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Background to the narrative

On Thursday, August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces overran Kuwait.  I was living and working in Kuwait and heard two tremendous explosions–shots heard around the world one might say–at 530 a.m.  I begin this blog on the 20th anniversary of this date, an event whose consequences are with us, both Americans and many other nationalities, still.

I have written and revised this manuscript repeatedly since I left Iraq in December 1990 after 125 days of captivity.  My intention is to upload parts of my existing manuscript in serial form from now until December.   If you enjoy the story please tell me and forward the link to friends you think might also enjoy it.  I will be deeply grateful for any feedback on the writing and/or on my choices, whether this feedback be supportive or critical.

The text is copyrighted but in flux.  If you are or know an agent or publisher interested in working with me, please contact me.

The header image is adapted from the photo “Refinery” by arbyreed on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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I was sitting alone drinking morning coffee when I heard the first explosion.  It compressed my eardrums, rattled the windows, tumbled some precariously piled dishes in the sink, and raised the hairs on my neck. I ran to look at the Persian Gulf, assuming fumes had ignited at the oil docks and expecting to witness a tanker fire and pitch black smoke darkening the sun as a massive spill of crude heaved into the water like lava. Instead a fighter plane wheeled away from the coastline to the south, like a gull on a thermal updraft. No smoke rose from the tanker loading since the day before. It was soon quiet again.

Then suddenly, a second plane—a MiG-23—screamed toward me, low to the water from the Gulf side of the tanker.  As it neared shore, I saw a flash under the left wing and a grayish white dart sped overhead, disappearing behind the roof of my building. I ‘d never seen a plane launch a missile but knew immediately what this was as it momentarily mesmerized me with the exotic beauty of its bright yellow flame and glossy white body, beautiful but lethal.  Its sound had a higher pitch than the jet. It effortlessly accelerated, tracing a path the jet would have followed had the pilot not banked to the south before looping back out over the Gulf.  The missile detonated, a second blast like the earlier one.  It hit somewhere between me and the coastal ridge.  I looked at my watch.  Five-thirty a.m.

Sweat coated me from my morning walk.  Starting around four a.m., the only time a summer day there felt tolerable, below 100 degrees, I had plodded up the beach road as far as the gates to the docks to read the name of a tanker loading there  “Ship spotting” kept me sane in this lonely time.  In Kuwait I was confined by choices and climate, but seeing these ships, sometimes a dozen at once,  and reading their names connected me to the outside world.  So I watched tanker traffic, noted names, and traced funnel designs in a notebook.  If I couldn’t make out a name with binoculars from my roof, it was an excuse to follow an inland dirt road to the pier, past a large fenced garden where poultry and goats roamed through rows of tomatoes, and past a walled date grove where clusters of fruit got bigger and yellower daily.

Others in the port town of Manqaf, Kuwait, were also out at this hour in summer: a shepherd led two dozen or so fat-tailed sheep, a large man slowly walked while reading the Koran, a middle-aged Arab couple strolled hand in hand, always dressed in white.  Along the beach road—an avenue, really, with palms that were watered daily by a truck—new Jaguars and Mercedes passed and I imagined the drivers heading homeward after late revelry.  Old Chevys and white school buses transported South Asian laborers to their work sweeping the desert, working in the oilfields, or watering sand gardens.  And out on the beach and in the water were the Russians, mostly men and always nearly naked, sunbathing or fishing.

That morning, sweaty, I returned to drink coffee and watch the sun rise over the Gulf, my morning rituals: sometimes writing in my journal, always watching the sunrise, imagining the point where it first gleamed over the horizon to trace a straight line to Shiraz, the Iranian city about two hundred fifty air miles to the east.  Connecting me with Shiraz was the woman I loved.  She had once toured there.  Diana.  Diana had visited that ancient city fifteen years earlier while teaching English in the Shah’s Iranian Air Force.  Now Diana’s name was a touchstone that helped me get through the long months in Kuwait, painful because of the strong link between us.

This was supposed to be my last weekend in Kuwait.  I had an airplane ticket for August 4 to Rome, where I would meet Diana for a month’s leave.  I had thought about her during the walk that morning: how fantastic it would be to see her, to make plans with her about my return from Kuwait, just to hold her, to watch her smile in response to my calling her name, even to show her my notebook with its funnel designs I made with the colored pencils she had given me before I left.

Diana and I had met in coastal Massachusetts three years before and become friends at our jobs writing the curriculum that would prepare non-English-speaking Kuwaiti flight cadets to read McDonnell Douglas flight training manuals.  Our lives then were at similar stages of marital unraveling.  She was divorced, and I had filed for divorce from Circelia.  Diana had no children, and Circelia and I had four, whom I missed, all in elementary and middle school.  I told myself it was for them I’d taken this job—the pay would allow me to provide for their future.  Diana and I had become closer than we expected over projects related to work and other interests like kayaking and studying some shipwrecks along Cape Ann.  When our employer, Bob was asked to provide two English teachers for Kuwait, Diana and I wanted to go, and Bob thought it a great idea, but less than a month before we were to travel, Kuwaitis rejected the idea of hiring a woman to teach English to their cadets.  Diana wanted me to withdraw from the project too, but I told her our relationship could survive a year’s separation.  I wasn’t hearing her:  she was indignant about the injustice of being rejected only because of her gender, not just unhappy about a year’s separation.  I thought she agreed the extra money I’d earn there would offset the pain of separation.  The money would let me give more to my children, and Diana and I could plan our future.

When the echo of the missile explosion stilled, I wondered what had happened.  I felt strangely detached, tasting only as little danger now as if I had been watching the beginning of a war movie.  I looked out toward the water expecting more missiles.  I wanted to talk, but no one I knew was awake.  Tom, the colleague who took the job that Diana would have had, lived in the same complex, Alia Towers.  But he would still be sleeping.

I decided to climb onto the rooftop cistern.  It was my private eyrie, my place to contemplate the full moon on nights when I most missed Diana.  The moon would be full when we met in Rome.  Now I watched thick black smoke inland, rising from the main Kuwait telecommunications center, and the tower, a tan structure rising twenty stories above five-story buildings, seemed tilted about ten degrees, a long vertical crack on one side, its backbone broken.  I knew this center well, since Tom and I would go there to pick up our mail and make calls to the United States:  Clearly something big had just happened, yet somehow I still projected that in two days I’d be far away in Rome telling Diana all that I’d seen this morning.

I would have so much to tell her, not only about how a missile strike sounded but also how captivated I was living at a center of the oil universe with its pumping stations and controlled fires, which Tom and I drove past to get to work, and tankers loaded here from all over the world.  Living here satisfied my desire to see the dynamics of this energy locus.

Unable to sit by myself any longer, I went to talk with Tom, to wake him up if necessary, and listen to the radio.

“Gosh!  I didn’t hear anything,” he said, inviting me in to his apartment that looked like an oriental carpet shop.

I wondered how  he’d heard nothing, even with his staying up late and drinking homemade spirits.

“Let’s turn on the BBC.”  It was now just before seven. He shuffled to the counter and, straightening the dishdasha (Kuwaiti male garment) he wore as a pajama, back to the breakfast table. He picked up an antique sterling silver coffee pot he must have bought at the flea market where he rummaged every weekend.  Souk al-haraj, he called this market; sometimes I went with him.  I had recently bought a carved wooden fish there, about a yard long with the girth of my leg;  I had already imagined taking this back to Diana as trophy of my time by the Gulf.

“Would you like some?” he asked.  The exotic aroma of cardamom spice steamed toward me. BBC news theme music played as Tom filled my cup.

“This is London . . . three hours Greenwich Mean Time.” The lead story was the civil war in Liberia—until that was interrupted.  “Unconfirmed reports from Kuwait say that Iraq has invaded its Persian Gulf neighbor in the early hours this morning. There are reports that several border posts have been overrun by large numbers of Iraqi troops and several armored columns.”

We both sat silently for a while, looking at each other, my mouth dry in spite of the coffee.

“Let’s drive north to Abu Halifa, to see Ted,” I suggested after a half minute or so, my mouth dry in spite of the coffee.  Ted was our McDonnell Douglas boss.

But he told me to go alone.  “I’m going to cut up and wash some old carpets to make pillows,” he said, amazing me by his apparent indifference.  I knew it might be risky driving up there, but Tom and I had no phones.  I wanted to talk with Ted.  At work a week or two earlier Ted had mentioned that Iraq seemed to be holding maneuvers along the border although the embassy thought it was nothing.

“Theatrics,” Ted had said.  “But we need to have a plan, just in case.”  Tom had missed that meeting because he was still in Michigan, not yet back from his month’s vacation.

Around 8 a.m. while I drove north, I noticed a transport plane circle the area and disappear behind the buildings. The urban desert was open enough near here for even the transport to land although there was certainly no airstrip.  Three military helicopters also landed, and I knew of no helicopters in the Kuwaiti army.  I accelerated and hurried the rest of the way inland to Abu Halifa, where Ted and other employees of the McDonnell Douglas project lived in the tallest building in southern Kuwait. Tom and I had chosen to live near the port to witness the ship traffic, save money, and avoid the walls of a foreign enclave.

I parked in my usual spot and took the elevator up to Ted’s twentieth floor penthouse.  I’d been there many times early mornings on weekends to pick him up for fishing.  Originally from Florida’s Gulf coast, he had brought a trunk of gear and an exuberance to fish in the Persian Gulf.  This morning he was not his usual calm self, though.

“The embassy called earlier. They advised us all to fill up our gas tanks, pack hand luggage, and wait by the phone.” He offered me no coffee, as he usually did. “We might convoy south to Saudi, so be back in the underground parking garage no later than ten.”  His hands trembled

I convinced Tom to pack and we got back up to Abu Halifa by ten a. m.  Traffic was crazier than ever; cars almost rear-ended us when I stopped at a traffic light.  Then they just rushed through the intersection, all directions at once.

“Those uniforms, gosh!  That’s just not smart,” said Tom as we drove toward our co-workers grouped in the underground garage. The uniforms the McDonnell Douglas project leader insisted we wear—blue shirts and khaki pants, so that the Kuwait Air Force personnel would recognize us —had irked Tom from the beginning, and I generally succeeded in convincing him that it was a small price to comply and, in fact, simplified getting dressed on workday mornings.  But here, I agreed with him.

A convoy was clearly getting organized.  “What is Ted thinking? This might just be a warning shot,” Tom went on.   We stayed in the car watching. “And the Kuwaitis would be quite upset if these guys did get into Saudi and then couldn’t return for work on Saturday.”

I was weighing options about the immediate future by considering the past: my vacation started in two days and I had a ticket to Rome from Kuwait City, not from Saudi Arabia.  I had three thousand dollars in my money belt that I’d planned that day to convert to traveler’s checks, money to spend getting reacquainted with Diana.  Should I follow Ted, or Tom?  Ted and our colleagues, former military people, were personable, generous; however, their expertise was military technology and the etiquette of American military and corporate culture. Although sincere, they were naive about the cultures of the region.  To be more accurate, their attitudes seemed ethnocentric, even colonial rather than curious.  Tom, on the other hand, as a former Peace Corps volunteer like me, was open to the culture of the Middle East on their own terms.  And in the market, he could tell a Kurd from a Turk from an Afghan by their languages.

“So what are you going to do?” Tom intruded. “You can ride with Ted and leave me the car.”

He had been in western Asia for about twenty years, teaching English while pursuing his real love, buying oriental carpets, supplementing his income and learning market and street etiquette as well as what seemed to me rich vocabularies of Hindi, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic in the process.  Starting in western India with the Peace Corps, he’d moved on to Iran and stayed on there during the first months of the Ayatollah’s rule, hidden by the same anti-American students who would end their tea sessions with him by saying, “Excuse us, Tom. We need to go out for a while and chant ‘Death to America.’ We’ll be back later. Can we bring you anything?” Tom left there only when these “militants,” his friends, thought he’d be safer out of Iran.

This was how I wanted things now, accepted by both sides, like Tom, safe with the “enemy” and yet ultimately free from harm.

Ted drove out of the garage first. Stopping beside us, he rolled down his window. “You guys follow me,” he said. The other cars drove past and onto the sandy shoulder of’ the road.

“Uh, Ted, Tom and I have decided not to go with you,” I said. “We’re going to wait and see.”

He blinked. “You’re gonna what!?”  He paused.  “You’re fucking crazy to stay here. You never know what those damn Iraqis can do to you. I really think you should come with us.”

“Ted. We’re staying. If things get bad, we will leave later,” I insisted.

“I can’t force you to come with us, but it’s insane to stay here. Come on! We can’t afford any more time talking either.” He hesitated.  “If you guys are going to stay, at least take my keys so you can watch CNN and use the fax.”  By now someone in another car had started blowing the horn.

And they drove off, ten identical cars, packed with all our uniformed colleagues and their families. Ted’s hound stared out the back window of the station wagon as he drove off, headed for the border fifty miles to the south along a major highway through mostly empty desert, no cover and no water.  Saudi Arabia offered no visas at the border and required that expatriate residents carry internal passports at all times to get through checkpoints within the country.  I was not at all confident the group would be allowed into Saudi Arabia, the walled society it is.

Yet, as I watched them disappear, I immediately wondered if I was making the wrong decision. Neither Tom nor I spoke as we drove back to Manqaf.

I spent much of the afternoon watching the sky for more planes, but none flew over our part of Kuwait. Several plumes of smoke rose north, west, and south and spread along the horizon. I had no idea what was burning.  At other times, unfamiliar thuds punctuated my disbelief, but no new smoke appeared. I worried about Ted and the others. But this noise and burning were not enough to convince me that a permanent change had happened here.  Yet, when darkness fell, I didn’t turn on my lights. I noticed Tom did. I moved my bedding to an interior hallway: it was a futile gesture but a few walls of cement block seemed a more substantial barrier than the sliding-glass door between my bed and an Iraqi missile screaming toward me from low over the Gulf.  It came down to a choice of being lacerated by flying glass and dying quickly from blood loss, or crushed by concrete and maybe lingering near death for a few days before succumbing to thirst or internal trauma.  But that didn’t occur to me then.  I just wanted to do something to ensure that I would feel safe, without examining closely whether this new “safety” made any sense.

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Friday morning, I returned to listen to the BBC in Tom’s apartment.  As the announcer spoke of a resolution proposed at the United Nations demanding an immediate Iraqi withdrawal, an unusual noise distracted us from outside.

“What’s that?” Tom said, as the rumbling grew louder. We hurried out to the balcony. At first I saw nothing, and the noise was so loud and seemed to come from all directions. I didn’t know where to look. Then I saw a column of tanks and trucks moving from Ahmadiport about a mile to the south. Three tanks and seventeen trucks passed in front of the Alia Towers and stopped just north of us, maybe three hundred feet away. I assumed they were Kuwaitis counterattacking, since they were coming from the south.  I wanted to cheer, clearly identifying with the Kuwaitis.

But Tom read the markings on the vehicles. “They’re Iraqi. I’m positive.  Let’s get off the balcony.”  Each truck carried scores of armed soldiers.  Some drove over the curb and onto the beach. Others stopped farther up the road at a high-walled mansion Tom had always said belonged to an Al-Sabah, a member of the royal family of Kuwait. The soldiers jumped off the overloaded trucks and walked to the water’s edge. They approached the bathers on the beach and gestured for them to leave.  Unlike me, the Russian bathers had not altered their behavior at all after the missile attack.  Now though they left.  In no time, soldiers began digging holes, filling sandbags, building walls with the bags, and setting up mortars and tents.  Once an hour or so, two or three tanks rumbled past; I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones each time.  Soldiers set up checkpoints on the avenue. Others dug deeper into the sand, installing guns and building sandbag bunkers. Still others walked along the avenue stringing wires off a spool.  Communications links—or trip wires, I wondered.

I sprawled on my sofa, then lay on the floor, then crawled over to the floor-to-ceiling windows to peer beneath the curtains.  Then I went back to the sofa and started the cycle again. I reread old letters from Diana.  Several times I climbed up onto the roof, keeping low, trying to see.  The night before, I hadn’t slept much, not wanting to die in my sleep unaware.  But the threat then was invisible, over the horizon.  Now soldiers might be looking up at our building and wondering if anyone was inside, wondering if a sniper was sighting down at them.

Everything in my sparse apartment was white or natural wood, and outside, the dominant color was ethereal blue of the sky and Gulf.  If I looked at only these, I imagined all else was unreal.  Only what I wrote in my journal was real, or so I wished.

“Diana, tomorrow I go on vacation, the first in eight months. Time I will spend with you. I feel we’ve lost touch; letters are shorter and telephone calls strained. But I’m confident that meeting in Rome will rejuvenate us.”

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Saturday morning the soldiers were still there.  If I wasn’t in custody, then I was at the very least confined. This was the morning I’d planned to fly to Rome.  I alternated between long hours of knowing the flight wouldn’t depart and brief seconds of denial when wishes gave fantasy the upper hand.  Tom had given me his second radio;  the BBC reported that airports and seaports had shut down.

I lay in front of the window, peering under the curtain. No traffic moved on the avenue.  It was quiet except for the sand gusts scraped against the windowpanes. A rattling can blowing down the street startled me. A sandstorm looks, sounds, and feels like a blizzard. I was sandbound, not snowbound, trapped.  I could blame my inertia on this storm.  I looked at my watch: 9:15, the hour of my departure for Rome.  After rejecting a sense that these invaders would keep me from traveling, that morning I never even imagined packing or leaving although the car Tom and I shared was in the parking lot below.

I alternated between fear and fury.  I cursed at myself for staying behind when Ted left, but I couldn’t stop imagining the different ways they might have died:  attack from the air, bullets or grenades fired from men along the road, thirst and sunstroke in the desert after their cars were confiscated.  I was at least in familiar surroundings with functioning air conditioning, water for drinking, cooking, washing and flushing the toilet.  Then I returned to cursing myself, feeling worse than embarrassed to be caught.  I did pushups.  I sprawled on the couch.  I went back to the curtains and saw the soldiers still below.  Then I went to the bathroom and cursed myself anew while looking in the mirror, as if seeing the fury in my face could help intensify the feelings.  I didn’t realize then how numb I’d already become.  I picked up the journal to write something more to Diana but I didn’t have anything new to write.

Back on the sofa, where the cycle repeated itself, starting with more pushups, I thought about the news:  a contingent of British military trainers who lived not far south had been arrested by Iraqi troops and bussed to Baghdad, and President Bush had issued an economic embargo against Iraq, which Iraq condemned.  Only a few people with four-wheel-drives and Bedouin guides were escaping out through the desert.  As the days passed, the United States led a drive for other nations to enact an economic embargo against Iraq, making me feel increasingly besieged by the Iraqi troops around the building.  And I quickly lost track of the days, as nothing really happened.  I alternated between cursing myself, exercising, and peering under the curtains.  It amounted to waiting for something to impinge—another missile, some other attack, arrest maybe.

<<Note:  Daily or weekly installments will vary in length.  This NYTimes article captures some of the feeling I recall having at the time.   The image above is part of a page of the diary I kept throughout my detention.>>

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I got a knock on the door Sunday afternoon.  It startled me. When I looked through the peephole, I saw Nidal and Tarik, some Palestinian friends.  I invited them in, and an air of unreality permeated the room as I set out sugar for out hot tea and apologized for not having cookies.  They laughed.  I asked what they had seen in the street.

“There’s looting. Two Indians were shot looting and their bodies left in the street as a warning,” Nidal said.  I had met him at a magazine shop he ran a few blocks south of my apartment. He spoke English, the non-Arabic language of retail in some enclaves in Kuwait.  “Some soldiers said they would make sure no one looted my shop.” Although born here, Nidal had only limited civil rights under Kuwaiti law because he was Palestinian. Since he was a retail clerk, for example, he was prohibited from getting a driver’s license. Retail clerks from Egypt, Palestine, Bangladesh, and other third world countries staffed shops all over Kuwait, and these clerks were denied access to privileges like driving.  And visas and pay in turn were based on nationality, or even place of birth.  I knew an American engineer, a United States citizen but born in the Philippines, whose initial pay offering was much lower than that of his US-born counterparts because of his birthplace.   As an American, I had more rights than Nidal.  For him, being treated with a little respect in Kuwait was bound to be impressive.

“What kind of people are these Iraqis? What do they ask about?” I asked.

“They are very polite,” he said, smiling.

Tarik didn’t say much. He wasn’t wearing the New York Yankees hat he usually had on, visor to the back. He was clearly afraid although I wasn’t sure an Iraqi conscript would recognize a Yankees hat.

Nidal put down his tea and spoke again. “Tarik’s uncle has just driven in from Jordan yesterday. He saw many dead bodies along the highway near the western border at Salmi.”  Tarik just shook his head, barely.

I wondered if this was the fate of Ted and the others. The conversation stopped for a while.  After a few minutes of quiet staring, Nidal stood up. “We’ll be back to check on you in a few days, maybe Thursday. Do you need us to bring you anything?”

“My cupboards are almost empty,“ I said, handing him a twenty-dinar note.  “Do you think you can bring me some food, just anything?”  I assumed Americans had quickly become persona non grata since President Bush had immediately condemned the invasion and ordered an economic embargo against Iraq.

<<Click here for the text of a speech given by the first President Bush on Aug. 5, 1990.  Here‘s a review of ABC News for that week.>>

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<<Note:  When time runs together, I will post material for chunks of several days.>>

Monday morning Stuart knocked.  He was an Englishman from the first floor.  Tom and I had chosen not to get phones to avoid a huge installation fee.  I sometimes used Stuart’s phone, and several times over the months his maid had knocked to say someone had called me. Stuart had said he didn’t mind sharing the phone;  it became a link between us in a place where such connections were hard to establish.  We used to talk sometimes while sitting by the small pool at the base of Alia Towers.

“Will, you just got a call from someone named Jerry.  He says you don’t know him, but he lives in Abu Halifa one floor below your boss.”

I hurried down with Stuart.  I thought he might have news about Ted.  Evelyn, his wife, and two kids sitting nearby making a puzzle reminded me of the joy I once felt doing these things with my kids.

I picked up the phone and identified myself.

“I’m your U. S. embassy warden,” someone named Jerry said.  “As such, I’ve been asked by the embassy to keep in touch with you and others.  I’ve a direct link with the embassy through a Palestinian free to move about. I have good news I can’t say over the phone because the Iraqis may be listening in.  If you and anybody else you’re in touch with are interested, pack your stuff and be here at noon.  I’m in unit 1930.”

Stuart said he wasn’t interested, so I walked over to see Tom, who agreed that we should talk to Jerry. This time Tom drove. I was afraid to.  He took the inland expressway, since the coastal avenue had become an Iraqi staging area.  Once as smooth as a new stretch of American interstate, the surface was now gouged by tank tracks. “Turnarounds” had been bulldozed through the concrete median walls every mile or so. Drivers ignored traffic lights.  Wrecked cars littered intersections, abandoned where they impacted, left in the debris of broken glass and spilled fluids.

We knocked on Jerry’s door. He was tall and about sixty. His wife Lucy stood behind him.  “Come in and have a seat,” he said.  He seemed not to blink.  “Let me come straight to the point.  A convoy of up to two hundred cars is leaving soon for the Saudi border at the Salmi border post at noon. Do you want to join us?”

“Do you have any news from Ted?”

“Sorry,” he said.  “None.”

On a map, Salmi (scroll out on the map; see Khiran on the same map near the Gulf.)  was the final Kuwaiti point to the west, but I’d never driven there. Ted and the others had headed out on the southern road past Khiran.  Salmi was where Tarik’s uncle reportedly saw corpses.  I chose not to mention this, not wanting to believe it was accurate.

“Why Salmi? Isn’t Khiran closer?” I asked.  I knew that road from driving there to catch a dive boat in months past.

“People have been turned back on that road. Salmi is the only road open,” he said. He seemed very well informed.

I looked at Tom. “What do you think?”

“It can’t hurt to try,” he said, after looking out the window awhile.

Jerry smiled when we said we were in. “I want a car to spearhead the convoy. Would you be willing to do that?”

“Spearhead? What do you mean?”

“You know. Lead the way. Drive the first car. Don’t you speak Arabic quite well?” He looked at Tom.  I assumed he must know this through Ted.  “You might be able to talk us through any checkpoints.”

“I know some,” Tom said.

“Strange word, spearhead,” I mused, driving the lead car less than an hour later. The past few days I’d been too afraid to turn on my apartment lights, and now when Jerry asked me to drive the first car of a convoy seeking to escape, I readily agreed although I hadn’t even driven to Abu Halifa. Tom had. I’d been afraid to.  Now I chose to drive so that Tom could concentrate on speaking with anyone who stopped us, as if moving in a large group made us safe. Actually, the more I thought about it, the less courageous it seemed to spearhead. Behind me I saw dozens of cars, and I supposed a soldier might attack cars on the highway once he saw a pattern, several cars, many cars, a convoy of cars, people with a plan, he might attack the plan. The first cars might pass unscathed. It started to occur to me that the spearhead was the coward’s place . . . until I thought about land mines.

“Look at that plane,” said Tom as we passed the Kuwait Airport. I was startled to see a large transport plane take off.  In spite of the BBC report about the closed airport and a trapped British Airways 747, a Russian-built jet was gaining altitude.  An Iraqi cargo plane, I supposed.

Mostly we didn’t talk, just looked. Russian-made tanks were parked here and there along the highway too: soldiers in greasy overalls underneath. I wondered if they were changing the oil, doing repairs, or just keeping busy while holding a position. Whichever, they let us pass.

Traffic got heavier as we approached the intersection of the Ring Road #7—one of the beltways that sped traffic around city center—and the road to Salmi, still miles away. Obviously a major skirmish had taken place near the turn-off. Not much was left of the large General Motors dealership: the showroom was partially burnt. A hole in the roof suggested something had blown up inside, automobiles for several miles lay flattened where tanks had driven over them; burnt-out tanks stood nearby, one tank turned upside down beside its turret. Two corpses in dishdasha sprawled in the median, like bundles of dirty white rags with red stains.

“Did you see that!” gasped Tom a minute or so after we passed.

“Yeah,” I whispered. I quickly developed tunnel vision.  I didn’t want to see the bodies, the wreckage, or the live ordnance on the highway.

A mile or so further we saw lots of cars and trucks standing just off the road in the hard sand.  People waited beside them. I kept going. Just over the crest of a hill I saw why the others stopped: three armored cars parked facing me, one in the middle of the highway and two in the median. All their heavy guns triangulated on me, on our car.  The spearhead was outgunned.

I halted in the middle of the highway where the speed limit was eighty mph.  Tom was sitting beside me rolling down the window.   I had screeched to a stop just after cresting a desert ridge, as an Iraqi soldier stepped in front of our car and large machine guns atop three armored cars parked across the highway swiveled toward us.  Tom  greeted the soldier who approached his side of the car.

Salaam aleykum.” He sounded like he was on downers.  The soldier sounded tense and asked where we were going.  When Tom said “Salmi,”  the soldier said, “La.  Memnoyah,” which meant that we were not going to get to that border town.  Tom thanked the soldier.

“Turn around,” Tom said, still sounding impassive, as if the slightest uptick in energy might trigger the guns.

I slowly spun the steering wheel all the way to the left and drove into the sandy median strip, made for the opposite side of the highway, the direction we’d come from Manqaf.  In my rearview mirror, I watched a long line of cars loop across the median strip watched by unseen men whose fingers I pictured on the triggers of those guns that could unleash quick, deadly ripping and splattering.

The looping around back to Manqaf was unmistakable evidence of failure. The Iraqi military perimeter enclosed us.  The only road open, according to Jerry, was now shut, and thoughts of exit stifled.

When we got back to Manqaf, I went up to my apartment and threw myself onto the couch.  “Fuck fuck fucking stupid fuck,” I said, furious and powerless.  I don’t often curse, but it’s all that came.  Again and again I got off the couch and lay flat on my back to relax, then got back on the couch.  Finally I rolled over and took the notebook out of my shirt pocket. I looked at my watch to see what day it was. Since the first missile strike, I hadn’t put dates on any entries. This had seemed like all one long unit of time, for the first time considering the possibility of never seeing her again.

I went back then and figured out where entries on new days started and marked the dates.  This was a shift.  My notebook carried information decipherable as my last will and testament, complete with Diana’s address on the cover.

Dolphins leaped out of the Gulf the next morning.  I wondered if they, like me, felt the absence of ship movements or even the stillness on shore.  No matter the phrasing tanker owners used, captains complied, and the void was palpable, the docks deserted.  Phrasing from the White House involved lines drawn in the sand and, on the other side, Saddam declared Kathima—not “Kuwait” according to the Iraqis—reunited as the long-lost province of Greater Mesopotamia.

I had no clear sense of what to do. Safety was an enormous issue; as an unarmed and untrained American civilian in an occupied zone where jets and missiles threatened from above and tanks and hundreds of armed soldiers patrolled just outside my building, the odds were not on my side.

Basic survival was no longer a given.  The supply of water through the pipes of the building and electricity to run the air conditioning could not be taken for granted.  Food was critical, too, given that Kuwait was a desert.  I had by then begun to eat two meals a day with Stuart, Evelyn and their household, and contributed most of my tinned goods to them.  They had a freezer filled with fish from the Gulf.  And Evelyn and Ardette, her maid, seemed confident they could prepare anything from the waters across the street, as long as they could get there safely and back.

If Kuwait were my permanent home, if I spoke Arabic fluently and knew the terrain, I would have felt safer going out, finding food, and gathering information.

Instead, those days I stayed inside alternating between self-loathing and denial.  Sometimes before I looked out, I told myself the soldiers would be gone.  Lying on the carpet, peering under the curtains and out the floor-to-ceiling windows, I saw they were still digging deeper into the beach and building up the sandbags around the anti-aircraft guns atop the Al-Sabah mansion on the beach. Periodically, tanks cruised up and down the avenue, with stunning speed and terrible rumble.  Other traffic ranged from armored cars to orange and white taxicabs with Iraqi plates. I wondered if the cabs were troop carriers or support vehicles bringing letters and food packages from family. Soldiers drove a jeep into our parking lot and hitched onto a camping trailer belonging to the Palestinians on the third floor. They kicked open the trailer door, rummaged through the stuff inside, threw what they didn’t want on the ground. Then they drove away, leaving papers, dishes, sleeping bags to blow away or collect sand.

Another time I looked down to see five soldiers come into the walled area that surrounded our building and point guns at Hassan and Sultan, our Bangladeshi gardeners, who handed over a pot of food.

An Iraqi patrol visited Tom in his top floor apartment that night at two a.m.  He told the story over coffee the next day:  six privates and an officer asked if they could look around his apartment. They did.  The officer asked if Tom had weapons.  The officer also yelled at the soldiers, who looked maybe too longingly at his television.  Then they all left.  All the conversation was in Arabic; the officer never asked Tom’s nationality.

It may have been the same squad I had watched from my window the day before: three Iraqi soldiers led two men dressed in dishdasha across the vacant lot next to our apartment building. The men’s hands were bound behind their backs. The group crossed the avenue and entered the Al-Sabah mansion on the waterfront. My apartment was high enough to see over the walls into the compound. The men were led inside the mansion. An hour later I saw them pushed and thrown into the back of a small white pickup truck. Their hands were still bound.  I wondered about radio reports of Iraqi torture centers, where “Kuwaiti insurgents” would be subjected to electric shock or water torture until they confessed.  Then they’d be shot.

I woke up to the sound of shooting: my head was immediately clear, but my knees shook, uncontrollably. It was before dawn, before fajr, the first call to prayer; wind rattled a window.  I thought it was gunfire.  The anti-aircraft gun atop the beach mansion had opened fire the evening before: I had watched the tracers arching inland though I couldn’t tell what the target was. A sniper, a rat, an aircraft, or just the full moon?  Seeing no corpses in the morning near the building, I was frustrated not to be able to learn from local media about the shooting.  No local media existed, no networks for uniting around shared information.

An unfamiliar smell wafted in from outdoors.  First I thought it was the smell of fear, my own changed chemistry.   Then I realized it was from fires and daily columns of smoke on the horizon, maybe explosions or firebombed buildings or vehicles.  When I saw a column of smoke coming from the base of our building, it turned out to be trash, once picked up almost daily to be buried or piled up in the desert, now burning, incinerated in the large trash bin, maybe ignited to kill flies and rats.

As I lay flat on the floor looking out at the Gulf or down at the soldiers, I told myself they were vulnerable, not me.  Sometimes I wished I were a sniper, but only if I could use a magic weapon and the deaths of soldiers below could be secret, things I’d imagined as a kid, one who could be invisible, shoot soldiers and get to safety that way.

<<News chronology:

August 6:  US SECDEF (Cheney) travels to Saudi Arabia to discuss request for assistance and deployment of U.S. forces in country; then to Egypt and gets permission to send U.S. warships through Suez Canal.

August 7:  Operation Desert Shield is ordered;  the 82nd Airborne and several fighter squadrons are dispatched.

August 8:  Iraq annexes Kuwait and renames it the long-lost province of Kathima.  UN Security Council Resolution 661 imposes trade embargo;  Cuba and Yemen abstain.

August 9:  Iraq closes its borders.

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Since wishing would not bring us food, Tom and I decided to risk going out to raid Ted’s freezer in Abu Halifa. The roads were deserted of all but car wrecks, some of which had not been there when Tom and I made our “spearhead” drive.  The gate in the Abu Halifa wall was closed, and a gatekeeper asked what we wanted.

“We’re here to visit Jerry, in apartment 1930,” I said, feigning familiarity.  It appeared the residents of the building had formed their own security patrols to keep out looters. I recognized the gatekeeper as an American I’d seen at a party Ted held a month earlier: Tom and I had status as his fellow US expatriates then.  Now he eyes us with suspicion.

We did visit Jerry for a while. He told of new attempts by small groups to drive to the border, mostly people with four-wheel-drive vehicles going across the desert.  There were also reports, Jerry said, of carloads of corpses there, people who attempted to drive out of Kuwait but either had unsuitable vehicles for traversing desert, lost their way, or broke down . . . . and died in the heat.  Again, I wondered about Ted and the others.

When Tom and I left him—we hadn’t said why we’d really come—we went to Ted’s apartment one floor up. I expected it would soon be taken over as an Iraqi observation post.  The fax line was dead, and when I dialed Diana’s number, I heard only static.  I assumed this was the consequence of the destroyed telecommunications tower.  I noticed two dozen bottles of Ted’s wine fermenting in the bathtub and thought about all the good bottles he and I had enjoyed months before. Each bottle had a cap attached to surgical tubing that  ended under water in a basin; fermentation was evident as bubbles in the water.  We took only the squid from the freezer, leaving the greens and boxes of processed foods.  As we carried this bag of frozen food out toward the gate, we were challenged by the building’s security patrols.

“What do you have there, guys?”

“Just some food from a friend,” I answered.

“Can’t let you keep that,” was the response.  “It’s our food now.  Nothing leaves here.”

I wonder now if the patrol would even have taken this food if Jerry had accompanied us.  These apartment complexes, enclosed as they are in Kuwait, were taking on a new life, transformed into walled cities by the fearful residents trapped inside. Even though this patrol was made up of fellow-Americans, their greater identity now was as residents of Abu Halifah; and Tom and I, residents of a walled city in Manqaf, were outsiders, therefore a threat; we had morphed into intruders, rivals for a limited food supply.  If this patrol detained as well, Tom and I could face the fate of Jean Valjean.

I had no way of telling how many people lived in these towers, but our buildings seemed about half full.  The Arab residents had disappeared, leaving Europeans, Tom and me, and some Pakistani families.

<<News chronology:

August 10:  USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are activated and prepare to deploy.  Carrier groups Independence, Eisenhower, and Saratoga as well as battleship Wisconsin begin to converge on the Gulf.

August 10:  (from History Commons)  Perhaps 2,000 Americans are hiding from Iraqi soldiers throughout the capital city, and at least 115 are already in Iraqi custody, essentially being held as hostages. Iraqi forces bring a number of Americans, mostly oilfield workers, to Baghdad, where they are put up at local hotels. The Iraqis do not allow the “freed” Americans to leave the hotels or meet with US Embassy officials. It is clear that though the Iraqis call them “guests,” they are hostages. Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Wilson, the ranking US diplomat in Baghdad, learns to his dismay that his superiors in the US are similarly reluctant to consider the Americans as hostages, arguing that if US officials begin calling them hostages, then the Iraqis will treat them as such. Perhaps Iraq is holding the Americans only until their control of Kuwait is complete, and will release them.

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Tom was now spending most days sewing pieces of carpet together to make pillows, a mindless task, a distraction like building sand dam to stop a flooding tide.  My equivalent had become sanding the carved fish I’d bought some weeks before at the souk al-haraj (flea market).  The charm of the three-foot fish lay in its crude representation.  It was a vague fish, no particular species.   But the finish bothered me.  What seemed like shoe polish made it uniformly dull brown, dull as these days.  There were rough spots on the belly, and I wondered whether the fish was hollow.  I might find something inside, something that could help me endure.  Sanding calmed me.  Or maybe the fish itself reassured me with an occult power, a symbol of an ability to disappear beneath the waters to reappear in a safe cove thousands of miles from here.

The exposed wood gave me an idea:  I took a flathead screwdriver, heated it on the flames of the gas stove, and burned my name and Diana’s address into an area of smooth ventral wood, thinking that this would get the fish “home” in case I now didn’t.  I feel strange admitting the desperation of this labeling and accepting the profundity of this act:  I intended to route this object to Diana after I was gone.  For only the second time I allowed this thought—of not returning alive—to enter my head, and then I quickly pushed it out again.

At one point unusual noises from below drew me to the window.   Two boys I’d never seen before, probably neighborhood Palestinians, ran around the swimming pool at the base of our tower, playing something like tag, getting closer and closer to the edge. One boy lost his balance and tumbled into the pool. Weighed down by his dishdasha, he started to sink. When the other boy couldn’t reach him, I rushed downstairs to pull him out. I got there about the same time as Stuart and Evelyn. We got the wet, coughing boy to lie down poolside for a while until he seemed all right. The other boy ran out the gate when we called him over.

“It’s OK. Lie still,” Evelyn said in Arabic. But as soon as we turned away, not talking about him, not watching him, the boy ran coughing out the gate. “There might be no one in the hospital to help him, or anyone, now,” she said.

Stuart invited me in for a drink.  Mostly I wanted to get back to my tower, watching in different directions from the balconies and under the curtains. “Maybe later,” I answered, feeling a need to be alone.  Tanker traffic had abruptly ceased, making it easy to feel cut off.

<<News chronology:

August 11:  Crude tankers headed for Kuwait and Iraq are rerouted to Iran.

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August 12-15

I had gone to visit Tom.  He had lots of sandpaper I could borrow.  I didn’t want to be alone.  I wanted company.  We talked and listened to the radio together.  I enjoyed his perspective, his resistance of panic, even if he had been wrong on August 2.

While returning after dark, I had to walk around the base of his tower, cross by the pool, then enter the base of mine. This meant crossing a platform from which I could see over the eight-foot wall; likewise, someone outside could see me from the waist up. I accidentally kicked over an empty can, which made a clatter; then I saw two Iraqi soldiers just outside the wall, less than fifty feet away, probably out looking for food. They stopped and looked in my direction, pointing their weapons. Afraid, I flattened myself against the dark side of’ a column and waited a long time, hoping they’d think the noise was made by a scavenging cat, dog, or rat.  When I thought it was safe to peer around, I waited some more.  After at least five minutes, I did look around, and the soldiers had gone.  I quickly went over to my tower.

The next morning there was no water, just a hiss from the pipes when I tried to take a morning shower. When I mentioned this to Stuart, he checked his shower and found the same problem. He called a British engineer, Colin, in Tom’s tower and they all came over to work on our pump. I was grateful for Colin’s practicality: things were starting to break down. But someone like him could keep them going for a while.

My thoughts upon waking were often courageous, reckless:  to drive out through insane traffic, machine-gun fire, deep sand or hell . . . . Courage seemed to invade me while I slept: speaking aloud to myself while looking at myself in the mirror, I made statements like “Better to make something happen, than to just wait here until the Iraqis come into the apartment and execute me. Better to catch that bullet running than to get it while sitting here.” Yet I could tell that my words and my body language were different. One mid-afternoon BBC news brief reported a British citizen had been shot dead attempting to drive to Saudi, and all my bravado went limp.

Nidal visited me again with a ten-pound bag of rice, some tins of sardines and sweetened milk, and asked to borrow the car.

“Nidal, No.  I’m sorry to say ‘No,’ but I don’t want to risk losing the car in case there’s another chance to run to the Saudi border.”

“But I’m just borrowing it,” he protested.

“Nidal, I’m sorry, but I can’t let you have it.”

I felt uncomfortable then because, friendship or not, he could walk out of the building, cross the street, and talk to the Iraqis.  If I lent him the car, Tom and I could very well be without transportation, a frightening possibility even if roadblocks prevented us from going far and, surely, from escaping.  Yet, if I didn’t lend the car, Nidal could sell us out to the Iraqis anyhow.

Nidal may have understood the trade very differently:  he was putting himself at risk by bringing me food, and I refused to allow him to borrow my car. The BBC had reported that Iraqi occupation authorities had declared that any Arab found helping a Westerner would be executed for aiding the enemy. Yet, I leased it with Tom, who had the right to veto a decision to “lend” the car.

Stuart, whom I met later for tea, angrily told me to ask Nidal not to visit anymore; Nidal’s coming and going would attract Iraqi attention, he said.  No doubt his real concern was that Nidal might be tempted to sell us out to the Iraqis, his ”Arab brothers.”

“Come on, Stuart. Nidal is someone I’ve known for months. And he has brought me food, now that my cupboards are bare.” But he was not convinced.  From that point to be more guarded in dealing with any new confederates.

Two weeks after the invasion, Tom and I heard on the BBC that we were being asked to surrender.  The Iraqi occupation officials, according to the report, were warning expatriates like Tom, me, all the people still in our building, and all others, that we would soon be forced out of our places.  Our options, we understood, were either to stay hidden in Manqaf with an increasing Iraqi presence, to navigate our car into the desert, risking sandpits and minefields we happened over, or to comply and turn ourselves in—Americans were to surrender at the International Hotel, and British at the Regency.

The BBC announced that the British and US governments had demanded immediate safe passage out of Kuwait for anyone who so wished. And the Iraqi occupation authorities responded by issuing the ultimatum about turning ourselves in or having no guarantees about our safety.  Saddam promised to release us only if Israel withdrew from territories it occupied.

“And what do you think?” I said. “They say to turn ourselves in and be safe.  The situation here in Kuwait is getting worse. I don’t know.”

“I think we turn ourselves in,” said Tom. “This is like my experience in Iran during the Revolution—such an announcement led me to turn myself in. Thirty-six hours later I was deported to Germany and met by someone from the US Embassy, who advanced me $100. We’re already trapped here. Just look out that window.”

“What if it’s a lie? They already hold the guys from south of the Ahmadi. Those guys are in Baghdad, in a hotel.”

“But—gosh—those guys were military assistants.”

“In a way, so are we. We were working at a Kuwaiti airbase.”

“No, don’t worry about that,” said Tom. “This might be the prelude to a ‘safe and orderly evacuation’ as the British Foreign Secretary said he was waiting for. I mean, what’s the alternative: those guys down there on the beach . . . they know we’re here.”

I still denied that. “They know you’re here. They’ve seen you, not me.”

“You honestly think that if they decide to sweep this place, you can hide. Even if they miss you because you’re up on the water tank, and they leave, you think everything will be fine?”

I knew he was right.  Once the Iraqis believed everyone was out, they would use the apartments. Sooner or later I would be caught if for no other reason than I would need food, drink, and shelter from the daytime heat. And even if I eluded them for a few days, eventually I’d startle someone and possibly be shot in self-defense.

“When could you be ready?” I asked, my voice low.  I was ready.  My luggage was packed, and I, prepared—I thought—for whatever I’d face.

Tom and I met by the car less than thirty minutes later in the still one hundred-degree late afternoon sun.  He stood with two large suitcases inside the wall by the gate to the parking lot.  I threw my knapsack and duffel bag onto the car seat with one hand. I walked to the back of the car and opened the hatch for his suitcases. I didn’t know how Tom had filled them.  As I lifted the first one into the back of the car, I suspected there was more than one carpet stuffed inside.

My values—different from his—could be read from the contents of my bags:  favorite t-shirts, a brown ceramic mug that matched one Diana kept, some souvenir jewelry intended for her, binoculars, a compass, a small shortwave radio, bottled water, lots of tinned food, a book, the money belt, and Diana’s letters—in short, my survival supplies.  I left behind my wooden fish, camera, diving knife; the fish was too big and the camera and knife, too provocative.

We drove out of our neighborhood between buildings as lifeless as the cliffs in the Kuwait desert farther north.  No laundry hung from balconies.  Curtains covered all windows.  The small shops remained shuttered and locked.  Gas stations had no lines and no employees.  Traffic lights were not working, as if all the bulbs had blown.  Wrecked cars littered intersections, left where panicked drivers had skidded to a stop or crashed.  No other cars moved.  The air conditioner in our car masked the silence and the smell of drifting sand.  Only empty plastic bags blew along the highway like aimless ghosts.  The fronds of date trees, not irrigated for two weeks, hung limp.

Tom drove north toward Kuwait City.  We didn’t talk much. I had such a different feeling a month earlier when I’d driven this road with a camera to take pictures to show Diana.   I wish I had pictures of the armored vehicles stationed on the road with turrets swung toward the traffic . . . or the burnt-out vehicles in the breakdown lane or the soldiers in sandbag fortifications around and on overpasses, but I didn’t even look at the Iraqi troops except from the corner of my eye: maybe avoiding direct eye contact would mean avoiding death.  Yet I saw.

“Damn! See that?” said Tom.  A police station was burnt out, soot marks darkening all the windows where black smoke had risen. Overpasses were turned into fortresses. Inside the City some palaces were scorched, damaged by explosions and fire, while others must have housed some important Iraqis, given the tanks and armored cars blocking the gates in their huge walls. One shell from a tank just fifty feet from the road could reduce Tom and me and most of the car to charred fossils, remnants of an instant but excruciating death.

Near the souk al-haraj where Tom had hunted for his treasures and I found my fish was police headquarters, which stored the personal information about all Kuwaiti residents in computer files: name, lineage, blood type, fingerprints.  I’d been told that my information—encoded on the reverse of my driver’s license—lived there too.  The four-story building had been burnt. I wondered whether the arsonists were Iraqis or Kuwaiti dissidents who earlier in the year had demonstrated against the Emir and been arrested. Their arrest records would have been kept there as well.

When we got to the International, sometimes referred to as the “Old Hilton,”  we circled a few times looking for a parking spot.  Tom said, “Don’t want the Iraqis to give us a parking ticket, eh?”  It was a rare laugh.  The hotel rose fifteen floors higher than the American Embassy just across the street.  The Embassy walls, unlike the buff tint of most buildings in Bneid al Gar district, were white enough to hurt my eyes in the bright sun.  I assumed someone applied whitewash at least yearly to maintain that blanched color. A man in a white beard met us at the door, asking if we were American citizens.  He identified himself as United States Embassy staff.

“I advise you stay the night, as it is already curfew time.  But there is no imminent evacuation,” he said, possibly reading in our faces a hope that we’d soon leave Kuwait.

Bill, as he introduced himself, looked tense.  His beard matched his white shirt. “Be careful what you say in here,” he continued, gesturing his head sideways toward more than a dozen men in civilian clothing.  Beyond him, on the fine lobby chairs, they sat, smoking, with cups of coffee in front of them on low tables.  I’d met a friend here once a few months before and sat in those very chairs.  It took a few seconds to notice that these tables used for briefcases in calmer days now held machine guns, at least one per man.  Extra ammunition clips were duct taped to the stocks. Yet the manner of these men revealed no belligerence.  When they sipped their coffee, they kept the saucer in one hand and the cup in the other.  They alternated coffee with cigarettes, regular and leisurely, sip, puff, sip, puff.

Bill walked us over to the registration desk.  The clerk wore a dark suit and solid-colored tie that serves as uniform at hotels worldwide.  After we had filled in the registration form, he assigned us to a room on the seventh floor. “You’ll be staying in 712, gentlemen.  And dinner starts in half an hour,” he said, “in the main dining room.”

“Gentlemen?” Hearing those words uttered so nonchalantly by a man in a suit spun my brain.  I stared at the logo tack stuck through his tie, paralyzed, until I heard Tom call my name.

Our room faced the coastal road northward overlooking a peninsula jutting into Kuwait Bay. Along Gulf Road, clusters of trucks, tanks, and soldiers punctuated the beach as far as I could see.  At the point about a mile away stood Kuwait Towers, three needles, two of which skewered spheres, green and mirrored globes that symbolized Kuwaiti pride.  Shell marks shattered some of the mirrored glass panels and pocked the needles, but they stood.  Mostly I had avoided this section of Kuwait as much as possible, the modern and glitzy, much preferring the smell of the docks twenty miles to the south, the center of petroleum shipping and traditional fish markets.  The topmost sphere of the Towers housed a revolving restaurant where I had planned to spend the last night in Kuwait on this contract.  I didn’t want to be here now.  I missed the familiarity of Manqaf immediately, its blue water.

At dinner, Tom and I went to the buffet table laden with a beautiful mound of meats warm and cold, vegetables and fruits that must have come from cans in their storage. The restaurant was crowded, but most of the diners were subdued. A British Airways flight crew, in uniform, sat quietly around a central table.  Their uniforms were wrinkled, their faces drawn, as if they’d just gotten off an especially long and scary flight. I overheard some Americans at a neighboring table say this was the crew of a 747 caught in transit on the ground on August 2.

But I didn’t feel like talking with anyone, meeting anyone.  Tom and I mostly just looked at each other and the diners around us, or out the window, where leaves floated in the half-empty swimming pool.  Guards in pressed pants and white shirts walked the perimeter of the buffet table, piling salmon and artichokes onto their plates. If I took away the ammunition belts they wore as cummerbunds, the weapons they carried beneath their trays, and their immoderate servings of food, they could be genteel men in these elegant surroundings. Yet as they ate, weapons in their laps and ammunition out of sight, their faces were hard, like masks, their bodies muscular; it was clear they were guards, a sign this dinner was far from routine. Occasionally they conferred with Iraqi soldiers who entered from outside and saluted quite obsequiously before talking.

Occasionally, Arab civilians went over to the guards’ table.  It was incongruous seeing men, especially ones armed with such lethal-looking weapons, kissing each other on the cheeks, something that months of working with Kuwaiti soldiers had not yet accustomed me to.  The Arab civilians—I guess they were Iraqi too—wore ties and carried briefcases. Businessmen or government administrators held a noisy dinner meeting at three corner tables, discussing license plates, Tom said. Their faces were much less homogenous than those of Kuwaitis. It was easy to imagine their unfamiliarity as evil.

After supper Tim and I went back to the room. He opened one of his suitcases. “Want some Kuwaiti gin?” He got ice from a machine in the hallway and poured two glasses of the homemade spirits he got from a clandestine distiller who worked at a hospital.

I chose the bed by the window and took the book from my bag.  For months it had stayed on my bookshelf.   Letters of a New England Coaster was a collection of diary entries and letters by a mid-nineteenth-century New England schooner captain, Joseph Griffin.  Diana had hidden it in my suitcase as a going-away present. She and I had agreed to have some common experiences that year by reading books of sea voyages, but I hadn’t been able to sustain an interest in reading Griffin for the past months: the connection was just too tenuous between his writing and my living beside the Gulf.  A few days before, however, I’d flipped open the book and found a white pine needle stuck in the page. The cabin where she lived in a southern Maine woods was dwarfed beneath a stand of white pines: once I had even climbed onto the gently pitched roof of the “shack,” as we called it, and swept off millions of these needles.  I put the pine needle in my mouth, tasted it, and suddenly Griffin came to life in the letters he wrote to his wife Abby, with all their references to separations and long-distance “hankerings for,” doubts, and growings apart.  One series was exchange between Griffin and Abby his wife while he was detained on trumped-up charges in Cuba in 1871. She stayed on his ship in the harbor. He was held for thirty-nine days in a Spanish government prison, a hellhole where men and smallpox bacilli occupied the same cells. I thought my predicament could not go on that long.

The Cubans finally released Griffin, the Griffins and crew sailed away  in the schooner Lillias, but this knowledge brought me no comfort: Abby became a widow less than three years later when Joseph was lost overboard off Cape Hatteras.

Tom was reading a book about Freya Stark, an English woman who had traveled quite boldly through the Middle East between the First and Second World Wars, a time when Great Britain propped up sympathetic local rulers in Kuwait and Iraq.

Now I hated being on the seventh floor of this hotel: trapped here with annoying flies and no exit, no way to the roof that was another eight floors up.  No place to hide, no escape from an executioner. Fortunately, the gin brought sleep.

<<News chronology:

August 15:  POTUS warns Saddam Hussein about  “our determination and staying power.”

August 15:  “Why … a rapid deployment of American troops and warplanes to Saudi Arabia?”

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I awoke at sunrise. Until Tom stirred, I sat at the window, wondering if I could survive a jump four floors down to the roof over the hotel restaurant. A man cleaned the hotel pool. I noticed damage on the Kuwait Towers.  The revolving restaurant didn’t revolve; many of its reflective windows, shot out. Windows were also missing from a building just inland from the hotel: was this just random destruction or had resistance fighters sniped from there? Iraqi army trucks were ubiquitous while, at sea, the only traffic was a procession of patrol boats headed in the direction of Iraq, possibly Kuwaiti ships confiscated and crewed by Iraqi sailors.

For the first time I felt profoundly happy Diana hadn’t come to Kuwait.  For months I had pined for her, but if she were here now, we would have offered little solace to each other.  Tom was a better companion for me now, able to share his understanding of and appreciation for Arab ways.  Thanks to him, I gained a perspective, which, in this sandstorm, brought clarity, hard to attain but invaluable.

We decided to return to Manqaf provided we could gather enough food at the hotel to get us through at least a week.  Risks faced us if we left, but staying at the hotel without a plan was itself risky.  Many more soldiers with trucks and tanks patrolled the Bneid al Gar district:  after all, surrounding the area were the Seif Palace, the oldest palace used by the Emir; Kuwait Towers, the landmark Saddam would love to destroy; and the American Embassy.  Not an area to be confined in.  We possessed no food, as we ate one meal at a time in the restaurant.  To hoard the food would take at least a day.  Fruit, vegetables, breads would be best;  canned fish and meats we might obtain from the waiters, all Filipino, most likely also looking to get out.

Then came a snag: the car was gone, nowhere on any of three floors of the garage.  I looked outside in all directions.  No white Toyota station wagon, my keys worthless in my pocket.  Someone had helped himself to the car I had refused to lend to Nidal.

I returned to the room.  Tom sat on his bed reading.

“The car’s gone,” I said.

“What?  Gone?”

“Gone,” I said, emptying my pockets of crackers and dates and putting them on the dresser next to the bread he put there.  I stared out the window.  Across the street, a man raked his lawn. Under the trees with their long stringy leaves, he seemed to tune out the occupation and the occupier, to belong to a universe with different rules.  Maybe this was his version of sanding a wooden fish or cleaning carpets. As I watched, some people walked, others ran, to the American Embassy.

After lunch I walked over there, thinking they could offer some advice now that we had lost our car, maybe even allow us to move into the grounds, but it was immediately clear this was out of the question:  I had to talk through thick glass—I wondered if it was bulletproof—with an American consular official.  He looked oddly formal, wearing a tie.  But he offered no help at all:  no sanctuary, no words of hope, no idea what to do about our missing car.

“Stay put. We don’t recommend going for the Saudi border even if you find your car,” was all he said.  Looking past me then at a couple who had just arrived, he said, “Next?”

When I returned to the hotel lobby, the guards were watching broadcasts from CNN and Baghdad TV. The only programming on Baghdad TV seemed to be an announcer with a Saddam mustache who spoke of “invading Kuwait for the liberation of Palestine.”  The bookstore was open for the first time, but the newspapers and magazines were all August 1 or earlier.  Some guys with German accents were asking the clerk about road maps; the clerk said he could photocopy some political maps. They didn’t seem very impressed or satisfied.

“Where do you want to drive to?” I asked.

Beghdadt,” said the oldest man. They were all wearing suits.  “So we fly home from there. We are bankers. This situation doesn’t concern us.”

“Is the road open?”  I wondered if they imagined they could flash their German passports, say Open Sesame, and the border gates would open.

“We had a car until today,” I said.  “It disappeared from the parking garage.”

“We are going to lease a car from the Mercedes dealer.” They emphasized the word Mercedes, which they pronounced as Mer SEE dus.

“Well, whoopdeedoo,” I wanted to say. Would a Mercedes automobile get through a blockade where other cars wouldn’t? “Will you have room for two more people?” I asked.

“Oh sorry. That’s not possible.” They walked away.

From my room window, I watched the sun setting over Kuwait City. It was a clear afternoon, but the streets were abandoned, as if during a sandstorm.

Later Tom and I ate in our usual corner, not talking, just looking around the characterless corporate dining room at people who were as silent, people we’d seen for three meals prior to this but not made the slightest effort to meet. It never occurred to me to find out who other guests were and what their take on this place was. It felt right to be impersonal here. For some reason I didn’t appreciate that the loss of freedom Tom and I had experienced was probably much like the loss of many others trapped in the hotel. If this were a roadside motel and the emergency that put me here were, for example, a midwinter blizzard or a flood, I’m certain that I’d be out meeting people and swapping stories. The terror of military violence, the machine guns arrayed in this building, took any interest away.

The next morning I awoke at dawn, again impatient and angry. My brain seemed resolved to force some clarity, some movement. But what could I do:  endure this and maybe die, or act out and maybe also die. The BBC told of war threats and of Iraq signing a peace treaty with Iran. I sat at the window all day, watching the city and imagining a jump onto the roof below.  I tried to read but couldn’t.  Tom had on his radio.  I almost laughed when an “oldies” selection came up as the Animals: “We Gotta Get Outa This Place.”

Yes, but how?

Tom and I’d been at the hotel for about forty-eight hours when the phone between our beds rang.  Tom’s end of the conversation was short:  “Now?  Why?  OK.” He whispered that “OK,” just louder than a thought.  Looking down, he returned the phone to its cradle.  “It was the desk downstairs.  They said to come down.  And bring our bags. We’re checking out.”

I’d prepared for death many times over the past days, gotten ready after cursing myself for decisions like staying in Kuwait when colleagues might now be free.  Maintaining preparedness and poise, however, was another matter. I wasn’t ready when I walked into the lobby: thirty or so Iraqi soldiers had come in from outside. My legs felt numb, muscles losing their confidence, my face hot and my hands clammy, but I walked toward them, holding my duffel bag in front of me. These soldiers in helmets blurred into a single machine, aiming their weapons.  They said nothing but their eyes followed first one of us, then another, and on and on.  Tom walked close to them, very straight; I envied his courage.   Later he told me he was terrified.

An Iraqi officer—a colonel, I think—standing with the soldiers told us to go to the desk.  He smiled, maybe pleased to break our sense of sanctuary.  “You guys hafta pay your bills,” he said.  His idiomatic English was decidedly North American.  I recalled some Iraqis I once taught in Indiana; there had been Kuwaitis in the same class, and we had all gotten along.  These happier times—as I understood them—fed into my naïve sense that relations between countries were just getting better and closer.

Turning the corner toward the desk, I saw a half dozen others waiting in line.  An impeccably dressed clerk shuffled papers. Bill, the embassy staffer we’d met the first evening, stood at the head of the line off to the side.

“Just write ‘Paid in full by the United States Embassy,’” I heard him advise the man at the head of the line.  Then the next person checking out moved forward.

My hands shook. Tom was quiet. The clerk asked for my key and passport.  The key was no problem, but I protested giving the passport.  “What’s going to happen?”

“Don’t be nervous,” said the clerk, polished as the brass name plate on his jacket.  Etched into the brass were his name “Rafiq” and “Kuwait International Hotel.  “This is nothing. This is a formality. They just want to see the passports.”

“But I have nothing to do with this. T-this is wrong,” I stammered.  And I was supposed to be on vacation now anyway.”

He looked at me.  I just shut my mouth, walked off to a corner of the lobby, leaned against a marble column, and wept. Holding my head up against the pillar and shedding few if any tears, but crying nonetheless.  I imagined soon we’d be blindfolded, bound, photographed holding the front page of a current newspaper, even sold to Abu Nidal or some other terrorist organization.

The clerk came over to me and touched my shoulder. “Really, don’t worry,” he said. “Don’t worry.” I wondered if these were the words an executioner, a hangman, might whisper. As in “Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing; I’ll make sure someone gets your effects.  Really, don’t worry.”

There was plenty to worry about. I’d heard the stories.  Repeated mock executions, and real ones.   Enemies of Saddam’s regime had their eyes gouged, their hands pierced with power drill bits, their extremities racked with electricity.  In settings meant for industry, people randomly chosen or not might have their living flesh and bone dissolved as they were lowered—naked and conscious—feet first into vats of acid.  Sexual assault.  Exposure to the blistering sun.  Heat and thirst that could bludgeon.  Live burial chest deep in anthills where numberless tiny jaws, each taking infinitesimal pieces of flesh, quickly reduced a breathing and thinking person to bones for the bleaching.  Victims were always “guilty,” of course, since fear and pain have ways of prompting confessions.  What crimes might I have to avow in the hours ahead?

I knew Americans had been tortured in Vietnam and other places. Deprivation, water, electricity, hard labor.   And my own grandfather, in January 1943, found himself on a train headed east with no revealed destination.  He knew something unpleasant lay ahead, since he was passenger on a convict train.  Carrying no baggage, he accompanied other “convicts” herded out of a Nazi courtroom near occupied Delft.  The train went eastward for a day, stopping finally at a work camp in Lower Saxony, where, along with Frenchmen, Poles, and other Dutchmen, he chopped firewood–six months at hard labor.  Six months there could be a death sentence.  But he served his sentence, losing one-third of his body weight swinging an axe in the woods, and surprising everyone walking back into his home—although abused and bitter, he went to his grave forty years later without revealing the details of his six months.  His crime . . . slaughtering sheep to celebrate his sister’s wedding.  He was a farmer who’d chosen to butcher this animal for his family rather than turn all his assets over to the Nazi occupiers and their Dutch sympathizers.

In the hotel lobby the Iraqi colonel cut between us and Bill.  “Gentlemen and ladies,” he said, glancing at the four women of the group, “get into these buses.”  A short time earlier, two army buses had parked in front of the hotel. Painted camouflage brown, the buses were missing some windows.  Shot out, I wondered.  Bill, the US diplomat, sweating, protested, “It is illegal, Colonel, to take these people from this hotel, against international law. Colonel!”

The colonel glanced at Bill, smiled, but said nothing. After a second, he looked toward the soldiers, swatted the air above his head, as if to catch an invisible fly, and said something to the soldiers in Arabic.  The colonel seemed low-key, but his soldiers moved quickly outside, where a tan pickup truck arrived.

The colonel walked past him and studied us. His voice was matter-of-fact and calm. “Please put bags into here,” he said, pointing to the pickup.

One of the British Airways crewmen carried an animal crate onto the bus; I wondered about his devotion to whatever beast was in there. I got a warm dusty seat in the second bus, and Tom sat beside me.  Bill remained in the lobby, watching.  Carrying their weapons unslung, six soldiers got into our bus, some in front and others in the back; still others boarded the second bus or piled atop the luggage on the pickup. The colonel got into a Russian Neva jeep that drove up last.

The buses and pickup followed the Neva. On our bus, the soldiers pointed their weapons out the windows in all directions, constantly moving, sweaty. I wondered if they feared ambush. The buses turned south along Gulf Road.  Maybe they would drop us off at the Saudi border.  After about two miles, the bus slowed and at an intersection, the driver made a U-turn.  Then we headed north. The avenue was very dark: most streetlights were shot out or the power grid was damaged. Near Al-Seif Palace, the bus driver abruptly skidded off the side of the avenue and stopped. The other vehicles stopped also.  The soldiers jumped out, looking very intense, pointing their weapons toward a mud wall that  lined the avenue. I thought of how thin the bus walls were, and how easily shrapnel or bullets could pierce the thin metal.

I decided to memorize every detail of the seconds and minutes that might be my last once the soldiers jumped off the bus.  I wondered how sudden pain would feel.  I hoped maybe memory would survive death. Some record of consciousness might live on, like writing on paper, voice on recording tape,  address burnt into the belly of that wooden fish to guide its return to Diana and tell my tale.  My memory would link up with my grandfather’s, and someone would know, someday.

But no one fired a single shot. After three, four, maybe fifteen minutes the soldiers got back on the bus.  The driver continued north. We moved past the gates of Shwaikh container-port and the entrance to the university. I thought I was observant, but when Tom asked, urgently, “Did you see that?” I had no idea what he meant. “Those guardhouses at the university, at the entrance?  Destroyed, blown to splinters, blood on some of the walls.”

I had seen nothing of that. I was so busy attending to some details, as a means to ignore my powerlessness on what could be a ride to death, that I missed others.  What else, how else might someone feel on a bus forced at gunpoint toward an unknown destination, an uncertain destiny?

We passed Sulaibikhat, a suburb where Tom and I had rented our car. A little farther was the turn-off to Doha, a port Ted and I had visited just a month earlier to bargain with fishermen to take us fishing and snorkeling onto some shallow wrecks off northern Kuwait. The fleet had been out then and as we left the marina, an old toothless man stopped and harangued us, beating on the roof until I told Ted to drive away.  Farther north was the sign for Entertainment City, Kuwait’s only amusement park, a place I’d visited a few months back with Nidal and Tarik and some of Nidal’s brothers. With a roller coaster and bumper cars, it was Kuwait’s answer to Disneyland, Nidal had said.

After thirty minutes, we were in Jahra, a town northwest of Kuwait City along the main highway to Iraq. Tom and I used to come to a souk in Jahra to look for what he called “pre-oil” furniture. The souk was in the desert, and although a fence surrounded it, sand blew in and half-covered the older pieces; we needed a shovel to expose the most beautiful doors.  Now there were three burning cars near the exit we had taken, their flames illuminating walls splattered with graffiti—or blood.

Somewhere in mid-Jahra our caravan turned off the main street and onto a sand road. The headlights illuminated the gatehouse to an army camp. All four vehicles stopped. Soldiers at the gate seemed confused and stopped the buses at rifle point. Above them splintered signs were unreadable; I wondered whether invading Iraqi troops enjoyed demolishing names of the Kuwaiti army bases as they overran them.

The colonel ordered the gate defenders to lower their weapons, if I read his gestures correctly. Other officers appeared from inside their gate as the soldiers kept their weapons trained on the bus. They spoke for maybe five minutes before all the officers disappeared into the base. We waited. The bus lights were shut off.  It was dark, hot and quiet.

One soldier got back on, held up his canteen, and poured water into his mouth. Then he offered it toward us and asked “Moi?”  Tom and I drank. Most of the others on the bus didn’t. No one spoke.

Fifteen or so minutes later, an officer walked through the gate and got on our bus, saying something to the driver.  He started the engine and drove us to a building with some lights visible around curtains.

Barra,” the officer said, waving his arm in a way that made clear we were to leave the bus.  Soldiers led us into a large well-lit mess hall and ordered us to sit.  A half dozen couches and some easy chairs crowded half the space, the other half was cleared but with tables folded and stacked against one wall.  Noisy fluorescent tubes lit the space that reeked of cigarette smoke, sweat, and something sweet, like cologne or fly spray.  The colonel stood at one end of the hall with other officers as soldiers offered us water.  They looked nervous, their weapons slung over their backs facing down.  Then they came around again, equally jittery,  offering coffee poured from a dullah, a large traditional coffee pot the size of a watering-can, the pungent symbol of Arab hospitality.

Several dozen armed soldiers surrounded us.  Three officers sat near us, watching as they drank coffee and smoked.  At one point a major walked over to the British Airways crewman sitting beside me.  He pointed to the animal crate and asked, “Doberman?”

The crewman smiled but looked confused. “Excuse me, sir. I didn’t understand what you said.” He got up, his voice quiet, his eyes almost averted.

“This is Doberman?” the major repeated.

“Oh, Doberman? You think this is a Doberman, sir?” he said. He reached down, opened the door and a little terrier trotted out, lacking any sense of our gravity. The major laughed, and the crewman looked embarrassed. Later he told me he was terrified.

After the colonel left, the major slapped a stick onto the table, as if he thought he needed this gesture to capture our attention.  A noisy ballast in a fluorescent tube produced the only sound. The major stood and spoke; a thin teenaged soldier translated line by line:   “We apologize. For the inconvenience. We are also very sorry the airline ladies. Cannot be accommodated separately. Your baggage has not been searched. Nor will it be. Our government has decided to hold you. As human shields. You are only shields. If your invader armies decide. To let Arabs solve this among themselves. We will not hurt you. But if your armies bomb us tonight. You will die. Die along with Iraqi people. Good night and good luck.”

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