I see much from the roof of my house. I like to sit under the white
awning that shades me, with a bottle of water, and look at the wonders
of my city. I can see (everyone can see, from anywhere in the city) the
colorful twisted minarets of numerous mosques. I see the rooftop gardens
on the other houses of my neighborhood and some of my friends sitting
on top of their homes, shouting at people below or throwing rocks at
To the west, of course, is the giant silver arc of the Ankh
Multinational Corporation Reconstruction Arch which is (I have heard
them say) the monument to the war.
I see sand. Always, I see sand. When the wind is high, I can't see much
else, grit erasing the lines of buildings, dampening the Arch's
customary gleam. On those days, it's not worth much to be up on the
roof, but much of the time I see things that I don't understand.
The Ankh Arch never stays in one place for very long - it passes over
entire neighborhoods in a matter of days, able to span several blocks at
once and top even the tallest buildings of the city. It glides forward
sometimes as I watch it, each foot carried on the back of a flatbed
truck like an awkward rollerskater in the new discotheques. The base of
the Ankh Arch is almost always hidden by its own, personal cloud of
dust, kicked up by the line of bulldozers that advance before it,
knocking down mortared and burned buildings, homes with more than half
their faces eaten away by bullets, clearing a path so that the flatbeds
can drive forward.
But today there is no dust. The Arch has not moved in the past three
days, the bulldozers sit idle, even the constant ant-line of refuse
trucks that constantly ferry from the Arch to the dump outside town are
now penned up behind a chain-link fence, empty, watched by armed men who
smoke or sleep in the shade. I know one of the truck drivers; he lives
on my street, and I see him walking past my house.
I shout down to him. "Sadim! Why doesn't the Arch move? Have you lost
Sadim waves to me, desultory. He is held in very high esteem along this
street because he works with many Americans and has absorbed many
fashionable things from them like his western-style hat, the ill-suited
clothes into which he is always sweating, his cigarettes, phrases of
Yankee slang. "No work this week," he tells me, "because of sabotage.
Somebody put a landmine into the Arch's hopper. It didn't explode, but
it still jammed up the nozzles so we cannot build anything until the
engineers clear them." Sadim is proud of his knowledge, as proud as he
is of his favorite t-shirt which says, in big English letters, "Too
Drunk To Fuck."
Fasil, who sells DVDs in the market, told me what it says, but he also
told me it should really say, "Too Muslim to be too drunk to fuck," in
order to be accurate.
A helicopter passes directly over us and we tense and look up. Before,
the sky had always been thick with them, common, but ever since the
Americans withdrew, leaving us only the Arch as a constant reminder of
them, helicopters are a rare, foreign appearance. This one comes closer,
lower, and settles in the middle of the street two blocks away.
I use binoculars - something I never could have done during the
occupation, afraid always of being mistaken for a soldier - to see three
men get out of the helicopter. One of them is dressed in a business
suit and carries a briefcase. He is followed by two men, not soldiers
and not police, but wearing armor and baseball caps, and they carry
weapons. They are the most heavily-armed men in the city. I have seen
them guarding the Arch and their hats have the logo of the Ankh
Corporation across them.
The three men walk up to the mosque, where they are greeted personally
by our imam. He shakes their hands, ushers them inside. The helicopter
is gone into the sky, leaving them behind, but it will be back to get
them when they are done.
The next day, the Arch begins moving again, and Sadim goes back to his
I go into the market and hear the buzz of excited rumors. The imam has
been talking to the stall owners, to water sellers and goatherds, but
not to little thirteen-year-old boys and so I know nothing about all the
fuss until I corner Fasil at his stall.
"The Americans are building a mall," he tells me grudgingly, annoyed at
having to take his attention off of his work.
"What is that?" I ask him.
"Like a market, a great big building filled with stores."
I look around us. "But we have a market already." We have several. This
is one of the more modest ones.
Fasil shrugs his hands. "They say it will be big enough to hold all of
the markets from the city under one roof. It will stretch more than
three blocks, a whole neighborhood will be passed under the Arch to make
I have seen the neighborhood that the Arch rests over and I think
quickly. Then I say, "Where will all those people go?"
Fasil says, "The Americans say that the mall will give them jobs."
"Jobs doing what?"
"Working at the stores. Selling things. Wonderful things from all over
the world. So the imam says to us."
I am confused. "Who are they selling them to? Almost all of the
Americans are gone."
"I suppose they will have to sell them to every one else working there
since they'll be the only ones with money," Fasil agrees. "These new
buildings, the Arch, all the shiny toys they give us now because they
feel bad about the war, it always does us no good. These buildings, you
watch, it will turn out just like when they gave us water."
I look at the bottle in my hand and remember. During the first years of
bombing and attacks, the city was without water. Without electricity,
sanitation, roads. Then, after the soldiers gained control of the
refineries, they put their efforts to the people of the city, handing
out water bottles by the palletful. We drank from plastic for over a
year, got used to the habit of it, until they finally brought back
running water to our neighborhood.
Mama ran the tap over her hands, bringing up a cupped palm for a drink.
She spat it out, saying it tasted like poison.
All of the other women in line argued with her, and amongst themselves.
Maybe the pipes had rust, some said. Maybe it would clear up in a matter
of time. So they said.
So the soldiers said, and the aid workers stopped handing out free
bottles and, for a time, all the city had was water dirtier than ever
before. For a while.
Then water sellers showed up in the streets, young boys recruited to
carry huge trays slung around their necks, laden with the same bottles
of the same water that we'd had for free not so long ago. The boys cried
their wares loudly, charging a week's worth of money for one bottle!
Nobody in our neighborhoods could afford even a single bottle, so the
boys made their business mainly with foreigners. Mama went to listen to
some of the men complain to the imam about the water, and I hid behind
The imam reasoned with the men of our neighborhood. "The Americans have
given you jobs! You have been blessed by this situation. Look at the
money that our young men are bringing back home to you. And some of you
have been employed, also, to pick up the bottles from the street and
drive them to the edge of town. This is honorable work, doing what you
can to repair the city."
What he said was true. Papa had one of those jobs as a truck driver, but
every night he came home and told us how the truck owners, Americans,
took half of his pay, and told us of the tin-shack stores that lined the
street just outside the truck lot, filled with tempting sweets,
alcohol, cigarettes for tired drivers to spend their money on and how
every day he had to resist spending all his money before even getting
Mama would throw up her hands at the state of the world and every night
when she wasn't looking, Papa would put in my palm a piece of candy that
he had picked up at one of those stores.
And then one night, there was an explosion in the city, which didn't
even wake me by then.
That was the night Papa didn't come back, and Mama started speaking less
and less until she could go for weeks without uttering a word to anyone
except for God.
And then the Americans, for the most part, left. They left their water
in stacks of pallets in the old warehouses, until looters broke in and
carried them off. There was a brief time - less than a month - when the
looters tried to keep selling the bottles to us, but nobody had the
Mama used empty bottles to carry water from a well, and when they were
empty again she dried flowers inside them, on the windowsill.
Sometimes I bring her flowers for our rooms. Today I look around the
feet of the stalls for anything that might be growing but all I find are
rocks and maybe some weeds. When I stand up again, something bright and
colorful flashes in the sun, at my eye level. I stop and watch the
He is putting little frosting flowers onto eggs made of sugar. The
flowers are pink and green, the eggs yellow.
Fasil stands behind me as the decorator squeezes the bag of colored
frost and the flowers come out in perfect shapes, dropping from the
star-shaped plastic nozzle on the end of the tube. "Watch," says Fasil.
"See how the paste becomes a flower? Just like this, the Arch forms
anything it wants out of paste. Only each one of its thousands of
nozzles is smaller than this candy tube, able to draw smaller lines. and
that means the Arch can make more detailed objects, finer than the
"The mall will be made out of candy?" I can hardly imagine it. I think
of the treats that Papa would bring home.
Fasil laughs. "Not that kind of paste. The Arch is designed to make
things out of dirt and sand. It can make lines only a millimeter thick,
lay down wiring, even circuitry. Or it can press out plates of glass. So
that when the mall is complete, it will have working appliances,
picture windows, very modern."
I say, "How do they make all that out of sand?"
"The Arch can separate the different materials in the sand - silicon to
make glass, metal to make wires. It is very clever, the imam tells me."
The confectioner says, "The imam says a lot of things."
Fasil says, "Ankh is a very ambitious corporation - they want to use the
Arch to print houses and habitats on the Moon, using moondust. The only
place that has more dust than our city, eh? The Moon? So why do you
think they have given us their giant space printer? Because they are
such nice men at heart?"
The confectioner places each finished egg under a glass jar so that the
sand and flies will not stick to the sugar.
"The Americans are using the Arch here because we have a lot of sand?" I
"That's right. They are testing the printer here, making new buildings
and houses and streets, making sure it works before they launch it all
the way to the Moon. They come here to use our sand because - can you
believe it - in America they sell sand to each other."
I can't believe it. Sand is everywhere.
The confectioner makes a grunt of disapproval and Fasil nods. "Might as
well try to bottle the ocean and sell it to us."
"I have never seen an ocean."
"The ocean is filled with oil and plastic," Fasil says. "The Americans
who come here take our oil and dump it in the water. Then they cannot
drink the water so they have to buy bottles. Then they collect our empty
bottles and throw them in the ocean."
"Enough plastic and soon the ocean will be covered over, and it will
never rain," says the confectioner.
"It never rains here."
"We could use it, wash away the dust," the confectioner says. "Look at
this boy's clothes. What were you doing underneath my table, anyway?"
I say to him, "Picking flowers for my Mama."
"Flowers, huh?" He thinks for a second. "Hold out your hand." He prints a
small green flower onto my palm and says, "There. Take that home to
After I take the flower home, I go for a walk in a different part of the
city, a part that the Arch has already passed over. Everything is
covered in a white crust of dirt that the construction left behind,
everything is the same color.
Men are scrubbing the walls and streets with brooms, breaking the crust
away. It looks like they are painting the buildings and street, but this
is not paint, it will not chip or flake away under the sun and wind, it
is the actual color of the paste that the Ankh corporation has chosen
Other parts of this street are changed. Buildings are different, houses
are smaller and there are more of them. In the center of a roundabout is
a statue, but that is different also, no longer a statue of the old
dictator. The bulldozers came and knocked it down and the Arch printed a
new person in its place. The new statue stands in the same pose but it
doesn't have a strong Persian nose anymore, nor bold eyebrows that
shadow deep-set eyes. There are words on the pedestal but I can't read
them because they are in English.
Now the men scrub the statue with their brooms and the white plaster
falls away to reveal black hair, western skin, the military uniform of
another country, blue eyes bright enough to be filled with tears. The
statue looks alive.
I watch him for a while, to see if he will move.
"Listen," Mama says to me.
I am looking at the metal frame of her favorite photograph of Papa. She
has stuck the green flower to one corner of the frame.
"Listen," she says to me. "This mall that the Arch has made. Do not eat
the food there."
"They do not follow God's laws when it comes to food. What they eat is
haram. They have unclean, unhealthy animals, and soda, which is filled
"It is like candy, but you drink it. It is poison, like the water when
the soldiers were here."
"But the imam said it was all right, we can eat there. I heard him
Mama says, "The imam says many things," which is funny because that's
what the confectioner said. She has other pictures, paintings, a few
more photographs, on the walls of our rooms, but only the one in the
frame is of Papa.
And in the morning, the Arch is over our house, the sun reflecting off
of it into my eyes and wakes me.
There are people in my house but Mama is gone, to the market already or
to get money from her brother. There are three men in the doorway. Two
of them are white and wear the caps with the Ankh symbol on them. The
other man lives downstairs. He owns the house.
The white men say something and start to set up cameras in the corners
of the rooms. They open cupboards and shine lights into hiding places.
"You need to leave the house today," the other man says. "The Arch is
going to make a new house, but you can come back tonight."
The white men are taking pictures of everything, even pictures of our
pictures, which is also funny.
"Where is my Mama?"
"I'll tell her. Don't worry. Go, leave, come back tonight."
I go to Sadim's house even though he is not there. He is driving his
truck but I know how to get on his roof by climbing a trellis and from
there I can watch the bulldozers crash into the rows of houses, send up
huge clouds of dust. Then the tractors load the debris into dumptrucks
and young men like Sadim pile it up outside of town.
When the block is cleared down to the foundations, the Arch starts to
move, the nozzles slide up and down on their tracks, coming low enough
to touch the ground. Paste pumps out, the nozzles move forward, laying
out a maze of walls. Then the whole structure rises up and paints
another layer atop the walls, making them taller. The Arch does this
incredibly fast, faster than I can watch, faster than any bricklayer in
the city, able to build five building in just a few hours.
The Arch passes away like a shadow.
Sadim finds me shortly after. "I saw your mother," he says, "outside the
city, by the dump. I drove her back."
"She's home right now?"
He nods. "She is waiting for you. In your new home."
I stand in the largest of our three rooms and look at the new, strange
things in our house. An icebox is plugged into the wall, which is
strangest because that wall never had an outlet before. It didn't have a
place to plug in a television, either. The most electricity we had was a
single cord running through a window to our overhead light. I run my
hands over the appliances, brushing away the dust.
Then I run from room to room, yelling, "Mama! Papa! Mama!" The Americans
have given us everything we ever needed. They must have brought back my
Papa, printing him into our house.
She sits in her room, completely still, back against the wall. She is
still, and covered in dust, so perfectly frozen that I think she is a
statue. Then she cries, a tear runs through the dust on her face and I
see that she has not been printed, she has been digging through the
debris of the city dump, looking for something.
She holds the picture frame in her hands, but it is white, not silver.
The picture of Papa is gone, replaced by a blank piece of paper,
I look at the wall - all of the other pictures are blank, too, empty
pieces of paper.
At Mama's feet is a roll of paper, white paper, what used to be our
small supply of American dollars, now worthless.
The Arch could replace anything in a building except for images.
It is dark outside, the day bleeding heat back into the sky while I sit
on the roof.
Behind me, the Ankh Arch sits, silver like the Moon, light glinting off
of it from the mall, gold arches rising over the new market like the