It was Friday, the end of our first week in Asmida, seven days about detention so far, and not about work or anything else. During the day I walked to exercise, to stretch my imagination and see every detail of this strange home. An interior fence that separated the clubhouse and our homes from the rest of the camp had been taken down, making the area I could explore four times larger. In the middle of our camp stood a water tower. Just beyond that was an empty swimming pool with a deck surrounded by a mat woven from marsh grass. Farthest from our house was a deteriorated tennis court: twisted fence, broken net, drifts of sand and dried weeds, and years of shit from local wild dogs. Each pile teemed with what seemed its own civilization of flies that had to be brushed off my skin if they landed there because they wouldn’t be shooed away. I didn’t realize it then, but facing the unknown as I was, possibly death, the flies seemed minor annoyances.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Kamal said, as he walked into our trailer with a crate of beer and started to put bottles into the refrigerator.
“This is beer?” I said, startled, not asking a question. Prohibited in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, beer in the brown bottles tantalized me. It seemed out of place. Automatically I sounded out the name printed in white on the bottles:
“Lu-lu?” I said.
Kamal stopped putting bottles into the refrigerator. “You read Arabic?” he said, smiling.
“A little,” I said, watching him. “Lulu” was quite an easy word to read in either English or Arabic.
“I know Europeans need birra,” he said. “So I tell the deegee they need to give you as much birra as you want, every day.” After putting all the bottles into the refrigerator, he told us to write out our needs before breakfast.
At breakfast Ali collected shopping lists and wrote requests in Arabic: mosquito repellent, tennis shoes, casual clothes (the British Airways crew had only their uniforms, and Fred, only his business suit), shaving cream, razor blades, laundry detergent, and more cigarettes. Fred asked for books on Iraqi history.
“I will try to get all,” Ali said. “But sorry, no visas,” he laughed. “Also, no telephone calls or air tickets.”
I asked permission to walk around, outside the fence if possible. “I need exercise, or I get sick,” I said.
“Today I send workers from the refinery to repair and clean the pool. We fill it too with RO water, good water,” he said with his usual sincerity.
A little later Mr. Mohammed shuffled in with a large carton as he had the day before. He came over to the table. He spoke slowly and lisped. “Is good?” he said, picking up mosquito coils, running shoes, dress shirts and pants, shaving cream, razor blades, laundry detergent, shoe polish, and packs of Sumer cigarettes.
“Good,” I said, convinced I needed nothing from the box.
“Good,” he said, shuffling back out the door.
My housemates walked in. They were bonding more than I was, no surprise to me, since I tend to stand off, maintain independence. I couldn’t tolerate being in the “house” except to sleep, and read sometimes. I felt Somerset assumed he still had powers he demanded on his aircraft. I was glad they had a foursome for cribbage without me. “You guys need anything from this box? Mohammed just brought it in,” I said. They went to look and took things out, each making his little pile of loot.
Mohammed came back in, this time with a case of whiskey. Putting it on the table, he said, “One person, one whiskey, one one,” he said. I looked at my housemates, and they looked back at me and at each other. Behind Mohammed, Abu Mahmoud wore the same brownish shirt and dirty headscarf since he first appeared. He carried a television. Printed on one side were the logo and the words “State Enterprise for Telecommunications,” as on the radios. He put the television down on a table near the food counter. The television plug had an unusual three-prong configuration that didn’t match the wall outlets; Abu Mahmoud picked up a kitchen knife and lopped off the three-pronged plug of the television cord and jammed the bare, twisted wires into the two-hole socket and the television turned on.
When Kamal came to breakfast, he collected our letters, accepting only unsealed envelopes. “Only letters to family. Not to companies, not to government,” he said.
I asked about the photos Ali had taken. “No photos. I destroyed the photos, Ali was not following my orders when he took those photos,” he said, his face getting red. I couldn’t tell whether he feared the photos might reveal our location or Kamal just wanted to exert control.
Since all the Iraqis around us wore civilian clothes, it was impossible to know who was secret police. The person easiest to talk to –because he spoke English best and was around most—was Kamal. One impression came from his usually relaxed manner, easy smile, casual clothes, and statements like “I am here to make sure the factory treats you well. I will order them to give you an unlimited birra.” A darker impression came from his eyes. They were cold, without sparkle or expression. And his comments about “making sure” and “ordering” Ali and “deegee” to do things suggested he had power, brutality if necessary beneath a very thin layer of polish. Although he never announced he worked for the mukhabarat (secret police), I assumed he did.
The next morning Ali drove a small pickup past the club house in the direction of the pool. Some laborers scrubbed the black pool liner for several hours while Ali tried to repair the filter pump. Actually, Bruce helped them repair the pump, assisting in troubleshooting. When the pump could be primed, they connected a four-inch hose to the water tower and began to fill the pool.
Having a swimming pool was the second best outcome, second to going home. Francis and I went to the pool after lunch. He sunned himself while I swam lap after lap in the half-filled basin until my body ached. It had been weeks since I’d felt so exercised. Water was a means to work my body but also to think, connecting this experience to the past and future. The swarms of flies posed no discouragement; flies, I found, could be drowned if I swam underwater. When I backstroked across the surface, I squinted and imagined the jade green water tower as the white pine at the edge of the cranberry bog off Country Pond, and I recalled swims there with Diana. Swimming with her in those waters fostered what we thought was another chance at love for both of us. The Pond waters seemed to wash away the detritus of failed relationships and, stroking in the calm fresh water, I felt as naked as a new born in love, we were like the original couple in Eden.
I swam alone in the pool the next morning, imagining my reaction if an executioner had lined us against a wall last night, wondering at what moment I would have charged and then whether it made more sense to run away from the killers or straight at them. A throbbing sound interrupted my reverie, moving from the east, and suddenly four Iraqi military helicopters overflew the camp, each with missiles on either side of the fuselage. A single missile like the one I saw almost a month before could vaporize me and thousands of gallons of water, and drop the large water tower over the buildings in the camp. I suspended fear most of the time, but if one of those missiles launched, I’d have short seconds to contemplate my end. I knew the preparation for death should happen daily as I waited for a fate not revealed. During the month since the invasion, my will to live hadn’t diminished, but my fear of dying couldn’t be sustained. The sentence imposed on us carried no time limits, but I just couldn’t feel afraid all the time. Ardor, whether for love or fear, dissipates with time.
I swam ninety laps, over a mile, I calculated, by pacing out the pool length and counting my laps. Other days I couldn’t count; instead, I watched the time, forty-five minutes I wanted to swim. During those laps I’d focus on combining the muscles that comprised each stroke. Once I struck a floating object. I stopped and got to my feet: a greenish-yellow scorpion must have ambled across the deck and drowned in the pool water. The swim, even with the scorpion and helicopters, helped me forget the war zone, the fence, the flies, and all our vulnerability. Sometimes between feeling the different muscles, I’d recall other swims in better places. Once, as Diana and I swam, a water snake cruised past us in the opposite direction, totally uninterested in the large mammals it passed.
I wish I’d kept a diary in those better times. The entries would have detailed activities like swimming, kayaking, hiking, and then maybe references—obscure to anyone but the two of us—to places we’d made love or otherwise connected. Nowhere would the diary have told that we were falling in love because I happened so gradually. Nor would it tell that I chose to distance myself from my children because, not knowing this result, I thought only of reclaiming my life from Circelia. Here, in these waters, as I swam, my imagination enjoyed assembling descriptions of this loneliness, boredom, and terror. In this hostile place, writing reinforced my will to be physically and mentally fit enough to survive. The water, brown from the airborne dust of a sandstorm the day before, was already staining my trunks the same color as the pond water in New England, there dark with tannic acid from the decaying pine needles that fell along the shore. Birds cruised over the pool, too. No hermit thrush serenaded as it had charmed Diana and me, but small birds like swallows skimmed the surface with their lower beaks to drink pool water. Bee eaters congregated, colorful birds I’d met in Kuwait, their feathers a patchwork of bright green and red and yellow, colors like those of hopes.
Two months ago I swam in the Gulf, wondering whether I could survive the physical climate of Kuwait, a blistering one hundred twenty-degree sun. Now, after swimming, I showered naked beside this pool. Throughout the day, sunlight on the metal tower heated the water inside. The shower revived some experience of sensuality, one second at a time, with no expectation of a longer duration, my hands against the cement wall, water caressing my trunk, my legs. The concrete offered not only solidity but also warmth, as it radiated heat. I swatted flies and peered over the top toward the clubhouse, ready to dress—and put my money belt back on—if anyone came toward the pool. Killing the flies didn’t bother me; they intruded on my feeling almost alive.
In the pool I felt sheltered from Somerset. I’d had two arguments already with him. The first came after Kamal and Mustapha had entered our house about eleven a few nights before. Francis and I were still up, looking at each other’s family photos and talking. Kamal asked about the photos, so I showed them. To me it was vital that the guards saw us as people with families and friends, instead of passport holders or pawns of unfriendly governments. As we conversed, Kamal also revealed some things about himself: he was a husband, father of a six-year-old girl, his wife was pregnant with their second, he worried about medicine shortages in the hospital and so on.
The next morning after breakfast Somerset stopped me as I walked back to the house. “I want you to distance yourself from the Irackis, especially Kamal,” he began.
This surprised me. I thought if he was peeved, it was because I had kept him awake with our talking. “Why are you saying this?”
He glared at me.” Why?”
His look didn’t soften. “Don’t you think it’s important to talk with these guys, to get to know them?” I said.
“You’ll never know them. They’ve not even told us their real names.”
“Names don’t really matter here,” I said, whipping my hand in the direction of the refinery. “When I say ‘know’ them, I mean know how they think, who they think we are, when they come and go.”
“The less they know about us, the better,” he said, raising his voice.
“No,” I said. “I think the opposite is true. It’ll be harder for them to carry out their orders if they see us as people. And it’ll be hard for them to learn about us without our learning about them.”
I really didn’t want to argue. I expected I could anticipate their actions if I knew the actors, and it would be more difficult for them to shoot us if they knew us as individuals, as someone’s father or son or lover. If Kamal and I had met in other circumstances, he could have been a student, classmate, employer, or maybe even friend. Tomorrow he could execute me, and I would use any available weapon to try to stop him. Until then, we talked in tense politeness with mutual respect, feigned, but a kind of respect nevertheless. Seven years earlier when, as a graduate student in a Midwestern American university, I’d had Iraqi neighbors, Ali and Mouna, and since their son needed daily transportation to the kindergarten my daughter also attended, we carpooled, each driving on alternate days. I wonder how Ali or Mouna would react if we met here. Would they have so much fear that they’d pretend not to recognize me?
The second argument with Somerset was triggered by the arrival of a mysterious Englishman. At supper this man just walked in the main gate. Unescorted by any guards, he just appeared and joined us for supper.
“Hello, chaps. My name is John. Mister Alley told me you were here. Welcome to Asmida Bazrah. I wondered when you guests were going to arrive.”
It was just like that. He strode in, sweaty and flushed, wearing khaki shorts, knee high socks, and a dark blue T-shirt with big wet spots under his arms. He acted as matter-of-fact as if we’d met in a coffee shop at a work site where we each had tasks to perform. I got him a bottle of Lulu from the refrigerator. We had been promised unlimited beer, so I thought we could afford to share. After all, exercising hospitality felt empowering in a way Arabs I knew valued, given their social codes. I thought it important that the Iraqis around us see us as civilized.
“Ah, Lulu, not as good as Scheherazade beer, but thanks, mate.” He drank and talked quickly. I wondered if he was as thirsty as starved for conversation. Between sips, he told more of his story. He’d been scheduled to leave for his home in the United Kingdom the previous week. Sip. He was a technical consultant with a petro-chemical support company named Thunderbolt, or something like that. He was caught like us, or almost like us. Sip.
“I was doing a three-week training program in welding when Saddam invaded bloody Kuwait,” he explained. “Now I may not leave Iraq although I am free to come and go in the area as far as Bazrah. Alley vouches for me; if I disappear or escape, he will be punished.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that those “minding” us were themselves being monitored by another layer of minders. Yet Tom said that Saddam had survived as long as he did because of the complexity and paranoia of his secret police state. The multiple layers of fence that surrounded our camp were an apt metaphor for Iraqi society.
After supper, John walked to the gate, the gate keeper swung the barrier open and John strode out, down the dirt road toward the mosque.
“Don’t say much to that John,” Somerset said. “He’s a bloody plant.”
The abruptness of this categorical statement shocked me.
“How can you say that? We’re not the only people caught here.”
“He’s a bloody plant, I say, a spy.”
The next day, supper was the only meal the guards ate with us. Mustapha arrived with a new person, his superior, I imagined, because of the deference he showed.
“A nasty piece of work,” was how Francis described him, and I agreed. He wore an unmarked green uniform over a muscular body, a permanent scowl. A wide vertical scar bisected his neck vertically below the left ear, the line disappearing into his shirt. He seemed to never blink. Abed al Khaliq and Abu Mahmoud jumped at the slightest utterance from this guy. One time he held up a thermos, and before he even said anything, Abed al Khaliq jerked the brass kettle from Abu Mahmoud’s hand and hurried over to fill the thermos. The devil himself, an executioner, I was certain.
After supper, Abed al Khaliq handed each of us another bottle of whiskey. I still hadn’t opened the one I received earlier. Wondering what I should prepare for, I had only one shot with my housemates. They played cards and listened to the radio. I read a book Francis had finished, The Cruel Sea, a novel set in World War Two on patrol boats, including one called Compass Rose. If our diabolical companion at supper was too implicit, the novel reminded me of the explicit uncertainty of a war zone. Reminders were important: so was adaptation to more than a week in this camp, but in an instant, all could change: On one page of the novel, I read this reminder:
“It was very cold within sight of Iceland: Compass Rose, running southwestward past the frozen coastline after delivering four ships independently to Reykjavik . . .. It looked just as Iceland ought to look—no more, no less: it had plenty of snow, it had black cliffs and white mountains and a broad glacier. It did not seem to repay them for the extra degrees of cold involved in approaching near enough to take a peep.
At four o’clock, [Captain] Ericson came up to the bridge, checked their position, and rang down for increased speed.. . . It grew colder still as night fell.
The torpedo struck Compass Rose as she was moving at almost her full speed: she was therefore mortally torn by the sea as well as by the violence of the enemy.”
Somerset was a pain to deal with, but the executioner suggested that his perspective was not all wrong.
September 1: An American hostage in Basra dies. I knew Jim from one of the army bases where we had been held prior to being taken into Iraq.
September 1: Pope John Paul rebukes the Iraqi government.
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