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Garden: Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Lives Asunder
24 August 1979 Sahara Desert, Morocco
“…Mohammed Rasulullah!” Azeddine chanted as
the eastern hills reverberated the bombs blasting the crumbling kasbah walls.
The sky ignited the horizon with shades of pink and tinges of orange, casting
an amber hue over the distant sand dunes and the closer, rock-strewn terrain. “Allah
Akbar. Estaghfer Allah!” The death mantra crept uncontrollably to his lips,
replacing the morning’s usual salat prayer.
An explosive sound shook the walls. The metal plates inside the windows clanked
against the bars. Sand, dirt, and rubble blew underneath the door, which sat
unevenly on rusted hinges. Azeddine bit down on his tongue. Sand continued to
As he ran toward the wooden doors of the infirmary, Azeddine heard Ahmed scream.
Rushing in, he bent over, breathless. The Moroccan fountain in the middle of
the waiting area wasn’t flowing. No soldiers had arrived yet. Most were
a part of the enfilade that was to barricade the town—to secure where the
outer wall had failed.
Two nurses, however, worked hastily under one lit bulb that reflected off the
pasty blue walls back in the “salle d’hospitalisation,” located
on the other side of the corridor. The place was normally organized despite being
a bit run-down, but now it was a disaster. Chairs were turned over and papers
lay scattered all over the tile floor. The small dental office door was closed.
No nurses were in the triage room or in the nurses’ station.
Azeddine quickly headed to the back ward, still catching his breath. Working
to unpack gauze and roll the beds in a straight line against the back wall, he
didn’t feel like a professional doctor, but an ill-prepared pupil who was
facing fate head-on.
Dr. Ahmed and Head Nurse Omar burst through the door. Ahmed was saying something
in a mix of Arabic and French about getting the place secure. “Put the
defense covers over the windows!” Ahmed had survived an attack some two
weeks prior, which was all Azeddine knew. Ahmed’s eyes still had dark circles
beneath them and he squinted as if he were forcing his eyes open to face the
world. Since so much was left unsaid, Azeddine never overcame his uneasiness
when he was around the sturdy man. He only knew that Ahmed had been in this small,
dusty village when the attack occurred, somewhere on the edge of what felt like
the end of the world.
The doors flew open, and two soldiers carried in an injured Moroccan cadet.
The young trainee bellowed uncontrollably, “ALLAH!” His right leg
looked like it had been torn off at the knee. Embedded with layers of ground-up
skin, it was ripped apart. Bright blood spurted out onto the floor.
As if he’d been planning for this day repeatedly in his mind, Ahmed knew
exactly what to do. Was it the bloodshed he’d already lived through? Was
he ready this time to go down fighting?
The two soldiers ran out as soon as they laid their injured comrade on a gurney.
Azeddine could see them from the pharmacy room. The soldier’s leg had been
horribly severed. Nurse Omar grabbed a tourniquet and wrapped it tightly around
the bleeding stump. He removed the upper pant and tried to soak up the blood
with a sponge, then grabbed a dirty towel.
Two more Moroccan men—one dressed in a captain’s uniform, the other
a chauffeur’s—rushed in. The driver slammed the door behind them
as they approached.
Azeddine swallowed hard and forced himself to walk away from his patients toward
them. His eyes dropped to the captain’s right arm. It dangled unnaturally
from the elbow. He knew it was broken, although no bones were exposed.
Ahmed was busy with the cadet. Azeddine wasn’t quite sure how to handle
the situation. He wanted to look at the captain’s arm but couldn’t
ask him to remove his shirt. The officer was a higher rank and much older; even
in an emergency, he’d have to adhere to societal norms. Instead, he asked
the captain to remove his jacket, and then slowly tore off the sleeve. He was
trying to hold back his shaking hands as he put the captain’s arm in a
sling, but he still heard the piercing wails of the young soldier behind him.
The captain looked as if he were trying to examine the old infirmary, then he
turned, looked up at Azeddine, and asserted quietly, yet sternly that he was
leaving. He told Azeddine and the rest they should do the same. The withdrawal
route had already been prepared, and they would die if they didn’t admit
“Retreat. Live!,” is all that Azeddine heard as the captain headed
Azeddine looked over at the injured soldier, then back to the retreating captain.
Azeddine followed the commander to the infirmary doors, trying to keep his voice
down as he explained about all the patients flooding in, how there was nowhere
else for them to go, and how they couldn’t simply abandon them there.
The captain pointed at the gurneys. “Luck will only take you so far!” he
told Azeddine in Moroccan Arabic, known as Darija. The captain’s cheeks
drooped and looked heavily flushed. His throaty voice emitted a “Layownkoom.” God
Ambulances arrived bringing in more injured soldiers and civilians. Men with
shrapnel and bullet wounds lay in agony. One had a swollen eye. The encrusted
blood looked like a dried-up waterfall caked on his cheek. Azeddine had nothing
to clean it with.
A morphine drip and a bag of blood trickled into the soldier missing his leg.
The rough tourniquet held back the dam of blood, but like a leaky faucet, small
droplets still dripped onto the floor. The tinge of blue on the soldier’s
hand indicated it might be too late; he’d already lost so much blood. Azeddine
raised his eyes up to the soldier’s. A jolt shot through Azeddine as he
remembered this smiling, young soldier playing ball with a Berber boy outside
the infirmary just days ago. The soldier lying in front of him wasn’t even
a man yet. Maybe he would never be. It couldn’t be his time.
On the next gurney lay a soldier who’d been shot in the shoulder. The wound
was high enough that
nothing vital was damaged. His eyes were closed. He wheezed in and out. Azeddine
whispered a prayer and pulled the sheet up to the man’s
chest as he looked at the wound preparing for the quick removal of the shrapnel.
The beds were filled. The captain had fled. Why couldn't Azeddine and the others
do the same? He watched as many struggled to breathe. Ahmed looked from across
the room as if trying to say something, but was at a loss for words.
Many of the patients were still alive. “Allah, shnoo radi ndirou?” Azeddine
mumbled. Allah, what are we going to do? He sat for a moment. It was all he could
do to keep himself together. He didn’t have his prayer beads, a gift from
his mother to remember Allah’s 99 sacred titles. Ahmed looked up again
at Azeddine. Only when Azeddine looked down at his open, shaking hands did he
truly realize his own limitations. There would be no miracles.