“Go pack,” said Abu Alaa, walked into my house around 10:00. “You should be happy. You are going to Baghdad to meet zawaj talaq. Just you.” Of course, I’d never really unpacked in months. It was December 6, 128 days since the invasion, and 114 days since Tom and I had put our bags in the car and driven out of Manqaf.
Now this news confused me. I actually wanted to stay. I had no sense of being spared. In fact, I felt that I was betraying the others who were left behind. I’d actually begun looking forward to a Christmas service at a church in Basra.
Abu-Alaa‘s grin said he was enjoying my confusion. The least charitable part of me felt that, unknowingly, Circelia had collaborated with Saddam to prolong a form of torture. I now think I was being petty, but her arrival in Baghdad as my savior was more nauseating than it was weird.
And I did consider it quite weird. Whatever altruism I can allow her now from a distance of more than a decade and a half, I couldn’t see on that December morning in 1990. 1 locked onto an interpretation of her intentions.
It was time for battle. Leaving now meant immersing myself in activity so as not to think about Circelia: doing laundry in the sink, hanging it on the roof of the my house, checking it every 15 minutes to see if it’d dried.
I went to find Ali to say good-bye. He was wearing a yellow hard hat dismantling some piping when I found him. “Is this your welding inspection hat or your hostage hotel manager hat?”
“I’m very happy for you, Mr. Will,” he reacted when I told him the news. Then he hesitated, and took off his helmet, looking around. “Please. I want to apologize for this,” he said quietly.
“Mr. Ali, thank you for everything you did for me,” I said. “I feel I understand you and think you are a good man. Take care of yourself.”
“I am very happy you are leaving, Mr. Will. During the war with Iran, there were long battles right across the water here in the Fao peninsula, but we kept right on working in the refinery. Now we pretend to work, but all the workers here really are afraid.”
“You’re a good man, Ali, and a damn poor hotel keeper, but I’ll never forget you.” We shook hands, and he laughed and put his yellow hard hat on and went back under the pipes.
Behind the mangeriyah I found Abu Mahmoud. “Yallah. Come cook for me in America. You’ll like it,” I told him. Still wearing the usual patched trousers and stained brown shirt I’d first seen him with back in August, he smiled, “Zane. Zane?” He had never changed his manner, his question.
“Aiwa. Zane,” I repeated, shaking his hand, then punching his shoulder. He laughed, looking nervous.
When Umm Kul came into the house, I held out my hand for her to shake it. She wouldn’t. I took from my backpack some earrings I’d bought in Kuwait for my daughter, jointed fish made of silver. “Give these to your little daughter.” I meant the one I used to see pushing the cart of drinking water along the road to the mesbah.” I kissed her cheek, impulsively. Then I took the tinned food that had weighed down my bag long enough now. “Take what you want and give the rest to Mr. Ali.”
And the steel pipe, I removed it from my bag and carried it out hidden up my sleeve to the service road, and dropped it into a gutter where the water was opaque. Maybe it’d been silly to have such a weapon. I never did like the feel of it or the strain of imagining it an ax coming down upon wood to be split. I wonder now if the others had weapons. We never discussed them after Max had mentioned the need to prepare ourselves that night after the German reunification party. Rather than uniting with my fellow hostages, I had mostly fled them. Now I didn’t go say goodbye to any of them in that other Control Room. A war had been fought here, and we’d all won it: me, Ali, Umm Kul, Abu Alaa, Reiner. And all the others. The victory was our never having to use the weapons we held. The guards were people like me; except they had guns, which they really didn’t want to use. Maybe another secret of life is never to assume we know who our real enemies are.