<<Writer’s note: One of the bizarre details of my experience is that our bags were never searched. One of my fellow hostages had a camera, quite large. He managed to take some clandestine photos inside the refinery, and get them out with him. He sent me a few prints back in 1991. One of his photos is included here. >>
On a warm Sunday afternoon in October 1991, Diana and I walked through a New Hampshire woods along an abandoned railroad track. “So what do you see for us in five years?”
I recognized her question as a variation on Henry’s of a few days before. Henry was a psychologist Diana and I had gone to see. Just then I saw a swamp maple, gloriously red. The only living tree in a stand of gray gnarled oaks had died as the lowland flooded, maybe because of a clogged culvert under the rail bed. The hue of the maple leaves was fantastic. I stopped walking.
“Diana, come back here.” Already fifteen or so steps ahead, she stopped.
“What?” she said, her forehead furrowed.
“Look at the colors of that maple tree over there in the water.”
“That really pisses me off!” she yelled. In response to her new voice, hurt but tough, I smiled and tried to hug her.
“Get away! I ask you a really important question, like about planning a future, and you change the subject and talk about some leaves on a tree.
“No, I didn’t change the subject. I . . .”
She cut me off. “”And when I get mad, you just laugh. ” she continued.
“I’m sorry. The tree was pretty.”
“I think I really don’t matter any more. I can say anything to you. I can yell at you, and you’re just not there. I just can’t stand it anymore.” And she walked away.
I stood there for a few minutes before I ran and caught up with her. She hadn’t waited. She didn’t say anything when I said again that I was sorry. Her eyes were wet. She let me put my arm around her. We walked on in silence.
“So what do you want in your life?” Henry had asked. “Let’s say you can have three wishes, what do you want?”
My thoughts slowed down. “Anything? Now? Or do you mean in the future?” I resented Henry’s question. Wasn’t it obvious that I wanted Diana, to be with Diana forever? To be in love with her. It seemed like a trick question.
“Just three wishes.”
I hesitated. They looked at me; I felt accused of not knowing what I wanted. I had wanted us to be unchanged. But we’d lost the selves we were when we had fallen in love, the mutual excitement I knew we both felt when our eyes met. Upon my return, the spontaneity was missing. What used to ignite our passion just burnt itself out.
“Well, I want you, Diana,” I said, looking at her. She was seated on the opposite end of the same white couch Henry sat on. “I want Diana, of course,” I repeated, this time looking at Henry and at the tribal masks he had on his wall.
“OK, that’s one. What else?” said Henry.
My brain was going even slower, like a machine about to stall. What else was there?
“Where are you right now? What are you thinking of? I can’t read anything at all in your face.” said Diana. She’d said that before since I’d been back. But now it hit, hard. Like a missile. She brought up “reading me,” but what I had written for her on paper to read—the minutiae of my ordeal in my diary—I found she hadn’t read. Maybe she would have if I had not survived.
“I don’t know,” I managed. I suddenly had no energy. I looked at her for many seconds.
“Say something. Say anything. Don’t just look at me. I hate it when you look at me and say nothing.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Just say what you think, what you want.”
“That’s so facile,” I thought. “I don’t always know exactly what I think,” I said. “I wish you wouldn’t get so upset.”
“Will, I have no choice but to get upset. This is how I feel. How do you feel?”
“I’m not sure I know how I feel.”
“Don’t you see where that leaves me? I don’t know whether you care or not.”
It seemed that Diana and Henry were ganging up on me. “Of course I care.”
“But I don’t know that.”
“But I’ve told you. We’ve talked about this.”
“Will, about this, really? When we talk, it’s about work or other people. It’s never about us, our future.”
“It’s hard to talk about us.” I whispered.
“No one ever said it’d be easy. But it’s each person’s task in life to find the way to do this. Just like it’s each our job to find out what we’re good at.”
“Yeah,” I said. I wondered if my answer sounded like a question.
“So when do you do it, when do you work on figuring out how to do this?”
“Can we stop talking about this now?”
“Is that what you want?”
I just nodded my head, heavily, looking at the floor.
“So when do you want to pick this up again?”
“Whenever.” I wasn’t even sure she’d hear me say this: it was just louder than a thought.
“Whenever? ‘Whenever’ is a way to do nothing.”
I was not laughing now. I could barely keep my eyes open. Henry and Diana looked at me, and I stared at the carpet.
“What do you see?” Henry asked.
“Water.” I managed, after maybe fifteen seconds. I don’t know where the words came from. “Water. Smooth water.”
They both said something. Or had a conversation. I really couldn’t follow.
What stuns me about those recollections above is how poorly I communicated. Water had helped me survive Iraq by channeling hope. It could have been anything, I suppose, but water did it for me. For several months in Iraq, I had grown accustomed to the idea that I would soon die, accepted that, , and water coaxed my imagination, helping me germinate a vision of returning, irrigated it like the Tigris and Euphrates did to create a fertile crescent of an otherwise arid landscape. In my diary notebook I’d written again and again about missing Diana and preparing to face death. I inhabited a zone—I wrote—that lacked a future, offering only a series of nows, rising and falling waves, not a current. “Swimming is a sacrament that nourishes,” I wrote, “an exercise in recalling past swims, pleasure in the moment and a means to stay fit for a future.”
Maybe I adapted to the “zone” too well, and it took years to adapt to new conditions. Like my grandfather, my mother lived through a war. Although never a prisoner, she fled from her city, where as a teenager she faced danger, to live in the Dutch countryside in a stable. For nine months she hid there until the German occupier were expelled. Years later in the United States, when a military plane flew low over the house where she lived, she got up and closed the curtain. When a relative asked why she had done that, incredulity crept over her face before she could explain that during the war, the sound of a warplane triggered an immediate “blacking-out” of any light coming from houses.
Kamal liked to throw his weight around, however much he had. Obviously more than Ali: he had countermanded Ali’s idea of taking photos to send to our loved ones in the first days we were there. Sometimes he’d make disparaging comments about the food of Abu Mahmoud and Abed al Khaliq. And then there was this mystery person—deegee—whom he’d mention when I suggested a change. I recalled Kamal had said, “I need to talk with my deegee to see if we can get some meat for the barbecue.”. One night as we finished supper, Kamal told us that everyone needed to meet in control room #1 at nine-thirty. “Everyone must be there because deegee will come to talk to us.” He said “us,” not “you.” A few guys asked who this person was and why he was coming, but he ignored the questions.
I was sitting on the landing when a Chevy Blazer drove up. Three men got out: Kamal, Colonel Syphr, and another man I’d seen from time to time in the plant. He had fair hair and no mustache, more Nordic or Slavic than Arab. They came up the stairs and sat at the head of the big table. John the guest guest and everyone from control room #2 were there; it was rare that the Japanese or French from the other control room came to ours. Some stood. Kamal introduced “Colonel Syphr” as Abed al Huq, or something like this. The other man Kamal simply called “ deegee.” Much later I learned this meant he was Director General of the State Enterprise for Fertilizer, supervising this refinery as well as a similar one in northern Iraq.
He spoke English very well, American English. “Gentleman. I’m here tonight to see what we can do to make your stay a little more comfortable. Let’s talk frankly.” He looked around the room. “I can do nothing about the politics, but maybe we can make some changes.”
Max spoke first. “Many of us are sick, diarrhea. Can we get better food?”
The D. G. said nothing, writing something on the yellow legal pad he carried.
Kamal spoke, “You eat what we eat.”
“This place is noisy and has strong chemical smells,” said one of the Japanese. “Can’t we move back to the camp by the swimming pool?”
The D.G. wrote nothing, but looked over at Kamal, who intervened aggressively. “My government says you need to stay in strategic locations until your government agrees not to bomb. Your governments are keeping you here. Not Iraqi government.”
One of the French stood up. “We’ve received no mail yet and—”
“Iraq has no control over mail being stopped by your coalition governments,” Kamal said angrily. “Your letters are getting to your families, but your governments are stopping your families’ letters from leaving your countries. Stop bringing up things deegee can do nothing about.”
There was silence.
“There are too many flies in the lunch room. Could you do something about that?” asked Edgar. Just that lunch I’d seen him leave the door open as he left to go back to the control room.
There was more silence.
The D.G. looked up. “Thank you, gentlemen. I think I can do something about the smelly dining room.” He looked at Kamal.
Abed al Huq stood up. He spoke slowly, shifting eye contact from one person to another constantly, touching everyone, as though he knew he had a lot of authority. He was clearly Kamal’s boss, maybe chief of the secret police for the Basra area. “Thanks for being here to meet us tonight. There is another thing I wanted to talk with you about.” He paused and looked all around the room. “As an Iraqi who has experienced the joy of reuniting with its long-lost nineteenth province of Kathima, I have decided to invite all of you to a party at PC1 in honor of the reunification of West and East Germany. This party will be a few days from now.”
And that was it. Less than fifteen minutes after driving up, the three left.
Monday afternoon at three o’clock the bus arrived outside Control Room #1, the French and Japanese already aboard. I carried some books to exchange for others and sat behind Sabah. I studied movement and details along the road: soldiers in the desert, the billboards of Saddam, the ruins of the caravansary, horse-drawn carts carrying propane cylinders somewhere. At the intersection of our road from Umm Qasr and the main road between Basra and Kuwait where we turned south for PC1, I noticed a change: an unidentifiable large truck lay upside-down and not forty feet from the pavement, scorched as was the very sand around it and two cars nearby. Everything flammable had been burnt off. When I asked, Sabah said this had been an ammunition truck and there’d been an accident.
At PC1, Reiner and I went straight to the library. One of the guards came to find us there. He was carrying a spiral notebook. When he saw that I’d already chosen a dozen or so books, he insisted I sign each one out: title, author, date. I wondered if they’d impose fines if the books were returned late. I wanted to ask if they did interlibrary loans.
At the pub I met the guys who were my housemates until a few weeks before.
“You guys look tired,” I said to Francis and Fred. Somerset walked up. He was growing a beard. We shook hands.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” Francis said to me. “Have you weighed yourself recently on that scale in the clubhouse, or don’t they let you get there anymore to swim?” It had become something of a ritual for some guys to weigh themselves at the scale in the clubhouse, to gauge our worsening condition in the lowering numbers.
“Yeah, we still swim,” I said. “And how’s the mutt?”
“The mutt is gone,” he said, with a rising tone.
“Gone?” I asked, expecting the worst.
“Gone back to the U.K. He went overland to Amman yesterday by a Jordanian courier. Biggles and a Great Dane named Polly, who belongs to one of the American managers of this plant, should already be in Amman after a long highway trip across the desert of southwestern Iraq in a pickup. Hooray for the little fellow and his big friend,” said Francis. “And the courier driving the pickup smuggled personal letters between PC1 and a company PO box in Amman.”
Biggles the smuggler, I was proud of him. I worried more for Francis now, as he no longer had the mutt to care for.
Supper included wine, my first in almost a year, except for Ted’s homemade vintage. Workers wearing spotless white jackets came around to each of the thirty or so diners, with a roast, asking which part and how much we wanted.
“Some of that, not too thick,” I said, as one held the platter while the other used the implements elegantly to slice me a piece of the roast. I ate a lot and drank a second glass of wine. I sat across from Francis and Reiner—Jurgen, the younger German from Asmida sat beside me—and our talking gradually became louder, more animated, and sometimes we even laughed, making the candles on the tables flicker. Jurgen talked more than he ever did at the refinery. I guessed it was not the ambiance or the recognition of German reunification, but the wine.
As each of us finished eating, waiters came around and collected our plates, returning a few minutes later with tea or coffee. Waiters carried out a large cake and placed at the head table occupied by Colonel Syphr, Kamal, some other Iraqis, Fred, and the older German banker. His name was Helmut, Fred’s boss. Helmut stood. He seemed very nervous, choosing his words so carefully the whole thing was incoherent. “Today is an important day for Germany, for all Germans, for us. We are happy to be here all together. We hope soon for everyone, all of us, to celebrate the happy day with our families. Thank you to our hosts for this very nice party.”
One of the Iraqis stood. When he started talking in English, I recognized him as the jolly man who had gotten on the bus to read names of those people to disembark there back on August 25. Francis leaned toward me. “He’s the Iraqi Director of PC1. And his missus is a Yank, you know. He met her while he was studying in the United States.”
The director said nothing about Kathima. “For our German friends, I’d like to say this congratulations. A unified country is a strong country. Today we are happy to offer you this party. Enjoy the evening.”
The chief guard at PC1—named Riyadh—looked upset. I wondered if Riyadh considered the jolly director subversive for making his speech in English, which he seemed to have a hard time following.
After some time Francis, Reiner, and I moved to the pub.
“Have some Newcastle,” said Francis. They came here in the evening a few times a week, he said. Free and plentiful drink and the loud music: someone had clearly invested a lot of dinars or dollars in good speakers. A Beatles song was on, very loud. It was hard to hear, but it was heaven to drink, talk loud and lean forward to hear what the other person was saying. It was aerobic, and laughing was the easiest body language for acknowledging what you didn’t hear but knew didn’t matter anyhow. This was a time to be transported out of hell. And to celebrate the reunification of Germany? Why not? If they did this every evening, I might even be drunk enough to say a toast to the reunification of Iraq with its nineteenth province called Kathima. Even Kamal was drinking whiskey and laughing. Unlike Riyadh and Syphr, he wore civilian clothes. Colonel Syphr disappeared early; I hadn’t seen him drink anything. Besides the Iraqis, we hostages hailed from places as diverse as Japan and France, Germany and the US; and we all knew the words to these songs.
“How are you doing?” asked Kamal.
“Good beer,” I shouted.
“I like it when everyone sings,” he said. He didn’t sing, though, and neither did any of the Iraqis, except the Director of PC1.
It was almost ten when Riyadh decided to end the party. He had come over to tell me and Francis and Fred. Then he walked around and said something to other people, pointing at his watch. But nothing came of it. He didn’t share enough of the common culture in the pub to know that it was futile to try to stop the party in the middle of Lennon’s “All We Are Saying.” Max yelled back to Riyadh to wait.
Riyadh stormed over to Kamal, with dramatic hand gestures, pointing at Max, discussing something with Kamal, which no one could hear because of the singing. Kamal, with more savvy, waited until the song ended and then asked that the music be turned off. In the sudden quiet, he had everyone’s attention when he said, “Gentlemen. I am happy you enjoyed this party. It is time to go home.”
We sang “All We are Saying” as we climbed onto the bus, carrying six-packs of Newcastle Brown Ale. I also had some new books. We continued to sing on the trip home. At one point, Sabah, who seemed to know the song but not the words, took out his pistol and fired two rounds out the window, to fuel the joviality, he may have supposed. In other times, firing weapons into the air would have been acceptable in the Gulf as festive, like lighting firecrackers. I’d been to a wedding in Saudi Arabia when I worked there, and ancient muskets were fired, deafening guests at a wedding party.
But now everyone stopped singing immediately. I stared at him with disbelief. Others did too, every person in the bus. No one spoke, but it seemed clear that the message was, “How the hell could he fire two rounds out into the night, in an area where troops are camped along the roadside! What if troops camped along the road felt they were under attack, and fired a rocket‑propelled grenade at the bus.” Embarrassed, Sabah went up and sat in the front seat.
Back in the house, as we put away the beer, Jack and some of the others repeated, “Six beers per person in the refrigerator, honors system.”
Putting my cans in there, I suspected I’d never get to drink all six, because they’d disappear during some of the late-night card games. Over by the beds, Jack shouted at Nigel, “You’re a hoarding rat.”
“Am not. Am puttin’ my beers under my bed instead of the refrigerator.” said Nigel. “And don’t call me a bloody hoardin’ rat. Don’t call me bloody anythin.”
Jack stepped forward and punched Nigel; Nigel slapped back. Several guys stepped between and pulled them away from each other; they continued snarling, as friends of each held them back.
Later Max asked for everyone’s attention.”Look. I want to have a meeting tomorrow. I received a plan from outside.” I thought this might be true, as Max had spent five weeks at PCI prior to being moved to Asmida. When some people asked what the plan was, he proceeded to elaborate immediately. Tall, balding, his jaw rimmed with a close-trimmed beard, Max spoke quietly. “There will probably be an attack, sooner or later. If it comes, we need to be prepared. It will probably come at night, a moonless night. We must be prepared now, since we’re headed for a new moon in about a week. Things will begin with a massive bombing of the power station just down the road and the Umm Qasr-Zobair road just outside, cutting off the electricity and causing general confusion. We will know this is the beginning of the counteroffensive. We need to dress quickly, in the dark because the power will be out, and run to a relatively open area on the northwest corner of the factory, which will be the helicopter pickup site. Remember that an important part of the rescue is our being prepared. One thing we must be prepared for is trouble from the guards. They will very likely be looking for us by then, probably to move us or prevent us from being taken, killing us if necessary. And we need to stop them, maybe kill them. At that point, it’s them or us. If one of us is wounded, we should help him get to the pickup site. If someone is killed, leave the body behind. Once at the site, take cover to avoid detection and falling flak. After about half an hour of bombing, helicopters, probably five of them—two transports and three gunships—will arrive to attempt to pick us up. The helicopters will take us out over the Gulf to a ship. We have only a fifty-fifty chance of getting to the ship once we’re in the air. Be ready and be discreet.”
No one said anything for a few seconds. Someone asked if there would really be five helicopters.
“Yes,” said Max. Nothing else.
In less than an hour I’d come from “Give peace a chance” to “Could I kill if necessary?” I’d never been asked to do that in so many words. “Kill the guards if necessary.” Could I do it? With what? Since I hadn’t a gun that could kill someone too far away to recognize, I’d have to kill with a homemade weapon like a knife or a club, a piece of pipe, a shard of glass. But could I do it?
I didn’t know the answer right then, but any day now a guard could be ordered to kill one or more of us. Under the patina of respect for each other, rage lurked. The regime and its officers and footmen that had taken our freedom could as decisively take our lives. All the predictability I wanted to see could change in an instant, as it had on August 2. 1 needed to find out how I’d react soon, before I faced the moment of choice.
John the guest guest appeared in the control room with three liter bottles of arak from Basra the following evening. Languor ruled, since supper had finished an hour before.
“Time for the real German reunification party,” he said, opening all three bottles and setting them down on the table. He then emptied the freezer tray into the glasses that quickly found their way to the table. Poured onto ice, arak turned the clear alcohol watery white. Reiner brought his radio/tape player into the room and put on biergarten music. With encouraging remarks from the other drinkers, he and Jurgen quickly downed their drinks and started dancing around the room. We clapped and drank the arak.
The transformation of the evening amazed me. I had been reading Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, one of several books I’d picked up at PC1 the night before. Reiner, whose bed was several away from mine, had been listening to Evita with the volume turned quite low. Max and a group of the English played cards. Others read. But when John came in, alcohol in hand suggesting a party, all changed in an instant.
Such desperate festivity could happen for other reasons: we were approaching the third new moon since the invasion that had disrupted my life, and I pondered an attack, the end of our world. It would happen on a moonless night, we all expected; Iraqi lookouts would fall to intruders with radar and night vision gear. Max had laid out the need for a plan only a few nights before. Since then I’d located and picked up a steel pipe, slipped it up the sleeve of my baggy shirt. A little less than two feet long, it had the diameter of a hammer grip and a nice balance. I’d hid it in my backpack and taken it out a few times to feel its heft, to swing it with my arm fully extended, imagining it splattered with a guard’s blood, wondering if I could really kill before being killed. I could certainly swing it with the force of a baseball bat, but it would be different if the arc traveled full power against someone’s skull.
The noise in the room increased as the arak bottles emptied. Refinery noise had faded. Reiner’s music still played; voices grew loud and animated. Jack’s voice boomed out, though, over everyone else’s, over the collective din.
“I want someone to bloody shave my head,” he said. “Right now.” He seemed increasingly frustrated, and childish, maybe looking for attention. “I’m tired of waiting for these damn rag heads to get us to a barber. I want my head shaved.”
I hated Jack at that point. Good company when he first arrived, he had begun to infuriate me with his naked racism and self-righteousness. I suppose if I’d disliked him from the outset, I would not feel so intensely.
“I’ll shave your head, ” I said, hoping he wouldn’t recognize the challenge in my voice. Cutting the hair off a head might be practice for slitting a throat. I could imagine he was one of the guards, and project the idea of killing one of them with each stroke of the razor. Really I wanted him to back down, to admit to being all talk, to say he wasn’t serious about having his head shaved, to jettison his racist ranting. I recognize now that I was more affected by the ongoing limbo, our confinement in a context where politicians debated and passed resolutions about Saddam’s illegal occupation but never seemed very concerned about us, fragile shields detained on one of the targets. Just a few days before, a very uneven clash on Temple Mount in Jerusalem had left twenty-three Palestinians dead and hundreds—over 800—wounded. Related or not, our existence in this room could change drastically in an instant, and a type of silence I would never hear descend. I wanted out, but just then I only wanted Jack’s aggressive persona to revert to the more guarded one he wore upon his arrival.
“Let’s do it,” he urged.
With a scissors, Reiner clipped his hair to the scalp and then lathered him up. I finished the job with a razor. Surprisingly, my anger diminished with each scrape of blade across his skin. His skull was small and warm. I picture the thin cranium bone and even thinner skin, which if breached where the blood vessels throbbed near his temple, could bleed him to death. After no hair longer than a millimeter protruded, I rinsed off any remaining lather. It astonished me that no blood seeped anywhere. In spite of my emotion, I had not nicked him. (The writer, with black watch, on the right)
Then Jurgen asked for a head shave too. Shaving his head was different from doing Jack’s. We talked. I felt none of the dark urges I had while doing Jack. I learned that he was only nineteen, young enough to be my son, that he had worked in Kuwait with Reiner before going off to do military service, scheduled for the following spring. While I shaved Jurgen’s pate, Max, who was already bald on the top, suggested I take all the hair off his head, too, except his beard. At the end of the evening, all the arak was gone, as was the hair from three of the group.
In the morning, Jack, Jurgen, and Max walked together to breakfast. I noticed refinery workers stop and stare at their shaved headsas the three passed. In the dining room, Abed al Khaliq, Abu Mahmoud, and Sabah seemed horrified. “Laysh?” (Why?) Abu Mahmoud asked and asked again. Jack answered in his martinet’s voice that he was tired of waiting for a barber, aware that Abu Mahmoud spoke no English.
At lunch Kamal walked in, saw me, and asked me to step outside. “Are you really a teacher, or are you a barber?”
Sensing the game, I said, “A teacher. Why?”
“Listen. This is a big problem, Will. The workers here think we did this. This don’t believe that you guests did this to yourselves. In the Iraqi army,” he said, “heads get shaved only as a punishment of men caught in homosexual acts. The workers are saying that we should allow you foreigners to live in your own ways. Please do not shave any heads again.”
I chuckled. Maybe I’d slit throats or smash heads next time.
October 3: US charters an Iraqi Boeing 707.
October 5: Diplomats visits various parts of the region: Primakov, Kaifu, Mitterand.
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