Someone. Anyone.

Haitham exchanges a warm greeting with his friends as he finds space in the circle and settles into a cross-legged position. He unsheathes the drum his daughter was playing earlier and cradles it gently between his arm and side. He rubs the transparent blue face. Any unseen lint or debris falls off. It’s time to play.

On a warm Saturday in early fall, in the uneventful town of Norway in western Maine’s Oxford Hill, a town known for its quaint, historic buildings and frozen lake ice skating, Haitham Salih sits on his couch in his two-bedroom apartment, knee bouncing, trying to ignore the explosions and gunshots. A thump thump thump breaks through the chaos. His eleven-year-old daughter sits on the carpet, lazily slapping a metal drum. His thirteen-year-old stepson sits beside him on the couch, fingers executing commands to his troops rapidly through his PlayStation controller. He’s playing his favorite game. Call of Duty.

Haitham doesn’t normally sit still long; between taking his wife to and from work, dropping his kids off at school and working part-time at a bakery in Portland, he can keep himself occupied. He also doesn’t normally watch as his son plays video games; he’s lived through real life wars.

As a kid, not much older than his daughter, Haitham went to school every day, not on the cool coasts of Maine, but in the scorching deserts of Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He didn’t like it, but as a student he wouldn’t have to serve in Saddam’s army that was embroiled in a deadly war with Iran. He liked to play football, as in FIFA, not NFL, in the streets and alleyways around his house in Basra, just one of many scrawny boys kicking balls on unkempt stone streets.

Every day at dusk, his mother called him to dinner from the doorway of their home. He came running, sat cross-legged on the floor with his father, brothers and sisters, dug into dinner. On special nights, there was roasted chicken, positioned like a bull’s eye on a mat in the middle of his family. He used pieces of khubz, slightly charredflatbread the size of a small beach ball, to pry chunks off the carcass; garnished with homemade pickles and yogurt, he folded the flatbread like a taco and ate. Juices leaked out the sides and down his sunned hands. Though his family was not wealthy, Haitham’s father worked hard to feed his family, and no one went hungry.

At twelve years old, Haitham’s school held a celebration in honor of the Ba’ath party, Saddam’s political affiliation, and every student was obligated to participate. A teacher put a drum in Haitham’s hands and told him to play. Haitham was wary. He is Shi’a, a group routinely targeted during Saddam’s violent regime. The drum had weight, though, and felt nice resting against his thigh. Its face felt smooth and stone cool. Haitham wasn’t special, nor did he know how to play the drum. His teacher just needed someone, anyone, to play. But Haitham decided he liked the drum, so he played.  Back on the couch, Haitham asks his children if they want anything for dinner before he leaves. Their mother, Haitham’s wife and a life-long Mainer, should be home soon, but he doesn’t want to leave them hungry. His children mumble that they’re fine, not turning their attention away from the game. They’ll eat something later, they say, like frozen pizza. Hands on his knees, Haitham pushes himself off the couch and asks his daughter for the drum. She protests slightly, but Haitham needs it tonight—the plays traditional Iraqi music every Saturday with a group of local Portland musicians, so she turns it over. He packs it in his case and slings it over his shoulder. He kisses her goodbye, waves to both his children, and heads out the door. At his car, he can hear his daughter turning her attention to a new hobby, violin. Scratchy, tuneless notes pierce the calm evening.

Standing in the delicatessen at Hannaford’s in Portland, Haitham has a choice to make. He considers rows of roasted chickens in the rotisserie. The fowl look identical in their caged take-away boxes. A salty whiff tickles his nostrils, his taste buds fire. Haitham’s eyes water from the waves rippling off the heat lamp and he licks his lips. He needs to bring something tonight, so he has to choose a bird. One or two? His forehead creases between his eyebrows. He looks around, as if help will appear from somewhere. Finally, he takes a deep breath and chooses two chickens. He doesn’t want anyone going hungry.  

He checks out and heads to his car, sliding his middle-aged belly behind the wheel of his four-door sedan, adjusting his faded blue Patriots ball cap in the rearview mirror. He is neither a Pats fan, nor an American football fan, but he learned to understand the game so he has something to talk about when people inquire about the hat. It hides his balding head.

As he pulls out of the parking lot onto Preble Street, his hands bounce on the steering wheel, looking for something to do other than drive. It’s been a while since he’s taken this route. It’s been a while since he’s played.

After the school celebration, drumming was all Haitham wanted to do. He used the drum at school and started playing at every function. It wasn’t long before he and a few friends were playing together regularly, performing at weddings and parties and engagements. He loved the music, but more than that, he loved the way he felt when he played—his mind slowed down, his body relaxed. Drumming was a distraction, if only for a moment, from the shifting political and social landscape of his homeland.

Saddam had oppressed his people for so long that, after Desert Storm, he lost control of seventeen of Iraq’s eighteen states as clashes between state forces and oppressed Iraqi citizens played out in the streets and rebel militias gathered strength. Haitham’s neighbors, regular civilians caught in the middle, starving and desperate, raided a flour mill. Saddam, weakened and seething, bombed that flour mill. What victims could walk away, did so charred—hair gone, faces unrecognizable. Some of them were taken to Haitham’s home. There was nowhere else to go. A nurse came to treat the wounded. His cousin, an ambulance driver, kept the house at capacity. His mother provided food for all of the patients. Everyday the violence escalated; everyday Haitham played less and less.

On a quiet street near Deering Oaks Park, Haitham’s friend Ahmed opens his front door. The two friends clasp right hands and pull each other into a half embrace. Physically they could not look more different. At forty-four years old, Haitham has the body of a trucker turned stay-at-home dad turned food service worker, round and squat. He wears a short sleeve collared shirt open over a well-worn graphic t-shirt stretching across his belly and cargo pants. He is darker than his friend, more burnt dirt to Ahmed’s caramel. At thirty-six, Ahmed has the body of a featherweight boxer—toned and lean—and is meticulously groomed. His thick, ebony eyebrows and goatee look painted on by a meticulous hand. Ahmed is from northern Iraq, Haitham from the south, but the two men met at a social room for Iraqi immigrants in Biddeford, Maine years ago and have been friends ever since.

In the kitchen, they set about unpacking grocery bags. The chicken goes on the cool stovetop. Khubz from the bakery Haitham works at, steaming in their bags,are tossed on the countertop. Ahmed sets out a sweating Vlassic’s jar from his fridge, a reused vessel holding pickles his sister made. This feast will be eaten many hours later with their friends, a group of Iraqi men that gather every Saturday at Ahmed’s house to share food, play music and reconnect with a homeland that is half a world away.

In the basement of Ahmed’s house, it’s cool and dim. A bargain store selection of carpets and pillows cover the concrete floor. In front of the water heater sits a stool lined with percussion instruments. Men are perched on the ground in a circle, snacking on quartered pomegranates, green grapes, bowls of chickpeas garnished with sliced lemon and Lays potato chips dipped in homemade yogurt. A hookah is passed around. Tendrils of smoke flutter like a blown dandelion with every exhale; green apple clouds mix with Kamel cigarettes and the smell of damp.

The men speak loudly in Arabic, the sound bouncing off the bare, concrete walls, as they adjust their own instruments. Ahmed takes a tambourine off the stool and softly grazes the metal jingles, listening to the tingy notes they make. An elderly gentleman with droopy eyes repairs a broken string on his oud, a guitar-like instrument with a pear-shaped belly made up of half-inch stripes of wood, each one a different type, color and grain. Another hits a drum with a face the diameter of a baseball, and a high-pitched snap sends sound waves vibrating through the airspace. Completing the circle, one resembling a tawny Puff Marshmallow Man has no instrument to be seen, so instead single-handedly works his way through a bottle of Senator’s Club whiskey, pouring tall glasses over ice and taking long, slow gulps.

Haitham exchanges a warm greeting with his friends as he finds space in the circle and settles into a cross-legged position. He unsheathes the drum his daughter was playing earlier and cradles it gently between his arm and side. He rubs the transparent blue face. Any unseen lint or debris falls off. It’s time to play.

Haitham was not involved with rebel activity against Saddam. He stormed no buildings, he threw no bombs. But that did not weigh much with state forces. Haitham had a target on his back simply because he was a young man not in uniform, and a Shi’a. He drew even more attention because he helped at his home turned hospital. He could feel Saddam’s troops watching him, and he saw the trucks full of young men, eyes shrouded and hands bound, they drove daily out of Basra. The trucks returned. The men did not. In the dusky dawn, he slipped out of his house and fled Iraq. He didn’t pack a bag. He didn’t kiss his mother goodbye. He left his drum.

An estimated 37,000 displaced Iraqis made their way to refugee camps in Saudi Arabia in 1991. Haitham was just one of the many who waited. Days ticked and ticked and ticked away, turning into months, then years. For many, the waiting became too much. People lost their minds, went crazy. Others committed suicide. It was so long, they couldn’t comprehend it.  

Haitham and other refugees in the camps were no longer starving from lack of food, but from lack of information. They staged hunger strikes in an effort to coax news out of those in charge, mostly American, Saudi and UN officials, but information was rare and precious. Any time spent not praying for release was considered a waste of time, offensive even. Music was a fool’s errand. So Haitham didn’t play—not in Saudi Arabia. Not when he finally immigrated to the United States two years later. Not when he met his wife, not when they started a family, not when they moved to Norway, Maine.

In the basement, Haitham shifts on his pillow. He wants to begin. It’s 8:15. When he leaves Ahmed’s, he still has an hour-long drive back home. But the other men are in no mood to be rushed.

It wasn’t until just last year that Haitham, with Ahmed’s encouragement, picked up a drum again. The pair didn’t know it when they met, but they were in residence at the same Saudi refugee camp at the same time. Ahmed had been inviting Haitham to his basement get-togethers every week for a while, and although Haitham went and enjoyed the music, he wouldn’t play. Now he plays as often as he can, a few Saturdays a month. Ahmed’s basement is the only place discreet enough for these men to play music, non-stop, without disturbing wives or sleeping children or neighbors. The men play for four, sometimes five hours.

Haitham’s life now bares no resemblance to his violent past. He likes Norway well enough. It’s a safe place to raise children and the cost of living is low. But he finds it small and a bit boring compared to his urban birthplace of Basra. He yearns for the rare opportunities to go home.

Haitham was unable to return to Iraq until 2004, after the Americans launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and ousted Saddam from power. His father died before he could make it back; his mother passed shortly after Haitham arrived for his first visit in over twelve years. While there is no lack of family and friends in Iraq, he finds it difficult to connect to the innocence of his childhood, so quickly lost amid a country in the stronghold of a violent regime, and reconnect with his most precious memories. Kicking footballs over unkempt dirt streets. Sharing meals with his family. Playing his drum.

A glass of Senator’s Club is refilled. Ahmed refreshes the hookah. A pinkie jabs into a quartered pomegranate in search of one last seed. There are several false starts, the tuning of an instrument interpreted as the first chords of a song, but the basement falls into talking and smoking again. Ahmed softly grazes the metal jingles of his tambourine again, just for one note, then croons the lyrics of the first song, sounding beautiful and trance-inducing at once. The men ready their instruments. The air is heavy. Although they like Iraqi music, the men prefer the love ballads of Oum Kalthoum, an Egyptian songstress known for her love ballads. She died in the seventies. Some of her songs take up to an hour to perform. No one minds.

In unison, they play. Haitham’s body relaxes. His hands fall into a steady rhythm with the beat. He loves this music because it’s romantic. There is no music in the world more romantic than Arabic music. The men croon about lovers who are kept apart, about heightened desire. Always wanting more, what cannot be touched.