We found Qamar’s body in the courtyard—it was half past five in the morning, and her mother’s screams echoed throughout the old Baghdad house in the Fadhil District. Qamar had been the most beautiful girl in our neighborhood. Now her arms were still and lifeless, her legs splayed open, and her luxuriant hair framed her face like the dark moon suspended in the sky above us. From the second-floor balcony where I stood, Qamar looked like she’d been crucified.
The old landlord approached the body. When he saw that there was no blood he took her pulse at the wrist and neck, then announced that she was indeed dead. He pulled a slip of paper from her fingers. It said: I killed her because I loved her. He adjusted his glasses and read it again, then went to the main gate of the building to inspect the padlocks and bars that had been installed after the Americans came. He found them all firmly locked—just as he secured them at ten every evening when the curfew came into effect. Then he went to his room to call the police.
The police, good for nothing except taking bribes, just sent over a sergeant and two patrolmen, who gathered us together. It was the first moment we had all been in the same place at the same time. The patrolmen had brought a folding table and two chairs. The sergeant sat on one of the chairs and asked us one by one to sit on the other. He told us to write the sentence, I killed her because I loved her. Meanwhile, two other cops wrote down the details from our identity cards. They dipped our fingers in ink and pressed them for prints, collected all the papers in a file, and departed—never to return. We were left to our fears—and our suspicions about each other.
The building, like most old Baghdad houses, was built around a square courtyard. It had two stories and eight large rooms—four on each floor. Some of the rooms had been divided with wooden partitions, and each floor had a communal bathroom and kitchen.
My friend Rafid and I rented a room on the upper floor. We had moved to Baghdad from al-Haqlaniyah, our village in western Iraq, to study at the university, and we hadn’t found anywhere cheaper or closer to our school, which was in the Bab al-Moatham District, just a twenty-minute walk away. The area was down-market and right in the middle of Baghdad—close to the large al-Fadhil mosque, Maidan Square, Rashid Street, and the Central Bank. Kifah Street ran alongside the hospital, and nearby were markets of all sizes, coffee shops, cheap restaurants, public baths, spice and cloth merchants, pet stores, bakeries, hardware stores, and people who repaired old appliances. Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Muslims, Christians, and Mandaeans mixed together in relative harmony. The residents were simple, unpretentious, generous, brave, patriotic, and sentimental. They respected strangers who came to visit or rented houses.
The neighborhood seemed to have been forgotten since it was founded in Abbasid times, or timeless with its narrow, smelly alleys. The streets were pocked with potholes, noisy with the clamor of children playing and the clattering of peddlers’ carts. The smoke from piles of putrid, smoldering garbage mixed with the scent of grilled meat and spices. The houses, built of old bricks and planks of wood, leaned precariously against each other—the only reason they didn’t collapse was because there wasn’t enough space on the ground between them. Some houses bore signs of shelling or bullet holes from past battles between the Americans and groups of gunmen.The houses, built of old bricks and planks of wood, leaned precariously against each other—the only reason they didn’t collapse was because there wasn’t enough space on the ground between them.
The tenant in the room across from ours was Adil, a university student from another village. A Baghdad policeman, his wife, and their son with Down’s syndrome occupied one of the rooms between us. The officer, a fat man with a bushy mustache, spent most of his time drinking and waiting for his retirement. The landlord stored wool that he sold in a fourth room, with a door that hung off its hinges. Rafid used it as a hiding place for his nocturnal trysts with Qamar—they had developed a close relationship under the pretext of studying English together. It may in fact have been she who told him that the house had a room available. In the wool storeroom everything had to be done furtively, since it was right above the landlord’s room. He had chosen the room closest to the stairs and the front door so that he could keep close watch over the building and its tenants, locking the front door himself each night. The landlord’s widowed daughter and her two children lived across from him, and a married couple occupied the other room down the hall. They were civil servants with two sets of twins—teenagers and infants. They were a poor, conservative, and quiet family; we rarely saw or heard them, except for the infants’ crying. Qamar’s mother and her three sisters lived next to the civil servants. Qamar was the middle daughter. The mother had named the oldest Fadhila because she had been born here in the Fadhil District. Fadhila had studied English too and graduated, but she was out of work and growing desperate, as no one had asked to marry her yet. The youngest daughter, Sahar, was still in high school. She spent most of her time talking to boys or listening to loud music. Their father was an Egyptian who had failed to persuade their mother to stay in Egypt. They tried living there for two years after Fadhila was born, during which time Qamar and Sahar were born, but their mother longed for Baghdad.
Their Egyptian grandmother had chosen the girls’ names: Qamar after the moon, because on the summer night that Qamar was born, their grandmother had been looking out from the balcony when she saw the moon shining serenely in the sky, reflected in the waters of the Nile. Their mother liked the name because it reminded her of the takiya, or Sufi lodge, of Sheikh Qamar, one of the greatest Sufi masters in the Fadhil District. Students of Islamic learning traveled there from all over the world, and in the nineteenth century, Sheikh Muhammad Said al-Naqshabandi emerged to lead the famous Naqshabandi order in Baghdad. His grandson, Sheik Bahaa’eddin, inherited the role. Qamar’s mother told her daughters about the times her father took her to the takiya as a child—the dervishes beat their drums, mesmerizing her as they chanted and danced endlessly in circles. When the youngest granddaughter was born, their grandmother peered out from the balcony and thought the dawn looked magical, and so she named her Sahar.
Their mother returned to Baghdad with her daughters, saying she couldn’t bear to live away from Iraq, even if the country was falling apart. Here she had been born—and here she would die. Her grandfather had fought against the British occupation and her father was an officer who had helped transform Iraq from a monarchy to a republic. She’d ignored all her husband’s pleas to stay in Egypt. Even though shelling had destroyed the roof of the house she’d inherited in Baghdad, their mother was relentless. She rented a place nearby, insisting she would rebuild the old house once the American occupation ended.
Four days after Qamar’s death, at six in the evening, the policeman next door came to visit our room. I was alone and had just come back from class. Rafid was late as usual; he sometimes slept out. He was so gregarious that he had managed to develop an extraordinary network of friends in less than a year. He knew all the people who owned restaurants, shops, and cafés, both in our neighborhood and around Maidan Square and Bab al-Moatham. Through these connections he could solve any problem, whether it was a food shortage or a lack of kerosene for cooking lamps. He also knew most of the regulars at the Umm Kulthum café and the pimps in the Haidar Khana District. And he did well in school despite barely studying. The policeman next door would sometimes come to our room to hang out with Rafid, who smuggled him alcohol whenever the cop couldn’t find any. They would stay up late together playing chess, smoking, and chatting about their lives. They did each other favors and gossiped like old men.
That evening, the policeman sat on the edge of Rafid’s bed and sighed. “Poor Qamar,” he said. “What do you think happened to her?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I think she was definitely murdered. Probably strangled or poisoned. I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out. This case is going to be my final assignment before I retire.”
This news made me uneasy. “Shall I make you some tea?” I asked him.
“No thanks,” he said. “Does Rafid have any booze in here?”
“Under the bed,” I told him.
He reached under the bed, pulled out a bottle of whiskey, and poured himself a glass. “Where’s Rafid?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s probably at university or at the Umm Kulthum café.”
He took a sip of his drink. “I know he had an intimate relationship with Qamar. I know all about their secret trips to the storeroom.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say except: “I don’t think so . . . I don’t know.”
“My son told me he saw them sneaking in there several times.”
After a pause, I said: “Even if it’s true, I don’t think Rafid had anything to do with her death. There’s no way he would harm anyone—we’ve been friends since we were children back in the village. Her death was a shock to him, as it was to all of us.”
“I know, I know,” the policeman said. “Rafid’s a good guy and treats everyone well. He’s not my only suspect.”
I was somewhat relieved by his words, although I didn’t get the feeling he was being completely honest. “Besides,” I said, “the killer left a handwritten note on the body. The police are bound to figure out who the killer is once they compare our handwriting.”
“That was just a routine procedure they do to cover themselves. That’s why they’ve given me the assignment. I’ve been a policeman since I was your age and I know they won’t do anything, especially under these chaotic conditions. There are no labs, no real investigations. They’ll just put the report in the archives along with hundreds or thousands of other files, as bodies pile up in the streets every day. Besides, what makes you think that the killer didn’t deliberately leave behind that piece of paper in someone else’s handwriting to throw us off his track?” He paused. “The killer must have come from inside the building. The landlord locks the front gate every evening, and he checked the door himself the night before Qamar was murdered. Do you suspect anyone?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m as puzzled as you.”
“I’ll find a way to get to the killer.” He looked like he was getting drunk. “What do you make of our neighbor Adil . . . the other student? He’s young and he lives alone, and I’ve seen him ogling Qamar. He’s a little mysterious. Do you know him well?”
“I know him a little. Sometimes we walk to the university together or we meet in the library. I don’t think it could be him. He’s a decent, easygoing kid who’s only interested in his studies. He’s very religious.”
The policeman snorted. “Don’t let appearances deceive you. Most crimes are committed in the name of religion.”
Rafid came in at that point and the two of them embraced. Rafid sat down next to the cop and poured himself a drink, then topped up the policeman’s glass.
“Where have you been?” the cop asked.
“I was with Adil at the Umm Kulthum café,” Rafid said.
“Since when do you guys hang out together?”
“He’s upset about what happened. He asked me if he should look for a new place to live,” Rafid said. “He told me he hasn’t been able to concentrate on his studies. He sees Qamar’s body every night in his dreams.”
“Aha!” the policeman exclaimed, turning to me. “Didn’t I tell you not to trust religious people?”“He says it was the first time in his life he’s ever seen a dead body. Hard to believe—this is Baghdad, after all.”
Rafid reacted with his usual assuredness: “It’s because he’s squeamish. He says it was the first time in his life he’s ever seen a dead body. Hard to believe—this is Baghdad, after all.”
Rafid offered to play a game of chess with the policeman, but he declined, saying he was tired. Tomorrow would be a busy day.
Once he left, I told Rafid everything the policeman had said earlier, but he brushed it off, which surprised me. He just sat back on his bed and smoked. Then he said: “Don’t bother with him. He’s stupid. I’m sure no one assigned anything to him. At the very most, maybe someone told him to be on the lookout just in case he notices something. Who knows, he might even be the killer—or his sick son, or his wife. Qamar herself told me he’s harassed her several times. One night he was drunk, and started shouting and blocking her path. His son snooped on Qamar too. Sometimes he touched her arm in the hallway, and once he tried to touch her breasts. He’s a young man with raging hormones. So why couldn’t it be him? Or even his mother—maybe she wanted to keep Qamar away from her son and her husband? He was probably threatening to take a second wife, or blaming her for the deaths of their other kids at a young age.”
I was surprised at Rafid’s words. “Listen,” I told him, “we have to move out of this building as soon as possible—we won’t be able to live and work in peace here any longer.”
“Don’t you be stupid like Adil,” Rafid scoffed. “Anyone who moves out of the building now will immediately become a suspect. They might pin the murder on anyone—just so they can close the case.”
“So what should we do?”
“First we have to find out who the murderer is,” he said, “and then we can think about moving out. I’m going to investigate on my own. This murder is personal. I loved Qamar.”
“I didn’t know you cared about her that much!”
“Yes,” Rafid admitted softly, “we were very much in love. But we couldn’t keep it a secret. Qamar told me her sisters figured it out. They slept in the same room as her, and they caught her sneaking out in the middle of the night or coming back from meeting me in the storeroom. Her older sister told her off. She was jealous that Qamar was prettier and more intelligent, and that she had a relationship with me. Fadhila had tried to approach me when we first moved here, but I wasn’t interested—I mentioned that to you at the time. So maybe Fadhila killed her. Even the younger one could have done it, although I’m less suspicious of her. Sahar was always arguing with Qamar, threatening to expose her, since Qamar wouldn’t let her go out with the neighborhood boys.”
“Did their mother know all this?” I asked.
“No, the mother’s a sad case. She’s too busy trying to make money to pay rent. She goes out early to buy fish and then spends most of the day doing the rounds, selling to restaurants and private homes. She can’t get money from her family in Egypt, ever since the banks closed after the invasion. That’s why Qamar sometimes worked as a translator for the Americans. She brought her older sister documents to translate. They need money for their personal expenses too. You know how much Qamar spent on her appearance—all the perfumes and makeup, the bracelets and necklaces, the latest clothes.”
Rafid lit a cigarette and went on talking as if to himself: “The landlord gave them a very hard time whenever they were late with the rent, often threatening to evict them. Qamar told me he tried to persuade her mother to divorce the Egyptian and marry him, or to have one of her daughters marry him, and in return he would register half the building in his new wife’s name. He offered the same deal to anyone who might marry his daughter. But ever since Qamar’s mother rebuffed him, there’s been lots of tension. Who knows? Maybe he’s the murderer—besides his temper, he hates that they haven’t paid rent for three months. Or what about his daughter? She’s a young widow, tied down by two children and an overbearing father. She might have believed that Qamar was sabotaging her chances of finding a husband. All the men who came to the building were only interested in Qamar once they saw how beautiful and pleasant she was. Or maybe the father and daughter worked together as part of a larger feud between their family and Qamar’s. I know the two families are always disagreeing, arguing, and causing trouble. Maybe the conflict goes back even further. Both families come from the Fadhil District, and families here inherit everything—even their feuds.”
For a whole month, Qamar’s murder was all Rafid and I talked about. We spent the evenings remembering additional incidents and situations, analyzing everything we discovered or noticed, going over everyone who lived in the building one by one. Because we spent so much time pinning down the minute details and reviewing every shred of evidence, we were sometimes convinced that this or that person was the murderer, including the civil servants downstairs. Rafid said the twin boys had some sort of relationship with Sahar, that there was an unspoken rivalry over her affection. Qamar had intervened several times to stop her sister from hanging out with them. She’d even warned the twins to stay away. So maybe one of them murdered her—or both of them, or even their parents—to prevent a scandal and to protect their family, for which they toiled night and day. About Adil, Rafid commented: “One day he took Qamar aside at the university and tried to persuade her to dress, talk, and behave properly, and not to do things that are forbidden in Islam. He even offered to marry her if she would turn religious like him.”
In our conversations, we eventually went so far as to suspect one other.
“You knew the most about my relationship with Qamar. You warned me about it at the start, then you tried to stop me. You also said you envied me, that you found Qamar attractive,” Rafid said. “When I came back from the storeroom you used to asked about her body and what we did in there.”
“If anyone’s a prime suspect here, it’s you,” I shot back. “That’s what your friend the policeman thinks, as well as everyone else in the building.”
Apparently all the people in the other rooms, and maybe even the people in the neighboring buildings, were having the same conversations, either among themselves or in their own heads. The whole place was a minefield, highly charged with tension and suspicion. Everyone was watching and snooping, weighing every word anyone said, every move they made. We all felt like we couldn’t breathe, as if the situation might blow up at any moment, for any reason—and no one could predict what the consequences of the explosion would be.
Forty days after the murder, we woke up again to Qamar’s mother screaming in the courtyard. Rafid and I ran to the balcony and saw the body of her oldest daughter, Fadhila, lying on her back, her arms and legs splayed, her hair framing her face, the spitting image of Qamar.
She too looked like she’d been crucified and nailed to the ground. The landlord approached her, and when he saw there was no blood he took her pulse at the wrist, and then the neck, before announcing that she was dead. He took a slip of paper from between her fingers. It said: I killed her because I loved her. He adjusted his glasses and read it again, then went to the main gate of the building. He checked the padlocks and bars, and found them all secured, just as they had been the previous evening. So he went back to his room to call the police.Forty days after the murder, we woke up again to Qamar’s mother screaming in the courtyard.
Soon after, American soldiers broke down the main gate. More than thirty of them burst in, alongside the three policemen who had come to investigate Qamar’s murder. Through the broken gate we caught sight of an armored vehicle parked in the street. The American commander strode into the courtyard and stopped right next to Fadhila’s head while her mother clung to her body, sobbing. The man waved his arms and barked out orders in English. The soldiers dispersed in groups, breaking down any doors that were locked, turning everything upside down, searching everywhere.
Rafid and I stood paralyzed, trembling in fear in our pajamas. Adil, also in his pajamas, was there too, mumbling prayers and curses. The policeman next door was standing there in his undershirt with his paunch hanging out. Next to him was his son, so drowsy he could hardly stand, drooling and rubbing his eyes. The women were in their nightdresses or wrapped in cloaks.
The soldiers assembled in the courtyard. One of them saluted the commander and spoke to him. I looked quizzically at Rafid beside me. “He’s saying they didn’t find any weapons,” he whispered.
The commander said something else, then two soldiers ran over to lift Fadhila’s mother off the corpse. They twisted her arms behind her back and tied her hands together, then carried her out toward the vehicle.
“It’s me who killed her, because I loved her!” the mother suddenly shouted out. “It’s me who killed her, because I love her, and I love Iraq!”
She kept shouting until she and the soldiers and the vehicle had all disappeared. Our policeman neighbor approached us, clearly embarrassed, dragging his feet. “I knew she was working with some of the insurgent groups, and that she disapproved of her daughters working with the Americans, but I never imagined she would go as far as to kill them,” he said. He put his arm around Rafid’s shoulders and added: “Forgive me, my son. All my suspicions focused on you—we were even planning to arrest you on Tuesday. I must admit, I’ve failed my last assignment. I’m looking forward to retirement more now than ever, so that I can build myself a new home, far from here, and finally relax.”
The short story “I Killed Her Because I Loved Her” by Muhsin al-Ramli is excerpted from Baghdad Noir, edited by Samuel Shimon. Used with permission of the publisher, Akashic Books. Copyright © 2018 by by Muhsin al-Ramli, translation copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Wright.