Abed al Khaliq asked, “Everyone?”
“All of them,” shouted Kamal, a third time. ”No food!”
To us, in English, he said, “We have meeting right after lunch. I have news. Make sure ‘Captain’ is here too.” For once, Kamal’s pronunciation of that word bore sarcasm.
After an unusually silent lunch, Francis went to bring Somerset back. Kamal stood, his face emotionless, but his tense body exuding anger. “This evening we will all move into the interior of the fertilizer plant. When your people bomb, we will die there together. When your government bombs, you will die with innocent Iraqis.”
In my mind, I saw it, the end, the flaming finish; some weekly newsmagazine would run color photos of our remains: rather like the mutilated naked ones of Kolwezi, except we’d be charred, like some fossils in the desert, black like petroleum rather than white. Fear came over me like a wave, a rogue wave: one minute I was judging Somerset for his imprudent confrontation with Kamal, feeling in control and superior; a few minutes later, I was quaking, inert, seeing the details of my end depicted in millions of copies of a news magazine and in deathly but rich color.
Most of our group walked in silence out of the clubhouse after Kamal’s short announcement. I remained in my seat. My knees refused to support me. Jack, a new guy who’d arrived at the camp just days before, stayed too. He had hidden in his Kuwait apartment until being arrested; his wife went home to the United Kingdom and Iraqi guards drove him straight here from Kuwait.
I began talking to Kamal out of fear, imagining immolation in this refinery. I didn’t beg: I just followed a thought like that of the bankers back at the Kuwait International Hotel: this situation didn’t concern us, we shouldn’t suffer for it, our governments didn’t always speak for us, we had responsibilities and families that needed consideration. What I said sounded circular and repetitive to myself, but rephrasing slightly reiterated my desire to survive.
Amazingly, after half an hour, my anger had transformed this fear. It was as if at the last second before a large wave crashed over me, I’d dunked myself completely beneath it, and now I stood in bubbles rising where the wave had broken, in bubbles of energy, new power, fury even although I didn’t direct it at him, and he lost no face from hearing me articulate these thoughts.
“Kamal, this situation is wrong. No country puts civilians in potential military targets!” I said, feeling a livid strength.
His eyes narrowed. “America is wrong for hating Arabs, for letting Zionists control everything. Only the Zionist perspective is allowed in your newspapers.” he said.
“Oh, Kamal, what do you bloody know about America or Great Britain. Have you ever visited those places? Have you ever been outside Iraq?” asked Jack, who masterfully mirrored the tone I’d used. Actually, I knew Kamal had lived outside of Iraq: a week or so earlier he had told about fighting next door inside Iran, or “Arabistan,” as he called it.
“Yeah,” I added to Jack’s idea. “You should have the chance to travel and see other ways of living. I invite you to be my ‘guest’ in America. You can buy any type of newspaper in a large American city: Zionist, Islamist, Communist, racist, pornographic!” Skipping an opportunity for satire, I went on, “I’ll even lend you my car so you can come and be my guest and go freely to see what you want. Traveling would educate you.”
After some time, Kamal stood up. “Gentlemen, we should not discuss these things anymore because our countries are about to go to war,” he closed the discussion. “Anyhow the move into the refinery was ordered by Baghdad and had nothing to do with the Captain’s being so disrespectful.” Clearly Somerset’s outburst still occupied some of his attention.
The sunset glowed a beautiful red and purple when the Kamal and Private Eeyah arrived with a pickup and two beat-up Land Cruisers to move us into the plant. After twenty-nine days in that camp under the salt trees, I packed up my stuff, including the calendar. I rode with Jack in the one Abed al Khaliq drove. Luggage overfilled the back, and we were packed in the cab. I was wedged between Jack and the door. It felt tight but comfortable sitting there and admiring the stunning beauty of the sunset in the side mirror as we drove out the gate. When we hit a bump in the road, I noticed my backpack fell off. Abed al Khaliq stopped, and I picked it up. As I pushed myself back into the cab, it hit me, the horror that this might be my last ride; the beautiful sky and the warm contact in a crowded cab had blinded me, temporarily, to this portentous ride.
We traveled past the trailer park that bordered the west side of the factory. John the guest guest lived there, or used to live there; we hadn’t seen him or Ali in a while. John’s story seemed strange, yes, but I still refused to believe Somerset’s suspicions of him. We traveled under the pylons holding high-tension lines that dwarfed the trailers. On the other side of the road a scrap pile of rusting metal separated the factory from the camp where we’d lived. To the north and east, three antiaircraft gun stations blended into the scrap-metal-littered desert, black pipes almost straight up surrounded by sand bags and ripped tarps. At the mosque, we turned right for the first time into the chain link gates of the refinery. Hundreds of greenish mercury vapor lamps illuminated the complex, turning the huge grid of crisscrossed service roads underneath girders at twilight into a lethal and gargantuan machine. Giant stainless steel vessels stood beside skyscaper-sized concrete silos. Horizontal piping and catwalks above the roads connected parts of the maze. But more daunting than the view was the noise. The roar we had heard from the camp now could be felt; the combined roar and hiss hurt my ears, pressured my entire being.
Abed al Khaliq turned into one dead-end service road. To the right was a fifty-foot stainless steel vessel, a monolithic vertical cylinder about fifteen feet in diameter with steam spraying from valves at different levels. Ahead of us loomed a large metal oven, five stories high by at least a hundred feet long and thirty wide; I could see the flames inside, hear the roar like many jets running at a fast idle and feel its heat radiate outward from burning natural gas. To the left a two-story green cement block building was marked “Control Room #2.” And with each breath, I drew in the stench of ammonia, like from overripe urine diapers soaking in a squalid bathroom.
The Japanese and French got out of the Land Cruisers and walked to Mr. Ali, who waited on a second-floor landing. As they walked up the metal stairs, Abed al Khaliq backed out of this dead end and drove us farther into the refinery. It was a forest of piping, with hissing steam escaping in many places. We turned onto another dead-end service road. Next to a building identical to the one where the Japanese and French had been dropped off, we stopped. It was marked “Control Room #1.” Carrying our bags and –in the case of Francis—Biggles’s carrying case—we all followed Kamal up metal steps to the second floor landing. Through windows beside the stairs I saw large panels and switches and banks of yellow and green indicator lights; workers inside waved. I wondered if we made them feel safer. At the end of the landing, we passed through a metal door. It led to an office, a large area with a large metal table for meetings. Glass and aluminum dividers set off other spaces, offices with furniture and equipment pushed into corners. Camp beds were visible in some of those spaces defined by the glass dividers. In one area under a large portrait of Saddam was a phone.
Somerset asked Kamal for an emergency phone number. Somerset seemed subdued after apologizing to Kamal. Kamal gave what he said was the factory doctor’s number. He failed to acknowledge when I asked where he and the other guards would live. Mohammed approached me, his usual self, seeking approval. “OK, meester Wi-lee-um? OK?” as we walked through our new home.
I cornered him. The noise of the turbines deafened already, so I had an excuse for getting close and yelling, “No OK, Mr. Mohammed. Here is very bad.” I shouted, wanting to punch him in the jaw, to beat him senseless. My aggression surprised me. Only minutes before a beautiful sunset displaced my fear or rage, and here my shift to feelings of homicide crashed in faster than I ever imagined.
“Excuse me, meester Wi-lee-um. I am not speak the engleesh,” he said. But I had spoken my simple Arabic and he never had difficulty understanding my accent before. Pushing past me, he said something to Kamal before they both left.
Francis and I surveyed our home. Nobody said much. Suddenly, I lacked energy to shout anyhow. Holes ripped through the concrete block walls and the door. I wondered what had pierced the quarter-inch metal door from outside, leaving jagged ends pointing inward like knife blades. Francis started filling these gashes with wads of scrap paper to keep some noise and flies out. Two of the office spaces had portraits of Saddam on the wall; we moved the beds out of these places, crowding others, but no one wanted to sleep in a room where Saddam would be the first sight each morning, and moving a photo of him–even touching it–could very well be a capital crime in a society like Iraq. I had noticed that Umm Kul would check our garbage: if we’d thrown the newspaper out, she’d take it out, rip out the photo of Saddam to put in her pocket, and return all the rest of the paper to the garbage. My guess was that she did not adore Saddam but was concerned about us and our getting into trouble for putting him in the trash.
Francis had gotten his traveler-size bottle of disinfectant from his suitcase, and he and I started scrubbing the filthy squat toilet/shower and sink in our new residence. Somerset tried out different pipes as auxiliary antennas for his radio but none appeared effective in capturing a signal audible in the refinery noise. All the others made their beds.
Before sleeping, I tacked the tanker calendar to the wall to make this place “home” and lay down to sleep. But no sleep came. Only outrage. I lay in a bunk looking upward at metal rafters supporting corrugated industrial roofing. To block the roar, I twisted the pillow around my ears, a towel binding the pillow to my head to no avail. Being here violated all sense of self-preservation. I got my diary out of the pack. I noticed the mug was shattered. It must have happened when the bag fell off the back of the pickup as we left the other camp. My usually low-key sense of superstition came to life: this mug was one of a set Diana and I used to drink morning coffee.
I started to weep, recalling my last hour with her at the Boston airport nine months before, hearing some of these same sounds, the whine, hiss, and roar of jet engines. She’d cried then and I hadn’t, as I hadn’t leaving my children some days before. I knew I cried with homecomings and reunions, not departures. This was neither of those, a new category of experience, but I cried anyhow.
Unable to sleep, I stepped outside and stood on the landing. I had no desire to talk to anyone. Two flights of stairs led up to our “house,” quite a distance to jump. I could easily be trapped here. Jumping down to the cement in an emergency would break hips or knees. Floodlit towers and silos dwarfed me. The reek of ammonia disgusted me. A large steam turbine and associated ironmongery under pressure produced the noise, as if we were at the end of a runway where jets were constantly taking off. I feared permanent hearing loss, at the very least, if we survived.
When Kamal came to escort all of us at eight, I’d already had a walk. Francis, Biggles, and I had already get exercise. We had headed toward the back fence, but nobody challenged us; workers inside the plant only pointed at the white terrier and laughed.
“Follow me to the restaurant for breakfast?” Kamal said. “You must walk only on this road.” Following him, we traversed the front half of the refinery. Safety signs calling for use of earplugs. Tow motors and trucks trafficked the service roads. Beside the roads, gutters channeled liquids of various temperatures and colors; some steamed, some were green, others blue.
In other places the gutters held stagnant water, a scummy breeding medium for ubiquitous mosquitoes and flies. Girders the color of red primer paint supported huge stainless steel vessels connected by what must have been miles of horizontal piping and some vertical piping linked pressure vessels and silos going some eight or ten stories up.
Kamal said to stay in the shade; quietly Somerset said to walk down the middle of the road and stay in the sun and look up at the spy satellite. “Let it photograph your face.” I decided to wave at the satellite each day. I started to look around for a helicopter landing zone and places where I could leave signs. Somerset was consistent in his head-on confrontations with this situation; I hoped I was equally consistent in my indirect challenges. Workers we met waved and laughed and greeted us with salaams. I wondered what they knew about us and what they knew about their own situation. If we were human shields, then they too were in the rings of a target, the lens of a satellite, and the sights of a missile.
When we’d eaten breakfast, Kamal stood, “Everyone except Jack, Reiner, Jurgen, three Japanese, and Will must pack.” He seemed to be choosing as he glanced around the table. “You will see where you’re going when you get there.”
I sat on Francis’ bed as he packed. I wondered whether those leaving or staying were more fortunate. I knew I’d miss him, and Biggles too.
Kamal came in and told the guys to hurry up. “Gentlemen, listen. The bus is waiting outside.”
When Francis was ready, I carried one of his bags. At the door to the bus Kamal opened the bag and fingered through it.
“No Asmida property leaves,” he said. This was the first time I’d seen anyone searching bags. I wondered if he still sought Mustapha’s pistol.
As the bus left, I stood on the cement, waving at Francis and the others, and wept. I was devastated, losing not only a space that had become familiar over a month’s time but also the familiarity of house mates, especially Francis, master of Biggles, friends who shared my early mornings. I feared dying alone or with strangers, yet wondered where I’d get energy for new friendships.
I stood alone on the landing after the bus left, scanning the refinery–this maze of pipes, girders, catwalks, towers, and valves, feeling like the last living thing drowning in a blend of hisses and roars punctuated by percussion of someone invisible striking metal. I wondered how long I could survive this. I had to escape but knew of no sane way to do so. Only insane options offered themselves.
I could strip naked right then on the landing and throw sandals, pants, underwear, shirt onto the service road below. Then wearing only a lunatic smile, I could stroll back and forth through the refiner, maybe head toward the gate. If anyone approached, I could laugh out loud. If workers would intervene, try to stop me, put their hands on me–I could piss on them, or at least in their direction. If they persisted, I could shit right then and there; and he he put hands on me again, I’d pick the shit up and throw it at him, at anyone in range. Sooner or later, they’d think I’d gone so mad they either shoot me or send me home, where I’d just switch back to my balanced self.
Another option–possibly more dangerous–was to sabotage this equipment. Below and around me valves and switches easily tampered with invited havoc-mongering. If valve settings changed and switches deactivated safety equipment or increased pressure and heat, these refining vessels and pipelines might burst like bombs, create a distraction as I left under the back fence.
Or, I could beat Kamal with any of the pipe strewn about. Or slice him with a broken bottle when next he arrived. After all, he never had us locked in or tied up and guards would sometimes visit alone.
Yet I couldn’t do any of this. Instead, I respected an etiquette. I imposed a normalcy on my behavior. I said good morning and thank you. I stood on this landing rationally considering the idea of lunatic, saboteur, and murderer. Being trapped here in this infernal turbine noise and choking air terrified me, but I had no inkling what to do except be my civil person. Routines and manners are what we impose on chaos daily. Only, most of the time the chaos is not as visible as it was in that refinery, on that landing so much like a scaffold. If a condemned man stumbles on the stairs up to the gallows, someone will offer a hand so that he who is about to die might not be injured until . . . well . . . on schedule. The helping hand might be the same one who delivered the last meal complete with a favorite dessert–or who set the noose in place—or who unlatches the trapdoor into the neck-breaking tumble.
I left the landing for the office that housed us, where my friends listened for news, , but a moment later when a radio announcer on Voice of America said . . .”Europe is having a glorious fall day…” I had to hurry back to the landing. I couldn’t care less about fall in Europe or leaf colors in New England. Here, nothing had any trace of glory; this place oppressed with noise and stink and threat. No seasonal changes appeared in this industrialized desert landscape and none were anticipated except for unstoppable alternation between a sun-bleached and a mercury-vapor lit forest of refinery piping and other structure. Steam constantly escaped from release valves and cracked or punctured hoses. In spite of the heat, ice caked other leaky valves and pipe junctures. Dozens of silos and tanks stored–and in many cases–oozed mystery fluids–oleaginous and iridescent. The longer I looked, the more I suspected the patches and pimples in metal tanks as relics of the recently-ended war with Iran. Hadn’t we seen the wreckage of the Iranian fighter jet in the desert along the road here? Concrete patches in the siloes–jagged rips in the metal door of our “house” reaching into our space–weren’t these reminders of the the damage inflicted by Iranians aircraft strafing our site, maybe harbingers of jets to come.
A range of workers occupied the refinery with us. Some like Ali wore yellow helmets and blue fireproof suits; others wore white shirts and helmets. Still others on their knees cut–actually ripped–grass that grew around drippy water pipes, stuffing the grass into burlap bags, maybe for the emaciated cows that wandered outside the fence. Women in overalls drove forklift trucks here, unlike in neighboring Saudi Arabia where laws prohibited women from even driving cars. A dwarf covered in black like Umm Majed walked around carrying her full size bucket and mop. A retarded-looking man wearing an orange jumpsuit rode the back of a garbage truck that seemed oversize for the small bags of trash. Further, surrounding me worked the racial spectrum from Caucasian to African to Asian, the ethnic complexity of the Fertile Crescent as well as the United States.
A Land Cruiser drove up after lunch, and Private Eedayn got out of the passenger door. “Go swim?” he asked. Jack and I had convinced Kamal that in order to maintain our health, we had to get back to the pool, the clubhouse, for at least an hour daily. After all, we had argued, if we sickened and died, we’d have no value as human shields. Reiner, Jurgen, and Jack were quickly ready to go.
Reiner and I walked to the pool in silence. As he changed, I stood waist-deep at one end of the pool, hesitating before plunging under. My clothes and skin smelled of ammonia, like stale urine. My ears still rang from the turbines’ roar. And loss throbbed in my throat and chest, linked with rage; furious, I pushed off from the edge of the pool, determined to swim to the other side, underwater, and I made it to the other side, kicking and stroking. I felt good, counting laps up to one mile and imagining the distance in the context of crossing the Shatt-el-Arab, the Gulf, the Atlantic, getting me closer to Diana. Reiner swam several lanes away.
When I stopped and looked up, I saw twenty or more hawks or vultures circle the desert just south of the pool. I wondered what carrion they eyed, something dead or about to die. How gracefully they flew, riding thermals up and down without effort. Sky sharks or cloud crocodiles, I thought, and laughed. What frightened me were the crows: each time a group glided low over the pool entering my peripheral vision, my heart stopped: I imagined them a squadron of stealth fighters beginning the attack. Would we then be rushed back to the refinery for immolation? Might the guards leave us as they fled to save themselves or attend to other duties? Would those duties include executing us?
When Reiner stopped swimming, he came and sat on the edge near me. I told him about the reporter raving about the glorious fall day in Europe.
“Yeah, it would be if I were home,” he said quietly.
“Where are you from in Germany?” I asked.
“I know where that is, on the Rhine,” I said, partly to myself.
“And next week is my birthday. It would be a glorious day if I were there.”
“Sorry. How old will you be?”
I told him I was the same age. He had two children and claimed to be happily married. I said I was divorced and living with a new love. Then Private Eedayn walked up with Jack and Jurgen, and told us we had to return to the refinery.
To my astonishment, about a dozen new hostages had moved into our space. Refinery workers moved in more beds. Four people and a dog had left, replaced by twice as many people, and no dog. Max was among the new hostages, as well as the effeminate crewman who had stayed with the British Air stewardesses at the first army camp we’d been taken to from the hotel. The others I possibly had seen at PC1. Another American, wearing overalls with a “South Oil Company” shoulder patch introduced himself as Gray. He offered me a can of Newcastle Brown Ale. I asked about his overalls.
“Oh, these are my flameproofs. I’ve worked in the oilfields south of Basra for three years now.” He explained that he dad his own house until the week before when the secret police brought him to PC1.
“Why’d they send you guys here?” I said.
“Why didn’t you get moved with your group?” Max replied, emptying his can of beer. He walked over to the refrigerator and got himself another.
“I don’t know,” I said. “And until just this minute, I didn’t know they got moved to PC1 either.”
“How’s the food here?” asked Max, opening another can.
“Bad, and getting worse if breakfast and lunch today are any indication.” Abed al Khaliq and Abu Mahmoud still served our food, but sugar for the tea had disappeared, and the bread was hard and slimy. The guards picked at the food in the same way we did: the crust, the least disgusting part; the interior of the loaf had the consistency of sawdust. John the guest guest had once said that, due to the embargo, bread flour was mixed with ground date pits. Lunch had consisted of a bowl of rice with lukewarm tomato soup poured over it, garnished with one cube of fat. The highlight of the meal was the watermelon, rutghee.
The filthy, huge, and empty space Kamal had called “restaurant” was probably a factory “break room,” about five hundred feet square. No one else ate there at breakfast or lunch, but it smelled of rancid food. Spilled food decayed in corners and under tables. Other furniture stacked on end formed a wall around our table. The guards clustered at one end, eating the same food and watching us. Behind them, probably set up for our benefit, was a six-foot-square poster of a smiling Saddam: the man of a five hundred hats here wore a red and white headdress like a peasant, his mouth about as wide as that of the Statue of Liberty.
“I guess those guys and Biggles are lucky to be moved over there?” I said to Max.
“We no longer lived in trailers by the clubhouse, you know,” he replied. “Just yesterday they moved us into offices inside the refinery there, too. Right beside the PVC processing unit, a three-story tank of chlorine loomed over us.” He took another sip of his beer. “And this morning when we got up, workmen were welding bars over the windows of the offices.”
September 27: Kuwaiti Sheikh Jaber speaks at the United Nations General Assembly