraya’s face) I want the baby, Sorraya. It can be our baby. We’ll live together. (stroking her stomach) Lucky baby. It will have two mothers and Tigris and Euphrates will feed it and make it strong.

SORRAYA: (distant) There’s something I haven’t told you.

MONA: What?

SORRAYA: I was married once.

MONA: When? Who? Why did you lie when I asked you?

SORRAYA: I don’t know why I lied. Perhaps I wanted to make you feel inferior. I was pure. Untainted. Untouched by man. It was stupid. I’m sorry.

MONA: When? Who was he?

SORRAYA: Faris. He was a Communist from Basra. Studied medicine. Edinburgh University. In Scotland. His father advised him not to return. He did. For a few years we were happy. Really happy.

MONA: In what way.

SORRAYA: In every way. Work. Life. Love.

MONA: Sex.

SORRAYA: Yes, that too.

MONA: What happened. How did this Thousand and One Nights romance come to an end.

SORRAYA: (A sad smile) Badly like in many of those stories. A group of people used to meet at our house during the war with Iran. Faris always was a shy and meek sort of guy, but that war made him crazy. He was very upset and began to abuse the Supreme Leader in the most obscene language. You would have liked my Faris. He always smiled with his eyes, just like you. You were very young then, but Baghdad was full of Westerners in those days. Arms-merchants from England. Advisers of all sorts from Washington. French socialists trying to sell us submarines. Oh, yes, the great leader was drenched in the sunshine of their applause (Saddam portrait lights up). We hated that war, Mona. Faris would come back from the hospital after treating the wounded and weep. ‘Its not our war. Its not our war, ‘ he would shout. ‘We must do something.’ So we began to talk to others who thought like us. We would meet in our house every Friday and talk. Just talk. Sometimes knowing there are others who think like you helps. We should have known. One of them was an agent. It was he who suggested that Faris write a leaflet against the war which could be printed and distributed. I said it was a bad idea (pause).

MONA: What happened.

SORRAYA: They took him away one night. He disappeared. They tortured and tortured and tortured him till he died. It was many years ago. (Distant)

MONA: I know you’re still hiding something. What?

SORRAYA: Nothing.

MONA: No more lies.

SORRAYA: The same week they killed Faris, they came here. There were three of them. They held a gun to my head. One of them was very young. Seventeen or eighteen at most. He was nervous, kept looking away from me and that’s when I realised what they were going to do. They raped me. The young one pleaded with them to be left alone, but they pulled down his trousers and threw him on me. He was all soft down there, but he pretended and I kept screaming..

The two women embrace. MONA: (weeping) You should have told me. You should have told me.

SORRAYA: I don’t like to think about it.

MONA: After the Kuwait business and the war didn’t you secretly wish that the Americans had come here and got rid of him?

SORRAYA: (angry) Like they got rid of the Emperor of Japan after bombing Hiroshima? No. I never felt that. Its our job to change our rulers. We’re weak now, but one day we will be strong again. Enough of all this talk. Now to the important thing. Your baby.

MONA: Our baby. If it’s a boy we’ll call him Faris.

SORRAYA: Mona dearest, you can’t have this baby. I’m speaking as a doctor, not a lover. Your husband was very badly infected. The chances are the baby will be deformed. I don’t want you or your child to suffer. The pain would kill us both.

MONA: No. I won’t get rid of it.

SORRAYA: You must.

MONA: I’ll never have another chance.

SORRAYA: Foolish talk.

MONA: You mean.?

SORRAYA: I mean we will find healthier sperm.

MONA: (cheering up) From where?

SORRAYA: Leave it to me.

MONA: I won’t. From where?

SORRAYA: I have a Kurdish friend in Istanbul. A doctor. He will find us healthy Kurdish sperm.

MONA: (giggling) You mean, I’ll have to.

SORRAYA: No. No. No. I will inject it in you.

MONA: Its my right to choose, isn’t that what you taught me?

SORRAYA: Not if its going to be our baby.

MONA: What if I prefer the traditional method of getting pregnant.

SORRAYA: We shall overrule you.

MONA: We?

SORRAYA: Me, Tigris and Euphrates

END.

[This was 12-minute play was presented at the amazingly successful cultural evening: IMAGINE: IRAQ at Coopers Union, in New York on 19 November, which was attended by 900 people.]

Tariq Ali, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, is the author of The Stone Woman, just published in paperback by Verso.