Jonathan took an interrupted deep breath that consumed all the energy he had, and stepped into the dreaded military zone of Alexandrina, suffocating between the sea of heads before him and the crowd behind him. It had all the stigmata of a military zone—or, more precisely, the lack of them. It was a vast expanse of desert situated fifty kilometers outside Alexandrina, the capital of Priapustan.
In every direction, as far as the eye could see, were high-rise brick walls lined by jagged glass and barbed wire. In the huge waste of space, pink and green buildings, reflecting classic military taste, were interspersed. On every wall was the same identical rough sketch of a camera with a big red X across it. It didn’t matter anyway. The loyal soldiers of the Army of Priapustan had frisked and searched everybody at the first gate three kilometers back and had taken all electronic equipment, including phones, from them.
It was a winter morning, and the weather had been cold when he left home. Here, however, it was always hot. It was as if some negative vortex beneath this little piece of hell on earth absorbed all the positive energy, churned it, and regurgitated it as negative energy so thick it was almost palpable in the air Jonathan was breathing. Most prominent and ominous of all, however, was the massive billboard in the center of the area, towering several meters above the ground and large enough to cast a sweeping black shadow that eclipsed the hundreds of people standing around Jonathan. It was a billboard that had become commonplace around Priapustan in recent months, since the success of the second revolution led by General Priapus, now commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Priapustan.
There had been debate over which revolution was the real one. A couple of years ago, a popular uprising had overthrown the president. A sense of revolutionary romanticism had engulfed the republic back then, and Jonathan had been ecstatic at the prospect of a new future where he would be a respected doctor earning a decent living in his own country. A second revolution, the real revolution, according to the state media (the only source of news now), had taken place a few months back, overthrowing yet another president. It surfaced that the first revolution was no more than a series of disordered protests by a bunch of hooligans hell-bent on destabilizing the country. The real revolution, the corrective one, under the leadership and guidance of General Priapus, had set things straight. Circumstances had gotten so much better that the people proposed a change in the name of the republic from Alexandrina (then the name of the capital and country) to Priapustan, as a small tribute to the great leader, who, in a time of great darkness and despair, had saved the country from the first revolution.
Jonathan didn’t remember any friends or family who had proposed or agreed to this change in nomenclature, but the television said it was so. Who was he to know any better?
None of this mattered now, anyhow. The massive, clean-shaven face of the general gazed down at Jonathan, as if to tell him he was here serving his duty to his country as a young man eligible for the draft. This was, in fact, why Jonathan and the hundreds of other tired men were here in this hellhole. Jonathan would never otherwise dream of setting foot and spending three years in what could probably be identified from outer space as a black spot of misery in the center of the blue and green of the earth. In the Republic of Priapustan, “patriotic” military service was compulsory for all young men once they graduated from college. It was a fate (or an honor, according to the government) everyone dreaded and would do the impossible to evade.
Although the military was a corrupt, dysfunctional institution, pulling strings to evade patriotic duty was next to impossible. After graduating from medical school, Jonathan had gone to extreme lengths to find anyone who could save him from this miserable fate, including proposing to a girl whose father was an esteemed colonel in the army. Nothing succeeded.
And here Jonathan was, with his last possible chance of escaping patriotic duty before him. It was the dreaded day of the medical exam. On this day, you’d either be deemed fit for patriotic service or you’d be one of the lucky minority who received a medical exemption. Every young man in Priapustan had thought about this day for years. Rumors abounded about what would happen—or, more precisely, what would happen to you. Over the years, the rumors had become so extensive that it was impossible to know for certain what actually happened in the medical exam unless you undertook it yourself. You couldn’t ask former draftees about it either. It was one of those traumatic, shameful experiences that no one had the audacity to talk about. Some rumors said that you’d undergo an anal exam where the doctor would insert a device to see the strength of your anal muscle. Other rumors had it that you would have to strip naked while a brigade of highly decorated officers would pass by you, inspecting you and making arbitrary decisions on whether you were fit for patriotic service or not.
No one knew for sure.
What was certain was that everyone was hoping for one thing at the end of this humiliating day: a medical exemption. In one fleeting moment, one swift movement of a pen in the doctor’s hand could make or break your future. He’d either reach for the blue pen, meaning you were fit for service and thus doomed to serve in the military for three years, or he’d reach for the red pen and you’d be free. Some people were lucky to have a significant deformity that guaranteed exemption. Some had bowed legs or rare skin diseases. Others were too short or too fat. What every one of these deformed, short, or fat people had in common was a smirk on their faces because they knew they were guaranteed an exemption. Those who were unfortunate enough to be in good health would sometimes go to extreme lengths to make themselves medically unfit, such as deliberately engaging in an eating marathon the year before the exam to push themselves into obesity territory.
Jonathan had terrible eyesight, and had deliberately decided to attend today’s medical exam with the thickest pair of glasses he had. He had also put off corrective laser surgery for years in the hope that one day it would pay off with an exemption. This was the only day in someone’s lifetime when one could proudly parade their disability or deformity without shame. However, there was still no guarantee that one would get exempted. Rumors abounded that General Priapus was in need of a new battalion of patriotic recruits in these difficult times. The Armed Forces were fighting off the vestiges of the previous regime, who were engaged in a violent war of terrorism against the state. It was suspected that the military doctors were employing exceedingly exclusive criteria for exemptions. Some people said that if you were breathing and could walk, they would take you.
Whatever the political situation of the country, Jonathan had absolutely no interest in taking sides. Neither did any of the other hundreds of young potential recruits coming today for their medical exam.
It hadn’t always been this way.
A couple of years back, after the first wave of protests (back then, those protests were the only revolution), when they had deposed a tyrant, there had been great hope. Jonathan was proud of his green Alexandrian passport and saw a horizon of endless opportunity. Now though, no one could care less what became of the republic. It didn’t matter if the economy got better or if the country sank into a trillion-dollar deficit. It was of no concern to Jonathan, or to the majority of the educated elite to which he belonged, whether the regime was democratically elected or forced on the people. It was of no consequence to anybody with an iota of ambition what happened to the country or how its future was shaped or what became of its people.
Jonathan never left home without his songs, headphones plugged into his ears. Nothing was worse than listening to people on public transportation whining nonstop about the country’s dead-end situation and rising inflation. He had only one goal in sight: to emigrate and never return except perhaps to attend his parents’ funerals. He had everything set. The licensing examinations of the United States were done, his resumé was in order, and he was already set on which hospitals to apply to in America. The only thing holding him back was the honor of compulsory patriotic duty, which banned him and all young men from traveling until they completed or were exempted from it.
Priapustan was nothing more than a giant airport waiting room for the ambitious as they worked on their emigration plans, and a giant cemetery for those who had emigrated decades ago to return to and die there. Other than that, it was nothing. It lacked all notions of a state or country. It was just a succession of phenomenal failures and setbacks stretching back decades, buttressed by a powerful security apparatus, perhaps the only institution besides the military that had received increased funding under the auspices of General Priapus. An insignificant entity on the map that had already sunk into oblivion as far as its educated, US-bound elite was concerned.
This obsessional train of thought on emigration pounded back and forth in Jonathan’s migraine-stricken head as he and all the potential draftees were lined up side by side. Everyone fidgeted and fumbled to get their paperwork in order as a lowly soldier screamed orders incessantly, every order contradicting the previous one. The soldier’s official title in the ranking of the Armed Forces was “pawn.”
The pawn was also an unfortunate conscript forced into three years of patriotic duty in the service of the great Armed Forces. Only those with minimum or no education were selected to be pawns. His plain, dirty, olive-colored one-piece uniform was characteristic of those of his ranking. Pawns were the most numerous in the military, and also the least respected and most trampled upon by every other rank. Deprived of respect and humanity as civilians because of their low educational and social status, they were victimized for this very reason even more in the military by their designation as pawns. Pawns eagerly awaited this day from year to year. On this day only, the pawn had authority over people who were better educated and of a higher class than him. He knew that today he could say whatever he wanted to them and they couldn’t answer back or protest. With one word, he could order them to leave the military zone and come back in a month, all while living in the anguish of again dreading the medical exam. This was always his happiest day of the year, the only day when he felt like a human being worthy of respect. On this day he was king.
Jonathan couldn’t think of anything besides why this pawn was taking such pleasure in torturing them. They were already in the most stressful situation of their lives, and the last thing they needed was a pawn humiliating them even more. Why was this man, the same age as all these young men and having been subjected to the same ordeal a year ago, being so rude and insensitive? They deserved better treatment than this. They’d already studied away a quarter of their lives to get where they were today.
The pawn walked by the potential recruits one by one, insulting each onenomenclature’s mother, giving random orders for them to straighten their necks or to open their eyes wider while looking at the sun. The pleasure of seeing the terror on their faces was intense, almost orgasmic. Jonathan’s head was bobbing in unison with his pounding heart as the pawn edged closer to his face. Oh, dear God! The pawn’s onion and garlic breath made Jonathan sick to his stomach. I’m almost sure I’ll be reprimanded for allowing my face to turn green with disgust. The pawn scanned Jonathan’s physique several times, each time pausing to gaze at the Lacoste alligator on Jonathan’s chest. His eyes oscillated between the alligator and the thick white-framed glasses, as if to tell him, “You think you’ll get exempted because of those glasses? Not today, you spoiled arrogant doctor. Everyone’s being drafted.” The pawn pointed an accusing finger at the glasses and spoke, bathing Jonathan’s head in malodorous breath. “How weak is your eyesight?” Jonathan trembled as he stuttered his reply, barely audible. “Minus six right eye and minus five left.” The pawn let out a short, evil laugh. “That won’t get you out. The eye doctor is letting everyone in today.” The words left a scar in Jonathan’s psyche as potent as the dirty breath he was inhaling. He tried to calm down and reminded himself that this pawn knew nothing and just wanted to scare the living daylights out of him. It was an inferiority complex in its purest form. Jonathan wanted to take off his shirt and hand it to the pawn if that would relieve him of those menacing eyes and malodorous mouth. After an eternity, the pawn moved on, repeating the ritual—this time eyeing the next recruit’s Rolex.
The pawn strolled leisurely along the queue of desperate potential draftees. The pleasure of seeing the terror on their faces was intense, almost orgasmic. He stopped in his tracks to inspect one particular smug-looking doctor. Something about him made the pawn uneasy. Maybe it was his thick, white-framed glasses that signaled a possible exemption. Or perhaps it was that idiotic alligator on his nipple. What did that mean anyway? Why would someone wear a shirt with an alligator on the nipple? These people were really stupid for doctors. This one looked particularly imbecilic. The pawn didn’t like this young man. He decided to employ a torture technique he had used a hundred times already today. He stepped closer to the doctor and asked him a question. “How weak is your eyesight?” “Minus six right eye and minus five left,” came the response amid nauseatingly pleasant perfume. “That won’t get you out. The eye doctor is letting everyone in today,” he told him in what he knew was a near-death sentence to this nice-smelling, spoiled boy. What kind of real man wears perfume anyway? Of course, these kids weren’t real men. They’d never worked a day in their lives. Born into luxury and accustomed to getting everything by asking their parents, they’d sailed through school and probably gotten into college by pulling strings. Even in what they considered the worst fate of their lives, army service, they’d be appointed as officers in the ranks of the army, with all the clout and benefits the position afforded. The Army of Priapustan, the supreme institution of patriotism and manhood, was in reality nothing more than a brutal reflection of the stratified, classist society it took its recruits from. For this young pawn, life was inherently unfair. It was nothing more than a dead-end with limitless hardships and minimal opportunities, where every day was like the last and the next until you died. Satisfied at having terrified the alligator nipple boy, the pawn moved on to repeat the ordeal with another one of the sissy boys.
By noon, nothing much had changed except that all the potential recruits were drenched in sweat and had acquired a tan from the hellish sun. The medical exam hadn’t started yet. They’d just been forced to wait in one long line while preparing paperwork to stand in another long one: a cycle that was repeated more times than Jonathan cared to count. The pawns had called each other and they all took their turns terrifying the young already-terrified doctors. They deliberately leaked rumors that were nothing more than figments of their imagination about how the military this year was in dire need of more manpower and would even recruit university students provided they could breathe. They marched the potential recruits around the military zone, from one desolate patch of desert to another, forcing them to read the signs set up by the military’s propaganda unit all over the zone. Signs like “SOLDIERHOOD IS THE PINNACLE OF HONOR AND MANHOOD” were at every corner. A particularly annoying sign read,
“DEAR YOUNG MAN, PLEASE REMEMBER THAT MILITARY SERVICE IS AN HONOR AND A PRIVILEGE AWARDED ONLY TO THOSE WHO DESERVE IT. THE ARMY OF PRIAPUSTAN WILL NEVER RECRUIT SOMEONE UNDESERVING OF THIS HONOR.”
The scariest of them all was,
“DEAR BROTHER, DO NOT WORRY IF YOU MISS THE CALL FOR THE DRAFT. WE WILL NEVER DEPRIVE YOU OF YOUR RIGHT TO SOLDIERHOOD AND TRUE MANHOOD. WE WILL FIND YOU OURSELVES.”
After standing in endless lines and being laughed at by countless pawns, the time for the medical exam had come. Jonathan’s ears were deafened by the sound of his pounding heart. His pulse had never raced so fast in his life. His hair glistened with sweat. He desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but the pawn preferred to let him suffer the pain of a full bladder. They were lined up in front of the clinic, a ridiculous-looking building awash in the military’s characteristic sickening pink. Above the entrance, a giant rectangular sign sent out a message to all the potential recruits: “PLAY SICK, BE SICK, AND DIE.” They walked single file into the building, handing their dossier of paperwork to the pawn at the entrance one by one. Each and every one of them got a complimentary, “You call yourselves university grads? You’re nothing more than a bunch of idiots with useless certificates. Hell, the recruits who can’t read and write can understand and follow instructions better than you lousy bunch!” By now these insults had become ritualistic, and Jonathan was desensitized to anything they could say.
The moment the potential draftees were inside the clinic building, a doctor in an oversized white coat and a colonel with a permanent frown on his face appeared out of nowhere and started shouting instructions, “Strip down to your boxers! Now! You over there, hurry up! This isn’t a striptease. And you, I said down to your boxers, not your shorts. Your socks, too, quickly!”
Jonathan knew this was not the most humiliating part, and that worse was to come when he would be asked to remove his boxers as well. All the young men stood barefooted on the cold cement floor as the military doctor and the officer, secure in their clothing, walked by them one by one. Jonathan felt very self-conscious because of his scrawny physique and hunched shoulders, developed from years of hunching over a desk. His only consolation was that he wasn’t the only one. Everyone seemed to have the upper body strength of a squirrel. Their pot bellies and skinny legs made them look like a row of lemons supported by two matchsticks. These were complemented by balding heads—from the stress of years of study—dangling bellies, and drooping backs.
Everyone claimed to have a deformity or disability and was trying to convince the doctor that his deficit was good enough to grant an exemption. The doctor passed each young draftee one by one and asked them to extend their arms and straighten their legs. Out of several hundred, only about twenty were granted the red signature of freedom, as the doctor deemed them unfit for patriotic service because of their bowed legs or sagging bellies. Even though Jonathan hadn’t seen the doctor say the magic word “unfit” or grab the red pen, their ecstatic faces as they left the line and wobbled away to put their clothes on were ample proof. A thousand eyes stared at them with pure envy. Jonathan was unfortunately granted the blue pen and had to walk in the line with the other unlucky souls to the next exam.
“Time for the anal exam!” bellowed the doctor. Hearing this, Jonathan cringed and wished the vortex beneath this hellhole would devour him for good. “Get into that room over there. You’ll see instructions posted on the wall.” And instructions they were, indeed. The boxer-clad men lined up in front of a curtain. Behind the curtain, there was another military doctor receiving them one by one. The “instructions” were a piece of scrap paper with handwritten instructions and a sketch of a man pulling down his boxers and standing naked, a second sketch of him turning his back to the doctor, a third of him bending over, and a fourth reaching for his buttocks and spreading the cheeks. “No wonder photos are prohibited,” Jonathan thought. So these were the military secrets so zealously guarded by the Army of Priapustan. This was probably what Jonathan would be doing if he were recruited by the army: inspecting buttocks and genitals in the name of patriotism. This was how three years of his life would be wasted if his eyesight did not rescue him. By the end of the three years, he’d be an old graduate and too old to be accepted in any hospital in the United States.
“Next!” The military doctor’s legendary lung power interrupted Jonathan’s self-destructive, obsessive thoughts. He realized it was his turn. Jonathan stepped behind the flimsy curtain. Even a breeze could move it aside and expose him to everyone in line. He just hoped this would be over as soon as possible. He closed his eyes and waited for the doctor to tell him what to do.
“Pull down, turn around, bend over, spread.” In a few seconds, it was over, and Jonathan was allowed to step outside and recover whatever shred of dignity he had left. He felt engulfed by a painful sense of injustice and hatred toward the military and its leader. The whole country was, in fact, just one never-ending military medical exam. General Priapus held the entire population hostage like they were all conscripts at his beck and call. Today was just a more concentrated version of the country’s pathetic legacy of servitude in the name of service.
“Off to the next room for the ophthalmology exam. Quickly, we haven’t got all day!” the officer barked at Jonathan. “And put on your clothes—or did you enjoy being naked, doctor?” he continued, with a disgusting grin that stretched between his ears.
Under normal circumstances, such a sentence would have been enough to make Jonathan collapse into tears under the weight of the incivility and humiliation he was being subjected to. A small part of his brain reminded him that the only reason the officer was behaving in this obscene fashion was to bolster his own sense of superiority, which he felt was threatened by the presence of people who were undoubtedly of greater intelligence and skill than him. Everyone knew that doctors were the brightest kids in high school and that boys who applied to the Military Academy were usually the lowest scorers in the country.
Jonathan let it pass and continued to the ophthalmology clinic, where he put on his clothes and had a pawn apply drops to his eye for the exam. The pawn always loved this part because he knew the drops would weaken their vision for days. Jonathan didn’t care. He only now prayed that his eyesight would be his savior. The crowd around him wasn’t promising though. Everyone was wearing glasses. There was no way the military doctor would exempt all of these. Though they were cramped in the room like sardines, everyone was in his own state of solitude, all praying for the same thing. Jonathan prayed like he’d never prayed before. He begged and implored God to stand by him this one time. He silently promised to give up the sins he’d been regularly committing and vowed to be a better person. He’d give to charity and help patients free of charge. He’d do anything…but he just needed this one divine intervention.
Bit by bit, the line got shorter, and Jonathan edged closer to the eye doctor. By now, everything was blurry. He couldn’t see the time on his watch. The walls of his bladder were already stretched to full capacity and begging for relief. His pulse was so fast he wouldn’t be able to count it if he tried. His pounding heart was probably audible to everyone in the room. His hands were cold and clammy, and the hair on his arms stood on end. Jonathan felt the blood pounding into his head like a bulldozer. He was edging even closer now. Everyone left the eye doctor with one of two facial expressions: either a despondent look of devastation—meaning he was fit to serve—or one of ecstasy and joy like no other, the object of everyone’s envy.
Finally, the time had come. Jonathan took a tentative step closer to the doctor and seated himself. He pulled off his glasses and broke the frame in the process. His entire body was trembling violently. The eye doctor silently and matter-of-factly pointed the retinoscope into Jonathan’s right eye and filled it with light, then proceeded to the left, completely oblivious to his plight. In one fleeting moment that Jonathan had fantasized about for months, in Hollywood-type slow motion, the doctor gently laid down the retinoscope and reached for the pens. In a scene worthy of an Oscar, his fingers glided gently over the blue pen without touching it and landed swiftly and elegantly on the red pen to encompass it between his thumb and index to write “unfit due to severe myopia.”
Jonathan was in a trance-like state. He felt subsumed in an ethereal state of orgasmic happiness. The frown on his face that had been set in stone instantly turned into a wide grin larger than that of the Cheshire cat. The benevolent hand of God had reached down from the heavens and touched him. The celestial feeling of joy engulfed every cell in his body, every muscle, every synapse and neuron in his ecstatic brain in a sublime moment of elation that would surely only be matched by the joy of permanent emigration.
And that was it. Everything was in order and couldn’t be more perfect. In a month, Jonathan would be gone from the hellhole of Priapustan. The country could sink into ignorance as its talented manpower was sucked away, for all he cared. Jonathan gazed up toward the portrait of General Priapus and read the words under it for the thousandth time, but now intoxicated with happiness, “WELCOME TO THE MILITARY.”
“He begged and implored God to stand by him this one time.”
All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.