As the plane rumbled forward, Noorain looked out the tiny pod-like window and thought the sky looked different today. It had none of the uniformity that she had captured in so many of her photos and its permanent fixtures (the distinctly round, bright yellow sun and the fluffy cotton candy clouds) had all disappeared. If she were to photograph this sky, they would call it a Modernist picture that flagrantly disregarded the boundaries that had once been so important. The clouds were mere memories, smoky wisps scattered across the bright horizon, and the canvass itself was a mélange of pastel colors that bled indiscriminately into one another. The blue began before the lilac had ended and joined the orange in the very same moment. The pink wove in and out of bits of cloud and the last rays of sunlight danced so passionately with the indigo that just looking at this spectacle you would not know whether the sun meant to rise or set. There was a restlessness about the clouds today and their wispy white spread across the canvas so freely that it seemed they intended to meld the sunlight with the fog so that they may escape in the confusion of it all. It was impossible, after all, to slip out unnoticed in an ordered setting, but disorder; the merging of everything and the blurring of all boundaries? Disorder held promise; chaos bred freedom. And that was what today’s sky was: chaos. Had the sun set obediently behind the hills without a word of protest and the clouds sat still like cotton wads as they did in all the paintings she saw at the Museum, she would never have believed letting go was a choice but this sky, this colorful, chaotic mess gave her back the hope she thought she had lost exactly one month and six days ago when they had told her Ahmad had been shot.
Soon the plane would rise above the clouds and the familiar sky would be gone. It made her nervous to think how she would spend the next few hours without the view to distract her. She had flown to foreign countries on her assignments more times than she could remember but she could not remember the last time she had flown without Ahmad in the next seat. She did not know how to keep her mind from wandering to the easy laugh he laughed as he told her funny stories—the kind of stories they both needed to distract them from the horrible realities they encountered everywhere they went. Soon she would need Ahmad to come back and distract her from her dark thoughts.
Ahmad was one of those people who have a natural flair for telling stories. He could be describing the most mundane thing and it would seem interesting. In college, he had covered a story about the dining hall with so much wit and energy that the entire campus seemed to be posting about it on Facebook. Noorain had known Ahmad since her freshman year when she signed up as a photographer for the news section of their college paper. Eventually, they had realized they always wanted to cover the same stories (the tragic public safety car accident outside Brown Hall, the student protests for worker’s rights, the candlelight vigil for Joseph Hamilton) and began to work as a team: he would write the stories and she would take the photos that captured the moment. When he graduated, he began work as a war correspondent for a leading news agency and a year later, she did the same and they spent the next two years working as a team again. Their anti-war protests and writings in college had turned into a desire to work to unmask its horrors in adulthood. Their youthful capacity for hope was still alive and it guaranteed that even in the toughest times, they had faith in their work. They were passionate about the stories they covered, confident that documenting violence would mean that one day people would not fund it or support it.
Noorain had not been on the Afghanistan assignment during which Ahmad was shot. She was at the office working on safe civilian territory where the ground would not explode any second when a colleague told her about the news. Her first reaction was disbelief, her second was to ask for more details—it did not even occur to her in those first few seconds that he might not have survived the attack. After all, both of them had been injured before, it was just something you expected when you worked in active war zones but neither of them had suffered any permanent damage from their injuries.
Even when she had been shot in her right leg five months ago, she had been able to recover in a month- physically, at least. She could never forget the carnage in the photos she took on that assignment, the flames and all the bodies, the look of desperation on the nameless strangers’ faces. She could still smell the strange smell of gunpowder mingled with sweat. She had been framing a shot when she suddenly found herself caught in a firefight. The cloud of bullets had been so fast that she could not tell which one came from which side. Screaming and smoke had permeated the air; Noorain had turned to confirm that Ahmad was a safe distance away just as she felt a searing pain in her thigh. She had woken up on the crisp, white linen of a hospital bed and frantically looked around, only seeing the bloody fields of Najaf, wondering if the racing civilians had managed to escape the firing. She would wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes, drenched in her own sweat and only calm herself by taking deep breaths as her doctor had suggested. She had not been well enough to go on another assignment and Ahmad had gone to Afghanistan alone. She wished she could have been there now, could have done something to save him.
Afterwards, she began to doubt their work. With the image of Ahmad wrapped in the white kahaf that covered his bullet wounds and the sound of the takbir reverberating through the halls of the mosque at his funeral fresh in her mind, she could not muster any faith in the work they had chosen. Was there really any purpose behind what she did? The fighters, the paramedics, they did all the work; she only took photographs like some cheap spectator. She knew in her heart that this assessment was not true but she did not know how to believe it. An image flashed in her mind, then; it was the one they had run on the front page of the paper once. She closed her eyes and saw the toddler with curly brown hair and muddy green eyes who stood dangerously close to a scorching fire, clinging to his mother’s bloodied body as his father tried to pull him to safety. She remembered the anti-war protests her photograph had inspired. She thought of what Ahmad had said about it: that the politicians needed to see the photographs to realize the reality of what they were doing, that those of us living in peace needed to see humanity’s ugliest face too but she did not know how to believe his words when the spirit behind them had driven him so close to danger that it had murdered him. Now, the media used his story as an example of the violence that plagued the world and she could not help but feel angry at them. They all talked about his “kind spirit,” his perseverance, his bravery- all true things- but none of them talked about him: about the fact that he loved Milky Bar buttons or knew all of The Lion King by heart—those were things news journalists like her,were supposed to dismiss as irrelevant to the story. Noorain wondered if her photo of the Kurdish girl crying amid the wreck of the car bomb that had killed the girl’s brother had somehow betrayed her. She thought about how she had not even tried to talk to the girl- there had been no time in the chaos- and wondered if she should have. She wondered too why she had not cried once after hearing that her best friend was dead and if she was fighting against her feelings.
“Are you alright?” a tentative voice interrupted her thoughts and Noorain realized something on her face must have betrayed her thoughts. Noorain tried to nod and straighten her expression, clutching her black camera tightly, hoping it would give her some comfort but as she turned to look at her neighbor, it became too painfully real that Ahmad would never sit next to her on a flight again, never work with her. The woman looked at her with a serious, concerned expression, her watery blue eyes crinkling and her messily painted wrinkling mouth opening as if she were debating to say something more. She asked Noorain about her camera in an obvious (and well-meaning) effort to distract her, adding that her son wanted to be a photographer with pride glowing in her voice. Noorain managed to collect herself again and tell her she worked as a photojournalist. The woman’s eyes lit up with recognition at that and she remarked carelessly,
“You’ve chosen a dangerous job. I was just reading about a journalist who was accidentally killed in a military shooting in Afghanistan-”
Noorain never heard what she said next because it was in that moment that she felt it all, reality hit her like a torrential gust of wind she could no longer seek shelter from and, for the first time, she felt that Ahmad had really died—even complete strangers knew that. Her best friend had passed away, his funeral prayers had been offered, the world was still on fire and she was here on a plane to El-Arish in Egypt from where she would go to Gaza. Hot tears seared their way down her cheeks for the first time in months and she was unable to stop them- she wasn’t sure she even wanted to. She was oblivious to both the stricken woman next to her who wondered if she had said something wrong and the flight attendant who tried to calm Noorain with soothing words Noorain did not hear. The plastic cups on the flight attendant’s abandoned trolley rattled with the motion of the plane and the passengers stared at the young woman in 16C who could not stop crying.
The War Correspondent was written by Sauleha Kamal.