Posts Tagged ‘Iraqi use of foreigners as human shields’

Since wishing would not bring us food, Tom and I decided to risk going out to raid Ted’s freezer in Abu Halifa. The roads were deserted of all but car wrecks, some of which had not been there when Tom and I made our “spearhead” drive.  The gate in the Abu Halifa wall was closed, and a gatekeeper asked what we wanted.

“We’re here to visit Jerry, in apartment 1930,” I said, feigning familiarity.  It appeared the residents of the building had formed their own security patrols to keep out looters. I recognized the gatekeeper as an American I’d seen at a party Ted held a month earlier: Tom and I had status as his fellow US expatriates then.  Now he eyes us with suspicion.

We did visit Jerry for a while. He told of new attempts by small groups to drive to the border, mostly people with four-wheel-drive vehicles going across the desert.  There were also reports, Jerry said, of carloads of corpses there, people who attempted to drive out of Kuwait but either had unsuitable vehicles for traversing desert, lost their way, or broke down . . . . and died in the heat.  Again, I wondered about Ted and the others.

When Tom and I left him—we hadn’t said why we’d really come—we went to Ted’s apartment one floor up. I expected it would soon be taken over as an Iraqi observation post.  The fax line was dead, and when I dialed Diana’s number, I heard only static.  I assumed this was the consequence of the destroyed telecommunications tower.  I noticed two dozen bottles of Ted’s wine fermenting in the bathtub and thought about all the good bottles he and I had enjoyed months before. Each bottle had a cap attached to surgical tubing that  ended under water in a basin; fermentation was evident as bubbles in the water.  We took only the squid from the freezer, leaving the greens and boxes of processed foods.  As we carried this bag of frozen food out toward the gate, we were challenged by the building’s security patrols.

“What do you have there, guys?”

“Just some food from a friend,” I answered.

“Can’t let you keep that,” was the response.  “It’s our food now.  Nothing leaves here.”

I wonder now if the patrol would even have taken this food if Jerry had accompanied us.  These apartment complexes, enclosed as they are in Kuwait, were taking on a new life, transformed into walled cities by the fearful residents trapped inside. Even though this patrol was made up of fellow-Americans, their greater identity now was as residents of Abu Halifah; and Tom and I, residents of a walled city in Manqaf, were outsiders, therefore a threat; we had morphed into intruders, rivals for a limited food supply.  If this patrol detained as well, Tom and I could face the fate of Jean Valjean.

I had no way of telling how many people lived in these towers, but our buildings seemed about half full.  The Arab residents had disappeared, leaving Europeans, Tom and me, and some Pakistani families.

<<News chronology:

August 10:  USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are activated and prepare to deploy.  Carrier groups Independence, Eisenhower, and Saratoga as well as battleship Wisconsin begin to converge on the Gulf.

August 10:  (from History Commons)  Perhaps 2,000 Americans are hiding from Iraqi soldiers throughout the capital city, and at least 115 are already in Iraqi custody, essentially being held as hostages. Iraqi forces bring a number of Americans, mostly oilfield workers, to Baghdad, where they are put up at local hotels. The Iraqis do not allow the “freed” Americans to leave the hotels or meet with US Embassy officials. It is clear that though the Iraqis call them “guests,” they are hostages. Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Wilson, the ranking US diplomat in Baghdad, learns to his dismay that his superiors in the US are similarly reluctant to consider the Americans as hostages, arguing that if US officials begin calling them hostages, then the Iraqis will treat them as such. Perhaps Iraq is holding the Americans only until their control of Kuwait is complete, and will release them.


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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.

“What?  Gone?”

“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.”

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Sleep eluded me as I lay wondering about many things, but mostly if the Iraqis suspected this place was targeted that night.  Soldiers had arranged our beds, their attention to detail suggested they operated by some rules of hospitality.  I fought to stay alert in order to savor the last instant of well-being before the final explosion, if it came.  But sleep eventually overpowered my resolve to stay awake.

When morning came, half a dozen Iraqi soldiers were cleaning their weapons at one end of the long room.  It was just after five.  A mural on a wall showed a map of Kuwait with various missile, tank, and artillery systems superimposed, all aimed at Iran, turning a blind side to the country that did invade. I was surprised that we’d survived the night.  Joy—that was what I felt as dawn that began to creep through the windows opaque with contact paper.  In one window near me the contact paper was peeled back. I disguised my movement as exercise, as stretching, and wandered over there to look out. I saw a sand bank but not much except that. Details on the horizon appeared black, silhouettes against a strip of sky.  Dramatic yellow blended to rosy pink, then back to gray and black, as far up as I could see through this window.

Most of the group still slept. We were somewhere between Kuwait City and the Iraq border, but I had no idea of our precise location.  If the Iraqis released us, I wouldn’t know where to go, except away from the camp.

Tom was still asleep; a towel over his face had a foreboding appearance.  The crewman with the caged dog wrote in a small notebook. I cleaned part of the floor near my cot and did sit-ups and pushups. Another hostage injected himself in his belly, probably insulin.  I had to pee but wrote in my diary instead.

When Tom got up, he asked a soldier where the bathroom was.  The soldier escorted him out of the room and back.  I admired Tom’s resisting panic, his refusal to let on that he was intimidated, but that was Tom.  He thought independently, not heeding the shifting of sides and alliances.  He cared about people, regardless of their ideology.  He had spine and beliefs, and he surely had insights and interests.  I would not have been surprised if—upon returning with the soldier—he’d have the soldier talking about a carpet souk in some Iraqi city.

Around eight, the major from the previous night returned and soldiers huddled around him. After a short talk, they strapped their Kalashnikovs over their shoulders, folded up the cots, pushed some of the beds together, set up tables, carried in trays with dishes and pots; then tea, boiled eggs, and lentil soup. They then told us to eat.

Morning hours went by without plan or schedule. Some of the group slept. The female flight attendants, arrayed in their red-orange flowery dresses, stayed near the center of the room, surrounded by the male crew, dressed in light blue shirts with dark blue trousers.  One of the women sobbed most of the time, her face almost the color of her uniform.  The crewman with the dog played cards with anyone he could.

When the major returned to the mess hall, he called over the interpreter from the night before.

“Excuse please. Excuse please,” the interpreter said, waving his arms. He was mostly ignored, a foolish but understandable reaction, I thought, given that our plight was bad and certain to get worse.  He tried twice more with equal lack of success.  Then the major rapped a table with his swagger stick. By the third rap, he had most people’s attention.

“Listen names,” the young man said. He started reading a list, mispronounced some names, looking at us, gesturing quite ambiguously. Six names, less than a third of the group.  Because of my familiarity with his accent, I knew he’d included my name, not Tom’s.  Since no one moved, I didn’t either. If I was being singled out for something unpleasant, I could try to pretend that I was not who they thought I was, passport photo notwithstanding. The major didn’t have the passports, just a scrap of paper. I had walked close to see his notes.  In frustration, he slapped his swagger stick on the back of a leather chair five or six times. The soldier again read from the list, mispronounced the names, louder and with a rising intonation. “Take baggages and come to here.”

One of the British Airways crew stepped forward. “My name is Captain Harold Somerset, pilot of British Air flight 149. We are a crew, one crew. We must not be split up.”  I can’t recall if Somerset had put his hat on or not but he looked quite imposing.

The interpreter looked nervous as he translated for the major. The major seemed taken aback. He looked at his interpreter and then back to the pilot. Gesturing, Somerset explained, without waiting for a response from the major. “These ladies, these four men, and myself are a crew, one crew. Our aircraft is at the international airport. We will not be split up.”  The soldier interpreted, repeating “crew” again and again, gesturing. Somerset pointed to his uniform and those of his crew.

“No! Take baggages.  You go,” the interpreter replied.

“Tell your major we are a crew. We are not to be split up,” repeated Somerset, humorlessly and quite boldly, I thought.

The Iraqis huddled, the major briefly left the room and returned.  After some minutes the Iraqis reached a decision.  The interpreter explained.  “One crew stay with women.  One crew with women.  Others together go.”

My name was on the new list, so was Tom’s.  Three others sounded American and the fourth, French.  I stepped forward now with Tom.  Four other men did as well.  As we stood separated from the others, the crew and the Germans were among those who said cheery farewells to us. “Take care, man. Keep your chin up, mate . . . We’ll all get through this, friend.”  I took no cheer from this, only braced myself for what this morning would bring, now walking to the front of the line and imagining I showed no fear.

The major led the way out of the building. Knowing the destination would have made no difference, as we had no choices.  About fifty feet from the sidewalk was the bus, the same one we rode here last night; now in daylight it was much less dramatic even through a gauntlet of soldiers with helmets and weapons. It was just a rickety bus with some of the side windows broken out.  Khaki paint had been slopped on, in some places spattered onto the glass, and in other places not covering its blue and white color.  There were a thousand buses like this in Kuwait, probably a hotel airport shuttle until a few weeks before.

“Show no emotion. Show nothing on your face,” I told myself.

After a less than 30-minute ride through Jahra, where shops were closed and tanks and armored personnel carriers blocked intersections, we entered another fenced and gated army base, this one on a sand hilltop with a commanding view of the road coming south from Jahra. In the open areas between the one-story wooden camp buildings at least two dozen tanks were parked, men in greasy blue coveralls doing repairs or maintenance.

The driver parked under some low trees that offered shade, and the major and the bus driver walked into the nearest building, leaving the six of us and two guards in the bus: other soldiers stopped to talk to our guards.  One pointed, laughed, and came over to offer cigarettes. “Hallou, meester,” he said. “Where are you come from?”

Min Kuwait.” Tom said. From Kuwait.  Then he asked where they were from.  “Winta?”  They didn’t answer but giggled like mischievous kids. He laughed too, shaking his head, reminding me of an indulgent uncle. Tom was not quite fifty, ten years older than me.  The guards all were young, in their teens and early twenties, hardly fearsome. Some soldiers nearby slopped khaki paint—or maybe it was mud—onto previously white or green or orange Kuwaiti trucks and pickups. Storehouse doors were open, beds thrown out of barracks, desks and chairs heaped outside.  The wind blew away pages that might have escaped from reports or manuals, some pages caught in fence wire and on tree branches. The major reappeared and led us past a goat tied to a tree, into an office.

Inside were three beds, a large desk, and very little room to walk. We sat on the beds. A guard sat at the desk, his feet up. Every five minutes other soldiers poked their heads in; they kissed and giggled before they chatted, always the same small talk like “How are you, what’s new, really how are you?”  And things were always good, god always be thanked.

The six of us didn’t speak for about half an hour. Then the guard opened a drawer and took out a carton of Iraqi cigarettes, Sumer brand, which I’d never seen in Kuwait. When I declined the first offer, he insisted until I took one. “Sumer … good. Sumer. . . Iraq,” which sounded more like “Soomer. Goood. Soomer. Arak.”

Some minutes later a captain, wiry and handsome, came in with tea and more Sumer cigarettes. He opened a pack, shook out six cigarettes, and passed them out. He returned to light each one himself.  I didn’t normally smoke, but not smoking didn’t really seem an option; to me, it was neither good nor disgusting.  Just an act of etiquette.  Then he asked if we had eaten. Tom said we had a late breakfast, but the captain ordered a soldier to get food anyhow. Maybe he thought of his offer as obligatory hospitality.

The captain left and the guard, probably a private, returned. He opened another desk drawer and took out a large bottle of perfume or cologne and sprayed some on his hands. He tried to pass it to us. No one reached for it. He mumbled something and put it back in the drawer. He opened another drawer and took out a book in Arabic; there was a swastika on the cover, which we all noticed, shifting our focus from the book to each other.

Tom turned to me, and said in a low voice, “Kind of makes you wonder what lessons they’re learning.”  The guard looked up as if he were surprised that we spoke a language he didn’t understand. We never did figure out what the book was.

“My name is Majed,” the guard said, in Arabic, and asked our names. He repeated them, mispronounced them and laughed: Tom, Max, Doug, Jim, Jean-Marc, and Will. I imagined him confused by such weird foreign names. He walked out, leaving on the desk his machine gun, stock wrapped in duct tape.  A minute later he returned, with what I thought a sheepish smile, to retrieve it.  Only then did the six of us start talking, commenting on the guard leaving without his weapon and our not having done anything with it.  We talked bravado, not admitting our limited options, surrounded by guns and tanks and probably hundreds of soldiers.

After fifteen minutes Majed returned, gun strapped over his shoulder. He carried a large platter of rice and chicken and six plates. Jean-Marc slid back on the bed, leaned against the wall, and turned his eyes to the corner, disgusted no doubt by food that violated his sense of decorum.

Something would happen, but really each time it was nothing because, fundamentally we had lost control of our time and movement.  A strange officer would arrive, hand out cigarettes, make small talk, tells us “to rest, to relax,” and then would leave.  Another might arrive and tell us to follow him to a new temporary location, but this place, like the previous, meant fences and guards. Other soldiers came by to look at us. I felt like a trophy animal. Majed would always be within fifty feet, smoking cigarettes and cleaning his Kalashnikov.  Men with weapons might smile, but they retained all control.  They decided where and whether we moved, what and whether we ate.

But I was learning from Tom. He asked Majed for a scissors to trim his hair, and the soldier disappeared, returning fifteen minutes later with another soldier, who said he was a barber in Baghdad. He had a pouch with scissors, combs, a drop cloth, razors, even a spray bottle. Max asked for a haircut, even though he was almost bald. The barber joked, “One” and gestured cutting hair; “Two” and he gestured trimming the beard; and “Three,” slitting the throat. We laughed, humorlessly. The six of us talked a little, but most of the time it was quiet.  Boredom alternated with regret, fear, and distraction.

For some time I watched a dragonfly, losing myself and finding refreshment in its beauty.  It would swoop into the room and as quickly leave.  The blur of its wings, felt like a refreshing idea in this hot afternoon that smelled of sand.  Its body, an electric blue, conveyed strength and substance, yet it could hover.  Unlike a bee, it made no sound.  Unlike a butterfly, it seemed capable of defending itself.  It flew into the room, surveyed our plight, disappeared out the broken window, and then back in.  As I watched it darting in and out of our space, freely moving. Majed came into our room, when it landed, Majed swatted with the back of his hand, hit it, then brushed the remains onto the floor, never looking at it. I wanted to kill him, crush him as thoroughly as he had the dragonfly.  Later ants arrived to carry off the remains of the dragonfly.

Outside soldiers repaired tanks and trucks less than a hundred feet from our “house.” Others rubbed mud on a blue pickup, turning it khaki. It was hot. In mid-afternoon the air conditioning suddenly stopped. Majed and a few soldiers nearby talked with the most excitement I’d heard in a while. The power seemed to be out everywhere in the camp. Was this prelude to an attack– I wondered. Without the air conditioners, outside noises—voices, trucks and tank motors, hammers—became noticeable. The room grew hotter by the minute.  And we were hungry.  It was mid-afternoon, and so far we’d had only dry bread and water.

Suddenly a buzzer sounded from inside the apparatus in the room. Max opened the panels, located it, and pulled the wires out. “If something’s going to blow up, at least we don’t have to be deafened by the warning first,” he said. I recalled the morning in the Kuwait International Hotel that I saw Max for the first time: he seemed decisive, a person to follow if he proposed a course of action, an unlikely one to be caught in the lobby of that hotel.

We stifled motionless on our beds, sweating. Restless. I asked Majed if we could take a walk.  My rage toward him had dissipated.

“Mumkin, “ he said. It meant maybe.  I felt trapped in the world of mumkin.  He went off again. I watched him disappear into the camp, each of his steps reiterating our immobility, tracing the invisible fence that prevented us from walking anywhere.

When he returned, he said, “Yallah. We walk.” The hot breeze still blew papers around the building. The goat tied to the tree was gone. Live ammunition was scattered on the ground. Soldiers working on trucks and tanks looked at us. I felt their stares.

“Show no emotion, or just look calm,” a voice inside me said.  Could it have been my grandfather?  “A prisoner’s fear encourages the torturers to cause more terror,” the voice said.

Majed took us toward the crest of the ridge and pointed out the perimeter fence. First I saw only tin roofing sheets and piles of metal pipes. The closer we got, the more obvious it was that I was looking at tank turrets and guns facing outward. “Debawbah,” he said, which Tom translated as “tank.”

Night fell, and we did what we’d done most of the day: lie in bed in a room fifteen feet square, with the unidentifiable brown electrical apparatus—now without an alarm—rising about six feet high in the center. Six beds, one for each of us, surrounded this monstrosity, leaving hardly enough room to walk. It seemed to grow larger the longer we spent in this room. The two wall air conditioners mounted up against the ceiling at one end of the room blasted cold air toward the other end where bullet-pocked and shattered window panes, long shards like scimitars, sliced at what cold air arrived there.  The only light came from an outside lamp.  I tried to fall asleep under a blanket Majed had brought, a quite new synthetic blanket with one blue tiger printed on it.

<<News chronology:

August 17:  NYTimes article on the US troop buildup.

August 18:  USS Reid and USS Bradley (in separate incidents)  fire warning shots across the bows of two Iraqi oil tankers leaving the Persian Gulf. These are considered the first American shots fired in the crisis.   Also, USS England and USS Scott divert freighters in the Arabian Gulf and N. Red Sea, the first diversions by Navy ships.

August 18:  NYTimes article on US government’s refusal to use the word “hostage.”

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After midnight, truck and tank engines rumbled. I opened my eyes enough to see pairs of soldiers entering the locked room beside ours. They walked out again, grunting as they carried dozens of metal boxes that sometimes crashed into the metal doorjambs, rattling our building. Then several soldiers came into the room where we slept, or pretended to.  As they pulled the blanket off me, I kept my body limp, my eyes mostly closed. “So long, blue tiger,” I thought.  They removed blankets from the other guys too. Then they emptied dolls and toy tanks from the file cabinet by the window, maybe loot to bring their children after the war. Tense and ready to jump up, I waited. But eventually all the soldiers, trucks and tanks rumbled away.  I felt chilled.

At four-thirty, I awoke.  On my way to the bathroom, I passed Majed, who appeared to be asleep.  When returning a few minutes later, I found him in my bed.  He breathed deep like a sleeper, his weapon stashed on the floor under the bed.

“Majed, yallah,” I whispered and shook the bed; I didn’t want to wake the other guys.  I repeated a little louder, “Majed.”

He didn’t move.  He had guarded us almost non-stop for two days, machine gun always either in his hands or strapped over his shoulder. The weapon was scratched, duct-taped, and chipped but still deadly, as a rusty knife is no less lethal than a shiny new one. But now he looked so vulnerable that for an instant the dark voice in my head told me to take the gun from under the bed and shoot him;  or go to the window, take a shard of glass, and cut his throat. Not that I wanted to, but just I could have. He certainly had directed no malice toward me, toward any of us.  He held us under arrest, unlawful but dignified arrest.  I was detained but not humiliated.  Yes, I did think about killing him, wondering if he’d die gasping like the goat I’d seen bleeding its life from a slit neck into the sand a few months before at a party with Nidal and Tarik; Majed’s blood pooling on my bed would make it only a little more likely I too would die in the next few weeks.

I left him to sleep peacefully and paced outside our room. The hallway adjoined our room, the room with the metal door, the bathroom, a doorless office and the outside. I sat on Majed’s folding chair and looked at the sky:  the stars, cold desert stars, and the thinnest visible sliver of first quarter moon, a sign of hope. It was still a Monday evening in North America. What was Diana doing? Would she have returned from Rome?  What were my children thinking before going to sleep?  The toys the soldiers had taken that night reminded me of amphora I’d left behind in Mangaf; about a foot high each, they were replicas of Greek pottery found on Failaka, an island in the Persian Gulf several miles off Kuwait City, where archaeological excavations suggested visits by troops of the era of Alexander the Great. I had planned to give each of my kids one of these amphora, just as these soldiers possibly carrying toys they’d looted from homes or shops in Kuwait for their children. Maybe like me, these soldiers hoped tokens would compensate for time lost talking or playing.

Now nothing moved, and the camp seemed empty. Soldiers and their toys may have pulled back into Iraq or deployed closer to Saudi Arabia.  Eventually Majed woke and walked off, saying something about gahuwa and akul, coffee and food.

As I sat in the guard’s chair watching the wind blow plastic bags and papers around the otherwise deserted buildings, Tom walked by on his way to the bathroom. Winking, he asked, “So, did you invite Majed in to share your bed?”

“Fuck you, Tom,” I said, smiling.

An hour later Majed came back empty handed.  All but Tom still slept.   I ached for something to do. I stood in the doorway but said nothing.  Eventually the other guys woke up.  I went back and lay on my bed feeling dirty and trying to read. Tom read his book about Freya Stark; Jean-Marc, Jim, and Doug played cards and smoked one free cigarette after another. Max put a towel over his eyes and lay back.

At noon the captain came by to see Majed. They talked, and the captain left. They seemed to be the only two soldiers around. An hour and a half later the captain reported they were still looking for food. We hadn’t eaten since the hotage potage the day before, “hostage soup” being whatever could be saved from the trash.  I felt too weak and worried to have much appetite.  Doug, Jim, and Max smoked constantly. Jean-Marc and Tom slept. I walked around our space. Below the broken windows lay some empty backpacks, like corpses.

Another hour passed before Majed returned with a large tray. Mealtime meant when food appeared, not when a clock showed an hour. Piles of rice were dumped on it. No plates or forks. Jean-Marc was the most disgusted. But we laughed when we ate the cold rice.

“Eh, Jean-Marc, should you take notes on this cuisine?” Tom asked.

“Don’t even talk about this sheet,” he said.

“What would you call that gruel that we had at the camp they took us to after the hotel?” asked Max.

“I think it was lentil soup,” I said.

NonNon. I know lentil soup,” said Jean-Marc. “We made zat at the Kuwait International. I wouldn’t call that lentil soup.”

“Hotage potage,” said Max. “I like that name.”

“So we should do a cookbook when this is over,” I asked. “What else could we add?” I thought about Diana, and her gift for what she called “eutraphalia,” a great word to describe her gift for always injecting playfulness into any serious but otherwise tedious activity, finding joie de vivre in the routine and even menacing. She’d like the idea of planning a cookbook here, I thought.  And hotage-potage would be the piece de resistance, literally, what can be made from nothing, when one has no choice of any ingredients.

A little later the major who had brought us here the other day intruded. “Ten minute. Pack baggages.”

<<<News chronology:

August 20:  NYTimes article about Qaddafi denouncing Iraq’s use of civilians as human shields.

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Strange, I thought, I had never unpacked. I only opened my knapsack to remove my toothbrush and the duffelbag stayed zipped.  I hadn’t changed clothes since leaving Manqaf, hadn’t showered since the hotel, not a great hardship … just unusual.

The base was deserted except for two Land Cruisers. Where the tanks and trucks had stood before, only oil spots remained.  In one of the Land Cruisers  a driver waited along with two of the flight attendants still in their orange dresses and the steward I’d last seen the morning after we were taken from the hotel.  I would lose all track of time except for the moon and its clockwork.

“Teachers here,” the major told Tom and me, pointing to the nearer vehicle.  Then he entered the driver’s seat.  The attendant who had been crying at the previous base sat in the other front seat.  In the backseat sat the fourth attendant, her name tag reading “Carlie” still on her chest. I sat next to her in the middle.

The major must have read the visas in our passports and remembered our faces and occupations. Max and Jim squeezed into the back compartment.  Doug and Jean-Marc got into the other Land Cruiser. Once we were all inside, the major went off to talk with the captain and Majed.

Carlie said, “You guys OK?”

“Yeah, and you?” I said.

“We’re all right, just scared,” she said. “The rest of our crew, the other Brits, and the Germans left for somewhere soon after you guys left the other day.”

When the major got in, we stopped talking. Majed and the captain waved good-bye to us; I waved back as we drove down the hill toward the highway. I felt less fear after spending the time here; our guards had come closer than the soldiers in Mangaf, more personal than the colonel and other soldiers who’d come into the hotel. Maybe I just accepted my detention.  We had not been forced to fill sandbags or dig trenches.  I wondered about the attendant in the front seat, who stared straight ahead, her face blotchy.  I didn’t know her story, but no one I knew had yet been hurt.

At the highway the major turned north up the Mutlaa Ridge toward Iraq. Columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks lined the southbound side of the highway. On the back of each truck stood dozens of soldiers, a motley band as ragged as the long thin banners they held, thin almost like ribbons in ancient hues of purple, green, and red that would have looked more appropriate trailing from camels.

The major sped northward on the highway, passing slower military trucks and civilian cars jammed with people and roof racks piled high with luggage. No one in our Land Cruiser spoke. I studied the road, the traffic:  rush hour in both directions with strange war movement. At least ten identical new Mitsubishi cars sped past us one by one in rapid succession, only a driver in each, Shwaikh port export stickers still on the windows, no license plates. We passed flatbed trailers, efficiently loaded with refrigerators and ranges. Some military jeeps pulled trailers loaded with luxury fiberglass yachts northward into a nation of mostly desert.  Soldiers stood on the roadside, trying to flag us down, and I wondered if they were deserters or the great Iraqi army lacked transport for them.  In the southbound lanes tanks and army trucks trailed more long colorful banners contrasting with the drab color of the uniforms and trucks. Most of the trucks were East European or Russian; some towed a second truck, maybe disabled or a means to save fuel while trailering more troops into Kuwait. Many trucks had no windshields. Stripped vehicles littered the highway shoulder, one every mile or so.  I checked the speedometer: the major drove eighty, passing slower vehicles weaving lane to lane on a road surface roughened by tank tracks. Max vomited, Jim pulled out a plastic bag for him, and the sour smell tensed my stomach.

The major sped on. I expected to enter Iraq soon. I looked for a lone monument marking the border, but at a turnoff lacking any landmark or sign, he slowed and turned right onto a narrow desert road headed east. I estimated our location less than twenty miles from the Iraqi border at Safwan, having been on this highway only a month or so earlier with Ted. This side road toward the east took us past several burnt-out tanks, bulldozed berms, communications wires strung along the desert floor, a corpse face down with sand drifted over the back, and finally a military base.

The base seemed deserted without workers to sweep drifting sand off the walks and roads.  The major drove up the sidewalk, stopping ten feet from the door of a building, a hospital or clinic according to the Red Crescent signs that read mustashfa. The major led us to an air-conditioned office with cheap wood paneling;  a ceiling fan spun above a desk at least eight feet wide. An officer, behind the massive desk, stood up to kiss the major in greeting. The major handed over a bundle of passports from his briefcase.

“Last we’ll ever see of those passports,” whispered Tom.

This new officer wore a pistol and a green uniform without markings. He spoke English well, handing out bottles of cold water and packs of cigarettes. Back behind his desk, he looked at us, smiled, and waited. I wondered if he expected us to state our business. No one spoke. He asked who was married. Doug and I raised our hands but said nothing; neither did he for a while.

“Sprechen Sie Deutch?” No one did. I wondered how he learned German. His accent sounded good, but all attempts at small talk failed. So he started flipping though the passports and looking around.  I guessed he was matching faces with photos.

“Follow me, ladies and gentlemen,” he said and led us down a dark hall and entered a hospital ward. In the low light I distinguished six beds. “Choose beds, gentlemen, and wait for me here. Ladies. Come with me.”

When this officer and the women had left, I asked Tom if he wanted the bed by the window.

“It makes no difference, he said.  “Colonel Syphr won’t let us get away no matter where we sleep.”

Colonel Syphr, that’s good, Tom,” I said, amused, using the opportunity to change the subject. Syphr is Arabic for “zero,” as in nothing or no one.  I wasn’t sure what Tom’s point was, but despite the authority this officer exuded, his uniform had no identifying marks.

I pulled the blackout curtain back.  Not twenty feet from the window, a sand dune rose and blocked the view.  I felt walled in.

I wandered down the hall alone toward a room where I heard voices, British accents.  Inside, I counted twelve people from our original group of twenty-three, the three Germans and the British, including the rest of the 747 crew and some others. The terrier that traveled in the animal crate sat in a corner beside a water dish. I asked the crewman with the terrier if they’d been here long.

“Francis is the name, and the mutt is Biggles. No, we just got here ourselves after two days at the Kuwait International Airport. We saw our aircraft, but we couldn’t get near it.”  He mentioned gin given by their Iraqi guards. “Want a shot?” he said, handing me a paper cup.

“Maybe later,” I said.  Some of the group argued about soccer.  Others crowded around a shortwave radio, but the news was bleak:   American Navy frigates (USS Reid and USS Bradley) had fired across the bows of Iraqi vessels and then boarded them, Saddam had offered to free his “western hostages” if Bush withdrew American forces from Saudi Arabia, and then announced the hostages were being moved to vital military installations as human shields.

Later, in a lounge down the hall two unarmed Iraqi soldiers in uniforms also without markings watching Baghdad television news with Tom. Busloads of Iranian POWs, thin and in army uniforms, survivors of the war that had ended two years before, were being driven through the streets of Baghdad and later released at what was said to be the Iranian border, where a mullah handed each one a Koran and a set of civilian clothes. “They’re probably emptying out those camps for us,” Tom joked.

The two soldiers started putting our supper on a large table, schwarma (roast beef) and parsley salad. It seemed delicious after a few days of food scrounged up by Majed and the captain.

“Do you speak English?” I asked one of them.

La” (No),  he said. “Espanol.” Max heard this, and started to chat with them in Spanish.  They said they had learned in Spain.  I lost the thread of their conversation until I heard them talk about food.  They all laughed about food.

Again I walked past the dark ward where the British Air crew still listened to the BBC.  “Hostages taken from the Kuwait International Hotel are now believed to be somewhere in Irack.” That was right, sort of, given that the line between Iraq and Kuwait was blurred now more than ever, but at least we were news.

For the first time in a few days guards did not carry machine guns. Yet this dark place was not homey, even if the guards could laugh and speak Spanish.  Of course the guns waited, stowed nearby out of sight. In fact, in this place that held no associations for me and possibly none for these guards, execution seemed more likely than at a base near town.  Wouldn’t the absence of witnesses make it easier?  Would a newsmagazine someday publish photos of our corpses if our remains were discovered before nature buried the whole place under drifting sand or wild birds plucked off our identifying features, corpses partly emerging from sand.

I had seen such pictures once in Time, in the late 1970s.  The victims had died in Kolwezi, in southern Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of Congo was then called, Belgians who worked in the mining industry there.  Rebels had shot them and piled their bodies in a room.  All death reminds us of our fragility and mortality, but what made these photos especially grisly was the familiarity:  From my Peace Corps experience , I knew the town where these people had died; their dress resembled my own.  The body of a man in the foreground lay draped over a chair, his pants partly pulled down, his underwear bore a common brand label. I slept little that night, preparing to crash a chair through the window beside my bed and run into the night sand.  All predictability was gone: dawn might never come.

Mid-afternoon the next day, Colonel Syphr called us to assemble by the TV. Again he wore a pressed green uniform and polished brown dress boots. His clean-shaven face was faintly Iranian, like students I’d taught twelve years before in the United States. He smiled. “We have good news for you. You are all going to a better place,” he said, his voice sounding sincere, as if he expected us to cheer. I could only imagine this meant home to Diana and out of this limbo.

Winking, Tom said, “You know Muslims consider Paradise the better place, don’t you?” he had a way of seeming amused when he was most threatened. I wondered whether his “wink” may have been a twitch I’d never noticed during the months we worked together.

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A green and chrome coach, just like the ones we saw on Baghdad television news carrying liberated Iranian POWs took us away from the hospital.  On the main road, we turned northward, traveling alongside refugees and looters, their cars and trucks piled high with mundane objects like bedding and appliances.  I wondered why some Iraqi soldiers hitchhiked north.  And southbound, truckloads of troops accompanied tanks, artillery pieces and front-end loaders covered with khaki paint or mud.

Before we reached the border we encountered a road block:  dozens of camels crossed the road.

“Mostly cows,” Tom noticed. I laughed when he said that. I pondered the irony of this herd of camels, wild occupants of this part of the desert, setting the rules, in this case stopping the movements of a war; nature stopping modern technology, ancient animal trails or caravan routes demanding priority over a very recently laid four-lane highway.  The road, this human-built barrier, did not stop the animals; rather, they disregarded it and we all stopped.  And Tom sexed the camels.  It was so obvious when he called attention to it:  baby camels walked alongside the cows, suckling—or trying to—from enlarged udders that swayed as they walked toward the west, toward the rock that marked the border.

Only two months earlier when I’d driven up to this border with Ted, we’d parked and approached the Kuwaiti border guards, two soldiers in their early twenties relaxing on a carpet-covered bench in front of an aluminum shelter, the size of a tollbooth on an American interstate. Barbed wire and chain link then defined the only passageway between the two countries and without proper documentation, no one crossed.

Now no one staffed the flattened border post on the Kuwait side.  The chain-link fence lay on the pavement, pressed into the roadbed.  Clearly, when the Iraqi military entered Kuwait some weeks before, it had been by overwhelming force, a violating drive like rape.  Metal structure that once controlled access and directed passage was now twisted disarray pressed into the pavement and in the Kuwait heat, asphalt had swallowed parts of what had been impenetrable fence. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozmandias” could have been inspired all over again:  “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Our coach driver turned past long lines of cars, all with Kuwaiti license plates, all with furniture and suitcases piled high on the roofs, people stuck at the border with personal effects.  We had the fast lane through customs and into Iraq, not necessarily a good thing, I thought.  A few hundred yards in, the driver stopped and parked behind Syphr, who went into a police station. He returned a few minutes later with a case of Pepsi. He walked down the aisle passing out cans, a warm American drink to fete our entrance to Iraq.  Not that getting a free Pepsi made me feel in the least welcomed.  And maybe Syphr felt no choices existed for him or us: traditional codes compelled him to offer hospitality, and we had to accept it for harmony; violate those rules, and evil consequences would ensue.

I sat in the front of the coach, just behind the driver, Tom behind me, Max beside me. Maybe they had the same idea as me—to look out the windshield as well as to avoid the diesel roar in the back.   Beside Max in the front seat on the passenger side sat a guard, his rifle propped up along the window. The driver, wearing a pistol and a plain green uniform, seemed proud of this bus: he periodically wiped his hands on a clean white towel hung from a bar behind him. On the dashboard he had decals of Koran passages, lettering in gold on a black background; beside the writings, photos of an ayatollah and the prophet Ali, associated with the Shi’ite branch of Islam. Red lights heightened the color of the tassels of red naugahyde draping around the driver’s ears, a weird but maybe effective means to keep flies off him.  The color of the tassels matched the pleated seat and chrome steering wheel like from a 1950s hot rod. Counterpointing these details, the rest of the bus, though—the seats and the curtains—old and torn, was the color of dust, the same dust clogging my nostrils.

Nightfall only reduced the landscape colors to dusty monochrome, and the Kuwait superhighway diminished into an Iraqi two-lane road towards Basra, the ancient port that had served Alexander the Great, Sinbad the sailor, and Britannia the empire. As daylight faded, roadside buildings were not only smaller than those in Kuwait but also less illuminated, appearing as assembled brick without mortar.  Wires hung low, propped up by rusty metal I-beams with only a few street lamps burning. Other wires snaked along the ground. High-tech military vehicles clogged the narrow streets alongside 1950s and 60s Chevrolet taxis, 1957 Chevy Apache buses with wooden sides and backs, and other antique vehicles.  Horses and mules pulled carts made of wood and truck tires. A heroic statue depicted a soldier decapitating a shark.  Narrow bridges crossed muddy streams where reeds and date palms grew, boys or men standing near the stern paddled long pointed canoes while water buffalo submerged to their shoulders grazed in grassy ditches. Two brown armored personnel carriers stood in front of a hovel the same mud color.

The coach continued northward, the headlights now illuminated checkpoints, lanes marked by safety cones made of empty artillery shell casings painted orange. At each checkpoint, Colonel Syphr spoke with the soldiers, who then waved the bus through without inspection, directed around other traffic.  The driver sounded the high-pitched air horns to warn off pedestrians or cattle maybe at least once every few miles. Bathed in red cabin light he sometimes appeared demonic, speeding us to our execution, yet he might think himself a loyal soldier, today transporting the condemned and tomorrow towing a tank. The coach was bigger than most vehicles on the road; only self-propelled howitzers and tanks on flatbed trailer trucks were larger.

I had started to count the number of tanks for no conscious reason.  It did help me stay awake, but eventually I gave up. My cheek against the windowpane, I could feel the warm night. I woke up around midnight as we entered a military base. The driver parked the bus beside some fuel tanks painted with camouflage patches. The other people on the bus kept sleeping. In the moonlight the diesel tanks—above ground on pylons— seemed peaceful, blended in with palm trees silhouetted against the bluish-black sky. I awoke again around three, as the bus thumped to a stop listing to the right as if with a flat tire. Syphr stopped a flatbed trailer hauling a tank and jumped up onto the running board; the driver carried over a pump. I had been right: I dozed off listening to the pump inflate the tire.

At quarter to five we stopped at another checkpoint. This time Syphr handed over his pistol to a soldier at the checkpoint; two other soldiers took the weapon from the driver.  Odd, I thought;  Syphr and his deputies rule the hinterland, but their authority doesn’t extend within this inner wall, where they defer to confederates but maybe not friends.

Daybreak found us in a modern residential area. I guessed Baghdad, date palms everywhere, more lush than Kuwait, where trees grew only if irrigated. This night trip had taken us away from war and away from the poverty of southern Iraq; Baghdad was a modern city with heavy civilian traffic and walled estates. Drivers wearing ties raced in  luxury cars.  On the way to “the office,” I imagined.  Crowding the sidewalks, students carried books and waited at bus stops. Cucumbers, watermelon, oranges, and other fresh fruit piled high in market stalls. People jammed in small cafes drinking coffee or tea.  Streets and traffic circles bustled with taxicabs and buses. It felt safe here, so normal. After a few weeks of living in a war zone, I could feel liberated here if I suspended my better judgment. At one residence with only a low wall, I saw a man through the window wearing a white shirt standing in a dining room tying a dark tie around his neck, respectable folks . . . I wanted to believe this. I almost smelled the coffee, spiced with cardamom of course, and imagined the inhabitants as middle class, more familiar and therefore sympathetic to my plight.

Yet, having seen the driver of this bus give up his weapon a little while ago, I knew that he and Syphr and surely the residents of this normal looking place recognized their absolute dependence on Saddam. They had bought this lifestyle with unquestioned loyalty.

We stopped near a compound with walls at least twenty feet high, only tops of palms visible.  Tom said, “I’ll bet you anything that this is one of many of Saddam’s palaces.” Outside the walls, men tended palm trees and flowerbeds, watering red flowers and weeding planters that maybe doubled as suicide bomber barricades.

Around eight, a soldier boarded and ordered us off the bus and into a large gatehouse, where a dozen or so guards milled about laughing, smoking, and watching us as we sat on padded benches around three walls of a large room.  After fifteen minutes, a smaller number of soldiers carried in low tables and set out water bottles and bowls with dates. I longed for coffee.  Then, two soldiers, one carrying a notebook, began to make their way around the room. “Name please. And your country? What did you did in Kuwait?”  One asked the questions and translated into Arabic for the other to write down.  I answered the last question vaguely, but the answer “English teacher” satisfied him.

About an hour later an officer told us to get back into the coach.  Syphr led us over a Tigris bridge to a residential area on the east bank. Old houses there had wooden screens and awnings and greenery; in another time I’d like to live here for a while, I thought. Tom looked out the window too. “This is more like Cairo, not the nouveau richesse of Kuwait,” he said. In the middle of traffic circles were green statues of Baghdadi notables. I’d visited Cairo five years earlier and knew that several civilizations had thrived and died millennia before oil awakened the Gulf kingdoms.  A millennium before, Baghdad had been the largest city on earth, a center of learning.

Baghdad’s skyline featured domes of mosques, either gold or color-tile, mixed in with modern glass-and-concrete buildings.  Billboards everywhere advertised Saddam Hussein, or, more accurately, proclaimed him. An airfield near what seemed the center of the city teased me:  civilian Boeing airliners waited there. Atop some buildings I noticed anti-aircraft artillery.

The coach turned into the parking lot of a hotel and stopped.  On the upper façade I could read  “Mansour Melia” in English and Arabic.  Syphr told us to stand against the building. He smiled but sounded tired.  Soldiers unloaded the bags and suitcases as we stood against a wall some fifteen feet from the open cargo bay in the lower part of the bus. The British Airways crew stepped forward to claim their bags.

“No, No! Stay by the wall, ladies and gentlemen. Not to touch your bags, only to check they are there,” said Syphr. “We will take them inside for you.”  A half dozen porters approached pushing carts.

I noticed European-looking people walking in and out of the hotel on their own, expressionless.  I wondered who they were and what business theirs was, as they seemed free to come and go: possibly they were Iraqi, Iraq being much more ethnically diverse than such Gulf states as Kuwait.

Syphr led us through the lobby—men in suits crowded the tables, smoking and drinking tea, watching us.  A grim elevator operator wearing a pistol controlled the buttons, looking us over as we ascended. At the seventh floor he stopped.

“Choose a room,” said Syphr.

Quite the hollow choice, I thought, but I took a room with Jean-Marc.  We had taken to speaking French. I put my two bags down and walked back into the hall.  Tom had the room across the hall to himself.

“Notice what’s missing here?” he asked.

“No phones,” I said, after scanning the room a few seconds. My room too lacked a phone although a card with telephone numbers for hotel services lay on the night table.

Wanting to be alone to get my bearings, I went to the balcony overlooking Baghdad. I felt grimy, so it didn’t bother me to sit on the dusty balcony.  Seven stories below a group of a hundred or so men in civilian clothing ran past singing in cadence. I understood none of the words. The palm trees they ran beside grew in large pots, a plant nursery beside the hotel grounds concealing sandbagged fortifications around anti-aircraft guns at the peak of a mound. It was less than two hundred yards away from where I sat with binoculars watching four soldiers moving around inside the gun emplacement.  The muddy Tigris formed one edge of the hotel grounds and a side of the mound. Small motorboats crisscrossed the river. Heavy traffic crossed the four bridges I could see, mostly buses and taxis. On the opposite river bank, a mud wall enclosed ancient adobe buildings.

I felt lost not only in space but also time.  Those walls embodied the traditional architecture of the Fertile Crescent, pre-modern, before oil and the madness that led me here.  Modernity explained not only why I sat on this balcony now but also threatened my life.  No escape plans came to mind.  No opportunities to blend into the landscape existed.  No one who mattered knew where I sat, and if by some fluke satellites had tracked the movements of our bus, we rated as pawns.  No high-risk rescue operation would swoop in with helicopters and commandos.

I took out the diary with Diana’s name and address on it. “By the waters of Babylon, I wept,” I wrote automatically. It was a cliché but I was crying and then couldn’t write anything more. It was her birthday, and a year before we’d camped along a river in Maine.  Under pine trees and in a secluded section of the bank we had found shade and relaxation. I could still conjure up the taste of roasted vegetables and the smell of campfire.  The clear brisk stream there was as warm as it would get all season.  On the other side of that river was a swamp with large stones covered with brown moss, or so we thought. When one of the stones moved, we recognized it as a foraging moose raising its head for air. A year later, I was alone, the Tigris was muddy, and the mounds a little more deadly than a moose.

I heard someone coming through the room to the balcony. It was Tom. I squatted in one corner; he sat on the ledge. He looked over the city for a while and then spoke slowly, as he did everything from examining a carpet to eating.

“See the Union Jack flying in the distance over there?”

I hadn’t.  I saw the river, the guns, domes, cranes, and ancient walls.

“Follow the river south here. See that clump of palms on the east bank?”

I followed his pointing arm.

“OK, to the left of the minarets. There’s the British flag.”

I wondered how I had missed it. Tom’s interest in carpets eclipsed only his fascination with all things British: on a shelf beside his TV in Kuwait, he had the entire video series The Jewel in the Crown.

“That must be the British embassy where Freya Stark and others were trapped for over a month in 1941,” he said. Stark, an Englishwoman who traveled relatively solo throughout the “Near East” between the World Wars, was one of Tom’s heroines, and he often spoke about her. “The embassy was surrounded and cut off by nationalists led by a Rashid Ali at a time when factions in Iraq were sorting out whether the country should side with the Axis or the Allies. Rashid Ali saw the best deal for Iraq to come from the Axis and so led a rebellion against the British.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Eventually a contingent of British colonial troops made their way up to Baghdad from Basra, I think. Then Rashid Ali and his generals withdrew and disappeared.”

“And Freya Stark and the others were free to go?”

“And she didn’t hold the experience against anyone,” he said. “She loved this place, especially the south along the Tigris, which we followed coming here, unfortunately under darkness.”

I realized I was wrong to have thought he slept the whole night.

“For example, north of Basra we probably passed through a hamlet called Qurna, supposedly the location of the Garden of Eden. And a little later I noticed signs for Amara, a Mandean silver-smithing center in Stark’s time, also supposedly the final resting place for John the Baptist.”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

He just looked over the railing and out toward the skyline. I knew he was interested in this culture for the long term—like Freya Stark had been.  Tom’s ability to see a different angle from my own was fortunate for me; he was independent and confident. I thought about that later as I stayed on the balcony to write in both diaries. In the one for Diana, I recorded all the minutiae I was afraid to include when Majed had been around. In the other diary, the one for my kids, I was more reflective, I told them that they brightened my life, that they deserved happiness, and that I regretted not being there to rough-house with them as we enjoyed.  I feared but didn’t write that I might not deliver the amphora, or anything else, to them, ever.

Eventually I slipped out of my clothes to take a quick shower before I redressed, same clothes, pants held up by the same money belt.  I’d told no one about the cash around my waist.  At supper, I found a seat with Tom and Jean-Marc. Men in suits constantly guarded us.  Keepers, minders, hosts, them . . .  I didn’t know how to refer to these humorless guys wearing civilian clothes and carrying machine guns concealed in rolled-up newspapers as they herded us to a dining area at one end of the ground floor of what appeared to be a luxury hotel with twenty-foot potted palms, convincing replicas of Assyrian lion sculptures, and enlarged lithograph prints of a European’s rendering of the hanging gardens of Babylon.

“There’s probably bugs all over this place,” Tom said.  In the dining area, a floor-to-ceiling painting of Saddam watched us too.

Besides Americans and Europeans, about three hundred Japanese men, women, and children ate in the large hall.  Jean-Marc found acquaintances among this group, people he knew from the Japanese restaurant at the Kuwait International.  He introduced us to one of his former waitresses, Makiko. She said she’d gone to the embassy in Kuwait after the invasion. Iraqis had then come onto the embassy grounds and told them to go to the Kuwait Airport and fly Iraqi Airways from Kuwait to Baghdad and then they could continue to Tokyo. Instead, a Baghdad airport bus dropped them off at the Mansour Melia. They were housed on the eighth floor.   Rumor said some of the women and children would go to Tokyo soon.

“So if you have letters, I can mail them from Japan,” she said.

Jean-Marc and I sat on the balcony and spoke French, something I hadn’t done regularly since the last separation from my wife and the mother of my children. Before Kuwait, he had worked in Tahiti.  Overlooking a yellowish brown Tigris, I kept asking about the island, its exotic people, blue water and pink flowers, as a means to distance myself from this predicament. When he finally went in, I tried to fall asleep on the balcony.  For a moment I recalled the column in the hotel against which I’d slumped down and wept after handing my passport to the clerk a week before; I thought death was imminent then.  Three weeks had now passed since the morning the missile screamed over my apartment in Manqaf and created the chaos that followed.

<<News chronology:

August 23:  Conversation between Saddam Hussein and 5-year-old Stuart Lockwood sparks outrage.

August 23:  NYTimes article on refugees who can leaving Iraq.

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The call to fajr, the prayer just before sunrise, woke me, reverberating from speakers on one, then another, and many other minarets near the hotel.  I had slept on the balcony; the air felt fresh, but the jeans and t-shirt I’d worn for about a week now stank.  Sleeping on the balcony was my attempt to be alone, to sort out my thoughts, to deny that our keepers had such absolute control.  The night before, Jean-Marc thought I was delusional as I dragged some bedding out here.  Superimposed on the prayer call, a cool morning cacophony of horns and traffic sounds greeted me.  The sun reflected off eastern windows of Baghdad’s high rises.  The muddy Tigris flowed toward the Gulf, exerting a slight pull on small motorboats as they crisscrossed the stream. I wondered about the passengers, what errands urged them.  This exotic city, my prison now, with its opaque river, could not compare with the Gulf I used to survey upon waking back in Manqaf, where my balcony overlooked 180 degrees of water, usually smooth, mirroring the changing hues of sky at dawn, a dozen or so tankers like mere black splinters mostly out toward the horizon at the deep water oil-loading terminals.  Sometimes a traditional sailing dhow sailed toward the fish market just south of Manqaf.

Hallu, hallu!” came a voice from inside the room.  One of the keepers stepped onto the balcony, his machine gun wrapped in a newspaper.

Aiwa?” I said, meaning Yes? but with a tone more like “What the fuck do you want? Just leave me alone here.”

“Make bag,” he said, wanting me to rush. “Hurry up. You go, you go!”

Of course, my backpack and duffel bag remained packed on the bed I hadn’t slept in.  I picked them up and followed him out to the lobby by the elevator. Francis was there with other British Airways crew, two of the Germans as well as Jim and Max. Biggles waited too, in his cage.  The British Airways women stood there without baggage.

“We’ll see you soon, mates.  Keep your peckers up, men,” the women said, as much to the whole group, it seemed, as to their crewmates.

“Where are Tom and Jean-Marc?” I asked Francis.

When he said they’d left, my mouth became dry, as if a dry wind rose from my lungs.  Jean-Marc’s humor had helped me through this last strange week.  And Tom?  I’d miss Tom, whose insights had guided me through the past eight months.  He could be stubborn but thanks to him we had found Gulf-side apartments in Manqaf near the oil port, avoiding the expatriate compound, “little America.”  He led me through marketplaces I’d never have explored on my own.  His decades in western Asia had convinced me to stay in Kuwait rather than flee with McDonnell Douglas colleagues in the direction of the Saudi border.  His translations from Arabic and Farsi penetrated language barriers.  And in the past week I had witnessed Tom’s gaining the guards’ respect by humoring them in Arabic. I had benefited from this.  I wondered whether we’d stay at some new site—like the previous ones—only a day or two and then be rejoined.

The man with the gun led our group across the hotel lobby to the parking lot. One bus was just leaving. I thought I saw Tom wave from a window. I waved back.  Across the street, upscale shop windows displayed normal accoutrements of an Arab street: gold wedding jewelry, leather shoes with Italian names, and ubiquitous Asian televisions and boom boxes.  The sweet smell of baked goods wafted across the parking lot.  Posters of Greece and Thailand hung in a travel agency.  Farther north along the river a mosque dominated the skyline with minarets whose blues and greens matched colors in the dome’s bright geometric designs. For a moment I imagined the car keys in my pocket could get me out of here; they actually fitted the car stolen a few days before.  How many days was it now?   I thought about running off or skulking away, but we stood in silence on the sidewalk in front of the hotel: three Americans, four of the aircrew and Biggles, two German bankers, and a number of Japanese, including two women and two young teenagers, a boy and a girl.  All of us looked at an officer in the now-familiar unmarked green uniform and two armed soldiers.

Four Iraqis stood near the front of a bus. Three men wore civilian clothes and held machine guns with one hand, as casually as umbrellas, an accessory that clashed with their white shirts and tight pressed pants. A girl, probably ten or eleven, stood beside them with long ribboned braids and a long white dress with ruffles that resembled a nightgown.  This outfit made her look like many girls her age in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but she also wore mascara and red lipstick.  My daughter, about this age, might wear makeup like this and adult clothes for Halloween, yet this girl’s appearance was odd and unsettling as that of the armed men who looked like extras in a movie about Al Capone’s Chicago:  I assumed she was the daughter of one of the men, his princess, and he wanted her to dress this way.  My American socialization interpreted her as a young prostitute, yet I suspected she wasn’t.  In fact, if these men could read my thoughts, they might kill me as a threat to her honor. Tom’s perception would have been complex, compelling, and helpful.

An officer told us to board the bus.  It was red and chrome, newer than the one that’d taken us to Baghdad. We just made for the door, waited in line, and after the four Iraqis, boarded.  I sat near the back and watched the others get on.

When the teenage Japanese girl got on, the Iraqi girl stood and waved.  Was she reminded of another Japanese girl?  Had she been promised a friend?  The Japanese girl never even turned her head as she walked past and found a seat.

I tied up the curtain after I sat down.  I had no idea of our destination, but preferred to watch us get there.  Tom would have feigned sleep and then later pointed out details I’d missed despite my constant attention.  I couldn’t help thinking of everything in terms of Tom.

An older German, the one I’d first met in the hotel in Kuwait, sitting across from me, had a map on his lap, out of sight of the Iraqis up front, no doubt the map he hoped to use to drive his Mercedes out of Kuwait.  Folks in Baghdad went about their normal business, with fast food, movie theaters, book kiosks, crowded squares, and traffic jams juxtaposed with anti-aircraft guns, army trucks, and hundreds of men in uniform.  We passed a military base near downtown, maybe north of the hotel and along the Tigris. In some places greenery continued right to the water, tall lush grass reminding me of the banks of a tropical river.

The city ended abruptly beyond the army base and then farmland surrounded us. The driver stopped at a gas station, which, like the road ahead, was built on a dike surrounded by wetland, ditched and cultivated. Farmers used hand-guided tilling machines.  The prospect of the bus running off the road was palpable and deadly because of narrow lanes, truck traffic, and deep ditches where water buffalo bathed.

Road signs indicated we were headed south, keeping the Tigris on our left, east of us. On several high points groups of soldiers, artillery, and tanks, faced Iran. Irrigated lush areas flanked the road on both sides, except where rutted bare sandstone extended upward.  The farther south we traveled, the poorer the villages, the more arid land.  Donkeys pulling carts passed. Occasionally in a poor village I spotted a Massey Ferguson tractor and once even a John Deere combine, green as the irrigated fields. Saddam stared from billboards numerous as American flags on the Fourth of July in the USA.  On some he wore traditional bedouin robes; on others the garb might be an army uniform, a suit and tie, a peasant scarf, or sunglasses and a straw hat.  But he always smiled with a broad disconcerting smile.

We passed road signs for Aziziyah and Kut, places I’d never heard of.  Tom would have told stories of these places.  Our moving detention vehicle passed many truckloads of watermelons that made me crave the red flesh of a sliced-open fruit, the glossy green rind echoed the crops.  This green and brown were the dominating colors of this experience:  vibrant farms and depleted browns of the desert, the military vehicles, and hovels, some of which sprouted high-tech antennae.  Black was the color of the occasional water buffalo and brick kilns.  The latter spewed black smoke, clouds of it, from smokestacks that looked alarming miles away and ancient close-up.  Massive stacks of brown bricks covered with soot and piled in the black farmland awaited transport to a building site.  Whatever fuel the kilns burned, its smoke carried no scent except of the dust that permeated everything.

At Amara, our coach turned off the narrow two-lane, over a small bridge, and into a parking lot next to the river.   A barge lay rusting, half-sunken, bow dry and up on the bank. Between crude brick buildings stood one that could have been an architect’s showpiece some decades back, a government building now all dusty, derelict, broken windows covered haphazardly with cardboard.

Two of the Iraqi men and the girl got off. Military vehicles passed, three transport trailers parked beside us, each loaded with a tank, gun pointed over the cab.  The soldiers stared at us as they went into the market. Market stalls across the street had plastic toys and cigarettes, tomato paste, children’s school bags and clothes, candy, eggplant, and watermelon. I saw no trace of silver smiths Tom had mentioned although in truth we may have been only on the outskirts.

After an hour, our “hosts” returned with large plastic trays.  For the first time, one of them stood in front of the bus and spoke to all the bus passengers,  “Very sorry no ice.  Please eat.”  I noticed no one returned his smiles Then the men walked down the aisle passing out wrapped sandwiches:  flat bread with meat, parsley, and tomatoes.  The girl handed out the Pepsis.  Stopping, she spoke to with the Japanese teens, but they did not respond, didn’t even make eye contact.  The Iraqi girl returned to the front.

Before we ate, a Japanese man asked in Arabic for a bathroom.  Earlier in the morning we’d stopped along the road and the men had peed into a ditch.  When the Iraqi man asked who else needed to go, everyone stood up.  I had to but unconsciously I’d suppressed the discomfort, feeling nothing, allowing my eyes to digest the scenery and to ignore the heat, my fear, or any thought of the future.

Two of the Iraqis led us into the market and a stairs.  On the second floor was an outhouse-style seat. The air was heavy with dust and the stench of human waste.  Shit dropped to the first floor, a bizarre design that collected human contributions for fertilizer, maybe in mortar.  I held my breath, hurried, and left my donation.

Farther south, the distinction between irrigated farms and desert grew more pronounced, marsh or dunes, garden or wasteland. We must have passed through Qurna; on the Germans’ map, it was the only settlement before Basra, but outside the window there was no noticeable town.  Maybe I missed the signs. I wondered where we would sleep that night.  Eventually, signs announced that we had again arrived in Basra.  The road widened into avenues lined with more elaborate buildings, walls and trees.  The bus stopped in the shade of some wispy trees in front of a police station.  One of the armed guards went in.  Less than five minutes later he returned with an officer.  To my surprise, it was Syphr wearing the unmarked green uniform. They got into a gray Oldsmobile, which the bus driver followed south of Basra.

Near Safwan, the border town, we turned into the driveway of a refinery.  I recalled passing it only two days before.  A strong smell of petroleum and a huge billboard of smiling Saddam greeted us, this time wearing a peasant’s work shirt and pants and shoveling sand into a wheelbarrow.  I wondered if we would soon be handed a shovel and told what we might do with it. Tom could have read the signs in Arabic.

After a labyrinthine drive, we stopped in front of some low portable metal buildings.  After a few minutes, Syphr, an armed guard, and a third man wearing dress pants and a white shirt boarded the bus.  He smiled a lot as he spoke.

“Some of you gonna be gettin off bus here.  I have list and gonna be readin your names to get off the bus.”  His accent and manner suggested he’d spent time in southern United States although clearly he was a native Arabic speaker.  He began to read from a list.

I heard Max and Jim called, some Japanese, and one of the two Germans. Max looked at me. “He acts like we should be happy,” he said, “like we’ve fucking won a prize.” He handed me the book I’d lent him earlier.

I told him to keep it.  “Take care of yourself, man,” I said as he stood up.

“Yeah, you too,” he muttered as he picked up his leather duffle bag and moved to the front of the bus.

The people who had gotten off waved as we drove away. I noticed that about half of each nationality had left; I was the only American left on the bus. This left no doubt who would be chosen if a token American was to be killed, I thought, looking around.

The bus followed Syphr onto a road where signs pointed to Umm Qasr.  Tom once had mentioned floating mines closing Basra port since the war with Iran, making Umm Qasr—where the Shatt waterway entered the Gulf—Iraq’s only functioning seaport.  The roadsides presented an intimidating sight as the sun set, casting long shadows amidst enormous refinery complexes, surrounded by fences and topped by chimneys, trailed long flares, their black tips throwing off soot and gas fumes. Beyond the refineries, the desert itself was sculpted into walls partly concealing tanks, trucks, artillery, and missile batteries. Looking at all this war machinery arranged for battle numbed me.  This zone so close to the Kuwait border would not easily be overrun.

And yet, squinting, I imagined that Tom would see another layer less intimidating.  Interspersed with the tanks and missile trucks were American cars from the 1950s—Pontiacs and Buicks, dusty and rusted. Hazy outlines of blast furnaces stood in the distance, explaining the piles of slag dumped in the desert not far off the road.  Goats and camels grazed on the ruins of a fort or caravansary maybe centuries old. If I could have stopped anywhere along the trip, this would have been my choice, these ruins of a place of hospitality dwarfed by the present. Five years before, I had explored the ruins of Souk Okaz, a market near Mecca in the mountainous desert in western Saudi Arabia. All that remained was rock and loose brick, but I could imagine the spices, incense, dried fish, and dates. I conjured up ghosts of men who once sat there drinking coffee and drawing smoke through long hoses attached to brass nargileh, talking of faraway places and money to be made.

The driver slowed for a railroad crossing, then turned onto a sandy side road marked by an arch with text in Arabic and English stating “State Enterprise of Fertilizers,” yellow letters on a green background.  I imagined being slaughtered, our remains mixed into the Fertile Crescent.  Further ahead, barbed-wire fence topped a long berm.  The driveway cleaved the only opening in the earth-and-wire barrier. A soldier came out of a sandbag bunker and opened the gate. Another turned a heavy mounted machine gun toward the bus as we entered. I looked at the gunner.  No one spoke.  The diesel roared as we headed for a fenced industrial complex a half mile away.

Before the gate to the refinery, the driver turned onto another dirt road. We passed a dusty little mosque and then desert scrub strewn with rusting pipes, boilers and random mechanical parts, all looking untouched for years. On the other side were three trailer parks, each surrounded by a set of fences.  A gatekeeper—an old man wearing a blue work overall and a white headdress—got up to let us in. The bus inched forward to some low trees where some men stood. Syphr got onto the bus and told us to follow him into a building.  Night was falling and fluorescent tubes lit the building.  A faint ammonia smell sharpened the air.  Although it was quiet, a distant roar not unlike a waterfall rose from the refinery.

Inside the long one-story building sat about a dozen men, who stood as we entered.  Two wore uniforms; the rest, civilians.  Three of them wore blue work overalls with chest patches marked Asmida Fertilizers.

“Gentlemen, please have supper with us,” said a muscular man in a white shirt who stepped forward as Syphr left. “You are going to be our guests for a while until our government lets you travel again.” He had a mustache and smile like Saddam; his manner and eyes suggested that we should obey him.

The table was set with watermelons, beer, and thermoses. An old man brought in a tray with hamburgers, French fries, and grilled squash.  A younger man wearing black-framed glasses and blue overalls told us things like the tea in the thermoses was made with RO water, whatever that is; there was a swimming pool here that he could have some workers repair and clean and fill with RO water from the factory; a temple and a bathhouse stood behind this building; we were in the “clubhouse” of a camp built by Mitsubishi engineers . . . .

I ate, smiling at him when he looked at me.  His eagerness to please intrigued me.  Some club house, I thought, with calendar pages on the walls showing geishas, Japanese baseball players, and oil tankers. Work schedules on the walls were dated 1986.  The reference to a temple confused me, given the low level of religious tolerance I’d encountered in Kuwait.

“Okay, follow me please. I show you your camp,” said the eager man after we had eaten.  He reminded me of the young Charlie Chaplin, eager, intense, failing to see his own absurdity. He stopped at one trailer. “This is the Japanese camp. Japanese guests you stay here. Other guests wait please,” he said.

I stood there with Fred, Somerset, Bruce, Francis, and the dog.  I wondered why the segregation among hostages.  Three layers of barbed-wire fence separated us from unidentified lights about a quarter mile away.

“Follow please.  Now I show your camp,” our man said, leading us to the next trailer.  He walked us in, showed the bathroom and beds, and then abruptly left, saying, “I see you in morning.”  The space was cool, as if someone had turned on the air conditioning hours ago. Somerset, Fred, and Bruce went to bed.  I helped Francis clean the toilet and tub, using the disinfectant soap Francis said he always traveled with. He let Biggles run inside before taking the other bed in the room with Bruce.  I stepped outside to look at the fence and distant lights.  A car moved down the road we’d followed.  Some distant voices and laughter faded in and out.  More stars twinkled here than I’d seen in a while, and they seemed far far away.

<<News chronology:

August 25:  Security Council approves Resolution 665.

August 26:  A week of updates from the NYTimes.

The photo here shows the actual refinery that became my home on August 25.  I found the photo online back in 2003 and cannot relocate to credit the source.  The refinery, built by Mitsubishi back in the mid-1980s converts natural gas into urea fertilizer.

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