Abu Alaa wanted to know the details of the divorce, but before I could answer, two men came into the room. One had an unmistakable Arab face. He wore a green uniform with no markings and a heavy jacket; the desert was getting cold. On his right hip rode a holstered pistol, stains on the flap covering the grip, as if it had been opened or shut with dirty hands. He came in and sat down. The other man, who went straight for the tea thermos, wore a similar uniform, but he was blond. At first glance, I assumed he was a new hostage, but the uniform puzzled me. When he’d filled two glasses with tea and stirred the four cubes of sugar he dropped in each, he came over, and set both cups on the table. He greeted Abu Alaa with a kiss, then offered his hand for me to shake. He seemed to speak fluent perfect Arabic with the other two.
“We’re on leave,” said the darker man, “from police work in Kuwait.” He spoke English very well, but my eyes kept going back to the blond who seemed to speak no English.
The first man took a sip of tea. “You think my blond friend here is from your country?” he laughed as he spoke. “We Iraqis come in all colors, even blond.”
“I from Mosul, north Iraq,” said the blond.
“Ahlan,” (Welcome) I said.
The first man changed the subject. “Why do expatriates generally not talk highly of Kuwaitis?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. I wanted to say he’d just have to ask “expatriates generally,” but I decided to stay quiet. I’d found in Kuwait my friends tended to be anyone but Kuwaitis but chose to avoid talking about this.
Later, back in my bed, I couldn’t sleep, troubled by a renewed sense of powerlessness. I repeatedly gripped my steel pipe, sometimes swinging it through the air for practice. As the pipe whistled through the air, I was puzzled about my behavior. I maintained decorum outside this cell. Why didn’t I strip, run amok, destroy equipment, attack civilians in the factory? Why not surrender to my fury and force a change, any change, even if it meant I’d not survive? Of course, I knew my answers to all those questions were like Patty Hearst’s about people expecting that when the Symbionese Liberation Army took her hostage, she would just “spit them in the eye and get killed.”
When I tired of alternately trying to sleep and swinging the pipe, I sat at the window. The sill spanned a wall almost two feet thick; I considered it a table across which to look into the refinery. Straight ahead was the RO water plant, a quarter-mile, five-story building topped with huge fan units, each with mist coming from them. Toward morning, a slight wind carrying some comforting moisture into my cell whetted my appetite.
At breakfast I learned from Reiner that Jack was gone. Two guys fitting the description of the ones I’d met the night before took him to Baghdad to meet his wife. He’d had only ten minutes to pack.
Umm Kul was waiting for me when I got back to my cell. Her mission that day seemed to be giving me a five-dinar bill: she walked in, stopped in front of me, reached into her housecoat, and pulled out the money. Maybe she’d heard we’d stopped at the market on the way back from the mesbah.
I refused it at first: I had no need for cash. Other things preoccupied me anyhow. But she insisted, going on and on, I think, saying that I, like her son Kul*, a military conscript in Baghdad, needed some pocket money. It seemed a strange name, Kul. A word with the same sound meant everyone, if I’d learned the word correctly. Her description of Kul made him seem as much a hostage as I was: when she talked of him, she held up her hands as though they were bound. Did I understood her logic that her son was subjected maybe more even than I was to the whims of people from Kamal to Saddam, or was she talking about herself? When talking with her, given that my vocabulary was so limited, I never knew if I was just hearing what I wanted. I suspected the less I understood her language, the more passionate it sounded.
She talked with uncharacteristic urgency. She even referred to muhandes Saddam; muhandes (engineer) was a term of respect. She always referred to Mr. Ali as muhandes Ali, which technically he wasn’t. I hadn’t heard her use this term for people beyond the refinery before. But now she talked of muhandes Saddam, muhandes Jaber Al Sabah, muhandes Bush even. She usually let on her dislike for Saddam: however, this morning, she was talking about some British and muhandes Saddam. She may have been talking about Jack, who was now in Baghdad, possibly to meet Saddam and then leave for home, Great Britain or whatever. Then I must have missed the language connection somewhere because she mimed acts of torture like pulling out fingernails and attaching electric probes. For an instant I wondered how this uneducated, traditional marsh Arab woman—she’d said she was originally from Qurna, the mythical Garden of Eden—how she knew about such things as torture? Then I wondered why we had so far been spared learning of it first hand. A few weeks before, Ali seemed hurt about reports in European newspapers called us “mistreated.” Torture, other than at its broadest definition—deprived of rights to move—never happened yet.
Circelia’s planning to come here was so crazy that, much as I wanted to see Diana, to be with her, an idea emerging recently was of imprisonment as perverted security. I wondered if this was what causes ex-convicts to commit more crime to “free” themselves from the uncontrolled life outside the security of the prison. Circelia would beg that I call off the divorce and torment me if I didn’t. Continued detention—even along with its death threat—gave me respite, an opportunity to float along in time that had slowed down, almost stopped. Days didn’t matter. I had no deadlines of any sort; death might arrive on its own schedule with ten of fewer minutes notices. If I escaped, made it to Saudi Arabia and then back to Diana, I’d still need to navigate the wiles of Circelia. Clocks would start ticking again. Security behind walls and barbed wire had an appeal.
I went on learning Arabic, sounding out words in the dictionary when no one was around to help. Seeing a drawing of a mermaid in the dictionary, I guessed it would be pronounced harous. One day I told Saad I wanted to go to the mesbah to see the harous: without missing a second he said, “No, that was a dead toad.”
“But no,” I said. “Harous is there.” I wanted to see such a creature as I swam, the stuff of fantasy and the substance of Diana. I would follow wherever it led. “Harous is my zawaj.” He laughed some more: but I didn’t want to amuse him—only make him doubt my sanity, suspect me so delusional that I saw hallucinations under the water. I wanted those hallucinations to happen, dreaming of her enough.
I ignored all fellow hostages except Reiner. My after-supper routine started with playing a few sweaty games of ping pong with him. Then I’d put on the stiff new steel-toed shoes Ali’d finally got for me, and hike a few laps of the factory to break them in and develop the right set of calluses. Speedwalking around the refinery roads, I gazed at the moon, almost gone again, and bright stars I imagined were Al-Mareekh (Mars), Aldeberan, Betelgeuse, my new guardians, brothers in the sky I talked to like harous in the mesbah. These lights needed names and it didn’t matter if I mislabeled them. Then I’d go to the guards’ house to drink tea and watch the 10 o’clock Baghdad news. One night while I was sitting there, a soldier came in, bundled against the cold. I assumed he was one of those dug into the desert around the plant. The guards offered him tea and cigarettes. While I sat there, he asked the guards nothing about me. He noticed my shoes; they were just like his. Did he suspect the guards, secret police, might not have this bizarre situation under control? The police slept in beds in a building; he went back out to sleep in the desert, I supposed. Did he resent this? Revealing nothing, saying little, he left.
The lead story on the Iraqi national TV news was Jack, his wife and six other couples. The women who’d come two weeks earlier to plead for their husbands had been granted an audience with Saddam. Saddam, after telling the women and their relatives his opinions, announced they could all go home. We saw our own Jack, the uncompromising, now a changed man in spite of shaved head, shake hands with Saddam. Was this what Circelia intended to do as well? Would I maintain decorum and shake Saddam’s hand?
Ali stopped by as he did sometimes when he worked the night shift. He asked about the improved food served at lunch the past few days.
“If it was my decision, I would send you home this hour,” he responded to my saying they should send us all home, as they had with Jack, rather than try to improve our food. “Since we can’t send you home, we really are trying to make you all as comfortable as possible, Mister Will.”
“I appreciate the excellent food these last few days,” I assured him. “But you should continue to expect complaints. Food is very personal. I don’t even like my own mother’s cooking after I visit her for a few days, because I’m used to my own cooking now.”
“I understand some of you don’t like Abu Mahmoud’s cooking,” he said, adding, “I went to Italy a few years ago, and what I disliked most about Italy was the food.”
I was shocked until I thought about pork. “Tell me more about your trip to Italy, Ali.”
His smile seemed broader than usual as he told about his travels eight years earlier. Part of the problem with the food was pork, prohibited by his religion, as was the case with wine. But he had gone there to Bologna for a metallurgy course, the high point in his life.
“If I could, I would invite you to my house to see the souvenir I brought back from Italy, a model of a gondola. It’s on a shelf in my house. It’s a little like the boats here in the Iraqi marshes, the bellams.”
When I pressed him to show me, he laughed. “The police don’t want that; otherwise, believe me, I would.” We went on to talk more about food. I asked if we could have more variety, like olives.
“You like olives?” he asked, surprise in his voice. There was so much we didn’t understand about each other, weren’t supposed to, probably, but we tried.
“And you, Mr Will, do you and the others want to go to a church?” He seemed genuine, and I said I did. “Mr. Yusuf is also Christian.” Ali explained that he knew Christmas was an important holiday and promised to arrange a trip to an orthodox church in Basra at Christmas—if we were still here—for anyone who wanted. I assured him I would appreciate that.
He stayed for over an hour. “By the way, Ali, how much notice did you have at Asmida that “guests” were coming to the factory?”
“Just four days,” he said. “It was an order from the police. When they came, the D. G. called me to the office. He said I was responsible to prepare for about a dozen guests. I knew nothing more than that.”
Talking with Umm Kul remained one of the strands of sanity. It seems strange thinking that now. Picture this: she would walk around the room with a broom, mostly not touching the bristles to the floor as I accompanied with a flyswatter pointing at objects. One day I’d point at some something and ask “Ish hatha?” (What’s that?) again and again. I’d write the word on a paper phonetically. The next day, I’d point to those objects and test my memory and pronunciation. And ask for new words. She’d supply words, laugh at my mispronunciation, and make commentary I’d not understand.
Not that we fully understood each other about very much. When she arrived one morning with a bottle containing a small wet rat, suggesting—I thought—that I keep it, maybe as a pet to replace Biggles, now long gone, I insisted it go outside. My fellow hostages tolerated my conversations with the Iraqis, but the keeping a water rat would have crossed a line.
One morning Saad said Americans needed to be ready at 9:30. It was Thanksgiving. I stood on the landing waiting. I’d put on my usual jeans and T-shirt, my favorite one with a map of coastal Maine on the front. When Umm Kul saw me, she strongly disapproved. “Laa, Muzayne,” (No, bad.) she said, pointing to my outfit and pulling up her nose and pushing forward her eyebrows. She said other things that sounded like lazaam sawa sheikh (must be like a sheikh), repeating it and pointing to other clothes enough that I assumed she meant to put on my new gray suit and white shirt. Umm Kul stayed near my cell as I dressed for the “ruckus,” her word, the Arabic term for a party with dancing, I guessed. I liked the connotations of this. Through the grapevine she knew about Saad’s instructions and Mr. Mohammed’s visit a week or so earlier with Abed al Khaliq’s pickup. In the pickup bed was a pile of new white shirts and double breasted suits, grays and ivorys; I presumed Ali Baba had looted them from a boutique in Kuwait. Like everyone, I’d chosen a jacket and pants, hung them up, and forgotten about them. Later when Abu Alaa asked why we didn’t wear the suits, I just said they didn’t fit. She influenced my choice: when Saad arrived, armed and in uniform, I met with Umm Kul’s approval: white shirt and jeans.
I joined Max and Gray in the back of a Mercury, no doubt also thanks to Ali Baba. Saad sat next to the driver, a stranger, riding shotgun, quite literally. The driver, like many other maniacs on the road, darted around and between the army trucks.
Gray pointed out Basra University as we passed: new public buildings, each one like the others and surrounded by hundreds of people walking on the sidewalks that cut across sand. Near a billboard of Saddam dressed as a Bedouin on a white horse, we passed a flea market, which Saad identified as the place to buy used VCRs and TVs, used in Kuwait, no doubt. A little farther, we drove up to a large fenced complex. Gray said it was the South Oil Club. The fencing obscured the correct entrance.
“No, you can’t enter here,” said Gray to the driver. “Back up. Go around that corner, and go in that gate,” he explained, pointing out a counter-intuitive route in. I could see no surprise on the face of the driver or Saad about Gray telling them how to get to the location they had apparently received orders to take us to. Gray pointed to a modernistic four-story cylindrical tower. “There. We used to hold meetings among drillers and Iraqi government officials over there,” he said. Other cars and military vehicles were parked every which way in front of the building. Guards stood around at the entrance.
We followed Saad and the driver inside. In a lobby area stood about twenty other people I guessed were Americans, the youngest Caucasian looked about twenty years old, long blond hair held down by a baseball hat, brim turned to the back. Besides a tall bearded black man in his fifties and two Latino or Arab men, most looked middle aged, white, gaunt. Most had beards, longer than my unevenly cut stubble. More than an equal number of uniformed guards mingled, some sitting drinking tea like Saad. A few others recorded the event: three teams moved around with cameras, lights, and audio booms.
I walked over to see my old friend Hendrik. “Hey, you still at the LNG?” I asked, shaking his hand.
“No, the bastards moved me to a pumping station in the Rumailah oilfield. It’s flat and empty there for miles around,” he said. He looked weak but more defiant even than before. “I think the SS at the LNG wanted to get rid of me. And I wanted to get out of there with those tanks of liquid nitrogen right above us. So I kept hammering away at them. How you doing?”
I told him about fighting to be allowed to swim to stay in shape. “I took your advice and got a weapon and know where holes in the fence could allow escape.”
“Good, Good,” he said without smiling. His new location sounded bleak. Missile batteries stood near his residence. Russians and Yugoslavs working at his installation had revolted, sabotaging equipment in hopes of being deported, but instead they were handcuffed and taken away by military trucks.
After a half hour, the guards told us to move into the center of the round banquet hall where tables were arranged in the shape of a “U”. I sat with Hendrik. We didn’t talk much besides to comment on the show: immaculate tablecloth, bouquets of plastic flowers and real peacock feathers, elegant silverware. Drinks of many hues were arranged between us and the cameras; I checked the labels: Russian wine, Jordanian beer, Hungarian brandy, Iraqi arak, Kuwaiti Pepsi, pre-August 2, 1990, of course. The sound system assaulted us with Michael Jackson’s ditty “I’m bad, I’m bad.” A few of the guards moved their heads in time with the music. Two video teams moved in close as we drank. I wondered if they expected us to be jolly, get drunk, and fall on our faces, maybe get up and moondance. I sipped a beer slowly, alternating it with lots of water. The guards sat outside the view of the cameras, watching us. Most of them drank Cokes.
After a few beers I went to the toilet. A guard directed me to the room marked “Ladies.” Umm Kul was the only woman I’d talked with in months, longer it seemed. Servers there bringing drinks were nervous-looking young men dressed impeccably, white shirts, no ties, sharply pressed black pants, oiled hair slicked back like Abu Alaa’s. After an hour or so, Colonel Syphr appeared.
“Gentlemen. We are so happy to let you celebrate your holiday of thanks. Please move to the dining room.”
In another part of the building, four large conference tables had been pushed together. When we had all taken a seat, waiters brought in four platters: each held a large turkey cooked with its head still attached. For a while, no one moved. “Eat,” said an officer moving behind a camera team. I picked up a large knife and began to carve the turkey nearest me. The camera moved in. Hendrik gathered the slices onto a plate and passed them around; the camera followed the platter. One hostage, wearing around his neck a large cross he seemed to have made, proposed that he begin a prayer. “I’ll start. I’ll stop when I’m finished, then whoever wants to add something, just speak as you feel moved to.”
Then we ate. Two Iraqis sat at the table with us; one was the jolly director of PC 1. He laughed at one point. “Sorry, gentlemen. We couldn’t able to get zee cranberry. In your country I always had cranberry wheez turkey on Thanksgiving.”
After a while, the officer with the camera team came forward with a microphone and loops of cord. “Does anyone wants to make a message to send to his family in Unite State?”
A lanky man off to my right stood. With a gentle voice and a Texan accent, he introduced himself as Tom. The video camera team scrambled to get him in, I suppose, the most sumptuous frame. He took the microphone. “I would like to say hello to my wife.” Pause for swallowing tears. “I am well but I wish this came to an end, peacefully. We hope that our two governments sit down and resolve this.” Pause. Lots of swallowing. “And not make mountains out of molehills. We . . . .” He choked and could say no more. He sat down and passed the microphone to the man with the cross. He started . . . but didn’t finish. Several others tried, with the same result. I just passed the microphone to Hendrik, who passed it quickly to his neighbor.
At dusk I returned to Asmida with a six-pack of Jordanian Petra beer for my housemates. I’d gathered the bottles from a case beside our table. If there were other bottles available, I would have taken them. Everything had become free as we lived without money or keys. I offered a bottle each to Reiner and Jurgen.
“Keep the beer,” Reiner said. “Abu Alaa told us to pack today.” His voice was tired.
Jurgen, on the other hand, popped open the bottle and guzzled it, dancing around the room. I was happy for them, but pained to hear that they were going. I felt abandoned, depressed to be left behind.
“I’m really glad for you. Don’t misunderstand me, my face,” I said, imagining my expression showed pain of loss more than happiness for them, but I felt mostly overwhelmed by a diminishing chance now to reach the opposite shore.
“Listen, Will, don’t say anything, I know how you feel,” he said.
“Look Reiner, you know me well enough. Get my diary pages to Diana.” He had agreed to take another installment of the diary out. “Call her collect and explain who you are and how we’ve spent the past few months together.”
Just after nightfall, Abu Alaa came by to pick them up. I stood on the landing as they disappeared.