By: Ali Shirazi

The man was out of breath. Working hard to hold down the struggling boy, he didn’t bother to check who was walking up behind him. The intruders hadn’t announced themselves, nor had they tried to conceal their presence and he could hear foot steps on the gravel as they approached. “You had your turn”, he barked, though the last words dropped off to a heavy gasp.

He was using his body to pin the boy against a boulder and pulling back on a fistful of the boy’s hair hard enough to bend the neck almost to shoulder blades. One of the boy’s legs was twisted awkwardly, with the side of the knee scraping hard against the rock. Yet the man couldn’t restrain him. The boy fought hard, his fists flying backward from side to side, punching blindly and occasionally connecting with his assailant’s ribs. The man, however, did not view the blows as anything more than a nuisance in his effort to hold the boy still long enough to push into him. Now, as the footsteps closed in, he grew even more agitated that his comrades weren’t leaving him alone. No doubt, they were taking a break from smoking and drinking whiskey and had come to taunt him for his inability to subdue such a small, half-starved, beaten boy who had already been repeatedly raped that night.

He himself had rammed into the boy no more than two hours ago. The act was so violent that for some minutes afterwards he needed to lean against the boy to catch his breath. Then, pulling up his once-white cotton boxers, now discolored and stiffened by the sweat of the many days in the mountains, a powerful twinge rushed throughout his body as soon as the cloth rubbed against his foreskin. The sensation was so raw that he jerked away swiftly, almost tripping over. Though the feeling had only lasted a few seconds, it was strong enough for him to instantly crave it again; a sentiment shared by others with similar enthusiasm and anticipation. After resting for a bit with a couple of cigarettes and a few swigs of whiskey as they passed around the bottle, they began to one by one go back to the boy in an order determined by drawing cards. The others listened, laughed, smoked and gulped more of the booze they had traded with an American for a couple of prayer rugs.

He had not anticipated so much trouble from the boy. “Too much whiskey”, he chided himself. No matter, he was determined to complete the act without any help, or audience. He tightened his grip on the boy’s hair, pushed forward, pulled back and pushed forward again, smashing the boy’s head against the rock twice in rapid succession. The boy’s arms flailed against the rock then fell to the sides, no longer fisted. As soon as the boy drooped, the man twisted around with a flash of anger in his eyes, betting a menacing glower would be enough to get rid of the crashers. The only thought on his mind was to get back and shove into the boy before he got his fight back. Turned, with his boxers awkwardly around his ankles and sweat dripping off his forehead, his first thought, however, was confusion.

Before him stood three men, clad head to toe in desert gear, almost completely covered by sand, conspicuously out of place for the altitude. They must’ve rode hard through the desert, he surmised, but decided it unwise to inquire. He did not immediately recognize any one of them, nor could he identify the turbans as belonging to a particular tribe. A distinct marking on the strangers’ headgears signaled protection but he could not readily recall whose. It was the only part of the trio’s attire not covered in sand. Clearly, they had taken care to ensure its visibility.

The men, now stopped, silently watched as he jerked about awkwardly to finally directly face them. With his manhood now on full display, he wished the moon wasn’t so bright and started to feel self-conscious, wondering if the men thought him too small. But the men were not looking anywhere except directly in his eyes. He suddenly realized where he was and how dangerous this pass could be. Maybe these three had not recognized Sayyid Abdullah’s mark of blessing, always displayed prominently on his own turban. He began to worry that it may have fallen off during the struggle with the boy but swallowed the urge to check.

The boy let out a faint moan. The man smashed the boy’s face one more time against the rock, taking extreme care not to stiffen his smile. “Salam-alay-kom, man Ahmad hastam” he announced in Farsi and waited, still smiling gently.

Ahmad chose Farsi to greet his visitors based on the location. He had learned long ago that encounters on the Shaho could be quite complicated and required careful consideration at all times. He himself had killed several men who did not understand the delicate nature of these proprieties and credited attention to small details for his own long life. The closest he ever came to death was losing half of his ear after improperly greeting Sayyid Abdullah the first time they met. The Sayyid, a surly man who never smiled – at least none that anyone, even his wives, remembered – swung at him with his dagger but missed. He had meant to simply slash Ahmad’s throat and be done with his insolence. However, trying to maintain footing in a drunken sway, the Sayyid instead sliced deep into Ahmad’s cheek, almost severing the entire right ear. The sight of the perplexed and trembling Ahmad, with half of his ear dangling, had proven immensely comical to the Sayyid who, suddenly, began laughing so hard that alarmed the entire assembly into silence. For making him laugh, the Sayyid let Ahmad live and granted him protection. Though Ahmad had taught the same lesson many times, it was only while trying to lift the bleeding piece of his ear back in place, praying it would simply attach back and heal, that he had learned the lesson himself. Ahmad’s ear never healed and, despite constant attention, half of his ear simply fell off within days. But he did take advantage of his misfortune and built a lucrative business as a guide by exploiting Sayyid’s protection to lead caravans through a particularly violent section of the Zagros. This passage through the Shaho, where he now stood, was the shortest crossing, and therefore particularly violent, attracting traders and thieves – and anyone else who may be in a hurry to leave one the countries, or many tribal areas bordering the mountain range.

He again wondered if the mark of Sayyid Abdullah’s protection was visible on his turban and, again, thought it unwise to check. He wondered about the others for a brief moment but decided to concentrate on the situation at hand.

The men did not answer but one of them stepped forward. He moved slowly with arms hung down by the sides and palms in plain view. He did not seem threatening and Ahmad felt no need to adjust further beyond slowly moving his free hand to cover his penis. The stranger was now standing only half an arm’s length away. Still looking directly in Ahmed’s eyes.

Ahmad wondered how long the trio was going to stand there in silence. He tried to squint beyond the men for any signs of his companions when he felt his grip on the boy’s hair loosening. He attempted again to tighten his hold without shifting position or changing his friendly smile. The boy enraged him. Once this was over, whatever this was, he intended to simply knock the boy unconscious, push into him, and be done. Of course, that was not as much fun as when the boy fought back or spat out hoarse insults; Ahmad especially liked to thrust hard and fast, then stop briefly to hear the boy’s throaty screams echo. Nonetheless he resolved to make quick work of the whole thing. They needed to start moving at first light and he did not intend to spend half the night trying to subdue a clearly stubborn, ungrateful boy. Isn’t that just like a Kurd, he hissed to himself. After all, if it had not been for Ahmad and the soldiers the boy would have probably been dead by now, fallen prey to any number of desert or mountain animals that regularly made a quick meal of men larger than Ahmad himself.

Clenching the boy’s hair still harder, Ahmad was surprised and very much annoyed to feel it continue to slip out of his hand. He attempted a small turn of head to quickly inspect the situation; Perhaps the boy had managed to hook his leg around the boulder for better leverage. If so, Ahmad would have to also adjust position. A though that given his current circumstance was not at all appealing.

As soon as Ahmad began to turn, a sharp pain rushed from his chest, filled his head, and flooded his eyes. He glanced down involuntarily and watched the stranger’s hand slowly pull out a bloodied knife from his chest. Ahmad looked at the knife and tried to remember if it was long enough to perforate through his back. This was the best knife he had ever seen – the sharpest too. He always wanted to own a knife like that – he’d prefer this one, of course remembering how much he had always admired the intricate carvings on the ivory handle. Ahmad tried to raise his head to ask why but could no longer stand and fell to his knees, with the question frozen on his lips. The stranger, now towering over him, spoke no words and with a swift cut across Ahmad’s throat ensured that he would not either.

The other two men approached quickly. Ahmad had doubled over, his forehead on the ground as though praying if not for the uncovered bottom and awkwardly angled arms. One of the men pushed on Ahmad’s hip with his foot. The body offered no resistance and tipped over on its side. Then two swift kicks, one to the shoulder and the other under the heels and Ahmad was laid out flat. The man quickly traced deep a circle around Ahmad’s genitals with his knife, pushing the blade rapidly in and out, and removed the entire organ by the knifepoint once the circle was complete. The third man, watching so far, used the tip of his right boot to press down on Ahmad’s lower jaw, opening the dead man’s mouth wide enough for his friend to stuff the entire genitalia in it. He then reached down and took Ahmad’s turban from his friend, who had removed it after cleaning his blade on the cloth, and threw it in the sack he was holding. They had all recognized Sayyid Abdullah’s mark of protection on the turban. It would have been stupid to announce it to anyone who might find the body.

Ali was done cleaning his knife too. He marveled at how easily it pierced though a strong man like Ahmad’s chest. He did enjoy killing Ahmad. “Not soon enough”, he thought to himself, remembering how often he had stifled the urge because Ahmad was a protected man. He then walked over to the boy. The badly injured child had not moved or looked. He simply slumped there on his stomach on top of the rock. There were lines of dried and drying blood on his thighs and legs. As Ali approached, about the only act the boy exhibited in the way of defense was to cup his trembling hands over his bottom and continue to whimper.

He stood over to the boy’s side and gently caressed his hair. It was full and light in texture. His hand slid along the boy’s face down to his chin, lifting the face and turning it gently upward. The boy had deep brown eyes. The pupils impressed Ali for their clarity and intensity despite all that had happened. But the boy had no expression on his face whatsoever. No fear, no hope, no expectations. He did not smile at the boy or stop looking in his eyes. As he held the boy’s chin, Ali couldn’t help but think that someday it would’ve been a strong chin – the kind virgins yearn. Then, abruptly, he wrenched the boy’s chin sideways while tightening his grip. There was a sharp cracking sound and the head was immediately heavy. He gently rested the boy’s head on the rock, not letting it drop under its own weight.

In silence, the men then headed back to the camp to make sure the entire event looked like a robbery. Two went around the smoldering camp fire, one collected valuables off of the dead bodies, while the other checked each mouth and, using a pair of pliers twisted out any gold teeth. Ali headed to where the animals were hobbled for the night and began to carefully search each saddlebag, removing any valuables and dropping them in his sack. Finally, he found the object they had come for. He held and gazed at it for a moment, wondering how many men had died for or because of it and if he would be next. He then gently placed it in the velvet-lined leather pouch he had been given for just that purpose and pulled on the string to close the pouch. Then, still handling the pouch gingerly, he made sure the contents was secure by using the string to form a knot around the mouth of the punch, pulled on the sting to make sure it was strong and, finally, placed the pouch around his neck. He then picked up the pace, grabbing anything of any value from the remaining saddlebags. Once done, he tied all the animals to a single lead rope and began walking to his horse, with the sleepy animals reluctantly following him.

By the time Ali got back to his horse and tied the lead rope to his saddle, the other two men had ridden back and forth throughout the camp several times, leaving hoof prints to make it more difficult for any pursuers to determine their number. The time-tested trick would not fool an expert tracker but they did not expect one. They knew, however, that they had only a short time to get as far away as possible. In a few hours, half a day if they were lucky, an Iraqi patrol would no doubt happen upon the scene and immediately after seeing seven of their own dead, would start a search and show no mercy to whomever they happened to come across. Though they generally considered Iraqi soldiers mean but inept, there was always a chance that one might recognize Ahmad. Once word got back to Sayyid Abdullah, he no doubt would offer a sizable bounty, making all strangers a target to any fortune seeker.

Exchanging no words, the trio positioned around the barebacked horses and camels and soon began to canter down the steep path off the clearing,