The metal door on the dirty white villa in Al Tafardi Street was sun beaten, any paint had long since faded and only rust seemed to be keeping it on its hinges. A bolt with a large brass padlock ensured that the inquisitive would keep away and not try to explore into what lay behind. It was clear that not many people even wanted to venture into the Al Fadel area. The few remaining residents held their noses when explaining where in Baghdad they lived, waving fingers in disgust and despaired constantly at their situation.

The alley had never been properly laid so the autumn rain dug channels into the earth and it was full of the rubbish discarded by any unlucky pedestrians who had to take it as a shortcut across the city. The overhanging tin roofs kept it in the shade and even the feral dogs avoided being there and went away to be kicked somewhere else.

Talal sporting a tracksuit proclaiming an English Club he would never know, fake Nike trainers and a baseball cap which incongruously was embroidered US Navy looked around like a cat before taking out a key. The padlock was oiled and hardly made a noise as it snapped open. He slid the bolt back and went inside, pulling the door behind him. Stepping carefully down broken wooden steps into a cellar he entered a large room that smelt of tobacco, paint, thinners and human sweat. There was no window but a large fan with black fly encrusted blades that fought to push the solid air around.

There was a constant sound of hammers on chisels as ten or twelve small boys broke pieces of concrete into smaller pieces, coursing them roughly with worn horse hair and wire brushes to an antique standard. The one bare bulb hardly gave any light. Some of the boys had filthy eye patches hiding a vacant socket, the result of steel shrapnel from bombs designed to settle local arguments.

He walked behind them, they did not make small talk, but were no longer terrified of the beating they would have if their work was not up to his standard in this factory. They had learnt that Talal was kind and tried to help in this ravaged city. He stopped behind one and grabbed him by the shoulders, pulled him back playfully and snatched a small rectangle of fake stone. He held it up to the light. It had been rubbed almost to a sliver and was transparent in places.

“Ahmed, this is good, really good,” he said and with a playful tap on his head put the prize into his pocket. “I will bring you some dollars, Allah will be thankful.” This was what Talal needed as he still had to pay something to the boys he had rescued from a worse fate.

And anyway what do Americans know about art he chuckled, knowing that he could pass this off to a soldier desperate to leave the country with a souvenir and nothing else.

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