Ibrahim had expected that each of them would be welcomed, that they would pray together. But they had been ordered to sit still and hold their silence.
He saw the men react and, for the first time, smile in anticipation. They were all dressed in drab olive uniforms and their faces masked by the folds of the khaffiyehs wrapped round their heads. Pistols hung from webbing belts in holsters. He heard a vehicle approaching, its engine straining in the sand where there was no track.
He thought it was the vehicle they had waited for, and that the business of the market could now begin.
Beyond the concrete building, it stopped. The men went to meet it. He heard laughter and shouted greetings.
Ibrahim, and all of those sitting in the faint shade of the wall, was in the state of the living dead. He was between being a young man with a future, two years into his studies in medicine, and a martyr who would be greeted and shown a place at Gods table. He knew of the rewards offered to the shahidas because they had been listed to him in the mosque in Habalah by the imam, who had been his gate-keeper, his recruiter, who had made possible the start of his journey to Paradise.
The man they had waited for was tall and erect and seemed to carry no spared weight on his body. He moved loosely on his feet. His boots were coated with sand, as was the uniform he wore with its intricate camouflage patterns. More sand clung to the straps that came down from his shoulders to his belt. Grenades were festooned from them, and an assault rifle hung from his right shoulder rocking against the pouches on his chest that held spare magazines. The sand caked his balaclava into which slits had been crudely cut. The eyes, fierce and unwavering in the intensity of their stare, fastened on the group, never left them. Ibrahim felt their force bead on his body, and tried to give himself courage. He clasped his hands tightly together, hoping that the shake in his fingers would not be seen. He felt as naked as if a surgeons knife had cut him open.
A strangely shrill and high-pitched voice Ibrahim did not recognize the Arabic dialect that was spoken ordered the group to stand. They did. As he pushed himself upright, he felt the stiffness in his knees. He tried to stand tall. The man moved away from the group, waved aside the other men, and placed himself some fifty paces from the building.
A second order was given. In turn, the living dead were to walk towards him, stop, turn, walk back, then sit. His finger jabbed towards one of those whom Ibrahim believed to have come from Europe.
They were pointed to. They walked forward, stopped, turned, went back and sat. Some hurried, some dawdled, some moved hesitantly, some tired to throw back their shoulders and stride, and some shuffled. Ibrahims turn came, the last but one. He did not know what was expected of him.
Perhaps he was too deeply exhausted. Perhaps the ache in his legs and hips dulled his thoughts. He started, drifting over the dirt, not feeling the roughness of stones and debris under the soles of his trainers. He walked as if he sought only to be closer to his God, and he could not help the smile that came easily to his lips. He did not know how he should walk, or what the man with the mask of sand-crusted black material, with the twin gems of his eyes, wanted from him. He came close enough to the man to scent the old sweat beneath the tunic, and the smile held. The sun, blisteringly hot, beat on him as he turned. He went back to the shade.
He was about to sink down against the buildings wall, when the shout arrowed into his back.
You! Do not join them. Sit apart from them.
He watched one young man get to his feet and move slowly from the wall, confusion settling on the immature mouth, then despair. He thought the young man believed himself rejected. He faced the four older men. Deference was written on their faces. He gestured with his filthy calloused hand towards the hunched-down group. He believed he had found the youth he wanted.
Excerpted from The Walking Dead by Gerald Seymour Copyright © 2008 by Gerald Seymour. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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