(This post concludes the account as it stands. I’m still interested in getting a version of this story into print. I’m open to all manner of revision to make that happen.)
While eating lunch the next day, I met Hendrik, whom I’d last seen at Thanksgiving. We spent the rest of the day sitting at a table talking. Circelia went off somewhere with other women. I slept on the balcony the next night and came in to shower only when Circelia went to breakfast. She returned with a rose and wanted to tell me about someone who had given it to her, but I said I had to go downstairs for breakfast and stayed there. In mid afternoon, sitting with Hendrik, I heard my name called. A man smoking a cigar and carrying a clipboard said something about my traveling back to the United States that night on a private jet with John Connally. This made as little sense as the other things happening to me now; the only one I knew by that name was the politician, someone I’d ever met.
“Go upstairs and pack, now, and report to the blue conference room,” the cigar smoker said. I went upstairs to grab my bags and told Circelia to grab hers. Guards in the lobby ushered us into a conference room.
“Hostages sit in front of the room, separate from their relatives and loved ones,” one guard said. I took a seat in the front of a roped-off area. I looked back. Circelia stood in the rear with the TV crews. I saw the CNN crew that met Abu Alaa and me the other day at the desk. Some officials came in and sat on a low stage. One wore a green military outfit like Saddam often did, like Syphr’s. Another man up there wore a striped suit and spoke perfect Arabic and American English as he read off names from the passports in front of him. He checked my face against the picture in the passport before handing it to me.
After we remained there another half hour holding our passports, the man in the striped suit told us all to board a bus for the airport. Following Circelia, I was the last person to squeeze in. The bus seemed to carry double its capacity. I rode standing in the door well, watching the city go by: the markets, book sellers, the Tomb of’ the Unknown Soldier, the huge and grotesque Arch of the Swords. The driver, speaking English quite well, said, “You are very lucky to return on Mr. Wyatt’s aircraft.”
I wondered who Mr. Wyatt was, but said, “Yes, I know. How long has Mr. Wyatt been in Baghdad?”
At the Saddam International Airport, security officials waved us through the customs inspection area: the diary and cash in the money belt stayed with me. We had to present our passports to be stamped before moving into the transit lounge. The cigar-smoker and a woman, who said they were from the Embassy, counted us, disagreed about numbers in our party, saying something about another busload trying to leave the hotel in time to catch Mr. Wyatt’s plane.
Circelia and I sat in the transit lounge, silent and far enough apart that we could pass ourselves off as unrelated. After a time, two distinguished looking men emerged at one end of the lounge. One I recognized immediately as John Connally, unmistakable in his white cowboy hat, the former Texas governor and Cabinet Secretary. The other, I learned, was my benefactor, Oscar Wyatt, president of an oil company. The two walked through the lounge, introducing themselves and wishing us some happy holidays. “I’m sure you folks have a lot of catching up to do,” he said.
When the word came to board the aircraft, we moved quickly and almost immediately took off. We applauded as the plane left the left the ground. When the intercom announced we were out of Iraqi airspace, the applause and hooting was louder although neither time had I clapped with much enthusiasm.
Circelia slept in the aisle seat of the Coastal Boeing 707 while I looked out the window. My old friends Aldebaran and Betelgeuse seemed distanced, more boreal than at the refinery. After a fuel stop in Ireland, we entered Canadian airspace after midnight. The waning moon did little to illuminate what lay below. Were those cumulous clouds against a black abyss, or snowy land with many dark patches of water, and was one of those the lake near where Diana waited? It pained me that she had to wait, but Circelia had agreed to sign the divorce papers if I escorted her back to the Midwest and past the gauntlet of reporters who “knew” hers to be a story of a brave woman who traveled to Baghdad to rescue her loving husband. The plane would land at Coastal Petroleum’s airport of choice anyhow, and that meant Houston, Texas.
A few weeks later, a divorce decree finally freed me, although that liberation came with the pain of leaving my children. As I flew into Boston to Diana, the sound of air rushing past the airplane recalled the noise of Asmida, which I’d left less than a month before. At the arrivals gate, we hugged and wept; she looked simultaneously haggard and radiant. I wasn’t sure where to start, but we walked to her car and drove north, beginning an effort to repair our fractured life.
On New Year’s Day she accompanied me to a frigid ocean beach in New Hampshire because I wanted to show her how the mesbah had helped me focus on returning to her, but the January water so chilled me that she saw my swim as evidence of my imbalance, and I felt foolish as I shivered. I call it my “swim,” but I had waded in only to my knees before turning back, not only cold but also inarticulate.
The “air war” began on January 16, 1991 as I drove home alone from a lay-off meeting with my employer. When the radio announcer spoke of bombs falling on that moonless night, I felt faint and parked on the shoulder of the road, and sat there until the winter air convinced me to get home.
During the weeks that followed, the order had left my life. I nearly collided head-on with another car while I drove on the left side of the road, seeing it speed toward me but not registering danger. Diana took my keys for a few days. I managed little more work than mucking a stable where Diana kept a horse. I earned no pay and made no promise from one day to the next that I’d be back. I bought a TV, which Diana and I never had owned, and I watched the news of the war. Whenever I saw footage of a “smart bomb” pulverizing a target, I strained my eyes, wondering if I’d recognize the target as the refinery. I ignored her requests that I not watch so much.
Several times a week I went to a college library and read accounts in all the magazines I could. One article included this sentence: “Heavy bombing left the Khor al-Zubair Industrial area devastated.” This could mean Asmida as well as PC1, the power station, the LNG tanks. Those emotionless terms veiled thudding concussions that might have killed Ali, Abu Mahmoud, and Umm Kul. And when I wasn’t gathering news or mucking horses, I wanted to celebrate, while she tried to catch up on work projects that had languished during my detention.
I took the train to New York to see Tom in spring 1991, just after General Norman Schwarzkopf and an Iraqi Lieutenant General signed the truce in Safwan, near the border just south of PC1. Tom looked older than I remembered. His story of three months at the Saddam Dam north of Mosul differed from mine in details but paralleled my emotions. I told him about my telephone call with Ted and their ordeal camping at the border for a day in August before the Saudis let them cross over.
I thanked Tom for the attitude he gave me, but as we shared stories, he was surprised when I described an incident at the hotel in Kuwait, when I had thought him brave.
“I was terrified. My knees were shaking; that’s why I straightened up in front of that officer.” he said, his right eye twitching.
“What would you really like to do now?” I asked.
“I’d like to go back to Iraq,” he said, without hesitation. “Things I saw along the highway, especially in Kurdish country where I was held, make me even more curious. I’ll bet there are carpets and kilims there better than any I’ve seen.”
Diana and I eventually gave up. I moved to a trailer in the woods not far from her. Tensions crackled so much whenever we met that we spoke only on the telephone for a while until that too became unpleasant. Then we would see each other only when driving—we’d meet on the road, moving in opposite directions, wave, but continue. I watched her in the rear view mirror, hoping to see her brake lights come on, but they never did. I moved to another state, leaving information with our common friends in New Hampshire so that she could call or write. When I finally called her number more than ten years later, it had been reassigned. She moved on, and so did I. Drop by drop, hope of our meeting again spilled completely away. The gaping wound closed and has healed. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau’s sentiments upon leaving his retreat in the woods, I accept that I have several other lives yet to live and can spare no more time on that one.
Before the next war started in Iraq in 2003, TV and the Internet carried footage of beheadings. Many of us saw them, maybe more of us chose not to see . . . a dozen hostages in Southwest Asia, mostly in Iraq, their lives ending in front of a camera, blindfolded and hands behind the back. I tried to imagine the bound wrists stressing against the lower back as the victim strains painfully at shoulder sockets and torso. I heard the scream at the very instant metal touches the neck. In those days, I would catch myself putting my fingers to my neck, massaging the soft tissue and tougher muscles and ligaments there. Wondering how quickly a blade could work through, I probed the vertebrae at the back of my neck, feeling for the gap between any two convenient ones. “Struggle! Bite! Head-butt the ogre with the knife! I thought. I imagined I’d not sit idly at that instant.
Yet, when would I begin the struggle? Soon enough to survive, or . . . ? In June 2006 I listened to a National Public Radio reporter reading emails sent to the NPR website in response to a story about two US soldiers captured alive—outgunned and outnumbered, surrounded, cut off from any way to escape—and then beheaded. One of the emails, paraphrased, went like this:
“Of course I am horrified by this execution, but if it had been me, the videotaped killing would never have happened because I would have gone down fighting. After all, if my choices are to go down fighting to avoid capture or to be butchered in front of a video camera, I’ll choose the former.”
The bravado in that email did not convince me. The writer’s choice to fight at the point he described would surely have resulted in his death. My life was at stake during the four months that began on August 2, 1990, but I made other choices than to fight, and through these there was the possibility of survival. If I had attacked and gone down fighting, clearly, it would have been suicide.
Nightmares haunted me for some years. In one, I sit in the front seat of an Iraqi army truck driven by Colonel Syphr along the Shatt-al-Arab where Saddam had placed huge statues of soldiers pointing toward Iran. As we drive past, these statues come to life and point to Syphr. Gunfire erupts from every side. One bullet’s impact throws Syphr, his bloody head, his blood, onto my lap. Before I reach over and grab the wheel, the truck careens into the Shatt. I swim to safety. Climbing up the bank, I turn and look behind me. Glossy blanched bodies float down the waterway, having spilled from the back of the truck.
In another nightmare, I am back at the mesbah with fellow “guests” from that time in 1990, sitting at one end of the pool, comfortable; my fellows express no bitterness and the flies aren’t hungry. The world seems harmonious. At one point, I walk to the wall where I would shower and bask in the sunshine while looking over to see if the guards were coming. Mr. Mohammed walks towards the pool, and I wonder if he will ask for a list of needs. Then I notice an unfamiliar group of about ten armed guards trailing him, about thirty feet back. As he turns the corner, he speaks in a loud voice.
“I have news for all of you. Please come over here by the wall.” He says, smiling.
“Good news or bad news?” I ask, walking away from the wall, suddenly very afraid.
He disregards my question and repeats with more enthusiasm than before, “Over by the wall, everyone. I have news.”
The guards turn the corner and draw their pistols. I know the time has come. I rush toward them, wondering how many I can take down.
What might have happened to the guards like Colonel Syphr, Kamal, Abu Alaa, and the others . . . perhaps they died in the Shiite revolt in March 1991.
As for Saddam Hussein, when his end came in late December 2006, I sat transfixed at a computer, watching it like porn. He stood flanked by two men, wearing dark sweaters and ski masks, cutouts for eyes and a tip of nose, crowded into a space with a low ceiling. Supposedly this was a place his regime used for torture and execution. His face was like blank paper, unforgiving light leaching most of his color. What was he thinking, I wondered. Was he frightened? Was his mind vacant? His unnatural black hair and matching eyebrows suggested youth, but the eyes downcast, maybe closed, belied any sense of vigor. The trimmed beard looked gray, the color of cement, cold wet cement. For a shroud he wore a red scarf and heavy wool overcoat, his frame erect, arms at his sides, hands no doubt bound behind him. The masked men adjusted a rope attached somewhere above them.
Did he study this noose as he scaled the steps, or avert his eyes? Did one of the masked men tie the noose, or someone else?
The masked man on the right held the loop against the prisoner’s scarf while his partner rammed the noose against the condemned’s left ear. Was he worried when that noose tightened? What thoughts raced in his mind in these last minutes? Of an afterlife? His nation? Did he feel remorse? Or terror about the humiliation of hanging, with its involuntary out-gushing of bladder and bowels after death slackens all muscles? Or fear of pain? Was he listening for a moving trapdoor latch? Was he praying for an angel with a scimitar to slash the rope? Was he telling himself that a heroic leader follows this path to martyrdom?
Did 1990 matter to him anymore? It does for me. Maybe I was just lucky, but I made my choices. A group of Iraqis and I had our battle. We all won because no blood spilled, no life expired. I swam in the waters of Babylon, and survived.
As I re-examine this in early 2016, I imagine Iraq is quite a different place today. Some day I may return, but not in the foreseeable future.
December 9: Coastal role in my flight out of Iraq
December 12: NYTimes article that mentions me. The article gets some things wrong.
This ends the account as it stands. I am open to dialogue in the comments section. If you wish to discuss in a different forum, send on email: parrotlect (at) gmail.com and put babylonia in the subject line.