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.
“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.”