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 out to the balcony 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 10 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 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.