First published online as a web series from Akashic Books.
Tal Afar Town is what they call us, but we’re not the real deal. The casting agency had to open it up to “Actors of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean descent in good standing with the Union.” We’ve got a few Armenians, and even a Stein from Scarsdale, but we go by character names anyway. I’m Mohammed, or Mohammed-8 when taking stage directions. I am not, or rather Mohammed-8 is not, an insurgent. He is a Shi’ite dentist that lives in Tal Afar. My friend Ahmed (real name Tony) is an insurgent and I joke that he gets all the fun.
Aside from actors, we use volunteer war veterans as bomb victims from time to time. We cover them in fake blood and have them screaming and writhing. They’re good—even showed the professionals a thing or two about portraying pain.
“It’s because I know how it feels to have a leg evaporate,” one of them told me during off-hours. “You can’t imagine something like that.”
A few of us vomited the first time we rehearsed a bombing, but we have the routine down pat now. Tal Afar Town has been training soldiers for four months, so we’ve had time to work out the kinks.
Of course, we’re not a real town either. We’re a mock city built in the woods of Fort Polk in Southern Louisiana. The soldiers have other names for us—so politically incorrect, they make the actors blush. But we have names for them too. We call them Reds because most are rednecks from red states out in rural God’s country. There are a few from the Northeast, but those break your heart because they have 9-11 written all over their faces. At least those guys know to look up for danger. Most soldiers only look down the barrel of their guns.
We call them G.I. Joes, Billy-Bobs, Storm Troopers and we call them Dead. After the Hollywoods set off special effects that light up their young faces, we say that all soldiers within a 35-foot radius of a coordinate have been killed. Those that are 30 to 45 feet are without a limb or two—or three. The Casualties try to talk their way out of it, but we wave our hands and say, “No no, you’re dead for 24 hours. Go back to camp and hit the showers.” The injured are only allowed to stay on set if they sit on the ground and help the veterans scream. Most opt not to.
We call a few Murderers. Some soldiers are terrified and die, some are scared just right, and some aren’t afraid to open fire into a crowd. Mohammed-8 for example, the Shi’ite dentist, has died a total of fifty-six times. We lose our tempers occasionally, and surround them yelling, but we know how hard they have it. Ahmed the insurgent and I look alike—we could be cousins. (Hell, we tell people we’re brothers when we hit the bars in Leesville.) It’s hard to shoot him when he’s using me for cover. I even had a young guy apologize for killing me last month.
“I thought you were shooting at me,” he said, close to tears.
“It’s all right, Kid,” I told him sadly. “That Ahmed is a dirty bastard.”
The soldier didn’t look consoled. He was deployed a week ago.
Not all of them arrive so green. Some are good from the start—real good. We’re a tight-knit, liberal crew of actors, but we can still recognize a class act when we see one. They are levelheaded and show real steel…and they make us very sad. I grabbed one by the arm once and tried to talk him out of service. He was a born leader (a looker too) from Georgia. Just that day, he led his squad on a mission through Tal Afar Town without suffering a scratch.
“I’m Mohammed-8. Or just Mohammed if we’re being familiar.”
“Look Mohammed, they attacked us. I lost an uncle in the Towers.”
“Mohammed’s from Iraq. Not Afghanistan.”
I didn’t mean to piss him off. I was just telling him what it said on my character write-up. He grumbled something like, Two can play this game…
“Well then you—or Mohammed, I mean—just got a chance to vote for the first time. And you cast a ballot in honor of your father, a political prisoner who was tortured and executed without trial.”
That bit wasn’t on my character write-up, but it could have been.
“So show some appreciation, Mohammed, and let go of my arm. We’ve both got jobs to do.”
We also call them Sacrifice. After leaving Tal Afar Town they are flown to Iraq ready or not. We pray for them secretly because we don’t really believe in praying, but what else can we do. We pray for them, we train them, and we kill them.